News Tagged ‘Garden Supplies’


Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Two blogs ago I looked at the variety and number of worms present in our gardens and the crucial role that they play in maintaining and creating soils. You can get really pro-active, though, and harness the power of worms even more directly by turning your hand to vermiculture (the keeping of worms) by creating your very own earthworm hotel in the form of a wormery. Wormeries are an efficient, easily maintained and eco-friendly way of disposing of much of your garden and kitchen waste. Once the worms have done their thing they will not only have composted and disposed of your waste but will also provide you with two wonderfully useful end products: supremely rich, crumbly, ultra-high-grade compost – known as vermicompost – and concentrated liquid plant feed.

Vermicompost - almost good enough to eat!

Earthworms are the most efficient and successful detrivores to have ever evolved. Each individual eats, digests, excretes, and thus processes, anything up to it’s own bodyweight in decaying plant material each day. Together, a healthy and active population of earthworms can process pretty much all the suitable material that you can find, greatly reducing the overall volume of  your waste. The solid material that they produce – the vermicompost – can be used directly in the garden or in pots as a topdressing, planting material, or a soil conditioner/improver, whilst the liquid needs to be diluted at the rate of around 10 parts of water to one of concentrate.

It is estimated that each individual in the UK generates something in the order of 500kg of waste on an annual basis, and that each household collectively throws away over a tonne of waste every year. Something like 70% of this household waste has the potential to be either recycled or composted. Despite the fact that the majority of the people now regard recycling as worthwhile, currently only 14.5% of dustbin contents actually are recycled or composted. As a result many local authorities now offer for sale to the public compost generated by their own recycling efforts.

However, it makes far more sense for the individuals who are generating the waste to take direct responsibility for the disposal of at least some of the compostable elements. This, surely, is the most viable model for the future of kitchen and garden waste, saving money and time for the local authorities currently charged with it’s disposal (and by extension for the council tax payers who fund the process) and simultaneously providing a valuable source of planting raw materials for households that would otherwise have to buy them in. That’s what I call a win/win.

Of course many households who have access to an outside garden already do compost at least a proportion of their waste via their compost bins and heaps. Nevertheless, wormeries provide an invaluable alternative strategy for all households – they can process compostable waste far more rapidly than the average compost heap whilst opening up composting to those who have very limited outside space, or even no outside garden at all.

A 100 Litre wormery.

The equipment to create a wormery can readily be purchased, and generally consists of a large plastic bin with a tight-fitting hinged lid containing airholes and an internal perforated platform that separates the liquid waste from the solid. The bin is also fitted with a tap at the base from where the liquid can be drawn.

The earthworms that live and work within the wormeries are not the regular, soil-dwelling species that populate much of our regular garden soil. Terrestrial species would not survive in a wormery, instead one or more of the different species of British native compost worms must be used: composting worm (Eisenia andrei), red tiger worms (Eisenia foetida) or brandlings (Dendrabeana venera). The inhabitants for your wormery are generally supplied along with their living quarters, but failing that they can also be sourced from fishing shops or some organic gardening suppliers.

Compost worms - Eisenia foetida AKA Tiger Worms.

A well-maintained wormery should be odour-free, and so can happily live right outside the kitchen door or even indoors, where practically possible. To start the wormery place a single sheet of newspaper (about 20cm square) onto the separating platform and cover this with dampened, shredded newspaper. To this add a small amount of peat-substitute compost, such as coir, leaf mould or any other well-rotted sterile compost. The worms can now now placed into the middle of the bedding in their new home, along with their first meal – which should be no more than three or four handfuls of kitchen or garden waste. The lid should be left open for ten minutes or so, so that the light will encourage the worms to burrow down into the bedding. No additional food should be added for the next 7 days.

Wormeries may readily be located just outside a house door.

Once the worms have bedded in, they will start to increase their activity and speed of feeding. Initially add only small amounts (perhaps three of four handfuls) of waste each week and monitor to ensure that it’s all being digested and is disappearing as it should. Once the initial settling-in period has passed then kitchen and garden waste may be added at the rate it becomes available, ideally every day. Tough and woody material should be chopped up as finely as possible and the whole contents should be gently mixed through every so often to ensure an even distribution of worms and material.

Most wormeries are housed out of doors, and worm activity will slow with falling winter temperatures, however, if the wormery is sufficiently full at the start of winter, then the heat generated by the process of decomposition is generally sufficient to prevent the internal temperature of the wormery from dropping too much. Insulating the wormery over-winter can be a great help, and of course it can also be moved into a shed or garage to help maintain temperatures, particularly during very cold spells. Equally wormeries should never be placed in strong sunlight as the compost worms will not survive temperatures above 40°C.

When the wormery is nearly full and the material fully composted the contents will have a dark, spongy, soil-like appearance. Remove the worms, which should usually be in a layer just below the surface, and place them temporarily in a bucket or other suitable container. The compost may then be emptied out of the bin where you intend to use them or saved for use as an ingredient for making up your own potting compost. Your worms can be replaced into the newly set-up wormery and used for making the next batch of compost. It is usually possible to harvest worm compost from your wormery about every four to nine months, depending on temperatures, location and material used.

Most kitchen and garden vegetable waste can be added to a wormery – anything that you would add to a compost heap, essentially. However, compost worms cannot tolerate acidic conditions, and the failure of a wormery is often down to the pH dropping too low. This is further verified by the appearance of tiny cotton thread-like white worms in the compost. The addition of calcified seaweed, or crushed eggshells, well mixed in with some dampened, shredded newspaper, should restore the balance.

Wonder Worms.

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Most gardeners are very well aware that worms are crucially important garden friends, and that their presence (or absence) in soil is a good indicator of how healthy that soil is. But earthworms do virtually all of their work undetected and invisible to us surface dwellers, so the exact mechanisms by which they operate are somewhat more mysterious.

Earthworms have been dubbed “ecosystem engineers”, and, like their human counterparts, they are able to alter the physical structure of their environments. Worms move through the soil by means of burrowing, with different species specialising in either horizontal or vertical runways some of which can extend deep into the soil. These burrows create a network of virtual pores through which beneficial oxygen and water can enter and carbon dioxide can exit the soil. At the same time worms digest their way through their surroundings, literally breaking larger particles into smaller, and their resulting faeces (worm casts) are responsible for much of the open, crumb structure of the the best soils, which in turn allows access to plant roots and myriad other subterranean organisms.

