Sunday, 6 December 2009

King Ken of Essex

Yesterday, I was with King Ken, Ken Crowther whose BBC Essex gardening programme won The Garden Media Guild Local Radio Broadcast of the Year Award on Thursday's Awards Lunch in London. It's a great programme, with wonderful listening figures and a worthy winner of the Award. Well done Ken.
As usual, we had a wealth of gardening questions to answer - despite the lure of Christmas shopping and other weekend delights.
Winter-flowering pansies were a hot topic. One listener, keen to be infected with the gardening bug, had sown his own from seed, but wondered why the plants were so small and hadn't flowered. Sadly, he hadn't sown the seed until August, so the plants hadn't had time to develop into large enough, flowering plants.
Similarly, another listener had grown Brussels sprouts from seed, but again the plants were small with no delicious sprouts. Again, late seed sowing - and possibly using a late-cropping variety - was to blame.
This question initiated the Great Sprout Debate - do you love them or hate them? What's the best way of cooking them to get an edible sprout, rather than a pile of mush? Personally, I steam them.
Other grow your own questions followed. How best to overwinter an olive?; why were pears soft and mushy on the inside?; what to do with a sweet potato plant that someone had just been given (and how to keep it alive until planting out time in June)? But the best question of the day went to Trevor who wanted to know if he could use an old bath to grow mushrooms! We suggested using it to cover the manure to keep it warm and exclude light for the mushrooms to grow. Trevor promised to let us know how he got on - and bring us some mushrooms to eat if it worked. To quote the great Ian Dury (the Essex boy of The Blockheads fame) - 'Clever Trevor'!

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Pesticide update

Due to popular demand – well, a comment from The Galloping Gardener – here’s the update on the new pesticide products I've found.
The vast majority are launched by Westland Horticulture. The company’s new Plant Rescue range has a host of new active ingredients (ais). Bug Killer RTU contains two ais, which means better control – thiamethoxam (not new, but used in the company’s Bug Attack) and abamectin. Plant Rescue Fruit & Veg contains lambda-cyhalothrin and Plant Rescue Fungus Killer contains difenoconazole. The Plant Rescue range will be supported by a unique web diagnostic service, whereby you can upload images of your pests and ailments and receive a speedy diagnosis of the problem with advice on how to treat it.
Westland’s new slug & snail killer, Eraza contains metaldehyde, but only half the normal concentration - 1.5% - of other slug killers. But, due to the way the pellets are made, that 1.5% is five times more effective, so you need to use less. Good news.
Scotts Miracle-Gro introduced Weedol Rootkill Plus, which contains glyphosate plus pyraflufen-ethyl; the latter is new and makes the product more effective against stubborn weeds – always a good thing!
The bad news is that bifenthrin – an ai in loads of insect killers – is having its approval for use withdrawn from around June 2010, so that’ll remove several products from the shelves.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

No respite for garden problems

As a gardener, I love my plants and I want them to grow as well as they can - I don't want pests, diseases and weeds taking over and ruining everything. As a garden writer, I speak to lots of people whose lives are plagued by these problems and, like me, they just want their gardens to look great and don't want to spend all their time crying over spoilt displays and dead plants. We are of one mind!
In recent years, the number of pesticides available to gardeners has been slashed due to new legislation and excessive testing requirements - which cost a fortune and just aren't financially viable. As a result, some gardeners have turned back the clock and now use old remedies - most of which haven't been tested and some are absolutely lethal to man, plants and the environment - and illegal to use.
So, I'm always pleased when new products and new active ingredients ('ai' - the 'thing' that actually does the killing) are introduced, plus new technologies to ensure the amount of ai present in the product is the absolute minimum. My recent visit to Glee has revealed some of the new initiatives that are being introduced next year - and there are lots of exciting new ideas for us gardeners. Despite what some people think, these new products are safer to use than many old 'remedies' and release less ai into the environment than even so-called organic sprays.
The chemical companies are working hard to ensure they provide products that will make our lives easier, help us to enjoy the garden more and our plants look their best.
As a garden writer and someone who provides advice to gardeners and gives talks to gardening clubs on subjects like pest & disease control, weed-free gardening and lawncare, this means one thing - I need to keep on my toes and ensure I'm up-to-date with all the latest sprays and other problem-solving solutions. With 2010 just round the corner, it's time to get in touch with all the major players in the plant protection market and gen up on all their new products. I'll also be asking for product samples to show off at my talks; now where's my address book...?

