17 Oct 2017

Reasons to be GLEE-ful

Last month I went to the fabulous GLEE exhibition in Birmingham's NEC centre and saw so many beautiful, useful and desirable products that made the (very) early start to the day worthwhile. The exhibition is an annual trade show held over three days so that new and existing garden related products can be showcased to buyers for the retail market. Journalists and, more recently, bloggers are also welcome but it's not open to the public. Looking at the map on the GLEE website, I guessed there would be a lot to see but the reality exceeded all expectations! I did my homework the day before and noted the exhibitors I wanted to talk to but even with a game plan, map, and very quick scurrying around, I suspect that I missed seeing a lot of what was on show as there was so much to be pleasantly diverted by.

The show was staged over four large interconnecting halls with products ranging from landscaping, pots, plants, compost, soil improvers, equipment, tools, clothing, firepits, sculptures, spa pools, and just about anything else you can think of! Not all of it was garden related, pets and some homewares were also on show.  I do love anything natural so was quickly distracted by the Oxford Brush Company's very practical pot, nail, and veg brushes - products that I'd love to see in my local garden centre.  Their ostrich feather duster could possibly convert me to actually liking housework, but would definitely come in handy for sweeping away cobwebs!

I wandered on past artificial grass, paving of every hue and stone, and so many wonderful garden pots that had my head rotating from side to side. Thank goodness for the coffee and chance to rest my feet in the press office! I was already familiar with many of the brands - Stihl, Burgon+Ball, Fiskars, Muck Boots, Elho, Briers - all displaying some highly desirable new products for 2018. The most stylish indoor pots, to my mind, came from Elho and Burgon+Ball. Both of their stands were awash with the most covetable products.

'Ello, Elho

I'm already a big fan of Burgon+Ball products but hadn't realised that the company is the UK's oldest manufacturer of garden tools and products, having started in Sheffield's steel industry in 1730 and using that experience to make the world's finest sheep shears. While I don't see myself needing a pair of those anytime soon, their latest range of products is completely droolworthy, being stylish, practical, beautiful and thoughtful - I can personally vouch for the deep comfort of the memory foam Kneelo mat (every gardener needs one of those!) and the FloraBrite range of gloves and tools. They're fluorescent so are easily seen both in daylight or torchlight. I lost my favourite pair of leather gloves last winter having put them down in the garden at dusk so I know whereof I speak! What really caught my attention at GLEE though, was the new range of hanging planters and pots - how beautiful are these? Having indoor plants has become very trendy and is a favourite with lifestyle magazines at the moment; I'm not convinced that my drooping jade plant is even vaguely trendy but at least he's still alive and one of these planters might perk him up a bit! I love the muted colours and handmade finish.  These, I want. (Dare I mention Christmas?) 

©Burgon & Ball - lifestyle hanging planters

During the day there was an ever present temptation to stop and chat to people to get the story behind a product; access to information is one of the key aspects of the show and means that a visitor can pick up on trends and new products quickly. I spotted lots of focus towards the environment and biodiversity with biochar, peat free composts, butterfly feeders and meadow seeds. Tool companies have embraced the fact that gardeners get sore backs and cramped hands and have developed tools to help - thank you, thank you! Fiskars' lightweight pruners and long handled loppers are 3 times sharper thus reducing hand strain and there are new digging spades for hard soil from both Fiskars and Burgon+Ball. Anything that helps with lower back pain has to be welcome!  Burgon+Ball are selling a long handled hoe aka Weed Slice that also helps with posture and looks to be very effective against weeds, the tiny head giving access to tight spaces between rows. Not only less bending and crawling around but better for the soil as beds don't have to be walked on.

It was also lovely to catch up with the team behind Dalefoot Composts, an utterly brilliant peat free compost that I can heartily endorse as it's been improving my clay soil and boosting my veg for the past few years. The texture of their composts makes it a pleasure to use, being a mix of Lake District bracken and sheep's wool, but I also admire the company for their dedication to reconstructing peat bogs. Read more about their story and compost here.

