A few flowers

Magnolia stellata | Wolves in LondonChionodoxa | Wolves in LondonPrimrose | Wolves in LondonWe continued with Operation Sort-out-the-garden this weekend.

It’s an ongoing attempt, that’s been running for about, oooh, the 2.5 years we’ve lived in this house.

It’s not that I’m not crazy on gardening or that I’m not actually really quite desperate to have a garden that’s nice to sit in… it’s just that we’re also simultaneously running Operation Finish-decorating-the-darned-house and Operation Look-after-two-small-kids.

Anyway, I’m really starting to see progress now. I might even share some whole garden photos with you soon… (The suspense! I know!)

Yesterday was spent shoveling a big pile of soil into buckets to put onto a new bed. The soil pile has been sitting in front of the greenhouse for more than a year now (intended time of habitation in that location: about one month). There is something wildly satisfying about a bit of physical labour, especially the repetitive thrust of the spade into a big fat pile of earth.

On Saturday, with the sproglet’s help, I sowed a few more seeds, removed the duckweed from the pond and peered at a huge ball of frogspawn, did a bit of weeding around the rhubarb, checked on the new bed that’s been dug out for veg, and went on a snail hunt.

In between all the gardening, I spent lots of time admiring the new flowers that are appearing.

Oh and the hubby got in on the act too, cutting down the gigantic wooden post that was in front of our greenhouse (you can see it in the picture here) that once led a visitor to comment that it was always nice to have some gallows in the garden…

Next weekend, we’re putting up an arch in the same location, planting some honeysuckle and evergreen jasmine round the base, sowing the seeds into the veg bed and doing whatever else I can add to the list in the meantime.

Nowt like Spring, is there?

Gardening jargon buster: deadheading

Gardening jargon buster: deadheading plants | Wolves in LondonNow, it’s highly possible I was alone in this one, but before I started on my horticulture course the principle of deadheading eluded me somewhat.

Yes, I grasped the basics: deadheading meant removing old flower heads from a plant. But I never managed to find more information than that. How should I remove them? What should I use to remove them? At what point on the stem did I remove them? I wondered for a while if I was literally just meant to pull the old petals off and that was that…

Once I understood what the whole purpose of deadheading was, it suddenly all became clear.

Why deadhead plants?

The aim of deadheading is both to tidy up the plant (and prevent pests and diseases entering through old plant material) but also to keep the plant producing more flowers.

But it’s how it does that I found illuminating. The whole point of a flower on a plant is to help that plant reproduce. The flower attracts pollinators (bees and the like) who bring pollen to the plant’s sexy parts which (hopefully) then germinates. Once the pollen has germinated, the flower will die, and the plant will then start to produce seeds. The seeds in turn are dispersed and the plant reproduces and grows new plants elsewhere.

So, by cutting off the flower, but also, crucially, the emerging seed pod before the seeds have a chance to grow, you stop the plant achieving its desired reproduction aims and therefore instead of putting its energy into the seeds, it puts its energy into producing more flowers (to tempt the pollinators, to make more seeds etc etc.).

How (and where) to do deadhead

Once you know this, it becomes apparent where and how to deadhead: below the point of the seed. So, on an apple tree, for example (not that you would ever be likely to deadhead an apple tree!) the fruit of the apple contains the seeds, so you would chop it off just below this. The apple actually forms below the flower, so you’d be making sure to cut below this point.

In most flowering plants, the seeds form within the flower itself, so you just need to cut below the base of the flower.

My suggested idea of pulling off the petals, therefore, would have achieved absolutely nothing, since I would have left the developing seed pod in place and the plant would stop putting out flowers…

As to what to use to deadhead; this all depends on the size of the plant. As a general rule of thumb for all deadheading (and, indeed, all pruning) use a tool just sharp enough to cut the plant without exertion. This isn’t just to save yourself hard work, but also because a swift sharp cut is a clean cut for the plant. Labouring away making endless attempts to cut through a stem with the wrong tools can actually cause damage to the plant as you will have most likely damaged the parts of the stem you’re leaving behind – and this is when infection and pests love to come in and have a little party…

So, if you were deadheading a small, green-stemmed flower, then you could just pinch the flower heads off, or use a pair of floral scissors, for example. If you were deadheading a woody shrub, then you’re more likely to want secateurs or even loppers on a very old plant.

Which plants can you deadhead?

Of course, you can’t just willy nilly cut the flowers off every plant and assume they will grow hundreds more in their place. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

Lots of shrubs grown to produce attractive flowers will respond well to deadheading. Roses, camellias, rhododendrons and lilacs will all produce more flowers if you’re regularly removing the spent heads.

All plants that are grown as “cutting flowers” will produce more if you deadhead them, as essentially, cutting the flowers is doing exactly that. So if you’re growing sweet peas, for example, if you miss cutting any flowers that then turn into seed pods, do make sure you cut off the seed pods once you spot them.

Alstroemeria | Wolves in London

Lots of herbaceous perennials (plants that come back year after year, but don’t have woody stems and die down in winter) will also work well with deadheading. I was astonished last year to see my alstroemerias (the ridiculously red plants above) put out a whole second batch of flowers late in the autumn, after I had just given them a good prune once I thought all the flowering was over.

