Grow, strange seedlings, grow!

I tweeted back in September about the arrival of my Welwitschia mirabilis seeds. I planted these in a mix of standard compost cut heavily with vermiculate to improve drainage, planted the seeds, then dusted the surface with sulphur powder to help prevent fungal damping off. This is a big problem in cultivation, and in the Namibian desert, where these plants grow.

DSCN4134Back from 10 days in Scotland (visits to Fingal’s Cave and the amazing Torosay gardens), and and exciting discovery – while we were away two of those six seeds have germinated.

Less pleasing was the greenfly infestation! I’m sure they are not a natural pest in the Namibian desert. The seedlings are delicate, so I gently removed the aphids one at a time with a paintbrush. And then again the next day. And the day after.

Now is the tricky time when fungal infection can easily kill the seedlings. I’m hoping careful watering from the base and my soil mix will keep them alive until the grow their first  and only two adult leaves, when they become much hardier plants. Time will tell.


Red Amaryllis needs a good home

DSCN3962It took four years from seed to flower, but it was worth the wait.

This is one of three plants I grew from seed, the other two have yet to flower. Everything I read said that the plants rarely breed true, but this one has, with the same fantastic big red blooms of the parent.

So now it needs a home. Perhaps yours? Let me know.

Amaryllis (properly called Hippastrum) are easy to grow house plants that like lots of light but not too much direct sun. Treat them well and they will bloom every year, Mature bulbs have four flowers on each spike, and produce two or three spikes per bulb.


Amaryllis Extravaganza! Iris Surprise!


That gap between early and late spring flowering is over and the whole garden is now going mad with growth from veg to flowers, and the clover in the lawn. It was more of a pause for breath really. The spuds will soon be flowering, which means the new earlies will be ready for digging up soon. Fresh new potatoes are the best!





I’ve been feeding a lot more this year than before. It’s not only made a difference in the number of flowers – that clematis outside the kitchen door is like a waterfull of flowers – it has also made a big difference to colour intensity and length of flowering. The yellow iris have been out for a week and far more vibrant than the pale, near-white things we had last year.




Two really exciting flowers have bloomed – the first is the amaryllis in the conservatory. Flowering is an lovely annual event, the spectacular crimson blooms are as big as my hand. This year has been very special. Three years ago the main bulb grew two off-shoots and for the first time this year they too have flowered. It is truly amazing.

I’m also excited because one of the three seedling plants I grew from this one is about to flower for the first time too – more on that later.



The surprises weren’t over because an old bit of iris I dug up and moved a few years back also flowered for the first time. Not only is the flower spike over 4 feet high, it is a wonderful two-tone purple and white. (The petal edges as the flowers emerge are almost black.) Even after five years in the house the garden is still producing surprises, showing me plants I never knew were there.


Growing plants from cuttings and seeds, especially bulbs, is a slow process. Gardening teaches you to be patient, and to sometimes be disappointed. But the successes – gosh, they are worth the wait.


Salsify – pretty, and pretty delicious

DSCN3937We grew some salsify last year for the first time, and yummy it was too. Some people thing it tastes a  little of oysters, hence its other name – oyster plant. I think it’s a more savoury alternative to parnsip, which is too sweet for some people.

Like other root veg it’s splendidly versatile – chop it up for stews and casserole, roast it, slice it thin and saute in butter – or mash it. There are some more ambitious recipes here.

We like to grow as much as we can from saved seeds. Not only does it keep costs down, if you take seeds from the best plants you’ll be selecting the ones that thrive in your particular soil and climate.

DSCN3935Letting salsify flower was a nice surprise. It grows into an elegant, upright plant about four feet high – the picture above shows the ones we kept against our artichoke and rhubarb (and the bloody hedge). The flowers are lovely too, about 2″/5cm across.

I noticed the flowers are open nice and early in the morning, but soon after midday they are closed up tight again. Very punctual. Other flowers do similar things – that’s an idea, a flowering clock garden!

