The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies. Gertrude Jekyll

Annie's Little Plot

Annie's Little Plot

Saturday 30 January 2016

The plot in January

It has been an up and down week this week weather-wise. I was off on Monday and spent a couple of hours at my allotment on a very mild day and the week is coming to an end with snow showers and biting cold winds. I've not been to the plot too many times in January, its been far too wet, but finally we had a dry day and I managed to get a few jobs done. I cleared most of my last few crops that are in the beds, the last of the celeriac, parsnips, sprouts, leeks and cabbages. All that's left now is some kale and chard, though they are both looking a bit worse for wear now so they'll probably get harvested and then composted next time. The garlic is peeking up out of the soil now which is a good sign and though the overwintering onions are a bit battered they will soon grow on well again as soon as the weather warms up. With most of the remaining crops cleared I can now finish the spreading of compost and manure as needed so all the beds are then ready for the new seasons planting. Not much more to do as I did most beds before Christmas.

I've cut the autumn fruiting raspberry canes down to ground level, they'll send up new canes which will flower in the late summer and will fruit in the autumn next year. I'll give these a mulch soon too. Here underneath and around the raspberries I planted some Snake's head fritillary bulbs in the autumn but there is no sign of them yet. This area is right at the bottom of a minor slope on my plot and with all the rain that we have had, this is the wettest part of the plot. I thought these plants would like it here, knowing that they like a moist soil and naturalise in wet meadows but we will see. I'll keep an eye out over the next few weeks. 
I came home with laden bags and I then spent a relaxing couple of hours in the kitchen cleaning and chopping, preparing the veg mostly for freezing, though saved some for cooking this week. I've discovered a great recipe for braised red cabbage, who knew red cabbage could taste so good!
I've already started my seed sowing for 2016, only a few things but have sowed another batch of sweet peas and these have been put on my propagator in the back bedroom, as soon as they are all germinated they will go back out into the greenhouse, but I get better success using some bottom heat with the sweet pea seeds. So they get first place on the propagator and then quickly moved on leaving the space for other things. I've also sowed some chillis and they are starting to germinate now. Its important not to get too carried away with seed sowing yet (easier said than done I know!), but there are a few things that can be started now. Chilli plants need a long growing season and they can be slow to germinate, so its good to get them started soon and grown on. Other crops you might want to get started soon are celeriac, summer brassicas, early lettuces and salad leaves like rocket and mizuna which prefer a cooler growing season. I'm also going to start a sowing of some hardy annuals soon too to try and get some earlier flowers. You could also sow some Broad beans undercover to get an earlier crop.

In the greenhouse, I've been overwintering some hardy annuals which I sowed in the autumn, I've never done this before and its been an interesting experiment. I've some Sweet pea plants which are looking robust and healthy. One surprise has been the toughness of the Larkspurs, I've struggled getting these to germinate in the spring in previous years so was pleasantly surprised to get such a good number of seedlings from an autumn sowing. These have then been pricked out and have grown on slowly but steadily and have now made nice little plants. I've got some of a Stock flowered Mix which have done really well and also pricked out some Consolida regalis 'Blue Cloud' and 'Snowcloud' which I'm very excited about. These are new to me this year and apparently grow quite differently to the usual Larkspur which have spikes of flowers, so these grow more bushy and have a more airy habit. The seeds were from Chiltern Seeds. I've also got some small plants of Ammi majus which I'm hoping will grow better from an autumn sowing. I've recently pricked out some Ammi visnaga but this seems to be struggling in the cold of my unheated greenhouse, will see how many get through. I've also got some Orlaya grandiflora seedlings, some varieties of Scabious, Echium 'Blue Bedder' and a Poppy called 'Falling in Love'. I think this will be trial and error for a few years as I get to grips with my greenhouse growing. Think the trick is to get the seedlings to a reasonable size before over-wintering. So I maybe need to sow a bit earlier than I did last year. So things are getting going both for veg and flowers.

