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“Rip it up and start again, I said. . .”

I love my allotment, I really do. It’s a proper sanctuary, where I can sit and hear nothing but birdsong and the wail of police sirens bombing up the Welli Road.
However, it’s also stressful. More often than not, I arrive to find whatever good work I did on my previous visit has been eradicated by weeds and pests. One step forward, two steps back.
An example: The Italian kale I planted out and covered with a cloche a few weeks back is now a row of devoured stumps. I can feel the disapproval of the army of Old Boys whose plots look immaculate, all year round.
At this time of year, even though lots of things are still cropping – beans, pumpkins, toms, raspberries, sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, carrots, beetroot and peas – I feel like ripping it all up and starting again. I must resist the urge for a month or so more.

Having four kids in tow, and a Bloke who doesn’t set foot inside the padlocked gates, means time at the allotment is short and erratic. The children have phases where they love going and hate going in equal measure. The filth factor must be taken into consideration. Is it an appropriate time to let them go feral when they are due somewhere later looking clean and tidy?

Despite the drawbacks, the pleasure gained from seeing piles of produce which would have cost stupid money at the supermarket makes it all worthwhile.

Maybe I just need to stop giving a toss what others think and enjoy it for what it gives us.

Peace and vegetables. I might make that my mantra. All together now: Peace and vegetables.

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The not so Virginal Gardener

Many, many weeds

ALMOST ten years ago, as the Northampton Chronicle & Echo’s ‘Virgin Gardener’, I started writing about my new-found passion for horticulture, admitting my gross ignorance and frequent failures.

I was a mother-of-two and had just started to take an interest in the very small, but sunny garden at the back of our first terraced house, in Kingsley.

Forward to today, and I’m a mother-of-four with a slightly larger, shady garden at a terraced house in Semilong and an allotment.

The name-tag may have gone, but the mistakes remain frequent: how long does it really take to become a gardener?

When I started, the first issue that I didn’t recognise anything. I didn’t know the difference between annuals and perennials, what were weeds and what were seedlings, and I’d never eaten anything I’d grown myself.

So in that respect, I can tick the ‘done’ box.

Just being around plants, at nurseries, open gardens, in books and my own plots, broadened my knowledge more than I could ever have imagined back when I couldn’t tell a pea from a passion-flower.

These days I rather like going to the homes of beginner gardeners, being able to help them identify their existing plants and weeds. I might not know the variety, but the basics are there. And I can always check in books later.

I used to be embarrassed to ask what a certain plant was. Now I’m beyond caring about looking stupid. (It’s been proved). I can sow seeds that actually produce plants and take cuttings from ones I already have. It’s all progress.

It may take up a lot more time than I ever anticipated, but gardening is still thrilling for me. Really.

From the excitement of the first bulbs popping up in spring, to the crops in summer and even the cold, damp, digging-chores of winter, it’s an addiction.

The children have all grown up with gardening. The older two have wavered: some years they’ve dug and planted and weeded and waited and scoffed. Often they’ve just not been interested. The younger two have helped and hindered, but I hope they all grow up with that little dormant seed of garden experience waiting to germinate. They already understand where their food comes from, the life cycle of a plant, and that you should never touch foxgloves. Or aconitum. Or stinging nettles.

As the summer swings to a close (and we did have a good one this year) my gardens are looking a little tatty and neglected, but they’re still giving. A second flush of roses have started to bloom, the sweet-peas are still producing, and an unusual, non-climbing clematis, given to me some years ago by plantsman Jim Leatherland, is covered in tiny blue, highly-scented flowers.

Up at the allotment, the weeds are coming through in earnest now there’s been rain, but we’re still cropping lots of vegetables and raspberries. For a change, lots of other plots look as scruffy as mine as the plants yellow and fade. I’ve thrown about a lot of green manure seeds, phacelia tanacetifolia, on bare ground before the weeds take hold. They are quite feathery already and should look pretty, although their job is to be dug into the soil after winter.

This week I’m thinking about which bulbs to start planting, all ready for that first flush of excitement next spring when the whole exhausting, demoralising, time-consuming, intoxicating, joyful, wonderful cycle of gardening starts all over again. . .

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A beginner gardener’s guide to failure

Jed hopes the Great Pumpkin will come

I’d like to give you a reassuring back-slap if this has been your first year as a gardener. It’s not you, it’s been, er, unusual.

Did you spend your bank holiday reviewing your successes and failures objectively? Or wringing your hands and feeling like it was a complete waste of time? Cut yourself some slack – you’re new at this, it’s been a bone-dry season, and hey, there’s always next year.

I’m pretty sure if this beginner is you, you’ll have mixed emotions about your first foray into green-fingeredness.

