22 Feb 2014

Design, Plant and Spud - it's the RHS Spring Show!

There was such a great vibe at the RHS Plant and Design Show yesterday in its new time slot of early weekend rather than midweek, as in previous years. The sun was shining outside and, as we've come to expect,  beautiful plants on show within. This year there was the added incentives of a programme of design talks and a potato extravaganza!  A jacket potato tasting bench offered the chance to compare texture and taste, a nice touch.

Pennard Plants had set out 75 different varieties of chitting potatoes at only 22p a tuber as well as displays in both halls.  It's a brilliant system that allows the buyer to 'pick n mix' the spuds they want to grow.  If I had the space, I'd grow one of each variety for the ultimate taste test but, having done a small scale test last year, I knew which tuber to choose: Arran Victory. Let's see how it does for me this year.

I was keen to have a good look round so left all buying until the end.  I really only wanted some potatoes to chit and a set of beautiful cloche frames that I'd seen last year from Plant Belles:

The larger hoop straddling the smaller ones is this year's new size - a 4ft hoop! 
The reality is that the displays of plants are just too tempting for eyes hungry for colour after the winter sojourn. Hellebores, snowdrops and narcissus abounded although there was no particular stand that stood out above the others. I was slightly disappointed not to see a rival for last year's spectacular iris and snowdrop displays but Cornwall's Trewidden Nursery put on a great show of exotics that was awarded a gold medal.

With my garden designer head on, I totally fell for the 'grasses' - this is Elegia equisetacea in close up:

Beautiful.  In my humble opinion.  ;)

Cath's Garden Plants caught my eye with this lovely yellow combination of spring planting.  Yellow is such a joy in early spring but, for me, can be too much of a good thing come March.  This combo was wonderfully subtle, supported as it was by the 'evergreen' Carex testacea.

Or how about this Narcissus cyclamineus from Broadleigh Gardens: I hadn't come across this particular tiny flower before and thought it both delightful and unusual.

This, above, is Correa pulchella 'Pink Mist' on display at Fibrex Nurseries; a small evergreen shrub hailing originally from NSW Australia - looks like it would fit perfectly into an English garden! This is a plant that I'll bookmark (for any future clients!). What's not to love about its elongated bell-shaped flowers? (I was going to write 'campanulate' but that would just be showing off.)  I'm already looking for the flower fairies to appear!

For me, the show is a wonderful chance to see a range of plants and this Lathyrus vernus 'Cyaneus' didn't disappoint - reminiscent of violets but quite definitely flowering in the sweet pea family with lovely light green paired leaves.

 It was displayed next to Dicentra formosa, ferns and snowdrops which suggests that it's a good woodland edge plant.

I was very pleased to say hello again to Joy at Sea Spring Seeds.  A renowned grower of chillies (including Dorset Naga, the hottest variety - plug plants for sale at the show), she's exhibiting a visual feast of salad leaves which earned her a silver medal.  I'd already bought my chilli seeds from Joy at the RHS autumn show but with thoughts of summer salads in mind, I bought packets of salad leaves. Who wouldn't be tempted by these beautiful leaves?

Joy is a passionate gardener and, very helpfully, nipped off leaves of her delicious plants for me to taste.  Cue purchase of many packets of seeds and module trays which will be sown today.

Having wandered, looked, chatted, got some amazing advice from the growers and from Writtle College (good conversation about environmental psychology), I'll be going back today to take in a couple of the design lectures on offer.  Whew - a lot to cover that, personally, I couldn't have managed in one day - but that's where membership of the RHS will stand me in good stead - the show is free entry for members.

The show is open today, Saturday, until 5 pm (Victoria and Pimlico tube stations within an easy walk). Well worth going if you can get there.

More about the show from Alternative Eden and Down on the Allotment.

PS.  I haven't got my cloche covers yet because I was loaded up with violas, a scented leaved pelargonium, canes of Polka raspberry and module trays for starting off my seed sowing! Very restrained, under the circumstances. ;)

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.

3 Feb 2014

One month down, eleven to go

 ~Spring, at last? ~
January has provided the perfect weather … for choosing seeds and planning the garden from the comfort of a cosy sofa.  An occasional glimpse of sunshine has kept the spirits bolstered but mostly the month will be remembered for an excess of rain with one or two storms thrown in for good measure.

