22 Dec 2015

The Reversal of the Sun


Last night, the skies cleared and, even here in well-lit urban London, there was a glorious bright moon and lots of glimmering stars to be seen.  It was an awesome portent of the solstice to come in the early hours of this morning.

Solstice translates as 'sun standing still' but it's a misnomer because the solstice defines the moment that the earth shifts so that the North Pole starts to tilt back towards the sun and our days lengthen in the Northern Hemisphere. For our Antipodean friends, the opposite is true - sorry, guys, your days are now getting shorter.  For any gardeners not bogged down in the more commercially oriented event of Christmas, there might be a frisson of excitement at the thought of our days slowly getting longer and lighter over the next few months. But I'm warned by my diary page for today ominously declaring: 'Winter Solstice. Winter begins.' Suddenly I have visions of Narnia's winter descending across the land. But without kindly Mr Tumnus.

The solstice was officially at 4.48 this morning although there would have been very little to see as sunrise wasn't (allegedly) until 8.05 a.m.  Although at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, it's the sunset that is more important in winter. Stonehenge, with standing stones reckoned to be over 5,000 years old, is a site sacred to neo-pagans who turn up to celebrate the solstice twice a year. Scientists believe that the site was originally a burial place for over 500 years before the stones were erected.  Whatever the truth, there's a powerful atmosphere there for a fanciful child.  I vividly recall walking among, and touching, the stones as a young child; my dad liked to take us kids off to see sites of cultural or historical interest (Dover Castle, Land's End, Magna Carta, the Round Table, etc).  Maybe I was a geeky kid (no response needed, thanks) but those visits have stayed with me and the stones, especially, wow, they exerted a powerful magic over my imagination.  At the time they weren't roped off.  Anyone could park up on the road and just walk around; you can't do that these days. I don't think we gave a lot of thought to the possibility of the stones toppling, despite evidence that some of them already had.

What is remarkable is that the solstice has been marked in many different cultures for hundreds of years. The winter solstice has always been an important event in the northern world; it was a day that marked the start of winter and a time for slaughtering cattle. In that way winter feed was saved and meat added to food stores over the coldest winter months. Our ancestors traditionally lit fires, told stories and generally hunkered down in the dark days of winter, cheered up by beer and wine brewed during the year that was then ready for drinking - a tradition carried on today by those (myself included) who prepare sloe gin or other festive treats from foraged, or home-grown, fruits.

I'm hoping that the solstice isn't going to be a harbinger of imminently plummeting temperatures.  Inevitably, they can't be far off but, for now, I'm revelling in milder conditions to get jobs done in the garden, usually just managing a couple of hours before darkness falls at 4 pm. We had lukewarm sunshine and temps of 60F on Sunday; if it had been February, we'd have been welcoming in an early spring.  Today was greyer, wetter and a lot windier but, waiting for a pause between gusts of wind, I managed to photograph a few of the plants still flowering to show how mild it is.  I have snowdrops in flower next to summer's bright red geraniums and calendula next to primulas. The echinacea is, admittedly, the last one for this year.






8 Dec 2015

It's brassicas out there



It would be gratifying to be able to write about the garden in December with vibrant photos but, truth be told, there's not a lot going on.  Oh sure, the rivers of curly kale are not about to dry up any time soon, Cavolo Nero is still the champion producer of leaves for supper after nearly nine months in the ground (I don't pick every day so it has a chance to catch up) although it's looking more like a palm tree every day, calabrese heads are plumping up and the purple sprouts are looking so good I'm almost loathe to pick them.  So it's all about the brassicas at the moment.  My winter chard is a total fail, the failure being that I didn't make time to sow any seeds, ditto spinach and overwintering broad beans. As the forecast harsh winter hasn't yet materialised, I may chance a few of those seeds under cloches; I seriously doubt it will come to much but what's to lose?


I was gardening in the dark on Friday evening, as you do when stuff has kept you indoors for most of the day - and it was actually very pleasant.  Comfortably mild with a stiff breeze and plenty of light from nearby flats to light my way - one real benefit of city gardening is that it's never pitch black.  Taking my cue from plant biologist Professor Ken Thompson, I decided to cut down my raspberry canes now; the Autumn Bliss are definitely going and will be dug up next week as I need to clear the space for the veg patch redesign - my winter project.  Most of my raised beds have rotted to the point of falling apart and I've been given four new scaffolding boards (whoop whoop!) and a pile of new old-style bricks to make some paths. There's gonna be a whole lot of digging going on.  And, come spring time, lots of tulips and daffodils to start off my new cut flower patch area, if I ever get the bulbs planted … although I probably won't actually pick any of the spring flowers as I like everyone to enjoy the view.  That's the plan, let's see if there's enough available time.

I might have just lied when I said that the garden was all brassicas.  The globe artichoke that I grew from a seed (I love saying that) looks like it will need splitting. The plant started new growth in the autumn and I can see there are three plants there now.  It was huge in the summer and had to be thwacked out of the way to get past it so I'm going to try and move it. I'm not sure how easy they are to lift and divide - has anyone successfully done that or do you leave yours to get monstrously huge? Do tell, please.

I will, however, definitely be moving my Glaskins perpetual rhubarb (also grown from a seed, heheh); it's only just stopped producing huge leaves in the last few weeks and is growing in the middle of my planned flower patch so will only be tolerated in the future if it's contained in a corner or even another part of the garden - perhaps next to the Red Champagne rhubarb which I planted when the Glaskin's was still relatively manageable.

Frosty temperatures in November brought an end to my cheery nasturtiums; a few of them struggled on but I've pulled out most of them now, they look so awful when wilted by frost.  Thank goodness for scabious and nicotiana, both still flowering and making me smile along with one solitary echinacea, a few roses, heuchera's coral bells and, soon I hope, snowdrops.


Winter is such a good time to make plans and this keeps me connected with nature and the garden. How's winter shaping up for you and your garden?

