Friday, 21 April 2017

Bye Bye Bay-trees

I have decided to get rid of my two standard-trained potted Bay trees.

Much as I love them, I feel that they have got too big for my little garden. More to the point, they cast too much shade on my raised beds. Because of this, they are being re-located to my daughter's house, in nearby Wokingham.

I can't remember exactly when I started off these trees, but it must have been fairly soon after we moved into this property, which was in 1991. They were cuttings from a tree we brought with us from our previous house. I wish now that I had started them both at the same time, so that they would be an evenly-matched pair, but I didn't think of that then, and one must be a couple of years older than the other - hence slightly larger.

I already have this little tree waiting for its place in the limelight. It is three years old now.

I think it's time this one went into a bigger pot, which will encourage it to fill out into a bigger tree.

If you are interested in how to grow a Bay tree from a cutting, I described that procedure HERE.

P.S. (Nothing to do with Bay trees). Yesterday I harvested the first of this year's Radishes:-

These are "French Breakfast".

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Frost protection

After some "unseasonably warm" weather in early April, this week we are experiencing much colder conditions, particularly at night time. In view of this I thought it might be interesting to show you the methods I use for protecting my tender plants.

I am not a great believer in spending vast amounts of money on garden "hardware", but I have a variety of different cheap-and-cheerful products that give an acceptable degree of protection without breaking the bank. Also, I am quite careful with my kit - I look after it and make it last quite a long time, thus assuring good value for money.

At present, these are the most useful - the contraptions called "Seedling Greenhouses". They are great for accommodating my container-grown potatoes.

The only problem with these is that they are not very tall (they are designed for seedlings, after all), and the potatoes are beginning to get too tall for them. The logical next step is this:

That trio of 2-tier mini-greenhouses is worth its weight in gold! I use them a lot. Right now they are housing the potato plants that have got too tall for the Seedling Greenhouses. Unfortunately, each greenhouse only holds one potato plant, so the unlucky ones get this...

Yeah, fleece. Probably the most cost-effective form of frost-protection. From my point of view the big problem with this is that it is traditionally sold in long thin rolls - which are never wide enough! This one of mine is only 1.5 metres wide. I wish they made fleece in wider widths. Still, with a bit of ingenuity, it can be put to good effect:

In the background of that photo above you can see my four "Longrow" cloches. They are each 1.2 metres long and 40cm tall. To be honest, they are probably better at protecting plants from damage by animals than by frost. For one thing, the end pieces went West long ago. They were extremely flimsy and completely unfit for purpose.

We mustn't forget the big wooden Gabriel Ash coldframe. This is an old photo. The coldframe is full of plants right now. By the way, this coldframe definitely doesn't qualify as cheap-and-cheerful! You may remember that I didn't buy it - Jane won it for me in a competition.

Here are a couple of general shots of my plot, with most of the frost-protection kit visible:


P.S. Re the St.George's mushrooms: I cooked them with Wild Garlic from the garden, and cream, and served them with potato cakes and crispy bacon. I thought they were delicious, but Jane didn't like them. She said they tasted like burnt plastic! In her defence I'll say that she likes scallops and tuna and salmon - all of which I find utterly repellent.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The St.George's mushroom

As many readers know, I am always on the lookout for free food when I'm out walking, and have recently become very interested in fungi - especially the edible types! Well, this week I have found two patches of what I think are St.George's Mushrooms - Calocybe gambosa:

The St.George's Mushroom is so-called because it typically appears on or about St.George's Day (23rd April). As such, it is one of the earliest edible fungi to appear. One of its identification factors is that it is generally not found after the end of May, so if in August you spot something you think is a St.George's Mushroom, then it almost certainly isn't one.

I have got several books on fungi now, and I have consulted them all, as well as several websites. I think this is only sensible, especially since I am still a novice in this area. All the authorities agree that one of the chief identification factors for this mushroom is its distinctive and strong smell, often described as "mealy" (like wet flour). One book I have says that the smell is somewhere between melon rind and bonemeal. (Of course as a gardener these smells should be well-known to me!)

