Monthly Archives: March 2012

A deal too good to be true?

As an academic I learn by reading and research. I have many gardening books but by far the best resource for me is magazines. They are topical and tell you what you should be doing at that particular time. For a novice like me this is invaluable.

However, it soon became apparent that spending over £20 each month on gardening magazines was not going to be sustainable for the long term. Plus Mr Mac was getting suspicious at the spike in the shopping bill at the end of each month!

One publication I discovered that was easy to read, informative and aimed at my novice level was Amateur Gardening. A weekly publication at £2 per issue it gives great advice on what jobs you should be doing that week, lots of illustrative photographs so you can see how you should be doing them and just enough text to be able to flick through and have it finished by the time you’re ready to hit the garden on a Saturday morning.

It covers flowers and vegetables with a bit of hard landscaping and some longer articles to keep for a rainy afternoon.

I had been buying this for a couple of weeks when I noticed that if you subscribed you got a free garden tidy caddy worth £16.95. What’s more the caddy was pink! I picked up the phone at once.

I gave the offer code and was all ready to provide my card details when I was advised there was another offer available. At first I was not interested if I did not get my pink caddy but when I was told I could have 51 issues for £45.90 – less than £1 per issue – even my numerically challenged brain worked out that was too good a deal to pass up. A little while later (and with the help of a calculator) I worked out I could buy 3 pink caddies with the money I would save and still have change.

It gets even better though. Not only am I paying less than £1 each week to be expertly guided through the minefield that is flower and vegetable growing, between the months of March and September there are free seeds each week worth at least £1.99. This week saw a double pack of flower and tomato seeds worth £3.88!

So if you add it all up, Amateur Gardening magazine is actually paying me.

Now where did I see an offer for 6 issues of Gardener’s World magazine for £6?…..I’m off to investigate………

Unidentified Growing Objects!

Last year I planted some dahlia tubers in a flower bed under the livingroom window. Seven out of the eight that I planted grew, but they were a bit late flowering (my fault for planting them late!) and then got obliterated by the strong autumn winds.

Once the leaves had turned black, after the first frosts, I cut them down leaving just a tiny bit of the stem above the soil. They were then covered in a really deep layer of topsoil to protect them from frost.

They looked so lovely I decided to buy some more and create a flower border just full of dahlias. They are all semi-cactus variety and the flowers are huge. The foliage varies from a green-black to lime green so even before the flowers open there is some variety of colour.

Dahlias or pineapples?

It is recommended that dahlia tubers are planted in the ground about 6 weeks before the last frost is expected. This is round about now where I live. I was having a look at the border when I noticed a pineapple shape sticking up out of the ground. As the week has gone on more and more have started to appear. Now if I was a betting woman I would put money on them being dahlias. However, they are not anywhere near where they were last year.

According to Mr Mac the tubers spread and what has popped up are new tubers. This explains why they are in a different place. It is unlikely last year’s tubers will flower which means I will need to wait to see where they are all going to pop up before I can plant the new ones.

It also means that they will have to be protected from the risk of frost so I will be tuned to the weather forecast each night and if it looks like it may be frosty I have some protective fleece to throw over them. It would be a shame to lose them now after they have survived the winter.

Another odd thing that has happened this week is the Morning Glory seedlings I potted on last week look like they have started to burn round the edges! They were growing really well but now most of them look as if they are going to die. I wondered if it was just too hot for them in the greenhouse so I have been taking them outside each morning and putting them back in at night. I have planted some more seeds just in case. I will need them for my blue wall.

Finally, you may remember a few blogs back I had lost my Muscari. Well I found it! It was at the front door.


Tea Break – Banana, date and walnut loaf

This is a good recipe for using up those old black bananas lying at the bottom of the fruit bowl. It started off as a Mary Berry recipe for date and walnut loaf with an option to swap the dates and walnuts for banana and cherries.

