A 'Blooming' Good Reason for Growing Houseleeks

Succulents have, by and large, passed me by for most of my green-fingered life. It was only when I began planning my wedding and looking at more masculine table settings and bouquets, that I began to realise just how wonderful Sempervivum (houseleeks) are. Until then I knew them only for nostalgic r…

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Making a Case for Violas

There’s no love lost between Pansies and I. I’m not really a big fan of gaudy flowers, and I’m afraid I normally put pansies in this category. Add the fact there’s a vast amount of deadheading to do throughout the season, not to mention these plants tend to be short-lived and get very straggly, and …

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Plant Pick - Growing Hollyhocks

I’m the first to admit I’m not a fan of short-lived plants. I like to plop a plant in and leave it, allowing its perennial nature to keep it growing year after year. All this annual and biennial sowing nonsense; no, I can’t be doing with that. Aside from a few plants, however. And one of these is th…

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Plant Pick - Growing Dahlias

‘Tis very much the season for dahlias. I’m a huge fan of these blooms, though I admit, I have a slight love/hate relationship. There are a vast array of varieties in the dahlia collection, from sinewy, single-petalled bloomers to small, clump forming plants with huge, gaudy flowers. It’s the latter …

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Plant Pick - Growing Tulips

If you hadn’t heard, it’s September already. That means it’s time to plant bulbs for a spring show in 2015. And, if you’re stocking up, then it’s definitely time to be thinking about tulips.

I often think that tulips are one of the more overlooked bulbs. We all fill our gardens with daffs, crocus…

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Plant Pick - Growing Osteospermum (Cape Daisy)

I always feel as if some plants are vastly overlooked for tropical looking species and varieties that are new on the scene. Osteospermum (African Daisy), for example, seems to have a new colour shade coming out every years. However, I still have an extremely strong affection for Osteospermum jucundu…

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Plant Pick - Growing Sedum (Herbsfreude)

Okay, hear me out; Yes, Sedum Herbstfreude is an extremely common plant that may seem rather dull to you. BUT, I feel this plant is often overlooked. It has a huge number of positives; it’s wildlife friendly, it’s easy to grow, it has fantastic cover during late summer/early autumn AND it provides s…

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Plant Pick - Growing Skimmia

Okay, I know it’s still summer, but winter will be here before you know it. I’m honestly hoping for a cold snap this year – the wet, grey winter of 2013 was horrendous; I don’t think we had even one frost in London. That’s BAD for plants – they need dormancy. And it’s BAD for gardeners – we need a r…

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Plant Pick - Growing Thrift (Armeria)

I think I must’ve first come across Thrift (Armeria) when I was a lad holidaying in Scotland. Our family didn’t head abroad, but jumped in the car and journeyed to the stunning landscapes of the Lake District, Scotland and Northumberland. I distinctly remember great swathes of thrift clinging to the…

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Plant Pick - Growing Aquilegia

 

I grew up with aquilegia’s in the garden, and remember being around these plants from when I was tiny. As such, I don’t really think of them as all that exciting. Many species, particularly the wilder varieties, can be fairly bland and though the dainty flowers offer a welcome treat spring…

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On My Oasis – ’tis the season to be merry….for gardening!

It may be RHS Chelsea week, but like I’ve got time for that! Things are growing like mad here. It’s a welcome sight to see things going right for a change, and with sporadic rain and warmer weather comes flowers and a proliferation of vegetable growth. Of course, it also means a ridiculous pollen count and stuffy noses all round which hasn’t been enjoyable, but it’s easier to find a way through feeling like crap when there are plants to keep you happy.

The Market Garden

I’m happy to report that most things are doing well here. I’ve left my Bok Choi a little bit too long and as a result it’s bolted and flowered. So, gone are the nice compact little Asian greens; they still taste good though! However, the strange lack of blackfly continues, and as a result, the broad beans are looking marvellous. Carrots, onions, radishes, beets and kale are doing great, and I’m trying to remember to do repeat sowings of things. In addition, my second attempt of aubergine and pepper germination has worked this time and I’ve got lots (probably too many) of young plants that will soon be ready to pot on.

