Seen at The Festival of the Tree

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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ah, the Language of Love...



Today's Leap Day, the traditional day when women can propose marriage to their men. I didn't do that, but we did get married in a Leap Year so since then NAH and I have a running joke where I propose to him every Leap Day and he flatly refuses because he's a 'happily married man'. It's a shared joke which has me giggling and hugging to myself for days beforehand and it brings us closer together on the day.

Our cosiness was interrupted this morning by the arrival of the local florist's van and the proffering of the pictured Phalaenopsis to NAH. His concern I might have a secret admirer soon turned to relief when I showed him the accompanying message:

Dear VP, Sorry we couldn't get your original plant but hope you enjoy the orchid.
Love the Flower Council of Holland (@meandmyplants).

My thanks to Victoria for her quick wit on Twitter this morning :)

You can see which of 30 houseplants is your perfect partner and have the chance to win a copy of a rather fun and funky book on how to look after them by visiting the Me and My Plant website.

Oh and if you haven't heard The Unbelievable Truth, then you've just missed one of Radio 4's comedy gems.

Monday, 27 February 2012

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #30


  1. Publish a popular weekly newspaper for the Wiltshire area
  2. Have a regular Your Memories slot which has photographs from days gone by
  3. Ask readers to identify and locate the house shown in the latest photograph
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to spot a house in the Property section in the same edition looks very familiar
  5. Et voila!
I hope my email to the Gazette and Herald got passed on to Nigel Brown so he can investigate further...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

From Bristol to Brum: BlogCamp Meet & Greet

Shock horror: for once I'm stepping out from the middle of my avatar - eek!

I'm off to BlogCamp again in April: to Birmingham this time and we've been asked to write a little 'hello' to everyone else who's going. It's a great idea, so here goes...

Name: Michelle aka VP on the blog

Blog: Veg Plotting is my main blog. I also have a photography blog, Sign of the Times and I started Meet at Malvern 2 years ago to get 30 garden bloggers together at Malvern Spring Show.

Twitter: @Malvernmeet if you want me chatty, @VegPlotting if you want the blog.

My Blog's About: gardening, allotments, quirkiness and Chippenham. Not necessarily in that order.

Likes: the stuff I write about on my blogs, plus films, books and I'm a subversive soprano in my local community choir.

Dislikes: Tea, *whispers* rats (!), rickety bridges and playground behaviour online.

I had a fab time at Bristol BlogCamp last year and I'm looking forward to meeting you in Birmingham in April. Oh, and save me some of that cake ;)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Salad Days: Subversive Salad!


Welcome to the second Salad Days - our monthly look at how everyone is getting on with their 52 Week Salad Challenge. You'll find Mr Linky at the end of this post for the links to your blog posts :)

This week salad suddenly got rather subversive. Who knew we could be growing something illegal just by growing mixed leaves? According to Horticulture Week some of the pictured innocent looking packets of seed contravene EU regulations, which bans seeds from more than one vegetable variety in seed packets. Presumably this is so customers know what they're getting and apparently the law has been on the statute book for some time.

Packets containing a mixture of just one species such as various lettuces should be fine. Those with a mixture such as e.g. lettuce, chervil and endive aren't. The regulations don't apply to unregulated seeds (which Sally - who alerted me to the news - thinks it means salad orientals such as pak choi and mustards), so whether a mixture of these plus something like lettuce are OK isn't clear.

Naturally, there was quite an outcry on #saladchat about this, though what changes we'll actually see in our future seed packets remains to be seen. @Simiansuter and I are wondering whether simply packaging each variety separately in the packet (as some companies already do) will get around the regulations.


Elsewhere on the Challenge, a number of us found the colder weather earlier this month affected our success. My chickpeas failed to sprout and went mouldy. I believe the resultant colder water I used to rinse the seeds may have been the culprit as I made sure I kept the jar well away from the window at night.

For my microgreens testing I found the pictured little 'mini greenhouses' I constructed from some left over plastic packaging helped to protect them. However, I did find my coriander seeds were very slow to germinate and are only just getting big enough for the taste test.

Talking of microgreens, Helen found an intriguing new product to test out this month called a 'Sproutapouch', which she's blogged about. You'll find the links to all of her posts below.


