Monthly Archives: April 2012

Lessons learned in April

As April comes to an end I cannot believe I am writing this post sitting in front of the fire. I should be digging (pardon the pun!) out my shorts and SPF15! However, that happened in March and then they were swiftly put away again.

The weather has gone crazy. Three consecutive days of record breaking weather in March lulled us all into a false sense of security. April followed with double the amount of average rainfall and way below average temperatures. Not good news for my plants.

The good things…

After a false start, I have lots of flower seedlings which I am starting to harden off. So far I have sweet peas, livingstone daisies, cosmos, rudbeckia, coreopsis, gazania, silver dust, marigolds, snap dragons, morning glory, aster, Iceland poppies, ladybird poppies, petunia, diascia, gaillardia, sanvitalia, black eyed susan and zinnias.

On the veg front the early peas and carrots are coming along, as are the first early potatoes and leeks. The first lettuce leaves should be ready to eat in a couple of weeks and the pak choi won’t be far behind.

Outside I have managed to plant some more peas and some beetroot and parsnips.

The blossom on the cherry trees was amazing, the aubretia plugs I bought last year are still flowering, as are the hellebores, the acquilegia grown from seed last year is about to flower and the oriental poppies are about to come out. So despite no tulips there is still a lot of colour in the garden.

The not so good…

The cold, wet weather has really affected the fruit and veg seedlings. The 2 melon plants and 4 okra plants don’t seem to have grown at all this month and despite putting 2 of the courgette plants into growbags they seem to be rotting at the roots. The aubergine, chilli and tomato plants all look healthy enough but don’t seem to be getting any bigger and some of the brassicas have keeled over from the root. This is either due to over or under watering during the really hot spell in March or a condition called “damping-off”.

some of the brassicas have just keeled over!

I also managed to kill my sweet basil and lemon basil last week when I split it up into individual pots. I thought I was being clever by separating the individual plants but what I should have done is just separate it in clumps and put them in larger pots. I have started again!

Despite the appalling weather we actually got quite a lot done outside. Phase II of the path network is complete, one veggie patch prepared and put into use, the second veggie patch should be ready shortly, some shrubs were relocated, summer bulbs and tubers planted, millions of pots, trays and modules washed with water and bleach and the raspberry canes covered with nets. And, of course, weeding, weeding and then some more weeding!

Lessons learned in April:

  1. Even if tender plants are kept in the greenhouse, if a cold night is forecast, don’t water them all at 7pm. I did this, the temperature plummeted to -4 degrees and the water froze and killed the plants.
  2. When potting on basil, separate seedlings in clumps, NOT by individual plants. They will just die and you will have to start again. Alternatively, just sow a few seeds in the pot they will stay in so they don’t have to be disturbed at all.
  3. Put a marker in the ground where you plant bulbs and tubers so you know where they are.
  4. Be prepared for heartbreak! If a pheasant decides it is going to eat all of your chard, tulips and raspberry canes there is very little you can do to stop it.
  5. Cats appreciate freshly dug earth. Not all clumps of earth are what they seem…
  6. If, like me, to save space you sow 2 different types of seeds in the one seed tray, check the estimated germination time for each seed is roughly the same. Don’t do what I did and sow cosmos seeds beside verbena seeds. Estimated germination time for cosmos is 7-14 days. Estimated germination time for verbena…..2-3 MONTHS!
  7. A cup of tea and sticky bun at 3pm and a pint of cider with lots of ice at 6pm keeps Mr Mac happy while he digs.

Patience is a virtue, especially for gardeners!

Last year, while perusing the walls of seed packets at the garden centre, one packet caught my eye.

Acquilegia Petticoat Pink. The packet stated “early colour perfect in cottage gardens”. I was taken by the picture of the flowers: delicate pink and white frilly bells.

Reading the front of the packet it said to sow February to June, flowers May to July. Perfect, I thought, for some early colour and pretty little flowers.

Only when I got home and went to sow the seeds did I realise that they are a hardy perennial which flowers the year after sowing!

For novices reading this, a perennial is a plant which continues to grow for at least 3 years. It took me a while to learn that.

So although I had bought seeds for a plant that would not flower for at least 15 months, I would at least get a few years of benefit.

I planted the seeds on 20 April 2011, potted them on in June, kept them in a cold frame over the summer and planted them in the ground in their flowering position in September.

