CHRISTMAS SHOPPING

Start celebrating Christmas here with an eclectic mix of passionate people selling tasty treats, stocking fillers, decorations and special presents to suit every pocket.

  • Katy Cox’s Mighty Fine Things include locally sourced homemade fruit liqueurs, preserves and Christmas goodies. Lots of seasonal tastes and ideal presents.
  • Rune, The Norse Baker bakes fab biscuits and sources vintage goodies to bring a Scandi twist to your celebrations. 

  • Hiroko Aono-Bilson is textile artist using antique fabrics to make kimonos and scarves. And an addictive collection of handmade soft toys.
  • Cranbrook Iron make bespoke ironwork for home and garden, from firebowls to Christmas tree decorations, with lots to tempt avid gardeners.

  • Elizabeth Harbour is Country Living Magazine’s craft’s ideas person. She’ll be bringing handpainted wooden decorations and handprinted cards and wrapping paper.

  • Kate-Beth March is a beekeeper who’ll be selling her wax products, plus delicious chocolates, Christmas puds and cakes. Also Tobi Schwenn’s stolen and biscuits.

  • Odds and ends I think you’ll like from The Kitchen Garden. The usual eclectic mix: vintage, garden and kitchen stuff, plus books at rock-bottom prices .    

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I’ll also be selling hardly- used gardening books I’ve reviewed at reduced prices. 

Funds will go to help the Whitstable Calais Solidarity Group, as will proceeds from refreshments: glasses of mulled wine and homemade cakes and biscuits.

    Email me at francine@kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk if you need to know more.

    PASCALE WILL ALSO BE OPENING HER HOUSE AT 48 JOY LANE

HARVEST

This is my favourite time of the year, and a bright October is a bonus. The summer’s drought has broken, plants have a brief new lease of life before the frosts and we all bask in that mellow low light that increases endorphins and shows the garden off at its best.

Try and brave the spiders’ webs every morning to pick what’s ripe and ready, and warn your friends you’ll be a pop-up greengrocer for the next few weeks, even if it’s only endless bags of cooking apples. No eggs though, my hens are moulting their pretty plumage and eating me out of house and home as they hoover up extra protein to feather up in time for the colder weather.

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I’ve started collecting leaves and seedheads and we have a date for this year’s Christmas Shopping day: Sunday December 3 rd . I also have a publication date for my new book The Garden Farmer (Square Peg) on December 7 th . I’m really looking forward to both. Keep in touch via twitter and my new instagram posts.

TINY GARDENS

If things get out of hand and you find high summer overtakes your garden, try these small gardens. Alpines grow imperceptively slowly, creeping across their containers, round shells, driftwood and pebbles, creating tiny landscapes, like the first gardens children make at nursery school. I buy or scavenge old metal filing drawers, troughs or sinks, anything low and shallow, fill them full of plants and beachcombings, and keep them in the rain shadow of a fence slightly on the tilt so they don’t get waterlogged.

Although you’ll probably start with the search for an attractive container, for the plants, the most important element is the soil. Make sure you have plenty of drainage holes then scatter the base with crocks. Half fill with John Innes soil-based compost no 3 mixed with grit (I like silver Cornish grit) to keep it open and free draining. Pop in your plants and populate the spaces in between with favourite shells, fossils and driftwood.

I prefer the textured foliage plants, like mossy raoulias, cushions of sagina, ferny Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black’ – a chocolate brown carpeting alpine; saxifrage ‘Bob Hawkins’, sedums acre elegans and spatheulifolium; sempervivums and thymes, the ones with tiny leaves and minute flowers, like T. ‘Hartington Silver’ and ‘Bertram Anderson’.

Once settled, these tiny delights need little care or comfort, just shelter from winter rains. A small pitched roof will keep the showers off, but still allow plenty of ventilation – imagine Swiss alpine conditions.

