Hoping for spring

As we are all battling through the last remnants of winter, I find myself desperately looking for signs of spring.  Whether it be a leaf bud swelling, a bulb pushing it’s head up through the mud or the return of the dawn chorus. It’s not far away. There are possibly another couple of months of fickle weather, cruelly cold one moment and teasingly warm the next. Some nights like tonight, I browse old pictures of the summer in previous years and yearn for the colour and gently easiness of it all. Here is a little reminder of the best bits.


Furnace Lane Allotment Summer 2011


From my garden in Lamberhurst


Kent woods in May


My daughter in our last garden around her first birthday, 2010


Spring border

A simple but satisfying job

Every year about now, I get in a bit of a tizzy about the garden, especially the vegetable patch. I draw plans, redraw, write lists of seeds, plot over how to crop rotate. Then, most years about 50% of the planning goes out the window come April when there is so much to do, and planting starts in ernest and I usually run out of space, hah! Not sure I’ll ever completely solve this issue until I have a sprawling country house set up with numerous greenhouses (hot and cold), a polytunnel and at least a couple of sheds for propergating. As it stands I have one shed, one mini greenhouse and one coldframe and lots of pots of seedlings standing on my kitchen windowsill. I think most people are the same though, so it can’t be helped.

On top of this I usually plan some type of complete renovation of a part of the garden, then realise I’ve left it too late and everything is starting to grow already. Now is almost the last chance to make changes to the landscape before the shoots really start moving.

So today I was in a quandry, do I go out and tidy the beds?, or dig out the new flower beds?, or sow some seeds?, or shift the huge pile of weedy turf that if bagged up could provide a very useful spare vegetable bed? This afternoon the weather was bitter with harsh north easterly winds. I looked outside and wondered if it was wise even going out there. Finally I decided the best job on such a cold day was to dig to get warm, so I opted to turn over the soil to aerate the new raised beds before I add new compost. This isn’t something I will do next year, just now as we had such bad flooding, it compacted the soil completely.


The top bed dug

The weather was unforgiving, biting at my cheeks and penetrating my toes, but I stuck to the job in hand, and was pleasantly surprised to find the soil turning over nicely. Before long I had completed the first bed and was marvelling at how lovely the soil looked! Almost crumbly.


The ‘clay’ bed before


Yet then I walked over to the other side, the clay bed, and yes the mud stuck to my fork and my back ached. It wasn’t that tough really, it was a simple but satisfying job.


Heavy clay

Now the soil will get plenty of frost and the winds will dry it out hopefully making it lovely to work with in a month’s time (when the clocks will go forward).


The clay bed after (with garlic)


Then I went inside for a well earned cup of tea and to sow some seeds…

Sowing Himalayan Giant Primula

Last year on BBC Gardener’s World, Monty Don dug a pond in his garden. I was amazed at how he’d managed to plant the edges so successfully that when high summer arrived, you would be mistaken in believing this garden had been in situ for at least 2 or 3 years. He’d obviously chosen the plants very carefully to suit their habitat perfectly. One of these happened to be the Giant Himalayan Primula (or Primula florindae), a plant I’d never heard of before, but was really impressed by, it looked like a giant cowslip.


Since I don’t think I’d ever seen one in a garden centre, I ordered some seed. I think it would look lovely in my (newly named) bog garden! This is a woody area on the side of the main lawn. I have planted lots of spring bulbs and some native wildflowers like ox-eye daisy here.

Today I read up a little on the sowing technique for the primula, this one in particular needs a good spell of cold weather then warmth to trick it into germination. Since it’s so cold outside, I thought if I sow now and leave it out for a few weeks then bring it in to get going, it should work.


The seeds can be sown onto ordinary, slightly damp seed compost, but they should be sown thinly as they are tiny specimens. The instructions suggested not covering the seeds at all, but I wavered and put some fine grit on top.


It’s best to put the tray into a platic bag to conserve moisture, but don’t water until the cold treatment is completed. You could also put the seeds on a tray of compost in the fridge if you have room.


I set myself a little reminder to bring them back indoors in 3 weeks, then I’ll post on their progress!

More on Building a Pond

Clear skies, hard frost

Last night was another hard frost, it’s been very clear and sunny during the days which is glorious, but I hear more cold weather fronts are on the way. I couldn’t resist catching some of the frost on camera, as the time is coming when frosts will dwindle as we head towards spring (what a relief!).











Frosted leeks!



