12 Jun 2018

Four rhubarbs and a recipe for homemade rhubarb gin

~ Homemade pink gin ... perfect for summer! ~

~ Glaskin's Perpetual in July 2013 - its second year of growth ~
Well, I've done it. The Glaskins' Perpetual rhubarb is perpetual no more.  You may wonder why as I nurtured it from a seed but there were various reasons why it had to go and now the deed is done. The whole thing has been dug up and composted. 

~ If you dig up rhubarb, be warned, it's ugly work. ~
I have fond memories but no regrets for this magnificent plant; every time I removed an elephantine leaf, more quickly grew. In recent years, I swear it was conspiring with the raspberry canes to block my access into the garden. It made the garden look lush and full but practicality has to dominate in a small veg garden and this year, selfishly, I need the space for my pole beans and luffahs.

There's no denying that rhubarb is a lovely plant to have in a food garden because new leaves can be the first signs of a new season of growth.  But while gardeners showed first stems of forced pink rhubarb and, later, tender new red stems, my rhubarb would remain resolutely green with an occasional angry rash of red at the base. Not delightful.  And certainly not attractive when cooked.  No, for that you need red rhubarb.

I cast my eyes longingly at the forced pink rhubarb at the local greengrocers and lusted after a red stemmed variety of my own. Two Red Champagne crowns were duly planted in the fruit tree border a few years ago but have never done well, to the point of sending up distress flares by way of flower stems.  Right plant, wrong place. Needs to be moved, but that's a thought for another day.  So then I had three rhubarb plants, none of which came close to realising the dream. I even tried forcing the Glaskin's Perpetual this spring but it just sulked; to be fair, it was a bit snowy at the time.

~ New rhubarb on the block; Siruparber Canada Red ~

And then along came 'Siruparber Canada Red®'. I'd spoken to plant breeder, Lubera, at the Garden Press Event in February who agreed to end my rhubarb woes and sent me a Siruparber in a pot, which I quickly planted into the garden - a sunny spot with room to grow and plenty of muck dug into the hole first. And a bonus layer of wool pellets to protect against hungry slugs.

I have high hopes that this rhubarb is the dream - stems that are red from inside to out, mild tasting, never fibrous, doesn't need peeling (who has time for that anyway?), appears in March and can be harvested until late June. Three months of glorious deep pink rhubarb for compotes, crumbles, pies, cakes, jam, syrup (hence the name) and ... gin!

My imagination was recently fired by a recipe online for quick, no-wait, rhubarb and strawberry gin; then, while clearing the allotment plot last week, I pulled weeds and bindweed from the end bed and discovered rhubarb plants flourishing underneath. A handful of the reddest stems came home with me and I treated myself to a few Siruparber stems for colour (even though it's not advisable to harvest in the first year of planting), plus a handful of strawberries from the garden. A short while later, after some simmering and straining, I had a bottle of sensationally pink gin, a jug of deep pink syrup and a bowl of delicious pink compote. The results exceeded expectations but, traditionally, rhubarb and sugar are steeped in gin for several days before straining; I can't help wondering which method is best. Maybe the flavour will be slightly stronger? Certainly the colour of mine can't be bettered but I'm curious to find out.

~ Click on the picture to see it larger ~

By the way ...
The longest day is just 9 days away! on the 21st June and tradition says to stop pulling rhubarb after that. (Unless you grow Glaskin's Perpetual in which case harvest away until autumn.) I guess that's to do with the oxalic acid migrating back down the stem and increasing the chances of tummy ache. It's quite unsettling to know that the days will slowly be getting shorter again; it's a good reminder to seize the day and appreciate our gardens and plots.

I want to thank Lubera for gifting me the Siruparber plant; as usual all opinions are my own and I wouldn't endorse something I didn't believe in.  The trial will continue next year by which time the plant will be well established and should grow a lot bigger. More updates then.
Also ...
I notice that Lubera are selling their rhubarb plants at half price at the moment and free of shipping costs. Just saying.

7 Jun 2018

Good ideas from the allotments

Vintage, cobbled together, upcycled or just plain eccentric -there's lots to inspire on an English allotment!

By the end of the week I'll no longer be going to the allotments as the lady I help has decided to call it a day and give up her plot. So, after three full on days of clearing the plot and shed ready for the incoming tenant, I treated myself to a wander around this gorgeous site.  The allotments are on an incline looking down over the treetops of Hampstead Heath, giving the space a fantastic view.  I'll miss it, especially at the height of the summer when it's so peaceful to sit and watch the sun set beyond the trees after a day's gardening.

