Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Year-End Review (27 DEC 2011)

Before I started gardening, I didn't care much about the weather as I spent most of my time in an air-conditioned office. I never looked up at the sky to trace cloud movement, never stayed out long enough to catch sunburn, never felt the rain on my face. In summer I wore one layer and in winter two; I always carried a jacket and umbrella just in case. This attire ensured that I was weatherproof during the brief periods that I spent outdoors.

Almost every UK gardening blog that I have read has commented on how strange the weather has been this year. Even I noticed the icy back-end of winter, dry spring, wet summer, balmy autumn and now a mild winter into 2012. The other day someone on the phone asked me what the weather was like. I replied, "Warm enough for the bulbs to come up." He seemed a bit confused, not a gardener perhaps.

I wish I had added a brief weather report to my posts as well as the date, though it's not easy to summarise in a meaningful way.  The results of weathering are plain to see in my garden as it is the only factor that has really changed in the past year.

I had so many plans :

(1) to acquire more plants for winter colour and to keep the hellebores company ...

February 2011

The hellebores didn't seem to mind icy conditions. Their buds were covered with snow two months before. I'm hoping they'll be accompanied by a few snowdrops at least early next year.

(2) to prepare for a spectacular spring display ... in pots

March 2011

(3) ... and in the flower beds ...

April 2011

Spring was an anti-climax after the amount of time spent planting bulbs. I overestimated how long spring flowers would last, no wonder some people call them ephemerals. I should have watered more, the ground was bone dry and cracked. Nevertheless, crocuses and bleeding hearts were the highlights.

(4) to improve the quality of my soil ...

June 2011

In summer the soil was soggy, weeds could be pulled out effortlessly. My soil quality is so poor that I'm almost embarrassed to show it - it's amazing that anything grows. I try to remove most of the stones when I'm transplanting and throw in a few handfuls of compost. A couple of bags of soil improver have been sprinkled around but I don't think that made a significant difference.

(5) to dead-head flowers before they go to seed, to keep them blooming for longer ...

August 2011

The sweet peas went to seed almost immediately, before I even had a chance to figure out how many colours there were. I didn't complain when the borlotti beans did the same.

(6) to mark out where I have planted bulbs and herbaceous plants ...

September 2011

I've lost count of all the bulbs dug up by accident. The gladioli were a pleasant surprise, until they were blown over during a storm.

(7) to line the fence with hollyhocks ...

September 2011

The sideshoots of a giant hollyhock did produce a row of spires in the end. Unfortunately, when I imagined them in my head I wasn't aware of rust, which seems to be an inevitable problem with these plants. I guess damp conditions makes it worse.

(8) to propogate raspberry ripple roses by mating deep red and white specimens ...

September 2011

I didn't take into account that the blood-red rose would flower after the white. Anyway a raspberry ripple rose already exists, called rosa mundi. I've read that rose propogation is not for hobbyists, it can take up to twenty years to develop a rose. I was pondering this in the garden when I noticed these two-toned roses which flowered again after I had pruned them ready for winter.

(9) to plant more colors of nicotiana to add to my signature lime-greens ...

September 2011

Sorry for yet another photo of nicotiana, but this is my favourite.
Nicotiana was not perturbed by weathering, it self-seeded and popped up. producing several stalks of flowers per seed, from summer through to winter. 

(10) to pack my flower beds full of annuals ...

October 2011

(11) ... and perennials ...

November 2011

This poppy had its second flowering during a warm week in November.
Outdoor seed-sowing hasn't worked for me so far. A friend gave me a tip to mix the seeds with compost first, which I'll try next year. The sunflowers and poppies were propogated indoors, plenty to experiment with, but not enough to fill the flower beds.

(12) to eliminate the houttuynia ...

November 2011

It's still resident in a flowerbed, behaving itself during the water-logged summer despite the horror stories. I don't pull it out any more to avoid agitating the roots, cutting the stalks at ground level instead to weaken the plant.


These are twelve unpublished photos that I selected from my 2011 file.
I'm posting them for Diana's Twelve Days of Christmas :

I'll also be linking up to Donna's meme Word 4Wednesday : WEATHERING

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/12/year-end-review-27-dec-2011.html

Friday, 23 December 2011

Strawberries (23 DEC 2011)

During my brief attempt at gardening as a child, my friend and I planted strawberries in a patch at the bottom of my mother's garden. No-one has watered them since I discovered that I had a fear of worms and my childhood plant experiments came to an abrupt end, yet those plants have reproduced themselves to this day by growing runners which root easily as soon as they touch soil.