Thank you to everyone who congratulated me on my GMG award - as usual, all your lovely comments brought a smile to my face and left me feeling perky all day. Caro xx


5 Dec 2015

Tweet tweet … Garden Media Guild awards and a load of old wood

I enjoy writing my blog and have always had a fancy to write for a living. Once those two thoughts had percolated through the tangleweed of ideas that inhabit my brain, it was a short step to entering my blog into the Garden Media Guild awards a couple of months ago. The GMG, originally the Garden Writers' Guild, was set up in 1991, pre-social media, to promote links between professional writers and the horticultural industry.  These days that's been extended to include photographers, broadcasters and all manner of hort media including … yep, bloggers.  By entering this little blog to their prestigious awards, I hoped to plant a toe on the yellow brick road to a possible new career so, blow me down, was on a total high when a random wi-fi hotspot flooded my phone with Twitter alerts to let me know that I was a finalist in the Blog of the Year Award.  Wow. What a rush. Even if I did find out two days after the event.  It's a bit surreal - I'm almost wondering if they scraped the barrel and found me to make up the finalist numbers - but at least I have a nice badge for the blog now.  Massive congratulations to David Marsden, who won the category with his blog The Anxious Gardener, an excellent read with superb photos.  Also congratulations and hello to my fellow finalist, Andrew O'Brien who writes the Growgardencare blog - and, if I may be so bold, to all the winners and finalists at this year's awards.


The awards are open to any garden blogger so why not give it a go next year and show the professionals what we're made of!




Back in the real world, I was on a mission last weekend to visit a wood recycling warehouse in the Oxfordshire countryside. (Hence sporadic wi-fi reception.)  I'd chanced upon Community Wood Recycling, a social enterprise, when searching the internet for some wood, as we gardeners do. It's a brilliant scheme where wood that would otherwise end up in landfill (think: doors, pallets, floorboards, railway sleepers, old beams, you name it) is rescued, properly stored and sold on to the public or building trade at very reasonable prices.  The project has carpenters on site who will trim or plane the boards for you, as well as training up apprentices to create employable skills. Big thumbs up to the entrepreneur/s who saw the potential and dreamt this one up.

Gosh I wish I'd kept up the piano lessons of my teenage years … 

As luck would have it, I have family near to a couple of the projects in the Oxfordshire countryside so off I went in my tiny red car.  I was after a bench/table to replace the chipped Ikea nonsense that I currently use for a desk and had seen that they had a lovely long lab bench recently rescued from Balliol College Oxford.  Ooooh, nice; I like a bit of a back story.

Refreshingly, the staff were welcoming, friendly and helpful; not only that, they were happy for me to wander around, sighing over ancient timbers, rough hewn planks and lovely old mantelpieces. There is literally every possible size, shape and range of different woods there - oak, ash, beech, pine.  Of course stock changes as more comes in and existing stock is sold but I was particularly taken with a 300 year old beam from an old house that had been recently demolished. Stuff like that makes me wonder about the amount of useful materials that do end up in landfill, casually chucked away in favour of health poisoning laminates and MDF - and, worse, beautiful chunks of history lost forever.

What I really wanted to see was the upstairs showroom where the on-site carpenters had used some of the wood for making chests, crates and shelving for sale.  There were toys, bee hotels, chopping boards and more - hold me back, I wanted it all.

Even the walls were made from pallet wood… 

In the end, I drove away with the Balliol bench that I'd come for (it was the exact length of the interior of my car with the passenger seat flopped forward) plus two very long wooden seed trays costing £1 each and some huge ash plant labels made from local wood. All in all rather a good day out. I just wish that I'd had a chance to stop the car and photograph the working windmill that I came across while driving through Oxfordshire - that was a rare sight for a urban lass like me.

The Community Wood Recycling projects are an excellent resource for a gardener needing wood for sheds, beds, planters, compost bins, seed trays, etc, which is why I wanted to write about it.  If there's one near you, please support this venture rather than just heading for one of the big corporates. Link to find out more here.

25 Nov 2015

Book Review: Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers


I've never had to grow flowers for a wedding or any special event, nor do I plan to.  But before we all turn away thinking that this book is for those who are insane enough to add growing the flowers to an unending list of things to do when planning a wedding, let's take a closer look.

This book has so much potential to get even the most humble flower grower excited.  I resisted accepting this book for review but I'm now thrilled that I caved in.  On my first read through, I thought of all you "In a Vase on Monday" blogger gardeners - wow, wouldn't your Monday vases be (even more) awesome after reading this, the inspiration on these pages had even my veg-hardened heart beating faster. In fact I'm mentally clearing over half my planting space for flowers now. There, said it.

But just imagine, weddings aside (because I hope that that's a few years off in my life and that of my 20 year old) that you know you've got a special event coming up next year:  Old friends visiting from afar, a landmark family party, a community shindig or you just want to put spectacular arrangements in the local church on Sunday and you want beautiful flowers to make the day. Of course you can go and buy them (at huge expense) or you can grow your own. Do you just sow seed in the springtime and hope for the best?  Or, more cleverly and in a far more organised fashion, do you choose the flowers that you want blooming in your garden at a specific time of year and work backwards from there?  With this book you can choose to do the latter. Yes, it can most definitely be done.

In case you haven't rumbled me yet, I am actually very impressed with this book.  All the information that anyone could need is comprehensively included within, which is not surprising as the author, Georgie Newbery of Common Farm Flowers, grows flowers for an average of 50 weddings a year. Just imagine that.  Brides and their mothers all a-quiver that everything should be just perfect on the day and all that responsibility resting on Georgie's shoulders. We can take it that she knows whereof she writes.

So, apart from a blindingly good read, what do you get?  The book is divided into three parts, an introduction, an afterword, appendices for plant names and a season planner and a resources section.

  • Part One covers planning ahead, growing your own annuals, biennials, bulbs and herbs for the big day, cutting, conditioning and containers
  • Part Two: Planning for your wedding (or event) - spring, early summer, high summer, autumn and - awesome!- even winter. 
  • Part Three: This is the section where you'll learn how to make bouquets, buttonholes, table centrepieces, garlands, a flower crown and even fresh petal confetti.  

