Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Springing back to life


The battle being fought between the end of winter and the beginning of spring is a real pain. We had more snow than we really wanted, but every so often, in between showers, the sun comes out and plants are leaping into growth. We have to ignore the constant dull rainy days as plants are seasonal so sowing, planting and hardening off are dictated mainly by the calendar not the temperature.
Vegetables, fruit and flowers all need attention. I try to start off many plants in the home, then onto a sunny windowsill at germination. Before too long plants need hardening off before they go out to the cold greenhouse. Unfortunately this is always full so some of the more hardier plants such as geraniums need shifting outdoors as soon as the threat of frost diminishes.
Up on the allotment the digging continues whenever the surface is dry enough. That has been a big obstacle this winter, but there is a lot of excellent compost to get dug in so if the sun is shining, I will most likely be digging.
The front of my allotment has a permanent flower border of roses, Iris, wallflower, tulips and Iceland poppies. Digging is not feasible here, but to keep it fertile I like to add a mulch of fine compost and lightly fork this into the surface. Dundee Council’s Discovery compost is perfect for this task, but unfortunately is no longer available at weekends.  Do they not realise that the modern gardener of today is not just the pensioner, but also the professional and working man of all ages, the young mother with kids and the student who wants to live cheaply but healthily. They are all working or studying through the week, so weekends are when the gardeners come alive.
The tip is staffed at weekends, so why is the compost kept behind a locked gate out of reach.

Glorious spring flowers

 This spring the crocus put on an excellent show, but now it is the turn of the Chionodoxa, the Glory of the Snow. I have a large drift of these planted in between my flag Iris. This gives an early spring display well before the Iris flowers alongside other herbaceous plants including Oriental Poppies and Pyrethrums. Another deep blue flower catching the sunlight is the ground cover plant Pulmonaria which is planted around a clump of golden Doronicum, an early flowering herbaceous plant. I frequently get them flowering together, but they both respond to weather differently, so the idea is not foolproof.
Rhododendron praecox is usually the first Rhodo to flower, but very often it gets caught with a late frost which wipes out the delicate blooms. Not this year as the season is late so it has been fantastic.

The winter border

The display of crocus drifting thickly over my coloured stemmed border will be over by the end of the month. However the coloured stems of cornus and salix may still be very attractive especially when the young emerging golden spring buds appear, but this is when I have to be brutal. The loppers come out and these get chopped back to ground level. They always quickly recover with fresh new shoots that will brighten up this border next winter.
I do not prune the green stemmed Kerria at this time as it flowers in early summer, but will get some thinning out after it finishes flowering. Also my wine red Japanese maple Acer Sangokaku does not get pruned.
The removal of the old stems clears the way for the next show of bulbs from my tulips, planted underneath the crocus. Flowers respond very well to interplanting to get the maximum display from all garden areas.

The fruit garden

I am keeping a watch over my peach tree, as it flowers very early, usually before there are any pollinating insects around. The pink flowers have to be hand pollinated with an artists sable brush every day. As an artist, I always have plenty sable brushes.
This year the seasons are running late and as yet my peach is not flowering, so hopefully they will not get frosted. Last year the season was also late and I could have had a huge crop, but a very late frost killed off many young fruitlets leaving me with a favoured dozen that ripened brilliantly.
My peach is growing against a south facing fence so catches a fair bit of sunshine.
Saskatoons and Chokeberry seeds were sown last autumn in cellular trays and stratified outdoors over winter. They are now all germinated, though they did suffer a bit when a few mice decided to make a meal of the swollen seeds. That was their last meal.
We are still enjoying Bramley apples stored in the garage, and the freezer is still packed with strawberries, rasps, blackcurrants, saskatoons, chokeberries and brambles.

