10 Mar 2024

And sow it begins - an early March update

Tulips have started to flower already!

Today I've been wondering why spring is called spring. Yes, I know, my brain frequently flies off at a tangent. The answer should be obvious but I love a bit of etymology.   In Old English 'spring' meant a welling up of water, a wellspring ... rather than a falling down of water from the sky as is the case today! The word also meant to arise, gush or burst forth which is certainly the case with my garden this year.  

It's a fabulous season, from the daffodils and violets blooming to the whole garden visibly coming back to life.  But it's the magic held in a few packets of seeds that holds the power to excite.  I love every stage of the process from sowing the seeds, the thrill of seeing them germinate and then nurturing my plant babies into maturity. (And then, of course, eating some of them. Although I often find the plants so beautiful that I can hardly bear to denude the garden of their loveliness.)

So, on that basis, February was pretty exciting despite torrents of rain; the winter was relatively mild here in the UK south so February saw the first seeds being sown here in Veg Patch Villas. 

I poopoo-ed the advice of the 'experts' telling me not to sow until mid March.  I worked on the assumption that if it all failed, I would have time to start again. So ... into little Jiffy coir pellets on Valentine's Day went seeds of tomato, chilli, aubergine, and lunchbox cucumbers.  Cosmos and courgettes were sown in the last days of February and Tagetes (marigolds), leeks and physalis (Cape Gooseberry) were started in module trays in the first week of March.  

Outside, at the beginning of February, I filled the gaps between overwintered parsley and chervil in the Veg Trugs with spinach and radish - both of which are coming along nicely. The soil in the Veg Trugs is fairly free draining so the seeds probably enjoyed the regular downpours and sheltered location.  I've not grown spinach in early spring before (who knew it was so hardy!) but it's worth doing as it will bolt more readily in hot weather. Another lesson learned. 

Vegetables growing in a soil border

Broad beans that I sowed into pots at the beginning of December and germinated on my balcony were planted out at the end of February - all sturdy little plants that have survived a few deluges in the past week. Regular checks show no slug damage ... so far so good.

Pea and Sweet Pea seedlings enjoying a spot of high-rise sunshine.

Lastly, as I reckon peas are fairly hardy and I had a spare set of root trainers, I sowed 32 tall pea seeds (Champion of England from DT Brown) on the 23rd Feb - they're now a couple of inches tall (fast growers!) and have escaped any hungry mice that would have devoured the seeds if sown direct into the soil.

I'll plant those peas out next week and sow another patch of peas (Kelvedon Wonder, a short pea) towards the end of the month, together with another round of broad bean seeds. This time, the Crimson flowered variety; I sowed white and crimson flowered beans next to each other a few years ago and had some very beautiful variations in the flowers as the bees cross pollinated the plants! That, in my view, is what keeps things interesting. 

The next job will be potting on my tomatoes.  Those little three week old seedlings already have their first set of true leaves so I want to bury the stems a bit and give them more root room.  It will be a while before they're ready to go out into the shelter of my balcony so burying the stems will strengthen the plants and reduce any etiolation.

And then I'll have to find space for germinating the next round of seeds indoors; I'll be adding kales, beetroot and broccoli to my seed starting station (aka my breakfast table).  But, you never know, by mid March the soil may well be warm enough to sow direct outdoors. 

Green leaves of wild garlic growing in spring

Down in the veg patch, milder temperatures are having a noticeable effect. Wild garlic is ready to be harvested, as is chard and broccoli - and, no, I haven't finished digging up the Jerusalem Artichokes. I've taken a couple of half bucketfuls to a friend who adores the tubers, makes a fine soup from them (must get that recipe!) and isn't troubled by the gurgling gastronomic consequences of eating them. 

What I have done though is cleared a lot of the self seeded violets, feverfew, and forget-me-nots to create space for more food growing. Plants to encourage pollinators will now have to be interspersed with veg as companion plants which is definitely a good thing and in true cottage garden style. 

One useful and timely tip for a companion plant is that garlic has a beneficial relationship with strawberries. Thank you Ben from Grow Veg YouTube channel - he mentioned this tip in his Strawberry Masterclass video.  I've been sorting out my strawberry bed as I didn't give it enough attention last year; this year I've cut off old leaves, transplanted the plants from last years runners, given it all a sprinkling of blood, fish and bone to boost the soil and will now plant my module grown garlic in between the strawberry plants.  And then, as usual, I'll surround the plants with a layer of Strulch - the straw mulch that gradually composts down to benefit the soil and that will also protect my strawberries from slugs and snails in the summer.  

So, as ever … onwards! 

