Wednesday, 30 May 2012



The summer sunshine may be a wee bit hard to find this year, (a bit like the last two years) but on those days when it does put in an appearance you get the chance to wander around the garden and marvel at those flowering plants that just refuse to get washed out.
There are a host of shrubs and herbaceous plants all in flower at present. Some should have flowered weeks ago but got delayed by the cool wet climate, but now it is their day.

Herbaceous plants and bulbs

Doronicum is an early flowering herbaceous plant. It likes a bit of sunshine so this year the clump is not at its best, but the bright yellow star shaped flowers blend in perfectly with the drifts of bluebells now carpeting the ground under my apple trees. They have just finished flowering and promise a great crop if only the summer returns. However the apple tree foliage is still quite light so there is plenty dappled sunlight reaching the bluebells. They are a beautiful site covering the ground in my orchard (four trees, but ten varieties) and help to reduce vigour in the apple trees. They are very easy to grow and quickly multiply by seed dispersal, though you can dig up and divide clumps of bulbs any time after flowering. Once you have a good bluebell drift they need controlling as the seed grows prolifically and soon becomes invasive so remove all seedheads before they spread.
Wood spurge is another herbaceous plant flowering now. The best one is Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow. It has bright red flowering bracts and is a great partner to the lower growing lemon yellow Euphorbia polychroma. They are both happy in dappled shade in a deciduous woodland fringe and do not mind a dry soil. Another spurge is the favourite Christmas houseplant Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). However they all have a poisonous latex (white sap) that exudes easily with any damage to the stem. This is an irritant and can cause inflammation, so wash immediately if any gets onto your skin.

Flowering Shrubs

The Azaleas have always been the main show at this time of year, though there are many Rhododendrons still in flower. There are literally hundreds of different varieties to choose from in every colour. Some of the taller azaleas are deciduous and have a wonderful scent such as Azalea lutea a bright yellow variety and Azalea Gibralter is a fiery orange colour. Down at ground level and perfect for weed smothering ground cover are the dwarf Japanese evergreen azaleas. These are quite cheap to buy as small plants and they soon grow larger. They flower prolifically.
Azaleas need moisture retentive soil rich in organic matter such as well rotted leafmold, but the soil also needs good drainage so there is no standing water at their feet. Do not use any fertiliser as this may scorch the young tender leaves.
Ceanothus commonly known as the Californian Lilac (but is not related to the lilac) smothers itself in Blue flowers in mid May. They prefer a sunny sheltered spot to be at their best and an annual mulch of compost in winter will keep them well fed. They do not need any pruning unless they get too tall as they can grow up to ten feet tall.
Lilacs are another tall shrub or small tree flowering profusely in mid May. They are easy to grow, not fussy about soil and some varieties have a terrific scent. Mme. Lemoine is the best white and Michel Buchner a lovely warm light purple.
Cistus, known as the rock rose and sun rose will grow on poor dry soil full of stones where drainage is perfect and prefers full sun to flower at its best. It comes from the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean area. It only grows a few feet tall and flowers for only a short time, but it can really put on a bold display of flowers in a range of pink shades. Cistus Silver Pink and Cistus purpureus are both good varieties.
Broom and gorse are represented in the garden with several yellow to white flowered shrubs. Genista hispanica, Spanish gorse, Genista Lydia, a broom and Cytisus praecox, another broom all make a bold display if given a poor dry soil in a sunny location.

Plant of the week

Himalayan Blue Poppies known botanically as Meconopsis betonicifolia has a reputation of being hard to grow, especially if you grow from seeds, but it just needs someone to understand its needs, then it is a happy plant.
Sow freshly gathered seed in autumn in cellular trays and leave outdoors all winter. Keep the compost moist and protect it from birds, slugs and mice. Germination takes place in April. Grow them on and pot up after a couple of months. Plant out in autumn into a moist shady woodland border that gets dappled sunlight. Many plants will then flower the following May.
The deep sky blue flowers blowing gently in a breeze are a wonderful sight.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Sowing the Seeds


