18 Dec 2013

The wishing tree (almost Wordless Wednesday)

Having started to float along on the festive tide with my christmas garden post at the weekend, I took two toddlers to the zoo in Regent's Park yesterday to see the reindeer, as you do.  Their day was made up when one of the reindeers obligingly turned his back and did a poo right near to where we were watching.  Joy and laughter are very poo related in the life of a two year old.

Christmas outside

My day, on the other hand, was complete when I detoured to see the hippopotamus and came across a giant decorated cedar tree. Its lower branches were covered with wishes and hopes, written on luggage labels and other tags, tied to the tree.  It was a glorious sight and made for some lovely reading.  If only they'd thought to use waterproof pens! The synchronicity of seeing this when I'd just written about creating a wishing tree was very thrilling, not to mention inspirational.

16 Dec 2013

A Christmas Garden: perking up your plot and a competition

Rowan berries and ivy
Pink Sorbus berries where they'd fallen onto ivy - I'll use these plus more in a wreath.

Is it really only 10 days until Christmas? The veg patch garden is still being treated to resolutely mild weather so I'm able to potter around getting ready for next year but I can't ignore the festive lights in trees along local avenues or the buzz of people preparing for christmas.

Those lovely people over at Plant Me Now have provided the kickstart to think about extending seasonal decorations into the garden with their Christmas competition on Facebook. I'm giving the heads up on this one as the prize is £100 to spend in their online shop and let's face it, who wouldn't want to win that!  Their plug plants were well reviewed by Helen over at Patient Gardener this year and I'm always happier with a personal recommendation. Personally, I've fallen in love with a gorgeous dusky rose coloured delphinium that I'm coveting for my flower patch next year, middle bottom of this link.  (Oh, be still my beating heart!) You've only got one week to enter as the deadline is next Sunday, 22nd, (take a photo of your decorated garden, 'like' their FB page, upload your photo); it's worth a shot as, so far, there's only a few entries.

Although bright sparkly lights are good for jollying things up on a commercial level, I prefer something altogether more subtle in my own home - and that also extends to the garden. I love the simplicity of cinnamon sticks and dried orange peel tied onto a swag with a bit of ribbon. For  me, colours should harmonise with nature: think wood, robins, nuts and cones, stones, grey skies, white snow and icicles. Wonderful. Nature offers plenty of inspiration if you look around and that's what I went in search of.

Here's a robin I saw earlier.  I love that this photo has the feel of a Rob Ryan print (in my humble opinion!)

On Saturday I went for a little wander, bag over shoulder, secateurs in hand (just in case!). In the York Rise gardens I found rose hips, cornus stems, juniper branches, rosemary stems and ivy leaves. Walking in the Capel gardens, I'd already foraged fallen crab apples and - to my extreme delight - the fallen pink berries from the Sorbus hupehensis tree (Rowan). The purple berries from Callicarpa would also have been wonderful, as would the fluffy tips from a Miscanthus grass but I'm loathe to take something that nature isn't quite ready to part with.

Crab apple decorations
Fallen crab apples tied with florist's wire and hung on a christmas tree.

Walking through the woods, I spied a sheath of branch tips lying on the ground; they look like silver birch and I presume a child had gathered them up while walking and then been told to leave them behind. As I picked them up and rolled them into a circle to fit my bag, it occurred to me that they're so fine and pliable, they would be perfect as a base for a door or tree wreath. Bizarrely, I couldn't find any pine cones, despite large numbers of pine trees up at Capel but I did find plenty of acorns and their cups which were added to my goody bag (inspired by the acorn babies in the collage below).

So now I'll be crafting in the evenings in the week ahead, making decorations from my nature finds that will find their way into the garden. If you've thought, however briefly, about jollying up your garden for the forthcoming holidays, here's a few things to inspire or be aware of:

• Real christmas trees. I absolutely hate to see all those sad, brown, rootless trees dumped after christmas. If you must have a real tree, please buy one with roots, plant it properly in a deep pot of soil with good drainage, by all means decorate it but put it outside where you can see it. Your tree will thank you for  it and you'll be happy as you won't have to clear up thousands of pine needles. Leave it in the pot, well watered throughout the year, and you won't find yourself with a 40ft tree outside your back door in ten years time but will be ready when christmas comes round again.