The show was a real eye-opener to the vast array of outdoor products available - everything the public could possibly wish for seemed to be there. Despite our unpredictable summers, outdoor retail is big business. (Currently worth £5 billion, so I read on Veg Plotting's follow up post - link below.)

I was there to investigate gardening paraphernalia but stumbled (thankfully, not literally) across other, shall we say, more eclectic products. I spotted giraffes, zebras, gnomes, grass crocodiles, dragons, ceramic fairies, and even a unicorn. It seems the buying public loves a bit of whimsy - even me.  Having owned a plastic inflatable whale to take to the pool during my childhood in Florida, I would have loved this in my toy box! Ah, happy days.

I saw so many wonderful products that I'm inspired to write a series of posts,  Wishlist Wednesday, starting next week.  I'll be writing about pots, pegboards, gloves, kneeling mats, the new Pantone range from Briers, Thomson+Morgan 'Easy Sow' seeds, tools, plants, planters, trugs, wellies and warm waterproof boots for the chilly months ahead.

~ A tiny selection of what there was to explore at the show ~

There was a lot to take in during the one day I'd allocated to the show.  Would I go again? Yes, definitely. It's a massive opportunity to explore, discover,  network, meet and build contacts. This year quite a few garden bloggers had been invited as 'ambassadors' which made the whole thing rather jolly, catching up over coffee, pastries or meeting up at one of GLEE's Retail Lab workshops. I rather miscalculated the time needed to fully explore everything so next year I plan to attend the show for two days and really make the most of it.

Tickets to the show are free on application and, new for 2018, the core categories of GLEE will be at Spring Fair at the NEC in February. Registration is open now.  Read more here.

My thanks to Hornby Lightfoot PR for my ticket, coffee, goody bag and warm welcome.

Have a look at reports from other bloggers:

Karen Gimson - What's new for gardeners that I've spotted at GLEE
Michelle Chapman, Veg Plotting - Gleeful
Lou Nicholls, Adventures in Horticulture - Six of the Best from Glee17
Alexandra Campbell, Middle Sized Garden - 2018 garden trends
Alison Levey, The Blackberry Garden - More amazing things under one roof
Thomas Stone - Full of Glee 2017

9 Oct 2017

Easy grass and hedge tidying with Stihl

Ooh, I love a tidy edge.

While I enjoy a good 'green gym' workout in the garden, there are all too frequent times when the more energetic tasks on the To Do List are a stretch too far at the wrong end of a tiring day.  Thus the shears are put away in favour of a cup of tea and a sit down while the hedge surrounding the middle garden is allowed to slowly thicken once again and the allotment grass is left "for another day".

So it was with great anticipation (not to mention joy, relief and some trepidation) that I gladly accepted Stihl's opportunity to review a few products in their compact cordless range.  First to arrive was the grass strimmer.  Now, normally, I'd have no use for this as the lawns in the flats are regularly mown by maintenance gardeners but I'd just agreed to help out on the allotment.  One glance at the rusty push mower in the plot shed confirmed that a grass strimmer would be a huge help.  A couple of plotters have petrol strimmers which are extremely noisy and intrusive so I waited until the plots were mostly empty before I pressed the two buttons to activate mine. My fears of intrusive noise were groundless. Powered by a push-in rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, any noise is considerably reduced compared to petrol strimmers, plus there's no fumes. The strimmer is supplied with a charging station which takes around 20 to 40 minutes to fully recharge the batteries at home.

The second time I went to strim the grass, I was more confidant of both what I was doing and when. Gardeners stopped to chat which is when I realised the value of the double click battery. The battery can be quickly part released with the push of a button which cuts power to the machine - an invaluable safety measure for absent-minded novices like me. It's also very reassuring to know that once the battery is partly or fully removed, the machine can't be accidentally brought to life by anyone lifting it and activating buttons - very important when working in a team or with family around.

