Monday, 12 March 2018

Gardening For Beginners - Cheap and Easy Does it.

You really don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment in order to create a pretty garden. For many years I gardened on a very tiny budget. Of course it is lovely to have the fanciest pots and planters, and buy ready grown plants from the garden centre but it is possible to fill your plot with colour and vegetables in just one season. Doing it all from scratch is immensely satisfying, get your kids involved if you have them, get your partner involved and reach out to the community of gardeners around you.

Start sowing seed early in the season. February to March is the time to get salad crops started, and choose what annuals what you fancy. If you are a novice go for easy to grow things like marigolds, chives, cosmos, antirrhinums, nasturtiums and sunflowers; climbers like sweet peas, morning glory and canary bird to hide an ugly fence or grow up rustic obelisks. The seed packet will be labelled as annuals and will flower in the first year. You can either sprinkle where you want them to flower or sow them inside. If you choose the latter route, while your seeds are growing, spend time on the garden itself, preparing your garden soil, laying out paths and areas for planting, sitting, growing. If your plot is already established, then just tidy up the debris of winter and get the soil into a workable condition.

Remember you don’t need to buy seed from a shop, you can collect it in the autumn, dry it over winter and then sow in spring. If this is your first year as a gardener, then you may have to spend a small amount of cash or you may be able to beg some from friends. Gardeners are generally very eager to talk about plants and happy to share.

One of the best purchases I have made is an electric propagator which range from around £20 - £80 but you don’t NEED one: a plastic bag stretched over a pot will do, or you can cover your seeds with a plastic drink bottle cut in half if you have one. (Please try not to buy new non-recyclable plastic equipment but using things destined for land fill is fine.) You don’t even need a proper seed tray, you can perforate food containers; yoghurt pots, butter tubs, ice cream tubs, (as long as they are recycled eventually) or sow directly into cardboard toilet roll inners.

Some salad crops can be grown on a bright window sill – cut and come again lettuce, cress, spring onions, herbs but don’t let them scorch and remember to water regularly. For outside, or in a green house, grow bags are cheap and produce great vegetable crops – I have more success growing tomatoes, cucumbers etc. under glass but I live in Wales where the weather is … um … variable, so think about your climate and remember that it is possible to construct a simple frame using recycled timber and plastic sheeting, or invest in a temporary greenhouse. 

If you’ve room for one, I’d really recommend one. A greenhouse is somewhere to escape to, somewhere to shelter from the rain with a coffee, somewhere to think as you prick out seedlings, or pot things on. I had two at my old home and I have one now but I’ve never bought a new one. My husband built my first ever greenhouse, a neighbour gave us my second, and we picked up the current one on a free-cycle page for £20. There is a post on this blog about how we adapted it into the one I use today. So look around, you won’t regret it. You can read my blog about building a greenhouse here.

You can plant your vegetables or flowers in anything, as long as it has drainage holes – old washing up bowls, buckets, wellington boots, sinks - I’ve even seen old toilets and cisterns turned into planters. Tomatoes and cucumbers do best in deep pots and need regular feeding so bear that in mind when the time comes to plant them up.

A ready mixed seed and cutting compost is best for seeds. For planting up pots and containers go for a general purpose mix. If you can’t afford to buy compost (try and buy peat free), make a compost heap and produce your own in time, look around for a riding school or stable who are usually only too happy to get rid of some muck – but beware, while manure is great for greedy plants like roses it can make your annuals do a little too well and you may end up with all leaf and not enough bloom. It is best to mix the manure in with shop bought or home produced compost or just use as a mulch for established plants. When I had horses I grew excellent veg on a bed of very well-rotted manure and I think I miss that more than the horses themselves – ha ha. My roses were fabulous but since I’ve moved and no longer have easy access to it, they are not so good.

Labels are important but you don’t need to buy them, I use wooden lolly sticks, which do a great job, are degradable, plus, they provides the excuse to eat ice cream. Another piece of advice is to find other gardeners who will swap/give you surplus plants, cuttings and share seed as well as provide a source of information. They may even have a supply of home grown compost to share.

