Short of growing space? Try a windowsill garden

Franchi Seeds have launched Windowsill Garden kits to bring growing indoors. I’ve been finding out more and
there’s the chance to win a herb kit.

Franchi Seeds may have stocked the ingredients for their Windowsill Garden kits for decades but it was a chance remark that brought them together.

Staff at the family-run firm were eating lunch at their Harrow headquarters when someone commented that it would be even better if they had some basil in the office.

“I thought, we’ve got seeds, we’ve got jars, let’s do something,” explains Paolo Arrigo, who is the seventh generation to run the business founded in 1783.

Like many good ideas  it is simple: take a traditional Italian preserving jar, some biochar and seeds and you can have fresh herbs even if you have no space to grow outside.

“It’s exactly where we sit in the world,” says Paolo. “We are food.”

At first, the Windowsill Garden range was limited to basil, parsley and coriander but such has been its success three more kits are being added – a cherry tomato and chilli with the third as yet undecided.

windowsill garden
The original trio of windowsill kits

“It might be catnip,” says Paolo, “as we have been asked for it.”

The beauty of the kits is that they are straightforward and mess-free. With no holes in the bottom, there’s no danger of flooding desk or windowsill and the biochar soaks up moisture, making it difficult to over-water.

The seeds supplied are Franchi’s own – well known for their easy germination and robust plants; the firm raises all its own seed in Italy.

“You would be growing real Italian basil.”

The half-litre preserving jars are made by B, which has been producing them in Parma since 1825 – I’ve got my grandmother’s jars,” comments Paolo – and they can be washed and used for preserving afterwards.

“They are great for jam or passatta.”

windowsill garden
The firm are trialling nepeta or catnip

And anywhere is suitable for growing, providing it gets enough light from office desks to kitchen windowsills.

“Obviously with a cherry tomato you’re not going to get loads but you get lots of chillies from one chilli plant.”

And Paolo doesn’t doubt the benefits of fresh herbs in food: “In Italy we say you can lift peasant dishes by adding parsley into the food of kings.”

Franchi Windowsill Garden kits are available online here and are due to be stocked by the Royal Horticultural Society.

 Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win the first prize of a set of three Windowsill Garden kits or be one of the runners-up and get a single kit. For details see here This contest has now closed.

Gardeners celebrate spring

cheltenham horticultural society

Cheltenham Horticultural Society starts its 75th anniversary year by filling the town’s Pittville Pump Room with spring colour and fragrance this weekend.

The society’s annual Spring Show is on Sunday April 2 and there are contests for everything from tulips and primroses to marmalade and rhubarb.

There will also be plants for sale both from society members and local nurseries, including Harrells Hardy Plants.

Daffodils will be centre stage with 19 different classes, including one for a container of three bulbs that were supplied by the society last autumn.

Gardeners will also be vying for top honours with trays of pricked-out seedlings, winter vegetables, containers of foliage plants, alpines and orchids.

cheltenham horticultural society
Cheltenham’s Pittville Pump Room will be filled with spring flowers

The cookery section is always hotly contested and there are contests for photography, floral art and a special section children’s entries, including decorated eggs and favourite cut flowers in a vase.

“There will be some really good plants on sale from our local nurseries along with various craft items,” says Dot Ward, society chairman.

cheltenham horticultural society
Daffodils will be one of the main attractions

“At a time when there is so much gloom and doom in the world, our spring show can bring a day which takes us away from it all with the wonderful sight and scent of flowers and vegetables.”

The show runs from noon to 3.30pm on Sunday April 2, 2017 and entry is £1, free to children under 16. For more details, see the Cheltenham Horticultural Society website here

Review: A Little History of British Gardening

history of gardening

My father always used to say that if you hung onto something long enough it would eventually come back into fashion. It appears the same could be said of gardening. Reading Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening, it seems that even fads and fancies of gardening taste have their roots in history.