Walking on to the plot, I'd regularly see something that would make me stop and think, "Oh, that's clever" or "Ooh, I like that" or "Hmmm, ingenious".  Even sometimes, "What the ... ?!" but let's not dwell on that.

I find the plots really inspiring.  Sometimes it's deliberate creativity, as in building a greenhouse out of windows, sometimes it's a happy accident of allowing self seeded plants to grow companionably alongside other crops.  Occasionally, it's stumbling across a favourite but forgotten plant that's seeded itself into a crack between bricks or on a grass verge or, as happened last year, in the middle of one of the veg beds when mullein (wanted) appeared to replace the swathes of Good King Henry (unwanted).

I'm hoping that I'll be able to go back occasionally as a friend has just been given a new plot there and has said she would welcome my help.  For now, here are just a few of the good ideas that I saw there over the past few days.

Making the most of even the smallest space with companion planting.  This verge-side bed is on the boundary of the plot, behind a rosemary hedge.  This year it's filled with carrots, nasturtiums and a few marigolds (Tagetes).  If the marigolds survive the slugs, the bed will look so colourful when the nasturtiums flower plus there'll be two edible crops - three if the marigold's petals are added to salad.

Pigeons are a real problem but seem to be even more voracious this year; possibly the slow spring has left them very hungry to feed their chicks. Whatever.  Gardeners need to protect their crops and I liked this idea of using plastic balls (meant for a toddler's ball pit) to top canes under netting. Usually small plastic bottles are used and I've used discarded tennis balls before now but this is another colourful option that reuses plastic otherwise destined for the tip.

I'm not sure if this is an old security gate, window guard or bed frame. However, how many people would look at it and think, "perfect frame for my grape vine!"? A bit of lateral thinking goes a long way. Looks pretty good too, I think.

It's in the nature of things that certain objects in a garden are going to be untidy - canes, bottle cloches, for example.  This, though, is treated, tongue in cheek, as an art installation by the plotholders who fondly refer to it as 'The Turner Prize'.  I seriously doubt this is one for the private garden but think the use of an old bicycle wheel to keep canes in place ingenious.

Dotted throughout the plots, vintage and cobbled together pieces add charm and interest to a plot. I love the old coal scuttle used to grow herbs and this tiny wooden stool.  I was given an old galvanised metal watering can from the plot; it already had holes drilled in the bottom for drainage so I plan to plant it with nasturtiums or strawberries or, hmmm, maybe some dwarf cosmos, and it will look gorgeous!

It would take a very determined slug or snail to reach that mint. You don't see many old chimney pots being thrown out these days, more's the pity. You're far more likely to have to buy one from a salvage yard or vintage sale. And remember white china Butler sinks? They were always a good bet for a free planter ... until they became popular again in modern kitchens.  Worth keeping a look out though, you never know your luck!

And this I so admire ...

Over the past couple of years these apple trees have been painstakingly trained along wires to create a boundary fence for this plot.  It's not unusual to grow fruit along the edge of a plot but this plot is always immaculately maintained and this fence of espaliered apples suits it perfectly.  So much patience required! Why have just a fence when you can have an edible boundary?

What about your plot or garden - have you drawn inspiration from something creative you've seen?

4 Jun 2018

And so into June

It's two steps forward and one back as we head into June in the veg patch gardens.  Last week my area of London saw thunderstorms most evenings with some very dramatic forked lightning. One evening a huge dark cloud with sheet lightning flickering across it loomed in an otherwise clear sky - very ominous, I can tell you!  These storms were usually followed by torrential downpours and, oh, how the slugs loved it.

A row of peas has been felled by their slimy advances but, strangely, the adjacent mangetout have only been nibbled.  I'm counting my blessings, such as they are. Another row of snap peas sown straight into the soil seems to be okay so far - stronger plants, do you think? - but I think it might be time to investigate the purchase of some netting and hoops because if the slugs don't get them, the pigeons will. It's so frustrating to see pea flowers forming one day, only to have them disappear overnight. I'm poised to plant out trays of kale, salad leaves and squashes - I know I have to take the plunge soon but it will be with bated breath, and one hand reaching for organic slug pellets. I've always stuck to being an organic gardener without resorting to chemical deterrents but, with the late start to the growing season this year, I'm going for damage limitation with Neudorff's Sluggo Snail and Slug Killer; it's approved by the Organic Farmers and Growers Association, is allegedly safe for animals and biodegrades into trace minerals found naturally in the soil. After eating the pellets, slugs go back into their hidey holes to die so birds can't eat them. Does it work? I'll be writing more about this when I know more.

