If I look up from my writing perch in the sun room right now, I can see a crust of snow on the glass roof. My position on winter in general, and snow in particular, is apathetic at best. In my darker moments, it's outright opposition. As American comedian Carl Reiner put it,
A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.*
This is a moment when I cherish anything green and alive as an antidote to the deadness of the garden, and for me that means houseplants. After Christmas, in the thin days of early January when I was still glassy-eyed from an excess of sleep and cake, I arrived at the office to find a cactus on my desk: a new plant is usually cause for joy, but this one had a strange look to it. According to the label, it's a Glowing Wonder - yes that's right, a glowing cactus (it also has a helpful warning symbol - a knife and fork crossed out - indicating it's not edible - well phew).
The website shows more spray-painted plants - mainly Echeverias. A slip of paper starts by telling me the bleeding obvious: "WARNING! YOUR PLANT IS A CACTUS VARIETY AND THE SPINES ARE EXTREMELY SHARP. PLEASE HANDLE WITH CARE AND ATTENTION."
So, does it glow? Well, sort of. I put it in a dark cupboard at work to satisfy curious colleagues on this matter, and the verdict was it glowed "a bit". Once back home (transported there wrapped in bubble wrap, both for insulation and protection from spikes) it did light up in a completely dark kitchen at night, but you wouldn't be able to read a book by it, as you can see from the somewhat Blair Witch Project photo opposite. There are some pictures of these plants on Pinterest in which they look a bit more, well, glowy.
I was expecting my children to be a little bit excited by the prospect of a glowing plant, but they were completely underwhelmed: possibly because they've seen way cooler indoor plants. Even in our kitchen, there's a stagshorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) on the windowsill, for instance: one of the weirdest-looking houseplants you'll see. (Once the kitchen's revamped, it will take pride of place mounted on a plaque below the skylight ...).
I wish I could say that the glowing effect was some kind of natural genetic mutation, like a botanical firefly, or even that it was a GM modification (this has been done although apparently even those don't glow bright enough). But no, this is just some stuff sprayed onto the plant, which although no doubt harmless enough, just makes the cactus look like it has a really bad case of mealy bug.
This is, it seems, a "trend" - houseplants, particularly Echeverias, sprayed with silver paint in the run-up to Christmas, heathers inexplicably stained with pink paint in kitsch ranks at the garden centre, and now these glowing plants. In case you haven't guessed, it's not a trend I'm keen on ... I'm digging way back into GCSE biology here, but surely spraypainting plants must limit their life by blocking the stomata?
And anyway - and this is the key point - who needs to spraypaint plants to make them look cool? Houseplants are already amazing: I refer you back to the stagshorn fern. And these guys. And countless more incredible, stunning and utterly paint-free plants. We need a houseplant revival, and we need one NOW. Watch this space to find out exactly how that's going to happen...
*Although my son's face when my husband put him on the sledge to pull him to school did melt my heart just a little.
Over Christmas, I was suffering from withdrawal symptoms - not from some kind of ill-advised pre-festive detox, but the aftermath of the conclusion of the Serial podcast. I came to this 12-part audio dissection of a 1999 Baltimore murder case late, and ended up binge-listening to the whole thing over a period of 10 days, catching up just in time for the final instalment. If you haven't already been drawn into Serial I warn you: it's addictive, so play part one at your own risk.
I've never before been a fan of those "true crime" documentaries that lurk in the TV channels where your remote control becomes marooned when you've got past the first hundred or so and your finger wearies, but somehow the story (high school student goes to prison for killing his ex-girlfriend, implicated by a friend who says he helped to bury the body - but who's telling the truth?) got its hooks into me from the start. And it got me thinking - why haven't I heard any good - by which I mean compelling, informative, addictive, viral - podcasts about plants, gardening or anything else horticulture-related?
So, I gave myself a mission over Christmas and New Year. My tablet was my constant companion as I tore my way through dozens of podcasts, trying to find something that filled the Serial-shaped hole in my listening schedule. The truth is, I am not interested in podcasts that tell me how to plant tulips or what to do when my poinsettia drops its leaves. BORING. If I want that kind of information, I'll open a reference book or even (what the hell!), Google it.*
What did I find? Well, loads of great, addictive listens**, but not a lot in the way of current, plant or horticulture-themed podcast series. But I did find individual podcasts that covered ground that fitted my horticultural brief. Here Be Monsters (tagline - "the podcast about the unknown") is a spooky listen at the best of times, but none more so than an episode called The Roman Slug Death Orgy, which though not directly about gardening, will prove strangely affecting to those of us who have ever done battle with slugs.
I loved one particular episode of the Criminal podcast ("Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle") that delves into a Venus flytrap crime ring in the southern US. (If you like this you may also want to click over to this long read from the Guardian (disclosure: my employer) about the theft of the smallest waterlily in the world from Kew Gardens).
