Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Product Review: Weather@Home

The Weather@Home base station
I'm a bit of a weather geek, so I was delighted when Oregon Scientific offered one of their Weather@Home systems for me to try.

The kit comprises the pictured base unit which measures indoor temperature and humidity, plus barometric pressure and one smaller unit which is placed outdoors and measures temperature and humidity only.

The base unit shows both the indoor and outdoor data and up to five outdoor sensors can connected up, as long as these are within 50 metres of the base unit. The pictured top set of results can be cycled round for the inspection of the outdoor data.

The time, trending information (little arrows showing whether the readings are up, down or remaining  the same), moon phase and a 12-hour forecast complete the information on view. The unit can also be connected up via bluetooth to a tablet or mobile phone using the Weather@Home app, which downloads 7 days-worth of hourly data.

An instruction booklet and 4xAA alkaline batteries complete the kit supplied, so everything is ready to go once the batteries are installed. I found everything easy to set up, though the screenshots in the booklet didn't match those I found on my tablet. I'd say I connected up my tablet and the outdoor sensor by accident rather than design as I'm sure it didn't quite happen as the booklet says.

The booklet has thorough instructions for placing the outdoor sensor - no more than 5 feet high and in a sheltered spot away from direct sunlight and rain as these can affect the results. This proved quite tricky to comply with, though I've managed to find a discrete spot at the front of the house.

There isn't the same guidance given for the base unit and this is where I found a possible problem with the data collected. I put both indoor and outdoor units next to each on the kitchen table and they had completely different readings. I think that's partly explained by the base unit being black and the outdoor sensor white - I saw the biggest difference when there was bright sunshine streaming through our patio doors. We saw a maximum reading of over 35oC when it clearly wasn't that hot - I've now sited the base unit in our hall, away from any windows.

Judging by the outdoor sensor's red light flashing, it looks like readings are taken every 40 seconds and it takes almost as long for the reading to update the base unit. The app shows hourly readings, and it's not clear if this is an average reading taken for each hour. These readings are usually about an hour behind the time of viewing and downloading the data via bluetooth takes up to a minute to complete.

Judging by the tablet's time and the graph, 10 o'clock's data has yet to be uploaded

I love looking at the graphs for each day, though some caution is needed with interpreting the graph for the latest day as this shows the last 24 hours of data. NB I haven't bothered correcting the barometric readings for sea level as I'd rather know the actual reading for where I am, not the corrected levels as used by weather forecasters. Also note this information is only available via the app.

Pros

  • Satisfies this weather geek's desire for information that's closer to home
  • Easy to set up
  • Base unit display is easy to read
  • Suitable for most gardens (if the outdoor sensor is placed within 50 metres of the base station)
  • Ability to have readings from different locations, especially if additional sensors are purchased
  • Good for trending information
Cons
  • There's a question mark over the data's accuracy and unit calibration (it would never be as accurate as e.g. Met Office data anyway as there are precise requirements for the way instruments are set up)
  • Guidance on where to site the base unit is needed
  • Barometric information isn't displayed on the base unit
  • The 12-hour forecast didn't always reflect the reality
  • The app graphs could be clearer - only midday and the date change are shown on the time axis and I had to zoom in a lot to see any minor variations in barometric pressure
  • Only 7 days-worth of data available, so a fortnight's holiday would result in a gap in the data
  • The data can't be exported into e.g. a spreadsheet, which is something I'd particularly like to do. I'd also like to display the information here on Veg Plotting.

The length of battery life and corresponding warning information, plus performance in very hot or cold temperatures has yet to be tested. According to the booklet this should not be a problem for Chippenham or most other climates.

The system I tested retails at £59.99 and additional outdoor sensors are £19.99 each.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Hairy Bittercress: The 30 Day Challenge

Hairy bittercress in a paving crack by my front door

My garden's overrun with hairy bittercress this year. It even greets us by the front door when we arrive home. How did it happen? I'm sure it's because the latest specimens are tiny and almost unnoticeable. When I find them it's almost too late. Their seeds sproing everywhere when picked, their spread is relentless.

My usual solution to this problem is to add them to our salads. They're edible, so what could be a better revenge than to eat our weeds? Sadly, the latest specimens are too small; there's as much cardboard-like seed bearing stalk as edible basal rosette. They're not enough of a tasty morsel to include in our dinner.

I fear I may have helped with this plant's natural selection. By weeding out the more noticeable, normal sized specimens, I've allowed the smaller, almost unnoticeable ones to take hold. In some cases, I only spot them when the seed heads poke their noses above the patio. You have to admire that tenacity for survival, even if it gives this gardener a bit of a headache.

I've looked to see if my observations are rooted in scientific fact, sadly to no avail as yet. However, I did find an interesting study from Clemson University, which investigated its seed production, dispersal and control in propagation beds.