~ these radish leaves are about 6 inches high - that's one huge seed leaf in the foreground! ~

Aren't radishes supposed to grow really quickly? In mid-April I sowed some pink and purple radishes from a Thompson and Morgan packet that I think came as a freebie last year. They germinated quickly and are growing well - if the leaves are pushed out of the way, you can see which colour the radishes will be.  I've not grown these before so have no idea what these will be like; they were sown as a gap filler.  Hopefully the roots will start to plump up soon - I can't wait to see what they're like sliced as the colour is supposed to permeate through the root - pretty!  In the same bed, the oca continues to leaf up nicely and a row of salad onions sown on 1st April has finally appeared. All that rain has done some good.

Also I'm really pleased to see sweet corn leaves popping up. I sowed two seeds at each point so if they both survive I'll have to thin one out. Lack of space dictates that I can't grow too many but I should have ten sweet corn plants if all goes well. Swift did quite well for me last year, although it wasn't that 'swift'! And I found that sowing direct gave me stronger and better plants than starting the plants off indoors.

Some lucky growers are already showing off their first broad beans on Instagram - autumn sown, I should think.  I'm trying a bean from Sarah Raven called 'Stereo' this year; it's been bred to have good flavour and thin skins on the bean itself so no need to skin them. That's always a fiddly job so hopefully that claim will be true.  My beans were sown into modules in early February then planted out in March and are just beginning to pod up on the lower rungs.  several of the plants have been hit by those nasty black aphids so I need to squish/squirt them off and pinch out the top leaves.  They won't be wasted though as they're delicious steamed (leaves, not aphids)!

It looks like I'll get a good crop from these strawberries this year so it's time to break out the bag of Strulch.  I used it under the strawberries last year and it worked well in keeping the fruit clean and pest free. It's just one weapon in my anti-slug/snail armoury, wool pellets being another.   My first ripened strawberry had been half-eaten by the time I spotted it so it went straight into the compost bin - I've been warned!

The bad news is that, once again, there are no plums. I can't see a single fruitlet still on the tree and the leaves have all curled in on themselves.  Same old, same old. I really will be rethinking the fruit tree situation this autumn - I can't see the point of having a unproductive fruit tree where I could fill the space with an espaliered pear or apple.  Or having a sour cherry tree where I'd prefer sweet cherries.

The good news is that I counted about twenty little quinces that look like they'll see the season through; that would make me one very contented gardener.

~ Erigeron from one tiny plant ... hoping it will spread far and wide! ~

Lastly ... flaars! The garden is a kaleidoscope of colours right now. In the washing line border, Edith the iris has been and gone (so fleeting!) and the alliums are nearly over but that's okay because the lavender has started to flower, and nearby Erigeron looks amazing. Even tiny succulents are having their floral moment in that border.

~ Edith, Bee-yon-sage, Foxglove, sprawling ox-eye daisies ~
Among the veg, ox-eye daisies are a magnet for bees, hoverflies and all sorts of insects that I can't identify; it's a pity they've flopped, it looks like a cat has sat in the middle of them.

Red poppies are blooming next to fuchsia pink blackcurrant sage, Geum 'Totally Tangerine' has never had so many flowers and, I think, looks amazing next to Erysimum Bowles' Mauve and Angelica. Too brash? Just wait until the nasturtiums, verbena and achillea start flowering! Sage, chive, comfrey flowers and foxgloves are also keeping the bees happy - bumbles, honeybees, carder and solitary bees are all visitors.  There are no peonies yet but the buds are about to burst so, any day now ...  Looks like there will only be two blooms on this second year peony so they won't be picked but it's still pretty exciting!

I hope that gardens everywhere are flourishing with recent warm weather.  I'm going to try and catch up with reading other blogs over the next few days - it's a massive juggling act to fit everything in but so easy to get behind and forgotten!

30 May 2018

An unexpected historic herb garden in Southwark

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden on chapel foundations

At the end of last week I visited Borough Market near London Bridge to hear a talk on planting for urban bees as part of the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Southwark Cathedral is next to the world famous market and I'd read on the London Open Squares website that there's a herb garden in the churchyard. It's sited on the 14th century foundations of the original Priory chapel and planted with herbs that the Augustinian Canons would have used for cooking, strewing and brewing, or medicinally in the nearby 12th Century St. Thomas' hospital (named for Thomas Beckett, now the Herb Garrett Museum).

