17 Oct 2017

Reasons to be GLEE-ful

Last month I went to the fabulous GLEE exhibition in Birmingham's NEC centre and saw so many beautiful, useful and desirable products that made the (very) early start to the day worthwhile. The exhibition is an annual trade show held over three days so that new and existing garden related products can be showcased to buyers for the retail market. Journalists and, more recently, bloggers are also welcome but it's not open to the public. Looking at the map on the GLEE website, I guessed there would be a lot to see but the reality exceeded all expectations! I did my homework the day before and noted the exhibitors I wanted to talk to but even with a game plan, map, and very quick scurrying around, I suspect that I missed seeing a lot of what was on show as there was so much to be pleasantly diverted by.

The show was staged over four large interconnecting halls with products ranging from landscaping, pots, plants, compost, soil improvers, equipment, tools, clothing, firepits, sculptures, spa pools, and just about anything else you can think of! Not all of it was garden related, pets and some homewares were also on show.  I do love anything natural so was quickly distracted by the Oxford Brush Company's very practical pot, nail, and veg brushes - products that I'd love to see in my local garden centre.  Their ostrich feather duster could possibly convert me to actually liking housework, but would definitely come in handy for sweeping away cobwebs!

I wandered on past artificial grass, paving of every hue and stone, and so many wonderful garden pots that had my head rotating from side to side. Thank goodness for the coffee and chance to rest my feet in the press office! I was already familiar with many of the brands - Stihl, Burgon+Ball, Fiskars, Muck Boots, Elho, Briers - all displaying some highly desirable new products for 2018. The most stylish indoor pots, to my mind, came from Elho and Burgon+Ball. Both of their stands were awash with the most covetable products.

'Ello, Elho

I'm already a big fan of Burgon+Ball products but hadn't realised that the company is the UK's oldest manufacturer of garden tools and products, having started in Sheffield's steel industry in 1730 and using that experience to make the world's finest sheep shears. While I don't see myself needing a pair of those anytime soon, their latest range of products is completely droolworthy, being stylish, practical, beautiful and thoughtful - I can personally vouch for the deep comfort of the memory foam Kneelo mat (every gardener needs one of those!) and the FloraBrite range of gloves and tools. They're fluorescent so are easily seen both in daylight or torchlight. I lost my favourite pair of leather gloves last winter having put them down in the garden at dusk so I know whereof I speak! What really caught my attention at GLEE though, was the new range of hanging planters and pots - how beautiful are these? Having indoor plants has become very trendy and is a favourite with lifestyle magazines at the moment; I'm not convinced that my drooping jade plant is even vaguely trendy but at least he's still alive and one of these planters might perk him up a bit! I love the muted colours and handmade finish.  These, I want. (Dare I mention Christmas?) 

©Burgon & Ball - lifestyle hanging planters

During the day there was an ever present temptation to stop and chat to people to get the story behind a product; access to information is one of the key aspects of the show and means that a visitor can pick up on trends and new products quickly. I spotted lots of focus towards the environment and biodiversity with biochar, peat free composts, butterfly feeders and meadow seeds. Tool companies have embraced the fact that gardeners get sore backs and cramped hands and have developed tools to help - thank you, thank you! Fiskars' lightweight pruners and long handled loppers are 3 times sharper thus reducing hand strain and there are new digging spades for hard soil from both Fiskars and Burgon+Ball. Anything that helps with lower back pain has to be welcome!  Burgon+Ball are selling a long handled hoe aka Weed Slice that also helps with posture and looks to be very effective against weeds, the tiny head giving access to tight spaces between rows. Not only less bending and crawling around but better for the soil as beds don't have to be walked on.

It was also lovely to catch up with the team behind Dalefoot Composts, an utterly brilliant peat free compost that I can heartily endorse as it's been improving my clay soil and boosting my veg for the past few years. The texture of their composts makes it a pleasure to use, being a mix of Lake District bracken and sheep's wool, but I also admire the company for their dedication to reconstructing peat bogs. Read more about their story and compost here.

The show was a real eye-opener to the vast array of outdoor products available - everything the public could possibly wish for seemed to be there. Despite our unpredictable summers, outdoor retail is big business. (Currently worth £5 billion, so I read on Veg Plotting's follow up post - link below.)

I was there to investigate gardening paraphernalia but stumbled (thankfully, not literally) across other, shall we say, more eclectic products. I spotted giraffes, zebras, gnomes, grass crocodiles, dragons, ceramic fairies, and even a unicorn. It seems the buying public loves a bit of whimsy - even me.  Having owned a plastic inflatable whale to take to the pool during my childhood in Florida, I would have loved this in my toy box! Ah, happy days.

I saw so many wonderful products that I'm inspired to write a series of posts,  Wishlist Wednesday, starting next week.  I'll be writing about pots, pegboards, gloves, kneeling mats, the new Pantone range from Briers, Thomson+Morgan 'Easy Sow' seeds, tools, plants, planters, trugs, wellies and warm waterproof boots for the chilly months ahead.

~ A tiny selection of what there was to explore at the show ~

There was a lot to take in during the one day I'd allocated to the show.  Would I go again? Yes, definitely. It's a massive opportunity to explore, discover,  network, meet and build contacts. This year quite a few garden bloggers had been invited as 'ambassadors' which made the whole thing rather jolly, catching up over coffee, pastries or meeting up at one of GLEE's Retail Lab workshops. I rather miscalculated the time needed to fully explore everything so next year I plan to attend the show for two days and really make the most of it.

Tickets to the show are free on application and, new for 2018, the core categories of GLEE will be at Spring Fair at the NEC in February. Registration is open now.  Read more here.

My thanks to Hornby Lightfoot PR for my ticket, coffee, goody bag and warm welcome.

Have a look at reports from other bloggers:

Karen Gimson - What's new for gardeners that I've spotted at GLEE
Michelle Chapman, Veg Plotting - Gleeful
Lou Nicholls, Adventures in Horticulture - Six of the Best from Glee17
Alexandra Campbell, Middle Sized Garden - 2018 garden trends
Alison Levey, The Blackberry Garden - More amazing things under one roof
Thomas Stone - Full of Glee 2017

9 Oct 2017

Easy grass and hedge tidying with Stihl

Ooh, I love a tidy edge.