Indoor gardening

Broad beans sown in cellular strips have now germinated and grown into nice sturdy wee plants on the windowsill. These will now be moved to the greenhouse to make room for my onions. They were also grown in smaller cellular pots with about four or five seeds per unit. I am getting a good germination, so in another week or so I will thin them down to two or three seedlings per cell. Onions are happy to be clump planted, but need really good soil as they are gross feeders and respond to heavy applications of well rotted manure or compost at digging time.
Amaryllis is now in full bloom giving a magnificent display for the living room.
Christmas cactus, also known as the Easter cactus, is back in flower again. It always produces its best show in early December, then I dry it off and store it in a light cool location. This ripens it up and every so often if you are lucky it will come back into flower just before Easter. After two sessions of flowering it will need a long rest so it goes back to its light cool spot for a couple of months and kept almost bone dry. Just give a wee bit of water to keep it alive, but not enough to restart growth too soon. It will let you know when it is ready to grow by pushing out some growth buds in early summer. At that point start to give it regular watering and a wee feed to encourage new growth. Put it in a sunnier location, even outdoors on a patio. At the end of summer dry it off again and keep it dry to ripen up the new growth which will then form flower buds for blooming in December.
Plug plants are now available in garden centres getting ready for the summer bedding season. These are not yet hardy, so need a warm sunny location to continue growing.
Do not buy any that have been allowed to go dry.


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Fruit Growing Paradise


The climate and soils around Tayside have always been ideal for growing apples, plums and pears and for hundreds of years the Carse of Gowrie was an established fruit growing region. This was at a time when travel was not so well organised and growers mainly supplied local markets. Each area would grow its own range of varieties suited to its own conditions of soil and climate. We had the Lass O’ Gowrie, Bloody Ploughman and Tower of Glamis, and the Oslin, the Arbroath Pippin was grown in Arbroath.
Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust commissioned a survey carried out by Andrew Lear to establish the number and condition of the old Carse of Gowrie orchards and to recommend what can be done to preserve, restore or utilise them. Andrew also runs many workshops on apple pruning, growing and grafting, with information on the workshops as well as the orchard survey on his website at  www.plantsandapples.co.uk
The old  heritage varieties are now making a comeback as people begin to realise these older varieties were not lost due to poor flavour, sweetness or juiciness, but because they could not withstand the commercial needs of supermarket produce. Commercially apples get fairly rough treatment before they arrive on the supermarket shelf and any that bruise, do not have a long shelf life, have a few skin blemishes, or do not make an even size grade will get rejected.
Unless you buy Cox, most other varieties will have a tough skin and pretty poor flavour, but they will be a good even size and look great in a display.
You will need to look out for the smaller greengrocer who can buy locally to get a truly flavoursome apple, or grow your own. Every garden should have at least one apple tree.
When buying an apple tree for the garden, do not assume that just because it is available in your local garden centre it is suitable for this area. I have seen many varieties available that just should not be offered to customers for Tayside gardens. We are just too far north for a good Cox or a Golden Delicious.

Suitable varieties for Tayside

Many years ago SCRI established a museum collection of apple varieties from all over the world to evaluate them for commercial production in Scotland. The National collection is now held in Kent at Brogdale where conditions are more favourable for commercial apple production. However many of these varieties still exist in the hands of a few apple enthusiasts such as Willie Duncan who worked at SCRI and frequently appears at apple festivals giving advice on growing and varieties.
Willie grows well over one hundred different varieties in his small orchard in Fife as well as every other fruit possible. This is an important asset for Scotland that must not be lost. Willie’s apples are a major contribution to the autumn apple festival at Glendoick garden centre.

Early varieties start off with Discovery, a bright red sweet and juicy apple. It has good vigour and strong healthy foliage which resists disease. Even earlier is the Oslin, ripening at the end of August but hard to find. Both these apples will not store so must be eaten as you pick them.
Mid season varieties include Scrumptious, (red), Limelight, (yellow), and Red Falstaff, all which may be stored for several weeks in a dark, airy, cool shed.
Later varieties such as Fiesta and Red Devil are better after a few weeks in store and are good keepers.
Bramley is the best cooker and an excellent keeper.
If you have an existing apple tree of a poor variety it is not difficult to change the variety to one or more other types by grafting new shoots onto it in early spring. This sounds very specialised, but is amazingly simple.

Grafting an old apple tree

My first grafting came about as I was teaching my young daughters how to grow apples from seed. To every ones surprise they got about a dozen little plants from two apple cores. Naturally father had to plant these out on his allotment and my daughters were expecting a crop very soon. Realising it could take about fifteen years for the plants to mature before they started to fruit I thought I would short circuit the process by grafting some existing varieties onto the young seedlings. I got hold of a few shoots of Cox, (I lived in England at the time), Golden Delicious, and Worcester Pearmain and did my first whip and tongue grafting. Every one grew as did my cherry varieties grafted onto a seedling that appeared in my leafmold heap.
A few years ago I decided to change a large James Grieve tree, which did not impress me, with a range of more suitable varieties by top working. Every graft took, even the side grafting experiment worked a treat. I would strongly advice the brave to have a go on a limb or two from any old tree.

