Tuesday, 30 April 2013

End Of Month View ~ April 2013


I missed posting a March end of month view, because enthusiasm for both garden and allotment was at a low following the cold winter and other events going on at the time. Now that April is slowly ebbing away I am feeling decidedly more cheerful and energetic and am enjoying being in the garden, greenhouse and at the allotment again.

Reading through last April's end of month view post this April seems a long way removed in terms of both weather and flowers. No copious amounts of rain this year but it has definitely been on the cool side. Last April photos of geranium phaeum and tiarella in full flower illustrated my end of month post. When I looked yesterday evening the same geranium shows firmly shut pendulous flower heads whilst the tiarella looks quite bedraggled. Flowering now are the plants that I normally associate with March going into early April - pulmonarias, primroses, hellebores, little daffs, brunneras and other early spring gems. Later flowering hardy perennials such as astrantia and geraniums only seem to have broken through the ground in the last couple of weeks. I am only just in the process of dividing and potting some perennials for our garden club plant sale which is towards the end of May. Usually this is something that I do in March, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a warmer spell that they settle in and bulk up over the next month.


The greenhouse is slowly filling up with seedlings of tomatoes, sweet peppers, beetroot, lettuce and salad mixes, various basils, cucumbers, squashes, courgettes, red onions, leeks, purple flowering artichokes, broad beans and peas. I noticed last year that all my early French bean sowings did not fare well, so I've decided not to sow French beans until May. One exception though was a sowing of a new to me variety 'Speedy' which is recommended for early and late sowing. I will be interested to see how it fares. In the flower department I have sown nicotiana mutablis, nicotiana alata, brachycombe, cosmos 'Purity, various sweet peas, cerinthe, nasturtium 'Blue Pepe', gaura lindheimeri, ammi visnaga, orlaya grandiflora, daucus carrota 'Black Knight', cobaea scandens as well as some geraniums from my own saved seed. Time soon for pricking out and the inevitable greenhouse shuffle - again such activities would have normally started by now.

Progress at the allotment has been slow but I've been putting in some sessions especially over the last couple of weeks. I have planted the shallots that I started off in the greenhouse - 'Red Sun', 'Golden Gourmet' and 'Longor'. Potatoes will be going in during the coming week but just one bed this year. I've also been preparing a bed to plant some new strawberry plants after reluctantly deciding that the existing plants had probably reached the end of their most productive years. Sadly the winter seems to have taken its toll on the greenhouse at the allotment and on the lean to shed, so himself has promised some repair work. Oh and guess what I forgot to remove the nest in my shed which has already been blessed with three blackbird eggs. Makes journeys into the shed more problematic but I should be able to get in and out again more easily as the year progresses. At least now that we have a composting toilet on site I do not have to retire to the shed with my bucket. I'm not sure what the blackbird would have made of that.

As for new plants there have been one or two purchases, mainly at the Cheshire and Friends branch of the Hardy Plant Society plant sale as well as from a visit to my local nursery at Bluebell Cottage Gardens. I have yet more pulmonarias, a couple of brunneras as well abd a clematis recta 'Black Velvet'. For now they are taking time out in the coldframe.

Thanks to Helen of The Patient Gardener's Weblog, who came up with the excellent concept of the End Of Month view. Looking forward to reading what everyone else has been up to.

P.S. A beautiful warm and sunny afternoon to round off April - we enjoyed coffee sitting outside for the first time this year.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Wordy Wednesday - 24th April 2013 - 'This Telescoped Spring'



"There is a strange order in things this year ;  for here is the first swallow with us while half the daffodils are as yet only greenish yellow buds. As the seasons are early or late, so do we get various combinations of blossoming. Last year, with its especially early spring, brought the American flowering currant into bloom with the plum, and scattered the almond blossom upon shaking daffodils. Now, today, daffodils are coming out as the apple blossom still shows pink. The trees follow the calendar more steadily, except that the younger trees always seem to come into leaf much later than the full grown ones.

