It doesn’t take much to get me gardening again – the sun on my back, a large bag of compost for sowing, some wooden stick labels ( 50) from the Pound shop, a Sharpie Fine Point marker pen, some clean pots and I’m off. Oh and seeds of course…
Sown today were Ammi majus, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, Linaria ‘Canon Went’, Rainbow chard, Butternut squash, Beetroot ‘Red Ace’ and a salad leaf mix. These are now in the heated propagator and will then transfer to the pop up greenhouse as soon as there are signs of germination.
I am really delighted and have potted them up into 2 litre pots with fresh potting compost and they’ll stay in the dry and warmth indoors in a light-filled space. I’ll keep the soil moist and they should steadily put out green shoots and be ready to plant out when all danger of frost has passed. Here are the tubers looking as Sarah says, like bunches of salami, but I’ll photograph them again when they are in flower.
Sarah Raven’s growing instructions are clear and I’ll be sure to pinch out the tip of the main shoot as they grow and to remove all but five shoots sprouting from the tuber to encourage bushy plants. These can be used as cuttings to make more plants which I will most certainly attempt. Last year I was inspired to grow flowers by Louise Curley’s book The Cut Flower Patch and it was fun and successful and this year I want more space for more flowers.
With this in mind I’ve planted up the new bed with 18 perennials. They were only just through the soil in their 9 cm pots so not much to show in the bed as yet but as soon as it’s looking good I’ll take a picture and give the planting plan. To save money I moved and divided up Phlomis fruticosa from the allotment and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ from elsewhere in the garden. Whilst planting the bed I spotted the emerging shoots of Geranium psilostemon and remembered Beth Chatto describing them ‘like waxy lipsticks’ pushing through the soil.
The Sarcococca is no longer scenting the air but Skimmia fragrans is although you have to get up close for the full benefit. It’s an evergreen shrub that prefers shade and the leaves have a scent close to the scent of kaffir lime leaves. The flower has a spicy, sweet perfume and is most noticeable when the sun has warmed up the air. It’s in a pot in the garden but would do well in a crowded conservatory where other plants could provide shade.
On the allotment the first two rows of potato ‘Winston’ went in possibly a bit early since the soil is only just warming up. I covered the rows with a fleece to give some protection from ground frost. It’s an early cropper that grows big for baking and has a great flavour. In a week or two ‘Charlotte’ and ‘Maris Piper’ can be planted. Two more rows of broad bean seedlings were planted too and the red-flowered broad bean Crimson Flowers has been sown in a pot outside the kitchen door.
I picked some hellebore flowers to float in a shallow bowl on the kitchen table…
A jug of Tete a Tete miniature daffodils with Euphorbia robbiae …
And because it’s rained a lot I felt free to pick some Crocus ‘Ruby Giant’ which is very pretty with its bright orange stamens and green and white striped leaves.
And because it was too wet to garden I roasted sweet potatoes, red and green peppers, aubergine, un-peeled garlic and red onions in olive oil. It took 10 mins to prepare and 50 mins to cook at 210 C and I then added steamed purple sprouting broccoli and chopped parsley from the allotment. It was excellent with foil-wrapped sea bass cooked at the same time for 15 minutes. There were enough roasted vegetables over to add to a pizza with mozzarella the following day.
I’d read about Jiffy 7’s for sowing seeds but had never used them but I’m inspired to do so having read a Sally Nex blog kitchengarden and now a batch are on their way.
And this morning the pop up greenhouse went up and the large heated propagator is ready to go.
The garden is looking vibrant and fresh and every week it gets a little greener as new leaves emerge on the climbers and herbaceous perennials . All winter I’ve enjoyed the contrast of the two evergreen box parterres with the rusty, orange leaves of the pleached beech hedge that cuts through the symmetry halfway down the garden.
So it was with some horror that I noticed last weekend what looks worryingly like box blight on one of the tall, square boxes on the first parterre.
