Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

First day of spring

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Devil's claw

If you haven’t already seen it, check out Google’s doodle for today. To celebrate the spring equinox, the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, they’ve got a little cartoon human watering the plants. They grow pretty fast – must be weeds ;)

It’s a work day, so I won’t be celebrating the first day of spring by doing any gardening, but I did get out to the allotment at the weekend to make some progress there. Ryan helped me to set up my water butt in a new (but still temporary) location. It doesn’t have a downpipe feeding into it as I don’t have a shed, but it will collect some water when it rains. Ryan also helped me to dig out some unwanted rootballs; I inherited a thriving population of thornless blackberries when I took on the plot, and if I don’t thin them down I won’t have any room to grow anything else!

I brought home some potting compost in which to sow some seeds – three varieties of sweet pepper (F1 Sunshine, Tequila Sunrise and Corno di Toro Rosso) plus Garnet, which is bred for drying and grinding into paprika. The white sprouting broccoli and flower sprouts I sowed on Sunday have already germinated and are pushing up little seedlings on my office windowsill (brassicas being the speed freaks of the seed world). Like the peppers, my final sowing will take a little longer. Ibicella lutea syn Proboscidea lutea is a variety of Devil’s Claw or martynia. These plants grow hard, spiny seed pods that are shaped like caltrops and stick into the feet of animals. It’s their means of seed dispersal. That would be enough to make them interesting, but those same seed pods are edible when immature, and can be turned into pickles.

I don’t know of anyone who has tried growing Devil’s Claws, so if you have then do let me know in the comments. You can read more about my adventures in growing unusual edible plants (and the characters I’ve met along the way) in my new ebook, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs. The official release date is 1st May 2014 and you can preview the book at Smashwords. It’s also now available for pre-order from the NOOK book store!

Posted in Blog on Mar 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Mar 20, 2014

Tags: allotment & unusual.

Rhubarb and alliums

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Rhubarb bud

I wanted to go to the allotment at the weekend (Saturday was the first (mostly) dry day in yonks!) but was given the opportunity to be an extra in a fun corporate video, and since that involved getting my face painted I did that instead.

So today I have been to the allotment for the first time in ages. The ground is very wet. My sloping plot isn’t doing too badly, but the grass paths around the site are sodden and make for slippery progress. The rhubarb plants are putting forth giant buds, and one is even unfurling a leaf. It was hard to get a good photo because the afternoon sun is still low, and shines in your eyes the whole time.

I sowed the last of my packet of broad bean ‘Karmazyn’, which had a sow by date of June 2011. I know the seeds are just fine, because I sowed some in a container on the windowsill and they all germinated. I didn’t get to the allotment to plant them, and so instead I used them to prove that sprouting broad beans isn’t the best idea! They rapidly grow too tall, and spindly in the nice warm indoors. You don’t get a good return on your space, peas would be much better. I am slightly concerned that my new sowings will be snaffled by mice before they germinate – I haven’t direct sown them into soil before. But I sowed a few extras, and I have seeds of other varieties I can sow later if necessary. I note that my allotment neighbour has broad beans plants growing nicely already….

I also planted 24 Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola’ corms that have been in my kit bag since last year. I’m not holding out much hope for them still being viable, but they’re not going to get any more viable if they stay in the bag, and the instructions do say they can be planted any time between January and June. It was Rhizowen’s fault that I bought them – he says they’re edible. Oh, I’ve just noticed the packet says “dormant until you plant”, so there may be hope.

And last, but not least, I planted two different sorts of allium bulbils. I know one set are from the walking onions I used to have in the garden – I think they’re ‘Amish’. The other… well, I’m not entirely sure. They must be from something that was growing in the garden, but to be honest there were some alliums I lost track off and I’m not sure what they are. I have labelled them as ‘mystery bulbils’, which will at least remind me that I don’t know what they are. Once they come up it should be possible to have a stab at identifying the species. I didn’t have that many….

The purple sprouting broccoli plants are still very dinky, and one needed tying into its support again, but they’re alive and growing and they haven’t been eaten by anything – or blown away – so I’m taking that as a plus! We’re clearly not going to be short of rhubarb in a few weeks, and the garlic and onions I planted last year seem to be doing very well indeed.

