How does your garden grow?

I'm on a voyage of discovery in my first garden.
It's mostly about the veggies at the moment but I'm also discovering lots about flowers and other plants - quite often the hard way and always on a very tight budget.
But this blog is not just about my garden, it's about all the things I see and discover in Sussex and beyond and I would love to hear from you too.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Sussex in the snow

Snowed in

After an overnight stay in a B&B, I finally struggled home in the snow. It took me four hours to complete a train journey which normally takes 1hr 45mins.
My resourceful other half braved blizzard conditions in our new-to-us car to collect me from the station but we were forced to abandon it in a neighbouring office car park - our drive is too steep to negotiate right now.
This morning I awoke to 14ins (36cm) of snow. The veg patch is completely buried - the only indication of its existence is the rabbit fence around the edge.
The bird feeder on the shed is empty - I can't even reach it - so I've scraped away the snow and put out two trays of food near the back door. So far the birds have either not noticed it or have not been brave enough to venture that close.
I had been due to go to an important meeting today in Guildford and was prepared to struggle to get there, but with the car snowed in and the roads blocked, I have little chance of even reaching the station, six miles away.
My new plan for today is to venture outside with my new camera.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lace bugs on pieris japonica

After admiring my mother's pieris japonica shrub, I was kindly donated one which appeared to be suffering from an unidentified pest.
I know several of the shrubs from a neighbouring garden had to be removed with a similar problem. The leaves turn black and blotchy underneath and eventually the whole plant is affected.
Trawling the internet, I found a number of sites saying this type of pieris is susceptible to andromeda lace bugs.
The bugs aren't visible to the naked eye so I took a close up picture of some dead bugs on my shrub and magnified it in Photoshop (left). It more or less confirmed my suspicions.
I found a really useful piece on the Conneticut University website about the bugs which explains aggravating causes and treatment.
I am, however, wondering whether to look a gift horse in the mouth on this occasion and turn down the free plant for my garden in case the bugs could spread to other things.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Controlling bamboo

Today is the first dry day in a while and my only day off work this week so I'm grabbing the opportunity to cut back the bamboo which is taking over the corner of my garden and next door's hedge.
When we arrived a few months ago, it provided a useful screen for the compost heap and gave us a good supply of canes to use around the garden but it is so vigorous, I have not spent enough time trying to contain it and now our neighbour's hedge is starting to suffer.
I read a guide to controlling bamboo which recommends cutting into the soil with a straight bladed shovel, therefore severing the sprawling shoots to stop it from spreading.
Using this method, it says, this year's shoots should die off but previous year's growth could survive so the roots should be dug out.
In my case, I doubt digging around the plant would be successful because the shoots are large and too close to the hedge. The best plan, I think, is to chop it down, dig it out and put something else in its place.
I thought the cutting down part would be a simple task, but I'm taking time out to write this because I am less than half way through and already aching.
I'm dreading digging up the roots. Perhaps that's a job for another day.
Some of the foliage is over 10ft high so I should have a fair number of canes to store in the shed ready for the spring.
Anyway... tea break over... back to the garden.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

BBC Sussex: Gardening phone-in

You can listen to today's Dig It gardening phone-in programme on i-Player. Host Joe Talbot fields questions for Steve Bradley and tree expert Geoff Peach, who explains to one caller why her 12-year-old magnolia has never flowered.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Autumn colour

The autumn leaves are putting on a spectacular show this year. Too bad that some visitor gardens are due to close for the winter this weekend.
In the valley beyond our hedge I can see cherry, tupelo and acer, among others, turning seemingly unnatural shades of purple, red, orange and yellow. There are many other colourful trees, although I don't know all their proper names.
Even my favourite, the swamp cypress, which I had wrongly assumed to be evergreen, is now turning brown. Upon further investigation, I have learned that it is one of only a few deciduous conifers found growing in Britain. It's good to know but I'm not sure how that information is ever going to be useful to me unless it comes up in a quiz.
Meanwhile, just so I don't spend my whole time gazing up at the trees, the cyclamen are out too, providing a colourful carpet in the woodland gardens. This noticable change in the seasons has got me thinking about what I need to be doing in my own plot before winter sets in.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Fruit trees: Pleaching to the converted

