Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Garden centre closures

Bad news on the Beeb today: because all the garden centres have been told to close, millions of plants are going to be dumped.  Well, millions of bedding plants, anyway.

I think it's a bit premature for garden centres to say that shrubs and trees are going to be dumped, don't you? They could just be  held over for another year?

I did wonder if they mean that the plants are going to be unwatered and neglected: if the centre is closed, presumably no staff will be going in to water them, in which case yes, millions of plants are going to die.

You can see why the gov have decreed that garden centres must close: they used to be outdoor places with lots of plants, but now they are all general-purpose shops, and not exactly essential.

However, with so many people stuck at home, there is a sudden upsurge in the number of people who are finding out that "doing the garden" not only gives pleasure because finally, they've sorted out that eyesore, but also is pleasurable in the actual work.  So they are all wanting to add plants - but can't get them!

I think it's a shame that garden centres had to move away from being "plant nurseries" and had to turn into shops.

If they were still plant nurseries, they would still be able to open: they could offer click and collect in the car park,  having taken orders by phone or online.


Anyway, today's question: Why am I dead-heading daffodils?

There are three, maybe four main reasons why I do it: anyone care to make a guess? You have until 6.15am tomorrow!

Monday, 30 March 2020

"When is the last frosty night this year??"

What a good question! Thanks, Mal! *waves enthusiastically*

When it comes to veg and seedlings, all the books and articles will tell you to "plant them out once all chance of frost is over" but who knows when that will be?

Certainly, this year, it's been a blooming cold start to spring: this time last year, I'd been back in shorts for a week. But this time the year before, one of my friends reminded me that they were milking cows in the snow!

Ah, the joys of living in jolly old England, where the weather is so unpredictable. I spent some time in the Czech Republic a long, long time ago, and I was staggered that they didn't bother with weather forecasts: they knew that whatever weather they had now, it was going to be the same for weeks on end.  How dull!

So what do we do about the late frost problem?

Two things, really: keen gardeners will always keen an eye on the weather forecast, and if it looks like being frosty overnight, they rush out with lengths of horticultural fleece, and wrap up or cover any sensitive plants, or delicate seedlings.

The other way to deal with it is to do a rigorous "hardening off" process: that's where you gradually accustom your seedlings to the outdoor weather.

Here's the routine: for the first week or two, starting about now,  put your seedlings outside in the sun during the day, but bring them in every evening.

On the third week, you can stop bringing them inside at night, but you must cover them up with horticultural fleece or something similar, over night.

On the fourth week, they should be fully hardened off and can then be left outside all the time, until they are big enough to be planted out. 

Unless, of course, it turns really cold again, or you hear that frost is forecast, in which case you have to go back to covering them up at night.

Now, like all gardening advice, this has to be taken with a pinch of common sense: if you live in an area which is very windy, or which is prone to frost, then you might need to extend the hardening-off period for a few weeks more. But if the days are balmy, and the nights are merely cool, then you might be able to shorten it.

How will you know? Only by trial and error, I'm afraid.  If in doubt, follow the regime slavishly.  If feeling bold, do what you think best. 

If you are undecided, then take a half-way position: maybe leave half of your seedlings uncovered, and see if they survive!

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Sunday, 29 March 2020

Grow Your Own: 1 Starting a Veg garden

Ok folks, let's all grow veg at home!

 Assuming that you have an actual garden, no matter how small, I can't do better than to point you towards my eBook on the subject, which covers everything from what to grow, how to do it, water management, etc.

You don't need a Kindle or Tablet to download it, by the way: Amazon kindly provide a free programme (or “app” for our younger readers) so that you can download it to your own pc or laptop. There's a box on the right, below the “click here to get it” boxes, titled “Read on Any Device. Get free Kindle app” just click on that and away you go.

So what are the important points of setting up a new vegetable garden? It seems to me that the main point is to make it efficient, which means making it easy: that means easy access, easy working, easy watering, and easy cropping.

This book draws together all the experiences I have of creating new vegetable gardens, of updating old ones: the good points, the bad points, the mistakes, the failures – so you can benefit from my experience, and get it right first time.

And if you have Kindle Unlimited, it's free to download! (only a fiver if you don't, and worth every penny, if I do say so myself).

If you are too mean to spend five quid not able to obtain the eBook, here are the potted headlines, based on advice from the RHS, with a few additional comments from me:

1) “A sunny site is ideal, but more shade-tolerant crops include beetroot, chard, peas, runner beans, spinach and salads.” This is very good advice.

