Wednesday, 27 May 2009

First punnet of strawberries...

Having found several strawberries scattered or half eaten last Friday, we covered the bed in a double layer of netting and were rewarded yesterday with our first punnet of strawberries! One or two had been nibbled by snails (which seemed to be strangling themselves trying to get out again through the holes). However, most were pristine and, after the warm sunshine over the weekend, followed by lots of rain overnight on Monday, of very good eating quality. We enjoyed them for lunch with a little sugar (unnecessary but nice) and cream - delicious!
Planted out my second batch of sweetcorn yesterday, together with squash plants. The sweetcorn plants I laid out a fortnight ago are already six inches tall, the newbies only two, it will be interesting to see if they catch up!
Tomato plants seem to have settled in well - they looked a bit unhappy at the end of last week - not wilting but not really enjoying the long dry spell, and particularly I guess the cold winds of the week before. I gave them a good soaking and had a long chat with George about them, which you might think went over the top of their heads. But they were looking a lot better for the attention and, perhaps, the intervening weather!

Painted ladies....

Yesterday we spotted a painted lady butterfly, a migrant from Africa, on the allotment - the first we've seen this year.
Then this morning, the Guardian newspaper reported that many thousands of them have been arriving in Britain on warm winds from the North African deserts since last Thursday. See
It could be the best summer for them for years. What a wonderful surprise, following the unusually cold winter. Let's hope the farmers lay off the herbicides and leave plenty of thistles for painted lady caterpillars later this season!

Monday, 25 May 2009

Chives alive - but what about our bees?

Bees love chives - the small clump in our back garden has been alive with them all weekend, despite competition from columbines, poppies and other more obviously attractive flowers in the border. The ornamental alliums have also seen lots of action, sometimes with two or three bees on each flowerhead; and, to my surprise, the unremarkable flowers on the raspberry canes.
In our garden and on the allotment, it's hard to credit that the UK bee population is in decline, but then the urban bees, it seems, have it easier than those in troubled rural areas. With a thriving variety of garden plants to feed on at this time of year, without needing to traverse vast areas of chemically treated single crops, their immune systems must be more able to cope with the new viruses and varroa mite which appear to have been encouraged by intensive beekeeping practices developed over the past few decades.
In a TV documentary programme a couple of weeks ago I was shocked to see vast pantechnicons, loaded with beehives, being transported across the United States to pollinate crops in different regions. It seems extraordinary that the different areas do not sustain their own indigenous populations of bees to carry out this essential work.
It may also be stressful for the bees to be carted about in this manner. A friend was telling me about a local apiarist who had to collect a hive of bees from some distance away and was advised to stop halfway and let them out for a break. Apparently they flew out and came back in again after about ten minutes, then settled back and were safely and happily transported to their destination!
I wonder also about the role of refined sugar in creating the problem. Richard Smith, the late biodynamic farmer from Sharpham Barton in South Devon, suggested that this particular aspect of intensive farming practice was causing problems in China a few years ago. Where farmers were taking too much honey from the hives to sell and feeding the bees manufactured sugar instead, entire communities of beehives died off within weeks. No wonder - there are all kinds of minerals and trace elements in honey which would be absent from the denatured, processed product.
It makes it all the more important, I think, that we grow as diverse and as much food and flowers as we can in our gardens and allotments in order to keep local bee populations happy and healthy. And we should support local, traditional beekeepers in their sustainable, small scale practices.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Stevie's Section!

Hi there!
I'm Stevie, Helens youngest son, the one who does most of the photography for this blog!

I was off sick today, and Mum + Dad thought that I'd feel a little better after a bit of exercise, so they brought me down to the allotment. It feels so long since I last came down here, yet looking back at some of Mums previous posts on this blog, it was only a month ago! So much has changed since I last came down, all the lettuces have sprouted, Mum + Dad have covered the strawberry patch with a layer of something or other to protect it- I didn't even know there were strawberries growing last time I came down!

Previously down at the allotment, all I did was take photos so Mum could update this blog. This time round, I was a little more helpful, and put up a 'pyramid' of bamboo sticks and planted some beans around it's base. And to be honest, even though i don't have very green fingers, i still enjoyed it.

I had a lovely time down on the allotment, and hope to go back down there next time I'm off sick.

Fear of being organised...

I fear I am becoming the Very Organised Gardener (or VOG - how great is that?). It seems that the tramlines of the raised bed impel me to plant things in a much more organised way.
Neat little rows with (whisper it) labels are springing up across the allotment which has traditionally been more scattered by nature.

