Friday, September 29, 2006

Christopher Lloyd lives on

I've had my nose stuck in my favourite gardening book over the last few days - "Succession Planting for Adventurous Gardeners" by Christopher Lloyd (BBC Books, 2005). I'm re-planning my biggest herbaceous border at the moment - too much bare soil, not enough colour after June - and have roped in the late, great Christo to help.

For anyone who doesn't know who Christopher Lloyd is - shame on you, and find some of his books NOW and start reading. He's quite simply the most inspirational gardener of recent years, and he writes beautifully to boot. His knowledge of plants is thorough and colourful: he'll not just tell you how to plant something and where to grow it, but will tell you its funny little quirks and foibles - this tulip has extra fat leaves, so don't plant it too close to its neighbours; that Allium self-seeds itself around with abandon. You don't have to like his trademark bright colour combinations to enjoy his practical advice and suggestions, and to revel in his wonderfully unique style of talking about his garden as if he were sitting in an easy chair right next to you.

This particular book deals with the art of producing a continuous display of colour from early spring to late autumn, and plenty of interest through the winter months too. It uses Christopher Lloyd's wonderful garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex as a kind of laboratory or workshop, with examples from his planting throughout the garden, and tales of his experiences growing these wonderful plants and experimenting with combinations. It really is like learning at the feet of the master.

Here's a quote just to whet your appetite - this from the chapter on self-sowing plants, which Christopher Lloyd allows throughout the garden:

"Gardens that give space to self-appointed volunteers have a comfortable, personal feel. A plant ripens seed after flowering; it falls to the ground, germinates in due course (sometimes after a considerable interval) and produces another generation.

"So far, you have had no control over the situation. This is when many gardeners get frightened, have visions of a garden overrun by thousands of seedlings with nothing much else visible by midsummer. They remove the lot and apply thick mulches to prevent further germination. Control is restored, but what a lot they are missing!"

What a wonderful, refreshing attitude, from a man whose love of and passion for plants shines through on every page. RIP, Christo - we miss you.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Running strawberries

My poor strawberry bed has been bursting out of its box after this summer, when I failed dismally to keep up with the sprouting runners which have by now rooted and grown away merrily. I do hate pulling up good strawb plants, and lots of people don't bother and end up with a good ground cover of tightly-packed strawberry plants instead. I don't like the randomness of that - control freak that I am - and prefer to keep an eye on how long my strawberry plants have been going for. I try to grow plants for three years only and then propagate them in the third year to replant afresh. That's impossible if you don't know which year your strawberry plants started off! I also have a suspicion that letting your plants spend all their energy making new babies rather than producing strawberries doesn't make a lot of sense.

This is the first of three beds I'm sowing with strawbs - I have 8' by 4' raised beds across the width of the allotment, so the idea is that I have an early crop, a mid-season crop and a late crop. This lot are the mid-season ones, a variety called "Cambridge Favourite" - a reliable stalwart beloved by most strawberry growers as it's easy-going and not too fussy, and produces good crops of really good-flavoured fruit.

I'm just waiting for the new edition of the Organic Gardening Catalogue ( and then I'll order in the next lot, which I think will be earlies this time. I think I'm going to go for "Honeyeoye" - it's supposed to be very early indeed, and though "Rosie" has better flavour I'm put off by the number of diseases it's prone to catching!

Allotment September 2006Here's what the allotment looks like at the moment - more and more of it has been put down for the winter now, and I've got three beds down to grazing rye (and a fourth cleared and ready to be double-dug this winter). Still cropping beans, courgettes and potatoes, though - and looks remarkably chipper given it's the end of the year.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Heuchera heaven

Heuchera 'Obsidian'I bought another Heuchera the other day - this time "Obsidian", a fantastic matt-black brooder of a plant. I love it already. I'm a bit of a collector of Heuchera - my front garden relies on them, along with Tiarella (I'm afraid the mongrel Heucherella is banished, for snobbery's sake if nothing else). The purple mottled foliage makes a great contrast with the ferns which tower above them - both are more-or-less evergreen, too, so my purple-and-green scheme continues all year.

It started out as a white garden, but then I thought - well, that's just one big cliche, so I added a twist and underplanted the white flowery things with a purple-and-green ground layer. It works brilliantly, all the more so since the purple and green recedes to the background while the white flowers do their stuff, and then takes over once the best of the herbaceous is over.

Conditions are dappled shade and dry sandy soil - so you wouldn't have thought it would do well. I add a thick mulch every spring and feed it, too, and that seems to keep the plants more or less nourished despite their otherwise starvation surroundings.

Other Heucheras I've got the hots for:
  • H. "Palace Purple": the one everyone has, but there really isn't any beating it
  • H. "Chocolate Ruffles": leaves good enough to eat
  • H. "Pewter Moon": marbled leaves that look painted

I also have a bright yellow-leaved strain which I picked up at Hampton Court Flower Show a few years ago - I paid a bit more than I intended for it, as it was a new variety, but I've been delighted with it as it's just flourished. Sadly I don't think the variety has continued - it's similar to H. "Lime Rickey" but much more yellow - and now I've lost the plant label. I don't suppose I'll ever identify it again now, but maybe there's a National Collection Holder out there somewhere who knows what it is.

I'm not a fan of the very fashionable H. "Amber Waves" - it's a slightly sickly colour for my taste, and I'm told it doesn't do well in wet winters. They say H. "Caramel" does better, and is a similar colour, but since I'm left with a bad taste in my mouth looking at the diarrhoea-yellow shades of "Amber Waves" I doubt I'll be converted. Leave me my purples and my dark-brown lovelies, and I'll be content.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Putting the allotment to bed

It's that time of year again when although there are plenty of crops coming from the allotment, the early crops have finished and the raised beds I use need putting away for the winter.

