Showing posts with label Seeds. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Seeds. Show all posts

31 Jul 2023

Carry On sowing! Crops for autumn, winter and beyond to sow NOW

It's been a pretty disastrous year for veg growing in my patch and this morning, late July, it feels positively autumnal. (Not in a good way.) But I've been through my seed packets and found potential for quite a lot of late summer sowings. By taking advantage of the (relatively) warm and wet weather currently in play here in London, I'll have quick growing crops in the next few months, plus winter leaves and spring harvests.

Just a small selection of what can be grown this autumn!

I don't usually give much thought to late summer sowing at this time of year (there's usually plenty more to be getting on with, like picking, freezing, pickling) and I also have balcony sown crops waiting to go out (kale, beetroot, spring onions) ... but this year there's precious little to harvest.  However, accentuating the positive, I'm excited to realise exactly how much growing is still possible. 

Erring slightly on the optimistic side, I've sorted food seeds into chronological piles: Last Chance for sowing, Sow By end of August, Sow By the end of September and Balcony Baby Leaves.  This way, I can pace myself and sow when I have/make time. And, of course, there's also seeds to sow in the next few weeks for flowers.  

Last Chance ...

Dwarf Beans.  As my broad beans produced only a few usable pods and my french and runner beans were annihilated by a dastardly extreme heat:no water combo, I'm going to take a gamble on sowing some Dwarf Beans. The best results are from sowing between May and early July but as they're fast maturing, I may just get a harvest by the end of October.  I'm sowing Elba from Mr Fothergill seeds for round stringless pods and 'Atlanta' from Johnsons seeds for flat pods that promise to have a crisp texture and excellent snap. Yum!

I've also added peas to this category as I remember sowing Kelvedon Wonder peas late one year and having many pods to pick before winter.  This time I'm trying 'Champion of England' from D T Brown seeds.  

And I mustn't forget carrots.  I was harvesting a summer sowing in December last year so it's well worth sowing these, particularly Amsterdam Sprint (Mr Fothergill seeds) for sweet baby carrots. These should be ready in under 3 months, so I may do a couple of successional sowings.

Balcony Baby Leaves ...

aka Cut and Come Again.  Always useful to have an instant salad bar to hand but it doesn't matter if this doesn't go to plan, it's a good way to use up seeds which may or may not still be viable ... and seeds that should have been sown much earlier.  So for baby salad leaves, into my window box planters will go peas (for pea shoots), spinach, red kale, Cavolo Nero kale, mustard leaf, little gem lettuce and fancy salad leaves.  I could also throw in a few herb seeds like chervil and coriander.

Sow By End of  August ...

It looks like I'll be busy during the next few weeks (the sooner sown the better).  Pink stemmed chard, winter spinach, spring onions, radish, saltbush (Sea Orach), lettuce, lamb's lettuce (corn salad) and Kohl Rabi are all on my list.  Another early veg patch success was a bed full of parsley, vigorously sown by the children here, which flourished after a downpour of warm rain shortly after sowing.  So parsley (curly and flat leaved) is going in, as is Coriander (crops in 6 weeks, allegedly).

Sow by the End of September ...

According to packet instructions, it's okay to sow seeds for kales, pepper cress, onions and breadseed poppies from now to the end of September. These won't be ready this year but I can look forward to earlier crops next year.  And if there's any space left, I'll pop in some rocket, radishes and turnips for an early winter crop this year.  

Flowers ...

It's well known that intercropping flowers with veg not only makes the veg patch pretty but has the added benefit of keeping pollinators happy.  Flowers that drop their seeds in late summer can be sown now - foxgloves, nigella, poppies, calendula, cerinthe and poached egg plant (Limnanthes).  The nigella I'm sowing is called Black Caraway (Mr Fothergill seeds) - the seeds can be used in cooking and I save the seed pods for decoration.  

After the challenges of this year, I admit I have entertained thoughts of planting perennial flowers and having done with it. But could I bring myself to do that? Probably not.  My secret passion, like most veg growers, is munching my way around the garden, nibbling at gooseberries, peas, radishes, et al. And the satisfaction in bringing freshly harvested fruit and veg - yes, even courgettes - back to the kitchen is addictive. And so, of course, the work continues.  

26 Apr 2022

Progress at last!

The seed sowing begins ...

This month I've been pondering on why some seeds fail and the relativity of time ... days pass quickly when enjoying yourself but waiting for seeds to germinate? Not so much. Having sowed trays of peas and broad beans late in March (and loads more seeds throughout this past month), I check daily for signs of life and get excited when tiny green shoots poke up above the soil. (Hello cape gooseberries and ahoy Pak Choi!) This month has been more of a waiting game though and I’m feeling the pressure to get plants growing and planted out in a timely fashion.

The weather hasn't helped ... after a blast of sunshine early in the month, the skies then became grumpy and rather chilly.  This was not ideal for the bean and pea seeds growing outside in the shelter of my tiny balcony. I start hardier seeds off outside as I like to keep windowsills indoors clear for the deluge of more tender seeds to come. Sometimes my optimism is misplaced.

Earlier in the month, having monitored daily for the appearance of broad/fava bean and sweet pea seeds, I began to wonder if they were all duds - and then it dawned on me to check the label I’d put with the plants. Even though it seemed like ages since I'd sown the seeds, it had only been a week and temperatures were chilly. Doh! 

However, sigh of relief, after a respite indoors on the kitchen windowsill, shoots appeared within a few days; at 2 inches tall, the plants went back onto the balcony. And now I have ten sturdy little plants planted out and growing well.  (There were supposed to be fourteen but four seeds did fail to germinate, such is life.)

Why so few plants? Well, the broad beans were destined for two 12 inch wide rows in the Abundance Bed which is my project this year. I decided to dedicate an area of the veg patch for an Abundance Bed after reading Huw Richard's book 'Veg in One Bed' (reviewed in December); I love being told what to do and when. Sticking to the book's plan of action, my broad beans were planted out mid-April when the plants were about 4" high.  Whew ... just in time! 

But why do seeds sometimes fail?

Sometimes the seeds are just too old if kept from year to year. Once packets are opened, seeds start to deteriorate and the energy stored up for germination is lost - basically, they run out of puff. I’ve started marking new seed packets with the date that I opened the foils and pay attention to the year packed as well as the ‘sow by’ date.

