Jobs to do in the garden..

Chitting potatoes in egg boxesI’m really in the mood for getting back into the garden and I’m thinking of all the jobs I need to get done while everything is still relatively dormant. 

I don’t have time to grow veg myself, but if you do, or want to start, now is the time to ‘chit’ seed potatoes. Chitting means getting the eyes in the potatoes to sprout and its easiest done in old egg boxes, placed eye or sprouting side up in a cool, light frost-free place for six weeks or so before planting outside. Choose ones the size of a hen’s egg, or cut larger tubers to fit. Potatoes can be planted directly into the ground, but this simple procedure really does increase yield. My partner in crime Julia’s conservatory is currently so crammed with chitting potatoes there’s hardly any room to sit in it!

You don’t need lots of space and you can even grow potatoes in a tub, or barrel and they’re great for introducing children to the simple joy of growing your own food.

While the grass is dormant, take your lawn mower for a service so it will be in fine fettle come spring. It’s also a great time to oil your secateurs and sharpen blades on shears. There’s nothing worse (and a chronic waste of effort) than hacking away at something with a blunt instrument – sounds a bit like a murder plot!

Avoid blunt instruments – keep your secateurs sharp!I do adore roses and now is the time to plant them. Make sure the hole is large enough for the roots to spread, and use a cane to check that the base of the plant is at soil level. Incorporate plenty of well-rotted manure and garden compost, and add some slow-release fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone. Fill in the hole, treading around the plant to firm it in and topping up the soil level as necessary. 

You can find lots of useful information on line about growing roses and all sorts of other really useful gardening advice. Here’s a list of ones I use:





A bit of cheer in the garden

Snowdrops and aconitesMy goodness, a bit of cheer in the garden can be hard to find in winter, especially one as wet as this, and I’m often poking about in search of snowdrops, or the first signs of aconites.

At this time of year, it’s the pots by the back doors that give me most pleasure.

The wonderful thing about containers is that all but the largest are easy to move and can be used to create an ever-changing scene throughout the year, including the winter months. Different containers can take on different roles – some providing a dark or neutral backdrop while others take centre stage for their moment of floral glory.

Starring roles at this time of year will, of course, go to plants whose leaves, stems or flowers are especially attractive in winter. This might mean hauling a potted camellia out of the wings so you can watch its tight spherical buds burst into bloom, or bringing some smaller tubs of crocus and other early spring bulbs you planted in autumn to the front.

I have been known to root around in hidden corners of the garden for clumps of snowdrops and primroses that are blooming unseen and unappreciated, dig them up and give them a temporary home in a pot pretty enough to bring inside.

Such evacuees can also be snuck in at the base of larger potted plants outside, with trailing ivy woven in among them to hide that ‘just-dug-up’ look, and can be returned to the garden – perhaps in a place where they’ll be more visible – when the flowers have died down. I do this regularly and the plants never seem to resent the disturbance. In fact, if you want to move snowdrops and aconites now, when they are ‘in the green, is the best time to do it.

It can be great fun to plant a winter container from scratch. If you choose the plants with care, it can give pleasure well into spring. As a centrepiece, I’d choose a winter-flowering shrub – such as witch hazel or a deciduous daphne whose flowers, on the bare branches, are best set off by a backdrop of dark evergreens.

Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ Skimmia japonica and Viburnum tinus both work well – with the surrounding planting chosen to complement the colours of the buds. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ has the darkest red, which looks dramatic with purple-leafed heucheras and pretty white cyclamen; while the greenish yellow buds of others such as ‘Fragrant Cloud’ would be lovely with white and yellow crocus or violas. All open to pure white flowers in spring, when brighter bulbs or early bedding can fill any gaps around the edges.

Water in, raising the pot on small feet to ensure good drainage, sit back, and enjoy the show.


A real tonic

I’ve never been much of a tea or coffee drinker, which is odd as the rest of my family are. I do like herbal teas though, and am especially fond of peppermint tea. I’ve recently bought a sweet little infusion teapot so, once the mint in the garden has grown, I can literally pick a few leaves and stick them in the pot with some boiling water for a very refreshing brew!

Herbal teas have become popular both for their flavour and for the many medicinal qualities they are supposed to possess. It’s claimed they can help with everything from easing a cold and indigestion to fighting infection and nausea. But when choosing a herbal tea remedy, make sure you pick the right one. While fruit flavoured teas – such as rosehip, apple and orange – taste nice, they are developed for their flavouring more than anything else.

Herbal teas on the other hand, such as thyme, peppermint and ginger really do have therapeutic uses. Check the label when you buy – if it mentions real herbs then the quality will be good. Try and avoid any teas with artificial flavourings.

My partner in crime writing, Julia, can’t take cold remedies anymore as she gets a rather violent allergic reaction, and she finds ginger or thyme tea really help when she’s fighting a cold. One of the benefits of peppermint tea is that it’s good for indigestion, so if you have over-indulged (which of course I never do!) it is nice to drink after a meal.

Here are my top five herbal teas:

Ginger: Ginger is a great remedy in the early stages of an infection because, as a warming spice, it can promote a fever and hasten healing. Ginger’s warming effects are also said to relieve rheumatic aches and pains by widening the blood vessels and stimulating circulation.