My paternal grandmother and generations of her family before her lived in this area on the south bank of the river Thames, and my cousin married in this cathedral, all of which makes these streets very special to me, especially the buildings and areas that modern life hasn't yet touched.  I like to imagine that I'm seeing what they saw in their daily lives and reconnecting with my genetic past. So, after the talk, I headed straight for the herb garden, a dose of local history, and a wander along memory lane.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden , Box, Thyme, Lungwort

To my way of thinking, a garden without herbs is not complete. Whether as part of an edible garden, or a few pots on a windowsill or door step, to have herbs to pick is a joy.  I started with a packet of curly parsley seeds (still the most used herb in my kitchen); then, like most people, added a few more familiar culinary herbs to the garden. But fate wasn't going to let me off the hook there - a chance purchase of some Monarda from a plant sale prompted further research and I started to realise there was a wide world of medicinal and edible plants out there waiting for me to discover.

I'm fascinated by the folklore of herbs, their alternate names often indicating the historical use of the plant.  Monarda, also known as Bee Balm, has the most fabulous and exotic looking flowers as well as being useful as a tea, an antiseptic and attracting bees. The plant is occasionally known as Bergamot but, confusingly, it's not the same as bergamot found in Earl Grey tea - that's oil from the Bergamot Orange! I planted it next to fennel, mint and golden oregano, an uplifting sight in the summer garden. My love affair with herbs had begun, together with what I suspect will be a lifelong journey of learning.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden Ruta graveolens
~ Rubbing the leaves of Rue, also known as Witchbane or Herb of Grace, may cause skin to burn when exposed to sunlight.
Properly used, it's an effective balm for fibrous ligament injuries such as Tennis Elbow. ~

But, back in the churchyard, the herb garden beckoned. I was curious to see what was growing as the small garden is primarily an educational resource used to teach local children about the role of herbs in the development of medicine, chemistry and pharmacology. (Lucky children!)  Impressively, for a children's educational garden, poisonous herbs such as Foxglove (Digitalis), Columbine (Aquilegia) and Rue (Ruta graveolens) are growing there - perhaps as part of the Shakespeare botanical trail. (William Shakespeare lived in this parish - to be near the Globe Theatre perhaps? - and his brother Edmund's gravestone is in the church.) Most herbs are labelled with the common names they would have been known by so visitors see Lungwort, Madder and Woad rather than the Latin names. There are no information boards so you have the pleasure of finding out for yourself just what these herbs are for - or try and guess their use!

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden

Sweet Woodruff, also known as Master of the Woods, (Galium odoratum) is labelled just 'Strewing herb'; it smells of hay when picked and dried so historically was used to sweeten a room by spreading (strewing) across the floor. I grow it as a vigorous ground cover under the fruit trees but recently learned that this herb is traditionally used in Germany to make May Wine and is also good in vodka jelly.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, foundations, pillar bird bath

As far as I can tell, the garden was created in 2015 with advice from the Herb Garrett Museum. The design gives a nod to medieval knot style gardens with most of the herbs planted inside four large box (Buxus) edged beds, a couple of which were further subdivided. Sadly, a few of the box plants had succumbed to blight and should, I think, be pulled out, for aesthetics if nothing else. Germander (Teucrium) would be a good substitute; on a trip to Jekka McVicar's herb farm some years ago I was told she used this herb instead of box edging in some of her designs.  At the time of St. Thomas' Hospital, an infusion of the flowers was believed to cure gout.

To be honest, it's not a "pretty" garden - the planting is too haphazard to see the original layout - but that same jumble has produced some lovely eye-catching combinations - a deep red rose with feverfew on one side and calendula on the other, breadseed/opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) just appearing between Woad, Madder and Dyer's Chamomile; Sweet Cicely separates bronze and green fennel; sage, nigella and lavender co-exist in a half bed.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden,roses, feverfew, calendula

The woad flowers (Isatis tinctoria) were almost over, leaving the plants dripping with unripe seeds (below, right) but Madder flowers were covered in bees busy harvesting pollen. Providing forage for bees would have been an important consideration for any priory keeping hives for honey.  A lot of the plants have the ability to self-seed so close planting possibly helps to reduce the amount of weeding needed but must make for some interesting changes each year - especially as the beds are loosely defined as 'Edible' or 'Medicinal'. 

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, bee on Madder flowers, Woad seeds

There was so much to look at, excite, identify (and puzzle over!) in this little garden that time stood still for me and I was there a lot longer than intended! As you can tell, I absolutely loved it. I felt like I'd stumbled into a secret garden, with the pedestrians and traffic on nearby London Bridge fading into the distance.