Very little is new from the idea of a British wine industry – the Romans established vineyards and lifted restrictions on wine production – to seed swapping among enthusiasts, medieval monks we are told “exchanged and bought seeds across the Continent”.

Meanwhile, today’s assertion that growing things is good for physical and mental well-being echoes advice by Shirley Hibberd in 1877 that “Contact with the brown earth cures all diseases”.

history of gardening
Rosemary Verey’s kitchen garden spawned a fashion for potagers

Even the Dig For Victory campaign of World War 2 had its origin in a similar drive during the First World War when city parks produced vegetables and some gardens were turned over to medicinal herbs, themselves reminiscent of the ‘physic’ gardens of medieval times.

The book takes us on a journey through time from the earliest growers – broad beans go back to the Iron Age – to the ordered and organised Romans who “created our first plant-filled spaces intended purely for enjoyment”, the first use of gardens for self-expression under Elizabeth 1, to twentieth century modernist designers such as Brenda Colvin.

While Uglow deals with big movements and landed gentry, such as Lady Rolle, who planted a 500m-long monkey-puzzle avenue at her Devon home, sparking a craze for the trees, the history does not neglect more humble growers. We learn of catching bats with Victorian under-gardener William Cresswell and meet Friar Daniel who is believed to have had 252 different varieties of plants in his 14th century Stepney garden, “perhaps the first botanical garden in Britain and the friar our first gardening expert,” comments Uglow.

history of gardening
Humphry Repton originally designed Sezincote’s water garden

The text is peppered with facts: wheelbarrows arrived in the 1190s, possibly introduced by Crusaders who saw them in the Middle East; Catholics, barred from worshipping under the Stuarts, planted knot gardens with coded religious meanings; rhubarb in white wine was once used as a hair dye. These snippets and the engaging tone lift the book beyond a mere historical account.

A Little History of British Gardening was first published in 2004 and has now been updated and reprinted, with what Uglow describes as “some weeding and tidying of the text”, although the unfortunate placing of Hidcote in Oxfordshire rather than Gloucestershire remains.

At the outset, she says that “Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present”. There’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering that in tending our plots we are continuing something that has been done for centuries.

A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99 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 Chatto & Windus.

More book reviews here

Paul sets a growing challenge

There’s a new contest at the Malvern Festival this year. I’ve been talking to Paul Hervey-Brookes about his plans.

Cotswold designer Paul Harvey-Brookes may be well known for his award-winning show gardens but at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2017 he’s launching a contest on a much smaller scale.

Rather than large, carefully composed herbaceous borders he’s challenging gardeners to combine growing skills with display flair by showcasing just a few plants in an innovative way.

Although Malvern has always had amateur classes including for alpines and pot plants, Paul believes this contest offers something different.

“The Growing Challenge is about how you present things not just how you grow them,” he explains. “It’s about how you can do it creatively so it’s a thing of beauty and has a narrative story.”

growing challenge
A display of ferns and other shade-lovers is one category

The first of the five categories in the contest is for a collection of ferns or shade-loving plants, presented in a stylish way while the second is for a terrarium or group of plants that are growing in a sealed unit.

“It could be with soil or without,” says Paul, who is based in Stroud. “It could be ferns hanging from Kilner jars just with moss.”

Houseplants have seen a recent resurgence in popularity and the third category feeds into this trend. It asks for a trio of houseplants in an imaginative display.

“You can grow them in anything you like so long as it can get to Malvern. It could even be in an old grandfather clock or a tea plant growing out of a teapot.”

Paul’s hoping the fourth category in the Growing Challenge will appeal especially to younger gardeners. It asks for a fruiting plant, such as an avocado, grown from seed, and in a suitable container. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been grown, although the sowing date is needed to gauge the growth rate and condition.

growing challenge
Watering cans could be an unusual planting container

The final category is ideal for those with a small garden or no growing space at all. Competitors have to produce a collection of culinary plants that can be harvested in the kitchen, again with the emphasis on creativity.

