9 Oct 2016


... to borrow a hashtag phrase which I keep seeing on Twitter.  I love it, it's so appropriate, especially given the sunny weather we've had this week to start the season off.  There's nothing quite like blue skies to make me feel motivated and now is not the time to start slacking off in the garden. (I've done enough of that already this summer!)

Veg gatherings

There's bulbs to plant.  I have a large basket full waiting to be planted; alliums, daffodils, snowdrops and crocuses can go in now so that they have a chance to develop roots while the soil is still warm - that's particularly true of alliums - and I also have about 250 tulip bulbs which I'll plant next month when it's a bit colder. That's nowhere near the thousands of bulbs that are planted in public gardens but I know my limitations - kneeling pads, restorative yoga and Deep Heat at the ready.

Every year I add to the previous year's tulips; I never lift the bulbs when they've finished flowering but nip off the flowering stalk and wait for the leaves to die back. Most of the bulbs have proved reliably perennial so far - fingers crossed for this year as well, although realistically they'll be less vigorous year on year.  Bargains are a necessity as my work in the communal gardens here is not funded.  This year, I'm very taken with 'Sherbet' bulbs from Morrison's supermarket. I grew them last year and there were some absolute beauties in the mix. I paid £2 per bag of 12 which I think is quite good, even with no budget to speak of.

Another job waiting for my attention is the planting of several grasses in the middle garden. Remember that space?  Yep, big plans, not enough time. It's mostly been used as a holding/nursery area for plants this year while I flesh out a plan and watch how the light falls across the garden throughout the year.  As luck would have it, I collected a car load of plants from the T2 tea collaboration with Rich Landscapes last week and autumn is a good time to plant perennials.  I'm hoping to dedicate a large part of my weekend to weeding, planting and pruning; it's much needed.

The veg patch is ticking over at the moment. Braeburn apples have ripened and are, amazingly (touch wood), still on the tree.  I usually pick one a day to munch on.  A few pears need to be picked and ripened indoors and, huge excitement, I've got five quinces ripening! This is a first and I'm really looking forward to cooking with those - or even just being able to smell the famous perfumed quince at last.

Borlotti beans have coloured up beautifully and are now an astonishingly vibrant red.  I don't know yet what they taste like as I'm saving any ripened pods until I have enough to cook with.  Likewise with the tomatoes.  Remember my despair a few weeks back? I needn't have panicked, I now have bowls of beautiful yellow plum shaped tomatoes - and no sign of blight.  I'm still going to choose my tomato seeds with better care next year though.  It's worth noting that Banana Legs (the yellow plum tomatoes) were prolific, each fruit 2 to 3 inches long and each plant growing several clusters of 5 to 6 fruits. I bought the seeds from Pennard Plants at one of the early RHS shows.

I've still got to plant out Cavolo and curly kale but it's a question of where? The patch is still stuffed with chard, beetroot (small leaves of both excellent in salads), broccoli, rhubarb and radishes that I'm letting flower so I can try the pods - supposedly a restaurant delicacy, don't you know!

orache + fennel
~Orache (Atriplex rubra) aka Mountain Spinach and Fennel - both self seed enthusiastically at this time. ~

And then there's seed saving ... and sowing for next year's annuals ... and mulching ... and, and, and. Onwards, always onwards.

Like I say, up and at 'em.

1 Oct 2016

Sweet peas all summer

I often forget to sow sweet peas, either completely or until it's rather too late but, last winter, I remembered.  In an exercise to rid my seedbox of outdated seeds, I came across a random selection of sweet pea seeds.  A few were odd seeds at the bottom of the packet, others were facing or past their best before date (not that that seems to matter much). With all these leftovers, I reckoned that I'd nothing to lose with a December sowing; after all, it wouldn't matter if they didn't germinate or grow as there would be time in the spring to sow again with fresh seed.

Contrary to my expectations, they did grow and I picked my first bunch for an Instagram photo on 5th June. All through June, July and August I enjoyed the heady evening scent of prolific sweet peas in the garden.  I couldn't believe that they would flower for 3 months from one sowing and I became determined that they'd still be flowering at the end of August.  That involved a lot of deadheading, let me tell you!

