Andrew's garden blog

I love our garden. The plants, the wildlife, the seasons. These are some observations about it, not from an expert but from an enthusiast. And a few other ramblings besides.

Hen and Hammock Blog

Resisting Temptation in the Garden

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Jan jobs in the garden
This winter feels like its being swept away before its begun.  No snow, very few frosts just lots of water.  Already it feels like spring is muscling in.  The snow drops, crocuses and catkins are all well ahead of where they were this time last year and the grass looks like it could do with a cut.  But despite the evident excitement from the blue tits and sparrows clamouring for nesting sites, if the winter ends too soon there will be some losers, not least of which will be the gardeners up and down the country seduced by the mild weather.  So for now I am going to keep my seeds in their packets and stick to my seasonal plan.

Job one, top up the food and water for the birds.  Although there is more around for birds to eat and drink than usual this January, this can change at any moment, particularly when the water freezes over.  An additional incentive this weekend is the RSPB bird watch.  The more you offer the birds in your garden the more they will visit, and the more they visit the more satisfying the survey is, especially for younger participants.  Peanuts, mixed seed and water will be on the menu here.

Job two is to protect the crops you want to harvest early.  This is the time to move your rhubarb forcer into position (ours grew unforced last year, so I’m expecting a forest of bright pink stalks this year) and to clean your cloches.  A clean cloche will protect early shoots from the wind as much as from the cold and you will be rewarded with a crop a week or two earlier.  A cloche will also keep pigeons and pheasants at bay, so your overworked scarecrow can come indoors for a bit of TLC.

Job three is pruning.  This can appear overly technical but over the years I have learnt not to be overawed by text book ‘how tos’ and just to get stuck in.  This weekend is a good time to prune apples and pears.  Over the previous year these will have produced ‘water shoots’ which are the thin, wispy shoots that hare upwards.  These are best removed as are any branches that cross others.  I’m also intending to prune our gooseberry, blackcurrant and redcurrant bushes, by removing the oldest branches.  If I run short of time though, the fruit bushes can wait. The temptation to start sowing my seeds might be too much to resist.

Rewilding our Garden

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Rewilding a garden
Last week’s report from the IUCN on the list of endangered species, the so called red list, makes pretty sobering reading.  It seems that we humans are responsible for the greatest mass extinction of species since a meteorite strike 65 million years ago.  Our relentless destruction of habitats, our preoccupation with hunting and our introduction of alien predators has significantly diminished the richness, and indeed the sustainability of, the planet.  So, nothing new then.

Well yes there is something new and its not all bad.  The new bit for me is the large number of conservation successes.  It seems that when we put our minds to it we can turn things around.  The island fox in California has made a great comeback and red kites are now common place in the Chilterns.

So what about in our own backyard?  What can we do to restore it to its former, richer past?  We clearly can’t leap back as far as primeval forests with prowling lions as the rewilding enthusiasts might want, but we can try to take small steps to help species which have suffered during our lifetime.  For me, the focus this year has been on wild flowers, bees and owls.

My rewilding with wild flowers has been an abject failure.  I have always viewed it as a 20 year project, so I’ve still got 19 years left to get it right, but trying to reduce the fertility of our lush paddock to make it a better host for wild flowers is proving harder than I had thought.  It may well be that I’m trying to do the right thing, but in the wrong place.  I need a chalky hillside!

I have been more successful with bees, but still have a lot to learn.  We have several sites where solitary bees and bumblebees nest and this summer they were very much in evidence all over the garden.  My honey bees though have been more challenging.  There are so many pitfalls now for honey bees that I have nothing but admiration for the beekeepers who battle on year after year.  Having lost one colony to wasps in August and with another seriously depleted, success for me will be two colonies alive and well in April.

I seem to have been a bit luckier with owls.  Or at least an owl.  I put up an owl box this time last year on the best tree I could find, an old elm 100m from the nearest building overlooking our field.  At dusk I have frequently reached for my binoculars but I have never seen anything coming or going.  So when I climbed up there this week on my annual bird box cleaning routine, I was delighted to find a nest and what I’m fairly confident are owl pellets.  I think it’s a tawny owl as I have heard some twit twooing and there isn’t the ‘whitewash’ that barn owls are known for, but I can’t be sure till I have a clear sighting.  My efforts are some way from rewilding, but occasional successes are still immensely rewarding.  And hopefully it will help keep tawnies off the red list.