I tried different combinations and came up with this version, which I think works very well. Slice it up and freeze it. When you are putting the kettle on for your afternoon cuppa, stick the oven on low, throw in a slice (or two if you have company!) and by the time your tea is ready to drink the cake will have defrosted and be just warm enough to melt the butter! Perfect.

Ingredients (serves 8)

  • 90g butter, plus some for greasing
  • 250g dates, stoned and roughly chopped
  • 150ml boiling water
  • 90g caster sugar
  • 1 egg (medium)
  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 90g walnuts, roughly chopped
  • 2 large ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1kg (2lb) loaf tin


  1. Lightly grease the loaf tin with butter and line with greaseproof paper.
  2. Put the dates into a bowl, pour over the measured boiling water and leave for about 15 minutes.
  3. Combine the butter, sugar, egg, flour and baking powder in a large bowl and beat until well blended. Add the bananas, walnuts and dates, plus the soaking liquid and stir to mix well.
  4. Spoon into the loaf tin and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 C (350 F, Gas 4) for 1 hour 15 minutes until well risen and firm to the touch. It may need slightly longer but the way to tell if it is ready is by inserting a skewer into the middle of the loaf and it comes out clean.
  5. Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes and then turn it out on to a wire rack and peel off the paper. Wait until it is completely cool before attempting to slice it – otherwise it just crumbles!

This recipe also works well using gluten free flour.

If you want to try it with the cherries add 125g of quartered glace cherries instead of, or as well as, the bananas, dates or walnuts.


It’s the brassica X-Factor!

We have been blessed with a few days of unseasonably hot weather. It has been 23 degrees this week which is what we would class as a good day in June, July or August….but it is still March!

While the shorts got a rude awakening being pulled out of their winter hideaway 2 months early, the hot weather has put a spanner in the works as far as work in the garden goes.

I had planned a week of potting on my flowers but it was too hot to work in the greenhouse – 38 degrees at one point on Monday. It was too hot to dig, too hot to wear wellies and everything is confused. My fear is that many of the flowers may die off with the frost that will inevitably arrive (probably in June the way things are going!).

It is cooling down slightly now and after much consideration (ie what would be the easiest!) I decided to pot on my brassicas.

This  year I am growing red cabbage, white cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and brocolli. I am trying new varieties of white cabbage and cauliflower this year. I have gone for a variety of white cabbage called “Minicole” which produces a smaller head and can be left in the ground longer. The problem we had in the past was that all the cabbages were ready at once and they were huge. We would be eating them all week and had to give most of them away.

I am also trying an all year round variety of cauliflower and will try planting seeds periodically to extend the eating season. Again, there is only so much cauliflower cheese you can eat in a week. “Why don’t you freeze it?” I hear you ask. I tried. I freeze things then forget about them, find them 2 years later and throw them out! I need to start keeping a freezer inventory so I remember what I have.

My next problem is I am too successful! Most of the seeds sown germinate and I have struggled in the past with getting rid of any plants. I pot them on then try to give as many away as I can but then find we are left with 30 or 40 plants which is just too much for two people.

This year I decided I had to be brutal. Only pot on as many as we will need with a couple of emergency plants in case we lose any. So I found myself holding X-Factor style auditions in the greenhouse, examining every seedling for signs of healthy stems and leaves and I even found myself lining up several specimens to see who had the best roots. Only the best made it through to the finals!

I have kept 9 red cabbage, 9 brussel sprouts and 18 brocolli. The reason brocolli were shown some favouritism is because my friend is taking some but last year the brocolli stems were very spindly which meant we maybe had enough for 3 meals (from 12 plants!). I love brocolli so I decided to grow more of it.

I used pots rather than seed trays to germinate the white cabbage and cauliflower seeds and was not very successful. I think something ate the cauliflower. I only had 3 cauliflower and 4 cabbage seedlings to pot on. I have sown some more today so fingers crossed!

Here they all are in their new 3 inch pots.

As I write, Mr Mac is laying slabs on which my coldframes will sit so by the time he is finished, these guys will be ready to go outside to harden off.