See these fine lettuces, which brought forth our first bowl of mixed salad earlier this week! Very Organised: neatly laid out in half rows, at different stages of development ready to light up our plates at different times in the coming weeks. I'm not boasting, I feel... confused. Happy, but confused. I know I planted them but I'm sure I've done this in previous years and it hasn't actually come to fruition.
Must be something to do with having some help regularly, P has got on with clearing weeds roots and rubbish at the end of the allotment so I've been able to focus on digging planting weeding and watering the beds.
This morning Stevie joined us too and both assisted with planting out the climbing French beans which have been popping up in their pots at home! We planted out two varieties today, Cobra, which were sent to me by David, and Cherokee Vale of Tears, from the real seed company.
I was surprised to find these varieties looked exactly the same when they arrived - small black beans. They've had similar germination rates ( about two thirds) and I can't see much difference between them as sprouting plants, but we'll see how they turn out later on. I've planted them out separately, Cobra next to the Victorian Purple Podded Peas sent me by Miss Fuggles and Cherokee next to the Kent Blue Peas.
I've also saved time this year not having to weed out the strawberry bed. Very Organised, helped by black weed suppressing fabric laid out when I planted up the bed last autumn, it has done an excellent job over winter and clearly lets water penetrate too. P and I shared the first ripe strawberry on Tuesday - sunwarmed and delicious, just the right balance of sharp and sweet - and there were two more nearly ready today! We are looking forward to a good crop this year.

Thank goodness to find the self seeded sunflowers at my feet (above) taking up nearly half of the planned sweetcorn bed! We must retain some spontaneity.

But not too much... a good gardener is a ruthless gardener, so I thinned some of the little darlings out, and feel confident now that there will be another fine display of Velvet Queen, like those which adorn my portrait at the head of this blog, later this season.

Classic Spring cottage garden!

Flourishing wiegela...a glorious fountain of pink which delights us every year.

dark pink pelargonium Royale, purple allium, a splash of orange wallflower, palest pink aquilegia

plus herbs, the strawberry planter full of flowers and blackeyed susan ready to climb in the big round pot on the right. The sweetpeas are shooting up in the square pot to the left. The white flowers centre front are lantana - never come across these before, I found them in the garden centre last week and divided one small pot into five separate plants!

And here's the basket I planted earlier... I must get a better picture this weekend, after the rain yesterday and today it's beginning to flourish, and the plants spreading out.

An easy way to set trailing plants in your summer baskets

Last weekend I planted up an old shopping basket as a centrepiece for this year's display on the piano at the bottom of the garden.

After lining it with a layer of grass cuttings and a piece of compost bag (trimmed to fit), the basket was half filled with compost and I snipped two inch holes in the lining halfway down the side.

Then I laid out the plants; a couple of pelargonium, purple salvia, lime surfinia (petunias) and trailing white bacopa.

It was going to be difficult to push the bacopa through the wire mesh of the basket without damaging the plants.

Then I remembered a tip I learnt with the Age Concern staff gardening club about ten years ago...

I wrapped the top of a plant in piece of card...

you can roll it quite closely

if you're gentle...

and then I was able to push it through the small aperture with no difficulty at all.

Voila! Job done...

Final result in my next post...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Try this recipe for chard...

Prompted by Sue's Balcony Garden, which gives a great recipe for chard with gorgonzola and pasta, here's another idea - a bit more compllicated but delicious and worth the effort as an occasional treat.
Separate stalks and green; cut the stalks into 2 inch pieces, and slice the greens finely. Steam or poach for five minutes, keeping the greens and stalks separate. Then put the greens into a colander, press down with a plate or saucer to squeeze out as much juice as possible.
In a small bowl, beat a couple of eggs and grate some nutmeg in, plus a little salt and pepper if you like. Grate breadcrumbs (one or two stale slices should be enough). Heat butter or oil in a shallow frying pan. Dip the stalks in egg, then breadcrumbs then fry for a few minutes in the oil, until the breadcrumbs are golden. Drain on kitchen roll. Then make small patties, each with a dessertspoon of greens. Once again, dip these in egg, then breadcrumbs, then fry and drain as before.
Lay the breadcrumbed stalks and patties on a baking tray and put in a medium oven for twenty minutes. This will drain some of the fat and crisp up the breadcrumbs.
Enjoy with a salad and a glass of dry white wine.
My kids loved this recipe, in days gone by when they were not willing consumers of greens - maybe because I deprived them of chicken nuggets and this was the closest thing?

Has the cold weather sorted the slugs?

Whisper it, but we seem to have lost little yet to the slugs and snails which were such a problem in my garden last year...
It's not that there aren't any of the critturs around. We planted a couple of slug pubs in the garden last weekend and they seem to have been satifyingly busy over the week, with tens of bodies to throw into the compost heap this morning. The one next to the scabious clump (which has been well chewed by something) was the most crowded.
I spotted a few chewed leaves on the black elder and the hairy mint this morning (and aphid foam on the black peppermint) but lettuce on the allotment, and lobelia planted out last week seem (fingers crossed) untouched. However, half the early Nantes carrots seeds planted in March either didn't come up or met an early lunch date - I'm just not aware of having lost carrots to slugs before.
Even if the recent cold snap has temporarily slowed them down, I'm staying watchful.

Sweetcorn's up on the windowsill this morning...

...and I only planted it five days ago! It's absolutely my favourite vegetable for being easy to grow. I shall pop them in the greenhouse for a few days once the rest of the seeds show shoots, then have them hardened off and planted out by the third week of May, weather allowing. And at that point, I'll plant the next lot of seeds indoors and look forward to sweet cobs from halfway through August to the end of September or even early October, weather allowing.