Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Review. Show all posts

18 May 2020

A delicious deluge to end the month

(Oops, this post should have been out at the end of April! What can I say?! I've been busy tending to my veg babies, amongst other stuff. Here it is to note what April was all about in the gardens.)

Purple asparagus spear waiting to be cut.
The appearance of the first asparagus in April. 

I feel slightly ungrateful saying this but wasn't April a bit too hot? April is known as a gentle month of moderate temperatures - frosts even - and certainly not known for the baking heat that chilli peppers enjoy. I, on the other hand, am not a chilli pepper so do not enjoy extreme heat and have had to limit my gardening to stay out of the midday sun.  Gratifyingly, April obliged by a return to form in the last week of the month with three whole days of solid rain, gently soaking into the parched and cracked earth. Such a treat for gardener and garden alike, I could almost hear the plants sighing with relief.

I had a wander round in a rare dry interlude; I love how perky seventy two hours of intermittent rain has made the garden. Like Jack’s beans, plants seem to have magically doubled in size overnight. Care to join me for a little garden tour?

The Balcony

April started with minnow daffodils flowering in pots and ended with overwintered cape gooseberries (physalis) starting to flower.

A collage of 3 pictures showing balcony plants in April.

Like every other gardener, trays of tomatoes, brassicas, courgettes and squash seedlings have been coaxed into surviving and thriving despite heat and wind. Unusually, by mid-month I was leaving all seedlings - including tomatoes, but not chillis - outside overnight in warm still air.  They’re not quite big enough to be planted out yet but it will be good to reclaim my balcony when the weather settles down.

The chilli pepper seedlings have been very slow this year.  Should I have sown in the chillier winter months? Probably. But, as the saying goes, I'll just keep calm and carry on.

The best thing though - and I highly recommend this - is having a tray of baby salad leaves nearby. Only three weeks after sowing (and with regular watering) I had baby leaves to eat. Earlier from this same tray, I snipped micro greens for salad toppings and to thin out the tray; then came the baby leaves; now I have cut and come again plants that I could plant out to grow on to full size. This supply of fresh salad leaves has been much appreciated while I wait for the salad garden to grow.

The Salad Garden

This secluded sheltered corner adjacent to the railway line is rapidly becoming my happy place; it would only be made more perfect by seeing one of the old steam trains puffing past while I’m there. (I once saw the Hogwarts Express on this line; I was waiting with my then 7 year old son for our regular train when the Harry Potter train puffed towards us. I almost spontaneously combusted with excitement.)

Raised bed filled with different types of lettuce and other salad ingredients

Anyway, one month in and No.1 Veg Trug is filling up nicely. I’m aiming for a mini salad bar where I can pick all the necessaries for a lunchtime salad - a choice of lettuce leaves plus chives, spring onions, radishes, mini carrots, rocket and lamb's lettuce. (Tomatoes will eventually go in a third Veg Trug, hopefully before the end of May.)

And, in case you're wondering, I'm not going to eat the marigolds but they make very good companion plants (supposedly deterring pests such as whitefly) plus they brighten things up. And they were cheap from the supermarket - as if I needed a reason to buy plants!

No 2 Veg Trug was sown three weeks after the first, roughly the third week of the month. Seed choices differ slightly from No 1 trug; this time I’ve sown endive, beetroot (for leaves. roots and colour), pink chard, purple carrots, and herbs - basil, flat leaf parsley and, I hope, chervil. Is chervil slow to germinate? It’s yet to put in an appearance, unlike the parsley seedlings which are known to be very slow off the mark but are shyly poking up above soil level.

Hotbin composter - yes, I have recently acquired one of those, having despaired of the wooden composter in the veg patch that was looking a little too rustic after ten years service. The Hotbin is supposed to make compost in just one or two months; I’ll do a full post once the first batch is done.

The Veg Patch garden

The month started with wild garlic, tulips, honeywort and blossom. Strong winds blew the pear blossom to the ground, cherry blossom clung on and apple blossom came after - in the heat.

Pink blossom on the Core Blimey apple tree

By mid month the nasturtiums, comfrey and sweet woodruff were flowering, peony stems popped up, and every branch of the Core Blimey apple was smothered in blossom. The garden soundtrack was of bees happily pollinating and birds singing. I'm quietly optimistic of a good year for this tree.

Flowering comfrey

The month closed with alliums, elderflowers, broad bean tops and sweet cicely flowers turning to delicious seeds.

Broad been tops

Plants for this year's veg garden are still in pots on my balcony until conditions are right for planting them out, but a walk around the veg patch gives thinking space for planning how to fit it all in - and what needs to come out. The wooden raised beds have done sterling work for ten years but are now falling apart. That’s the main reason they’re coming out but also because they provide a nice hiding place for snails; once they’ve gone, I can be more flexible with the space.

This year I've succumbed to growing Brussels sprouts having discovered how utterly delicious they are cooked with bacon. And what would I do in winter without broccoli, leeks and kales of various hues and textures? Late autumn will see butternuts, pumpkins, and squashes ripening. At a gardening event in February I was given seeds for two new squashes that will supposedly taste of potato when cooked - one mashed, the other baked.  I remain sceptical but I have to try, don't I?

Broad beans are still flowering and black aphid free (for now) so I’ve been taking the tops for steaming with butter - a useful side vegetable and delicious. The Russian kale has started to flower, bumble bees are having a feast and I’ve decided to leave one plant to grow on for seeds. This kale is not only beautiful but very good to eat, with sweet young leaves.

Yellow flower of Russian kale with purple stems

But what to do about the asparagus bed? The (few) purple spears are so delicious when freshly picked but, in such a tiny plot, is giving over the space justified? I plan to companion plant basil and tomatoes into the gaps (staying clear of the fragile asparagus crowns) but the debate rages on. Have any readers tried moving asparagus crowns? Please, let me know if you have and whether it was successful.

The Washing Line Border

Lavender about to bloom

This is my low maintenance drought area, bordering the circular drying lines. It’s low maintenance because it gets no attention beyond having horsetail and herb robert pulled out and 'drought garden' as the hosepipe won’t reach. And it gets full sun in the summer months.

