20 Feb 2024

My Frankenstein garden

A picture of my violets just because they are so beautiful 

What is going on in my veg garden?  My laziness in the garden last year is producing some unexpected results in that some of the non-perennial plants have decided to regenerate and come back to life with renewed vigour. Hey, I’m not complaining! 

I gave up on the garlic cloves planted last year; they just didn’t grow much.  Too shady, too wet, too warm? I don’t know.  Inexplicably, those same cloves started to grow again last month and currently stand at 10 inches of leafy growth. They seem to be behaving like shallots with several stems from each clove. Definitely one to watch.

Also last summer I left one of my purple sprouting broccoli plants to set seed as it had been a very good plant. I’m never hasty in removing the big plants anyway as the frothy yellow flowers are a magnet for bees and I think they look lovely. 

In due course, having collected seed and cut back the stems, I noticed that the plant was still producing tiny shoots so I let it be. (Out of curiosity and because I had nothing to go into that space.)  

That broccoli is now acting like a perennial; there are two tennis ball sized heads almost ready for harvest! Surely that’s not usual? In 15 years of veg growing here, I’ve never known a broccoli to behave this way - even continuing to sprout while it sets seed - but perhaps I’ve been too quick to clear the beds. 


Elsewhere, the Jerusalem artichoke ‘fence’ is slowly being dismantled. As expected it produced both cheerful yellow flowers on tall stems and an abundant harvest of delicious tubers. Win:win. 

I could leave it to regenerate but, when you get 20 to 50 tubers for each one planted, it’s quite the challenge getting through the 10 metres I grew last summer … even when I distribute the bounty among friends! So this year I’m opting for sense over sensibility and planting up just one smallish square of tubers - as well as some real sunflowers. 

And lastly, one plant that I hope will continue in its new life is the Red Champagne rhubarb which I relocated. Yes, probably the wrong time of year to do that but in the ten years since I planted it near the fruit trees, the annual harvest has amounted to a couple of spindly stems. So here’s hoping that nature gives a lot of love to this little plant. 

1 Feb 2024

As the seasons turn

Crows sitting in bare branched tree against blue sky

Path around a pond filled with reeds

Sunrise over pond

Pink Hellebore flower

At last there’s a tangible feeling that winter may be moving on.  That’s easier to imagine on a day like today when the sun is shining, the wind has dropped, skies are blue, snowdrops and hellebores are flowering and daffodils are pushing their way up through the soil - the perfect crisp winter’s day that inspired me to an early morning run on Hampstead Heath.

Last year, I didn’t prioritise the veg garden and consequently played catch up with seeds all year; I’m ashamed to admit that my best harvests were apples and lettuce!  Even the birds left me with only one small basket of cherries.  This year I’m determined to do better and be more productive. I’m tempted to walk my fingers through the seed box but I know most seeds will be happier if started off next month .. I’ve already made a monthly list of what to sow when.

Although ... let's see now .... it is possible for me to make a tiny start; I have radishes and spinach that can both be sown outdoors now. I’ll sow them in my raised Veg Trugs in a sunny corner and cover them with horticultural fleece. I’m optimistic for good germination as my urban gardening spaces benefit from slightly warmer temperatures thanks to nearby heated buildings so (keeping fingers firmly crossed for luck) it’s unusual to get a severe frost here. (The water butts have frozen only twice this winter.)  Plus, daytime temperatures here in North London are hovering around or above the 10℃ mark.

Green broad bean (fava) plant

I’ve also got small broad bean plants to go out, sown in modules on the last day of November and grown outside in the shelter of my south-west facing balcony.  Never overlook any outdoor space - my tiny balcony is currently also hosting sweet peas on their third set of true leaves, Cavolo Nero kale in pots, parsley and a trough of winter salad leaves ... all grown outside throughout the winter.

By the end of February I’ll be popping tomato, chilli and cucumber seedlings out there - under a plastic cover, of course! The jury is still out on whether I can be bothered to grow aubergines; if I have enough space, they’ll be out there too … or maybe I’ll have to requisition my friend’s nearby greenhouse?

