Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Postcard from 2016

Some of my favourite highlights of 2016. Here's to a wonderful 2017 for you and yours :)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Seasons Greetings

Christmas lights on Oxford Street
Bustling Oxford Street when I treated myself to a day out in London recently. 

Merry Christmas everyone! Here's to a brighter, kinder 2017.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Quick Update...

Festive yarn bombing on Chippenham High Street
I couldn't resist this week's festive yarn bombing on Chippenham's High Street  
Just popped in for a quick update and to show you some cheerful pictures. Thanks to everyone who commented on my last post; your good wishes have helped me through the past few weeks.

Mum moves down to Wiltshire tomorrow, so cross your fingers it all goes smoothly. There are still a lot of hoops to go through, but we're getting there... slowly.

It'll be a while before I'm back to regular blogging again, but I'll pop in from time to time for a quick update or two.

In the meantime, here's the full story from our local paper on who's behind Chippenham's yarn bombing. Someone even wrote in with a thank you letter :)

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

A pause for thought

A butter-yellow leafed tree with matching garage door
I love how the tree matches the garage door at this time of the year. The house is just round the corner from us.

Sometimes life conspires to take you down a different path to the one expected. It was just such a diversion which led to the start of Veg Plotting nine years ago today, when I realised being a distance carer was more important than my job.

I started this blog on the day I wrote my resignation letter and what a sensible move that's been. It's meant I have at least one happy place in my life and it's allowed me to tell the stories which my head demands be told each time I go to the allotment. It turns out this new path has its own unexpected twists and turns, with plenty of new friends and surprises I've welcomed along the way.

To keep Veg Plotting happy means I choose not to talk much about the most personal aspects of my life. Until today that is.

The path turned again recently as I had to make a tough decision about my mum's continuing care. She suffered a stroke in August, and it's clear she'll not recover well enough to return to her home in Birmingham. She needs nursing care from now on, and so I've started on a long list of tasks to find and fund the safe and caring place she needs.

It means I need to let go of Veg Plotting for a while. I've struggled to blog over the past few months and it's clear I can't continue to research and write my posts to the standard I demand of myself.  I also need to spend more time actually in the garden rather than writing about it to help my whirling thoughts sort themselves out. Rest assured I'll continue to read your blogs when I can, and I hope to stop by and leave you a comment or two to say hello.

Veg Plotting will be back as soon as possible - it's going to be interesting to see how long I can keep quiet! In the meantime, I wish you all well until then.

Update: A timely tweet tells me today is also National Stress Awareness Day. I'll be keeping these top tips in mind over the coming weeks in addition to spending more time in the garden. I just wish there was something in there about coping with sleepness nights...

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Book Review: Three for Reference

Autumn is a good time to start plans for next season in the garden, and the following three books are great aids to help gardeners to do so. Over the past few weeks I've had the pleasure of reading:

  • The mother of all plant reference works
  • A great boxed set to inspire the budding fruit and veg grower, no matter how small their plot
  • A book on design that's been a regular companion in my garden, whilst I ponder where it's headed next.

All three are review copies, I received courtesy of the publishers.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants - book and slipcase images
This is no lap book, but a hefty tome weighing in at around four kilos. It merits a read whilst sitting at a table with a cuppa and notebook to hand.

This is the 4th Edition of Christopher Brickell's outstanding work. Around 5,000 plants have been added, to provide a comprehensive reference of over 15,000 garden plants.

I would have preferred the two-volume approach of the previous edition, but welcome the increased focus on plant descriptions of this one.

Other reviews have criticised the exclusion of some of their favourite sections from previous editions, most notably the one on pests and diseases. I have a well-thumbed copy of RHS Pests and Diseases, which is a more comprehensive reference, and I'd recommend that as a replacement guide.

Readers should note the entries are found under their Latin genus name, but are cross referenced against their common ones, so everyone should still be able to find what they're looking for.

The genus entry begins with an introduction and general cultivation notes, followed by specific descriptions of the species, plus variants and cultivars where appropriate. The usual descriptive information on flowers, stems and leaves; height and spread, and hardiness is all there as expected. I would have liked to have seen Award of Garden Merit information too, as this is often a deciding factor gardeners use when faced with a plethora of choice.

There are plenty of clear photographs on every page, though note not every plant has a photograph. Drawings of e.g. plant taxonomy are also included, where needed. The result makes this reference attractive to look at and read.

