Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Christmas!

I don't care what you call it - I love Christmas, and have been spending lots of happy days in the last few weeks... well.... spending.

I've even bought two plants, which I always swore I'd never do, on the principle that I hate it when other people buy plants for me. They're invariably the wrong sort or wrong colour, grow too rampantly or not rampantly enough, or would have gone in the last garden but not this one. Those who know me well only ever acquire horticultural gifts from an approved list, drawn up by me and revised no more than one week before said Christmas/birthday/anniversary. Draconian? Moi?

I absolve myself on this occasion though as both plants are Daphne odorata 'Aureomarginata' (one for each set of parents) and I'm seriously thinking about filching both of them and pretending I forgot to buy presents this year.

Anyway - I'm off to enjoy myself - hope you are too! May this Christmas/Winterval/Perisolstice be everything you wish for, and may the New Year bring you wonders of the horticultural kind galore.

I'll look forward to seeing you all again in 2009!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Recycled lavatories

The other week at my ever-challenging and interesting plant design course at Capel Manor, we got to talking about environmentally-friendly gardening.

Now, I'll nail my colours to the mast here and say I'm not entirely organic - I've been known to spray bindweed with glyphosate when nobody's looking, and my most heinous crime is to Pathclear my patio and driveway every year which I will no doubt have to account for in the afterlife. However - five minutes of talking to my very knowledgeable classmates has made me realise there's rather more to it than that.

We were talking about gravel. I've got loads of the stuff here - on my driveway, on the patio, and under my cold frame. It's cheap and easy as pie to use, I buy big jiffy bags of the stuff every few years or so to top things up, and until now I'd thought that was a relatively neutral material, insofar as I'd thought about it at all: the RHS promotes it as a good alternative in its "don't pave your front driveways" campaign, after all, doesn't it?

Not so. Marine-dredged gravel is the worst of all: "harvested" by something akin to Spanish trawlers only much, much more devastating. They suck everything up off the seabed to a depth of a couple of metres, killing all marine life that happens to be in their way, then they clean, grade and sort the gravel and spit back into the sea what isn't needed. Incidentally smothering all marine life that happens to have wandered into the area in the meantime.

So - you avoid that like the plague, and source it as land-dredged gravel, right? Well - if you can get companies to specify where they get their gravel from - this is certainly better. But the amount of fuel it takes to suck the stuff out of the ground, sort, grade and then transport it where it's needed requires a few aircraft-longhaul equivalents of carbon a throw.

This was all getting me in a real gloom. I was already having a conscience about using paving to hard-landscape the area around my shed and greenhouse (the garden makeover is proceeding apace, of which more later). It's not just the (itself not very eco-friendly) paving: it's also the sand and the cement-based hardcore I don't like having to use. Now it turns out the so-called 'better' options like gravel actually aren't.

The 'green' alternatives to gravel - bark chips, recycled tyres or bright blue recycled glass bits - are either too hippy or too horrible to contemplate. Or they wouldn't last five minutes. And then I discovered the wonderful world of recycled aggregates.

This is basically some of our rubbish that would have gone into landfill but is instead crushed down and sold back to us as gravel-like surfaces for pathways and hard standing. Surprisingly, for what might seem like an obvious idea, it seems to be a bit new, so there aren't that many people doing it yet. Long Rake Spar, in the Peak District, does a gravel made of crushed building materials that looks pretty good (and very like regular gravel), but the one I really like the sound of is sold as Traxmax. It's ceramics, either tiles or bathroom suites (I wonder if it's sometimes avocado-coloured?) taken out of the local tip, hopefully cleaned up a bit, smashed up into little bits and delivered in a big bag. The best thing about it is that because the original ceramic was made of clay, once it's broken up it becomes a little sticky again - so when you put it down on your path and it rains, it bonds to itself and becomes a solid surface.

You get it from this company - the only supplier I could find - and it's not even very expensive. There may be a catch: but I'm going to give it a go and I'll let you know what it's like. And anyway, I kind of like the idea of walking over second-hand loos on my way down the garden.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Perfect partners #1

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' and Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Silver Magic', spotted at Wisley on a frosty day.

(By way of explanation: We've been set an assignment for the Plant Design course I'm doing at Capel Manor to compile lots of plant combinations that we particularly like, so since it's going to take me all year to do, I thought I'd share them as I go along.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Winter wishlist

The moment has come - I'm going to have to opt out of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day for this month.

