Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Venturing back into the garden

Spring onions thriving under a cloche
 Last weekend I finally ventured back into the garden as we had the first dry weekend after the cold weather. It does look quite desolate in parts but there are signs of hope. One or two spring bulbs are beginning to poke out of the soil and, unlike last year, all of our delicate perennials have been safely protected with fleece.

But what really caught my eye was that my spring onions are thriving. I sowed them in late October (I chose White Lisbon) and covered them with a Longrow Super Cloche (you can see it in the photo). And that's it - I haven't touched them since.

Now I'm looking forward to taking a few as thinnings within a few weeks and hoping for a good crop later on. A really low-maintenance exercise, really!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Ornamental Gardens - thoughts and plans

I guess not many blog readers have a garden the size of Sudeley Castle (where this photo was taken), but visits to 'stately plots' provide both inspiration and ideas

As I sit by the fire contemplating this week's post, the full moon shines through a gap in the wooden shutters, yet I am dreaming of hot summer days and the joy of working in my ornamental garden. The scent of roses, bees and butterflies in our 'cutting patch', and a productive potager filled with salads and herbs. For the moment, the vegetable plot is forgotten, or at least pushed to one side as reality surfaces; for I realise I have not yet ordered flower seeds for this year. Our summer 'annuals' border is always a visual delight, continually alive with bees; though sadly less honeybees, and so the humble bumble is increasingly important for pollination.

annuals are a speedy way to fill flower borders with colour - just rake weed-free soil to a fine tilth and sprinkle the seed in patches; thin as required and keep the plot weed free (hardy annuals can be sown 'in-situ', half-hardy should be started in the greenhouse)

As more and more gardeners turn to growing vegetables, the ornamental aspect can be neglected, or removed altogether, just as I remember my parents doing in our London garden 70 years ago in their bid to 'dig for victory' - or at least my mother's attempt to feed us. Yet it is the shrubs and beautiful flower borders that add bio-diversity and, well in my case, excitement. Whereas bringing vegetable produce into the kitchen will save you money, a continual source of decorative material will feed the soul, and beautify the overall garden (even the allotment).

one of my raised beds - a mix of herbs, vegetables, shrub roses with edible flowers and perennials for cutting (and quite a few weeds!)

Plan such areas so that there will also always be something to gather in every month of the year - evergreen and deciduous shrubs and climbers; perennials, biennials and annuals; bulbs and corms; and herbal foliage as well. Even a tiny posy to grace the dining table will delight; your ornamental garden need not be of ballroom proportions! Of course, there is always the dilemma of ornamental versus vegetables, and maybe you HAVE a decorative garden and want to introduce vegetables. Don't dig everything up! Consider creating patches within existing beds and introduce your culinary produce a bit at a time.

Wildlife will also benefit - and we gardeners are a vital cog in providing 'bird-corridors', particularly in urban localities, so plant a few fruit bushes or trees to share with feathered neighbours; protect those you want for yourself! Talking of birds, do check the website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and register (free) for the Big Garden Birdwatch ready for next weekend (29th/30th January).
(a male greater-spotted woodpecker on one of our many bird-feeders)

Bookshelf: an old favourite of mine is Rosemary Verey's invaluable book, 'The Garden in Winter' originally published in 1988 and still as relevant today as when it first appeared. The depths of winter need not be an impoverished time with everything under wraps. Even when the ground is snow-covered, your winter garden can become a thing of beauty: crisp, frosty days and sweet-smelling winter flowers, evergreens splashed with gold and silver, and spiky shrubs with stems the colour of a dark rainbow. Frances Lincoln, ISBN 0-7112-05-7-8.

Keeping you in the picture: I'm signing off for a week now - someone else from the Dobies team will be writing the post for you, with our February e-newsletter following the week after that.

(This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)

Friday, 14 January 2011

Potatoes - grow, cook, eat

first of the new potato crop (taken June 2010)

The ubiquitous potato is a staple of most people's diet, and has been ever since the sea-faring Sir Francis Drake introduced them to our shores in the 1580s - and he did not think much of them as a food!  Yet they are packed with goodness. Although a year-round crop (whether freshly dug or stored), it will however be some months before we will be digging this season's new potatoes and eating them, plain-boiled or - even more delicious - topped with freshly-chopped parsley and lashings of butter. 

But it certainly IS time to be ordering the tubers (seed potatoes), whilst stocks of your favourite varieties are still available. Potatoes are divided into groups - according to their cropping time: first and second 'earlies' and maincrop, plus salad potatoes. They should be grown in well-worked soil, rich in humus (well-rotted farm-yard manure or garden compost).  In a 3-year rotational plan, they fit into the 'roots' section, but for those gardeners who grow a large quantity and favour a four-year rotation, plant them in the plot that has been vacated by the previous year's roots. Those short of space could try patio planters or giant growing buckets. Dobies provide an excellent short guide to growing potatoes and offer  30 different varieties and a number of mixed collections. (See pages 30-34 of the 2011 catalogue, or click here to access the potato section on the website.)

