Wednesday, October 30, 2013


When we first rehomed some ex-bat chickens in 2010, there was no shortage of people telling us that we'd lose them all to foxes. Even living in a fairly suburban area you would expect there to be some foxes in the immediate vicinity. But we saw no signs of them around our garden and no sightings were reported by our neighbours. 

Earlier this year however, rumours began that foxes had moved into our street: late night sightings of a family group trotting around local roads, relaxing in the sunshine on a neighbours lawn and the characteristic screaming in the dark of night. So, we weren't too surprised when they finally revealed themselves in our garden, showing a healthy fox interest in our feathery pets. 

What came as a surprise was how bold them would be – no skulking around in the shadows for them, waiting for night to fall. No, they turned up, confident as anything, at all times of the day. Usually it would be the chickens who sensed them first, setting off loud squawking calls of warning and panic. Thankfully we have a very secure Eglu coop and run, which when closed up is fox-proof, so although the chickens can have some fresh air and a bit of freedom, but remain safe from physical attack.

The following photos were taken one morning in July, when the chickens loudly announced the presence of an unwelcome intruder in the garden. From an upstairs window, I could at first see nothing, but after a couple of seconds, saw this striking animal amble calmly out from behind the shed and sit down in the veg plot. Call me paranoid, but he/she seemed to look directly at me apparently unaffected by the commotion in the (firmly secured) chicken run only a few metres away. The fox made itself comfortable, posing for photos for upto 10 minutes, before slowly raising to standing and trotting out of sight again.

Since then the (same?) fox has visited numerous times, sometimes during the night where it gets tangled up in the tall nylon fence, which keeps the chickens contained when they are allowed to free range, sometimes during the day when we have witnessed it jumping around on top of the coop and run terrorising the chickens within. It was on the second of these occasions that our little flock was badly affected. Although we know the fox can't get at them, that fact clearly isn't as obvious to a panicked chicken – especially when a snarling fox is leaping around only centimetres away. After chasing the fox away, we brought all 3 chickens inside the house to calm them and remove them from further stress, but it had all become too much for Snowflake who had what I can only guess was a heart attack as she sat in a pet carrier on the kitchen floor. Her companions were left shaken and nervous for a number of days and are only now growing back feathers they lost. I am told that this is a stress response, to simply shed feathers in the advent of an attack as it makes escape from the jaws of a predator possible – the attacker is simply left with a mouthful of feathers but no prey. We continue to allow the remaining two chickens as much freedom as safely possible, while still seeing the evidence of night-time visits of our foxy foe.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Uchiki kuri

Also known as onion squash, this lovely curcurbit finally decided to produce fruit for me this year. Just the one mind you. As a plant it takes up much less room than a butternut squash or traditional pumpkin, so I would recommend it if space is an issue. It produces the familiar long yellow flowers of the squash family, followed by a matching globular fruit, that swelled to the size of a honeydew melon. 

It showed off its beautiful range of glowing colours as the skin ripened in the sun before I moved it to the greenhouse to finish the curing process in a dry environment.

 It now resides in the kitchen where I am deciding what to do with each and every 749g of it. A big roasted stuffed squash maybe? A sumptuous soup or a rich sweet risotto? A small part of me wants to just admire it rather than break the spell by cutting into it. I makes me wonder what those gardeners who grow the champion vegetables for competition feel like when the time comes to consign their prize specimens to the pot. At least I won't need a fork-lift truck when the time comes!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hop to it

It has to be said that Humulus lupulus 'Aureus' is much easier to grow than it is to pronounce. Since learning of the golden hops, I now delight in spotting it in domestic gardens, public parks and even as an escapee by the side of roads bordering residential areas.

The almost chartreuse colour of its leaves brighten up the darkest of corners and add an early season vibrancy that contrasts well with the blossoms of spring flowering shrubs. 
My plant took one season to really establish its roots before bursting into vigorous growth this year, twirling its multiple stems ever higher to clothe a metal arch that roughly divides the productive and ornamental elements of my garden.

Its virtues are not singular. As well as a visually appealing plant from spring through to the onset of winter, it provides a generous habitat to a range of insect life. Admittedly, not all these insects are desired or enhance the plant for periods of time, but such is the circle of life in a garden. Early in the season when the growth is very fresh, aphids cluster on the supple stems, drawing on the vital sugars within to drive a population explosion unmatched elsewhere in the garden. Their honeydew secretions are usually heavy, encouraging a bloom of sooty mould to develop on the leaf surfaces. If you are not a advocate of spraying to treat this, it is advisable to have a nearby plant in dramatic flower during this time with which to distract any visitors to your garden!

