Thursday, March 31, 2011

End of month view: March

What a difference a couple of months makes.

Last time I did the rounds with the camera was the end of January: barely a leaf had burst its bud at that time, I hadn't even started the post-winter clearup, and everything was looking decidedly bleak and not a little scruffy around the edges.

I woke up, along with the garden, some time in mid-February. And in the six weeks or so since then, everything has changed.

First up (of course) is the veg garden: always my first priority at seed-sowing time. I've been ferrying eyewatering quantities of scaffold boards back on the roof of my poor groaning family estate to divide up the long, thin space into 4ft x 10ft beds. At first they were all re-covered with the black plastic which has been keeping my soil protected over winter: but now, gradually, it's all coming off.


...and now:

The far end is well up and away: with the addition of a bit of bought-in soil improver (not yet quite confident about how good my soil might be), new potatoes, onions and shallots have joined the overwintering broad beans and autumn-sown onions.

Under those cloches are two varieties of pea; Feltham First (early and robust) and heritage variety Telephone, which reaches up to 5ft tall, so I'm told. Further down there are rows of leeks and carrots under fleece for protection against carrot fly.

Greenhouse no. 1 - unheated - is filling up: the other day I had to rig up the coldframe (in bits since the post-move chaos) in a hurry to get the first of the sweetpeas, chard and overwintered marigolds ready to go out.

But just look at Greenhouse no. 2 - the one that's frost-free. I have run out of room. There is no other way to put it. The windowsills in the house are groaning with seedlings too. What am I going to do!

Right, never mind the veg: what about the rest of it?

Here's the rock garden, or rather the herb garden to be. Nicely trimmed these days: and I've started placing a few pots of bits and bobs around the place ready to be planted.


...and now:

In the blue pot is an olive tree, about six inches tall when I got it (it was a freebie which looked a lot better in the magazine than what actually arrived on my doorstep).

I nurtured it and nursed it, and now it's about 5ft high and a lovely healthy young tree. Then it got left outside in the snow and ice, and I resigned myself to losing it: but no. It didn't even lose its leaves.

So since it's survived that, I figure it'll breeze being planted outside. It's moved around this patch a few times now, trying to find the right spot for what I hope will one day be a fetchingly gnarled evocation of Italy on my doorstep, and a rather fine backdrop to all my Mediterranean herbs.

There's also plenty going on here quite independently of my own feeble efforts to spruce things up. Little pretties keep popping up all over the place. I keep stopping in my tracks on the way out of the house: the other day it was because I spotted a clump of pulsatilla. Pulsatilla! In my garden!

Aren't they lovely? Those palest grey fluffy feathers set off the dusty mauve of the flowers so perfectly.

And look at this: in the hollow between two sides of the old stone wall, partially collapsed, a little colony of windflowers has sprung up.

I've spent many thorny hours clearing the bank above where my tropical edibles patch will eventually be. It's not only painful, but also slightly unnerving as this bank is about 12ft high and much of my bramble removal was done while hanging precariously off a handy branch. Must invest in a ladder.


...and now:

It's all looking a lot better now, so I guess the splinter-pocked fingers were worth it.

There's more pot placement here: you can make out the fig in the far corner, and just out of sight there's a Pawlonia tomentosa I was given - half-dead on arrival but now, rather excitingly, reviving.

And other things are popping up here, too: lupins and a carpet of some kind of small white comfrey. It's beautiful, the bees love it, but it is obviously a little invasive: I shall have to think carefully about where I move it to.

So on to the only other bit I've done anything to; the circular bed around our shady seating area.


...and now:

I've recently been told by someone who's lived in the village a lot longer than me that this was once a pond. This is answering a lot of questions: why, for example, a hefty Rodgersia (usually a bog plant) can survive so well in a free-draining, chalky soil.

I have an uncomfortable feeling this circular bed may be hiding a pond liner of epic proportions. We're talking probably concrete; maybe not even split. We are talking bog garden.

This may rather alter my plans to turn this area into a scented garden full of daphnes and Christmas box and wintersweet.

For now however I have just cleared the winter debris and I'm about to launch into a huge weed-through, followed by my standard fall-back in situations where I have little time and large areas to fill: I'm planning to sow this lot with seed from Pictorial Meadows, already sitting in an inviting little packet on my desk as I type.

It isn't all weeds and bog plants though: tucked up on the bank, a little higher than the rest, there is a paeony already swelling into bud.

A paeony! In my garden! (another chalk-loving plant I have never been able to grow before. My cup brimmeth over: snowdrops, primroses, pulsatillas and now peonies. Can it get any better than this?)

And last but absolutely not least: I haven't touched this bit but I have been in love with it for a whole month now. I have, on the hill that rises at the back of my garden, a host of golden daffodils.

There are hundreds of them, across the width of the garden, and we have been giving them away to friends in big fat bunches as well as stuffing every vase in the house. Whoever planted them, many decades ago: I hope you are somewhere just as beautiful right now.

