Hits and misses of the 2017 garden trials

One of the delights of gardening is trying something new and I’ve been given a whole range of things for this year’s garden trials from spotty nasturtiums to psychedelic radish. Not everything has been successful but there are quite a few seeds and plants that are worth repeating next season.

The Hits

Top of my list in the garden trials this year has to be Unwins’ radish ‘Bright and Spicy Mix’ (pictured top). This was a real winner – great flavour, quick to grow and what a colour! I repeat sowed it throughout the summer and it never failed.

I grow a lot of French beans and ‘Mamba’ from Thompson & Morgan produced strong plants and lots of tasty beans. It coped well growing up a wigwam of poles and was still cropping in late autumn.

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Cucumber ‘La Diva’

For years, I’ve bought a cucumber plant from a local nursery rather than grow from seed having found cucumber tricky to germinate. However, with the arrival of ‘La Diva’ from Unwins, I decided to give it another go. I managed to raise a plant with little difficulty and put it in the greenhouse, although this variety will grow outside. Again, it kept going until autumn, producing small, crunchy cucumbers. Not a huge crop but I didn’t have room for more than one plant.

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Caliente Mustard

Another first was green manure – Caliente Mustard supplied by Marshalls. It germinated quickly and soon covered the vegetable bed. I then dug it in when the bed was needed in the spring. Did it help the soil? Difficult to tell precisely unless you did a side-by-side comparison but the sweet peas that followed certainly thrived and it was much better to be looking at a bed of green rather than just earth over winter.

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Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’

Among the flowers, Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’ (Thompson & Morgan) has been an absolute delight. Flowering in the greenhouse before I managed to get the plants outside and stopped only by the third frost of this winter a few days ago. It’s a trailing variety that would be ideal for hanging baskets though I grew it in the ground where it wove in and out of other plants.

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’

Another plant that gave months of colour was Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (T&M). Although it’s described as ‘pure white’ on the packet, I found the flowers were more cream than pure white. Again, this flowered strongly until the frosts.

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Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’

I’m not normally a huge fan of petunias – something about the way they go ‘sticky’ over summer – but Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’ (T&M) is a bit of fun. Creamy-yellow flowers with scarlet marking make it a real eye-catcher and ideal for pots.

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Fuchsia ‘Icing Sugar’

Fuchsias are another flower I don’t normally choose to grow as the flowers are just a bit too fussy for my taste. I was sent F. ‘Icing Sugar’ (T&M) plug plants to trial and, while it’s not completely converted me, if fuchsias are your thing, this is one worth considering. I did like the purple edging to the lower petals and it was still in full flower when I had to clear the pot to put in tulips. The plants – still flowering – are now spending the winter in the greenhouse and I will see how well they do a second year.

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Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’

Possibly my favourite flower of the season’s garden trials was Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’ (T&M), which produced dainty pincushions of vibrant colour. I put the plants into the new cutting bed where, unfortunately, the slugs and snails also appreciated them but I still managed to get lots of flowers for bud vases.

The misses

Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mix’ from Unwins. This is a variety producing ‘snack-sized’ peppers and ideal for containers. I grew just a couple of plants due to a lack of space – too many tomatoes! – and while they fruited well, the family decided the peppers were too crisp and not juicy enough.

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Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mixed’

Likewise, Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream’ (T&M), which I grew in a hanging basket, wasn’t to our taste. It produced fruit with a flavour similar to an alpine strawberry that we found too perfumed.

The worth another go

A few things just didn’t work out due to weather or other factors but are worth trying again next year.

I had a disastrous season with courgettes and squash with plants either dying overnight or failing to set fruit. Among those I was trialling alongside my usual varieties, were Courgette ‘Shooting Star’ and Pumpkin ‘Polar Bear’, both from Marshalls.

The courgette kept trying to produce fruit, which then rotted off, while the pumpkin that did set was eaten away by the resident slugs. A change of location, greater vigilance and possibly raising the fruit off the ground is planned for next year.

New this year was Kohl rabi ‘Kolibri’ (T&M), something I’ve never grown before. It did produce roots but again they were ‘nibbled’ by the garden wildlife. I also think they could have done with more water on my sandy soil and a site away from the beetroot that grew vigorously this year and bullied everything around it. I will be growing it again in a different spot to see if it will fare better.

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Unwins’ planting kit provided a succession of colour

Blackberry ‘Cascade’ from Marshalls is designed to grow in a container – ideal for those with little space. It did fairly well and produced a handful of fruit but I think it needs a bigger pot than the one I gave it. I’m planning to rehome it in something bigger and will see what next season brings.

Finally, Unwins’ container kit produced a steady succession of flowers starting with violas, moving on to crocus, muscari and tulips and the pack had enough to do two pots. While there’s no doubt that the bulb mats are a really easy and convenient way to plant up a pot, I’m not sure it’s a method I would choose as I prefer to be able to pick my own combinations.

And I’m still waiting to see if Leek ‘Northern Lights’ (T&M) lives up to its name. This variety is supposed to turn purple during cold weather. It’s only just got cold here in the Cotswolds so I’m watching the plants with interest.

All seeds and plug plants were supplied free in return for an honest review.