2) “Growing your plants in soil (ie in the ground) is ideal, but if your plot doesn't even support weeds it might be unsuitable.” I can't say I have seen a garden which does not even support weeds!! If your garden is full of horrible weeds such as couch grass, ground elder and/or bindweed, however, see item 3.

3) “Growbags or containers filled with potting compost will give good crops where soil is not an option.” Be aware that they will only last for one season, but if you don't have any beds yet, starting with a couple of growbags gives you a chance to try it, for very little money. They also take up a lot less room than a “proper” veg bed, and are only temporary. So they might be the ideal choice, if you are not quite sure if growing veg is really something that you want to do. 4) “Clear an area of weeds by digging. Ideally add garden compost or rotted manure and fertiliser to improve the soil. “ If you have a weedy corner that you think would be good for veg, get out there with a garden fork, and dig it over. Lovely healthy exercise! Pull out every scrap of root that you find, as well as all the green stuff on the surface.

5) “Sow seeds of whatever you like to eat. Crops that taste best freshly gathered are many peoples favourites - salads, tomatoes, new potatoes, chard and other leaves” . This is such good advice: so often, new gardeners think they have to plant spinach, Brussels sprouts and, errr, something else unpalatable, just because “that's what Grandad always grew on his allotment”. Not so! Grow only the things you like to eat. I would also add, grow things which are expensive to buy, such as raspberries.

6) “There is no need to buy expensive seeds, bargain ones in supermarkets meet the same legal standards “. Very true: you don't need to go to an expensive online supplier: most supermarkets now have a rack of veg seeds, usually in the fresh veg section.

7) “Seeds need warmth, moisture, light and air most easily provided by sowing in pots, covering very lightly with sieved compost and watering ideally from below by standing pots in a shallow dish of water “ Again, good advice, although it misses out the essential word “indoors”. Sow your seed in pots, or in seed trays if you have them, and put them on a window ledge so that you remember to water them a little every day. Also, a lot of seeds are temperature-sensitive, so if you put the pots outside, they may not germinate until long after you have lost interest in the whole idea.

8) “Sowing outdoors is best for peas and beans, as many plants are needed for a decent serving. Leave a finger width between small seeds, two fingers between peas and a hand's width between broad beans. “ Again, very true: there is no point trying to grow peas in a growbag.

9) “Water heavily every 14 days if drought strikes and keep weeds down”   Water “heavily”? *rolls eyes*  "drought?"  There must be something lost in translation here. There are two parts to this advice:

Firstly, the seeds. You should check them every day, and water if they are drying out. How will you know? Gently dab your finger on the surface of the soil. If a few grains of soil or compost stick to your finger, it's ok. If your finger comes up perfectly clean and dry, they need watering. Their advice about watering from below is a good one: if you have done so, check that the water-filled tray still has water in it.

Once you have planted your germinated seedlings outdoors, in the soil or in growbag, then you will need to water them, but  not "heavily".

Always water gently. Don't drown the poor things, and don't pour the water on so hard or fast that it washes the soil away. Water slowly, trickle the water gently around the stems of your new seedlings, don't jet-wash them with the hose, or flatten them with a cascade from above. Where possible, water just the soil and the base of the plant, not the foliage.

As for “keep weeds down”, that means to tease out any cheeky weeds that dare to sprout in among your seedlings, because they will be competing for water and light, and being weeds, they are bound to be a great deal better at it than your delicate little veggie-lings! And how do you know if they are weeds or not? When you plant your seeds, or when you plant out the sprouting ones, plant them in neat rows, not at random. This way, you'll easily be able to spot any infiltrators.

Right, there you go, easy veg starter information: so what question will we answer tomorrow? Over to you... 



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Saturday, 28 March 2020

Covid-19 and Gardening

Well, it's true folks - we are now at war. With coronavirus.

“At war?” I hear you say, “bit of an exaggeration, surely?”

We have rationing, lack of supplies, curfews, isolation, neighbours telling tales on other neighbours, finger pointing and halo waving, we have actual people dying: it's a war.

On the good side, we have amazing acts of selfless bravery: not going over the line with bayonets fixed, admittedly, but we have people doing shopping for vulnerable folks, picking up prescriptions, checking on those who live alone. We are also, for the first time since it was invented, been using the internet properly: to pool resources, to ask for and offer help, to pass round food, medical items etc to those who need them, and to engender community spirit by supporting each other, and by trying to do little acts of kindness, without risking our health or breaking any restrictions.

