Between the lines

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bookpicBy far the most exciting thing to happen to me in the middle of a rainy and slightly frustrating week was the publication of my new book.

This is all a novel experience for me (sorry, dreadful pun) and I am finding it a little disconcerting: I have to draw attention to myself, for one thing, blow my own trumpet and generally go on about what I do instead of hiding in a corner of my living room bashing away at my keyboard behind the comforting anonymity of a computer screen.

However, now I find myself with book launches, author signings, talks and podcasts to do: publicity a go-go, and nowhere for a slightly reclusive gardener to hide. I can’t even go down to the far end of the veg garden where nobody can find me, as it’s (still) raining.

The book began as a simple idea: what if everyone could be just a little bit self-sufficient? Even if they lived a normal 21st century life in an ordinary house, without a smallholding, or much time, just like me?

And – as these things do – it mushroomed into an examination of what exactly it means to be self-sufficient, and from there became a gallop through the last 20 years of my life distilled into all the stuff I’ve learned about growing things and providing for myself and my family, on a journey of my own to look after myself as much as I possibly could through my own efforts.

As I’ve learned to supply more and more of my own food from my back garden, plus various borrowed fields, allotments and strips of land, I have realised lots of things.

First: there’s no such thing as self-sufficiency. Even the most dedicated off-gridder has to hew their house from the surrounding woodland with an axe someone else has smelted and forged. So once you’ve taken that on board, it becomes a question of how self-sufficient you can be.

And then you realise that everyone can supply at least some of their food by their own efforts. Even if all you’ve got is a doorstep, you can plant a rosemary bush in a pot in the sun and never have to buy herbs wrapped in plastic from the supermarket again.

Add a middle-sized garden and you can become self-sufficient in half-a-dozen vegetables really easily, and another dozen or so with a little extra effort. Start to get really hooked (and you will) and you can knock more things off your weekly shopping list, including fruit, drinks, cough and cold remedies, tea, eggs, lamb…

There will always be some things I will have to rely on others for. Flour, for one thing, and bread, pasta and rice. Butter, milk and cheese (I could keep goats, but I value my sanity: I have chased far too many of my mum’s goats across various villages in the South of France to want to ever do that again. Long story). Clothes (I can’t wear wool. Besides – woolly knickers. ‘Nuff said); cars and transport, other than walking.

So actually, in the grand scheme of things, I’m probably not that self-sufficient at all. But the point is, it is hugely important to me that I produce as much as is within my power from my own efforts.

Why? Because that way, I can eat absolutely fresh, organic food that I know for sure has never been sprayed with any chemicals at all, or injected with antibiotics unless it needs to be – and there’s lots of it, and it tastes great.

Because there is something deeply satisfying about sitting down to a plate of food and knowing that you have provided everything on it, through your own efforts. It taps into some atavistic caveman instinct and there’s something profoundly reassuring in the knowledge that, come the apocalpyse, we’ll be all right. We certainly won’t go short of home-made chutney, that’s for sure.

And because when I’m providing for myself it means I’m not sitting like a baby bird, mouth open, waiting helplessly for someone else to feed me. It’s a matter of self-respect. Plus growing what I eat, even if it’s just a part of my overall consumption, makes me really think about where my food comes from, and appreciate the effort that goes into growing it: and that makes me waste less, and pollute less, and treat the animals that produce my food better. It makes me responsible, as far as I can be, for the weight of my foot upon the world. And besides, it’s a lot of fun. Care to join me?

Grab your own copy of Growing Self-Sufficiency at a hefty introductory discount from Wordery – here’s the link!

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Raging against the dying of the light

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IMG_4617Well hello again! As always the summer has run away with me: three months since my last post, eh. I think that must be some kind of record.

I have been watching the swallows gathering on the telephone wire opposite and gibbering with rage (me, that is, not the swallows), quite quietly and only when nobody’s looking, at the unfairness of it all being nearly over. Last time I looked it was only just a little bit past spring. Then I got whisked up, Dorothy-like, into the summer. And here I am, back on the ground, no sparkly red shoes but quite a nice tan, howling at the injustice of winter.

I have travelled to France, twice: the picture is of some lovely and very un-French flowers at a garden we visited near Aix-en-Provence. The French, particularly in that bit of France, don’t really go in for flowers, or at least not in profusion like this: it’s more a sea-of-lavender followed by a sea-of-irises with a lot of clipped box and olive trees. Very beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but a bed billowing with cosmos and cornflowers was like a summer breeze in the middle of a southern European heatwave.