There's a clever mechanism on the machine for spooling out more line when needed - you simply knock the base of the strimmer head on the ground as you work; more line is shot out of the canister and the ends trimmed on a blade in the head. Things didn't go well on my first attempt as I frequently bumped the strimmer on the lumpy grass leaving snippets of blue plastic line behind. Would birds be tempted to eat these? For safety and tidiness, I gathered them all up, a time consuming task, and quickly learnt to handle the machine better.  The grass had been well trampled over the course of a team allotment afternoon and, because it was very long, it was damp at the roots.  The strimmer dealt with this easily and although it looked a little rough afterwards, this was easily remedied with a second strim a couple of days later. (As in the top photo!)

I quickly got the hang of using the strimmer which meant that I can now do all the allotment grass without using up the battery. Strimming every couple of weeks on my quarter plot, I found the battery lasted well, usually recharging it every few weeks. (The AK10 supplied with the strimmer is intended to last for at least 20 minutes of continuous use.) After use, I make time to wipe over the strimmer head before putting it away - again, with the battery removed to be sure of retaining all my fingers!

Having seen other plot holders fiddling about replacing the strimmer line on their petrol machines, I found replacing the spool on the Stihl cordless strimmer a doddle. The head unclips, the old spool taken out,  and the new canister dropped in with the line threaded through the side holes and the head replaced. Easy peasy, although I admit I resorted to watching a You Tube video the first time just to make sure.

What about the life of the line spool?  After my first attempt, I got the hang of handling the machine without knocking the spool head so only spooled line out when I needed to. More line is used up in very long grass or when strimming against raised beds or path edgings.  Dock leaves don't do it any favours either.  I'm guessing that more line would be used on an allotment than in a garden where only the lawn edges need strimming. It's only recently that I've replaced the canister - so I reckon it's done well, given that I've done both my plot, the neighbour's and the paths inbetween several times.

I collected my strimmer from Briant's of Risborough in Oxfordshire. They gave me a demonstration on how the strimmer works and supplied safety glasses to protect my eyes when working - a very good idea as I found out when not wearing them one day! I'd been given a pair of medium sized leather Stihl work gloves and Briant's were kind enough to swop themfor a better fitting small size. I have to give them a big thumbs up as their customer care is exemplary. I'd expect nothing less from a Stihl dealer!

Another of Stihl's compact cordless range that I've found incredibly useful is the hedge trimmer. It's lightweight (like the rest of the range), works with the same battery (interchangeable between the items in the range) and temptingly easy to use. The privet hedge that borders the south side of the middle garden has grown like mad this year but that's been no problem as I can have the job done in 5 minutes with the hedge trimmer - the job barely reduces the battery levels. Instead of having to find shears and secateurs and snip away for a good half hour, I now think, "Oh, hedge is getting a bit untidy, I'll just quickly do that". I keep one of the batteries in the car and the trimmer in the shed so the whole job is seamless. Think, Do, Done.  These are sharp, efficient tools so, like the others in the range, safety features abound. On this model, as well as the removable battery and two button start, there's a lock switch. It's all very reassuring and foolproof.  And because I want to be using my hedge trimmer for many years to come, I've bought a can of Stihl's special oil spray to wipe down the blades and keep them in top condition before putting the protective cover back on the machine.

As you can probably tell, I'm overjoyed at having these products in my garden tidying armoury! The Compact Cordless range also includes a chainsaw (which I've yet to use) and a leaf blower which would be particularly handy at this time of year.  I must admit that this is the first time I've used any of this kind of garden machinery but it seems that there's plenty to recommend, not least Stihl's excellent reputation that has made the company a trusted industry standard.  Their machinery has always been available to all (there are over 700 authorised dealers in the UK) but a domestic gardener would previously have had to weigh up the cost of buying professional tools; this compact cordless range is very affordable and makes Stihl's high quality accessible to all ... plus they're a joy to use.

