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.

Seed swap 2017

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I do like a good seed swap.

It’s a simple idea: you take your spares along to your local village hall, or wherever the swap is taking place, and offload them to someone who can make better use of them than you can.

Then you browse around what everyone else has brought and take your pick. Everyone’s a winner.

Seed swaps started in Brighton, where the biggest, Seedy Sunday, still takes place: this year’s is on 5th February so if you’re in the area, do pop in.

But the idea has caught on, and now seed swaps are held all over the country. You’ll have to Google your local venue – there used to be a listings page on the Seedy Sunday website but it doesn’t seem to be active these days – but they’re not difficult to find.

Or, of course, you can just stay right here. Because I have been clearing out my seed boxes in a fit of efficiency and have set aside an exceptionally large pile of seeds which I know I’m not going to get around to sowing this year.

Last time I did this we had a few Royal Mail related issues with the SAE system, so I’ve changed the way things work a little. Most importantly, I’ve decided that instead of asking everyone to pay postage, I will instead ask you to donate the money to the Greenfingers charity, which in case you haven’t heard of it plants gardens for children and their families spending time in hospices all around the country.

So as long as I get the email with your address you should get your seeds in the post asap with no hitches!

Please follow the instructions carefully:

  1. Choose your seeds from the list below: maximum 10 packets per person please.
  2. Post in the comments section so I know who wants what and can update the list so everyone else knows what is left. This is first come first served, so read earlier comments to make sure your seeds haven’t been bagged already.
  3. Visit my JustGiving page and make a donation of at least £1.
  4. Email me your address with your full name (so I can match you with your JustGiving donation) and what you’ve ordered to sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com so I can send you your seeds!

Here’s the list:

(seeds are no more than 2 years old; *=opened packet, but still with a good quantity of seeds in it; **=home-saved seeds so can’t guarantee germination, though all seeds have been kept in cool dry conditions)

Artichoke ‘Purple and Green’ x 2 packs
*Artichoke ‘Purple de Provence’
Aubergine ‘Black Beauty’ x 2 packs
Begonia ‘Bada Bing Pretty Mix’
Beetroot ‘Boldor’ (yellow)
**Borlotti bean ‘Firetongue’
Broccoli raab ’60 Days’
Cabbages – mixed pack of three, Sir, Attraction and Minicole
Cabbage ‘Golden Acre’
Cabbage ‘Gunma’
Calabrese ‘Ironman’
Calabrese ‘Sibsey’
Campanula carpatica ‘Blue’
Cauliflower ‘All the Year Round’
Celery ‘Giant Red’
*Chickpea ‘Principe’
Courgette ‘Black Forest’
*Cucamelon
Cucumber ‘White Wonder
Gherkin ‘Diamant’
Green manure Caliente Mustard
*Hibiscus ‘Simply Love’
*Ipomoea pennata
Kale Duo Mix – ‘Emerald Ice’ & ‘Midnight Sun’
Leaf salad ‘Spicy Oriental Mix’
Leek ‘Bulgaarse Reuzen – Lincoln’
Leek ‘Elefant’
*Leek – mixed varieties, on a seed tape
Mint (small packet)
Mustard (white) ‘Tilney’
Onion ‘Ailsa Craig’
Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’
Pea ‘Maro’ (marrowfat, for mushy peas)
Pepper (sweet) ‘Boneta’
Pepper (sweet) ‘Mini Bell Mixed’
Pepper (sweet) ‘Mixed’
Radish ‘Mooli Mino Early’
Runner bean ‘Prizewinner’
Sorrel ‘Red Veined’
Spinach ‘Samish’
*Spring onion ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’
Sweetcorn ‘Amaize’
Tagetes (French marigold) ‘Alumia Vanilla Cream’
Tomato ‘Apero’
Tomato ‘Montello’ (bush)
Tomato ‘Red Cherry’ x 2 packs
Tomato ‘Red Pear’
Tomato ‘Super Sweet 100’
Tomato ‘Sweet Aperitif’ x 2 packs
Tomato ‘Tigerella’
Viola ‘Bunny Ears’
Viola tricolor ‘Bowles Black’
Watercress ‘Aqua’

I will update this page daily as this gets under way, and the swap will run for as long as it takes for all the seeds to go, or for everyone to get a bit bored – whichever comes the sooner! Enjoy 😀

Gardening words: An Orchard Odyssey

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orchardodysseyIt is time to think of fruit. Gleaming apples and fat ripe plums; perfumed quinces and sugary pears. Great heavy boughs of it, weighed down by abundance: gnarled trunks and sweet scents, drunk wasps and bubbling jam.

