Monday, 29 October 2012

Ideas for the Cutting Garden

With the clocks having gone back yesterday, there was time over an early cup of tea to work my way through the new Dobies Annual Flower Catalogue for 2013 – seeds, plants and equipment. Such a profusion of choice, one is hard-pressed to decide what to order. Being systematic seems sensible, thinking of the areas of the garden in which decorative plants are at there best; gaps to be filled, or a total revamp. Best to order as quickly as possible for desirables sell out quickly.

Our garden in the north Cotswolds has been sadly neglected this year as we have spent more time travelling than gardening, and there is one area that would be perfect as a ‘cutting garden’. The thought of a continuity of fresh flowers in the house always appeals, from tiny posies and bulbs in the Spring, to the abundance of Summer and, come Autumn, flowers and seedheads that can be cut and dried. (The bunch at the right contains hydrangeas, feverfew and shrivelled michaelmas daisies.) And so I searched through the catalogue for items that caught my eye, with this in mind. 

Stunning flower heads
Hydrangeas dry easily for their ‘flowers’ are actually paper bracts; they fade through various stages of colour – and even their flowering colour will vary according to the nature of your soil. The new ‘You and Me Passion Blue’ will reach a height of 4ft (1.2m) – perfect in a mixed shrubbery or even a pot on the patio. Supplied in a 5-litre pot. Ref 234780.

Equally easy fresh or dried are most grasses which can be grown from seed. Four varieties are available through the new catalogue, and one that looks truly intriguing is  ‘Wangenheima Vulcan Grass’. Its long wiry stems are topped with flat, fan-shaped seedheads that develop herringbone-fashion with age. Height 60-90cm (2-3ft). Ref 429007.

Roses have been voted by readers as their favourite flower and no wonder for repeat-flowering varieties can still be in bloom on Christmas Day! Petals can be dried once they fall (just separate them and lay on a cloth-covered tray) – lovely for pot-pourri, too as they retain their scent for years. Petals are edible, so long as they haven’t been sprayed. Repeat flowering shrub roses will usually succeed in areas where hybrid teas and even floribundas prove tricky; try Rose ‘Cardinal Hume’ with its strong musky perfume in a mixed border. Supplied as a bare-root plant. Ref 233875.

A spring-time delight - and good for early bees, too.
Unusual in its colouring is Euphorbia ‘Black Pearl’ – yellowy-green blooms with a central black eye, and flowering early, from March to May. Easy to grow, too and stunning in a mixed border, being fully hardy, and tolerant of both heat and drought. The stems of euphorbias exude a milky sap and need ‘conditioning’ if using as a cut flower. Dip the newly-cut ends in an inch of boiling water for 10 seconds, before plunging them into tepid water. Height 80cm (32ins). Ref 231121.

Joy to greet the eye on a winter's morning
Finally in today’s  ‘cut-flower’ selection, how about something quick and really easy: Primrose ‘F1 Select mix’ are available as plug plants, ideal for a tub by the back door or infilling gaps where frosts have killed your annuals. Plant dwarf bulbs amongst them, and you’ll soon be able to gather a miniature posy to arrange in a wine glass or something similar. Ref 227751, 227631 and 227691 depending on size of plug. Now back to the catalogue - there are endless possibilities for the 'Cutting Garden'.

Friday, 19 October 2012

It's here - and wildlife time, too!

The unexpected arrival just after lunch of the Dobies 2013 catalogue has taken me unawares and out-performed my scheduled topic for this week. Indeed, as I removed it from the postal wrapper, I realised just how clever the package is. For it is so much more than a catalogue – it is a Wallet, into which slot TWO main ‘annual’ brochures incorporating seeds, plants and equipment for 2013: one focusing on fruit and vegetables, and the second on flowers. Then additionally, there are three special leaflets covering ‘bedding, basket and container plants’, special offers, and ‘easy steps to grow ‘potatoes, onions, garlic and shallots’. The latter is packed with recipes produced especially for Dobies by Michelin-starred chef, Simon Hulstone.

The aim of the Wallet is that it is – and will be – the perfect receptacle for these and future mini-catalogues and leaflets. And how appropriate is the front cover image, for it perfectly encapsulates the importance of bio-diversity, where the garden merges into the landscape, and there are wildlife corridors between the two. OK, so we don’t all live in glorious Devon, or even with rural surroundings, but it is perfectly possible to provide suitable wildlife havens within urban gardens – even in the midst of bustling cities (a topic we will return to at a later date.