Until a few weeks ago I had dispelled the idea of growing fruit in my garden.
Soft fruit would get picked off by birds and mice and there simply isn't enough room for an apple or pear tree... or is there?
On a recent visit to the Kent Life Museum near Maidstone I noticed their farmhouse garden had a low step-over hedge of dwarf apple trees, which set me thinking about my own garden.
I had already learned about pleaching and espalier from my in-house experts and wondered if dwarf trees could be trained between the posts that support a railway sleeper retaining wall.
I consulted my wiser and green-fingered other half and, to my delight, he agreed it would be a fine idea.
An early visit to a nursery taught me that there are grades of root stock which determine the size of the tree. The M27, I have learned, is not just the motorway running from Sussex to Hampshire, it is also the most dwarfing of apple rootstocks and grows to about 2 metres. It might also come as no surprise to learn that the M25, on the other hand, is very vigorous and produces a large tree.
As when driving, I think I'll avoid the M25 for now.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Harlequin ladybird invasion

Thankfully, my swarming ladybirds have almost gone and many who managed to sneak into the porch while the door was open have taken up residence in the corner above my back door.
I sent my photos to the UK Ladybird Survey who identified the bugs as the invasive harlequin species.
Helen Roy at the UK Ladybird Survey said: "We do not recommend killing any ladybirds and although this is partly because of the risk of native species being misidentified as harlequins, also any that are killed will unfortunately make very little difference to the population."
Ms Roy urged me to record the sightings and upload photos using the survey's online forms. Apparently the invasive species has been found as far north as Orkney but high numbers found in
Battersea, Clapham and Chelsea suggest some could have arrived via Eurostar or with vegetables sold at Covent Garden.
According to the survey website, harlequins have been known to damage late summer ripening fruit, such as pears, and get among grape harvests, tainting the wine that is produced.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Ladybird land

Oh my goodness! Has anyone else got thousands of ladybirds in their garden?
I am starting to become concerned, especially after finding stories about swarming ladybirds from previous years. There certainly aren't as many as in the BBC report about Norfolk last year but the weather is warm so I guess the numbers could still increase.
I have emailed the UK Ladybird Survey to find out if they are interested in the goings on here.
I have also downloaded their ladybird identification sheet to see whether any of the bugs are the invasive harlequin variety but it's pretty difficult to tell.
I've just been out in the garden to take photos and try and have a closer look at which species are out there but after opening the door for just a few seconds, I now have dozens of them in the house.
They are also landing on me all the time and I ended up coming back inside because I was spending the whole time picking them off.
I just hope it doesn't get worse - it's making me itch!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Tidying up the vegetable patch

With all the rain and cold weather recently, I have been viewing my vegetable patch mainly from the comfort of my living room.
Peering through the window, I could see that the weeds were thriving and the lettuces were starting to turn brown.
Thanks to a change in the weather today, I managed to blitz the plot, pulling out all the weeds and tired looking plants. I thinned out the remaining lettuces, harvesting two - one for me and one for my neighbour, and pulled out some of the spinach that had turned yellow.
I am still picking beans off the dwarf French bean plants, although the smaller fruits are starting to wither. I guess, after all their success, they are finally to come to the end of their season.
While I was tidying up, I also scoured the plants for slugs and snails, and whenever I found one, I had fun seeing how far I could fling it across the garden.
Most ended up beyond the shed.
I also pulled my first beetroot from the ground today, making room for the others to grow. The next task is to find out the best way to use or preserve them.
There are still lots of ladybirds in the garden - I assume it's a result of the warm weather because they seem to be settling on the sunny side of the house.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Swarming ladybirds

Ladybirds are a cherished friend of the gardener - they munch the greenflies and blackflies that wreck our crops.
I am very lucky in my new garden because I have plenty of ladybirds of all varieties so my salad crops have been bug free.
However, in the last week or so, I have noticed a marked increase in the number of ladybirds, with many flying into the house.
With a little research on the internet, I have read that they can "swarm" in the autumn.
Last August, ITN reported that millions of the insects swarmed in Somerset and Norfolk, where cars were covered in a "thick carpet" of ladybirds.
As it is already October, I'm hoping I won't have a ladybug plague of my own but I'm intrigued to know what's going on.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Wild gardens and rabbit-proof fences