Geraniums are another classic example of a plant that will flower for months on end, as long as you prevent it setting to seed.

Of course, there are so many plants, this is a really brief overview. If you’re adding a new plant to the garden, or just curious about what you have in there, it’s always worth taking a look either on the label or on the RHS website to see specific care instructions.

Don’t cut here…

Rosehip | Wolves in LondonAlso, there are some plants that you certainly wouldn’t want to deadhead.

Obviously, if you want to collect seeds from a plant then you’d leave them to create the seeds in the first place.

Similarly, lots of plants have striking seed heads that you might want to keep out for the winter, so they can catch the frosts and twinkle away in the low sunlight. Grasses, alliums and so on can all look pretty stunning if left to their own devices.

Also remember, if you’re growing roses for hips (the stunning Rosa rugosa in my front garden produces glorious fat red rose hips, for example) then don’t deadhead these – or make sure you at least leave some flowers in place – otherwise you won’t get any lovely hips in the autumn.

Don’t worry!

Above all, don’t worry too much about deadheading. Sometimes the ins and outs of the ways to treat all the different plants there are can feel a bit overwhelming and it’s easy to do nothing for fear of getting it wrong…

It really only takes a few seconds to check a plant online and find out whether or not to deadhead it. But if you’re not sure what the plant is, or you’re out in the garden wielding the secateurs and feeling snip-happy, well, you might as well just go for it. As long as you’re only removing the flowers, it’s pretty hard to damage the plant itself. If they don’t end up putting out any more flowers this year, they’ll almost certainly be fine before next year. And if it turns out they were an annual that won’t grow again, then it’ll be super quick to grow them from seed another time. Just stick the flowers you’ve chopped off into a nice vase and admire them on your kitchen table…

I do hope this helps! As ever, please feel free to ask any questions by leaving a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Related articles:

  • This is the latest (and rather late) article in my Gardening jargon buster series, where I take a look at an A-Z of gardening jargon and try to put it into normal language. Do take a look at my other articles if you’re interested.

The garden of my dreams

The sprogs have both been ill, with various bits and pieces, these past few weeks, which means that my days have disappeared in a blur of antibiotics administering, snotty nose wiping, eyedrop dispensing, multiple night-time wakings soothing and generally feeling pretty knackered myself.

There’s not been much time for blogging. Or thinking. Or brushing my hair.

French country cottage gardenAlso taking up a fair bit more time than I anticipated is my garden design course. Yup, that same garden design course I was so excited about starting and which is now feeling a little bit more like a chore in my life because of the mountains upon mountains of homework that come with it. Still, I am learning lots of nice and interesting new things, so I’m not complaining too much. Even if I am suddenly plummeted back into my English Lit student days where you always, but always had an essay due in in a week’s time and consequently any other event that was going on* had a shadow hanging over it whispering to you: “You really should be writing that essay you know…”

So when I stumbled across photos of a beautiful garden when doing some research for my course, I was immediately tempted to go and visit it and have a nice day off.

Garden des JoetsThen I realised that it was in France. Hey! Even better!

A quick Google later and I’ve discovered you can get the ferry to Dunkirk and then drive for 30 minutes and be in Eecke, the home of Le jardin des Joets. Ferry timetables are being consulted, cars are being booked, the surrounding neighbourhoods examined for friendly looking B&Bs.

Meanwhile, I just had to share some of these photos with you as they are, in essence, my absolute dream garden. In these still rather cold and dreary early March days, I find it deeply cheering to look at a garden in full bloom and dream of the drowsy bee-filled summer months.

Summer flowersAll photos from a rather brilliant French website, Le jardin de Sophie. Do head over and take a look, there are lots more wonderful pictures to tempt you to book your place on a ferry too: Le jardin des joets.

*Events going on in my student days could probably be summarised with: making supper, smoking a cigarette, going out in Bristol and getting steamingly drunk.

Gardening jargon buster: calcifuges

All about the acid lovers of the plant world…

All about calcifuges: acid-loving plants

Hello lovely gardening readers. It’s Wednesday again and here I am cracking on through the alphabet at a rate of knots, now turning my attention to the letter C and with it, the fussy old calcifuges.

My aim with my gardening jargon buster series is to try and demystify some of the copious amounts of jargon that spring up around what are (usually) fairly straightforward gardening ideas.

And, boy oh boy, does the calcifuge come jargon laden!

Its name, for a start, would be massively off-putting if you’ve not come across it before.

As I mentioned in my first post on acidity and alkalinity (aka soil pH), certain plants prefer to grow in certain alkaline or acidic soil conditions.

And that is all that calcifuge means: a plant that prefers to grow in acidic soil.

The name literally means “chalk fleeing” – eg a plant that does not like chalky (otherwise described as limey) soil conditions

But the jargon doesn’t end there! You might also come across these plants referred to as ericaceous, which is just another way of saying the same thing. I only just found this out myself this second by checking Wikipedia, but the “ericaceous” name comes from the Erica family of plants (heathers) which are, as you would expect, chalk haters (or lime haters, or acid lovers, or calcifuges. Pick your moniker as you so choose…)

Now that’s out the way, there isn’t actually a huge amount more you need to know about calcifuges.

