11 Dec 2018

How to easily grow avocados with guaranteed success!

... or, how I managed to grow an avocado, kill it, and then restore it back to health.

Successfully grow an avocado plant.jpg

During the forthcoming holidays, I'd like people to stop and think before they toss out empty jars and avocado pits after making guacamole or whatever. With those two things, you have the means tp grow a free houseplant.


There are some people for whom the challenge of growing an avocado plant from the discarded stone/pit is easy.  Let me tell you now, I am not one of those people.

For years, I tried every method of sprouting an avocado stone without success. Feeling thoroughly defeated after so many failures, I gave up and started chucking the stones away. But this is not about my failures but about how to successfully grow an avocado.

I wasn't always challenged at growing avocados. In my first flat, a large soil filled pot in my living room stood ready to receive every avocado stone that I discarded. No special treatment required; I placed the stone fat end down, and left it. (With occasional watering.) The pot soon became a forest of leaves to challenge the Monstera at the other end of the room. But when I moved on, the avocado jungle stayed behind; I felt confident that I'd quickly grow another pot of avocados - after all, how hard could it be? But when I left, my green fingered houseplant magic stayed behind - and the years of avocado growing failure commenced.

Fast forward to autumn 2017 to a mini-workshop at the RHS Urban Garden Show; an RHS trained gardener promised to guide participants through a Guaranteed Method of growing avocados.

Here's what I learned that day.

How to grow an avocado

  1. Carefully cut the avocado pear in half, taking care not to score or damage the root end of the stone with your sharp knife.
  2. Ease the stone out of the flesh with a teaspoon, again being super careful not to damage it.
  3. Wash or wipe any flesh off the stone - you don't want it to get mouldy.
  4. Fill a 9cm wide plant pot with regular potting compost to a half-inch from the top.
  5. Tap the pot on a hard surface, eg table top, to settle the soil.
  6. Make a slight dip in the centre and place your avocado stone in it. The top of the stone should sit above the soil. Think Orca coming up for air. 
  7. Water the pot well until you see water draining from the bottom.Allow the pot to drain fully - no more water dribbling out from underneath.
  8. Label your plant with the date and name. (Latin naming not obligatory although 'Persea americana' if you so desire!)
  9. Cover your pot to give the stone its own little greenhouse. We were given small plastic sandwich bags for this, secured with string. Now I would try and use a clean upturned glass jar. 
  10. Place the pot away from a cold windowsill - mine sat on a shelf above my kitchen sink where I could keep an eye on it. (An airing cupboard would have been better, if I had one.)
  11. Check the moisture levels in the soil on a weekly basis - if dry, water sparingly.
  12. Don't overwater; the soil should be slightly damp, definitely not wet. 

    After the workshop, I carried my little pot home and then I waited. And watched. And waited some more. Four months later, convinced I'd got another non-starter, the pot and pit were destined for the dustbin when I saw a tiny crack in the stone! I swear I couldn't have been more excited if I'd had a hatching dinosaur egg in my hands.

    Avocado stone sprouting


    Over the next week, a shoot slowly appeared. In another month, I was the proud owner of a healthy, albeit spindly, little plant with several leaves. By summertime (just before its demise) most of the leaves were six inches long; I was so proud of it. And then, at the height of the summer heatwave, I reasoned that avocado trees natively grow in hot climates and put the little plant outside to enjoy some fresh air. (I can't now believe I was that stupid.)  I introduced it to the wider world of my balcony ... and the glaring sun. Game over.

    Successfully growing an avocado
    Successfully growing an avocado - 14th April, one month after sprouting.

    The mistake I made

    Plants really don't like drying heat - unless they're a cactus. And I hadn't checked the moisture in the soil before putting it outside. The leaves scorched, the plant withered. I was devastated as I watched the leaves drop, one by one, and shelved a triumphant post of avocado growing success.

    For some unknown reason, I kept the dead plant. A serendipitous move as it turned out.  Returning to the RHS Autumn Urban Show in late October this year, I learned of a little known hack that has enabled my avocado to rise Lazarus-like once more.

    And the resurrection secret is ... 

    decapitation; or, more correctly, trimming back.  By lopping off the top of the stem above a leaf node, I triggered the plant to produce more leaves. Not bad considering it had been 'dead' for over 8 weeks and mostly unwatered! I'd noticed a microscopic green bud forming at the top of the twig/stem so cut just above it - and it worked.

    ========================================

    A few more tips for successful growing:

    • Avocado stones can be sprouted over water as well as in soil - grower's choice.  The bottom of the stone must be in contact with the water until a root system has formed, then the stone should be transferred to a small pot, planted in well draining compost and left to grow on indoors in a warm environment - 20°-25°C (68°-77°F).
    • Toothpicks not your thing?  I'm sprouting a stone using a stylish ceramic disk bought from Studio Janneke - an independent ceramicist working from her studio in North London.  I think it looks lovely, and so much prettier than watching a brown pot for four months. 

