Cutting Patch: Into The Limelight

Last month I wrote about my allotment woes which had resulted in an accidental potato monoculture, but since then the allotment has been working hard, producing an exciting range of cut flowers by the bucketload. After an inspiring spring harvest of daffodils and tulips, I planted summer corms and tubers, and sowed a host of seeds with the intention of filling the house with brilliant colour and heady scent all summer long.

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This lot had to come back from the lottie in a bucket!

Taking Stock

I planned the summer cutting patch way back in January and it’s been a tale of two halves – with the gladioli and dahlias providing vivid, deep blooms which have lasted well both in the ground and in vases, whilst some of my seeds failed to germinate or develop strongly. Notable exceptions are the cosmos, sweet peas, cerinthe, rudbeckia, zinnia, salvia, nasturtium, bells of Ireland and calendula  – all now flowering with relish and abandon in the allotment and garden. Less successful were the bunny tail grass, poppies, scarlet flax and hare’s ear, so I’ll be having another go with these from seed next year and trying to sow a little earlier to give me a second chance if there are germination issues.

Limelight

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I was impressed by the height and impact of this year’s gladioli

Bright colours – deep magenta, rich purples and zingy lime greens were my inspiration this year. To this I added some soft creams with Dahlia ‘Cafe au Lait’ and ‘Henriette’, the arresting yellow/orange of Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ and the odd accidental bright orange Zinnia. These colours have given me lots of different combinations to play with – my favourites have all included the fresh limes of Gladioli ‘Green Star’, Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ and Moluccella laevis (Bells of Ireland), which act as a foil to the darker colours whilst adding a viridescent joy all of their own.

Pinks

Favourite pink performances this year have included Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Double Click Cranberries’, Gladioli ‘Plum Tart’ and Dahlia ‘Ambition’ and ‘Downham Royal’.

 

The dahlia patch just gets better and better

Purples

The combination of Salvia viridis ‘Blue’ (actually a purple colour) with the lime gladioli is perhaps the display which has given me most pleasure this summer. It has a fresh spontaneity which lights up the kitchen and really brings the outside in. Here I’ve added the orange Dahlia ‘New Baby’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ and Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’. We also had our old favourite Gladioli ‘Flevo Cool’ – a dwarf gladioli which survived being potted up and moved earlier in the year, Gladioli ‘Purple Flora’ with rich deep purple flowers and another rogue zinnia!

 

Oranges, Reds and Yellows

I have always found myself tending towards blue, purple, cream and white colour palettes, but in the last couple of years I’ve been experimenting with the rusty oranges of Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, alongside Thunbergia alata, Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’ and Potentilla x tonguei. This year’s cutting patch has confirmed my new appreciation for brighter flowers and I now can’t imagine my garden without a mix of vibrant and more restrained colours. Highlights at the vivid end of the spectrum have included Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ (definitely a keeper), Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Scarlet’, Argyranthemum ‘Grandaisy Pink Halo’ (more of a cherry red colour) and Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’, ‘Con Amore’, ‘Jowey Mirella’ and ‘Sam Hopkins’.

 

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New Plan(t)s

In January, I ended my post with the hope that the seeds, corms, tubers and bulbs I intended to sow and plant in the cutting patch would create a little magic during the year. The reality has exceeded all my expectations and I’ve really enjoyed learning more about growing annual flowers for cutting, to add to my love of growing edibles. Although I think my heart will always lie with perennials, edibles and plants which encourage wildlife into the garden, I do feel there’s a place for a cutting patch in my allotment next year – many of the flowers (like nasturtiums, calendula and cerinthe) have brought in the pollinators and the bright colours have lifted my heart. The cutting patch has provided flowers for my house and to give away to family and friends – bringing a little garden magic indoors. Now I’m starting to think about the mix for next year and I’m interested to know what has worked well for other gardeners.

What flowers have you grown this year which you wouldn’t be without? Are there any other green flowers/foliage which I should add to the limelight?

My go to suppliers for bulbs, tubers, corms and seeds:

Suttons – wide selection of seeds, plants and tubers with really interesting varieties like Ranunculus ‘Mirabelle Vert Mix’

Sarah Raven – lovely collections of bulbs and seeds – I particularly like the rich, deep Venetian collections

Special Plants Nursery – I always learn about new plants from the Special Plants Catalogue and the range of unusual flowers is breathtaking

If you’d like to follow my blog and read about my planning for next year’s cutting patch and a new perennial border over the autumn months, you can click below to subscribe, thanks very much and happy gardening…

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We aren’t the only ones enjoying the dahlias this year!!! 🙂

Tattie Troubles And Other Allotment Affairs

One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…

Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.

Filling Space

Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.

