Trial and Error

Note to self – ‘must get better at this hardening off lark‘. Now that it’s substantially warmer both day and night,  I mistakenly thought if I transferred my young plants from my conservatory to my plastic greenhouse for a few nights and then left them out on my garden table for a few more nights, that should do it. However I soon realised all was not well as they started to look a bit pale in parts and crumbly round the edges – including, horror of horrors, my verbena bonariensis. Having now read round the subject it seems the process is more of a hokey cokey activity ie in out, in out, but without the ‘shake it all about‘ of course. It seems I should have put them in my plastic greenhouse for a few days and nights, then put them out during the day and back in at night, the whole process taking as much as a fortnight. Anyway I think I’ve saved most of them – although my morning glory is looking a bit suspect….

Here I must digress to tell you that I have clearly led a sheltered life. When I told  my daughter Rosy that the morning glory was looking a bit limp, she seemed taken aback. “Mum that’s too much information!” Once she realised I was puzzled and I had clarified I was talking about a plant,  she explained that “morning glory” is a name given to early morning erections experienced by men! I was horrified, my mind was racing.  How many people had I imparted this news to over the past week? What had they thought? Were they oblivious like me, or were they chuckling heartily behind my back and regailing the story to all and sundry? After over 60 years on this earth how could this have bypassed me. I looked up the proper name for the morning glory plant  – it’s “Ipomoea” – but I keep forgetting it. Anyway one of the plants, which is little more than a straggly stem with one leaf left on it, has somehow managed to produce a solitary flower!

As mentioned earlier in the year, having become familiar with the poem Bernard and Cerinthe, I thought I would try my hand at growing some Cerinthes from seed. These haven’t turned out quite as envisaged. Again with belated research I realise I should have pinched them out. To be honest I had very little idea what they should look like. The seed packet shows a close up of some flowers and there is no mention of pinching out in the instructions. It was only when I saw a photo in Garden News recently – Carol Klein standing proudly next to her pots of Cerinthes – that I realised mine are just wrong. Instead of being bushy they look more like triffids. However the flowers are beautiful so I’ve reclassified them as trailing plants for pots and hanging baskets. 

Poor Captain Sir Tom – he is finally producing some buds, but  having rid himself of greenfly, he now has a touch of black spot. I am carefully picking off his affected appendages rather than resorting to chemicals. Another war I am continuing to wage is against slugs and snails. I am using copious quantities of copper tape and Grazers spray – all harmless, even to the slugs and snails – they just don’t like the taste of the spray and apparently are repelled by copper because of the reaction between the mucous produced by the slug or snail and the copper – that’s all those slimy trails to you and me. The ads say the copper tape can also look attractive – obviously not the way I put it on! These are some of my ‘weapons without destruction’.

I did read a somewhat macabre reader’s tip in Garden News – instead of buying cane toppers to stop you poking your eyes out, he uses snail shells! Hopefully they’re empty ones he’s found lying around the garden, but it does bring to mind those old sketches of heads on stakes on London Bridge!

My courgette plants are flowering and one mini courgette has made an appearance (they are supposed to be small by the way) – although when I look at it I get a flashback to my morning glory episode! One of my courgette plants has its stem bandaged with insulating tape because it split – it’s still growing though, so there’s hope yet. I have counted the number of flowers on my patio raspberry and black currant plants – they total 22 between them. I also have 2 strawberry plants in pots – I can see 15 strawberries developing – it’s not exactly going to be a feast when they ripen, but I will savour every one.  Carol Klein recently gave us a tip regarding basil. “Buy a supermarket basil – they never last long because they consist of numerous plants all fighting for space – break it down into a number of plants” she said. Not one to pass up a bargain, I couldn’t resist – I now have 23 individual basil  plants – I love basil but …. I am gradually giving them away and I guess I need to start making pesto!

And finally – the ceanothus and wisteria have fought back against Jack! The final photo is of the wisteria in the dark, but I really included it because I thought the sky was so beautiful that evening.

Jack Frost has a lot to answer for!

