Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Busy Week in the Garden


The variability of our British weather is so unpredictable that it is very hard to plan tasks that are weather dependant. When should I harden off plants, when do I plant my tomatoes and sow my first vegetables. At this time of year we have to watch out for that late frost. After a couple of nice warm days we get the early vegetables sown or plant those raised in the glasshouse, only to find we run into a dry spell when watering has to be resorted to. Once young seeds germinate or new plants get planted they can get a check to growth if they get too dry or we get those strong cold winds that can shrivel up tender young growth.
Although spring has been quite cool it has helped to hold back early flowering trees and shrubs now less liable to suffer a late frost. Weeds are slow but they are beginning to appear, and many lawns are getting their first cut in the second week of April, rather than the last week of March as in previous years.
However plants are wanting to grow, so there is work to be done in every part of the garden.
We did get a couple of warm days when the sun lounger came out, the winters dust got blown off, and I did manage to have my coffee break at leisure, but it is hard to relax when you know there are more than a dozen jobs all needing done.

In the greenhouse

Tomatoes. Growbags were purchased from our City Road Allotments onsite shop for my tomatoes. Both my maincrop Alicante and cherry tomato Sweet Million produced excellent plants in small pots. This year’s growbag is just a wee bit smaller than last years so I am only putting in two plants per bag rather than three. I cut out my circles and thoroughly water the compost, then leave it for at least one day to drain and warm up before I plant. I always cut slits in the bottom of each bag to allow drainage. The tomatoes are supported with polypropylene binder twine which hangs down from wire supports in the roof of the greenhouse. As the plant grows it is twisted around the twine.
It will not need any more water for a couple of weeks and no feeding till the first truss sets.
Chrysanthemums. Cuttings continue to be taken, but losses from the hard winter have killed out some varieties and weakened others. To make up my numbers I will have to take the tops out of freshly rooted cuttings and propagate these to increase stock.
Young plants of Cosmos, cabbage Golden Acre, Brussels Sprouts and my onions have now all been put out to harden off. All my geraniums were put out last week as they are usually pretty tough.
The space left will be filled with a batch of Nemesia Carnival, Petunias and Busy Lizzies which are excellent for tubs and hanging baskets.
Sweet corn plants have germinated and continue to grow strongly. They will be potted up in another couple of weeks.
Tuberous begonias are now growing slowly, but will soon need more room as these mature tubers produce big plants.
Grape Vines. All my rods which were pruned in winter are now sprouting several new growths from each spur. I will leave these alone for now as they may not all produce a fruiting bunch. Once I can see the bunches, I will remove any that are barren and thin the other down to one fruiting lateral per spur, which are spaced about nine inches apart along the rod.

The Allotment

At long last I have completed my winter digging.  I had intended to complete digging before Christmas not knowing that a two foot blanket of snow was scheduled to arrive quite early and was in no hurry to melt. That episode put back plans a wee bit.
Strawberry variety Mae is now in full flower in my low polythene tunnel, and as long as we don’t get a late frost I should be enjoying my first fruits at the end of May.
Early summer salads have been transplanted from cellular trays previously grown under glass into another polythene tunnel. I have planted lettuce, radish, spring onion, beetroot and Early Nantes carrots. They are all grown very close together, but will be spaced out as I use them.
Leeks have now been sown in a well prepared seedbed. However I still have enough leeks left from last year to crop another two weeks. They have been great value.
Broad beans are now growing strongly from a late March planting.
Kale and Swiss Chard plants left from last year continue to grow and get used as spring greens for stir frying and in soups.
Raspberry Glen Ample was wiped out by a root rot over four years, most likely some strain of Phytophthora. The dead plants were removed, topsoil replaced and mounded to assist drainage then the row was replaced with twelve pot grown Raspberry Cascade Delight. This new variety is supposed to be resistant to Raspberry root rot disease. This is now April and there is not the slightest sign of any life in any of them. Either they have been infected by the disease still around on the land, or they have not been bred resistance for all strains of phytophthora, or maybe the Scottish winter was more than they could handle. End of experiment.
I have planted up a new row, going back to Glen Ample, as it really is an excellent variety, but this time on a new part of my allotment.

