Thursday, 16 January 2020

The best plants for seed heads in winter

Most people grow certain plants because they have nice flowers or pretty leaves, but not many people choose plants for their seed heads in autumn and winter, or even think about if a plant has winter presence before they buy or sow it. Luckily, many of the plants with nice seed heads also have nice flowers so you get two for one. To be able to appreciate the seed heads it is also important not to cut the plants down after flowering but leave them until late winter to provide structure and interest in the winter garden. Birds, especially goldfinches, love to land on the seed heads in winter to eat the seeds, they often even prefer these seeds to my bird feeders. Insects use seed heads to shelter from cold weather. And frosted seed heads on a cold winter morning are a sight to behold.

Without all the seed heads my allotment would be very boring in autumn and winter

If you are unsure of what plants to grow in your garden for winter interest below is a selection of plants with nice seed heads.


Echinacea purpurea with Allium sphaerocephalon and grasses
Echinacea purpurea has very long-lasting seed heads which are good for birds
One of the best plants for seed heads is Phlomis russeliana
The pretty seed heads of Veronicastrum virginicum
Great for goldfinches: Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), a biennial plant
Eryngium giganteum is a biennial plant which normally self seeds
Eryngium planum looks great on a frosty morning
Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot, has long-lasting seed heads
Inula magnifica looks truly magnificent, even in autumn and winter
Inula magnifica and Veronicastrum virginicum
Digitalis ferruginea has a good winter presence

Grasses: Ornamental grasses might not be to everyone's taste but they look brilliant in autumn and winter after mainly playing a supporting role in spring and summer. Their airiness and movement, often combined with nice autumn colours, adds that certain something which lets a winter garden truly come alive. So if you want to create a garden which still looks good in winter you need to add grasses as well. Below is a selection of some suitable grasses.

You cannot go wrong with Miscanthus sinensis, some have nice autumn colours as well
Miscanthus nepalensis has very pretty seed heads
Panicum virgatum, many varieties have nice autumn colour too
The seed heads of Calamagrostis brachytricha are sparkling on a cold morning in autumn

If you want to add some of these plants to your garden there is still plenty of time. Many can be grown from seed as well.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

My new greenhouse

For quite a while now I have dreamed to own a greenhouse but never got one as I could use a small corner of the large greeenhouse at my workplace which has lighting and heating. But change of management meant that I had to vacate my little space there and look for other options to grow plants undercover. I had a look around on the internet and came across a small sturdy greenhouse (Halls Popular 6x6) which was recommended for allotment sites. The greenhouse also came with polycarbonate glazing and a steel base with ground anchors. As we are not allowed any glass on the allotment site this was perfect so I took the plunge and ordered one.

I already had the place where the greenhouse was supposed to go in my mind and just had to measure it to make sure there was really enough space there. Next I had to shift quite a lot of soil to level the area and get it ready for the greenhouse assembly.

I shifted lots of soil to make space for the new greenhouse
The crazy paving path for inside the greenhouse is finished
Three weeks later the big day had come and the greenhouse arrived on the allotment site in two boxes. I found it quite amazing that there was actually a complete greenhouse in these two not overly large boxes! The prospect of assembling the greenhouse from scratch was quite daunting but luckily I had my two friends Sarah and Lucy helping me which made it much easier.
The parts were all packed together in the order they had to be put together, base, back, front, the two side parts, roof, window and door with the polycarbonate sheets in the second cardboard box. All parts had numbers which corresponded to the numbers and pictures in the instruction booklet.

We started with the base which was very easy but one of the bolts was dodgy so it was lucky I found another one in my little screw and bolt collection. The base had anchors which we buried in the ground and made sure everything was level.

The greenhouse base is in place
 Next we put the back and front together which was straight forward as the instructions were quite clear. We only had to make sure the parts were put together in the right way. The side parts were next and were as straight forward as the front and back. Once all of these parts were finished we bolted them all together and attached the roof. The roof window went in and in the next step the whole greenhouse frame was securely attached to the base.

Front and back of the greenhouse are put together
The greenhouse frame is finished and bolted to the base
The roof window is in as well
Building the door was relatively easy but attaching it to the greenhouse frame proofed quite tricky as the instructions were a bit difficult to understand. After several failed attempts I realised we had to turn one of the door parts around which eventually did the trick and finally the door was finished as well.

The door was quite tricky to attach to the frame
Now the next steps involved getting the greenhouse frame ready for the polycarbonate glazing. Thin rubber strips needed to be attached to the frame and alluminium end strips to the polycarbonate sheets. Attaching the rubber strips was time-consuming but straight forward. Attaching the alluminium strips to the top and bottom of the polycarbonate sheets proved much more difficult as they were very stiff and it was nearly impossible to push them onto the sheets. After much swearing I finally had the idea to squeeze the top and bottom of the polycarbonate sheets slightly together with the help of some pliers and finally the alluminium strips could be attached to the sheets.