Jack has wreaked havoc in the garden this year. He nearly killed my beautiful ceanothus, he has definitely murdered my spectacular potted hebe, and severely depleted the flowers on my clematis montana and wisteria. While he seemed to have disappeared a couple of weeks ago he was clearly lurking somewhere when I decided to harden off some of my seemingly well established plants, painstakingly grown from seed. I should have waited, but Jack managed to lure me into a false sense of security – he was still making sure the night air was unseasonably cold and my plants are looking sorry for themselves.

Now that it’s warmed up and we’ve had rain in biblical proportions for weeks on end, I reckon he’s summoned every garden beastie he knows to come feast on my young plants and some of the more well established ones too – he’s so spiteful. Poor Captain Sir Tom had a case of greenfly – luckily I spotted them and blasted them off with the hose spray – he wasn’t the only one – my other roses got the same treatment, as did my apple and cherry trees – I’ve warned them it’s unlikely to be the last time they are subjected to this. I mustn’t feel too picked on though – ants have invaded Victoria’s garden and eaten right through her potato stem!

Look out! Look out!
Jack Frost is about!
He’s after our fingers and toes;
And all through the night,
The gay little sprite
Is working where nobody knows.
He’ll climb each tree,
So nimble is he,
His silvery powder he’ll shake;
To windows he’ll creep
And while we’re asleep,
Such wonderful pictures he’ll make.
Across the grass,
He’ll merrily pass,
And change all its greenness to white;
Then home he will go
And laugh, “Ho! Ho! Ho!
What fun I have had in the night!

Then there are the slugs and snails – they look to move slowly when you watch them but they must be on speed at night! The amount of damage they can do is incredible – I don’t know how they don’t explode out of their shells, the amount they tuck away. The small ones are the worst – this is a mugshot of one such criminal taken next to my little finger nail to demonstrate its minuscule vital statistics.

Then there are the slugs and snails – they look to move slowly when you watch them but they must be on speed at night! The amount of damage they can do is incredible – I don’t know how they don’t explode out of their shells, the amount they tuck away. The small ones are the worst – this is a mugshot of one such criminal taken next to my little finger nail to demonstrate its minuscule vital statistics.

We are now promised a heatwave so next time I’ll probably be reporting that all my plants have been scorched and there is a hosepipe ban – thankfully all my water butts are full to the brim at the moment!

There is some good news though – my verbena bonariensis seeds finally decided to put in an appearance!

Forget Me Not

31 March 2021 was the day I lost my beautiful Mum. She was adored by us all. Her resting place is with my Dad next to a pretty church garden. They loved their gardens so this seems very fitting. During my early years my Dad was in the army so I was 9 before they owned their first garden. My memories are of long hot summer holidays playing with my two sisters in the garden our parents created together. My Dad did all the terracing and paving and my Mum was the gardener. She taught us how to play French cricket on the small lawn and she would disappear off into the kitchen, returning with a tray of ice cream sodas and chocolate fingers, which we used as spoons.

Their next garden was where our children played. It was large, wrapped around a substantial bungalow. The lawn was much bigger with plenty of room for football, paddling pools, space hopper races, swing ball and in the winter, snowman and igloo building. The rest of the garden was a series of paved terraces which my Dad constructed. My Mum loved to plant lavender between the paving stones. My Dad created a couple of small ponds. To their 5 grandchildren it was like the Secret Garden with lots of places to hide, fairy ornaments, wind chimes and a miniature lighthouse near one of the ponds, to name but a few of its magical features.

My parents had to leave their home 5 years ago when my Mum’s Parkinson’s and dementia became too severe for us to manage. Sadly they then lived separately as she moved to a nursing home and my Dad to a flat. Before the bungalow was sold I transferred some plants and small trees to my own garden. I didn’t have any forget-me-nots before that, but I do now – they spring up at this time of year in different places. 

After my Mum died my house was filled with cards and beautiful flowers some from friends and some from her colourful funeral spray – I wish she could have seen them all. 