Finding sanctuary at The Butterfly Garden

Gardening is now being recognised as therapy but The Butterfly Garden has long helped those who are struggling with life. I chatted to its founder Chris Evans about this remarkable charity.

It’s impossible to walk through The Butterfly Garden without someone stopping me to talk. Students ask my name, am I looking for Chris, what’s the notebook for, and give me detailed accounts of how they plan to spend their day. When we eventually find Chris, our chat is punctuated by interruptions as they eagerly join in.

The Butterfly Garden
Students learn how to grow veg and flowers.

I’ve been visiting the scheme since its early days and yet the sheer scale of what it achieves with little more than goodwill and determination never fails to move me.

Like so many good ideas, it started by chance when a group of autistic children were taken to Dundry Nurseries, Chris’ family business, to talk to him about growing plants. Recognising how much they got out of the trip, he invited them back.

The Butterfly Garden
There are butterflies throughout the site.

“Then somebody phoned and said ‘I’ve heard about your project’ and after that I was lost,” he says with a smile.

The Butterfly Garden

At first, the scheme, which is open Monday to Friday, was confined to developing a garden out of unused land behind the Cheltenham nursery. That original ‘Butterfly Garden’ is still there but the work now covers far more and activities have moved into greenhouses and buildings, acquired through fundraising and donations.

The Butterfly Garden
A butterfly made from old CDs in the original garden.

The students have changed too. Although, The Butterfly Garden still helps those with autism, it now includes all learning disabilities, those who are physically disabled, people suffering from bereavement, stroke victims, those with dementia or mental health issues, and people dealing with alcoholism.

“It’s just about people coming together in the broadest sense. Everybody will have some struggle on their journey and it’s much easier to deal with it if you are able to share it.”

The Butterfly Garden
Composting is one of the gardening tasks.

Today, 15 years on, there are 243 registered students, with up to 60 on site at any one time, and Chris deals with agencies across the county from schools and colleges, to mental health services, social services, day care providers and GPs. Groups, including Help the Aged, a stroke group and Men in Sheds, use the facilities.

“It’s about cohesion and bringing the community together in all its guises. When you can do that you stick massive holes in prejudice.”

The Butterfly Garden
Chris’ multi-coloured coat and hat were a gift from a knitting group.

The Butterfly Garden has grown organically not with any overall plan but in response to a perceived need or a sudden opportunity.

Recycling began when someone dropped off a load of unwanted plastic flower pots.

“Some of the students just naturally wanted to tidy up,” says Chris. “They started sorting and tidying according to size and colour.”

The Butterfly Garden
A scarecrow in the first Butterfly Garden.

Deciding to see if they could be recycled, he discovered he’d need a recycling licence. Having obtained one, the charity now recycles everything from cardboard to old videos.

“People bring all sorts of random things in.”

A recent donation included a box of kilts and Loch Ness monster hats – Chris is exploring the possibility of turning the hats into glove puppets.

Sometimes, the donated goods are used by students; when I visited, the art room was full of poppies for a Remembrance Day display made from the bottom of old bottles and the insides of DVDs.

The Butterfly Garden
Some of the poppies made by students.

Art is just one of the ‘classes’ along with cookery, woodwork, craft, Zumba, drama – there’s an outdoor performance space – knitting and sewing, music and puppetry. Yoga and tai chi are held in the yurt. All are run by volunteers who just turn up and offer their services when it’s convenient.

In the same way, students are free to do what they want. Some may spend hours sorting horticultural plastic, knowing they can break off at any time. Others move from activity to activity. Some stay all day, others just for a few hours.

Gardening is still at the heart of The Butterfly Garden. There’s an allotment-style space where students learn how to grow flowers and vegetables and another area has been turned into individual allotment plots that the students ‘own’.

The Butterfly Garden
Some students have allotments.

“It’s not ‘This is your space and I’m going to tell you how to do it’. It’s all about ‘This is your space and you’re going to learn how to do it’. Some of them have had great crops this year.”

Meanwhile, Chris is experimenting with getting them to look after cuttings and seeds over winter in one of the greenhouses.

The Butterfly Garden
Plants overwintering in the greenhouse.

What was a wilderness at the end of the site has been turned into a wild garden by students, inspired by a poem by Robert Frost ‘The Road Not Taken’.

The Butterfly Garden
The wild garden has a choice of routes.

Based on a figure of eight, it has objects, such as a green-painted bicycle, along the route, making each journey different, according to which path you choose.

The Butterfly Garden
A painted bicycle is alongside one path.

Having managed to buy a piece of ground alongside the nursery, Chris and the students created The Butterfly Garden Meadow, which is open to anyone to use. A carefully constructed path makes it accessible to those with limited mobility, while making two ponds and planting 350 trees mean it attracts a range of wildlife; visitors are encouraged to take photos and add them to a folder recording what’s been seen.

The Butterfly Garden was turned into a charity some years ago to safeguard its future and distance it from the nursery business. Although the charity occupies land behind the firm, the two are separate: students don’t grow for Dundry Nurseries and the nursery staff don’t work for the charity. Instead, flowers and veg grown by the students are either taken home or shared with other organisations; recently some plants were used in the garden at the town’s Sue Ryder home.

The Butterfly Garden
The meadow is gardened for wildlife.