This is because there are actually no blooms in my garden. Well all right, that's a bit of an exaggeration as the winter pansies are still struggling through, and the heliotrope in the greenhouse is in exactly the same state as when I put it in there in October. The pyracantha berries are still looking great, but that was kind of cheating last month anyway. Otherwise - zilch. Nada. Rien. Even the leycesteria which has been soldiering on right through since June has finally dropped its leaves and gone to sleep. To be honest I feel like joining it. I don't do houseplants (they take one look at me and die) so no joy there either.

So I thought I'd cheat. Here are the blooms I would like in my garden this month:

Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica 'Wisley Cream'

Garrya elliptica

Chimonanthes praecox (I do actually have this at the end of the garden but it's extremely shy to flower, so this isn't so much one to buy as one to cast a spell on)

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' (just)

Coronilla valentina subs. glauca 'Citrina'

No pictures, of course, as these are the flowers that are not blooming in my garden today.

I'll stop at five for now, though I'm sure everyone else has suggestions here. But let this be my lesson for 2008: by this time next year there will be no excuses!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Dead plants

At this time of year it's a blessing that some plants continue to look good even after they've turned up their toes. You have to experiment - I find a lot of the plants supposed to hold on to their seedheads, like Rudbeckia, Echinops and many grasses, actually collapse sideways into a soggy heap around November, which hardly counts as winter these days. But when you find the ones that work, they really are worth their weight in gold (which is the colour many of them are on a frosty winter's day, too).

Spiky seedheads of Cynara cardunculus towering overhead against a December sky.

Verbena bonariensis is one of the best for looking good all winter - as long as the bluetits don't tear the seedheads to bits first.

Perovskia 'Blue Spire' puts up a forest of ghostly silver stems.

And of course poppy heads: many of these do collapse sideways but there are always a few left standing. I wonder what critter chomped its way through the side of this one looking for seeds?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Avant gardening #2

The erudite and charming Tim Richardson got in touch with me after my earlier post about my doubts over "conceptual" gardens and so I've been having a very absorbing chat with him via email about what is, and isn't, a garden, the relationship between gardening and art and many other thought-provoking questions.

In case you've had your head under a hedge for the last few years, Tim is a stalwart champion of modern garden design, and the author of Avant Gardeners, which as I told him I have on my Christmas wishlist. He's kindly let me reproduce his thoughts in response to all my ditherings, since I thought they cast far more light on the subject than I ever could.

On whether conceptual gardens are actually gardens...
"I know what you mean about the 'garden' definition but in some ways for me it's like the discussion as to whether gardens are 'art' or not. Quite interesting but a bit of a cul de sac -- perhaps the definitions are not so important after all? In a way we need to call them 'gardens' because calling them 'art' or suchlike would be like trying to jump up on the coat-tails, like a puppy dog, of something supposedly 'higher' up the artistic hierarchy. We should be able to rise above such matters! Perhaps art should aspire to the condition of the garden . . . [faced as we are with a global ecological conundrum, I am not joking]"

And on garden history and modernism...
"At risk of sounding like a self-publicising lunatic, on the Jekyll gardens thing -- sometimes people imagine I am some kind of iconoclast dedicated to smashing down 'old' ways of horticulture [a recent letter to Garden Design Journal said I should be made to crawl on my belly all along the A road to Beth Chatto's garden and pay homage..] but in fact I think I am only qualified to make any suggestions having made a serious study of 20th c planting styles, to be found in an earlier book: English Gardens in the 20th Century, which includes a reappraisal of Jekyll as an avant-garde artist coming from the Aesthetic rather than Arts and Crafts tradition. That book is a decade by decade, careful evaluation of the development of planting styles -- so I am not in any way 'against' plants, which is what yet another leading designer [good -humouredly] accused me of only the other night. But designers are not always very interested in historical matters I find.

"For me, future potential can only be discerned via knowledge of the past; the two go hand in hand. But it is surprising how little crossover there is between contemporary garden/landscape design and garden history."

Those who stick their heads above the parapet unfortunately get shot at, generally speaking. But I for one am very glad we have people like Tim to make us think, and occasionally move forward from time to time.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Trying to get it all done....

Blimey, where did those weeks go?

