Sunday, 3 January 2010

Gardening 2010

At the beginning of a new year, thoughts inevitably turn to the garden in 2010. Not so much the making of new year resolutions as the drawing up of new schemes and plans.

There are fundamental decisions to take, such as where to place a new compost heap and polytunnel, how best to source a steady, and hopefully free, supply of manure, and what is the best approach to see off the rabbit plague.

I have been making lists - what vegetables to grow in 2010 and when to sow them, new additions to the flower garden, big jobs to do etc.

Of course, such plans don't come cheap. Already I have bought an 'allotment vegetables collection' (onions, shallots, garlic), as well as horse radish, jerusalem artichokes, beetroot (bolthardy and a cylindrical variety), and broccoli calabrese. Still to come are seed potatoes and a few exotic seeds such as cobaea scandens alba.

The temptation with vegetables, as always, is to start plants early. I have put in a few peas and broad beans in pots in the greenhouse, in an attempt to get early crops.

Sweet peas are similarly in the mind, although we seem a long way from the fragrance and bright colours of summer. I did manage to start some ‘White Ensign’ in late October and have a number of healthy plants. I also have grown seedlings of two perennial sweet peas (lathyrus latifolius) from seed I collected in late autumn – pink and white. The dilemma will be what to do with so many seedlings.

Today, I started off a number of other varieties of sweet pea, including 'Mrs R Bolton', 'Beaujolais', 'Noel Sutton' and a mix called 'Elegant Ladies'. I germinate them indoors on blotting paper in various containers and contraptions, then transfer the germinated seed into tall juice/milk containers full of good compost. The tall containers allow the roots to go deep.

I am not one for new year resolutions, disliking the artifice of making them and perhaps lacking the will-power to see them through successfully. However, if I were to make a new year resolution, it would be to buy less at B&Q in 2010... It may be relatively cheap and nearby, but the quality of plants can leave something to be desired. I made the mistake of buying garlic there just after Christmas, and yesterday stumbled upon far bigger and better cloves and more interesting varieties at the Mid Ulster Garden Centre.

Like the sweet pea, garlic should really be planted in late autumn, to make sure they get a month of temperatures below 10 degrees centigrade, which they need to form cloves. I will play catch up by starting them off in pots in the greenhouse, then transplant. I have three varieties - a big supermarket garlic (Sainsbury’s), garlic Casablanca (small cloves) and garlic Thermidrome (big cloves). Which grows and tastes best will only be decided at the end of the year.

Outdoors, the cold snap continues and the garden remains icy and snow bound. But the first (tiny) snowdrop has still managed to poke its head out.

David Lewis

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Sweet Pea, Squirrels and Snowdrops

This is the first cold spell in January for some years but nature still goes ahead – a few early snowdrops and some fragile crocus are in bloom with lots coming up through the plantation.

During some of the sunny spells I hope to move some of the snowdrops to bare areas before they are too far ahead.

I did this last year successfully using a strong trowel. This enabled me to keep the roots covered with soil thus not damaging the roots. Perhaps I shall try some of the large clumps of naturalised crocus at the same time, as I have several places that are bare because of the loss of several trees during storms last year.

During my many years of living here I have seen most forms of native wild life. Last year I thought I saw a red squirrel but later in the year realised we have a colony of grey squirrels instead. Perhaps more than one as my neighbour saw seven at once in the ancient conifer at the bottom of the garden, and I have seen five near the gate at the garage.

I have watched them digging up ‘conkers’ and my grandson has found small potatoes buried in unusual places. Sometimes they appear to be grazing on the grass. They also eat some of the chopped apples I have put out for the birds but what their staple diet is I do not know! I hope the naturalised bulbs and cyclamen are not part of it...

Unfortunately my first sowing of sweet peas in the cold greenhouse were decimated by two mice (eventually caught!). I made a further sowing after Christmas in a deep pot in the porch, transplanting them into empty fruit juice cartons which should give them plenty of root room.

I still have quite a lot of tomatoes from my own seed, so I took a ripe one the other day and cut it open and with a pair of tweezers set the seeds on a pot of compost. I covered the pot with a piece of polythene and set it near the cooker. Three days later they have germinated and have been transferred to the porch windowsill to get plenty of light.

This is a gamble but the seeds have cost me nothing so if I only get a few to survive I may have early fruit. I will make another sowing next month.


Every garden should have snowdrops as they always seem to me to herald the end of winter which isn’t strictly true as they start to bloom with me soon after Christmas.

They are well worth the initial investment as they will grow anywhere in sun or shade, increase quite quickly, never fail to bloom, and flower over a long period. Clumps of them look as well in woodland conditions as they do in cultivation under planting shrubs or trees.

There are so many varieties to choose from these days. In the past most of them would have been European species such as Galanthus nivalis, Galanthus plicatus or cultivars of the same, but now there are varieties from many countries including hybrids.

In fact on reading a recently published book on snowdrops they mention at least 500 cultivars, so like many other plants they are of interest to collectors who will pay a great deal per bulb. They are best planted in the green when they have finished flowering as when the bulbs dry out and are sold in the Autumn they often fail to establish.

