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/

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 snowdrop gardens 2016

Snowdrop gardens are a highlight of winter, a chance to get outside and an early sign that spring is on the way. Here in the Cotswolds we are lucky to have several gardens that open for the snowdrop season ranging from those with specialist collections to others with mass displays.

This year there are more than ever as the National Gardens Scheme is launching its first Snowdrop Festival with more than 100 plots across England and Wales opening during February.

Add those to the gardens that open independently and there’s plenty of opportunity to get out and marvel at these dainty white blooms.

Here’s a quick look at some of the area’s snowdrop gardens. Several will be featured on ‘The Chatty Gardener’ in more detail over the next few weeks.

In severe weather gardens may close. Do check before travelling.

Cotswold Farm

Snowdrops have been a part of this Arts and Crafts garden at Duntisbourne Abbots since it was developed in the early 20th century. The collection has 62 varieties, including ‘Cotswold Farm’, which are clustered under shrubs or conveniently set at eye level in the rock border. Mass displays are spread throughout the woods.

Galanthus nivalis 'Wendy's Gold'
Cotswold Farm’s collection includes ‘Wendy’s Gold’

Cotswold Farm opens for Cobalt on February 6 and 7 from 11-3pm. It is also open on Mondays February 8, 15, 22, 29. Admission is £5, children enter free. Details: www.cotswoldfarmgardens.org.uk

Featured at: http://thechattygardener.com/?p=1063

Painswick Rococo Garden

One of the Cotswolds quirkiest gardens, the tradition of visiting Painswick Rococo Garden to see the snowdrops stretches back to Victorian Snowdrop Sundays.

Today, the garden is known for its mass display of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, although there are some smaller areas of named varieties. All are set against its iconic follies, including the Exedra and Red House.

The garden is open daily from 10.30-5pm. Details: http://www.rococogarden.org.uk/

Featured at http://thechattygardener.com/?p=677

Colesbourne Park

One of the biggest collections of snowdrops in the area, with 250 varieties, there are clumps of rarities for the snowdrop obsessed – better known as galanthophiles – and massed displays through woods for the rest. The winter garden also features cyclamen and hellebores while the curiously coloured lake is a highlight.

Colesbourne Park
Colesbourne Park has one of the best specialist collections

Colesbourne Park, between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is open Saturday and Sundays from 1pm to 4.30pm from January 30/31 to February 27/28. Admission is £7.50, children enter free. Details: http://www.colesbournegardens.org.uk/

Featured at: http://thechattygardener.com/?p=977

Trench Hill

One of the stalwarts of the National Gardens Scheme, Trench Hill shows how snowdrops can be used as part of a mixed display. The highlight is the woodland walk where snowdrops, aconites and cyclamen will be followed by hellebores, narcissi and pulmonaria.

Trench Hill, at Sheepscombe, is open as part of the NGS Snowdrop Festival on February 14 and 21 from 11am to 5pm. Admission is £4, children enter free.

Batsford Arboretum

Batsford Arboretum
Snowdrops are a winter feature at Batsford Arboretum

It may be an arboretum but Batsford has worked hard over recent years to extend its interest beyond trees. Snowdrops mark the start of a long spring display covering aconites, hellebores and narcissi. Far reaching-views make Batsford a great place to enjoy the winter Cotswold countryside.

Details: http://www.batsarb.co.uk/

Snowshill Manor & Garden

Rather than one big display, Snowshill Manor has snowdrops woven through its two-acre plot with aconites and hellebores also in flower now.

One of the National Trust’s smallest gardens, it is opening for just two days in February ahead of the start of the 2016 season in March.

Snowshill Manor garden will be open for the National Gardens Scheme on Saturday and Sunday February 13 and 14 from 2-4pm. Admission is £3.50, children’s entry free.

The Old Rectory

Designer and writer Mary Keen has been developing The Old Rectory at Duntisbore Rous for the past 20 years. Snowdrops are one of her interests and she has a number of different varieties. They are used with aconites and cyclamen to give a colourful winter welcome to the garden and are also found under fruit trees and in the ‘Wild Garden’. There is also a sizeable display of hellebores.

The Old Rectory
Snowdrops, hellebores and cyclamen at The Old Rectory

The Old Rectory is open for the NGS on Monday February 22 from 12-4pm. Admission is £5, children’s entry free.

Home Farm

Wild flowers are the backbone of the mile-long woodland walk at Home Farm, starting with snowdrops and moving on later in the season to wild narcissi, wood anemones, orchids, bluebells and primroses.

Home Farm is open for the NGS on Sundays January 31 and February 14 from 11am-3pm. Admission is £3, children enter free.

Cerney Gardens

This romantic secluded garden set in a valley in North Cerney has a fine snowdrop collection that has been built up over many years. Named varieties are found in the central walled garden and beds near the entrance while the snowdrop walk through surrounding woodland has mass displays of the common snowdrop mixed with aconites. The garden also has a large display of hellebores.

Cerney Gardens
Cerney Gardens has a snowdrop walk

Cerney Gardens, North Cerney, are open daily from January 20 from 10am to 4pm. Admission is £5, children’s entry £1. Details: http://www.cerneygardens.com/

Rodmarton Manor

One of the Cotswolds’ many Arts and Crafts gardens, Rodmarton Manor has a notable collection of around 150 different varieties of snowdrops. Winter is also a good time to see the ‘bones’ of this garden from the pleached limes to the Cotswold stone walls that divide it into rooms.

Rodmarton Manor is open on February 7, 14, 18, and 21 from 1.30pm. Garden only entry is £5, £1 for children aged 5-15. Details: http://www.rodmarton-manor.co.uk/

Newark Park

Newark Park falls firmly into the mass display group of snowdrop gardens. Rather than named rarities, the emphasis is on the effect of thousands of bulbs in woodland and on lawns alongside the former hunting lodge.

Newark Park
Newark Park concentrates on a mass display

Newark Park is open for snowdrops from 11am to 4pm from Saturday February 13 to Monday February 29 inclusive, closed on Tuesdays. Admission is £7.80, £3.90 for children, under-fives enter free. Details: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/newark-park


Designed for year-round interest, this private garden has naturalised snowdrops in the ‘Millennium Wood’ and through a grove of silver birch. Clipped hedges and topiary give strong structure to the garden, which is set high on the Cotswold escarpment.

Camers, Old Sodbury, South Gloucestershire, is open from February 1 for parties of 20 or more. Details: http://www.camers.org/index.html

Snowdrops are used under silver birch at Camers

Details of the National Gardens Scheme Snowdrop Festival: http://www.ngs.org.uk/