School is indeed out for summer and the holidays stretch for weeks ahead for families.
There are the obvious candidates for filling in time and keeping the children's attention - expensive days out to theme parks and sitting in traffic queues on the M5 trying to get to the South West coast being two of many - but the answer could well be closer to home, in your own back garden.
I feel that I’ve done my bit for gardening legacy by helping my own two boys check for pests in the veg patch, edge the lawn and clear that pesky grass growth between the bricks on the path. Oh, what fun we had. Didn’t we? I’ve lectured them on the virtues of correct watering and not simply spraying it around having all that jollity. I think they got my drift. ‘Today boys we will go through the benefits of cleaning out pots immediately after use so that they are ready when you next need them’. Top stuff. They seemed enthralled. ‘Clear away the leaves from underneath roses to prevent the spread of infection by spores of blackspot. I could see them close their eyes and contemplate. Zzzzzzzzz.
OK, what a load of old rubbish! No children want to know that stuff.
They want water slides, their own playhouses, a small wheelbarrow to move dirt about the garden and a swing or two. It’s simple. A tyre swing fixed to a strong tree and some good weather. Actually, you don’t even need the good weather. Rain softens the lawn for the inevitable fall. It’s getting back to basics.
Games don’t have to be complicated. Hide and seek may be a tad brief in a patio courtyard garden (Count to ten. Open your eyes. ‘Oh there you are. Your turn.’ Count to ten. Open your eyes. ‘There you are’- and repeat) but a simple garden darts game is a winner. No spikes, no loud shirts and boozy crowds just a hoop target and foam tipped darts. All you need to decide is where the oche is and whether a bag o’ nuts is better than Weavers Donkey (I didn’t have a clue either until I looked it up!). Simple, fun and easy to set up and pack away when that lawn softening thunderstorm looms.
But actual gardening can be part of the fun. Weeding is boring, lectures are so yesterday and getting debris out of the gaps between block paving tedious beyond words. Your own little set of gardening tools is exciting. A small spade, fork and trowel enables children to create their own garden space. It may turn into a muddy morass but hey, if it keeps the kids quiet!
However, a word of warning. A few years ago I was cutting some wood into usable pieces watched with admiration, by my then six year old. ‘Can I have a go?’ he asked. ‘Sure thing,’ I said, all lumberjack style in our suburban garden, ‘but be careful.’ He wasn’t, he nicked his knee with the axe (the words axe and six year old don’t really add up to a safe situation - I now realise). At school the next day he excitedly explained the plaster on his knee to his teacher. That was an interesting parent/teacher evening.
So, stay in the garden this summer, have fun, stay safe and the holidays will be one to remember.
Superstitious? I’m not. Not in the least. So, when a recently fledged blackbird flew into the lounge and started bashing itself against the window, trying to get out, I wasn't fazed.
After all, those Old Wives’ tales of birds in the house bringing bad news (actually, terrible news) came about when people in the olden days – the 1980s, according to my 12 year old son - made stuff up to try and explain natural occurrences.
My incident happened during the recent hot weather when the patio doors were open to get some air moving in the house. I popped my head into the lounge to see what a slight noise was all about and there it was - a vulture sized blackbird viciously attacking its own reflection. Unfortunately, the bird was on the inside.
I did what anyone would do in that situation, jumped backwards and slammed the door shut. I took a few breaths and peeked inside. It looked back at me. It pooped some purple gooey stuff on the windowsill then started to jump up and down in it. Door shut. More breaths. Another peak. More poop. From the bird. A turdus merula, no less.
Now, I like plants, I like gardening and I like wild birds. They are great in the garden and are currently doing a fine job of clearing up the local snail population judging from the empty snail shells around the paths in the veg garden. I love listening to them. I feed them. I’m good to them. I shoo away a local black cat on the hunt for them. So why poop on my sofa?
Anyway, I plucked up some courage and, armed with a tea towel, I entered the room. It, the bird, stopped and fixed me with a beady eye. It then did that creepy fluttering thing half way up the window, and then down into the ever-increasing sea of purple gloop.
