7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to the charity Greenfingers to support their amazing and valuable work creating gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the beautiful garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

A Taste Of Unusual Edibles: RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

Calycanthus (Allspice)

The first inkling I had that unusual edibles would catch my eye at Hampton Court this year was the sight of deep red Calycanthus flowers around every corner. As soon as I entered the show, there was Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ in Evolve: Through the Roots of Time Garden, beautifully set off by the predominantly green foliage of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, then more specimens by the entrance to The Countryfile Garden, in The Family Garden and outside the mirrored meadow-room of Apeiron: The Dibond Garden.

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Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’

This aromatic shrub is most often grown for its glossy foliage and single elegant flowers, but its bark was traditionally dried in indigenous American cultures and used as a substitute for cinnamon and allspice. The flowers and seeds of both Calycanthus florida (Carolina Allspice) and Calycanthus occidentalis (Californian Allspice) are poisonous and the Plants For a Future database advises caution when using the bark due to the plant’s toxic components, but James Wong includes Calycanthus floridus in his Homegrown Revolution, it has been featured in The Guardian by Lia Leendertz as producing an ‘edible spice’ and Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ has also been planted in this year’s RHS Grow Your Own Garden along with other shrubs with edible parts. 

Ugni molinae ‘Heritage Ice’ (Chilean Guava)

Regular readers will already know of my fondness for the Chilean guava. I have Ugni molinae ‘Ka-pow’, just one of the cultivars on display in the Plant Heritage section of the floral marquee. Dr Gary and Dr Maria Firth hold the National Collection of Myrtaceae which includes collections of myrtle, luma, Chilean guava and lophomyrtus and this year their Ugni molinae selection includes ‘Kapow’, ‘Butterball’, ‘Variegata’ and ‘Heritage Ice’. 

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Ugni molinae ‘Heritage Ice’

‘Heritage Ice’ has variegated leaves speckled with cream and Gary told me it isn’t prone to reverting, unlike ‘Variegata’. With such attractive foliage, delicate white flowers and delicious, aromatic fruit in October – a time of year when sweetness and perfume are fading away with the memories of summer – this is a shrub which deserves to be more widely grown.

Zanthoxylum (Szechuan Pepper)

After helping to plant the Foraging Forest Garden at the RHS Autumn Show last year and showing visitors around the installation, I became fascinated with the different Szechuan peppers around the garden. I bought a Zanthoxylum piperitum earlier in the year and it has been an unmitigated failure so far. When I planted it out in the garden I noticed the developing leaves kept disappearing overnight, leaving me week after week with an unprepossessing stick poking out of the earth. Deciding that slugs were the culprits, I moved it back into a pot away from the molluscs, but it is still sulking and refusing to produce leaves (although it is still alive – just!) 

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Can you see any leaves? No neither can I…

When I saw the Zanthoxylum piperitum in the RHS Grow Your Own Garden I felt a certain amount of pepperish envy. Beryl Randall, who writes the gardening blog Mud and Gluts, was helping to plant the garden and she brought along her own Szechuan pepper to add to the edible display – doesn’t it look healthy? 

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Beryl’s Szechuan Pepper

To find out what I’m doing wrong I spent a while chatting to Fiona Blackmore and Chris Smith at Pennard Plants about their growing collection of Zanthoxylum. They have 11 species so far including winged prickly ash (Zanthoxylum planispinum) – a very spiny Nepalese form which is is one of the ingredients in Chinese ‘Five Spice’, lemon-flavoured Zanthoxylum simulans and my favourite, the Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum ‘Purple Leaved’), which forms one of the main ingredients in the Japanese blended spice shichimi. As well as collecting the berries of these peppers as a spice, the leaves can also be used in salads and as a flavouring. 

The general feeling was that my problem had been slugs and the plant now needs some TLC (better growing medium/seaweed fertiliser) to help it recover and come into leaf. If this doesn’t work though, I’ll not be too sad. It will be a good excuse to buy a couple more peppers from Pennards and this time I’ll follow Beryl’s example and keep them in pots.

Broussonetia papyrifera (Paper Mulberry)

This Asian shrub in the mulberry family was a new one for me when I came across it in the RHS Grow Your Own Garden. Its primary traditional use was for making paper in China and handcrafted washi paper in Japan, and it has edible fruits and leaves (when cooked). It is classed as an invasive species in some countries like Uganda, Pakistan and Argentina, and has allergenic pollen.