What he does not know yet is that I plan to grown them in a new raised bed…….which he has still to make!


Carrots should be orange!

We have quite stoney ground so I have always grown carrots in a variety of deep pots. Today I planted my first batch of main crop carrots.

My method

Old square flower pots are ideal for carrots

I use these square-ish flower containers as they are deep enough for the carrots to grow and it can be moved around the garden.

I put crocs (bits of broken china, bricks and stones) in the bottom for drainage, fill with multi-purpose compost (or some of my own when it’s ready), add a thin layer of seed compost, water, sprinkle the carrot seeds over the surface then cover with a thin layer of seed compost.


I will keep them in the greenhouse until there is no more risk of frost and then I sit the pot up on blocks in a sunny spot in the garden.

I have always just sprinkled the seeds on top of watered compost and let them grow. You are supposed to thin them out but I have never bothered – just don’t sow too many seeds and they will all have plenty of room.

It is also suggested that you sow seeds every 2-3 weeks to provide a continual supply but I have found that as long as they are in the soil they will last for months. There is nothing better than nipping down to the bottom of the garden and pulling some carrots to have with dinner. I will probably plant another pot in 6-8 weeks and that should see me through to autumn.

Purple Haze and Autumn King 2

Last year I grew Purple Haze and Autumn King 2. I mixed the seeds and planted them together so it was always a surprise which colour came out of the pot. It is a good mixture and they look great on the plate.

I still have seeds for both varieties and will continue planting them until I run out.

Now I know that carrots were originally purple and it was the Dutch that changed the colour to orange.  I admire Jamie Oliver for trying to bring back traditional varieties of vegetables, in this case Purple Haze carrots. However, purple carrots MESS WITH MY HEAD and I’m not sure I will grow any more once the seeds have finished.

They look like carrots and taste like carrots but they are purple. Sometimes you just want some nice orange carroty loveliness covered in butter without confusing your brain. Life is too short and the novelty has definitely worn off.

Early Carrots

Early carrots planted in a rose container

This year I read that to get an early crop of carrots use a deep pot, such as a rose container, and bring seeds on in the greenhouse. Here are some I planted on 18 February.  I will let you know if they are ready to eat any earlier than the main crops planted today.

Interesting fact about carrots

If you are planning to grow carrots, keep them at least 18 inches above the ground. The reason? Apparently carrot root fly grubs cannot fly!


Keep them well watered during dry spells as this stops the roots from splitting.

Wait until the carrots are in the kitchen before tearing the tops off. The smell of bruised foliage attracts carrot fly.

To store them over winter, any soil should be removed and they should be kept in sand in a cool dark place.


Mr Mac’s cunning plan

Well what an amazing day. I have been in the garden all day with a t-shirt and sunnies on and actually felt the need to put sun cream on my face! At midday it was 17 degrees outside the greenhouse and 25 degrees inside – and it’s only 22 March. It was just me, woody woodpecker, two ladybirds and the pheasant who has set up home in the field next door while he looks for a girlfriend! Heaven.

The trellis and flower bed where I plan to grow a wall of blue flowers.

I have weeded the flower bed in front of the trellis, potted on the cosmos, osteospermums (all 2 of them!), the gazanias and the dahlia pom poms. I also planted some ladybird poppy seeds in pots. It is something I did last year and it was really effective.

The First Tulips

The best part of the day was seeing the first of the tulips open.

Until this year, all we had in the garden in the spring were snowdrops then daffodils. This year we introduced some crocus. A bag of 20 bulbs was purchased and planted but the 2 small circles of purple crocus was merely a drop in the ocean and hardly made an impact at all. I think we probably need 2,000 bulbs!

We also bought loads of tulip bulbs but never got round to planting them in the ground in time. So we decided to plant them all in pots and once they have flowered and died back, we’ll stick them in the ground for next spring.