    • Patience is key. The stone should germinate in four to six weeks but, as I've shown, can take considerably longer.
    • Once the plant has outgrown this first pot (roots can be seen at the bottom of the pot), repot in spring into a larger pot, at least 1ft in diameter.  Use a soil based compost for this.
    • Plants with fresh compost won't need feeding for several weeks but otherwise give established plants a liquid feed (seaweed fertiliser is good) every 2 to 3 weeks throughout spring and summer.
    • Established plants like to be kept on the cool side in winter 15°-18°C - definitely not above a hot radiator - but move to a slightly warmer spot in summer in bright light, but away from direct sun!  

    I hope you've found this post useful - it didn't occur to me that I could prune my plant back into life so I'm happy to pass on a helpful tip.  

    Growing any plant from a seed is fun for children but I think avocados are especially exciting (next to potatoes and tomatoes).  If you do think about giving it a go, I'd love to know how you get on!

    26 Nov 2018

    Seize the day! Rewarding times in the November garden

    You'd think by the end of autumn that all would be quiet in the garden with just a few tidying up jobs to be done, yes?  No. With the chill of winter in sight, there's plenty to do, see and eat in the garden...

    Café au Lait large dahlia bloom

    It's nearly winter and it's cold but, where I live, at least there's no snow or frost ... yet. So am I still working in the garden? Yes. As much as I'd love to be indoors, tucked up with a good book, a couple of Hobnobs and a mug of tea, these are the many jobs needing my attention outside.

    Weeding 

    The ground is soft after persistent drizzle - perfect for weeding before the soil freezes.  And yes, weeds are still growing as the temperatures are averaging 7°C (44°F). I'm holding my breath waiting for it all to change but temperatures in London are forecast to soar (haha) to 14°C (57°F) by midweek and stay mild into early December. But before I shout "woo-hoo!" and race outside to carry on the good work, a reality check will require a raincoat and wellies.

    Gather leaves and prune

    The tree branches are now mostly bare, apart from the silver birch below my windows. It's a daily job to clear the ground but I love the thought of the lovely leaf mould I'm making.  I've got some wire baskets to store the leaves in while they rot down but have used open topped garden waste bags from the local council in the past. I could use perforated plastic bin bags but would rather not as I'm trying to eliminate single use plastic.

    As the leaves began to fall from the cherry trees, I was concerned to see that next year's buds have appeared along the length of the branches; this won't be good if a hard winter lies ahead. Those yellow leaves have now fallen, revealing a couple of crossing branches. Stone fruit (cherries, plums, etc) should ideally be pruned in the summer but I've tidied up the trees in winter before without consequence. Luckily I'll be touching wood as I prune. Handy, that.



    Pruning Autumn fruiting raspberries

    I chopped down a few untidy autumn raspberry canes several weeks ago as they looked to be done for the year. The few canes that I left unpruned have gone on to produce lots more berries. I'm amazed, and thankful; a handful of delicious cold berries as I wander the garden is something to appreciate.

    I know autumn fruiting canes are traditionally left until spring for the big chop but I've cut mine in late autumn for several years now, confident of the advice given by plant biologist and author, Ken Thompson. He prunes back all his raspberry canes, both summer and autumn fruiting, before winter - and he lives in Sheffield, Yorkshire, where it's a bit chillier than London.



    Beware the yellow (or white) carrot!

    These are the last of my self-styled 'lucky dip' carrots, from a pack promising a rainbow of colours. The prospect of jewelled roots was a tantalising thought as they grew but by the time I'd pulled the umpteenth yellow carrot the novelty had worn off.  They're very pretty but looks aren't everything.


    The purple and orange carrots trumped the yellow ones for taste.  James Wong in his book 'How to Eat Better' writes that purple-to-the-core carrots have the highest levels of polyphenols, ten times that of yellow or white carrots.

    No, I didn't know what polyphenols were either but read that they're good for you. Lump them in with carotene, probiotics and antioxidants, and you've got chemicals collectively known as phytonutrients. Adding phytonutrients to our diets (choosing purple over yellow carrots for example) may promote better health and prevent degenerative diseases. (According to the research data quoted by James.)

    For now, that's good enough to sway me; I'm growing purple next year. Carrot seed is better when fresh so I can replace my seed without feeling guilty.

    Those Fat Babies just keep on growing

    A three metre hedge/windbreak, grown from just the one self-sown achocha seedling, borders one side of the veg patch. That's Fat Baby Achocha for you - 16 foot multi stemmed vines will grow sideways if they can't go up.  I hadn't intended growing achocha this year but when nature steps in, who am I to argue? Free food, minimal effort? Yes please.



    Achocha can be used in any recipe that calls for bell peppers; I eat the small ones whole (they taste of peppers and crunchy cucumber) and will make achocha jam with the larger fruits. The vine is slowing down now but will carry on until winter cold kills it; any large pods falling to the soil will germinate next spring and be put up for adoption; I want to give the bigger variety, known as Giant Bolivian Achocha, a go next year.

    Preparing the Asparagus/Square Foot bed

    I love having freshly picked asparagus each spring; despite having only three crowns left, they produced enough quality spears for me this year so I've left the ferns for as long as possible to re-energize the crowns. They've now yellowed so it's time to cut them back to base.  The yellowing ferns also provided a windbreak for the tomatoes planted into the 'square foot' bed; tomatoes which, to my amazement, are still slowly ripening. Wow. Hot summer equals no blight spores.