Some seeds will last longer; I’m sprouting a few old orca and Borlotti beans in cotton wool to test their viability rather than wasting seed compost. I first saw this done with slow germinating seeds like parsnips, tried it for myself and it worked. I’ll plant the seeds when (if!) signs of life are seen. 

It's guesswork knowing the best time to sow seeds; the sowing timelines on the packet caters for gardens at all extremes of the country but it is only guidance. Too cold and they’ll struggle to germinate. Too early and they struggle for light. Too late and annual plants don't have enough time to fully develop.  That's particularly true for chillies (always hit and miss for me) but I've finally got my tomatoes, cucumbers, chillies, leeks and peas sown.  All in modules, destined for the windowsills - the first lot for the warmth needed to germinate the seeds and the peas to (hopefully!) keep the mice from eating them. 

I've sown runner beans, sweet corn and french beans into root trainers this morning; squash and courgettes are next - maybe a teeny bit later than usual but with slightly warmer weather now, they should quickly grow into strong plants. Fingers crossed, eh?

And the sweet peas? Well, after three weeks of daily checking, a few tiny shoots popped their heads above the soil, just fifteen out of the 30 tubes sown. That'll do.  But lesson learned: noticeably it's the freshest seeds that have germinated (plus a few from last year) so some ruthless seed culling is needed! 

So, as ever at this time of year ... onwards!

28 Jan 2018

Sorting seeds for success

It's still cold, even in London, but these past few days there have been glimpses of blue skies that make me think about summer ahead in the garden. (And, ooh hello, it's only eight weeks until British Summer Time! There, that doesn't sound too bad now does it? Glass half full gal, here.)

Drawing the plot
Where to start? My plot is too small to stick to a strict rotation plan but it's useful to look back year on year to see where crops were planted and try to give the soil a breather. So I always start by drawing up rough plans for both allotment and veg patch as I can't see either garden from indoors. Being naturally optimistic, I've a tendency to overestimate the number of plants I can grow in the available space. With a sketch, I've got the garden to hand whenever I need it; I map out the perennial plants, see what needs to be moved or replaced, and plan where to plant this year. If I've only got 30 minutes to get outside, I know exactly what I can achieve in that time.

Yes, I know I could walk the plot and get an idea that way but that goes right out the window when ordering seeds - just now when looking online at sweet peas, I was totally distracted from my purpose by seeds for a caper plant. I resisted because, in a few months time, I'll be wondering where I'm going to plant all these seedlings. This way I can at least try to keep it real.

Making a list
So I've got my garden plan on paper. (Actually, i-pad, which I love.) Next, for both the veg patch and allotment, I've made a list of all the food I want to grow this year and then plotted those foods onto the plan, checking them off my list as I go.  I was quite surprised to see how much I could fit into my relatively small growing space - the veg patch is just 10 metres x 3 metres (32ft x 10ft). I'll sow fast growing carrots inbetween slow growing onion sets; spinach likes a shadier spot in the summer so will grow under climbing beans; kale and broccoli will be planted out when the broad beans come out, a border of spring onions can line the path. Tomatoes are companion plants for asparagus. Etc. You get the idea.

So now I know what to grow and where to put it. Now I can think about seeds. There are a few seeds that can be sown in February (under cover, of course), otherwise it's the perfect time to empty out the seed box and see what I've got before I settle down to mark up seed catalogues.  I find it incredibly easy to be tempted into overspending - I currently have four types of spinach, 6 types of beans ... I could go on but I've said enough.

Seed box detox
So, first off, I went through all my seed packets and steeled myself to discard any that were past their sow-by date. That's a tough one as seeds can be expensive but it's important. As with any living matter, seeds age (especially if they're stored in an old box on a warm shelf), and with it a significant reduction in the likelihood of successful germination. Who needs to watch soil for signs of life only to find two or three weeks later that it's a major fail?

The Real Seed company, who positively encourage seed saving, have a page which gives the estimated life span of certain seeds.  Very useful. That page is here.

Favourite seeds past their best that need to be reordered I put into a separate reminder pile.  Seeds where I couldn't see a best before date or remember how long I'd had them went onto the 'chuck' pile.  I found that several companies put no dates on their packets; others indicate only when the seeds were packed. This means seeds labelled as packed in 'year ending March 2016', could have been packed in April 2015 so are unlikely to be viable in March 2018, although it might be worth a try. Growers choice. Having walked that path before with limited success, I'd rather replace those seeds.  This year I'll be writing the purchase date on every new packet to give my future self a huge clue.

So now I have a pile of viable seeds. Do I want all of them? Probably not. Most of the free seeds from magazines or trade shows will go to a seed swap. There's also seeds that didn't do well for me (Cherokee Trail of Tears beans) or the end product didn't justify the time and space. Or I've seen a new variety that I want to try, so the current ones won't get used. These are all valid reasons to reassess what I've got. Topped up with regular rounds of hot drinks and toast, it's a very cathartic exercise for a wet (or snowy) afternoon when I don't fancy being outdoors.

Getting organised
With a decluttered seed box and a list of what to order,  finally I turn to the seed catalogues. I'll always want to try more seeds than are on my list but, armed with a wishlist to make notes and The Plan, I'm far less likely to succumb to temptation.

I've noticed that a few magazines have got calendars of when to sow and harvest crops.  This is very general and depends on the weather and soil temperature where you live but my next job will be to organise my seeds by their sow by dates and note that in my garden diary.

How about you? Do you reorder everything fresh each year or try to use what you've already got?

17 Jan 2017

Pig Latin for gardeners

(Photo: Looking back on the glory years!) 

I'm fascinated how language constantly evolves and new words pop up. I discovered an amazing new-to-me word the other day - 'veganuary'. Heard of it?  I hadn't until I spotted the term in a vegetarian magazine. That should have given me the clue but of course I read it as VEG-anuary - what a brilliant word to start the food gardening year, I thought!  After reading the article, I realised the word was coined to adopt January as the month when people are challenged to try vegan (animal free) eating habits.

30 Mar 2016

Lashings of tea, books and rain

As Bank Holiday Mondays go, this week's was fairly typical - lashing rain and lots of it.  Despite promises of a dry day, I woke up to the sound of wind whistling through the double glazing and rain being hurled against the window panes.  Just another stormy spring day in England.  Obviously the sensible course of action was to make a huge mug of tea, collect up my notebook and pencil, seed catalogues and gardening books and retire back to the sanctum of my bed to spend the morning in my pyjamas planning my seed order for this year.  Pretty much the perfect morning, actually.