We have all grieved for her as she deteriorated over the years but we count ourselves lucky that she never forgot who we all were and she will live on through the memories we cherish.

We’re here
You’re not
You used to be though
We knew we’d find you here

The lavender you planted 
In the gaps between the paving
Now a purple explosion
Humming with bees

The soporific scent
Lost from your world
Taken away
By a cruel disease

Your beautiful creation
Now overgrown
A haven for wildlife
Until the diggers move in

Stormy Weather!

Well it’s certainly been very windy over the past few days, but I think I’ve got off relatively lightly in terms of damage in the garden – thankfully no repeat of last summer’s plastic greenhouse episode! The only slight drama this morning was when Grumbling Rose noticed that the force of the wind had snapped the ties holding my ceanothus tree against the fence. It was bent double and looking very forlorn. As he flew out of the door on his way to an appointment, he was very emphatic about the urgency of rectifying the situation as soon as he returned. On the way to said appointment he clearly went into army orders mode. I received a text and a phone message instructing me to measure up for a stake and check our supply of rubber tree ties – he would buy whatever was needed on his way home. This is the man who doesn’t “do” gardening! I wasn’t dressed at this stage but I dutifully donned my covid uniform (black leggings and the top I’ve been wearing all week), my gardening coat and crocs and ventured out into the storm. Poor ceanothus, it was looking sad. I returned to the garage and rifled through Grumbling Rose’s bag of varying lengths of rope – all tangled up like spaghetti. I found a few that looked like they would do and set too, battling against the wind and rain to straighten up the tree and tie it temporarily to two concrete boundary posts. There, it looked much happier already. Measuring done I followed orders, texting the length of stake required and a photo of the numerous tree ties in my gardening box.

A couple of hours later Grumbling Rose returned with not one, but three 6ft tree stakes – apparently they were on a 3 for 2 offer. To me this is just more clutter to store somewhere, but I didn’t like to dampen the joy the bargain had engendered. I advised which side of the trunk the stake needed to go to ensure the tree would generally blow away from it – this had involved Googling which direction the prevailing wind comes from, because I hadn’t a clue. Apparently in the UK it mostly comes from the west or south-west. Before I knew it the ladders were up against the fence and Grumbling Rose was swaying about precariously on the top rung, wielding a sledgehammer to drive the stake home. A few rubber ties later and the job was done. The ceanothus is the one with bright blue flowers on the left of the photo below – it’s now about 8 feet tall!

Grumbling Rose has been living up to his name again this week – although I have to admit, not entirely without justification. The conservatory floor is now covered with an array of plant pots containing the seedlings I have grown so far. I think I might have a problem. As soon as one lot of seeds has germinated and been potted on, I can’t resist sowing some more. In addition to my own purchases, Victoria has donated numerous packets of seeds that came free with Garden News. These included “Morning Glory” – I was so excited – I had only last week been listening to Carol Klein extolling the virtues of these climbers. I couldn’t believe how quickly they grew – they are on the right in the photo below, only 5 days after sowing, along with some courgette seedlings, which grew equally quickly!

The same can’t be said of the verbena bonariensis – not so much as a peep out of them. I have reviewed the instructions on the back of the seed packet – it does say germination is generally between 10 and 35 days, so I’m trying to keep positive. The packet also says that if germination is erratic, to put the seeds in the fridge for a fortnight – I guess that would shock anyone into action!

I have some rubbish ideas …

This is a strange time of year where gardening is concerned. Last week it was positively tropical weather-wise – whereas this week we’ve been back to frosty mornings and cold, grey days. Inspired by last week’s plant label making, I’ve been doing a bit more garden related recycling. For our Valentine’s weekend/anniversary of first meeting Grumbling Rose and I indulged in Afternoon Tea, delivered to our home. It was delicious, but came in sturdy plastic trays with lids. The trays are dark plastic, so banned from the recycling boxes. To keep them from landfill I’ve used them to sow some micro-greens in – they don’t look much at the moment, but I’ll keep you posted.