The kale continues to grow rapidly.

Carrot leaves really are beautiful. The second sowing is also beginning to appear.

Lettuces in the vertical garden are proving the system works!

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A lack of blackfly this year is helping broad beans

The Ornamental Gardens

Meanwhile, life in the ornamental gardens finally gets underway. I love herbaceous plants, not by choice I add, but I seemingly gravitate towards them. It means, however, that the garden looks near-on empty for the winter months and it’s not until May that the borders really begin to fill out. I must get some more structural evergreens in the future to provide year-round interest. But, as with the kitchen garden, there’s lots of life appearing, with new growth and flowers appearing on a daily basis.

In love with these alpine asters. Need to take lots of cuttings and also attempt to grow from my own seed this year.

It’s almost allium time.

This perennial cornflower is a cutting of my mother’s from over a decade ago.

The Poultry Yard

Indeed, there is even more life expected on the poultry side of things. Gertrude the broody silkie is down on eight d’Anver eggs, and the six little Naked Neck and Ixworth chicks are growing fast. Also, very excitingly, I’m due for a hatch of coturnix quail…starting tomorrow! What the hell am I going to do with them all? And as soon as the incubator’s free, I’ve got another six d’Anver eggs to go in – this time a pure white show quality stock.

These coturnix quail (and four chinese painted quail) eggs are due to hatch starting tomorrow.

So, that’s life On My Oasis in a nutshell. I’m sure I’ll be watching A LOT of RHS Chelsea this week and getting inspired for the future. Happy gardening, and hope everything continues to thrive with you!

Hunting for Our Lost Ladybirds

Ladybugs, or Ladybirds as we call them in the UK, are a jewel of a nature. In addition, they’re a gardener’s best friend too. In my childhood years I remember spending many happy days in the vicarage gardens hunting down these beautiful insects and collecting them in jam jars. Even back then I was obsessed with conservation, and at about 10 years old, I set up a breeding colony of ladybirds in an old aquarium in my bedroom. My mother was far happier with me collecting aphids to feed these bugs than she had been when I announced I was setting up a snail hotel, and soon enough there were clusters of tiny yellow eggs on everything. It was wonderful as they hatched, and munched and made their pupae and then turned into adults. And it seems, perhaps, I should have carried on this tradition because our lovely garden lady seems to be disappearing.

Is it just me, or are there far fewer of these pretty insects about?

I took them for granted when I lived in London; native species were few and far between, but the Harlequin invader was EVERYWHERE. Out here, just 30 minutes drive from the capital, even those Asian intruders are not to be found. Until today I’d probably only seen three or four ladybirds locally – the bright red shining through fresh green blades of grass. Today, I was thankful to see not only a tiny pine ladybird, but a mating pair of 22-spot ladybirds; hurrah for future babies! But where are the hundreds of colourful bugs I used to see as a child?

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A pair of 22-spot ladybirds making new ladybirds amongst the broad beans.

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A lonesome pine ladybird…hopefully looking for a mate.

The potential loss of British ladybirds is not only worrying for general conservation, but a major problem for gardeners’ too. This is especially true as our winters become milder and, as a result, aphids are not killed. This year, I’m sad to say, there’s been greenfly in my greenhouse throughout the winter. In fact, there have even been a few colonies surviving on outside plants too. With no major frosts to kill them, they’re surviving the year round. And with fewer predators in early spring, their numbers are getting out of control. I, for one, continue to squish and spray with washing-up liquid where possible, but I fear that some people, fed up of the organic approach, will begin dipping back into the chemical spray market just to solve the darn nuisance.