An earthworm cast.

Improvement in soil structure is only the start of the story, however. Earthworms are detrivores – meaning that they feed exclusively on dead material – and they play an equally vital role in the decomposition of that organic material. The earthworms resident in your compost are busily munching their way through, and thus decomposing your garden and kitchen waste, and soil-dwelling earthworms are engaged in exactly the same process. Together with a galaxy of fungi and bacteria this process of decomposition releases the nutrients tied-up in dead plants and animals and allows them to be accessed by living plants. The volume of material processed in this way is pretty staggering – just consider, for starters, all of the autumn leaves shed by deciduous trees and shrubs each season that are efficiently and rapidly recycled back into the soil, a job done largely by worms.

The industrious work of earthworms also acts to mix together the different strata of soil. Nutrition is incorporated deeper into the soil (without which it would be rapidly leached of it’s goodness by rain and the feeding of living plants) and the fertile top-soil region is slowly expanded. These actions lead Charles Darwin to refer to earthworms as “nature’s ploughs” due to their ability to mix and fertilise soil with organic matter, but worms are hugely more efficient, and entire ecosystems are dependent opon their actions.

An earthworm - this one is Lumbricus terrestris - in its burrow.

Earthworms, as mentioned above, aren’t the only operators in the area of decomposition. In fact they are the  first level – the macro-scale when it comes to matters of micro-organisms – and fungi and bacteria take over where they leave off, breaking particles into even smaller pieces and fully releasing the nutrients within. For the most part, however, these fungi and bacteria are unable to survive without the presence of worms, who are, effectively, responsible for providing their food, so whilst worms can operate independently of their decompostion partners the same can’t be said of the bacteria and fungi. What’s more the higher the concentration of worms in a given soil the larger the presence of beneficial bacteria and fungi will be.

It comes as a surprise to many gardeners to learn that there are actually many species of earthworm present in a typical garden, and even more so to hear that they all specialise in different terrains. From a gardeners point of view the species can be broken down into four broad groups.

First up are the so-called compost earthworms, so-named for their love of compost bins. They require a warm, continually moist environment with a regular supply of new material on which to feed and are highly active, digesting rapidly and reproducing quickly too. The most commonly encountered species of the compost group are Eisenia fetida and E. veneta, both characterised by their relatively small size and bright red colour with distinctive paler stripes, which lends them the common name of Tiger Worms.

Eisenia fetida - one of the familiar Tiger Worm compost species.

The second group are known as the Epigeic earthworms. They live on the soil surface amongst the leaf litter – Epigeic literally means to crawl across the surface of the soil – and can be regarded as the first line of attack in the decomposition of material and the recycling of nutrients. These species do not burrow at all, but feed exclusively above ground, breaking-down organic material into pieces small enough for the subterranean species to access easily. Epigeic earthworms are generally also bright red or red-ish-brown, but they lack the stripes of the compost species. Common Epigeic earthworm species include: Dendrobaena species, Eiseniella tetraedra, Helodrilus oculatus, Lumbricus species and Satchellius mammalis.

Next up come the Endogeic earthworms. As might be imagined, these species both live in and feed directly upon the soil. They create networks of horizontal burrows through which they move and digest/excrete as they go and are able to burrow deep into the soil. Although they do re-use their burrows to some extent they characteristically create new burrows as they go. Endogeic earthworms are large in size and generally pale in colour, with different species appearing  pink or grey as well as green-ish or blue-ish. Common endogeic species include: Allolobophora chloroticaApporectodea species, Murchieona muldali and Octolas species.

Allolobophora chlorotica - commonly known as the Green Earthworm.

The final group are the anecic earthworms. These species make permanent, vertical burrows in the soil and feed upon surface leaves that they capture on the surface and drag into their burrows. The anecic species are the ones responsible for the familiar surface piles of worm-casts so often seen in lawns and other grasslands where they create middens that surround the entrance to their burrows. Anecic species are the largest of our native earthworms and are dark red or brown in colour at the head end with paler tails. The two most common species are: Lumbricus terrestris and Apporrectodea longa.

Apporrectodea longa - the Black-Headed Worm.

The anatomy of an earthworm consists of a simple digestive tube housed within a thick cylindrical muscular sheath that forms the body. That body is segmented with furrows on the surface of the body marking the division between each segment. The first segment incorporates the mouth of the animal, and has a fleshy, muscular lobe on the top. This lobe can be pulled in to seal the mouth off, or pushed outwards to investigate its surroundings. Aside from the mouth, each of the segments has a series of eight retractable bristles which together allow the earthworm to propel itself along.

Earthworms are hermaphrodites, with each individual possessing both male and female reproductive organs. When two earthworms are ready to mate they adopt a head-to-tail position, cover themselves in a layer of mucus, and exchange sperm. Each then forms a tube of mucous that detaches and moves forward along the body, collecting both the individuals own eggs as well as the sperm received from its partner en route.

Mating earthworms.

Fertilization subsequently occurs within this mucous tube which detaches from the front of the body and is deposited in the soil where it dries to form an egg capsule or cocoon, from which one or more young earthworms will eventually hatch. Many species are able to breed several times a year.

Earthworm egg cocoons - these are from L. terrestris.

Going up in the World – Making Raised Beds.

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Having dipped our toes into the world of the raised bed in my last blog, and considered all of the benefits that they can bring to the garden, I’m now going to look at how to actually put a raised bed together and some of the various options along the way.

At it’s very simplest a raised bed is just that – a bed of garden soil mounded up above the level of the surrounding area. Several fruit crops, in particular, are grown en mass in exactly this way, with soil being mounded and the plants perched atop the mound. That’s fine for the very short term but in practise the combined efforts of the weather and time will quickly work to bring the mound back down to earth, and the gardener back to square one by the end of the season. Which is where containerisation comes in.

A beautiful bed made from natural wood.

Enclosing your raised bed of soil in a walled container allows all the benefits of mounding, but with the greatly added advantage of permanence, which in turn allows long-term planting arrangements or regular batches of crops to be grown.

