I was recently sent a couple of sample bags of peat-free compost from Westland* – in fact, they turned up shortly before Christmas – cue much head-scratching as I tried to work out what on earth kind of huge, heavy present had I forgotten about ordering…
The two kinds are New Horizon All Plant compost and New Horizon All Veg compost – both claim to be 100% sustainable, natural & peat-free compost. Now, I will confess that up until now I haven’t been a huge fan of peat-free compost, although this is very likely because I’ve bought poor quality stuff. The last bag I had was dry, woody and hard to handle – I didn’t have a very good experience of growing dahlias in it last year so it really put me off. However, I’m fully aware of the issues around peat, so I’m very keen to find a good quality (and hopefully good value) brand which will be as good for my plants as it is for the environment.
So I recently gave the first New Horizon bag a try – the All Plant version – for some pots of bulbs and for sowing some early seeds**. In contrast to the previous variety of peat-free compost I tried, this stuff is lovely and soft, it’s dark in colour and nice to work with – I would have a hard time distinguishing it from ordinary compost containing peat. So, first impressions are good.
I will report back a little later in the season once I’ve raised some seeds and used it for containers but I’m expecting good things and I’m looking forward to trying the veggie version too. I recently had a conversation on The Scottish Garden Podcast with Ken Cox, who was quite forthright with his views on peat and how it may not be the black-and-white issue it’s portrayed in the media. I found his views really interesting and I do think it’s sensible for gardeners to do their bit in avoiding the use of peat where there’s a suitable substitute. So I’m already hoping these are products I’ll be able to use again.
*This isn’t a sponsored post or anything – I was simply offered the chance to try some of this compost, so I took it! I hope it’s interesting for others to read about my experiences of this new product.
**So what have I sown so far in 2020? Not much, as it’s still only January! But I’ve started a couple of varieties of sweet peas and I also wanted to get a good early start on some snapdragons, which need a long growing season I believe. I’ve also fired up the propagator and popped in some Verbena bonariensis (I want loads more of this in my front garden!) and some Stipa tenuissima, which is great for pots and borders too.
Little green shoots are appearing – but they’re too early.
Hellebores are emerging, the witch hazel is blooming and we even have a couple of snowdrops almost fully out in the front garden. It’s SpringWinter – not cold enough to be properly winter but not light enough to be properly spring. Also known – on Instagram at least – as #thatwinterspringthing.
The mild weather and green shoots are not unwelcome – in fact they’re a wonderful reminder of what’s to come. I just wonder if we’re being lulled into a false sense of security, only to be shocked back into the depths of winter by a lengthy icy blast…
In any case there’s not much going on in the garden just yet, and I’m glad of the time to plan ahead for the coming season. The main projects for this year will be:
the white border in the front garden – I’m redesigning one side of the front garden as it’s currently looking the most bare and in need of rejuvenation. I want to drastically increase the planting and hopefully stick to a mainly white theme, as it’s partly in shade and its backdrop is much larger trees and bushes within the wooded area next door. The plan is for some lush green/white planting which will lift the whole area during spring/summer
planting and sorting the area round the chicken coop – this area needs replanting after we switched the smaller chicken run for a much larger, covered run. The grass needs fixed and there’s plenty of room at the front of the coop for some new hen-friendly plants
growing/selling plants from the Secret Garden – this project began last year when I sold the surplus plants I’d grown for my own garden. I put the extras onto Facebook Marketplace and they were snapped up by quite a few local folk looking to support a small independent nursery. I got the best buzz from growing healthy plants for others to enjoy so I definitely want to repeat the experience this year! (The Secret Garden is so-called because it’s the space I have for raised beds and greenhouse behind a rather unobtrusive-looking door at the bottom corner of the garden.)
So the planning and designing is getting into full swing – I’m researching, drawing, reading and checking my seed stocks to get ready for what is likely to be a busy growing season.
This preparation includes testing out a couple of online drawing/design tools alongside the online systems I already use. I use a range of different tools for different things – Evernote for clipping and saving articles, photos and plant information; Google Drive for plants/seeds spreadsheets and keeping track of budgets; Microsoft OneNote for drawing and saving designs. I’m also currently trying the Suttons veg planner tool, which will hopefully help me to plan my fruit/veg growing for this year, as well as my cut flower bed. And I’ve downloaded an app for my laptop called Bamboo Paper which also allows me to draw and create ‘mood board’ style notebooks.
