Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Why is it so hard to find a good tradesperson?

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Bob the builder
Where have all the good builders gone?
Image credit: clement127

I would very much like to spend spring playing in my garden – but there’s not much point trying to do anything until the paving is down. It’s a big job, and not one that we can confidently do ourselves, and so we’re trying to hire a tradesperson to do it.

Last week I rang three different companies. I got through to one guy right away. For the other two I had to leave messages, and quite frankly I was surprised when they both rang me back later. Not only that, all three turned up when they said they would. I thought we were on a roll. I should have known better.

A week later, two of them have not yet supplied quotes. The third scribbled a figure on the back of his business card, which does not inspire confidence. Ryan has been trying to contact a fourth company, and they won’t return his calls.

Even when we finally choose a company, we’ll have to wait a few weeks, so it doesn’t look like my paving will be done this side of midsummer.

It’s not the first time I’ve had this problem. In fact, I have this problem almost every time I need work done. The only tradespeople who seem to be keen to work and show up when they say they will are plasterers. I don’t currently need a plasterer.

When I was trying to sell the last house, it needed some work (mainly redecoration). I called four companies. Two didn’t call back. The fourth yelled at me down the phone – he asked how many people I’d rung and I told him. Apparently it would have been completely acceptable for me to ask for two other quotes, but three was taking the p*ss. He refused to even quote for the job. So, in the end, only one of the four turned up and quoted. Fortunately he was pleasant, and competent, and so I could give him the job.

And before anyone mentions those websites that allow you to find local, ‘recommended’ tradesmen, we used one of those when we needed someone to fix the roof. And the less said about that tradesman, the better….

I have a job I need doing, and the money to pay for it. I’d like to hire someone to do the work, and there are people out there who advertise this service – why don’t any of them actually want the job?

Posted in Blog on Apr 18, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 18, 2015

Tag: general

Making progress

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It will be a while yet before the paving is sorted out, but we’re making progress in the garden. A sunny weekend allowed us to put the arbor back up, although it can’t yet sit in its final location:

The arbor is back up
The arbor will have to wait a while to be covered in climbing plants

And we may not have our fire pit yet, but a cheap BBQ bucket meant we could have the first BBQ of the year:

BBQ :)
It was a bit cold and windy, but Ryan still managed to cook dinner outside :)

The fold-away washing line has been up for a week or so, and makes a big difference:

Washing line is up
Our new washing line, in action

The birds are ravenous, and keep eating all the food we put out in the feeders. I put up a nesting spiral for them as well, full of wool and feathers and straw. To begin with I thought it might be too late – there was no interest. But I have seen a blue tit tugging away and flying off with a beak full of wool :)

Nesting spiral
Interior decorating supplies for our feathered friends

And I have jumped the gun a little, and bought some new plants. My new Ice Peach is acclimatising in the cold frame:

Ice peach blossoms
Ice peach blossom

Posted in Blog on Apr 16, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 12, 2015

Tag: general

A species-rich environment

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Spring has arrived, and the natural world has started to appear in colour, rather than monochrome. My garden isn’t much of a garden yet, but it does still have its charms. Including a lawn that is not weedy, but rather a species-rich environment.

Hairy bittercress
Hairy bittercress is everywhere, although you have to be looking for it to see it

White violets
White violets have sprung up under the bird table

blue violets
As have blue ones. I will have to save them – their location will soon be under the patio

Dead nettles
Dead nettles are pretty (and have no sting)

Daisy in clover
The daisies are in clover in the front garden

And even the dandelions are pretty in the sunshine

Posted in Blog on Apr 13, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 12, 2015

Tags: gardens & weeds.

Down the garden path: planning the paving

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Our garden plan

This is our garden plan for the front garden and the ‘back’ garden (which is at the side of the house, strictly speaking). The red areas are paving – a garden path, a wide patio and enough hardstanding to go underneath two sheds (one of which may turn out to be a greenhouse).