• Let your garden have a holiday. Don't go mad sweeping up leaves and tidying the garden. If you've done a bit of pruning or have logs for the woodpile, great. Leave them in a heap for hibernating hedgehogs, if you're lucky enough to have them. Ladybirds and other beneficial insects like bees need somewhere sheltered and safe to over-winter and will still be in your garden in spring if they find a welcome there in winter and nectar when they wake up. Birds too need food and water. I like the look of these apple decorations but would hang them outside for the birds rather than indoors.  And put out home-made fat balls, recipe from Fiona at The Cottage Smallholder.

Image from my Pinterest page.
• Embrace the great outdoors. Wrap up and get outside to breathe fresh air! Look around and see the potential in found objects. Take a leaf out of my book (not literally, I need them for my collages!) and take a bag with you to collect interesting finds. (I have to warn you, this becomes a very addictive hobby!)

Acorn babies!  Decorated rakes! Loving Pinterest at the mo … 

• Take time out from festive fussing. Make decorations and cards from your found objects. Relaxing, therapeutic, calming - and, for kids, you could even work in a bit of anti-consumerism through baking and craft. (You see what an optimist I am?)

Images from my Pinterest 'Christmas Garden' page but … loving those candles tucked into hagstones! 

• Connect. Next Saturday is the Winter Solstice. (Interesting Yule facts and the story of mistletoe through the Solstice link.)  It's a day that I always observe with quiet contemplation as the world starts to turn towards spring and renewed life. The days will start, imperceptably, to get longer; we may not notice but the plants will.  It's a day to connect with nature, neighbours and family - perhaps over tea and cake.

• Dream.  Look over the bare bones of your garden and plan for next year.  I love this time of year for looking through catalogues, reading gardening books and visiting public gardens - the structure of the garden without its summer dressing is revealed and there's a lot to be learned from that.

• Decorate your garden!  Bare branches of trees are perfect for adding ribbons, nut or fruit garlands, stars cut from recycled milk containers or, if you have time, laminate little messages of hopes, wishes  and thanks for the year ahead and the year behind us and hang them up with pretty ribbons.

I hope that this post will inspire people; if I have time, I'll post about the crafts I make … and don't forget the competition!

There are fairies in the garden!
Seen at Capel: Mushrooms and fairies in the garden!

14 Dec 2013

Capel Moments .. A winter's day

Dew-berries Capel
Surreal: so still that the droplets of thawed frost just hung there - not one of these fell!

The icy fingers of Jack Frost have not yet touched the veg patch garden so I was super excited on my drive up to Enfield yesterday to see frosted allotments at the side of the road as I knew this meant it would be proper frosty in the gardens at college, at least at the start of the day.  Crystallised plants have a novel beauty at the beginning of the winter and I wasn't disappointed.

Frosted rose.

Proper frosty. Frozen grasses.

By lunchtime, a light mist and perfect stillness hung over the grounds; so peaceful in the walled garden, it was hard to believe that the traffic of the M25 was zooming around the north perimeter of the college.  A pale winter's sun added to the ambience and made it a perfect day for a lunchtime walk. (That's when the berries were photographed.)  I thought that would be the end of my photo opportunities but by 4 pm, the end of the college day, one last treat lay in store - a low lying mist hovered a few feet off the ground at sunset. I just managed to grab a few shots with my iphone before dark settled. (And wished, not for the first time that day, that I'd thought to bring my proper camera with me!)

Field of mist

Back in the veg patch this morning, it's quite mild but nonetheless I've popped a cloche over a couple of the more tender herbs. I say 'cloche' - actually, it's an upturned clear plastic storage box which did the job perfectly through the last year's winter and ensured the vigorous survival of the French Tarragon, a herb widely known for keeling over in the bitter cold. Herbs that need protecting in my garden are lovage, blackcurrant sage (still with beautiful bright pink flowers!) and french tarragon.  All the others are tough as old boots and come back year on year without my help: fennel, mint, oregano, horseradish. Flat and curly leaved parsley, lemon thyme and sage are still going strong and being regularly used by me and my neighbours which encourages the plants to keep producing and stay healthy.

