A summer update

Hello everyone,

I hope you’re all well and enjoying the wonderful late spring weather we’ve been having! What a relief after that endless winter. I thought I’d blog about changes we’ve made to our garden recently, and what I’ve been getting up to.

In January 2017 we adopted two beautiful cats, Jerry and Margot (yes, they are named after the characters in The Good Life). The cats have settled in well and enjoy our home and the garden. Unfortunately, they also enjoy sitting in all our pots, squashing the contents, and using them as litter trays. In addition, they sit on all the windowsills where I used to grow plants from seed.

This has led to a new approach to gardening in our house. We’ve taken the plunge and purchased some fairly inexpensive perennials to go in what was our veg patch, and have (for now) taken a break from sowing from seed and keeping said plants indoors.

Last weekend we headed to the garden centre and bought some plants, and plugs, for home. I love cottage gardens and herbaceous borders, so we bought a foxglove, some lupins, a virburnum, a peony and a hydrangea, as well as established sweet peas and tomatoes. The idea is we have some permanent fixtures in our patch, which should stop the cats treating it like an open air lavatory, and I will get the much longed for blowsy, cottage garden style I hanker after.

We replaced our battered plastic greenhouse with another (£16.99 online bargain) and cleared out a lot of rubbish from the old one. This has left us with a free shelf on which to bring on tomato plants (sadly acquired from the garden centre, rather than grown from seed this year) and given us a little space to grow runner beans and courgettes from seed to add in to the patch.

The fruit bushes are looking healthy too, with the first ever redcurrants appearing, so we bought netting and canes to net them with soon. All netting tips gratefully received!

We’ve mown the lawn and had a good tidy up, and the garden is looking like a lovely space in which to spend time this summer. We’ve also been able to salvage a strawberry plant and two lavenders from the cats’ container empire, and are looking forward to enjoying our time outdoors over the coming months. We’ve even harvested our first ever rhubarb! Exciting times ahead. I’ll keep you updated as to how the perennials are faring, and will share pictures on twitter and instagram – see you there! https://www.instagram.com/englishcountryhelen/

Have you made any new garden acquisitions recently? I think my main gardening ambition for this year is to take some good cuttings and generate new plants. I hope you all have a wonderful summer!

Helen, x

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A busy few months

Hello all,

I’m so sorry I’ve neglected my blog of late; it’s been a busy old time for us this summer with our belated wedding reception taking place in July. I’m glad to say a good time was had by all, and we had a wonderful day to remember.

The garden is still my main preoccupation at home, although I’m sorry to say we haven’t been able to get out there as much this year as we have previously. We’ve had successes with dahlias and Japanese anemone’s romping away, and the raspberries and blackcurrants fruiting as never before. The rhubarb is looking healthy and we had a bumper crop of potatoes too.

I’ve also turned my hand to flower arranging, having gone on a very good workshop last November, I ended up making the bridesmaids posies for the wedding reception and the centre pieces for the tables at the wedding breakfast. We had a very fun morning at New Covent Garden flower market, and I’ve been enjoying flower arranging at home more and more; I’ll be uploading some pictures soon.

Meanwhile I’m expanding my baking repertoire; I bake for fun, friends and family, but have had to expand my range recently after being diagnosed with coeliac disease. I’ve decided to expand the blog to focus on my baking and cooking at home, and will be uploading content and pictures very soon.

Do keep checking back though to see how we get on in our home and garden; I hope you’ve all had a wonderful summer. I’m now turning my thoughts to planting the spring bulbs, and forcing hyacinths for Christmas. Happy autumn, everyone!

 

Forcing

Something I have wanted to try for a while now is forcing (growing plants in the dark to make them grow earlier, thus lengthening the growing season). The most famous forced plants in the UK is the rhubarb grown in the famous ‘rhubarb triangle’ in West Yorkshire, where rhubarb is grown in candlelit brick sheds to produce young, tender, pink stemmed rhubarb. You can read more about this here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenprojects/3309590/The-secrets-of-the-rhubarb-triangle.html

On a smaller scale you can force rhubarb, sea kale, chicory and other appropriate crops on your veg patch or on your allotment using a traditional forcing jar, or even a terracotta chimney pot covered with a tile (cheaper!)

In addition to forcing fruit and veg, flowers can be a good idea for forcing, to bring colour in to the house earlier than usual in spring. I’ve been pushing myself to try something new in the garden each year, and while I’ve missed the boat on growing a forced hyacinth in time for Christmas, it’s hopefully not too late to bring on some early hyacinths and narcissus paperwhites for late winter.