@Di_Lew, @Zeb_Bakes and I also had quite a #saladchat about the best way to keep our seeds. I showed off my swanky IKEA tins, though shoe boxes and suchlike proved popular alternatives.

@Zeb_Bakes asked about storage temperature as she'd read in a Joy Larkcom book that seed deteriorates when kept above 50C. Whilst this is true, damp is a greater risk to seeds so I keep mine in the driest, coolest room in the house (my north facing study) with plenty of silica gel pouches in the tin.

Last week I went to Lower Farm to meet Charles Dowding and had an inspiring afternoon there which you can read about next week. My visit coincided with that subtle change in February when suddenly spring seems just around the corner. We put it down to the days lengthening beyond 10 hours and I vowed to get going with salad sowing.

Charles was particularly impressed with the success we've all had on the Challenge in successfully growing peashoots at this time of the year. It's great we've impressed someone we regard as a salad guru, hence my showing off another picture of them above ;)

Note I've moved mine from my south to west facing windowsill owing to the stronger sunshine we've been experiencing lately. Carl, Gwenfar and I had a bit of a #saladchat on whether I'd done the right thing. It seems peashoots might be more sensitive than other salad crops, plus my much bigger windows and keeping them upstairs are factors to consider on whether you need to move yours.

All that remains is for me to leave you with Mr Linky so you can add your Salad Challenge posts and have a good read of what everyone else has been up to this month. Our next Salad Days will be be on March 23rd.


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Top Tips for Tree Care - The Kew Way

Last week Threadspider and I went to Bath University Gardening Club and were treated to Tony Kirkham's talk on 250 Years of Trees at Kew. Those of you who've seen Tony on the TV programmes made about Kew or The Trees That Made Britain, know he's very knowledgeable with a great sense of humour.

His talk had the lot: history, royalty, people (especially his predecessors who shaped Kew's Arboretum) and lots of top tips re tree care. It's the latter I'm concentrating on today. Tree care has changed a lot over Kew's 250+ years of history where they still have a few of the trees originally planted (part of "The Old Lions") when Kew began.

The notorious Great Storm of 1987 (when 15 million trees were lost overnight in England, including 500 at Kew) and the learning from that one event has helped to shape the way Tony and his team look after Kew's trees today.

After that event they realised their tree care could be improved greatly by taking care of soil compaction. To this end their treatment for this problem comprises:
  • Removal of any grass around a tree, ideally to the canopy boundary. Grass is the trees' biggest competitor for nutrients and water
  • Regular applications of mulch around the tree within the circle of grass removed
  • Blasting of air through the soil, so air gets to the roots. It also encourages an increase of beneficial myccorhizal fungi associated with the trees' roots
  • Planting 6 million bulbs per year (it takes 15 people 1 week) - flowering bulbs such as crocus beneath the trees discourages visitors from walking there at a time when soil structure is at its most vulnerable
Tony also told us their tree planting techniques have changed, exploding the myth in the process that a tree's root depth extends downwards to the same depth as the tree's height. One metre is the average depth of roots as below this soils tend to be anaerobic and lacking in moisture. Instead, roots tend to extend outwards to the same length as the tree's canopy (logical when you think about it).

Apparently many of us tend to plant our trees too deeply. An inch or too either way can make quite a difference to root development and thus the establishment and overall health of a tree. Tony's top tips for planting are:
  • Excavate a soil pit to just one spit spade depth
  • The planting pit should be square, not round - this encourages the tree's roots to break out at the corners of the pit instead of spiralling round
  • Don't plant too deep - if the tree is seen to rock on a windy day after planting, it's too deep
  • Don't stake for support - trees need to flex after planting (= seismorphogenesis and is different to rocking) which encourages both root development and trunk flare. The latter will develop into buttresses as the tree matures. These are needed so the tree can support itself
  • Don't fertilise or add bonemeal at planting. Trees don't need additional nutrients in their first year as the tree is more intent on putting roots down and finding water rather than the uptake of nutrients
The team at Kew have also changed the way in which they prune trees. Instead of flush cutting which was practised there until the 1980s, they now carry out target pruning, a technique pioneered by Tony's predecessor William Dallimore. A correctly target pruned cut is much smaller than a flush cut, rounded and looks like an archer's target due to the exposure of the branches growth rings.

