Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Things in Unusual Places #9: Diarmuid Gavin

I know, I know: this campaign's been run by Morrison's for the past two years already, so I should be used to a lifesize Diarmuid Gavin cutout popping up at my local supermarket at this time of the year by now. Thing is, I'm not used to it at all. Especially seeing as the telly's showing him shivering his socks off in the Arctic at the moment...

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Messing About on a Boat

I suppose it was inevitable we'd hire a narrowboat whilst on holiday: memories of long past holidays where we'd gone on an annual 'booze cruise' with friends were reactivated by looking out over the Llangollen canal from our holiday cottage and waving madly to all the narrowboats passing by. Then we found there were several boating festivals being held and a trip to the first one at Maesbury sealed our fate. That and our proximity to one of the seven wonders of the UK canal system: the famed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a prospect so tantalisingly close that we knew in our hearts that just a trip to see it would be nowhere near enough.

A few enquiries at the boat festival revealed that a trip to Trevor (or Trefor in Welsh) was the best place to go and hiring a boat for the day would be easy peasy so long as we chose to go midweek. This wouldn't be a problem, so then we kept a close watch on the forecast to see which day looked the most promising weatherwise. We only had to wait a couple of days for everything to be set fair.

We had a wonderful time and here's a short video clip of our ride back to base over the aqueduct. Hear NAH mumbling in the background and the wind blow! See how a mere six inches of pure iron and no railings stop us from tumbling to our fate! Marvel at how far the River Dee is below us!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Fascinating Fasciation

Just before we went on holiday, I spotted that one of my Digitalis purpurea (foxglove) was in flower again. It flowered in June just like it's supposed to, but I was rather surprised not only to see a second flush had started at the top of the plant, but also that it's flowering at this time of the year at all.

Closer inspection revealed that things are even stranger than I first thought as it's an example of fasciation, a disorder where the plant shows distorted stems and flowers, usually at it's head or other strongly growing tip. Here you can see that the stem resembles a cheesestring rather than its usual smoothness and there's some distortion to the flowers too. Mind you, it didn't seem to put the bees off their stride, they were busy shoving themselves up the flowers as usual :)

Fasciation's not a common disorder, but Digitalis is one of the species it more commonly appears on. It can occur due to a number of reasons: genetic; bacterial, viral or insect/animal attack; frost damage or disturbance. As the plant flowered normally earlier in the year, I'm favouring a response to an insect attack such as aphids. Or perhaps it's a response to the drought we had earlier in the year? This could be due to the drought itself (which may have stressed the plant, interrupted the flowering and now we've had more rain the plant's growth and flowering has recommenced in a distorted fashion?) or perhaps the stress of the drought made the plant vulnerable to a bacterium or virus.

It can't be due to disturbance as I've left that area of the garden well alone this year. I'm also discounting frost or genetic damage as I would have thought I'd have seen the same thing during the June flowering. However, I'm going to collect the seeds from the fasciated and non-fasciated parts of the plant to see if any their offspring flower in the same way.

As Mr Spock would say: Fascinating.

Monday, 27 September 2010

A Taste of the Unexpected hits Malvern Autumn Show

Saturday morning dawned bright and fair which was just as well because I was due to drive up to the Malvern Autumn Show, not only to see the pictured Mark Diacono and Joe Swift exchange their top tips re chillis, but also to meet up with a number of blogging and tweeting pals (see here for a full rollcall).

A further treat after reading Mark's book (A Taste of the Unexpected which I reviewed last Friday) was the opportunity to find out more about some of the foods he talks about and to see about sourcing some of them. That and the added attraction of cider and perry tasting plus the whole harvest festival atmosphere of the show to sample ;)

The Good Life Pavilion not only turned out to be a good place for us all to meet up, it was also the venue for Mark and Joe to strut their stuff. Their morning session was all about the alternatives out there for us to grow tasty, useful but unusual foods. First up was Szechuan Pepper, suitably modelled here by Michelle. It's the pink outer coating if the berry that has all the flavour: I experienced a taste of citrus, followed by mint, then salt and a long spicy, tingly afterfinish. My tongue and lips certainly knew they'd sampled this little beauty, or as Mark says It's a little lively isn't it?

