Sunday 30 June 2019


Not long ago I was complaining about the weather being cold, wet and windy; now it's too hot! In common with most of Europe we in the UK have experienced record-breaking temperatures over the last few days, though thankfully it has not been as bad here as in parts of France and Spain. We've had 30s; they've had 40s (C). Also, in typical British Isles fashion, our hot spell has only lasted two days, whereas I suspect that if you live in Southern Spain you have to be prepared to suffer for several more weeks.

Of course a lot of damage can be done to a garden even in three days of scorching heat, especially if your plants have recently been enduring temperatures at the opposite extreme. After getting back on Thursday afternoon from our little trip to Dorset one of my first jobs was to put back in place all the pot-saucers which I had only removed a few days earlier because the plants were in danger of getting waterlogged!

These very simple devices can literally be life-savers for pot-plants. Often, when you water a pot much of the water simply runs through the soil and out of the bottom of the pot, so the benefit is largely lost. This effect is most marked when the soil in a pot is already baked hard and dry, causing it to shrink and to lose its ability to retain moisture. When you put a saucer under the pot more of the water is retained and made available for the plant to absorb over a long period of time. These very droopy Brussels Sprout seedlings, for instance, would be in dire straits without their saucers.

If you don't have any purpose-made pot-saucers you can always improvise. Here, small pots of PSB are stood in a deep seed-tray which is periodically filled with water to a depth of a couple of centimetres. An old washing-up bowl works well too!

A large gravel-tray is in use here with a big terracotta planter:

I have been using my hosepipe to water the raised beds, borders and other plants not in pots. Using a watering-can to do the task would take ages! I like to do my watering at the end of the day if possible, so that my plants have a long spell of relative coolness to absorb their drink, but I have to admit that when the weather is very hot and sunny I do occasionally have to do some of what I call "First Aid Watering" in the middle of the day too. The soil here is very sandy and even with the addition of loads of homemade compost over the years it still drains incredibly rapidly.

I suppose that in the foreseeable future climate Change is only going to intensify, and we must expect to get more extreme weather events, and more unpredictable weather. This being so, I think gardeners are going to be looking for plants that are more robust and especially ones that will withstand hot dry conditions (and cold, wet ones too I suppose!). This Cordyline of mine might be an example of this.

I wouldn't say it's particularly beautiful (other more colourful varieties are available), but it was free - it's a "volunteer". In other words it just arrived in my garden uninvited. [Actually there are two, but one is very small and not visible in that photo.] Furthermore, it has survived for several years with practically no attention. It endures the cold of Winter without visible discomfort, and even in the hottest part of Summer I seldom water it. A classic low-maintenance, robust plant, I'd say.

Friday 28 June 2019

A holiday in Hardy country

We have just been away for a short break in "Hardy country" - southern Dorset. This is not an area we know well, but I must say it's beautiful countryside. At first we had been worried that our trip would be marred by bad weather (rain seems to follow us wherever we go on holiday!), but we were really lucky this time.

Our outing began with a visit to the birthplace of the famous author Thomas Hardy, who wrote such classics as "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Under the Greenwood Tree". Although neither of us could claim to be big Hardy fans, Jane and I have both read several of his novels. I remember having to study "Jude the Obscure" at school, and I don't think I was thrilled by it at the time - perhaps a bit serious for a young teenager? Anyway, we were more interested in the social history aspects of the site, like seeing the small and rather austere but at the same time homely surroundings in which Hardy was born and raised. The family property - house, "granny flat" and garden, seemed so evocative of the archetypical English cottage.

Hardy's birthplace, near Dorchester
In order to reach the cottage, you have to walk through a piece of ancient woodland, which was also of great interest to me with my love of fungi-hunting. This rather battered Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) was one of the specimens we saw.

After visiting the Hardy cottage, we drove on to our hotel, which was at West Bexington, between Bridport and Weymouth. The little village is built on either side of a steep road that runs inland from the big shingle bank called Chesil Beach. This feature runs from West Bay, near Bridport to Portland Bill, a distance of some 29 kilometres. In places the shingle bank is nearly 50 metres high. That's a lot of shingle! Along the coast road there are many places where you can stop and admire the beautiful scenery. This next photo shows the shingle bank protecting a lagoon called the Fleet, and the isle of Portland in the distance. The lagoon only has one entrance from the sea, at the Portland end. Freshwater streams from the landward side mix with the salty seawater to make "brackish" (partially salty) water, and the lagoon has become a favourite stopover point for many types of migratory birds, particularly seabirds and waders.