Georgie Newbery has not only managed to compress all of this information into a wonderfully flowing read but has written it in such a way that all of her vast experience is presented in a way that would empower a complete novice to have a go.  No detail is overlooked.  Why, there's even a table at the end which lists a huge choice of flowers with their names (common names included), suitable growing conditions, growing and cutting times, what time of year they're at their best and other snippets of useful information.  Georgie is generous with her anecdotes and folklore which I found very engaging but also makes the whole vast undertaking seem eminently achievable which is surely no mean feat.



Consider this book an investment if you have a wedding to plan for; otherwise, flower arrangers should draw inspiration from the suggestions in the book using wildflowers, hedgerow, cutting patch and what's in the garden already.  I think this is a book that will be both a brilliant winter read and an excellent reference.  I give it a big thumbs up and might just have to rethink my whole seed list for next year.

UPDATE:  I went along to the launch of this book last night and learned from Georgie that wedding flowers account for a huge percentage of the floristry industry (I seem to recall £9.2 million being mentioned but I did have a glass of champagne in my hand at the time). Brides are keen to have British grown flowers rather than hothouse flowers flown in from abroad so this book is a very timely publication for the British Flower industry and amateur growers that want to grow their own. And how satisfying to know that you've been able to contribute, even if it's just the buttonholes or a centrepiece for your parents' golden anniversary or the flowers in church for a christening (as I suspect I am shortly going to be doing!).  Seriously, this book is great.






My thanks to Megan at Green Books for providing me with a copy of Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers by Georgie Newbury for review. If you want to order a copy, the book is on the Green Books website here for £24.99 or in the usual alternative outlets.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday


I spotted this, one of five buds, on my walk round a very soggy and cold garden at 8 a.m. this morning.

Shouldn't someone tell this sunflower that it's … {say it quietly} almost December?

So, what do we think: London micro-climate, the warmth of a semi-walled garden or just the mild weather getting plants all confused? 

22 Nov 2015

A Garden Craft project for December: Botanical advent calendar

You know how it is when you come across a project that you just want to get started on straightaway? Well, that happened to me the other day.



There I was, happily skimming through the December issue of Gardens Illustrated in my lunch break when a particularly beautiful article called out for my attention.  It highlights the work of Sonya Patel Ellis of the Herbarium Project, an artist who gathers botanical samples from her garden throughout the year, presses them for preservation and uses them in her artwork.  She's exhibited recently at the Garden Museum and has now created a project for the magazine's readers - a flower inspired vintage looking advent calendar that gradually reveals a suitably seasonal message.

Never mind that the artist collects plant material throughout the year, I reckoned that there might be enough still in the garden to embark on this project.  And what's not to love about a bit of crafting that involves collecting flowers and leaves, drying them, sticking them onto luggage labels (serendipitously, I have these in my stationery drawer) and then tying them onto a board? That's the sort of christmas decorating that's right up my street.

So, even though it was getting dark (and decidedly chilly) by the time I'd finished work on Friday, I tucked a large paper bag (thank you, local bread shop) and scissors into my pockets and went to the garden to make a start.  I've wandered through the garden often enough to know what's still growing and where, so cutting samples in the dark didn't thwart my intentions and there was a bright half moon to light my way.

I quickly found sage (purple, pineapple and blackcurrant), fennel fronds, feverfew, honeysuckle, strawberry flowers and leaves, geum (I'd spotted one last flower earlier in the day), geraniums, pelargoniums, artemesia, petrovskia, erysimum, lavender, violas, helichrysum, nasturtiums, heuchera, thyme,  ivy and sweet cicely.  Other options might be hydrangea, bay, fatsia, holly, rosehips, box or Lonicera 'Baggesen's Gold'.



I returned with a large bag of cuttings within the half hour.  These were set out onto double sheets of kitchen paper, topped with another double sheet when I was satisfied with the arrangement and sandwiched between the heaviest of my gardening books. I threw Nigel Slater, Sarah Raven and Mrs Beeton on top of the stack for good measure.  Now I wait.  (Oh, alright then, yes I have had a peek to see how it's all going; I can't help myself.)  The flowers and herbs usually take one or two weeks to dry; ready or not, I'll be coming for them on 30th November when they'll be mounted with linen tape onto a board (cork? wood? cardboard? Not sure but hopefully something recycled).

In the meantime, I'm preparing the luggage labels by printing out letters from vintage Lexicon cards and glueing my message to the back. What will it be? 'Peace and Love to all mankind' would seem appropriate after recent events.



The photo below is of Sonya Patel Ellis' finished calendar, image taken from her website, link above. I'm not sure mine will be as beautiful as this one, but I'll have fun trying! 

(Image copyright Sonya Patel Ellis)

I'm wondering if any readers are working on craft projects for christmas? Do tell! 

21 Nov 2015

How to preserve an abundance of Achocha



So what do you do when nature has decided to dump your entire achocha harvest in your lap (metaphorically speaking) all at once?  You can either eat small green porcupine peppers for the next two weeks at every meal - a task fit to stretch anyone's culinary creativity - or you can turn to the preserving books on your (or the local library's) shelves.  I opted to preserve most and cook a few.

As a keen forager (when I have time) and grower, I have several excellent preserving books.  Although there's a wealth of advice on the internet, I prefer the tried and tested methods that have made it into print. This time I looked through Piers Warren's How to Store your Garden Produce (reviewed here)  and, newly gifted to my collection, The National Trust book of Jams and Preserves.  This is an extremely handsome book that has inspired a wealth of ideas for next year's garden produce.

I had to really think about which recipes I could use; after all, achocha is not your usual allotment fare. Botanically speaking, achocha (Cyclanthera) are classified as a subtribe of curcubits, the same family as pumpkins, squash, courgettes, gourds, melons, cucumbers and, yes, even loofahs. Having said that, they're not fleshy like pumpkins and the mature fruits don't have the watery flesh of melons and cucumbers. For cooking purposes, achocha can be used like a diminutive cousin of the sweet green pepper. However, the pepper preserving recipes I found seemed to be aimed at chilli peppers so in the end I decided I'd be safe treating the fruits as cucumbers.  Whew, decision reached.