With the advent of the internet some might question whether there is still a place for this kind of work. I'd argue there is as I've found it particularly useful for choosing the replacement plants I'd like for my back garden. I've found it easier to look through and bookmark the possibilities, then look through them again to make my shortlist, Rather than trying to keep track of dozens of online equivalents.

The RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants has a RRP of £75, which is good value for such a comprehensive work and some bargains may be found if you look around. It's worth consideration as a gift for the gardener in your life regardless of their level of ability.

RHS Fruit and Veg Box

RHS Fruit & Veg Box slipcase image
There are plenty of books on growing your own (GYO), but this one is a little different. It's actually three volumes, neatly packaged in a flip-top box, designed to lead beginner GYO gardeners from container growing (Grow Fruit and Veg in Pots), through starting their own veg patch (Step-by-step Veg Patch), then finally feasting on their harvest (Cook Your Crop).

Each book is bright and attractive, and the growing guides are packed with information to get budding fruit and veg growers off to a good start, no matter how small their dedicated GYO space may be.

The recipe book is divided into seasons, so fits in neatly with the GYO books. There are 100 recipes to help growers make the most of their crops, with a wide variety of starters, mains, puds and preserves. They also range from everyday cooking through to recipes fit to grace any dinner party or special family occasion. Most are quick and easy too and make good use of their fresh ingredients.

The RHS Fruit and Veg Box RRP is £20, and has an air of "buy 2 get 1 free" about it, as it's a combination of two RHS grow guides published already, plus a brand new cook book. It's a great combination. I'm going to pass on my review copy to a friend who is in the process of buying her first house and can't wait to get growing. I think this neat box is an ideal way to keep her enthusiasm going.

New Small Garden

New Small Garden book cover image
Noel Kingsbury's book is aimed at gardeners with smaller gardens than mine, but much of his advice and guidance is just as relevant to my situation.

It's also a timely volume as I'm planning a couple of replacement borders in my back garden. The strength of this book is it's rooted in reality as most of the gardens featured are real ones, rather than the stock photos of show gardens used in similar volumes. As a result it shows solutions to real problems overcome by garden owners, which are transferable to those gardens found on new or newish urban estates like mine.

Another strength is the emphasis on planting design which fits my needs exactly. However, that hasn't stopped me sitting in my garden mulling over the introductory first principles explained in the opening chapters, even though I already know my garden's soil and aspect, and the hardscaping is in place already.

A major takeaway for me from those chapters has been to look at my garden afresh from the patio and decide what needs to be done from there i.e. the place from where the garden is viewed most often. I now realise I've over complicated matters in the past by trying to design my garden to fit all viewing angles, and thus I've set myself up to fail.

I shall continue to use this book over the winter - along with the RHS encyclopedia reviewed above - to plan my new borders.

The New Small Garden has a RRP of £20, which I think is good value for the quality of practical information and great photography by Maayke de Ridder. You may also like to read Noel's blog about his writing process for this book, it's an interesting read.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Music for the Masses

St John Passion chorales score - first page
Our part of the score, with my annotations above the score line on how it should be performed on the day. 

My head is still stuffed with the most wonderful music today, so it's time to take a break from my usual bloggage.

On Sunday I sang the chorales in Bach's St John Passion at the Wiltshire Music Centre in Bradford on Avon, as part of a project put together by English Touring Opera (ETO). Our performance was reviewed in The Guardian yesterday, which has kept the music in my head and the good feelings going well into today.

I must admit I was a bit daunted at first. I can't read music, it's a challenging piece, and it's not the kind of thing I usually perform or listen to. However, the WMC Choir component was a scratch choir, so there would be plenty of people like me there. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Can a scratch choir perform to the standards expected by ETO with just four rehearsals? It seems we can, as long as you do your homework. There were practice tracks to sing along to courtesy of Cyberbass and the whole thing is available on YouTube. The latter looks like a classical music version of karaoke, with the various components of the score moving along to the music, and a translation line running underneath.

Scrolling text and music version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
Scrolling version of St John Passion on YouTube - this is the opening chorus, Herr, unsere Herr.
The left shows the sung parts, the middle is the strings and organ, and the right the other instruments. 