The flow from watering cans is often too fierce for seeds and seedlings, initially it is an idea to use a hand spray like hairdressers use, you can pick them up cheaply or you may have one lurking under the sink. They cost anything from £1.99 to £7.  I think you can still buy a screw on top that fits a soft drink bottle – again reusing plastic instead of throwing it away is always best. As the seeds mature you can use a fine rose on a watering can which is more efficient – don’t over water them but don’t let them dry out. The soil should be moist but not wet.

Many annual seeds can just be scattered straight into the garden where you want them to flower but I prefer to start mine off under glass and plant them out when the weather is clement. The reason for this is that I keep my weeds down by hoeing and it is too easy to hoe up precious seedlings by mistake. Follow the instructions on the packet, if you don’t have a packet or require further information then google it.

Once the seed has germinated, let it grow on until the second set of leaves appear – these will be different to the first set, then if they are crowded you can thin them into another tray or pot them into pots. Be gentle, hold them by the first set of leaves, never the stem or root and ease them into their new home with a little love. When you have decent sized plants you can plant them into containers or a flower bed and keep them well watered until established. You may find that when your young plants are ready to go out the weather is still too cold at night. Most annuals are frost hardy but you can gradually accustom them used to outdoor conditions by placing them in a sheltered corner of the garden and covering them with fleece or old net curtain at night in case of frost.

Once you have mastered the art of growing hardy annuals from seed you can move on to biennials (flowers in the second year) and perennials (comes back every year)

To sow seed you will need:
A container, tray or pot, perforate the bottom for drainage
Compost – seed and cutting compost is best
Plastic bag, propagator or plastic drink bottle cut in half – make sure you perforate the bag to let in air
Window sill or greenhouse
Watering can, or spray bottle
Patience – some seeds germinate quickly, others take their time.

Please don’t be put off if you don’t succeed at first. Every gardener fails some of the time, the trick is to learn about your garden, some things will thrive there, and some won’t. Stick with what you find rewarding. The joy is in the journey, not the destination. Gardening makes people happy.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

I've started but will I finish?

Troublesome bed last summer
Last week, despite the temperature, I piled on my jumpers and ventured outside to clear away more winter debris. Once I raked away dead leaves I could see the new shoots thrusting up from the soil and felt instantly better. At this time of year it is mostly 'housework' - it is rather like tidying up the morning after a heavy party but without the beer cans. I managed to surface tidy every bed, and lightly forked a few. Then the rain came back and after being chased out of the greenhouse by a monstrous spider, I was housebound again.

Yesterday, it was sunny for a while so I went out again and today although the sun didn't put in an appearance, it wasn't cold. I persuaded my old fella to take a short break from the bathroom he is installing and replace the greenhouse glazing that was blown out over the course of the winter - now, I am worrying it will get windy and smash it all over again! I've cut back the fuchsias and tucked them up in there and put my dahlias in sandy soil in the hopes of cuttings later on in the season. If we can banish the spider I will also have a cosy refuge from the weather.

The long border we put in last year was looking really straggly and unkempt and some things just wern't working. I heaved a few things out that had gone a bit haywire and moved some unhappy  from the shade into full sunshine (if it ever shone).  I put some tulip and daffodil bulbs in, and lightly forked it all over. It is still not looking great but I am confident that come late spring it will come into its own.

The camelias are beginning to look lovely, the white one ahead of the pink and these need little care.  I have primulas, marigolds still blooming from last year, daffs are out, tulips up and snowdrops about to bloom. Next job is a proper prune of the roses and a good feed. I want to plant some out but will put that off until I've acquired some manure to beef up the soil a bit.

Our most troublesome bed is half sun and half dense shade, the shady side struggled last year so my intention is to divide it with a narrow path (this will make weeding easier too). The sunny side is ok so I will leave the planting alone but plant the shady side up with shade lovers: ferns and aquilega, astilbe etc. I have moved plants and raked out where the path is to go but it is horribly wet at the moment, I hate claggy soil clinging to my boots.