Ornamental Garden

Spring flowering shrubs are now at their best with rhododendrons, azaleas, kerria, mahonia and camellias all putting on a brilliant display.
Gladioli can now be planted fairly deeply just in case there is any late frosts, but also to help support them. I will keep some back for the allotment to grow on for cut flower.
Aconites are now well past, but the seeds can be gathered and broadcast to other areas to increase the display. Each seed should flower after about three years.
Peach Peregrine flowers get hand pollinated with a sable brush every second day. Even though the flowers are late, there are very little insects around to help with the pollination.
The flowers are not very strong looking. They may have suffered in our harsh winter.
Time will tell.
Peach leaf curl disease is still affecting some new buds, even after spraying twice with Dithane at leaf fall and just before bud burst. I pick these off and destroy them.

Now, just before I find yet another job, the sun is starting to shine so I may risk a few minutes on that sun lounger.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bursting into colour


Today the sun is shining, the rain has stopped and the strong mild winds will soon dry up the ground. The temperature is pleasant, but it needs to be a bit warmer before I have my coffee breaks outdoors, though maybe it will be totally different in ten days time when you read this.
The garden is just bursting with flower potential. Daffodils and narcissi are at their best, the first tulips are showing colour and my tubs and flower beds are looking really good even though they have another fortnight to reach their best.
My first shrub to flower in spring is always Rhododendron praecox, but that is now finished and others are taking centre stage.

Tubs and Baskets

The cold winter has not been kind to any plant that is not totally hardy. Polyanthus are normally no problem, but this year the continual wet soil at constantly low temperatures has killed out many plants. The roots just rotted. I suspected vine weevils which love polyanthus, but could not find any.
However those that survived are now putting on a brilliant display. I also use pansies and Forget me not, (Myosotis) in my tubs as they don’t grow too tall so less liable to get blown over in strong winds. This year I have no Myosotis. I had an excellent germination last June after I sowed a nursery seed row, so just left them to bulk up before transplanting into wider rows for growing on. I got quite a shock when I went to check on their progress. They had been attacked by slugs who devoured the lot. They have flourished in the mild wet climate. Too late to get my slug pellets scattered. I won’t make that mistake this year as the weather does not seem any better so far.
Pansies make an excellent winter hanging basket, but keep flowering right into summer. I replace mine once the summer baskets are ready and just find a spot in the garden to plant the whole pansy hanging basket, once I have separated the root ball from its container.
Plants in tubs get underplanted with dwarf tulips and those near entrances get scented hyacinths. Once the tubs have finished flowering the polyanthus get replanted to a shady part of the garden, where they will grow on and flower next year. Tulip and hyacinth bulbs get dried off and replanted somewhere. Over time the garden will get flooded with a mass of flowering bulbs.

Flower beds

Wallflowers are hard to beat for sheer impact in a large flower bed and where they are near entrances and patios their scent is an added bonus. Cloth of Gold was always my favourite variety and when underplanted with red tulips is it dazzling. I usually use the strong taller Darwin Hybrid tulips such as Apeldoorn, or the single early tulips such as Keizerskroon, Bellona, Brilliant Star, or Van der Neer. However the very early fosteriana tulips such as Red Emperor or Purissima are excellent and if you are planting amongst Myosotis or other dwarf bedding then the less tall dwarf early doubles are a better buy such as Peach Blossom and Orange Nassau.
Wallflower have also suffered a bit this winter and the foliage seems a bit thin, but I think they will still put on a good show.

Spring Bulbs

Daffodils and Narcissi are at their best just now. Dundee Parks Dept has large drifts all over the town so there is no doubt that spring has arrived when the highway verges and Parks are a blaze of bright yellow flowers.
They are very easy to grow and are excellent planted amongst deciduous shrubs. I have large drifts underneath my apple and plum trees.
Other bulbs drifted around the garden include bluebells, Anemone blanda and a mixture of pink hyacinths and the deep blue grape hyacinths. This is an excellent combination as they both flower at the same time.