I have also been studying the arcane subject of gill attachment - the way the gills on the underside of a mushroom attach to the stipe or stalk - which is one of the many factors that can be used to identify a fungus. I spent ages yesterday studying the fungi I had collected, but today I realised that the best way to do it is to take a photograph which than then be blown up to 200 or even 300%, which makes things a lot easier. Doh!

The books say that the some of the features to look for in a St.George's mushroom are:-

1. A cap that is initially round, becoming irregular when bigger
2. A cap that is slightly inrolled at the edge
3. A stem that is stout and bulbous at the base. The Latin name for the St.George is Calocybe gambosa and "gambosa" means "club-footed".
4. Flesh is firm and cream-coloured and does not change colour when cut
5. Gills that are cream, very crowded and "emarginate" (see link to gill attachment above)
6. A white spore-print. This one is important because one of the fungi which can possibly be confused with the St.George is the Livid Pinkgill, Entoloma sinuatum, which has pink spores.
7. Then there is the smell, which I can't demonstrate here!

Anyway, the long and short of it is that my foraged fungi pass all the above tests, so they are now going "in the pot".

In his book "Edible Mushrooms", Geoff Dann describes the taste like this: "Some people find the taste too much, but this mushroom is rightly regarded as a delicacy. They are best sautéed and traditionally served with offal or strongly flavoured fish, but are also lovely with chicken, on brown toast, or in a risotto with asparagus. They go well with another foraged spring favourite - wild garlic or ramsons..."

Finally for today, a little plug for a website that I think is pretty good. If you're a keen but novice fungi-forager like me, this will be a very valuable resource! Galloway Wild Foods.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Potato progress etc

The container-grown potatoes I planted last month are coming on very quickly now.

The little plastic greenhouses are certainly worth having. They create a warm humid atmosphere which the spuds really like.

I am very conscious though that high humidity can also favour fungal infections, so I'm careful to open the flaps whenever it's warm enough to do so - which is most of the day now. I shut the flaps at night-time because it still gets pretty cold (approx. 5C most nights this past this week, but forecast to be 1 or 2C on Tuesday night coming).

This year I am experimenting with only doing a small amount of earthing-up. My feeling is that the vast majority of tubers will be produced at or below the level of the original seed tuber, so adding more soil to the pots is not necessarily going to be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, across the garden...

Flowers are beginning to form on the first batch of Broad Beans. These are "Witkiem Manita", sown on February 7th.

The Purple Sprouting Broccoli is almost at an end - although whenever I think it has finished, it goes and produces some more spears (albeit small ones now).

The last few spears produced by a PSB plant are generally pretty unappealing - rather thin and stringy - so it's best to leave them to flower if you can afford to:

PSB flowers just beginning to show some yellow colour

My PSB is going to be succeeded by Runner Beans, but I haven't even sown those yet, so I have time to let the PSB flower. We have two short periods away from home coming up soon, so I am trying to co-ordinate the sowing of tender veg, like Courgettes, Cucumbers and beans around them, such that the seeds have "germinating-time" while we are away (and therefore require little attention, I hope!)

One other thing I want to show off today is my Crab Apple tree, which is right outside the front door:

It looks beautiful at present, being completely covered with a mass of pink flowers. I just wish it could look like that all year round!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A drought in April??

The past few weeks have been very dry here, with lots of sunshine too, and some of my plants are beginning to suffer.

My Tulips are all in pots, and they have become very parched. The petals of some of the flowers have curled up, like this:

Now that I have noticed the problem, I have given the pots a good soaking of water, but it may be too late. Normally a Tulip flower lasts about 10 - 14 days, but I think some of mine are past their best just a week after opening.

These ones are nice though, so all is not lost:

Our weather has been coming in from the West and North-West, and that means that here in the South and South-East we have had very little rain recently. My water-butt is nearly empty now, and I have had to water the garden with a hosepipe a couple of times already. I don't normally expect to do that until much later in the year.

With April being the prime time for sowing and planting in most UK gardens, it will be particularly important this year to water the soil before and after these tasks. When sowing seeds, make sure you sow them onto moist soil (pour water carefully along the base of the seed-drill before sowing), and after sowing cover the seeds with dry soil, which will help to reduce evaporation. I find that Carrot seeds in particular need a lot of TLC in their early stages. They often refuse to germinate if they don't get sufficient moisture, so it's a good idea to try and keep their soil consistently damp. Last year I tried covering some of them until germination with wet hessian (aka burlap), which worked well - though of course this may not be practical in large scale.

