14 Oct 2018

Mid October: the autumn veg patch this year




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 an unbelievably hot and sultry summer. (Although today it's wet and windy so it would seem that the best of autumn might be behind us.)  The 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.

Winter salads:
With this late bout of warmth it's tempting to sow a few more seeds and I've got germinating trays of winter lettuces, coriander, chervil, spring onions and kale on the balcony. I bought coriander and basil from Johnson's new range of Micro Leaf seeds last week; the seeds are the same as in other herb packs but with double the quantities, or more. Both herbs have germinated impressively quickly. I'm growing the basil indoors as it's a tender herb and the coriander outside on the balcony as it doesn't mind cooler weather.  With shortening daylight hours, realistically these will mostly be eaten as micro leaves - and I'll keep sowing through the winter, bringing the trays indoors when it gets cold.

Sweet peas for summer:
Sweet peas have been sown - 2 to a cell - in deep root trainers; they're just starting to germinate a week later and the little plants will be perfectly fine on the balcony until they're planted out in spring. If/when they get leggy, just pinch the top back to 3 or 4 leaf pairs to create bushier plants. I've done this before and been picking the flowers at the beginning of June but that was during a mild winter, safe from the cruel winds and snow that we had last year. If the winter is harsh again, the seedlings will go into a friend's greenhouse under a layer of horticultural fleece.

Spring bulbs:
I bought all my bulbs a few weeks ago; they're currently stored in a big canvas tote bag under the table while I sort out where to plant them.  In the next fortnight, I want to plant out alliums, fritillaries, daffodils, anemones and ranunculus before the temperatures drop so that they have a chance to make some roots before winter. I'll probably put some in pots as well - some for the garden and some for the balcony.

Tulips are another matter. I'm replacing a lot of my bulbs this year as I last planted tulips under the fruit trees five years ago! I'm hoping for a sunny day when it's really cold at night, probably early to mid November, for this job in order to lessen the risk of tulip blight.  It's the same blight that will affect tomatoes and potatoes and can roll in on the wind after a humid summer. By planting later, frost will kill off blight spores although it's not as pleasant as planting on a warm autumnal day. And a good wash will sort out any blight spores lurking in pots.




In the veg patch ...
Baby Boo pumpkins have been harvested, the dried vines composted and tall purple sprouting broccoli staked against the wind. Asparagus fronds are so prolific that I've tied them together in a clump to control their swishiness.  The colour is just starting to fade in parts but I'll leave it another month before cutting the fronds down to allow the plants to harness as much energy as possible for next year.  The long nasturtium vines have been trimmed as they were becoming a tripping hazard, leaving a bank of the plants to climb up the surrounding fence. I even found several huge garlic bulbs growing under the leaves!  In past years my nasturtiums, all grown from dropped seed, have flowered in a range of colours from salmon, cream, striped yellow, deep orange and red. This year they're plain orange or plain yellow. Very odd. Maybe the seeds are gradually mutating! I've bought new seeds for next year and will try to remove as many dropped nasturtium seeds as possible this year.  Although that's probably a bit of wishful thinking on my part!

Herb flowers are now going to seed so I've cut them back; chive, salad burnet and sorrel will gradually disappear over winter but oregano and thyme will soldier on and be available all through the cold months to add flavour to casseroles and soup.

It's been a daily ritual to check the ripening quinces. Already a quince crumble has been made and eaten. I followed a Nigel Slater recipe; it was delicious but not as nice as plum or apricot crumble to be honest.  Perhaps some honey might have helped change my mind.  Some of the fruit had split so had to be used up quickly; the rest was left to ripen to gold on the tree.  Beautiful deep pink quince jelly has been made, recipe to follow.



Rosehips. While I had the jelly bag down off the high shelf for making quince jelly, it seemed a shame not to gather a few rosehips to make some syrup for winter. This rose, below, grows at one end of the veg patch gardens; I didn't plant it so can only guess at what it is, possibly a Rosa canina with white flowers. It's tucked in an awkward heavily shaded spot behind a large Viburnum so doesn't usually do much but seems to have responded to the glorious weather with hundreds of hips this year.  I had intended to leave the hips for birds but seeing the ground littered with so many fallen squashed fruits, decided to collect some for a more useful purpose.


So that just leaves the garlic and onion sets to plant out after I've moved all the self-seeded foxgloves, forget-me-nots, feverfew, honesty, verbena bonariensis, violets and strawberries. It never stops, does it? 



