Saturday 31 March 2012

Herbs resurgent

Since we had a generally mild Winter this time, most of my herbs have survived and are now experiencing a burst of new growth. It is sometimes surprising how resilient some of the so-called Mediterranean plants cope with cold conditions.

I had thought that Greek Oregano might perhaps not take kindly to Winter conditions in the UK, but it has positively thrived on them! In 2010 I grew several plants of Greek Oregano from seed (aren't the seeds TINY?) and they have all done really well. I have four pots of the stuff now, as well as a few plants in the open soil (grown from seedlings I could not bear to destroy once I had filled the pots). Although I like Greek Oregano, this is probably more than I really need. However the bees and butterflies love it so I'll keep it all.

This year I have not re-potted the Greek Oregano plants, I have simply topped-up their compost.

This one is growing in open soil - and doing very well by the look of it.

I really love Oregano. It has such a warm flavour. I like Oregano in meat sauces for with pasta; I like olives steeped in Oregano-flavoured oil; I like Mozarella cheese smothered in chopped Oregano; I like Oregano any way it comes!

Mozzarella cheese marinating in olive oil with fresh Oregano

Lemon Balm (Melissa) is another one of those herbs that will survive pretty much anything you throw at it. I keep finding new self-seeded plants all over the garden. It's not a herb we use for culinary purposes (although you can), but I grow it because the insects like it. When it is mature, the plants are rather dull and straggly, with indivdually-insignificant flowers, but the young plants have deeply-serrated glossy green leaves with a rather appealing wrinkled texture. After the plants finish flowering in late Summer I cut down the main stalks. The following March or April they spring back into life once more, with luxuriant green growth soon hiding the woody brown remains of last year's flower stems.

Down at the bottom of the garden I have a couple of Bronze Fennel plants that have lived for many years now. They die right back in the Winter, with only a few hollow dry stalks and raggedy yellow leaves remaining, but at this time of year they begin all over again.

Here's a close-up of a new "bottle-brush"-shaped Fennel frond (seen also in the pic above, at bottom left):

This type of Fennel is essentially ornamental. It doesn't produce swollen stems or "bulbs" like the Florence Fennel and I don't pick the leaves either, although they are edible. I sometimes harvest some of the seeds in the Autumn.

My two oldest potted Sage plants were replaced a couple of weeks ago with younger plants grown from cuttings taken the previous year, which are a lot more vigorous. I find that Sage is comparitively short-lived and is best replaced every three years or so. Having said that, I do have one really ancient Sage plant that is inextricably entwined in the branches of a Philadelphus tree. It must be about 20 years old because I think I planted it not long after we moved into this house in 1991.

With the exception of the one plant in a pot that was killed by the frost, my Rosemary bushes are looking strong. This is an arty photo taken in the late afternoon, attempting to capture contrasts between light and shade, and there are some Rosemary bushes highlighted in a narrow shaft of sunlight.

And here's a Thyme plant in similar conditions, with a few of the top spikes catching the last of the evening sun:

The Chives have already been cropped a bit, but they grow very rapidly, and I have four pots like this, which is plenty to keep the kitchen well-supplied.

The gravel is to suppress the growth of moss, whilst conserving moisture. Chives enjoy damp soil.

Likewise Mint thrives in damp conditions. I have four pots of this too. It's Moroccan Mint -very tasty; just what you need for a nice Tabbouleh.

Finally, the Winter Savory. It performs much like Rosemary or Hyssop, being hardy enough to survive the Winter conditions. You can see the little tufts of bright green new leaves appearing at the end of each stem:

As you will have gathered, we are very fond of fresh herbs for culinary use. They are good things to grow if space is limited because a little bit goes a long way, and they are always expensive to buy. So they have an excellent VSR.

Friday 30 March 2012

End of March update

March and April are probably the busiest months in the garden for me. I have been sowing and planting loads of things... Here's a quick tour of the Plot:-

At first sight the plot looks pretty bare still. In the foreground here you can see my lettuces. The cloches have come off them now, their job done. We have had a lot of bright sunny weather recently, with daytime temperatures up to about 20C, so I didn't want the lettuces to overheat. Beyond the lettuces is my little patch of Perpetual Spinach and Chard. In the bed to the right is the Purple Sprouting Broccoli - not much of it this year, what what there is is still good enough to justify growing this crop.

In the distance you can see my patio, cluttered now with mini-greenhouses acting as my "Nursery". The cloches at the left of this picture (below) are protecting sowings of beetroot and parsnips. In the middle bed on the left is the asparagus, just beginning to produce its first exploratory spears. Covered by the netting draped over hoops is the bed containing shallots and garlic. At the right, beyond the water-butt you can just make out a sloping plastic cloche affair that is housing the first of my potatoes. Out of sight to the right is the sixth raised bed, in which I have the Broad Beans and peas.

Here is the "potato-house" in close-up. As usual, I am growing my potatoes in containers. I use large flower-pots and some things originally intended as florists' buckets, in which I have drilled some drainage holes. My cover is big enough to hold 9 of these. In my photo is it open so that you can see inside, but it is usually closed with a zip-up lid. I intend to plant some more potatoes (probably next weekend) but my first 9 are 3 each of Charlotte, Anya and Belle de Fontenay. In due course I will also have some Pink Fir Apple, some Juliette and some International Kidney. I'll probably end up with about 20 or 25 containers devoted to spuds (constrained mainly by lack of space!).