Update: as for the helicopter mentioned in my last blog, it's actually a frame-mounted swinging lounger that kind of (if you have a major imagination or are on mind-altering drugs) looks like a helicopter.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Full of Glee

I've just come back from the first day of Glee - the major gardening trade show at the NEC. First impressions are that it is much smaller than usual - three halls instead of five or six and they're not cramped. I don't think it's an indication of the gardening market, I just think it's an indication that some companies are tightening their belts &/or doing business at different times or in different ways.
Anyhoo, I love going as it's a great chance to meet up with friends in the trade, find out the latest gardening trends and see what new products are being launched to tempt us into spending our money next year. Each year a lot of the new products are entered into the Glee New Products Awards (250 this year, but not all of them, as some companies just don't like doing this sort of thing - and it costs to enter!) and here are the winners just announced - hot off the press.
Garden Care: Scotts Miracle-Gro - Miracle-Gro Patch Magic (a coir and grass seed dressing for patching bare spots in the lawn)
Garden Machinery: Handy Distribution - Garden Barber (a new hedgetrimmer)
Nursery & Best Of British: John Wood Nurseries - Coprosma 'Pacific Sunset'
Outdoor Living: Suntime - Helicopter (I haven't seen this yet, but I'm sure it ain't no real helicopter!)
Landscape & Glee Special Award: Grow Camp - Grow Tent (a GYO product - raised bed, netting and greenhouse all in one)
Home & Gift: Calor - Calor Hotspot (a stylish outdoor heater)
Retail Services: Green Magic Co - Sosite Wow
Green Innovation: The Master Herbalist - Seedbed Roll (I've trialled this product this year with good results)
I'm going back on Tuesday and I must see if I can get my hands on that helicopter.
FIGO is exhibiting there and launching the FIGO flexible connector to the trade - according to owner , Sharon Wong, she's had excellent feedback so far.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Plants on trial

How do you tell if a new plant really is all it’s cracked up to be by the producer or breeder? Probably the two best ways are to ask a large number of gardeners or give it to an independent trial company for its assessment.
Ball Colegrave, a producer of bedding plants to the trade based in West Adderbury, Banbury, holds an open day each year where gardeners can have a good look round and pass judgement on their favourite new plants. Visitors take part in the Blue Flag Test – they place a blue flag beside their favourite plant.

More than 1,200 blue flags were placed this year and the new begonia ‘Sherbet Bon Bon’ (left) topped the polls. This very showy tuberous-rooted begonia has a compact cascading habit, making it extremely suitable for patio baskets, window troughs and vertical planting schemes. It produces an abundance of two-tone yellow and pink blush flowers. The cooler the conditions, the more intense the flower colours become. It’s a ‘no-fuss’ plant, tolerating all weathers, needing little maintenance as its self-cleaning flowers mean there’s no need to deadhead.


Fleuroselect is the international trialling organisation for the ornamental plants industry. Trials are held all over the world, and each year the best new introductions in those trials are given a Fleuroselect Gold Medal. This year there were three winners.
Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Yellow’ is a first-year flowering perennial that produces an abundance of perfect yellow flowers over a long period.
Physostegia virginiana ‘Crystal Peak White’ fits into the popular, modern range of annual flowering container perennials. It shows outstanding compactness and uniformity and is early to flower.
Sanvitalia speciosa ‘Million Suns’ produces an abundance of perfectly formed, golden yellow flowers. It is compact with excellent basal branching and a longer flowering period - from May to the first frosts.
So let’s hope that these plants do as well in our gardens next year as they have done in the trials.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Problems in Essex

Yesterday I whizzed down to Chelmsford for my regular spot on Gardening Plus on BBC Essex with Ken Crowther. As usual, it was rammed full of gardening questions and problems - as well as some interesting observations.
Grow your own is still as popular as ever, as lots of questions were on fruit and veg.
As with most areas of the country, Essex is plagued with unripened tomatoes. The usual banana skin trick or putting in drawers with an apple were all suggested as remedies. And, of course, making green tomato chutney with everything that doesn't ripen. Back at Hodge Towers, I've been making a gallon or so of tomato sauce with my beefsteak and other larger tomatoes that are excess to requirements. Not that I'm showing off; they've only just started to ripen and it's too cold for salads.
Apple, pear and plum pruning questions were also popular - people just seem desperate to prune their fruit trees when, in fact, most are best left to get on with it unless it's absolutely essential.
Passionflower fruit is obviously ripening this year and listeners wanted to know if they could eat them. Well, you can, but there's not much of it in each fruit and it tastes insipid; I do know some people who make a jelly out of it - but it doesn't taste of much.
Plants dying or wilting because of the dry weather also seems to be a problem in the South East - hydrangeas and rhubarb being two that came up. Both were growing in light soils, but even heavy Essex clay soils are suffering as soil water reserves have become exhausted.
When you do Q&As you always get people who want to show off their prowess. One listener only managed to get five out of 26 penstemon cuttings to root (I said well done for getting five to root), another listener phoned in to say all 50 of his cuttings had rooted, but did impart the wisdom of his success - rooting in pure vermiculite and making 1inch long cuts down the stem to improve rooting.
The best question of the day? Is there a lawn seed mixture that is dog resistant and will tolerate urine damage?! Well, of course, ryegrass mixes are tougher than those made up from fine-leaved grasses, but they won't tolerate 'liquid dog fertiliser'!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

So much is happening

I've just got back from my annual fishing trip on the Norfolk Broads with some of my old university friends, and so much has happened while I've been away.

The main story is that Inga Grimsey, Director General of the RHS, has resigned. There was an EGM at the beginning of the week and she resigned after this - the story even made the BBC Radio 4 six o'clock news bulletin. Having spoken to a few RHS staff, it seems the furore over the redundancies continues to rumble on.