Even from our hotel room we were able to see the sea, and a small patch of the famous shingle. Who remembers Fawlty Towers and the view (or not) of the enormous herd of wildebeeste?

We had chosen to stay in West Bexington primarily because it is situated close to the Abbotsbury sub-tropical gardens, which were the main objective for our visit.

The gardens, which cover approximately 8 hectares / 20 acres, are located in a sheltered hollow just inland from Chesil Beach and in the lee of hills in all directions, giving it a very benign microclimate ideal for growing plants that would be unlikely to thrive elsewhere in Britain. If you are a keen gardener, this is a place that could hold your interest for many days! The sheer diversity of plant types is amazing. I would say that I only recognised about 20% of them. The garden is criss-crossed with dozens of winding paths, and around every corner is another carefully arranged vista.

I was particularly interested to see how full use had been made of Nature in all its forms - for instance this 200 year old Oak tree which came down in a storm in the year 2010 has been left in situ and carved into the shape of animals and birds, like this:

Tally Ho!

I also liked the Burma Jungle Rope-bridge. It reminded me of some of the bridges I had encountered in Nepal during my Army days (though it was in much better shape than they were!)

After visiting the gardens we moved on to the nearby Abbotsbury Swannery. To be honest, we hadn't expected to be very interested by the Swannery, but it turned out to be a really amazing experience. It is located on the landward side of the Fleet lagoon (see above), and only a few hundred yards from the sub-tropical gardens (as the crow flies...) The site is a sanctuary and breeding colony, not a zoo, and all the swans are free to fly off whenever they like - though I suspect the fact that they are fed twice a days means that few of them do! We had expected to see maybe a few dozen swans, but actually there are now between 700 and 800 of them, as well as many many geese, ducks, moorhens, coots etc!

All of this year's swan eggs had hatched, but there were loads of cygnets to see.

Although the Swannery is primarily a place to see swans, it has lots more to offer: extensive reed-beds which provide habitat for many different types of bird and small mammal, a fully functioning duck-decoy (used these days for capturing then ringing ducks), hides for bird-watching, a maze, pedal go-karts for the kids, etc, and all fully interpreted via information boards and displays. A really good attraction!

On Day 3 of our outing, we came home via the town of Weymouth and spent a couple of hours at the historic Nothe Fort, learning about its role in protecting the former Naval Base at Portland.

Interior view of Nothe Fort

This huge, solidly built edifice was initially constructed during Victorian times and progressively updated, particularly in terms of its armament, the last of which was only decommissioned in 1956.

For a military history enthusiast like myself, this is a fascinating place. Quite apart from the building and some representative pieces of its former armament, the site has extensive displays of military equipment and some fabulous "dioramas" featuring scale models and figures which depict episodes in the history of Weymouth from Roman times to the Second World War.

3.7" anti-aircraft gun, one of 4 which were sited just outside the fort during WW2.

From the fort you can look South towards Portland, with superb views of the breakwaters, jetties and other defences of the former naval base ("Portland Roads") , while to the North you can see the town of Weymouth with its long Esplanade and beach. North-East of the town you can just make out the Osmington white horse figure carved on the limestone hillside.

Osmington White Horse

This figure, carved in 1808, represents King George III, who was a frequent visitor to Weymouth.

Weymouth was the last stop on our trip, after which we headed home. We had a great time - we saw lots of interesting plants, fungi and wildlife, learned some history, chilled out in the sunshine (miraculously it didn't rain!) and drank some very nice wine. An undemanding and very enjoyable short break, within easy reach of home: job done!

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Keeping things ticking over

Nothing momentous is happening in my garden at present - I'm just keeping it ticking over. In great contrast to last year, June has been a cold wet month, so some things have thrived, and others haven't. The cucumbers I planted out at the end of May (2 x Marketmore and 2 x Delikate B) have really suffered. One of the Marketmores has died completely, and the other three plants are barely hanging on. Fortunately I have had four late-sown "Vorgebirgstrauben" cucumbers sheltering in my coldframe, and having been protected from the weather they are looking OK. A couple of days ago I planted 3 of them in a big 35L pot recently vacated by some potatoes. The other is being retained as the FINAL spare!


