Garden Tidy Up

I struggle with motivation to go out and do anything in the garden in January – it seems to be dark almost continuously and (this year excepted) raining.  However, as February arrives there is the merest hint of Spring – heralded by the slowly emerging snowdrops.  These are bulbs I have unsuccessfully tried growing for years – the breakthrough came when we were given several clumps by my mother-in-law and most of these seem to have taken.  However, just as these start to show their first white flower buds, a small group that I planted a long time ago in with a camellia that lives near the house is already in full flower (as shown in the photo).

These encourage me to go into the garden, have a general tidy up and see what is about.  I am pleased to say that the garlic that I planted in the front and the back garden is starting to grow, although it is easier to spot in the back garden raised bed than hidden amongst the tulip and allium bulbs that are starting to show in the front garden.  (Maybe one day I will be organised enough to mark where they are when I plant them.)  The hellebores are the main providers of spring growth at the moment, but, somewhat belatedly, I have taken away most of their leaves, as recommended by both Monty Don and Carol Klein.  This has left the earth looking somewhat bare, but did uncover some anemone blanda that I planted some time ago as well as the first signs of growth of the aquilegia.

Elsewhere in the garden we have some winter scent from the sarcococca confusa that we have planted and colour from a winter jasmine and viburnum bodnatense dawn.

In the front garden we have trimmed down all of the grasses, moved some of the zebra grass and pruned the white bramble that we have as a centre piece.  In doing so, we uncovered about a dozen hibernating ladybirds – if they survive for another month or so we should have no trouble with greenfly this year!

The home produce has hit a bit of a hiatus, although the rhubarb is starting to come up and we have lots of shoots on the blackcurrant.  I have all my seeds ready for planting in the next couple of months, although I will mainly be concentrating on beans, courgettes, chillis and salad leaves in the hope of getting some good yields throughout the year (although the aubergine is an experiment probably doomed to failure).  If successful I will move on and add one or more new types of produce next year.

I am trying seeds from the Real Seed Company this year.  I am hopeful that as they are all seeds grown on their farm in Wales there may be a better chance that they will grow here in Northamptonshire.  They also encourage seed saving and send instructions with the seeds.

It is also noticeable how many herbs have survived the Winter – I have lots of oregano, some sage, wild basil, rosemary, and burnet all looking healthy so far (and I have some hopes for the fennel that has been in for the last two years and is much beloved of hoverflies).  The chives are also starting to show bright green shoots amongst the darker spots of the garden.  Next year I will be adding borage (for bees) and sorrel (for soups) to the mix as well as more thymes and lavender (also for the bees).

Sweet Chilli Success.

For the last few years I have been trying, and failing, to grow and ripen chillis.  The last two summers have been a complete wash out apart from a Prairie Fire plant that we kept as a pot plant that produced tiny weeny chillis.  Even the summer of 2006 with all its sunshiny glory and bees and butterflies didn’t produce anything but some green chillis that were eaten by slugs.

This was to be the final year…look what happened.

Red chilli - Heatwave
Red chilli - Heatwave

The secret of my success is a tip that I picked up from the Alternative Kitchen Garden Podcast.  Last year I had a couple of runty Heatwave chilli plants that I planted a little late and which did not grow.  I potted them on and kept them in the house (much to James’s chagrin as we also had to find a home for some gerberas that I had grown) over Winter.  Nothing much happened until the days lengthened in March when they put on a bit of a growth spurt.  Flowers started to come in May at which point we put them outside.  Chillis started to grow sometime in June, and there are loads of them.  This is the first one to ripen, but there are some more that are just showing the signs.  Once they start they seem to take only a week or so to become completely red.

No salad days just yet.

I thought I would put up a quick note about how the garden produce is going so far.

The rhubarb and blackcurrant are settling in well, although there has been a brutal aphid attack on the blackcurrant necessitating a bit of prunage.  I think we should get something out of both of these this year.  The gooseberry has been moved to the front of the house to try and loosen the grip of the sawfly.  This is the last chance saloon, but it appears to be OK at the moment even though it only has one berry.  The blackberry (Oregon Thornless) is also growing really well.

The seeds that I have sown in the last month are doing well.  Five out of six courgettes have germinated, which is fine as I don’t need any more (I am trying Partenon again, and it was my one remaining seed of Black Beauty that did not germinate).  My first salad leaves are growing well, I am hoping to make regular sowings and grow just enough for sandwiches or salad for lunch.  The beans and sweetcorn are also growing away nicely, although I don’t have any plans to plant these out for another month (as suggested by Monty Don).  I have included a few pictures of my most photogenic crops below, this is partly a reminder to myself of how they looked before the slugs found them!

