Friday, 27 April 2012

Rain, rain and more rain!

One cowslip plant has self-seeded to become a large patch in our orchard -
stakes mark the outlying plants to prevent them being 'mown out' 
After a more than unusually warm end to March, with accompanying drought, is there anywhere that is not now soggy and waterlogged? And it’s likely to remain so, and cold with it, for a while yet. Take a look at today’s BBC Weather website – and click on the link to weatherman John Hammond’s explanation on why this is happening. The damp conditions have actually favoured our expanding cowslip patch, begun from a single (purchased) plant five years ago - not one taken from the wild.
Sowing seed in my double-tier raised bed last Saturday (21st) between showers
It’s doubly irritating when you cannot even get onto the ground to sow seeds, which is where raised beds come into there own – particularly good I have discovered for elderly gardeners if you have them at double height. You can now acquire them this way; mine started off as singles last year – it’s perfectly possible to add another layer – I converted  from single- to two-tier to benefit my early potatoes (and there's still time to order and plant a late crop). Sowing seed was easier, too, less back-breaking when bending down.
Half a raised bed devoted to young salads - in the foreground, are mixed
cut-and-come again lettuce; pegged pots keep fleece from touching seedlings
Last Saturday (21stApril) I sowed half of one bed in the Courtyard Potager with salads, using a length of wood to mark out drills at 5in (13cm) intervals – closer together than recommended; but that’s the beauty of a raised bed system – you don’t have to leave space for cultivation or hoeing weeds; the crops grow into each other and potential weed-growth is suppressed. This is what my salad patch will provide in a few short weeks: Spinach F1 Lazio Babyleaf, Bulls Blood Beet, red picking Lettuce Granada, Lettuce Cos Pandero (try this as a substitute), Greek Cress, Rocket Runaway, Radish Jolly and Spring Onion Lilia.
Pegging down the bubble-plastic to protect the newly sown bed from 'intruders'
After sowing, and covering with just a light dusting of compost, the bed was covered with plastic: the soil was already sufficiently damp that watering was not needed and warmth from whatever sunshine emerged would help germination. Waterlogging would certainly have occurred had I not used this bubble plastic.
Clearing a weedy patch of ground so we could give each grandchild
their own raised bed - they subsequently sowed and planted veg (and strawberries!)
The seeds are already emerging and the plastic has been removed to be replaced by a cloche – more to keep off birds and cats than the rain! With such speedy germination, I was reminded of the excitement of two of our grandchildren when, seven years ago, they spent part of the summer clearing a patch of ground for their own raised beds. Children want immediacy; so the seeds I sowed last week would have been ideal for such a project. Perfect in fact to encourage any child to eat green veg and salads – they will try what they have grown themselves, though these two are very used to home-grown veg.
Getting ready for visitors to the Dobies stand
Show Garden Special: I discover that the Dobies display at the Malvern Spring Flower Show (May 10th-13th) will focus on edibles: ‘Beat the Spiralling Cost of Food’ is their theme on Stand OS564, Plant Pavilions. The team are busy building a small garden with a colourful  'psychedelic' feel.  It will highlight Dobies fabulous and high quality veg varieties which are much cheaper to grow than to buy, therefore triumphing over the spiralling cost of supermarket foods! Price reductions on Dobies seed as well, so buy your Show tickets here. I can't wait.

Next week sees the publication of the May 2012 edition of the e-newsletter, and the following week (10th or 11th) we'll be blogging live from Malvern.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Moving on with Ornamentals

Joys to come: self-seeded alliums in the neglected shrubbery
- note the encroaching brambles!

It is truly remarkable what a little bit of neglect can do to a garden!  Flowers secretly proliferate and propagate themselves; plants that began life as a single plant or seed: and almost without warning, you have a multitude of young seedlings, or a bank of blossoms. It has happened in our own acre over the years, and brings such delight whenever something unexpected occurs. Such finds do not prevent me from endlessly increasing my stock of new seeds and plants, but what began as a bag of three summer-flowering bulbs, is by now a drift of purple starbursts (or will be next month).

In flower now - a single bulb has become a small clump
Camassia, too, with a liking for damp conditions, has thrust its spikes of clustered blue florets through the uncut undergrowth. A heavenly sign of Spring; one moment there are just green leaves and the next moment flower-stalks 18-inches (45cms) high.  Both the alliums (flowering ornamental onions) and the camassia have propagated themselves by bulb offsets or seed – leave the seedheads to ripen on the plant; then leave them to do their own thing. All it takes is ground that is not disturbed, and patience.

pear blossom - no bees
Pollination is of course essential for fruit to set, and I am anxiously awaiting signs that we will have pears again this year, for the recent grey skies and heavy rain has resulted in a paucity of bees and other insects. Indeed the first swallow arrived and departed, for lack of food on the wing. But under one pear tree in the orchard, a cowslip patch has established itself. From one plant bought several years back, a dozen or more are flowering this year. I peg out the area to avoid mowing, and keep it that way until the seedpods have ripened and the seed has fallen. This year, there are plants way beyond the original patch – nature taking its course, ecology for real.

perfect camellia bloom
The rain and late frosts may have affected the glorious blooms of magnolia or camellia – not taken in our garden (for our soil is inappropriate for this glorious shrub that grows almost wild in Cornwall). It thrives in woodland gardens or with the shelter of a wall and benefits from a leaf-mold mulch, but dislikes limey soil. Ornamental shrubs add height to borders, and provide shelter for wildlife. Make a note in your diary to keep searching the Dobies catalogue for special offers.