You might at this stage wonder why I didn't consider freezing them. Well, apparently extreme cold breaks down the cell membranes so they turn to unpleasant mush on defrosting.  My chosen recipes of cucumber achocha jam and sweet cucumber achocha pickle sounded much nicer. I don't usually eat pickle but I dislike wasting food and had the pickle ingredients in the cupboard; also I was intrigued by the thought of cucumber jam. Hmm, savoury jam? A bit odd but I thought I'd give it a go and it turned out to be surprisingly delicious. The author, Piers Warren, suggests the option of adding a good pinch of ground ginger to the jam at simmering stage which I did - along with a pinch of cinnamon for good measure and the finely grated zest as well as the required juice of a lemon.



I've yet to try the pickle.  Apparently the original recipe will go nicely with fish and chips. Again, I got creative with the recipe by adding in yellow peppers, chillies and mustard seeds to my sliced up achocha and shallots - it should give quite a pop of flavour!

A printable pdf of my jam and pickle recipes can be found here; could be useful for those who've decided to give the seeds a go next year. (Seeds will be posted this weekend. If anyone else would like some, let me know; I'm happy to share.)  I'm thinking now of growing achocha fruits specifically for making this jam next year - it's yummy on bread with cheese.  


16 Nov 2015

The Downfall of Achocha



It's been a bit blustery of late but I certainly wasn't expecting this last weekend.

I hadn't posted a garden update for a while and my sleep patterns hadn't yet shifted from British Summer Time so, having dusted off my breakfast and a huge pile of washing, I was in the garden by 7.30 a.m. last Sunday (Yes, Sunday. Lie ins are so last decade, at least in my case.)

The plan was this: take a few photos, see what needs doing, pop a few spring bulbs into the rain softened soil.  But you know what they say about best laid plans.

The first thing I saw when I got to the garden was that Saturday's strong winds had brought down the (admittedly very cheap) arches that I used as support for my climbing beans and achocha this year.  They looked so lovely during the summer, a leafy arch to walk under, weighted with produce. And that was the problem. The achocha vines were still chugging out an abundance of fruit while the beans were slowly fading so it all got a bit lopsided. Lots of rain had softened the soil that the arches were bedded into and after a prolonged blast of wind, down they came, twisting and buckling as one part of the base remained firm while the top pulled away and down.  It was a devastating sight.

There was no point in bemoaning the loss of the arches; instead, it was the sight of all those lovely peppers and beans sprawled across my broccoli plants that caused despair. Weather can be such a two-edged sword.  With all the rain we've had this year, the little spiny hedgehog fruits had soaked up all that water making them crunchy, sweet and juicy - ironically, a perfect harvest but one that I would have preferred not to have all at once.



Achocha can be a prolific vine at the best of times and will (accidents apart) keep going from late July until the first frosts. One plant can grow up to 20 feet in length with many fruit bearing side shoots and long sensitive tendrils curling like springs around anything they come into contact with.  The plant had woven itself into a tangled spaghetti and it took me two hours to cut the vines off the arches, removing the fruit as I went. Two overloaded colanders got brought back indoors but quite a few pods will just be used for seed. So that's that for this year. The achocha is finished.



The large black seeds can be easily saved straight from the pods in the kitchen - just slice off the stalk end and open up the pod. The seeds are held around a central stigma so can be pulled off in one movement. It's quite addictive - I now have a large bowl of fresh achocha seeds.  If anyone's interested in growing them next year, give me a shout and I'll happily post some.

Here's my thoughts on why you should grow them:
If you like really green tasting veg (cucumbers, courgettes, peppers, beans) you should try achocha at least once. They're delicious eaten whole when small (a bit like cucumber, which they're related to). Older pods need to be cooked with the seeds removed; slice and stir fry or use as a substitute for peppers in casseroles. Fried in butter, they taste (to me) like asparagus. Yum. The pods will grow to about 2 inches long and are hollow when mature; stuffing them is how they were eaten by the Incas.
Achocha are reputed to be capable of lowering cholesterol (or so I've read).  Most importantly, in my opinion, achocha  flowers are pollinated by hoverflies who also love to eat greenfly - this I know to be true - and who wouldn't want lots of hoverflies in their garden?  They're also a great novelty veg for children interested in, or new to, gardening - don't be put off by the spines, they're very soft.

I've spent a good deal of time figuring out the best way to preserve my unexpected bounty. More in my next post but let me just say it might involve jam.  ;o)

1 Nov 2015

Autumn, you're looking good

Wisteria seedpods replacing the ubiquitous golden and red leaves of autumn. Gorgeous, aren't they?


This post has been a while in the writing.  I got a bit stuck because when I went looking for autumn, it just wasn't there. My mid-October trip up to Capel Manor gardens to meet up with friends provided me with lots of late summer planting inspiration but, apart from lots of acorns underfoot, autumn hadn't yet got started; trees were in full leaf, flowers were blooming and the sun was shining. Then we had the clocks going back which, although being a publicly devised event, seemed to be a signifier for the season to change. The ornamental cherry I can see from my second floor window has obliged by turning gold.


Also last weekend, as I went through my Capel photos and prepared to write a 'late summer' post, I was taken aback by a British gardener on Instagram writing "Winter's coming. Autumn's last days." Already? Surely not! The sun was shining and people were picnicking on Primrose Hill in t-shirts. Not a cosy cardigan in sight.  And besides, I've always thought of autumn as occurring between September and November, with fading summer at one end and the slow transition into the shorter and colder days ahead at the other. Winter months are then December to February (makes sense, no?) and, in March to May (Spring!), the garden starts to wake and we prepare for the year ahead. Anyone agree?

So here we are, a week later, and it seems that the tipping point has been reached.  We are now properly into autumn here; leaves are dropping and the veg patch's summer produce is winding down.  My creative brain is looking out for fallen leaves of all colours for a future arty moment, and thinking about evergreen foliage for festive wreaths, while my gardener's eye spots seeds to collect all around the neighbourhood.  Little brown paper envelopes are filling up with seeds of deep red salvia, maroon and pink hollyhocks, Cerinthe, Calendula, fennel, sweet rocket, sweet peas, Cavolo Nero and Achocha (the South American peppers that I grow). My chilli plant has optimistically been brought indoors.