With such concerns, my eyes are now on the lookout wherever I go for one of these beauties. Perhaps this is just an Essex phenomenon. Maybe there are other areas where this vibrant insect is thriving. I certainly hope to see growing numbers in the future; in fact, my boyhood escapades seem rather fitting to undertake again. I hope that one day soon, my plants and garden will soon be full of these lovely garden friends once again.

Have you noticed a drop in numbers? Or have you found the opposite? Let me know in the comments!

How to Grow Strawberries in Vertical Gardens

I know, I know; another vertical gardening post. But there’s a reason – it seriously works, especially if you want to boost your strawberry crops.

You know the story. You watch as strawberry plants burst into flower. The fruits set and your mouth begins to water as those berries begin to swell and take on their red tint. Then, you got to pick and – BAM – a slug’s eaten the entire inside and left only the shell (or, as happened to me, you step into your front garden to discover some swine has come by and nicked your crop)! There’s only so much a good packing of straw can do to protect these fruit from every other blighter that wants to eat them.

Growing strawberry crops off the ground has all manner of benefits. Obviously, there’s the pest issue, but there’s also the picking advantage too; it’s much easier to harvest your fruit when you’re not kneeling and scrabbling around in the dirt. Weeding is easier, as is planting. Strawberries need very little in the way of soil to grow, so even a small trough or gutter provides enough enrichment. As long as you replace the soil each year, your plants will be fine. In fact, this makes the management of your strawberry bed better too as older plants need throwing out to be replaced with fresh offshoots.

Last year, whilst gutting and renovating the new house, I pulled out a large wood box that was hiding away unsightly pipes running up a wall; though, it has to be said, I prefer the industrial copper to this ugly veneered wood. Perfect for a strawberry bed, I thought! After a bit of spray paint, it was fixed to the fence, filled with some earth and the plants added. Now, we have tonnes of flowers and, hopefully, fruit to come.

Step 1: Try and beautify an old pipe cover.

Step 2; spray the visible outer edges in this nice, metallic grey.

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Step 3: Fix to fence. It’s quite lightweight so nothing major needed other than a few screws.

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Step 4: Add dead-ish plants nabbed at the last moment from old house. Cross fingers and hope there’s growth.

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Step 5: Breathe a sigh of relief as leaves appear.

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Step 6: Await fruit!

You can use all manner of things to grow strawberries in, from special pots to homemade containers such as this. As a wooden structure, it won’t last terribly long but I don’t mind that. I’m working with what I have and recycling where possible. Guttering works equally as well – in fact Claire over at SmallholdingDreams – has an entire strawberry jungle set up with guttering. The nice thing about this idea is you can literally go wild and line all your fences with multiple tiers. Better still, it doesn’t only work for strawberries, but lettuces and mesclun mixes too!
 

On My Oasis – Veggie Progress and Chicken Auctions

I hope you’ve all been enjoying the UK’s year-in-a-week! Gales, monsoons, baking heat and frosts in severn days. Mother Nature better have got it out of her system because I want to get on with gardening! Rain and sun I’m all for; that results in proliferate growth. Frosts when the greenhouse and sun room are filled with young plants? No thanks!

Despite those few cold nights, life on my oasis has been, unsurprisingly busy. Its the season for weeds, and month of May is normally when my allotment turns to a jungle that’s out of control. This year; no allotment. In their place, raised beds at home where I can potter. Results? Wonderful veggies!!

The Market Garden

Progress in the maket garden is progressing nicely. I’ve given away a lot of spinach and bok choi as taste tests, both to friends and egg-buying clients. I haven’t actually sold any veggies yet, but that’s mostly because I’m waiting for the food-venue registration period (28 days) to go through with the local council. But, there’s lots of progress in the vegetable beds and aside from those poor, mutilated French beans from last week, there are encouraging signs.

Radish ‘bright lights’. Note; they shouldn’t be this close together!

Carrots ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Yellowstone’ germinated well. However, ‘Amsterdam 2’ has been poor.

