Taking the pith!
You may have noticed that in the promotional photos for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs I’m wearing a pith helmet. It’s actually the genuine article (made from real pith!) and makes a wonderfully efficient sun hat. Its brim shades your eyes, and the breathable materials keep your head nice and cool. It’s a bit ostentatious for the beach/ shopping however, and the light colour means it would quickly get grubby in the garden.
Fortunately, Dickies have come up with a more practical range of gardening clothes. Widely known for their work wear, Dickies have put their expertise into designing sturdy and hard-wearing clothes for gardeners, from boots and gloves through to trousers, shirts and fleeces.
The Mooreland Quilted Gilet is an a lightweight bodywarmer, 100% polyester with an easy-fasten press stud front. It’s a handy thing to have with you so you can pop it on when our changeable weather leaves you feeling a bit chilly.
But you don’t have to take my word for it, because I’ve teamed up with Dickies to give one of these bodywarmers away. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is leave a comment below, telling me what you like to wear when you’re gardening! Keep it clean, please, you don’t know who might be reading ;) (UK-based entrants only, please.)
The competition is now over, thank you for all of your comments! I have used a random number generator to pick the winner: Jessica Powell. Jessica, your prize will come directly from the promoter, so they should be in touch soon.
Posted in Blog on Jun 8, 2015 · ∞
Last modified on Jun 15, 2015
The first time I tried Pukka’s Serene Jasmine Green tea, I was standing in a garden. I was attending the Master Composter’s conference at Garden Organic Ryton, and they’d set up a drinks station outside the marquee where the talks where being held. Fiddling with tea bags and hot water and sugar and tea spoons (all provided in the most environmentally-friendly manner), I didn’t initially notice that what I had chosen wasn’t a standard green tea.
I tend to plump for green tea when I’m out and about, as it avoids having to deal with my cow’s milk intolerance – I prefer drinking most black teas with milk. It wasn’t until I was about to throw my empty tea packet into the recycling bin that I noticed it contained jasmine tea, lavender and chamomile. I can’t drink chamomile tea, it makes me feel queasy – despite its reputed stomach-settling properties.
But the sun was shining and there was a bit of a festival atmosphere building, so I thought I would give it a go. Sipping slightly dubiously, I was relieved to find that the lavender notes outweigh the chamomile, producing a light and fragrant green tea. Although it’s not now commonly used, I’m no stranger to lavender as a flavouring – at the Edible Garden Show a couple of years ago I had a lavender buffalo milk ice cream (what a treat!) that was both surprising and delightful.
And so I bought myself a box of Serene Jasmine Green. But, again, slightly dubiously. We’ve all had the experience of loving something whilst on holiday, only to find that it really isn’t the same when you try it at home. And yet, this one has become an everyday staple, my go-to-tea at work, so I don’t have to bring in any milk from home.
Pukka serene jasmine green tea
According to the packet, the ingredients are 100% organically grown and ethically sourced, including 24% by weight that is certified as FairWild, which promotes the sustainable management and collection of wild plants. The purchase price includes a donation to WWF’s Living Himalayas initiative, protecting the endangered animals, plants and birds in that region.
As to whether it helps to keep me calm at work… well, I couldn’t possibly comment ;)
Posted in Blog on Jun 6, 2015 · ∞
Tags: tea & reviews.
Pollen is important to animals, as well as plants
Without pollen, the world would be a pretty drab place. Pollen is the male part of the reproductive system for flowering plants, as well as a source of food for bees and other beneficial insects. And yet, as soon as the sun comes out and the plants start flowering, it causes millions of people in the UK to stay indoors to minimise their hayfever symptoms.
Ryan suffers from hayfever, and as we’re planning a new garden it seems an appropriate time to think about whether we can design it in such a way as to lessen his suffering. I have been doing some research about which plants cause hayfever, to see whether they can be avoided.
