Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 21 October 2016

A poem for Apple Day

Freshly picked apples in my trug
You can read the whole of Robert Frost's wonderful After Apple Picking here
I'm not quite as weary as Robert Frost's apple picker, but then I'm not doing it for a living. This year's crop is a good one, and now is the right time for picking most of them here at VP Gardens. It's the perfect way to celebrate today's Apple Day.

This year marks a change in how I'll use some of my harvest. The bulk is for eating fresh or squirreling away in the freezer to extend the time I can add chopped apple to my daily porridge. The difference lies in what I'll be doing with the remainder: in the past windfall cake and apple jelly were our staple fare, but now we're trying to reduce the amount of refined sugar in our diet.

As a result, a smart, shiny new juicer awaits these apples in my kitchen. I agonised for ages over whether to invest in this or a press. In the end I decided I'm not quite ready for a bulk approach to juicing, nor do I have the freezer space or bottles needed to store them. Smaller amounts freshly prepared to accompany our meals are sufficient for our needs... for now at least.

If you want to find an Apple Day celebration, then the People's Trust for Endangered Species' website has taken over the mantle pioneered by Common Ground. Their Apple Day section is the page you need, and their Traditional Orchard and Orchard Network campaigns have a wealth of useful information on all things apple.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Hellebore Convert

Hellebore article in Suffolk Plant Heritage's magazine which details how I became a hellebore convert

Here's a nice surprise from last week's mail. I wrote the above article for Suffolk Plant Heritage Journal early this year and then promptly forgot about it. Click to enlarge the picture if needed.

Washfield Double hellebore in the lower terrace bed
'Washfield Double' hellebore 
Since I wrote the article I've added twenty 'Washfield Doubles' to the shady borders in the front and back gardens. I've planted some of them in the lower terrace bed, so I can admire them without having to bend down to do so.

They rewarded me with a surprise flowering in late spring which shows they must be settling in well. These forms were bred by Elizabeth Strangman, who raised them from double flowers of Helleborus x hybridus she found growing wild in Yugoslavia.

They're beginning to make themselves known again, now that summer's foliage is beginning to die back.  So far I have a couple of creamy speckled ones, and I may find I have white, yellow, light or dark pink ones too. It's good to know I have some new treats and a few surprises in store for when winter takes hold of the garden.

We also have a University of Bath Gardening Club member who is well-known for the hellebores she breeds in her garden on the edge of Bath. I'm looking forward to visiting one of her open days next year. Who knows what might follow me home from there...

Which plants have you decided not to grow, only for them to seduce you into thinking again?

Saturday, 15 October 2016

GBBD: Autumn's Surprise

White nerine brightening up my side garden for the first time

Earlier in Blooms Day I talked about the concept of Sleep, Creep, Leap which allows plants to take time - around three years - to establish themselves before they show their full glory. I've also blogged about surprise returns to the garden after a long absence - yes, I'm looking at you, Fuchsia 'Garden News' and you, Anemone 'Hadspen Abundance'.

Little did I know there was an even bigger garden surprise awaiting me, in the shape of the pictured nerine. I planted it in a sunny gravel area at the side of my garden seven years ago; the best spot for it, or so I thought. Most years it's deigned to show a couple of untidy sprawling leaves and this year it's actually flowered for the first time.

My last job often took me to Dublin, where it seemed every front garden hosted a border or two of the more familiar pink nerine at this time of the year. I felt they'd lined up in welcome, with their heads nodding approvingly in the breeze as I made my way into the heart of the city. I decided to honour that notion, but with a twist to make it my own.

When I researched this post I found the probable reason why my nerine has taken so long to flower. I thought it was a relatively hardy Nerine bowdenii, but the RHS website shows it as Nerine undulata (Flexuosa Group) 'Alba' instead. The details say its hardiness is H3, thus only suited to milder areas in the UK. Perhaps last year's relatively mild winter is why my bulb has flowered at last.

Was it worth the wait? I think so. I love the frosted sheen of the petals, which remind me of icing sugar. Now I've found my bulb is tender, perhaps it's time for some Dublin-inspired lipstick-pink ones instead.

What's been the biggest surprise in your garden this autumn?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Plant Profiles: Daffodils

Beautiful light shining through a host of golden daffodils In St James's Park
A host of golden daffodils: a chance sighting at St James's Park, London in March
One of my first gardening activities when I moved to VP Gardens was to plant hundreds of daffodils on the bank at the side of the house. The effect in my mind's eye was similar to the one above and it was successful, until the trees and shrubs planted by the builders grew taller and shaded them out.

