Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Plants by post

A month or so ago, I took a tentative step into the world of ordering plants over the internet. It's a bit nervewracking; what if the plants that arrive aren't in good condition? What if you're out when they arrive, and they wilt while waiting at the depot?

Neither of these things happened. The pansies, patio pinks and clematises turned up a few days ago and have duly been planted. They all arrived in good condition, packed ingeniously in a sort of plastic pot-cum-protective-greenhouse inside a cardboard box. The clematises were a lot tinier than I was expecting, but they're supposed to be hardy for immediate planting outside, so I'm crossing my fingers.

A winter vegetable collection appeared this morning: five plants each of "Offenham Flower of Spring" cabbages, "Sakura" calabrese (chunky broccoli), and "Hungry Gap" kale. The latter is really for our guinea pigs, which consider kale to be a fine delicacy (let's hope the slugs don't). These were rooted in compost, but came loose in plastic bags inside a cardboard box - they arrived in perfect condition as far as I could tell, though. Planting them was a muddy job. It hasn't rained in the last few days, but all the rain over the summer has made our clay soil very heavy and claggy.

I'm amused that the calabrese is called "Sakura", which is Japanese for cherry blossom. I've looked it up on Google Images, and it's definitely not pink. Maybe it refers to the season at which it's ready to eat?

The new sowings of spinach and salad vegetables haven't done anything very impressive. I suspect that it's been too rainy and cool for them to get off to a good start, and the plague of slugs got what did appear. We've also not had any visible flowers on the squash; there are buds - they've been there for a while - but they don't seem to open, which doesn't bode very well.

However, we have had some tomatoes off our plants, and there are a lot more to come - my cousin gave us a glut of hers, though, so we're not yet picking them to ripen indoors. The peas never produced very heavily; I think they don't get enough sunshine where I put them. The few pods we had were delicious. We have beans ready to pick, and a lot of flowers.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Scottish Garden Show, sun and rain

Looking back at the summer, I see that it started fairly promisingly. June was warm; the photos Mum took at the Edinburgh Garden Show look very nice and sunny. We had a lovely day there and I came back loaded with plants (a passionflower, a doronicum, some scented pinks and a heuchera).

The passionflower was for the front garden, to train over our fence, which is basically some welded scaffolding poles set into a brick wall, and therefore a trifle post-industrial for our tastes. I have also lately acquired two Japanese maple trees for the front. Or one day they'll be trees.

I originally went looking for one at a big garden centre and couldn't find any for less than £120, which seemed a lot of money, especially given that we will probably move to a bigger house at some point in the next few years. So when Mum told me that they had them at Tesco (supermarket) for a tenner each, I speedily acquired one. I spent some time picking out the largest and healthiest.

Once planted, it looked absolutely minute. It's actually less than a foot high - it looked bigger in the shop because it was in a pot. Mum took pity on me and bought me a larger specimen for £30ish at a different garden centre. It's a different colour, so it now looks as though I have two of different sizes on purpose. I hope.

The vegetable garden got off to a fairly good start, although all of my courgette plants got eaten by slugs AGAIN. I don't have any luck with courgettes. Probably I planted them out too early again. I didn't have any more courgette seeds, but I did have butternut squash, so I planted a couple of those and they are still alive and producing leaves and buds.

The sugar snap peas produced for about three months, though they're now almost finished by the look of things; I feel I should have planted more of them, but I felt that last year. One year I'll get it right. Coming along to replace them we have green beans and ordinary peas, although the beans have taken a while to flower and the current pods are very tiny. The ordinary peas don't seem as hardy or slug-resistant as the sugar snaps; it's taken them a while to get going too.

The spinach was a runaway success, so much so that the veg plot became a huge spinach thicket and the rocket which was growing alongside got totally choked. We ate it every other day for a couple of months, after which the plants were going to seed. Towards the end of July I picked every usable leaf, washed it and froze it (that was a fun job), and then yanked out the stringy stalks and replanted with more spinach (a smaller quantity) and French salad mix. I have more rocket and salad mix in trays; we'll see how it does. The original planting of spinach took a lot longer to get going than advertised, so although everything is still tiny, I'm not too concerned.

