16 May 2018

A bumper year for fruit?

Pear blossom in April

Now that the last of the fruit blossom has dropped - quince excepted - my current obsession is to walk around the garden checking for fruitlets.  I've been gardening in the veg patch for almost a decade now and this has become a bit of an annual ritual.  I'm looking after ten fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, cherries and quince) as well as soft fruit and it's incredibly frustrating to see beautiful blossom fall to the ground before being pollinated. So, every spring, I'm on the lookout for fruit set. It's a hazard of urban gardening that any wind is funnelled between buildings, creating challenging conditions for insects to pollinate and blossom to stay put on the tree.  This year though, I've got a good feeling that the crazy weather so far this year might just have been the perfect thing for the fruit trees.

Bitter cold kept the trees dormant until early April and then we leapt into a confusing spring that alternated between warm sunshine and heavy rain - perfect for giving the trees a steady supply of water and warmth to wake up buds on the branches. Our trees are self fertile but fruit better if pollinators are around so a few days of warmth helped there too. Time will tell whether those pollinators were more interested in the tulips, daffodils and forget-me-nots rather than fruit blossom! It's crucial that plants are well watered when fruit is setting, something of an annual challenge for me as there is no easy access to water in the veg garden. So when it rains heavily, as it did last weekend, I just end up smiling.

(A little bit of botany: once the flower has been pollinated, water is directed to swell the pericarp which then slowly expands  around the seed or stone to make the flesh of apples, pears, cherries, etc. Without sufficient moisture, the pericarp withers and the fruitlet falls from the tree.)

This year I also made a start on pruning out congested branches in the centre of the plum and pear trees, back in the depths of winter; I wanted to see if better airflow through the centre of the tree canopies would improve things. Branches that were crossing over, heading into the middle of the tree or those poker straight 'water' shoots were all removed.

Growers Tip:
There's still more pruning to be done so the plan is to have another go at the end of summer.  Around this time trees begin their winter dormancy so energy is going back into the roots instead of the branches. Late summer pruning  allows trees to be shaped without promoting more growth. Stone fruit, such as cherries and plums, should be pruned, if needed, at that time anyway to reduce the risk of succumbing to airborne viruses.

Clockwise from top left:
Pretty cherry fruitlets, plums, apples, apple blossom

So after all that, has it worked? Probably too early for certainty but recent signs have led me to be cautiously optimistic of some fruit this year. Plum trees planted at the start of the veg patch nearly a decade ago, have never fruited; pear numbers have been sketchy at best. This year though with warmth, watering and better airflow, I'm seeing tiny fruitlets swelling in a very positive way, even on the plum tree.  In past years, with no plum fruit to harvest, I've threatened to chop down the plum tree then relented and given it another chance. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was the year that the tree rewarded my patience?

Conference pear fruitlets
Several very round pear fruitlets on both pear trees.
What's going on?
And, in other news, there looks like being plenty of apples and pears - although some of the pear fruit look more like apples which is definitely weird. Ironically, as I don't eat sour cherries, the cherry trees are always laden with fruit as Morello cherries do well in our east facing border. The quince still has blossom (just) with plump little velveteen swellings behind; last year the tree produced five viable quinces but all developed some kind of rot before they could be picked. Very disappointing. I'm hoping for much, much better this year.

9 May 2018

Awaiting Edith

Iris 'Edith Wolford' flower bud

There is so much to be amazed at in the garden at the moment.  I tidied up this border (the 'Washing Line' border) over the weekend, including taking old leaves off the iris rhizomes so I know for a fact that there were no flower buds there.  Just fans of sword shaped leaves which, in itself, adds to the overall visual interest.  And then, yesterday, these appeared.  Whoah, how did that happen?! (I'm guessing a few days of hot sunshine might have helped.)

Given the speed that the flower stem appeared, I'm now on a daily watch for the flowers themselves. This is 'Edith Wolford'; she's a classy Iris germanica, reliably flowering in May/June, and has been slowly spreading out across this border since I brought her home from the Chelsea flower show a few years ago.

I didn't realise how much I loved Irises until I saw Edith on the Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants stand.  It was a must-have, love-at-first-sight, moment.  She's a beauty with creamy yellow standards (the upright petals) and blue-violet falls (the downward petals) with an orange beard in the centre - looks a bit like a hairy caterpillar!  A stunner in the looks department and her presence in this border brings together the purple alliums, Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, lavender, Perovskia, etc, with the yellow flowers of Santolina (cotton lavender), alpines and yellow-green New Zealand flax.

The 'Washing Line' border in late May 2017 - see what I mean about blending with the rest?

