Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Year in the Garden


This time last year I wrote an article to sum up the growing season for 2010. A poor wet summer followed a very bad winter, just as we had been getting used to mild winters and good summers. I made a bad assumption that since it had been a rotten year in the garden in 2010 this year will be better. I really got that one wrong. This year has been a repeat of 2010 but at a more severe level.
Last winter was extremely severe starting with blizzards in November and leaving piles of snow which never really melted till March. This was followed by a very cool and wet summer with frequent gales that did nothing to improve plant health. Most of the winter was spent shovelling snow, clearing footpaths and roads rather than digging the allotment. The autumn clear up of weeds and leaves in 2010 never got started so there was a massive amount of catch up work needed in spring. Then, just when you think you are getting on top along comes the gales and all the young spring leaves get shrivelled up and other plants such as my pumpkins and courgettes got blown out of their pots.
However we do learn our lessons, so I have taken every opportunity to spread plenty compost over the allotment and get it dug in. I have completed all my digging of bare ground and now it is only those areas where I am growing a green manure crop that need digging. Those are next to get attention as I want to get the green foliage under the ground so it rots well ahead of the next crop, as soil organisms use up a lot of nitrogen as they break down the plant material. This can lead to a temporary nitrogen deficiency. There has been just enough dry days this winter to get up to date with weeding and clearing up leaves, though fence repairs are a steady problem with the gales.


Lack of sunshine and warmth and too much rain held back a lot of crops. This year I only got two small pumpkins, last year I had seven huge ones. Courgettes hardly survived after the gales tore them apart. Sweet corn needs sunshine, so cobs were poor as the corn had not been pollinated due to the male flowers coming out too late to pollinate the female tassels.
Cabbage and cauliflowers were wiped out by a combination of clubroot, rootfly and caterpillers. Brussels sprouts put on good growth, but the variety Bedford Winter Harvest had very small buttons.
I tried the short growing variety of broad bean The Sutton. It was very poor. Not enough pods and they were also short. French beans hardly produced any crop this year.
However there were successes. Onion Hytech produced a very heavy crop of huge onions which are in store on ropes and keeping very well. Swede Brora is huge, parsnip Albion, germinated well and has grown quite big, but many of the roots have split.
My early salads under low polythene tunnels were brilliant. After clearing these in early summer I used the area for a crop of carrots. These germinated well then disappeared a week later. Slugs have been having a great time in the wet weather and now that slug pellets are only half strength there is not much protection against them.
Leeks, kale and Swiss chard are having a good year.


All my soft fruit crops have been really good this year, though Autumn Bliss raspberry has been very late and the allotment fox ate most of  my gooseberries. Saskatoons gave a very heavy crop, so now the surplus is being brewed for wine. Most fruit wines are best matured for a year or so before drinking, but Saskatoon wine is very good quite young.
Perpetual strawberry Malling Opal has been a complete disaster. It gave a very poor crop and no runners so it has been dug out. Raspberry Glen Ample purchased in Blairgowrie, died out with phytophthora root rot, and was replaced with root rot tolerant Cascade Delight. They did not like our Scottish climate and every one also died out. These were replaced by more Glen Ample supplied by Dobbies, in a fresh part of my allotment. The small raspberries produced on blood red canes well into the autumn is definitely not Glen Ample. Is it too much for the amateur gardener to ask for, hoping to get disease free plants of the correct variety as indicated on the label.
Pear crops dropped off with severe scab in the wet summer and plums and peaches faired no better.
However apples have been brilliant and Bramley gave a huge crop. Too many to use and store so 50 pounds are now being brewed into a delicious Sauternes type dessert wine.


Tomatoes were a disaster. They need warmth and sunshine which was in very short supply. Botrytis, blight and root rots prevailed and by early September they had all died out.
Grape Black Hamburg and red seedless Flame were good though not as sweet as usual, but lasted well into December. My white seedless variety Perlette was delicious but the fruit was very prone to splitting. Outdoor grape Brant cropped well but only gave two bottles of juice whereas last year we got nine bottles.

New Year Resolutions

I will try again to get Raspberry Glen Ample. I will go back to perpetual strawberry Flamenco, and only plant normal broad beans. I will not harden off my pumpkins and courgettes too soon, and in an effort to stay clear of clubroot I will stop using mustard as a green manure, and try out some clovers. I will go back to Wellington Brussels sprouts as they are very reliable.
It is very pleasing to be enjoying a wee tipple on these cold evenings when the brew has come from your own home grown Saskatoon fruit, and in a very short space of time.
Now, I wonder if the blackcurrant wine is also ready ?
Cheers, see you next year.


Wednesday, 21 December 2011



Last week I ran over some landscape design ideas for improving the garden space around the house of the Courier “Money Can’t Buy” competition winners, Fiona and Scott Merrilees. However the house sits on a large field of nearly an acre so there is a fair bit of land available for some outdoor hobby, activity or enterprise.
I will offer my thoughts on how I would utilise the spare land, but understand there are very many other worthwhile ventures worth consideration. Half an acre is probably too small to consider a fully commercial agricultural or horticultural enterprise, but it is big enough to offer a valuable return on capital invested as a part time or start up venture.
Many businesses start off quite small but plough profits back into the business to grow bigger.
Thirty years ago I would be starting my own nursery, garden centre or strawberry farm as I had youthful energy, some knowledge and loads of ambition. Today I am now into Saskatoon fruit and heritage apples as well as enjoying a bit of forestry, so I will look a bit closer at these three options.

