After living without any outdoor space of my own for 5 years, last year we moved and I gained an empty balcony. A blank canvas. When you live without any outdoor gardening space you realise just how much you previously took it for granted. I had never been a gardener, despite my mother avidly encouraging me through my youth. However, spurred on by the gift of some blueberry bushes and the notion of ‘feeding off my (rented) land’ I decided to give growing a go.
After hearing tales of how difficult growing veg could be, and knowing little about the ‘correct’ growing methods I started out with low expectations, perhaps I’d have a tomato or two by the end of summer.
I started from seed, nurturing them on the windowsill. A few days on, a rippling on the soil surface and the breakthrough of greenery caused a grin to adorn my face. The pure pleasure of watching something grow from next to nothing is one of life’s simple satisfactions.
A few factors influenced my plant choices; what couldn’t I buy from supermarkets (purple carrots), what was expensive to buy (mangetout), what tasted significantly better fresh (runner beans), and what could I fit on a balcony! Many venture into growing-your-own with tomatoes so I threw in some seeds. Far, far too many seeds as it turned out when I had around 50 tomato seedlings to try and re-home! A learning curve…
A learning ‘curve’
Of course I made many errors, none were detrimental. I remember exclaims from my boyfriend’s mother, “You didn’t harden off your tomatoes?!”. ‘Harden off’ meant nothing to me (for novices and others not ‘in-the-know’ this refers to the process of acclimatising your plants to the outer world). As a result my tomatoes grew slowly, but they still fruited. Nothing lost, some more knowledge gained.
By the end of summer, we had enjoyed plentiful runner beans, mangetout and tomatoes. They tasted incredible, perhaps enhanced by the knowledge of where they’d grown and what they’d been exposed to. There’s something incredibly rewarding about stepping outside and harvesting your crop to eat then and there. No more than a few paces between plant and pan.
Mangetout, purple-podded peas, runner beans
If you think you don’t have enough space, think outside the box. Even a windowsill can flourish with chilies, herbs, lettuce leaves to name a few. If you think you can’t grow anything, try it anyway, maybe it’ll work. Get inspired by what others do, I watched a TED talk on growing salad in a New York apartment with no space using vertical, hydroponic platforms. Incredible!
So, one summer on I’ve learnt what did and didn’t work for me. Carrots can’t just be plonked in soil and expected to grow as a single straight root, they need more care and soil preparation which at the moment I don’t have time for. Shelling peas didn’t give me a good yield, I got approximately 30 peas from a whole summer – it wasn’t worth it, especially compared to the mangetout yield which kept us going for weeks. So this year I’m eager to try more – sweetcorn, peppers, courgettes, broad beans. Maybe they’ll work, maybe they won’t.
Wisteria is the quintessential climber for the English cottage garden. A well-grown wisteria is an absolute joy in May and June when the beautiful, scented pendants of flowers drape from the branches in a breathtaking display. But often gardeners find these climbing plants a little daunting. The idea of all that pruning and training just feels far too complicated. It’s a shame because it’s not as tricky as you might think – in fact wisteria is actually very easy to grow. With correct care these long-lived twining climbers will reward you with many years of pleasure in your garden.
Where to plant Wisteria
Location is an important factor to consider when growing Wisterias. They are long lived and will form woody stems over time which require significant support. This makes them very difficult to move if you change your mind in a few years time. Also bear in mind that they require regular pruning to keep them under control and to encourage flowering, so it’s well worth taking your time to choose the best possible location for your plant.
Grow wisteria plants in a sunny or semi shaded site in any moist, well drained soil. Wisteria flower buds can be damaged by hard spring frosts so choose a sheltered position if possible.
How to plant Wisteria
You will need to provide the twining stems with an appropriate and very sturdy support. The ideal way to grow Wisterias against a wall is to train them as an espalier, with horizontal support wires (3mm galvanised steel) set 45cm (18″) apart. Alternatively, you can train them onto a sturdy pergola, or even into a tree. Supports are best put in place before planting as it will be much harder to install them once the wisteria is in the ground.
