Hey there Heucheras…

Ever grown a Heuchera plant? As my new favourite, these colourful beauties should be top of the list for both beginners and experienced gardeners.

Heucheras are little evergreen clump forming plants that have stunning coloured leaves and look super all year round in pots, beds and window boxes. They are known for their resilience and being easy to look after, as well as their magnificent peppering of little flowers come summer. With names like Midnight Rose, Blackberry Jam, Marmalade, Mahogany, Cherry cola, Liquorice and Blondie in Lime, you can see how these hardy little specimens are stealing the limelight as autumn closes in.

Where to start?

If you’re planting them directly outdoors, find a partially shady spot with free draining soil (basically nowhere damp or waterlogged). Dig a hole twice the width of the plant, then place it in gently, filling the surrounding space with multipurpose compost. Ideally the crown (very top of the root ball, below the stem) should be slightly higher than ground level to avoid rotting in winter. Firm in and water well.

What about pots?

Heucheras work extremely well in pots. The conditions suit them and their striking foliage make them great plants for either side of a front door, on an urban patio, etc. They should be planted as above, ensuring the pots have sufficient drainage so there’s no wet feet. The plants have shallow roots, so depth isn’t a problem, but ensure the containers are wide enough to allow them to spread as they grow. Regular watering is essential with potted Heucheras, especially in warmer months, as they can dry out quickly.

Anything else?

You’ve got lots of tonnes of tones to play with here, so either opt for some matching plants, or go as contrasting as possible. My favourite combination is Marmalade, Liquorice and Blackberry Jam, which include rich coloured leaves and silvery veins. You can also get creative with pots – ceramics with blue, black or red glaze are eye catching and brighten up a back garden in a flash. Whether they’re in containers or directly in the ground, they tend to look best planted in threes.

Spring and autumn are the best times to plant Heucheras, so October is bang on for a colourful winter display that will bring a floral surprise once the weather heats up again. Spring clean the plants around April by nipping off any tired or dead leaves.

Where can I get them?

Carbeth Plants is my top recommendation – a good quality little plant nursery in Glasgow. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to hunt round garden centres (or go to Scotland), buy online at https://www.facebook.com/carbethplants/ to get them boxed up and straight to your door – prices are super reasonable. Also have a flick through the new and colourful Carbeth Plants Instagram @carbethplants.

Carbeth Plants: Stockiemuir road, Glasgow, G63 9AY

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Caring for Cacti

The cactus is super popular at the moment. They look minimal and smart, don’t make a mess with dead leaves, and are very easy too look after – Londoners love them.

Even though they require little care, it doesn’t mean you can ignore them completely. We know it’s easy, but what do we have to do..?! Follow these simple tips to keep your spikes looking super.

1.The pot

You’ve bought a cactus, it looks great, but it’s in a cheap plastic pot that doesn’t fit with your Scandinavian decor. Can you re-pot it? Yes. As a rule, make sure the pot is the same size or slightly bigger than the one it came in. This allows the roots space to grow and won’t restrict them. Also make sure the pot is heavy enough so your spiky friend isn’t going to topple over and ruin the carpet. Check it has drainage holes, and re-pot the cactus using cactus compost, which is dry and gritty and looks like desert (available online or from most garden centres). Use gloves to protect your hands, and gently pull off the plastic pot while holding the base of the plant, if you can. Place inside the new pot, and firm down compost around it. Alternatively, you can buy a bigger pot that the original plastic eyesore will fit neatly inside.

2. The space

Now it’s happily potted, you need to decide where to put it. Like most plants, cacti are happiest in a sunny spot, such as a windowsill, that isn’t going to heat up too much and scorch the tender greenery. Make sure it’s a well ventilated area with natural light. Don’t forget to place a saucer or small tray under your cactus to catch water after you’ve given it a drink – or move it to the sink while you do so.

3. Watering

This is where most people worry, but it’s very simple. Cacti like to feel they’re in their natural surroundings, so the watering pattern should follow suit. April – September is the growth season, so it needs moisture to support this. Depending on the temperature, water every week or so, allowing the compost to dry fully in between. From September they enter a dormant period, so a sprinkling every month should do the trick. Cacti do like dry conditions, but it doesn’t mean they can be left to look after themselves. Neither do they like sitting with a damp bottom, so keep an eye and alter your watering accordingly.