Now there's the opportunity to try again as NAH - in Drastic Gardener guise again - has started to cut back some of the unwanted vegetation (mainly suckering blackthorn and bramble from the public land), thus letting more light onto our patch. The overgrown dogwood still needs taking in hand, but my mind is set on a host of dancing daffodils again.

In the meantime, I've treated myself to some of the daintier ones to cheer next spring. These are mainly in pots, so I can admire them from the patio. I tried this a few years ago and was surprised one evening to find the most amazing scent outside our bedroom window. It was the year of the freakishly warm March and I'd opened the windows wide to cool down. The voluptuous scent of N. 'Thalia' drifting upwards on the air was my reward.

So some more 'Thalia' went on my shopping list, along with 'Jack Snipe', 'Topolino', plus a species one, Narcissus lobularis. I've found the smaller narcissi to be the most rewarding daffodils of those gracing my garden. I also have a large bag of mixed bulbs (a garden centre club member freebie) which I shall add to those I've guerrilla gardened along the public path at the side of the house. Here the more robust, taller varieties rule the roost, making it easy for the residents of the local care home to see when they're taken out for a spot of fresh air.

I love many varieties (see below), and by picking a diverse range their display usually brightens my garden from February to early May... or in the case of last year, from December until May.

Cultivation notes

Narcissus 'Geranium'
The best time to plant daffodil bulbs is now (i.e. September/October), into non-compacted, moist soil (so the recent dry weather means I've had to water my planting areas first). If you're looking for a more natural look to your mass plantings, throw a handful of bulbs on the ground at a time, and plant them where they fall, making sure they're about two bulb widths apart to prevent overcrowding.

The best spot for them is in sunshine, or a place that receives at least 3 hours of sunshine per day. This can include some surprisingly summer-shady spots if the overhead canopy is deciduous. If the leaves have time to die down for 6 to 8 weeks after flowering before the leaf canopy closes overhead, it's worth giving them a try.

Narcissus 'Cheerfulness'
Planting depth should be around 4 inches, or 2 to 3 times the height of the bulb. Deeper planting prevents the bulbs from dividing into smaller off-sets which don't flower. This is often the reason why bulbs come up 'blind' i.e. lots of leaves, but little or no flowers. This can also happen after a few years, and is a sign to dig up clumps and replant or replace with the largest bulbs. The RHS has a good guide to daffodil blindness with plenty of tips on prevention and cure.

Deadhead spent flowers (so the plant concentrates on food stores rather than seeds) and allow the leaves to die down naturally after flowering. I quickly learned by tying them up or cutting them back to neaten the border was a surefire way to guarantee no flowers next spring. Plants need as much leaf area as possible to help them store sufficient food back in the bulb to power next season's flowering.

Narcissus 'Salome'
I've found growing summer perennials nearby usually provides enough interest to mask their untidiness as these will be starting up their growth. Remember, if you've naturalised your bulbs in grass you mustn't mow during this period - that may affect your choice of where to grow them.

Plant firm, healthy looking bulbs; if any of them are soft or have signs of mould, they should be discarded. I've found sprouted ones are fine, as long as the rest of the bulb remains firm. Problems may include slug or snail damage, Narcissus basal rot, and Narcissus bulb fly.

Narcissus 'Ice Follies'
'Ice Follies'
Some of my favourites include:

  • 'Jetfire'
  • 'Geranium' (scented)
  • 'Minnow'
  • 'Tete a Tete'
  • 'Falconet'
  • 'Cheerfulness' (highly scented)
  • 'St Patrick's Day'
  • 'Ice Follies'
  • 'Salome'
  • 'Pheasant's Eye'
Narcissus 'Falconet'
I've found the large double forms a disappointment. They seem to be more prone to slug damage and their heavier flowers mean they're usually floored permanently by any late winter/spring storms.

You can propagate daffodils, but they are usually so plentiful and cheap in the shops, it'd be rude not to buy them. Some varieties are good at propagating themselves - a big clue is when the blurb says 'good for naturalising' or 'clump forming'.

You could also try breeding your own daffodil variety. If this takes your fancy, Lia Leendertz's article on Ron Scamp - daffodil breeding supremo - will be of interest.