Prior to planting add plenty of well rotted manure or garden compost to the soil to improve soil fertility and drainage. Remember that your wisteria will be planted here for many years so it’s worth taking the time to create ideal soil conditions from the start. Plant wisteria at the same level that they were supplied in their pots. If you are planting a bare root wisteria then look for a soil mark towards the base of the stem which indicates what depth it was planted in the ground at the nursery. This is usually found a little below the graft point – a bulge in the stem where the main plant is grafted to the rootstock. Water your wisteria well after planting to settle the soil.
Why isn’t my wisteria flowering
This is one of the most frequently asked gardening questions and the elusive answer usually lies in one of the following explanations.
1. Pruning – Wisterias need pruning twice a year in July/ August and again in February. Check the diagrams above to make sure that you are using the right technique.
2. Seed raised plants – Wisteria grown from seed can take up to 20 years to flower. However it’s unusual to buy a seed raised plant nowadays as most are supplied as grafted plants. Nonetheless, it’s worth checking the base of your plant for signs of a graft in order to eliminate this as a possible cause of flower failure.
3. Watering -Wisteria often thrive on neglect, but they will appreciate some extra water between July and September. This is when the buds are formed for next year’s flowers. If they run short of water during these months this can reduce your display in the following summer.
4. Frost – Spring frosts can sometimes cause the developing buds to drop before they get a chance to open. The best way to avoid this is to plant your wisteria in a sheltered spot.
It is amazing what a difference you can make to any outdoor space with pots and baskets, regardless of whether you have a garden or not. I personally fill my patio full of different planters and baskets as the summer arrives and I have spent the last few months nurturing seedlings ready to plant out.
I am a firm believer that if you don’t have enough space to grow things in the ground then pots and baskets are a great way to bring any type of plant into your garden. I want to talk about how you can make your pots and baskets interesting, pretty and productive.
There are lots of different planter sizes, shapes and colours to choose from on the market, so you can pretty much buy the pots to suit your outdoor area. Don’t forget there are variations for windows if you don’t have a yard or patio area or if you live in a flat, and of course you can go for hanging baskets by your front or back doors. If money is tight why not make your own pots and planters out of old pallets which look great painted up and most companies are happy to give away pallets for free. I also like to use builders rubble buckets which come in some really funky colours, and they are a fraction of the price of bespoke planters (don’t forget to add drainage hole).
I like to plant my baskets and tubs with a striking mixture of flowers and veg plants (there is no reason why a tub should look glum). In my summer pots this year I will be growing lots of different veg including baby sweetcorn, dwarf beans, beetroots, salads and courgettes. The varieties I choose are all small so will grow quite well together in a large pot or container, and the leaf structures and varying growing habits really complement each other. In order to add plenty of colours to my pots I love to interplant flowers such as dwarf sweet peas, aubrietia, violas, nasturtiums and much more.
There is nothing better than picking fresh tomatoes so I will be growing some tumbling toms in my baskets, alongside, rocket, nasturtiums, violas and basil. The nasturtiums will trail, the violas provide colour and the basil, rocket and tomatoes will be handy to pick for the salad plate (chives and spring onions also make a nice alternative or strawberry plants and mint for a sweet treat). Where possible I like to use flowers that are edible. My baskets are always colourful and useful, and different plants can be used to brighten up any wall.
When planting up either tubs or baskets you have to be mindful that they need watering and feeding regularly. In my pots I use a good quality multipurpose compost with some slow release fertiliser and water retaining crystals to help hold in moisture. I have never gone for any of those fancy composts unless I am planting something on a more permanent basis such as a shrub or fruit bush. If you can get down to your local farm for some well rotted horse manure this will always enrich any tub.
There are a number of innovative pots and baskets that now have water canals built into them so this takes the strain off watering, but ordinarily I would water baskets daily regardless of weather and tubs every few days unless the weather is hot and then it would be every day. I find the best thing to keep food in pots is a tomato feed which contains all the right nutrients for flowers and fruits, however in recent years I have also made comfrey tea which has had great results and is free so double bonus.
