11 Aug 2021

While I was away ... how my garden fared

It’s always a worry when you go away in midsummer and leave the garden or allotment to fend for itself, especially with the fickle weather we’ve experienced this year. I’ve been away for a few days in lovely Lancashire where it rained quite a lot. (Important for such a beautiful green county!) I gather heavy rain was not exclusive to the north so, as a priority on my first day back, I went to assess the veg garden.  

Leafless stalk of cabbage plant
Pigeons or slugs - who’s the vandal here?

As ever in food growing, there are thrills and spills. Can I blame rainfall for the devastation? Munching molluscs would have slithered easily towards my brassicas (or was it pigeons?) - regardless, my cabbages have been thoroughly enjoyed down to a stump, as have all my dwarf french beans and courgettes - even carrots are now leafless. I'm not happy.  

Is it even worth trying again with the beans at this late stage? The garden is feeling distinctly autumnal but the weather might decide to give us a bit more summer yet. I once grew a lovely bed full of Kelvedon Wonder peas in the late summer and had a good harvest before the end of autumn so I’m tempted to give more dwarf beans another go but my memory could be as fickle as the weather.

Curiously, and thankfully, the celeriac and leeks have been ignored by the munch bunch - do they have a secret weapon, I wonder? Leeks were planted out recently, following the advice of Carol Klein to grow leeks in modules until they reach pencil thickness. Mine looked more like barbecue skewers than pencils but have plumped up nicely since being transplanted. I may get only baby leeks but at this stage any veg would be something to look forward to. 

Did someone say summer pudding?

But let's not dwell on the negatives! Looking on the bright side, as I like to do, the Swiss rhubarb is looking lush and healthy, ditto my redcurrants and raspberries, plus there are sweet juicy blackberries ripening in the hedgerows. I’m tempted by thoughts of marrying those fruits with last year’s frozen blackcurrants to make a summer pudding (red fruits cooked inside a bread crust which absorbs all the juices - delicious with cream!). A few late picked stems of that red rhubarb could also become rhubarb and orange marmalade; a friend was given a jar recently and made it sound so wonderful that I went in search of a recipe. If I never speak of it again, you'll know it wasn't a success! 

Once bitten ... (grrr)

And what of the tree fruit? As happens every year in August, my Braeburn apples look temptingly tasty long before they’re properly ripe. The result? They get picked, one bite taken and then the fruit is discarded; It’s so annoying. A sign is needed when I have the time ... possibly along the lines of ‘poisoned apples, eat at your own risk’.


But now for some good news - hurrah!  Regard the Solitary Plum. Yes! It’s turned purple. Whoop! A gentle squeeze has let me know that it’s not ripe for picking yet and I will keep my fingers (and toes) crossed that nothing and no-one will have it away before I can try it myself.  

- - - - - - - - 

Today I’ve been to Suffolk to wander among the veg and flowers in the trial fields of Mr Fothergill’s seeds. Expect photos, new seeds for next year, more photos and a few top tips from the growers.  



7 Aug 2021

Presenting the Not So Humble Nasturtium


Consider the nasturtium... a cheerful little soul, persistent, occasionally very annoying but also somewhat shy at times. Since sowing the first seeds into the veg patch ten years ago, my garden has never been without them. The sight of the flowers brightens my day (and sometimes my salad plate). This year I’ve grown an absolute corker - meet Bloody Mary. (No, not the cocktail.)


Her pink tinged buds open to a clear yellow with splashes of deep blood red - fabulous in itself - but, as the flowers mature, the petals change colour!  Will they be pink, red, speckled ... or stay yellow? My favourite is the deep wine red that some change to just before setting seed. 


Even the seeds are beautifully striped... although that one was nipped off to encourage more flowers; there will be time to collect the seeds later.


At first I thought this particular nasturtium might be a compact variety so grew it next to my Cherry Falls bush tomato in the raised Veg Trug bed; not so, as I’ve discovered. She has gently lowered one stem over the sides to explore new territory and twined herself companionably through the tomatoes with not an aphid in sight. 