In theory you can make your raised bed from pretty much any material that takes your fancy, so long as it provides sound and prolonged containment for the soil within. It’s best to consider your garden as a whole, and how the new bed will fit in and enhance it, and this, above all else, may well end up dictating your choice of materials.

Wood is certainly the most popular option, being readily available, cheap, lightweight and easily cut to fit a given site. There are a number of raised bed kits available from garden suppliers, most of which are made from wood, and these provide an easy and quick solution, particularly if you only need a small bed.  Concrete, stone, or brick are also pretty versatile, but will cost more in terms of initial investment as well as the labour to heft them into place. These are not the only options however.

A deep bed made from concrete blocks.

Traditionally raised beds were formed instantly by using bales of hay or straw as the walls, and this idea still holds good today. Degradable walls won’t provide a long term solution, but they can be replaced annually easily enough, and certainly allow a quick fix whilst you contemplate or construct longer term solutions. Metal, used tyres and an array of plastics are further options that together can provide the materials for raised beds that will work in virtually any given situation.

A small straw bale raised bed.

Once you’ve figured out your materials it’s on to the construction.

Site Selection

Different parts of your garden will provide very different growing conditions, so it’s vitally important to figure out what it is you want to grow and the conditions that will best suit them. From there you can work out the ideal location in your garden for the bed. Of course, just like any other part of the garden,  the same principle can also work just as well the other way around – you have a given site in which you want to place the bed, the next step it to figure out the conditions at that site, which in turn will determine what will grow best in the bed. Very many raised beds are employed for the growing of fruit, veg and herbs, and in all such cases you need to find a sheltered site that receives as much light and warmth as possible – ideally a minimum of eight hours of sun per day. Wherever you choose to site the bed the ground needs to be reasonably level (or level-able)  and it needs to have access to water – generally at the end of a hose pipe.

Shapes and Sizes

It’s often said that the optimum width of any raised bed is 4 feet. One of the important principles of growing in raised beds is that the soil isn’t walked upon or compacted, so it’s important to make sure that you bed is accessible from all sides and is narrow enough to reach across without having to step into it. If you’re siting the bed against a wall or fence, then bring that maximum width down to three feet. You can then make the bed (or beds) as long as suits your site. Depth of the bed is pretty critical too, and the deeper the bed the more benefits it will confer, so don’t be tempted to skimp. Six inches of depth should be the absolute minimum, and for anything other than the smallest beds try to aim for at least 10 to 12 inches.

A series of raised beds sited on a solid patio surface.

Site Preparation

The amount and exact nature of the site preparation – i.e. getting the existing soil ready for your new bed – will depend to a large degree on the depth of your bed and the plants that you wish to grow there. Unless your soil is truly diabolical, or the bed it being sited on a solid surface, then the first step should be to weed, fork over and loosen the existing soil surface, removing any turf if the bed is to be sited on grass. Unless your bed is very shallow there’s no need to dig the soil over to any great depth, and indeed doing so could alter the balance of beneficial microbes and risk bringing dodgy subsoil up into the bed.  Newspaper, landscape fabric, or cardboard can be used to line the bed where necessary and all will provide quick and effective weed suppression whilst still allowing for good drainage.

Using landscape fabric to line the new bed.


The possible methods of construction are as variable as, and are largely determined by, the materials that you are choosing to use. Firstly measure out your site – string and bamboo canes can give you a great idea of shapes and sizes and how they will work in the garden as a whole – and sketch the arrangement of  the bed and how it will fit together. Wooden beds can be constructed simply, using ethically sourced, outdoor grade (preservative treated) softwood built up to whatever height you decide to go for. Cut your pieces to the desired size, then attach them together to make a simple, four-sided frame. The corners can be secured with internal brackets, screwed together with galvanized screws or by fixing a small corner post into each of the four corners to which each walled side is attached.

Bed walls attached to one another by screwing into short corner posts.


Move your frame into it’s location and use a spirit level to ensure that it really is flat. This is more important that might be imagined since a partly tilted or otherwise uneven raised bed will lead to uneven drainage, potentially leading to flooding on one side of the bed and drought on the other. If your site preparation was good then it should be a simple matter of forking the soil around the frame edges until all sides are level.

Fill and Plant

One of the primary benefits of planting in raised bed is that it allows you the chance to create an ideal growing medium for your intended plants. So there’s no point in going to the trouble of creating a new bed only to then fill it with substandard soil.  A good mixture of quality topsoil, leafmould, garden compost, and rotted manure makes for an ideal, humus-rich blend, but again, the exact composition should be determined by the type of plants that you will be growing – herbs and alpines will benefit from the addition of lots of grit, for example. Once the bed is filled, and levelled, then you’re all ready to plant and start reaping the benefits.

A pair of beds - filled, levelled and newly planted.


Raised beds are, in effect, very large planting containers, and like any other container they will rely on you to maintain moisture levels, rather more so that the surrounding garden, although much less so than would an individual pot. Aside from that maintainance is blissfully easy and revolves around an annual or bi-annual surface application of mulch/compost/well-rotted manure to maintain fertility and moisture levels. Generally speaking it is not necessary to dig over the entire depth of soil or, and lightly forking the surface will provide a suitable open and crumbly planting environment for the next seasons crops.

Greenhouse vegetables.

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

With temperatures rising and summer just around the corner the unheated greenhouse can really start to earn it’s keep. Whilst there are a huge range of vegetables that thrive outdoors in our climate, there are also a select few that really do need the protection of glass in order to give their best.


The most obvious and perhaps even traditional of these are undoubtedly tomatoes. There are now a vast array of varieties and types of tomatoes available for the home grower, some of which can be successfully cropped outdoors if the weather is kind. Down here in “sunny” Devon the last two summers of eternal wetness have well and truly put paid to any attempts to produce outdoor tomato crops, with most plants succumbing to blight and weather-related fungal attacks  long before they were able to set fruit.

For those plants grown under glass, though, the outcome was much happier, and although 2008/2009 will certainly not go down in any veg growers record book some decent crops were eventually produced despite the cold temperatures and general lack of anything resembling a traditional summer.

Tomato variety Sunbaby.