In some ways it's the perfect weed. Seed production is year-round; each plant can produce thousands of seeds; germination rates are high, its explosive dispersal mechanism spreads seeds far and wide, and the seeds themselves are sticky. My admiration increased.

I was also a little daunted, but then I spotted a potential chink in the armour. The study found 90% of the seed germinates in 13 days, so if I'm like Mad-Eye Moody and employ Constant Vigilance, I have a good chance of gaining control over my garden's population.

I'm going out every evening on a bittercress hunt and I weed out any culprits I find. Each one is removed carefully, so any seed dispersal activity is minimised. I'll keep this going for a month, which allows some extra time for the other 10% to make their appearance and to round up any scattered offspring.

Wish me luck.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Cowslip Delight

The sheet of cowslips which greet us at the entrance of our estate

April is proving to be a vintage month for public planting here in Chippenham. After Monday's guerrilla'd Jewel Garden, here's the sheet of cowslips which currently greets us when we enter our estate. These get better and better every year.

Sometimes it's the simple things which make the most difference.

A tummy level view of our estate's cowslips
The tummy level view - can you spot the dandelion?
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.

From: 'A Fairy Song', in A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare

A close-up view of one of the cowslips

It took the sharp observation of Shakespeare's verse for me to spot the rubies amongst the gold. Then my camera added a pearl to one of the cowslip's ears :)

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Monday, 20 April 2015

A Jewel Garden

Brightly coloured guerrilla planted tulips on a grass verge in Chippenham

Someone's worked hard to make Chippenham a better place. These tulips are a few minutes walk from our house and they're exactly what springs to my mind whenever a jewel garden is mentioned.

These verges are by Chippenham's double mini roundabout which often gets clogged up with traffic. For once a traffic jam is a pleasant place to be.

Judging by the reactions on my Facebook page, the planting's brought plenty of smiles to others in Chippenham. It was probably done by one of the residents in the cottages nearby, but I don't wish to know exactly whodunnit.

That would spoil the magic.

Dog walkers amongst the tulip verges in Chippenham

Update: our local newspaper solved the whodunnit. It's a Brazilian lady who got up early each morning to plant the bulbs she purchased. She's due to leave Chippenham soon, but leaves us with a beautiful legacy. The article implies she had permission from the council to do this, I wonder if we could have an 'Adopt a Verge' scheme to get this spreading through the town?

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Poem for Salad

On Wednesday morning I was delighted to find I've been gifted my first ever poem.

Even better it's a) about one of my blogging obsessions - growing salad leaves, and b) April is National Poetry Month.

I tend to gnash my teeth a bit when the online marketing 'experts' go on about the Return on Investment (ROI) for social media. For me, this kind of random connection and a gift from a stranger is all the ROI I need.

I must admit I was a bit suspicious at first and responded with my own brand of Bad Poetry.


A delightful conversation ensued...


As a final thank you, here's the link to Mary Elizabeth's meinrhyme website :)

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

GBBD: Tulip 'St George'

A large pot of 'St George' tulips on our garden wall

In 2000, one of the improvements our garden contractor added to our sketched garden design, was a plinth either side of the central steps leading off our patio. For many years these were topped with a couple of box balls in pots, but the 'sentinel conifers' encroached on them too much and pulled them out of shape. They're beyond rescuing.

I'm undecided whether to start again with the box, so in the meantime I've gone much larger with the pots. Last summer saw them stuffed with a huge dahlia each, which I loved. This spring sees the classic combination of tulips and yet-to-bloom wallflowers, with a few pansies thrown in for good measure.

The tulip variety is 'St George', which I was given to trial last year, and judging by their height and leaves they're of the Greigii type. They're around 9-12 inches - a bit smaller than advertised, but that's probably because I'm growing them in pots and they're quite close together. I love the striped leaves.

I'd like to rename them 'Strawberry Mivvi', because that's what I'm reminded of when I see their budded form. Later in the day they open wide into a creamy yellow with a stripe which is more of a peach colour. I'd say they've come out a bit paler than their naming and the supplier's website suggests, possibly because they're in pots in the sunniest part of the garden.



As a Blooms Day bonus I have to show you our neighbour's magnolia tree which has popped over our fence to say hello. The blooms are so magnificent, even NAH has remarked on them. It's a good magnolia year.

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

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Latin without tears

As we discovered in my What's a Name? quiz recently, tulip (latin = Tulipa) is derived from the Turkish for turban, talband, which refers to the flower's shape. However, Wikipedia gives a slightly different definition, saying it's derived from the Turkish for muslin via the Persian word for turban. It also says the word may refer to the fashion at the time of the Ottoman Empire of wearing tulips in turbans, rather than the flower's shape.