The idea behind the patio is that it runs the length of the garden from the patio doors, enticing you out of the house and down to where we’ll put the arbor and some sort of fire pit. As you walk down the patio you’ll be surrounded by the long edge of the raised beds, which will be planted with pretty/scented plants. The ‘E’ shape of the raised beds means that I can get round the back and reach into any spot to do my gardening.

Our initial thought was that we’d like block paving for the patio, in a mixture of colours. Slightly unconventional, perhaps, but I’m after fun and quirky rather than stylish perfection.

This week I started the process of finding someone do to the paving. The first guy came round on Thursday evening, and was pleasant enough. He wasn’t a big fan of the block paving idea, though, saying he “didn’t think it would look nice”. Faced with a number of online paving catalogues with small pictures, and no real idea of what I wanted, we choose a couple of paving slab designs and sent them off to him so that he can provide us with a quote.

And then I gave it some more thought, and looked at the catalogues a bit more, and decided that we’d picked some of the most conventional paving slabs out there. They’re nice enough, but they’re a bit… meh. And whilst we of course value an expert’s opinion on what would be the best sort of paving for our garden, we don’t need to take on board his personal opinion on what would look nice or not. It’s not his garden, and I certainly don’t want to be looking at boring paving with regret for the next twenty years. If block paving turns out to be a mistake, that’s fair enough – but at least it would be our mistake.

Posted in Blog on Apr 11, 2015 ·

Tag: planning

Tea Club: Lotus Leaf Tuo Cha

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Lotus leaf tuo cha

I’m still behind on my Tea Club tastings, as it’s hard to find the time to settle down and go through the process of getting all the tea things out and making a proper cup of tea. Plus, you have to be in the mood to try something new. We were last night, and so Ryan and I tried Twinings Lotus Leaf Tuo Cha, which comes in individually-wrapped little bricks of tea.

To make the tea you unwrap it, rinse it with some boiling water and then let it brew in the tea pot. I thought it might unfurl like a flower tea – there’s a lotus leaf in there somewhere – but it doesn’t. What it does do is start off the most amazing peach colour, and gradually darken to burnt orange.

Aroma-wise, the first thought I had was ‘smoked fish’, which I think is simply because I don’t eat a lot of smoky foods (but I do like a bit of smoked fish!) and so it was the first place my brain went.

The tasting notes (see video below) suggest you taste the tea regularly through its five minute brewing time, to see at which point you like it most. It’s a Pu-erh black tea, and can get quite strong.

We dutifully did that, sipping hot tea every couple of minutes, and then pouring the rest after the five minutes are up. At that point the smoky flavour really does come out, but there are also hay\honey notes that are particularly pleasant. It sounds daft, but it brought to mind our visit last year to Butser ancient farm. This tea smells like life in a roundhouse – all thatched roof and open fires :)


Ryan and I paid a lovely visit to Butser in February last year. It was a painfully cold day, but we fed the sheep and the goats (they keep ancient breeds), looked around the Iron Age roundhouses and grain stores, and stepped into the Roman villa to see how the Romans kept warm. I want to go back during the summer – they grow ancient crops in their field. They wouldn’t have had any tea though!

Posted in Blog on Apr 7, 2015 ·

Last modified on Apr 5, 2015

Tag: tea

Easter weekend gardening offers

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Succulent ‘eggs’ in Kathy Brown’s garden

Happy Easter everyone, I hope the Easter bunny has brought you plenty of chocolate! If you’re in the mood for some garden shopping then there are some good offers on this weekend:

Suttons are offering free P&P until midnight on Tuesday 7th April 2015 to everyone who uses the coupon code S15EASTER.

You’ll have to be a bit quicker if you want to take advantage of the free P&P offer at Sarah Raven, as it only lasts until midnight on Monday. The code you need for that one is CHOCOLATE :)

At Thompson & Morgan you can claim 20% off your order using the code TNE519Z, which is valid until 5pm on Tuesday.

And don’t forget there’s a perennial discount on all orders at Victoriana Nursery Gardens for customers who click through from this website :)

If you’re in need of some inspiration, why not think about growing your own chocolate?

Have a great day!