So how does this all relate to gardening?

Well, a lot of people are, for the first time, going to realise that in a crisis, it's the fresh food which is first to be hit. Ok, ok, toilet rolls as well, but that was a moment of insanity and I still don't quite know why people went crazy to buy up vast amounts of toilet roll, rather than tinned food, flour and medical supplies....

Anyone with any sense (or who was brought up with grandparents who lived through the last War) will have a cupboard containing tinned food (I can hear my Nan saying “enough tinned food to feed a family of four for a week” even as I type), and will have a reasonable stock of the daily essentials.

But huge numbers of people don't do this: and it's hardly their fault, because we live in times of plenty, we are richer now than we have ever been before: it is fair to say that we no longer have the luxury of having women at home, bringing up the children, doing the shopping, planning the meals and keeping both garden and household running.

We've been spoilt rotten in recent decades: shops are open every hour of every day, we have grown accustomed to being able to zoom round to the shops in our cars, bringing home a load of short-use food including ready meals, so we've lost the knack of planning for a week ahead, buying things which allow us to eat up leftovers, not wasting food...

But fresh food is suddenly becoming a problem.

Between supply difficulties, and wanting to avoid going shopping, we are now realising that getting fresh veg is a problem.

And at the same time, an awful lot of people are being told to stay at home, are bored rigid, and are just realising that they have a fantastic resource right outside the back door: a garden, which has probably not been used for anything other than kicking a football about when the kids were small, and maybe sitting out in once in a blue moon.

Guess what? All three problems - lack of fresh food, boredom, and a wasted garden - can be solved in one easy step.

Grow Your Own.

Yes! Let's use those under-utilised gardens to grow some veg, help us to avoid the shops, and to retain our sanity?

Over the next few weeks - or possibly months - I shall be posting every day with information about growing veg at home, along with regular Homework: yes, my Trainee may be temporarily unable to work with me, but that's no excuse for halting the learning process! So I shall be asking a question each day, and answering it the following day.

And I invite you all to contribute comments, answers, and additional questions!

We might be feeling a bit alone at the moment, but if we can connect through a simple garden question, well, it might make some of us feel a bit less lonely.

So let's start with a question: How can I grow my own veg at home???

Let's get started...

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Primroses - who knew they were so interesting?

I find the whole subject of heterostyly (possibly my favourite botanical term) fascinating, as it's one of those things you explain to people, and then watch them run off to check it out.

First the technical bit: Heterostyly is a mechanism whereby a species produces flowers in two slightly different “types” or “morphs”.

This is designed to reduce pollen transfer between flowers of the same “morph” - either to prevent self-fertilisation, or to reduce the waste of pollen being delivered to incompatible flowers.

In Primulas, as in most flowers, the centre of the flower contains the stamens and pistils, which respectively disperse and receive the pollen. However, instead of always been in the same arrangement, Primula flowers have two "morphs" or “types” : flowers on some plants have long stamens and short pistils, while flowers on other plants have short stamens and long pistils.

In Primroses, the two morphs are called pins and thrums. Pins are where the pistil is long, looking like a large flat-headed pin – hence the name – and thrums are where the stamens are long, overtopping the pistil.

In the comparison picture below, if you look closely at the very centre of each flower, you can see that on the left-hand one, there is a bundle of anthers, and this is the "thrum".   The word “thrum” , incidentally, comes from a weaving term for a fringe or tassel of short unwoven threads, occurring when the work has been removed from the loom.

This bundle of anthers start in the centre of the flower, looking like a tiny bunched-up fist:  and then gradually open out. 

 On the right-hand flower, there is a flat-topped "pin".

Now the fascinating bit: in every naturally-evolving colony of wild primroses, there will be a roughly 50/50 split between plant whose flowers have pins, and those who have thrums.

So next time you are in the garden, or the garden centre, or out for a walk in the woods, go and have a close look at the Primroses: check out the centres of the flowers and see the pins and thrums for yourself, and make your own assessment of the 50/50 rule.

Mind you, like everything in Botany, the rules are not set in stone: this article is taken from one of my Field Guides, detailing how to identify Primrose, Cowslip and Oxlip, (because someone asked me the question, and was too tight to spend £2.67 on buying their own copy!!) and one person, who bought this Field Guide, wrote to tell me that, in parts of Somerset and the Chilterns, some Primula are "homostylous", which means they lack this differentiation altogether.

Thus, we live and learn.

Generally, though, you will find it to be true, and it certainly livens up a walk in the woodland!




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