Sunday 4 February 2018

Growing Pains

Arrrggh, I just want to grow things!

I'm feeling the pressure to keep up with you Instagram gardeners, defying winter to chit potatoes and nurture your seedlings! Meanwhile, my garden remains hungover from a busy Autumn where all sense of order and tidiness went out the shed window!

Facing the old dilemma of 'where to start' I didn't feel I could start my seeds until I'd prepared my grow house, which I couldn't do until it was dry enough to take the waste to the tip, which I couldn't do until I had enough time to get to the tip, which I didn't have...

Yet I also know that if you don't start now it's like turning up to the 100m final 10 seconds late - race over. The beauty of winter in the garden is that nothing grows. No weeds, no seeds. Not unless you put some actual care and effort in, to get the soil warm, keep a bit of moisture and also check every 5 minutes in case nothing is growing...

Last weekend I'd had enough of this procrastination, and took 30 minutes away from what I was meant to be doing to get in the garden and do, well, what I deep down feel I am meant to be doing!

Weird isn't it, how when you get over the inertia and start doing something you know you love, that you get absorbed in it and could keep going for ever. Unfortunately, the sun didn't see it that way and started to make a dash behind the hills. But readers, I am proud that I managed to clear the grow house, plant me some chillis and peas, beetroots and bean and make a tentative start to this year's growing.

I also did the classic tidying up trick we all know so well...put it in a pile somewhere else!

Monday 22 January 2018

Rats can fly!

Well, perhaps not fly but jump much further than I thought.  They can even climb trees! I really didn't know that rats could climb trees until to my astonishment I saw one in our cherry tree, trying to figure out which branch would take it to the prized peanuts, hanging tantalisingly just out of paw's reach (do rats have paws?). In fact, I wouldn't put it past them to fly if it meant reaching their next meal.

And so begins the latest chapter in my mission to keep bird food for the birds that need it (see my first ever blog post Angry. Birds).

I lost the man vs pigeon battle of Bristol, but having impulsively bought this gorgeous ceramic bird feeder, I thought no hefty beast with wings could balance delicately on the narrow edge, leaving the goodies for the flocks of sparrows, finches, great, blue and long-tailed tits to gorge on after the long flight up the Slad Valley.

But no, the pigeons continue their graceless flaps knocking feisty robins out of their orbit, throwing seeds left right, up and down and then feasting on the morsels they've unceremoniously dumped on the grass. 

So at Christmas my feeder frustration was dissipated with this spherical beauty. Ha, nothing but a fleet footed finch could land on this and secure its peanut prize... my pigeon rage relented and there was enough food for all!

Until I saw a rat, 'perched' with its heavy a*** drooping over the side of the ceramic feeder. Now, I know that rats are possibly misunderstood, make good pets and cook a damn good French meal but the only misunderstanding here is on the rats part! 

And so began the fun and games. I tried moving the feeder away from anything that gave it a leg up, but turns out a rat can even balance on and climb lavender, and crawl up the slender stick! I lathered the stick in vaseline to thwart its greasy paws only to see the rat launch itself at least 20 feet (well, maybe a tad less than that), land perfectly on the swaying feeder, and with the core strength of a gymnast, hold steady whilst it tucked in.

The only solution has been to take the feeder out of action, causing the desperate fiend to engage its astonishing tree climbing skills. So far, it's not made it to the hanging feeder but this story isn't over yet...grrrr

Sunday 14 January 2018

Vampire weekend


Love the stuff, and the few times I've successfully grown a bulb or two I've been chuffed to bits. No matter that the bulbs were tiny and lacked a bit of punch they still felt like a triumph!

So it's with excitement that I've got me some bulbs to plant this winter. I'd totally forgotten you can plant at this time of year, but on over-hearing a competitive conversation between some keen growers in a cafe ("I've got my garlic in" "Mine have germinated" "Mine germinated before Christmas last year"...) I thought it about time to get my gloves on too.

Having moved away from Bristol into the Gloucestershire countryside (well, Stroud with views of the countryside!), I miss my favourite garden centre down at Riverside. Thankfully, rowing takes me back to town on a Sunday morning and I've made it my mission to head to Riverside after every row to pick up something, anything, just to get my hit and stop me becoming an armchair gardener (that would be taking hapless to the extreme!)

The great thing about doing that is it reminds you what you should be preparing for. A good garden shop hits you between the eyes with a 'must have / you know you want it' goody before you've had time to think 'basket or compost trolley', knowing full well you really actually shouldn't have either because your week's wages will be gone before you've even reached the seed packet bit.

True to form, my arms were laden with first earlies potatoes and no basket before my eyes had even set on the onions... Conscious that I've not started preparing any ground for potatoes I think I'm going to be very late for my earlies!