POTS OF STYLE

Container gardening isn’t easy. You have to look after your plants, feed them weekly and water them regularly, because they’re entirely at your mercy and won’t flourish if you don’t keep a close eye on them.

Getting down to basics, the compost nurseries use works well getting the plants to sale, but is used to being regularly misted, sprayed and kept constantly moist. The minute it dries out it sets into a waterproof brick that can only be re-constituted by plunging the whole plant into a bucket overnight. So I shake the plant out of its pot and re-pot in a more open peat-free compost with added grit.

I usually line the base of the pot with a square of weed control fabric to discourage ants, then add crocks for extra drainage. If the container is really enormous, I’ll put in chunks of polystyrene packaging before adding my new compost. After planting, I usually sprinkle the surface with horticultural grit to discourage vine weevils.

Watering early morning with a cup of tea or late in the evening with a glass of wine (for me, not the plants) is a relaxing way to start or end the day, and a weekly water with diluted plant feed should encourage your flowers to bloom. Make sure you position your pots to their best advantage and keep plants that enjoy shade out of sunlight.

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I collect containers for fun. Metal, wood, clay, terracotta or even plastic. Every car boot sale, junk shop, skip and yard sale is my hunting ground, and matching them with their plant inhabitant is one of the most pleasurable aspects of container gardening. First make sure you can make drainage holes if you intend to plant straight into them, rather than use as a cache-pot and put a plastic pot inside them. Place your container on the lawn to cushion it, then using a mallet and a Phillips head screw driver, bash a couple of drainage holes in the bottom. An electric drill works too.

Apart from succulents (see my blog for September 2016), I love grasses in pots, salvias, astelias, agapanthus, cordylines, bulbs and herbs in pots. Anything in pots virtually, and the great thing is, the minute they’re past their best you can move them out of the way and bring something else centre stage.

PS. A big thank you to the 1000 or so visitors who came to our Whitstable Open Gardens for the NGS.

We raised about £4500 for the NGS and £1000 for our local community garden. Thank you to the ten participating gardeners, cake bakers and the Yellow Balloon gardens.

COLOUR IN THE GARDEN

I’m not a great fan of pastels. Of course the garden looks pretty in the spring frothy with blossom and pale bulbs, but as the year moves on, I need a punchier hit of colour. That’s why the backbone of my spring garden is euphorbia with its acid green bracts and strong shapes: wulfennii and mellifera in the border, robbiae in the woodland and myrsinitis in pots. And acid green looks good with the strong maroons and burnt oranges of wallflowers, with dark tulips and purple/black elder foliage.

Wandering round my garden (a regular occurrence with pre-NGS nerves), I’ve noticed how much strong colour comes from foliage: caramel Rhus cotinus, lime or flame spirea, dark lysimachia ciliate, cut elderflower and the pretty heart-shaped leaves of the Judas tree, sprinkled with fuschia buds. Even some of the dreaded multi-coloured heucheras are acceptable as ground cover, though bugle (Ajuga reptans) now comes in a good range of leaf colour with bright blue spires.

In the flower department I love my dark velvet iris with chance honesty seedlings; wallflowers with spirea foliage and sedum rosettes; and bright blue forget-me-nots with ‘Black Parrot ‘ tulips. And they all look good in vases in the kitchen too. My bantam hens fit in perfectly with this colour scheme and are enjoying their new-found freedom in the garden after their four months’ imprisonment in the run.

Ten gardens are opening for the NGS in Whitstable this year on May 21st, including three new ones: a beachcomber’s garden, a seaside roof garden and a plantsperson’s garden in an ex-pub. We’re opening three weeks earlier this year to give another picture of the gardens, but the vagaries of the weather may mean that they look pretty similar.

BLOSSOM GALORE

March is charted by the bursting of buds. From the earliest flowering cherries to the last fruitful trees to blossom, the garden is a kaleidoscope of fluffy shades of white and pink, fit for a Disney princess. First to flower in my garden is the winter flowering cherry plum Prunus cerasifera with reddish leafbuds and palest pink blossom, beaten in the wild by the white wild bird cherry – P. avium.