Obviously, as they require acidic soil conditions, you need to make sure you give that to the plant.

You can do that in a number of different ways. First of all, check the pH of the soil in your garden. If it’s 6.5 or below (eg, ranging down towards 4 which is the most acidic soil you’re likely to come across) then calcifuges are going to be pretty happy.

You might want to “top up” the acidity levels by adding some sort of acidic mulch to the top of the soil, such as pine needle mulch or pine bark mulch.

(Also recommended as an ericaceous mulch is sphagnum peat moss, but I’m not going to suggest you use that because of all the peat issues.)

If your soil is too alkaline, however, or if you want to grow a plant that requires even more acidic soil, then – my advice would be – just grow it in a pot. Fill the post with an ericaceous compost and top up every now and again. Simple. Certainly far more simply than trying to alter your soil pH.

And if you really fancy growing a certain plant actually within a bed or border and not in a pot, then you could sink a pot into the ground and just fill that with the right compost.

You can also use a range of acidic fertilisers, which will ensure the plants receive exactly the right nutrients they need. (Their problem with alkaline soils is actually that they are unable to take up the correct amount of iron from the soil, which becomes “locked up” in soils with higher lime content.)

One final note: tap water has lots of calcium in it (eg chalk) so it’s always best to water calcifuges with collected rain water instead.

Growing in the wrong conditions

So what will happen to all these calcifuges if they’re grown in soil that’s too acidic? In short, they will most likely die.

First of all, expect to see yellowing leaves (the scientific term for this is lime-induced chlorosis), the plant will grow more slowly, might fail to flower and, eventually, will just give up the ghost.

If you’re growing any of the plants in the list below and they’re showing any of those symptoms, it might be a good idea to check whether the soil they’re in ic acidic enough.

Calcifuge plants

Finally, a quick overview of some of the most common calcifuges and their preferred pH.

I would definitely recommend with any plant, however, checking the RHS online plant finder and getting all the info you need on what the plant likes to grow, from soil pH to soil type, exposure, sunlight etc etc.

RhododendronRhododendrons / azaleas: If you’ve read my blog for a while you might remember that my garden was full, absolutely stuffed full, with rhododendrons. (I think there were 40 plants originally…) One of the reasons I wasn’t that keen to keep them is that the soil isn’t very acidic, only about 6.6. So without constant pampering, the rhododendrons would soon get unhealthy. They prefer a soil pH of 5-6

Blueberries: I’ve been meaning to grow blueberries for years and I think this year will be the year! (Though, I almost certainly said that last year.) They are some of the most acid-loving of all, requiring a soil pH of 4.5-5.5

Camellias: Personally, I am not a camellia fan, but I know I’m really rather alone in this opinion. Irrespective of my views of them, camellias like an acidic soil of around pH 5-6.

Acer | Wolves in LondonAcers: All acers (maples) prefer a slightly acidic soil. The ever popular (and ever beautiful) Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, tends to do best in a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.5.

Blue hydrangeas: this one is especially crazy. Pink hydrangeas will turn blue if the soil pH is below 5.5.

Heathers: there are a few heathers that will survive in soils with a pH higher than 6.5, but most prefer acidic conditions, ranging from 4.5 to 6.5.

Pieris: A lovely plant this, in my opinion, and one that I hadn’t come across until a few years ago. They prefer a pH of 5 to 6.

Magnolia stellata | Wolves in LondonMagnolias: most magnolias require acidic conditions, with the exception of Magnolia stellata (ahem, which is the magnolia in this photo, since this is the one in my front garden…)

And that’s about it. There are many others, of course, but these are some of the more commonly grown calcifuges.

So, I hope that was vaguely helpful. Was there anything I’ve missed out, or do you have any other tips on growing these acid-loving plants? (Or any questions about something I’ve not covered?) If so, please do leave a comment below.

Til next time then, when I’m going to be talking about deadheading…

Gardening jargon buster: biological control

Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

“Biological control” is one of those gardening phrases that sounds really off-putting and overly-scientific for something that’s actually nice and cuddly and environmentally friendly and green and, frankly, just the kind of thing I am all about when it comes to gardening.

(It’s also, quite arguably, a lazy way of gardening, which gets my vote every time.)

For, biological control simply means that rather than using chemicals to kill any pests in your garden (eg bug sprays, slug pellets or any other sort of poison that can be employed to wipe out little critters that are harming your plants) you arrange for the pests to fall foul to a predator instead.

In one of the simplest examples of biological control, rather than killing slugs with slug pellets (that poison the slugs along with any other animals who might happen to eat them), you can just encourage birds and frogs into your garden so they eat the slugs instead.

Everyone’s a winner, right?!

Well, except the slugs, who are being taken out either way.

Frog | Wolves in London
Ribbit, ribbit, I’m just about to hop off and eat hundreds of slugs…

Encouraging natural predators is the most straightforward version of biological control (and the one I like the best).

