20 Nov 2017

Magnificent muck and a happy pig

I was going to call this post 'Shovelling Shit in Sunshine' but thought better of it. Both post titles give a flavour of my happy day yesterday but the memory of the happy pig is still making me smile. (I didn't realise that, like dogs, pigs wag their tails when happy. How cute!) I have to admit I wasn't looking forward to wading into the manure piles at the local city farm, especially with the weather being so chilly and damp recently. I've been putting it off for several weeks now but when a thought niggles me for long enough, I just have to get on with it.  I need the manure to mulch beds both in my own veg patch and at the allotment and the weather won't stay this mild for much longer!

So I wandered off there on Saturday to first make sure the farm managers were cool with me digging out the manure myself.  They offer ready bagged manure for sale but I need lots, and in smaller more easily lifted bags, so giy manure works better for me. I've been going to the farm for years having first visited with my son as a toddler so I know the team well and was given the go-ahead. 

On the way home to get my tools, I stopped to cut a handful of creeper vines for a festive wreath and the heavens had opened by the time I reached my front door. Gahh! Thwarted. I was so mentally ready for the big dig as well.

So, Sunday. Apparently fortune favours the brave and I woke to clear blue skies and sunshine. A perfect autumn day and, phew, what a relief! I headed off to the farm, border fork and lightweight spade in hand, and set to. By the second bag I'd taken my coat off but the woolly hat had to stay put to keep my hair under control. It was bliss. So peaceful (not counting the trains, the cow, the goats bleating, the chickens squawking and then the pig) and I quickly filled twenty bags. (I need three times this amount but had to get this lot to the plot before embarking on the next round.)

The animals are usually kept in fenced off pens but during my digging I was entertained by Marjorie, the farm's pig. Marjorie is a six year old Gloucester Old Spot sow who had been quarantined in her stall for the past ten days due to a bad leg. Yesterday, the vet came to assess her which meant she was allowed out to walk at her own pace and decided to stop and snuffle in the hedgerow soil next to where I was digging.

Marjorie the tilth turning pig. 

My gosh, you wouldn't have many weeds left on your allotment if you had a pig to snuffle them up! Marjorie made very short work of the chickweed, nettles and brambles in the hedgerow, leaving soil of a very fine tilth in her wake.  I was impressed (and slightly envious). I could tell she was living the dream - her tail swung happily from side to side as she stuck her snout into the earth. Wonderful animals, pigs.

But back to the mulch. It might once have come out of the horses collective bottoms but it's rotted down to wonderful rich worm filled organic matter.  Every spade-full was wriggling with brandling worms, every one of which I will welcome to the plot. I'm fair rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of all that goodness improving the soil at the allotment. We're leaving the beds mulched, weed free but empty over winter, ready to grow some awesome veg next year.

It took four barrow trips for me to move the bags from the top of the farm to my car and another four to move them from the car to the plot but the sun was shining and I was in the moment.  I finished the day by barrowing two big loads of rotted bark chips from the plot gate up to the new no-dig bed we're creating and then sat and watched as the sun slipped away over the rim of the heath next door.  A busy but very rewarding day and, wow, did I sleep well last night!

4 Nov 2017

Sunshine gardening in November

With great timing, the weather this Saturday is dull.  It's damp, it's grey, it's been raining all night and I'll probably find that it's a bit chilly when I go out. Hoorah. No, I mean it, I'm not being cynical. Today's dank weather provides the perfect antidote to the week as I can clear my day to write.

I spent as much time as I could in the veg patch on Friday. Dry crisp weather was promised. I expected chilliness and instead got warm sunshine. Mmmm, so good. The weather gods were smiling and I made the most of it.

Early morning veg garden
8.00 a.m. veg patch

The veg patch had become very messy, errr, autumnal in recent weeks.  I dislike being over tidy in the garden but this was rather too gloriously rampant. Ropes of nasturtiums snaked around and across, nets of strawberry runners cascaded from raised beds, Verbena seedheads collapsed theatrically across the path, foxglove seedlings mulched every bit of soil and I can take a good guess at how Forget-me-Nots got their name - there will be no forgetting this crowd unless I thin them. Time for a clear up - but first, the photos. There was beauty in that beast.

