Sunday, 4 November 2012

My review of the year - 2012:

It’s that time of year again when the first frosts have laid low your plants, the rain has set in yet again & it’s time for all gardeners to have a quick think about how the year went.

Everyone in the Northern Hemisphere seems to have had a fairly extreme spring and summer weather wise, I did a whistlestop tour of the US in the summer where sunshine & drought were the order of the day, but in the UK it poured and it poured and it poured. 

We had our wettest April and June since records began and none of the other months were much better.  I suspect that rain wasn’t that much of a problem in itself – and here I’m speaking for the plants rather than myself obviously – but the accompanying low temperatures & light levels - according to the Met Office we had an mean summer temperature of 13.9C (57F) and had the second dullest June on record with only 70% of the usual levels of sunshine – meant it was all a bit miserable for both plants & humans.

As a gardener after a difficult year, it’s very easy to focus on the negatives which I’m determined not to do.  At the end of the day, in spite of all of the frustrations, I still managed to achieve my aim of keeping fresh flowers in the house from the 18th of March (Mothers’ Day in the UK) until Halloween.  

So let’s look first at the stars of the show:

First up was a newcomer Dahlia “Blue Bayou”.  I bought 5 tubers from Parkers Wholesale for £5.40 and they really did me proud.  They survived repeated attacks from deer and were very highly productive across the entire season as they were one of the first Dahlias to bloom and were still going strong when the frosts arrived.   The blooms are unusual for a dahlia but I like them a lot and they’re great in medium or large late summer/autumn arrangements.  You may not be able to buy Dahlia “Blue Bayou” at your local nursery or need enough plants to include them in a bulk order but many online or more specialist retailers like Sarah Raven sell them singly so, in summary, if you have a cutting garden; get on Google and get this plant.

The second stars were the sunflowers.  I had collected some seeds last year from a couple of plants growing on neighbouring allotments that I liked the look of.  I choose parent plants that have the traits I’m looking for in that they’re about my height, have survived without staking and have multiple flowers about the size of my hand.   I plant the seed directly into the ground in spring and I got a couple of month’s worth of arrangements from the resulting seedlings.  Sunflowers always look great in informal arrangements on a table. 

The last star performer was the dark Scabiousa Crown.  I got the seeds from Ben Raynard at HiggledyGarden & they did very well for me throughout the second half of the year.   I grew them alongside Scabiosa caucasia perfecta ‘Alba’ that I had got from Sarah Raven.  If I’m totally honest the Alba did better overall with earlier flowers and a much greater productivity but more isn’t always better.  There’s something much nicer and more delicate about the purple Crown.

So what were the challenges:

First off was the weeds – OMG the weeds.   Weed control is the single most important activity for a gardener, not that you’d know that from reading the gardening press.  I suppose it’s ignored as photos of the horticultural equivalent of builder’s bum won’t sell books or magazines in the same way as close ups of flowers or dreamy photos of attractive ladies carrying trugs will.   The weather may have held back some of my chosen plants – especially any with a tropical or Mediterranean background – but the weeds had no such problems.  My main offenders were Anagallis arvensis – The Scarlet Pimpernel  various grasses & the slightly scary Atropa belladonna or Deadly Nightshade (Ok, I know, it’s actually very scary!!).  My main methods of weed control are hand weeding around small plants and hoeing open areas and paths and around larger plants but, occasionally when I've lost a bit of control because of prolonged bad weather or going on holiday, I’ll give problem areas a quick toot with glyphosate just to get things back on track.  The problems this year were that everything was so wet that hoeing was really just transplanting the weed seedlings, they weren't getting desiccated and dying, and it was so wet and windy that glyphosate wasn't an option either.  It all took a lot more effort and I've a lot more weeds at the end of the season than normal but, hopefully, I didn't allow too many to seed so it will only be a one year problem.

The plant I was most disappointed in was Craspedia  aka Billy Balls– This is an uber-trendy,  cut flower in the US at the moment that I've had my eye on for a while and I managed to track down some seeds in the UK at Chiltern Seeds.  They germinated really well and I planted out lots of plants.  Then it all got very wet, dark and cold and, in fairness, as a native of Australia and New Zealand, they’re probably not used to that at all.  I did manage to harvest a few flowers  not enough that the rewards were worth the effort.  As I really want to get on with this plant, I’ll persevere for another year.  I've left the plants in the ground as they are a perennial and, hopefully, they’ll survive the winter but, if not, I've also collected some seed.  “You have one more chance, Craspedia.”

