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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 email@example.com 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.
Early September is a great time for a quick retrospective on the hits and misses of the 2012 growing season. Given the sodden weeks of early summer and the slug and snail apocalypse, it's a wonder anything has grown, but there were a few bright spots here and there.
I got sent two sets of plug plants by Unwins to try - Campanula 'Iridescent Bells' from Unwins - I can't show you a picture because all three plug plants got munched by slugs despite my best efforts, and the plant is no longer on their website. I had more success with Agastache 'Blue Fortune': one of the three plugs didn't survive the slug onslaught, but the other two made it through to flowering (pictured left). These are definitely a keeper: the pollinating insects love the blooms, and the leaves are edible, too: they taste like licorice in leaf form, and I am now addicted to munching them at every opportunity. I am not sure whether to keep them in a container or plant them out in the border, but I think I'll keep one in a container as an insurance policy against pests.
Other sacrifices to the slugs were my Zinnia 'Queen Red Lime' seedlings, from seeds provided by Thompson & Morgan, and Tithonia 'Fiesta Del Sol' from Higgledy Garden. I had a bit more success with T&M's Nasturtium 'Troika': I liked the variegated leaves and it made good ground cover but didn't really do what I want it to - climb up this willow obelisk with the mangetout pea 'Shiraz' also from T&M. Most of the 'Shiraz' got munched by slugs (notice a theme developing here?) and the 'Troika' didn't seem to want to climb but the plain-leaved climbing nasturtiums grown from seed from Lidl did a bit better. Oh, and my Mina lobata seedlings grown from seeds from Higgledy Garden got smashed by hailstones, and replacement plug plants from Sarah Raven never got past a few inches tall. All in all, I just wished I'd put sweet peas up the obelisks as I'd done the previous year with great success.
I was very restrained in my selection of tomato varieties to sow this year, sowing just two: the yellow cherry 'Sungold' and the bush tomato 'Bajaja', both from T&M. 'Sungold' lived up to its reputation as a sweet little performer, and 'Bajaja' was shaping up nicely into a big (80cm across) plant until a couple got hit by blight: the 'Sungold' wasn't affected. A couple of plants of 'Bajaja' weren't too badly affected but the big disappointment was that the little red tomatoes just didn't taste very nice: especially when compared with 'Sungold', which were little balls of sweetness that exploded in your mouth. I've just been sent some organic 'Sweetie' tomato seeds by Unwins who have recently teamed up with Garden Organic on a new range of organic seeds. They're definitely on the list for next spring, but can they beat 'Sungold'? I'll let you know this time next year!
There are lots of foraging books out there, but which one’s the best? Here’s my review some of the major titles.
(Review added June 17 2013)
Just the title sold me on this book because back garden foraging is my speciality. With two small kids, there isn't much of a chance for excursions to remote places, whereas my back garden is a couple of steps away, and packed full of plants I can eat, as this book shows. I consider myself to be a reasonably experienced forager, now, but there were some genuine surprises in this well-illustrated and informative book. Oregon grapes, yes; nasturtiums, naturally, but firethorn? Really? And spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), too. I am still delving into it to see what other edible delights might be on offer in my garden. There's a useful code at the top showing what seasons each plant can be eaten, and the text is well-written. This is an American book so British readers may have to skip the section on prickly pears.
(Review added June 17 2013)
This isn't so much a guide to foraging as a cookbook for foraged ingredients. Like The Forager Handbook (see below for a review), it's inspiring, but somehow the recipes seem more realistic: something you could recreate in your own kitchen rather than a recipe you'd see on the final of Masterchef. I, for one, can't wait to try salted caramel wild hazelnut shortbread, and crabapple and wild honeysuckle jelly. This book is no doubt more accessible to the foraging newbie, because it shows you in full technicolour the culinary possibilities foraged ingredients can provide. I'd love to go foraging with Fiona Bird, she clearly knows her stuff.
(Review added on July 19 2012)
When this book landed on my desk, it took me just a few seconds of flicking through to discover it was my new favourite foraging tome. It ticks all the boxes for me: excellent photos for easy identification, detailed information about the possible risks of different foraged plants (which are often alluded to in other books, but rarely covered in enough detail), and a good selection of recipes and ideas for using your bounty. There's also a useful section on growing some of these plants in your own garden, if you aren't up for picking plants elsewhere. It's small enough to carry around in your rucksack for on-the-go identification of plants, but detailed enough to serve as your main reference guide.
This is the classic forager’s guide, first published more than 30 years ago and still going strong. Small enough to fit in your pocket, sturdy enough to survive a few dips into muddy puddles, it features hand drawings that are detailed enough to help you make a positive identification of most plants you’ll come across. Mabey’s also honest about how good things taste, and balances practical details with lots of historical information too. If you’re serious about foraging, this is a must-have, and at £4.99 it won’t cost you a fortune.
This is not a field guide in the vein of Food For Free, but a book you can study at home before heading out on a walk, for inspiration and guidance, then open it again once you’re home to confirm your foraging finds . That said, there’s loads of useful information on identifying plants, including very clear guides to leaf shape and positioning. The strength of this book is that it focuses on things that you’ll find in urban and suburban settings, rather than the wild places of Britain. This makes sense - after all, most of us will want to forage regularly in our home environs. Alys also provides food for thought for would-be foragers in the form of sections where she meets various people and projects with a foraging theme, such as Incredible Edible Todmorden.
*Disclosure: Alys is the Guardian’s gardening columnist and as gardening editor, I edit her copy.