~ Mid July: Sweet peas and nasturtiums at one end of the veg patch garden ~

By the first week in September I was ready to let them finish their botanical journey and make seedpods so I stopped deadheading.  By mid-September I found a dried seed pod among the still blooming stems ... and today, the last day of September, I picked the last tiny bunch of flowers.  Four months of flowers! Incredible. (At least that's the way it seems to me.  Is this lengthy flowering usual?) I'd like to claim that it was my prowess as a gardener that achieved this (hohoho) but, realistically, I like to think anyone could do the same. There are a few key points however and this is what I did:

1.  Start your seedlings early. Sweet peas for next year can be sown at any time now and left in a sheltered place, eg, cold frame, greenhouse or cloche. Depending on your location and the weather, they may need additional protection if the winter is harsh and you're growing north of, say, Milton Keynes. (Mine survived last year's relatively mild winter on my balcony with no added protection. This year I think I'll put them in my friend's greenhouse.)

2. Sow into deep pots. I put 3 or 4 seeds into each 10cm diameter deep pot (deep root trainers are also ideal) and placed the pots on a shelf on my tiny sheltered balcony.  Amazingly, I had 80 - 100% germination in each pot and, bar a tiny amount of watering, largely left the seedlings to get on with it.

3.  Keep an eye on the plants. By February I needed to pinch out the tops to stop them getting leggy. My balcony is part shaded on three sides so the plants had a tendency to grow towards the light. Pinching out the tops above the first four sets of true leaves also helps the plants to bush out.

4. Plant out from mid-April (if possible). I had other distractions so mine went outside in early May.  I planted the seedlings without separating them to minimise root disturbance. At four to a pot that's not ideal but they had plenty of room to grow once planted; each cluster of seedlings was about 40cm from its neighbour.  I added a small amount of blood, fish and bone to the planting holes, mixed this in with the soil and bunged the whole potful of seedlings into the prepared hole.  Each plant was tied in to the prepared trellis and the row watered well.

5.  Water, water, water.  I made sure to prioritise watering the sweet peas so that the soil stayed moist. I also gave them a very occasional boost with some diluted home-made comfrey feed. And I tried to aim for the roots to keep the leaves dry. (The wet spring/summer helped as well, I'm sure.)

6.  Support and encourage. I tied them in as they grew (actually, it was my neighbour who helps who did that) and we both kept on top of regular deadheading and watering.  As soon as the each bloom started to fade, it were cut back to the base of its stem to encourage more flowers.

7. Label and save. As these plants did so well, I'm keen to save the seed for next year. The plants tended to twine around and through each other as they grew up the trellis. Stupidly, I didn't label the stems so, now that I'm saving the seed pods, I have no idea which sweet pea I'll get when I sow those seeds - it will be a nice surprise!

I had some beautiful variations in the flowers as the summer wore on and suspect this might be due to cross pollination.  Has anyone else found this?  In a one and a half metre row, I was growing purple/black, white, lavender, pale pink plus shades of bright pink and shades of purple (Chiltern Seeds 'Summer Sizzler' and 'Flamenco Mix', my favourites and sent to me by the very kind Flighty). I'm hoping that those variations will appear in next year's flowers because the challenge now is to sow the seeds that I've saved and see if I can create a repeat performance.

Update:  I forgot to mention that all but the very dark flowers had ridiculously long stems as well - so long that I got the tape measure out more than once - and the longest was 16" !!

How did everyone else do with their sweet peas this year? Did my plants do well or was this a universal trend? And who's started next year's annuals off already?  (I have to do mine this weekend!)

~ a few photos taken in August ~

28 Sep 2016

Wildlife Wednesday: picturing Palomena

Common Green Shield Bugs (Palomena prasina) are regular garden inhabitants in the southern part of the UK but are very very good at hiding thanks to their brilliant camouflage colours.  On seeing this one - because it crawled on my hand as I squeezed the scented leaves of a huge 'Attar of Roses' pelargonium planted outside - I immediately thought,  "Where's Wally?" Remember those books? I could never find Wally with his red and white striped hat and jumper among all the hundreds of other people in the cartoon.  I carefully manoeuvred this little guy off my hand and back onto the plant - although they're sap sucking insects, they don't do any significant damage in the garden so it's okay to let them be.

Their relatives, the Southern Green Shield Bug, on the other hand, will be found on runner and french beans and, as I found out the summer before last, on tomatoes.  I had the immature bugs across my entire crop in the warm summer of 2014.  They didn't appear to do much damage, just the occasional nibble into my fruits.

Apparently both types of Shield Bugs (known as stink bugs in the US) are gradually moving northwards to colonise gardens in the Midlands and beyond as our weather becomes more temperate. They're regular visitors to my veg patch - do you see them where you live?

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