My last big disappointment was Zinnias which are normally one of my stalwarts.  Each year, I buy a couple of packets of Zinnia seeds and plant them directly into the soil in May to fill any holes where I've lost a plant or where I've left too much of a gap.  I normally find them so reliable that I take their germination for granted and just expect them to work.  This year, as I had planned out my planting much better, I decided to dedicate an entire bed to zinnias.  I got 6 different varieties including a couple of trial varieties from a major seed supplier who will, to spare their blushes, remain anonymous.   The results were pretty much a total wipe-out  I got 5 plants from 6 packets of seeds which is a very, very poor return including absolutely none from either of the trial varieties.  The plants that germinated did well in the end but not a great year for zinnias.  I suspect that, as they hail from Mexico, it was the damp and cold that did for them this year although slugs are, I suppose, another potential culprit.  

Overall, in spite of the difficulties, I've really enjoyed this year in my Cutting Garden – I’m still viewed as slightly eccentric by my fellow allotmenteers for growing cut flowers rather than vegetables.  I managed to keep flowers in the house across the target time period and, for most of the time at least, I've managed to keep my wife happy which is, after all, the entire point of this endeavour and my major aim in life. 

Cheers all


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Here's a Guest Post that I did for Ben Raynard of Higgledy Garden

Hi, Ben asked me to write a short piece about my cutting garden and then refused to be any more specific.  As most writers know, an open brief and a blank sheet of paper make just about the scariest combination that you can face but let’s give it a go.

To be honest, I pretty much fell into growing cut flowers by accident.  When I started down this path, I didn’t even know that cutting gardens existed and neither my wife nor I had any real interest in cut flowers beyond me buying her the occasional bunch at Valentine’s or on her birthday.  No, looking back, I now realise that it all started by chance when, fortunately just ahead of the nationwide increase in interest, we decided to get an allotment.  For the more technically minded amongst you, what I actually got was half an allotment which means that it’s 30 feet by 45 feet (roughly 9 by 14 metres).

Like many people, we had decided to get an allotment as we had a warm, misty-eyed, Bob Flowerdew-esk vision that we would garden together as a family and we would produce and consume trugfuls of wonderful organic vegetables.  Of course, the reality turned out to be totally different; I did all of the work on the allotment on my own and when I brought my produce home my wife wouldn’t use it.  While this sounds harsh, the simple truth was that home grown veg didn’t suit our lifestyle.  We have kids and my wife works full time and, like any busy mother, she had mentally pre-planned the week’s menus and had the ingredients delivered by Ocado.  Me turning up with spurious quantities of random vegetables expecting her to change the meal plans didn’t exactly make her life easier.   The fact that my kids have an aversion to vegetables was just the final nail in the coffin of my “trugfuls of loveliness” dream.  Anyway, it all came to a head after about five years when I had produced a fantastic, he says modestly, crop of sweet corn.  Suffice to say that I really don’t believe that I could have produced anything better – it was like I had poured the Spring’s rain and sunshine into cups of gold – and not one single scrap of it got eaten by anyone in my family except for, a now bitter and huffing, me.  It was then that I decided that we would have to come up with a use for the allotment or I would just give it up.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that through those five years, as well as getting more and more frustrated with vegetable growing, I had been slowly increasing my knowledge of, and success with, growing cut flowers.  It started right at the beginning when, after clearing the 3 feet depth of cooch grass and thistles that I had inherited, a single, rather beautiful, gladiolus that the previous occupants had planted, appeared right in the middle of my patch.  I brought my wife up to see it, we cooed at the first thing we had grown and then, much to her consternation I must admit, I cut it, took it home and plonked it in a vase where, after I was eventually re-admitted to my wife’s good books, we both cooed some more.  The next year, I happened to be wandering into the B&Q in Cheltenham when I saw that they had some gladioli corms on sale on the racks by the door.  I remembered the previous year and, with that minimum of thought that only blokes can manage, I thought “Oh yeah, they’ll do” and threw a couple of bags in the trolley.    Again, I was lucky as, more by accident than design, they turned out to be quite a classy and attractive purple and, once cut and delivered into the home, they went down fairly well. 

Year 3, on the other hand, was a bit of a disaster – buoyed by my successes and convinced that I “had the eye”, I went to the local garden centre, stood in front of the garish seed racks and, with scarcely a thought, chose a half dozen or so packets.    I lovingly grew these on and, when I brought my wife up to see the results she just looked over them and said “Hmmm, you do know that they’re disgusting, don’t you!”  And the worst thing was that they were; it was like when the child announces that the emperor is naked.  I had to admit it, my babies were ugly.  I had invested hours of my time and, even worse, an entire growing year in them and they were vile.  My wife managed to eke a few vasefuls out of them but I learned a few valuable lessons: most seeds in your local garden centre or shop produce flowers that are ugly and garish; if I was not going to waste my time, I needed to put much more thought into the selection of the flowers; I needed to learn to think in terms of arrangements - what would flower with, and go with, what; and I learned that it takes the same effort to grow an ugly plant as it does to grow a beautiful one.  In summary, I learned that “Life’s too short to grow an ugly plant”.