You can use it to control pests such as slugs (which are eaten by frogs, hedgehogs or birds) or caterpillars (eaten by birds).

Controlling pests with biological control

Basically, create an environment that is pleasing to your chosen predator (a pond for frogs, for example) and wait for them to move in and start munching on their favourite foods.

A similar principle applies for other pests such as aphids, which are a tasty treat for ladybirds. It’s slightly harder to encourage ladybirds to arrive (despite those lovely wooden ladybird houses you see for sale) – so in this instance, you could actually buy some ladybirds and bring them into your garden. I kid you not, pet ladybirds are available to buy. Even better, you can buy them online.

Websites like GreenGardener (my personal fave) sell ladybirds and ladybird larvae. You order them online, wait for them to arrive by post and then release them onto the plants in the evening time, so that they don’t fly away but make a home for the night and then, with a bit of luck, have a good breakfast in the morning once they’ve got over their jet lag.

Apart from the normal kinds of predators, that you might expect to see in your garden anyway, you can also find a huge range of weird and wonderful things that are all ready to wipe out your pest problem. I have to confess, at this end of the scale, biological control is, perhaps, as odd and scientific as the name implies.

One of the more popular are nematodes, micro-organisms that live in the soil. Different types of these eat different things. Though, I use the word “eat” rather loosely, since what they really do is enter the body of the prey and destroy it from the inside out. Charming.

You can get nematodes to control a range of pests, from slugs to vine weevils. For all of them, it’s important to apply them to the soil in the right conditions (which includes both water levels and temperature) in order for them to be effective.

Then there are parasitic wasps that feed on whitefly, predatory mites for the red-spotted spider mite, midges and lacewing larvae for aphids (along with ladybirds)… …plus various others, I’m sure, that I’ve not heard of yet.

Does it work?

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, in all honesty, that’s because it is.

The problem with biological control is that it’s not as effective as a pesticide at destroying the problem for you. Where a bug spray will probably kill every single last bug on your plant (and likely lots of bugs around your plant and other perfectly nice bugs that weren’t causing problems on your plant in the first place and perhaps a few passing honeybees too), biological controls will most likely only help to keep the problem in check. The poor old ladybird can’t eat all the aphids. And, in fact, if the predators did eat every single last one of the pests, well, they would then die out themselves as they’d have nothing to feed on. This is particularly true for pests in greenhouses.

But, my lovely gardening friends, my mantra for this (if not always in life) is moderation in all things.

Yes, there may be some pests left in your garden and, yes, you might sacrifice a few plants to them, or nibbled edges of leaves, or maybe even, shock, the odd vegetable or two. But surely, surely, it’s worth it to grow in a nice biodiverse environment, where the food chain works as it should and you know you’re not responsible for killing the lovely honeymaking bees?

And so, in summary, biological control: not the best way of eradicating pests, but definitely the nicest. And besides, who wouldn’t want a bunch of ladybirds being posted through their letterbox?

Have you tried any of these yourself? I’d love to know how you’ve got on with them, do leave me a comment and share any tips or hints.

Myself, I have a pond with some frogs that don’t seem terribly keen on eating slugs, but perhaps eat a few. I tried releasing ladybird larvae last year, and found that the ones in the greenhouse were very happy and stayed a long time, plus another little colony that set up on one of my rose bushes, but there were some plants they obviously left straight away, where the aphids remained. And I used nematodes for slugs a few years back and they certainly worked, but I am slightly unsure whether I’m okay with the side effects of lots of snails dying too…

This is the third in my garden jargon buster series. Every fortnight I work my way through the alphabet chatting about a gardening expression. Come back in two weeks to hear all about calcifuges, or check out the rest of the series here: Gardening jargon buster.

PS, I have to just point out, I didn’t take that lovely photo of the robin up at the top of the post. It’s from a free stock photo website, free images, here: robin in snow.

Alkalinity to acidity and everything in between

…or, why soil pH is so important

Alkaline or acid soils: a quick guide to understanding soil pH levels

Before I really started to get into gardening, I have to admit, I thought the whole soil pH thing was a bit of a nonsense.

Sure, I was aware that such things as soil tests existed and that every intro to every gardening book I looked at recommended you go and test your soil but, honestly, I thought, what’s the point? It seemed a little bit earnest and overly-diligent to head out there, digging up a sample, and checking to see if the liquid turned red or green. (This much I could remember from chemistry lessons at school red = acid, green = alkaline.)

I had the soil I had, there was not much I could do about it, and I just went ahead and planted whatever plants I wanted in whatever spot in the garden I thought would look nice. Of course, with this approach, quite a few of them died really rather quickly indeed.

I also thought (very vaguely, if I thought about it at all, which wasn’t really much) that acid soil would surely be bad for plants (who wants acid, right?) and alkaline probably better and neutral best of all.

Well, needless to say, everything I had assumed turned out to be wrong when I was forced to actually pay attention to soil pH in one of my horticulture classes last year.

The pH scale

As I – very vaguely – remembered from Chemistry GCSE, the pH scale goes from 1-14. 1 is the most acidic and 14 the most alkaline. Neutral is right there in the middle at 7.

