29 Apr 2013

It's all bloomin' lovely!

I've spent the weekend sowing seeds and heaving out weeds.  I was in the garden by 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, appreciating the stillness and warm sun on my back.  It felt really good to be outside without a  woolly hat and warm coat, reconnecting with the garden and taking the time to really take stock of what was going on.

Fruit tree border 28 April
After the big Weed Out: 16.5 square metres of weed free tidiness, ready for planting.
Mostly it was a case of clearing the weeds (Hairy Bittercress and Chickweed) from the fruit tree border - a job that brought me up close to the blossom on the trees as I have to clamber into the walled border.  There's no rain or frost forecast for at least the next 10 days and the warm weather has certainly got the bees buzzing around.  I am therefore quietly optimistic of having some fruit this year.

One of the cherry trees - a Morello - was relocated to a walled corner last year (just seen in the distance, by the steps); its blossoms are already open.

Cherry blossom 28:4:13

The other Morello has hundreds of buds just waiting to unfurl...

Cherry blossom by steps 28:4

The apple trees, both Braeburn, didn't produce one solitary fruit last year.  This year I've counted 12 clusters of blossom on one tree alone.  I'll keep an eye on these; if they all pollinate, I'll need to thin some of the fruit later on.  It's the same story with the pears and plums which is just wonderful.

Apple blossom 28:4:13

Throughout the garden I'm finding self-seeded Orach (Atriplex rubra) also known as Mountain Spinach.

Orach 28:4:13

It's both an edible and ornamental, with edible young leaves - salads or cooked like spinach - and the most glorious bright pink seed pods later in the year.  I bought one tiny plant at an NGS plant sale a couple of years ago. Last year a transplanted self-seeder grew to over 8 feet tall; the dried seed pods looked so wonderful that I left them in situ and the wind has done the rest.  The seedlings can easily be pulled out if unwanted or transplant really well. I shall, of course, keep several for my Salad Challenge.

Can I just indulge and show off these two beauties?  The Cerinthe (aka Honeywort) seed blew into a pot of Lemon Balm last year, grew to a foot high, just about survived the winter and has revived itself to flower early.  One of my absolute favourite flowers, I love the glaucous leaves and purple flowers and grow them to provide food for the bees so that they'll home in and find my beans in the process.

Cerinthe 28:4:13

And, lastly, an Aquilegia I bought recently - another Morrison's bargain - that has established really well into my new shady border.  I can't get over how pretty it is and stop to look every time I pass by - which is kind of the point in planting up a border previously used as a cat toilet/rubbish dump.

Aquilegia 28:4:13

Btw, that was definitely not a 15 minute blog post! Too many photos. Just came in under one hour. Ah well.

27 Apr 2013

Salad Days are here again

The 52 Week Salad Challenge was pioneered last year by Michelle over at Veg Plotting. The challenge is to grow and eat home-grown salad for as many weeks as you can in the year, hopefully for a full year (even in winter!).  Participants in The Challenge share growing tips and blog posts once a month. I thought I'd missed the boat but the challenge is being run again this year (back by popular demand!) and apparently it's never too late to join in.

I didn't grow any salad last year (the less said about that, the better).  This year the idea of growing a variety of salad leaves has taken hold in my imagination, prompted by Michelle's challenge and Naomi's descriptions of the leaves she's growing.  So, in mid-March I sowed a few seeds in a windowsill propagator, topped it off with perlite and kept the container rotated towards the light.

First salad leaves sown mid-March

I'd intended to start by growing a few baby salad leaves from outdated seeds but, 4 weeks after sowing, they'd developed into such sturdy little plants that I've repotted quite a few for growing on outside in the garden.  These are beetroot leaves, Saladin (Cos type lettuce), Cavolo Nero kale, Lollo Rosso lettuce.

Transplanted first leaves

Having delved back into my seedbox, I've come up with what I hope will be an interesting mix of leaves for my challenge.

