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

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