Sunday, 16 August 2015

Growing Dahlias from seed

Dahlias and cake - the perfect recipe in the kitchen
One of the first plants I remember buying as a child was Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff'.  Its beautiful crimson flowers coupled with dark leaves and stems made for a dazzling sight and I guess the Welsh connection did't go amiss either.  Dahlias have always had a place in my garden since then but I'd not tried growing them from seed up until this year and I was very surprised to see just how easy this can be.

I've always grown Dahlias from tubers as this was a straightforward and affordable option given that I've not had the space needed to grow things from seed, aside from the odd vegetable crop and even these struggled on windowsills.  With the beginnings of the new garden and with the addition of a greenhouse it seemed as though the time was right to try and grow them from seed at least.
A closer view
I started back in the spring by sowing in seed trays in the greenhouse.  I chose Dahlia 'Clangers Mix' as I quite like the cactus types and a bit of variation for the vase.  Dahlia seed requires no special treatment - simply sow thinly in multipurpose compost, cover lightly, water and then wait for the little green shoots to appear.  Prick them out and pot on or add to modules once the true leaves have developed and then plant out after hardening off when all signs of frost have passed.  It really is that simple.
Just planted and rather weedy
I planted my dahlias in the cutting garden with the Foxgloves,  Calendula, Zinnias, Sweet Peas and other goodies and they really have romped away.  I was concerned that the rather small seedlings would succumb to all sorts of trouble but bar the odd trampling by the dogs, cat and escaped horse they've not faired too badly.  So far this month I've taken three or four cuts and as soon as the blooms have faded in the home there always seems to be more on the way.  

I hope to lift the tubers of these plants in the Autumn and then further extend the range of plants on offer by sowing more seed next year to add more variation and fill in the colour gaps as I seem to have largely an orange and red palette with the odd bit of pink thrown in.

Here's to the Dahlia!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

RHS Tatton Park: Celebrations all round

Loveday and Vernon with Birmingham City Council - The Day of the Dahlia
RHS Tatton Park Flower Show is a new favourite of mine when it comes to the garden show calendar.  With the feel of a country fair, this celebration of gardening is packed full of attractions that mean even the horticulturally averse will find something to interest and stimulate them.  I had an absolute blast today!  I thoroughly enjoyed the various gardens, of which there were many categories, the vast floral marquee with its many displays and associated stands, and I also managed to spend rather a lot of money on gardening goodies and other bits and bobs from the food retailers and the gorgeous Country Living tent!

Planting in the 'Light Catcher' garden
I was lucky enough to have the pleasure to go behind the scenes of the show recently when helping a friend, Sharon Hockenhull, with her show garden: ‘Light Catcher’, which featured as one of three gardens celebrating the International Year of Light and which subsequently went on to win a Gold medal and the title of ‘Best Year of Light Garden’.  To say I was thrilled with the outcome is a huge understatement and I could not be happier for Sharon considering just how much she’s put in to this wondrous design. 

The experience of helping with the garden really helped me to appreciate the work that goes in to these designs.  Luckily I only had the responsibility of growing some of the plants and helping to plant the final garden.  Growing the plants was rather daunting as there’s far too much jeopardy for my liking.  Will it germinate?  Will it grow big enough?  Will it be eaten?  And perhaps most importantly – Will it flower?  Luckily for me, everything went to plan and my little “fizzy” and “frothy” beauties grew strong and now look fabulous as part of a very considered and beautiful garden.   I had my proud father moment today when seeing others enjoying the garden and unwittingly taking pictures of my plants.  I somehow managed to avoid going round the garden pointing them all out individually!

Sarracenia bought at the show
In terms of the other attractions at the show I particularly enjoyed the Plant Heritage Marquee, which housed the various plant societies, and the Back-To-Back gardens, which offer so much inspiration to those looking for new ideas or gardening in small spaces.  The Feast Theatre was also a fantastic addition to the show and following a talk  by Zalena from Rose Petals and Rice on Indian cookery I will now most certainly be making chapatti’s.

As RHS shows go, this one has it all and I for one cannot wait until the next!

Friday, 3 July 2015

Seasons produce and things to come

Why, hello there!  It’s been a whole 2 months since I last posted here, although it feels like it was only yesterday that I started to show you how the then new no-dig vegetable garden was coming along.  Well since my last entry it has established itself well with seven of the eight beds full to the brim with goodies; I’ve even started to enjoy the fruits of my labour, including the Red Currants above which have had their best year yet.