My garlic is only a couple of weeks away from harvest now. On Friday I cut off the scapes and cooked them. Just in case you don't know what garlic scapes are, they are the flower-stems of the plant. If you let flowers form they divert energy from the bulbs, so it is customary to cut them off soon after they appear.

Being a garlic-growing novice I think I may have picked my scapes too soon - but I was keen to avoid weakening the bulbs which I'm hoping are down there out of sight below the level of the soil.

With only 19 garlic plants to play with, the scapes were never going to make a big feast, but I chopped them up and used them to add colour and mild flavouring to a dish I made with pork tenderloin and foraged Chanterelle mushrooms. They were nice enough but not "Wow!", whereas the mushrooms were excellent.

This past week I harvested two more pots of "Foremost" potatoes, in the same way as I have recently described (so no photos this time). The yield was similar too  - 2.3kgs from the two pots. Interestingly, the tubers from one pot had quite a lot of scab, while those from the other were lovely and clean. They say that scab is caused / exacerbated by lack of organic material in the growing-medium, but both these pots were filled with exactly the same medium.

With pots becoming vacant now, I decided to plant the two tubers that I had had left over when I planted my other potatoes earlier in the year. They had gone very wrinkly, but they had some amazing chits (shoots) on them!

I'm hoping that they will provide me with a small harvest in about mid-September, when all the other spuds will be long gone.

I'm keeping a close watch on my Blueberry plants, because the fruit is beginning to swell now. I know that it's far from being ripe still, but I also know that Blackbirds are impatient creatures and will be lining up to steal them as soon as they become vaguely digestible. I have to judge the right moment to deploy the netting...!

A few weeks ago I bought a couple of gravel-trays from my local branch of Wilko's, with the intention of using them to move little pots of seedlings around the garden. Well, they have done that task now and I have moved them on to a new role - water reservoir. I have filled them to a depth of a centimetre or so with water, and stood two big pots of Mint in each:

Mint is a thirsty plant, and to keep it in good condition when grown in a pot requires frequent watering. This method provides the plants with a steady water supply for several days, and you only need to top up the water about once a week. This would be a good trick to apply to other potted plants if you are planning to be away from home for a few days, though perhaps not for too long. Mint doesn't mind having its roots wet, but other plants might not be so forgiving.

Sunday 23 June 2019

Late-planted tomatoes

I've rescued some more tiny tomato plants, self-seeded in the shingle outside my kitchen window, where last year I grew "Maskotka" and "Montello" plants.

Having potted them up, I'm keeping them indoors for the time being, because of the continuing bad weather. Although small, they look to be nice plants.

I'd normally say that it is far too late to plant out tomato plants, but recent experience suggests that this may not be so. Last year the transition from Autumn to Winter was very late, and I picked my last ripe tomatoes in November, so these plants probably have at least 3, maybe 4 months in which to do their thing.

Furthermore, last year I saved some little plants exactly like this (from the same source) and kept them indoors over the Winter. They went very straggly because of the low light levels, but once they were potted-up in April and began to get some fresh air and sunshine they started to recover their vigour.

Over-Wintered tomato plants immediately after potting-up, 21st April

Just look at them now - they are the three at the Right in the photo below (taken on Thursday). The other one is a new-season "Montello".

These plants are in the same place as last year's ones - below our kitchen window. It faces South-West, which is ideal for tomatoes as it gets all the afternoon and evening sun. The plants also help to disguise the ugly pipe-work, drain covers and electricity meter-box!

One of these plants produced just two fruit several weeks ago (no photo of them at ripe stage, though we definitely did eat them), so I know from the shape of the fruit that it was a "Maskotka" plant. The other type I grew in this location, "Montello", has plum-shaped fruits.

Early fruits on over-Wintered "Maskotka"
I'm not sure which variety the other two plants are - they could be either, and I'll probably only know when they set fruit. One of them is quite tall, so possibly a "Montello".

The other is much more compact, so more likely to be a "Maskotka".

I don't really mind which type these turn out to be, because I like both. I have to say that whilst "Maskotka" is a long-time favourite and has excellently-flavoured fruit, it was out-performed by "Montello" last year, in terms of quantity of fruit produced.

Just in case anyone else should be persuaded to try something similar, I suppose I should point out that late-planted tomatoes will be much more likely to get Blight. In my part of the world Blight is most likely to appear in August or early September - though of course a lot depends on the weather. One of the attractions of small, bush-type tomato plants like the ones I have been writing about is that they are usually early croppers, so you can hopefully get a harvest before the Blight appears.

