The spirepose or “sprout bag”

I’m always happy to receive odd gardening innovations as presents, as I wouldn’t buy them for myself: the ecopotagator is in its second year, only suffering from the rather poor compost that I used for some planting.

This year, for my birthday, I got a “spirepose”, or sprout bag. From what I can find online, this is some kind of traditional Scandinavian method of growing small sprout seeds. The company Flying Tiger produce these foil-lined bags, which I think is what I’ve got:

Spirepose at Flying Tiger

How was mine, then, at growing oregano? In a word, hopeless:


This one tiny sprout died shortly afterwards. I think I followed the instructions properly:


But the soil level in the bag I found was much lower than those diaagrams imply.

To be honest, I’m not convinced these would ever work. The foil-lined bag is too likely to either waterlog or dry out; the growing medium (which appears to be moss, groan, with perlite) doesn’t seem particularly forthcoming with nutrients, and the bag too deep to let light in. I did later on trim the sprout bag down somewhat more, to try to get more light to the seeds, but perhaps the depth is the point, to encourage sprouting.

Either way, I’m not convinced the spirepose is for me. A bit too wasteful, even if it had worked. Nice to try it out, though!


End of year review 2016: out of the frost came forth sweetness

Apart from a few tweets I’ve barely posted anything during December. I’ve needed some time this month to rest, and to wrap up a few work-related things, and also to try to enjoy the Christmas season. This time last year we’d only just moved, and despite being one of the most Christmassy people I know, I’d missed out on the celebrations, and felt it.

This winter, however, I have a hankering to review the garden during this, the turn of the year. Since Christmas, hard frosts have fallen on Sheffield:


Frosts thick as light snowfall; frosts with imprints in them; frosts not melting all day if the weak, low, daytime sun cannot reach them.

Layout and landscaping

To get some idea of which parts of the back garden are worst hit, I’ve taken another in my occasional series of almost indecipherable photos out of the back window:


Reflections of the curtains aside, you can probably see that the compost corner is frosted, despite being quite a slope. I would expect frosts to form where cold air could sit, but—possibly because the house leaks heat—the lowest point of the patio is entirely unfrosted, despite being walled on three sides. The backdoor decking is also unfrosted, unlike its raised equivalent:


Only a little later in the day, some of the garden does get sunshine:


Making it difficult to work out precisely why the back left corner is unfrosted: is that just this morning’s sun at work? Or does that southwest-facing corner keep heat from night to night:


Here, where the compost bins used to be, is the site for one of the new walls, which I will need to start digging in late winter so I can plant out in mid-spring. All is still in flux, and all provisional; but it’s interesting and somewhat heartening to see the future site of raised beds and greenhouse both, entirely free of frost by mid-morning.

Trees and woody shrubs

Woody structures remain, where I’ve not cut them down yet. There’s the euonymous I’d hacked back, much more visible since the privet has been removed:


I’d thought to hang the bird feeder there, where birds could eat without being seen by the several local cats including our own. But it seems the birds can’t see the nuts either, so I’m about to move it to the acer at the other end (invisible in the photo above, with the glare of the rare sunlight on the back fence.)

Closer up, it’s clear that the acer, so lovely this past year is clearly coming into bud:


I’m in two minds as to whether to hack it back or not. It’s been a lovely tree, but one day I will have to either move it or remove it; as I’ve been told that acers can survive coppicing, maybe I should do that sooner rather than later.

I’ve hacked back the buddleia in two stages, the same as last year:


It’s likely to come back just fine, as it usually survives ill treatment far better than the ill-fated cuttings I took from it. Another candidate to move at some point this next year, but I imagine it will fare much better than the acer.

Flowering, or not

Despite our continuation of the previous owners’ neglect of it, the winter-flowering jasmine is still trying its darnedest to put on a few flowers:


This makes me more determined to move it somewhere more amenable to its health, next season. In comparison, my row of hardy perennial pots (most from this year’s RHS Malvern is largely dormant:


The foliage on Tiarella “Sugar and Spice” and Stipa tenuissima is still hanging in there, but other than that there’s little sign of life.

The autumn-planted pea “Latvian” is surviving remarkably well:


This is despite the row of pots being blown over a few times, most recently by Storm Barbara.

The clearing of the privet and most of the brambles behind the shed has revealed this mystery little plant:


And, despite the weather, and the season, and the darkness, the zonal pelargoniums are still completely earning their keep:


I know some people find them a bit brash—is there a DIY shop that doesn’t stock them every spring?—but they flower some nine months of the year and are very undemanding plants. If we need space-fillers while some of the landscaping work goes on, I’ll definitely pick at least a few of these.

