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!

Pond Life

If you watch any of the gardening programmes on TV you will be aware that we are all being encouraged to add a pond to our garden for the benefit of wildlife. Not to be outdone I decided this was a must for me. I decided to start small – well minute actually.

I picked a container for my pond that looks like half a barrel. I chose a spot in the garden which gets the sun and isn’t right under a tree, so it shouldn’t get full of leaves. I decided on 4 plants – a Miniature Bulrush, Lesser Spearwort which is a member of the buttercup family, Water ‘Forget Me Not’ and a dwarf Water Lily. At this time of the year there are no flowers in evidence, but if they survive they should look something like the labels.

This is the kind of plant pot you need to use for pond plants – one full of holes! I used it to rinse the dust off some gravel I wanted to use later. The plants all come with instructions on how deep they need to be planted. The Water Lily needed to be deepest so first I put just a small layer of soil into the basket and placed the Water Lily on it. It was then a case of layering to add the rest of the plants. The soil is a coir (coconut fibre) and loam (sand, clay & silt) mix which sinks in the water without allowing large amounts to escape and cloud the water. However I used the gravel I rinsed to add some extra weight.

It was now time to take the basket out into the garden and add to the barrel. I watered the basket gently to get the soil well soaked before adding water to the barrel – this helps reduce the amount of soil escaping into the water. It’s inevitable that some soil will escape but it will soon settle. I also added a stone to the pond. This serves 2 purposes. It provides something for birds and insects to land on but more importantly, should any small creatures find their way into the pond, they have something to climb out onto. This is more important with a pond that is sunk into the ground, but I like to be cautious – just in case there are any mountaineering mice or hedgehogs visiting the garden, or a squirrel topples in while raiding the bird feeder!

In the process of assembling the pond I found another job to do – you might be able to make out an object just behind the barrel – it’s Jeremy the frog – but he’s hardly recognisable in his thick green moss jumper! I gave him a scrub in a bubble bath so he looks a bit cleaner now.

I’m really pleased with my pond – I’m looking forward to seeing the flowers and bulrushes which all being well will appear between May and September. They should attract lots of insects – hopefully Jeremy won’t put them off – or worse still, eat them!

I expect the birds will like it too, although I hope it doesn’t attract anything too big! A duck collided with my friend’s car (that was her story anyway). She rescued the poor creature and gave him a home in her parents’ pond. They weren’t too enamoured with Marmaduke who left a terrible mess all over their lawn. In addition, their cat was very interested and so for obvious reasons it wasn’t long before Marmaduke needed to be rehomed – yes “he” was in fact a “she”. The day came when she was wrapped in a towel and driven to the home of a lady who owned a small lake on which she kept a number of ducks. With great sadness my friend released Marmaduke who was instantly ravished by a rampant resident drake – she (my friend) has never quite got over this even though she has been reassured that Marmaduke is very happy in her new home.

Surprise Duck Illustrations, Royalty-Free Vector Graphics & Clip Art -  iStock

Colour My World

This week as autumn gets into full swing, the range and vibrancy of leaf colours has been particularly stunning. My front garden is no exception and while admiring it a song came into my head – Colour My World by Petula Clark (1966).

In case you’re wondering she has held a fascination for me since my Dad told me when I was about 7 that she once lived just round the corner from him and he would walk to school with her – they were both born in the same year, a month apart. The word ‘happiness’ features regularly in the song along with references to a range of colours – including yellow and gold. The song led me to think about experiences I’ve had this week that have made me happy, causing me to laugh out loud – while alone!

Victoria and I indulged in a session of schoolgirl silliness via WhatsApp on Tuesday evening. We had both watched Monty Don on Gardeners World telling us how we could plant our sweet pea seeds now, in an unheated greenhouse, ready for spectacular displays next year. This led to us fantasise about opening our gardens to the public. We acknowledged that Coronavirus will be with us for some time and discussed all manner of technicalities that would be involved in such a venture. This included one way systems involving garages and side gates, ensuring the routes wouldn’t miss the humble beginnings of our sweet peas in our plastic greenhouses. We agreed we would need to invest in some hand rails on account of our sloping gardens and a designated viewing point on my terrace for anyone unable to do steps. The natterhatch would of course be a feature not to be missed by visitors – it would need it’s own socially distanced queues, perhaps even a separate booking system – this would provide excellent opportunities for selfies – in fact we would probably need to impose a time limit for each visitor. Then we got onto catering – I thought this might prove a good opportunity to use up the numerous sachets of tea, coffee and hot chocolate Grumbling Rose insists on saving from holiday welcome packs, although thinking about it they’re probably out of date – we have eaten all the biscuits but I do have a slab of parkin that needs eating up – oh, and we would need to put the milkman on notice for additional supplies. Things degenerated badly when we started to consider the need for portaloos and where they could be located. This led me to reminisce about a friend and I using the portaloos in Settle prior to embarking on a Jane Tomlinson walk we did for charity a few years ago. In turn we took care of each other’s possessions while we used the facilities. We both laughed uncontrollably as the Tardis rocked about precariously while we were inside – the thought of this happening on our drives had a similar effect on Victoria and me. By this stage the complexity of opening up our gardens to the outside world all seemed too overwhelming and we reluctantly accepted it was a fantasy too far, but it had been fun while it lasted.