All this work is funded through donations – both of goods and time. There’s a ‘bring-and-buy’ shop, run on an honesty box system and a café, that fills in the gap when the nursery’s main café is closed.

Over the years, local firms have donated the time and skills of their staff to build raised beds or fundraise. The charity extends its facilities to anyone who wants to use them and has hosted everything from NHS team meetings to lunch clubs.

“We want people to feel they can integrate with us.”

This sense of non-judgemental inclusiveness extends to the students. Anyone can turn up and join in regardless of age or need, there’s no charge and no need for a referral by another agency.

“We’re open to everybody,” says Chris, adding, “Sometimes there’s a problem you cannot see.”

For more information, visit The Butterfly Garden website

Dahlias break out

For years, I’ve kept my love of dahlias safely contained. Trying to grow them in borders proved impossible as plants disappeared overnight thanks to the resident slugs and snails. Instead, I had just a few in pots – more successful but high maintenance and deeply frustrating as time, cash and space limited my choice. This year, the temptation – fuelled by seeing dahlias in almost every garden I visited – proved too great and I decided to have another go at growing them free range.

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Starting a cutting garden was my excuse to grow more.

The excuse was starting a cutting garden – what better than dahlias for that late summer vase of flowers? With that in mind, I chose colours that would work together and with the rooms I planned to put them in.

There are many ways to judge a dahlia: shape, colour, number of flowers and, if you’re planning to cut them, length of stem.

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‘Furka’ produced the most flowers.

Two of my choices scored highly in every category: ‘Furka’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Furka’ is a beautiful white cactus-type dahlia. It produced dozens of flowers with long, straight stems.

‘Totally Tangerine’ was the best for length of stem and I loved the dazzling colour and crinkled centre to the anemone blooms. Possibly the only drawback was that it didn’t seem to last as long once cut.

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‘Totally Tangerine’ has a wonderful crinkled centre.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is another beauty with white flowers tinged with a hint of green. However, it didn’t have as long a flowering season as ‘Furka’. Perhaps it will be better next year.

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‘Blanc y Verde’ is a winner.

I also liked ‘Zundert Mystery Fox’, which had neat dark orange flowers and long, straight stems. It was not as prolific as some of the others but well worth growing.

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‘Zundert Mystery Fox’ was more beautiful than its name.

The most disappointing dahlia was ‘Nicholas’, which produced only a couple of flowers before the first frosts. The large, somewhat loose, blooms were also difficult to use with another flowers. A shame because I did like the colour.

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‘Nicholas’ was the most disapppointing.

The very best colourwise was ‘Henriette’ a beautiful creamy ivory with hints of peach. Her downfall was the stem. The semi cactus flowers are large and need a reasonable length of stem as a counterbalance. All too often the only way to achieve this was by sacrificing another bud slightly lower down.

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‘Henriette’ was my favourite colour.

There was a similar problem with ‘Labyrinth’, a mad whirl of pinky-orangey petals that reminded me of an exploding Catherine Wheel. Again, the head size didn’t match the length of stem I could cut, meaning the flowers easily tipped in a vase. Perhaps it was my lack of skill at growing, or my lack of nerve when faced with cutting off yet-to-develop flowers.

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‘Labyrinth’ is a mad whirl of colour.

The dahlias never actually made it to the cutting bed, as I hadn’t the heart to dig up sweet Williams that were still flowering to make room. Instead, the dahlias gradually took over the cold frame, getting ever bigger in the pots that I had started the tubers off in and sending roots out into the ground.

Realising the sweet Williams were not willing to budge, I decided to use some spare corners of the veg beds for the dahlias and they spent the rest of the summer season alongside the brassicas and carrots.

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‘Henriette’ got very tall.

This late entry into their final beds was, I think, the reason why they fought off predators. By the time they were finally planted out, the dahlias were strapping plants – ‘Furka’ and ‘Henriette’ eventually stood around 4ft tall and needed careful staking. Quite simply, I think they frightened the slugs.

Of course, having broken out there is no way the dahlias will be contained again. This year’s tubers have been dug up and are now spending the winter in the greenhouse in pots of sand, while I’m starting to work my way through the dahlia catalogues and websites. Having started with creams, oranges and white, the pinks and purples are looking very tempting.

Tomatoes: tried and tasted

It’s been a fantastic year for tomatoes. After last season’s blight-hit summer, I’ve had a bumper crop, managed to dodge disease and discovered some great new varieties.

Growing tomatoes is more of an addiction than an annual crop for me, one of the first edibles I attempted and something that takes over not only the greenhouse but large parts of the garden.

This year, I grew nine different varieties, some old favourites, others seeds and plants I had been given to trial by different seed firms; you can read about the beginning of the season in ‘Tomatoes – a Growing Addiction’.

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The sunny garage wall is ideal for tomatoes

As in other years, I put two or three of each variety into growbags in the greenhouse – a way of safeguarding a sample of everything against blight. The rest go into pots and are lined up against the sunny back of the garage. This year, somehow, I ended up with more than 50 plants.

In a very non-scientific test, I put one plant into a pot filled with Dalefoot’s Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads, and another into one filled with my homemade compost mixed with some Soilfixer SF60; both products were sent for me to trial.