    In that same square foot bed, a cape gooseberry/Physalis plant has appeared. This is somewhat of a miracle in my book as no seeds were sown this year - could a dropped seed have lain dormant for three years in the soil to germinate in the heat of the summer? I haven't had much success with growing Physalis in recent years; even the plants that grew well at the allotment last year didn't fruit in time, unlike my first batch of veg patch plants that fruited prolifically and grew as short lived perennials through mild winters. This little miracle plant will be dug up and repotted into a sheltered spot so it has the best chance of surviving winter's chilly fingers.

    Winter Veg

    At the other end of the veg patch I have five enthusiastic purple sprouting broccoli plants.


    I chose seeds specifically so that plants would fruit in succession, from summer through to late winter - but the dry heat of summer put paid to that. The plants are now starting to form heads, all at once. I'm hoping that shorter days and cooler temperatures will check this growth as I need some of the plants on hold for a winter crop. Somehow, that seems like wishful thinking - thank goodness for Cavolo Nero kale!

    This kale grew from a dropped seed after the seedheads and flowers were left for pollinators to enjoy. I transplanted the 6" seedling in spring (it survived the harsh winter without any help) and I've enjoyed the leaves all summer.  Looks like it will keep going through winter as well!




    Jobs to do this month ... in fact asap!


    • Gather up leaves and store in a mesh bag for leaf mould. I collect leaves from the gardens here, not the street leaves which are more likely to be polluted. I have enough to fill a couple of big garden bags; these will take a couple of years to rot down but it will be worth it.
    • Cut back hellebore foliage. Hellebores, aka Lenten Rose, will be getting ready now to flower in spring. Cut the big old leaves off at the base of the plant to allow new leaves and flowers to develop.
    • Mulch! Put last year's leaf mould and compost to good use by mulching around hellebores and other perennials now and put a mulch over any beds or planting areas not in use over winter. 
    • Plant garlic cloves.  I had a crazy idea to edge the veg patch path with garlic and spring onions next year to free up a bed for other crops. 
    • Plant onion sets.  I just have to work out where to plant them, given all the other crops I'll need space for! 
    • But first I'm going to dig up and relocate self-seeded flowers. It's also a good time to move any dormant perennials - prepare the planting hole (or container) before moving them. 
    • Plant tulip bulbs.  It's the perfect time for this job - not too cold to be working outside but cool enough that the bulbs won't get the tulip fire blight virus. (Please tell me I'm not the only one who has yet to plant bulbs?)
    • Pot up and bring in any tender plants - dahlias, I'm looking at you. I also have chillies and pepper plants outside, and then there's the cape gooseberry to protect as well. 
    • Pop a protective layer of horticultural fleece over tender crops like winter lettuce, pak choi and spinach; chard, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages and kale are very hardy so don't need protection.


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    21 Nov 2018

    Focus on: Celeriac. The benefits, the recipes, and how to grow

    Celeriac is a health giving root vegetable that can be easily put back on the menu. I've been diving into the cookbooks and have come up with several very tasty recipes to make the most of its health benefits.




    Autumn is definitely upon us (despite the occasional chill sunny day) and with it the desire for soups and heartier warming food. Science says that with less daylight hours, our brains direct us towards eating more substantially to produce the happiness hormone serotonin.

    I found celeriac for sale recently and was reminded of the delicious remoulade I'd eaten last summer at the Raymond Blanc Gardening School where all lunch ingredients are grown in the kitchen garden. At that time, I'd never tasted celeriac before but enjoyed the blended taste of celery, mustard, mayo and crème fraiche, the main ingredients in remoulade.  I didn't think to look for celeriac afterwards but, seeing a pile of these root vegetables in the shops, I bought one with the intention of exploring whether I should be growing this vegetable next year.

    Why grow your own

    Putting aside that this supermarket wraps its root vegetables in plastic - (why? when they have to be peeled anyway?) - any veg that's home grown is going to be fresher, organic (I never use pesticides), and seasonal.  I often conjure up meals inspired by what I can gather from the garden and anything freshly picked at this time of year is a welcome bonus.

    Having very little growing space, I have to make sure that whatever I plant will be a good return for my time investment, ie, be tasty, hard to source in the shops, and cheaper to grow myself. And packed with nutrients.

    The nutritional benefits:

    Celeriac is from the same plant family as celery so has a similar taste but is the bulbous root rather than the stem. I was amazed to discover that as well as being a good source of carbohydrate, the root has many health benefits to offer. So big tick in the box for that.
    • Useful minerals - phosphorus for healthy bones; potassium for detoxing cells, healthy nerve function (keep those stress levels down!), efficient muscle contraction and regulating the heartbeat; manganese for development and good metabolism.
    • Useful vitamins: Celeriac is known to be an excellent source of Vitamin C which means that it's also anti-oxidant and anti-cancerous.
    • Vitamin K; good for bone and brain health. Vitamin K improves the body's ability to absorb calcium and who wouldn't want good strong bones to counteract osteoporosis in later life? It's worth noting that 1 cup of celeriac contains 80% of recommended daily intake of vitamin K. More importantly, Vitamin K is fundamental in protecting the nerve endings in our brains which might limit the damage caused by Alzheimer's.  I find that a reassuring thought.
    • Low in calories; only 42 cals per 100 grams - useful as part of a weight loss regime. I found that Slimming World have a few recipes using celeriac, including a delicious sounding gratin.
    Whew! Not bad for a lumpy root vegetable. I'm beginning to like it a lot.

