Orchids: fancy not fussy

Orchids are a mass of contradictions. Their dainty blooms suggest a fleeting delicacy and they have a reputation for fussiness that scares many away. In fact their exotic flowers last weeks longer than most houseplants and specialist glasshouses and expert knowledge are not necessary for success.

The secret, believes grower Tom Price, lies in knowing what you’ve got. He blames too many impulse buys for orchids’ unfair image and believes that once you know what they want, they are no more difficult than any other plant.

“The worst thing you can do is to see an orchid somewhere and think ‘I like that’ and buy it,” he says. “If you cannot supply the right conditions, it is going to fail and will put you off the plants for life. Find out what it wants first.”

Cymbidium yowie flame x putana

Tom, a member of Cheltenham and District Orchid Society, has been growing them for 22 years and has a collection that runs into nearly a thousand plants. On a cold, grey winter day, their vibrant blooms are a welcome sight and go some way to explaining why they inspire such loyalty among enthusiasts.

The biggest flowering plant family in the world touching every continent except the Antarctic, with more than 25,000 species and around 100,000 hybrids, orchids range from those with flowers the size of a matchhead to others with blooms eight inches across. They come in every possible colour – apart from blue, although some commercial growers are known to inject dye into plants to achieve that.

Jewell orchids are grown for their foliage

Tom’s collection spans the colour range: ‘Hsin Buu Lady’ has deep pink flowers with a beautiful velvety sheen, Phalaenopsis ‘Taida King’s Caroline’ has paler white and pink blooms while a Cambria type is two-tone chestnut and burnt orange and Dendrobium harveyanum has delicately fringed yellow flowers.

Some, the ‘jewel orchids’ are grown more for the foliage than their by orchid standards insignificant flowers. Looking at the intricately veined leaves in deep bronzed purple and emerald green, it’s easy to see why Tom says “they don’t all need flowers”.

Phalaenopsis ‘Taida King’s Caroline’

Just coming into flower are pots of pleonie, which will produce a single bloom per plant before the leaves.

“They are a bit like the orchid version of a crocus,” says Tom.

The most commonly available orchids fall into three main groups – phalaenopsis, cymbidium and dendrobium – and are straightforward to grow, providing you follow a few simple rules.

Phalaenopsis need  a night-time temperature of between 18-21C – keep them away from single-glazed windows – rising to 23-27C during the day and give them regular food and water as they have no pseudo bulb for storing these.

This Cambria-type orchid has wonderful two-tone flowers

“You can water from the top, just don’t get it into the crown and water before midday so it has a chance to evaporate,” advises Tom.

When the flowers die back, cut just above the next node down on the stem and a second flower spike will grow and flower within two to three months. Like this, a plant can flower for several years but should be allowed to rest once the new leaves start diminishing in size.

“The plant is telling you it wants a rest.

Cut the flower spike off and reduce feeding and watering to once a month, instead of once a week.

When it comes to feeding, Tom recommends a ‘weakly, weekly’ regime, using quarter strength feed – high potash for any that are reluctant to flower and a general feed for the others.

Cymbidiums need a day-night temperature difference of 13C-25C when in growth from June to August to ensure flowering later in the year. Standing the plants out in dappled shade during the summer will help to ensure the right growing conditions. Give them plenty of light for the rest of the year and water when dry to the touch.

Dendrobiums are prolific when it comes to flowering. They enjoy a moist atmosphere while in growth, such as a bathroom, but should be kept on the dry side over the winter. The most commonly grown are the D. nobile types.

In the right conditions orchids will bloom for weeks

Get the conditions right and some orchids can flower for several years, a feat that few other plants can match. No wonder they inspire such devotion.

Cheltenham and District Orchid Society holds its annual show on Saturday March 5 at Churchdown Community Centre, Churchdown, Gloucester. The show runs from 10.30am to 4pm and admission is £2 with free parking. There will be nursery and society displays, plants for sale, including alpines, advice and a re-potting service for orchids.