In the garden itself there’s still time to move plants, tidy and replant strawberries, prune apple and pear trees and mulch the soil.  And if I get the time, I'll be pruning roses.

Although I planned to take a small step back from gardening throughout the winter months, there will always be plenty to do.  Which reminds me ... I've gotta get those leaf-filled sacks stashed away in an unobtrusive corner and empty my Hotbin composter! Onwards!

Rhubarb stalk emerging from soil

18 Aug 2023

Garden Watch: Mid August in the gardens

What's happening in the garden this month ? Weeds, weeds, weeds!  That's what. And spiders ... so many spiders. And because it feels like the wrong time of year for spiders to be stretching across every plant in the garden, I'm crashing through them on a daily basis.  How is it with everyone else?

Not surprisingly everything in my garden is responding to warm wet weather - not just the weeds. Everything tells me autumn is just around the corner but when did summer slide out of the picture? (Admittedly we are having a week of heat atm.) But I'm not ready to think about autumn until the equinox (23rd September) and already the days are getting shorter; fading light has me back indoors before 9pm.  

Has this cloud got a silver lining?  Yes. 

Core Blimey apples 

These are ready to be plucked from the tree (the Braeburns usually mature later) and blackberries are ripening by the bucketload.  There are wild blackberries throughout the gardens here thanks to untamed brambles and, in my kitchen, windfall apples are being peeled, chopped, stewed and eaten or frozen. I love how nature helpfully gives us these lovely ingredients at the same time.

I still have several jars of last year's apple and blackberry jam in the store cupboard so of course, my thoughts turned to pie - and who doesn't love pie! Apples, blackberries and a few elderberries (yes, those are ready for picking as well) went into a pie topped with sweet shortcrust pastry to which I added lemon zest and crushed pecan nuts.  Dare I say that the pastry is almost (but not quite) better than the filling? 


This week the Hotbin composter reached 140F! Now that was a very thrilling moment I can tell you - such is the stuff that a gardener’s dreams are made of.

My previous attempt at making quick compost was a failure. I'd been told by the Hotbin people that as I'd left it unattended for too long, the contents were likely to be anaerobic (without oxygen) and so the process had died. Learning curve: I thought the bin had to be topped up and fully composted before I could start to empty it. (I was wrong.)

So, a few weeks ago I finally emptied, cleaned and half-refilled my Hotbin composter - this time with grass clippings, chopped up comfrey leaves and lots of torn up cardboard to get it up to speed quickly. I'd read that the bin would need to be half filled before adding any kitchen waste (food, plate scrapings, etc) - that way the heat needed to effectively compost food waste had already been generated. Then, within 60 days, fresh compost should be ready to be taken out from the bottom hatch; so far, so good.

Calendula skin cream.  

I caught the @LovelyGreens reel on Insta which reminded me of Tanya's recipe for diy skin cream using garden plants.  I have loads of unintentional calendula in the veg patch so I like the idea of putting it to good use.  I need a soothing cream for my hands and arms which are getting very bashed and bloodied with all the chopping and pruning I'm doing!

Topping up the gaps. 

Ever hopeful, even after a disappointing growing season, I've been reading the back of my seed packets and am surprised at how many seeds can be sown in September and October. Always worth giving a late sowing a go so I've been making the most of late summer warmth ...

  • I've filled a few pots and planters on the balcony with fresh soil and sown seeds for salad leaves, herbs, radishes, micro leaves and pea shoots. 
  • Gaps in the Veg Trug garden have been sown with parsley, chervil, baby turnips and radishes. 
  • Beetroot sown in modules several weeks ago have all now been planted out - and I've only lost one to fox cub digging so far. (Yes, way late but let’s see what happens.)
  • Romanesco and ordinary cauliflowers grown to a good size on the balcony have been planted out and have (so far) resisted slug and caterpillar damage..  
  • Dark Cavalo Nero Kale will be next - I know it's all rather late in the year for this but if it works then the plants should grow away strongly as winter loosens its grip.
Ever optimistic, I'm now hoping for one of those glorious 'Indian summer' finishes to the year - I still have lots of tomatoes slowly ripening!