Talk of growing peaches then followed with a basket of the delicious flatter shaped variety Saturn handed round for us to sample. We learnt that Joe has an aversion to peach skins as he shuddered every time one went near him. I think Mark was rather shocked that the whole lot disappeared during the first session: they were meant to last for the entire show!

Discussion of chilli varieties and the scale used to determine their heat then ensued (Scoville units - our shops usually stock those of around 7,000, but Mark had bought in his Nagas which weigh in at around a scorchio million). I was delighted (and rather relieved) to have the opportunity to try a chilli called Apricot which was much milder (500 units) and full of fruity flavour. I'm hoping to persuade NAH to use it in his cooking in the future.

In the afternoon Mark and Joe made different versions of one of the recipes from the book: Nectarine Salsa. Mark's was made using shop bought ingredients and Joe's using home grown produce, including some fresh from River Cottage. Here you can see Joe about to show off the knife skills he learnt on Celebrity Masterchef last year. The results said it all: the shop one looked anaemic and whilst its flavour was perfectly acceptable, it wasn't a patch on the brightly coloured home grown one. From the approving noises I heard around me the rest of the audience seemed to think so too.

Sourcing wise I didn't manage to buy any of the items I'd planned, though I have plenty of ideas of where to go next and I've also confirmed if I want to make quince jelly, then growing plenty of Chaenomeles will be acceptable. That's the decision re what to grow for my edible hedge on the allotment sorted then.

After a final natter with everyone, I then found shopping inspiration on the way back to the car park where I bought some excellent produce for tea from the food market plus some decorative 6ft high rusted iron reedmace (shown as bulrushes in the sculptor's catalogue here) and some more practical rusted iron spiral stakes for my Eryngiums.

Altogether a fabulous day and here's to next year :)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Curse of Gardeners' Question Time - Part 2*

I was a little miffed whilst listening to Gardeners' Question Time (GQT) today as Pippa Greenwood had a little dig at the quality of advice handed out by bloggers. The implication was that other media sources are much more reliable, so the following must never have happened:
  • When I asked a question on GQT a few years ago, one expert advised me not to bother training a wisteria into a tree whilst the other two were most encouraging
  • Me shouting no that's wrong, or you need to tell them about x whilst listening to GQT
  • A certain allotmenteer rotovating all that couch grass on the telly
  • Growers in places such as Scotland saying the RHS' plant trials aren't relevant to them because the conditions at Wisley are so different to theirs (I referred to that debate here, but unfortunately I can't find a relevant online link for you)
  • My plants growing much taller than it says on the label
  • Some of my plants thriving in conditions the book says are the kiss of death

Of course, Pippa Greenwood is right. There's oodles on the internet - not just by bloggers - which is poorly researched or misinformed, but the above examples show it's not just the internet where this happens. And of course plants are quite plastic in their behaviour, so a small variation in soil or aspect for example can be enough to prove that expert tome isn't quite as authoritative as it seems.

She was also talking off the cuff (I believe the experts still don't get to see the questions beforehand), so there isn't much time to think through the implications of everything that's being said at the time of saying it. I also need to say there's loads of blogs out there which are extremely good - you soon get to know which ones are the good 'uns. And because we can leave comments, any further questions, clarification, debate or extra information can be added immediately for the author to respond to. That's something I couldn't do today, so I shouted at the radio... yet again.

It's also a bit ironic really as I've just found out she has a website with a blog. And actually, the best bits on GQT are when the experts argue and start having a heated debate aren't they?

It gives me great pleasure to give advice on this blog and to answer your questions. But after today's hastily made remarks I feel I need to say something about how my advice and answers are put together. I'm no expert, so a lot of what I tell you about is from my own experience or my working something out. I always try to back this up with further information to prove or add to what I'm saying **. That's why my blog is so link rich and they're from the most trusted and informative sources I can find.