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Potato paradise or monocultural monotony?

But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to  try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.

One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…

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Potatoes through membrane – before they were sun-fried

The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.

In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.

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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing…

Growing Resolutions

Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:

  • to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
  • to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
  • to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime

In Other News…

The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.

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Gentle posy from the cutting patch

The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.

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Iridescent marsh mallow flowers

If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.

I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂

If you’d like to follow the blog and read more my allotment and garden, including more detail in upcoming posts on flowers for cutting and more unusual vegetables, you can subscribe below – thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Planning a Cutting Patch: Annual Choices

The winter garden is waiting, the new raised beds watching me through the windows, daring me to step out into the frost, the drizzle, the sunshine to tackle a host of gardening jobs. Instead I’ve been cooking, eating, playing, crafting, walking, cycling and enjoying this unusually long period of family time together. But this afternoon I snatched a quick break to curl up with a notepad, some new seed catalogues and my seed packets to plan the annual layer for the new cutting patch.

Bulb Base Layer

Since I last wrote about the cutting patch (in Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time) I have buried all the Narcissi and Tulips deep down, ready for spring.

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The tulips were planted in trenches on a layer of grit to aid drainage

It’s now time to consider what will grow around and alongside the bulbs and how I will produce flowers and foliage for cutting throughout the spring, summer and autumn.

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An empty plot – with hidden treasure…

My seed packets make me smile with all their potential for colour and texture for flower arrangements in the New Year. I’ve already amassed a lovely collection: Lathyrus odoratus ‘Midnight Blues’, ‘Fragrantissima’ and ‘Floral Tribute’, Antirrhinum ‘Royal Bride’ (a lovely tall, white snapdragon), Cosmos ‘Purity’ (a particular favourite), Papaver somniferum ‘Irish Velvet’ and ‘Paeony Black’, Calendula ‘Daisy Mixed’ and ‘Sherbert Fizz’ (which I admired at Chelsea, so grew myself last year and liked), Nigella papillosa ‘African Bride’ (another favourite), Tropaeolum majus ‘Milkmaid’ (love the milky colour of this nasturtium and can’t wait to try it), Euphorbia oblongata (a short-lived perennial, often grown as an annual for cutting), Ammi majus (a winner in my current flower border for its delicate, feathery umbels), Coreopsis ‘Unbelievable!’ and Centaurea cyanus ‘Polka Dot’ and ‘Classic Romantic’ (you can’t have a cutting patch without cornflowers).

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Temptation…

I’ve also been sent a few treats to trial by Suttons Seeds (a company I’ve been using for years) like Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis – with tall spikes of fresh green bells), Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (once I’d seen this white beauty with its dark eye I had to try it), Bunny Tails (Lagurus ovatus – an annual grass with fluffy white tops which is great for cutting) and the Scented Garden Collection (Sweet William ‘Perfume Mix’, Sweet Pea ‘Patio Mix’, Night Phlox, Lavender ‘Blue Wonder and Brompton Stock) which I’ll be including in the mix (as the patch will also include biennials and perennials too – more on these in a later post.)

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Greens, dark purples and rusty oranges are my colours this year

Then, like many of my fellow seed addicts (there should be a mutual support group – maybe I’ll set one up…), I have been enticed into a few extra annual purchases in search of floral perfection. My current order comprises: Bupleurum griffithii with its acid yellow flowers and lime green leaves (I’m definitely after green foliage and flowers to offset the deeper colours of the dahlias, tulips and others), Centaurea ‘Black Ball’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ (stalwart of any cutting patch), Cosmos ‘Double Click Cranberries’ (what a stunning colour), Crepis rubra (this pink Hawksbeard/dandelion lookalike wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste, but I encountered it on a course this year and fancied a try), Daucus carota ‘Purple Kisses’ (more umbellifer indulgence), Linum grandiflorum rubrum (Scarlet Flax – another beautiful new flower for me this year), Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’ and Zinna elegans ‘Benarys Lime Green’ and ‘Benarys Giant Scarlet’.

I don’t imagine I’ll get round to sowing all of these, or indeed have the room to plant out a row of each, but I’m hoping most will find their way into the new cutting patch. Out of this marvellous annual selection, along with the bulbs, tubers and perennials, I must, surely, be able to create a little magic in 2017?