    In the kitchen:

    Life can be so crazy busy that it's important for me to know that I'm not giving my family empty calories when I serve up dinner.  Having a notebook of quick recipes gives me an alternative to microwave ready meals when time is short and ensures that meals are nutritious. Would celeriac be a good fit for my notebook? After a bit of research, it appears the answer is yes.

    Am I the only person to be unaware of this workhorse winter vegetable?  It's beginning to appear so. Celeriac is crisp when raw but is silky smooth when puréed. It can be roasted, sautéed, baked, grated, mashed, pickled or blitzed into soup. You can't do all that with a potato.

    Online I found that it seems to be a favourite with the celebrity chefs:
    Ultimately, I made a soup with my celeriac, following a recipe in Anna Jones' book 'A Modern Way to Eat'. One ingredient was butter beans to give the soup a creamy texture.  It was nice. But that's hardly the hearty recommendation, is it!  For me, the soup was too thick but the flavour was good, especially topped with chopped toasted hazelnuts, a trick that I've adopted with my favourite cauliflower soup. Next time, I'll add more milk to the recipe, or make Mark Hix's celeriac and apple soup.

    Growing celeriac:

    At the start of writing this post, I was sceptical of growing celeriac for myself.  As with leeks and onions, with one seed you get one root so it's not exactly a space saving veg for the small garden, especially if they can be found locally in the shops.  But now I'd say to give it a go; celeriac is obviously a versatile ingredient and will provide fresh vegetables at the onset of winter. 

    • The seeds need to be started around March, sown onto good seed compost and left uncovered as they need light to germinate. Keep at an even temperature between 15°-18°C (60°-65°F) as they don't like extreme cold.
    • Prick out the seedlings into modules as soon as they're big enough to handle to minimise root disturbance. By pricking out at an early stage, this should stop them bolting later on. Grow on under cover or indoors until they're about 10cm (4 inches) tall.   
    • Plant out after danger of frost has passed but grow under mesh or horticultural fleece to thwart celery leaf miner attacking the young plants. Some sort of slug prevention would also be useful; I use Strulch.  If planting in the square foot method, put only one plant into one square, or nine to a square metre bed.  Celeriac prefers humus rich, well manured soil - the no dig method is perfect for this.  Keep the soil moist in a dry summer by watering well as celeriac is shallow rooted and won't bulk up if it dries out.   
    • As the celeriac grows, remove the outer leaves to expose the crown of the bulb and encourage it to develop. Harvest is usually from October onwards; grower's choice whether to dig up when needed, leaving the remaining bulbs in the ground - or, if there's a slug problem, harvesting all at the same time and storing in boxes in a cool place.

    Adding to the planting plan:

    In conclusion, I'd say celeriac will be a useful addition to the autumn veg patch and I'll be sourcing seeds for next year but limit the amount I grow.

    If I close my eyes, I can picture that tray of roasted celeriac with coriander seeds (recipe above) being brought to the Christmas table alongside sprouts with bacon, maple glazed carrots and a fragrant herb stuffed bird. Sounds delicious? Particularly when most of that produce is home grown!



    This comment left via email from Christine Bryant, after reading this article:
    I have just read your blog about celeriac, one of my favourite vegetables.  It's also good raw.  Slice thinly and add to a crunchy winter slaw or cut into small batons.The seedlings are tiny when they germinate.  I work as a volunteer gardener in the kitchen garden at a large house and was asked one day to transplant celeriac seedlings.  I could hardly see them!  But they went on to produce the vegetable we all know and love. It needs plenty of water to grow to a good size.




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    16 Oct 2018

    A Harvest of Quince and The Best Recipe for Quince Jelly. Now where's my runcible spoon?

    I'm feeling rather pleased with myself and slightly uneasy at the same time. Why, you may ask. Let me tell you.



    Having wanted to grow proper quinces for several years, this year my tree has produced the goods. I counted 40 this year, a thrilling effort from this four year old tree. To have forty quinces gives plenty of scope for trying out new ways of cooking and preserving. But if there's this many this year, what of the future?  I've read of massive gluts and that's when I start to get jittery. Forty I can cope with; eighty or more might start to feel like overwhelm. Do we really know what we want to do with a wealth of quinces? It's one of those 'Be careful what you wish for' moments.

    My desire for a quince tree started in 2012 when I noticed the round fruits of Chaenomeles x superba growing in the gardens at Capel Manor where I was studying. I was told that they were edible, like quince. Seems reasonable as the plant's common name is Japanese Quince. I snaffled a few from the ground and made membrillo.  It was jolly good.

    I also used some to make a tea infusion.  I'd heard that Lithuanians traditionally steep slices of raw quince in hot water and honey to make a soothing winter drink. Apparently the fruit is a good source of vitamin C, as well as copper, magnesium and other very useful minerals. I made some with Japanese Quince and was singularly unimpressed; it didn't taste of much.  Obviously I needed proper quinces for this.  (Perhaps I should try again with one of this season's Cydonia quinces.)

