Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Urban Flowers

I live in the middle of Birmingham, so whatever gardening I do is inevitably urban. I have an allotment which I struggle with, so my efforts are concentrated there. There are sites all over the city, and demand has slackened off over the last few years, so some may well have empty plots and no waiting list. There’s a growing movement round the world for community gardens, where people come together to develop a space. Just across the dual carriageway nearby there’s a row of small shops with beds outside; some are neglected, while others can be a mass of bloom later in the year. A couple of years ago, a dreary stretch of dual carriageway was transformed by guerrilla gardeners who planted annuals all along the central reservation. There are opportunities to garden everywhere if you look!
The book covers all the basics; design and planning, styles, plant selection, colour schemes, which are always a bit random in my own plantings, cut, dried, pressed and preserved plants and flowers. There’s a short section on seed saving, always a useful thing to do (I keep anything precious in the freezer), and seed bombs, which are useful for guerrilla gardeners. You mix seeds into a ball of damp compost, and chuck it where you want them to grow. When it rains they germinate. Choose something tough which will perpetuate itself.
The emphasis throughout is on your own territory, whatever that amounts to, but there’s no real reason to stop there. With imagination, and sometimes by working together with neighbours, there’s a lot that can be done to transform dreary urban environments. I have snowdrops and daffodils outside my allotment, for instance, to brighten up the lane. The daffs have suffered rather thanks to being strimmed too early in the year, but I’m hoping that cutbacks have stopped that. A lilac in my front hedge provides some colour later in the year, as does a rose over the gate.
One thing worth remembering is that herbs and vegetables can be used as well as flowers. They’re useful, and can be a garden feature in their own right. Angelica, lovage, or even parsnips left in the ground provide clumps of green foliage and white flowers five or six feet high. Cardoons, a sort of giant thistle grown for its blanched stems, reach about six feet, with large purple flowers.
The book provides what you need to develop ideas for your own situation, whatever that is. Whether you have a garden, and allotment, or a windowsill, there’s always something to grow, and if that’s not enough, try guerrilla gardening!

Written by Caroline Dunster, and published by Frances Lincoln, this could be the book you need.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Potatoes, and a Break-In

This is the state I found the lock on my allotment gate in on Sunday. Someone - no doubt kids with tools - had been along ten or a dozen plots, breaking into all of them. They eventually managed to wriggle through a gap in the hedge, but not before they'd bent up my bolt to the point where it couldn't be opened. I broke in, got a crowbar and a big hammer, and manged to get it reasonably well straightened out, so it opens again. Nothing inside had been touched, and they hadn't even got into the polytunnel. Or if they did, they shut the door properly behind them!

These are some of my experimental potatoes, which made a good meal yesterday. They're all grown from true seed from various varieties. I'm obviously very late lifting them, but they're in good condition, and I'm getting enough decent-looking spuds to full a couple of beds. They should give me a good crop this year. I'm particularly pleased with the black one, at least at first glance. It was solid black inside,and kept its colour well as a baked potato. It's 'son of' Violetta. The very red one was ex-Blue Belle, and again, a good solid colour inside.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Plot update

I haven't posted about the plot for ages. I was off it most of last year due to losing an eye and being poisoned by some medication. But I've managed to pull a lot of it back, though it's still a pretty disgraceful mess.

These narcissi came to me via a dumped container. I don't know how  long they'd been in it, but the bulbs were on a sorry state. They've been in the ground for several years, and finally seem to have recovered. Some other bulbs from the same container still haven't flowered, and I don't know what they are. Maybe they need moving.

The daffs I put on the other side of the lane have sufffered due to being repeatedly strimmed in May, which is far too early. Hopefully the cuts may have put a stop to that at least.

The crown imperials have also suffered. I just had the one flourishing clump; at their best, they were magnificent. It was the only spot I could get them to grow; they really don't like waterlogging. Then we had a couple of soaking wet summers which nearly finished them off. Last year, after being moved, they were miserable, but this year they're a lot better, though still stunted. Give them a year or two, they'll be back in all their glory.