While I enjoy a good 'green gym' workout in the garden, there are all too frequent times when the more energetic tasks on the To Do List are a stretch too far at the wrong end of a tiring day.  Thus the shears are put away in favour of a cup of tea and a sit down while the hedge surrounding the middle garden is allowed to slowly thicken once again and the allotment grass is left "for another day".

So it was with great anticipation (not to mention joy, relief and some trepidation) that I gladly accepted Stihl's opportunity to review a few products in their compact cordless range.  First to arrive was the grass strimmer.  Now, normally, I'd have no use for this as the lawns in the flats are regularly mown by maintenance gardeners but I'd just agreed to help out on the allotment.  One glance at the rusty push mower in the plot shed confirmed that a grass strimmer would be a huge help.  A couple of plotters have petrol strimmers which are extremely noisy and intrusive so I waited until the plots were mostly empty before I pressed the two buttons to activate mine. My fears of intrusive noise were groundless. Powered by a push-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, any noise is considerably reduced compared to petrol strimmers, plus there's no fumes. The strimmer is supplied with a charging station which takes around 20 to 40 minutes to fully recharge the batteries at home.

The second time I went to strim the grass, I was more confidant of both what I was doing and when. Gardeners stopped to chat which is when I realised the value of the double click battery. The battery can be quickly part released with the push of a button which cuts power to the machine - an invaluable safety measure for absent-minded novices like me. It's also very reassuring to know that once the battery is partly or fully removed, the machine can't be accidentally brought to life by anyone lifting it and activating buttons - very important when working in a team or with family around.

There's a clever mechanism on the machine for spooling out more line when needed - you simply knock the base of the strimmer head on the ground as you work; more line is shot out of the canister and the ends trimmed on a blade in the head. Things didn't go well on my first attempt as I frequently bumped the strimmer on the lumpy grass leaving snippets of blue plastic line behind. Would birds be tempted to eat these? For safety and tidiness, I gathered them all up, a time consuming task, and quickly learnt to handle the machine better.  The grass had been well trampled over the course of a team allotment afternoon and, because it was very long, it was damp at the roots.  The strimmer dealt with this easily and although it looked a little rough afterwards, this was easily remedied with a second strim a couple of days later. (As in the top photo!)

I quickly got the hang of using the strimmer which meant that I can now do all the allotment grass without using up the battery. Strimming every couple of weeks on my quarter plot, I found the battery lasted well, usually recharging it every few weeks. (The AK10 supplied with the strimmer is intended to last for at least 20 minutes of continuous use.) After use, I make time to wipe over the strimmer head before putting it away - again, with the battery removed to be sure of retaining all my fingers!

Having seen other plot holders fiddling about replacing the strimmer line on their petrol machines, I found replacing the spool on the Stihl cordless strimmer a doddle. The head unclips, the old spool taken out,  and the new canister dropped in with the line threaded through the side holes and the head replaced. Easy peasy, although I admit I resorted to watching a You Tube video the first time just to make sure.

What about the life of the line spool?  After my first attempt, I got the hang of handling the machine without knocking the spool head so only spooled line out when I needed to. More line is used up in very long grass or when strimming against raised beds or path edgings.  Dock leaves don't do it any favours either.  I'm guessing that more line would be used on an allotment than in a garden where only the lawn edges need strimming. It's only recently that I've replaced the canister - so I reckon it's done well, given that I've done both my plot, the neighbour's and the paths inbetween several times.

I collected my strimmer from Briant's of Risborough in Oxfordshire. They gave me a demonstration on how the strimmer works and supplied safety glasses to protect my eyes when working - a very good idea as I found out when not wearing them one day! I'd been given a pair of medium sized leather Stihl work gloves and Briant's were kind enough to swop themfor a better fitting small size. I have to give them a big thumbs up as their customer care is exemplary. I'd expect nothing less from a Stihl dealer!

Another of Stihl's compact cordless range that I've found incredibly useful is the hedge trimmer. It's lightweight (like the rest of the range), works with the same battery (interchangeable between the items in the range) and temptingly easy to use. The privet hedge that borders the south side of the middle garden has grown like mad this year but that's been no problem as I can have the job done in 5 minutes with the hedge trimmer - the job barely reduces the battery levels. Instead of having to find shears and secateurs and snip away for a good half hour, I now think, "Oh, hedge is getting a bit untidy, I'll just quickly do that". I keep one of the batteries in the car and the trimmer in the shed so the whole job is seamless. Think, Do, Done.  These are sharp, efficient tools so, like the others in the range, safety features abound. On this model, as well as the removable battery and two button start, there's a lock switch. It's all very reassuring and foolproof.  And because I want to be using my hedge trimmer for many years to come, I've bought a can of Stihl's special oil spray to wipe down the blades and keep them in top condition before putting the protective cover back on the machine.

As you can probably tell, I'm overjoyed at having these products in my garden tidying armoury! The Compact Cordless range also includes a chainsaw (which I've yet to use) and a leaf blower which would be particularly handy at this time of year.  I must admit that this is the first time I've used any of this kind of garden machinery but it seems that there's plenty to recommend, not least Stihl's excellent reputation that has made the company a trusted industry standard.  Their machinery has always been available to all (there are over 700 authorised dealers in the UK) but a domestic gardener would previously have had to weigh up the cost of buying professional tools; this compact cordless range is very affordable and makes Stihl's high quality accessible to all ... plus they're a joy to use.

My strimmer is part of the original compact cordless range and retails for £199; this summer Stihl extended the range and the latest strimmer, the FSA 45, retails at £99 inc VAT. To my mind, that's Stihl at bargain prices.

Disclosure: Stihl provided me with three items from the Compact Cordless range for review - FSA 56 grass trimmer, HSA 56 hedge trimmer and the MSA 120 chainsaw.  My thanks to Rosie at HROC pr for organising this - and waiting patiently for my review! x

1 Oct 2017

Strulch: Another weapon against slugs?