Of course all that’s in the future: at the moment, it’s more like dinner-plate boots caked with three inches of mud, the squelch of a spade and the stinging of fingertips as they gradually thaw out after planting yet another new tree.

But planting fruit in winter is among my very favourite jobs. Was there ever half an hour spent which offers as much promise? Years and years of fruit for a short burst of digging in the cold. It’s not much to ask.

I am currently waiting impatiently for the arrival of the three new apple trees I’m planting this year. They are bare root, all on MM106 rootstocks (the middle-sized one), three varieties. ‘Warner’s King’ is a cooker I’m planting in tribute to a fantastic tree in my mum’s old back garden, boughs weighed almost to the ground with fruit: we had it identified at the Barrington Court Apple Day a few years ago and I’ve wanted one of my own ever since. There’s ‘James Grieve’, which I grew when we lived in Surrey and loved as it produces both crisp, tasty eaters if you pick them early, and sweet cookers if you leave them on the tree. And finally ‘Egremont Russet’: just because I need a good storing eater and I love russets.

So with all this fruity activity going on it was timely that Naomi Slade’s latest book, An Orchard Odyssey, dropped through my letterbox. I have been absorbed ever since in its wide-ranging and eclectic mix of story-telling, people-watching and up-to-the-minute analysis of the state of our orchards today. And then in the second half of the book there’s a refreshingly modern take on setting up an orchard yourself: the 21st century kind of orchard more likely to be planted in pots than paddocks, and all the more inventive for it.

I have loved its gentle stories of how apples and pears emerged from the wild to become our best-loved fruits. Naomi has dug deep to find some truly enlightening gems, the kind of thing that sheds light on something you thought you already knew.

I greeted the appearance of Johnny Appleseed like a long-lost friend, only to find out that he hadn’t, as I’d thought, walked across America scattering seed as he went (I’d always thought it mildly unlikely that many would have germinated) but in fact set up mini-orchards which he then tended to to maturity before selling them on to settlers travelling West.

I never knew there are wild figs growing on the bank of the River Clyde, near Glasgow; or that the word ‘scrump’ comes from a 19th century dialect word meaning a withered apple. Hence ‘scrumpy’ cider, too.

I am a magpie for this kind of randomly interesting snippet. I learned that China produces nearly half the world’s output of 80 million tonnes of apples. And that you can find rhubarb growing ‘wild’ (actually, planted, but thriving) in hedgerows in Lincolnshire. Well. Who knew?

There is more: so much more. Ancient orchards and the wildlife who live there; foraging and the importance of wild fruit; nutrition, and the significance of names. How to weave fruit plants into the fabric of your garden; practical stuff about pollination groups and rootstocks; and down-to-earth instructions about looking after your trees.

And sprinkled in among them like so much blossom are pen portraits of the people whose devotion to fruit has gently shaken apples from trees and generally made a difference. Tom Burford, working to gather and protect America’s apple varieties; the dedicated fruitaholic Joan Morgan, whose epic Book of Pears has just won Reference Book of the Year at the Garden Media Guild Awards; Mark Diacono, pushing the boundaries of fruit-growing on his East Devon farm; and the wonderfully-named Barrie Juniper, who went all the way to the mountains of Uzbekistan to trace the origins of the domesticated apple.

I love books like this; the kind you can pick up to dip into on a lazy afternoon and always learn something new. It’s a little apple heavy – no surprise when you realise Naomi runs an artisan apple business and so really, really knows her apples; but perhaps I might have liked to find out more about other orchard fruit like plums, cherries, quinces and mulberries. They are mentioned here and there, but only really in passing.

But that’s to quibble about a book which is a delight from start to finish, underpinned by a deep understanding and love for the history, folklore and modern-day phenomenon which is the humble fruit tree. I will be dipping back in, again and again, for a long time to come.

Life in the greenhouse: January

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Half-finished insulation to the left, not-quite cleared cucamelons to the right: I have, it is fair to say, totally failed to sort out the greenhouse this winter.

Blimey it’s chilly. Inside and out: life got a bit hectic last autumn and I didn’t get around to my usual bubblewrap-insulation-and-greenhouse-heater routine. So my greenhouse – usually a cosy refuge at this time of year – is distinctly less than welcoming at the moment.

