Monday, 12 June 2017

A new plot II

Following on from 'A New Plot', here is another installment of our latest project. One of the issues with such an overgrown area is where to start, there has to be a starting point and really it should spread from there rather than trying to clear too much of it at once. There are areas where I've removed the clumps of couch grass so that it will deprive it of some of its energy sources and so that we can see what we're dealing with (bindweed roots mostly). But as there are 3 large and serviceable raised beds it's made sense to tackle those and see if we can clear them enough to start planting, as I write this we're just starting on the third!

As the main reason for taking this one on in such a hurry was to get some squashes in, it's made sense to do so, apart from an overflow of cauliflower and some runner beans we've found a home for the pumpkins so that they can grow in relative peace. This year's slug predation has been unprecedented from my experience so where I should have half a dozen butternut squash, I have 2 and the same goes for the "Crown Prince". There is a big argument for advocating organic gardening and on that, I'm not going to change, but sometimes it can wear you down when no matter how vigilant you are. One night of some hungry gastropods can wipe out an entire year's crop before it's even started. 

As you can see, there is some progress being made with adding some order to the area with a load of woodchip that was delivered making paths around the beds to keep the weeds that we've inevitably missed from making a reappearance. One useful idea that I've employed on my other plot is to have a board that runs the width of the raised beds and prevents you from having to walk on the soil, it makes weeding a lot easier too.

I also acquired a few bags full of conifers from a friend that I intend to make into a low hedge all the way around, I'm hoping that they are of a manageable size but at present have not idea what they are so I may be unpleasantly surprised as they start to put on growth. If anyone has any ideas could you let me know, the picture above is what they currently look like.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Latest and greatest

Each year I get inundated with emails and catalogs selling me the latest and greatest in horticultural wares, some new technologies, some pointless slug control ideas, some classic garden favorites and then the new plants. I'm not talking about a variety of sunflower that will grow taller than your house but of the Alstroemerias that are a different shade of orange or a series of poppies that have a growers rights restriction upon them. I like the variety of plants and flowers and I can understand that there are plant breeders that take great pleasure in doing this, but I just don't see the point. Like many other industries, this one exists not on supply and demand but on products being created for the purpose of being pushed on the buying market. From what I read there seem to be few people crying out for trademarked Artemisia or a Potentilla with slightly more orange flowers. I may be very cynical as I'm impatient and aren't inclined to give the time to hybridising plants, and I understand that there are others for whom this is an absorbing occupation. Propagation of plants is a pass time that I find unrivaled in the pleasure that I derive from it, and in its own way, unless I'm using F1 seed, I'm adding to that genetic diversity myself. But it's not the intention and I go to no lengths to make sure that any plants I do produce are kept isolated from any others that might sully the purity of their unique genetics.
If I'm to plant up a garden or to augment my own with something to change the way that a bed looks then there are thousands upon thousands of options available to me, I don't really care that I have a very specific variety or cultivar. Colour I admit is hugely important and plants are most often primarily selected for this, but the changes that are presented to you on a theme is so great across species that further classification will, on the most part, be wasted. There is a pleasure that is derived from collecting and that is another reason that I can understand people acquire a new plant or new cultivar to be precise but this again in the inverse of normal economics in that the demand is created by the supply.
Having recently been to Chelsea I was privy to some of the countries top nurseries and horticultural experts. To see the quality and skill that goes into the displays is quite amazing and I have the utmost respect the purveyors of the plants that were on display. Many of these I'm sure were specific hybrid plants though that were cultivated for the purpose of making them stand out from the crowd, this felt a little like Chelsea had become a giant trade show on one side and the Oscars of the horticultural world on the other. The Ideal Home Exhibition, but for gardens. I also visited RHS Rosemoor a few weeks later and was offered to get "The Chelsea Look", that was the opportunity to purchase the plants that were on display in the show gardens this year. I know that fashions come and go and that in gardens as well as clothes there are themes that change over time, but really if I like something it because I like it, not because someone else told me that I should.

