Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christmas Extra - missing link

That fieldfare is still enjoying the hedgerow sloes! 
Now that Dobies is back in session post-Christmas, it's been possible to check the website error, that would not allow me to post the link to the remarkable 'fruity' hedgerow plants that would enhance any garden, whether in groups or on-the-edge. Here you are: the Hedgerow Collection - and should you have been irritated at not being able to check what was/is incorporated, take a look below right now at what is offered.

Three hazel, one crab apple, one cherry-plum and five sloes - ten plants for only £24.95! Wildlife will benefit from the early pollen provided by hazel catkins - nuts for woodpeckers, nuthatches and squirrels. Crabs and cherry plums will entice thrush, blackbird, fieldfare and redwing, amongst others, whilst the bitter blue-black sloe will be saved until last, food for creatures in frosty weather.

Fat catkins whose pollen will fall onto the crimson stigmas of the female 'shaving-brush'
flowers, resulting in fat tasty nuts, come Autumn
But why should wildlife be the only beneficiaries? How about us gardeners? Hazel nuts can be cracked and eaten fresh, pounded into a paste to fill cakes, or toasted in butter and sprinkled with salt for a pre-evening treat. Crabs can be 'roasted' around a joint of pork (or as in Shakespeare's time, warmed over an open fire to "hiss in the bowl"); they can be made into jelly or dried for a picnic snack. The cherry plum flowers early - nectar for bees - and can by made into a subtly-flavoured jam in early autumn; use equal quantities by weight of washed fruit and sugar, a wetting of water, and cook as for all wild jams. As for the sloe, fruit of the blackthorn; it's best to steep it in gin with half its weight in sugar for a spiritous liqueur; the longer it's left, the sweeter (and more alcoholic!) it will become. Prick the washed sloes before steeping - Irish recipes advocate the use of a sharp thorn obtained from the blackthorn itself.

This extra post is offered to alleviate any irritation caused by the lack of a website link on Christmas Day - it's infuriating when a site goes down and there is no means of instant rectification. Our apologies. 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A fruitful Christmas

Seasonal Greetings to all Dobies readers 
Unlike many 'of the moment' seasonal reports and newsy snippets that appear in the media around this time of year, this blog post is truly 'live', though somewhat late for Christmas Day. The intention was to have prepared words and pictures during a week that subsequently escaped me (pre-Christmas), and then all I had to do was just hit the 'post' button this morning. But that was before the 'blog lady from Devon via the Cotswolds' was struck down with some sort of incapacitating virus. You can work through some, but not others. Doubly infuriating, as the exceptionally mild days this last week were perfect for being out in the garden, ahead of new year resolutions. But I digress from my previously chosen topic. Fruit. Trees and bushes to order and plant in the next month or so. They add that extra dimension to any productive garden, augment the eco-value (surplus for birds - and birds eat unwanted grubs and insects), and - as I discovered from the leaflet supplied with one of my orders from the Dobies website - any fruit has the capacity to be turned into alcohol. Very Christmassy! 

A Redlove apple tree would make a perfect belated Christmas gift
Eat fruit fresh, press it for juice, ferment it, even (illicitly) distill it. Fruit: straight from the bush or tree, or turned into syrups, pies, tarts, jam, jelly, alcohol or whatever you wish. So, on the alcoholic front, think apples (cider), pears (perry), cherries (soak in white rum  for a distinctive liqueur), blackcurrants or the more modern fourberry juiced and added to spirits as a medicinal for sore throats. Almost any fruit can be made into wine, which, in our experience is far easier (we still have a bottle of our 1969 apple and blackberry awaiting some special evening). A little light reading over the new year for fans of Joanne Harris might be her 'Blackberry Wine', first published in 2000. Clever and intriguing.