Growers tip:
Something I learned during my Capel Manor days was that the top of the rhizomes (the roots that look like raw ginger) need to be exposed and baked during the summer in order to promote flowering the following year.  I made the mistake of covering the rhizomes when I first planted Edith and had no flowers the following year - swiftly corrected when I knew better! Since then (years 3 and 4, 2016/17) I've had more and more flowers, several on each stem, so am eagerly anticipating Edith's arrival this year.

The Back Story:
I wish I knew more about the naming of irises because I'd love to know who Edith Wolford was/is - I do love a bit of background. The name suggests a character from James Joyce or E.M. Forster but I like to think that she was a renowned actress, a diva, a famous beauty; the reality is probably that she was a pillar of the community, a friend or beloved relative.  My internet search reveals only an elementary school in Colorado, USA.  Do tell if you can shed some light!

Irises were originally purple (or so I've read) and represent royalty and wisdom - hence inspiring the French Fleur-de-lis symbol. Yes, that does translate as lily flower but irises were classed as lilies until the 18th Century.  The flowers were known long before that, being discovered by the Pharoahs of Egypt when they conquered Syria and also known to the Ancient Greeks who named the flower for Iris, goddess of the rainbow; to this day, irises are placed on graves to form a passage between heaven and earth.

I've only the one iris for now but every year think that I need some more, maybe a reflowering or later type. Hands up - anyone else in the Iris Appreciation Society?

19 Apr 2018

New for 2018: The Ascot Spring Garden Show

I nearly didn't go. The weather has been so poor recently that I found myself questioning the sanity of anyone staging a garden show in mid April. At the eleventh hour though, my own sanity prevailed and I contacted the organisers for a pass which they produced with lightning speed.

And that was the first thing that struck me - this inaugural show seemed very organised and efficiently run; well thought out, attention to detail, appealing and entertaining.  It was an excellent start for a new show. The show's organisers have correctly gauged what the public wants (imho 😌) - space, choice, inspiration, advice, food, plants and seating. The show was created because of a gap in Ascot Racecourse's spring calendar and steered to success by Stephen Bennett, previously Show Director for the RHS.

~ My two favourite gardens: Top, On Point by Tom Hill; Below, The Courtyard by Joe Perkins

So, what's on offer at the show?  The big draw had to be the twelve show gardens, six by professional designers and six by hort college teams under the Young Gardeners of the Year competition. I'm sure in future years there will be more but, for this inaugural show, these were just enough to drink in all the detail. It was lovely to see how vibrant a spring garden could be and especially nice to see magnolias and cherry blossom being used in the designs - something not possible for summer shows.

Then there was retail therapy. There were 33 specialist plant nurseries at the show, plus 58 trade stands selling all sorts of garden related ephemera such as tools, shoes, garden sculptures, landscaping, furniture and the most divine and highly desirable greenhouses.  I think I may have stroked one or two of them while no-one was looking. The plant nurseries were especially popular as mid-spring is the perfect time to be thinking about what to do in your own garden - and filling any gaps for next year's spring garden before those thoughts are replaced by summer.

~ Love this display! What a good idea, displaying pots of spring bulbs in wine boxes.
Especially if you get to drink the wine first ... ~

TV gardener, David Domoney, led a programme of talks in the theatre throughout all three days of the show; I rather regret not catching his talk on Unusual Gardening Techniques, held the day after I was there.  From the Show Guide:
'From feeding plants with nails, caring for plants with vodka, Viagra, or making bumble bee nests with hosepipe, cotton wool and a pot, to how to gain items to garden for free from self-service restaurants, flight bags, pubs, and even  Ikea! It's a humorous, pen grabbing talk (underpinned with science) which makes best use of gardening practices, recyling, money saving and the resourcefulness of a gardener.' 
Vodka? Viagra? Flight bags? The mind boggles. You can see why I might be curious.  There were also talks from Pippa Greenwood (Grow Gorgeous Vegetables), floristry demonstrations from celebrity florist Simon Lycett and 'Plants for a Spring Garden' from the Keeper of the Garden at Windsor Great Park and his assistant. In addition, there was a giant screen overlooking the concourse (presumably in situ for the horse racing punters) so I was able to catch snippets of interviews taking place around the show and, I think, possibly some of the talks.

The show makes for a pleasant and leisurely day out. It's not so large that you can't fit it all in, and not overcrowded either, with wide aisles between the trade stands, a plant crèche, plenty of food outlets ranging from a quick bite to something more substantial and even somewhere nice to sit with tables and chairs set out by the bandstand.  Bandstand?  Yes, indeed. A backdrop of music jollied things along but was never intrusive. At one point the English spring was lifted by the sounds of a Caribbean steel band gently transporting visitors to warmer climes.  To make the day really special, posh, proper, Afternoon Tea was available with sandwiches, scones, little pastries and a glass of champagne if wanted, a cuppa if not. At a price, of course, but definitely worth getting your frock and hat on for. (I didn't stop for tea but will bear it in mind for next year!)