At around the same time, you may notice that some of the leaves undergo attack by caterpillars. In my case, this happened only on the lower leaves and the stronger the plant, the less overall impact this has as the base continues to send up increasing numbers of stems, generally disguising the less than perfect leaves with new growth. And you can take heart in the knowledge that you have provided for another generation of butterflies in your garden.

The third and final insect life I spotted on my plant was most welcome and was a direct result of the first invasion. The presence of aphids had attracted ladybirds to lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and by early July, the plant was host to a new generation of ladybird larvae. Often mistaken for plant pests due to their somewhat ferocious, if minuscule, appearance, these carnivores will munch their way through thousands of aphids on their short journey to becoming a fully grown ladybird.

And while they're busy hoovering the last remains of juicy greenfly from the plant, your hops plant will quietly send forth one last burst of energy that results in the most delicate of flowers appearing from wispy terminal shoots. These are the hops flowers we might recognise from the brewing process, but if you're not planning any homemade beers, you can enjoy the pendulous flowers right through the autumn as they catch the sun and slowly turn the rich buttery colour from which they earn their name. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You say tomato, I say passata

Every year, without fail I pack my greenhouse to the rafters with tomato plants.  Tomatoes are one of my least favourite foods, in fact I don't really like them at all. But I love growing them, hubby likes eating them and I like making passata to store in the freezer for winter pasta dishes.

I had some Franchi seeds (San Marzano and St Pierre) left over from a previous year and also 'rediscovered' some seed swap varieties hidden in the bottom of my overflowing tin that I had yet to try out. So I sowed 4 varieties in February – my new varieties for 2013 being Cuor di Bue (Ox Heart) and Tigerella.

Space is really an issue in my little concrete-floored greenhouse, but with a bit of grow-bag jiggery-pokery, I can shoehorn 8 plants onto my restricted floor space, leaving the staging surface clear for chilli plants and smaller plant propagules in trays. 

The very late spring meant that it was early June before I moved them outside, my final planting tally being 2 each of Cuor di Bue and Tigerella and 1 each of San Marzano and St Pierre. The wonderfully warm weather in June and July brought the plants on well and they flowered strongly. But pollination seemed to be an issue for some of them (despite tapping the plants regularly to distribute pollen and leaving the greenhouse door open as often as possible). 

The Cuor di Bue crop has been the largest in terms of fruit size – huge double or triple fruits with a very 'meaty' texture and few seeds.

The Tigerella crop was wave upon wave of small juicy fruits, which is continuing still well into September. According to those who have tasted them, these are the sweetest tomatoes I've grown so far.

Of my 2 Franchi varieties, St Pierre has been a moderate harvest with some nice sized fruits but San Marzano was certainly the worst. A single plant produced fewer than 10 fruits, none of which exceeded 5 or 6cm in length. Quite disappointing really, compared with other years. 

But all the tomatoes have been regularly collected as they've ripened and roasted as a mixture to form the base of my pasta dishes for the months to come.  Now that's how I do like to eat my tomatoes!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Redcurrant jelly - a recipe

First watch in early spring as green leaves unfurl from what looks like a dead twig stuck in the ground. Water well if Mother Nature decides not to bother and add a suitable feed to boost production.

Step back in amazement as not only does the dead twig seem to be alive after all but by mid June it is fully clothed in leaves and adorned with racemes of tiny flowers. It cannot be denied that I've seen more colourful flowers, but they have a charm all of their berry own. (see what I did there?)

Harvest resulting berries when they have ripened to a translucent plumpness, wash thoroughly and add to a pan with water. Heat rapidly, squashing the berries with a potato masher.

Pour pan contents into a jelly bag to drain overnight. Measure volume of liquid obtained and add sugar (450g sugar per 600ml juice).

Start over a low heat, then increase heat skimming any surface scum as you go. Check for setting after reaching jam point (a quick internet search will give you this info if you're unsure). Add resulting tiny amount of jelly to a sterilised jar and once set, proudly display to anyone who passes by. Ignore husband's first comment of, 'Is that it?' 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A cuckoo in the nest

A moral, if one were needed, on the importance of plant labels. (And putting them on the right plant)

I sowed my curcurbit seeds in April and tended them carefully as any good veg gardener does. I kept them in the warm, I watered them sparingly and I talked to them kindly. I always sow more seeds than I think I'll need, just so I have replacement plants if any wither before their time. And this year I had a bumper selection of curcurbit seeds, from stripy courgettes to yellow ones, from butternut squash to acorn squash – the suburban veg plot had never seen the like of it before! Having so many different varieties also meant I'd needed to write up some new labels for the pots.