The moment I spotted that Dobies are stocking the Mirabelle, it was on my  2012 list  of 'must-haves', transporting me to summer visits to France
The Dobies leaflet I have beside me as I write introduces the Mirabelle de Nancy, reminiscent of summer visits to France and a breakfast preserve so liquid it would have been better to drink it than eat it with croissants. The Mirabelle is a small, plum-like fruit that has been widely cultivated in France since the 15th century. Enjoy it in pies or other desserts, as jam, or - more traditionally, made into plum brandy. 

A fieldfare enjoying a bitter sloe from a garden hedgerow
And why not plant an alcoholic wildlife hedge? Dobies 'Hedgerow Collection'  (ref  44 70 97) is perfect actually for creating a boundary around your plot or any gardening group's allotment. Comprising native hedgerow plants, you'll be helping the environment by planting native species, and benefiting pollinating insects and birds that come late autumn will consume all that you have not harvested. The collection comprises 3 hazel bushes, 1 crab apple, 1 cherry plum and 5 blackthorn - the blue-black sloes form the basis of sloe gin. (An online link to the lovely 'Hedgerow Collection' will follow next week, as the gremlins have struck again. So sorry.) Meanwhile, enjoy what is left of Christmas Day; I'm off downstairs for a little cold turkey and a touch of sage and onion stuffing. (This is intended to be a lighthearted holiday post, so my apologies to those readers for whom alcohol is a no-no.)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Chickens are not just for Christmas!

My birds in the early 1990s - brown 'rescue' hens and rare breeds I reared
from  hatching eggs. (I kept the one handsome cockerel - not a necessity; he was just rather special!)
Walking down the garden to let out the hens this morning, I again contemplated their advantages to the gardener as well as the cook. Eggs from your own hens bear no resemblance to shop-bought eggs - as anyone who buys my surplus regularly will testify. Supremely fresh, with golden yolks and oh, such taste. They are like they are because of the garden. I've blogged before about our hens, but haven't offered tips on their benefit to the garden, nor cautioned the beginner as to potential problems which you should consider before buying hens for yourself, your children or grandchildren.
'Rescue' hens in the late 1990s, obtained from an organic egg farm when the birds
had served their turn. High egg yields - but this run is far too small; they were
put in here to be photographed.
Hens are not difficult, but require a regular routine. They need letting out in the morning and shutting in at dusk, which can prove tricky if you are out at work and particularly so during the winter, unless you have a TOTALLY secure house and covered pen. Holidays could be a problem unless you have a kind neighbour who will care for them in exchange for eggs. You should not overstock, but assess available space for keeping them in the first place - even a coop with run attached (safety from foxes, badgers and marauding dogs) will need to be moved every few days. Too many birds, and your grass will be scratched to bits; it will become a  mud bath in winter - though the birds will benefit from dust-bathing in summer.

Vegetable plot perfect for hens! Sorrel, lettuce, beet tops - and weeds.
What we didn't eat ourselves, or feed to the hens, went onto the compost heap.
But to thrive, hens must have greenery, which is where your garden benefits. Firstly you can feed them weeds! Groundsel, dandelions, chickweed and docks; keep harvesting dock leaves but don't let this invasive perennial run to seed and you'll keep it under control. Just watch how the hens love it. Secondly you can throw into the birds' run any thinnings of beet, spinach or perpetual spinach, turnips, salad leaves, cabbage, broccoli and other greens. Thirdly, in any available space, grow extra salads and greens specifically for the chickens; sorrel (herb) is a good tonic, too.
The same plot (other way round), mid 2000s, converted to raised beds
and far more productive. Note the greenery - sorrel and chard in the foreground.
Clean their house regularly and add the droppings to your compost bin or compost heap, layered with your usual compostings. I've been keeping hens for 40 years, in the past raising them from eggs set in an incubator (very educational) though you have to wait a long time for them to come into lay - around 20 weeks from hatching) and a large proportion will be cockerels which become a nuisance! I now buy point-of-lay birds (around 16 weeks) from a very reliable source: Cyril Bason Ltd will supply in small quantities and deliver to your door; collecting your first eggs from a new batch of hens is always a joy.
My quartet from 2010 enjoying overwintered broccoli that had run to seed.
(Sadly, these were all killed by a neighbour's dog who burrowed through the fence
and jumped into the run. An excellent breed that I have been unable to replace.)
Covering all there is to be said about keeping hens cannot be done in a single blog post. If you have queries, please leave a comment, and I'll answer as much as possible in future posts or e-newsletters.