None of the above needs special treatment, but I’m keeping an eagle eye on my apricot, watching to see how many bees are awake, and out and about in the pale spring sunshine. Bumble bees in their furry overcoats are usually the first to pollinate, so if they’re still hibernating from the bad weather, I’ll be out with my tiny artist’s paintbrush, transferring pollen from flower to flower so I’ll get lots of delicious apricots in summer.

In colder areas, it’s worth keeping an eye on weather forecasts too, so you’re ready to cover fragile blossom at night if there’s a nip in the air. Take the fleece off in the morning though so insects can do their job. Now’s a good time to make sure you have plenty of other early flowering plants around to attract your pollinators. Hellebores, pulmonaria, rosemary, bugle, crocus, and all the pussy willows look gorgeous and will tempt them into your garden.

Whatever you’re growing, think of the insects: the bees, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, hoverflies and beetles that eat pollen and nectar and will turn our garden into productive havens. Offer them year-round food, shelter and habitat, and somewhere they can safely drink.

Next to perform, hugging tight against my east-facing hedge are a trio of Japanese quinces (Chaenomeles) with big cup shaped pure white or terracotta flowers, turning later into large yellow fruits that are just as good for jelly as the glorious felty leaved standard quinces – Cydonia. My tree is just about to burst into leaf with big furry leaf buds and art deco flower buds that’ll open into saucer shaped palest blush flowers.

The apples, crabs and pears are still dormant, and I bring in any pruned branches so they can burst open on the kitchen table, but cherries shouldn’t be cut during winter or you’ll encourage disease in the cuts, You can snip away a few stems as the leaves start to open, but leave the rest till June. The plums, damsons and greengages will burst their buds in April, but some of my semi-wild damsons have become biennial croppers, having a rest between heavy fruiting years.

Valentine Flowers

The garden is coming to life.  Wandering round, I can see buds about to burst, catkins and pussy willow already in flower and hellebores flowering their socks off.  More or less safe in the knowledge that I won’t get a bouquet from elsewhere, I’m going to pick a bunch from the garden to cheer me up and believe the promise that spring really is just around the corner.

Just before Christmas I found a silvery punch bowl at the boot fair which despite having spent the intervening month or two out in the garden is still resolutely shiny. So I’ve bought a spray can of matt black metal car paint from Halfords – from a wide range of colours including Rover green and Fiesta yellow, and roughly sprayed the offending bling to make it look tarnished.

A really big bunch of twigs would need a stone in the base of its vase to stop it toppling over. I filled the interior with a ball of scrunched up chicken wire so I could safely position my stems and went off into the garden, armed with secateurs to see what I could pick.

From memory of my mother’s Constance Spry flower arrangements – you need a framework of tall stems, then texture, a little scent, colour and trailers. I picked in threes, cutting woody stems at an angle. Flowering cherry in neat tight bud, pussy willow and hazel catkins for the framework; fern leaves and euphorbia for texture; rosemary and Viburnum bodnantense for scent and colour; hellebores and Arum italicum pictum for interest and trailing Clematis cirrhosa, the season’s most lovely flower.

I filled the bowl with water (ideally it should be refreshed every day) and covered the chicken wire with a handful of moss from the bottom of the garden. I’m looking forward to seeing all the buds come to life and watching the season come and go on my kitchen table. Will tweet as the bunch develops.

UNDERCOVER HENS

What a rotten start to the year for poultry. With Defra extending their ban on free-range till the end of February, what can we do to make life a little better for our flocks, keep them healthy and less likely to catch diseases?

Wild birds carry bird flu and the current strain H5N8, so we need to keep our hens, ducks, geese and other poultry away from them, especially food and drink. It’s easy enough to make a covered area and keep feeders and drinkers underneath it. I’ve put a small garden table in the run and topped it with a sheet of plywood so my small flock can dine safely.