Flowering Shrubs

A good garden design needs plants with a wide range of heights from trees to ground cover. Shrubs can be used to blend the hard landscape into the garden giving it structure, shelter, privacy, screening for eyesore, compost heap, washing line and separate ornamental areas from vegetable garden. They can also be used to stabilize steep banks where maintenance could be a problem.
They are excellent for adding a special feature to a lawn, or building with their size, form and flowers. There is a flowering shrub for every month of the year, and now winter is over, hopefully, the Viburnum fragrans, Jasmine, and Mahonia will now be superseded by the Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camelias, Kerria and Magnolias.
As the season moves into early summer the Philadelphus, Escallonia, Ceanothus, Cistus, hardy Fuchsia and shrub roses will have their day if they have survived the last two harsh winters. Although I am leaving many dead looking shrubs alone to see if they will recover, I have my doubts about quite a few, but live in hope that I may be wrong.
There are numerous Camelias available, but I find that Donation is a very reliable pink and Adolphe Audusson is my favourite red. There are even more Rhododendrons and Azaleas and everyone has their own favourites. Brittania is a brilliant red, Pink Pearl an excellent pink and coming down in size, Elizabeth a great red but does suffer a bit of mildew. Gibraltar is a very showy orange azalea, but there are numerous other excellent types.
The evergreen forms of dwarf Rhododendron obtusum also known as the Kurume azaleas only grow a couple of feet high, but what a show they put on in April and May. There are many different varieties.
Rhododendrons and Azaleas require an acid soil that is also free draining but retains moisture. Soil can be supplemented with course peat or leaf mould applied generously before planting and worked into the soil. The roots are very fibrous and shallow so an annual mulch of well rotted leaf mould will keep them in good order.  Most soils around Dundee are fairly good for these plants.


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Growing Season


Early April is a time when gardening really gets serious. Seed sowing of vegetables and flowers is in full production, chrysanthemum cuttings are being rooted, begonias started and plants germinated earlier are now needing pricked out or potted up. My greenhouse is always full even though I keep putting out plants to harden off as other younger more tender plants take their place. Outdoors I will be preparing the ground for the first sowings of vegetables and flowers, then if I can find a few spare days there is fences to be repaired, outdoor tables to paint, the greenhouse glass needs a wash,  my allotment shed roof leeks badly, and now the weeds have started to appear.
Fat chance of me taking advantage of some nice warm day to make sure my sun lounger is still in good working order. However my winter art classes are now finished till after Easter when I start again with a ten week summer session, (information on my website), so I will have no excuse for not getting some gardening done, unless of course I find my latest art project too stimulating to leave. I am currently working on new paintings for the Aberdeen Arts Fair in August where I will have a stand. My beautiful bright red Amaryllis was perfect as a colour prop in one of my figure paintings.

Greenhouse activities

Sowings of broad beans, onions, lettuce, early summer cabbage and cauliflower are now big enough to get hardened off so they are now outdoors in a sunny sheltered spot. They all went into cellular trays so did not need pricking off. This gives me a bit more space for my tomatoes now that they have been potted up and are growing strongly. They should be ready for planting into the growbags next week, but that depends on the weather just in case we get a late cold spell.
Overwintered geraniums are looking great. The largest ones are now outdoors, but younger smaller ones need a bit more warmth to bulk up.
Grape vines propagated last year from cuttings are now all breaking into growth, so they are due to get hardened off very soon. My greenhouse grapes are also starting into growth, so I ventilate on all warm days to keep a buoyant atmosphere so I don’t get troubled with mildew or botrytis.
Seed sowing continues with sweet corn going into small cellular trays to be transplanted into larger ones after germination.
Cape gooseberry seeds are also going into cellular trays as well as kale and Brussels sprouts.
Tuberous begonias have now come out of storage in the garage. I overwintered them in polystyrene boxes filled with a mixture of dry soil and sand, but now the warmer atmosphere has plumped up the buds which want to get growing. I start these in boxes packed quite close together covered lightly in compost, but they will get potted or boxed up again when they start to put on more growth. I have had about thirty non stop tuberous begonias for over fifteen years. The tubers get big enough in time to split in half as long as there is a few buds on each portion.
Chrysanthemums have had a hard time overwintering in my cold greenhouse, and I may lose some varieties, though it is early yet. Time will tell. I have started to take cuttings as they are big enough, (about two inches long) inserting them into trays. They will enjoy a bit of warmth on the living room windowsill to get them rooted, and then it is back into the greenhouse. I have a collection of early outdoor reflex and incurves which get disbudded to give me large heads and another collection of sprays which do not get disbudded. They are grown in a bed system on my allotment, giving a glorious display before getting cut for the house.

