Archive for ◊ March, 2009 ◊

• Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Has anyone watched Toby Buckland investigating the issue of peat-based compost in the special edition of the BBC1 Gardeners’ World programme last Friday? The debate around the necessity for gardeners to use peat based compost was very interesting and has certainly brought to light issues which I personally was not aware of.

In particular, I am amazed that despite the fact that the government is aiming for peat free compost by 2010, it appears that most compost manufacturers do not seem to label the content of their products adequately. In fact only last Sunday I was visiting my friend who was potting some tomato plants in his greenhouse and I casually asked him if it was peat-free. He was adamant that it was because he assumed that peat free was the standard these days.

Category: My English Garden  | Tags:  | 4 Comments
• Sunday, March 29th, 2009

My long border in summer is a vibrant display of flowers, shrubs and textures which attracts butterflies and friends alike. At present it is looking rather plain; the last crocuses have shriveled away and the tulips are just about to bloom. My border is not as wide and large as the magnificent ones which you can see when you visit national gardens like Wisley or Kew, however there is still scope for creativity.

Weeding in my English Garden

Weeding in my English Garden

On this sunny yet chilly day I have started to tidy up the border by trimming back some of the hellebores (also known as Christmas roses) which provided a bit of winter blossom over the last few months. Hopefully this should provide more light to my bulbs and allow them to grow quicker.

I have also finished pruning the roses which are at the back of the border. I found a few slugs as I was weeding that area and promptly disposed of them with my secators.

There is a semi permanent structure to my border in the sense that the rose bushes always form the background colour of the border and a few perennials and bulbs make an appearance when the season is right for them.

Each year I look forward to selecting the flowers which will make up my border throughout the seasons. And that’s probably the most challenging part of the task: finding plants which will contribute to a constant display of flowers from april to september. You can see a picture of my long border in full bloom in the introduction page to my English garden.

There are flowers which I am really fond of, and will include invariably in my borders and it includes: Dahlias, Cosmos, Clarkias, Californian poppies and sweet williams. This year however I shall remove the self seeded sweet Williams and try some new Crinum bulbs, as well as Gallardias which I have not grown for a long time (I have chosen a variety with double flowers called Razzledazzle). The seedlings for most of these plants are still indoors for now and doing well.

One thing you can guarantee with a border like mine is that whatever I plan to do, there is always some unexpected flower, usually of an odd colour, that will crop up amongst the composition. But I guess that’s all part of the magic of gardening…

• Friday, March 27th, 2009

Outdoor sowings can really get started in April and I have already started to sow the following flower seeds in my garden which are annuals:

Clarkia: this elegant cottage flower is one of my favourite annuals. It reminds me of my childhood in the garden when I was as tall as the flowers and enjoyed walking through the flower border.

Otherwise hardy annuals like nasturtium, lavatera, and calendula can also be sown in April. In fact, I noticed this morning that calendulas from last year had self seeded and started to grow near my greenhouse!

I shall probably wait until the next sunny week end to sow more annual flowers. Unfortunately it’s been raining here and it is now cold but soon I shall sow these flowers: Phlox; and Californian Poppies – these are so easy to grow and self seed so you usually benefit from free flowers the following year.

Vegetable seeds to sow outdoors:

Potatoes: now is a good time to start planting your potato tubers. I have already sown some of my potatoes as you can see in my last growing potatoes update but I haven’t sown the Desiree maincrop variety yet.

I have also just sown some carrots (Amsterdam forcing variety), parsnips and Kale (black Tuscany variety) in my raised bed.

• Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Today I had a look at the garlic which I have grown in modules (as per Alys Fowler’s tip in my previous garlic article) and compared it with the garlic directly planted directly in the ground back in winter time.

Garlic in modules

Garlic in modules

As you can see on the picture, the growth of the garlic in modules already looks stronger than the shoots in the ground, and it is now ready to be planted out. Admittedly we did have some cold weather this winter and a lot of rain. I think that the rain and the heavy clay soil were the main factors which constricted the garlic clove and prevented it from growing as well as the module grown garlic.

However, this is just the start. I will need to check out progress over the next months, including in my French garden.
So do watch out for more news on garlic!