After the disaster of plug sown beets, I’ve gone direct. Moneta is proving a poor germinator, but ‘Red Ace’ has been great. Remember, each seed is a cluster of seeds, so you have to prick them out.

The lettuces transplanted into the vertical garden are thriving

 The Ornamental Garden

Things are a little slower to get started in the ornamental garden, mostly because you’re tracking flower progress and not harvests. Still, there’s a lot of growth, and I’ve been feeding the pyracantha like crazy because I need proliferous growth so I can start tying it into the trellising and forming the foundations of a hedge.

I have A LOT of seedlings and cuttings on the go, mainly that will be sold later this year as part of extended Market Garden efforts. My Spanish Flag plants, though slow to start, have also begun to spring upwards and send out lots of trendrils so over the next week I’ll probably plant the first few out in the garden; I CANNOT WAIT to see these flower.

Geums never fail to put on a show.

The first marigolds are open. These were sown in autumn, hence the early flowering. I’ll be making hand lotion this year – a new craft!

These apline asters are preparing to flower. A new favourite plant!

Who says plants don’t move? This sempervivum looks like it’s walking away!

The Poultry Yard

After the chicken traumas of late, things seem to be settling down. Phoenix continues to heal at an astounding rate; I’m gobsmacked to be honest. Meanwhile, three of the new hens have been integrated into the main flock, whilst one remains in quarantine. She’s not eating a lot, laid a shell-less egg middle of last week and just seems a bit peaky. Meanwhile, the incubator’s full of quail eggs, and Gertrude (the broody Silkie) has been given her wish and is now brooding 11 d’Anver eggs.

Egg sales are going tremendously well. In a lower income area, and with Aldi just down the road where you can get 10 eggs for a £1, I wasn’t expecting too large a demand. Seems I was wrong, and people are more than happy to pay £1.50 for half a dozen fresh eggs. With the new hens, egg count is up to about 7/8 eggs a day and when they settle in, I hope this will improve to the 12 daily egg target.

It’s also time for some of my young girls to head out to auction. Last month my lovely teenager Ayam Cemani rooster headed out and found a new home; I heard today he’s in with his ladies now. Now, it’s the turn of these three pullets; a black Poland hen, a black Polski (Silkie/Poland hybrid) and a white Polski. They’ll be headed to a mid-Essex auction on Sunday.

This trio are headed to auction.

Lastly, we’re almost halfway through fundraising efforts for the owl nestbox campaign. I would REALLY appreciate it if you could take a look at the page and share it with your friends and social media followers. Even just £2, the price of morning coffee, could help give these owls a chance so the more eyes you can help me get on the project, the better!

Thanks and have a great week!

Vertical Gardening with Recycled Plastic Bottles

I’m a fan of recycling. I also have a love of thrifty gardening and trying new things. So, when I stumbled across a YouTube video by Willem van Cotthem talking about building a bottle tower garden to grow plants in, I was intrigued. Despite having a much larger garden since the move, I’ve still pretty much managed to fill it already. As a result, space is at a premium, and finding a new way to go up is definitely a good thing. Also, with my lettuces being constantly nibbled on the ground, I’m wondering whether vertical garden will safeguard those tender leaves from an army of slugs and snails (though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until they discover this cafe in the sky).

The process of building one of these vertical towers is extremely easy. You’ll need several plastic bottles (I found it works better if they’re the same type i.e. all Coke 1.5 litres, or all Evian water…etc), a way to fix them to the wall or fence, soil, scissors and that’s about it.

If you want a quick fix or would prefer to sit back and relax, I posted a Brimwood Farm how-to/new project video. It might make it simpler to understand the assembly of the tower too, though I’ve tried to outline the steps below.

