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Book Review: Growing Self-Sufficiency

September 7, 2017


Sally Nex is an experienced and passionate grower of fruit and vegetables and her aim in Growing Self -Sufficiency is to get you started whatever the size of your plot.  You may only have space for a window box for herbs or a small patio or balcony for pots but you will be able to grow an impressive amount of produce.  With an allotment or sizeable garden Sally’s advice will show you how to be near self-sufficient and shave pounds off your food bill. She says:

‘Taking control of your own food is one of the easiest ways to tread lighter on the earth: as easy, in fact, as planting a seed’.

One motive for the book is the need to avoid where possible the thousands of miles food travels to get to your table. Add to that the concern over chemicals that are regularly used to keep produce artificially fresh. But Sally Nex is also inspired to pass on what she calls her addiction to growing produce and it’s one that I share.

The opening chapter explores gardening in window boxes and discusses the easiest veg to grow. Sally says salad leaves can be picked for months on end as can perpetual spinach, Swiss chard and kale. Herbs also do well in window boxes and I can vouch for that having filled two surplus troughs with parsley, mint, basil, chives and coriander this summer.  I have been picking herbs for the last three months saving on average two pounds a week so aside from their beauty it’s definitely cost effective. If space is limited and you enjoy cooking this would be an easy way to start and there are great tips on freezing herbs to keep a supply though the seasons.

From window box gardening Sally moves on to three container gardening which she says will feed one person for a year. Double that up and it can feed a family of four. Easy to grow produce such as salad leaves, Swiss chard, perpetual spinach and beetroot fit nicely into this project and with sufficient space more containers can be added. Early new potatoes can be planted in spring with beans and peas to follow and these would provide vertical interest climbing up wigwams.

Chillies are pretty plants that do well in a pot and crop throughout summer and surplus can be dried for winter use.

Sally provides charts showing sowing times to cropping times for all the produce to keep you on schedule. Perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage can be woven in around other plants and chives can line the edge of borders.

Mini orchards can be grown in pots but in a bigger garden Sally has encouraging advice for using fruit cages. In gardens the vegetable plot can be defined with espaliered fruit trees on the edges or fruit can be trained against walls. Blueberries make attractive plants for a large pot and can be supplied with the ericaceous soil that they need to thrive. Figs should have their roots contained so these make an ideal fruit tree for a container. I fancy her idea for lemons, limes and oranges to be grown in pots outside and then brought in for winter. Strawberries can be used to edge borders or planted round the outside of containers.

There’s advice on preserving, bottling and freezing to extend the seasons and there’s a great chapter on saving seeds. I loved the idea of cutting  a ripe tomato in half to scoop out the seeds onto kitchen paper. Simply leave them to dry then store on the paper in an envelope to sow next year.

Something to move onto if there’s space is her chapter on keeping chickens, weaner piglets and lambs. I have friends in Devon who started with a vegetable patch and have steadily built up their self-sufficiency to this level and they are loving the challenge. But most of us have space for at least a window box and with Sally’s book to inspire it would be a great start to self-sufficiency. That then might be followed by renting an allotment or moving to accommodation with a garden for a vegetable patch. Whatever the space I believe this book is just what is needed to inspire you to get started.

Publisher Green Books: ISBN 9780857843173


Jasminum officinale

August 28, 2017

The plan was to replace the huge expanse of ivy on the wall outside the kitchen door with a scented jasmine… 

A mature plant was  purchased but within weeks the leaves looked increasingly unhealthy and now almost all have disappeared.

I think it must be suffering from a fungal disease either Fusarium Wilt or Root Knot Galls both treatable. I have lifted the whole plant out of the ground in order to rinse the roots and then it will be re-potted in a large container with fresh compost. A spray of 2 teaspoons of soda bicarbonate to eight parts water will be applied to the stems. Hopefully next Spring it will show signs of health and if it fully recovers it can be planted out again. Shame though since I now have a very bare wall to look out on.

The pumpkin/squash seeds that we brought back from Palestine have now grown into five healthy medium sized fruit. However the first one to be prepared for roasting was rather difficult to get a knife in.  In the end we baked it whole and scooped out the flesh adding lots of salt and pepper and roasted garlic.

More seeds were sown this weekend to ensure a ‘Winter Density’ lettuce supply and pointed Spring cabbage. I planted out six runner beans, ever the optimist, and their progress will be entirely dependent on an Indian summer.  Other than that the allotment ticks along smothered in marigolds and nasturtiums that seem to have filled every available space.

