19 Jul 2015

Pollinator Awareness Week

Hoverfly on Linaria leaf

While I'm on the subject of bees (last post), I've picked up lots of tweeting in the past few days about it being Pollinator Awareness Week.  I would probably have missed this if not for the Twitterati so am overdue for a bit of an awareness boost.

While we all know that our summer crops would be dismal without help from pollinators and that it's essential in spring to tempt bees towards the fleeting blossom on our fruit trees, what can we do to attract bees into our gardens all year round and, more importantly, keep them there?

Veg and allotment gardeners provide rich summer feeding grounds with the flowers of annuals such as broad beans, peas, climbing beans, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, redcurrants, all the berry bushes, asparagus, artichokes, fruit trees and herb flowers.  Comfrey is a spectacular bee magnet and worth growing to have a very useful plant fertiliser to hand.  And if, like me, you find your autumn sown carrots bolting into flower - leave them! Carrots belong in the Apiaceae plant family, so named for their affinity with bees (Latin name - apis).

I found a very good page on the RHS website with downloadable leaflets of what can be planted to make sure there's plenty of insect food in your garden from wintery-spring right through to late autumn.  Even if you only squeeze a few of these plants into your garden, it will be a case of, as they say, "every little helps".  I won't repeat what the RHS writes - the link is here.  

I like to think that I'm a pollinator friendly kind of gal so, for a bit of fun, I traipsed down to the garden to see how many boxes I could tick. Here's a few of them in flower today:

How many can you guess? Answers at post end.

The RHS lists have made me think about moving some of my plants around - replacing some of the poorly fruiting strawberries with Sweet Woodruff and planting more snowdrops, tulips, hellebores and forget-me-nots for springtime and Erigeron (fleabane) for summer.

It's fairly blowy day here so it was interesting trying to get photos - speed rather than aperture being of the essence.  It didn't take too long (I stopped to gather a few bits for lunch) but nearly every plant I stopped at was attracting bees.  My halo is shining.

A garden friend, if not exactly a pollinator. Couldn't resist.

Grid Quiz answers! 

From left to right, top to bottom:
Allium, Echinacea, Linaria, Perovskia, tomato
Phlox paniculata, Eryngium, Blackcurrant sage, Achillea, Mange tout
Bupthalmum salicifolium, Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve', Borage, Scabious, Fennel
Comfrey, Sedum Thundercloud, Honeysuckle, Sweet William, Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis)
Cosmos, Lavender, Nasturtium, Thyme, Calendula

With that picture grid above, I'm also linking to Carol's Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day for July.

18 Jul 2015

Biscuits, bees and lavender

A cookie jar rarely stays full for long in my kitchen; biscuits, as we like to call them in the UK, are a lovely thing to make in your kitchen at home. They don't take long to make, especially (or even) if you have children to help. This recipe uses fresh lavender from the garden but this could be replaced with shop bought lavender buds (from the home baking aisle) - or left out altogether and have vanilla or lemon zest added instead. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Shall we just pretend for a moment that the grey skies of the past week haven't happened?  It's not been very summery over the last week although, once outdoors, I've been surprised how humid it feels despite grey skies and drizzling rain. But enough of all that.  Let's pretend that it's a glorious warm and mellow summer's day - a perfect day for relaxing in the garden with some iced lemonade and homemade biscuits, listening to the bees busily collecting nectar from the nearby lavender bushes. Hmmm.  Biscuits + Lavender. Now there's a thought.

Lavender is definitely the top summer plant in my garden for attracting bees, the bushes are in constant motion with bees landing and taking off again from the flowers.  But they're not just a pretty face - there's a lot more that lavender is good for.

  • The dried leaves and flowers can be mixed with rice to make aromatic microwave-able handwarmers; 
  • fabric pouches filled with lavender flowers can scent clothes or be tucked under a pillow for good night's sleep; 
  • the oil is soothing, calming and healing; 
  • lavender spikes make lovely cut flowers (cut when half to one-third of the flowers are open and cut above a pair of leaves) and, of course, 
  • the flowers are edible.