Lovely healthy courgette plant growing soil mulched with Strulch

Since last May I've been trialling a product called Strulch. (Just to satisfy my own curiosity, nothing sponsored.) Have you heard of it? Maybe, maybe not. I hadn't until another allotment holder recommended it as a summer mulch. I wrote the name down and then looked it up when I got home.

I was curious to find out more as the last time I actually bothered to mulch around my strawberries, I used bedding straw from the local pet shop. It came out of the bag in big untidy clumps and fragments blew around the garden. I daresay there are a few readers familiar with that particular scenario.  I think the bedding straw may also have provided a nice warm hidey hole for slugs, although it's possible that I'm unfairly blaming the straw. So I gradually went off strawberries - I mean, who loves a gritty muddy strawberry? Especially one that's already been nibbled and slimed. No thanks. It was a battle I couldn't win.

So of course I was interested in this alternative mulch. Strulch, as the name suggests, is a str(aw m)ulch. (So obvious, really.) But not just your ordinary straw, as I found out. It's processed to become finely chopped with a less coarse texture and, allegedly, discourages slugs and snails. Oh yes, that certainly got my attention!  Obviously its main function is as a weed suppressant which it's claimed will last for up to two years with a 3cm layer. Also, by leaving it to rot down and/or digging into the soil at the end of the year, it will improve soil structure and drainage. So far so fabulous.

Claims that the product can be used in organic gardens was also a persuasive selling point. (It's used at the Eden Project in Cornwall which, although it shouldn't make a difference, gives some weight to its merits.) The straw undergoes a mineralisation process so when it breaks down it adds small amounts of NPK to the soil plus traces of calcium, magnesium and iron. Apparently, it's these minerals which are supposed to deter our mollusc friends. As a bonus, the materials used are locally sourced and renewable - so the product is environmentally friendly too. Excellent, and worth a punt I thought, so the trial began.

I managed to track down a retailer not too far from me and bought a couple of bags.  The bags are quite large but surprisingly light - each contains 100 litres which is enough to cover 3 square metres. A thick(ish) layer was laid across a couple of the raised beds, around the strawberries, and my newly planted edamame beans and courgettes. Then I watched and waited.

So to the big question (and thank you for patiently reading this far) .... DOES IT WORK?
Yes.  And, umm, no.  My beds were definitely weed free. My strawberries whole and clean. But my courgette seedlings disappeared down to a stump in one night. (Of course, that could have been pigeons.) The soya beans (edamame) resisted for a little longer; perhaps the fibrous stems were too much for the night-time raiders to finish off in just the one sitting. Over a longer period, of the original ten plants only one made it to the finish line and even that didn't produce much of a crop. Very disappointing - gyo soya beans were my exciting new crop for this year. (At least there's still Tiger Nuts but that's for another post.) But am I being too harsh? After all, the strawberries were mostly okay and the wet weather has made life rather easy for our slippery friends as evidenced by the slime trails across my kale. With that said, a second crop of courgettes and squashes have been untouched and flourished, even with recent rain.

Will I continue to use it?  Yes, I will. I like that it's potentially doing lovely things to my soil. Also, trialling over a second year will give a clearer idea of its capabilities. But effective as a slug deterrent? The jury is still out. (I'll have to net my crops against birds to make absolutely sure.) However, every little helps and I accepted long ago that slugs and snails are just as much a part of organic gardening as butterflies and bees. 😇

I'd be very interested to know if anyone else has used this product and what they thought of it. Please share in the comments if you have!

PS.  I had to recently clear a bed that had been Strulched (apologies, I know it's not a verb) as foxglove seeds had managed to germinate through the mulch layer.  There were no weeds and the soil underneath was gorgeous - dark, crumbly and a joy to behold.  Definitely, another year's trial is on the cards.

There are no disclosures necessary for this review. I'm sharing my first time experience of using Strulch in case this info is useful to other gardeners. I do get asked to review quite a lot of garden related stuff but this time I bought my own. 

10 Sep 2017

And then it was September

Is that it? Is summer over?  You'd better believe it.  Leaves are falling from the fruit trees, children are back at school (hello again peaceful days!), seed catalogues are thumping onto the doormat and apples are blushing up nicely.  Unlike previous years, I'm feeling strangely calm about it all. Que sera sera, and all that.

The weather's been a bit tricky these past few weeks - hot one day, wet and mild the next. Luckily I'm no longer obliged to be outside putting my waterproofs through their paces; instead, as summer slips away, it's been the perfect chance to pop the kettle on and take stock.

It hasn't been the most productive of years for me for reasons explained in previous posts so I'm grateful for anything that survived my lack of attention. Except the weeds, of course. I still have one or two courgettes still pumping out little fruits, sweet peas are still flowering and the achocha plant that appeared earlier this year of its own volition has just started to grow its softly spined peppers. In previous years I've been inundated with achocha fruits by August so even this is taking its sweet time this year.

Late summer fruit, flowers, and veg collage

Soft fruit has been amazing this year, without exception - fat raspberries, sweet gooseberries, strings of redcurrants, punnets of blackcurrants from the plot and masses of Morello cherries.  Most of these have been munched by the kids living here but that's as it should be. Nothing like giving them a taste of freshly picked to pique their interest for next year.  She said optimistically ;)

Up at the allotment I've been pulling beetroot when needed, carrots are plumping up and the physalis plants have recently sprouted the flowers that will turn into cape gooseberries.  The big question is whether there'll be enough of a decent autumn for the fruit to ripen. The same goes for quite a lot of the other crops I've grown.  There are plenty of tomatoes but they're mostly green; sweet corn cobs are only just beginning to fatten, pumpkins and squashes are still small tiny.  Hopes of a small summer revival are minimal so these veg will either ripen ... or they won't. C'est la vie.

