29 May 2014

My RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 (Day one)

(I think they were enjoying how excited I was to be there!)

If readers of this blog can possibly bear to read another post about the Chelsea Flower Show (there have been so many and such excellent coverage this year), I really do want to write about my day out.  It was a corker and my thanks go to Interflora yet again for my prize of two Saturday tickets.

As it happens, the RHS press office also stumped up an eleventh hour press pass but by this time I could only go in the afternoon on Tuesday so whizzed over to collect a show catalogue and have a quick look round. Tuesday is the first day that it's open to the public and the show was absolutely mobbed - and got worse in the evening slot. I dislike pushing (and being pushed!) so, at the back of a deep crowd, I decided to leave most of the show gardens until early Saturday morning … and be grateful that there wasn't an editor waiting for my copy before going to press!

It certainly wasn't a wasted afternoon though; as I knew I'd be returning, I was able to drift through the crowds making the most of any gaps that I spotted.  Thus, I got to chat with Paul Hervey-Brookes who designed the Brand Alley garden; drawn firmly from the early Italian Renaissance gardens, it was awarded a bronze but I thought there were many ideas in the space that could easily be taken forward into a domestic setting. (Don't be surprised if I come back to this topic.)  Just look at that gorgeous raspberry colour!

I'm suspecting a favourite colour theme going on here … 

Paul Hervey-Brookes.
A lovely chap who took the time to tell me about his garden and let me wander  round - yes! I went beyond the fence!

I stood next to designers Wayne Hemingway (remember avant-garde fashion house Red or Dead?) and his wife Gerardine as they discussed their thoughts on the Telegraph garden for the BBC cameras (they loved the structure and planting but thought the marble was overused. It should be noted they have a large pristine lawn in their own garden.).

I worked my way along one edge of the Cloudy Bay garden, listening to the comments all around me. My impression was that the grasses seemed to dominate the planting but there was a lovely airiness to the garden. I was able to name a few of the plants for a gaggle of ladies behind me as Andrew Wilson, one of the designers and head of the Society of Garden Designers, passed by which earned me one of his famous beaming smiles.  Seems like a nice chap.

We all wondered about this one which I was told was Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus, or Gladioli byzantina if you prefer.  A truly gorgeous eye-catching colour that had been teamed beautifully with burgundy astrantias, purple salvias, red roses, lavender Baptisia australis and pink campions (Silene). It's a plant that needs to be the star of the show with a strong supporting cast!

Put that bed together with the larger Cloudy Bay planting that included purple Allium hollandicum, irises, verbascum, Ammi majus, bronze fennel, foxgloves, aquilegia and, of course, grasses (Deschampsia) and it all becomes rather beautiful - like one of Hannah McVicar's illustrations.

A proper brick-based greenhouse has long been on my wish list so the sight of the Alitex stand lured me over. Admiring the wonderful veg growing within and fabulous planting without, I was introduced to the charity Thrive who help disabled people towards a life of health and wellbeing through gardening.  The plants had all been grown by Thrive gardeners in Battersea.  Hearing about their work and subsequently reading their website, I feel a separate post about this marvellous charity is called for.

I was glad to glimpse the Homebase garden 'A Time to Reflect' for the Alzheimer's Society. Adam Frost had created a calm, peaceful space filled with memories and sounds. My much-loved dad has early Alzheimer's so this garden was especially poignant for me and reminded me of our childhood days on the beach and in the countryside as a very happy united family.

My plant highlight of Tuesday afternoon was this Chrysanthemum coronarium or chopsuey greens, mainly because I'm growing this for the first time!  This is a fast growing vegetable that can be on your plate 6 weeks after sowing, likes part shade and every bit of it can be eaten.  And rather pretty to boot!

I finished my Tuesday outing with an evening lecture at the Royal Geographical Society; the event was an 'in conversation' talk from garden designers Dan Pearson and Fergus Garrett, hosted by Anna Pavord. I came away with a deep respect for Dan Pearson whose gardening philosophies I thoroughly agree with. It was a splendid event where they talked about their childhood and adult influences, their horticultural backgrounds, gardening styles and what they thought of the Chelsea show. I particularly liked Dan's phrase that as a gardener he likes to "sit gently on the land, preferring to grow with a garden and be a part of it rather than to transpose yourself onto it.  I like that.

I went back to Chelsea on Saturday and will be writing up highlights of that day in my next post - the bold, the bonkers and the beautiful - including my thoughts on Cleve West's garden which, yes, I eventually got to see and thought utterly delightful.