I'd say the garden is well worth visiting, especially if you love churches and local history. While there, take inspiration from the shade borders outside in the churchyard, and linger inside the church as well. (Lovely and cool on a hot summer's day!) I was fascinated to discover quite how ancient this site is - excavations for the annexe built in 2001 uncovered 12th century foundations from the Priory, a 13th century stone coffin, 17th century Delft kilns, and a Roman road - all left where they were found for the public to see. There was even, once, a roman villa here; some of the paving is now incorporated into the floor in the choir. I was still there when Choral Evensong started and spent a few moments in quiet contemplation listening to the music - the acoustics in the church are superb as is the architecture. Definitely, if you're in the area, go.

Southwark Cathedral Herb garden, White foxglove in flower

Southwark Cathedral is very close to London Bridge tube station, Borough Market, and Guy's Hospital. The Tate Modern, Millenium Bridge, Globe Theatre and the Golden Hind ship are a short walk away.  The herb garden is at the eastern end of the cathedral courtyard.

20 May 2018

Six on Saturday: Mid May in the Veg Patch

Honey bee on chive flower

May is the token first month of summer and it's been a corker.  Everything that looked a teeny bit dismal in the middle of April has burst into life, seeds are germinating, bees are buzzing and it's a real pleasure to be outside in warm sunshine.  This is a novelty as I usually associate May with the sort of unpredictable weather that makes it hazardous to plant out beans and sweet corn that I've nurtured indoors. This year I've sown my sweetcorn seeds straight into the ground having seen last year that direct sowing produced much stronger plants than those I transplanted.

That doesn't mean that I don't have plenty of seed sowing going on indoors - my windowsills and balcony are filled with seeds in paper pots. The downside to that is that paper pots are so easy to make, and plastic trays readily available as drip trays, that it's highly probable that there won't be enough space for all the plants I've sown.  I'm going to guess I'm not alone in this ...

My six for this Saturday:

This first flower opened today; I think it's Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). It reappeared in the quince tree bed after I cleared a huge amount of dead scented geranium and overgrown golden oregano from the area in late spring.  To be honest, I had no idea it was there although I remember putting a small plant in a few years ago, had daisies that summer and then nothing for the past couple of years. I guess clearing the ground gave lingering seeds the chance they needed to germinate!  (And this morning the flowers were a magnet for aphid eating hoverflies - win:win!)

Purple asparagus stems

I harvested my second round of Purple Pacific asparagus (five stems!) at the beginning of the week; they were sweet and delicious.  I only have three crowns left from the original five in my square metre bed so thought that might be IT for this year but noticed today another three stems pushing through. Exciting (and delicious) times! It feels so good to be gathering food from the garden already after a winter of very little.

While I was out on Friday, two bags of Dalefoot's new Bulb Compost were delivered to my door.  At the Garden Press Event back at the end of February, I signed up for a couple of bags to trial and this is perfect timing as I have an old tub of lilies, about to flower in about 4 inches of ancient compost.  I found a rather more lovely pot for them,  put 4 inches of delicious fluffy bulb compost at the bottom, then the bulbs (lifted wholesale from the old pot with just a teensy bit of loose compost brushed away) and topped everything up with more bulb compost. Back in the garden they were given a good watering.  It's a good feeling to shower a bit of love on hard working plants!

 Crisis averted! Seeds vs seedlings vs plants is a daily juggle on my tiny balcony with no space to spare. I'm sure we all know that one, yes? It's a squeeze out there and a tiny tray of coriander seeds that had recently germinated after a very long wait was, I thought, safely balanced ... but, as I squeezed round the door ...  Oops a daisy!  Luckily I had pots and compost to hand (in my living room, of course - welcome to second floor gardening) so quickly potted them on.  Whew! A quick save which seems to have worked, in fact is probably very timely!

Achocha seedling

I've grown Achocha, a South American member of the cucumber family, for a number of years now.  They always grow really well in my veg patch, getting around 6 hours of sunshine a day (when available!) and can get up to 20ft (around 6 metres) long. So this year, I decided to grow something else unusual and give achocha a miss.  Or not.  Yesterday I spotted several self seeded achocha plants growing behind the broad beans, looking very strong and healthy and I'm not one to waste a good plant.  So I'm going to need more than one arch this year as the other unusual edible I'm growing is Luffah (aka bath sponge but edible fruits when young) and with the current number of sunshine hours will grow as big as the achocha - yikes!

