Entries from June 2010 ↓

The first strawberries of the season

I have just harvested my first strawberries this year, Yum! Every year I am suprised by the smell and taste of home grown strawberries. Unlike every other fruit and vegetable I know, the aroma of strawberries has very little to do with their taste. They somehow smell earthy – in a nice way. The taste is sheer heaven. Shop bought strawberries are tasteless by comparison.

Growing strawberries should be a three year rotation event. The first year, you cut any runner off and will get a small to reasonable crop of strawberries. The second year you again cut the runners off and should get a very good harvest. The third year the harvest will be great and you use the runners to make new plants for the next year. After three years, strawberry plants will become less vigorous and you will get smaller harvests.

You get new strawberry plants very easily. The main plants will produce ‘runners’ which are long stems which, if left the their own devices will produce growths and roots along its length. What you do is dig these new growths into pots and bury the pots in the ground (just because they are easier to manage that way). When the roots have formed (or at the end of th4e season), cut the runner off from the main plant and you have new strawberry plants. It really is that easy.If you just leave the runners they will just produce loads of new plants but your patch of ground will become overcrowded and cease to produce as many fruits.

The reason for cutting runners off the main plants in -previous years is that you do not want the plant to put energy into producing offspring when they should be producing delicious fruit for you.

There are a number of ways to grow strawberries. You can grow them in your garden as normal crops. You can even grow them in flower beds. They are quite attractive plants and will not look out of place, the flowers are white and quite pretty. There is a small problem that slugs and snails love strawberries and you really want to protect the fruit from mud. The conventional way of doing this is to put a mat (or straw) around the plant.

Another way of growing strawberries is in a specially designed sytrawberry planter. This in effect is a large pot with holes in the sides for the plants. Planters are, in fact rather nicer looking than that and are designed to look good even when not covered with plants. The problem always used to be to get water down to the plants at the bottom of the planter whilst not drowning the top plants. However many modern plants now have watering systems built in to cure this problem. If yours does not, then put a piece of drain pipe down the centtre of the planter with small hols in it at intervals and water the planter through that.

You can also plant  strawberries in hanging baskets or pouches. In some ways this makes a lot of sense, The strawberries are then up at the level where you can easily see (and pick) them. No more back-ache!.

My strawberry plants were already in the garden when I moved into the house and although they readily produce runners (a bit too readily really – they’re a bit like weeds, grow everywhere) they do not produce a great deal of fruit. Those they do produce is really tasty but not enough of it. So I think it is time to replace them.

I have found a great offer from Van Meuren which offers 24 strawberry plants in two different varieties fruiting at different times plus a Patio planter plus a growing pouch and 100g of fertiliser. This is apparantly worth about £55 and they are offering it for £15. So I have ordered a pack and will await the results with interest. I will not dispose of my old plants until the new ones are well grown, just in case there are any problems but I have bought from this company before and do not see any problems arising.

If you have never grown strawberries before I would not hesitate to suggest you give it a try. You can grow just one plant and see how you get on. The resultant fruit really is so much better than any you can buy, it is worth the small amount of work involved.

Growing Cucumbers

I grow my cucumbers in the greenhouse  in much the same way as I grow tomatoes.

First, I sow them 2 seeds in a 3″ pot. Then I pot these up singley into 5″ pots. Many gardeners will tell you to dispose of the weakest plant but, with the price of seeds as high as it is, that seems wasteful to me and I have never had any trouble pricking the plants out.

After the plants have grown to a reasonable size and the roots are showing at the bottom of the pot, I then pot them on into their final large pots. I stake these plants and tie the stakes to the roof of the greenhouse. I use my own garden compost to grow the plants in. However, growbags will do equally well. The plants are going to be in these pots for a few months and are going to be supporting a number of cucumbers, so the compost needs to be rich.
You could, if you wish grow cucumbers directly in growbags and use the very nice new supports with them. However, I feel that a deeper root run works better and bamboo canes work well for supports.

Most cucumber seed is supposedly all female these days, but it is worth keeping an eye on the flowers. You do not want male flowers. They make the cucumbers taste bitter. The way you tell the difference between male and female flowers is that the female flowers(the ones which will develop into cucumbers) have a thin stem between the flower and the main stem. You can leave the flowers a day or so to be sure that it is not male, just don’t let it open if it is. The male flowers are directly on the stem.