More information about the society and growing orchids: https://sites.google.com/a/cheltenhamorchids.org/www/

Experts head for Cotswolds

Shrubs, so often part of the supporting cast rather than the star of a garden, will be thrust firmly into the spotlight at a Cotswold lecture in April.

Chelsea gold medal-winning designer, author and plantsman Andy McIndoe will be showing how choosing the right shrubs can transform your plot.

Andy McIndoe
Andy McIndoe will be talking about shrubs

Andy, who masterminded Hillier Nursery’s 25 gold medal displays at the world famous show, is giving the first in a series of lectures by celebrity gardeners and experts.

The talks are being run by luxury garden shop Allomorphic, which opens in Stroud in March. There are also workshops on offer covering everything from garden design to how to draw.

The business has been set up by award-winning designer and RHS judge Paul Hervey-Brookes who says the opening talk promises to be a lively affair.

“Andy is known to many for his colourful shirts when interviewed on the RHS Chelsea coverage,” says Paul. “I am anticipating his talk to be as wild and flamboyant with a good dose of humour.”

In May, the secrets of the head gardener will be revealed when Benjamin William Pope from Trotton Place discusses ‘The Working Garden’. Trotton, a private estate, was designed by Chelsea gold medalist Arne Maynard and features stunning perennial planting and a large walled, working kitchen garden.

Benjamin William Pope
Head gardener Benjamin William Pope

“Ben will share his passion for getting the very best from a garden with us and revealing his top secrets to glorious success,” says Paul, who is busy planning a show garden for Hampton Court Flower Show in July.

Other speakers in the series include Bob Brown, of Cotswold Garden Flowers, Michaelmas daisy expert Helen Picton, and Rosie Hardy, of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants, who is building her first show garden at Chelsea this year. The talks, priced at £12.50, include wine and nibbles, and a series discount is available.

Bob Brown
Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers

Running alongside the monthly lectures are day and short courses including DIY wedding flowers and floral arrangements inspired by woodland, how to revamp your border, and the basics of drawing using the techniques of the old masters.

Full details and booking are available at http://www.allomorphic.co.uk/

Barnsley leads flower hunt

Barnsley House’s head gardener will be leading the hunt for a rare seasonal flower this Easter.

Richard Gatenby will head a morning trek in search of the meadow Pasque Flower. Extremely rare in the UK, this delicate purple bloom is found in only a few places, including a spot a few miles from Barnsley.

pasque flower
The pasque flower is found near Barnsley House

The trek is open to guests on a special package at Barnsley House, the former home of garden designer Rosemary Verey and now a hotel.

The package, includes an evening screening of ‘Greenfingers’ in the hotel’s private cinema, and use of the spa facilities. Provisional dates, subject to flowering, are April 12/13 and 19/20.

For details and to book call 01285 740000 or email info@barnsleyhouse.com

Review: ‘Happy Home Outside’

Like many gardeners, I rarely sit down outside. Perhaps with a cup of coffee while contemplating the jobs that still need to be done, or for the occasional lunch when the weather is passable. Charlotte Hedeman Guéniau is very different. For her, the garden is a true extension to the house and her latest book, Happy Home Outside: Everyday Magic for Outdoor Life, shows how to use it to the full.

Happy Home Outside

The idea of the garden as an ‘outdoor room’ is nothing new; designers have long encouraged us to move outside with dining areas and corners for sitting. For many that rarely gets beyond a table and chairs and the odd sunbed. Yet this book shows us that we could do so much more.

Hedeman Guéniau, founder of the Danish ethical homeware company RICE, starts with the premise that being outside is good for us: “a bit of fresh air does wonders for the brain and the mental state”. From there it is an easy step to moving life outdoors.

The key, she believes, is making it easy – “No one wants it to be a huge project to enjoy a few hours in the sun.” – and she suggests keeping all you need in easily accessible containers with big baskets her preferred option.