As the weeks passed, I potted up the growing plants and moved them first to the greenhouse, then to the cold frame as I prepared them for life outdoors. I had to write up more plant labels at this stage as I'd sown them 2 or 3 to a pot. Upon selecting the plants I wanted to keep, I potted up a stripy courgette for my mum (a now annual tradition) and also gave her a spare butternut squash plant to replace one that had died in her garden. My own plants were planted out into the raised beds and daily protected from the onslaught of slugs that May brought with it.

Come the middle of July, my mum mentioned that her courgette plant had started to produce fruits but her butternut squash was yet to get started. I checked on my plants and found that although there were a few male flowers opening, neither of mine had started any fruiting yet. But I couldn't shake the thought that the courgette plant looked a bit different, maybe a bit on the, I don't know, pumpkiny side...?

The next week I got a call from a very puzzled mum. Being a newbie veg grower she often rings for advice on seedlings or plant spacings, but this question was not one I was expecting. Her butternut squash plant had finally started to fruit – but it seemed to be producing a courgette!
I just couldn't come up with an explanation for that – that is until the next time I was surveying the veg plot and discovered this little fella hiding under a leaf on my 'courgette' plant.

It's a good thing my mum likes courgettes.... And maybe I'll give her one of these once they've ripened.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Other people's gardens

It's said that gardeners are a friendly bunch and indeed there's something about growing plants, be they for ornament or food, that brings out the sharing aspect. Whether it's a spare tomato seedling, a cutting from a favourite hydrangea or a jar of homemade strawberry jam, gardening tends to open people up to their fellow human in a way that few other activities do.
So imagine a weekend where you could head off to someone's garden, to have a look at their borders and beds, check how neat their lawn is or how tall their potato haulms are. To discuss with a friend how healthy those perennial grasses are or how disorganised that shed looks; how good the tea is or how the lemon drizzle cake is almost as good as your gran used to make. And to ask the garden owner themselves how do they bring on their dahlias so early in the season or what's their secret to keeping their roses blackspot free.

Well, garden blog readers of England and Wales, that weekend has arrived, and arrived with a flourish!
Let me introduce you to the inaugural National Gardens Festival Weekend from the NGS!

There are 800 gardens open over the weekend across England and Wales, so there's sure to be one not too far from you. From urban oases to rural idylls, allotments to artisan gardens, there is every type of garden opening covering the tiniest courtyard to the biggest landscaped parklands. And the money raised from admissions, plant sales, teas and cakes goes to national nursing and caring charities including Marie Curie Cancer Care, Macmillan, Help the Hospices, Carers Trust, The Queen's Nursing Institute and Perennial. The aim for this first-time open garden festival is to raise £500,000 over the 2 days – a tough challenge – but one that every garden lover can play their part in.

And talking of challenges, who better to take on the task of visiting gardens in 5 counties in 1 day during the Festival Weekend than Anneka Rice! 

So, if that has inspired you to join in this festival of foliage, flowers and fresh cream teas, then here's the current map of where they're taking place. Click here to access the map on the NGS website and keep your fingers crossed for the weather!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Raspberries on the cheap

In autumn last year I picked up a couple of 'end of the line' plants from a well-known home and garden superstore. Let me just say, I don't usually buy plants from there - strimmer cord yes, all purpose filler yes, but not plants. However, when raspberry canes are on sale for 10p each, it would seem to be a bargain worth snapping up. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? They'd all die and I'll be 30p out of pocket?

So, I took home my new plants and soaked the rootballs in water before potting them up and pruning back the old canes. Then I googled Raspberry 'Malling Jewel' and salivated at the idea of early season summer raspberries.

Fast forward to March/April, I patiently checked for signs of any new shoots but there were none to be seen. Eventually in mid May, they started to break through the surface, slowly yet steadily.

So, we're now heading towards the middle of June, I have my supports in place and the canes themselves are looking healthy but still only about 30cm tall with no signs of any flower buds yet. Somehow, I can't imagine that things are going to be moving so quickly that I'll still have raspberries by July...

What do we think? Is this a case of big company mislabelling/mixing up stock and what I've actually got is an autumn fruiting variety? Or has the cold, cold spring held back the growth? Or were they simply planted too late last year to start producing canes at the optimum time?

