Go on – get out there!

The garden is a riot of colour at last! It’s been a funny year with some plants doing incredibly well (poppies, lupins) and others hardly getting started before they are over (alliums and dicentra).

In among the riot of colour are, of course, large quantities of weeds! I try not to be ‘weedist’ and leave quite a few of them alone as they are attractive in their own right. Everything has its merits after all and, as Monty Don reminded me recently on Gardeners’ World, the stinging nettle is a marvellous thing in so many ways. He demonstrated how you can pick nettles (stout gloves being worn of course), cram them into a bucket, top up with water and, in two weeks’ time, you get a really good nitrogen-rich, liquid plant food.

It’s easy to look at your garden at this time of year and have a feeling of sheer panic as everything suddenly takes off and sprouts in all directions. What do you tackle first? When should you prune? When do you need to feed? But these days, there’s really no need for panic – the internet is full to bursting with useful gardening tips.

I follow both the RHS and Gardeners’ World online and they pop up every week and remind me what I need to be doing in the garden at that time. They even include links to a huge range of ‘how to’ videos on everything from plant propagation to building decking. They also cater for large and small gardens and there’s lots of really interesting tips about container gardening for those of you with small gardens or balconies.

Have a Google around, find a site that you like, and sign up to it. It’s a great way to get new ideas and inspiration and even old hands can pick up lots of useful tips. I still get a rebellious sense of joy when I water my garden whenever I jolly well like, having spent years restricted by the myth that watering in sunshine burns plants’ leaves – it doesn’t! That’s an old wives tale I debunked in a blog last year along with several other gardening myths.

Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand, there’s plenty of advice out there. It really is such a ‘positive’ pastime – there’s lots of evidence that gardening is really good for you – I do recommend you get out there and have a go!

Gardeners’ World

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)

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My Top 10 days out in the West Country

The West Country is a wonderful area to visit, it combines stunning natural beauty with lots and lots of attractions and interesting places to visit. I have picked just ten of some of the thousands of possibilities – seriously I could have done my top 100 and not run out of ideas! – some are days out that I have done with my family over the years, and there’s one I plan to try this year too!

Morwellham Quay1.  Paignton Zoo 
If you enjoy zoos, I think Paignton tries really hard and has some excellent exhibits – my favourites being the red panda, giraffes and the meerkats!

2. Buckfast Abbey
There’s a monastery shop here that sells products entirely from other monasteries – great Belgian beer and lovely perfumes etc. There’s also the most amazing stained glass window and a great cream tea!

3. Morwellham Quay
Both my girls loved visits here, it really brings history to life – it was a great copper ore port in Victorian times and there’s so much to see.

Cornwall’s Eden Project4. Eden Project
Interesting plant displays and environments, it’s internationally famous for its groundbreaking exhibits and even has concerts down there now!

5. House of Marbles, Bovey Tracey
I am somewhat biased here as this is run by friends of mine, but the glass blowing is fascinating to watch, the restaurant does a great lunch and the shop is very tempting – the marble displays were adored by my daughters and nephews alike!

6. Miniature Pony Centre, Dartmoor  
I just love this place, the ponies are adorable and make you want to take them home and I think I remember Pippa crying just because she couldn’t! Nice picnic area too.

Steaming through the countryside…7. Steam Trains from Buckfastleigh
Travel back in time… and rekindle your memories of steam trains! A lovely few hours reminiscing as you travel close to the River Dart from Buckfastleigh to Totnes – huge thumbs up from me. Have a browse round Totnes while you are there too – a lovely town.

8. Kent’s Cavern, Torquay
I have been here many times with visiting family and the stalactites and stalagmites are always fascinating and the cream tea is fun too!

9. Babbacombe Model Village
The detail in the work is great to see and when the village is illuminated at night it looks very pretty – lots to see including a fire breathing dragon on the model castle!

Kent’s Cavern10. Greenway House
Agatha Christie is one of my heroines and there’s a new trip for 2013 – departing from either Torquay or Brixham and travel on a river boat to her former home Greenway House and then return on Barnaby, a vintage bus. The garden is amazing and I have bought many plants from the nursery section in the past – so I am definitely planning this as a day out this year!

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Living the good life…

Many of you will know Sandra Goodman as our bright and bubbly Customer Service Manager… but there’s another side to Sandra that you probably don’t know about! To find out about her ‘other life’, read on… 

Sandra met her husband, Charlie, in 2011 and they set out to fulfil a lifelong dream – running their own smallholding. With property prices sky high in Devon they headed west to Cornwall. In the wonderfully named village of Polyphant they found their dream home – an old barn once used as a potato store and now converted, in a rather rustic way according to Sandra, into a two-bedroom house.

Sandra says: “We knew instantly that this old barn, set in a picturesque valley with a couple of fields, was where we wanted to settle.”

Charlie, having been raised on a farm, has in-depth knowledge of not only livestock but wildlife and the countryside in general. Sandra’s background is in craft, interior design and floristry and she has a love of flora and fauna and all things country. 