The next year, I discovered a specialist cut flower seed seller – much like Ben here – and bought a few packets, more the next and these went down very well with my wife and I discovered another reason for giving your wife cut flowers.  As the house started to fill with the flowers, her friends would notice the arrangements and she would get “bragging rights” as she explained how we grew them ourselves.  So, it was all working out well, I enjoyed growing the flowers, my wife enjoyed receiving them and she enjoyed her friends noticing them – all good.

So, that’s where I was with the flower growing when my vegetable growing hit the buffers; I still at this point absolutely considered myself to be a vegetable grower who just happened to produce a few flowers.   When I was considering giving up I realised that it would be the flowers that I would miss and the same for my wife.  So I decided to go another way, rather than just play at growing flowers, I would actually go for it fully and properly.  My aims would be to have fresh flowers in the house from Mothers Day until Halloween and to supply enough that we, as well as having vases in all the public rooms and our bedroom, could have fresh flowers in our daughters’ bedrooms for most of the summer as well. 

In our first dedicated year, I bought a specialist cut flower seed collection and augmented it with tulips for the spring and dahlias and chrysanthemums for the autumn.  It worked really well, I managed to achieve both my aims – apart from a three week gap in the May – in spite of not growing enough plants.  Since then, I’ve learned an awful lot more about growing cut flowers; I’ve learned how to decompose an arrangement, to look at a picture and find the seeds or plants that the florist used in the catalogues so that we can easily and cheaply reproduce similarly successful arrangements.  I’ve learned to grow many more plants much more densely.  I now grow shrubs and perennials as well as annuals as these improve the end results while reducing the workload.  I’m still learning obviously but the good news is that I still really enjoy the challenge of choosing and growing the flowers – oh, that and that my wife still enjoys getting them obviously.

Friday, 10 February 2012

In Praise of Shallowness

I’ve finally decided to come clean; I’m not a serious person, I’m a bit of fluff.  By nature, I’m a happy person, I always have been and, fingers crossed, always will be.  When my friends at school got angry and started smoking dope and listening to Neil Young, I was drinking lager, playing sport and listening to Shalamar.  At Uni in the mid 80s, the whole angry, anti-Thatcher thing passed me by as all I wanted to do was dance, “drink beer and train like an animal”.  I was in the forces in  my twenties but, when I look back I don’t think about being in Belfast or South Armagh, rather I remember being in Sam’s or the GX when the Bootneck National Anthem “The Only Way is Up” was put on and the whole place went insane. 

Anyway, more years than I care to think about later, I’m now happily married with kids, two of whom are teenage girls.  One of the problems of having teenage daughters is that they like to choose the films that we watch and, as my wife typically piles in on their side, means that I get to watch a lot of chic flicks.  I complain but, to be honest, providing that they’re not too teenage or anti-man, I quite enjoy them.

This weekend it was Mamma Mia which we’ve seen a few times before and I will admit is one of the films that I like watching.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t put it on if I was in the house by myself, but I’ll take it over ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ any day of the week.  There’s also a slight nostalgia fest element as well, the first time I danced with my wife was to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at a ball in Belfast.
Anyway, while I was watching the film my mind started wandering and I realised that Mamma Mia actually provides a metaphor for why I garden. Ok, this is a bit of a stretch but if you’ll indulge me then I’ll try to explain.

First of all, it’s beautiful.  I like the aesthetic.  The settings are beautiful, the weather is beautiful & I like to produce flowers that are beautiful.  I didn’t really enjoy producing vegetables but I do enjoy producing beautiful cut flowers.  Sadly, when I started to grow them, I discovered that most garden flowers are ugly.  I would select my seeds at the garden centre and, after investing months of hope and effort in them, I could have cried when I saw how unattractive the results were.  The fact that I persevered with cut flowers for more than one year is down to one single gladiolus that survived from the previous tenant.  It grew all on its own and was beautiful.  I took it home and, unlike my efforts, it was appreciated.  I learned that the area of flower production that needed most effort was in selecting the plants.  The best thing I did was buy Sarah Raven’s Cut Flower Collection as that’s a fantastic start when you haven’t developed your own aesthetic yet.  Since then, I’ve learned by reading and studying the works of other gardeners and florists but, if I’m honest, I’m still most influenced by Sarah.

