Saturday, 26 July 2014

Getting the sunflowers past the slugs

Last year, I didn't get any of the sunflowers past the slugs. Not one. Thirty seedlings dwindled to twenty, which looked tall enough and tough enough to plant out, which I did. Within a week, every single seedling was stripped of leaves, snipped of shoots and shorn to the ground. The seeds in the ground never even got their heads out.

This week, I've taken a different approach. I planted more - over fifty - and of surviving forty-odd seedlings have been divided. Ten went out into the flowers beds (now reduced to two).  Ten went into various planters and pots, seven (now four - or three once I accept the inevitable about #4, snipped off when it was four feet tall - in the greenhouse and three outside). The remaining twenty are putting on height and toughness in their growing-on pots, in a trug in the middle of the patio, theoretically far from the slugs, however, I've still lost five, six plants even though I am vigilant against the molluscs. And by vigilant, I mean murderous.

The first flower came yesterday, from one in the trug. It's saddeningly, maddeningly tiny. Three years ago, when the garden was still recovering from being concreted over, I grew a beautiful crop of sunflowers. But each passing year, as the garden matures, the slugs have become more hungry and brutal and dominant, as if the ecosystem I'm building up here has got stuck just before the predators came in.

But this year, I'm not going to crack and run for the slug pellets. I have a MUCH better idea.


This year I have established two small water planters, seeded with mosquito larvae, water fleas and water snails. And if you build it, they will come.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Hampton Court to-do list revisited

So, I had a good time at Hampton Court, but did I do the jobs? Revisiting my quest list:

1. Fancy tomatoes. What joy! I found last year's crazy tomato seller and obtained Black Zebra Cherry (compact, fast, colourful), Orange Banana Plum (long plum tomatoes, good for cooking), First in the Field (super-early, tough, prolific and heirloom), and Sweet Aperitif (a super-sweet dessert/cocktail cherry).

2. Chilli Pepper Vampire. FAIL. It's only sold by a couple of companies and I didn't find them (the heritage marquee, probably - I didn't make it there). I got Chilli Pepper Twilight instead - a prolific multi-coloured beauty good for display and eating, from the same seed pushers as above.

3. A tiny alpine. Oversucceeded.  I certainly managed a replacement Leptinella Squalida but also a Fuschia Procumbens and a hilariously suggestive houseleek. Ooops.

4. Weird Edible.  Well, I did get some fancy squash seed, but the real excitement is Tree Spinach - I was cooing over some fantastically hot magenta young plants before regretfully concluding that the pot was just too big to carry. Then I found seeds.

5. The most beautiful flower in the show. That'd be Erica Cerinthoides, below at the show and (right) the rather battered specimen I brought home. A week in the lean-to has put it right, and it's busy baking back to pink outside now (the colour is dependent on how much sun it receives and ranges from white to a non-UK achievable (it's South African) scarlet). Runner up was Dahlia Happy Single Party (seen in a show garden, identified in a floral display and eventually bought from the National Dahlia Society table) and the one that got away was the fourth flower, which is, and I really had to check the label to be sure, a Delphinium.

Flower of the show #2 suffering a bit Best flower in show #1 peach delphinium

So, 4/5 on my things. What about my ideas?

1. Ideas for varying the plant height in the big bed. There was some nice use of bugles and other low tough plants in the show gardens, plus some rather nice looking shade-loving perennials in the plant marquee, but no lightbulb moments. 1/2

2. Water planters (small) tips and tricks. I saw a couple of nice ones, including this one. Pretty! 1/2

Pop art gluttony

3. Clever greenhouse tricks. I saw nobody doing anything cleverer than what I am doing already. 0

4. Gravity-fed watering systems. I found one in the catalogue, but couldn't find it on the ground. 0

5. Wildlifery. Bar a leaflet about hedgehogs, not a sausage. 0

So, on ideas, a pitiful 1/5. Which may be unfair, of course. Looking for specific ideas is a bit of a fool's errand. The unexpected and unlooked-for ideas are those with more force.