Hopefully this plan will work but if it doesn't, I shall just rethink it. It is damp shade on this bed, the other shady beds are dry shade so this provides the opportunity for diversity. I wish it was big enough for gunnera, I had two at my old house and they were fabulous! I must resist the temptation here or I won't be able to get out of the back door. I have thought of trying some more jungly type plants, they always look so great in other people's gardens but I am not sure if they will like the salt winds, or the inconstancy of the climate. I have found that in the summer it is either on the chilly side or boiling hot, there seems to be no middle ground, and although we don't get too many frosts, it is very wet in winter. I think more research is needed before I decide.

I was driven indoors by rain at lunch time and there is still so much I want to do. I can feel a trip to the nursery coming on - I want some fancy ferns, a couple bags of compost and some vine weevil control (sigh) the weevils are back ... with a vengeance.

troublesome bed early last summer
Having taken the plunge and made a start I do feel better in myself. I am pretty certain that spring will come, it can't be long away somy advice is to go out in your own garden and see what is happening, you will probably discover Spring is closer than you think.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Chasing away the January blues.

It is the last day of January and already it's been a tough year for me so far. The first month is always the worst; no money after Christmas, cold, long evenings, the garden assaulted by wind and salt and rain, not much fun on the beach in the biting cold wind. Since the end of autumn, as can be expected, we've had nothing but gales and rain, with just the odd bright day to keep us from total despair. I have always suffered with winter blues, perhaps I should live in a climate that allows you to garden all year round for it is the number one cure for depression. But now January is over; I have made it through the dark times, and can now venture outside to see what is happening.

The bulbs are up, the daffodils just beginning to bloom, but unfortunately a nasty little mouse has eaten all the crocus I planted last autumn. (Note to self: Next year take precautions to protect crocus from vermin.) 

Some things are blooming that really have no right to at this time of year. One azalea in particular has bloomed all winter, a lovely bright splash of pink amid the decay. The primula have also bloomed all year, along with sweet william and marigolds. There are even one of two sorry looking roses.

The first job is to rake all the debris away and mulch before the ground dries out. The palm tree makes a particular mess, chucking its strappy leaves all over the garden. They are tough and leathery and take eons to break down so they will be off to compost at the local tip. Then I need to prune the roses, (remembering to be ruthless). Last year, when it was time to prune, some of them were still bearing glossy leaves and I shied away from a hard prune. The result was weak spindly plants in the June.  I learned from the experience that it is perfectly ok to prune hard in summer if the plant is suffering. They came back healthy and strong after a late July prune and I had roses blooming well into early winter.

Last year, I ear-marked quite a few things for moving, so I need to do that while plants are mostly dormant.The bed near the shed is one half dense shade, the other half bright sun, and the whole thing needs rethinking. On the sunny side there is a lovely Stipa Gigantica that I don't want to disturb and some irises which are doing well. I plan on leaving that side alone, sectioning the bed with a stepping stone path (which will also allow easier access for weeding) and replanting the shady area with lots of lovely ferns and other things that will thrive in moist shade.

Another bed closer to the house, is in the sun all day but made up of very poor free draining soil. Last year, I tried to improve the soil by adding compost to improve water retention but it wasn't very successful. The area gets battered by salt winds and the perrenials suffer too much so I might junglefie it with some tough plants that will take anything, and require less maintenance. There is already a thriving phormiium, some acanthas and a fatsia so I will add to that feel, maybe adding  red hot pokers and the like for a pop of colour.

By far the most successful bed was the one that surrounds and conceals the oil tank. It is in full sun and last year was a riot of antirhinums and foxgloves, marigolds and daisies with a beautiful clematis screening the tank. Since it did so well, I plan on extending it, so I can make more of it.

Then of course, there are all the pots to sort out, repot, refresh, plant out, or just tidy up. That should all keep me busy for a week or two. I feel much better just talking about it!

Now that January is over and done I can wish you all a belated Happy New Year! The Gardening begins ...

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

DIY greenhouse!