N.B. Last date for ordering Gifts for guaranteed Christmas delivery is mid-day Tuesday 20th December. Check the website here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Mixed Medley for a Dark Evening

Wet evenings are perfect for 'indoor' gardening activities

Rain is lashing the windows and it’s blowing half a gale – the first really wintry day we’ve had here in our part of the Cotswolds, though it’s still incredible warm; grass is growing and self-seeded rocket and spring onions accidentally left in the ground all flourish in the potager raised beds. The cold front crossing the UK seems to be affecting all parts of the country; time to snuggle by the fire and think of other things.

A year ago, I was cataloguing and planning; a task for indoors
Darker evenings and daytime inclement weather may be off-putting for gardeners, but perfect for working on garden-related activities indoors. For a start, why not catalogue your seed packets, list those favourites that need replenishing and investigate new varieties that you hope to sow and grow in 2012. And don’t forget to order them!

Some of my journals on display last weekend at a local exhibition
I find the winter months marvellous for catching up on entries in my garden journals, and trialling new illustrative and mixed-media techniques. I’m an avid collector of books that not only instruct, but inspire. Other people’s creations never fail to trigger ideas for different ways of presentation, adapting rather than copying. Not least, the discovery of new materials and how to use them.

Take a look at a couple of my latest book acquisitions – keep a notebook handy and jot down those ideas that particularly appeal. Making Handmade Books arrived this morning and is a revelation for anyone wanting to create something unique from easily found or recycled materials.  Beautifully illustrated, written by Alisa Golden and published in early 2011 by Lark Crafts, you can take your pick from “100 bindings, structures and forms”. Thumbing through it quickly, I particularly liked the very simple ‘Fan Book’ (page 86) or the ingenious ‘Flag Book with Envelope Pages’ (page 75) – either would be perfect for recording gardening activities. Once in my stride (and with a little time to spare), I know I’ll be experimenting like crazy to tackle more complicated structures.

Of course, not everyone is likely to share my enthusiasm for hand-made notebooks and record-keeping, so how about looking at the recently published Delicious Gifts – Tasty Creations to Make and Give, which instantly set my mouth watering with so many truly tempting sweetmeats, preserves and chutneys. Written by Jesse McCloskey, the gifts will be perfect for “chocoholics to chilli obsessives”. And as a bonus, you’ll learn how to present gifts in elegant containers: delectable sweet and savoury delights with clear instructions for both the produce and packaging.
Click on either book title for more details, or to order it from Amazon.

(from time to time, Ann Somerset Miles writes longer reviews on her Book Lovers Blog, and is planning author and publisher interviews in 2012)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Christmas: a time for giving - and receiving ....

Packed full of perfect gifts
As Christmas fast approaches, catalogues from numerous companies fly through the letterbox, extolling the virtues of products designed to encourage those difficult annual decisions on what to give family, friends and loved ones. Last week, I mentioned the gift section in the main Dobies catalogue, but now one devoted entirely to Christmas gifts has arrived – and it’s also available in an online version. Ignore the 2012 date on the printed edition – just one of those things that can inadvertently slip through at proofing stage! It’s very much for 2011 and any order received before 16th December for over £50.00 will attract a £5.00 discount. You don’t have to spend that much of course; all orders are welcome – and why not note down the reference numbers of items YOU yourself would appreciate, and leave the list lying where your nearest and dearest cannot fail to notice it!