The first weekend of February has been wonderful though - clear blue skies for two consecutive mornings so I've been able to not only get some much needed work done in the garden but also to take a look at the current state of play. All photos were taken on Saturday morning during the inspection.

I wasn't expecting much - this is the UK in January! - but the garden is now in its fifth year as 'the veg patch' and slowly we've built it up year on year.  The herb beds have always done well but the mild winter has allowed the parsley, marjoram and thyme to keep going, although the Sweet Cicely died right back. Tiny shoots are appearing on the tarragon and mint plants and the blackcurrant sage has been flowering like this (below) since autumn.  It's so pretty that I'm going to try and take a few cuttings to propagate it.  Fennel regrowth is vigorous and rosemary maintains the evergreen backbone of the herb bed.  One of the jobs on my list for February is to move the lovage I planted last year;  it's in the wrong place as I haven't allowed it enough room to spread which may be a good thing as it's a big plant!

On the veg front, I have onions and kale (Cavalo Nero); the kale is still small having been planted out quite late in the autumn but will quickly catch up now and the onions are the tiddlers from last year that I left in the ground.  I assume they're edible, if not they'll flower and make a very nice lunch for visiting bees!  The globe artichoke (Violette de Provence) is looking good - when that fruits this year, it will be the first time I've tasted artichoke but, for looks, it's one of my favourite plants in the garden. The physalis and marshmallow plants from last year are also showing strong signs of regrowth (as is my 'Glaskins Perpetual' rhubarb) and will need to be planted or potted on.

And then there's the flowers. At this time of year it's all in the detail.  Last year I was desperate to establish a clump of proper violets - edible flowers, y'know - so ordered plug plants of Viola odorata from Victoriana Nurseries. I let them grow on in a large planter as I didn't want to lose them to a passing animal; now they're strong enough to survive on their own so I'll plant them out under the fruit trees where it will be nice and shady in the summer months. The flowers shouldn't appear until late February but I've got one or two nodding violets already. It's that mild winter again.

Elsewhere, one large self-seeded Cerinthe has been flowering for weeks (I pulled several others out today as they'd flopped across paths), geraniums planted at the beginning of last summer are reflowering, strange twisted borages display wind-battered blue blooms and a bed of polyanthus sing out with their bright pink petals.  I planted those for a bit of spring colour as I didn't think there'd be anything else and tucked a row of saffron crocus down the middle of the bed. I won't see any crocus flowers (or saffron stamens) until the autumn when they'll be flowering next to the (edible) dianthus flowers - the two spiky clumps in the pic below.

Oh yes, and there's my old faithful, the cowslip (Primula veris) as shown in the top picture.  That photo  seems to sum up a spring day for me; inexplicably, I've had the tune 'Dawn' from Pride and Prejudice running around my head all day since I took that shot, probably because it made a beautiful soundtrack to my walk around the garden in winter sunshine. It's a rather nice piece played on the piano (one there for Pianolearner!), have a listen:

So what else?  The weekend saw the raspberry canes chopped back, with the old canes bundled up to be used as pea sticks in a couple of weeks. Mint and comfrey have been repotted into larger pots, strawberry plants have been pulled out - I have way too many of them and the fruit wasn't that great. I'm left with the Rambling Cascade strawberries that I had two years ago from Victoriana and some Mara des Bois woodland strawberries. (Tiny but with an intense flavour.)  Traditional spring bulbs are beginning to show - one or two narcissi are about to flower, bluebell leaves are pushing through as are the tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte daffs planted last spring so I'm hoping for a show of those in a few weeks. And I'm thrilled that a small team of us managed to get over a hundred tulip bulbs planted in December - that really is something to look forward to!  I also cleared and netted one bed, only another four to go!

~ Nothing is wasted: raspberry canes ready to be used as pea supports. ~
One last thing.  In recent years, we've had very chill weather in early Feb. I'm now hoping that this isn't on the cards for this year as my plum tree has got lots of fat buds on newly grown spurs - could this be the year the tree finally fruits? I'm actually quite excited at the prospect of what's in store this year.

I'm joining in with the Garden Share Collective for this end of month post. There are bloggers from Australia, New Zealand and UK taking part; it will be interesting to see what's happening elsewhere in the world!