For this pleasant interlude I pulled 'The Great Vegetable Plot', 'A Taste of the Unexpected' and 'Grow for Flavour' off the shelves and worked through them. I was particularly absorbed in reading The Great Veg Plot - a book I've had for many years but haven't read it for quite a while - shame on me because I found the author's reasoning for choosing what to grow quite illuminating. (Note: I would recommend this book for beginner growers; it's readable, inspirational and instructive.)

You'd think after growing food for quite a few years now that I'd pretty much have the seed list off pat, but I like to remain open to new possibilities.  I have limited space so it's essential to make sure that I'm using it well by growing the best tasting veg plus a few unusual new tastes. (And last year my tomatoes were a disaster so I'm grabbing the opportunity to try something different.)

By the end of my leisurely morning, I was well on the way to creating a (very long) list of seeds to buy. First, I considered the three categories of plants in The Great Veg Plot - Freshly Picked, Un-buyables and Desert Island picks. Interesting, huh?  The first two groups are surely the reason why anyone would want to grow their own, however small the available space. And the last group clarified my thinking quite effectively.

So what would you put into the freshly picked category?  I'd definitely put crunchy mange-tout, baby climbing beans, sun warmed tomatoes, salad leaves and young podded broad beans. These are all veg I love to snack on as I wander the garden in the summer.  Peas too when I remember to grow them. And Cape Gooseberries are so much nicer eaten straight from the bush - mine grows as a perennial.

With the storm still raging outside, I turned my thoughts to the 'Un-buyables'. What's interesting about these is that since the book's publication in 2005, a lot of the veg covered in this section are now available in selected supermarkets. So no longer un-buyable, but possibly hard to get. But shouldn't we also think about the days and miles between harvest and sale?  Veg such as globe artichokes, asparagus, edible flowers, pea tips and some of the more unusual squashes and beetroot are much nicer harvested at their freshest so perhaps these need moving to 'Better Grown than Bought' (I just made that up) rather than 'Un-Buyable'.

Un-buyables: Karmazyn beans sown earlier.
Superb flavour and seed readily available from Dobies, Chilterns, Suttons, Fothergills and More Veg
For my own un-buyables, my list would have to include rainbow chard, achocha, honeyberries (like blueberries), a rainbow of carrots, spaghetti squash, wild garlic and pink Karmazyn broad beans. (Incidentally, I came across a broad bean called 'Red Epicure' which stays red when steamed. Anyone tried these?)  I'm also growing Borlotti beans for the first time this year as my Cherokee Trail of Tears heritage beans of last summer were dismal. Each spring I hope for greater things!  I also checked into Mark Diacono's 'A Taste of the Unexpected' for inspiration here - and wished that my Chilean Guava of a couple of years ago had survived.

And lastly, Desert Island Plants - these are the must-haves, the plants that influence and enhance my cooking, that I take real pleasure in growing. Taking the name at face value, what would I absolutely have to have in my garden?  And if my choice was limited to just five plants, what would I choose?  Let's see - herbs, of course, such as parsley and thyme, raspberries, Cavolo kale and cape gooseberries. (That was hard - imagine life without chillies, pak choi, salad leaves and salad onions!)

But I still wasn't finished. Refreshing my mug of tea (and bringing a plate of toast back from the kitchen as well) I completed the indulgence by reading through my favourite seed catalogue, pen in hand, and circling all the seeds that appealed. Having noted these down in my book alongside the list of my perennial veg and the plan of the veg patch, I now have the onerous task of whittling down my list to fit the available space. Still, there's always pots and containers …

So, I'm intrigued - what would your top five Desert Island plants be - and do you grow any Un-Buyables that you'd recommend?  Tell all!  :o)

9 May 2014

When seeds fail to germinate

Or, if at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again.

Like most gardeners (I imagine) I have a large box of seeds, the result of too many impulse buys online and in the garden centre. A magazine article or book has only to mention that this or that plant is edible and I'm straight off to find out more and, in all likelihood, add the seeds to my growing collection. I've tried to curb my curiosity but it seems to get the better of me fairly regularly so, with many tastes to try and with minimal space available, only a few seeds from each packet get sown*, the packet gets stored and, inevitably, there are still loads left for next year.  So is it a good idea to keep them?

Well, it depends on the seed and how they've been stored.  Store them in a cool, dark place (not the fridge) in paper packets (not plastic) and seeds should be good at least until their Use By date. A few will be duds from the off and will never germinate.  A few, like carrots, really are best used fresh for maximum success.  The other seeds, like you, me and the rest of the planet, are ageing slowly and imperceptibly, getting tired and, frankly, getting a bit past it. Of course I'm no longer talking about myself now. ;) Or you. Just the seeds. Plant seeds are a lot more reliable and vigorous in their youth.

This year when planning what to grow, I ruthlessly chucked out the seeds that should have been sown by 2012, if not before. It was a lot. (The photo above is the 'after' shot!) The packet of Canadian Wonder red kidney beans, exp date 2012, was kept.  I loved this plant - a bush bean, growing to about 2 ft tall with prolific fruiting.

Canadian Wonder bush beans in early August 2012
I had a long summer of all the beans I could eat from a May sowing and regular picking.  Wonder beans indeed.

Wonder beans in early September 2012.

This year's bean: After a 30 day germination, thought I may as well plant it out.
This spring, I blithely assumed that beans could be stored for years and confidently sowed about a dozen, just what I needed, into modules in fresh seed compost.**  Just one lonely bean emerged, after an extremely long wait and after I'd re-sown another 24 beans in a raised bed in the patch. Three weeks on from the outside sowing and there is nothing to be seen.  It's a mystery, especially as the soil is warm, the slugs have been kept away and there has been a good mix of sun and rain.  So, onto plan B…

Convinced the cause was the viability of the seeds, I decided to put it to the test. Seeds need warmth and enough wetness to swell and break the seed coat to germinate, so I put 40 beans on soaked kitchen paper in a plastic tray, covered with another sheet of damp kitchen paper, sealed with cling film and left on a warmish windowsill. After a six days of checking, 24 of the beans had produced a radicle (the root tip) while 16 had not.  The beans were in varying stages of germination, some with a long root and others just starting to sprout  - again, a sign of the poor quality of the beans.  Testing this way is a good way of removing the uncertainty over seed germination.  I tried the same method with some lettuce seeds and they didn't germinate at all - so in the bin they went!