If you do not support cucumbers or train them in any way, they will grow slightly curved (a bit like a banana only not so curved.)The Victorian gardeners used glass trainers to ensure that they grew straight and an updated version of these is now available to buy. You can grow cucumbers quite well without them, but if you want straight cucumbers, then you need to train them. They will taste the same, whatever you decide.

When the cucumber plant starts to flower, you should feed them with a liquid fertiliser.Trim any side shots to two leaves and when the plant reaches the top  of the canes, pinch out the growing tip.

You can grow cucumbers outside in just the same way. Just plant them in the soil instead of potting them up. You can sow them outside. They should be  2 ft apart. If you sow them outside, then sow 2 seeds together and cover with a cut of platic bottle (a litre lemonade bottle with thee bottom cut of is great). This will protect the young plants from slugs and cold winds.

You do not need to grow cucumbers up canes. They will grow well scrambling on the ground, but they take up much more room and are susceptible to slug damage. Sow themGrowing Cucumbers 3ft apart if you are not supporting them.

Cucumbers are very easy to grow and taste much better straight from your plant than bought cucumbers do. They are attractiive enough to grow on wigwams in your flower beds, so have a go.

Hampton Court Flower Show

I always enjoy visiting Hampton Court Flower Show. The enjoyment starts even before I get there as part of the journey is a Park and Ride scheme followed by a short trip on a boat across (and up) the River Thames.

This year will be the 21st Flower Show and promises to be as spectacular and interesting as ever. The organisers have made some changes this year (they do everyyear but this year’s changes are much larger). The Floral Marquee which is 225m long will be on the North side of the Showground. Usually it is on the South side.

This will make room for a new Gardens Illustrated Marquee which promises plant and garden accessories set among beautiful displays. The theme this year is Shakesperian, which means the show gardens should be quintisensially British in flavour. Always usaeful if you are looking for ideas to take home to your garden.

There is also a major Home grown feature, which, if like me you enjoy growing your own vegetables should inspire. Along those lines, one of the featured show gardens is one about bees.At the moment, bees are very much in the news with their numbers deminishing in such a large way. The garden includes an interactive sculpture based on a natural bee hive. Good fun for children and handy for future bee keepers.

One of the other features is the Festival of Roses at which the Rose of the Year will be presented. Everybody loves Roses so this should be worth a view.

Apart from the show gardens and marquees, there are 600 shopping opportunities at the Hamnpton Court Flower show as well as it being set against the backdrop of the Palace and around the Long Water Canal, there is something for everybody there.

Click Here to Book Your Tickets Now

A wild flower patch in your garden

Until yesterday, my grass had not been cut for two weeks. It was very long and quite pretty, covered with yellow flowers which, on closer examination turned out to be buttercups. It reminded me of the two wild flower meadows I maintained in my old garden.

I do not actually like grass very much. I can admire a really well kept lawn (like a bowls green) but otherwise I consider it a ‘green cancer’. Apart from somewhere to sit, it performs no function and needs a lot of attention to keep it looking good. Therefore wild flower meadows are a good answer as far as I am concerned. You can still play in it whilst it needs much less upkeep and is not just a boring one shade of green.

You do not need a large acreage to have a wild flower meadow, you can create one in an ordinary size lawn, and there are a lot of assets to having one. For a start, they require a lot less looking after than an imaculate lawn. You only mow it for about three monthe of the year instead of eight.You do not need to feed it. Insects love it, which in turn invites the birds into your garden so you are being very ecologically friendly. However, if you are a neatnik, then a wild life meadow is not for you. It is not neat and tidy.

My patch of grass would not make a wild life meadow. Buttercups only grow in rich, fertile soil, which is the last thing you need when growing wild flowers.  If you already have a patch of grass which you wish to grow wild flowers in, then there are a number of things you need to know.

First, you really need poor, inpoverished soil. That way the wild flowers will thrive and the grass will not. You also need fine grasses, so that they do not grow too long and smother your flowers. You can create this be keeping your grass cut very short for at least three years and collecting every scrap af cuttings from it. Do not feed it at all. It may end up looking a bit scrufy but that will not matter.