This morning there was a deep mist hanging over north London after yesterday's sunshine; it didn't last as the sun burnt through to give us another day of clear blue skies. I have quite a bit to do in the garden still so I'm going to make the most of the dry weather while it lasts, particularly as I spent last Saturday digging out concrete posts in a friend's garden in constant drizzle! And for the rest of November I'll be enjoying autumn and prepping the garden for the winter months to come.

What are your thoughts - when does winter start for you? Have you wrapped up the garden or still enjoying a few lingering moments of summer glory?


As I don't want to just dump the photos that I took at Capel to the depths of Flickr, let's celebrate what could be growing in your gardens at the moment.

Magnolia bud, Passionflower, Ornamental ginger (Hedychium densiflorum 'Assam Orange') 

All these are perfect for late season pollinators:
Salvia cacaliifolia, Geranium pratense 'Mrs Kendall Clarke', Aconitum

The Daisy/Asteraceae family: Rudbeckia, Dahlia, Calendula

More daisies … and, hopefully, more bees!

Sunshine colour from  evergreen Libertia peregrinans, muted tones of Hydrangea 'Dark Angel' and I have no idea what this last plant is.  All suggestions welcome! 

Looking good at this moment: Shortly to slump Sedum, Callicarpa aka 'Beauty Berry' in its one annual moment of glory and Leycesteria formosa, boring all year but lovely seed pods in autumn. 





14 Oct 2015

The moment: Ethereal


The moment:  Late afternoon, sunlight, stone, erigeron, juniper.



9 Oct 2015

Fabulous Friday!



Looks like it's going to be another fabulous autumn day today.  I'm heading up to Capel Manor gardens in Enfield to meet up with gardening friends and we've promised ourselves a plant ident walk after coffee - reliving the good old college days!  

Naturally I'm taking my camera with me and am going in search of plants and shrubs that look good in the garden at this time of year.  Expect a photo heavy post later on today.

And to kick off my personal choice of good lookers in the photo above:  Sanguisorba seen in the Glasshouse Borders at RHS Wisley a couple of weekends ago.  I even love the way it flops (although a little discreet staking is also okay).

You know what I'm like (distracted in gardens) 
so, if you have to wait until tomorrow for my follow-up post, 
have a fabulous Friday!


8 Oct 2015

Insta-update: Whoosh! There goes another week

It's entirely typical of the week I've just had that I'm posting this a couple of days late.  There were highs and lows including a day off sick, a day without internet, two contrasting garden visits (one large, one titchy) and an awards ceremony. We had some wonderful weather last week which made it feel more like late summer; I went to Wisley (the larger of the two garden visits) convinced that I'd get some gloriously autumnal shots but, no, the sun shone, the skies were pure blue and late summer seedheads and grasses looked fabulous.

I've been very quiet about the results of Camden in Bloom.  The awards ceremony was last week and I can now bashfully reveal that I was awarded second place in the Best Individual Garden category!  Not bad for a first timer, eh?  Naturally, I sought out the gardener who was awarded first place and secured an invitation to visit her garden at the end of last week.  This was the 'titchy' of my two garden visits, a courtyard space probably no bigger than 15' x 8', and surrounded by high walls which makes it very shady, but absolutely crammed with plants and her amusing art installations - there's even a pond in one corner. It's extraordinary the amount that this lady is growing so I take my hat off to her success.  

Here's my week in nine Instagram peeks:



From top left:

1.  'HUG' - the Ficus microcarpa bonsai being grown by the Camden in Bloom first place winner. She likes to name her plants and this one is very apt and made me smile hugely.

2.  Rosa roxburghii seen at RHS Wisley. Also known as the chestnut rose - you can see why. Intriguing, spiky and beautiful but a rather challenging rosehip for all but the most intrepid of foragers.

3.  Inspirational combination planting: Euphorbia myrsinites growing through Stachys byzantina.  Extraordinary textural contrasts from two of my favourite plants - perfect for a sensory garden.  No doubt an idea which will soon be appearing in the garden here, plagiarism being the sincerest form of flattery. ;o)

4.  Physalis.  This is the first ripe fruit this year from my Cape Gooseberry shrub.  I grew it from a seed two years ago and love it - the flavour is much nicer than shop bought and very worthwhile growing.  Let's hope that it's not too autumnal for a good harvest as it's usually fruited well before now!

5.  Saffron crocus starting to appear.  Small plants were put in during late 2013; I had only leaves last year then read that saffron crocus like to be buried deep. Some were left, others replanted a good 10" deep.  Let's see what happens … 

6.  'The Twelve Apostles'.  Another garden installation from my Camden in Bloom rival.  She collects stones with faces carved by the elements for  use in her garden.  As she says, "Jesus looks rather sad." Perhaps it's the apostles on the other side of the table we should be worried about.

7.  Slightly off-piste here but I was very taken with these gorgeous Aeoniums on display out the ladies' loo at Wisley and couldn't resist a quick snap! They were over 4 feet tall and thriving outdoors in their sheltered but sunny location but I imagine will be moved back to the big Glasshouse soon.

8.  Very little autumn colour in late September at Wisley - more like a warm blast of late summer with blue skies and yellow Heleniums in the Glasshouse Borders. Autumn surely won't be long now, though.

9.  I realised that the fruit thieves had left four pears high up in the branches of my tree where they couldn't reach. I stood on my upturned bucket and managed to bring the branches down enough to reach the pears for picking. Bizarrely, this tree is supposed to be a Conference Pear.  Does anyone else think that pear looks more like a Williams pear?  

Hoping everyone is having a good week - I'm amazed at how quickly the leaves are falling or turning red now so I think next week's update could have a lot of autumn colour in it! 

29 Sep 2015

Nine photos for Seven days: Insta-update


There's a lot to appreciate in my neighbourhood: Hampstead Heath, wide tree lined streets, little old cobbled passageways, farmer's markets, the city farm, and not forgetting my veg patch garden- there's a lot going on if you stay local and love nature.