The first three rehearsals with Mike were fun and full of laughter, especially when he demonstrated correct breathing with the aid of a squeezy tomato sauce and lemonade bottles. They were a stretch for me, particularly when some of the pauses in the score were crossed out, but doable. Our role in the chorales was to be the ordinary people commenting on proceedings, and so the ETO had our pieces translated into English by the likes of John McCarthy, Rowan Williams, John Sentamu and Marina Warner.

The fourth rehearsal on Sunday was with the ETO and my first experience of performing with classically trained musicians. Jonathan Peter Kenny, the conductor, gave us no quarter despite having an imperfect piece but with a huge chunk of soul in mind. This would take the performance back to Bach's original intention, when it was sung in church as a community witness of faith with the congregation singing the chorales. It truly is a piece for the masses rather than the hoi polloi, but that didn't mean a sloppy performance was expected of us.

"You sang beautifully, but it might have been in Zulu, which I can't understand", was a typical remark from him. I giggled at this point as I have sung in Zulu. "Remember, text, text, text. I want the audience to hear what you're saying and be involved with the performance, yes? Look at them and draw them into the piece."

He was also a very dramatic and energetic conductor, roaming amongst us during the rehearsal and we took bets on whether he might fall off the stage later that evening. Sadly, he was a little more restrained in the performance.

The opera singers were a revelation. As a soprano I was drawn to Susanna Fairbairn's technique. I noticed she relaxed and bent her knees slightly for the trickier parts of the score, and when she stood next to me, I could hear her emphasis on the consonants like 'b' and 'p'. It sounded like she was spitting them out. As for mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, I never knew so much sound could be expelled from so tiny a frame.

Part of the running order, with our instructions for when to sit and stand without making a noise
As for the performance, for me it was extraordinary, even though we weren't dressed up for the occasion. The opening chorus was so loud, I thought it was going to raise the roof. The orchestra - the Old Street Band - played period instruments and had quite a different sound, which to my ears added grandeur to the piece.

I was particularly struck by the lute with an enormous neck, which is called a theorbo. I also spoke to one of the flute players during the interval. Hers was a wooden, less complicated instrument compared to today's, like a cross between a flute and a recorder. She told me it's her favourite instrument to play and the silver rings are purely for decoration. It seems even musical instruments can have a bit of bling.

At the end everyone was in tears - choirs, audience, orchestra, and our conductor. As I left the building to come home, I overheard a couple of the audience say "That was amazing!" That's a good enough review for me.

A lot is written about the inaccessibility of opera. The cost of tickets is high, you need to dress for the occasion, and it's usually sung in a foreign language. I'm glad those criticisms - and my preconceptions - were blown apart by this amazing project. Around 30 local choirs will be involved in the tour around the country, including a gospel choir. I'd love to hear that.

Friday, 21 October 2016

A poem for Apple Day

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Hellebore Convert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 15 October 2016

GBBD: Autumn's Surprise

White nerine brightening up my side garden for the first time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Plant Profiles: Daffodils

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

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

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

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

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

Cultivation notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may also like

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

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

Further reading:

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

Monday, 10 October 2016

Tomato rescue

Tomatoes left to ripen on our bedroom windowsill

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 7 October 2016

A windowsill makeover

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

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

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

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

"And how many times have you used it?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latin without tears

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

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Seasonal Recipe: Shallot Marmalade

Shallots waiting to be transformed into something magical

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Saturday, 1 October 2016

GBMD: Sing a song of seasons

Bonfire at West Green House

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

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

What are your thoughts and plans for October?

You may also like

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

Thursday, 29 September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

GQT question paper and apple trees

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

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

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

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

You may also like

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

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

Monday, 26 September 2016

Review: Stihl Compact Cordless Blower BGA 56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 September 2016

Unusual Front Gardens #25: Keep it simple

I don't usually go for coleus, but these three simple pots round the corner catch my eye every time I go past them.

They're placed below a window at the end of a drab drive, with colours that blend with each other well and also complement the brickwork of the house. This photo was taken on a dreary day and their fieriness helps to lift the gloom.

I think they're fabulous, how about you?

Update October 4th 2016: It looks like the outer coleus are a new cultivar called 'Campfire', spotted amongst 56,000 seedlings at the University of Florida in 2012, or possibly 'Redhead'. It depends whether the orange of 'Campfire' has intensified, like the blurb in this month's HTA News says it does.

