Six on Saturday: 05 Dec 2020

Nipped out into the garden on Friday afternoon to take some photos, nearly froze my hands off, there was a very lively, bone-chilling easterly blowing. This could be the one that finally strips bare the Lime trees, adding the final valuable consignment to the leaf mould pile. The sky was wiped clean to reveal a raw, stunning blue.

Looking down towards the forest from the back patio on Friday afternoon

In keeping with this winter season of reckoning and contemplation, I’ll be taking a broader view with my Six on Saturday, looking ahead to next year, and mulling over a few changes.

1 Leaf Mould. Next year’s potting mix and mulch, I hope. Being more organised about it this year. The pile is looking respectable, and am even keeping it damp. Still got some clearing up to do, as you can see.

Looking up from the back patio, these Lime leaves will bulk up the leaf mould.

2 Compost. Every gardener’s biggest investment in the future, I think. I turned the pile, and am happy with this dark, crumbly result. Good compost is a beautiful thing. When you compost, you are participating in the life cycle of the garden. Am also very happy with the recycled crates, free from the garden centre, and assembled by hubby, which almost make a feature out of this area under the old apple tree.

3 Veg patch pathways. The main raised bed will be going into its third year of production next spring. A lot of things have congregated around it, pots of strawberries, a new apple tree, some herbs, a blackcurrant, and a raspberry bush or two. So I need to get some decent pathways around this area. Landscaping fabric and woodchips over the top might do it, what do you think? Or will the slugs make it their abode?

The veg patch

4 The neighbour’s shed. I call this colour Highlighter Orange, I imagine it might look good under the sun somewhere like Buenos Aires, but it’s not a colour for our Northern European light. As the large Forsythia drops its leaves, we see more and more of it. The dilemma is, how can I screen it without entirely cutting off this point of contact with my neighbour? We occasionally chat over the gap, and I have handed over my chickens (sadly not with us these days) to do slug clearance in her garden. Seeds, veg, plants and even honey (see her beehive on the roof?) get swapped this way too. In front is the new border, waiting to spring into life.

5 Time to remove the Japanese Quince. I have always been underwhelmed by this Chaenomeles japonica, currently in flower against the back wall. This is very warm and sheltered spot, south facing, under the trees just the other side of the wall, but not too shaded by them. I was thinking a fig tree trained against the wall could work well, though it would have to do battle with the climbers (Clematis armandii, Trumpet Vine and the Rambling Rose ‘Alberic Barbier’).

Close up of the Quince, admittedly it looks better from this angle
The overall effect, a bit wishy-washy I think
Just above the Quince, Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’ is thriving

6 The Christmas Tree. So pleased it made it for a year in its pot and is looking decent. A bit scruffy in places, but nothing that can’t be hidden with some strategically placed decorations. It’s been cleaned, combed and brought up onto the patio by the back door, and it will have a brief sojourn inside over Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, I hope everyone is staying calm in the face of it. Here in Belgium, there is little sentimentality. If you want to meet up over the festive season, you are allowed one guest from outside your household, or a maximum of four people in the garden (if this can be reached without going into the house). One of those four people is allowed to use the toilet in the house. This country is well know for its surrealism (see Magritte’s painting: Ceci n’est pas une pipe, etc.). How to negotiate who gets to use the toilet? I suppose if the other three garden guests are desperate, there’s always the compost heap!

Looking forward to seeing other gardeners’ gardens on the Propagator’s Six on Saturday page. Till next time.

My monthly Fab Five: October

So, mid-October, there is a nip in the air, and the garden is dominated by the slow but steady leaf fall from our neighbours’ lime and hornbeam trees, which cover almost everything in about half of our back garden. Yes, they make a terrible mess and it’s a lot of work clearing them, so nowadays I have kind of given up on having a tidy garden, and I leave the leaves as a mulch on the borders. Human laziness, I tell myself, is good for the insects, grubs and worms, who will enjoy the cover and will work the rotting leaves into the soil, improving its texture.

