Bishop's Children dahlias in vase

Survival against the odds – my dahlias

Back in autumn I mentioned that was going to try and nurture the tubers of my Bishop’s Children dahlias – grown from seed last year – so they get through the winter.

‘Nurture’ is used in the loosest sense, meaning essentially that I didn’t dig them up and throw them away. My toddler gave some a scattering of mulch (wood chippings) to protect them from frost, and I dug one up and stored it in a box.

Better gardeners take a great deal of care with their dahlias, but I originally grew mine as annuals so any surviving tubers are a bonus.

I’m yet to discover if the tubers in the ground are OK, but it hasn’t been a very harsh winter (yet) so they’ve got a chance. But today I had a close look at the boxed one, and was very happy to see three healthy little shoots emerging from the centre of the clump.

Dahlia shoots overcoming adversity

Dahlia shoots overcoming adversity

This is pretty impressive given the treatment it’s endured. My intention was to carefully remove the soil from around the tubers, and gently pack them in dry compost. The reality is that I shoved it in a cardboard box on top of some newspaper and left it in the utility room.

The sorry state of my dahlia storage

The sorry state of my dahlia storage

Having read something in my new magazine about it being time to pot up healthy tubers, I got on with this job for my single specimen (into top soil, because that’s all I had).

Potted dahlia tuber, back inside for a while

Potted dahlia tuber, back inside for a while

I then realised my magazine was the March issue and Monty Don suggested they should go into a cold frame in the middle of the month. Hey, so I’m a bit premature, I’ll keep my potted dahlia in the utility room for a few weeks before sending it up to to the cold frame – which has been newly positioned on the sunny bank up at the allotment.

Put in my place by Mother Nature

It’s Roast Day once more so on the return leg of the dog walk I headed ‘lot’-wards to dig a parsnip. 

After recent parsnip triumph I expected to find another fine specimen. 

But Mother Nature punished my smugness with a parsnip that only its mother could love!





It was quite monstrous, both in size and aesthetic – and some of it’s still in the ground. 

Thanks for the lesson MN, that one fine parsnip doesn’t make a gardener!

How to get the biggest harvest from tomato plants

The arrival of the March issue of Gardener’s World magazine jogged me to share the findings of a tomato-growing trial they published in the Feb issue.

The trial wasn’t extensive and had several limitations, but the results were surprising so I thought they’re worth a mention.

Their objective was to test the productivity of tomato plants grown in different ways and subjected to different watering regimes. They chose the popular variety Gardener’s Delight, planted either in the ground, in pots and in growing bags (two per bag). For each growing medium they watered daily, every three days, or weekly.

To avoid rainfall complicating matters, all the plants were grown in a polytunnel.

The most productive plants were those grown in growing bags and watered once a week.

These produced 45 tomatoes per plant on average, compared to the least productive plants which were in the ground and watered weekly (yielding just 14 fruit on average). In fact, all the watering regimes in the growing bag outperformed their counterparts in pots and the ground.

The lack of productivity from the plants in the ground was surprising to me, but one of the limitations of the trial is that they suggested that the ground they were growing in had been used for tomatoes for years and not enriched before the test.

In terms of flavour, they reported no discernible difference between the growing conditions.

So, what do you think? Do you use growing bags, or swear by the soil?

For the last few years I’ve grown tomatoes in pots (in the garden, not the allotment), but the GW results in pots were the worst of the trial so I’ll be reconsidering that approach.

Mid-winter: the best time of the year…

…bear with me.

Not much gardening going on due to weather and work, but I’m witnessing the slow-but-sure coming of spring as I roam around the village. It’s hopeful, but the cusp of spring can be one of the crappier times of year for walking round these parts.

The twice-daily dog walk (of which I currently do less than 50%, admittedly) provides a good barometer for the changing seasons and its impact on the countryside. While the gentle adjustments in temperature and day length mosey on, there are also sudden and dramatic transformations of the farmland that surrounds our little village.