Browsing through my copy, these are the items that particularly struck me for my own  ‘wish list’. First come baskets of spring bulbs – blue ‘muscari’ (X40175) and golden miniature ‘tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte’ (X40176) daffs. Delightful indoors, they can be planted outside afterwards where they will continue to bloom for years to come each Spring and the baskets re-used for any number of things. I’ve abandoned the idea of a traditional Christmas Tree and think I’ll order a dwarf ‘Picea albertiana conica’ (X40165) which can sit on our coffee table and then on the sheltered terrace after the New Year. Supplied in a 3-litre plastic pot, it, too, will give pleasure for years to come.

Turning to gifts for the older grandchildren, I’m attracted to ‘The Beginners Seed Collection’ (X40195), not least because of its ingenious ruler with correctly-spaced holes (dibber also included) for sowing the easy-to-grow seeds supplied – six packets: French Mix leaf salad, White Lisbon salad onion, Jolly radish, Pancho leek, Ideal carrot and Ferrari dwarf French bean. Our own grandchildren are past the playing stage, but younger little ones will love the section devoted specifically to their needs – junior Bulldog tools useful for small adults, too), paper-pot-maker, colourful took kit, bug house and even wellies to decorate themselves.

For myself, I wouldn’t mind the ‘Garden Vegetables Hamper Gift Set’ (X40133) – equally ideal for any elderly relative who want to stay active. With its wicker hamper to keep everything together, this contains all anyone would need to start growing vegetables: stainless steel trowel and fork set, windowsill propagator, jiffy modules and labels, bio-degradable pots, garden twine, ten packets of seed and a vegetable planner. Alternative hampers have been put together for growing vegetables on the patio (X40134) or one featuring annual and perennial flowers rather than vegetables (X40132); there's even a children's version (X40131).

Oh, and how about this ingenious little device? The 'Nutscene Snippet Twine Set' (X40146) clips onto your clothing and allows you to snip twine without the need to carry scissors or knife. British, too, as are many of the tools in the Dobies Christmas Gift catalogue.

There’s a whole lot more on offer in the 48-page catalogue, but if you’re still stuck for ideas, don’t forget you can order personalized gift vouchers (X40214) which can be sent direct with your personal message.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Getting to know your 2012 catalogue

Ever since I received my 2012 Dobies catalogue, I've been dipping in and out of it, marking the items I plan to order, and marveling at all that this bumper annual edition contains. It’s a triumph of forethought and ingenuity, so carefully thought through, to offer real gardening value and as much easily accessible information as can be crammed into its 144 pages. It’s thick – 5mm (3/16th in) – and ‘perfect-bound’ rather than stapled, which allows the pages to open easily and lie flat. Even the cover photograph is delicious, painterly and yet enticing: grow purple artichokes for the kitchen or in the decorative or cutting garden.

So much detail given
as soon as you open your copy
Open the front cover and you’ll instantly discover Dobies garden heritage – supplying gardeners with seeds since 1881. There’s a message from the Dobies team, an explanation of the cost-saving seed packets, seed counts, quality guarantee, environmental pledge, contacts, and of course a guide  to what the catalogue contains. A full index is provided on page 142 to assist your search for something specific. If  for some reason you haven’t received your catalogue copy (or are reading this blog for the first time), you can request a printed copy here.

Not to be missed
Sections are as follows: special offers and new varieties, a-z vegetable seeds, vegetable plants, fruit bushes and trees, garden equipment, flower seeds, summer bulbs, flower plants, an impressive special offer, and the all-important order form. Alongside on page one is a guide to when season-related items will be dispatched. Most seeds and garden equipment items are available for immediate dispatch all year round.

An example of the extra information panels
Be-devilled by so much choice? Much help and advice is offered throughout the catalogue to ensure you can select what will best suit your needs. A clever innovation provides information on additional seed varieties (those that are more specialist, choice or older) but which still warrant inclusion, though space precludes illustrations. Full details and pictures of these varieties can still be found on the Dobies website. An excellent solution to provide the keen gardener with as much choice as possible.