Following my blog on July 25 about Japanese knotweed control, Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government are seeking views on the possible release of the psyllid, Aphalara itadori. This joint consultation is aimed at all those with an interest in the impact of Japanese knotweed on the natural and built environment, including the horticulture industry, landscape managers and contractors and people interested in the control of invasive species. If approved the release of this insect would be the first use of a non-native insect species to control a plant species in the UK and Europe. Find out more.

And now some good news. There’s further scientific proof that broccoli is good for you. Research carried out at Imperial College, London, funded by the British Heart Foundation shows that eating broccoli could help prevent heart attacks and strokes. The vegetable is rich in sulforaphane, which boosts the natural defence system that protects arteries from disease. Other brassicas also contain sulforaphane, but broccoli appears to have the highest concentration. Scientists believe eating these vegetables may slow the progression of existing disease as well as helping prevent it. Research also shows that there is a chemical in broccoli that could help to stop cells becoming cancerous. So now it's even more important to eat your greens.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Hard graft - easy graft

I've just got back from the Suttons Press Day at Capel Manor in Enfield. Another great day, very useful and informative - thanks David, Tom and Fran.
Among all the new flower and veg seed introductions for 2010, probably the most exciting news is the introduction of a wide range of grafted vegetable plants. You may have grown some of Suttons grafted tomatoes this year, but the new range also includes sweet peppers, chilli peppers, cucumbers, aubergines and melons.
The advantage of grafted plants (that is grafting a known vegetable variety onto a known, reliable rootstock) are many, but include: healthier, stronger plants that are especially better in poor summers (2007-2009 for example!); heavier and better yields produced over a longer period (both earlier and later); better disease resistance; and plants less susceptible to nutritional disorders - although they do need more feeding with potash fertilisers, due to their strong, vigorous growth.
None of this is new. Gardeners used to regularly graft their own tomatoes back in the day, but it's difficult, tedious work, Commercially most aubergine production is from grafted plants as is the majority of organic pepper and organic cucumber production. But what is new is that these methods are now available to the home gardener as ready-to-grow plants. Okay, they may be expensive to buy (around a tenner for three plants), but apparently people have been lapping up the tomato plants this year, so these new introductions should prove just as popular.
As Tom Sharples from Suttons says: "Grafting helps make the uncertainty of growing some of these crops more certain. Those that have depended on a good summer or even having to be grown in a greenhouse to do well will now be available to everyone and produce a reliable crop."
The grafting process is also giving Suttons the opportunity to experiment. They are grafting two different tomato varieties onto one rootstock to produce a 'family tomato' plant and, due to the increased vigour, even running up two main shoots from each plant - or four from the family tomato. This not only increases yield from each plant, but also allows you to grow more in a smaller space. Good thinking.
If you've grown the grafted tomatoes this year I'd love to hear your comments.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

I'm a good author...

Well, that's according to book publisher Mitchell Beazley, who are publishing the Allotment Handbook for the RHS and for which I've written the section on vegetables.
But it's not necessarily because I write well - it's because my deadline is tomorrow and I sent all the copy last Friday! Now there's one advantage of not having a proper job and lots of time to fill.
Let's hope when they get round to reading the copy whot I writ they'll still have the same opinion. I guess the ultimate test will be how many copies the book actually sells. For those who are desperate for another veg/allotment book you'll have to wait until March 2010 to get your hands on it.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Writing, judging and general gardening

What a couple of weeks. I've finally finished judging the Gardener of the Year competition. The winners have been informed and will be revealed to all in the next issue of Garden News. Most of the gardens were absolutely brilliant and their owners such a fantastic bunch of gardeners - verging on the 'compulsive nutter' because of their love and dedication.
Since that finished, I've been busy writing the allotment book. The first few thousand 'gems' of information were due last week - a deadline I hit. The rest has to be finished by next Friday, so it's heads down until then.
I've also been doing a bit more work on the FIGO connector, which is going to be launched at Glee - the gardening trade show at the NEC in September. And guesting on Garden Bargains on Ideal World TV.
Then there's the Bosch Power Tools video to promote the company's new Ciso Cordless Secateurs, which we shot in a garden in London - no thanks to all the planes flying overhead drowning out the sound. I've also been working on the Garden Media Guild's Awards entry pack and online registration - which is due to go live tomorrow. And finally, organising my guest spot at Grand Designs Live at the NEC Birmingham on October 11 in The Garden Seminar Theatre, where I'll be giving a talk and providing advice.
At least next week's all clear - apart from the book! Maybe England will have won The Ashes by the end of today, so that won't be a distraction tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

Monday, 3 August 2009

On the road again

Blimey, it's like I've never been away. Away from judging the Garden News Gardener of the Year competition that is. The last time I did this was in 1999 when I was Gardening Editor for GN. Some things just slot into place, no matter how long you've been away from doing them - the old 'riding/falling off a bike' syndrome.
So, photographers Tim Sandall or Pip Warters & I have been zooming up and down the country looking at some of the country's finest private gardens owned and looked after by some of the country's finest gardeners.
And interestingly, some of the gardens and gardeners I met back in the 1990s are still there, still reading GN and still entering their gardens into the competition. But the nice thing is most of them have made radical changes to their gardens - so it's a bit like deja-vu, but not quite. It's also really nice to be welcomed back by the owners, all of which have recognised Tim & I and welcomed us with open arms - not to mention open coffee cups, cookie jars and cake tins! Yes, we're piling on the pounds!!
As to the winners? Well, that would be telling and we're only half way through judging. Tomorrow we hit Oxfordshire and then for the rest of the week we're 'up North'. All I can say is that it's going to be difficult as some of the gardens are absolute belters.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Plants on trial