Here's one answer: I've been a total slave to my leafmould bin since about mid-November. What with the painfully short hours of daylight, I've been grabbing my leaf rake every chance I get and not coming in till dark (that'll be when the kids get home from school, then). And on top of that I've been planting the remainder of the tulip bulbs, putting the last few plants mouldering on my patio into the ground at last, and finally getting on top of my legions of weeds.

I get very obsessed by autumn leaves at this time of year. The bottom part of our garden is pretty much a woodland, what with four mature apple trees and a boundary with next-door lined with hazel, oak and ash. So the result is a blizzard of multicoloured autumn leaves which starts some time around October and is only just starting to die down now.

I raked through the whole lot in November, and then turned round and started again. Now I'm on the home run with only a few stragglers thumbing their noses at me from the treetops and a leafmould bin piled high with lovely crispy leaves. It'll take a year to rot down into good soil conditioner (if you want it for mixing up potting composts, leave it another year) - and though it's a lot of work and a long wait, it's so worth it. Piles of the very best black crumbly perfection to add to your soil every autumn - you can almost see the plants plunging their roots into it luxuriously the moment you shovel it on.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

November flowers

This month's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day (hosted as ever by May Dreams - thank you!) served as a wake-up call for me. All my flowers were hanger-ons from summer... and nearly the only proper winter colour I have is from berries, which are lovely so I've cheated a little, but I really must improve things next year. I feel some Christmas box, or maybe a Daphne or two, coming on...

Friday, November 14, 2008

The start of the new year

So many people just abandon their allotments at this time of year and just turn up again in the spring (most likely to a patch of rampant weeds which it'll then take them another couple of months to get going again).

Surprise, surprise, I'm not one of them. I'll confess to missing the odd day when it's really tipping down with rain, though even then I sometimes have a mung around in the greenhouse. And there are some weeks around January time when I'm reduced to sitting at home grinding my teeth because the ground is just too soggy and horrible to do anything with, so I have to give up and stay off it.

This week I've been starting off my new season - my fifth year on the allotment, and it's just getting better and better. You learn a new thing with each year that passes, and just fine-tune what you do until you get it right. This year my big learning curve has been the broad beans, which almost totally failed in spring because I sowed them indoors in November and then planted them out in January as strong, but overly tall-stemmed specimens without protection. Result - the whole lot were wiped out by a combination of wickedly bad weather and stem rots. Actually, I say the whole lot, but several re-sprouted once the weather improved, giving me a fairly measly crop but a crop nonetheless. These really are tough plants.

Anyway: this year I'm experimenting with sowing in the ground, but under cover of polythene cloches. I used to avoid sowing direct, as everything just got eaten straight away, but since the mice are having a hard time even getting out of bed thanks to my ever-vigilant pussycats, I've felt able to risk it this time. The result ought to be sturdier plants, more able to cope with being outside all winter, and a thumping great glut of broad beans (which thankfully freeze beautifully) come May. Can't wait.

PS: that's my trusty allotment dog appearing in the background, mooching around looking for smelly things to eat. Am considering setting up a rebel Gardening Dog movement to counter the army of rabid cat-lovers around here. Or perhaps a Gardening Chickens movement, for which I am similarly well-armed with pictures with which to bore you rigid.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

And so to bed

After all that snow last month, with accompanying panic involving yards of horticultural fleece and bubble-wrap, I finally got round to doing the job properly.

My poor banana plant...

I hope to goodness I'm doing this right. This year was the first time I've ever grown bananas, and I've become completely hooked - something about watching them grow by about a foot a day - but this is a bit nerve-wracking. I looked it all up, and they say you have to chop off all the leaves and put it somewhere frost-free. I've potted it up in a 50:50 mix of compost and sand, which should take care of the drainage, but oh it looks so miserable. To say nothing of that worrying list to the top spike. I think I may have removed one too many leaves. Well - it'll live or it'll die, I suppose.

More straightforward was the Musa basjoo by the pond. When you chop the leaves off this one, you don't have to look at it as you immediately cover it in lots of straw, so you can kid yourself it's all cosy and warm in there. I've used an old bit of green plastic fencing to hold it all in place, and that plastic on the top is a bit of bubble wrap just to keep the worst of the rain off and stop it all rotting. I'll also be wrapping a couple of layers of fleece round the whole thing, partly as insurance, partly because it'll look marginally better if I do.

I hear of lots of tales of Musa being left outside all winter long these days with never a setback, but since we're not really within the London microclimate here and this is only a one-year-old plant, I thought I'd best not risk it. One day I'll have a 20-ft monster which I'll be only too pleased to have cut down by the frost - but not just yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Last chance to see...