Most soils, though, tend to be slightly on the acidic side, around 6.5 in pH if you’re interested in the numbers. And, in fact, a broader range of plants prefer to be in slightly acidic soil.

When it comes to plants, the pH scale to look at is between (approximately) 4.5 and 7.5, very few plants able to survive outside those two extremes. The majority of plant species tend to thrive in soils between 6 and 7.

Interestingly, soil also tends to get more acidic over time. (Due to a number of reasons, but broadly because the alkaline nutrients are leached from the soil and because rainfall itself is slightly acidic…)

So, if you’re gardening a plot for a long time, you’ll probably want to re-check the soil pH after a few years and see if it’s altered at all.

Different plants for different places

But the most important thing I learnt was that some plants really do need to be in the right acidity / alkalinity of soil in order to survive.

Certain plants really dislike being planted in soil that’s too alkaline as it means they’re unable to take up the nutrients they need to survive. These are called calcifuges (which translates as lime haters. Lime = alkaline soil.) The most common examples are rhododendrons. If they’re planted in soil conditions that aren’t right, they will grow more slowly, perhaps become stunted, may not flower well, and often will have yellowing leaves, and ultimately will just give up the ghost and die.

There’s a whole lot to say about calcifuges, actually, so I’m going to be coming back to them in their own article in a few weeks, once we get to letter C.

Other plants may grow okay in alkaline soil but become more likely to get diseases, such as potatoes which tend to get potato scab if the soil they’re in isn’t acidic enough.

At the other end of the scale, some plants fare badly if the soil is too acidic. Plants such as saxifrages are a great example. Clematis and viburnums are other commonly-grown plants that prefer alkaline soils.

And then there are certain veg that are more prone to get diseases in heavily acid soils. Brassicas (that’s your cabbages, Brussel sprouts and so on) tend to get a disease called club root if they’re in soil that’s too acidic.

 What to do

So, bearing all this in mind, what can you do?

Firstly, go out and do a soil test. Honestly. I finally did one and found that my soil is basically slightly on the acidic side, which is great.

Once you know what your soil type is (and do check in different places as it might vary across your garden) then you can assess plants before you buy them to see if they’re likely to flourish.

The RHS plant finder online is a great resource for finding out info on plants and I always check here before buying anything.

There is such a huge variety of plants out there, that you should be able to find ones that you love which will thrive in the soil conditions you have. And this, by far, is the easiest way to go about things, rather than spending lots of money and time trying to alter the soil that you’ve got…

Altering soil pH

That said, what if your soil is really at an extreme end of the scale and you long for a greater choice of plants? Or you’re growing veg and you don’t want your cabbages to succumb to club root and your potatoes to scab.

Fret not! It is possible to alter soil pH, but is something of a faff. (That’s the technical gardening term for it, of course…)

My first option would be to grow plants in containers if I wanted a plant that needed a different soil type. For veg, you could add top soil into raised beds, or grow fruit bushes in pots to cater to their diverse but exacting needs.

Blueberries are a classic example of a plant that needs specific soil (very acidic in this case), and therefore grows perfectly well in pots if your soil isn’t suitable.

Just buy the right compost, fill up the containers and grow in your new (perfect!) conditions.

If you desperately want to change whole flowerbeds, though, or your soil is so very acidic / alkaline that it’s not feasible to grow many plants in it, you can change the pH by adding either lime or sulphur to make it more alkaline / acidic respectively.

This takes time, so you’ll need to work on the soil over a period of months, adding whichever you’re using at the rate recommended on the packet, and then keep on carrying out a soil test until you get the desired result.

But, even then, it’s not possible to sit back and enjoy it forever – soil will naturally try and return to the state it wants to be in: its make up determined by the bedrock underneath it, which will continue to break down and deposit the same minerals back into the soil. So if you live above a huge section of chalk, any attempt to make your soil more acidic will be an ongoing one.

So, an overall recap on soil pH would be: life is so very much easier if you learn to love what you’ve got. Perfect advice for almost everything really.

Phew, this post ended up far longer than I expected and I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of everything I could say on soil pH! If you’ve any questions, do drop me a comment below and I’ll do what I can to answer it.

Otherwise, do come back again in a fortnight when I’ll be wittering at length talking intelligently about biological control (and why ladybirds are so awesome)…

Related articles:

  • This is the first post in my new fortnightly series, a gardening jargon buster, where I’ll be going through an A to Z of gardening terms.

Gardening jargon buster

Gardening jargon buster | Wolves in LondonI’m a fairly recent convert to gardening. In my teens and early 20s, I had no appreciation of the joys to be found digging and watering, planting bulbs and pulling weeds and generally pootling around with a cup of tea in hand, looking at what’s going on in your little patch of land.

When I bought my first flat with a garden, about a decade ago, a little spark of interest was born. I bought a few plants online chosen for their attractive-looking flowers (almost certainly completely unsuitable for where I lived) and stuck them in the ground and forgot about them. Then wondered why almost everything died and anything that was alive didn’t flower as it was supposed to.

From then on, I started to pay proper attention and slowly, slowly, bit by bit, have started to understand how and why things grow.