As I was there in my blogger guise, I was given a Show Guide booklet as part of the press pack. As a nice surprise this was packed with useful and relevant information, with adverts kept to a minimum, and represented good value for the £2 cover charge.

Altogether, I came away from the show happy and relaxed, feeling I'd chatted to some interesting people, been inspired by the variety of spring planting used in the show gardens ... and, of course, with a boot full of plants. Really, an excellent day.

The show is hosted by Ascot Racecourse in association with the Gardens of Windsor Great Park. There's easy access through the Berkshire countryside from three motorways (M3, M4 and M25), plentiful free parking and a (very) local railway station.   Next year's show is 12-14th April 2019.

14 Apr 2018

Six on Saturday: In a very happy place

The past week seems to have sped past, and this morning I'm definitely in my happy place having woken up to clear blue skies. Those have now turned to the promised 'light cloud' - weatherspeak for grey with a hint of occasional sun - but it's dry, bright, and I have a free day ahead - perfect! Six things that have contributed to happiness this week ...

~ looks very crowded at ground level but I can see lots of gaps for annuals from above 😊 ~
1- On Monday the scaffolding surrounding my block of flats started to be taken down. The white safety netting had clouded my view for the past five+ months while the roof was retiled. Day one revealed the sky and let light onto my balcony and by Tuesday I could see out again. By Wednesday, the middle garden came into view fully for the first time since November and I could get a clearer idea of what needs doing. Bizarrely, I've been feeling rather exposed without the netting; funny how we get used to things.

2- The avocado stone which was planted during a workshop 'How to successfully grow an avocado' in October last year, finally cracked and started growing four weeks ago - only five months of patience required and, actually, pretty thrilling. This past week four leaves have unfurled from a sturdy stem. I am vindicated and a good houseplant grower at last.

~ Here's a few I made earlier ... ~
3- I have discovered a new and surprisingly soothing pastime - making paper pots while watching tv. I usually catch up with a few crime dramas (my fave) on the weekend but single tasking doesn't suit me so I got out the new paper pot maker and soon had rather a lot of empty vessels for my seed sowing. What joy!

4- Part of the ongoing renovations here include making good and repainting the concrete areas of my balcony. So the crumbling built in windowbox has been emptied of soil, repaired and repainted in bright white, and consequently made a disgrace of my efforts at painting the rest of the brickwork a few years back. Cue: kind painters to the rescue with a large water bottle filled with free paint.  I've cleared the tiny balcony so I'll repaint it today and will then put up lots of shelves for container salad and herbs. Expect a Show and Tell when it's done!

5- Yesterday I went to the new Ascot Spring Garden Show, held at the racecourse in Berkshire. That in itself gave me a very good reason to be happy, but as there were so many excellent nurseries there, it would have been silly not to take a look, wouldn't it?  This morning I've spent a happy five minutes potting up the three tiny succulents that leapt into my basket yesterday.  Don't they look lovely? They were bought for my son to fill his empty Bonsai dish but I can feel myself getting rather fond of them.

6- Also highly related to yesterday's garden show, sitting downstairs in the garden are two trays of herbs, a white peony, a variegated eryngium and variegated leaf iris waiting to be planted today. Just writing that list makes my heart flutter - not, I hasten to add, because of the ££ spent but I'm just thinking of the loveliness to come. Pay it Forward happiness, for sure.

Linking to #SixonSaturday hosted by The Propagator blog. Six garden related happenings posted on a Saturday for a bit of fun. Hop over to find a few more Sixes and maybe to join in!

11 Apr 2018

Book(let) Review: Ten Poems about Sheds (Instead of a card)

Poems about sheds? What's not to love!

But at the risk of sounding like a complete Philistine, I admit that I've always preferred prose to poems.  I like to get stuck into the narrative and subtleties of a good book and all but a handful of poems leave me either baffled or indifferent. A Romantic, I am not.

So when Candlestick Press asked recently if I would like to review their latest publication 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I was initially reluctant but I took a look anyway.  The title alone is enough to pique the interest of any gardener - don't we all have a bit of a thing about sheds?

Having found my way to their website, I discovered booklets with beautifully illustrated covers on a range of subjects - most, not all, are poetry anthologies.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened my copy of 'Ten Poems about Sheds'; probably a few lighthearted, jolly poems. I know I imagined shades of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear. Instead I found a collection of thoughtful, evocative, free verse poems.