Posted in Blog on Apr 5, 2015 ·

Tag: offers

Book review: Steeped

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Steeped, by Annalies Zijderveld

I have been a tea drinker for as much of my life as I can remember, but for most of that time tea has been a part of the background of my life – ever present, but not something I took much notice of. In the last few months that has changed, and I have been exploring new blends and flavours of tea, and I am looking forward to growing some of my own tea plants in my new garden this summer.

It may seem to be a logical next step to include tea in food recipes, but it is not an idea that had occurred to me until I encountered matcha – the green tea powder that makes it makes its way into everything from smoothies and muffins to porridge and tiramisu.

In Steeped: recipes infused with tea, Annalies Zijderveld explores much further the idea of cooking with tea, exploring the potential of tea to be used more as a herb or spice (a source of flavour) than as a drink.

The beginning of the book looks at some of the ways in which tea is drunk around the world. Apparently, 85% of tea drunk in the United States is served iced. Brrrr. Regular blog readers will recall my recent experiments with Tibetan Butter tea; in Russia, we’re told, smoky black tea is likely to be sweetened with a spoonful of jam – which does lead to delightful flights of fancy in which you mix and match tea blends and jam flavours.

With so many different flavours of tea on offer, the recipe possibilities must be nearly endless. Steeped limits itself to recipes using 10 ‘classic’ teas – 4 black, 4 green and 2 herbal brews. Once you’ve stocked your cupboard, it walks you through the basics of cooking with tea, including the different methods for brewing used in the recipes later.

The recipes themselves are arranged chronologically, under ‘Morning tea’, ‘Midday tea’, ‘Afternoon tea’, ‘High tea’ and ‘Sweet tea’. Each one is clearly laid out and easy to read; only some are accompanied by colour photos of the finished dish.

Some of the ones that caught my eye are:

Blueberry scones with Rooibos honey butter, Green tea vinegar, Tea crackers with herbed labneh, and Mint pea soup, but there’s plenty more here that I think I might try – I like the way that Steeped zooms between different cuisines and has been put together with thoughts of flavour, rather than simply trying to insert tea into everyday recipes that are fine without it.

You could use Steeped as the kind of recipe book that you pull off the shelf, choose one thing to make and then put it back until next time. But I think it’s also the kind of book that could pull you in, and encourage you to stock up on a few more teas and really get in to using tea as a source of flavour. With the Green tea vinegar, for example, you’re making something that’s not intended for immediate use, but which improves with age. And there’s even a recipe that makes use of the tea leaves once you’ve got to the bottom of the bottle.

So… using tea as a herb is an intriguing concept, and Steeped is an intriguing book. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for tea. I have my eye on the Green tea coconut rice :)

Steeped: recipes infused with tea
By Annalies Zijderveld
Hardback, 126 pages, RRP £12.00
ISBN 9781449464974
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Also available on Kindle.

Release date is 9th April 2015.

Disclosure: I was provided with a preview ebook by the publisher. The review is my own, and the hard copy is on my wishlist :)

Posted in Blog on Apr 3, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 29, 2015

Tags: books & tea.

Reader offer: Save 20% on Lubera's exciting plants

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edible dahlia in flower
Lubera’s new ‘Sunset’ edible dahlia variety

The paperback version of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs will be out later this month. It’s a jaunt into the world of unusual edible plants, and the people who grow them, touching on topics such as forgotten vegetables, perennial pleasures, unusual herbs and Andean crops.

Heritage/ heirloom varieties are discussed in the book, but so too are the new varieties that result from ongoing breeding efforts, so it seems like a good time to introduce you to Lubera, who are breeding and developing varieties of edible plants that thrive in cooler climates.

Markus Kobelt founded Lubera in the Rhine valley, in the middle of the Swiss Alps, in 1993 with his aunt Anni Grässli-Gasenzer. Their family has been growing fruit trees for three generations, and in the last 10 years Lubera has bred and introduced more than 80 new varieties to the market.