Happy Home Outside
The book urges us to live outside more Picture: Skovdal & Skovdal

The photo-heavy book covers all styles of outdoor living: summer rooms that blend with the garden; al fresco kitchens; outdoor rooms such as a converted greenhouse; treehouses; moveable rooms in caravans and camper vans.

And there are ideas on how to use the space, including outdoor film nights, DIY pizza parties, book club meetings, jam-making sessions and children’s parties.

There’s plenty of practical advice from putting down plastic carpet and mats to stop dirt being trod indoors to using pretty melamine for children’s parties. There are also lots of make-it-yourself projects, including cushions out of tea towels, turning drawers into tables, painting bottles to use as flower vases and even recipes.

Happy Home Outside
Crates can be turned into plant containers Picture: Skovdal & Skovdal

Indeed, lots of her ideas can be done cheaply: old pallets are painted and used to make day beds and swings; crates and wicker baskets are turned into planting boxes.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to outdoor living in Britain is the weather. The answer, Hedeman Guéniau suggests, is making a canopy and having plenty of blankets.

The most striking thing is her use of colour. This is no pastel world but one full of “bright and cheerful accessories”.

Happy Home Outside
Pots are decorated to add colour Picture: Skovdal & Skovdal

This upbeat mood extends to the writing style which can grate a little if, like me, you read it in one sitting. However, as a book to dip into and a source of inspiration it works. Who knows, perhaps even the keenest gardener may be persuaded to put down the secateurs and just sit.

Happy Home Outside: Everyday Magic for Outdoor Life by Charlotte Hedeman Guéniau is published by Jacqui Small, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Jacqui Small.

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Review: ‘The Allotment Cookbook’

I don’t usually curl up with a recipe book, let alone laugh out loud while reading it. Cook books are for dipping into, drooling over the sumptuous pictures, searching for that quick weekday meal or special dinner party dish. The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is different.

The Allotment Cookbook

Let’s get something clear from the start: this is not a guide to growing vegetables. Nor is it merely a series of ideas of how to use them. It falls somewhere in between.

There’s no detailed information on sowing times, planting depths or how to combat the inevitable pests and diseases. Indeed, such information is limited to a general guide at the beginning of each seasonal section of what to sow, what to plant and what to harvest, although occasionally a few recommended varieties creep in. Likewise, this is no glossy, picture-filled tome – ironic in a way as the author’s background is in the visual media. Instead, there are simple line drawings by Nici Holland while the hessian-like feel of the cover has a tactile quality that makes you want to caress it.

What brings these often overlooked ingredients to life is the quality of the writing. There’s an almost lyrical element as Lawrence describes his relationship with vegetables from work on his allotment to inspiration in the kitchen. We hear of the first seeds “snuggled in pots of compost”, onions and shallots are “buried to their necks in fine soil” while “every row, plant, every flower is a recipe-in-waiting”. In this joy for the raw ingredients he has a passing resemblance to Nigel Slater, one of the many well-known chefs with whom he has worked as a television producer.

Beetroot has far more uses than just pickling

He has, he tells us, three motivations for “digging in the rain”: price, the need to eat less meat and concerns over waste. Yet a fourth comes through more strongly than these: flavour. From tasting the sunshine in tomatoes to the subtleness of leeks his enthusiasm for each ingredient is evident.

The book walks us through the seasons from the early promise of asparagus and broad beans, through the inevitable glut of summer and eating “the same crop every day for a fortnight” to the mellowness of autumn and the squash family “little parcels of sunshine and hope” on the black earth, to the sparseness of winter. Learning to appreciate the seasons is, he argues, essential if we are to eat well.

“When you hum the same tune as nature – get into its rhythm – then you will learn to savour produce at its very best.”

Each chapter of the book begins with an overview of what the season holds and his work on the allotment before moving into a series of recipes – punctuated by short sections on individual vegetables – that show how to make the most of what is on offer.