Buttercrunch - an all year round butterhead and Little Gem Cos (Pennard's Heritage seeds)
Mizuna - finely cut leaves, good flavour
Lamb's Lettuce - leaves with a delicate flavour
Bijou - A splash of colour from red frilly leaves.
Lobjoits Green Cos - a tall crisp lettuce, sweet and crisp.
Mixed red leaves, especially for containers.
Mustard - for oriental colour and bite!
Salad Rocket, Purple Choysum and Bull's Blood beetroot leaves (Jekka McVicar seeds)
Salad Burnet (cucumber flavoured herb), Broadleaf Sorrel (tangy leaves) (More Veg seeds)

Salad seed selection

I've never been averse to chucking a few baby spinach or orach leaves into a salad either.

I always grow nasturtiums, they look so pretty and are very effective at attracting aphids away from other veg;  the leaves and flowers are edible or can be made into pesto so I've grown extra this year.  So far I have Black Velvet, Blue Pepe, Empress of India and Tom Thumb Alaska. Most will go outside into the veg patch but a few are now earmarked for the salad challenge.

Nasturtium leaves

Carrots are another interesting one ... I wasn't going to bother with growing carrots this year although I enjoyed the Little Fingers carrots that I grew in pots last year but then I read that young carrot leaves can be eaten as a salad leaf so they're now back on the sowing plan.  I'm looking forward to seeing whether there is any truth in that and will let you know soon!

24 Apr 2013

Conquering the 15 minute blog post

Sweet Pea Swan Lake

The warm weather over the last week or so has sent gardeners into a frenzy of seed sowing and transplanting, by all internet accounts.  I have not been immune to this as I've previously delayed sowing anything, instead enjoying the relaxed calm of being unable to plant anything out, bar my broad beans and hardy herbs.  This week though, my waking thoughts are concerned with which seeds I can quickly sow before work or in my lunch break, I calculate which plants can be planted out in the hour after work and before dusk falls.  I'm constantly poking my fingers deep into the soil in seed trays to make sure they're correctly watered.  There's a huge amount of seeds to sow and plants to go out and this has coincided with the start of college's summer term, assignments to be completed ready to hand in and a visit to two trade nurseries, as well as digging over and planting up a small shady border at the road end of the garden.

I've taken photos and composed posts in my head but have had no spare time to write anything; so, today, I have resolved to try and master the art of the quick blog post so that I can post more often and keep up with all that's happening.  Well, that's the theory anyway!

And today's photo?  Well that's a sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus as I have to practise Latin names), growing on my balcony since last year and behaving like a perennial.  It was a pathetic spindly thing that never died at the end of last summer but, as it still had green leaves, I didn't have the heart to pull it out.  I've had greenery all through the winter months and now it's about to flower again.  It's a subtle creamy coloured flower called 'Swan Lake' and very welcome as a sign of the muddled up weather we've had, growing among the mini daffodils, muscari, violas and herbs in my balcony window box.

Hmm.  30 minutes. Not bad.  Over and out.

13 Apr 2013

Hort Couture

Looks like it's going to be a good weekend for being outdoors, but I've already been making the most of the dry but cold weather of recent weeks to start the process of reclaiming another of the long walled borders.  For the ten years that I've lived here, this border has become increasingly overgrown without any annual maintenance with the result that it had begun to take over the adjacent path.

Border to clear

Two summers ago the Hebe at the far end was covered with pink blossom and hundreds of bees busily gathering nectar.  Everywhere I looked, busy, busy bees.  Last year there was no blossom and no bees.  The shrub seemed tired and neglected; lots of spindly twiggy branches under a very shallow but dense canopy of leaves - and sitting in a bed increasingly filled with plastic rubbish.  It was time for some drastic action, especially while the weather remained cold and before any spring growth appeared.
So over the Easter weekend (and spurred into action by my visit to Great Dixter), I wrapped up against the Siberian winds and popped down to the garden with my pruning saw, secateurs and lots of green waste bags.  I meant to just make a start but quickly realised how silly it would look to stop half way along.  One important point of gardening in a community area is to be aware of the visual impact of your work and not abandon projects half way through.  People may not want to get stuck in themselves, but they'll soon say something if a mess is left behind!

Seeing daylight

I hadn't planned on giving over half of my Easter weekend, but that's what was needed.  Once I'd starting pruning, I found two Hebe bushes (over 8 feet tall), a Cotoneaster, an Eleagnus, a Choisya ternata, several varieties of Cornus with stems 15 to 20 feet long with honeysuckle and ivy tightly binding the various shrubs together.  The bare branches underneath were rather beautiful so I just took away the side growth, and dead or crossing wood from the interior, leaving the top canopy to provide some summer shade, and shelter for birds. (Next winter will be soon enough for further work on these shrubs.)

