21 May 2015

The rain of weightless happiness - Press Day at RHS Chelsea flower show

If you're at all interested in gardening, you can't have failed to see coverage of this year's Chelsea Flower Show in all the media. I expect many readers will be almost as familiar with the gardens as those that were lucky enough to be there in person.  I was one of those fortunate folk on Press Day, the Monday before the show opens its gates to RHS members and the public.

It was raining; did I care? Not a bit, the persistent rain really did have a silver lining.  This time, it kept the crowds at bay (or at least in the Great Pavilion) giving unfettered views of the gardens to those in stout shoes and waterproof coats, including me.  And, actually, the rain presented a softer light for taking photographs than hot sunshine (although my hands wouldn't have been so cold in the sun!).

It's impossible to be restrained surrounded by acres of inspirations so I took nearly 300 photographs. I've been going through those over the past couple of days and can see how similar the plant choices were in the show gardens. Dan Pearson's garden for M+G was the beautiful naturalistic exception to this with some unusual plant choices. His design drew inspiration from the rockery and trout stream of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and included Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata), Primula japonica, Gunnera, Hesperis matronalis (Sweet Rocket), Martagon lilies and salsify (Tragopogon crucifolius). There were huge willow trees planted near giant boulders which had been transported from Chatsworth to Chelsea for the show - and which will be returned at the end of the week. His garden filled the triangle at the southern end of the site; a difficult spot to design for and yet Dan's garden looked as though it had been there for years. Less manicured, more natural; I loved it.

As someone who loves tramping the wilder parts of Hampstead Heath, and lived for a short while close to the Yorkshire Moors, this garden makes my heart sing and very deservedly won both a gold medal and Best in Show. I overheard a journalist asking Dan for a quote about the garden; he smiled gently and said "I'm very happy with it."  An understated response, surely.

Dan was happy to chat to anyone who approached, whether it was about the garden or dishing out advice about plants. When it was my turn for a chat I asked what he'd enjoyed most about being back at Chelsea. His response was to give credit to the whole of the Crocus team, adding how likeable they all are which made the build process very enjoyable. Nice. Good choice of coffee cup too, holding another warming brew.

From then on, I was on a bit of a roll.  Having been armed with a hi-vis jacket declaring me to be 'RHS Press', I wandered around chatting to the designers and taking their photos. (Yes, I did give the jacket back afterwards.)

The show gardens lived up to, and occasionally exceeded, expectations - but there's been ample coverage of those. Here are a few of my personal favourites:

Top: A Time Inbetween - designer Charlie Albone uses this space as an allegory of his life and feelings since his father died; Sean Murray of the Great Chelsea Garden Challenge uses Ajuga reptans, saxifrage and violas to green up a driveway
Middle: Andrew Wilson's Living Legacy garden commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo;
The Beauty of Islam garden - the minimal cool green planting in the simulated courtyard really appealed to me.
Bottom: A Perfumer's Garden in Grasse (James Basson) was a space I would dearly love to spend time in;
The Retreat - Jo Thompson's beautiful planting surrounded a natural pond with synchronised swimmers on the day.

An area that I thought was hugely improved from last year was the Fresh section.  These small conceptual gardens aim to convey a message and, in the past, haven't really done it for me but, excitingly, this year managed to be entertaining, interesting and beautiful as well. This Japanese garden attracted my attention,; there's a lot going on in a very small space: moss balls, water, pebbles and wonderful planting combined with a clean Japanese aesthetic.  The waterfall cascaded through a circle in the perspex roof.  Dramatic. I also now really want to know how to make moss balls.

'Beyond our Borders', another Fresh garden, gave food for thought with a very quirky representation of the way plant diseases can spread across continents - and illustrated the whole point of plant passports. Initially I wondered about those rainbow slinkies but it all made perfect sense once the concept of the garden - and the important message behind it - was explained.