Decades have passed, yet hardly any strawberries have been tasted by humans because creatures of the soil and birds have got to them first. The berries of this hybridised variety are too heavy to be supported by their own stalks so most of the fruit lies on the ground. This year after taking a tip from the name, I bought some straw from the pet shop and draped it loosely around the plants. After a couple of rainfalls, the straw formed a protective mat. Birds were still a problem though, so we compromised and harvested the remaining strawberries while they were slightly unripe. There were enough for a serving, no sugar required, in time for my mum to enjoy while watching Wimbledon on TV.

Anyway, I'm sure that unripe strawberries from the garden have more flavour than those sold to tennis spectators. The Elsanta variety of strawberry has been criticised repeatedly in the media, bred to produce large fruit with a long shelf-life, but I've read that it's the amount of water pumped into commercially-grown strawberries that dilutes their flavour. It seems that neglected ones taste better.

The idea of growing strawberries in my own garden didn't appeal after this experience. I didn't see the point for such a small yield and it's so disheartening to pick a bright red, juicy berry only to find that it has been pecked/sucked/bitten on the other side. However, in May my neighbour offered a baby strawberry plant. Not expecting much I didn't bother to buy a bag of straw, but even though the leaves were withering, it was attempting to produce fruit. I transplanted it into a compost bag, soaked it with water, then left it to fend for itself.
early June 2011
end of July 2011

It's been flowering and producing miniature, flavour-packed fruit continuously since June. If I had to select one of the fruit and veg that I've trialled this year to grow again, it would be this one.

September 2011
This week

The alpine strawberry, a form of wild strawberry - fragaria vesca, forms clumps rather than spreading by suckers like its other wild & hybridised cousins. This is a disadvantage if you're interested in using the plant as a ground-cover or an advantage if like me, you want the plant to concentrate its energy on producing fruit. They are the size of raspberries, held up above the plant by their stalks (no need for straw). It's advertised to fruit continuously from early summer till November in sheltered areas.

As a child, I always used to wonder why strawberries tasted nothing like strawberry-flavoured sweets; these taste better. They can't be found in supermarkets because they cost too much to produce commercially but they are sold to high-end restaurants as a gourmet ingredient. It's incredible to think that there is evidence to suggest that early stone age man hunting & gathering in Northern Europe was delighted to find wild strawberries too.

The history of strawberries :

Fragaria vesca (wild/alpine strawberries) :

The photos below were also taken this week ...

 Still alive ....
side shoots of giant hollyhock

 Do they know it's winter ? ....

In their prime now ...

dwarf quince
grape holly
winter jasmine

I'm posting them (late again!) for December Garden Blogger's Bloom Day : 

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/12/strawberries-23-dec-2011.html

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Fennel (11 DEC 2011)

The last post on moon gardens received more than 100 hits in one week which is unusually high for this blog. It wasn't due to people googling for information on "white-flowering plants"; searches submitted were more along the lines of "pictures of the moon on 3rd Dec". There seem to be a lot of people out there with a moon fascination, including some gardeners. I realised this when I was trying to find a photo of a moon garden design, I kept stumbling onto websites about moon gardening which I discovered is a totally different subject, referring to the ancient technique of sowing seeds and harvesting crops at optimum dates defined by a lunar calendar. The dates vary geographically and depend on the type of crop : leaves, roots, seeds inside, seeds outside & flowers; the principle is that the moon affects moisture in the ground just as it affects tides.

As a scientist, I don't believe in things which haven't been proven. As a gardener, my mind is open to other possibilities, especially if there is the slightest suggestion that my plants might grow better. I'm thinking of my florence fennel plants in particular ...

I love florence fennel, it tastes too good to be a vegetable but unfortunately the produce in the supermarket always looks rather aged and is quite expensive considering. I've only ever seen the slim bulbs on sale; I've read that rounded bulbs have a superior flavour. Some people call them male and female respectively, others vice versa.  The truth is that the flowers of fennel are hermaphrodite. All florence fennel bulbs start life with a slim, flattish shape, as they mature they round up, then as they progress further to flowering they revert back to a flattish shape.

The plan was to grow florence fennel myself so that I could keep an eye on them and harvest when the bulbs were at their desirable rounded stage. There were a few seedlings left after the slug attack :

Fennel plants #1&2   indoor-sown at the end of March

Fennel is in the same family as carrots, celery, dill, anise, cumin & caraway, which explains why it looks like celery but has a sweet aniseed flavour. Wild fennel doesn't develop a swollen bulb; its seeds are bitter. Florence fennel was bred to develop a bulb which could be eaten as a vegetable and Sweet fennel was bred for sweet seeds which could be used as a spice.