    So why bother with Cydonia (real) quince when you can use Chaenomeles? Both have an aroma, although quince will perfume an entire room, and both have fruit that goes pink when cooked.  I remember Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles) being quite sharp flavoured, a bit like having lemon in tea so I'm going to guess that Cydonia quinces are slightly sweeter, possibly with more depth of flavour. (Or maybe it's the other way round? Foraging might be in order when the rain stops. If anyone reading this knows, please tell!)

    I'm having a bit of fun trying out various ways of using my quinces.  After a weekend of rain, several of the fruit had split so were quickly picked and turned into a quince crumble using a Nigel Slater recipe from his fruit book 'Tender, vol II'.  It was nice, in fact the topping was delicious, but it's not a patch on plum crumble!

    (The online link to the Slater recipe is here; make a note of the topping ingredients and enjoy Nigel's writing!)

    After that, I was rooted in indecision for a while - there's more choice than just membrillo - but rediscovered this recipe for Old Fashioned Quince Jelly in my National Trust Preserves book. I had more split quinces that needed to be used quickly before they went brown and this recipe is one you just get on with. No peeling, coring or boring stuff. Just chop the quinces up, chuck into a pan, cover with water, cook, strain overnight, add sugar to the juice and boil.

    The result is a beautiful clear jelly, sweet with a definite quince taste and scent. I had a enough left over for another half jar so have tried it out today on bread and butter; it's delicious. I like that its recommended uses are either for savoury (to go with lamb, cold meats, cheese, etc, like a redcurrant jelly) or topped with cream in a cake or, even better, spread on toasted muffins or scones! Now you're talking. Here's the finished result - four (and a half) little jars of deliciousness.  Now where's my runcible spoon?

    And I still have a bowl of quinces in the kitchen ... possibly for pickling.




    Old Fashioned Quince Jelly

    1.35kg (3lb) ripe quinces
    Water to cover
    Thinly pared rind and juice of 1 large lemon (unwaxed)
    Granulated sugar

    Wash the quinces, rub off any down. Don't peel or core them but chop roughly into a large pan and just cover with water. Add the lemon rind then simmer gently until the fruit is soft and pulpy (about an hour). Stir in the lemon juice and strain through a jelly bag overnight.

    Next day, measure the juice and pour into a clean pan. Add warmed sugar (I put mine in the oven at 140°C for 10 minutes) allowing 450g to each 600ml juice. (I had 900ml juice so used 675g sugar - and, yes, I did very gently squeeze the jelly bag to get the last of the juice from the pulp.)

    Heat gently, stirring to completely dissolve the sugar, then bring to boil and boil rapidly until setting point is reached. 104°C if you have a sugar thermometer, or wrinkly spoonful on a cold plate if not.

    Skim, then pot into hot/warm clean, sterilised jars, cover and seal.  (I washed my jars, rinsed well and dried them in the oven after the sugar was warmed.)




    14 Oct 2018

    Making the most of a perfect autumn In the October garden

    October can be a time of harvests and preserving the year's bounty. But it's also a good time to think about gardening for winter and next spring.


    So often in the UK summer weather can disappear overnight and we're thrown straight into a precursor to winter. Not this year though. Mother Nature is letting us down so gently after a summer of extreme  heat. (Although today it's wet and windy so it would seem that the best of autumn might be behind us.)

    The autumn sun, when it shone, has been genuinely warm, perfect for letting the last of the summer crops ripen and very pleasant for working in the garden. I still have a few tomatoes slowly ripening in the veg patch and more in pots on my balcony, giving the occasional treat before I have to revert to buying them. It's the most perfect October  - so far! but I'm expecting a huge reality check in a couple of weeks when the clocks go back. Here's what I'm doing to make the most of autumn.

    26 Sep 2018

    The artist's palette - An autumn garden of self seeders

    Late September in the veg patch: Verbana hastata and Cerinthe 

    Move aside neat and tidy - autumn's here! I love this time of year, not least because the garden looks so pretty, warmed up by the last of the summer sunshine; all the self seeded flowers reach peak autumn vigour and interwine in a riot of colour around the winter veg.  A couple of years ago, an artist friend gazed at the mix of geums, nasturtiums and calendula growing under the last of the sweet peas, a few stems of purple Verbena bonariensis and Honeywort poking through above white Feverfew and remarked that he wished he could sit and paint the scene. I had to agree; it looked beautiful.

    I realised in the early veg patch days that sowing flowers attractive to pollinators would help to create a healthy balance in the plot. Back then I cleared the beds over winter; the only plants remaining were a few woody herbs and fennel stems into which ladybirds nestled for their cozy winter home.  (This year my winter beds are hosting kale, chard, broccoli and oca, as well as herbs.)

    Purple honeywort growing through white flowers of Sweet Woodruff
    Cerinthe growing up through Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) under the fruit trees

    Those early winter beds weren't empty for long though! The next spring I bought a honeywort (Cerinthe major) seedling during a visit to Sarah Raven's Perch Hill garden and a packet of borage seeds; I didn't know it then but they were the first of my self seeding army.