Forcing plants such as hyacinths in indoor pots can be an easy way of bringing a splash of scent and colour in to your home; it doesn’t take up much room and can brighten up your house on grey, winter days with a touch of spring colour – a reminder, often needed at that time of year, that winter won’t last forever!

Today I gave it a go for the first time. I planted three hyacinth bulbs in three ceramic indoor pots, and 3 narcissus paperwhite bulbs in ceramic and small terracotta pots. I followed instructions I found on the internet, and ensured the pots were filled with damp multipurpose compost, placed one bulb per pot (not touching the sides) snugly near the top, and surrounded the bulb with earth, exposing just the top of the crown.

Apparently the best idea is then to leave the pots somewhere cold and dark in an unheated space, where the winter cold helps stimulate the growth, before bringing the pot in to grow on in the house once the plant is well established. Traditionally, gardeners do this in September for a lovely centre piece on Christmas Day. Sadly, our busy calendars meant this wasn’t possible this year, but hopefully it will still work and they’ll grow nicely in the fullness of time. Unlike using forcing jars, this method allows you to pot up your plant, then keep it somewhere cool and dark, without sparing the expense on additional equipment.

Ideally, there should be flowers in time for late winter to add colour and fragrance to the house. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a new gardening technique, and would urge you to try it, as it was easy and inexpensive. I’ll keep you updated on how they get on. Watch this space…hyacinths

Yield, and reflections on summer 2016

Apologies for the long time silence on the blog. Late spring and summer are the busiest times for gardeners, so not a particularly helpful time for a so-called garden blogger to go quiet.

However, it’s been a busy few months. In July my fiance and I got married! We only planned the wedding from June, and there was a lot to be done in a short time. We had a wonderful day with close family; we celebrated with a nuptial mass in my parent’s church in Dorset, and had an old fashioned tea at my parent’s house before heading to a beautiful Sandbanks hotel for a meal overlooking Poole harbour and Purbeck. A big traditional wedding reception will follow for wider family and friends next year in central London.

What with the wedding, a mini-moon in the Cotswolds, a holiday in Cornwall with my sister and nephew, and a belated engagement party at home (don’t ask) there hasn’t been as much time for gardening this summer as I had planned. I thought therefore that I would share with you some reflections on my successes and disappointments in the garden this year. Please do share your gardening stories with me in the comments below.

My first surprise, having lovingly over-wintered some broad bean plants, and raised more from spring sown plants, was finding out how few beans one plant would actually produce. I’ll caveat this; some of them were sown in pots and I didn’t give any of them a feed, which may have yielded better results had I done so. Having had great success with runner beans in 2014 however I had assumed broad beans would give me a similar glut. Although the beans I had were delicious, there weren’t a lot of them. Overwintering indoors on window sills (no big greenhouse here) took up a lot of space, and for the number of beans we got I would say isn’t worth it in our case. I’ll try again next year but will sow in late winter outdoors, sowing more to bring about a bigger harvest.

I also sowed French beans, the few I got were delicious, but of the plants I started off indoors and transplanted out, none survived. Of the ones I sowed directly in to the veg patch only one produced any beans! I had mulched with some bark from a well known homeware and DIY chain (rather late for mulching) not long before sowing them out, and can only assume the bean plants didn’t like the conditions. If anyone has any ideas here they will be gratefully received.

I sowed a row of beetroot seeds which never emerged, and of the four courgette plants I grew from seed and planted out, two perished and only one has produced a tiny number of courgettes. On this last point I think under-watering due to a late hot summer and a busy schedule is probably the culprit, but it has undoubtedly been a disappointing year, veg patch wise, and very different from 2014 when we were very successful.

Herbs were a better story, with parsley, coriander and basil in pots for several weeks through summer. Again, I will pursue this next year successionally and in greater numbers. New potatoes in pots did well and tasted lovely, though they all went in to potato salad at our engagement party. A previous post of mine refers to false economy, and I would say that for the money spent on compost for earthing up, potatoes in pots probably aren’t worth it for us, but we’ll continue them in the veg patch.

We currently have late varieties of potatoes in the patch ready to dig up through autumn, and had our first ever crop from our blackcurrant bush, which I turned in to half a jar of delicious, if slightly over-set, jam. Our raspberry bush continues to bear fruit, and the strawberry plants we bought from the garden centre did well. As yet, no sign of fruit from the two year old redcurrant bush, but that may be due to my late pruning. Tomatoes got off to a roaring start, but I over-enthusiastically gave away too many of my tomato plants to friends and neighbours (my Mum reports hers has been fantastic), of the two I kept for myself I didn’t look after them properly and ended up with just a small amount of fruit after a few months of neglect due to being busy at work and elsewhere at home. I’ll definitely try these again next year and give them a great deal more nurturing. Having been too busy to sow runner beans I remembered I had some seeds, so sowed some in pots last month (a bit of wishful thinking in case we had a late, hot summer), alas, none of them came up, so I’ll try again next year. Lettuces, planted from plugs given to us by neighbours, did very well in pots, and I’ll sow more in 2017.

