Overwintering Tea, Coffee and Other Tender Edible Perennials

I bought a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and a coffee plant (Coffea arabica) earlier this year. I’m hoping, in time, to be able to produce infinitesimally small amounts of low quality hot beverages with which to underwhelm my friends and family. In the meantime, the coffee needs to come in for the winter and I’ll probably bring the camellia in too, although in time it should become large enough to overwinter successfully outside in its pot. Planting it in the ground here isn’t feasible as our soil is alkaline (pH 7.5) and camellias need acid soil. But potted in ericaceous compost, it should exist quite happily and produce leaves for green tea and salads for many years to come.

The list of plants needing winter attention is growing as my plant collection becomes more extensive and unusual, so this year I’m not convinced it’s all going to fit. Time to clear greenhouse benches and indoor windowsills, squeeze plants onto trays and cross my fingers as chillies, tea, coffee, lemongrass, lemon verbena, Vietnamese coriander, yacon, cucamelons and inca berries all come in for the winter…

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Scrubbing away a year’s grime

Fungus Gnats

My overwintering regime comes from a mixture of experience, good advice from fellow growers and intuition (aka. guesswork). Once the pots are in I’ll be treating them with nematodes as I had real problems with fungus gnats in the house last year (the annoying little black flies which buzz around the compost and can multiply disturbingly in just a few days) and using nematodes completely cleared them up. I’ve been sent a free trial pack of nematodes from the Green Gardener which can be stored in the fridge in their sealed packet for a few weeks until needed and then simply watered in the specified concentrations onto moist compost. I’ll be using them in the next few days and will report back on how successful they are this year. Here’s to a fly-free winter and lots of happy hibernating plants ready to burst into life early next spring  🙂

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My nematodes – currently residing in the fridge

Chillies

My 39 chilli plants will not, alas, all fit in the house, so the challenge has been to decide which are keepers and which will be feeding Compo (the compost heap). I’ve saved lots of seed that I will be able to sow next January and I’ve been sent an amazing array of exciting varieties by a reader of my blog who grows an extensive range and has been very generous in our seed swap. There is now no hope for me – I’m a confirmed chilli addict. Thirteen varieties this year and I suspect it will only get worse in 2017…

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The crazy chilli collection 2016!

As well as saving seeds, the kitchen has turned into a pickling factory with shallots, red onions and chillies disappearing into jars, to reappear in a few weeks to jazz up pizzas, sandwiches and salads.

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Pickled chillies to heat up cold winter suppers

Cucamelons and Yacon

I’ve tried to overwinter cucamelon (Melothria scabra) tubers a couple of times and never been successful. They’ve been left them in pots in the unheated greenhouse and brought in as dried tubers, but each winter rot has set in. This time I’m going to attempt to keep them in their pots, dry on a windowsill alongside the yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and see what happens…

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I’m hoping for an early harvest next year – if I can only manage to overwinter the tubers…

 

Lemongrass

The lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) overwintered well last year and then I lost nearly all my plants by putting them out in the unheated greenhouse too early. Second year plants definitely grow more strongly (providing they’re kept warm), whereas first year plants don’t really have long enough to develop and multiply. So I’m intending to learn from my mistake and keep them indoors next spring until the frosts have well and truly finished.

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These little guys never really developed into mature plants

Lemon Verbena

I’ve had the same lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) plant for 5 years. It dies back in winter in the unheated greenhouse and reappears in spring, usually just after I’ve given up hope – I should know better by now. This year I repotted it and put it outside during the summer. It rewarded me by producing more leaves than we could use. It is such a lovely plant. Unlike lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has a similarly enticing scent, I find lemon verbena transfers its sherberty aroma more successfully to hot and cold drinks, cakes and spicy curries.

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The lemongrass stirring from its winter slumbers

This year I’ve dried the remaining leaves for tea over winter and I’m going to have another go at propagating from cuttings next year (something at which I have an embarrassingly bad track record).

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Makes the best tea mixed with Moroccan mint

Vietnamese Coriander

A new herb for us this year, I’ve been impressed with the easy of use and clean taste of our Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata). I love the more traditional coriander (Coriandrum sativum), but the necessity of repeated sowings to cater for the speed at which it bolts is an extra job in a busy summer schedule. If the Vietnamese coriander overwinters successfully, it will allow a continuous supply of tasty leaves for cooking throughout the summer and autumn months and will have earned its place in the herb container garden.

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Vietnamese coriander – so far, so good

Inca Berries

A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting the three worst crops of 2016 – inca berries (Physalis peruviana) being one. I had an extremely helpful comment about the perennial nature of the plant and therefore the possibility of overwintering it. I have tried growing physalis for 4 years now, with very minimal harvests, so had already discounted new plants in 2017. However, I’m going to try bringing a couple of plants indoors to see if they produce higher yields in their second year. If not, they’re history – at least until I move on to warmer climes.

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My inca berry harvest

I’d love to know if anyone else is growing tea or coffee, and what the verdict is. And does anyone else contemplate paying their friends and relatives to overwinter plants on their windowsills due to a mismatch between plant collection ambitions and house size? Or is that just me?! Do leave me a comment below to let me know what other overwintering activities are going on this autumn…

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Assembled plants for overwintering – maybe we should move out?

 

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6 Ways to Create an Ornamental and Productive Garden

When I started gardening I had a small patio and a keen desire follow my father’s footsteps and grow fruit and vegetables, but I also wanted flowers and colour, so I started to learn about ways to combine the two. Now, 20 years on, I’m still exploring ways to create garden spaces which encourage relaxation and an enjoyment of the beauty of nature whilst also providing a harvest for the kitchen. Over the past 6 years we’ve turned our back garden into a family space which includes a willow den and lawn with climbing frame for the kids, a flowerbed, a fruit cage and two vegetable beds. I’ve tried to maximise our space by using both horizontal and vertical structures for plants and also by combining the aesthetic and productive wherever possible.

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My first house had a patio which I covered with pots – many containing herbs and edible flowers

Three years ago we started work on the front, the aim being to create a hidden allotment – a space which would blend with the surrounding suburban front gardens and offer us a secret harvest throughout the year. As the size of modern gardens diminishes and the pressure on our outdoor spaces increases, it will become more important to combine productivity with aesthetic appeal. Here are a few of the ways we’ve been adding edibles to our outdoor spaces within an ornamental framework:

The front garden has changed from a sterile, unappealing lawn to a cheerful gravel garden filled with ornamental and edible plants

1. Eat a Hedge

Hedges are an great way to create separate areas, edge borders, establish boundaries and attract wildlife. They are also often used to add formality to a garden. With so many different functions, hedges are likely to be included in most gardens, creating an ideal opportunity to add an productive element. I have many low hedges in the garden – all evergreen and edible – and they provide a harvest throughout the year.

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My low alternative box hedge of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae)

After discussing Chilean guava as an alternative to box hedging with James Wong a few years ago, I thought I’d try it as the edging to the front garden. It has matured over the past three years and it looks like being a good harvest this autumn despite keeping the hedge at only 50cm high. It hasn’t established as well as box, partly because it is more prone to dieback in cold weather and because I haven’t been as assiduous as I should have with watering and feeding, but it isn’t going to contract box blight and its berries are not only edible – they are truly delicious. The children love snacking on them and they work really well as tiny bursts of flavour in muesli and cupcakes. Best of all, when I am weeding or pruning in the front garden, the scent of the fruit from midsummer onwards saturates the air and makes all the hard work worthwhile.