Anyone with a box hedge or box topiary will be aware of this disease and Monty Don highlighted it in Gardener’s World last autumn when he lost his extensive 20-year-old box hedges to box blight. It’s caused by a fungus the spores of which thrive in warm, wet conditions especially prevalent in mild and rainy winters as of the last two years. All the advice can be found on the RHS website www.rhs.org.uk with images on what to look out for. Sadly, whilst not as advanced as this disease can be, there seems little doubt that I have the beginning of it on a large box plant – the first thing you see when you come into the garden. It’s the one and only patch and shows no signs of the characteristic spores on the underside of the leaves but it does have the brown and bare stems associated with the disease. So I lifted the whole plant out (the parterre looked like a small child that had lost two front teeth) and replaced it with a box ball that was in the bed I’m redesigning. I removed as much of the surrounding top soil as I could and replaced it with fresh compost. It felt a bit cavalier because if it is box blight then this plant too will succumb but I am prepared to take the risk.
The weather was unexpectedly sunny last week so I made a trip to the allotment to plant some Golden Gourmet shallots. I covered the row with a cloche to prevent the birds pulling out the green shoots as they emerge over the next few weeks. It was lovely down there but the ground was noticeably heavy and wet and when I weeded out the odd clump of grass a huge clod of earth clung to it and refused to be shaken off. A good reason not to disturb the soil too much until it dries out and is easier to work.
In the garden I pruned the dead flowers, left over from last year, on the Hydrangea petiolaris that lines most of the walls. New leaves are emerging and it will be in full leaf in a few weeks followed by lovely cream flowers in May and June.
Helleborus argutifolius has been flowering since November but the plants are rather tall and out of scale in a bed of crocus and miniature daffodils. So I picked two and held the cut stem over a gas flame for 60 seconds and they’ve remained upright in a vase for the last five days. I now feel justified in picking more in order to encourage new leaves at the base of the plants.
I love my old Habitat propagator but this winter two of the glass windows fell out and refused to go back in. So instead we cut clear perspex replacements which was an easy material to bend into the slots and I am so pleased to have a few more years use from it. After a thorough wash with hot soapy water followed by a rinse containing a bit of bleach to keep algae at bay it’s now ready for the first trays of seedlings.
These grow to 150 cm and will require some discreet supports to stop them flopping forward so I rounded up metal props from Gap Garden Products. It’s good that they’ll rust once exposed to the elements.
Back in November I planted 25 Allium sphaerocephalon bulbs in pots ready to dot around the new border. Here they are looking healthy and should be ready to plant out in a month when I start the re-design.
A lovely pot of Iris ‘Edward’ opened this week and it has a very faint perfume of baby talc so it may need to be my scented plant for the month of March.
It’s not a good weather forecast for this week so this morning I picked anything in flower to cheer up the kitchen table: hellebores, lamium for leaf interest, rosemary and daffodils plus two iris from the pot above.
And I found blackcurrants at the back of the freezer (picked last year to use in summer puddings and missed) so I made a pot of jam. Using just 500 g of sugar to 500 g of fruit kept it tart and it has a very delicious, intense flavour.
The first of the broad beans The Sutton were sown mid- January and here they are four weeks later with, it has to be said, not brilliant germination. More have just been sown and placed in the heated propagator. It’s the lowest growing broad bean and needs no staking.
I planted them out this weekend and rather miraculously they made one full row…
But I also have to try the broad bean ‘Red Epicure’. It has velvety-red scented flowers so I may plant some in a huge pot near the kitchen door.
The Lenten Rose ‘Winter Moonbeam’ is new to my hellebore border and is looking gorgeous. The soft cream flowers are shaded pink and apple green and are nestling in variegated, mottled, dark green leaves.
A gift of vibrant red tulips improved this vase of evergreen euphorbias and hebes which was all I could find in the garden to pick this week. Tulips are about the only cut flower that I buy -I simply can’t resist the reminder that winter is almost over. I love their form and the huge variety of colours they offer plus they have a relatively long vase life.
The British landscape in winter is as thrilling as any other season and looked especially charming last weekend with herds of deer grazing in Ashton Court grounds in Bristol.
A gardening friend just recommended a great pair of waterproof gloves that are thermal down to minus 50 so perfect for this time of year. She worked in very cold, bright weather last week in a pair of Argon thermal gloves and claims her hands and fingers stayed warm and flexible. They came from gloves.trader.uk. where I’m about to order my favourite gloves the 310 Showa grip. These too are water-proof and flexible even for the fiddliest jobs.
I am following Louise at wellywoman where we try to have a scented plant from the garden, conservatory or greenhouse for every month of the year. I planted several pots of hyacinths in late-October and left them in a dark cupboard. In February I brought the last pot into the warmth and light of the kitchen and the perfume is wafting two floors up.