If I'm not sure about something or don't know, I'll also say so especially if I can't find something via my research which clarifies things. I also believe you have lots of common sense, and therefore read my posts with your own experience and the conditions you have in your garden in mind. The quality of the comments you leave bears that out :)

However, do remember that you need to take anything I write under the You Ask, We Answer heading (YAWA, my spoof magazine) or in response to those quirky internet searches which hit my blog (found under Question Time along with the more useful answers) with a hefty pinch of salt. Though even here, the odd bit of useful information may creep in from time to time ;)

And to show there's no hard feelings here's a link to the episode of GQT I was listening to today. The bit at the end when the lady asked a question about her rather poorly plant is one of those classic moments in my opinion which keeps us tuning in every week.

The picture is of part of the damson tree in the garden of the cottage where we stayed in Shropshire recently. I fear it may be bacterial canker, but I've just found out about a similar looking condition called gummosis. Therefore I'm just about to fire off an enquiry to the RHS members' advisory service before I tell you anything more about it.

* = Part 1 is here.

** = Guess what my major offline reference is for pests and diseases? Yes, it's RHS Pests and Diseases which is co-authored by Pippa Greenwood.

Update 3/10: Stopwatch Gardener has written a most thoughtful piece in response to this post with a great response in her comments. It's worth a read and illustrates one of the strengths of blogging: the response and interaction we get across one or many blogs. I also found out yesterday the BBC have revamped their gardening pages this week and started a new blog, with regular updates due from Alys Fowler, Bob Flowerdew, Jim McColl (Beechgrove Garden) and our very own The Constant Gardener.

Update 12/10: And the debate has now crossed the pond. More thoughtful posts and comments can be found here and here.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Book Review: A Taste of the Unexpected

A few weeks ago when I asked the publisher for a review copy of Mark Diacono's new book, I was worried that knowing him would cloud my objectivity. I spent ages telling myself I'd have to be, because compromising my honesty would mean this blog is dead in the water. I needn't have worried, it's simply a work of genius.

Mark's crafted a rare thing: a non-fiction book about food, growing and cooking that's a cracking page turner. I returned home on Wednesday evening after my loooong day at the Palmstead seminar to find at last it had finally arrived. It was like opening a present: I was instantly hooked and I finished reading it in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Mark's turned his attention away from last year's standard grow your own fayre to his major love, the growing of the more unusual fruit and vegetables he does at Otter Farm and writes so well about on his blog. His philosophy is simple: why waste so much time and effort on growing the usual suspects (and usually cheap to buy) only to find they don't taste that much different to what's available at the shops? Instead we should turn our attention to the tastes and foods we savour the most and use these as our guides to drive out the list of things we really want to grow. If the list still contains potatoes or carrots then that's fine, but do make sure they're varieties which can't easily be found in the shops.

If flavours and what you like to eat are your guide, then Mark argues you'll be adding many more of the unusual foods available to your must-grow list. He's saved us hours of work (probably years actually) by revealing nearly 40 of his favourite tried and tested of these, all fluffed up and ready for us to try. Expect supplies of these plants and seeds to sell like hot cakes in the next few weeks.

Mark's introduction guides us through the best way to come up with our own wishlist. From lists of unbuyables and transformers (foods which turn the other ingredients into a sensational meal), through seasonal highlights, gambles, uncertainties and quick returns he maps out the possibilities for us. Each one is then thoroughly introduced, bundled together under the headings of Tree Fruit, Nuts, Soft Fruit, Herbs & Spices, Beans & Greens, Leaves & Flowers and Buried Treasure. You'll already be familiar with some of them like almonds, asparagus and apricots, but I'm sure only the most experimental amongst you will have tried oca or yacon.

This is a good move: by describing some of the more familiar options and how to grow them, the best varieties to choose etc. Mark builds up trust with you which in turns gives you the confidence to not only to try to grow the more familiar foods which suit your garden's conditions, but to also try some or all of the other ones described. I've already radically altered the plans for my allotment next year.