New shoots

Bulbs are shooting all over the place. There are crocus and something else peeping out from under viola in planters around the front:


Different planters have different mixes in them, based on the bulb selection I used last year, but I don’t think I’ve mixed crocus with iris, so I think that stray shoot must be something else.

In other planters, there’s evidence that something eating the shoots:


Which I hope the frost will deter. More crocuses are evident around the Welsh rose’s present from Gwenfar, Lavender “Fathead”:


And in the re-sited growframe, on the upper decking to keep it out of the way of landscaping, weighted and tied down to prevent the storms from knocking it over, are some speciality bulbs:


From left to right: Galanthus “Ophelia”, Iris “Purple gem”, some kind of Scilla, and Iris “Katharine Hodgkin”.

Fingers crossed they escape being nibbled, like they were last year; fingers crossed, indeed, that we all—the bulbs, the acer, the landscaping and me—have a more exciting but less nibbled new year.

Topping spring bulbs with violas

A couple of weeks ago I re-planted last year’s spring bulbs in tubs, around the front of the house to keep out of the way of all the landscaping going on. Although I had dutifully split up the spring bulbs back into genera and species, and then diligently labelled each container as they went back in, I think I’m going to have trouble sorting them back into their relevant brownpaper bags at the end of the season:


Maybe permanent marker would’ve worked best on actual lollipop sticks, which seem to really soak up soil-y water.

Las year, my bulbs were often unearthed: it could be by a fox or it could be by other local cats (or it could even be by our own little bloody darling). So this year I’d covered the tops of the containers with sticks, but a tip from Gwenfar was to overplant bulbs with violas, as it tends to be “empty” earth that gets dug up.

With that in mind, I’ve added two colours of Viola to the containers:




Occasional apple sticker aside, I think they look pretty neat. “Yellow Blotch” and “Raspberry”: something like £2.50 for a block of 12 from Homebase. A shame they had to come in unrecyclable polystyrene, but I think that’s the industry being set in its ways. Once they’ve rooted and look healthier, I might live a little, and remove the sticks.

Planting 2017’s garlic

Using some of the remaining bulbs from this year’s harvest of Solent Wight garlic, I’ve planted up a potential crop for next year. Usually I plant in December, but the more noticeable voices in gardening are saying that now is almost too late, so I’ve rushed and pushed them into pots this weekend.

The last harvest suggested that planting several in bigger pots, rather than two or three in smaller ones, would lead to more consistent bulbs across all the crop; also, Gwenfar’s garlic experiments suggest that more cloves per pot lead to more garlic, albeit smaller bulbs. With that and last year’s pot sizes in mind, I’ve planted two lots of six:


And three quincunctes:


(Actually, I just get a thrill from inventing Latinate variants on “quincunx.”)

The arcane pattern of pebbles shows where cloves have been planted; the bits of twig are to try to keep the cats or fox or whatever it is from digging them all up. The green leaves are the privet sticks’ wilting last hurrah.

Just because I can (now we no longer have either privet or privet-removers all over it) I’ve positioned the pots at the back of the garden, by our new fence:


We won’t be doing much in the top left corner for a while (the next jobs on my list include levelling off the top right) so hopefully they can laze around here for a while, where they’re warmest and get the most sun. It’s all right for some.

Apple tree aftermath: log store and rediscovering pallets

Sadly, while I was away for the weekend, nobody tidied up the back garden following replacement of the privet with fencing and then removal of the apple tree. So I had to do it myself today.

The first step was finding and bagging all the concrete-mix bags, Tizer cans, chocolate wrappers, energy drink bottles and one suspiciously festive mince-pie-sized foil container. Along the way I also found a number of other objects that I won’t be wanting in our new garden:


I’m sure that lead flashing will come in handy at some point, and maybe those corroded pegs; less sure about the old bouncy balls, or sharply rusted netting.

I also unearthed our five pallets, destined to be new compost bins:


Annoyingly, they’ve been damaged somewhat by having boots arbitrarily bounced over them, as the privet was removed and my old woodpile dragged somewhat to bits:


(The cat, by the way, has loved playing around in this. I think she thinks she’s seen a shrew.)

I’m hoping that, based on my neighbour’s pyrotechnics a couple of weeks ago, the presence of new privet in all of this means it should burn nicely, but I’m rather waiting for a dry winter’s day and evening to do it, so I can store the ashes somewhere for use later in the garden.