This novice raspberry grower would be grateful for all suggestions.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cake in the sun

It was a fabulously sunny day on Sunday here in my little corner of Hertfordshire, which made it all the more sad that I had quite a lot of horticulture revision to get done. And not the kind of revision where you can wander around the garden deadheading plants while you try to recall their Latin name and preferred growing conditions. No, it was the kind you can only really do sitting indoors at a laptop, surrounded by books containing details of pathway foundation materials (hoggin and MOT type 1, for the hardcore nerds among you) and biosecurity approaches to the storage of topsoil during garden construction.

So, this meant I couldn't get out to any NGS open gardens in order to mark Chelsea Fringe: The Bloggers' Cut – a virtual gathering brought together over at Veg Plotting. However, I did manage to whiz up a quick cake of my own and enjoy it with a coffee sitting in my own garden. My cake choice was driven by leftovers. A jar of stem ginger really needed finishing off so I found a ginger cake recipe online which I tweaked in order to use the rhubarb cooking juices strained off while making rhubarb fool on Friday. I am nothing if not thrifty when it comes to cooking...
It was a lovely cake, though I suspect Mary Berry would pronounce it slightly underbaked. Personally, I consider perfectionism a failing.

So, to share with you a little more than the green shades of the garden predominant in the photo above, here are some gorgeous flowers in full colour in my garden this weekend.

A rather vibrant Dahlia 'Bishop of Landaff' that I picked up at Chelsea Flower Show

A Californian Lilac that seems to be invigeling its way into my favour despite me trying to cut it down for 3 years

Self-seeded aquilegias – quite the most welcome flowers in the garden

As above, in hot pink
And possibly the latest late tulip I've ever known

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yet another Chelsea roundup

I thoroughly enjoyed the show gardens on Main Avenue and at the risk of repeating anything you've already read about them on other blogs, here's my opinion of a few of them.

Firstly, the M&G Centenary garden 'Windows through Time' by Roger Platts. Probably winner of the 'show garden I could most live with'. Beautiful plantings with a great variety of textures. Described in the accompanying brochure as: 'a garden designed to capture what every visitor to Chelsea, whether in 1913 or 2013, would love to take home with them.'  Roger easily achieved this by including what seemed to be every single plant in existence in the garden. I've never seen such a plant list – it covers 5 pages of the brochure. Loads of fabulous specimens though, from huge foxglove spires, to spreading Cornus kousa in flower, and the world's favourite daisy: Erigeron karvinskianus. Not pictured below, but there was a drift of what looked like Achillea 'Moonshine' towards the front of the garden. A bit acid for me, if I'm honest. It was possibly a replacement as the printed plant list showed Achillea 'Summerwine', which I couldn't see at all. A special mention has to go to the M&G bag – so capacious, I got a second one to carry all my plant swag home on the Saturday.

On to the B&Q/Sentebale 'Forget-Me-Not' garden by Jinny Blom, otherwise known as 'Prince Harry's Garden'. A tranquil affair overall with some lovely lumpy planting of Leptinella squalida 'Platts Black', Selaginella helvetica, and pale blue Forget-me-nots in flower. The willow pollards lining one side added a lovely structural, yet airy feel, and gave me the sense of open landscape rather than enclosed garden. Cool grey curving steps led up to what looked like Stoke's missing pottery kiln and the less said about the clay ashtray in the middle, the better. It reminded me of the waltzers, back when the fair came to the village common every Easter and all the 5th year girls tried to get off with the bloke in charge of the bumper cars.

The Delancey East Village Garden by Michael Balston and Marie-Louise Agius was a wonderful representation of public planting inspired by the redevelopment of the Olympic Park into residential areas. While the plant choices themselves aren't my particular cup of garden tea (Zantedeschias and rhododendrons),  I loved the shapes and spaces they'd created and think that the stepped watercourse could be recreated in even the most modest suburban garden.

The Telegraph garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole: I so want to like this garden and indeed feel that I may be judged harshly by the gardening elite for not doing so. It is elegant, considered, in proportion, well-planned and expertly constructed – all the things a good garden should be. But it includes monastic cloisters (who doesn't have those?) and the whole premise of the garden is that it is to be viewed from that cloistered area. Yes, that's right, from the bit that the general public can't gain access to. And Christopher, you complained about the Best in Show being awarded to the Australians. Whatever balanced way you do that and however validated your points are by others in the gardening media, it's always going to sound like sour grapes. On the plus side you did include Tulipa sprengeri, even if you did make me search for them.