As the month draws on, there is a sudden rush of warmth and in a day or two the garden is a changed world, as in a fairy story where a spell has suddenly been lifted. Barely budding trees thicken with green, the spinach is rampant and, the rhubarb, that a few days back was pale and stubbly, is like an enormous tropical plant. The cherry blossoms that should have been in bloom for Easter, now burst into festoons of hanging blossoms. Yesterday the buds were still tight and colourless. Pear trees are heavy with flowering clumps. Sticky buds of the chestnut change and stretch out wooly and open with a few hours of heat and sun, showing their blossom as a hard point of pale green. Bees bumble, spiders run in the grass and ladybirds glow everywhere. As I stand, for luck, on the grass I hear the first cuckoo. After being held back for over a month, all the things tumble over themselves and each other in their urgent rush to bloom. Has there ever been such a rush? Frantically one tries to take it all in, but one misses many subtleties in this glut of blossoming. The primroses and daffodils that should have had place of honour a few weeks back now excite us somewhat less, because the lilac buds fatten so visibly, and anemones and violas flower. This telescoped spring wastes much beauty"

This extract from the chapter on April from 'Four Hedges', written and engraved by Clare Leighton could refer to April 2013 but in fact was written in the 1930s. The book chronicles the story of a year in of a much loved garden situated in the Chiltern Hills, tended to by Clare and her partner. Although I do not agree with the last sentence or two I think that the rest of her description of the late arrival of spring sums this one up perfectly. The above illustration is just one of the many exquisite wood engravings that illustrate the book.

Monday, 22 April 2013

That First Plant Sale Of The Year


Just before last weekend's social event of the year there was time for a lightening raid at that very first plant sale of year! This was held by the Cheshire and Friends group of The Hardy Plant Society as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations. I was member of this local group in the dim and distance past and still try to attend their annual plant sales when possible. There is always a good choice of happy and healthy plants on offer grown by both local nurseries and keen gardeners. We left home in brilliant sunshine but by the time we arrived the skies were clouding whilst a rather erratic wind blew up from nowhere. The sale was mainly based outdoors and quite high up on a hill top so the sellers deserved a medal for their tenacity.

Purchases included a trio of pulmonarias - 'Stillingfleet Meg', 'Majesté' and 'Opal' as well as the brunnera 'Langtrees' with its most subtly marked foliage. The other acquisition was cardamine quinquefolia which has hovered on the edge of my consciousness for years. This was the first time that I had ever seen it in the flesh but only a few seconds acquaintance were enough to persuade me that this plant was coming home with me. Sadly its flowers were almost on their last legs so it will be next spring before I can take photos and show them here.

I wish that I could have stayed long enough for a second sweep of the stalls as I'm sure that I missed out on some gems but was still delighted with my purchases. I'm sure that there will be other plant sales this year but there's nothing more exciting than the first of the year. What about you - have you had the chance to get to a plant sale yet this year and if so what did you come home with?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Book Review - 'My Cool Allotment'


Although buying new books is off limits until the shelves groan less, what happens if some unexpected gift vouchers come your way from your nearest and dearest? Such is life and such bounty was responsible for the purchase of one or two books recently, including a copy of 'My Cool Allotment' by Lia Leendertz, with photography by Mark Diacono.

There has been an absolute proliferation of allotment books over the last few years. They appear to fall into three distinct categories. The first are the earnest and sometimes invaluable 'how to' tomes especially useful when you are starting off and some become loved long term companions. The second often with a dose of humour thrown in for good measure, are the personal accounts of people who've been there, done that and have got the allotment badge. The third category are the miscalleneous titles which look at the subject from a completely different angle. Lia's book falls into this last category and is a celebration of allotments in all their weird and wonderful guises. The author has visited some 31 plots up and down the country and on the near continent talking to people who work these patches of land. Most are allotment plots but there are one or two private gardens thrown in, as well as small holdings and a number of community gardens.

Chapters focus on the following themes :

Historic - concentrating on traditional allotment plots.
A Feast Of Flowers - where flowers are the stars of the show rather than fruit and veg.
All For One - which features community growing projects.
Edible Jungle - where gardeners are exploring alternative methods of growing.
Food From Home - where immigrants are growing crops cherished by them far from home.
The Creative Process - highlighting growers or artisans who use their plot to grow or nurture their specialist product.