Lady Plott was as much taken with salsify flowers as I was. She suggested we put some in the flower bed. Vegetables in the flower bed? For once I’m inclined to agree. Strornary!



The Green Hinge

DSCN3924Over the last couple of weeks the spring flowers have faded and although the garden is less colourful it is very green and surging with life. Including greenfly. I’ve resorted to my old trick of putting the seedlings and cuttings outside on warm days to get rid of the little pests. I’ve no idea if they just don’t like being outside or if something comes and eats them. Either way, it’s a good thing.

DSCN3923Mostly everything is green and growing – like our grapevine. That green hinge of summer is not so much creaking open as yawning wide. Now in it’s third full year we’re starting to understand how to treat the vine to get the best crop. It’s a very heavy cropper, but the fruit tends to fungal rot as the bunches are so tight – typical of a dessert grape. Our vine is a Black Hamburg, and is a cutting from the famous Hampton Court vine. This year we’re going to thin the grapes twice, once when very small, then again after a month. Although we’ll get less grapes per bunch they should be bigger, and far more will survive to be eaten..

DSCN3925There are still a few flowers – like this cactus which always produces a vivid ring of coral-pink flowers this time of year.

DSCN3926Everything is really early this year, with the downside that flowers like daffodils have not lasted very long in the warmth. On the other hand plants like hibiscus are already in leaf, and my tree ferns, which are NEVER showing signs of life until mid-May are already unfurling their croziers.


Awesome April

The past week has been amazing, the warm sunny weather has brought out so many flowers I can’t photograph them all. Everything is so early this year – potatoes and rhubarb are up, artichoke heads are already on the plant, even the asparagus is shooting. (Still optimistic I’ll be alive when the bloody things are ready to crop). In the greenhouse the grape is in leaf and the first flowers are forming.


Out in the garden the winter clematis is the most astonishing mass of blooms, the dense creamy scent invigorating and almost too strong. A truly gorgeous aroma.


Daffodils are all over the place, a dozen different varietiesDSCN3914DSCN3916


For contrast, some bright red pansies.



DSCN3918In the conservatory the pitcher plant is in bloom. These are strange flowers, with a fat pale cushion-like pad nestling between the pendulous meat-red petals. An ‘interesting’ bloom because it’s scented, as Lady Plott tactically puts it, ‘Like cat wee‘. I expect it’s pollinated by flies. The pitchers themselves are very good at catching ants.

And finally, the horsetails are sporing. Horsetails (Equisetum) are the last remnants of a once-mighty group of plants that flourished for over 100 million years and formed a major part of the coal beds. Back in the day some species formed tress 30 meters high. Now there are only 15 or so species left on the planet.DSCN3911

Like ferns, horsetails reproduce with spores. Here you can see the  cone-like strobili that produce the spores, the green photosynthetic stems come later. They are coated in silica which makes them an excellent fine scourer for finishing wood and metal.

I keep my horsetails in a pot because once you have them, you have them. Rhizomes grow 2 or 3 meters down into the soil and are almost impossible to eradicate. This is the first year they have spored prolifically so maybe I’ll now get some. Life finds a way, so if they do I won;t mind too much. I’m rather fond of these unassuming plants, last in a line dating back a third of a billion years.


Spring Surprises

DSCN3904Spring is full of surprises and things to look forward to in the garden. One unexpected surprise was that the primroses I grew from seed last year and planted in the scruffy bit at the bottom to naturalise have all turned out to be cowslips.

The surprise last year was that the seeds came up, because I actually sowed them the spring of the year before that (2013). They obstinately refused to germinate, the seed tray ended up at the back of the greenhouse shelves, and a full year later up they came.

I’m discovering wildflower seeds can be surprisingly difficult to germinate. Many of them need a period of cold damp to start germination. You can do this artificially in a process called stratification, or do it my way and leave them in the greenhouse for an entire year.