Since the grand spinach harvest, the weather has been distinctly soggy. Again. And not very warm. My tomato plants have lots of little tomatoes, but I'm not sure how quickly they'll ripen if we don't get any sun. Still, last year the tomatoes didn't get picked until December, and were tiny in the extreme.

These ones are bigger and there are a lot more of them, though hardly a glut yet. I'm holding out some hope for an Indian summer.

The biggest success story has been the potatoes, in a large container outside the back door. They've been no trouble whatsoever, and have produced delicious new potatoes about as often as we wanted to eat them*. Admittedly there are only two of us; if you have a bigger family you might want two containers or more. I am going to try replanting with a late variety if I can get them.

I am also going to try some winter vegetables: calabrese, cabbage and kale (the guinea pigs adore this.) We'll see how it goes.

*We did have to relearn how to cook them. Really fresh new potatoes need a very short cooking time indeed, and tend to dissolve if boiled. We've had much better luck doing them in the microwave, in a Pyrex lidded container with a little water for five minutes or so.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Weather continues unsettled

I have moved the containers with the delicate plants indoors, where we can trip over them until mid-April. And I potted up all the other seedlings/little plants into larger pots. Amazingly, I did not cover the entire world in compost while doing this, which is a first.

The plants all seem happy so far, although the trays holding them now take up nearly the whole kitchen table. When we move house, whenever that is, I am holding out for lots of south-facing windows with broad sills. Or possibly a greenhouse. This house has smallish windows, which makes it very efficient to heat but cuts down on the places you can put plant-pots.

I also, rather daringly, re-potted the lovely yellow orchid which sits on our bedroom windowsill. The poor thing had big thick roots coming out of the bottom of its pot and spiralling round and round the cache-pot, but I was a bit worried that, this being so, I'd damage it getting it out of the pot. We'll see. I didn't snap anything off, or gouge lumps out. We've had it about a year and it's flowered beautifully (it's now on its third flowering stem) so I'll be sorry if this turns out to be a mistake.

Looking down from the bedroom window, you get an aerial view of the lawn, which is my next major concern. My mother has a theory that if it's green and growing in your lawn, and isn't a dandelion, it's grass. You could just about believe this if you squint at mine with half-shut eyes. If you don't, there are big lumps of clover, and large patches which are a sort of lime-green and are definitely moss. Irritatingly, the neighbours on both sides (neither of whom have anything in the way of plants in their gardens) have lawns which look much better.

I wouldn't mind the moss that much - it's soft and green, isn't it? which is mostly what I want from a lawn - but two summers ago, the weather was dryish and all the moss died and left big brown swathes which had to be pulled out and re-seeded. The wet summer last year obviously brought it back with a vengeance.

I must do something about it soon if I'm going to, because we want to be able to put the guinea pigs on the lawn during the summer, which means we can't put fertilizer or weedkiller on it for some weeks beforehand. Sigh. It's not so much that I don't want to do the work, but the lawn's going to look pretty scruffy for a while once I've yanked out all the unwanted stuff.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

The only pretty ring-time

I'm beginning to feel I was perhaps a tiny bit over-optimistic getting started with vegetables so soon in the year. March is coming in like a lion.

Last year I left buying bedding plants a bit late, and there was hardly anything left, so I didn't want to make that mistake again. So a few weeks back, during a rare visit to a garden centre, I bought some little petunias and geraniums and impatiens and things, and was encouraged to plant them out by a bit of mild weather (and the fact that they were rapidly outgrowing the big tray I keep pots with seedlings in). So I planted up a few containers which had had annuals in them.

Disaster. It then became very windy and rainy again, and they're all looking a bit battered. Some of the impatiens (supposed to be a hardy variety) have lost almost all their leaves. Fortunately, I have more I could replace them with, but it's a waste of money and I feel like a failure when things die on me.

The vegetables are cheaper since they're mostly grown from seed, but more effort. Right now I have five courgette seedlings, all of which have their first real leaf, which is apparently the point at which you should plant them out. And this is probably true, since last time I waited until they were much further on, and the wind and rain promptly battered their papery leaves to shreds. It seems that leaves which emerge amid wind and rain are tougher than those which emerge in the shelter of your kitchen. You're supposed to plant out only the strongest seedlings, but all of mine look equally sturdy just now.