“People don’t necessarily have a garden but it needn’t stop you growing things,” says Paul.

And to prove it can be done, Paul is taking the challenge himself and growing something for each of the categories, which he will exhibit at the show in May.

He’s hoping the innovative approach, which is looking for creativity as well as growing skills, will encourage newcomers to have a go.

“I’m really interesting the benefits of nurturing plants and how they can make you feel good about things.”

growing challenge
Prizes will include vouchers for Allomorphic in Stroud

He will be judging the entries with first, second and third prizes in each of the categories. Among the prizes are Sneeboer hand tools, tickets for a lecture and lunch with Paul, and £50 vouchers for Allomorphic, the gardening and lifestyle store he runs in Stroud; an Allomorphic concession is due to open later this month at Jekka’s Herb Farm in Alveston. The best in show winner will receive a £200 border fork.

It all makes for a busy few days as Paul will also be taking the RHS young designers he mentors to Malvern to pick up ideas and chairing the RHS judging panel looking at the Festival’s show gardens, the first time he’s headed a group.

“It’s a huge honour to be chairman of the judges especially as it’s only my second year as a judge,” he says.

“It’s rather apt that it’s at Malvern as it’s where my design career really launched.”

growing challenge
The Growing Challenge will be a new feature of the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

And it’s not the only show where he will be leading a judging panel as he is chair of judges for the Artisan and Fresh categories at this year’s Chelsea and will be chair at the Tatton show as well.

With a big show garden for the Institute of Quarrying at the new RHS Chatsworth Show and a Hampton Court garden for show sponsors Viking River Cruises, he’s also got a hectic design schedule.

“It is going to be a busy year,” he admits, “but I think it’s good to see a judge who’s active in the business of making gardens commercially and putting my money where my mouth is and making gardens at the shows.”

The deadline for entries to the Growing Challenge at RHS Malvern Spring Festival is Friday May 5, 2017. Details can be found here

• The Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14 2017. Ticket details here

RHS Cardiff Flower Show 2017: the stuff of legends

The RHS Cardiff Flower Show is just a short hop over the border from the Cotswolds. I’ve been talking to the new show manager and finding out what 2017 has to offer. Plus there’s the chance to win tickets to the show.

With a name like Rose and what she describes as “plant obsessed” parents it’s hardly surprising that Rose Gore Browne works for the RHS. What few could have predicted though is that she would be running one of their shows at just 25.

The show manager for RHS Cardiff took over last November and is relishing the challenge.

“I’m very excited to be on board for Cardiff,” she says.

Rose was snapped up by the RHS when contemporary garden show Grow London closed last summer; she had worked there since graduating with a business degree.

rhs cardiff
Rose Gore Browne

“It was really great doing Grow and I built up a lot of experience.”

The RHS Cardiff Flower Show opens the season for the society’s big public events and this year runs from April 7-9. Now in its 13th year, it’s the smallest of the RHS shows and has a different feel to the likes of Chelsea.

“I think what we’re trying to do is something different,” explains Rose. “We’re not trying to be Chelsea at all.”

She describes the show, sited in the grounds of Cardiff Castle, as relaxed and welcoming.

“You can walk around in a day without having to fight the crowds.”

rhs cardiff
Cardiff Castle provides a backdrop to the show

Each year, the show has a theme and 2017 sees a focus on myths and legends with several of the show gardens taking their inspiration from tales of magic and folklore, including one designed by Daniel Bodin based on the legend of the Devil’s Bridge and another by Chris Myers Design that takes the legend of Blodeuwedd as its starting point.

“The good thing about RHS Cardiff is that they provide some inspiration that people can take home and recreate themselves without breaking the bank.”

The popular wheelbarrow competition for primary schools also has a Welsh legends theme – “It’s going to be a lot of fun for them and should get their imaginations going.” – and there will be two gardens designed by secondary school pupils as part of the RHS’ Green Plan It competition.