Did they make a difference? All the plants fruited well. The Dalefoot compost was definitely slower to dry out and the plants grew strongly. My own compost dried out quickly but the added boost of Soilfixer product did see the plants growing as well as any of the others despite the frequent ‘drought’ conditions. Next year, I will try mixing it with some of my usual multi-purpose, peat-free compost.

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‘Sweet Aperitif’

So, what of the all-important taste test? Again, a subjective measure but then taste always is.

For many years, ‘Sweet Million’ was my cherry tomato of choice but this year I was given seed for ‘Cherry Baby’ by Unwins and ‘Sweet Aperitif’ by Thompson & Morgan. ‘Cherry Baby’ was a definite winner with the family. Dainty fruit with a really sweet flavour – they were often eaten before they had left the garden.

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‘Cherry Baby’ proved a winner

‘Sweet Aperitif’ produced slightly firmer fruits with a good flavour but not as sweet as ‘Cherry Baby’.

Although the name, ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, suggests one of the smaller fruiting tomatoes, actually they are larger than the others. Sent to me by Thompson & Morgan last year, it wasn’t particularly popular with the family but, as I had seed left, we decided to give it another try.

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‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ starts off purple

The colour is amazing, starting off purple and ripening to a deep red. We didn’t like them raw – not sweet enough and with a tougher skin – but this season we tried cooking them and they were much better with a good flavour.

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We preferred ‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ cooked

Likewise, we decided ‘Montello’ from Marshalls is better cooked although it is sold as a baby plum tomato. For us, the texture was too ‘mushy’ for eating raw – great pan-fried, though.

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‘Montello’

‘San Marzano’ from Franchi Seeds (a seed I bought) is sold as a cooking tomato, one that Italians use for pasta sauce. Mine never seem to get as big as the picture on the packet suggests but they are reliable and have a good flavour.

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‘San Marzano’ is a classic Italian variety

One of the tomatoes I had been particularly keen to try was ‘Heinz 1370’ from the Dobies’ Rob Smith Range. A heritage variety, it is the tomato behind Heinz Tomato Sauce. It produced enormous fruit that were perfect for cooking – easier to skin than smaller varieties, good flavour and you need only a few for most recipes. I was sent plug plants to trial but am hoping to try growing these tomatoes from seed next season.

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‘Heinz 1370’ produced enormous fruit – seen here with ‘Sweet Aperitif’

Another good cooker is ‘Principe Borghese’ from Franchi Seeds (another variety I bought). Again, the size makes it easy to skin – no fiddling around with hundreds of tiny tomatoes.

I was also sent plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’ by Thompson & Morgan, which proved to be another tomato with an interesting appearance. The stripy skin is quite thick but the flavour is good and it certainly gives a different look to a salad.

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‘Red Tiger’

Finally, my favourite tomato last year was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ from Franchi Seeds and it didn’t disappoint this season. Not the prettiest of tomatoes but little beats it for versatility or flavour. It’s one of the few big tomatoes that I like raw and it also cooks well – delicious roasted. It is definitely on my must-grow list for next year.

And what of the blight that hit many parts of the country? I did get some early in the season on a few tomatoes that I put into the main vegetable beds when I ran out of room and pots. They succumbed by mid-summer and were quickly removed, luckily before it spread to the rest of the crop. I’ve tried growing tomatoes in the ground in various sites in the garden over the years and each time they get blight. I won’t be trying again.

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‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ is still the family favourite

As for the rest of the crop, a few of the outdoor tomatoes were showing signs of blight by early October so we picked the fruit and cleared the lot. The greenhouse has only just been emptied and then only because it’s needed for other things.

There was a little green fruit left to ripen and that is now safely in the kitchen, gradually turning red.

One of the best things about tomatoes is that they are a versatile crop. You don’t need huge amounts of space – I potted up some tumbling varieties into a hanging basket for my Mum – and they really are something that tastes so much better fresh.

Seed and tomato plants were sent in exchange for fair reviews by Unwins, Thompson & Morgan, Marshalls and Dobies.

A taste of heritage apples

With Apple Day approaching, I’ve been out to Snowshill Manor to find out about their heritage apples.

It’s the names as much as the flavour and sense of history that appeals to me about heritage apples. ‘Hoary Morning’, ‘Cat’s Head’, ‘Cow Apple’, somehow, they all seem so much more interesting than a mere ‘Granny Smith’.

Yet, few, if any, ever find their way to supermarket shelves and often the only chance you’ll have to sample them is at a specialist event.

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Who could resist an apple called ‘Hoary Morning’

Snowshill Manor has been growing heritage apples for many years; collector Charles Wade is known to have had an orchard at the Cotswold manor and it was replanted with more than 50 different apples between 1994 and 2001.