My first attempt at gently calming the bird, covering it and carrying it out was unsuccessful. Tea towel turning purple. Second attempt, the bird escaped before I could get at it. Third attempt was successful and, with ever so gentle and caring hands, I eased the bird outside to join its family members who had, really, descended onto the patio to see where Purple Pooping Pete had gone (naming him has helped me get over the trauma).
Pete sat under the garden table and looked at me. I looked at him. Do birds wink? I think they do. And off he went chirping away to do whatever blackbirds do. It’s a wild guess about wild birds but I reckon they eat berries, and lots of them.
Other wildlife related incidences to prove plants are a better bet:
- As a student (in mediaeval times according to our 12 year old son) I woke to find slug trails on my pillow. I still don’t snore.
- Whilst living in Sri Lanka, I found a snake in the wardrobe. Apparently, it wasn’t too dangerous (define ‘too’). Google ‘dangerous snakes of Sri Lanka.’
Gardening is great – obviously, or you and I wouldn't be here now - but sometimes a day away is also nice. However, the garden is never far away even when trundling down the M1 towards the home of cricket (for what would eventually result in a rather historic game). A rather urgent comfort break included a much-needed coffee.
And that’s where I realised that I will never get away from the garden, even early on a Saturday morning on the motorway.
One of the big coffee shop chains situated at the service station was giving away their old coffee grounds for use in the garden. That’s giving away; free; 100% discount; gratis; on the house; take one take another free (TOTAF). So, I did. After all it was free and worth a second whirl.
It’s at this time of year everyone is fretting about slugs and snail. With a little research, I quickly found many gardeners use old coffee grounds to deter slugs and snails (TOTAF are officially the best in my eyes - not actually in my eyes as that would smart a bit, but you know what I mean). Some basic research found out more. No surprise there.
Coffee grounds can also be added to compost heaps to help the rotting process and provide material to act as a balance to everything else you bung in, chop up and stir about. That bit makes sense. Coffee beans are, after all, from a plant and therefore can be added to your grass clippings, cardboard and other vegetable peelings to make the best crumbly compost ever. But the label reckons ‘experts’ say to add up to 20% of grounds - that’s a heck of a lot.
There are other factors to think about when using this free gift from a multinational organisation.
Coffee grounds are slightly acidic. Ever so lower than pH 7 but acidic all the same. Now, if you put 20% by volume of the things in a compost heap, mix it all around, allow to rot and then use, I reckon the compost will be acidic. And earthworms, those essential creatures of the deep, don’t like it too acidic. Will I actually be poisoning the worms in trying to help my plants which in turn will suffer from the worms turning on their heels? (Don’t post a comment - I know they don’t have any). 20% is a lot. 19% is still lots. 10% is a big old bulk of the things. You get my drift.
But I am not decrying the use of them in compost heaps. Nor am I putting anyone or any company off giving freebies to gardeners. Just be careful with the advice. And that brings me back to slugs and snails. Coffee grounds won’t kill them. It may deter them if sprinkled around susceptible plants. And that’s ‘may’ as I know this will open a real can of worms. That’s if they haven't turned on their metaphorical heels and taken up residence in a tea drinking household next door.
I haven't found any yet but how about:
- Spent hops from any local brewery (great soil conditioner)
- Spare or unwanted wool from commercial knitters before any dyeing process (feels lovely and good for lining hanging baskets)
- Hair from hairdressers (said to deter foxes but I’m not sure. That’s not sure about a) asking and b) touching it!)
- Scratchy toe nail clippings from podiatrists will surely put off snails (see hair above!)
- Sewage farms for processed and sterilised and therefore safe…. product! OK, I’ve now gone too far but it makes hair, toenail clippings, wool and spent hops more pleasant to think about.
That bag of coffee grounds is now in the compost bin, mixed in. I’ll let you know how it goes. The cricket was magnificent (look it up). I researched some toe clippings info and they are packed with calcium. Now, off for a haircut.
You are Not Alone
Just when you think it is safe to walk around the garden, brew in hand to inspect and admire your efforts, you notice a gnarled shoot on your lupins. Suddenly your roses look sticky, holes are noticed in potato leaves and your lily buds are nibbled.
Nature at its nastiest. Your garden may need a helping hand.