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Rosemary hedge in the front garden

I also have several rosemary and lavender hedges in the garden. I dry the lavender for scented bouquets in the house and add it to sugar for cakes and biscuits. The rosemary provides an invaluable year round harvest for adding to meat dishes, sprinkling over homemade chips and using in savoury biscuits. I’ve used the rosemary hedge in the front to trisect the garden, helping to disguise the rectangular shape. It almost disappears in summer as the flowers take over and then reappears in winter, adding definition and interest to the garden.

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Summer chaos in the front garden envelops the hedge almost entirely

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By early autumn the tripartite structure is becoming clear again

Lavender is generally used to edge the borders. There’s a hedge of dwarf lavender alongside the back flowerbed and one under the front windows. Hedges offer a wonderful opportunity to explore different varieties of lavender and we’re lucky enough to live close to Hitchin Lavender which has an extensive trial field. Summer often finds me wandering around the rows, learning about the different colours, foliage, habits and scents of this intoxicating plant. I grow ‘Twickel Purple’, ‘Dwarf Blue’, ‘Blue Ice’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ and wish I had room for more varieties.

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Hitchin Lavender trial fields – a favourite summer haunt

Another way I’ve used hedges in the garden is to create compartments in the herb bed. When we moved to the house, the back garden had a long fence with an ugly concrete base which made the left side of the garden grey and monotonous. We planted alternating rosemary and lavender ‘hedgelets’ along the border to break up the line and create areas for different herbs – sage, mint, chives, oregano and thyme – arranged based on the increasing amount of sun as you go down the garden.

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The alternating hedges before their summer trim

If taller and less formal hedges are required, there are lots of suppliers offering native hedge plants these days, like the collection from the Wiggly Wigglers which I’ve often wished I had the space to plant. This particular collection includes ‘blackthorn (for sloe gin), crab apple (for jelly), damson (for jam and a luscious homemade alternative to Ribena), dog rose (for rosehip syrup), elderberry (for flu-preventing syrups from the berries in autumn and delicious cordial from the flowers in spring), hazel (for cob nuts), cherry plum and wild pear (for jams, liqueurs and syrups)’. (Links in the blog are not sponsored – they are simply from companies that I have used in the past and liked.)

 

2. Look up – Walls and Fences

In a small space it is important to use the vertical as well as horizontal plane. We’ve covered the fences around the whole garden with a mixture of soft fruit and trained fruit trees to expand our growing space and hide unpleasant concrete and overlooking windows.

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The apple espaliers went in as a priority

I’ve enjoyed growing our three apple espaliers (‘Bountiful’, ‘Egremont Russet and ‘James Grieve’) as they provide such structure and style along the boundaries. We also have a pink seedless grape ‘Reliance’ trained up the end espalier wire next to a fig ‘White Marseille’. There’s a thornless blackberry ‘Apache’ trained up wires at the back of the garden with a plum ‘Opal’ and greengage ‘Cambridge Gage’ in front, helping to screen the windows of the overlooking houses. The fruit cage has two rows of summer and autumn raspberries at the back, screening next door’s shed and we’ve covered a blank section of wall at the front with a cordon apple ‘Fiesta’.

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Fruit trees have the added advantage of fabulous spring blossom

With the foliage, blossom and fruits, trained fruit trees and bushes should be grown more in our gardens. Requiring little maintenance, except at pruning and feeding times, they form the backbone of our relatively small garden and bring us much pleasure throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.

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Now the espaliers have covered the fence with foliage and are providing us with crumbles, cakes and preserves

 

Cordons, fans and espaliers are all suitable for growing against walls and fences

 

3. Build a Green Roof

In the same spirit of using vertical spaces, I’ve tried to use horizontal spaces even when they are off the ground. When I got tired of ugly bins of the driveway, I designed a binstore with a local carpenter and included a green roof to create more growing space. This is now filled with a mix of edibles and ornamentals – sedum, dianthus, thrift, sempervivums (which although not edible, have a juice with herbal properties similar to Aloe vera and are hardy into the bargain), chillies, herbs and nasturtiums.

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The green roof brimming with herbs, edible flowers and chillies

The herbs (thyme, lemon thyme, summer savoury, golden marjoram and French tarragon) are thriving, as are the succulents, thrift and dianthus. The chillies have suffered from lack of water at times, so if I plant them in the roof again I’ll need to keep more of an eye on them if we want a larger crop. I’m also intending to try alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’) in the roof next year to develop the edible theme.

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My first ever Habanero (Habanero Red) in the green roof

 

4. Spread Scented Ground Cover

Many herbs provide great ground cover, adding attractive foliage, flowers and scent to a garden, whilst also being extremely useful in the kitchen. Our front garden had a muddy path to which we’ve added paving and gravel, leaving plenty of space to plant ground cover herbs. There is a range of thymes, including woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), creeping white thyme (Thymus serpyllum var. albus) and creeping lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurea’), alongside pennyroyal mint (Mentha pulegium) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). They create an aromatic effect as you wander along the path (along with the oregano which has self-seeded down the side passage and releases the most lovely scent when we put the bins out). They are enjoying the location, in full sun, and have rewarded us by increasing in size, creating plenty of ground cover even when they’ve just been harvested.

We turned the weedy muddy area into a path with room for ground cover herbs

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The woolly thyme is doing a good job colonising the water meter cover

 

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The herbs also have beautiful flowers in the summer – an extra bonus

 

 

5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg

Many vegetable patches are visible from the house these days rather than hidden at the bottom of a long plot, so it’s important to consider how the productive area will add to the aesthetics of the garden. Including annuals and perennials with edible flowers in the vegetable patch is an easy way to engage children with gardening and create a visually appealing, vibrant space.

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The kids love picking petals from the garden to adorn their salads

We grow calendula, borage, bergamot, marigolds, nasturtiums, viola, dianthus, primroses and lavender either in the veg beds or elsewhere in the garden. Although they don’t add a great amount of bulk to meals, they can be used to brighten up salads, cakes, biscuits and ice-cubes, adding a bit of creative fun to family meals.

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This is a summer plateful which we harvested and added to a crisp Caesar salad

Colourful vegetables are also a valuable addition to an ornamental vegetable patch as they create visual interest. From pea ‘Blauschokker’ with its delicate purple flowers and deep purple pods, rainbow chard with its thick stems shining like jewels in the sun to purple kohl rabi with UFO shaped swollen stems, there are so many interesting coloured vegetables from which to choose.

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Fabulous rainbow chard with vibrant stems

 

6. Pot it up

If you don’t have a fruit and vegetable patch, but want to grow ornamental crops, containers could be the answer. Several years ago I bought a great book called ‘Crop in Pots’ by  Bob Purnell. I loved the illustrations which pay as much attention to creating attractive displays as they do to providing food for the table.