Designing the front ‘white’ border with OneNote. It helps if you do this with wine 🙂
I did contemplate starting an actual physical notebook as a garden journal, and using a real-life pen and ink…but for some reason I seem to get on fine with the online methods. I think in fact I’m more likely to access these electronic records and keep them updated than a diary-style physical notebook, as lovely as it is to hold and treasure a well-thumbed, dog-eared notebook…
Oh and one more goal which I hope to achieve imminently – sitting two more RHS Level 2 exams in February. I’ve already been hitting the books again to swot up on plant biology and soil nutrition. Wish me luck!
This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately.
I’ve noticed more ladybirds than ever in my garden this year. They’ve popped up all over the place – in pots, under the bin lids, on doorframes, in the house, and – thankfully – on my plants, presumably feasting on any pests which would dare to come their way. It’s no coincidence that I’ve barely noticed a single greenfly since the spring.
They seemed particularly happy perching in and around the sunflower heads, especially the slightly dried-and-curled-up faded flowers which must give them plenty of nooks and crannies in which to hide.
They also – strangely – took to congregating in the multiple hose head thing which I installed to try and keep the plants watered while we were on holiday. I’ve no idea why this was an attractive place to gather, but each time I looked in there were at least half a dozen piled into it.
So, as the season has changed and the temperature’s dropped, I’ve been asking myself what’s going to happen to the ladybirds now? Many of them still seemed to be hiding out in my faded sunflowers, and I needed to cut these down – but I didn’t want to disturb them or compost their winter hideaway. And I don’t have a bug hotel in my garden which I could encourage them to populate instead.
Apparently they do hibernate for the winter in various types of sheltered spots – tree bark, leaf litter etc. They like crevices, leaves, bark, often low down. So, having spent some time clearing the raised beds today, I did cut down the sunflowers, but took the heads of the flowers off first with a short section of stem and have piled them, and their little ladybird occupants, in a sheltered corner. Hopefully the ladybirds will make themselves cosy there for the winter or can crawl away to the many trees and piles of leaves nearby which might make a more suitable winter holiday home.
I certainly hope they will wake up and return in the spring – it’s been a real joy to have a loveliness of ladybirds sharing my garden this year.
It seems I have a late summer garden – there’s more colour on show in September than there has been during the rest of the year.
The front garden is currently showing off all its colours – yellows, pinks, peachy dahlias and flashes of reds from the crocosmia, roses and even a few second-flowering geums. I haven’t really planned a late summer garden, but each season I have been adding layers of colour and texture so there’s as much interest throughout the year as possible. It looks like I’ve certainly been attracted to late season plants!
I do love my dahlias, of course, and they’re really hitting their stride at the moment. I’m also really enjoying the echinaceas which are flourishing, the rudbeckias (still small, only sown this year) and the cosmos, which is a great gap filler. I bought a couple of sedums several weeks ago and love to see the bees still busy around these flowers as they deepen in colour each day. These are all being propped up by some of the shrubs and plants which may have finished flowering but are still providing essential structure and mass – the two cotinus, the damask rose, teasels and eryngium for example, whose spiky texture is also providing soft browns and purples.
Some of my front garden plants have had a second wind, most likely due to the very warm summer we’ve had. The geums I’ve already mentioned – these first bloomed in May I think and are still popping out a few flowers! The hot pink salvia is coming out again for another throw, along with the geranium ‘Lace Time’ with its pretty veined pink flowers.
But the stand-out repeat flowerer has to be the rose ‘Lady Marmalade’. I might be wrong, but I think she’s currently in flower for the third time – and still looking beautiful.
It’s lovely, as the summer slips away and the temperature starts to fall, that the hot colours are still warming up the garden. I feel a bit sad about the season changing – I really loved the hot weather – but I can still enjoy the summer blooms. Plus now is the time to collect seed, take cuttings and begin thinking about next year. I know – it’s only September! – but I’m already thinking of what I want to grow and/or sell in the Secret Garden next spring and what I will add to the borders, front and back, to keep building those layers of colour, texture and foliage.
The hit list for next year includes more Stachys byzantina for its gorgeous soft leaves and rich pink flowers; more Verbena bonariensis as it’s so bee-friendly, the usual cosmos, sweet peas and aquilegia, and a plan for some new plants – Sanguisorba (inspired by a recent visit to Cambo’s walled garden) and Cerinthe major (which I loved at Chelsea). I’ll also be sowing some Stipa tenuissima as I want to add some more soft grasses and I just love the texture and movement of this feathery grass.
Sanguisorba and Stipa tenuissima in the beautiful perennial borders at Cambo
And that’s just a small selection of the seed packets I currently have spread out across my dining room table! There will be a lull around November/December but between now and next spring there’s a lot of sowing and growing to do. If you want me, I’ll be in the greenhouse…
This is one of the highlights of my gardening year – Dundee’s Flower and Food Festival.