A month of so ago my old fella and I were sitting on our swinging hammock, sipping coffee, listening to the birds, enjoying the sunshine and the feeling that all the major tasks we'd set ourselves for summer were over. I'd begun to toy with the idea of days out, walks on the beach, leisurely picnics ...

"I've had an idea," he says, jerking me from my dreaming. "I'm going to build you a better greenhouse."
"O - kaaaay," I said, interest piqued.
old teeny tiny greenhouse interior (see massive phormium behind)

When we moved I said I wouldn't need a greenhouse with such a comparitively small garden but that had quickly proved false and we soon realised we couldn't do without one. Luckily enough, early last year we purchased a small second hand one from a local swap shop. It was a snip at £20 and we only had to buy a few bits of glass to complete the glazing. I was thrilled with it but by spring it was bursting at the seams and I was deeply mourning the loss of my two good sized greenhouses we'd left behind. 
you can just about see the old greenhouse location here

John's lightbulb moment involved building a sturdy lean to frame along the back of the garden, taking the current greenhouse apart and using both sides to glaze the one long side of the new one (does that make sense? It didn't to me at first). This would double the floor place, at the same time opening up a sizeable area of garden for other use. Just one thing stood in the way: a beautiful rhodedendron and an oversized, quite ugly and intrusive green phormium. 

After much deliberation we decided to preserve the rhodedendron by building around it, and sacrificing the phormium. Within half an hour we had a notebook out, making drawings, and noting my 'must haves'. Our relaxing summer was forgotten as enthusiasm chased away our lethargy.

He is a very clever man, technically quite brilliant to my bedazzled eyes and I could envisage the finished building, see myself happily growing plants in my new, stylish greenhouse (complete with space for table and chair where I can write on chilly wet days).

The first thing to go was the phormium and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't sad to see it fall beneath the chain saw. Surprisingly the root dug out easily, leaving a heap of dry undernourished soil that hadn't seen light of day since Lord knows when. We then had to cart it to the tip, move the compost heap, the pile of tatty of slabs he'd been hoarding for some reason known only to him, and dig out a really pretty and very old rose that had been struggling for lack of light.

We did try to save it but it was too tricky to get out and in the end the root came away in pieces. In vain hope, I potted the root into a large pot and now a month on it is sprouting healthy vigorous shoots. I think I will get several plants from it. I shall let it grow on in the pot and plant it out in the spring. It is a pretty purple colour; a short rambler I think from its habit.

The site now clear we laid shallow foundations and John began to construct the frame. I'd like to take some credit for this but my only use was holding uprights in place and passing him screws and hammers and making cups of tea. The frame could have gone up quicker but we were held up by the demands of work and the odd rain shower but at last it was up and a polycarbonate roof in place.

Now for the glazing! John's careful measuring meant the glazing bars from the old greenhouse could be screwed in place easily and the glass inserted. We purchased a vent for the end wall. The back wall is made of board and weather proofed with roofing felt. I painted the frame to match the shed, a sage green that blends with the planting in a soft, easy on the eye manner.

With the greenhouse completed (almost) the outside was a mess but quickly solved by membrane and gravel. We wanted a flower bed along the fence which is the sunniest side of the garden but when we tried to dig we found buried concrete foundations, loads of tree roots so, to make life easier, we resorted to a raised bed and at last the plants I'd been hoarding in pots for too long had a home. We planted climbing roses, clematis, hollyhocks, poppies, liatris, campanula, fuschia, siberian iris, lupins, marigolds, dwarf rhodedenron and I am sure other things will find their way in (and out) as it matures. The gravel will soften as things self seed from other areas of the garden and the plants begin to cascade over the walls of the raised bed.
See how we built around the rhodedendron?

I would say all in all we have made 100% improvement to that end of the garden. It now resembles a courtyard garden, with places to sit, entertain, hoard more pots of plants; and inside the greenhouse I can work, overwinter plants, sow seed, grow plants on, and on rainy days sit and admire the garden from a brand new perspective.

It is our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary coming up at the end of July but we've been together for thirty two years - I think I made the right choice. I think he's a keeper.