When I took my dog for her haircut last week (yes, dogs are allowed haircuts, unlike us humans) – I noticed that the food our doggy day-carers sell, is sent to them in polystyrene boxes. I asked what happens to them – you guessed it – they go into landfill. So I loaded them into my car (with permission of course) and I’m going to use them as planters for my courgettes, tomatoes and mangetout. I know they’re not the most attractive but I think if I plant some trailing nasturtiums in them as well, it will make them look a bit prettier.

The saga of the verbena bonariensis seeds goes on – the third lot didn’t germinate – so I bought some. Imagine the surprise I had when I opened the packet – they look nothing like the seeds I collected from the plant I have in my garden! The real seed is the smaller one in the photo below. So what are these things I have been trying to grow?! They definitely came off a verbena bonariensis flower!

Actually not all my ideas are rubbish – I am a media star – I made it into Garden News, along with one of my amaryllis plants!

Oh dear, what can the matter be?

I spoke too soon – my cerinthe seedlings have taken a turn for the worse and the cosmos seeds I sowed last week are almost as disappointing as the first. They are all what can only be described as “leggy”.

So I’ve been trawling the internet for help – but there are so many opinions out there. I thought I’d done everything right to provide a good home for them – new compost, warmth, light and water. However there seems to be a widely held view out there that the warmth provided by my propagator could be the culprit. Apparently it can cause the seeds to germinate too quickly and run away with themselves – well my seedlings have certainly got the legs for that! A contributor to a gardening forum I homed in on advised that a fool proof way to save leggy seedlings, is to bury them up to their necks. Another voiced the strong view that you just need to accept when the time has come to let them go. Both sounded too extreme to me, so I went for the happy medium and buried them up to their waists. They don’t look happy but I don’t suppose I would either! I have planted some more cosmos seeds – it feels a bit disloyal somehow, so I’ve put them in a different room. Talking of which, I’ve strayed into the conservatory again – Grumbling Rose hasn’t noticed yet ….

Another job I’ve done this week is to thin out the snapdragon seedlings grown from Victoria’s seeds – not actually her seeds of course, but the ones she collected from her garden. I feel so cruel when I do this – I imagine the seedlings praying it won’t be them, as my fingers loom towards them and they say their final goodbyes to their family and friends, their roots wrenched from the earth. For this reason, where seed size allows, I plant seeds one to a pot – but snapdragon seeds are just too tiny for that approach.

The photo above reminded me that while lollipop sticks seemed a good idea as eco friendly plant labels – they are rubbish at the job – they soak up moisture and the writing on them disappears. So this week I have hit on a loosely “green” alternative – instead of buying plastic plant tags, I fished my dog’s food container out of the recycling bin and made a few.

On a positive note, despite all the cold weather, the sweet pea seeds I planted in my plastic greenhouse in the autumn are looking promising and there was a beautiful surprise waiting for me at the bottom of my garden – these irises have emerged from a pot containing one of my Dad’s apple trees – it is lovely to think he planted them there.

I haven’t got thrips!

In June 2019 my blog was entitled “Help – I think I’ve got thrips!” – only now I know I hadn’t – because now I know what I had and have got again – and it’s fungus gnats (sciarid flies). Just to be clear I’m not personally afflicted, it’s my seedlings. The adults are tiny flies and are very annoying when they fly around indoors and you can see them scurrying about on the surface of the compost. The flies don’t damage established plants but the larvae feed mainly on dead roots and other decaying plant material and can damage seedlings – THEY CERTAINLY CAN! I had 5 Cosmos seedlings germinate in my mini propagator – I was so excited – but today I found they had all collapsed and withered. I also have several robust looking cerinthe seedlings which might be heading for the same fate if I’m not careful. This called for emergency action! I have read that using old compost can be the culprit. I used compost from an opened but sealed bag I had last summer, so that could be the problem. I headed straight for the garden centre for new compost and have planted some more cosmos seeds. I’ve also set some more cerinthe seeds off as I have potted on the (so far) successful seedlings into individual pots. Let’s hope I’ve seen the end of those pesky gnats and their life-sapping larvae.

