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.

Win some Dalefoot Compost

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.

Dalefoot

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.

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I’ve been trying out the Dalefoot seed compost

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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

Christmas gardening jobs

December is a quiet time in the garden caught between the clear-up of autumn and the busy seed-sowing of spring.

Yet there are still some things that need to be done and what better way to escape the festive frenzy than to ‘disappear’ outside for a while.

Here are some gardening jobs that will while away a few hours over the Christmas break.

Look sharp

Now’s a good time to overhaul your gardening tools – and the potting shed. Make sure trowels, forks, spades and secateurs are cleaned of last season’s grime, blades are sharpened and wooden handles treated with linseed oil for protection.

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Now’s the time to get tools ready

It’s worth putting up some hooks or shelves for storage; there’s nothing worse than wasting time hunting for something.

Check you’ve got enough twine, labels and other gardening bits and pieces now rather than waiting until you need them in the spring.

Plan ahead

If you’re anything like me, you have boxes stuffed with seed packets. Some empty, some half-full. Sorting it out is one of those gardening jobs that pays dividends. Go through and check the sow-by dates; quite a lot will keep but some things – notoriously parsnip, sweetcorn and lettuce – rarely germinate well a second year.

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Get your seeds sorted

Be ruthless. It’s so easy to hang on to something you are never likely to grow (often a ‘free gift’ from a gardening mag). If the seed is still good, why not donate it to a local school, swap it at a garden club or allotment group, or see if there is a Seedy Saturday event near you?

Make a list of what you want to grow and what you need to buy – make sure you include something new. Experimenting is one of the joys of gardening.

Don’t be caught out

British winters are notoriously hard to predict. One year we could be inches deep in snow, the next basking in balmy temperatures. Either way, don’t get caught out.

In the midst of Christmas, it’s easy to neglect those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ plants but it pays to keep a close eye on things in greenhouses and cold frames.

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Keep an eye on things that are seeing out the winter under cover

Make sure heaters are working and that lagging is sufficient. Check that overwintering plants don’t need watering; the recent warm spell has seen things in my greenhouse near wilting. Remove any dying leaves to prevent the spread of disease.

On warmer days, open up the cold frame or greenhouse door for a while to allow air to circulate.

Don’t forget to check for other residents: snails love the shelter of greenhouses and it’s a good idea to regularly check staging and corners.

Look out for pots

If you’ve got pots of bulbs tucked away waiting for their moment of glory in spring, make sure they are in top condition. Lag them with bubble wrap, or move into a more sheltered spot if temperatures drop. Standing them on ‘feet’ will ensure good drainage and help them shrug off winter wet and frost.

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Pots of bulbs are already showing signs of life

I grow mine – including tulips, Iris reticulata and hyacinths, in a corner of the garden and move them into the ‘spotlight’ just as they start to flower. Some are already starting to appear through the soil and will need regular checks to make sure I don’t miss the right moment to show them off.

Help your friends

Keep putting out food for the birds and they will repay you by helping to clear up pests later in the year.

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Old sunflower heads have been feeding the birds

Make sure there is fresh water and disinfect bird tables every so often to help prevent disease.

Bring the outdoors in

If you have one of the wonderfully scented winter shrubs, why not cut a small piece to bring indoors? The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), mahonia and winter box will all scent a room.

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Winter honeysuckle has a wonderful lemon fragrance

Alternatively, if you haven’t planted early hyacinths or ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi, pick up a pot from a local nursery or garden centre and make a note to plant some yourself next autumn. They are the best antidote to the January blues and help to solve that suddenly bare look when the Christmas decorations come down.

Take time out

One of the hardest things for a gardener to do is to stop and appreciate what they have. It is so easy to see what needs doing – weeding, pruning, digging – rather than what you have achieved.

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Fat hellebore buds are full of promise

So as well as the gardening jobs, take the time to walk around your garden and see what’s already on the move. Snowdrops, hellebores and crocus are just some of the things that are starting to appear in my garden. 2017 is already full of promise.

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It won’t be long before the snowdrops are in bloom

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The trials of gardening

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.

Star plant

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.

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Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ proved a winner

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.

Surprising success

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.

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I really liked this cabbage

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.

Blight blues

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.

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‘Crimson Crush’ tomatoes were the first to 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.

Compost testing

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.

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Dalefoot composts are made from wool and bracken

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

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The ‘Egg & Chips’ spud harvest

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

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A white pumpkin is on next season’s list

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.

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Bulb pads make the planting easy

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.

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SoilFixer’s compost humification agent

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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Get seed swapping

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Vegetables are just some of the seeds swapped Pic: Kerry James www.atalllongleggedbird.com

There’s the chance to pick up some unusual seeds, swap gardening tips and talk to the experts at Seedy Saturday this week.

Gardeners can take along a packet of home-saved seed to swap or make a small donation for seed. There will also be onions, garlic, seed potatoes and plants for sale, and nurseries Pennard Plants and Beans and Herbs will have stands. Talks include how to growing potatoes and squashes.

The event is held at Timsbury Conygre Hall near Bath on Saturday March 12 from 10am to 2pm. Entry is £1. Details http://www.seedysaturday.org.uk/

seed swap
Pic: Kerry James www.atalllongleggedbird.com