I was also relieved to hear the team don't rake leaves in the autumn. Instead they cut them up finely and let the worms take the leaves down in to the soil, pretty much overnight apparently. Tony added that when the weather gets cold, the worms burrow even more deeply into the soil, thus ensuring the organic matter goes with them. My approach of letting the trees automatically mulch my borders rather than gathering all the leaves up seems to be a good one then :)

The talk was a fascinating insight into Kew's history and how tree care is still being developed today. You can catch up with Tony and his team via the Arboretum Team Blog :)

The picture is of a Golden Ash Tree at Kew and was taken by David Hawgood who has licensed image use via the Creative Commons Attribition-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. I obtained it via Wikimedia.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Now You See Them...

Now you see them...

... and now you don't!

Regular readers are familiar with the 'sentinel conifers' in the middle of VP Gardens and my desire to get rid of them. They also know how long I take to get round to things, so Friday was a significant day in the history of my garden. It's taken years for this day to finally happen.

I haven't a clue what's going to replace them. What's become clear since they've come down is how many of the plants which surrounded them need to go too. Having moulded themselves around the trees' outline, they're too much out of shape to be brought back into line.

I'm struggling with how the terraced beds go from cool shade (from the public land next door) through to a hot, sunny Mediterranean aspect in just a few feet. Finding a set of plants which go together well within those constraints, whilst providing lots of seasonal interest and riches for wildlife is going to take quite a bit of step sitting first ;)

Friday, 17 February 2012

What's The Weather for Salad?

NB I'm using that sparkly gold notebook to record everything and make notes about my 52 Week Salad Challenge :)

I've been looking into my local climate data this week to get an idea of when I can sensibly switch from indoor growing to outside. Previously I've found I can usually grow plenty of salad for us from April/May to October/November depending on how the weather's doing in a particular year.

I've looked at the Met Office website and printed off the 1971-2000 average climate information for my local area. I printed both the Lyneham and Boscombe Down weather station data because whilst Lyneham is the closest, it's quite a bit higher than where we are. In reality it turned out there's little to choose between them.

Many of our salad crops, particularly lettuce need 100C in order to germinate and will have some growth from around 50C. Therefore these are 2 key temperatures to look for in the climate data. I also looked at which months don't have an air frost on average because this gives an idea of when crops can be safely left without any protection.

From the data I found on average:
  • Months max temperature exceeds 50C: All year
  • Months min temperature exceeds 50C: May-Oct
  • Months max temperature exceeds 100C : Apr-Nov
  • Months min temperature exceeds 100C: Jun-Jul
  • Months with no air frost: Jun-Sept (and May and October have less than 1 night's air frost on average)
From this information I can see:
  • There is the potential for outside growth most if not all year - albeit this will be limited in the winter and crops will need protection
  • My ability to grow crops outside from April-May to Oct-November fits with when the average maximum daily temperature exceeds 100C. Also, seed sown outdoors at this time will germinate - indoor or protected sowing is needed in the other months
  • I can confidently grow without protection from June until September and take a little risk in May and October (though perhaps I should be on standby with the protective fleece just in case!)
Therefore it's a while yet before I should be sowing outdoors, but sowing indoors now means I'll have plants ready for when conditions are right for them in April/May. Autumn sowings will give me some salad over the winter which I can supplement with sprouted seeds/microgreens/pea shoots. It means I can build on the success of my personal salad challenge next winter and buy even less bags of salad than I've done so far :)

Of course the data I'm using only gives the average climate information. What our weather actually does is a completely different thing!

As well as temperature, light is an important growth factor. Its quality has been noticeably different this week: it's felt like the sun is shining on me rather than at me. So I also looked up the daylight hours information for nearby Bath. Yesterday was the first day we've had 10 hours of daylight since the 25th October last year. That's a good enough starting signal for me to commence indoor salad sowing in earnest this weekend :)

I hope this information is helpful for you to find out the potential length of your indoor/protected and outdoor growing seasons for where you live. NB next week is our second Salad Days gathering, so get ready with your salad blog posts to add to next week's Mr Linky.