Covering the run to keep wild birds out is more difficult, especially if your run supports are a bit rickety. Horticultural fruit cage netting (I got mine from harrodhorticultural.com) is light, stretchy, cheap to buy and comes in large dimensions. Importantly it won’t weigh down your run’s roof, get blown off by the wind or put under stress by snow. Incidentally, it makes reasonable fox protection too – foxes are unhappy on unstable surfaces.

I’ve made a small extra run out of weldmesh panels topped with netting so I can let my flock out on to grass for a few minutes everyday to eat – short grass is full of protein. Feed wild birds well away from your run.

In the meantime, how can we make life a bit more fun for our flock and keep them de-stressed and healthy?

  • Make sure you give them bunches of greenery to make up for their lack of foraging. Hang it just above head height so the leaves don’t get trampled underfoot. A whole lettuce or cabbage is good too.
  • Add a straw bale or two into the run. They’ll offer extra shelter from the wind and somewhere new to hop and jump.
  • Fat balls and toys from your petshop will make life a little more interesting. There is a poultry swing available from omlet.co.uk though my sedate flock regarded it with suspicion.
  • If your hens get their grit from the garden, make sure you buy some from your feed merchant and offer it to them in their run.
  • Cover the run surface with hardwood chippings (see flytesofancy.co.uk or bark-uk.co.uk for 2000 litre bags) and de-sanitize it with powder regularly.

Obviously, we need to keep up hygiene standards (use Virkon to disinfect equipment), we should wash hands after contact with birds, not visit other gardens with poultry without disinfecting footwear, and not move, sell or bring in new members of your flock.

If you are worried about your birds’ health, (flu symptoms vary from “very mild signs like seeming off colour to the severity of death”) – contact your vet. Anyone with suspicions of the disease in their flocks or in wild birds should get in touch with Defra on 03459 335577 or the Animal Plant and Health Agency on 0300 303 8268.

CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS

December evenings are spent turning my stash of garden goodies into decorations. Surrounded by piles of dried pressed leaves, seedheads and flowers, sticky glue guns and wire, the chaos gradually turns into a few wreaths and a lantern I really like.

Wreath 1 is a tiny mix of pressed purple Cercis leaves, covered with butter yellow gingko leaves and one or two vitis leaves that have tuned a silvery violet.

Wreath 2 is a simple circlet of Cercis leaves, each a slightly different pink, orange or purple. This year the leaves turned slowly and many fell before they turned completely, probably due to the late summer rains and even later leaf drop.

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Wreath 3 is a medium-sized wire frame covered in felty white poplar leaves, with orange veined quince leaves on top, topped with a few wisps of Dusty Millar that dry easily and one or two sprigs of tiny Canary Bird (xanthine) rose leaves.

The lantern is an idea I pinched from my grandson’s nursery school. A fern leaf is spray glued onto a sheet of tracing paper, then rolled into a tube placed in a pot top.

The lantern is lit with a night-light, though I suppose one of those battery-driven ones would be safer.

I hope you all have a good time this Christmas.

PS. Hope all your birds are safely undercover following Defra’s rules. Have a look at our sister website www.henkeepersassociation.co.uk for tips and advice.

Wreath 4 is a huge angled wire shape that I keep in my kitchen bay window with the light shining through. I pressed nearly all the leaves from my tiny persimmon tree and dotted them with fern leaves and honesty seed coins. It looks quite good from a distance.

JOBS TO MAKE YOU FEEL SMUG

I love this time of the year. That special low light – intensifying a mellow spectrum of colours that would be too much in spring and summer – heralds a burst of energy and a need to give my garden a helping hand before season’s end.

The meadow’s cut and the paths are raked, and filled with enthusiasm for my new mower, I’ve decided to turn and area of long grass to mown sward, just to give that part of the garden more of a sense of space, and to make sure I won’t get wet legs when I hang out my washing.