What do you want for the winter?

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Winter garden jobsLate autumn in the garden is all about the season ahead.  Its about getting ready for winter.  For some gardeners that means removing dead heads and tidying.  For me, the dead heads and mess are what I want for the winter, to sustain me and the wildlife.

All the bumblebees, ladybirds, lacewings and other beneficial insects that we have been encouraging into our garden all summer are now looking for somewhere to hunker down.  In some cases it’s just the queen which will hibernate but for ladybirds it’s all the adults, so lots of nooks and crannies are needed.  Making an insect hotel is one way to help, but equally important is a quiet corner of a (not too tidy) shed, a few rotting logs or an ivy clad wall.  Each of these stands a good chance of providing much need refuge to insects which next year will pollinate your flowers and devour your greenfly.

For the wildlife in your garden that doesn’t hibernate, food and water will be the main challenge for the coming months.  That’s why it’s important not to be too zealous with the dead heading and pruning.  The RSPB has great of information on which birds feed on which berries and seeds.  Blackbirds and fieldfares (due any day now) get important nourishment from rosehips and smaller garden birds like goldfinches and blue tits will snack on the seed heads of many common herbaceous plants.  If you don’t have enough natural bird food in your garden, or want to supplement what you do have, then bird feeders are a good option.  They can also be positioned to give you the best possible view.

As well as being harsh on the insects and birds in your garden, the winter months can also take their toll on the soil and plants.  Bare ground that is pummelled by heavy rain can become compacted and depleted, so a layer of well-rotted manure or compost should be applied soon.  Compost will not only protect the ground, it will also be welcomed by the burrowing invertebrates which will repay you by transforming it into fine tilth by the spring.  Veg garden perennials like asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb will also benefit from composting now.  As well as providing nourishment, compost will provide limited frost protection.  Further protection from frosts is provided by compost plus a cloche or rhubarb forcer.

It has been a mast autumn in the garden so hopefully all the plants and animals will be entering the winter in good shape.  Our trees have been displaying a bumper crop of nuts, seeds and berries for some time now, which has meant the hoarders have been able to stock pile plenty for the coming months.  The squirrels and rooks have taken so many walnuts and cob nuts they’ll be feasting all winter long! Thankfully we grabbed a few first, for our own winter feast.


If only bees had companions

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Companion plantingThe summer was great. We had more glorious sunny days than I can remember in a very long time and even the evenings felt continental. Eating outdoors was taken for granted and the firebowl saw more action than the kitchen stove. The vegetable patch did suffer from a lack of rain, but that’s a small price to pay for so many shorts-and-sandals days. A price which I find harder to stomach though is the boost the warm weather has given to the wasp population. I can put up with wasps interfering with my breakfast, lunch and tea, and with them getting to the ripest fruit first, but what I’m struggling with is the damage they have done to our bees.

I know that wasps play an important part in our all too fragile ecosystem, but I just wish they would stick to the apples, plums and pears of which we have plenty, or even better the caterpillars, greenfly and whitefly, to which they are meant to be partial, rather than robbing the honey that the bees have worked hard all summer to make. It is these stores that the bees need to sustain them through the winter. And what is worse is that the wasps don’t restrict their havoc to the honey, they also eat the brood (honey bee larvae) and kill any bees that stand in their way. Last weekend we opened up one of our hives, a hive that a couple of weeks earlier had been well stocked with bees and honey, only to find nothing but a few dozen wasps. All the honey, brood and bees had been either eaten or killed.

Honey bees are not domesticated pets that have names and personalities, but its still heart breaking to see a hive decimated in this way. Nature can be so harsh! Part of me wants to kill every wasp in our garden, but in reality I guess the best we can do is to use our knowledge of nature to gently tip the balance in favour of the things we most cherish. In the case of bees vs wasps, this means closing down the entrance to the hive in mid-August to give the bees the best possible chance to defend themselves. In hindsight we were a bit slow doing this this year.