Then you need to decide whether you are going to grow wild flowers which flower in the spring (like cowslips and forget me knots (and loads of others) or those which flower in the summer such as ox-eye daisy and poppies. There are many specialist merchants who sell  both wild flower seeds and also plug plants for wild flowers. (These are small-rooted plants). They will tell you what plants are included in which catogary and you can make a decision on that.

The reason you need to make that decision is that the cutting regime for your grass will differ. If you have sping flowering  plants, then you cut your grass in the summer after the spring flowers have finished flowering and have set seed.Don’t dead head the flowers or collect the seed, they need to re-seed themselves in your grass. (Unless, of course you want to grow more pplug plants for some reason).  If you have summer flowering plants, then you cut in early spring and in autumn – after seeds have set.

One of the things we did was have a garden party after the plants had set their seeds and let our guests trample the seed into the grass. In nature, the cows do this job, but your guests will churn up the soil equally well.

Every year in  a wild flower meadow will be different. One year  the majority of flowers will be of one type, whilst the next year it may well be a different type. Sad to say, you are unlikely to always have a balanced mix.

When you first start your wild flower meadow, the grass may well be too much comppetition for wild flower seed to germinate and grow. To get over this problem. either buy ready grown plants (plug plants are great because you only have to dig very small holes) or grow your own small plants in seed trays from specialist wild flower seed and then plant them.

As I said before, wild flower meadows are not for everybody. They inevitably are untidy. Nature is not tidy, but I like my garden a bit on the wild side and the joy of looking at the various plants (some of which will congregate there naturally) and the wild life enjoying them makes up for the down side.

More Garden Jargon

I am going to talk about just three phrases today. The first is ‘dis-budding’. At first this seems self explanitory. Well, not quite. Dis-budding does not mean to take all the buds off a plant. It means to thin them  out in a very particular way. The point of dis-budding is to produce much larger flowers (although fewer of them). It is carried out on a number of plants, mainly Dahlias, Chrsanthemums and Roses. People who show their flowers in flower shows dis-bud to produce that extra large flower to win a prize. However, if you prefer larger flowers to loads of them, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do it also. What you do is to look carefully at the flower buds when they are first produced. You will see that in a number of cases there are three buds close together at the end of a stem. The centre one will be larger than the two side ones. With your finger and thumb nails (or a pair of secateurs) you pinch out the side buds. Do not damage the centre bud. This will make the plant put all its energy into producing a much larger flower than it would have had it been growing three flowers. It is easier to be more accurate with your finger and thumb than using secateurs. The plant material will be very soft and easy to break, so it is necessary to be very careful when you are doing this.

If you want to plant around a trss and it is casting to much shade, or if it is to low to walk comfortably under it, then you may want to cut the branches off.  This is called ‘raising the canopy’. When you thnjk about it, it makes perfect sense but unless you understand the phrase, it is nonsence. When you cut off branches, remember to cut them as close to the trunk as possible. This will prevent ‘die back’ which is when a branch has been cut back and after it dies back to the next junction with the plant. That is why you should always cut back to a leaf or branch (or in this case the trunk). Die back is  bad for a number of reasons. It loks unsighly to have dead branches on your pplant. It also encourages pests and diseases to enter your plant  causing other problems.

The language of gardening.

The other day I was asked what a ‘drift’ was. Having explained (I will talk about it later), it occurred to me that there are a number of terms which could be puzzling to a new gardener, so here goes a stab at explaining a few.There will be many more which I miss and from time to time I may add another post.

Lets start with ‘double digging’. This is usually combimed with adding compost to your garden, and usually (though not always) used in the vegetable patch. It means that you dig out a spade’s depth of soil and put it to one side. Then you dig out another spade’s depth. Then mix compost with your second spade of soil and p[t it back in the hole (You can just put the compost in and add the soil if you like). Next you dig out a spade’s depth of soil from your next area and add it to your original hole so that it is now the level it originally was. Take out another spade’s depth of soil, add compost, replace soil. You continue like this until you have finished the whole area when you replace original spade’s depth of soil with the original soil you took from your first dig. It is a lot of work and if you have heavy, compacted or stony soil, particularly hard. However, it is well worth doing as it sets your soil up to produce really good, healthy plants and , provided you do not walk on it, it will not need doing for a good few years. One other thing, if you have really heavy soil, it is worth incorporating shingle in with the compost. This will help drainage and stop your soil getting too  water logged in wet weather.

