Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A natural by-product

Last week the big guns came in to harvest the crops around us.

This field bordering our gardens has, for the last two years, been used to plant a crop for the farmer's cows.
Up until then there were different crops but this field was used mainly for grazing. It could be beautiful in spring when it was covered with dandelions, followed by the clocks - a real problem for our garden though when it came to weeding.
It was also followed by the cows. I've no problem with cows but they love to reach over and eat our shrubs and trees that are planted along our boundary with the hope of having a beautiful hedge to keep out the easterly winds and extra wildlife habitat. So I am happy that we have had a two year reprise and the hedge is much more established.

What is this crop?

It is barley. The huge bales are still lying on the field in the sun and look great. There is also a lot of loose barley that the machines haven't managed to pick up.

Why am I telling you this?
Barley laying around in loose clumps at the edge of the field is a natural by-product that is like gold to me. I have used old net potato bags to fill with the barley and mixed some dried lavender sticks in to put in the wildlife pond.

Barley straw is one of the best natural algae control techniques. When lavender is also added it is even more effective. For best results it is advisable to add the barley and lavender in spring, before the algae gets a hold. You leave it at the surface of the water to decompose and the chemicals released clear the algae. It takes 4-6 weeks generally to work and the bag can be left in the pond for 6 months. You need to put enough in to address the size of the pond's surface area and it is advised to put 50g per square meter (for further information read this article ).

With the heatwave and need to top up the pond more often the algae is rampant again so, although late, I have added the conveniently left lying around barley today. I will continue my stick twiddling for now, alongside the barley treatment; it has become a loved hobby and gives me the opportunity of watching the frogs and newts at play!

I hope in a few weeks I'll have even happier frogs.

Friday, 19 June 2015

The day of the lily

Today I'm celebrating the wonderful daylily (hemerocallis). Strictly speaking it isn't actually a lily, not even in the lily family, but, hey ho, that's how we all know it.

Hemerocallis fulva is my favourite with its bright orange colour, although there are thousands of cultivars to choose from and  a whole range of colours too. To me they look great in any weather, brightening up even the gloomiest of days.

It is a clump forming, perennial plant which pretty much looks after itself, low maintenance and very hardy. It dies back in winter and emerges with fresh,bright green leaves in spring, followed by the long stalks bearing multiple flowers in early summer.

The individual flowers last typically no longer than a day, hence it's common name of daylily.
Have you ever considered using it for cut flowers? No, I hear you say, the flowers only last a day but you'd be surprised. As there are multiple flowers on each stem the flowers open in succession and not all at once so as one dies off overnight another opens the next day and so it goes on. They make excellent cut flowers (as do true lilies) and as they are so abundant you can have an endless supply of fresh cut flowers for your home for up to six weeks and that's some saving!

Did you know that the flowers, buds and tubers can also be eaten too, often used dry or fresh in Asian cooking, where they are known as golden needles?

An all round champion plant and that's why I've chosen today to celebrate it.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Planting by the moon

The other day I posted on Facebook saying it is nearly time to sow the seeds I have just received (excitement getting the better of me). A friend of mine queried the phase of the moon for sowing seeds and quite rightly so! I pointed her in the direction of the lunar calendar that I refer to (it comes via subscription each month on my email) and then I delved deeper.

It is true that sowing seeds for root crops in this phase of the moon is a good idea as it is a waning moon, water content in the ground is higher and this encourages strong root growth. Other seeds are preferably sowed on a waxing moon, to encourage germination.

In a perfect world (for me) seed packets would give accurate sowing times to result in the best possible yield from each packet (I really do believe it works you see). To do this would involve a lot of work and even more categorizing, as if seeds aren't complex enough! As this is unrealistic I have done this for the seeds that I have myself.


If I'm growing the seeds for flowers then I need them to be sown in an Air sign. As some are perennial flowers and some are annual flowers I then looked at my options. The annuals need to be done now to get a good start but I can also sow some more at the back end of May which is Gemini for later flowers. The perennials can be done in either Aquarius or Gemini but for the best results I like to sow them in the autumn for the following year so this would be from the end of September which is Libra.

