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Juggling Act

March 20, 2018

What I want is a proper greenhouse-preferably an elegant, slim, wood framed greenhouse. This modest structure,  spotted on eBay, would suit perfectly but it’s no longer for sale and anyway there’s a lack of space in the garden.

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So instead I start the annual juggling act moving trays of seedlings from the garden table when the sun is out to the garden shed when the temperature drops. I always sow too early, as soon as there’s the merest hint of sun, and I always believe that a small rise in temperature will steadily increase through till May. Currently it’s snowing so I got that seriously wrong and the juggling has involved dahlias brought out from the cellar steps for six hours in the sun now back on the cellar steps. And seeds of beetroot, broad beans and Swiss chard moved out of the cold frame to the only sunny window space indoors.

And more juggling with a rather garish mixed selection of Persian Buttercups (Ranunculus asiaticus) sown in root trainers last week.  Ranunculus asiaticus Mixed

It’s a strange bulb with clusters of tiny roots that hang from each bulb-head and they needed to be soaked overnight before planting with the dangly bits down. These are for the cutting bed and if the results are good then more sophisticated paler tones will be selected next year.

Seeds of Zinnia ‘Green Envy’ were also sown in trays to bask in the sun-soaked cold frame five days ago. They are now re-housed in the garden shed along with the ranunculus both coddled in bubble wrap.

Zinnia Envy

All of this activity could have simply taken place in the pop-up greenhouse on the allotment (incidentally this is a commercial image of the one I bought so not my allotment).

I failed to dig the two side flanges deep enough in the ground so in the last two years it has crashed twice in extreme weather conditions and as a result the zip doors on both ends have to remain rolled up at all times. And the plastic cover is now shot to pieces with perforations over the roof area and down the sides. But it’s still usable as a giant cloche and it will house the tomatoes in May but right now it is not a snug and protective place for any of my seedlings.

One relatively straightforward activity this week was the eradication of a huge swathe of Arum italicum and Lamium maculatum from an otherwise useful Winter bed.  These performance plants had taken over and as invaders were smothering a bed of Helleborus argutifolius, Sedum spectablis ‘Autumn Glory’,  Allium sphaerocephalum bulbs and Adjuga reptans.  All were rescued onto a sheet of heavy black plastic and then the entire root system of the invaders were dug out and chucked into the green waste bin.

The ground was forked over, carefully avoiding the roots of 2-year-old Rosa ‘Iceberg’, and the rescued plants were carefully put back in and the surface sprinkled with a general fertiliser. I added two Viburnum opulus Roseum at the back of the bed to increase my cut flower options.

Image result for Viburnum roseum

The Lamium is a lovely plant for foliage but needs managing.  I regularly remove it from the beds yet it always returns somewhere in the garden. I cut the leaves before throwing it away last week and added them to some Lenten roses for a small vase in the sitting room.


Signs of Life

March 6, 2018

A polystyrene fish delivery box found on the street is perfect for my Sarah Raven ‘Bonanza’ dahlia collection.

I sat the tubers on 20 cm John Innes compost and then covered with another 30 cm and watered them. It seems the cellar steps, albeit in semi-darkness, are warm enough to encourage leaves as confirmed by this pot of dahlia tubers lifted and planted last October and just showing.

It’s important not to let the compost dry out and they need to be frost-free till April. Then they can sit outside in the day and will be planted mid-to late May on the allotment.

An emergency sowing of sweet pea seeds have germinated fast in less than ten days. The challenge will be to prevent them getting leggy so they are now in the cold frame to slow them down. These were sown to cope with  the distinct possibility that the ones in the pop up greenhouse on the allotment would have been knocked for six by the snow and ice.

But here they are and very happy and anyway you can’t have too many sweet peas. And this small tray of stalwart seedling fennel survived in the cold frame in minus 8 for two nights running.

A clump of Winter Density lettuce has also grown into substantial seedlings in the poly-tunnel and will be planted out over the next week or two.

So all in all there is a huge prompt to get sowing again and with a packet of labels for a pound (from you know where) there is nothing to wait for.

Oh and plenty of seeds…

Helleborus argutifolius coped brilliantly with the snow apart from one or two lying horizontal across the path which was a great excuse to cut them for the kitchen table.  They only last for two to three days before flopping but are irresistible at this time of year.

Pruning the Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’.

February 17, 2018

Spring is definitely in the air today with the sun shining on new herbaceous foliage emerging through the soil and tiny buds on the lilac tree and daffodils on the point of opening. This is the month to prune the elder tree Sambucus nigra,  so we had a massive session with the long-handled branch cutters. It went from this wayward tree…

to this …

…with me further pruning the light-weight branches with the secateurs and filling the council green waste bin to the top.

The flowers of the elder are borne in broad heads on purple stalks and are pink in bud then open to pink and white. They make a pretty pink cordial in early Summer. The bronze leaf tone is a refreshing alternative to the greens growing around it. Now is the best time to prune since the emerging leaves will soon be out and will add to the challenge of keeping a uniform shape to the overall form of the tree.

I put several stems in a brass vase to see if they will open although it’s a little underwhelming at the moment…

Unlike these hellebore flowers which show their lovely faces when placed in a shallow dish…

We were accompanied by stunning bird song from two Long-tailed Tits sitting high up in opposite trees. And there were further signs of Spring with a blackbird flying low with berries in its mouth and a robin building a nest in the porch outside the back door.

And the tray of onion sets planted two weeks ago have nearly all sprung green shoots ready to be planted on the allotment in early March.

The next job will be to eradicate as much of the Arum italicum as possible since it has taken over two large beds. The leaves are delightful but there’s a limit to how much is needed as ground cover.

Garden Tidy-Up

February 1, 2018


An experiment with cutting Helleborus argutifolius has worked in as much as the stems remained upright in this decanter for five days. I cut two and held them head down to walk back to the kitchen (aiming to keep any liquid in the stems) then I held the cut ends over a gas flame for 60 seconds. They have lasted five days but interestingly each morning I found that one of the flower heads had drooped.  I topped up the water and within ten minutes the droopy stem was upright again.

All it takes to get me outside is an hour or two of sun so last week under a blue sky I decided to rake off leaves that were still loitering since Autumn. These were mainly from the Hydrangea petiolaris that lines the garden walls and the leaves had dropped at the back of borders out of easy reach.  I had hoped that over Winter the worms would drag them in but one look at the untidy mess prompted a gentle raking session. This long-handled rake is really useful for weaving through established plants at the back of borders. The three prong head is easy to manipulate and is light enough to avoid damaging existing plants. The smaller one is great on the allotment where a surprising number of leaves fall from ancient trees that surround the site. The broad bean row was smothered in crisp, decaying leaves and the short rake plus a short-handled hoe quickly cleared the ground.

I am trying not to bend too much at the moment so a kind garden fairy filled this sack with the raked off leaves and all from just one small bed. It’s now stored behind the garden shed along with six other large sacks ready to mulch the ground in Autumn.

In order to get ahead with some preparation for the growing season I started a tray of Centurion onion sets off in seed tray in-fill packs. Found in Wilco and good value at 3 for a £1 they are designed for seed sowing but there’s plenty of room for these onions plus compost. They will be kept inside for a few weeks and planted on the allotment when the green shoots are up.


January 20, 2018

I rarely buy flowers and try to pick something for a vase from the garden or allotment every week. But supermarket daffodils in Winter and tulips in Spring are irresistible and especially the greenness of the daffs before they open.

And they are even lovelier when in full bloom five days later. The scent is gorgeous and surely Spring is not too far off.

I nipped into the allotment since I was passing and because the tips of the sweet peas needed pinching out. Such survivors- they are doing very well in the cold poly tunnel.


But then the heavens opened so in haste I forked up a handful of leeks and a curly cabbage to thin out the row.

And I would have emptied two compost bins but for the rain and if I hadn’t been recovering from flu and if someone hadn’t nicked my wheelbarrow.  But I felt a motivation stirring that has been missing for the last eight weeks and by the end of February I hope to be fully engaged for the growing season.

Hmm… rather a lot of seeds left over from last year but all within dates so to be sown again this year. It will be obvious if there’s no germination but experience tells me that most seeds are viable if kept dry for a couple of years.

The seed potatoes have been purchased: Charlotte, Winston and Carolus and they will be put in trays in the light and dry to chit.

The longest cut flower this Winter has been the ornamental quince. This is it at the end of week two and still looking gorgeous.


Winter Bloomers

January 3, 2018

I am itching to get gardening again but the weather is  definitely not permitting any action either here or on the allotment. It’s cold, wet and windy today so it was necessary to bring the garden inside and these two stems of Helleborus augustifolius are cheering up the sitting room. It’s mixed with flowering hyacinth bulbs that had fallen horizontal in their pot so they were cut and are now flooding the room with scent.

The hellebores are such a great plant for Winter with flowers appearing in late November and continuing until April.  The handsome leaves fill the beds helping to suppress weeds and here they combine really well with Arum italicum as fore-ground cover.

Outside the kitchen door, and in a tall pot, sits Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. It’s a lanky, deciduous shrub with little in terms of form to recommend it. But flowers appear sporadically from late summer before it sheds its leaves then gloriously scented, pink flowers appear in full force in Winter on bare stems.

Next to it and outside the kitchen door, Sarcococca’ Sweet box’ is also in flower. Again it is quite a boring plant although it does have shiny, evergreen leaves in its favour. However the scent of the tiny insignificant flowers make it well worth finding a place for and preferably near a path or door.

Vinca major is useful for bringing a little light to shady corners. It provides simple white flowers all Winter  for cutting and will be chopped back hard in Spring to neaten its sprawling habit.

Aside from flowers and scent which is so welcome at this time of year, there’s pleasure to be had in the frame of bare trees in the wider landscape. On a Thames estuary walk at Christmas this tree had such presence against the blue Winter sky.  Surrounded on both shores by massive apartment block construction it was a good reminder of the importance of nature in the built environment.

In the countryside a birch tree was glimmering with pale orange leaves until the wind stripped them.  It will be bare for the coming months but retains a soft copper orange on the wispy stems.

There’s a big hungry gap on the allotment (I offer a bad back problem that went on for twelve weeks, pigeons, badges and gale force winds as my excuse). Cropping will be limited to leeks, Spring cabbages and kale over the next few months. But looking in the freezer there are surplus frozen beans, cooked spinach, butternut squash and cooked tomatoes from Summer. So I made a Gujerati-style green bean side dish to a curry.

Recipe for 2

225 of French beans defrosted and cut to 2.5cm

2 large chopped and cooked tomatoes de-frosted

2 tablespoons of vegetable oil heated and when hot 1 tablespoon of whole black mustard seeds added

When the seeds popped 2 crushed garlic cloves and half a dried red chilli chopped were added

Green beans and tomatoes plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar were stirred in and cooked for 8-10 minutes.












Silver and White

December 11, 2017

I am keeping it simple this year with artichoke, allium and agapanthus heads saved from summer and now sprayed silver.

The spray used is Christmas Traditions by Goodmark and it’s one that the floristry trade has identified as light but seriously shiny. I also discovered some tiny battery-operated Led Lights on a 2 m string by Lumineo. Light-weight and delicate they can be dropped along a mantle or as here pushed into and around the sprayed allium heads.

An obsession to only pick leaves and flowers for the house from the garden is challenging at this time of year. But the bitter chocolate heads of Hydrangea petiolaris make a good contrast with this metal container and a few stems of the scented Cistus ‘Sunset’ leaves cheer it up.


A couple of weeks ago I picked a branch of the ornamental quince Chaenomeles that was covered in tight buds. A week later the flowers opened an intense orange and waxy in texture resembling all those classic images associated with Japanese art. I have combined another stem with Euphorbia robbiae which had the earliest sign of flowers emerging in the centre and look the lime green flowers are opening.

It’s now too cold for the allotment but a week ago on a sunny and crisp Sunday the autumn raspberries were planted and another path was laid with wood chip. An hour gardening in any form is the most restorative pleasure for me and so I look forward to getting back into the swing as early as possible next year. In the meantime Happy Christmas and a bountiful and peaceful 2018 to all.