Sunday, 28 April 2013

Progress of one sort and another

The protected Potager is doing well

I don’t know what it has been like this last week in gardens and allotments all over the country, but here we are still feeling the tail of Winter and yet a third of the way between Spring and Summer! Still those bitter easterly winds; and whilst we can wrap up warm, seeds and young plants are having to be coddled. At least I have my ‘courtyard potager’ under control; with its protective shrubbery surround, it is the warmest part of the whole garden (or was until my husband decided to rip out part of it.) But the canes are in place for climbing French beans, and for growing trailing squash vertically. The new herb bed (top right) is now well-established, and the bulbs are a continual delight and are now undersown with insect-attracting flowering annuals.

Mixed lettuce and leaf beet have germinated quickly despite the cold
Seeds are being raised in the greenhouse; all safely covered to prevent mice from destroying them – and living near a farm, we have had worse. I am using an old wormery to harden off the seedlings which germinated very quickly with the added protection. All spare ground in the courgette bed will be filled with cut-and-come again salad – mostly rocket, lamb’s lettuce, mixed salad leaves and radish. Some have been sown direct and are now protected with seedbox covers in lieue of cloches – stops cats, sparrows and blackbirds from interfering, as well as providing warmth to aid germinations. The bean bed is destined to provide extra greenery for the hens: perpetual spincach (leaf beet) and rhubarb chard to add a touch of colour – bright red with this variety.

A sorry state of affairs
There’s so much reclamation needed in my other two plots (I’m ashamed to show this image of my once beautiful and productive ‘physic’ garden. But that’s what happens when one is away for much of the year and ill for most of the rest; and as old age creeps upon us unawares, something suffers. I’ve already cut back a lot of the bramble thicket, which has revealed that the six raised beds are now past their best (created around 1999), the structure is rotting and to remove all the bramble roots and dig out wanted plants will be quite a task. My mind is black as to how I want to redevelop this 18ft x 18ft plot, which is south-facing and was once described by one of my editors as being ‘inspirational’. Clearly it now needs some t.l.c.

We have been fortunate with our acre of garden and orchard in being able to deliberately encourage wild-life, planting to encourage beneficial insects, birds, bees, frogs and toads and anything that will mean we can remain eco-friendly in an area that is rural but becoming increasingly suburban. This blackbird will not leave us alone! Waiting by the backdoor for us, feeding from the table on the terrace whilst we are there and quite happy to sit with a beakfull of worms whilst I fetch my camera.

This 'shambles' is deliberate
Some corners are deliberately left ‘wild’ – not the wilderness needing attention, but what to most people would be classed as ‘untidy’. Much more as you would find if you walked along a woodland hedgerow, or old yard, where nature is left to do it’s own thing. Pots are planted with wildings that encourage bees (invasive if left to their own devices) – deadnettle red and white, stinging nettle (food for peacock butterflies caterpillars, herb mounds in a former planter, a heap of stones under which toads can hide, and old tree root which will be beloved by beetles, field mice, a hazel self-sown in a pot; and all jostling with the rhubarb which will swamp it come summer, but bare ground is avoided in the winter.

Some invasive plants and weeds are useful if kept under control
I am a great believer in avoiding bare ground, utilising plants that are decorative as well as helpful to the gardener, such as the comfrey above, which is invasive if left unchecked, but all the leaves go onto the compost heap). Ground cover of any sort discourages weeds, and whereas many are useful (hens love the docks you can see bottom left) others are a pain. They can be composted if they haven’t set seed, unless they have roots that grow into new plants if left to their own devices (burn these – cow parsley, ground elder, dock and dandelion, though the blanched leaves of the latter is useful in moderation in the kitchen, or their flowers to make wine). As we could do with our patch of cowslips just coming into flower in the orchard (photograph next week). We began with one purchased plant four years ago, and did not mow until it has shed its seed. Now we have dozens of little plants; though they would irritate anyone who desires a bowling-green lawn. Like wise with violets that have crept beyond the confines of the fruit border. Patience has paid dividends.

Despite the cold winds, I have been filling the pages of my new little garden notebook - held in my hand it is sturdy and easy to write on the smooth paper. I paint the sketches in the evening; but its joy for me is being able to walk around either the flourishing beds or the wilderness and know that there is always something that will be a delight, and a place in which to record what I see. Meanwhile, do keep your own notes, and  Visit Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements.