A small woodland

A half acre of land could take about 400 to 500 young trees and provide shelter, improve the landscape amenity and once they mature could provide a nice profit at harvest for the owner or their family. There is a huge demand for timber in the UK so the Government encourages land owners to plant trees whenever they can. A whole range of grants is available depending on location, local woodland policy, proximity to population, size of land available and type of woodland proposed.
A higher level of grant is given where there is more broadleaved trees planted rather than just conifers as they are more expensive to buy and need more room to grow.
Commercially, pines, spruce and larch are very popular, but many other attractive conifers exist where appearance is just as important as producing commercial timber stands. Similarly there is a wide range of very attractive broadleaf trees to choose from including the common beech, oaks, lime, horse chestnut, and maple, but give thought to adding in some sweet chestnut and walnut.
Mixed woodland is very attractive and native species help to blend into local landscapes.
Often the edges of woodland blocks are planted with a diverse range of smaller trees to add interest.
These can include birch, field maple, rowan, alder, bird cherry, sloes and elderberry.
The land is usually ploughed into raised furrows and the trees planted into the top or side of these to assist surface drainage. Weed control is practised in the early years to get the trees established and any losses are replaced after one year.
This is a commercial undertaking so advice, plants and chemicals are available in the trade.

Local apple orchard

This field is a perfect size to establish a small apple orchard to produce apples in season for local shops and farmers markets. As commercial practises will be kept to a minimum it is not necessary to worry about the needs of a fruit that does not bruise easily and has a long shelf life as the skin is usually quite tough. These popular commercial fruit varieties are usually devoid of flavour.
In the past when fruit was grown for local markets and hand picking and packing were normal the flavour of fruit was very important. These varieties are still around and with a wee bit of research, trees from the past, our heritage varieties, can still be grown so we can give our kids an apple they will enjoy and come back to look for more.
This venture will preserve apple varieties in danger of being lost so could well qualify for grant to buy and establish a heritage orchard.
Land is usually weed controlled then ploughed and harrowed then marked out for planting. Apple trees are usually one year old feathered whips planted about two metres apart in rows spaced at four to five metres apart and each tree will have its own six foot tall stake. The crop is grown as a spindle bush hedgerow so picking is always done from the ground.
Heritage varieties worthy of inclusion include Lass of Gowrie, Park Farm Pippin, Oslin, Lord Roseberry and Coul Blush. Other varieties known to do well in our area include Discovery, Red Devil, Red Falstaff and Fiesta.

A Saskatoon farm

At present saskatoons are not grown commercially in the UK, so the first fruit plantations may well qualify for an innovation grant. They grow very successfully in UK and the black berries will go down very well with anyone who likes blueberries which they look like in size and appearance, but are a little sweeter. They crop before the blueberries so will not compete with that fruit. In Canada where the saskatoon is grown extensively the demand far outstrips the supply so growers are propagating them and planting up new fields as fast as they can. They can be sold locally or transported easily to stores anywhere. The fruit is eaten fresh or used as jam, juice, in yoghurts, pies and wines and liqueurs. When this fruit crop takes off, the demand for it will be massive.
The bushes are very easy to grow and require hardly any pruning. They will start to crop in their third to fourth year and continue for the next fifty years.
Prepare the land as for apples then plant one or two year old bushes about a metre apart in rows spaced about three metres apart. This will allow for hand picking, though they do machine pick very well. A wealth of information on growing saskatoons can be found on Google at Prairie Elements.


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Choosing landscape plants


Last week we looked at Fiona and Scott’s new garden project beside Lumphinnans Farm in need of ideas and planting. The site was analysed their needs discussed and a programme to implement a landscape plan was suggested.
Plans can always be flexible as it is usually to have some parts ready for planting while other parts are still under construction for paths, patio, hard standing and garage.
It is a good idea to use a planted border around the base of the house to soften the structure into the surrounding landscape. Even when builders leave the area packed down with hardcore a narrow one foot wide border is not hard to dig out and refill with good soil about ten to twelve inches deep. Plants will be very happy to grow in this environment, though a two foot border would give more impact.
The landscape design will be based on an attractive range of plants that will not need much maintenance, but be very effective in function and appearance.

Ground preparation

Although farm land usually means good soil, it may well be hard packed after building works and have a lot of old bricks and other debris buried in it. These need removing from the top soil, but they are not usually a problem in subsoil, unless this is very hard packed. Sometimes it is just as quick to excavate the planting areas and bring in fresh top soil. It is beneficial to mix in some peat, compost, well rotted manure, old grow bags or planting compost into the top soil. Always add some fertiliser to new areas to get plants off to a good start.