The final masterstroke is to provide mouthwatering recipes (courtesy of Lickedspoon) for all of the crops featured. I can't wait to try Fesanjan (a rich chicken dish from Persia using the featured Carolina Allspice), Stir Fried Pork with Kai Lan (a perennial member of the brassica family) or Wineberry Trifle. Where appropriate Mark also says where one ingredient could substitute for another in recipe(s) given elsewhere in the book. My only gripe is that the recipes for the yummy sounding chestnut jam and the chocolate cake mentioned aren't included.

All of this is generously sprinkled with photographs of both crops and recipes which will make you want to eat the page. The book is also well seasoned with warmth, wit and a treasure trove of anecdotes and experience.

It's my book of the year :)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

OOTS: The Stark Facts About Budgets

Once again Palmstead Nurseries put on a fantastic workshop yesterday and I've come back brimming with inspiration concerning how we can get the public planting we deserve. However, there's one big issue poised to put a major spanner in the works which I've only touched upon lightly so far. This is the result of the spending review due next month which will significantly affect all of our public services, including those parks, gardens, allotments and other open spaces managed by our local councils.

Paul Bramhill of GreenSpace (an organisation whose activities I introduced to you here) stepped up to the plate to tackle this thorny topic. Public open space is one of the few non-statutory provisions made by local authorities and thus is ripe for deep spending cuts. The fact that it's a tiny percentage of a local authority's budget (less than 1%) and so won't actually go that far in finding the massive savings needed just won't wash with them. Just like other non-statutory provision such as libraries and sport centres, the future potentially looks very bleak indeed. Not only that, in my view open spaces represent a bank of land which many councils will be tempted to plunder or privatise - even though land prices are much lower than they were a few years ago - so that they don't have to make cuts elsewhere.

However, Paul also reported on the research by CABE showing that parks are the most valued and visited public service with 87% of the population visiting a park at least once a year. An estimated total of 2-4 billion visits are made per annum, with the next most popular service - libraries - netting 368 million visits. In addition, the upkeep of parks and the emptying of our bins are the key factors cited by us to show how well our local authority is performing. There's been lots of outrage at the proposed cuts to our library services and anything concerning changes to the way our bins are emptied, so why hasn't it been even louder for any change to the provision of our open spaces? It seems rather sad to me that the entrepreneurial and public benefactor nature of our Victorian forefathers which funded and founded so many of our public parks in the first place seems to have been all but lost. I don't think many people would flock to fund public parks in Manchester via public subscription like they did in the 1840s (the equivalent of £13 million in today's money was raised according to a programme I watched recently on the TV).

Paul then outlined a number of measures which argue the case for the benefits our parks bring: similar to the ones I've previously summarised from this report here. He also referred to the work in the States which has evaluated the costs benefits case in monetary terms. In the case of Philadelphia an outlay of a few million dollars on park provision is far outweighed by the 10's of million dollars netted in return. In my (and Paul's) view we urgently require this kind of study to be carried out here and Paul is trying to secure funding to do so. I only wish I had the money: in fact I'd even donate to a fund specifically for this task if one is available as I firmly believe - just like in my former line of work as a business analyst - that a business case showing how society profits from our public spaces is the only language that government, local authorities and any potential investors will take note of.

There was an all too brief look at funding and management options which I would have liked to hear more about. Paul favours the use of a ring fenced, fixed levy at a local level (e.g. Paris - 1% of their equivalent of council tax pays for the annual upkeep of a smaller amount of open space than we have) to generate funds. In reality a whole raft of other options will probably be needed as alternatives or additions dependent on local needs. Other examples given were Heritage Lottery Funding for key projects (e.g. St Ann's Allotments in Nottingham), the development of new community gardens and city farms, the use of volunteers (e.g. Friends of Cotteridge Park in Birmingham) and provision being taken over by or partnered with other organisations (e.g. BTCV now manages Tuckingmill Valley Park in Cornwall). The staging of events to raise income was also raised during question time and whilst Paul acknowledged this was another option, he also warned that seeing 65% of a park's visitors go there to find peace and tranquility, this seam shouldn't be exploited too deeply.

Whilst this post is a bit gloomy, Paul's presentation was a most necessary one which I feel was a call for action to share with you immediately. It looks like over the coming months as our own open spaces come under threat we'll all need to become advocates for their continued investment and retention. The information I found here, offers some guidance to help us all to do so.

