18 Mar 2018

Six hero herbs for an all year kitchen herb garden

For two days this week the weather here was gloriously uplifting - warm air and spring sunshine - and about time too, you might think! But with settling snow falling over London again today, I'm appreciating six herbs that seem to simply shrug off the worst of the winter weather. These six evergreen herbs can be grown on a windowsill, balcony, or garden and provide freshly picked flavours for my kitchen all year round.

I confess I've never had much luck growing herbs indoors; there's simply not enough good light in my flat - it switches from shade to full sun or vice versa depending which window I'm looking out of. I'm lucky to have a small balcony though and if I didn't have that, I'd anchor planters onto the window sills. Of course I also have herbs in the veg patch garden but when it's cold and dark, it's much nicer just to reach through a door or window.

Tried and tested over the years, I've successfully grown these particular kitchen herbs year round on my third floor balcony, with no extra heat or protection. This past week I've had to clear my balcony completely before it was thoroughly jet washed as part of ongoing building works so all plants have been temporarily removed to the garden downstairs for safety. They’ll withstand ice and snow but not the blast of a powerful water jet!

So these are my six hero herbs; the trick with all of these is to make sure that the compost they’re in is kept just moist but well drained. Waterlogged or parched plants will not survive!

Parsley (Petroselinum)

With more vitamin C in its leaves than an orange, this is the herb I’m never without. The curly leaved variety is what I grow on my balcony. The seeds can be slow to germinate so I buy a supermarket herb and transfer it straight out of its pot and into good quality compost in a planter. It needs to acclimatise/recover from its hothouse start in life but, if the weather's warm enough, it can go straight outside. Watch out for those night time temps though! The roots are free to grow and the plant thrives. Parsley is biennial, so tries to flower in the second year, at which point I replace it.

Celery Leaf (Apium graveolens)

Assuming you like the taste of celery (I do), this is a perfect alternative to celery for the windowsill  or container gardener. This biennial herb is hardy down to -12°C so will happily sit through all but the harshest winters. I add a few leaves to salad but mostly use it in stocks and soups. Edible seeds follow pretty spring time flowers and are delicious ground with sea salt when dried. Sow seeds in spring for a continuous crop.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Over time, these can grow huge when planted in the ground so I prefer to keep mine contained in a pot to restrict its size. I bought a small lollipop bay some years ago, repotted it into a similar sized beautiful terracotta container and now replace the top inch of soil every year in spring. Bay likes its roots to be pot bound so it's a perfect container herb. Adds a subtle flavour to casseroles, a classic addition to bouquet garni, and intriguingly good in rice pudding.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

I love having aromatic sages in the garden but, on my balcony, I grow Common Sage for cooking with. As a Mediterranean herb, it’s well suited to the rigours of life on the edge - the crosswinds of an urban balcony can be very damaging to plants - but sage, as with other grey/green or silver leaved plants, takes these conditions in its stride. Growing in a container keeps it at a manageable size, and it makes a tasty addition to vegetable dishes - I particularly love it with squash. It’s also reputed to have anti-aging properties, need I say more?

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

It looks and smells amazing in a winter wreath but that’s not why I grow it. I have an Italian friend who makes a delicious pizza topped with thin slices of potato, chopped rosemary and cheese. It’s one of the classic ‘Scarborough Fair’ four and is excellent for aiding digestion which is why it’s so great with lamb or other fatty meats. It’s versatility extends beyond the kitchen and I love fresh sprigs steeped in warm almond oil to make a muscle soothing rub.

Thyme (Thymus)

The natural habitat of this hardy evergreen herb is paths, rockeries and cliffs so it’s not only a classic culinary herb but perfectly suited to balcony or container life.  My favourite is the low growing creeping thyme in the veg patch garden which I pick from regularly; on my balcony, for ease of access, a small upright thyme is grown in the window box at the edge for maximum light.  This summer I'll switch that out for an orange scented thyme (Thymus 'Fragrantissimus') which I've read is wonderful with sweet dishes, and possibly also cocktails! All thymes can be used for cooking but also medicinally - an infusion of the leaves makes a soothing tea for sore throats because of its antiseptic properties.

And, last but not least, soil for containers:

Good soil is at the heart of every successful garden. Because the substrate that I grow these container herbs is rarely changed, I use a soil based compost such as John Innes No.3 mixed with perlite for added drainage and, during spring and summer, water in an organic liquid fertiliser every few weeks.

What are your hero herbs at this time of year?

