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Monday
Jan262015

In Praise of Compost Heaps...

If there is one New Year’s resolution that gardeners should keep, it is continuing with or starting a compost heap.

 
Homemade compost is a great way of recycling, saving on trips to the local ‘green skip’, cutting down on rubbish that is removed to landfill and producing a free soil improver very easily. This ‘black gold’ is invaluable mulch for borders, improving the soil by adding organic matter to the surface in spring or autumn where it can be worked on by earthworms which will mix it with the top layer of your borders. Applying mulch also helps to seal in moisture which will mean less watering through the summer and it creates a thick blanket that will smother weed seedlings or at least make them much easier to pull up!
Compost heaps do not need to be state of the art. They can literally be a heap in the corner of your garden that can be turned a couple of times a year, so that rotting material is mixed with the newer garden and kitchen waste and the composting process is speeded up. However, it is easier to have two compost bins made from timber so that partially rotted compost can be transferred from one to the other and the finished product spread on borders or bagged up and stored ready for use at a later date. 

 

Not everyone will have room for two bins, but there are plenty of products available from your local branch of Notcutts that will produce good compost and take up less room. 

 

Always site your compost area on a solid base - concrete or hard earth is fine - and layer up different garden waste to keep the air flowing through it. Too many grass clippings in one layer will result in a smelly, slimy mess that bacteria will be unable to break down. Mixed with coarser twigs or vegetable peelings, the whole thing will work properly.  

 

There are lots of items that can be composted but there are also a few that should never be. Cooked food will encourage vermin to your garden and litter tray waste from cats and dogs should never be added to your heaps. Clippings for grass that has been given a lawn ‘weed and feed’ treatment should also be avoided for the first three cuts after the treatment as the grass will contain traces of weed killer which could harm sensitive plants when the finished compost is used.

 

All garden waste can be added and compost heaps will often be bulging after the spring and autumn garden tidy up! It is amazing how quickly your heaps will settle, allowing more material to be added. Cut material into short lengths and shred or chop woody material finely. Remember to layer up finer material with vegetable peelings or shredded paper and periodically sprinkle in some compost maker available from Notcutts. Wool, cardboard and fresh poultry manure can also be added along with saw dust produced from chopping logs, animal and human hair in fact, anything that is organic!

 

The compost that is produced does not need to be ultra fine – it’s okay to have some lumpy bits that will still add to the soil improvement. If you have plenty of time, you may wish to shred or sieve the finished compost before using it. This way, any lumpy material can go back into the heaps to continue rotting down.

 

Once you begin to produce your own compost it will become a way of life so don’t bin it, compost it and reap the rewards of one of the best (and cheapest!) soil conditioners available for your garden!
Wednesday
Jan212015

The taste of home grown vegetables is so superior to those bought in supermarkets that once you start to grow your own, you will be hooked into growing even more! Many of us will remember growing vegetables as children with our parents and grandparents and even mustard and cress grown on blotting paper is a great way to get children interested in growing things and started on the lifelong hobby of gardening!

Although many gardeners spend a lot of time indulging in their hobby, good results can be gained from spending as little as half an hour each week if your plot is a manageable size.

Below are some helpful hints to get you started:

Start small. Don’t take on a huge area of garden or allotment and expect to cultivate it all in the first season. Perhaps begin with a couple of raised beds or a small area of your allotment. Gradually cultivate more ground as you need it or feel that you can cope with it. 

Be mindful of the weather and work around it. Don’t put off tasks when the weather is on your side – especially if you have limited time or days off to tend your patch. 

Plan what you want to grow. Ask your family for input on this – which vegetables do you like to eat? Grow these and perhaps try some new varieties each year. 

Research varieties. Use the Notcutts website at www.notcutts.co.uk to look at the varieties of seed available. Visit your nearest branch to look at varieties of seed potatoes, onion sets, shallots and garlic and research these to make sure they are suitable for your area and soil type. If you are not sure, ask a fellow allotment holder or vegetable growing neighbour to find out which varieties are successful. 

Don’t sow too early! Wait until the soil has warmed up – weed seeds germinating are a good indication of this. Crops sown or planted too early in the year will not thrive and it’s easy to get disheartened if you are new to vegetable gardening and make this mistake. Follow the instructions on the seed packet but make allowance for adverse weather conditions. Later sowings almost always catch up or overtake those made too early in the season. 

Sow fast maturing crops such as salad leaves, radish and soft herbs little and often to try and avoid a ‘glut’. Often short rows of only a metre are enough – just sow more seeds at two or three week intervals.  
Visit your local branch of Notcutts regularly to top up on seed or take advantage of the ready grown young plants that are available through the season to top up your plot!

Buy a hoe and use it regularly when the weather allows to keep those pesky weed seedlings at bay! A few minutes of regular hoeing will save a lot of work weeding your plot later in the year.

Learn how to use gluts of produce. Even the best planned plot will produce gluts. Think of ways to use these by freezing, preserving in pickles and chutneys or learning how to use vegetables in different ways. There are plenty of recipes available online. Experiment!