The first nasturtiums appeared in the veg patch after a chance comment from a local competition judge that my garden was “very green” - said in a way that conveyed his disapproval at the lack of brashly coloured bedding plants.  That stung, “What’s wrong with green” I countered but that comment started my search to learn more about edible flowers for my food growing space.

Seeds for a creamy white (Milkmaid) and a sumptuous deep dark red (Black Velvet) were duly bought. I wasn’t convinced about eating the plants (that came later with nasturtium pesto) but reasoned that they served a dual purpose of adding colour and would be useful as a sacrificial plant in attracting aphids away from other crops. (A nice idea but I’ve never found them to be very efficient at this - any aphids will colonise all plants and not selectively choose nasturtiums.)

Since then I’ve grown Empress of India, Blue Pepe (small with blue tinted leaves and red flowers), and salmon baby in the veg patch. In the salad garden last year Ladybird Rose had her moment, only to be replaced by Baby Orange this year. Both have been well behaved and not trailed everywhere.

But the nasturtium that has totally captivated me this year with her changing appearance is Bloody Mary. She was a new seed in Mr Fothergill’s range last year and they were kind enough to send me a pack. 

1 Aug 2021

The good and bad of my veg patch this week

Curly kale plant growing
Last kale standing
(and yes it is surrounded by self seeded forget me nots that will need to be moved, eventually)

Honestly, there are times when I wonder why I grow veg. With my small veg patch, my efforts are hardly a step towards self-sufficiency, especially when plants give up the good fight against pests, predators and precipitation (rain). (I do love a bit of alliteration.) But, then again, I’m an optimist by nature and have learned to roll with the heartache of seeing weeks of nurturing wiped out.

As we’ve come to expect in this very British of summers, variable weather conditions have favoured slugs and snails this past week, although I must say that lovely rain has left all the greenery looking very lush, even if my kales and cabbages have all but disappeared. Luckily I have a few spares waiting in the wings; veg growing is nothing if not a learning curve.

Yesterday was one of the brighter, yet chillier, days (perfect weather!) so I was able to grab a few photos in the evening as I inspected the patch after work. 

Green tomatoes ripening on plant

Ah! The waiting game as tomatoes gradually ripen ... they would get there quicker if grown in the warmth of a polytunnel or greenhouse but I don't have that luxury. Mine are chosen for their ability to be grown outdoors - hellooo again, British weather! Dare I keep my fingers crossed and hope for another blight free year?
 
These tiny tomatoes in my photo above are Mr Happy from Mr Fothergill’s children’s seed range and were destined for my niece’s young family to grow. Lockdown dictated otherwise and the plants stayed with me. I just love the name though - and if they ripen, I will indeed be Miss Happy! 

Single green plum on tree
Plum. Singular.
Readers may recall my very reluctant plum tree - yes, it’s still standing. Very close scrutiny joyfully revealed one solitary large plum dangling in the branches. Whoop!  Now don’t get too excited, this should be ripening by now but the tree is sending me a message - it’s reminding me that it’s the perfect time for pruning stone fruit trees, and that's long overdue here. One more for the weekend agenda, then. (I seem to be constantly chopping things down or digging things up recently - life as a gardener!)

And speaking of digging things up, the broad bean plants can come out; these were a major fail this year. I’ve never had a problem with broad beans but this year the pods refused to swell - probably the unexpected heatwave and not enough watering. The delicious primavera risotto that I make with home grown broad beans, asparagus and peas will have to wait until next year.


Turning resolutely away from the disasters, let’s look at my raspberry patch. I mulched around the canes with some of my Hotbin compost earlier year and, together with regular bouts of heavy rainfall, the difference is noticeable. The first clusters of large firm fruits have ripened - even though they're an autumn fruiting variety - several small handfuls have (in time honoured tradition) been picked and eaten straightaway and I’m hopeful of a steady crop in the weeks ahead. This variety, by the way, is Polka.

So, not all bad news then ... 