Physalis, corn cob, small squash and green tomatoes at the allotment

So what next? Well, ever the optimist, I've spread all my seeds out on the floor (still in packets, I hasten to add!) and dug out chard, spinach, wild rocket, winter hardy lettuce and komatsuna (a lovely deep green Japanese mustard spinach, great for stir fries and dead easy to grow). All of these rather enjoy the cooler temperatures of autumn so I should get a few leaves before the year end - or longer with protection. I'll also be sowing sweet peas and a few annual flowers for next year to get a head start and maybe even overwintering some broad beans.  That'll be a first for me, I usually sow in spring. My favourites - Red Epicure and Karmazyn - are both spring sown beans so I'm trying Stereo, a bean recommended as tender, excellent, and thin skinned, from Sarah Raven.

Despite the lack of a decent harvest, I was right to take a step back in August. I allowed myself time to breathe, to visit gardens, to sleep and to think. Now I'm ready to let go of this year and look forward to the next. We're not up to the autumn equinox yet but, like the kids going back to school, I'm ready for the new year - and, more importantly, looking forward to it.

13 Aug 2017


Readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven't been around for a couple of months. I've written this post by way of explanation and will then return to writing regular garden related content. 

I hadn't realised that becoming an orphan later in life could be so exhausting. Emotionally, creatively, productively.  It's something that I'm learning to come to terms with.

I wrote here of my mother's death three months ago.  After my Dad's death, fifteen months beforehand, I didn't grieve but got on with clearing and selling my parents' home on the coast (100 miles from where I live) and keeping an eye on Mum living in a care home. I watched as my mother struggled to recognise me, to talk and to eat, as a cloud of incomprehension and memory loss settled over her brain. She faded before our eyes, slipping into another world where we couldn't reach her. After her death, my brother and I liaised with solicitors, registrars, the taxman, funeral directors, printers, grave diggers, stonemasons, banks, florists, wake venues and the Naval padre (vicar), an old friend of the family who came out of retirement to conduct both funerals. The practicalities kept us busy but further loss awaited. I lost my country weekends when my Oxfordshire-based niece and her beloved family recently relocated to live in Boston USA for the foreseeable future. There has also been a family rift with one of my sisters who, until a year ago, was pretty much my oldest and best friend. Apparently it happens, when you lose your parents.

During all this time I carried on working full time, as would most people. When asked, I said it was fine, I was okay, my parents had both lived to a good age and they'd enjoyed a really good life. But was I okay? Seemingly, yes, but the bedrock of my life had shifted. There had been too much change. I was warned by a blogger friend that I was likely to hit an emotional wall and I did, but not in a visible way.  I lost the motivation to write, to garden, to exercise beyond a slow walk to the shops. I would sleep for seven hours and wake up still tired.  But still I ploughed on with life as habit dictated, except that I preferred my own company and that of the television.

In daily life I became easily irritated, insensitive to others, occasionally volubly indignant and impatient. There has been overeating and too much comfort food.  It took a while but I finally realised that I was angry, sad, vulnerable, exhausted. Angry that fate had given my parents an undignified death, sad that I was unable to do more for them, vulnerable because the emotional support they gave was gone and exhausted from suppressing all these feelings.  Those feelings were equally applicable to the rift in the family. The time had come for more, but better, change.

So last week, I retired. Which is to say that I've given up working with small children. For the past seven years I've worked as a childminder in order to be at home, to blog, to be my own housekeeper, to garden and to support my son. (Not necessarily in that order!) It was fun, creative, enlightening and exhausting. I was graded Outstanding by Ofsted so I'm bowing out at the top.  But, never say never; I might go back to it but, for now, I'm taking some time to consider what else I'd like to do. My background is creative: artist, photographer, graphic designer, illustrator. To that I'm now adding writing, workshops, training.  My body is learning to sleep beyond 6.30 am - such a novelty! - and I'm eating sensibly again. (Sometimes. What would teatime be without cake?)

My passion for gardening is on the rise once more although that's been a snakepit of problems this year. Children who live in the flats here have, for many months, been denied access to our fenced playground (a repair issue, apparently) so have taken to playing football around the veg patch. I now walk past to see what, if anything, is still standing.  Plants have been smashed or crushed, fences toppled, pots broken, gates left open for urban wildlife to creep in and fruit stolen - not a scenario which is conducive to spending more time on growing things.

Things are not going well at the shared allotment either. At every visit I spend hours weeding because I happen to think a well-kept plot is important. The other two women who are supposed to be helping don't believe in weeding - ever.  I've asked, the plot holder has asked, but to no avail. Their stand-off was tolerated as one of them said that what they grew was for everyone. Then I picked one of their cucumbers and the other one sent a terse text saying they don't want to share and I wasn't to pick 'their' produce.  I took a deep breath, said nothing and stopped going for a few weeks. It was a development that added to my downward spiral. Last week, during my newly freed up days, I went back as I remembered that I have pumpkins, squashes, carrots, leeks, beetroot, sweet corn, tomatoes, flowers and cape gooseberries (groundcherries) growing there. I restricted myself to weeding around my crops only - a bit mean-spirited perhaps but a step on the path to self-realisation and improvement.

It's still early days, I still miss my parents and feel sad, but I feel some of the weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Giving up the daily grind will do that for you. I'm quietly optimistic about exploring new possibilities and will be writing here more regularly. My apologies to readers who have looked for posts and not found any; and my thanks to those readers that have stuck with me. I've  missed being part of this community.  I have a lot of catching up to do but I'm back - and I hope my readers will be too.

28 Jun 2017

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Plot poppies

Yesterday I dashed up to the allotment. With the threat of rain from heavy grey clouds, I thought to tidy up the plants on my balcony but couldn't find my trowel. I've had a lot on my mind recently and have noticed a tendency to forget things or flit from one thing to another. To be honest, I do that even when I haven't got a lot on my mind. It's not good.

My trowel is a particularly beautiful copper one that I've had for years & love; I would be distraught to lose it so I racked my brains as to where I might have used it last.  I have a very good visual memory and could picture it in my hand as I weeded at the plot last weekend. I had to know if my vision was correct so a quick visit to the plot ensued as the first tiny drops of rain started.

