Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Monday, 24 April 2017

Book Reviews: For good soil, great veg and first-class shows

It's a while since I've reviewed some books and I have quite a stash to get through, so here's a round up of those I've enjoyed recently with more of a grow your own theme.

An in-depth look ('scuse pun) at one of the most important aspects of gardening is long overdue, and Good Soil doesn't disappoint.

There's been a number of articles recently on the threat of soil erosion to the UK's food supply, so it's good to have a comprehensive guide so we can conserve our own productive patch at least.

All aspects of nurturing the soil are covered, from chemistry and biology to history and philosophy. Methods both old and new; artificial and natural are discussed so we can make informed choices for our own approach.

The human dimension isn't shied away from either as both the use of pee and composting toilets are included; potentially sensitive subjects handled in an informative and humorous manner.

After covering the why and the what to use, practical sections on identifying/treating nutrient deficiencies and the best ways to nurture the soil to successfully grow trees, annuals, perennials, shrubs, fruit and vegetables are explained.

A chatty, humorous magazine-style approach makes what could have been a dry, academic kind of book much more digestible and a keeper for future reference.

SowHow book cover
Just when I thought there was nothing more be said on grow your own, SowHow comes along to change my mind.

Aimed at beginner gardeners, this bright, easy to read guide is packed with information on how to get growing with vegetables and herbs.

The book fits into the palm of my hand, and the colour themed sections and infographic-style approach is easy on the eye. I like the can-do, garden-anywhere approach with lots of ideas for gardening on a budget using recycled and upcycled materials.

Things to Know and Problem Solving sections book-end the Growing chapters, and alongside the usual suspects, edible flowers and weeds are included to add variety to the plate.

Even though much of the content isn't new to me, I've decided this book is a keeper for whenever I need a shot of enthusiasm to get growing!

The Salad Garden book cover
My battered, well-thumbed copy of The Organic Salad Garden inspired my 52 Week Salad Challenge project, so it's a joy ('scuse pun again) to have a copy of Joy Larkcom's The Salad Garden, which is an update of the book of the same name (and also formed the basis for The Organic Salad Garden in 2003).

It's hard to believe how revolutionary this book was on its first appearance in the 1980's, as bagged salad leaves are so commonplace on supermarket shelves nowadays. That is down to Joy's travels across Europe and her discovery of lots of fresh new flavours for us to try.

What's available commercially is just a fraction of the dozens of different salad leaves covered in this comprehensive guide.
Once you've read this book, you will never want to buy salad leaves again.

If you're new to growing salads or Joy's informative, practical work, you need this book.

If you have the original classic version, you still need this book as the practicalities and varieties have been expanded considerably.

If - like me - you have a copy of  The Organic Salad Garden, this version is still worth your consideration as the layout is much clearer. There's additional photography by Jason Ingram and Joy's recommendations are quite different, taking account of progress in the introduction of new varieties. My only quibble is the opportunity to update the recipe section wasn't taken to form a more attractive, mouth watering prospect.

Great British Village Show book cover
RHS Great British Village Show takes the worthy information in The Horticultural Show Handbook I've reviewed previously, and adds a generous dash of the fun we saw in BBC2's The Big Allotment Challenge. The result  is a colourful, easy to read guide to putting on a village show which meets the exacting requirements of the judges.

This book gives you the encouragement and guidance you need to become a show winner. Believe me, it's much more exacting than growing something that looks good on your dinner plate.

If you don't have a local village show, then there is all the information you need to get going. Lots of colourful photos and plenty of helpful tips ensure success for both exhibitor and show organiser alike. Individual sections cover what's required for showing vegetables, fruit, flowers, bakes and preserves.

Many shows use standard recipes for cakes, jams and other produce. These aren't forgotten either, and of course they can be used even if you only want to eat the results.

May this great British tradition continue!

I was given review copies of each book, opinions are my own. There are no affiliate links or cookies associated with this post.

