Thursday, 29 December 2011

The new allotment: the evil weeds

In my latest post for the Guardian I talk about weeds on the allotment.  To read more just click on the image above or click here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Ryan's Garden: Merry Christmas

Sorry everyone for the delay in posting but it’s Christmas, my dog ate my last blog post and my alarm clock didn’t go off?  Okay, not all of that’s strictly true but one thing we do know is that I haven’t blogged for what seems like an age.  Apologies to those of you that read the blog regularly but what with everything else going on I had neither the time nor the inclination to write here.   My care of the garden and allotment has also been completely negligent of late but then again there’s not a lot happening out there right now.

I’ve experienced several firsts recently and there have also been some interesting developments since I last updated you.  The seasonal man-flu came, followed by two and a bit weeks of jury duty and now another head cold, not quite as bad as the man-flu, is leading me in to Christmas.  As you can imagine I’ve not had a lot of time to do much what with work, shopping and the mini-farm but there have been a few bits and bobs going on.

In a strange twist of fate and after a typically charged allotment AGM (do these ever run smoothly?), I have become the allotment secretary.  Despite me attending with absolutely no intention of taking on any responsibility and after telling my other half that I was in no way taking on a role, I was somehow thrown in to it.  I heard someone propose me, I saw a brief flash of hands and that was that.  At the time I was still pondering how a lager shandy could cost £2.80 so I guess I can always back track and blame the shock.  

I’ve made three massive Christmas cakes, which I can’t wait to devour and I’ve also put together my annual wreath for the front door (above), this time from what I found at the allotment.  The main wreath is made from a stunning red Dogwood, probably Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, and it’s decorated simply with Ivy and piece of ribbon I found in the cupboard.  The letters were the only bit that I bought and cost the grand sum of £2.49.  I’ll try to keep the wreath ring, if it lasts, and I’ll see if it’s something I can possibly reuse in future.  If not it should compost down well or add to he dead hedge that’s now completed.

And lastly, as many of you will know by now, largely due to the fact it’s the only thing posted on the blog for around a month, I’m writing a regular series of posts for The Guardian on ‘The New Allotment’.  The next piece in the series will be published shortly so keep your eyes peeled.

And that’s it.  I sincerely hope that you have a great Christmas and I’ll see you in the New Year!

Friday, 25 November 2011

My Guardian blog: The new allotment

Today saw the launch of a new series of blogs posts I'm writing for The Guardian.  Posts will focus on taking on and developing an allotment plot and this will run on a monthly basis.

I really hope you enjoy the new blog (just click the image above) and I look forward to reading your comments!


Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Quick Allotment Update and the Competition Winner

With the days becoming ever darker and with the cooling temperature there is little for me to do in my garden or on the allotment plots aside from tidying up and carrying out a little bit of landscaping work.  Even if I wanted to do more the chances of me doing so any time other than a weekend is highly unlikely, unless of course I don a head-torch and garden by torchlight (there's an idea!).

The focus at the plot right now is on finishing off the dead hedge around the chicken coop, with the stems from the 12ft Buddleia I cut down, and then mulching the remaining beds that lay empty.  All of the garlic has been planted ahead of colder weather and this year I'm growing eight different types in all: Elephant garlic, Albigensian Wight, Lautrec Wight, Picardy Wight, Solent Wight, Chesnok Wight, German Red and a Purple Heritage variety.  After last years success I'm really looking forward to see how each performs.  I'm also toying with the idea of sowing broad beans at the moment but I'm yet to find the time.  My spring sown crop did really well so there's no issue if I don't get round to it.  Hopefully I'll get a chance next weekend if frost hasn't arrived by then.

Parsnips, Cabbage, Kale and Brussels Sprouts are all ripe for the picking and I'm just waiting for a nice frost to sweeten the parsnip roots.  The chickens continue with their moult and are now lacking tails and bum feathers, which makes them look quite ridiculous.  At least we're still getting one or two eggs a day.

In other news the the 'grow your own' book giveaway has come to an end and James Howard was selected at random as the lucky winner.  I really hope you enjoy the books as they are both great reads.  Also, for those of you that didn't enter keep your eyes peeled as another competition is just around the corner!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Dahlias: To Store or Not to Store?

With the first frosts of this Winter making themselves known the question of whether or not to lift tender perennials, especially those that are tuberous, raises its head and this annual dilemma looms large at the forefront of my mind.

In many areas of the country lifting is not so much of an option as it is an essential part of garden maintenance.  In my part of the world, however, you could probably get away with a deep mulch of organic matter and a large dollop of hope.  Last winter, of course, was the exception to this otherwise carefree approach and the lingering seed of doubt that was sown begs the question - to store or not to store?
If you follow my blog you will have read about my pound shop cutting garden.  The Dahlias were definitely the stars of the show and as such I want to make sure that I can repeat this next year, despite their somewhat low cost.  Lifting and storing the tubers will be nothing more than a 10-20 minute job but the task itself will allow me to save what I currently have and increase my stock next year if I choose to take cuttings.

To lift your Dahlias, simply wait for the first frosts to blacken the leaves, cut down all top growth to around 15cm (6 inches) and lift the tubers carefully with a fork.  The cut foliage can then be added to the compost bin.  Remove all loose soil and fine roots from the tubers and place them upside down, with the stems facing downwards, in a wooden box or plastic tray (the kind you find at fruit and vegetable markets).  Leave the tubers to dry for around 3 weeks in a frost free place and then place the tubers the right way up and cover them with vermiculite, coir or dry compost.  Store the tubers in a cool space, free of frost, and make regular checks for rot.  It’s as simple as that.  When Spring returns, simply place the tubers in trays of good compost, in a sunny position and give them some water that will initiate the tubers to sprout.
This is pretty much what I’ll be doing this weekend along with planting the majority of my Alliums and possibly making pickled red cabbage ready for giving as gifts at Christmas.

