Like many gardeners, I don’t like using peat and over the years I’ve tried many alternatives. One of my favourites is Dalefoot Composts – not least because it uses renewable ingredients to produce soil improvers and composts.
Dalefoot was set up by Cumbrian hill farmer Simon Bland and his wife Jane Barker, who has a doctorate in environmental science. Drawing inspiration from old gardening books, which described using bracken as fertiliser and sheep’s wool as a method of water retention, they have combined the two to produce composts that can be used as a planting medium or dug into borders to improve the soil.
The bracken, traditionally cut for animal bedding, is harvested as part of the upland management to improve the area’s biodiversity, and the wool comes from the farm’s own flock.
“By harvesting the often ‘waist-high’ bracken we make it much easier and safer to gather our sheep, whilst reducing the cover of this ever-spreading scourge of many uplands,” explains Jane.
“We use wool from our neighbours’ Herdwick and Swaledale sheep to share the benefits of our farm diversification. Plus, using the natural materials on our doorstep makes the perfect recipe for a really sustainable compost.”
Bracken is high in high in potash, while wool has nitrogen, released slowly as it breaks down, and can hold around 35 times its own weight in water.
It took the couple about 12 years to develop the range, trialling it first with local gardeners before beginning to sell it by mail order and at shows, including Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court. It is also available through some garden centres and shops, such as Allomorphic in Stroud.
“Our peat-free composts give gardeners the option of growing in earth-friendly composts that really work and we’re delighted that professional growers are now using them and winning gold medals at shows like RHS Chelsea,” adds Jane.
The range covers all sorts of gardening and all sorts of gardens. The basic ‘Wool Compost’ is ready to use in potting up or planting out.
‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ is designed to be mixed with soil or spent compost, such as the contents of old growbags. It’s ideal for improving thirsty ground like the sandy soil in my garden.
In contrast, ‘Lakeland Gold’ is designed as a ‘clay-buster’ for those with heavy soil while Wool Compost ‘Ericaceous’, as the name suggests, is ideal for planting acid-lovers, such as rhododendrons. It comes in normal and double strength.
Recent additions to the range include a seed compost, which I have trialled and found easy to use, while my seedlings seem to love it. There is also a compost for vegetables and salads, ideal for containers.
• Dalefoot, which was recently featured on BBC 2’s Back to the Land, will be at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival from May 11-14, 2017.
• Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win some Dalefoot Compost.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t confined to those wanting to shed pounds or quit smoking. Gardeners also see the start of the year as the chance to tackle the inevitable ‘to do’ list and gardening resolutions are common.
I’ve yet to come across any gardener who’s happy with what they’ve achieved. There’s always something they want to improve, something new to try or a part of their plot that just isn’t working.
Among the most self-critical are those that open to the public. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like knowing your efforts are going to be scrutinised by visitors.
I’ve been talking to some of the Cotswolds’ National Gardens Scheme members about what they have planned for 2017.
Dealing with a pretty thug
At Littlefield, at Hawling, Thalictrum delavayi is exercising Federica Wilk’s mind. Planted as a companion to pale pink roses in the Rose Garden, it is doing a little too well and self-seeding profusely.
“For the last couple of years, just before the garden open days, I have gone into the borders and thinned the thalictrum drastically in places, to try to strike the right balance between the roses and this very exuberant tall plant,” says Federica. “This is tricky, but extremely satisfying once the job is done.”
This year, one of her gardening resolutions is to start the job early and not leave it until just before the garden opens in July.
Spare plants are potted up and sold on NGS days where they quickly sell out.
“Visitors seem to like thalictrum a lot, probably because of its dainty, light purple bell-like flowers, which go so well with the roses.”
Another of her gardening resolutions for 2017 is replacing the lavenders in the Yew Walk, which have outgrown their allotted space.
‘Hidcote’ and ‘Imperial Gem’ will be replanted in spring.
“They vary in colour only slightly but the overall effect is superb, if the plants are placed diagonally opposite each other along the edge of the sinuous path.”
At the same time, Federica will thin out the Geranium ‘Jolly Bee’ so that it is in scale with the young lavenders.
She is also planning to get the basics right with a concerted effort on producing good compost – a long-held ambition.
“It’s looking promising and from next year perhaps I will never have to buy potting compost from a nursery again.”
Making an early start
At Barn House, Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, an early start is top of the gardening resolutions list.
Leaving the tidy up and division of perennial borders until spring is, says Shirley Sills, proving a race to beat the clock of opening day, as the two-and-a-half acre plot is looked after by just her and her husband, Gordon.
“It’s a rush to clean and clear, split and replant borders in time for our first opening at the end of May and a lot of stress and cutting of corners to achieve it. In fact, this has led to a couple of borders not having had plants split for some five to six years!”
She is trying a different approach this year, and has strimmed all the perennials and left the dead top growth as a protective layer and habitat for insects over winter. This will then be raked off in spring, something she is hoping will take days rather than the usual weeks.
“This largely due to fact that new growth has started before I’m ready to tackle it, which involves more care in clearing borders. It’s an experiment but one I hope will work.”