My very good friend Leigh brought regular cups of tea and came as soon as she could to help me trim and bag up the green waste on day two - over 20 large bags went to be recycled! (Plus several carrier bags of plastic bottles, food wrappers, a shoe, a couple of socks, some toys and an old milk bottle - how long had that been there?!)

We were kept company throughout both days by this little chap ...

Robin on branch

... who took a great interest in the proceedings, and was duly rewarded with mealworms and other tasty bird treats once the rubbish was cleared.

Robin supervising

This was the view down to my little veg patch after final bags of woody branches and cornus stems had been disposed of - although I rather regret that last act of clearance as Lorna at The Green Lady has been writing of making hurdles and wreaths out of willow and cornus stems.  I feel I've missed an opportunity to create some lovely natural fences in the veg garden!  (If you fancy having a go, be aware that both willow and cornus stems will root very easily so should only be used for weaving the horizontals.)

Shady border
~ That's better! ~
The photo below is one I took in 2011 as I stood and watched the bees busily at work on the Hebe. If I've done the work properly I very much hope to see this scene again with plenty of food provided for visiting bees along with the other nectar rich flowers and herbs that will be growing in the veg garden by the beginning of summer.

Hebe bees

28 Mar 2013

Great Dixter: It was Just A Perfect Day

Dixter porch

It doesn't happen often but, once in a while, the Perfect Day comes along and leaves a lingering residue of contentment, inspiration, satisfaction, warmth.  Yesterday was such a day.  Thanks to the kindness and organisation of Naomi at Outofmyshed and Catherine at Great Dixter, I joined a small group of garden bloggers at this very special house and garden in East Sussex.

Closed ...

The gardens were not yet open to the public (opening tomorrow, Friday 29th March) so, apart from staff and busy gardeners, we had the place to ourselves. As guests, we were welcomed with coffee and cake and a busy day had been planned for us, starting with an eagerly awaited talk from Fergus Garrett about the work that they do at Dixter.  He's deeply passionate about all he and his team do so, despite his protestations of going on too long, we were charmed, amused, inspired and informed.  An excellent talk by any standards and, for me, the highlight.

The rest of the day disappeared far too quickly with a tour of the nursery, the house, the restored medieval Great Barn and a 'behind the scenes' tour of the garden with assistant Head Gardener Siew Lee.  Every person we met spoke generously and knowledgeably about their work; as a result, I've come home with a notebook (and mind) filled with advice, recommendations, subjects to research and ideas which will be written about in future posts.

But, for now, it's a dry, bright - if chilly - day in North London and I feel so uplifted and inspired by the people that I met yesterday that I can't wait to get back to work in the gardens here.

That's the power of a good garden visit and the joy of meeting with like-minded blogging and gardening souls.

Smile ...
Even the logs are happy at Great Dixter!
And a fuller post can wait for another day.

26 Mar 2013

Spaghetti squash: a good winter veg

Prepping squash
An ice-cream scoop is the perfect tool for removing squash seeds.
Snow clinging to the roof tiles suggests a lunch of warming soups and squashes rather than salad. I haven't got any winter veg growing to fill the 'hungry gap' (last year's downpours rotted my perennial caulis, slugs got the rest) but what I do have, stored from last Autumn, are my spaghetti squashes, also known as my Squashed Pyjamas. They were one of my trophy veg last year because, after a very slow start, a couple of weeks of late summer sunshine revived their spirits and they grew almost daily, greening up the spaces between the fruit trees and producing several torpedo sized squashes before the season end. These were duly stored on a high shelf in my kitchen, probably not the most appropriate spot but it seems to have worked.

I retrieved one of the smaller squashes from its lofty perch at lunchtime on Sunday and prepped it for the oven with spices and herbs. (And my pruning saw - the rind is hard.) It was delicious.  A simple meal of good home-grown veggie nosh.  And with the added bonus of a snack bowl of edible seeds, also oven roasted - although I pulled out a few for resowing before they went into the oven.