The good news is that I now have bean seeds that I'll pot up and know will grow. I also know to let the last pods dry on the plant so that I can save seed for next year. (And, just in case any of the outside sown beans are simply lurking and not deceased, I'll cover the bed with fleece for a week or so and see what happens. It will be their Last Chance; you can't say I'm not being fair.)

* For varieties where only a few seeds are needed, More Veg in Devon sell smaller quantities at a lower price and have a wide range of seeds.

** As a member of Which? Gardening, I always use their recommended Best Buy because compost compositions change from year to year.  Over the past couple of years, the best buy has been J. Arthur Bower's Seed and Cutting compost, a nice, fine, free draining mix.

16 Mar 2014

An early taste of summer and tree following

No wonder British gardeners are obsessed with the weather! This time last year there was snow on the ground, yet this past week has been dry, sunny and, at times, hot enough for (a British) summer.  I even watered the veg patch yesterday evening - can't have my germinating seeds drying out.  I took a risk and outdoor sowed spinach, lettuce, broad beans and beetroot last weekend, just on the off chance that temperatures weren't going to dip anytime soon, but I have a roll of fleece on standby just in case. If weather forecasts are to be believed, it seems London might have rain and lower temperatures by the end of next week - more 'normal' for this time of year but who knows what that is any more?

This week though, there have been lovely things: a chance find of Skye Gingell's book 'A Year in My Kitchen' in a charity shop (flavourful recipes for seasonally grown food), a gift from same charity shop of some Mottistone lettuce seeds and a wonderful spring walk around the Capel Manor grounds before settling in for a study day in the library.  Mindful walking + books always feels good to me. Clubcard points have been converted into a subscription to Garden Answers mag so there's something to look forward to - the postman's knock is so much more exciting when the delivery includes a gardening magazine.

~ Early morning walk around the Capel Manor grounds ~

Some good ideas caught my eye at  Capel: spring onions sown to line a path (love the shed!); willow canes woven together in the walled garden - I'm guessing for a bean or pea hurdle; canes tied to hazel poles for dahlias to grow through and a random selection of vintage cloches to protect growing veg.  Just lovely.

I sowed a tray of sweet peas a few weeks back, they've germinated at different rates but are now 80% through. Unsurprisingly, the newest seeds have all come through, strong and healthy.  I've been leaving them outside on my balcony during the day and even left them out overnight last night. One more set of leaves and they'll be pinched out and then planted shortly after, weather permitting. I've bought a large bundle of dried and lacquered willow sticks from Ikea - sold for indoor decoration but perfect for wigwams and cheaper than bamboo canes.  In the garden, there's enough Cerinthe available to pick a few stems for a vase, here paired with flat leaf parsley from a huge mound that flourished throughout the mild winter. Home-grown flowers indoors really herald spring for me.

There have been some not so lovely things - my teenager has been off college with a flu-like illness for over a week (now better and every tissue in the house used up) and my computer keyboard was also ailing - the delete and space bar keys stopped working. Bit tricky that, but I've been making do with my iPad. All is well though as the keyboard was still in warranty and the Apple Store just swopped it over … with no waiting! That put a smile on my face.

The one thing that I really meant to get done (and didn't) was to write up a post to link to Lucy's tree following on her blog, Loose and Leafy.  It's taken me ages to decide which tree to focus on; living five minutes from Hampstead Heath (humungous weeping willow) and visiting Capel Manor gardens (Wych elm, Amelanchier, Acer and crab apple) every week has given me quite a choice, and then there's my own fruit trees, plus a gorgeous potted nectarine in the Which? trial gardens  … I've been thinking it over all week, made my decision, took photos and then missed the deadline for this, the first month.  The information won't be wasted as I'll write it up anyway so that I can refer back to it next month, on the 7th.  And now for a teaser: I wonder if anyone can guess which tree I chose to follow?

21 Feb 2014

It's been a good week

There are many things that can make a week nice to look back on. Sometimes a good week is just a productive week.  Or it's a week when nice things happen.  Or a week can be good because I'm able to get outdoors in the dry - working in sunshine under blue skies is a definite bonus.  The past seven days have, rather magically, brought all three.

To start with I'd just made a very delicious pear frangipane tart (we do good snacks in my house) when the postman brought a copy of Charles Dowding's Veg Journal which I'd won in Flighty's giveaway.  It  is a book stuffed with practical advice which I'm thoroughly enjoying reading - and with perfect timing for the veg growing year. The next post brought more loveliness from Flighty: I'd admired the marigolds (Flighty's Favourites!) that he grows on his plot and he kindly sent some seeds, together with a few cosmos seeds, to provide a riot of colour in my intended cuttings patch.

In north London this past week, the weather has been damp and breezy rather than wet and wild.  Over the last four days, and especially last Sunday, the sun has shone (at least for part of the day).  A bit of warmth and hint of sun is all it takes to spur me into action. As ever, there were plenty of jobs waiting to be done. A few raised beds still needing to be cleared, refilled and fenced off against use as an animal toilet; new beds needed to be built from kits ordered last year, lavender bushes needed to be trimmed back and plants moved out of the wind.

~ Raised bed being put together in my living room! ~
Most boxes were ticked by close of play on Sunday, although there are still two of the existing beds to be fenced and two smaller raised beds to be built when I have some more corner posts. (These smaller slug-proof beds were discounted in a sale, probably because of the chunky metal brackets holding the sides together - they just wouldn't tighten enough and left a large gap for the slugs to get through! I've thrown the brackets away and am screwing the sides into 2x2 corner posts. And then lining them (to keep soil in as they're being placed on paving slabs). With the copper tape around the sides, I'm expecting seriously nearly slug proof now!

~ Cerinthe pot has been moved next to new cold frame ~
One of the smaller beds became a cold frame; I left off one of the upper planks so that the sun can reach the plants inside and attached a fleece cover.  I can't use glass in a community garden - too easily broken!  My 'plants of shame' - the ones bought but not planted out yet - have been temporarily rehomed there, leaving the vacated bed free for my beans.