  • Good Soil by Tina RĂ¥man, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln,  priced £20.
  • SowHow by Paul Matson and Lucy Anna Scott is published by Pavilion, priced £12.99
  • The Salad Garden by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £16.99
  • RHS Great British Village Show by Thane Prince and Matthew Biggs is published by Dorling Kindersley, priced £20
Note: I've linked to Amazon, so you can use the Look Inside facility for any books you like the look of. If you wish to purchase but not support Amazon, then Wordery usually offers a good deal, is a British company, and pays its taxes; or alternatively The Hive actively supports independent bookshops.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Cucurbit trials

Lots of cucurbit seedlings on my windowsill

Question: Does it matter which way up cucurbit* seeds are sown?

Answer: Have a look at the above photo and guess what my conclusion might be. Some references say sow them on their side - which is the way I usually do - others are non-committal.

I couldn't find any reason why they should be sown on their side, so I decided to conduct a quick trial. Luckily my seed stash had some packets to spare, yielding 44 cucumber, 24 squash and 8 courgette seeds, 76 all told.

I sowed the seeds in four different ways: sideways, flat, upright ("pointy" side of the seed uppermost) and upside down ("pointy" side of the seed downwards). All were sown into labelled cell trays with the same compost and amount of water, then left on a bright, south facing windowsill and emergence days recorded. If there were seeds left to emerge, it was assumed they weren't going to if nothing further was recorded after 5 days.

NB I conducted this trial last summer, when temperatures were warm enough for these seeds to germinate.

* = cucumber, courgette, pumpkin and squash

Cucurbit seedlings shortly after I watered them


Overall results

All seed emergence took place within 5-18 days after they were sown, with 65 seeds (86%) making their appearance.

Sideways sown emerged day 5 to 16
Flat emerged day 6 to 17
Upright emerged day 5 to 18
Downward emerged day 6 to 15

Individual results

All courgette seeds, 41 out of 44 cucumbers (91%) and 16 out of 24 (67%) squash emerged. See the table below for emergence rates for each seed type by position sown.

Position Sown Cucumber Squash Courgette Total
Sideways 11/11 3/6 2/2 16/19 (84%)
Flat 10/11 5/6 2/2 17/19 (89%)
Upright 11/11 4/6 2/2 17/19 (89%)
Downward 9/11 4/6 2/2 15/19 (79%)
Total emerged/ total sown  41/44 16/24 8/8 65/76 (86%)


Whilst some variation in emergence times and rates were observed, they weren't significant or consistent enough to conclude that a particular sowing position had an advantage. Emergence rates were good for all positions.

Larger sample sizes are needed for the squash and courgette seeds for firmer conclusions to be drawn for these individual cucurbit types. Pumpkin seeds could also be added to the trial and my usual comments apply about the need to repeat the trial to see if consistent results are obtained.

From now on I won't quite be as careful with which way I sow my seeds as I have done previously. I will be sowing in pots at home as usual, so I have strong plants to withstand the ravages of the allotment slugs when I plant them out at the beginning of June.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Flowers for mum

Gorgeous scented daffodils in mum's special Portmeirion vase have made life in a nursing home a little bit better. 

I've referred to my Flowers for mum project a few times, but not really explained what it's about. Since she's been in a nursing home, I've vowed to keep mum in fresh flowers for as long as she stays there.

It also means I'm going to grow cut flowers for the first time. Until now, I've preferred to view my flowers in my garden, particularly as they bloom for longer that way. However, I received such a strong reaction from mum when she had her first bunch of flowers, it's seems a simple yet effective way to make her life a little bit better.

She also reacts strongly to bright colours and scents, so that's informed my selection of what to grow for her, along with lots of hints and tips gleaned from Georgie when she gave a talk at Bath University Gardening club late last year.

My growing list for this year:

  • Lavender
  • Sweet peas - the more scented the better
  • Alstroemeria - already grown at the allotment
  • Cosmos
  • Cornflowers
  • Dahlias - some growing already, with an extra supplement of pink/purple cactus blooms I like the look of
  • Calendula marigolds
  • Foliage and herbs from the garden - whatever's to hand and in abundance
Most of these will be grown on the allotment and until I can pick my own from my cut flower patch, I'll have to improvise! I've decided on a relatively simple yet productive list for this year, whilst I acquire - I hope - some cut flower growing skills. How to extend the season beyond summer/autumn will be my next quest. 