On the other hand, all the advice I seem to find says that courgettes shouldn't be planted out until April or May in the UK. By which time they'll have many more than three leaves, and the same thing will probably happen again. Actually, going by my Flickr it looks as though the seedlings were still on the kitchen table on the 24th of April last year.

So I don't really know what to do, other than invent a suspended-animation machine. I did buy some cloches (very expensive cloches, considering they consist solely of a piece of moulded polythene) in the hope that these would ward off the wind and the slugs. But do they provide enough protection for me to plant them out now? Or should I just pot them up and wait?

I could plant them out, see what happens, and then start again with some new seeds at the end of March if they all die, I suppose. But I don't want them to die. Perhaps I am too sentimental to make a proper gardener.

The sugar snap pea seedlings that I planted out last week (under very expensive cloches) seem to be doing absolutely fine, but then they are meant to be a cool-weather crop. I sowed early spinach the same day, but I'm not expecting to see green bits for another week.

I also have tomato seedlings (not grown from seed), but they're definitely getting planted up into bigger pots before I trust them to the great outdoors.

The seven chilli-pepper seedlings on our bedroom windowsill are looking good and showing signs of their first non-seed leaves. These are actually J's babies, but since he tends to get a bit nervous that he'll kill plants, I suspect I'll be doing the potting-up and so forth.

The garden is beginning to look quite spring-like, despite the wind and the rain that raineth every day. I have lots of Tête-à-tête daffodils flowering, some bigger ones flowering in pots and about to flower in the ground, grape hyacinths, polyanthus, and the signs of tulips and dicentra on the way.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

And gardeners.

OK, so I never had time to do that write-up of what happened in the garden last year.

This is the short version - vegetable section!

Back in the spring, I grew seedlings of:

Courgettes (Diamant variety)
Butternut squash (saved seeds)
Pumpkins (saved seeds)
Tomatoes (Chelsea Mini F1)
Peppers (Rainbow)

I took loving pictures of all the seedlings, because I am an optimist.
Squash seedlings

I also planted sugar snap peas (Sugar Bon) directly into the ground. I remember that the planting was done on St Patrick’s Day because I read somewhere that this is when you should plant peas.

The seedlings all took off, except the peppers. I don’t know what I was doing wrong with those - they’re the only things I have a proven track record of growing, and they failed me utterly. I duly potted everything up and tried hardening the plants off by putting them outside during the day once the weather started to warm, but the squash seedlings got a bit battered in the wind and some of them didn’t recover from that. I planted out the remainder. We were hoping for a good harvest from the courgettes, because we eat a lot of courgettes and they’re fairly expensive. We’d been told how easy they are to grow, and warned that we might have difficulty using all of the crop ourselves.

And then it rained for forty days and forty nights. Or more.

It really was a very wet spring and summer. Which encourages slugs, which ate all the squash plants entirely except for one courgette plant, which was sufficiently discouraged by the lack of warmth, sunshine (etc) that it produced exactly one courgette, which grew to be finger-sized and then had a big hole eaten in it, presumably by another slug.
Spot the courgette!

Oh well.

The sugar snap peas did fine, except that I didn’t plant enough of them, I think. The pods we did pick were delicious. The tomatoes did not fruit until very late, and by then the weather was too cool for the fruit to ripen on the vine, but we picked what there was in December – yes, really –and ripened them indoors. It wasn’t exactly a bumper crop; I never pinched out the side shoots (partly because I’m still not sure how to do this) which probably didn’t help.

Aren't they pretty, though?

Our one undoubted success story came with something that was never on the plan to begin with: salad leaves. I picked up a packet of Suttons’ Speedyseeds Leaf Salad (the “spicy mix”, which consists of rocket, red giant mustard, green wave mustard and mizuna kyoto) on a whim, sowed it… and it was brilliant. The leaves not only appeared quickly, but kept reappearing after many successive harvestings. We eat salad at least twice a week in summer, and augmented with a bit of bought lettuce this kept us well supplied. We decided that rocket was our favourite out of the leaves – the mustards get bitter if you don’t harvest them very young – so we’re trying that on its own this year.

This year, the list so far is:

Sugar snap peas (Sugar Bon again)
Tomatoes (Gardener’s Delight and… something else yet unchosen)
First early potatoes (Epicure – I think!)
Courgettes (Diamant again)
Early spinach

I may buy some other stuff as plants later if I have room, but these are the things I’m starting from seed.