And the work goes on: I love being outdoors, particularly this week as I have a heavy cold and feel so much better for being outside! I'm gradually getting more raised beds built and filling them with spring plants and strawberries for now - white violas, polyanthus, saffron crocus and dianthus - all edible flowers that will have lettuce sown into the gaps in late spring.  And the next big push will be to decorate the garden a little bit to mark Christmas and the year end.  More next post.

Going home through evening mist.

22 Nov 2013

Capel Moments: Going, Going ....

We've had some really blustery and cold days this week, yesterday being one of them. I did wonder whether it was just too windy to be able to get any good photos at college this week and, frankly, with the skies being overcast, a Capel Moment was not looking promising.  I was happy to be indoors in the morning,  drawing up garden planting plans in the studio, as it was more than a bit chilly outside. When I looked out of the window at lunchtime, though,  the skies had cleared and fresh air beckoned.

I headed round to the walled garden by the manor house with an ulterior motive of collecting fallen 'quince' fruit from a Chaenomeles shrub but it's also useful to see what's still coping with the weather at this time of year.

There are, of course, masses of shrubs covered in plentiful berries but the veg beds have been cleared ready for spring with only a few leaves and some rhubarb under forcers in evidence.  The roses are still blooming (just) and I was very taken with this pink beauty, especially with all the abundant hips on the same bush.  I'm seeing rose petal and rosehip jelly when I look at this! (But will, of course, leave it for the birds.)

I wandered over to the north wall and saw Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) with their bright orange skins turning to lace ...

Not long now before these are just bare twigs in the earth.

But, as a gardener, the moment that really caught my eye was the barrow piled with seasonal tools and boxes of bulbs waiting to be planted - the morning's work finished and the afternoon's work still to come.  I didn't see anyone else about so assume the gardener had nipped back into the warm indoors for a spot of lunch. It's a very comforting thought that as one season slips away, the next is being prepared for.  The work goes on. 

17 Nov 2013

A Capel Moment: Autumn gold

I don't want to jinx future Thursdays but I'm tempted to say that we've been very lucky with having dry weather on the day I go up to college!  It makes getting out for a walk round the grounds so much more pleasant - and, of course, the colours are more vivid for taking photos!

Being indoors more at this time of year really highlights the beauty of autumn when I can get out so I had two Capel moments this week.  On the way back to the design studio after lunch, the sun popped out momentarily to highlight the beech walk (actually, the trees may not be beech, I'll find out)  - I had to tell the others I'd catch them up as I whipped out my phone for this photo! (Yes, I do tend to lean to the right!)

Autumn afternoon

The second moment was during the ident walk.  Last year, without fail, the class went out every week for a 'plant ident walk'; this is a quick stroll around the grounds looking at and discussing that week's chosen eight plants.  Doesn't sound much, does it?  But by the end of the year, we knew - and, more importantly, could identify - over a hundred and forty plants.

This year, studying 'plants and planting' for Garden Design, the ident walks have been increased to learn ten new plants each week. I'm finding that many of these are old friends from last year but a few of my classmates studied elsewhere before so aren't so familiar with the Capel grounds. It makes me realise, yet again, how fortunate I am to study with access to 35 acres of planting. 

This week we were told there would be only eight plants to learn;  as our tutor put it "there's not a lot going on out there".  Excuse me?  How about this:

Autumn colour!

The gold leaves are an Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' - even without the red berries (and I have no  idea which leafless shrub they're growing on!) and the ceanothus flower, the Acer is stunning. Of course, it will all be over in a few weeks but Acers are very slow growing trees so for a small garden this would be ideal for a splash of autumn colour.

The above photo was modified slightly by Instagram, even so here's the tree in situ:

Like having a little bit of sunshine in your garden!

12 Nov 2013

Sticks of potential..

Glaskins Perpetual

In between normal weekend routine stuff and rainfall, I managed to squeeze a couple of hours in the veg patch. There's mainly just clearing and tidying now, including putting away bags of compost until next year, emptying and cleaning pots, chopping back herbs that have flopped (and preserving for winter where possible).  All this in preparation for mulching and bulb planting.

So what's all this to do with the rhubarb?  The top herb bed was tidied a week ago (horseradish, a couple of mints, rosemary, fennel) and I'd planned to do the bottom herb bed yesterday - the pineapple sage and lovage had got blown over in the recent storms.  The sage got a stay of execution thanks to its glorious fuchsia pink flower spikes plus I got distracted on the way down the path by the enormous rhubarb.