Happy gardening  πŸ‘©‍🌾 

7 Mar 2024

Travels with my Clematis

A couple of weeks back I braved the evening rush hour commute on London’s Underground with a rather beautiful and very tall purple clematis bobbing about under my arm. I let four crowded trains go by before I could get on board and even then struggled to gain enough space for me and my precious plant. It was worth the effort though - that gorgeous plant was gifted from The Guernsey Clematis Nursery via the Garden Press Event where I had spent many happy and worthwhile hours during the day.  

🌿🌿 🌿 🌿 🌿
The Garden Press Event is an annual gathering where the garden media (bloggers, journos, podcasters and other interested parties) get to explore new products, chat with the companies that created them and listen to talks by industry notables. Those talks included (among others) Huw Richards and Niall McCauley (both popular gardening YouTubers) talking about small space self sufficiency (Huw) and how to start a YouTube channel (Niall). 

The event is for one day only so choices have to be made between exhibitors and talks; as a result, I missed hearing Anne Marie Powell (renowned garden designer and all round lovely person) talking about the garden she’s designed to celebrate Octavia Hill, the founder of the National Trust. That garden can be seen at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this summer.  And if you want to recreate your own little piece of Sissinghurst or other National Trust gardens, Blue Diamond garden centres have teamed up with the NT to produce a range of seeds to inspire your dreams.

... if only I had enough space for a white garden! 

And, of course, it’s important to make time during the day to catch up with friends old and new! 

So, all in all it was a very busy day. There’s always seeds, soil (peat free, of course) and pest control companies offering something new each year as well as an abundance of inspiration, education, garden equipment and generally useful stuff. 

With my gardener’s brain fired up, and over 100 exhibitors there, these were a few of the products that piqued my interest ...

Primeur rubber products (bottom left of photo). Made from recycled tyres, I could see the potential for using their stepping stones, patio tiles and curveable edging in a variety of situations … keeping gravel away from borders, enclosing a grassed area, marking out paths and seating areas. In fact many of those products would be very useful in both my gated garden and the veg patch.

At another stand I gazed longingly at the ever desirable tools from Niwaki. I already have one of their Hori Hori knives, and a pair of their garden snips, but am now lusting after the mini shears and a larger pruning saw. Heaven forbid if I was to go to the Niwaki shop, I’d probably empty my bank balance! 

Throughout the show there was a noticeable emphasis on gardening in a changing climate, ecological awareness, peat free, sustainability and wildlife. 

At the entrance I noticed new product clogs made with sea algae by French company Rochette. (Middle right of above collage.) Sadly not available until later in the year, I love that someone is finding a useful way to clean up the oceans. New gloves from Town and Country are also made from recycled ocean plastics - and very comfy they were too. My next glove purchase for sure. 

Plastic free Bio Fleece made from plants also addressed the perennial problem of too much plastic in the industry. Good to know that this fleece degrades in a couple of years so gardeners don’t have to worry about yards of torn mucky plastic fleece ending up in landfill. (Something we should all be thinking about!)

Along those same lines, Hortiwool, a Staffordshire based family run company, were promoting their wool products - large naturally degradable pads for insulation, nutrition (naturally degrades to feed the soil) and hydration (keeps basket plants moist when used as a liner) ... oh yes, the pads also (allegedly) deter slugs. I might give these a try when the beans and brassicas are planted.

There were funky children’s gardening sets from Burton and Ball, gift sets for rose lovers from David Austen, Coco + Coir compost that also allegedly deters slugs and snails (one to watch!), box moth pheromone traps and seed collections galore to inspire visions of bountiful harvests!  Mr Fothergill seeds are also launching a new coir based compressed seed compost later in the year - click on the collage pic to read more. 

But as a veg grower, one of the most alluring stands for me had to be that of new heritage seed company She Grows Veg. Lucy Hutchins is well known on social media (@shegrowsveg) for the beautiful, healthy and sometimes quirky food she grows and now that expertise has been channelled into her new seed company. Lucy’s beautifully presented range offers seeds of unusual varieties of vegetables - rose chicory, pink celery, ‘Molten Fire’ amaranth and Toona sinensis, aka the Beef and Onion tree, to name just a few.
(Find these seeds at www.shegrowsveg.com)

Despite already buying all the seeds I need for the season ahead, I think I might have to create a whole new list! Tempting for all growers but Lucy has found that her seeds are appealing to a style conscious youthful market. It’s a beautiful range and Lucy’s enthusiasm and background is evident in both her website and her instructional videos. I genuinely wish her every success. 

So that was me at The Garden Press Event; a wonderful day to mingle with my ‘tribe’ … but now it’s back to the real world and putting all those garden thoughts and ideas into action!  

Cork covered notebook with National Trust inspired seed packets

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.

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