So finally, to the Arthritis Research Garden designed by Chris Beardshaw. Simply beautiful. A very personal and heartfelt design and a well deserved People's Choice Winner.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's that Chelsea

Yes, it's here again. Love it or hate it, The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is going to be filling the tv schedules, newspapers and websites, your twitter feed, instagram and most gardening blogs you care to read for the next 7 days. Whether you're an avid attendee, lapping up the show gardens, zipping round the Great Pavilion and downing Pimms as fast as the rain falls or a conscientious objector wincing at the sight of celebs on Press Day who probably wouldn't know one end of a trowel from another and tut-tutting at the sheer cost of it all in these times of national austerity – it's happening whether you like it or not.

I will happily admit I fall into the former category. A relative newcomer (my first Chelsea was 2010), I love the mass coming together of all things horticultural: from new garden plants to new gardening products, concept gardens to heirloom seeds.

I was at the Chelsea site on Saturday morning and managed to take a few snaps on the whistlestop tour we were given. Needless to say it looked like the world's biggest hi-vis vest convention...

This was how Stoke-on-Trent's Transformation garden was looking. I wonder if the cement mixer will be part of the final display?

On the left in the next picture is, I think, Scape Design's After The Fire garden in the Fresh category. The concept from this French designer is the dramatic regeneration after forest fires in Mediterranean areas.

Here's a sneaky top half preview of the sculpture commissioned by the RHS for the occasion of the 100 year centenary of the Chelsea Flower Show. This was created by Marc Quinn famed for his 'Alison Lapper pregnant' piece that featured on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square and more recently as an inflatable installation as the finale to the Paralympic Games opening ceremony.

Work was going well down at the Cloudy Bay Discovery Garden. Phew, they'll be needing a nice chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc after all that heavy work.

Almost cut off on the left is the concept studio structure in rusted corten steel of the Trailfinders Australian garden - but the focus of this pic was really the champagne tent in the middle. *notes location for future reference*

And finally the Great Pavilion, which was a hive of buzzing activity, forklift trucks and shouting. This will be my home for 3 days this week where I'll be an RHS 'Showmaker', helping visitors navigate to their favourite nursery exhibit, find that desirable new plant or simply direct them to the nearest toilets!
If you're heading to Chelsea this week, I hope you have a fabulous day!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tulips on parade and under review

Well, they were a long time coming, but finally my tulips flowered! This year is my first for spring bulbs and I'm so pleased with them that I'll definitely be planting them again come the winter. The photos below are all from bulbs very kindly supplied gratis to me by Spalding Bulbs in return for blogging about them. They were all planted into pots in late November and you can read that post here.

I found they really needed no special care over the winter, save for the occasional picking out of little weeds that grew through the gravel mulch and by February, they'd all started to peek out at the surface.

Firstly the White Triumphator tulips – these were planted in an existing container of black lily grass and as planned they look very dramatic as a colour contrast. About 70% of the bulbs came up from those planted. They are said to grow to 60cm tall and did look a little lanky and floppy in my pot. That could have been because they weren't planted quite as deeply as recommended – due to the difficulties trying to interplant them into a shallow pot of  dense plants. The flowers are very elegant in shape and I am planning to thin out the grass and add a few more of the bulbs in the wintertime.

Parrot tulips have never been a particular favourite of mine but these ones may have changed my mind somewhat. I don't really like to see them in the ground as I think they look 'too cultivated' in a garden situation. But in pots I am happier to see them as part of a seasonal display. These are a compact height, flowered as a mix of white, red, yellow and purple and seem to be very popular with the bees!

And finally the Darwin hybrids – in a mix of yellow and red. 60cm of perfectly formed tulip with the classic bowl-shaped flower. About as perfect as nature (with man's intervention) can produce. Despite their relative tall stature, these have stood up well to the high winds of late.

There was a 4th variety in my package – Candy Kisses – but these I potted up and gave to a friend so I will have to check these out on my next visit.

Although I am not commenting on pricing of the bulbs or delivery charges, I can summarise that as far as delivery packaging and quality of bulbs received go I think Spalding score highly on all counts. I know some gardeners prefer to buy their tulips as single variety or colours but if I was looking for a mixture for a pot, I think I'd certainly pay their website a visit.

My bulb care instructions from now on are to deadhead them as they go over and give a liquid feed once a week for a month. I'm undecided between leaving them in the pots to flower again next year or emptying them out, drying the bulbs carefully and potting up again in winter. Does anyone have any recommendations on that front? Please though, no suggestions for planting them in the ground – I have no available space that the chickens do not have access to so they wouldn't stay in the ground for very long...