2 Feb 2014


Not of the brussels variety, but sunflower sprouts!  Seedheads were cut off the sunflowers in the autumn of last year and, as usual, left out to provide winter food for wildlife. Cue one exceptionally mild and extremely wet winter - and this is the result.

The seeds have sprouted!  ...which demonstrates nicely why seeds should be grown in a relatively nutrient poor compost - all they need to get started is contained in the seed itself. So clever. Sunflowers don't like being transplanted so, if I'm to make use of these little plants, I'll have to act quickly to get them potted up.  Or I could eat them.  Sunflower sprouts are deliciously crunchy and nutritious in a salad but only at this sprouting stage before the first true leaves are formed.

During previous colder winters, all the seeds have vanished; I know there are plenty of sparrows, tits, starlings and a couple of wood pigeons (as well as the urban sky-rat variety of pigeon) flapping around the veg gardens so I conclude that the winter has been mild enough for them to forage elsewhere for food. Presumably on the berry-laden shrubs nearby.

Amazingly, today being Sunday, the sun is shining - and for the second morning in a row! Raspberry canes were cut back yesterday and I'm about to do more work in the veg garden today. I have the rather onerous task of clearing the beds of fox/cat poo, clearing off all the top soil because of that, topping up the beds and netting them off with chicken wire. Hopefully that will keep animals out because, frankly, I don't fancy eating root veg grown in what's in there at the moment.  Eeeeuuuwww.

Back later with an end of month round up.

25 Jan 2014

The alternative wedding cake and some marmalade

Ah, Saturday!  I spring out of bed with the energy of having two whole days to play before Monday. Time to cook, think about the garden, relax … and so, perusing Twitter in my pyjamas this morning, a link to a recipe for Kumquat marmalade caught my eye.  I have a few kumquats that need to be used up and the recipe seems simple enough. (Making Seville orange marmalade can be such a faff.)

Remember the wedding a fortnight ago when my 'Pussycat'  niece got married to her 'Owl'?.  Instead of a traditional wedding cake they chose a tower of artisan cheeses - a wedding cheese cake.  The Lamorna cheese cake looked fabulous on the website, a vision of foliage and flowers. The cheeses are shipped without the decorations, which is where I came in.  The original idea was to put fresh herbs around each layer but a quick check of the veg patch gave me only bay, french and curly parsley, rosemary, marjoram, a few chives.  I felt some colour was needed to bring a bit of sparkle to the party.  So, after a dash to the shops, pomegranates, physalis, tiny white roses and kumquats were added to the stash.

I'd pictured myself artistically styling the cheeses in a manner to befit a House & Garden photo shoot. As it happened, I was allowed at the unopened box of tightly wrapped cheeses only FIVE minutes before the bride and groom stood in front of The Cake for the line up!  No pressure there, then.

I ran back to where the other guests were leisurely quaffing champagne, gathered an impromptu creative team (my son and another niece, both adult) and, in a frenzy of unwrapping, lifting, chopping, placing and sweeping up - this is what we came up with.

Not quite the glorious vision in my head. But possibly the best 5 minutes work I'm ever likely to do! And you can see why there are kumquats left over.  We chopped them in half and used them as 'feet', leaving me half a bag for marmalade.

PS. I'm guessing the cheeses were absolutely delicious. After the meal and speeches, and the cake being cut, I went to greet a cousin and returned to see just an empty platter and a few herbs … all cheeses eaten!  C'est la vie.

22 Jan 2014

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday & GBFD

Stunning, isn't it!  I can say that without boasting as these plants aren't mine.  I'm blatantly taking advantage of Garden Bloggers' Foliage Day being hosted by Christina over at her blog to show you my Capel Moment from last week. I'd popped into the manor house walled garden to see if the irises were coming through (they weren't) and walked back past the greenhouses.  These coleus (correct me if I'm wrong), etc, were suddenly lit by a ray of sun, the colours so glowing I had to pop inside for a photo.  It's like autumn all over again and makes me (almost) wish I bothered with houseplants! 

21 Jan 2014

A Seed Studying Dixter-licious Day

Last Monday I was up at dawn and driving south east out of London towards East Sussex. I was headed towards a Study Day at Great Dixter led by Fergus Garrett and had taken the day off work in order to attend.  Double nice.