Finally there is a short sourcebook with extra details about some of the allotment holders in the book, details of allotment and growing organisations, tools and equipment and seeds and plant suppliers.

This is not a long book coming in at 160 pages and is quite photo heavy so I managed to read through it during an evening. The photos are of a high standard throughout and enhance the text.

What I liked - the way that Lia has conveyed the the sheer joy and enthusiasm of the plot holders she encountered. The book perfectly illustrates in Lia's words "just what different people do in response to a small piece of land. Each plot is an expression of the allotment holder's personality, memories, hope and fears".

What I was not so keen on - the size of the book. It is short and wide. I have since fitted it into the bookshelf, with all my other allotment/growing books and it is noticeable how much it juts out of line from the rest of them. This does not really matter but what irked was that I found the book most uncomfortable to hold. Maybe it's just me and the size of my hands though.

What I will do inspired by 'My Cool Allotment'
  • Visit one of the featured plots this summer, more specifically the relatively nearby Valducci Flower and Vegetable Gardens which opens under the National Gardens Scheme. Have been intending to go there for a while but have never made it. Now it's a must. 
  • Buy a mirror for the inside of the allotment shed door. This decision has been inspired by the mention of Nell who has "installed a little mirror on the side of her shed to check herself over before she walks out of the allotment gate : 'So many times I've found myself walking up the main road with bits of twig or leaves in my hair. It is east to forget that civilisation is still out there'. 
  • Read more about the concept of perennial planting which is appeals to me more and more, although I'm not sure how it would fit in with our allotment inspection criteria.
In conclusion this was one of those books that left me wanting more. I would have liked to have read more about all the plots included in the book and would have welcomed a much larger 'Food From Home' section - perhaps even a separate book on the subject! A most enjoyable read which would make a suitable gift for anybody already besotted by allotments or about to fall under their spell.

'My Cool Allotment' (ISBN 978 -1-86205-966-5) is published by Pavilion and is available from all good booksellers.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Wordy Wednesday ~ 17th April 2013 ~ Green

"I live in the country surrounded by green fields all year long, but when March slips into April I realise that I have never truly seen green before. It works every time, catching me breathless and dazed by sheer exhilaration. The luminous lime begins as a suggestion, speckling the hedgerows, almost shimmering above them, rather than growing out of the branches, then starts licking up from the bare soil with shocking intensity. Certainly nothing characterises the months of March, April and May as the range of greens shining like stained - glass windows".

 - from 'Gardening at Longmeadow' by Monty Don

Monday, 15 April 2013

What A Relief!


The jokes were flying out fast and furious including these gems  -

"The forecast is wet and windy" to which some wit replied "Is that inside or outside?"
"When I was growing up you spent a penny not thousands of pounds"

Such mirth came about at the official opening of our allotment composting toilet building this weekend. Our VIP was the local MP. The gathering also included local council officials, representatives of community groups, other allotment site representatives and of course plot holders and their families. Following the formal cutting of the green ribbon we enjoyed afternoon tea, whilst for our visitors this was the first time some had visited an allotment site so they were keen to have a guided tour. The day was a celebration not only of the formal opening of a building also of what a small group of plot holders had achieved to get to this point.

There were not any toilet facilities at our allotment site before 2102, which made it difficult for many plot holders to spend long periods of time at the allotments. Whilst there was the option for some of disappearing into a shed with a bucket not everybody has access to a shed, whilst some folk have sheds but do not find the bucket solution particularly desirable. The lack of such basic sanitation was identified by plot holders as a major problem over a number of years especially as the number of female plot holders grew. The allotment association committee discussed this issue in some depth in 2011.