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The unusual shaped immature foliage of the paper mulberry

The fruits, which develop if the flowers are fertilised, have a similar look to the mulberry with a cluster of drupes creating a spherical pom-pom which ripens to orange or red. They are apparently best eaten fresh and have a sweet taste. The paper mulberry can be grown in most areas of the UK, but it’s classified as H5 by the RHS (hardy down to -10/-15) so might suffer in cold winters. It also has a suckering habit – one of the factors which can make it invasive in warmer countries. I’m not sure I’d grow it exclusively for the fruits as I imagine the crop would be fairly small, but the dramatic foliage creates impact and in areas that don’t have repeated hot summers the plant remains shrubby, perfect for the back of a sunny border.

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

In Praise of the Humble Pea: The Seedlip Garden

In 2013, in a North Lincolnshire kitchen, pea farmer Ben Branson began experimenting with a copper still after reading about the non-alcoholic remedies distilled by apothecaries in the 1600s. Ben’s family have been farming for 300 years and their peas are picked by hand by Ben and his team. His kitchen experimentation led to the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, the Seedlip drink, which was launched in 2015. This is the second Seedlip Chelsea Garden and it views the humble pea from an unusual angle as every plant in the garden, designed by Dr Catherine MacDonald, is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae.

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Ben serving his non-alcoholic cocktails at the show

Bringing together diverse plants in the same family on one garden highlights their similarities – many have papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) with a central standard or banner petal raised above the smaller pair of wing petals, with the two keel petals forming a boat shape below. The most obvious example of this in the garden are the lupins which draw the eye across the planting as they blend from the soft yellow of Lupinus ‘Desert Sun’ to the bright purple Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’.

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Lupin ‘Desert Sun’

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Caesalpinia gilliesii (Credit: By Krzysztof Golik [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

The plants in the garden are fascinating because of the vast diversity in the family, from the ground cover clovers like Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ (one of my favourite plants) and the other nine clover species in the garden, to the larger specimens like the Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), Laburnum anagyroides ‘Sunspire’ and the striking crimson threadflower (Caesalpinia gilliesii) which was attracting much admiration when I looked round the garden on Monday. A large evergreen shrub from northwest Argentina and Uruguay, the crimson threadflower is unfortunately only hardy down to about -5, so only an option in colder areas of the UK if winter protection is available as it can be grown in a large pot.

 

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Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ may be small but it has big impact with red-veined patches on the leaves

The garden is filled with circular structures, from the pea panels underfoot acting as grills over split pea shingle to the pools which are filled with deep blue-green water, coloured with a pea-dye.

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Circles are everywhere in this garden

Even the peavilion at the back of the garden is a shrine housing a collection of articles relevant to the pea, topped with a pea-shoot green roof.

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Lupins floating in the foreground and the Peavilion behind

The Seedlip Garden celebrates the work of three pea pioneers: Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who discovered the basic principles of heredity through his work with peas, Dr Calvin Lamborn (1933-2017), the breeder of the first sugar snap pea, and Seedlip creator, Ben Branson. Many of the edible peas (Pisum sativum) in the garden are varieties bred by Dr Lamborn and there are also two of his new varieties released for the first time on the garden.

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Split pea shingle

After admiring the plant diversity on the garden I was persuaded to try the non-alcoholic Seedlip Garden 108 drink (the average number of days it takes to sow, grow & hand-pick the peas), mixed by Ben himself. It’s a floral blend of hand-picked peas, homegrown hay, spearmint, rosemary and thyme, with no sugar or additives. I liked the absence of saccharine sweetness; it has a minty refreshing taste with a slightly sour tang in the background, reminiscent of gin. Well, it would have been rude to say no – and it is gluten-free too!

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My Seedlip cocktail

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Oh Happy Day! New Tomatoes, Pepper and Watermelon Launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The flowers are dazzling, the designs immaculate and the stories behind the show gardens engaging, but sooner or later my path always leads into the Great Pavilion – to check out the newcomers on the fruit and vegetable displays. 

As usual the Pennard Plants display was fascinating with its Writer’s Retreat Garden inspired by Mark Diacono’s work – particularly A Year At Otter Farm and The New Kitchen Garden. The edible growing space includes a Riverside shepherd’s hut – a place where a writer can feel creative – surrounded by vegetables, fruit, herbs and a summer meadow full of nectar-rich ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi). The use of naturalistic planting to bring in wildlife within a productive garden creates a warm, inviting atmosphere – I could happily sit here for hours writing about plants, listening to the bees buzzing around me. 