While the rain held off, I was inspired to complete one last project.  There's a 12 inch wide path that runs down the centre of the veg patch.  That's really not very wide, even for my size 4 feet and, once plants start to burst their boundaries, it becomes a tripping hazard. So, as I refurbish each raised bed, I'm pushing it back nearer the surrounding low brick wall.  It's a small distance of about 6 inches but, once edged with a few bricks, the central path becomes much easier to navigate.  I've pushed back a couple of beds so far and starting this simple job has given me immense satisfaction - not least because I've discovered handfuls of worms with every shovel of damp soil that I shifted.

It was great to be able to stay out in the garden for best part of the day.  I keep reading or hearing about the therapeutic effects of gardening or just being outdoors in nature and it's quite amazing to me how five or six hours can just slip by without notice and, despite hours of work, I just feel nicely knackered by the end of the day.  Nothing a hot bath with a bit of Radox can't sort out! Plus there's the satisfaction of knowing that I'm a little bit more ready for when the sowing starts.

24 Jan 2013

This is Thursday

Today is Thursday

Thursday is my Friday.  Currently the end of the working week, day off and time to plan and catch up before Garden College on Friday and two whole days off at the weekend.  I love my life.

Today, sitting by the radiator (there's still snow outside), armed with two slices of hot buttered toast with marmalade (I have a friend who tells me off for using that old fashioned nursery phrase but, let's face it, 'Toast' just doesn't sum up the experience), a mug of coffee, a pile of books and a large seed box, I'm armchair gardening.

The books were free (except for Brian Capon, Botany for Gardeners on the top).  I recently discovered a local Books for Free recycled book shop nearby.  At each visit, you're allowed to take (and keep) 3 of someone's unwanted gifted books ... like a library with no return date.  The gentleman in the shop kindly let me have a double ration (he could see the gleam of obsession in my eye) so I came away with  two books on garden planning, a city gardener's handbook, the Tree and Shrub Expert, an illustrated book of herbs and a short biography of Gertrude Jekyll.  Bliss! I think these shops are popping up in empty shop premises all over the country so worth keeping a look out as they're a boon for avid readers of all genres.

Once the seed box has been sorted through, I'll put that away and get out my drawing board - I have to complete a page of garden design symbols and a drawing of a border (plant elevation) for an assignment due in next week. My own (community) garden is uppermost in my thoughts, I'm constantly visualising different planting combinations so mapping all this out on paper really helps to clear it out of my head.

I'll be ordering some Root Trainers for my sweet peas (a cuttings garden essential) and starting off my beetroot and broccoli in a windowsill propagator; these should be ready to plant out in about 6 weeks time, having been hardened off on the balcony for the last of those weeks.

By the end of all that, I think the "sun will be over the yard arm" (to quote my Dad) or perhaps it will just be time for a Spot of Afternoon Tea ...  Anyone else got any 'old fashioned' phrases that keep slipping into the conversation or is it just me that over-indulged with too much 'Miss Marple' / Joan Hickson at Christmas?

A further thought on root trainers:  In previous years I've used loo roll inners to start off my sweet peas, beans and peas.  Even microwaving the tubes before use has not stopped mould forming on the outside and, once planted, the cardboard takes ages to break down so the roots have to find their way down into the soil, rather than spreading out.  I haven't been impressed with the quality of plants produced by this method so this year I'm splashing out on buying root trainers.  The hinged ones allow the roots to be removed without damage prior to planting out and the shape of the trainers encourages a stronger root system by promoting the growth of fine hairs (better uptake of nutrients from the soil).

24 Nov 2012

Sub-Arctic, Canadian Wonder and Striped Pyjamas


Abundance is not the word I'd reach for when describing the past year's veg successes. It's been more a little taste of this and that when the weather has obliged. In choosing my 2012 veg, I envisaged a nice prolonged warm summer (like last year) with the right conditions for tomatoes, chillies, sweetcorn, squashes, courgettes and exotic pulses such as LabLab beans and purple podded peas.  Foiled (or fooled?) again!

My sweetcorn grew but the cobs didn't fatten, the fennel has seeded itself all over the garden thanks to high winds, peas and pole beans amounted to nothing much.

On the other hand, the Canadian Wonder (red kidney) beans that I ordered have been a triumph; they produced a huge number of slim pods over a long period so that I had plenty to give to friends and neighbours. I picked the pods young (about 3 - 6 inches long) for eating - they were delicious.  I had hoped to grow several plants for mature pods so that I could save the kidney beans over winter (I love a good bean stew or chillied beans) but it didn't happen. I guess much more warmth was needed for that.

~ Canadian Wonder beans, late August 2012~
Most of my courgettes rotted before they grew much more than a few inches high - apart from the Sicilian Long White on my balcony :)  but a spaghetti squash planted close to the wall struggled through to September when it was rewarded with a few weeks of warmer weather. That did the trick nicely and it went on to produce several huge squashes, the biggest weighing nearly 3 kilos, probably enough to feed at least 6 people! Is that a big achievement? It certainly felt like it to me.  I chose this vegetable purely for it's name - Striped Squash Pyjamas. Sometimes a total lack of logic is best.

~Spaghetti squash: Striped Pyjamas ~
My tomatoes were very deliberately chosen - Sub Arctic Plenty.  Touted as fruiting within 9 weeks of planting and being able to set fruit in cooler conditions, surely this was the tomato for me!  It didn't, however, live up to expectations, producing only a couple of dozen tomatoes between the 2 surviving plants - and those after several months of nurturing. I blame the weather.  It's a lovely looking tomato though, like a small beefsteak and with a very good flavour, thin-skinned and lovely squiggly insides - I'll be growing this one again in 2013 and hoping the weather is kinder. (All my veg are grown outside and at the mercy of whatever the weather may thrown at them.)  Incidentally, the other two seed choices, Red Alert and Principe Borghese, either didn't grow or didn't fruit. What a year!

Tomatoes sliced
~ Sub-Arctic Plenty. Very pretty determinate tomato. ~
I also had a bonus tomato plant in the patch, grown from the seed of one of last year's dropped Cherriettes of Fire tomatoes.  This time, knowing its dendency to droop, I potted the little found plant into a large pot where it flourished to produce lots of very late mini tomatoes. Even now in November, I'm still able to pick a small handful from this plant although it's now on the way out.