Little visuals catch my eye as I walk around and I quickly snap these for posterity.  Sometimes I just want to remind myself of a new yoga class starting or the location of some tempting foraging; often I snap a photo on my phone because it's there and I don't have my camera to hand.  Quite a few of these get posted up to my Instagram account and make a visual diary of the week that's been so I thought I'd share with a weekly Insta-update.

From left to right, top row to bottom, nine pictures for seven days:

1. Quince.  Not real quince but the fruit of Chaenomeles x superba, also known as Japanese quince. Beautiful red and gold flowers (on this cultivar) in springtime and edible fruit in autumn.  These fruits are smaller than real quince (Cydonia) and not so perfumed but still very edible when cooked, sweetened slightly and made into faux Membrillo (a Spanish quince paste), eaten with cooked apples, or sliced with honey and hot water for a refreshing tisane.

2. Pear. This was had fallen from the tree and I discovered it shortly after. Sweet and juicy, it was my first pear from this tree, seven years in the waiting. Most of the other pears have been removed by people walking past the garden.

3. I'm reliably informed this is the fruit of the Strawberry Tree, Arbutus unedo.  I've never noticed this before but its bumpy globes caught my eye on a walk around the neighbourhood and I'm thrilled to discover that the fruit is edible - with the bonus that the pip can be grown into a new tree, albeit v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

4. Tomatoes. I've had a really bumper crop this year, most of which have stayed resolutely green - 'Sungold' being the exception.  Finally, a few others are slowly starting to ripen. These are Maskotka and I've also picked a couple of Petomach tomatoes this week.

5. Nasturtiums. These go completely bonkers in autumn and sprawl over everything. The plus is that the flowers have wonderfully long stems, perfect for picking, and thereby removing a few of the seeds that will inevitably start the whole process again next year. The leaves in the vase are from a small Sambucus nigra shrub I bought last year.

6. Mmmmm, crab apples - don't these look gorgeous? There is a huge, fruit laden tree a couple of streets away with these beauties hanging temptingly overhead. A forager's dream. (And I'm thinking crab apple and rosehip jelly, by the way.)

7.  Brussels Sprouts tops.  Yum.  Plus purple and green  is such a fab colour combo.  Seeing beauty everywhere.

8.  Garden gathered. I only popped down to cut some of the carrot seed heads for a recent charity shop vase purchase (seen centre top of photo). I came back with a surprise bunch of crunchy and sweet purple carrots, achocha, the aforementioned pear and tomatoes, raspberries and fennel seedheads.  Ker-ching!

9.  Sprouts!  Yep, I'm pleased to see these are bulking up nicely. I haven't grown sprouts in recent years as they've not been a success before but the recent rain has fed them well and these are on track for (dare I mention it?) Christmas.


Posting this a day late ~ sorry ~ as I had a very late journey home after a dash to the Hampshire coast at the weekend. This will be a Monday meme, join in if you wish and let me know!

Hope you all had a good weekend and had plenty of sunshine wherever you were!
Now off to catch up with news on other blogs … 



25 Sep 2015

Awesome Garden Gathered Warm Salad - perfect for Autumn Harvests!



If you live in the UK and shop at Waitrose you might already have seen this recipe in the free Autumn Harvest booklet and wondered about making it.  I'm a big fan of warm salads so this one caught my attention straight away, especially when I realised that I have most of the ingredients growing in the garden. (Pine nuts and pumpkin seeds being the exception.)

I made this Warm Carrot, Apple + Crispy Kale salad for my supper last night, tossing just a few freshly picked lettuce leaves from my balcony around the edge for added garden goodness.  It took next to no time and - oh my goodness! - was spoon licking good.  I even scraped the roasting pan, it was that yummy - but I guess you would need to love the taste of aniseed (fennel) and chinese crispy 'seaweed' (roasted kale) to properly love this dish.

I switched the ingredients slightly by adding pumpkin seeds and pine nuts instead of the suggested mixed seeds (they were all I had) and I used fresh plump fennel seeds from the garden instead of dried.  I also used my whirly apple corer gadget to make rings which I sliced instead of laboriously peeling and making matchsticks out of an apple. (I love a bit of time saving, especially when hungry.) Another suggestion is to spice it up with finely chopped chillies and to serve with a poached egg on top.  I think this is one of those dishes that can be chopped and changed, quantities and ingredients, to suit.

Here's my version of the recipe:

Warm carrot, apple + crispy kale salad(Prep 15 mins, cook 15-20 mins) (Roughly, serves 2 or 1 greedy person)
3 med-large carrots, peeled and cut into 6cm batons
3 teaspoons of fresh fennel seeds (or 1tsp dried fennel seeds)
2 Tbsp rapeseed oil
50g mixed seeds (I used 25g pumpkin seeds + 25g pine nuts)
4 good sized stalks of curly kale (or ½ a bag of bought prepared curly kale)
A good drizzle of olive oil
Tamari soy sauce (optional or use ordinary soy sauce)
3 medium garden apples (or 2 large shop bought)
Seasoning (salt + pepper) 
1.  Preheat oven to 180C, gas 4. Place carrots in a bowl and toss with the rapeseed oil and fennel seeds to coat.  Spread them out on a large roasting tin and roast for 5 minutes, then add the mixed seeds (or whatever you're using) and roast for a further 2-3 minutes until toasted and golden.
2. Add the chopped kale leaves (stalks discarded), toss with the carrots and seeds.  I drizzled more olive oil over the kale at this stage plus a drizzle of Tamari soy sauce and a grinding of black pepper.  Roast for a further 6 minutes until beginning to crisp.
3. Add the sliced apple rings, toss with other ingredients and pop back in the oven for two minutes.
4. Remove from oven, dish up and eat - on it's own, with a salad or as a side for a bigger meal. 

Interestingly, the original recipe says to add cubes of smoked cheddar cheese and a tablespoon of cider vinegar to the dish before serving.  I have to admit I forgot this stage; probably too eager to get munching!


Do you like the sound of this recipe?  (Download the pdf here.)
Have you got any go-to favourites for your autumn garden produce? Share, please! 

And have a great weekend, folks! xx


23 Sep 2015

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday:


Aren't caterpillars supposed to have turned into butterflies by now? 