It's a Glaskins Perpetual which I grew from seed in 2012, in a pot. It survived so, in early spring, I planted it out into the veg patch.  The patch isn't big so I dithered over where to put it (hence why it stayed in its pot for so long), in the end just plonking it into a large space.  It obviously loves where it is (heavily mulched clay soil) and is now enormous. All those big leaves are just the one plant!  Unfortunately it's overhanging the path so it was tidy up time for the rhubarb.

Just one rhubarb plant ...

I've resisted picking any stalks this past year so that the plant could get established. (Leaves were about 3 inches high when planted out.) I haven't grown rhubarb before so I wasn't sure whether the plant died back in winter or got cut down.  I noticed that a few of the bottom stalks needed removing as they'd become brown and a bit mushy.  They pulled away easily which made me think that the whole plant would eventually die back to this state over the next few weeks.  I needed to take a few stems to clear the path anyway; these were originally destined for the compost but my curiosity got the better of me; I hate waste so I decided to chop just the leaves into the compost. The rest was brought up to the kitchen.

Happily, I've also got Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) growing here; a few chopped leaves added when cooking rhubarb reduces the amount of sugar needed. Although it's coming on for winter, there are new soft leaves on the Cicely so I picked a small bunch of those as well.  I half expected the rhubarb sticks to be inedible, tough, stringy and sour but no, not a bit of it.  Fifteen minutes after getting home, stems washed, chopped, poached with a spoonful of water plus one of sugar and a handful of finely chopped cicely leaves, I had myself a delicious dessert to go with supper.

Now here's the science: All rhubarb has high levels of oxalic acid (poisonous!) in the leaves and roots, less so in the stems; as temperatures become colder, oxalic acid migrates from the leaves back into the stems, making them poisonous to eat. With Glaskin's rhubarb, the oxalic acid levels in the stems stay very low throughout the length of the year so stems can be harvested from early summer through to late autumn.  Thus, it's become known as Glaskin's 'Perpetual'.

I'm not sure it was wise to pick so many stems as a certain amount are needed to build up the root for next year but there are still around half a dozen new little stalks on the plant.  I'll mulch it with well-rotted horse manure over winter (leaving the crown clear).  That should do it.  I may even have to grow another rhubarb plant - I've seen so many yummy sounding recipes!

And a final word of caution:  Never, ever, eat the leaves or root of rhubarb; they're poisonous and will make you feel most unwell!

I bought Glaskins Perpetual seeds from More Veg who supply a range of seeds in small quantities, perfect for the small space grower.

9 Nov 2013

A Capel Moment: Japanese Niwaki Pruning

Cloud pruning in Japanese Garden

There's so much autumn colour around this week but still, on my way to the library, my eye was drawn to the intense red of the Acer japonicum leaves against the red bridge in the Japanese garden.  Moving into the garden for a closer look (and photo!), I was struck by the intense concentration of the gardener carefully pruning and shaping the Juniper into neat layers with one handed shears.

Cloud pruning, as it's become known in the western world. This is when branches of a young tree are trained and cut to resemble cloud layers as it grows. In Japan, pruning (Niwaki) is to enhance the plant and work with nature, often echoing the shapes of the landscape - all traditional Japanese gardens have clipped shrubs or trees but they're not necessarily pruned in cloud layers. It's a style that lends itself very well to English gardens; in my mother's garden, I've pruned and clipped an extremely unruly Forest Flame (Pieris) bush in this style, as well as a Choisya ternata. It's a lovely thing to do and the results are stunning.

I stopped to watch and soon a conversation was struck up. The gardener had initially trained at Capel but then spent time over the years in Kyoto learning the art of Niwaki. In Japan, I was told, it takes years to learn the art of pruning and is taught by having a master gardener as a mentor. We talked a little about Jake Hobson who has mastered this art form and taken it on into 'Ornamental Topiary' to be used in English gardens.  At Capel, small trees in this particular garden are cloud pruned to enhance the Japanese ambience.  Elsewhere in the grounds, ornamental topiary has been used to shape a Cotoneaster lacteus  and Osmanthus x burkwoodii into a mushroom shape. Really eye catching and, of course, small semi-shade loving plants, eg Arum italicum, Geraniums and ferns, can be grown underneath.