 

Steps for Building the Tower

  1. Remove the bottom of a bottle so you’re left with a little saucer about an inch high. Turn the bottle upside down, leave the cap on, and make a small hole just above where the neck begins to funnel. This will be the lowest bottle in the tower. Leaving the cap on and making a hole means a small reservoir of water will always be held, but any extra liquid can seep out to prevent the entire system becoming waterlogged.
  2. For the second bottle, remove the bottom again and also the cap. Attach the base bottle to the wall, fill with compost, and push the inverted second bottle into the soil so that the neck is firmly embedded in the soil of the bottle below.
  3. Keep building your tower this way, removing the bottle caps, filling the bottles with soil and tying them into the fence to keep your tower sturdy.
  4. When it comes to your final bottle (my towers are seven bottles tall), remove the bottom but leave the cap on this time. Make a small hole in the cap before pushing it into the final soil-filled bottle. This is your watering reservoir. Each time you water, fill up this top bottle and the small hole in the cap will allow moisture to slowly seep down through the tower, quenching all the roots as they go.

I’m sure you can plant straight into the tower, but I left mine a few weeks so I could increase the moisture and heat levels. The soil was lovely and warm when I planted the first lettuce plugs yesterday, and they’ve already begun to right themselves to peer up towards the sky.

I’m starting the vertical garden off small-scale; two towers for now.

The first lettuces have already begun to right themselves.

I’m really eager to see if this works properly; and I don’t know how it can’t. As long as I keep the garden well watered, I should be able to watch my lettuces grow at eye level – what a treat!

Have you tried any vertical garden? Or do you recycle plastic bottles in the garden? If so, let me know in the comments!

Sowing a Wildflower Meadow – The Latest Update

In 2015, I organised a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a new wildflower meadow. It was fairly successful and I got just shy of £500 and our generous seeds supplier through in some extra too. We sowed the start of the field in late spring but, alas, there was hardly any rain. The field had also previously been used for oilseed rape, and because it hadn’t been ploughed since, there was A LOT of self-sown crop. The heavy clay soil was undulating, there was a gargantuan flock of wood pigeons ready for a snack and, because it was an arable field before, there was no grass. This could be a good thing to prevent wildflowers being strangled out; however, it also means everything looks rather bare. So, as you can see, the wildflower meadow was being started in far from optimal conditions.

We weren't counting on self-sown oil seed rape having started.

We weren’t counting on self-sown oil seed rape having started.

I returned to the site in the autumn full of expectation to see a glorious field. I was met with vast disappointment; the oilseed rape stems had dried into a sea of brown husks and there seemed to be little in the way of flowers. As our little group scythed our way across the field, we found very little aside the odd poppy. Still, scything done, there was hope because we’d sown a lot of perennial flowers; things that wouldn’t have bloomed in their first year.

Work starts on scything, strimming and raking

Work starts on scything, strimming and raking

Upon returning last week to put up the first nest box for my owl campaign, I’m delighted to say that things are moving in a positive direction! At first glance it still looks a little bleak; it’s patchy because of the lack of grass and there’s not a huge amount growing. But, upon closer inspection, there’s actually quite a lot going on. A couple of poppies have already appeared, white campion has started to flower, ox-eye daisies, plantain and mallow are also growing everywhere. The time for full wildflower meadow magnificence hasn’t actually arrived yet – that’ll be in June and July, so I’m thrilled to see this conservation plan finally starting to show gorgeous fruition.

At first sight, it’s patchy and there’s a not a flower to be seen…

But…things are starting to grow. Here, a poppy shows itself to the sun.

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speedwell begins to clamber across the baked clay soil

plantain bursts with its little carousel of anthers

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Anther poppy hides amongst the leaves.

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White campion rises above much of the other growth

To see so much initial growth has really encouraged me, especially as the field is only set to improve over the coming years. I recorded a short Brimwood Farm tour for the YouTube channel too, and if you skip forwards to about the 1 minute mark, you can see the field for yourself!


The next trip to Brimwood will be in mid-summer, so I hope to bring you even more beautiful wildflowers as the field really begins to shine.





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