When I set out on creating the beds back in March I was a little bit dubious if they would work well on what was basically a field or if they would crop well in their first year.  I had started to create a no-dig system on the rather weedy allotment back in Wales prior to moving and this yielded mixed results, largely due to the amount of perennial weeds that had already established themselves.  Here, however, it’s been a great success.  The start of the season was cool and dry and this allowed the beds to settle slightly and weaken the turf and weeds below.  The surface of the beds stayed very dry, which I think had more to do with the weather rather than the manure and compost used but since things have warmed up and we’ve had a good amount of rain it’s really started to settle and the plants are certainly enjoying it.  There’s been some re-growth of grass in places and weeds have regrown largely on the Allium bed but they’re fairly easy to manage and a bit of hand weeding and the reapplication of mulch has helped to weaken them further.

Most plants that have been planted out in to the beds or started from seed have done very well on the new beds so far.  The only issue I’ve had is with Parsnips but I think this may be more of a seed viability issue as opposed to a no-dig issue?  Time will tell and I’ll have to see how parsnips get on in 2016.  The Squashes, Beets and Turnips, in particular, seem to be doing very well on the new beds however and the Beans will be ready to crop very soon too.

On one of the beds I’m experimenting with Oca as part of a first year Oca breeding initiative with the Guild of Oca Breeders.  I’m sure you’re familiar with this crop and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to contribute to its future as a garden staple.  The tubers were planted earlier in the year and are now beginning to find their feet in the virgin ground.  I’m hopeful that we’ll get a few blooms and be able to save some seed from these plants too.  If you have the space to help out with the initiative there’s more information on the website to help you join in.

In other news, the garden is still waiting to be designed and planted.  Livestock, work and the vegetable garden have taken priority.  I imagine this may turn out to be more of an Autumn project now, along with the masses of hedging that also needs attention.  The front garden, however, is starting to look good.  The Opium Poppies have been the stars of the show lately, flowering in shades of red, purple and pink but others are just emerging to steal the show.  Right now, I’m loving the Achillea ‘Teracotta’ that I planted last year.

On the livestock front, we’ve added a new Hebridean Ram to the flock.  Brutus, along with a friend George, will meet our small flock of six ladies later in the year and I’m hoping for some beautiful strong lambs come the spring.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

PSB and progress on the plot

The new vegetable garden in its infancy
April has been a glorious month for the garden here on the farm.  We’ve had sunshine in abundance giving me plenty of time to get out and crack on with developing the vegetable garden.  It appears we've landed on our feet in terms of our wonderful micro-climate and conditions couldn't be more different from my experiences of gardening in wet Wales.  I'm very much looking forward to what the coming season will bring.  

The no dig beds, created by adding a good thick mulch of homemade compost and rotted horse/chicken manure on top of the lawn, have had a top dressing of compost and are looking fantastic.  This peat-free mix of topsoil, compost and manure is much finer than my home made stuff enabling me to sow directly in to it and it really does help to make the garden look smart.  The beds are doing really well with very little weed growth coming through from the original turf below, which was quite a concern when deciding to opt for the no dig method.  I have used no dig previously with good success but the ground had already been cleared before hand.  After much research, largely via the wonderful Charles Dowding's website, I bit the bullet and went for it.  Three of the eight no dig beds have now been filled with Beans, Onions and Shallots and various root vegetable seeds sown today.  I’ll keep you up to date on my progress, as I’ll be doing quite a bit of experimentation throughout the year.
The first planting in the vegetable garden
Once again I’m growing plants using recycled toilet roll tubes.  By sowing directly you can easily grow plants on to a decent size without the need for repotting prior to planting in their final positions. This way of sowing seed has proved invaluable in the past and this year I’m using this for pretty much everything moving forward.  When planting out the Broad beans you could really see the value of doing this as the root growth was fantastic and on planting the roots are virtually undisturbed meaning that the plants barely know they’ve moved and they romp away.  