My strimmer is part of the original compact cordless range and retails for £199; this summer Stihl extended the range and the latest strimmer, the FSA 45, retails at £99 inc VAT. To my mind, that's Stihl at bargain prices.

Disclosure: Stihl provided me with three items from the Compact Cordless range for review - FSA 56 grass trimmer, HSA 56 hedge trimmer and the MSA 120 chainsaw.  My thanks to Rosie at HROC pr for organising this - and waiting patiently for my review! x

1 Oct 2017

Strulch: Another weapon against slugs?

Lovely healthy courgette plant growing soil mulched with Strulch

Since last May I've been trialling a product called Strulch. (Just to satisfy my own curiosity, nothing sponsored.) Have you heard of it? Maybe, maybe not. I hadn't until another allotment holder recommended it as a summer mulch. I wrote the name down and then looked it up when I got home.

I was curious to find out more as the last time I actually bothered to mulch around my strawberries, I used bedding straw from the local pet shop. It came out of the bag in big untidy clumps and fragments blew around the garden. I daresay there are a few readers familiar with that particular scenario.  I think the bedding straw may also have provided a nice warm hidey hole for slugs, although it's possible that I'm unfairly blaming the straw. So I gradually went off strawberries - I mean, who loves a gritty muddy strawberry? Especially one that's already been nibbled and slimed. No thanks. It was a battle I couldn't win.

So of course I was interested in this alternative mulch. Strulch, as the name suggests, is a str(aw m)ulch. (So obvious, really.) But not just your ordinary straw, as I found out. It's processed to become finely chopped with a less coarse texture and, allegedly, discourages slugs and snails. Oh yes, that certainly got my attention!  Obviously its main function is as a weed suppressant which it's claimed will last for up to two years with a 3cm layer. Also, by leaving it to rot down and/or digging into the soil at the end of the year, it will improve soil structure and drainage. So far so fabulous.

Claims that the product can be used in organic gardens was also a persuasive selling point. (It's used at the Eden Project in Cornwall which, although it shouldn't make a difference, gives some weight to its merits.) The straw undergoes a mineralisation process so when it breaks down it adds small amounts of NPK to the soil plus traces of calcium, magnesium and iron. Apparently, it's these minerals which are supposed to deter our mollusc friends. As a bonus, the materials used are locally sourced and renewable - so the product is environmentally friendly too. Excellent, and worth a punt I thought, so the trial began.

I managed to track down a retailer not too far from me and bought a couple of bags.  The bags are quite large but surprisingly light - each contains 100 litres which is enough to cover 3 square metres. A thick(ish) layer was laid across a couple of the raised beds, around the strawberries, and my newly planted edamame beans and courgettes. Then I watched and waited.

So to the big question (and thank you for patiently reading this far) .... DOES IT WORK?
Yes.  And, umm, no.  My beds were definitely weed free. My strawberries whole and clean. But my courgette seedlings disappeared down to a stump in one night. (Of course, that could have been pigeons.) The soya beans (edamame) resisted for a little longer; perhaps the fibrous stems were too much for the night-time raiders to finish off in just the one sitting. Over a longer period, of the original ten plants only one made it to the finish line and even that didn't produce much of a crop. Very disappointing - gyo soya beans were my exciting new crop for this year. (At least there's still Tiger Nuts but that's for another post.) But am I being too harsh? After all, the strawberries were mostly okay and the wet weather has made life rather easy for our slippery friends as evidenced by the slime trails across my kale. With that said, a second crop of courgettes and squashes have been untouched and flourished, even with recent rain.

Will I continue to use it?  Yes, I will. I like that it's potentially doing lovely things to my soil. Also, trialling over a second year will give a clearer idea of its capabilities. But effective as a slug deterrent? The jury is still out. (I'll have to net my crops against birds to make absolutely sure.) However, every little helps and I accepted long ago that slugs and snails are just as much a part of organic gardening as butterflies and bees. 😇

I'd be very interested to know if anyone else has used this product and what they thought of it. Please share in the comments if you have!