10 Mar 2018

A Winter's Tail

UrbanVegPatch: Crocus in snow, spring flowers
~ What a difference a week makes! ~

Dare I say that I'm moving on from winter?  Too soon? I hope not.  This time last week the garden was still under a couple of inches of snow and the wind froze water into long icicles on street signs. For London, that's very unusual - the last settled snow was in 2012.  I didn't dare hope that open flowers or tender leaf buds on fruit trees would survive the big freeze but it seems that a week of winter followed by a few days of mild sunshine has kickstarted the garden into spring.

So far I've identified only one casualty and that's a 3 year old pineapple sage. Being a half-hardy perennial, it really doesn't like temperatures to drop below 10ÂșC and, growing quite large, had been planted into the washing line/drought garden borders, ie, out in the open. Having now defrosted, it's now looking rather, well, dead. I'll probably need to replace it but will try pruning it to see if that promotes any new growth. Both my aromatic sages (Blackcurrant and pineapple) were bought as small plants in 9cm pots and quickly grew to several feet in size so I'm not feeling the loss too much.

Bizarrely, the blackcurrant sage not far away in a corner of the veg patch seems to have survived, possibly because it has a low wall on two sides. At the northern end of the veg patch, tender scented pelargoniums will need to be pruned back but are also showing new growth in the shelter of the low wall.  Such a small thing but it makes a big difference.  Urban gardens and small spaces can often provide just enough warmth and shelter for less hardy plants to survive, even without a greenhouse.

UrbanVegPatch Kerria japonica flower buds in March
~ Kerria japonica, reliably early with buds of pompom flowers ~
In the new garden where many of the plants are still in pots, I grouped the pots together in the shelter of a hedge to maximise chances of survival. It seems to have worked as my Mum's agapanthus have perked up along with herbs such as lemon balm, mint and celery leaf. Bay, of course, is reliably tough but even the quince-in-a-pot has got tiny buds about to unfurl. Tiny details but I can't help it, I still find it so exciting when the garden wakes up in spring!

~ Lemon Balm in the sheltered garden, not in leaf yet in the veg patch ~ 

During the past week it's been lovely to see that hellebores, crocuses and daffodils have bounced back and I'm amazed at the speed that other plants have shown themselves. Wild garlic leaves are now about 3 inches tall (not long before they'll be added to pesto), broad bean seedlings have peeked above the soil and sweet pea seedlings, not there yesterday, are suddenly an inch tall.  When did that happen!?

It looks as though with just over a week to the spring equinox, winter might finally be moving on after one last lash of its icy tail. Perfect timing to start sowing some brassicas. What's everyone else up to in the garden this week?

Wild garlic, aka Ransoms or Allium ursinum (Bear Garlic)

28 Feb 2018

From Winter to Spring: the RHS Early Spring Fair

~ The Wisley Winter Walk garden at the show ~

While icy winds and snowfalls have taken the UK back to winter over the past few days, I'm reminded of the RHS Early spring show that was held recently.  It's the show that, for me, heralds the start of spring and it's where gardeners gather to break out of their winter hibernation to revel in an array of glorious spring flowers.

As the first garden related show of the year, and standing on the cusp between winter and spring, the show divided its contents accordingly.  The Lindley Hall was predominantly white with snowdrop displays, a winter inspired banqueting table, and botanical art, while the Lawrence Hall proudly strutted the best of winter colour with award winning nursery displays and a recreation of the winter walk at RHS Wisley. For anyone that had the time to linger between browsing, there was also two days of talks and workshops - it was a bumper package, well worth the admission price.

~ Botanical art workshop, each participant left with a hand painted card ~

On Tuesday, I'd gone to explore the show with my blogger's hat on but had spent the previous couple of days as part of the team building an exhibit garden in the Lawrence Hall.  The garden took inspiration from the winter walk at the RHS Garden at Wisley and was a shining example of winter's colours and scents - who says there's no colour in winter! It was designed by a friend and, for me, lovely to work alongside garden design students from KLC college. I'll come back to this in another post.

~ Vintage terracotta pots from Embergate, ex blogger, now purveyor of gorgeous vintage gardenalia ~

During the build, I'd watched as the many other exhibits came together in the two RHS halls. It was fascinating to see the huge amount of work that each exhibitor puts into their displays and gave me a whole new respect for them. The nurseries have to keep their plants fresh and vigorous throughout the build and three days of the show - no mean feat when dealing with plants that really prefer to be outdoors.

As a flagship spring show, the halls were lush with displays of hellebores, cyclamen, iris reticulata, primroses and snowdrops - oh, the snowdrops! Everyone has a favourite spring flower but these stole my heart away this year, they were so beautifully displayed.