Lacking a connection to the mains water supply the committee decided that a composting toilet would be the best option for a site. One of the committee members volunteered to do some research into the subject eventually coming up with the recommendation that we consider a company called NatSol. This company has an established track record of providing composting toilet buildings for outdoor spaces including allotments. However we gulped when we saw the price which was way and above our modest funds. We are a relatively small site and membership of the association is voluntary. The annual subscription is kept at a relatively small sum to encourage people to join.

So we decided to investigate if there were any possible sources of external funding that we could tap into. Nobody on the present committee had any experience of this so it was a steep learning curve. We were fortunate though when a couple of committee members attended a meeting with other local allotment site representatives. Another site in the area had been successful in applying for funding for a project and suggested that that we looked into Awards For All. This is a lottery grants scheme funding small, locally community based schemes in the United Kingdom. The maximum grant that can be awarded is £10,000.

Acting on their suggestion we contacted the External Funding Officer at our local council and arranged a meeting to discuss possible sources of funding. Our initial meeting with her and a colleague was most encouraging and the consensus was that applying to Awards For All was appropriate. Of course we had to meet certain criteria to qualify for a grant so we were given advice on how to gear the application towards this, suggestions on how to fine tune our written constitution as well as a welcome critical pair of eyes to check through the completed application form before it was submitted for consideration.

Not long after this meeting the allotment association had its AGM where the committee gained the backing of members to apply for funding. We were also able to ask members to sign their name to a written statement that there was a need for such a facility. This piece of evidence went off with our application.

The next step was a visit to a neighbouring allotment site where we had found out that there was a similar toilet to the one we had our eyes on already in situ. We were made most welcome and it was great to see what we were considering in the flesh as it were. The pros and cons were discussed - more pros than cons.

So with all this information the committee decided to go ahead with the application and then for me as secretary of the association the hard work of completing the form began. Not only was there a form to be completed but we would also have to provide other written documentation if we were to receive a conditional offer. This included a copy of our written constitution, bank statements and an audited end of year financial report of our funds. Although initially slightly daunting the process was not too difficult but it was time consuming.

Our application was submitted at the end of January 2012 and we were delighted to be able to announce that we had been successful in May 2012. We were awarded £9,050 towards the purchase of a composting toilet with building together with installation costs. The balance of the final bill was raised by the association through plant sales last summer. The toilet was installed in July 2012 and has been in use since. Plot holders pay a nominal sum for a key to the toilet building which will be refunded to them if they give up the tenancy of their plot. This income has been used to cover the initial cost of having keys cut and also as a contribution to the cost of insuring the building. To date some 25 plot holders have asked for keys and hopefully this number will grow in the immediate future. As well as providing a vital facility for plot holders, the association is now in a better position to invite the local community on to the site to share our love of growing and wildlife. We are hoping to have small numbers of local primary school children visit the bee keeping area later this year.

The wet weather of 2012 meant that we still have some more work to complete in the area surrounding the building including the installation of a permanent path to the building this summer. There are also plans to shelter the area with some permanent planting.

So that is the story of how one small group of volunteers dreamed big and achieved their dream. If you belong to any voluntary group allotment based or otherwise which has projects in mind but few funds to achieve then do consider Awards For All. Further grants can be awarded to the same groups after a certain amount of time has lapsed so we are now considering our next project!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Customer Satisfaction


This week's golden trowel is awarded to Avon Bulbs. Back in November some armchair travelling to the Crimean seaside followed a bulb planting session. The bulbs in question were crocus 'Yalta' described in the catalogue as 'a hybrid form resembling a large tommasinianus with silvery blue outer petals and darker purple inner petals. Gorgeous even in bud'. A long wait then ensued which this year seemed never ending but eventually signs of life were detected. Delight however rapidly morphed into disappointment when the flowers opened in March. Waving at me were the brightest yellow crocuses you could ever wish to meet - not quite the desired effect. The crocuses had been planted across two containers which were then pushed temporarily out of sight. However there was an upturn in the proceedings - as the yellow crocuses were croaking, slivers of purple shone out. They are in flower now, look most attractive and are presumably the genuine article. Unfortunately though only 3 out of some 25 bulbs were the variety that had been ordered.