After all the time-consuming preparations the actual glazing was easy and relatively quick. The sheets had to be attached the right way around as only one side was treated with UV protection so we had to be careful. The sheets themselves were attached to the greenhouse frame with W-shaped metal clips. We used nearly double the amount of clips than recommended just to be on the safe side. The sheets seem quite secure and nothing is moving. We had a few stronger winds now and still everything is in place.
All in all it took us about two days to build the greenhouse.

All the polycarbonate sheets are in
I am happy :-)
Myself with my friend Lucy (inside the greenhouse)
I have started sowing a few things already now, some radishes, lettuce and kohlrabi and a couple of perennials. At the end of January I will sow some more perennials and the bulk of vegetables and flowers from March onwards. A few tender vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, sweetcorn and courgettes I will start at home in my mini greenhouse in the back garden and only transfer them to the greenhouse on the allotment once it is safe to do so. I also want to try out a few grafted vegetable plants such as cucumber, melon and tomatoes so see what the difference is to conventional non-grafted plants. Apparently grafted vegetable plants are much stronger growing and produce a lot more yield.
I have also planted a blood peach tree 'Sanguine de Savoie' at the back of the greenhouse which I will fan-train so it does not take up too much space. This peach is apparently one of the tastiest peaches in the world which I hopefully can soon confirm.


Sowing has started
Exciting times are ahead and I am really looking forward to filling the new greenhouse with lots of different vegetables and flowers next year.

The new greenhouse sitting comfortably between the grasses and other perennials

Monday, 9 December 2019

Spring bulbs for pollinators

Late winter and early spring are a difficult time for early pollinators as not much is flowering, especially if the weather is warm and bumblebee queens and other early pollinators have woken up too early. But it is easy to plant some early bulbs to provide food and nectar for hungry garden visitors.

First to flower are Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), flowering in January. Strictly speaking, these plants do not grow from bulbs (a short stem with fleshy leaves which functions as a food storage organ during dormancy) but from tubers (enlarged structures used as storage organs for nutrients, often associated with roots). I have only seen pollinators visiting the flowers a few times on very mild winter days because they flower a bit too early. But in a warm spell in January they are certainly useful. Winter aconites grow best in moist humus-rich but well-drained soil under deciduous trees.

Winter aconites flower very early in the year

Flowering in January and February are snowdrops which have delicate-looking flowers but are tough as old boots. They can even be covered completely by snow or get frosted repeatedly and look no worse for wear. It is best to plant snowdrops "in the green" in February meaning as plants which have just finished flowering. The bulbs don`t survive long when they are out of the ground as they dry out too quickly, that is why it is not worth buying bulbs from garden centres in autumn.


Bumblebee queens like visiting snowdrops

Two red-tailed bumblebee queens
Crocuses start flowering in February and continue into March. They are great plants for bumblebee queens, hoverflies and early solitary bees. Planted in large clumps all over the garden provides pollinators with a useful food resource. I have planted small amounts of bulbs in different places on the allotment years ago which multiplied nicely and I have now many large clumps. I prefer the small species crocuses such as Crocus crysanthus and C. tommasinianus over the large dutch crocuses but all provide pollen and nectar. Crocus likes sunny well-drained areas of the garden and also grows well in grass.


A pretty little hoverfly (probably Scaeva pyrastri)
This bumblebee queen is nearly too heavy for the crocus flower
An early solitary bee (Andrena sp.)
A hungry buff-tailed bumblebee queen
A white-tailed bumblebee queen visiting a Crocus crysanthus flower


Andrena bicolor, a solitary bee
The first tulips start flowering in March, with the last ones flowering in May. There are lots and lots of large-flowered cultivars but I prefer the smaller wild tulips such as Tulipa sylvestris, T. turkestanica and T. saxatilis as they look after themselves and come back every year planted in my well-drained soil. I also think they are more attractive to bees and hoverflies. Tulips need sunshine and well-drained soil which should not be too rich as most wild tulips come from mountain areas in eastern Europe and Asia.


A garden bumblebee queen visiting a tulip flower
Another Andrena bicolor inside a tulip flower


Another great bulb for pollinators, flowering in March and April, are grape hyacinths (Muscari). I have seen all sorts of pollinators visiting the flowers, but especially solitary bees and butterflies. The common grape hyacinth Muscari armeniacum can spread quite a lot when happy but there are many other more well-behaved grape hyacinths such Muscari latifolium and some cultivars of Muscari armeniacum. Muscari like similar conditions to wild tulips but can grow well in normal garden soil as well.

This small tortoiseshell butterfly likes the Muscari flowers

You might wonder why I have not mentioned daffodils which fill road verges and gardens with colour in spring but in my opinion they are not as good for pollinators as the other bulbs mentioned. Wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are probably the best to grow, but the more showy cultivated daffodils don`t offer much pollen and nectar.