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The redcurrants and dianthus work so well together here

I’ve tried several of the combinations over the years and made up some of my own, like the fruit salad hanging baskets for the school fete with alpine strawberries (we used Fragraria vesca ‘Baron Solemacher’) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’) with its deep brown stems and bronze flush to the leaves.

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This lovely combination is right up my street as a I love growing chillies and herbs for curries

Even with a small patio, windowbox or windowsill, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants which taste good too. My chilli collection includes some really ornamental plants like ‘Numex Twilight’ and ‘Purple Gusto’. I also love edible houseplants like Vanilla Grass (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix) which can bring a little productive beauty into any house, whether or not it has a garden.

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My chilli ‘Numex Twilight’ looks great surrounded by mint and lemon verbena

Growing edibles is in the garden is great fun and connects us with the origins of our food, reminding us of the fundamental yet often overlooked role plants play in our busy, modern lives. Best of all, in an ornamental edible garden, a feast for the eyes can be transformed into a feast for the table and that’s a truly beautiful thing.

What are your favourite ornamental and edible combinations? Do leave me a comment and let me know what you are growing and how it’s going. What would you advise me to try next in the colourful veggie patch and what new varieties are on your wish list?

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

 

 

 

Hey Presto – Pesto!

It was too hot tonight to spend much time in the kitchen – what was needed was a quick supper for the family to eat in the garden. Salad is plentiful at this time of year, so add a bit of pasta on the side and job done. Pesto is great to mix with speedy pasta and luckily I’d made some earlier in the week. Here’s how I made it, plus some top tips on how to grow and harvest the basil and store the pesto afterwards…

Sowing Basil

I grow basil on the top shelf of the greenhouse (away from all but the best ninja slugs) and I usually grow sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) as it has the sweetest taste for pesto and salads. I’ve grown Thai basil in the past – I grew Ocimum x citriodorum ‘Siam Queen’ primarily for cooking Thai dishes. It has a stronger liquorice flavour which is lovely in a curry and is a more ornamental plant with its purple/red stems and pink flowers. It didn’t make such good pesto though, so I went back to sweet basil for my pasta dishes.

Seeds can be sown from February to June and take a couple of weeks to germinate in a propagator or a pot/tray inside a polythene bag. Once the seedlings are large enough, they can be pricked out into small pots. I tend to grow mine in pots (I pot them on a couple of  times over the growing season into larger pots and probably would grow them in bigger pots still if I had the room.) They can also be grown on a windowsill for the duration or hardened off after the risk of frost is over and planted outside in a sunny, sheltered spot. I’ve found this to be less productive due to low temperatures in past summers, but in a hot summer this would probably be more productive than greenhouse growing if you have enough space.

If you like the idea of growing different types of basil for pesto or other recipes these seed suppliers are a good place to start. Here are a few on my seed list for next year…

Thompson and Morgan – I like the idea of Basil ‘Lemonade’ adding a ‘sherbert lemon twist’ to a bowl of summer strawberries.

Kings Seeds – Cinnamon basil sounds tasty and ripe for some culinary experimentation. Lemon basil also appeals and I like the idea of adding it to Earl Grey tea. Especially when the tea is made from bergamot from the garden.

Nicky’s Seeds – Basil ‘Floral Spires White’ and ‘Floral Spires Lavender’ combine the ornamental and culinary, with pretty flowers on a compact plant. Sounds like it has real potager potential.

Top Tip 1:

If you don’t want to raise basil from seed it is easy to buy a cheap supermarket pot of basil and divide it. I did this one year when I needed plants for the school plant sale and mine had all been gobbled by the hungry and increasingly skilled ninja slugs.

Basil in pots is overcrowded and often doesn’t last long – convincing cooks that it is a hard plant to grow. With a few extra pots and a bit of compost, all the seedlings in the pot can be pricked out, given their own space and then grown on in a greenhouse, on a windowsill or in the garden. This gave me over 30 individual plants which all matured to be stocky sizeable specimens with many leaves over the course of the summer. Bargain!

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Some of the basil after its first mini haircut

 

Growing Basil

Basil likes warm conditions and plenty of water. It should also be fertilised once a month over the summer.

Top Tip 2:

I grow my greenhouse basil in pots placed in gravel trays. Although the plants shouldn’t be sitting in water, I do find they are happier in a more moist environment than many of my greenhouse plants. Without a gravel tray the water quickly drains away, but with it they can absorb more of the moisture and then any excess can be tipped away. (Although in practice I’ve found an occasional few days here or there sitting in water doesn’t seem to do them any damage.)

Even managed to squeeze some basil into the tomato hanging baskets

Harvesting Basil

Basil can be harvested throughout the growing season and is lovely in salads and well as in pesto. I particularly love it at this time of year in a basil, tomato and mozzarella salad with a mix of our red, purple, orange and yellow tomatoes.

Top Tip 3:

I generally harvest basil for pesto twice in the season. Pinching the plant out stimulates side growth, leading to a sturdier, more productive plant. I use the pinched out leaves for salad early in the season and then leave them for a few weeks to grow back. I then take most of my plants back to the lowest set of leaves and make pesto. Finally towards the end of the growing season I pinch the plants back to the lowest leaves again. This set of leaves usually makes the largest amount of pesto.

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This plant has been pinched back hard twice and is branching enthusiastically

 

Making Pesto

I collect a basketful of leaves from about 20 plants and then pick off and wash the leaves. These are blended with 50-100g of pine nuts, 1-3 cloves of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 100g grated Parmesan cheese and enough oil to blend to a fairly smooth paste. I generally try the pesto when it’s blended and add more garlic, salt and/or nuts to taste.

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Late summer pickings

 

Top Tip 4:

This week I discovered I only had half a pack of pine nuts in the cupboard – disaster! I read about using other nuts in pesto so I added cashews to make it up to the right amount. The pesto was delicious and I’ll be trying different types of nuts in the future (pistachios and walnuts for starters) to see what works.

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Pesto ingredients with a mix of pine and cashew nuts

 

Top Tip 5:

The second batch of pesto invariably makes more than we can eat fresh, even in a particularly pesto-loving household. I have frozen it in little pots before which is a bit of a nuisance as it ties up all my containers for months, so this year I froze it in ice cube trays and then popped the pesto ice cubes into a bag when frozen. Leave out the cheese if freezing and add when you defrost. The pesto ice cube can just be stirred into hot, cooked pasta and it will melt with the cheese to create perfect easy tea.

Pesto ice cubes

What have you made pesto with and how successful was it? I’d love to try other greens in the future as well as different types of nuts…

Pesto pasta for all the family with a colourful garden salad

More delicious recipes from the garden to come in later posts. Follow the blog to get tasty updates…

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How To Grow Your Own Thai Curry

Kaffir lime leaves from India, chillies from Zambia and lemongrass from Thailand – although I love cooking food from all round the world, I’m sometimes dismayed at the air miles which an international meal requires. So last year I decided to have a go at providing most of these ingredients from my own garden and allotment, without resorting to lots of produce from overseas. I’ve had fun growing lemongrass and chillies from seed, trying Kaffir lime and vanilla grass as house plants, substituting lime balm and lemon verbena for lime juice and experimenting with Vietnamese coriander, garlic chives and vegetables for the base of the curries.