Finally enjoy your plot. Gardening should be a hobby not a chore and that includes growing your own!
Monday
Jan122015

Shady Characters

 

Shady areas of a garden can have a magic of their own; a tucked away secret corner with a statue surrounded by ferns or a woodland area where there is plenty of light early in the year so that spring bulbs, Camellias and early perennials flourish.

Many of us are daunted by dry, shady borders in our gardens but there is plenty of choice when it comes to planting up these areas and they can look good through the year if plants are selected carefully.

Shady areas come into their own in spring, when leaves on trees have not yet emerged to block out much of the valuable light that plants need for photosynthesis - the process by which plants convert light into energy allowing then to grow. Early perennials such as Pulmonaria (Lungwort) and Brunnera (Perennial Forget Me Not) begin to flower, along with Hellebores and spring bulbs. Snowdrops are especially at home in a woodland setting, where they pierce through leaf litter in January and flower to let us know winter is almost done. Hard on the heels of Snowdrops are dwarf Narcissus (Daffodils) which look beautiful planted with the evergreen groundcover Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae, whose acid yellow flower clusters enhance the pure yellow of varieties such as Narcissus ‘February Gold'.

Pulmonaria are amazing plants, starting to flower as early as January in sheltered gardens. They will then continue to produce their clusters of tubular flowers until well into early summer when they should be cut down to the ground, leaves and all, given a feed of general fertilizer and a mulch of well rotted garden compost around the crowns of the plants. The reward for this little bit of care are beautiful leaves through the growing season, adding to the tapestry of foliage that shady borders assume through the summer months, when there are, perhaps fewer flowers to look at.

As well as perennials, there are plenty of shrubs that love to show off in shade and these include Camellias with their glossy evergreen leaves and exotic flowers that will light up the area in spring. Look out for the reliable ‘Donation’ and ‘R.L Wheeler’ in shades of pink or try the earlier, double flowering white variety ‘Noblissima’.

Mexican Orange Blossom (Choysia ternata) also thrives in shade and despite the common name is very hardy. Evergreen leaves frame the flat clusters of white flowers which are produced in spring and again in autumn and the plant can be pruned hard if it outgrows its space. An added bonus with this beautiful shrub is the wonderful sweet scent that will waft around the garden and attract plenty of bees and other insects.

If you tidy your border in early spring, there should be little maintenance through the rest of the year. Remove the previous year’s growth from perennials and add this to your compost heap before applying a mulch of rotted compost or chipped bark to help seal in moisture and keep the weeds down. Feed your border each spring with a general fertilizer once new growth is underway and your plants will reward you for many years to come.

Wednesday
Dec312014

A Walk Around A Winter Garden

 

A trip to East Anglia recently found us in the stunning Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The day was crisp, clear and cold – the sort of cold that hurts your nostrils as you breathe in and one where you would not want to be without a pair of gloves or your camera! It was perfect weather to appreciate the bare skeletons of coloured Dog Woods, their vibrant colours dulled somewhat by a dusting of frost, but still shining especially when the weak, winter sun hit them and turned the frost to water.
Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is just that – a twiggy bonfire of branches which are bright orange with red tips through the winter. In spring and summer, the plants make pleasing mounds of pale, yellowish green leaves before colouring to orange and yellow in autumn.
Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ is more upright if kept ‘stooled’ (pruned to a basic framework close to the ground) every other spring. Deep red branches provide the interest through winter and the leaves emerge bright yellow in spring, ageing to rich gold. Flower clusters are freely borne and in autumn, the leaves turn plum, red and pink – a complete surprise compared to the summer livery of this plant!
Scent was provided by the Christmas Box (Sarcococca) whose leathery evergreen leaves made thick mounds at the front of borders near the main paths’ dusted with frost. The sweet scent from the tiny, strand like blooms was appreciated by visitors, along with the scent of well established drifts of Viburnum x bodnantense that were smothered in pink flower clusters set off by the gnarled brown bark that showed the plants age. Standing behind the Christmas Box were masses of the olive green upright stems of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ – an old variety but still one of the best for this unusual colouring. 
Miscanthus grasses stood proudly in borders, although their flower heads were bowed down by the weight of frost in sunless corners and Whitewash Brambles, with a few late leaves hanging on the prickly stems, made impenetrable frameworks of creamy stems. Sheraton Cherries added a stately air with their shiny mahogany bark and elegant shapes while Twisted Hazels made a confused mass of curly branches and the beautiful evergreen shrub Garrya elliptica was putting on its winter show of pendulous catkins, defying the low temperatures.
Witch Hazels, not yet in flower, bristled with buds ready to burst open and show off their spidery blooms in citrus colours like strands of marmalade, also packing a punch with their zingy perfume. Thickets of Mahonia were already in flower, their exotic looking leaves crowned with tumbling racemes of golden yellow flowers undeterred by the heavy frost and with plenty more green buds waiting to unleash their powerful ‘Lily of the Valley’ scent. 
With so much to look at it’s difficult to pick a favourite piece of planting from this garden but perhaps the most dramatic has to be the glade of white stemmed Himalayan Birch planted en masse with brown bark mulch added to the soil beneath, enhancing even more the whiteness of the trees’ bark. The area was peaceful and uplifting – just as a garden should be.