If you have an interest in the weather - and what gardener doesn't - you might like to check out my ABC of Weather series.

How's the weather (or climate) with you for your salad growing?

Update: Mark at Vertical Veg has found a website which does all the hard work for you re frost dates. However, it's still worth checking to see if the Met Office has a weather station closer to you. The nearest site on the link for me is Bath, which has a slightly different climate to the Met Office data I've used.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

GBBD: Gifts From Friends

This month's flower for Blooms Day is more of a promise of delights to come rather than showing off what's looking good right now. It's part of a carrier bagful of Hellebores J from choir gave me the other day. She has loads of them in her garden and these are a few of the self-seeders she's dug up for generous bagfuls to give to her friends.

A few days ago I wouldn't have been able to take this picture. The wintry weather meant pretty much all the blooms in my garden had flopped terribly and were looking most sorry for themselves. It just goes to show what a difference just one day can make.

Looking at these Hellebores this morning reminded me there's an important factor which makes our own gardens so special to each one of us. It's not the garden's design, it's sense of place, or the plants we've bought ourselves - whether impulse or planned. It's true those are all important elements, but the gifts from our friends - from both nearby and from blogging buddies in my case - make our gardens truly special.

I often get down about how far away many of my blogging friends are, but later in the year I'll be sitting outside in the garden and they'll be right there with me, in the shape of the plants they've gifted :)

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

Monday, 13 February 2012

Chelsea Sneak Preview: Celebrating the Unusual

Coloured Plan for Chelsea 2012's Furzey Garden by Chris Beardshaw

I'm already looking forward to Chelsea very much particularly because some unusual, if not down right unfashionable gardens are due to hit Main Avenue this year.

If you'd told me previously a caravan was going to be a central feature to a show garden - even one as smooth and curvaceous (and show garden practical) as Doris - then I would have laughed. But having seen designer Jo Thompson's tweets and blogs on the subject of her design for The Caravan Club, I've been converted to the cause. NB Jo will be at the RHS London Show tomorrow to talk about her design.

Chris Beardshaw marks his Chelsea return with the pictured Furzey Garden. This will occupy the Embankment site, host to Diarmuid Gavin's 'Wonkavator' last year and it couldn't be more different. A woodland garden should suit the site very well and whilst rhododendrons and and azaleas are not the usual flowers seen at Chelsea, the show's timing is perfect for them. Besides having a non-ericaceous garden to celebrate the good work carried out by Furzey's Learning Disabilities Team and the garden's 90th birthday wouldn't be true to its sense of place. Indeed some of the plants included in the design are named after the gardens e.g. Erica darleyensis ‘Furzey’ and Primula 'Furzey'.

As well as being unusual, it strikes me both show gardens are more realistic in their concept, yet still have room for designer flair and some Chelsea bling. If these two examples are representative of what we'll be seeing later, then we're due for a refreshing change this year :)

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Closer Look at Microgreens


The colder weather of the past week or so has slowed the growth of some of my salad leaves and sprouts, so it's been great to have some super speedy microgreens to fall back on to provide our salad interest this week. The lidded pots I'm using for these seems to have insulated them from the cold and so their production has continued.

It's not just the pictured radishes which are suitable for this method of growing. Fennel and Fern has come up with an impressively long list of seeds for you to try. Parsnip seems to be about the only seed positively struck off the list - @simiansuter confirmed these are toxic* during #saladchat, which was pretty timely as Mel asked if anything wasn't suitable in last month's Salad Days.

Microgreens are grown in compost (and no pre-soaking is required), so unlike their sprouted companions any spare packets of seeds you have (or ones already opened) are suitable for this method as there is no issue re eating potentially harmful (or nasty tasting) seed treatments. You're therefore probably wondering why I'm showing you a pot of seeds not grown in compost at the top of this post. It's because I'm trialling small samples of seeds in tiny pots to quickly see which ones NAH and I like the most.

You can also see in the picture how the seedlings are stretching themselves towards the light despite me growing them on the sunniest windowsill in the house and turning the pot around every few hours. It illustrates just how low our light levels still are at this time of the year - more on this in a later post.