So I’ve razed and scraped, gathered and abraded, filled hollows with soil and flattened old anthills, and am just about to mix grass seed with sharp sand and broadcast it over the area. If there’s no rain, I’ll water, and because nothing’s nicer for my bantams than a large helping of grass seed, I’ll have to cover the space with netting. 

As the leaves start to fall, I rake up those that fall on paths and main lawn, but leave the rest to rot and cover the borders and wild parts of the garden. Checking my builder’s bag full of last year’s leaf mould, I pulled out a handful that contained a squirming silvery slithery slow worm. Not sure who had the biggest fright. Will be very careful when I empty the bag and make sure there’s a nice warm alternative compost heap nearby.

The hedges have been cut, but we’ve left areas of ivy to flower for the bees. My success with a modern lawn mower encouraged me to seek out other new clever devices. A visit from the guys at Stihl introduced me to a whole new range of compact cordless power tools. Amazingly light, battery-driven and really quite quiet, I marvelled at their strimmer and hedge cutter; was slightly terrified by the possibilities of their small chainsaw, but couldn’t quite see the need for a leaf blower.

I’m glad the industry is taking note of the ever-present army of gardeners who aren’t sturdy and tall, who want tools that they can carry without getting a hernia, who want to work with without being deafened, but still want to do a good job. The batteries seem to last a good 40 minutes without re-charge.

I’ve planted three new bags of purple tulips – ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’ in plastic flowerpots, so I can bring them out in bud and pop them in containers, to take them away as they fade. Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is another favourite, and I’ll add to my collection, plus a pan of Dutch iris ‘Black Beauty’ to cheer me up in the depths of winter.

Thoughts of winter don’t depress me yet, I’m just making the most of this precious time of the year, doing jobs that will reward my forethought by the bucketfull when they’ll really be needed.

I CAN RECOMMEND:

  • The Stihl HSA 56 Compact Cordless Hedge Trimmer
  • The Stihl FSA Compact Cordless Grass Trimmer

If you are new to productive gardening, check out my interview with Green Gardens here: http://greengardens.buyfencingdirect.co.uk/talking-hen- keeping-with- kitchen-garden/

And early days, but check out my new Instagram page:
instagram.com/p/BLOjBCVBndx/

 

WENT TO MOW A MEADOW

I was in despair about my parched garden, but some serious rainfall and a September boost of energy has renewed my interest. Just as well, there’s lots to do. A visit from Remi with his noisy strimmer has despatched the dry meadow growth raked to a haystack under the oak tree (this will rot down for a year – good fun for the bantams and a bare patch to plant in next year).

Our efforts to scythe were not as successful as Poldark’s, so we’ve resorted to the strimmer – devastatingly efficient and fast, and wonderful when it stops. The garden looks instantly bigger, and there are rich pickings for the hens. I keep several areas long for overwintering bugs, and the rest of the garden lies fallow till the spring.

This time last year, I decided to plant some bulbs in the meadow. I bought a bulb planter – a sort of auger (from crocus.co.uk) that fits into a cordless household drill. Always keen to try out a bit of new kit, my son Max worked the plot, screwing easily into the thick clay soil, 12 cm deep, bringing out a divot. I followed on, pouring a little grit into the hole, popped in the bulb then topped up with a mixture of compost and soil.

 

We repeated the process all over the plot, planting 250 Gladiolus byzantinus: a delicate magenta variety (think pre-raphaelite, less Edna Everage) that works well in grassy areas because it’s hardy with a strong seed head and stem. Dotted in amongst them I included 100 dark blue Camassia esculenta or quamarsh, smaller with less foliage than other family members – the catalogue promises a blue haze.

In the past, I’ve planted Narcissus Pheasant’s Eye in clumps, cutting out a square of turf, but I want a sparser look with little spots of colour among the grasses and the tiny magenta Grassy Vetchling that seeds itself everywhere under my fruit trees. The result was pretty spectacular, the glads were more successful than the camassias, but the overall effect was just what I wanted.