Salad Leaf Seedlings
Salad Leaf Seedlings
Golden Neckar French Bean
Golden Neckar French Bean
Partenon Courgette
Partenon Courgette

On the negative side, my tomatoes are progressing very slowly, although they have germinated I think they need to get a wriggle on if they are to be planted out at any time in the foreseeable – none of them have even bothered to think about a second set of leaves yet.

Pak Choi are also growing well, with the beginnings of life beginning to show from the chard (new this year as is the Pak Choi) and radish.

First signs of Spring

The sun came out today, and for the first time this year there was a definite warmth to it. Along with the sun came the first of the season’s bumblebees.

Bumblebee on Snowdrops
Bumblebee on Snowdrops

These are the queen bees foraging for food before looking for a suitable nest site. Although much of the media’s attention has been on the plight of the honeybee (mainly due to the huge potential losses for commercial beekeepers), bumblebees also play a huge part in plant pollination. The fact that bumblebees do not stockpile honey for an overwintering colony has led to them being less recognised as an endangered species. In fact, according to Wikipedia, three of our native bumblebees have already become extinct and another six are in serious decline.

It is therefore of vital importance that we garden with bumblebees in mind and try to provide a range of plants that flower throughout the year, particularly in early spring when the queen bees are about. If you are stuck for ideas why not try the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s website which lists a number of bee friendly plants. If you would like to add in some earlier flowering species why not plant some crocus and snowdrops in a sunny part of your garden, with sweet box (sarcocca confusa) and clematis armandii in shadier parts. Not only will you be helping the bees, but you will brighten your own day with the sight and scent of these early flower plants.

Front Garden – Insects and Flowers

I had wanted to share my successes in the sphere of growing produce, but, at the moment it feels as though the fates have conspired against me and sent plagues of slugs and clouds to stop me in my tracks. Instead I thought I would highlight something that has worked better than I thought.
For some time we have been wondering what to do with the front garden. So, after a year or two of indecision (a relatively short amount of time for us) we decided to remove the lawn completely (this part of the decision was made relatively easily as other than looking green lawns are relatively dull, it was deciding what to put in its place that took the time).
The aim of our back garden is to produce somewhere tranquil and shady with variations on a theme of white and green. It is somewhere for us and for the birds (assuming we can keep the aforementioned killing machines away). The front is a complete contrast to the back. It is south facing, remains relatively warm in the winter, although the wind whips visciously across it, and we don’t feel the need for tranquility. I wanted something that would brighten the day whenever I saw it. It was also meant to become a haven for insects whilst allowing me to grow flowers to photograph. (Following the destruction of some of my brassicas I am beginning to change my mind about the first objective).

Where the back garden has been controlled and planned, the front has become a riot of colour and, as a consequence, a haven for insects. The planting started at the end of June (although we already had some thyme, sage and oregano installed from an earlier attempt to work out what to do with the space) and mainly consisted of some grasses that we had bought for the back but which did not now fit with the current plans (I think we are onto at least Plan K), seedlings that if I didn’t plant somewhere would probably die, and some Verbena and Osteospermum kindly donated by James’ mum. As you can see, it looked a little sad when initially planted in June.

Now, thanks in part to some pot marigolds that I was careless enough to allow to self seed last year, and the lashings of rain, the garden has been transformed. I planted some white cosmos which has reached 5′ in height, and, for the first time I have managed to get some rudbeckia to grow. I have today just done the first bit of dead heading on these, and they are full of flower, with many more to open. However, the star of the show has to be the Verbena Bonariensis. This has flowered solidly for more than a month and looks in no hurry to stop. It positively glows in low light, and, more than anything else in the front garden, has become a magnet for butterflies, bees and hoverflies. What’s more, they sit so still on this flower that even I can manage to get a good photograph (and lots of poor ones) of the butterflies.

(In case you are wondering, we are going to put some light granite gravel in the centre section to make moving about the area much easier and less muddy.) I have also tried growing produce in the front garden, but the butterflies found the brassicas and the slugs found the peppers and herbs. (Touch wood, but the fennel seems to be doing OK at the moment.)

Garden Produce Update

Ok, still no courgettes, but we did eat our first lot of produce this weekend.