If you want to buy a cactus, or just admire some succulents, drop in to PRICK in East London. Buy online at The Cactus Shop, or pick up from local garden centres or plant sellers, such as The Chelsea Gardener, Battersea Flower Station, N1 Garden Centre and Camden Garden Centre.

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Urban Food Fortnight: 8 – 24 Sept

Sustainable living, healthy eating and urban creativity have never been more popular in London, and the capital’s Urban Food Fortnight brings all these things together.

For the sixth year in a row, the forward-thinking and unique initiative by London Food Link – part of charity Sustain – will highlight the very best of food that is made, cooked, grown and foraged in the city, with events taking place across two weeks.

An eclectic mix of workshops, music and cocktail nights will show Londoners the power and excitement behind the urban food scene, and the people making it happen. New for 2017, the Urban Food Heroes award will find 50 good food heroes – the individuals, organisations and enterprises doing good for people and the planet through food.

So what’s going on and how can you get involved? Find all 95 events listed on the website.

Here are my recommendations…

8th, 9th, 15th, 16th, 22nd, 23rd September: Midnight Apothecary at Brunel Museum

The rooftop garden at Brunel Museum will host it’s sixth season of Campfire Cocktails, featuring seasonal botanical ingredients grown on the roof and foraged close by. This spectacular yet intimate event invites you to get cosy around the campfire and watch the sunset.

Tickets here. 5.30pm, Brunel Museum Rooftop Garden, Railway Avenue, London, SE16 4LF

Saturday 9th September: Aphrodite’s Table Brunch

Eat a morning feast of delicious, seasonal food and flavours at Aphrodite’s Table in a stunning railway arch nestled in Forest Gate, East London. The traditional Turkish spread of mezze dishes is a truly unique brunch club experience.

Tickets here. 10.30am, tickets £30, Arches 370-371, Station Road, London, E7 0AB

Sunday 10th September: DagenJAM festival at Dagenham Farm

For a different farm shop experience, explore the organic farm, drop into a workshop, and buy freshly picked produce and preserves at Dagenham Farm. The homemade cream tea is a must – complete with strawberry DagenJAM.

Free event, more details here. Dagenham Farm, Central Park Nursery, Rainham Rd North, Dagenham, RM10 7EJ

Friday 15th September: Disco Soup at Mercato Metropolitano

Not to be missed, a mix of cooking, disco and sustainable food practices, described as a ‘peel good’ solution to climate change! Go along and get involved creating a collective feast from food that would otherwise be wasted. Working in conjunction with Feedback and EFFECT, with music from Ministry of Sound.

Tickets here. 3pm, 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR

Saturday 16th September: Foodival 2017

The 10 year anniversary of Tooting’s Foodival, organised by Transition Town Tooting, has a strong line up for it’s birthday bash. Market stalls, cookery demos, guest speakers and music by The Sound Lounge will help celebrate locally made cider, chutney, honey, cakes and much more.

More details here. 11am – 5pm, Mushkil Aasaan & Herewood Road, SW17 7EW

Saturday 23rd September: Clissold Market Garden Open Day

Take a taste tour around the oldest site in Growing Communities Patchwork Farm, Clissold Park – the home of award-winning Hackney Salad for 20 years. Sample free food and experience the taste of city grown fruit and veg – simple but devine combinations that demonstrate the best of real, locally produced food.

More details here. Growing Communities market garden, Clissold Park N16 9HJ

 

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Going ginger: Grow you own

Lemon and ginger tea, soy and ginger stir fry… there are countless uses for this fiery root, and it’s very popular with chefs and the health conscious. I didn’t actually mean to grow my own, but somehow I’ve got a new plant.

I usually buy my root ginger from the supermarket, and when left too long in the cupboard, the ‘eyes’ start looking like they’re going to sprout (a bit like when you forget about potatoes).