Another vegetable that needs special care in dry conditions is the Radish.

If its soil is too dry, the plant will bolt (run to seed) quickly, without forming a bulb, or if it does produce a bulb it will be tough and unpleasantly pungent. For this reason, I try to water my Radishes every day during dry spells.

Many of you will know that I am growing Onions for the first time this year.

I note that most authorities agree that Onions are pretty tolerant of dry conditions. Many people say that once they are established it will seldom be necessary to water Onions. I'm not sure about this. That advice may possibly apply to what used to be considered "normal" conditions, which were probably much less dry. In fact, I feel that few seed-merchants appear to have adjusted their sowing- and growing-advice to take account of Climate Change. Do you agree?

Since we have had some warm days I have been gradually re-introducing some of my plants to the outdoor conditions. This Geranium, for instance, spent the Winter in the garage. It went very pale, but the main thing is it survived, and now in a sheltered spot it is quickly regaining its normal dark green colour.

Until now it has been spending the nights in the big coldframe, and I think it had better go back inside for at least a couple of nights this week, because it would be a shame to lose it now!

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sowing, planting, thinning...

April is the busiest month of the year in many UK gardens - mine included. This year we have had a spell of unusually dry weather spanning late March and early April, with lots of sunshine, which has meant few failures of germination. When the weather is cold wet and windy it sometimes needs two or three sowings to get enough seedlings started, but there have been no such problems this year.

With a bit of luck I'll be picking my first Radishes by next weekend:

The Parsnips I sowed on 27th March germinated very quickly. I spotted the first ones on Thursday (13th April).

For some unknown reason a lot of them have come up "with their helmets on" as they say - in other words with the seed-casings still attached to the cotyledons. This is not normally a problem, and the rapidly-growing leaves soon shrug off the casings.

I'm not sure you will be able to make this out from the photo below, but I "station-sowed" my Parsnips this time. I sowed 2 seeds in each place (or station) where I want a Parsnip to grow, leaving about 4" between pairs of seeds. If they both germinate, one of the seedlings is subsequently removed. This technique means you use a lot less seed and do a lot less thinning than if you sow an unbroken row.

I wrote a couple of days ago about the need to thin Beetroot seedlings, and I have done this task now. My Beetroot seedlings are now spaced well apart.

With reduced growing-space available this year I have cut down on the number of Beetroot I am growing. I sowed just two short (1.2m) rows, and after thinning this means I have a total of about 40 Beetroot plants. Still, when used as a salad ingredient alongside other things, a little bit goes a long way and it should be enough for us. I keep telling myself "This year I'm aiming more for quality than quantity"!

Yesterday I decided to plant my Leeks. I think they are really still a bit small for planting, but we are going to be away for a few days soon and I wanted to get them in and established before then. I also felt that they were looking a bit "peaky" (unenthusiastic and possibly undernourished), as they say, in their tiny flowerpot seed-bed, and I think planting out into real soil will do them good. Again, for the afore-mentioned reasons, I had space for only a few (15 to be precise), but they are in now.

My planting method was the traditional one - make a hole with a dibber, drop the Leek seedling into it, but don't backfill. A good watering to settle them in completes the procedure. The sticks you see in the photo are there to protect the seedlings from animals.

Leek seedling in its planting-hole

True to form, I kept all my spare Leek seedlings (about another 15 or so), just in case any fail to establish. I almost always sow more seeds and raise more plants than strictly necessary, because when space is very limited (as it is in my garden), you really do need to make sure it is fully utilised. If a plant dies or fails to establish it makes sense to have a spare with which to replace it. If I end up with too many plants it is usually easy enough to give them away.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Planting Lettuce

Every gardener grows Lettuce, don't they? As somebody famous once said, Lettuce is the heart of any good salad. It's certainly the first thing that comes to mind when salad is mentioned. We use a lot of lettuce in our household, so I try to ensure that we have a steady supply from the garden during the warmer months. Yesterday I planted out my first seedlings of the year.