The summer is a great time for us journos because all the seed companies have their trial open days and we can get a glimpse of what's to come in the following year. The first of this year's trials/open days was this week at Thompson & Morgan.
You can always rely on T&M to have a bucket-load of new plants for gardeners to grow. As with all seed companies, not all of them are necessarily your cup of tea and some may just be a new colour of an existing plant, but there are always some jewels. My favourites include the following.
Calendula 'Apricot Twist': masses of fully double apricot flowers on bushy plants that are early to flower.
Cosmos 'Double Click Snow Puff': white pompom flowers with a hint of pink.
Cosmos 'Sweet Sixteen': a semi-double with soft pink flowers with darker pink picotee edges and a double frill in the centre.
Delphinium 'Centurion Lilac Blue Bicolour': bicoloured blooms with triple layered petals in lilac an day-glo blue with a white 'bee' centre.
Digitalis purpurea 'Pam's Split': a selection from 'Pam's Choice'.
Gazania 'Big Kiss Yellow Flame': huge flowers!
Petunia 'Sophistica Lime Bicolour': flowers variously marked with lime green and rose pink stripes and splashes. Interesting!
There were also some outdoor gerberas with absolutely massive flowers and a trailing tuberous begonioa whose flowers have a range of scents throughout the day (the smell is temperature dependent) - neither of which have been named yet.
In veg there was:
Brussels sprout 'Bitesize': small buttons that remain solid for a long time and well spaced on the stem for easy picking.
Brussels sprout 'Petit Rosy Mixed': a 'stir-fry' sprout! Loose, frilly edged buttons in purple, green and bicoloured. I've got to try this one.
Runner bean 'St George': red and white flowers - superior to 'Painted lady'.
There were also some interesting new fruit developments; a new family tree containing an apricot, peach and nectarine; and a plum, aptly named the water bomb plum, as it produces a mass of juice and as soon as you bite into it juice explodes everywhere - needs to be eaten carefully.
Thanks T&M for a great day.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Night of the Triffids

If you remember the book/film then, not quite - but almost. Anyone who's a serious gardener (as opposed to someone who just likes to sit in their garden) will be horrified if they come across the worst weed in the world. No, not couch grass, bindweed, ground elder or mare's tail - but Japanese knotweed. This triffid of a plant spreads rapidly and is really difficult to control with weedkillers - although after lots of research on how best to apply weedkillers to get the best results, a couple of manufacturers do now provide glyphosate in a Japanese knotweed-unfriendly format.
However, there has been some other research that has yielded a novel control method, but it is causing massive outrage with some people at the moment. And that's using biological control to reduce its growth and vigour. Now I'm a big fan of biological control - I've used it in my greenhouse to eradicate whitefly, but it is expensive to use and all the environmental factors have to be right for it to work. But this particular biological control involves releasing an insect into the wild to control knotweed in the countryside and some people think it'll breed out of control and destroy our native flora. I've seen some of the research results and I believe it to be OK. But what do you think? Here's a round-up of what's happened.

The insect (a psyllid or sucker by the name of Aphalara itadori) is the result of 15 years' of research. It has been tested against around 90 species of native plants, on which it didn't survive, so it seems that Jk is its only food source and the only thing it feeds on. CABI, the organisation that carried out the research, is probably the world expert on biological control and their methods are accepted around the world. It would seem, then, that this psyllid is unlikely to pose any threat. During the research around 150 other organisms were tried and rejected as they could possibly feed on other plants; rejection happened when there was just one instance of an insect developing through to an adult on a native plant.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Ideal bargains

Being a bit of a 'media whore', I love working across all the various communication channels - and this weekend was no exception. Saturday at BBC Essex and Sunday presenting Garden Bargains on Ideal World shopping channel on TV.
I love radio as a medium - people have always said I have a great face for radio. Even though you can't see your listeners you do get a real sense of being in direct contact with them and talking to them in their living room or garden. Ken Crowther's Gardening Plus programme is a three-hour gardening 'fest' and I've been guesting on ken's programmes for around 15-16 years. It's always a lively show, with lots of people phoning, texting, writing in and e-mailing their questions to us and this weekend was no exception. In fact, we had to limit everyone to one question - some people like to get their money's worth - in order to fit everyone in. Sometimes we get asked a lot of the same or similar questions, which is useful for me as it gives an idea of trends happening in people's gardens. This week it was more bitty with no clear groupings of questions/problems - although smelly waterbutts did come out on top!
The Garden Bargains programme is a manic two-hour show selling a huge range of garden plants and products. This week we had more than 20 products to get through - from succulents and angelonias to fruit trees, a vineyard collection, raspberry and strawberry plants. The fruit always sell well and it's a sure sign that grow your own is still proving to be a real winner with home gardeners.
I'm back on Ideal World tomorrow evening and again next Sunday. All I need is the list of things we're selling and then I can start building up my enthusiasm tomorrow morning.
Today looks like being dry (oh please!) and I'm hoping to get a chance to shoot over to the allotment for a few hours - that's if it hasn't floated away in all the torrential rain of the last few days. I've just had another BlightWatch alert, so I need to check the tomatoes and potatoes for signs of damage - please, let's not have another year like the last two!