Nine garden flowers blooming in November
A few of the flowers hanging on at the start of November

I love a bit of selective zooming and cropping! Makes it all look very pretty.  But see that little bit of Honeywort, bottom middle? It's just one flower in a vast tumultuous sea of self seeded plants. I won't need the space until next spring and the plants should withstand the winter to provide early nectar for waking bees, so they get to stay, messy or otherwise.  And, yes, that is a flowering scented pelargonium in the middle of the grid. It's grown huge with its feet in the soil so stays outdoors all year round, getting chopped back when I can no longer open the gate past it. I was told they need to be grown in a greenhouse so either the garden benefits from an exceptionally warm micro-climate or this plant's a hardy soul.

I wasn't expecting to find anything edible but, surprisingly for November, there were a couple of strawberries and raspberries, a curly kale hiding under a wave of sweet peas, achocha, six courgettes - seven if you count the swollen 'marrow' - and sorrel (returned to life after bolting in the heat of the summer). That lot should make for an interesting meal.  Perhaps a winter veg chilli, if I bring some carrots from the allotment, throw in some of my squashes and cook some of my dried beans from last year.

I've been thinking that I'll keep the veg patch for food growing only next year. The flowers are dominating the space and, as lovely as it is to see cowslips and primroses in early spring, I was frustrated at the lack of veg this year. Shortage of space demands a rethink so perennial flowers and herbs may be moved to my other garden in favour of future edibles. I need to plan this carefully as I don't want to destroy the ecology that I've built up in this tiny 30 by 10 foot space so I'll still need a few plants that attract beneficial bugs.

After the tidy up, there's still a few jobs to do. Broad beans and garlic will go in next and perhaps some over wintering peas and then that's it. No purple sprouting broccoli to look forward to in the spring but this will give me a chance to mulch and improve the soil ... and spend time with my feet up - once the pruning, leaf sweeping, weed pulling and mulching are sorted.

Have a good weekend, everyone! Forecast is for dry but chilly on Sunday, happy gardening!xx

30 Oct 2017

Having the best time at the RHS London Autumn Show

I spent two days at the RHS Autumn Garden Show in London this past week and what a lovely, friendly, bumper show it was! Entry is by ticket, even for RHS members now, and proceeds are put towards funding garden apprenticeships at the RHS gardens, so who could complain at that?

As I've been many times before I almost didn't go, but looking at the online programme a few days before, it seemed interesting enough to draw me away from my garden tasks on a clear blue-sky day. At that stage, there was a talk or two that I was interested in and I thought I'd also pick up some onions and garlic for planting now in the veg patch. By the end of the first day, there was so much that I still wanted to see, do and hear that I knew I'd go back, complete with a timetable to try and fit everything in!

Third biggest pumpkin, same weight as a baby elephant!

The RHS have balanced out the entry charge by boosting the content of the show; there were talks, free workshops, library tours, foraging walks, flower arranging, and nature installations in addition to the usual retail fare of plants, bulbs, seeds, and associated garden ephemera.  Hungry tummies were satisfied with delicious fare available throughout the day from food sellers. My brie and red berries toasted sandwich from Elephant Kitchen will live on in my memory as possibly the most delicious snack ever! The cakes (gluten free) looked good too but I regretfully resisted.

The most delicious cheese toastie in the world. Official.

The Talks
The RHS use both their halls for this show but a crowd-pulling programme of hour-long talks throughout both days kept me in the smaller Lindley Hall for most of my time. Roy Lancaster spoke of his lifetime's work with plants, Anne Swithinbank talked of foraging in our gardens, Mark Diacono brought us inspiration for growing unusual tastes and Bill Oddie held forth on wildlife. With such an array of well known speakers, I quickly learned to get there early for a seat! For me, there were two stand out talks - Nick Bailey (tv presenter, author, designer) talked about the why's and wherefore's of growing unusual edibles in a city environment and Emily Rae (owner of Sussex based Plants4Presents) gave us the inside scoop on how to successfully grow spices such as ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and more.  Look out for my follow up posts on Nick, Emily and Anne's talks!

