Postcard from Chelsea: Edible Chelsea

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Great to see the veg back at Chelsea. We had a brief flurry of edible love back in the mid-noughties, when the GYO trend was riding high, but in recent years they’ve gone back to hiding behind the skirts of flouncier irises, alliums and other glamourpusses.

No longer. This year there were pistachios on the Best in Show garden and potatoes in the Pavilion (to be fair, they never really went away). Even the RHS Plant of the Year was an edible (the genuinely ground-breaking dwarf mulberry ‘Charlotte Russe’). For a dedicated food grower like me, it was heaven.

The Chris Evans Taste Garden


I really liked the Radio 2 Feel Good gardens this year. They had all the Chelsea pizazz but were more accessible than the more highbrow show gardens: these were true crowd-pleasers, and unashamedly so. None more than the Chris Evans Taste Garden, designed by talented edibles specialist Jon Wheatley and packed with astonishingly perfect vegetables grown by Suttons Seeds’ secret weapon, Terry Porter, whose slightly arcane specialism is producing show-standard vegetables out of season for the flower shows.

I loved everything about this garden: and particularly the big trough full of cutting flowers at the back (including a ginger dahlia, ‘Cheyenne’, in tribute to Chris Evans’s famous carrot top). Just goes to show, you can squeeze a cutting garden in just about anywhere.

The Viking Cruises Garden of Inspiration (gold)

Sarah Eberle


My favourite of all the Artisan Gardens this year. And just look at that orange tree. I have seen orange trees in Italy, France and Florida. But never have I seen one as perfectly orangey as this one. Mouthwatering.

The Potato Story (gold)

Morrice and Ann Innes

Into the Pavilion now, and potato enthusiasts Morrice and Ann Innes became the first exhibit in the history of the show to win a gold medal for a display of potatoes. But what a display. I thought I know a bit about spuds, but came away from this realising quite how far I have yet to go. Morrice (resplendent in his kilt) told me he grows every single one of the 140 varieties on display each year. Only six or so tubers of each, granted, but they take up about half a hectare of back garden. Now that’s dedication.

Robinson Seed & Plants (Silver Gilt)

Loads of unusual veg on the immaculate Robinsons stand. Many, like achocha and cucamelons, I’ve grown already. But these snake gourds turned my head. Apparently, as well as eating them or making medicines from them, you can also turn them into didgeridoos. Who knew.

Also on the Robinsons stand was a rather fabulous edible wall, planted in pockets. This lot included American land cress, watercress, parsley, red-veined sorrel, Bull’s Blood beetroot, rocket, two types of lettuce, electric daisies, New Zealand spinach and asparagus peas. Not bad for a ‘wall’ that measured no more than about 3ft wide by 2ft high.

Tom Smith Plants (Silver Gilt)


And I just had to give a mention to the hottest exhibit in the Pavilion. One for masochists, sorry, chilli lovers everywhere, ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was bred pretty much by accident by Mike Smith, owner of Denbighshire nursery Tom Smith’s Plants. He sent the fruits off to Nottingham Trent University, and much to his surprise they returned with a scorching 2.48 million reading on the Scoville Heat scale. Just to put that into context, the current world record holder, the notorious Carolina Reaper, hits a mere 2.2 million. Mike is now awaiting confirmation from the Guinness Book of Records. Apparently if you were actually stupid enough to swallow one of these little fruits – just a couple of centimetres across – you would be fairly likely to die of anaphylactic shock. The law of natural selection in action, you might say.

Postcard from Chelsea: Heavy metal gardening

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Walkers Wharf Garden by Graham Bodle

Best Artisan Garden

I can’t help feeling the judges have been in a slightly bolshy frame of mind this week. Certainly they’ve been in uncompromising mood, with not the slightest concession to things like popularity or crowd-pleasing.

And so they walked past Sarah Eberle’s perfect orange tree and the breathtaking beauty of Gosho no Niwa (No Wall, No War); they turned from the thoughtful planting on the World Horse Welfare garden and the hand-made wooden boat on the Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden. And instead, they chose as their favourite a garden full of post-industrial rusty metal and hardly a flower in sight.

It might not have been my own choice for the best of the exceptionally good lineup of Artisan gardens this year. But I could see why they singled it out.