I lay my tubers in egg boxes which stops them rolling about - and don't forget to label them clearly if you are growing more than one variety

Mail-order tubers will arrive well before planting time and it is essential to unpack them immediately and lay them out in trays to 'chit' or sprout. Choose an airy frost-free place free from possible rodent attack ready to plant when the soil is fit, in March or April according to locality. (Tip: ensure you have a supply of horticultural fleece to cover the potato patch should a late frost threaten once the plants are well through the soil; even earthed up tops are susceptible.)

In the kitchen: potatoes can be served in so many ways: plain boiled or mashed, roast, fried, chipped or baked in their skins. At this time of year, alternatives to straight mash are welcome; we in our Cotswold kitchen love the Irish recipes for 'Champ' and 'Colcannon'.

Ingredients for 'Champ': floury potatoes (Maris Piper shown here), spring onions, butter (in moderation! approx 40gms), 100ml milk and 50ml double-cream. Peel and boil potatoes to mashable state and whilst they are cooking, prepare the onions. Remove roots and approx 2cm of the tops, then peel back the outer layer. Chop and simmer in the milk and butter for 3 minutes. Drain and mash the potatoes and fold in the onion mixture and the cream.

A Passion for Potatoes by Paul Gayler

Do get hold of a copy of this beguiling book, and you will be able to continually delight your family with "over 150 innovative ways to enjoy potatoes." Written by Paul Gayler (a chef who has worked at some of London's most prestigious restaurants): hunger descended as soon as I opened the pages. What to prepare first? Starters, salads, breads, bakes, cakes, main courses or 'a few sweet ideas', and a whole lot more; all with the potato as the key ingredient. Useful, too, is the breakdown of recipe into categories, extra tips, and  the classification of potato by type (floury, waxy etc) and the list of varieties detailing their culinary capabilities. Published in September 2010 by Kyle Cathie; paperback ISBN 978-1-85626-949-0.

See you next week, or before then via our 'comments' section.
  (This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)

P.S. We all also want to tell you how delighted and pleased we are at the reaction to our new blog. Thank you to everyone who has viewed, reacted, left comments, clicked on the  links - and asked questions. Indeed, we can foresee the Comments section as providing a dialogue between you the reader and us, the Dobies blog-team, so do please read those bits as well. And you are clearly finding the 'bookshop' useful - we'll be expanding that as often and as fast as we can.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Garden Planning and Crop Rotation

out in the garden taking stock: new plans and tasks that need attention (the first in my case must be the shed)

January is such a good time to evaluate your garden. What could be better than stepping out with a clipboard, making sketches and notes and even - an aspect that always thrills me - creating a new plot. In my case, this always means reclaiming, for last year I spent more time writing about the different mini-gardens within our acre plot than actually working in them! Experienced gardeners will no doubt have everything under control (though you can't plan the weather), but if you are new to the 'keen and dedicated gardening community' you may appreciate a few tips.

plan for the raised beds in my 'square foot' plot
This week, we’ll consider ‘edibles’ and annual crop rotation. Ignoring space for fruit, herbs and perennial vegetables such as globe artichokes, rhubarb or asparagus, look at your soil type, orientation of plot or beds and weather patterns – rainfall and frost pockets etc, then list what you want to grow. Don't initially get carried away; it's all too easy to overwhelm yourself. Salads are easy, and quick (an advantage if your children are helping) and can be grown almost anywhere. But rotation of other crop types is essential. Crops require nourishing; soil becomes infertile if the same vegetables are grown in the same place year after year, they absorb or use specific necessary nutrients from the soil and weaker crops, crop failure and disease are all the more likely.

the 'square foot' plot in the summer of  2010 (or was it 2009?)
So, having decided what you want to grow, split them into types: Roots, Brassicas and ‘Others’: divide your plot – or beds – to allow annual space for each type (adding a fourth if you want to grow many potatoes). Take a look at this excellent Vegetable Planner and Calendar (opens as a pdf) prepared by Dobies, which you can download for free. It provides a wealth of advice in a simple, easy-to-understand format. And the better to visualize the concept of rotation, this chart should also help.
a three-year rotational cropping plan (add a fourth plot if you wish to grow a large quantity of potatoes)
Now you should be ready to order your seeds and prepare the ground as soon as the weather is fit. And as this is a Dobies blog, you will not think it strange that I sow Dobies seeds! I've been using them for years and have always found the advice given in their catalogue to be accurate and helpful. And their plug plants are a godsend for busy gardeners; the various collections available last year enabled me to grow superb crops when I did not have the time to sow.

our acre of Cotswold garden also has space for an allotment-style plot (entirely cared for by my husband)
See you again next week – and meanwhile, a huge thankyou to all who have viewed our first post, and even more so to those who left us a comment, and / or have indicated they will be following the blog. (This post written by contributor, Ann Somerset Miles.)