Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Why are TV garden experts all alike?

It seems to me there are three main types of Gardening presenter. White middle aged men like Monty Don, Alan Tichmarsh & Joe Swift; white middle aged women like Carol Klein, Anne Swithenbank & Sarah Raven; and ones with long flowing locks and mystic names and who look like Elves from Lord of the Rings like Rachel de Thame, Alys Flowers and Bob Flowerdew.

Elves from Lord of the Rings

Garden Elves Alys, Rachel & Bob

Here’s a handy Venn diagram about gardening presenters.


Obviously this is an issue with diversity in television, not gardening. Black people do garden, in fact I once know an elderly gentleman who could revive the most withered seedling, but he didn’t realise that he’s not supposed to be racist either and so he called his homemade plant feed ‘jungle juice’ and made lurid references to the supposed virility of black men. Lovely fella, but perhaps not the next Percy Thrower. Still, surely there could be a little bit more diversity? I wouldn’t make a fuss, but as soon as you notice weird absence of entire sections of the community, you can’t stop thinking about it.

However, I’m pleased to say the Big Allotment challenge has an African (I actually have no idea where she is from but she grew up in Zambia) AND a Malaysian in it.

jojo rekha

Thank you Rekha and Jo Jo for making me feel a little bit less uncomfortable.


Sowing the seeds of compromise

seed trays

First seeds of the year

A lot of the time gardening for me is a battle between, what I should do and what I am actually going to do. This series of compromises begins straight away with seed sowing.

Ideally I know that you should use clean trays, specialised seed compost, vermiculite, and a propagator, and this year, I did at least clean my trays, the rest is frankly not going to happen and here’s why.

Cost – Every time the splendid Carol Klein sprinkles vermiculite over her seed trays all I can hear is the sound of coins raining into garden centre’s tills. It’s nearly £5 for 10l, and Carol’s so heavy handed with the stuff I suspect she must have her own mine round the back of Glebe Cottage. I mean we all love a bit of drainage, but steady love, I’m not made of money, I might as well cover my chilli seeds with a light layer of cash.

To be honest my tight-fistedness extends to special seed compost too. I’ve always used my usual multi-purpose and it’s been adequate. Probably I don’t get as good germination rates, but I don’t need to. I get more plants than I can use with my inferior growing medium and again it simply doesn’t make economic sense to treat seeds (very cheap and high degeneration) as a more precious commodity than the far more expensive specialised composts (pricy and bulky to store lots of different kinds). I know that the best start will lead to stronger plants, but I need to keep the costs within reasonable limits for what is a hobby, not a job.

Space- Heated propagators are never going to happen in my house either. Apart from the expense and the inevitability that I will break them, there’s the fact that I wouldn’t have enough for all the seeds that I grow, leading to a heart-breaking Sophie’s choice every sowing day. Plus we don’t have enough plugs to spare.

‘Sorry kids it’s either TV or dialysis, you can’t have both, my sweet peas need a consistent 17 degrees.’

Time- I have to confess that in previous years I haven’t even got round to cleaning my seed trays properly. I’ve just brushed out the old dried compost. I know this is terrible and leads to all sorts of diseases caused by poor hygiene which not even a back-street slum chemist will be able to help you with. In my defence I’ve had very young children for the past decade, and what sowing I have been able to do has been a hurried operation which I never quite finish or clear up after before I am called away to tend a crying child or adjudicate on a siblings dispute or feed the little sods. I still find weeing on my own a novelty, when would I have found the time to carefully wash out my seed trays? Since 2003 the only things that have got washed in this house are things that are growing a culture, emitting an especially strong odour or are likely to be seen by my mother – basically plates, pants and wine glasses.

Now the kids are old enough to play on their own (their favourite game being ‘stare at a screen’) I finally have the chance to exercise a bit of garden hygiene, but I know the rest of the year will see more compromises. Gardening experts are great for telling us what we should be doing but without their seemingly endless budgets, time and resources I’m pretty sure they know we’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.


There are many reasons why I’m not doing the practical element of my RHS course. None of those reasons is because I don’t need to.
It would also be really helpful to be around knowledgeable plantsmen. It’s not good that I am the expert round here.
So in order to gain a bit of practical knowledge I joined the squad of volunteers who help at Hughenden Manor estate. Today was my first day and it was fantastic.
The weather to a break from being weird and irritating and the whole morning was bathed in spring sunshine. After a couple of hours lugging barrows full of wood chip it was even warm enough for me to strip down to my last five layers.
The head gardener is a lovely, slightly eccentric German called Frank. He reassured me and fellow newbie Su, that the volunteer system is very relaxed and flexible. I’ve heard this kind of thing before from Germans trying to play it cool, but turn up late or mess with the seating plan at a dinner party and the smile freezes, as they try to find your wanton abandon of convention ‘amusing’. So time will tell on that one, but I’m less likely to screw with his planting arrangement than if he were Dutch.
Frank was clearly pleased with our enthusiasm and he was generous with his time band expertise, explaining why you shouldn’t use fresh wood chip as a mulch and how he selected tree planting.

I had a great time, learnt a lot, and met some very interesting, lovely people. Hope I still feel this way when I go back next week and it’s raining.

Seeking garden slaves

When I was a kid my dad used to look after an elderly neighbour’s garden. In return he used a patch at the back behind the flower beds for a vegetable plot. We’d get home grown veg without losing the cricket/football/rugby pitch we called the lawn, while Mrs Moss had a beautiful flower garden to enjoy, and sometimes a few spare veg. It was a lovely arrangement and I often see huge gardens owned by older people who must struggle to maintain them and wonder if more similar arrangements couldn’t be made.

An allotment often isn’t convenient for some people. Even half a plot can be quite big if you just want to grow a few annual veg. With the waiting lists for a plot in some areas stretching into years, getting an allotment may not even be an option.