Monday, 10 July 2017


The night before
It was late June, we'd had weeks of lovely mild weather, long afternoons and evenings of tender care had produced a joyful, tranquil effect.  I could barely tear myself away to go to bed. That night, smug and happy with my garden. I lay awake thinking of it, picturing it in my mind. Circling the pristine lawn, the roses were in full bloom, the foliage of the trees lush and green, diffusing the sunshine; the ornamental grasses swaying in the slight breeze, the giant daisies standing proud, the fuschias dancing in the late evening light. 
Miss Bateman (clematis) unknown Rose and Hardy Geranium

The next morning I stood, coffee in hand, in dismay as I watched it lashed by rain brought in on a ferocious north westerly wind. The trees dashed their arms like mad men, their leaves falling like confetti; the roses dripping wet, their petals swept away to stick fast to the patio windows. I could not bear to watch but I could not look away.
battered courgette

Fine sunny weather lures us into a sense of security. We come to believe it will last and last. It is only when the storm comes that we remember the precious plants we've neglected to tie securely, the lupins we should have staked, the daisies and hollyhocks that could really have done with some hidden support. We all need something to cling to in inclement weather btu as I stood at the window I thought my heart would break. For two days and one night the garden had to fend for itself.
flattened daisies

When it finally eased, I ventured outside and looked around at the lawn strewn with debris, plants blasted, some broken at the root, some fallen flat, beaten into the earth with their heart opened to view. It was a massacre but as I stood there with my trug bucket and rake,  I knew I could put it to rights. I could pick up the sticks and the litter, I could stake the plants (rather too late) tie them up, and dead head the now naked roses. It would come again. There was just one thing I couldn't put right. The worst damage was as yet invisible. I had to wait for it to show. Yet to come was the cruel burning of the salt that is carried off the sea in high coastal winds.
salt burn

It must have surprised the neighbours to see me, after such a  heavy deluge, hosing the shrubs and roses but it helps to wash off what salt you can. There was nothing to be done for the trees and taller shrubs however but watch them turn slowly from lush green to crispy brown, and then flutter down to be gathered up from the lawn. 


But this week as I dead head and fill my buckets with debris, new shoots are already emerging, the plants are beginning to straighten up and hold their heads to the sun again. I know the garden will come back and be lovely again, maybe not as fine and lush as before but it will recover and I will learn from it and be prepared next year.
Bucket one of debris
It isn't all gloom. I took the opportunity of pruning some of the roses, harder than I usually would in summer and I gave them the July feed a little earlier. They are already responding. There is nothing as cheering as a rose, so I can't be too downhearted. I am pinning my hopes on the second flush. Gardens are never perfect - I don't think they should be, but we always aspire to it. Now the greenhouse is almost up and running (I will blog about that next time) next year will be better than this and the year after that, better still.

Lady Emma Hamilton

Harlow Carr

Labelled Just Joey but I don't think it is so I just call it My How Pretty!

Olivia Jane Austin

Monday, 22 May 2017


When we decided to downsize from our smallholding to a regular house, we were not looking for a semi detached house, in fact we were after something with far more character. But, finding ourselves in need of a rapid move, we viewed this hosue which was in the right location. We were instantly swayed by the fabulous sea views, the enticing romantically neglected garden and the tasteful interior renovations that had already been done. We haven't regretted the drastic change from period smallholding to modern seaside residence for one moment and welcomed the opportunity to make it our own.

When we moved in the front garden had not changed since the property was built in the 1950's.  It is fair to say it has never been pretty. What were once cheap and cheerful pink and green concrete slabs had faded to a sad, stained grey - it was earmarked for change on the first day we viewed the property. During the recent work carried out on the back garden we made it even less attractive by dumping a huge pile of top soil and rubble on it. A week or so ago we decided it had to go.

Our initial intention was to lift all the slabs but when we discovered that each slab had been laid on four or five inches of hard concrete we decided to just remove the outer edges and put gravel in the middle to cover those remaining.

