Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Little power packs ......bulbs and corms to plant now.

Last weekend I planted more bulbs and corms - I say that because every year I plant hundreds. We have been here almost three years now so this is year three of the current bulb planting regime and the pattern is something like this.

Year One: plant a moderate amount of what you like where you would like them to be.
During Year One - watch how they flower and whether they really do live up to expectations. If you have bought bulbs and corms of reasonable quality then they almost always put on a fantastic display in that first year, because, basically, you have planted ready packed flowers.

Year Two: be a bit more experimental and plant something different, somewhere else.
During Year Two - watch how Year Two's bulbs flower BUT ALSO observe how Year One's bulbs have got they come back in profusion in the second year or are they dwindling.

Year Three (i.e. me, this year): Increase the planting of the Year One bulbs which thrived, plus try a few more adventurous bulbs.
During Year Three.....well you get the picture.

In this way, supplemented by  bulbs' natural tendency to spread if they are happy, you build up a carpet of contented plants which look after themselves for years to come. But first....

Bulbs and corms in a nutshell, as it were.

Bulbs and corms differ in how they store the food photosynthesised in the leaves. Bulbs are basically the swollen bases of the previous year's leaves with the embryo of the next year's flower hidden in the middle. Each year the changing seasons trigger the development of new leaves and flowers and the plant may also reproduce vegetatively by developing new baby bulblets at the side.

Crocus corms ready for planting

Corms are slightly different in that they are swollen underground sections of the plant stem. Each year a new corm develops above last year's corm and you can also get secondary corms developing, again as the plants reproduce vegetatively. This is why it is so important not to remove the leaves of bulbs and corms until they have died back naturally. They need to have the maximum opportunity to store reserves of food for the following year. If they do not get this they can shrivel and die. You can also help the following year's bulbs develop by feeding them with a sprinkling of bone meal after the flowers, but not the leaves, have died back.

In Year One here I planted daffodils at the bottom of the garden - they are not doing brilliantly, despite the region being renowned for its wild daffodils. I think the area I chose may be too dry, so none have been planted there this year while I watch the progress of those already in situ for a bit longer. I had planted Narcissus obvallaris, which is found growing in the wild in the UK and which resembled the wild daffodils growing locally, so I am disappointed at their performance, but maybe they take a few years to establish or maybe that particular corner of the garden is simply too hostile.

I also planted Crocus Tommasinianus (this is a corm, not a bulb); a crocus which naturalises fantastically well in grass or borders if it is happy - and it is flourishing here, so last week I planted another 100 of them.

Crocus tommasinianus naturalised in grass - year one.

I also planted Muscari armeniacum, or grape hyacinths. These are doing so well they promise to become a menace, so I have bought another 100 of those too. They will be planted differently however - the crocus is planned to develop into drifts of purple which will flower under deciduous trees each February, while the Muscari  will be dotted in little groups around the borders to act as accents of colour in early spring. The experimental thing I am planting this year is a small daffodil called Narcissus tete-a-tete. This will be planted like the Muscari in small clumps dotted under deciduous trees in a bed which hosts shade loving plants for most of the year. I will see how it does compared to the daffodils planted in year one.

Year One also saw me planting Eranthys hyemalis, the yellow flowering winter aconite. This is best not planted at this time of year, when it is a dormant bulb, but in January/February when it has leaves on it ( known as 'in the green'). It did well last year and if it comes up again this winter I shall order some more shortly after Christmas. The other bulb/corm I plant in the green is the snowdrop and Cyclamen hederifolium. I planted these in Year Two, so will watch to see how they do this year and if they prosper will add to the collection. Cyclamen, snowdrops and aconites are wonderful and deserve a blog of their own, which I will try to remember to write in January/February.

This year's experimental planting was to have been Martagon lilies, but I spent so long wondering which one to get that by the time I went to my bulb supplier they had sold out......a lesson learned and a year's growth wasted.