Florence fennel is supposed to take 80 days to grow from seed to vegetable :

plant #1 - grown in fresh peat-free compost
... with no swelling at the end of November

plant #2 - grown in stale compost in my lucky pot
... with a little swelling at the end of November

According to articles I've read, potential causes for my florence fennel bulbs not developing are:
(1) I sowed the seeds too early, while the weather was still cold.
(2) I transplanted the plants at least twice.
(3) I didn't water them enough
(4) I didn't allow enough room for the long tap roots (plant #1)
(5) I didn't fertilise the soil enough (plant #2)

Any of these or other factors could have stressed the plants into bolting (flowering prematurely) which diverts the plant's energy away from the bulb, concentrating on seed production. From the plants' perspective, their purpose in life is to reproduce, not to make vegetables.

fennel plants #1&2 re-potted - just in case

Do you see why I am seeking extra-terrestial assistance ?

Next year I'll sow florence fennel seeds directly in the garden soil in their final locations, in April & June, on dates aligned with and opposed to the lunar calendar, watering some more than others. A 3 factor x 2 level experiment with 3 repetitions which will require 24 plants.

Surely at least one of them will present me with the elusive round fennel bulb.


Photos of "male" and "female" fennel bulbs ... and a recipe for a salad made with raw fennel :

I like to slice fennel thickly, blanch, then saute in olive oil with a dash of pernod ... or combine these ingredients in a delicious fish soup :

For plump bulbs to eat as vegetables, sow florence fennel in June when the weather is warm :

For fennel "seeds" (they're actually fruits), sow sweet or bitter (wild) fennel  in early April :

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/12/fennel-11-dec-2011.html

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Moon Garden (03 DEC 2011)

"Referred to as Moon Gardens, a white themed planting inversely glows at night , incorporating hints and tints from lime to blue."

When I first came across the concept of Moon Gardens while reading a post by Laura@Patiopatch, I was inspired to dedicate an area in my garden for moonlit viewing.

However, as with most of my whims, I thought about it, dreamt about it and did nothing.
Recently, a combination of events occurred which brought the idea to the fore again ...

Last week, I took a day off work (& life) to do some leisurely pottering in the garden. To start with I went to the diy store to buy some spring bulbs. Prices were slashed because they were sprouting already. I bought two packets of snowdrops as they were the least developed.

Before leaving, I was tempted to cast my eye over the sick plants shelf. I haven't bought any for a while, because I saw some pensioners jostling for them once, and thought maybe the plants should be left for them.

However, instead of the usual half-dead specimens begging for tlc, there were loads of plants on sale looking quite healthy considering the time of year; perennials that should have died down for the winter but still hanging in there. I bought four at £4.99 each, not being a regular plant buyer, I'm not sure if these were bargains.

Anyway here they are : 
pyracanthus with orange berries (back)
clematis (front) - I failed at growing clematis from seed this year
white, scented jasmine (left)
white, climbing hydrangea paniculata (right)

Winding down in the evening after digging up flower-beds, I noticed that this week Katarina's Blooming Friday meme is : Moonlit. If only I had a ...    and then I realised that my purchases today alone could turn the "woodland" into a moon garden eventually; snowdrops at the front, jasmine and hydrangea climbing up the rear wall. The following day, with no more procrastination, I took action and planted them. Finally, the dream of a moon garden was a step closer to becoming a reality.

The next steps planned were to add cuttings, seedlings and bulbs from the white-flowering plants currently residing around the rest of the garden.

Lily-of-the-valley, whitebells & iris for spring ...


Poppies, roses, dianthus and lupins for summer ...


Nicotiana, anemone and viburnum for autumn ...

                                     Hellebores for winter ...

Yesterday at about 5pm, I went out to view the site of my moon garden-to-be. The sky was clear, the moon three-quarters full, but the garden was so dark that I needed a torch. Where was the moonlight?  Then it dawned (or rather dusked) on me that I had never seen my garden (or any other) awash with moonlight. I had checked the internet for examples; there were several articles on moon garden design and suitable plants but no convincing photos of a moonlit garden.

I ventured forth into the darkness, with my torch and camera, from the front patio and down the path by the lawn ...


up the steps and across the rear patio ....


past the birdbath to the woodland  ...