Happy cerinthe seedlings

Grumbling Rose and I met on Valentine’s Day – 45 years ago. I had been having trouble thinking of ideas for a gift this year. On 2 February we heard the very sad news of the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore. He touched the hearts of so many and Grumbling Rose is no exception. He particularly identified with Captain Sir Tom as they both went through the ranks in the army and were ultimately commissioned, ending their army careers as Captains. Last week I happened to be leafing through a gardening magazine Victoria lent me, when an advert jumped out at me – the Captain Sir Tom Moore Rose – perfect – and it’s a red rose – I ordered it straight away, along with his book “Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day” – these will be my gifts to my beloved on Valentine’s Day. He will have to use a bit of imagination with the rose – it arrived in “bare root” form, so looks like a few thorny twigs at the moment. However I have a photo to show him of how it will look once I have potted it up and it begins to sprout some leaves as the days get warmer.

In case you’re wondering, the verbena bonariensis have failed to make an appearance again – after 3 attempts I can only conclude that the seeds I collected are sterile. However, I now have two amaryllis bulbs flowering spectacularly – this is the one my schoolfriend gave me – she’s very miffed as the one I gave her only has one flower bud.

Earlier today I received a text from Victoria – “I have made 3 fat coconut things – would you like one?” I was feeling quite hungry and instantly imagined a generous slab of cake, coated in butter icing, covered with desiccated coconut. “Ooh yes please!” I replied. We met at the natter hatch a few minutes later – I was in for a disappointment – it turned out to be half a coconut shell filled with fat and bird seed – the birds will love it though!

“Sow a seed and the earth will yield you a flower”

I’m hoping Kahlil Gibran, writer, poet and artist, is right about the above! As you can imagine there hasn’t been a lot of gardening going on since my last blog in November, in which I wrote about gardening teaching me to be patient. I did do a bit of tidying up out there a couple of weekends ago while the sun was shining. It was so cold though – my fingers and toes were numb!

At this time of year I do have to remind myself to be patient because I am itching to start planting seeds. Of course for a lot of seeds you need to wait a few months yet. However I have started some off indoors in my mini propagators – they are seeds that can be sown indoors from January including strawberry, cosmos, mexican daisy and cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’.

I was inspired to plant the cerinthe seeds by my wonderful writing group tutor who introduced us to a poem by Linda France called “Bernard and Cerinthe“. France talks about what inspired the poem: ‘I remember very particularly the day I wrote this poem, actually. I went to visit a friend of mine who has the most beautiful garden. It was the end of August and there was a plant I’d never seen before: Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, and I was just astonished by it. It’s a very intense blue and the leaves are a silvery green… they’re quite thick, almost waxy, fleshy. That’s one of the things I’m drawn to about plants, they express this tremendous “Otherness”, but they just stay there and let you respond to them, unlike a bird or animal that disappears….’
I really hope mine turn out as she describes!

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I’ve also had a third go at growing seed I collected from a verbena bonariensis plant in my garden – they add height to the garden but you can still see other plants behind them through the gaps between their long stems. Most importantly they’re much loved by butterflies and bees. I’m hoping they will germinate this time – they will be as in the photo below if successful. After 4 days the cosmos seeds are sprouting, as are some white snapdragon seeds, also donated by Victoria. Nothing else has made an appearance yet – I keep peeking but it’s a bit like a watched pot!

Verbena bonariensis

I bought myself an amaryllis bulb before Christmas and it is magnificent at the moment. Aren’t the colours and the double flowers beautiful? At the same time I bought one for my friend of over 50 years for Christmas. When she opened it on Christmas Day she phoned me to tell me she had bought me one too! She only managed to deliver it to me last week. When I opened it, it had started to grow inside the box and the stem and flower head that had emerged were very anaemic and almost horizontal as they were searching for the light through the opening in the front of the box. Anyway everything is now looking a lot healthier and straighter, so hopefully as my first one starts to go over, I will have another to replace it. It’s fascinating watching them grow – they do it so quickly – so not toomuch patience needed!

