New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with

January1

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!

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

December31

Click for larger image
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?

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Gardening for mum’s apple pie

October18

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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Briefly California

July25

Click for larger image

Until now, I’d never bothered with seed sowing in summer. The seedling fatigue of spring usually leaves me uninterested in repeating the whole affair during July and August. But two things have come together this year to change all that: my sharper awareness of the way the garden grows like mad in July; and the Eatin’ Project, where my early success in growing edibles has inspired me to try to keep the crops coming.

I listen to the folksy “Gardening with Tim and Joe” from BBC Radio Leeds, and a few weeks ago gardener Joe Maiden was encouraging everybody to sow more French beans and carrots right away to get strong young plants developing. I did, and they have. This evening I planted out some of the young dwarf French beans “Masterpiece” (thanks for the recommendation, Marc Diacono): their little root balls were full and raring to go.

The growth in all corners is rampant. I was stunned to see a fab root system on a bit of pelargonium that I’d knocked off the plant and had thrown into a cup of water. I planted it up and it’s flowering now – the whole process took just a few weeks. So I tried the same with a bit of Aster Frikartii Monch I’d yanked off the plant and sure enough, voila, roots. Today I’ve also sown dianthus seed; cuttings would be easier, but it’s my mother’s favourite flower, and these fell from the pinks I’d cut for her bedside when she was staying with me earlier this month. It is always hard to see her go back to Boston, and I couldn’t throw these seeds away when I was clearing up her bedside table this morning. If I can get some of these to germinate, that’ll mean something to me. Click for larger image

This is the first year I’ve tried to exploit these few weeks when Edinburgh is briefly California: long bright days, warm soil, and easy abundance everywhere in the garden. In past years I’d noticed how the borders went ballistic during July, but I’d never used it. July is a wave I’m riding this year instead of a flood that’s swamping my borders, and I like it. This is the first time that I’ve slashed my aquilegias to the ground in June, and I wasn’t afraid to do it, knowing it would give everything else more space during July and August.

It’s been a revelation to sow and nurture seedlings in summer: nothing like the slog of sowing in the dim days of spring in Scotland, where equal parts willpower and liquid seaweed are the only thing that keep the seedlings going.

Do you ever feel that your garden is a mute entity whose signs and moods you spend years studying? I think I’m starting to speak her language.

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Five reasons I’m ok with growing edibles

July5

Click for larger imageAs I’ve mentioned, my fruit and vegetable growing experiment is having some surprising results: not only is this stuff edible, but I’m enjoying it in so many ways. As my own personal Eatin’ Project, this year I have dedicated a 1.2 m raised bed to showing myself and my kids how to turn seeds into food. I’ve been gardening hard for about five years and until now resisted growing crops, mainly because I hate fleece, netting, cages and the other prophylactics that allotmenteers protect plants with. If you’re in the same mindset I was, and you’re considering branching out from flowers only, here’s some food for thought:

  1. Bugs on the lettuce aren’t a dealbreaker: Deborah once commented that she’s always preferred store-bought lettuce to growing her own, worried there might be bugs in it. But the raised bed (and the fact that it’s surrounded by wide gravel paths) has kept most slugs and snails away, and the rich soil along with an open, sunny position means other pests haven’t taken hold. I’ve found only a few bugs on the lettuce — just the odd greenfly or earwig. They haven’t done much damage, they’re easy to clean off and somehow they don’t bother me. The insects are a reminder that these plants, which we’ll eat, are alive. That appeals to me.
  2. Edible plants are pretty: the green swirl of the lettuce, the ferny carrot foliage, and now the purple blossom on the potatoes are all attractive, and the tiny handful of night scented stock and cornflowers I included in the raised bed bring in colour and pollinators. The rest of the garden (especially the romping rose hedge and main border, shown above) gives me plenty of space to be floral. The raised bed doesn’t need to do that job: its plants are more of a happy, leafy jumble — as if the fridge vegetable drawer has relocated outside.
  3. Food shopping sucks: I hate food shopping — my husband usually does it — but until now it’s been the only way to get fruit and vegetables into our diet. Having the good stuff growing outside the kitchen makes it much easier to eat healthily, and by pulling a few leaves from many lettuce heads, we always have salad. And it tastes better than Tesco’s.
  4. The kids are intrigued: my three-year-old girl likes to pull up a stumpy Parmex carrot, hand it over for washing, and crunch it (the carrots we grew in sandy soil taste better than those in the rich bed). Her brother eats raw spinach leaves and holds out his bicep for everyone to feel the difference. They both eat the few strawberries we’ve managed, and scattering apple lumps left over from breakfast keeps the blackbirds away from the berries (the cat also does guard duty). Both kids are so proud that we’re growing food and have shown off the raised bed to visitors. I think their enthusiasm is what I feel best about.
  5. Cloches make protection pretty: I bought three Haxnicks plastic bell shaped cloches for £10 and I’ve used them over and over again. They look pretty — a bit of a Victorian vibe without the weight of glass — and lettuces grow large and perfect under them.

I will grow more fruits and vegetables next year, but I’m a bit relieved that the Eatin’ Project hasn’t replaced my interest in  roses. This June was a rose bonanza in my garden, with the heaviest show I’ve ever seen, and the air has been thick with fragrance: the fruity Rose de Rescht, the Bourbon rose Zephyrine Drouhin and the lemony Etoile de Holland, plus the spicy clove of the old-fashioned pinks, and the outrageously sweet honeysuckle, Lonicera Japonica “Halliana.” I also took in Sissinghurst, Nymans and Hever Castle for the world’s biggest, best rose fix. (Endless pictures of the trip are here. Don’t go to Nymans on Monday-Tuesday like we did on first attempt — it’s shut.) When it comes to roses, the force is still strong with me; but I know now that my garden has room for something more.

Are you trying vegetable growing for the first time this year? Can you suggest any protection for fruit and vegetables that’s also attractive?

I have dedicated a 1.2 m raised bed

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