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Spring Cleaning

March 2, 2015

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.


I am planning a new herbaceous border to supplement the cut flower bed on the allotment and a quantity of Achillea ‘Cloth of Gold’ is on my list of plants.achillea

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.DSCN4044

Sowing and Planting

February 23, 2015


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.DSCN3881

Winter Landscape

February 16, 2015


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.


And I loved the framework of this ancient tree which is seen at it’s best before the leaves emerge in spring.DSCN3874


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 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.

DSCN3875On 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.


Review: How To Create a New Vegetable Garden by Charles Dowding

February 8, 2015

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.


Marmalade & Soda Bread

February 2, 2015

With wet and cold weather forecast for most of last week a bit of kitchen therapy was needed. I love soda bread and find it more digestible than yeast-based bread so I try to keep a pot of buttermilk available in my fridge ready to make a loaf.

DSCN3788 I use Delia’s recipe:

375g strong wholemeal flour

75g plain flour

1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 level dessertspoon salt

284ml carton buttermilk mixed with 75ml water

Pre-heat oven to 200 C

Mix all dry ingredients together then make a well and add the liquid. Gradually bring together with your hands thoroughly mixing all the ingredients into a ball. You may need to add a little more flour or if it feels dry add a little more water. Shape the dough into a smooth round and place on a baking sheet then with a sharp knife cut the top a third of the way into the mix and do the same the other way to form a cross. Cook for 40 minutes (I covered the top with foil for the last 10 minutes to prevent it burning). Place on a rack and allow it to cool properly before tucking in.




This recipe came from my late mother-in-law and uses 1 kilo of oranges to 2 kilo of preserving sugar (warmed in a low oven) plus a lemon and 2.5 L of water.

Place a plate in the freezer to test for setting. In a preserving pan simmer the whole oranges and lemon in the water for 1 1/2 hours then lift out saving the water. When cool enough to handle cut the fruit in half and scoop out all the flesh and pips. Put these back in the pan of water and boil for 15 mins to extract the pectin. Strain into a large bowl and discard these bits putting the liquid back into the preserving pan and add the warm sugar stirring until it has completely dissolved. Slice the peel either finely (or chunky if you wish) and add to the pan. Boil rapidly for 15 minutes then test for setting on the ice-cold plate. It took 30 minutes for mine to set and it has been pointed out that it slips off the knife so it’s still a bit runny -I say use a spoon then. This quantity made five kilner jars and has a very good flavour.

My other project was painting a scruffy Victorian mahogany table in Annie Sloan chalk paint French Linen. It has a gorgeous pedestal base plus two drawers sitting in the pretty curvy table top.



On a very brief trip to the allotment to pick parsley and the first purple sprouting broccoli I discovered the cloche that was protecting a row of red cabbage had lifted off one end. Opportunist slugs had tucked into the outer leaves so I brought the main stem home to enjoy the stunning colours in a vase.DSCN3811




Winter Sun

January 26, 2015

Winter sun on the frosted leaves of Euphorbia wulfennii….DSCN3691

And later in the day, with the sun low in the sky, it lit up the leaves of a pot of  Agapanthus…


The potatoes are purchased and laid out in a tray in the dry in front of a window to ‘chit’…



and an extra supply of shallots was rounded up at the same time…


In Poundland a bag of 25 gladioli were snapped up to experiment with in a small patch of land at the back of the house. It’s impossible to grow glads on the allotment because the badger pulls them out  (along with the carrots and sweetcorn) but hopefully they’ll grow in part shade here.



On the same shopping trip these beauties were spotted to add to the cutting bed where last year the dahlias were stunning. I vowed to plant more and have made notes of some very sophisticated ones recommended by other bloggers but these will look  good cut with bright orange marigolds. I’ll pot them into 9cm pots of compost and keep them indoors until March when they can go in the cold frame to harden off for a month.