The garden has suffered a bit: I failed to pick over the beans, or the courgettes, before I left, so returned to some lumpy-bumpy and inedible purple French beans which have sulkily refused to start up again. The courgettes turned into marrows, which I have now cured and stored alongside the onion crop. It’s the best way, I find, of storing courgettes: beats freezing any day, though you lose a little of the flavour (but let’s face it, who cares about courgette flavour anyway: you’re just trying to find a way of using up the damn things). The plants, of course, have bounced back into action. I picked four more today. There will be four more tomorrow, too, I bet.

But I am, slowly, making progress: today I started my latest project, a raised strawberry bed. The mice nicked every last berry this year and I am determined to foil them. Plus the strawberry bed got invaded by couch grass and the strawberry plants were getting old anyway: so the whole thing needed an overhaul.

I have therefore covered the space with weed-suppressing membrane, stapled to the wooden sides of the raised bed: step one complete. Next step: trundle up the hill with the wheelbarrow and steal a few bags of woodchip from the chickens, so that I’m not looking at weed-suppressing membrane for the next three years.

As usual, I am not sure quite when this is going to happen: I’d like it to be tomorrow, but I might not actually be here. I might be at Wisley instead, to look at the flower show and do a few interviews for my next article about the garden for The Garden (now doesn’t that sound odd). Or i might not. International woman of mystery, that’s me. With or without red shoes.

Gardening without plastic: Seed trays #2

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So: onward and upward with my efforts to replace my stack of green and black plastic seed trays with lovely organic and handsome wooden ones instead. Here are the options I’ve been trying out this spring:

1: Home made

I have discovered that while you can buy full-sized seed trays off the shelf, the half-sized trays I favour for many of my sowings are more difficult to come by. You can make your own from recycled pallets, or get in some Western red cedar which I’m told by my carpenter husband is slower to rot than most woods, but is imported so less environmentally-friendly. It takes more time to make a seed tray, but it is phenomenally cheap: I am experimenting with different methods and will report back.

2: Second-hand

Second-hand finds at reclamation yards and online auction sites have, frustratingly, almost always wine boxes or fruit crates which are NOT wooden seed trays – they’re too deep, for one thing, and much too large. The ideal size for a seed tray is (about) 38cm x 23cm x 5cm: anything larger than this is getting difficult to use.

Proper wooden seed trays, even in those garden brocante places that charge the earth for old gardening stuff, are as rare as hen’s teeth. I’ve just scoured every stall in the Chelsea Flower Show, where garden brocante is de rigueur, and found not a single seed tray. So I’ve given up.

3: New

There are, I discover, lots of places which sell proper wooden seed trays, and very handsome they are too. I am feeling a product review coming on. The ones I’ve decided to trial this year are:

Great Dixter seed trays: These look a little on the deep side compared to what I’m used to, at 6.5cm, and they are expensive – £8 for two (plus £5 shipping, so that’s £6.50 per tray to you, guv). But they use them on the nursery to this day: and what’s good enough for the late, great Christopher Lloyd is good enough for me.

Burgon & Ball Wooden Seed Tray Set: One of the very few – actually, the only one I could find – to offer a half-tray option. A little froufrou for my liking (why is it that people can’t resist printing things on the side of wooden seed trays?), and I think I’m going to find them deep as the height is 8cm on these. Price is £12.99 + £4.95 shipping, so £17.94, more expensive and definitely a pricey option.

D&P Marchant Seed Trays: And last but not least: the eBay option. This is a small business based in the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales, hand-making wooden seed trays (and other things) from reclaimed timber. They aren’t cheap, at £9.75 (though that does include postage) – but the attraction here is that they get a lot cheaper if you order more. I spotted a stack of 10 for £47.99, which is a much more reasonable £4.79 a tray. And no postage costs. And they do half-trays, too.

I have collected all three to put through their paces and will report back later in the year!

 

 

 

 

Gardening without plastic: Seed trays #1

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From this…

The year marches on: and I thought it was about time I gave a little update on where I’m at in my attempts to clear the plastic out of my garden.

One of the things that’s become very obvious is that the main cause of the plastic mountain that greets me right inside my gate is the annual seed-sowing frenzy that envelops me and my garden each spring (and, fitfully, for the rest of the year too). It’s a side-effect of growing your own veg: you effectively raise an entire garden from seed every year, and to do that you need a lot of stuff.

From March to May, I’m reaching for a seed tray, module or pot every single day. So my seed-sowing paraphernalia builds up into teetering piles on display for all to see. And most of it is plastic.

I thought I would start at the bottom, so to speak, and look at my extensive collection of seed trays.

