Monday, 25 February 2013

Inspiration for your garden

Clearing overgrown beds on one of the few days
I have been able to garden this year

To write yet again about the weather and its impact on gardening in winter would seem to be either lazy, or churlish. Just because the ground is frozen, or it’s been raining or snowing here, does not mean it has been the same for everyone in other parts of the UK. Though I do actually walk around our acre each morning when I attend to the hens and note conditions, feed the wild birds and generally observe how the lengthening days are already stimulating new growth. And I have been outside on a couple of days hacking at the brambles that overtook us in 2012. How could we have let such a situation occur? Because most of the time was spent travelling!

Children or grandchildren can help
to create a scarecrow for the garden
Travelling and gardens do not mix; what one gains from the former causes neglect to the latter. A day out is nevertheless ‘permitted’ and even when we are away for longer periods, we make use of the places we visit to gain inspiration for our garden back home. Anyone can do this. Take advantage for instance of what the National Trust offers – most of the gardens and parkland that they care for is open all year round and as there are properties all over the UK, there is a tremendous choice. Plenty of specially arranged activities for families, as well. And that is important, for our children and grandchildren are the gardeners of the future who will be entrusted with the care of our landscape. Learning when young is vital.

A well-stocked greenhouse at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire
So take yourself off to your nearest NT property, or one close at hand if you are on holiday. Look at any garden with fresh eyes: can you spot a new look, different plantings (particularly if you go their regularly)? What is peeking through in the herbaceous border? Or in the shrubbery? Naturalised bulbs? How are the paths surfaced and edged? What’s growing in the greenhouse, and more importantly, what can you learn from what you see?

Sturdy protective hoops at
Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Are plants and crops protected in some way? Talk to any of the gardeners, and if these volunteers cannot answer your query, they will usually refer you to the head gardener. HGs are well worth speaking to anyway, as they are often responsible for changes being made. Understanding their vision and their long-term plan is both educational and informative. Many of the NT properties are resurrecting old kitchen gardens, and though they do not look all that productive at this time of year, you can at least see the bare bones, the structure. 

A remarkable polytunnel at Knighthayes Court, Devon
If you have space for a polytunnel, you may care to adopt the idea used by the NT at Knighthayes Court in Devon, of creating raised beds within the covered space. When we visited, on 7th March, 2012, on a bitterly cold day, we could really feel the warmth inside and realised how protected the plants would be. It wasn’t actually open to the pubic then, but we were given a sneak preview, and pleased we had discovered it.

Record what you see and what inspires you; 
this is in the kitchen garden at  Packwood House, Warwickshire
I am always encouraging anyone out visiting to make notes, sketch or keep a record of what they see: of varieties being sown and grown, unusual structures, frames and how they are made, planting plans, and so on. Often whilst on the spot, I write a paragraph or two outlining atmosphere – of what I feel makes the place tick. You can’t replicate everything you see back home, but little things can so often add that ‘buzz’ or ‘wow’ factor to your own space. And don’t forget your camera – although I sketched this ‘bug hotel’ at Packwood House, Warwickshire, at the end of March, the photograph will be much more useful when it comes to building my own hotel. Notebook and camera will be much in evidence this year, for my husband and I have decided to visit one or two local NT properties every month so as to have an annual record of places we love. That’s the plan, anyway. For gardens to visit, click on the National Trust website.

And when you are back home, don't forget to check for all your gardening requirements (all seeds, plants and other topics) on the Dobies website by clicking on the generic links. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Gaining a head start

These dark-coloured Hellebores appear through the ground-cover

At last, the sun is shining, everywhere in the UK as well as here in the north Cotswolds from where I write this blog post. I walked around d the garden this morning, and despite all the work that needs doing, it is a joy to be outside again. My insistence on feeding the birds, come what may, has as always resulted in more bird-table visitors, and more obviously staking out territory for nesting sites. To many, my garden would be anathema; a tamed wilderness, and not all that tamed at present, but I know that come Summer, when the aphids strike, I will not need to spray for the wild-life will be there to consume creatures that will otherwise attack my produce.