    Some, like foxglove, feverfew, snapdragons and verbena, start to scatter their seed at the slightest puff of wind. I watch borage, calendula, honeywort and poppies for the right moment to collect the seed.  (Dried poppy seed heads are beautiful for a wreath or tiny vase indoors.) Nasturtiums will drop so many seed clusters that it's impossible to collect them all, even when harvesting the smallest ones to make Poor Man's Capers - or collecting flowers and seeds for nasturtium vinegar.   Ditto for sunflower seeds but first leaves of unwanted seedlings make very tasty additions to spring salad! Try it!

    Feverfew

    I've learned to identify the plants that I want to keep by the shape of the seedling leaves, removing any that are inappropriately placed.  No such thing as a weed? Believe me, these plants can find a tiny crack between bricks or pavers and settle in for the long haul.  Feverfew blocking the path? No thanks. Calendula appearing in a sea of spring Forget-me-nots? Yes please! Nasturtiums twining through courgette leaves? Very cheerful!

    Peekaboo! 


    At the moment I'm swamped with tiny Verbena bonariensis and V. hastata seedlings; calendula, Linaria, and all those Cerinthe seedlings are also putting in an appearance. A friend has the same with Euphorbia wulfenii seedlings. Another friend turned up with baby Hellebores. We're thinking a plant sale might be A Good Idea.




    And another thing ...

    If growing self seeders takes your fancy, this is a list of plants I've grown that will self seed freely (or, more likely, prolifically) around the garden.  For those averse to surprise flowers, take this list as a warning!

    Borage
    Aquilegia (Columbine, Granny's Bonnet)
    Hellebore
    Feverfew
    Calendula (Marigold)
    Verbena bonariensis
    Verbena hastata
    California poppies (Eschscholzia)
    Poppies (Papaver somniferum)
    Snapdragons (Antirrhinum)
    Verbascum, aka Mullein
    Linaria purpurea (Purple toadflax)
    Honesty (Lunaria annua)
    Teasels (big but great for wildlife)
    Nasturtiums
    Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea)
    Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica)
    Cowslips (Primula veris)
    Violets

    Food self seeders:
    Orache (Atriplex hortensis rubra)
    Physalis, aka Cape Gooseberry
    Achocha (Cyclanthera)
    Fennel, green and bronze
    Wild garlic (ransoms, Allium ursum)
    Kale (I leave the flowers for bees to harvest the nectar, then don't always catch all the seed pods)
    Tomatoes, if the fruit drops and is left in the soil
    Strawberries, via the runners.

    Good luck!




    17 Sep 2018

    Garden gathered soup: Raymond Blanc recipe

    Bowl of chunky vegetable soup


    My son was feeling a bit peaky at the weekend so I made soup.  Not that I don't make soup at other times, it's just that soup with nutritious ingredients freshly gathered from the veg patch seems to be the perfect cure for autumn chills. (Of course the minute I typed those two words, the sun came out and it was really hot outdoors!)  I'm a big believer in the preventative power of good fresh food. (Beetroot seems to knock back the first signs of a cold for me. Works every time.)

    It's a nurturing instinct isn't it, to provide good food to boost the immune system against seasonal change. My mum thought so, as did the mother of chef Raymond Blanc.  The influence of his mother's cooking, based on ingredients grown in the family garden, is well documented.  I was lucky enough to sample the soup inspired by 'Maman Blanc' when I attended a workshop at the RB Gardening School a few weeks ago. Admittedly, on that occasion it was made in a two Michelin star kitchen but it was so delicious that to say it was clean and fresh yet with complex flavours doesn't do it justice. For me, it captures the connection between the garden and kitchen and proves the reason I grow fruit, veg and herbs.

    6 Sep 2018

    In September's sweet spot (End of month view)

    apple tree with fruit


    If there's a month of the year that food growers need to be ready for, it's September. (Or August if you grow courgettes!) It's a month of plenty so hopefully we're all enjoying eating some of what we've grown and working out how to make the most of the rest. It's a busy time in the kitchen so, over the next few weeks, I'll be writing a few posts on how I'm using and storing what's ripe in my veg patch.

    3 Sep 2018

    In among the asparagus ferns (square foot gardening)



    I've had a bit of a square foot garden experiment going on in the asparagus bed this year.  Five years ago, when I decided I wanted to try growing fresh asparagus spears, I ordered just five little plug plants - it's all about tiny tastes here - and set them out in a five dice shape in a one metre square raised bed.  Two of my five crowns have died off in the years since(1) so allocating a whole bed to one small perennial crop has made me think a lot about the waste of good growing space.

    14 Aug 2018

    Autumn sowing for winter leaves and spring flowers

    Sowing seeds; autumn winter salad leaves
    Time to get organised with some lists!

    Sow, Grow, Eat, Repeat is one of my favourite hashtags as it's a reminder that despite the changing seasons, it's possible to carry on growing food throughout the year.  Yes, really. (What? You thought it was all over as the weather turns autumnal?) There are plenty of hardy vegetables that provide me with a good excuse to get outside in the garden, even in the middle of winter.  And what could be better than freshly picked produce brought back into the kitchen with a clear head and rosy cheeks?