And I was mesmerised by this garden. The artist was completely still as he carefully positioned one stone atop another in an unbelievably improbable balancing act.  I tried to video him but his movements were so slight and precise that it looked like a very long still photo. I took the liberty of asking how had he come to this chosen career?  The balancer had spent years balancing small pebbles on the beach before working up to the big stuff.  So there you have it: time spent loafing on the beach is merely preparation for greater things to come. Who'da thought it?

The show offers so much for each individual visitor, whether looking for design inspiration, advice on flowers and shrubs from the nurserymen, or just a jolly good day out, but I can't leave without a backwards glance at what, for me, is the highlight of the show ... the flowers.  Although the growers can work magic in bringing together a palette of plants that would otherwise be in bloom before or after Chelsea week, I'm always fascinated to see how these plants are used. It's breathtaking and beautiful.  So I regretfully turn my back on Chelsea until next year with a reminder of a few of my favourites ...

Aquilegia; orange Verbascum, Lysimachia, bronze fennel, Astrantia; Eremurus with Orlaya grandiflora.
Digitalis (foxglove), Geranium, pink Verbascum with Camassia leichtlinii.
Nectaroscordum allium , purple Aquilegia with lupins, flag Iris with ferns and Primula japonica.

17 May 2015

In search of elders

It's that time of year again when the race is on to see who can get to the elderflowers first. I spotted promising looking buds three days ago so, waking up ridiculously early yesterday, I instantly put foraging at the top of the day's agenda. I suspected there would only be a few flower heads but I was on the Heath by 7.00 a.m., just me and a few lone runners jogging past.

I knew where I needed to go but couldn't resist the opportunity to dawdle in magical green glades, creep under branches in secret copses to get close to banks of bluebells, be thankful for logs laid to pinpoint the muddy ditch beyond and listen to the early morning birdsong of a little coal tit, no doubt alerting his pals to the approaching human! I saw lichen on ancient trees, wild forget-me-nots and red campion, buttercups and ferns. I even found a good thick stick shaped like a slingshot. That went into my bag and got passed to a friend's young son on the way home. He was thrilled. So was I. He's such a boy.

Wandering back in the direction of home, my sylvan idyll was gradually dispelled by the massed puffing of running clubs, ladies chatting while jogging together (men seem to be lone huffers and puffers) and lots of people out with their dogs. I'd gathered over 20 large elderflower heads and was now hungry for breakfast. Thoughts of freshly baked bread and the Heath Farmer's Market crept into my head. And - as luck would have it! - the Harrington Scheme (a local project providing gardening training for disabled youth) were selling lovely organic plants on the neighbouring stall to the bread. All in a good cause, 6 sweetcorn, some purple sage and some lime Nicotiana came home with me. All in all, a bit of a top-hole morning.

So, how to identify elderflowers?  Here are some pics.

Spot the difference! Bottom right is NOT elderflower - look at the leaves!

Paired mid-green leaves with serrated edges. Umbels of green buds open to tiny white flowers. Distinct scent from open flowers.

Back at home I quickly got on with making my first batch of elderflower cordial. I've had a tiny delicious taste this morning but I'll leave it until tomorrow evening as I have garden planting to do today and Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow.  Life is sweet.

The recipe I use is an adaption from Sarah Raven's recipe (link under name) in that I use less sugar and then substitute slightly healthier alternatives. I really like the addition of oranges and lime rather than using just lemons. I don't use citric acid because, in my neck of the woods, no-one sells it. There's a story that it's used to cut cocaine but that's not something this innocent lass is ever likely to prove.

Here's my version:

1.5 litres water
1 kg sugar (I used 500g organic granulated, 250g coconut palm sugar, 250g Xylitol)
2 lemons
1 large orange (or 2 smaller ones)
1 lime

Put water and sugar in a saucepan.  Heat very gently until sugar completely dissolved, stirring occasionally to check. Once dissolved, bring to the boil and take off the heat.