Next ‘dead heading’ and pruning. These are sort of allied since they are both taking bits off your plants. Dead heading is exactly what it sounds like. Taking the dead flower heads from ornamental plants. You will find that there is all sorts of advice about cutting back stems when you do this (particularly on roses) but it has been found that roses flower just as freely if you just cut off the dead flower heads. Do take off the whole flower though, not just the petals, otherwise the plant will still try to set seed and won’t bother with another load of flowers. Having said that, if you have flowers like dahlias and lupins it is worth cutting back the stem the flower is on to the main stem, where you will find another bud. The whole reason for dead heading is to encourage the plant to produce more flowers by stopping it from setting seed. In the case of plants where the seed head  itself is ornamental (like poppies, then you don’t dead head (although you may want to collect some of the need heads for future use.With roses, you leave the hips on when the second (or last) flush of flowers  is finished.

Pruning is rather more major and done for other reasons. You prune all sorts of plants – trees; shubs; flowers; climbers. It basically means cutting it back. There are a number of  reasons for pruning . Sometimes it is done to keep the plant in a good shape. Sometimes it is done because the plant has a problem, like crossing branches or branches dying back. Sometimes you prune to open up the centre of the plant to light because it is getting to congested and with fruit bushes and trees you prune your plant to encourage it to fruit. The time and the way you prune depends on the plant. There are loads of good books to help you with this, alternately ask your local garden centre or gardening club for advice. Make sure they know what they are talking about though. Remember, if you cut off too much of your plant, it will always grow back next year. As long as you don’t toally denude it of leaves, it will recover- in most cases stronger that ever.

A drift is just a line of plants (usually three or four-or more wide) but instead of going straight down the flower bed, it curves. This supposedly copies nature which has no straight lines and gives a more natural look. It is one of the new jargon words much loved by the current crop of celebrity gardeners and copied by less well known garden designers. It implies you have a flower bed large enough to handle this sort of design as you need a number of ‘drifts’ to make this work. At its best it is spectacular. At its worst, its messy. The idea is not new, although the application is different.

There are loads of other words which gardeners use where it is not immediately apparant what is meant. Don’t be afraid to ask. Most gardeners love to show off their knowledge.

Major elements in your soil

Nitrogen(N); Phospherus (P) and potassion (K) are the elements which are most needed in the soil for healthy plants. They are present in all fertilisers. Some fertilisers also contain magnesium (Mg) which together with calcium completes the major elements in the soil.

Nitrogen is one of the most important foods for plants. It is a component of chlorophyll – the pigment which gives plants their green colour. It is also a vital part of the structure of plant protein.Nitrogen is the element which is responsible for the growth of shoots and soft leaves in plants, so you can see how vital it is. It is not unusual to have a Nitrogen dificiency in your soil because it is easily leached out in open soils and can be depleted by digging in unrotted material. You can tell if you have a deficiency becuaes plant leaves will become yellowed, particularly older ones. Plants will also become stunted. Too much nitrogen will have the opposite efect, plants will grow too quickly and the leaves may be a darker green than usual. The softer growth will mean the plant will be more liable to attacks by insects and frosts. If you have a nitrogen deficiency treat your soil to a high nitrogen fetiliser such as dried blood.

Phosphorus is the next most importrant element in your soil. It is needed in smaller quantities than nitrogen (about a tenth of the amount) but is nonetheless very important. Phosphorus (or phosphate) is responsible for good root growth so a deficiency causes a stunting in the plant’s growth. It is easily diagnosed by a distrinct blue colour which affects the older leaves first. Sometimes the leaves darken and develop a blue/green tinge. In addition, the root system will be underdeveloped. Treatment for a phosphorus deficiency is easy – apply a dressing of bone meal fertiliser.