Even photographing with a flash, you can only just about see the white rabbit statue on the left, behind the silvery leaves of dusty miller. However, I have to say that I have never drawn in the overall scent or listened to the garden the way I did that night. The articles that I have read mention that the senses of smell and hearing are heightened in a moon garden and you can take advantage of this by selecting scented plants or including a water feature. Extra lighting would be required, but then practically, would anyone trek to the "woodland" to sit and sniff in semi-darkness?

In hindsight, it would probably have made more sense to turn the patio in front of the lawn into a moon garden using pots of white-flowering plants, as it could be viewed through the back doorway from the comfort of the kitchen table. However, I'll leave that project for another day ...

How to design a Moon Garden :

List of plant suggestions for a Moon Garden :

Today I'm linking up to Katarina's meme Blooming Friday : Moonlit
Please check out : Roses & Stuff    for more Moonlit posts.

©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/12/moon-garden-03-dec-2011.html

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Foxgloves (29 NOV 2011)

This photo taken at the end of April is my favourite of this year so far. I remember how in awe I was with the scene; the cherry blossoms scattered over the "woodland" garden, the bluebells were in their prime, the foxglove spires on the point of emerging ...

April 2011 - Foxgloves about to bloom in the "woodland"
These are two of ten mixed hybrid foxglove excelsior plants that I raised from seedlings for an experiment on growing conditions.

The spires of the self-sufficient foxgloves in the woodland grew tall and slender while those in the sunny flower-beds were squat, they would have died without extra watering.

May 2011 - dappled shade in woodland
May 2011 - sunny flower-bed

However, the experience and experiments were marred by my biggest (gardening) disappointment to date, the appearance of black bean aphids which preferred to suck the juice from the soft buds, stems and leaves of my precious foxgloves over any of the other plants. I held back for a while hoping that ladybirds would feast on them, but they didn't so I resorted to spraying with soapy water, which worked temporarily. When the aphids returned and started to grow wings, I gave up. The puckered damage that they effected didn't stop the foxgloves blooming and producing seeds though.

black bean aphids grew wings
ladybird napping next to a foxglove seedpod

The majority which bloomed in spring were pink, speckled with burgundy; two of the weaker seedlings which didn't look so promising to start with developed into unique specimens with white and lime-green bells. I harvested their seeds to grow second generation seedlings, still keeping them suspended in the seed-tray to persuade them to develop later and lengthen next year's foxglove-flowering-fest.  


In March, before all the photos above were taken, I had sown more seeds from the original packet in preparation for next year's experiments. While most of the other seedlings succumbed to slug attack, the foxglove seedlings were unscathed. I moved them to a sheltered nursery patch, watering them till they settled in, then my attention was distracted by the annuals during late summer and autumn.

As that affair draws to an end, I decided that the foxgloves, which by this time were choking each other and sheltering unimaginable creepy-crawlies, could not be ignored any longer. Last week I dug up the flower-beds, thinned out the foxglove nursery and re-planted the excess all around.
more foxgloves grown from last year's packet seeds
June 2011
foxglove nursery
November 2011

foxglove nursery - drying out after thinning
... excess plants transferred to new locations

So there are more than enough foxglove plants, growing vigorously and suspended, to participate in whatever experiments I plan to conduct next year ...
While contemplating whether or not to rake out the fallen cherry blossom leaves from the woodland before transferring more plants from the nursery, I noticed foxglove plantlets already dispersed right up to the rear wall, children of the two plants in the top photo. According to the results of my 2011 experiment, this area is the prime location in the garden for growing foxgloves, with just the right exposure to shade dappled with sunshine. These conditions, combined with the weedy undergrowth, keep the soil consistently moist.       

parent foxgloves in November 2010
accidental foxgloves - November 2011

It struck me how similar the spacing of accidental seedlings compared to my forgotten nursery, maybe it wasn't choked after all. I wonder if foxgloves produce so many seeds intentionally, to create sacrificial plants which only exist to cover the ground and keep it moist for the reproducing ones.

The foxgloves that I raised are more mature and larger than the accidental plants. I could dig up the latter and replace them with a couple of the finest, hand-reared specimens as planned. However, in the grand scheme that might be an accident - I'll leave them be for now.

I'll be linking this post up to Donna's meme Word4Wednesday :  ACCIDENTAL.
Check out  http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com tomorrow for more Accidental posts.
©Copyright 2011 b-a-g. All rights reserved. Content created by b-a-g for http://experiments-with-plants.blogspot.com/2011/11/foxgloves-29-nov-2011.html
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