Note I won't be growing any daffodils... I love buying them from our British flower farmers who have the space to grow the hundreds of blooms needed to cheer both me and mum up during the dark winter months.

What special projects do you have under way this year?

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day: For National Gardening Week

April 10th saw the start of National Gardening Week here in the UK. It's great timing for this RHS-led initiative as Easter is the traditional time everyone spends more time in the garden.

Six flowers which are looking good in my garden during 2017's National Gardening Week

I had planned to spend all week in the garden and on the allotment to celebrate, but a severe cold with a high temperature saw me in bed feeling sorry for myself instead. I did manage to pop out for 5 minutes and take some photos of what's looking good and I've posted one each day on social media as my alternative celebration.

Here's what I said for my Plant of the Day posts for #nationalgardeningweek, starting with the main photo and then working from top right down to bottom left.

  • Perky scented 'Thalia' daffodils are my first Plant of the Day for National Gardening Week (Apr 10-16 2017). It has consistently met with approval by many gardeners on social media over the past few weeks.

  • The alpine clematis 'Francis Rivis' has lots of luscious blooms with an intriguing twist to them. I believe the alpine clematis are often overlooked as an early blooming climber, with their montana cousins usually stealing the limelight.

  • Lamprocapnos spectabilis aka Dicentra spectabilis, lady in the bath, bleeding heart etc etc. This is the only plant I've managed to get its new Latin name into my noddle ('our Spanish professional lamp wearing a cap' - snappy eh?). It obviously likes my shady part of the garden as I have around 8 seedlings coming up in the gravel path.

  • Brunnera 'Jack Frost', is a great alternative to forget-me-nots with the added bonus of interesting foliage which takes its season of interest from March/April through to the first frosts. I have 2 plants which bookend my shady border. This one has smaller leaves, the other in the more shaded part (also damper soil) has less but much larger leaves.

  • Tulip 'Spring Green' - I can't believe it's mid April and my tulips are nearly over already. So many other gardeners are saying how early the season is this year. This variety is ever reliable despite my leaving it to its own devices in a large pot. It brightens up my north facing front garden - that's probably why it's flowering later than the others. Apparently at Keukenhof they plant their tulips in layers so there's a constantly replenished display of later varieties pushing through the earlier ones. I must try that for myself sometime.

  • Apple trees - it's been a joy this week see see the blossom on my 'Red Windsor' apple tree unfurl from tightly closed buds into proper bee temptation. Peak blossom has yet to arrive and it's noticeable how the buds at the top of the tree are more open than their lower, shadier counterparts.

You'll notice I have one more plant left to reveal to close the week off tomorrow. If you were me, which plant would you choose to show - the one that's looking most tippity top on your plot right now?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Update: 16/4/2017

Here's my final choice:

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' in the shadiest part of my garden

Pulmonaria 'Majeste' has striking silvery leaves, though mine have developed a mottled form since I planted them out, probably because they're in one of the shadiest parts of the garden. They still please me, and I like how the flowers open initially as gentle pink, then morph into softest blue.

I've also guerrilla gardened P 'Redstart' (see my post-Doris Weekend Wander), which doesn't have mottled leaves, but its more robust nature means it holds its own amongst the weeds. Like its more refined cousin above, bees love this plant and like the other P rubra forms, it flowers early at a time when little else does.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Evensong

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link instead.

Apologies for the poor picture quality... this video all about trying to capture a snippet of the gorgeous concert we're having every evening. Picture quality comes second!

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Great Green Wall Hunt: Unexpected items in the London area

It's a while since I posted about green or living walls, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about them. I pondered extending my search during our trip to London last week, but dismissed the idea as this time last year showed they weren't growing that well.

However, nature took its own course and in the process of our walks around London, instead of me finding green walls, they found me.