Grafting method.

In winter saw any branches to be grafted to leave about one to two foot long stubs between one to four inches diameter. These will be shortened further at grafting time in spring so the cut is fresh and clean.  If you are cutting back a whole tree leave a couple of limbs to draw up the sap in spring for grafting. They can be cut out or grafted the following year.
Collect some one year old shoots, (pencil thickness) of new varieties to be used as grafts while still dormant and heal them into a cold moist, but well drained shady border to keep them dormant for as long as possible.
Grafting only works when the sap starts to rise as it lubricates the inside of the bark allowing it to lift without tearing. When the tree starts to flower in April the sap will be rising and grafting can start.
Saw back the limb to leave a fresh cut and trim the edges with a sharp knife to leave it clean. Make sure your knife, (a pen knife is ok), is very sharp and clean. A one inch wide stem will take one graft, but a four inch stem can take three or four grafts. If they all grow, they will need to be pruned after a few years so only one branch is left and the others removed or spurred back.
Make a cut into the bark about two inches long and flick the end at the top to lift the bark edges to allow insertion of the scion shoot.
The shoot (scion) for grafting should be about three to four buds long. Make a long slanting cut at the lower end about two inches long opposite a bud and trim the scion to three or four buds. Insert the scion into the prepared cut on the stem and push it down so that the end of the cut is just showing.
Tie the graft firmly with strips of polythene tape or cut from a plastic shopping bag.
Seal all cut surfaces with grafting wax to prevent disease entry or drying out.
Once the shoots grow the tape can be removed in mid to late summer.
The new shoots will fruit within two years from grafting, and there is no limit on how many different varieties you can grow on one tree.
You can always start off by having a go on one branch and when it grows you will be more confident to tackle others.


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Spring at Last


The end of February and early March brought a very welcome period of sunshine and dry weather not seen since last October. The urge to get outdoors into the garden was very strong especially as there is a mountainous backlog of tasks seeking attention. The long lasting blanket of snow which fell in November and December but did eventually melt a couple of months later was followed by cold wet real dreich weather that put any thoughts of gardening on the back burner.
That was yesterday and now today the sun is shining, the ground is drying up and gardening can begin at full speed.

Complete the winter pruning

The warmth of the sun has been sufficient to start the sap rising on my fruit trees as buds begin to swell, so pruning had to be completed before dormancy breaks. However if you have any tree which is showing too much vigour at the expense of fruiting delay pruning till just after bud burst as the shock will help it to reverse that trend.
I do not spur prune my fruit trees, but carry out a minimum of replacement pruning to remove some old wood and encourage a balance of young wood and mature fruiting wood which will fruit for several years before it gets replaced.
Apples, pears, my peach tree and my newly planted cherry tree Cherokee all got pruned. I will grow the cherry as a fan trained dwarf tree against a south facing fence, so the strong main shoot got cut back to two feet and side shoots shortened by a third. Two shoots growing at the front and back got spurred as they are unwanted in a fan trained shape.
Although I love my very early Arbroath Pippin apples, they do not keep, and as you can only eat so many, I will cut some branches back to stumps and graft some new varieties onto them in late March to early April.
I will also replace most of my Comice pear with other stronger disease resistant varieties which don’t get wiped out with scab in our wet summers. Grafting is very easy and rewarding as the new grafts grow on the older tree very readily as long as a few basic principles are followed. One main principle is that the new shoot, called the scion, should be dormant when grafting, but the tree has to be growing with the sap flowing to lubricate the inside of the bark so it separates easy from the trunk without tearing. I cut my scions in February to early March then heal them in a north facing cool border to hold them back. It always seems to work just fine.
I will cover grafting next week, so if you wish to make a family tree or try out another variety get your scions ready now.
Good apples in our area are Fiesta, Red Falstaff, Scrumptious, Discovery and Red Devil.
Summer and autumn raspberries, black, red and white currants, brambles and gooseberries should all be pruned before growth starts.
I will be doing my first pruning of my six year old Saskatoon bushes to open up the centres allowing more light in and encourage some younger shoots to grow from the base.
My ornamental exotic Cordyline australis did not survive the winter to it got chopped down to ground level. I will leave it for a year or two to see if it regrows from the base.