On a more positive note, I'll be returning to the more inspirational presentations another time, especially the one from Bert Griffioen which proposed an innovative solution to shrinking budgets which puts perennials at the heart of the design. This talk in particular caused quite a buzz on the day - like I said earlier, anything involving the mention of money or savings grabs the attention these days.

The picture is of the memorial gardens in Oswestry a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

OOTS: Chippenham's Trees

In an earlier addition of OOTS I gave you the glad tidings that our High Street in Chippenham was going to be graced with some new trees. Well, here's a couple of them posing outside the entrance to Neeld Hall yesterday. There's another 8 of them in various locations nearby and I think they're a big improvement which should get even better with time. I showed you a different view of the same entrance last year and now the large floral planters have moved across the road to either side of the entrance to the Emery Gate shopping centre. I also noticed there's much more in the way of hanging baskets this year, making the New Road area of town look less like the High Street's poorer cousin. If was writing a school report I'd say: B+, Chippenham has tried much harder this year. I look forward to more of the same in 2011.

On my way back home and up to where I'd parked my car at Homebase, I was totally surprised to find 2 apple trees: 1 just outside and the other within the car park. I wonder what variety they are: they certainly aren't crab apples. The one you can just see in the background (click to enlarge if needed) has red apples which look suspiciously like eating apples :)

I'm keeping OOTS going for a little longer as I'm in Kent today at my long anticipated Soft Landscaping workshop and I'll report back on how it went soon. If you've got a post for OOTS, do go and add it to Mr Linky here.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Going Italian at Blenheim

On Sunday I visited Blenheim for the first time thanks to Patient Gardener (PG) who'd given me a ticket to hear Helena Attlee in conversation with our very own Victoria about her new book (Helena's not Victoria) Italy's Private Gardens: An Inside View. Sadly PG couldn't make it as she was busy watching her son take his first flying lesson (which she's written about here - sounds most exciting).

Blenheim held a literary festival over the weekend, sponsored by The Independent (hence Victoria's involvement and my attendance) and my ticket allowed me to have a thorough wander around the park and gardens beforehand: more on that to come. The photo is of the Italian Garden, the one part which unfortunately isn't open to wander around, hence my rather poor shot taken over the hedge. Whilst there I was pondering how many gardens like Blenheim were strongly influenced by those found in Italy during the 18th Century and anticipating how this subject might be tackled during the talk.

However, my preconceptions were totally wrong and in the most positive of ways. Helena has travelled extensively in Italy over the past 20 or so years and has got to know many of the contemporary gardens and their makers during this time. Instead of a dry talk about Italy's well known gardens, we were treated to a warmer, much more intimate portrait of the people who garden in Italy today. Helena's tales were illustrated by the gorgeous photographs taken by her partner, Alex Ramsay who'd not only captured the beauty of the gardens they'd visited, he'd breathed life into them by showing the owners and their gardeners going about their daily tasks, or just showing them using their own space.

By the end of the talk I found myself grinning with the sheer pleasure from what I'd seen and heard. The book is (dare I say it) lovely, but different from most garden volumes because it's a record of the conversations Helena and her partner have had during their extensive travels and illustrated with informal portraits of the people they've met. This approach gets under the skin of why each garden is just so and for me is much more satisfying than the usual plant descriptions, views of each garden and their history, though plenty of this is also peppered in each article in the book. This approach also meant that the in conversation format of the talk was appropriate and worked well.

I left not only wanting to visit Italy to see all this for myself, I was also intrigued by Helena's implication during her talk that garden design and landscape architecture in Italy today isn't the art that it once was and is now in the hands of just a few, who more often than not hail from these shores. It seems strange that where we once revelled in the ideas of our Italian cousins (and epitomised in my photo) we now are the exporters of our gardening expertise and passion to Italy.

I also found myself giggling from time to time because unlike most of the day's other talks at the festival which were accompanied with a glass of wine, this one had tea and cake. I'm sure it was because of the time of day (4pm), but I like to think that it was in deference to garden visiting!