Green wall at British Land's introduction to Paddington Central

As well as the blossom I highlighted earlier this week, the new Paddington Central development provided a rich seam of green wallery [is that actually a word? ~ Ed].

Here is my first find, which is one of the more unusual 'window box' styles of green walls, and is the largest example of this type I've found so far. I wonder if it's a temporary installation that will go when the development is complete? I haven't managed to find out much about this example online, hence why it didn't make my initial list of green walls to hunt for last year.

Not all of the green walls at Paddington central had real plants
Beware, all is not what it seems, the little box you can see above the British Land sign contains plastic plants.

Further examples of these were scattered throughout the site on some of the information boards. I imagine it's because these smaller planters would be more difficult to maintain to a good standard.

Surprisingly realistic, no?

A close up of the 'window box' style planters

The above photo gives you a better idea of the main wall's construction, with a little hint in the background of what's coming up next...

Paddington Central's main green wall

This is a more familiar looking green wall as seen in previous Great Green Wall Hunts, which looks like the kind usually installed by Biotecture and/or Scotscape (it has the characteristic round planting holes of their work). Now I know it's there a quick google reveals it was installed in September 2015.

Tweet showing the green wall's construction in progress

I'll return to this area again, as there are canal walks, public art and Chelsea Fringe events to explore.

Later on that afternoon, we arrived in Camden Town, where a walk up the road to Camden Lock revealed...

Viacom's green wall at Camden Lock

Now this green wall is on last year's green wall hunt list, only I didn't get the opportunity to go out to Camden to find it. I think it's nicer to have come across it unexpectedly, don't you? 

The wall clothes the Viacom building (home of MTV et al.), formerly the studios of TV-am, which was remodelled and converted in 2013. Most of the internet references to this green wall, show the courtyard version constructed in 2013. It looks like the building has since been extended outwards and this version was installed in 2016. 

Let's creep up a little closer shall we...

A closer look at the green wall - I love the rest of the colourful exterior too

I'm pleased to have got 2017's Great Green Wall Hunt off to such a good start. Next on my list is to find the one on Bristol University's Life Sciences building. 

I'm also interested if you know of any green walls near where you live - it's clear they're becoming more common outside of London and on a wider variety of developments.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Blossom Time revisited

Crab apple blossom in bloom just minutes away from Paddington Station in the new Paddington Central development

Thanks for all your comments on my Blossom Time post last week and my subsequent entry on the Garden Bloggers Facebook Group. Whilst it wasn't a formal poll of your favourites, I thought I'd share the results. Besides, it gives me the perfect excuse to share the elegant crab apple blossom I discovered in some new public planting at Kingdom Street, Paddington Central last week. My long waiting times for the off-peak trains from the station need never be boring again.

Your favourites broadly agreed with mine with ornamental cherry topping the poll, closely followed by magnolia, then a tie between apple and Amelanchier. Many of you said 'whatever is currently in flower' instead, which is a sentiment I heartily concur.

Hawthorn, blackthorn, quince and pear all got a mention. You also added Cornus mas, camellia, Paulownia and lilac to the list. You reminded me that many flowering shrubs add great blossom value to spring, with Edgeworthia and witch hazel getting a particular nod. I also saw some fantastic ornamental currants at Hardwick Hall last week.

Whatever the final choices, it's clear that Blossom Time struck a chord with many of you.

Striking trees and benches at Paddington Central

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Weekend Wandering: A quick pit stop at Hardwick Hall

Hardwick Hall from the garden entranc

Events conspired to put Christmas on hold for us last year, so it was a treat to have a a few days in Yorkshire with my brother-in-law and family last weekend. Having subjected me to a day at the Sentinel steam weekend at Elsecar (willingly I admit, and with a bonus find of some must-have plants at the farmers market), NAH kindly invited me to choose our stop off on the way home.

I'd often wondered about the imposing grandeur of Hardwick Hall which is easily seen from the M1 on our frequent travels up north, and it turned out to be a good place for lunch and a bracing walk around the grounds for a couple of hours. The Hall itself was closed on the day we were there, which in some ways was a blessing as we would have been tempted to stay for much longer than our journey time allowed.