Lastly (sixthly?), the oca gifted to me by my friend Tanya who writes the Lovely Greens blog (also check out her You Tube channel) has emerged overnight.  So looking forward to this one; it's a first time growing this for me.

Enjoy the weekend weather everyone - let's hope it lasts - and may your gardens be ever bountiful.

16 May 2018

A bumper year for fruit?

Pear blossom in April

Now that the last of the fruit blossom has dropped - quince excepted - my current obsession is to walk around the garden checking for fruitlets.  I've been gardening in the veg patch for almost a decade now and this has become a bit of an annual ritual.  I'm looking after ten fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, cherries and quince) as well as soft fruit and it's incredibly frustrating to see beautiful blossom fall to the ground before being pollinated. So, every spring, I'm on the lookout for fruit set. It's a hazard of urban gardening that any wind is funnelled between buildings, creating challenging conditions for insects to pollinate and blossom to stay put on the tree.  This year though, I've got a good feeling that the crazy weather so far this year might just have been the perfect thing for the fruit trees.

Bitter cold kept the trees dormant until early April and then we leapt into a confusing spring that alternated between warm sunshine and heavy rain - perfect for giving the trees a steady supply of water and warmth to wake up buds on the branches. Our trees are self fertile but fruit better if pollinators are around so a few days of warmth helped there too. Time will tell whether those pollinators were more interested in the tulips, daffodils and forget-me-nots rather than fruit blossom! It's crucial that plants are well watered when fruit is setting, something of an annual challenge for me as there is no easy access to water in the veg garden. So when it rains heavily, as it did last weekend, I just end up smiling.

(A little bit of botany: once the flower has been pollinated, water is directed to swell the pericarp which then slowly expands  around the seed or stone to make the flesh of apples, pears, cherries, etc. Without sufficient moisture, the pericarp withers and the fruitlet falls from the tree.)

This year I also made a start on pruning out congested branches in the centre of the plum and pear trees, back in the depths of winter; I wanted to see if better airflow through the centre of the tree canopies would improve things. Branches that were crossing over, heading into the middle of the tree or those poker straight 'water' shoots were all removed.

Growers Tip:
There's still more pruning to be done so the plan is to have another go at the end of summer.  Around this time trees begin their winter dormancy so energy is going back into the roots instead of the branches. Late summer pruning  allows trees to be shaped without promoting more growth. Stone fruit, such as cherries and plums, should be pruned, if needed, at that time anyway to reduce the risk of succumbing to airborne viruses.

Clockwise from top left:
Pretty cherry fruitlets, plums, apples, apple blossom

So after all that, has it worked? Probably too early for certainty but recent signs have led me to be cautiously optimistic of some fruit this year. Plum trees planted at the start of the veg patch nearly a decade ago, have never fruited; pear numbers have been sketchy at best. This year though with warmth, watering and better airflow, I'm seeing tiny fruitlets swelling in a very positive way, even on the plum tree.  In past years, with no plum fruit to harvest, I've threatened to chop down the plum tree then relented and given it another chance. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was the year that the tree rewarded my patience?

Conference pear fruitlets
Several very round pear fruitlets on both pear trees.
What's going on?
And, in other news, there looks like being plenty of apples and pears - although some of the pear fruit look more like apples which is definitely weird. Ironically, as I don't eat sour cherries, the cherry trees are always laden with fruit as Morello cherries do well in our east facing border. The quince still has blossom (just) with plump little velveteen swellings behind; last year the tree produced five viable quinces but all developed some kind of rot before they could be picked. Very disappointing. I'm hoping for much, much better this year.

9 May 2018

Awaiting Edith

Iris 'Edith Wolford' flower bud

There is so much to be amazed at in the garden at the moment.  I tidied up this border (the 'Washing Line' border) over the weekend, including taking old leaves off the iris rhizomes so I know for a fact that there were no flower buds there.  Just fans of sword shaped leaves which, in itself, adds to the overall visual interest.  And then, yesterday, these appeared.  Whoah, how did that happen?! (I'm guessing a few days of hot sunshine might have helped.)

Given the speed that the flower stem appeared, I'm now on a daily watch for the flowers themselves. This is 'Edith Wolford'; she's a classy Iris germanica, reliably flowering in May/June, and has been slowly spreading out across this border since I brought her home from the Chelsea flower show a few years ago.