What are you planning to include in annual planting this year? Any thoughts for additions to my list to extend the season or offer alternative colours or textures would be great too. Thanks  🙂

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              With very best wishes for a happy and peaceful New Year xxx  🙂

Allotment Soup Challenge: Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut

I love making soup. Homemade soup was a big part of family lunchtime when I was a child and I’ve carried on the tradition, making soups out of everything I can get my hands on. My favourite soup cookbook is a faded copy of ‘Soup and Beyond’ which I’ve had since I was a student. I really like the way it broadens traditional soup horizons, with combinations such as ‘Potato, Leek and Lavender Soup’ and ‘Prince and Pedlar Soup’ (quince and medlar). This recipe book, alongside a keen interest in more unusual crops, has led me to play with all sorts of soupy concoctions – most of which have tickled enough taste buds that they’ve been reprised multiple times, for example, our family favourite cream of kohl rabi soup (which alas has not been possible from the allotment this year for molluscular reasons – see Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016).

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Love this book

Allotment Soup Challenge

So I decided I’d set myself challenge for the next few months – to make as many different soups with produce from allotment 96B as I can – to trial new flavour combinations and to make the most of our homegrown produce. There’s nothing better than soup to use up leftover vegetables and to warm your cockles when your heart is feeling rather chilly, for whatever reason. So here goes… the first soup is with the leftover Jerusalem artichokes, harvested last week, mostly used in stir-fries, but with some sorry specimens (not a problem in soup) hiding at the back of the veggie drawer. It’s a good job the soup is nourishing and tasty as there’s an awful lot more artichokes where these came from – whoever had our allotment before us really liked the knobbly tubers and we could currently supply the majority of Hertfordshire until Christmas and beyond…

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Our first plant produced this sizeable pile – only 20 more plants to go!

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sweet chestnut soup 🌰

Ingredients

500g Jerusalem artichokes

150g sweet chestnuts

250g potato

1 onion

200ml stock

200ml milk

100ml single cream

1 tsp winter savoury (could use thyme but it might have a less protective effect on your digestive system – see below!)

Salt/black pepper to taste

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We’ve been happily adding these seasonal treats to gravy, soups and casseroles for the past couple of weeks

Method

Roast the chestnuts (with a cross slit in their shells) and the scrubbed artichokes in the oven at 180ºc for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are soft (don’t need to add oil). Meanwhile, boil the peeled, chopped potatoes, winter savoury leaves and halved onion in the stock and milk until the vegetables are soft. When cooled, combine the stock, milk, onion, winter savoury and potatoes with the artichokes (which can be skinned at this point, or as I did, squeezed out of their skins – messy but fun!)

Blend the soup and when it is smooth add the chopped chestnuts and salt and pepper to taste. The soup can then be blended again until there are only small nuggets of chestnut to add a bit of bite to the soft soup. Heat in a pan and serve with crusty bread. It really is pretty simple… and delicious.

You might want to eat fairly sparingly to begin with as the effects of Jerusalem artichokes can be rather potent on the unwary digestive system, but the winter savoury should help take the wind out of the Jerusalem artichokes’ sails, so to speak.  😉

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Fresh, nutty and delicious soup

Please leave me a comment – especially if you have any suggestions about other ways of cooking with Jerusalem artichokes – or producing power with them, or any other ideas as I’m not convinced our collective digestion systems will cope with eating all of them over winter, so we need to dream up some alternative uses!!  🙂

Taking Stock: The Three Worst Crops of 2016

Ups and downs are part of every growing year and 2016 has seen some exciting highs interspersed with a few depressing failures. We’ve had our first quince crop from Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’ with ten glorious downy fruits from our three year old tree. (Actually nine now as a passing individual delivering leaflets pulled one off the tree, presumably thinking it was an apple, bit into it, discovered it was unpleasant – being actually a quince and unripe – and discarded it in our front garden.)

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Early on the fruits are covered in a downy fur which has now nearly disappeared

 

Sweet Success 🙂

The dwarf plum tree ‘Opal’ has given us a bumper harvest and we had a basket of greengages ‘Cambridge Gage’ for the first time which were utterly sublime – easily the sweetest, most aromatic fruit I’ve ever tasted. Three of our four apples trees have produced fruit, which is actually the best we’ve ever managed as the espaliers are planted in shallow ground where we had to use a pickaxe to remove as much concrete as possible, so they have a tendency to sulk and become biennial at times. But better to have beautiful espaliers for flowers, fruit and habitat for wildlife than bare concrete fence bases.

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One of our many baskets of plums which are now filling the freezer

Allotment 96B has yielded many baskets of potatoes, trombocinos and round courgettes aplenty, runner and broad beans, celeriac, rhubarb, currants, strawberries, raspberries, beetroot, carrots, achocha, shallots and onions, all within its first six months. There’s oca and Jerusalem artichokes still to harvest and the cucumbers, tomatoes and chillies are still racing to ripen their fruit in the greenhouse before the frosts descend. Throughout spring, summer and autumn, a most satisfying harvest has been making its way onto our plates and into our cupboards in the form of jam, jellies, chutneys and pickles. But a few crops have not managed to keep up – in most cases because I’ve not paid enough attention to them – and herein lie the lessons for next year…

Pear Crop 😦

We bought a patio pear tree several years ago which grows in a pot at the sunniest end of the garden. It faces a patio cherry, also in a pot, which has started to yield a small harvest of tasty cherries each year which we protect from the birds with netting just before the cherries begin to ripen. The pear gave us five fruit in each of the last couple of years which was not too bad, considering its age and size, but this year it plumbed new depths by managing one ugly, round blob of a fruit.