This first batch was taken from a tray of mixed varieties which have been growing in my coldframe for the last few weeks, officially destined to be used as Baby Leaf Salad. I reckoned that if I took a few of the biggest seedlings from that tray to grow as "proper" lettuces they wouldn't be missed.

I have planted out 11 little lettuces (as many as would conveniently fit in the space I wanted to use). It's actually not a good idea to plant too many lettuces at any one time, because they will probably all mature at the same time and you'll end up with a glut.

Here in North-East Hampshire we haven't had much rain recently, and the soil is dry and dusty, so I made sure to water the planting-site thoroughly before putting the lettuces in. When planting lettuce it is advisable to put them at a depth whereby their seed-leaves are just above soil level - in other words, not too deep.

After planting I watered them again, to settle the soil around their roots and help them to recover from the shock of their sudden change of habitat. Recently transplanted lettuce seedlings often look dead because they go very floppy, but they usually recover within 24 hours or so. If the weather is hot and sunny, it's a good idea to plant during the late afternoon so that they get a few hours of coolness before they have to endure heat again. Failing that, you can cover them with sheets of newspaper to provide shade (remember to weigh it down with some stones to stop it blowing away!).

I do not know what variety the lettuces I planted yesterday are, since they came from a mixed pack, but I think some of them are Little Gem.

In the coldframe I have another (known) batch coming on. These are "Warpath", a new variety from Thompson and Morgan which is a cross between Cos and Iceberg.

"Warpath" is billed as the smallest Iceberg lettuce, producing compact 'one-meal' plants that can be squeezed into small veg patches and patio containers. I'm hoping it will do well for me because I have been looking for a suitable replacement for "Webbs Wonderful", which (although I love it) is too big to suit my small garden.

As the season progresses I will sow more lettuce seeds at frequent intervals, so that I can maintain a steady succession. I find that if I sow more seeds on or about the day I plant one batch of seedlings, the second batch will be ready for planting about the time the first batch is harvested. In the early Spring lettuce grows slowly, even in a coldframe, but once Summer comes it speeds up considerably.

P.S. I just want to make mention today of a new website that I've noticed. It's called WhatShed? and bills itself as the "UK's #1 review site for garden sheds, buildings and more." Evidently, if you're in the market for a shed, this site would be worth a visit! Just recently they have published some features on some of the UK's best-known gardening blogs. It's gratifying to see that mine is included!

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Book review - The Salad Garden, by Joy Larkcom

I have long been a fan of Joy Larkcom, who I consider to have been one of the most influential gardeners and garden writers of recent times. I have lots of her books, many of them acquired back in the 1980s, so it was a pleasure to be asked to review a copy of a new edition of "The Salad Garden", published by Frances Lincoln Ltd (part of the Quarto Publishing Group).

I have a copy of the original version of this book, published in 1984, and it has been interesting to see how it differs from the 2017 one.

The 1984 edition

Some of the differences are obvious: the 1984 edition is a hardback; the 2017 one is a softback, but there are many more that are less apparent. The publishers have updated this book, but have kept its basic structure and content. One of the aspects I like best is the multiplicity of clear and straightforward black-and-white drawings, which really help with understanding the concepts Joy explains. I feel that often a simplified drawing is a better way of explaining something than a photograph. Since the general concepts of the subject have not changed a huge amount, many of the drawings are the same as they were in 1984, but others have been changed or added to bring the book up to date - for example the coverage of polytunnels (a rarity in 1984 but commonplace today) has been considerably expanded.

About half of the book is devoted to a coverage of plants that can be considered as constituents of a salad, with notes about their cultivation, a list of recommended cultivars and usually a photograph. As the author explains, the definition of "a salad plant" is open to a lot of interpretation and most things can be included if you so desire! Joy Larkcom was one of the first people to see the potential of what she called "Saladini" - collections of many different types of leafy plant grown specifically for cutting at an immature stage. Her views on this were strongly influenced by her travels within Europe accompanied by her family. They explored vegetables and herbs unknown in the UK at that time, and studied how they were cultivated, harvested and eaten in different countries. Later, she began cultivating them herself in the UK, and started writing about them. These days we all take for granted the vast array of salad ingredients available in every supermarket, but Joy's writing can take a lot of the credit for the rise in popularity of such fare.