A melon-sorbet-recipe was a hit this weekend. Two intensely flavoured lemon verbena leaves were added to the finished ice and the flavour of both was incredible.

Harvesting and Saving Seeds

August 20, 2017

It’s a great time of year when all the hard work pays off…

…and people give you plums and you make Plum-cardamom-and-orange-jam …

…and seeds can be saved from sweet peas…

This Autumn I plan to sow a dozen or so sweet peas ready to get in the ground in April. Sowing in root trainers ensures lovely long roots that in turn provide long stems. More will be sown in June to get a second crop.


I am gathering seeds from lots of plants this year: so far Nigella ‘Love in a Mist’, nasturtiums, hollyhocks, aquilegia and marigolds for a small project to brighten up a friend’s garden in London. Below is the area outside the kitchen door and it works really well with established plants in the ground and full pots dotted around leaving ample space  to eat outside.

But  walking up the steps to the top garden there is little to lift the spirits. Several dead box balls have been hit by the box-tree caterpillar which in the last eight years has been demolishing box plants all over London. From an upstairs window it was seen to have ravaged a substantial parterre in the garden next door. You can read about it here but there’s not much hope of defeating it.

This top garden has large pavers surrounded by pea shingle with Acanthus, Phormiums, Fatsia and Choisya providing dramatic greenery and height…

These well established plants were put in several years ago but shingle was then spread over the entire planting area.  It is now difficult to get as much as a trowel in to add to the planting so we plan to experiment with seeds.

The inspiration is the back lane at home where Erigeron karvinskianus grows out of the pavement …

and hollyhocks thrive in thin air…

…and Alpine campanulas have colonised steps and pavements with barely any soil …

It will be fun to see if this is possible and the selecting and storing of seeds has started with the aim to sow in early September.  Plus tiny Alchemilla mollis seedlings are visible in the cracks in the path here and these will be lifted and added to small pockets of soil around the established plants in the top garden.

As usual in August there’s embarrassingly little in flower in my garden but Cosmos ‘Sensation’ on the allotment has opened and looks lovely.


August 13, 2017

Marjoram is such a gorgeous well-behaved herb and especially good for late summer flowers…

And in early Autumn it can be divided up to make more plants by gently easing the rooted base apart into smaller segments. Pot these on into 9 cm pots and next Spring you can spread the joy. Last year I made six plants from one established clump.

Culinary sage Salvia officinalis  is more of a shrub and is less well behaved. Several years ago I made cuttings from an old plant by gently tearing a heel from several side shoots. These were dipped in hormone rooting powder then put round the edge of a flower-pot. The following Spring the young rooted plants were dotted round the parterre nearest the house.

Sage requires a hard prune three times a year to keep it compact and it was difficult to climb in amongst other plants to cut it back regularly. As a result the small plants grew sprawling and leggy and since it should be replaced every four years several have now been removed. Here it is taking up too much room around the box balls …

But lifted out it leaves plenty of room to plant the area with something interesting for late summer flowers. I plan to sow more fennel in the greenhouse over Winter which could look good in this bed but might be too tall. Or I could buy a large pot of Astrantia major…

and divide it up to plant with Stipa arundinacea the leaves of which turn a lovely orange-russet in Autumn  This has self-seeded round the garden since the first time I planted it ten years ago and it appears in the most inappropriate places like outside the garden shed door…

Several allotment beetroot were hiding under the courgette leaves and had grown really huge…

They were easy to peel and chopped into small chunks they were then roasted with un-peeled garlic cloves for 45 minutes in olive oil. When cool Feta cheese was crumbled into the dish and the soft garlic squeezed out and basil leaves added.

The sunflower ‘Velvet Queen’ is blooming on the allotment and makes a great cut flower especially with red dahlias. They had a vase life of five days…

Learning Curves

August 6, 2017

A rose that had performed for decades suddenly stopped flowering two years ago. It appeared to be perfectly healthy with masses of strong new stems and an abundance of healthy leaves but no roses. R. ‘Gloire de Dijon’ is a climber with creamy-buff flowers and a spicy fragrance often repeat-flowering and sometimes forming huge hips in Autumn.  I realised that the problem was the walnut and mulberry trees in the garden next door now grown so huge they block out the sun on this border all day. I enjoy these trees and appreciate the atmosphere they bring to my garden especially  the way the light is changed when they are in full leaf. In Autumn the leaves drop and are bagged up to be  saved for twelve months to provide a winter mulch for many of the beds. And as they come into full leaf in Spring it’s a comforting reminder that warmer weather is on the way. So I have needed to re-think this bed, now in almost full shade, and it’s good to see that Japanese  Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ loves the conditions and has self-seeded happily along 3 metres.