Zest and thinly slice the citrus fruit. Put into a large bowl. Add the elderflowers. I usually check the flowers by turning them upside down, giving a gentle shake, check for insects, then cut most of the stems off leaving a half inch behind the flowers. Don't wash the flowers, the fragrance will disappear.

Pour the hot syrup over the fruit and flowers. Give it a stir round, lightly cover (a tea towel or pot lid will do) and leave to infuse for 24 to 48 hours.  When time's up, strain through muslin or a jelly strainer into a jug and pour through a funnel into clean sterilised bottles.  Store it in the fridge or decant into plastic bottles and put in the freezer where it will keep for several months.

16 May 2015

The rainbow after the rain

Pulmonaria and Galium odoratum (Lungwort and Sweet Woodruff to give them their country names!)

Last Monday, my neighbour and I (the gardening team) were standing having a chat about the garden and agreeing about how much we loved interplanting veg with flowers.  Another gardening neighbour (he who is responsible for growing swathes of cabbages around the flats and uprooting shrubs to do so) stopped to tell us, "Why are you growing all these flowers? You can't eat them; you should rip them out and plant vegetables." I smiled at him and briefly explained the need for biodiversity, pollination and beneficial insects. To which he replied: "All you need for pollination is wind."  **sigh**  On which point, we had to amicably agree to disagree.

Those same flowers and pops of colour made going down to the garden yesterday morning a real pleasure. Warm sun on my back, raindrops on the leaves, bees buzzing and birds singing. (There's a little coal tit that has taken to visiting the garden as well as the starlings and blue tits).  Wasn't Thursday's rain just fabulous?!  Although I did feel sorry for all those garden teams over at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea frantically planting in the pouring rain to finish gardens for Sunday's Flower Show judging.

So the garden here has had a really good soaking; that should perk up the plants for quite a few days and give a boost to the veg and  help to settle in newly planted perennials and herbs. I've got strawberries and the lovage to move this evening, hopefully the damp soil will help them to settle in. There are some wonderfully vivid colours in the garden at the moment so today I'm just going to celebrate my rainbow of flowers.

Oh, and by the way ….  I rest my case m'lud. Bzzz, bzzzzz.

12 May 2015

The Fruit-full Garden

Morello cherry fruitlets. So pretty still with their little pink skirts! 

I was away for the whole of the last bank holiday weekend and returned to go straight back to work so, after five days away from the garden, I could really see a difference in the fruit. There's definitely signs of fruitlets forming on all the plum and pear trees.  The apple and quince calyces are reliably plump and fuzzy and the cherries look like being a bumper crop too.

Warm sunshine has really brought the strawberry plants on (loads of flowers!) and, thrilling times, I have tiny gooseberries forming for the first time! So far, I've counted only 4 strings of fruitlets on the redcurrant bush - I may need to buy another - and the Physalis (Cape Gooseberry) grown a couple of years ago is fully in leaf. This shrub is in an old potato sack and doing well; I wonder how it would do if I planted it in the soil - hopefully this will give it a boost resulting in bigger harvests!

My plan to reduce the number of Autumn Bliss raspberries in favour of the new Polka raspberries is a major fail.  Once they started growing, I hadn't the heart to dig them up, even though they're occupying the part of the space allocated to my new cut flower patch.  As the Polka canes have sent out a good amount of runners, I've left the sturdy ones and dug up only the spindly runners (inspired by my visit to the trial beds at Wisley). A few have been potted up for friends.  I think it's safe to say that the veg patch will be raspberry central again this summer. (heh, heh.)

Last year the pear fruitlets all fell off so I have fingers and toes crossed (metaphorically speaking) for this year - what else can I do? There are problems afoot though - the plum tree leaves are curling in on themselves again, as they did last year, and I was horrified to see blisters on the pear leaves.

