23 Apr 2014

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: State of Progress

A year ago this border in the garden really annoyed me every time I walked past.  It's at the other end of the veg patch gardens, next to the driveway, and was slowly filling up with rubble, litter, animal poo, toys, weeds and leaf litter.  The large Viburnum x bodnantense shrubs at either end were overlooked in favour of the detritus underneath.  Finally I could stand it no more.  I gave up a weekend to clear it all out, dig the soil over, and think about planting it up.  A year on, this is the state of progress.

14 Apr 2014

Tree following… Choices, choices!

I managed to miss the deadline for Lucy's Tree Following last month so this month will be an introduction and a catch up on my tree so far.

Firstly, which tree to choose? We do so well for trees here in the UK.

A. lamarckii leaf buds about to unfurl
I love Amelanchier lamarckii, also known as Juneberry, such a pretty tree and it fades so beautifully at the end of the year.  Camden Council have just planted six Amelanchiers in a side street near to the local City Farm.  It's an unusual choice for a local council to instal, one rarely seen. A nearby householder has planted up the tree pit of the Amelanchier nearest to his house.  This would have been a good tree to follow, there's obviously a story there.  On the other hand …

There's a huge, mature and gloriously swooping willow on the Heath by the path to the duck ponds, lots of activity and dog walking going on nearby, plus the occasional art installation …

Then there's the poor lopped off plane trees under my window.  They were severely pruned in late Autumn last year.  Will they resprout? Will the robins return? Will the ivy survive?  And what of the garden that they're in? We might never know …

The canopy of these London Planes completely shaded this garden in past years.

Also under consideration is my urban orchard; eight fruit trees planted as one-year old bareroots in December 2009, this is their sixth year in the veg patch. A specially-developed-for-London apple tree joined the patch in January 2013, making nine trees.  I really feel I should get to know them better. They were covered in buds in March and I honestly can't tell a leaf bud from a fruit bud plus there's the whole pruning for fruit thing. Worthy of a closer look?  I've also just added a quince tree to this collection.  I haven't grown quince before so if excitement levels are a measure of tree following worthiness, this would be the one.

Tangled branches of Ulmus glabra.
But there's more.  Just when I'd almost decided, I walked past a tree of such quirkiness that I was all of a doodah.  Ulmus glabra, also known as Wych elm.  This is in front of the manor house at Capel's Enfield site and I met it on an ident walk in my first year.  Its pendant branches hide a glorious spaghetti like tangle on top of the trunk but the downside is that I probably won't see it during the summer months until my college studies resume. It was a real contender though and one I may sneakily report on from time to time throughout the tree following year.

Being realistic, the trees I see on a daily basis are my fruit trees so I'm going to follow these. I know I should pick one but as an orchard they all contribute to the garden.

Mid border looking south: two apple trees, two pears and a cherry in the corner. 

Over the past few weeks the blossom has been luxuriant with the pear and plum flowers showing first, followed by cherry and apple.  The plum blossom has almost gone leaving the cherry blossom to steal the show.  So many people have stopped to comment or take photographs and I'm really pleased that all this beauty is getting noticed.

I think the most interesting of these trees to look at (at the moment) is the cherry tree.  It's a Morello which is a sour cherry - good for pies and compotes (and perhaps dipped in dark chocolate!) but, for me, not for eating fresh off the tree.

There are two of these trees; one I dug up and moved to another corner plot a couple of years ago, this one stayed put; both are doing really well.  It was grafted onto dwarfing rootstock and, bizarrely, this rootstock grew a couple of stems.  After a couple of years, I was fairly confident this leafy growth was not contributing anything to the cherry tree and chopped off the usurping stems.  They still sprout leaves from time to time, and I'm enjoying the greenery this year but think it should really be pruned off.  You can see this in the photo below which also shows the plants surrounding the tree: day lilies and ivy to the right,  Jacob's Ladder (pulmonaria) and rosemary to the left.  The metal spire was for the clematis to climb up but it's making its own way up the tree!  (nb. must tie it in!)