Moving on to the "Nursery" you can see that my garden table is being used to house several trays of seedlings - mostly tomatoes, chillis and sweet corn.  These are gradually being "hardened off" or accustomed to outdoor conditions, by living outside during the day and being brought in at night time. If there is a strong wind, or rain (unlikely at present!) they get moved to the top shelves of the mini-greenhouses. In a week or two when the seedlings are stronger I will leave them overnight in the mini-greenhouses and move them out to the table during the day. It's important that you carry out this hardening-off procedure in stages, not all at once, otherwise the young plants with die or not develop well.

Here are the mini-greenhouses. They are quite lightweight so I have anchored them down with a couple of bricks each. In the photo, two of them are playing host to my ex-Majestic Wines wooden boxes, one with mixed baby salad and one with radishes. The third one is holding pots of brassica seedlings.

At the end of the patio furthest from the house stands a huge tub in which I am growing a single "Red Arrow" PSB plant, which is very nearly ready for cropping now. If you are going to try growing PSB in a container, let me advise you that it needs to be a BIG one, because this plant grows huge (maybe 5 feet tall?) if you let it. It will not do well in a small container.

Over in a corner, near the brick wall that divides our property from the public road, is the partner of the PSB tub, made from the other half of a second-hand water-butt (Thanks, Rosemary!). This half is bottomless and is therefore just a very deep ring. In it I have sown some seeds of the Climbing French Bean "Cobra", one of my favourite and most reliable performers. At present I have a cloche over the seeds to provide some extra warmth. Later on, when the seedlings germinate and grow to a few inches tall I will remove the cloche and put in some canes for the beans to climb up. Cobra is a very vigorous variety and grows very tall, so I'll probably be using 7-foot canes.

I have one final thing to show you today. When I cut down the huge Dogwood bushes the other day I found a couple of tiny Crocosmia leaves poking through the soil. I had a patch of Crocosmia here several years ago, and I thought they had died out, starved of light by the massive Dogwoods, but evidently not. They will no doubt be making the most of the opportunity to re-establish. I might actually dig them up later in the year and move them to somewhere more sensible.

Thursday 29 March 2012


The emergence each Spring of the first Rhubarb leaves is always a happy moment for me. They initially push through the surface of the soil encased in a streamlined papery casing, which bursts apart to allow the deeply-wrinkled, tightly-folded leaves to unfurl.

Looks almost like a brain, doesn't it?

I find this process fascinating, so I'll probably be posting more photos of it over the next week or two!

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Spring is sprung; the grass is ris'...

We have had some very warm (and dry) weather recently - more like May than March - and the plants have developed very rapidly. Things are popping out of the ground all over the place. Best of all, the Asparagus has produced its first tentative spear! The Asparagus usually puts up one or two spears very early on, as if doing a reconnaissance, checking out what the weather is like up above, before it goes into quantity production. [Note: In the old days Asparagus was often referred to as "Sparrow Grass", and this is the only grass I have in my garden. No lawns to maintain any more. Phew!]

These look a little bit like Asparagus, but they are actually Lily of the Valley (Convallaria Majalis).

The Shallots and Garlic are all showing plenty of green growth.

The first of the Broad Beans and Peas are also through now.

This is a close-up of a Pea seedling. I think you can tell that it is one of the Purple Podded Desiree ones.

Along the side fence the Raspberry plants (Autumn Bliss) are already much in evidence

I have had a 100% germination success rate with my brassicas. In these three pots I sowed 7 seeds each of Brussels Sprouts (Brilliant), Red Cabbage (Primero) and Summer Cabbage (Golden Acre).

I will grow them in those pots until they are about 5 or 6 inches tall, with at least a couple of proper leaves, before planting them out into the open soil. That way I can protect them better from both weather and pests.

Notice that I meticulously labelled the pots. This is important because brassica seedlings all look very similar in the early stages and if you didn't label them you could easily end up planting a great tall Brussels Sprout where you wanted a short compact Cabbage to grow.

Meanwhile, the Beetroot seeds sown under cloches have germinated well. The seeds come in little clusters and this means that they often need thinning out to give the roots enough space to develop into a decent size. I'll do this in a week or so, when they have got big enough to be able to withstand the disturbance this is bound to create.

No sign of the Parsnips in the next-door cloche yet, but that is not surprising. Parsnips are well known for taking a long time to germinate. I usually lose faith and sow another batch, only to find that the first lot comes up as well! Patience is certainly a desirable virtue where gardening is concerned...

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Tomato pots

For my Birthday, my Mother-in-law (advised by her daughter / my wife) bought me some really great containers for growing Tomato plants. They are made by the leading garden supplies company Stewarts

These ones are officially called "Balconnieres"  but we normally call them "Planters" or simply "Tubs".

A big rectangular container:

That sits in a "saucer"

Put the two together...

The tub has a perforated base that separates the compost from a water reservoir below

The reservoir is filled / topped-up by means of a tube that protrudes above the surface of the compost. Any excess water drains into the saucer via two overflow pipes.

The large regular shape of this container lends itself to the use of my cane-support brackets:-

This set-up will make it much easier to maintain a consistent level of moisture in the compost. The fluctuation between too-dry and too-wet can promote disease in Tomato plants (such as Blossom End Rot), and increase the likelihood of the fruit cracking.

I can hardly wait to get planting now - although my tomatoes are only a couple of inches tall at present and it will be several weeks before they are ready for planting-out.