13 Jun 2019

How to use fresh calendula to make a soothing oil


Yellow and gold calendula flowerheads with a jar of calendula oil


Let me say right now that I've only just made this for the first time because it sounded so lovely. Calendula (pot marigold) has so many uses; not only is it a cheerful, pretty flower with edible petals, it's also a good companion plant in the garden deterring hornworm (the caterpillar that may eat/destroy tomato plants) and it's known to be beneficial for skin complaints.  Combine it with the moisturising and antioxidant qualities of olive oil (or sweet almond oil) and you have an effective natural remedy for cuts, grazes, sunburn or for soothing dry skin.

6 Jun 2019

Ranunculus: A buttercup by any name

Pink and white Ranunculus flowers edging a gravel path


I'm a real sucker for those bags of bulbs that drop into the shops in autumn. When there's daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths and anemones to look forward to in spring, the winter months almost dwindle away.  It's the promise of all that colour after the monochrome of winter.

26 May 2019

Beginner's guide to: potting on tomato seedlings

I was deliberately late in sowing tomato seeds this year (hellooo urban flat, shady interiors, minimal windowsill space). A good decision as it turns out because all seeds germinated leaving me with 63 tomato seedlings to find room for. (Now 58 as I culled a few.)

So I had 5 or 6 seedlings in each small 9cm pot that needed to be potted on into individual pots. Doing this gives each plant more root room to grow and should be done when the seedling has its first true leaves. (Plants that aren't potted on quickly enough will adapt to the smaller environment and never reach their full potential.)

19 May 2019

I love the smell of elderflowers in the morning

... particularly when that smell indicates elderflower cordial being made for summer!

It's easy to lose track of how quickly the seasons advance at this time of year.  May has been typically unsettled weather-wise so I was delighted to see elderflowers starting to open as I walked home a fortnight ago.  Luckily, I walked that route again last Thursday and saw that there are now enough blooms to make elderflower cordial.

I've written about making elderflower cordial before - and how to correctly identify the right tree to pick from - so this post is by way of a reminder for anyone who wants to make delicious cordial before the blooms fade ... unless you have your heart set on elderberries for wine!



It was a stroke of luck seeing those elderflowers as I usually walk far and wide over Hampstead Heath in search of them.  My favoured patch was felled during repairs to the Heath ponds a couple of years ago and then last year I recall being concerned about the amount of sugar needed for the recipe so didn't make any.

It was a decision I came to regret during the extreme heat of the summer - a glass of iced water sweetened with a slug of citrus infused cordial hits the spot nicely on a hot day. So this weekend I bought sugar, dug out my recipe and went out this morning with my trusty secateurs to collect the bounty.


I've included my recipe below as I think it's an easy one and got very confused when I first tried to make elderflower cordial. Mine is an adaptation of several that I've used and tweaked year on year. (I now never use lime.) But first, a few tips.

Tip one:  Most recipes will include citric acid as a preservative - I don't bother.  As I found it hard to get hold of at first, I now keep one bottle of cordial in the fridge and freeze the rest in small plastic bottles saved from the smoothies I buy when out. I think that the addition of citric acid may alter the flavour and the cordial might not taste as nice.

Tip Two: Look carefully for aphids before you pick the flowers.  I found some stems covered in the sort of black aphids usually found on broad beans and left those blooms well alone.  Even so, when I got home, I made sure to gently shake the blooms over the sink to dislodge any other critters.  (A few black aphids, greenfly and a couple of small spiders, thanks.)  Having done that, I then held the blooms over a white tea towel for a second look; it was needed.

Tip Three:  There may be some tempting plate sized blooms below knee level just begging to be picked. Don't.  Wherever you live, there will be creatures that wee. In my case, dogs and foxes.  (I hope that's all but let's not go there.)  My advice is to pick the blooms that you have to stretch up high for, just to be on the safe side.