I fully understand the do nothing approach to pest and disease control. Leave well alone and eventually things will even out, a balance will occur and everything will live in peace and harmony. You’ll have to learn to put up with a bit of background damage but that’s OK. Your freshly dug and filled pond will attract in frogs that in turn will eat the slugs. Your companion planting will keep some bugs away and limit others. Good gardening practice will help enormously - clean up and clear away for a better garden. All lovely. If you can wait for the balance.
Then there's the organic approach. ‘Nicer’ chemicals that are all labelled organic so OK to use everywhere in the garden. They make you feel good- only emotionally, mind, as nothing should be ingested from a bottle housed in the shed (except that homemade sherry) - and at the same time kill off the nasties. They can also kill off the good guys. Collateral damage. A tricky one.
Then there are the shock and awe chemicals. Developed and tested over years to kill off aphids, whitefly, slugs, snails, mildews, rusts, blackspot and so on. Everything can be exterminated using a tried and tested garden chemical. But is it right? It’s certainly an emotive subject.
To be perfectly honest, there isn’t a right answer. That lies in your gardening principles. My own principles are open to a mix of them all. I’ll clear away diseased leaves from beneath my roses to prevent re-infection by blackspot; I’ll prune out dead branches to prevent diseases from spreading; I’ll squash young colonies of aphids whenever I see them and I have been known to put surplus beer into small containers, partly burying them in the soil to attract and drown slugs. I grow carrots and onions next to each other to deter both carrot and onion flies (the smell of the onion masks the smell of the carrots and therefore makes both olfactorily ‘invisible’ to their respective bug!) I’ve also used organic pesticides based on horticultural soaps on nastier infestations. I have been known to use slug pellets to protect a lovely batch of what became an award-winning collection of dahlias. I admit to having a ready-to-use spray bottle of chemical aphid killer for when those oozy lupin aphids return.
The choice is yours. You know what you want to do in your garden. You know how far you want to go down the chemical garden pathway: not at all, a few steps or headlong to the next junction. My advice? Study your garden and nip infestations in the bud, whatever tools you use. It will make your gardening life so much easier.
‘Feed me. Feed me. Feed me!
Feed me, Seymour.
Feed me all night long.
"That's right, boy!"
You can do it...
Feed me, Seymour.
Feed me all night long...
'Cause if you feed me, Seymour,
I can grow up, big and strong.’
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman got it right in The Little Shop of Horrors. Plants need to be fed to grow big and strong.
OK, not with the gubbins used in that particular rock, horror musical comedy, but feed all the same. Now, often the soil will provide everything a plant needs. All that lovely nitrogen, potassium and potash plus the little bits and bobs a healthy soil and plant needs is there in adequate amounts. And in the correct balance. All at the right acidity to make everything work well. A complex symphony conducted by nature itself. A true masterpiece.
But we gardeners expect a lot from our plants.
We cram, slam and wham plants into containers or growing bags or old wheelbarrows or large catering olive oil containers or small baked bean cans and expect miracles. Even quality compost can only sustain healthy growth for a period of time. Extra feed is required to sustain all the thousands of root hairs greedily gobbling up all available nutrients. Not only is the competition for food enormous, but watering with tap water can play around with that all important acidity of the compost. Some changes in acidity can lock up certain nutrients making things difficult to get growing. Watering can also wash out the very food the plant needs. The result are weak hanging baskets, skinny containers and generally hungry ‘feed me’ type of situations.
Signs of feeling peckish are easy to spot. Yellow leaves are a good sign things are getting to a crisis point (unless it is a yellow leafed plant). I use my celery as an example - a greedy, thirsty plant and definitely not supposed to be yellow. I left the plants in their little pots too long and they got hungry. Out into the soil and they seemed to be sitting and sulking. A good drenching with seaweed extract and, honestly, within four days they were perky and green. They are now well on their way to producing crunchy sticks of goodness.
Your tomatoes will soon be getting ravenous. They are big plants and demand a lot from the soil or compost. In hot weather, they could be sucking up a gallon or two of water every day along with lots of nutrients. First signs are yellowing of the leaves. Usually the lower leaves. ‘Feed me.’ Not necessarily with the big meat and two veg type of nutrients ( N,P,K) but magnesium in the form of Epson Salts. Recovery will take a day or so.