As you can see my local supermarket sells a few microgreens at an eye watering 75p a go, whereas I'm growing mine for just a few pence. It's interesting to see these (apart from cress) aren't grown in compost, so are just single crop. In the last Salad Days, Lucy asked why compost grown is better. It means there's up to three harvests per seed (depending on how long they're grown for and how carefully they're picked, though true microgreens deliver just one crop), which can be much more economical. The supermarket ones will have exhausted their seeds' food stores and so won't grow away again like their compost grown cousins can do.

For harvesting just snip the stalks with clean scissors as soon as the first true leaves are formed and add to your salad. If you want more than one crop, then grow them for slightly longer and ensure some leaf remains so growing can restart.

Unless you grow masses of them, microgreens are more of a garnish than a salad, but they're very intense in flavour. What they lack in size, they more than make up for in taste! My radishes were ready in 2 weeks, but I expect this to go down to around 7 days later this year.

As well as radish I'm trying beetroot, rocket and coriander at the moment. @simiansuter has kindly sent me some leeks to try. He says they have an intense flavour hit, so I'm looking forward to these very much :)

Thanks to him I've also discovered Rebekah's Veg this week as a good supplier of sprouting/microgreen seeds. Each large packet costs a mere £1; minimum order is £5 and includes postage. The website is clear and simple to use and yippee, doesn't involve signing up for an account. My seeds arrived 2 days after I ordered them so their service is quick too. Other companies offering a good range specifically for microgreens are Marshalls and Suttons.

Strictly speaking my peashoots aren't microgreens as I'm growing them past the first true leaf stage, but their growing technique is the same. I'm trialling a new lighter peat-free compost with these and I've had to rescue my spraygun from the shed as this is the best way to water them without it flooding everywhere. The compost tends to dry out pretty quickly at the top, so much digging down with a finger is needed to check if watering is actually needed.

The picture shows my peas on harvest day at around the same size as shop bought pea shoots. These took 28 days which is probably quite a bit slower than they will be later on in the year. I harvested 30 shoots which weighed in at 25g. I made sure I snipped above the lowest leaf on stem when picking my shoots so regrowth could occur.

I've now had 3 harvests which yielded 75g and equates to 1.5 packets of shop bought. A 50g packet costs £1, which means a kilo costs £20! My store cupboard peas cost a mere £1.96 a kilo - less than 10% :o

A recent #saladchat conversation called these peas LEO. It reminded me of a story from our second food growing bloggers get together a couple of years ago, where our anthropologist speaker who'd been looking at allotment life in Kent said he thought he'd found a new pea variety (Leo) being grown from saved seed, until the allotmenteer admitted he'd named them after the supermarket where he bought them ;)

Further reading: Mark Diacono's A Taste of the Unexpected has a good chapter on growing microgreens.

* = so too are a number of beans if sprouted (though they will be OK for microgreens) - update to follow shortly. Mung, aduki and chickpeas already mentioned are fine though and as long as the method outlined in my seed sprouting post is followed.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Blurb About Chippenham

About half way through my ABC of Chippenham series last year, I idly thought it would be rather nice if it was converted into a book. I instantly dismissed the idea as an impossible dream until...

... I discovered Blurb one wet August afternoon when NAH was away. This is a self-publishing application which includes the option to convert blog posts into a book. I downloaded the software, chose my book's size and layout options, then uploaded my blog posts into it and had a fabulous time editing my own 'book'.

As well as my ABC posts, I uploaded everything I'd written about Chippenham, together with all the comments. That initially gave me a book over 300 pages in length, which would have been hideously expensive. I finally plumped for the 120-160 page price point for my book and started editing accordingly.

I then had a look at the online help videos and altered the format of quite a few of my pages to add some variety. This freed up quite a bit of space and meant I could upload quite a few of my favourite Chippenham pictures from Sign of the Times too. Some of the blogged pictures weren't quite up to the resolution needed, so I had to reload quite a few of them using the originals. I also updated quite a few of the posts and edited them where necessary.

Then came picture captioning, writing the introduction, the sleeve notes, plus a simple reference section and an index of articles. I now have much more respect for these aspects of book production! NAH did the final proof reading which was invaluable.

