Friday, 28 February 2014

The chillis are off...

Ten days ago I sowed seeds for several different types of chilli and sweet pepper. I sowed two seeds in each pot, as I usually do. Then, when they germinate I pinch out the weakest of the two. It's really a way of increasing my chances of having a plant in every pot without having to re-sow at some stage. Of course, if I were using expensive F1 seed I might do it differently!

My pots have been under the lights for about 16 hours a day since then. They don't produce a lot of heat - just a gentle warmth which is enough to aid seed-germination. As soon as germination occurs, the seedling has plenty of light, so it is less likely to become stretched or "leggy". This is a much better arrangement than what I did before, which was to put the pots of seeds in the airing-cupboard. This meant that I had to keep checking them as often as possible. Things being what they are, it always seemed as if they germinated about 10 minutes after I went out to work, meaning that I couldn't check them until about 12 hours later! Anyway, I now have lots of healthy young seedlings:

This year I am growing several varieties of chilli and sweet pepper from seeds sent to me by blogging friends in various parts of the world, for which I am very grateful. Here are a few examples:-
This is "Red Jalapeno",  given to me by Tiffany in Virginia, USA

This is "Ohnivec",  given to me by Dominika in the Czech Republic

Second on the left is "King of the North" (Pepper), given to me by Eddy in Holland
For the record, this is the list of varieties I have growing at present:

Red Jalapeno
Ring of Fire
Red Habanero
Bird's Eye
An unknown one named after the place I got it: Redfields Red
Scotch Bonnet (so far no sign of this one germinating)

King of the North
Piment d'Espelette
Unknown one nicknamed Turkish Bell Pepper
Big Jim (so far no sign of this one germinating)

I'm giving no gurantees that this will be the full list. I may decide to sow some others.

Here's one of my Bird's Eye chillis:

If you are into chilli-growing, you should read this informative and amusing review of a new book about the subject, by Jason Nickels, on the blog of Roger Brook - the no dig gardener

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Pulmonaria / Lungwort

I have a few Pulmonaria plants in my garden now. They are all "volunteers" that made their way in uninvited. Not that I'm bothered by this, because I think they are very attractive plants, both for their speckly foliage (allegedly similar to the surface of a lung!) and for their curious two-tone flowers.

The other day, when we had frost on the ground, I saw this and thought at first that it was a frozen pine-cone:

Of course closer inspection revealed that it was not. It was a flower-bud cluster. Here is one in non-frosty conditions. The furry spines make it look as if it has a coating of ice crystals:

I find it really strange that this plant has flowers of two different colours on the same stem at the same time.

The Pulmonaria evidently self-seeds pretty readily, and pops up in all sorts of unexpected places, but that suits me fine because it is helping me to give my garden a more natural look.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cane-supports - the ongoing saga

The other day I posted a request for assistance with finding a robust type of cane-support (a favourite theme of mine!). I always grow my tomatoes in big pots, tied to bamboo canes, and over the years I have tried several devices for supporting the canes, but only one type has been effective:

This is how it is used:

I have six of those, but it's not enough. These days I grow at least 12 tomato plants that need supporting (as well as some bush varieties that don't). Unfortunately that model of cane-support seems to have been discontinued. My most recent appeal for help has produced these:

These ones are made by Botanico, and I bought them from They were being sold as a set of 3 at £4.99 (plus postage). I bought two sets. I can't remember who told me about these, but if it was you, then "Thank you"!

Of course they are really designed for use with Growbags, not pots, so my biggest worry was whether the elliptical bases would fit inside any of my pots.

Well, I have tried them, and I find that they do fit inside some of my pots, but only some - the ones with square bases not tapered ones - and then only when placed diagonally.

At least this is a step in the right direction! I may decide to alter the shape of the base pieces (perhaps with a hacksaw?). I haven't tried bending them yet, but it may come to that, if it's possible. First indications are that these cane-supports will be quite good, because unlike most of the others I have tried, they are strong.

On the Down side though, this new model of support only has one ring (right at the top), whereas my favourite ones have two rings, which is better for the stability of the cane.

I shall of course report later in the year on how the new models perform...

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Spring flowers

At last the monotonous Winter greys are being replaced by colourful Spring yellows, reds and blues!

I have some of the "Soleil d'Or" daffodils from Scilly in a pot outside the front of the house, in an attempt to screen a section of rather unsightly pipework:

The husk at the tip of each stem bursts open to release a clutch of slim, delicate flowerheads:

They seem to be in a range of colours. I had expected them to have orange centres, like the one in the photo above, but some of them are plain yellow - perhaps a slightly darker shade than the petals.

Elsewhere I have a number of pots containing "Tete a Tete" daffodils:

These are a favourite of mine. Being so diminutive, they seem very much in keeping with the small dimensions of my garden. They are also less prone to wind damage than their taller brethren.

I also have a very weathered long trough made of reconstituted stone, in which last year I planted some Primrose seedlings. Despite having been ravaged by the weather and by the slugs, they are flowering now:

I hope they will fill out a bit as the weather improves. Lots of the leaves are very ragged, so I need some new growth to hide them!