The cucumber family have given us pumpkins, courgettes, marrows, melons, gourds and squashes as well as cucumbers. Pumpkins are the perfect plant to let your kids loose on to stimulate an interest in gardening from a young age. They are very easy to grow and kids just love to see them grow huge as they give them a fortnightly feed, or weekly if you want a whopper. They really do respond to feeding and watering and soil rich in humus.
Then at harvesting just before Halloween the kids will get the lantern and the adults will get the flesh for soups and seeds for roasting or next years crop.
Pumpkins can be stored in a cool place and keep for many months. We are using our last one in mid May and it is still perfect. However courgettes are the summer favourite as they don’t store fresh, though you can store them once you have cooked up some soup. They are both very healthy vegetables high in vitamin A, C and E and full of minerals, fibre and pumpkins high in beta-carotene. Courgettes combined with spinach make a lovely light summer soup for healthy slimmers and pumpkins with added sweet potato, carrots, onion, garlic and nutmeg makes a warmer winter soup. Pick all courgettes when about six inches long and use within three days. If some grow faster than you can pick and use, they can still be used for summer soup. Use the smaller ones for stir frying, grills, baked, barbecued and combined with aubergine and tomatoes for ratatouille. This is always relevant in late summer when both courgettes and home grown tomatoes are at glut levels.
I sow my seed the last week in April in single cells in a tray on a sunny windowsill, then pot up into individual pots just when the first true leaf is forming. Grow on for a couple of weeks then harden off by mid May for planting out at the end of the month.
They both enjoy similar growing conditions. I grow them on land heavily manured or composted in winter, then in May when all risk of frost has gone I add extra compost to each planting area to increase the water retaining properties and create soil with a high humus content. Add a good dressing of growmore fertiliser then plant out about three feet apart.
Keep them weeded, watered and fed during the growing season.
Pumpkin shoots can grow fast and extend rapidly all over the place so prune them once they have produced two to three fruit per plant. You can get more pumpkins per plant if the land adjacent has been cleared from early potatoes, onions or broad beans and you let the long shoots take over the space, but you will need to keep them fed and watered. However if you are after that huge pumpkin that everyone loves to achieve then only allow one or two fruit per plant and really give it some serious feeding. Stop feeding in late summer to help ripen up the fruit and put some straw or bark chips under the fruit to keep them clean. After cutting at harvest time, wash any soil off the pumpkins before storing them indoors in a cool airy room.
If you have found a good reliable variety you can keep the seed for the next year, but store it well out of the reach of mice which just love a wee nibble over winter.
Squashes and marrows are grown very similar to pumpkins and come in a range of shapes and colours and it is always interesting to try something different each year.

Plant of the week

Red geraniums are a show winner when it comes to impact of colour in the garden in summer. I grow mine from cuttings overwintered on a window sill every year, and potted up as they grow. They will flower all winter (if you let them), then by early May they are ready for tubs, hanging baskets and flower beds. If you grow them strongly it is possible to produce ten plants from one cutting taken in September, then two months later it will have rooted and grown so remove the tip and use it as the next cutting. Repeat this process till April, but do not allow them to flower to keep their vigour for growing.

Painting of the Month

Sunset on the River Yare is one of my favourite oil paintings. The idea came from a holiday on the Broads a few years ago when we took an evening boat trip up the River Yare from Great Yarmouth. Other boats and the windmill were illuminated by the low sun as it was setting. I knew it would make an excellent painting.


Sunday, 13 May 2012



Normally at this time of year I am emptying the greenhouse as plants get hardened of for planting outdoors, but we seem to be in a cold spell of weather with the threat of frost so always be ready to shift any vulnerable plants back to the greenhouse if frost is forecast. However it is a bit difficult as there is hardly any spare space.
Young plants grown from seed, (winter cabbage, kale, cape gooseberries, sweet corn, courgettes and pumpkins) and cuttings (bizzie lizzies, fuchsias and grape vines) still need a bit of protection while we wait on the return of warmer weather. However I keep the greenhouse windows fully open during the day and shift plants outdoors if it is warm enough.
They are all at different stages, but as seedlings get pricked out they need more space, especially the pumpkins and courgettes. All the geraniums are now hardened off, but tuberous begonias are putting on a lot of growth and I really need to get them outdoors to harden off.
I also started some annuals including Livingston daisies, Star of the Veldt, Shirley poppies and Nemesia in cellular trays to get them started. Nemesia is a bit prone to damping off if it gets too cool overnight, and as my tomatoes are trying to get established in their growbags I have resorted to turning on my greenhouse fan heater at a low setting to keep the air above freezing over night.
The nemesias will get a soil drench of Cheshunt compound, a copper preparation which helps to prevent damping off.
An early sowing of salads in the greenhouse, (lettuce, radish, spring onion and beetroot) are now hardened off and planted outdoors in a sheltered spot to bring them on fast. Some of the radishes were big enough to use before they got planted out.
Most of my young plants have now been potted up except for the sweet corn (give them another week) and my grape vine cuttings which need another fortnight.


These have all got plenty of young shoots growing from the central rods. I will leave these till I see fruit bunches appearing. Any shoots having no fruit will be stopped at two leaves and those with fruit stopped at two leaves past the fruit bunch. Thereafter all growth will be tipped at one leaf throughout the growing season. This task continues on a weekly basis as grape vines under glass can be very vigorous and need firm control. They have to share the space with my tomatoes which also like maximum sunlight. If there is any overcrowding of shoots I will remove any surplus non fruiting shoots and a few leaves. I do not apply any glass shading as both crops need maximum sunlight and in Scotland we do not suffer too many prolonged heatwaves.
At the moment Black Hamburg is showing quite a decent crop of fruiting bunches. It is a very reliable variety with large sweet grapes. Pity it always has pips. Flame is my red seedless grape and Perlette my white seedless variety, both of which are a bit slow to show the first tiny grape bunches.
Flame is the very popular red seedless grape found in most supermarkets and Perlette may be less popular but has a lovely muscat flavour. Both are quite good under glass for us northern gardeners.