Posted in Blog on Feb 26, 2014 ·

Tag: allotment

Thick, thicker, thicket

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Flying blackberry

For as long as I’ve had my allotment, it has has a thicket in the middle. The main offender was an out-of-control thornless (technically prickleless) blackberry, whose arching stems reached for the skies but then fell back down to earth. It was aided and abetted by currant bushes in need of a good prune, and lots of grassy weeds. it looked impenetrable, and the blackberry was not only beginning to take over the plot but was sending out shoots across the path as well.

On Saturday morning I spent an hour cutting all of its stems to the ground. It won’t stop them growing up again next year, of course, unless I go back and dig out the roots. But for the moment the allotment is considerably more low profile. Some of the stems were too thick to cut with secateurs:

Thick stem

As I didn’t have a machete handy I took the simple approach of standing on them until they snapped in half, and cutting through them then.

Theoretically it is now possible to walk down from the top of the plot to the bottom. In practice it isn’t, since the way is blocked with plant refugees from the garden, sitting in their pots. It wouldn’t be an easy route, however, since the blackberry clumps are there to trip over, and the plot is oddly uneven. It would be easy to twist your ankle, particularly around the edges, which are sunken. Obscured by grassy weeds you take a risk every time you step off the path. It’s one of the things on the list to fix :)

I don’t remember the first frost ever having been this late before – we’re still waiting for one here. The oca are still growing and the purple sprouting broccoli are still safely under their net tunnel to protect them from marauding butterflies. They’re not coming out until it’s too cold for caterpillars. And then they’re getting staked, because it’s windy!

There’s no photographic evidence of my last trip to the allotment, during which I dug up the Sárpo Mira potatoes (which were still going strong, despite blight on other plots) and planted my overwintering onions, shallots, and saffron in their place. The rhubarb has been tidied up, and that corner of the plot is covered in bark chips to help keep the weeds under control. The garlic, and elephant garlic, are still waiting in the wings – I’ll plant those soon.

You may also enjoy:
A ramble about the bramble
(B)eat your weeds: Brambles
When Plants Attack II: Conventional Weaponry

Posted in Blog on Nov 4, 2013 ·

Tag: allotment

Comfrey: the permaculture plant

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Monster roots

One of the plants that I was keen to transplant from the garden to the allotment was comfrey (Symphytum officinalis). I had several plants, which I grew from root cuttings several years ago. Some were growing in the concrete blocks in the raised beds – which turned out to be a mistake, as they’d grown very impressive roots and wedged themselves in firmly. These ones were extracted with a sledgehammer. I took them to the allotment and planted them around my new green cone composter, and despite the terrible abuse they are still alive and growing new leaves. It’s a tough old plant.

Comfrey is a popular plant with people who practice permaculture, because it has so many uses. With deep roots that are able to bring nutrients up from the subsoil, comfrey is known as a ‘dynamic accumulator’ plant. These nutrients are stored in the leaves, which can then be used to feed other plants.

Comfrey is a very vigorous perennial, which can be cut several times each season. The composition of the leaves means that they break down rapidly and be used fresh to feed plants – either placed in planting holes or left on the soil surface as a nutritious mulch. Comfrey leaves also act as a compost activator – so adding them to the compost heap speeds up the composting process as well as adding nutrients.

You can also turn your comfrey leaves into a very good liquid fertilizer. If you drown the leaves in a bucket of water for several weeks, you’ll get a smelly liquid feed that is great for fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers because it is high in potash. You can try adding scented herbs like thyme or rosemary to the mix to improve the aroma, but comfrey is different from most plants in that its leaves will happily rot down without the addition of water. Seal the leaves into a bucket for a few weeks, weighed down, and they will produce a brown liquor that can be diluted into a much less stinky liquid feed. Whichever method you choose, the remains of the rotted leaves can be added to the compost heap at the end.

Comfrey with bee

And if that’s not enough – bees really love comfrey flowers, and plant has medicinal uses, although it is no longer recommended as an edible.

If you want to add a comfrey plant or two to your garden then buy root cuttings (or beg them from someone with mature plants) of Bocking 14. This variety is sterile, so it won’t self-seed all over the garden. Root cuttings are usually available from May to August. Keep new plantings well watered until they are established. If the ground is not ready for planting then your comfrey will be happy in a container for quite a while.

And if you want to do things the permaculture way, consider planting your comfrey around the compost heap. Not only will it be handy, but it will soak up any nutrients that leach out of the compost!