PS.  I had to recently clear a bed that had been Strulched (apologies, I know it's not a verb) as foxglove seeds had managed to germinate through the mulch layer.  There were no weeds and the soil underneath was gorgeous - dark, crumbly and a joy to behold.  Definitely, another year's trial is on the cards.

There are no disclosures necessary for this review. I'm sharing my first time experience of using Strulch in case this info is useful to other gardeners. I do get asked to review quite a lot of garden related stuff but this time I bought my own. 

10 Sep 2017

And then it was September

Is that it? Is summer over?  You'd better believe it.  Leaves are falling from the fruit trees, children are back at school (hello again peaceful days!), seed catalogues are thumping onto the doormat and apples are blushing up nicely.  Unlike previous years, I'm feeling strangely calm about it all. Que sera sera, and all that.

The weather's been a bit tricky these past few weeks - hot one day, wet and mild the next. Luckily I'm no longer obliged to be outside putting my waterproofs through their paces; instead, as summer slips away, it's been the perfect chance to pop the kettle on and take stock.

It hasn't been the most productive of years for me for reasons explained in previous posts so I'm grateful for anything that survived my lack of attention. Except the weeds, of course. I still have one or two courgettes still pumping out little fruits, sweet peas are still flowering and the achocha plant that appeared earlier this year of its own volition has just started to grow its softly spined peppers. In previous years I've been inundated with achocha fruits by August so even this is taking its sweet time this year.

Late summer fruit, flowers, and veg collage

Soft fruit has been amazing this year, without exception - fat raspberries, sweet gooseberries, strings of redcurrants, punnets of blackcurrants from the plot and masses of Morello cherries.  Most of these have been munched by the kids living here but that's as it should be. Nothing like giving them a taste of freshly picked to pique their interest for next year.  She said optimistically ;)

Up at the allotment I've been pulling beetroot when needed, carrots are plumping up and the physalis plants have recently sprouted the flowers that will turn into cape gooseberries.  The big question is whether there'll be enough of a decent autumn for the fruit to ripen. The same goes for quite a lot of the other crops I've grown.  There are plenty of tomatoes but they're mostly green; sweet corn cobs are only just beginning to fatten, pumpkins and squashes are still small tiny.  Hopes of a small summer revival are minimal so these veg will either ripen ... or they won't. C'est la vie.

Physalis, corn cob, small squash and green tomatoes at the allotment

So what next? Well, ever the optimist, I've spread all my seeds out on the floor (still in packets, I hasten to add!) and dug out chard, spinach, wild rocket, winter hardy lettuce and komatsuna (a lovely deep green Japanese mustard spinach, great for stir fries and dead easy to grow). All of these rather enjoy the cooler temperatures of autumn so I should get a few leaves before the year end - or longer with protection. I'll also be sowing sweet peas and a few annual flowers for next year to get a head start and maybe even overwintering some broad beans.  That'll be a first for me, I usually sow in spring. My favourites - Red Epicure and Karmazyn - are both spring sown beans so I'm trying Stereo, a bean recommended as tender, excellent, and thin skinned, from Sarah Raven.

Despite the lack of a decent harvest, I was right to take a step back in August. I allowed myself time to breathe, to visit gardens, to sleep and to think. Now I'm ready to let go of this year and look forward to the next. We're not up to the autumn equinox yet but, like the kids going back to school, I'm ready for the new year - and, more importantly, looking forward to it.

13 Aug 2017


Readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven't been around for a couple of months. I've written this post by way of explanation and will then return to writing regular garden related content. 

I hadn't realised that becoming an orphan later in life could be so exhausting. Emotionally, creatively, productively.  It's something that I'm learning to come to terms with.