By happy chance I discovered a pristine copy of the RHS Garden Problem Solver in my local library; it's a really informative and well illustrated book although a bit like those medical dictionaries that make you worry about contracting diseases that you're never likely to encounter. Or is that just me? (I worked as a medical secretary in my youth; it became quite nerve wracking.)  I was able to swiftly identify my pear leaf pest as 'pear leaf blister mite'. (So obvious when you know.) Apparently it doesn't harm the tree and it's best to remove infested leaves to minimise spread, as long as the affected leaves are just a few - remove more than a few and the tree won't be able to photosynthesise and will become very unhappy indeed.

The curling plum leaves are being attacked by - you guessed it - 'plum leaf curling aphid'. (I'm glad someone has given these pests practical names, so much easier than trying to remember Latin.)  The solution is to spray the leaves as they open which is all very well but not if you're an organic gardener as I am. As usual, I will resort to squishing and spraying with water, perhaps with a drop of (plant based) Ecover washing up liquid in it.

A bit of good news: As I pottered around the garden weeding yesterday I noticed a few ladybirds gathering at the base of the plum tree … those aphids could find their days are numbered.

Skimming through this again, I realise I forgot to mention the Honeyberry bushes. They're also doing nicely and will hopefully hold onto their blossom in the teeth of ferocious winds once more ripping through the garden today.

10 May 2015

Growing winter greens; eat your garden all year round

Red Russian kale, more tender than usual curly kales and almost ornamental in looks.

It might seem a bit soon to be thinking about winter but here's a quick reminder for anyone wanting to grow brassicas (Purple Sprouting broccoli, calabrese, romanesco cauliflower, Cavolo Nero or other kales) for eating from autumn through to spring next year: Start your seeds off now.  (Having said that, mine were started three weeks ago.)

I've sown my seeds into space-saving peat-free jiffy's, those little discs that plump up with water into planting modules. I can get 16 onto an Ikea plastic plate which then acts as a drip tray. Once they've got their first true leaves, I repot each module straight into a 3inch square pot of soil based compost and that's where they stay for the next few months, usually on my balcony where I can keep them well watered, yet hardened off.

In late July/early August, I'll plant the little brassicas out into the beds that the peas and beans have vacated (see note below), five to a one square metre bed, each plant next to a stake or cane that will support it as it grows. Because they'll grow relatively slowly, I'll underplant each brassica with a row of chard or spinach. With luck and good weather, I'll be picking baby leaves from these rows before winter but, even so, the plants will establish a good root system and grow away quickly when the soil warms in spring and lighter days return.

As winter approaches, I'll mulch around the base of each plant for a bit of protection and to put some nutrients back into the soil. Last year I grew autumn broccoli, christmas broccoli, early spring broccoli, etc and managed to pick floret stems or leaves from the garden throughout winter.  Cavolo Nero and Russian Kale stand well throughout even the coldest weather and my last broccoli plant will feed me until mid-May.  A little bit of cash spent on seeds has saved me a small fortune at the supermarket plus the quality of fresh, organic home-grown produce is outstanding. I can get quite snooty eyeing up (and passing by) the veg in the supermarket!

Brassicas like PSB have got a reputation for growing really large. To be honest, yes they do - but, by the time I plant my potted brassicas out, there's very little else growing apart from herbs - or you can tuck the small brassicas in among late peas.  Give it a try as I firmly believe that growing good veg is achievable by everyone, whether starting out or more experienced, and the joy of picking your own veg right through winter will put a smile on your face even in the darkest, coldest months! (If you're anything like me.)

Top to bottom:
Calabrese, October
Calabrese, early December
Purple Sprouting Broccoli, early December
PSB, early February
Cavolo Nero kale, early February

And there's a bonus - at the end of their growth, the last florets will burst into flower giving a much needed food source for bees. It's a win:win situation.

Note: Peas and beans fix nitrogen back into the soil through nodules on their roots so it's best to cut off the old plants at soil level when clearing the bed; the remaining roots continue to deposit nitrogen into the soil as they decompose, giving a lovely feed of nutrients to the next plants in the bed, i.e. your brassicas.