DSCN3905A less pleasant surprise was some little skarsket has bitten the heads off the snakeshead fritillaryies by the kitchen door. I can be sanguine about flower loss on things like primulas because they just grow another bunch, but the snakeheads, like tulips and daffs, only have one flower a year. Bugrit, as the great man would have said.

Fortunately I have planted plenty more, so here’s a picture of another small clump, almost ready to come out. Fritillaryies are easy to grow and establish fast. You do have to watch out for the bright scarlet lilly beetles though – another spring surprise I have my beady eye open for.


I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told…

Ulysses Plot was thinking about his book. This meant walking around in the garden and staring at plants. The sunflowers were doing well, a few leaves had been nibbled by snails but he could live with that. The beans were in a similar state, a few shiny slug trails crossed the lower leaves, nothing drastic. A few minutes wandering brought him to the scruffy end of the garden, past the compost bins and the bramble hedge. Somewhere along the way he’d picked up a bamboo stake and he idly swished at the nettles, knocking the tops off.

I should get some gloves on and pull them up, he thought. He’d do it later, this was writing time, even if, to an outsider, it looked like nothing more than a middle-aged man wandering round in the garden.

Right, back to work, Ulysses told himself, tucked the cane under his arm like a sergeant’s baton, and marched back to the house.

The march, the cane – all at once he was back in the USA, reliving the most miserable year of his life, when he had been seconded to the American army. Lonely, out of place, young and eager to please, he was the Limey, the one who played cricket instead of baseball, and who drank his beer warm. He’d learned a lot, and most people were friendly, but one drill instructor had gone out of his way to make his life an absolute misery. What was his name? Hareman… Cartman, something like that. Came to a sticky end, Ulysses recalled. Pushed his men too far.

Ulysses glanced at the vegetable beds and stopped, rooted to the spot with horror. Where was the broccoli? The broccoli he had carefully grown from seed in the greenhouse and planted out only yesterday. It was gone, every single plant. Apart from a few leaf scraps and nibbled-down stumps all he could see was bare earth – bare earth and slug trails. Ulysses ground his teeth. ‘Bloody slugs,’ he seethed. He felt his heart grow cold, murderous cold. You should never push a man too far.

An hour later more broccoli had been planted (you should always have reserves), the beer traps were set (never send in troops without support). Ulysses remembered his training.

The best thing is always to do something. Once again Ulysses’ mind drifted back to America and the Drill Sergeant’s forced marches and the scatological jodys, or marching calls, he used.

Sound off! 1,2
Sound off! 3,4  

Ulysses decided to make up his own:

I don’t know, but I’ve been told,
Gardening’s good as you grow old. 

Pulling weeds and bending low,
Helps the aging process slow. 

Slugs are best killed when they’re runts,
Before they grow to greedy-

‘What are you doing, Ulysses?’ Philomena asked.

Ulysses half jumped out of his boots. How did she do that? His wife could move as silently as a panther. ‘Nothing, dear, nothing. Just having a think. You know, stories and stuff.’

Philly looked him up and down. ‘Good. I was worried you’d gone a bit..’ She twirled her finger beside her head. ‘You know.’

‘No more than usual. Look at the bloody broccoli! Slugs had the lot.’

‘They look fine.’

‘That’s the second lot. Contingency.’ Ulysses showed her the chewed down ruin of the first crop.

‘Well done, Lissy,’ Philly said. ‘Fancy a cuppa?’

‘Splendid idea! Any cake?’


So just where do you…?

Ulysses and Bertie were walking the late-winter garden. Frost lay on the ground, above them the overcast sky was a uniform grey.

Bertie looked at the bare earth and leafless twigs. He would have kicked through fallen leaves if Ulysses hadn’t swept every single one of them up. He sighed and his breath plumed in the air. ‘I hate the winter. It’s so dull and lifeless.’

‘Oh, I don’t know-‘

‘It’s like everything’s dead. I know it isn’t really, it’s just all this endless dull grey, it saps the juice out of you.’ Startled at his own imagery, Bertie glanced across at Ulysses, cheeks flushing in the cold air. He should have known better.