This afternoon I've spent a pleasant hour gazing out of my back bedroom window watching my resident birdlife go by. All in aid of the Big Garden Birdwatch and the way the weather has been this afternoon I'm surprised I saw anything. A squally day, with the wind blowing along lots of mini hail showers and then the sun showing its face every now and again. I have a great view out of my window here of the garden, out over the allotments behind my garden, out further to the field where people walk past with their dogs hunched against the bleak weather and then even further out to the hills surrounding Huddersfield. I can see the iconic building of Castle Hill straight ahead and then to the left is the tall spike of Emley Moor mast. You know when the weather has particularly come down bad when these disappear from view, as the cloud enfolds them and the rain, hail or snow comes down. Today the hail is blown along in gusts changing direction forming patterns across the view. So far its not sticking but may do later if the weather gets colder overnight. 

This morning, as I do couple of times a week at the moment, I went out to top up the feeders with peanuts, sunflower seeds, fatballs and a few mealworms. I topped up the water too. The feeders are placed along various branches of an old apple tree at the bottom of my garden. Along side it is a large rhododendron which provides good cover for the birds before they fly out onto the feeders.
I didn't see the Robin today but this is usually what happens when I go out to fill the feeders, I get a visit by a little Robin, who gets first dibs at the fresh food. Today I had my usual flock of Sparrows, hard to count but I think I had 10 at any one time. They seem to be doing OK round here, and fly together around the area, calling in at different feeders. You can definitely hear them when they are roosting in a tree or bush, tweeting away. I saw some blue tits and a coal tit. 2 blackbirds which like to catch the bits that drop from the feeders and forage around under the Rhododendron. I also saw 2 magpies, who when they are around tend to prevent anything else from feeding and really quickly peck the fatballs to bits so I try to discourage them, but they have to feed too. But so cold and windy today was glad to see the birds that I did. The Big Garden Birdwatch can be done anytime over this weekend, so get going and see what you see.

Thursday 21 January 2016

A tour of ..... Nunnington Hall

So on a day when all is frozen outside and everyone else is posting pictures of their plots in the snow and frost. Where there is little that can be done but plan and dream about the season ahead I thought I would post about a visit I made last year to Nunnington Hall in Yorkshire. I visited on one of the hottest days of 2015, it was a muggy day, hazy sunshine in the morning but then clouds building and thunderstorms a brewing. It is a less well known National Trust property I would say so I didn't really know what to expect but I was in for a real treat.
It is an old Yorkshire country house by the river Rye, but what struck me most was the naturalistic planting, not really what you expect for such a formal house and quite different from other National Trust gardens that I've visited. There were lovely meadow areas underplanting the fruit trees and two lines of meadow up the formal path up to the gate. So it kept some of the formality of a grand garden but somehow there was a relaxed feeling to the place, maybe it was the hot, balmy weather. There were garden games set out to play with, such as croquet, and lovely big chairs outside the house to sit back and relax in. The garden is completely organic and has been so since 2002.
The next two photos are taken from a balcony on the house.

There were two squares of Orchard land on either side of the house with apple trees and the grass allowed to grow into meadow.

And yet there were formal features which juxtaposed with the informal planting of the meadows. I love the cloud pruned box hedge next to the wildness of the meadow.
The orchard meadow was home to some baby peacocks, not sure if you can spot them with their mum.
There were some lovely espaliered apple trees along the old walls of the garden.
 At the top end of the meadow area is a long thin herbaceous border. But even this felt quite a natural blend.

Walking away from the main part of the garden, there was the kitchen garden. I'm always a sucker for a good kitchen garden, and this one didn't disappoint. It had lots of healthy looking fruit and vegetables. There was even a grapevine in North Yorkshire. They use a mixture of traditional and modern horticultural methods to enable them to be completely organic. This area was geared towards encouraging children to learn about growing vegetables and to teach everyone about their organic principles and methods.

The majestic foliage of the globe artichokes next to tall healthy silvery foliage of the broad beans.

And look who is here.
There was a pretty herb and medicinal garden and a great fruit cage.
 There was a great potting shed.
Walking back to the main garden, there was a small cutting patch of annuals, with a gorgeous Californian poppy, I've not seen them this colour before so will looking to get some seed of that for my cutting patch. A gorgeous pink mix. This is the Iris garden, so in late Spring would be at its peak with spires of Iris.
The Nunnington wishing tree, for you to tie and ribbon and make a wish!