This is a tender perennial of hardiness H1C which means it can be grown outdoors in the summer.

Update same day: Ball Colegrave introduced these onto the UK market this year, so I was able to get their American company to confirm the cultivar via Twitter.

Ball Colegrave Plant ID conversation on Twitter

Latin without tears

Coleus is another plant which has undergone a name change recently, though like aster it remains as the common name and is considered to be a synonym of the genus Plectranthus

Most of the coleus we grow as ornamental plants are classified as Plectranthus scutellarioides. I haven't found the meaning of Plectranthus yet, and scutellarioides means it resembles the genus Scutellaria. This genus name is derived from the Latin scutella, which means a small dish or bowl and describes the appearance of the fruit's calyx.

Update September 24th: Diana left a comment which illustrates the joy of blogging. She's found the meaning of Plectranthus for me:

Plectron = spur and anthos = flower. From: Plantzafrica website
The website adds the words plectron and anthos are Greek in origin.

Update October 2016: Confusingly the RHS lists both 'Campfire' and 'Redhead' online as Solenostemon scutellerioides. Looks like the debate Diana and I have had in the comments is set to run and run...

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

My garlic's having a bad hair day

Sprouted bulbils on a garlic scape

This scene makes me smile every time I step out onto the patio. A couple of the spare trial garlic cloves I planted for green garlic developed a scape, then from these little miniature garlic cloves called bulbils formed.

Now these have started to sprout and they look like they're having a bad hair day. I love them for it. I'm not sure which of the varieties they're from as I planted the spares in a random fashion in their pots.

I suspect the humid weather over the past few weeks has encouraged the bulbils to sprout and their obvious viability means I'm having a go at bulking them up into garlic suitable for cropping. Bulbils are usually dried and stored much earlier in the year, but seeing we're close to autumn garlic planting time, I see no harm in a little experimentation right now.

Usually I'd save some of my garlic from my main crop for next year, but even the resistant varieties eventually succumbed to rust* up at the plot. Therefore it'll be better if I start afresh next year instead of using saved cloves. The bulbils take about 3 years to bulk up and should be clear of the disease**, so I'll buy some new-to-me varieties to try until they're ready.

I've planted them into a couple of large pots of Dalefoot*** wool compost for vegetable and salads, which I've trialled this year with good results. I've left them in a quiet corner of the garden where I can keep an eye on their development over the coming years.

I'll let you know how I get on.

* = though not as badly as the non-rust resistant varieties my allotment neighbour grew
** = propagation from bulbils is a good way of providing disease-free garlic, or revitalising a strain
*** = I received some free bags to evaluate, courtesy of Dalefoot. Spent compost mixed 50:50 with their Double Strength option also works well and is more economical too.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Weekend Wandering: Wyndcliffe Court Sculpture Garden

View from the top terrace at Wyndcliffe Court Sculpture Garden
View from our table on the terrace overlooking the garden
There's just over a week left to visit Wyndcliffe Court before it closes to the public for good and I'm pleased NAH and I took some much needed time out to hop over the Severn Bridge to see it earlier this week. I find a trip over water - no matter how brief - always feels like a holiday, especially as we went 'abroad' into Wales this time.

We arrived just as a group of artists were finishing their morning of sketching and painting, and we enjoyed our view of one of them beavering away whilst we relaxed over our lunch.

The sunken garden and summerhouse at Wyndcliffe Court

Much of the summer floral colour had finished and autumn was just beginning to show its hand, but Wyndcliffe Court is an Arts and Crafts house and garden, with plenty of structure and garden rooms to provide lots of interest for our visit. This is the sunken garden and summerhouse.

Sculpture views
The material and placement of this sculpture reminded me of a similar scene at Special Plants

The garden lived up to its name with plenty of sculpture to admire. I was particularly taken with this one, which provided a viewpoint from a number of vantage points. NAH being the engineer and former welding student he is, was more concerned with the quality of the steel's cut surface. 'It's not finished', was his remark. I liked the added texture, but my comment fell on deaf ears.

Garden and sculpture views at Wyndcliffe Court

Here are some more scenes and vignettes which caught my eye. There's a woodland and wilderness area to explore too, with superb views over the Severn Estuary and both Severn Bridges. The early mist cleared just enough for us to enjoy them, but alas not for my camera.