There were a couple of not-so-current podcast series that I locked onto, too: there was a Radio 4 collaboration with Kew called Plants: From Roots to Riches exploring our changing relationship with plants during the last 250 years. This was just the kind of thing I was looking for - but as a podcast it felt so Radio 4-ish. Don't get me wrong, I adore Radio 4, spend most days listening to it for several hours, but as a standalone podcast it was just a bit too buttoned up; I felt as if I should get my exercise book out and start making notes for a comprehension test later.
More laid back was Garden Confidential with Andrew Keys, "stories at the intersection of people and plants", from US magazine Fine Gardening. Keys' laid-back drawl is like nothing you'll hear on R4, and there's a mischievous tilt to some of the podcasts - one episode about invasives includes a "dramatic reading" of blog comments from gardeners getting all steamed up about Japanese knotweed, for instance.
Emma Cooper has been podcasting about plants for several years, her Alternative Kitchen Garden show ticking many of my boxes... she's on a podcasting hiatus at the moment, but she recommended a couple of other shows to check out: Gastropod - it's a new food podcast, with a heavy dose of science, and many of the episodes touching the edges of horticulture and botany. So too does Jeremy Cherfas' Eat This Podcast, which is also worth a subscription.
All this listening made me want to start creating. A dozen podcast ideas beban to clutter up my mind: plants whose stories that haven't been told and charismatic plantspeople, garden designers and botanists who would make the most illuminating interviewees. That said, I know, from speaking to Emma and others, that podcasts are Hard Work. That's why so many good podcasts come from US NPR stations, like Serial, or peter out after a dozen or so episodes.
So I am asking - or maybe challenging - anyone who wants to hear more cool podcasts about plants: let's start something here. In the past I've been told that podcasting about gardens doesn't work because "it's so visual" but I don't believe that's true (think of commentary of football matches, radio shows about films, the list goes on ...). And, just maybe, I'd like to prove it.
*Warning, link contains Bad Language.
**Other podcasts I've fallen in love with that have nothing to do with plants or gardens:
Sometimes it's the things you slave over that fail, and the things you do carelessly, while sleepwalking, that come good. A single squash 'Sweet Dumpling' seedling, sown from a free packet that came with Grow Your Own magazine, filled out half of one of my big raised veg beds this summer and produced six of these beauties. I didn't water the plant or give it any special treatment, and it quietly got on with making fruit. That's the kind of growing I like.
In line with my continuing obsession for weighing crops, I am pleased to say that the largest two exceed Mr Fothergills' guideline weight of 200-500g per fruit. I've grown pumpkins before, in abundance when I had an allotment, but now, with more limited space and time, this harvest of Sweet Dumpling seems sweeter than the rest.
I'd recommend curing and storing winter squash and pumpkins as explained in this post I wrote for the Guardian a while back, but I suspect these won't last long enough to get a chance to rot: as you can see, the household tortoises are already partaking of one ...
Ask me what I want for Christmas. Go on. I know it's early yet, and Santa's barely roused from his summer slumber (or so I keep telling my children), but I've already planned it out. I'd like a towering pile of well-rotted manure, a 20kg bag of biochar and as much Rockdust as the reindeer can haul.
When I had an allotment, I took it as a given that the soil covering my modest five-pole plot the guts and structure for the job. Every year it produced fat pumpkins, trugfuls of beans and tall sunflowers, provided I kept the rampant weeds at bay. I knew I was lucky: I just didn't know how lucky (this must be the reason why my home county of Bedfordshire has historically been such a centre for veg growing). When I moved house and gave up that plot for an 80ft-long garden, still in Bedfordshire, but not blessed with quite such a fine tilth. The back section is given over to a shed-cum-greenhouse, two compost bins and two wormeries, a couple of regular beds and two 2mx2m raised beds, each about 50cm tall, built just before my son was born three years ago (see right for them in their unfilled state).
I knew the theory that the soil would need improving, but the reality of placing raised beds on previously unimproved soil has been chastening: it's like the moment as a new parent when, about two weeks in, the novelty of being woken at night fades and you realise what the phrase "sleepless nights" really means.
However much organic material and nutrients I pour into those beds, the level lingers stubbornly a finger's depth from the lip. The soil I've got isn't bad, but there isn't enough of it. In idle moments I picture it brimming gently over the top like a pint of Guinness being poured: that's the kind of deep, humus-rich, moisture-retentive environment I'd love for my hungry fruit and veg. But as fast as I throw in wormcasts, homemade compost, spent compost from containers, mulches of grass cuttings and cardboard, the beds seem to soak them up. A few days of sunny weather and the raised beds are drier than an Amish birthday party. Courgettes and beans struggle: lettuces aren't the puffy quilted jobs I remember from my allotment, and rhubarb stems wilt without warning, even under the cool shade of the nearby plum tree.