The apple wood, on the other hand, is too nice to burn straight away (we’re hoping for a wood-burning stove in the new year, if worries of Brexit don’t price us out.) So I’ve elevated the logs on a couple of segments of concrete fenceposts, and stacked them against the wall:


I’ve taken care to leave the dampproof course, and its associated vent bricks, uncovered. Wood piles dry because of air flow rather than being covered entirely from the elements: all the same, I’m glad I’ve done it today, as snow has been forecast for Yorkshire, and that sloping roof should keep it off nicely. Assuming—none of it’s fixed in place—it doesn’t all just collapse under the extra weight….

Extracting the bigger logs has left me with a huge pile of apple brushwood to probably burn:


When the leaves come off it then I hope it’ll be easier to see just how much of it is big logs hidden among the twigs.

As the garden starts to look more and more bare, I’m more and more grateful for the plants that do remain. The hebe, euonymous and vertical shrubby tree I haven’t identified yet are some of the few survivors of Fenceocalypse:


It makes me feel a bit sad for being slightly tongue-in-cheek rude about the euonymous previously. The ones you get on housing estates everywhere might be uninspiring, but they’re used for a reason: they’re stalwarts.

Meanwhile, the acer still looks lovely, even with only a handful of leaves left; especially now it can be seen silhouetted against the sky:


Whereas the apple tree was both in the wrong place and unsalvageable, I might have to see if we can work miracles with this, next year.

The apple tree is gone

Once we’d replaced the privet with fencing, it really brought home to us how much the apple tree dominated the garden:


Although other people have often said “oh, it’s lovely having such a big apple tree!” they don’t have to deal with it. I’ve discussed it before, but the tree really is a pain, and I mean that at least in part literally: not only did I nearly get concussion from a low-hanging branch; but only two weeks ago I slipped on rotten apples and fell full length, whacking the back of my head in the process. And the only reason there was a pile of rotten apples is that the tree has filled our compost bins. It’s pointless to clean the decking, if there’s one big Health and Safety disaster staring us in the face.

Towards the point of no return, I started to quail in the face of removing what (if it were in one of Sheffield’s many parks) could be considered a lovely tree: it’s just the wrong plant in the wrong place, a seven-metre canopy in a ten-metre garden. We were only putting right what the house’s previous owners had done wrong, so I had to keep strong, despite my instinctive doubt. After all, even though the Welsh rose was “Team Apple Tree” originally, she’s been gradually convinced: it has to go.

And go it has. The same firm who swapped our privet for fencing, came back the next day and dismantled our tree. Just before you see a photo of the garden as it is now, here’s the garden almost exactly one year ago; November 10, 2015:


And here was the garden on November 1, 2016:


I still have some slight bad feels, and feel a kind of shock of empty space. But even though I speak as someone who usually loves expanses of green, I’m really excited by what’s now a not-quite-blank canvas. The acer at the back is in completely the wrong place, but I love it, and I’m so glad it’s now all “ta-DAH!” in the sunlight.

What’s also interesting is that the microclimate in the centre of the garden has completely changed. Last night was the first frost of the year, and although there was barely any evidence of them in the back garden last winter, the ground was frosty this morning around the crater of the tree:


Of course, now I’m no longer blocked on all the jobs that this canvas will require. More on that later. For now, we’re just trying to get used to the sheer amount of emptiness we now have to play with; to step back, and breathe: now that we’ve got room to do so!

Pelargoniums arrived and planted up

When I was visiting Dublin Botanic Garden last month, a particular Pelargonium “Attar of Roses” made me wistful for the plants I’d ordered from Fibrex earlier this year. Propagation being what it is (especially of reasonably hard-to-get species) then a small and dedicated nursery can’t just conjure new plants out of thin air.

Way back when, October 24 was the date Fibrex gave me, and shortly after that time, my plants arrived! I’d never received delivery of specialist plant material before, so it was a bit of a surprise to find them wrapped in newspaper:


Unwrapping them, I found their roots were in plastic bags, wrapped around biodegradable cardboard-ish pots. There were instructions included on how to plant them up, and so despite the presence of fencing landscapers I decided to sort them all out sooner rather than later:


(Clockwise from top: P. “Rose of Attar”, P. peltatum “Mini Cascade Pink”, P. “Chocolate Peppermint”.)

For want of specialized compost I used a mix of organic multipurpose with a lot of sand. I’ve found the Bord na Mona this year has got very claggy, and rubbing sand into it has been like trying to rub sugar into butter for baking, but it was mostly OK.