Monday, 20 September 2010

This Year's Cyclamen Colour is...

Why? Because...
  • I love their colour
  • I love the contrast with the silvery leaves
  • I need to replace some rather fetching red I've had in a couple of my summer pots
  • They made the pink and the white ones on offer look wishy washy (and they were rather leggy too whereas these are sturdy and healthy)
  • I couldn't resist a whole tray of 18 for a mere tenner (one of my usual autumn bargains from Frank's Plants which means I can indulge myself)
  • Need I say more? ;)
What's your colour this year?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Postcard from Marcherland

NAH and I have just returned from a wonderful time on the English:Welsh border aka Marcherland. We stayed on the English side in North Shropshire, but this view of the Llangollen canal next to our cottage shows Wales on the other side of the bridge. Every town and village in this area has its own castle or at least a raised area where once stood a motte and bailey structure. Evidence of the turbulent times once experienced in what's now a quiet backwater of the country. We were also very close to the counties of Staffordshire and Cheshire, so we were staying in a multitude of borderlands.

Not only did we have a marvellous time waving to all the boats pottering on by our cottage, we were right next to a National Nature Reserve: Whixall Moss. This is a most rare kind of peat bog, called a mire or raised bog which has many features I need to tell you about sometime. The whole place was in transition: in the warm sunshine we were treated to the last of the swifts zooming over the canal to take their fill of the insects there before starting their long trip to Africa. At dawn and dusk there were many ribbons of honking geese flying in to overwinter on the Moss.

In the cottage garden I was delighted to find a damson tree as this area is famous for these as evidenced by the many signs at the side of the road urging us to buy, the vast trays of them viewed at farmers' markets and even bagfuls for sale at a local lockside cafe. The other treasure I found in the garden was what I think is a perry pear. Naturally both trees were plundered to bring home a most tasty souvenir.

Further posts to come on some of our more specific activities :)

Friday, 10 September 2010

Taking Some Time Out

I'm on holiday at the moment, but thought you'd like to see a little something from my previous one in the Czech Republic. I was on a singing holiday and the video is of our tutors performing as The Barefooters in the Monastery Gardens in Litomysl. I'll be telling you much more about this garden when I get back.

In the meantime, have fun and note that I'm still taking any contributions you may have for Out on the Streets. I'll be doing a wrap up post on my return.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

OOTS: News Round Up

Town square planters in Litomysl, Czech Republic. I was quite taken with the use of Solanum laxum 'Album' * to contrast with the red geraniums

In local news, our newspaper's finally cottoned on to the plight of our conker trees, something I've reported on over the past couple of years (here and here, the latter also having some positive news to report). They've also noted Chippenham's new flower bed, which is marking the centenary of voluntary work by the British Red Cross. I really must go and check this one out as it's described as a rose garden, but it looks suspiciously like begonias to me**.

Some local news making the national papers was a pensioner's penchant for brightening up Wilton with hanging baskets being cited as a safety hazard. Elsewhere BBC News reported on the battle for Berlin's gardens and Chicago's Daily Herald found a local electricity company is threatening to pull the plug on Des Moines' community gardens. On the other hand, The Guardian reported on how we're reclaiming pockets of land left by developers to provide new public space. The same paper has also launched Piece by Piece: a campaign to preserve our remaining open spaces. At Garden Rant, they've been wondering how schools' open spaces could be better utilised both aesthetically and educationally.

In Sydney, a derelict waterworks has been transformed into a new public park and Horticulture Week reported on why we need to invest in our public spaces. They also unveiled details of the open spaces planned for the 2012 Olympics athletes' village. And whilst we're at it here's a view of the first wildflowers already blooming at the 2012 Olympic Park.

I've also found a couple of cracking new blogs: Tim Austen gives his perspective as a Landscape Architect in Ireland. In this post he argues that developments mothballed as a result of the economic downturn can still be vibrant public space in the interim. This also has resonance here in the UK. The other blog I've found is dedicated to The High Line in New York. The link I've provided is to their original blog which is a useful resource in itself, which in turn points you to their new blog and website which has lots more information going forward.

