Lettuce rejoice and be glad

June2

Click for larger imageWhat’s wrong with this picture? Nothing — and that’s what’s strange. My Eatin’ Project has for the last few weeks been giving me perfect cos lettuce, proving once and for all that lettuce is a foolproof, quick win for first-time vegetable growers like me. Claire at Plant Passion had commented earlier this year that she is telling everyone to go for lettuce if they have a small space and/or they’re new to vegetable growing, and how right she was. The first time I cut one of these lettuces, I just stared at it there in my hands. I couldn’t believe I had done this — those perfect whorls of green were, well, perfect.

The sun was too strong just now to get a decent picture of the potato bags, but they are thriving, wedged between the edge of my tiny greenhouse and the side of this raised bed, which I’ve built up to double height of 12 inches. Crammed in there I have cos lettuce, some younger oak leaf lettuce, and wee rows of Parmex carrots interplanted with White Lisbon spring onions to hopefully throw off the canny carrot fly. There’s also a small pot of carrots nestled in the middle of it all. Strawberries are at the corners and a young Tamina tomato is it at one edge: hopefully I can support it against the tiny greenhouse if needed. Never outside of Tesco’s have so many vegetables been crammed in next to each other; it’s a bright, airy spot, so I’m hoping this density will be productive rather than encourage disease.

Interesting discovery: the potato bags do triple duty as potato incubators, a place to put unwanted old compost as I earth up the growing plants, and an unexpected place to germinate seeds. I’d dumped seed trays whose contents had never germinated onto the bags when earthing up: a few of those seeds liked the potato bag better than my propagator and came to life, giving me an extra five or six carrot plants which are now thriving. Go potato bags!

Click for larger imageLet’s not pretend, however, that my heart isn’t still with the roses and the wisteria, which is looking stunningly fabulous at the minute. I’ve got a long-standing gripe against J Parkers who sent me the wrong wisteria, which means its racimes are crowded against the wall (W. Sinensis has perkier bunches than my W. Floribunda, and looks better wall-trained); my plant would really rather be doing its dangling thing from a pergola, but I hate to complain when getting a wisteria flower is so hard in the first place. Yet why is it that a huge portion of things I buy mail order aren’t the plant that was marked?

I tried not to go mad planting vegetable seeds, but I do need now to find a sheltered place for rather too many purple sprouting broccoli plants, which are overdue to put their feet into the ground. Move over, roses, here come the brassicas.

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Pause for the cos

March1

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Two weeks is much more of a gap than I’d ever expected to leave between posts — sorry. January-February were a bit alarming in work terms, and I now know what the clock on my desk looks like when it strikes 11 PM and beyond. My gardening has been confined to stolen moments of web research, so it was a thrill last week to pause my work schedule to visit a garden centre for the Eatin’ Project. My mission: find liquid seaweed to fortify my thin-necked cos lettuce seedlings and another tier to raise my raised bed.

Am I the only one who struggles with garden maths? Turns out my Haxnicks foot-deep raised bed isn’t. It’s six inches deep. My topsoil calculations were hilariously wrong. No one is impressed with the gigantic sack of topsoil I’ve left idling in the neighbour’s driveway, but finally I have another raised bed tier. Gordon the gardener will now help me distribute topsoil mountain all about, and if the weather plays ball I may get a few of those cos in, probably under cloche, probably after warming the bed a bit. (Note, I never saw a reply from Haxnicks following my query to their website about tiering, despite the jolly auto reply that promised immediate gratification. @haxnicks, for shame!) My Parmex carrot seeds have also germinated; next stop, spring onion junction.Click for larger image

Have I talked enough about vegetables? Can I move on to something more beautiful? See the greenhouse to the left of the picture window? It’s going to be shifted to liberate its wonderfully sunny wall for trained fruit. After much soul and web searching, it won’t be a cordon, espalier or fan, but a duo of so-called minarette pears from Ken Muir: the varieties are the agreeable Concorde and the king of juicy, Williams’ bon Chretien. (Concorde is partially self fertile but don’t expect great things without a pollination partner.)
The minarettes can be planted as close together as two or three feet, trained straight up or (as I’m planning) on an angle. I came so-o-o-o close to quince “Vranja”, with its intoxicating tropical scent, but finding a dwarfing rootstock proved extremely difficult, and I didn’t fancy years of hard pruning to keep a more vigorous “A” rootstock specimen in this tiny space.

Wait, can you hear it? The grindstone is calling me back, and I need to put in a few more hours’ writing before I sleep.

But please, please do tell if you have experience with “Concorde”, “Williams’ bon Chretien” or any minarette fruit. Did it perform for you? And is the taste of Williams’, in particular, going to be worth my three years’ wait?

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My budding vegetable venture is getting nipped by the roses

February13

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Top of my list for 2010 gardening resolutions is to grow vegetables, and my husband this week helpfully put together the raised bed and filled it with soil, compost and manure. However — this is rose pruning time, and I’ve just spent two hours out there clipping and cleaning up old foliage from the roses, giving no headspace whatsoever to my vegetable project. I hope my Eatin’ Project endeavour isn’t doomed!

My cos lettuce seedlings are ready to go, my stumpy little Parmex carrots are waiting to be planted, and parsnip seeds could get into some toilet roll holders tonight if the kids get to bed early. I have heard that neither carrots nor parsnips, as root vegetables, will be happy if transplanted, but since the Parmex are ball-shaped, I may risk them in modules and keep the toilet rolls for the ‘nips.

