Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Hot swapping pots

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Hot swapping pots

‘Hot swapping’ is a term that I bring with me from my days as a techie. For those of you without the benefit of such a background ;) it means replacing a component in a computer while it’s still turned on. It sounds like a recipe for an electric shock, but if you know what you’re doing then it’s fine.

It occurred to me that it might be nice to have a way of displaying the garden’s current highlights – lots of plants are ornamental for brief periods but then not so stunning for the rest of the year – and so I came up with the idea of ‘hot swapping’ pots.

A quick trip to the garden centre later, and I have 6 colourful ‘outer’ pots. Ryan found some black plastic pots on eBay that fit snugly inside, of which I ordered 20. So I can have a selection of 20 things that are rotated in to the colourful pots on the patio when they’re looking lovely, and out again when they’re past their best.

It’s a work in progress (not least because the garden is only half built!). For the moment I have potted up my three buddleja ‘Buzz’ plants, two of which are in flower, and my last bergamot. Two of my leftover chillies are filling the others at the moment, but only for convenience.

I planted my saffron corms at the weekend, and some went into two of my new pots, and can be hot swapped in for that briefest of moments when they look lovely…. It’s not their permanent home, though, as I’d like to plant them up in my herb planters in the front garden when the cool chillies are done at the end of the season.

I have some ornamental bulbs on order, and they’ll probably go into hot swap pots when they arrive. It’s one way of keeping inedible bulbs out of my raised beds, which will be mainly planted with edibles. With no wish to poison anyone, I wouldn’t plant daffodils in them, for example, but if they’re in properly labelled pots then it’s not a problem.

The plan has already been approved by the local wildlife, who are enjoying the aptly-named ‘butterfly bushes’ in the sunshine:

Butterfly on the butterfly bush

Ryan took this shot, not me!

Posted in Blog on Aug 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 24, 2015

Tag: flowers

Blooming spuds

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Potato flowers

I haven’t really grown potatoes since I moved out of my last garden. I haven’t yet decided whether I will next year – the planting plan for the new garden (which isn’t finished yet, we’re still waiting on sheds) is yet to be finalised. My mother is firmly of the opinion that things like spuds should be grown out of sight from the house. In my garden that would mean the far strip of garden, which we haven’t really tackled yet. It’s not the worst idea ever, potatoes generally fend for themselves, but I have more interesting (and still nebulous) plans for that strip.

I tend to think that all edible plants are, by their very nature, attractive, but it’s not a view that’s commonly shared. So I was pondering whether there are potato varieties that are edimental – for which the foliage and flowers are pretty enough to warrant a place in any garden. Potato flowers are certainly pretty enough (and there are ornamental Solanums with very similar blooms).

For a potato plant to be edimental it would have to have an attractive habit and not be too lax. Blight resistance would be important in many areas, as it won’t be pretty when the foliage is attacked. Some potato varieties don’t flower, others do, so an edimental variety would have to be one of the more floriferous ones.

I posed the question on Twitter and received some interesting responses:

A similar discussion on Facebook also mentioned Blue Danube and other blue-flowered varieties, and suggested that the gold standard for ornamental potatoes is growing some of Tom Wagner’s varieties from seed. Apparently many of them are indeterminate, in flower of a long period of time and even have scented flowers! Magic Dragon is particularly pretty, and has some resistance to late blight. For those varieties you’d have to buy seed directly from Tom (in the States) and save your own tubers for replanting each year.

Potato flowers

We don’t normally pay much attention to potato plants, being more interested in the yield, flavour and even colour of the tubers than the foliage and flowers. But have you come across a variety that you thought was particularly ornamental?

Posted in Blog on Aug 22, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 19, 2015

Tag: veg

In alphabetical order

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The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z

When I first became a freelance writer, I had no thoughts of writing a book. It wasn’t that it was daunting, but rather that there were a lot of gardening books on the market and I couldn’t see how there needed to be any more. My garden had been slowly growing for a few years, the grow dome was just about finished and in use, and I had started to become interested in unusual edibles, but I wasn’t a gardening expert – just an enthusiastic amateur. I knew that I didn’t want to add to the army of books that tell you exactly what you need to do in your vegetable patch every month in the year.

I was in the bath, not thinking about much at all, when then idea for The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z came to me. I thought that an alphabetical structure would allow me to cover a lot of disparate topics that I had been learning about, trying out, and writing about, over my first few years of being a gardener.

Contents page 1

I had already had a couple of articles published in Permaculture Magazine (they pay in kind, not in cash), and knew that they also published books. So I sent a book synopsis to the editor, who rapidly replied to say that she liked the idea and would like some time to discuss it with the rest of the team, and politely asked me not to offer it to anyone else in the meantime.