The Forest
In the middle of the room, an autumn forager's forest had been created by Jon Davies. Jon is incredibly passionate about gardening and food growing in a sustainable way (forest gardening) and has won awards for his garden designs.  I signed up for one of his mini tours of the forest and had all sorts of edible plants and shrubs pointed out to me. Every plant in the forest had edible or medicinal uses although, as passionate as Jon is about foraging, he admitted that some flavours, such as pine needles, take a bit of adjusting to!

Forager's forest ... or fairy kingdom?

In the forest extraordinary stacks of mushrooms grew on logs surrounded by ferns, hops and kiwis clambered up through the tree canopy, a small pond hid behind birch logs, and herbs, strawberries and alliums grew on the forest floor - the whole thing was beautifully lit, stunning and magical.  I loved it (can you tell?) and was surprised to see how many of the ornamental plants growing in my gardens are edible in some way. Liriope roots, Ajuga and Alchemilla shoots, wild strawberries, hips, haws and sloes are a few of the foodstuffs people would have survived on in pre-civilisation - plus a lot of plants that we now regard as weeds (dandelion, plantain, clover). I'm fascinated by all this and while I'm not about to turn my back on lettuces, squashes and the like, I love the potential for incorporating edibles into a perennial garden.

Continuing with the foraging theme, I found myself chatting to Croydon based enterprise Wild in the City. They offer outdoor experiences to reconnect city dwellers with nature, something which has been proven to offer so many health benefits. I know how much better I feel after being outdoors so I applaud this initiative.  Some of their courses are free (woodland walks, bushcraft, foraging) and some fund their work, such as basket making, spoon carving and charcoal making. I'm going to be looking out for those for next year. I hope this is the start of an idea that will spread - it could be a life changer for future generations.

Foraged finds from Wild in the City

I also had an interesting chat with Indie Farmer, Nigel Akehurst. He told me that he left the city a few years ago, returning to Sussex to help on his parents' farm and has no regrets. These days he both helps on the family farm and has set up The Indie Farmer online magazine and newsletter, an intelligent read about small scale farming and food culture. I looked it up when I got home and found it a very informative and thought provoking read. I like to know what's happening in the David and Goliath world of commercial food retailing and wouldn't have known of this resource if Nigel hadn't brought his enthusiasm and vision to share with visitors at the show.

The Workshops
Flower ball arrangements, herb seed sowing and learning to forage were on offer but I regretfully gave them a miss in favour of 'how to grow an avocado tree' and 'printmaking with leaves and flowers'. After packing in so much during the day, I felt the need for something soothing and creative. The avocado workshop promised 'guaranteed germination' so naturally I was interested - especially as the 80's trend of having an avocado growing indoors is back in fashion. (I'm not trendy but I confess I haven't succeeded with indoor plants since those halcyon eighties days.)  I have to wait to see if the method works, (post to follow if so!) but suffice to say that as the last participant on the last day, I came home with two potted up avocado pits plus a bag of leftover avocados to eat.

And the printmaking workshop? This, I loved. I'd been intrigued by the sound of hammering during the previous day and wandered past to see what was going on. What I discovered was a way to imprint fabric (or paper) with the delicate colours of the garden. We used heuchera leaves and viola flowers to create tiny works of plant art and I'm inspired to take this forward with plants from my own garden. Our tutor, Judith Baehner, is a advocate for green living, stylist, author, lecturer and awesome maker of terrariums. At the moment her books are written in Dutch, her native language, but I'm hoping a publisher will be found soon for her latest work 'The Plant Lab', named after her blog.  I had time to talk to her about her work and discovered a wonderful and gentle kindred spirit with a passion for plants and living a greener life.

One tiny gripe, I found the marketplace exhibitors a bit sprawled and confusing.  Looking back through the programme this morning, I'm frustrated to see how much I missed, even though I went on both days! I would have liked to see The Salutation garden's display of flower skeletons and seedheads;  Wardian cases and terrariums; sanguisorbas from the Botanical Nursery; eco prints and natural textiles from Flextiles ... the list goes on.

How gorgeous are these? Succulents from Forest London

Although I seem to have missed quite a bit, I hunted down the houseplants from Forest London - and walked away with a tiny Pilea to care for. That was a good compromise because there was so much more to see, do and learn and, being me, I wanted it all.

