In London last week I was struck by the amount of attention and care people put into greening up outdoor spaces whatever the space available. Below was a raised wooden planter built to 90cm high and covering the outside wall of an architect’s office at the end of a suburban street in Peckham. The weathered wood had turned silvery-grey which combined beautifully with the soft creamy-pink flowers of Bergenia stracheyi. And the leathery evergreen leaves made a strong contrast against the grey concrete render of the building walls. Bergenias survive in dry and shady areas so need little attention and it was subtle and pleasing planting that lifted the spirits as I turned into the street.
A bit further along there was an unusual hedge of Senecio ‘Sunshine’ that had been clipped regularly to achieve a dense barrier between the neighbouring garden. It was cool and refreshing and suited the scale of the house and the colour of the front door beautifully.
Outside a block of flats six huge plastic containers had been planted full and simply with Cyclamen coum. The plants were dramatically limited to carmine red and purple and set off by their mottled silver leaves it was an awesome colour combination for early Spring.
And although not a lot was happening in the garden below the symmetry was pleasing. Spring tulips filled each section ready to flower next month followed by roses and herbaceous plants that bloom in Summer. It’s a very low maintenance solution that manages to give pleasure all year round.
I had a lovely couple of hours on the allotment this morning-the first proper session since last November. There was a ferocious wind which every few minutes slapped me round the face and made me swear but I was determined to achieve various jobs before the rain which was forecast for midday. So the broad beans grown from seed three weeks ago are now in and covered with a net cloche against the wind. I’ll sow more this week in the heated propagator in an attempt to get a succession although what usually happens is they catch up as the soil warms up and crop at the same time.
I emptied a huge sack of kitchen waste into two nearly-full compost bins and stayed calm when a small mouse jumped out of one of the bins. I’m looking forward to experimenting with the compost recipe which I blogged last week and will record it in detail in Spring to see if compost can be made in six weeks. It was so lovely to be back and although the ground was soaking wet and heavy I came away with rosy cheeks and full of motivation and now can’t wait for Spring to get stuck in again.
The allotment shop had a great variety of seed potatoes but I chose my usual favourites Charlotte and Rocket. These are now in trays in a sunny window to chit ready for planting in four weeks time. I was tempted to try the Albert Bartlett spud, Michel Roux’s favourite, but it was such a small handful for twice as much dosh I resisted. An allotment gardener in the shop said he buys them at the supermarket and plants a row or two on the plot with great success so I’ll try that and report back.
This pot of really inexpensive Aldi tulips has lasted for six days and I spotted some very good value raspberry canes and various fruit trees for sale at the moment.
A couple of blog posts ago I wrote about my newfound respect for weeds and their value in the compost bin. Today I have found a ‘recipe’ for making an activator from the most common garden weeds and it guarantees compost in as little as six weeks. It’s based on the method developed by an Irish woman Maye Bruce in 1935 and is derived from the biodynamic technique pioneered by the philosopher and educationalist Rudolf Steiner. I am very excited by the prospect of rich crumbly compost after only six weeks and even better it uses six common herbs and you don’t need to turn the heap.
I can’t wait to get started and the Bruce system known as the ‘quick return’ is as follows:
Mix together the dried leaves of stinging nettles, ground-up dandelion root, the flowers, leaves and stems of yarrow, camomile flowers plus the ground up root of Valeriana officinalis in roughly equal quantities. Add one teaspoonful of the dry material to a pint of water and add 2 drops of honey then pour this mixture over your compost.
There’s a revised edition of her book available at http://www.qrcompostingsolutions.co.uk/
This week a pot of chives bought at the supermarket were tipped out and divided into ten or so plants and used to edge a large terracotta pot. These are now outside the kitchen door and chives are hardy so even if we get a sudden frost I trust they’ll survive.
And this gift of stunning cut flowers has given me such pleasure for the last six days and even though they are going over they’re still a thrilling statement. It’s possibly ‘Tulipa Apricot Parrot’ and I’ve made a note for the diary in Autumn to buy lots of parrot tulip bulbs. The colours are astonishing and the soft curled petals with their serrated edges add gorgeous texture as a cut flower.
These photographs were taken on my first visit two years ago and ever since I have longed to return. That’s currently out of the question with miles of land under deep water but I regularly look at these images and I hope that it will return one day to this exquisite natural wetland.
I can’t say I have any desire to visit the allotment at the moment but a delivery of strawberry plants arrived this morning so needs must and I’ll plant them tomorrow. I prepared a new bed in November since my strawberries were about six years old and I’ve had a poor crop two years running. I chose ‘Finesse’ which was bred by the research centre at East Malling and it’s described as high yielding with a superb flavour. The berries are heart-shaped, bright red, firm and juicy and produce up to 1.2kg of fruit on long trusses. It also produces very few energy-sapping runners.
I didn’t get round to planting broad beans in the ground last November but these I sowed two weeks ago in the heated propagator. They came through fast and are now in an unheated propagator indoors where they will stay till I plant them out at the beginning of March.