Cherriettes of fire
~ Cherriettes of Fire, tiny cherry tomatoes ~
So what about next year?  I'm thinking only about the vegetables I buy in quantity:  purple sprouting broccoli, beans, squashes, beetroot, blueberries, raspberries and, of course, plenty of herbs and edible flowers. Potatoes break up the soil and carrots take up very little space if grown in tubs but both are cheap to buy, as are onions (but I've already bought white onion sets). I'll grow lots more salad leaves on my balcony (far far away from those pesky slugs!) and broad beans (red flowered, hopefully) as they get the season off to a good start.  As to varieties, I'm already reading through the catalogues to see what's new, thinking about weather protection for my crops and dreaming of a greenhouse.

25 Jan 2012

First signs?

I love the synchronicity of the gardening world; bloggers are commenting on the first signs of spring, trees beginning to bud, bulbs pushing through the soil and anxiously hoping that a harsh but late winter isn't waiting just around the corner. I'm not going to offer an opinion on the weather as it has a nasty habit of contradicting me soon after I've published my thoughts.

But I'm no different from other gardeners in getting hopeful of an early spring.  Today, as I peeked out onto my balcony, I was excited to notice this tiny little patch of new growth. This is French Tarragon, new to the balcony last year and frankly, a bit spindly in it's first year. I thought it had died but resolved to wait until spring to make sure.  Now it looks as though it will be a good, sturdy addition to the herbs at my disposal - even if it is still only one inch tall.  And in case the weather turns, I have a cut down water bottle as an impromptu cloche to protect the plant if needed.

Other bloggers' posts have reminded me that I have to sow onion seed and broad beans now. (Actually, like Jo at The Good Life, I intensely disliked broad beans as a child but I'm tempted by some rather beautiful pink beans I've spotted on the internet.) Also, I couldn't find the white onion sets I wanted and one bulb had run to seed late last year so I rather laboriously dried the seed head and saved the seed. It will be the first time I've grown onions from seed, so an interesting challenge lies ahead.  I may even have to invest in a little balcony sized wooden greenhouse I've seen - I think I'm going to need it now my seed list is nearly finished!

~ Snowball white onion seeds - sorting the seeds from the chaff. ~

22 Jan 2012

Pin-spiration and planning

Okay, officially slap my wrist.  Three weeks without posting? Very remiss of me.  So... what have I been up to, apart from looking out at the skies and seeing beautiful sunrises?

Pink skies at dawn
* Looking east at 7.30 a.m. - spectacular sunrise *
Actually, not a lot on the physical gardening front. Apart from removing a good peppering of calling cards from local felines. (I take issue with cats pooping in my raised beds ... sorry, cat lovers out there but, seriously, it IS disgusting.) Okay, so I need to net off all my beds to prevent this type of nuisance but then the beds become less accessible. It's a lose/lose situation for me.

Frosted calendula

Calendula is still flowering, so - snip, snip with my fabulous Felcos - a bit of deadheading is prolonging that. Cowslips and herbs seem to have survived last weekend's frost. Winter veg seems dormant for now, unsurprisingly, as the weather has been on the chilly side of late.  And I've dug up and moved a cherry tree.  I'm using the term 'I' very loosely here; my neighbour Frank dug, I directed. Community gardening at it's best.

Otherwise time has been spent trying to plan what to grow in the garden this year; taking the time to reflect on the ups and downs of last year, leafing through seed catalogues, being inspired by new plants, listing what's left over in the seed box. It can all get a bit much ...  but then there's Pinterest.  Pinterest isn't new to me, I've had boards on this site since its infancy after one of my favourite internet illustrators flagged it up on her blog. It's a lot of fun and absolutely distracting, somewhere to keep track of inspirational internet finds - and the perfect place to keep a visual record of the seeds that have caught my fancy (with links back to where I found those seeds).

* Just a small part of my Pinterest seed board *
Other methods I've tried include pieces of paper, small notebooks, copious post-it notes, collage pages and even paper clips.  Just to digress for a moment: am I alone in getting overwhelmed by choice at this time of year?  I read of gardeners knowing just what they want and getting the order in; my imagination, on the other hand, leaps from small veg patch to Versailles potager in one bound. Then I have to scale it all back down again.

The actual veg patch (formerly a small area set aside in the 1940s for tenants' children to garden) now sits in a sea of paving slabs with the occasional visual relief of a rectangle of grass or two at the edges.  The west side is bounded by raised brick beds built against a high brick wall which is where we've planted fruit trees (and perennial cauliflowers). One of these borders is still overgrown with honeysuckle, ivy, dogwood and other shrubs; it needs to be cleared and replanted, all in good time.  My problem is my imagination and those paving slabs. I badly want to dig them up; picture the growing space that would open up. Seriously, I'm a bit obsessed about it all: I wake up thinking about how the garden would look if I could turn at least half of it (the half I garden in) into a kitchen garden, a place for people to come and sit or potter round, as I do. Just this morning I saw a photo online of the refurbished kitchen garden in Waterlow Park, a nearby public space in Highgate.

* Waterlow Park kitchen garden/allotments. © Waterlow Park *
Pictures like this make me sigh with envy. Soil tests indicated very high levels of toxins in the soil, so raised beds were built and filled with fresh compost which are leased, like allotments, to local groups and schools - there's even a wildflower border to encourage bio-diversity.

* Waterlow Park wildflower border. © Waterlow Park *
 (The photos are not mine. I've borrowed from their website; next weekend I'm going to see for myself.)

I noticed recently that in the 'gardens' of another of my landlords estates, the tenants had started to remove some of the paving, presumably to create a growing area. That project looked like it had been abandoned but it does give me hope that precedent has been set and I might be able to create something really beautiful here in York Rise.  In the meantime, I feel a great responsibility to the people who've lived here and overlooked the gardens for many years. If I was unable, for whatever reason, to carry on, it would all have to be left in a manageable state.  I guess that means I have to resist the temptation to dig up the paving stones and move the grass...  or will I?

25 Sept 2011

Seed saving

As well as noticing more bugs and slugs in the veg garden as the season revolves round into autumn, I'm also watching out for seeds.  Some will be saved for sowing next year, others have food uses.

Cerinthe, orache, sunflower and nasturtium plants are the ones in my garden to look out for as they are all prolific self seeders.  If the seeds are not collected, they'll scatter into the soil and pop up goodness knows where. (As I found with my nasturtiums and sunflowers this year.) Earlier this year I had to relocate dozens of tiny red orache plants that had self-sown from one underdeveloped plant plonked into the soil last summer.  I also bought one cerinthe seedling from Perch Hill Farm in Easter 2010 and collected the seed at the end of the summer; this provided enough seed for another 2 dozen plants this year.