It was a nice year for foraging, picking-your-own and jam making however. Last week in Dorset I picked plenty of blackberries in the hedgerows near my parent’s home, in June we took my nephew on our annual family strawberry picking expedition and made six jars of jam, and in January I made my usual batch of marmalade, though alas, not as yet with my own oranges! Making jam with our own blackcurrants was particularly enjoyable too.

On flowers, the early gladiolus were spectacular; great spikes of cream and burgundy. Sweet peas (old fashioned mix) have done well, and a few are still going; they provided colour, glorious scent and lovely cut flowers for the house all summer. I must learn to train them properly however to get the most out of them and ensure I don’t end up with a tangled mess at the bottom of the canes. Again, despite sowing a high number in pots, only a few of the plants were truly successful; luckily it was still enough to fill vases in our sitting room.

The spring bulbs did well, with a beautiful showing of daffodils and tulips over six weeks in pots and the borders. I’ll repeat this in bigger numbers this year, and add in iris and crocuses as I did two years ago. A dahlia I had forgotten about in the veg patch came up un-aided this spring and has become huge, producing vibrant red and yellow spiky flowers. Leaving it alone clearly worked last year, so I will de-head the flowers as and when and allow it to keep going until the first frosts, after which I’ll let the foliage die down before mulching the bed and leaving the tubers to slumber through the winter. Our garden never gets too cold, surrounded as it is by two high brick walls and in clement south east London.

Although a disappointing year on the veg patch, I’m not going to get too down about it. We had some success in some areas, and the fruiting of the blackcurrant bush was a real highlight. Gardening is work, and there is only so much you can neglect it before it starts to have an impact on your yield. I’ll plant more beans etc next year and make better use of the patch and will remember to keep up the successional sowing. Although life sometimes gets in the way of gardening, it isn’t the end of the world, and the regularly changing seasons in the UK mean there’s always another step to plan and look forward to. I think getting married is a pretty good excuse for being busy too!

I love autumn, and all it brings. I’m looking forward to planning and planting my bulbs for 2017, both here and in my Granny’s garden in Sussex. I love passing on my gardening tips, and planted broad beans and peas for my nephew earlier this year, these all did well in his Dorset garden, and I hope in some small way I’m helping him understand the pleasure of growing your own. Learning from mistakes is part of the nature of being a beginner and budget gardener, and I’m hoping for better things for 2017.

Happy autumn, everyone.

 

 

 

 

Top tips for beginner gardeners

I read on the Telegraph website yesterday that the RHS has conducted research which finds members of ‘Generation Rent’ are far less likely to garden than homeowners.

This is only to be expected of course, what with rising rents and insecurity of tenancy, many millennials don’t want to commit to maintaining a garden which they don’t own, and which if they plant up they may not get to see bloom owing to such an insecure housing market.

However, I say don’t less this stop you. I am part of Generation Rent; my fiance and I will be renting in London for the forseeable, but I love gardening and was longing to get stuck in to it as a time honoured family hobby by my mid-twenties, so if you’re in the same position I would say don’t let not being a home owner hold you back.

It may also be a question of time, as well as money. If you’re starting out in your career, and busy with other commitments or family, then gardening can seem like an additional domestic headache. Far easier just to mow a lawn once a month at most, and leave it at that, surely?

In my experience though everyone should give gardening a try. I find it relaxing and therapeutic, the joy of growing your own flowers and veg from seed is extremely rewarding, and growing your own fruit and veg is a great way of keeping down the household food bill.

As I’ve said before, you don’t need a lot of space, and it’s better to start with a small plot or some pots while you see if it’s for you. Below I’ve set out some basic tips for the beginner. For more in depth ideas head to my posts from November 2015 in the archive.

