Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

The Composting Condundrum

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Compost heap
A giant compost heap, like this one at West Dean, isn’t an option in my new garden

Clearing the allotment is no simple task – it’s now a 20-minute drive away, and as the weather has turned wet and the ground is sodden, it’s impossible to get the car anywhere near the allotment. Anything I want to bring home has to be carried down to the car park, and transported from there. As a result, there has been a certain amount of prioritising about the things that are worth rescuing, and those that can be passed on to the new tenant (whoever that will be).

I have three plastic compost bins on the allotment – two standard green hand-me-downs that deal nicely with garden waste, and a ‘Green Cone’ composter. The Green Cone is designed to deal more with food waste, even meat, and to keep it safely out of reach of rodents inside a buried basket. Unlike a regular composter, you don’t harvest compost from a Green Cone, it feeds the soil around it and occasionally you would need to move it as the basket fills up.

The Green Cone compost bin on the allotment

The question is what sort of composting I want to do in the new garden, and where to site the bins. It’s not a question of composting or not – as an organic gardener I would feel very remiss if I weren’t composting at all, and although most people think that sending off their food waste to be recycled is a good thing, I see it as sending away nutrients I have paid for that could feed my garden!

In the previous house I had two plastic ‘daleks’ at the end of the garden, and two worm compost bins that lived in the shed. One of those was abandoned when I moved out; the better of the two, my ‘Can-o-Worms’ is, I think, in Malvern. Worm composters need some shelter – like us, composting worms don’t like extremes of temperature. They need shade in summer and protection from freezing weather in winter. And rain, because worms can drown if the bin fills with water.

In the main body of the garden, the obvious spots for compost bins are out of sight, and hence in shade. I could put one in the ‘extension’ where it would be less obvious, but it would also be further from the house. Given our more rural location, rodents are likely to be more of a concern, and I think the worm bin (which is up on legs) might be a better bet than the Green Cone. We don’t produce a lot of food waste that would be unsuitable for normal composting, and I can still send that off for municipal recycling.

Worm composter
My worm composter might be a bit cleaner now, after a year off in Malvern!

The answer might be to build a shelter for the worm bin, and have that out of sight under the kitchen windowsill, where it will be in shade, and a regular compost bin elsewhere in the garden. Something more attractive than a plastic dalek would mean it could have a better location – but one of those posh wooden ‘beehive’ composters isn’t going to fit in very well with my idea for a ‘Middle Eastern’ theme. I’m trying to think of something else that might do the job, or someway I could give a compost bin a suitable makeover!
So it seems that the compost bins on the allotment could safely be bequeathed to the new owner… but nothing is decided, as yet.

What do you think?

Posted in Blog on Nov 25, 2014 ·

Tags: compost & gardens.

Why I'm breaking up with my allotment

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I wrote (but didn’t publish) this back in May, when the weeds took over the allotment and I realised I didn’t have the time and energy that would be required to get it back into shape. At the time I knew we were moving, but not where; even had things turned out differently, I’m now too far away to keep the allotment, and am slowly clearing it. I have updated the blog post to reflect the new situation, but my feelings are still the same :)

Autumn scarecrow
Sad scarecrow knows it’s nearly time to say goodbye

My allotment and I didn’t meet under the best of circumstances. The man formerly known as my husband had left, I was getting divorced, and I faced the imminent prospect of having to sell my home and the garden I had lavished attention on for more than a decade. The plants I had collected would soon be homeless. Heartsick and despairing, I knew that it would be a long time before I owned my own patch of land again.

When I met the allotment one sunny morning, it looked as though it provided the ideal solution. A place where I could store my plants until they had a permanent home – or perhaps the allotment would become their permanent home. In the meantime, I had somewhere to get my hands dirty, and mess around with pots and compost.

But I had a long-distance relationship with my plot. I was a student, essentially homeless myself and unsure about the future. My allotment had already had at least one careless owner, and with my focus elsewhere it became ever more unruly. When I had the time and energy I tried to make a go of it; when the weeds died down last autumn, it almost looked manageable.

But when spring sprung again the allotment once more continued on its chosen path, a journey that leads through meadows and shrubs to its ultimate goal – returning itself to its ancestral forest state. It swallowed my plants in pots. It became impossible to find a safe path from one side to the other. The weeds conquered every inch of soil, and madly seeded in the hope of gaining new territory on my neighbours’ plots.