    8 Aug 2018

    Timely tips for a heatwave garden



    This summer has not been without its challenges for gardeners but I confess I'm enjoying the novelty of having a proper English summer, it's so nice to sit outdoors in the shade.  Daily watering of balcony plants in pots (tomatoes, chillies, salad leaves) has become a nightly ritual but I have to admit that watering pots downstairs in the garden is a hit and miss affair depending on the time available. But I have a few tricks up my sleeve for holding moisture in the garden for longer.

    2 Aug 2018

    30 degrees in the shade (July in the garden)

    So... July; how was it for you?  Here, like most of the UK, it was hot and dry. For most of the month I despaired as seeds failed to germinate, pea and bean crops failed, and garden pests abounded.  I considered the very real possibility of making the veg patch into a perennial drought garden next year. It would be pretty and not much work. I still haven't booted that thought out but the month ended on a happier note.  I now have a garden tap. Not exactly nearby but only two hosepipes away round the back of the flats that overlook the garden. After a heatwave summer, it was an exhilarating moment to turn that tap on and soak the garden.





    25 Jul 2018

    Dahlias - Café au Lait and a book review

    For the first time, this year I've introduced dahlias to the garden. I've always liked the look of them but a childhood dread has deterred me before now.

    In the past I've resisted growing dahlias as I thought they attracted earwigs.  As a teenager living in the Yorkshire countryside, I regularly found earwigs in my bed in the summer. (All part of life's rich tapestry at the time.) I've no idea how they got there but my bed was by the open window in our large old house so perhaps that was it. (An alternative option involving my siblings has not been ruled out.) The upshot was that I developed a lifelong aversion to the fleet footed, pincer tailed beasties.

    Dahlias and upturned flowerpot
    Upturned flowerpots are a ploy to keep the dahlias in top condition - stuff them with straw and the story goes that earwigs will nest in there during the day and are thus easily despatched moved away from your prize blooms.

    12 Jul 2018

    Five kilos of cherries


    July is the month of soft fruit and I absolutely adore the sight of ripe red cherries hanging from the trees in my garden - even knowing that the cherries in question are not sweet cherries. At the time the garden was repurposed for food growing, our group chose sour rather than sweet cherries. I'm not altogether sure that we knew what we were doing; I expect someone recognised the name Morello, perhaps from a delicious jar of store bought jam, and thought that was the cultivar to go for.  As it happens, it was a good decision in terms of location (Morellos don't mind a bit of shade) with the bonus that birds leave the fruit alone ... on the whole.


    5 Jul 2018

    Some observations from the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

    Settle in for a long post, folks - I spent Monday at the third of the four main RHS summer flower shows, held in the best of locations at the rear of Hampton Court Palace.




    2 Jul 2018

    Weed, Mulch, Water, Clear



    It's been a busy month in the veg patch.  Every year I imagine that I'll reach that dreamed of moment when all that's needed is a little light watering in the evening and a chance to sit and relax.  Hohoho. Well, that's certainly not happening this year! (Does it ever?)

    As usual, there's been good and bad, yin and yang, light and shade.  The heatwave continues so watering is sparse but slugs are few; flowers have bloomed then faded much too quickly; aphids have been legion, weeds less so. Hopefully after my efforts in past weeks, the bad will have been nudged to one side. Temporarily, at least.


    1 Jul 2018

    Dappled Shade



    Can you believe this summer weather we're having in the UK? Day after day of cloudless blue skies, hot sunshine and gentle breezes.  Just fabulous; it beats the hell out of sitting indoors complaining about continuous rain which is what we've generally had to contend with in previous summers.

    No, this summer is the stuff that childhood memories are made of and we Brits will probably be talking about it for some time.  You know how we do love to chat about our unpredictable weather. But, and please don't think I'm complaining, I'm not partial to gardening in extreme heat.  It makes me go a bit wobbly so, generally, I try to avoid the midday heat.  Frequently though, I get so involved in what I'm doing that I lose track of time and, as luck would have it, I have a nice little spot of shade to head into for a cool down. The importance of a small corner of dappled shade in a garden can't be overemphasised in my opinion, even in a country that's prone to soggy summers.

    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!


    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.

    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).

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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 😊 ~

    11 Apr 2018

    Book(let) Review: Ten Poems about Sheds (Instead of a card)

    Poems about sheds? What's not to love!

    But at the risk of sounding like a complete Philistine, I admit that I've always preferred prose to poems.  I like to get stuck into the narrative and subtleties of a good book and all but a handful of poems leave me either baffled or indifferent. A Romantic, I am not.

    So when Candlestick Press asked recently if I would like to review their latest publication 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I was initially reluctant but I took a look anyway.  The title alone is enough to pique the interest of any gardener - don't we all have a bit of a thing about sheds?




    4 Apr 2018

    The Real End of Month View for March, in April

    At the weekend I wrote about spring flowers that are currently blooming around and in the veg patch but didn't look at the wider view of what else is happening. It's easier to focus in on the detail when skies are grey!  So, for a proper end of month view, I took another wander around the various little patches that I manage here - the veg patch, the shady border, the washing line border and the middle garden. (Yes, my patch has spread outwards over the years!)