I started using toilet rolls when growing plants that have deep root runs and those that don’t like root disturbance, namely Sweet Corn and Sweet Peas.  I couldn’t justify buying root trainers and it seemed  to me that this was the most logical thing to do.  This year I’ve trialled this with onion sets too.  Cutting the rolls in to smaller sections I’ve planted one set per module and then these are grown on in the greenhouse prior to planting out. The extra root growth and weight of the compost also helps to keep the onions in place when the birds try to pull them out.  

One of my neighbours was very intrigued by what I was doing, both no dig and toilet roll growing, but after seeing things growing away in the greenhouse he has also been converted to the method.  After using a years worth of saved loo roll tubes a fabulous twitter friend (@dancoote) was kind enough to send me a massive box of these, which will see me through the growing season, as he works for a company who produces them - amazing!  A thank you parcel is en route as I type.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli and soft fruit blooms
In the old vegetable garden I'm harvesting Purple Sprouting Broccoli (PSB) like it’s going out of fashion.  If you've not grown this before I'd urge you to do so this year as it really is a fantastic vegetable to have in the Spring garden.  The fruit bushes (Currants, Gooseberries and Jostaberries) that I moved from the allotment when we made the journey from Wales to England have settled well and despite being kept in bags for nearly a year they are now all flowering profusely.  Here’s hoping this is a sign that  a bumper harvest is on the cards!

Next up is the overdue planting of the orchard, planting the rest of the potatoes, starting the ornamental garden and growing Sweet Potatoes.  

Monday, 6 April 2015

You say potato ...

This Bank Holiday weekend has turned out to be absolutely wonderful and we have been treated to some of the best weather so far this year meaning lots of time to garden with the sun on my back finally.  At one point today the thermometer registered a balmy 29.4°C (84.92°F).  It appears the new garden is somewhat of a suntrap!

Early this morning I set off with renewed vigour and set about moving a few old Rose bushes in to the new cutting garden as red, pink and yellow roses don’t really fit in with my plans for the new garden.  They should be great as cut flowers though and from experience last year the scent on two of them is divine.  This patch will be filled with lots of annual favourites and a few other bits and bobs to keep me in flowers all year long (more to come on this shortly).

Most of my morning however was spent planting potatoes with the help of two furry friends.  Tomos and Hermione, rescued farm cats from a nearby farm, are our smallholding pest control however they’re far too inquisitive for their own good and love to “help” in the garden whenever they can.

After attending a local potato day a few months back at Harper Adams University my first earlies were ready to meet our wonderfully fertile and free draining soil. After chitting away in one of the outhouses, four varieties were planted in the space where the chicken run sat last year.  The soil here is wonderfully fertile as you can imagine but there are a few nettles remaining and so I immediately thought that this was the spot for potatoes to rule and shade out the perennial weeds.  This year I’ve opted for spuds I’ve never grown before and I have a total of 10 varieties to plant.  Today saw me plant the following 1st early varieties:

  • Amandine – A lovely long oval potato with a waxy yellow flesh which is derived from ‘Charlotte’.
  • BF15 – Largely picked because it had a bit of mystery surrounding it.  This is a salad variety discovered as a seedling of ‘Belle de Fontenay’.
  • Epicure – A well known 1st early with white round tubers.
  • Leontine – Labelled as a new variety this salad potato is derived from ‘Nicola’ and has yellow skin and flesh.

I also finally set up the new hosepipe for the vegetable garden that’s been sitting in my house for the last month or so.  Really easy to set up, I simply attached it to the wood shed and we were ready to go.  I love the look of this hose compared to the usual garish green or yellow offerings from other brands.  Modern, slimmer and more masculine I’m hoping it will pass the test of time and serve me well in the vegetable garden, greenhouse and orchard.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Ryan's Garden: A brief update

The big oak through the fog

Today I awoke to the foggiest of spring days and at a rather chillyC it seems as though nature is saying ‘stop sowing those seeds and go back inside you nutter!’  I know this will change in an instant and we’ll soon be in that space when there are not enough hours in the day in which to get everything done - seed sowing, weeding, planting out, pest control, watering, etc but right now it still seems a little counterintuitive to be working away in the greenhouse when even the grass is reluctant to get going.  That's gardening for you!

Four of the new 20ft x 4ft no-dig beds
Since I last blogged the vegetable garden has come on leaps and bounds and its not far off being ready for the growing season.  Positioned on the left hand side of the garden, the vegetable plot will be screened by a hedge to separate it from the ornamental garden and will eventually lead on through to the orchard. I’m thinking of using Beech or Yew as a screen, although this could change, and I'm planning to plant this at the end of the year. Until then two large cut flower borders will create a permeable barrier between the two distinct areas.  