I'm far from complaining about this as it was the highlight of my year so far and I took away from it a huge amount of inspiration and knowledge, what I do fail to grasp though is the idea that for us to enjoy our gardens and for designers to make the beautiful spaces that they do, we need another variety of Aquilegia that has never been seen before.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A new plot

This spring, as I was putting up the last of the hazel wigwams for my climbing beans, I came to the realisation that there was no space left. Every inch of the beds was accounted for and all the space I had at home was bursting with the pumpkins, peas, and cucumbers that were destined for them. There was only one sensible course of action that I could think of (apart from growing less), and that was that I need to take over another plot, soon.  After asking around, I found that there was a perfectly situated plot, really close to my other one, even closer to home and really accessible. In my opinion, it's the perfect situation due to the proximity of the water tap and the clear unbroken view of the sky it gets from dawn to dusk, the one catch is that most of it looks like this.
That's couch grass, and where the grass isn't is bindweed, this is a perfect cocktail of invasive plants that have had a run of the place for about a year, or so I've been told, I'd say several. As one never to be daunted by the prospect of turning a mess like this into a thing of beauty, I agreed to take it on maybe a little hastily as I've since found out. Firstly when I looked at the site there were 4 nice, overgrown but nice, raised beds. One week later when I began to tackle the abominable root network there were 3. It may be customary for abandoned plots to get raided but it doesn't go down well on the site and it ruffled a few feathers. I put a sign up asking for its return, but it's still missing, I think never to be seen again.

In reality, it's going to be a while before we get to tackling that one anyway, there are the other three and we're only half way through them at the moment. 
I started to clear all of the rubbish that had accumulated over the years to see if I could find the soil underneath too, 3 carloads down and I've only got one load left before I have to think about how to remove all of the carpets from the site. This one task, for the time being, is proving to be more than I can think about, so for now, it's staying tucked away on one of the overgrown corners. 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017


It always alarms me how fast the year appears to be careering past as I write this article several weeks before the end of the month, so in the middle of April I’m already talking about May. Unfortunately the same seems to be happening in reality and I feel like I’m constantly playing catch up with the impending seasons. The last of the dormant foliage will now have slipped out from it from its winter state and we can begin to see how all of the herbaceous plants are going to present themselves this year. Some plants have a habit of slowly moving around as the roots spread and send up new shoots the following year and some are just thugs that need some severe treatment to keep them in check. The weather so far though, has lent itself to promoting an abundance of growth and even now the place is starting to look a lot more like the garden that I’ve been longing for the last 4 months.

Starting a new garden can be daunting, with bare patches of soil in between small plants. Then doing battle with the pests that target the young and tender foliage. Unfortunately, unless you have very deep pockets, the only way is to take time and slowly let it all come together, it’s a long game, but one that has a very rewarding end. Hang in there and what seems like a lifetime away with come by almost unnoticeably, so that in just a little while you’ll have monstrous plants that are looming out of the beds at you. Personally I find that the slow process of building a garden to be infinitely more satisfying and rewarding than just popping along to the garden centre, emptying your wallet and decorating your garden as if it were a living room from Ikea. Part of the pleasure that I derive from doing it this way is the fact that you have to propagate to increase the stock of plants that you have at your disposal. Seeds are cheap, for example I had a packet of Amaranthus caudatus “Love Lies Bleeding” that germinated into 1000 seedlings, and many Aquilegia that I was given that are now coming into flower and filling a bed one year later. Some of these sell for £5-10, and they have cost me little more than patience.
Cuttings are another fabulous way of increasing the plants that you have already, and we are getting to a time in the year when it’s good to start looking around for things that you’d like more of. I had a surprise that I think came from a cutting last year, in the form of a beautiful Euphorbia palustris. It’s really one of the prettiest things in the garden at this time of year and is so delicate to feel that you’re hardly aware that you’re touching it at all. Next year I will have many more. Unfortunately with Euphorbias you have to be careful of the sap as it can be an irritant, so make sure that you protect your hands if you’re going to propagate any of them from cuttings.