I met Miles Irving at the Hampton Court Flower Show this year and tasted his delicious meadowsweet cordial and yarrow flower shortbread. His book has been out for a couple of years now but I hadn’t come across it before. It’s a weighty hardback tome, most definitely a reference book rather than a field guide. This book is exhaustive, with hundreds of plants listed, and impressive detail about where each plant has – and hasn’t – been found in the UK.
It’s one for the gourmet cook, including recipes featuring foraged ingredients from top chefs. That’s because Miles forages for a living, supplying top restaurants with everything from fat hen to shepherd’s purse. I loved some of the detail here, such as the fact that he supplies the famous London restaurant The Ivy with the tiny flowers of the ivy-leaved toadflax to garnish a signature dish (I tasted one of these the other day – absolutely flavourless to my unrefined tastebuds).
But what lets this book down are the pictures. The small black and white images lose a lot of the detail necessary for a positive identification, so I am left wondering what the difference between wall lettuce and shepherd's purse really is. It’s a great book for the serious forager but you’ll need to cross reference with other books to check that you’ve got the right plant and not a poisonous imposter.
(Review by Toby Travis, added September 26 2011)
Small enough to fit in a backpack, entertaining enough to read in the bath - Hedgerow by John Wright is a worthy addition to the excellent River Cottage Handbook series. The blurb describes the book as "a thoroughly practical guide to gathering edible plants from hedgerow and wood, meadow and heath".
The plant descriptions are witty, opinionated and informative. The photos, together with the text, have been sufficient for me to safely identify such wild delights as alexanders, garlic mustard, yarrow and wood sorrel. That I burnt my mouth eating lords and ladies leaves instead of sorrel is entirely my own fault as there is a photo in the book highlighting the difference between the two.
There is also a very useful chart showing when particular plants are in season.
I haven't tried any of the dishes from the short recipe section at the back, but chestnut pancakes with birch sap syrup must surely be the holy grail for the dedicated autumn forager.
It's not cheap at £14.99 but, along with Mushrooms and Edible Seashore (Nos 1 and 5 respectively in the same series), this has become my primary source of inspiration before setting out on a foraging expedition.
Put together, the seven handbooks (also including concise and illuminating volumes on bread-baking, cake-baking and preserving), form the foundation for an entire approach to thinking about, acquiring, and preparing food.
Apps and maps
There's a useful collaborative map of where useful and edible plants are available which you can view online at Forager's Friend. This is a superb idea, which also comes as an app for use on the move, but like a lot of projects of this nature, it's partly dependent on where you live as to whether you'll be able to glean much in the way of foraging tips for your local area - there are just two entries for my home town, for instance (although I plan to add lots more!).
There are also a number of foraging apps available, none of which I have tried because I own the world's most basic mobile phone. If you have, do add your experienes with these below. Or have you got another favourite foraging guide? If you have, please feel free to add your thoughts below, or even email me a mini-review to add to this post – firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll be adding other titles as I read them - to come next, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.
To the man with the black dog, I was a woman with a kid in a buggy engaged in antisocial behaviour.
To me? I was engaging in an ancient practice, learning about my local environment, providing for my family, and not breaking any bylaws.
I was down by the river in my hometown, picking meadowsweet flowers to make cordial, while at the same time introducing my son to the wonder of watching a white-lipped snail bungee jumping on a sliver of grass. I hadn't noticed the chap until passed by and called back to me, in a tone that left no doubt as to his irritation, "those flowers are for us all to enjoy". In other words, "stop picking them, you good-for-nothing, irresponsible layabout".
I tried to explain what I was doing, but he kept on walking. I would have loved to have been able to chat with him: to tell him that I was picking perhaps 5% of the dozens and dozens of meadowsweet blooms in that spot, a public place: that I only picked enough for my purpose and left the scene looking as if I'd never been there, and that I wouldn't return to that spot that year to make sure the plants - an extremely common plant locally - have a chance to regenerate.
And I wasn't picking meadowsweet to sit and wilt in a vase - they were to be infused and turned into a cordial for me and my kids to enjoy in place of Fruit Shoots, cartons of orange 'juice' and all the other "healthy" drinks marketers try to convince parents to buy for their offspring.
It was the first time I'd ever been challenged by someone while out foraging: perhaps he wouldn't have batted an eyelid if I was blackberrying, but I think it was the fact that it was flowers that made the difference (He'd have had more of a point if I was picking flowers from the local park, but meadowseet flowers, though pretty, aren't exactly a bower of roses.)
This is a dilemma: despite the trendiness of foraging right now, most people still have no idea what foraging is, or what rules good foragers follow (there's a useful set here). And of course, foraging's newfound popularity means there are doubtless some people who are acting irresponsibly. And I don't like being told off by men with black dogs.
Perhaps education is the answer. Or wearing a T-shirt saying "I am foraging responsibly".
The cordial, meanwhile, was easy to make. This recipe makes a smallish amount, which I've stored in a jar in the fridge. Perhaps ironically, meadowsweet - used to flavour mead - is also said to reduce irritation in the stomach.
Add the water and flowers to a large pan. Bring up to a boil then add the sugar, lemon juice and zest. Leave to infuse for 24 hours then strain through a muslin into a bottle or jar.
They may be heavy and bang my ankles, but they will last for years and I can leave them around the garden and they look all cool and vintagey. Although the hosepipe ban is over, I prefer to fill these cans from my water butts and use them to water the garden: it makes you think a lot harder about what needs watering when you have a heavy can to lug about!
In the shot below ("stick 'em up punk, we're the fun-lovin' water cans") the Beldray's in the middle.