The other thing I always plant is the tulip. My personal favourites are Apricot Parrot, Spring Green, Greenland and Princess Irene but there are hundreds of varieties to choose from and it is worth experimenting. In year one they go into pots. Then I either  leave the leaves to die back then take the bulbs out of the pots and keep them dry until about now when they go into the ground somewhere in the garden or I un-pot them as soon as they have flowered and transfer the clump straight into the ground. Year two is a bit pot luck, as it were, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but it is always fun and there is always next year when I can try something new.....

Tulips 'Spring Green' and 'Apricot Parrot' together with lily of the valley.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The height of summer.....what can you grow that keeps on flowering

French Properties Direct is selling a gorgeous house and art gallery in Tarn-et-Garonne, South West France. We asked the owners how they keep their garden looking so beautiful. Here is how they do it:

La Barriere, an 17th century Quercy farmhouse, has been our home here for 25 years.  In choosing the property one of its irresistible attractions was a walled garden.  It had been neglected for 60 years so I had a blank, if very weedy, canvas to work on.  My gardening inexperience showed in the first few years as I was seduced into trying to grow totally unsuitable plants.  In attempting to keep them alive I landed us with colossal water bills.  Fortunately, there is a very supportive gardening fraternity in this area so I was able to find out what actually thrives here.  We regularly visit each other’s gardens, swap seeds, cuttings and growing tips.

Here in the S.W. the growing season is long but winter temperatures can dip briefly below minus 10 c., so tender plants need protection.

There are lots of annuals that self-seed prolifically and seem to survive our hot, dry summers.  I’ve had a lot of success with eschscholzia, tagetes, cosmos, nigella, larkspur, bidens   and amaranth.  I’ve picked out a couple of photographs of perennials though which are blissfully happy here.  The first is Campanula Poscharskyana.  It’s a low growing blue bellflower which spreads quickly and is good for sun or part shade.  When the flowers are over you are left with a neat clump of bright green foliage.  

The second favourite is Erigeron Karvinkianus ‘Profusion ‘.  It’s daisy like foliage turns from white to pink.

Now we have our house on the market and, for family reasons, intend to return to the U.K.  It will undoubtedly be sad to leave.  Gardens are never static and I’m sure new owners will make changes.  I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t evict all the very happy residents here in the form of plants, birds, bugs, butterflies and hedgehogs and even find room for more.

Catherine Smedley

Here is a photograph of Catherine's walled garden -

And you can read more about the property for sale here:  

Monday, 8 May 2017

Broad Beans

It is a short season, but one worth waiting for - now is the time to pick and eat broad beans, while they are still as small as your fingernails, bursting with flavour and soft enough not to need skinning.

Size matters - pick your beans while they are still small

We plant broad beans just before winter gets underway and always sow a variety called Aquadulce Claudia, which is specifically suitable for overwintering in the ground. Simply push the beans, individually, into well cultivated soil at the planting distances specified on the pack. You will need to stake them once growth starts in the spring.

Sowing before the winter has a few benefits - not least the sense that you are getting ahead and are already looking forward to the next year's vegetable crops. The plants develop earlier - giving you an early crop and head start against the bean's biggest threat - black fly. These little flies attack the young growth of the broad bean plant and if left will ruin the plant and render the beans inedible. The trick is to nip out the tops of the bean plants as soon as you spot the beginnings of an infestation. Be ruthless; check them daily. Another alternative is to grow the herb summer savoury adjacent to your bean plants. It is said to repel black fly although I can't prove this.

A black fly infestation despite me having nipped out the top of the plant

Pick the beans regularly and before they get too big. Once the plant is finished cut it off at ground level. Compost the stem and leaves and dig in the roots. Members of the bean and pea family develop nodules on their roots which, through the action of a bacterium called rhizobium, will fix nitrogen in the soil, so never pull beans and peas out by the roots. Nitrogen increases the nutritional value of the soil significantly. It is the element which encourages green, leafy growth - so this benefits the next crop which you grown in this part of your vegetable patch; most especially green leafy plants such as salads, spinach and kales.