The more I grow, the more I realise one thing, long known by everyone from Lawrence Hills to Prince Charles by way of Michelle Obama and Raymond Blanc: it's all about the soil. If you've ever been on one of the many allotment forums and read plot holders merrily promoting Jeyes Fluid for "sterilising" the soil of pests and diseases, you'll know what a long way we've yet to convince all gardeners how important those bacteria and organisms are. Alys Fowler reminded me of this in a recent column: one which received the most feedback I've ever had for her writing for the Guardian: in Heart and Soil she wrote about the healing powers of getting your hands dirty, both mind and body. I've put the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Wayne Lewis and Jeff Lowenfels on my Christmas list so I can learn more.
My raised beds are a work in progress: Alys tells me they will reach a tipping point where the humus levels out. Everything I've tried so far - green manures, mulches of corrugated cardboard and grass clippings, rockdust, biochar, and lashings of wormcasts and homemade compost - are all working, but it'll be a while before I have won. I can't afford - and don't really wish to - repeat the exercise of buying in a bulk bag of peat-free vegetable compost to shortcut the task, and anyway, it probably wouldn't work as well in the long term as my slow but cheap solution. If anyone has any top raised bed-filling tips, please shout. I'll try anything, provided its organic.
I do have one tip for impatient gardeners like me: if you have a wormery, and grow potatoes in containers or sacks, here's something to save you time and money. If you're anything like me, the bottom tray in your wormery may look nearly ready for harvesting, but when you delve below the top centimetre or so of wormcasts, you find lots of lumpy bits and a few worms roaming around. When it comes to potato harvesting time, add a square of corrugated cardboard at the bottom of your sack, builder's bucket or pot to absorb any excess water and stop it running out of the holes too quickly, then tip the contents of the wormery tray, worms and all, on top. Add a layer of bought-in peat-free compost, say 10cm-deep, then add the seed potatoes and more compost as usual, earthing up as the plants grow. Shove more cardboard sheets around the sides of the pot if you can, too. By the time you're ready to harvest, the worms will have finished work, the cardboard will be almost gone and the wormery's contents will be completely broken down, barring a few eggshell fragments and the occasional rogue avocado seed. And you'll have well-fed spuds, beautifully clean easy to store.
I've been recording my yields from container potatoes for the past few years and since I started this technique, my harvest per container has roughly doubled in weight terms.
Usually I plant sweet peas for the scent: this year, it was all about the colour scheme. This was a mistake: I really miss the perfume wafting in through the patio doors on a summer evening, and the planned colour scheme of dark blue and lime green hasn't come off yet as I am not sure if any of the 'Lemonade' have survived. If you don't want to repeat my error, sow 'Perfume Delight' this October. There have been some consolations, though.
In addition to my October to December sowing, in late winter I impulse-sowed 'Blue Shift' direct into a big pot containing the compact clematis 'Countess of Wessex', kindly given to me by Raymond Evison on a press trip to his amazing nursery last year. 'Blue Shift' is a new sweet pea sent to me to try by Thompson & Morgan.
By the time they started flowering, I'd forgotten their trick: the flowers start out winey-red and purple, and slowly shift (get it) to the palest of blues as the flowers mature (whether on the plant or in a vase), as you can see from the picture above.
Is this merely a gimmick, or a useful feature in a sweet pea? In many ways it's rather annoying: some of the phases I am not so keen on, and mixed together on the plants, I am not sure it really works (see left to get what I mean). However, each flower goes through a fabulous moment where it is wonderfully psychedelic, with vibrant purple and pink-veined petals (visible in the top picture, second and third from the right, and below). Then, finally before the petals fall, it's a blue not dissimilar to the a Himalayan poppy, which is rather good too.
No doubt T&M sold a good number of these to gardeners wanting the "novelty factor": there's an orange variety called 'Clementine Kiss' from Matthewman's, but again, why would you want an orange sweet pea?
I am not sure 'Blue Shift' is a variety I'd grow again, but it's faded blue glory has woken me up to the possibilities of some of the blue sweet peas, such as Noel Sutton and Charlie's Angel. The great thing with the sweet pea growing cycle is there really isn't that long to wait until you can begin to muse on next year's choices: seeds can be sown from October. But for the moment, these aren't looking too shabby in a vase, even if they're sadly lacking in scent. (By the way, if anyone can tell me the name of the rose (repeat-flowering climber) pictured, I'd be very happy. I have a notion it is 'Eternite' but far from sure. The camera has dulled the pink somewhat - it's rather more vibrant with the naked eye.
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.