In other news, the chickens are still producing one measly egg a day, despite a recent worming and improved diet, I have taken delivery of next years seeds from the fantastic Seed Parade, and I have been nominated in the Horticultural Channel TV Awards 2011 under the category of the best gardening/allotment blog of 2011.  Thank you to those of you who nominated me and if you wish to vote for me you can do so here.  Good luck to everyone else who’s been nominated in my category and all the others too.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Mulch, Lasagne and Miss McGee

Autumn Raspberry

Autumn is tipping the nod to winter and it’s time to put the garden to bed for a long and cosy slumber.   

Plants are calling for a nice warm duvet as temperatures dip and of course I’m more than willing to oblige.  In fact it’s probably one of my favourite garden tasks as the unruly autumn often leaves me wanting to tidy up.  I’ve gone the extra mile this year by using an approach that I haven’t used before.  In line with the no-dig method pioneered by Charles Dowding, Lasagne (Lasagna) Gardening consists of adding layers of card or newspaper (the pasta) between layers of green and brown materials (the filling).  Overtime, and with the help of a few worms and other organisms, this helps to create a beautiful, hummus rich, fluffy soil that is perfect for growing fruit and vegetables in.  On the allotment plot in particular, I thought that this approach would save on maintenance whilst also being highly effective in improving the water retentive clay soil.  The idea is to lavish the allotment beds with a layer of cardboard topped with well-rotted horse manure, home made compost, comfrey leaves and whatever else I can find.  This will then be added to year on year and help improve the soil.  I had planned to use up a rotting bale of haylage, as an extra green layer, but it was moved before I could get to it.  I’m sure another will turn up soon though and I have plenty of Comfrey to harvest yet from my newly acquired allotment plot which appears to be home to 24ft of mature comfrey plants.  You can read more about Lasagne Gardening here.

Cardboard mulch around a young Blackcurrant with Manure in foreground

The soft-fruit alley is the first area to be treated with such luxury.  As an area prone to heavy weed growth, and with less than ideal soil, the double whammy of cardboard and bulky organic matter is likely to suppress weeds and improve the soil over time. The manure I’m using is around two years old and like black gold - well rotted, light and scent free.  I’m bringing the manure back from the stables in stages as I don’t have a trailer but as I visit the stables everyday anyway and end up back at the allotment to see to the chickens it makes perfect sense and is fairly economical.  I’m quite mean when it comes to feeding my plants and I find that if I feed and improve the soil plants flourish, grow strongly but are more unlikely to succumb to pests and diseases without compromising yield.  By next year my horse should have produced enough manure to mulch the whole of my plot and I love the idea that my pets all have a role in my garden and helping to produce food for the home.  All that’s needed now is a small holding!

Next thing to do is mulch the two large raised beds with cardboard and top in a similar style and then comes the real challenge … the new plot.  The new plot is quite large, patyly shaded and is pernicious weed heaven.  I’ve removed an extremely large buddleia that was around 12ft tall, which must have had 40 stems, dug out the majority of docks and cut back the brambles.   The Buddleia branches will be used to extend a dead hedge that surrounds the chicken run and the rear boundary of one of the lower and original plot (Plot number 4).  It’s likely that the new plot will receive deeper lasagne gardening treatment as I’m hoping this will help to kill most of the weeds at the plot, improve the soil, which actually doesn’t seem at all bad, or at least give me a running start on next year.  I’ll keep you updated on how I get on.  Many will be shouting at me to go with the glyphosate or black plastic treatment but I actually quite enjoy a little bit of work and I have time to play with before planting next spring.  Plus, I’m sure under all the weeds there are useful plants too.

So, on reflection this autumn will be spent, mulching, weeding and pruning with a little bit of bulb planting and planning for the year to come.  I love this time of year!

In other news, the chickens are in full moult and we’re down to one measly egg a day.  Of course, it’s McGee that’s doing all the laying.  For a chicken that lays very small eggs, that I must add were supposed to be blue not pink, she definitely makes up for her meagre offerings with consistency.  To give the girls a bit of a boost I’ll be supplementing their diet with some poultry spice and worming them again just for good measure.

The Grow Your Own Book Competition still rolls on and you can read more about how to enter here.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Grow Your Own: Four Books to Get You Growing

We’ll soon be at that point in time where gardens sleep, days are short and the best thing to do is snuggle up in front of a wood burning stove with a nice cuppa and a good book.  I always find that this time of year is perfect for planning the gardening year ahead and in this instance a good bit of reading always helps to add to and inform such plans.  I’ve recently read four books that all focus on a similar theme and if you have an allotment or are growing your own produce then they might be just what you’re after.

Personally, I'm taking heed from parts in each of these books as I go about reclaiming another weed infested, Budddleia and dock riddled allotment plot.  From reusing materials, reclaiming useful plants and using some patience when designing the future plot, each of these books can and will help anyone in a similar position and anyone else embarking on growing their own.

First up is ‘Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost)’ by Dave Hamilton.  As the title suggests this book is both about growing your own produce and saving yourself money in the process.  Taking a step back from garden trends and consumerism, Dave discusses ways in which gardens can be created from what we have around us, what we can salvage and what we can save.  The book aims to change the way we think about “rubbish” and goes a long way to influence resourceful gardening.

The book itself is packed with useful information, personal accounts and quirky illustrations by Dave’s partner Ellie Mains.  Divided into seasons, the book takes you right through the growing year, but unlike other gardening books this one is different and feels refreshingly new.  Modern topics, holistic approaches and practical advice are all combined with the more traditional way of growing crops to provide a healthy tome for the new gardener and snippets of useful information for the seasoned pro.  I particularly loved the way Dave encourages the reader to evaluate and plan any new site, to see what’s already there and to work around what’s useful.  Dave’s origami bags are something to envy, I need to master this art as I’m forever looking for a bucket or pockets in which to carry eggs and vegetables, but I think I’ll leave the humanure to the pro’s.

This book is a great read with serious issues at its heart and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in growing their own food or gardening with sustainability in mind.  You can follow Dave on Twitter here.