I discovered this recipe while skimming through a Mary Berry book due for return to the library: Lavender biscuits, how intriguing.  And there's something so dependable about Mary Berry that I instinctively trust her recipes.  This recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of fresh lavender flowers and/or leaves.  Ever one to expand my repertoire of what to do with edible flowers, I decided to make a batch for teatime (and other moments when a snack is required).

First task was to gather flowers and photos. This part of making the biccies took a while; I'm easily distracted from the task in hand when watching bees and hoverflies and came back with many photos, mostly of blurred bees.

Back indoors, I'd left the butter to soften and already weighed out the other ingredients so it was just a case of stripping the stems, finely chopping the flowers and putting it all together which took hardly any time at all.  Don't waste the stems - when used as skewers for grilling meats they'll add subtle flavour and can also be used to gently fragrance the dying embers of the barbecue or winter fire.

The biscuits should be baked on two trays but, instead, I used one tray twice.  Just as well, as I thought the first batch (lavender only) tasted a bit 'soapy'. I added a grating of lemon zest to the second batch which made a much better and very tasty biscuit.  Of course, that could just be me.  I recommend you try them.  Even without lavender, the biscuits are a lovely open 'shortbread' texture and keep well in an airtight jar.  Oh, and don't skimp on the Demerara sugar - it gives a lovely sweet crunch to the biscuit.

Recipe here on my Google drive - download for printing, if you wish.

10 Jul 2015

Planting a ginger surprise

My inability to throw plants away is getting the better of  me.  Just this morning I checked the colander that I keep my onions/garlic/shallots in on the kitchen counter to see if anything needed topping up and found an old piece of ginger that had sprouted.  I found that quite thrilling, that a plant will just appear out of nowhere. In looking up how to plant and grow it, I've found that it's quite a common occurrence to look for pieces of ginger with buds on in the supermarket to start off a home-grown edible ginger plant.

Obviously, I have to try this.  Fate has forced my hand.

I have to plant it into a 6 inch pot, covering the ginger piece (rhizome) but leaving the bud just above the surface.  The soil should be moisture retentive but free draining. This is especially important for container grown plants where you don't want the soil to either dry out or become waterlogged.  I'm using some of my fabulous Wool Compost from Dalefoot (discovered at Chelsea!) as the rhizome likes to be kept moist; the compost is made of bracken and sheep's wool so is moisture retentive, nitrogen rich and peat free -  and the best I've found in a long time.

After planting, water the soil and leave in a warm, non-windy spot out of direct sunlight.  In this warm summer weather, I can leave it outside but bring the pot into a warmer spot, under cover, when the temperature drops below 50F.

By next spring, I should have a decent sized plant (up to a metre tall, if reports are to be believed) but it's the root (rhizome) that is edible and can be dug up and used as usual, using any new buds on the rhizome to start a new plant.  Fresh ginger and a lovely plant in one!

Has anyone else tried this? If so, I'd love to hear how you got on.

Spiked on a corn skewer, it's true size is about 2cm.
(Photographed on my tiny balcony.)

9 Jul 2015

The Hedgerows of Hampton Court

Mallow (Malva sylvestris)

Until last week, I'd only been to Hampton Court as a child on a family outing and, from that, I remember only the kitchens and the plaster mouldings. Odd. History is often lost on the very young.  Ten days ago, I was able to pop along to the RHS Flower Show preview day and had a wonderful, if hot, day - more of which, later.

But the best bit of the day, after all those thought provoking beautiful gardens, was this: a 50 yard stretch of natural beauty along the riverbank path on the way back to the station.  I can't help thinking that all those commuters rushing past are missing a trick. 

Goat's Rue (Galega officinalis). Now there's a plant that I'd deliberately grow in the garden.
Ox-eye daisies and something purple, possibly Wild Clary, Selfheal or Bugloss - anyone care to enlighten me?

Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) - great for bees and adding a nice splash of colour to the path.

And this white flower - I'm thinking Yarrow  but maybe not as it was low growing?

Nope, still guessing…  
(See comments below:  we now think these brown seedheads are Plantain - thanks Emma!) 

The yellow flowers look like rocket or brassica flowers.  Any clues?