28 May 2014

(Almost Wordless Wednesday) Chelsea Fringe: A second show of hands

Whilst I'm going through my Chelsea photos (and thinking of something original to say about the day!), I couldn't resist posting these pictures.

The giant glove made of roses caught my eye as being perfect for VP's Shows of Hands project for the Chelsea Fringe*; I especially like the photo with the assistant soaking up the Chelsea atmosphere over a cuppa but ...

…am I alone in thinking the guy in the second photo looks like an actor - perhaps from the Father Ted tv show?  If anyone recognises him, please put me out of my misery!!

* You can contribute to Shows of Hands until June 8th. Read more about it on the Veg Plotting blog.

18 May 2014

Chelsea Fringe: Shows of Hands

As an alternative to the Chelsea Flower Show - which I will now be visiting (*thrilled*) - the Chelsea Fringe, now in its third year, has become hugely popular and even global! It's a massive success story and worth checking the Fringe website to see if anything is happening in your neck of the woods.  If not, why not organise something for next year?

VP from Veg Plotting blog who organised the globally accessible Fringe cake event, The Bloggers' Cut, last year has come up with another winning event for this year.  Her project is called 'Shows of Hands' and you can read about it on her blog.  It doesn't matter where you are in the world, you can join in - and the more the merrier!

I don't like the look of my own hands; they are outdoor hands, lined and with age spots creeping in,  but I've been drawn to images of working hands since I first studied photography as part of my belated design degree at St. Martins two decades ago. I was initially inspired by Dorothea Lange's images of the migrant farm families, the American dustbowl pioneers in the Depression era.  I'm therefore hugely excited by VP's project and have trawled back through my veg patch photos to see if my own hands have crept into any of my pics.  There was a total of five over the past few years and I asked my son to take the last photo - me on the balcony, gently stroking and talking to my plants, an activity I indulge in daily.

I'm pleased with the ones that I've found as I think they reveal a little of the joy that I get from immersing myself in all aspects of being an urban grower. Working hands, working towards a simple life.

Batter coating courgette flowers for deep frying; plaiting onions; checking roots before repotting; talking to my plants. 

#shows of hands
I'm calling my collage 'Gardener Cook'
All photos taken at my home in London NW5 between 2012 and 2014.

Read more about the Fringe in this Daily Telegraph article.

17 May 2014

Tree Following: Plums, aphids and nature lending a hand

~ Plum fruitlet and curly leaves ~

I've chosen to follow all the fruit trees that I'm growing here in the garden; in the past month, the trees that have been causing the most concern are the plum trees.  The new leaves have been targeted by aphids whose sap-sucking activities cause the new leaves to twist, curl and, ultimately, die. Squishing is not an option with a 10 foot tall tree but I have been reading up organic measures that I can put in place for the future.  I haven't seen many lacewings in the past few years and these, as well as ladybirds, love to dine on aphids. Apparently tying rolls of cardboard to the tree will provide a daytime shelter for them and planting tansy, fennel, marguerites and cosmos nearby will also help.  No problem there - I'd love to see my fruit trees surrounded by flowers and, luckily, I have seed trays full of cosmos and marguerites.

I also read that an anti-aphid spray can be made by boiling up rhubarb leaves and using a dilution of the liquid to spray the insects. The oxalic acid content (which makes the leaves poisonous to all, even people) causes the heart to stop and so the insects die. It sounds good but I don't know if this will also affect the fruit (or me!) so have decided against this. Last year I was told by fruit growers at a local nature reserve that a squirt of Ecover washing up liquid in water used as a spray was what they found effective. (I'd forgotten about that until I re-read this posting!)

By working in the garden on my own during a quiet day, I realised that a much better alternative was being provided by nature.  The tiniest of birds in the garden, the Blue Tits, are flying in and pecking off the aphids (well, okay, probably the leaves as well but I don't mind.)  I've seen them doing the same to the rose bushes at the other end of the garden but then they'd been very timid. One of these little birds became less timid during the day as he flew back and forth but I worked very quietly just in case!

I'm keeping a careful eye on the trees as they're looking a bit the worse for wear now; the affected leaves are going brown which will reduce photosynthesis. Apparently once the aphids fly off (to another host plant), the tree should recover.  So, how to help this recovery? Bob Flowerdew, the organic gardener, advises that all fruit trees benefit from a nitrogen boost in the soil; beans and peas return nitrogen to the soil. Nasturtiums are also a good companion plant as aphids are drawn to their succulent leaves (although do I want more aphids around my trees? No.)  I think the answer is to use the trees as climbing frames for tall beans and see how that works out. Also to water well so that the tree isn't stressed and to remember to mulch the roots (but not the trunk) in early winter.