It seems that wind-pollinated plants are the worst culprits, with grasses accounting for 95% of cases in the UK – their pollen is tiny and easily inhaled. It’s easy enough to avoid having a lawn in your garden, or to keep it mown short so that it doesn’t flower. Other suggestions include swinging in a hammock rather than sitting on a lawn, which sounds like a good idea to me!
Ryan’s hayfever is caused by trees, and many of our common trees are wind-pollinated. You can avoid planting birch, hazel, horse chestnut, mulberry and many other trees in your garden, but it’s impossible to stop their pollen blowing in from outside. Urban planting tends to plant male trees in preference to female trees – to avoid all that messy fruiting business – and so makes like worse for hayfever suffers.
Whilst many trees aren’t suitable for a small garden anyway, if you’re a fan of forest gardening then there are some species there that you’d really want to include. Fortunately for kitchen gardeners, fruiting trees tend to be better as their flowers are designed to be pollinated by insects, and the pollen is less likely to be blowing around. And you don’t have to worry too much about bee-friendly plants for the same reason, particularly closed flowers (such as lavender) where bees have to work a bit harder to get their meal.
Other plants are considered to be a minor issues for Brits. Most of the vegetables we grow won’t cause any problems at all, particularly leafy things that we harvest before they flower – but keep an eye out for bolting plants that take you by surprise! It’s hard to stop sorrel flowering, and its pollen can be a problem, so these lemony favourites may be best avoided. And sweetcorn is wind pollinated, and so you may have to settle for buying it from the farm shop when it’s in season.
Herbs, too, are generally fine, although wormwood can cause issues.
A herb garden shouldn’t cause too many problems for hayfever sufferers
Keep an eye on those weeds! Not only are they stealing light, water and nutrients from your crops, and potentially harbouring disease, but they can cause hayfever too! Nettles and fat hen are on that list, and very common in British gardens. You could always try your hand at garden foraging and eat them before they become a problem.
It’s worth noting that very open flowers (such as those in the daisy family), and strongly-scented flower, can cause problems for some sufferers, and that it is possible to have an allergy to plants that don’t make it onto these generalised lists. So if you’re designing a hypoallergenic garden with a particular person in mind, check with them before you decide on the final planting plan :)
Whatever you plant in your garden, you’ll still be exposed to pollen from other people’s plots and the great outdoors. Boots UK Pharmacist Angela Chalmers recommends taking action before the symptoms appear, and speaking to your pharmacist so that they can determine the right treatment for your symptoms. But even if that moment has passed, a trip to the pharmacist will help you feel better!
Do you avoid certain plants in your garden, because of their pollen? Or do you plant what you want and rely on hayfever medication to enjoy your garden?
Boots sent me a bundle of things for the garden, and hayfever remedies for Ryan.
So far his favourite is the Irritated Eyes Eye Mist.
Posted in Blog on Jun 2, 2015 · ∞
Last modified on Jun 3, 2015
Tags: planning & flowers.
Kitchen waste set aside for home composting
I’m a firm believer in composting. In the years in which I haven’t really had a garden, I have mourned the loss of valuable resources as I sent my compostables off in the municipal collections.
Making your own compost is a wonderful way of feeding your garden. Closing the circle, turning a waste product into something useful, and saving money into the bargain.
A stealthy compost bin, hiding behind a tree
One of the things I have done this year, in my new garden, is set up a compost bin. It’s not in an ideal location – it’s not close to the house, so I have to make an effort to go out there. And it’s currently in the shade, although the removal of an unwanted conifer will soon sort that out.
And so I am, once again, collecting up compostables in a separate pail. Vegetable scraps, tea bags and cardboard tubes for the most part. Cardboard tubes (or scrunched up newspaper, or corrugated cardboard) are a valuable addition to the heap. Not only are they carbon-rich, balancing out an excess of nitrogen-rich kitchen scraps or grass cuttings), but their shape adds air to the heap. Composting bacteria need oxygen, just like us.
The current contents of my cold compost bin
Wearing my Master Composter hat, I went to London recently to join Alys Fowler and Jane Perrone for a chat about composting. You can hear the result in the latest episode of Sow, Grow, Repeat, the Guardian gardening podcast.