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Flexible gardening friend

FIGO three-arm connectorFIGO four-arm connector











I'm helping to launch a new gardening product - FIGO, your flexible gardening friend. For those of you who love a bit of DIY dalliance in the garden - building things to help make your gardening better & easier - then FIGO is definitely something for you.
The versatile three- and four-arm adaptors can be used with a range of bamboo canes and other poles to make loads of things for the garden - from wigwams and other structures for climbing plants to plant protection supports, cold frames, cloches and even fruit cages! In fact, just about anything you can think of - the only limitation is your imagination!

Tripod using a FIGO three-arm connectorFIGO was invented and designed by gardener Sharon Wong, after a frustrating time trying to use an existing product. Sharon was fed up with sharing her vegetables and flowers with rabbits, pigeons and badgers, so she bought a product with claims that, ‘using a set of these connectors, plant protection cages that are strong and versatile could be built, quickly and easily using bamboo canes’. It sounded like the answer to her prayers. Her experience with them was quite the opposite, in fact, it was a long and frustrating process.
Not one bamboo cane in her vast collection fitted the holes in the connectors. Trying to overcome the problem, she shaved the ends of thick canes to make them fit. The task took forever. Having finally sorted a set of canes that more or less fitted, where the fit was not perfect, the canes kept falling out. She resorted to using tape, but it was still most unsatisfactory. After that, she decided to have a go at designing something herself!
We're currently testing and redefining the product to ensure it stands up to the rigours of the most avid gardener. FIGO should be available from garden centres and mail order suppliers from September. I'll let you know when they go on sale.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Well, actually that was yesterday! But having so much to do, I didn't get round to blogging. Same old, same old...
Because the plan to help write the RHS book on allotments looks like it's going ahead and the publisher, Mitchell Beazley, wants to take pictures on the allotment, I thought I'd better give it a spruce up. Although it's looking pretty good, there are some areas that need titivating.
So, I had a quick weed through, tied in and sideshooted the tomatoes and planted out some more peppers, courgettes and aubergines that didn't make it into the plots at home. A bit late I know, but I'm hoping for an Indian Summer and a later crop.
I also sowed a late crop of runner and French beans.
Then I harvested the garlic.
But most of the time was spent harvesting fruit: apricots - probably around 250 of the golden jewels - redcurrants, blueberries, gooseberries and raspberries.
The thing about a lot of fruit is that it's all ready to harvest in one go and, if you get a bumper crop, what do you do with it all? Simple, head to the Hodge fruit factory.
The evening was spent making raspberry and apricot jam, bottling stewed apricots, making apricot and blueberry crumble, redcurrant meringue etc., etc... The pantry, freezer and fridge are now packed to the gunnels with fruity delights.

More work on the horizon. I received confirmation that I'll be doing some telly work over the coming weeks - guesting on Garden Bargains on the Ideal World shopping channel. If you want to see me in action, then tune in between 11am and 1pm on July 19, 26 and August 2. I've got a couple of Tuesday evening slots too. Eat your heart out Richard Jackson!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The end of an era

Friday was my last day with the RHS and this weekend is the first to put the new life plan into operation.
Sadly, I think it's all gone to pot already.
First, I wanted to enjoy watching The Ashes: well, the England team have ruined that by not turning up and by playing total rubbish.
Second, I wanted some time off working to enjoy working/playing in the garden and on the allotment: well, I've been asked to judge the Garden News Gardener of the Year competition (I did that for six years while I was the Gardening Editor of the title and loved it) later this month and to write a book on allotment gardening by - yes, you've guessed, the RHS!
Anyone else out there want to help ruin my summer by piling on the work?!?

Friday, 3 July 2009

And now the end is near...

So much for promises and resolutions. I said this year I was going to make a major effort at blogging and what happens? I'm so busy I don't even have time to do half the things I want to.

Anyhoo, all that is about to change - no honestly!

After eight and a half years of managing/editing RHS Online, the RHS website I'm about to be made redundant! So, more than likely I'll have more time on my hands than I know what to do with.

The RHS has been tasked with making a 10% cut in its wage bill - making between 80 and 100 people redundant - and I'm going to be one of them. I suppose it could be worse - it could have happened in the winter. So now I can enjoy the summer in the garden and on the allotment and watch the Ashes on Sky and drink some beer. Every cloud...

Thursday, 9 April 2009

More seed sowing - and growing on

The evening's are lighter and the days are longer, which means just one thing - there's time in the evening to do some gardening after getting home from work. So, with one hand carefully nurturing a bottle of Perroni, I've put the other to good use this week sowing more veg in pots and putting them in the propagator.