Cerinthe seeds are very easy to collect as they're so obvious. Two large black seeds sit in the leaf bracts where the flowers were.  Here's the flower:

Cerinthe purple

and here's the seeds:

Cerinthe seedhead

When they're ready, you can just pick them off. That will be a job for this week. I won't be able to collect them all, scars in some of the bracts show that a few have already been shaken off by recent windy weather!

I've also grown fennel in my herb bed for the last two years - the leaves are lovely in salads and sauces if you like the taste of aniseed but are best cut before the plant flowers. A couple of weeks ago, I needed fennel seeds for a sauce and there they were, practically on my doorstep. They worked perfectly so I'm now going to cut the rest of the seeds for use in the kitchen; the main plant can be propagated from side roots separated from the main tap root.  The way to collect fennel seed is to cut the whole head then suspend it upside down in a paper bag although if the seeds are already fairly dry, make a paper funnel and brush them into this.

Fennel seedhead

I've read that fennel can be quite invasive - a bit like bamboo - but apparently makes a poor companion plant for other herbs so perhaps I've been spared the invasion by growing it in the middle of my herb bed! It's also worth knowing that whilst aphids find fennel thoroughly unpleasant, ladybirds, hoverflies and other beneficial bugs love it.

Sunflower seedheads drying

The other seed that I'll be saving, although not for myself, is the sunflower seed.  Last year I left the heads for the birds but as that encouraged a bit of random propagation, I'm cutting the smaller flowers when they've gone brown and removing the heads for seed and drying the stems because I'm hoping these will make good pea sticks next year.  The bigger heads will be cut and suspended as a sunflower perch, as illustrated in Dave Hamilton's book 'Grow your food for free (well, almost)'.

Other seeds I may be able to collect are nigella (love in a mist), calendula (marigold), poppy, hollyhock, wallflowers and nicotiana.  I've passed a magnificent nicotiana plant on my walk over to the heath, I may have to find the courage to ask the owners for seedhead in due course!

I wonder what seeds other people are saving?

12 Jun 2011

June seed sowing...

Strawberry and tomato (as if you didn't know!)
My friend Ana has recently built her first raised bed and mentioned that she now needed to give some thought to what she wanted to grow.  I always say to home-grow the expensive stuff that would usually be bought from the supermarket, such as spinach and pea shoots, and from there we chatted about what could still be grown in June - especially as the seeds still have to be bought.  So that's garlic and onions out then, at least until November or early next year. (Onions are cheap to buy but I grow red and sweet white ones as they're much more expensive.)

One advantage to starting off now is that you may find a few of the seed companies (and supermarkets) are selling their seeds at a discount, but you have to be quick. Thompson and Morgan send out a newsletter with their special offers, worth signing up for as they recently had 50% off all seeds, too late for a mention here as that offer has finished. Also sign up to UK Veg Gardeners (it's free), join the Freebies and Bargains group and get alerted to any special offers as the members find them.

So, back to what can still be grown in June.  Actually, rather a lot - with the benefit that the ground will be warm and, hopefully, moist with all the recent showers. For a first year, I would (and did) go for quickly maturing veg such as salad leaves, radish, etc.  This will give the satisfaction of eating home-grown without the long wait. Baby spinach leaves can be picked in as little as 4 weeks.  Cut and come again lettuce is a good one, but grow it in a partly shaded area to prevent bolting (running to seed) if the weather gets hot again.  Home-grown tomatoes are delicious and mini plants are swamping the garden centres at the moment. Go for a small bush type and plant it in a grow bag (if you must, they're so ugly!) or trough to save space in your raised bed for other veg.  (Be aware if you buy strawberry plants this year that they won't fruit until next year.  They can also easily be grown from seed.)

Spinach leaves and Radish
Some carrot varieties (such as Amsterdam Sprint) take only 12 weeks to mature as baby carrots - but why bother as they're so cheap in the shops, although children are always fascinated with the idea of carrots straight from the garden. (Shades of Peter Rabbit, I think.)

I'd highly recommend Sweet corn, if you have room - baby corn or popping corn if space is an issue -  it's so much tastier cooked straight after picking; Stephen Shirley of Victoriana Nurseries gives the inside deal on growing it here on YouTube.

Fennel bulb, beetroot, french beans and peas can be sown outdoors now. Pea shoots can be grown in a window box or kitchen flowerpot and harvested within a couple of weeks as a tasty addition to a salad (as I'm sure all fans of Alys Fowler's Edible Garden programme will know!) - and you don't need special seeds, buy a pack of Bigga dried peas from the supermarket, they'll do the job.

And what about marrows and courgettes, perfect time to sow these straight into the ground. Courgette flowers (the female flowers with the fruit just forming behind) can be picked, stuffed and deep fried while the courgette continues to grow - the plant does get quite big but you can grow stuff around it, such as spinach, lettuce, herbs or nasturtium flowers (edible!).

Chard (Bright Lights) and Butternut Squash
Could you squeeze in some squashes? I fancy Sweet Dumpling squash; a pretty striped small winter squash, cook it whole and stuffed to enjoy it's sweet and tender orange flesh. Seeds should have gone in in May but nature catches up with itself, so it's worth giving it a go. Try training small squashes up a trellis, tying it in with soft ties as it grows and making sure to support the fruits as they develop.

And lets not forget winter veg:  mini cauliflowers, purple sprouting broccoli, asparagus for next spring (I'm planning to sow seed for Romanesco cauli aka broccoli when the rain stops).  Providing they don't bolt, seeds sown in July will overwinter (it worked for me last year) and make a delicious meal in the spring with some cheese sauce over the top, or add to a stir-fry.

Lastly, try and find a space between other veg for herbs: I can't do without parsley, thyme, oregano, coriander, mint and rosemary being readily available as I'm hopeless at planning ahead with buying herbs. (See my last post for a link to Monty Don planting herbs on Gardener's World.) Shop bought herbs won't last long if left in their pots as the seeds are overcrowded but garden centre herbs planted in a bed with space to grow will last you throughout the summer, and probably reappear next year - a much better investment!

I hope this has provided some inspiration, for Ana and for anyone else reading who may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by choice.  If you enjoy veg growing, it's well worth reading books on the subject from the library. Alan Buckingham's Allotment Month-by-Month is a good one, as in anything by Joy Larkcom.  You Tube fans might like to check out Claire's Allotment for her excellent how-to videos.