A beautiful wall colonised by nature

I was especially pleased to find this wall with my Great Green Wall Hunt in mind. With simply an old wall plus moss, ferns and self-sown foxgloves, nature proves it's equal to the task of providing something which fits well with its surroundings.

Fern sculpture

I fell in love with this fern and now regret I didn't buy it. One of my observations from Garden Bloggers Fling visits is our US cousins are much better at marrying art with their gardens. Wyndcliffe Court proves it can be done well in the UK too.

The garden is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11am to 6pm until September 25th. It's a last chance to see - do catch it if you can.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

GBBD: Flower Trials 2016

Petunia 'Night Sky' outside our front door
There are 5 plants in my hanging basket by our front door 

I'm pleased with the performance of the Petunia 'Night Sky' plants I've trialled this year. It was my pick of the bunch when I visited Thompson & Morgan in 2015, and that early promise hasn't disappointed up close and personal back at home.

Plants were quick to bloom and they've come back from some gross neglect on my part as I left them to flounder in 9cm pots for far too long. I finally got round to planting up my hanging basket in mid July, cutting back my stringy, yellowing plants to the first leaf (some of which were extremely scrappy) and as you can see, they've revived spectacularly.

Some experts I've spoken to have questioned stability as the flowers are so variable. Graham Rice has tackled this with aplomb in his article linked to above. Apparently temperature is a factor which determines the form the flowers take, and if you look carefully in the above picture I have evidence of the high temperatures he talks about, which turns flowers completely purple.

Petunias are notorious for not liking wet weather. I've found 'Night Sky' is much better than most, shrugging off the periods of heavy rain we've had a few times over the summer. The most noticeable - and quite pleasing effect in my view - is any settled rain or dew drops seem to expand the flower's white patches into more of a splash than a pin point. Flowers are easy to dead head and we've enjoyed a fragrant welcome home over the past few weeks.

Cosmos 'Xanthos'
Sadly I can't say the same of the Cosmos 'Xanthos' I've trialled for a potted display. It's the first time I've grown cosmos and they looked persuasively great at Jimmy's Farm last year.

As you can see they flower prolifically, but I've found this variety disappointing to look after as the flowers go over very quickly. Sadly many of the spent flowers are not separate enough from the buds, so I end up removing both when I dead head the display.

I've also found the yellow colouring is short lived and flowers quickly fade to white. This might be temperature related again, as most of the pots are on our south facing patio, though Graham Rice doesn't mention it in his article for this plant. Sally over at the The Constant Gardener thought they looked good at the RHS trials field recently, and I await their results with interest.

Update: Flighty left a comment to say he's grown 'Xanthos' before and is planning to grow it next year. A classic case of what doesn't work for me, does for others :)

And in the fruit corner (ahem)...

I know they're not flowers, but seeing I'm talking about this year's trials I'm going to say something about my tomatoes and my first ever aubergine *proud moment*. Besides, both need flowers before they fruit ;)

I'm impressed with the 'Mountain Magic' tomatoes I've grown in pots outdoors this year. They've shrugged off the cold June we had, and so far are not showing any signs of blight, despite the alarming Blightwatch emails I've had from time to time. They started to crop mid August and I'm sure they'd be much earlier for those of you who can grow them under glass.

This is a blight resistant tomato, bred as part of *nominative determinism alert* Dr Randolph Gardner's Multiple Disease Resistance programme at North Carolina State University. I've not been that impressed with F1 blight resistant tomatoes like Ferline before; what they gain in resistance seems to be lost in flavour.

'Mountain Magic' is the exception I've found so far, though to be fair I've not tried them all. I've got a decent crop of sweet orange-red medium sized fruit, which even NAH remarked upon as 'good' without prompting when I presented them in a salad. An added bonus is the lack of split fruit.

If you're looking to grow blight resistant tomatoes yourself, (the only way for me to get a decent crop as I can only grow outdoors) then this useful summary from Grow Veg is a good place to start for both F1 and heirloom possibilities. I've grown 'Matt's Wild Cherry' previously - prolific, lovely flavoured teeny tiny toms - and I like the sound of 'Lemon Drop'.

I gave Thompson & Morgan's Michael Perry a hard time over the ethos behind the new 'Egg & Chips' grafted plant earlier this year, but being the garden tart I am, I couldn't resist the offer of one to trial.