Liked this? Then you may also enjoy:
(B)eat your weeds: liquid feeds
Episode 88 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show, on organic fertilizers
Autumn green manures

Posted in Blog on Oct 19, 2013 ·

Tags: allotment & permaculture.

Activate! Activate!

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There were some really good guesses about yesterday’s mystery object, and a couple of you were spot on – it’s the basket at the bottom of my Green Cone composter. It arrived in several pieces, and needed to be assembled before it could be taken to the allotment.

Green Cone - interior

In a slightly What Not to Wear moment, this is the Green Cone in its underwear. The basket at the bottom is designed the buried in the soil and not seen. The black undercone helps the whole thing heat up nicely in the sunshine.

Assembled Green Cone

Properly dressed, it looks like this. The green outer cone is screwed on to the basket and undercone; the lid is screwed on. The next step is to dig a big hole:

A hole in the ground

I cannot recommend doing this in a heatwave, even if someone else is doing most of the digging.


And this is the finished article, all ready and waiting to be fed. I have put it at the top of the allotment, near the rest of the compost bins, but also close to the existing fruit bushes. The Green Cone will feed the surrounding soil, rather than producing compost that needs to be dug out. The nutrients should be sucked up by the fruit bushes; any that get leached a bit further will feed the plants further down. That’s the theory, anyway.

The Green Cone has been in place for about a month now, and I have been feeding it our food waste. We don’t produce that much, and everything that is compostable in a normal bin goes in a normal bin, but so far there is no evidence of rodent attacks and there’s no horrible rotting stench or swarms of flies when you open the lid, so it’s so far so good. I will keep you posted on its progress.

Posted in Blog on Sep 13, 2013 ·

Last modified on Sep 13, 2013

Tags: allotment & compost.

Mystery Object

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This isn’t the current art installation at the Turbine Hall, it’s the latest addition to my allotment.

Can you guess what it is?

Posted in Blog on Sep 12, 2013 ·

Last modified on Sep 12, 2013

Tag: allotment

Swimming with the fishes

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Fish in the lily pad lake

At some point in the future, I would like a garden with a water feature. A natural swimming pool would be my first choice, but seems unlikely. A fish pond would be lovely – as long as I was also blessed with hours to while away next to it, watching the fishes do their thing.

Of course, the kind of pond in which fish are happy takes some work. I’d need some gadgets to keep the water clear (Joe’s Aquatic World has a good selection of pond filters and pumps to do that job). I’d also need to make sure the fish were protected from these:


My allotment could be home to a small pond or two, although they wouldn’t be the sort in which fish would be happy. But that’s an advantage, in some ways, as it gives me the opportunity to grow some edible pond and bog plants – things that the fishes would be only too happy to nibble on, were the two combined. For a while now I have been pondering which aquatic edibles I would like to grow. For simplicity, and since it won’t be a ‘proper’ pond, I have lumped ‘marginal’ plants that like growing around the edges of ponds in with the bog plants, which like sitting in soggy soil….

Watercress beds

The advice given for watercress, Nasturtium officinale, used to be that it should be grown in running water, and that’s certainly how it was grown in the traditional watercress beds. You do need to be careful that the water in which its grown is not contaminated with liver flukes, which have a complicated lifecycle that involves a stage in water and a stage in a nice, warm, mammalian host. It’s an issue where the water abuts a pasture, but not really in a back garden. Still, running water is a little tricky (although I have seen one enterprising set-up with watercress grown in a pot under a leaky hosepipe…). Nowadays we know that watercress can be grown anywhere, as long as you keep it nice and damp, so it’s a bog plant (B) option.


My wasabi, Wasabia japonica, may also prefer being upgraded from being in a dryish container to a bog garden, although no doubt then it would be even more of a slug magnet.

Water chestnuts

I have always wanted to try growing water chestnuts. The proper Chinese ones are Eleocharis dulcis; it looks as though they can be grown as a pond plant (P) or bog plant. The Water caltrop, Trapa natans, can be grown as a water chestnut substitute, and is a pond plant happy in water up to 2 feet (60 cm) deep.