The good news is that, so far (but we still have the famous 'June drop' to get through), the fruitlets seem to be holding on and there are a few growing...

...Unlike the pear trees where the leaves are unaffected and looking very healthy but I've only found one fruit spike left from all that earlier blossom - and I think that's since dropped off!

The cherry trees are also promisingly dripping with fruitlets. I'm expecting quite a few of these to drop because that's what has happened in past years although there were loads left to pick!  I've also had to remove a small branch from the corner cherry tree as it had died but the rest of the tree seems okay.

The apple trees are also looking really good, with just one leaf (that I could find) having a few woolly aphids; lots of ladybirds on the apple trees should keep this in check but I'll keep an eye on it.  There was just a hint of blossom remaining on 29th April when I took these photos but, again, lots of tiny fruitlets have developed which have withstood the funnelling winds we had last week. I have strawberries, pelargoniums and borage planted around these trees and seen lots of bees buzzing around so I'm guessing this all helped with pollination!

And, finally, I have to give a big thank you to Victoriana Nurseries for the wonderful quince tree (Cydonia oblonga 'Champion') that they delivered earlier this year. It's established really well and makes me feel happy every time I stop to look at it!

14 May 2014

Tree following in May

I confess that I am blatantly cheating the system here! My attentions are completely diverted towards work today; I won't be finished until nearly 7 o'clock, by which time the Linky to Lucy's Tree Following for May will have closed.  I'll have to post the update this evening - so sorry.  The above image is by way of tempting anyone to check back later on this evening for the update on my orchard. This month's focus is on the plum trees.

Tree Following post now complete ! and posted separately as there's lots of photos!

12 May 2014

Let's talk flowers, Flower Shows, Pinterest and having a Cinderella complex

Strong winds funnelling between the flats yesterday were buffeting these aquilegias around so I picked a few for a vase and added purple heuchera leaves to the jam jar. There are seed pods on the aquilegias already?

I was late putting in my application for a Chelsea Flower Show press pass (yes, bloggers get to go too, sometimes) and didn't get round to buying tickets this year so it seems that I won't be going now, which I'm really gutted about as I really, really wanted to see Cleve West's garden. I love that he spends time growing veg on his allotment but slips out to 'do' a Chelsea garden every now and then. *hero*

I'd resigned myself to this sorry state of affairs when a glimmer of hope came my way. I received an email from Interflora's marketing department (who assure me that at least some of their flowers are sourced from the UK) with news of a competition.  The prize is a pair of Saturday Chelsea Flower Show tickets for 3 lucky winners. (Please, let it be me!) Five also rans will receive an Interflora bouquet.

The competition is very easy: simply create a Pinterest board called 'My Interflora Garden'.  As I already use Pinterest a little bit (48 boards, 1208 pins, all garden/design related), plus I really need no excuse to go off on an internet search that combines the words 'flowers' and 'garden' - and I would love to get to the show - I was completely up for it (although I didn't tell them that, natch.)

My Interflora Pinterest board was created last night  - see it here, if you're so inclined - and details of the competition are here if you fancy entering.  It's rather fun as you can gather up flowers for the garden of your dreams (and a shed or two), even if you don't get to visit the Chelsea gardens of your dreams.  On the other hand, I really hope that one of my garden fairies is paying attention as (have I mentioned this already?) I really want to go to the ball and my Cinderella complex may be out of control by Saturday 24th.

The deadline for the competiton is midday on Wednesday 14th May - that's this coming Wednesday.  You'll have to be quick but wouldn't it be marvellous if a few of us could meet up at Chelsea!

There's no obligation to blog about it, I just like to spread the word.

Here's a glimpse of my Pinterest entry:

9 May 2014

When seeds fail to germinate

Or, if at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again.

Like most gardeners (I imagine) I have a large box of seeds, the result of too many impulse buys online and in the garden centre. A magazine article or book has only to mention that this or that plant is edible and I'm straight off to find out more and, in all likelihood, add the seeds to my growing collection. I've tried to curb my curiosity but it seems to get the better of me fairly regularly so, with many tastes to try and with minimal space available, only a few seeds from each packet get sown*, the packet gets stored and, inevitably, there are still loads left for next year.  So is it a good idea to keep them?