Now, you're a sensible level headed type of gardener so you certainly don’t need me to lecture you from the high pulpit of horticultural patronisation as others do. Organic feeds are available for all your plants be it fruit, veg, trees or bedding. And the other side of the coin is that inorganic or chemical feeds are also available. The choice is yours. Both work. Both work well. Both work well and sometimes quickly. Just study your plants, understand what they are going through and feed appropriately.
‘I'll feed you like you never been fed before!’
A Scentsational Garden
Plants that pack a perfume punch and other gardening whiffs.
Early summer is a scentsational time in the garden. My roses are out in full bloom and they are perfumed to perfection. And this year they do seem bigger and bolder than usual. Perhaps the weather has been kind. Or maybe the plants are getting established with roots deep into the soil and are repaying me for all that pruning and what-not. But the smell of roses in the still air isn’t the only whiff of delight at the moment. I’ve got my sweet peas doing their stuff too.
Sown last autumn the plants are now around five feet tall and packed with bloom. You can also sow in spring for a later flowering period - just sow the things! They are easy if you can keep the slugs away from the tasty shoots and, once they are happy (mine are in containers of Melcourt compost with added John Innes for a bit of oomph and seemingly loving it), they will bloom and bloom. Just nip off the seed pods before they develop to encourage even more floral efforts. Roses, sweet peas and... compost.
I’ll be honest, I love the sweet smell of a compost bin in full flow. Particularly first thing in the morning with a top-class brew in my hand. Ideally it will be on the nippy side of cool (that’s the air temperature and not the tea). That way you may even get a glimpse of steam emanating from the bin when you lift the lid to plunge in your garden fork to mix it all around a bit. When you get the whiff, you know that balance of all things green and brown are in perfect harmony. Shredded cardboard mingling with grass cuttings with chopped up flowers with shredded woody stems with fungi and bacteria chomping their way through the whole. Marvellous. Then I have my gloves.
If you’ve been reading the diary you’ll know that I managed to get a splinter the size of a matchstick stuck deep into the previously small gap between my thumb nail and thumb. It taught me two things. The first is that the NHS is fantastic and, second, I should wear gloves when gardening. So now I do. All the time. But after a 12 hour stint in the garden there is a certain odour to my hands. But it’s strangely gratifying. It’s a stink of hard work and graft. It actually smells like vinegar. Strange - perhaps you have the same or I might need to see a specialist. Whatever, I like it. But even with roses, sweet peas, compost and my vinegar hands, there is still one smell I adore in the garden. The soil.
Not just the soil but dry soil after a heavy shower of rain. If you could bottle that perfume it would sell by the million. OK, thousands. Maybe hundreds or even tens. Perhaps five bottles. To be honest, I’ve never known anyone else say they like the earthiness of soil whiffage so it would only be one bottle. To me. To add to the Sarsons I sprinkle of my hands when shoving my schnoz into a bloom of roses and sweet peas after a stirring time at the compost heap.
You have to understand I don’t get out a lot. Not a surprise really when I stink like this.
Parenting and gardening are similar.
Your young charges can flourish and sometimes they flop. But we care and love them the same whatever happens. Occasionally, often out of the blue, they make you proud. Really. They do.
I was doing my dad type duties and helping with our youngest's homework. Year 7 shouldn't be too taxing but I'll tell you what, those guys in school are working hard. I like the 'make a model of the Amazon' type stuff – real coffee beans glued into place got extra credits - and Tudor history is quite interesting. My joke of finding ' x ' in his maths homework – 'there it is' and pointing at it – is wearing as thin as my hair.
So when it came to biology, and in particular plant biology, I relaxed, settled down and waited to dispense my years of knowledge in his direction. I have to admit to having studied the science of plants for a bit so I should know the basics.
'Dad? Can you help with my homework?'
'Why of course,' I replied, smugness washing over me like a warm wave in the Indian Ocean. 'Hit me with it.'
'We had a test and I have to re-do the questions I didn't do well on.'
'Sounds good,' snuggling myself into the sofa cushions, years of horticultural experience welling up inside.
'I need to know what happens when fertilisation occurs in a flower.'
After 10 minutes of what can only be described as a mighty fine explanation of pollen tubes, ovules and plant hormones, he seemed satisfied.
'Thanks. That's it.'