Radix, with his joy of spreading unusual edibles far and wide, is keen for me to try:

  • Sagittaria latifolia (P), Wapato or duck potato

  • Aponogeton distachyos (P), Water Hawthorn or Waterblommetjie, which I think I’ve already killed off once, in a bucket

  • Lycopus asper (B), Rough bugleweed, a US native

  • Houttuynia cordata (B), Chameleon plant, an ornamental and very pungent herb with a revved-up coriander flavour

  • Cyperus longus (B,P), Galingale

  • Butomus umbellatus (B,P), Flowering rush

  • Wolffia arrhiza (P), Duckweed, although you hardly need a pond as it’s tiny and will grow in a beaker of water

  • And Zizania aquatica or Z. latifolia (P), two types of wild rice that might be a bit more successful than my mobile rice paddies a few years ago.

  • Ipomoea aquatica (P,B), Morning glory (!) is a tender (and tasty) aquatic plant I could try during the summer months

  • As is Persicaria odorata (B), Vietnamese coriander, which would be happy in nice warm, damp soil.

Garden Organic list Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus (B), Water mint, Mentha aquatica (B), Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria (B), Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata (B,P), Yellow water lily, Nuphar lutea (P), Reedmace, Typha spp. (B) and Common reed, Phragmites australis (B,P) in their factsheet on Edible Aquatic Plants, which is only available to members. Some of those would be far too large for a container pond.

PFAF include gunnera (Gunnera tinctoria) in The Edible Pond and Bog Garden, although I suspect eating it would be a step too far or most people! There’s some other plants on the list that I haven’t heard of, but I think it will be best to start relatively simply and see what works before branching out into anything too unusual.

Which aquatic edible plants have you tried growing?


Posted in Blog on Jul 5, 2013 ·

Last modified on Jul 5, 2013

Tags: unusual & allotment.

Raised beds, raspberries and rhubarb

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At the allotment this week I have been strimming the weeds (with a borrowed, cordless strimmer – AKA a weed whacker), assembling a tool store so that I don’t have to drive around with a spade in the boot of the car, cutting back errant raspberries and rhubarb that were engulfing the paths, and digging over a patch to plant half of my Sarpo seed potatoes.

In the garden I have been removing more of the concrete blocks that once made up the raised beds.

New herb bed

A freshly-built garden bed, back in 2010

The garden was almost entirely based around raised beds. When I started gardening there, it had been a lawn for most of its life. Dug up by dogs, and infested with bindweed, it wasn’t the place to start growing in the soil. As a No Dig gardener at heart, I took the slow route to weed-free soil (which worked very well, the garden is almost free of bindweed now, it just lurks in a couple of places where its roots are hidden under concrete).

I’m removing the concrete blocks now, because they’re not what potential house buyers expect (or want) to see in the garden. I’ve written before about the problems I had with trying to use the holes in the top of the blocks as planters; I wouldn’t choose them again now, simply because they are so heavy to move around (each one weighs about 12 kg).

Raised beds are great, though. They allow you to build up and improve the soil only where you’ll be growing plants. Any work you do (like weeding and watering) is focused on the raised beds, and so you get better results from less work. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Square Foot Gardening works so well for some people – it’s based around raised beds and their benefits.

My plants all loved the deeper soil in the raised beds, and I loved the way it held more water in summer and meant less watering for me. When I next have a garden, raised beds are definitely something I will consider, if they suit the site. You can get some lovely raised beds now (check out the selection of wooden planters from Internet Gardener, for starters), that make the most of whatever space you have.

For now, they’re not an option on the allotment. For one thing, its weed problems are too severe, and there’s no choice but to get those under control first. Also, it’s not flat. As well as a distinct slope towards the north, it’s pitted and ridged and a careless stroll across it could easily result in a twisted ankle. Installing raised beds in those conditions would involve some serious ground work to make them level, and I don’t have the time (or the money) to invest in raised beds at the moment.

I’m still leaning towards a little forest garden on the top end of the plot, interplanting the existing fruit bushes (and the ones I want to bring from the garden) with herbs and ground cover plants so they become a (largely) self-maintaining space. Lower down I need to make a space for asparagus plants, but perhaps I’ll be able to turn my thoughts to raised beds again next year.


Posted in Blog on Jun 25, 2013 ·

Last modified on Jul 10, 2013

Tag: allotment

Fruit Audit

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Fruit trug

I estimate that two thirds of my allotment is currently covered in fruit bushes – there’s two or three massive rhubarb plants, a Hinnomaki Green gooseberry bush, several blackcurrants, a hybrid berry of some description (which is thornless, but rampant) and raspberry bushes cropping up in odd places.