It's such a magical place though (I must do a video one day) that, once there, time stood still & the rain stopped, briefly. I found my trowel, still buried in the soil where I'd been removing weeds from around the broad beans. I dug out a few more weeds, wandered a little, munching raspberries as I went, sat awhile on the bench and then slowly walked back along the paths to the gate.

These self sown poppies were battered by winds last week but more flowers had opened in the sunshine. The metre long strip of tissue paper thin flowers and seed heads lit up the path on an otherwise rather monochrome day, adding to the magic of the place.

I'll be keeping an eye on those seedheads & gathering a few to sprinkle around next year - 
which flowers are brightening your life at the moment?

28 May 2017

Round up (no, not the weedkiller)

My plan to be more organised has been completely blown out of the water in the past couple of weeks so my apologies for the delay in posting here. Not only is this an incredibly busy time for planting out all the veg that I've been hardening off but I managed to squeeze in three garden visits in three days after a day down on the Hampshire coast.

I was in Hampshire with my brother to sort out the funeral arrangements for my mother who died peacefully almost three weeks ago on 9th May.  When she went, I felt it was a release for her.  Long time readers of this blog may remember that my mum suffered from dementia, a cruel disease of the brain which slowly builds over years to impede normal life, conversation and memories. I like to think that her spirit is now back to how I knew her - smiling, chatty, interested in everything and everyone, hopefully reunited with my dad and free. Tiny spaces gave her claustrophobia and she loved being outdoors. It's a huge relief that she is no longer cooped up in the (albeit very good) care home where she spent the last year, just sitting with strangers and well meaning staff but not entirely confident that her visitors were, in fact, her beloved children and grandchildren. In my heart I know that she would be glad it's over. She had a great life, lived to the full, loved by all and loving. Here's to you, Mum.

Mum and Dad up in a hot air balloon, Australia 1994. 

But back to gardens. My visit to Hampshire was originally planned to coincide with a visit to a rather fabulous private garden near Petersfield, courtesy of the Garden Media Guild. The garden belongs to Rosemary Alexander, a landscape architect and gardener who founded The English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden.  I was slightly in awe of her before I went but the beauty of these visits is to meet the owners; Rosemary is warm, welcoming and an engaging talker - and readily prepared to point out all the mistakes in her garden. (Although we really wouldn't have noticed!) Her garden is full of inspiration, including topiary, an inherited dwarf apple tree, fabulous plants and a cool green woodland area that would be just heavenly in this week's heat.

~ Rosemary talking to the GMG crowd; the woodland area of her garden ~

The next day my tiny car wound its way to the RHS Malvern Spring Show in Worcestershire. As I missed the deadline to apply for Press Day at the Chelsea Flower Show, I thought I'd head up to Malvern as I'd not been before. The drive through countryside was lovely - and quite exciting to suddenly spot the Malvern Hills in the distance! - but, once there, I felt that the show itself over-emphasised food, sitting areas and trade stands and, unless I missed the obvious, only a tiny handful of show gardens. The Floral Marquee, usually a highlight of the shows for me, was so packed with people (it being a Saturday when I went) that I didn't linger and saw very little of interest apart from one gorgeous striped Lily of the Valley. I would have bought it but was told, "they're all gone" by the sour little man running the display. Perhaps he'd had enough of the crowds too.

There were a few highlights: Buckfast Abbey's Millenium Show garden was popular and I thought it rather lovely, once I'd been able to squeeze myself through the surrounding throng. As a keen herb grower I wanted to see the herb-based 'Health and Wellbeing' garden designed by Jekka McVicar and the Edible Gardens, raised beds which showcased what can be achieved in spare ground and small corners. It was here that I found fellow blogger Sara Venn, she of Incredible Edible Bristol among many other gardening exploits, and her friendly team. This hashtag board sums up the feel good vibe in that area!

I broke my journey home with a short visit to my niece in Oxfordshire. Sunday dawned bright and clear and as the family live a short drive away from Waterperry Gardens in Thame, we headed over there to give everyone a good run around. I haven't visited Waterperry often but it's always a delight to be there. The garden has a very special history and atmosphere, especially the river walk and the long borders which are dazzling now. With small children in tow, and having been totally distracted by the beautiful meadows, there wasn't time on this visit to linger over the rows of espalier and cordon pears and apples - I last saw them bare branched in February and they're definitely a sight worth seeing!

I'll write more about all of these garden visits in future posts but in the meantime I'm having to focus on what I'm growing at home - the windowsills and balcony are all full up, I have more seeds to sow and a ton of planting out to do.  And, despite all the fabulous advice given to me about growing pea shoots, trial #2 produced one shoot and trial #3 is yet to produce anything.  I think I might have found my gardening nemesis.

14 May 2017

Salad Challenge: Mushy Peas

~ Successful pea shoots (for growing on) in previous years ~

I have to confess to my first major fail of the season. As part of my all year round salad bar, I thought I'd grow some pea shoots as they're reputed to be quick and incredibly easy to grow.

The first time I became aware of pea shoots was while watching Alys Fowler rave about them in her 2012 series 'The Edible Garden'. As I recall, she made pea shoot cocktails out of her harvest.  I remember thinking "Eeeuww, really?" (These days I'd probably think it was delicious.)  A bit of googling reveals that the Pea-tini cocktail (as it was) is the brainchild of chef Mark Hix who created it during a campaign to promote pea shoots to diners. At that time, I don't remember pea shoots being very mainstream as a salad leaf but I've read that they were available in M+S and Sainsbury's (big UK supermarkets) in 2008. How far have we come since then! These days they're much more readily available - but, as with all salad leaves, why not grow your own and avoid eating a cocktail of chemicals? Supermarket salads are washed with chemicals to prolong the shelf life of the leaves.

My opinion of pea shoots was changed for the better a couple of years ago when the meal served for supper at a friend's house was pea shoots with pulled ham hock, peas, watercress and a dressing. There might have been mint in there as well; what was memorable was it's tastiness.  But still I didn't grow pea shoots as a salad leaf, even though I grew peas in the veg patch.