I love the bark on prunus trees, this one is no exception being a deep bronze.  Like some Silver Birch trees, the young bark peels off to reveal a beautiful surface underneath.  I don't know if this is standard for cherry trees, I'm certainly enjoying the effect on this one!

One other point of interest about this tree: a couple of years ago, I found a tiny plant growing out of the soil under the tree.  I assumed it was a sycamore or such like and was about to pull it up when I saw a split cherry pip by the tiny plant.  I carefully transplanted the tiny tree to care for it on my balcony and then replanted it a year later.  That was a couple of years ago.  The tiny tree is now about 13 inches high; I'll probably have to plant it into it's final place at the end of this year so that it can grow big and strong away from its parent.

May 2012, just a seedling. March 2014 coming back to life; April 2014 in leaf.  

Looking up into the canopy of blossom - look at all those potential cherries!

PS.  The apple blossom is looking pretty special too at the moment!

11 Apr 2014

A slug is a slug no matter how small ...

Gastropod, the biological name for a slug, literally translates as stomach foot.  At any time of year, it's good to have some strategies in place to control them but it's especially important in spring when tender little plants and seeds are about to go out into the garden.

I googled the word 'slug' … 

I was reminded of this when my cousin mentioned that he'd returned home to find half his marigolds were missing after being away for just a few days.  According to this fact sheet, 95% of slugs are underground munching on seeds, laying eggs, chomping roots. They've been around since the Ice Age so nothing we gardeners do will permanently eradicate them, especially after the nice wet start to the year that the UK has just had. There is one slug that apparently prefers to eat other slugs rather than plants and that's the Leopard Slug. I found several last weekend during my slug search; not knowing any better, they live no more.  Next time I'll spare these.

Friend: Leopard slug. Easily identified.

Looking for further slug facts, I came across a link to an article about Killer Slugs which made very disturbing reading. The so-called Spanish slug (actually, probably not from Spain at all) was identified by the Head of Entomology at the John Innes Centres in Norwich although they may have been in the UK since 1954.  He found hundreds of these very large slugs in his garden and did a bit of research. They're a voracious and invasive strain and have been known to eat each other if nothing better is available … for instance, native slugs, dead mice, animal faeces or a row of lovingly tended lettuces.  They live for up to a year and will lay about 400 eggs in that time which hatch in three to four weeks. Slug eggs and baby slugs are lurking under leaves and in the soil ready to slither into action when the weather warms up and it's predicted that this year will be another bumper year for these crop decimators.

So whether your garden or plot has Stealth Slugs, Killer Slugs, garden slugs, tree climbing slugs or slugs in a rainbow of colours, it's time to take action. My favoured method at the moment is search and destroy: swift decapitation with the edge of my copper trowel then throwing the bodies out for the birds. I hope in this small way I'm winning the war without unbalancing the eco-system.

For gardeners of less clinical disposition, I've given some thought as to how to best be prepared for the annual slither and munch fest.

Clear leaf debris.  Fallen leaves provide a protective winter mulch for the soil. Most leaves will not decompose fast enough to be of benefit to the soil so should be raked off anyway in the spring.  Ditto any decaying/old leaves or other matter; these should be cleared to allow light through to the emerging shoots. This year, I've cleared debris sooner to deprive overwintering pests of their warm, dark shelter.

Coffee grounds.  This was touted as a good slug deterrent a few years ago.  Living near a deli with excellent coffee, I had access to copious amounts of coffee grounds; I tried it but remain unconvinced. Allegedly slugs are deterred by caffeine but the same grounds will make seeds and tender seedlings very unhappy. (I tried coffee grounds on a test bed a couple of years ago and nothing grew there.)  A laboratory test of Starbucks grounds showed them to be slightly acidic (pH 6.2) and nutrient rich (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and copper), probably a bit too much for seeds and seedlings to cope with.  In 2012 the RHS alerted gardeners to an EU ban on using coffee grounds as an organic pesticide - article here - although your behaviour won't be considered subversive if your grounds are applied as a mulch.  If you have an excess of grounds (which I have after stopping for coffee at Costa coffee on the M3 where they bag up the grounds for customers to take), they make an excellent addition to compost or can be added to blueberry shrubs, camellias or other plants preferring an acidic soil or ericaceous compost. Grounds added to the soil should be incorporated well; once the grounds have been broken down by soil organisms, the minerals they contain become available to plants so grounds make a good slow-release fertiliser.