So now I am at the point where my baskets and tubs are planned out and I have started to plant them up. It is still a little early for them to be put outside in Manchester as the threat of frost is not gone until the end of May. Until they are ready to be safely put outside keep them in a cool shed or greenhouse over night.
As your plants grow and develop keep an eye out for pests and diseases such as aphids as they do like to feast on the succulent young plants. I find the best thing to use to get rid of most pests is a garlic spray or a weak solution of water and washing up liquid so no need to spend lots of money on expensive chemicals and these won’t hurt the bees and lady birds.
I will bring you updates on my baskets throughout the summer and let you see the yields they have produced at the end of July and August.
Just remember you can grow anything in pots and most dwarf varieties in baskets, but be mindful that you need to water religiously and keep the food levels up as they get exhausted quickly. Keep an eye on them, keep them deadheaded and you will have lovely colour and tasty treats all summer long.
March winds blow and April showers bring forth slugs eating my flowers! I ignore the greenhouse for one night to discover the next morning that out of eighteen baby leaf lettuces I am left with four. What’s worse, something has also eaten my entire radish, including the roots. I am convinced that the culprits are woodlice, until I read in a magazine that woodlice are often wrongly accused of this; woodlice in your garden are a healthy sign. So where are the slugs? There are surprisingly, no slimy trails, and I can’t see them on the soil. I look in horror at my jeans to find one fat critter has attached itself to me, probably when I was on my knees looking for them. It gets flicked off my leg with a dibber, slightly cruel but it’s a reaction to mild disgust that this thing with no legs is slithering up me. It’s a bit too late to get Nematodes to save what’s left of my lettuces so I sprinkle slug pellets around the remaining leaves and sow more radish and rocket seeds.
May is an exciting month, everything is gearing-up for summer, it’s RHS Chelsea week and our established fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and currents are putting on flowers and early fruit is forming. There’s plenty of blossom on the apple trees and I really hope the wind pollinates it rather than blows it away. The ornamental trees are in full leaf, the grass is always in need of a trim and the shield bugs, bees, butterflies and other insects are making themselves known.
The weather has gone potty, one minute it’s almost summer, then its back to heavy winds, lashing rain and chilly nights. We haven’t had frost but it’s going down to one degree some nights. I am trying to harden off my plants but they seem to stop growing then have massive growth spurts. I have lost a load of sunflowers so I have decided to just vent the greenhouses in the day rather than drag the plants out before work, have a change in weather halfway through the day, and come home to ruined plants. I do look at the weather forecast, but to be honest they don’t always get it right in our area. My dad-in-law says the best way to see what the weather is doing is to look out of the window! He actually means look at the height of the clouds depending on how high they are; you should be able judge if it’s going to rain in the next half hour. The other way we can tell if we are in for bad weather, is by the behaviour of the house sparrows at the feeding station. If they completely stuff themselves, even on a really calm morning we know that we are in for stormy weather within a few hours; if they just flit back and forth throughout the day we know the weather will be fine for a few days. Do you have any natural weather indicators?
In the big greenhouse the sweet peppers, tomatoes and aubergines are situated in their final growing positions, there are pots and hanging baskets planted up ready with viola, pansy, nemesia and linaria to be shown off to the neighbours once the weather settles. The Fuchsia ‘Garden News’ has been transplanted into glazed pots and adorn the area by our front door. The Begonia Apricot Shades are still in the greenhouse and the leaves are growing by the day.
Our small greenhouse has been transformed, there is now only one border as the rest is under paving slabs, new staging has been installed and rapidly germinating seed is being monitored for damp-off, pest and diseases.
The remaining border in the small greenhouse is still home to the onions. During an afternoon last December, cleaning, I found sets sprouting in a cupboard under the kitchen sink. I made a decision to plant them in the old greenhouse in hope that they would grow – they seem really happy so for now I am letting them get on with it. I hope they don’t bolt. I keep referring to the instruction leaflet that came with them as I have no experience of growing them. On the weekend I noticed they were trying to send out a flower stem from their centres, I nipped these out, and can happily report they are using their energy to make the bulbs instead.