There are around 75 wild species and the RHS groups cultivated tulips into 15 Groups - click on the link and scroll down for a slideshow of examples plus definitions. Greigii tulips form the 14th Group which comprises cultivars, subspecies, varieties and hybrids of T greigii. This species hails from Turkistan and according to the Backyard Gardener is named after Samuel Alexeivich Greig, a 19th century botanist and former president of the Russian Horticultural Society.

The Greigii group is characterised by shorter, later flowering tulips - April/May in the case of my 'St George' - with distinct mottled or striped foliage. The latest edition of The Garden says this tulip Group is good for containers, so it seems I made the right choice for where to plant mine.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Latin Without Tears: Tomato

Photo of a tomato and salad leaves on a plate

Oops, forgot to add my regular Latin feature to last week's plant profile. As it was a long post anyway and I've found quite a bit of information, a separate post seems best.

Our word for tomato is rooted in the Aztec one, tomatl which gives us a clue to this plant's origins from the Andes in South America. We had a quiz question a couple of weeks ago: What is the Peruvian 'love apple' commonly known as? and I was relieved I had the right answer - tomato - especially as the rest of the team didn't believe me. I wonder if that's where the French Pomme d'Amour originates.

According to the British Tomato Grower's Association tomatoes have been cultivated in South America since around 700 AD. They arrived in Europe in the 16th century either via the Spanish Conquistadors, or Jesuit priests bringing them back to Italy.

According to Wikipedia, the latin name for tomato is Solanum lycopersicum, which shows it's been placed in the notorious nightshade plant family, Solanacea. The meaning of this part of the Latin name is unclear: it could refer to the similarity of the plant's flowers to the sun's rays - at least one species is known as the 'sunberry'. Or it could originate from solari, the Latin verb meaning 'to soothe', which refers to the medicinal properties of some of the species found in this family.

However, other sources such as the Plants for a Future Database give the Latin name as Lycopersicon esculentum.  My findings so far suggest this genus name refers to wild tomatoes and the Solanum naming is accepted by botanists for cultivated varieties.

Whichever Latin name we're looking at, Lycopersicon and lycopersicum are derived from the Greek meaning 'wolf peach'. This could be rooted in the initial belief when they arrived in Europe that tomatoes were poisonous. Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which is the carotenoid responsible for giving tomatoes their distinctive colour.

We now know tomatoes are edible (esculentum = edible) and delicious. They're one of the most widely grown edible crops in the world. The foliage is still deemed to be poisonous, going back to its nightshade roots.

However, I've seen a couple of references lately which cite the use of a small amount of leaves (around 2-3) in cooking to increase the tomatoey flavour in sauces. James Wong's latest book has 2 in his pasta sauce recipe and last week's edition of Saturday Kitchen had the whole vine from the packet popped into the pot for one recipe. The leaves or vine are fished out prior to serving.

How do you pronounce the word tomato? Oh,  Let's Call the Whole Thing Off ;)

Friday, 10 April 2015

Portland Inspiration: Lasting Impressions



If the embedded show doesn't work, try this link instead.

We've just booked our flights to this year's Garden Bloggers Fling in Toronto - it's less than 2 months away, squeeeee!

I've looked at last year's photos to help me through the wait and it's interesting to see what has stayed with me. The sheer number and variety of gardens we visited; the bold use of art and orange in the garden; huge pots; serious plantsmanship and good design, which still has room for lots of fun and quirky detail; cheeky hummingbirds (holds back the green-eyed monster); lush planting with varieties I can use in my garden. I could go on.

Instead, I've produced a slideshow of my lasting impressions, restricted to a couple of photos per garden plus a few extra scene setters. Naturally I found it difficult to keep to two, so I cheated and sneaked in a collage at the end. Even so I could have made some more, but then the show would be too long.

Sit back and enjoy.

You may also like:

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Plant Profiles: Tomatoes

Photo of sungold and indigo rose tomatoes ripening on my windowsill
Some of last year's 'Sungold' and 'Indigo Rose' ripening on my windowsill. 

Every year I have a tussle with myself about growing tomatoes. Home-grown have the best flavour by far, but as I only have space to grow them outdoors, it's a much riskier venture. Too often the summer weather is indifferent, or blight wrecks them at the point of ripening. As a result it can be the most heartbreaking of crops.

But then comes along a summer like last year and I fall in love with growing tomatoes all over again.

Tomatoes are one of the mainstays of our salads and to get anything remotely like a good flavour in the shop-bought line means buying them on the vine. This makes them an expensive buy, so home-grown makes good sense both in terms of taste and wallet. In a good year.

My internal wrangling means I always miss the prime time for sowing seeds. I could just about get away with sowing them now, but it would mean a later crop and an increased risk of blight annihilation. Besides, my windowsills have reached groaning point already without the added burden of tomato plants. 