I have a job now, my days are not my own. I have chosen this town to be my home for the foreseeable future, and have found a place where I can settle permanently with my plants. My days, and my mind, are overfull. I don’t have the time, or the energy, to deal with the intransigent succession and turn my plot into the haven I would like it to be.

I love allotments. I think they’re an unimaginably important resource for gardeners without gardens. The good ones develop a welcoming, community spirit. Allotments encourage us to take exercise outside in the fresh air, to eat more fruit and vegetables, to reduce our food miles. To stay off the couch.

But they’re not for me. I am an introvert, and contact with other people drains rather than energizes me. My leisure pursuits tend to be solitary, ‘me’ time where I can recharge my batteries so that I’m ready to re-engage with the world. Popping out into the garden and playing with my plants is one of my favourite things, but it’s not so simple with an allotment. I have to make the effort to get up and go to the allotment, which is far from easy when I’m settled at home. There are gates to grapple with (an unfortunate necessity to protect the site from thieves and vandals), and the potential for running into people who want to chat.

I don’t want to chat. I don’t want to weed and weed and weed. I don’t want to strim. I don’t want to dig. I need peace and solitude in which to tend my plants. I need freedom from the guilt of a plot that’s out of control, and the worry of a strongly-worded rebuke from the allotment committee. Instead, I can commit to a long-term relationship with my new garden that gives as much as it takes.

And that’s why I’m breaking up with my allotment.

Posted in Blog on Nov 24, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 24, 2014

Tags: allotment & gardens.

My lumps, my garlic clumps

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Garlic clumps
Planting garlic ‘in the green

I went to the allotment this morning. There has been quite a lot of rain over the last few days, and I didn’t expect it to be dry. But I didn’t quite expect to come home covered in mud, either! I had to wash it out of my hair….

I was digging around in the mud because I wanted to rescue a couple of things. Enough oca tubers for propagation (they were tiny, and few and far between, but there’s enough to start again) and some of the garlic that Owen gave me last year. Of course, the garlic is ‘in the green’ – the unharvested bulbs have started sprouting from every clove, creating little clumps. I dug up half a dozen, brought them home and resettled them in a pot. Again, there might not be enough for a good harvest next year, but assuming they survive they can be the basis of an ongoing population. The other garlic varieties were shop bought, and can safely be abandoned (the garlic patch is now pretty overgrown).

I also brought home some more things in pots, including the horseradish I couldn’t find last time, two Chilean guavas, and what I think is the last of the goji berries (lots of things are, sadly, unlabelled!). And my sweet violet, and a Japanese wineberry that’s in a small pot and still a single whip.

It was too wet to take the car up onto the allotment site itself (the grass was sodden, and very slippery), so carting that lot back down to the car park has worn me out!

Posted in Blog on Nov 22, 2014 ·

Tags: allotment & gardens.

Trendy Pond

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Trendy Pond front
My new Trendy Pond, still in its packaging

The nice people at Swell UK have given me a trendy pond to play with – as you can see, I haven’t managed to take it out of the box yet, but might manage that this weekend. I’m hoping that it will make a nice water feature in the garden next year, and that I can plant it up with some edible plants.

Ryan has already said that he’s not keen on the idea of an indoor pond (one of the suggestions made on the packaging!), so we can safely assume that it’s going to live outside. It will hold up to 30 litres of water, and isn’t really suitable for fish, so I can just go nuts with the planting. The website gives the dimensions as approximately 45 cm wide by 30 cm high.

I was talking a couple of years ago (doesn’t time fly!) about wanting an edible water feature of some kind in the garden, and started a list of potential plants then. Of course, in the intervening time I had forgotten, and so started a new list when the pond arrived. The only plant I came up with this time that didn’t make it onto the last list was Water Pepper, Persicaria hydropiper.

I do have a book on Edible Water Gardens, which I never got around to reading when I bought it, so now that it is back from storage I can read that once I’ve finished Homegrown Tea. Given the small size of my new pond (which is purple, btw :) I’m leaning towards a bog garden rather than a full-on pond, but I might change my mind before spring. I’m also wondering whether I could combine two obsessions and have a pond filled with aquatic tea plants! But so far there’s only water mint on that list….

Have you got edible pond/bog plants in your garden?