Well, it depends on the seed and how they've been stored.  Store them in a cool, dark place (not the fridge) in paper packets (not plastic) and seeds should be good at least until their Use By date. A few will be duds from the off and will never germinate.  A few, like carrots, really are best used fresh for maximum success.  The other seeds, like you, me and the rest of the planet, are ageing slowly and imperceptibly, getting tired and, frankly, getting a bit past it. Of course I'm no longer talking about myself now. ;) Or you. Just the seeds. Plant seeds are a lot more reliable and vigorous in their youth.

This year when planning what to grow, I ruthlessly chucked out the seeds that should have been sown by 2012, if not before. It was a lot. (The photo above is the 'after' shot!) The packet of Canadian Wonder red kidney beans, exp date 2012, was kept.  I loved this plant - a bush bean, growing to about 2 ft tall with prolific fruiting.

Canadian Wonder bush beans in early August 2012
I had a long summer of all the beans I could eat from a May sowing and regular picking.  Wonder beans indeed.

Wonder beans in early September 2012.

This year's bean: After a 30 day germination, thought I may as well plant it out.
This spring, I blithely assumed that beans could be stored for years and confidently sowed about a dozen, just what I needed, into modules in fresh seed compost.**  Just one lonely bean emerged, after an extremely long wait and after I'd re-sown another 24 beans in a raised bed in the patch. Three weeks on from the outside sowing and there is nothing to be seen.  It's a mystery, especially as the soil is warm, the slugs have been kept away and there has been a good mix of sun and rain.  So, onto plan B…

Convinced the cause was the viability of the seeds, I decided to put it to the test. Seeds need warmth and enough wetness to swell and break the seed coat to germinate, so I put 40 beans on soaked kitchen paper in a plastic tray, covered with another sheet of damp kitchen paper, sealed with cling film and left on a warmish windowsill. After a six days of checking, 24 of the beans had produced a radicle (the root tip) while 16 had not.  The beans were in varying stages of germination, some with a long root and others just starting to sprout  - again, a sign of the poor quality of the beans.  Testing this way is a good way of removing the uncertainty over seed germination.  I tried the same method with some lettuce seeds and they didn't germinate at all - so in the bin they went!

The good news is that I now have bean seeds that I'll pot up and know will grow. I also know to let the last pods dry on the plant so that I can save seed for next year. (And, just in case any of the outside sown beans are simply lurking and not deceased, I'll cover the bed with fleece for a week or so and see what happens. It will be their Last Chance; you can't say I'm not being fair.)

* For varieties where only a few seeds are needed, More Veg in Devon sell smaller quantities at a lower price and have a wide range of seeds.

** As a member of Which? Gardening, I always use their recommended Best Buy because compost compositions change from year to year.  Over the past couple of years, the best buy has been J. Arthur Bower's Seed and Cutting compost, a nice, fine, free draining mix.

7 May 2014

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

I'm sure that this is a sight being seen all over the country after all that rain we had earlier in the year. However, despite the excess of frothy blossom, the bees obligingly buzzing around the garden at the right time, underplanting the trees with nectar rich flowers, the few days of warm sunshine followed helpfully by a few days of rain - I still won't believe the trees will fruit until I see the evidence with my own eyes.  Looks like this could be it -  baby Braeburns! Thrilled, I am.

2 May 2014

April/May: … Celebrating the start of summer!

Yesterday, despite the rain, was the start of summer. For Celts, the beginning of May is Beltane, an ancient day marked by rituals that herald the onset of the summer months. I like the idea that summer has begun, luckily though it was raining heavily so I resisted dancing around outdoors with flowers in my hair.  Although it isn't feeling too summery today, I'm not complaining as we've had some fabulous warm weather during April which has warmed up the soil and brought sowing and planting out on a bit earlier.

I have to say that I'm thoroughly enjoying participating in the Garden Share Collective, hosted by Lizzie in Australia; not only can I read what other GSC writers are up to but I'm motivated to get on with doing things in the garden so I have something to show at the end of the month!  I can therefore proudly report that I have been getting on with it this month, helped hugely by being able to get outdoors without a coat!

First up, balcony 'potting shed':

The greenhouse staging that I bought last month is a perfect fit for my tiny balcony, an area less than 1.5 square metres. I also bought a bunch of nifty seed trays at one of the RHS hort shows, perfect for setting up a Cut and Come Again salad bar - a few seedlings will be pricked out to be grown on as individual lettuces.  They're the brown trays in the photo above and have a snap on water tray as part of each unit.

