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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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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Infusing oil with herbs and spices

Oils infused with herbs and flavours are very handy to have in the kitchen. They can alter a salad from yawn to yum in a flash. I particularly like basil oil and use rosemary oil when I am roasting lamb. You can infuse any variety of oil, I use a mild olive oil for infusions destined for salad and then any mild vegetable oil if you plan to use it for roasting etc.

It is important to use dried ingredients, if you use wet basil or fresh garlic, it contains a large percentage of water and this can cause bacteria to grow in the oil and give you botulism, which is not worth the risk.

So choose your dried ingredient (or dry them by hanging in a dark place for a week or so) and an attractive bottle. I try and remember that any old bottle produces oil that tastes just as nice but I do love pretty bottles! You can buy bottles that would make lovely gifts filled with oils from Lakeland the kitchen company.

Insert dried ingredients into your bottle and then fill up with oil. Leave on a sunny windowsill for a couple of weeks before using – there see that doesn’t stretch anyone’s cooking abilities! I recommend keeping the infused oil in the fridge just to be safe and I usually err on the side of making it little and often rather than vast quantities that will take forever to finish.

My suggestions for things to flavour the oils would be dried lemon/orange peel, basil, rosemary, garlic, chilli and so many more that I am sure you can think of… they make a lovely nibble before a meal as a dip with chunks of a really good or unusual bread too!

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Secret gardens just waiting for you…

Spring is so slow to get going this year that I am trying to convince myself it will be doubly good when it finally does arrive!

In eager anticipation of this, I thought that I’d mention the National Garden Scheme in this week’s blog. Some of you may already know it – it’s often referred to as ‘The Yellow Book’ scheme – if not, you are missing out on a real gardening treat. The National Garden Scheme (NGS) is a wonderful idea that not only raises lots of money for charity, but also allows you to visit some absolutely stunning private gardens.

Most gardens that open for the NGS are privately owned and open just a few times each year. Some gardens open as part of a group with the whole community involved. The gardens give all the money raised directly to us (including from the sale of teas and plants); the only exceptions being in some cases they ask that a small proportion goes to a nominated local charity.

When a garden is open, it puts out a distinctive yellow poster – look out for these! A few years ago, I had a wonderful afternoon wandering round a garden that was right next to somewhere I’d lived as a child. It had been home to Enid Blyton many years before and the current owners had done a fantastic job restoring the garden. I had been visiting the area and drove past the end of the road and saw the sign – pure chance. Sadly, that particular garden isn’t open this year, but there are no less than 3,700 across England and Wales that are, and some of them are bound to be near you. 

Buy a copy of their ‘Yellow Book’ Guide and it will tell you all the gardens that open, and when. There are some absolute gems! Their website is also very useful and includes details of when you can stay near particular gardens, details of plant fairs and nurseries etc.

 

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Cod, basil & tomato with a potato thatch

What is it about fish pie that is so warming? I don’t know the answer, I only know it is! With a green salad, this makes an ideal dish for lunch or a family supper.

Serves 8

You will need:           

  • 1kg/2lb smoked cod
  • 1kg/2lb white cod
  • 600ml/1 pint milk
  • 2 sprigs basil
  • 1 sprig lemon thyme
  • 75g/3oz butter
  • 1 onion peeled and chopped
  • 75g/3oz flour
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée
  • 2 tbsp chopped basil

For the thatch

  • 12 medium sized old potatoes
  • 50g/2oz butter
  • 300ml/2 pint milk
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley 
  1. Place both kinds of fish in a roasting pan with the milk, 1.2 litres/1 pint water and the herbs. Simmer for about 3-4 minutes. Leave to cool in the liquid for about 20 minutes. Drain the fish, reserving the liquid for use in the sauce. Flake the fish, taking care to remove any skin and bone.
  2. Melt the butter in a pan, add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes until tender but not browned. Add the flour, tomato pure and half the basil. Gradually add the reserved fish stock, adding a little more milk if necessary to make a fairly thin sauce. Bring this to the boil, season with salt and pepper and add the remaining basil. Add the fish carefully, and stir gently. Pour into an ovenproof dish.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas 4. Boil the potatoes until tender. Add the butter and milk and mash well. Add salt and pepper to taste and cover the fish, forking it up to create a pattern. If you like, you can freeze the pie at this stage.
  4. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with chopped parsley.

 

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