When we first arrived at the new house, the garden was high with grasses and wild flowers. Consequently, it was a popular spot for butterflies, grasshoppers and rabbits.
While the butterflies are an absolute joy so see, the rabbits are a nuisance, scraping away the lawn and pooping everywhere, and with the first salad crops starting to emerge, I was concerned they might ruin those too.
One of the first tasks was to cut the grass (leaving a corner as a wild garden for the butterflies and insects), which seemed to discourage some of the less persistent bunnies.
But one in particular just wouldn't hop off. Banging on the window (me, not the rabbit) made no difference, and even when I ran outside, it would just hop beyond the back gate and peer back at me.
As unsightly as chicken and rabbit fences are, I had little choice but to protect my veg patch. Luckily I was donated some used chicken wire, which was already attached to fence posts (albeit broken ones) and, with the loan of a sledgehammer and some canny positioning of bamboo canes, I managed to hammer a rickety-looking fence around the vegetable patch.
To make sure the blighters didn't dig their way in, I pinned down the wire with tent pegs and laid old bricks around the edge. The only way those bunnies are getting in now is by pole vaulting.
The end result doesn't look the best, but it will suffice until I can decide on a better solution when I dig my additional vegetable beds.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Garden birds: making new friends

I love little birds - the smaller and noisier, the better.
It's incredible how a little wren, as tiny as it is, can make such a loud sound.
One of the most exciting things about my garden is the birds. The southern perimeter is surrounded with Rhododendron hedge where the birds love to hide.
Already I have seen a young green woodpecker and a kestrel on my lawn - although not at the same time. I suspect the kestrel is on the look out for one of the mice which live at the end of the garden.
Other species I have seen include wrens, great tits, blue tits, chaffinches, song thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows, goldfinches and my very own robin, whose favourite spot is on the gable end of my shed.
In nearby woodland I have also seen jays, long-tailed tits and buzzards.
As my vegetables began to emerge, the great tits in particular could be seen hopping up and down the rows of rocket and mixed leaf salad, picking off the bugs and flies.
To make the garden more bird friendly, I bought a terracotta dish and filled it to make a bird bath and put out a few crumbs but I quickly abandoned putting any food out because it seemed to attract magpies. Instead I have bought a half coconut shell packed with seeds which I will hang from the eaves of the house (just as soon as I can borrow a ladder).

Saturday, 31 July 2010

No tools? No problem

Luckily my new garden came equipped with a shed, but the only tool I had to keep in there was a lonely hand trowel.
Armed with my little trowel and a borrowed fork, I managed to tackle the most pressing task of sowing some vegetable seeds but, with money tight, I had to find other ways of getting some tools.
My great-grandfather bequeathed his ancient but comprehensive tool collection to my father some years ago and, while they look more like the kind of things you find in museums, many are still perfectly good. Thanks to "Pop" I now have my own fork, a dutch hoe, a hand fork and another trowel.
While my salad crops are coming up nicely, I know that next year I want to grow a much wider variety of vegetables so I'm considering putting in another two beds and rotating the crops between them each year.
But to dig more beds, I really will need a spade, and for this I will need to part with some cash. But how can I choose?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Where to begin?

I may never have had a garden until now but my grandparents gave me an amazing insight into gardening, especially growing vegetables.
Beyond the back gate of their modest terraced cottage lay a sizeable plot of land where they grew everything imaginable - marrows and pumpkins, strawberries and raspberries, beans and peas - even neatly trained brambles for blackberries. There were apple and pear trees and row upon row of carrots, parsnips, cauliflower and potatoes. In the sheds were chickens and geese and there was usually a nervous-looking sheep lurking in a fenced off area at the end of the plot.
I spent much of my summer holidays helping my grandmother in her vegetable garden and always dreamed of having one of my own.
Now the dream is finally becoming a reality, but it's difficult to know where to begin.

When I arrived just a few weeks ago, there was already a raised bed installed on one side of my garden, brimming with overgrown, unharvested crops including chard, onions and potatoes. There was also a well-rotted compost heap and a good supply of bamboo growing in the corner behind the shed.
With a borrowed fork, I dug out most of the crops from the bed but left in some of the potatoes, transferring the rest into tubs which I put onto the patio area outside my back door.
But by late July, my options of what to grow were somewhat limited so I wasted no time in double digging the bed (still with only a fork), mixing some compost deep in the soil before sowing a selection of salad crops, beetroot, onions and a few dwarf french beans. I bought the seeds from Wilko for just under a fiver.