Although the name of the company many not be familiar to you, you may have seen some of their introductions on offer through well-known seed and plant companies – including the red-fleshed Red Love apples, pink blueberries and the Fourberry.

edible dahlia tubers
Lubera’s DeliDahlia Hapet Kennedy

Now they’re selling their full range of plants directly to UK customers through their new website, and you can have them delivered right to your door. A trawl through their online catalogue will bring up something suitable for every space (it goes beyond fruit trees into herbs and vegetables, and even ornamental plants).

One of their new ranges this year is ‘DeliDahlias’ – varieties of dahlias bred for their edible tubers. They’ve taken the guess work out of growing edible dahlias from seed, and each of their varieties has a distinctive flavour – from asparagus and kohl rabi, through fresh parsley to fennel and celery. They can even be grown in containers, although you’ll get a larger yield of tubers if you can give them a larger pot. An exciting new root crop with a show of flowers – what could be better?

goji berry in flower
Goji berry ‘Instant Success’ in flower

If, like me, you’ve tried to grow your own goji superfruits, you may have been disappointed. The plants are large and spiny, with a tendency to be thuggish. A bit on the temperamental side, they need full sun and fruit on old wood – which makes pruning them to keep them under control a little tricky. It’s generally not worth the effort in a small garden.

But Lubera have a goji variety that they say solves all of those problems. ‘Instant Success’ is compact, and fruits in its first year. Not only that, it can be pruned every year, making it infinitely more manageable and more worthy of inclusion. Gojis are actually pretty plants, with their purple star-shaped flowers (they’re in the Solanum family, so you’ll see the resemblance to pepper and aubergine flowers) followed by strings of fruit that ripen from green to bright red and look like Christmas lights.

goji berry in fruit
Goji berry ‘Instant Success’ in fruit

There are many more exciting things I could unearth from the Lubera catalogue for you, but in the spirit of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I’m going to leave it there and let you explore for yourself :)

To start you on your adventure, Lubera are offering us an exclusive discount code (ECBUK-1504-01), which will save you 20% on any order placed via their website during April 2015. If you use it, do come back and let me know what caught your eye!

Posted in Blog on Apr 1, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 29, 2015

Tag: offers

How to start your vegetable garden for less

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Veg plot
Beautiful bounty needn’t be expensive

At the moment I’m building a new garden from scratch, and as I’m putting in hard landscaping it’s taking some time (which is frustrating) and the project has a budget. This is in complete contrast to when I started my first garden, which started small, had no plan, and no budget to speak of.

When you start a new vegetable patch, it’s easy to be bamboozled by all of the gardening products on the market, and to end up spending far more on the garden than you ever would have on the resulting produce. Although saving money isn’t the only reason for growing your own, it’s nice to know that you can do so on a budget, if you have to, or that you can save your money and buy yourself a really nice greenhouse ;)

Sources of free gardening information

  • If you’re a novice and you need to learn how to grow your own vegetables, then a quick trip to the bookshop will show you that there are more books on the basics than any one person could ever read. A good one will be a handy reference for years to come, but to find out which one suits you best it pays to read a few – so start by heading to the library and borrowing one or two, or seeing if a friend has one to lend.

  • There’s no end of information available for free on the internet, and if you have a couple of pounds to spend you could also check out the local secondhand bookshop, as vegetable gardening advice hasn’t changed much in the last few years.

Tools on the cheap

  • There are very few tools that you need to start a garden. A hand trowel, a fork, a spade and maybe a rake. Secateurs a bit later. Buy them as you find you need them, rather than all at once at the start.

  • See if you can borrow from friends or relatives. Keep an eye out on Freecycle or at garage sales – people are always clearing out unwanted tools from the shed. You can also pick up tools at car boot sales for the same reason. Even if you buy new ones, they don’t have to be expensive, but they do need to be sturdy. A cheap fork or spade is generally a bad investment, as the handle will snap or bend when you first hit something hard.

Recycle what you can

  • You don’t need special trays for seeds or seedlings – you can grow them in recycled food containers. Flat trays, yoghurt pots, even tin cans can be re-purposed to hold compost (but do be careful there aren’t any rough edges you could cut yourself on).