The upright, cordon tomato varieties such as ‘Sunbaby’ and ‘Shirley’ should be selected for greenhouse use. Seeds should be sown in mid-March, with the subsequent seedlings being ready to transplant in mid-May. There are also many outlets for young plug and seedling plants which will perform equally admirably and which allow you to catch up if you didn’t have a chance to start from seed earlier in Spring.

Transplant seedlings into 12 inch pots with a rich, free draining compost, and make sure to include a tall cane or other support for each of the plants. Given a little care, plus lots of water and tomato feed, the extra heat afforded the plants under glass will produce much higher yields of fruit, with much better ripening than would be the case outdoors.


The range of cucumbers for home growing has expanded considerably in recent years with the arrival of a range of easily obtainable F1 hybrid varieties (such as ‘Fernspot F1′) that are easily grown and produce consistently good results.

Cucumber plants tend to be rather fragile under the weight of the heavy fruit, but should be carefully supported on canes.

Care is pretty much as for tomato plants, with seeds sown in March and seedlings or plugs transplanted into 12 inch pots in mid-May.

The wild plants from which cucumbers have been developed are trailing, rather than climbing, but the fruit ripens far more successfully with good access to light and air, so plants should be supported with canes or tied into wires that run along the length of the greenhouse.

Once the first half-dozen leaves have appeared on the young plants the growing tip should be pinched out to encourage the production of several growing shoots.

Cucumber plants are only weakly twining at best and obviously carry very heavy fruit, so it’s particularly important that these developing shoots are carefully tied in to their supports to keep them upright and stable. Plants should be kept well watered and a rich tomato-type feed given every two weeks.


Far less commonly grown in this country, aubergines, like tomatoes, are South American members of the nightshade family that most definitely need the extra heat and protection from wind that a greenhouse can provide. As with cucumbers, much work has been done to develop varieties that can be easily grown at home, and very heavy fruiting varieties like ‘Moneymaker’ make for easy and extremely rewarding  greenhouse crops. The plants are also very attractive, not just for the rather spectacular fruit, but also the for the foliage and large purple flowers.

Aubergines - highly decorative, highly tasty.

Aubergines should be sown indoors or under heat in March or in an unheated greenhouse in April. Once they have produced four leaves – any time from mid-May to mid-June, depending on when they were started – they can be pricked out and transplanted into 9 inch pots, together with the same staking/support as for tomatoes and cucumbers.

Plants should not be allowed to develop lots of small fruits or none will be able to ripen properly. Each plant is capable or maturing anywhere from three to six fruit in a growing season – depending on how warm and sunny the summer turns out to be - so pinch out any weak or poorly developed fruit-lets to let the plants divert energy into a few really good ones instead. Lots of water and regular supplies of tomato feed will, once again, ensure the best crops.


Saving the best to last, we come to the real hot-house gems, the Capsicums or peppers. Until fairly recently hardly anyone grew these South-American beauties in their home greenhouses in this country, but now they are very much the “vegetable de jour” and plug plants are almost as readily available as tomatoes and cucumbers.

Capsicum Sunrise.

Capsicum plants are somewhat more tender than toms, cus and aubergines, particularly when first germinated. Seed should only be sown under glass when temperatures are remaining consistently above 12C, and the seedlings (or bought-in plugs) transplanted into 8 inch pots once they have developed three of four true leaves.

Capsicum are not true climbing plants, but, rather like cucumbers, they certainly do require additional support of a short cane etc., in order to successfully bear their large fruit. The plants should be shaded from mid-day sun and kept slightly on the dry side, without actually ever quite drying out completely. A half-strength tomato feed should be applied every two weeks once the plants are growing strongly.

Capsicum Tequila.

There are now a wide array of Capsicum varieties available to the gardener, from the sweet bell peppers that start out green and ripen to yellow, orange, red or black/purple (like the fabulous ‘Tequila’), to the smaller, much hotter chillies than all turn scarlet upon ripening – they are all part of the same Mexican species: Capsicum annuum.

Aside from the obvious culinary uses Capsicum are such beautiful fruiting plants that you’ll be continually admiring their progress. Personally I can’t think of any more rewarding use for your greenhouse space this summer.

Planning for a greenhouse.

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Practical and functional, no garden should be without a greenhouse.

Installing a greenhouse is one of those pivotal moments for any gardener. Having a covered area in the garden, be it a conservatory, porch or even a cloche or cold frame, greatly enhances the scope of what you can grow and when, but once you have a greenhouse you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

Greenhouses create longer growing seasons, provide protection, warmth and additional humidity for their leafy occupants. They allow you to grow entire ranges of plants, both edible and ornamental, that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Seeds can be sown much earlier and bulbs and containers started safely into growth in late winter or early spring. Perhaps most important of all, greenhouses also provide a sheltered, dry and wind-proofed working environment which will work wonders to encourage you out into the garden on otherwise grey, cold and uninviting days.


A wooden potting table - essential greenhouse kit.

Generally speaking you might have only limited possible sites available in your garden, or quite possibly no choice whatsoever as to where to situate a greenhouse. There is a temptation to locate them as you would a shed – i.e. tucked away out of site in an unused and probably uncultivatable corner of the garden.
Unless you’re planning to house a specialist fern collection in your greenhouse, this kind of location is really not going to work. Another common mistake is to situate with the longest side facing due south into the sun. This will create unfeasibly high summer temperatures and you may end up oven-baking all your plants as a result; at best you will be continually struggling to keep ventilation and humidity high enough and may end up having to shade the entire greenhouse in an effort to keep things stable.

Where possible the very best site will have the longest sides of the greenhouse facing east and west, the door/ventilation end facing south and the northern end against the protection of a wall, hedge of fence.

Choice of greenhouse.

A typical flat-pack aluminium greenhouse.

The best value greenhouses are those that come flat packed for self-assembly. If you have the patience and (ideally) a couple of willing helpers on hand then these aluminium and glass constructions are extremely good value and can provide an ideal solution.

Go for the very largest size that you can afford and can accommodate. You may not think that you’ll fill up all that space, but believe me, no matter how large your greenhouse you will soon find yourself wishing you could squeeze in a little more.

Also the larger the enclosed space the more stable the humidity, temperature and environment within, and the less susceptible it will be to heat loss overnight and over-heating during the day.