I’m trying out a new format for my blog this month, here goes…

My monthly Fab Five: five fabulous things in the garden, month by month.

  1. Dahlias

I almost gave up on growing Dahlias last year – in other words, the slugs almost won. They really had a go at my plants, and those that remained didn’t flower so well. I realise now that the slug damage can be minimised by growing them in pots (and perhaps the chickens helped clear them earlier in the year), so I have got three large pots filled with Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff (bright scarlet), Dahlia Bishop’s Children (shades of red and orange, they are a seed strain from Bishop of Llandaff) and Dahlia Catherine Deneuve (a real sultry sunset orange-yellow beauty). I have also been kinder to them this year, keeping them well watered and feeding them with liquid tomato feed when I remember. They’ve paid me back by bringing a mood-lifting zing to a corner of my garden, near the front door of the house, and I am now an avid fan. Grow them, they will transform October for you.

Dahlia Bishop’s Children
Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff, with Lantana Camara in the foreground

2. Salvia ‘Hot Lips’

Slightly outrageous name, even more outrageous performance from this Salvia, which is sprawling all over the place by my front-of-house bed. Here she is caressing one of my little statues. We got these fellas from a local artist who exhibited in our garden as part of a local art event. Her sculptures looked so at home here that we decided to buy a couple and make them permanent features. Anyway, back to Hot Lips, she really is getting a bit out of bounds, but I’ll forgive her because she is putting on quite a show well into October, and all summer long too. She’ll get trimmed back in spring. I’m really getting into Salvias now, and am trying out some of the purple varieties (Salvia nemerosa Caradonna is a lovely one) in other bits of the garden, but these have pretty much finished flowering. For those who want to help the bees, Salvias have excellent nectar-rich flowers.

Salvia Hot Lips

3. Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

This Japanese Hybrid Anemone had a slow couple of years, but this year she’s really coming into her stride. She’s also flowering her socks off long after her pink Anemone x hybrida sisters have given up. With the light levels really dropping off, she seems to shine out even more, and she’s in a part-shade east-facing border, which seems to suit her well. If you’ve got a shadier spot, I would really recommend this plant. I’ve paired her up with Geranium ‘Rozanne’, growing in front, which is also still flowering. You can also spot Pyracantha ‘Golden Charmer’ in a massive blue pot behind her, am hoping this will grow fast to cover the modern brick wall.

Anemone Honorine Jobert, with Geranium Rozanne

4. Beetroot and Spinach

No it’s not all over in the veg patch! The spinach and beetroot have survived their cross-country journey as seedlings (I sowed them in August at my Mum’s house in Kent, UK and brought them back to Belgium, miraculously they didn’t get squashed in our heavily over-packed car). They were transferred to the veg patch in early September and will be ready for harvesting young leaves from now on. I’ve also got chard growing alongside them, which is my go-to winter veg, it’s virtually indestructible and keeps on giving for months on end. And no, I don’t think it tastes horrible, why do people say that?! It’s perfect for a winter stew with butternut squash, lentils, carrots, you name it.

Young beetroot and spinach in the veg patch, plus a few self-seeded plants

5. Rose hips

No idea what variety this tall shrub rose is, but I do love its autumn hips. I’m not doing it justice with this photo, taken on a dull day, but wanted to include it in my Fab Five this month. It is a perfect fit for the shades of autumn. I haven’t tried using the hips for anything, but have heard that it can be made into rose hip tea, has anyone tried making that?

Well, there are my Fab Five for this month. If anyone fancies joining in with their monthly Fab Five – it can be anything you find fabulous in your garden at this time of year – then do join in or put your favourites in the comments section. Thanks for reading and have a fab gardening month!

Rose hips

Compensations of the season

Harvesting time for these red grapes

August is over, September is upon us, and there’s a bit of a feeling in the garden, and maybe more generally too, that the party’s pretty much over. Things just look a bit tired, with many plants having given their best and others struggling on gamely but clearly not as fresh and vigorous as they were earlier. Well it happens to the best of us.