I remember there being a bit of a lag before my proposal was formally accepted and I was signed on as a Permanent Publications author. It can’t have been too long, however, since by September of 2008 I had finished the first draft of the book – 90,000 words! I had to do some serious trimming in places…. Writing it was a remarkably smooth process, the only challenges being presented by the self-imposed alphabetical format. The sections for Q, X, Y and Z involved some creative thinking!

Contents page 1

With the bookazine, the process was quick – from signing a contract in December it was on shelves the following March. Getting my first book published was more drawn out.

In the end it was ‘rushed’ out in time for the Big Green Gathering in July 2009. I was going to attend, complete with a hundred or so copies of the book, and do some workshops. If I remember correctly, we had to buy a tent. But the gathering was cancelled at the last minute, and so my triumphant book launch didn’t happen.

Contents page 1

The feedback I got for the book was that people enjoyed the honesty with which I portrayed being a gardener – talking about failures as well as successes! The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z is the story of how my garden grew, and how I developed as a gardener in the early years. It’s about being embedded in the online gardening community, and in his foreword Mark Diacono wrote “as you’d expect if you’re familiar with Emma’s work, it’s a generous book, linking people, organisations and the reader throughout, joining the dots as it goes.” It’s also about growing edible and useful plants in an environmentally-friendly way, which is its elevator pitch :)

There’s a lot in the book that I will be revisiting now that I have a new garden to play with.

Earlier this year, the publisher confirmed that they had sold all of their copies of The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z and were letting it go out of print. The rights have reverted to me, and in the future I may well do a second, updated edition. In the meantime, I have a few copies left, so give me a shout if you’d like a brand new copy, signed by the author! (If you’re not in the UK, the postage tends to me more than the price of the book, so you may want to look elsewhere for a copy.)

Posted in Blog on Aug 19, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 19, 2015

Tags: writing & books.

Blooming lovely

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DeliDahlia® Hapet® Black Jack

DeliDahlia® Hapet® Sunset and Black Jack

DeliDahlia® Hapet® Buga München

Three of the edible dahlias in flower today.

Posted in Blog on Aug 15, 2015 ·

Tag: unusual

Astronaut eat their veggies!

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It’s hard to imagine anyone being more excited about eating lettuce than the three astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) were yesterday, when they tucked into the first leaves of space-grown lettuce they’ve been allowed to eat. Despite having to sanitise the leaves first, with citric-acid-based, food-safe, antibacterial wipes (yummy!), they broke out the oil and vinegar and tucked in with gusto. They even thanked Mission Control and the scientists for giving them the opportunity to take part in this payload mission, and saved some samples for the Russian cosmonauts who were outside on a spacewalk at harvest time.

The astronauts proclaimed their simple space salad “Awesome!”, and said it tasted like arugula (that’s US English for rocket). The variety chosen, a red romaine called ‘Outredgeous’, could become increasingly popular on Earth after its 15 minutes of space fame. Readily available in North America, seeds are harder to come by in the UK, but are included in the Wildfire Lettuce Mixture sold by Nicky’s Nursery.

It’s over a year since I blogged about astronaut Steve Swanson gardening on the ISS. Although he harvested his crop, he wasn’t allowed to eat it. The leaves had to be frozen and returned to Earth for safety tests first.

And whilst space veggies may capture the imagination, and be a way to encourage kids to eat their ‘reds’, the astronauts won’t be growing much of their own food any time soon. Although we’ll need sustainable systems for the planned long duration missions to Mars, scientists are still figuring out how to build them.

In the meantime, we can be amazed at this achievement, and the benefits it is bringing to agriculture at less rarefied atmospheres. NASA have an article on the benefits of space farming, which include improvements to commercial LED lighting systems, and ethylene-scrubbers that also remove airborne bacteria, moulds and fungi, mycotoxins, viruses, and odours and can be used in distribution facilities, food processing plants, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, and large floral shops and have also been added to fridges. They can aid in food preservation and disease control, and sensors developed to monitor the crop whilst the astronauts are busy elsewhere are already helping Earthlings look after their houseplants!

Posted in Blog on Aug 11, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 11, 2015

Tags: space & science.

Webb's Prize Cobnut

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Webb's Prize Cobnut

At the beginning of 2009 I went a bit nuts and ordered myself two Webb’s Prize Cobnuts from Victoriana Nursery Gardens (a cultivated variety of the hazelnut, Corylus avellana). They have lived in large containers ever since, and have suffered somewhat in the various moves and periods of neglect they have been subjected to in the gardening interregnum.