Category: Growing Vegetables  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
• Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

This morning I noticed that the lettuce seeds which I had scattered haphazardly in my cold frame only 2 weeks ago have started to germinate. Cold frames are handy if you want to protect small plants from the cold. I also like to use mine to grow early seeds of lettuce or any other crop which needs protection (from rabbits as well as the cold). I usually try to sow lettuce seeds such as the Little Gem variety or mixed salad leaves (Red Salad Bowl) in a row, but since I found an old packet of seeds which I did not expect to germinate I freely sprinkled the seeds and put a little bit of compost on top.

Cold Frame

Cold Frame

I recommend the use of a cold frame as an alternative to a greenhouse if you do not have enough space for a big greenhouse. Each year I replace the soil in my cold frame by adding some compost and some sand to lighten the structure of my clay soil. I can recommend 2 varieties of lettuces for their taste, crunchiness and easiness to grow: Counter (mentioned by skilled gardener Pippa Greenwood) and Batavia Rouge de Grenoble.

Top TipMy top tip: this may sound obvious but you need to remember to water your seeds regularly when they are covered in the cold frame as it can get quite dry. And in summer it’s warm enough to be able to remove the glass frame completely and just use the cold frame as a raised bed.

You can get a ready-to-be-assembled cold frame which is lighter than mine (made of polycarbonate glazing and aluminium frame) and can be delivered to your doorsteps in good time.

• Friday, March 20th, 2009

Beetroot is an easy-to-grow vegetable which I started to grow on my vegetable plot about two years ago. I got some free seeds which were for a variety called Boltardy, which is one of the most used and recommended variety for beetroots. As its name indicates this beetroot variety is resistant to bolting which can happen if we get a hot summer. I have also tried a variety called Cylindra but the results were not so good with smaller size beetroots.

The plants are sensitive to cold weather so it is best waiting until the weather gets warmer in April. Alternatively you can try sowing them into modules and provide shelter if needed (with a cloche for example) – my neighbour tried this successfully last year and I intend to do the same this year.

Otherwise you can sow them directly in the ground, just draw a line in the ground with a stick at a depth of 2 cm (0.75in) and drop a seed every 10 cm. My personal experience is that they tend to prefer soil which is not too compact to get the seeds going; but otherwise beetroots are fairly low maintenance.

It’s best to pick the roots when they are young and, as with all the vegetables that I cook from the garden, I try to pick them just before cooking to keep them fresh and benefit from all the nutrients within.

Beetroots are normally harvested in June/July. I am not so keen on pickled beetroot but I enjoy them roasted in the oven as I find that the mineral sweet taste is enhanced during cooking.

Packed with goodness, beetroots are said to help reduce blood pressure, and are also used as a natural die in a wide range of food. So it’s well worth giving it a try.

Top TipMy top tip: try them roasted, it’s so easy and tastes great with your Sunday roast.

• Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This week I have started to get the greenhouse ready for the arrival of my new seedlings next month. I grow a lot of tomatoes in the greenhouse and invariably it becomes a jungle every year, and things start to deteriorate towards autumn when blight may start to affect the plants. So it is important to disinfect the green house each year to avoid getting any diseases on the new tomato plants.

Spring Clean in the greenhouse

Spring Clean in the greenhouse

I have now finished washing the inside glass panels of the greenhouse with some disinfectant fluid (personally I use Jeyes for disinfecting purposes). I have also removed any remaining white power shading which obscures the outside of the glass panels.

During the winter time I use my greenhouse to provide shelter for plants which are tender such as my palm tree (Trachycarpus Fortunei), which is quite small and needs protection from the frost. It also includes my autumn-sown sweet peas as well as a cactus which I have brought back from France (it is commonly called a ‘rat tail’ cactus down there but I don’t know its proper latin name). I have also sown some peas (Twinkle early variety), lettuce and broad beans in modules which are also located in the greenhouse at present. I did sow some broad beans directly in the ground back in autumn but the snow and cold windy weather had the better of half of my beans, hence the new sowing of broad beans in modules to replace the ones which I have lost over winter.

On a sunny day like this, it feels good to be working in the greenhouse in preparation for the bountiful harvests to come in July. I have left the window and doors open to let the fresh air come in the disinfectant-smelling green house.

