I really wanted to like the HotBin, I did. It's been well over a year since I started to trial this new composter, and in my initial review, I was excited about the HotBin's claims to safely compost all kinds of food at a temperature of 60C.
And yet ... a few months later, my HotBin was sitting forlorn, half-filled with semi-rotted stuff. The main problem was the hatch at the bottom: once I'd opened it once, I couldn't fix it back in place properly, and it kept falling out. The folks from HotBin sent me straps to hold the door in place, but that made opening the hatch a hassle.* And even if the hatch was working like a dream, the HotBin suffers from a downside common to this type of composter: the opening is awkward to get to. It's hard to get a spade inside for unloading finished compost, so I found myself down on my knees scooping out the compost with my gloved hands while wet compost smeared my forehead. Not good.
Plus, it's ugly: this can also be said of many of the other composters on the market, but for anyone with a small garden where there is no place to hide away less beauteous pieces of kit, this counts.
So, my HotBin adventures are over. My trial model has now gone to a new home at a local school garden, where I hope they'll be able to make better use of it. And me? I am going back to my beehive composters. They don't solve the problem of what to do with the cooked food that can't go into a "cold"compost system, but for that I have trench composting (a technical term of burying food waste underground). And they're much easier to access, because each layer of the wooden beehive structure comes apart, making turning and "harvesting" compost a simple task.
My wormeries, too, are keepers: they are far smaller than the HotBin, and I find managing them far easier: plus you have the valuable byproduct of "worm juice" which can be used as a plant tonic (once diluted) in addition to the worm compost.
I'd love to know whether other HotBin owners have had a better time with their composter: and what composting systems you use. With peat-based compost looking ever-more unsustainable, it's vital that we all renew our efforts to make as much compost at home as we can.
*Since my HotBin was made, I believe further adjustments have been made to the design, which may have solved the hatch issue.
So I was delighted to find The Distinctive Planter Company's products tucked away in a corner at the Garden Press Event last month (if you're not familiar, it's a horticultural trade shindig where you can see lots of new gardening products all in one room).
Their planters are made from 75% clay and 25% recycled plastics, lightweight yet tough and frostproof: a big plus if after the last few winters your supposedly frostproof terracotta pots are now crumblier than a slice of Wensleydale cheese. Plus, unlike many of the plastic pots masquerading as terracotta, ome of these are remarkably pretty and realistic - I particularly liked the grey marble bowl (pictured above) from the Aegean Collection (40cm x 20cm £24.99 + £4.99 P&P): it's just a shame they don't come in larger sizes (although the company's Nigel Guffogg tells me they're on the way) - they'd make a great water feature.
At the moment they're only available via Amazon - and the range is very limited, but they're hoping to sell to garden centres soon: if you like them, lobby your local garden centre to buy some in! Their sandstone and slate grey troughs (£39.99 + £7.99 P&P) look good too. Their only demerit is the air miles involved - they're made in China - but at least they'll last for years and years.
If you want a new planter NOWNOWNOW, though (and we all know how impatient us gardeners an be) this verdigris tall metal planter from Crocus (pictured left) is gorgeous, and not bad at £42.99 for those that will last forever. If you're feeling flush, these vintage dolly tubs from The Balcony Gardener are gorgeous too if pricey at £125.
Succulents have gone through a renaissance of late, in the garden at least: Pinterest is awash with pictures of containers, vertical walls and roofs full of them. But living in Bedfordshire, not California, my succulent kicks are largely satisfied inside (apart from Sempervivums, about which I'll write in another post). These fellows won't mind you whacking up the central heating so the room's as hot as the Sahara and just as dry (although for the sake of the environment, why not whack on a cardigan instead?). That's no excuse for not watering them in the summer, however, as they will reward you with lots of growth over the summer if you give them regular food and water. Don't kill them with kindness: they hate sitting in a saucer of water, so make sure it can drain away. I have a lifelong love affair with succulents, and my favourites change week by week, according to what's catching my eye. But now, at least, these are my top succulent choices.
Euphorbia obesa (Turkish temple)
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Urban Hafner)
When I first met ehtnobotanist James Wong at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years back, we bonded over our mutual childhood experience of poring over the pages of the classic indoor plant book DG Hessayon's Houseplant Expert - even though he grew up in Malaysia and I lived at the leafier end of the Metropolitan line. (I know. Weird. We both turned out fine, though, really...) One of the plants I dreamed of owning was this one, known as baseball plant or the gingham golf ball in the US, although Hessayon called it by the far more romantic name Turkish temple. although I know some houseplant aficionados have a thing for living stones (aka members of the Lithops clan which look like, er, stones - who wants a plant that looks like a pebble? I may as well just have a pebble) but for me, E. obesa is so much better. Its fleshy dome thrusts out of the soil like some kind of rejected set design for a scene in Star Wars. Sadly, this intriguing plant is now rare in the wild in its natural home, the Karoo region of South Africa, because it was targeted by plant collectors, although now it is a protected species.