This week I'll be filling gaps in the veg patch by sowing 

  • two varieties of spinach - a hardy winter cropping variety that can be sown from now until the end of September, plus a vigorous summer variety for baby leaves. 
  • chard - can be sown again, now we're past midsummer. This sowing will give me baby leaves for salads and larger leaves in autumn and winter. Pink Passion for colour and Fordhook Giant for flavour. 
  • Coriander - delicious in salsas, salads and the lentil dhal that I make regularly. I'll be sowing this now until the end of August and hope the plants mature in time for some seeds after the pretty flowers. 
  • Plain leaved parsley - this is a last chance sowing as the window for outdoor sowing is March to July, although the temperatures now are not dissimilar to those in April. I chop flat leaved parsley into just about all savoury food so like to have some on the balcony and in the veg patch. 
  • Carrots - I sowed another batch of carrots last week; this time I used Extremo (Mr. Fothergills), a variety which crops over winter. I've not grown carrots over winter before but am really quite excited at the prospect of harvesting carrots in the colder months ... allegedly until April, if what I read comes true. 


18 Jun 2021

Suddenly it was summer...

 ... and then it wasn't.  

Stems of pink chard

Rain has stopped play. Am I unhappy? Not a bit, I'm actually very grateful for the promised deluge. Plants thrive on rainwater rather than the chemical-laced hard tap water that serves my area of London. Temperatures will drop to a comfortable level and I'll no longer feel that I'm slowly melting. My only gripe with this bout of rain is that I was unable to finish my evening’s work of  ruthlessly clearing space in the veg patch to make room for more crops; I had to call a halt as the slight drizzle became a clothes soaking torrent.  Have mentioned that I'm woefully behind this year?

Courgettes, kales, cabbages and beans will have to go out when the rain stops, hopefully on Saturday - no point in setting out a banquet for marauding molluscs! This feels more than a bit late to me but, in this wonky weather we're being subjected to, it may still be a bumper year for home grown food.

The veg patch has actually been quite productive so far this year - I could barely keep up with the purple sprouting broccoli in late winter and had my fill of kales at that time. By the time those had finished, I had radishes, lettuces, spinach and a few peas from the salad garden; the heat of the past week has done for the spinach and radishes, both now bolted, composted and needing to be resown.  

In my third large Veg Trug, I've planted out cucumbers, chillies, tomatoes ... and a little courgette called Patio Star which is meant to be grown in a container.  What a fabulous thing if this tiny plant produces a good crop! Expectations are low but excitement levels are high.

Tiny red woodland strawberries

Meanwhile, back in the veg patch, I've been bringing home large plump strawberries as well as tiny fragrant woodland strawberries, fat pods of broad beans (so delicious eaten raw) and freshly cut asparagus spears are still on the menu. Gardener’s lore says to leave asparagus to grow and re-energise after the solstice so I may only have one more cut this year. 

First early potatoes flowering end of May

Three weeks ago, those strawberries were still flowers, as were the broad beans.  Potato flowers have been and gone - and what's happened to the herbs!? They’ve doubled in size! My mint plants are enormous and Clary Sage (which I grew last year as an annual) has shown her pretty face once more. The year seems to be rushing onwards with reckless haste.

The summer solstice is just a few days away (Monday 21st, sun up at 04.32 BST for 16 hours 38 minutes of daylight in case, like me, you wondered), heralding the start of astrological summer. Which school of thought will you follow - that summer has properly arrived or that it's all downhill to winter once the days start to get shorter? 

Me? I'm always an optimist and enjoy whatever the seasons may bring. 



31 May 2021

Catching up

Shall I be terribly English and talk about the weather? At times it’s felt as though nothing would grow.

As ever with the British spring, the weather veered wildly between glorious blue skies and dismal grey, often teeth chattering cold, wet and very windy - what the weather stations call ‘a moderate breeze’ and I term as a strong pegs needed laundry drying day. Not the best conditions to encourage seeds to germinate, even indoors. So they didn’t. It’s been a stop:start:stop saga for several of my seeds.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the garden itself has reliably offered up bucketloads of purple sprouting broccoli and kales from the start of January right through until April; by mid-March wild garlic and rhubarb had shown up, and the last of the beetroot and kales were picked as they started to run to seed. 