Removing some trees that are growing into the boundary of this walled garden is going to lead to a rethink of one area.
“This will let a lot of light into a previously dark corner but one that until now I’ve been able to ignore as part of a woodland area so needing little maintenance.”
The resulting space is going to be an east-facing border of around 20m wide and 2m deep that will still have a few trees in it, including espaliered apples, a perry pear and Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’. Clearing the rampant ground elder will be the first task.
“I have promised Gordon that I will not add to our workload with whatever I plan,” says Shirley. “Neither of us are getting any younger and there’s already too much work for us in this garden.”
Taking back control
New possibilities thanks to the removal of trees is also shaping the gardening resolutions of Celia Hargrave at Trench Hill, Sheepscombe.
A large area has been cleared of old or dangerous trees and replanted with new plus a mix of cornus and euonymus for stem and leaf colour. One of the felled trees has been turned into a dragon-shaped seat.
“The area is now covered in weeds because we have let in more light and moved soil, explains Celia.
She is determined to “get this area back under control” and plans to plant it with ferns, hellebores, cyclamen and spring flowering bulbs.
“I must also make a decision on how much of this area will be completely tended and how much will be allowed to become more like the majority of the established woodland. The decision is difficult as more creativity leads to more maintenance!”
The second of her gardening resolutions is making more of her vegetable garden. Feeling it has been somewhat neglected this year, she is hoping to be more organised both in terms of what she grows and how she uses it.
Top of the list is not over-planting things such as runner beans, staggering the sowing of salad crops and keeping a closer eye on courgettes so that they do not become marrows.
“I love the idea of a beautifully ordered vegetable area but never feel that I achieve this so it seems that early preparation followed by regular maintenance and use is key.”
Creating a new look
The New Year will see some major changes at Brockworth Court, near Gloucester. Tim Wiltshire is planning to revamp both the pond and garden by the historic Tithe Barn.
A new jetty, new path to the water’s edge and some, as yet, unspecified new planting are all top of his gardening resolutions.
“Probably the jetty will be painted the same green as the Monet bridge but I have not yet decided.”
He is also changing the look of the rose area by creating a pebble path around the central border. It’s going to be edged in cobbles that were in the old stable building.
“There’s a bit of recycling going on.”
Adding box hedging on the outer borders will complete the revamp.
Filling in the gaps
Kate Patel at Barn House, near Chepstow, which is known for its grass collection, has a long list of gardening resolutions headed by tweaking what she describes as a “weak corner” in front of her kitchen window.
Originally purple echinacea were used as a contrast to a band of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and drifts of Sedum spectabile but over the years the coneflowers have dwindled leaving noticeable gaps in the display.
Kate has already added clumps of Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ to give some more interest but says the two grasses are crying out for a contrasting hue.
“The answer would be to sharpen the spade and divide the congested clumps of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Pink Glow’ and then remember to Chelsea chop them (done a little later in early June here) to keep them at the right height to contrast with the taller grasses behind them.”
Veronicastrum has already been used as a contrast further down the bed.
“It makes a stunning combination of seed heads against winter-blond grass that lasts right through the dreary winter months.”
Kate is also planning to boost the spring display by adding more bulbs, such as tulips. These need regular replanting as few like the combination of her heavy clay soil and wet winters but she believes it’s worth the effort for the effect of colour among the newly emerging foliage of deciduous grasses.
Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ is another combination that she likes with the purple pom-pom heads of the allium looking good coming through the nepeta, which in turn hides the uninspiring foliage of the allium.
Other gardening resolutions include renewing some ageing compost bins and growing more veg in 2017. Over the past few years, the vegetable beds have been used mainly for raising grasses and perennials either to restock the garden or to sell on NGS open days.
“Now I think it’s time to earmark a few of them for the things I’ve missed most like artichokes, multicoloured beetroots, borlottti beans and colourful squashes that are almost impossible to buy around here but that both taste good and look so attractive in a bowl on the kitchen table.”
Most importantly, she is planning to take the time to appreciate her garden in 2017.
“I want to set my never-ending To-Do list aside and make more time to just sit and enjoy the garden over a cup of tea while watching the dogs play in their paddock.”
As gardening resolutions go, that’s one we should all try to follow.
As a gardening journalist, I’ve long been given plants, seeds and bits of kit to test in my own plot. Some are established favourites with growers, others things firms are keen to promote, occasionally it’s a variety so new it has yet to be named and it comes with just a reference number. Gardening trials are a great way to discover new things and push the boundaries of what you grow.
This season has seen me raising everything from cosmos to cabbage and testing a peat-free compost. There have been a few disappointments and one or two surprises.
Possibly the stand-out plant of the year was Petunia ‘Night Sky’ from Thompson & Morgan (pictured above) mainly because I really didn’t expect to like it. I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. On the one hand, they are a useful summer bedder for containers but they need a lot of dead-heading to look good – something I find a horribly sticky job.
‘Night Sky’ seemed even less likely to appeal as I expected the white-splashed dark purple blooms to be a bit garish.
In fact, I rather grew to like them. The purple had a velvety sheen to it and the white splashes gave them a cheerful rather than comical look.