The fruit garden

Last week I removed a lot of runners from my early strawberry variety Mae to make two new rows. As there was plenty runners I complete each row as a double row at six inches apart and the runners spaced at six inches. This will increase the cropping significantly.
To get even earlier crops I put a polythene tunnel over an existing row of Mae. This will fruit two weeks ahead of the others. It is easy to make your own tunnels very cheaply and they can last for years. My tunnels are made from 4 foot wide polythene (150 gauge) held over wire hoops (high tensile 8 gauge galvanised wire) and secured with polypropylene binder twine.  The wire hoops are about 5 feet long. Allow a 9 inch leg to insert into the ground then bend the wire round a broom handle to create a loop on the outside for tying the twine to. I dig the polythene into the ground at each end of the row to secure it, the tie it down with the binder twine at each hoop spaced about 3 feet apart along the row.
You can buy the materials online at www.lbsgardenwarehouse.co.uk
This is the last chance to spray your peach tree with a copper fungicide, or Dithane to control peach leaf curl which can devastate the tree if untreated.

Early vegetables

Tomato Alicante and my favourite cherry type Sweet Million germinated successfully so have now been pricked out into cellular trays. They are to grow for a few weeks on the south facing living room window sill until warmer weather arrives and I can transfer them to my cold greenhouse. They will then get potted up again before planting into growbags.
Broad beans have now been sown as one seed per cell in a cellular seed tray. These are kept at home in the warmth under a table to germinate, and then they will be transferred to the cold greenhouse. They are pretty tough hardy plants so the cooler regime will not harm them. They will be one of the first to move out of the greenhouse together with my geraniums to make way for other plants. Geraniums are also quite hardy and can take a degree of frost, as long as they have been hardened off properly and the frost is not severe or prolonged.
Back on the allotment low polythene tunnels are perfect for an early batch of lettuce, radish and spring onions, but put it in place on prepared soil for at least one week to warm up the soil. There is nothing to beat those early first salads, picked fresh and onto the plate within hours.

The first flowers

Those first few days of bright sunshine was perfect to open up the spring flowering crocus to add to the aconites, snowdrops and my dazzling white hellebore.
My winter border of coloured stemmed shrubs, (Cornus Westonbirt, Kerria japonica, Salix britzensis and the Japanese maple Acer Sangokaku) has been flooded with drifts of crocus and snowdrops. It is an amazing site at present at its best for the season. The show of coloured winter stems will remain effective for another couple of weeks before they get pruned down to the base.
Under my carpet of crocus in this border I have planted tulips for flowering in May and scented lilies which flower in mid summer.
I am hoping that we do not suffer any late frosts as my first flowering shrub, Rhododendron praecox is beginning to open up. This lilac early dwarf Rhododendron is spectacular for at least two weeks provided it does not get frosted.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Danger in the Garden


Last week I ran over those plants to grow for a healthy lifestyle including superfoods as well as seasonal fruit and vegetables to maintain peak health all year round. The garden and allotment has the capabilities of providing us with delicious and very nutritional foods, but on the other side of the fence lurks an extremely dangerous place for the unwary.
Life on this planet has evolved as one species feeds on another, whether it is at virus level, fungus, bacteria, animal or plant. To hang onto life for as long as possible plants animals and even microbes have all developed some means of resisting becoming someone’s next meal ticket. Microbes play the numbers game with an ability to grow and mutate at an alarming speed. Animals have developed an ability for camouflage, or can run at great speed, or have horns, claws and teeth, poisonous fangs or just great strength.
Plants can’t run, shout, fight, have no claws or teeth, but they have just as much a desire for survival so, as well as thorns, they have developed a massive array of poisons in roots, bark, leaves, stems, seeds and flowers to deter predators from eating them.
We are all mostly familiar with the obvious ones such as laburnum seeds, foxgloves and giant hogweed, and we have all been stung by nettles, but when I started to look into other garden plants that could be added to the poisonous list, it amazed me that there was so many.