In full production (last weekend at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire)
A greenhouse is a godsend in even the smallest garden. If you are fortunate enough to have the use of one, it is no doubt already packed with young perennials you have grown from seed – plants to fill your flower borders; or vegetables to feed you through the coming months. Protection will still be needed on frosty nights – and those without a greenhouse have a choice of alternatives.  Take a look, too, at the range of items for potting on young seedlings.

Also at Berrington Hall last weekend
(in the orchard - we wanted to see how they pruned the apple trees)
Finally, on this Friday afternoon (thundery and showery here in the north Cotswolds), take inspiration from a free weekend visit to a National Trust garden this weekend (click on link to download voucher) Also, book your tickets for the Malvern Spring Flower Show where Dobies will be participating. More details on what they will be exhibiting will follow in next week’s blogpost. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

April progress

Planting srawberries in the eco-garden
After a very wet Easter here in the Cotswolds, it’s all systems go to sow and plant before we start on our travels around the country visiting plant shows and inspirational gardens. The nettle patch within the ‘eco-garden’ that I was seen digging in the April e-News is now cleared and planted with strawberries; sharing space with shallots ‘Mikor’ which I did not have room to plant in the courtyard potager, and some supermarket garlic that had started to sprout! 

The bed behind (only partially in view) includes blackcurrants and a vigorous blackberry which should crop for the first time this year; it may look full of weed, but actually, all the seedlings are self-set parsley, plus some feverfew which I love for its bright white flower heads (good for cutting). Right at the back, but not visible, is a herbaceous border with flowers to encourage bees, and some useful shrubs for protection from cold northerly winds. Double-click on the image if you want to read my garden diary notes written last Friday.

With long-term crops in mind, I have added another excellent book to my bookshelf: ‘How to grow Perennials Vegetables: low-maintenance, low-impact vegetable gardening’ by Martin Crawford, pioneer of  forest gardening and director of the Agroforestry Research Trust, whose first book, ‘Creating a Forest Garden’ published in 2010 was an eye-opener to many a conventional gardener. His latest offering, published last week in paperback by Green Books, is another masterpiece, and will delight those of us whose gardening time is limited. Though that is not the main reason for acquiring a copy! There are many other advantages in growing perennial veg rather than annuals, amongst which are: they need less tillage, so the soil structure is not disturbed in cultivation and carbon is retained in the soil; they extend the harvesting season, especially in early spring, they are often of more value to beneficial insects than annual veg, and many contain higher levels of mineral nutrients. In two parts, the book covers why and how to grow these crops, and then lists over 100 perennial edibles – both common and unusual; from rhubarb to skirret, Jerusalem artichoke to nodding onions. Buy Martin's new book here though Amazon.

Families flocking into the Three Counties showground at Malvern
today for this year's 'Countrytastic'
Something now for young children. I’m actually writing this at the Malvern Showground, at 'Countrytastic'.  The place is bustling with activity - an excellent venue for young potential gardeners. For a garden does not happen in isolation, but is a part of the overall picture of landscape, farming and food production; individual gardens slot into the ecological jigsaw. Such excitement whether you are six or sixty, and here with your children or grandchildren. And there’s more to be enjoyed at Malvern next month when the RHS Spring Show gets under way over four days, from 10th – 13th May; and Dobies will be exhibiting. Buy advance tickets here.

Damson tree planted forty years ago in our Cotswold orchard
produces far more fruit than the two of us can ever consume.
Lovely in conserves and pickles - and you can make damson gin if so minded.
From Malvern we are headed north-west for a fix of National Trust – in particular Brockhampton in Herefordshire.  At the heart of this 687-hectare (1,700-acre) farmed estate lies a romantic timber-framed manor house dating back to the late 14th century and surrounded by a moat. There are miles of walks through the park and woodland, featuring ancient trees and home to a rich variety of wildlife, along with historic farming breeds such as Hereford cattle and Ryeland sheep. That aside, it’s the damson blossom I want to see, in this county renowned for its fruit – and once-prolific damson hedgerows. Such a useful fruit, and one that deserves to be better known, and more widely planted. Discover more here.

Stop Press: Dobies mailing list subscribers should have just received  a copy of their Spring 2012 Best Value Plant Catalogue which is full of beguiling flowers and vegetables, supplied in a variety of sizes: Easiplants, Garden Ready Plants, Pot Ready Plants, Potted Plants and Veg Plug Plants – pages with Summer in full swing. See you again next week: here's hoping for reasonable weather, though we may be in for a period of Spring showers.