30 Jan 2012

A garden story for children

I shall apologise in advance to any readers who already know this book; I'm only very recently aware of it and delighted to have found it. I love both reading and gardening so, when I find a book that encompasses both of these loves, I want to share it.  I found this book, Rose's Garden, in the children's section of my local library.  It was the illustrations that caught my eye; they're reminiscent of Quentin Blake's work (a favourite illustrator) but, in fact, are the work of the author, Peter H Reynolds.  I would hope that all children love stories and being read to and I find it's a particularly nice way to start or finish a spot of gardening with children.  For one thing, it makes sure you have their attention, whether you want to tell them what's planned or whether it's time to stop, clear up and go.

I have a small collection of really nice children's books about gardening, some that I enjoyed reading to my son when he was younger ('Oliver's Vegetables', for example) and some more recent finds. This one is definitely a keeper (as in, I'll be buying it, not purloining it from the library - heaven forbid), if only because it reminds me of myself (in the sense that I have a vision of how colourful the garden here could be - but I don't travel in a fantastic teapot, more's the pity.)

The story is a simple one about Rose, who collects seeds on her travels. When her teapot is full up, it's time to plant her garden and she finds herself in a busy city.

"This little patch needs some colour."
She chooses a forgotten stretch of earth and gets to work, imagining what a colourful place it could be. On returning to the teapot to get her seeds, she finds the birds have eaten them, leaving just a small handful behind. She sows these seeds and patiently waits through the seasons but to no avail.

"A girl approached with a present. It was a paper flower."
Word spreads of Rose's faith in her garden and children of many cultures bring paper flowers that they've made for her garden. Gradually the garden fills with glorious colour from thousands of paper flowers.  Then, one day, Rose hears a bee buzzing and realises that her seeds have grown and real flowers are blooming among the paper ones.

"Her faith had gathered a garden – and the stories of a city."

Lovely, isn't it?

I like to think everyone who gardens is doing exactly this: making friends, building communities and having faith that their work will result in colour and beauty. I'd love to believe that this story will continue to be read to children and inspire a future generation of gardeners.

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?

1 Jan 2012

A brave new year

This is a very heartfelt season's greetings and happy New Year to all friends and readers. Writing this blog has been made so much nicer thanks to all of you who pop in here, and on Facebook, to comment and say hello. Thank you, you continue to make it all worthwhile and it's much appreciated. xx

I must admit I was feeling rather glum yesterday. I sat down to write a post and it was so negative, I deleted it. I don't celebrate the turning of the year as my new year starts when the soil starts to warm and I can spend longer hours outdoors.  My birthday is at the end of March - an Aries, if you believe such things - and that feels more like the new year for me.

I don't mind the shorter days of winter either, as long as there's a variation in the weather ... some winter sun would be nice, a sharp frost, some snow perhaps? I thrive on variety (and sunshine!) and, looking back over the year, I can see why I'm drawn back to the garden time and again.  There's always something new, interesting ... surprising, even ... to be seen and it's been quite a revelation to look back and browse through my 2011 photos.  I'd intended to choose one photo to sum up each month but, as ever, it all got a bit lengthy (42 photos in all, whooooops!) so I've put them in a slideshow. Watch if you wish.  (It's also at the top of the page under the 2011 tab.)

My Christmas has been a nice time to relax but I'm now ready to carry on with jobs that need doing and the first thing is to sort out my seeds and start to make plans for the 2012 veg patch.

The postman brought new seed catalogues from both Chiltern Seeds and from Thompson and Morgan who have very good offers on potato tubers at the moment. (20 potato tubers for £2.99, presumably plus postage but I'll probably snap up a pack of Charlottes, my favourite salad potato.)  My new Felco secateurs also arrived which was a happy moment - thank you UK Veg Gardeners! I meant to write about this yesterday but my internet was down - so frustrating after waiting for most of the holidays to get at the laptop (my son had commandeered it for his A level coursework, so needs must).

It just remains for me wish everyone the very best for 2012 as we go forth and garden together! I'm looking forward to reading your blogs in the months ahead.

Caro xx

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.