Friday, 18 July 2014

July is Honeysuckle

The water lilies were in bloom in the plastic ponds by the vast expanse of car-parks as I stepped out of the abandoned chemical works in the outskirts of town after my second full-day training course in as many days. I decided to take a short sky break* and check my vouchers as the three mile walk home swung me past (potentially) Lidl, Tescos, M&S, Sainsburys and Wilkinsons. Capitalism being such as it is though (broken) my vouchers were expired, irrelevant, or for things too heavy to idly sling in a rucksack. But the sun was warm, and the odour of humane rat traps and fag butts was overwhelmed by the tangle of honeysuckle that shields the smoking area from the sharp winds that whip across the fields beyond the town. If I closed my eyes I could hear skylarks.

July is honeysuckle, wild clematis and other heady hardy creepers and the smell and buzzing of ecstatic hoverflies followed me across the car-park, sweet over the sharp tang of diesel particulates and the soft roar of traffic on the main road. Out on the main road, sun was already baking the Hawthorn hedge to tawney orange, and underneath, the sandy soil along the edge of the tarmac was pocked with ant-flight holes, tiny moundlets and the occasional conical depression marking the home of an ant lion.

In the retail park (I'd opted to go to Tescos, though more to shed the four cups of tea that had seen me through the afternoon's training than to go shopping) the municipal maples and low Lonerica hedges made gorgeous little green tunnels through the baking expanses of the car-parks; I followed them to the door of the supermarket where I found Shasta daisies and Graceful Lamb's Tails stacked in the porch like kidnapped débutantes, in various stages of fresh from the fridge, waiting to be rescued and wilting on the shelf. I left them. If they're still there (um, no, they won't be, never mind).

Science park follows retail park, where the vast expanse of meadow in the still-to-be-developed unit space is in sharp contrast with the prestige planting round the new British Gas offices which are bringing jobs to Cowley. The impressive cordons and semi-mature trees are suffering in the heat, fancy purple leaves drooping, but from the humidity a thunderstorm might bring them back. As I cut across the meadow, the expected buzz and flutter of bees and butterflies seems sparse; the heat of the day, or the proximity of the third busiest roundabout on the ring-road?

Another green tunnel footpath under variegated maples. Out on the road, as I head to the shopping centres and Wilkinsons (where there are some cut-price planters which I think will suit my hanging tomatoes) the planting, municipal and personal, is mature, and those plants which have won the race (a fantastic border of Astelia, a vast Catalpa Tree) are in full flow of awesomeness. The centre itself is decked out in UKIP colours - blazing purple purple and vivid yellow hanging baskets and planters (city centre ones are a triumphant red this year). I obtain my planters. The tomatoes will be happy tonight.

*Sky break: like a smoke break, and often in the smoking area, but without smoking.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Sins of Silence at Hampton Court

It's not that far off going to a festival, really. At the beginning of the day you're jogging over to a train just pulling away (should have looked up the times before) then following a breadcrumb trail of helpful conductors to the connecting train where you wedge yourself in among a crowd of colourfully dressed and overexcited people and chat to strangers in awkwardly smiling staccato, then a quick change, then a tiny station where the most excitable stationmaster has taken on the role of compère and is treating the crowd to improv comedy as they negotiate the shufflequeue. More cupcakes and children maybe, but then I've not been to a festival in earnest for three years. Maybe it is all about cupcakes nowadays.