One of the more obviously updated aspects of the book is that the lists of recommended cultivars have changed. The cultivars recommended in the 1980s are mostly still there in the lists, but other more modern ones have been added. The author throws in many comments about which ones are good for what reason - some are favoured because of their hardiness, some for flavour, some for ease of cultivation etc.

Whilst the early part of the book may be of considerable use for the beginner, helping to identify vegetables and understand their merits and problems, my feeling is that the latter part of the book is better. The section entitled "Garden Practicalities" is particularly good, containing a wide array of useful hints and tips about how to set up and maintain a salad garden and look after your crops. There is coverage here of pretty much every aspect of the subject - sowing, planting, weeding, watering, protecting, soil-preparation, crop-rotation, harvesting, pest and diseases etc. This is a comprehensive manual of What to sow, Where to sow, How to Sow and everything else besides. There is even a short but informative section on seeds for sprouting and microgreens; perhaps best of all is the Year-Round Saladini Chart on page 272.

Right at the end of the book there is a brief chapter on "Salad-making" with notes on preparation and recipes for things like salad dressings. To my mind this section is a bit of a disappointment, an anti-climax. I would have liked to see more made of this aspect - and especially some illustrations. They say that you "eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth" and I feel that a few photos of spectacular salads would make a big difference here(and I know that many of Joy's other books, and the 1984 edition of this one, include them!). I think if it were my choice, I would start the book with this section, showing people how delicious and appealing a salad can look before showing them how to grow their own one!

Photo from the 1984 edition

At £16.99 for a paperback edition, this book might at first sight appear to compare unfavourably with the many more lavishly illustrated hardback publications authored by numerous celebrity gardeners these days, but closer inspection reveals that for your money you are getting a very comprehensive guide to a subject that the author knows like the back of her hand. She writes from a position of authority, because it is apparent that she has actually done the things she writes about (I think many authors haven't). There is a lot of content in this book, and you come away feeling that you are "in good hands", as it were. To be honest, there is little new to me in this book, but then I've been gardening for over 30 years. If I were a novice though, I would consider it a rich source of practical advice and I would definitely want it on my bookshelf!

Disclosure: I was provided with a copy of this book, FOC, for review purposes.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017


A few days ago we bought a punnet of growing Watercress from a local supermarket. It was very reasonably priced (£1), and provided us with a decent amount of salad material. We are not normally very impressed with the thin weedy stems found in those ready-cut bags of Watercress that are so often the only option; we prefer the big sturdy stalks you can sometimes buy in our Farmers' Markets. This living Watercress seemed like a reasonable compromise. Furthermore, I saw its future potential...

With the punnet of cress nearly finished, I commandeered it to make my own Watercress bed. Many people think that Watercress has to have running water to grow in. Not true. Yes, it will grow better in running water (e.g. the chalk streams of the Meon Valley in Hampshire), but it can manage OK in still water or very wet soil, as long as you top up or change the water fairly frequently.

This is how I made my Watercress bed.

First, find a suitable (watertight) container. I used this slightly damaged black plastic storage-crate, but I'm sure you could easily find something suitable at your Recycling Centre, or even in a nearby skip!

I half-filled it with large stones. This is basically because I wanted to economise on the amount of soil I was going to use.

I covered the stones with a layer of ordinary garden soil about 4 or 5 inches deep.

I added a copious amount of water, making the soil extremely wet - basically mud.

A sprig of Watercress can be successfully rooted in a jar of water in just a few days, but mine already had a mass of roots, and it was only necessary to simply carve it up into suitable chunks.

My chosen container was quite big, so it was easily able to accommodate five of those "chunks".  Planting them was a bit like I imagine planting rice is - just push it into the gloopy mud!

So there you go - I now have an ultra-low-cost Watercress Bed.

I'm hoping the Watercress will soon spread out and take over the whole of that container, allowing us to have our own source of fresh cress just outside the back door. I'll let you know how it goes...