'Oh. OK. Have you got the test paper for me to read through?' ever the keen parent to support home study wherever possible unless it involves finding 'the value of y when e = 4, L = the length of the longest side of the triangle and Jim has two ice creams worth £1.20 but Dotty has a sausage roll and only a fiver so who owns the blue car?' type of maths question. The paper - completed and marked- was handed over as he went to translate 'the cat sat on the mat' into Spanish (El gato se sentó en la alfombra. I think you'll find that 'Dos cervezas por favor' is in order for that answer).
I read through it. Then one question leapt out and a tear came to my eye.
'What else, other than water and sunlight, does a plant need to grow?'
I read his answer. An answer that his teacher apparently had to check up on. My young gardening assistant had put mychorrizal fungi. Beautiful. I go on and on about the stuff and at least I now know he is listening. He might be the only one but one is more than none. He even explained it simply: 'You get bigger roots and you put it on like dust'. Superb. Can't argue with that. A* pupil.
However, I had to pick him up on his spelling. 'Mikeorizer' is not how you spell it, young man. But hey, top marks. That made me proud. Really proud. It's got to be better than finding x. Whatever x is and wherever it lives.
Research Shows...Rosemary is the Answer!
Doesn't your heart sink when you read or hear the words 'recent research shows that...'?
Usually it’s followed by an earth-shattering scientific finding that turns your world upside down (or not). We've recently had it with bacon, roast potatoes, sugary drinks (earth and enamel shattering in this case) and diesel cars. Then there’s the eternal question: red wine - good or bad? Well, the latest research especially caught my attention as it concerns a lovely plant – rosemary.
Research shows that rosemary can help students revising for exams to remember things.
And apparently, health food shops are stocking up on the stuff. But the research shows it is the whiff of the rosemary that makes the difference. You don't need pills or potions - you just need plants. Now, I know that the average GCSE student isn't going to break off studying quadratic equations to bung a few plants in well-drained soil situated in a sunny position. But whoever is enduring the tempers, flare ups, sulks and tears associated with summer exams can. Planting cannot be easier. Get your hands on a big plant and, well, plant it! Dig a hole, gently knock the plant from the pot firm it in, backfill with the soil and water well. Job done.
Or is it? The plant will grow, of course it will, and flower. But whilst your new plant is doing all of this your student is beavering away, scratching heads when confronted with Thomas Hardy and his Mayor of Casterbridge, Krebs Cycle or a tricky translation from Latin to Greek. You need to get the student to the rosemary or the rosemary to the student. Never fear as I have the answer. I know from experience that all students use their phones to research their college topics (and to take photographs of themselves with rabbit’s ears or a dog’s nose) So, harvest a stem of your rosemary - it won't mind the pruning and will quite happily re-grow - and cut into tiny pieces. Then, and this is the part I haven't really thought through, get the phone away from the student. Assuming you have done this, you then need to press the tiny pieces into the gap between the actual phone and the phone cover. Then, move away slowly. You don’t want to attract attention. The student will soon reach for their phone, tap away releasing the evocative aroma of rosemary. Bingo!
This will have one of two effects. It will make them remember lots of things and they will be an A* student. Everyone happy. Or the smell of fresh rosemary will prick a distant memory (there – the research is true!) and said student will hark back to the days of eating with the rest of the family and then charge down the stairs demanding roasted leg of lamb (vegetarian options are available). Once ensconced in their dining chair, they are ready for you to dispense your words of wisdom surrounding the works of Shakespeare, the biology of New Zealand flatworms or the erosion and deposition of limestone by rivers to a captive audience.
And to think, this unquenchable thirst for knowledge and happy family time all starts with a rosemary plant. Thank goodness for researchers.
It is giveaway time again on Great Little Garden. Enter our incredible Facebook GIVEAWAY and be in with the chance of winning a brilliant summer prize!
We are hosting the giveaway over on our Great Little Garden Facebook Page
At Great Little Garden, we love to celebrate gardening and to help you make the most of your garden, balcony or patio. What better way to celebrate than by having a BBQ with friends and family? Why not add homemade Pizzas into the mix?