I use seed trays for absolutely everything to do with sowing. I sow straight into them from time to time, especially baby-leaf salads which I like to transplant straight from the seed tray in chunks – saves a lot of pricking out.

Seed trays hold my modules and smaller pots too. They make useful carry-alls for transporting seedlings out to the cold frame. And they’re just the right size to fit on the shelves in my greenhouse.

So I wouldn’t be without them. But every single one I own is made of plastic.

As with so much in this particular crusade of mine, I’ve been looking back to Victorian ways of doing things for a solution.

…to this

Wooden seed trays are far more beautiful than plastic; and of course they’re completely biodegradable. I like the look of them, very much. They’re a bit more expensive, granted: but being wooden, if you don’t want to shell out for the posh versions you can also make your own.

Disadvantages: they are heavier, and of course they do deteriorate and give way, although I would argue plastic ones too have a limited life in a busy garden. Mine regularly crack through heavy use, get trodden on or strimmed to uselessness and have to be thrown out. And of course broken plastic seed trays end up in landfill – whereas wooden ones biodegrade back into the environment.

In terms of using them, they’re much the same: fill with compost, and extract seedlings for transplanting with a kitchen fork, the tip of a trowel or just your fingers. Just like you would with a plastic tray.

They do dry out more quickly: I have found this is becoming a bit of a theme with non-plastic gardening, as you use a lot more absorbent materials (plastic, of course, tends to hold moisture in). But on the plus side, once it’s watered wood holds on to moisture against the seedlings, too (because it is damp itself), more effectively than plastic where the edges can, I find, evaporate to dryness more quickly than the centre.

I’ve been trying out a few different types this spring. I’ll outline which in the next post – with results later in the season, once I’ve put them through their paces. Watch this space!

Postcard from Chelsea: Ideas to take home

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So farewell then, Chelsea, for another year. Just in case you’re suffering a little Chelsea withdrawal, here are a few ideas I spotted among the hi-falutin’ designery and general razzmatazz, the kind of Chelsea inspiration that’s actually not that difficult to recreate at home.

Chelsea is often criticised for not being relevant to ‘ordinary’ gardeners: but I think there’s plenty of inspiration that translates directly into the average back yard. You just have to know where to look.

Hazel bundle edging: A simple (and cheap) but effective way to edge beds and borders, as seen on Sarah Eberle’s design for Hillier’s in the Pavilion. Wonderful for wildlife, too.

Make your logpile into a garden feature: Logpiles are a haven for wildlife, from frogs and toads to ground beetles, but they’re usually a bit of an eyesore and best tucked away where they can’t be seen. Unless you do what Nigel Dunnett did in the RHS Greening Grey Britain garden and cover them in plants like a kind of garden sculpture.

Match your plants to your sculptures: As seen on the Seedlip Garden, where the coppery tones of Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ toned in perfectly with the funky artwork.

Sheds without windows: Why be a norm? Rather than going to the expense of fitting your shed with boring old windows, turn one side into a shelving unit instead and display your prettiest glassware and choice flowers instead. As seen on the Anneke Rice Colour Cutting Garden.

Use clay pots as cane toppers: How pretty is this? A great way to stop yourself poking your eyes out while weeding the tomatoes, spotted on the Pennard Plants stand in the Pavilion.

Clothe your sheds: Another great shed idea, this time spotted on the Horticulture Trades Association exhibit in the Pavilion. They used a planting pocket system to cover one end with strawberries and the side wall with a patchwork of different thyme. The roof was pretty cool too. A whole lot better than looking at a load of shiplap.

Make fencing out of old garden tools: Simple, but effective. These were ordinary garden forks and spades, sunk into the ground on the Chris Evans Taste Garden, sturdy garden twine threaded through the handles to make a simple rope fence.

Tabletop tree pruning: Create natural shade and a living pergola by pruning a quadrangle of four trees – here, on the Poetry Lover’s Garden, limes – into a green roof above your head. They’re also known as parasol trees: if you don’t fancy the hassle of shaping them yourself you can buy pre-trained ones.

Do away with your greenhouse frame: These were quite the talking point. I had never realised quite how imposing the frame of a greenhouse could be until I saw a greenhouse without one. These were frameless greenhouses from Pure, and the RHS was impressed, too: they awarded them RHS Chelsea Garden Product of the Year.

Build walls you can read: What a beautiful idea. Here the words were impressions about scents, on the Jo Whiley Scent Garden: but you could carve a poem, favourite saying or quote into your wall for a feature that’s poetic as well as practical.

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.