I was wandering through the woods walking the dog, grinning foolishly to myself while kicking the mounting piles of autumn leaves with every step (do you ever grow out of that, I wonder?). Then I happened to look up at the sky and saw that though it's not even mid-November yet, the branches are already bare against the blue.

It's been a fabulous autumn - something to do with the early frost and wet weather I believe - but all too short-lived. So I ran out with my camera as soon as I got back to take a few pics before it all disappears.

The view up through the mixed native trees that line the border of my garden: all that greenery just becomes goldery at this time of year.

The Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis' outside my bedroom window is one I've raved about before - it's been spectacular this year, real fireworks every morning when I draw the curtains.

I planted this Hydrangea quercifolia a couple of years ago and it's becoming well-established now. I bought it for the shape of its leaves, but look at that brooding purple colour, too.

The beech hedge is joining in with waves of deep purple spreading through the green.

A couple of years ago an enterprising neighbour harangued the local council, who had just killed all the trees on our green by strimming them too enthusiastically, for some replacements. Being a professional tree man, the replacements he requested resembled a wish-list for an arboretum. We now have the best selection of trees for miles. This one is a fabulously vivid maple, one of several now giving us a fantastic display outside our front doors.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Avant gardening

I've been a bit preoccupied with Very Modern Gardens lately (just for something I'm writing).

By this I mean what's rather meaninglessly called Conceptual Gardens by the RHS. What exactly does "conceptual" mean anyway? Aren't all gardens conceptual - it's just that sometimes the concept is more usually Gertrude Jekyll than Mondrian...?

Anyway - I've always really enjoyed the Conceptual Gardens section at Hampton Court. They're not only fabulous works of art: they also really challenge what you think you're seeing and how you think you see it. Did anyone see Forest2 by Ivan Tucker? All those silver birch trees surrounded by mirrors. And the wonderful experience of looking through the holes in the sides only to see your own disembodied face staring back at you, floating somewhere in the air among the trees. And as for Ecstasy in a Very Black Box... This really challenged, with no plants but a load of baby lettuce but probably the best evocation of what it must feel like to be a manic depressive that I've ever seen.

So - I'm thinking about all these gardens which are thoughtful and thought-provoking, based on skeletons or what it's like to be a parent or autumn or, in one case, the Electric Sheep screensaver, and I'm wondering what exactly it's all meant to be about. I love it as art: much as I love going to Tate Modern and having all my ideas about the way things are turned upside down.

But the middle-aged lady in me says, would you have it in your back garden? I think it's rather revealing that the champion of avant-gardening, Tim Richardson, recently confessed to Gardens Illustrated magazine that his own garden was full of hardy geraniums. Constance Spry roses and kids' bikes. I wonder, if Tony Smith offered to come along and paint the whole thing black and put multi-coloured shards of glass in it, whether he'd take him up on it?

I suspect I'm just missing the point here. But I kind of wonder, sometimes, whether there is a point. It may be art - but is it gardening?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Frosty morning

I know frost is meant to be the gardener's enemy. I, like no doubt many others in the vicinity, spent much of yesterday running around frantically squirrelling things away in my greenhouse as the weather forecast got gloomier and gloomier. This morning, I still found I had several casualties when I woke up to find it went down to minus 2 or so. But oh... it was so beautiful.

This was one of my casualties - the Nicandra physaloides, now reduced to a sodden mess in the corner. But didn't it look lovely as it died.

I thought this Goliath poppy was being a bit optimistic, producing flower heads this late in the season!

Verbena bonariensis is, I often think, at its best after a good frost.

The frost melted pretty quickly but even that sent me into rhapsodies - this is Melianthus major which holds onto the droplets like jewels. The little spider was up early, too.

Another one that's looking good as the frost melts off it - this is Eucalyptus gunnii, kept coppiced for that glaucous, rounded young foliage.

And even the nettles were pretty. It doesn't get much better than that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Spooky things #3

No, not fungi this time - but another type of plant which has many gardeners feeling pretty uneasy. Including me, though I can't help but be fascinated in a gruesome sort of way.

These little triffids were in the behind-the-scenes glasshouses at Kew, where I went the other day on a press trip (along with EmmaT, though she didn't know it at the time). We got to the glasshouses right at the end of the day, which was a bit of a shame, as they were fascinating - they house some of the rarest plants in the world, some recreated from DNA rescued from the last remaining live bit of the last remaining and otherwise non-viable seed from a plant extinct in the wild. That sort of thing.