However: the decision not to heat the greenhouse this winter, if a little unintentional, has been enlightening. Normally I would have the heater on 24/7 when the weather is like this: I don’t heat my greenhouse to tropical temperatures but I do like to keep it somewhere around the 5°C mark. When it’s -5°C outside, as it was last night, that would mean having to lift the temperature by a whole 10°C above ambient – loading my electricity bill to groaning point and playing who knows what havoc with the environment.

I’ve always felt mildly guilty about heating the greenhouse. As well as being positively profligate with resources I normally shepherd carefully – that is, electricity and warmth – it is very expensive and makes something of a mockery of my pretensions to thriftiness. After all, when your overwintered chillies cost you at least £50 to keep alive in a frosty winter you could probably buy gold-plated ones for less.

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But – avert your eyes from the weeds, please – I can’t be going far wrong when I’ve got lemons like these

Failing to heat my greenhouse, though, has been an eye-opener. Just look at my lemons! (No smutty jokes at the back, please). The scented-leaf geraniums have fared well too, and the lemon verbena.

Most of the tender herbs and edibles which I move into the greenhouse over winter to protect them from frost can survive down to a few degrees below. Lemons, for example, can tolerate -5°C; geraniums (pelargoniums), lemon verbena and French tarragon to about -1°C. The secret is to keep them dry. Soggy compost freezes at anything below zero, wrecking delicate root systems, while dry compost, though cold, will not freeze so does no damage.

So I haven’t watered my lemon tree, or the geraniums, since I brought them indoors in early November. They’re fine. So is the grapefruit, and the lemon verbena, and even the Nerine sarniensis which is the only thing in here which isn’t edible but I can’t bear to evict it as it’s so lovely when it flowers. The overwintering chilli (an Aji type, one of the more hardy) has succumbed, so I’d guess that very heat-loving Mexican types with fleshy, tender stems freeze at zero.

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I brought my three-pot salad system in here this autumn too: the extra shelter has kept them growing and I’ve had salads to pick since October.

But for most, just bringing them into a greenhouse without heating it has been enough. The glass alone raises temperatures by about 5°C, after all (and much more on a sunny day, though that heat is lost by nightfall). So if you take last night, the coldest here for several years at about -5°C, inside the greenhouse it will still have been only just at freezing. Not enough to do any damage. Line the greenhouse with bubblewrap or – I’m told but haven’t tried myself – cardboard, or wrap plants individually in horticultural fleece, hessian with straw tucked underneath, or more bubblewrap – and you can raise that by a few degrees further, potentially keeping even quite tender plants frost-free without the need for heating.

Other little tricks to try include keeping a pond in the greenhouse to act as a heat sink, absorbing the sun’s heat by day and releasing it by night; and of course hotbeds, which is too big a subject to tackle here but the most natural greenhouse heater you’ll ever have.

But I think my days of artificially heating a greenhouse are over. I’m sure the environment will thank me one day. My bank account certainly will.

A (gardening) life less plastic

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How did I not notice this?

One morning towards the end of last year some time, I skipped in to my garden as usual through the little picket gate and pulled up short.

In front of me was not a delightful scene of bucolic beauty and calm productivity: but a pile of multicoloured plastic.

I have no idea why I hadn’t been able to see it before. There were teetering stacks of pots and empty compost bags; the greenhouse was festooned with bubblewrap plastic; plastic trays held my overwintering seedlings (themselves in module trays and pots of green, black or orange plastic).

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So productive… and so plastic

I looked down to the other end of my garden and it was almost as bad: cloches covered in clear polythene over bright blue hoops of plastic plumbing pipe; winter veg studded tombstone-like with white plastic plant labels and shrouded in plastic-coated insect-proof mesh; and empty veg beds neatly mulched with compost but then covered in sheets of black plastic to protect them from the winter wet.

It could be worse: luckily I don’t favour green plastic pea netting, or plastic ties for my plants. I tend to use wooden and metal tools rather than plastic ones because they last longer and are generally better made; but having said that, many of the impulse buys I’ve made in an emergency after losing yet another hand fork in the compost bin have plastic handles.

How did such a sea of plastic leak into our gardens? There was, I assume, a time when plastic was completely absent: I’m picturing a time of terracotta pots and slate labels, teak-handled tools and wooden plant trays. I think this is actually the fantasy garden we still picture in our heads: but the reality in the 21st century is so very different.

I hate the look of plastic: it looks cheap, and tatty, and artificial, the colours clashing and blaring next to the gentler greens and browns of nature. And I really, really hate what it does to the environment. I won’t start to lecture you here about the horrific sea of microscopic plastic pellets killing everything from fish to albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean; it is headed our way, too, as the fish we eat are increasingly infested with micro-particles of plastic too.

