Six on Saturday: 17 July 21: Après le déluge

Well that was an awful lot of rain. You will have no doubt heard about the floods in eastern Belgium and seen the devastation on the news. Towns that we drove through in spring when we went to that region for a lovely holiday have been reduced to mud, upturned vehicles and rubble, it’s quite astonishing. Here in the centre of the country, perched on a hill on the outskirts of Brussels, we were spared flooding but it rained, and rained, and rained. Climate change is coming home. Thankfully, the weather is improving now, and the sun has come out as I’m writing this on Saturday morning, yes it’s Six on Saturday time:

1 Respite after the rain. The poor chickens have not been enjoying the weather, their feathery feet have been getting soggy, and it’s only now that they are able to come out to roost and wander about. You can see they still look a little put-out.

2 Platycodon grandiflorus. Otherwise known as the balloon flower for its strange buds that swell up as if someone’s blowing into them, before opening out into these bright violet-blue flowers. A white-flowered variety hasn’t yet come into flower. They have been relocated to the cool shades/pond border, where all the plants are thriving in the damp conditions.

3 Dahlia ‘Bora Bora’. A saturated, attention-grabbing pink, this cactus Dahlia is growing well in a large pot next to the veg patch. I stuck a strip of copper tape around the rim of the pot, and I don’t see any slug damage at all. The same for a pot of Dahlia ‘Antibes’. My conclusion: the copper tape really does seem to work, especially if you make sure the slugs can’t get in from the drainage holes underneath.

4 Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’. A bright splash of chartreuse makes for great edging for the cool shades border. This grass completely disappeared over winter, leading me to wonder if it had died, but it reappeared timidly in spring, and it’s been gradually getting shaggier and shaggier as the season progresses. A Japanese forest grass, it loves the wet.

5 Geranium ‘Rozanne’. This one needs no introduction, as it’s become one of the most popular geraniums around, with good reason – it’s got real flower-power. However, I am not entirely happy with this upper end of the cool shades border, essentially a steep, rubbly slope with shallow soil. I feel Rozanne needs a contrast, though she hasn’t left much space for one. I’m also annoyed that the pink Japanese anemones that I dug up last year have returned, uninvited (top right corner). Finally a pot of Collarette Dahlias have totally been decimated by slugs (no copper tape on this one), so I’m going to replant, maybe with a few ferns I have to spare. Anyone got any other slug-proof ideas for pots in part-shade?

6 Potato harvest. The first potato crop, growing in repurposed compost bags as part of a space-saving experiment. The verdict? Well, these are still rather small – perhaps because they are congested, or perhaps it’s just a little early – these are King Edwards, so have a long growing season. The taste test? Absolutely magnificent, I haven’t tasted a potato this good, with such earthy creaminess, since the last home-grown one. I’m curious to see how Fred, a French gardener’s bin-grown potatoes turned out – he has been conducting a similar experiment.

I’m looking forward to some sunshine and gardening time, as it’s been impossible to do much this last week. You’ll find more sixes from around the world on The Propagator’s blog. Have a great weekend everyone, whatever the weather throws at you.

Six on Saturday: 26 June 2021: Harvests

Well the sunglasses, suncream and flip-flops are all getting decidedly dusty through under-use, as the weather hasn’t been cooperating with the idea of summer and all it brings to mind. It’s been a dank, wet week, that has emboldened the slugs but dampened my spirits. Along with some 3 million Brits who live abroad, we’re heading into summer with the added uncertainty of not knowing when we’ll be allowed to travel freely, sans quarantine, to our own country again, and see our families – too bad I’m not a rich and powerful football magnate, the rules don’t apply to them. But in their wisdom, they’ve put St Helena on the Green List, that remote South Atlantic island, size 162 square miles, population 6,100, final island prison and burial place of Napoleon Bonaparte after his defeat at Waterloo. Perhaps the Emperor’s ghost fancies a trip to Blighty for old times’ sake: he can pop over with no need to quarantine, it’s on the Green List!