My wish is for you to go and visit this lovely garden, there are not masses of garden to see here or any big garden design features, its not got any particular unusual plant collections, but I loved the wildness, the informality and the feeling of the place. Add it to your list of places to visit in 2016.
Hope I've instilled some warmth into you on this grey chilly day.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The cut flower patch 2015

One of my new favourite things about having an allotment has been growing flowers, the only worry is that its taking over and soon there won't be any room for vegetables! Its been a real learning curve for me, learning how far to space plants out, which have good long growing season, which are short term stars and some which might not be worth the bother. My allotment is divided up into 7 long thin beds separated by grass or bark chipping paths. I've got 2 main beds which are divided into half and these are my 4 crop rotation beds for my vegetables (Brassicas, onions, legumes and roots). I have one long bed which has mostly fruit bushes and trees and another bed is half full of perennial crops (strawberries, asparagus and artichokes). So that leaves 3 beds which are mostly cleared each winter and I swap around what I want to grow in here each year. So I need space in these beds for potatoes, sweetcorn, courgettes and squash, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce and others. But the last couple of years I've grown lots of annual flowers for cutting. Starting with one long bed, then last year this expanded to one and a half long beds and seeing the list of plants that I want to grow this year I think it might get bigger! I've been a bit more organised in 2015 and sowed some biennials so I already have some Wallflowers, Sweet Rocket and Sweet William in the beds. I've also planted some bulbs, some Tulips and Alliums. Plus I've planted a few perennials which are good for cut flowers.
So what have I learnt in 2015, which were the star performers, well there are a few that are just fabulous, flower for a long time, not susceptible to slugs and look great in a vase. Echium 'Blue Bedder' was one of the first plants for flower on my plot and was still going in November, it looked fabulous with sunflowers.
Another great long-lasting performer is Clary 'Bouquet mix', I loved the blue and pink version of this but was a bit disappointed in the white version it never really got going. This flowered for a long time and seems as tough as old boots. The blue variety went well with bright orange marigolds or dark purple cornflowers. The flowers (actually they are coloured bracts) last ages in a vase too. Here it is with Cornflower 'Black Ball' and 'Classic Magic', Amberboa muricata and Nigella (Ignore the toaster. Note to self, learn to take better photos of my arrangements!).
I grew a few varieties of Nigella 'Midnight', 'African Bride' and 'Delft Blue' and the standout variety was 'Delft Blue', such a delicate flower with white petals stained in blue/purple with such dark centres. Here it is with Ammi. However I have found that Nigella plants are quite low growing and you have to be careful who you put them next to, so that they don't get overwhelmed and smothered.
There are a few other annuals that are like that, they are my delicate ones, others include Didiscus and a lovely variety of Gypsophila elegans called 'Kermesina' which was ok initially on my plot but then got overwhelmed by the neighbouring plants. The Didiscus this year, I grew through a lovely airy grass called Panicum elegans 'Frosted Explosion' which I think suited it fine. This is a tricky plant to grow for me, its lovely but the slugs like it too, but its such a gorgeous flower I think I will have to persist. Here is the Didiscus with some other nice pastel shades, from the pink Clary, Daucus carota 'Dara' and the Panicum grass. I loved this grass it made every arrangement fizz.
Another great flower was Ammi visnaga 'Casablanca' here in the plot with Zinnias, Burpleurum, Clary and Panicum'. Its a really sturdy plant with ferny foliage and robust white cow parsley-like flower heads. Much better than Ammi majus I found this year. It probably wasn't a great growing season for Zinnias, they like the warmth I think, but I got a few blooms later on from these plants and they are great in a vase, lasting ages. I grew 'Mammoth' and 'Envy'. Not sure I would grow 'Envy' again I expected it to be a zingy acid green colour but it was a bit insipid and grew weakly compared to the vibrantly coloured mix of 'Mammoth'. But maybe it was just the weather conditions.
Cosmos was a good robust plant, the varieties I grew were tall and needs space so you need to keep that in mind. I grew 'Purity' the classic white variety, 'Candy Stripe' which is a very jolly white with pink stripes and 'Click Cranberries' which has a lovely dark pink almost double flower.  Here is Cosmos 'Purity' in a nice monochrome arrangement with Ammi visnaga 'Casablanca, Panicum and the lovely black Scabiosa.
Other varieties that I grew were Cerinthe major 'Purpurescens' which often self-seeds around my plot now, a couple of Calendula varieties 'Touch of Red' and 'Coffee and Cream' and lots of sunflowers. I planted a hedge of them round one side of my cutting patch but might rethink this for next year as it makes it quite hard to cutting the other flowers in that bed! I grew 'Claret', 'Velvet Queen', 'Giant Single', 'Valentine' and a new variety called 'Sparky'. The others I'd grown before and most are great for cutting (though not the 'Giant Single' but just love the cheery flower on this). I didn't like 'Sparky' it has thin quill-like petals, it looked it wasn't quite fully in flower (Sorry I didn't take a photo). Not like this lovely one below.
Scabious was another big success, I grew a Black and White seed mixture but loved the really dark ones the best. They look lovely as cutflowers in bud, in flower and as a seed head, how great its that. They have lovely long stalks and last a good time in a vase. I grew some Daucus carota 'Dara' not really expecting it to flower this year, they are supposedly biennial, but I managed to get a few late flowers off those plants. This a gorgeous cow parsley-like flower but with a dark pink tint. I'm hoping they will flower again next year but not sure as this is the first time I've grown them. Amberboa muricata is not particularly well known as a cut flower I don't think but this is a lovely flower. Slug resistant and long-flowering this has pink knapweed-like flowers, which do also last a long time in a vase. Cornflowers are a good early flower, probably need a second sowing to keep them going through the year. I love the variety called 'Black Ball', and the blue one is a classic.
So I've had lots of fun this year, I've still got lots to learn about arranging them, but I love experimenting and especially enjoy the fact that every week you have different bucket full of plants and can discover different combination. The plot has looked so colourful and the bees have loved it too. So excited about growing some new varieties next year.