Finally, after just over a year of waiting, the first flowers have come out.

They are absolutely stunning. Smaller than I thought they would be and, in the ground, they look a bit spindly until they fill out, but a welcome addition of colour around the base of the apple and pear tree where I planted them.

I am so pleased with them I have bought some more acquilegia seeds called lime sorbet and, provided they germinate and grow successfully, I will plant them in between the petticoat pinks.

Once they have died back I also plan to plant the remaining tulip bulbs (the ones that did not get eaten by the pheasant!) in among them.


Oops!…thank you Monty Don

Some of you might remember I posted a blog on 30 March 2012 – Unidentified Growing Objects!

Weird pineapple shaped plants were sprouting underneath the livingroom window and I assumed they must be dahlias as that is what I had grown there last year. I was not 100% convinced though because they were not in the same place and all the foliage was the same. I planted 4 different types of dahlia with dark green to lime green foliage and, in fact, waxed lyrical in my blog about the variety this provides even before the plants flower!

Anyway, last night we had our regular Friday night date with Monty Don on Gardeners’ World. Monty was seen bringing pots of pineapple shaped plants out of his shed, ready to plant them outside.

I said to Mr Mac, “Oh look, Monty has the same dahlias as me. Let’s see what he does with his.”

But Monty did not start talking about dahlias. Oh no. He started telling viewers all about his collection of………….lilies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

My chin dropped into my glass of chenin blanc (don’t worry, I did not spill any).

Then it all started to come back to me. Last year we grew some asiatic lilies in pots on our deck. They were stunning when they flowered but the display was over too soon. We must have needed the pots for something else and so emptied out the lily bulbs and planted them in the ground. I can’t really remember!

Anyway, it has resulted in a happy accident. We will have some lovely lilies while we wait for the dahlias to grow. No sign of them yet though….



Lessons learned:

  1. Always write down what you plant, when you planted it and where. When I plant things, it always seems obvious at the time but 2 weeks later when you have planted 100 other things in the meantime, things get blurry! See my blog about my muscari for a prime example.
  2. Place a little marker in the ground so even when there is nothing there you will know there is something underneath the ground. This happened recently when Mr Mac dug up all my echinacea plants only to find the marker afterwards! That was how he realised it was echinacea and not weeds!


Best of friends – a quick guide to companion planting

My seedlings are all coming along nicely…they just need a bit more sunshine!

As well as my usual veg I have also planted loads of French marigold and sweet basil seeds to act as “companion plants”. I can’t remember where I first came across companion planting, but when I sat down to write this blog I checked my gardening books to see if I could pick up any interesting information or tips and was amazed at how little is actually written about this subject.

The internet is different, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about what is best. At the end of the day it all boils down to what you grow and where you live.

Companion planting is when you grow two or more types of plant closely together for mutual benefit.  There is a lot of talk about it being an organic method of pest control. I am not trying to be organic and would use chemicals as a last resort but as I am growing most of the “companions” anyway, why not just plant them where they will benefit another plant?

Most companion plants are strongly scented and confuse pests looking for their host plant. Others attract beneficial insects, such as ladybirds and lacewings, which prey on aphids. Some attract pollinators, like bees.

As I mentioned above, I grow marigolds and basil – these are my top 2 companion plants. I must admit I am not that keen on marigolds or their smell. I have flashbacks to the 1970s and tidy gardens edged with marigolds – the height of sophistication at the time! However, if you look at any list of suitable companions, marigolds appear the most.

Marigolds ready for action!

I keep loads in the greenhouse and also plant them among my veg. The smell repels many insects. They also attract aphid eating hoverflies and keep whitefly away from tomatoes.

As for the basil I plant this between all my tomato plants as it is supposed to keep whitefly away. It is also perfect for picking at the same time as tomatoes for that classic combination! I have also learned that the shade provided by the tomato plants helps to stop the basil going to seed.

Basil coming along nicely!