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 



30 Mar 2018

Mr Fothergill's 'Get Growing with David Domoney' and Dalefoot compost

Urban Veg Patch: Sowing seed tapes from Mr Fothergill's range


I woke up to sunshine this Friday morning and, in an optimistic mood, headed down to the veg patch to do some sowing. Mr Fothergill's, a UK seed company, had sent me a selection from their new Get Growing and Optigrow ranges to trial this year including Nantes carrot seeds and seed tapes of Spinach 'Samish' - both can be direct sown in March so I thought "let's get on with it!"

Mr Fothergill's David Domoney Get Growing range is new for this year and has been created to encourage anyone who is new to growing veg from seed. That might sound odd to seasoned gardeners but I've met many people who don't know where to begin, which seeds to choose or what to do with them. With clear printed instructions on the packet for sowing, growing and harvesting, plus advice and a QR code which links to more tips from David Domoney, anyone can hope for success.

Sunshine turned to rain very quickly and four hours later I was back indoors, soaked through from the rain but feeling good from having had such a productive time in the garden. It was only after the rain started to come down quite heavily that I thought it best to call it a day.

First job of the day was, as usual, to remove any tiny weeds from the beds - it really is the only way to keep on top of the problem, little and often - and then my thoughts turned to topping up the raised beds.  I have to do this every year, it's amazing how quickly the soil levels sink with all those worms munching and pooping away.

The plan today was to plant the spinach seed tapes, and intersperse with garlic (planted much too late but let's see what happens) and, in another bed, plant onion sets and intersperse those with rows of carrot seeds.  In my experience, the onions mask the carrot scent and deter carrot root fly, a nasty pest that burrows into the young root to lay its eggs. Eeuww.  Doesn't always work but has done for me. You can also put a 2ft/50cm high fine mesh barrier around the carrots as protection against these low flying beasties.  I topped up the carrot/onion bed with ordinary multi-purpose compost. Not too rich, just enough nutrients for a month or so and deep enough for Nantes carrots which are a short early type.


Urban Veg Patch: Improving soil with Dalefoot Double Strength compost


I've not used seed tapes before so I was keen to get the spinach tapes planted! In this bed, I used a light mulch of Dalefoot's Double Strength Wool Compost to supplement last year's soil.  Spinach likes soil to be nutrient dense and moist for a healthy crop and this particular compost from Dalefoot's comprehensive range will improve water retention as well as giving the soil a boost. The Strulch mulch from last year hadn't quite decomposed so I tickled the two mulches together before planting. No need to water as it had started to rain quite noticeably!

Urban Veg Patch: Planting out Mr Fothergill Get Growing seed tapes


The seed tapes were a revelation! The last thing I wanted to do with wet hands was to try and trickle a row of spinach seeds into a drill. With the tapes, all I had to do was anchor one end of the tape, roll it out into the little trench I'd made and cover it over. Job done! So quick and the instructions were very clear on spacing, depth, timings and how to do it.  The advice is to harvest every other plant to allow the remaining plants room to grow; or cut and come again up to four cuts for baby leaves.

I wondered whether it's the most economical way of growing spinach. The pack contained 6 metres of seeds across two 3 metre tapes; seeds are spaced roughly 1 inch apart on the tape, ie approximately 230 seeds for £2.99. This is slightly above the average cost but I imagine less seeds are wasted as they're pre-spaced for you.  I planted three one metre rows today which should give me around 115 plants. That sounds a lot! Maybe two rows would have been enough. Germination should be in one to two weeks with first pickings in May so I'll plant another row of tape towards the end of April.

I have to say I love the ease and speed of the seed tapes - with everything else that needs to be done at this time of year, it gets one box ticked off the list very efficiently.  Other seeds from the Get Growing range that I've been sent are parsnip seed tapes which I'm thrilled about as I've never been able to grow parsnips before, some cherry tomato seeds that are for growing in pots and seed mats for 5 varieties of herbs to grow year round indoors.  As a very keen herb grower, I'm excited about the seed mats and will be trialling those in pots on the balcony.

All round, I feel this is a good range for newbie growers but let's see how the plants perform. I'll report back as and when but do give them a whirl if you're not sure where to start with veg growing ... even if you just have a windowsill or front door step; where the seeds can be grown - pots or direct sow outdoors - is clearly marked on the packet!
🌱😀🌿


27 Mar 2018

Purple, Prince of fruit and veg

UrbanVegPatch Red Bull brussels sprouts
~ Purple reigns! Red Bull Purple Brussels Sprouts growing in the veg patch ~


Did anyone notice the purple cauliflower purée on the latest series of UK Masterchef?  It was more creamy mauve than purple and judge John Torode said straightaway that he wasn't a fan of the colour; I have to agree, it did not look appealing, but I've read time and again recently that purple veg has  been creeping up to the top of the superfood trend for the past year. I even had purple sweet potato patties at a vegetarian supper club recently which I thought was a novel concept but, blow me down, if I didn't find purple sweet potatoes at the supermarket at the weekend.