    The Veg Patch


    Urban Veg Patch - Urban food garden
    ~ After the tidy up ~
    Urban Veg Patch - fruit and veg in early spring
    ~ Spring growth - rhubarb and ransoms, tulips and fruit buds ~
    Spring weather has been challenging for us gardeners - a bit of in/out, in/out, but don't shake it all about (seeds, that is!).  I resisted the urge to sow during March - mainly because my balcony is off limits at the moment, and it's too dark inside for seedlings. That worked in my favour as the weather was brutal at times. I risked sowing a few broad beans and sweet peas back in January. The broad bean plants have been sitting in the veg patch for a week now waiting for me to plant them during a break in the rain (and not being distracted by other jobs) while the sweet peas grow ever taller on my balcony in the shade of the scaffolding boards above.

    1 Apr 2018

    Six on Saturday: End of March in the garden



    Goodness isn't weather fickle! Was that typical for March? It seemed winter would never end. We never know what the weather's going to do from one year to the next and this past month garden plants must have wondered whether winter was coming or going. Here in the UK, we've had snow, we've had sun, we've had rain, chill winds and then we've had more sun, and now to round off the month, it seems we're in for a week of rain. And I've got a hedge to plant. A new waterproof gardening coat has been ordered.

    Despite the weather, there are several #sixonsaturday things happening in the garden today:

    6 plants flowering now, showing that spring is well under way:


    UrbanVegPatch: first tulip flower end of March

    1. Tulips - yes really! starting to open in March. A big shout out to Morrison's supermarket for these as this is the third spring they've flowered. Planted into a raised bed with nothing-fancy multi-purpose compost. Five minutes to plant the bulbs, no maintenance, big return on the floral front but I don't pick them. I think they cost me £3 for 50 bulbs; a bargain. Look out for the bulbs from August onwards.


    2. Forget-me-nots - the gift that keeps on giving.  I had a few plants from a friend's garden the year before last as they look so pretty in spring. Oh boy. Who knew they could self seed so far and wide! I still think they brighten up the early months but am confused. Some have opened pink; surely they should all be blue, or will they turn colour? Anyone?


    3. Pulmonaria.  More commonly known as Lungwort due to its spotty leaves. Such an unattractive name for a beautiful little plant.  Also known as Soldiers and Sailors or Spotted Dog. I thought that was a pudding ... no, that's Spotted Dick. I digress. The buds have threatened to flower for weeks and have finally started to open. Hurrah!


    4. Daffodils - yellow daffs have been going strong for weeks through snow and ice but the white ones, my favourites, have only just opened. I have no idea of the exact name as, again, these were Morrison's specials, £3 for 50 mixed white bulbs. The white tulips are lovely but I've been digging up the tiny alliums ever since.


    5. Violets. I pictured a bank of wild thyme, oxlips, nodding violets, woodbine and eglantine - a throwback to studying Shakespeare at school. The reality is a few solitary flowers that become slug fodder every spring. They're seeding themselves around though so I'll pot a few up for the middle garden where I'm about to plant some eglantine (Sweet Briar Rose) and the woodbine (honeysuckle) is constantly striving for garden domination but forgiven for its lovely scent.



    6. Primulas.  These were the first 'wildflowers' I planted in the veg patch for early colour and early food for bees. They're still my favourites. I have cowslips (Primula veris), primroses (Primula vulgaris), drumstick primroses (Primula denticulata) and all reliably flower throughout March and beyond, being some of the earliest spring flowers. As oxlips are only found growing in ancient woodland, and often mistaken for cowslips, I think I'm there on that one.

    (A bonus to the list - the wood anemones and muscari have also flowered this weekend. So 8 plants, but why spoil a good meme!)



    6 jobs completed in March:

    1 - Dug out literally hundreds of foxglove seedlings
    2 - Moved self seeded Cavolo Nero seedlings to this year's spot.
    3 - Tidied up garden debris - swept up leaves, weeded, washed and tidied pots, disposed of litter ... yes, quite; it's a community garden so visitors/strangers/tenants and their families wander through. I'm still appalled that people will chuck plastic bottles, cigarette packets, beer bottles, plastic containers and food wrappers into a garden!! I also currently get scaffolders' debris. 😠
    4 - Ordered new netting to fence off the garden against cats and foxes.
    5 - Continuously picked up the 'calling cards' from said pesky critters. 😠
    6 - Pruned gooseberry bushes, redcurrant, and quince, pear and apple trees - just in time!

    6 jobs still to be done:

    Make lots of paper pots. Then sow hundreds of seeds ...
    Pot up spuds that are still chitting on the windowsill because I need more planters.
    Repair fence and remesh (see 'Jobs completed')
    Plant hedge - I'm going to grow an edible hedge! Excited? Oh yeah.
    Finish new layout and herb bed in middle garden.
    Move herbs from veg patch to other garden.
    Buy cover for balcony staging to turn it into a mini greenhouse.
    ... Oh, and heaps more but let's not get overwhelmed too early in the season.


    Linking to:
    #sixonsaturday hosted by The Propagator blog 



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