Other top companions to try:

  • Garlic chive – when planted alongside carrots, its strong scent confuses and deters the carrot root fly, which can normally smell carrots from up to a mile away.
  • Lavender – attracts a range of pollinators, including bees, butterflies and hoverflies. Its strong scent can also deter aphids. Plant with carrots and leeks to confuse pests.
  • Sage – is strongly scented and will confuse pests of brassicas if planted alongside them. Its blue flowers attract bees and hoverflies, which also pollinate crops.
  • Thyme – makes a good companion plant for roses, as its strong scent deters blackfly. A tea made from soaking thyme leaves and sprayed on cabbages can prevent whitefly.
  • Nasturtiums – when planted with French and runner beans, the nasturtium acts as a sacrificial crop, luring aphids away from the beans. Its attractive flowers help attract beneficial insects, which prey on aphids.
  • Fennel – if left to flower it produces attractive yellow blooms that attract hoverflies, which prey on aphids.
  • Mint – the strongly scented leaves of mint confuse pests of carrots, tomatoes, alliums and brassicas, and deter flea beetles.

The combinations are endless and it depends what you are growing and what works for you. Last year my friend simply planted garlic beside everything she grew. This year, as well as the marigolds and basil, I am going to plant lavender among my leeks and sage between my brassicas.  It may all be an old wives tale but what is the worst that can happen?

Chives and mint

Fingers crossed for a pest-free season!

Speedy suppers – mango chicken with couscous

Being quite far north in the UK we have the benefit of light nights in the summer. Already Mr Mac and I have still been out working in the garden at 9pm (just once though!).

At this time of year when there is so much to do outside, it is great to be able to work well into the evening. The last thing you want to do is spend hours in the kitchen making dinner.

I found a little booklet last week called 25 Quick Fixes – meals in 20 minutes or less! There are some great recipes for quick but tasty meals. I tried this one and it was delicious…and it definitely took less than 20 minutes to make.

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • olive oil
  • mini chicken fillets about 350g or just cut 2 chicken breasts into thin strips
  • ground cumin 2 tsp
  • chicken stock  300ml hot
  • couscous 150g
  • mango chutney 3 tbsp
  • spring onions 4 sliced into 3cm pieces
  • coriander a small handful roughly chopped


  1. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a wok or large frying pan. Sprinkle the chicken with the ground cumin and cook for a couple of minutes until lightly browned.
  2. Pour 200ml of the chicken stock over the couscous and leave to soak for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the mango chutney to the chicken, stir well and leave to bubble for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the remaining chicken stock and spring onions and cook for 5 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  5. Fluff up the couscous with a fork, stir half the coriander through the couscous and the remainder through the chicken.
  6. Serve and enjoy!

For the health concious among you each serving has 505 calories and 10.4g of fat.

Take the lettuce leaf challenge!

Now that the weather is (supposed to be) getting warmer, thoughts turn to salad rather than hearty, warming soups. However, it breaks my heart having to buy lettuce, especially when I know my own will be ready to start eating next month.

I was looking at the price of bagged lettuce in the supermarket. Prices range from 80p to £2.00. I go through a couple of bags a week  so if I spend an average of £3 per week on lettuce from April to September, that works out about £72!

(I do realise I could spend less on an actual lettuce and cut it up myself…but I’m lazy!)

Now I have never had much success growing whole lettuce, whether it be cos, little gem, iceberg or butterhead. However, lettuce leaves of the “cut and come again” variety, thrive.  I believe even the most neglectful gardener would find it hard to kill them off! You don’t even need a garden to do this.

For less than £10 you can have an endless supply of lettuce leaves on your windowsill, at your back door or in your greenhouse, all summer long. All you need are some pots, some multi-purpose compost, crocs for drainage and a selection of seeds.

I use Suttons “speedy veg” lettuce, some of which can be ready to eat in as little

"speedy veg" - ready in 3 weeks!

as 3 weeks, some rocket, spinach and perhaps lollo rosso for some colour. Make sure each packet of seeds contains around 500-1000 so it will last all summer.

Put some crocs (broken crockery or gravel) in the bottom of a pot and fill it with compost. Next, I get an egg cup and open each packet of seeds. Pour a little from each packet into the egg cup, mix together, then sprinkle over the surface of the compost, cover lightly with some more compost and water in.

In 3 to 4 weeks you can start picking and eating the leaves. The “cut and come again” type should last a few weeks so every 2 or 3 weeks sow another pot and by the time the first one is finished you will have a new pot all ready to tuck into.

I have used one side of a small growbag. These are the seeds I started last week. In a couple of weeks I'll sow some more in the other half of the growbag.