Although planted a few weeks ago, following our early summer spell of weather, growth has been poor. April was a washout with more rain than we need and a lot cooler than normal so my tomatoes were not too happy. Maybe May will see a return to better temperatures.
Gardeners Delight looks a lot stronger than Alicante and Sweet Million though all have now got a flower on the first trusses so feeding can begin. I start at once a week then increase to every second watering, but if the weather is warm and growth is good you can increase to every watering. Tomato fertiliser is high in potassium which assists fruit development, but if growth begins to suffer after the third truss use a high nitrogen fertiliser to give the growth a boost.

Plant of the week

Rhododendron Horizon Monarch is now at its best. The flower buds start off vivid red fading to cerise pink as they open, then turn to a pale peach with golden centres when fully open. Rhododendrons enjoy dappled shade in well drained but moist soil. Woodland fringe suits them best where there is ample leafmold in the soil surface. Do not feed them but give them a mulch of compost or leafmold every year in the dormant season. There are very many other great rhododendrons of all sizes and colours so you will always find a few beauties to suit all tastes.


Sunday, 6 May 2012

Root Crops


Now is a perfect time to start sowing the root crops in the vegetable patch. The soil is warming up just fine, it is moist and well weathered having been dug over early last winter. Root crops enjoy land that was well manured for a previous crop, such as beans or onions so it has plenty of humus but no fresh manure or compost, otherwise roots tend to split or fork.
Potatoes, however, may be a root crop but their needs are very different as they do require well manured land, being heavy feeders and scab is always a problem if the soil is poor.
Root crops tend to follow the heavy feeders in the rotation but remember turnips and swedes are brassicas and can suffer club root so they must not follow the cabbage or sprouts.
I tend to keep all my root crops together and run a four year rotation to try and avoid clubroot and carrot fly. Root crops include carrots, turnips and swedes, parsnips, beetroot, radish and if you fancy something different sow some salsify and scorzonera.
Most of these can be sown now and carrots and beetroot can also be sown as catch crops in late summer using spare land that has just had a crop harvested such as cabbage, early potatoes, salads, French and broad beans. However you will need to use a quick maturing variety.

My best ever carrots were an early sowing of Early Nantes on the side of my celery trench hoping to catch a quick crop before I started to earth up the celery. I beat the carrot fly and got such a heavy crop that most of them had to go into the freezer. This helped to sweeten them up significantly.
Autumn King was always a reliable heavy cropper, but carrot fly is such a problem as the amateur gardener has no chemical cure available. We have to resort to barriers (fleece) or resistant varieties. I have not found these to be very resistant and they lack the flavour of our standard varieties.

Turnip, swedes and radish
Golden Ball and Purple Top Milan will give us some early turnips and good Swedes are plentiful and take us right through the winter. I grow my radish adjacent as they can all be prone to clubroot so I limit its spread.

Roasted parsnips will add class to numerous meals, so I aim to grow enough to last from about November, (or earlier if we get a frost to sweeten them up) to the following spring.
I prepare a deep seedbed in late April or early May then mark my row, but before sowing I go along the row pushing a spade down to create a deep slit. This is filled with friable soil or old compost. Mark the row again and sow four to five seeds every eight inches apart. After germination thin these to one seedling. They are very slow to germinate so I sow radish in between plant stations.

Salsify and scorzonera
If you enjoy healthy food try these as they are packed with nutrients and minerals. I found them to have a similar flavour to sweet corn, though it is said they taste like oysters. Grow them like parsnips but spaced closer. The scorzonera root is black and both must be lifted carefully to stop the long deep roots from breaking. There are now numerous recipes for them as they are becoming the latest healthy plant to try out.

Another fantastic health food that can go in salads, served in a sweet and sour dressing and they also make a delicious soup. Even the leaves can be eaten in salads or stir fried, and nothing will beat your own beetroot chutney or pickled baby beet from early thinning.
They fit in very well as a baby beet catch crop in between other crops. Grow an early batch in cellular trays in the glasshouse then transplant outside in early May. They will interplant along the rows of sweetcorn and get harvested before the corn plant needs the space.

Plant of the week

Impatiens, (Bizzie Lizzie) has always been a very popular summer bedding plant for tubs and hanging baskets. Although a perennial it is treated as an annual and usually propagated from seed. However once you get a range of really good colours you can take cuttings and keep plants all year round. They also make good house plants for a sunny windowsill. Probably the cheapest method is to buy small plug plants in spring and grow them on. Plug plants are a perfect size for hanging baskets where you can pop them through the side of the basket as well as the top and once fully grown will smother the whole basket in flowers.