Friday 8 January 2016


Ooh its gone cold today. There was a biting wind up at the allotment this morning, I didn't stay long as its far too wet. I shouldn't complain though there has been alot of pictures of flooded allotments around. I've never known it as bad as this, even my bark chipping paths are getting churned up now. So not much point in doing anything. Not that there is much to do, but the raspberry canes need chopping down and I want to remove a blackberry plant at the bottom of the plot. I bought it very cheap, from a pound shop I think, which wasn't a great idea. It was supposed to be a Tayberry but its definitely a blackberry! It crops OK but I've got another on the other side of it which is a thornless blackberry and this has much bigger fruit on it. Plus its a spiky thug so its time to go. On a visit to my local garden centre earlier on in the week, they had a sale on all plants and I decided to get a Loganberry, so I picked a good sturdy plant, took it to the till and they charged me £2.99, what a bargain, should have been £10. So very happy with that. Just got a bit of work to do now planting it.
The kale that is not covered is being eaten slowly by the pigeons so I need to get them up. But I picked lots off the ones undercover and will freeze a couple of batches. I usually drop the leaves into boiling water then take them out almost straight away into cold water, dry them off slightly and then scrunch them up into balls and pop in the freezer. Then you can just get them out of the freezer and pop straight in soup or casserole. I also harvested a few more chard, celeriac and some leeks. Big soup making time for me I love that at this time of year. The kale grown undercover still does have some whitefly on it too so the enviromesh hasn't prevented that, but its not as bad as the ones not covered.
You have to have faith at this time of year, the plot can look very bleak, but actually its quite green for me this year, which might be a bit of a worry. The chives have been starting to sprout, the globe artichokes are sending up lots of their lovely silver grey foliage.
This clump is getting a bit big and probably could really do with splitting but might be tricky now with so much growth. So I might leave that till next year now, though I could probably could do with removing the old stems.
The rhubarb is also getting a bit ahead of itself. 
I noticed I have a few bulbs coming up as well, some Camassias and Alliums, cold is forecast for the next few days and into next week though and there may be some snow on its way. Eek. But looking at the long term forecast (if it can be believed) it looks like there may be some dry, cold weather on from Wednesday onwards. We need a respite from this incessant rain.