My simple but trusted recipe for Elderflower Cordial



3 unwaxed lemons
1 or 2 oranges
1 kg (2.2 lbs) granulated sugar
15-20 medium to large elderflower heads
1.5 litres tap water (50 US fluid ounces)

First stage:
  1. In a large pot on the stove, make a sugar syrup by slowly dissolving the sugar in the water over a gently heat.  Stir occasionally and once dissolved (no more sugar grains to be seen), bring the syrup to the boil for about 5 minutes.
  2. While that's doing, peel or finely grate the oranges and lemons. The white pith is bitter so try to leave that on the fruit.  (I have a julienne peeler which does the job perfectly. Link here to show what it is, I'm not an Amazon affiliate.)  Save the juice to add to the cordial at the end, if desired. (That's this year's tweak that I found in a River Cottage recipe. Am trying it for the first time.)
  3. Cut the big stems off the cleaned/shaken elderflowers and put the flowers in a large pot or saucepan with the citrus peel.
  4. Pour the hot syrup over when it's ready.  Put a lid on the pan and leave to infuse for 24 - 36 hours.
Next day/stage:
  1. Sterilise bottles or jars ready to decant the mixture into. Giving plastic bottles a good hot wash will suffice if they're going into the freezer. Glass bottles can be washed and then dried on a low temperature in the oven for 10 minutes.  As a time saver before now, I've washed and then microwaved glass jars to sterilise (but not the metal lids - please!)  Lids should be boiled in a pan of water for a few minutes.
  2. Sieve the infused cordial through a muslin cloth or tea towel, placed in a sieve over a bowl or large jug. I now use a jelly bag held securely in it's frame, so much easier! (Here, for info.)
  3. Add the saved fruit juice (step 2 above) if wanted.  Pour the cordial into the bottles, and store as appropriate.  
... Or drink straightaway!



I've currently got a pot of citrus rinds and elderflowers in warm sugar syrup, which I'll leave to infuse for the next 24 hours - timing which suits me perfectly as I'm at the Chelsea Flower Show all day tomorrow (or today, by the time you read this!).  I'll be reporting back from the show over the next few days but after that I'm keen to show off my new herb garden! See you on the other side!


30 Apr 2019

It's all about the tiny tomatoes this year

One of the great joys of having a balcony - even a tiny one - is having just enough space for a few planters and pots for salad leaves, herbs and now ... tomatoes. (And maybe just a few flowers, especially if they're edible!)

Summer 2018 - Balcony bush tomato


Last summer, as usual, I used the balcony to sow, grow and pot on my tomato plants into 10 litre pots (15 litres might have been better) with the intention of moving them down to the veg patch after hardening off.  As they grew, and I appreciated the ease of watering them in last summer's heatwave, I could see how well they responded to the warmth and attention they got by being close to hand.  There was no problem with weekly feeding (#feedonfriday) as I had everything I needed nearby.  And, once they started fruiting, I loved that I could pop outside and pick a few cherry tomatoes to add to a salad - or to eat as a quick snack - without interrupting my work for long.

Even in those 10 litre pots I had a selection of tomatoes to pick from all summer long.  One bush cherry tomato plant gave up its last fruit in mid November, although that was probably a fluke given the hot summer and extended warm autumn we had here in the UK.

So now I'm hooked. There will be balcony tomatoes again this year - some small, some tall - but they're all suitable for growing in pots, containers or 'a windowsill garden' which I think sounds rather charming. I'll fit as many as I can on the balcony and, if they all germinate, pop a few next to the veg patch and hopefully have some to give away.


Sowing and growing with peat free Dalefoot compost


I've only just sown the seeds, putting up to 6 seeds of each variety in a 9cm pot filled with Dalefoot Wool Compost for Seeds. When they've got their first set of true leaves, the tomato babies can be pricked out into individual 9cm pots of Dalefoot Wool Compost for Veg and Salads.  Once the roots fill those pots, I'll pot them on into a size bigger pot and then into the final plant pot when first flowers appear.

Bag of Dalefoot Wool Compost for Tomatoes - new for this year!

I'm really quite excited to reach that final planting out stage as I've been gifted a bag of Dalefoot's new Wool Compost for Tomatoes. The nutrient rich compost has been formulated so that there is 'No Need to Feed' (awesome) through the entire season, plus with 50% less watering thanks to the wool content, there are time and ecological savings there too. Hot summer or not, using less water is a positive step for the planet's dwindling resources.