It was a lot of fun to do and I'm thrilled with the result. I have no illusions that this is anything but a vanity project. The subject matter is too niche and the book too expensive for it to be considered a commercial enterprise. NB some of the other companies in this market do offer an ISBN option if you are thinking of self-publishing, Blurb doesn't.

I chose Blurb because it had the option to upload my blog posts and its pricing structure was much more understandable than the others I looked at. It has a wide variety of templates which made it much easier to make something a lot more professional looking. You can have a look at the whole of the end result here. I finished the project on New Year's Eve and used my mum's Christmas present money to buy my very own book :)

If you fancy making your own Blurb book, it's also worth looking around for discount coupons - I managed to find a 20% off introductory offer :)

Of course my book is already out of date (I rather like that it's a snapshot of a particular time), so you can read my updates of Chippenham's ongoing life and history in my dedicated All About Chippenham page.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Spicy Parsnip Soup: Seasonal Recipe

The chilly weather of the past few days and a bumper crop of parsnips means it's the perfect time for a warming bowl of spicy parsnip soup. I've blogged a parsnip potage recipe before, but have to confess this one from Jamie Oliver has superseded it as my favourite. His use of ginger and milk makes for a much more satisfying mouthful.

As usual I've made a few changes to the recipe outlined. Firstly I substituted a heaped teaspoon of garam masala paste for the powder. This worked well, especially as the oil of the paste helped with softening the onion at the start of cooking. I also added a little of the stock towards the end of this step to prevent the onions from sticking on the bottom of the pan.

I used skimmed milk (milk or coconut milk are the designated ingredients) which hasn't made the soup any less creamy in taste. The recipe says use chopped coriander leaves, but I found a few flat leaf parsley leaves were around when I went foraging for potential salad ingredients a few days ago, which helped to make my version a little more seasonal. If you have leeks instead of onions, I've found these are a good substitute. I've even sneaked in the odd carrot from time to time...

My brother-in-law asked for seconds the first time I made this a few weeks ago and as he's vegetarian, I'm taking that as a compliment :)

My complete list of seasonal recipes is in my Easy Recipe Finder. What's your favourite soup to chase away the winter chills?

PS For those of you in need of plenty of recipes to hoover up your parsnip harvest, Happy Mouffetard has at last found the perfect parsnip cake recipe. Not only that, she brought gorgeous Thomas Samuel into the world over the weekend :)

Friday, 3 February 2012

Separated at Birth? Sprouted Seeds

One of the things I've learned since starting The 52 Week Salad Challenge is that the beansprouts we find in the shops are sprouted in the dark and under pressure. I'd always wondered why the ones I grow on my kitchen window turn out so differently and now I know.

It got me pondering how different my sprouted seeds would be depending on whether I grew them in the dark or light. Sprouted lentils have become a firm favourite with NAH lately, so I resolved to try growing some in both light and dark conditions.

I've grown 2 lots of seeds in the same way as outlined in my Let's Eat Shoots and Leaves post, except for one batch has been sitting in the airing cupboard for 99.99% of its allotted 7 days. The photo shows the results, with the air cupboard grown lentil posing at the top.

It's interesting to see how the seedling part of the air cupboard grown lentil is pale and stretching itself to find the light (ie it's etiolated) but the root is much shorter and branched already. The kitchen windowsill grown one is stubbier and greener in colour as the seedling leaves are beginning to unfurl and produce chlorophyll.

There was little to choose between the two in terms of taste and weight of crop produced, though I found the dark sprouts to be tougher and a bit chewier than their light grown cousins. My Joy Larkcom book also says light grown sprouted seeds are more nutritious. Even if the reverse was true, I'd still stick with my windowsill growing. It's very easy to forget the ones in the airing cupboard - it's taken me a couple of attempts to get them to the 7 day sprouted stage!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

GBMD: Give it a chance


Most people, early in November, take last looks at their gardens, are then prepared to ignore them until the spring. I am quite sure that a garden doesn't like to be ignored like this. It doesn't like to be covered in dust sheets, as though it were an old room which you had shut up during the winter. Especially since a garden knows how gay and delightful it can be, even in the very frozen heart of the winter, if you only give it a chance.

Beverley Nichols (1898-1983)

Time to stir and get going methinks - despite the chilly weather!
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