19 Dec 2011


I've been giving the blog a gentle tweek - to my eye it still looks very cluttered - and part of that process is to succumb to joining Twitter.  I'm not sure that I 'get' what it's all about; it seems to me a bit like eavesdropping on someone's phone conversation and then being able butt in which seems a tad impolite.

On the other hand, it can be quite fascinating to read what random thoughts are floating around tweetland. Just this morning, for example, Emma Cooper has had the builders in, Mark Diacono has been drinking a foul tasting watermelon smoothie, Dawn Isaac is painting her children's bedroom and Alys Fowler is geeking out on scientific research. So, a sort of virtual chat over virtual coffee is taking place - or is it the internet version of Big Brother? Put that way, I'm so going off it already. Back to my books, methinks. (Although please feel free to Tweet me if you so wish.  The button is there, top right. I will join you over a cuppa.)

17 Dec 2011

An award, a prize and some parcels ...

I've had a really happy week. These last few days have brought unexpected and much appreciated surprises in the form of an award, a giveaway prize, a parcel of books and a winning entry in a photo competition. I'm not sure what I've done to deserve such abundance but it's certainly brought a smile to my face and given me a huge boost.

First, very warm thanks to Jo of The Good Life blog for including the Urban Veg Patch in her Liebster Award list. It's rather lovely to have this award as, even after a couple of years of blogging, I'm never sure if what I write is of sufficient interest beyond being a record for myself. Jo regularly takes the time to leave appropriate comments on my posts which is lovely to read and very reassuring.  I've been reading Jo's blog now for over a year - and very good it is too.

As other bloggers have said, it's really nice when readers leave comments;  it strengthens the online community and friendships are developed.  I've met some lovely people through blogging, this year has been especially rewarding in that respect and awards such as this are a lovely way of introducing the blogs I enjoy to a wider audience.  In order to accept the award, I have to follow a few simple rules:

Copy and paste the award on your blog - (check!)
Thank the giver and link back to them - (done with pleasure!)
Choose five blogs (with less than 200 followers) that you'd like to pass the award on to and leave a comment for them on their blog.

This last rule is where I thought I'd run into problems as many of the blogs I enjoy have already been chosen for the award by Jo's other blog nominees.  But after carefully checking that I wasn't duplicating anyone's choices, these are the five that I would recommend:

Suburban Veg Plot
A Life Less Simple
Lovely Greens
Erin's Urban Organic Gardening in Sidney
Charlotte's Plot

These are all new to me this year and I've really enjoyed reading them and getting to know their authors a little bit and hope that others will find the time to pop over and take a look.  (I would have added A Woman of the Soil, Wellywoman, Little Green Fingers and FlightPlot to this list but that would be flaunting the rules  and we wouldn't want that.)

And what about my other luck?  Well, it appears that one of my photos has earned me the first prize in the UK Veg Gardeners photo competition and I'm going to be the very lucky recipient of a pair of Felco No 7 secateurs! Obviously I'm over the moon at this but can't quite believe it as there were some stunning entries from other members. Congratulations to Mark at Mark's Veg Plot and Karen at The Garden Smallholder whose photos were also, very deservedly, chosen.

Unbelievably, shortly after the above news came my way, so did another email from Jo saying that I'd won the giveaway that she was hosting on her other blog, Through the Keyhole.  My two childhood obsessions were with reading and making things, whether by sewing, knitting, drawing or building, so I'm really looking forward to the arrival of Jo's very generous parcel as I've won a copy of Cath Kidston's book 'Make!' (as well as other lovely things such as a tin of fudge - mmm, yum! - and a book of Victorian niceties.) Perfect timing as, with a few days off over Christmas, I intend to indulge in a spot of sofa flying (as Flighty would say).

But I did say parcels, didn't I?  More than one?  Yes.  Because I've taught children's art clubs, gardened with children and our newly formed Transition Town will be hosting children's crafting workshops, CICO Books have sent me two rather lovely books to review.  These are Green Crafts for Children(35 projects using natural, recycled and found materials) and My First Sewing Book. Both are beautifully photographed with some very interesting projects to make - perfect for ages 7 and up and just in time for Christmas.  I have a weekend ahead of me and an enormous stash of crafting supplies so I'll be back with a review tomorrow.


The sun is shining here in London;  I hope that each of you has some sunshine in your day too!

Caro xx

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