16 Aug 2023

Back in the kitchen with foraged Elderberries


Can it be that time of year again already? I'm just finishing off my summer batch of elderflower cordial and yesterday, as I walked home, I saw that my favourite spot for collecting the elder tree's bounty was positively dripping with ripe elder berries.  

I'm sure a lot of people would either not notice this beautiful spectacle or might think "lovely" and pass on by.  But not me.  I paused to 'see something of the beauty of nature' (to quote John Mortimer) then dashed home to fetch a bucket and secateurs.  

Of course I left plenty for birds and other wildlife and, believe me, they'll have those berries stripped to the stalk in days. 

So my berries are now washed clean of bugs and dirt and frozen ready for pies, jam and syrup.  Why freeze? The berries don't last long in the fridge so freezing is an excellent way of preserving them until needed.  Also, the berries pop off the stalks more easily when frozen, which is a better option than squishing them and getting purple fingers (and clothes!).  

I simply laid them out flat on several baking sheets and popped them in the freezer overnight. De-stemmed them in the morning then bagged them up, and returned the berries to the freezer. It can be a time consuming (or shall we say, meditative) process so quite a few went into the freezer still on the stem. That's okay as I'll discard the stems when I have more time.

It's worth noting that while the flowers are edible, the raw berries are toxic, as is the rest of the plant.  But the good news is that cooking the berries destroys the toxins making them a useful addition to all sorts of recipes.  

Me, I'm starting with Elderberry Syrup.  I've found a recipe on The Spruce Eats, an American site, which sounds rather like the warming winter tincture I usually buy to boost my immune system during the colder months.  In that recipe the berries are cooked, mashed, strained and then lightly spiced with honey, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and lemon. Sounds delicious.  (Find that recipe here if interested.)

9 Aug 2023

Perfecting the art of growing big gooseberries in a small space

This past week the last of the gooseberries have been picked (a bit later than usual, the weather has been so unhelpful this year) and now it's time to reshape the plants with a summer pruning.  

This was supposed to be done in early July but I'm banking on everything being a bit late this year.  And, flushed with the success of squeezing two more gooseberry plants into my overstuffed garden, I want to make sure they're trained properly.

In my gardens I have four red gooseberry bushes - one bush, two fans and one in a pot that's been ambushed by sawfly again this year. 

Gooseberries were never my favourite fruit; at school I couldn't stand the stewed (green) gooseberries served up under soggy pastry as pudding. Not any more though - these days I happily eat beautiful ripe Hinnonmaki Red gooseberries straight from the bush ... the jury is still out on the green ones though!

Having seen gooseberry bushes pruned into an open bowl shape during my garden design studies, I followed suit for my first gooseberry bush.  It enjoyed its spot in my veg patch but, confession time, I didn't prune regularly so it grew large and tangled albeit with abundant berries. So now I'll prune this week to start reshaping it and again at the usual time  in winter while it's dormant.  

I acquired a second tiny plant, and then a third and, finally, a fourth.  Where to put them all?  They languished happily in 5 litre pots for a good while. As ever, my impulse to buy plants had got the better of me.  

A good idea

And then I rescued lengths of slim bendy plastic pipe from a builder's skip. These were destined to be arches to support the fleece over my veg but it occurred to me that I could use them to train my gooseberry bushes into freestanding fans. (Fans are usually grown against a wall or fence.) The plants were moved from their pots and they're now in the car park garden, growing in semi-shade, regularly watered and fruiting prolifically thanks to the beautiful soil there.  The fruit is more visible, the thorns less threatening (more easily seen and thus avoided!). 

But in doing so, I had to learn to prune correctly... with sturdy leather gloves on!

Pruning ... aka shaping the beasts!