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Home grown ingredients ready for blending into a green Thai curry sauce

Here’s the recipe for aromatic Thai green curry which serves 4 people, to prove that anyone can grow their own Thai curry at home:

Ingredients

1. Kaffir lime leaves – 2 leaves

I’ve been growing Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) in the kitchen for the past 3 years and it is thriving. I have two pots (I repotted the small seedlings I received into 2 groups when they arrived). I water them regularly and feed them with liquid citrus feed over the summer. The fresh leaves are amazingly aromatic and are far better than dried leaves in my opinion. For very little effort, these plants are a lovely addition to my curry collection and they are very cost effective as 1g of dried leaves can cost upwards of £2!

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One of my Kaffir limes with its fascinating hourglass shaped leaves which are actually a leaf blade and flattened leaf stalk and very sharp spines

 

2. Vietnamese coriander – a handful

I bought my Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) recently at Hampton Court Flower Show and it beats growing regular coriander which I found tricky to harvest before it bolted, not to mention the necessity to repeat sow throughout the summer. It will need overwintering in a heated greenhouse – or in my case I’ll be putting it on the spare room windowsill with the chillies and lemongrass. I love the fact that it’s perennial, so no need to sow each year. It tastes remarkably like ordinary coriander too and is a pretty prolific grower.

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Vietnamese coriander

 

3. Lemongrass – a stick or a few leaves

I love growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and this is the third year I’ve sown from seed and had a good success rate. This year I’ve used the leaves in cooking as harvesting a whole stick would decimate the plant, but last year I was able to pull the whole stick off my 2 year old plants and still leave a sizeable plant to produce more offshoots. Unfortunately a cold spring this year was the final straw for last year’s plants, which died in the cold. Next spring I’ll be much more careful about temperatures when returning the lemongrass to the greenhouse.

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Lemongrass sown from seed this year – I lost all last year’s overwintered plants by rather stupidly putting them out in the greenhouse too early in our extremely cold spring

 

4. Garlic chives – a small handful

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are a lovely addition to the herb border. They have beautiful white flowers in the spring and can be grown just like ordinary chives. They have a mild garlic/onion taste and are great in salads.

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Garlic chive flowers can also be used in salads

 

 

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Difference between garlic chives and ordinary chives – the garlic chive (at the top) is much flatter and also has a lovely mild garlic flavour

 

5. Lime balm and lemon verbena – small handful of each

I’ve been growing lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) for a few years and it never fails to please me with its sherbet lemon scented leaves. I have propagated plants for friends and my original plant overwinters successfully in the unheated greenhouse every winter. I always think it has died, but without fail, each spring it sends up new shoots and flourishes. Lime balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Lime Balm’) is a new plant this year and combined with lemon verbena it makes an alternative for lime and lemon juice in curries and salads. It is best grown in containers as, like its relation lemon balm, it has a tendency to be vigorous (aka. invasive). It has a lovely lime fragrance and can also be used in teas, ice creams and as an insect repellent.

Lime balm and lemon verbena ready for harvesting

6. Chillies – 1-4 chillies to taste

This year my chilli obsession has got a bit out of hand and the most recent count reached 39 plants of 14 different varieties: ‘Cayenne’, ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Purple Gusto’, ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, Rocoto – Alberto’s Locoto, Hungarian Black, Numex Twilight, ‘Aji Limon’, ‘Joe’s Long’, ‘Habanero Red Devil’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Piri Piri’ and ‘Alma Paprika’. I love eating them for suppers stuffed with cream cheese and baked. Now the kids are getting a bit older we can finally introduce a bit of heat into family meals too. For this recipe I used ‘Jalapeno’, ‘Aji Limon’ and ‘Purple Gusto’ because they happened to be available, but any chillies would be fine and the variety can be adapted to suit the level of heat required.

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The chilli jungle in the greenhouse

 

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The ‘Aji Limon’ chillies successfully overwintered in the house and have been amongst the first to fruit this year

 

7. Garlic – 2 cloves

I’ve been growing garlic for a few years in large potato containers after we got white rot in our garden soil. They seem to thrive and give relatively big crops for very little work. I grow ‘Early Purple Wight’, ‘Red Czech’ and elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) which is, as the name suggest, enormous and with a very mild flavour. I save some cloves each year for planting the next which makes this crop cost effective. We also get to eat the garlic scapes or flowering stalks in early summer, so get two crops for the price of one.

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First of this year’s elephant garlic bulbs harvested this week

 

8. Mint – small handful for the salad

I’m also a bit of a mint fanatic, because it’s so easy to propagate. I have 12 varieties at the moment – orange mint, banana mint, berries and cream mint, grapefruit mint, apple mint, peppermint, garden mint, basil mint, lime mint, ginger mint, Corsican mint and Indian mint. It all started last year as a plan to create an interesting collection for the school plant stall, but since then I’ve become fascinated by all the different tastes and uses. Watch this space for a post soon on the different varieties and their uses.

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Mint collection

9. Seasonal vegetables – potatoes, kale, broad beans (enough vegetables to feed 4 people) carrots and cucumber (3 carrots, 1/2 a cucumber)

I would just use any vegetables for the curry and salad which are available from the garden or allotment at any given time. At the moment this includes new potatoes ‘Lady Christl’, broad beans and kale (Cavolo Nero) for the curry, and carrots and cucumber for the accompanying salad. That’s the beauty of recipes like this – they allow you to celebrate whatever’s in season and try different combinations throughout the year.

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Pick of the July veggies

10. My prize coconut tree – 1 coconut (or a 400ml tin of coconut milk)

Every summer I send the kids up the coconut tree with small woven baskets to collect the coconuts to crack open for curries…

OK – so this is one ingredient I can’t grow in the UK and thus should be taken with a large pinch of salt, which incidentally, is another ingredient not harvested from our garden/allotment, along with sesame oil, 200ml vegetable stock (either made with with left over vegetable cooking water or vegetable stock powder and water) or chicken stock (either from boiling a roast chicken carcass with bay leaves or ready made) and fish sauce (nam pla). Leftover roast chicken is good added to the curry if it is available.

If anyone knows of a home grown alternative to coconut milk, (or has a tree with coconuts on it in the UK!) I’d love to hear from you.

Method

To make the green curry sauce I blend the garlic chives, lemon verbena, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, Vietnamese coriander, lime balm leaves, chillies, garlic and a 2cm piece of ginger in the food processor and then add the cold stock, a few drops of sesame oil and a splash (2-3 tsps) of fish sauce to allow the mixture to be completely blended. I find if I try to make a green Thai curry paste (without the liquid) with these ingredients, it tends to end up with stringy bits throughout. Then I add the sauce to the pan, add the coconut milk and begin to heat it gently.

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Green Thai curry sauce

Next I add the vegetables, suiting the cooking time to the type of vegetables I’m using. With the new potatoes I added them for 15 minutes until soft and then added the broad beans and kale for a further 5 minutes until all the vegetables were cooked.

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The kitchen smells amazing during the cooking

 

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My lunch bowl

To Serve…

Serve with rice (yes, I know, not many rice paddies in Hertfordshire) and a Thai salad.

Recently I’ve been adding a few vanilla grass leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius) to the rice as I boil it to add a subtle vanilla flavour. This lovely houseplant has been happy in our bathroom for the past 3 years and only needs rainwater and ericaeous feed in the summer to keep it producing leaves for the kitchen.