Danger lurks in every garden

Poisonous plants are very common in most gardens, e.g. rhododendrons, narcissi and aconites. Council parks, and shopping centres are also landscaped with a wide range of poisonous plants including laurel, snowberry, azaleas and yew trees.
Even in the home we grow hyacinths, poinsettias and oleanders which all contain toxins.
Now just in case anyone is feeling a bit off, and before you chop down the rhododendrons can we keep the dangers in perspective!
Most poisonous plants are so bitter or foul tasting that they would not normally be eaten, and some require very large quantities to be ingested before reaching a critical dose.
Apples are one of the most popular fruits, and many people just swallow the seeds. The seeds contain cyanogenic glycosides, a cyanide compound that could be fatal in high enough concentrations.  However we would need to consume massive amounts of apples and crushing the seeds before we swallow them. Some of this toxin is broken down in our digestive processes quite naturally. Other fruits in the same group also possess similar poisons in the seeds and kernels such as cherries and apricots.
The leaves of rhubarb are very toxic containing oxalic acid, but nobody would ever want to eat them, so there is little problem.
Then there is the humble spud, a member of the solanaceae family, which has some very poisonous relatives such as the deadly nightshade and datura, also known as Angel Trumpets. Tomatoes, peppers and tobacco also belong to this group, and are known to possess a wide range of alkaloids which can be addictively desirable e.g. tobacco, or fatal e.g. belladonna and datura containing tropane.
Although the potato is a staple food, the leaves, stems, seeds and those tubers that have turned green on exposure to light all contain the toxin glycoalkaloid solanine. This toxin is also present in tomato leaves, stems and unripe fruits.

Fatal Flowers

Angel Trumpets, Datura stramonium is used in summer beds and borders. It has large highly scented trumpet flowers that are at their best at night. Every part of the plant is toxic. South American native Indians use it as a drug because of its hypnotic and hallucinogenic affects. In the wrong dose this exotic plant can be fatal. Monkshood, a pretty blue perennial plant is so toxic it has been used in the past to poison enemy water supplies, arrow heads and kill wolves and bears.
Rhododendrons, aconites, narcissi, foxgloves, autumn crocus, daphne, delphinium, and calla lily are all toxic if ingested.
The toxic house plants include hyacinths, poinsettias and dumb cane which can cause immobility of the mouth and tongue, great difficulty in breathing and asphyxiation.
Toxic weeds include hemlock containing alkaloids, deadly nightshade which contains the alkaloid atropine and giant hogweed whose sap is phototoxic and can cause a severe rash and blisters.

Toxic Trees

Apart from laburnum whose seeds are particularly poisonous, most other harmful trees mainly affect farm animals. Beech, chestnut and especially oak can have an accumulative poisonous affect if normal grazing meadows are poor and trees are nearby. Some animals can become addicted to acorns or young fresh leaves in spring which are all high in tannic acid. Small quantities are fine but eating these in quantities should be positively discouraged.
The yew tree
The most toxic tree in UK has to be the yew tree. Its toxins have protected it so well from foraging predators that it can last for hundreds of years. It can also regrow from basal suckers so the original tree could have originated up to 4000 years ago. The yew was revered as a sacred tree by Greeks, Romans, North American Indians and in UK by the Celts and Druids. It was associated with immortality, rebirth, protection from evil and access to the underworld.
The growth is very slow so it produces a very fine grain making it perfect for tools, spears and hunting bows. Its extensive use in the middle ages for the long bow caused its demise as a dominant woodland tree across Europe. As every part of the tree is extremely poisonous, except the fleshy aril around the seed, it was used to add poison to the tips of arrows.
The Druids would plant them in circles to protect sacred ground and monks would use them to mark and protect the routes of their pilgrimages. Many very old yews survive in churchyards as the sacred ground is protected.
The oldest tree in Europe is the Fortingall yew near Loch Tay at over 3000 years old.
The stems, leaves and seeds contain the toxic alkaloid taxine.
Several suicides have been reported by people eating the leaves. On the positive side taxol extracted from the leaves can be used as an anti cancer treatment as it stops cell mutation. Extracts from the fleshy aril around the seeds can be used as a diuretic and laxative.

The above list is only a small sample of a long list of garden plants with toxic properties. Never take any risk with some berry that may look quite attractive and edible. Sometimes even a small amount may not be fatal, but could cause skin rashes, sickness, and heart palpitations.