New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with


I’ve decided it’s sensible to keep my gardening New Year’s resolutions short and realistic, but still of a certain scope, so there’s some sense that I’m aiming high and not just planning more of the same in the garden this year. Click for larger image

Last year one of my key gardening New Year’s resolutions was to stop and sit in the garden more (done) and the previous year it was my own personal Eatin’ Project I was planning, trying vegetable growing for the first time (done).

Gardening resolution one – water those vegetables

Speaking of vegetables, this year I will do the edibles better, because I’m resolving to plan my watering properly. The beans and other edibles never had the best chance because my watering was so erratic, but 2012 is the year I will irrigate. Must find a good leaky hose supplier. Suggestions?

Gardening resolution two – force bulbs properly

I will not mess up my hyacinths next winter. This year I could have (just barely) have had them flowering for Christmas but I never brought them in from the cold conservatory to the warm sitting room – I never realized I had to until @imogenbertin set me right. Here in Scotland I have to plant the prepared bulbs in August, as soon as they are on sale, so I can get them into the light by October, and into the conservatory by November. Until now I’ve never known I needed to do a final step of bringing them into the warmth in December, but I will get it right in 2012.

Gardening resolution three – love my window boxes

I’ve never done window boxes well, but this year my mother-in-law gave me books on the subject, the bare windowsills of our roadside cottage here at the market cross are desperate for plant life, and I love the idea of challenging my worst gardening vice – I willfully, spitefully neglect container plants. So, window boxes it is. Secret weapon in the war against my neglectful side: when I prepared the new window boxes last week, I mostly used plants I’ve grown myself, so their said, thirsty faces should (I hope) move me more than the nameless, shop-bought trays of pansies I’ve watched die in my window boxes in the past. I’ve chosen vinca, fern, schizostylis, hosta, hebe, lamium and ivy, along with a rash of bulbs and tubers including cyclamen coum, muscari armeniacum fantasy creation, Kaufmanniana tulips Heart’s Delight, triteleia (formerly brodiaea) and autumn crocus to plug gaps between the plants.

Gardening resolution four – train a stepover apple

It won’t really be a stepover apple, because the single tier I’m planning will be about 90 cm off the ground, so I guess we can call it a leap over. I’ve Click for larger imagechosen the Apple Greensleeves on an M106 rootstock, and since it’s on the north side of the short fence, the horizontal cordon will only see the sun if it starts at 90 cm high. I’ll let you know how that one goes. I credit this resolution to Helen, who was tweeting about the stepover apples she was planning; it’s something I’d always wanted to do, and who was I to resist a three-year-old tree on sale for just 9 pounds sterling?

Gardening resolution five – easy cutting garden

Earlier on Stopwatch Gardener I video blogged about how to nip out cosmos to encourage more side shoots and robust flowering, and the US flower farmer Lisa Ziegler who taught me that technique has now inspired me to try her scheme for a 3′ x 10′ cutting garden. It’s meant to be a low-maintenance plot of zinnia, celosia, choice sunflowers and lemon basil. Any advice on telling my husband I plan to remove 30 square feet of lawn?

I really want to know what you all are planning for the new year — please drop me a comment below before you go!


It’s my garden and I’ll purge if I want to


Click for larger imageBe honest: are you taking care of plants in your garden that you don’t actually like? Maybe it’s something your aunt gave to you, or your mother-in-law really likes it, or it was there when you moved in? If you are as obsessed with plants as I am, and study all corners of your garden to figure out where you can shoehorn in more, you need to decide whether these are good enough reasons to look after something that smells bad, bullies its neighbours, or simply leaves you cold.

Here’s a quick list of plants that have felt the hard edge of my spade this year:

French lavender: the showy purple wings aren’t enough to make me hold onto a plant which doesn’t have that pure lavender scent. By contrast, the English Lavender Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’ has a heart-stoppingly beautiful fragrance, even before the flowers come out.

Hardy geraniums: I love the geranium “Johnson’s blue”, but earlier this year I pulled out a huge clump of a different hardy geranium I’d been given which had the most awful resinous scent. What a great feeling — and I immediately recognised how I could better use the space it had been sprawling across.

Rosa Tess of the Urbervilles: the first time I saw the David Austin roses in their free catalogue I couldn’t believe that something could be so beautiful. So many of his varieties have layer upon layer of petals, and Tess is one of the most ravishing to look at. But it has that myrrh scent which to me recalls medicinal ointment. No thanks.