This one has sentimental value: gifted to me by boyfriend's former neighbours Fiona and Juggs* more than a decade ago, this plant has been with me through thick and thin, and a lot of neglect. This aloe may not have the medicinal properties of its close relative but it is much hardier. I keep my main plant in my unheated and frequently subzero greenhouse-cum-potting shed every winter and it troops through, provided it's kept dry, it'll be fine down to at least -5C (some say even lower). A terracotta pot seems to help. It produces strange coral-coloured flowers on fishing rod-style stems every summer, but it's the fractal whorl of the fleshy leaves that packs the visual punch. Put it in a dull metal or textured pot in just the right shade of green and it will look great. If you need any more reason to try this plant, you may like to know that it has an RHS Award of Garden Merit. It will have "babies" aka offsets, which can be carefully removed from the parent plant and potted up to make more plants.
*He had big ears, hence the nickname. I don't even know his real name.
This one's a toughie, too. In winter it will survive for several months with no water, and admittedly the "eggs" will shrivel a little, but a splash of water and they are back on their feet.I have a feeling my specimen may be a cultivar as most of the pictures I've seen have more spathe-shaped leaves, but if anyone can help me out with that, let me know! In a forthcoming post I am planning on how to choose great containers for houseplants, I'll show you a picture of this plant in another setting ... it looks amazing!
I love the strange Leopard-spotted pattern you see on this and some other succulents (check out silver squill (Ledebouria socialis), another close contender for this top five, for another cool spotted leaf pattern).
(Photo used under Creative Commons from Toni Villaró)
If you've ever wanted a living, growing first aid kit, this is it. There are many claims made for the healing power of this plant, but all I know is if you keep one of these plants on the kitchen windowsill, every time you burn yourself, break off a leaf and squeeze out the gel inside to apply to the skin - it really does help such injuries to heal.
In the summer you can put these outside - they look great massed in a big zinc pot - but don't do as I did last winter and forget to bring them in, resulting in a mushy mess.
Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Mother of thousands) (Photo used under Creative Commons from blumenbiene)
There's more childhood nostalgia attached to my final choice. This isn't the ubiquitous (and naff) 'flaming Katy' (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) of petrol station forecourts and market stalls, but a relative whose special trick is an odd form of increasing itself. The edges of every leaf are festooned with what look like tiny green flowers at first sight, but they are actually tiny plantlets, which will at a moment's notice leap off , fall to the ground and sprout roots. As you can imagine, these plants are just fascinating to kids - and, trust me, they are a hell of a lot easier to keep alive than the Venus fly trap, or "one hell of a waste of a fiver", as I always call it. As this blogpost testifies, these fellas can be devilishly invasive - if I lived in California I'd never have one in my garden, they'd be everywhere, a bit like the deeply annoying Oxalis corniculata, even with its small silver lining of edibility*.
But in a pot it's easy enough to deal with any extra plants. This - like ginger beer plants and Jamie and the Magic Torch - were ubiquitous in the 1970s and 80s (perhaps it was a local phenomenon where I lived in Buckinghamshire - perhaps you can let me know?), you'd get them at every jumble sale and plant stall this side of, say, 1987. I don't have one right now, but if anyone wants swapsies for something a bit less, well, fecund, just let me know. As Anna Laurent writes on the Garden Design blog:
The mother-of-thousands is a superlative nurturer by necessity; somewhere on the evolutionary timeline, the unique succulent lost the ability to produce viable seeds, and so the burden of reproduction fell to its leaves. As the plant matures, spoon-shaped spurs develop along the periphery of its leaves, each yielding a miniature clone of the mother. These adventitious plantlets grow larger and form roots, all the while clinging to the mother's leaves, which now hang heavy under the weight of so many young plants.
*This is edible - the tiny, paper-thin leaves taste like sorrel on a diet: delicately citrusy. Sprinkle it on the top of a risotto You can try to eat it into submission, but be aware that this isn't a plant to dominate your salad bowl as the leaves contain small amounts of oxalic acid which is not good for your stomach if you eat it in excess. I haven't got a full idea of how much you'd need to eat to make yourself ill, but I am thinking it's bucketfuls. Nevertheless, don't blame me for an overdose, and also beware of any potential issues with allergies: try a small amount first before you dive into a big plateful.