Finally, ventilation is an absolutely part of any greenhouse so make sure that yours has as much as is available, preferably allowing for a cross flow of air from end to end and/or side to side of the structure.

Access to services.

In order to make the most of your greenhouse you will need access to electricity and a water supply. Once you have a collection of plants under glass you will want to ensure they don’t get hammered by extremes of cold, and, depending on what you are growing, you may also need to guarantee a frost free environment year round.

A water butt set up to collect run-off from the greenhouse roof.

There are a variety of gas heaters available, but they can be tricky to run and expensive to buy. The best of them also need to be installed by a qualified engineer, and might end up costing more than the greenhouse itself. Having power available in your greenhouse will allow for cheap and easy low level heating if and when it’s needed and of course will also allow you to add a light for those dark winter days.

Access to water is even more important, since you’re going to be using this, quite possibly on a daily basis, for a large portion of the year. Consider installing a tap or at least running a dedicated hose to the greenhouse, and most definitely install a water butt to capture the rain that falls on the large glass surface of your greenhouse. Using captured rainwater not only makes good environmental and economic sense but is also far better for all plants, and absolutely essential for the likes of Orchids & carnivorous plants as well as many seedlings.

Think also about your own access to and from the greenhouse and consider adding some additional paving or gravel in order to keep the entrance clean and prevent mud being traipsed in from a soggy wet garden.


All of the warm, humid & sheltered conditions that allow for great plant growth will also create an outstanding breeding ground for fungi, bacteria and plant viruses, not to mention weeds and a whole gaggle of flying insect pests. Keep work surfaces, glass and flooring clean, tidy and hygienic and you will greatly reduce the opportunities for any of these nasties to gain a foothold.

Greenhouses are not garden sheds and should not be used as dumping grounds for all the things that you want to tidy away – the transparent sides should put the kibosh on that idea anyhow, since everything inside is effectively still on display.

Equipping a greenhouse.

There are a few useful bits of kit that you should have lined up ready for your new glassy space. Top of the list is a solid, steady work surface set at a height comfortable for you to work with and strong enough to hold pots, compost and whatever else you’re likely to need. Consider using a table and perching seat – they don’t take up much room and make can make working conditions far more comfortable.

Working tray.

A large, shallow sided tray is also pretty essential. This will allow you to do a whole range of gardening tasks – mix composts, pot up plants, turn out old pots etc. – and all in contained, clean and hygienic conditions.

You’re also going to need an easily accessible and preferably containerised or divided tidy or storage area for tools, labels, pens, ties, plant foods and so on. Think about layout too, and where best to accommodate composts, pots, trays, canes and all the other items so that they are ready for use.

I like to have two separate bins running in the greenhouse. In fact it’s the very first thing that I set up and won’t start any work without them, as it’s amazing how much debris you produce whilst working in a greenhouse. Much of it can be composted, but some things, like old broken plastic pots and seeds trays or diseased plant material, need to be kept separate for waste disposal.

Shade netting - have some on hand long before it's likely to be needed.

Tools will vary according to your needs and the nature of what you will be growing, but secateurs, scissors, a hand watering can and a couple of sprays are all pretty indispensible in my experience.

Finally, unless you have indeed been forced to locate your greenhouse in a dark, shady corner where a shed might otherwise live, then you will almost certainly need some shading ready for extremes of temperature.

You can easily attach shading net to the inside or your glass walls, and some greenhouses come with their own shading systems too, but in either case you’ll need to have it ready to use well in advance of summer.

Bog Gardening.

Monday, April 5th, 2010

A mature bog can rival any other ornamental zone of the garden.

Bog gardens aren’t one of the more frequently seen garden features, and probably aren’t often near the top of the list for many gardeners when considering what features to add to a new plot. This is a shame, because they can provide attractions to rival any pond, and with very little effort.

Bog gardens are also the ideal solution for making practical use of a wet, poorly drained or otherwise awkward spot in the garden, as well as providing a perfect introduction to the delights of aquatic life for those with young children who might be concerned about safety around a pond.

Rodgersia tabularis - luscious leaves, around 90cm across.

All of which might make the bog garden sound like a second-class citizen to the pond proper, which is definitely not the case. In nature boggy, marshy regions are at least as frequent and widespread as open water and come with their own very rich and diverse eco systems, habitats and range of plants.

In the garden there are actually a huge range of plants that either thrive in bog gardens, or actively need them to survive, and in order to be able to welcome some of these plants into your own garden you, of course, have to provide them with a suitable habitat.

Wild boggy regions are, at least in these Isles, very much endangered, restricted and reduced in area, most having been drained long ago for agricultural use.

Making a bog garden in your own plot might not go very far to redressing the balance of these endangered habitats, but it certainly will encourage a range of insects, amphibians, birds and even (if you’re very lucky) reptiles, as well as giving a little pocket that marsh and bog plants can call home.

Where to position a Bog Garden.

A small trough bog garden.

One of the satisfying aspects of bog gardening is that they are pretty easy to create and don’t take too much maintenance – always a plus.

Much like ponds bog gardens they need to be positioned where they will receive the most direct sunlight possible – preferably for at least half the day during the growth period.

If you have a muddy, wet, frustratingly soggy spot in the garden already, so much the better.

Think how satisfying to be able to stop fighting the problem and basically let nature take it’s course!

With the right container bog gardens can be added to pretty much any location.

If you have a pond already then the drainage side is also an ideal, and entirely natural location for adding bog garden. Just be sure that the bog area is lower then the surface of the water, you want the pond to drain and overflow into the bog, definitely not the other way around.

Siting the two side by side will also give you the largest possible range of plants and allow for a natural transition and blend between the two habitats.

Just as with a pond, it’s equally possible to create a bog garden in an otherwise perfectly well drained site, however, so don’t feel that you need to have a semi marsh in your back yard before you can begin.

Making a Bog Garden.

Excavation for a new bog garden.

You can create a bog garden on pretty much any scale that suits your fancy and your site, and you certainly don’t need a big space, much less natural water flowing through your garden.

Once you’ve decided on a site, and an approximate size, and assuming you have a soil based garden, then you can get to digging.

Bog gardens are shallow habitats, and you only need to go down by around 30cm. The easiest option is then to line the base with a butyl type pond liner, although if you do have a naturally year-round wet site this may not be necessary.