I have a passion  for green flowers
Back indoors  having been entranced by the sight of three buzzards low over the orchard, mewing and calling to each other; I need to record their arrival after the long winter; though they are resident in the area. I should of course stay outside and actually ‘garden’ as many of my Facebook friends are doing on this bright and sunny Sunday; but writers have deadlines to catch come what may, and the garden will not go away; it will still be there calling for attention. My scheduled ‘posts’ have gone topsy-turvy – they are always ‘of the moment’ no matter what I had planned – so in the hope that the better weather will hold, I bring you some suggestions for ways to make use of a cold greenhouse  - or a kitchen windowsill – to start edible crops early. ‘Old hands’ will have their own favourite methods, but if you are new to all this, you can get cracking as soon as you have your seeds to hand.

Setting potatoes to chit in the greenhouse - don't forget labels
For Potatoes, you need to plan ahead for ‘earlies’ that will produce the first crops in late June or early July have to be in the ground by late March or during April. What we have to watch is that the growing shoots, even when earthed up in ridges, are not affected by late frosts (here even as late as June!) – and we have a heavy clay soil, very cold. So as soon as they arrive, I set them to chit: egg boxes are perfect, and can be recycled afterwards on the compost heap; but don’t forget to add labels if you are growing more than one variety. Place the trays in a light frost-free place (cover with fleece, doubled if necessary, if you are placing them in a shed or greenhouse). But watch for greenfly which appear out of no-where as the weather warms up. Tips for planting out will follow in April.

Sweet peas being hardened-off prior to transplanting
Sweet peas also benefit from an early start indoors. Helping them to develop a sturdy root system prior to planting out can be achieved by sowing in late September and over-wintering in a cold-frame; but you can still encourage superb blooms by starting them off right now. Each seed has an incredibly hard coat, so I chit these too. Place between sheets of soaked kitchen towel within a sandwich box, the lid will deter mice. Again, label the varieties. I place a quantity on a tray and cover with slates to exclude light, but always check regularly to see the paper remains moist. At the first sign of a shoot breaking through the hard casing, gently place the seeds in pots, lifting them with tweezers. For this stage, I use the larger size of polystyrene coffee cups (a material that keeps the roots warm) and seed compost mixed with multi-purpose compost. Once the seeds are in position, I top up the pots with vermiculite, place the pots in a seed tray (water from the base) and ensure that mice traps are set.

Early broad beans just beginning to germinate - the pots are placed within
seed trays for ease of watering, and to preserve the wooden wine-boxes
My ‘polycup’ method really encourages root growth and lessens disturbance when seedlings are ready for transplanting. It’s perfect for large seeds such as beans and marrows, squash or courgettes. If the rootball is reluctant to slide out of the ‘cup’, you simply break away the sides. The smaller size is easily accommodated in batches within wooden wine boxes, or deep polystryrene boxes, or even polystyrene storage boxes. With either of the latter, you can sink the pots in additional moist compost which help to keep the young seedlings from drying out. I rarely water from the top for fear of the seedling leaves being scorched by sunlight whilst I am out at work. I cover all boxes with netting or cloches – we have a problem with field mice but check them morning and evening. Of course, although this is my preferred method, there are numerous handy pot-and-tray systems to make life as simple as possible.

Don't forget to check for all your gardening requirements all seeds, plants and other topics on the Dobies website by clicking on the generic links. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Snow? A good time to plan

The Courtyard Potager beds are still visible under the snow.

Snow over much of the country seems to be more prevalent this winter than in I remember in the past – in the 1980s I think when we hardly had a frost. More precise weather forecasting has definitely improved but even so, I sometimes forget to re-cover the beds from which I had removed the netting set to deter blackbirds from rummaging between my overwintering herbs and cats from scratching into the bulb bed.