You may also like

A selection of some of the daffodil posts published on Veg Plotting so far (take the link to see all of them and more):

  • Breaking the Rules: Bulbs - in which I explain all is not lost if you - like me most years - don't manage to plant your daffodils this month
  • Brightness Amongst Winter's Decay - last winter's record breaking flower count, including my earliest blooming daffodil, ever
  • Bunches of Daffodils - one of my favourite views of our estate in spring
  • Guerrilla Tactics - evidence of some of my guerrilla gardening
  • London Surprises - which shows the bank of daffodils planted by the Tower of London. Imagine a bank like this with some trees and that's how my front side garden will look *crosses fingers*
  • Miracle on St David's Day - my Muse Day post which introduces a quite different poem on the theme of daffodils
  • The Lent Lily - another poem for Muse Day which uses one of the daffodil's common names
  • Tippity Top Daffy Down Dillys - what to look for when buying daffodils (always my winter treat), courtesy of some of our fabulous British flower farmers
  • University Research Garden - a show garden from RHS Cardiff, which highlights the varied research carried out at the university, including the role daffodils may play in the treatment of Alzheimer's

Further reading:

  • The RHS' guide to daffodils, includes pictures of the 13 Divisions used to classify them and how to propagate them if you'd like to have a go
  • Wikipedia's Narcissus entry has a lot of information on daffodil taxonomy, habitat, distribution, uses etc.
  • Wikipedia's list of daffodils awarded the RHS' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) - seven of my favourites are included, plus 'Jack Snipe' I've just planted
  • The American Daffodil Society has a useful website and includes a list of FAQs plus information on exhibiting in the USA. Alternatively, Great Britain's Daffodil Society has been going strong since 1898
  • The National Collection of pre-1930s daffodils is held by Croft 16 in Scotland. The best time to view is in April and by appointment. Another part of the National Collection is held by Brodie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property
  • Wordsworth's Daffodils is one of our best-loved poems. Did you know there are two versions of it? No, I didn't either until I wrote this Plant Profile. Wordsworth's Daffodils reveals all...

Monday, 10 October 2016

Tomato rescue

Tomatoes left to ripen on our bedroom windowsill

I've stuck with Friday's windowsill theme for today's post, but moved upstairs this time. I've just rescued my tomatoes from the patio as I spotted the first signs of blight yesterday. Like most resistant tomatoes, my trial 'Mountain Magic' does eventually succumb to the dreaded disease, though at a much slower pace. It means I've had enough time to harvest the remaining fruit.

I picked 6 large punnets: 2 each of 'ready to eat now' and 'needs a little more ripening', plus 1 each of  'needs a lot more ripening' and 'not sure if they have blight'. I've found tomatoes tend to develop a warning translucence before blight reveals itself. You can see some potential candidates I'm keeping an eye on in the above photo.

At this point, most people would share their favourite recipe for green tomato chutney, but we're not great eaters of it here at VP Gardens. Instead, I spread out my tomatoes on windowsills on the sunny side of the house where the ripening ones kick start the green ones into action. A daily inspection means I can spot any developing troubles and dispose of them before they affect their neighbours.

The ripening process can be slow, often going on into late November/early December, but that's fine by us. It means we'll continue to eat tomatoes the way we prefer them, in our autumn/winter salads. Eating them out of season makes them taste better somehow.

How do you preserve or ripen your rescued fruit and vegetables?

Friday, 7 October 2016

A windowsill makeover

Three pots of congested Aloe vera
Before: evidence of my shameful treatment of Aloe vera  
I knew something was wrong when I found the pictured basket of Aloe vera on my kitchen chair recently, instead of the windowsill where it usually resides...

"... What's that doing on my seat?", I asked NAH.

"It's getting in the way, and I'm fed up. What is it anyway?"

"It's Aloe vera. I keep it there in case we have a burn to treat."

"And how many times have you used it?"

"Er, none," was my shamefaced reply, "that's why it's got rather out of hand."

Aloe vera is a tough succulent suitable for growing indoors in the UK. That pictured little lot goes back well over nine years, as I was given an offshoot to pot up by my GNO friend H well before I left my last permanent job. The only care I've taken since then was to pot up the pictured three pots of them grown from the original offshoot, and to trim the dead ends and leaves from time to time.

I'm shocked by my own neglect, yet pleased NAH in his Drastic Gardener guise has stirred me into action.

Aloe vera flanked by Plectranthus
After: two small offshoots of Aloe vera flanked by two different Plectranthus species
I also took the opportunity to pot up a couple of cuttings Barbara gave me last year to make a more varied display. All that remains is for me to buy some nice gravel to top the soil. This will reduce the need for watering; a necessary move as I tend to leave and forget my potted plants.