So it changes, year on year, depending which plants can survive such harsh conditions. This year’s star plants for April are the lavender and erigeron. I swear they weren’t looking so lush a couple of days ago - all that rain must have given them the boost they need. I’m now thinking I should throw a bucket of water over this patch from time to time.

Erigeron (aka Fleabane) flowering between two clumps of Carex grass

The Lime Tree Garden

(aka the Car Park Garden)
So many lovely things happening here - what a month! This time last year I was still laying out the structure of the garden. Most plants were still in pots as I played with where to home them so this year I’m watching carefully to see what works and what might need moving.

Garden filled with shrubs and perennials.

This will take some thought as the garden is usually shaded, but there's more light this summer as a result of the three mature lime trees being pollarded into leafless pillars at the end of last year.

Evening view of herbaceous border in the garden

A few plants kept the borders green over winter but in April the border came alive with crocosmia leaves waving, and white campanula flowering very prettily next to an unknown brassica that I was given. The lychnis coronaria (rose campion) has trebled in size. I so loved this plant growing wild at the allotment plots that I bought one for the garden; I don't remember it being this big at the plots. This border is another area that needs adjusting; there's a new peony in there as well lavender, scabious and who knows what else that may have thrived or died over winter!

The next border along was earmarked for soft fruit, with maybe a few veg tucked in. I'm not rigid in my rules and sprinkled some old flowers seeds around last autumn. This was done with very little expectation but those seeds have produced a sea of white and blue nigella. Very pretty growing around the gooseberries.

White nigella flower against a background of green foliage

Ah, the aquilegia! This predates my custody of the garden has reliably bloomed mid-month. So pretty; I wish it would seed around a bit like they're supposed to.

pink aquilegia flowering in the garden

Blueberries - I have three plants but never get a heavy crop from these as they are, of necessity, kept in large pots. But that's the joy of gardening, you never know what to expect. Maybe this year I'll harvest more than a bowlful.

A clutch of flower buds on a blueberry shrub

Gooseberries, yum. I never liked gooseberries until I discovered the red ones. Now this is a crop to look forward to.  Don't be fooled by the green berries - these will soon turn a sweet, deep red to let me know I can start picking.

Gooseberry shrub with green fruit.

I won't mention the chilean guava or jostaberry this month as they're showing no signs of fruiting. Hmm. Hopefully more to report next month on those.

Likewise the ranunculus. Yes, they did bloom again from last year's corms but were over very quickly this year. I blame the heat. Again.

Let me finish with a quick look at the spring border. Gorgeous in February and March but now it has quite lost it's charm and become overrun with hellebores and honesty seedlings. I pulled out a lot of those seedlings but stopped before it all became too drastic.  The saving grace in April was the too brief appearance of the lily-of-the-valley that I brought back from my mother's garden and the bleeding heart plants. I need to give this a lot of thought; strong coffee might help.

14 Jan 2018

Seventeen, going on Eighteen

I feel a bit silly writing a review of 2017 a couple of weeks after the new year started and long after I started planning for 2018 but, while it seemed there was a lot to be glum about last year, looking back I've found quite a bit to perk me up.  I want to park my thoughts on last year so, in no particular order, here we go.

Yay! spring is coming! Late winter is all about the flowers

We're well into the beginning of January (or, as I prefer to say, half way through winter) but I trust you all had a really good christmas and New Year? I did. And, possibly for the first time ever, the tree was bought and decorated in good time, looking all twinkly and festive for many days before the big event. A good start to christmas - and, perhaps, a good end to the year.  The tree is now down, along with a tsunami of needles which dropped as I took the tree outside, the decos have been carefully wrapped and restored to their box on high, the indulgent puddings a distant memory. My new garden notebook has arrived and a stock take of the seed box is imminent - before I settle down to read through seed catalogues.

I've got a good feeling about 2018. I started thinking about the year ahead in the breathing space between christmas and new year; without becoming overly optimistic, I'm feeling a renewed sense of purpose and excitement when it comes to gardening. Last year, there were too many personal and work issues which threw a proverbial spoke into my wheels, but I'm nothing if not a gardener, so ... new year, fresh hope, clean slate. Moving forward with intention. Sounds good, yes?

Flowers bringing joy in late spring along with some veg

Every year there are lessons learned and thoughts to bring into the next round of growing so I'm taking a moment to look back at last year because, well, it wasn't all bad.

There were garden shows, plant fairs and trade shows - always a good idea to go to these if you can, you never know who you might get into conversation with or what you might learn. This past year I've met, or met up with, many lovely garden bloggers, writers, designers and brands. I would name names but you'd think I was boasting. 😉

Garden Bloggers

Meeting other garden bloggers was a definite highlight; what could be better than chatting to people whose writing and opinions you admire and, let's face it, who'd pass up the chance of a good garden chat! We bloggers are a fun bunch too. The Garden Bloggers group on  Facebook and Twitter was set up in 2017 and has become a really good way to connect with other bloggers - including the end of month #gdnbloggers chat on Twitter. Worth checking these out if you're not already familiar with them. There's even a small (real life!) meet up planned for early April this year at the Great Dixter Plant Fair, if you're down Sussex/Kent way - check out the Facebook page.

Golden sweet corn in August; glass gem corn in November
(best to let this last one dry on the stem for deep colours).
More achocha (top middle) than I could eat! 

Garden Visits

I do love a garden visit, particularly walled kitchen gardens which, for my money, reign supreme, but it takes organisation and time. Last year, I squeezed in trips to West Dean in Hampshire, Winston Churchill's kitchen garden at Chartwell in Kent and the Skip Garden in Kings Cross, and came away inspired and motivated. The herb, veg and trial gardens at RHS Wisley are also worth visiting throughout the year, although last February my mission was to see the winter borders and to recharge my happy zone with a splash of spring colour on a sunny day. It's a day out that delivers.  Likewise Waterperry in Oxfordshire (an hour's drive for me) - lots to delight in during the summer but I also went in February when I was thrilled by carpets of snowdrops leading to the river walk and the surprisingly beautiful and thoughtful sculptures along the path.