Next up we have ‘The Allotment Pocket Bible’ by Emma Cooper.  Coming from The Pocket Bible Series of Books this offering has a traditional feel and layout.  This is the type of book that you would take with you to the plot and go to for practical advice when needed.  It’s small enough to carry along to the plot in your hand or back pocket and is full of useful and up to date information for the novice and experienced gardener alike.

Emma takes the reader through the history of allotments, picking a site, plot maintenance and then moves on to growing and using crops.  There’s an extensive list of crop profiles in the book and the growing calendar in the back of the book is quite a useful quick reference.  Emma also incorporates a few recipes to help you use up your harvest and personally I’d like to see more of this.  Maybe in the next book Emma?

If you’re starting an allotment or thinking of getting one then this book is a great start and Emma's writing style and knowledgable offerings are always a joy to read.  You might also be interested in reading a past interview with Emma from back in 2009 when she published ‘The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z’ or visiting her website here.  The Allotment Pocket Bible by Emma Cooper (£9.99, Pocket Bibles) is available from and all good book shops.

On a different track, we move on to ‘Minding my Peas and Cucumbers’ by Kay Sexton.   This book, also focussing on allotment growing, is written in a very different style to the others mentioned here and takes on a novel-like form.  Kay takes us through the struggles she had in finally becoming a plot holder, after volunteering for many years, and she outlines the gritty politics and humour of allotment life.  She brings a reality to vegetable gardening that is rarely seen by utilising her own experiences and other stories from the plot.  Her tales are intriguing but transferable to allotment sites all across the country and I was touched by some of her stories, whilst also managing to giggle at others.  Akin to a female ‘One Man and His Dig’ by Valentine Low, this book is most certainly not just aimed at women and hits upon many topics.  I found that I could associate with most of the stories, its characters and on reflection I also learned a few things.  Kay’s writing style is conversational but this doesn’t compromise its content as she incorporates much practical advice, with recipes thrown in for good measure too.

If you are looking for some insight in to allotment life, if you hanker for some handy tips or even if you simply want to delve in to a world completely alien to your own then this may be just what you need.

And finally, we take a look at ‘Food from your Garden and Allotment’ from Reader’s Digest.  This weighty book is much more encyclopaedic than the others discussed and is beautifully presented with a wealth of photographs and illustrations.  First published in 1977, this new edition brings everything right up to date.

The strap line on the front of the book reads: ‘All you need to know to grow, cook and preserve your own fruit and vegetables’, and it sets out to do just this.  The 320 page book is divided in to five colour coded sections taking the reader right through a basic guide to the kitchen garden, growing and cooking, the food-growers calendar, identifying pests and diseases, and home preserving.  Each section is easy to read and packed full of useful information that would guide even the newest gardener to food growing success.

This book is great for anyone who’s interested in growing their own and is sure to be a hit with the novice, amateur and seasoned allotmenteer alike, as many subjects and techniques are discussed.  The book has depth and the layout works really well making it a great read and resource.  The chapter on preserving really stood out and took this book to another level as not only does it guide you through growing your own produce but it also informs you on how to get the most out of your produce.

If any of these books have taken your fancy or if you want to read more please click here.  Also, for your chance to win a copy of 'Grow Your Own Food for Free: Well Almost' and 'The Allotment Pocket Bible' simply email: with your full name and contact details.

Terms and conditions: This competition closes at 23.59 on 13.11.11. Any entries received after this time will not be counted. Entrants must be UK residents aged 18 years or older to enter.  By entering this competition you agree and consent to your name being published and by taking part in the competition, entrants are deemed to have read,understood and accepted all of the Terms and Conditions and agreed to be bound by them. The winner will be selected at random and will be announced here on the blog.  Only one entry per email address will be allowed.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Ryan's Garden Loves: Beer Bottle Tea Lights

Garden lighting can often be quite dull and boring but I absolutely love these gorgeous little recycled tea light holders which add a sense of fun and youth to the garden.

I came across this product when contacted on twitter by the websites owner asking me to do a review of a victorian garden but I couldn't resist posting about these tea light holders too as I think they're great.  The holder itself is made from a recycled beer bottle that has served its original purpose and I quite like the idea of turning waste in to quite a funky little garden accessory.  In fact, I think that I'm slowly becoming a recycled beer bottle collector as I also have the matching Corona wine glasses, which I picked up at the Eden Project after the Amy Winehouse debacle, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The tea lights are really simple to use and after adjoining the bottle to the metal ground spike and inserting the tea light holder they’re ready for their position in the garden.  I think that they'd be at their best plunged in to summer and autumn borders or on the entrance to the garden but they would also be great to use to line a path or in to containers, either in the garden or at entrances to the home.

If you like the look of these tea light holders then you should check out the main website where you can also find other lighting products, garden lamp posts and beautiful gazebos.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Magic Mushrooms: A Fungal Foray

Yesterday I made my first venture into the highly complex, cult-like world of mycology. Well, sort of.  Joining a mixed group of die-hard mushroom enthusiasts, photographers and fellow novices we set out on a guided foray through the grounds of Dyffryn Gardens, all led by our guide for the morning Teifion Davies.  

Joined by a friend, who later turned out to be the female mushroom hunting equivalent of  a Lamotto Romagnolo,  we made our way to the venue on one of the hottest days of the year.  This unexpected autumn heat didn’t bode well for finding delicate fungi, this coupled with my inability to find the “other” walking shoe before leaving the house (why is this always the case?) led to a rather uninspiring and frustrated start.
In my infinite naivety and with my mind on a fungal feast, I had premature and preconceived ideas of how the day would play out.  I imagined the group setting out with empty trugs only to return with a bounty of edible delights that would be cooked up for lunch or later taken home to enjoy.  But with my stomach ruling my mind, and having taken influence from a blog post by Zoe Lynch, I later discovered that my ideas were slightly askew and this led to many a rumble as we meandered through the gardens.  I hadn’t considered the possibility that people would be interested in mushrooms that were neither edible nor attractive, but interested they were.  Squeals of excitement came from Fungi-crazed ladies in cargo shorts - “I’ve found a Mushroomus superduperius!”.  If it wasn’t edible I wasn’t interested and this is where I learned one the most important lessons in mycology – know your enemy!