A while ago I mentioned a venture that I’d embarked upon in my constant war on the slugs that seem to have a vendetta on me and my attempts at growing anything beyond a few inches tall. I’ve found that even once robust perennials are having a hard time getting going this this year due to the unrelenting onslaught. The new weapon was a strong solution of garlic (2-3 cloves crushed into a litre of water and left overnight), that is sprayed on anything that I want left alone. Although this has not been a total deterrent, along with a nightly 5 minute patrol I’ve managed to keep ahead of the game this year, I’d put the current score at slugs 1; Tim 2. Even with my two cats being very disabled, they still seem to keep the frogs from making much of an appearance and doing what I hoped they would, in hoover them up for me. As the slug hunting is an evening exercise, you can be getting on with some of these jobs during the day.

  • Keep an eye out for late frosts, after our very warm April, the night temperatures have plummeted again.
  • Start to water more regularly, early and late to make better use of it.
  • Although the nights can be cold, the days can warm up with the sun, so make sure you vent any greenhouses in the day.
  • Lift and divide any crowded clumps of spring flowering bulbs like Narcissi and Bluebells.
  • The weeds will be growing with vigour so try to keep on top of them while they’re still small.
  • Overseed lawns to give a better chance of lush grass over the summer.
  • Edge any lawns too as the grass will start to wander into the beds.
  • Prune overcrowded or diseased early clematis such as Montana once it’s done flowering. Look up the 3 clematis groups, this one is in group 1 and can take quite a beating.
  • Take softwood cuttings of deciduous shrubs like Physocarpus or Fuchsia (or Euphorbia).
  • Pest are also on the rise so you’ll have to start to keep an eye out for aphids caterpillars and worse, please keep it pesticide free though.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Seeds in space

What happens when you try to germinate and grow seeds in space? There should be a punch line to that but I've never been great at coming up with jokes, suggestions welcome. In reality, there are people actively working towards coming up with the answers on how this can be done effectively and with enough success to start a space farm.

With the race to the moon well and truly over and what seems little interest in returning, there is serious talk of sending humans beyond low earth orbit once again.  There is also a new goal in the sights of the world's great innovators and entrepreneurs, Mars. These new goals have many technical challenges, beyond the ability to have reusable rockets for transport and advances in propulsion mechanisms there is also the problem of feeding people for the long journeys that would be involved. NASA have started looking towards farming food in space in a sustainable way.

There's no secret to growing plants in synthesised environments, this is how much of the food that we have today is produced but the challenges that are faced are with the microgravity and with the lack of access to anything that isn't able to be transported into space along with the astronauts. The main goal will be to offset the food transport costs and provide them with a nutritious diet for the long journeys.

It was thought that the gravity was going to be a problem but it turns out that the plants didn't care and the roots grew quite happily in zero G as they would on earth, growing away from the seed and it germinated. There were obviously other cues that the plant was using to orientate the roots such as moisture, nutrients and light avoidance, much the opposite of what the shoots would be doing. Ultimately there seems to be no impediment to the plant growing in the reduced gravity that would be prevalent on a journey to another planet.

One issue that is going to need solving though is the fact that water acts so differently in the lower gravity, balling up rather than flowing. To get the water to the places that it's needed for the plant to get at it is going to require a little work but this will be one of the lesser hurdles that will be faced along the way to getting mass agriculture working off the planet.

The research is actively ongoing and is involving thousands of educational establishments to help with the program, so we may yet see farming to some degree outside of the reaches of this planet and an ongoing supply of food for long distance journeys in the future.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Time on my hands...

Or the total lack of. I've been frantically propagating over the last few months as I promised myself that I'd start to sell some plants this year. The first market is on Sunday (it's Tuesday now) and I'm worrying that there isn't enough to show. I'm sure that once I get it all out and presentable it'll be another picture but for now, I'm worrying.