The planting was delicately understated yet full of unusual choices like rushes, water mint and miniature hostas. And it had several beautiful little touches: I loved the way the rusty orange flowers on the Pinus sylvestris were picked up in the seat and again in the rusty metal.

It also chimes with one of the RHS’s Big Messages at the moment in showing how a ‘grey’ bit of Britain – i.e. a post-industrial landscape full of the debris of heavy industry – could be transformed through planting. And in the process, managed somehow to convince me that things like rusty old chains made for some really rather funky garden sculpture.

Besides, any garden that shoehorns a socking great iron crane into a tiny 5m x 7m space and then sets it off with plants in such a way as to make it look pretty damn fantastic has already pulled off a fairly spectacular feat of imagination and engineering. Which, when you think about it, is reason enough to claim the top prize. Bloody brilliant.

Postcard from Chelsea: New plants

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The RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year competition, launched in 2010, brings new and genuinely different plants into the light each year, these days attracting dozens of entries from growers all over the Pavilion. Here are the ones that caught my eye this year.

Morus rotundiloba ‘Charlotte Russe’

Winner, RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2017

Not the most spectacular of pictures to start with, but then May isn’t the best time to be showing off a new mulberry either. I spotted this one at the Garden Press Event back in February where it was attracting much interest: it is the first genuinely dwarf mulberry bush, small enough to grow in a container and a real breakthrough in small-scale fruit production. It’s even said to fruit in its first year (unlike tree mulberries, which take at least seven).

Rosa ‘Dame Judi Dench’ (‘Ausquaker’)

Meet Judi Dench: one of the five or six new roses which has made it through the rigorous 10-year selection process at David Austin Roses this year. Peachy-apricot, sweetly fragrant, and a little louche in habit: Michael Marriott at David Austin’s says they could be amenable to training as a climber, too.

Lewisia longipetala ‘Little Snowberry’

A truly lovely lewisia from alpine specialists D’Arcy & Everest, delicate, pretty, dainty, and carefully selected for the purity of colour of its flowers and for its robustness.

Lilium ‘Sunset Joy’

 I found this one bursting from containers on the Horticultural Trades Association stand – actually, you couldn’t miss it. Asiatic lilies are usually single colours but this one is a bicolour: it’s also a compact and vigorous little thing, great for summer patios.

Digitalis ‘Lemoncello’


Another chance discovery among foxgloves in the National Collection at the Botanic Nursery in Wiltshire: yellow foxgloves are rare, and this is a particularly interesting shade of lemony, limey yellow which looks lovely among brighter shades. It’s also quite compact, so could be a good one for containers.

Corydalis ‘Porcelain Blue’

There were mixed reactions to this little plant, tucked into the side of the Hilliers exhibit. But I liked it, especially that pretty bicoloured effect as flowers open blue and fade to white with age.

Clematis ‘Taiga’

I am usually a little wary of brightly-coloured clematis, but this one had something. The flower matures from spiky to rosette, then opens fully into a full double, each purple petal tipped with white like a little icicle.

Sweet pepper ‘Popti’

I am possibly a little biased here as I’m always on the lookout for new veg varieties coming onto the market. But this little bell pepper on the Pennard Plants stand did turn my head: it’s a bushy plant but still compact, and covered with peppers, unusually for a pot-grown plant. It’s disease-resistant and early-ripening, too.

Pelargonium ‘Rushmoor Amazon’

Well, who knew. A yellow pelargonium. And what a pretty one, too. This is the result of 30 years of breeding in Australia, the first in a series to be known as the Rushmoor River Series. Its habit is so different it’s even invented a new type of pelargonium, the Zonartic pelargonium, with big, open flowers and that delicate yellow colouring, this one just brushed with a smidge of pale pink. I loved it.

Postcard from Chelsea: Best in Show

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The M&G Garden, James Basson

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I can’t help feeling a bit smug about this year’s winner of Best in Show. I have been saying for quite some time that I thought James Basson was destined for great things: I first met him in Japan back in 2012, when he was doing the Gardening World Cup and created a fine, thoughtful and delicately judged garden based on the Wilfred Owen poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Even back then I knew he was doing something rather different.