Hardwick refers to Elizabeth of Hardwick (also known as Bess), who in Tudor times rose from relatively humble origins (a minor gentry family at Hardwick) via 4 marriages to be one of the wealthiest women in England. Her final husband was the powerful Earl of Shrewsbury, hence the prevalence of the ES initials on the Hall's towers proclaiming her rights to all she surveyed. Gwenfar tells me she was a feisty woman, who even stood up to the king, a risky thing to do in those turbulent times.

The Old Hall

Next to the 'New' hall stands the ruined Old Hall, where Bess was born. She bought the Hall back from the Crown in 1581 as the principle creditor her when brother James died in debt. Work on restoration of the Old plus the start on the New Hall began, then Bess fled her estranged husband (Shrewsbury) from Chatsworth, the residence her second husband Sir William Cavendish created. Bess finally moved into the completed New Hall in 1596-7.

When Bess died in 1608, Hardwick was inherited by her second son William Cavendish. The Old Hall was abandoned from the mid 1700s onwards, as the Cavendish's preferred Chatsworth. There was some further restoration work on the Old Hall in the early 1900s and the New Hall became the residence of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. The New Hall was given to the National Trust in 1950, and the Old Hall is now in the care of English Heritage.

View from the New Hall

This photo shows what must be one of the most ornate garden entrances I've ever seen and you can see how close the garden walls of the New Hall are to the Old Hall. After pausing to look across the vast lawn towards the Hall (as shown at the top of the post), a path takes you into the formal gardens which are divided into four main compartments.

There is also a view to the side of the Hall and gardens into the rest of the Estate, framed by trimmed yew hedges and a ha-ha.

View out over the estate and The Wineglass from the New Hall

This view looks out onto The Wineglass, an avenue of trees forming the 'stem' of the glass, which extends outward sand back towards the Hall to form the 'bowl'. The fork in the picture is a warning to visitors not to step forwards into the ha-ha.

The formal gardens consist of an orchard, a nuttery with log piles for wildlife, a rose garden, a large herb garden with wonderfully wiggly hedges, a small stumpery, and large borders holding some promise of floral highlights to come. I wasn't really there at the right time to fully appreciate the latter, but I enjoyed the woodland daffodils, some early blossom and the large magnolia just coming into bloom. There are also some free standing shaped trees - mainly yew - which is always a bonus in my view.

Some views of the gardens in March

Our exit took us across the Estate and down a steep hill past the Hardwick Inn and the Great Pond. Both looked fine places to explore, then head off for a good heart thumping walk. We saw plenty of people doing so - it reminded me of a similar walk I enjoyed at Powis Castle.

Where have you wandered this weekend?

Saturday, 1 April 2017

GBMD: The gardener's prayer

I'm still clearing out mum's house and deciding which possessions should go to her room at the nursing home and whether I'd like to keep anything for old times sake. I seem to remember this large mug came from my nan and grandad's house.

Dad was a founder member of Birmingham Organic Gardeners and was always laughing at the resultant three letter acronym. Going through the reams of old papers my mum stashed away I came across BOG's committee meeting minutes from 20 years ago. The October ones revealed his intention to invite me to give a talk in my previous capacity as Science and Education Officer at Earthwatch. He never did because he died the next month.

Look closely at the words and illustration and you'll see why I've chosen this photo for today's post. Thanks for the giggle dad (and grandad!).

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Blossom Time

My neighbour's magnolia tree, which she also shares with our garden
My neighbour's magnolia tree leans happily over our fence - it's a Magnolia x soulangeana of unknown variety

The past week has seen a transformation here in Chippenham. Green fuzziness is busting out all over, and gorgeous blossom is everywhere. It means from now until May, the trees take centre stage and proclaim spring is truly here.

I'm really lucky living where I am. As well as my neighbour's generosity with her magnolia, whoever chose the trees for our estate did a really good job. Most front gardens have a small tree with around a third of these currently sporting glorious blossom. They're mainly ornamental cherries of various white and pink hues.