Neglected fern: I actually really like this little fern but it had been lost beneath an overgrown Garrya elliptica, which I’ve steadily been pruning back to the wall over the last few years. Both plants were in situ when I moved in, and I think that stopped me interfering with them too much. But the Garrya had to be pulled right back this year, as I look for more sunny places to grow vegetables (near the Garrya I’ll be growing the dwarf French bean, Masterpiece). I yanked out the fern with a bit of root ball and potted it up, and I’m happy and a bit surprised to see it hasn’t died. I’ll find it a nice home elsewhere in the garden.

Eucalyptus gunnii: my sister sent me a tree in a box when we first moved into this house, but even with yearly coppicing this plant just didn’t fit into our garden. I have composted it (with my sister’s blessing).

If your garden is a blank canvas, you may be thinking harder about how to fill it up than what to purge, but promise yourself now that you will only grow what you like. It’s a great time of year to visit gardens, garden centres or public parks to see what appeals to you. Choose wisely, and plant your kind of plants. You won’t regret it.

Is there anything you feel you can’t get rid of in your garden? I’d like to hear about it.


Grow plants from seed and let the healing begin


Click for larger imageTell me something more exhilarating than growing from seed. I’ll bet you can’t. Drop a hard little fleck onto a fertile bed of damp compost, and just days later feel a gasp in your throat when the seed leaves push their shoulders up into the light. At the moment I’m looking at the purple-streaked leaves of baby baby beets, hairlike shoots of spring onions and round carrots, the fleshy heads of robust wild lupines, and the minute green specks of teensy alpine strawberries.

A number of the experts on some of the US gardening podcasts I listen to have been saying recently that they prefer to buy “starts” (young plants) for some of their gardening. And compared to buying a broad bean seed packet I’ll never use up this year, maybe six broad bean plants would save money. It would certainly save time. But give me seeds any day. In gardening I’m all about the miracle, less about the practical.

The real world presses in on me, as I’m sure it does on you: this week alone offered me a big dose of unloveliness, including one vomiting bug (mine), then another one (my son’s), the imminent loss of a client (government cutbacks) and the likely sale of the house I grew up in — all against a mustn’t-grumble backdrop of guilt as images of tsunami, war and death scrolled across the TV.

I need my gardening to be as absorbing and as miraculous as possible if it’s to be an adequate salve against the real world. Those seed trays may give me beets in June. But right now I see a windowsill full of hope, and that’s the food I need.


Garden resolutions 2011: hug a tree, sit for a bit


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Before I blogged, I never made New Year’s resolutions, much less wrote them down. It’s funny to look over what I resolved a year ago. Happily, I managed two of the four resolutions I made: I don’t scream at toads anymore, and I even knocked apologetically on a few tiles I had to shift earlier today, hoping nothing was asleep beneath it. I also managed to grow food pretty successfully for the first time in 2010: just lettuces, spring onions, a few tomatoes and herbs, but it was exciting, and the children seemed genuinely interested and dragged visitors over to examine the raised bed at every opportunity.

So briefly, for 2011:

Don’t look back: never mind about the two resolutions I didn’t manage last year. I’m giving up on trying to make the November border fabulous for the moment, and I didn’t quite manage to bring everything into the cold conservatory that should’ve come in, but, onward!

Sit down more:
if you’re like me, every seat in the garden is a hotseat. Jobs call to me wherever my eyes land, and I’m up again in a few seconds. I’m going to strive to make an area of the garden very sit-friendly: it’s right outside our kitchen and conservatory, and it’s almost completely enclosed by the house walls and boundary fence. I’m thinking serene green, hostas, and a rambling, thornless pale rose (“Lykkefund”, already ordered from Peter Beales) that I’ll train sideways instead of up to cover the cottage walls. There’s a vigorous deep purple clematis, “Polish Spirit”, already in this area and I need to tone it down. I’m unsure whether to put up a pergola or awning or anything at all: the space is narrow, so maybe I should keep the sky above open. If the whole area is simply planted and unfussy, surely it will be easier to sit for more than 60 seconds in the garden?

Give the children what they want:
I told my daughter and son (4 and 5) they could have their own raised bed in a good, sunny spot to do whatever they want with. He’s not so keen, but she is. She said she wants to grow “cucumbers and pink poppies”. We may have to work on that plant selection but I really do want it to be hers. And I’m not going to give up on trying to interest him, either.

