September Garden Update

What about the garden this year? It was the strangest of weather.

We had the Beast from the East (a snowstorm) in March. Around us, there are many open fields interspersed with hidden small roads. Strong Winds from the East blew the modest layer of snow off the fields, dumping it in the lanes in huge grubby piles. We were completely cut off for 2 days and the snow drifts in the garden persisted for nearly 2 weeks. It delayed Spring, which then came and went in a couple of weeks to be followed by scorching drought for months.

Anything that liked that summer scorching….tomatoes, aubergines, peppers went into overdrive. And as for my padron peppers and chillies, they practically had to be handled with tongs they were so hot. Anything that liked being watered was doomed. Pumpkins? Cinderella will not be going to the Ball in anything from my garden. Beans? Miserable. Even my courgettes struggled. But late blooming dahlias and salvias have been magnificent.

One unanticipated success was my patch of cornichons (cocktail gherkins). We have jars of the beasts which turn a lurid shade of green when they are pickled. They look like a mournful load of prickly green caterpillars confined for eternity to their jar as if they were specimens in the Natural History Museum. They are currently ‘maturing’. Essentially they are completely inedible immediately after pickling and need time to become slightly less inedible. Christmas in two years time? I’ll have cornichon fans queuing round the block for them.

Top hit this year were chickpeas. Gorgeous ferny plants each producing a clutch of small pods in which nestle, side by side, two chickpeas. I picked my very small (alright, minute) harvest with such huge excitement that I knocked over the basket and trod on them. I’ll plant a load next year. I’m determined to have homegrown hummus.

Another top hit was my extensive collection of succulents. Here’s a pic of a spiral agave. How gorgeous is this?

You can tell Autumn is upon us now. It’s not just the chill but the way that mice have started to appear in the airing cupboard. They seek the warmth but what they really want is my soap. They have a particular addiction to Imperial Leather (a brand of cheap bath soap) and I imagine them, whiskers frothing, squeaking with excitement, as they nibble chunks of hard soap as if it were the finest Parmesan. But if there are any mice reading this, I wish to inform you that the cupboard is now officially bare and the soap restaurant has shut. Please go home.

Finally, answers on a postcode as to what this could be? Is it a cushion? Is it a sheep?

This is, in fact, a gorse bush in Cornwall, covered in an odd parasitic plant that’s called dodder.

January Garden Journal

I’m surrounded by seed and plant catalogues because this is the time of year when I reflect on what worked and what didn’t in the garden and decide what to grow next year.  I have to start by confessing that I don’t learn.  In fact, I am remarkably similar to the pheasant I spotted taking seed from the feeder today.  Every time he pecked it, it swung back and hit him.  But he still staggered forward for another peck, undeterred.  Why don’t I learn for instance that if you plant 20 courgette plants, you will get 20 tons of courgettes?  And I don’t mean those cute little ones either.  The cuties hide under leaves and morph overnight into monster marrows that are no good to anyone except as assault weapons.  How many did I plant this year? Oh yes, dear reader, 20.  And boy did they do well.  Can I report my faves?  Bianca di Trieste (a little pale one), Romanesco (striped and ribbed) and Soleil (yellow).  You can get all of them as seeds from Sarah Raven.  I also like Nero di Milano which is a very deep and shiny dark green.