Another experience this week that caused me to laugh hysterically was the story of “acclaimed artist Hercule Van Wolfwinkle” who doodled his pet dog while colouring with his son. He put it on Facebook for a joke and offered commissions. Requests came flooding in and he has raised a significant amount for charity. I’ll leave you with a selection – I hope they make you smile too …..

You can have your cake and eat it!

Victoria and I visited Markenfield Hall a few weeks ago to take a tour of the garden. It was one of the hottest, sunniest days of the summer. Giles the gardener met us at the gatehouse accompanied by his little terrier “Plum”. He explained he would be guiding us around the perimeter of the moat which encircles the Hall. The west side involved walking through a field of cows. I had my walking sandals on – not the greatest choice in view of the numerous cow pats and thistles, but at least I hadn’t worn heels, like one of our party …

The moat was still and we could hear the buzzing of bees entering the hives at the side of the house. We learned about honey fungus which had attacked many of the trees. It spreads underground, attacking and killing the roots of plants and trees and then decaying the dead wood. It is the most destructive fungal disease in UK gardens. There is no cure – affected plants need to be removed, destroyed and replaced.

We were then directed through a little gate onto the north side of the garden. The moat and Hall were to our right and to our left bulrushes, an orchard full of trees heavy with apples, pears and plums and swathes of meadow flowers which Plum weaved in and out of, disappearing momentarily in the tall growth. I was disappointed not to see the black swans I had seen on my previous visit. Giles explained that otters have been regular visitors to the moat and have killed two pairs of black swans. The decision has been taken to welcome the otters and that it is cruel to keep replacing the swans in view of their almost certain fate! We admired various roses on the north facing wall of the Hall including one called Malvern Hills. Giles reassured us that they no longer use pesticides at Markenfield, preferring to let nature find its own balance, which is good to hear.

Through another small gate we reached the east side of the Hall from where we could get a real feel for the size of the 600 acre estate, with views across open fields  as far as the eye could see. We then needed to negotiate a small stile to take us back round to the south side. This took a little time, what with the need to social distance, a couple of walking sticks, the heels and Plum trying to join in, but everyone eventually got over unscathed. The borders on the south side of the Hall are a delight – there are even apricots growing there. Plum was obviously too hot so she dunked herself in the moat before using the grass as a towel to dry her belly on.

Giles led us through the archway of the gatehouse and into the courtyard. There we admired a fig tree, an amazing purple and white hydrangea, a magnolia with the biggest flowers I have ever seen and a carpet of Erigeron karvinskianus – apparently better known as Mexican fleabane or by me as very pretty pink and white daisies. I was slightly distracted during this talk because Plum had met up with a sheepdog – they were indulging in rough play on the lawn – Plum sounded quite fierce at times, but then began humping the sheepdog – must have been the excitement!

By this stage my tummy was rumbling, not helped by the knowledge that we had added to our ticket price a slice of what was described as “Yorkshire cake”. So when Giles asked if there were any further questions, I enquired where we should go to pick up our cake – I don’t think that was quite what he had in mind, but he politely pointed to the doorway that led into the undercroft of the Hall. Others indicated that they too had ordered cake, so I decided to take the lead and be first to venture in. It was all very efficient with paper carrier bags laid out on a table – two with my name on. I whisked them away and Victoria and I sped to the car park where we set up our picnic chairs and unwrapped our cakes. They turned out to be wedges of gargantuan proportion – mine a chocolate orange cake, complete with a segment of the famous orange on top. Victoria’s was a lemon curd cake. We hadn’t come equipped for anything of this size, so I ended up sporting much of mine on my face and hands – the heat of the day didn’t help the situation. The sheepdog joined us but I reminded him dogs aren’t allowed chocolate. Victoria saved some of hers to share with Albert – I think hers might have been a bit bigger than mine.