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The blob

I think it has finally outgrown its pot and needs to be potted on. I bought a lovely black pot for this purpose a few years ago, but didn’t pot it on when we got it as I did with the larger cherry, as I was concerned about overpotting. If the small rootball had been placed above wet compost, it could well fail to thrive in the anaerobic root conditions this would create. So I’ll be repotting the pear after leaf-fall this autumn and feeding it well next spring to help it develop the required energy to fruit successfully in future years.

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The bigger pot at the back should help this tree thrive next year

 

Kohl Rabi 😦

Many years ago I visited Zell am See in Austria and stayed for a week in the lovely Grand Hotel where we’d managed to get a discounted room. The scenery was stunning and the wildlife breathtaking. We swam in the lake, listened to live piano music with afternoon tea on the waterfront and cycled in the countryside seeking (and finding) red-backed shrikes. Every evening we had a 5 course meal – one course was always soup – delicate, creamy soups which introduced us to celeriac and kohl rabi. Since that holiday we’ve regularly made soup with these two underrated vegetables and we’ve tried growing both at various times. Celeriac has been unsuccessful in the garden, probably because it needs fertile, moisture retentive soil in full sun and our raised beds do have a tendency to dry out. But Allotment 96B already had celeriac growing in it when we took over in April – rather old and tired, but I managed to salvage some for soup. We’ve planted more this year and I’m hopeful we might get a modest crop in a few weeks.

Kohl rabi, on the other hand, hasn’t had such an easy time of it. I’ve grown it successfully in the garden before and love the smooth white or purple UFOs – the swollen stems of the plants. This year I tried growing it on the allotment. Early on the slugs decided they deserved kohl rabi more than me and they attacked it in earnest. They ate into the developing stems, hollowing the circles and eventually killing the plants. I had a spare bit of copper tape with which I encircled the base of one plant, buying it a little time. But eventually, it too succumbed to the relentless ninja slug patrol.

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There are beets and courgettes, but no kohl rabi this year – this photo is from 2014

I’m sad there will be no kohl rabi this year, as much for the beautiful form of the vegetable, as for its taste. But next year I’m sowing both the purple and white varieties. I’m planning a special area in the raised beds in the garden where I can raise a kohl rabi army and defeat the slugs through increased vigilance and special vegetable training sessions.

Inca Berries (Physalis/Cape Gooseberry) 😦

I’m a sucker for the weird and wonderful (as you probably know if you’ve been following the blog) and I first grew inca berries four years ago. Prior to this year I’ve always grown them from seed and they’ve developed late and produced a poor crop. This year I decided to treat myself to plug plants in order to get bigger specimens sooner. I potted on the six plugs when they arrived and continued to repot and feed them throughout the spring. I pinched out the tops of three and left the others to see if encouraging them to branch would help crop production. Now, five months later, I have six lanky, healthy looking plants (some branching, some not) with about 25 fruits between them. Not enough to make the Mrs Beeton jelly recipe I’ve been hankering after unfortunately. Don’t know why mine always grow so tall and produce so few fruit. Maybe the greenhouse doesn’t suit them due to reduced light levels, although I’ve tried them outside in previous years and had no fruit at all. Maybe I need to pinch them out more during the season? I’d be grateful for any ideas here please – the jury’s still out on whether I’ll bother again next year.

Inca berries have attractive flowers and fruits

I guess I’m not alone in feeling fed up when I’ve nurtured a plant for months and planned what I might do with the harvest, only to get little or nothing at the end of it. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth it and whether it might just be easier to stick to more conventional crops or buy all my fruit and vegetables from the shops. Then I watch the kids picking Chilean guavas from the front hedge on their way home from school and suddenly it’s all worth it.

Chilean guavas ripe for the picking

If you have grown any of these edibles with more success than me (not difficult), do leave me a comment or some advice below. Or maybe you’d like to share some of the successes or crop disasters of 2016. It’s always great to read about what other gardeners are up to. Thanks  🙂

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my growing experiences this year, you can follow the blog to get updates on the rest of my harvest and my plans for 2017 which will include my new allotment cutting flower bed and a revamp of the border in the back garden…

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