It is now ready to be insulated by using bubble wrap which I usually stick to the top of the window panels to prevent the frost from affecting my new tender plants. I will soon need to start transferring my plant seedlings from the window sill to the greenhouse, where I have also brought a high shelf back from my shed . The bubble wrap insulation does not look great but it is an essential task since I will want to acclimatize plants to the outdoor conditions as soon as possible. I have also sown some new seeds for flowers which I will also move in the greenhouse as soon as any risk of frost as gone, such as: cosmos, geraniums, camomille lawn, and gallardias.

As I start moving my plants in the greenhouse I imagine the seasons to come and I look forward to glorious days in the garden.

• Saturday, March 14th, 2009

You know things are bad in the garden when your neighbour starts enquiring to your other half about why you are growing bottles in the garden. I guess that, to this traditional neighbourhood, the idea of using cloches to protect plants and help them grow quicker may seem a bit faddy. And if you don’t have any cloche, what better way to do the job than to create some with 5 litre water bottles?

Forcing Rhubarb

Forcing Rhubarb

Gardening magazines often come up with list of things that you can do easily in your garden if you have a few minutes spare, but admittedly I’ve never read about forcing rhubarb with empty cartons of Bordeaux wine. Usually a black pastic container or a clay rhubarb forcer is advisable to force rhubarb effectively but I didn’t have any. So I improvised with my carton which I secured to the ground with stone and also by digging the edges in and then added some straw on top. I was a bit concerned about the rain but the card box did resist well as you can see on the picture above and once the rhubarb has been forced and harvested I can just recycle my card box and straw straight into the compost bin.

Necessity is the mother of invention and it doesn’t come any better than recycling your old boxes.

• Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Following my last post on potatoes, I have now started to plant some of my seeds. On Saturday morning I was watching the news on BBC1 and there was a special gardening interview with the Blue Peter gardener saying that potato varieties such as Rocket grow very quickly (one of the earliest varieties) which prompted me to go ahead and plant my spuds.

It is a bit early in my opinion since we still run a chance of having some frost which will hinder growth but looking at last year’s potato planting date it was actually 3rd March when I planted my tubers (of a different variety called Lady Christl) and I remember that we had some snow for Easter but my potatoes did grow fine and the harvest was good.

At the moment I am also chitting a potato called Ratte, which is a French variety I believe and is said to have a great flavour. For maincrop I am reverting back to the desiree variety since it is one of the best potatoes I have even grown and it is disease resistant. I will plant these later this month if the weather allows it.

Over the last 4 years I have tried quite a few varieties and so far these are my favourites:
Early potato variety: Accent – tastes great as a roasted potato! Good cropper too.
Maincrop variety: Desiree – a delicious red skin potato of versatile use.

I have tried other varieties such Maris piper, Lady Christl, and Sante – a maincrop potato variety which is particularly resistant to diseases such as blight, but I am not so keen on these. May be my plot is not so suitable to these types. There are so many varieties of potatoes available for so many uses (chips, new potatoes, salad, baked…) that surely there is one to everyone’s tastes.

Top TipMy top tip: I personally like to include some grass cutting and newspaper in the trench where I am planting my potato seeds. I remember reading that doing so helps retain moisture in the soil which potatoes need to grow well. This year I have not yet been able to cut the lawn but I have some compost which is a bit rough so I shall incorporate some of this as well as some chicken manure pellet fertilizer when I plant my potatoes.

See my earlier posts on growing potatoes and chitting potatoes.

• Saturday, March 07th, 2009

You know the saying but what if you could have your own supply of home-grown Fresh organic apples?

Apple Tree

Apple Tree

Two years ago we planted two apples trees in our garden. Since we regularly eat apples in all forms (lunch box fruit, crumbles, apple sauce, tarts,…) it made sense to give it a go (did I mention cider?). And it’s not too late to plant a tree now; in fact the dormant period is probably the best time to do so.

This country used to be a major grower of apples of all sorts but due to many reasons (cheaper exports, supermarkets demands…) we now mainly ship in standard varieties from abroad.

And yet there are so many delicious different varieties to choose from. Personally I would recommend that you make sure that you plant a local variety of apple tree. Not only because it has more chances of growing well in its local environment but also it’s part of our heritage and the chances are that your local varieties will include anything but the standard bland tasting supermarket apples.