Barbara gave me another two Plectranthus species, related to the coleus we looked at in my Keep it Simple front garden recently.

She thinks the plant on the left is Plectranthus habrophyllus, but can't say for sure as she herself received it as a cutting. It's an aromatic plant, which has a quite a minty overtone when I gently crush a leaf.

On the right we have Plectranthus amboinicus, another aromatic plant with a host of common names e.g. country borage, French thyme, Indian mint, Mexican mint, and Spanish thyme. Barbara called it Cuban oregano and I'd say it has more of an oregano/thyme aroma than mint. The leaves are fleshy and fairly hairy, and the plant grows quickly on my sunny south facing windowsill.

It doesn't seem to mind being chopped back quite severely, so I'm going to experiment with using it as an alternative to basil and oregano in my pasta dishes this winter. Basil in particular does not grow at this time as there's insufficient light, so it'll be interesting to see what my new plant brings to the kitchen table.

Note: if you're wondering where the windowsill referred to in the title is, I've spared you the sight of it as my windows need cleaning.

Latin without tears

  • Aloe derived its name from the Arabic word alloeh meaning bitter, because of the bitter liquid found in the leaves
  • vera means true or genuine in the context of being the most effective healer in the case of Aloe vera
  • habrophyllus is derived from the Greek habros meaning graceful, and phyllus for leaf. The frilled leaves of Plectranthus habrophyllus are quite pretty in my view
  • amboinicus means 'of or from Ambon (or Amboina), the name of both the island and the capital of the Indonesian Spice Islands in the Maluku island group' (source: Plantlives)

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Seasonal Recipe: Shallot Marmalade

Shallots waiting to be transformed into something magical

I had the first rummage through my stored shallots recently and found some had started to sprout or were on the verge of going soft. Quick action was needed to save this part of my crop.

I separated out the suspect shallots, plus the teeny tiny ones which are always fiddly to deal with and found I had half a kilo to play with. Onion jam or marmalade is quite trendy, so I decided to have a go at making the equivalent using my shallots.

I've kept the ingredients list quite simple, using some oil for the initial softening, sugar for the middle cameralisation, then balsamic vinegar for the final preservation. A little water is needed at the final stage to give the flavours enough time to combine together nicely.

I struck lucky with my chosen ingredients and amounts, thank goodness. I'm confident it'll work just as well with onions, though I'd probably add a touch more sugar to the recipe as shallots are quite sweet in the first place.

NAH's verdict: Cor, that's really good!

The finished shallot marmalade... or is it jam?


  • 1 tablespoon good olive oil
  • 500g shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (I used golden granulated - use what you have to hand, though I don't think any of the stronger flavoured brown sugars would work well)
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon = 20ml


  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan, then add the shallots
  2. Continue to heat the pan gently and stir the shallots with a wooden spoon until they are softened and look transparent - around 10-15 minutes
  3. Add the sugar to the pan, and continue to stir the shallots until they are caramelised and brown - about another 5 minutes
  4. Add the balsamic vinegar and water and reduce the mixture down over the heat, until it is thick and gorgeously sticky - about another 5 minutes
  5. Spoon the mixture into a pre-warmed jar with a lid that won't be affected by the vinegar. Screw or tighten the lid on firmly and allow the jar to cool
  6. Store in a dark place, or in the fridge when opened. Eat within a month, and within 2-3 days after opening
Makes 1 jar. Serve as an accompaniment to cold meats, cheese, pate; or in a steak sandwich

Update: there's a lot more information about shallots and oodles of recipes on the UK shallots website.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

GBMD: Sing a song of seasons

Bonfire at West Green House

This is the last verse from 'Autumn Fires' published in A Child's Garden of Verses in 1885.

It's good to be reminded there's a positive side to the dying of the light that autumn brings. As a result I've resolved to plant lots of daffodils this month and to think sunshiny thoughts centred around the promise of their yellow cheerfulness in spring. I'm also focusing on plans, projects and experiments for 2017, accompanied by toasted marshmallows from a suitable bonfire.

What are your thoughts and plans for October?

You may also like

Last week I came across Poetry for the Autumn Equinox on Radio 4's website. What a treat to have readings of some of our most famous autumnal poems.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Gardeners Question Time: In which "Dog's bottom" may be said

My third visit to a recording of Gardeners' Question Time last week didn't disappoint. Eric Robson was in the chair (hurrah!), with Matthew Biggs, Anne Swithinbank and Chris Beardshaw ready to answer our questions.