Basket of Shetland Black Potatoes

We decided that the Shetland Black potatoes had died back enough to harvest them. I was a little nervous that there would be nothing there. That wasn’t the case, but it was not the greatest harvest ever seen (see photo for the entire harvest – no wide angled lens needed to get them all in). We have roasted the larger ones, whilst the small ones will find their way into a curry sometime in the next week. The taste was good, but not substantially better than those we have bought in the supermarket in the past, I don’t think that we will be growing them again. The Charlotttes will be harvested in a week or two for a comparison.  We have planted some more French beans in the tub and soil we had used for the potatoes.
Elsewhere in the garden, the first fruit are appearing on the tomatoes, we are getting some beans and the cavolo nero is growing in pots (although I am looking for eggs and caterpillars on a regular basis).

On the subject of courgettes, there are a lot of flowers, but no courgettes yet, is this due to a lack of bees this year? I have heard of others having problems with various vegetables on this front – I better find some bee friendly plants to entice them in – not long to go until the buddleja will be flowering, then maybe I will have some better luck.

Good news, and more good news

Contrary to my previous post, I saw a ladybird in the garden yesterday.  I went to get my camera for a quick shot, but the little blighter had vanished by the time I returned, so you will have to be satisfied with a picture of one of the flowers on my remaining courgette (’tis a miracle I tells ye) and the lovely glowing flowers on one of my beans (var. Blauhilde).

Flower on the Blauhilde Bean Plant  Courgette Flower


Sluggy Devastation

Well, it just goes to show how much I know, my advice to grow courgettes and rhubarb if you want something that doesn’t require much attention and will repay you many times over seems to be a little ironic at the moment.  

We had neglected our rhubarb for a couple of years whilst we were re-landscaping the back garden and so had it imprisoned in a pot for the entire time.  It is planted in the ground now, but is looking a bit weak and feeble still (although it is growing).

Courgette after slug devastation A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was warm I optimistically planted out a courgette hoping it would get a head start whilst there seemed to be a ridiculously low number of slugs around.  Well, what a fool I was, as the picture shows the sluggy grapevine seems to have put the word around quite quickly that I had dared plant my crops out and as soon as the damp weather (damp being a bit of an understatement, it feels a little like monsoon season at the moment) appeared so did the slugs.  

Blauhilde I know that I could prevent this with little blue pellets, but we are trying to be as organic as possible and are trying to encourage the ecosystem (although at this rate I may start charging the frogs board and lodgings as they are not earning their keep).  I have another courgette in reserve, but I will plant this in a pot this weekend.On the plus side, I have planted my beans in various parts of the garden, and some of them are still in one piece.  

Garden Produce Update

The warm weather in the last week has allowed everything to put on a big growth spurt and left me with decision as to whether it is time to give them their independence and allow them to leave the safety of their home as they know it and plant my veg out.  I took the picture below a week ago and they look even better now.

There is part of me thinks that they are doing so well it is time they were allowed a bit more room, but the other part is filled with anxiety about the dreaded slugs. Last year all my beans and sweetcorn went in the first week, and it is a miracle that the courgette didn’t follow. Then there is the worry that I am leaving it too late (although Monty Don claims not to plant his beans out until June). I think I will leave it to the weekend, then I can keep a watch over them – I can’t leave it much longer as the courgettes have flower buds coming. So this weekend I resolve to plant out the courgettes, sweetcorn, beans and tomatoes.
We planted the potatoes a week ago, we are trying Charlotte (an old favourite and the only one we have grown before), Mimi (being trialled on Gardener’s World) and Shetland Black (bought them and enjoyed them from Waitrose), the Shetland Blacks are growing already!

Another surprise in the garden this week has been the appearance of the first fruit on the gooseberry.First Fruit  The joy from this has been tempered somewhat by the discovery by my better half that the sawfly larvae are back and munching away the leaves. My better half has kindly checked every leaf and removed a goodly quantity which are now imprisoned and probably going to become bird food! Does everyone have such lazy birds, I have fed them all year round and now, unless their dinner is served up to them, they don’t seem to be interested! I may make them work for their food in future!

Proud parent announces arrival of beans.

A few weeks ago I planted some courgette, bean and sweetcorn seeds. The courgettes, as expected, took about a week to start to grow in the heated propagator and four out of the six have been sat outside this week in the ‘mini-greenhouse’ that we have outside. The beans and sweetcorn were put into root trainers and therefore were not in a heated propagator (although they were next to the radiator in the garage). These have taken a little longer, but I am not the proud parent of a number of healthy looking beans and sweetcorn. I have tried two varieties of French beans this year, Hildora, a dwarf variety with a yellow pod that I tried last year, but which fed only the slugs, and Blauhilde, a purple podded variety. All of the Blauhilde seeds appear to be growing, and all but two of the Hildoras have made the effort. (Seven out of eight of the sweetcorn minipop are also growing.) I am so pleased by the progress of my beans that I took a photograph of them relaxing in the Spring sunshine yesterday.