Bean plants in May, from beans planted last December

Last weekend we picked our first broad beans and using some store cupboard ingredients created this pasta sauce:

Broad Beans and Coppa with Linguini

Enough for two.


Podded broad beans - around a cup, beans no larger than your index fingernail.
100g pack of Coppa, sliced into strips.
2 shallots
Small glass of white wine
1 tablespoonful of chopped fresh thyme
4 tablespoonfuls of 15% fat creme fraiche
Olive oil, salt and pepper
Fresh Parmesan cheese, grated.

Add the broad beans to boiling salted water and cook for about five minutes, then drain.
Chop the shallots finely and, in a frying pan cook gently in some olive oil until soft and translucent.
Meanwhile cook the linguini in plenty of boiling water, adding salt and a dash of olive oil to the cooking water.
Add the white wine to the shallots and simmer gently for a couple of minutes then add the sliced coppa and the thyme.
Once the above is heated through add the beans and the creme fraich and continue to heat through gently.
Season with salt and pepper.
Drain the linguini reserving about a tablespoonful of the cooking liquid with the linguini to stop it from sticking.
Stir in the broad bean mixture, pile onto two plates and scatter the Parmesan on top.

The secret to this dish is not to cook the sauce aggressively - use a gentle heat throughout - and to use young, freshly picked broad beans.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

I have finally put away the sun bed....

Always a difficult day in the year, when I accept that there will probably be no more opportunities to lie on the sun bed (even if I am wearing a coat) and read or admire the fantastic autumn colours. But the day has arrived and the sun bed has gone.

The beginning of November marks a sea change in the gardening year for me; a point at which I start to plan for the year ahead., so in many respects it could be considered the beginning of the year for a gardener and not the end.

Before the leaves are off the trees I start preparing new beds. If you want to use a glysophate based weedkiller (which I sometimes do) there is still time as plants are still growing; it will just take longer to work. If you want to turn over the ground and bury weeds hoping that they will die over the winter, now is the time. The ground is still warm enough to move plants which are in the wrong place and to transplant the hard wood cuttings from last year into their permanent place. Here is picture of a border I am extending this winter.

I did spray it with glyphosate about 6 weeks ago to kill as much of the couch grass as I could and have now dug over the area. My neighbours call couch grass 'dents de chien'  or dogs teeth, because of the shape of the grass's rhizome. It is viewed favourably by people who want grass for animals rather than flowerbeds because it is so resilient and will come away again after the most savage summer droughts. I view it less favourably. Its roots will go so deep that you can glysophate a patch of earth for two years and still find sections of the rhizome or root which have survived. So I tend to do an initial chemical blitz, then dig out what I can and then spent the rest of the time fighting a rear guard action as it keeps re-emerging. You can see there is rather a lot of it in the photo above.

The ultimate plan with this border it that it is one of a pair which will wind sinuously across that garden and have mainly grasses and 'prairie' type planting which is punctuated by sympathetic shrubs. That is the theory, anyway. Very Tom Stuart Smith.  See photo below - nice to have something to aim for:

Watch this space.

Meanwhile in the vegetable garden Richard has had a clear out of the raised beds and we are now left with our winter stalwarts - parsnips, leeks, broccoli and some lettuces. The potatoes are up and in storage, the tomato plants have been removed, the remaining green tomatoes made into chutney and the pumpkins have either been carved up for halloween or are gradually being eaten.

His next job it to top up the soil. It is a no-dig system in that you don't turn over the soil as gardeners did in the past but add a new layer of compost each year. You smooth it over the top and the worms drag it down into the layers below, mixing it in while retaining the profile of the soil below. This has been the first full year of using the raised beds and they have performed brilliantly.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Things to do on a rainy day... part 1...

.....Make Rhubarb Jam

We normally have difficulty growing rhubarb in our garden in France. I think this is because rhubarb is a heavy feeder and the soil here can be a bit thin and chalky but also because the summer temperatures are too high. Rhubarb doesn't like to get too hot in the summer (I understand it prefers an average summer temperature of below about 22 centigrade). So in a good year it fails to thrive unless you can grow it in a cool, corner of your garden.