The Whitstable Open Garden Group will be opening for the NGS on May 21st in 2017 so perhaps you’ll visit to see it all in full flower.

HOW TO GROW BULBS

  • Before planting, store bulbs in an airy shed or garage.
  • Improve drainage by planting on a layer of grit.
  • Bulbs should be planted in a hole two or three times their height.
  • Cover the area with chicken wire if squirrels are a problem.
  • In grass, don’t mow for six weeks after flowering.
  • And never tidy away foliage until it has died back completely.

BULB SUPPLIERS

  • I bought my bulbs from gee-tee.co.uk.
  • Clare-bulbs.co.uk for bulbs in bulk.
  • Rareplants.co.uk & bulbspecialuists.co.uk for unusual varieties.
  • Wildflowershop.co.uk – for native bulbs.

FROM GUILTY PLEASURE TO HORTO-CELEBRITY

I’ve been missing writing my weekly gardening column in the Telegraph (replaced by a monthly interiors piece) so much I thought I’d spend a little longer on my blog. I’d been planning to document the succulent’s overnight success from secret passion to omnipresent media top plant, to show off my collection and pass on the tips I’ve amassed from other succulent geeks.

While I can boast modest success in the garden, I’m the kiss of death to houseplants. Perhaps it’s their total reliance on me I resent. The sole survivors of my lifetime indoor plant collection are succulents. As a genus, they’re a complicated family, but many are easy to grow in specific locations. Both tender glasshouse and hardy garden varieties are strangely addictive, and for me, a visit to a garden or nursery is not complete without a new purchase to add to my collection. And there are thousands to choose from.

Apart from groaning shelves of tender echeverias, agaves and crassulas sheltering in my porch, I also admit to a penchant for the hardier sempervivums and sedums that’ll survive anywhere outside: in pans, on roofs or – my latest venture – in gravel beds like living Persian carpets edged with reclaimed barleycorn twist tiles, to either side of my front door.

Crassulaceae are accommodating plants, easy to propagate by plucking offsets or big leaves, leaving the wounds to callous over for at least a day, then potting up to pass on to other succulent geeks. Adapted to withstand a wide range of temperatures and conditions, their fleshy stems and leaves act as water storage containers to minimize evaporation, which is why they survive despite periodic neglect.

With flowers like riotous fireworks in bright orange, yellow and red, that seem to appear overnight on long shooting stems, some are monocarpic with rosettes that die after flowering, throwing out little ‘chicks’ that root and spread. The variation of leaf colour and texture is mind-blowing: from powdery blue to downy grey, near black to floury white, while some have frilly petticoats or sculptured rosettes, reflecting their South American roots.

I start the year with a daylong spring clean of my porch’s occupants, tidying away any dead leaves and re-potting each plant in new gritty compost. I recently heard a fellow succulent geek boast her growing medium was one part John Innes no 2, one part grit and one part Tesco cat litter. I dust each plant with an old blusher brush, and dot any mealy bugs with a fine artist’s paintbrush laden with meths, then cover the surface of the pot soil with gravel to discourage vine weevil. 

One of the main reasons for succulents’ success is their ability to look wonderful in unusual containers. Match their leaves with grey lead and galvanized steel, rough concrete and stone, as well as the usual terracotta. I’ve seen them in wellington boots, in saucepans and even plastic dinasaurs. Trawl charity shops, car boot sales and re-use food containers. Make sure there are adequate drainage holes by puncturing the bottoms with a Phillip’s screwdriver powered with a heavy hammer, or in hardcore metal situations with a strong power drill bit.

BEST OF THE BUNCH

  • Sedum morganianum known as Burro’s Tail with fleshy green hanging dreadlocks
  • Sempervivum ‘Blue Boy’ grey green and S. Atropurpureum: dark purple.
  • Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg: pearly purple, E. ‘Meridian’ with pink edged ruffles.
  • Agave Porcupine – a flat grey artichoke-like rosette that grows 30 inches wide.
  • Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’: tree-like, with maroon/black rosettes.