A pot of Tete a Tete planted in a plastic pot in October and left in the cold frame showed signs of life four weeks ago. The pot was slipped into a favourite container for the kitchen table where they grew rapidly in the warm. They’ve just started flowering and the contrast of the fresh green leaves and the grey concrete pot is gorgeous.



One Magic Square

January 19, 2015

‘Produce locally what is consumed locally’.

E.F. Schumacher


This inspiring book sets out to encourage everyone to start growing produce even if it’s the first time you have ever considered doing so and in whatever limited space there is available. And however overgrown your garden Lolo Houbein says you should be able to find one square metre to weed, plant and keep tidy before moving on to a block of two or three or even four as your enthusiasm grows. Limiting the beds to one square metre is an excellent way to ensure that the preparation is manageable both in time and effort and it will certainly reduce the mystery and challenge for first time growers.

Plots are graded from the easiest and most robust to the complex and tender and Part One starts with various salad plots since salad crops are relatively easy to grow. Lettuce leaves can be picked for several months by taking them from the sides of the plant following the pick-&-come-again method.  Houbein chooses five imaginative collections in this group all beautifully illustrated and ranging from winter to summer produce. In Salad crop A the plan includes lettuce, bush beans, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, radishes and rocket. A large tub to one side takes 2 cucumber plants and in other plot designs she suggests filling the tub with new potatoes or a single courgette plant.


If salads aren’t your thing then a square metre bed can be devoted to broad beans …


…carrots are sown round the edges of this bed. Other plots charmingly illustrated with easy to follow layout plans include: The Soup Plot, The Herb Plot, The Peas Plot, The Aztec Plot and two Anti-Cancer Plots.  If you enjoy making curries here’s Curry Plot B with potatoes and garlic sown separately to extend the crop.


Throughout the book there are many tips and tricks to help build confidence and to get the most out of your beds plus an A-Z of vegetable groups to rotate to help keep your beds fertile.

Now January is probably not the best time to get started it might be icy and it will certainly be cold. But today in the South-West it’s sunny and even if you aren’t tempted outside the preparation could begin on the back of an envelope.  But if you want to get started (and Houbein advises that you should without further hesitation) then dress warmly and pick up a fork or a spade and a tape measure. Choose a spot in the sun and fork over a square metre plot removing all weeds. Rake it flat and sprinkle on blood, fish and bone fertiliser following instructions on the box. If you plan to dig up the lawn lift the sods with a spade and pile them grass side down in an empty corner of the garden to decompose into mulch to use later. Fork in the fertiliser and  if necessary top up the earth with a bag of organic top soil to raise it level with the surroundings. A bed in a lawn may need to be edged with re-cycled wood to stop the grass encroaching.

Food security has been Lolo Houbein’s preoccupation since her childhood in Western Holland where 24,000 people died of starvation in the second world war.  And she has inspiring credentials starting  with her great, great grandfather who was a market gardener and from several family members currently involved in growing food. Yet she meets people with no growing history who produce impressive vegetables at first try. I too see this on the allotment-first time growers with an abundance of healthy produce in their first six months. So get started and if you find no satisfaction after a season or two you can re-turf the lawn or fill the space with shrubs. My guess is that with the help of this book you’ll steadily increase your square beds and enjoy the satisfaction, exercise and creativity that growing your own food brings.

The book is beautifully written with huge enthusiasm and packed full of sound advice. It’s published on February 5th and is available from


Several of us have decided to blog a scented plant from our garden (or conservatory or allotment) each month throughout 2015.  Above is Sarcococca confusa (sweet box) which I have mentioned before since it started flowering in December and it’s at full throttle now outside the kitchen door. It’s a great evergreen for cheering up winter days and by swapping plant recommendations we could ensure a scented plant every month of the year somewhere in the house or garden. Please feel free to join in whether it’s a scented leaf or a gorgeous scented flower- wellywoman  has some great selections on her blog as does Christina on myhesperidesgarden.

Today I cut three sprigs of sweet box for my desk to mix with three winter pansies and some variegated Lamium and the room smells delicious.





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