Anyway, these aren't that rare, or at least not to the carnivorous plant cognoscenti, but were kicking about on a shelf in the main corridor that runs through the glasshouse. The above is a Nepenthe ampuliaria, a relative pussycat in the carnivorous plant world - merely drowning the odd bluebottle or two for tea.

This, on the other hand, is Nepenthe truncata. Don't stick your fingers in here, whatever you do. Or any other part of your anatomy. That tube is nearly a foot long, and half-filled with digestive juices. This plant eats mice.

As if to prove that these little green monsters do have some horticultural merit, here's a sundew (Drosera) - I didn't get the full plant name, but it's a pretty little thing, isn't it? So long as you don't think about the fact that all those charming droplets are actually stomach juices.

Now, never mind the Hallowe'en-ish feel of this particular post - here's something that's genuinely, bona-fide useful. I think it's Pinguicula x kewensis but don't quote me on that - it didn't have a label that I could find. Anyway, not only does it look approximately like a normal plant even though it's actually carnivorous - it's a handy biological pest control. Kew pop these all over the place in their glasshouses as little whiteflies and red spider mites can't tell the difference between it and something less deadly - so they land on the leaves and are promptly dissolved and digested. Apparently they keep the glasshouses clean of pests without a spray can in sight. And they're pretty, too. If a little scary.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Plant of the month - October

Leucanthemella serotina

What a welcome home. This gorgeous 6-footer daisy is peeking over the beech hedge in my front garden at the moment, waving at me from down the street. You can't help but smile.

It's supposed to only grow in moist soil, but it seems happy on my sandy loam - I think perhaps the last two very wet summers have had something to do with it. But last year it out-survived a common-or-garden Shasta daisy planted alongside: a shame, since the Shasta daisy finished just as the Leucanthemella began, so they made a great partnership.

I can't complain, though. This tough, easy-going plant is just soldiering on through: it's been flowering its socks off for nearly a month now, and shows no signs of flagging. Its teacup-sized flowers have a subtle smoky-green centre, fringed with yellow, that gives a touch of sophistication to all that cheerfulness, so even the most painfully stylish can grow it with confidence. But I just love it for giving my day such a lift but demanding so little in return.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spooky things #2

Bet you can't guess what this is.

Actually, if you happen to be a mycologist you'll probably be jumping up and down in your seat right now, as this is an earthstar - aka Geastrum triplex (probably - there are lots of different types). It's also really quite rare - particularly if it's found in Surrey, as this one was, in the garden of one of my clients.

If you look at it from the top, you can see a little better why it got its name. This isn't actually a very good specimen - you can see a better one here - but then this one has been dug up and passed around loads of different people before I got my hands on it, so it's a little weary.

It's actually the second earthstar I've seen in this garden: the first one, last year, was twice the size and caused all sorts of excitement as first of all, nobody knew what it was, and then someone asked a professor about it and he got very excited and took it to Kew. Turns out it's the only known site for an earthstar in Surrey - and the first specimen is now at Kew's fungal herbarium. Quite something - there was even a little article about it in a learned tome somewhere.

I just think it's pretty. And not a little spooky.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October flowers

Yes, I know - I'm late. But I couldn't miss it altogether - this is my excuse to have a good long and appreciative look at my garden. I don't often get a chance to ignore the weeds and celebrate the good stuff, so though I may be a day late, I'm still going to join in with Carol at May Dreams Gardens and her Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. So there!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Season of mists

Sometimes all this dampness is a lovely thing. I went to visit the gardens of Heale House in Wiltshire last weekend - not too many miles away from VP (I waved in your general direction!) in Wiltshire.

It was one of those misty mornings where the sun slants through from time to time with that veil-like effect that's so magically romantic. This was probably not the best time of year to see Heale House - it's a spring garden, mainly. But I was truly inspired by the kitchen garden, which was at full pelt. There's a fab nursery attached, too, run by trillium specialist Kevin Hughes - well worth going out of your way to visit.

The gorgeous house is off limits - I did want to take a closer look at that rather elegant-looking private garden in front of it, though.

It's quite a watery garden - the Wylye river (I think it's called) runs through the grounds and meanders quite charmingly through the planting with multiple little bridges to cross.