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Snowshill Manor is celebrating harvest this month

“There aren’t any lists so apples that were interesting, unusual, old and rare were chosen,” explains Vicky Cody, who runs the garden at the National Trust property.

heritage apples
Snowshill grows more than 50 varieties of apple

The result is an eclectic mix of eaters and cookers with some from the Gloucestershire area and others from further afield.

heritage apples
The ‘Cow Apple’ was found on a Gloucestershire farm

Among the local varieties are the wonderfully named ‘Cow Apple’, so called because the seedling was found growing in a cow pat on a Gloucestershire farm. It’s a general purpose apple that is particularly good for mincemeat as it keeps moist when in the jar.

heritage apples
Ashmead’s Kernel has a hint of peardrops

Then there’s ‘Severn Bank’ a sharp-flavoured Gloucester apple that was first recorded in 1884; ‘Gloucester Royal’, a sweet eating variety from 1930; and ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, another local fruit dating from around 1700, with a peardrop flavour.

“If you like a russet, it’s got that sharp flavour. It’s delicious,” says Vicky.

heritage apples
‘Pitmaston Pineapple’ is another with an unusual flavour

Another with an unusual flavour is ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, which as the name suggests has a hint of pineapple. ‘Egremont Russet’, which was first recorded in 1872, has a rich, nutty flavour, while ‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ has a slight taste of strawberry.

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‘Devonshire Quarrendon’ is said to taste of strawberry

One of the oldest varieties grown at Snowshill is ‘Court Pendu Platt, which is believed to be Roman in origin and first recorded in about 1613. Meanwhile, ‘Flower of Kent’ is said to be the apple that gave Newton the idea of gravity.

A more recent variety is ‘Discovery’, an August fruiting apple and one that I grow. It has superb flavour and intense white flesh but doesn’t keep and needs eating fresh-picked.

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‘Cat’s Head’ is an old cooking variety

And you shouldn’t go by looks alone. ‘Jenny Lind’ doesn’t seem very appealing but has a fabulous flavour.

“I was very surprised when I tried it. She’s a beauty.”

When it comes to growing, Vicky says heritage apples are no more difficult than modern varieties. She recommends planting in October or November or waiting until February or March.

heritage apples
Flowers and veg make a harvest display

Dig a good-sized hole and put in some well-rotted manure or good compost. Firm the tree in well and add a short stake, set at an angle, allowing the top of the tree to move slightly in the wind, which will encourage better roots.

“As it grows, keep checking the tree tie to make sure it’s not rubbing.”

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The cow byre is the ideal setting for the apple display

You’re unlikely to get a crop until the tree is a few years old but then you can enjoy your own taste of history.

During October, Snowshill Manor displays fruit from its heritage apples in the old cow byre and there is fruit for sale.

There are also weekend demonstrations of crafts, including making bee skeps and candle-making.

For more information, visit the website.

James Alexander-Sinclair talks Chelsea, design and some lucky falls

Rosa ‘Mutabilis’,” says James Alexander-Sinclair decisively when I ask for his favourite plant. He then adds that yesterday it was Salvia confertiflora while last week it was tulips that had stolen his heart. It is, of course, an impossible question for any gardener – my own choice changes like the weather – but it’s something I like to throw into the mix as you can learn a lot by the way people react.

James’ answer, given with barely a pause yet far from predictable, shows why he is in demand as a writer, compere and speaker while the gentle ridicule is typical of someone who doesn’t take himself or his achievements too seriously.

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Tulips were James’ favourite last week – next week, who knows?

Despite his position as a noted designer, award-winning writer, RHS council member and judge, he describes his career as a “collection of fortuitous trippings” that has seen him fall into first landscaping, then garden design followed by writing and broadcasting; he’s a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, presented Small Town Gardens and was a judge on the The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge.

It could have been so different if he’d followed up on early success as a waiter or selling trousers, or changed his mind about estate agency as a career.

“It was really what people used to do when they didn’t have any qualifications or any particular idea of where they were going.”

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James’ is a regular compere at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

Instead, a plea from his sister to get off the sofa and “dig the garden or do something useful” saw him turning over her tiny London garden and the realisation that it “was fun”.

Teaching himself how to pave, put up fence panels and lay turf, James started his own landscape business. Design came about when he decided “there must be an easier way to earn a living than through heavy lifting”.

As with the landscaping, he is largely a self-taught designer although his father sent him on a course at the Inchbald School of Design when he was starting out: “I didn’t turn up for most of it – which was unfortunate – because I had other things to do.”

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An illuminated rill snakes through James’ design for a central London garden

His writing started because of ‘old rectory syndrome’: “Somebody would ring me up and say ‘Can you come and look at my garden?’ and I would say ‘Marvellous’ and it would be The Old Rectory and I would go ‘Oh God, not another one.’ I wanted to do something else.”

Broadcasting followed, giving him a career that embraces just a few of what he describes as the tentacles of gardening, a profession that can range from landscaping and photography to scientific research and raising plants.

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James built one of the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens at Chelsea this year

“It’s nice to be busy in as many of those different spheres as I can possibly manage.”

This opportunity is something he believes should make gardening an attractive career for school-leavers.

“Gardening when I started was considered the last refuge of the unemployable and it isn’t any more.

James
James used hostas, persicaria and thalia along the stream in this country garden

“It has enormous breadth to it and is something that can provide somebody not only with a satisfying life but also with a satisfying living.”

And he dislikes the idea that because it’s a popular hobby people underestimate the worth of professionals.

When to comes to designing, James works by three guiding principles: what the house looks like; what the views are; who’s going to live in it.

“It’s a matter of making sure you’re making gardens that are not only appropriate for the place but also for the people.