~ Galanthus 'Cowhouse Green' suspended at eye level ~

I was fascinated by the hanging 'Celebration of Snowdrops' installation in the Lindley Hall. Garden designer Fiona Silk had wired hundreds of bundles of Galanthus nivalis and autumn leaves to a raised rig so that they slowly twirled in currents of air. Walkways between these led to a central ring of specialist snowdrops, suspended at eye level in brown paper parcels tagged with identifying numbers. It was mesmerising. These 'specials' were on loan from private collections so it was a rare treat to view them. In matching them to the accompanying list, I fell into conversation with an elegant woman whose husband had ordered Galanthus plicatus 'Blue Trym'  for her birthday next month. Each bulb sells for £120 but even at that price she wasn't hopeful that the order would be fulfilled as she'd heard that stocks had been snapped up in the EU. I like a snowdrop but I doubt I'll ever join the ranks of the true Galanthophiles at those prices.  Personally, I rather liked G. 'Cowhouse Green' at a more modest £25 per bulb but even that would break the budget!

In keeping with the fantasy floral theme, a Narnia-like banqueting table drew visitors to the far end of the hall. The white and crystal elements were intended to represent the transition of winter into spring, with greenery and snowdrops appearing through snow. It was visually stunning and much photographed but, as with most art installations, largely impractical. The birch trees behind every seat would have hindered sitting down somewhat.  I came to think of it as Miss Havisham's Wedding Breakfast as it made a rather icy and forgotten tableau - what do you think?

Talks are now a feature of the spring shows and I'd already determined to get to a talk by Alys Fowler on houseplants, a tie in with her latest book 'Plant Love' which she kindly signed for me afterwards. It's so lovely to meet your garden heroes. The talk was packed out, presumably we were all after a few tips on understanding and managing the mysterious world of indoor plants, and Alys didn't disappoint. It all sounded so easy once she'd explained a bit about leaf colour and shade. There was even time for a quick Q and A afterwards.  My question? I wanted the name again of the carnivorous plant that feeds on fungus gnats - apparently Venus Fly Traps just don't cut it. (It's Pinguicula but I've since found that it seems to be quite difficult to get hold of one. So perhaps I'll need to look out for Gnat Off instead, Alys's other suggestion.)

I would have liked to stay for some of the other talks but I had potatoes to buy.  Pennard's Plants from Somerset always bring their huge selection of tubers to this fair.  I've been a bit overwhelmed by the choice in previous years but I knew that I wanted just salad potatoes this year and the tubers were in colour coded tubs with short descriptions of each. At 24p a tuber, I was able to buy exactly the amount I wanted - mission accomplished.

And of course I couldn't leave without a couple of bags of Iris reticulata, as well as some gifted daffodils and crocus from a neighbouring display to the garden I helped with.  All in all an uplifting and very educational week.

The next RHS show in London is the Orchid and Plant Fair on 6th and 7th April. 

26 Feb 2018

Prelude to a Siberian spring

~ Buds on the gooseberry bushes ~

Dare I write this with a forecast freeze from north Russia bearing down on the southern regions of the UK this week?  Following hellebores and snowdrops, I'm thrilled to see definite signs of other plants waking up in the garden, so much so that if the Big Freeze doesn't happen, spring might arrive bang on cue but I'm not hopeful. The meteorological end of winter in the UK is in three days, at the end of February; it looks like this year we'll have to pin our hopes on the astronomical start to spring almost three weeks later on the 20th March.

Like most gardeners I'm ready for winter to be over. I have tentative plans to start sowing my brassicas in the next couple of weeks but, much more than that, I want to be outside more regularly watching seeds come to life and blossom appear.  The good news is that, all being well, the scaffolding around my block of flats is due to come down in two to three weeks. Like my neighbours here, I've found it hard to live with so much darkness and noise as the roof is retiled, windows replaced and concrete repaired. It's a struggle to keep my balcony clear of debris and plants have suffered as a result. But the end is in sight and I'm sure it will all be worth it ... after the big clean up!

I love the weekends here at the moment, so quiet with no builders around. The bonus this weekend is beautiful clear sunny blue skies, even if the gentle breeze was bitingly cold - a forerunner of the promised Siberian blast? Whatever, it was enough to get me outdoors early yesterday morning until my fingers went numb. My fault, I should have taken gloves as well as my camera.

This afternoon, Sunday, I ventured out again, garden fork and secateurs in hand, this time properly wrapped up and with my thermal gloves on. I stayed out until a setting sun on the other side of the buildings made tiny aeroplanes high in the sky turn a shade of copper red and I could start to feel my feet turn cold. The soil had already started to freeze on the surface but I'd made good progress having dug out unwanted plants, moved others and trimmed back seedheads.