There were other visits last year that stimulated ideas of good plant juxtapositions or unusual plants that will happily grow outside. I was thrilled that I managed to get to Tom Hart-Dyke's World Garden in Kent last September before driving on to Great Comp to see the collection of salvias and dahlias. I saw flamingos wading through the water high above the traffic of Kensington at the Roof Gardens during the GMG summer social and ate cake with Rosemary Alexander (founder of the English Garden School and prolific teacher/author/designer) in her Hampshire garden - one of the garden visits organised by the Garden Media Guild.  I've been a probationary member for over a year now and these GMG group visits are a real perk of membership as we're often the only people in the garden, with behind-the-scenes tours from the head gardeners.

Peaks, troughs and plants

In any gardening year there will be moments of bliss counterbalanced with frustration but, in 2017, I experienced more low points than anticipated.  Involvement with helping at the allotment diverted a lot of my time from my gardens at home, something that needs to be rebalanced this year. Despite that I managed to grow some wonderful flowers and vegetables, including several new plants that will go back onto this year's plan.

Even a badly managed plot will produce harvests!

A few were new to me plants - glass gem corn, Edamame beans, Tiger Nuts (chufa), Squashkin, Honeyboat Squash, Old Boer White squash, Cobaea scandens (cup and saucer climber), pale mini courgettes, 'Berries and Cherries' strawberries from Thompson and Morgan which have deep pink flowers and delicious small fruits; I grew those on my balcony but will transplant them to the garden this year.

Some highlights: My sweet red gooseberries finally fruited in abundance which was very thrilling. I had masses of lovely big Polka raspberries from the veg patch, sweet corn from the plot, squashes! yay!, superb plums from the plot (made into delicious crumble), autumn baby Nantes carrots (well worth resowing in July to get these). Cavolo Nero and curly kale was left to go to seed (the bees love the flowers) but continued to sprout baby leaves and are still growing strongly, and being picked, one year on.  The plants I brought to London from Mum's garden flourished - agapanthus, lily of the valley, eucomis, geum, pieris - all flowered and looked very healthy last summer. Croix lachryma jobi (Job's Tears) bead plants from 2016 regrew as well although there weren't as many beads, probably because I moved the plants into a pot. Job's Tears are not edible, unless you want to grind your own flour, but can be strung together to make bracelets. I advise using a thimble. The daily smile came from several Cobaea plants climbing through the pigeon netting on my balcony where I could see the flowers turn from pale green to purple at eye level, and the huge Scented Pelargonium which scented the air every time I shoved my way past it to step into the veg patch.

Not so good:  There were (are?) whitefly of biblical proportions feasting on my balcony salad and herbs; I'll have to clear everything, scrub and start again. Edamame beans seemed to be okay then struggled to grow and were finally taken down by slugs. Courgette and kale seedlings in the veg patch were eaten overnight, probably also by slugs - literally down to a stump - so I had to start again there. No french beans only broad beans, lovely Braeburn apples were all pinched before they could ripen (and so discarded with one bite taken out, grrr), ditto pears, five quince this year but all went rotten on the tree before being fully ripe, no plums (again) in the veg patch (but loads from the plot). As the veg patch plum trees have never fruited in eight years of growing, they're for the chop any day now ... especially now I have my chainsaw! I started several Physalis (Cape Gooseberry) plants from seed; it looked like I would have an abundance of fruit but none of them ripened before the frosts. Those plants were at the allotment where I thought they'd get more sun but it seems they prefer warmth over sunshine. Next year they'll be back in the veg patch. Leeks were a disaster. And I never got round to sowing any broccoli so no purple sprouting for me this year  - unheard of!

Echeveria and Pilea at home (top middle); Echeveria and string of hearts at Petersham (middle right)

Having never had any luck with houseplants, I dived in for another go, having discovered a few beautiful houseplants at Petersham Nurseries' new Covent Garden store. There I bought a 'String of Hearts' to add to my existing Jade plant (even I haven't been able to kill that one off) - and even got round to repotting Jade into new soil this year. I soon had a little collection of indoor plants to look after - crassulas, an aloe, jade plants, an echeveria and pilea peperomioides, the Chinese money plant. There's even a cardamom plant, for now. So far they're all surviving on a lack of attention and the merest hint of water. 

Last but not least ...

There were honours, which was a bit bizarre.  In January, I was amazed to be told that this blog was listed in Gardener's World magazine as one of 50 new things to try. (I'd never have known but a friend has a subscription to GW.) That's quite an honour given the circulation of the magazine but really bad timing as, having spent a few emotional months clearing my parents' home, my absence here was noticeable. I can only hope that anyone checking out the link stuck around but I seriously doubt it!

So, there we have it.  Another year gone, another year older and, with luck, wiser. Thank you to everyone who read, commented and generally made these pages a nice place to be - it's truly appreciated and I love getting you know you all!

Wishing everyone an excellent year ahead, may the garden gods smile on you.
Caro x

28 Jul 2014

Kitchen Garden Experts - Inspiration from plot to plate!

I'm not one to rush into things but I have excelled myself this time by only just writing about a book I received a goodly while back, 'The Kitchen Garden Experts'. I'm aware it's been reviewed elsewhere but let's look again, shall we?

It's a rather nice book about the collaboration between twenty UK-based restaurant chefs and the chosen ones on whom they rely to grow their veg. It's hard to categorise this book; after an introduction to each restaurant, it's part biography, part garden inspiration, part cookbook. It explores those restaurants that have thrown their weight behind the idea of home-grown/local, sustainable and seasonal food for their kitchens and how they achieve that throughout the year. The author, Cinead McTiernan, has obviously had unparalleled access to both gardeners and chefs alike as each chapter is full of their expertise, with the balance tipping slightly towards where it all starts - in the garden.

It's beautifully written with more than a passing glance into the reality of life in a large kitchen garden. It has particular relevance now, in the summer, as the garden starts to produce plenty of food for the kitchen but I'd not be unhappy to get this book for a bit of autumn or winter reading, at a time when we're all deciding what to do with our various plots in the following year.

Propagating geraniums to ensure plenty of plants for making Rose Geranium Panna Cotta with Blackcurrant Sorbet

The concept of plot to plate food of the freshest quality is not new - my grandfather grew all the veg for the kitchen in his enormously long back garden - but it wasn't a trend then, it was how you fed your family.  Of real interest in this book, for me, is the way that the chefs and gardeners work together to put seasonal, no-to-low miles food on the menu of their various gaffs; they listen to each other's ideas, growing and creating food with a modern combination of flavours.