An  issue we have had in the past is our pots always crack and break with the frost. We did not want to risk it this winter, especially as most of them had tulip bulbs inside them.

Mr Mac came up with a cunning plan! The reason the pots crack is because the soil gets waterlogged and then expands when it freezes and this cracks the pot. His theory was that if he could create a layer between the pot and the soil inside it that would allow expansion then the pots would not crack.

Can you guess what Mr Mac’s solution was? BUBBLE WRAP!

Bubble wrap between the pot and the soil

Yes, we lined each pot with a layer of bubble wrap then filled it up with soil and planted the bulbs.

This did the trick and all the tulip pots survived the winter intact.

The only pot that did crack is the one that I keep my blueberry bush in. It sits in a large saucer which retains water. Yes, you guessed it – the saucer filled with water, the water froze and cracked the pot! Typical.

Anyway, the bubble wrap design is patent pending and you can look forward to seeing Mr Mac on the next series of Dragon’s Den!


The first cut of 2012!

Well today saw the grass get it’s first cut of 2012. Mr Mac had been trying to put it off for as long as possible. One reason was that we had some serious moss treatment done at the end of last year and wanted to give the grass a chance to grow. However, the main reason the grass had not been cut before now is that after the gale force winds in December and then January the grass was littered with broken twigs and branches and it was my job to pick them up!

Job now done. Back now very sore. Grass cut and looking good I have to say.

If we ever need to buy anything from the garden centre we try to do it on a Wednesday. The reason for this? Dougal’s Discount Wednesday – 10% off all purchases.

Off we went with a list and back we came with more seed compost, seeds for my hanging baskets and maris piper seed potatoes.

I had forgotten about my hanging baskets and have not actually planted anything appropriate. So after a quick look at some seed catalogues I decided on Monopsis, Nicotiana and Trailing Petunia. What I actually bought was pale pink Dascia and fuschia pink Trailing Petunia. The baskets will hang along the “blue wall” I hope to create so hopefully will provide a lovely contrast.

I also decided to pot on my 6 courgette plants. They had been getting quite comfy in the house but 2 of them were starting to keel over! They have now been rehomed and relocated to the greenhouse. I just hope they are still upright in the morning.

Check the size of the tuber on this!



Mr Mac decided to relocate a peony rose which was impeding progress of his new path network. Check the size of the tuber!




Tea break – lemon and cardamom cookies

I am a firm believer in tea breaks and was inspired last night by The Hairy Bikers, of all people, to make these lemon and cardamom cookies. They are really easy.


  • 115g butter, softened
  • 75g caster sugar
  • 1/2 lemon – zest only
  • 125g plain flour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 3tsp ground cardamom or 1 heaped tsp cardamom seeds, ground in a pestle and mortar


  1. Preheat oven to 190C/375F/Gas5. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Beat the butter, sugar and lemon zest together in a large bowl until pale and fluffy.
  3. Beat in the flour, almonds and cardamom until the mixture is well combined and comes together to form a stiff dough.
  4. Split the dough into 12 equal pieces, roll into balls and place on baking tray.
  5. Press each cookie down with the bottom of a glass to flatten – you can make patterns if you are artistic (unlike me).
  6. Bake for 12-14 minutes until pale golden brown.
  7. Leave to cool then transfer to a wire rack. They will crisp up as they cool.
  8. The recipe does go on to say store the cookies in an airtight tin and eat within 7 days – not a problem in this house!!!!!!!!
Lemon and cardamom cookies

Lemon and cardamom cookies - might need to use a larger tray next time!

Where has my Muscari gone?

I popped into town this morning to buy a paper. I also did my good deed for the day and donated leftover balls of wool to the Cat Rescue Appeal – apparently so volunteers can knit blankets for the abandonned kittens – awwwwww.

Anyway, on my way home I was stopped at the traffic lights at the canal bridge. I don’t mind this as there is a house there which always has a great garden. Whoever it belongs to is always one step ahead of mother nature. The snowdrops have been and gone, crocus are in the death throes, daffodils and tulips have been out for ages.