But, cloud pruning aside, here's what really caught my eye: the juxtaposition of the brilliantly red Acer leaves next to the glaucous (blue/green) scale needles of the Juniper.  Even on a gloomy, grey skies kind of day, the colour in this planting combination was stunning!

Acer and Juniper

1 Nov 2013

Happy Hallowe'en at Fortnum's

Was it just our area or did anyone else find last night particularly quiet?  In previous years, there have been hordes of children trick-or-treating and teenagers in fancy dress on their way to a party but not last night.  Thank goodness there was a Halloween event at Fortnum's to see October on its way.

I promise I'll get back on track with garden updates soon; meantime, I wanted to share my visit to the annual Fortnum & Mason pumpkin carving event.  After yesterday's marsupial excitement was over, and I'd written the blog post, and the man from ITN had gone, and I'd posted my photos to Flickr for him, finally I was able to slip away to Piccadilly in the West End. Normally I can take or leave the commercial side of London but the Midlands based part of my family make an expedition down to Fortnum's every year for the pumpkin carving event, so I do too.

We're a close-knit family brought up to believe that if you're going bother to do something, then give it your best shot.  It's a good ethic and one that has resulted in one or other member of the family carrying off some Fortnum's booty in previous years. The first year my niece Kate won the competition, dinner for two, a huge hamper and a bespoke besom broom; in subsequent years, the competition was split into two age groups and children in our family came away with a first prize hamper of sweets in both years.

This year, despite a terrific entry from our Eme (age 8), the first prize went elsewhere but she did win the fancy dress competition. I do wonder though because a judge was overheard commenting that my sister's family have won a pumpkin prize in all previous years ... as if that would make a difference to their final decision? Never mind; Eme's 8-eyed spider pumpkin ended up in pride of place in front of the royal crest in The Crypt as decor for a whisky tasting event. (It does have legs but they're a bit lost against the fire grate.)


I do enjoy going to see what everyone else has come up with. It's always an inspiration - I'm amazed at the skill of some of the entries although last night I completely loved this 'Day of the Dead' carved pumpkin - so pretty, and I do like a bit of nice.


I wasn't able to stay for the judging of the adult pumpkins last night (small children only last so long so my family had sensibly moved on to go and eat) so I have no idea who won but I'm hoping that this cleverly sculpted pumpkin was given an award. See the little key in the side? It's locking the creature in its pumpkin cage while at the front the cage bars are being pulled out.  I love the attention to detail!

While waiting for the adult pumpkins to be brought in, I got chatting to the PR staff who were doing a great job of organising the competitors and crowds and was given a pumpkin carving set to bring home with me! Now I have no excuses for not entering next year - and adult entry fees go to The Prince's Trust.

I've just discovered that Fortnum's have a Pinterest page so, if you want to see what the entries were like in previous years, take a look at the boards for 2011 and 2012 - some of them are awesomely mind-boggling!

31 Oct 2013

There's a wallaby in our playground!

A bit of excitement and drama at York Rise this morning. When I opened the kitchen blinds this morning, I wondered why there were people standing around looking into our playground.  As I watched, a wallaby bounded into view! Naturally, I grabbed my camera and rushed downstairs for a closer look.


As far as I can gather, the story goes that it had somehow found its way onto the lower end of our flats very early in the morning, sat around quietly for a while in the gardens and then a group of tenants and workmen carefully herded it into our playground to save it from bolting into the nearby streets and traffic. Luckily the fencing had been replaced a couple of years ago so the area is like a huge secure cage - although at one point, the wallaby tried - and nearly succeeded - to get to freedom under the fence!

While we waited for the RSPCA to arrive, word quickly spread and families with children arrived to stare at this wonder - a wallaby in our playground!!  Better than going to the zoo!  The excitement! As the animal kept mostly to the perimeter fence, we were all able to get a really close up look, which felt like a rare privilege although the creature must have been quite alarmed!