My typed extract from the book

Putting the end product aside for a moment, I was fascinated to read the methods that the gardeners use to get the best from their gardens and how to get the quantities right. That's real talent, keeping enough seasonal salad leaves on the go to provide for meal after meal. Sounds a nightmare to me but there are golden nuggets of information to be gleaned here.

For gardeners like me, always keen to experiment and get the most from the space I garden, it certainly provides a good read; by choosing restaurant gardens located throughout the UK, from Perthshire to Padstow, there's a range of climates and situations that will surely offer inspiration and insight to a wide range of growers. There's even a map if you want to explore the restaurants and their gardens for real. There are tips throughout from gardeners speaking of their experience, advice on growing specific ingredients and an additional page per chapter devoted to 'kitchen garden secrets'.  A good index at the back will take you straight to a featured plant - either gardening or recipe, although the range is limited. (This is not an allotment how-to book.)

By showcasing both the head gardeners and the chefs together, with the restaurant that they work for (or own!), there is a nice continuum from plot to plate. Not all the recipes appealed to me but then I don't cook dinner party fare, just hearty fill-your-boots food for teenagers.  That doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to try raspberry cranachan or rose geranium panna cotta. There's a delicious recipe for a classic summer stew of ratatouille (what to do with that courgette glut!) and I quite fancy the rainbow chard and bean soup as well.

On the flip side, I could leave recipes such as the plate of 'Beetroot textures'; undoubtedly eye-pleasing, it's firmly in the fancy restaurant dish category - a meal of style over substance.  But that's just me - someone else might need a menu to impress and find this perfect.

Although my training is taking me towards garden design, I'm plot to plate obsessed and will always be first and foremost a food grower. I'm fascinated by every aspect of it, from foraging to unusual edibles to the benefits of growing your own and hunt out and save recipes using food that I grow.  A garden visit is made so much more appealing if there's a kitchen garden included and I'm curious to know how such food growing spaces are managed for effective production.  For all of these reasons, I found 'Kitchen Garden Experts' an absorbing read; it's a definite bonus that the book is visually beautiful* and engagingly written. I'm more than pleased to add this to my gardening bookshelf.

Here's a little taster of the 40 recipes to be found within:

Yorkshire pudding with puréed parsnips and roasted vegetables
Scorched onion with crispy rocket and pesto (with details of growing wild rocket)
Baked gooseberries with lemon verbena ice cream and flapjack
Baby courgettes with a garden herb mayo
Poached rhubarb with buttermilk pudding, honeycomb and ginger wine
Rosehip syrup (to serve with cheese and salad leaves)
Plum and almond flan
Leeks vinaigrette
Two way runner beans
Fig Mozzarella and basil salad
Sorrell frittata

Hopefully, this black box below will work as a slideshow of a few recipe photos to whet your appetites!

There are many more recipes, of the type that you might find on Masterchef, eg Whitby lobster with quail's eggs and garden beans, and all the recipes have detailed instructions on how to prepare the food.  An opportunity to brush up on dinner party skills perhaps?

* photos by Jason Ingram who won the Garden Media Guild Photographer of the Year award last year.

Disclaimer: My thanks go to the publisher, Frances Lincoln, who sent me the book to review; it is available through their website or the usual online retailers.

23 Mar 2014

And the winner of The Cut Flower Patch book is ...

We had to redraw a winner for the book as Susiesae did not get in touch. I'm pleased to say that the book will now be sent to Anna from Green Tapestry blog.  Congratulations! Happy reading and flower growing!

Number 32!  Which, of course, means absolutely nothing yet.  Read on.

My recent review of Louise Curley's fabulous new book 'The Cut Flower Patch' had an amazing response - 74 comments from readers who would like to win their own copy.  I asked readers to tell me of their favourite cut flowers and there were some lovely suggestions with repeat mentions for sweet peas, roses, freesias, jasmine, lilies, sunflowers, gerberas, lupins and cosmos. It seems we're all in love with scented flowers and I absolutely agree with Christine Dodd that the Sweet Williams on the book cover are gorgeous - one to add to my own plot, I think!  My particular thanks go to Strepsy for Heliotropium arborescens; I had to look this one up and it sounds wonderful, being nicknamed the Cherry Pie plant as this is apparently what its scent is like. Yum!

I recognised a few of the names and decided, to be completely fair, that I would have to ask an unbiased committee to choose a name.  Step forward my five lovely great nieces, four friends, four dogs and a watering can.  Despite the urge to run off and play outdoors in the gorgeous Staffordshire countryside, they - and the dogs - restrained themselves long enough to pull a number out of the can.  (Hope you can see this video, I'm using the Blogger video platform.  That's my niece speaking, btw.)

Numbers rather than names were used and I matched the chosen number to my list of commenters.

And the winner is … Susiesae, the 32nd person to leave a comment.

Please could you contact me (use the Contact Me button under my blog header) or DM me on Twitter - your Blogger profile doesn't let me get in touch with you!

As contact details were required, I think it's fair to say that if I don't hear from the winner by mid-week (Wednesday), I'll have to redraw as I know some of you wanted this book for Mother's Day! So, come on, Susiesae, get in touch! :)

My thanks again to everyone who took the time to leave a comment and/or enter the giveaway and to Frances Lincoln for donating a copy of the book.

7 Mar 2014

Book review: The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley

It is a long held ambition of mine to create a little cottage garden with flowers that can be gathered for indoors.  I'm limited by the tiny veg patch which is for food growing but I've introduced a few flowers over recent years, either edible or to attract beneficial insects. I get so much pleasure from these few flowers that I want more - but which are the best to choose from the vast selection of seeds out there? With perfect timing for the seed sowing season, Louise Curley (aka Wellywoman) has provided the answers in her newly published book 'The Cut Flower Patch'.

Louise, a trained horticulturist, has spent the past two years putting together her first book about growing flowers on her allotment and in her garden in Monmouthshire, UK. (Read Louise's posts about writing the book here and here.) Louise writes a jolly good blog so I was confident that her book would be equally good. Having now read it, and actually used her advice, I'm pleased to say I was right.