And finally, the Hanging Baskets of Babbington have been named as one of the Seven Wonders of Swindon ;)

* = yet another plant to have a name change, I typed Solanum jasminoides 'Album' first, then found its new name when I tried to find a suitable link

** = even NAH without any prompting said: Aren't those Begonias?

Monday, 6 September 2010

My Allotment: What I've Learned This Year

This question was posed recently over at UK Veg Gardeners and I realised I've learnt quite a bit over the past few weeks, never mind this year. Possibly not the kind of things Jo had in mind though ;)

  1. Nettles bite even when dead - my legs have just gone a bit tingly again at the memory
  2. Growing your own bamboo canes isn't perhaps the wisest thing to do - especially when it decides to grow under your compost bins and out the other side. I'm growing Phyllostachys nigra by the way - a bamboo I thought wasn't that invasive
  3. Wasps attack bees - I witnessed a very aggressive chasing off of a bumble bee from the raspberry patch a couple of weeks ago
  4. The rootstock used for my Victoria plum is a thorny beast, as my head found out recently (and how come I didn't notice it had sprouted until it was nearly 8 foot high?)
  5. You'll never know what you'll find buried on a plot. I'd got used to finding dozens of bags of soot, bits of twisted metal, rotting wood, baler twine, empty plastic bottles of a dubious nature, enough carpet to cover the entire plot and loads of gaffer tape, but suitcases????
  6. Who needs a diet or gym membership, when there's major allotment clearing to do? I certainly didn't - I lost half a stone in 3 weeks and can now do a passable attempt at the atlas stones game after taking 90x50 litre bags of rubbish to the dump. But when the top picture is transformed to the one below, it's got to be worth it...

Perhaps the most important thing I've learnt is sometimes you need to nearly lose something to understand its true value. I've had notice to quit on half of my plot this year owing to various circumstances and apart from the disappointment of losing the means for us to be self-sufficient in vegetables (and almost in fruit), I felt that the heart was being ripped out of this blog. I don't always write loads about what I'm doing up at the plot, but it is where most of my ideas and musings pop into my head.
Thankfully NAH has now agreed to be a lot more helpful around the plot and our combined efforts over the past few weeks resulted in me receiving the bill for a full sized plot on Saturday. Never has a demand for money been more welcome! Perhaps I need to rename NAH to AH from now on?
The pictures are of the half of the plot we've just finished. There's still more to do, such as sieving out the hundreds of pieces of plastic bag we found at the bottom of the plot and deciding what to do with the two large new beds we've made. More on that to come...

Friday, 3 September 2010

Seasonal Recipe: Damson Jam

Over the past week or so I've been the lucky recipient of the fruits of friends' gluts, namely a carrier bag full of windfall apples and a similar amount of damsons once I'd shaken them out of K's tree. This in turn has led to a frantic amount of preserve making activity and we now have a year's worth of jars of various sweetmeats stashed away in the kitchen cupboard :)

These gifts arrived in the nick of time as we were about to enter a 'jam deficit'. We often have soup and bread for lunch and NAH likes to add jam to this usual fayre. I made loads last year which we've just finished and unfortunately various circumstances led to the store cupboard not being restocked over the summer*.

I've been merrily making apple jelly and cheese, plus damson jam and cheese. The damson jam recipe I found on the Cook it Simply website is so easy, I have no hesitation in recommending it to you [my notes are in square brackets]:

1.25 kg damsons
500ml water
1.5 kg sugar

  1. Remove the stalks, wash the damsons, and put into preserving pan [or any very large pan you have to hand] with the water
  2. Cook slowly until the damsons are well broken down [this releases all the juices and ensures the fruit skins are softened. Your kitchen will also be filled with a strong red-wine like aroma :)]
  3. Add the sugar, stir over a low heat until dissolved, then bring to the boil and boil rapidly
  4. Remove all the stones as they rise to the surface (a stone basket clipped to the side of the pan is useful for holding the stones, and allows any liquid to drip back into the pan) [I used a slotted spoon instead and put the stones into a small bowl. I then strained them through a sieve to get the extra juice and pulp back into the pan]
  5. Continue boiling rapidly until setting point is reached [see here for more info on how to do this]. (Test for set after about 10 minutes of rapid boiling)
  6. Remove from the heat, skim, pot [into warmed jars], cover and label

Makes about 6 jars - one of the better yields of jam in my experience.