Did they leave in the bit where Alys talks about composting her pants? You’ll have to listen in to find out!
I do CAT cold composting where I add a mixture of materials to my heap as and when I have them. It may take longer to rot down, but it’s a lot less effort than looking after a ‘hot’ heap ;)
Posted in Blog on May 30, 2015 · ∞
Courgettes and a summer squash
Courgettes/ zucchini and summer squash are some of the easiest, and most productive, vegetables you can grow in the garden. All you need is a sunny spot, a square metre of soil or a big container, and plenty of water! And then there’s the small matter of choosing which, of what seems like hundreds of varieties, you want to grow.
The classic courgette is a torpedo-shaped fruit with dark green skin, effectively a juvenile version of a marrow. They’re great for slicing and grilling, picked young and eaten fresh. They tend to grow on compact plants that don’t spread (although they can grow very large). There are variations in skin colour, ranging from subtle stripes through to bright yellow, but the end result is much the same.
Courgette ‘Rugosa fruilana’, the ugly sister
I enjoy growing a variety called ‘Rugosa friulana’, which is fiendishly ugly. The fruits are a pale yellow colour, and warty. They’re used in the same way as regular courgettes, but they tend to have a firmer texture, rather than a watery middle, and a lovely flavour.
Then there are the round courgettes, which come in green or yellow, and are best harvested before they get much larger than a tennis ball. They’re the same vegetable with a different shape, and are good for stuffing.
Summer squash are grown in the same manner, but then to come on trailing plants – like pumpkins – which can take up more space. But you can also train them, or circle them around on themselves, and prune them to keep them under control. Here you get a wider variety in the kinds of fruit. One of the nicest is the ‘patty pan’ or ‘flying saucer’ shape – harvested young they’re firm and slice nicely, and they’re always a big hit with the kids! This year I’m growing
Whichever variety you choose, remember that courgettes and squashes are frost-tender plants, which can’t live outside until after the last frost date in your garden. You can sow seeds indoors, in pots of compost, in late spring (April in the UK). Pop in one seed per small pot (which is easy, because the seeds are large) and keep them warm and moist for a week or so until the seedlings start to appear. A propagator helps keep things humid; you can also pop a mini cloche over the top of each pot, or encase it in a plastic bag. Once the seedlings are through they’ll benefit from more air flow, and won’t mind a slightly cooler temperature.
[You can skip the seed sowing part, and buy a courgette plant from the garden centre. There’s a reasonable selection of varieties these days, and they’re available from early spring onwards. Once you’ve brought your plants home, care for them as if you’d grown them yourself….]
Keep your seedlings somewhere frost-free and sunny. They grow rapidly, and on warm days will wilt if they don’t have plenty of water. Standing the pots in a tray of water is a good idea if you have to be somewhere else on sunny days.
A newly-planted summer squash, with slug collar
As the last frost date approaches, accustom your seedlings to the outside world. This process, called hardening off, is a simple matter of taking them outside for a short time on a nice day, and then bringing them back in. Gradually leave them outside for longer and longer, always bringing them back inside at night. This toughens them up, with exposure to the sun, the wind, and cooler temperatures. If you have a cold frame or a greenhouse then that can speed the process up, but remember to check they’ve got water and ventilation on sunny days. [In May, you can sow courgette seeds directly outside, which bypasses this faff completely, but leaves your seedlings at the mercy of slugs.]
Once the risk of frost has past, your courgettes can be planted outside. In the ground and in a pot are both fine. I tend to fill my pots with potting compost; a mixture of soil and compost also works well. Courgettes are hungry plants, so they will need feeding if they’re growing in a pot, once they begin to flower. And water, plenty of water.
Courgettes have silvery designs on their leaves – it’s perfectly normal and not (as I thought when I first saw it) a sign of disease. Summer squash have plain green leaves.