Link - This article gives a lot more info on using coffee grounds outside. 8 different uses for coffee grounds in the garden

Egg shells. Killer slugs have been seen eating snail shells so I suspect mulching with egg shells won't help much. Last year, I mulched around my broad beans with a large dish of washed, crushed and baked eggshells. As baking eggshells hardens them up, I thought the added crunch might be an extra deterrent. I found slugs in the soil but my beans were okay, and the eggs shells were dug into the soil afterwards. This treatment made no difference to my hostas which disappeared overnight.  If nothing else, adding eggshells to the soil will slightly boost calcium. All plants need calcium, with apples, brassicas, legumes, potatoes and tomatoes especially so.  Don't add eggshells around plants such as blueberries as they prefer an acidic ericaceous soil - eggshells are alkaline.

Nematodes.  This works .... but only for a few weeks.  Nematodes destroy slugs from the inside and need to be watered onto the soil during  damp or wet weather.

Salt water / hand picking.  I introduced The Sluginator to my slug controls a few years back. It's a large plastic bottle containing salted water. (Hot water is quicker and so slightly more humane.) It needs a lid, otherwise slugs will climb out.  Regularly slug patrol your patch at dusk, dropping any adult slugs into the salt water which kills them.  I'm squeamish about touching slugs so keep my gardening gloves on.

Beer traps/grapefruit shells. Slugs can't resist a good jolly up and will wend their way towards the pub of doom, never to emerge again.  Sink a plastic container (eg cut down milk carton) into the soil, part fill with beer, empty when gruesome. Grapefruit halves placed dome upwards on the soil will attract slugs. If propped up slightly so the slugs can get under, you'll find several lurking within come morning.  Then you can decide what you're going to do with them.

Copper strips.  These are reputed to give a mild electric shock to slugs as they try to cross them, the theory being that they will turn away from this unpleasantness. Buy tape to put around the rim of pots,  beds and greenhouse shelves. The drawback is that slugs can arch over copper strips and the strips are not cheap to buy.  I've had some success making copper collars from the inside of tomato paste tubes - cut open, smoothed out, trimmed and placed on the soil around my sprout seedlings.  No slug damage ... maybe they just weren't interested, or maybe it was because I used my ...

... Copper tools.  I use a PKS copper trowel which is reputed to deter slugs. In the wet summer of 2012, although I had quite a few slugs, I didn't have the plague of slugs that others reported - and yet I saw slugs roaming in packs elsewhere in the garden.  Use a copper trowel to have a little dig around your beds: If a pile of pearl-like eggs is unearthed a few inches deep in the soil, get rid of them. This is slug spawn.

Petroleum Jelly.  I haven't tried this but have heard that a slick of jelly around the base and top of pots will act as a barrier to slugs and snails.

Mint/Sage/fennel/chives.  Allegedly planting these herbs or adding these to your mulch will deter slugs.  Worth a try.

So there we have it.  Personally, I believe no single method will keep slugs at bay but using several at least gives your plants a fighting chance.  Dare I say though that, as with all creatures in the garden, slugs are an important part of the eco-system so balance is needed.  Good luck!

Slugwatch is a good website for identifying slugs and more information.

6 Apr 2014

March/April: Keeping up!

~ Rhubarb, cowslips, cornflower (Centaurea montana) and cowslip seedlings to transplant ~

There's never enough hours in the day is my mantra as the gardening year starts up in earnest. March can sorely test a gardener's resolve to resist sowing too early.  As fruit trees come into blossom, fingers are crossed against the possibility of frost. It's been such a brilliant spring for blossom and, for once, beneficial bugs too. This year, with exceptionally mild spring temperatures, I've also been on the lookout for pests such as aphids, baby slugs and vine weevil grubs in pots.  My searches have already proved successful; as I garden completely organically, this is an area to keep on top of.