Photo of 2008's total harvest - one solitary cherry tomato
2008's total harvest

My local garden centre always comes to my rescue in April by having a too-tempting range of tomato plants on special offer. The variety available in any UK store is restricted compared to what's available from seed, but I'm more than happy with my 'Sungold' and 'Gardener's Delight'.

As I've mentioned blight a few times, you may be surprised I'm not growing any resistant varieties. I thought those I've tried so far were lacking flavour, but I'm looking forward to trialling some of the new supposedly blight conquering 'Crimson Crush' when they arrive courtesy of Sutton's.

I'm having great fun reading James Wong's latest book, Grow for Flavour* at the moment. His science-based approach in this volume really appeals to me, so I'm looking forward to trying some of his tips. I'll be giving my plants a molasses feed, spraying with dilute aspirin and restricting the number of tomatoes per truss. I'll also be using salt water a couple of times - a tip I also learned from Alice Doyle after her talk at Bath University Gardening Club last year.

* = NB this book's styling makes it more suited to print than e-reader. Full review to follow...

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Cultivation notes


There are several choices to make before choosing your specific varieties to grow:
  • Indoor or outdoor? There's a wider range of varieties available for indoor growing and higher temperatures means there's usually a much earlier crop. Blight problems often arrive later in the season too. However, not everyone has a greenhouse or other suitable indoor space, so outdoor growing may be the only option. Outdoor plants should be hardened off and planted out after the risk of overnight frost has gone - late May in my case
  • Variety? Small cherry tomatoes for salads and snacking; huge beefsteak for stuffing; or in between the two for sauces and an all-round-ish option. I prefer the cherry types as they are sweet and delicious in our salads. In good years I have enough to make our favourite pasta sauce from these too
  • Indeterminate (aka vine or cordon) or determinate (aka bush) or in between? This is the way the plants grow and determines how you look after them. Bush plants generally need less care and attention, but they are shorter plants so may not have such a large harvest. See the RHS's general page on tomatoes for full details on how to deal with each type
  • Growbags, pots, or ground? When I grew tomatoes on the allotment, I found I never had to feed them. Container-grown plants need regular feeding as well as bought-in compost. This can make home-grown cost more than shop bought, though of course they should still be far superior flavour-wise  

Photo of green tomatoes outdoors
Tomatoes hail from South America, so they prefer warmer, drier summers. A sunny spot is needed to ensure the ripening of fruit. I've found leaving green fruit to ripen on my kitchen windowsill extends my home-grown season long after I've cleared away the plants in the autumn. 

Cherry tomato harvest of various varietiesEven temperatures and water supply are preferable, otherwise fruit can develop problems such as blossom end rot or splitting. Last year I grew my plants in some self-watering pots and my thin-skinned 'Sungold' still split. I also saw 'catfacing' for the first time, so fluctuating temperatures must have been the cause.

When the weather's dry, gently tapping the flowers helps the fruit to set, as does a light misting with water. Always water around the roots of the plant to prevent the spread of fungal spores. I 'plant' a flower pot next to each plant and I water into this instead.

My main pesky pest on tomatoes is aphids, which I simply wipe away and let the birds, ladybirds and hoverflies have a feast. There's a ton of problems associated with tomatoes - too many to mention here. See the links below for helpful information.

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Further References


You may also like

  • Grafted tomatoes et al. - one of my most popular posts ever and there's also my follow-up post on my trip up north to find out how grafted plants are produced
  • Salad Days: Tomato 'Indigo Rose' - my report on my trial of last year's new variety. It makes a better salsa than a salad and later harvests had marginally more flavour. Alice Doyle mentioned in her talk there are loads more varieties in the IndigoTM family pipeline, which should have a better flavour
  • On Blightwatch - news of a blight monitoring service that's worth subscribing to if you grow tomatoes or potatoes
  • Naomi's post on the tomatoes she'll be growing this year. We chatted about our favourites with Sally at The Edible Gardening Show last month
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Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre. It's also where I bought my tomato plants last week.



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Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own :)
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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

GBMD: Happiness

The Courts, Tuesday 24th March 2015, 15:28:22 ~ a fresh view of the garden I'd hadn't noticed before
Now we're at home, NAH and I are busier than ever and it's got to the point where we have to try really hard to make time for each other.

Last Tuesday afternoon was just such a time. What made it remarkable was instead of our usual foray to the local farm shop for a cuppa NAH said:

"Let's go a bit farther, I need to get out somewhere where I can clear my head. How about that garden in Holt? They have a cafe there don't they?"

In over 31 years of marriage, NAH has never initiated a visit to a garden.

And so The Courts conspired to serve up a perfect afternoon, with sunshine and the most wonderful light. The coffee, cake and company was nigh on perfect too.
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