Do I want to take the ferry? very fancy garden chair
The ferry is fun. I'm definitely doing that again. It drops you into the turf sculptures (which the moist weather had scattered with fairy rings) and artisanal snacks zone, and then straight into the conceptual gardens, which were all about the sins. I like this, because for me gardening is definitely sinful. It's indulgent - inefficient compared to the supermarket, often producing nothing of practical use, time consuming. It is sisyphean, the job that cannot end and will always expand to fill any time. It involves anger and murder (usually in relation to snails and slugs).  Covetousness sends fingers shuffling through pretty shrubs in other people's gardens for softwood cuttings, Pride puts our pretty successes onto Facebook, envy drives us to open gardens to see what true focussed attention could achieve and then we return guilty to our own imperfect green squares, tangled in delight and dissatisfaction. Sloth was delightfully conceptual - just tools and soil, with big shovels in open graves, bearing the gardener's heart, brain and (?soul). Greed had a kneeler to observe the fancy and chaotic sides of its split garden. Pride was far from sinful - Stonewall, smashing through concrete with a bright march of feisty perennials. Wrath was lava-coloured plants in volcanic scree, and exploded into steam and water on a regular basis. Gluttony was gigantic pop-art food containers spilling jelly-bean coloured climbers. Envy had a perfect green lawn in a strange green cube but I had to learn this from another viewer as I was not even tall enough to see over the surrounding grasses! Then there was Lust, which I saved it for last. Neon peep-show signs, an overstuffed chaise-longue spilling orchids, bat lilies and a bearded hipster waving us through who greeted each polite enquiry about the planting with "I don't know much about plants, I'm just here to look pretty."

look! lust! Greed chaotic

Show gardens followed, starting with the Just Retirement garden (I got a linen bag!) a sinister affair where you proceeded down a central path as the planting got steadily more morbid and monochrome, until you were finally presented with a small formal pergola full of slightly awkward people hanging around chatting, presumably representing the crematorium. Others offered the chance to mediate on the healthiness of your diet, the sufferings of the third world, you and your loved ones getting cancer and your failing eyesight (represented by a massive murmuring sculpture that invited you to close your eyes and listen). I swapped my email address for a packet of calendula seeds and some tasty coffee from the Grow Hope garden (recycled wooden construction and packing materials in bright orange), and nipped round the back of the contemplation/advice courtyard (there was a queue!) at Macmillan to photograph their funky bicycle sculpturettes and shot out into the summer and budget gardens.

Sound garden Macmillan legacy garden
Funny how even a budget garden themed around drinking wine can end up looking a bit corporate, but I liked the one made of recycled industrial metal. I also found a small GuineaFowl, some exciting roses including one made entirely of thorns and one called Dorothy Perkins, a mermaid made out of flowers, a completely insane set of tomato seeds and half a motorbike surrounded by faceless birds. But all this was only a precursor to the main event; a swanky tree-house stuffed with silent consumer technology reached via a fifteen minute queue and a short lecture on the importance of silence.

view of the beast Dragon!

After all that I needed flowers, then lunch, then more flowers, in that order, and including all the beautiful flowers, and those varieties so new they had hand written signs and occasional question marks (one guy had Delphiniums in a sort of electric peach colour - "these are the last two," he said, bristling at my camera, "You'll shift them," I replied, "No problem.") and some ferns please. Also I wanted fancy ice cream but the queue never dipped low enough for me to join.

Best flower in show #1 lunch, please
OCD alliums NEW

There comes a point in the plant marquee when you know it's time to go. The bags are too heavy, everything is beautiful, blood sugar is crashing and you feel drunk on colour, like a woozy hoverfly. I was staying with my sister that night, which meant a 1 hour 20 minute journey across London in rush hour, desperately shielding the plant bags at every step. On her driveway, I breathed a sigh of relief, relaxed, tripped and faceplanted, scattering flowers every which way.

But everything survived, and my jeans have that bit more character now.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Hampton Court report processing

Advance warning; I will get back to Hampton Court. But there is a lot to say.

Planters courtesy of Posh Patios.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Hampton Court Preview

Delight of all delights! Hampton Court's conceptual gardens are themed around the seven deadly sins. I'm trying not to spoiler myself (I'm going tomorrow) but I wonder if this might lead to gardens that are a bit lurid and blousy, in which case, I'm ready for that!