Striving for a full year of salad leaves, I hope to change all that but I'm having to start again.  As far as I can tell, pea shoots can be grown from any pea seeds whether they're the remnants of last year's packets or supermarket dried peas.  I had some leftover seeds so filled a box with compost, pushed pea seeds into the compost and watered them.  A week later the lettuce leaves that I'd sown had all germinated but there was a complete lack of action from the pea seeds.  I gave them a few more days. Nothing. So I poked around a bit which was when I discovered ... mushy peas. There were no signs of germination, just globules of pale mush.

I've now started again but this time using supermarket dried marrowfat peas and watering slightly less. And there will be NO poking around as I've since learned that pea shoots can take a bit longer to germinate. Let's see how that goes.

What I'd like to know, though, from anyone that has successfully grown pea shoots, did I do anything wrong?  Do the pea seeds need less watering; are they prone to going mushy; has anyone else found that they've had mushy peas rather than pea shoots?  A couple of things that might be to blame is perhaps I didn't sow the seeds deep enough; I gave them a light covering of soil rather than pushing them down about an inch. Also, I used multi-purpose compost rather than lighter seed compost and watered them in well; perhaps that was it?  If there's any light to be shed on this mystery, please do tell.

~ Mushy pea seeds on the left after a bit of poking around.  Definitely not a thing of beauty. ~

A little bit about my 52 week challenge
I'm sowing a range of salad leaves into small window boxes (above photo). Some of these seedlings will be pricked out to be grown into bigger plants and the rest left for cut and come again leaves on my balcony.

First salad leaves were sown on 30th April.
Salad Rocket appeared within a couple of days (it's not called 'Rocket' for nothing!);
Komatsuna was up by day 3 after sowing;
Mr Fothergill's mixed leaves appeared on day 4 after sowing.
Lollo Rosso leaves had poor germination rates but were from an older packet.

Second sowing on 14th May.
Lamb's Lettuce
Viola's (edible flowers)
Drunken Woman Lettuce

10 May 2017

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: It's all about the alliums

May is ...

all about the alliums.  I first wanted more alliums in the veg garden when some end of season white onions flowered and were subsequently smothered in bees busily harvesting pollen in the summer sunshine.

If you don't mind the smell of onions, alliums are such a great flower to have in the garden. They're usually out by the end of May* providing a valuable source of food to lure bees in to the veg patch to pollinate crops; they lightly self seed so are brilliant value for money; they're unfussy, needing only a sunny spot and relatively free draining soil; they're great in containers, superb as a cut flower and they're (mostly) purple - my favourite colour!

Some alliums, such as garlic, chives, leeks and onions are edible while ornamental alliums are not. Those are for show and, after the flowers fade, leave gorgeous seed heads that look fab in the garden (or indoors at Christmas). Did you know that leeks that have become too woody to eat at the end of winter can do double duty as flowers? Alan Titchmarsh advises to dig them up, trim back the foliage and plant them in the flower border; they'll soon produce towering blooms.

I bought my first ornamental alliums (A. sphaerocephalon and A. hollandicum) at RHS Hampton Court flower show a couple of years ago and was advised to plant the bulbs by August to get them off to a good start. They'll start to form roots and be more able to survive winter.  This year they're back on my shopping list as I want more; they'll look fantastic growing near my mum's agapanthus and Iris in the middle garden. I might go for the showstopping huge alliums, Globemaster, but there's a huge range these days, I just have to remain calm in the face of all those beautiful choices.

Ornamental tiny white allium growing next to Verbena bonariensis

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) among Ajuga reptans, strawberries, foxgloves and day lilies

 * (My ornamental alliums are slightly early this year, as with everything else.)

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is on from 4th - 9th July this year.

6 May 2017

April in the Veg Patch - End of Month

May already!  It's a time I subconsciously look forward to every year.  In my head it symbolises the turning of a corner weather wise, putting a first foot on the path to summer's lush colourful gardens and prodigious (or not) amounts of home grown food. It should be the start of being able to plant out. Did I mention that I was an optimist?

Back in the real world, the weather has been very disappointing this past week. I've unpacked my winter coat and pressed it into service. And my gloves. If I used an umbrella, that would have seen action this week too. I'm not complaining about the rain (after a dry spell, rainfall always makes me feel like dancing about) but I'd like the sort that's followed by sunshine (and rainbows, please).

I've remained resolute in the face of warm weather earlier in the month and sown seeds indoors only. No rushing around flinging protective fleece over plants for me. I'm trusting that plants catch up and have therefore only sown inside. (Broad beans being the exception as they're made of sterner stuff.)

Windowsills are now filling up with seedlings - I get almost giddy with excitement at seeing seeds germinate and check on my little babies daily. A few of the seedlings are almost ready to pot on before being planted out mid to end of May and I've started a cut and come again salad bar which will live on my balcony for ease of access. (There will be bigger salad leaves in the garden.) I'll be doing Facebook updates on the salad bar as I fully intend to embrace the Veg Plotting 52 week salad challenge this year. The original salad challenge took place in 2012 but I eat a lot of salad so I want to try and keep it going throughout the year and will be looking to Veg Plotting for guidance.

The veg patch garden is looking pretty lush with all the perennials that were transplanted last year.  I had meant to have a cut flower patch but that space was quickly taken up with several pollinator friendly perennial or biennial plants that I moved. A year on and I'm having second thoughts. As pretty as Centaurea montana is, I'd rather have swathes of California poppies ... and I'll have room in the middle garden for the Centaurea. It's essential to keep a few bee-friendly plants in the veg garden so I need to find a balance between annuals and evergreen perennials.  I'll park that thought until the autumn as both the bees and I are enjoying the colour fest of Cerinthe, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, alliums and Honesty. Foxgloves will soon be flowering and achilleas, antirrhinums and geums are also already in flower.

On the veg front, kale, chard, wild rocket and purple sprouting are still providing supper ingredients; I've also shared a total of eight asparagus spears (with 3 more being cut tomorrow for a tart). I don't think they're entirely happy where they are as I expected to have more spears than that! I suspect regular watering is fairly crucial. Hopefully by next month I can add broad beans, peas and yellow podded mange tout to the list as I've been nurturing some very healthy plants on my balcony.