* = a combination of missing the gooseberry harvest whilst away on holiday, so the birds had a feast of them; the rhubarb and ginger turning out a bit stringy this time; the hedgerow plums being far too small and out of reach to do anything with them; and a lack of raspberry surplus thus far owing to the recent drought :(

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Garden Visit: By Royal Appointment

Today was a day decreed by Royal Appointment: the ultimate of tweetups arranged by Patient Gardener for 25 of us take a tour round Prince Charles' private garden at Highgrove. Anna has already beaten us all to the scoop as she went round last week with her garden group. They waited 10 years for their visit, but ours was arranged in far less than 10 weeks as the arrangements for booking tours has been changed recently.

Our trip was very similar to what Anna has described already, except that we had the perfect day for it: sunny and almost too hot. Also, because Helen had warned them that there were some quite knowledgeable people in the audience who just might ask a tricky question or two, Highgrove had arranged for a volunteer guide who just happens to be a triple gold medal winner at Chelsea to show us around the gardens.

It was my second visit and just like last time we weren't allowed to take photographs. The last time I'd had the privilege of an evening reception on Midsummer's eve and a personally conducted tour by Prince Charles himself. 17 years later the garden has changed dramatically with many more garden 'rooms' added and the trees are much taller which made it much more enclosed in its feel.

As befits a tour group stuffed with garden designers, there were heated debates sometimes on the worthiness of some of the features. Our guide also tested us regularly on our plant knowledge: luckily @NewShoot managed to retain what little credibility we had left. Tea and cakes at the end was sufficient to restore harmony.

We'd had to arrive by minibus to take our tour as there's a limit on the number of vehicles per group. So afterwards we returned to our various vehicles in Tetbury where a car boot plant exchange ensued with various plants available from Patient Gardener, @RolandPatterson, Mutterings in the Shrubbery and Serendipity. The literal icing on the [pictured] cake were the ones which Lazy Trollop had made for us all.

Dinner with @xxxZoexxx and @DebBird the night before and meeting again with various other bloggers and tweeters from Malvern, Hampton Court, plus some welcome new faces ensured that I had a fabulous 24 hours. Thanks to Helen for arranging it all - she really needs to consider going into business as Johnstone's Tours!

If you would like to see Highgrove for yourself, full details are available on the website, which also gives you a flavour of what we experienced today. Don't worry if you can't get a group of 25 people together: the first and last tours of the day are called 'random' ones, made up from applications from individuals or smaller groups of people.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

GBMD: The Clematis

Concealed were all thy beauties rare
'Neath the dark umbrageous shade,
But still to gain the loftiest spray,
Thy weak stem its efforts made;
Now, every obstacle o'ercome,
Thou smilest from thy leafy home.

Extract from The Clematis by Alexander Bathgate (1845-1930)

It might look a little poorly, but I was so pleased to discover these flowers of my Clematis 'Gravetye Beauty' last week. I thought this plant had long gone: drowned beneath a veil of contorted hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') overlain by an extremely vigorous Clematis 'Frances Rivis'*.

But it seems it must have taken heart from this poem and emerged triumphantly 6 feet up, using those very plants I thought had smothered it to support its new blooms. It's suffering from a touch of powdery mildew, which isn't surprising in view of the lack of rain we've had this year and my policy of minimal garden watering. I'll be thinning out the plants in this area of the garden to ensure there's a good airflow around them in the future.

* = the link talks about there being 2 forms of this Clematis, with the pictured 'Dutch form' acknowledged as the proper one and the 'English form' also sold as C. 'Frances Rivis' in the UK and elsewhere which is thought to be a form of C. 'Blue Dancer'. I'll be checking next spring to see which form I actually have.

Garden Bloggers' Muse Day is hosted by Carolyn Choi at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago.
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