From my sketchbook (2001)
Which brings me back to the scheduled topic for this week: birds. They are vital to the well-being of any garden, help to keep insect pests under control, and other nasties. Consider their needs: The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) is seeking help from gardeners, for the effects of a cold and wet spring could cause yet more problems for wildlife through the autumn and winter, 

The shy Jay (copyright
Ben Andrew, RSPB)
Ben Andrew, RSPB Wildlife advisor, says: “It’s been a difficult spring and summer for wildlife, with our make Your Nature Count survey in June highlighting that birds were struggling to find enough natural sources of food for themselves and their chicks.   Natural food is very important at this time of year and a lean autumn crop is the last thing that our wildlife needs.”

A perfect garden habitat for birds (copyright Andy Hay (
Providing food like fatballs and seeds for birds is important, but the RSPB is also urging people to manage their gardens and land with wildlife in mind.  That means not cutting back berry-bearing hedges and shrubs, so that any berries on them can be eaten by wildlife, and leave fallen fruits on the ground for species like blackbirds. Nut-bearing bushes and trees mean wildlife can access the food, and can shelter among the leaves and branches as the weather turns colder. Ben Andrew continues: “Our gardens can be lifelines for wildlife, especially when conditions are tough.  A good garden, no matter how small, can provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife during the winter and still be attractive to look at.”

Spot the nuthatch on the middle feeder (copyright Ray Quinton)
This plea set me thinking, and this evening I will be sitting by the fire, working my way through the wealth of printed material, and listing flowers that can be left to run to seed next year – so if 2013 proves as difficult as it has been in 2012, my garden will be well-prepared to welcome wildlife.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Thinking of Summer !!

Munich Market, Germany; June 2012
Touring on the continent this summer in our motorhome, whilst the UK wet seemed to follow wherever we travelled, I was nevertheless always drawn to the vegetable stalls in every market – a reminder of other, hotter summers in years long gone, and particularly herbs, and GARLIC. Subtlety of flavour, life-enhancing, considered by many to be a herbal wonder drug, with a reputation in folklore for preventing or treating everything from the common cold and ‘flu to the legendary plague! It is nevertheless a powerful natural antibiotic and antioxidant, and is claimed to assist in the management of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. 

And wishing the winter away, bypassing Spring and thinking of summer, I remember that certain varieties of garlic can be planted in the early Autumn, and be ready for harvesting twice over.  Plant ‘hardneck’ varieties such as Vayo or Sultop between now and January, and come late Spring – before the garlic bulbs begin to mature – green flowering shoots (better known as ‘scapes’) will appear, developing and twisting this way and that as a serpentine stalk topped by an infantile flower bud.

Garlic 'scapes' are a delicious addition to the cook's repertoire
Normally, these green garlic scapes would be removed to encourage the garlic plant to develop into purple/violet-tinged harvestable bulbs. But a great delicacy would be missed: for you can cut the curling stalks and treat them rather as a garlic-flavoured spring onion: added raw to your first cut-and-come-again salad leaves; or stir-fried, sautéed in olive oil, heaped on a platter and dipped into a home-made mayonnaise, served with crisp bruschetta. Sublime. 

Softneck types can also be planted in late Autumn but are harvested somewhat later than Vayo or Sultop. Look for the white-skinned Arno and Solent Wight particularly suited to our British climate. Home remedies: as a toddler prone sore throats, pneumonia on more than one occasion and other all-too-frequent chesty complaints – and before the days of readily available antibiotics, I recall my grandmother making a sweet-tasting garlic syrup with which I was spoon-fed each night. It must have worked, for here I am within a few days of my 75th birthday and contemplating next year’s garlic harvest! 

Discover More: Whether or not you are hooked on garlic, you can learn so much from ‘Garlic – the mighty bulb’ written by Natasha Edwards and just published by Kyle Books. History, cultivation and cook-book rolled into one, add it to your Christmas wishlist. But don’t wait until then to order you garlic bulbs for stocks at Dobies are fast selling out. Split the bulbs into cloves, and press into a rich compost.

Hardneck garlic growing in one of my raised beds (2011)
Forget foul-smelling garlic breath; as with any other herb, garlic should complement food, not overpower it – and ‘garlic-breath’ remedies are given in Natasha’s book; so, if you’ve never grown it before, try planting a few cloves in a pot, include it in your veg plot, raised beds or herb garden. Go continental this Autumn and forger winter as the young shoots emerge next Spring. Summer 2013 is on its way!

Links to Dobies online catalogue: garlic in general; hardneck varieties: Vayo; softneck varieties:  ArnoGarlic Lover's Collection; Garlic Book; Raised Beds.