I go every year and really enjoy being in the midst of the best of what our area has to offer in terms of plants, produce and food. There are displays of beautiful plants and flowers, from amateurs, dedicated growers and local businesses. Not to mention the rows of fruit and veg and the amazing giant leeks, carrots and cabbages. It feels like an exhibition built on the hours of love and joy which people have put into growing their favourite things.
I have a new-found appreciation for the people who enter these competitions. You can’t accidentally grow three petal-perfect chrysanthemums or dahlias. It’s impossible to grow a leek the size of a plank without putting in a great deal of time and effort to make it as large and perfect as it can be. Maybe someday when I have more experience, and a great deal more time, I’ll consider trying my hand at a competition bloom, but for now I think I’ll continue to enjoy the flowers and veg I grow on my windowsill or on my plate…
Dahlia heaven at the Flower and Food Festival – so many beautiful blooms on display as part of the Scottish Dahlia and Chrysanthemum Society’s annual competition.
I was also very taken with some of the indoor plants on display – especially this frilly variety of coleus and these gorgeous swirly begonias.
The fruit and veg looked so healthy and colourful – you can tell the people who produced them just love growing! #veggiegoals
This summer I have been learning a few lessons. Not the book-reading kind – I’ve taken a break from horticulture studies as I decided that it would be madness to add this to the summer agenda of school holidays, parenting, working, enjoying the heatwave and almost constant watering. I plan to resume studies in September (seems like a good ‘new-term’ kind of time to do it) but there have been plenty of other things to learn on a more practical level during the past few weeks:
1. I CAN have a nursery in my back garden. This is number one because it’s been the most exciting and satisfying lesson of recent weeks. For quite a while I’ve dreamed of having my own nursery – growing the kind of plants I love to sell to others – and I’ve take a big step forward by simply doing it. I had quite a large number of surplus perennials and annuals which I had grown for planting in the front garden. So I started a Facebook page, listed a few plants on FB Marketplace – and people actually wanted to buy them!
I’ve called this a micro-nursery because it really is tiny – both in size and in stock availability – compared to a proper commercial nursery anyway! It’s very small-scale and I have not made a huge amount of money – perhaps enough to re-invest in some plants and seeds for next year. But it has been worth it for the experience of producing plants for others, learning how to market them and deal with customers and moving towards my dream of owning a little independent nursery growing wonderful perennials, annuals, herbs and shrubs suitable for Scottish gardens. In fact, I suddenly realised that not only moving towards it but I’m actually doing my dream – the Secret Garden micro-nursery is my own little corner of the earth for doing just that. It may be small, and I may not make a living from it just now – or ever – but I’m doing it! Having dipped my toe in the water this summer, so to speak, I’m excited to see how I can take it forward. I am already planning ahead for next year: which plants to grow again and which were not successful or less popular; better ways to market the business, how to grow and expand via social media…. I have so many ideas for how to keep going and growing – and I’m so glad I’ve taken the first step.
2. Echinaceas are tricky to grow from seed.
When they do succeed and flower in the garden they are gorgeous and are currently providing a fantastic pop of pink in my front border. But I have been trying since early spring to grow the intriguing looking variety ‘Double Decker’ and this is the result…
Barely an inch of growth for the entire season. I don’t know if it’s the seed, the soil, the conditions, or my lack of faith. But those echinaceas are not going to grow into beautiful, flowering plants. Mainly because I’ve composted them.
3. Don’t grow cucamelons too close together.
This was a difficult lesson to learn, resulting in me recruiting my eldest daughter to help me untangle about 20 young cucamelon seedlings which had started to twine around each other as well as other plants in the greenhouse. We spent some time separating the cucamelons’ delicate tendrils, trying not to damage them. Finally we got them all apart, so I potted up the ones I wanted to grow on, supporting them with bamboo canes. I also potted a few more into a hanging basket, to see if they’ll grow as successfully hanging down. However I was still left with quite a number of plants which no-one showed any interest in buying (I guess my local customers are not as interested as I am in experimental or exotic fruit/veg!) so I had to compost these too. Which leads me to the next lesson…
3. Don’t sow too many seeds!
I do this Every. Single. Year. and tell myself I don’t care – I just want loads of plants!