I went on my own this time, but that didn't matter as there were plenty of people to chat to during coffee beforehand and whilst we took our seats. I met a mother and daughter celebrating their birthdays that day, plus I sat next to a couple who were at the same recording I went to three years ago.

All manner of plants and photographs were clutched by prospective questioners, all hoping to be called down to the front row of seats reserved for those chosen to pose their query. Producer Dan reassured everyone,  'If you're not chosen, it doesn't mean you're a bad gardener'.

Our powers of clapping were tested, and a few gardening jokes told to make sure we were in good humour, whilst Hester posed with her enormous recording boom, and Pete and Pete (or was it Paul and Paul, or a combination of the two?) twiddled their knobs both inside the theatre and in the van outside, to make sure everything was ready for the recording.

GQT question paper and apple trees

Did I get to ask a question? Well, yes I did, and there are several clues to what it's about in the collage above. The program airs tomorrow (30th September) at 3pm, with a shortened repeat at 2pm on Sunday (2nd October). Here's the link to the program on the GQT website - I'm the 5th questioner, about 24 minutes in, after Matthew Biggs's report about a mysterious building in London.

You may get to hear me say "Dog's bottom", if they haven't edited it out...

Gardeners' Question Time Tweet
The mysterious building in London, which I puzzled over when I went Pell-mell to the Mall,
but for some reason I failed to photograph at the time

Update 19th October: I had a lovely message from My Tiny Plot today to say how much she enjoyed listening to my question. It's great we're still in touch after her move from Bath to Portland, USA. It shows how the internet can shrink the world as well as expand it.

You may also like

Gardeners' Question Time Live - my question recorded at Bradford on Avon in 2013
The Curse of Gardeners' Question Time - what happened to my garden after questions were asked at GQT in Chippenham in 2004

PS In Chis Beardshaw's answer on the best aspect to have for a garden, he said Victorian gardeners reckoned for every 5 degrees of slope, the garden's climate may 'move' up to a hundred miles south. With a 10 degree slope, that places my garden in the delightful Loire valley. No wonder my patio gets so hot ;)

Monday, 26 September 2016

Review: Stihl Compact Cordless Blower BGA 56

Autumn leaves at the front of our house
A tiny part of the job - 1 day's worth of leaves at the end of our side garden and part of the public land

With autumn comes new seasonal tasks, especially the collection and disposal of leaves. This usually causes a moderately tense time here at VP Gardens as NAH likes things to be neat and tidy with not a fallen leaf in sight. I prefer the leaves to gather over time, so the task is completed in one go.

It doesn't help that our neighbour puts us to shame most weekends by blowing the fallen leaves at the front of our properties onto the public land next door. I used to have a blower-come-collector-come-shredder for gathering the leaves up ready to make leaf mould, but I found it far too heavy to use.

Since those days I've adopted a Compost Direct approach to autumn leaves, where I sweep them up into useful piles and then apply them directly to borders. It's easier, yet still hard work, best left for a cooler day when I need a good work out to keep warm.

Blower + accessories collage
Main picture: The overall view
Top left to right: Blower + battery charger (which can be wall mounted); The battery end
Bottom left to right: Battery release button; Check how much charge is left at the touch of a button

This year is different, as I'm now the proud owner of a battery powered leaf blower courtesy of the kind people at STIHL. I collected it from my local dealer, who were most helpful and showed me how to use it properly. This is a relatively simple piece of kit, though the first time I used it I still managed to forget the battery needs to be clicked twice into place for it to work. Silly me!

The blower is light (the battery is the only noticeable weight), quiet (much quieter than my neighbour's one) and powerful. NAH - who's an engineer with exacting standards - says the build quality is good.

The job out front, plus our side garden and patio was completed in 10 minutes with plenty of juice to spare (the battery lasts about 20 minutes per charge). I loved blowing out the leaves from behind my patio pots without having to move them - a chore I tend to avoid. It also cleared out the leaves stuck fast around the drains in the road, which is good as these are at the bottom of a slope.

A job which used to be a chore just got so much easier. It also means I've future proofed my gardening, and we can do our share for our neighbourhood. As for NAH and me, marital harmony has been restored now we have the right gadget.

This blower retails at around £199. There are cheaper ones on the market, but the ones I've researched are less powerful and/or have a shorter running time per battery charge.

The blower in action
The blower in action - my thanks to NAH who agreed to pose and use the blower for this post  

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