Keep the pots in a bright sunny place close to the kitchen.

Keep the compost moist, never let it dry out.

Keep a look out for slugs and snails.

Sow little and often .

Think of what you can buy with the money you’ll save!


Recession friendly plant supports

In these times of austerity, it is alarming how much a quick trip to the garden centre can cost. All the bits, bobs and gadgets you think you need soon add up.

There are lots of ways to save money:

  • Our local garden centre has a 10% off day every Wednesday. You may only save a couple of pounds but over a whole summer of weekly trips this soon adds up to a substantial saving.
  • Larger chains also have some great deals and 10% off weekends. Keep a note of what you need and wait until you can get a discount.
  • Try growing your own flowers and veg from seed rather than buying plugs or garden ready plants. I calculated I saved over £180 by buying a packet of livingstone daisy seeds for £1.99.
  • Make your own compost.
  • Rather than buying cell trays for plants, save up yoghurt pot and tins, small and large and make some holes in the bottom.
  • Use the inside of a toilet roll for starting long rooted plants such as sweet peas or beans. The cardboard can be planted into the ground without disturbing the roots.
  • Subscribe to gardening magazines to save money on the cover price and benefit from the free packets of seeds they all seem to be giving away with each issue.
  • We have a local “freecycle” website where people advertise anything they want rid of. The purpose is to try to stop items being sent to landfill but quite often people will advertise excess plants or garden equipment they are giving away. It’s worth a look. I got rid of over 100 jerusalem artichoke tubers this way.
  • Look at what you have lying around that would do the same job. Instead of spending £6 on a dibber and dobber use a pencil and a fork!

Anyway, I digress.

This year we promised to make more of an effort to stake up all of our plants that need support. This means supporting plants as they are growing rather than sticking a bit of wire in the ground and wrapping some string around the plant when it is already lying at a jaunty 45 degree angle!

We have a clump of beautiful blue delphiniums and every year they just flower, then it rains and they fall over. They are about 12 inches tall at the moment, so bearing in mind our resolution to do the right thing by our tall plants I started to look at websites and magazines to see what kind of plant supports were available.

Let me tell you there is very little for under £10…and we need quite a few! Mr Mac promptly advised me there was no way he was spending £10 on some bent wire and disappeared off to his shed.

He came back with some lengths of wood (2×2 I am reliably informed), some fence paint, some fence wire, a pair of pliers and 2 screws.

This is how he did it


The wood was cut to the required length then painted with fence paint.

Dennis helped

A stake was hammered into the ground either side of the delphiniums. They grow against a wall so no support was needed at the back. The fence wire was bent and each end looped with the pliers to allow the screws to fix the wire to the stake.

The finished article. As the plants grow they will cover the stakes and more wire can be attached to support them when they grow taller.

The plants will grow around the stakes so you will never see them. I was also impressed that Mr Mac has pre-prepared 2 more lengths of wire to attach to the stakes as the plants get higher. This is so he has no excuse for not adding support as the plants grow, defeating the purpose of have a support in the first place.

I asked Mr Mac what he thought his plant support cost. He worked it out and it cost less than £1!

Speedy compost and decoys

Well what a week it has been. I spent most of the time doing the greenhouse hokey kokey…in, out, in, out, have a cup of tea…trying to dodge the showers.

The good news…

It was time to turn the compost for the first time since creating the new bays. I timed Mr Mac and it took just over 30 minutes. A huge improvement on 2 years! He just used a fork and lifted the compost over into the empty bay. I ripped up some cardboard and threw it in too to add some carbon. I have also learned that adding cardboard can also stop the compost heap smelling! We shall see….

The middle bay was full and ready to be turned into the bay on the right.

30 minutes later..all done

All of the new waste is now on the bottom and lots of air has been introduced to help it break down quicker.

And the not so good news…

The pigeons got the blame for eating the chard and the tulips. However, we then noticed the rasberry canes had all been stripped of shoots and leaves up to a height of about 3 feet. There is no way pigeons could have done that. Perplexed, we spent the day building frames to support nets over the raspberries and at 5am the following morning, Mr Mac got up before any of the birds, set a trap and sat at the back door Elmer Fudd style…waiting.

Mr Mac

Do you know what it was?