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The Writer’s Retreat Garden

The Alitex greenhouse is surrounded by cordons of ripe tomatoes including the new varieties that Burpee (who have partnered with Pennard Plants in the Writer’s Retreat Garden) are launching at this year’s show. I loved the delicate gold sheen on Tomato ‘Shimmer’ with its green stripes and sweet succulent flavour. Tomato ‘Oh Happy Day’ lives up to its name – not only is it a blight resistant variety, it also has a good flavour, mingling sweetness with acidic notes. It has performed well in trials across the UK from Yorkshire to Somerset, and like all the varieties in this display, it has been grown at leading horticultural research station, Stockbridge Technology Centre in North Yorkshire. 

Tomatoes ‘Shimmer’ and ‘Oh Happy Day’ (Credit: Burpee)

Tomato ‘Honeycomb’ is another prolific cropper with 35 to 40 fruits on an average truss. I find the focus on flavour in all these varieties an encouraging sign as it is a quality which is often overlooked when breeding for disease resistance and heavy cropping. ‘Honeycomb’ has an exceptionally sweet flavour with an aftertaste, somewhat like honey. This is one variety I’ll definitely be trying next year.

Tomatoes ‘Honeycomb’ and ‘Rugby’ (Credit: Burpee)

Although I’ve found plum tomatoes rather tasteless in the past, Tomato ‘Rugby’ has prolific small pink fruits with a good flavour. Its fine sugar-acid balance makes it an ideal tomato for cooking, preserving and salads, so if you have a small greenhouse like I do, ‘Rugby’ would be a useful multi-purpose tomato.

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Pepper ‘Lemon Dream’ (Credit: Sarah Cuttle/RHS)

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Pepper ‘Afterglow’ (Credit: Burpee)

Burpee are also launching two new peppers at the show: Pepper ‘Lemon Dream’ and Pepper ‘Afterglow’. I particularly liked the look of ‘Lemon Dream’ with such zingy fruits and a hint of spiciness even though it’s a sweet pepper. It is suitable for growing on a sunny patio which makes it an option for gardeners without a greenhouse.

Pepper ‘Afterglow’ has more traditional yellow fruits and crops well from July to October on a sunny patio or in a cold greenhouse. It has been bred with good disease resistance to Tobacco Etch Virus, Potato Virus Y and Tomato Mosaic Virus, so if these diseases have been an issue in the past, growing ‘Afterglow’  might be a good solution.

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Watermelon ‘Little Darling’ (Credit: Burpee)

Not content with tomatoes and peppers, Burpee are also launching Watermelon ‘Little Darling’: a beautiful dark fruit with deep crimson flesh. I was interested to hear that it has performed well in unheated greenhouses across the UK, including Alnwick Gardens in Northumberland. Having spent a decade in Durham, I know how cold the growing conditions can be, so I’m impressed by the trials which have conquered my usual cynicism about the practicality of growing melons in the UK.

 

While I browsed through the seed packets on the stand and admired the Writer’s Retreat Garden, the gospel chords of ‘Oh Happy Day’ drifted across the garden as a group of singers from Brighton School of Music began to serenade us. While the quintet sang, Mark Diacono mixed me a cocktail with homemade orange and limoncello, and I drank in the sights, smells and sounds of the serene Writer’s Retreat Garden – a joyous haven in the busy Great Pavilion. Oh Happy Day!

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Brighton School of Music students sing ‘Oh Happy Day’

What fruit, vegetable or herb from RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018 would you most like to grow next year? I’m after new ideas for my list 🙂

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RHS Chelsea Flower Show Highlights

The attention to detail in the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show gardens surpasses anything I’ve seen before; I love the way the planting maintains a sophisticated and elegant feel, yet is more grounded than in previous years. Many gardens focus on naturalistic forms and soft planting with coppery tones, highlights of deep purples and pinks, and fresh green foliage alongside white and ivory flowers.

After an busy and truly inspiring day I’m finally home. I’ve taken off my sandals and had a cup of tea; so now it’s time to look through my photographs at some of the highlights of the day:

Pearlfisher Perfection

The Pearlfisher Garden combines a big idea – the plastic crisis in our oceans – with immaculate planting to create a garden which draws the visitor down into its watery recesses. The use of cacti, succulents and air plants mimics the underwater environment and my initial impression of the garden was of waves washing over me – from the curved steps, the tillandsia fronds undulating on the ceiling, the circular motion of the fish to the spiral cobbles at the heart of the garden. I’ll be writing more on the exquisite planting in this sub-marine garden later in the week.