I have loved everything he’s done ever since. Last year’s garden for L’Occitane recreated a Provence landscape with breathtaking attention to detail and was, for my money, head and shoulders above the rest (the RHS judges, sadly, didn’t agree with me).

Which is why it is a little painful for me to confess that this year’s garden is not, for me, a favourite. I hope he won’t mind me saying that I found the strongly geometric hard landscaping, meant to evoke a Maltese quarry, overwhelming and over-dominant. I think it’s something to do with the crisply-cut, cuboid, modernist shapes. There was a lot of rock in his L’Occitane garden, after all, but there it complemented the planting. This swamps it.

And that’s a shame, as the plants themselves are quite remarkable. Typically of James’s attention to detail, each one is thoughtfully chosen and grouped to recreate particular microclimates: many are Maltese natives, rarely seen on these shores.

These are austere wildflowers, with none of the over-the-top prettiness of Chelsea. It’s a harsh, uncompromising landscape which perfectly evokes the dry, edge-of-existence environment that is as fragile as it gets. It is brave, for Chelsea (especially in the sponsor’s garden), and makes no concessions to crowd-pleasing. It is, in fact, what James Basson does best.

So look past the overly-geometric, jarringly modernist stonework which I wish had more rough edges, more chaos, more wildness; and concentrate instead on the gaunt, stark dignity of the plants between. For that is where the real truth of this garden lies, and that is why James is such a very special and very different kind of designer whose moment in the spotlight has, at last, arrived.

Malvern magic

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malvern1A happy day yesterday pottering among the plants at the RHS Spring Festival at Malvern. This is one of the most low-key of flower shows, rarely talked about yet hiding treasures at its heart. Not least of which is one of the very best floral marquees of them all: for my money, second only to the marquee at Chelsea in terms of quality, quantity and sheer wow factor. I never tire of it.

By the time I left I was three scented-leaf geraniums, three salvias, a solar-powered irrigation system and a lot of large bamboo plant labels the heavier. All of which, no doubt, more later. But since I also had a camera loaded with pics I thought I would resurrect an old Constant Gardener tradition, last seen in 2012, and dish out a few gongs for the bits of the show that I thought were worth singling out for special attention.

Best Use of a Borrowed Landscape
At One With… A Meditation Garden (Gold and Best in Show)

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Head and shoulders above the rest, and a shoo-in for Best in Show, Peter Dowle’s garden was a study in how to transport you to another place using plants, water and very, very clever design. Not least of which was nicking the grandeur of the Malvern Hills to make your acers look like they’re at one with the landscape.

Best Use of Recycled Materials
Team AK’s Grand Day Out, Ashton Keynes CofE Primary School, Wiltshire (Highly Commended)

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I adore the school gardens at Malvern: they never fail to provide new ideas. I think it’s something to do with the way that kids see the world differently – and that includes gardens. Loved this painted bottle path edging – it just made me smile.

Best Wildflower Planting
The Refuge (Gold)

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Ragged robin and corn poppies in a sublime little mini-meadow on Sue Jollan’s garden for Help Refugees UK.

Wall of the Year
Buckfast Abbey Millennium Garden (Silver)

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How lovely this garden was. Dominated by a delicate wire sculpture of a deer drinking, it combined gentle, airy planting with green oak arches – infilled at the base with cut logs to make a wall which combines natural beauty and elegance.
Highly Commended:
Molecular Garden (Gold)
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Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best: this wooden wall art transformed a stretch of render in the winning garden in the Spa Gardens category, by visiting designers Denis Kalashnikov and Ekaterina Bolotova, on an exchange from the Moscow Flower Show.

Garden Furniture I Most Wanted To Take Home
Ocean Garden (Bronze)

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Colour… and comfort. Love it.

Funkiest Sculpture of the Year 2017
Nik Burns

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Garden grunge at its best. Loved this chap right down to the bulb. Now that’s what I call garden lighting.

Plant of the Show 2017
Peonies

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They were everywhere: breathtaking, blowsy, beautiful. I particularly liked that the ravishing display on Primrose Hall Nursery’s stand was staged close enough for you to be able to smell the blooms and work out which are as perfumed as they say they are. I will be filling my garden with la Duchesse de Nemours forthwith.