It was the first Study Day in the Dixter calendar during which a small group of us would hear what Fergus had to say about Choosing and Using Seeds - drawn from his 20+ years of experience as Head Gardener at Dixter - together with practical hands-on demonstrations.  I hadn't quite appreciated how in-depth the topic would be but at the end of the day my head and notebook were stuffed with information that will change the way I garden.

After a welcoming hot drink, the day started downstairs in the Billiards Room with a roaring log fire at our backs. A lively talk and slides presentation showed us how we could emulate the system that the Dixter gardeners use to produce glorious border displays from spring through to late autumn. Fergus basically revealed the secret of manipulating a plant to be at its best at the time you need it - within reason, obviously.  We also learned of the most reputable seed suppliers, how seed selection can be full of potholes if you want a specific plant, propagation methods suited to different plants, sowing in a way that maximises use of cold frames and greenhouse space, filling the 'June gap' (after bulbs have finished and before the perennials kick in) and sowing to prolong autumn displays.  I've always struggled with the need to maintain the momentum of seed sowing throughout February and March but was pleased to hear that staggered sowing throughout the year is positively encouraged!  I thought back to my first sowing in the veg patch when beetroot and lettuce sown in mid-August provided a late season harvest; in fact some of the smaller pricked out beets were ready for eating in early spring. It was a one-off experiment that I would have done well to repeat.

Fergus' passion for plants shone through the day; as we went through the slides, he extolled the virtues of one plant over another, emphasising the need to get to know how different plants perform, looking at plant combinations that worked well (and the how and why of this) - and the idiosyncrasies of some seed mixture, citing a single packet of Cosmos that produced both early and late flowering plants.  I scribbled notes rapidly and managed the salient points plus the names of several noteworthy plants.

Fergus was generous with his knowledge as members of the group asked questions that related to their own gardening - there was never any sense of interrupting his flow, in fact discussion spurred him on to  offer more advice and we almost missed the coffee break!

There was time, after a generous lunch, for a walk around the gardens. Mild weather has brought the hellebores and iris into flower with perennial lupins waiting to pick up the show.  The crocus are not yet out in the meadow, a sight to look forward to in the spring, but clumps of snowdrops are already sprinkled throughout. Magical.

After summarising all we'd learned in the morning (and throwing in a few more plants for good measure), Fergus led us away from the soporific warmth of the billiards room,  through the gardens to the nursery where we were shown how the cold frames and greenhouses are used at Dixter and plants that had been grown in line with the methods outlined by Fergus that morning.

Hundreds of plants are grown at Dixter, both for their own borders and for sale to the public, so there were lessons in plant care to be learned there; we saw how to create the best environment for seedlings, plants that had been potted on in the autumn and were ready to go into the borders in spring, how hot and cold weather protection is managed and when the greenhouses are used rather than a cold frame.

As the light faded and the air became chill, we headed down to the education room for reviving mugs of tea and home-made fruit cake with a detailed practical lesson in seed sowing, pricking out and potting on given by Fergus.

There was a large box of seeds collected in the wild by plant hunters Jim and Jenny Archibald;  these had been given to Fergus after Jim's death in 2010 and these seeds were used to illustrate lessons in collecting seeds, correct storage and seed viability.  We were told which seeds are best used fresh and of others that will be viable for several years, depending on storage.  The topic of this Study Day ('Choosing and Using Seeds') is clearly a subject close to Fergus' heart; we overran slightly but not before Fergus had checked that was okay with everyone. We were also generously offered an opportunity to return to Dixter in the next few months for a supervised seed sowing day - with pricking out thrown in especially for yours truly!

My mind was whirring as I drove home down pitch black country lanes after this extraordinary day. In garden design we identify 'the spirit of the place', a quality Great Dixter has in abundance. It was great to return for such a fabulous day, meeting fellow gardeners and reacquainting with Dixter (staff, house and gardens) and with a wealth of invaluable knowledge passed on by Fergus - he is a generous and amazing teacher.

This weekend I read a short interview with James Horner, the 2010 Christopher Lloyd Scholarship trainee, who says, "…the first time I visited Great Dixter … I had a feeling of belonging." It gets me that way too.

  • Winter Open Weekends are being held on the 15th/16th and 21st/22nd of February.
  • Study Days with Fergus Garrett are held throughout the year, more info here
  • The Spring Plant Fair is on the 5th and 6th April, 11-4.

More photos from my day at Great Dixter in a Flickr set: (click link below photo)

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