From left: Golden Streaks mustard, rocket, Broadleaf mizuna
So the balcony is looking very productive with seedlings of broadleaf mizuna, salad rocket (arugula), Golden Streaks mustard, Red Russian kale, Bubbles and Saladin lettuce, Lamb's Lettuce (aka corn salad/mache) and watercress. Seeds are taking about 8 days to germinate and they're just left, uncovered, outside on the balcony.  Inside, on the 24th, I sowed tomato seeds (late, I know!) of Gardener's Delight, Sungold, Yellow Pear and Maskotka, only two per module, into an unheated propagator; they all germinated within 4 days and are growing strongly.  In the same propagator, I also sowed cucamelon (a tiny oval cucumber, just germinated) and a range of broccoli as it seems to be the one veg I can't do without. With good germination, I should have 4 summer broccoli, 4 autumn/early winter broccoli and 4 purple sprouting broccoli for late winter/early spring next year.  It sounds a lot of sowing but the veg patch is not huge so, over time, I figured out it's best to sow less and have more variety.

In the Veg Garden:
Peas, courgettes (they finally appeared!), mange-tout, potatoes and a few of the sweet peas that were started on 11th March have been successfully planted out into the garden 10 days ago. I say successfully but I lost a courgette to slug attack; I noticed the nibblings and popped a cloche over the other one and brought the third back indoors (I only sowed three so that we didn't have a glut). A subsequent dusk slug hunt netted over 50 slugs of various sizes in 2 nights! That's the way to do it!

The broad/fava beans sown on 9th March are doing really well and now stand about 8 inches/20cm high. This cultivar (Karmazyn) grew to about 70cm last year so, if the weather holds, I expect to be seeing some flowers by the end of May.

My fledgling Asparagus bed will not be tempting my taste buds this year.  Just one spear per crown has appeared - but at least I know they all survived!  I'll let these grow, cut the fronds down in early winter, mulch and wait to see what happens next spring. I've read that asparagus should be given a bed to themselves, with nothing else growing in it. In my little patch, I need to use all the space effectively so I've resolved that dilemma by placing crops in pots in the spaces between the plants; I can't see why that won't work!

After a long wait, only one of my module sown bush beans germinated. With the temperatures outside rising, I decided to sow a bed of beans outside. The seeds went in on the 20th and there's nothing to be seen yet.  As my blog friend Flighty has been saying "Surely it's too early to plant beans?" I guess he's right!

Several times this past month a few neighbours have come out to help.  Luckily we have different skills: I like planting (and being in charge!), Frank is terrifically good at digging, Karen enjoys weeding and replanting, the children like watering and sowing seeds.  A very complementary set of skills! So, what did we achieve?  lots of raspberry runners have now been removed and the beds dug over, a mature horseradish plant was dug out - a huge job, carried out by Frank - quince and honeyberries were potted up, fennel and sweet cicely moved, another small brick path was laid (by me!) so that I can reach the raspberries easily without walking on the soil, wigwams of canes were built ready for the climbers and dozens of self-seeded ornamentals were relocated by Karen, mostly foxgloves, cowslips, primroses, rudbeckia and day lilies … and, it goes without saying (sort of), lots of weeding!

Clockwise from top left: Strawberries, cherries, tiny lemons, gooseberry bush, raspberries, honeyberries.
I'll write more about the fruit trees in my next 'tree following' post but, apart from the pear trees, the promise of tree fruit is looking very good - including my lemon tree although it will have to be a very small gin and tonic for those lemons!  I'm not sure if the gooseberry bush I planted last year will fruit but it's very leafy and green; there are also a couple of tiny fruits on last year's honeyberry bush; the Physalis (cape gooseberry) is re-emerging; I should get a few redcurrants, the raspberries are about to blossom and there is a sea of strawberry flowers under the fruit trees, around the edges of the raised beds, in one of the raised beds, etc, etc. I grow a variety called 'Rambling Cascade' (from Victoriana Nurseries in Kent) and it's certainly living up to its name. Apparently the runners can be trained up canes, trellises and trees - I might have to give that a try! We certainly won't be going short of strawberries this year! I just hope I get there before the garden pests!

So that's where we are at the end of April.  Going into May I still need to find the time to fence around the veg patch island which Frank has promised to help with.  Crops still to sow outside are beetroot, carrots, salad onions; I have 3 40-cell trays waiting to receive flower seeds and I want to start off some climbing beans and more squash indoors.  Hopefully I'll be potting on my tomatoes by the end of the month and able to start off some basil and other herbs on the balcony.

Till next time, I'll leave you with a glimpse of my veg patch flowers this week - there's a purple theme going on and the lovely tulips are finally on their way out (although I may have a few more to come in May!).  Happy gardening - and congratulations to our host Lizzie on the birth of her baby daughter!

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