Some of those may have to go, if only to make room for some of the things I want to bring from the garden. I have a frightening number of fruit trees and plants. My three kiwis are already in my parents’ Malvern garden (and in fact they’ve planted out the two ‘Jenny’ – too close together, sigh – at the end of the garden), as is my baby yellow plum I grew from seed. They’re happy to have the medlar (which is in a container) when it has to relocate.

But they don’t have space for everything, and I’m left with a fair few things. In terms of soft fruit there are autumn-fruiting raspberries and strawberries (wild, alpine, beach and some regular ones as well). I have a blackthorn (sloe), and two aronia bushes. The Japanese wineberry is an easy one to take with me, as it has created several offspring and I have just potted one up. (It’s an easy plant to propagate, as it layers, but it has also self-seeded in the garden.) The blueberries are in pots, and can travel; I have taken cuttings from the honeyberries. And there are two little Chilean guavas that are in small pots and are no problem.


The fruit trees are more problematic. I can have them on my allotment if they don’t shade someone else’s plot, but some are mature and can’t be moved; I will be sad to say goodbye to the Saturn apple, but it falls into that category. It has lived up to its disease-resistant marketing, and has been easy to grow organically. The apples are big, red and tasty, so it’s definitely a variety I would consider growing again in the future. Its pear tree companion is less of a loss, as it rarely grows pears and I don’t like them anyway.

The patio nectarine’s only redeeming feature is that is has lovely blossom in spring. It has never ripened an edible fruit, and succumbs to peach leaf curl. I don’t think it will be making the trip. I don’t think anyone would thank me for planting either of the figs on the allotment, but dad might like one. I might send the crab apple ‘John Downie’ his way, too. It’s in a container, and happy enough for the time being, and it can help to pollinate his apple trees until I get another of my own.

(Suttons Seeds are one of the places with a nice selection of fruit trees if you’re now thinking of adding a few more fruit trees to your collection ;)

And that just leaves me with a pair of cobnuts, although they hardly qualify as fruit. They might be fun to have on the allotment, if it’s not overrun with squirrels, and they can be kept at a reasonable size. The only problem is where it’s all going to fit. I really need to crack on with that design!


Posted in Blog on Jun 18, 2013 ·

Last modified on Jul 10, 2013

Tags: allotment & fruit.

Allotment plan

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This is a quick sketch I did of the layout of my allotment as it was a few days ago. It’s just about 10 m by 10 m square, although some of the edges are hard to find at the moment! Having borrowed a cordless strimmer, I started making some inroads into the weeds yesterday, but there’s a way to go on that phase of the project.

You can click through to a larger version of the image. In the top lefthand corner, where is says there are volunteer spuds, there aren’t – they’re a bit lower down. That spot right in the top corner is now where two plastic compost bins have been set up, and I am filling them with fresh horse manure to rot down.

Over on the right hand side, where it says ‘Tool Store’, that was just my initial guess about where it might sit. That spot seems unlikely now, as there are flatter, barer spots that will be easier to put the tool store on initially.

For this season, work on the allotment will be short-term stuff, clearing it and planting annual crops and giving a home to anything that is being rescued from the garden. But I’d like to have a long-term plan in mind, so that there’s a design, or at least some sense, in where the plants go. Currently more than half the plot is planted with mature fruit bushes – a bit of a treasure trove to inherit, but it does mean that I have to plan to avoid running out of space for everything else. The raspberries on the right hand edge may have to move; there may well be others in the middle, it’s a bit hard to tell at the moment. The hybrid berry has gone rampant and needs a good chop.

I want to find space for an asparagus ‘bed’, as I have 10 plants on the way from Victoriana Nursery Gardens. Yes, plants – not crowns – that can be planted out now.

It may not endear me to my neighbours, but I don’t want a conventional allotment, all serried rows of plants and endless hoeing. I want something a bit more holistic and resilient, with mulches and groundcovers and interesting plants all over the place. A forest garden in miniature, perhaps, although it will have to borrow the canopy layer from the trees to the south of the allotment site.

That arrow pointing to the bottom right corner is the direction of north, by the way.

Any ideas? Nothing is set in stone, although it would be nice to keep the fruit bushes as they look productive (although how many blackcurrants I can use remains to be seen). I am a bit short of inspiration at the moment, it has been smothered by the weeds.

Posted in Blog on Jun 17, 2013 ·

Tag: allotment

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