A gift to treasure - and use
Christmas is coming – what better gift for family or special a gardening friend than seeds or plants? Either select something from the catalogue you know they would like, or purchase a Dobies Gift Voucher; equally ideal for birthdays or other special occasions. Gift vouchers can be sent direct to the recipient, with your personal message, and a copy of the 2012 catalogue. Turn to the back cover for the gift voucher order form. There’s also an online Christmas Gift section on the Dobies website: click here to access it.

This post written by Ann Somerset Miles (with apologies for the image quality – all were scanned on a domestic machine from the actual catalogue; all printed text is perfectly legible, and the photos are superb).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Birds in your garden - friends or foes?

Robins become incredibly tame when feeding young (and the chicks consume vast quantities of caterpillars)
Yesterday was the RSPB ‘Feed the Birds Day’ and it’s not too late to request the special information pack the organisation was offering – just click on this link to request it. It’s full of useful information to help identify birds and advice on how the way we garden can help wildlife conservation. Why is this so important? It’s not just a case of birds being fascinating and pretty to look at; they are a vital link in the ecological chain, which is in fact a part of the RSPB’s message.

Green woodpeckers re-appear in our orchard every June when the young fledge (usually three) and feed on ants which they collect with their sticky-tipped tongue. This adult flew down early one morning onto the path opposite our bedroom window.
Gardens are so often – or can become – wild-life corridors between philistine and enlightened gardeners. It only takes a little imagination, but by encouraging birds into your plot, you will be enlisting their help in controlling pests. Thrushes eat snails, blackbirds like slugs, green woodpeckers love ants, bluetits consume vast quantities of greenfly, finches peck at seeding weeds and summer visitors snap up unwanted insects. That’s a simplification of the natural way of things, yet you may worry that they will also eat your fruit, peck your seedlings and generally be a nuisance. Well, I guess you would not hesitate to protect your plants from cats and dogs, from scratching chickens and even children leaping all over the vegetable plot!

Even the smallest ledge, if well camouflaged, will support a thrush's nest - this was behind a fig tree (I had to part the branches so that the photo could be taken).
The best time to start encouraging birds is right now, as daylight is in ever shorter supply, birds have less time to feed. Look after them all winter and come Spring, they’ll be seeking nesting sites and consuming even more pests as they feed their young from sunrise to sunset. First take a look at providing cover and shelter; maybe only a few bushes, or a suitable tree that will not dominate the garden but will provide cover on the way to bird-feeding stations

Feeders could be suspended from
a rose arch or trellis is you do not
have a suitable tree. Great tits
and blue tits nest every year in
our garden - sometimes
in horizontal scaffold poles!
Erect an archway and plant a climbing rose, again for cover, but you will also maybe attract a nesting blackbird or greenfinch; add nest-boxes now to attract other birds. Don’t forget that water is vital – a really large glazed or plastic flowerpot saucer stood on a chimney pot is both practical and decorative; keep it clear of debris, replenish regularly with rain-water and check for ice as the temperature falls.

This male pheasant has been a regular visitor for three years, pecking up the seed that greedy birds let fall from the feeding station (tubes hold mixed bird-seed, sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet cakes).
Some birds are ground feeders and will peck fallen crumbs; others will be attracted by seed-mixes; you can even make your own bird cupcakes with seed and melted fat scraps – a task for the children using Dobies special kit. Your efforts may well save lives if we have another winter like those of the last two years. Scour the Dobies website and your Dobies 2012 catalogue for seeds you can sow next year that will benefit birds (sunflowers especially) and check the equipment section for bird food and plant protection products.