Potassium is also (-perhaps better) known as potash. It is required in the same quantities a nitrogen and it affects the size of the fruit and flowers. It is essential for the plant’s making protein and carbohydrates. If you have a potassium deficiency the plants themselves may be stunted or you may have smaller, inferior flowers and fruit. It also shows up in older leaves as a yellowing around the edge of the leaves followed by brown scorching. Alternately the leaves may become bluish and eventually bronzed all over. An excess of potassiumm may mean that plants cannot take up magnesium and could cause an inbalance of other elements. If you have a possium deficiency, apply a dressing of rock potash.

Magnesium is another element which is required in much larger quantities than many gardeners realise. It should be present in about the same quantity as  Phosphorus. It is a constituent of chlorophyll so a deficiency shows as a yellowing of the leaves starting at the veins. Deficiency of magnesium generally affects older leaves first. However, a magnesium deficiency in the plant may not mean that there is a deficiency in your soil, merely that the plant cannot take it up becuise there is too much potassium present. This can also happen if there is insufficient organic matter in your soil. Treatment for a magnesium deficiency is to apply a dressing of seaweed meal or liquid animal manure.

The last major element is Calcium. It is required in relatively large amounts and neutralises certain acids formed in plants. It also helps in the manufacture of proteins. Calcium deficiency is rare in well managed organic soiils but plants sometimes develop an inability to distribute calcium throigh their systems.The classic example of this is blossom end rot in tomatoes when the tip of the fruit blackens and ro(If this happens just pick the fruit off and dispose of it – it is not contagious). Lack of calcium also causes to burn in lettuces, black heart in celery and browning in the centre of brussel sprouts. There is no specific cure for calcium deficiency. The only answer is to treat your soil right. Incorporate plenty of manure and compost in your soil to build up a balanced nutrient level.

In fact, that last sentence applies to some extent to all deficiencies. Before planting, always ensure that your soil has plenty of compost and manure. Nothing beats good soils to produce good plants. Prevention is always better than cure.

Gardeners World Live Show

Gardeners World Live Garden Show is different from all the other shows in a number of ways. The first is that it is not organised and promoted by the Royal Horticultural Society.  The RHS does however hold a floral marquee in the show so although it does not organise all of it, it is involved. The main organiser of the show is in fact the BBC and, of course, the front men (and Women) are the presenters of Gardeners World  Programme shown on BBC 2  on Friday evenings.

Another way the show differs is that it is not just a showcase for growers, but it is much more down to earth, giving loads of advice to ordinary gardeners. Having said that, there are a number of Show Gardens in the show which do show off the designers and growers skills, and of course the flower marquee again showcases  the growers talents.

Apart from the static gardens and floral marquee, there are a number of talks and demonstrations by Toby Buckland; Carol Klein; Joe Swift; Alys Fowler (presenters of Gardeners World) ; Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don (ex-presenters of Gardeners World). Apart from the talks and demonstrations, there is usually a time set aside to answer people’s questions, so if you have a problem this may well be a place to get an answer. One of the most publicised show garden is that constructed by Birminghan City Council with a number of other organisations to raise money for ‘Help the Heroes’ charity. This has a full size Chinook Helicopter complete with moving rotor blades hovering 4 metres above the ground. The helicopter has been covered with plants in colours to closely assemble the real thingand is representing the journey made by injured soldiers from the battlefields to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and to their homes.

Of course, there are many plants to be bought at various stalls at the Gardeners World Live show. Another way the show differs from Chelsea Flower Show where the only plants you can buy are those used in the show available on the saturday evening. There is also the plant swap stall manned by Gardeners World presenters with plants from their garden. Their wish list of plants is on the BBC Gardeners World web site, so if you have spare plants this may well be putting them to a good use and getting yourself a bargain plant to boot.

Included in the price of the ticket to ‘Gardeners Worlds Live’ show is entry to the BBC Summer Good Food Show. This has cooking demonstrations from The Hairy Bikers and James Martin. It also has questions answered on grow your own garden.

Entry to both these shows is covered by one price and is well worth the cost, giving you a good day out with interest for a number of people, not just dedicated gardeners.

This show is well worth a visit, giving many things of interest for a wide range of people.