Thank you to Helen, aka Patient Gardener, for hosting the End of Month View: the perfect opportunity to take a step back and take the big view for a change.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A new addition to the family

Regular readers will remember that last year we very sadly lost our beloved Allotment Dog, rather suddenly. Well: we've had a dog-shaped hole in our family ever since, so a few weeks ago we decided to put that right. Meet Allotment Dog Junior.

He's taking his gardening responsibilities very seriously so far: he's been planting peas (or rather, rearranging their planting after I'd already planted them, but then he is a bit of a perfectionist about these things).

He's also a whizz at digging planting holes, although he tends to fall into them as his legs are rather short, and has already done some pond gardening, possibly unintentionally as I think he was taking rather too close an interest in the goldfish at the time and suddenly found himself with his head in the waterlily pot. Since I had to fish him out I'm not sure that particular branch of gardening will be a favourite.

I'm afraid I can't agree with Nigel and sundry anti-dog gardeners (apart from the bit about dog owners not clearing up after themselves): I love having a dog in the garden again. I have a constant companion on my rounds and a faithful shadow to share my triumphs and disasters with (he even looks interested, and what's more he won't tell anyone else). And, no matter what I do, he likes me. Now you can't say that of a cat.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The post that wasn't

I went to the Edible Garden Show last Friday.

I was going to tell you all about it. On, say, about Saturday.

Could have done with this advice this week, really

Then Sunday came along and it was lovely and sunny outside and my first earlies were just itching to get in the ground and... well....

So it turned into Monday. And there was a big deadline going on and panicky emails flying.

And then Tuesday came around and.... well, you get the picture.

A fine crop of forced rhubarb at the Potting Shed display

So I meant to write a much better, more pertinent, more insightful post; one which highlighted a few of the rather gorgeous things at the show, like Joy Michaud's covetable dark purple leaved chilli seedlings (new variety: 'Fairy Lights' - one of which is now snuggled down in a 10cm pot in my greenhouse) and the funky (but possibly rather impractical) water butt on show at the Urban Allotment stand.

Funky... but wouldn't survive five minutes in my hugger-mugger garden I'm afraid

I meant to give some pithy comments about how the show had a bit of growing into itself to do: the venue was small and a little on the gloomy side (taking pictures was an interesting exercise in holding the camera still long enough for the agonisingly slow shutter speed to go through its paces).

Yeeeesss.... photography was not easy in these conditions. In focus, these are the rather wonderful 'Fairy Lights' chillies I failed to resist

And it tried to be all things to all (wo)men: cookery shows jostled shoulders with James Wong and his Incredible Edibles, just a short stone's throw from a tiny marquee full of snuffly pigs, impossibly fluffy chickens and slightly smelly goats (are there any other kind?). And for me there wasn't enough of anything.
Inbuilt crop protection from Home Grown Revolution: practical, sturdy, but why do things made for allotments have to be so darn ugly?

I meant to express the hope that next year, they'll do the same thing again, but this time they won't dramatically underestimate the level of interest: when I arrived, ten minutes before the show even opened, the carpark was already packed and there was a queue out of the door. So much for the GYO movement peaking. Next year I'm hoping to see a venue triple the size (and preferably at least partly outside in deference to people taking photographs).

Uhh.... hello

Instead you will have to read the eminent Emma Cooper, who was also there and got her act together far better than me, as well as bagging the most adorable piggy photo ever (although I think her other half may have had something to do with that).

And if you didn't make it to Stoneleigh Park yourself, you can be transported right there, courtesy of the National Farmers' Union, with a little film which I shall now shamelessly borrow.

But although it's a week out of date, and like too-old cheeses the joke is a little stale, I couldn't resist sharing this: it tickled me pink (though I am easily tickled).

Well.... it does say 'Invisible', but I think they may be taking things a little literally...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March flowers

Spring has sprung: and all over the garden flowers are spangling lawns and peeking from borders. I'm not sure why spring flowers are almost all tiny: perhaps it's to do with the energy involved in getting to flowering stage before most plants are even waking up. But they're all the more exquisite for their diminutive size.

I can't take credit for the flowers in these pictures, or indeed for most of the flowers in my garden over the next few months: I'm taking the softly, softly approach this year as I really have no idea what I've got just yet, having only had the acquaintance of my garden since last September. And big fat buds are emerging from the ground in the most unexpected places so I suspect there will be more than a few surprises. So far, it's all looking very promising. Very promising indeed.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn': still going strong, but now joined by sumptuously pleated leaves in a brooding shade of slatey-green just breaking their buds

Primula vulgaris - or a selection thereof: these have rather deep yellow centres to be a wilding (though there are plenty of those in the banks hereabouts) but they are close enough not to offend

Scilla sibirica: this is one of mine, one of a few big wide pots I planted up with bulbs the autumn before last, and still going strong. The blue of the scillas backlit with sunlight is enough to stop me in my tracks every time I walk past. They play havoc with the school run.

