Breaking into leaf

The garden is changing every day now, with plants finally starting to break into leaf, coaxed by the warm sunshine that makes everything and everyone feel better! The spring bulbs are still looking beautiful with the white Anemone blanda creating a carpet of bronze, parsley like leaves that set off the charming white flowers. They are seeding gently and I will never knowingly pull up the seedlings – they can do no wrong in our garden! The multi headed Daffodil ‘Thalia’ makes a cool picture beneath the spring flowering Viburnum carlcephalum soon to unleash its sweet scent from flat clusters of greenish white flowers which the bees love! The white Grape Hyacinths too are poking through the soil – knobbly green buds deep in the centres of the grassy leaf clumps.

Many of the evergreen shrubs are still sulking after the damage from winter gales but there are signs of life with tiny leaf buds swelling, so soon I will be able to prune off the worst of the brown twigs and feed the plants with some chicken manure to encourage their new growth.

The allotment is drying up at last and I have been able to do some digging which is testing my back! The onion sets are still in their bags at the moment- I usually manage to get them in right at the beginning of April, but this year will be a little later and it will be interesting to see if a later planting will make any difference to the harvest time. My potatoes are still chitting in egg boxes in the spare bedroom and have sturdy shoots but will need to wait a while longer before they are planted out!

Although I like to grow my vegetables from seed, I would like to get ahead with some crops to make up for lost time once the soil is ready. Last year I bought some ‘Iceberg’ lettuce from my local Notcutts and they did very well.  I do not usually grow these, preferring the loose leaved ‘Lollo Rosso’ type which are quicker to mature and can be harvested by picking a few leaves at a time – ideal when there are only two of us!  My local branch of Notcutts again has a range of vegetable plants which have been grown in packs (similar to bedding plants) and this range changes all the time depending on the season, so I will buy some broad beans, lettuce and maybe a few others to experiment with as well!

I always buy my courgette plants - a packet of seeds would give us too many for the space that we have and Mrs McGregor would never keep up with using them all! Runner beans do not like to be sown in cold soil so now I sow them in pots at the beginning of May and keep them in the greenhouse or utility room until they have germinated. They are then moved onto the patio (with plenty of organic slug pellets!) to grow on until they are large enough to plant out at the end of May when hopefully there will be no more frost!

For now, it is too early to think about courgettes and runner beans so it’s back to the allotment to carry on with the digging!


Easter Break

I am finally catching up in the garden thanks to the Easter break and good weather! The allotment has been dug over and I have been to Notcutts to buy some vegetable plants as well as planting my onion sets and second early potatoes. My first sowing of salad leaves have germinated and are growing away in the greenhouse. As soon as they are big enough, I will plant them out under cloches until the weather is warmer.

The last of the Daffodils in the garden have finished flowering – the warm weather has sent the blooms over early - and I have removed the seed heads. I like to give the clumps of leaves a feed of bone meal as they die back to build up the bulbs for future years and never tie them up or cut them back until they have died away completely. The best way to deal with unsightly leaves as they die back is to plant plenty of perennials nearby. As the Daffodils finish, the perennials take over with their fresh foliage and your eye is distracted from the browning leaves. The Wallflowers and Tulips are a picture at the moment and a great view from the dining room where I write!

Thoughts now turn to summer colour and I have purchased some new planters from Notcutts to give the patio a makeover. I was so pleased with the show of half hardy plants that we chose last year that I have been inspired to try even more varieties this year.

As I have said, this year we are going for hot colours instead of our usual safe pastels and I am very taken with the Calibrachoa which have a trailing habit and small flowers that are like miniature Surfinia Petunias. There is a deep red variety along with bright yellow and orange ones, so these are a good place to begin. I think they will team up well with a lime green leaf of some sorts to show off the searing colours and may go for some chunky Heucheras to give the containers some year round interest. There are so many varieties of these useful perennials available now. As well as the rich deep purple leaves of ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ there are ‘Marmalade’ with russet leaves that have a beautiful red underside and ‘Lime Marmalade’ which has vivid lime yellow leaves.