Why not keep a chart of the birds that visit your garden, with dates when winter and summer visitors arrive and depart.
This one dates back to 2008. First I noted regular visitors and then created the chart, to include species that I had seen in local hedgerows. Double-click on t he image to see it at a larger size.
P.S. Hopefully all the links in this post will work when you click on them - you'll see that the Dobies website is being totally revamped; a long and very complicated task that is still in progress.

Monday, 24 October 2011

From Garden to Kitchen - a miscellany

cider or wine can be made from windfall apples
October being apple month, when cider was traditionally made, seems the perfect time to be making juices or alcoholic beverages; and with it being half term week, your children (or grandchildren) can help to gather and rake, wash and chop. Making cider or wine cannot properly be described in a short blog post, but you may like to know that you can buy a small stainless steel manual crusher, instructions and other supplies from Wineworks, and an apple press from Dobies.

'Red Love' apples - order here; and other available varieties here
For those who cannot manage the expenditure or time for cider-making, here’s a recipe we’ve been making for over 40 years, using no more than a coarse domestic mincer. Wipe 1.5 kilos (3lbs) apples. cut into pieces and mince; then place into an earthenware or pyrex bowl and pour add 5.5 litres (12 pints) of fresh cold water. Cover, and leave for 7 days, stirring night and morning. Strain and mix in 91grams (2 lbs) granulated sugar and the juice of 3 lemons. Leave for 24 hours then strain and bottle in screw topped bottles (empty lemonade bottles are ideal). It will be fit to drink in a week but better if kept for a few months.

Gathering carrots on a warm Autumn morning
Using root vegetables in ways other than plain boiled or in soups or stews can tax the imagination, particularly as when mature and somewhat coarse. Carrots, swedes and parsnips are delicious when mashed, either alone or mixed in any combination. Don’t over-cook, add a dollop of butter, sprinkle with parmesan if you like, and finish under the grill. It’s a great way of encouraging youngsters to tackle the rather earthy flavour of parsnip and swede. (Click on the links above for seed varieties that you can order now for next year; there are lots more in the current catalogue.)

With Halloween fast approaching, pancakes are a  must. I make no apology for repeating the recipe given in the March e-newsletter for Shrove Tuesday. Holding a grandchildren’s pancake party has been a family tradition for years – and they offer a quick and marvellous dessert at grown-up informal dinner party, too. Serve traditionally with sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice, or with home-made jams or jelly, or with the indulgence of maple syrup and cream. Scrumptious!

Pancakes - hot, buttery and absolutely delicious
So just in case you’ve lost it, here’s my husband's fool-proof recipe for success. Make the day before if possible. Into a food processor or liquidiser put ½pt (250ml) milk plus 2 tabs cold water. Add 2 medium-sized hens eggs (from your own chickens if you have them - the result is that much tastier). Process at high speed till well-mixed, then with the processor set to its lowest speed, gradually add 4oz (100gms) plain flour and ½tsp salt, then mix on top speed until all is well combined. Transfer to a jug, cover and store in the fridge overnight. To cook: Stir the batter with a fork. Take a flat pancake pan: melt a knob of lard, add a swirl of butter; at the first indication of ‘blue smoke’ – it’s more a haze than actual smoke – pour in about half a teacup full of mixture, tipping the pan this way and that just above the heat to distribute the batter over the whole pan surface. Cook until a knife inserted at the edge of the pan will lift the pancake away from the base. Flip over with a knife (there’s no need to toss!) and cook the second side.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

An October Medley

Ordinarily, we plan the Dobies blog content three months in advance, but felt that such a method was too constraining when something  interesting or particularly exciting pops up. And even though the schedule was devised only around three weeks ago, such is the case already.