So, did I get my onions and garlic? Yes! I was Pennard's last customer of the day; I love talking to those guys, they're so knowledgeable - and, very kindly, I was given an extra bumper bag of white onion sets to bring home.

Find out more about edible or medicinal plants from the PFAF (Plants for a future) database here.

Apologies for the absence of my first Wishlist Wednesday posts; the RHS show was just too tempting a prospect!  Not a good start but there's now lots more to add to my wishlist. 😍

17 Oct 2017

Reasons to be GLEE-ful

Last month I went to the fabulous GLEE exhibition in Birmingham's NEC centre and saw so many beautiful, useful and desirable products that made the (very) early start to the day worthwhile. The exhibition is an annual trade show held over three days so that new and existing garden related products can be showcased to buyers for the retail market. Journalists and, more recently, bloggers are also welcome but it's not open to the public. Looking at the map on the GLEE website, I guessed there would be a lot to see but the reality exceeded all expectations! I did my homework the day before and noted the exhibitors I wanted to talk to but even with a game plan, map, and very quick scurrying around, I suspect that I missed seeing a lot of what was on show as there was so much to be pleasantly diverted by.

The show was staged over four large interconnecting halls with products ranging from landscaping, pots, plants, compost, soil improvers, equipment, tools, clothing, firepits, sculptures, spa pools, and just about anything else you can think of! Not all of it was garden related, pets and some homewares were also on show.  I do love anything natural so was quickly distracted by the Oxford Brush Company's very practical pot, nail, and veg brushes - products that I'd love to see in my local garden centre.  Their ostrich feather duster could possibly convert me to actually liking housework, but would definitely come in handy for sweeping away cobwebs!

I wandered on past artificial grass, paving of every hue and stone, and so many wonderful garden pots that had my head rotating from side to side. Thank goodness for the coffee and chance to rest my feet in the press office! I was already familiar with many of the brands - Stihl, Burgon+Ball, Fiskars, Muck Boots, Elho, Briers - all displaying some highly desirable new products for 2018. The most stylish indoor pots, to my mind, came from Elho and Burgon+Ball. Both of their stands were awash with the most covetable products.

'Ello, Elho

I'm already a big fan of Burgon+Ball products but hadn't realised that the company is the UK's oldest manufacturer of garden tools and products, having started in Sheffield's steel industry in 1730 and using that experience to make the world's finest sheep shears. While I don't see myself needing a pair of those anytime soon, their latest range of products is completely droolworthy, being stylish, practical, beautiful and thoughtful - I can personally vouch for the deep comfort of the memory foam Kneelo mat (every gardener needs one of those!) and the FloraBrite range of gloves and tools. They're fluorescent so are easily seen both in daylight or torchlight. I lost my favourite pair of leather gloves last winter having put them down in the garden at dusk so I know whereof I speak! What really caught my attention at GLEE though, was the new range of hanging planters and pots - how beautiful are these? Having indoor plants has become very trendy and is a favourite with lifestyle magazines at the moment; I'm not convinced that my drooping jade plant is even vaguely trendy but at least he's still alive and one of these planters might perk him up a bit! I love the muted colours and handmade finish.  These, I want. (Dare I mention Christmas?) 

©Burgon & Ball - lifestyle hanging planters

During the day there was an ever present temptation to stop and chat to people to get the story behind a product; access to information is one of the key aspects of the show and means that a visitor can pick up on trends and new products quickly. I spotted lots of focus towards the environment and biodiversity with biochar, peat free composts, butterfly feeders and meadow seeds. Tool companies have embraced the fact that gardeners get sore backs and cramped hands and have developed tools to help - thank you, thank you! Fiskars' lightweight pruners and long handled loppers are 3 times sharper thus reducing hand strain and there are new digging spades for hard soil from both Fiskars and Burgon+Ball. Anything that helps with lower back pain has to be welcome!  Burgon+Ball are selling a long handled hoe aka Weed Slice that also helps with posture and looks to be very effective against weeds, the tiny head giving access to tight spaces between rows. Not only less bending and crawling around but better for the soil as beds don't have to be walked on.