I've been impressed with Dalefoot products in the past so I'm confident that this latest addition to the Dalefoot canon will deliver on its promises. They're now fully accredited by the Soil Association for their organic peat free composts; not only that but the company are actively involved in work to restore peat bogs. What I hadn't fully understood was the extent to which removing peat from the land contributes to climate change and, by leaving peat in place, water quality is maintained and natural flood prevention prevails. Sounds to me like a compelling reason to use peat free compost. But I digress ...

My tiny tomato choices for 2019


There's plenty of time (until the end of May) to sow tomatoes, bearing in mind that freshly picked will always taste better than shop bought, plus you get that lovely smell from the (slightly poisonous) leaves.  (No? Just me, then.)

These are the plants that I'm growing.
  • Cherry Falls, Mr Fothergill's - 'perfect for outside baskets and tubs'
  • Balconi Red,  Thompson & Morgan - 'plant height 12", very sweet, for indoor and outdoor cropping'
  • Minibel from Johnsons - 'very compact, outdoor plants ideal for patio pots' 
  • Lizzano F1, Marshalls - 'Prolific cropping hanging basket variety' - perfectly shaped to fill and spill.
  • Rainbow Blend, T&M, as above - 'early ripening, good crop throughout the summer'. But here's an anomaly I didn't spot before: the pack says plant height 8" but the website tells me the plant grows to 200cm or 78.7 inches. Curious. Also, 5 seeds for £3.69? I must have had my head in the clouds on that day but at 74p a seed, they'd better all germinate!
  • Red Currant, Dobies Rob Smith Heritage Veg range - 'very disease resistant tiny tomatoes. Good tolerance to cooler temperatures'. Hardly changed since found growing wild on a Peruvian beach in 1707 but, oh dear, another cordon that I missed. Will grow to 1.5 or 2 metres. But still okay in a pot. That's alright then.
And these, all from Marshalls, in a press pack from the Garden Press Event:
  • Patio Plum - a baby plum with 'bite' and 'sharp acidic flesh that gives a real kick'
  • Summerlast F1 - one for the patio or window-garden, late blight resistance. Harvest by the punnet!
  • Arielle F1 - 'Grow your own sun dried tomatoes'. Fruits will dry on the vine if not harvested, and start to look like raisins.  Or sun-dried tomatoes. Also a cordon, grows to 4ft.


For clarity: Apart from the Thompson & Morgan seeds which I bought when drifting through the shop at Kew Gardens, all the other packets were given to me to trial after chatting to the companies at the Garden Press Event.
I'm not affiliated to any of the companies so when I review the plants at the end of the year, my opinions will be entirely impartial.


14 Apr 2019

A Sunday stroll around the Veg Patch

A quick blog post from me this chilly but sunny Sunday morning as I have strawberries to plant and a herb garden to sort out.

Huge sage in a pot at the southern end of the veg patch this morning

We've certainly had some weather this week - warm sunshine, chill winds, blue skies, grey skies, rain and even hail, all in the last few days. There may have been thunder at one point. I keep humming that Disney song about April Showers and hoping for another warm summer like last year.

I woke early to a chill, blue-ish sky sort of day and, given recent unpredictable weather, thought I'd start with a stroll around the veg patch with my camera. A lot can happen in a week and I've not spent much time there as I've been planting up the new layout of the other garden I look after, the Car Park Garden, a space that I can actually look out onto.

So what's happened while my eyes were averted? The veg patch is looking lovely having positively burst into blossom. Chive and wild garlic buds are shooting up, peony stems are now about 12 inches high, sweet cicely herb is in flower, and lovage and comfrey are growing with a vengeance. I say vengeance because both really need to be kept in check. 

There was a lot of colour from spring flowers (although the tulips have mostly come up blind this year and the daffs are pretty much finished), a few bees and ladybirds, and a surprise in the form of my first asparagus spears popping their heads up.  It won't be long before I'm enjoying fresh purple spears with a poached egg for breakfast - yum! It seems early for asparagus but it's only a week ahead of last year, when we'd already had a couple of weeks of very warm weather to tempt the spears into action.

Purple broccoli has now finished. I was buzzed by several bees as I dug them up - they'd been enjoying the flowers but I need to clear the space for this year's crops. And I've left a kale plant to flower for them. I'll collect the kale seeds to grow some micro greens later on.