I expect you will have grown a few things that really, really make you proud of yourself: a few spuds? Some peas or beans? Tomatoes?

Or maybe you spent rather too much money at the garden centre back in spring and have watched as some of your floral purchases have responded to your tender-loving-care by tripling in size, and providing blooms for months. While others, perhaps, lasted as long as a footballer’s fidelity.

If you took the vegetable route when you decided all those months ago that you’d quite like to grow stuff, then 2010 might have had mixed results.

On the one hand, you won’t have had half as many weeds and slugs to deal with as in previous, wet summers. Lettuces and potatoes have cropped well, without being scoffed by the usual slimy things. On the other, the things you’ve grown will have needed daily watering and probably bolted into seed as soon as your back was turned (refilling those watering cans, no doubt).

Hopefully enough things will have gone right to fuel your enthusiasm to start all over again next year.

My firm favourites are, naturally, the things that I manage to get to work each year without too much effort on my part. In the flower garden, that’s the roses (not too much aphid damage or blackspot this year), many hardy geraniums and ferns (which like my shady plot). Well-established delphiniums, two year old echinacea, deeply-planted bulbs which have avoided spade slicing and clematis which just go on giving.

At the allotment, it’s a more hands-on approach. Strawberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries have been abundant. The raspberries and recently-transplanted apple tree have been disappointing. But they can be left in over winter to try again next year.

The vegetables that don’t work are more tricky. There’s more wasted man-hours involved. You have to sow it at the right time, pot them on properly, plant them out early enough for them to be productive without killing them with frost. If you don’t eat a lot of something, don’t grow it.

Winners in my personal allotment show have been onions, garlic and shallots sown last autumn, one variety of potato (Sarpo Mira good – Blue Danube poor), and for the first time, tomatoes grown without blight and with enough sunshine. I’ve got more sweetcorn this year than before, which is satisfying. Every new gardener should grow curcubits: courgettes, squashes, pumpkins, marrows and cucumbers. They are the plant that keeps on giving. Hell, you might even start to like eating them.

And those pumpkins can hide the weedy ground and give you something to attempt to carve into a face in two-months-time.

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Name that plant

Mystery plant?

I NEED your help solving a mystery. What on earth is this plant? I know it looks like a courgette flower, but it’s very small, about 14 inches and the leaves and stems are literally covered in quite vicious white thorns.

It was sent to me by a reader, Mr Tapp. I’m not the greatest of plant identifiers but had started to recognise more and more plants and flowers, if not the exact variety, then at least the family. But I’m stumped, and asking other gardeners for help!

I had better luck with another query: Lindsey’s tree. It’s a great big spreading thing at a house she’s only been in a couple of years and this year it has beautiful, huge white flowers all over it, which turn brown and fall off, leaving an unusual spiked ‘cone’.

magnolia grandiflora

It’s a magnolia grandiflora, and I only recognised it as I saw one at Cliveden gardens which covered an entire stately home wall! These magnolias flower in summer rather than spring, and the flowers come alongside the leaves, rather than before. They are evergreen too, which makes them ideal for a sunny wall where you can train them by trimming each year’s growth back to a healthy bud. plant. If yours has become a large tree, with the flowers out of sight above the canopy, then start to hard prune back a third of the tree this year and so on until it’s a manageable size. They can grow to 15 metres by ten wide if you don’t prune. You can see this year’s growth as it will still be green and slightly bendy. It may sulk for a season or two after hard pruning, but should recover.

Philadelphus, or Mock Orange

The next picture is philadelphus, or mock orange, emailed by “Mrs Toodles.” She said: “It looks quite dull most of the year at the back of our garden but this July it was totally covered with lots of white flowers with a strong scent.” Philadephus also need hard pruning too and flowered particularly well this year after the snowy winter.

cosmos

 This “big daisy flowers with fluffy foliage” sent by Jane and James is annual cosmos. Usually sown indoors in spring and transplanted into place in May/June. There are perennial types, like the delicious chocolate cosmos.

One of the most frustrating things for the beginner gardener is not knowing what you’re actually growing. You may have inherited plants when you move house, or have lost labels or seed packets. The best thing is to get a good book, like Hessayon’s New Flower Expert, and just go through the garden comparing pictures with the real thing. Online gardening forums are great too, if you can take a snap and upload it.

It’s not been a great year for the new gardener, thanks to the drought, so don’t beat yourself up if things haven’t gone as well as you’d hoped, even the most experienced gardeners have had some disappointments this summer. It’s not you, it’s the weather!

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‘Tis the season for sneaking courgettes into every meal

ladybird larvae eat blackfly

RETURNING from a week away showed just how little my garden and allotment need me: they hardly looked any different.