Look what the vine weevils have done to my Dryopteris wallichiana (and three heucheras - but, well, they're no great loss. I am definitely not a heuchera addict) - over winter, too! (Surely they should be resting or something over winter? Not the ones in my garden).
This means war. I shall destroy their larvae with the organic gardener's shock and awe tactic - the mighty but microscopic nematode worm, aka Nemasys. But not yet - the soil's not quite warm enough. If you don't know how to spot a vine weevil and the damage it does, you should. Here's a guide from the RHS.
Maybe it's because I've drunk a glass of Baileys tonight, or because I've completed my Seedy Penpals package, or perhaps because it's my birthday later this week, but I am feeling generous. So, I'm giving stuff away!
First up is this T-shirt designed by Stuart Sidebotham aka @adventuresallot. It may well resonate with you, particularly if you read Alys Fowler's terrifying piece on Arion vulgaris, the Spanish slug, aka THE SUPERSLUG. (Super, as in super-nasty, not a slug with superpowers, which would be, well, odd.) If you'd like a chance to win this T-shirt, email me at email@example.com with SLUG TEE as the subject line. The winner will get one T-shirt in their choice of small, medium, large or extra large, sent out directly by Stuart.
I get sent gardening books. A LOT of gardening books. Some I keep for review and reference purposes; many I give away for charity raffles, to charity bookshops and a few to friends. Bu there's currently a huge pile in the bottom of my wardbrobe and I want rid, so here's the plan. You email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the word FREE BOOKS in the subject line, and I'll pick out two winners who'll receive a selection of gardening books (probably 2-4 books each) from my stash. If you give me an idea of whether you're a GYO-er or an ornamentals person, or both, I'll attempt to accommodate you. I may also throw in a seed packet or two, as I'm slowly realising I am never going to sow anything like the amount of stuff currently languishing in my seed box (hence Seedy Penpals, about which I'll write more in a future post).
Ages ago I wrote a post on reinventing the houseplant. I promised part two would list five of my favourite unkillable houseplants... at last, here it is. This is an edited-down version of a feature I wrote for the magazine Your Perfect Garden, available from all good newsagents now!
This plant will shrug off deep shade, direct sun, no water for months on end and desert-dry air without any sign of distress. If you want to treat it right, water when the compost surface feels dry and put it in a bright spot. It won't mind the dry air and warm temperatures common to modern homes. If it's happy, it will grow fast and will need repotting once the roots start to break out of the pot: repot one size up in cactus compost.
Also try: Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
(Photograph by Artesaniaflorae on Flickr)
Wax plant (Hoya carnosa)
Most easy-care houseplants don't offer flowers as part of their repertoire. But this is a glorious exception, although you may have to wait a while for the clusters of fragrant, waxy white flowers to appear. Put it somewhere high so you can enjoy watching the fleshy oval leaves on red stems snake around: or train it up a trellis or some wires to make a living screen.
Also try: Rosary vine (Ceropegia woodii)
papyrus (Cyperus alterniflolius) If
you like to play fast and loose with the watering can, this
is the plant for you. This stately plant likes its feet in the wet. It's an ideal plant
for the bathroom, where it won't mind being splashed with water - in
fact the extra humidity will do it good. It isn't overly fussy about
light, but avoid direct sunlight.
Also try: Pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava)
(Photograph by Artep ^_^ on Flickr)
really were onto something when they championed the
appropriately-named cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior). If
you give this plant the modern treatment by putting it into an
imposing pot the result is stunning. Aspidistra can tolerate those
dingy spots other houseplants hate, too. Again, ease off on the watering
can: the only thing that will challenge its cast iron constitution is
too much wet. Pictured here is A. 'Big Bang'.
Also try: Parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans); Peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
(Photograph by MeganEHansen on Flickr)
African spear (Sansevieria cylindrica)
Mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) may be a 70s cliche, but its kookier relative the African spear is the ideal plant for the minimalist look. The leaves are curious round fleshy grey-green spikes and look great planted en masse in a zinc trough. Sansevierias cope with a wide range of conditions, just make sure they have free-draining compost and the occasional drop of water.