Campaign to Save our Countryside. Politics aside, do you recall the time we asked for readers’ help to “save our woodlands”? (See post of 20th April.) Those of you who kindly signed the petition organized by 38 Degrees helped achieve the goal of reaching half a million signatures and the government agreed to drop the planned sell-off. Everyone counts, and now your help is sought again; viz:

The government is trying to push through massive changes to the way the planning system works. Swathes of pristine countryside and vital green fields around our towns and cities could be put in jeopardy. If these plans are rushed through they could put the interests of big developers ahead of the local people. We can’t let that happen. Our planning system should ensure local voices are heard and work to protect our green areas for future generations. Once we lose our countryside, we lose it forever.”

So you are asked to a) sign the petition, and b) if you feel so inclined, to email or write to your MP. Suggested text for doing so is also given by 38 degrees on the website.

The walnuts fall over three
weeks and at first have to be 

'hulled' from their green casing
A fruitful harvest: in our north Cotswold orchard, we’ve had a glut of apples and pears this year, and so many walnuts the usual platter was overflowing; we’ve resorted to keeping them in wooden boxes and enjoying them at every meal. They are nothing like the desiccated varieties bought in the supermarket but soft and creamy. Chop them and sprinkle over home-made cheese straws for a pre-supper treat. (Click on any of the highlighted links to discover fruit and nut varieties listed by Dobies.)

a single quince with downy skin

Even more remarkable has been our crop of quinces. Not the golden globes that appear on the vermillion-flowered shrub of the same name, but those akin to pears – indeed one wonders whether the nursery rhyme “I had a silver nutmeg and a golden pear” was in fact a quince. Best variety for our UK climate is ‘Vranja’ which can be grown as a lax bush or fan-trained on a wall. As to what to do with quinces: make quince jelly or ‘cheese’ in slabs – or just leave them in a pretty bowl where they will scent a room.

Golden quinces picked today scent the whole living room

And whilst I’m discussing our prolific harvest due to a remarkably hot, dry summer well into early autumn, I receive a copy of ‘The Fruit Tree Handbook’ by Ben Pike (published this week by Green Books). Ben is head gardener on the Sharpham Estate in Devon, where he looks after the walled fruit and vegetable garden as well as two orchards containing 150 fruit trees. No matter how small your garden, if you want to grow fruit, this guide will help you on your way with excellent photos and clear diagrams.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Books for Enthusiastic DIY Gardeners

We plan our Dobies newsletter and blog topics three months in advance - something we will be changing for October to December, because what we intend to write about frequently needs to change, as weather or other circumstances dictate. This last post for September (yes, it should have been written yesterday) is one such, for the culmination of the summer season and this last post for 'handyman / woman in the garden month' is to be on books for the enthusiastic DIY gardener. And with the glorious unseasonably hot weather we are having right now, who wants to think of reading? So save what follows for a rainy day - four titles to set the creative juices working - click on the highlighted links to take you to the online Amazon bookshop for more details.

'Concrete Garden Projects' is both fascinating and highly practical. Written by Swedish designers Malin Nilsson & Camilla Ardvisson and just published by Timber Press, it offers exceptionally clear, illustrated instructions on making inexpensive containers, furniture, water features and more. You would not believe that a product that has existed since Roman times could be so beautiful - and all you basically need are shaped bowls or similar to act as formers, cooking oil to brush onto the moulds so the hardened concrete will release easily, a bag of ready-mixed dry concrete, water, and protective gloves. Once started, why not make some of the projects as Christmas gifts?

'Build it! ... With Pallets' by farmer Joe Jacobs (published by The Good Life Press) is equally intriguing. All you need to make some useful - and recycled - items for the garden (chairs, tables, fences, gates, planters, compost bins, chicken coops and many other functional items) are basic DIY skills, plus some discarded wooden pallets and standard woodworking tools. Take the pallets apart carefully, and re-fashion them into some of the artefacts suggested by Joe, following his measurements and instructions, or devise your own.