Some are simple; arguably salad leaves with a mustard dressing barely constitutes a recipe. Others are familiar, such as potato pieces roasted with tomatoes, garlic and rosemary, rhubarb crumble or sticky sausages. However, there are more that are unfamiliar, making this a voyage of discovery for even the most experienced amateur cook. All are comfortingly straightforward without obscure ingredients or hours of preparation and will tempt even the most reluctant veg eater to the table.

We tried the ‘Baked Honey Salmon Fillet with Celeriac Puree’, as I still had celeriac in my veg plot. It was a wonderful mix of sweet and slightly sour while pureeing the celeriac elevated this sadly underrated vegetable to fine dining status.

Chard is an underused veg

As the year passes, we learn a little of the author and his family from the rocket-inspired proposal to his now wife to his mint phobia and his eldest son’s superhero plans. His description of the groans that accompany the discovery of yet another would-be marrow and his children’s reaction to a daily diet of courgette are familiar to anyone who has ever grown this prolific crop. “Culinary creativity is the saviour,” he tells us.

Growing vegetables is hard work and at times, when the weather is against you and the pests are rampant, disheartening. But the joy of eating something you’ve grown is “one of life’s most satisfying and fundamental pleasures”.

This optimism and anticipation is what permeates every page of this book and which is ultimately what keeps us all growing. As Lawrence says: “When you have a spade in your hand, there’s always something to look forward to.”

The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

For more book reviews, see here

Cotswold gardens to visit 2016

Whether you’re a gardening novice looking for help, an old hand seeking inspiration, or simply want to enjoy a lovely garden without the work involved, open garden events are a great source of free advice and new ideas. This month sees the season get fully underway with the launch of the National Garden Scheme handbook featuring more than 3,800 gardens across England and Wales.

Formerly known as ‘The Yellow Book’, due to its distinctive colour, the handbook has been renamed Gardens to Visit but this ‘bible’ for garden lovers is still the key to unlock gates to events encompassing rolling estates, country cottages, town centre plots and even allotments.

National Gardens Scheme
The NGS guide opens the gate to thousands of gardens

Since its foundation in 1927, the scheme has donated more than £45m to charity, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Perennial, which helps gardeners in need.

Each garden is ‘vetted’ before being allowed to join the scheme, although the NGS stress plots do not need to be Chelsea gold medal standard to take part. Many have plant sales and most provide tea and cake.

Gloucestershire is a key player in this fundraising and last year contributed around £120,000, just short of the all-time record in 2014.

“It was a very successful year,” says county organiser Norman Jeffery.

Hookshouse Pottery
Hookshouse Pottery is open for several days in May and June

This season, there are several new gardens opening in the county and the return of some old favourites with full details in the county booklet, which has just been published.

The first of the newcomers to open is Beech House in Quenington, near Cirencester. This riverside plot has formal terraces, a herb garden, shrubs and bulbs and opens with The Old Rectory on June 19.

Another combined opening sees Greenfields at Brockweir Common join Barn House for an event on June 26. Unusual plants and shrubs are a feature of this plant lover’s garden, which is divided into smaller ‘garden rooms’.

Littlefield is open in July

Plants and buying them will be the focus of an unusual open event that is also being held on June 26. Oakwood Farm is hosting a plant fair with specialist nurseries and stalls selling gardening accessories.

Awkward Hill Cottage, the home of journalist and author Victoria Summerley, is opening during the afternoon on July 3 and again in the evening on August 28. Set in Bibury, it was completely redesigned four years ago and incorporates both formal and informal planting.

Misarden Park
Misarden Park opens for the NGS in March and June

Also opening in the evening for the first time this year is Hidcote Manor Garden. This world famous National Trust garden has many rare trees and shrubs in a series of outdoor rooms. The event, on June 21, will include talks by the head gardener on the history of Hidcote.