The schools’ wheelbarrow contest is always popular

Wildlife and the steps gardeners can take to support it is another message running through the show. There will be workshops where you can make a bug hotel or seed bomb, information on what to plant and how to style your garden to make it wildlife friendly and giant willow bugs sited throughout the show; they will be travelling to the Hampton Court show and the RHS’ new Chatsworth event later in the year.

More advice will be offered with floristry demos and talks on everything from growing agapanthus and community gardening to the story of Italy’s citrus fruit and how to grow veg.

What many gardeners go for though is the chance to buy plants and there will be around 50 specialist growers at the show. Fittingly for the Welsh capital, one of the main displays will be from Scamp’s daffodils, while Tale Valley Nursery, which specialises in shade-tolerant plants, is the RHS Master Grower at RHS Cardiff with a special display about the nursery.

RHs cardiff
R and A Scamp’s display of daffodils

“We’ve got a lot of the exhibitors who go to Chelsea,” says Rose, “so we’ve got that standard of nursery.

“It’s a great time of year to come and think about what you’re going to do in your garden this year.”

The RHS Cardiff Flower Show runs from April 7-9 2017. For more information, see here

WIN two tickets to the show by entering The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw. See here for details. This contest is now closed.

Photos copyright of RHS/Jason Ingram

Review: Good Soil by Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist & Justine Lagache

For many gardeners, feeding the soil is like the plumbing in a house, essential but frankly uninspiring. Indeed, the women behind Good Soil admit manures and fertilisers are unglamorous. It’s an image they seem determined to change.

From the start, it’s clear this is no ordinary book on the topic. Artwork images, catchy chapter titles – ‘Beauty Sleep’, ‘Magic Carpets’ – and a magazine-style layout lend a sheen of glamour to topics that plumb the very depths of the subject from the effects of different nutrients on plants to how to make a urine tea and the value of composting toilets.

good soil
The book has been beautifully styled

It’s written by Tina Råman, with photos by Ewa-Marie Rundquist and design by Justine Lagache. The trio make it clear that there is far more to good soil than just adding a bit of homemade compost or a dose of plant food. Only by understanding exactly what plants need from the basic nutrients to trace elements will we get the very best results.

The scope of the book is wide starting with why feeding plants is important and moving through different types of manure – cow, horse and even goat – to exactly how to make compost and what biochar is.

good soil
Manure in all its forms is explained

There’s a section on how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them, an examination of the whole organic versus artificial fertiliser debate, and advice on mulches.

Scattered through the book are ‘guest’ appearances by some of Sweden’s foremost gardeners, including Lars Krantz of Wij Gardens, who talks about the need to understand your soil’s temperament, and Göran and Margareta Hoas, whose organic farm is world-renowned.

good soil
Knowing the make-up of your soil is essential

Given the amount of scientific fact that is packed into Good Soil, there was a danger it could have ended up reading like a school textbook. That this trap is avoided is largely down to the jaunty style. Plants, we are told, like “to snack” and the soil is seen as a larder for their food and drink. This meal-time theme runs throughout with compost compared to stock and an application of fertiliser in spring referred to as ‘a hearty breakfast’.

Having examined the reasons for feeding the soil, the authors turn in the later chapters to the different elements of the garden: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables. What to apply and, more importantly, when is explained, with a useful ‘diary’ and rotation plan.

good soil
Fertilising needs to follow the seasons

Some plants, we are told, benefit from growing together, such as, rather aptly, peas and mint, while putting beans among your spuds is another suggestion as the beans “seem to have a ‘generally favourable influence’ on their bedmates”.

It’s useful tips like this that make the book a winner if you want to really understand how to feed the soil rather than the plant.

At the outset, the trio say “being able to wallow in manure has been great fun”. They have done it in style.