A mature courgette plant, showing its silvery leaf markings
Courgettes grow separate male and female flowers. Female flowers have a tiny fruit behind them, which will begin to swell if they flower is pollinated. It’s not unusual for a plant to only grow male flowers to begin with – don’t panic, the female flowers will arrive in time. In the meantime, remember that courgette flowers are edible :)
You can harvest your courgettes and squash as soon as they reach a size you want to eat – from tiny fruits with the flowers still attached right through to giant marrows (although that’s not recommended, they’re far nicer small!). Picking the fruit will encourage the plant to grow more, so don’t worry that you’re reducing your harvest by picking it very young. They will keep coming!
Keep plants well watered, especially when the weather is hot. Plants in containers may well need watering twice a day. And they’ll need feeding – a high potash tomato feed is a good bet. A simple way to do both at once is to dilute the liquid feed more than the instructions recommend, and use it every time you water the plant. Alternatively, feed every two weeks according to the pack instructions.
If you’re going away on holiday, either get a neighbour to pop in and harvest your courgettes for you, or pick off all the fruits and all of the flowers before you leave. Otherwise, when you come back in two weeks all you’ll have is overgrown marrows, and no fresh fruit for a couple of weeks after that.
By late summer your plants are likely to be so productive that you’re sick of courgettes, and trying to give them away to your neighbours. If you don’t want to freeze any (they don’t freeze whole, but are fine frozen in cooked dishes like ratatouille), then it’s OK to pull the plants up!. You don’t have to keep them going just for the sake of it. Compost them and plant something else, for a change.
Even if you love courgettes, one or two plants would be plenty for a small household. You could add one or two more if you’re feeding several people, but the trick here is to plant more than one variety, so you can ring the changes. You can also stagger your seed sowing by a week or two, so that the plants are different ages, and start producing earlier or later in the season.
Frost brings and end to courgette season
Once the frosts return in the autumn, the courgette season is over. By this time the tired plants may well have succumbed to downy mildew, and look very sad, anyway.
Have you got a favourite variety of courgette/ summer squash? Or a growing tip you’d like to share?
Have you tried my five-spiced courgette recipe for a simple summer supper? Click on the picture to be transported to it! Or head over to The Outdoor Kitchen if you’re in more of a BBQ mood.
Posted in Blog on May 26, 2015 · ∞
Bupleurium longifolium* in Hampshire last week
Another Bank Holiday weekend, another batch of gardening offers :)
Suttons are offering three 10cm plants of their new blight-resistant tomato Crimson Crush for free (normally price £11.99) – all you have to pay is £4.99 postage and packing. To take up this offer, simply click through and use the discount code S15CC when you place your order. I wrote a post about Crimson Crush earlier in the year, if you’d like more details.
You may want to add another offer to your basket at the same time – for the moment you can buy 5 plants of the fun Cha Cha Chive for £5 (normally they’re £19.98) – you don’t need a code to take advantage of this offer, and you can combine it with the Crimson Crush if you want tomatoes and chives! I ordered mine a couple of weeks ago when this offer started (I’d wanted some for a while as, instead of the normal flowers, Cha Cha chives produces bundles of mini-chives!), and now they’re sitting on the windowsill waiting for their chance to go outside.)
Moving on to Thompson & Morgan, they’re offering free P&P until midnight tonight (24th May 2015) – click on the link to activate the deal.
If you’ve just got a new allotment, or you’re a little bit behind on your planting, you may be interested in their special Chelsea Potato Mixed Lucky Dip, which gives you 100 seed potatoes for just £4.99, but is only available until midnight tomorrow, Monday 25th May 2015.
And finally, Chiltern Seeds are also celebrating the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, by offering 20% off all seeds until 31st May 2015 (simply enter the code CHELSEA2015 at the checkout).
Have you spotted a gardening offer that’s too good to miss? Add yours in the comments section :)
is a hardy, shrubby, perennial ornamental plant with coppery-coloured, petal-like bracts that add long-lasting colour to the garden. You can buy seeds from Chiltern Seeds.