I put them in a pot with Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, also supplied by Thompson & Morgan. Launched in 2015, it has pale yellow flowers that fade at the edges and a darker, golden centre. The plants are dwarf, making them ideal for containers.
If there was a problem with them, it’s deadheading, as the flowers are packed onto the stems, making it difficult to snip off spent blooms without accidentally removing flower buds.
There were a few plants over after I filled my container so I put them in some spare ground I had in one of the borders. Expectations were low as it’s one of the shady spots but the cosmos performed well, flowering happily in the semi-shade.
Cabbage was another surprise in this year’s gardening trials. It’s not something I usually bother to grow. Brassicas are fraught with difficulty thanks to cabbage whites and the garden’s resident wood pigeons – there’s only so much ground you can net – and I prefer to use precious space for something that’s a bit more unusual and difficult to buy, such as cavolo nero.
However, with a packet of ‘Gunma’ seed from Marshalls, I decided I might as well give cabbage a go. I limited the trial to half-a-dozen plants and began to wish I’d grown more. The cabbages are tightly packed, crunchy and with a good flavour. Definitely one to repeat.
Tomatoes are a family favourite and one of my main crops; I generally grow about six different varieties, ranging from cherry type to large Italian varieties for cooking.
This year, I was asked by Suttons to grow ‘Crimson Crush’ as part of my gardening trials. Billed as 100 per cent blight resistant, it is a cordon variety producing large fruit.
Did Suttons know something? For the first time in years my garden, along with those all around, succumbed to a bad attack of blight. And yes, the ‘Crimson Crush’ fell victim along with the other varieties. That said, it was among the last to get it.
What was noticeable was that in a poor growing season – the tomatoes set badly and very late – ‘Crimson Crush’ was the first to fruit, producing weeks before some of the others, both in the greenhouse and outdoors. It wasn’t my favourite to eat raw, but that’s just personal taste as I prefer smaller, sweeter varieties. However, it’s size does mean that it’s not too fiddly to cook with.
The blight rather curtailed another of my gardening trials: peat-free compost from Dalefoot. I had been growing a few tomato plants in my ordinary peat-free mix and a few in Dalefoot’s new ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’.
The Dalefoot range, from Cumbria, combines sheep’s wood and bracken, both renewable resources, and claims to cut the need to water by up to half, while providing a steady release of nutrients.
What I did find, before the tomato plants bit the dust, was that those grown in the Dalefoot product were significantly bigger than their counterparts, with exactly the same watering and feeding regime.
I tried the ‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ on a couple of my veg beds to see if it would improve the free-draining, sandy soil. It’s a difficult thing to judge, but certainly the squash fared better there, the sweetcorn grew strongly and the soil had a better texture.
Finally, the ‘Wool Compost for Seeds’ was easy to use and produced good germination. I particularly liked its lump-free texture, quite different from other peat-free composts I’ve encountered. Had I been more organised, I would have tested it against the same seed sown in a different medium but sometimes life’s just too busy.
If there’s a drawback, it’s the price. At £10.99 plus delivery for a 30L bag of the standard ‘Wool Compost’, if you order 2-11 bags, it’s not a cheap option. Prices do drop, the more you order – perhaps with a group of friends or through a gardening club – but it could be too expensive for those on a tight budget. It is also stocked in some garden centres, which would take the delivery charge out of the equation and it could be mixed with home-produced compost to eke it out.
A disappointing dish
Possibly the most disappointing thing in the gardening trials was unsurprisingly, Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Egg & Chips’ plant, an aubergine grafted onto a potato. Despite being mollycoddled in the greenhouse, it produced just one aubergine and a handful of spuds. Not bad until you consider the £14.99 price tag for the 9cm grafted plant. Definitely in the gimmicky but not a serious contender category.
Planning for spring
So much for 2016. I’m already looking ahead to the next growing season and new gardening trials. A spotty nasturtium, courgette and pea suitable for containers, two-tone tomato and white pumpkin are already lined up for the gardening trials.
I’ve also just planted up pots using a new planting collection – ‘Winter Wonder Gro Thru’ – put together by Unwins containing a mixture of tulips, crocus and grape hyacinths.
The bulbs are packaged in three ‘bulb pads’ designed to make the planting quicker and easier. All you do is put a layer of compost in a pot, put in the first pad, add more compost and so on, finishing with the viola plugs that come with the kit. The pads are numbered and even tell you which way up to place them in the container.
I’m not sure if this will appeal to experienced gardeners as it limits your choice and ‘bulb pads’ seem unnecessary for what isn’t a particularly difficult job. However, at £19.95 for enough to fill two pots, it’s reasonably priced. There is also a ‘Spring Fireworks’ version, which has narcissi, Dutch iris, chionodoxa and pansies.
It’s all in the soil
Finally, I will be trying out a new compost accelerator and a soil improver that have been launched recently by SoilFixer.
The Northumberland-based company claims that compost made with its activator will double crop growth and yield, while the ‘SF60 Super Soil Improver’ is said to greatly improve water retention while adding important nutrients. My lightweight soil sounds the ideal testing ground.
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