Around the house

The south and west facing borders will allow a wide choice of flowering plants enjoying a sheltered sunny position. Good ground cover plants include heathers, lavender, cistus, genista, senecio, mahonia and helianthemum. To add some height where ever there is space at the side of doors and windows add the New Zealand Flax, cytisus, (brooms), ceanothus, fuchsia Mrs Popple, Rosemary or Kerria. Some herbaceous plants can be very reliable and easy to look after such as flag iris, Shasta daisies and phlox.
A climbing rose trained up part of the chimney would add colour, scent and height.

Specimen plants

A large expanse of lawn in front of a house deserves a very special specimen tree to add class. My favourites are the white stemmed birch Betula jacquemontii and the blue Atlas cedar Cedrus atlantica glauca. You only need one specimen planted well back from the house but visible from the windows.


Outbuildings, parking areas, storage space for materials and fence lines can all be screened with a mixture of trees and shrubs. The trees can include pines, spruce, rowan, birch and taller oaks, beech and even the more exotic walnut and sweet chestnuts. Shrubs are better if views are not to be impeded so include philadelphus, shrub roses, lilac, and magnolias and where evergreens are needed for screening all year round include rhododendrons, ceanothus, pyracantha, camellias and yew.
The steep bank at the back of the house is overgrown with gorse and is not particularly attractive. It could be improved by cutting back the gorse and planting a mixture of woodland edge trees such as rowan, alder, elderberry, birch, sloes, and field maple. Plant young bare root plants direct into the soil spaced about two metres apart or closer together then thin out a couple of years later transplanting spares around field perimeters.

Spare land

There are many options for using a half acre of spare land, but practical factors such as time, labour, funding and interest will help decide what to choose. Different people will come up with a variety of good solutions depending on their own knowledge and experience. A lot of thought and research is essential to get the option most appropriate for Fiona and Scott as the choice may well be for the long term to make the most of a golden opportunity.
I will consider three ventures in greater detail next week. These include establishing an attractive easy to look after small woodland, a small apple orchard producing high quality heritage fruit for local markets and the first commercial Saskatoon fruit farm in UK.


Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Landscaping in Practise


One of the winners of the Courier “Money Can’t Buy” competition got the prize of a visit from myself to give advice on any gardening matter they wished, in addition to £200 of vouchers from Dobbies Garden Centre and a meal out in their restaurant. The prize was very appropriate as Fiona Merrilees and her husband Scott from Lumphinans in Fife had a major problem with their new garden.
Scott is a builder and had just built a beautiful detached house in the country with an acre of land, but not a clue on what to do with it. The house was completed three years ago, but they had very little time to spare for sorting out the garden landscape as they both worked and had a young family. They desperately needed someone to advise them on how to make a start in creating a garden fitting to match the house.
Most garden landscaping follows the same creative path so although everyone has their own specific problems, these can all be sorted out by identifying personal requirements and site problems.
I thought it would be helpful for those readers in a similar position of having a new garden to landscape if I ran over the options for landscaping Fiona’s garden.

Site survey and analysis

Access is from a shared farm track with a proper road not yet in place.
Great views exist to the south and east and also to the north from the top of a bank.
The garden is still a large field running south down a slope to a burn at the bottom.
Adjacent fields are fenced off and mature trees to the west afford some shelter.
The site holds vehicles, machinery, caravan and useful stocks of builder’s materials.
At present the site is virtually devoid of trees, shrubs or useful garden plants, i.e. landscaping has not yet started.

Specific needs

Safe play area for young family
Attractive garden around the house, and ease of maintenance a priority.
Patio and seating area on the south and west of the house
Double garage
Henhouse for farm hens and kennels for four farm dogs
Hard standing for caravan, machinery and building materials
Ideas for land use for over half an acre of spare land.

The plan
(show detailed plan)

Excellent views to south and east must be retained
A patio facing south and west is required
A double garage with workshop space is required
Hard standing for vehicles and materials is necessary, but it must be screened from view.
A lawn in front of the house will add prestige to a lovely new home.
Permanent landscape plants around the house will blend it into the landscape, add interest and colour. Plant tubs will add a splash of colour with annual bedding plants.
Create a play area at the far end of the lawn
Consider options for spare land use

The landscape programme

This garden is big so landscaping will require a fair bit of resources, funding and labour, but most of the work will be done by Scott and Fiona as and when time and funds are available.
The first priority is to sort out the hard landscape features, (paths, drive, patio and hard standing areas).The hard landscaping could take between three to twelve months depending on time, labour and funding.
The double garage should go in before the roadworks at it will need services laid through the ground. Once complete the soil can be brought in as required and prepared for planting.
Nowadays with so many plants available in pots and large containers, planting is no longer restricted to the winter dormant season.
There is about just over half an acre of spare land to the south of the property which can be used for numerous purposes. Being in the country the obvious ones are grazing for ponies, a few sheep, cows or other farm animals. The land is also perfect for a small woodland, orchard or fruit farm with blackcurrants, blueberries or saskatoons.
There are always plenty of professional organisations available and willing to offer advice and sometimes help with funding to get these projects up and running and assist with advice with ongoing maintenance.
Next week I will be landscaping around the house, discuss the use of specific plants and look in greater depth to the use of the spare land.