And so I return to the roses. The Rose de Rescht hedge I planted two years ago is in places well over three feet tall, and I cut the whole thing straight across with shears today, saving a few choice offcuts to put into the ground as hardwood cuttings. (I look for a good, thick, straight piece of wood, about 9 inches long. At the bottom, I cut straight through the middle of a growth bud — or a swollen area that should be a growth bud; at the top I cut just above a growth bud. As long as they go into a lightly shaded bit of ground that will get moisture and dappled sun for the next year, the cuttings will be very happy and may even produce flowers this summer).

Click for larger imageBut it’s the climbers I most look forward to pruning. I have an Etoile de Holland and a David Austin climbing James Galway, and both are performing so brilliantly for me in June and September, with James Galway flowering right through into November. Both of these roses let me train their long, long arms horizontally and they produce flowers all along their horizontal length, as long as I clip side shoots back to two or three buds in February.

Somebody please tell me I’m going to get similar satisfaction from my vegetables. The raised bed is in a good, sunny position near a few of my favourite roses, which will hopefully will provide a background scent as I tend the vegetables. If I can just get some food out of the ground, maybe I will start to feel the love. If you’re a flower lover who’s also going edible for the first time this year, speak up.

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Fear of toads and other 2010 resolutions

December29

Click for larger imageI know the garden is never done, and all that, so in figuring out my resolutions for 2010, I’m not promising to get things perfect. But there are a few stupid things I did in 2009 that are helping me settle on attainable goals for next year.

  • Screaming at toads: I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again this year, after humiliating myself in 2008 while chatting to my mother-in-law, clearing out some expired summer pansies. But there I was again this autumn, shrieking at a toad I’d unearthed when rolling away some heavy stones near the dianthus. I’m not sure what became of him, but he was last seen smacking his head on the window ledge, trying to escape my sound effects. 2010 will be different, I promise.
  • Nothing November: as I explained here, I planted the hall border when I was expecting my daughter, planning for it to be a rage of colour for her every year. But the autumn flowers there are gone by her birthday at the end of the month, and nothing else fills the gap in November. I’ll probably bite the bullet and go for grasses; anything is better than the void.
  • Greenhouse frostbite: I thought the sunny position and wall-hugging construction of my greenhouse would protect it from frost. The perished seedlings and cuttings say otherwise. Last night the temperature fell to -6 Celsius and I’ve only just managed to save some of the tougher ones. Since we re-organised the house, we have space in the unheated conservatory to let many of them come inside for the winter without getting over-warm.
  • Crop failure: the stumpy, poisonous-tasting carrot above, and a few sorry Charlotte potatoes, were the sole survivors of my halfhearted vegetable growing this year. I’m not good at this! In 2010 I’m starting extremely small with the Eatin’ Project — a 1 m x 1.2 m raised bed, my first proper effort to grow-and-eat. I think it was the Copenhagen talks — and all you vegetable-inclined gardeners on Twitter — that have helped me accept that growing some of my own food is an imperative. My all-consuming passion for flowers doesn’t really need to consume every bit of my garden space. Stay tuned for updates.

Happy 2010 to you all, and good growing.

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Fake tree is a real relief

December20

Click for larger imageIf Christmas was part of your childhood and your memories of it are generally positive, you’ll probably look to replicate what you can of Christmas past when you’re all grown up. For me, a favourite memory is lying down and looking up through the boughs of my parents’ Christmas tree, with red and green lights casting a glow on the ornaments, and breathing in the pine scent. I’m not sure if I did this before or after seeing Pluto’s Christmas Tree, a 1952 Disney short (you can watch it in full here — thanks, YouTube), where Mickey Mouse and his dog are thwarted in trimming their tree by the chipmunks inside it. Watching Chip and Dale leap about, loosening lights and stealing ornaments, I was sure nothing could be better than living inside a Christmas tree, and I always imagined myself as one of them when I peeked through the branches every year.

So it’s extra strange that, this year, I’ve bought my family’s first ever fake Christmas tree.  I’m stunned at how happy I am with it. There is no scent of pine. Its boughs are too thickly woven to see up through. It’s unnervingly symmetrical. But even with all its conical artificiality, I dig this tree. So many things about it save me time and hassle, this year and in future Christmasses, and so it hits the bulls’ eye for me.

It has great clearance at the bottom for presents; our old real trees have been so crowded at the bottom that presents spilled far into the room. Its shape may be too perfect, but it reaches to the ceiling while keeping to its corner, and I don’t miss the real trees that thrust their fat rumps into the room, begging to have needles knocked off. The kids love the tree’s tall twinklyness, and with the “night” setting on my Fuji, I can capture endless Disneyesque, inside-the-tree shots. Most important, I’ve avoided hacking down a young tree to create a decoration that is only briefly perfect. This tree will last, and I am already appreciating how fresh and festive it still looks after 10 days. With all its Christmasy aroma, the real tree and its slow death inside the house is a downer, and the decline is visible so quickly, even with TLC. And did I mention we’re not running the vacuum cleaner every day to erase signs of decay? Plus, no more two-hour tree-hunting trips in December, the month when I can least spare the time.

Instead maybe I’ll get to spend a few hours in December as many other gardeners do, laying plans for the next season. My mother phoned from Boston yesterday to say she had sent us some money for Christmas, so I found myself in Dobbies this afternoon with a budget in mind and a list in hand. I now have the essential ingredients for The Eatin’ Project, as I’m calling my first proper attempt at growing vegetables in a 1m x 1.2m raised bed. I have been rubbish at growing vegetables but I will make it happen this year. If I teach my kids nothing else about the garden, it should be basic skills about how to turn seeds into food, just in case the climate goes to hell sooner than we think and commercial agriculture simply can’t support us all. If I invest five or 10 years making all my mistakes now, maybe I can help them get a better start.

Merry Christmas to all.

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