My new polytunnel Can't wait to get it up!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Good Soil: Manure, Compost and Nourishment for your Garden

Good Soil: Manure, Compost and Nourishment for your Garden
Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache
Pub. Frances Lincoln

I’ve never come across a comprehensive book on soil for gardeners before. There was a time when I taught about soil in school geography, but gardening books tend to be interested only in how to change it and make it do what you want.
That means a lot of work. There’s an old BBC TV series, the Victorian Kitchen Garden, about the garden attached to a stately home on the chalk. At one point it shows the difference between the soil in the garden, a couple of feet of fertile stuff, and that in a neighbouring field, a few inches deep, and not particularly fertile. The difference would have been deep digging, stone removal, and huge quantities of manure, over many years. The mind boggles at the man-hours it must have taken.
The important thing about soil is to understand it. No two sites are ever identical, and what’s right for my allotment will probably be totally wrong for someone else’s garden. A thin chalk soil would need different treatment to, say, the moorland where I used to live in Cornwall. There’s an introduction to soil types, which is as much of the technicalities as you need. Observation will supply the rest.
My plot is right next to a stream, and a few years ago, the waterlogging got so bad I set out to build raised beds. It brought everything else pretty much to a grinding halt while I managed half a dozen each year, but the bulk of it was done in the end. There’s still a fair bit to do, but the rest can go at a more sedate pace. My approach was to dump in anything organic that was available. So I used garden compost, hedge cuttings, woodchip from a tree surgeon, autumn leaves, and grass cuttings, and gave each bed a couple of inches of soil on top. Then I planted straight into them. One bed killed my potato onions with a bacterial rot, but that’s the only problem I’ve had, and after a couple of years, everything but the biggest sticks had rotted down into a nice organic soil which is completely different from the silt underneath it. Things grow which never grew before.
Composting is equally haphazard. I have five compost bins, and just chuck everything in, including cardboard egg cartons and the odd dead rat. Once it’s rotted, I spread it wherever I need to fill, or top up, a bed, and cover it with an organic mulch to deter any weed seeds wanting to germinate. Nothing except the occasional dock ever survives, and they’re easily picked out and chucked back for another year. It works, so why make life difficult for myself? The book covers the outlines of the process, and you really don’t need more unless you really want to make extra work for yourself putting the ‘right’ mix of ingredients into your heaps, and turning them regularly to speed up the process. The other thing I use is human produced liquid manure, which the authors describe as ‘liquid gold’. It’s a good source of nitrogen.
Mulch is the key to a lot of my gardening. Keep beds covered with a couple of inches of something organic and not many weeds will get through, while the worms will gradually take it down and keep the soil well nourished. This is covered briefly; one area which could have done with more detail. 
The book’s pretty comprehensive. Everything finds its way in, rather like my compost bins, and emerges in digestible form. All told, it’s earned itself a permanent place in my bookcase

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Gardeners' Companion to Medicinal Plants

I haven't posted here for ages; I was ill all summer due to some meds which poisoned me, on top of losing an eye thanks to a blocked vein. So altogether it was a difficult year. But the allotment is getting sorted at last, and meanwhile here's a book review I did the other week.


Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving,
Published by Frances Lincoln, £14.99.

I like this book; it’s not intended as a medicinal guide, but it has brief notes on 277 medicinal plants, covering a wider range than anything else I have, and they can easily be researched further if necessary. Most plants are given half a page, though some have more space; the books list the parts of the plant used medicinally, the traditional uses, and any relevant modern medical discoveries. There are instructions for making 25 remedies, which could easily be adapted. So, for instance, there’s a recipe for comfrey ointment; substitute another herb, and follow the same method. 

None of my other books mentions chili, which we use at home. In Sierra Leone, where my wife comes from, it’s used in pepper soup, made from vegetables, bits of meat or fish, and lots of fresh chili; dried chili can be used if necessary. This is given to people with minor illnesses, and served at parties. According to the book, the leaves are used to cure toothache, while the fruit is used for gastric disorders, chronic laryngitis, chilblains and rheumatism, and it’s given to women suffering pain in childbirth. 

Rose Hip Syrup is a familiar one from my childhood. It was generally available in the 1950’s, due to the prevalence of dietary deficiencies before the Welfare State and the NHS came in in 1948. It looks simple to make, and once again, the method could easily be adapted. Valerian is another; I sometimes take the tablets to help me sleep, as I refuse to use addictive benzodiazepines like Valium. I’ve never tried growing it, yet, but the instructions for drying the root look very simple. The book warns that it causes drowsiness, which is undoubtedly true; it was also used as a poison in an episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’, but I’ve looked, and can’t find any major health warnings anywhere. I’d go a bit careful on the dose though!

Onions aren’t mentioned, but there’s a recipe for garlic oxymel, made with honey and vinegar, which would make it taste a lot better. It’s best taken raw for medicinal purposes, and I know several people who use it against colds and flu. I’d be tempted to add an onion myself, as it has comparable effects.
Overall, this is a book I’ll be keeping.