Down at the allotment last week I was struck by how weedy the ground appeared even though we are in the depths of Winter. Photographs show a heavy frost on produce but this will have done nothing to reduce the pesky weeds. So I fished out a borrowed pamphlet (in case he’s reading this I will shortly be returning it to Mr Webb) published by The Soil Association on The Value of Weeds. Within ten minutes of reading my tolerance levels were sky high not least because the word ‘weed’ has been corrupted from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weod’ meaning herb or small plant. And also because weeds reflect the quality of the soil thriving best on fertile ground.
The pamphlet points out that when the earth was being formed, a process that took billions of years, everything that had once lived was returned to the soil. This cycle of life ‘the law of return’ built up and maintained fertility and allowed plants to thrive providing food for both animal and man. And following on from that plants, animals and man all provide food for the bacteria in the soil. This cycle of life , the natural decomposition of all animal and vegetable wastes, takes time but we can speed it up on our vegetable plots by putting an abundance and variety of weeds back into the compost bin.
Above are the nettles that you find on all allotments and these are essential as activator in the compost bin and below is comfrey which plays the same role. I’ve cultivated a small patch of both to have a ready supply to add to the compost.
Deep-rooted weeds (dandelions and coltsfoot) are invaluable since they penetrate the sub-soil and bring essential elements to the surface that are not available to shallower rooting plants. I’ve always resented the struggle to dig them out but from now on I’ll show respect and doubly make sure that the leaves and stems are returned to enrich the soil again.
The Soil Association doesn’t advocate the uncontrolled use of weeds in the garden but it suggests that controlled use can be beneficial. Weeds lessen the impact of heavy rain and provide shelter and food for small animals. In Winter the roots help with aeration and drainage and provide food for bacteria. In Spring they help keep the earth warm for early planting. In the heat of Summer they provide shade to young seedlings and help to keep the soil surface moist.
And the wild chamomile seen here – Chamomilla matricaria- is known as the ‘plants’ physician’ reviving sickly plants growing near it. Making it into a tea can be used to prevent damping off on young seedlings.
Hand weeding and composting is an efficient way to get the nutrients back into the ground and equally useful is gentle and regular hoeing. Weeds can even be left on the surface of the bed to steadily decompose- best in summer when they will dry out. Couch grass and bind weed shouldn’t be encouraged and these I will continue to put in the garden waste bin knowing it will be processed at a high temperature by the council.
The Spring cabbages looked very pretty covered in frost in Winter sunshine earlier this week. They’re hardy and will recover and fatten up over the next ten weeks. I had intended picking the Red Russian Kale but that too was frosty and looking lovely with its curly, red-veined leaves glistening in the sub-zero temperature. It’s by far my most favourite crop currently with its delicious sweet flavour. I’ve made a note to grow it again in quantity later in the sowing season.
More shopping for seeds this week including two seed tapes- has anyone ever tried them? I bought a 5m tape for carrots ‘Amsterdam’ since thinning carrots is time-consuming and disturbing the leaves can attract the carrot fly and another 5m seed tape for perpetual spinach. I’ll sow them in mid March and will report back.
An image from last year prompted me to sow peas ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ in a plastic gutter and it’s now indoors in the light and warm. They’ll be planted out in March when they’ve reached a height of 5cms and weather permitting.
I cut this pot of flowering Euphorbia characias wulfenii from a large shrub that’s now grown leggy. It has no new growth emerging in the centre so will be lifted out and replaced with something new as soon as it’s finished flowering.
For three years or so I successfully grew huge Italian tomatoes on the allotment and then about four years ago blight struck and then struck again. So this year I am pleased to have found seeds for Koralik a very early bush type which produces a surprisingly high yield of sweet, bright red cherry tomatoes that are tolerant to blight. They are happy growing in both open ground or the greenhouse and should fruit early in the season.
The beetroot seeds I’ve chosen are ‘Monika’ a monogerm type bred to produce one seed per cluster which means no thinning. It can be sown both early and late in the season so it will be useful to have seeds to hand ready to sow direct in the ground throughout Spring and Summer.
And I have added to the list a lettuce ‘Freckles’ blogged by enthusiastic veg growers regularly last year. It’s a Romaine lettuce with red splattered leaves and is ready to crop within six weeks from sowing.
It’s marmalade making time and Seville oranges are appearing in the shops but today I’ve experimented with a new recipe found in my cuttings drawer. It’s from Dalemain Mansion where annually they judge 1,000 jars of marmalade from around the world. Aside from the recipe the article offers two excellent tips that improved last year’s marmalade making for me. One was to cook the fruit whole before chopping which was effortless -I cut the cooked fruit with kitchen scissors. The other tip was keeping the acidity high and the sugar relatively low results in the punchiest flavour.
Dalemain’s Three-Fruit Marmalade
1 grapefruit cut in half, 3 oranges and 2 lemons quartered then cover the lot with water and simmered for 2-3 hours till the skin dissolves when pressed against the side of the pan. Once cooked strain and cool the fruit editing out pips and pith and saving the cooking liquid. Reduce the liquid by hard boiling till you have 500ml then add the peel and 400g caster sugar and bring to the boil. Skim off any foam and keep it boiling until 104C. With no jam thermometer I used the cold plate test to show it had wrinkled and was ready to set. Leave to cool for 5 mins then pour into hot sterilised jars.