In the case of vegetables, tipping nature’s balance means following time-honoured practices like crop rotation to avoid the build-up of disease. Companion planting too is another traditional technique that has been used by vegetable growers for generations to thwart pests. The principle is that many plants have a ‘companion plant’, which when sown together make for a healthier crop. Tomatoes for example are improved by sowing next to marigolds as greenfly head for the marigolds instead of the tomatoes. And in a similar way nasturtiums lure aphids away from runner beans. Its these sort of natural tips and advice that we need to get the best out of our gardens, rather than killer insecticides. If only bees had a companion that would keep the wasps at bay.

The best deckchair weather for years

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Deckchair productionThe heat wave in Oxfordshire has now turned into a warm wave, which will be a relief for some. The bees have loved the heat, but anyone trying to germinate heritage seeds will be relieved. At this time of year seed usually germinates after a couple of days, but the recent intense heat and lack of rain has left the seed dehydrated and motionless. I could water of course, but watering always gives me a nagging feeling that I’m wasting time or resources or both.

This is not a whinge though. I’ve loved the hot weather. Hammocks and hats have been flying off the shelves and everyone seems to want a deckchair. This is bitter sweet however for one of our producers, which is a social enterprise that employs people who have difficulty working in the wider community. For years they have been struggling to survive, then a couple of months ago (shortly before the start of the best deckchair weather for years!) their local authority finally pulled the plug. This is despite the fact that the quality of their workmanship was extremely high. There simply weren’t enough retailers prepared to pay for high quality FSC certified deckchair frames. Luckily for us we bought enough to last us the year, but we now need to find a workshop which will make the same high quality frames for us for next year. As we favour small producers and social enterprises, we need to start looking now.

One way in which some of our producers are able to compete on price is by using reclaimed and waste wood. Local builders and timber merchants donate offcuts and surplus stock which would otherwise be burned. This wouldn’t be a reliable enough source for deckchair frames, but for many of our smaller products this arrangement is perfect. We can offer our customers well priced British made products that are made from recycled wood and our producers can get a fair price for their labours. The seed trays that Ken James makes from recycled wood have been so successful that Liberty of London now offer them too. Let’s hope that the people who have bought them have more success germinating seed than I have.

Outdoor living is hard fought

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Outdoor living June 2013This summer has felt like every warm sunny moment has been hard fought.  There always seems to be something in the weather that thwarts the outdoor living that we yearn.  Maybe its just my rose-tinted glasses, but I can’t remember so much wind, so much cool air and so much cloud at this time of year.  I held back planting and sowing most of my veg as the ground was so cold in May, but since then its hardly improved. Lettuces, sweetcorn, cucumbers, beans and courgettes have all baulked and refused to grow.  They stay out there stubbornly waiting for something better to come along.  I’m just grateful I don’t have to sell my veg to make a living, otherwise these last few weeks would have been very tough, unless there’s a big market for radishes and rocket!

The bumblebees seem to be coping better than the honey bees.  Even though their bodies are larger, they seem more stable in the wind.  The common carder bumblebees nimbly negotiate their way amongst our broad bean flowers and seem to find it easy to forage the more exposed chives, thyme, rosemary and sage.  They dip in and out of these flowers, apparently unbothered by the gusty south-westerly’s.

My honey bees, on the other hand, have been largely absent from our garden for the last few weeks.  It may be that the nearby fields of rape seed have greater pulling power or that there hasn’t been enough sunshine to get the flowers in the garden to produce the nectar that they are seeking.  The bees are making honey and storing pollen, so I’m not overly concerned, but not as fast as I would like.  Its not that I want to steal their honey for myself, its just that its very rewarding to see them build up stores.  It’s this that gives them the best chance of survival for the winter, which given the colony losses of this last winter is a huge issue.

Given this poor weather, we have been doing our very best to ensure the rare rays of sunshine don’t slip through our hands uncherished. A patch of blue sky and out comes the picnic blanket, a forecast of 20 degrees and out comes the firebowl.  It never takes long before we’re back inside for radishes and rocket, but at least we’re making the most of the brief interludes and hopefully the honey bees are doing the same.


Outdoor games for kids

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Outdoor games ideas for kidsKeeping children occupied during half term and the holidays can be a challenge.  Even if the weather is favourable, not all children are able to amuse themselves like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.  So here are a few ideas we hope will help, based around the type of space you have available.

Lawn.  Aside from the obvious ball based games, there are lots of ways for kids to enjoy a lawn which will not destroy your garden:

Sack races.  A low cost, perennially popular game.  Our sacks are the perfect size for children, which means they provide a useful handicap to adults, particularly those who try too hard!