Gooseberries fruit on old wood; to grow in a fan shape any stems growing out, rather than up, should be pruned back to the framework - which in this case are the five tall stems tied in to the arch.  Gooseberries growing in an open bowl shape should have inward growing branches and any branches trailing on the ground removed, all being taken back to an outward growing bud and the main stem at ground level left clear of any growth - cut off stems below 10-15 cm.  (Imagine a goblet shape glass on a very short stem.)

Gooseberry bushes have vicious spiky thorns so keeping the centre open, or space between the fanned out branches, helps with easier access to the fruit in summer. And good airflow helps to prevent mildew.  

How I planted my fan gooseberries 

Having planted the 'bushes' and pushed the hoops deeply into the soil 2 feet (60cm) apart, I tied the long upright stems in a fan shape and pruned the rest back to two buds. This would have been quite traumatic for the plant so, after pruning, they were watered and mulched around (not up to) the base. 

How to get bigger berries

In early summer when the fruits have appeared it's time to direct the plant's energy into quality rather than quantity.  So, as with thinning out top fruit (apples, etc) to get bigger fruit, the same is true of gooseberries. Reduce the number of berries as they start to ripen so that the plant concentrates on developing those that remain.  The underripe berries needn't be wasted as, although still hard and quite tart, they can be used for savoury sauces, mixed berry jams (usefully high in pectin!) and chutneys. It's not essential to do this but if you want bigger gooseberries, take two pickings a month or so apart. 

Here's some I grew earlier ... 

And what of Hinnonmaki #4?  

The fate of this plant is undecided. Growing in a large pot, its leaves have been eaten two summers running by sawfly and now a Cape Gooseberry aka Inca Berry, Ground Cherry or Physalis peruviana is taking over the pot. I have no idea where this interloper came from but I like it! 

And, by the way, despite the similarity of nomenclature, Cape Gooseberries are related to tomatoes, peppers and potatoes (the Solanaceae family) and not ordinary gooseberries which fall into the Ribes (ie currant) family.  So now you know.

31 Jul 2023

Carry On sowing! Crops for autumn, winter and beyond to sow NOW

It's been a pretty disastrous year for veg growing in my patch and this morning, late July, it feels positively autumnal. (Not in a good way.) But I've been through my seed packets and found potential for quite a lot of late summer sowings. By taking advantage of the (relatively) warm and wet weather currently in play here in London, I'll have quick growing crops in the next few months, plus winter leaves and spring harvests.

Just a small selection of what can be grown this autumn!

I don't usually give much thought to late summer sowing at this time of year (there's usually plenty more to be getting on with, like picking, freezing, pickling) and I also have balcony sown crops waiting to go out (kale, beetroot, spring onions) ... but this year there's precious little to harvest.  However, accentuating the positive, I'm excited to realise exactly how much growing is still possible. 

Erring slightly on the optimistic side, I've sorted food seeds into chronological piles: Last Chance for sowing, Sow By end of August, Sow By the end of September and Balcony Baby Leaves.  This way, I can pace myself and sow when I have/make time. And, of course, there's also seeds to sow in the next few weeks for flowers.  

Last Chance ...

Dwarf Beans.  As my broad beans produced only a few usable pods and my french and runner beans were annihilated by a dastardly extreme heat:no water combo, I'm going to take a gamble on sowing some Dwarf Beans. The best results are from sowing between May and early July but as they're fast maturing, I may just get a harvest by the end of October.  I'm sowing Elba from Mr Fothergill seeds for round stringless pods and 'Atlanta' from Johnsons seeds for flat pods that promise to have a crisp texture and excellent snap. Yum!

I've also added peas to this category as I remember sowing Kelvedon Wonder peas late one year and having many pods to pick before winter.  This time I'm trying 'Champion of England' from D T Brown seeds.  

And I mustn't forget carrots.  I was harvesting a summer sowing in December last year so it's well worth sowing these, particularly Amsterdam Sprint (Mr Fothergill seeds) for sweet baby carrots. These should be ready in under 3 months, so I may do a couple of successional sowings.