In the early finding-things-out-myself days, it seemed as if there was some special code language attached to gardening; odd-sounding jargon abounding whenever I had a problem to solve or read a gardening book or magazine.

In all honesty, it wasn’t until I took a course in horticulture a few years ago, that I really started to understand what some of these phrases were all about.

As I’m just starting out on another course in 2015 (this time in garden design, about which I am supersupersuper excited) I thought it might be a nice time to run a little series on the blog.

Now, I wouldn’t in the slightest like you to think that I think I’m any sort of gardening expert. (Nor would I like you to see my actual garden, right now, which is a pretty ugly mess of half-planted beds, grass that needed a decent mow back in the summertime, and the world’s biggest and ugliest greenhouse…)

However, as I’m learning new things every week, I thought it might be quite fun to share a gardening jargon buster. Once a fortnight throughout the year, I’ll be working my way through the alphabet, sharing a few thoughts and tips on various gardening terms.

I’m picking the ones I hadn’t heard of before, or ones that always confused me, or, sometimes, just things I find especially interesting. (It’s possible I am the only person in the country who is so utterly fascinated by the concept of dehiscent seeds.)

So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then please do check in here on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month and I will (hopefully!) get all the way from A to Z by the time 2016 swings around.

I’m kicking off the alphabet tomorrow with an A for alkalinity and acidity (aka soil pH). Something that is actually quite weirdly fascinating once you dig into it a little (‘arf ‘arf, pun intended…)

I’ll keep this page as a contents page, adding links to each article as I publish them, so do bookmark this if you just want to come back in a few months and see a bunch of articles all at once.

So, then, til tomorrow!

The jargon buster index:

A: Alkalinity to acidity; understanding soil pH levels

B: Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

C: Calcifuges: all about the acid lovers of the plant world

Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden (part two)

More musings on things to plan now for the kitchen garden of your dreams next year. If you missed the first part, check it out here: Planning a kitchen garden, part one.

Planning a kitchen garden | Wolves in London
Veg and scaffolding planks: two fine ingredients for a kitchen garden…

Positioning your plot

If you’re in the enviable position of having a selection as to where you grow your veg, fruit and herbs, I’m pretty jealous!

In my garden, there is one suitable space only, a bed at the back, on the south side, which used to be full of rhododendrons, but is now empty. My kitchen garden will go there. End of story.

But if you’ve got a choice, either because you’re re-planning your whole garden, or you’ve got a selection of different places you could give over to food, then there are a few things to think about first.

Veg and fruit (generally) requires a lot of sunlight to ripen fully. So pick a sunny spot. This is especially true for fruits like grapes, which need sunlight to produce the sugars that make them taste so nice in the first place. You also want to avoid winds, which could damage the young plants, put off pollinating insects or blow the fruits right off the plants. Frost pockets (areas that are colder than the rest of your garden, for example because they’re in a small dip where cold air settles) should also be avoided. But that’s pretty obvious.

Speaking of pollinating insects, these are pretty essential for anything that produces fruits (this includes beans, peas and so on), which makes sunny sheltered spots the best.

Finally, think about the amenities you’ll need. One of the reasons my watering schedule was so crappy this past year was that the builders pulled out our water pipes that fed the tap at the bottom of the garden. (I only realised this once they’d left and it was a bit late to sort out…) This means I need to fill up the watering can from the tap at the other end of the garden and schlep it down to all the veg. Okay, this is literally a journey of 20ft or so, but it makes a surprisingly huge difference. This year, a water butt is going in to collect rainwater off the greenhouse roof and provide me with a much easier tap to use.

Of course, you don’t have to actually put aside a dedicated bed if you don’t have the space or inclination. Lots of plants can just be grown in regular flower beds, along with your other blooms, and many can look pretty attractive too. Purple kale or rainbow chard makes a good border plant; asparagus tips can pop up in a border before the rest of the plants really get started and a close proximity of flowers and veg helps all those lovely bees come and pollinate for you.

Making a planting plan

Oooh, this is the bit I just love! The expectation, the hopes, the dreams. Yes, I think I’ll put some lovely borlotti beans in there, oooh, let’s have some low growing strawberries there etc etc, as you drool from the mouth in anticipation of the next year’s bounty and imagine how you’ll need to phone your veg box delivery company and cancel the box because you just have so much food to eat…

I tend to draw up a rough plan on the back of envelope before I order my seeds, working out what will go there and how much I can realistically fit in. This (theoretically) prevents you massively over-ordering on the seeds, though I still manage it every year.

Put the tallest plants in the middle of the beds (or the side furthest from the sun) so they don’t overshadow the others. Check the distances needed between the plants (all seed packet info should have this) so you can figure out how many plants per row and how many rows you can fit in.