Yes, lots of the marigolds needed deadheading and the courgettes had turned into marrows, but generally, all had carried on perfectly well without my interference. Marrows are a vegetable I have learned to love since I started gardening. Slice lengthways, scoop out seeds, fill with browned mince and rice, sprinkle with cheese, bake in the oven. Delicious.

I’d like to claim it was planned. But in reality I had resigned myself to dead veg and droopy dahlias. The rain may have helped but on visiting the allotment this week I found out how little impact the heavy showers have had. The ground is bone dry and solid beneath the top half inch of damp dust.

Nonetheless, I needed to dig.

I’m trying something out with my strawberries, which have been in a couple of years and have become very clumpy this summer. Usually you can root the runners from established strawberry plants, which are like little clusters of leaves on a long stem which you can push into the soil and then sever from the parent once rooted to get a brand new plant.

My fruit beds have become very overcrowded and messy, so I thought I’d try splitting the big clumps instead. They lent themselves to the reduction well, as there were many plantlets that could be easily separated by gentle pulling, keeping a good amount of root and soil on each. From eight plants I now have 28!

Strawberry plants don’t last forever, and it may be that these have exhausted themselves, but by replanting and watering in well now, it should allow them to establish before winter and hopefully we’ll have better yields of berries next June.

The crops are coming well, and this week we’ve been eating potatoes, shallots, garlic, onions, carrots, beetroot, runner and French beans, courgettes, cucumbers, spring onions, tomatoes, raspberries and blackcurrants, all home-grown.

I made some fairy cakes and mixed in some of the blackcurrant jam that we made and the cakes looked normal on the outside but were purple in the middle.

The beans are still managing to crop despite my blackfly infestation. I don’t spray, and the wildlife is now helping out instead.

The ladybird larvae are more numerous than I’ve ever seen, as you can see in the photo taken on my mobile phone. There are around eight and an adult on one small section. They eat huge amounts of aphids, and are your greatest garden ally. It’s hard to believe those bizarre-looking bugs turn into our beloved round ladybirds.

ladybird larvae (copyright H Scott)

PS: I’m on a mission this week as, by coincidence, several people have asked me to identify mystery plants in their gardens. I’ll update next week, so in the meantime, if you have any photos you want to email to me of plants you aren’t sure about, I’ll happily add them to the list.

courgette glut

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Would your absence be noticed?

I’D love to show you a photo of the first ever tomato to make it to full redness at the allotment, but Baby Bonnie picked it and took a bite before I got to her.

Rather disconcertingly, she then spat it out and handed it to me. And she LOVES tomatoes.

A little worried, I tried it, and couldn’t find anything wrong. Perhaps it tasted too much of tomato. There are loads more just changing colour on my solitary bush tomato, and it just proves that despite previously killing toms at the allotment, they can actually grow there, with even having to be netted.

Apart from the tomatoes, It was lovely to visit the allotment last week, because on my previous visit I was concerned the season was over for me, bar the shouting.

Suddenly everything is ready to eat, despite what certainly feels like the driest summer in years.

A gap of three days since my last potter and the courgettes have turned from tiny half-finger-long veg-lets into marrows. Lots of them.

The kids were digging carrots that were the longest we’ve ever managed in our solid clay soil. Yet more beetroot, spring onions, potatoes, raspberries, far too many beans (they still came through) and onions. The sweetcorn is coming along nicely, and I have a pumpkin plant starting to fruit. At home, there are more tomatoes and the first of a promising-looking mini-cucumber crop.

Now the problem is keeping it going when we go away on our holidays. My attendance is somewhat random at the best of times. How will the plot, and home garden, survive?

In recent years it hasn’t been a problem: it rains.

Usually the problem is coming home to find the weeds have taken over. This year, we desperately NEED rain. And this is coming from someone who is going camping!

What I’d really like is for it to rain heavily every night, just over Northampton, while we’re away. But more realistically, I’ll water and water as much as possible and cover the planting holes of the courgettes and tomatoes with muck and straw to try and hold in moisture while we’re away. Alternatively, you may be able to persuade a friend or relative to water every other day, or fit a drip irrigation scheme with a timer on the tap. I’m too disorganised to have done either.

It was also a pleasure to visit the allotment with all the kids. Our eldest doesn’t have to come after school by virtue of being on the other side of town. It was nice to see how chuffed he was to find the seeds he’d sown in a raised bed back in May had turned into carrots, beetroot, spring onions, coriander and dwarf sunflowers.

He’s also a good forager (scrumping is banned). He came back with blackberries, plums and gooseberries, all growing along the hedgerows (I made him show me).