First off, the book is beautiful to look at. The front cover is very striking; the rest is gob-smackingly gorgeous. Photos are by the very talented Jason Ingram and the layout is also very pleasing. Everything has a very fresh, natural feel so you want to keep rifling through the pages.

The text is accurate and well researched with excellent practical advice - just what you'd expect from an experienced gardener - and with a warm, helpful tone.  We've all been overwhelmed by the vast range of seeds available today; in the past, I've chosen seeds on looks only to find that they're tricky to grow.  Louise writes of just 23 annuals plus bulbs, corms, tubers and filler foliage, expanding within each category to name the varieties that she's found perform best, both in ease of growing and vase life. Simple and achievable.

After reading the book, I feel that anyone, whether beginner or more experienced grower, could successfully grow a few flowers for cutting, even with only the tiniest patch of land. All the information is here with helpful hints sprinkled throughout. Chapters such as 'What makes a great cut flower?', setting up and 'Caring for your patch', 'Growing from seed' and 'Why choose bulbs?' demystify the process and lead up to the grand finale, 'Showing Off', with page after page of deliciously beautiful flower arrangements. The penultimate section, 'Rich Pickings', looks creatively beyond the patch to seedheads, grasses, shrubs and hedgerows to extend interest throughout the year.

But this makes it sound like a gardener's manual and there is so much more here. I found the personal writing style made it both hugely readable and informative.  I particularly like the little bits of history and background to the plants and the 'Why grow it?' reason given for plant choices.  As far as I could tell, no small detail of successful growing has been overlooked; read diligently, this book is as complete a workshop in growing flowers from scratch as you could hope to find.  No wonder the RHS has added it to its bookshop shelves.


The publishers have offered an additional copy of the book as a giveaway so that one lucky urbanvegpatch reader can have their own copy.  (UK entries only, sorry.) To enter, just leave a comment and tell me your favourite flower to be in with a chance. The closing date is midnight on 21st March.

Important! Please ensure your comment links back to a means of contacting you! Your Twitter name, blog, google+, email (all words eg 'at' 'dot') or Facebook page.

My thanks go to Frances Lincoln for supplying me with a copy of the book for review.

UPDATE: The giveaway has now closed.  The winning entry was Susiesae - please get in touch before Wednesday 26th. If I don't hear from the winner, I will redraw from the remaining commenters on Thursday 27th.

PS.  As recommended in the book, if you're starting a cut flower patch from scratch, check out the website of Cornwall based Higgledy Garden for a seed collection of the best flowers for cutting … and support our British flower growers at the same time!

Blog readers may know that Louise (Wellywoman) is married to Ian, the writer of Piano Learner blog.  Read his brilliant post about the background to writing the book with links to newspapers reviews and other blog reviews here.

To order The Cut Flower Patch at the discounted price of £16.00 including p+p* (RRP: £20.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG101.

Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to: LBS Mail Order Department, Littlehampton Book Services, PO Box 4264, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 3RB.

Please quote the offer code APG101 and include your name and address details.

*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

7 Mar 2013

Veg Street: Grow your own community - a new gardening book by Naomi Schillinger

I met Naomi Schillinger a couple of years ago after realising that she lived and gardened not far from me in North London. Having followed her blog for some months, I was curious to know how she had succeeded in getting so many of her local community involved in her front garden veg growing project.  The answer, discovered over a cup of tea and a tour of the neighbourhood, is that she is enthusiastic, energetic and passionate about gardening. Naomi's commitment to the community gardening project has now seen those energies channelled into a new book called 'Veg Street - Grow your own community'.

A copy of the book was sent from Naomi via her publishers and it's a pleasure to see what a worthwhile endeavour this book has been.  Even with several years gardening experience under my belt, I've found Naomi's book very informative.  I'd go further and say it would be invaluable to anyone wanting to start an edible garden - whether in a bucket or a backyard. But the real point of the book is how the front garden vegetable project has transformed a few streets into a cohesive neighbourhood community. It's not only made it a nicer and more colourful place to live, but has made the area safer too.

I found the structure of the book very helpful: it's chunked up into months of the year, with each chunk following the same format of monthly list and introduction, community corner, sowing and planting, good ideas, one pot shop and harvesting.  To quote one of Naomi's headings, this is a Simple but Brilliant Idea; it makes it possible to swiftly locate areas of prime interest, although every section makes rewarding reading - and the absolute basics (soil, light, etc) are covered at the beginning of the book. Creative ideas, useful recommendations and beautiful photos - many taken by Naomi herself - abound throughout.

So, with a wealth of gardening books available, what makes this one different?  For a start, it's written in the first person, rather than as an informal guide, which gives it a warm and friendly tone; there's a real sense of how much fun everyone is having, the community spirit which this project has engendered and how it's all so achievable. Naomi's voice is heard throughout, imparting the full benefit of her extensive gardening experience - a bit like a cross between garden chat over a cup of tea and sitting down to read the gardening section of the Sunday supps.  For those that don't live in her street and can't pop into a Cake Sunday for practical advice, this is the next best thing. So whether you want to become more confident in creating or nurturing an edible garden or you want get to know your neighbours better, this book is worth a more than a look. Who knows? It may even be the catalyst that starts a gardening project within your own community.

I'll definitely be referring to my copy throughout the year; it's a keeper - thank you, Naomi!

The book is available from today, 7th March. Read more in Naomi's post here.

Naomi Schillinger writes a regular blog about gardening and her community at Out of My Shed.

15 Apr 2012

Review: Green Crafts for Children

~ Gratuitous photo of cowslip on balcony; just to brighten up the day! ~
Today started by looking at clear blue skies with a good stiff breeze. Rubbish for taking photos (the above was taken yesterday) but perfect for pottering around the patch and sowing peas and beans as long as I'm quick!  The veg patch only gets sun until midday and there was quite a chill in the wind yesterday so this is a day to be getting on with things.

First though, I have a(nother) book to review. Following on from my review of Garden Crafts for Children, Green Crafts for Childrenis another good start for beginner crafters and I mention it here only because a few of the skills can be taken outside.  I'm thinking about the Gardening with Children group on UK Veg Gardeners - there's a running theme of how to keep the children occupied for a short while so that adults can complete some of the more mundane, but essential, tasks in the allotment or garden. Most children won't need much prompting to rush off den building or exploring but there will, inevitably, come a time when they've had enough but the adult hasn't (if you're anything like me... ).