Outdoor work

Leeks can now be sown thinly in a well prepared seed bed outdoors. Once they are pencil thickness and about six inches tall, they can be lifted, topped and tailed, dibbled into big holes, then watered in to firm them up. The variety Musselburgh is always a good favourite. They are heavy feeders so make sure the ground for them has been well manured or composted, and still give them a dusting of fertilizer.
Dogwoods and willow growing in the winter border have now been pruned right back to ground level. This always seems very harsh, but they are very resilient and soon grow back quite strongly. I encourage growth with a dressing of compost in winter, then some fertilizer in spring. It is the fresh one year old shoots that give the brightest colours.

Landscaping works

Several shrub roses have been removed as they just were not strong enough to fight off attacks of mildew, rust and blackspot. They were growing on a very steep bank, so now I have to seek plants that can stabilize the soil and prevent erosion of soil running down the slope. Last summer I planted drifts of flag iris that have surface rhizomes that soon cover the ground holding the soil in place. They were supplemented with polyanthus, which were spare after they finished their spring display in tubs. They are brilliant at hugging the ground and continue to flower all spring. I will be adding a batch of Shasta daisies that are also great for soil stabilization, and once the threat of frost has passed I have a dozen young Fuchsia Mrs Popple ready to go out.
To add variety and cover other areas of this steep slope I am growing a batch of Cosmos which will go under glass for a few weeks to get them started, and a sowing of the annual Shirley poppy will go straight onto the steep sloping ground. I will prepare a fine tilth and add a sprinkling of old growbag compost to assist the germination, but they will get no fertilizer, otherwise it will be plenty of growth at the expense of flowers.

Early spring bulbs

The spring bulbs continue to flower. Now it is the turn for the Scilla siberica, Anemone blanda, grape hyacinths, early narcissi, and tulip species. February Gold is one of the first narcissi to flower, and the kaufmanniana tulip Stressa, Shakespeare and Show Winner are in bloom at the end of March. These are followed by the Fosteriana types such as Red Emperor and the white Purissima and the greigii hybrids Red Riding Hood.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Exotic Fruit


I am constantly amazed at just how far life has changed in my short lifetime. My grandfather had spent a lot of his childhood in India as his father was in the British army posted abroad. I had always loved fresh fruit, but that was mostly an apple or a pear if you felt like going upmarket. He really missed his guavas and mangoes. There was not many of them around Dundee at that time, though they were starting to appear on supermarket shelves in tins. However as a kid I did get spoiled a wee bit when he produced these exotic fruits called bananas. Now that was special, then later in life my older sister discovered pomegranates and went in for them in a big way.
My path in life was being determined for me. After a spell as a gardener, then learning the value of experimentation with new crops while at the Scottish Crops Research Institute, followed by a period working on commercial fruit farms, I developed a strong interest in fruits to grow and eat.
Raspberries, strawberries and blackcurrants were easy, and delicious, but common. An apple tree was a must have plant, but getting the right variety for this area took a bit of research. Similarly pears and plums got purchased just as soon as I had a big enough garden. In these early times my exotic tastes only embraced a slight venture into the less common, such as blueberries, gooseberries, brambles and red currants.
Nowadays cheap travel, television and the internet have opened our eyes and taste buds to the huge range of exotic fruit to sample and where ever our climate and soils are favourable we can try growing them.
Gardening is about having a bit of fun, trying the unusual in the hope for a bit of success, and if it doesn’t work, then move onto another plant worthy of a trial.
Over the years, I have tried figs, peaches, outdoor grapes and autumn raspberries and strawberries and now it is the turn of cherries, saskatoons, aronias and goji.
Some fruit has been tried but discarded as the fruit was just not very pleasant, such as Lingonberries and Cranberries.
Let us look at some of the better ones.