Think about planting certain things in succession – lettuce can be replanted throughout the year so you always have fresh crops, radishes can be planted in between slower growing crops like cabbage. Maximise your space, but don’t over-ram it. On the whole, plants spaced closer together will grow smaller but potentially more uniformly. This can actually be desirable, if you’re after tiny little baby carrots, for example, but try and make it intentional, rather than a by product of over-planting. (Ha! She says optimistically. I am a terrible one for overplanting because I just want one more little delicious plant in there please…)

Buying seeds

Sure, you could pop down to your local DIY shop and pick up any number of veg seeds these days, but the real specialities tend to be online or in garden centres. I tend to buy a lot from the James Wong selection at Suttons seeds, because I just can’t resist the allure of weird things like cucamelons; a fair bit from Sarah Raven because I just can’t resist the allure of such delightfully styled aspirational gardening and then some heritage seeds from Crocus, which is the online gardening shop I tend to buy most of my plants from. (It’s definitely not the cheapest, but I have never had a duff plant from them and they have some amazing free planting plans for inspiration too…)

There are lots more specialist providers of weird and wonderful things as well, or of course you can use seed you’ve saved yourself (I wrote more about that a few weeks ago: saving seeds) or have blagged from friends.

So, I think that pretty much concludes most of my pearls of wisdom on Autumn planning for a kitchen garden: choose a plot, prep your soil, pore over the seed catalogues, order some things and then feet up until the start of next year when you can begin to stick them in the ground / pots.

I’ve really been enjoying writing some of these gardening posts for the Grow, forage, cook series with Laura. I do hope you’ve been enjoying reading them too! I’d love it if you felt like leaving me a comment and letting me know what you think. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual craft / general life waffle…

Next week, Laura will be rounding up our favourite pics / recipes / blog posts that have been tagged #growforagecook on Twitter or instagram, so do keep on sharing your bakes, makes, preserves, or anything else you’re up to. As the colder weather settles in, my thoughts are turning towards pickling and preserving. But more on that, perhaps, another time…

In the garden: October

Surrounded by cobwebs, the last of the flowers are just clinging on out in the garden at the moment.

Garden cobweb | Wolves in London
A teeny tiny feather caught in a cobweb

Elated by the sunshine, I took a trip out this morning to photograph the few remaining splashes of colour, to try and hold onto them for as long as possible before the garden takes on its winter coat of unbroken green.

Actually, I love all the different shades of green you can find in a verdant garden, but I would like to add a little more colour as well.

I’m currently agonising over whether to cut down a rather large, browning, overgrown conifer that’s moping about next to our pond and planting some dogwood in its place: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ (you can see some in my post about trees / shrubs with winter colour from the start of the year). The idea is, the bright red stems in the winter would reflect in the pond and bring a bit of cheer (and contrast) to the otherwise green vistas. (Ha! I’m not sure you can actually use the word “vista” if the total distance you can see is probably about 20ft…)

I had just started to write a lengthy essay explaining to you the pros and cons of the decision, but have deleted the six paragraphs on the grounds that it’s not wildly exciting reading.

Anyway, back to what’s actually there at the moment…

The two pink rose bushes continue to bloom: they deserve an award for outstanding longevity as I think they’ve both been in flower for around six months now.

Pink rose | Wolves in London
This rose must surely be one of the last?
Rose | Wolves in London
I prefer these, less formal, roses…

Meanwhile, my new Rosa rugosa hedge has been making the most glorious red hips.

Rosehip | Wolves in London
Peekaboo

In an equally impressive display, my perennial sweetpea is still (still!) putting out flowers. For the last month or so, I’ve been thinking every bloom I see is the last, only for another to appear a few days later…

Sweet pea | Wolves in London
Incidentally, if anyone knows by looking what type of sweet pea this is, do let me know. I no longer remember what I sowed…

In the back garden, there are lots of bright Hesperantha coccinea by the pond. (More usual name? Not a clue, I’m afraid…) I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of red flowers in the garden, but somehow, once the main summer has passed and we’re into autumn, my opinion changes completely and I am delighted to see such rich colours.

Hesperantha coccinea | Wolves in London
So cheerful

Behind them, my Japanese maple is still looking a little unhealthy, but has managed to put out lots of lovely purpley/red seed pods. What glorious colours!

Acer | Wolves in London
Ignore the brown, curling leaves and just look at the seeds…

And my lovely pink daisies have just put out a second bloom…

Erigeron | Wolves in London
I thought these were over, but some more just appeared

Finally, I just can’t resist sharing this photo of my little photographic assistant. He’s been given use of Daddy’s old camera and has spent much of the past few weeks in poses fairly similar to this one.

I asked him, “Are you taking a photo of Mummy?” and he looked at me quizzically, as if that would be a very odd thing to do, and said, “No! Taking photo of dis plant…” The apples don’t fall far from the tree, eh…

Toddler photographing | Wolves in London
Gardener, cleaner, photographer extraordinaire…

Grow, forage, cook: saving seeds (and free seed envelope template)

Vintage style seed envelopes: free download | Wolves in London
Seed collecting: like foraging in your own garden…

Far be it from me to deny the joys of veg gardening (of which there are many, even in years of disappointing harvest) but I have to confess that one of my absolute favourite benefits of growing your own is the chance to get something for nothing.

Yes, it is just quite possible I am a massive skinflint, but it makes me very happy to spend a pound or two on a packet of seeds and then enjoy fresh tomatoes for the entire summer months.