My cucumbers have arrived from T&M so the onions have a few weeks to finish off what they are doing as I need the space for my cucumbers. I want to keep them separate from the tomatoes and peppers and aubergines as they don’t appear to like the humidity of the other plants. I need to feed the soil after the onions finish. After my garden peas have finished outside I am going to use the soil for growing either lettuce or radish as legumes put nitrogen back into the soil.
My list of jobs is growing as quickly as the plants. Each evening, I go outside and inspect every plant. I have a three year old Goji Berry that has recently being moved as it didn’t like its position in the garden; it now sits behind a Tayberry. I have never eaten Tayberry before so I am really excited, especially as it was in the bargain bucket for £2.49 last year from a well-known home improvement store. I have never tried a fresh Goji Berry either as it hasn’t fruited at all. This is my fault for not putting it in the correct place to start with.
Next everything in the greenhouses gets a watering. I then do the stomach muscles workout of watering pots, bags, baskets and beds in the garden with a two gallon watering can. A hose fixed to a water supply would be easier, but I really enjoy the exercise. It helps my arms and chest muscles too. Mark fixed a tap at the bottom of the water butt so that I don’t have to go up and down the steps to fill the watering can from the top of the barrel all of the time. Also as I had to lean in quite far sometimes over the barrel I think he was worried I might end up head first in it. It’s easier as the top and back garden get water from the top of the barrel and the front and side garden get water from the bottom of the barrel.
I discovered that medical rubber gloves which are really thin, work well for doing fiddly things on my list like getting at the side shoots of the tomatoes or potting on nicotiana and sunflowers as the hairs slightly irritate my skin. The gloves can last anything between one and five uses, unless I forget them in the greenhouse and they melt in the heat.
I am trying the potatoes at the front of the house as it gets the sun from just before midday until sunset. It’s really comical when people stop and ask “Errm what plants are they?” I tell them and then they ask “Do potatoes really grow in bags like that?” I think the pictures speak for themselves. I noticed that there is a competition for the biggest potato crop on the T&M website I don’t think I will have the biggest crop, but I am really interested in the results as, mentioned in my previous blog, I have two different types of grow bags to compare.
I have picked and stewed some rhubarb, it’s was sweet; I ate it with Greek yoghurt and honey. Mark hates rhubarb so it was all mine! I wish I could say that my lettuces and radish were nice but I never got to try them thanks to the slugs. Looks like I will have to wait a bit longer. Has anyone else had any disasters in the greenhouse this month or is it just me?
Between now and the end of the year my greenhouses, gardening diaries and this blog are going to be even more important to me; I recently went for my cardiology consultation and the news though not unexpected, was not the best. As I am forty and I had my main heart surgery when I was seven, there was always a chance that as I got older I would need, what the specialists now politely term, an intervention, I am going for further tests, with the one due mid June, and although I feel fit and well, I have to err on the side of caution. My cardiologist said to carry on as normal and that includes going to work, gardening and generally getting on with it. I am not going to feel sorry for myself, and I certainly don’t want people to feel sorry for me. People with congenital disorders are used to hospitals and test and procedures, it’s a way of life, but that does not mean that we are not affected by it. For me gardening gives me something positive to focus on, and to share it with others is incredibly rewarding. It’s also useful during a long MRI to keep the claustrophobia away by trying to name all of the plants that are currently flowering in the plot, or visualising myself there rather than in a noisy machine.
I love my garden and it has many challenges, although after last Saturday Mark has decided it’s too dangerous for him. Unexpectedly, he ended up in A&E after trying to put together a homemade bamboo cane support frame for the tomatoes. He was cutting off a strip of insulation tape holding a bunch of canes when the canes rolled in his hands. The Stanley Knife sliced easily through the tape and just as easily through his finger. He is a first aider at work so he gave me instructions on stopping the blood flow and how to bandage him. It settled, but started bleeding again and again. After two hours we decided maybe he needed stitches. The nurse said it needed two to three stitches but unfortunately two doctors were unable to stitch it as there wasn’t enough thickness in the skin. They glue stripped it instead. Talk about blood, sweat and tears!