LOOKING AFTER INDOOR SUCCULENTS

  • Succulents thrive on benign neglect.
  • Most need a sunny bright warm spot with adequate ventilation.
  • Some appreciate a summer holiday outdoors.
  • Grow in containers in John Innes no 2 with 40% horticultural grit.
  • Watch out for tufty white mealy bugs, and treat with meths or liquid soap applied with a paintbrush.
  • Always allow soil to dry out before watering, and don’t leave the pots sitting in water.
  • Feed monthly in early spring and summer with proprietary cactus feed.
  • Stop watering altogether in winter, especially in a non-centrally heated situation.
  • Water with rainwater to prevent mineral build-up on leaves.

SUPPLIERS

  • Urbanjungle.uk.com for website and great nursery in Norfolk.
  • Blueleafplants.co.uk for a stylish selection.
  • Fernwood-nursery.co.uk website and National collection of sempervivums.
  • Surrealsucculents.co.uk – Cornish nursery website.

OLD MOWER: NEW MOWER

I usually enjoy the workout I get from a bit of brisk mowing with my old push lawnmower, followed by a burst of vigorous raking – so good for the waistline, but recently as my path network through the meadow has increased, the effort has rather overwhelmed me – a battle lost. But a friend gained: a jolly Gtech cordless mower (gtech.co.uk) that folds away small in my shed and doesn’t require diminishing muscle power.

Lawn mowers have always irritated me. In the past our heavy-duty pull-start diesels defeated me. I used to get my husband to start up for me, but every time they cut out, I was left pathetically needing a re-start. How dare manufacturers produce a machine that half the population can’t use?

As our rolling acres increased, my sons grumpily took on the mowing as a way to earn pocket money, and then when they left home, I employed a couple who magically strimmed and mowed their way round the garden in seconds flat.

Part of my reason for downsizing here was to be more self-reliant, so the vintage push mower left behind by the previous owner was perfect. Just a squirt of WD 40 and a sharpening of the blades, and it was good to go. But it had no grass collector at the front, and got easily fouled up by longish grass. So I viewed the prospect of mowing with less and less enthusiasm, the grass grew and then became unmowable.

I borrowed an electric hovermower, but it seemed just a matter of time before I electrocuted myself. So here I am with a state-of-the art battery powered beauty that easily cuts the entire garden with juice to spare, slices through any length of grass and neatly cuts right up to the edges. Hooray!

And Gtech do bikes, strimmers and hoovers too!

POST GARDEN OPENING BLUES

After 500+ visitors on Sunday, the garden and I are feeling a bit battered, but pleased and thrilled to meet so many of you. What an amazing day, and we raised over £3000 for the NGS, £500 for the community garden from teas and £200 for Whithorts from the plant fair.

Mixed weather of course, but apart from drizzle, we didn’t really get wet. People were seen grasping their yellow leaflets all over town, and joined in with a garage sale scheme and the Biennale as well, all running at the same time: all the more to see. Thanks so much to everyone who was involved.

And next year we hope many more of you will join us and open your gardens too. Pick a time you think your plot looks good and email mary.bruce@churchmans.co.uk. She’ll come and check you out, but don’t worry, she’s a nice lady.

A bit of an anti-climax, and it feels strange not to be manically gardening, but Sunday is Hens & Gardens Day at Great Comp Gardens near Sevenoaks (see greatcompgardens.com) and I’m giving talks to encourage free-range hen keeping. Lots of lovely pure breed birds on show and for sale, in a stunning garden. See you there, I hope.

NGS Kent, Great Comp Gardens, Open Gardens, pure breed poultry.

MIRACULOUS TRANSFORMATIon

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a change to my garden in just a month. Not much my doing – just a really speedy change of season:  instant leaves, flowers and grasses. My lovely meadow bulbs planted with an augur and drill last October, are up and out and will probably be over by the time I open my garden with the Whitstable Group of Gardens for the NGS on June 12th(10 till 5).

As you can imagine, thoughts of the opening are foremost in my mind as I garden. Everything has a time limit, a deadline and it’s hard not to wish this month away.  Such a lovely fresh time of the year, I may suggest we open in May next year, but who knows what the weather would bring.

If you’d like to pay us a visit, look us up on on ngs.org.uk or on https://www.facebook.com/whitstableopengardens/ or https://www.facebook.com/ events/452410098296873/. I’ll also be tweeting @FrancineHens as time goes on. Just drive down Borstal Hill into Whitstable and turn left after the Murco garage into Joy Lane. You can park at Joy Lane School on the left past my house, and look out for the familiar Yellow Signs.

Come and buy your ticket/route map and have a quick look at my garden and then set off on foot following the walking route, or visit the gardens near here and do the second leg by car and park again (not easy on a sunny Sunday in this popular holiday destination).

We have seven gardens open, plus several more indicated by a Yellow Balloon that are showing support (including Joy Lane School, Wynn Ellis Almshouses and a Guerrilla Garden) that can be viewed from the road, seafront or path; a Plant Fair at the Umbrella Centre in Oxford Street; and Tea & Cakes at Stream Walk Community Gardens. Come and enjoy a day by the seaside and take in a few eclectic gardens at the same time, what we lack in acres we make up in imagination and creativity.

If you would like to join us next year, please contact mary.bruce@churchmans.co.uk.

Email me at francine@kitchen-garden-hens.co.uk if I've forgotten anything.

 

HERCULEAN TASKS

Yikes, and it’s April already. Whatever happened to March? My only excuse is that work in the garden has rather overtaken me. It was a tall order to think I could re-plant all my plants in a more welcoming soil; re-pot and feed my containers, including a porchful of succulents; and re-site the grass paths that have wandered off-course in the orchard.

On sunny days, there’s nothing better than working outside, with my bantams scrabbling away in the backs of the border and my poor old cat enjoying the sunshine on a bench. But six weeks on, I seem to have RSI in one of my fingers, have suffered two bouts of something nasty from my grandson Etienne, but most of the initial work is done, with only the vegetable garden to conquer and usual seasonal tasks.

The motive behind this madness is our group opening for the NGS in June. All over Whitstable, gardeners are regretting their decision to participate. None of us seem to have established gardens, so it’s the usual attempted transition from pig’s ear to silk purse. It’s only the niceness of NGS visitors that makes us think this has the possibility of success.

Back at the computer, I’ve written about garden bloggers, garden clubs, asparagus, my new hens, wildlife gardens and pollinating insects for the Telegraph; the wonderful Charlotte Molesworth for Gardens Illustrated and several chapters for a new book for Pavilion publishers. I’ve also seen a lot of my family who’ve been renting their house for Air B&B and coming to stay here.

KGB FEB16

Lots of lovely little eggs from my new girls – three bantam to two standards in recipes – with real deep yellow yolks from eating garden greenery, just right for batches of pancakes. And signs of spring in the February garden with a bunch of flowers and pretty leaves (on the Home page), not just for Valentine’s Day, but because it’s mid-February and there’s hope in the air. But it’s still cold outside with frosty mornings.

Have replanted a couple of beds. After waiting three years as plants just sat there, with their feet in yellow clay, not growing, just sitting, I decided to start again, to dig them up and add a lot of grit, compost, wood chip and manure to mix in the soil. Elsewhere I’ll just add a mulch which I hope will retain winter’s moisture throughout our inevitable summer drought.

I’ve re-cut my mown grass paths, avoiding the bulb shoots pushing through the meadow, including all the wild gladioli that Max and I planted using the augur drill in November. Looking forward with some trepidation to June when we open as a group for the NGS Yellow Book. I hope visitors will understand, this is still a garden in the making.