By the end of March, I was feeling a bit gung-ho and judged it time enough to sow salad leaves and carrots into two of the Veg Trugs - under fleece of course - and tiny broad bean plants went into the soil having been grown in modules on my balcony. Potatoes were also planted; I usually grow these in bags to keep any future harvests clean and slug/bug free but fancied growing a few in the ground this year. I may regret this when I need the space in a few weeks!

As April began, buds opened on the honeyberry and gooseberry bushes, pink kale resprouted prettily from the stump (second helpings, what good value!) and the annual tsunami of blossom from the fruit trees started - pears first, swiftly followed by plum, apple and cherry. Cue gale force winds. Every year I hope for calm weather to keep the blossom on the trees for a while longer; it’s a rare year when the winds don’t blow. But ... tiny fruitlets have duly appeared so all is well, thank you bees.

As April headed towards May, the garden looked very pretty but the weather was still against growing anything. Pots of kale seedlings stayed tucked in the lee of my balcony, tomatoes, chillies, aubergines stayed indoors and grew tall. Outside, violets were overtaken by swathes of self-seeded forget-me-nots and PSB plants drew visitors in (human as well as bees) with the sight of clouds of sunshine yellow blossom - a beautiful sight on a spring day. 


Peony shoots appeared, as did the flowers on mini bay trees, blueberries, sweet cicely, woodland strawberries and wild garlic. And the quince tree prepared to flower, always a special moment to see those pink candy striped buds.


And so here we are at the end of May and it’s beautiful.  My garden spaces have burst into life, every time I go to look, there’s something new to see.  Lots of rain and slightly warmer temperatures have had a dramatic effect on the slow starters; asparagus spears appear daily, broad beans are flowering, as are the large Marshmellow strawberries, raspberry canes have tiny buds and even the elderflower umbels are open! Time to make elderflower cordial! 


In the Veg Trugs, I’ve moved on from peering at just germinated seeds to pulling radishes, and cutting 8” tall plump lettuces and spinach. The fleece has been replaced with enviromesh netting to keep bugs away but, needless to say, a snail found it’s way up to the banquet ... for a short time.  

I’ve emptied the Hotbin composter of its bounty and started again, popping a few of the many worms back into the remaining compost for good measure. I promise to write about the composter in a future post.

Jobs for the week ahead ...

Get those tomatoes and cucumbers planted! It looks like we’re in for some warm weather so it surely must be safe to plant out my tomatoes. The bed has been topped up in readiness, and I’m hoping that whatever is digging up the soil in the beds (birds? Squirrels?) will stay away as I’ll plant through the fleece that I laid over the soil.

I’m terribly behind with sowing seeds, sweet corn and courgettes were done last week, squash, purple broccoli and beans are next. They’ll be sown into small pots to start them off. And, once I’ve figured out where everything will go in the veg patch, I’ll be sowing chard, more carrots, and a few nasturtiums and poppy seeds ... oh yes, and weeding, again. Little and often is my motto when it comes to weeds! 


10 Feb 2021

And the garden slowly wakes

clump of snowdrops lit from behind


Regardless of the number of years that I’ve been gardening, I still thrill to the sight of the garden starting to emerge from its winter inertia. Psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith (wife of garden designer Tom) has written (*see below) of how pathways in the human brain respond to green nature by releasing feel good hormones such as endorphins (pain and stress relief), serotonins (happiness) and the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s not too strong a claim to say that the sight of a clump of newly opened snowdrops will literally lift my heart. 

The cycle of the seasons, nature waking and seeds sprouting gives us hope for the future; we feel grounded, safe and calmed. Our connectivity to nature is fundamental for our health and wellbeing which is why gardens provide such effective therapy for mental and physical trauma. 

I find walking across the untamed nearby heath stimulating but it’s the smaller signs, pictured below, of nature waking in my garden last week (before the snow came!) that I find so reassuring.

1 Feb 2021

Gardenwatch: January in my garden

Potatoes being chatted on windowsill

There’s a pair of very muddy boots in my hallway, evidence of my gardening efforts over the past week. Helped by a couple of afternoons of warm winter sunshine, I’ve had a productive week which has been mostly about getting prepared. What have I been up to? Even  in January there are  plenty of garden tasks to tick off the list.

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