This is not one of those big issues we can’t do anything about and just serve to upset us, like climate change, the Syrian war or the continuing existence of Katie Hopkins. Actually, we gardeners are contributing, very directly, to the problem.

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These plastic pots will still be kicking around nearly half a millennium from now

I’d just like you to consider that the split plastic pot you threw out with the rubbish today will still be in the world when you are long dust. In fact it will still be languishing in some landfill somewhere when your grandchildren’s grandchildren have grown into adults and have children of their own.

It takes an average of 450 years for hard plastic to decompose. Just think about that for a minute. I can’t even imagine what the world will look like in 2467. Or to put it another way: a theoretical plastic pot thrown away (as it would never have been, as they didn’t then exist) by a gardener in the 16th century, when Elizabeth I was on the throne, before Shakespeare, before John Tradescant was even born, would only just this year have fully decomposed.

I do not want to be a part of this. It horrifies me that I have sleepwalked into such a state of affairs: when gardeners, who are closer to the earth and more aware of and able to tend to its needs than anyone else, should contribute so unthinkingly to its desecration.

So: this year I have made a new resolve. I will not buy a single thing for the garden which contains plastic. I will use what I have – as it seems a bit counterproductive to chuck it all out and so fill even more landfill with it – but I will not replace what breaks with more plastic. And I will start to think really deeply about how I use plastic in the garden: what alternatives there might be, and whether I can adjust what I do so that I garden more gently upon the earth.

I know it’s not going to be easy: I’ve done a little tentative experimentation over the last few weeks and it’s underlined for me just how dependent we have become on what is, undeniably, an incredibly useful material. Where I can’t find a replacement for plastic, I’ll see if I can find a recycled plastic alternative.

I hope to build everything I find out into a resource on this website, on a separate page, where I will pull together my thoughts and discoveries along with listings for suppliers and manufacturers who are producing stuff for the garden which doesn’t involve using plastic. With luck, it will be useful to other gardeners who don’t like the piles-of-plastic-pots look; at the very least, it should make my garden look a bit prettier.

I welcome any input from anyone who wants to join in. If you know of a good supplier, a technique, ideas or campaigners who might benefit from being included here I’d love to hear about them. Please post below or get in touch via Twitter (@sallynex) using the hashtag #gardeningwithoutplastic. Thanks!

 

Chelsea 2017: Sneak peek

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The RHS Chelsea Flower Show: never less than spectacular

The revealing of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens is always an exciting moment, and just the boost you need at this time of year. It reminds you that there is life beyond the snow and the ice: that one day the flowers will bloom and look breathtaking and you will feel inspired by the sheer scope of what’s possible in a smallish garden space.

This year looks like a cracker yet again: 24 show gardens, and the return of gardening heroes like Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Eberle, Jo Thompson, James Basson and Chris Beardshaw. Everyone is clearly in escapist mood as there are gardens to take you to Spain, Malta, China, Japan, and Canada.

You can expect more of the trend towards naturalistic, landscape-evocative planting that’s crept up on the show in recent years: I’m not sure anyone will quite outdo Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden of 2015 but they’re having a good stab at it. Nigel Dunnett is something of a pioneer in the field, of course, and this year takes on the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain installation; James Basson is another master and I’m looking forward to his recreation of a Maltese quarry. If it’s anything like the one he did last year it’ll be breathtaking.

Here are my picks for the gardens to look out for this year:

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The M&G Garden: James Basson

The M&G Garden: James Basson

James has been for some time now the stalking horse for the Chelsea crown: every year his gardens get better and better, his trademark understated flair producing sublime set pieces which transport you effortlessly into another environment altogether. They’re sophisticated gardens, yet deceptively simple, so you have to pay attention to appreciate the sheer brilliance of his thoughtful, intelligent design style. I’ve loved his work ever since I first saw it in Japan a few years ago: last year he won his third Chelsea gold and I think this could be his year.

The Morgan Stanley Garden: Chris Beardshaw

You always sit up and take notice when Chris’s name is on the card: this looks to be a masterpiece of subtle plant design as usual. The USP is its connection to music: the National Youth Orchestra has been exploring their emotional responses to the garden and its plants through music and have composed a piece of music inspired by the design. Expect lots of contrasts in mood and texture.