I wrote here of my mother's death three months ago.  After my Dad's death, fifteen months beforehand, I didn't grieve but got on with clearing and selling my parents' home on the coast (100 miles from where I live) and keeping an eye on Mum living in a care home. I watched as my mother struggled to recognise me, to talk and to eat, as a cloud of incomprehension and memory loss settled over her brain. She faded before our eyes, slipping into another world where we couldn't reach her. After her death, my brother and I liaised with solicitors, registrars, the taxman, funeral directors, printers, grave diggers, stonemasons, banks, florists, wake venues and the Naval padre (vicar), an old friend of the family who came out of retirement to conduct both funerals. The practicalities kept us busy but further loss awaited. I lost my country weekends when my Oxfordshire-based niece and her beloved family recently relocated to live in Boston USA for the foreseeable future. There has also been a family rift with one of my sisters who, until a year ago, was pretty much my oldest and best friend. Apparently it happens, when you lose your parents.

During all this time I carried on working full time, as would most people. When asked, I said it was fine, I was okay, my parents had both lived to a good age and they'd enjoyed a really good life. But was I okay? Seemingly, yes, but the bedrock of my life had shifted. There had been too much change. I was warned by a blogger friend that I was likely to hit an emotional wall and I did, but not in a visible way.  I lost the motivation to write, to garden, to exercise beyond a slow walk to the shops. I would sleep for seven hours and wake up still tired.  But still I ploughed on with life as habit dictated, except that I preferred my own company and that of the television.

In daily life I became easily irritated, insensitive to others, occasionally volubly indignant and impatient. There has been overeating and too much comfort food.  It took a while but I finally realised that I was angry, sad, vulnerable, exhausted. Angry that fate had given my parents an undignified death, sad that I was unable to do more for them, vulnerable because the emotional support they gave was gone and exhausted from suppressing all these feelings.  Those feelings were equally applicable to the rift in the family. The time had come for more, but better, change.

So last week, I retired. Which is to say that I've given up working with small children. For the past seven years I've worked as a childminder in order to be at home, to blog, to be my own housekeeper, to garden and to support my son. (Not necessarily in that order!) It was fun, creative, enlightening and exhausting. I was graded Outstanding by Ofsted so I'm bowing out at the top.  But, never say never; I might go back to it but, for now, I'm taking some time to consider what else I'd like to do. My background is creative: artist, photographer, graphic designer, illustrator. To that I'm now adding writing, workshops, training.  My body is learning to sleep beyond 6.30 am - such a novelty! - and I'm eating sensibly again. (Sometimes. What would teatime be without cake?)

My passion for gardening is on the rise once more although that's been a snakepit of problems this year. Children who live in the flats here have, for many months, been denied access to our fenced playground (a repair issue, apparently) so have taken to playing football around the veg patch. I now walk past to see what, if anything, is still standing.  Plants have been smashed or crushed, fences toppled, pots broken, gates left open for urban wildlife to creep in and fruit stolen - not a scenario which is conducive to spending more time on growing things.

Things are not going well at the shared allotment either. At every visit I spend hours weeding because I happen to think a well-kept plot is important. The other two women who are supposed to be helping don't believe in weeding - ever.  I've asked, the plot holder has asked, but to no avail. Their stand-off was tolerated as one of them said that what they grew was for everyone. Then I picked one of their cucumbers and the other one sent a terse text saying they don't want to share and I wasn't to pick 'their' produce.  I took a deep breath, said nothing and stopped going for a few weeks. It was a development that added to my downward spiral. Last week, during my newly freed up days, I went back as I remembered that I have pumpkins, squashes, carrots, leeks, beetroot, sweet corn, tomatoes, flowers and cape gooseberries (groundcherries) growing there. I restricted myself to weeding around my crops only - a bit mean-spirited perhaps but a step on the path to self-realisation and improvement.

It's still early days, I still miss my parents and feel sad, but I feel some of the weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Giving up the daily grind will do that for you. I'm quietly optimistic about exploring new possibilities and will be writing here more regularly. My apologies to readers who have looked for posts and not found any; and my thanks to those readers that have stuck with me. I've  missed being part of this community.  I have a lot of catching up to do but I'm back - and I hope my readers will be too.

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