I didn't realise how much I loved Irises until I saw Edith on the Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants stand.  It was a must-have, love-at-first-sight, moment.  She's a beauty with creamy yellow standards (the upright petals) and blue-violet falls (the downward petals) with an orange beard in the centre - looks a bit like a hairy caterpillar!  A stunner in the looks department and her presence in this border brings together the purple alliums, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, lavender, Perovskia, etc, with the yellow flowers of Santolina (cotton lavender), alpines and yellow-green New Zealand flax.

The 'Washing Line' border in late May 2017 - see what I mean about blending with the rest?

Growers tip:
Something I learned during my Capel Manor days was that the top of the rhizomes (the roots that look like raw ginger) need to be exposed and baked during the summer in order to promote flowering the following year.  I made the mistake of covering the rhizomes when I first planted Edith and had no flowers the following year - swiftly corrected when I knew better! Since then (years 3 and 4, 2016/17) I've had more and more flowers, several on each stem, so am eagerly anticipating Edith's arrival this year.

The Back Story:
I wish I knew more about the naming of irises because I'd love to know who Edith Wolford was/is - I do love a bit of background. The name suggests a character from James Joyce or E.M. Forster but I like to think that she was a renowned actress, a diva, a famous beauty; the reality is probably that she was a pillar of the community, a friend or beloved relative.  My internet search reveals only an elementary school in Colorado, USA.  Do tell if you can shed some light!

Irises were originally purple (or so I've read) and represent royalty and wisdom - hence inspiring the French Fleur-de-lis symbol. Yes, that does translate as lily flower but irises were classed as lilies until the 18th Century.  The flowers were known long before that, being discovered by the Pharoahs of Egypt when they conquered Syria and also known to the Ancient Greeks who named the flower for Iris, goddess of the rainbow; to this day, irises are placed on graves to form a passage between heaven and earth.

I've only the one iris for now but every year think that I need some more, maybe a reflowering or later type. Hands up - anyone else in the Iris Appreciation Society?

19 Apr 2018

New for 2018: The Ascot Spring Garden Show

I nearly didn't go. The weather has been so poor recently that I found myself questioning the sanity of anyone staging a garden show in mid April. At the eleventh hour though, my own sanity prevailed and I contacted the organisers for a pass which they produced with lightning speed.

And that was the first thing that struck me - this inaugural show seemed very organised and efficiently run; well thought out, attention to detail, appealing and entertaining.  It was an excellent start for a new show. The show's organisers have correctly gauged what the public wants (imho ๐Ÿ˜Œ) - space, choice, inspiration, advice, food, plants and seating. The show was created because of a gap in Ascot Racecourse's spring calendar and steered to success by Stephen Bennett, previously Show Director for the RHS.

~ My two favourite gardens: Top, On Point by Tom Hill; Below, The Courtyard by Joe Perkins

So, what's on offer at the show?  The big draw had to be the twelve show gardens, six by professional designers and six by hort college teams under the Young Gardeners of the Year competition. I'm sure in future years there will be more but, for this inaugural show, these were just enough to drink in all the detail. It was lovely to see how vibrant a spring garden could be and especially nice to see magnolias and cherry blossom being used in the designs - something not possible for summer shows.

Then there was retail therapy. There were 33 specialist plant nurseries at the show, plus 58 trade stands selling all sorts of garden related ephemera such as tools, shoes, garden sculptures, landscaping, furniture and the most divine and highly desirable greenhouses.  I think I may have stroked one or two of them while no-one was looking. The plant nurseries were especially popular as mid-spring is the perfect time to be thinking about what to do in your own garden - and filling any gaps for next year's spring garden before those thoughts are replaced by summer.

~ Love this display! What a good idea, displaying pots of spring bulbs in wine boxes.
Especially if you get to drink the wine first ... ~

TV gardener, David Domoney, led a programme of talks in the theatre throughout all three days of the show; I rather regret not catching his talk on Unusual Gardening Techniques, held the day after I was there.  From the Show Guide:
'From feeding plants with nails, caring for plants with vodka, Viagra, or making bumble bee nests with hosepipe, cotton wool and a pot, to how to gain items to garden for free from self-service restaurants, flight bags, pubs, and even  Ikea! It's a humorous, pen grabbing talk (underpinned with science) which makes best use of gardening practices, recyling, money saving and the resourcefulness of a gardener.' 
Vodka? Viagra? Flight bags? The mind boggles. You can see why I might be curious.  There were also talks from Pippa Greenwood (Grow Gorgeous Vegetables), floristry demonstrations from celebrity florist Simon Lycett and 'Plants for a Spring Garden' from the Keeper of the Garden at Windsor Great Park and his assistant. In addition, there was a giant screen overlooking the concourse (presumably in situ for the horse racing punters) so I was able to catch snippets of interviews taking place around the show and, I think, possibly some of the talks.