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Pearlfisher Garden

As I walked into the central area the water from above sent shadow ripples across the paving and the detail of the planting – down to individual lithops in the paving and wall gaps – was revealed. I lost myself taking photographs of the planting until a commotion ensued and I was ushered to one side while Theresa May came to look round the underwater scene.

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Theresa May admires the planting in the Urban Flow Garden

Oh Happy Day

Sooner or later I always find myself at the Pennard Plants stand, marvelling at the latest salad crops, or new varieties of chillies. It’s a dangerous move for a vegetable obsessive like myself. Today Pennard Plants were launching a new tomato called ‘Oh Happy Day’ to the accompanying voices of the singers from the Brighton School of Music.

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Tomato ‘Oh Happy Day’, Burpee images

‘Oh Happy Day’ is a new beefsteak tomato with blight resistance and a sweet taste with acidic tones. For those of us growing outdoors, blight resistance is key to the success of tomato plants, so this looks like a tasty and interesting variety to try.

Wormhole

Alice might have fallen down a rabbit hole, but I fell through a wormhole on the David Harber and Savills Garden. 

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Through the wormhole…

The design showcases sculpture in a garden setting and the large sculptural pieces create energy as you pass through and see the space from different angles. The planting is airy without being insubstantial and the final view reveals a wormhole through which Aeon, a nucleus of energy can be seen in a state of equilibrium.

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…and relaxing on the other side

Tea Break

Halfway through the afternoon, feeling rather parched, I arrived at the Wedgwood Garden. Not only has Jo Thompson designed a sumptuous, modern tea garden for relaxation, in which Iris ‘Kent Pride’ lives up to its name and takes pride of place, but it opens onto the Wedgwood tea pavilion. 

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Wedgwood Garden

After sampling a light Darjeeling and an aromatic Ceylon it was back to the gardens with renewed vigour.

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Tea drinking, Wedgwood style

Feel Good Gardens

It’s great to see such a focus on relocating the gardens after the show this year so that many other people can continue to enjoy them for the future and one garden due to be relocated to the Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust is the RHS Feel Good Garden designed by Matt Keightley. This beautiful garden with its cantilevered stone terraces and aromatic planting will give patients, staff and their families the opportunity to enjoy the relaxation and also the stimulation that the garden creates. I’m looking forward to writing more about the planting in the garden and the ideas behind it later in the week.

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RHS Feel Good Garden

Cocktails and Dancing Box

At the Pennard Plant stand I was lucky enough to have a garden cocktail mixed for me by Mark Diacono from Otter Farm. It was a delicious mix of homemade orange and limoncello with sparkling water, but afterwards strange things began to happen – as I passed the Space to Grow gardens, the box balls started waving at me – then they were still. Just another day at the most inspiring garden show in the world…

What has caught your eye so far? What gardens do you think will win gold?

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Secret Seed Club: Agretti

It’s a rare treat when the postman brings a letter these days; it’s even more unusual when the envelope is sealed with red wax in the impression of a tree and the contents include an information sheet about agretti and a pack of seeds. The Secret Seed Club for Ethnobotanical Explorers was launched last month by Emma Cooper, The Unconventional Gardener, to cater for those of us who enjoy trying new things and learning more about the background of the crops we’re growing. I’ve been reading Emma’s blog for a couple of years now, and it always introduces me to interesting scientific facts and new botanical information. With a background in ethnobotany and several gardening books to her name, Emma’s enthusiasm for unusual edible plants is infectious and her articles are both informed and engaging.

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An interesting beginning…

When Emma kindly sent me the first of her Seedier Explorer Mailings, I was excited to see a pack of agretti seeds as it’s a plant I’ve neither grown nor heard much about before. Agretti (Salsola soda) is in vogue at the moment as a gourmet vegetable but Emma also traces its history in the soap and glass industries, alongside its potential as an edible crop which can be grown in salty soils. Exploring the historical, etymological and scientific stories behind edible plants is a fascinating approach to growing and I’m currently spending much of my time researching the background of plants which have local significance for my book on engaging with the wild in our local landscapes, so I really enjoyed this aspect of the Seedier Explorers Mailing.