It was also lovely to catch up with the team behind Dalefoot Composts, an utterly brilliant peat free compost that I can heartily endorse as it's been improving my clay soil and boosting my veg for the past few years. The texture of their composts makes it a pleasure to use, being a mix of Lake District bracken and sheep's wool, but I also admire the company for their dedication to reconstructing peat bogs. Read more about their story and compost here.

The show was a real eye-opener to the vast array of outdoor products available - everything the public could possibly wish for seemed to be there. Despite our unpredictable summers, outdoor retail is big business. (Currently worth £5 billion, so I read on Veg Plotting's follow up post - link below.)

I was there to investigate gardening paraphernalia but stumbled (thankfully, not literally) across other, shall we say, more eclectic products. I spotted giraffes, zebras, gnomes, grass crocodiles, dragons, ceramic fairies, and even a unicorn. It seems the buying public loves a bit of whimsy - even me.  Having owned a plastic inflatable whale to take to the pool during my childhood in Florida, I would have loved this in my toy box! Ah, happy days.

I saw so many wonderful products that I'm inspired to write a series of posts,  Wishlist Wednesday, starting next week.  I'll be writing about pots, pegboards, gloves, kneeling mats, the new Pantone range from Briers, Thomson+Morgan 'Easy Sow' seeds, tools, plants, planters, trugs, wellies and warm waterproof boots for the chilly months ahead.

~ A tiny selection of what there was to explore at the show ~

There was a lot to take in during the one day I'd allocated to the show.  Would I go again? Yes, definitely. It's a massive opportunity to explore, discover,  network, meet and build contacts. This year quite a few garden bloggers had been invited as 'ambassadors' which made the whole thing rather jolly, catching up over coffee, pastries or meeting up at one of GLEE's Retail Lab workshops. I rather miscalculated the time needed to fully explore everything so next year I plan to attend the show for two days and really make the most of it.

Tickets to the show are free on application and, new for 2018, the core categories of GLEE will be at Spring Fair at the NEC in February. Registration is open now.  Read more here.

My thanks to Hornby Lightfoot PR for my ticket, coffee, goody bag and warm welcome.

Have a look at reports from other bloggers:

Karen Gimson - What's new for gardeners that I've spotted at GLEE
Michelle Chapman, Veg Plotting - Gleeful
Lou Nicholls, Adventures in Horticulture - Six of the Best from Glee17
Alexandra Campbell, Middle Sized Garden - 2018 garden trends
Alison Levey, The Blackberry Garden - More amazing things under one roof
Thomas Stone - Full of Glee 2017

9 Oct 2017

Easy grass and hedge tidying with Stihl

Ooh, I love a tidy edge.

While I enjoy a good 'green gym' workout in the garden, there are all too frequent times when the more energetic tasks on the To Do List are a stretch too far at the wrong end of a tiring day.  Thus the shears are put away in favour of a cup of tea and a sit down while the hedge surrounding the middle garden is allowed to slowly thicken once again and the allotment grass is left "for another day".

So it was with great anticipation (not to mention joy, relief and some trepidation) that I gladly accepted Stihl's opportunity to review a few products in their compact cordless range.  First to arrive was the grass strimmer.  Now, normally, I'd have no use for this as the lawns in the flats are regularly mown by maintenance gardeners but I'd just agreed to help out on the allotment.  One glance at the rusty push mower in the plot shed confirmed that a grass strimmer would be a huge help.  A couple of plotters have petrol strimmers which are extremely noisy and intrusive so I waited until the plots were mostly empty before I pressed the two buttons to activate mine. My fears of intrusive noise were groundless. Powered by a push-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, any noise is considerably reduced compared to petrol strimmers, plus there's no fumes. The strimmer is supplied with a charging station which takes around 20 to 40 minutes to fully recharge the batteries at home.

The second time I went to strim the grass, I was more confidant of both what I was doing and when. Gardeners stopped to chat which is when I realised the value of the double click battery. The battery can be quickly part released with the push of a button which cuts power to the machine - an invaluable safety measure for absent-minded novices like me. It's also very reassuring to know that once the battery is partly or fully removed, the machine can't be accidentally brought to life by anyone lifting it and activating buttons - very important when working in a team or with family around.