Musen Landscape SEEK Garden: Jin Yang

We’ve seen a lot of Japanese designs at Chelsea: but it is rare that a Chinese design breaks through, even though gardens were essentially invented in China many, many years before the Japanese thought of raking a pattern in a bit of gravel. So this garden by first-timer Jin Yang should be fascinating: from the picture it looks like an exquisite piece of Chinese artistry picked out in mosaics and rare rhododendrons.

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The Chengdu Silk Road Garden: Laurie Chetwood & Patrick Collins

The Chengdu Silk Road Garden: Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins

Just when you think it’s about time you saw a Chinese garden, two come along at once. Actually, this is about China rather than being a ‘Chinese’ garden as such; but it does take East-West trade links along the Silk Road as its theme, and specifically Sichuan province – one of the most florally diverse in the world – and the town of Chengdu which it turns out is famous for embroidery. That is the perfect excuse for a quite spectacular-looking piece of sculpture, a ‘Silk Road bridge’ spun above and round the garden as though swept up in a whirlwind. Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins have form with ambitious, architectural designs: this one should be a real head-turner.

The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden: Nigel Dunnett

I’m not a big fan of the ‘installation’ gardens at Chelsea as a rule: they seem to lack an identity, more PR exercise than actual garden. But when Nigel Dunnett is behind the planting it’s never boring. This is the man who pioneered ‘meadow’ style annual flower plantings for inner city Sheffield and the London Olympics, and brought us rain gardens, too. Here he’s tackling gardening in high-rise apartments with very restricted outdoor space: his ability to think laterally could bring us the solutions we badly need.

Pavilion highlights:

Sarah Eberle is designing the Hillier stand again – she scooped gold for them (yet again – their 72nd I believe) last year with her spectacular waterfalls. Burncoose is looking at plants pollinated by moths, flies and beetles: expect Calycanthus, pollinated by beetles, and magnolias, which evolved before there were any bees so are pollinated mainly by flies.

The Hardy Plant Society celebrates its 60th birthday with 60 plants; Raymond Evison has created an entire seashore to show off his clematis; and Birmingham City Council is recreating one of eccentric inventor Rowland Emett’s whimsical kinetic sculptures in flowers. Finally, it’s always nice to see a new face, and first-timers Calamazag Nursery, from Looe in Cornwall, are going to be popular: their penchant is hardy pinks, among my favourite plants.

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The Seedlip Garden: Dr Catherine MacDonald

Small gardens:

The Fresh Gardens look a bit earnest, on paper at least, this year: though I do like the sound of the ‘clementine, coral and cappuccino’ colour scheme to ‘Inland Homes: Beneath a Mexican Sky’ by Manoj Malde. Pray for sunny days at Chelsea to do it justice, though.

The Artisan Gardens are much more promising. Sarah Eberle is back with Viking Cruises and promises date palms, citrus and succulents and inspiration from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, who was very into Lord of the Rings style pinnacles. We have a 17th century apothecary in The Seedlip Garden from Dr Catherine MacDonald – right up my street as it’s all about distilling (non-alcoholic) drinks from herbs. Also love the sound of The IBTC Lowestoft Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden – a bit of a mouthful perhaps but it does feature a replica of an 800-year-old wooden boat plus lots of lovely edibles including chives, peas, garlic and kale.

How to plant rhubarb

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You can never have too much rhubarb. Well, actually, you can: it’s a monster of a plant, with mature clumps expanding to 5ft across, so more than two or three plants will gobble up vast tracts of your garden. But the actual deep red, spicy, fruity stems, first to appear in spring when there’s nothing else sweet to pick? No, can’t have enough of that.

I am currently a one-crown household, my ‘Timperley Early’ next to the fishpond a nod towards gunnera-like swamp plantings: rhubarb has a pleasingly exotic sort of appearance and is one of those edibles that sits well among more obviously ornamental plants. Mine has scarlet pineapple sage scrambling through it and a hardy banana (Musa basjoo) spearing up through its expanding leaves.

But I would like three: the ideal setup for the longest possible rhubarb season, providing one to force, one to rest and one to pick. I daren’t force my Timperley Early, perfect as it is for that treatment being first out of the ground in spring; I know I’d have to give up picking it the year after while the crown recovered and I couldn’t possibly deprive myself quite so absolutely.

Luckily, last year I got to make a video for the Crocus Youtube channel in which I got rather muddy planting a little crown of Champagne rhubarb. After a little house move to the other end of the edible exotics garden and a year left alone to establish properly, this is about about to become clump no. 2.