So what was it doing here?  A recent story in our local paper reported a couple of wallabies having taken up residence in Highgate Cemetery, about 10 minutes stroll from where I live.  No-one quite knows how they got there - or even if there's one or two wallabies - but the cemetery managers refused an offer from London Zoo to tranquillize the wallaby and take it away, saying that it was a good tourist attraction and they were keeping it in a secure place.  Hmm, not that secure it would seem!

The editor of our local paper, Dan Carrier, lives just around the corner so he also hotfooted it around to get the scoop for his paper - and, in the process, got involved in helping to keep the wallaby in the playground and then helped the RSPCA to unload him safely into the van.

Leigh Summers (RSPCA) and Dan Carrier (CNJ)

Ever the newspaperman, one of the children remarked that Dan was still taking photos with one hand while helping to get the wallaby into the RSPCA van with the other! His full story was up on the CNJ website within the hour with those photos.  Great work, Dan!


Here's the captured wallaby inside the RSPCA van.  He'll be taken to an exotic animal centre near to Heathrow where his future will be decided.

PS. I've just had a visit from ITN who will be covering the story on London Tonight this evening ... and guess who took the video and photos they're going to use?  That'll be me.  *blush*

So much excitement and I still have the Fortnum and Mason Great Pumpkin Carving competition to attend today.  I'll need a lie down after this!

26 Oct 2013

A Capel Moment (2)

Maybe I'm more than a little in love with plants but every week during my college day, there comes a moment when I'm reaching for my camera.  These photos don't quite fit into my veg patch posts so I'm going to start a little regular Thursday or Friday post to show my Capel Moment.

This week, it was a hard choice between the crabapple tree at the top of the last post and this, the third year of the Miscanthus trial bed in the Which? gardens.  It has to be said that I'm a big fan of Piet Oudolf and his prairie style planting.

Miscanthus trial

Have a great weekend everyone!  There's a storm forecast for south of UK so I'll be spending time in the garden today, preparing beds for bulbs and beans and making sure all is secure. 

A Capel Moment

Crab apples
~ Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' in the Which? trial gardens ~

Thursday's glorious weather coincided with my day at college and provided the perfect opportunity for an extended walk through the Capel Manor gardens in my lunchbreak.  Access to the gardens is one of the great attractions of studying at the Enfield site; there are 35 acres to explore: gardens, trees, woodland, ponds and the walled manor garden as well as the Which? trial gardens. After studying there for over a year, I'm still finding new plants to look at or revisiting more familiar plants as they change with the seasons.

As a food grower at home, I've noticed a few edible plants tucked into the gardens. Some are replanted after a trial has finished, such as the excellent and delicious Brice raspberries I found two weeks ago when I sat to have lunch behind a bank of Gaura lindheimeri (helloooo pudding!), others are grown as ornamentals. There are some gorgeous plump (false) quinces on a Chaenomeles x superba 'Red and Gold' at the moment and I found medlars and a mulberry tree in another of the gardens a few weeks ago. I checked back and the medlars are still there, untouched.


And then we come to the spice and herb selection:  The conicle flowers of a large Rhus typhina tree could be dried and ground to make Sumac - but I'd need a ladder to reach them! The spice is commonly used in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking, imparting a tart lemon flavour that also lends itself to salads. The flowers can also be used to make pink lemonade and beekeepers can use them to smoke their hives (or so I'm led to Wiki-believe).  There are herbs dotted throughout the gardens: low hedges of rosemary or lavender, bronze and green fennel in the borders and, in the 'kitchen garden' of the manor ruins (a concept garden to tell the history of the site), horseradish, thyme, mint, marjoram and more fennel. There are even edible berries on shrubs such as Cornus kousa and Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry) although personally I think those are best left for the birds.

My route from the design studio to the restaurant takes me past many of the ornamental show gardens so I see those regularly; yesterday I fancied a wander further afield around the trial gardens. It's always interesting to see what the Which? gardeners are growing before reading about it in the magazine.

Fallen apples

I've never found the orchard before and I was appalled to see so many apples and pears lying on the ground just rotting.  What a waste! I know there's a lot to be done at this time of year but I couldn't help thinking that surely the time could have been found to gather the apples before they fell? There was a couple left on one tree, one of which became part of my lunch - an extremely crisp and juicy green apple, I can't name the variety as I couldn't find a tag by the tree but it was delicious!