A few in my garden seem not to have realised this - or perhaps they're just too busy eating their way through my Cavolo Nero leaves. 

Any that are on the Linaria/toadflax, as in the photo, are allowed to live on.  I'm secretly hoping that they're busy munching on the seeds that turn into a gazillion plantlets for me to weed out throughout the year. 

Anyone else still spotting caterpillars or other anomalies in the garden?  
I thought my brassicas would be safe by now but perhaps I'm wrong.  
Please feel free to correct me. 


19 Sep 2015

How to photograph spiders' webs



There are, undeniably, moments of staggering beauty in the Autumn garden, whether in the way that plants have grown together to form a living collage or the many many webs that spiders have woven between the plants and supports.

My veg garden has lain undisturbed, except for torrential rain, for the past week so I was expecting to see plenty of spiders and their webs this morning.  I was reminded of a blog post I'd read recently in which the blogger said she walks into the garden waving her arms in front of her at this time of year for fear of walking through webs. (I apologise as I can't actually remember who it was that wrote that!) I haven't done that yet but I have brushed webs out of my hair and off my face many times during this so-called summer.



And so it was that I went to the garden early this morning armed with a cunning plan, my digital SLR camera and a spray bottle of water. Any spray will do but Ikea do one for 80p. Also good for ironing ;o)

If there was any dew this morning, it had all gone by 7.30 am when I went down to the garden. Time to put my plan into action.  Spray, so I knew where the webs were, and then - why not? - photograph them.

I am, of course, just getting my eye in before we get proper dew in the garden but I hope you agree it worked rather well. Plus it's an excellent way to show children how big the webs are, before scurrying back indoors to read Charlotte's Web. Now wouldn't that be something, to find a web with a message in it!



A few key points:

  • Spray in a light mist across the web. You may need to go back and forth across the strands a few times and you'll be surprised at  how far some of the webs stretch!
  • Have your camera ready as spiders may make a bolt for safety.
  • On a still day, dial your camera to aperture/AV (rather than speed/TV) and set the aperture to a low number. This will blur out the background but you will need to have precise focus on the web. 
  • Try to have a dark background to make the web stand out.
  • This is best done in early morning or the cool of the evening when there are more spiders about.
Edited to add:  One last tip - be patient and take your time.  It's worth it for the right shot and you'll see a lot more of the delicate beauty in your garden. 





I do love spiders' webs but how about you? What's catching your eye in the garden this Autumn?
And do you have any good tips to share on photographing the garden?


1 Sep 2015

Re-evaluating raspberries



Oooh, I do love raspberries, don't you?  But, if you're going to go to the bother of growing your own, you'd hope that the end result will be better than (or at least as good as) anything you could buy in the shops, yes? Despite recent heavy rain which has perked up my raspberries no end, I can't help thinking (again) that Autumn Bliss aren't quite hitting the spot for me.

I've written before about my disappointment with the quality of the Autumn Bliss raspberries that I'm growing here; I could also add confusion to disappointment as I read online that Autumn Bliss, bred in the UK, have large, firm fruits with an excellent flavour. That doesn't sound anything like mine. In past summers, the fruits on my Autumn Bliss canes have been small, squishy and slightly tart; sighting of a large plump and firm fruit would cause great excitement, so rare was it.  So I can only assume that it's something to do with my soil. Dig down about 12-15 inches and I'll find clay - but raspberries are shallow rooted. I confess to having never tested the pH factor of my soil and raspberries apparently like a slightly acidic soil.  I wonder if mulching with coffee grounds would help. (The lack of regular watering is probably another huge factor.)

Last year I was tempted to rip them out and start again. They take up a fair bit of veg patch space (not as much as summer fruiting canes though) and I want those big fat raspberries that you see in the shops.  (Don't we all?)  I started looking.

I made a start at replacing the canes by buying a few Polka canes early 2014 but couldn't quite bring myself to dig up the old canes until the new ones were established.  So I now have a patch of Polkas and a line of Autumn Bliss. Time for a comparison.

Polka on the left, Autumn Bliss on the right.

I've been picking a bowlful of raspberries from each patch every couple of days throughout August. I've probably got about 8 Autumn Bliss and 3 Polka canes but the Polka raspberries fill the bowl more quickly, being consistently much larger and firmer than the Bliss berries. Their taste is better too, being slightly sweeter.

The Bliss canes, however, usually start fruiting earlier in mid-July.  They're cut down in late November, leaving just one or two canes per plant at 40cm.  I've pruned like this every year and have found that this is a method that works for getting a small but earlier harvest. The Bliss canes were still fruiting in early December last year while the Polkas had all finished by then.

There are other considerations.  I find that Polka hold their shape better and for longer on the cane than Autumn Bliss and the latter fruits occasionally have a slightly musty flavour.  And why am I finding slug trails on fruit at the top of the Bliss canes? Now that's determination for you.

I think my decision is made.  Roll on with the replacement programme.  I'm also thinking of trying Joan J and perhaps some gold raspberries.


What about you?  How do you grow yours?
Have you got any favourites or have found a variety to be particularly successful? I'd love to know!  
And do you mulch and net your raspberries? 


More Polka berries on the way …. 


28 Aug 2015

Sow-now Know-how to improve your soil

~ Bees adore Phacelia! 


While you're thinking about your spring and winter garden (you were thinking about what to grow over winter, weren't you?), spare a thought for your poor, depleted soil. It's served you well all summer in providing food and flowers, now it's time to return the favour.

I'm currently re-reading Charles Dowding's book on growing winter vegetables so I suspect that I won't have much bare soil as autumn blends into winter. However, there are several (currently unused) areas in the larger community garden that defeat my planting because the soil is overused or poor and dry.

One such space is the north bed containing a few rose bushes.  These bushes have been there for at least a couple of decades. Whatever was planted on the other side of the border has long since gone and even weeds struggle to survive here.  (Surely a bonus!) If I want to make the best use of this space, I have to think about soil improvement.