  • Even the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls can be used to sow seeds in, and you can learn to make your own from newspaper with a little origami and some instructions from the internet.

  • Clear plastic bottles are useful as cloches to help protect seedlings from the weather and from slugs and snails.

  • Set up a compost bin or pile (it doesn’t need to be fancy) to recycle your garden and vegetable waste into compost to feed your plants and improve your soil.

Plants for free

  • If you have some plants, then you can make more of them for free by learning the basics of propagation (a book from the library will come in handy). Whether it’s by saving seeds, taking cuttings or dividing plants, most of the things in the garden can be multiplied for free.

  • And once you have a few spares you can discover one of the great joys of gardening – swapping with other gardeners! I’ve never met a bunch of people so keen to share what they have, whether it’s surplus seeds or seedlings, divisions of plants that have grown too large or cuttings from their favourite specimens.

  • Seed swaps are great fun, and a wonderful way to get your hands on lots of varieties of seed for very little money. Many don’t have an entry fee, and some even look kindly on gardeners who turn up empty handed. But if you’ve got a few seeds to swap then you’ll be laden down with fresh supplies by the time that you leave.

Beware of hidden costs

It’s easy to keep track of obvious expenses, where you’re shelling out cash for something and getting a receipt. But have you thought about the hidden costs, such as watering the garden if you have a water meter?

  • There’s plenty you can do to cut down on the need for watering, including growing more drought-tolerant plants, watering at the right time of day, and giving plants the right amount of water at the right point in their lifecycle.

  • Improving your soil, and mulching plants, are wise investments.

  • Ultimately, the best way to ensure your watering doesn’t cost you a penny is to set up a water butt. Your local water company or council may offer a subsidized model, or you may find one secondhand (some people even give them away). If not then you can reuse large plastic barrels, but make sure they were previously used for food rather than something noxious, and that you wash them well.

What are your favourite ways to cut the cost of gardening?

Disclosure: this post was written in association with Hartley Botanic.

Posted in Blog on Mar 27, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 25, 2015

Tag: gardens

Garden visit: Hestercombe

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The view towards the restored mill

Earlier in the month, Ryan and I took a short break in Somerset, spending two nights in Taunton. The weather wasn’t wonderful, but one of the days was dry (though overcast) and we decided to explore Hestercombe, a large garden that has been (and is being) restored. It boasted lakes, a restored mill, formal gardens, a restaurant, a plant shop and a secondhand book shop, so we were sold.

We were feeling adventurous, so we took the long route around the gardens, which involves tramping around several lakes (all linked together, and forming the mill stream) on numerous levels. The views are spectacular, especially early in the morning when there aren’t many other visitors.

The spring flowers were out in force, and I had a new camera to play with:


Sweet violets

Hellebore 2

Primroses 2

Thatched cabin
Thatched cabin overlooking a waterfall

One of the nice things about the gardens is that they’re dotted with follies and garden buildings, and you never know what you’re going to see when you turn the next corner.

Nearer the house there are formal gardens, complete with water features:

Formal garden

And you can walk through the restored mill. It looks as though they do demonstrations of water-powered mill equipment (such as lathes), although they weren’t working on the day we visited. On the pond nearest the Mill there’s a swan. Either buy some bird food on your way into the gardens, or steer clear of him, because he’s grumpy! He pecked Ryan!

Ryan being pecked by a swan
Ryan being pecked by a swan

We weren’t 100% happy with our lunch, but it was passable. They do plant sales, but of the ornamental things growing in the garden, so nothing I wanted to bring home. But I bought a book in the secondhand bookshop, and a couple of packets of seeds in the gift shop, so I was content.

All in all we enjoyed our (long) walk around Hestercombe and will no doubt visit again next time we’re in that neck of the woods. Have you been?

Disclosure: this post was brought to you in association with, but I can assure you it was my legs doing all the walking!

Posted in Blog on Mar 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 21, 2015

Tag: gardens

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.