Wandering on, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a glorious crab apple tree which I remember as Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' from last year's plant knowledge (photo at top).  I also remember fruit dangling off the bare stemmed tree in January, another harvest left to be, as with all the crab apples in the ground.

Even the walled manor house garden is not immune - there I saw Cavolo Nero kale popped in among the cosmos which I thought was an idea worth copying! There's certainly no shortage of inspiration or food on a Thursday college day!

Kale and cosmos

19 Oct 2013

Sea Spring seeds

Before I move on from the London Harvest Festival show, I just wanted to thank Joy at Sea Spring seeds for the time that she took to chat to me about selecting and growing chillies. One advantage of going to shows like this is that the trade stands, often small businesses, are usually very generous with advice and Joy was no exception.

chilli display
Sea Spring Seeds marvellous display of chilli plants.

Joy (and her husband) are very experienced chilli growers and I, sadly, am not. I have managed to coax a chilli or two out of a plant in the past but the results have certainly been nothing to boast about. This year I didn't grow chillis at all as my windowsills were full of tomato seedlings and I don't use chillies that often in cooking. However, I do like the look of a flourishing plant - and Joy's were certainly that!

Joy, Sea Spring Seeds
In between serving other customers, Joy took the time to talk to me about the chillies (and tomatoes) that would work for me, i.e. grow well outdoors, without a greenhouse. Her advice emphasised the importance of choosing wisely to suit the growing conditions - Sea Spring have 50 varieties of chilli to choose from!

I was very taken with one of the display plants, an Apricot chilli with a mild heat, but was navigated away by Joy from certain grower's frustration as I was warned these definitely need the warmth of a polytunnel or greenhouse to thrive.

Leaflets about the differing heat values of the chilli seeds available were a useful reminder as I like a fairly mild heat. All I knew before was that Scotch Bonnet chillis are very hot as, I think, are the little Birds Eye chillis. Look at the heat factor of 'Apricot' compared with the Dorset Naga chilli!!

Joy explained that chilli seeds should be sown in February, need a minimum and steady temperature (27°C) to germinate (a heated propagator is best for this) and, once they have two true leaves, they can be pricked out, grown on in a mini-greenhouse (in my case) and then transferred outside. They can be quite hardy plants and, as ever, choosing the right plant for the growing conditions that you have is of paramount importance.

After lots of good advice, I chose a packet of Thai Green Curry seeds, a spice chilli (Capsicum annuum) where the long green pods can be harvested green or allowed to turn a beautiful deep red, still without excess heat. Mmm, I'm seeing strings of dried chillis hanging round my kitchen already!

Thai Green Curry
'Thai Green Curry' plant on Sea Spring display.
And this is the one that got away - 'Apricot' chilli - mild of heat and beautiful to behold. One to bookmark if I ever get a greenhouse!

Apricot chilli

In addition to chilli seeds, I also took advantage of Joy's good advice about tomatoes and other seeds on sale and bought 'Sungold' and 'Maskotka' tomatoes, 'Toma Verde' physalis (a sort of Mexican green tomato) and Scarlet Kale to sow as a cut and come again crop; with 200 seeds in the packet, I might try sowing a few under cover now, just to see what happens.

16 Oct 2013

Behold the Giant Pumpkin

There are days when everything seems to fall into place nicely. Last Tuesday, for example, a window of opportunity opened up in my working schedule enabling me to get to the giant veg show that is the RHS London Harvest Festival in Westminster. Even better, the sun was shining and very warm which was welcome during the 10 minute walk from the underground to the RHS halls. I went via Pimlico, my old stomping ground so I know the streets well; it's always nice to stroll through quiet tree lined streets in good weather.

Giant pumpkins
Prize winning giant pumpkins - the red rosette denotes First Prize.

Despite being an avid grower of veg, I have to admit I've never been to a proper horticultural show before. I can only describe the sight of those first giant pumpkins as I entered as A Thrilling Moment. They were undoubtedly the show stoppers although a wide-eyed wander round had me amazed at leeks the size of my arm, onions as big as cauliflowers, cabbages like footballs and yard long carrots. You're going to need a very big bunny to eat those. I imagine judging must be done to very strict criteria and with a very keen eye as I could only see perfection on a grand scale all around. Entrants have to submit a minimum number of each vegetable so I guess the expertise is in raising several prize specimens.