The UK has an amazing range of fungi and to the untrained eye it’s incredibly difficult to differentiate between those that are tasty and those that would kill you.  Gills, pores, spores and stipes all give clues to what fungi you’re looking at but giving a positive I.D. requires serious dedication to mycology and nerves of steel.  It appears that the balance of edible versus inedible species is stacked against us and I would be rather reluctant to go picking alone with my lack of knowledge.  Then again my friend the mushroom hunter did say that you should leave some of the offending mushroom in the kitchen when you’re cooking it – I guess the ambulance crew appreciates this.
Dyffryn was a great setting for the day and we managed to find so many different species.  We walked through the arboretum where we learned about common associations between fungi and particular tree species.  We found many Milkcaps, some of which smelled of coconut, Tricholomas, Deceivers, Belitus and Agaricus.  We found and positively identified one edible species in this part of the gardens that had a wondrous floury smell and is commonly known as “The Miller” (Citopilus prunulus).  Unfortunately, this mushroom was solitary and rather small.  My hopes of a nice omelette were dwindling.

It was interesting to see decompostion in action in the gardens.  A Sorbus had died recently and was  absolutely surrounded by a species of fungi called a Sulphur Tuft.  This species looked ripe for the picking but once told that this one was also toxic, I kept my distance.  This species is a saprophyte and lives on dead plant material, tree trunks, roots and bark – a sure sign that if you see it in the garden your beloved, leafless tree has moved to the big arboretum in the sky.  Other sightings here included some small bracket fungus and cramp balls.
Moving through the garden we stumbled upon heavily laden apple trees and at this point my stomach, having given up any hope of a mushroom feast, cried out for a fresh windfall.  With my apple in hand we moved on to the Theatre Garden where I found my first group of mushrooms in the unmown turf (not to be outdone by  my friend the mushroom magnet).  I found a couple of wax cap species  – The Parrot Waxcap (Hygrocybe psiitacina), which was a gorgeous shade of orange, and The Meadow Waxcap (Hygrocybe pratensis).
As we passed the big house at the end of our foray (which I’m almost certain was featured in the latest series of Dr Who) we made a quick stop at the fernery where we found the last of our species – The Inky Mushroom (Agaricus moelleri).

After a few hours of foraging we'd stumbled upon many different species and many others which I didn't manage to get the names of.  In this short space of time I learned a great deal about foraging and grown a new appreciation for just how complex identification can be.  This was a steep learning curve but one that only fuelled my interest further.  I may not have got a meal out of it but I almost certainly gained a new hobby.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Product Review: Hozelock Autoreel

(Image courtesy of Hozelock)
Earlier in the year I was offered the chance to review the new Hozelock Autoreel and I immediately jumped at the chance to test it out and post my findings.  I’d been struggling with an old puppy-bitten coil hose that was far too short for my needs.  If it wasn’t spraying water in the opposite direction to where I pointed it, it was a tangled mess equal to an unsolvable puzzle reminiscent of the famous Fifteen Puzzle.  Suffice to say that the offer of a new hose was more than welcome.

I opted to test out the 40 metre model, other models are available, as this would enable me to water both front and back gardens as well as washing the cars at the front of the home.  Something that was impossible with my old hose.  When the large box arrived I found that unpacking it and getting it in a position to use in the garden was very simple.  I’m in no way practical when it comes to putting together products that come in a kit form and I was relieved to simply remove the product from the box, attach it to the tap and get watering.  The Autoreel is primed and ready to be attached to a wall in the garden and although I’m yet to do this I have seen previous hozelock models work excellently when used in this way.

The hose itself is great and I have encountered no problems so far in using it.  The head enables you to produce fine mists, showers and direct sprays and the autoreel function, where the hose retracts in to the casing, has worked perfectly although it can be a little keen on doing so when you haven’t locked it in place correctly by allowing a little slack after taking enough hose from the coil.  The hose is durable and of good quality and I’d imagine that a puncture is unlikely with ordinary garden use, bar a slip with a sharp blade or mower.  I have three dogs, all now through the puppy stage, but I’m yet to find any damage caused through chewing.

One thing I didn’t fully account for when asking for the 40 metre hose, and as far as I can see one of only two downsides in my situation, is its size.  As an urban gardener the hose casing swamps my small garden.  I can see that this hose would work perfectly in a larger garden and I look forward to moving it with me when I get my next home, however, right now it measures half the width of the area in which my tap is positioned when it is not positioned tight to the wall.  If I were to choose again one of the smaller models would probably be as effective, although I wouldn't be able to reach the front garden.  The second criticism I have, based on personal taste alone, is the colour of the casing.  My lower garden has white walls and is fully viewable from my patio doors, which open out from my living room.  As you can imagine the bright green casing, if attached to the wall, is highly visible and fights for attention in an otherwise predominantly white space.  These two points combined led to me using the hose as a portable tool that I can move in the garden and store it away out of sight when not in use if needed.

In conclusion, the hose does everything it sets out to do.  It provides great functionality, durability and as yet it has not failed on any front.  I would advise people thinking of buying the hose to take in to account its dimensions and how it would fit in their space and again the issue of colour may prove problematic in some gardens.  Other than this it makes for a fantastic piece of garden kit that does the job very well.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Final Blooms

The garden is tired, the plot has passed its prime and the chickens are slowing down.  Autumn has taken hold.

Yesterday, I cut what could be the last of the Dahlias.  They have been brilliant throughout the year and have inspired me to grow more next year.  I have never been all that enthusiastic about Dahlias, apart from ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, but I have developed a new appreciation of them as they’ve offered so many flowers throughout the season – perfect for the home.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Dahlia fanatic, but in terms of value for money they have really held their own and they work so well in cut flower displays with other plants and flowers.  I think there may be one or two more to cut yet but with the high winds and pelting rains ever present, the likelihood of them being worthy of cutting is low. Then again, urban legend always talks about an “Indian Summer” – I’ll believe it when I see it.

