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?

7 Mar 2014

Book review: The Cut Flower Patch by Louise Curley

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Mar 2014

Bud-wiser (February end of month)

Here in the UK, after a month of storms and rain - and the occasional sunny day - there is a palpable sense of gardeners gearing up for spring and the advent of a new sowing year.  In horticultural terms, March is the nominal end of winter but the past few months have been noticeably mild and the weather here could go either way, with the threat of sudden frosts and outbursts of caterpillars never far away.

Seen lurking on a Festuca glauca grass yesterday - lurking with intent?

With the end of month post in mind, I took a walk around the veg patch gardens yesterday in the chill sunshine to check on progress. It's good to know what might need to be protected if we do have a cold snap.

Clockwise from top left: cherry, plum, pear, cherry.  Apples not showing yet.
First stop was the fruit trees.  A Twitter chum told of cherry blossom in Bristol yesterday; no such thing here but no need for me to be envious - I'm pleased to see that the buds on my east-facing trees are, sensibly, only just beginning to open.  The plum tree is looking good with lots of new growth which I hope will be fruiting spurs (how to tell?).  Please, please, after 6 years, let this be the year that I get some fruit.  I do love a freshly picked Victoria plum! (Ditto for the pear tree.)

Next up, raspberry canes: I've left one old cane at 40cm in each batch every year and found this is a good way of having early fruit, with the new canes producing fruit into later summer. As expected, the old stems have fat buds about to burst into leaf, the new canes are just bright green leaves sprouting out of the soil. Quite a few a long way from the parent plant; they'll have to go.  I grow Autumn Bliss, a popular primocane variety (late summer fruiting, no need to tie in the branches), but have been increasingly disappointed with the quality of the fruit, although last summer the small fruit was perfect for jam :)  Funnily enough, the children don't seem to have the same high expectations that I do.  This year though I'm raising my game and last weekend I bought 5 new canes of Polka; this is another primocane that allegedly has large, juicy berries. Keep the faith.

Soft fruit doing well: new rhubarb, honeyberry, blueberry, strawberry.  
Glaskins Perpetual rhubarb is showing a lot of promise at soil level.  I am envious of those that are forcing rhubarb to enjoy earlier in the season.  As I have only have the one rhubarb, I'm reluctant to weaken the plant to appease my impatience!  Solution: I planted two little Red Champagne crowns last weekend, bought very cheaply from the supermarket.  An absolute bargain if (when!) they thrive and I'll have lovely big leafy plants in my borders as a bonus.

Last year I bought a Honeyberry plant at the RHS spring show. They're an alternative to blueberries but don't need to be grown in ericaceous soil.  Too good to be true? I found out afterwards that at least two are needed for fruit to set.  They're not self-fertile so last year's plant has now been joined by 3 little chums. I would have bought only one but the offer was for a job lot. They've arrived and need to be potted on. (Jobs for March!)  What with the redcurrant and gooseberry bushes (one of each) and quite a few strawberries, the veg patch will be soft fruit central come summer.  With a bit of luck.

A splash of pink for spring!

 I don't know if it was just that the sun was shining, that it felt good to be outdoors and that I lingered over really taking note but it really felt that spring was breaking over the garden.  Heucheras putting out new leaves, paperwhites, narcissus and violets in flower, tulips coming up, honeysuckle on the way in, Viburnum x bodnantense still flowering but now with tiny leaves. (I must remember to move the clematis by the Viburnum as the leaf canopy gives a lot of shade.)

Herbs that died back (or should have done!) are reappearing (wild garlic, sweet cicely, comfrey, tarragon, mint, golden oregano) and the blackcurrant sage (which needs to be dug up and moved) has new flower buds.  Flat leaved parsley has become an enormous (but still edible) mound, lavender has been cut back and moved under the fruit trees, marshmallow is sprouting (top photo, below) - as are the spuds chitting on my windowsill indoors.

A lesson learned from the Great Dixter seed sowing study day was the advantage of sowing some hardier plants in the late summer, planting them out in the autumn or letting them overwinter in a cold frame. This gets them off to a good start in the spring as a strong root system will have had time to develop.  In the veg patch gardens, this theory is supported with August sown Cerinthe (quite my favourite plant at the moment as the stems look fabulous in a vase), Jacob's Ladder polemoniums (self seeded and growing strongly), Borage (about to flower), Cavalo Nero and white onions. I've even used some of the onions in a tomato sauce today along with parsley from my balcony. It's that mild winter, again.

Globe artichoke (top left), Tete a tete daffs with violets, Cerinthe major purpurescens

Considering I wasn't expecting to find much growing in the garden, this end of month review has shown how much the garden has evolved - not just as a 'veg patch', which was the original motivation for reviving the space, but as a proper garden.  All this and seeds still to be sown! I'm getting quietly excited by the year ahead.

I'm linking to both The Patient Gardener and Garden Share Collective for this end of month view. Thanks to both for hosting and sharing!

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.

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