Posted in Blog on Nov 20, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 20, 2014

Tags: gardens & unusual.

West Dean Gardens Victorian Glasshouse appeal

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Last week I showed you the unusual cucumbers I found in one of the glasshouses at West Dean Gardens. West Dean has an impressive array of Victorian glasshouses, lovingly restored to be home to tender fruits and vegetables.

Indoor vine
The vinery at West Dean Gardens

Me being me, I was so engrossed in taking pictures of the pretty plants that I forgot to take any of the glasshouses themselves, which is a shame (or an excuse to visit again!).

Indoor fig
A fruitful, indoor fig

A trained peach

As well as the strange cucumbers, there are also plants that the average home gardener might have in their greenhouse :)

Impressive tomatoes

West Dean is famous for its annual chilli fiesta

Of course, glasshouses are expensive things, and as they get old they need maintenance. The team at West Dean have started an appeal to raise money for essential restoration work on two of their glasshouses. You can donate online or print off a donation form to mail in with a cheque (although when I tried it, it wasn’t designed to print on A4 paper, which caused no end of printer confusion…).

£10 could buy 1kg of nails

£25 could buy 2 litres of paint

£50 could buy 50 metres of timber

£180 could pay for a day of joinery

£500 could pay for 3 days of painting and glazing

In the absence of photos (sorry!) you can see the glasshouses in the Sussex episode of Christine Walkden’s Glorious Gardens from Above on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK). The series is well worth watching for Christine’s enthusiasm for horticulture and willingness to get stuck in. You might also enjoy looking at the gardens :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 18, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Raymond Blanc at Kew

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Long view
Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew

Ryan and I stumbled across Raymond Blanc’s kitchen garden at Kew during our visit a few weeks ago – we hadn’t known it was there in advance. There’s a notice that informs you that this is being grown for a television programme (it’s ‘Kew on a Plate’, four programmes to be broadcast next year, with an accompanying book) and that it is being constantly filmed. It also asks you not to pick anything….

Raymond Blanc statue
Side view of the kitchen garden

It’s quite a formal layout, complete with a scarecrow statue that comes from the kitchen garden at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. But the planting is less traditional – you can see there are lots of herbs and flowers amongst the vegetables. In fact it was here that Ryan first encountered lemon verbena :)

South American crops

A bed with crops from the Americas was drawing a lot of attention from passers by, mainly because they couldn’t identify all of the plants! As well as familiar squashes and sunflowers, the bed included quinoa and amaranth:

Colourful amaranth

and some healthy-looking yacon:

Yacon foliage

So I was able to introduce Ryan to yacon’s adorable furry foliage :)

There were also some mushrooms growing in Kew’s Ice House, but the low light conditions made it very hard to get a decent photo.

Will you be watching when the programme airs next year?

Posted in Blog on Nov 17, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 17, 2014

Tag: gardens

The kitchen garden at West Dean

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I’ve had one of those days at work, and I don’t much feel like writing. So have a nice picture of the ordered ranks of the vegetable garden at West Dean Gardens that I took last month, and we’ll try again with words tomorrow :)

Vegetable garden

Posted in Blog on Nov 14, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

Kew's Intoxication Season

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Quite often, when I tell people that I’m an ethnobotanist (and explain what that means), they grin and joke that I must enjoy studying Cannabis. In fact, I have a pair of silver cannabis-leaf earrings that I sometimes wear as an ethnobotanist’s joke. But plant-based drugs are an interesting topic, so before we moved, Ryan and I took a day trip into London to visit Kew Gardens during their Intoxication Season – a celebration of mind-altering plants. Some of the species on display were familiar, and legal:


Tea and coffee both contain mind-altering caffeine

The display notes that tobacco could become a biofuel crop, and is being used to develop an experimental drug to combat the Ebola virus

Salvia divinorum
Salvia divinorum is used by shamans to produce altered states of consciousness.

But most are illegal in at least some countries:

The cannabis plant was kept under lock(s) and key

As was the peyote cactus

Kew couldn’t obtain a license to have a real Coca plant, so visitors had to make do with an illustration

Opium poppies
The Opium poppies had been harvested and dried. They’re legal to grow in the UK, but trying to turn them into drugs isn’t.