Now is just the right time to plant new rhubarb, while the crowns are dormant and don’t mind being moved. You can lift and divide an existing clump, making sure each lump you split away to replant has a fat bud plus a root; or you can plant a new crown of a different variety. You can watch how here:

This month in the garden…

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I left my overwintering broad beans and sweet peas outside this winter and they’re doing much better, far less leggy than usual – so as I suspected, it pays to grow them hard.

I have definitely been having a bit of a slump in the garden just recently. This occasionally happens, even to obsessive gardening types like me: you just sort of get out of the habit, somehow.

It’s usually in the dog end of the year that I lose heart. December is a prime month. By the time I’m home from work it’s getting dark anyway; the mornings are cold and dank and there are grumpy teenagers to boot out of bed. More often than not it’s raining, the ground is soggy and all the jobs that need doing at this time of year are easily put off till later.

January, though, is a different matter. I’m not sure why, as the weather is still foul – worse, if anything, than December. Maybe it’s just the symbolic beginning of a new year. And the turning of the solstice has a lot to do with it: it’s as though the extra few minutes on the end of every day tinge the ends of my fingers a deeper shade of green as the month wears on.

So I begin to steal half an hour after work, or just after the kids have left for school, to catch up on all that is left undone and stir into life the embers of another season. Here’s what I’ll be up to this month:

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Still plenty to pick: this is my ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kale, and there’s sprouts, leeks, kohlrabi, cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli too.

Climbing apple trees: Not for fun (though it actually is, quite a lot) but to snip back last year’s growth and encourage as much fruit as I can. I only have one apple tree at the moment, my beloved Devonshire Quarrenden, and it’s a very early one so must be guzzled straight off the tree. Which is why I shall also be…

Planting new trees: I am planning three new apples for the top strip, where my orchard is sputtering into existence at last after several livestock-related setbacks. I’m after a cooker, Warner’s King – in tribute to a legendary apple tree which grew in my mum’s garden once – plus James Grieve, my all-time favourite storing apple, and Egremont’s Russet just because I adore russet apples.

Pruning blackcurrants: And autumn-fruiting raspberries: the fruit garden is in for a stern talking-to this month as it got well out of hand towards the back half of last year and became more impenetrable thicket than chi-chi fruit potager.

Sowing onions: An experiment this year, as I feel like having a go at some really good red onions, the kinds with pink flesh rather than just the red skins. Carmen sounds like a good one; or perhaps Red Brunswick. I haven’t yet found a good red onion from sets, so I’m thinking seed is the way to go.

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Freshly-turned compost, covered with cardboard to keep weeds out and moisture in: this will be ready to use come March.

Turning the compost: A great job for a frosty day, as you invariably end up in t-shirt sleeves and glowing pinkly: not only good for the circulation but also very cheering as it makes you feel like the weather’s much warmer than it actually is. I turn my bins about every four months, using the compost as mulch at six months old: the next batch will be ready just in time for the March feed’n’mulch routine.

Mending greenhouse glass: The football club next door has been using my greenhouse as a goalpost again and I have two or three panes to replace. I am determined to get this done now, in the quiet stillness of January, rather than leaving it till I’m filling up the greenhouse in May and everything moves into panic mode.

Building new beds: The very last corner of my veg garden is proving stubbornly difficult to get around to finishing. I’m at that pesky 90% done, 90% left to do stage: all it needs is three boards fixing into place and I’m there. This will be the month I manage it. I hope.

Raking up leaves: The otherwise robust and rudely healthy quince tree in the chicken run developed a nasty case of blight last year and I didn’t get a single quince off it. So this year I’m paying particular attention to raking up the leaves after they’ve fallen, to try to scoop up at least some of the overwintering spores in the hope that they won’t come back again next year.

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Garlic seedlings ready to go out: but how will they cope with the rust this year?

Planting garlic: I have had my little garlic cloves growing away in a module tray since I sowed them in November, and now they’re bursting out of the drainage holes in the bottom so I think they can go into the ground. These are the cloves I saved from the plants that held out for longest against garlic rust last year: with luck, they’ll have a smidgen more resistance this season and I might have half a chance of actually eating some.

Planning, planning, planning: The great veg garden plan for 2017 is well under way. I am religious about using the colder months of the year to plan in detail what I’m going to do next season. It’s a good way of keeping yourself optimistic through the dead days of December; and it also saves a lot of trouble next year, too, as you know what to sow and how much of it. It is the gardening equivalent of a hot chocolate by the fire while leafing through a holiday catalogue. You just know things can only get better from here.