The early bumblebees are enjoying the last of the Mahonia japonica flowers

and the slugs have been munching my Anemone blanda - though there are plenty more buds coming through

Chionodoxa luciliae: another star of the big sunny pots of bulbs that lift my heart

One of my favourite daffodils: Narcissus 'February Gold', small, early to flower and with a deep tangerine corona which glows in low spring sunshine

Leucojum vernum: I was wondering what the big clump of healthy, strappy leaves just outside my back door were: then they started producing lovely clear white flowerbuds about a week ago. Never been able to grow them before (they like wetter soil): I'm chuffed to bits.

Yes, I know. It's a weed. But you can almost forgive lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) its rampantly invasive nature and infuriating ability to thumb its nose at your efforts to weed it out when it sprinkles the lawn (and the borders, and the hedgerows) with its lovely droplets of pure sunshine.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens - thanks Carol!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A prickly subject

The cacti are back.

Three boxes of them plus a few loose ones; over 20 cacti of varying shapes and sizes, the largest up to your knees, the smallest the size of your thumb. And I hate the lot of them.

But don't let the 11-year-old know I said that: these are her cacti collection, lovingly built up over about five years ever since somebody whose name shall ever be in my little black book bought her some benighted Echinocactus and she learned what entertaining effects it produced when people tried to dust it. I was under the misapprehension that encouraging an interest in cacti would eventually lead to a wider enthusiasm for gardening in general: but quickly learned that for an 11-year-old this is in the same bracket as acquiring Pokemon cards or Gogo Crazy Bones or Polly Pocket dolls, and has about as much to do with growing things.

Anyway, since then we've acquired a few Stenocereus, a Gymnocalcium (you can see that one in the picture above - it's the one with the pink hat on) and a pale grey Pilosocereus (back row, far left). Among others.

I have tried to get enthusiastic about them: they're plants, after all. I have actually seen some pretty spectacular displays of cactus: never in the wild, more's the pity, but there's a fine glasshouse full of beautiful mature specimens at Torre Abbey in Torquay which shows you what breathtaking effects you can achieve with them if you really try.

But the main rule seems to be, don't have lots of squitty boring little plants in individual pots bristling along your windowsills. I don't have a large display greenhouse going spare, so this is what I've had to do and 20 cacti fill a lot of windowsills. And apart from one or two headline-grabbing incidents when we actually got one to flower, they have looked exactly the same from the day we got them to now.

In the process of moving house I discovered something else about cacti: they're like homing pigeons. You can't get rid of them. We boxed up our collection and cunningly palmed them off on my mum, under some vague pretext that they might get damaged in transit or something (ha! I wish!)

My hopes that she would eventually fail to notice them as they mouldered away in a dusty corner - or, even better, leave them outside in the frost or something - were dashed. My mum probably hates cacti even more than I do, and she seems to have spent the intervening six months fuming in a well-mannered sort of way about having to babysit twenty of the blighters.

So the other day she finally dumped the lot in the boot of her car and drove them back to our house. They're now glowering at us from where they have been rather unceremoniously dumped in the boot room while we have rows about what to do with them.

However I think I might now have cracked it. It's a bit of a convoluted tale: we go riding every week or so at a local riding school, and a few weeks ago I was chatting to the lady who runs it about my gardening. She happened to mention that her dad was a cactus specialist - president of the local club, goes to shows, the lot. So I let rip about the boxes of cacti cluttering up my boot room and spiking anyone unfortunate enough to walk past: and she offered (on her dad's behalf) to take them for me.

I couldn't believe my luck. This lot are off on Saturday: I think if I discover her dad's changed his mind they may accidentally find their way onto the muck heap instead.

A few are staying: the Opuntia, which has obligingly produced a nice baby.... thing.... out the side this year, has the 11-year-old's initials carved in it from when she was six and first got it, so it's a bit like a living toddler drawing. She couldn't be parted from her beloved purple cactus - some sort of Euphorbia, I believe - as there's one higher than your head in Wisley which we used to go and visit every time we went there.

And - now here's a confession - I've actually kept one for myself. I don't do houseplants as a rule - though they get very mollycoddled during winter, when I'm suffering gardening withdrawal symptoms, I totally neglect them in summer and can't be bothered to water them. And then it makes me feel guilty having all these dead and dying plants kicking around the place.

Cacti and succulents give you none of these dilemmas: they just stay, exactly the same, for years and years whether you water them or not. If you happen to remember to water them regularly they grow quite noticeably, which is quite gratifying, but if you don't, they don't actually die.

So they're really the only kind of houseplant I am capable of growing - a pity since I dislike them so much. However: I have found one I can live with. It's the jade plant, Crassula ovata - common as muck, but not spiky and rather attractive in a succulent sort of way.

And the one we've got clearly knows that the time to sparkle at your very very best is when your owner is in a black chucking-out-cacti mood, as it's chosen this very week to start flowering for the very first time.

How lovely is that? When you water it the water emerges through the petals so they hang with dewdrops, too - just exquisite. I'd better make the most of it though: it'll be another 10 years before it does it again.
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