  1. Think about what you want to grow, why and where you’ll grow it. Think about how much space a fully grown plant will take up, versus a small seedling. Will it grow several feet tall or a foot or two wide? If so, and you’re short on space, you might want to stick to smaller crops for pots in your first year.
  2. Think about your plants – do you want to save money and grow plants from seeds, which is cheaper, but takes longer and requires either a greenhouse or lots of window sill space, or do you want to buy small plants from the garden centre? Buying small plants costs more, but when you get them home you’ll just need to plant them directly in to beds or pots of compost, which can be good for a beginner. Also bear in mind the risks of false economy. Growing your own veg should be cheap, but a lot of common vegetables are cheap in shops; if it’s going to cost more in buying seed potatoes, planting them, keeping them watered and earthing them up regularly then I would question whether or not that’s a good use of money! Balance out how easy something is as a starter crop to get in to gardening, versus how much it will cost to grow.
  3. Visit other gardens, watch gardening tv shows/listen to gardening radio programmes and read gardening library books get lots of ideas and inspiration before you get started. It can be tempting to sow everything, but a muted colour palette and growing a few key things well in your first year is a better idea than running riot and spending a fortune.
  4. Set a budget whether you’re on a tight budget (like me) or not, it’s a good idea to have an idea of how much you can comfortably afford. The joy of gardening is that it’s a really democratic hobby, everyone can do it, regardless of income; it must be one of the most popular pastimes that crosses all class boundaries on this basis. You can get started with very little money, so no need to splash out too soon.
  5. Ask neighbours, friends and family for help, tools and advice before buying lots of equipment, ask neighbours and others if they have a spade, a trowel, a watering can and some pots you can borrow.
  6. Do some planning don’t get enthusiastic and buy lots of seeds and plants from the garden centre and just bung them in any where when you get home. Certain plants need more light, others can cope with partial sun and some need a lot of watering (so need easy access), ask for advice at the garden centre, and read the packet instructions! If you’re building a raised bed or have a large plot to turn in to a veg patch try and ensure it’s planned out so you group similar plants together (brassicas or legumes) and leave a space to walk amongst the rows or sections if your patch is particularly big, so you can weed and water.
  7. What will you need? I started off with just pots, seed and multipurpose compost, a trowel and some seeds. There’s no need to spend a lot or get anything but the basics at first.
  8. Keep a journal It’s a good idea to note down what you sow and when, so that if a particular variety is a good success or you want to tweak the way you grow something in future you can remember what you did and when.
  9. Learn a bit about plants you will have a lot more success if you do some basic research; do you want to grow annuals or perennials? Some veg crops grow well on manured earth, others hate it. Websites, fellow gardeners on social media and library books can be a big help here. For seed sowing you want John Innes seed sowing compost with a low level of nutrients; certain plants need specific types of compost, but most bedding plants and seeds you grow yourself do well with multipurpose compost – always check packet instructions.
  10. Successionally sow and learn to appreciate the seasons. With warmer weather and longer summers becoming a feature of British life, you can sow plants later than ever, and many will do well until the first frosts of autumn. Don’t just sow everything in February, plant it out in May, harvest in June and July and think ‘job done’. Do your research about crops that will grow through in to winter, and how to preserve and pickle the produce you’ve grown, to see you through ‘the hungry gap’. Before supermarkets we ate seasonally, and it gave most of us a much better appreciation of the joys of summer fruit and winter veg.
  11. Think about your level of ‘maintenance appetite’! Do you have the time after work to be watering pots every night if it’s a hot week in summer? Do you have time to tend an allotment at least twice a week? If you haven’t gardened before it can be a good idea to start with just a few plants in pots, and build up to a bigger level of commitment when you’ve had a few months to get used to it.

A few thoughts on space and time

I love gardening. One of the things I love about it is that it forces you to go slowly. If you grow from seed and successionally sow, then you garden with the seasons, sowing the first seeds indoors in January, nurturing seedlings, sowing more, planting hardy plants out in early spring, and tender ones out later. This gives a greater appreciation of the seasons, and one starts to savour every day as you appreciate, that even in poor weather, every day has a role to play in the garden, and in making it a beautiful and productive space.

One of the activities I enjoy most is coming home from work and watering my pots in the sunshine. After a busy day and tiring commute it’s a brief moment of quiet, peace and solitude. One can see the plants growing day by day, and a few moments in the garden provides such respite from our busy, hectic world. It’s been proven that gardening is good for your physical and mental health. It is absorbing, rewarding and I think something about plunging our hands in to the earth and bringing forth new life appeals to our basest instincts.

We are lucky where we live; the Council owned our row of houses, and still owns several in our street. In the early 20th century they laid out low, slatted wooden fences between each house. This provided a boundary between each property, but probably wouldn’t conform with modern notions of ‘privacy’ that many home owners demand. Actually, this is the greatest gift to those of us who live in our little row of terraced houses. The low fences have encouraged us to talk, share and become friends with our neighbours. We are lucky in enjoying the best neighbourly relations we have ever experienced! Although our gardens are small and narrow, because of the low fences that we can see through, it gives an enormous illusion of greater space. We can see across four gardens, and as a result our patch of earth in a busy city is a tranquil oasis, and looks much bigger than it really is. If we had high fences between our plots they would be narrow, and our eyes would be drawn not across them, but to the plain high wall at the end of our garden, which backs on to a neighbouring house. What a lucky joy that Council planners so many years ago had such foresight. We are even luckier that in private ownership no-one has yet seen fit to take these fences down. Long may they reign. If you get on with your neighbours, I would recommend them.