So what is it with these so-called superfoods? Personally, I believe that eating any organically grown and freshly harvested food helps to maintain good health but, apparently, the deeper the colour of the food, the greater the nutrients within. Scientists say that purple food contains very high levels of anthocyanins. These powerful anti-oxidants are known to combat free radicals in our bodies thereby boosting our immune systems and, in turn, reducing inflammation, keeping our hearts healthy and helping to fight the ageing process.  It's also been found that regularly eating these foods can reduce the risk of getting high blood pressure and maintain good cholesterol levels.  So far, so fabulous.

However, it has to be said that eating a bowl of purple potatoes is not going balance out any unhealthy eating (hello, cheesy biscuits) but as I already grow - and eat - a rainbow of veg, I thought I'd take a look at which purple veg I've grown in the veg patch, enjoyed, and will grow again.

1. Purple kale. Redbor is a deep red curly kale in the purple spectrum, grown when I trialled several varieties to see which I liked best. I've also grown a Russian kale 'Red Ursa' which is pale green with beautiful purple ribs. Both were very tasty, slightly sweeter and milder than green kale. (Although my must-have kale will always be Cavolo Nero which, btw, is also a superfood.)

2. Purple carrots. I grew these a few years ago as a fun experiment and they were very tasty. Those had an orange core; this year I'm growing Purple Sun which keeps its colour through to the core. All carrots were originally purple like this; orange carrots are a 16th century innovation.

3. As Purple Sprouting Broccoli turns green when cooked, I'm not sure that it counts, same for the purple beans I've grown (Blue Lake, Cosse Violette). I've got seeds for several varieties this year that will, in theory at least, give me a staggered crop from October to April next year.

4. Then there was my all time favourite for both looks and taste, purple brussels sprouts.  (See top photo. Gorgeous.) These were a red ball sprout, the flavour is reckoned to be superior to green sprouts. And if you don't like sprouts, try stir frying them with bacon - you might change your mind.

5. Purple Pacific asparagus, turns green on steaming. Pops up every year and is very delicious but doesn't seem to have multiplied at all - and I think one of the crowns may now be deceased. Last year I had a total of 15 stems over the entire season! Still, mustn't complain, they were very tasty with a poached egg.

6.  Aubergine. So delicious in so many recipes; it's only the skin that's purple but it still counts. Baba Ganoush, anyone?  Last year I grew baby aubergines, this year I have seeds for a compact aubergine 'Pinstripe' which can be container grown on my balcony. The velvety leaves and purple flowers don't look amiss in the flower border either.

7.  Purple Potatoes.  In 2013 I grew a purple skinned, purple fleshed potato called Vitelotte. What I failed to realise was that when you're choosing from over 80 varieties of heritage potato, it pays to make a note of the recommended use. Vitellote was deemed excellent for chips; not realising this, I boiled mine for mash with disastrously sloppy pale mauve results. Five years on and UK seed company Dobies are offering a purple potato that claims to be "ideal for mashing, baking, roasting, microwaving, crisps and chips".  I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of purple mash on my cottage pie, or purple chips, although it would certainly be a talking point.

8.  Beetroot. Sometimes it's red, sometimes almost purple. It was a root vegetable that I couldn't stand until I grew some at the start of the veg patch years, then I learned to appreciate it and now I love it. I just wish I could find the recipe for those little chilli flavoured beets that can be bought in the supermarket! Meantime, there's always beetroot chocolate cake. (Link to my recipe.)

There are two more purple veg that I haven't grown before but I'm intrigued to try this year:

9. Purple Kohl Rabi - hadn't crossed my horticultural horizon until last summer. I now know it's a brassica, similar to a turnip or broccoli stem in flavour, but crunchy, mild and sweet. Apparently the purple is slower to grow than the green but I've ordered seeds and let's see!

10. Purple 'Shiraz' snow peas.  I always have mangetout growing in the veg patch as I use them a lot in cooking but have never grown purple ones before. I expect they taste the same, but with added nutrients, and there's a bonus of lovely bi-coloured flowers!  Plus I can't resist eating the young pods raw.

But the one thing that I haven't grown - and won't be anytime soon - is a purple cauliflower.