They are currently sitting in my front garden, since last weekend we moved all of the refugee plants there from the garden strip that is further away (and harder to water).

The problem is I’m not sure where they fit in the new garden. I have a feeling that space is going to be at a premium, and they don’t earn their keep. They have never been productive (hardly their fault, I would imagine), and now that I live in a more rural area there’s more risk of any nuts being snaffled by squirrels. It’s not as if they add much in the way of wildlife value, since the garden is opposite a tall, wild hedge.


Beyond their nuts, the only other use for this plant would be to coppice it for hazel poles. That’s a possibility, especially considering Ryan wants to experiment with making his own charcoal, and we’re planning on having a fire pit when the garden is finished. The ideal time to coppice a hazel (which, in essence, means cutting it right back) is the middle of winter. Whether or not a coppiced tree would be happy in a large container… I suspect nobody knows. The Forestry Commission have published a good guide to hazel coppicing which suggests cutting every 6-10 years. Which makes mine an ideal age for a first cut, I think – but also means Ryan would have to wait another 6 years for any more wood ;)

Perhaps the best idea would be to try it with one of my trees first, leaving the other for another year if the first survives the treatment. In the meantime they could probably do with a top dressing of fresh compost and a bit of a feed. They’ve been fending for themselves for quite some time.

As you can see, I’m currently in the process of building myself a new garden. The story of my first garden is told in The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z. That book is currently sold out and hard to get hold of, but if you’re in the UK you can order a signed copy from me for £12 inc. p&p. Drop me a line if you’d like one.

Posted in Blog on Aug 9, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: nuts

Safe arbour

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Sorrento Corner Arbour

When I first received my Sorrento Corner Arbour, I was thrilled. It made a lovely addition to the garden, although when I helped Ryan put it together in June 2013 I knew that it would be a short-lived one. In September 2013 the house and garden were sold, the arbour was dismantled, and it lived down the side of my parents’ garage for a year or so before it came with us to the new house last year.

It wasn’t until work was about to start on the paving that we put it back together, deciding that it would be easier to move around in one piece. We thought it would make a nice seating area with a firepit, even though it was a little the worse for wear after its travels. Not quite as sturdy as it had been originally.

Structural modifications

Once the paving was complete and the arbour was in place, we accepted that it just didn’t fit. Its L-shape would make it tricky for me to get into my shed (which is now on order, woo hoo!), and there wasn’t another place we could put it. We considered finding a new home for the arbour, and what we might put in its place. But Ryan is an engineer, and in the corner arbour he could see the bones of a new one….

So at the end of last month, Ryan enlisted the help of his dad (again) to redesign the arbour into one that fits our space and our needs. I helped by staying out of the way!

Safe arbour

It didn’t take long, and by lunch time the new arbour had emerged. It’s much sturdier, put together with a large number of new (and higher quality) screws. As you can see, it is well supplied with trellis for climbing plants – I’m thinking a vine might sit in a nice large pot by the side. And we’ve put the solar lights back, which twinkle at dusk (and into the night, if it has been a sunny day).

Posted in Blog on Aug 5, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 4, 2015

Tag: general

Review: 100 Skills You'll Need for the End of the World

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Every civilization appears to have had an obsession with its own end. Ours is no exception, with apocalypse movies of every ilk being made. If you think about the End of the World as We Know It then World War Z may come to mind, or American preppers hiding out in their well-stocked bunkers. Either way, it comes with a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality – the new reality won’t be a safe and comfortable place.

In the pithily-titled 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as we know it), Ana Maria Spagna puts forth a different philosophy. We may be reduced to a simpler way of life, but cooperation will be the key here. As well as including some obvious survival skills in her list, Spagna includes social skills such as bartering and negotiation, story telling and plain old conversation. The implication is that no one person will embody all of the skills – we will need to rely on each other, and security comes from being part of a community. There’s nothing included about defence or weaponry beyond that useful for hunting.

Readers won’t necessarily agree with her choices and omissions. I could personally live without ‘cloud reading’, and ‘latrine digging’ is something I think you could learn on the fly, and wouldn’t need to practice in advance (although it would certainly be an essential task if the sewer system broke down, I’m not sure I’d call it a skill). And I don’t see why – amid growing, foraging and preserving food – cooking didn’t get a mention. A decent meal would make even the end of the world seem less onerous.

100 skills is a thickish, but small book. It’s not a manual, it won’t help you survive the end of the world. Very few entries contain instructions (‘ink making’ says “Find a recipe, wear old clothes, and make your mark”). And the book (published by Storey) is very American, including bird calls for American species and an assertion of the current American orthodoxy that planting native plants is a much better idea that going for something non-native. (I tend towards a more balanced view.)