But the kitchen garden really stole the show. It's divided by these wonderful ancient apple cordons trained over arching tunnels.

The tunnels are underplanted with woodlanders - there was an oak-leaf hydrangea in full flower at the end of this section.

I liked the way they mixed ornamentals with the fruit and veg - here fluffy moppets of santolina next to the bean supports.

I thought this was a great idea, too - cordon pears trained over a framework to create a truly lovely and intimate little arbour.

More mixed planting - this time cosmos with the artichokes, and as you can see they're just trying to establish some box for a more formal definition to the beds.

Lots of inspiration there - I'm introducing some edible planting into my own garden next year, and it just goes to show it doesn't have to be either/or. I just wish I had the Victorian walls on three sides, plus the half-acre or so of land that they have to play with here...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Spooky things in the woods

I have to admit to being a bit fascinated by mushrooms in a spooky sort of way. For a start, they're neither animal nor plant - which in itself gives them a whiff of the Martian invader. And there are so many dark tales of horrible deaths as a result of mushroom poisoning that they actually are just as menacing as they look half the time. On the other hand, if you've ever tasted fresh mushrooms straight from the forest - for me, it was ceps cooked within minutes of (someone else) picking them in Gascony - well, you've known true happiness. These are beings of real mystery and magic, and you don't even have to go far to find them.

My local mushroom colony is in the woods frequented by the dog-walking brigade (of which I'm one) - not exactly a secret location way off the beaten track. So I got very excited when I found what I think may be a Morel - famous for being quite amazingly delicious and one of those mushrooms that chefs go crazy for. Here it is:

It was sitting quite unnoticed at the foot of a Scots pine, right by the path. Actually I'm not absolutely sure it's a Morel (though it looks just like one) and there are enough deadly poisonous fungi masquerading as quite edible ones around (more proof that they have something of the night about them) to make me hesitate before snaffling it and frying it up with a few fresh eggs. My golden rule with mushrooms in the wild is Never Eat One unless you have someone who really knows what they're talking about with you. It's a bit tempting this time, though. Anyone know a tame mycologist?

Monday, October 06, 2008

First frost of the season!

I can't believe it... we had our first frost of the year at the weekend.

This is the first time I can remember having a frost before November down here. We're an energetic spit from the M25 after all and what with global warming I was looking forward to comfortably making it through to Christmas before turning on the greenhouse heater before many years had gone by.

But no - we woke to a lawn frosted with ice. I raced off down the garden, heart in my mouth to have a look at the Ensete ventricosum that my father-in-law lovingly raised from seed and then gave to me (or rather my eight-year-old daughter); it's been growing like topsy all year and is now a good 10ft high and still heading skywards. It's been my pride and joy, and I was just getting ready to dig it up for winter and snuggle it down in the greenhouse, but here I was, caught short.

I was so relieved to find that that Colutea arborescens which arches over it had kindly protected it from the frost and it was still intact and as robust as ever. Lucky escape. Not so fortunate were the crops up at the allotment - the Sarpo Mira potatoes had all the tops frosted (not such a big deal as I was already harvesting them) and more upsettingly the sweetcorn I rescued from rat attack with the help of my feline friends had been totally clobbered, as had the butternut squash underneath. I had a nice big squash ripening up too. That's got an ominous grey patch on it but I'm hoping I can salvage at least some for my favourite roast veg dish.

Blimey, I can't keep up with this climate thing. I can cope with daffs in November; I can even see the bright side over these ridiculous amounts of rain over summer (I haven't had to water the allotment for a whole two years now). But the unpredictability is a little unnerving at times like these. I just wish it would make its mind up and stay like that for a bit.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Early autumn

You'd be forgiven for thinking this was an example of lovely autumn colour. It's a horse chestnut tree not far from my front door.

Unfortunately, this rather fine example of a field maple (I think) right opposite will tell you it's not quite time for autumn yet:

As you can see, still in its summer finery.

Around here all the horse chestnuts took on an autumn colour in about August - you could tell which trees in a hedgerow were chestnuts as they were the only ones which were bright yellow. It was the same story last year. If you look more closely at the leaves you can see the colouring isn't anything to do with autumn at all.

This is chestnut leaf miner damage. It's caused by the larva of a moth which has become absolutely rampant in the south-east of England. It comes from southern Europe, and until recently was minding its own business over there, but in 2002 the first ones crossed the water and turned up here. I believe it's now making its way north.