By taking a small bag of non-fussy crafts with you, everyone's happy for a bit longer and this craft book may offer a few suggestions. Interested? Then pop over to my other blog Veg Patch Kids for the full lowdown. (That blog has been rather neglected for a long while but, as I'm helping out at a local primary school gardening club from this Friday, it may well be seeing a bit more action.)

I rather like this project from the book ... !
P.S.  I was right about the wind - it's been very nippy today as well and the early sunshine was quickly covered by clouds.  Hope it warms up soon!

13 Apr 2012

Garden Crafts for Children

Regular readers here will know that, on occasion, my gardening efforts are besieged by a few mini-gardeners. They love to help out but, despite the magic of growing food from tiny seeds and the delights of watering, they'll soon be casting around for distractions. The promise of a crafting activity will sustain interest and this is where the two books I've received from Cico Books would come in very handy.

Garden Crafts for Children
The first is Dawn Isaac's new book Garden Crafts for Children. You may already know Dawn Isaac through her blog, Little Green Fingers (or through her writing in the Guardian), in which case you'll have seen some of her clever ideas woven through the gardening she does with her own children.

Dawn's book has 35 step-by-step ideas together with an introductory section on the basics of sowing and growing, choosing containers and essential kit. There's a lot that's very good about this book: visually appealing, clear instructions, engaging projects with results you'll want to keep, thus giving the kids a real sense of achievement. The activities aim to educate in a fun way, teaching skills that lead gently into a love for gardening - but don't be put off if you don't have a garden as many crafts are nature related and accessible to all. I particularly like that most of the activities are based both indoors and out, giving options for both good and bad weather, rather than being a book solely about crafting outdoors.  Projects are designed for a range of ages, assuming that adults will be working alongside the children. (Some projects need more supervision than others.)

I reviewed it with a fairly experienced eye as I've been crafting since childhood and used to teach a primary school arts club. For that reason, I would have liked to see a nod to health and safety in the garden as some of the book's audience may be new to this area of crafting. As gardeners, we're already aware (I hope) of the plants that sting, poison or cause nasty rashes and of the potential hazards of cat poo, garden canes without tops and behaving sensibly around beneficial bugs. Without wishing to be over cautious, teaching basic garden safety gets everyone off to a good start.

So, after all that, what's in the book?

~ Insect Hotel ... always a good idea
and fun to build ~
Stylish outdoor projects that will help to glam up your garden (or allotment) include an insect hotel, a sunflower walk, bean archways and - wish I'd thought of this - scented hopscotch. Expect to see some of these fab projects appearing in my veg patch over the summer months. Indoor projects include herbal bath bags, easy flower soaps, garden lights amongst many others. There are clear instructions for mini gardens that will provide hours of play long after the activity is finished.

~ Scented HopScotch ~
As expected, there's an emphasis on gorgeous props.  These help to style the book beautifully but may be inaccessible to folk on a budget; a few tips on recycled and cheaper alternatives would have been useful. An example of this: Planting herbs in a strawberry planter is a nice (but not new) idea; but, for those who can't afford the ceramic planter, a small note about the availability of polypropylene planters, especially in end-of-season sales, would be helpful. Likewise the mini window boxes; this project relies on being able to get hold of single wooden wine boxes, tools and good DIY skills. (Personally, I'd be able to make one out of thick cardboard, papier maché and varnish... and perhaps I will, as a future post.)

Two small (and very pedantic) niggles: Some of the ideas, such as planting into welly boots and growing cress caterpillars, have been around for a while and feel like page fillers. I appreciate that these are quick crafts for very little children but feel there's many more crafts that could have replaced these. Having said that, the dinosaur world is wonderful ... love the re-use of an old tyre.
Secondly, this UK book appears to be aimed at the American market. I'm aware that the interest in crafting is strong in the US but americanised phrases throughout became irritating. We're given rain boots, cookie cutters, Popsicle sticks, thrift stores, etc, with the Anglicised version in brackets. Call me patriotic, but I'm annoyed at being downgraded to second place especially as the author, and publisher, is British.

So would I recommend it? Unreservedly. Dawn Isaac is a trained garden designer and her children are given free reign in her family garden. This book draws on that experience and has a lot to offer. Even though many projects were familiar to me, there's still plenty to inspire.  Newcomers to crafting will easily be able to follow the projects and keep the kids amused over even the very long summer holidays.

My thanks to Cico Books for sending me a copy to review.

Green Crafts for Children
I've also been sent Green Crafts for Children, a book published last year but worth mentioning as there are several projects which, although not labelled as such, would be great in the garden.  My review will appear tomorrow.

21 Dec 2011

Book Review - The Fruit Tree Handbook

The veg patch has definitely embraced winter - I managed an hour of clearing and tidying in the garden at the weekend before my hands needed to warm up around a mug of hot chocolate.  I noticed that the branches of the fruit trees are now completely bare, in contrast to a couple of weeks ago when it was 'too soon to prune'.

(Taken on the day of Winter Solstice - so dark in the midday that I had to photograph in the bathroom!)
This year I feel much better equipped to deal with pruning as I've received a copy of The Fruit Tree Handbook by Ben Pike. What I needed was a book that properly explained the how, why and wherefore of pruning and, in this book, I've got it. There's an entire chapter devoted to the subject: read this and the brain fog surrounding pruning will magically disperse. Every pair of secateurs sold should be accompanied by a copy of this chapter.  For me, this is life-changing stuff and it's written in a really clear, logical way. No wonder I couldn't figure it out from a 2 page RHS handout - this one topic takes 22 pages to explain.

The author writes about the consequences of pruning lightly or hard, both immediate and long term, in producing both vegetative and fruiting growth.  Terminology is clearly explained, supported by very good diagrams - laterals, sub-laterals, fruiting spurs, growth rings, leaf buds, one year old growth, two year old growth: all of these are now easily identified.  Formative pruning, pruning techniques and a range of pruning tools are all comprehensively covered. And I now know the difference between tip bearing and spur bearing trees.  And that's just the general skinny on pruning; information specific to each fruit is contained in later chapters.