Davis UC-82 with some courgettes

So it’s not the most exciting time of year in the garden for me, but there are as always compensations. The first and most obvious is the harvest of late summer fruit and veg. I’m having a good year for tomatoes, with all three of my seed-sown batches doing well and tasting delicious. Miel de Mexique, from an organic seed packet I bought in the garden centre here in Brussels, is a lovely juicy sweet cherry tomato which comes from Mexico, as the name implies, and is a good choice for drought tolerance, although I water mine frequently as I grow most of my tomatoes in pots. Next is Davis UC-82 (odd name but great taste) a nice, deep red, reliable plum-shaped tomato, that’s good for passata and tomato soup. Finally I was given some beautiful beef-steak Portuguese tomatoes as seedlings. We are really enjoying these roasted in the oven with onions, garlic, squashes, mushrooms….yum. They were thirsty plants, but well worth the effort of a bit of extra watering. The combo of the different types and sizes worked well, one to try again next year.

The delicious Miel de Mexique

Another great hit this year is the sweetcorn: what an amazing thing it has been to see these grow from their single corn seed into little seedlings, which I remember anxiously protecting from the cold by taking them into the shed each night in April when it got very chilly, then developing into towering majestic 5-6 foot tall plants and finally the miracle of a corn (or “ear”) from each of the seven plants in my little patch! They taste so delicate, sweet, with a soft melt-in-the mouth texture. The variety, Golden Bantam, is an heirloom one that became popular in the early 1900’s in the US, at a time when only white corn was considered good enough to eat, but Golden Bantam changed that. The seed company says they are robust plants producing two corns/ears per plant. Well I only got one per plant, but I’m still pretty pleased with them! I think I will grow sweetcorn every year from now on, they are the supermodels of the veg patch.

Sweetcorn a little earlier this season

On the fruit front, we’re well into the apple season now, and here it’s been a mixed bag. We have two trees, a very old Cox variety and a 3 year old “Reine des Reinettes”, a very old French variety which is known as “King of the Pippins” in the UK. The old tree seems to be giving up, and we’ve hardly had anything from it, and those we do have are far too high up to reach, so what is up there is for the birds and the wasps. Our 3 year old Reine des Reinettes, however, is coming on strong, and we’ve enjoyed the slightly sharp but very juicy fruit, with its very pretty red-blushed skin.

Reine des Reinettes

On top of that, we’ve got a very big grape harvest coming up. The bunches on the vine, which grows alongside a section of our front path, are looking very healthy this year, and are now turning a gorgeous deep purple colour. Last year I made grape jelly with them, which turned out well, so I think I’ll do the same this year. As I’ve been vegetarian for over a year now, I don’t plan to eat the jelly in “the traditional way” with meat, but there are plenty of other combos: great with goat’s cheese and oatcakes; spread on toast for breakfast, or on a tea cake or Victoria Sponge…it also gives a good, sweet flavour to sauces and stews. Yes I know it’s full of sugar and bad for you, but we are only talking a teaspoon or two at a time here!

There’s another activity that makes me realise all is not quite over yet in the garden, and that is taking cuttings and offsets. There are new plants to be had, and they are right there growing in the garden, all one needs to do is take a cutting, cut some leaves off, add to a vermiculite-compost mix in a small pot and then wait for roots to form. I’ve done this with some rosemary, and might do the same with catmint (such a useful little plant) and a stupendous purple berberis growing in a nearby front garden: I’m sure the owner won’t miss a couple of sprigs of that. For me, berberis has the most breathtaking autumn colour, I have always wanted one, and damn it I will find a spot for it somewhere!

So, even if bits of the garden feel a bit drab, it’s worth reminding ourselves that there is lots to look forward to, just around the corner.

To finish off, here is a snapshot of what’s still looking good for the time of year.

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.