If you’ve been following the blog you will have seen that I experimented with creating a cutting garden on a budget.  I bought most of the cutting garden contents from the pound shop (I’m assuming that they have similar $1 stores in America?), not including the huge sack of Daffodils that were found in a bargain bin for £2.00 and the sweet peas that came from the fabulous Seed Parade.  The results have been much better than I ever expected.  Of course there were losses.  The Poppies didn’t grow, but I can propagate them from somewhere I’m sure, and the Peonies were pitiful, but I wasn’t expecting much from them this year.  I’m sure the Peonies will be much stronger next year when they’ve settled in.  In terms of successes, the stars of the show had to be the Dahlias, Sweet peas and Gladioli.  With the acquisition of more allotment space I think I’ll be extending the cutting garden and I already have plans to add more spring flowers, courtesy of the pound shop.  I’ll also be looking to grow more annuals, such as Larkspur, recommended by the lovely Georgie of Common Farm Flowers, Ammi majus, Orlaya grandiflora, more Calendula, Stattice and Bupleurum rotundifolium ‘Griffithii’.  Watch this space.

The Autumn will also see me revamping my back garden.  I often like to give things a re-jig and as most plants in the garden are herbaceous it gives me scope to propagate and move things around.   It’s very easy to do this in a tiny garden like mine and I guess it’s something that keeps me active in such a small space.  When I finally get a decent sized garden (fingers crossed for next year) the planting will probably be less likely to change as often, although it’s likely I will continue in a similar ilk.  Like the cutting garden I’m not looking to spend much money, if any, on the garden as most of the raw materials are already there.  I have my trees and a few structural shrubs, which will stay in place, but everything else is a contender for moving.  I’m still taking inspiration from Vivienne Westwood’s 2009 Manifesto, which I wrote about here, and as such the garden is something that will incorporate these principles but I’m thinking about ways to use plants differently.  Currently the garden has a cottage feel, in that plants are intermingled in borders in a semi-traditional style but I’m leaning towards planting in bold and large drifts and using the already limited planting scheme to maintain continuity.  There is the possibility that this will change of course.  But wasn’t Autumn created to give gardeners some time to plan for the year ahead?

On the chicken front this has been the year of the broody hen.  Right now Bella the Bluebelle is fiercely trying to hatch out anything she can, having taken over from Sophia La Hen, the twice broody Ancona.  Egg production has slowed but is relatively steady and moult has also set in for some.  Diana the Copper Marans hen, currently has a bare chest, which is quite amusing and Edna, my lone Araucana who was cast out from the flock, is nearly through her first moult.  Edna wont be alone for much longer either as there are plans to introduce a companion for her in the shape of a nice docile Orpington bred by a friend.  Fingers crossed and all being well the introduction should go swimmingly, although you never know with chickens!

Friday, 2 September 2011

An Unlikely Transition: Football Stadium to Community Garden

Image courtesy of Vetch Veg
Long before Swansea City AFC moved in to their new stadium and gained promotion into the Barclays Premier League, the Vetch Field in the Sandfields area of the centre lay home to the club and hosted many an enthralling game.  The stadium got its name for the vetch that grew over it's surface when the field was initially under development. But I doubt anyone involved could predict that nearly 100 years since the Vetch Field opened, Leguminous plants would return in the form of peas and beans destined for the dinner plate. 

With the development of the new Liberty stadium and the subsequent move, the Vetch field has been left derelict.  Since the move in 2005, the local council has been seeking developers to convert the former football pitch in to a housing development, but with no immediate plans to build and a large empty space still remaining, the Vetch lacked a sense of purpose.  The pitch was left to grow wild and the eerily empty stands were home only to opportunistic plants and animals.  In a new twist of fate, the Vetch Field is set to undertake a transformation through a project led by artist Owen Griffiths called VETCH VEG, in association with ADAIN AVION; the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ project for Wales.
Image courtesy of Vetch Veg
This new project is set to change the Sandfields area of Swansea, which surrounds the former stadium, and help to integrate it's inhabitants and build community spirit.  The surrounding area is a diverse space consisting of primary schools, churches, local businesses, Chinese supermarkets, a mosque, a Territorial Army base and a prison, amongst other things.  For it's allocated twelve months, residents and businesses from Sandfields are being invited to grow their own fruit and vegetables led by the dynamic artist who will be taking over a section of the pitch.  Temporary vegetable gardens will be created, with many raised beds and a polytunnel,  where local residents will have the opportunity to work together, grow their own produce, and even keep bees.  After the initial twelve months of the project there will be a grand finale; the VETCH VEG Flower and Produce Show and communal meal, scheduled for June 2012 during ADAIN AVION’s visit to Swansea. 

As of August 2011 the site has been prepared to ensure the project start date in September. For more information about VETCH VEG please visit the blog, follow on Facebook and Twitter or email  

The VETCH VEG Project is a participatory and interdisciplinary social artwork in association with ADAIN AVION, Wales’s ‘Artists taking the lead’ commission, funded by the National Lottery through Arts Council of Wales, included in the London 2012 Festival and part of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. ADAIN AVION is project managed by Taliesin Arts Centre in partnership in Swansea with Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea Environmental Forum and the City and County of Swansea.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Big Harvest and the Surprise Leopard

It’s been a fruitful bank holiday weekend with many a vegetable being harvested and we’ve seen some good weather too (strange I know!).  Work on the new plot has been slow, in fact nothing has been achieved since last week, but I’m determined to get it in shape and the soil fed by Autumn.  On my existing plot the harvest is coming thick and fast and the Beetroot has been exceptional this year.  I think this is more down to luck than skill but whatever the reason I think I’ll grow ‘Detroit 2’ again next year along with a few others.  The beet in the image above was the biggest of the bunch and it weighed in at over 500g.  Most are destined for pickling but one or two will be added to a cake or two.  I’m sure to post about both processes so if you’re interested just keep an eye out on the blog page or subscribe using the subscribe button in the main toolbar at the top of the blog page.