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Adding the vanilla grass leaves to the cooking rice

 

For the salad I usually shred some of our carrots, cucumbers and/or courgettes, spring onions or chopped chives, chopped mint, lime balm and Vietnamese coriander. Then I add chopped chillies, crushed garlic, a pinch of salt, a few drops of sesame oil and a squeeze of the honey produced on a neighbouring allotment to mix with the raw vegetables.

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Fresh salad to accompany the curry

 

Other Ideas…

How do you create international dishes with local ingredients? If you grow other useful ingredients please leave me a comment as I’d love to broaden my range of different ingredients and different cuisines. I’m hoping to grow Japanese hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) on the allotment next year so I’ll be able to add that ginger tang to my curries. I’ve also grown Thai basil from seed in previous years and used it successfully in curries, so I’ll be sowing it again next year to add extra depth to the flavour – and thanks to the reader who suggested this lovely ingredient ☺

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Next I’m planning more mouth-watering summer recipes for gluten-free scones with homemade redcurrant and strawberry jam. (Our favourite jam and very useful if you’re struggling with a glut of redcurrants!)

RHS Feel Good Front Gardens: ‘A Herbal Retreat’

Back in February I entered the RHS/BBC Local Radio competition to design a front garden for Hampton Court. It was intended to show how plants and good design can have positive effects on people’s health and happiness. Inspiration had to be local in origin and I based my design on the long history of herb growing, distillation and pharmaceutical production in my home town of Hitchin, North Hertfordshire. One of the best aspects of designing the garden was the opportunity to learn more about the role of different plants in my local history. ‘A Herbal Retreat’ was the garden which grew out of my research – a garden with exclusively herbal planting – either with culinary, medicinal or distillatory purposes.

‘A Herbal Retreat’

My garden was designed to create a herbal haven to enrich life through relaxing, aromatic planting and the production of herbs for the kitchen and medicine cabinet. The garden included a quarter herb wheel by the entrance filled with familiar culinary herbs and then took visitors on a journey along a reclaimed brick and gravel path through a range of plants (such as Echinacea, Monarda, Nepeta, Agastache and Passiflora caerulea) whose herbal properties might be less well known, to demonstrate the practical applications as well as beauty of our garden plants. In this way, the herb wheel acted as a herb garden within a herb garden.

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My design for ‘A Herbal Retreat’

The front door was adjacent to a small thyme lawn (of Thymus serpyllum) with a wooden recliner and lavender filled cushion. Two pots with mixed planting for herbal teas were situated next to the seating, with Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’, Lemon verbena ( Aloysia citrodora), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita ‘Chocolate’) and my favourite mint, Moroccan Mint (Mentha spicata crispa ‘Moroccan’). The path also included herbal planting with attractive creeping specimens like Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), Indian mint (Satureja douglasii) with its lovely white flowers, Creeping savoury (Satureja repandra) and Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus ) to soften the edges and release an enticing fragrance for visitors or anyone delivering the post.

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Woolly thyme thriving in my front path

Hitchin’s Lavender History

I showcased lavender within the garden, moving from the old variety ‘Vera’ along the boundary, likely used by William Ransom who founded the UK’s oldest pharmaceutical company in Hitchin in 1846, through to more modern cultivars in the borders. Hitchin was an important lavender producing area, with commercial production beginning in the 1800s and over 100 acres of award-winning lavender fields at its peak. William Ransom distilled the lavender for local chemist Perks & Llewellyn and the resulting product was so good that in 1851 Queen Victoria’s train stopped at Hitchin so that she could receive a bottle of essential oil.

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Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’

We also have the superb Hitchin Lavender with around 25 miles of lavender rows. Armed with a paper bag and a pair of scissors, you can amble through the field picking your own lavender for cake making or drying at home. Then there’s my favourite area – the trial grounds where I can get lost for ages in rows upon rows of different varieties. The best thing about lavender is that it epitomises herbal use – it has culinary, medicinal and distillation applications and its scent adds to the healing ambience of a garden.

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Hitchin Lavender

My garden wasn’t selected, but I learnt a lot about herbs and local history during the design process. As a result I was looking forward to visiting Hampton Court to see the winning gardens and learn a little more about some other areas of the UK.

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RHS/Local Radio Feel Good Front Gardens

 

The Winning Gardens – Manchester

I particularly liked Manchester’s Lee Burkhill ‘Fancy a Brew? Take a Pew’ with its nod to Coronation Street in the cobbled path and its exuberant planting which mixed grasses and perennials in a celebration of summer colour.

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Stunning summer colours

Red and orange Echinacea, Red Helenium, purple Verbena bonariensis and lemon Salvia shone out through the Stipa gigantea, Pennisetum ‘Cream Falls’ and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It was a calming yet uplifting summer space in which to relax with a cuppa and I’m sure many people would covet it for their own front garden (I did!)

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Soft summer froth

 

The Winning Gardens – Kent

I also enjoyed Kent’s Sarah Morgan ‘Beachscape Oyster Garden’ which used wooden planks set in gravel from the front door to take you on a journey from land, across the beach to the water’s edge. The planting was a combination of soft and spiky, with Achillea, Euphorbia and Daucus carota alongside Agapanthus, Eryngium yuccifolium, Cirsium rivulare and Festuca glauca. I loved the gabions filled with pebbles, fossils created by local school children and planted with different Sempervivum.

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Pebbles, fossils and sempervivums

The garden also included the wonderful Dianthus cruentus which I discovered at Chelsea this year and which creates amazing jewel-like spikes through other frothy planting. My only concern about this garden was that the rills taking the water to the eye-catching rusty pool were significantly raised above the level of the path – possibly creating difficulties for anyone attempting to reach the front door!

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Spiky and soft

 

Greening the Grey

At the end of the day, it matters little whether your front garden has a beach theme, includes tropical plants or references local tin mining history. What matters is that front gardens have become an endangered national resource. They are disappearing at an unprecedented rate despite our growing understanding of the importance of natural outdoor spaces on human health, flood defence and the protection of wildlife. If inspiring designs like the ones at Hampton Court can encourage people to create small green areas outside their properties, then they become part of an important movement towards recognising the value of collective green spaces and joining them up across the country for the benefit of ourselves, our wildlife and the environment.

My actual small front garden greening the grey throughout the seasons

I’d love to know your thoughts about front gardens. How does your front garden use plants to create a green space outside the house? Did you find any of the Hampton Court designs inspiring – if so which ones and why? Do you have plans to green the grey outside your house and what have other people on your street done to create green spaces?

Please leave me a comment so I can learn more about what others are doing or want to do in their front gardens. Thanks.

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Binstore Green Roof (Part 3): Plants, plants, plants…

We’ve had our binstore with its green roof since March and it’s been lovely not to return home each day to our recycling bins lining the drive. In that respect the binstore has been a great success, but until this week the green roof was only very partially planted, waiting for me to source more plants and get round to putting them in. The substrate had been added and the binstore even has resident bees nesting in the holes in the side, so now it’s time for the best bit – choosing and adding the plants.