There's a clever mechanism on the machine for spooling out more line when needed - you simply knock the base of the strimmer head on the ground as you work; more line is shot out of the canister and the ends trimmed on a blade in the head. Things didn't go well on my first attempt as I frequently bumped the strimmer on the lumpy grass leaving snippets of blue plastic line behind. Would birds be tempted to eat these? For safety and tidiness, I gathered them all up, a time consuming task, and quickly learnt to handle the machine better.  The grass had been well trampled over the course of a team allotment afternoon and, because it was very long, it was damp at the roots.  The strimmer dealt with this easily and although it looked a little rough afterwards, this was easily remedied with a second strim a couple of days later. (As in the top photo!)

I quickly got the hang of using the strimmer which meant that I can now do all the allotment grass without using up the battery. Strimming every couple of weeks on my quarter plot, I found the battery lasted well, usually recharging it every few weeks. (The AK10 supplied with the strimmer is intended to last for at least 20 minutes of continuous use.) After use, I make time to wipe over the strimmer head before putting it away - again, with the battery removed to be sure of retaining all my fingers!

Having seen other plot holders fiddling about replacing the strimmer line on their petrol machines, I found replacing the spool on the Stihl cordless strimmer a doddle. The head unclips, the old spool taken out,  and the new canister dropped in with the line threaded through the side holes and the head replaced. Easy peasy, although I admit I resorted to watching a You Tube video the first time just to make sure.

What about the life of the line spool?  After my first attempt, I got the hang of handling the machine without knocking the spool head so only spooled line out when I needed to. More line is used up in very long grass or when strimming against raised beds or path edgings.  Dock leaves don't do it any favours either.  I'm guessing that more line would be used on an allotment than in a garden where only the lawn edges need strimming. It's only recently that I've replaced the canister - so I reckon it's done well, given that I've done both my plot, the neighbour's and the paths inbetween several times.

I collected my strimmer from Briant's of Risborough in Oxfordshire. They gave me a demonstration on how the strimmer works and supplied safety glasses to protect my eyes when working - a very good idea as I found out when not wearing them one day! I'd been given a pair of medium sized leather Stihl work gloves and Briant's were kind enough to swop themfor a better fitting small size. I have to give them a big thumbs up as their customer care is exemplary. I'd expect nothing less from a Stihl dealer!

Another of Stihl's compact cordless range that I've found incredibly useful is the hedge trimmer. It's lightweight (like the rest of the range), works with the same battery (interchangeable between the items in the range) and temptingly easy to use. The privet hedge that borders the south side of the middle garden has grown like mad this year but that's been no problem as I can have the job done in 5 minutes with the hedge trimmer - the job barely reduces the battery levels. Instead of having to find shears and secateurs and snip away for a good half hour, I now think, "Oh, hedge is getting a bit untidy, I'll just quickly do that". I keep one of the batteries in the car and the trimmer in the shed so the whole job is seamless. Think, Do, Done.  These are sharp, efficient tools so, like the others in the range, safety features abound. On this model, as well as the removable battery and two button start, there's a lock switch. It's all very reassuring and foolproof.  And because I want to be using my hedge trimmer for many years to come, I've bought a can of Stihl's special oil spray to wipe down the blades and keep them in top condition before putting the protective cover back on the machine.

As you can probably tell, I'm overjoyed at having these products in my garden tidying armoury! The Compact Cordless range also includes a chainsaw (which I've yet to use) and a leaf blower which would be particularly handy at this time of year.  I must admit that this is the first time I've used any of this kind of garden machinery but it seems that there's plenty to recommend, not least Stihl's excellent reputation that has made the company a trusted industry standard.  Their machinery has always been available to all (there are over 700 authorised dealers in the UK) but a domestic gardener would previously have had to weigh up the cost of buying professional tools; this compact cordless range is very affordable and makes Stihl's high quality accessible to all ... plus they're a joy to use.

My strimmer is part of the original compact cordless range and retails for £199; this summer Stihl extended the range and the latest strimmer, the FSA 45, retails at £99 inc VAT. To my mind, that's Stihl at bargain prices.

Disclosure: Stihl provided me with three items from the Compact Cordless range for review - FSA 56 grass trimmer, HSA 56 hedge trimmer and the MSA 120 chainsaw.  My thanks to Rosie at HROC pr for organising this - and waiting patiently for my review! x

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