Friday, August 29, 2008

Garden makeover: Shedding about

This is my shed.

Yeah, yeah, I know, well we can't all have quirky interesting sheds. I've actually got another shed too, up at the allotment, which is both quirky and interesting so maybe it'll find its way onto these pages before long just to prove this is Not My Style (honest).

Anyway. I inherited the shed with the garden, and as I was wittering on about recently, there were a lot of eccentric design decisions made by my predecessor in this garden - one of them being to place this shed plumb in the middle of the main view from the house. So when you look out of my kitchen window you see my lovely plants set against a gorgeous background of poo-brown shiplap.

Next bit. This is my Problem Area.

It's actually right opposite the shed, a little further down, and all I can do with it is hack it back periodically as nothing will grow there. It's under the deep shade of an overhanging cobnut tree (one of the more lovely aspects of my garden) and is a jungle of nettles, next door's self-seeded pink buddleia and rampant borage. You quite often see this deceptively pretty plant sold both as plants and seed in garden centres, at which I invariably laugh hollowly and totter out weakly since I've been waging a running battle with it for nearly 7 years - mind you I'm winning... mwah ha ha ha....

Mmm. Well. Anyway. I have for quite a long time been eyeing the shed... then eyeing the Problem Spot... then eyeing the shed again... It's an obvious solution. So today I started digging. You can just about see the fork (about to root out those bloody borage roots again) and the stakes marking out the spot in the picture above. It's going to be a horrible job (the pic of the shed very wisely doesn't include one of its contents - I don't think I've seen the back wall since we moved in) but the results will be Step One in the great garden makeover. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer-pruning roses

About this time I find all my roses, and everyone else's too, are getting a bit wayward.

They've mostly finished flowering, bar a few late flushes, and they suddenly start shooting great thick stems skywards in a bid to take over the world. This is a Good Thing on the whole, as it means they're very healthy and well-established, and you should be able to look forward to a nice handsome display next year.

However - if they're anything like the 'Perpetually Yours' climbers on the fence between me and my neighbour, they can become a serious hazard. This summer while my back was turned they shot up several massive stems above the fence, a good 6ft long, which began waving about spectacularly in the recent gales threatening to whip off the heads of sundry children and household pets passing by.

'Perpetually Yours', incidentally, is a lovely rose covered in froths of pretty frou-frou noisette flowers in palest yellow. I have two, which took a while to establish in my sandy acid soil, but which are now spectacular each summer. Their only real shortcoming is that they don't stand up to weather very well, dissolving into soggy brown soup in heavy rain, like many roses I've found - a problem strangely unmentioned in the brochures. Mind you, the tried-and-tested favourites - 'New Dawn' and 'Dublin Bay' in my garden - seem to escape this problem.

But I digress. The point is, everyone talks about pruning roses in late spring (or late winter, if you're me) but nobody mentions that they need summer pruning, too. This time of year I end up picking thorns out of my fingers yet again, tying in wayward stems and cutting out any heading in the wrong direction.

I also cut back those long flowered stems by about a third - some of this has been done already in deadheading (which I'm intolerably bad at getting around to, though it doesn't seem to make much difference to the number of flowers I get) but there are always some which still flap about. This summer pruning will to some degree restrict growth, as all summer pruning does - but it's sometimes no bad thing to give roses a rap on the knuckles when they're getting too full of the joys of summer. Just don't do it any later in the season, as new growth will get knocked back by frost if it hasn't had the chance to harden off in time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Knowing your onions

I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to brag a bit.

You see, I've been spending this week digging up the onion crop up at the allotment - the tops had gone over so it was clearly time they were out of the ground.

What you have to understand is that I've never - and I mean never, in about 8 years of veg-growing, had any luck with onions. They always turn out mingy little buttons, better for pickling than for eating. I've tried everything - different varieties, different spacings - but no joy.

Until now. Just look at these whoppers. The largest ones are around 6" across. They look like proper onions - you know, the ones you buy in the shops. The above picture shows just half the harvest - there was another 11ft-long bed full to go (you see, I overcompensate for the shallot-size onions by planting loads of them). My entire greenhouse is now stuffed to the gunwhales with drying onions and I've run out of racks. I'm even thinking of entering some for the village autumn horticultural show, I'm that chuffed.

Mind you, I have to confess to a sneaking suspicion that this is not actually anything to do with me. It's been a wierd year all round - early summer crops (peas, broad beans, French beans) which I'm normally dead good at have failed utterly this year. And cabbages, which I fail with quite as spectacularly as onions as a rule, have turned into kings - my 8-year-old picked one of my red cabbages up the other day and disappeared behind it.

If this is climate change, we're going to be eating a lot of cabbage from here on in...

Friday, August 15, 2008

August flowers

This month's boost to the gardening ego for the wonderful Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day at May Dreams. I love doing this - it reminds me that however scruffy my garden is, there's always something flowering somewhere.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Garden makeover #1

There's only one problem with my garden - I don't like it very much.

I don't mean the plants (I lurve them) but the layout. I inherited it from the previous owner, who was a special needs teacher with many, many special needs of his own - totally barmy and it's entirely reflected in the lunatic way he's laid out the garden. I got rid of most of the crazy plants he put in as soon as we moved in (I mean, who plants Rhododendron ponticum in their garden?!). Mustn't be too scathing though as he did pass on my much-beloved Lonicera xylosteum.

However - though it's easy enough to rip out plants and replace them, doing the same thing with the basic layout is one of those huge tasks that makes you want to just go back to sleep.

Well, now that I'm emerging, blinking, into the light having spent eight years in Very Small Child Country, I'm feeling just about strong enough to take on the challenge of a makeover. What's more, I brought a client back to my house the other day and she didn't believe it was mine because it was so unkempt... well that was embarrassing. So I really, really have to do something about it now.