The book is presented in four sections plus a glossary, appendices, resources and index; pruning falls into the section on Fruit Tree Management and is followed by a chapter on identifying, and organically controlling, pests and problems associated with fruit trees. Detailed information in the chapter reads like a medical dictionary for fruit, complete with graphic pictures that drive the point home.  For me, this whole section would have been worth the cover price alone.

But there's so much more to this book.  Ben is a man who is passionate about orchards (indeed, he's the Head Gardener at Sharpham Estate in Devon where he manages two orchards containing 150 fruit trees).  So the third part of this book has separate chapters devoted to individual tree-grown fruits:  apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches & nectarines, apricots - and other fruit (figs, quinces, medlars, mulberries). You won't find shrub or cane fruit in here - we're talking Orchards. Tables neatly set out the unique characteristics of each variety and are listed in order of their time of cropping: for example, I could pick Beauty of Bath in early August and, by growing a variety of apples, carry on picking fresh fruit through to late October with a Winston apple (sweet-sharp, aromatic and nutty). I had almost completed my preparations to buy more trees for the York Rise garden but this section had me tearing up my list after reading the recommendations for dessert and cooking apple varieties. Ben sensibly advocates taking some time to deliberate over the final choice to make sure that what you grow is right for your garden and your needs and for storage, if you so wish.  This is not something we did when the York Rise mini-orchard went in 3 winters ago as we opted for well known varieties: conference pears, braeburn apples, morello cherries and victoria plums.  I've realised that I now have an opportunity to broaden the scope of the 'orchard' here by growing some more interesting varieties such as Pitmaston Pineapple ("an old variety with crisp and nutty, small sweet yellow apples") or Lord Lambourne ("crisp, juicy flesh, sweet with balancing acidity").

Both the first and last sections (Planning and Planting an Orchard; Renovating an Orchard and Building a Community Orchard) are more probably targeted towards the professional fruit grower and of less interest to the amateur gardener who may only want to grow a few trees but that, in my opinion, does not detract from making this a useful reference book for both.

The book concentrates on growing fruit but doesn't tell you what to do with your fruit once picked; Ben Pike leaves that to other experts.  This is a handbook that reflects the author's love for the environment and for fruit trees. What you do get here is a wealth of knowledge that will benefit the trees in your care - written in an easy, flowing style that makes the information easily accessible and memorable, even for a novice like me. This is the author on the principles of pruning:
"Pruning fruit trees is a subject that seems to be shrouded in mystery. Many people, not really knowing where to start, are afraid of damaging their trees [...]; it is possible to harm fruit trees, either by pruning too hard, or pruning at the wrong time of year, but clear instructions and an understanding of the principles of pruning will allow you to make judicious cuts that will help your trees to prosper."
If, like me, you have any doubts about what to do when faced with any tree or shrub to prune, I recommend you give this book a try. You'll be in safe hands. And if you are yet to contemplate growing your own fruit, this book may just motivate you to find a space for a couple of trees in your garden. As the author says, by growing your own orchard, or just a few trees, you can grow the kind of apple that is perfect for you - with the added advantage of creating a habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

My (very grateful) thanks to Stacey Hodge at Green Books for sending the book.

14 Jun 2011

Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost)

"Over the years I have travelled down the country rather like a sock slips down inside a wellington boot. ... I have found one universal truth that binds all productive gardeners - none of them like to spend any money! ... In this modern society we're so conned into believing we need money to do anything, yet in other cultures around the world where there is no money, people improvise and make do with what they have."  So says Dave Hamilton in the Final Words to his book 'Grow Your Food for Free'. 

I apologise for the delayed review of this book, it should have been done weeks ago. Trouble is, every time I pick up the book meaning to speed read it for the review, I get completely caught up in it because it's so good.

The book is sub-titled 'Great money-saving ideas for your garden' by Dave Hamilton (who also co-wrote The Self-Sufficientish Bible with his brother Andy).  So it's less about how to grow veg and more about avoiding spending lots of money by retraining your eye to reassess and reuse what you already have. Surely a subject dear to the heart of many an allotmenteer?

Please don't think that the growing, harvesting, storing and cooking of food, whether grown or foraged, is not addressed; the book is sprinkled throughout with tips on propagating, planting out, protecting your seedlings, pests and diseases, drying, storing and using.  Do you know how to get an extra harvest from your home-grown veg?

Sunflower perch
Reams of seriously practical advice draw on Dave's long experience as a forager and food grower; this advice is particularly helpful to both short-term tenants who may only have access to their growing space for one or two seasons and to new (and very practical) allotment growers who may be contemplating spending money on tools, seeds, composter, shed, etc.

The book is presented in four seasonal parts and further broken down into chapters relevant to each time of year. Apart from practical gardening advice (assessing your growing space and planning), there's suggestions on acquiring and using free timber - and not just the ubiquitous pallet; facts about the living soil: manure, compost, wood ash, no-dig beds, leaf mould and, my personal favourite, the Chicken Tractor. Edible hedges, building stepping-stone paths, hazel fences, ponds and wildlife gardening, all presented in a very accessible and well-written style. Seriously, I never thought I'd be so enthralled by this; I mean who knew that tomatoes grow better up a string than a cane? Or that peas fare better on horizontal supports as their tendrils work like little hands climbing up a ladder? (Okay, so maybe I'm the last to know but isn't that what's so great about gardening, the learning curve? And this book delivers.)

Because of Dave's self-sufficient background, there's a fair bit of information on gathering food in the wild which won't appeal to everyone.  Other information such as building a shed from pallet wood might not be taken up but how to dismantle a shed (should you be lucky enough to be given one on, say, Freecycle) is invaluable.

There's a lot of information packed into its 240 pages - and clear illustrations and photos on almost every page - but, whether dipping in and out, or reading straight through, it's like having a knowledgeable gardening neighbour chatting over the fence, fast-tracking you to the good stuff.

An excellent read.  It's available now from all good booksellers.
Published by Green Books in Devon and printed in the UK on 100% recycled paper.

22 May 2011

Perplexed by Potatoes? How to Grow Your Food

... A Guide for Complete Beginners by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert.  This is a(nother) new book aimed at novice food-growing gardeners and, after reviewing it, I give this book 9½ out of 10.