Balcony Baby Leaves ...

aka Cut and Come Again.  Always useful to have an instant salad bar to hand but it doesn't matter if this doesn't go to plan, it's a good way to use up seeds which may or may not still be viable ... and seeds that should have been sown much earlier.  So for baby salad leaves, into my window box planters will go peas (for pea shoots), spinach, red kale, Cavolo Nero kale, mustard leaf, little gem lettuce and fancy salad leaves.  I could also throw in a few herb seeds like chervil and coriander.

Sow By End of  August ...

It looks like I'll be busy during the next few weeks (the sooner sown the better).  Pink stemmed chard, winter spinach, spring onions, radish, saltbush (Sea Orach), lettuce, lamb's lettuce (corn salad) and Kohl Rabi are all on my list.  Another early veg patch success was a bed full of parsley, vigorously sown by the children here, which flourished after a downpour of warm rain shortly after sowing.  So parsley (curly and flat leaved) is going in, as is Coriander (crops in 6 weeks, allegedly).

Sow by the End of September ...

According to packet instructions, it's okay to sow seeds for kales, pepper cress, onions and breadseed poppies from now to the end of September. These won't be ready this year but I can look forward to earlier crops next year.  And if there's any space left, I'll pop in some rocket, radishes and turnips for an early winter crop this year.  

Flowers ...

It's well known that intercropping flowers with veg not only makes the veg patch pretty but has the added benefit of keeping pollinators happy.  Flowers that drop their seeds in late summer can be sown now - foxgloves, nigella, poppies, calendula, cerinthe and poached egg plant (Limnanthes).  The nigella I'm sowing is called Black Caraway (Mr Fothergill seeds) - the seeds can be used in cooking and I save the seed pods for decoration.  

After the challenges of this year, I admit I have entertained thoughts of planting perennial flowers and having done with it. But could I bring myself to do that? Probably not.  My secret passion, like most veg growers, is munching my way around the garden, nibbling at gooseberries, peas, radishes, et al. And the satisfaction in bringing freshly harvested fruit and veg - yes, even courgettes - back to the kitchen is addictive. And so, of course, the work continues.  

18 Jul 2023

Prunella - weed or wonder?

Once again, Prunella vulgaris, aka Self Heal, has returned to the veg patch with renewed vigour. It's a perennial, an enthusiastic self-seeder, low growing, edible, medicinal and a food source for bees. Sounds good, yes?

Prunella herb selfheal, purple flowering in meadow
Photo via Google Creative Commons licence from Wallpaper Flare

I sowed seeds for this about ten years ago because of its appeal to bees and other pollinators and since then it has sporadically re-appeared over the years to fill cracks in the brick paths.  

Initially I was drawn to the look of the flowers and their appeal to pollinators. Its flower stems should reach a height of at least six inches but, in the drought conditions of my veg patch, flowers remained tucked among the leaves and it looked more like a weed between the paths.  A few were left to make the paths look inhabited but most were dug out of the borders.

More recently I have had to reevaluate my opinion of this plant as I've discovered what a useful herb this is - both medicinal and edible.  Like so many herbs, they're not just tasty but have hidden benefits (see my post on Immuni-tea!).  I've not yet tasted Prunella but will remember to try a few of its leaves in my salad in future ...  although bearing in mind that the leaves are best picked in spring or early summer. (So late July is possibly a bit late in the season for first tastes.) 

Prunella has a common name of Selfheal or Heal All.  It's antibacterial, antiviral, edible and a useful summer herb for bites and stings when made into a decoction, ie, steeped in boiling water. I've been nibbled several times in this hot weather so that's definitely good to know! 

Another of Prunella's folk names is Carpenter's Herb, so called for its effectiveness in healing cuts; this makes it a good herb for me in my gardening work as I'm regularly nicked by rose thorns and pyracantha!  

If you like the sound of this useful herb, more can be learned about it here and seeds bought from Jekka's Herbs. I, for one, will definitely be resowing more Prunella next spring or looking to propagate a few plants by division.

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