I didn't completely resist the urge to sow: French beans, peas, mange tout and courgettes were sown into modules on the 11th March, with the intention of having plants ready to go out at the end of April. The peas are growing strongly and are ready to be potted on, the beans and courgettes are so inactive that I'm wondering if I actually sowed any in the modules! A gentle poke around may be in order.  It doesn't matter if they don't germinate because there's plenty of time to resow. Once the first lot of peas and beans are planted out, I'll sow another lot to have fresh veg over a longer period.  I'm writing all this down in my little black book - it's amazing how quickly the details get forgotten.  For this first round, I'm growing (or not, as the case may be) four each of Bingo, Sugar Ann and Delikatess peas, four Golden Sweet mange tout (a tall yellow podded climber), two yellow courgettes, two striped Italian courgettes and eight Canadian Wonder bush beans. All of these have been started on my balcony in an unheated propagator.

~ Sage, garden mint, globe artichoke, wild garlic, flat and curly parsley ~

Meanwhile, down in the veg patch, herbs that were cut back are regrowing strongly, a raised bed has been sown with Karmazyn broad beans - 23 in total, the 24th space was already occupied by a bean I'd found in last year's bed and shoved into the soil last December. It was a tiny seedling when I planted the other beans and is still the only thing showing in that bed. It's only been three weeks but, given the recent warm weather, I was expecting to see something other than last year's sunflower seeds germinating.  Dare I say that some typical April showers would be helpful?
(Update: as I'm late posting this, but typed it last weekend, the broad beans are now showing!)

Sweet peas sowed on 24th February were all growing nicely by 17th March, the new Sarah Raven seeds giving 100% germination and being the quickest off the mark. They've all now got their fourth set of true leaves and have been pinched out to encourage sturdy bushier plants with more flowers.  I'm following the advice given by Wellywoman in her book The Cut Flower Patch to maximise my chances of success!

~ Borage, pear blossom, tulips, apple blossom ~

The pear and plum trees are currently covered in blossom, just ahead of the cherry and apple trees. It's a glorious sight that the bees are aware of - there's also a few self-seeded borage plants in the fruit tree border for extra nectar for hungry bumbles. The tulips under the trees are just open while February's narcissus are still blooming!  At this stage, I'm quietly optimistic of a good fruit harvest this year.

Gooseberries, raspberries, marshmallow

Salad news: I've sown a small raised bed with a selection to be used as 'cut and come again' salad leaves: rainbow Pak Choi, spinach Reddy, Bull's Blood beetroot and Lamb's lettuce. The Pak Choi has germinated well; any thinnings will be transplanted and grown on elsewhere. As soon as I've built another raised bed, that too will be sown with more lettuce varieties, this time to grow on into larger plants.

Upstairs on my balcony, I've added a couple of window boxes for more quick pick salad. I've repotted the lemon verbena; this plant would grow into a large bush if planted out into a border but I like to keep it nearby to pick the leaves for tea.  The little chives plant that I planted on from a supermarket buy last year died back over winter but is putting on good strong growth this year - must remember to keep watering it! A couple of days ago, I bought some inexpensive slimline greenhouse staging  - 4 wire shelves on my sheltered balcony mean that I can start seed sowing in earnest without clogging up my windowsills.  Space, the final frontier.

My big job for April will be to try and fence all the way round the Veg Patch island. Having tried fencing off individual beds with strong plastic netting, I've found that there's one bed where cats are still getting in - and it's not buried treasure they're leaving behind. Coated wire netting seems to be keeping animals out of individual beds, but then it becomes an effort to weed the fenced area. Fencing around the perimeter is the next option to try. I'm hoping that this latest plan will work; we're all so fed up with picking up poo that unless this is sorted, it could be curtains for any ground level food growing.