Next month is early summer, the start of the potato and pea harvest in our garden, it’s also a time when I can unwind with a cup of coffee in warm evenings sitting on my bench hid behind the wildflower and Lupin border watching the world go by.
Love Amanda xx
A Great Pavilion exhibit without a single decorative bloom on show has charmed judges into awarding a Chelsea Gold Medal to Scots potato aficionados Morrice and Ann Innes – the first gold to be awarded to a potato-only display in the show’s 150 year history.
The Potato Story, sponsored by Thompson & Morgan, acts as a simple showcase, highlighting more than 140 varieties, and traces the history and origins of the potato while drawing attention to its diversity and versatility in the garden and kitchen. Morrice of Old Town, Aberdeen, claims to have the largest private collection of potato varieties, built up over 20 years, and has long championed his favourite vegetable.
Many of the display’s varieties come from Morrice’s own collection of tubers, and include original South American species as well as historical European heritage varieties such as Karaparea, which was taken to New Zealand by Captain James Cook in the 1770s. The exhibit is completed with modern varieties grown from Thompson & Morgan seed potatoes, including blight resistant main crop Sarpo Axona and its latest introduction, high yielding salad potato Jazzy, currently the mail order supplier’s best seller.
The modest, yet impactful display offers information boards, telling the story of the potato and highlighting its global importance as a major food source and healthy eating option. Morrice said: “We’ve tried to tell the tale of the potato by highlighting a vast array of skin colours, shapes and sizes, while suggesting the best uses of each variety and the places where they come from. You won’t find many of the varieties for sale at the supermarket. Hopefully we’ll help inspire more people to grow potatoes and to try a some of the more unusual forms while they are at it.”
The exhibit’s sponsor has supported Morrice and Ann in the past, scooping silver and bronze medals at previous RHS shows, and is delighted to finally see a Gold Medal awarded to the nation’s favourite vegetable. Thompson & Morgan Vegetable Product Manager, Colin Randel, worked with Morrice to set a world record for the largest display of potato varieties at the 2004 Shrewsbury Flower Show. He said: “Amongst all the glitz and glamour of the world’s most prestigious flower show, it’s great to see a modest, uncomplicated homage to the humble potato stand out from the crowd to scoop a Gold Medal. Morrice and Ann have put on a fantastic display, there’s pretty much every colour under the sun on show, from very old varieties right up to our very latest introduction, Potato Jazzy.”
To celebrate the win, the mail order seed and plant specialist has launched a special lucky dip offer on seed potatoes. In time for the main crop season Thompson & Morgan customers can add a 100 lucky dip tuber collection, made up of top performing customer favourites, for just £4.99. Visit www.thompson-morgan.com/lucky-dip-potatoes
4pm on a Thursday and the minutes were going by slowly. I was looking forward to getting home, putting my feet up and relaxing with a large glass of wine. The next half an hour went pretty quickly and I overheard a conversation about needing someone to go to Barcelona to collect plants for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. To be honest, all I heard was Barcelona and I said ‘I’ll go’. Never did I think I would then be rushing home to get my passport to book flights for the next morning.
7pm I arrived home with a little buzz in my stomach. It was such a great opportunity, but knowing I had the difficult task of getting the plants through security and onto the plane, well I definitely needed that large glass of wine. We tried contacting Ryan Air before hand to make sure we could get the plants on the plane; we even purchased an extra seat for our VIP plants. To our dismay, we had no luck and we were advised soil was prohibited on the plane. Now, try explaining the difference between soil and compost to a non horticulturist and you’ll need a second glass of wine!
However, we knew that our Digitalis ‘Illumination Apricot’ plants were to be the centre piece of the Pure Land Foundation Garden. After being advised HRH the Queen was going to be visiting the garden we had to try.