I was having a good old nosey while waiting for the lights to change when I noticed something new – Muscari! I thought to myself, ” I planted some of that. Where on earth is it?”

MuscariAs soon as I got home I looked out the label. Beautiful blue flowers. Something to give the garden a bit of colour while it is waiting for everything else to come out of hibernation. A bit of blue contrast to all the yellow daffs. Good for wildlife too, apparently. Look great alongside early tulips according to the label. YES BUT WHERE ARE THEY??????????

According to the instructions, flowering time is March to April. Not the end of the world, there is still time. I checked my garden log and they were planted on 16 January – slightly later than the recommended September to December planting time but barely over a fortnight. How come “Mr. House at the Canal Bridge” is so far ahead again?

According to the label there were 50 bulbs. Now I have a confession to make. I have been round the garden looking for signs of life and I cannot actually remember where I planted them!

So I will keep waiting and looking and if they ever appear you will be the first to know. And from now on I am going to use my marker labels religiously so that this never happens again.

Tomorrow I might walk into town so I can have a proper look at “Mr. House at the Canal Bridge’s” muscari………

Welcome to Compostopolis!

What a fantastic weekend. Two days of glorious, warm sunshine. It made me smile!

This year, Mr Mac and I have a long list of jobs to do in the garden other than growing things. The problem is one job needs to be done before the next one can be started. The time had come, we could put it off no longer – the compost bins had to be moved!

How NOT to build a compost bin!

old compost bins

How not to build a compost bin

When we moved here almost 4 years ago, Mr Mac built 3 huge composting bins at the bottom of the garden. One bin had to be demolished last year to make way for the new greenhouse and the remaining 2 were just in the wrong place.

As you can see from the photo they were huge and we could get loads of stuff in them.  However, size is not everything! To make compost successfully it needs to be turned. This is done by mixing it up to allow the air to get in. Our bins were too high to be able to do this.

We did eventually get lovely compost but it took nearly 2 years while we waited for the waste to break down.

How to do it properly

The error of our way was made clear one Friday evening courtesy of Monty Don on Gardeners World. He showed (or showed off according to an envious Mr Mac) viewers his composting “bays”. Simple compartments open at one end to allow waste to be wheelbarrowed in, tipped and left to break down.

The walls of each compartment were low enough to allow the compost to be turned by moving it from one bay to the next. A few weeks later it can be moved back. The most recent waste on top is then at the bottom and plenty of air is introduced which then speeds up the process.

This system should provide useable compost in as little as 3 months – a substantial improvement on 2 years!

New compost baysHere is the result using some old corrugated seets and some fence posts.

The end bay will hold the compost that is ready to use and the other two will be used to alternate the compost that is breaking down. The walls are low enough to allow the composting waste to be lifted over with a fork into the next bay, introducing lots of air in the process.

So what do we compost?

To make good compost we use lots of different material. Fine waste such as grass clippings, coarse waste such as potato peelings, dry waste such as cardboard (Mr Mac highly recommends empty beer boxes for this!)  and wet waste such as other garden waste. We keep one of the small plastic composting bins you buy in the supermarket under the kitchen sink and fill it with veg peelings, tea bags, coffee grinds and egg shells.

A balanced mix provides the right amount of air and moisture to allow the bacteria to heat up and break down the waste. Worms also help – hence the reason Mr Mac has banned me from adding citrus peel – the worms don’t like it apparently!

And finally……

After a hard day in the garden I sat down to read the Sunday paper. I came across an article about an award-winning composting shed which is set to become the star of this year’s Scotland’s Garden’s Scheme ( Feeling quite smug about our newly constructed compost bays, I read on to see what the fuss was about.

The garden’s owner had commissioned a firm of architects to build the £22,000, 7ft shed made of curved weathered steel and with a wildflower meadow roof.

Our composting bays probably did not even cost £2 – and that was the cost of the biscuits we ate while having our tea break!