The rurbanite* in my soul thought this was gorgeous and wanted to share.  Being a bit of a North Londoner, it's not often that I come across such breathtaking beauty, perfectly lit by the early evening sun. Whether the planting along the path is by nature or nurture, I can't tell.  Whatever. Well done, that borough council if they had a hand in this - even by not cutting it back. It fair made my day, and probably that of quite a few bees and butterflies.  I wish I'd photographed the leaves of these plants as that might make identification a lot easier - still, there's always a return visit. 

*Rurbanite: lives in the city, heart in the country.  As coined by Alex Mitchell in her book 'The Rurbanite'.

7 Jul 2015

The food growing garden in June

Now there's a beautiful sight - bug free broad bean tops!

You've got to love June for the lushness of the garden!  I'm finding lots to sigh with pleasure over, despite June having been a completely manic month for me: going to shows (GrowLondon and Hampton Court), normal working life, son home from uni, masses of emergency watering needed (not of the boy. Although … ) and, at the beginning of the month, I was away in Hampshire for a couple of weeks because my elderly Mum was hospitalised after a fall, now safely back home with my dad.

There hasn't been a lot of time for gardening so I can thank my perennial veg and early sowings for food on the table. I've recently let the asparagus grow into fronds as I turned towards artichokes for a meal time treat. (Yes, I'm now a dab hand at cooking artichokes which is not as fiddly as it seems.) Kales and mange tout have been abundant and the broad bean pods are filling out nicely. In fact, they've filled out so quickly with regular watering and sunshine that I may pop down to the garden in a moment to see if any are ready for picking. Like everyone else, I've found black aphids to be prolific this year. Not every plant was affected but as I felt the need for some deep watering last Friday after days of tropical heat, I linked up the four hosepipes needed to reach the garden, connected these to a far away tap and squirted and squished the aphids on my beans into extinction.  Then it rained all night. Sod's Law and all that. It was still worth the effort to have clean, bug-free beans. (Plus, the tops are delicious lightly steamed with butter, salt and a grind of pepper.)

With the warm/hot weather, it's been even more of a joy to while away the still-long evenings in the cool of the garden. There's a lot to catch up on but I've gradually been moving plants off my balcony and into the ground. Timing has been crucial for this; when I took the beans and achocha down to transplant, it was too windy.  When I took the tomatoes down, the soil was like dust. When I planted out flowers, there was just enough light rain to bring the slugs out.  The usual run of the mill stuff we gardeners face.

Unbelievably, I still have more tomatoes to go out (multiple plants of 10 varieties - that's what happens when old seed stock is used up) and a courgette which I hope won't be too pot bound to grow successfully. The autumn Cavolo Nero in pots is ready to go out, which is just as well as one of the current Cavolos is in flower.  I'm not wasting these flowers, they're delicious in a salad (if they make it that far - I usually munch on them as I garden.)

I also want to sow seeds for more beetroot, peas and chard as the last lot have finished. It feels as though the gardening year is running away but it's only just July so there's still plenty of opportunity for planting and sowing.  And, in a few weeks, I hope to be eating potatoes, broad and french beans, the first of my cherry tomatoes and, by mid-August, even sweet corn.  The preserving jars are being made ready … :o)  (I have a great recipe for pickled beans which I'll post when the french beans are ready.)

The strawberries have not been good. Oh, there's been plenty of fruit but it's all been small and disappointing. I don't think there's anything wrong with the varieties I'm growing, it's the lack of water. Until I can properly sort that out, I'm thinking of giving up on strawberries.  Raspberries, on the other hand, never fail to please!  My autumn raspberries have been fruiting for the past few weeks - they have a tendency to start in June and fruit until November.  It starts with just a little bowlful now and again to which I can now add blueberries and honeyberries … and cherries if I can find a way of making sour cherries more palatable.  I've been reading that sour cherries are best for cooking as the levels of sweetness can be adjusted.  Some research and practise is needed, obviously, after last year's major fail of a cherry crumble.

And, to end on a high note - I have seen pears!  Admittedly only two or three but, hey, that's a start.  And enough to earn the trees a reprieve. If only there was also some plums …    I'm going to a summer fruit pruning workshop at Wisley this coming weekend and you know I'll be reporting back with my findings!