Joining the assortment of tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and courgettes already sown, we've now got aubergine 'Fairy Tale' and that good stalwart 'Black Beauty', tomato 'Burpee's Jubilee' and 'Falcorosso', chilli pepper 'Tropical Heat', 'Hot Portugal' and 'Georgia Flame' and cucumber 'White Wonder' plus a tray of celeriac 'Giant Prague'. The cucumbers have already germinated!

From the first sowing in March, all the tomatoes have grown well and these have now been potted up into 9cm pots and are lined out in the lean-to frame.

Outside the veg garden, I've taken the plunge and cut back all the artemisias, penstemons and hardy fuchsias - Clare has been getting impatient over the last few weeks as they were all looking decidedly floppy and untidy. Let's hope we don't get any severe frosts - fingers crossed.

And, as usual I've been on my regular pest watch patrols - looking for any nasties that are lurking and taking advantage of new, fresh growth. So far, nothing to report. Any I mean nothing. The slugs and snails are being taken care of by the army or frogs and toads in the garden and a liberal scattering of slug pellets. And I know that lots of people are talking about early attacks of lily beetle but so far nothing. About this time last year our Lilium formosanum var. pricei had been totally ravaged and gave up the ghost soon afterwards, but this year not a sign of damage. So let's hope it stays that way. I have given all the lilies a thorough spray with Provado Ultimate Bug Killer to offer some protection, but if the lily beetles were active, there would be some signs of nibbling - but so far nothing.

And now it's the Easter weekend, so in between entertaining friends and eating fatty choccy treats I'm hoping there'll be some time to get outside and get on with things.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb – and agapanthus

I’ve just got back from my latest stint on Gardening Plus with Ken Crowther on BBC Essex – another action-packed, three-hour programme with loads of questions, comments and problems to solve. And lots to eat – this time a local frozen yoghurt manufacturer brought in some delicious tubs stuffed with fruit and fabulous jersey and Guernsey milk creaminess. The programme always flies by and it wasn’t long before the three hours were up. We did have to keep cutting across live to the build-up to Jade Goody’s funeral though.

It’s weird how themes of questions start to emerge. Whether it’s because someone asks a question and then everyone else thinks: “Oh yes, I’ve got a question about that plant too”, or whether it’s because that’s the way it is, I don’t know. Anyway this week it was mainly rhubarb and agapanthus – although fruit and other plants in containers came in high up the list as well.

The rhubarb theme had many sections. Most revolved around poor, spindly crops and what to do to put it right. Others were about rhubarb going to seed – already! One phone call was about using rhubarb leaves in the planting hole for brassica plants to prevent clubroot. Luckily, for us, it was a comment that it worked, not a question about whether it can be used. The reason? Because as rhubarb hasn’t been passed as a garden pesticide we can’t recommend its use as such. Crazy, but true. Another text message was about the poisonous virtue or rhubarb leaves – yes, they are, so don’t eat them!

The agapanthus questions were about getting good flowers, should they be grown in pots rather than the ground as this keeps them potbound and so flowering well, the virtue of splitting them and how to look after them generally.

Back home and it’s a glorious April day, so I’m off into the garden.

I’ve got some lawn care to get on with. After the winter wet, there’s been a spot of die out and general grass thinning, so I’m going to oversow the whole lawn with grass seed to help thicken it out. It needs a good feed, and there’s a bit of weed to control – mainly speedwell, which is never easy.

All my plants in containers need a little TLC too. So I’ll be topping up with fresh compost, feeding with a controlled-release fertiliser and using Sulphur Soil, both from Greenacres Horticultural Supplies, on all the lime-haters, especially blueberries and Japanese maples. And some of them are in need of a good drink too. I know the feeling, so it’s gardening and beer sipping for me this afternoon.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Sowing the seeds of success

Well hopefully. Although I've got to say it's a slow start - probably not warm enough for seeds to germinate properly and, as a result, not much is showing in the veg plot at home. Of all the things I've sown so far only the radish and broad beans are doing anything.

But onwards and upwards. With so much to do in the garden - and keeping true to my word (so far), not spending as much time as usual in front of the computer screen - I decided to take a day off work today. I also needed to recharge the batteries as the RHS website is going through a major overhaul and it's exhausting.

I spent a few hours on the allotment, doing some more weeding and tidying up. I also planted out a Coronet family apple tree, which came courtesy of Springfield Nurseries in Ireland. This joins the other two Coronets, which fruited magnificently last year.

Because things aren't germinating at home I've decided to give sowing on the allotment a miss at the moment. But at least the onions, garlic and shallots are making a breakthrough. And the potatoes are chitting nicely at home waiting to be planted out, probably - to keep things traditional - at Easter.

Instead we've decided to sow things in pots and modules here and then transplant them into the allotment later. So, there's three trays of leek 'Jaune de Poitou' (a lovely early yellow variety), one each of beetroot 'Burpees Golden Globe' and kale 'Nero di Toscana' and another follow-on crop of broad bean 'The Sutton'.

I've also put in a few more rows of salad crops outside at home - it must be warm enough now surely (but I've covered them with fleece just in case!) including carrot 'Early Nantes 2', radish 'Zlata' (a golden-yellow variety), cos lettuce and red-veined sorrel.