These have always been considered a greenhouse plant in Scotland with Black Hamburg being the most popular and successful variety. It is very easy to grow provided you keep it pruned properly throughout its growing period. It does not need any heat so is perfect for the cold greenhouse, but make sure you give it plenty ventilation to prevent any build up of mildew or botrytis. The grapes are large, sweet, juicy and picking continues from September till December, but they do have pips in them. If you prefer a seedless grape try the variety Flame which has red grapes, is very sweet and although the grape is smaller than Black Hamburg, the bunches are bigger. Another seedless variety is Perlette, a white grape. The vine is quite vigorous so keep it well pruned.
I had hoped that global warming would have given the Scots a warmer climate so I can try some outdoor grapes, but all we seem to get is a lot of warm rain all summer. I have tried several grapes outdoors, but with no success so far. After five years they get grubbed out.
However I don’t give up too easily, so this year I am planting the outdoor variety Solaris against a south facing fence.
I grow the ornamental variety Brant on my south facing house wall. It is very successful with a regular one hundred bunches every year. They are small, but the black grapes are very sweet and juicy. These get used for a delicious sweet grape juice for immediate use or it can be frozen.


This is another plant that really needs a warm spot to ripen its fruits, so a south facing location is advisable. It can grow large so is best planted in a prepared pit lined with slabs to restrict root growth. It will then concentrate on producing fruit. Brown Turkey is the usual variety. There may be a bit of botrytis if the summer is very wet, as the fig prefers a hot dry ripening period.


Another plant for the south wall as it needs a lot of sun and warmth to ripen up the fruits. Our last two hard winters are good for the peach as it has delayed the normally very early flowers, thus they are less liable to get caught by a late frost. They need hand pollination with a sable brush, and two sprays of fungicide to control peach leaf curl. Summer pruning helps to remove excessive foliage and allow the sun onto the fruits. I grow the variety Peregrine very successfully, so far.

Cherries and Goji

These can grow very well in Scotland, but it is too soon to report on them. My Goji is in its third year, so may fruit this year. My cherry is the variety Cherokee grafted onto a new very dwarfing rootstock called Gisela 5 which I will train as a fan on a south facing fence.


I have been growing these now for seven years and the Scottish Crops Research Institute has had them for about forty years so it is well established that they can grow very well in our climate. They will grow in almost any soil. The fruit is very similar to a blueberry but the Saskatoon grows faster and crops a lot heavier. The black berries which are very high in antioxidants, are ready in July, and can be eaten fresh or used for jams, pies, compote, summer puddings, or even used for wine making. Although relatively unknown in the UK, their popularity is spreading and ten years from now they will be as common as the blueberry.


This is said to be the healthiest plant on the planet because of the extremely high levels of antioxidants in the fresh fruit. However it is a bit astringent if eaten raw, so the fruit is best used in jams, compote, pies and smoothies. It just loves the Scottish climate, so there are several growers already growing them in this area. They are not troubled by any pests or diseases and our soils seem to suit them perfectly. They can be grown as a single bush or even as a hedge.

Autumn fruiting raspberries and strawberries

Raspberries and strawberries may not really be exotic, but by growing them early and late it is pure bliss to get that first strawberry in May, then keep enjoying the perpetual varieties that fruit up to October. Autumn rasps are also a luxury that is well worth the effort.