Most Astonishing Stem Colour
Acer palmatum “Sango-kaku” (Staddon Farm Nurseries, Gold)

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Extraordinary: and those lime green leaves just popped against the stems.

Plant That Most Resembled a Pillow
Scleranthus biflorus (D’Arcy & Everest, Silver Gilt)

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Hands down the weirdest plant in the marquee. I had to look twice before I realised it even was a plant. Then all I really wanted to do was lay my head down on it and go to sleep.

The “Why? Oh Why?” Wooden Spoon Award for 2017
Bubble Drops (Spa Garden, Bronze)

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It had one slightly lonely-looking plant in it. In a pot. ‘Nuff said.

Garden words: Purely for medicinal purposes

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The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Confession time: I do like to self-medicate.

Not, I must hastily add, in the alcoholic sense (well, not very often and only in extremis). But in the reach out into the garden and grab your remedy of choice sort of sense.

Herbal medicines can be as simple as a sprig of peppermint dunked in a mug of boiling water to ease your indigestion after an overindulgent meal: tastier than a Rennies, and at least you know exactly what’s gone into it.

Or you can go the whole hog and start boiling up comfrey roots into a sticky paste to smear over gauze in a poultice: wrap it around a sprain and it’ll ease pain and reduce swelling. Not for nothing is comfrey commonly known as knitbone.

I use sage tea to soothe a sore throat; I try to drink a rosemary tisane at about elevenish to aid my failing memory (the redoubtable Jekka McVicar swears by this one). There’s an aloe vera plant on my kitchen windowsill in case anyone should burn themselves; and I’ll pick a leaf of feverfew in the herb garden to slip into a cheese sandwich (just a little as it’s quite bitter) to ease the pain of headaches, including migraines, which my youngest occasionally suffers from. There are loads more: in fact there’s a whole chapter on the subject, including recipes, in my new book (in all good bookshops from September 7th!)

But I wish I’d had this book on my shelf to refer to while I was writing it. My knowledge on herbal medicine tends to be a bit piecemeal, handed down from friends and relatives or snippets picked up from books and magazines. So I’m not all that adventurous, really: I stick to my known remedies and go to the doctor for the rest.

This book, though, gathers all those scraps of herbal lore into one beautiful tome, along with a whole load of other remedies I never even knew existed. Who knew you could brew hawthorn berries into a spicy wine to help with poor circulation? Or that squash leaves are anti-inflammatories – you can rub the sap on burns, apparently. Elderberries prevent colds from taking hold – take a teaspoon of elderberry-infused vinegar three times a day at the first signs of a cold and you’ll head off the worst. And chickweed, of all things, can help soothe eczema.

I particularly like the considered, measured approach to the subject. This is no flag-waving sales pitch for the benefits of herbal medicine: it’s an impartial assessment of the potential uses for each plant and – best of all – the scientific basis (if any) for its effectiveness.

So let’s take hops, for example: I’m familiar with them as a sedative, usually the dried flowers slipped into a pillowcase to help you sleep. That use is listed here (along with others including mixing it with poppy seeds to treat bruises and boils); but there’s also an analysis of the evidence. There are few clinical trials (yet) which support its usefulness for treating restlessness and anxiety; but solid evidence confirming that the essential oils are antibacterial.

A balanced view is a rare thing in the field of herbal medicine, so this alone would have earned this book a place on my “essential reading” shelf. But it’s also packed with recipes and instructions – everything from rosehip syrup to calendula lip balm and passionflower tea (it helps you sleep). And all in a book which is a useful size – a tad larger than A5, so you can hold it in one hand quite comfortably while stirring the chickweed cream with the other. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the exquisite illustrations lifted mainly from Kew’s archives of botanical art. My one and only criticism of this otherwise thoughtfully compiled book is that there is no detailed list of who painted these beautiful works of art; credit where credit is due, after all.

But overall this is one of the best books to land on my desk in ages, and one which I can already see I shall be thumbing through again and again. In short – an essential reference work for anyone who has even a passing interest in picking their medicines from the garden. I will treasure my copy for years to come.

So… what’s new?