Chamomile: The small golden buds of chamomile give many people relief from mild insomnia. Chamomile is the principal ingredient in many ‘sleepytime’ tea blends. This is because chamomile contains tryptophan, an amino acid known for its tranquilizing effects. When taken as an infusion, these properties act as a relaxant and help you to sleep.

Thyme: This Mediterranean herb is an effective treatment for colds. This is because thyme contains volatile oils – constituents in the plant that protect it against virus and infection. When taken as an infusion, these properties act as a good decongestant for the chest.

Peppermint: A traditional remedy used for nausea and indigestion. By stimulating bile production in the gall bladder, peppermint breaks down fat in the digestion system, thus relieving nausea.

Nettle: I’ve waxed lyrical about nettles before on this blog! It is good to take when feeling run down as it has a rich mineral content. Nettle is a good source of iron, calcium and silica. Iron produces red blood cells, essential for energy while calcium and silica are important for building bones, hair and teeth.



Festive balls!

The hanging basket with its chicken wire ‘dome’.This week, my partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, has come up with a lovely idea to brighten up the outside of your house in a festive yet very natural way.

I do not claim to have one tenth of Joanna’s skills when it comes to flower arrangement or plant knowledge and most of my gardening ideas are somewhat ‘freestyle’. I work with what’s around and what inspires me and sometimes ideas work out really well and other times… well, let’s just say my compost heap gets a boost.

As December dawned I decide my hanging baskets were beyond saving and took them down, leaving my house looking very plain. Something green and festive, that’s what’s needed, I thought. But what? I vaguely remembered something about making ivy balls using two hanging basket frames wired together to make the ball structure. After excavating my garden shed I could only find two hanging baskets and not the four I would need to produce two arrangements – one either side of my front door. My first bit of improvisation was to wrestle two bits of chicken wire into rough dome shapes to form the top half of the ball. This actually turned out to be a very good idea, as you will see…

Next I set off round the farm, with the dog, a large carrier bag and my secateurs. Half an hour later, I was back with lots of ivy, some holly, someStarting to wrap ivy around the ball…old dried cow parsley heads and a surprising quantity of rosehips. Being a good forager I only took a few pieces from any one place, leaving plenty of cover and food for the birds and not disturbing the habitat too much. The dog was quite bored by all this and stumped round the walk carrying a large piece of wood as I was too preoccupied to throw her ball. Don’t worry if you don’t live on a farm, you could find plenty of material in areas of woodland or hedgerow.

Back in the garden, I spread out my haul on a tarpaulin and started to cover the balls. I began with lengths of ivy and wound them around. The chicken wire worked really well as it was easy to poke the ends of the ivy through and get them to stay put. I worked on the balls alternately to ensure they were looking fairly equal. I paused briefly to spray the dried cow parsley heads silver – and most of my hand at the same time – and left them to dry. 

Next, I added holly and more ivy, trying to cover as much of the ball structure possible. I soon realised I didn’t have enough, so started raiding the garden, adding some variegated ivy and holly and finding quite a bit of ivy in bloom on the back wall. The design I had envisaged was starting to come together, but lacked a bit of oomph. It suddenly dawned on me that the enormous pieris that I kept squeezing past where it had overgrown the I worked on the balls alternately to try and ensure they looked balanced.steps (I think it’s Forest Flame) was looking rather fine at the moment. A bit of judicious pruning later and I had the final part of the design. The pieris added some lovely red colouring and the flower spikes softened the shape really well.

The final touch involved me wiring up the various bunches of rose hips and dotting them around the two spheres. And absolutely finally, I added the silver cow parsley heads for a bit of subtle glamour.

And there you have it, two festive balls outside my front door! You could obviously use pretty much anything that you think will last and, even if it The finished festive ball!wilts a bit before Christmas, take out the wilting bits and add something else. If you could find mistletoe, that would be lovely and if you want more glitz, you could wire up some small silver or gold baubles and add those as well.






Winter in the garden

I have been so busy rushing up and down to help my daughter and baby Grace that I haven’t had a moment to think about the garden. This morning as I went to check on my mother and stepfather (they’re in their late eighties and nineties) I was wowed by the display they have created around their front door. As they find gardening a very difficult task these days the pots at the front entrance are their pride and joy and the way they look certainly reminded me how fabulous winter planting can be.

Viburnum Dawn.They have vivid blue ceramic pots filled with vibrant mixed colours of fabulous cyclamen. They bought a dozen of each colour from the local garden centre and then crammed the pots with bright reds, hot pinks and pretty pastel pinks – and they look fantastic. If the weather were not so awful here today I would take a photo to show you!

That’s a really simple way to bring colour near the house but there are other plants further down the garden that can really make you smile on a grey day. Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is one of my favourites as is Mahonia (I have ‘Winter Sun’) both of them are great shrubs that last for  years and repay the investment many times over. Chimonanthus is another shrub that pays dividends – its lovely yellow flowers are gorgeous when not a lot else is showing off in the garden!

I would be wrong to omit mentioning heathers. They are great value and come in many colours. I get a particularly good display from a white one I have called ‘Springwood Mahonia Winter SunWhite’ – but there are fabulous pinks as well.

I hope that’s given you some ideas for how you could get some bright cheery colour into your pots or garden this winter!