Saxifraga x urbium ( London Pride) tolerates full shade and is thriving .

Alchemilla mollis is in full flower and has self-seeded along the front edge so it clearly gets enough light.

This weekend I added five clumps of Helleborus foetidus towards the back of this full shade border extending the large space from removing the rose.  Hellebores do best in part-shade but since the trees are deciduous there should be enough light at the right time to encourage healthy growth. As an evergreen perennial these will add year round interest with their palmately divided leaves surrounding purple-edged, pale green flowers anytime from Winter through till Spring.

The second learning curve was although we’ve had rain on and off for weeks, the large new planters in the back lane were bone dry. Note to self, water twice a week regardless of weather, wind drys the surface out even if combined with a heavy downpour. It has also become apparent that small terracotta pots are not very practical for herbs because these too dry out quickly. I have several and they will be saved for planting crocus in October that can then be brought in for the kitchen table when in flower.

And although a plastic window box is less charming it has proved to be a fantastic way to grow herbs near the kitchen door. It sits on the garden table and can be moved when we eat outside. Chives, Greek basil, flat-leaf parsley and mint have thrived all summer with no sign of slug or snail attack.

Aside from three Kaffir lilies coming into bloom with their gorgeous, intense orangey-red petals, little else is doing much in the sunny border.

But Clematis ‘Rouge Cardinal’ will be planted against the wall behind them.

A trip to a garden centre is required to see what herbaceous plants are looking good at this time of year. I shall then follow Monty’s great tip in last friday’s Gardener’s World where he showed how to divide up and increase plants ready for next year.  The programme also featured Karena Batstone’s wonderful town garden in Bristol which is well worth catching on BBC I player.

This week the cut flowers in a favourite green glass jug are the leaves of R. rubrifolia with the flowers of the un-named hydrangeas.

Flowering Roses and Clematis

July 30, 2017

Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ has flowered for the last twelve weeks winding its way through a climbing rose in the small plot at the back of the house. It’s such good value as a flowering plant and has the conditions there that clematis love, part-shade with the roots smothered by other plants to keep them cool.    I’ve just  purchased C. ‘ Rouge Cardinal’ having seen it doing much the same in another garden and will plant it to mingle at the back of the border with shrub roses.

Repeat flowering Rose ‘Munstead Wood’ is doing just that and was a great buy last Autumn from David Austin. It arrived in an upright box and when carefully unpacked there it sat smothered in a mass of flowers.  I could have ordered bare root which is cheaper but it was a fabulous treat to have such a spectacular instant addition to the border. I fed all the roses a month ago with a rose feed at the base to encourage more flowers and R. ‘Iceberg’ has new buds as does R. ‘Ferdinand Pichard’.

There’s been too much rain to get to the allotment for a serious session but the tomatoes are ripening and are delicious …

Ammi majus has filled two vases this week and lasts for days. Here it is with dahlias and Alchemilla mollis…

and here with Hydrangea ‘Madame Emile Mouillere’…


July 22, 2017

I rounded up these stylish plastic planters from a garden centre for the back lane project. Large enough to take a variety of plants and deep enough to support tall ones all that was needed was to punch out three holes in the base for drainage. I transferred the plants and compost from the Poundland ones that had served well enough to green up the lane for the last year.

On the allotment the runner beans are ripening and the courgettes are a manageable size and the French beans will soon be ready to crop. In the greenhouse the beef steak  Marmande toms are looking fantastic but still green and the ‘Sungold’ are sweet and delicious.

A salad was made from the last of the purple leaves ‘Fancy Summer Mix’ from T & M with marigold petals and ‘Sungold’ baby toms added for colour.

A long window box is a really useful container for herbs with space for a variety of plants and enough depth to take a decent quantity of compost so less chance of drying out.  It sits on the garden table but can easily be moved if we want to eat outside. It contains flat leaf parsley, two chive plants and an enormous Greek basil that’s been great to add to recipes for weeks on end. There’s been no slug or snail damage to any of the herbs all summer and my theory is that the scent of the Greek basil puts them off.

The cut flowers this week are an unnamed hydrangea bought in Ikea three years ago for 50 pence. The smallest green leaves were just visible hence the price reduction but now the three plants form a substantial clump in a shady bed.

I added one stem of Japanese anemone ‘Max Vogel’ which is the first of the anemones to flower.