4am the next day I was up and on my way to Stansted airport. The taxi driver was highly amused that I was travelling to Barcelona and back just for ‘some plants’. What I didn’t realise was this would be a highly entertaining subject for the whole of my journey. I am not really the best of flyers, turbulence is my worst enemy and from a past experience with Ryan Air I was a little nervous to say the least. To top things off, as we headed for takeoff a fixture of the plane’s hand luggage holder fell right in front of me. The gentlemen to my right found it hilarious, but it is safe to say the feeling wasn’t mutual.
11.30am I was standing at Barcelona El Prat airport with our very special plants. I didn’t expect the box to be so large, so when I had a call from T&M HQ I was quick to raise my concerns, there was no way they were going to fit in the plane. With my box in tow I went for a coffee, the realisation that I had 6 hours to spend in this airport was slightly daunting. I should have spent the time learning the Spanish word for Trolley, as I could not locate one anywhere and ended up carrying this box around all day.
Now, of course, I expected some people to look at me confused. I mean it’s not every day you see someone walking through an airport with a box as large as that (which had images of fresh fruit on it I might add) and it isn’t really something you would want to see going onto your flight. However, I was stared at like a hawk! The funniest moment was trying to go to the bathroom with my box. I couldn’t leave it outside; they were too precious so they had to come with me. I took a quick bathroom selfie to send to HQ for a laugh.
The most nerve racking part was getting the box through security, it is quite funny that it soon received the label ‘The box’ not ‘The plants’, but anyway, security. I approached the x-ray machine and it was clear the box hadn’t gone unnoticed. Four guards approached me asking what was in the box; this was the part I had been so worried about. My friends joked I would be arrested for smuggling plants, of course I didn’t find it very funny! ‘Plants’ I said, ‘Garden plants’. They put them through and sent me on my way.
I had crossed one major hurdle and had one more to go, getting them on the plane! I sat in the departure gate for 3 hours talking to a gentleman about my day. He had quite a trip ahead of him also as he was flying back to the UK to pick up his car to then drive back to Barcelona. My flight was meant to be at 6.40pm, a look at my watch proved this would not be happening as it was now 7pm! We were then advised our plane hadn’t arrived yet and we were delayed by an hour. Just what I wanted hear after all the hours I had already spent waiting around.
The time came to board the plane and I was becoming more and more relieved. I knew that once I was sat on the plane, with the box next to me, we had made this crazy 3,000km round trip. I reached the door of the plane and the air steward immediately said, ‘that will not fit on the plane’. And she was right, it was far too long and the seat belt wouldn’t fit around it. So, we had no option but to put it in the hold under the plane with the rest of the luggage. Now, I don’t know if you have seen these documentaries on how our luggage is handled, or shall I say thrown on and off the plane, but my heart sank. I quickly and desperately advised they were very precious plants that would tomorrow be seen by HRH the Queen.
She very kindly advised the grounds crew that this box needed to be handled with care and they very kindly strapped it in securely upright so hopefully the journey wouldn’t cause the plants too much distress. Arriving at Stansted airport the air hostess stepped in to help once again, she told the grounds men about the box and I was assured it would be handled with care. I was standing at the baggage collection point and one by one passengers were collecting their luggage and making their way out. Still no box. Where was the box? It was like I had lost an arm, after all it had spent the best part of 6 hours glued to my side. A kind man advised it had been brought in by hand and was waiting a little further down. I saw the box in the distance; it was standing up right, no dents to be seen. The only thing to be seen was the smile on my face.
I collected my box and went through arrivals, where Michael Perry was waiting to take photos and to take the plants off my hands and transport them to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I was impatient and I had to see how the plants were. Without hesitation, we opened the box and WOW, they were in perfect condition. The relief was pretty astonishing; I mean they are only plants, but my 18 hour adventure was so worthwhile. The Digitalis Illumination Apricot (a new sister line to winner of the Plant of the Year 2012 Digitalis illumination Pink) looked incredible.
Digitalis Illumination Apricot looking amazing at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.
A pit stop at McDonalds and by 11pm I was tucked up in bed. What a day! I also get the honour of visiting the show on Thursday, so I will be sure to tell you all about it