I love surprise packages and this little book - just 16cm square - arrived during the week from Green Books, an independent publisher in Devon. Green Books say it will be published this week, on 26th May, although Amazon apparently have had it since 7th April this year!

First impressions:  Lovely size and feel. Clear layout, distinct headings, plenty of photos for each plant, drawings where needed, e.g pinching out tomato side-shoots. It's a soft-back book, about the thickness of a monthly magazine, so (and I apologise if this seems sacrilegious treatment of a new book) it's tempting to roll it up and stuff it in a back pocket where it will happily sit until needed. As a gardener who stuffs everything in my pockets, this is a plus. I also like the matt feel of the pages which are printed on recycled paper.

So far, so promising.  The main sections are The Basics, then Easy-to-Grow Veg, E2G Fruit and E2G Herbs, arranged alphabetically within their chapters.  Each plant has a symbol showing at a glance where/how it can be grown (useful for small space or container growers), excellent illustrative photos and clear information about what to do. Just 6 headings contain all you need to know answers:  Plant or seed? Planting/Sowing, How do *** grow? Looking after your ***, Harvesting, Now What?  For me, this is the winner. The information is straightforward, concise, to the point and very easy to understand. I've even picked up a tip or two myself and found myself wishing I'd had this book three years ago when I started the Veg Patch.

The downside:  There is no index, despite the pages being numbered. This is easily overcome with a few post-it type markers relating to the veg you're planting, although I couldn't find Spinach until I happened on Perpetual spinach! I'm also curious as to the choices of plants that were selected for the book;  parsnips and turnips but no pumpkins and squashes?  Broccoli but no cauliflower or brussels? The fruit section has nothing on strawberries which, in my view are easy to grow, a good investment (if you're shown how to peg out runners) and expensive to buy in the shops even at the height of the season.  Melon (from seed) would have been a nice addition, too. The herb section is very limited - no coriander, no chives, no oregano.  Sure, rosemary and sage are easy to grow but how often are they used by the average cook? (This is, after all, a book about growing food and I'd have thought that coriander and chives are frequently used by cooks, along with parsley and basil (featured). Any tips on the uses of various herbs would also have been a big plus point. And what about edible flowers?  Many people still want a pretty garden, albeit a useful one.  I think that was the appeal of Alys Fowler's garden, the randomness of finding lettuce among the marigolds and so forth.

And so, to summarise:  Bearing in mind this is a book for novice food growers, it should definitely take it's place as essential early reading.  (I wish I'd had the section on potatoes when I first grew them, as every gardener I asked had a different piece of advice about planting!) What I love about it is the accessibility; when I started growing veg, I wanted to get straight out into the garden, not be sitting indoors reading about it.  This book allows that possibility, even including three short chapters covering Before You Start, Useful Gardening Terms (so you don't feel like an idiot) and Common Problems.

Forget Dr Hessayon (for now), this book contains excellent clear advice, does not patronise the newbie gardener and I believe (and hope!) it will give beginners the confidence to get started (whether from seed or plant), to succeed and therefore keep going and to explore other varieties in the future.  I imagine the book will get scruffy pretty quickly, having a soft cover, but it's a reference book that belongs in the tool bag or greenhouse, as well as on a bookshelf.

I say again:   9½ out of 10
(And a bargain at only £6.95 cover price!)
Sold via Amazon or Green Books

And the tip I picked up?  I didn't know that basil will grow to 50 cm if you keep pinching off the growing tips ... or that outdoor grown basil (in a warm, sheltered spot) can be cut down to soil level before the first frosts, transplanted and brought indoors where it will throw up new shoots for winter eating.  Keep pinching off those growing tips though, else it will flower and become non-productive.

20 Sept 2010

Gourdness! Giveaway and pumpkin carving

Last year I recall resisting the onset of Autumn and savouring the last days of summer but, this morning, I'm positively excited about the forthcoming Pumpkin Season for I have learned of an exciting competition looming… 

Some of the carved pumpkins featured in the book

A chance conversation yesterday revealed that Fortnum & Mason, renowned London-based purveyors of luxury food hampers and other delightful goodies, are holding their first Pumpkin Carving competition on October 29th.  It's a Friday so, presumably, you can take your pumpkin home to show off on All Hallows Eve. There are fabulous prizes (Fortnum's broomstick anyone? Even better: a £1000 hamper, which would nicely sort out Christmas) and themed food such as witch's hair (aka - of course - candyfloss).

I've just spoken to them and been told that places are limited due to pumpkin display space (as of today 50 spaces still up for grabs), booking is essential but it's free!  Not that I'm competitive or anything ~ahem~ but I'm definitely going!  (It is open to adults as well as 5-18 yrs…)

Pale carved squashes look like porcelain. Find out how in the book.

Now this may all sound jolly frustrating to anyone living out of reach but I know that you're a creative lot and hope you'll be inspired to rise to the spirit of the event in your own communities.  Personally, I'm going to be referring to a book which I bought last year:  Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds written by my York Rise neighbour and fellow gardener, Deborah Schneebeli-Morrell and photographed by her husband, Heini.

Debbie is a phenomenal artist and her ideas in this book veer right away from the usual fare of grinning face pumpkins; she not only shows us beginners (in my case) how to carve designs such as Birds in a Bush, Maids in a Row or the Hansel and Gretal house, but also tells us the correct tools to use.  I absolutely lOvE the lantern pumpkins shown in the above photos.  Her love of gardening shines through when we're taught how to make bird feeders out of squash (an easy project for children) and also which are the best - and easiest - varieties to grow. On a practical level, Debbie advises what to do with different squashes (acorn squashes, for example, are difficult to hollow out but can be carved and displayed before being roasted into a platter of patterned veg). Excellent illustrations and instructions throughout make this all very achievable and, although it's not mentioned, it's best to keep the children's involvement to scooping out the flesh rather than knife wielding!
Cico Books have very kindly offered to send me a copy of Decorating Pumpkins and Gourds as a !giveaway! for my readers.  I'll also ask the author to sign it. Just leave a comment before 15th October (should then give you enough time to get carving before Hallowe'en) and I'll randomly pick a winner.  (Please also say if you don't want the book.)

(All photos in this post are © Cico Books and taken by photographer Heini Schneebeli.)
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