Most bulbs can be planted in September and October, but tulips are best planted late October and November as they will be less susceptible to tulip fire then. Snowdrops and Winter aconites are best planted "in the green" just after flowering in late winter.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Oca and Chinese artichoke: Two interesting root vegetables

Oca (left) and Chinese artichoke (right)
A while ago I had written a blog post about the unusual fruit and vegetables I am growing on my allotment. Among these were two root vegetables, oca and Chinese artichoke. I am now in a position where I can report back on these vegetables and if they are worth growing as I had them on the allotment for a full growing season, have harvested and eaten them.




Chinese artichoke

Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) is part of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and related to our native Stachys sylvatica and S. palustris. The difference is that Chinese artichokes produce edible tubers along their roots. The plant itself is not very pretty; on my allotment it grew to around 60 cm and had nondescript dark green leaves and very small purple flowers. I would not plant it in a flower border but it would be right at home in a vegetable garden. The tubers can be planted any time from autumn to early spring directly where they are to grow. Once the soil warms up they grow away without any problems and don`t need much care over the summer apart from keeping the weeds down and the occasional watering in a dry spell. The plants died back in October, and in November I harvested the tubers. I had planted a short row, 5 tubers in total, about 20 cm apart, in February, and harvested about 45 decent-sized tubers in November. I left all the smaller tubers in the ground as they will grow into new plants in spring. For this reason it is best to give Chinese artichokes a permanent position as it is nearly impossible to get all the small tubers out of the ground. To remove these plants from the vegetable plot completely they need to be left to grow and dug out in summer before the tubers have formed.

Now the taste test. I washed the tubers thoroughly as they don`t need to be peeled. I then cooked them in lightly salted water for about 7 min until tender. I had them as a side dish with calabrese and mashed potatoes, but they would fit into many other dishes as well. I was pleasantly surprised as the tubers have a slightly creamy, buttery consistence and a really nice nutty flavour.

Chinese artichokes are a tasty treat


Conclusion: Chinese artichokes are easy to grow and don`t need much care. Harvesting is easy but the yield is low as the tubers are quite small and each plant does not produce great amounts of them. The taste is great, nutty and delicious. This vegetable needs to be used as a special treat, not a stable food such as potatoes, due to the low yield. I am already looking forward to my next harvest in a year`s time.

Oca

Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) is part of the oxalis family (Oxalidaceae) and related to our native wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). The plant has clover-like leaves and yellow flowers in early autumn. The tubers are only produced in autumn when the days are getting shorter and for that reason the plants need to  grow for as long as possible into autumn and early winter to produce the highest yield.
I planted the tubers singly into pots in April and left them in the greenhouse until I could see the first shoots growing. The plants are very frost tender so cannot be planted out before the middle of May at the earliest. You can also plant the tubers directly into the ground from mid-May onwards. The plants need quite a lot of space, I planted the tubers around 40 cm apart from each other. At first oca grows quite slowly but once it gets going in summer it grows into quite enormous plants which later in summer sprawl over the ground. Don`t underestimate the space oca will need. I also watered the plants in dry spells.

Young oca plants in June

Oca plants (behind the leeks) in July
From autumn onwards you need to watch for frost as oca will produce more tubers as longer it is in the ground in autumn and early winter. Even a light frost will damage the leaves but it helps to cover the plants with a thick fleece when frost is forecast.
I harvested my oca in the middle of November once the leaves had died down after a heavy frost. I found quite a lot of tubers, about 20-30 tubers per plant, which were growing close to the surface so were easy to harvest. Do not leave the tubers in the ground over winter as they will not survive a heavy ground frost. They are easy to store in a plastic bag in a cold but frost-free shed or in the fridge. The tubers will keep until spring when they can be brought back into growth to start the cycle again. So don`t eat all of the tubers :-).

Now the taste test. I washed the tubers thoroughly and, as with  the Chinese artichoke tubers, they don`t need to be peeled. I cooked them in slightly salted water for about 10 min until soft. The taste was very good, like a flavourful potato with a slight hint of lemon. Raw the tubers taste like a crunchy apple with a lemon flavour but I prefer them cooked.

Oca tastes like a flavourful potato


Conclusion: Oca is easy to grow and does not need much care apart from regular watering in dry spells. The plants seem to be quite free from diseases and had no slug or caterpillar damage at all. For a good yield they need to be protected from frost in autumn as long as possible, best until at least mid-November. The taste is excellent and the yield much better compared to Chinese artichokes. But in my opinion it is worth growing both as they do taste different.

The best plants for seed heads in winter

Most people grow certain plants because they have nice flowers or pretty leaves, but not many people choose plants for their seed heads in a...

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