Rather than throwing it away, this time I put a sprouting piece in a shallow jar of water, and watched the roots develop quickly and tiny first leaves appearing in a matter of days. Having read into it a bit more… it turns out it’s really easy to grow!

How to grow ginger

  1. If you’re doing it properly, it’s best to choose a piece of the rhizome that has several eyes, which will sprout into the first shoots. Cut off a chunk with a knife, then plant it in multipurpose compost, in a pot, and water gently. You need to make sure that the eyes are just peaking above the surface.
  2. Since ginger is a tropical spice, it’s usually found in much warmer climates. So it’s a good one to keep as a houseplant (or put it outside during summer). Place the pot in a sunny spot, and water it every time the soil starts to turn dry. Don’t let it get too damp else your soggy roots will rot!
  3. You’re probably used to using root ginger, but stem ginger is a lot harder to get hold of in the UK, and absolutely delicious. As it’s enjoyed in Asia, the floral tasting stem ginger can be dug up and eaten fresh when the plant is younger (3-5 months) when the bottom of the stem swells. This gives a mild and crunchy addition to salads, meat dishes and drinks. Just pull up the plants gently and cut off what you need.
  4. If you prefer the hot root ginger, the rhizome needs to dry out (a process which gives it the fiery taste). In late summer at least 8 months after planting, the stems will start to die back, and if you stop watering completely the roots will develop in the soil. You can then slice as much off the root as you need, being careful to leave some so the plant can survive. Place the root on a warm windowsill to dry out.

Ginger is known for its health benefits and medicinal qualities. It can aid digestion, ease colds/flu and has antioxidant effects. Grow it at home for an impressive superfood that doubles as a houseplant – you don’t even need a garden!

Holy Mackerel they’re hot! Chillies.

In May I wrote a blog about growing chillies. Having been sent a packet of Mr Fothergill’s new Peruvian Lemon Drop variety, I thought I’d have a go at growing chillies for the first time.

Four months after planting, I’m delighted to find my little plant full of white flowers and ripening chilli peppers. I tried these for the first time several days ago, and they are EXTREMELY HOT. Or ‘seriously spicy’, as it says on the packet. They have a lovely lemony flavour and are great for cooking with, giving a tasty twist to spicy dishes.

If you like a chilli with a bite, or, like me, have lots of friends who do, this is a very easy and satisfying plant to grow. With lots of greeny yellow chillies developing, it also looks impressive.

Here’s how I grew them – pretty simple:

  1. Propagate the seeds from Feb-April indoors. I sowed about 8 seeds in all purpose compost in a tray, and covered them in polythene until germination.
  2. When the seedlings appear, remove the lid and keep them moist.
  3. By about May they were strong enough to transplant, so I moved them outside. To avoid them getting a shock and dying immediately, you should ‘harden off’ the plants (take them outside during the day to give them time to acclimatise).
  4. Once big enough, I repotted the strongest plants in small containers (about 3 out of 8 plants were really strong and healthy).
  5. Keep an eye and water regularly throughout summer months. We had some really hot days, so I moved my pots into the shade to avoid them drying out.
  6. Watch for white flowers and get very excited when tiny chillies start to appear.
  7. Pick them by cutting from the stem when they’re looking ripe and ready.
  8. Eat if you’re brave enough…

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Visit the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh

August in Edinburgh centres around the fantastic fringe festival, and if you’re visiting this month make sure you take a detour to see the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Slightly removed from the city centre, but still within easy walking distance, is over 70 acres of stunning grounds. The gardens, which are in immaculate condition, consist of landscaped space, glass houses and woodland areas – as well as plenty of cafes.

Whether you’re a horticulture expert, Edinburgh tourist or hungover from the fringe, go and wander round my favourite spots at RBGE:

  1. The Glasshouses

These are pretty spectacular – there’s 28. The Victorian Palm Houses are the oldest glasshouses on site, made up of The Tropical Palm House and Temperate Palm House. Packed full of enormous trunks and wide spanning leaves, the vast range of palms are kept in humid conditions and create an enchanting adventure within impressive Victorian structures. Although not all are accessible to the public, RBGE also has a range of research glasshouses, providing space for propagation and studies.