Friday 21 June 2019

Well at least I don't have to do much watering!

June is turning out to be a really dismal month. There has been a lot more rain, and it's still cold and gloomy. Well, thinking positively, it means I have not had to do much watering! So very different to the conditions in June 2018.

Despite the weather I've managed to harvest a few things, like these "Lady Christl" potatoes.

I got 1.25kgs from 2 seed-tubers in a 35L pot.

...and these Broad Beans, my first little batch of them (250g) for this year, picked as a tester to see how big the beans were (small, but lovely and tender because of that!). I think I need to leave them a few more days before picking any more.

This variety is "Witkiem Manita", a good reliable one that I have grown many times. It produces medium-sized pods with about 4 or 5 beans in each.

I also had a small picking of Rhubarb. Until recently my Rhubarb has performed very modestly, but the removal of my neighbour's big conifer tree has given it more light so I'm hoping it will do better in future.

It will be a while before I'm picking ripe tomatoes though. The first fruits are just beginning to form on "Maskotka", which is usually the earliest.

Waiting in the wings I have these, which are mostly brassicas - Brussels Sprouts and Purple Sprouting Broccoli.

Sunflowers at Left Rear

I've grown the brassicas in small pots rather than sowing directly, because they are intended to go in the raised bed where the Broad Beans are currently growing. If I left it until after the beans have finished it would be too late to start off the brassicas in situ.

In one of those trays is also this:-

It's a Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff", self-seeded in the pot where its parent is growing. I think it might be a bit late to expect it to flower this year, but I'll nurture it and hope to be able to keep it until next year. I like unexpected surprises like this!

Wednesday 19 June 2019


The Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), aka the Girolle, is one of the best and most sought-after wild mushrooms. A couple of days ago I was lucky enough to find some.

Finding wild mushrooms is often a matter of luck, or timing. Knowing what type of habitat they grow in, and what time of the year they appear is only part of the story - particularly since Climate Change has prompted many fungi to fruit at unusual times. The fruit-bodies of some fungi have very short lifetimes, often just a couple of days, so finding them depends on you being there at the right time. The ones I found yesterday were in a place I have visited many times before, and I have only ever found literally one or two Chanterelles there. This time there were loads of them, although most of them were very small. The tiny yellow dots in this next photo are baby Chanterelles. At this stage they are sometimes described as "pins".

I think I have mentioned before that the woods round here are full of deer, and I think they must be quite fond of fungi. These ones definitely look as if they have been browsed by deer:

Significantly, most of the Chanterelles that I found were concealed in all sorts of nooks and crannies, under fallen branches and in amongst tree roots, making them less visible and less accessible.

The place where I found these fungi was a damp patch of woodland, consisting mainly of Birch trees, with some Pine and some young Oaks. The mushrooms seem to like moisture because many of them were along the banks of the drainage ditches and in boggy depressions in the woodland floor.

The Chanterelle is a very distinctive mushroom, and one which is very safe to eat because it has no toxic lookalikes. The key features are:-
Bright yellow cap colour - often described as egg-yolk yellow.
Cap shape is very variable, though generally roughly circular when young, often with frilled margins when mature.
The stipes (stems) are white inside, and often on the outside too.
The undersides of the caps have wrinkly veins (not true gills) that are "decurrent" - that's to say they run down the stems a little way.
They have a fruity smell, sometimes described as being like that of apricots.
Young specimens are often very squat and "chunky", whereas older specimens usually develop longer stipes.

Young Chanterelle

Mature Chanterelle

Chanterelles are a great culinary delicacy, especially when fresh, so when cooking them it seems best to do as little to them as possible. Mine were cooked within 5 hours of being picked. After careful preparation to remove any forest debris, I washed them briefly immediately before cooking so that they didn't have time to go squishy. I cooked them in a dry frying-pan because they produce lots of their own moisture, though this is quickly re-absorbed once they begin to cook.

Lots of moisture comes out of the mushrooms when they hit the hot pan.

After frying the mushrooms for about 5 minutes I added a knob of butter to the pan, let it melt and then sprinkled on a handful of chopped Chives from the garden. Finally, the mushrooms were decanted onto pieces of toast and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. These were served as a Starter before our main dinner meal.

Since there were many tiny mushrooms in the place where I found these ones, I think another visit in a few days' time will be worthwhile!