That's for another day though. This weekend I'm all about the garlic, and will soon have this beauty broken up and staked into the ground, with Dracula quaking in his cloak!

I think I've got enough to keep the Count at bay for another year, and probably enough onions to keep plenty of other people at bay too...

Sunday 7 January 2018

From Concrete Courtyard to the Hanging Gardens of Stroud...

Windowsill herbs have been a 'must have' for home cooks ever since Jamie Oliver bish-bash-boshed his way onto our screens nearly 20 years ago (yep, we're / I'm that old). 

Having spent that long trying to get my own herbs to grow there's no chance Oliver had the time or patience for his perfect bouquet week after week! Even a decent sized window-sill isn't enough to give you that basil hit more than a handful of times and sorry but that's just not enough to satisfy any self-respecting 30-something foodie addict's pesto consumption (not that I make pesto, or have much long to call myself 30-something!)

Pointless growing them at the allotment, herbs are a spontaneous thing. Even growing herbs out in planters in the back garden hasn't been  much good either, fumbling around in the dark to snip my rosemary, tripping up / down the outside steps just so my roast potatoes can be overpowered.  

I realised I needed something new...

Last summer I hit upon the idea of a trellis in the courtyard to cover the unsightly concrete breeze-blocks keeping us from our neighbours  on which to hang my herbs (PS for history buffs, the courtyard used to run the full length of the terrace of 6 old weavers cottages so that they could stretch out the cloth!). 

Coupled with some cheap metal containers, wire and a drill, I managed to create a hanging collection of herbs in easy reach. All I needed to do was nip out to satisfy my dill craving and all would be well in the world. Except the dill and the rest of them had a little difficulty growing, mostly due to under / over watering, gathering moss or drying out. Still I can't get the knack.

Not to be put off, 2018 is the year of the courtyard collection and today I'm back on it, potting up a new selection. Watch this space to see if they flourish or flounder...

It may be a bit cold out for now, but come spring I hope my fledgling herb garden will come to life, but naturally any advice on keeping the herbs alive gratefully received!

Sunday 8 March 2015

Hocus crocus

Spring guarantees a cliché

Has it sprung? Have you seen the first sign? 

You'll know it's happening when the snowdrops appear, daffodils show a glimpse of yellow, someone sits outside a pub in a t-shirt...

I approach that first glistening snowdrop with dread. It means things are going to get out of control pretty damn quickly. It starts with the weeds, then the bugs, all creeping up on you like a cheat on sports day taking small steps to get a head start.

It seems unfair. My poor chilli seeds have been sat on the window sill, my peas in the grow house, chives sown in a pot, hoping that they'll take the hint from the daffodils and get cracking. But it seems none of them have done. All lifeless and hibernating. It's as if they can't even hear the noise from the tables outside the pub next door...

Perhaps I need something else to signal that the race has started. Maybe I've become a little too down hearted about spring, despite a big of effort this year to get things going. As it happens, a little spell was cast on me this week down in Devon. Walking down the steps to a jetty, my eye took to a bold flower defying the cut-throat wind. A crocus.

I'd almost forgotten about this flower, and given I know so few flowers I really have no excuse to forget any. Strong, confident and clearly quick off the mark, I think this is the flower I and my sluggish plants need to get ahead of those dastardly interloping weeds.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Chit lit

This is a tale about commitment. 

Today I rekindled my love affair with the humble potato, one that started a long time ago when my heart was taken by a fiendish roast, but which has never flourished into the garden.

In truth, me and potatoes have never been apart, and I could often be found indulging in a creamy mash. Or chips. But rarely have I had the commitment to grow and stick to my own. Just the once before in fact and it didn't last, blight set in and I only got a small crop. I thought about growing them again but something to do with the temptation of other veg that freed up the bed quickly - beans, radish, you know the crunchy types - led me astray.

But now I've grown up, moved on. Now I have a proper kitchen...

And so potatoes, roast potatoes in particular, have taken hold. my Sundays are all about perfecting a roast chicken's best friend. I've tried all the tips - and I don't buy the goose fat myth - a good par boil, steam dry and roughing in the pan, high heat and oil, mmmm, the perfect roast...sorry, day dreaming.

Four weeks ago I took the plunge and bought my seed potatoes, ready to 'chit'.

A strange word, chitting. Reading gardening books it implies a technique, a deliberate careful method to get the best potatoes. To me a chitted potato is no different to that neglected spud at the bottom of the vegetable rack. But still, I took the care to find suitable egg boxes to house them and checked their progress every day.

I've learnt a lot in four weeks, based on the advice of others. 'Don't put them by the window, they need to be in the dark'. 'Don't put them in the dark there, they make the kitchen look untidy'... 