Their aim is to be self-sufficient – yes, totally! To date, they have 20 chickens, soon to be 40, and are about to take delivery of a pregnant Oxford Sandy and Black sow, followed by two ‘Lowline’ cattle. These gorgeous ‘mini’ cows are bred to be about a metre high at the shoulder, they are easy to handle and docile and ideal for the ‘small acreage’ farmer, which Charlie and Sandra definitely are with their four acres having to produce a lot of food to sustain the two of them!

As well as livestock, they have also put up an impressive poly tunnel (in Polyphant – sorry!) and, when I asked Sandra what they were growing, I couldn’t write it all down quickly enough, but the list included: Carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, beans, peas, tomatoes, kale, cauliflower, butternut squash, aubergines, cucumbers, melons and lots more that I missed!

So far, Sandra says everything is germinating and growing really well in the poly tunnel, so she’s optimistic for good crops this year. Their next project is to prepare the outside veg beds and get even more produce underway.

Charlie and Sandra are keen to be as eco-friendly as possible and are looking at ways to generate their own power through a small wind turbine and solar panels. The River Inny runs through their land and they are permitted to take water from it to irrigate their crops as keeping overheads to a minimum is really important.

Sandra stays up in Devon three nights a week and then travels back to Cornwall where Charlie is based full-time. It’s a tough regime, but her enthusiasm when she talks about her Cornish life is so infectious, you just can’t help believing they will make a great go of it!

 

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Rising to the challenge!

I’m a firm fan of raised beds as they have so many plus points. They’re a great way of growing all sorts of plants, particularly vegetables. They’re also excellent if you have poor soil in the garden as you can simply fill your raised beds with a different soil type with a mix of compost. Raised beds are also a useful way to garden if you have restricted mobility as they reduce the need to bend and reach.From building these new beds in the spring…

Raised beds should never be more than three to four feet wide, that way you can always be sure to reach into the middle easily. If you’ve got a small garden then a raised bed is ideal as you can plant much more closely and grow more!

It’s easier to plant vegetables in close formation – much closer together than in conventional row gardening. Because they are close together, but evenly spaced, once the vegetables are fully grown, their leaves just almost touch each other, creating a microclimate that helps keep out the weeds and conserves moisture. It makes life a whole lot easier as there’s no need for fiddly hoeing in between rows and constantly grubbing about on your hands and knees weeding! You can see why I’m a fan, can’t you! … to all this veg by the summer!

You can grow almost any plants in raised beds – you could try the following:

  • Most vegetables can be grown in raised beds.
  • Soft fruits, such as strawberries, currants, raspberries and blackberries.
  • Herbaceous perennials, raised beds are a good idea for establishing a cutting garden for cut flowers – I love having flowers in the house.
  • Alpines, ideal for alpines that love good drainage.

Raised beds can be made any height you like, from about 12” upwards. If you need to sit down, or are wheelchair bound, a raised bed can be built at just the right height for you and make gardening a real pleasure again.

Top tipsNo matter how small the space you can build, or buy, a raised bed to fit!

  • To save cost, use soil scooped from paths to fill beds, and fill paths with bark, gravel or other paving materials. I like gravel as it is not only neat it also seems to do a good job of stopping slugs and snails in their slimy tracks!
  • Bury any turf removed in creating the beds in the lower levels of the bed’s soil to enrich the soil as it decays.
  • If you don’t have a handy man (or woman!) to build your raised beds from scratch, you can buy a range of sizes and styles of ready-to-assemble raised beds at garden centres, or online, and you really can grow a lot in a small space! Have fun!
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Butterflies flitting by…

Butterflies are one of the loveliest things in a garden, fleeting, delicate and beautiful. True, their caterpillars can decimate plants, and a cabbage white munching its way through your veg patch is a very unwelcome sight… but I try to forgive them all that for their sheer beauty.

Larger varieties can live for up to a month, but many of the smaller varieties only live a week. All that beauty gone in such a short space of time…

The orange tip is one of my favourite butterflies and it is on the wing from April through to June. The males, predictably, are the show offs with orange flashes on their wings! Their caterpillars feed on cuckoo flower and hedge mustard while the adults often feed from plants such as bluebells.

Other favourites include the red admiral, the tortoiseshell and the very lovely peacock with its stunning ‘eyes’ on its wings. The buddleia in my garden is a huge draw for butterflies and, in a good summer, is absolutely covered in many varieties.

If you want to attract more butterflies to your garden, plant nectar producing flowers. Butterflies visit flowers searching for nectar, the sweet fluid produced by the flower as a reward for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. Many British butterflies seem to prefer purple, pink and yellow coloured blossoms while clusters of short, tubular flowers or flat topped blossoms provide ideal shapes for butterflies to land on and feed.

No matter how hard we try to encourage butterflies, sadly we are all at the mercy of the weather. Statistics tell us that fewer butterflies flew in British skies in the miserable summer of 2012 than for thousands of years, leaving several species in danger of extinction from parts of the country.

Intensive efforts to conserve our rarest species mean that no butterfly has become extinct in Britain since 1979 but conservationists – as well as butterflies – are now struggling to adapt to climate change.

 

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