Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

Dark Matter at Daresbury Laboratory

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Remember the Dark Matter garden from RHS Chelsea 2015? When it was dismantled at the end of the show, it was put on a truck and taken to Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. In this video you can watch it being rebuilt and replanted :)

I’m due to head up to the lab next month, so hopefully I will be able to take some photos and do what the Chelsea visitors couldn’t and actually walk through the garden!

Daresbury Laboratory welcomes thousands of visitors each year, through their schools programme and their Talking Science public lecture series. So if you’d like to see the garden, sign up for a lecture later in the year (they pause in the summer) and take in some science at the same time.

Posted in Blog on Jul 9, 2015 ·

Tag: gardens

Ready, set...

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All being well, the contractor will arrive to start paving the garden on Thursday. It has been a long time coming, and it’s only the first stage in getting the garden ready to be planted. Once the paving is complete then we still need to build raised beds and fill them, which will probably involve a bit of levelling here and there. When we investigated the cost of building the E-shaped raised beds in the original plan, we found that they would be considerably more than we wanted to spend. Ryan has come up with a cheaper alternative, which should look just as good, and even gives me more planting space! He has created a 3D render, printed it out and stuck it to the patio doors to give me something to look at:

New garden plan
A 3D render of the new garden plan, courtesy of Ryan

As you can see, the paving is quite extensive, and laying it will disrupt the whole garden. Which means Ryan and I spent the weekend moving all of my plants again, and they’re currently residing in a sanctuary we created in the roadside strip:

Roadside plant sanctuary
Temporary plant sanctuary

One or two plants that are special or have sentimental value are still safely in the main garden, hopefully out of the way of where all of the action will take place. They’re with the arbour and the shed, tucked into a corner where there won’t be any paving.

Tucked away
The rest of the garden contents, tucked out of the way

Moving the old shed was fun. It’s in a bad way – it leans and the sides are coming loose. The roofing felt split in the wind last year, and Ryan stapled it back into place. Even so, the shed held together so that we could just pick it up and move it, with the help of a sack truck. As soon as the paving is done we can order its (larger) replacement.

Empty garden
The empty garden

The garden is now incredibly empty, which makes me sad, but it shouldn’t be for too long. The plants and I are looking forward to having a permanent place to grow – it has been three years since some of them started their journey!

Posted in Blog on Jun 16, 2015 ·

Tag: gardens

Getting ready for paving

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Painted fence, removed roots
Newly painted fence

(The unpainted panel doesn’t match, and will be replaced)

We finally have a date for the paving – 22nd June, weather permitting. It has taken a long time to get one, and I have been going a bit crazy without a proper garden. In the meantime, we have been doing a lot of work in preparation for the paving, including taking out the shrubs along the fence. Getting their roots out was fun, they’d lived here longer than we have! And that has given us the opportunity to start painting the fence. The lefthand side of the garden now looks quite different.

Moved shed
Let’s play Spot the Shed

So does the righthand side of the garden – we’ve moved the old shed out of the way so that the area can be re-paved for the new one. The arbor is also out of the way for the time being.

Which leaves the problem of all my plants in pots. They need to find a home elsewhere for the duration of the paving, and that means tackling the overgrown strip in front of the garage block, which I would otherwise have left until the main garden was finished.

Fortunately, I was offered the opportunity to try a product from the EGO Power+ range of power tools. They’re powered by 56v lithium-ion batteries, which means they’re light and cordless, and quieter than petrol machines (and produce no fumes). The rapid-recharge batteries come in three different sizes, and are standard through the range – so you can power more than one of the tools with the same battery.

Ryan jumped at the chance to get his hands on the chainsaw, and it seemed the ideal time to tackle the conifers in the strip that were in the way.

The strip - before
The ‘before’ picture of the garden strip

It’s not easy to see from this ‘before’ shot, but there were two bushy conifers, both multi-stemmed.

Tackling the stump
Tacking the stumps with the EGO chainsaw

Ryan donned all the safety gear (including the essential chainsaw trousers) and had a practice run on an old pallet. Then it was time to bring the trees down, which was much, much quicker with the chainsaw than it would have been by hand. Far quicker than me dealing with the smaller shrubs with my secateurs.

The ‘after’ picture of the garden strip

In no time at all, the trees were reduced to two small stumps, a pile of firewood and fronds that make a nice, aromatic floor covering. I haven’t entirely decided what to plant in this strip of garden in the long term, but in the short term it will provide a safe haven for my container plants whilst the landscapers are doing the paving.

The EGO chainsaw
Ryan’s verdict on the EGO chainsaw? “I like this!”

Ryan would quite happily give the chainsaw pride of place in the new shed, even though we’re not likely to need one very often. We won’t really need a mower, either. In fact, the garden should be pretty low maintenance (a phrase I hate – ‘low chore’ might be more appropriate, since there will be plenty of fun gardening to be done!), and isn’t that large. If we had a larger garden, we would be seriously looking at the EGO Power+ range of tools, as they are light and quiet. The battery recharged in about half an hour, and lasted longer than we needed it to. There are also strimmers, a hedgetrimmer, and a leaf blower in the range. If I still had the allotment, it would be perfect for keeping that in trim (although I still probably wouldn’t need a chainsaw. Sorry Ryan!)