What I'm most excited about this month though is the appearance of fruitlets on the pear trees!  It won't be a huge amount (no surprises there, then) but I counted at least 12 pears just standing in one spot.  I'm not sure that the plum trees will rise to the challenge but soft fruit is looking very promising. The gooseberry bush is teeming with fruit (first time on a 4 year old bush!!) and the strawberries are covered in flowers so hopefully there'll be a happy tale to tell there in a few weeks. Blossom on strawberry plants is a good indication that it's time to mulch around the plants. I'm going to try Strulch this year; I'm told it's a mineralised straw mulch with a texture that helps to deter slugs and snails. Might be good around beans and other veg too.  It's not available everywhere but luckily there's a garden centre, fairly local to me, that stocks it.

This is such a busy time but I absolutely love seeing it all coming together and throwing off the winter drabness - it seems that the garden knows we're heading towards summer even if the weather can't make up its mind.

Apologies if I've got behind in reading other blogs - 
I often read but am too tired to comment! I hope to have a big catch up this weekend.

3 May 2017

Red Valerian at the allotment

Red Valerian aka Centranthus ruber.  I was excited to read recently that this plant is edible - some say gorgeous flavour, others that the taste is bitter. I've just treated myself to Mark Diacono's latest tome The New Kitchen Garden (an excellent informative read, by the way) and he reckons that the leaves have a taste reminiscent of broad beans.  In my opinion that would make them rather yummy.

It's a perennial that is happy to self seed itself around and can be evergreen in a mild climate.  This one was photographed on a path near to my shared allotment and has come into flower in the last week. Butterflies are attracted to the flowers which might make them a good sacrificial plant to grow near brassicas but, if you want fresh greens for salads, etc, you'll have to cut the flowers off to stimulate new growth.  (Or perhaps have some for flowers and more for eating?)

Mark writes that while the new shoots are good to eat in spring and young leaves can be picked throughout the year, it's best to keep the plant watered in a dry spell to prevent leaves becoming bitter. As we've had some good rain in the past couple of days, I feel I'll be tempted to have a nibble next time I'm at the allotment and will definitely be encouraging a few of these plants to grow on the plot. I noticed that a few white ones seem to have made their way into the veg patch borders as well. Very serendipitous!

I'd be interested to know if anyone has tried (or would try) eating this plant
or do you prefer to leave it as a flower?  
Or perhaps are not fussed about valerian at all?

1 May 2017

What's what at the Plot - end of month review

Last month's lesson in plot sharing was, well, sharing.  Working as a team. Happy to be there and chipping in together.

A month on and, with a few tweaks, that's still working - just about. I'm so used to gardening on my own terms that I've had to rein in my natural tendency to be the boss. I'm also a perfectionist. Quite a tricky combination for shared working!

I thought it best to crack on and get the plot cleared and prepped before sowing anything. The others took the alternative view and were keen to start sowing. Warnings of late frosts went unheeded. What to do? Plot holder Doreen agreed with me so my visits were all about tidying. I disposed of unwanted metal, wood and tangled netting, strimmed the grass and paths, pruned shrubs and trees, dug, mulched and weeded, weeded, weeded. (Yes, the bindweed has put in an appearance - with a vengeance. And don't even get me started on dandelions.) The other helpers took a more relaxed approach ... and sowed seeds. (I've since asked the others to at least do a bit of weeding every time they go. *rolls eyes*)

The compost bins have been a bone of contention. Yes, really - compost, who'd have thought?  Last year, while Doreen was away, a couple of 'Swiss bins' were installed. Swiss bins are round wire cages with heavy black plastic liners, supposedly able to make compost within six months. However, the essential liners weren't used last year so the bins resembled two hayricks bursting with weeds. The sight was a constant annoyance to Doreen, particularly as these two huge bins were taking up good growing space in a bed. She'd previously had her own compost bins by the shed but they'd been replaced and the area cleared to make an entrance for prams and buggies.  Doreen's favourite saying is currently "This is an ALLOTMENT not a nursery!" which always makes me laugh. It's a sentiment I agreed with - but diplomacy was needed as one of the Other Helper/mums is a jolly good worker when she puts her mind to it.

So what was the solution?  Communication ... and compromise. I started a green compost bin on the old site by the shed and asked for the two Swiss bins to be sorted out with liners. (Job done, see above photo!) Doreen has agreed to wait until the autumn for the Swiss bins to be emptied before moving them. Problem solved. (I hope.)

I've realised that there will always be something that grates as we adjust to each other's presence on the plot but at least there's a big chunk ticked off the to do list. Last month's cleared path has been heavily mulched (by me) with bark chips from the recent tree work on my estate, the rubbish is all cleared, wooden beds have been shored up and salad seeds have been sown.

The plot looks good so it's where we should be at this time of year. A quick look round after watering at the weekend has given me fruit envy - there seems to be loads of fruitlets on the plum, apple and sweet cherry trees and the espaliered pear is also dripping with tiny fruits. (I wish I could say the same for the fruit trees at home.) Blackcurrants and blueberries tell a similar tale - there are even wild strawberries to supplement the cultivated ones - and the tulips and anemones are still going strong. Potatoes planted a month ago aren't appearing yet - is that usual? - although self-seeded borage and nasturtiums are popping up among the spud trenches!

Love these bright pink tulips on lovely long straight stems.

In the coming weeks I'll be sowing flower seeds (I won't say what yet, let's see what germinates) and salad seeds will have been thinned out, maybe even with a few early cut-and-come again pickings. Other crops of sweet corn, courgettes and pumpkins should be ready for planting out (seeds sown into modules today) - and I might even get time to paint the shed!

19 Apr 2017

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: Perennial tulips

There's a corner of the veg patch garden where, in late 2013, I planted tulips that I'd bought during a visit to Sarah Raven's Perch Hill Farm.  Her shop is unbelievably tempting so I was very restrained in coming away with just two bags of bulbs.  One set didn't do at all well but these, her 'Apricot Beauty' set have come back and flowered every year since - now in their fourth year of flowering.  That's very good value.