“You’re making a garden for people to use, to love and to enjoy and to make their lives better and happier so it has to work with the way that they live.”

James
Water was central to the Zoe Ball Listening Garden

It was this sense of fun that came to the fore in his BBC Radio 2 garden for Zoe Ball at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where water in weathered steel troughs vibrated to the bass beat of music.

The five gardens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the radio station were a last minute addition by the RHS when show garden numbers fell short, thanks in part to post-Brexit referendum jitters. They proved popular with the public, partly James believes due to their size, and gardening on that scale is something that is likely to be repeated at the show.

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Bass notes in underground music caused ripples in the pools

Yet, he believes there’s still a place for the “great big theatrical experience” of Chelsea.

“Chelsea always throws up something that’s exciting,” he says. “You go to Chelsea and you will be entertained, gobsmacked and educated. You will leave there inspired by something.”

As for his own Oxfordshire garden, it’s constantly evolving: “It’s a work in progress and always will be because that’s the way gardening is. Nobody in the world has got a finished garden.”

Allomorphic in Stroud is hosting a lunch and audience with James Alexander-Sinclair on Friday November 10, followed by a talk in Painswick on garden design hosted by Painswick Gardening Club. Tickets are £45 for the lunch and talk, limited to 24 places. Tickets for the talk only are £15. For details and to book, see the Allomorphic website.

How to keep your garden blooming while you holiday

Going on holiday during the summer can be difficult if you’re a gardener. With the British weather notoriously unpredictable, you could easily return to wind and rain-battered plants or containers full of dried up twigs.

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Pick courgettes unless you want marrows when you return

The perfect solution is to find a friend or neighbour to keep an eye on things, water if there’s a heatwave, pick sweet peas and beans to keep them producing and courgettes to stop them turning into marrows. But what if there’s no one to help?

Here are some steps you can take to make sure your garden survives the holiday separation.

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Group pots in the shade

Move plants in containers out of direct sun into somewhere shadier and make sure they’re not sheltered from the rain by overhanging porches or house eaves. Standing them in saucers or trays will help conserve moisture while grouping them together makes it easier if someone’s coming in to water.

• Invest in a drip irrigation system for thirsty crops, such as tomatoes, or make your own using plastic bottles with small holes punched into the lid. Water the soil well then fill the bottle with water, put the lid back on and place the bottle upside down into the pot making sure it won’t fall over.

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Deadheading will keep plants flowering

Deadhead thoroughly including any flowers that have opened but will be over before you return from holiday.

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Don’t leave weeds to seed around

Get on top of the weeding before you leave, especially weeds that seed freely such as dandelions and bitter cress.

Stake tall plants to prevent wind damage, in particular any with large flower heads, such as sunflowers or dahlias.

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Stake tall sunflowers to stop them snapping

Harvest your fruit and veg and either eat, freeze or give it away. If you’re on holiday for more than a few days, pick baby veg, including beans and courgettes, to keep the plants productive.

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Pick beans to keep the plants producing

Mow the lawn and do the edges as there’s nothing worse than coming home from holiday to a meadow.

Check the weather forecast: water everything thoroughly if it’s going to be dry and just the greenhouse if a monsoon is expected.

Turning a forgotten space into an outdoor delight

The chance to review one of Brundle Gardener’s products has transformed a sad spot in my garden.

Many of us have a part of the garden that is somewhat neglected. An area that you walk past, averting your eyes and muttering ‘I really must do something about that’. Usually, lack of inspiration or time means little gets done.

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‘The Courtyard’ has long been in need of a rethink

In my case, the neglected spot is what we refer to as ‘The Courtyard’. It’s actually a rather grand title for what is little more than a tucked away area outside our basement kitchen; the strange layout of the house, which is dug into a slope, means that although technically the kitchen is under the rest of the house, it is actually on ground level.

The courtyard has a high retaining wall on two sides that holds back the garden, the house forms the third boundary and on the fourth there’s a fence that separates us from our neighbours.

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The wall planters needed redoing

North-east facing, it gets a little morning sun – a very little – but it’s really a rather gloomy spot. And, with quite a lot of garden elsewhere, it’s always been low on my list of priorities.

The impetus to finally do something about it came when I was asked if I would like to review one of Brundle Gardener’s products. A suggestion was a table and chairs set, which looked perfect for this tiny space. Not only is it a half-table, ideal for putting against a wall, the table also folds down to free up space when it’s not in use.

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The table and chairs are easy to put up

Before I had even set it up, I was impressed: both the table and the two chairs were well packaged to ensure they weren’t damaged in transit.

It’s also easy to put up – no assembly and just a lift and click into place mechanism for the table flap. It has a grey, powder coated steel frame with a toughened glass top, while the folding seats have the same steel frame with a checked manmade fibre seat and back, which are water resistant. They have proved to be remarkably comfortable.

Of course, merely plonking somewhere to sit into the courtyard wasn’t going to be enough to transform it. There was definitely a need to revamp the planting as well. Not that there is much scope: the available soil amounts to little more than a narrow strip at the foot of the wall and fence and the lack of direct sunlight limits the choices.