So, anyone plumping for purple veg this year?  





18 Mar 2018

Six hero herbs for an evergreen kitchen herb garden


For two days this week the weather here was gloriously uplifting - warm air and spring sunshine - and about time too, you might think! But with settling snow falling over London again today, I'm appreciating six herbs that seem to simply shrug off the worst of the winter weather. These six evergreen herbs can be grown on a windowsill, balcony, or garden and provide freshly picked flavours for my kitchen all year round.

I confess I've never had much luck growing herbs indoors; there's simply not enough good light in my flat - it switches from shade to full sun or vice versa depending which window I'm looking out of. I'm lucky to have a small balcony though and if I didn't have that, I'd anchor planters onto the window sills. Of course I also have herbs in the veg patch garden but when it's cold and dark, it's much nicer just to reach through a door or window.

Tried and tested over the years, I've successfully grown these particular kitchen herbs year round on my third floor balcony, with no extra heat or protection. This past week I've had to clear my balcony completely before it was thoroughly jet washed as part of ongoing building works so all plants have been temporarily removed to the garden downstairs for safety. They’ll withstand ice and snow but not the blast of a powerful water jet!

So these are my six hero herbs; the trick with all of these is to make sure that the compost they’re in is kept just moist but well drained. Waterlogged or parched plants will not survive!

Parsley (Petroselinum)



With more vitamin C in its leaves than an orange, this is the herb I’m never without. The curly leaved variety is what I grow on my balcony. The seeds can be slow to germinate so I buy a supermarket herb and transfer it straight out of its pot and into good quality compost in a planter. It needs to acclimatise/recover from its hothouse start in life but, if the weather's warm enough, it can go straight outside. Watch out for those night time temps though! The roots are free to grow and the plant thrives. Parsley is biennial, so tries to flower in the second year, at which point I replace it.

Celery Leaf (Apium graveolens)



Assuming you like the taste of celery (I do), this is a perfect alternative to celery for the windowsill  or container gardener. This biennial herb is hardy down to -12°C so will happily sit through all but the harshest winters. I add a few leaves to salad but mostly use it in stocks and soups. Edible seeds follow pretty spring time flowers and are delicious ground with sea salt when dried. Sow seeds in spring for a continuous crop.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)



Over time, these can grow huge when planted in the ground so I prefer to keep mine contained in a pot to restrict its size. I bought a small lollipop bay some years ago, repotted it into a similar sized beautiful terracotta container and now replace the top inch of soil every year in spring. Bay likes its roots to be pot bound so it's a perfect container herb. Adds a subtle flavour to casseroles, a classic addition to bouquet garni, and intriguingly good in rice pudding.


Sage (Salvia officinalis)



I love having aromatic sages in the garden but, on my balcony, I grow Common Sage for cooking with. As a Mediterranean herb, it’s well suited to the rigours of life on the edge - the crosswinds of an urban balcony can be very damaging to plants - but sage, as with other grey/green or silver leaved plants, takes these conditions in its stride. Growing in a container keeps it at a manageable size, and it makes a tasty addition to vegetable dishes - I particularly love it with squash. It’s also reputed to have anti-aging properties, need I say more?


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)



It looks and smells amazing in a winter wreath but that’s not why I grow it. I have an Italian friend who makes a delicious pizza topped with thin slices of potato, chopped rosemary and cheese. It’s one of the classic ‘Scarborough Fair’ four and is excellent for aiding digestion which is why it’s so great with lamb or other fatty meats. It’s versatility extends beyond the kitchen and I love fresh sprigs steeped in warm almond oil to make a muscle soothing rub.

Thyme (Thymus)



The natural habitat of this hardy evergreen herb is paths, rockeries and cliffs so it’s not only a classic culinary herb but perfectly suited to balcony or container life.  My favourite is the low growing creeping thyme in the veg patch garden which I pick from regularly; on my balcony, for ease of access, a small upright thyme is grown in the window box at the edge for maximum light.  This summer I'll switch that out for an orange scented thyme (Thymus 'Fragrantissimus') which I've read is wonderful with sweet dishes, and possibly also cocktails! All thymes can be used for cooking but also medicinally - an infusion of the leaves makes a soothing tea for sore throats because of its antiseptic properties.

And, last but not least, soil for containers:

Good soil is at the heart of every successful garden. Because the substrate that I grow these container herbs is rarely changed, I use a soil based compost such as John Innes No.3 mixed with perlite for added drainage and, during spring and summer, water in an organic liquid fertiliser every few weeks.

What are your hero herbs at this time of year?

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