Oh I know, I digress, but this sorry state of affairs might explain why I’ve got so much gardening done this week, it’s cathartic. A pond has been dug and planted up, peas have been harvested and dug out, sweetcorn has been planted in its place, the last of the dahlias have been squeezed into gaps, catmint and salvias have been cut back, roses deadheaded, somewhat ruthlessly, and the chickens have even begun laying cute bantam-sized eggs (that last bit is independent of my will). Six on Saturday will restore equilibrium:

1 Harvests. A little collage of harvests this week to soothe the soul. The peas were fantastic, each picture is a separate harvest: we had loads to eat and even some leftover to freeze. The eggs are barely bigger than a 2 euro coin. The wild strawberries are such a treat, and even roses were harvested, saved from the drizzle or imminent collapse.

2 Redcurrants. Another harvest. These drip like little rubies from the branches, so enticing that most of them get eaten by me on the spot. The blackcurrants are not far behind, though I have less of them as my two bushes are still only a couple of years old.

3 Blackberries. This bush is abuzz with bumblebees, honeybees and hoverflies, and the fruit is already beginning to set. My mouth is watering at the thought of blackberry jam. Time to raid the larder, get the empty jars out and start scrubbing the labels off. I’m not sure we’ll get an olive harvest from the little standard olive tree just in front there..

4 Shady border. Or should I now call this the pond border, as the little pond is just along from here. A deviation from my harvest theme, but I like this combo. Miraculously two flowerheads of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Anabelle’ survived a ruthless slug onslaught, along with Astrantia, Astible, and ferns. There’s a rugosa rose trying to push through too. Everything is covered with a confetti of rose petals from the yellow climbing rose above.

5 Tanacetum parthenium, or Feverfew. Now a potential medicinal harvest that could cure headaches brought on by listening to the news. I’m sure one can make tea with these, but I’ve never tried. They are looking so healthy that I might well try. The aphids like to colonise the stems, no harm done. These flowers cheer me up, and hoverflies like them too. If they choose to lay their eggs here, their larvae can enjoy the aphids, another harvest there.

6 Clover. The garden harvests are made possible thanks in no small part to the bees, who pollinate the flowers that then turn to fruit. It seems only right that I should give something back in thanks. So here is a lawn full of clover for them to enjoy. When the sun comes out to shine, this place will be buzzing.

I feel a little bit better now. The expression ‘You reap what you sow’ is often deployed in an admonishing way, but for the gardener, who quite literally reaps what they sow, this has a positive and uplifting resonance. Now matter how small, each harvest, whether of fruits or flowers, brings great pleasure. Head over to the Propagator to marvel at more harvests and other gardening miracles. And have a lovely weekend.

The comforting rituals of growing tomatoes

Last summer’s harvest: Davis tomatoes with yellow courgettes

I love growing all kinds of veg, from the humble radish to the stately sweetcorn, but for me there is always something special about tomatoes. While it’s only recently that I’ve had the opportunity to grow a wider array of vegetables, I’ve been growing tomatoes since we bought our first shared-garden flat in south London in my mid 20’s, and it would now be an impoverished summer indeed with home-grown toms.

Who, after all, doesn’t like tomatoes? And who, given the choice, would choose an imported, cold and watery one wrapped in plastic on a supermarket shelf over a warm, sun-ripened jewel-like beauty growing in your own garden (or balcony)?

Cherry tomato ‘Miel de Mexique’ growing against the wall

They’re incredibly versatile and easy to fit in around everything else. I used to grow them in black plastic pots up the concrete steps leading down into our little garden. I still grow some of them in plastic pots, but these days it’s against a warm, sunny wall. Others go into the ground, or scramble up the framework of those mini-plastic greenhouses.

Portuguese beef tomatoes growing in the veg bed, supported by chestnut fencing and sticks

I love the ritualistic nature of growing them most of all. Firstly, selecting varieties from the enormous choice out there. This year, it was easy. I chose the same three varieties I grew last year, because they were all so good. A Portuguese beef tomato, given to me as seedlings last year by neighbours, who bought the seed in Portugal. Then a dependable all-rounder with with a boring name but perfect plum-shaped fruits and good disease resistance, Davis UC-82, and finally, a sweet, juicy and prolific cherry tomato, Miel du Mexique (Mexican Honey – a variety that copes with some drought).

Then comes the sowing stage. They are some of the earliest seeds to be sown, in dismal, dark mid February, when the thrill of handling seed and soil is like a shot of horticultural Prozac.