On a much more positive note, Victoriana Nurseries have donated a quince tree to the community garden!  That brings my fruit tree total to ten trees.  If nothing else, that's an achievement that I'm very proud of.  The quince is a bare root tree so, until I've decided where to position it, I've planted it into a large pot of multi purpose compost where it will be well watered and happy.  Any trees supplied with bare roots should be given a good soak in a bucket of water to rehydrate the roots and then planted as soon as possible; ours will be planted this weekend.
(Another update: the quince tree is in, planted with a team effort on Friday.)

So what's in store for April?  Next on the agenda, after fencing, is weeding. That's the price I've paid for not cutting off the Orach seedpods promptly.  Seedlings are growing in the fruit tree border  and popping up by the thousand.  I want to sow some meadow flowers under the fruit trees and don't want them, or the trees, competing with the orach seedlings for nutrients so they'll have to go.  (I might just keep one or two … !)  I've got herbs, honeyberries and raspberry canes to plant out and seed sowing on my balcony will begin in earnest this week so there should be some progress to report by the end of next month!

Happy gardening days are here again!

This post is written to link in with Lizzie's Garden Share Collective over in Australia where they've been glad of some rain after a very dry 'summer'. Lizzie is still blogging despite being days away from giving birth so I wish her well with her labour and hope it all goes smoothly. xx

29 Mar 2014

The Edible Garden Show at Ally Pally

As the foster-gardener of the Urban Veg Patch, and therefore grower of edibles, I've long wanted to attend the Edible Garden Show and see what it's all about.  This year the show has been relocated from Stoneleigh in the Midlands to Alexandra Palace in North London, a short drive from my home, so off I went.

Ally Pally is a huge building, high on a hill with extensive views over North London; the show is located in the south side of the building as I found after I'd walked all the way round ... past the fitness club, past the lake, past the ice rink, past the café, past the BBC tower, past the car park that I couldn't find - you get the idea.

Once inside, the show was a visual feast, with no aspect of home-raised food neglected. As I wandered around looking at the exhibits, there were many products that I recognised and quite a few that I felt had a lot of potential for education.  As ever with these shows, there was plenty of opportunity to chat with the exhibitors and it's this access to information which is so valuable to gardeners.  Talks and workshops run throughout the day, staged in 'theatres', one stage for cookery, two for gardening and a poultry area. James Wong was a particularly effective speaker in the Experts Theatre and I managed to have a chat with him about his new book that he's currently writing and researching with the RHS (working title 'RHS Flavour Growers Manual', due out next year).

In the Poultry Area, a small group of school children clustered around a warming pen for 3 day old chicks, anxious for a turn to hold one. For anyone thinking of keeping poultry, this area was sure to excite. The sound of chickens, ducks and gobbling turkeys filled the air, with advice on hand about the characteristics of different breeds, how to house and care for them and, of course, plenty of equipment to buy.

After a good look round, several glasses of water (it was very warm in the building!) and lots of chat, there were four exhibits that I was especially interested in.  Compost Cocktails, Dragonfli (bees by post), Plantspacer and Meadow in my Garden.  I felt that these had definite possibilities.

The Dark Art of Soil Composition ... completely unlike  Hogwart's potions room
First, Compost Cocktails: New for this show and hosted by the company behind J Arthur Bowers and New Horizons composts.  In a booth with shelves filled with jars of powders and potions, tubs of dark crumbly mixes and a 'cauldron' for mixing, this fun idea educates in the dark arts of soil composition.  In short, how to create the ideal soil conditions for growing particular crops. So if you want perfect carrots, plump cabbages or luscious fruit, you'll know the right soil to use - basically getting the NPK ratio right for your crops.  (NPK = Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium = Roots, shoots, fruits).  This was something that visiting school children were eager to engage with, getting their hands into the soil, learning about peat and environmental impact, but mostly having a lot of fun mixing soils to a recipe for successful growing and turning the drums to mix.  Multi-sensory learning, works every time.  It's a different way of presenting soil composition (including peat, coir and green compost) and, after more trialling in local schools, the company hope eventually to take the idea to the RHS.  Personally, I could see potential for both school gardening clubs and entry level horticultural courses. The premise of mixing soils to suit a purpose is exactly how the company makes the bagged soil available to the public. What could be more important than soil?