I've been back at work this week and made a sad discovery. I work in Manchester and get the train in, I have a short walk at the other end which I really like, some fresh air before I have to sit at a desk all day. As you can imagine I go the same route most days and you get to know the surroundings its part of your scenery. There is a lovely big Horse Chestnut tree on my route and I track the seasons by this tree, watch the buds break into those impressive candle like flowers, the big leaves unfurl, followed by conkers which I love to see just as they come out of their spiky shell all shiny and brown. Then the leaf colour change in the autumn and then leaf fall and then it all starts again with the big sticky buds. This looked a great specimen too, they have such a distinctive shape these trees. Its a marker for me on my journey to work. I was walking through part of the old UMIST area, which is now part of the University of Manchester, on my first day back and shocked to see it cut down to its trunk. What a sad sight.
I can only think it was diseased and the rip in its bark from the other side also suggests that but Oh, it didn't make it a good start to my week. There are so few trees in a city anyway, sad to see another one go. Horse Chestnuts are known to suffer quite a few diseases and from a quick bit of research its likely that it had canker, from the bark tear. Shockingly half of Horse Chestnuts in the UK are showing signs of this disease according to the Forestry Commision.
So lesson from this, cherish your trees.
Anyway keep warm over the upcoming cold spell, make like a cat. Bob is an expert at getting cosy.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Review of the year 2015

I like to do a bit of a review of the growing year at my allotment, and look back at ones in previous years to compare. Its especially needed this year as I have been very busy and not had time to write my blog as I'd have liked. Its a nice thing to do on a day when its grey and raining outside, listening to Test Match Special where England team are basking in the sunshine in South Africa! Looking out of the window here at my own garden and the allotments beyond, all is looking very brown! Its good to remind yourself that it will be all change again in a few months time and this hibernation is good to recharge the garden and ourselves. 

I don't know about you but I always go through a phase when I get tired of gardening and definitely need a break. Getting back into reading gardening books at this time of year and browsing seed catalogues I can feel the love coming back to me and the excitement building for the new season. The feelings of renewal that you have at this time of year, like a clean slate, you even believe your own hype that next year you will be a perfect gardener. I will keep the weeds away, I will sow in succession to have constant crops, slugs won't decimate my seedlings, I'll remember to sow biennials in June, I'll cut the privet hedge at the right time rather than leave it till it gets out of reach, I'll get to my redcurrants before the blackbirds, I'll not get too keen and sow tender veg like squash too early and end with them sulking in a cool Spring, I'll plant bulbs when I get them rather than forgetting them and then finding them weeks later dry and starting to sprout. Ah if only but I know what happens, you get so busy that all good intentions go out of the window. But its a real joy to review what grew well, which varieties you might grow again or what new varieties to try.

It was a reasonably cool start to the year, with snow in the first few weeks of January and into February. I had a go at growing onions from seed for the first time this year. Its traditionally said that you sow onions on Boxing day but I sowed a variety called 'Ailsa Craig' on the 14th January. They just need a long growing season so the earlier you sow them the better, basically the more leaves that you have when you come to plant them, the bigger the onion. I must admit I was a bit sceptical because its so easy to just grow onions from sets but actually they did OK. I pricked them out at the beginning of March into pots. Then they got planted at the allotment at the end of April. There was a bit of an issue then in that we had quite a dry spell so that had to be kept watered. They were harvested at the same time as the main-crop onions that were grown from sets. They were less uniform in size as those grown from sets but I got some quite big ones. Not quite exhibition quality but a good crop. So I've sown some again this year, that was my job for this morning. I'm also growing some Welsh red onions which are supposedly perennial, so will see how that goes this year.

Now I've finished all the paths at my allotment and the structure is all sorted its much easier to get the plot set for the spring. By April all was ready for the season ahead.
I had a fabulous crop of rhubarb this year, enough to have a go at making some rhubarb wine! It is truly my favourite first crop of the year.
Mid May and everything was getting going again in the sunshine but it was a very slow start this year, cool really until late June I'd say, and even then it felt like we just kept waiting for summer to come and it probably arrived in September. August was just a wash out with lots of rain and cool too. The best weather was at the start of the year in April and May and then in September and October and even into November. But at the allotment some crops loved this weather and as always the key I think when growing your own is to try and grow a range of crops, some will grow well and others may struggle one year, but then the next it will be completely different. 