In our new garden we  decided that our potager should be made from raised beds rather than simply a patch of earth. This was partly because we are both getting old and raised beds are much easier to manage but also because with a raised bed you have much more control over both soil structure and texture. The soil in our raised beds is quicker to warm up, more friable and we have packed it with goodness, all of which is much better than the soil we had at our old house. We planted some fairly mature rhubarb late last year and it is doing well - I wonder if the cold and wet summer weather we are having has anything to do with it? There must be some advantages to the never ending rain.

It being cold and wet last week(again) - we decided to pick some of the aforementioned rhubarb and make some jam. You can pick - or pull, to be correct - rhubarb until the middle of June. After that you must leave the stalks and leaves to grow so that they build up the strength of the crown for future years.

The jam proved a great success. Here is the recipe:

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

1 kilo rhubarb stalks (leaves removed - they're poisonous)
1 kilo granulated sugar
1 lemon
2 oz approx of root ginger
2 oz approx of stem ginger in syrup.

The night before you want to make the jam chop the rhubarb up and put it into your jam pan with the sugar, grated rind of the lemon and the lemon juice. Stir it all to mix evenly and then leave the mixture to stand (covered with a cloth) overnight.

Next day - put 4 x 500g jam jars and their lids in an oven at 100 degrees C to warm and sterilize.

Peel the root ginger, bruise it a bit and put it in a muslin bag which you add to the rhubarb mix. Put the jam pan with rhubarb mix onto a hob and cook slowly until the sugar is fully dissolved then boil it fairly vigorously mashing the rhubarb as you go(with a potato masher)  so that you end up with the rhubarb cooked to a fairly pulpy mass.

Remove the pan from the heat and remove the bag of ginger from the mix. Squeezing the liquid from the bag as you do so.

Add the stem ginger, finely chopped, to the mix and bring back to the boil. Boil until setting point is reached.

You can check for setting point in one of two ways; using a jam thermometer which will tell you the temperature at which setting point is reached or by the 'wrinkle test'. Here you put a tiny amount of the hot jam liquid onto a cold plate (cool it down in the fridge or freezer first). When the drop of jam on the plate has cooled push it gently with the tip of your finger and if the surface wrinkles the jam has reached setting point. I usually use both methods together and take the jam off the boil once the first indication of a set is seen by either method.

Put the jam into your sterilized jars and put the lids on immediately. The jars will be vacuum sealed as the jam cools and you may hear the lids go 'pop' as the vacuum draws them inwards during the cooling process.

That's it!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

They started with a garden.......

.....and ended up with a vineyard. 

When Mark and Fran Dean bought their French farm house in 2008 they never intended to become winemakers. The beautiful detached property, which faces south across the vineyards of Entre Deux Mers, was their dream home and the fact that it came equipped with winery buildings and several hectares of vines was incidental. The previous owner continued to manage the vines and as Fran explained, ‘we would sit on our terrace watching people working in the vines and think “how hard can it be?”’.

Several years later, the winemaker’s family sold their principal chateau and vineyards to Chinese buyers and with the money released he bought his own property near St Emilion. The opportunity arose for Mark and Fran to take over the running of the vineyard themselves. Initial research told them it was not going to be easy, but that there was a wealth of local goodwill which would help them get established. They were also able to call upon help from professional oenologists and they joined a co-operative allowing them to share big machinery with other wine makers.

The first couple of years were challenging – their winery (or ‘chai’ in French) needed equipping so stainless steel vats, pumps, a grape press and other equipment had to be bought. Their vineyard was not recognised as a chateau in its own right, so Fran had the challenge of negotiating French bureaucracy, thinking of a name and designing a label. And then there was the not insignificant matter of managing the vines and their ‘terroir’ throughout the year

Now, Fran and Mark have a system. Mark manages the outside activities – caring for the vines and making the wine. And Fran is responsible for admin and marketing. Their wine has already won awards nationally and the 2015 vintage looks promising.

The vineyard is not for sale – but their wine is. Check out their web site: