Friday, 2 March 2018

Why Grow Food?

It’s spring! I know this because every gardening book I have ever read declares that in the northern hemisphere, March is in spring. The view from my window doesn’t scream a surge in growth, nodding daffodils, gambolling lambs, and a surfeit of chocolate eggs (not least because you can never have too many chocolate eggs), but I keep reminding myself that last week, in the heady days of February, I was enjoying an al fresco lunch and failing to suppress the overwhelming urge to sow tomatoes.
Needless to say, the tomatoes have germinated and are leaning towards the office window, turning their backs on me and rebuking me for my lack of patience. They have a point. I knew that it would be better to wait a while before I sowed them, but I refuse to feel guilty, because those little seedlings make my heart sing.
This is why I grow food: my life is so much richer for it. The return on the cost of a packet of seeds is not simply the harvest I enjoy eating, it is also how growing that crop makes me feel. Gardening is known to be good for mental health. I am certainly sunnier when I grow food. Yes, the cabbage whites and rabbits might be thorns in my side, but even with their interference, I am a happier person for tending the crops they are hellbent on devouring.
The thrill of seeing seedlings looping their way into the world never diminishes. It is as magical now as it was when I sprinkled cress seeds on blotting paper as a child. I just wish that everyone could grow something to eat - even just a tiny pot of herbs on a windowsill. 
Every year I expand my veg patch, and this year is no exception. There are more strawberries and raspberries; an extension to the damson hedge; and a new compost area. The compost bins will cost nothing as they will be constructed from old crates. The fruit will hopefully earn its keep before very long. I won’t measure the return in kilos though; I will measure it in the pure joy that comes from picking the first berry, and the glorious realisation that there are sufficient damsons to make a crumble.
Apart from growing food in the kitchen garden, I also grow crops in little crates and pots by my office door. There are blueberries, strawberries, salad leaves, herbs and pea shoots. They take up very little room, but they make a difference to my day, providing healthy treats to snack on, or salad leaves for lunch.
The pots and the garden are hidden under a thick duvet of snow right now. The great news is that if we are in spring, then summer is on its way. I only hope that my tomato seedlings feel reassured by this news. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Queen of the Seasons

February is the month for spending more time than is socially acceptable with my ever-expanding collection of seed packets. How I dream of releasing these little powerhouses of hope from their envelopes so that they can snuggle up in my propagator under a soft duvet of warm compost, but as I gaze upon their loveliness, I remind myself that too much, too soon will result in skinny, leggy plants and a seedling housing crisis. 
When Frustrating February gives way to Sowathon Spring, we discover if we have been over-exuberant in our seed purchasing (of course I have). I divide my seed packets into the months during which I plan to sow. If I’m honest, it is just another ploy to spend more time with the darlings, but it also gives me the opportunity to assess how cramped my office will be in April, and how little light I can expect to receive at my desk in early May when I crowbar yet another tray of plants into an already overcrowded space because the soil and the weather aren’t ready for them.
If I were Queen of the Seasons, I would declare that late summer is the time for pricking out seedlings. In spring, we are so busy waging war on weeds that pricking out can easily be overlooked. If only seedlings could adjust to our requirements, we could prick them out at our leisure in August when the sun is shining and the garden is under control. Sadly I am not Queen of the Seasons, so seedlings continue to scream to be pricked out just when our hands are at their coldest, our dexterity is through the floor, and we are being pulled in a gazillion other gardening directions.
Hardening off plants is a joyful task. Carrying them hither and thither, morning and night, is a wonderful way of upping my step count, which in turn makes me feel marvellously virtuous and deserving of another bowl of strawberries and cream. Around this time I invariably find myself with an aphid infestation in the office. It helps that the plants have barred any access to the windows, thereby ensuring that no cleaning is possible so that the spiders are at liberty to enjoy aphidfest in their cobwebs. Visitors are frequently alarmed at the quantity of wildlife in there (best not to mention the year of the office slugs and the convalescing chicken).
If you have stuck with this post thus far, you may have quite rightly gathered that I am struggling with the concept of not sowing. It’s an annual battle. This year, to offset my frustration, I have sown more sweet peas than I know what to do with. They are now clogging up my cold frames and causing me a headache as I meander around the farm looking for frameworks for them to scramble up. I am considering commandeering the kids’ swings for a sweet pea tunnel, or perhaps popping some string around the wheelie bins and masking any unpleasant smells with scented flowers.

There is much to look forward to this summer. It will be fragrant, and filled with aubergines and hyssop. An unlikely combination, but I may have accidentally sown quite a lot of them when they leapt unbidden from the seed tin and made themselves at home in some lovely warm compost. Clever things.... seeds.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Gardening Jobs for January - Get Set for a Fruit Glut

Happy new year! January is the perfect month for appraising our gardens, making plans and compiling lists. In my case this involves staring out of a window, tutting and saying, “Call yourself a gardener? Look at the state of it.” 

There are high spots, low spots and downright weedy spots, but from my vantage point in the house I can safely say that not enough of it is hitting the spot. So where to start? When inclement weather, the latest winter bug, and short days end, what shall I embrace first?
Top of the list is the orchard. Quite frankly it isn’t providing enough fruit, and when it does, Basil our beloved dog steals the harvest. I can’t blame it all on Basil though. Our entire garden, including the orchard, is fairly new* and so patience, the virtue so vital to gardeners, needs to dance to the fore and do its thing (whatever that thing might be). 
Basil pretending not to care that he's on the wrong side
of the gate
Apart from patience, a spot of TLC wouldn't go amiss. Judicious pruning, feeding, battling with the grass that is hellbent on swamping the trees, and mulching would be a good start. Top it off with a jolly good wassail and we might find ourselves inundated with fruit.

Wassailing is a ritual traditionally performed in orchards during January. It involves hanging toast dipped in mulled cider from the branches of an apple tree to attract favourable spirits, and dowsing the roots in more cider to bless the tree so that it produces a good crop in the coming year, all this while making a loud noise and serenading the toast-laden apple tree with a suitable song. 
Show apples - will my produce be joining them this year?
Not if Basil has anything to do with it.
There are plenty of wassailing songs online, although I think I might go a little off-piste and warble "Oh Apple Tree" to the tune of "Oh Christmas Tree" or "O Tannenbaum", mainly because I know how it goes and a degree of confidence about what I'm trying to sing might help me to hit the right notes. 

I am a little concerned that my atonal caterwauling might give the neighbours and passing dog walkers something to talk about. My greatest concern though is that it will provide Basil with a delicious sandwich as he takes his morning constitutional, thereby reinforcing the orchard as one of his favourite feeding grounds. It is definitely time for a spot of dog (or is that owner?) training.

In the time-honoured gardening tradition, here is my list of jobs for January:

1. Prune the apple and pear trees (but not the plums and cherries - we don’t want silver leaf)

2. Clear weeds away from the trees' bases

3. Check that tree ties aren't too tight.

4. Switch on the toaster, grab a bowl of mulled cider, sing at the top of my voice and clobber a couple of pans together while keeping Basil on a lead.

I don't know about you, but I am already optimistic that 2018 will be the year of the long-awaited apple crumble and custard glut. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Roy Lancaster, Achocha, and The Cotswold Wildlife Park

Autumn brings out the forager in me. I love roaming along hedgerows in search of fruit; it makes me feel like the heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel.
I was a scavenging child. My favourite windfalls were almonds. I bashed the shells with a stone until they cracked open. It might not have been the quickest or easiest method, but there was no social media in those days so I could spend happy hours communing with almonds without the pressure of posing for a selfie every five minutes. 
My latest garden grazing took place with the full permission of the head gardener at Cotswold Wildlife Park. Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruits are blessed with delicious flesh and disgustingly bitter seeds. It is not a fruit I will be caught scrumping any time soon. 
Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruit
Thankfully, I was visiting with a group of fellow gardeners, and one had a pocketful of cucamelons (as you do). They were wonderful Cornus seed bitterness eradicators. I cannot recommend them highly enough. The cucamelon grower was also carrying achocha. Having never eaten this particular fruit before, I was keen to try it so I took some home for a Sunday breakfast achocha fry-up. It was rather good and made a complete change from the cake that had kicked-off my previous morning.
Cucamelon and achocha
I only eat breakfast cake when I’m travelling. Much of Saturday was spent on the road because with complete disregard for the adage that we should never meet our heroes, I set off on a seven-hour round trip to meet mine. 
Roy Lancaster at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Roy Lancaster, the raconteur with encyclopaedic botanical knowledge, is credited with having introduced some of our most popular garden plants. It would be very easy for him to sit around being the doyen scattering pearls of wisdom at his feet, he has, after all, earned this accolade. But while he is generous in sharing his expertise, his quest for knowledge continues at a staggering rate. As we toured the gardens at Cotswold Wildlife Park, he asked questions about plants that he might not have seen for some years (the gardens are home to some superbly grown rarities). No wonder he is so knowledgeable! He is in his eightieth year, an expert in his field, and still keen to find out more.
I learnt a lot about plants during our tour of the gardens, but the biggest eye-opener was that the most knowledgeable plantsman I am ever likely to meet is still asking questions and learning. We can never stop learning. My gardening hero remains atop his pedestal. I feel privileged and delighted to have met him. 

Do you have a gardening hero?

Cotswold Wildlife Park is very well worth a visit for the plants alone. Needless to say, the animals are wonderful too! 

Roy Lancaster's latest book is 'My Life With Plants'

Friday, 15 September 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - An Annual Event

Every year I grow a handful of annuals to plug the gaps in my garden, and in September they strut their stuff as if there is no tomorrow. Which, in the event of an early autumn, is tragically the case. Perhaps I should elevate annuals beyond gap-plugging, but I love using them to lift a dull corner of the garden or to add a new dimension to permanent schemes so that each border is slightly different every year.
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
Cosmos is a stalwart of the garden gap. This year I stuck to Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes' with its remarkable unbroken single petal. It might be beautiful but I should have known better than to attempt to grow a plant with baking connotations. Needless to say 'Cupcakes' turned out like many of my culinary efforts: disappointing. For every light fluffy sponge, there were at least three flops failing to develop that gorgeous cupcake shape. 
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
I accept that I am no Mary Berry, but for once I am unable to blame my culinary inadequacies. Perhaps other seeds infiltrated the batch, or 'Cupcakes' isn't as stable as we would hope. Either way, I have some very ordinary looking Cosmos among the cakes. It's like getting turnip surprise when you’re looking forward to double chocolate gooey pud with cream and custard. I might be disappointed, but the bees like the flops. Then again, more cupcakes might have made us all happy. 
Persicaria orientalis
A year ago today I posted about my hope that Persicaria orientalis would do the decent thing and seed itself around*. The good news is that it has! The even better news is that it relocates well. I have dug up a number of plants and placed them where I want them and they have all thrived, although they are shorter than their parents, unlike one particular Nicotiana affinis. It has reached dizzying heights by comparison to its bedfellows and would give Nicotiana sylvestris a run for its money. 
Nicotiana reaching for the sky
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch' has exceeded my expectations. This huge, glorious clump of shining orange blooms towers over the sunflowers that are hanging their heads in deference to its marvellousness. Who can blame them? Even the wind and rain won't stand in the way of tithonia's magnificent display.
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch'

Zinnia elegans 'State Fair' has been brightening up a dull corner for weeks. Next year I plan to sow more. I had intended to add these beauties to the cutting garden, but got sidetracked on the walk there by some Zinnia-sized gaps in the border. 
Zinnia 'State Fair'

Cosmos was destined for the cutting garden too and fell into a gap in the border en route. Seeds were more successful in getting to the cutting garden. Marigolds and cornflowers are mingling together and look particularly loved-up.
I have cut very few cornflowers because they are so popular with bees, yet all of these annuals have been used at some time in flower arrangements this summer. They have made such a difference in the garden and indoors. I really should sow a greater variety of them in future. Which annuals do you use for plugging border gaps and flower arranging?


I am linking this post with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted by Carol at
Why not pop over there and see what is blooming in gardens elsewhere in the world?

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Secret Gardens of East Anglia

Beautiful books with depth seem to me to be a rarity. Many of the visually arresting publications gracing my coffee table and shelves have little to say beyond the photos. Secret Gardens of East Anglia differs in that it might have been two books. One, a masterclass in photography by the hugely talented Marcus Harpur, who, sadly, died recently; the second, a fascinating insight into gardeners and their gardens by Barbara Segall. The two combine to create a visually delightful experience and an exceptional read. 
Parsonage House (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
The private tour of twenty-two gardens ranging from a dramatic, densely planted city plot to spacious stately homes is a joy. I have lived in East Anglia for almost half of my life. Some of the gardens in the book I know well, others are new to me. Proximity is irrelevant though, as this is a book for everyone who loves gardens, regardless of whether they will ever set foot in East Anglia.
Ulting Wick wildflower meadow (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
Yes, I want to visit the gardens - who wouldn’t after drooling over all those mouth-watering photographs? But the stories of the gardens and their gardeners, so engagingly told by Barbara, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and propelled me outside to reconsider my own plot. The stories and photographs in this book have inspired me to be a braver, more audacious gardener. To garden bigger and better and with greater passion than ever before.
Wyken Hall (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
I must confess that I know Barbara and I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher. That said, had I not been given a copy, it would have been at the top of my Christmas list. I have returned to Secret Gardens of East Anglia on several occasions since I read it for the first time. It is, without question, my favourite book of the year.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Why Blog?

After nigh on a month of gallivanting, I have returned home to discover that a rabbit has taken up residence in my garden. This is no ordinary rabbit. It has super-rabbit powers. How else could it have entered a garden fortified by rabbit fencing? The super-rabbit has given a whole new twist to the Chelsea Chop, the method of pruning championed by Christopher Lloyd whereby selected perennials are partially pruned in May to control size and flowering time. The super-rabbit's pruning technique, known as the Hampton Court Chomp, is applied only to much loved ornamentals and involves mowing them down to within an inch of their lives in July. It is clearly not suitable for weeds as they have been left completely unchomped and are romping away.
Geranium, Monarda and Sedum proving themselves to 
be rabbit-resistant (until the rabbit decides otherwise)
The cutting garden has been renamed the weed garden and the sweet peas have jettisoned their precisely placed supports in favour of rampaging through sow thistles. I suppose I should be grateful that the sweet peas haven’t gone to seed. I would cut some for the house if only I could machete my way through the thistles. Elsewhere, the Christmas hyacinths are putting on a most unseasonal show.
Small and preposterous hyacinth

 All of this mayhem will take time to put right, so why am I blogging instead of hurling myself into the fray? This is something I have been pondering because I have been asked to give a short talk to my local gardening club on the subject of inspiration and blogging. The two definitely go hand in hand. Reading blogs inspires me, so much so that I was inspired to join in the fun and write a blog; but it is the wonderfully supportive community of the blogosphere that I miss most when I take a break. Since my first tentative post I have been advised and supported all the way, and for that I am immensely grateful. Thank you!
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
A fellow blogger recently expressed her concern about being too busy to post. There are times in every year when life takes over. Work, home, family and everything else will not juggle themselves, and blogging is sometimes forced into the back seat. Like many avid readers, I miss blogs when they disappear for a while and I am delighted when they return. This is why you see blogs on my blogroll that haven’t been updated for months. They stay there because I want to read them and I hope that some day the bloggers will post again.
Lavandula x intermedia 'Sussex'
What are the benefits of blogging? For me, I think that blogging has encouraged me to be a more thoughtful gardener. Of course, you might argue that I should think less and weed more, which is a fair point, but if I look closely enough at the bulb catalogue I can’t see the weeds in the garden (yes, I am already compiling spring bulb orders). Meanwhile, the super-rabbit has been named Christo, and as we all know, once we name anything, saying goodbye becomes more difficult. Time to order some rabbit-resistant bulbs.