Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How does your garden grow?

Sunday was another glorious day. The weather was fabulous – and in our sun trap of a patio garden at least, it must have been 20˚C or near that.

It was as though the Meteorological Office had been playing games with us.

Perhaps the forecast for far cooler, cloudier weather had been a jolly April Fool jape by the chaps and chapesses at the Met?

Whatever the reasons for the continued summer-like conditions, another trip to Columbia Road had been pencilled in for early in the morning and, in the event, took place in far warmer and brighter conditions than anticipated.

Two more pots of flowers made their way into one bag, together with a dramatic red grass to give the garden a bit of biological architecture.

But enough with the frivolous stuff!

The strawberry pot needed more plants, having been woefully underplanted a week before after rather poor advice – although frankly, I should have trusted my own instinct that three plants would not be enough for a traditional strawberry pot.

So the pot is now fully planted, with three Florence, three April and two Elsanta – the latter apparently taste rather good if allowed to ripen properly. And if they're not bought in a supermarket.

We had also decided to get little tomato plants. So we did, buying five baby plants – one orange cherry and two each of two larger, round, red varieties: Alicante and Gardener's Delight.

It’s at this stage that my copies of Tender, Nigel Slater’s rather magnificent (and heavy) two-volume work on growing your own fruit and veg, and then using them, started coming into its own.

A Christmas present from my parents, it provides far more information than the labels that came with the pots. Not that that would actually take much doing. In terms of the tomatoes, the only thing that the label revealed was the name of the variety.

We had a good spot for them, in a corner that gets a good bit of sun, but – like the rest of our little patch – little wind.

Slater says that tomatoes need to be well spaced in the pots (or bed). Oops. Five in one pot?

That problem was solved by putting three in one pot and two in another. In the first, we also popped in a rather fetching and unconventional iron obelisk that we found while hunting for bamboo.

Not only will it provide a vital climbing frame for the fruit, but it looks really quirky, and adds valuable height to the visual look of the corner too.

Slater also came into his own on the next planting job: a vine.

Our flat is one of a small block of 12. At the back, we have a gated carpark and, at the furthest end of that, the communal bins. Next to the bins, facing east and a quite shady corner, a vine has been growing for the 17 years since the block was built.

And amazingly, it’s been producing substantial bunches of fruit – although being near the bins, you never quite fancied eating them.

But with the garden now paved, we decided that one area of fence could be given over to a vine, which we’d plant in a large pot.

True to form, the label that came with the vine had rather bland instructions, with little more concrete information than the name of the variety – Vroege van der Laan. Slater was rather better, citing his own experience. It needs sun and, according to Slater, thrives best if you don't mollycoddle it.

So, only very occasional feeding and don't water too much either. Make it work. Given that, after hoping to be able to eat the occasional grape, his produces 50-80 small bunches a year, that advice would seem to be sensible.

I planted it at the back of a large, plain pot, next to the fence, with masses of gravel at the bottom and then plenty of sand, before adding the compost.

It looked a tad lonely, though, so I put eight nasturtiums around the opposite edge of the pot. They'll provide col,our and more fodder for us.

One of the things we'd decided was that we wouldn't make the mistake of crowding the garden just when we've finally got more space in it than since the day we moved in. Yet now we've got going, it seems that we have far more space than we realised. There's room for a few more ports yet.

That will have to include a chilli bush – and rosemary. For the latter, I've now ordered mesh and pegs and stuff that will protect it from Chrysolina Americana a rather attractive beetle that just adores the stuff.

They apparently also like thyme, but when they invaded the garden two years ago, they ignored the thyme and concentrated on my rosemary, stripping it bare.

That was part of an ordering blitz: new secateurs after the old ones collapsed. This in itself was an educative process – I'd never realised that there are different styles for different jobs. And a guide to basic pruning techniques from the Royal Horticultural Society seemed like a sensible investment too.

A shovel too, as the two small, plastic dustpans I have are utterly inadequate for sweeping up in the garden. And organic tomato food for obvious reasons.

Where we'd bought the obelisk – from Len from Halifax – we'd also found a nice, metal folding table and chairs for far less than we'd expected to pay, so managed to carry them home along with everything else. Cushions for the chairs are also now on order.

A rough weekend calculation, though, has left me particularly cheered. What has been spent on the garden in the last few weeks is less than what has been saved by both of us having given up the tobacco in the last 10 weeks. Which is both a bit of a shocking thought – and also something to make me feel doubly chuffed.

Indeed, looking around the garden now, I'm starting to see the sort of patio garden that I thought would be wonderful, but never managed to get anything like as close to.

It should be productive for the kitchen – but it is also beginning to look really pretty. And I admit to feeling a big flush of pride on Sunday afternoon as I cleared up after the latest potting exercise and then took time to look around at my developing little corner of paradise.

The only thing that I seem to have got seriously wrong, thus far, is in forgetting to get some grass in specifically for the cats to nibble – as Otto reminded me rather effectively on Sunday afternoon.

This will be rectified this weekend. And if they're very, very lucky, I might get them some catnip too.

'Ummm,' says Otto. 'Drugs ...'


  1. Did Slater tell you that you should plant the toms up to the first set of leaves? Encourages additional root growth and therefore makes the plant stronger and healthier.

    1. I don't recall reading that – but that you for telling me anyway.