Before any trip, it's useful to set some quests. So here's what I'm wanting from Hampton Court; five things and five ideas

  1. Fancy tomatos. I bought last year's five varieties from Hampton Court and they've been a delight in the germination and growing, though it's a little too early to tell about the tasting.
  2. Chilli Pepper Vampire. I'm growing Nosferatu this year, and it's not done as well as other peppers. I think I'll have two viable plants, which isn't great, even though you only get a few seeds per packet from a variety as fresh as these. I want to see if Vampire does better.
  3. A tiny Alpine to replace the one that got brutally murdered by slugs. Then I'll dig up the murdered plant, put it out of slug reach and see if it resprouts. Alpines are tiny thugs, so there's a chance it will.
  4. Some sort of weird edible I have not grown before. I have too many of these already, but they're always fun.
  5. A flower. The most beautiful flower in the show ideally, which last year was this one:

  1. Ideas for varying the plant height in the big bed. I want proper perennial height, but decent low ground cover planting around the weeding tracks.
  2. Water planters (small). Tips, tricks and how to stop them splitting in winter.
  3. Clever greenhouse tricks. I need to be able to fit more into my small space, effectively.
  4. Gravity-fed watering systems. I've got one, and it's clearly the way forward. Can I get some more?
  5. Wildlifery. I want to make things better for my hoverflies and bumble bees. Tempt them in to pollinate my tomatoes
That'll do me, that and don't get sunburned.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Bright Green Mutants in the garden

I bought my Green Trick Carnations from my usual purveyor of weird mutants (Van Meuwen / Thompson & Morgan) as a trio of rooted cuttings. Looking at the image below (that's the puffball "flower" caught in a flash after dark) you might think that's delicate, shredded petals.

They're not. They're stiff, wiry bracts. This Carnation is a Dianthus (Sweet William) that got stuck at the bract producing phase (when they are quite pretty - I have a quantity of Dianthus Sooty sown from seeds from the Raven and they spend a couple of weeks as puffs of bracts the colour of Pinot Noir) and never made it to flower. "It's sterile," all the descriptions say. Well, yes, but more accurately it is self-gelded, a plant that can never make seed. It lacks the equipment.

In the way of the pack of three rooted cuttings, one died, one lived a little and one is living it large. The one in the patio container we call Pot O'Doom on account of its habit of killing everything we claimed (so far it has claimed an Olive and a Magnolia Stellata, among other less valued items, and now seems to be doing for a Rose of Sharon, which is quite scary) but that one, yes, it is huge, healthy and lost neither foliage or flowers over winter and now the "flowers" are resprouting from themselves. Having problems visualising that? Let me help:

Naturally, when faced with such strangeness, it is impossible not to want to take a closer look.

You can see how the inside of the plant has browned in the winter, like the depths of a clump-forming perennial. The little extra plants growing atop the puffball look like a lurch at reproduction via the non-seed route - and I was briefly tempted to bury the whole flower and see if I got a clump.

Because despite (maybe because of) the sterility, it looks very keen to propagate itself.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Lackadaisical Strawberry Gardener

I inherited my strawberries when Dierdre Ruane had to leave town in a hurry. I came home with five troughs of plants rescued from her top floor balcony which I parked on my patio and neglected until I found a pile of brightly-coloured containers in a pound shop. I picked up three, then picked up five, then bought them all, and they're still in my garden now, although the strawberries are the great grandchildren of the original plants.

It's fair to say that they don't always have the crimson perfection of the strawbs from the supermarket. The lopsided shapes and random sizes may, I have heard tell, may be because my bees aren't professionals (commercial growers bring portable hives to their fields) and pollinate wrong, or unevenly, or too late in the day. They still taste good though. I failed to photograph the devil strawberry (below) when it was ripe because the urge to eat it straight away was nigh-irresistible.

Growing strawberries in these small dry containers is a bit marginal. They don't fruit heavily, but they're supplemented by the alpines (a benign and vigorous weed in the garden ) and taste delicious, if we can beat the slugs to them. Between the low crops and the slugs, I never get a glut, and I'm always prickled by the thought, I could increase the yields. But then, I get enough for my purposes. They look good. That's enough, and more than enough.

Above: the pound shop pots, when they were first installed; an inadequately pollinated strawberry; making strawberry daquiries from scratch; too little water and insect damage = comedy strawberry.

I was picking the crop (about enough for two people to eat with yoghurt of an evening) and left the pot on the table while I went for the watering can. In the moment my back was turned a cheeky blackbird had joined them on the table. I yelled in outrage but she just flew off into the laurel tree, laughing.