This weekend in the blazing sunshine, I pushed on with the vegetable garden layout. I managed to make another two raised beds, on behind the original bed on the left and one running parallel to the south facing wall at the back. This latter bed will be a mixed one, with my nectarine tree, a climbing fig, as well as being used for tomatoes and squash later in the summer. At the moment it has some rose and blackcurrant cuttings that I took last autumn. I’m hoping they will take well enough for me to move and pot them up later in the summer to make some space for use as a nursery bed.


047I’m pleased how this part of the garden is looking now, much better than it did in December with the floods, but the most important thing will be to see how much improved the system is at growing vegetables. It will be interesting to note the comparison to last year as the season progresses. I’m hoping the raised beds will speed things up a little as I noticed the clay took a long time to warm last year, so even though seeds germinated (albeit slowly) they stalled for a while and didn’t get going for quite some time. Bearing in mind we had the wettest year on record too!


I’m waiting to get some more wood before completing the other two rectangular beds, which will altogether form a square grid with intersecting paths (as a cross). Only a few more weeks before the broad beans, parsnips and potatoes will be going in!

Seed Swapping for Biodiversity


One of the most exciting activities in winter for a gardener and vegetable grower has to be planning the year ahead. I have pretty much bought the lion share of my seeds for this year, inevitably I have bought more than I can probably grow realistically, but who isn’t tempted to do the same! I have chosen some different companies this year such as Simpsons, The Real Seed Catalogue, Premier Seeds Direct (eBay), RP Seeds as well as from my regulars such as the Organic Gardening company, Dobies and Suttons. I also pick up seeds here and there in garden centres, this year I found some from Jamie Oliver which I thought I would give a try.

I expect most of us do the same, collecting seed from all over the country, but really is it the best thing to be doing for the biodiversity of our gardens?

When leafing through The Real Seed Catalogue, I came across this excerpt:

Why Not Save Your Own Seed?

Until recently, every gardener in the world saved their own seed. And every gardener was, therefore, a plant breeder. They simply saved the seed of the plants that did best for them, and which they liked most. Although simple, this was efficient.

Each gardener was maintaining a slightly different strain of each vegetable, and this made for a huge living genebank that was very resilient against disease or climate change. If things changed so that your cabbages didn’t do well, someone down the road had a slightly different one that would cope. This has worked very well for the past 11,000 years. That includes the Bronze Age, the building of the Pyramids, the rise and fall of all the major empires. Every year, without even thinking about it, millions of people added to the achievements of their ancestors to maintain and improve the previous years’ varieties. Because their seed was real, open-pollinated seed, every seed was a bit different, so it was widely adapted, but also adaptable – it could cope with all sorts of change.

Now, we have thrown this all away. In the past 40 years, almost all these adaptable local strains have been lost. Gardeners have forgotten how to save their own seed. They are sold hybrids, where every seed is identical, in every packet, year after year – no adaptability for different soils, or for changes in climate over time. And because these hybrid seeds are all the same in every field in every country, people have to bludgeon the environment into some sort of ‘standard’ growing medium with fertilisers and chemicals, to grow their standardised seeds.

Should the climate change, or the supply of cheap oil (to make all these chemicals) dry up, then these hybrids will do badly, and there will be no real seeds left to breed from.

Profits for the seed companies now, but disaster in the future . . . real farming is a project that has been ongoing for millennia, but now in the height of our tiny period of cheap oil, we think we know better and have turned it into just another industrial process. Peoples food should represent stored sunlight and water, but 90% of its calories come from oil these days – for the ploughing, spraying, fertiliser, transport.

When the oil runs out, who will have the real seeds that can grow without it?

There are many interesting points raised here, but the overall message I am stunned by, that we have as a culture dismissed 11,000 years of farming knowledge for ‘progress’ in the past 40 years.


This past week, BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time was broadcast from the Seedy Sunday seed swap in Brighton which is pretty local to me in Eastbourne. I was annoyed to have not heard of it, as it would have been the perfect opportunity for me to collect some locally grown seeds that have adapted to our local climate and soil conditions. We should all be doing the same, whether we garden on allotments or at home, we should swap seeds with interested neighbours for our own benefits. Perhaps if we all set up our own local seed swapping service in our local community this practise could be re-established?

But for now, I’ll be swapping seed with my mum! and who knows this may even help our bees as well.


Cuckoo heralds the spring, but for how long?


I was recently leafing through a book of mine with poems about nature, when I found a little ditty about the cuckoo in spring, it read:

The Cuckoo is a merry bird, He sings as he flies, He brings us glad tidings, And tells us no lies.