When I say makeover, of course, I'm not talking Ground Force. More like a slow, meandering, several-years-long process of improvements, at the end of which I hope I shall have a garden which better reflects what I think a garden ought to be.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gorgeous greenhouses

I'm a bit of a sucker for garden visiting - you know, when you get the chance to nose around someone else's garden under the guise of Supporting the National Gardens Scheme. Some are real gems - others less so, but there's usually something you can find to get enthusiastic about.

So while I was on holiday recently in the Isle of Wight I dragged my poor family off again to see someone's back garden (they've even stopped protesting now, having opted for resigned tolerance instead). The one that was open while we were there was Pitt House, near Bembridge, promisingly advertised as being four acres with statues, ponds and a waterfall, plus sea views.

Well - it was nice enough, and the waterfall was lovely as were the sea views, but I couldn't help thinking they could have achieved a bit more with all that space (four acres - and they have two gardeners, too, so no excuses). There was, however, one true gem in amongst the ordinariness: a Victorian greenhouse, entirely original (even had those cast-iron bracket thingies to raise the vents) and utterly gorgeous.

Oooh I want one...

...and look at these grapes. They were cutting bunches for people to taste - absolutely yum.

Best not to eat this one - poisonous. But enormous.

I thought this was a natty idea - invented by the Victorians, of course. It was just a shallow pool of water sunk into the floor of the greenhouse, under a bench. It evaporates over a hot day, keeping humidity levels high without any need for spraying floors or doing anything, really, except topping it up from time to time. It was a bit green and scummy - but you could probably improve things by... oh... planting a tropical waterlily in there or something...

Isn't this sweet? I discovered it tucked away in a corner under the benches. No idea what it was doing there.

And this was the pi├Ęce de resistance: backed on to that sumptuous main greenhouse was a sunken one. Just look at those tiles. It was entirely wasted on a load of ropey old fuchsias, but it got my imagination firing on all cylinders. Melons... pineapples... mmm......

Monday, August 04, 2008

Worrying about my veg

Until now I've had a separate blog for my allotment, but pleading severe lack of time to do just about anything, I've decided that my veg are going to invade the otherwise ornamental portals of this blog (so I've got rid of the other one).

It was kind of inevitable anyway, as I discovered a previously unsuspected vocation as a vegetable garden designer this spring (about five enterprising people were brave enough to let me experiment on their gardens and we got some pretty good results) and this has since mushroomed into a) a garden design course so I can at least pretend I know what I'm talking about, and b) a cunning plan to incorporate as many edible plants as possible into my back garden. So for some time now my veg-growing - previously banished to the allotment - has been shacking up with my more decorative plant-related enterprises and the two are now pretty much indistinguishable.

Only thing is - I've been pulled up short by the current concerns over contaminated manure. Since I'm mainly organic, not being able to be sure of my sh** is a real setback. I'm currently debating the options: buy the manure, but compost it for a year? (and if so, where?!) Spent mushroom compost (hard to get hold of, and besides wasn't that manure to begin with anyway...)? Super-expensive sterilised soil improver from t' garden centre? Or just take the risk?

They say nobody's going to take any notice of this until the market growers are affected. And I'm not sure how much of a crisis it is anyway: someone said to me the other day they thought it was only a problem in the London area (which almost means me, but since I'm just outside the M25 I usually exempt myself).

Will no doubt continue dithering until someone more sensible says something. Could be a while, then...

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Colour, colour and more colour

Just got back from a week's holiday in the Isle of Wight - lovely, thanks, and more of which later, but in the meantime I had a few pics from the Thompson & Morgan open day in Suffolk which I went to just before I left.

Now this is something of a fixture in most garden journalists' calendars but it was the first time I've actually made it along. Bedding isn't really my thing so I hadn't really made it a priority before. How wrong can you be.

Now I'd better declare a blatant attempt at bribery on the part of the T&M people, armed as they were with oodles of freebies and a slap-up lunch. But - honest guv - I didn't really need all the buttering up. This was an amazing display of gorgeous flowers which just bowled me over.

Not that there wasn't any good old-fashioned traditional bedding: in fact there were buckets of it, including many in those awful gaudy candy-pink shades that old ladies love so much. However - stay with me here: in among the god-awful colour clashes there were some superb plants: ones which caught my eye included Begonia boliviensis 'Bonfire', in sizzling, sultry red, and much more subtle greeny-yellow Petunia 'Susanna' - as cool and reserved as the begonia was in-yer-face.

And here's a close-up of the sexiest fuchsia ever - Fuchsia denticulata. I love species fuchsias. Must collect some more.

Bedding outside - they don't bother with subtle colour combinations, do they? But don't you love that millet (Pennisetum Purple Majesty)?

And here's a close-up of the Nicotiana - it's N. suaveolens and planted en masse like this creates an ethereal, airy effect like dancing fairies.

I liked this nasturtium, too - a sultry red with purple-tinged leaves called 'Cobra'. They gave us a packet of seeds in with the freebies so I'll look forward to growing it next year.

These sunflowers ('Irish Eyes') made me smile, too. They were a bit small for my liking - about thigh-height - but looked great in a big massed planting like this.

My only complaint was that we didn't get to see more of this - the trials field, where T&M develop their new varieties, so you get a sneak preview of varieties in development. Quite apart from anything else, the whole (highly commercial) process of breeding new variations that might become tomorrow's stalwarts is fascinating.

Still - maybe next year! I haven't even mentioned the fruit & veg, either - lots of great ideas (standard-trained fig, anyone?) The trials are open to the public too - T&M's open day has been and gone, but all the major seed companies do it so get along to one if you possibly can (even if you are a bit sniffy about bedding!)
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