  1. The Alpines

Alpines grow in rocky areas and are small, hardy plants traditionally found at high altitude – or in Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, which homes one of the best alpine collections in the world! A wide range of these fascinating little plants from across the globe can be seen in the Rock Garden, Traditional Alpine House and Modern Alpine House, which have all been created to imitate the plants’ natural habitats.

  1. The Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden

This mesmerising space was opened in 2006 by Her Majesty The Queen. The labyrinth design makes it an unusual garden, with the overall layout based on the motif of the historic Eassie Cross near Glamis Castle. Each of the four corners contains plants from different areas of the world: Asia, Europe, North America and the southern hemisphere.

  1. Edible Gardening

‘Grow your own’ is one of my favourite areas of gardening, and RBGE has an area dedicated to it. The current project helps people gain skills to grow their own food, and includes a free gardening course and opportunities to meet the volunteer team. Drop in to the advice sessions to learn about growing veggies, fruit, salads and the rest.

  1. The Handlebards: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If you’re visiting because of the fringe, you’ll probably like this. Showing from 22nd – 26th August, the world’s first cycling theatre company perform a unique and energetic critically acclaimed show in the Botanic Garden. Check out the website for times and tickets – laughter and picnics recommended.

The gardens are FREE to enter, with paid admission to the glasshouses: Adult £6.50, Concession £5.50, Child (15 and under) Free, Essential Carers Free. RBGE Members admitted free of charge.

Enjoy!

Twitter: @TheBotanics

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Get healthy: homegrown fruit & veg

With more information available than ever on health and eating well, fruit and vegetables are in the limelight. However, packaged supermarket veg can often be bland and uninspiring, so think about growing your own to experience the benefits…

1. Flavour and nutrients

It’s true. Homegrown really does taste better. Picking something from the vine or pulling it out of the ground just before cooking is as fresh as it gets, and the lack of packaging and mass production means the taste is flavour is vastly improved. A study from Kew Gardens found that homegrown tomatoes tasted sweeter and had a higher level of health improving nutrients – so they’re better for you too.

2. Seasonal eating

When everything is available all year round, we’re losing touch with how food is grown and what is seasonal. Growing your own veg helps reconnect us to nature, showing how weather impacts the food we eat and allowing us to enjoy the very best and tastiest seasonal food. It also feels more natural and far better to avoid things flown hundreds of miles.

3. Taste the rainbow

It’s easy to get bored of the same salads if you’re conscious of eating well. Growing a range of veg – even if it’s just some greens and different root veg – can open our eyes to other options and allow us to try varieties that are harder to get hold of in shops. Purple carrots, for example, that might cost a fortune in a health food store can easily be grown for an unusual addition to supper time.

4. What it’s made of

I like knowing that anything I’ve grown is a product of the conditions I’ve provided, and I have complete knowledge of what’s been added – or not added – to make it grow. Whatever method you choose, growing your own lets you know exactly what you’re eating.

5. Food appreciation

After the first homegrown vegetable, you’ll certainly think twice about throwing away veg or leaving it on your plate. Not only will you eat more of the healthy stuff when it’s right on your doorstep/windowsill, but you’ll be more mindful about what you’re putting in your body and how it’s been created. It might be a bit misshapen but pride in your homegrown prizes will mean seasonal cooking and benefits to the body, mind and environment.

 

Herbal tea! Grow your own

Brits love tea, and we spend a lot of money on our favourite teabags. Cleansing, detoxifying and full of antioxidants, fresh herbal teas have never been more popular, so why not grow your own? 

Herbs are one of the easiest things to grow. They’re straight forward to sow and maintain, needing relatively little space or time. They will even grow happily on windowsills for those without a garden. 

If you want leaves you can pick and use fresh without drying, choose mint, basil, chamomile or lemon balm. For something slightly sweeter, raspberry and blackberry leaves work well too. 

When picking from your plants, look for strong healthy leaves, and harvest in the morning when the leaves contain the most essential oils. Pick several large leaves for each mug, and rinse thoroughly. Make sure they’re from your garden and not roadsides etc, as you want to know exactly what you’re drinking… 

Then tear or crush the leaves slightly to release flavour and essential oils, and pour boiling water over to soak for around 10 minutes – depending on how strong you like it. Then strain and pour into mugs, it’s that simple. 