The weather up until now, when it's taken a turn for the cold, has been excellent and I've been almost living outside, save eating and sleeping. It all came to a crashing halt today with near freezing mornings and hail showers during the day unfortunately. It does mean that I've come to the realisation that the current half plot I have at the allotment isn't going to cut it this year and I'm going to need to expand my empire. Once I set aside space for all of the dwarf beans I'm growing, there was nothing left, one tiny bed that's full of small box hedging, and that won't move until winter now.
There was a plot going on the site, and it's in an ideal situation, full sun, easy access and being on a main thoroughfare you get to see everyone who walks by when you're working on it. The one down side it that it looks like this.
If you've ever taken on an allotment or have left one for more than a few months you'll recognise that as couch grass. This is one of the thugs of the weed world as like bind weed, all you have to do is leave a little of the root in the soil and off it goes again. You can use systemic herbicides on it but I highly recommend that you don't and I've been offered anecdotal evidence that the stuff will come back anyway. I'm afraid that the only way for this is some hard graft in order to manage it, I say manage as you'll never remove it entirely. It spreads through rhizomes that it sends along under the soil from which new leaves form into these great clumps. These themselves are easy to up root, the tricky and time consuming part is then finding one of the fibrous roots and following it all the way to the end, leave nothing behind. The roots are quite tough so you don't have trouble locating them, it's just the quantity that's disheartening, persevere though and the reward is a clear plot for growing the real stuff.

Bind weed is a similar affair but the roots are fleshier and much more brittle,  the size of them and the fact that they are almost bright white does make them easy to spot. This stuff will climb up anything so it's best to catch it when the shoots are small, you'll see them as soon as they poke out of the ground. This again though will grow a whole new plant, and infestation, form just the smallest piece of root left in the ground. If there is any left after you've cleared it, make sure that you get it as soon as it first appears as it'll be weak and you can trace the shoot back down to the offending piece.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Who couldn't love a Wallflower

Wallflowers are one of my joys of spring as they bring some of the first glimpses of the impending summer colour, the foot soldiers marching the rest of the garden forward. Planted en-masse they fill an area over winter, hiding the bare soil, then burst out into a shower of rich colours just when they're needed the most. But they are often ignored as just that, something to stuff in where there's a space and not given the reverence that I believe they deserve. The ones that I've got just come from previous years seed, and have done since I first bought some, I'm not fussy about the colour as there's not a lot else at this point in the year that's going to, or not going to clash with them. I'm certainly abusing the beauty of these flowers as they're mostly used to fill a gap over winter where otherwise I'd be looking at barren soil, and to furnish me with this little spring joy. I've also not taken too much time with different species of the genus Erysimum as there are over 180, mostly opting for some bog standard colours, but there are a host of other more exotic flavours. From the capitatum or sand dune wallflower to the tiny arctic pallasii, I feel like my display is quite plain.
I can't remember when I sowed mine, it was most likely early summer last year and maybe a little early as they've got quite tall and leggy in places, they do fill the space nicely though as they are fairly large right now. The tough old things even survived having an old pear tree removed from right next to them that was replaced with a rescued Silver Birch.
Wallflowers are also one of the easiest plants to grow, put the seeds in the ground in a loamy seed or nursery bed in early summer, then transplant them in Autumn where you want to experience their majesty next year. They'll happily sit here over the winter looking a little bedraggled at times, nothing a little clean up when the frost is over won't fix. In fact, most need a little cold to get them flowering, which is why you don't see them in the Autumn. Like with any plant there are exceptions, such as the British-bred "Sugar Rush" that can kick off without the usual requirement for vernalisation. 

 As part of the Brassica family, they're prone to the same diseases as others like cabbages and cauliflowers, as such it's best to keep some sort of rotation going. This just means that each year you'll have them delight you from a different angle.