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The thyme corner

The first plant to go in was Thymus vulgaris ‘Silver Queen’. Thyme seemed a natural choice as the site is in full sun and the substrate purposely low in nutrients to make it suitable for sedums and other alpine plants. Next I added two small sedums which I found at my local nursery – Sedum spathulifolium‘Cape Blanco’ and Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’.

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The first few plants arrive…

To Eat or Not to Eat?

I had a few Dianthus deltoides and Armeria maritima left from some planting in the front garden and gravel path, so I also added these to the roof. By this point I’d abandoned the principle of only including edible or otherwise useful plants and decided that aesthetic appeal could also count on the ‘useful’ front as they make me feel good, especially when the Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ flowered and then retained its yellow flowers for weeks and weeks. I’ve also decided not to grow alpine strawberries on the roof this year. I was intending to dig up some Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’ which I’d grown from seed last year and planted temporarily in the front garden, but their temporary position seems to be suiting them and they’re thriving, so it seems a shame to move them. Instead I’m going to grow some more from seed and plant them in the roof next year.

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Sedum flowers shining in the sun

Handy Herbs

Then, earlier this week, I was ready to add the rest of the plants. I planted an Indian Mint (Satureja douglasii) which is a lovely trailing herb with light green leaves and dainty white flowers. It can be used as edible edging in hanging baskets and containers, and although it isn’t a true mint (it’s a tender perennial), it can be used to make an aromatic mint tea. I also planted another Satureja – Satureja montana or Winter Savoury. This hardy perennial is great with mushroom dishes and in stuffing. It can also be used as a replacement for thyme in many recipes. Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) joined the herb collection, to be used as a cucumber flavoured addition to salads, sauces and sandwiches, along with French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) for adding flavour to chicken dishes.

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Thyme and dianthus settling in nicely

Edible Flowers

I’d grown two varieties of nasturtium from seed – Tropaeolum ‘Tip Top Velvet’ and Tropaeolum ‘Salmon Baby’, so I added my small plants around the back and sides of the roof. These will hopefully trail downwards to create colour and also provide spicy leaves and petals for salads. Previously I’ve grown nasturtium in the veg beds with the kids and they haven’t flowered well, possibly because the soil is too high in nutrients. I’ll be interested to see if they flower more prolifically in the lower nutrient content of the green roof substrate.

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Nasturtiums ready for planting

 

Local Treasures

Last weekend I spent 12 hours over two days selling plants I’d grown from seed at my son’s school fete and at our local community garden open day. I love meeting people who are interested in plants and helping to raise money for good causes. I also get to explore other people’s plant donations and add to my own stocks by buying a few lovely specimens. This year I bought some Sempervivum arachnoideum to add to the green roof and some cheerful dahlias for the pots at the front of the house.

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At head height the sedums and sempervivums can be appreciated in all their fine detail

Thyme and Chillies

I added another thyme – Thymus x citrodora ‘Aureo’ next to the silver thyme and then I selected several chillies from my seemingly endless collection this year – ‘Piri Piri’, ‘Habanero Red’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, Prairie Fire’ ‘Albertos Locoto’ (tree chilli) and ‘Jalapeno’ and planted them in the middle of the roof. I’m not sure whether they’ll thrive – it’s a bit of an experiment. I’m going to feed them to encourage flowering and fruiting and we’ll see how it goes.

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Chillies in their new home

Climbing Companions

Finally I planted some Thunbergia (Black-eyed Susan) at the base of the binstore where they will hopefully climb up the trellis, covering the front with summer colour and meeting the nasturtiums as they trail downwards.

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The thunbergia began to climb almost immediately

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And within a week has produced its first flower

An Inspiration Gap

There is still one space at the back of the roof which is empty. I’m not sure what to add to finish the roof for this season – it needs to be happy in full sun, be able to tolerate fairly poor soil, look attractive and, if possible, be edible. I’d love to hear any suggestions for this space as it’s always great to grow and learn about new plants.

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The final space…

Over to You…

Please leave me your plant suggestions in the comments and I’ll pick one or two to plant in the roof. I’ll include a comment below in a week or so, to explain which suggestions I’m going to get and why. Then I’ll post again later in the summer when I’ll hopefully be able to share images of the plants in at their best, including the selections offered by my readers.

Thank you in advance and do subscribe to my blog so that you’ll hear about the progress of the green roof in a few weeks’ time.

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Chillies and nasturtium waving in the wind

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The (mostly) completed green roof

10 Exciting Crops to Grow in a Modern Kitchen Garden

When we first arrived at Chelsea we made a beeline for the Great Pavilion and my favourite kind of display – those which combine beauty and productivity. I really enjoy the Pennard Plants gardens and always come away with ideas for new crops to grow the following year.

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Allotment gardens to let…

This year was no different. The gold medal winning display covered 90 years of growing, exploring how allotments have developed since 1926 and the birth of Queen Elizabeth II. The first allotment plot included a greenhouse from the 1870s and was planted with fruit and vegetables of the period. There was a regimented air to the planting with all the crops standing to attention in military rows. The plot was packed with vibrant, healthy plants and focused largely on producing as many essential vegetables as possible to supply the demand for food after WW1. The allotment contained examples of vegetables grown from Pennard Plants’ heritage seed range and also included a compost area and beehive – valuable resources then as now.

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Neat and productive 1926 allotment plot

The middle plot was a Chelsea Pensioners Allotment and emulated some of the allotment cultivation going on in the Royal Hospital every year. This time the planting was more mixed, with flowers, fruit and vegetables growing together in cheerful harmony. Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ and ‘Alaska’ provide peppery leaves and petals for salads and young seed pods can be pickled as an alternative to capers. Borage and calendula attract the pollinators and their petals can also be used in salads, whilst in the foreground Moroccan Mint and Creeping Red Thyme provide leaves for tea and add flavour to all manner of soups, stews and salads.

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The Chelsea Pensioners Allotment is both productive and beautiful

The third plot brought the story up to date with the Modern Allotment. Many of the planting was container-based in galvanised troughs allowing plot holders to move their crops between sites and enabling people to grow in the smallest of spaces. This modular and moveable approach to growing works well in rented properties. The ability to maximise growing space by adding extra soil depth to raised beds also allows gardeners with small outdoor spaces the opportunity

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My reflective shed selfie

The mirrored shed designed to merge into the background was a modern take on allotment storage and the plot also housed chickens and bees, suggesting the role of animals in modern self-sufficiency. However, it was the more unusual fruit and vegetables which lured me in – resulting in my spending a long time taking pictures, asking questions and swapping advice.

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The exciting modern allotment – with spiral trained apple tree

Some of these 10 unusual crops I’ve grown before and are now family favourites, some I’ve heard about and wanted to try, and others are exciting new discoveries. Read on to try something new or add your comments to the blog post and let me know what has worked for you, what hasn’t and any tips you’d give the novice grower:

1. Ground nut (Apios americana) – climbing herbaceous vine with edible tubers and seed pods. Mild flavour and 3 times the amount of protein of modern potatoes. Likes moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Would work well in forest gardens as it can be left to climb through shrubs or trees.