Serious preppers wouldn’t give it more than a moment’s consideration, but if you’re pondering a different end-of-the-world scenario, then you may find it gives you food for thought. At the very least, it may suggest a few new fun things to try.

Posted in Blog on Aug 3, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jul 31, 2015

Tag: books

Review: Garden shoes

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Garden shoes

I’ve ruined countless pairs of slippers, by wearing them out into the garden. The intention is never to stray off the path, to just pop out for a second… it’s not worth stopping to pull on your wellies. But then you spot a little job that needs doing right now and one thing leads to another, and you’ve got mud all over your slippers, which you then track back into the house. (When we’re outside for longer, and wearing our boots, it’s too much trouble to take them off if we need to pop in and fetch something, so the same thing happens).

When the garden was just lawn, there was nothing pressing for me to do outside, and it was obvious that stepping out would drench my slippers in dew, so it wasn’t a problem. But the patio was designed to entice us outside, and it’s doing its job very well. And the plants in the raised beds demand my attention on occasion. So my slippers are now living a precarious existence.

The solution is simple – a pair of garden shoes, weather-proof slip-ons that you can exchange for your slippers in a second, and will take whatever the garden will throw at them. I had a cheap pair in the old house, and they were endlessly useful for just popping out into the garden. They were used and abused, particularly by being borrowed by someone with much bigger feet than me, and weren’t worth keeping when I moved house and was garden-less for a few years.

So I jumped at the chance to review a pair for Quality Wellies, who have a good range of nicer ones on their website. They sent the Cotsworld Backdoor Garden Show in green, which sells for £24.95.

It’s a robust shoe, heavier than my previous pair, and feels very sturdy. It’s completely waterproof, with a nice set of grips on the base to prevent slips and slides. They come up a little roomy, so with summer socks on they’re a bit loose, but that just means they’ll still be comfortable with thick winter socks. There’s no risk of them falling off since – unlike many garden shoes – they have a back.

They have proved perfect for the task, sitting by the back door. They’re no trouble to put on and take off, and mean I can wander into the garden whenever I feel like it, without risking my slippers or the rug in the lounge. They’re just what the (rug) doctor ordered ;)

Posted in Blog on Jul 31, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tag: reviews

Planting perennial veggies

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Unboxing perennial plants

A week ago, I received the most wonderful gift. Alison from The Backyard Larder sent me a collection of edible perennial plants to restart my garden – a transplant from her garden to mine :) Some of the species are replacements for plants that didn’t survive the garden move, others are new ones for me to try.

Alison told me they were on their way, so there were raised beds ready and waiting for them, and I planted them out the same day they arrived.

A week later, they all appear to have settled in well and be putting on new growth.

Perennial bed 1

In this bed there’s good King Henry and Sea kale at the back, sea beet in the middle, and clove root and perennial leeks at the front. At the weekend I popped in some nasturtiums I grew from Unwins seeds – the variegated leaves belong to the ‘Alaska’ variety.

Perennial bed 2

And the second perennial bed has skirret and non-flowering garden sorrel at the back, with Buckler-leaf sorrel in the centre and French tarragon and skirret at the front. The nasturtiums here are Princess of India.


Two of the plants found a home elsewhere. There’s a complete absence of shade in the garden at the moment, so I have potted up my new Hablitzia tamnoides, and it is sitting in the untidy area by the kitchen window (you know, the one that doesn’t appear in any photos), where it can benefit from partial shade until the garden is further along and it can find a permanent home.

And I tucked the Orpine (Sedum telephium) into another bed, which is currently home to a courgette, some tomatoes and some Mexican tree spinach (AKA magenta spreen, Chenopodium giganteum). It filled the gap where one of my hastily transplanted courgettes had failed to thrive.

Bonus blogette:

Poundshop Triteleia bulbs

Tidying my desk over the last few days, I came across two packets of Triteleia bulbs I bought in the pound shop in spring and then promptly forgot about. Having consulted the Oracle, I was advised that I may as well try planting them, as the worst that could happen was that they would feed the worms. So this morning I have added them to the two perennial beds. I scattered the bulbs to give me ‘naturalistic drifts’ ;), and then had to go hunting for the one that flew over the raised bed into the no man’s land that will eventually be a border. Then I dibbed them in rather randomly. Had I planted them in spring (although I had nowhere to plant them in spring) then they would be in flower now. As it is, we will have to wait and see whether they survive to flower next year.

Posted in Blog on Jul 29, 2015 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tags: perennial & unusual.

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