Maybe you have begun keeping a hand-made garden journal or scrapbook to record your sowing and harvesting but are unhappy with the quality of your writing. Take a look at 'The Scrapbooker's Handwriting Workshop' by Crystal Jeffrey Rieger. Published in 2009 by F&W Media, it's really clever in its concept - a spiral-bound stand-up flip-over PRACTICE book - not meant to be read, as such, but to be worked in. Twenty unique hand-lettered alphabets (fonts) are provided with very clear instructions as to how each letter should be formed. It's as just like being back at school, but more fun!

Finally, for those who want to be creative in the garden with plants rather than DIY, take a look at an old favourite by Joy Larcom. 'Creative Vegetable Gardening' was first published by Mitchell Beazley in 1997 but has been re-issued many times since then. Joy has always been queen of the potager and this book takes vegetable gardening one stage further - veg to eat but to look beautiful as well, with so many design ideas, and workable suggestions for dramatic effects, texture, colour, intercropping, climbers, fruit for ornament as well as eating, and overall potager management.

Your new 2012 Dobies catalogue should be with you in the coming week; and is packed full of delights and surprises. 

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Autumn at Malvern

Early morning in one corner if the Showground
It doesn't matter how often I return to gardening shows at Malvern, there is always something new to delight and inspire me. And this latest RHS Autumn Show is no exception. Situated in the lee of the beautiful Malvern Hills, every RHS show here provides a grand day out for the keen and dedicated gardener.

'Peas and Tranquility' designed by Stephanie Mucklow
A quick dash through the show guide, making notes, and then I move from location to location, assimilating ideas; amazed at the ingenuity of so many garden designers and exhibitors. This Autumn,  the organisers (TCAS - Three Counties Agricultural Society) again provided "a splendid mix for food and gardening lovers, and a window on the countryside". Two new areas were The Good Life Pavilion, which concentrated on 'the edible garden' and the 'kitchen garden stage' with a programme of cookery demonstrations using fresh produce, and The Orchard Pavilion, celebrating the importance of fruit growing - apples and pears which our British climate particularly favours.

'Somerset's Pride designed by Mark Walker
Show-garden designers are adept at cramming so many ingenious ideas into a very small space. Sometimes the concept is clever but the message not immediately apparent - personally, I prefer to learn from what I see knowing that I could adapt an idea within our own garden space. So I loved the little banked corner of Mark Walker's 'Somerset Pride' (best-in-show garden) depicting a rural farmyard plot, complete with rustic artefacts - and prominent edible dandelion growing alongside vegetable and arable crops. What first caught my attention was the clever use of old tyres as planters, cunningly sunk into the bank so they did not dominate. Mark specialises in 'garden retreats' and will be creating another garden in support of Macmillan Cancer Care at next year's Malvern Spring Show.

Skilful use of plants
and obelisk
Herb gardens somehow convey a sense of well-being and calm but can look flat and uninviting to the uninitiated. So the Cottage Herbery's use of a metal obelisk up which were trained runner beans was a touch of mastery. 'The Old Kiln Yard' - a corner of a much larger hop yard - was a joint effort, with Paul Taylor of Alchemy Gardens creating the landscaping and old building, and Kim & Rob Hurst providing the plants and planting, following their philosophy of recycle, re-use and re-invent.

Discover the beautiful orchards of Herefordshire
And then it was time for me to explore The Orchard Pavilion and the celebration of 'The Herefordshire Year of the Orchard'. Now I can't wait for next Spring to further investigate the orchards around Ledbury - whether in blossom or fruit, or during the summer in between. Ledbury Cycle Hire loan bikes whilst detailed directions along quiet lanes can be downloaded from 'Herefordshire Cider Route'. Planting fruit trees and saving orchards - or creating community gardens - is currently topical as open spaces disappear and gardens become smaller. I was fascinated by a talk I have just attended in the pavilion on 'The archaeology and historic landscape value of traditional orchards' given by archeologist, Neil Rimmington of Herefordshire County Council. Too much to report within this post, but hopefully I will find space to talk about the significance of fruit trees and orchards shortly.