Hug the trees: I planted two pears from Ken Muir this year, and I resolve to mind them and the two cobnuts I’m planning to get from Ken this year and plant in half whiskey barrels by the garden gate. @MarkDoc says it’s iffy, but it may work if I keep them pruned and well watered. I can feel an automatic drip irrigation system in my future. I am a neglector of containers, but a lover of nuts. I want these wee trees to live.

What are you resolving to do in your garden this year? Do you think it’s achievable, or are you going more aspirational with your resolutions?


Gardening for mum’s apple pie


Click for larger imageThe fat, perfect apples I’ve picked from our two trees have sat like prizes in the conservatory window these last few weeks. These trees were the only food producers in my garden until this year’s Eatin’ Project, but this is the first year they’ve excelled. I insist on taking the credit, even though the experts say it’s the weather that’s given us great fruit yields this year. Do you think I can get away with that? Anyway, here’s what’s I’ve done that I believe helped the apples:

  • Light and air: A few years ago Glenn next door asked if we’d consider cutting down a spruce that shaded both our gardens. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Removing the spruce and pruning the apples’ crowded branches gradually over three years has now given them an open shape and lots of space between the limbs — enough to throw a hat between them, as the saying goes. This year the fruit ripened better and there were no brown spots as in other years, either because of better air circulation, or a drier summer, or both, I’m not sure.
  • Sulfate of potash: I give both trees a dressing of this to promote fruiting, and it works. But Lia and other writers have recently got me thinking I must look into what’s involved in its manufacture. If I’m shaking white dust from a box onto the ground, I should investigate whether it’s the best thing for my friend Gaia. I’d like to investigate substitutes, like woodash; but I don’t know the amounts to use or whether it’s as effective.
  • Nip it in the bud: I’d always been reluctant to follow the advice about thinning out developing apples to leave 10cm between them. But I see now what a difference it makes. I missed out part of one tree when thinning this year, and the fruits were about half as big. All our apples are destined for baking, and there’s nothing fun about peeling two small fruits that could have been one big one.
  • Accept the apples, don’t pick: I’d often heard but rarely heeded the professional advice about picking: that you should cradle and gently turn ripening apples to check their readiness, instead of pulling them. But this year I did it, and for those that were ready, the apple and stem came away from the tree easily, as if they’d been waiting for me. Just before harvest time I’d heard a Scotland’s Gardens podcast about how a deciduous tree shuts off the flow of nutrients to its autumn leaves, so that when they fall, there are no open wounds: the leaf is a finished thing, its connection with the tree is finished. I came to see the apples in the same way and checked them daily with my young daughter, who loved lifting the fruit gently in her tiny hand. When one was ready, we just accepted it from the tree: no picking required.

How do I make my mother’s apple pie?

I love the crispy, gooey topping on apple crumble (or apple crisp, as we called it back home), but even I got tired after the third one. So – after reluctantly replacing the rolling pin that had been sacrificed to modeling clay activities before becoming lost altogether – I attempted my mother’s apple pie. I didn’t let the kids help; I told them I was like Nina and the Neurons, doing an experiment in the lab, and they could help next time. So the whole experience was quite peaceful, and frame by frame, pictures from my mother’s kitchen table appeared in my brain, when I was chest-high to the work surface.

I love learning new things but hate making mistakes, so where the recipe didn’t give me answers, I was glad the pictures showed me what to do. “Slice them thin – your father doesn’t like a mouthful of hard apple in his pie.” “Get me the blue plate – it’s stoneware, the other ones crack in the oven.” “Tuck the top crust under the bottom one around the edge – you want to have apples right out to the edge, not a bunch of crust out there.” Then the milk brushed onto the top, the air holes poked to vent the steam, the baking tray beneath to catch any drips. I didn’t make the pastry offcuts into cinnamon-and-sugar shapes to bake separately, but I was delighted to suddenly recall these; I hadn’t thought of them in 30 years.

My only problem was needing to be at a plant sale down the road at the same time the pie was due to come out, so I entrusted the whole thing to a timed shut-off of the oven. When I opened the oven a few hours later, I was a bit surprised to find my mother’s apple pie, brown and warm, redolent of clove and cinnamon, just like her kitchen on pie days, but with my apples. The kids were still at swimming with my husband, so I had a slice of pie and a glass of milk in the same solitude with which I’d made it. It was a good Saturday.

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