As you walk through the gate with the cut flower beds on either side of you will see 13 no-dig beds in which I plan to grow all my produce for the home.  So far seven are set up and as the weeks go on I’ll gradually complete the others.  The beds are made with homemade compost from last year, a mix of food waste, manure and garden waste, and I’m hoping that this will be fantastic fuel for the season to come.  

I plan to grow many plants on prior to planting them out, as these beds are still quite rough and not suited to direct sowing and so far broad beans, onions, shallots plus a few others are well underway.  As usual these are all growing in cardboard toilet roll tubes saved throughout the past year.  These make for fantastic alternatives to plant pots, especially for deep rooting plants such as sweet corn and sweet peas, and all you have to do is bung them in the ground when you’re ready to plant out.  The cardboard simply rots off ensuring roots grow perfectly well.  In the coming weeks the garden will be finalized and I’ll be posting updates throughout the growing season.

A very proud Albus and a few of his ladies
On the livestock front plans are afoot to add a Ram to the small flock of Hebridean sheep ahead of breeding time at the end of the year and we have now introduced our new breeding Cream Legbar cockerel (Albus) to the ladies.  He comes from a great line of birds and should help produce some fantastic offspring for the coming year and my first foray in to showing and breeding pure breed birds. 

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Flower fiddlers and painted plants

I’m sick to the back teeth of seeing flowers and plants tinkered with to the extreme – dyed, painted, glittered and abused beyond all recognition.  From the fluorescent Heathers in alarming shades of lime green, hot pink and acid yellow; so often a staple of garden centre offerings, to the ghastly array of dyed florist favourites this trend is slowly becoming an acceptable industry standard – can we come back to the beauty that nature provides and remove these monstrosities for good? Please.

For years we’ve seen small numbers of plants fall in to these novelty offerings, more often at seasonal peaks, but more recently I’ve seen such things available on an altogether more regular basis.  Perhaps I’ve become attuned to these crimes against nature? Perhaps you’ve noticed them too? 

Just before Christmas I came across a very sad sight.  If you follow me on Twitter or have liked my Facebook page then there’s a good chance you would have seen this already.  Yes, I’m talking about the glitter-smothered succulents.  These poor things weren’t simply dusted or sprinkled with glitter, oh no, they were coated. Much like a fingernail covered in glittery nail varnish would be, only I think we should remember these are actually living things and there’s no need to “enhance” their aesthetics.  With this suffocating layer plants would have had no ability to photosynthesise or respire, leaving them with no other alternative than to shrivel up and die, that is if they didn’t rot from the inevitable overwatering.  This begs the question, if these plants were sold as purely ornamental things, as opposed to houseplants that would grow on and develop, then why not produce them in plastic, stone or glass ensuring they last beyond a few weeks or months at best?  Or is this a rather na├»ve attempt for the horticultural industry to get rid of it’s surplus stock at knock down prices? Hmm.

Another crime was spotted last week on a lunchtime jaunt to a local supermarket. From afar I spotted a rather intriguing bunch of what appeared to be Lilies.  These Lilies, originally a pristine white, which for most people would be the epitome of style and elegance, now resembled a bad tie dyed t-shirt.  Revolting in shades of purple, pink, red, orange and blue; akin to a primary school experiment I remember when we placed flowers in food colouring to show how blooms take up water, these flowers appeared to have no commercial appeal at all, unless of course your tastes harked back to the 1960’s when psychedelia was en vogue.  My question is this: why don’t these supermarkets and florists simply grow plants with different coloured blooms in the first place?  They’re certainly available and when it comes to the wonderful Lily the range is pretty wide, with a few exceptions.  This is also the case for Chrysanthemums, Roses, Phalaenopsis orchids and a wide range of other blooms that are often vandalised to suit the tacky tastes of the consumers.