The Allium bed has been very productive and after pulling the onions, shallots and garlic, giving them time to bask in the sun, they were ready for storing.  Shallot ‘Golden Gourmet’ from Victoriana Nursery Gardens was quite productive and both Onion ‘Red Baron’ and ‘Stuttgarter’ produced good, if not slightly smaller than usual bulbs.  The garlic ‘Solent Wight’ that I planted out in late March also produced a great, if not extremely whiffy harvest.  My house now wreaks but it’s definitely a welcome smell.  I’ve ordered five new cultivars of garlic for planting this year and a few heritage bulbs, which I’m hoping will prove just as successful as ‘Solent Wight’.

In the potato bed, Potato ‘Pink Fir Apple’ is the last of my five potatoes to be harvested.  As I write a pan of these potatoes is boiling on the hob and with a few chives and a little butter they are destined for the dinner plate.  They are a lovely looking spud and somewhat similar in appearance to ‘Anya’ being knobbly and finger-like.  The harvest was great and the yield of this potato has been very good.

In the cutting garden it seems as though the Dahlias are coming to the end of their flowering period and after much deadheading the plants now look rather lifeless.  I’m hoping that they might go out with another big hoorah but the signs don’t look too hopeful.  I have Tulip bulbs ready to be planted for cutting next year and I’m hoping to expand the cutting garden further again as it’s been such a success this year.  The bulbs came from the pound shop again and so this tradition is not set to disappear anytime soon.  In fact, I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve bought for the cutting garden that it seems daft not continue with my pound shop experiment.
Whilst at the plot today I had another rather unusual surprise – I found a giant Leopard Slug lurking near the cutting garden.  It is easily the biggest slug I have ever come across and I just had to take a picture.  These slugs really are quite beautiful and are unusual in their habits as along with eating dead and decaying material they also prey upon other slugs.  I think I’ll embark on a captive breeding programme?!

I hope your weekend has been equally fruitful.  Also, don’t forget to check out the competition page to enter for a chance to win a great hardwood steamer chair worth £99.99.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Good News!

Ever since I was allocated my allotment plot back in May 2010 I have been in need of more space to grow all that I need for the kitchen.  I had preconceptions about allotments prior to getting mine and what I didn’t bargain for was being allocated a quarter plot.  I’m sure this is ample for most and with the current demand for space I guess a little land is better than none but I had plans, which were later scaled down.  My quarter plot currently contains two 24ft x 6ft raised beds, an equally long soft fruit alley, a small cutting garden and my chickens.  Suffice to say that this plot is now established and I’ve crammed it full to the hilt in order to maximize what I get out in return.  It’s relatively maintenance free, only requiring heavy mulching in autumn with a layer of cardboard, chicken/horse manure and a tidy up every now and again.  I still have plans to extend the chicken run around the back of the coop and complete the dead hedge, to square off the plot, but that is certain to happen this autumn/early winter.

After a pretty unremarkable week came an email that had me seriously excited.  If anyone had actually seen me they would have thought that I had either just won the lottery or taken an overdose of stimulants, suffice to say I was rather happy.  I had been offered the chance to expand my plot.  But it was better than that, I had a choice of two plots.  The first plot is directly above mine and is a half plot.  It’s a well cared for and fertile space with established currant bushes the only downside, and it is a big downside, is that taking this on would mean that I would have to give up my current plot.  I am not prepared to do that.  It would entail leaving behind raised beds that I had spent ages enriching with compost, manure and fertilizer and moving the chicken coop and run, which is an almost impossible task on its own.  The other option was to take on a quarter plot, which is towards the top of the site and this immediately stood out as a more exciting prospect.  Plots at the top receive more sunlight and plants appear to thrive.  This would give me great growing conditions and really help me to grow those vegetables that enjoy a warmer soil and plenty of sun.  It could also allow me to erect a small poly-tunnel.  The decision of which plot to take appeared pretty straightforward.

I met up with my allotment secretary yesterday so that she could outline the plot boundaries and I was not disappointed with what I saw.  The plot has a gorgeous row of comfrey the whole length of the plot, I get through a lot of comfrey, and this immediately appealed.  It also housed a herb garden, including sages, mints, chives, fennel and a curry plant, which I could put to good use.  Of course, the plot was completely overgrown and has the national collection of docks growing on it but this was no real problem and I could do with the exercise anyway.  What I didn’t anticipate was that this piece of land also came with an additional plot, which appeared to be even bigger again.  On the additional land stood an old apple tree, mature blackcurrants, several large buddleias, a bamboo and a blackthorn.  Below these lay old beds that lay in semi-shade, making it an unlikely candidate for prospective allotmenteers but absolutely perfect for me.  To say that I was thrilled is an understatement and I said yes there and then.  I even made a joke about getting a pig, which was received enthusiastically and I had to point out that I have enough animals at present, thank you very much!

Today I started work at the new plot.  There was much gazing, pondering and planning to be done and after a quick tidy up of the grass path I started to weed the plot.  Five wheelbarrows of weeds later and hardly a dent made I left the plot soaked through due to the ever-present (or so it seems) Welsh rain.  Tomorrow’s outlook appears to be much better and I’ll save my energy for then.  I cannot wait to see what this new plot brings and I am very keen to get it back to full production.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Broad Beans: What’s the point?

I'm a fickle person, or so it appears.  I’ve always had a love hate relationship with broad beans but I’ve never really been able to say that I truly love them with utter conviction, perhaps until now.

Growing up I don’t think I ever had the pleasure to meet a broad bean, let alone eat one.  I know for certain that they were never on the menu at home and so I never really picked up any tips on how they should be eaten or served.  I think my first encounter with this summer favourite was at a restaurant some years back, probably in a risotto.  By the way what is it with broad beans and risotto?  Anyway, restauranters and foodies practically salivate at the thought of a broad bean and you see oodles of hyped up press every year.  To be honest I’ve always wondered what the fuss was about.  Okay, so it’s a bean – get over it!  What makes this bean so special?