The Forestry Commission are keeping an eye on it, and they've asked people to let them know if it appears in places where it hasn't yet been seen (a few more dots are ominously appearing on their map each year). Apparently, dramatic though it looks, it doesn't do any damage to the tree, though if it appears at the same time as a nasty bark disease called bleeding canker the combination can be fatal.

It seems to me, though, that if you completely defoliate a tree every year for a number of years, it can't do it much good in the long run. I love horse chestnuts - like most people I played conkers as a kid, and I love the fact that they're so big and strong and sort of ancient English forest-y. They're the sort of trees you use as landmarks, the sort of trees you rely on for your sense of identity and place. So to see them all looking so sick, so early in the year, makes me fear for their future. It feels all wrong, like daffodils in December. If this is global warming, you can keep it.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

School lessons

I mentioned some time ago that I'd taken over the school garden.

Well, in the way of these things, shortly after I took it on, they started building work which meant not only was everything on hold for more than a year, but also we lost half the garden before we'd even started.

You take these things on the chin, though, and in fact it's all worked out OK in the end since now the work has finished, I know where we are and we can go forward. I got all inspired by the Dorset Cereals Edible Playground garden that won Hampton Court this year, and between me and various teachers and parents who should really know better, we've come up with a big and rather exciting scheme for developing a new space for the kids to grow lots of food in.

So before we started I thought I'd record what state it's in at the moment - neglected in places, presentable-ish in others, but in need of a lot of work, hopefully from people large and small.

This is the wildlife pond - weedy, unkempt, and recently much larger. The bit on the other side of the picket fence is tarmac now, but it used to be garden. Never mind: there are plenty of bits left to have fun with, including a raised bed, a soon-to-be herb bed and a bog garden, as well as sundry weed-infested borders which once cleared will be open to inspiration.

This is the (somewhat neglected and overgrown) Millennium Garden - can you see why?

And these are the raised beds along the front of the school itself. Currently planted with a hotch-potch of different plants, and not in too bad a state, but one talented mum has now come up with a design involving box balls, a lot of alliums, some Geranium 'Rozeanne' and a few prostrate rosemaries, which will hopefully pull this lot together and make it look pretty good for most of the year. This is our first project - I'm going shopping next week if the PSA give me the green light.

Finally - the bit everyone's getting excited about. All the kids in the school, from 4-year-olds in reception to the big girls and boys in Year 6, are being given a design project in which they're going to be asked to come up with loads of imaginative designs, from which we'll select as much inspiration as we can cram in without making it too overcrowded. From this we'll create our Kitchen Garden. The hedge behind it (a mixed wildlife hedge around the pond) is coming down by about half, which is a huge job for November, but I'm trying not to think about that too much: instead looking forward to lots of colourful drawings and some seriously good ideas!

Monday, September 29, 2008

I've been got

I thought it couldn't be long - especially with the summer we've just had. Blight has made its first unwelcome appearance on the allotment.

The first you see is a few little harmless-looking brown spots like these.

The spots just get bigger and bigger...

... until they start destroying whole leaves, then the stems too.

Finally the poor potato plant ends up looking something like this - every leaf shrivelled, every stem brown and sick-looking. You shouldn't let things get to this stage: when you first see the leaf-spots, remove the foliage completely, as rain will wash the fungal spores down through the soil and onto your potatoes otherwise (and you've never smelled anything bad until you've smelled a blighty potato).

The above photos were all taken on the same morning, of the same patch of potatoes ('Desiree', in case you're interested) so it just goes to show that blight comes on in stages, and some bits can be worse affected than others.

Anyway - so now all those stems have been cut off at ground level, bagged up like toxic waste (never compost them - the spores overwinter) and thrown away. I haven't quite dared lift the potatoes just yet: partly because I haven't had the time, but also because I detest the slimy mess of a blight-infected potato slightly more than I detest cleaning my downstairs loo. So both tend to get left for a long time in the spirit of procrastination (which in both cases generally just makes the problem worse).

One last thing - these are my 'Sarpo Mira' blight-resistant potatoes, on the same morning, growing just eight feet away:

This has deepened my admiration for this spud variety even more. It's a good roasting spud, though people say it falls apart if you boil it so it's steaming only. Anyway, from now on I'm making them a regular on my seed spuds order - when potatoes grow this well when blight is rampant all around, it's daft not to.

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