And so, our usual routes change and become more awkward or more lovely according to the month. Here is my dog-walking calendar:

Late winter (now): the farmers plough their fields, pinning us to the paths at their perimeter – or sometimes through the middle. The weather warms so the ground is soft, and as scores of walkers pound the paths they get slippery, and then claggy, and then seriously boggy.

A footpath through a local ploughed field - not kidding

A footpath through a local ploughed field – not kidding

Spring: the first great dog-walking season. The ground dries out as the flora powers into growth. The twigs and branches soften with foliage and blackthorn hedges hide their spikes with frothy white blossom. All routes are again accessible, the woodland paths no longer boggy, the grasses and stingers not yet encroaching.

Happy dog, happy walker

Happy dog, happy walker

High summer: wonderful in the woods, so long as you can ignore the low level buzzing in constant pursuit. But the lesser-used paths, and all routes around the fields are quickly invaded by grasses, nettles, brambles and cleavers. I repeatedly make the mistake of wearing shorts or cropped trousers, always just before some kind of social event involving exposure of my slashed and stung shins. And it’s a miracle if by autumn I haven’t hit the deck after clamping a rambling weed to the floor with one foot, only to trip up my other foot as it attempts to take the next step.

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Poppy-pocked fields are a highlight of high summer

Autumn: a mixed bag. The paths are still jungles, and hold litres of morning dew to deposit into the trainers I’ve foolishly worn (time to dust off the wellies once more). But the farmers are busy harvesting, freeing acres of space, shortcuts, long cuts, and bramble-free walking.

Winter: the path-covering plants beat their retreat, exposing the routes we’ll come to rely on in the new year. But the fields are still bare too, so the world is our oyster. Of course the slip-sliding gets worse day-by-day, until….

Mid-winter: …when it all freezes hard and you can both (me and the dog) trot over a mud bath and still return home with clean paws. And here, on our hilltop, we are blessed with the most amazing hoar frosts I’ve ever seen. It’s a truly magical sight. We haven’t had one yet this winter – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this treat before we welcome spring 2015 – but here are some shots from winter 2012.

Incredible hoar frost

Incredible hoar frost

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Chilly dog

Chilly dog

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That’s why cold mid-winter is [one of the] best time[s] of year ;o)

Gardener prevails

Armed with pruning saw, spade and loppers I attacked the condemned blackcurrant for a second time this afternoon.

Pleased to report no more breakages and extraction completed.

Extraction is the right word too. Bending and twisting the rootball around while the final root was still intact put me in mind of the childhood pastime of playing with a wobbly tooth just before it breaks free.

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Blackcurrants bite back

You’d think that extra-fat buds on your blackcurrant bush would be a good sign. But…they’re actually the tell-tale symtom of the aptly-named ‘big bud’ infection.

Fat buds signalling 'big bud' mite infection in blackcurrants

Fat buds signalling ‘big bud’ mite infection in blackcurrants

A 'big bud'

A ‘big bud’

Big bud is caused by a teeny tiny mite that sneaks into the winter buds and sucks the life out of young leaves. The buds dry up and develop little or no foliage and flowers.

The little blighters can also spread reversion disease, which is not good news at all.

The advice for lightly infected bushes is to pick off the fat buds in winter (and dispose of them far from the plants), but for plants with severe infection the end is [recommended to be] nigh.

So I was a bit sad today to see fat round buds covering one of my three blackcurrant bushes, while the other two had a scattering. I decided immediate action was needed so I picked all the big buds from the two mild cases, and attempted to lift the third.

The bushes are clearly pretty ‘mature’ and the roots are hefty. I worked away around the base with my spade, and then turned to the big guns to lever it out. In went my fork, I heaved down on the handle, and SNAP. Oh bugger.

Disaster

Disaster

I shouldn’t be surprised, the poor fork has been left out in all weathers for a year. Funnily enough, yesterday I gave it shelter for the first time – I got around to assembling the storage box I was given for christmas. This irony is not lost on me.

The new storage box, secured by a bag of muck!

The new storage box, secured by a bag of muck!