28 Jun 2015

Still GROWing ...

More loveliness that caught my attention!
Top: Thomas Broom in action; watering cans à la mode; natural brush and pan
Middle: Ash wall planter (using wood from Ash dieback felled trees); Erigeron planter; Ash wall planters
Bottom: Succulents; Oak swing seats from Green Oak Furniture; Rabbit cushion (Thornback&Peel)

At the risk of over-egging the pudding, I've got to reiterate what an utterly brilliant time I had at the Grow London show last weekend. I chatted to design gods of the gardening world, Cleve West and Tom Stuart-Smith, quaffed some very nice wine, learned which flowers will make an edible bouquet, had my head filled with so many good ideas, watched how to make a delicious nasturtium pesto which I sampled over a huge tomato and an edible flower salad and then came home with a car boot full of beautiful plants.

Purchased plants! (Hosta flowers are  top right corner; bright pink Bletilla is centre.)

I'd just finished cataloguing all the plants I'd bought at the show and was back indoors when the heavens opened and rain poured down. Win:win - I was dry, the plants were watered.  The plants will live outside until I can plant them at the end of the week; they're destined for a client's part shady garden. I can't tell you how much joy I've had researching and choosing plants without spending any of my own money.  Beauty without penury - bliss.  I've been smiling all week.

I thought the real bonus of the show was the talks and demonstrations. I cherry-picked the ones of special interest to me - Cleve West talking about healing gardens, referencing his past work, specifically Horatio's Garden in Salisbury which he designed for patients with spinal injuries. Thomas Broom, the highly respected florist and Horticultural Manager at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, was another must see. He was putting together a bouquet made up entirely of edible flowers. Definitely one not to miss! Many anecdotes were told and tips given as he worked. He made it look so easy and yet the result was masterful and beautiful. (There will be a short follow up post soon on this subject.)

Thomas and the finished bouquet

I also dipped into Helen Yemm's talk about problems in the garden but the thought of plant shopping was distracting me.  Sooooo many gorgeous plants!  This is one of the brilliant things about attending a show like this - the growers are there to advise you so there's no guesswork - you tell them the site and situation of the planting area and suggestions are made. Looking at the size and condition of the plants, you know exactly what you're buying - something you don't get with mail order.  The nurseries at the show were all specialists, offering plants that you're unlikely to come across in your local garden centre. I came home with my car boot stuffed with Astrantia 'Roma', Adiantum and Dryopteris ferns, an Abutilon vitifolium, Astilbes and Aruncus, Penstemons, Lavatera maritima, Bletilla striata and an Anemonopsis macrophylla. Whaaat? It took me a good half hour just to learn how to say it! The must-have plant though is Hosta rectifolia, a Japanese woodland plant said to be able to withstand slug onslaught - I was more than slightly sceptical but I'll be happy to be proved wrong. It's a pretty little thing, with long slender ribbed leaves and purpley-pink flowers so I hope it makes it. Wool pellets and gravel at the ready.

Damian's pesto and salad demonstration

Shall we have one last mention of the edible flowers cookery demonstration from Petersham Nurseries?Petersham restaurant's Head Chef, no less, Damien Clisby, showed us the ease of making a pesto from nasturtium leaves. Tiny baby leaves, a pinch of salt, some excellent flavoursome olive oil, some parmesan and pine nuts.  Ground together with pestle and mortar and spooned over a huge beefsteak tomato. It was stunningly delicious. A salad of thinly sliced raw beetroot, broad beans, radish, leaves, pea shoots and coriander was dressed with olive oil and lemon - and a complete lack of vinegar. That guy really knows how to make fresh food sing. It was sublime. Sadly the prices at Petersham's restaurant are way beyond my budget but I can take inspiration from this demo and look with fresh eyes and interest at the food growing in my garden. More of which in my next post … :o)

My unusual plants came from Evolution Plants, a nursery I was very impressed with and would say is well worth visiting online or in person. A few more of my plants came from Glendon Plant Nursery and Hardy's Plants.

19 Jun 2015

GROW London: All the fun of the Fair!