Blackthorn blossom leaning over into my back garden

The planners also kept many of the old hedgerows threading through the estate, so whilst I probably wouldn't choose blackthorn as a garden tree, I'm more that happy to find it leaning over our other back garden fence. The blossom has a notorious warning - beware the blackthorn winter - but it is a pretty sight, and I also enjoy picking the fat sloes in the autumn.

Here's some more of our estate's blossom, ornamental cherry this time. Last year, on my Maytime walks I also discovered we have lots of native bird cherry in the more parkland like areas.

If the embedded video doesn't work, try this link instead.

If your garden lacks blossom, there's just enough time left to find yourself a tree. With careful selection you'll have some flowers for now, and then plenty next year onwards.

The best time for planting is usually between November and March when trees are dormant, though container grown ones can usually be planted at any time. Planting now will possibly save you lots of extra watering during the summer to ensure your tree gets well established, though of course it depends on how much rain we actually get.

Some of my favourite blossom time trees

Red Windsor apple blossom
Bright 'Red Windsor' blossom
Apple - great for any garden no matter the size as the various root stocks available mean it can be small enough for a large pot through the full range of sizes to a large-ish stately tree. Blossom and fruit makes for a lot of seasonal interest.

Any fruit tree makes sense for a garden in my view. I also have a soft spot for pear and quince, though the latter has yet to set fruit. My neighbours out front have  a couple of plums and round the corner there's almonds. None of our gardens are particularly large, yet we've still managed to find the right medium sized tree to suit our tastes.

Magnolia stellata
My Magnolia stellata
Magnolia - a frost at the wrong time can lead to heartbreak, but when everything comes together, there's no finer sight in spring than a magnolia in full bloom.

We have to be more careful round here to select lime tolerant varieties like my neighbour's Magnolia x soulangeanaMagnolia stellata works well too and is great for a small garden or pot. I also like the look of Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'.

The Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata 'Paul'sScarlet'
Hawthorn blossom needn't be white
Hawthorn - another hedgerow remnant that leans over my fence and drips with blooms during May. They also make an attractive small to medium tree for a garden with a wonderful gnarled appearance.

I've found it's this tree that's stripped of its berries first by the birds and it's host to a wide variety of insects. Definitely one to consider for a wildlife garden.

Prunus 'Kursar'
Ornamental cherry - an estate favourite here in Chippenham and a feature often seen in our parks and on our streets. There are plenty of beautiful small to medium sized trees to choose from in the catalogues, plus some varieties suitable for pots. It's a good choice for any garden.

A more unusual choice is Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis' which blooms from November until March. If you've ever thought you've seen a cherry blossoming out of season, it's probably this one.

Cercis siliquastrum and topiary
Others - I tried to guerrilla garden an Amelanchier, but then found it doesn't like limey soil. This small tree has it all: beautiful blossom, an elegant habit, good leaf colour, and deep red/black fruit which are liked by wildlife. A good doer on clay soil.

I'm also an admirer of the Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum) at West Green House.

What's your favourite tree for blossom? Update: The results are in... which merited a post all to themselves via Blossom Time Revisited.

Where to find inspiration

Brogdale in Kent is the place for fruit blossom as it has the National Fruit Collection with thousands of different varieties on show. Any garden open to the public near you which boasts a good fruit tree collection or orchard are good bets and may also home in on varieties which grow particularly well in your part of the country.

I particularly love the crab apple trees at Yeo Valley Organic Garden and the old orchard and potager apples at West Green House.

Caerhays Castle in Cornwall hosts the national collection of magnolias. They're quite a sight when you approach the castle via the beach side car park. Keele University has the national collection of flowering cherries. Drive along any country road in May and you'll be bowled over by the hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows.

Further reading

I love Naomi's book Orchard Odyssey, which has lots of inspiration for growing your own orchard in the smallest of spaces (did you know 5 fruit trees constitutes an orchard?). Here's Sally Nex's review.

This post is sponsored by Target Trees.

Note that sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words and pictures are my own. There are no affiliate links or cookies associated with this post.
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