Posted in Blog on May 24, 2015 · ∞
my feet in Bonsai bamboo socks
I was offered a pair of Bonsai’s organic bamboo socks to review. According to Bonsai, they are made from a natural, sustainable fabric that absorbs moisture – leaving your feet dry, healthy and odour free! I thought I would put them through their paces by wearing them in the garden over the last Bank Holiday weekend.
My pair is ‘Bonsai Green’, which I have to admit is not my favourite colour. But I won’t see them once I’m wearing my wellies, so that doesn’t matter. They’re long, so you can chose how you wear them; up, wrinkled or folded over.
Off I went into the garden, and started a mammoth potting up session, taking seedlings that had been raised indoors and giving them enough growing space to continue their journey into adulthood. This involved lots of to-ing and fro-ing, kneeling and lifting, and bending. I forgot about my feet, which were perfectly happy. When I peeled off my socks at the end of the session, they were still fresh, and so were my feet.
The challenge for day two was digging out some shrub roots where I would like to plant some climbers. They’ve had more years to settle in to this garden than I have, and don’t give up without a fight! Fortunately, I have superior weaponry- secateurs, a pruning saw, a spade and a pickaxe got the job done, eventually. I was going to feel that upper body workout the next day, but my feet were still comfy.
Day three – painting the fence, Mr. Miyagi style. Ryan has been doing most of the work in this department, but I give him a hand when there’s no urgent gardening to do. Easy on the feet, it mostly involves kneeling down and painting the picket fence.
By the end of the weekend, the socks were a little less than fresh and I sent them off for a wash (my feet have been washed every day, as normal ;)
The only good kind of fragrant boots :)
Clearly this wasn’t much of a challenge for them, so I put them to the ultimate test – a day trip to London. For this I wear my ‘urban warrior’ boots, perfect for pounding pavements and sprinting across Paddington Station.
Stage one was easy – an hour on the train to Paddington. Then a quick march to the Hammersmith & City line and standing room only on the tube to King’s Cross. A bit of a break to be a guest on the Guardian gardening podcast (coming soon – watch this space!) and then the whole thing again, in reverse. Add on a quick trip to Sainsbury’s on the way home, and that’s a tough day for socks.
And the result? The Bonsai socks were clearly no longer clean, but they weren’t fragrant. They had survived a day in London!
The final verdict – the elastic is a little tight (and I don’t have fat legs), but other than that the socks are comfortable. They stand up to hard labour and allow you to take your boots off at the end of the day without fear of gassing your family. They’d be great for situations where washing your socks every day isn’t an option.
They are quite shiny, though, so beware wandering about in just your socks. Just occasionally your foot keeps moving, when you expect it to stop….
Bonsai socks retail at £19.95 per pair, and are available in six ‘exciting’ (eye-popping) colours.
Posted in Blog on May 23, 2015 · ∞
Dark Matter garden design for RHS Chelsea 2015
An ethnobotany superhero by night, my mild-mannered daytime alter ego is a science writer for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), one of the UK’s research councils. It’s not often that those two worlds collide, although during the early summer the campus I work on is dotted with the blooms of hardy orchids.
This year, though, STFC have sponsored a garden at Chelsea! It’s a lovely garden for the National School’s Observatory (NSO), a website established by Liverpool John Moores University to provide schools in the UK and Ireland with free access to the Liverpool Telescope (the world’s largest fully-robotic telescope).
Two scientists at the NSO, Professors Andrew Newsam and Mike Bode are making it their mission to inspire as wide an audience as possible about astronomy, and getting people into scientifically-themed show gardens is one way they do it.
In 2013, the team (Howard Miller Design Ltd and Landstruction) put together a horticultural representation of a spiral galaxy that won a Gold medal at RHS Tatton, and proved very popular with visitors to the show – where else would you expect to find people queueing to listen to a scientist! Mike took the black hole home, and it now has pride of place next to his greenhouse, but you don’t have to worry, as he says it’s not plugged in ;)
The Dark Matter garden, before the crowds arrive at RHS Chelsea
Fresh from their Tatton success, they decided to design a show garden for Chelsea, and to give themselves a real challenge – the concept behind this year’s design is Dark Matter, something we can’t see, and can’t (yet) detect in any way. If you’d like to know more about the science then you can read the piece I wrote for the STFC website – Say it with flowers, which has links to even more good sciency stuff for those of you who are really interested.