Let’s plunge into the disasters;  squashes. I decided to try planting them in straw bales.  You condition the bales for two weeks beforehand, with a high nitrogen fertiliser (lawn greener will do it or alternatively just pee on them) and lots of water. Provided you provide gallons of water, the decomposing (and quickly hot) interior of the bales will apparently give you super-sized pumpkins.  Or not.  It wasn’t just that the novelty of aiming at bales wore off for my husband, but the whole episode coincided with some really hot weather.  They withered and died.  Never mind, onwards and upwards.  Squashes I like are Turk’s Turban, beautiful things that look like a cottage loaf, orange on the bottom with a striped top, Red Kuri (the onion squash) which is, duh, red and not too huge.  It’s very nutty in taste.  This year I grew them up a wigwam along with a yellow and orange flowered climber called Spanish Flag (Mina lobata) which looked very fancy. I also grow butternut squashes (a reliable and easy variety called Hunter).  This year I’m going to grow Burgess Vine Buttercups.  These are relatively small pumpkins which are good eaters and store well.  Finally, triumph over adversity, I’m going to plant Muscat de Provence.  This is a fabulous thing which is the classic Cinderella pumpkin although it does apparently roam about all over the place with enthusiastic abandon.  In my dreams.

The other place I get veg seed is The Real Seed Catalogue.  They have a fantastic selection and a great hit for me this year were an old-fashioned pea variety from them called Champion of England.  More than 6’ tall (grow them up a wigwam of twigs), they produce masses of lovely peas.  Another big hit were Greek Gigantes, these are the beans that you eat in tomato sauce when you are on holiday in Greece.  Very easy to grow.  In fact, all my beans did really well this year.  We ate beans for weeks along with masses of curly kale (Redbor).  We are still eating leeks, carrots, spinach, and chard from the garden.  Did I mention Bright Lights?  This is a chard with a rainbow of different coloured stems.  They are bulletproof, you could stick a few seeds in a largish pot and providing you keep cutting them, you’ll get masses of lovely leaves – and they look fabulous.  Beetroot also did well.  I grew a fancy type this year called Chioggia.  When you cut it you get a white slice with pink rings. They provide a big oo-ah factor in salads.  And really easy to grow. If you ever go to Venice, head south across the lagoon to Chioggia.  It is the veg capital of Italy and if you look at the seed catalogues, you will frequently see the term ‘Chioggia’, as in Viola di Chioggia, the purple-tinged and delicious small globe artichoke.  Chioggia is also a fishing port, with a famous fish market so a double reason to visit the market, inspect the veg and have a memorable fish dinner too.

I was unexpectedly (as in normally things eat them before I get to them) successful with Calabrese (broccoli) and cauliflower.  Bursting with pride that I can even grow a thing that looks like what you’d buy in Sainsbury’s, I have now ordered some Brussel Sprout plants from Marshalls (a company that specialise in brassicas and onions).  I can grow brassicas from seed, but life’s too short to cosset them and their tricksy ways.

It’s January,  it’s freezing outside but I’m just about to sow seed of aubergines, peppers, and chilli in the propagator.  I’m chitting my potatoes (garden speak for sticking them in egg boxes on the windowsill to sprout) and also sowing some sweet peas and broad beans (a variety called Aquadulce).  The days are getting longer already and Spring is a glint in the eye.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a picture of one of my huge collection of Salvias.  This one is Salvia leucantha – a gorgeous thing with fluffy, outrageously purple flowers that kept on going well into November before the frost threatened and I had to move them into the greenhouse. The bright pink flower in the same pot is a species pelargonium from South Africa, that is as tough as boots called Pelargonium sidoides.  Enjoy the catalogues.

Tulips. I love ’em

I love tulips.  I can enthuse about almost any sort, except those funny ones with fringed petals.  Some people treat tulips like annuals, digging them all up once they have flowered which gives you the luxury and fun of choosing a whole new colour scheme next year.  Fine plan but it comes expensive, not to mention time consuming.  So I’ve been looking for tulips that you can leave year to year.

Species tulips in general are the gem like tiddlers, hailing from places like bare mountain slopes in Turkey.  The hotter they bake during the summer, the better they perform.  They hate to be wet so plant them somewhere free draining in full sun or plant them in pots, one sort to a pot and they’ll multiply with time and give you a great display every year.  Sudden disappearances are almost always down to mice who love tulips more than life itself.