I love this time of year, when you start to draw a line under the triumphs and occasional disasters of this growing season and look forward to the next. Gradually, the allotment falls asleep, and I can dream of what added delights are to come when it wakes up again in the spring. I've got a few winter crops which will keep me going, but it'll be the peas and strawberries of next year that I'll be looking forward to.

I have a little routine when it comes to clearing beds and putting them down for winter. First of all, I remove the remains of the old crops and, if they didn't carry any disease, I compost them. Then I lightly fork over the surface and remove any weeds - bindweed has become a bit of a nuisance this year, but I've kept on top of it and it's at a manageable level.

Raised bed sown with grazing ryeThen, the bed cleared, I put on a winter "quilt", depending on what I'm going to do with it next year. A lot of them are sown with green manures - this year I'm using grazing rye as it doesn't interfere with my rotation system, but so far it's looking alarmingly like couch grass (it isn't, of course, but I don't like the similarity!) and they say it's tough to dig in come spring time, so we'll see if this is a success. Everyone sings its praises as far as retaining nutrients goes, so hopefully my misgivings will be unfounded. I'm sowing it broadcast, then raking in and watering gently, and finally netting it against the birds.

A couple of the beds - those I'm going to plant up with my "odds & sods" next year like courgettes and sweetcorn, which don't really fit into a rotation plan - I'll cover with a thick layer of pure manure. We get our muck from the stable next door, which brings it over by the tractor-load, and I'll put it on so that it raises above the sides of the beds - that's about a 3" layer. That suppresses weeds, keeps in the moisture, adds nutrients and bulk to the soil, and generally improves growing conditions for my plants.

That done - I'm finished, and it's time to start planning for next year. Sweet dreams!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Going up in smoke

Had a great afternoon stoking the fires - we have a permanent heap of bits of wood at the bottom of the garden, and when the need for a bonfire gets too urgent to ignore we send it all up in smoke in an incinerator. This time it was the demise of the honeysuckle which meant I couldn't put it off any more, so we had a happy afternoon playing with matches.

There are plenty of people who'll tell you that's the most environmentally-unfriendly way to dispose of this kind of waste... uh, no, I think not. First it's carbon neutral - the plant has absorbed as much carbon dioxide as you're sending out. Second, it's a lot better than putting it in landfill. Third, the preferred deep green option - of putting it on the compost - would require extensive shredding, involving a lot of electricity, noise pollution and generally dirty and non-eco-friendly things. To say nothing of being infuriatingly slow and time-consuming (has anyone out there found a garden shredder that's actually worth using?) So for all you closet arsonists out there - go ahead, it's the only (legal) way to go!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Too much of everything

It's glut city here... I've just chopped up 3lbs of courgettes to make a double quantity of vegetable mulligatawny - a really good, filling soup which sees me through the worst of the winter days. There are still two courgettes sitting there glaring at me balefully, and I just know my triffid plants up at the allotment are puffing up more of them every moment.

Then I went down to the four apple trees at the bottom of the garden and found the ground thick with windfalls, so I've now got a big sack of them waiting to be cooked and frozen. I think the trees are three Bramley Seedlings and a Cox, but I intend to go on down to RHS Wisley, just up the road from me, for their apple-tasting weekend on 21st & 22nd October and find out for sure. It's a great weekend, with the chance to taste all sorts of different apples - and Wisley has a mind-boggling selection in its fruit gardens - and you can also take along mystery apples for a diagnosis. Details can be found on the RHS website:

Monday, September 04, 2006

Honeysuckle blues

There are honeysuckles, and there are honeysuckles. The one I spent yesterday hacking down off the side of my house was definitely in the "so-so" category. It was a lacklustre performer at best - a smattering of flowers with none of the heady scent you'd expect. And the flowers themselves were a disappointing muddy pink: decidedly uninspiring.

I think this was a Lonicera periclymenum "Belgica", which is a selection of the common honeysuckle and really not the best. It was also a classic example of wrong plant, wrong place: we inherited it with the house five years ago, and it was planted - can you believe it - into the compacted gravel of the patio, right up against the wall of the house where it got little or no moisture at all. It finally succumbed to this year's drought and all summer has been resembling a survivor of some awful famine somewhere.

Now I don't want you to think I'm some kind of honeysuckle hater - far from it, which is why I couldn't bear to carry on with this particular sorry specimen. I've grown a couple of other varieties in my time: L. japonica "Halliana" over a fence in a small city garden I used to have, where it turned out to be a thug, like many evergreen climbers - though so beautiful you could forgive it pretty much anything.

And just now I have probably the best honeysuckle I've ever grown - L. "Graham Thomas", another periclymenum but so infinitely better than the one up the side of the house it hardly bears comparison. I have mine in a very large pot - matching another pot with a couple of clematis in it on the other side of the patio - and climbing up a hazel and willow wigwam. It's been plastered with fabulous large scented flowers all summer, and now sports clusters of cheerful red berries all over. Just lovely.

Friday, September 01, 2006

In a pickle

There's something very wholesome about making chutney. I've just spent an hour or two dicing courgettes, apples, plums and onions - all off the allotment or out of the garden apart from the plums which were from a garden I look after - and now it's blupping quietly on the stove where it'll stay for the next three hours until it magically transforms into comforting, warming chutney.

I'll leave it a couple of months to mature before we eat it, as it mellows beautifully if you leave it a while. This is my first venture into real diced chutney - last year I pickled several pounds of runner beans and the result was a bit chunky, but it tasted so good I've now got the preserving bug good and proper. There's nothing better, or more pleasurable, for dealing with the inevitable glut at this time of year.
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