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Generation after generation embraces gardening. In a world where we can buy all that we need, millions of us still choose to grow some or all of our own food. There is a rhythm to gardening, and a connection it gives us with the earth, that is often not found in many modern working environments. I fundamentally believe that as plants need light, humans need this contact with the earth. The earliest humans foraged, and lived as hunter gatherers. We then began to sow and yield fruit from the earth. Not only does gardening give us the tranquility so many of us require, and yet is so hard to find in the cities and towns in which we dwell, but it gives us a way to connect with the past of our ancestors. The earth provides us with nourishment, and in turn with our gardens we can nourish it back.

It’s a beautiful day here in south London, so I’m going to go outside and enjoy sitting amongst the fruits of my labours, book in hand. Happy Sunday.

How to sow

13179260_10153784498058853_5565015753605381198_n (1)I was contacted by someone recently who was a bit unsure where to start with sowing, so I thought I’d blog about it here.

Sowing seeds is easy, I promise. I’ve laid out what you need to do below; this is a good rule of thumb that will work for most ‘annuals’ (plants which grow, live, produce veg or flowers and die in the same year) and should see you yielding plenty of crops.

I recommend sowing in to small pots or ‘plugs’ (plastic black trays with deep holes that are good for crops with a long root, and also easy to transplant to bigger pots. The cardboard inner tubes from loo rolls do well for this purpose too). At this time of year, now the soil has started warming up, you can also sow direct.

A general rule of thumb is to take a small pot, 7 inches or so, fill near to the brim with special seed sowing compost (John Innes, can be bought at garden centres) and tap down to let out air pockets. Using your fingers (or a dibber*, if you have one) make two or three holes, half an inch deep in to the soil and drop in a seed to each hole. Cover with soil, water lightly and cover with a clear plastic sandwich bag, or pane of glass if you have it**.

Place on a sunny window ledge or in a greenhouse. Wait for a week or so and you should see signs of sprouting seedlings. If one seedling is significantly smaller and weaker then pluck it out. It probably won’t make a good plant and will take up room from the other seedling.

Seed compost is very low on nutrients; seeds use their own genetic makeup to give them the energy they need to get going. Sowing them in to multi purpose compost at first can give them too much energy and make them a bit leggy and unhealthy. Sow in to seed compost, then when their first ‘true’ leaves appear (after the first leaves appear, another set will follow) gently tease out the seedling from the soil. Hold it gently by the leaves (never the stalk, this is tender and damage will irrevocably affect your seedling) and place it in a larger pot comprising multi purpose compost. Have a hole ready made to take the new seedling, its roots and some of the stem. Water in and place again somewhere warm and sunny.

With most plants they can be direct sown outdoors from May, after the last frosts, and plants you have sown from seed indoors or in the greenhouse can be potted on in their final large pots outside, or placed in to the veg patch/raised bed.

If you have grown plants from seed they will be used to living indoors where it is warm. If you plant them straight outside the shock can harm them, so you need to ‘harden them off’. This means placing them outside in their pots in the day, then bringing them back in at night, for a week. A good idea is to keep them in your kitchen, putting them on the back step when you go to work, then bringing them back in by the kitchen door at bedtime. Watching out for pets and children running in and out of course!

Good flowers to grow in this manner are sweet peas and cosmos, ideal for the first time gardener, and courgettes, peas and beans can all be started in small pots indoors. A good way to get ahead. If you’re sowing now though you should be safe to sow direct where the crop is to grow, as the ground has finally started to warm up.

Sowing and growing from seed is a great way to get a lot of plants, growing your own veg and flowers very cheaply and feeding you and your family for not very much money at all. It’s also very rewarding, and an easy way to get in to gardening for the first time. I heartily recommend it!

*A dibber is a wooden or plastic pointed stick used by gardeners to make holes for seedlings. To save money I haven’t bought one. I use my finger, my Mum uses a pencil. Up to you!

** A lot of seeds require some light to germinate, if that is the case it will say so on the seed packet. In this case rather than insert the seed 2.5 cm in to soil, place on the top of the soil and scatter lightly with sieved seed compost, then water and cover with your clear plastic bag. The plastic bag creates a mini greenhouse effect, keeping in moisture which aids germination and maintaining the warmth most seeds need to sprout.