I was reminded of this when I saw Phacelia tanacetifolia growing at the Skip Garden recently. It's a pretty plant with dainty purple flowers and ferny leaves. It has an extensive root system that puts nutrients back into the soil and helps to break it up thus benefitting the garden. Bees absolutely love the nectar laden flowers and it's gaining popularity as cut flower with a vase life of 5 days. Well known as a green manure, the leaves will bush up to crowd out weeds and provide ground cover shelter for beetles and other beneficials. (Possibly also slugs and snails, something to watch out for.)

Phacelia can be sown up to the end of August. The seeds should germinate within three weeks, then let the plants grow for two to three months. The decision then will be whether to dig the plants into the soil  in late November or let them overwinter for earlier flowers the following spring.  (If your soil is heavy, it will be hard work trying to chop and turn the plants into the soil in spring so best done in early winter.)

I'm going to assume that, like me, you'd want a green manure that wasn't going to make your garden or allotment look like a farmer's field or that the grass needed cutting. So, the other green manure that I would use is clover, either Crimson or Red, both of which can be sown up to the end of September. These are brilliant at drawing nitrogen from the air and dumping it in the soil via their roots. They also have a bulky growth that smothers weeds and pretty flowers in the spring.

As with all flowering green manures, if you don't want them taking over, it's best to dig the plants in before any flowers set seed. It may seem like hard work but just think of the benefits next year!

Seeds of both should be readily available from garden centres or online.

PS. If you're heading to the coast this weekend, seaweed also makes a great fertiliser. I collect washed up* seaweed from the beach after the tide has gone out, pop it into a bucket; back home, wash to remove the salt water, then chop it up and use to mulch around fruit trees and heavy feeders like brassicas.  If you don't want it on your beds, add some to your compost where it will add tons of micro-nutrients to the heap.
* NEVER take seaweed out of the water or from rocks. Once it's been washed up, mid-beach tideline, it's ethically okay to use this.

23 Aug 2015

The Garden of One Thousand Hands: The Skip Garden at King's Cross



I live about five minutes drive from Kings Cross in North London so when my car is due its MoT, I happily head down to a garage in that area knowing that I'll be able to visit the nearby Global Generation Skip Garden.

It's affectionately known as the Garden of One Thousand Hands due to the large numbers of helpers - volunteers, school children, students - who come to do what they can and learn. A true community garden where the produce is used in the kitchen café and for community suppers.

The philosophy behind Global Generation's work is 'I, We, Planet' and their aim is to provide opportunities for all, but especially young people, to increase awareness of themselves and the natural world with an emphasis on less consumerism and more sustainability. There's a lot to be learned from a garden like this one and I always find my visits exciting and inspirational.

Due to the redevelopment (regeneration?) of the Kings Cross area, the Skip Garden had to be moved slightly to the west of its previous site late last year. The opportunity to improve was keenly embraced, local corporate sponsorship was found, architect students were apprenticed and the new site is now crammed with good ideas for community involvement. I  know that hands-on school visits are keenly supported but there was also evidence of pottery and basket weaving, supper clubs, volunteer gardening evenings, as well as school gardening, and a kitchen that offers apprenticeships. Students from the nearby construction industry college get involved in making stuff out of wood and other materials.





In its previous incarnations, the Skip Garden was just that; food and flowers growing in old skips on unused industrial land with the ability to be picked up and moved when needed. When the plants outnumbered the skips, offcuts of construction wood were made into troughs and raised beds to expand the planting space. Steps were built to lead up into the skips, polythene and wood made into polytunnels and wire mesh used for skip trellis - the construction industry provided endless useful resources that would otherwise have been scrapped.

Top: packed earth wall;
Bottom (L to R):  Coffee sack cold store; construction waste table and benches; window greenhouse at rear.

This time around, although the number of skips has been reduced to accommodate new structures on site, the upcycling theme has been continued on a grander scale. Architect students have very cleverly built a huge teaching greenhouse out of scaffolding boards and unwanted windows; coffee sacks filled with damp soil provide the walls for a cold store, also used as a teaching space. There are wildflowers and herbs growing through the sacks so it's also a living wall fed by rain and waste water draining down from the office platform above. Adjacent to this, recycled railway sleepers have been stacked up to create a double cubicle compost toilet. The new polytunnel space, which doubles as an area for supper club and school visit eating, has a packed earth wall on one side; it's a technique used in the Great Wall of China and is thermal - the wall stores heat built up during the day and slowly releases it at night - brilliant for both diners and plants!  The other side of the tunnel is lined with boxes growing herbs and salads and the view is over the skips themselves and further out to the natural swimming pond and workmen building new flats and offices.



And there are fresh eggs and beehives.  I didn't realise this building (Peckingham Palace) was a chicken coop until I heard a soft clucking as I walked around.  The structure's design is inspired by Lord Snowdon's aviary at London Zoo and built around a recycled silver birch tree trunk. There's plenty of space inside and the chickens are kept safe from urban foxes. Isn't it fab!  The three chickens that live there are allowed to roam freely around the site.

Utility furniture (tables, benches, kitchen surfaces, plant holders), as with everything here, has been built using construction waste. Even the flower filled jars and decorated tins are recycled.

Fruit isn't overlooked here either. Apples are espaliered onto construction mesh bent over the skips and the trees are underplanted with herbs, veg and edible flowers. Comfrey is grown in waste wood troughs and polystyrene boxes are used as planters - note the holes that have been made in the sides for drainage.



I took loads of photos and I think the digger driver on the other side of the fence thought I was a bit bonkers but I was having too good a time to care.  The thing that I love most of all about this garden space, apart from its excellent community ethos, is that there were so many moments of coming across a tiny vision of beauty in this very industrial (and noisy!) landscape.

This view to the tunnel from inside the greenhouse:


This tiny window (greenhouse, again) that reminded me of my grandad's house:


This pottery shape nestled among the herbs:


These unfinished wicker planters and more pottery by the greenhouse entrance:


The shadows created by the sun shining on this (admittedly rather dead looking) posy:


And bees, everywhere:


The Skip Garden (and kitchen cafe)  is open Tuesday to Saturday and is a 5 minute walk from Kings Cross station. I went on a Monday and was allowed in for a gloriously solitary nose around so thanks go to the lady in the office for that.  It fair made my day.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...