Personally, I find the quickest way to increase them is to sow the seed so when dividing them wait until the seed capsule has formed. When replanting them if possible plant in rich moisture retaining soil but they will grow anywhere.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Parthenocissus, Zauscheneria and the Orchard

Parthenocissus henryana has done particularly well this year. The vivid scarlet leaves were on this year's growth as it was cut down to the base. Perhaps that is why it has retained its leaves for longer. The plant is on an east-facing wall, which is sheltered from the prevailing winds.

Another plant with flowers of a similar hue is Zauschneria, which has been in bloom for months but now is almost over. I was told it was tender when I was given a cutting many years ago. But in a low brick wall facing the creeper it has travelled the whole length and now looks like a scarlet hedge. Easily rooted by cuttings it should be in everyone's garden. I believe there are at least two varieties. I think mine, with its dark green leaves, is likely to be Zauschneria californica 'Glasnevin', which can also be found in the Botanical Gardens in Dublin.

At the moment the orchard badly needs attention. I lost an old Victorian plum tree in one of the gales – the roots were completely rotten and the trunk hollow. How it produced delicious plums for the last few years I don’t know.

I tried a few cuttings because the tree was at least 70 years old so I don’t think it would have been a grafted plant. Unfortunately I put them into a large bucket of sandy soil outside the greenhouse. I found to my disgust the rabbits had clipped them off. One is showing some growth at ground level but I am not very optimistic.

I also had a large old apple tree, which I always thought was the variety 'Morgan Sweet'. It was a good crisp eater – bright green fruit which eventually took on a pale yellow tinge when cooked. It snapped off about four feet up the trunk to it would be a major operation to dig out the roots. It has now begun to grow a few green shoots so I will leave well alone and see what happens.

Early Days at Wheatfield

There has been a house at Wheatfield since the 17th century. Pictured is a drawing of the house before the Second World War by John Moody.

I came to Wheatfield on the death of my mother-in-law over 40 years ago, but I didn’t start to garden seriously until the mid 1970s. The two and a half acre garden, although it may look old, has only been in its current form for 35 years.

The house, farm buildings and garden cover four acres, which when I arrived was mainly under grass. It consisted of a plantation of trees with daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops, which had naturalised beneath them. I understand these were planted by my husband's grandmother.

On the substantial lawn facing the house was a large birch tree, behind which was a bed of mixed rhododendrons, a couple of copper Prunus triloba, a large horse chestnut tree, a number of mixed conifers, plus a windswept ornamental crab apple tree. A laurel hedge divided the lawn from the field.

To the east side of the house were two beds divided by a path with three rose arches – one bed contained roses, the other herbaceous plants. A small rock garden was backed by a well kept Lonicera hedge.

To the left was, and still is, a cold greenhouse with a large vegetable garden behind it with soft fruit bushes. Nearby were a couple of white lilac trees and a large specimen of Crinodendron lanceolata. The orchard contained plum and apple trees, including 'Laxton Superb', 'Newtown Pippin', 'Morgan Sweet', a russet and one unidentified variety.

Pictured below is a view from the house today.

Monday, 20 October 2008

October Tips

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to tidy up for the winter as there are still some autumn flowering plants to be enjoyed, such as gentians, Kaffir lilies, nerines, white and double pink Japanese anemones.

Try planting a row of broad beans, the variety 'Aquadulce', in a sheltered part of the vegetable garden. If the winter is not too severe you should be picking beans at the end of next May. If you have saved your own seed it will cost you nothing but your own efforts.

I am sowing sweet peas in deep pots – large yoghurt cartons or litre fruit juice cartons with holes made in the bottom are ideal. Keep in a cold greenhouse or garage until they germinate. You can also place them in the shelter of an evergreen shrub and cover with a piece of glass or thick plastic in case a mouse is ready for a meal. A slug pellet is also a good precaution. Again, the weather plays its part but these plants if they survive will give you flowers in May.

Nerine bulbs from the southern hemisphere will give you long-lasting clumps of shell pink flowers with strong stems. Don’t plant too deep as this appears to inhibit their flowering. A sunny spot in rich, well-drained soil is all they need. They can be grown in containers with success but be careful they don’t get waterlogged, and keep in a warm sheltered spot in the winter.

Bulbs planted in the ground will benefit from a mulch as the shallow planting can leave them vulnerable to frost.There are a number of varieties. Bowdenii is the most popular as some of the others are too tender.

Monday, 13 October 2008


These plants, sometimes known as autumn crocus, are an exotic looking flower. Although fragile they have stood up to the stormy weather this year.

I planted most of them around fruit trees in the orchard. At first I think I didn’t plant them deep enough as they tended to fall over.

The variety Colchicum speciosum alba increases a lot with me – I think there is a double variety but I haven’t been able to locate it yet.

The lavender coloured double variety ‘Waterlily’ is very attractive but hasn’t increased like speciosum.

There is a drawback with these plants. The leaves, which appear in spring, are large and floppy. I have read they should be cut back but I think mine have increased so well because I have allowed them to die naturally.