And I decided to sow a Westland Horticulture Instant Planter in the greenhouse with more cos lettuce (should grow quicker than outside), rocket and some salad leaves from the new collection from Lakeland.

But all good things must come to an end - I've now got to get ready to give a talk to a local(ish) gardening club. It's one I've never been to before, but they sound a friendly bunch and I always enjoy giving talks.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Spring on the allotment

True to my word, Sunday was spent on the allotment. Although we've had a slow start and didn't go there for weeks for one reason or another, I'm amazed at how good it looks. Hardly any weeds, and what there were came out really easily.

The main reason for going was to (finally) plant out the garlic, shallots and onion sets - both red and white.

We'd also been given a couple of blackcurrant 'Big Ben' bushes by Suttons and these needed planting out. This spectacular new blackcurrant has huge fruit - double the size of other varieties - and is very high yielding too. The fruits are produced early in the season and are sweet and juicy. Plants show good resistance to mildew and leaf spot.

After a spot of weeding and tidying up we'd more or less finished for the day - apart from harvesting a whole load of leeks, a load of cut daffs and some pretty unspectacular celeriac. They may have looked unspectacular but they have made some really delicious cream of celeriac soup.

It was interesting to see who and how the other plots had changed. The plot run by the school kids had disappeared and the gravel and raised beds were replaced with a standard plot. The greenhouse a few plots down had been completely de-glazed - apparently by the lovely youth of the area! New people had started two plots up from us - Clare picked them a bunch of daffs as a welcome present. But there was one standard - Bruce the site guardian - and his cultivator. His plots are the most cultivated anywhere, but he loves to rotovate other plots too if you let him. He can never understand why we say no. But we can never understand why he likes rotovating couch grass!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Spring resolutions under way

My new spring resolution - spend more time gardening not thinking about it, is working a treat. Yesterday I spent most of the day in the garden or doing things connected with gardening. Although, the spanking the Red Devils took from the Scousers did split up the day and make me sit indoors enduring torture - plus the texts from Liverpool supporting friends.

Most of the gardening time was spent making a start on getting the veg garden up and running.
The garden frame has been sitting on the raised beds all winter, so the soil was lovely and warm and welcoming for some early crops. So an early row of rocket, a row of beetroot 'Detroit' and one of lettuce 'Stoke' (a variety from the Heritage Seed Library) have joined the broad beans sowed last week.

Outside I put in a row of salad onion 'White Lisbon', Continental salad mix, radish 'Amethyst', celtuce and carrot 'Egmont Gold' (another from the Heritage Seed Library) plus some 'Early Purple Sprouting' broccoli in a seed bed.

I'm also testing a new product - the Seedbed Roll from The Master Herbalist. The company produces a couple of different types and I've used the English Summer Salad - a mix of lettuce and salad leaves. This is a professional way of growing veg that is meant to produce better and faster germination, stronger growth and needs less water and no chemical controls. The seed comes pre-sown on a biodegradable paper mat that is covered in a clear layer of compostable film that conserves moisture and warmth and acts like a propagator. It'll be interesting to see how it performs.

Finally, Clare and I set up our exotic veg seed sowing production line - filling pots, firming compost, writing labels, sowing seeds, covering with vermiculite and watering. We've sown our first batch of indoor tomatoes, aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, basil and courgettes. Last year we sowed too much too early and all in one go - this year we're doing things more carefully and steadily to prevent the seedling mountain we suffered last year.

Well, The Archers omnibus has just finished, the sun is shining and it's a proper spring day out there, so we're off to the allotment. Twice in quick succession - the allotment won't know what hit it! But there's lots to do and we've got onions, shallots and garlic to plant as well as some new fruit trees and bushes.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Stir crazy

At least I think I might be going that way. What with an excess of work, excesses of weather and the fact that the EU decimal 100-hour day hasn't yet been introduced, I haven't had much/any/enough time in the garden recently.

Last weekend I managed a couple of hours - much of which was spent dealing with/tidying up the ivy-covered tree stump that came down in the snow; luckily it hadn't done much damage - apart from bending the frame of the lean-to greenhouse a tad. The lawn had its first cut of 2009 too, after nearly killing myself with the annual raking and scarifying. I even managed to sow a couple of rows and a couple of trays of broad beans, including an old heirloom variety called 'Martock'; don't know it, never grown it, but who cares!

Today was definitely - "right, I'm going to the allotment whatever happens" day; bad choice really. Apart from the fact that it was blowing a gale, it started raining/sleeting/hailing/snowing and was just flippin' cold. Never mind, I got quite a bit of tidying up done and even dug over quite a lot of it too. Message to self: must spend more time there this year; message from self: then don't take on lots of other/new projects as well.

Now, if only the clocks would go forward and that 100-hour day was introduced...!

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Spring has sprung on BBC Essex

I've just got back from my latest guest appearance on Gardening Plus on BBC Essex with Ken Crowther. And although it's a one-and-a-half hour drive down to the studios in Chelmsford today it was a great journey. Sun shining - shades on - lovely and warm - reaching 12.5C on the car thermometer - and lots of plants bursting into new growth. All in all, a bit of a change from the miserable weather of the last few weeks. Don't get me wrong - I love the snow and the cold of winter - but it's just great to see spring is on it's way - hopefully.