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.

Next week, I will be blogging live at the Malvern Spring Gardening Show - and I know how much there will be to write about, for I have been previewing the Show over the last few weeks, on their official blog.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Garden Diaries, Journals & Jotters

At last I have been able to work in the garden; the soil is fit, the weeds have not yet overtaken me, and yet there is so much to reclaim from last year's neglect. But my topic scheduled for this week is the importance of keeping records - not lists or charts or annotated plans, but diaries, journals and jotters. The former are of course vital, but when I came to sort mine from recent years, I realised that they in no way conveyed what I felt about the garden, my successes and failures; the feel of the seasons, the scents, colours and sounds of the garden. And good food enjoyed from produce we have grown ourselves.

An ordinary notebook transformed with acrylic paint, peper napkin motifs 
and a white pen for the text.
I started keeping garden diaries many years ago; for a long while they were just words, but then I began to add photographs, and attempted to sketch as well. Somewhat laboured at first, yet confidence grew as I experimented with various materials and techniques. Notebooks proliferate; if I see a sketchbook that I like, I snatch it up. I rarely start on page one; it’s less intimidating to feel you have spoiled a new book because the title page didn’t quite work. All notebooks and sketchbooks have different surfaces and weights of paper; coloured paper removes the fear of sketching somehow.

An ongoing project: Spring colours in a hand-made journal
Sometimes I create my own journals, as here, because then you can tailor the size you want, and sometimes even add relevant scrapbook papers. For this one, prepared in advance of days away in the caravan, I bought an inexpensive spiral bound sketchpad (A3-140gsm), ripped out a quantity of pages, spread them on my workroom table and smeared them with white poster paint, acrylics and colour spray. When dry, the pages were sealed with ‘Golden Fluid Matte Medium’, cut in half horizontally and then sheathed together loose, ready for adding text and illustrations. You need a waterproof pen to write on the glazed surface; those used for garden labels are fine.

In spare moments, I experiment with effects so that when the time comes to work in a given book, I am confident that some ghastly disaster will not occur; though if it does, I can always superimpose another piece of work. This experimental page was to see what I could do if I stripped up and old book and worked over papers torn away from the spine. (Some people work direct in a cheap, second-hand book – known as ‘altered books’; I find it slightly restraining as you constantly have to interleave your work with baking parchment to protect the pages from glue and paint spattering, and in any case, I quite like to stitch into the page, and stitch around pairs of pages mounted back-to-back to make them stiffer.

Experimental page exploring materials and techniques
This was the case with this second experimental page – a practice piece for a collaborative projects being undertaken by a group of local friends. The pages will be a collage of fabric, printed paper scraps and applied sketches; and because we are an embroidery group there will be quite a lot of hand- or machine-stitching. Our gardens inspire us, trigger our imagination. We will be working in A5 horizontal spiral-bound sketchbooks, so will mount fabric-based pieces with ‘Golden Regular Gel (matte)’ which secures pieces without damage to book or textile.

Many of my finished pieces use old maps as a base – a strip is already pre-folded providing a zig-zag booklet all ready for journaling. Though first a prep the map surface with a light coat of white poster paint, just sufficient for the cartography to still be seen. I write direct onto the finished page using a sepia-coloured Artist’s Sketching Pen (it gives it a sort of antique appearance). Illustrations may be sketched coloured with water-soluble crayons (Neocolor I), or as here, a paper napkin motif applied to muslin or cheesecloth, trimmed and fused to the background with gel medium.

Up to the minute: a pocket-sized garden jotter
My latest project is also paper based; I designed some tiny packet-sized jotters that I could slip into my pocket when working in the garden, to record rough random notes. Very easy to write the text on the tough surface without sitting down; I left space for illustrations which were sketched during a gardening coffee break. To make something similar, take one sheet of 16”x12”  (40.6x30.5cm) 190gsm ‘cold-pressed/not’ watercolour paper. Cut the paper vertically into four equal strips,  and cut each of those strips in two. Fold and collate the pages and secure with a rubber band (though I used a small pony-tail hairband.