The Verbenas are a particular favourite of mine as long as I remember to use slug pellets! Too many times I have come out the day after planting to the tell tale signs of slug and snail damage! Silver trails are the giveaway that these annoying pests have paid the plants a visit and I then check the undersides of the pots to remove them from their cool, damp daytime residence! The organic pellets work really well and the active ingredient does not harm other wildlife that feed on slugs and snails.

It is early for Dahlia plants but these too are on my shopping list for our next visit to Notcutts along with a fresh supply of organic slug pellets!


The accidental shrubbery

Alison Levey of is an obsessive gardener based in Leicester and like our very own Mr McGregor would never describe herself as a professional, although we would certainly always take her advice on board. Through this article Alison tells us why she is growing a fondness for shrubbery.

Shrubberies are a bit old hat really aren’t they?  I cannot think of a time recently when anyone has passed a comment such as ‘that’s a really cool shrubbery’.  Shrubs seem to have become something that are associated with supermarket car parks and are generally seen as dull, boring and a catcher of crisp packets.

I find the more I garden the more my taste in plants and planting evolves.  Now it might not be improving in some people’s view, but I sense changes and start to like plants I have dismissed previously.  Shrubs were not high on my list of plants to buy when I moved into my current house a few years ago, in fact I removed quite a few that I believed then to be in the wrong place.  Thankfully I still think that and I have not planted any back where they were removed from.  I was lucky in that the back garden in particular was pretty much a blank canvas, little more than a slightly shaped field, which excited me hugely at the thought of the possibilities.

The design of the garden has also been an evolving progression than a mapped out drawing.  Some areas have had more formal planning than others and some areas, like the Wild Garden, have developed over time from the messages the garden itself gave to me.  This might sound a little odd so let me explain further.

The garden is south facing and slopes a little down and to the side of the house.  It is a very gentle, barely noticeable slope, but as I have got to know the plot more and more I understand the contours of it better and how it influences what I do.  There is line that cuts through the garden that runs along the edge of this incline.  It is now more formally delineated as it is marked by the edges of borders, the top of the pond and a line of purple beech twigs that will one day be pillars.  At first though this delineation was more of a feeling than something I could see.  It meant I divided the garden in my mind quite quickly; the two thirds closer to the house would be the formal gardening area that would contain the main borders and the formal lawn.  This is all ‘this side’ of the pond that fitted neatly into the bowl of the incline.  The top third is where the Wild Garden would be.  At first I planted a couple of trees in this area and quite a lot of native wild-flower plugs.  I had a meadow-type idea in my head but not the annual flowery meadows that are very beautiful but more work than I would wish to put in.  The meadow has been slow to establish but it now works quite well.  It is particularly enjoyed by various bees, moths and butterflies throughout the warmer months.  I scythe it down in September and give it a mow or two but otherwise it looks after itself.

So what has all this to do with shrubs?  As time has gone on I added the odd shrub or small tree, a viburnum here, a hamamelis there and a hydrangea or two.   After a while I realised I had planted quite a few shrubs as an Edgeworthia was added and a clethra and a rhododendron or three.  These are all still relatively small at the moment but they are changing the character of the wild garden and attracting even more wildlife into the area.  I think the garden is now at its full quota of trees, there are limits to what will fit in and I think this led to a re-interest in shrubs as I see them as useful underplanting and a way of getting even more Spring and Autumn interest in particular into the garden.

I am very fond of my accidental shrubbery, I had no idea that one shrub leads to another, but it turns out they do.


Allotment Tasks

The drier weather has meant that at last I can start to dig the allotment! I am very late this year – the soil has been too wet to even contemplate digging but I was surprised at how easily it turned over with some sun and drying winds on it for a few days. Because I have cultivated the plots for several years now, the soil is in good heart and each spring there are less perennial weed roots to remove, making the job much faster. I am single digging the first plot where I will grow my seed crops this year, burying annual weeds in the trenches, so that the whole plot is tidied up as I go along.