Next up, Plantspacer from Squared Gardening.  This is one for the novice veg grower, school gardening club or, indeed, anyone with limited growing space.  A set of three square templates punched with circles as planting guides; pictures show which veg suits each template and how many of a chosen plant can fit in that area.  The templates also group together plants that have similar nutrient requirements. The principles of square foot gardening made simple.  Actually, I think I need some of those as I always slightly scoff at the planting distances on seed packets and weeding between plants is not my forté.

And so to pollination.  Bees.  Live bees were at the show.  Unsurprisingly, of great interest to the school children. How do the bees get out, asked one.  Hmmm, that's just a little too much information, I thought.  Curiosity got the better of me and I had a chat with Julian Ives, proprietor of the company, Dragonfli.  The idea is less about making honey and more about pollination.  With a hive and colony of bees in the garden, good pollination of fruit blossom and vegetables will improve yields.  A colony and hive is provided by the company; during the season, new queen bees are produced by the colony to fly off and create new colonies in the wild. I wondered how customers felt about having to replace their colony every year (the old one naturally dies) but was assured the company has a very good record of repeat orders and was becoming popular as a learning resource for schools. I had some concerns over packaging up bees to send in the post; wouldn't that be traumatic for them?  Apparently not. The bees are sent by courier in a sealed box with food and water for the journey and would be quite happy for several days.  The company also supply solitary bees, seeds and organic pest controls.  Personally, I love sitting in my summer garden, surrounded by the droning of busy bees and would love a small hive.  ... Although, perhaps not in a community garden.

Still on the topic of pollination - and sited next to the bee hive stand - was Meadow in My Garden.  I encountered this exhibitor at another show last weekend and was immediately taken with their product, packets of site or colour specific grass-free wildflower seeds to attract beneficial insects to the garden.  I'm improving the area under my fruit trees with herbs and flowers this year.  A tricky area given that it's shaded in the summer when the trees are in full leaf so I bought a packet of short mixture Tree Foot seeds.  This should give me a display of 24 flowers including Catchfly, Swan River Daisy, Carpet Flower (Sweet Alyssum) and Corn Marigold, none taller than 40cm.  Mmm, lovely ... and because the seeds are a mix of annuals and short lived perennials, I can look forward to at least two summers from my floral meadow.  It helps to know what you want though as there is a massive choice - surely not a problem!  Mixes for dry soil, wet soil, shade, bees, butterflies, aphids, shade, drought, planters or larger borders ... they're all there.  I have a larger box which I'll probably use for a spot of guerrilla gardening around the neighbourhood and, looking at their website, I'm drawn to the blue mix of white cosmos, blue cornflowers and plum coloured scabious.

Kirsten of Heart and Home, Colapz cans, Veg Trug pockets

Other ideas spotted that are worth a mention are brightly coloured collapsible water cans - perfect for car boots when going to the allotment, or using as a bucket when camping. I resisted but would like one for my tiny balcony as it folds up to a disc just a couple of inches thick.

Also brightening up a vertical growing space are these felt grow pockets from Veg Trug.  They're plastic lined so allegedly won't leak or stain and the water seeps down through the stitching so that the plants aren't waterlogged.  I remain unconvinced that the roots will have enough space and they would certainly need daily watering but, for someone with no growing space, this could just be the answer as they can be hung outside a window or on a tiny balcony. (Um, like mine.)  Probably useful for cut and come again salad leaves, small herbs, strawberries and nasturtiums.  Interested?  Here's the link.

I also want to mention the lovely Kristen, above, who runs a small family business called Retro Heart and Home. She sells wonderful wooden products, such as the highly covetable peg rails made by her husband, and sources lovely products with a Scandinavian feel such as these high quality linen mix dishcloths. Everything she sells is a product that she loves to have in her own home.  Recently, a certain very well known department store linked to a supermarket (allegedly) reproduced her christmas display exactly.  So, if you want beautiful objects for your home, don't pay department store prices - go to Kristen first and support small businesses!