Also it’s just a really pleasant thing to do as a community, sharing skills, resources and time. You could say that I am wholeheartedly in favour of garden sharing, however this notice I spotted at our local post office seems to be a bit cheeky.

Calling all idiots

Isn’t this just asking for a free gardener? “A variety of vegetables for a family of four” is a big ask. I’ve struggled to achieve that this year on my allotment for my own family. Filling this landowner’s requirement wouldn’t leave much for your own table. Plus you’d be paying for all seed, feed and equipment veg gardening demands.

Given tone of self-righteousness in this ad, the author will probably be amazed that no one wants to snap up his generous offer.

Perhaps they’ll follow up this add with:

“Free parking – Use my driveway to keep your car, all I ask in return is that you ferry me and my family (4) to and from appointments.”

“Free kitchen – If your kitchen is too small for all your culinary experiments, you are welcome to use mine in exchange for a variety of meals for my family (4).”

Voila, a gardener, chauffer and cook. I just hope they’re grateful for the opportunity.

Pains of glass: Trials and tribulations putting up my second-hand greenhouse.

It’s like it’s always been there

It is only now that I feel enough time has passed and I’m able to write about putting up my second hand greenhouse.  Before now it’s been too raw. Literally, my hands have only just recovered from the tiny cuts and bruises.

It was November last year that my husband spotted an ad in the local newsagents selling a 10×8 greenhouse, £50 ono, buyer dismantles and collects. I’ve always wanted a greenhouse, but the only ones we could afford at the moment were either tiny or ugly or more often, both. Second hand seemed the perfect solution.


Nearly a year later and I can happily say it has been a tremendous success and for the first time ever I have a glut of tomatoes. I’ve resorted to handing out bags of the things on the school run. Sure people think I’m a weirdo, but I’m fulfilled in the knowledge that my friends are getting at least one of their five-a-day free of air miles and chemicals, courtesy of my greenhouse.

A second hand green house was a challenge and there are some things I would definitely do differently.

Golden rule number 1: Before you start dismantling the greenhouse, take pictures.

(..of the greenhouse, obviously). You’ll need to know what bit goes where when you’re putting it back up again. Some people take detailed notes or label all the pieces, but that can take a while and I didn’t want to impinge on the seller’s hospitality for too long, plus I’d forgotten to bring paper and pens so I just whipped out my phone and took loads of snaps of every joint from every angle.  They proved invaluable two months later when I was standing in front of a pile of jumbled aluminium, wondering where to start.

Golden rule number 2: Do not have a row with the person helping you half way through the job.

This is definitely a minimum two person job. I know this because I did it on my own.

Golden rule number 3: Do not stack or carry sheets of glass more than three at a time.

This is quite a precise figure. Four will break every time. Second hand glass is inevitably more fragile than new and replacement glass was our biggest expenditure after the purchase cost. There are 78 individual panes of glass in my greenhouse, a couple were broken when we bought it and I cracked a couple when I was putting it up. Another 8 were broken just by being stacked in multiples of more than three, until we learned our lesson.

Golden rule number 4: Work out how many z and w clips you’ll need then triple it.

For the greenhouse erecting virgins among you (that sounds so wrong) a w clip is what presses the glass into place against the frame and is so called because it looks like a w. A z clip is what holds the overlapping glass panes and looks a bit like a z. When you’re taking a greenhouse apart those beggars will fly off all over the place. In fact it’s a really good idea to wear safety glasses. I thought I’d managed to find and collect most of them to reuse, so when it came to putting it up again I only bought a couple of bags which meant I had to keep sending my husband out to get more. Had I been more organised and worked out exactly how many I needed I’d have saved myself a lot of time and money as they’re much cheaper on the internet than at a DIY store, but that’s just not the kind ofperson I am.

Golden rule number 5: When deciding on your base, take what you should do, subtract what you can’t afford and add what you have the resources for. What you’ll be left with is a compromise which you live with.

There’s a good chance that when you’re buying a second hand greenhouse you won’t be able to take to base too because it will be cemented into its original location. This leaves you deciding how to secure the greenhouse at home. I was lucky because we happened to have a concrete greenhouse blocks left by the previous owners and they happened to be an almost perfect fit. There was still some bodging required, involving hitting things very hard with a hammer. I consulted my brother who does building engineer type stuff for a living. After taking a look he gave my base an encouraging thumbs up with a less encouraging philosophical aside that ‘nothing lasts foerver’. I can live with this.


Golden rule number 6: Don’t put up a greenhouse on a windy day.

..or, if you can help it a cold day or a wet day. However given that there are probably other things you want to be doing on warm dry days, at least try to get the thing up in just one day. However given that you might be doing it on your own again because your husband is looking after the kids, then at least make sure that the glazing is done in one day. There is a very sound reason for this. If it’s only half done, the breath of a passing swallow will be enough to break the glass.


Golden rule number 7: Wear gloves and get a pair of long toothed pliers.

The pliers tip was given to me by the bloke who works in our local garden centre. He looked at my poor swollen hands and diagnosed that I was in the process of putting up a greenhouse (also I was buying w clips at the time, which probably gave him a clue). He’d recently put up several for display in one day. After a few moments comparing callouses (again, sounds wrong) he suggested I do myself a favour and use pointy pliers to snap w clips into place instead of soft pink fingers. As for the gloves, it may seem obvious, but sometimes you worry that they’ll cause you to slip and drop a pane of glass. Consider this; broken glass costing a few pounds to replace – or a trip to hospital and never playing the banjo again.


In conclusion

I’ve already written way too much on this really, but if you’re thinking of DIYing yourself a second hand greenhouse then I hope this helps.  Meanwhile let some pictures of my bountiful fruits inspire you.