Hard for the birds!
Cold winds from the east actually froze the driven snow on the bird feeders; quite a scraping was needed to clear them, but that, and my special mix of food, paid dividends. My ‘mixture’ was made from crumbled digestive biscuits, shredded suet and mixed dried fruit. Expensive? No, because the ingredients had been damaged when the kitchen roof leaked; they were too good to discard, and the birds loved them! Amongst the visitors were two greenfinch that have been absent from the garden all last year, two song thrushes, robins fighting for territory, our ‘tame’ blackbird, and four species of tit looking immaculate in breeding plumage. The RSPB  say that some birds are nesting already and offer advice on the siting of nestboxes, whilst the BTO (National Trust for Ornithology) have a dedicated page on their website devoted to National Nest Box Week, which begins this Thursday, on St Valentine’s Day (February 14th).

Too snowy and cold this year for a former Valentine's Day posy.
Can you pick a posy for a loved one on this special Day? It doesn’t matter how small; trim the stalks and bind them them together with twine or a pretty ribbon. The bunch above, plucked in a warmer winter, contained roses, viburnum, periwinkle, hellebore, holly and winter heliotrope. Last week, when I wanted to give my husband something from the garden for our 55th wedding anniversary, all I could find were some snowdrops, to which I added tiny sprigs of lavender and rosemary.

This is just gorgeous.
The snow is thawing, but it really is too wet and soggy to be working out of doors, and so it is the perfect time for reading. I absolutely love this book which landed on my desk: 'Vintage Flowers – Choosing Arranging Displaying’ by Vic Brotherson. First published in 2011 by Kyle Books, this is just so special; the author fwho grew up in the Lake District, studied fine art  and migrated into floristry. So she knows her flowers and shrubs, and how to arrange and display them to perfection. For first she learned how to draw them, and their structure; and with a painter’s eye how to create homely but beautiful settings – even for something as simple as a hand-tied bunch in a jam-jar. A visual feast that will have you collecting, sowing  and growing plants that will first grace your garden with texture and colour.

Creating journal pages from paper bags, masking tape and water-soluble crayons.
My own art-works continue: the new style garden journal about which I blogged on 20th January is progressing; but rather than be a record of this year’s edible produce, it now recalls the ‘Courtyard Potager’ in 2012, for I need the finished journal for my ‘open studio’ event in July. So ‘Salad Days’ lists all the Dobies seeds that I grew, and outlines the changes at the end of the year. I had the 2013 catalogue handy whilst preparing the lists, ready to re-order those varieties that we particularly enjoyed eating. I’m writing a tutorial of creating this journal, from its ‘blotted tape’ pages to the stitched seed varieties. The tutorial will appear in instalments on my journaling blog. The various techniques may give you ideas for garden diaries of your own; and only inexpensive, easily acquired materials are used.

This is really worth investigating - free 30-day trial, too.
Planning is also always uppermost in my mind as I walk around the garden on a day-by-day basis (even if it is snowing!) Ideas creep into my mind – to be forgotten if I do not instantly write them down when back indoors. So it’s fortuitous that I a trialling the newly-launched ‘Dobies of Devon Garden Planner’ to keep track of things. I introduced this in the Dobies E-News published earlier this week, but for those who follow my blog and maybe do not receive the e-news, here again is an outline of what it is all about. Log on to the link given below and you’re just a click away from being able to create the perfect vegetable plot using an online facility, which makes it easy to draw out vegetable beds, add plants, and move them around to get the perfect layout. Either metric units or feet and inches are supported, and any shape of garden can be created. So whether you use traditional row planting, raised beds or ‘square-foot gardening’, the Dobies Vegetable Garden Planner adapts to suit your gardening style.

And in general, check for all seeds, plants and other topics on the Dobies website by clicking on the generic links. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special.