Foraging is a neglected art. There’s plenty of fruit growing along hedges, footpaths and on derelict land, as long as you’re sure you aren’t trespassing and you know what you’re picking!

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Stabbing and jabbing

IT was after I managed to stab my shin with a broken bamboo cane for the third time in a week when I decided it was time for a tetanus jab.

Slicing though my left index finger with secateurs didn’t help. The bruising hurt more than the wound, but the soil that disappeared under my skin was more worrying.

I bet many of you gardeners haven’t had a tetanus jab since school. I had one 11 years ago, after having Dougie, according to my doctor’s notes, and they are supposed to last ten years. If you haven’t had one that you can remember, it may be worth a visit to the nurse for a booster.

Tetanus is one of those conditions that you think has been eradicated. It hasn’t.

The tetanus bacteria usually enter the body through a cut in the skin. Once inside, the bacteria multiply and release a neurotoxin (poison) called tetanospasmin, which causes the symptoms of tetanus to develop.

Tetanospasmin can spread through the bloodstream, blocking the nerve signals from the spinal cord to the muscles. This causes muscle spasms and rigidity throughout the body, particularly in the neck, face, and jaw (known as lockjaw).

For a tetanus infection, the incubation period (the time between getting the infection and the onset of symptoms) is between 4-21 days. The average incubation time is 10 days.

A tetanus infection must be treated quickly because, left untreated, the condition can be fatal. Tetanus cannot be passed from person to person.

The bacterium is mostly common in soil and manure, which makes it a pretty scary thing for the gardener. But there are less than 10 reported cases a year, thanks to the immunisation of babies for several decades. Those most at risk are over 65, who didn’t get the jab as babies. I was given a combined jab, upper arm, which includes a diptheria and polio booster. Slight swelling a couple of days later, nothing more.

Now I can stab myself with sticks to my hearts content.

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She’s disappointed by the quality of rainfall

Made my first-ever jar of blackcurrant jam. I feel guiltily domesticated.

RIGHT, enough now. This is England and it’s summer so it should rain. Properly rain. Chuck it down. Not this pathetic drizzle that does nothing more than make girls’ hair go fluffy.

It’s been weeks since we had more than a smattering of a shower and the garden is struggling to cope.

I’m getting some sort of workout lugging watering cans up and down the allotment but the clay soil is set rock hard. Much of the water isn’t penetrating very deeply, even when the planting hole is slightly bowl-shaped to hold it in place and stop it just running away.

After last year’s wet weather we had stunning fruit and vegetable harvests. This year the fruit is looking small. My apple tree dropped all its applets, the raspberries are tiny. Strawberries gave up quickly and the beans aren’t producing as quickly as they should. They might need misting with a hand sprayer to help them along.

My early spuds are ready, and the first lot I dug were horrible, all pock marked, part rotten and holey. Very disappointing. It could be slugs or scab (where the skin is, well, scabby, but the spud is still edible underneath) is common where watering is erratic.

I’ve never had to water potatoes or raspberries before and I think it might be too late to start. Thankfully the third potato plant I dug had some healthy tubers. Not as many as I’d have expected but at least we’re eating something.

The garlic has been picked and hung up to dry at home, the red, autumn-sown onions look fat and ready and the shallots have had a bumper year. I suspect I planted some too deep though, because as they expand, they poke up towards the sun and swell near the surface, whereas mine have become trapped and squashed by the rock-hard soil. When you do water, do it early or leave it until the evening. If you use a hose, use a spray attachment or the force of the water will just make deep holes around your beds and expose the roots. When you think you’ve given a plant enough, give it some more. Shallow watering is no good.

Fill watering cans from water butts, empty paddling pools, washing-up and even bathwater, the plants won’t mind. I’m hoping for a massive downpour and a heavy shower every night next week.

Last week’s appeal about how to harvest blackcurrants furnished me with lots of advice, thanks very much.

This week I cut all the stems heavy with ripe black fruit and carefully removed the bunches of berries. Once home, I plonked them in water, separated off the leaves and stems, and then put the berries into plastic boxes and stuck them in the freezer. Once solid, its much easier to remove those fiddly flower ends (preferably while watching telly with a glass of something alcoholic to hand). Another wash, stick them in a big pan with a drop of water and preserving sugar and soon you have gooey, sweet blackcurrant jam (or jelly of you strain it). I’ve produced my first ever jars of blackcurrant jam. It’s so nice with scones, or swirled into cream and poured over meringues. Shame I’m supposed to be on a diet.. . .

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Allotment haul

First pickings of the year from the allotment. Ten spuds, bowl of strawbs, broadbeans, peas, garlic, shallots and an onion. For tea. Yum eh kids?

First harvest from allotment

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