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large_6a017d41d9ea05970c01a5116c8aa0970c-piA quick whizz round the Garden Press Event up in London the other week – and I do mean quick, as I didn’t arrive till lunchtime having flown in from Bordeaux in France that morning, fingernails still muddy from clearing the garden in the little house my family has bought there.

It’s tempting at this point to get diverted into a little rhapsody about the delights of sitting outside eating a lunch of ham-stuffed baguettes baked that morning, sun shining and temperature a balmy 19 degrees (in February!), back aching pleasantly from raking leaves, loading bonfires, dismantling rotten-roofed sheds and climbing a lot of old trees to pull out ivy.

But I will resist the temptation (until later, anyway) and instead talk about the many little things I came across at the show which caught my eye. The Press Event has become one of those must-attend punctuations to the gardening year: it sort of kicks things off as everyone lines up to show you what the horticultural talking points are likely to be this year.

There’s quite a lot of toot there too, of course, but I tend to avert my eyes tactfully from the stuff that I can’t see the point of or of which I frankly disapprove (one year I listened open-mouthed as an earnest lawn company representative described how their new product would efficiently murder every earthworm in your garden. Not that she put it in quite those words, but I politely refused the free sample she offered: quickest way I know to kill a lawn stone dead).

So here is a little distillation of the good stuff: the half-dozen bits of kit, new plants and innovations which I hope will find their way onto my plot too before too many seasons have passed by.

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Grow lights you can use: Oh I know I’ve been banging on about my Vitopod lately but it does have quite a major role in my life just at the moment. So it’s not that surprising that these natty grow lights caught my attention. The only grow lights I’ve come across have been offered me from slightly dodgy sources and are enormous industrial-scale things with questionable electrics. These on the other hand are dainty little things that just clip over your Vitopod lid and extend the day length to up to 12 hours. Daylight being just as important as warmth when starting early seedlings, this could be the missing piece of my jigsaw puzzle.

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Tiger nuts: So excited by these. They look a bit like chickpeas, but they’re actually the tubers of an unremarkable sedge, Cyperus esculentus, a close relation to papyrus (the kind you grow in your pond) only not quite as pretty. It’s quite prolific – an average clump yields about 1lb of dried tubers: the texture and taste is similar to coconut, with a little hint of almond, and they’re packed with nutrients. You can dry them for storing over winter, then rehydrate them overnight to eat raw or in cakes and bakes. On coming home to do a bit more research, though, they do seem to be a bit on the tender side. I’m making them this year’s experiment, anyway, to see how they do.

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Ornaments that double up as bird feeders: I did think this was pretty, and useful too. I found it on the Crocus stand: you fill the central bowl with seeds, or cheese, or whatever you happen to be feeding the birds at the moment, and they can perch on the ledge to feast. Much prettier than your average wire-and-plastic peanut job.

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Charles Dowding’s new book: Charles was there with his partner Steph – also a very talented kitchen gardener and writer – and a lot of copies of his latest publication, Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Garden Diary. a wire-bound allotment notebook-cum-diary interwoven with pages of Charles’s no nonsense advice based on sound practical experience. I have long admired Charles’s quiet ability to plough his own furrow: he draws his own conclusions, he only ever follows what other people say if he’s already proved it to himself, and as a result he is a true pioneer. And Steph gave me some parched peas, too (thanks Steph!)

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Dwarf mulberries: Alongside the tiger nuts on the Suttons stand was this little cutie: the first proper mulberry bush. By which I mean one bred to grow just 1.5m tall – or the size of a large-ish shrub, unlike the conventional mulberry bush which is actually a small tree (does anyone know why mulberry trees are called mulberry bushes in the song? The best I can find is this blog post which says it was originally a song about blackberry bushes, or possibly juniper bushes, though it all seems rather vague.) It goes by the pretty name of ‘Charlotte Russe’ and it’s got proper mulberries and everything (and within a year rather than the usual eight or so).

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A rude veg competition: Ah yes: rude veg. We all love a bit of double-entendre when harvesting the carrots. Anyway: Van Meuwen enjoyed its Vulgar Veg competition so much last year that it’s doing the same again. There’s £500 of vouchers on offer: the winner last year was a positively pornographic carrot from Weston-super-Mare. What with wonky veg in the news (when you can find any veg at all in the shops, that is) there’s no better time to expose your oddities to a wider audience (double entendre entirely intended): just go to http://www.vanmeuwen.com/competitions and enjoy.