Let me quote from the back cover:
"A shed may be just a place to keep the lawnmower, or it may be somewhere to escape to in order to write or paint. Sometimes it's a haven in which to daydream when the house is full of noise and bustle [...] These enchanting poems will lead you quietly into private worlds where you'll find you're entirely at home."
For me, the word 'shed' takes me back to my grandpa's garden where I can still see the black shed where he stored and maintained his tools. I'm not sure I was allowed inside, perhaps just a peek from the doorway to watch him work, but I remember the smells of creosote, linseed oil, wood and earth. Heady stuff for a small girl keen on digging. I thought it a magical curious place.

And that's the power I found in these poems, each one evoked a different memory or train of thought and I found myself lingering over the words.  Isn't that what a card or letter should do?

Because that's the brilliant thing about these booklets - they're designed to be sent instead of a card. While I love to get birthday or christmas cards, I've always regretted the waste; they're usually not something you'd want to keep forever, and I prefer things to have more longevity. No, cards are heartwarming to receive but inevitably - and regrettably - soon recycled.

But this booklet (and others in the range) is something to be savoured; to find a moment, perhaps over morning coffee, to sit and read at leisure - and then to tuck away to read again later. The titles drew me in - 'To the Shipbuilder, his Tabernacle', 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', or simply 'The Shed':

"Step in it's a tardis: vortex of smells
distilled a century - of pre-war
timber, earth-floor, and the gold decay
of sawdust, linseed, two-stroke oil ..."
(The first verse of 'The Shed' by Stuart Henson)

The A5 sized booklets have a quality feel, being printed on smooth, matte, white paper with a heavier card cover.  They're packaged in a cellophane wrap with a sturdy envelope plus a very handy bookmark with space for a personal message.  Each card is £4.95 plus postage, not a huge amount more than the cost of an average greetings card and yet offering so much more.

Although I was asked to review 'Ten Poems about Sheds', I couldn't resist taking a look at a couple of the other booklets.  Having read them, I've been drawn back to re-read them many times.

Ten Poems of Kindness: The back cover explains: "A simple and almost old-fashioned word, kindness is an underestimated virtue in our increasingly hectic and impersonal world. These generous poems remind us that kindness can take many forms and doesn't have to be time-consuming or complicated." The book includes an open letter from the mother of Felix Alexander, the 17 year old boy who took his life in 2016 after years of cyber-bullying. In the letter she exhorts people to "be kind always". The introduction is written by poet Jackie Kay who writes, "Being kind allows you to see the sunlight through the leaves."  I'll happily promote anything that inspires people to be more kind to each other.

In his introduction to Ten Poems about Gardens, Monty Don writes "These are all fine poems, all perfectly practical celebrations of why and how to garden. Read them with soil under your nails and to cultivate all that grows within. Read them and go out and garden the better for it."  There's a fabulous poem about allotments in this selection that made me smile, as well as an ode to the passions that Sissinghurst has seen and another, Vespers, that starts, "I don't wonder where you are any more; you're in the garden ..." That should strike a chord with more than a few folk I know!

But my absolute favourite (so far, hah!) has to be the story of The Wood in Winter; the phrasing is hauntingly beautiful and I love the cover. The author is John Lewis-Stempel, an award winning nature writer. The back cover introduces us: 'He writes about why being in a wood in winter strips us to our essential soul, and how close encounters with the animals who thrive in this hard season remind us of our own deep connection to the earth.'  I particularly enjoyed the narrator's encounter with a fox in the snow: "... the vixen, quite oblivious to the weather, and to me. Even through pelting snow and half-light her fur lustred. She burned alive. The red fox."  Or birds: "Some rooks flew overhead; not the usual ragged, weary flight to roost, but an oaring deep and strong with their wings."  An oaring ... exquisite.

~ Wonderful woodcut illustrations add to the story of The Wood in Winter ~

Without becoming too evangelical, I hope I've inspired a few readers to take a wander over to the Candlestick Press website. They're a small Nottingham based company who print and publish in the UK and it would be a great shame not to be made aware of their titles. I think the booklets make perfect gifts and there's something for everyone - whether it's knitting, bicycles, chickens, clouds, telephones, tea, cricket, cats, dogs, puddings or relatives ... and much more! I'm tempted by a couple of the Christmas volumes; I like the look of 'The Christmas Wren' (also in Welsh) and 'The Gift of the Old One'.

New anthologies coming out this year include poems about Picnics, Rivers and Walking, among others.

Candlestick Press and their range of 'Instead of a Card' poetry pamphlets, can be found here.
Poetry pamphlets are stocked at over 300 UK card and book shops, including some branches of Waterstones, Blackwell's, Amazon and, best of all, probably your local book shop.
They can also be ordered online via the Candlestick website, postage is £1.25 for up to 2 booklets, or £1.65 for 3-4 booklets. Postage is by 1st class Royal Mail for speedy delivery.

My appreciative thanks to Candlestick Press for the review copies.

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