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Fascinating facts about Agretti

Agretti is a ‘cut-and-come-again’ crop that apparently tastes like a cross between salty asparagus and spinach. I love seafood: chowders, mussels and fish pie are some of my favourite dishes, so I can’t wait to get sowing in the next few weeks. I’m told I’ll need patience as it can be ‘a most infuriating seed to germinate’, but I’m up for the challenge and its unpredictable germination patterns will make it all the more satisfying when I sit down to my first agretti salad later in the year.

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For all your seedier exploration needs…

If you are interested in joining Emma’s secret seed club, details can be found on her Patreon website. Oh, and let me know if you sow agretti and it germinates – I’m keeping all my fingers crossed…

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Kaffir limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).

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Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.

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‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.

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Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂

Year Of The Almanac

2018 has brought me not one but two almanac treasures, each a joy to read and written nearly 200 years apart. The first is a beautifully illustrated hardback: The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To 2018 by Lia Leendertz which I bought a couple of months ago along with copies for friends, but hid away so I wouldn’t be tempted to read it cover to cover before the new year commenced. The second is a book of John Clare’s poetry published in 1827: The Shepherd’s Calendar which follows the progression of the year for the rural labourers of Helpston.

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The shepherd rests by David Gentleman

This is another attractive hardback illustrated with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman which capture the essence of the rural Northamptonshire landscape and its people at work and play. Like Emma Dibben’s illustrations in The Almanac, Gentleman’s engravings use simple lines to build up precise detail, whether it be the grain of a particular wood in The Shepherd’s Calendar or the characteristics of different sheep breeds in The Almanac.

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Leicester Longwool and Ryeland Sheep by Emma Dibben

The Almanac‘s entries for January include many facts to entice you out into the new year, even when skies are lowering and footpaths slippery with mud. I’m enjoying the supermoon tonight – where the full moon is particularly close to earth and at its brightest. With the times of the moon’s rising and setting noted for each day, I started my watching at 15.49 precisely and there it was, a huge orb perfectly framed by the silver birch tassels outside my study window.

One of the statistics for January which brings a glow to my heart is the fact that during the course of the month, day length increases by 1 hour and 12 minutes (in London). That’s nearly an extra hour and a quarter by the beginning of February to get out in the garden or walk along the footpaths. This is a fact which would have been of the utmost importance to John Clare’s community, relying as they did, on occupations out of doors. In ‘January: A Winter’s Day’, Clare conjures up the winter landscape:

While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday

whilst, in the cottage:

The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his children on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puttering pipe

The Almanac describes ‘Wassailing’, a festivity which celebrates the cider crop, involving drinking ‘warm cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of brandy’, as a way to fill the indoor hours, or there is marmalade making – one of my favourite preserves made with Seville oranges, and a ‘date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding’ for indulgent winter suppers. Gardening jobs for January include pruning and planting fruit trees – jobs redolent of summer jams and autumn crumbles – although personally I’ll pass on the ‘Glut of the Month’ for January as one swede a year is too many; the thought of a glut of swedes brings me out in a cold sweat!

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Two almanacs to start the new year

Then, finally, the section on ‘Nature’ documents the monthly treats in store in the garden and countryside throughout 2018: the bulbs appearing (I saw my first snowdrop last week), hazel flowers with their filigree winter beauty, and fieldfares and redwings (a frequent reason for the dash for binoculars in our house as the redwing flock lands on next door’s cotoneaster – or even, one year, a museum of waxwings.) Clare also celebrates winter birds as:

…flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush

although this comes in March, January being far more concerned with daily freezings:

The ickles from the cottage eaves
Which cold nights freakish labour leaves

set once more against the cosy cottage interior where:

…[the] keetle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea

Both of these almanacs are objects to be used – with ribbon bookmarks for dipping in and out of sunrise times, recipe ingredients and monthly nature observations. I’d been looking forward to the publication of The Almanac for many months as I was involved, along with many other supporters, in crowdfunding the book through the publishers Unbound. The company has revived an old method of publishing whereby a network of supporters help fund the process, allowing authors to write the books which their audience wants and enabling them to get a much fairer percentage of revenue than they would from standard publishing.