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The euonymus needed cutting back

The first step was a good clean, using a wire brush to get rid of moss on the paving. A Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’, used to provide a screen between the courtyard and next door, had got out of hand, with some reverting to plain green. It’s been pruned hard to remove the green and reduce the overhang into the courtyard.

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The euonymus has been tidied up

The remains of a Clematis ‘Guernsey Cream’ that until this year was doing well, were removed and I’m planning to replace it in the autumn, though possibly elsewhere in the garden.

Deciding I needed some expert advice for the difficult narrow ‘borders’, I paid a visit to ShadyPlants.com in Painswick. Tony and Sylvia Marden specialise in plants for those tricky places and we spent a happy hour discussing possibilities and looking through their stock.

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The back of the Begonia evansiana leaves are beautiful

For the space against the fence, where there is marginally more soil, they recommended two evergreen ferns: Polystichum makinoi and Phyllitis scolopendrium cristatum.

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Begonia southerlandii has lovely orange flowers

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of begonias but I fell in love with the orange flowers of Begonia southerlandii and Tony suggested the white flowered Begonia evansiana ‘Snowpop’ would be a good partner. Both, he assured me, are fully hardy and well able to cope with the less than ideal conditions.

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Cardamine trifolia was suggested as ground cover

For the thin strip at the foot of the wall, they suggested Cardamine trifolia, which has what Sylvia describes as ‘clouds of white flowers’. It should spread happily to fill the space.

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New planting in the wall pots

Continuing with the begonia theme, wall planters that have in the past been used for violas, now have some cream-flowered begonias that I found at another local grower, Dundry Nurseries. I liked their long, tubular flowers and slight bronze tinge to the stems, which works well with the rusty planters and old bricks. The begonias are in plastic pots that sit inside the terracotta so that I can change the planting easily.

Finally, I shifted the old sink into a better position in the courtyard and planted it with mint while the chimney pot has been moved to another part of the garden.

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The courtyard has been transformed

I’m pleased with the transformation and the courtyard is already proving popular – especially as a cool place to escape the recent heat. I can see the table and chairs being well used.

Brundle Gardener’s table and chairs are available from garden centres and online stockists. The suggested retail price is £119.99.

Tomatoes – a growing addiction

If I could grow only one crop it would be tomatoes. Little else has the variety or sums up summer in just one mouthful.

It’s something I’ve done for years, even before I had a proper ‘kitchen garden’, cramming growbags around the tiny patio at my first house.

My obsession can be blamed on a friend who raised seedlings on the windowsills of his equally tiny terraced home and gave me some spares. I was hooked.

With more space, there’s been the chance to experiment. This year, I’ve got nine different varieties, some sent by seed companies for me to trial, others old favourites.

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‘Costoluto Fiorentino’

Top of my list is ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, an ugly brute but one of the best flavoured tomatoes I know. Don’t be put off by its looks or the seemingly cotton wool-like flesh. This tomato is oozing with flavour and makes one of the best sandwiches.

‘San Marzano’ is another regular, a plum-type that’s good for cooking, while ‘Principe Borghese’, is more rounded and great for roasting. All of these I’ve bought from Franchi seeds and, as always, they are producing robust plants.

For the first time in many years, I’m not growing my usual cherry tomato, ‘Sweet Million’. Having been sent trial tomatoes and with seed left from last year (yes, I find it does keep), even I decided there was enough for one year.

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Just some of this season’s plants

‘Heinz 1370’ from Dobies’ Rob Smith Range is one that I’m particularly interested to taste. A heritage variety, it’s the tomato that forms the basis of Heinz Tomato Sauce.

Unwins’ ‘Cherry Baby’ is another new one to me and is described as having masses of “deliciously sweet” tomatoes. Perhaps it will replace ‘Sweet Million’ on my list.

‘Montello’ from Marshalls is another with small fruit but this time they are mini plum tomatoes. So far, they’ve produced sturdy plants and I’m hoping they live up to their billing of “prolific cropping”.

‘Indigo Cherry Drops’, from Thompson & Morgan, was sent to me last year and wasn’t an immediate hit. For me, the dark purple-red skin added little and it didn’t have the sweetness I look for in a cherry tomato. But, I had some seed left and decided to give it another try before a final verdict.

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‘Indigo Cherry Drops’ is already fruiting

‘Sweet Aperitif’, also from Thompson & Morgan, is a more traditional red cherry tomato. Best grown in the greenhouse, which is where I’ve put mine, it is described as having an “outstanding sweet and balanced flavour” and should produce up to 150 fruits per plant under glass.

The firm has also sent me plug plants of ‘Red Tiger’, which have just arrived and are now safely tucked up in the greenhouse. Some will stay there while the rest, once they have settled in, will go outside.

As well as trying out different varieties of tomatoes, over the years I’ve also experimented in how to grow them.

They never go into borders as I’ve found that always seems to result in blight. It also ties up space that can be used for things that really don’t like containers.

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I use growing rings in the greenhouse

In the greenhouse, my tomatoes go into growbags. Most have plastic ‘growing rings’ that I got from the RHS Malvern show some years ago. These give a greater depth to what can be a rather shallow growing container, while the outer ring makes watering easier.

Where I haven’t got enough rings, I sink a small flowerpot into the growbag alongside the plants to make watering easier and to ensure it reaches the roots rather than spilling out over the ground.