Amazing giant veg

Giant show vegetables is not a level of horticulture that I'd aspire to, I'm quite content if I get a reasonable haul of edibles each season, but I did give the apple table a more than cursory glance. I'm not one to boast (ahem), but some of my Braeburn apples this year have been huge, beautiful and very crisp and juicy! More by nature than nurture, admittedly, but who knows, in future years perhaps? To be validated by RHS commendation must be quite something!

Harvest collage

I assume that giant vegetables are fairly inedible (please tell me if you know otherwise) but this kind of showmanship is something that the RHS does very well. In the veg growing world, this is the equivalent of London Fashion Week and is to the allotment grower what Vivienne Westwood is to Primark - inspiring to look at but not necessarily what we'd want for every day!

Nevertheless, it was a totally brilliant day out - something I'd recommend every veg grower to attend at least once - and it certainly impressed the toddler that I took with me ... although I suspect she was waiting for the pumpkins to turn into Cinderella's coach.

First prize pumpkin

There was a handful of traders at the show doing brisk business and I met the lovely Joy at Sea Spring Seeds who gave me some invaluable advice about growing chillis. More on that in another post.

6 Oct 2013

Autumn, officially

There's no denying the need for a cardigan or jacket outdoors in the last few weeks. The temperatures have dipped, skies are (mostly) grey - today being an exception -  and I'm back at college for the next year of Garden Design training. So that's it for another year.

I rather enjoy autumn, the chance to pack it all away (and make space for winter veg) while the weather is just nice enough to be outside, the trees being laden with berries, leaves turning the most glorious shades of burgundy, red, yellow and acorns (lots of them!) appearing on the ground.

Orach seed heads
Orach (aka Mountain Spinach); stems are great cut for a flower vase in the late summer.
Stems left on the plant into autumn quickly develop brown seedheads.
In order to embrace the year's end,  I started tidying up the food growing areas last week and set off with a roll of garden waste bags and my secateurs.  I didn't get far with this, the garden is a bit lush at the moment so there's plenty to do. I cut down tall sunflowers that were leaning at a 45˚ angle, saving the seed heads for the birds. I cut down most of the Orach plants covered in seed heads as every one of these pods has the potential to burst into life next year (and take over the plot). And I also cut back some of the fennel seedheads for the same reason! (A bit of a theme developing there!) Those three jobs just about took up my gardening session.

Sunflower seedheads

Although the weather's feeling autumnal, there's still plenty to eat. Tomatoes, sweet corn and apples are still slowly ripening in the veg patch. I had home-grown tomatoes on toast for a late supper last night, one of my favourite quick snacks. I didn't need many as the Sub-Arctic and First in Field toms are almost a meal in themselves, weighing in at around 100g apiece! (And frequently falling off the vine due to their weight and needing to be ripened in the banana bowl.)

Tomato collage

I've grown several varieties this year - Yellow Pear, Outdoor Girl, Sub-Arctic and First in Field, the last two being a larger variety.  All are supposed to do well if grown outdoors in the UK climate. I bought some compostable tomato buckets to plant them in; these are supposed to let the deeper roots search out water in the ground so only the uppermost roots need feeding and this is done by only watering into the bucket area.  Very neat.  Having a proper warm summer probably helped but there's no denying that I've enjoyed good harvests - not massive deluges of tomatoes but just a gentle daily trickle of ripening tomatoes, enough for a salad or gardening snack.  The self-seeded Cherriettes of Fire (bottom right, above), a tiny centimetre wide fruit, have been perfect for snacking and the children love them as well. I allow the end of season fruits to fall back into the compost and rot down there, knowing that that's next year's tomato sowing taken care of!

Tomato 'buckets'  - quite hard to see as they blend in with the soil! 

It's interesting to look back and think about what worked and what didn't at the end of each growing year, especially if you have limited space, like me.  The big issue this year has been having enough time to look after the garden so crops that look after themselves (bar a bit of feeding and staking) such as these tomatoes, beans and potatoes, are a boon.  There seems to be a lot of reward for very little effort!  The biggest issue this year, though, has been the cat/fox visitors and their calling cards.  Some serious thinking is needed to come up with a solution to keep them at bay while keeping the beds easily accessible to gardeners! 

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