Good Soil by Tina Råman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I get a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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A garden crafted by nature

Sometimes nature proves to be the better gardener. So often in my own plot self-sown plants have colonised corners I’d overlooked or created partnerships far better than anything I’d considered. The knack is knowing when to let nature have her head and when to take control.

Home Farm is one of those Gloucestershire gardens where the attraction is not a carefully planned herbaceous border, neatly clipped topiary or clever design. Rather it is the chance to savour a slice of unspoilt English countryside with spring flowers and envy-inducing views.

home farm
Naturalised daffodils are a spring highlight

The garden is one that Torill Freeman has known since childhood – she moved to Home Farm from the nearby Manor House 26 years ago – and she remembers playing in the woods as a child.

It’s these woods, a mixture of larch, sweet chestnut, lime and cherry, that form the backdrop to a spring display that starts with snowdrops and finishes with bluebells.

And most of it has been crafted by nature, with ‘gardening’ kept to the lightest of touches.

home farm
The view stretches to the Cotswold Hills

“The only management I do in the garden is to have the undergrowth cleared once a year between October and Christmas,” says Torill. “Then the spring flowers will all come up.”

The garden has a walk through woods and fields of about half-a mile, which takes around 20 minutes – if you are not distracted by the flowers.

You start at what Torill refers to as ‘Larch Corner’ and, at this time of year, a show of yellow. There’s a large clump of open-faced narcissi – name unknown – and the start of the dainty, Dymock daffodil. This is called after the nearby village of Dymock and grows wild throughout the area.

home farm
The Dymock daffodil grows wild in the area

Torill has added some acid-lovers, including a single, pink camellia that is covered in blooms.

“I was determined to have a single pink, not a double and not a dark pink.”

home farm
The camellia is covered in blooms

Cross a field and the next big display is in ‘Snowdrop Wood’, although it is now sporting shades of pale yellow and mauve rather than white. The snowdrops – the common Galanthus nivalus, both single and double, and another unknown variety – are still in evidence but the display is now being handed on to more Dymock daffodils.

These rise out of a carpet of purple-blue vinca blooms, which, like the daffodils, is a result of nature’s hand rather than Torill’s. It is a beautiful combination.

“Most of my garden is God-given,” observes Torill.

home farm
The purple-blue and yellow make a lovely combination

The next stage is her own work. ‘Spring Spinney’ is a slightly elevated section of path that has been planted up with more open-faced narcissi. When I visited, there were only one or two in bloom but the bulging buds signalled the full display is not far away.

Because the flowers turn to face the sun, visitors walking the suggested route look up into them as they climb the path.

“I had no idea of that when I first planted them,” admits Torill. “It’s just a very happy accident.”

home farm
Vinca covers the ground

The walk ends with‘Bluebell Wood’ where April will see masses of English bluebells and wood anemones. This early in the season, interest comes from a few snowdrops – around 1,000 have been moved up there.

Home Farm also has an area of orchids with the common spotted, early purple and, some years, bee orchids. Again, I was too early to see those.

There’s also a fun element: Torill has planted an ‘Alphabet Wood’ with trees ranging from A to Z, using either their common or Latin names. Among its members are Acer davidii and Zelkova serrata.

home farm
‘Snowdrop Wood’ is turning yellow

Near the house, there’s a small vegetable garden, a wide range of shrubs and an enclosed space full of pink and white winter heathers. Even here, care has been taken not to block the view, which stretches out to the Cotswold escarpment.

It’s a view that Torill never tires of watching and one of the reasons why she opens Home Farm for the National Garden Scheme.

“It changes every hour. It’s quite fantastic. I do so enjoy it but I think it’s very important to share it.”

Home Farm, Huntley, Gloucestershire, is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday March 12, and also on April 9 and 30, from 11-4pm. Admission is £3, children enter free. Visits are also welcome by arrangement. For more information, visit the NGS website.

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