The show makes for a pleasant and leisurely day out. It's not so large that you can't fit it all in, and not overcrowded either, with wide aisles between the trade stands, a plant crรจche, plenty of food outlets ranging from a quick bite to something more substantial and even somewhere nice to sit with tables and chairs set out by the bandstand.  Bandstand?  Yes, indeed. A backdrop of music jollied things along but was never intrusive. At one point the English spring was lifted by the sounds of a Caribbean steel band gently transporting visitors to warmer climes.  To make the day really special, posh, proper, Afternoon Tea was available with sandwiches, scones, little pastries and a glass of champagne if wanted, a cuppa if not. At a price, of course, but definitely worth getting your frock and hat on for. (I didn't stop for tea but will bear it in mind for next year!)

As I was there in my blogger guise, I was given a Show Guide booklet as part of the press pack. As a nice surprise this was packed with useful and relevant information, with adverts kept to a minimum, and represented good value for the £2 cover charge.

Altogether, I came away from the show happy and relaxed, feeling I'd chatted to some interesting people, been inspired by the variety of spring planting used in the show gardens ... and, of course, with a boot full of plants. Really, an excellent day.

The show is hosted by Ascot Racecourse in association with the Gardens of Windsor Great Park. There's easy access through the Berkshire countryside from three motorways (M3, M4 and M25), plentiful free parking and a (very) local railway station.   Next year's show is 12-14th April 2019.

14 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: In a very happy place

The past week seems to have sped past, and this morning I'm definitely in my happy place having woken up to clear blue skies. Those have now turned to the promised 'light cloud' - weatherspeak for grey with a hint of occasional sun - but it's dry, bright, and I have a free day ahead - perfect! Six things that have contributed to happiness this week ...

~ looks very crowded at ground level but I can see lots of gaps for annuals from above ๐Ÿ˜Š ~
1- On Monday the scaffolding surrounding my block of flats started to be taken down. The white safety netting had clouded my view for the past five+ months while the roof was retiled. Day one revealed the sky and let light onto my balcony and by Tuesday I could see out again. By Wednesday, the middle garden came into view fully for the first time since November and I could get a clearer idea of what needs doing. Bizarrely, I've been feeling rather exposed without the netting; funny how we get used to things.

2- The avocado stone which was planted during a workshop 'How to successfully grow an avocado' in October last year, finally cracked and started growing four weeks ago - only five months of patience required and, actually, pretty thrilling. This past week four leaves have unfurled from a sturdy stem. I am vindicated and a good houseplant grower at last.

~ Here's a few I made earlier ... ~
3- I have discovered a new and surprisingly soothing pastime - making paper pots while watching tv. I usually catch up with a few crime dramas (my fave) on the weekend but single tasking doesn't suit me so I got out the new paper pot maker and soon had rather a lot of empty vessels for my seed sowing. What joy!

4- Part of the ongoing renovations here include making good and repainting the concrete areas of my balcony. So the crumbling built in windowbox has been emptied of soil, repaired and repainted in bright white, and consequently made a disgrace of my efforts at painting the rest of the brickwork a few years back. Cue: kind painters to the rescue with a large water bottle filled with free paint.  I've cleared the tiny balcony so I'll repaint it today and will then put up lots of shelves for container salad and herbs. Expect a Show and Tell when it's done!

5- Yesterday I went to the new Ascot Spring Garden Show, held at the racecourse in Berkshire. That in itself gave me a very good reason to be happy, but as there were so many excellent nurseries there, it would have been silly not to take a look, wouldn't it?  This morning I've spent a happy five minutes potting up the three tiny succulents that leapt into my basket yesterday.  Don't they look lovely? They were bought for my son to fill his empty Bonsai dish but I can feel myself getting rather fond of them.

6- Also highly related to yesterday's garden show, sitting downstairs in the garden are two trays of herbs, a white peony, a variegated eryngium and variegated leaf iris waiting to be planted today. Just writing that list makes my heart flutter - not, I hasten to add, because of the ££ spent but I'm just thinking of the loveliness to come. Pay it Forward happiness, for sure.

Linking to #SixonSaturday hosted by The Propagator blog. Six garden related happenings posted on a Saturday for a bit of fun. Hop over to find a few more Sixes and maybe to join in!

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