It was the pheasant! He has been wandering around for a few weeks now but we had never seen him in the garden. He makes a very loud “caw, caw” noise, followed by flapping his wings so you can hear him, even if you can’t see him.

One morning he woke us up and I even joked that he was so loud it sounded as if he was at the bottom of the bed! That was probably the same morning he ate all the tulips!

Fear not! He is still alive and well but we are following his movements closely and if he comes anywhere near the garden he gets chased away.

We are still not convinced the pigeons are entirely without blame for all the damage. I watched a programme recently about the London Underground. They have so much bother from pigeons at depots and stations that they employ a hawk which scares away the pigeons.

I half joked to Mr Mac that perhaps we should get a hawk to scare away the pigeons. He told me I was a genius and went next door to see Wallace. His real name is John but I call him Wallace because he was the inspiration for Wallace and Gromit. He is always designing gadgets from bits and pieces lying around.

Anyway, this is what they came up with…

Our decoy hawk - terrifying!

He is made from plywood and is attached to a bendy bit of metal so he “wobbles” in the wind.  Wallace is currently designing some form of swivel mechanism.

Apparently, a second decoy was also produced but he looks more like tweety pie!

Tea Break – Lemon drizzle cake

This is a great cake for your afternoon tea break. The lemon gives you a hint that summer is on the way but in cake form it is the perfect comfort food. Slice it up and keep it in a sealed container for up to a week……if it lasts that long!


  • 175g unsalted butter, softened
  • 175g caster sugar
  • Finely grated zest of 3 lemons
  • 3 medium eggs
  • 175g self-raising flour
  • A pinch of sea salt
  • A splash of milk (optional)
  • 200g icing sugar
  • 75ml lemon juice


  1. Grease a large loaf tin, 1 litre capacity and line the base and sides with baking paper.
  2. Put the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together until pale and fluffy.
  3. Add the grated lemon zest and then beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of flour with each (to stop the mixture curdling).
  4. Sift the remaining flour and salt into the mixture and fold in lightly using a large metal spoon. Add a little milk, if necessary, to achieve a good dropping consistency.
  5. Spoon the mixture into the tin, smooth the top and place in an oven pre-heated to 170C / Gas Mark 3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  6. Put the icing sugar in a bowl, add the lemon juice and stir together until smooth. Leaving the hot cake in the tin, use a fine skewer to make holes over the top of the cake, going quite deep but not all the way to the bottom. Spoon the lemon icing slowly over the cake so it all soaks in.
  7. Leave in the tin until cool, then turn out and serve in slices.

Something is eating my garden!

I went down to the greenhouse this morning to put my brassicas out in the sunshine to harden them off and noticed a couple of bulbs lying on the path. Then I followed the trail of destruction that led to 5 empty planters which, as of yesterday, were full of tulips just ready to open their flowers.

the flowers have been eaten right down to the soil and the bulbs pulled out!

Total devastation!

We had planned to move them into the front garden today but now there is nothing left.

Earlier this week we also had to dig up 2 rows of rainbow chard which was also being eaten by something.

The chard, slowly getting nibbled


Pigeons are the top suspects. I have noticed a lot of them flying around and sitting in the trees. The damage to the chard would indicate it was pigeons but I don’t see how they would be able to eat the tulip plants and be able to pull the bulbs out. We have not been bothered by pigeons before but then we have never grown chard or tulips before.

Rabbits are 2nd favourite. We are surrounded by fields which are full of rabbits although we are not usually bothered by them as we have two employees of the furry, four-legged variety who catch them. I could see the rabbits eating the chard but the tulips would be too high for them to reach – unless they carry a ladder!

The final suspect – deer. This year we have seen a record number of 7 deer in the fields beside us and they are becoming used to our presence, grazing right up to our fence. They eat grass, but do they eat tulips and chard? I don’t know.

Two outsiders

There is a fox which wanders around but we scare it away if it comes too close. Could he be a vegetarian? There is also a pheasant wandering around looking for a girlfriend – would he eat chard and tulips?

I am devastated about the tulips as we had looked after them all winter and they were going to produce a stunning display. That’s gardening for you though.

Thinking about it, something was attracted to the chard and after we pulled it out it has looked for the next best thing – tulips! Perhaps we should have left the chard as a decoy.

Here is one tulip that had come out. Really beautiful.

Could this be the reason why?

I am going to have to have a serious word with these two!