I'm waiting for the weather to warm up to a regular 5C before I start sowing any seeds, meanwhile taking the opportunity to finalise what I'll grow in the veg patch this year. These squashes have definitely earned their place, albeit a rather large one as they need a lot of room.  Last year I started them off in 3 inch pots (set the seed on its side) and found they quickly needed potting on. Treat them like courgettes and plant them out in late May or early June in a sunny spot, keep them well-watered and well-fed (plenty of organic matter before planting preferably) and have bee friendly plants nearby to guide the bees in the right direction for pollinating the flowers.

Squash Pyjamas is less "floury" than butternut squash and more tasty than marrow. When cooked, the flesh shreds easily into strings, hence 'spaghetti' squash.  I cut mine in half, drizzled olive oil over the top, added a sprinkle of dried herbs, some smoked paprika, salt and pepper and then an extra smidgeon of butter on the top - and then roasted it for an hour at 180C.  A few slices of bacon would have only increased the pleasure. The seeds were washed of all squash flesh, dried and tossed in olive oil, sprinkled with the same herbs and seasoning as the squash and roasted for 15 minutes.  These make a very, very nice crunchy snack.

Eating squash

I bought my Squash Pyjama seeds from More Veg, a good investment at 3 seeds for 75p. In a good summer, this should yield at least 15 squashes - 5 per plant. Even in last year's washout weather, I still had 6 squashes from the two seeds that I grew; both germinated and I left the third seed as a standby which, as it turns out, was not needed.  The supplied seeds are not F1 so I presume  I can resow my seeds saved from the best plant, in which case my initial investment is even more of a bargain!  And don't forget, if we get a good summer and the squashes fruit prolifically as promised, I can also take a few of the edible flowers to add to salads or stuff them before deep frying, as per zucchini fritters.

Now I'm wondering if the young leaves can also be eaten, as you can with very young courgette leaves...

23 Mar 2013

Welcome to Spring ...

Snowy cowslip

My favourite thing at the weekend is to take five minutes to think through the day ahead before getting out of bed. (Once up, the reality of running a household can derail my objectives so it helps to have a plan already in place.)  Earlier this morning, still in bed, toasty and warm, eyes closed, I could hear that yesterday's gale force freezing winds had died down so the day seemed full of potential.

Having lost all of last weekend to a flu-like virus, I thought of all that could be done over the next two days.  First, I wanted to visit the RHS Grow Your Own show at Wisley, followed by a brisk walk round the gardens.  Second, was to get into the veg garden, dig over and replant the herb bed, plant out the two edible shrubs and raspberry canes recently bought and start to cut back the enormously overgrown shrubs in the middle border. That was enough to be going on with so I got up, full of optimism, and drew the curtains ... to be met with a view of thickly falling snow settling on the hedges.

Yesterday I noticed long drifts of opening daffodils throughout the college grounds in tune with the Spring equinox three days ago.  This morning, Siberian winds have taken the UK back into winter. Surely it's time the wintry weather was over?

Snowy veg patch
I won't be doing any digging today!
I walked down to the garden to take a few snaps for posterity.  There was more slush than snow but freezing easterly winds had created ice drops on the leaf tips of shrubs. Since then it's been snowing heavily all day and is just, mid-afternoon, starting to settle.

Frozen cornus

Out of interest, I looked back over what I'd written in March of previous years.  Last year the weather had become clement enough to have a nine hour tidying stint outdoors; I wrote about planting herbs and that garlic shoots were growing well. In 2011, I was thrilled to discover my pear trees thick with blossom and harvested Romanesco cauliflowers for my supper. 2010 saw the first of my spring posts as we'd started the veg patch in the previous year.  I wrote about my trip to Sarah Raven's Perch Hill farm and Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage, clear blue skies and eating baby spinach, beetroot and spring onions from the garden and seeing the Broccoli Raab florets forming. I remember that the entrance fee to Perch Hill was waived as the garden wasn't as advanced as expected for the time of year and rain had recently fallen so other visitors had a right old time trying to unstick their vehicles from the oozing mud in the car parking field.

I wrote about chilly winds at the beginning of March in all three previous years so perhaps this Spring isn't so different, although I don't think it was this cold.  Could warmer weather be just around the corner for this year as well?  Gosh, I hope so!

Frozen cerinthe
Iced Cerinthe leaves.
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