If you haven't been to the show before, I'd say it was well worth it for the talks and workshops alone. Take some cash as there's masses of retail therapy in the form of tools, organic pest control, magazines, hoops and netting, gloves, raised beds, seeds (Suttons, DT Brown, Thompson and Morgan), herbs, fruit, plants ... and food, lots and lots of food. And a café and free parking.

Half price tickets to the 2015 show!  I see from the event guide that, until the end of April, register on the Edible Garden Show website and you'll receive newsletters and how to get this great offer.

28 Mar 2014

Let's get ready to {c}rumble

Pudding.  Surely one of the most evocative words in the English language.  At this time of year, if a pudding is to be provided from the garden then rhubarb is one way to go.  So when a neighbour says that she has lots of rhubarb on her allotment garden* and to help myself, I don't need asking twice!

I liked the look of a Danish rhubarb cake seen in the Guardian a couple of weekends ago but found that, unusually for me, I didn't have enough plain flour for the recipe. But I did have just enough to make a crumble topping, following a recipe from my Sarah Raven cookbook**. This recipe also has ground hazelnuts in it, as well as oats, which was rather nice.

The rhubarb plant I picked from is several years in the ground now so has stood well over the mild winter, whereas my veg patch rhubarb plants are still just getting going.  It looks like my friend's plant is ready to be split - there are several points (crowns) where the stems emerge.  It's also good to mulch or feed rhubarb in the spring as this will result in better stems - chicken or comfrey pellets will do, or compost or well-rotted manure, but leave the crowns clear.

If you have room to grow several rhubarb plants, it's a good idea to deliberately choose varieties that crop at different times; I noticed that the Capel Manor kitchen gardeners are currently picking stems from a well established Timperley Early with stems from 'Victoria' and 'Royal Albert' at about 4 inches and 'Stockbridge Arrow' crowns just peeking above the soil level.

I'd borrowed a copy of the RHS Good Fruit and Veg Guide from the college library.  I hadn't heard of either Albert or Stockbridge Arrow so wanted to see if the RHS rated them.  They weren't listed in the book but I was pleased to see that both varieties that I grow - Champagne and Glaskins Perpetual - have earned a mention.  The RHS describes the Champagne rhubarb cultivars to be generally early with sweet tender stems, whilst Glaskins P has a fair flavour but crops over a long period.  I picked stems from my Glaskins rhubarb in early November last year but that's certainly unusual; it will be interesting to see how it does in the months ahead.

There are two more plants that have piqued my interest from the RHS guide:  'Grandad's Favourite' (great name!) is described as a mid-season variety with excellent flavour, while the stems of  'Fulton's Strawberry Surprise' are tender and well-flavoured.  This last one also has an RHS Award of Garden Merit.  Ones to look out for at plant sales if looking to start a rhubarb patch.

* When the flats were built, a small piece of land next to the railway was fenced off for allotment gardens, each typically measuring about 3 x 6 metres. Individual tenants could adopt a plot for growing fruit and veg. They didn't have to be pretty, just well maintained and productive.  In recent years, a growing number of tenants have turned these spaces into private leisure gardens so most are now grassed over (or worse, buried under gravel) and get used on a handful of weekends in the summer.  Three plots are still used for the intended purpose, my friend's plot being one of them. She's also one of the original York Rise Growers.  Nuff said.

** The crumble topping can be found in this Telegraph article.  I whizzed up all ingredients in one of those hand-held blender chopping pots, having partially stewed my rhubarb on the stove top with butter and sugar. (Yes, butter. As instructed in the Guardian recipes. Nice.) Popped into little dishes and cooked for 20 minutes in the oven. Just enough time to make some Bird's lumpy custard. Honestly, I'm not usually that bad at making custard! It still tasted delicious.)

23 Mar 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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