Having recently completed the RSPB Birdwatch in my garden, I was wondering how our native species were faring in general in our gardens. I think it is quite evident that some are not doing so well, only recently I heard on the radio about the decline of our native mistle thrush and not long before that the demise of the cuckoo. I have a love hate relationships with the cuckoo! I love the fact it heralds the spring returning, with warmer days and lighter evenings, and of course the growing of plants. Yet, I despise the means by which this bird has evolved to rear it’s young, but upending it’s hosts eggs to dominate the nest, and forcing the host to feed it as it grows far beyond it’s proportions. Despite this, I wouldn’t like to lose the traditional British sound of the cuckoo from our countryside.

Where I grew up near Heathfield, they celebrate the coming of spring with a Heffle Fair which gave the town it’s name. The main attraction of the fair in times gone by, was an old lady who would symbolically release a cuckoo from a basket, then much celebrations would begin! You can read more about it’s history here.

So why is the cuckoo struggling to survive? There are a few opinions on this, many based upon climate change and alterations in habitat. Climate change is also blamed for making it’s migration from Africa more dangerous, due to shifts in timing that may set the bird off course or into bad weather. It is also suggested that the cuckoo’s decline is a direct response to the decline of it’s host’s nests, these being Dunnock, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Reed Warbler. The cuckoo also has seen a decline in it’s food sources such as large caterpillars.

There are some habits of the cuckoo that I didn’t know before, such as the male returns to British shores before the female in spring, so it’s his mating call we hear to attract a female. His call also changes in pitch throughout the months leading up to summer, starting with a major second in April, then widening into a minor third before changing to a major third, then slowly into a fourth and so on until ending with an augmented fourth in late June! I would like to test out this theory but I fear that in Eastbourne the chances of me hearing a cuckoo every week from April until June is probably pretty slim. Once the male has mated with the female bird, she will find a suitable host’s nest to lay her egg, before returning to Africa. When the chick has successfully hatched and grown to a considerable size, thanks to the lack of competition from siblings, it will itself fly to Africa alone.

So next time I’m out in the woods I will be listening with a keen ear to hear if this familiar bird has returned this year.

My triumphant attempt at making a raised bed

Oh for years now I’ve been enviously eyeing up peoples neat raised beds and gravel paths! I have always wanted some, but have always secretly wondered whether they were slightly a waste of space. All those paths could be another row of peas etc etc. The plus points to having raised beds are having  improved soil structure, little digging, and being able to cram more crops in per sq meter.

I could never justify the cost and effort in my previous gardens, it felt like if I did install raised beds it would be purely aesthetic. This time it’s different though, my garden is on heavy clay and floods. When I’ve looked out of the window lately since the snow has melted, I’ve been a bit desperate to know how to conquer the problem to be honest. I could have moved the vegetable garden entirely, but that would mean months of lifting turf would have been in vain, and I couldn’t see where I could rehouse the patch where it would still get good sunlight for most of the year.

I have come to the conclusion the only option is to raise the soil level, so at last I have a real reason to make a raised bed. Now the next challenge, I have never made one before, nor do I know if I’m capable! I’m not terrible good at being accurate when it comes to woodwork, so I had visions of me swearing as I discovered each plank to be too short, or the nails wouldn’t drive in. I had a quick look online for a tutorial, and was so pleased to have come across this one from Gardener’s world.

So simple! really who couldn’t make a bed like that 😮 Inspired by this video I arranged for a local scaffolder to drop off some old boards, and went out to buy the extra bits, like corner posts and nails. That’s really all you need.


I measured the boards by eye, by laying them over the existing vegetable patch, marking out two long and two short sides. Then I measure the thickness of the board, and added another half (to allow for what gets driven underground)  for the corner posts.


I sawed all the wood and then used a spade to loosen the soil around the edge of the vegetable bed. My soil was very wet so this wasn’t difficult!



I then laid the planks around the bed, slightly overlapping the edges to allow the nails to be hammered in. Next I hammered in the corner posts, and hammered nails all around the connecting edges, and into the corner posts for extra security. I then filled with a mixture of grit, topsoil, compost (bought and homemade) and manure. The bed size is 3.5m x 2m, which is very large, but I plan to intersect with a couple of boards so I can get in to weed and plant.


I still need to top it up further, but I thought I’d leave it until nearer the time I’m planning to plant, then leave for a couple of weeks to settle, because the soil level will drop a bit by then.


Here I am feeling very proud of my achievement! (apologies for the poor quality of the photos, they are mobile shots at dusk) I hope it’s not pride before a fall and this really does solve the flood problem. I will only use this bed for summer planting for this reason, as the two right beds don’t seem to get so much water.

Well now, one down another three raised beds to go, oh and some paths to gravel!