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The ground nut vine

2. Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum) – beautiful umbellifer which would be at home as much in the flower garden as the allotment. Tubers taste of chestnuts and both leaves and seeds can be used as a flavouring or garnish. Easy to grow and hardy. I’ll be trying this one out next year…

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Beautiful earth chestnut flowers

3. Red perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) – a cut and come again salad leaf from Southeast Asia. This half-hardy annual looks stunning for those who like colour in the vegetable plot or who aspire to create a potager garden as an ornamental as well as productive feature. Can be used to give a scarlet colour to pickled dishes and flower buds and seeds can also be eaten. Mild aniseed-mint flavour, milder than green varieties. Grow from seed each year.

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Striking red perilla

4. Chinese celery (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’) – beautiful variegated leaves with a pink tinge to the outer edge. Distant relative to parsley, the leaves are best steamed or used as a garnish and have a celery-like taste. Needs a moist, semi-shaded spot in the garden. Vigorous grower, hardy down to about -10.

Warning – many members of this genus are extremely poisonous, so if you intend to harvest the plant, ensure it comes clearly labelled with the correct Latin name.

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Chinese celery looks attractive and delicate

5. Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) – the Japanese horseradish root has a spicy heat which livens up all manner of dishes, such as mashed potato, salads (good in salad dressing) and marinades. The plant takes 2 years to reach maturity and needs acid soil with moist, shady conditions. It can be grown in pots of aquatic compost placed in a tray of water or in boggy ground.

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Spicy wasabi

6. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – a tuber from Peru, closely related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. They look rather like potatoes and have a taste rather like a pear crossed with mild celery – in Peru they are eaten more as a fruit than a vegetable. The plants are perennial – dig the tubers up to harvest and select several large tubers to overwinter in a frost free place. These can then be planted out the following spring.

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Yacan is another tuber worth trying…

7. Callaloo (Amarathus spp.) – this attractive plant is also known as amaranth or love lies bleeding and is often used as an ornamental specimen. The seeds can be sown direct from late May to early August and will grow into plants for cropping within 6 weeks. Leaves can be used as a cut and come again salad crop and also fried in curries or cooked in soups – basically used in the same way as spinach. My confession is that I sowed two packets of callaloo seed last year at two different times and not a single seed germinated. Any thoughts on what I was doing wrong would be gratefully received!

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Vibrant callaloo – clearly doesn’t like my garden

8. Mexican tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) – an annual which will self-seed and is a relative of quinoa and the weed fat hen (Chenopodium album) which is also edible. The young leaves and tips can be harvested continually and used as a leafy green in the same way as spinach and with a similar taste.

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Galvanised troughs with an interesting range of salad leaves – like mexican tree spinach

9. Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) – a frost tender perennial herb with a lemony coriander taste. It can be grown in a pot and overwintered indoors or simply transplanted from the ground to a pot for overwintering. Grow in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade, in rich, fertile soil. Can be eaten fresh in salads and used in soups and stews.

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Vietnamese coriander with its striking leaf patterns

10. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – a favourite tuber in our family, we’ve been growing this Andean tuber crop for several years now and this year I’m also growing 14 trial plants as part of the Guild of Oca Breeders study to develop a genetically diverse, day neutral oca which will crop more heavily in the UK than current varieties. Oca can be a range of bright colours from yellows to whites, reds and pinks. They are harvested around November and nothing makes me happier in the rather drab autumn vegetable garden than digging up a treasure trove of little red gems to roast for tea. The tubers are sweeter if left for a fortnight or so on a sunny windowsill. They have a lemony taste and can also be eaten raw. Leaves can also be eaten, provided they are taken in moderation so as not to disturb the plant’s growth and eaten in moderation as they contain oxalic acid like sorrel, spinach and rhubarb. Leaves should not be consumed if you suffer from rheumatism or arthritis.

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Oca – a family favourite

I also got a lovely collection of new chillies to grow from seed next year, recommended by Chris Smith at Pennard Plants. The rest of my family would probably say I already grow enough different chillies, but I love experimenting with new plants. If you would like to try something new, you can get more information on the Pennard Plants website. Follow my blog for more ideas on growing something a bit different and let me know how you get on…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation(Part 1)

Potager gardens, walled gardens and old-fashioned cottage gardens – all styles I love for their eclectic mix of vegetables, fruit and flowers. They can be seen as nostalgic, whimsical, outmoded; gardens which exist in an historical context, from time to time tempting modern gardeners into grand estates or rural open garden shows, but without contemporary relevance. Their visual, almost casual beauty belies the amount of hard graft behind such dual purpose gardens, which needed to create an aesthetic impact whilst also fulfilling a practical role for the household – whether that be a cottage with two occupants or a grand estate of many hundreds.

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My veggie bed with a mix of edible flowers, flowers for cutting and vegetables (plus Billy the Scarecrow!)

Modern gardens don’t have to provide us with medicinal herbs which are unavailable elsewhere, they rarely need to feed large estates, or provide food for families who have no access to other sources of nourishment. But they do have to work as hard as in the past, especially modern small gardens which are required to fulfil a number of purposes. Many have an assortment of children’s toys sprawled untidily across the centre (ours often does), they are required to provide aesthetic appeal with flower borders, containers and other key features. They are intended to attract wildlife, to create space for entertaining, cooking and relaxing,  and some even have to provide fruit and vegetables for the table. As our requirements for our gardens increase and their size diminishes, the pressure on outdoor spaces to cater for many purposes grows. In this way we could be seen as returning to these older styles of gardening where the garden has to work hard to earn its keep. In spaces too small to allow different areas for each function, the potager style works well as each part of the garden can be used in multifunctional ways.

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Our much-loved, but enormous slide and swings

We moved into our current house six years ago and have just finished the major changes on the garden (although I know it will always be changing and evolving and that’s the fun bit). Now there’s no major designing and restructuring to do, I thought it might be good to look back over the past six years at what we’ve achieved and where I hope it might go next.

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Original tidy but rather dull border

Six years ago our back garden was uninspiring, with established shrub borders, a small rotting shed, a lovely little greenhouse and a fair-sized lawn. The garden is about 9m by 13m and is north-east facing, without much shading tree cover and fenced all round. I guess many people would have viewed the garden as low-maintenance, finished and tidy, but I saw it as an opportunity to create a garden which packs as much in as possible without seeming too busy or chaotic.

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This side had an empty gravel border which emphasised the concrete fence base and an overgrown Ceanothus

My first aim was to replicate the semi-wildness of my childhood garden for my kids. I grew up in a 1/3 acre garden in Cheshire with several mature trees, a vegetable and fruit garden and a wild patch at the bottom. The wild patch existed quite happily without having an impact on the rest of the garden as it was unviewed fron the house and therefore an ideal place for secret club meetings, wildlife watching and endless hours of tree climbing with an apple and a book. We have no trees big enough to climb in our current garden, nor much likelihood of growing any, so I decided to create a willow den in the flower border to give the kids an area where they could exist unobserved.

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Behind the shrubs, the border was empty and unused

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The garden had a good-sized lawn

We kept the lawn (although we extended the border area) and the greenhouse, which had been one of the things which had initially attracted me to the garden. I replaced the shed with a larger potting shed, in which I’ve spent many productive, happy hours in the past five years, creating a small plant empire and generally pottering, in teeming storms, muggy afternoons and evenings so dark I’ve needed a headtorch.