You can also create teas through combining different leaves, and even the flowers and roots of some plants. Lavender buds and dandelion roots work well, but always check your choosing edible parts of plants, as you can’t eat everything that grows in your garden. 

If you’ve got more time, certain leaves, such as chamomile, work well dried, and can be preserved for future use or giving away. Oven drying or short bursts in the microwave will dehydrate leaves so they can be stored. Keep them in labelled air tight containers or sandwich bags. 

Experimenting with home-grown teas is cheap and rewarding, helping us get more green in our lives and homes, as well as nutrients and health benefits from growing your own. 

 

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Tomato Challenge: Next steps!

This year I undertook the very ambitious task of growing 100 ‘Sweet Aperitif‘ tomato plants from Thompson and Morgan seeds in my tiny London garden, with the aim of giving them to non-gardeners and helping them nurture their first homegrown produce.

After hiccups with weather, transporting and space, I’m delighted that lots of my new tomato owners are enjoying their flourishing plants! Here are the basic steps to take to make sure they continue to grow happily and produce fruit…

  1. Get a bigger pot

If you haven’t repotted your tomato plant already, now is the time. It will be towering above its small plastic pot, with the roots struggling for space and stunting its growth. Buy a larger pot (20cm ideally) and some multipurpose compost, or improvise with any large container – buckets, crates etc – to save money. Just make sure it has a hole in for drainage. Fill the new pot halfway with compost, then carefully remove the old pot and place the plant in its new home. You’ll then need to fill the pot with compost around its base to firm it in.

2. Pinching out

This fairly strange phrase means removing the lower shoots of the plant to ensure the energy is concentrated on producing flowers and fruit on the established branches. It seems brutal, but all you need to do is pinch off the new, smaller shoots coming from the main stem with your nails. Think of it as redirecting the water and nutrients to the right place.

3. Drinks on you

Seeing as we’re having very unpredictable weather, you’ll need to play it by ear when it comes to watering. During hot weather, tomato plants will need watering every day to ensure the compost remains moist and the leaves do not curl up. If this happens, give the plant a good soak and it should be revitalised. During wet weather, don’t over water, but keep an eye and only give it a drink if the compost starts to dry out.

4. Hungry plants 

As soon as flowers appear on the plant, I suggest giving the plant some food – such as Tomorite. This can just be added to the watering can (read the back of the tub) once a week to provide extra nutrients. Supporting the plant this way will mean more flowers appear and turn into healthy tomatoes.

5. Keep it upright

With rapid growth and July’s unexpected winds, you might find your plant struggling to stay vertical. All you need is a long stick – a cane, pole or straight branch will do – and gently push it in to the compost next to the stem. Then tie the plant loosely but firmly with string or wire to the support.

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Tomato plant ready for repotting

Looking after gardeners’ hands

Outdoor activities always take their toll on hands, and gardeners are renowned for dirty fingernails and rough skin. As much as I love getting my hands dirty, living and working in the city means it’s important to keep skin and nails healthy and presentable.

A good thing about urban gardening is that it involves significantly less manual labour than large countryside spaces. If you’re growing herbs and veg on your balcony or roof garden, there’s much less digging and carrying, meaning our hands have a slightly easier time. However, we still need to look after them, so the two golden rules are…

  1. Wear gloves

Gardening gloves are not just ugly and floral, designed for old ladies. You can actually just wear any gloves for light gardening, or get some super nice ones – Burgeon & Ball ‘Love the Glove’ Gatsby, and Briers William Morris strawberry thief gloves are my favourites.

  1. Hand care 

I don’t use a lot of products, and those I do use contain natural botanicals with sustainably grown ingredients. My best is Bramley Lavender, Geranium and Petitgrain hand cream, which is inspired by the therapeutic properties of plants, and moisturises and soothes hard working hands. All Bramley products are made in the Somerset countryside, produced in small batches to retain freshness and the quality of the essential oils. This is one to try, whether you do a lot of gardening or just enjoy uplifting botanical skin care.