Jenga.  Building towers is always fun, as is watching them fall down.  If you want to add a twist, why not add notes to some of the jenga pieces?  These can be questions, forfeits or points.  Of course you only discover which once you have extracted your piece successfully.

- Golf boules.  Golf balls make a good game of boules for little hands.  And if you have a couple of putters, why not get them out too?

Picnics.  Not technically a game, but a good use for a lawn and kids enjoy the preparation.  Sandwiches taste so much better on the grass!  If you want to go further afield, then Visit Britain has some lovely picnic spots.

Firepit.  When I said ‘will not destroy your garden’, I meant it.  Unless you have a perfect putting green lawn its easy to remove a few sods of turf (keep them rolled and moist, in the shade), to dig a firepit and to do some bushcraft firepit cooking.  Once the ground has cooled, simply replace the turf and water well.

Trees.  If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden with trees, then there is more scope for garden games. 

- Swings.  The outdoor garden toy which has remained the most popular for generations is the garden swing.  If there is a branch strong enough then all you need is some rope and a disc of wood.  Single rope swings have the advantage too of not needing to be hung from a horizontal bough, which makes life much easier.  If you would like something a bit more exotic, then a tyre horse swing is also a popular choice.

Hammocks.  If you don’t have two trees a few metres apart then you will need to sink a post into the ground to anchor one end of the hammock.  This is easily done and can be done with a sleeve so that the post can be removed in winter.  If the distance between trees is too great, hammock ropes will help. Children’s hammocks are good for children up to 6 years old. A full sized hammock is best for older kids.

Rope ladder.  Really nice quality rope ladders are hard to find these days, so you might be as well to make one.  Hang a rope ladder from a tree and you have a climbing frame!

Borders.  Children and flower beds are often regarded as incompatible, but I disagree.  There are plenty of ways to adapt borders to make them work for kids without losing their flower power.

- Shrubs will provide more robust year round play areas than herbaceous plants. Our lilac and  philadelphus satisfy both the adult and the children camps.

- Ornamental grasses cope well with little children and provide great hide and seek places.

- There are plenty of wild or cultivated plants that are edible.  Marigolds, dandelions and even nettles.  Why not give the children their first lesson in foraging?

Wildlife gardens.  In most cases, a wildlife garden is not as grand as it sounds, it is simply a neglected corner that is too shady/weedy/dry/wet to cultivate.  These offer lots of potential for learning as well as creative play.  Our tops tips are:

- An insect hotel, if you have the space.  In advance you’ll need to find 5 or 6 old pallets and lots of filling materials (bamboo, drinking straws, cardboard tubes, bricks, tiles, mud etc).  Hours of fun, guaranteed.

- A midnight safari.  When its dusk or dark, sneak round the garden with your children listening quietly for any noises.  They’ll be amazed how many creatures come out at night.

Dreams of starting an allotment are worth culitvating

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Allotment holder giftsThis is the time of year when people with vegetable gardens start dreaming of heritage vegetable seeds and people without start dreaming of starting an allotment. 

Luckily, way back in 1908, the Liberal government passed the Small Holdings and Allotments Act.  This Act made it a mandatory obligation for all local authorities to provide allotments and cultivated a peculiarly British tradition of local, allotment veg growers that is still with us today.  Can you imagine this sort of far-sighted welfare legislation being gifted to us today?  This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a waiting list, but it does mean your local authority should provide allotments.

It is worth putting your name on the waiting list, even if the list is a long one.  When we lived in Hammersmith I got to the top of the list within a few months, even though there were 20 names above mine.  Each month there are always a few allotment holders feeling the pressure of rampant weeds who decide to throw in the trowel.

To make your life easy, start by sharing an allotment if at all possible.  An allotment is typically the size of a tennis court, which is far bigger than most beginners want.  The other secret is not to leave any bare ground, not even for a week.  Cover what isn’t sown with old carpet, cardboard, plastic sheet, anything that will suppress the weeds.  Even though it might look unsightly at first compared with your neatly double dug neighbours, it will be a good deal more popular than letting the weeds run riot.  And it will make your time there more productive and more pleasurable.  Just uncover the bare ground as and when you need it.