This year the crops that really struggled for me were the ones that like a warm summer, so cucumbers, squash and sweetcorn. I didn't manage to grow a single cucumber and the previous year I'd had loads. They sulked when planted and either rotted off or got taken out by slugs. I sowed twice but nothing. I had about 4 squash but compared to previous years this was really poor. I did get some sweetcorn but they were very late and not as sweet as normal. Courgettes did get going eventually but I had a much smaller crop this year, though actually I normally have too many, so this was probably just right this year!! The picture below was taken in mid-May and the allotment is still looking bare.
On the other hand, the brassica's loved this weather, as did chard, beetroot, runner beans (once they got going, but again they were later to crop), I had good crops of onions and garlic, potatoes were OK, they suffered a bit with the dry weather we had in Spring, but had a reasonable crop although perhaps smaller potatoes.
At the end of June it was looking a bit fuller.
Other troubles this year were peas, which again I think struggled with the dry start to the season, had a poor crop from those, they never really got going. I had to do about 3 sowings of the dwarf french beans to get some plants. But once they started they cropped well and for a long time. Runner beans I always sow direct now and it seems to work for me. Think I might do that with the dwarf French beans next year. 

One crop you'd think might do well this year in the cooler conditions would be lettuce, but again I had a poor crop of that, I really struggled with slugs with these and unless I get up to the plot frequently they can just graze a whole planting in one go. So I have virtually given up on lettuce at the allotment now and I'm just growing them in pots at home, where I can keep a closer eye on them.

By July everything in and starting to catch up a bit but most things were late for me this year. Though with the extended Autumn we can't really complain too much.
At the end of August everything looking very lush, the sunflowers hiding the shed.
One crop that has liked the wet and mild end to the year and that is Celeriac, I try it every year, its a crop that needs to be started early but what do you get at the end of it, a tiny knobbly ugly looking thing with straggly roots and by the time that you have peeled it you wonder whether it is worth it. But this year it seems to have thrived and are a decent size.
The plot was still looking full in mid October but this is when I started to clear some crops.
End of November and crops were cleared and beds were put to bed for winter. 
This is the first time that I've managed to do this before Christmas so hopefully this will free up my time in early Spring when I'm usually rushing to get this done. I share a delivery of manure with a fellow plotholder, we got enough this year to put on the beds and also to pile up for next year and keep undercover.

This was the first year that I really had the greenhouse in my garden in full use and this has been a bit of a learning curve, the surprising thing for me was the temperature range in there. Even in January in the sunshine the temperature in there can get up to 19oC, but it can then drop like a stone at night. This is a real issue for growing and lots of door opening and closing!! But it really helped with all the sowing and growing that I do.

In the greenhouse I had a great crop of tomatoes, I grew 'Sungold' and 'Lucciola' two plants of each, which are great for me, they crop over a long period and slowly ripen, not all at once. 'Sungold' is so sweet but can be prone to splitting a bit later in the season. This trait can be forgiven as they tend to just get eaten straight away after picking anyway. I can't imagine not growing this variety. I am going to try a variety called 'Marmande this year as well though, this is a big beefsteak variety. Another greenhouse success was Aubergine 'Ophelia', this is a dwarf variety which I grew in pots and which produces golf-ball sized fruit. I had two plants and picked a good number of fruits. I love aubergines and these were perfectly sized fruit.

So not a disastrous season but a challenging one I think for growing vegetables. But my other main reason for having an allotment is growing flowers for cutting and these have been fabulous this year. I'll review this in another post I think.

Some people ask me why bother growing your own, and its definitely not straightforward, but I love the challenge each year and the fact that I'm learning all the time about which varieties grow best for me and more crucially which taste the best. But more importantly its the joy I have just spending time at my plot, the fresh air, the chatting, the exercise, the wildlife and the satisfaction of watching plants grow and flourish. I love it. Here's to another exciting year with new challenges and successes!