The liner needs to have a small number of holes cut into it to allow for a slow, percolating drainage, otherwise it may turn into a shallow pond. If you have a very heavy clay soil (which is often likely to be the case in an existing wet spot in the garden) then this can be used as a natural lining, and, once you’ve dug out, you may well find the resulting hole starts to fill with water from the natural water table and/or with rainwater.

The same garden, now with a liner and sand base.

Small bog gardens can also be created entirely within containers, if need be, which allows them to be added to pretty much any location, from paved yards to rooftops. Choose a wide, relatively shallow container – old basins are ideal and can be highly decorative.

Whichever method of construction you’ve chosen add around an inch of sand into the bottom, to assist wit drainage and then backfill the bog garden-to-be with a 50/50 mixture of garden soil and compost that can also enriched with well-rotted manure for optimal results.

Next comes the water. Ideally rainwater should be used, but tap water works fine too so long as it’s left to stand in the new bog garden for a few days, allowing the chlorine to evaporate before planting. Fill the lined bog garden to overflowing point, at which point you will have created a big, gloopy, muddy bath. As the soil starts to settle, and a little of the water percolates away, the whole thing will settle and firm up somewhat, at which point it’s ready to plant.

Plants for a bog garden.

Ligularia stenocephala The Rocket

There are a really wide range of possibilities for planting, depending on whether you want a naturalistic or very ornamental look, or a combination of the two.

Yellow Irises (Iris pseudacorus) and purple Irises (I. sibirica and I. ensata) are hard to resist, and Candelabra Primulas, Rodgersia species, Trollius, Astilbes, Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris ) Ligularia, Persicaria, the fabulous Ostrich-Feather Fern (Matteuccia spp.) and even more spectacular, autumn colouring Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) are all pretty irresistible.

A semi-tropical, exotic look is easy to create too, and the addition of Rheums (Giant Rhubarbs) or, where space allows, Gunnera (REALLY Giant Rhubarb) along with Zantedeschia (Arum lilies) and the fabulous Lysichitons will do the trick with ease.

Lysichiton americanus - think BIG!

Once established many bog plants will grow pretty rapidly and will spread and colonise new areas of their new habitat, so don’t fill every available space, as you might think of doing in a new border.

Finally, when everything is planted, consider adding rocks, logs, driftwood, whatever feels right for your garden. Old stumps and rotting wood make for great and entirely natural additions – just the sort of thing that you find in bogs worldwide in fact – as well as providing valuable wildlife habitats and shelter.

Keep a watch on the moisture levels, depending on the weather and the location of your bog garden, you may need to top up with water from time to time to keep everything suitably marshy.

Indecent exposure.

Monday, March 29th, 2010

All gardens are subject to exposure from the elements, but for some this is their single most defining feature, the thing that determines what can be grown or even if anything much can be grown at all.

Rooftop gardens must contend with both exposure and potentially unstable containers.

It might be assumed that exposure in a garden is always due to its elevation – be it on a hill-top, near the coast or on a high roof or balcony – but it can equally be about location. The funnelling effects of valleys, woodlands and (particularly in towns) buildings can mean that gardens that might at first sight appear to be fairly sheltered are actually subjected to serious battering.

In some locations exposure is seasonal or determined by the direction of the prevailing weather fronts. Our Devon valley garden is a good example of this. Surrounded on three sides by woodland, but in a westerly facing valley, for much of the time things are pretty calm and sheltered, but when the weather shifts to the west, straight off the Atlantic, then the wind is concentrated by the valley and funnelled by the surrounding woods to create powerful gusts that have uprooted some medium sized trees and smashed the tops from others.

This happens here pretty much every Autumn, so it’s a seasonally exposed location, but of course others suffer that kind of effect all year round and the common factor that has to be addressed in all cases is the wind.

Bamboo used as a windbreak.

Wind in a garden can cause damage in a variety of ways. Structural damage can occur to garden features and buildings (greenhouses, sheds etc.) as well as to plants.

Trees and shrubs in full leaf have a huge “sail effect” and can be seriously damaged or even killed outright by strong gusts, whilst herbaceous beds can be flattened in a matter of moments with often heartbreaking results. Exposure is also a particular problem for fruit and vegetable plants. Flowers can easily be damaged, burned or torn right away before they’ve been pollinated so no fruit can form.

Wind breaks.

Wind permeable fence.

Solid fences may seem like the first solution to keeping wind out of a garden (particularly a small-ish one) but actually all that they do it to funnel and concentrate the wind, sometimes making a bad problem even worse. A better solution is to filter the wind to dissipate its destructive energy before it can reach your precious plants.

Where space allows trees and evergreen bushes planted at the garden margins and in staggered succession (rather than in large solid blocks) are the very best solution. We use large bamboos that grow quickly and are infinitely flexible, allowing them to easily absorb all the energy without risk of being damaged themselves. In smaller spaces open slat fences and permeable plastic mesh  netting can perform exactly the same job.

Planting care.

Low staking to stabilise a young tree.

Wind rock – where trees and shrubs are moved at the base of the trunk and at the root – can case major long-term damage, and often death of a plant. Trunks are weakened, roots torn away and large, drying air pockets formed underground, all pretty serious. It’s crucial to stake plants adequately when planting to prevent the process of wind rock from ever starting.

Stakes should always be low or the stem/trunk will fail to thicken up properly, causing further long-term weakness and lack of stability. Soil should be well firmed in, although take care not to compress and solidify, particularly with clay soils. Roots need access to air and water rather than being entombed into a giant brick. Containers should be very substantial and/or secured to surrounding fencing, wells etc.

Don’t neglect watering, not just at planting time, but for a good period (generally 2 to 3 years) afterwards too. Exposed gardens are subject to huge evaporation and water loss comes from plant leaves as well as from the soil, so it will be up to you to compensate. Installing an automatic plant watering system might be a useful option too.

Finally, you can expand the selection of plants that will succeed with some judicious pruning. Obviously taller plants will be subject to more exposure and damage, so, where appropriate for the plant, it makes sense to keep things low and compact.

Plant choices.

Although there are various strategies for dealing with exposure, and improving your site to widen the scope of plants that you can grow, it’s equally important to come to terms with your gardens limitations.