Intoxication Season, which focused on different types of plants over four weekends, was designed to inspire debate about mind-altering plants, society’s views on them and the choices we make as to which are legal and which are not. There’s a nice write-up over at New Scientist for those of you who would like to know more, and I can thoroughly recommend Mike Jay’s book on the topic, High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture, which is utterly fascinating.

Posted in Blog on Nov 12, 2014 ·

Last modified on Nov 12, 2014

Tags: ethnobotany & gardens.

Opportunity costs, and tea

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Tea time
A lovely set-up for a spot of outdoor tea

My problem with the garden at the moment is that I’m not seeing its possibilities – I’m seeing the opportunity cost of going down any particular route. The garden is (as they all are) of finite size. This shouldn’t be an issue, because I have finite resources of energy, time and money to lavish on it, so there will always be a limit to how many different things I can grow. But how to whittle down the list so that I don’t rule out anything too exciting, but have something manageable to focus on? Rationally, my blank canvas of a garden will keep me busy for many years to come, so not only is its finite size not a problem it also helps to keep the project manageable.

Over the past few years, there have been lots of plants that I wanted to grow, but I have been continually frustrated. Countless plants have been bought and neglected to death, and endless packets of seed languish unopened in my seed box. All kinds of plant projects have been dreamed up – things I wanted to plant, and grow, and write about – but come to nothing.

Suddenly faced with the space to grow, and (hopefully) the stability to allow my garden to thrive, it was hard to choose between these put-aside options, and the new ones that are constantly popping into my head. But since trying to do everything at once is a guaranteed recipe for failure, and that the garden can be reinvented over time, it seemed sensible to choose one to begin with.

And the one that has risen to the top for 2015 (and possibly beyond) is tea – I’m going to try and grow as many tea (or tisane) plants in the garden as possible. I have been reading Homegrown Tea by Cassie Liveridge, and it’s amazing how many of the plants she includes in the book I either have, or have wanted to grow for a while (often for a different purpose).

I’ll need to buy some new plants (woo hoo!), but I have plenty of seeds in my seed box as well. There’s no point starting until the bare bones of the garden are in place – plants that can’t go in the ground get neglected and are sad – so that’s the priority over the winter.

Real tea, Camellia sinensis, is a definite possibility for the garden, although self-sufficiency would be impossible :)

Do you have a favourite plant in your garden that you use for tea? Or one that’s on your wishlist? What’s your strategy for dealing with the inevitable limits to your gardening ambitions?

Posted in Blog on Nov 10, 2014 ·

Tags: tea & gardens.

Thoughts on: Exotic

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A view up through the canopy in the Eden Project's tropical biome
A view up through the canopy in the Eden Project’s tropical biome

It’s November, and across the world hundreds of thousands of writers are taking part in NaNoWriMo – a month-long sprint to write 50,000 words of fiction. I have no current interest in writing a novel, and indeed I doubt I could manage NaNoWriMo this year. So much has happened that I am struggling to write at all. And so I thought I might take up a different challenge and try and blog every day in November. (I’ve already missed yesterday, but I’m home sick so I’ll get my mum* to write me a note ;)

New additions to the house this week include a sofa that’s comfortable to sit on (a big plus!) and enough boxes from Ikea to make even a flatpack virtuoso cry. Ryan is in the process of putting together our new wardrobes; the additional storage space will make life much easier. There are also new desks for the office, but they will have to wait a while.

Had we moved in when we expected to, the garden would have been more of a priority. But now that winter has arrived, with damp days and dark evenings, there’s not a lot I can get to grips with outside at the moment. I have been thinking about what I am trying to achieve in the garden, and last week I started jotting down some words that came to mind. One of them was exotic, a word that tends to be synonymous with ‘tropical’ when it comes to gardens – but tropical isn’t what I have in mind. I prefer Google’s definition:

Google’s chosen definition of the word ‘exotic’

So… foreign :) Distinctly non-British. No red, white and blue colour schemes. No cottage garden, rose garden, or straight-lined vegetable patch. Peacocks rather than wood pigeons. Exuberant, rather than restrained. Colourful, fragrant and (and this is a word I’m not overly comfortable using) sensual.

That’s all I’ve got for today! You might be in for a month of partly-formed thoughts.

What does ‘exotic’ mean to you?

*That’s a joke. I don’t live with my mother, I have a shiny new house :)

Posted in Blog on Nov 5, 2014 ·

Tag: gardens

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