This year I’ve had enormous success with my beans.  They now tower over the other vegetables at around 4ft and it did appear at one point that were set to rival the runner beans.  This success is probably down to a whole host of factors, namely the new raised beds with lashings of compost and manure and the new home made fertiliser that appears to have staved off the usual insect attack and provided ample nutrition.  This year I grew an old cultivar called ‘Bunyard's Exhibition’ from Victoriana Nursery and I’ve been astounded with the results (no pun intended).

On the day that I renounced the humble broad bean, telling my other half that I would never grow this vegetable again as we never really enjoy them, I stumbled upon a Moroccan recipe that led to a little experimentation and heralded the future safety of my broad bean growing exploits.  With a little bit of onion, garlic, cumin, paprika, and tomato the broad bean was less of a bland accompaniment and became a great dish to go with meat, in this case fish.

Next year will see a number of cultivars being sown and I do hope to find more recipes so that I can utilize the full crop of beans without getting bored of the same old dishes.  For once I have the conviction to say that I love broad beans!  And in the interest of balance, I still hate asparagus peas.

In other news I’ve launched a brand new competition to win a gorgeous steamer chair worth £99.99 following the success of the photography competition (you can see all of the entries here and please ‘Like’ my facebook page).

Ryan's Garden Competition: Hardwood Steamer Chair

This competition is now closed.  Congratulations to Janice (@twydalldee) who is the lucky winner.
Many are saying that Summer is coming to a close but it’s not over yet and in the spirit of prolonging some of the summer weather I am offering up a gorgeous Sherwood Steamer Chair from The Garden Furniture Centre.  I’m really pleased to be offering one lucky reader the chance to win this great prize (worth £99.99), which  is made of hardwood and will be extremely hard wearing I’m sure.

To enter the competition and for your chance to win this great prize simply leave the answer the question below in the comments box and accompany this with a tweet including my username @ryansgarden to @gfcuk.

Question: In my most recent post on growing broad beans which cultivar did I grow?

Good luck all and I really hope this weather stays for a little while!

Terms and conditions: Entrants must be UK residents aged 18 years or older to enter. The winner will be chosen at random and you agree that by entering your name may be published. Prizes will be delivered by courier within 28 days. The competition is not open to employees or affiliates of The Garden Furniture Centre Ltd. Entries for this competition will close at midnight on 31st August 2011.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Ryan's Garden Photography Competition: The Results

A Stunning Entry by Alex Jobber
Back in June I launched the first ever Ryan’s Garden Photography Competition and I was really surprised with the response it prompted.  Images poured in and the standard was excellent. Images ranged from pristine single blooms to rock star gardeners and we even had an anatomically correct daikon!  I was over the moon when Charles Hawes agreed to judge the competition and after some professional deliberation the verdict was in.  Here’s what Charles had to say on his favourites and the standard of entries:

'It was very interesting to see the selection of around 50 pictures entered in this competition.  As with most garden photography competitions, most entries opted to go in close, looking at plants and bugs up front and personal, rather than the broader views. I think this reflects just how difficult it is to make garden views have real impact and why professional garden photographers get up at the crack of dawn to use the special light, which is sometimes there at that time of day to help their pictures have impact.

Stephany Ungless's idea of a garden made of paper was a fun idea, though, and it was nice to see Melissa Cannon's shot of people enjoying the garden- the only one with people in, as it happens. So the strong contenders were the close ups and there were several really great pics.

Lee Telfer's composition with sweet peas was lovely but it just needed to be a little more in focus for my taste.  Kate Howlett achieved something similar with her beautiful pic of spring blossom. I loved the humour of Mark Willis's daikon and I admired the capture of the honeybee in flight by Neil Hedge (although the light levels could have been lifted a little).

But there were two outstanding photographs in my view that were in a class of their own. Alex Jobber's composition of a single hellebore flower was stunning. I loved the background colour and the way that it fades subtly towards the bottom of the pic. Setting the plant off-centre was a great idea. This would have won were it not for Stewart Johnson's amazing spider web photograph.  This is a beautiful, mesmerising picture. He is showing us true creativity here and is using photography to take something in the natural world as his source and gives us back a work of art. A worthy winner'.
The Winning Entry by Stewart Johnson (Click to enlarge)
So there we have it, the winner of the Ryan’s Garden Photography Competition is Stewart Johnson who wins £100 of vouchers from The Range.  In addition to this, Dee Edmonds wins the People’s Choice with the highest number of viewer comments at the time of competition close.  Congratulations to you both and I'll be in contact shortly.  A big thank you to everyone else who entered and don't forget to visit shortly for the next of my competitions which has a prize worth £99.99.  All competition entries will remain on view on the Ryan's Garden Facebook page so please feel free to pop on over, add your comments and 'Like' the page.

If you would like to see more of Charles’ work Don't miss 'Discovering Welsh Gardens' and 'The Bad Tempered Gardener' .

Saturday, 23 July 2011

RHS Flower Show Tatton Park: 'Embrace' by Sharon Hockenhull

Sharon Hockenhull talks us through ‘Embrace’, her latest show garden at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show 2011.  Sharon has kindly offered some background into how the design came to be and how one mans words and another’s artistic ability helped to form it.

Embrace’ is a garden that captures the unique personality of one of the oldest Hospices in the country. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, St Ann's Hospice is world-renowned for its incredible approach to patient care and treatment.  At its core is an overwhelming sense of life; enveloping people that come in contact with positive, healing and therapeutic experiences.’

My approach to designing the garden has been very different to any that I have designed so far. Branding and the charity’s key objectives have been central to developing a brief and theme for the garden, as opposed to the everyday practicalities and needs people tend to demand from a garden space.