Feeling unwanted, the poor things took a while to show any enthusiasm to wake up, but I stuck with them and finally in the last 10 days the shoots showed real promise. 

Last week I prepared their space in the raised bed, today I increased the depth with more top soil, and planted out a row of 6.

My only worry is that they're a bit shallow. In the raised bed I mean. Despite the extra soil, the bottom of the bed is probably only 5cm deep. I fear they'll realise that for all my commitment, they may not hang around!

Friday 5 December 2014

George's marvellous medicine

I'm looking for a cure to that apparently male affliction - the desire for a shed.

I personally think it's an affliction more universal than some would have us believe, so this may all sound familiar...

I first noticed a problem when I felt a pang of pain. I was carting my larger tools off to a temporary home, 5 miles away at my girlfriend's father's garage. 

It felt wrong. How can you call your spade a spade when it can't hear you?

With forks banned from the house as though mud corrupts, there was no chance of me cradling my strimmer and its blades of grass, still clinging on to the base months after its last use. Everything big had to go.

The second symptom came on my now regular walks through the Gloucestershire commons; the 5 valleys that surround Stroud and the National Trust land at its heights.  This is a truly beautiful part of the world with a landscape of deep valleys and winding lanes that hide not only gorgeous cottages and grand homes but sheds. Lots of sheds. Not a weekend walk goes by when my girlfriend and I don't share a romantic whisper of 'I like the colour of that shed.'  


The 5 Valleys standard paint-job

Is this a shed?
Finally, when it became clear I was wandering through the cottage looking for somewhere to lay my hat, a space that I could call my own, she said 'get a shed'. I'm sure we've all been, or will be there one day, but that sense of excitement on realising that your own shed is now within the realms of possibility allows you to make that instant leap from melancholy to madness...

Enter George. 

Pin the shed on the garden...
At the time of writing, 8pm on Thursday nights tools are downed and the TV is on for George Clarke's amazing spaces. Here you can watch magic happen. People take the smallest, strangest spaces often with just the change in their pocket and more drive than you find in a North American cattle ranch, they create (as the title suggests) Amazing Spaces.

Well give me some of that! I'm addicted / cured depending on how you view this. In my head, my shed is now the place of envy. Painted, kitted out and open for garden business. 

In reality though, I still need to decide where to put it and how big it can be. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the garden is big enough to take my ideas, so any advice on where I can put a shed here are very welcome

Saturday 15 November 2014

Buried pleasure

I'd forgotten how to garden.

Not that I'd ever come close to mastering it in the first place. 

I'm in a new garden now, one that had stolen my attention over the milder months and has become my home. I've said farewell to my small Victorian walled haven and swapped it a view from an old weaver's cottage looking out to Laurie Lee country, nearby allotments mocking me as I'm drawn to the valley beyond.

There is a tale of woeful horticultural neglect to come one day soon, but for now I just wanted to share the spoils of the one tiny bit of gardening I did manage in the last 12 months:

Yes, even one afternoon building a small raised bed, planting a few seeds and then wandering off as if growing food was that easy has shown me that it can be, well, that easy.  Oh, ok this may only be a red onion and beetroot among the weeds (yeah they look the same to me too), but perhaps tiny steps back into it and I'll soon be back on form. A bit more weeding here, an allotment there (you know it, they're only over the road...)

But if it's this easy to get excited by it, and growing a spot of root veg seems so simple it begs the question, why is gardening so damn hard!?

Friday 13 December 2013

Hi, I'm an Australian lady...

Such are the subtleties of language, the slightest inflection or letter can alter the meaning.

My Spanish extends no further than a traditional Brit abroad - "por favor", "gracias" and of course "cerveza". So it was with some (in)trepidation that my friend James and I approached our home stay with a Costa Rican family, tucked away in the mountain village of Mollejones. 

Not that we had much time for nerves or trepidation before our arrival. In the telling of this story I've jumped ahead a few days from the start taking you to the day of a 65 km cycling 'epic'. Epic in the bad sense, oh yes it's probably a good thing my Spanish is basic, lest a tirade of Iberian cursing pierce this most tranquil community.

I don't know if you've ever ridden up a mountain in heat and humidity? If you have, you'll understand those moments of pain that shoot through your legs with every turn of the pedal that propels you but an inch a time.
"We're all broken inside"
Suppose you have conquered such a climb, enjoyed the pause at the top, snap the group with forced smiles - we're loving this honestly - a banana perhaps and then the freefall downhill to reach the valley below. Maybe you have called it a day, rested your buttocks on something more comfortable than a razor seat?

For us, it was merely a warm up for the next climb to our midday restaurant. Those shots of pain giving way to more psychological challenges. The inner child defiance ('I don't want to play anymore'), the knowledge of the hours ahead with little prospect of comfort of a hotel at the end. 