‘There’s plenty going on if-’

‘All this dead dark earth. The frost, the cold. It’s like a desert, a winter desert on a lonely world orbiting far from its sun.’

Startled, Ulysses stopped walking. He dug out his notebook and wrote a few hurried words. ‘It is?’

Bertie wandered on, hands stuffed in his pockets. ‘A dying world, where civilisations cling on underground, whole empires, faded glory, ancient technology half understood.’

Ulysses scribbled frantically. He looked down at his notebook rather guiltily, put it away and hurried after Bertie.

‘Bertie, the ground is bare because we’ve just put down the manure. ‘ Last weekend end Ulysses and Philly had worked their middle-aged backsides off barrowing two cubic yards of horse manure off the front drive. He still felt it in the backs of his legs. Ulysses showed Bertie the tips of the daffodil leaves, the low red peony buds, and delicate spring green shoots of clematis. ‘It’s a quiet time but there’s always plenty to do, and there’s always something going on. Half the time it’s out of sight. You just have to know it’s there and be patient. Prepare the ground.’


Back in the kitchen Ulysses put the kettle on. He felt the weight of the notebook in his pocket like a pressure on his mind. ‘Bertie, that stuff you were talking about in the garden – cold worlds, dying empires and that.’

For a moment Bertie thought he was going to be pulled up on his juice-sucking imagery. ‘Was I? Oh, yes, that.’

Ulysses straightened his shoulders. ‘Would you mind awfully if I used it? It’s given me some ideas.’

‘Of course not, uncle.’ Bertie beamed with pleasure. ‘You’re welcome.’

The tea brewed. Ulysses poured and put out a plate of biscuits. They sat at the heavy old table, sipped tea and dunked their biscuits,

‘What are you working on?’ Ulysses said.

Bertie wanted to say something grand but he was between projects. The winter grey had left him staring out the window. Now he couldn’t get the idea of sucking juices out of his mind. ‘Er, vampires, I think.’

‘Vampires, eh.’

‘Yes, I know, not very original, and over used.’

‘Maybe they could be plants. A hot jungle, fast growing thorny vines, beautiful orchid-like blooms, a soporiphic scent.’ Ulysses loved kicking ideas around.

‘Perhaps…’ Bertie wanted to like his uncle’s ideas but he just didn’t. ‘Perhaps – A murder mystery. A gardener, a mad one… The Bloody Shovel.’ Bertie’s eyes glittered. ‘Thanks, uncle.’

‘Sounds a bit close to home.’ Ulysses chuckled.

‘Write what you know, isn’t that what you say?’

‘Cheeky pup!’

‘How’s aunt Philly?’

‘In good form. A writing day today and not to be disturbed. Except for tea.’ Ulysses poured a third mug and carried it across the hall to Philly’s room. He tapped on the door and went in. Bertie glimpsed aunt Philly standing by the window looking out at the garden. It looked as if she had been there for some time. Bertie knew the feeling well. But now he had some ideas, and to be honest, he was itching.

Ulysses put down the tea and withdrew. He caught Bertie’s look. ‘Plenty going on in there, you’ll see.’


Judgement Day

Philomena Plott was happily accepting a Pimms at the village fete when saw Cousin Dolores bearing down on her like a large, highly coloured barge torn free of its moorings. She glanced around frantically but realized that unless she took a dive over the ha-ha there was no escape.

“Ah, Philomena,” Dolores Plott-Muggins said. “So, that piece of mine, what did you think?”

“Um…well…” Philomena took a fortifying gulp of Pimms and nearly choked on an intrusive mint-leaf.

“I wasn’t quite sure what you were trying to do, to be honest,” she said, once she could breathe. “But perhaps that was me.”

“Not sure what I was trying to do?” Dolores leaned closer. “How do you mean?”