So, for the record, in case the garden is annihilated by frost and nature has to start again, this is where the garden is at this weekend. (There are also leaf buds starting to open on the quince tree which I'm pretty sure will not survive icy winds.)

~ New leaves on the spreading thyme ~

~ rhubarb starting to sprout ~
~ more herbs - chives, pretty sure this will get through the cold ~

~ hyssop, usually dies back in winter ~
And a few flowers:

Let's hope that our unfurling gardens survive any snow or frost in days to come! 
What's waking up in your patch? 

28 Jan 2018

Sorting seeds for success

It's still cold, even in London, but these past few days there have been glimpses of blue skies that make me think about summer ahead in the garden. (And, ooh hello, it's only eight weeks until British Summer Time! There, that doesn't sound too bad now does it? Glass half full gal, here.)

Drawing the plot
Where to start? My plot is too small to stick to a strict rotation plan but it's useful to look back year on year to see where crops were planted and try to give the soil a breather. So I always start by drawing up rough plans for both allotment and veg patch as I can't see either garden from indoors. Being naturally optimistic, I've a tendency to overestimate the number of plants I can grow in the available space. With a sketch, I've got the garden to hand whenever I need it; I map out the perennial plants, see what needs to be moved or replaced, and plan where to plant this year. If I've only got 30 minutes to get outside, I know exactly what I can achieve in that time.

Yes, I know I could walk the plot and get an idea that way but that goes right out the window when ordering seeds - just now when looking online at sweet peas, I was totally distracted from my purpose by seeds for a caper plant. I resisted because, in a few months time, I'll be wondering where I'm going to plant all these seedlings. This way I can at least try to keep it real.

Making a list
So I've got my garden plan on paper. (Actually, i-pad, which I love.) Next, for both the veg patch and allotment, I've made a list of all the food I want to grow this year and then plotted those foods onto the plan, checking them off my list as I go.  I was quite surprised to see how much I could fit into my relatively small growing space - the veg patch is just 10 metres x 3 metres (32ft x 10ft). I'll sow fast growing carrots inbetween slow growing onion sets; spinach likes a shadier spot in the summer so will grow under climbing beans; kale and broccoli will be planted out when the broad beans come out, a border of spring onions can line the path. Tomatoes are companion plants for asparagus. Etc. You get the idea.

So now I know what to grow and where to put it. Now I can think about seeds. There are a few seeds that can be sown in February (under cover, of course), otherwise it's the perfect time to empty out the seed box and see what I've got before I settle down to mark up seed catalogues.  I find it incredibly easy to be tempted into overspending - I currently have four types of spinach, 6 types of beans ... I could go on but I've said enough.

Seed box detox
So, first off, I went through all my seed packets and steeled myself to discard any that were past their sow-by date. That's a tough one as seeds can be expensive but it's important. As with any living matter, seeds age (especially if they're stored in an old box on a warm shelf), and with it a significant reduction in the likelihood of successful germination. Who needs to watch soil for signs of life only to find two or three weeks later that it's a major fail?

The Real Seed company, who positively encourage seed saving, have a page which gives the estimated life span of certain seeds.  Very useful. That page is here.

Favourite seeds past their best that need to be reordered I put into a separate reminder pile.  Seeds where I couldn't see a best before date or remember how long I'd had them went onto the 'chuck' pile.  I found that several companies put no dates on their packets; others indicate only when the seeds were packed. This means seeds labelled as packed in 'year ending March 2016', could have been packed in April 2015 so are unlikely to be viable in March 2018, although it might be worth a try. Growers choice. Having walked that path before with limited success, I'd rather replace those seeds.  This year I'll be writing the purchase date on every new packet to give my future self a huge clue.

So now I have a pile of viable seeds. Do I want all of them? Probably not. Most of the free seeds from magazines or trade shows will go to a seed swap. There's also seeds that didn't do well for me (Cherokee Trail of Tears beans) or the end product didn't justify the time and space. Or I've seen a new variety that I want to try, so the current ones won't get used. These are all valid reasons to reassess what I've got. Topped up with regular rounds of hot drinks and toast, it's a very cathartic exercise for a wet (or snowy) afternoon when I don't fancy being outdoors.

Getting organised
With a decluttered seed box and a list of what to order,  finally I turn to the seed catalogues. I'll always want to try more seeds than are on my list but, armed with a wishlist to make notes and The Plan, I'm far less likely to succumb to temptation.

I've noticed that a few magazines have got calendars of when to sow and harvest crops.  This is very general and depends on the weather and soil temperature where you live but my next job will be to organise my seeds by their sow by dates and note that in my garden diary.

How about you? Do you reorder everything fresh each year or try to use what you've already got?

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