Another job I did in early Autumn was to repot some orchids – they had finished flowering and were looking a bit sorry for themselves – just leaves and a few dead looking twigs between them. I left them in my utility room, which isn’t very warm. Nothing seemed to be happening so I moved them into my daughter’s bedroom – sadly for me she won’t be visiting any time soon due to lockdown, but a bonus for the orchids. Within a couple of weeks I spotted the signs of new flower stems appearing. Orchids do require patience though – once they flower they can last for months, but once the flowers drop it can be months before they get their act together.

Hopefully in my next blog I will be able to show you that Kahlil Gibran is right and all of the above are progressing well.

Worth waiting for?

Gardening has definitely improved my patience. For example I have no choice but to accept that I will have to wait at least another 6 months to start trying to improve on this year’s tomato crop – two small fruits that never ripened and ended up as chutney!

Every year I have to wait for seeds to germinate and develop into healthy plants – some are considerably slower than others. I planted some Evening Primrose seeds in April and kept them in my plastic greenhouse. Nothing happened for months. They were relegated to the bottom shelf – but something kept telling me not to give up on them. In early September I noticed two tiny shoots had appeared which started to grow quite impressively over the next few weeks. I planted them in the garden and look at them now on a cold, grey November day!

Back in June I wittered on about my poorly performing sweet peas – but they eventually turned into triffids and I am still getting the odd bloom from them now.

In the same blog I told you about overwintering some geraniums. They were definitely worth waiting for – they’re still looking amazing, but won’t be for much longer if I don’t get my act together and bring them in!

Right now we’re all waiting for the R number stop growing and for mass vaccination – so very sad that it’s going to be too late for many.

Golden Oldies

This week I became a domestic goddess – I made chutney for the very first time! This was prompted by a WhatsApp from Victoria – could I do anything with her green home grown tomatoes?

I couldn’t help a twinge of jealousy – at least she had what could be described as a crop of tomatoes – I had only managed to produce the grand total of two this year – I blame the compost I used.

A Google threw up a celebrity chef recipe that required a number of fancy sounding ingredients – namely “spiced pickling vinegar” and “light muscovado sugar”. This put me off a bit – in these Covid times I am minimising my trips to the supermarket and had a feeling I may need to try a few to get what was needed. I mentioned this to Victoria and in the blink of an eye my phone pinged – a list of ingredients and a photo of Victoria’s Grandma’s chutney recipe. I realised I had everything to hand – no need to don my mask and go supermarket foraging!

I set to – the tomato chopping was a bit tedious (this did include my two), but eventually I had everything bubbling away. The pan was possibly a tad small for stirring the contents without spillages. I persevered and after a while the mixture started to reduce in volume, making stirring less messy, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of it resembling jam, as per Grandma’s instructions. I was starting to regret not having chopped the tomatoes into smaller pieces. Maybe it was the sugar – now that’s a story in itself. I used some of the small amount of demerara sugar I have left in my store cupboard – it is almost 40 years old (I don’t pay much attention to sell by dates when it comes to something like sugar). My other half went on exercise to Guyana in 1981 and arrived home with a huge sack of demerara sugar. Since then the sugar has travelled with us all over the world – there is only about half a kilo left now. Anyway I digress – after what seemed like hours, all of a sudden the mixture began to resemble jam and it tasted delicious. But what to do now – Grandma’s instructions refer to jars without metal lids – I don’t even have any jars with metal lids – too efficient with the recycling. I managed to source one by decanting our coffee into a different container. Another WhatsApp exchange and Victoria came to the rescue, fishing an array of jars out of her recycling box.

Sterilising complete, I spooned in the chutney and felt even more domestic goddess like as I cut greaseproof paper circles to place on the top of the chutney. Finally I proudly labelled up the jars- 3 in total.

I really dislike wasting food (cue sugar) so I feel extremely satisfied with the results!