It was hard work, at least five trailer loads were taken away by my other half and his trusty helper while I dug the borders and transferred the huge pile of soil to the edges. We slept very well indeed that night.

Next the new fence went in, carefully chosen to deflect the wind and (hoepfully) not blow away in the next gale! Over the next few days we put in a few plants - some grasses,  a few roses, some hardy fuschia, and some azaleas that I know will survive because they've been out there all winter in pots. Whatever we plant has to be tough because during the winter we are often beset by strong northerly winds that are laden with salt blown in off the sea. As yet, it looks quite bare but the plants will grow up tough and those that don't thrive will be replaced by others more likely to withstand the weather.

John laid a raised edge to help keep the gravel from the flower beds and we then hauled a half ton of gravel from the quarry. The only big job now is the replacement of the nasty concrete steps with something smarter - the jury is still out on that. We are finally getting there. The front garden may not be remarkable but it is at least neat and tidy and people won't look at it with horror. We have had many complements - apparently the neighbours have been watching our progress and taking bets on what we will plant.

You might think we'd take a rest from it all now but no, he has already begun his next project. A bigger better and prettier greenhouse! I can hardly wait!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Such a busy time of year

Add caption
As well as writing my next book, Book three of The Beaufort Chronicles: The King's Mother, I've been busy in the garden. It is only our second summer here at Aberporth so we are only just beginning to discover how we will use the garden and prioritising what needs doing first. Last year, it was a case of clearing years of neglect and getting a shed up for John to fill with the useless junk he loves to accumulate. This year we decided our first major job would be the patio as discussed in the last post. This served to make all the rest of the ancient hard landscaping look rather shabby so this week we got the seating area beneath the trees gravelled, and laid the first part of the path in slabs matching the patio.

There was a sort of existing patio beneath the trees but it had been badly laid many years ago using chunks of Welsh slate held together with ugly concrete. As the trees grew the roots had pushed up the slate making it hazardous and ugly, there was also a large chunk of concrete that John had to chip away at with his drill so we could move it. The gravel looks nicer, wont spoil as the trees grow and it will be easy to get small things to germinate in it, creating a soft edge and a rustic feel. The other half of the path will be tackled next but I am allowing John a few days rest.

When we completed the patio and I began to dig out flower beds to soften the edges we discovered that the builders who did the extension for the previous owners had dumped a lot of rubble beneath the grass and turfed over it! My intended cottage planting was not to be unless I was prepared to haul all the rubble out and replace the soil. Instead, I took a lazy way out and made it into a seaside garden, gravel and rocks, pebbles and shells, planted up with sea pinks and succulents, and sempervivums. When I find treasures on my beach walks I will add them to the collection. The beach garden has already been tested out on our grandson and he loves it. Our dog, Bryn also likes it, finding the warm stone nice to sleep on.

Of course, all this activity means we have the front garden from hell - people walk by and cast scathing glances at the pile of precious top soil (meant for the front border when we get round to doing it), the pile of rubble meant for the dump and the stash of slate we hope to reuse somewhere. I am not at all used to having the worst garden in the street and I don't like it at all!

On Sunday we attended the West Wales Plant Sale at a local mansion, Rhosygilwen, and spent a small fortune on plants.They were all so healthy looking, some unusual specimens and all in all a great day out. I do love to shop for plants.

We bought more hellibore, some heuchera, an unusual looking fritilary, some verbascum, a tall blue thing whose name escapes me, and some primroses and astrantias. I am praying that the threatened cold snap the weather people say is coming will bypass us - I couldn't stand it if my garden was spoiled at this stage! It is just beginning to look gorgeous. By the beginning of next spring I hope to have a few more beds in place so we will definitely go to the plant sale again. I wouldn't mind a trip to Gardener's World Live but I think we've left it too late to plan.

The last week or so has been lovely in the garden, out of the cold wind the sun has been almost too hot for me but I've enjoyed planting, filling the planting hole with organic matter and mulching afterwards as part of the soil improvement programme. In fact, I was relieved when they said we were to have rain last night and today but so far it is dry. I shall have to get the hose pipe out again!