But inevitably there are Too Many Plants. So I have to spend more time and effort potting on, watering and resisting throwing them away because I hate getting rid of potential plants. However they do end up going in the compost as I have no room or they’re not selling or become too poor quality to sell. If I want to raise more plants to sell I must be more efficient with space, materials and my time. So – I will sow more sensibly next year. I will sow more sensibly next year. I will sow more sensibly next year… I will…
4. Don’t dig – and don’t do green manure
I wanted to have a no-dig policy this year…but then I also decided it would be a good idea to sow green manure. But these two things are not entirely compatible. Yes, I think it is possible to do both – but I ended up doing neither very well. The green manure grew well in some beds, but not so well in others, at least giving me an indication of the soil quality in each one. But in the spring I then had to cut down and either remove or dig in the plants. I tried to remove the majority of the largest plants, but eventually ended up digging over most of the soil, which still had shoots and roots left in them. This is, of course, what you are supposed to do with green manure – but didn’t comply with the no-dig theory! This autumn I will try to mulch the beds and may well cover some over if they are bare. I don’t tend to grow many winter crops so I think I will mulch, cover and officially begin my no-dig policy next spring.
5. It’s all about layers
The front garden is looking well – probably deserves its own separate post to update on how it’s developing – but I still see lots of gaps. I can see bare soil and smaller-than-they-should-be plants. When I visit other gardens, I notice the fullness of the planting, how each plant blends together and merges to create a whole effect. I think I am moving towards this, but it’s taking time. And that’s ok. I’m learning that I can’t achieve this look in one growing season, unless I empty the bank account at the local garden centre (not an option, according to my husband). But I appreciate that this year there’s an extra layer that wasn’t there last year. And next year there will be another and then another, until I’ve got the overflowing herbaceous border that I can see in my mind’s eye! I’m playing the long game – and that’s good, because I’m really enjoying it.
I’m a quick-fix, instant-gratification type of person, so my growing love of the garden has brought with it an appreciation for taking things a bit slower. For taking the long view and planning ahead for the same season, the next season, the next year, the next few years…
Very few aspects of gardening are instant. You can buy a fully grown plant in a pot and have instant colour. Buy a few of them and you’ve got instant impact. But like many ‘instant’ things in life, the satisfaction is fleeting.
I’m learning to love the long game. I have no choice, really, as I don’t have the budget for an instant garden! But even if I did, I think I would still choose to plan and sow, make careful selections and take the time to move and shape things over the course of days, weeks and months.
Take delphiniums for example. I have sown many of these this year, some to share and sell, others will hopefully find a home in my garden, but I am taking the time to grow these in pots until they’re large and healthy and can withstand the assaults of the various snails and slugs patrolling my front garden. It’s true, even large plants can be decimated by the jaws of a hungry gastropod, but the larger ones stand a better chance of survival. As an experiment, I planted out a few young delphiniums into the front border and in a matter of days – as I suspected – they’d been torn to shreds.
Delphiniums…worth waiting for (as this bee will testify)
This border itself is another example. In many ways I wish I could blow the bank account and buy dozens of plants to fill the bare soil still showing in the front…and yet by sowing and propagating, along with some careful bargain-spotting at plant sales and garden centres, I’ve managed to gradually fill gaps in around two thirds of the garden so far. I like seeing it take shape gradually, and it gives me time to pause and redesign areas which aren’t working, or try new ideas when I’m inspired by a photo or magazine article.
In that very border are two mature philadelphus shrubs. Last autumn I pruned them hard – knowing this would mean no flowering for at least a year. They had flowered poorly the previous summer anyway and were congested and overgrown. So I played the long game – removing most of the older stems and branches to leave a healthy selection of wood with a far better structure. I’ve missed the flowers but hopefully next year I’ll find out if my hard work has paid off and be rewarded with a much healthier and better flowering plant.
The front border is filling up slowly but surely…
My studies are part of my long-term plans too. Much as I would like to, I can’t train in horticulture full-time – work and family commitments demand my time and ensure an income. But I can take little steps forward – studying for half an hour each morning, taking a couple of exams every few months…inching forward towards a qualification which might come in useful, or might simply make me a better gardener. Either way, I’m enjoying the process and I know that the theoretical learning is going hand in hand with what I’m practicing over time in my own garden.
This week I sowed biennials – again, another long wait to see how they’ll turn out. Biennial plants flower the season after sowing, so the foxgloves and hesperis seeds I’ve sown now won’t flower until next spring and will need cared for in the greenhouse during autumn and winter. But it will be worth it when they’re finally planted out in the garden, proving colour and scent and encouraging insects and wildlife.
The teasels I sowed at the end of last summer are making an appearance now
So yes, even though ‘instant’ gardening can be a good thing, playing the long game is better for me – it slows me down and asks me to think and plan and anticipate what’s to come. When many other aspects of my life seem to be whizzing past at speed, I’m grateful for the garden, which slows me down and helps me to appreciate what I have in front of me.