Is this really about gardening? Yes it is. Nearly all that I do creatively is inspired by our eco-friendly garden and orchard. Without the constant toil to keep the acre productive, the therapeutic benefits of journaling, sketching and book-making would cease to exist. And you could do it, too. Don't be afraid to start - and for those who wish to find out more about my journals and technqiues used, you are welcome to visit my ‘Journaling the Journal’ blog. And in this post, click on any image to view it at a larger size.

Technology allows us to share so much, but I should be back in the garden, or allotment. Sowing and planting is now in full swing; we need to take advantage of the better weather, and longer evenings. Visit Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements.

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.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Gardening with Children

A school group striding out at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

My topic for this week is self-explanatory – and a subject important in its significance. For if we don’t introduce children to ‘how’ to garden when they are young we will have a generation who not only don’t know where fresh food comes from, but will also be unaware of the joys of hands-in-the-earth, and the sense of achievement gained from raising plants from seed. It may not always be edible plants, for they may come to love flowers, and plants important to bees and pollination.

Learning how to pot up a plant, in Malvern's 'Discovery Zone'
OK, so it may begin with bucket and spade in the sandpit, and progress from there. Fortunate indeed are those youngsters whose schools incorporate gardening activities into the curriculum. What a pleasurable way to learn maths and science, geography and even English.

Making notes is always a good idea; these pupils at Malvern were
showing their garden design folder to a couple of visitors
Time was, not that long ago, when the then generation of teachers had missed such experiences in their childhood, and children of the gardening public knew more than those who taught them! Something of a generality, and fortunately the balance has been redressed and School Gardening is flourishing. Alive and kicking, in fact which is a godsend to parents who don’t garden (not Dobies readers of course. If you weren't a keen gardener, you wouldn't be reading this.!)

In costume as the main characters in their 'Secret Garden' plot
at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show
Organisers of Gardening Shows have come to realise the value of including educational activities in what is on offer. School Gardens designed and created by children from nursery school to secondary age and even college level. Some are weird and wonderful, many make use of recycled materials and others are based on a theme. A typical topic is to base the design on a book, which has double value for you can’t plan a garden on a story theme if you haven’t first read it!

I chat to this group in their 'shop'  at The Malvern Spring Gardening Show
Talking to the children is a delight; they are always so excited and justifiably proud of their achievements. Happy, smiling faces whilst they chat to visitors, learning the skill of communication as well as gardening. Sometimes they run a shop as well, to raise funds for more seeds. Not all schools participate in this way, but Gardening Shows are a useful out-of-classroom resource, a day out from which so much can be learned. Though somehow that is not the same as taking part, and learning to stage an exhibit. But something rubs off nevertheless.

Quite small to be learning about the significance of bees - but what a lot
of fun for this playgroup visiting RHS Tatton Park Flower Show
Additional activities are often provided: ‘discover and learn’ through hands-on topics such as searching for ladybirds in boxes of leaves, planting beans in pots, making leaf prints (you get to know which are best), or looking at bees in a demonstration hive. Families appreciate what is offered, for so often you can run out of ideas at home and having a few new ideas up your sleeve for a rainy day will not come amiss.

Plenty going on to interest pupils at RHS Hampton Court
Every year I visit many shows around the country but three in particular, selected I have to admit for their convenience of location, though they are not necessarily the nearest. Not to be missed (in date order) are the following: the Malvern Spring Gardening Show (in conjunction with the RHS), from 9th-12th May (more news on this on Ann’s Malvern Jotter which I am engaged to write for the organisers); RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (9th-14th July) and the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show (Knutsford, Cheshire) from 25th-28th July. Each Show is totally different and has it own distinct vibes. The images in this post were all taken at 2012 events so of course are not what you will see this year.

The only 'posed' picture, but I wanted these two in their garden at RHS Tatton Park
Flower Show (not sure how they managed tulips in July, but so colourful)
Don’t forget that there’s a special offer on Dobies seeds during April – so you can present your children or grandchildren with a little gardening gift of seeds to sow over the Bank Holiday at the beginning of May. Give them a hand if they need it.

A teaching group in the permanent 'Learning Garden' at
Malvern's  Three Counties Showground
Remember 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.