Could it be that supermarkets and florists find it financially beneficial to buy bulbs, blooms and plants in bulk (i.e. discounts on bulk orders of white Lilies) and then choose to sell some “au naturale” and others doctored to increase choice and bolster profit?  To my mind, I can’t see this being the reason as I’m sure such operations don’t work in such a simple way but those in the industry may be able to shed more light on this.   Another suggestion would be that growers produce extra stock and latch on to seasonal activities or sell products to large retailers at knock down prices? Another alternative, and a more plausible suggestion, would be that people actually prefer their blooms with added sparkle or in luminescent shades to match their, what I can only assume is god-awful, interior decoration and taste? After all, consumer demand directly influences supply so there must be a call for it.  Personally, I’ve not succumbed to this although I have seen the odd bouquet that incorporates dyed flowers from large florist chains but in the majority of cases I’d say natural blooms appear to be much more desirable.  If it is the case that consumers are driving the availability of these Frankenstein-flowers then I’d question why exactly.  If they seek variation, new colours or shapes, or added interest, then they need look no further than what is already on offer from the myriad of independent growers here in the UK.  Of course, there’s no glitter or paint in sight here (in the most part anyway) but there is a wide rage of colour, scent, texture, seasonal variation and oodles of interest and originality. 

When it comes to flowers and plants no one does this better than Mother Nature herself.  Of course, breeding and cultivation techniques have led to “improvements” but is there really a need to physically guild the lily, so to speak?  I’d argue not and I can only hope that others feel the same way about this too.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Plans, plots and chickens in pots

The first month of 2015 has pretty much come and gone and although I hanker for milder Spring days I can’t help but feel that January passed at breakneck speed.  So far we’ve decorated parts of the house, continued to fence off paddocks, trim hedges and give the place a general tidy up.  This coupled with the running of the business ( and creating our own pet food lines (launching shortly) has meant I’ve had little time to do much else. 

The ever-present to-do list taunts me with tasks completed and others awaiting completion. I’m determined to get a few key tasks done prior to the madness of Spring, namely establishing beds on a burgeoning lawn and building breeding pens for the pure breed chickens.  When Spring arrives I know I’ll have no time at all to do these things for I’ll have thousands of seeds to sow and eggs to hatch - the time of year when it seems as though there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Of course, in reality it’s a time of year I absolutely love!
New Years Bonfire 2015/16
In my last blog I discussed that plans to start the vegetable patch were afoot and progress has most certainly been made.  The old chicken run has been dismantled and we had a fantastic New Years Eve party bonfire with the old chicken shed we inherited that was so far beyond repair. It got to the point where I’d put my foot through the base every time I entered – it had to go.  This coupled with tree branches and other bits of scrap wood left by the previous landowner made for a great spectacle and a much-needed warm with mulled wine and roast chestnuts.  Where once the rickety old shed hung on for dear life lies a patch of well-fertilised earth – my prime-growing space!  This weekend I plan to create several composting trenches upon which I’ll eventually grow beans and squash along with no dig beds for the rest of the produce.  Homemade compost and rotted manure will make for the topping for these beds with a layer of cardboard beneath to smother the weeds below.  I’ll post an update on this shortly.
Speckled Sussex cockerels
Although there is little active growth in the garden right now, bar a few stoic Brassica crops and overwintering fruit bushes stand proud despite the cold just waiting to jump back into action, I’ve managed to produce the first home-grown food of 2015 in the form of meat.  Last year I hatched a dual-purpose strain of Speckled Sussex (see previous posts) that if male were destined for the plate in an effort to become self-sufficient.  A happy compromise, as I couldn’t source the Ixworth eggs I so desired (perhaps this year?).  As it happens, it turns out that Speckled Sussex are a fantastic meat breed plus the girls from the same hatch have gone to mix with my laying flock and will help to bolster production there.  The cockerels grew well with the smallest weighing in at around 5lb dressed with most averaging around 6-7lb.  The taste is like nothing I’ve experienced from shop bought meat and that coupled with knowing exactly what’s gone in to them and how they’ve been raised means that this is something I’ll certainly continue with, although I’ll probably experiment with breeds to see exactly what’s achievable.

The main goal for 2015 is to produce various meals for the home that are entirely home grown – although we will be largely restricted to chicken and eggs as the main protein sources.  I will also attempt to sell items from the farm gate and in local farm shops – flowers, plants, vegetables and other foodstuffs will form the majority of these items but I hope in time to develop and diversify.  

2015 is the year I’ve always dreamt of – the year I finally get to say I’m a smallholder.
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