Apologies to readers of this blog who are already very well informed about growing winter greens - I've posted this as there was interest in the subject after one of my late winter blogs.  I'm hoping that this information will help at least one more person to grow their own PSB this winter!

A postscript:
I buy brassica seeds in small packets from More Veg as I don't have to fill an allotment with plants so just a few plants does me. (I'm growing 10 for late summer/winter/spring and have 4 currently growing in the garden.)
Carol Klein recommends the following varieties in her book Grown Your Own Veg: Arcardia for late summer; Fiesta for early autumn; Rudolph, early maturing purple spears for midwinter. Also Belstar, Red Arrow (both long season plants) and Trixie, high yielding and compact.  Out of these, I'm growing Rudolph (as well as Red Admiral, Calabrese Green Sprouting and Summer Purple broccoli plus Cavolo Nero, Curly Red and Red Russian kales). 

8 May 2015

Peering over the veg

This year I remembered not to get fooled by the warm weather we've had in April. I've done that in previous years and lost beans, sweetcorn and tomatoes to the strong May winds that can whip through between the flats here.  No, this year I decided to play it safe and bide my time to plant out my seedlings. Just as well because the garden has been absolutely lashed this past few days with winds gusting to 42 mph and bouts of torrential rain.

Yesterday morning I went to inspect the damage, notebook in hand. I still have a lot of over-wintered veg and herbs growing and I'd planted out a small tray of kale plants that I'd bought to fill the gap between my winter and spring sown kales. (I do eat a lot of kale!) It actually wasn't too bad - a snapped stem on the gooseberry bush, some damage to the kale plants and very bruised blossom on the quince. I'd recently bought a Tigerella tomato plant from the local City Farm, grown by a friend there. It was in the lee of my compost heap and had been well-hardened off so even that survived intact! Whew, what a relief! (My home grown toms are still safely indoors.)

I'm really enjoying a bit of seasonal eating.  Instead of having empty beds over winter, I've had brassicas, spinach and kale to eat - and baby chard too if wanted. Now that the broccoli plants have been cleared (just one left), the chard underneath is growing away. Two rows have become four as I've transplanted the runts of the litter into a space of their own. And just as the broccoli is fading, the asparagus appears. One stalk poked its head up days before the others so I picked that to steam with other veg. There's another 6 stalks ready now so I'll be looking forward to dinner tomorrow! This is the first year I've been able to pick any asparagus - does it work like sweet peas that the more you pick, the more you get?  Can anyone enlighten me, please?

The red russian kale is coming to an end (I'm going to miss its frilly green and purple leaves); instead I have more Cavolo Nero producing good sized leaves now and the beetroot I sowed last autumn is beginning to bulk up. I may pull a few small beets to allow the others more space although I rather like the burst of yellow that the Burpees Golden brings to the patch. Once I started thinking about dinner, I couldn't resist pulling a few carrots as well.  They were tiny but so so delicious.

I wasn't going to grow potatoes this year but there were some moochers from last year that sprouted so I've planted them up in a sack and we'll see what happens. So far it's all looking very promising. This is the growth since I earthed up to the very top a couple of weeks ago.

I have to confess that I've been a bit slack in getting on with my seed sowing. I think it's because I've had (and still have) plenty of veg in the garden so there's less urgency to refill the beds. Reading around other blogs it seems everyone else has got windowsills and greenhouses stuffed full of little plants waiting to go out. Not so here.  I have three trays - broad beans, tomatoes and brassicas with amaranth. Plus sweet peas for cutting. (Err, that makes four.) Today I'm going to spread the contents of my seed box across the floor, make a few decisions and get my hands dirty with soil. Once germinated, I should have seedlings to plant out by mid-June and received wisdom says that they'll catch up soon enough. That will hopefully give me time to figure out where I'm going to put  it all.

Hoping for some more good weather and wishing everyone a good gardening weekend!

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