The first signs of life on a dark mid-February morning
These LED lights are fantastic for helping along seedlings

Then come all the stages in between. The germination – helped with a bit of warmth from one of those plug-in heat mats also enjoyed by geckos, and this year, with assistance from LED plant lights, which I wholeheartedly recommend as a cure for leggy seedlings, but which are a luxury, not a necessity. Then, potting on, which I am getting on with now, as each seedling is carefully transferred to its very own little nine inch pot.

The first potted on tomatoes this year

Then, in May, the planting out, into big pots or into the raised veg bed. Regular watering begins now too, daily if the weather is hot, and once the fruit set, feeding with tomato feed every couple of weeks – these are hungry plants and need the extra TLC. The staking and tying in of course accompany this stage – neglect this to your peril, as your tomatoes will flop to the ground and often break their stems with the weight of the fruit.

Lots of support is essential to stop flopping over – a bit haphazard here!

Then comes one of my favourite tomato-growing rituals, the pinching out (for the cordon varieties only – if you’re not keen on this, the bush varieties are lower-maintenance). It was my late father-in-law, an enthusiastic tomato grower, who first showed me how to pinch out the side shoots so that the plant’s energy goes up into the central stem’s fruit trusses. Do this in the morning, when the stems are firmer, and enjoy the satisfaction of it.

Then, as the fruit set, there’s the waiting stage, which feels interminable, and you wonder if those green tomatoes will ever turn red. One day, miraculously they do, and that’s a great day.

Then, you wonder, what happens when you have too many tomatoes? No such thing! They go with virtually everything, and if you get a glut, just roast them in the oven with herbs and garlic, and whizz into a sauce that you can then freeze.

A tomato-based supper: lasagne and salad

So, tomato growing requires faith, hope, dedication and service. The rituals nourish the believer, and give the faithful flock of growers a sense of purpose and fulfilment. So, worship, yee faithful, at the altar of tomato growing: it can only be good for your soul!

Chaos theory in the garden

How much chaos is tolerable in the garden, and to what extent should we strive for order and its accompanying neatness? I’ve been thinking about this recently as I wonder just how many exuberant nasturtiums and calendulas I should weed out of my veg plot. When romantic tumbling cottage garden charm becomes untidy, is it time to be ruthless?

Colourful chaos – there are veg in there somewhere!

Ordered rows of veg and flowers can be both extremely practical and visually appealing, like well-turned out units on a military parade. Each veg group occupies its own space, and as a whole the crisp, clean lines exude efficiency and pride. Weeding and harvesting is easier, and there is less competition for space and light.

A stray calendula provides a resting spot for a colourful visitor.

There are no military parades in my plot this year, it’s more like an improvised demonstration of unruly students. A bit messy for sure. The amazing thing is that the veg still pull through, mingling with the flowers and popping up cheerfully yet haphazardly here and there.

Broccoli pops up!

There’s something lovely about seeing the veg like this, mixed in with everything else. You start seeing them as plants in their own right, with beautiful leaves, striking forms and interesting fruit. The grey-blue brocoli pictured here is a wonderful contrast to the greener growth around it. It has a strong presence and its flower head is not only edible but interesting, like a sedum.

Sweetcorn going strong.

One of the biggest stars for me this year has been the sweetcorn. I have just seven plants, grown from seed. They look as statuesque and handsome as any bamboo, and mine are just starting to show their feathery flower-heads. Beneath them is a magnificent courgette with massive marbled leaves, a great contrast with the tall, straight stems of the corn.

Courgette and corn combo.

Apart from the interesting effects of mixing the veg up with other plants and flowers, there’s also the value to wildlife. This year I planted some colourful varieties of echinacea and some salvia right by my veg area, and the bees and butterflies love them. The borage was also a huge hit with the bees, though it did get out of hand and sadly I had to pull a lot of it out. Perhaps it’s just a bit too unruly for a small space, and next year I should try to plan a separate borage patch nearby.

Echinacea and butterfly
The bees loved the salvia, backed by day lilies.
A dwarf sunflower – there is almost always a bee in here!

So overall, I’ve embraced a bit of chaos in my garden this year. The veg are still coming on strong, the flowers are doing their thing and the insects are definitely at home. It would be a good idea to keep a few straight lines in for paths and tidy up the edging, but apart from that I think I prefer my unruly students to the neat parades of veg, disciplined as they are.