And saving and storing some seeds from said tomatoes to grow a full summer’s worth the following year entirely for free is enough to put a beam on your face throughout the whole of a miserable dark winter…

So it is, around this time of year, I head out into the garden and collect seeds from anything I’d like to grow again.

Honesty seed cases |Wolves in London
Honesty seed cases; remove seeds and stick in a vase for winter. Heaven

Of course, at the same time as I’m collecting seeds, I should be taking the opportunity to do a bit of weeding, sweep down the paths, get the greenhouse ready for the winter and so on and so on. But no, I find these maintenance tasks a little boring, so instead I’ve been square-eyed in front of the laptop, making some rather attractive seed envelopes to store all my seeds in.  (Even if I do say so myself.)

Free seed packet download | Wolves in London
Envelopes wot I made mesself

There’s one for fruit, one for veg and one for flowers. The images, as ever, are from the wonderful Graphics Fairy website (check it out if you’re a fan of vintage pictures). I’ve used a botanical rose illustration (of course, you’d be highly unlikely to actually harvest rose seeds, I should point out, but I just really liked the picture), this botanical pea illustration for the veg and this botanical apple illustration for fruit (again, don’t actually go collecting apple pips, not only would it take you years to get a tree, but they wouldn’t be the same as the original tree anyway).

If you’d like to make some envelopes of your own, by all means go ahead! Just click on the image below to download a pdf that contains all three templates.

[NB, On my laptop, when I click on the link it shows me the document with all the Ss missing. If yours is the same, just download and save it to your computer first and you’ll see it in all its glory. How these things happen, I do not know. Before printing, check the settings are for “actual size” and landscape…]

Free printable seed envelopes | Wolves in London

Once you’ve got the envelopes, you’ll need something to put inside them. Here’s a few pointers if you’re trying seed collecting for the first time:

Poppy seeds | Wolves in London
Poppies: the easiest seeds to collect.
  • Different plants produce seeds in different ways, requiring different harvesting techniques. The easiest to collect are those flowers that store their seeds in something akin to a salt cellar, in order to shake them out once they’re ready. Flowers like poppies, snapdragons or love-in-a-mist all do this. To collect the seeds, just shake the seedhead onto a piece of paper, or straight into the envelope, and your seeds are ready.
  • Peas and beans (including sweet peas) are also very easy to harvest. Make sure you leave a few on the plant long enough for the seed to ripen. The outer bean part will turn brown, the seeds will start to dry and shrivel up and, once ready, should be easily removed. Dry for a day or two longer on some kitchen paper to be sure they’re completely dehydrated and then store til next year.
  • For soft fruit and veg, like tomatoes, you need to wait until the fruit is ripe, which means the seed will be ready, then just mash up the fruit a bit and remove the seeds. The easiest way to do this is to put the fruit and some water into a bottle or jar and shake it well until it has separated. If necessary, leave for a few days or up to a week. Remove the seeds, dry them completely on a piece of kitchen paper and store.
  • Almost all seed should be stored in a cool and dry environment. Wrap in clingfilm to keep out the moisture, then put inside an envelope (or, of course, my lovely new seed packets!)
  • Different seeds are viable (ie capable of germination) for different amounts of time. On the whole, most seeds will do well to be used within a few years. Label the date of your seed collections so you can try and use them as soon as possible.
  • Lots of fruit / veg nowadays is grown from seeds known as F1 hybrids. I won’t go into the science of this as it’s a bit complicated, but it basically means that the resultant plant is likely to be stronger, healthier, less prone to pests and diseases and will crop uniformly and heavily. All sounds great, right? The only thing is, seeds collected from the plants grown from F1 hybrids won’t grow true to their parent. So, when you’re buying seeds, check whether it says F1 hybrid on the pack. If so, it’s probably not worth bothering collecting the seed from these plants, but better to just buy them again the following year.
  • Finally, a word of warning, certain seeds have what’s known as an inbuilt dormancy, that means they won’t germinate until certain environmental external conditions have been met. The most common of which is a drop in temperature. (In the wild, this means the seed doesn’t grow at the wrong time of year – it waits for winter to be over, for example…) It’s best to do a double check online for seeds before planting them, just to make sure you won’t need to fake the necessary environmental conditions before planting. (If you’ve stored the seed inside your centrally heated house, it won’t know that winter has been and gone, so you might need to put it into the fridge for a week or two to trick it into thinking it has…) Don’t be put off by this though, most seeds are fine to chuck straight into the ground – or a nicely prepared seed tray – but it’s definitely worth checking in advance to avoid disappointment if they don’t grow…

I hope you enjoy the seed packets. Please do share photos of any seed collecting you’re up to, or any other growing, foraging or cooking by using the hashtag #growforagecook on instagram or twitter, or just leave a comment here!

[Grow, forage, cook is a series I run with Laura at Circle of Pine Trees, where we share some of our successes (and failures) with homegrown, foraged (or just bought!) seasonal food. We’d love it if you’d join in too. Every month we publish a round-up of our favourite Grow, forage, cook captures. Check out last month’s over on Circle of Pine Trees: August round up.]

Free seed packet download | Wolves in London