Despite having been in transit, the foliage looks lovely:


And after repotting I felt like I could see them recovering hour by hour, and really settling in! I gave them a good soak of water but I’m going to let the soil dry out before fiddling with them again.

While I was poking and prodding at them, I did notice some markings on the underside of the P. peltatum:


But after asking Fibrex on Twitter, I got a reassurance that they’d be fine. It seems like oedema can affect ivy-leaf pellies, and the wildly differing behaviours of all the varieties of cutting probable means that they’re more likely to throw a fit when they’re babies. Anyway, I’ll try to keep the soil for this one one drier than the others between watering, and see what the new growth looks like.

And the Rose of Attar, and the Chocolate Peppermint? The leaves smell divine. It’s all I can do to stop rubbing them and let the poor things settle in!

If you like peas, then you’ll love: more peas!

Once the Latvian peas had gone over, I was wondering what to plant in their place. Imaginatively, I decided: more peas!

This has been a year of succession planting, with some of the planting after the solstice. Here are our new peas:


I suppose a number of things can now happen to these seedlings:

  1. They get confused and die off.
  2. They grow until the first frosts and die off.
  3. They bolt, and produce flowers but not any peas in time.
  4. They bolt, and produce flowers and more peas.

It’s a little bit of an experiment, to see exactly what’s going to happen next.

In a similar vein, I planted new Lettuce Tantan and Buttercrunch, only a handful of each:


The Buttercrunch (right) has tended to go to seed faster, whereas the Tantan (left) is still hearting up. In addition, when we’ve pulled up the blown Buttercrunch, they’ve also tended to be full of slightly bitter sap, although immersing cut leaves in water for an hour really helps and leaves the buttery flavour behind: in comparison, the Tantan seems to still be not too bitter. With this in mind, Tantan would make a good successional crop, next year.

This year, I’ve no space guaranteed untouched because of the landscaping, so I can’t really plant any overwintering crops. In their place, then, these trials are as good as anything!

I didn’t actually kill the jasmine

After what looks like years of neglect by the previous owners (spot a theme?) the jasmine pulled itself off the wall a few weeks ago, and collapsed over much of the front garden:


I did try to trim it over winter, but didn’t want to do too much as it tends to flower on the last season’s growth, so any trim would reduce the number of flowers. It clearly wasn’t enough, though. Even before the Great Collapse, the jasmine had apparently invaded the old boiler through its vent, strangling it. We only discovered this when we replaced it.

Sadly, when I started cutting the plant back hard but—I hoped—selectively, it all started to fall forward, making ominous cracking noises as the remaining few wires holding it back pinged like guitar strings:


As I found myself vainly working my way around the damaged areas, the sprawling areas, and combinations of the two, I realized the only solution was to hack it back utterly, and it was a shadow of its former self that ultimately sagged and whimpered against the wall:


As a few more branches died off in the subsequent weeks, I’d reconciled myself to the fact that I’d basically killed it with the shock. But! only yesterday, we spotted considerable new shoots, budding off every part of it, including the old wood:


I’m still reserving judgment on whether it will put on enough growth to survive the winter. But I now have my fingers crossed that we’ll still have a jasmine by the front door next year. And flowers in 2018!

Looking less squashed now they’re tied up

The Butternut squashes on the drive and front garden have survived pest attack in their early stages, and the devastating effects of strong winds on their papery, sail-like leaves. However, being in pots means they’re starting to sprawl beyond those pots:


I’ve never considered tying up squashes before, but this weekend I saw the tendrils starting to form on these fruiting branches, and thought it might be worth a try. I used four canes in the biggest pot, and three in the others: one cane snapped though—the last of that length of cane—and I replaced it with one of the water shoots I cut off the apple tree over winter.

The end results I think are remarkable, given the small amount of work involved:


Suddenly they seem neater, more compact and structural, even though they’re not very much taller. I wouldn’t say it looks perfect (especially with the one substituted cane) but there’s definitely more form to the plants now.

I call this particular work “The Three Weird Sisters”:


anyway, today I had another look at the plants, and they’ve really settled into their new verticality. I think it’s probably healthier for them—reducing the likelihood of mildew—and also lets them trap more sunlight and hence feed more efficiently. Fellow gardener Gwenfar did mention that she’s training up an unused growframe, to provide platforms for the fruit as they grow: but I’d be just happy with several small fruit that I could pick as the plants develop.