I've never succeeded growing an aubergine outdoors, so you can imagine my excitement when I first saw flowers, followed by one fruit. It's still flowering, though I'm sure these will wither and die like most of the others have. I think the temperature fluctuations we've had this summer haven't helped with pollination.

Whether the 'chip' part of the partnership is successful has yet to be seen. I was sent a shockingly bad plant (dealt with amicably behind the scenes and I didn't take the offered replacement), so anything from this trial is set to be a bonus.

I'm encouraged to research aubergine varieties suitable for outdoor growing without a potato partner. NAH's impressed too, so suggestions are welcome for potential varieties to consider, plus a suitably swish aubergine recipe to celebrate our first ever home grown one. This baby deserves more than the usual Moussaka treatment.

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

Update: I had no potatoes in my pot, so similar results to last year's 'Tomtato' trial, where I obtained tomatoes but no spuds.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Weekend Wandering: Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern

The view from the third floor balcony of the Tate Modern
The view from the third floor balcony of the Tate Modern - with a clue to the exhibition I'd just seen. 
There's an amazing opportunity to see the works of seldom-seen-in-the-UK American artist Georgia O'Keeffe at the Tate Modern until 30th October.

I first came across her work when I studied photography A Level, as she was one of the iconic '291' group who surrounded pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz. She became his muse, then his wife. Much of this modernist group's work e.g. Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, as well as Stieglitz himself is on show too, so this is pretty much two exhibitions for the price of one.

That doesn't mean the display of O'Keeffe's work has been stinted, as there are over 100 of her paintings and drawings on show, as well as notebooks, supporting documentation, and even a rare example of her sculpture.

Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O'Keeffe in 1918
Alfred Stieglitz 1864-1946
Georgia O'Keeffe 1918
Photograph, palladium print on paper
243 x 192 mm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© The J. Paul Getty Trust
Here's one of Stieglitz's photographs of her. Despite being nearly a century old, it's a striking, modern looking photograph.

She comes across as a fiercely independent woman, who held her own in the (mainly) world of men.

She hated being categorised or claimed; Stieglitz's attempted psychoanalysis of her work irritated her (and must have made for a stormy relationship), as did later claims by feminist groups she was a feminist artist.

She reacted to claims her work was erotic (mainly by Stieglitz) by saying:

"When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they're really talking about their own affairs."

In the years prior to that statement, she was fascinated by synaesthesia and how e.g. sounds could be interpreted on paper as abstract forms. Her early work was exploratory and initially she worked in charcoal - "I...decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white."

Tate banner for Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition
One of the pictures which drew me in:
Jimson Weed/White Flower Number 1
The exhibition explores these themes and the development of her work over seven decades. I'd gone especially to see her famous floral pictures and the scenes she painted in New Mexico. The latter landscapes we'd seen for real 20 years ago, and her paintings brought back memories of two wonderful holidays.

There's so much more to see and learn from this exhibition. Like my Painting the Modern Garden visit earlier this year, I was struck by the intense discussion and ideas that flowed from and between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's other group members.

Before I went I'd tended to think of O'Keeffe's work as being a bit "flat", but having examined her paintings up close, I'm in awe of how she managed to create the subtle changes in colour on her canvases. There is no clue I can see from her brushwork on how it's been achieved.

My favourite discoveries from the exhibition include her early cityscapes of New York and her later abstract skyscapes. Clouds and sky are a theme seen throughout the exhibition and are seen in both photographic and painted artworks. They're evidence of the intense cross fertilisation of ideas between the artists featured.

Disclosure: I was given a press pass to the event, which I more than made up for in the souvenir shop afterwards! My thanks to Tate Modern for the pass, for including my favourite Ansel Adams photograph (Moonrise Hernandez New Mexico 1948), and allowing me to use the Georgia O'Keeffe photograph above, with the correct accreditation.

Note: if you want to visit the exhibition, photography isn't allowed.

Coming up: I'm really looking forward to see the David Hockney exhibition at Tate Modern starting February 9th next year. I was blown away by his Bigger Trees Near Warter landscape when it was on show in York in 2012.

If you can't wait until then, you can see his portrait work now at the Royal Academy until October 12th. Sounds like the perfect excuse for a trip to London in the next few weeks and see two iconic art exhibitions.
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