As an outsider with no experience of a hospice my first port of call was to understand what St Ann’s is all about. What care it provides, who it cares for and how that care translates to the individuals that go there. I was given lots of information, including annual reports, leaflets, and video stories, to sift through to help me to gain better insight and understanding. It felt like I was back in my old job as a graphic designer.  After a while I stumbled across a video on youtube called ‘Why St Ann's Hospice needs your support’, presented by the current Chief Executive Jayne Bessant. There is a gentleman featured in this short film called Kenneth Charles Weston and it was his words that set the seed for the ‘Embrace’ concept.  His words are very poignant but it is the simplicity of Kenneth’s experiences with the Hospice that stand out. He describes how he has never felt so much love and affection. In particular, from when he first started going to the hospice, carers hugged him and put their arms around him; he had never had this before.

From here the theme started to take shape in the form of a collection of words, concept words that were very important to the Hospice’s approach to care. Life, healing, hope, reflective, therapeutic, positive, secure, a great sense of life, energy, surprise and forty (this year marks their 40th anniversary) and embrace.  The title brings together all these words and evokes the idea of a physical, emotional and spiritual embrace.  The garden is aimed at patients as a place to escape. A garden in which to feel secure, to think, relax and reflect.
Embrace is overflowing and abundant with plant life. Closely hugging the curve of the tree trunk seat is a therapeutic band of richly textured specimens with an emphasis on plants possessing medicinal properties and tactile, contrasting foliage. This soft, inner green band gives way to a vibrant scheme, blue hues (reflecting St Ann's brand colour), blue/purple/pink tones, whites and splashes of rich red.

Earth surrounding the central seating is carefully sculpted up from ground level at the front of the exhibit, increasing in height towards the garden's boundaries to create an extra sense of enveloping plant life.

A unique living wall mural adds to the abundance and illustrates how life can thrive in the most unlikely of places. An additional special feature to the mural is lettering picked out using blue lobelia spelling ‘Embrace’. The lettering has been a little experiment and has been designed in conjunction with the Manchester based artist/cartographer Stephen Raw.

Stephen was recently commissioned to create a wall mural for the Hospice, which features a collection of words taken from conversations he had with the patients, the staff, the families etc.  This piece of artwork was unknown to me until after I developed the brief; when I discovered the mural I saw a link through the conceptual words to the Embrace garden.

You can see more of Sharon’s experience at Tatton on her blog here and don’t forget to check out the main site for more information.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Potatoes, Pudding and the Poundshop Cutting Garden

I love this time of year.  Everything is hectic, there aren’t enough hours in the day, despite the longer nights, and the garden just gives back in the way only a garden can.  It seems as though every plant I have is growing in a similar ilk to a GM triffid fed on a diet or raw steak and anabolic steroids and I’m harvesting flowers, vegetables, fruits and weeds on a pleasingly regular basis but slightly less so with regards to the latter.  

The chickens have benefited from the increased tendency for plants to bolt and they’ve happily munched on Spinach, Chard and Rocket that have all switched in to flower production, along with the never-ending mass of Comfrey leaves, which are always a firm favourite.  Together with my tortoise and rabbit, they’ve helped to hoover up all the weeds I pull and I now find myself actively encouraging their growth as the carotenoids in these plants, coupled with the rest of the greens they get, help to produce beautifully deep orange egg yolks.
In the vegetable garden things are going great guns and the raised beds, masses of organic matter and homemade liquid feed have all added to the increased vigour and overall health of my plants – I think.  I’m still amazed at the entire lack of blackfly and aphids though.  Has anyone else encountered this?  I think that the marestail in the liquid feed may have helped with this but the likelihood is that the hard winter had more of a bearing on their decline.   Sadly, this may also be true of Ladybirds as their presence was a massive highlight last year but is lacking right now.  

The potatoes are yet to succumb to blight and my first harvest of ‘Home Guard’ (pictured above) was fantastic.  The good people at Victoriana Nursery Gardens deserve a big thank you here as the seed potatoes they sent out were top notch and I’m really looking forward to harvesting ‘Pink Fir Apple’ and ‘International Kidney’ from them along with ‘Desiree’ and ‘Maris Peer’ which were another Pound Shop buy.  Gooseberries and Blackcurrants have also been a highlight and are waiting to be turned into pudding over the coming weekend.
The pound shop cutting garden has also been a great success and has surpassed my wildest expectations.  Not only have the plants grown, the semi-desicated roots didn’t look too promising, but they’re actually thriving and producing new flowers on a daily basis.   I’ve cut a few bunches now and they really do look great and last well.  The stars of the show right now are the Dahlias, a largely pink affair, they’ve really come to be something that I actually love and that’s not something I ever expected to say.  I just can’t wait for the Gladioli and Sweet Peas to flower now.

In other news please see the competition page for a chance to win a garden bench and £100 worth of gift vouchers and don’t forget to vote for your favourite garden images on the Ryan’s Garden Facebook page.  

Also, check out the Garden Hero blog and find inspiration in Simon's medal winning efforts at BBC Gardener's World Live.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Ryan's Garden Photography Competition: Win £100 from The Range

I'm really happy to announce the launch of the Ryan's Garden Photography Competition in association with The Range who have provided a £100 gift voucher as a prize.  We also have a great guest judge on board to choose the winner in the form of professional photographer Charles Hawes.  
This is the first photography competition that I've launched on the blog and I'm really excited to see what you come up with.  Whether you are a complete novice or experienced snapper, the competition is open to all who wish to post and images will be judged on individual merit.  Of course the theme is loosely based around the garden but I wont dictate anything more specific.  Just get snapping!
To enter the competition simply email: with your picture.

A 'People's Choice Award' will also be given to the person with the most comments on the facebook page where all entries will be posted, although I'm yet to decide what the prize will be.
This prize has been supplied courtesy of The Range: shop online and buy everything you need for a summer in the garden, from plants and compost through to garden furniture and barbecues.

Terms and conditions: The competition closes 31.07.11. Entrants must be UK residents aged 18 years or older to enter.  By entering this competition you agree and consent to your name and selected image being published. The competition is not open to employees or affiliates of The Range.  You may submit two original images only.  In cases where more than two images are submitted only the first two images uploaded will go through to be judged.  By taking part in the competition, entrants are deemed to have read,understood and accepted all of the Terms and Conditions and agreed to be bound by them.
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