(This post is also for my sister, Sue, who is also enjoying the delights of home-grown spinach from her first raised bed. xx)

10 Jul 2010

Keep Calm and Carry on…

Last weekend someone crept onto the veg Patch just before dawn and helped themselves to the chicken wire which protected the crops from foxes and cats. We know when this happened because a friend recalls seeing it at 3 a.m., yet it had gone by 7 a.m.  Not to worry, I thought…  I'll just pop out and buy more.  Then I found out it's actually quite expensive: it will cost about £70 to replace all the wire that's been stolen.  (It's been disappearing over the past few weeks but somehow I didn't notice until the last but one piece had gone.)

~ "when we had wire" - the last 2 pieces ~

Without any security on the VP, I'd say the chances that the new lot would be stolen pretty swiftly are quite high - even if we had any cash left in the kitty for the purchase, which we don't.  So, nice one Mr. Burglar-person…  stealing from a community project,  must make you feel real good about yourself.  The Thief must have known he was doing wrong as he would have had to unravel the wire from around the onion bed - so it was hardly Not In Use at the time.  Unscrupulous villains like this rarely have a moment's guilt;  I can only hope that what goes around, comes around … and move on.

Because of this, I have felt disinclined over the past week to sow/plant any more stuff as the last lot got dug up overnight.  But, this morning, I was out on the VP at dawn (trying to beat the heat), weeding and digging and thinking that I should see what else I can grow this summer for the autumn.  Digging out my box of seed packets, this is what I came up with:

 ~ Carry On Sowing ~
Apparently there's still time to sow more broad beans, peas, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, runner beans, carrots, beetroot, spinach, squashes, salad stuff and herbs.  Gosh, I think I may just have talked myself into a little bit of busy-time. 

23 May 2010

I'm a recent fan of My Tiny Plot, a blog written by Gillian Carson.  She's written today about seed packet design, having received some beauties (if you like Liberty print fabric) in the post.  I've got to agree with her.  Most seed packets have become D-U-double L.  I recently wrote about the vintage designs mysteriously bequeathed to the Veg Patch and the changes wrought on seed packets in the Sixties, my gosh - fifty years ago!  I confess that I personally need a visual to make sure that what I'm about to grow is what I think it is but, really, beyond that there's very little to get excited about and I'm beginning to spot a Gap In The Market.

Seeds intended for children are made obvious by their 'Ronald McDonald' fast food colours and cartoon characters. Just a tad patronising, in my view.  How about some vintage Ladybird book-type illustrations instead?

There's also plenty of inspiration to be found in children's books; how about this one from illustrator Vivien French - as seen here in 'Oliver's Vegetables':

No prizes for guessing what would be found in that packet!

I've also been known to buy magazines for the free beautiful seed packet… oh, alright then, the mag was fab as well: Gardens Illustrated. They use the work of illustrator Hannah McVicar, daughter of Jekka-the-Herb-Lady, within the mag and also to adorn their free seeds:

Gorgeous or what?  Even Boden have got in on the act, in cahoots with Sarah Raven a couple of years ago:

Perhaps looking a bit dated now.

And, may I (ahem) modestly offer my own illustration of Agapanthus made for my seed gathering envelopes from one of my photos:

Yes? No? Maybe? On the other hand, maybe that one should be saved for fabric prints.  Might make a nice cushion cover?

Have you discovered any lovely seed packet designs or got any favourites lurking? I'd love to know!

9 May 2010

Vintage seeds…

I have to confess to having been on a bit of a 'go-slow' in the Veg Patch this last week. The weather has not been so conducive to being outside (chill winds, drizzle and cold evenings) and this, combined with a painful shoulder (caused by 3 ribs out of alignment and bad posture at the computer, according to my osteopath friend), has led to me getting a bit behind. The next stage involves lugging bags of compost over to fill another raised bed and digging a trench in heavy soil before planting out my peas. This because, according to a little book I own, peas do extremely well if planted into a trench lined with rabbit/guinea pig straw and their droppings.  (What have I got to lose?)

However, it's not all gloom - in the days before it rained, I spotted a tiny package which had been left among the empty flowerpots.  Tucked into a biscuit wrapper from 2004 (love the repurposing!), over a dozen packets of (vintage) flower seeds.

I had to smile when I saw what it was as I'd been reading several blog accounts of seed packets being left unopened and unsowed beyond the sell-by date.  It would appear that the anonymous donor of my seeds had an unproductive year in 1984, although there is also a packet of Suttons Calendula from 1973 and Cornflowers from 1979!

The  Suttons and Fothergill's packets are no different to the ones found in garden centres today, although I suspect the wording may have changed - here it's delightfully old-fashioned: "This accommodating plant will flourish in the poorest soils, but does appreciate a sunny spot" is the charming advice for Calendula.

I have Nasturtium and Candytuft from Hurst Garden Pride ('A Riot of Bloom at Little Cost'), a firm which established in Essex in 1894 but had disappeared by 1999.  They held the royal warrant as seedsmen to H.M. the Queen and donations from seed sales went to The London Children's Flower Society.  

For pure nostalgia, though,  how about the Cottage Garden mix above and Night-Scented Stock, below, from Cuthbert?  The drawings evoke the kind of seed marketing used from 1930s until replaced by photos in the swinging sixties. (These days, though, as Carly Simon would sing: "Coming around again…")  Cuthbert have this to say of the seeds below: 'No garden is complete without a patch of Night Scented Stock.  It is a universal favourite.' Slightly bossy, but how to resist?

Cuthbert is another company now sadly lost to the nation after 200 years of trading.  James Cuthbert walked (as legend would have it) from Scotland to London in 1797, seeking his fortune and settling in Southgate - then just a village outside London, now the site of Southgate tube station.  If the logo seems familiar, it's because Cuthbert seeds were sold exclusively on the high-street through branches of Woolworths since 1937, back then costing tuppence a packet.  I like to think that some of the original York Rise gardeners might have used this brand - in fact, it's highly likely as there used to be a Woollies nearby in Kentish Town.  (Now, as with so many shops, a supermarket.)

So, the question remains - will the seeds still germinate after 35 years?  Heartened by news of a 2,000 year old palm tree seed germinating in Israel, I'm prepared to give it a go!
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