A phone call was made to Avon Bulbs to inform them of this occurrence. As soon as I mentioned the word 'Yalta', the ever friendly and courteous lady who answers the phone at Avon Bulbs, immediately guessed what I was about to say. Apparently other customers have made the same observation with some having all yellow crocuses, others had a mixture whilst presumably some customers ended up with exactly what they ordered. It was suggested that the supplier had probably got confused when packing up the bulbs. An apology was offered and a replacement bag of 'Yalta' will wing their way to me this autumn.

Result : one satisfied customer.

This week's rusty trowel goes to Wilkos. Now Wilkos is great for us non drivers. It stocks a wide range of bulbs, seeds, pots, plants and gardening sundries. Here in the greenhouse vermiculite is used regularly both for seed sowing and cuttings so being able to buy it from a local store is great. A 10 litre bag of vermiculite travels quite happily on the bus so the services of himself are not required. However the design of the bag changed a couple of seasons ago. The new design has larger ventilation holes which result in a trail of fine vermiculite particles escaping all over the contents of shopping basket, conveyor belt and the assistants who have to pick up the bags to scan them. Once packed they still leak further so it seems you are paying for something that has diminished in volume, before you have even started to use it. After seeing two assistants sprayed with dust in the last month, which can't be good for their health, I decided that a phone call was in order. My comments were met with the response that so many thousands bags of the product had been sold and that I was the first ever customer to complain! My concerns were noted but it looks like either I have been incredibly unlucky and picked up bags with faulty ventilation holes, or that the holes in the bags are all the same but everyone else is not unhappy with the product. Perhaps I'm just getting too pernickity? I will continue to buy vermiculite at Wilkos in the immediate future but will now investigate online sources.

Result : one why did I bother customer?

Have you had any positive/negative experiences as a customer recently when purchasing horticultural items?


Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Poem For April


"I had not thought of violets of late,
The wild, shy kind that springs beneath your feet
In wistful April days."

~ Alice Dunbar - Nelson, 1875 - 1935

The illustration is 'The Dog Violet Fairy' by Cicely Mary Barker, 1895 - 1973

Monday, 1 April 2013

A 'Gardener's Nightcap'





"And then to bed, to lie with with one's face to the uncurtained window, thinking of seed-sowing, and pruning and mulching, and slug hunting, and this year's done and next year's doings, and all the other garden preoccupations that obtrude themselves so pleasantly before a gardener sleeps"

No do not fret readers I've not turned to drink yet, despite the continuing chilly easterly winds which certainly preclude nocturnal uncurtained windows in this household. There were a few almost indiscernable flakes of snow earlier this morning so Easter Monday gardening activities may be restricted to the greenhouse. Luckily I have plenty to read at hand including a new book from which the above extract is taken. Arriving in the post last week a parcel containing a beautifully wrapped surprise gift. I was initially reluctant to unravel the wrapping paper but when I did I was greeted by a book entitled 'Gardener's Nightcap' written by Muriel Stuart. The book was from my sister who had ordered it via 'Persephone Books'. Funnily enough I had ordered the very same book as a gift for a friend a few years ago and had meant to get a copy for myself at some point but have never got round to it. If you have not already come across them Persephone Books reprints and sells 'neglected fiction and non - fiction' by mid 20th century (mostly women) writers.

Muriel Stuart was a Scottish poet who wrote poetry both during and after the First World War. She also wrote for gardening magazines for a number of years as well as writing two gardening books. 'Gardener's Nightcap' which was first published in 1938 is a collection of observations and thoughts on gardening topics. It appears to be the prefect dipping in and out of book and has is now residing by my bed for late night reading. Although this is the only gardening book available there is much else of interest included in the Persephone Books current list of titles. They offer a gift wrapping service which if my book is anything to go by is excellent. Furthermore each book is accompanied by an illustrated bookmark - in this case a most attractive fritillary inspired design.

PS I have noticed that today's Kindle daily deal is 'Dear Lupin: Letters To A Wayward Son' - nothing to do with gardening despite the reference to the flower, but it looks as if this book could provide the perfect antidote to the chill.