Outside, the tomatoes are lined up along the garage wall, which faces south-west. In the past, I used growbags here but they were untidy and seemed to attract the garden’s resident slugs and snails. It also limited the number of tomatoes I could get into the space!

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Pots sunk into growbags help watering

Some years ago, I switched to pots and, for me, it works much better. They are a bit of a mix and a few are probably a bit small but the tomatoes don’t seem to mind.

Obviously, if you are growing in containers then watering and feeding regularly is essential. Mine get a daily water – unless we’ve had heavy rain – and a weekly feed.

How the crop will do depends on what sort of summer we get. Last year, there was near disaster with fruit slow to set, probably due, I was told, to a long stretch of cold nights. There was also the worst attack of blight I’ve known for years. Everything succumbed, even in the greenhouse, and, talking to other growers, I know I wasn’t alone.

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These were picked early due to blight and ripened indoors

Yet, picking the crop green and ripening them indoors salvaged most and, although it wasn’t as plentiful as usual, we were still eating home-grown tomatoes right up until Christmas.

It’s too late now to sow seeds but there are still plants available in nurseries and garden centres. If you’ve never grown tomatoes, why not give it a go? But, be warned, they can be addictive.

Win some tomato food

Tomatoes are hungry plants and need regular feeding. I’m running a competition with six prizes of a bottle of Gro-Sure tomato food, supplied by Westland Horticulture.

Easy to use, it includes potash, magnesium and seaweed and can be used for indoor and outdoor tomatoes as well as sweet peppers, courgettes and aubergines.

For more details and to enter, see my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds – click on the links at the top of this site.

This contest has now closed.

How to grow vegetables in containers

Grow your own is a big theme of BBC Gardeners’ World Live and ahead of the show I talked to Matt Biggs about how lack of space needn’t be problem.

It’s easy to assume that to grow vegetables you need space – an allotment or a back garden turned over to spuds and carrots. That’s difficult with gardens getting ever smaller and waiting lists for allotments while those living in flats may have only a balcony. The answer, believes Matt Biggs, is growing vegetables in containers.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to grow vegetables and this can be done irrespective of the amount of space you’ve got,” he says.

“Just because you have a small back garden you’re not excluded. Come on in and join the fun.”

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Matt will be demonstrating how to plant up herbs and vegetables in containers

Matt, one of the regulars on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, will be exploring how to do it and what to grow in daily talks on the VegTrug Grow Your Own Stage at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

It’s important not to think you can become self-sufficient in veg, he tells me, but to choose things that are family favourites, are difficult to find in the shops, or that simply taste better when they are freshly picked.

“Grow your favourite vegetables rather than the things you think you ought to grow,” he advises.

Fast maturing or what he calls “high value” crops are better than things that are cheap to buy or that will occupy the container for months – main crop potatoes and parsnips are just two examples of crops to avoid.

Keeping a note of what you’ve grown and what worked will enable you to build up your own list of what works well in your garden.

Among his top tips are carrots, beetroot – “pick them when they are the size of golf balls” – and lettuce, particularly ‘cut-and-come-again’. Sweetcorn would be another ideal crop as it begins to lose sweetness as soon as it’s picked.

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Peas and mangetout are ideal for growing in containers

Other suggestions for vegetables in containers include mangetout, peas, runner beans, endive and chard, while Matt says strawberries are ideal for hanging baskets where they are out of reach of slugs.

It also makes sense to choose mini veg varieties or those that have been bred for small spaces, such as broad bean ‘The Sutton’. Look out also for those with disease resistance.

If you can’t get mini veg seed, just pick before the crops reach full maturity and sow again.

“If you harvest when they’re small, you get better quality, they’re more tender and tasty.”

The key to success when it comes to vegetables in containers is not to sow the whole packet at once but to keep repeating every few weeks.

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Chard is a colourful crop for a container

“People do forget to succession sow and to sow a little and often,” says Matt.

When it comes to containers, anything goes as long as it has good drainage and is as big as space will allow. Try recycling old wooden boxes – line them first with polythene to prevent water loss – or hunt out some of the many colourful plastic containers on sale.

“I would avoid metal because it will heat up in the sunshine and will scorch fibrous roots and dry out the compost but apart from that you can just use your imagination and make it fun.”

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Try putting strawberries in a hanging basket

Matt advised filling your containers with compost designed for vegetables, or making your own by mixing organic matter, such as homemade compost, with a John Innes soil-based compost to give it more substance.

Once planted, choose a sunny spot and check plants daily for pests, diseases and water – an irrigation system saves time and water. Then, just keep harvesting and sowing.

“Don’t be frightened to do it,” he says. “The lovely thing about gardening is it’s not failure it’s gaining experience. Always be prepared to have a go, learn from what happens and enjoy it.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2017 is at the NEC Birmingham from June 15-18. There will be talks, growing advice, nursery exhibits and free entry to the neighbouring BBC Good Food Show. For more details, see the website.

Ticket giveaway

I have six pairs of tickets to BBC Gardeners’ World Live to give away, valid for any day except Saturday June 17. See my Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram feeds for more details and to enter. (Click on the links at the top of the site.)