Posted in Blog on Jun 11, 2015 ·

Last modified on Jun 7, 2015

Tags: gardens & reviews.

Cornish hedges in spring

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Down the lane
A Cornish lane in May

Cornish hedges are an exuberant delight. I visited in April a few years back, and every lane was awash with alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum). This year, in May, they put on a stunning display that would put a Chelsea show garden to shame.

The backdrop is generous, luxurious green. In shady alleys this is provided by lacy ferns; in sunnier spots, grasses first head for the skies, then tumble to the earth like green waterfalls.

Blue and white
Allium triquetrium and bluebells, amid the grass

This monochrome bounty is punctuated with white. In some places, tall and graceful umbels of some member of the carrot family (cow parsley, perhaps?) sway gently in the breeze. In others, great swathes of Allium triquetrium (the three-cornered leek) send up spires of gently nodding bell-shaped white flowers. But the most abundant plant here at this time of year is exploding in great puffs of star-shaped white flowers. Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) scents the air, particularly when the car brushes against the hedge to make room for passing in these narrow lanes. We saw one patch that was a six-feet high wall of wild garlic flowers; such bounty must make this a forager’s paradise.

Flowering hedge
Flowers in the hedge

But lest your eye weary of two colours only, there is more. Bluebells, singly or in small clumps, mirror the glimpses of blue sky overhead. And there are delicate spots of pink, as well, from the small, wild flowers of red campion Silene dioica.

The overall effect is one of joyous, bountiful spring. Wild, wayward, and haphazard – a beauty that was not designed. And yet could, perhaps, be recreated at home. Alliums, edible herbs and spring flowers – dowdy and overshadowed maybe, as the more colourful blooms of summer flowers appear. But here, at the turn of the season, a feast for the eyes, and the palate.

Sunny patch
A sunny spring hedgerow scene, in Cornwall

Posted in Blog on May 18, 2015 ·

Tag: gardens

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.

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

Tough love: hardening off

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Assembled plastic cold frame
My new plastic cold frame

You can tell it’s March, because the windowsills are full. We moved offices at work, and I had to bring some of my plants home, and now the tender, over-wintered perennials are fighting young seedlings for space. It’s time for some of the hardier specimens to brave the great outdoors, but after a winter indoors they’re a little soft. They need hardening off before they can make it on their own, and there’s still a distinct nip in the air (and a risk of frost for several more weeks).

Sometimes gardening is all about having the right tools for the job, and it seemed like a good time to erect the plastic coldframe that has been languishing in its box in the shed. I bought it, reduced, in August 2013, and haven’t had an opportunity to use it before.

The instructions were a bit minimalistic, but the frame was easy enough to assemble. I picked a spot where there’s some sunshine, covered the grass in weed control fabric, and pegged the frame to the floor. There were no instructions on how to put the cover over the top, but that was reasonably straight forward. Except… it didn’t seem to fit very well, and it was a struggle pulling it to the floor. I think some of the joints in the frame might be a bit loose. I’m not feeling very well this week, and haven’t got as much oomph as normal – I’ll get Ryan to see if he can tighten it up.

Plants braving the 'outdoors'
Hardy plants, braving the ‘great outdoors’

Once the cover was on, I could unzip the big ‘windows’ and start bringing out the plants. On the left is a new wasabi that I bought in Somerset – rapidly getting soft and sappy in the warm house, it should do better outside. The shaggy thing next to it is a pot of chives, just bursting into new life on the kitchen windowsill and in need of a bit of a trim to get rid of dead leaves. The pound shop blackcurrant hadn’t entirely appreciated being brought home and plonked straight outside, so it should appreciate the respite. And there’s some new herbs (also from Somerset) that were getting a bit ahead of themselves inside.

Watering in

Three patio raspberries that have survived outside in the winter in those tiny pots and I thought I should be a bit nicer to them now. They’re on the list for potting on. A windowsill salad that was romping away too fast and getting straggly. My new catmint. And… a secret project in the round pot. Watch this space.

Air vents open

That’s all for now, although there’s plenty more space inside. It was time to zip down the ‘windows’ and tie open the air vents and let the plants fend for themselves.

It wasn’t until later in the day that the fatal flaw (and there always is one!) with this cold frame design became apparent. There’s no way of tying the cover to the frame (no ties, nor eyelets)*, so once wind got up there was a distinct risk of it inflating like a balloon and just flying away. Ryan, being an engineer, solved the problem in the traditional way, by the application of duct tape.

The following morning, the cold frame was still intact. The plants, although looking a little sullen at their ejection from cosiness, have not thrown any tantrums, and I suspect they will adjust nicely in time.

[*Typing that, it sounded utterly ridiculous, so I went outside and had another look, and in fact there’s Velcro ties. So that’s sorted.]

Are your windowsills full of chitting potatoes? Or tomato seedlings? Or something more exciting?

Disclosure: This post was brought to you in association with the Anglia Tool Centre, but I was the one doing all of the struggling with poles and plastic joints :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 20, 2015

Tag: gardens

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.

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