And maybe it was the spring-like weather that ensured we were inundated with phone calls, e-mails and text messages. In fact, I'm feeling mentally drained it was so busy. An interesting selection of questions too, not just the run-of-the-mill when do I do this. Some of the questions - and answers - sparked further questions and replies - always a good sign of a healthy show.

One of the great things about gardening is that there aren't always exact answers to everything - sometimes if you do something that isn't the 'set book' answer and it works, who cares?

Ken and I had a couple of disagreements today, which has resulted in the listeners going off and running some experiments for us. At least, they say they will and I hope they do and come back to us with the results.

The first related to cutting back newly-planted raspberry canes to ground level to take away the old growth. The idea being that it encourages more new growth from ground level. I said I would, Ken said he wouldn't; so the listener has agreed to do both to her row of plants.

The second was about pruning some really old roses - around 45-50 years' old - that have been neglected and not pruned for several years. Ken said he would just cut them all back hard right down to around 23-30cm (9-12in). I said I would tidy them up, removing all the dead, weak and crowded growth, then cut them back by about half, cutting back harder next year if necessary. As the listener has around 25 bushes she agreed to do half and half and come back to us.

Some people think I'm mad - and it is a question for debate. When I told someone last night that I was leaving at 7.15am (on a Saturday!), would be driving in total for three hours and doing a three-hour live programme they said I must be paid well to do it. When I told them I wasn't paid anything but did it because I enjoyed it, eyebrows were raised and the loony comments were made. But I do enjoy it, although some good British sterling in the pocket would make it even more enjoyable!

Friday, 13 February 2009

Snow blindness, snow panic

At this time of year gardeners panic about one thing - snow and what it'll do to their plants. Well panic not - it'll do very little damage per se. It's the cold and frost you need to worry about!

Even hardy plants can suffer from extensive periods of cold, freezing weather, especially if they're growing in containers (even the hardiest of plants can be killed if their rootballs freeze solid for weeks on end) and even more especially if the cold is combined with strong winds.

In fact, snow on the ground provides some insulation against cold, freezing weather and is a blessing in disguise. Until it melts that is, and the garden becomes waterlogged!

I guess there is one thing to worry about snow - snow loading. That is the weight of snow on branches and the foliage of evergreens bending them down to ground level or even causing them to snap.

I've had one casualty in the garden so far. An old tree stump covered in ivy became so snow loaded that all the ivy has bent away from the stump and flopped all over my lean-to greenhouse. It needed a prune anyway and this has given me the incentive to go out and do it - maybe this weekend if I don't freeze to death when I go out there. Being a gardening journo I spend most of my time sitting on my bum in a nice warm office.

The only thing that will panic over the stump/ivy situation is the robin who has nested in there for the last three years. But with some 'judicious' pruning I should be able to save its nest site for years to come.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Keeping Pest at Bay 2

Following my blog on November 5 about the future of garden chemicals, the future is now looking bleak following legislation passed by the European parliament.

MEPs voted overwhelmingly for the proposals for a Regulation on the Placing on the Market of Plant Protection Products. At the same time, they also voted in favour for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive. Basically what this means is that under these new Europe-wide rules, substances that are potentially dangerous will be taken off the market. No bad thing? Well, the definition of 'potentially dangerous' is being disputed by a number of organisations and professional bodies.

It looks like, although again no-one seems completely clear on this yet, the regulations will come into force towards the end of 2010.

Chemicals on the list that are used by gardeners include bifenthrin (widely used in pesticide sprays), mancozeb (a broad-spectrum fungicide), systemic weedkiller glyphosate and metaldehyde, used in slug pellets.

The list of possible losses includes:
Weedkillers: 2,4 D, amitrole, dichlorprop-p, glufosinate, glyphosate, mecoprop-p.
Pesticides: bifenthrin, deltamethin, pyrethroid insecticides, methiocarb and metaldehyde.
Fungicides: mancozeb.

Even so, some of the bigger companies supplying pesticides to gardeners, especially Bayer Garden, are fighting back by producing new pesticides for gardeners. The company is introducing a couple of new products this year. Probably the most notable is Lawn Disease Control. Us gardeners haven't had a fungicide for lawn problems for several years now - and I've certainly noticed an increase in red thread disease in my lawn, so hopefully this new product will help keep this under control.

I'll keep you posted on anything new that happens.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Garden Monkey - RIP

It's the end of an era - a sad day for the gardening community. The Garden Monkey has decided to stop blogging - well, at least for the short-term anyway. He/she wants to spend more time on work that makes money! We'll all miss him/her and their delightful look at the gardening world.
But everything has a silver lining - perhaps now we'll be able to work out GM's identity - by checking on who is producing more paid-for work.

On the other hand, the directors of the RHS are embracing new technology. They're going to take part in a live online forum on January 20 from 9.30am to 12.30pm. If you're interested and want to take part, go to http://mygarden.rhs.org.uk/forums/310.aspx
It should be interesting and hopefully revealing.