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Supermoon, 1 January 2018

It is particularly apt that The Almanac has been published in this way as it also revives an old tradition of annual volumes which, in Clare’s words, give us details of ‘frost and snow’ and ‘wisdom gossipd from the stars’. More than this, almanacs connect us to the particularities of each year, through the combinations of the weather, the phases of the sun and moon, natural cycles of plants and animals, and our traditional festivities. It is heartening that the support has been there to enable Lia Leendertz to create this delightful volume, hopefully the first of many new almanacs. Although our modern lives are rarely as intimately entwined with the natural calendar as those of John Clare and his contemporaries, knowledge about the natural world, its cycles and constant changes is no less vital today, perhaps even more so, and traditions like the almanac help us to keep this information alive.

Pumpkin and Apple Season: Two Warming Autumn Soups

Facebook has just reminded me that five years ago I spent the day at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Day, retreating from the crowds from time to time to sit on the haystacks and feed my 6 month old daughter. Today I have been in the town square enjoying our community garden Apple Day. We’ve been selling apples, pears, quinces and our juice (made with windfalls and unwanted apples collected from local gardens and orchards), running craft workshops for the children and chatting to Hitchin shoppers about all things apple related.

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Some of the varieties that have been available for shoppers to try and buy today

Within a couple of hours many of the apple varieties had sold out

Throughout October our house has had an underlying scent of apples – cooking apples stewing, crab apples boiling for jelly and cupboards full of apple boxes stored for eating or cooking later in the year. Our recently harvested quinces have added to the aroma and at the Stotfold Steam Fair last weekend we bought a mammoth pumpkin from a local grower. This has pleased the kids no end as last year I was late to the shops and we ended up celebrating Hallowe’en with a carved watermelon (on the grounds that any cucurbit was better than no cucurbit!)

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You’d never have known that our Hallowe’en cat (designed by my son) was carved out of a watermelon!

There’s no doubt that October brings the excitement of the autumn harvest and related festivities, but it also brings wastage on a grand scale as much of the pumpkin flesh removed prior to carving goes straight in the bin. Sara Venn, co-founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, highlighted this waste at the beginning of the week in her article ‘Please don’t play with your food…’ with the appalling figure that 80,000 tonnes of pumpkin flesh went to landfill in 2014. She has been blogging with pumpkin recipes all week and has asked readers and fellow bloggers to add their recipes and ideas to the mix. So here are some pumpkin soup recipes with a bit of apple thrown in for good measure. The spices in the first soup and sweetness of the apple in the second help to add flavour to commercial Hallowe’en pumpkins bred for size and colour, not for taste. The soups are based on recipes in the Luton Hoo ‘Pumpkin and Apple Gala Cookbook’, bought from the Apple and Pumpkin Day five years ago and much used since…

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Savoury and sweet – this cookbook has recipes for the whole family to enjoy…

 

Pumpkin, Prawn and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

400ml can coconut milk

1 lemongrass stalk or several leaves, bruised

2 tsps Thai green curry paste

4 Kaffir lime leaves

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce

About 500g peeled pumpkin flesh, chopped

250g pack MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) prawns

Juice of 1 lime

1 chilli, deseeded and chopped

A bunch of shredded spring onions or chopped chives

Method

Add the coconut milk, Kaffri lime leaves and lemon grass to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Thai green curry paste and hot stock. Stir gently until the paste has dissolved.

Add the pumpkin and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Add the prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. Add lime juice and fish sauce to taste.

Serve topped with shredded spring onions/chives and chilli.

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Regular readers will know I am a Thai food lover. I love growing Thai veg and herbs and this soup used our lemongrass and Thai lime leaves as well as the pumpkin

 

 

Roast Pumpkin and Bramley Apple Soup

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small Bramley ( or other cooking) apple, peeled and chopped

700ml vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cut pumpkin into quarters, scoop out seeds (rinse and save), brush flesh with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 180ºc or until flesh is soft. Once cool, scoop flesh out of skin.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the onion. Soften for 10 minutes without browning. Add stock and pumpkin flesh. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 5 minutes until tender.

Blend the soup, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with natural yoghurt and ground black pepper.

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A wholesome warming soup for cold autumn evenings

 

As a tasty extra treat, the discarded pumpkin seeds can be toasted for 20-25 minutes at 180ºc spread out on an oiled baking tray. Remove from oven when toasted. Toss in seasoning and herbs or spices to taste (we used salt, pepper, cumin and paprika) and scoff as a pre-dinner snack.