That’s why we’re giving you the opportunity to win one of our fantastic La Hacienda Firebox’s worth £79.99. Transform your BBQ into your very own incredibly versatile outdoor pizza oven! Once heated (in as little as 10 minutes) the Firebox cooks delicious rustica style pizza in just 3-4 minutes, tasting just as good as those served at an authentic Italian pizzeria. Not only can you cook restaurant quality pizza at home, you can also bake fish, meat, vegetables, bread and much more.
All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning this great prize is VISIT our Facebook Page, LIKE our Facebook page, LIKE one of our competition posts and then SHARE the post on your own wall for your friends to see. Easy!
Deadline for the entry is the Sunday 2nd of July 2017 and the winner will be announced the following day.
Terms and Conditions:
- This competition is for UK residents only.
- You must be over 21 years old to enter this competition.
- Deadline for prize draw entry: midnight of Sunday 2nd July 2017
- There is no voucher or cash alternative.
In order to be entered for the prize you must follow the steps below:
- Visit our Great Little Garden Facebook page and press the ‘Like’ button, find any of the competition posts to ‘Like’ and then share the post on your own Facebook wall.
- Users can only enter this competition once.
- There is no cost to enter this competition and it is not endorsed by Facebook.
- One winner will be chosen from a random draw of entries received in accordance with these Terms and Conditions. The draw will be performed by a random computer process.
- A winner will be announced on Monday 3rd July 2017 via personal message and a post on Facebook.
- The winner has 48 hours to reply. If the winner does not respond within 48 hours, the prize will be transferred to another winner.
A Day Out at the Chelsea Flower Show 2017
What a privilege it is to go to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show on press day: no crowds, the chance to get up close to the gardens and plants, plus a bit of celebrity spotting. And the sun shone. Well, someone’s got to do it.
It is well documented that the actual number of gardens is lower this year than in the past, but the eye for detail and amount of care taken in the design and production of the gardens that are there is immense. There's always something for everyone at Chelsea but for me designer Chris Beardshaw’s ‘Morgan Stanley Garden' is superb. Breathtaking plants, immaculate design and the whole lot is donated to a charity once the razzmatazz is over. And plenty of lupins – always nice.
One of the artisan gardens was a treasure of design and planting. 'The Poetry Lover's Garden' designed by Fiona Cadwallader was everything I love about a garden. Somewhere to sit (obviously!), superb plants, clever combinations all under the dappled sun. Simply gorgeous. And it was all done without a major sponsor – something that I imagine is getting more difficult year after year.
But while all the attention seems to surround the show gardens, I love a bit of a rummage in the Great Pavilion. Under the massive structure are the world’s best nursery folk. All specialists in what they grow and all willing to share their top growing secrets. It's a great place to learn and to fall in love with new plants. The Chelsea Plant of the Year competition is held in there and this year a dwarf mulberry won. However, for me the runner up - Salvia Crystal Blue - was the best. A stunning shade of light, sky-blue blue flowers perfect in pots or mixed borders. Email me and I'll see if I can get a few sorted.
Then of course there are the celebrities. You may have heard Chris Evans doing his radio programme from the show. I saw it! I was as close to Mary Berry as Paul Hollywood ever got. I deliberately didn't stare as Joanna Lumley strolled by with Nigel Havers and an actress I was supposed to know – sorry, there was a stunning delphinium in full bloom that caught my eye. Ainsley Harriot looked smiley as was Carol Kirkwood, weather presenter (you know, the one who did Strictly). There were more, lots more, but the plants far outshone anyone there. Sadly, I was booted out before the Queen and her pals arrived. Maybe I can stay longer next year.
Phil's Chelsea Flower Show 2017 Fact File
· Chris Beardshaw’s garden 'only' got a silver-gilt medal – what do those judges know?!
· The beautiful artisan poetry garden received a silver – ditto!!
· The mulberry is sold out but I'm doing my best to get my hands on that salvia.
· Never wear new shoes to an event where you have to walk for miles.
· London Plane trees make me cough. A lot.
· One lukewarm coffee and a piece of dry flapjack costs £6.
· Is it really that interesting to photographers to record Jennifer Saunders buying a packet of carrot seed? Apparently so. The word 'scrum' sprang to mind.
· Lupins are in.
· Purple coloured blooms are everywhere.
· Chelsea is and always will be a special place for all things gardening.