This season sees the return of Cheltenham to the scheme. A group of town centre gardens will be opening on September 18 and showcasing environmental features such as organic fruit and vegetables, wildlife ponds and rainwater harvesting.

Stowell Park
Stowell Park has opened continuously for the NGS for 50 years

“It’s lovely to at last have some gardens within Cheltenham because we’ve not had any for some years,” says Norman.

Many NGS gardens open by arrangement, making them ideal for group outings, and whole village events, such as Stanton and Blockley are a great way of seeing a range of different plots.

Manor Farm Icomb
Manor Farm is open with other Icomb gardens in June

Already Norman is starting to plan ahead for 2017 and he urged anyone considering opening their garden to get in touch.

“It’s not a frightening experience and you don’t have to be a professional gardener to fit into our scheme. It’s just about sharing your garden with others.”

Gardens to Visit 2016, priced at £11.99, is available from bookshops or can be ordered from http://www.ngs.org.uk/

The county booklet is available free, with donations appreciated, from garden centres, bookshops, Tourist Information Offices and libraries throughout Gloucestershire.

Bourton Hill House
Bourton Hill House opens for the NGS in August

Review: Grow Your Own Cake

It had to happen. Sooner or later someone was going to combine the nation’s current obsession with baking and its age-old passion for gardening. In her new book, Grow Your Own Cake, garden writer Holly Farrell does just that but is it a recipe for success?

Grow Your Own Cake

There are numerous ‘plot to plate’ books on the market but most deal with the obvious: courgette anything to cope with the inevitable glut and how to use up tomatoes. This book is dedicated to the sweet side of life, although there is a section on savoury bakes.

I must confess that at first I was puzzled as to how you could ‘grow a cake’; visions of flour and butter didn’t sit well with my idea of a domestic garden. In fact the book assumes you will start with a few store cupboard staples – the recipes try to avoid what Holly calls “uncommon ingredients” – that can be added to crops from the garden and baked “into something delicious”.

The range of recipes is wide from the obvious Carrot Cake to the more unusual Fennel Cake. There are family-sized bakes, such as Rhubarb Crumble & Custard Cake; dainty morsels for afternoon tea, including Flower Meringues and Lavender Shortbread; savouries, such as Spinach & Cheese Muffins; and even some puddings, although you could argue they are not strictly cake.

Grow Your Own Cake
Gooseberry Elderflower Cake © Jason Ingram

The instructions are clear and photographs by Jason Ingram give you an idea of how things should turn out, even though the emphasis is not on prize-winning bakery: “there is more to life than perfect frosting”.

Following the premise that ‘the proof is in the pudding’, I tried out the Beetroot Brownies; thanks to the mild winter there were still some roots in the garden. The verdict: easy to make – the hardest part was grating beetroot without staining myself and the kitchen – and the brownies were rich and chocolatey.

While this could obviously be used merely as a cook book, Holly is clear that growing your own is the best route to take as it frees you from “being slave to the supermarkets’ choices”. This is where the gardening part of the equation comes in.

Grow Your Own Cake
Pea Cheesecake © Jason Ingram

Alongside tips on how to bake – such as putting a ‘crumb layer’ to produce a smooth finished cake – there is guidance on growing. Sections open with a crop and advice on cultivation and varieties followed by a recipe with cross-references to other bakes. General rules – on both baking and growing – are outlined in introductory sections. All are presented in ‘bite-sized’ pieces of advice, making it easy to dip into, while the pastel-shaded headings give a light, magazine feel.

So, does it work? As a recipe book, yes it does. There are some novel ideas yet they are not so outlandish that you can’t imagine ever trying them. As a gardening guide, it is clear and comprehensive but obviously aimed at the novice fruit and veg grower, as established gardeners are unlikely to learn anything new. Perfect as a gift for someone starting out on their growing and baking journey.

Grow Your Own Cake: Recipes From Plot to Plate by Holly Farrell, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

For more book reviews, see here.