A highly exposed, but highly attractive coastal garden.

There aren’t many natural environments that plants haven’t successfully colonised, and by drawing inspiration from nature you can create wonderfully rich and abundant gardens full of plants that have evolved to thrive under the very conditions that would otherwise be struggling with.

The first port of call is the coast, where plants cope with maximum exposure all year round. Plants that naturally occur in coastal situations will always work well in any exposed spot, but it’s also well worth visiting coastal gardens to check out what is already succeeding for others.  Many Mediterranean plants also work well as they have evolved all sorts of strategies to minimise water loss, including small, silvery, waxy or furry leaves and compact growth for instance.

As with any garden, it’s always better to grow plants that are actually naturally happy to be in your type of location rather than choose those that will struggle to survive and create a succession of cultivation problems for you.

Hidden spring gems.

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Once upon a time pretty much all of the Northern Hemisphere was covered by forest. Most of this was deciduous forest, which meant that in early spring the forest floor was bright and light beneath the still leaf-less canopy above. And so it was that over vast stretches of time, and all around the globe, a truly enormous diversity of small plants evolved to exploit this window of flowering opportunity.

Deinanthe caerulea.

These, then, are the hidden spring gems. Plants that will reproduce later in the year, safe beneath their giant leafy over-head protectors, but which burst into sudden and often simultaneous flower in spring time.

The number of forms and varieties of these spring gems is pretty mind boggling, and more or less all of them are garden worthy when sited correctly.

I’m going to blog in more detail about a couple of specific genera next month, but, to wet your appetite, here are a ten of my favourites that you just might not have come across before.


Scoliopus bigelowii.

I really can’t resist starting with these little guys as S. bigelowii is a plant that I’ve previously cited as my very favourite – always an impossible choice though.

Native to the forest floors of the Western American seaboard, with particular strongholds in Oregon, the two species of Scoliopus were long considered to be closely related to Trilliums, but new genetic studies have relocated them into the huge Lily family.

Scolipus emerge very early in the year, often in January, and always by Feb., and start by producing a pair of leopard-spotted, glossy leaves (closely resembling many British orchids) between which comes the little flowering stem. It’s these flowers that have always fascinated and intrigued me. They consist of 3 tri-partite elements – 3 filamenous petals, 3 much larger sepals, 3 stamens and a 3-chambered ovary.

They are miniature architectural wonders that demand close inspection so early in the year. Scoliopus are absolutely bone hardy and enjoy moist, shady conditions – watch out for slugs though!


Uvularia grandiflora.

Another small genus of North American natives, the uvularias are airy beauties, with hanging, bell-shaped flowers in a variety of shades of yellow.

Easily grown in any woodland-ish spot, they will slowly clump-up to form a very pleasing feature.

U. grandiflora is the most frequently seen and (as the name suggests) also has the largest flowers, with lovely twisting petals of pale yellow.

The pretty, but much less robust U. sessilifolia is smaller in all respects with solid, elongated bell shaped flowers of primrose.


Glaucidium palmatum.

G. palmatum (the only species in the genus) is a Japanese woodlander that has become known to western gardeners as both a bit of a legend as well as a mystery.

The legend part is due to the plants’ ethereal beauty, with robust clumps of maple-shaped foliage giving rise to large flowers of lavender blue with silken textured petals.

The mystery is to do with the plants’ true identity. Is it a form of Peony, a member of the Buttercup family or maybe a poppy?

Botanists are still unsure but gardeners, at least, don’t have to be too concerned and can simply enjoy it’s beauty.


Named after US president Thomas Jefferson, the two species of Jeffersonia are amongst the most delicate, ephemeral and aristocratic of all spring flowering woodland plants. The elegant leaves of North American J. diphylla emerge paired, and clasped together like hands in prayer, before unfolding like the wings of some exotic jade green butterfly. The exquisite, pure white cup-shaped flowers rise above the foliage and always charm everyone who sees them. J. dubia represents the genus in China, and has equally attractive, near-circular  foliage and flowers of the palest blue.


Kirengeshoma palmata.

K. palmata is without doubt one of the finest as well as one the most easily grown of all the woodland herbaceous plants, and really should be in every garden that has any shady area (that would be pretty much every single garden surely?!)

The Japanese native has stems that can rise to 6 feet (although mine stubbornly peak at around half that) clothed with deep green, jagged-toothed Maple-shaped leaves and topped with cascading clusters of creamy-yellow flowers.

It really is a head-turner at all stages of growth in the garden.


Kirengeshomas are rather improbable herbaceous members of the Hydrangea family, and that’s also the home to the two species of Deinanthe.The plants have handsome foliage but their principle appeal comes from the clusters of cup-shaped flowers of the very palest lavender. Not widely seen in cultivation – mostly because they are very slow to reproduce by division – deinanthes are actually pretty tough little customers, and easily accommodated in a shady garden spot.


Dodecatheon meadia.

Commonly known (along with maybe a dozen or more other plants…) as “shooting stars”, Dodecatheon meadia is a really superb little primrose relative native to a wide swathe of the southern states of the US.

At first forward-facing, the pure white petals perform a 180 degree rotation as they open, to create a wonderful contrasting display alongside the gold and blood-red centres of the flowers.

I grow the plants alongside hellebores and other woodland marginals, where clumps happily increase year on year without any special treatment.


Anemonopsis macrophylla.

There are a really large number of Anemone relatives that excel as garden plants but if I had to plump for just one it would have be the Japanese A. macrophylla.

Plants produce large mounds of large (as the name suggests) heavily divided, ferny foliage which are pretty enough in themselves, but bursting from the midst of these leaves come jet black flowering stems.

These are stiffy upright and rise way above the foliage to display a galaxy of airy little flowers, each a miniature marvel in white with different degrees of purple staining.


Saruma henryi.

A fairly recent introduction into Western cultivation, the Chinese Saruma henryi – the only species in the genus – is a close relative of the highly desirable Asarums (aka wild gingers).

I’d have to say it’s a pretty unique garden plant – I’ve certainly never come across anything quite like it.