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Toasted pumpkin seeds – no waste – great taste

The pumpkin and apple harvest adds a sparkle to October meals – there are so many delicious ways to make the most of these hearty ingredients

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My two little helpers enjoying the apple tunnel in a local orchard

For more apple recipes, try some tasty Apple and Cinnamon Butter, Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers or our family favourite Rhubarb and Apple Sponge.

If you have other cucurbits to use up, try Stuffed Summer Squash, Courgette and Chilli Cornbread or Courgette Tea Bread.

I’d love to hear about other favourite pumpkin and apple recipes – with all that pumpkin flesh going spare in the next few weeks, every delicious recipe counts. And if you’d like to explore more recipes with me, you can follow the blog below:

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Autumn Foraging In The RHS Forest Garden

“The mushrooms have arrived!” It was the cry everyone wanted to hear this afternoon as we finished arranging the forest garden plants and laying the woodland mulch. For the last couple of days the team, led by award-winning designer Jon Davies, have been creating an exciting forest garden installation at the RHS Autumn Show in the Lindley and Lawrence Halls, London. By tomorrow evening it will be completed for the preview and then the main show on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th October, when we’re all looking forward to chatting to visitors about the garden and its fascinating plants.

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The forest logs will harbour oyster and shittake mushrooms

The exhibit showcases the sustainable method of forest gardening – creating a self-supporting ecosystem based on natural woodland. Every plant has a role to play, either as a food source, for timber, medicine, material or providing support for other plants, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, creating shade or as ground cover to suppress weeds. In this way, the garden will be largely self-maintaining, lessening the need for human intervention and creating a diverse and resilient ecosystem. Forest gardens can be large areas, such as Martin Crawford’s seminal garden in Dartington, Totnes, but they can also be much more modest affairs like the one at the show, suitable for rural or urban areas in community spaces and private gardens.

One of the things I find fascinating about forest gardens is the way they combine a wide range of plants from across the world to create sustainable ecosystems. From Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis) to sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) and society garlic (Tulbaghia violacae), the RHS Forest Garden celebrates exciting plants with a variety of uses. The garden has several areas with different growing conditions from the woodland floor, to a pond and boggy area, a woodland clearing and an open glade.

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Crab apples create so much colour and interest at this time of year

On entering the garden my eye is first drawn to the canopy of the magnificent forest pansy (Cercis canadensis) with its vibrant yellow cordate leaves. But difficult as it is to ignore the stunning autumn colours above, the woodland floor offers equally inspiring botanical beauties, just in miniature form. Ever since seeing them in Jon’s Hampton Court Forest Garden, I’ve been noticing and appreciating clover leaves wherever I’ve seen them and this garden includes some delicate purple and red forms of Trifolium repens which encourage the visitor to engage with the detail on the forest floor.

The journey through to the clearing leads past the pond area with a range of hosta, sedum and mint (all with edible leaves) and the umbels of skirret (Sium sisarum) with its sweet-tasting roots. Out of the water rise the impressive spathes of arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) in front of the fabulous red leaves of Viburnum dilatatum with its edible fruit and foliage.

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Creating the woodland clearing

Inside the clearing, the logs support a range of fungi including oyster and shittake mushrooms. The canopy is created by hazels, crab apples and hops, sausage vines and kiwi trailing up and over the wooden supports. This area has a lovely relaxing feel and creates a calm space in the heart of the garden.

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Hops (Humulus lupulus) festoon the woodland supports

On the far side of the forest garden, in a more open area, plants like the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), myrtle (Myrtus communis), sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and the purple-leaved Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) thrive. In this area, more unusual understorey edibles like yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) offer opportunities for new taste sensations, whilst traditional ornamental shrubs like Mahonia aquifolium, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) remind us of the multi-functional nature of many of our garden plants.

It’s exciting that this year’s RHS Autumn Show has a garden of this nature at its heart, surrounded by organisations like the Permaculture Association, Pennard Plants (with its engaging display of edibles) and the Rabbit Pop-up Food Stall offering seasonally inspired food and drink made from sustainable and wild British ingredients. It also fits in well with current national initiatives such as the launch, this weekend, of the National Forest Garden Scheme (NFGS) which aims to bring us individually, and in our communities, to a new level of harmony and well-being through planting, eating from, and enjoying Forest Gardens. In our changing world, forest gardens, with their mix of sustainable methods and diversity of plant species, offer a real opportunity to work with the land, promote biodiversity and widen the range of edibles upon which we all rely.

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Slideshow of the finished garden

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