So, I know which seeds to sow now as I have root and flower seeds. I also have seeds for plants that I am growing for their leaves; they would also produce flowers and seeds but it is the leaves that we want. As with most things there are exceptions to the rule and so these seeds are going to be planted in the waxing phase of Pisces. This will encourage healthy root and leaf growth so more leaves!

I am taking into account the unpredictability of the weather in my plans as well so although we have a polytunnel I shall sow the seeds indoors initially and then if we have severe frosts (which is quite likely) the seeds will be protected.

And now it's off to work I go. If you have enjoyed reading this blog please leave a message and thank you for reading.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The humble vegetable

The post in this house can be a source of excitement, dread or amusement. Living in the countryside of France we don't have a letterbox in our front door but what I can only describe as a two-door (front and back), metal box with two sets of keys. We had to buy this on arrival to France and place our names on it so that La Poste (the postman or woman in our case) knows where to leave our mail. The box is cool as it is big enough to leave fairly big packages and envelopes in and it is locked and secure. The postlady has a master key for all of the boxes she has on her route.

This year we've had quite some trouble with our post though. I often forget to check the box and by the time I remember to empty it it is often riddled with holes (a bit embarrassing when it is something official that needs to be filled in and sent back - French paperwork!) The culprits of these holes are tiny snails that enjoy eating our post. They must climb up the wooden post that the box is attached to.

Like everything there is routine, and our pub (publicity mail) is delivered on a Monday. We like to peruse this to see what's going on in the outside world around us. When I retrieved this from the box yesterday we were lucky, the snails (which I do brush out regularly, honest) had only nibbled on the envelope of a bill and one of the leaflets in there so we had plenty of others to look at. This half page spread caught our eye.

We've all seen the organic and homegrown vegetable pictures that go around the email and social media circuits that usually look quite rude but humourous all the same. Our local supermarket (Intermarche) has added their picture to their advertising and is celebrating the fact that the "ugly" vegetables are back and "you're going to love them". Briiliant and a big hands up for organic vegetables, natural vegetables, French sense of humour and increased sales! It put a smile on our faces :)

Friday, 10 October 2014

Autumn care of Penstemons in pots and containers

Penstemon display at a local plant show

It is that time of year here again when the autumn plant shows are on. I remember when we participated it was always such a buzz, getting the plants ready for shows and trying to keep everything top notch. We're big fans of the televised shows that Gardener's World and the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) do and joked to ourselves that we felt like we were getting ready for Chelsea. When we arrived we would set up our stall and then wander around all of the other exhibitors to see what was looking good, what was new and of course get first option at buying more plants. All of the exhibitors do the same, that is they choose their best plants for the show, c'est logic!

This week I've been propagating and sorting out the plants in the polytunnel. Although we don't now do the shows we are still open until the end of October after which we will be closed until the beginning of next year. What we do in between is all preparation and getting orders ready with as much garden maintenance as possible.

With this in mind this post is about how to care for potted Penstemons or Penstemons planted in any other containers.

In the garden you notice the plants changing, becoming autumnal. Paradoxically you notice all of the new growth also (if you look close enough). Penstemons, being long flowering, are still looking good at this time of year. The variety does make a different however and I'll come back to that. In contrast the potted Penstemons haven't got the surrounding plants of the garden to hide there less attractive leaves and so at first glance can look very shabby.

Penstemon Husker's Red with the dead headed flower stems still on

If you grow Penstemons in pots or large containers or if you are shopping for Penstemons (which invariably are in pots when bought) here are my tips on what to look out for and how to keep them looking good.

Penstemon Huskers Red flowers

  • Know your variety
  • When dead heading the plants get bushier and develop new growth as well as producing more flowers. In pots I would deadhead to around half the length of the flowering stem and to a point where there is healthy new growth.
  • If the bottom leaves of the plant are dead and brown but the tip is healthy and growing I would remove the dead leaves, using my fingers, and leave the stems above. This keeps some height to the plant. It gives you good propagation material for future cuttings. It protects the base of the plant over winter.
  • Look out for the new growth (like in spring) that is coming from the base of the plant. This will grow and produce and produce a fuller plant.
  • If there are any dead and brittle stems cut them out using sharp secateurs.
  • Remove spent flower heads that may have dropped down.
  • Top feed with fresh compost.
  • Do not over water Penstemons.Good drainage is essential.
Your potted Penstemons will now be content for winter.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this post.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Penstemon Identification

When we set out as budding Penstemon growers we had very limited real knowledge of the flowering plants that give us so much pleasure. We could recognize the more common (or I should say popular) plants such as Penstemon Husker's Red or Penstemon Apple Blossom but it soon became apparent that there are so many more to choose from.