Peony 'Vision of Sugar Plums' on Evolution Plants stand

Yesterday's weather was gorgeous - clear blue skies with just enough breeze to keep things from getting overheated - and what better way to end such a day than with a glass of chilled sparkling wine courtesy of a visit to London's own garden show, GROW London. The show officially opens today, Friday, but kicked off on Thursday night with a garden party charity evening in aid of NGS (National Gardens Scheme).

It was lovely to bump into old friends - and be introduced to new ones - but I didn't spend the entire evening schmoozing. I was there in my blogger/press guise so as I wandered the vast showroom, I took note of the exquisite products displayed and stopped to chat to a few of the exhibitors. As usual, I was too busy asking questions and not taking enough photos (something that I'll remedy later today) but here's a sample of what crossed my path …

Top: Corten steel fire pit from The Pot Co; NordEco chairs.
Middle: Julia Clarke willow nest in Hardy Plant garden; pots and cubes from The Pot Co.
Bottom: Niwaki pruners and garden scissors; Barbed hosereel

Niwaki Japanese garden and kitchen tools. Jake Hobson, master of the art of cloud pruning, kindly chatted to me for several minutes about living in Japan and learning his craft.

The Green Wood Guild. Demonstrations and workshops in carving spoons and plant markers. I might even have a go myself.

Hardy Cottage Garden Plants. Setting the standard for herbaceous perennials - they won a Gold at Chelsea for their display; their space for GROW is another stunner. Plants and seeds available at the show. I swore I wouldn't buy more plants but a plant I have long lusted after (Eryngium 'Neptune's Gold') came home with me. :o)

The Posh Shed company - Bespoke sheds and a very enticing child's gypsy caravan to be won!

Gardenista were there with their pop up shop offering a tempting array of beautiful objects for home and garden. (And lovely to chat to Christine Chang Hanway again after her talk last year.)

Julia Clarke willow sculptures - not exhibiting but on display at the Hardy Plant garden space. I think/hope that I may have persuaded Julia to offer willow weaving workshops at her Crouch End studio next spring.

The Pot Company - pits, pots and shelving. Stunning - and useful - corten steel fire pits.

Architectural Heritage - Cast iron gates don't do it for me but their zinc (?) planters stole my heart. Especially when planted up with Sanguisorba, so so beautiful.

NordEco. Beautifully crafted wooden chairs. I was tempted to sit but wasn't sure I'd want to stand up again.

Barbed.  Contemporary and fun outdoor furniture including these bling bling hosepipes in shades of gold, silver and Barbie pink and a rather fetching red metal bench with matching pooch. I could definitely visualise that bench in a modern urban garden. *makes mental note*

Top: The Green Wood Guild's carvings; Child's gypsy caravan from The Posh Shed Co.
Middle: Barbed red bench and friend; Barbed barbie pink hosereel.
Bottom:  Eryngium from Hardy Plants; Architectural Heritage planters.

For household artefacts, Maud and Mabel's exhibits were breathtakingly beautiful. Exquisite artisan ceramics from their Hampstead craft space but, sadly, beyond my budget. Doesn't stop me wanting them though. Instead I'll treasure the tiny ceramic star included on the raffia wrapped around their press handouts.

All Maud and Mabel's objects of desire.

But there was so much more than this little taster. I'm going back today (on another complimentary pass as I'm on the GROW mailing list, sign up and be prepared for next year) specifically to look at the nursery exhibitors Crugfarmplants, Boma (my local garden centre), Evolution plants, Hortus Loci, Hardy Plants, to get plant advice from the Society of Garden Designers and Mark Gardner (the fair founder's own gardener!) and to take in a couple of the talks - notably Thomas Broome on creating an edible bouquet.

I had a definite impression of the show building on last year's success.  This is only its second year but the exhibitors and speakers are top notch. Talks go on over the three days of the show with speakers including Cleve West (The Healing Garden), Fergus Garrett (Designing with plants), Sarah Raven, Mark Diacono, Laetitia Maklouf, Helen Yemm and Mark Risdill-Smith who used to live round the corner from me.  Nice chap and nice to see him doing well.

This is definitely a show not to be missed and I predict will go on getting better.

GROW London is on this weekend, Friday 19th to Sunday 21st. Open from 11 am - 6pm.

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