The foliage is perfectly heart-shaped and densely furry and emerges a deep purple – all highly appealing – whilst the crinkly, mid-yellow flowers that tip on top superficially resemble small wild roses. Sarumas are, like most of these plants, very hardy and pretty straightforward to grow in a woodland or pseudo-woodland garden spot.


Scopolia carniolica.

Black or near black flowered garden plants are always highly sought after, and Scopolia carniolica is certainly no exception.

An ornamental member of the Nightshade family (from whence come potatoes and tomatoes as well as our hedgerow native Deadly Nightshade) this little beauty hails from eastern Europe.

Emerging in early spring the leafy shoots soon give bear pendulous, bell-shaped flowers of intense, metallic deep violet-black.

There is also an extremely rare yellow-flowering form, but, to my mind at least, this can’t match the sinister charms of it’s dark-flowered sister.

Micro gardens.

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

The phrase “micro gardening” has recently been coined in the States to refer specifically to small urban spaces that are used to grow your own food in containers. Well, I’m stealing/appropriating that phrase and enlarging it to refer to gardening of any variety, when undertaken in a teeny-tiny space.

A small but smart balcony garden.

One of the great things about the upsurge in interest in gardening as a key leisure pursuit for just about every man woman and child in the country is that people who didn’t previously have a garden of any description are now looking to green whatever spaces they do have, no matter how small.

As well as allowing the satisfaction of growing your own food (quite possibly for the first ever time) pressing small spaces into garden action also provides a creative outlet for many.  From balconies to yards to miniature rooftop spaces, where there’s a will there’s most definitely a way, but there are also a few basic principles that might help you to make the most those itsy bitsy spaces.


A sculpture makes for an excellent focal point.

Whether you’re starting from scratch and converting a previously unused area into a mini garden or re-jigging and adding to an existing green area, space, and how you use is your most important consideration.

When space is at a premium you might think that the best approach is to make use of every inch and fill all nooks and crannies with plants.

When done with extreme care and planning this can create a kind of all-enveloping cosy feel. More often than not it ends up as a jumbled crush where the plants are competing for light, water and your attention, and where the eye has no guiding lines or focal points.

The sheer number of plants does not cause this feeling of busyness and confusion though, it’s brought about by clashes of varieties, colours & shapes. In many ways the smaller the space the more important it is to give forethought to design or at least the themes of the garden.

Decide at the outset what function(s) you want the garden to perform (recreation, relaxation, distraction, food production are just a few) and the broad look that you would like, and then stick closely to it.

Using a tree as a central feature.

There are a few specific tricks that can help to make a small garden look bigger. Dividing the space up, particularly with a central barrier (an arch, pergola, large shrub, level change or small tree perhaps) will prevent the whole area being seen at once – a very good approach where space allows.

It’s also best to avoid too many straight lines, they simply encourage the eye to run quickly from one end to the other and will make a small space seem even tinier.

The crafty use of large wall mounted mirrors can bring an immediate feeling of space as well as boosting light levels.

A mirror can really open up space and light.

Cannily placed decorative objects, lights and particularly things that make a sound (water, wood, metal) can also give an added sense of depth.

Finally, in a small space it’s vitally important to make use of all the height of your garden.

It’s easy to take a bird-eye view and only consider the flat ground plan, but that’s not how you ever see or use a garden, and the walls and overhead/canopy zones can be pressed into use without even touching upon the usable space in between.


Materials and plantings harmonious and coordinated.

Possibly the biggest mistake that many gardeners make when tackling a small space is to miniaturise everything.

The exclusive use of small plants, containers and furnishings will not make a space look larger; on the contrary, they will simply enhance the sense of the tiny.

It’s important to remember that the walls, houses, fences, boundaries and structures that surround a garden are also (visually at least) part of that garden, and will tend to dwarf a collection of tiny plants and objects, making everything seem out of proportion.

Much better to use less/fewer of everything, but to choose things that are both regular in size and harmonious with one another.

Some of the very best micro gardens have only a small number of objects in them , but each is artfully placed and together they create a feeling of completeness, rather than clutter.


Foliage colour to the fore.

The same principles apply to the use of colour, but even more so. If you’re going for flowering plants choose a limited palette of colours and try to consider flowering times and colour combinations. Cool colours – blues, whites, greens – tend to enhance space whilst hot colours reduce it, but the most important factor is that colours harmonise rather than clash.

Choose two or three colours at most and try not to deviate from them. It can also be much more fun exploring the limits and possibilities of a fixed set of options rather than simply growing everything that catches your eye.

Foliage, rather than flower colour, is actually likely to be the most important planted element in a small garden, and the wide array of available textures, shapes and fragrances, as well as foliage colour possibilities, can be explored to the full.

Hard landscaping.

Walls form a vital planting surface.

The term hard landscaping refers to everything in a garden that isn’t a plant. In a micro garden that might simply be a pot or two, but it could equally be a floor surface or pathway, furniture, wall decorations, steps, raised beds, stones, and many others.

In all cases the same basic principles of simplicity and harmony should be applied.

To avoid a jumbled, messy confusion choose as few different materials as possible, make sure that they work well together, and try to repeat them where possible – if you have a wood deck surface consider matching wooden planters, trellis and furniture for example. Simplicity, harmony and repetition of materials & colours will do wonders to open up a micro garden.

Job for today

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

A job I felt I must get out and do today was to cut down the dogwoods in the garden.  These plants give such vibrant winter colour and if they are cut down around now bright fresh new growth will be assured for next year.  I also popped a few of the prunings into an out of the way place in the garden to let them take root and make new plants.  As I was walking around the garden I noticed how dry the pots were so I spent a very happy half an hour watering  pots and dead heading the  early spring flowers. I am pleased at the way the water spikes are working in the green house and I haven’t had to do much other than fill them up occasionally. While wandering around the garden I also found a big hole coming under our fence and realised that the badger has found a new way into the garden.  This could be a problem in the future when the vegetable garden gets going because  he has started to dig some of the borders. Although thankfully there is not too much damage, he has actually helped a bit by unearthing the ground elder roots and making it easier for me to weed them out.  I know this weed is prevalent in this garden and I am going to have to keep on top of it if I don’t want it to take over any more than it has already.  I think that I heard you could eat it, so any recipes would be gratefully received.

A bunch of Dogwood stems

A bunch of Dogwood stems