Penstemon Hidcote Pink flower

Penstemon Raspberry Ice flower

Penstemon Flamingo flower

Penstemon Heavenly Blue flower

Penstemon barbatus coccineus flower

Batches and batches of seeds and thousands of plants later we had more Penstemon plants than we had counted on.

To identify the names of some of our Penstemons we had to go beyond the seed packets and supplier's descriptions that we had started with. Why? Many of our plants were grouped together as one species, of which there are many, many more named varieties. Another reason is the cat mix up effect. What is that I hear you ask? Well we started with tray upon tray of Penstemon seeds, all perfectly labelled with the name of the seed, in some cases the supplier and the date sown. Our beloved cats tried to aid germination by giving their own body warmth by sleeping in the trays. This didn't stop the seeds from germinating but the swap around sleeping arrangements meant that the seeds were mixed into other trays. The result of this later, when potted, labelled and flowering was that the plants were not the same as the named variety that they should be!

Lots of time and lots of careful study has resulted in clearly and properly named Penstemons. The plant information is more specific and the photographs try to give a close up view of the flowers as well as a whole plant view. With this comes the benefit of choosing the right Penstemon. There diversity is extraordinary. 

For me Penstemon identification isn't easy (due to all of the misinformation out there) but it is fascinating and enjoyable. Perhaps identification isn't that important if you just love the flower and growth habit but if you do want to identify a particular Penstemon that you have and can't remember the name for then here are my tips for searching.

  • Check growth habit - is it upright, bushy, shrubby?
  • What colour leaves does it have - are they green, blue-green, red?
  • What type of leaves does it have - lance-like, rounded, toothed, smooth, glossy? Are the leaves small or large? Are they equally divided on the stems or do they grow basally?
  • What size is the overall plant? Is it low growing, medium sized or very tall?
  • Does it have small, medium or large flowers? How do the flowers grow?
  • Look at your plant at different times of the year as some Penstemon foliage changes colour with the seasons and some are evergreen.
If you would like to learn more about Penstemons click here 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Planning, planning, planning

As the summer ends and we head into autumn my mind goes into overdrive. I look around the garden, enjoy the autumn flowering plants and grasses I never know whether to start cutting back or leave the seedheads for the wildlife and the bushy growth of the perennials for ground cover (just for a while longer).

I often get questions on my web site and FB page, sometimes about individual plants and their needs, but more often than not about how and when I go about propagating and cutting back. I try to follow the lunar cycle wherever practical as a basis for timing. At the moment we're in the cycle of the moon that is dry and barren. It is not a good time for sowing anything in the garden but an ideal time for weeding, building your compost heap, with all of your garden rubbish, and harvesting the spoils of your hard work in the potager (or veggie plot to me).

So with this in mind and it being too hot still, in September?, to garden with any real effort I have started to plan for the winter. We still have a lot to look forward to in the garden as autumn progresses but I'm now thinking 'spring'. This year we were so lucky to see the garden waking up in January (in my book that is winter) with various plants strutting their stuff. my favourites, I think, are the crocus flowers so I've just taken delivery of my next batches.

What am I going to do with them? My plan is to chuck them down in patches on the grass, mainly around the base of trees so that next spring I will have plenty of scattered colour throughout the garden. It's a good plan don't you think?

Crocus bulbs are self caring, they don't need any special treatment and once they're in the ground they will reward you with years of pleasure. They are very hardy so will thrive well here. They are quite small bulbs so I'll have to be careful how far I throw them to make sure I get to actually plant them all. I'll prod a hole about 2 cm deep where each one lands, pop them in and refill. The grass won't need to be cut before we enjoy the flowers and they are so beneficial to the early insects too.

Anyone, anywhere can have crocus in their lives as they also grow well in containers. One word of caution - they are attractive to mice so if you don't have cats be careful where you put them.

For more information about lunar planting I have outlined the basics on my website

For more information about crocus bulbs I found this web site to be very good and it also includes other bulbs - very tempting :)