This month in the garden…

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snowdrops

Signs of hope are everywhere

Well. Hasn’t it got busy around here lately.

There I was, listening morosely to the tumbleweed (well, gales and splattering rain) and wondering if the winter would ever end. And then all of a sudden spring sprung. The frosts retreated, the snowdrops came out, and everyone emerged blinking in the watery February sunlight.

And all that sulking indoors has left a ton of stuff to do in the garden, so I’m already behind before I’ve even begun. And now that we can all agree it’s spring, there are garden articles to write and book proposals to hone and student assignments to mark and garden holidays to plan… Welcome to a new year!

Here’s what’s on my to-do list right now – all to cram into the remaining fortnight before it gets even more crazy in March. Wish me luck…

Hitching up the propagator: I think I actually love my Vitopod. It’s not often I say this about a bit of kit, but this has really transformed the way I can garden. It’s eye-wateringly expensive, but believe me: it’s worth it. The moment it comes out of storage each spring is the moment my year begins. 

Sowing tomatoes: See above. This wouldn’t be possible, this early, without a heated propagator – and a good one at that. I set mine to 20°C, and then once the seedlings are up switch the thermostat down to about 12°C to grow them on. Frost? What frost?

Sowing the earliest root crops: I like to get an early crop of the hardy stuff going as soon as I can (cue: heated propagator again. Sorry). It’s too cold to sow yet, even in an unheated greenhouse; my rule of thumb is 7-10°C day and night before I’ll risk it. But once the toms are finished, turnips, beetroot and kohlrabi go in at 12°C and germinate like a dream.

Planting Jerusalem artichokes: There’s planting to be done outside, too; this year I picked up some of the not-quite-as-knobbly Jerusalem artichoke, ‘Fuseau’, along with the seed potatoes. They’re tall, and have flashy golden sunflowers in summer, so they’re going straight into the ground in the exotic edibles garden. Just hope I can keep them in bounds, that’s all – I have tried (and failed) to curb their enthusiasm before…

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Lovely fat Jermor shallots waiting to go in the ground

Planting shallots: Shallots go in earlier than onions, so mine are in the ground this month. As always, I’ve gone for a French variety, ‘Jermor’ – though I’d have preferred ‘Hative de Niort’, fiendishly expensive but the largest, most reliable and – most importantly – tastiest shallot you’ll ever grow.

Experimenting with new stuff: This year it’s Welsh onions – I never have any luck with spring onions, so I thought these perennial bunching onions might prove a useful substitute. Also Carlin peas, aka parched peas, thanks to a kind gift from skilled kitchen gardener and Charles Dowding‘s other half, Steph Hafferty. And tiger nuts, if I can keep them warm enough. All of which more at a later date.

Cutting hazel stems: You’ll find me swinging monkey-like among the thickets of hazel that line the back of our garden this month: they’re perched precariously on the side of the bank but produce some lovely long, straight stems. Cut at around 2″ diameter, just before the buds break, they supply all my beanpole and peastick needs.

Potting up dahlia tubers: What’s a dyed-in-the-wool veggie type like me doing growing something as fancy as dahlias, you ask? Well, dahlias are edible too, so they earn their place in my kitchen garden. Plus they’re dead pretty. I pot mine up in 2ltr pots this month to save them from the slugging they’d otherwise get in the open garden.

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Ripe with promise: the potato crop chitting on my windowsill. Not strictly necessary, but I do like to get them out of their bags while they’re waiting to be planted.

Forcing new potatoes: The one time I bother with growing potatoes in sacks – otherwise an exercise in retrieving the minimum harvest possible from the maximum outlay – is in early spring, when I force a couple of sacks’ worth of new potatoes just for the smug value of eating them weeks before anyone else can.

Mulching & feeding fruit: The fruit garden gets a lot of attention this month: I’ve just about finished all the pruning, but right behind the secateurs are the spade and wheelbarrow. A good scattering of slow-release fertiliser – I’m a fan of pelleted poultry manure or Vitax Q4, but this year I have Carbon Gold to try too – topped off with a thick layer of mulch sets the whole fruit garden up for the rest of the year.