A trip to East Anglia recently found us in the stunning Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. The day was crisp, clear and cold – the sort of cold that hurts your nostrils as you breathe in and one where you would not want to be without a pair of gloves or your camera! It was perfect weather to appreciate the bare skeletons of coloured Dog Woods, their vibrant colours dulled somewhat by a dusting of frost, but still shining especially when the weak, winter sun hit them and turned the frost to water.Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is just that – a twiggy bonfire of branches which are bright orange with red tips through the winter. In spring and summer, the plants make pleasing mounds of pale, yellowish green leaves before colouring to orange and yellow in autumn. Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ is more upright if kept ‘stooled’ (pruned to a basic framework close to the ground) every other spring. Deep red branches provide the interest through winter and the leaves emerge bright yellow in spring, ageing to rich gold. Flower clusters are freely borne and in autumn, the leaves turn plum, red and pink – a complete surprise compared to the summer livery of this plant!Scent was provided by the Christmas Box (Sarcococca) whose leathery evergreen leaves made thick mounds at the front of borders near the main paths’ dusted with frost. The sweet scent from the tiny, strand like blooms was appreciated by visitors, along with the scent of well established drifts of Viburnum x bodnantense that were smothered in pink flower clusters set off by the gnarled brown bark that showed the plants age. Standing behind the Christmas Box were masses of the olive green upright stems of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ – an old variety but still one of the best for this unusual colouring. Miscanthus grasses stood proudly in borders, although their flower heads were bowed down by the weight of frost in sunless corners and Whitewash Brambles, with a few late leaves hanging on the prickly stems, made impenetrable frameworks of creamy stems. Sheraton Cherries added a stately air with their shiny mahogany bark and elegant shapes while Twisted Hazels made a confused mass of curly branches and the beautiful evergreen shrub Garrya elliptica was putting on its winter show of pendulous catkins, defying the low temperatures.Witch Hazels, not yet in flower, bristled with buds ready to burst open and show off their spidery blooms in citrus colours like strands of marmalade, also packing a punch with their zingy perfume. Thickets of Mahonia were already in flower, their exotic looking leaves crowned with tumbling racemes of golden yellow flowers undeterred by the heavy frost and with plenty more green buds waiting to unleash their powerful ‘Lily of the Valley’ scent. With so much to look at it’s difficult to pick a favourite piece of planting from this garden but perhaps the most dramatic has to be the glade of white stemmed Himalayan Birch planted en masse with brown bark mulch added to the soil beneath, enhancing even more the whiteness of the trees’ bark. The area was peaceful and uplifting – just as a garden should be.

 

Thursday
Nov272014

Preparing for Christmas

We have bought our Christmas cards, ready to be written on dark evenings, but I am determined to spend the last autumn days in the garden (when it is not raining!) before the Christmas rush begins in our household. The garden is really starting to change now, with most of the leaves off the trees and the last of the perennials to cut back. I like to get as much done as possible before the beginning of December when thoughts turn to Christmas preparations and the dreaded ‘indoor jobs’ which usually mean decorating a room or fixing something! Leaving routine garden tasks until the New Year can sometimes be a problem with wet soil and bad weather making things take twice as long!

Time seems to have flown by this year - it definitely does as you get older - and I am already planning for next spring, with the allotment cropping programme to write and the last of the spring bulbs to go in this week. More Tulips have been purchased from Notcutts, to be planted in pots for the patio and I couldn’t resist picking up some white Anemone blanda and Scilla for the area by the dining room. At the moment, with plants jostling for space it is difficult to remember how much spring bulbs are appreciated filling the borders before perennials begin to grow and shrubs put on their green summer coats in May.

My raised beds have been built and I am looking forward to moving the salad crops from the allotment so that they are easier to harvest as we need them. I am hoping to grow some more Dahlias here as well and will be on the lookout for some of the miniature ‘pom pom’ varieties when they are in stock at Notcutts as tubers next spring. They are some of the best flowers for arrangements – the more they are cut the more they flower! The scented white Lilies that we have had in pots for years are also favourites of ours through the summer and I will be looking to add to these as well.

Christmas is fast approaching now and Notcutts will soon have their cut trees in stock in the outdoor planteria. We like to buy ours early and keep it in its net in the garden shed, well watered, until it is time to bring it into the house and decorate it. I love the strong pine scent of Norway Spruce but prefer the softer needles of the Fraser Fir, which is a narrower alternative to the Nordmann Spruce. Last year we had one of each but this year we are going away over Christmas, so will stick to one large tree for the lounge and if I have time a ‘twig tree’ using suitable branches from the garden to go in the dining room.

Twig trees are useful to show off ‘special’ decorations and over the years we have collected many, mainly from Notcutts who always have a unique range that we find irresistible!

No doubt on our frequent visits running up to Christmas we will be tempted again, whilst we are busy finding the perfect presents for friends and relatives!