“Ah, well, perhaps…” Philomena said, “just a matter of taste, probably. You know, different genres and all that…Lissy! Over here!”

Ulysses Plott’s ears were attuned to danger, and he heard the raw panic in his wife’s voice even through the roars of outrage from the beer tent, where the cricket was on, and the happy babbling of small children beating each other over the head with toys from the lucky dip. He strode to the rescue.

“Ah, Dolores,” he said. “What’s up, old girl?”

“Just asking Philomena what she thought of my piece. Not her genre, apparently.” Dolores huffed. “Did you read it, Ulysses?”

“Sorry, old thing, on deadline. No time,” Ulysses lied without a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh, well, I don’t suppose it matters, I’ve already sent it off,” Dolores said. “Ooh, there’s the Vicar. I have something for the parish magazine. Not their usual thing but I’m sure they need material…”  She strode determinedly in the direction of the Vicar, whose unsuspecting rear view the Plotts regarded with guilty relief.

“Was it ghastly, the piece?” Ulysses said.

“I hardly know, I was trying so hard to find something to say about it – she’s gone all experimental and I really had no idea what she was doing. Oh, dear.”

“You worry too much, Philly. And she’s already sent it off, so I’m not sure why she wanted your opinion anyway.”

“Well, I gave it. Sort of. In so far as I had one.”

“You told her what you thought? Honestly? Gave her some tips on what might improve it?”

“Well, I would have done, yes, but they’ll only improve it if she’s trying to do what I’d do.”

“Trying to tell a story, wasn’t she?”

“She was trying to tell her story, though, not one of mine.”  Philomena took a despairing slug of Pimms.  “Honestly, Lissy, I give all this advice and I never know if I’m getting it right.”

“Hmm. Remember when I was asked to judge the vegetables at that show?”

“Oh, yes.” She rolled her eyes. It had been something of a scandal at the time.

“Judged them the way I thought you were supposed to judge vegetables. By taste! Still think it’s perfectly sensible.” He had gone properly prepared too, with his campaign primus stove, salt, pepper, oil….his moustaches quivered at the memory. “Never heard such a fuss. If I’d known they just wanted me to judge on size and glossiness, I’d have done it – winners would have been bloody inedible, though.”

“But some people want to grow them just for size.”

“And if they want to, they should. Ought to tell a chap first, though.”

“I suppose.”

“Remember when Bertie gave us that blank verse kitchen-sink comedy of his?”

“Oh, lordy, yes.”

“Couldn’t make head or tail of it. Told him so. Thing is, Bertie actually wants criticism. Doesn’t get a fit of the vapours the minute you tell him something’s not working.”

Philomena snorted, and glanced over to where the Vicar was being slowly backed into the rhododendrons by her determined cousin. “Like Dolores when you told her that character was so wet you wanted to drown her but it would have been redundant.”

Ulysses flushed. “Hmm. Yes, well, probably shouldn’t have said that. Not there to make jokes. Not that she’d take a blind bit of notice anyway.”

“But she might, that’s the thing. What if I’m too harsh and put someone off completely?”

“If someone’s a writer they’ll carry on whatever you say, and they might learn something. If they asked you why their carrots weren’t flourishing, you’d tell them. Wouldn’t worry about putting them off gardening.”

“You worried about making that joke to Dolores.”

“Wasn’t relevant, that’s why.”

“I just want to get it right, that’s all,” Philomena said. “I wonder if there are any books on how to critique…”

“Philomena. You already have 53 books on writing. I counted. Twice.”

“But this is different. Writing and critiquing aren’t the same thing!  Besides, I’m sure some of those books are yours.”

Ulysses gave this the ignoring he felt it deserved. “Can’t ensure you’ll always be perfect at something by buying a ton of books on the subject. Whether you’re critiquing a story or a flower bed, it’s simple. Just be clear, honest, helpful and polite. And prepared to kick people’s bottoms if they need it.”

Philomena smiled. “Not a bad philosophy for life, when you think about it,” she said.