As expected, the Morello cherry trees are now smothered in white blossom, as are the pear and quince trees. Some calm weather to encourage pollinators to linger would be good but with a ground level nectar bar from forget me nots, honeywort, honesty, achillea and erysimum flowers to feed on, would they notice the clouds of blossom above?

I spotted the Honesty (Lunaria annua) seedlings last summer and gave them room to grow.  Lunaria was introduced to the garden a few years ago because I love the papery seed pods at the end of the year and bees love the flowers. And as they're a biennial, the plants flower much earlier than annuals - one way to have a succession of flowers in the garden!

A little bit of Honesty ... 

I'm very behind with seed sowing but now that warmer weather is promised (at least for the next couple of weeks), I'll be opening up the seed box this week and possibly also planting out my overwintered sweet peas.  It's supposed to be 19°C/69°F by next weekend - I don't want to tempt fate but I think I'll leave my sunhat within easy reach.

11 Apr 2019

Gardening is one way to a brain-healthy lifestyle - who knew?

I'm currently reading a book called '100 days to a Younger Brain'. So what's that got to do with growing veg, you may ask?  On many levels, gardening is good for you but I hadn't realised that this pastime was helping to keep my brain in tip top shape.

Forget Me Not flowers pink and blue
Forget-me-Nots ... an appropriate flower for this post?


After skimming through the salient chapters in the book,  (I will go back and read it properly but first wanted to get straight to the nitty gritty), it seems that if we want to slow or reverse cognitive decline in our dotage, we need to adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, optimal amounts of sleep and stress, social engagement, mental stimulation, and a moderately healthy diet. I simplify, of course, but it reminds me of how my lifestyle has changed through gardening and engaging with the gardening community. I've learnt so much and have a better diet and more positive outlook as a result.

It's not the first time the wisdom of this sort of healthy lifestyle has been touted around but I hadn't realised to what extent this, or lack of it, affects our brains as we age.  A classic case of not seeing the obvious until it's pointed out - but I do love some solid advice wrapped up in a bit of neuro-scientific nerdery.

Having lost both parents to age-related illness and dementia, I'm increasingly aware of the moments when instant recall fails me, such as having a plant's botanical name on the tip of my tongue or remembering a person's face but not their name. (Awkward.) It's beyond frustrating and sometimes just a tad worrying.  Reading this book has also made me question the extent of my parents' diagnosis and whether a few changes might have made a small difference to their last years. It's also given me a boot up the bum to improve a couple of areas in my own lifestyle - move more, walk more, drink more. (As tempting as that sounds, I mean water not gin.)

The author, a research psychologist, offers practical advice to slow, halt or reverse signs of deteriorating brain health and how to build resilience against disease through healthy lifestyle choices. Scarily, our brains have already started to atrophy at age 30 (who knew?) but that decline accelerates once we reach 60 by which time we've potentially lost up to a third of our brains anyway.  Crikey. The good news is that even if our brains have shrunk to the size of a small coconut, physical exercise and stimulating environments will help to increase the brain's abilities to learn, remember and function, thereby potentially counteracting diseases such as dementia.

And that's where gardening comes into play - for me, at least.

Being outside gives me social contact with my neighbours; lugging compost and plant pots strengthens my bones; weeding, sowing and hoeing keeps me supple; proximity to nature and the seasons promotes mindfulness and calm. Even writing this blog is keeping my brain active!

So far, so reassuring. Now I just have to work on taking regular breaks from screen time (a quick walk round the garden or run up and down the three flights of stairs to my front door?) and to drink more water.  Sometimes I literally forget to drink. This week though I've had a jug of water on my desk and manage a litre a day plus tea and coffee! As a result I'm feeling less tired in the evenings and sleeping soundly. Result.

The best though is that during regular breaks, I wander onto the balcony to think about the garden, or stroll down to the veg patch to see what's occurring - often coming back with some herbs or veg for lunch. Communing with nature, exercise and a healthy lunch? Three more boxes ticked!



I learnt of this book through a blog I subscribe to, The Age Well Project and then, intrigued, I bought it.  This is the link to the relevant post, 'Can laughter help you live longer?'
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