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Love my potting shed…

Initially we removed the large Thuja which were blocking light from the garden and then cleared out the back border, giving many of the plants away to local people though Freecycle. My main aim was to get the fruit trees and bushes established first as these would take the longest to become productive. Now, five years on from planting, the plum, apples, greengage, cherry (in a pot) and pear (in a pot) are really getting into their stride and we’ve been harvesting superb crops from the raspberries, currants, blueberries (in pots) and rhubarb for several years. We chose espalier apple trees along the side fence (‘James Grieve’, ‘Egremont Russet’ and ‘Bountiful’), two dessert apples and one cooker/dessert. ‘Bountiful’ went in the shadiest spot near the house, as cookers can tolerate more shade, and we planted short hedges of lavender and rosemary to create areas for herbs between the trees. We now have three modestly productive espaliers, now with four tiers, and a thriving herb border with sage, chives, garlic chives, assorted mints (sunk in pots), thyme (which has been fabulous for the past five years, but didn’t like the wet winter so now needs replacing), majoram, chamomile, lavender and rosemary.

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After planting the espaliers

I’ve also added bulbs with varying levels of success. The snowdrops along the side of the lawn are thriving and the white hyacinths which I planted around the base of each apple tree have increased threefold and look and smell stunning in the spring. Tulips were less successful as the area is mulched with bark and slugs (the latter not intentionally) so I gave up the tulip struggle in this border as they emerged eaten and misshapen year after year. Alliums are more successful and the Allium sphaerocephalon increase each year. This year, however, the stock of larger allium like Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium christophii looks diminished and I wonder if the wet winter is again to blame (we do have quite heavy soil here, but I usually use grit under bulbs when planting which seems to help with longevity.)

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Espaliers, herbs and Lonicera ‘Hall’s Prolific’ on the house wall beginning to get established

 

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The alliums at their best in the herb/espalier border

Winter clematis (‘Freckles’ and ‘Jingle Bells’) thrive up one of the espalier poles and Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ up another. The final post supports Vitis vinifera ‘Reliance’, which last year gave us our first harvest of sweet, seedless pink grapes.

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Clematis ‘Freckles’ flowers non-stop throughout the winter

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Clematis ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Arctic Queen’ twine together up the post

At the back of the garden around the fruit trees I’ve planted several varieties of Narcissus which look and smell lovely in the spring, along with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Primula vulgaris, Fritillarea meleagris and two Cotoneaster horizontalis which were found in the garden as seedlings and have been trained up the shed wall as coverage for insects and berries for the birds.

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Fruit trees becoming established

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Daffodils at their best this year

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Early dwarf daffodils emerging – the logs are sections from the tree in the front which we removed as it was too large, too close to the house

 

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Plum heaven…

On the back fence, between the dogwoods and primroses we have a blackberry ‘Apache’ which gives us lovely blossom followed by huge, sweet fruit which form the basis of sorbets, stewed apple and blackberry and fruit leathers in late summer. It fits in perfectly with the potager style – combining beauty and utility, covering a boundary with foliage, flowers and fruit.

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This bench catches the afternoon and evening sun – perfect for a late cuppa and a book

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Other pop-up structures the garden has to contend with…

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Our DIY tent

So much for the herb/espalier border and the fruit tree area which I, rather grandly, call the spring garden in reference to the blooming of the daffodils, primroses and fruit blossom from March to May. In the next post I’ll take a look back at the development of the fruit cage, vegetable beds, willow den and flower border. All testament to the fact that you can include much of what you want in a garden, if you are prepared to think a bit outside the box (willow den in a flowerbed), embrace the potager style and let your imagination run wild…

Read about the transformation in the rest of the garden in next week’s blog post…

Out with the Ugly: Bin with the New

Cars, concrete, lines of brightly coloured bins – not easy to integrate into a friendly front garden. My front garden, like many others around the country, has to accommodate these elements, but I’m determined they will not dominate it. I’ve already cut down the 20 year old Swedish Whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia) which was growing too close to the house and darkening our inside space. Then there was the removal of the patchy front lawn – not sure all my neighbours understood that one! Now I have a little planted space with evergreen structure and bright spring, summer and autumn flowers (more on that later) and a narrow gravel path with stepping stones interplanted with creeping herbs – Woolly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), Lawn Camomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and Pennyroyal Mint (Mentha pugelium) and edged with delicate Thrift (Armeria ‘Rubifolia’). Beautiful, but not enough to completely deflect attention from the imposing purple and brown bins still lining the drive.

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From this…

 

 

 

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To this…

 

Mini Green Roof Beginnings

At Hampton Court last year I saw the beautiful blue binstore in the Community Garden and fell in love. I took lots of photos and spent ages asking questions about the construction and planting of the green roof. Unfortunately my budget wouldn’t stretch to an aluminium binstore, so with the help of a local carpenter, I planned a wooden structure with a green roof to hide my bins from the side view. Now it’s in place and the next task is to decide on the growing medium and plant it up.

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Loved this binstore

 

Crushed brick conundrum

At the moment the base of the green roof is lined with a plastic waterproof membrane and there is a drainage hose covered with a screwed down tea strainer. The base is filled with a shallow layer of 10/20mm gravel whilst I debate what growing medium to use. I’m planning a 30%/70% – inorganic aggregate/green waste compost mix and trying to decide between recycled crushed brick and expanded clay pebbles. The former is more sustainable and I can get it locally – but only in 20 tonne lorry loads. Currently I require about 90 litres, so I’d have enough left over to green roof the rest of my street! I’m pretty sure crushing the bricks myself isn’t a viable option as the particles really need to be 2-5mm and that’d be a lot of lump hammer wielding. Alternatively I can hire a crusher for upwards of £300 a day (!) So I’m coming to the conclusion that the local sustainable option isn’t viable unless I can find another 40 people locally who also want crushed brick for their own green roofs.

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Tea, anyone?

Having fun with plants

So with the rudimentary drainage system sorted and the growing medium (nearly) sorted I should soon be able to start the most interesting part of the experiment – the planting. The front garden is south-west facing and should be ideal for herbs. I’m intending to move a group of white alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca ‘White Soul’) which I grew from seed from under the apple tree in the front garden to the roof, where they’ll get more sun. Then I’ll add herbs like Lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) and the trailing Indian mint (Satureia douglasii), alongside Sempervivums (which can also be used for medicinal purposes and which I think are really attractive little plants). I’m planning on growing some Black-Eyed Susan from seed to climb up the external trellis and to complement the planting in the narrow strip between mine and next door’s garden which is due to commence in a few weeks (more on that later too). And I might fit in a couple of my Cucamelons (Melothria scabra) to grow up it too for an extra edible treat. Who knows what the bin store will look like when it’s finished and what plants will ultimately take up residence on the roof as I experiment merrily. All I know is I’ll have a lot of fun and learn a lot along the way. See the next stage of the process in my next bin blog post and read about the creatures that call it home

 

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New bin storage with green roof nearly ready to be planted

 

 

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And a side border to fill with goodies…

 

 

If you have planted up a green roof I’d be interested to hear what worked and anything which didn’t work. Please leave me a comment – this is my first blog post and I’ll no doubt have lots of learning to do…

 

Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.