The Exotic Emperor's are aptly named - they open in the form that we'd expect from a tulip but, as the flowers age the petals widen fully to resemble Chinese water lilies. It's quite spectacular and they seem to last for a good month.  The other two varieties in the set let the Emperor have his day then Apricot Beauty opens to support the now open-petalled show before Spring Green thrusts up to counterpoint the final lily-like days of the Emperor.  It's a great display, subtle but showstopping. The Emperor still rules but there are a few less of the other two.  Reinforcements will be acquired this autumn. I'll put it in my garden diary now in case that thought slips away over the summer.

Top to bottom:  Spring Green, Apricot Beauty, Exotic Emperor

9 Apr 2017

Thinking pink: Rhubarb, how do you eat yours?

Red champagne, early March

Not only am I surrounded by blossom but there's rhubarb and purple sprouting broccoli to pick too - what's not to love about spring!  The rhubarb season is now well under way here in the south-east of the UK - and hopefully where you are too.

I'm spoilt for choice this year as both my Champagne rhubarb plants have got off to a good start this year with nice long pink tasty stems.  Since the above photo was taken, both plants have produced a flower stalk - swiftly removed by me - which shows they're not entirely happy growing under the fruit trees. I'll be moving both plants next winter into a sunnier spot with good rich soil.

The Glaskin's Perpetual that I grew from seed a few years ago has been a little slower off the mark. I can live with that though because a friend lets me pick from her very vigorous rhubarb growing on one of the allotment gardens in the flats. Lovely long pink stems have been brought into my kitchen since mid-March. Amazingly, this friend doesn't even like rhubarb so never picks it; I think that's why it's so healthy, its strength has never been depleted by regular picking! Until now, of course. ;)  She doesn't know what variety it is, could be Timperley Early going by the timing.

Using an old school crate to keep marauding animals away.

At the shared allotment I counted eight rhubarb plants. Eight!! They're quite small so the team thought a little experiment might be in order. A few weeks ago, we chose the runt of the litter to see if we could force a few stems; a tall black bin was placed over the plant and weighed down with a brick. In just a few weeks the bin was removed to reveal a few pretty stems - tall, bright pink, tender and with beautiful yellow green leaves. The proper time to force rhubarb is when the crown is just beginning to show buds - I must remember that for next winter after I've mulched around the plants.  The RHS advices to stop forcing rhubarb in April and not take any more stems from the forced plant so that it has time to recover, or to not pick at all from that plant for a few years.

With all these stems to choose from, I'm have a grand old time discovering new recipes.  At first I made a compote for yogurt by chopping the stems into 3" lengths, roasting them in the oven, cooling, then chopping stem ginger into this. Simple and tasty.

Then I got a little more adventurous as my niece was coming over for supper. I whipped up meringue for a pavlova, filled with cream and laid roasted rhubarb and chopped stem ginger over the top. Tasty and visually tempting.

Pretty in pink.

The stems kept coming so I turned to Nigel Slater's Tender II - a veritable tome of inspiration for fruit growers.  Sloe Rhubarb grabbed my attention; a simple affair of roasting rhubarb stems in the oven with a bit of sugar and a good slug of sloe gin. (Plus, later, a few blueberries.) Nigel writes that sloe gin can be hard to get hold of - a very good reason to forage for sloes in the autumn and the reason my foraging has produced a well stocked cupboard.  I served the delicious results with some single cream which Mr Slater says is not strictly necessary. Although sometimes it just is.

Loving the sloe life - and pleased to find a use for my grandmother's Victorian sundae glasses

With a team get together at the allotment yesterday, a cake was needed so a traybake recipe on the Tesco website looked appealing.  It was a bit of a faff to make with lots of washing up after but the results were surprisingly very very good. (The recipe calls for walnuts; I had a bag of mixed nuts so my topping also has almonds and pistachios.)

Perhaps not just for tea time?
It was not a cake of beauty but its looks belied the tastiness within. Think sponge cake with a layer of sweetened rhubarb topped with a nutty oaty buttery flapjack topping and you're there. It was very well received at the allotment and I can heartily recommend you give this one a go.  I haven't tried, but imagine this would also be very nice warm with custard.  The recipe is on the Tesco website here: Traybake

And speaking of custard, and with the sun beating down (at least for today), my next foray into rhubarb heaven will have to be rhubarb fool, with cream of course.

How do you eat yours?

6 Apr 2017

Thoughts on a sunny day

For a week forecast to be cloudy but mild, it's turning out rather splendidly.  I've seen bright warm sunshine every day. I was so enjoying the garden yesterday, looking at some of the amazing colour juxtapositions and  making the most of a dry and bright day to get some more gardening done,  that I ran out of time to post these Almost Wordless Wednesday photos. These are just iphone pics, snapped while wandering in the sunshine but I hope they give a flavour of what I enjoyed. I'm loving this spring weather - the perfect climate for me, not too hot!

So worth going out in the cold to plant bulbs in November - although these are the cheap ones planted three years ago and now coming back for their fourth showing. Bargain!

Drought border - so dubbed because the hose won't reach that far.
Lavender is coming back so strongly next to the Erysimum Bowles' Mauve that it's squeezing out a bronze Carex in between the two. Iris 'Edith Wolford' at the back gets a nice baking heat on its rhizomes, Cerinthe (left of pic) self seeded for which I'm always grateful, Euphorbia behind the Cordyline australis (trunk seen) will be interspersed with grasses when they reshoot and there's a curry plant and Stachys byzantina to echo the silvery leaves of the Erysimum just out of shot.  And I found my nemesis, the Rosemary Beetle, sunbathing on the Perovskia (behind the lavender)! 

Nice calm Anemone blanda and Galium odoratum in the shady border.

Mmmm, zingy!
Schiaparelli pink Pineapple sage flowers against euphorbia in the 'washing line' drought border.

Can anyone shed light on what this is? It's a cuckoo in the nest of my Sambucus nigra pot. Looks quite interesting though!

And, of course, frothy blossom everywhere! Cherry blossom (left), apple blossom (right)

How's the week shaping up in your spring garden?

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