And start with new potatoes (unless there were potatoes in the same spot last year).  Potatoes cleanse the ground, can be grown through weed suppressants and will knock supermarket newbies into a cocked hat.  My other easy grow sowing tips would be French breakfast radishes as you can pick them in 6 weeks, heritage peas for a summer taste like no other (and lovely flowers) and uchiki kuri squashes for their colour and cooking potential.  Squash plants will die in the frost though, so cover with a cloche or fleece if frost is forecast.

If any peas get too big, or when you’ve scooped out the squshes, save the seed for next year.  Just wash it, dry it, then store it somewhere cool.  For allotment holders a gift of seeds is always welcome.  And they will keep your dreams alive for next year.

Tips for re-using old wooden crates

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Tips for using wooden cratesI have always enjoyed making things. Compost bins, bird boxes, pizza ovens, tree houses, just about anything outdoors that doesn’t require too much skill. Which is why I’m so impressed by all the things made by our customers using our vintage apple crates and wooden storage boxes. Here are some tips I have gleaned:

 - Old wooden crates can be used very effectively to make a temporary bar. Long cable ties are a good and easy way to attach the crates to each other.  The inside of each crate can be used to store glasses and bottles. 

 - Wooden crates make excellent shelving units. Painting the back lightens the inside and gives a sense of space.

 - A crate on its side is the perfect height for a bedside table. If you want to add a shelf, position it slightly above half way.

 - Crates make excellent wooden storage boxes for toys. Castors add mobility and make them more fun for kids (to tidy away their own toys!)

 - Whether to buy new or old crates depends on what you have planned. New wooden crates do not have writing on them but they are stronger and cleaner than old reclaimed crates. Old wooden crates have a lovely worn tone that comes of years of use in French orchards, but if you want something clean to paint then new is probably better.

 - Varnishing old crates can bring out the real character of the wood. Their character is further highlighted by placing the crates on clean white shelves.

 - Wooden storage boxes and crates can help bring a sense of order to an otherwise unstructured world. At last your CDs or LPs can be arranged in alphabetical order!

- If you intend to use wooden boxes for storing fruit or vegetables, ventilation is critical. The corner batons should stand proud of the sides so that stacked crates are well ventilated and easy to move.

 - For a permanent retail display unit made of old wooden boxes, each box should be screwed into the wall for stability. A mix of different size boxes will make for a more interesting display.

For more ideas, see our wooden storage box gallery. 

In the Garden: Early Spring Activities

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In the garden: Eary Spring Activities
There’s little colour yet in the garden which is why the crocuses are so welcome. The crocuses are also an important source of pollen for bees battling to feed their burgeoning brood.  You can see the bright yellow pollen payload stashed in little holding bags on the hind legs. Amazing isn’t it!

The bees are also all over the rampant stinking hellebores, which has a paler off-white pollen.  Each spring I tear most of the hellebores out as they spread so (and stink), but this year I think I’ll be a bit more tolerant.  With this cold wet spring the bees need every help they can get to avoid starvation.

Its early days for seed germination, but I don’t feel I have made a very good start.  My outdoor sowings of broad beans, beetroot, radish and parsnip show no signs of life and the success rate with my toms too has been poor. The golden sunshines from our four coloured tomatoes are up, but the others are staying stubbornly under the duvet.  Surely the outside cold can’t affect my germinator indoors?

My potatoes are chitting nicely (in the camper van egg cup), but I’m in no hurry to plant them out when the ground is so cold.  This year the earlies I am trying are Casablanca which caught my eye because of its disease resistance credentials.  Having said that, if we get the glorious early summer we deserve then they will be whipped out of the ground in June before any disease has a chance to take hold.

The grasses have had their annual crew cut and the herbaceous plants have been cut down for spring.  I haven’t divided the bergamot yet, which has strayed too far from its original position, so that is my next job.  I also need to cut back the dogwood, to get the startling new growth next winter.

Garden birds are nest building and the blackthorn will flower any day now so hedge cutting must wait until the end of the year.  Feeding the birds is still important, although caterpillars will soon be the food of choice for blue tit chicks rather than nuts or seeds.  To increase your caterpillar population plant a horse chestnut tree (or bury a conker in the autumn).  The birds and the bees will thank you for it.

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  • Four coloured vegetables
  • Colourful heritage seeds
  • £8.00
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