Secondly, it’s hard work.  Here I’m talking about Meryl Streep’s character Donna.  She’s plainly a grafter and that’s what you need to be to be a gardener.  You have to enjoy the work.  Everyone wants a garden or an allotment that complies to the holy quadrinity and is organic, productive, low maintenance and attractive (ok, I know quadrinity probably isn’t a word but I’m on a roll).  The simple fact is that such paragons don’t exist.  You have to compromise.  My guess is that for reasonable sized plots you need to put in 100 hours a year if you want to be productive – more than that if you’re going the organic route.  And, when you think about it, 100 hours is quite a lot: that’s 3 hours a week in the summer.  If you don’t enjoy that work then you won’t get enough produce to merit putting that level of effort in.  The work has to be on the plus side of the equation.  If you don’t enjoy physical work, don’t garden.    

Lastly, and most importantly, it’s fun.  I meet far too many people who seem to have forgotten that gardening is a hobby and, ergo, you’re supposed to enjoy it.  At my, admittedly screamingly middle class allotments, I meet far too many people who finally got to the top of the queue and have bought the whole, worthy, eco, organic, hair shirt message that seems to be de rigour at the moment.  To be honest, as soon as I realise that’s what they’re like, I don’t even bother to learn their names.  I know I’ll watch them go from fresh faced enthusiasm to producing nothing, being defeated by weeds and giving up without ever actually having fun.  It’s all unnecessarily sad.

So that’s my gardening philosophy: beauty, hard work & fun – Did I mention I was shallow?

Friday, 6 January 2012

This year's Perennial Plants (....and a few bulbs & shrubs) shopping list

I tend to buy my perennial plants, bulbs & dahlias from Parkers Wholesale website as I find that it's really good value and they have some fantastic plants in their range.  The problem is that, like any garden centre, they sell a lot of "differently attractive" plants as well as "actually attractive" ones.  While the cost per plant is low, if you can't sort the wheat out from the chaff then it can become quite a waste of money pretty quickly (and, yes, you do detect personal experience there).  While I'm slowly getting better at choosing plants, I must admit that I lean more heavily on the writings of Dan Pearson, Sarah Raven, Martha Stewart and Edwina von Gal.  In my last post I gave the list of perennials that I'm going to grow from seed - but I also compiled an order from Parkers using those writers, and here it is:

Code Description Quantity
MI141 Fritillaria Meleagris Mixed 200
HP218 Pennisetum compressum 5
HP015 Aquilegia Blue Barlow 10
HP018 Aquilegia Rose Barlow 10
HP033 Campanula Glomerata Superba 10
HP037 Centaurea Montana Grandiflora 10
HP288 Geum Mrs Bradshaw 10
HP163 Scabiosa Clive Greaves 10
HP019 Aquilegia Ruby Port 10
HP014 Aquilegia Black Barlow 10
HP023 Astrantia Major 10
HP082 Helleborus Niger 10
HP009 Anchusa Loddon Royalist 10
HP043 Cynara Cardunculus 5
PL159 Hydrangea Arb. Annabella 1
PL171 Hydrangea Paniculata Limelight 1
PL218 Syringa Lilac Madame Lemoine 1
PL344 Viburnum Opulus 5
HP347 Campanula Glomerata Alba 10
HP279 Potentilla Ron Mcbeath 10
HP287 Geum Lady Stratheden 10
HP299 Verbena Bonariensis 10
HP320 Geum Queen of Orange 10

Total Cost, including VAT and Delivery, just over a hundred and fifty quid (less than a quid a plant even without counting the bulbs)  I'm looking forward to receiving the order, getting them in the ground and sharing the results.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012


I've decided to grow a number of perennials from seed this year.  Here is my selection:

Alchemilla Mollis
Aquilegia Vulgaris 'Miss I H Huish'
Aquilegia Vulgaris 'Lime Sorbet' 
Berkheya Purpurea
Cirsium Japonicum
Digitalis 'F1 'Camelot Cream'
Digitalis Purpurea 'Alba' 
Echinacea Purpurea 'White Swan'
Euphorbia Schillingii
Euphorbia Wulfenii
Geum chiloense 'Red Dragon'
Helleborus Corsicus
Lysimachia Beaujolais
Matthiola Incana 'Pillow talk'
Matthiola Incana 'Purple Perennial form'
Nerine Bowdenii
Phlox Paniculata
Platycodon 'Hakone Blue'
Silene Laciniata 'Jack Flash'
Stipa Gigantea
Tragopogon Crocifolius

I'll be ordering them soon so that I can get them planted in March