Also try: Haworthia; Aloe vera
There is something profoundly depressing about a poorly houseplant. A garden plant that's having an off period doesn't tend to draw the eye in the same way, as there's usually something else to camouflage it, but there's nowhere to hide from a yellowing, leggy spider plant or a parched palm.
Perhaps that's why some of us gardeners shy away from indoor plants: they look lush and lovely when we bring them home, but we stick them on a windowsill or shelf and then turn a blind eye when you're busy outside and in the meanwhile they turn a little brown at the edges, start farming their own herd of fungus gnats and generally become an eyesore.
Houseplants are out of favour. I get dozens of press releases every month about veg, fruit and ornamentals for the garden, but something on indoor plants is rare indeed. So I was delighted to receive not only a press release but a living plant from Dobbies a couple of months back. The presser promised that the Dobbies chain was giving "a tired old friend a glamorous new look", and included a top 10 health benefits of houseplants.
The plant in question was a maidenhair fern, Adiantum fragrans, a delicate number with tissue-paper thin leaves dancing on wiry black stems. I had fun getting it home on the train, but has since taken up residence in my bathroom. Normally, maidenhair ferns aren's something I'd buy: they need frequent, careful watering and humid conditions which are hard to meet in most modern houses. The bathroom's a good choice, though: usually on the chilly side, with plenty of moisture in the air from showers and baths. So far, so good, barring the occasional tug from a toddler and an accident with some toothpaste.
The Dobbies houseplant collection has four collections: Country, Heritage, Oriental Spa and Contemporary. I haven't been into a Dobbies yet to check them out, but when other garden centres are stopping the sale of houseplants, its good to see someone trying to bring them "back into fashion", even if the selections (despite all the reinvention) major on the usual suspects (I'm thinking begonias, orchids and maybe a jade plant). The pot, too, is perfect: just the right side of distressed, and a gorgeous shade of ultramarine.
Bear in mind, though, that Dobbies is owned by Tesco: if you have a problem with that (and maybe you should), try asking your local florist if s/he can order indoor plants for you. Alternatively, and for those on a tight budget, try Wilkinson or Lidl. They both sell good houseplants on occasion, but you need to get in there quick when new plants arrive as the stock isn't usually well tended. Ikea's another excellent choice, if you have one near you, and the offering's a bit more exciting: for instance the intriguing Hoya kerrii (pictured right), a tough plant which if you treat it right will end up looking like this - including the weirdly wonderful hoya flower.
*Watch out for part two, in which I'll name my top 5 houseplants that are hard to kill
Sweet peas are on trend for 2013, according to Matthew Appleby, who wrote a feature on them I commissioned recently in Weekend magazine. Of course, for many of us gardeners they've never been out of fashion: a timeless garden classic. I've been growing them for several years now, and sowing batches from October to December has become a bit of an autumn ritual.
It's worth sowing in autumn if you can: the seedlings get plenty of time to develop a tiptop root system and are ready to romp away when planted out in March or early April. Sowing in the cardboard inner toilet roll tubes filled with multipurpose peat free compost, one or two seeds per tube, gives the roots space to grow. (I fill a deep, round saucer with compost-filled tubes and hold them together with string so they don't topple.)
Usually I grow a hotchpotch of varieties, more for scent than colour coordination ('Kings' High Scent' and 'Perfume Delight' both from Kings' Seeds are particularly good), but I am always drawn to the darker colours, like the classic 'Matucana' (pictured above). So this year I thought I'd try out a new colour scheme: I am growing 'Blue Velvet' and 'Midnight' (both from T&M), and combining them with the species Lathyrus chloranthus 'Lemonade', with its lime-green flowers: a colour that should pop against the darkness of the other flowers.
Sadly, 'Lemonade' has no scent, but I am hoping the L. odoratus cultivars will live up to their name. I haven't sowing this yet, as the cultivation advice seems to suggest early spring sowing is best. But don't worry if you think you've missed the boat: it really is fine to sow these seeds any time through October to December. They'll need some kind of cover over winter - mine are in my potting shed, and get by swathed in some fleece when it's really cold. My other sweet pea tip is to put them somewhere easily accessible: some people find the deadheading, tying in and coaxing required to get sweet peas to perform their best a chore, but provided they're close at hand, just outside my patio window, I find tending to my plants and picking armfuls for the house for a few minutes each day a little piece of sweet pea heaven.
Above is a simple vase of flowers with a pink theme I picked last summer: with one dark sweet pea and one shocking pink one, plus sage leaves, red valerian, a pink rose, and blackcurrant sage flowers. If I can create something just as good in 2013, I'll be happy.