Instead there was the prospect an evening of awkward British politeness in the company of a family to whom Mr Bean is most likely found on a menu with Mrs Rice.

Actually, thank goodness then for lunch. Yes there was beans and rice, of the most nourishing kind, accompanied by the sort of vista that makes you realise that the value of a reward is intrinsically linked to the effort you put in. 

I earned this view.

It was here that one of the Australian contingent, Kate, tried to teach me some basic Spanish so that I could at least introduce myself. "Me llamo Tom, soy un Australiana' (we were sure the English / Aussie difference wouldn't be noticeable). Alas, apparently I should have said Australiano, much to Kate's amusement, and that of the group as the word spread that perhaps I secretly spent my weekends known as Priscilla. Oh yes, when a few days later our raft was dubbed 'the girls raft' for no other reason than a lost splash fight, it was noted that I was indeed an Australian lady.

Cross dressing aside, I could have happily settled down with a cerveza and watched the hummingbirds feed on nectar. - pigeons simply don't have the same grace around my bird table at home. 

But no, there was one more climb to go. There wasn't even the assurance that this was an easy climb. In fact, this was set to be the hardest climb of the lot. Off road, never ending beast of hill.

Growing up in Cambridge - the flatest city in England where the only hill was our school playing field conveniently used by the teachers for cross-country - everyone had a mountain bike. This particular afternoon I was finally introduced to the terrain a mountain bike was built for.

I'm afraid these photos don't do justice to the brutality of this climb. Here's just a short stretch above and below. Take me on trust that around both corners lay hell for all those who seek only leisure from two wheels.

I'm going to leave this story here for now, the final mile is a story in its own right.

One thing I did learn though, applicable as much to gardening and life in general is that you can be faced with tasks of endurance, where the challenge appears never ending, where you fall, get up, fall, get up fall, stay down, you feel physical and emotionally broken, but when you get to the top the truth is you, once you get over the humbling sensation of what you've achieved...'ll think of every lazy person you've ever known, and feel one very smug *******

Sunday 8 December 2013

Tales from Costa Rica: #1 Why did the sloth cross the road?

See Tales from Costa Rica page for more

Sloths have a bad name and it's not deserved. 

Meet Tico the Costa Rican sloth:

You may well ask yourself what a sloth has to do with gardening, and I'm sure I'll have found a tenuous link before this post is out, but just pause for a moment and reflect on your perception of a sloth...

Slow? Yes. Lazy? Almost certainly. On benefits? Without a doubt. 

I'd barely started my adventure when a small group of us came across this curious character. Had it not been for Don's chain snapping within seconds of leaving our starting point we would have missed this charming fellow.

Indeed, I would have missed him anyway had Karen not screamed 'Sloooooooooooooth' causing us all to stop, take a break and a photo (I soon discovered this wouldn't be the last time I'd have to take a break on the bike...).

Most sloths hang from trees in a little bundle. However, this go-getter decided the time was right to see if the grass, or possibly trees, were greener on the other side. He looked left, he looked right, he waited for a car to go past. Time to cross? Not just yet, got to pose for the tourists taking photos first.

It got me thinking, what would you do in this situation? Me, I took photos of the charmer with the intention of getting back on my bike and continuing my adventure. The old Costa Rican lady with a walking stick in the back of a car that pulled up, and Vito with a stick pulled from a tree, had other ideas.

Before my eyes, I saw the locals carefully place a stick under the front legs and one under the hind legs, lift and cart this pampered pretend primate from one side of the road into the long grass on the other where it made like Usain Bolt on sedatives to its new home. I was so stunned and it happened so quickly I forgot to capture the moment.

Unfortunately for those whose chains didn't snap, this top sighting passed them by. Juan Carlos was like a patient parent to the cries of 'when are we going to see a sloth', every day until the final day - the day he said we'd see one. We'd be crawling up hills - 'do sloths hang out here?' and racing down mountains 'was that a sloth? Crash. No.

But thankfully I had this thrilling video to keep them happy until the next sloth sighting. 

Three garden-related things struck me about my sloth experience. 

Firstly that if you don't keep your eyes open you'll miss more than you could possibly realise. It's hard sometimes, but I think the same applies to the garden. Often, I'll get totally caught up in weeding that I'll miss the cat leaving a parcel in the veg bed behind me. Or it might be a new bird quietly checking out the food on the bird table.

Secondly, that the famed Costa Rican care for their natural world was evident in the simplest of gestures. Next time I'm rushing for work, no harm in taking a bit longer to soak some bread and leave it out for the birds, or to put some slug pellets down (you know, to help the plants...).

And finally, that it's ok to be a sloth. Sure the garden may not stay as neat and tidy, but things will take care of themselves. And when you're as good looking as this, what's the rush?

The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.