So what about the fancy tulips?  A reliable friend from year to year is the orange ‘Ballerina’ which is unusual for a tulip in that it is scented.  I plant it with red kingsblood. In this picture, the red tulips are flowering for their third and fourth season.  This won’t be the case for all tulips and some, like parrot tulips never seem to come again although I have tried.   I have just been to the Chelsea Flower Show and the Bloms stand was magnificent, with tulips of great opulence and beauty.   I order loads and then usually  forget what I have ordered but whilst  I still remember it was several different shades of apricot and orange parrot tulips

For pots, I try different tulips each year.  This candy stripe one is Carnaval de Nice.  It looks like the sort of tulips you see in Dutch still life pictures

I’ve tried many different bulb suppliers.  My favourite for tulips is De Jaeger, followed by Bloms.  For more specialist bulbs, I use Avon Bulbs which have some beautiful species tulips.  Try Battalini Bright Gem.


Girls, girls, girls

Iris 15 (2)

Girls, girls, girls

How gorgeous are these girls? All are dwarf iris and all named after girls which seems appropriate as we come up to International Women’s Day. Katharine Hodgkin, the unmistakeable pale blue and yellow, Lady Beatrix Stanley (that mass of mid blue) and Pauline, elegant in deep purple. The great plantsman, E B Anderson crossed two rare irises in the 1960s and named the stunning result after his chum Eliot Hodgkin’s wife. Katharine. The colours are so elegant, the patterns a joy – how wonderful to have something quite so beautiful forever bear your name.

I use three suppliers of bulbs – these come from Avon Bulbs This is about their third or fourth outing. When the flowers die away, I feed them all with a liquid feed.

I am also feeding my Fritillaries now, even though the shoots are still tiny. This is because the fritillary bulbs are even now bulking up for the future and need some extra help. They smell really strongly of foxes but unfortunately this does not deter lily beetles who love them almost as much as lilies themselves.

Now sowing tomatoes.  Trying more bush tomatoes.  This is really hope over experience because I know my cold Oxfordshire garden isn’t really tomato heaven.  But that’s the deliciousness of gardening.

Bring on spring

Lachenalia liliiflora
Bring on spring
There’s something about freezing weather in February that has me rushing out to the greenhouse with packets of seeds, as if by doing so I could conjure up warmer weather.  This week it has been aubergines (Black Beauty) since you ask and Padron peppers.  If you haven’t tried growing these before, these are the classic Spanish tapas peppers.  They are easy to grow but need to be started soon because with our cooler temperatures, they require a really long growing season.  Once they are big enough to handle, put them first in three inch pots, and then pot them on into big pots or, as I do, into growbags, with three plants to a bag.  They start off little and green (which is when you pick them) and then, if you leave them, turn red.  Be warned.  For inexplicable reasons, one or two of every couple of dozen little green ones are ferociously hot.  There is no way of telling them apart so it’s a bit like Russian Roulette.  They also get hotter as the season progresses so that by August almost all of them are eye watering.  Flash fry them in olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt – fantastic.
I am very taken with Lachenalias.  These are bulbs from South Africa.  Lachenalia liliflora has glorious spotty leaves and stems and flower spikes that are a mass of translucent violet tubes each with a little natty white fringe  of protruding stamens and I have been admiring them in the greenhouse whilst planting my seeds and fussing with my pelargoniums.  Every couple of weeks I move the resting pelargoniums (well actually some of them haven’t been resting, it’s been so warm, they are getting all enthusiastic with leaf) around a bit and remove all the dead leaves.  I am Mrs Messy indoors but in the greenhouse, I suddenly become Mrs V. Tidy – but that’s only because long experience has told me that messy things turn into mouldy things which then infect the whole greenhouse.   But there’s one pelargonium that I leave outside all winter – astonishingly, even in our cold frosty garden, Pelargonium sidoides ‘Pink Fizz’, a species pelargonium from South Africa which spreads through underground tubers – seems untroubled by cold.  It’s more than you can say for me.