The really exciting news is that not only did the garden win a Gold medal, but it was also chosen at the Best Fresh Garden, so that is thrilling (and well deserved) and I’m so happy for the team that put together this smashing garden. It has also gone done well with the press, and you can see some of the responses to the garden on the Storify I put together at work: Dark Matter at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2015 (and which I am updating all week).
If you’re heading to the show for the last couple of days, then do make sure you stop by and see the Dark Matter garden whilst it’s still fresh ;)
All that remains now is for the public to offer their opinions, and vote in the People’s Choice Award for their favourite Fresh and Artisan gardens (the smaller show gardens) – so do pop over and vote for your favourites :)
Posted in Blog on May 20, 2015 · ∞
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.
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.
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.
A sunny spring hedgerow scene, in Cornwall
Posted in Blog on May 18, 2015 · ∞
Zanthoxylum alatum, Nepalese pepper
On Saturday 25th April 2015, a massive earthquake devastated Nepal, leaving more than 7000 people dead, and many more homeless. This morning another quake, magnitude 7.3, has rocked the region. People there need our help.
There are any number of appeals you could contribute to, but an easy way to send money is via DEC, which is providing emergency shelter, food, clean water and blankets. Once the immediate crisis over, they will continue to work with individuals, families and communities to support them to rebuild their lives. Please send what you can to help them.
The picture shown above is of Zanthoxylum alatum, the toothache tree and one of the species of ‘Szechuan pepper’ that we can grow in our forest gardens to add an exotic taste to our cooking. It’s also known as Nepalese pepper.
According to Wikipedia:
in Nepal, the Ghar Bagaincha, literally “home garden”, refers to the traditional land use system around a homestead, where several species of plants are grown and maintained by household members and their products are primarily intended for the family consumption (Shrestha et al., 2002). The term “home garden” is often considered synonymous to the kitchen garden. However, they differ in terms of function, size, diversity, composition and features (Sthapit et al., 2006).
In Nepal, 72% of households have home gardens of an area 2–11% of the total land holdings (Gautam et al., 2004). Because of their small size, the government has never identified home gardens as an important unit of food production and they thereby remain neglected from research and development. However, at the household level the system is very important as it is an important source of quality food and nutrition for the rural poor and, therefore, are important contributors to the household food security and livelihoods of farming communities in Nepal.
The gardens are typically cultivated with a mixture of annual and perennial plants that can be harvested on a daily or seasonal basis. Biodiversity that has an immediate value is maintained in home gardens as women and children have easy access to preferred food, and for this reason alone we should promote home gardens as a key element for a healthy way of life. Home gardens, with their intensive and multiple uses, provide a safety net for households when food is scarce. These gardens are not only important sources of food, fodder, fuel, medicines, spices, herbs, flowers, construction materials and income in many countries, they are also important for the in situ conservation of a wide range of unique genetic resources for food and agriculture (Subedi et al., 2004). Many uncultivated, as well as neglected and underutilised species could make an important contribution to the dietary diversity of local communities (Gautam et al., 2004).
In addition to supplementing diet in times of difficulty, home gardens promote whole-family and whole-community involvement in the process of providing food. Children, the elderly, and those caring for them can participate in this infield agriculture, incorporating it with other household tasks and scheduling. This tradition has existed in many cultures around the world for thousands of years.
The Nepalese people are gardeners, just like us, and they need our help. Please donate today if you can.
Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain. The Nepalese name for the mountain is Sagarmatha: “mother of the universe.” A NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using EO-1 ALI data from the NASA EO-1 team, archived on the USGS Earth Explorer.
Posted in Blog on May 12, 2015 · ∞