On a walk last weekend in an urban area the scent of the ground cover plant Petasites fragrans hit the senses. I’d only been aware of it since Caro’s recent mention in her blog urbanvegpatch and I’d not seen it in the flesh. It’s invasive apparently and difficult to get rid of so I’ll enjoy it on the roadside rather than here in the garden.
I often wonder about my next garden, if we ever have to move house. What would I want? Would the garden be the priority and dictate the choice of house? It most certainly would, and I’d need to consider whether space was required to grow fruit and vegetables or whether I’d keep the allotment and simply enjoy a great garden. I am pretty sure I’d keep the allotment because there’s something special about escaping to it as soon as the weather warms up. A packed lunch and a flask of coffee, preferably some sun to get the cheeks glowing, no interruptions from the phone, and with a time limit of three hours max I return home feeling fitter and very satisfied.
If ever I wanted a seriously large productive garden attached to a house then ‘How to Create a New Vegetable Garden’ by Charles Dowding www.greenbooks would be the book to get me started. A key principle underpinning Dowding’s methods is one that his fans will be familiar with – he’s the leading authority on the no-dig method of soil cultivation. I have all Dowding’s books and I admire his pragmatic approach to gardening, based as it is on many years of experience.
This latest book explores the practicalities and methods Dowding used in making his new garden, Homeacres. It’s three-quarters of an acre and designed to provide a backdrop to teaching, writing and experimenting with different techniques for clearing, ground preparation and various growing practices. But the methods explained can be applied to any size of vegetable garden or even to a relatively small allotment space.
In the first half of the book Dowding deals with clearing the ground and preparing the soil, and he suggests that winter is as good a time as any to begin. An essential first job is to make a compost bay in a central position accessible to all areas. Then in regular stages you must aim to clear the soil of all weeds in Year One. He suggests you hoe and rake the soil surface 1″ deep at the first sign of tiny green leaves. Repeat this throughout spring when many annual seeds will germinate as their dormancy is broken. With perennial weeds such as bindweed, buttercups, dandelions and couch grass Dowding discusses different methods and materials and demonstrates that covering the soil with a light-excluding mulch for a sufficient time will starve roots of their food stores and eventually see them off.
Mulching with organic matter adds fertility but equally useful is cardboard, wood shavings and various polythenes. He shows tables comparing all the light-excluding methods with an analysis of cost, the time taken to get results and any drawbacks. More tables analyse the results of dig versus no-dig beds and whether or not compost was added to the beds. No-dig saves time initially and also reduces the subsequent workload since undisturbed soil germinates fewer weeds. Vegetables are hungry plants and Dowding points out higher yields are achieved in both these methods where compost is added.
The second half of the book is on sowing and growing and he gives the best times throughout the year for ensuring earlier and better harvests. The chart for when to sow summer and autumn vegetables is really helpful as a guide but if it’s cold and wet in spring he says you may need to sow a month later. If you are new to growing produce, whether at home or on an allotment, he suggests you start your very first bed by making a wooden framework on the ground. Filled with compost or good top soil, and regardless of how weedy or stony the soil, it will be transformed into a surface ready for sowing and planting. What a hugely inspiring start to a growing project and with basic carpentry skills one that could be achieved within a few hours. The frame below is full to bursting with produce leaving no room for weeds and I can imagine three in a row, made in a day, leaving time to sort out the essential layout of the garden at a steady pace.
Dowding draws on many years of experience as a grower and delivers his message in a quietly confident manner. He has charted the project’s progress from day one and demonstrates that systematic stages and techniques can ensure produce within the first six months to full self-sufficiency in three years. His wealth of experience and his communication skills provide advice and techniques which can be applied as much to a small allotment as to a huge plot designed to provide produce all year round. Below is an image of Homeacres just ten months after starting it from scratch and it looks as beautiful as any garden.
It’s too chilly for the allotment at the moment but the broad beans have germinated in the warmth of the kitchen window here. And I’ve pruned the Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ which is a Group 3 type meaning it will produce flowers on this years growth. It is already showing signs of healthy green buds but I cut back all the stems to 50cms from the base and gave it a feed. It covers a wall and mingles with a bright pink rose which also got a bit of a prune and a feed at the same time.
In the garden the hellebores have started flowering and I’ve added more to that bed but kept one back for the table since there’s very little in flower to pick for a vase. It’s Helleborus niger ‘Potter’s Wheel’ and I’ll plant it out in a week or two.