 I have also bagged up some rotted horse manure from a friend’s stable yard. I do this each spring and keep it on the allotment so that it is on hand to bury in my runner bean trench and under the courgettes when they are planted out at the end of May.

Today, we are back to cold weather and lots of rain, so it is far too soon to plant anything. I have learned my lesson well in the past by wasting too much seed that has gone into cold, wet soil and not germinated or has been overtaken by sowings made later when the soil is warmer! Unless you have a polythene tunnel or large greenhouse, early crops are something of a gamble in the open ground! I do like to grow as much as possible from seed sown directly in the ground but this week I am sowing some mixed salad leaves and my first crop of broad beans in pots so that they can be planted out once the weather is warmer and the soil more workable.

The tomatoes and chillies that I sowed a few weeks ago in the propagator are doing well and have been potted into individual pots. They are all safely in the heated greenhouse away from cold winds and frosts and will stay there until at least the middle of May when I grow a few outdoors and keep the rest in gro bags under cover.

The potatoes have been chitting in egg boxes for about a month now and are developing sturdy shoots. The spare bedroom is light and not too warm, so they will be fine there until they are planted out towards the end of April.

I still have plenty of crops to use which have stood the winter well, including kale and the sprouting broccoli which has just started to crop well. Leeks and swede are also fine in the ground at the moment, but I have lifted the last of the parsnips as the tops were starting to grow away with the mild weather. They are now safely in the freezer after being blanched and coated in bread crumbs – perfect to roast in the oven from frozen and a favourite in our house! 


Decisions, decisions........

Leaves are beginning to open on some of the shrubs in our garden including the bright orange Spiraea ‘Goldflame’ which is always a picture at this time of the year, setting off the golden yellow flowers of Forsythia ‘Lynwood’ that is planted close by. All of the daffodils seem to be coming out together and the whole garden is awash with their swaying flowers in various combinations of yellow, cream and orange. There are so many different varieties and I especially love the scented flowers of multi headed ‘Soliel D’or’ and ‘Martinette’. The Hellebores that were not scorched by the wind are flowering now in huge clumps and the white daffodils beneath the shrubs in the green and white borders are just beginning to open.

I have still not pruned too much of the wind damage away from my browned off evergreens preferring to give the plants a chance to catch their breath and begin to produce new shoots so that I can cut back to new growth later in the spring. I thought that the last flower buds on the Viburnum tinus were ruined but the plant has rallied and defiantly produced some new flowers, although they are bruised around the edges and not of a standard for Mrs McGregor’s arrangements!

We have another area of the back garden to redevelop now that the hedge has been cut back to size. I was worried that we had killed the Privet, but there are plenty of green buds on the bare wood now, so it will not be long before the hedge turns green again! Hopefully we can keep on top of the pruning little and often so that it does not grow back into the light excluding monster that it was before!

As a result of the lack of light in this part of the garden, all the other plants lean forward and now need gentle pruning to encourage them to make better shapes. A large Cotoneaster that had grown into a small tree was particularly spindly so it will be coming out and will make room for another small tree, to break up the outline of the Privet and create a focal point in that corner of the garden. The Cotoneaster provided interest through the year with evergreen leaves, white flowers in summer which the bees loved, which were followed by clusters of yellow berries. However, I would like to grow a deciduous tree which has good autumn colour but does not grow too high. The area is very sunny for most of the day, so I am tempted by Cercis (Judas Tree). These upright trees are slow growing and have heart shaped leaves that give good autumn colours but their main feature is pea-like mauve flowers that are crowded on the bare branches in May. The soil is well drained but in good heart, so it should be happy there. Another old favourite of mine is Amelanchier and there are several growing well in the local area. Again this is a plant for all seasons with good autumn leaf tints of red and orange and new growth of bronze leaves that contrasts with clouds of star-like white flowers in spring. They are very elegant trees and would also be ideal for this area.

Decisions, decisions........