I have already shown off some of my Crocuses, but there are more to come still:

And then there are the Iris Reticulata...  I have several different ones now, which is nice because they flower at slightly different times.

Monday, 24 February 2014


I suspect that I am not alone in having a perception that grass is a bit boring. When grass is mentioned, most people visualise the sort of grass that lawns are made of, but the type that I am writing about today is not that type. It is the ornamental type. My interest in these grasses is very recent. I have noticed that several of my neighbours have created "low-maintenance" gardens with stones, slate and -- grasses. Taking a closer look, I can now see the attraction. They have a form and nature very different to the more conventional flowers. I especially like how they move in the wind - and we have had plenty of that recently!

In early January I was in a Garden Centre looking for seed potatoes, failed on that score, and ended up instead buying a couple of plants that were being sold off cheaply. One of them was a Carex "Prairie Fire".

The plant I bought was not big, and it was a bit bedraggled, but I still thought it was good value at £1.99. As I have read that Carex is quite a tolerant species, I have planted it in a place where I didn't think much else would prosper. Of course I'm hoping it will not only survive but also thrive and expand. We shall see.

Very close to where I planted my new Carex, some volunteer plants have popped up, and I think they may also be grasses of some sort. This is one that I dug up and put into a pot about 3 or 4 months ago. Since then it has been in the coldframe and has grown a fair bit. Does anyone recognise it?

Yesterday I planted that one next to the "Prairie Fire", so who knows, maybe this is the start of my latest craze? Oh, before I finish I have a question for those of you who know about such things: do grasses like this propagate easily by root-division?

Unrelated to the grasses mentioned above, the other plant I bought when I got the Carex was a Hellebore. The particular specimen I chose had several flower-buds on it, and I was hopeful that they would give me a little bit of Late Winter colour, but unfortunately they have still not opened - about six weeks later!

What do you think might be holding them back?

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Chicken with mushroom "risotto"

If you're looking for a recipe for Mushroom Risotto, this is not the place! (Well, certainly not for the purist). My dish includes rice cooked using the risotto method, but it does not claim to be a perfect example of the genre.

Well, now that we've cleared that up, let me tell you about this dish I made yesterday. It consisted of rice and mushrooms cooked like a risotto, along with chicken breasts fried in butter, and served with broccoli and carrots.

Does that look nice, or what?  Here's the recipe:-

"Pan-fried Chicken breasts with Mushroom Risotto"

Ingredients (serves 2)
2 chicken breasts, preferably with skin left on
180g risotto rice (I used Arborio)
200g mushrooms, sliced (I used Chestnut mushrooms, but use whatever you like / have)
1 onion, peeled and finely diced
1 large clove garlic, peeled and crushed
Approx 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
Approx 1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
Juice of half a lemon
25g butter
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetables to accompany - according to preference (I used carrots and broccoli - mainly to add lots of colour to what would otherwise be a very brown-coloured dish!)

Heat the stock in a small saucepan, until nearly boiling
Using 1 Tbsp oil, fry the onion gently in a large heavy pan
When the onion is translucent but not brown, add the crushed garlic and cook for 1 more minute, stirring to avoid burning
Add the rice and stir thoroughly into the oily onions to ensure it is well coated
Fry for a minute or so, being careful not to let the rice go brown
Add a ladleful of hot stock and stir until the rice has absorbed it
Add another ladleful of hot stock - ditto
Keep adding stock a little at a time, and stirring frequently

To cook the risotto will probably take about 45 minutes all told, so after about 20 / 25 minutes, start frying your chicken. The chicken breasts I used were very big and thick so I wanted to give them time to cook all the way through. In restrospect it might have been better to halve them.

Frying chicken probably doesn't need much explanation, but for what it's worth, I fried mine in butter with some oil added to stop it burning. I browned the meat (skin side first) over a high heat and then turned the heat down to cook the meat through. When you thik the chicken is cooked, test by piercing with a sharp knife. If the juices run clear you are OK, but if they are pink, cook for a bit longer.

Using the other 1 Tbsp oil in a frying-pan, fry the mushrooms
When they are cooked, add them to the rice pan, which by now will be starting to fill up with slowly swelling rice.

Add the Thyme leaves and salt and pepper to taste
Keep adding the stock until the rice has gone soft and creamy. Not too soft though - it needs to have some texture still. (Think "al dente" )
When you judge that the rice is done, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over it, turn off the heat, cover the pan and let it rest for about 5 minutes before serving. I placed the chicken on top of the risotto purely for presentational purposes.

When plated-up, add the vegatables...

Did you notice that I used our new cast-iron pan? We are using it so much that it barely ever gets put away!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Aquilegia / Columbine / Granny's Bonnets

Last year I sowed the seeds for several different types of Aquilegia, and grew some on into decent plants, but few of them flowered. This year I hope they will produce a good display. Many of them have been overwintering in my coldframe, and are just beginning to show signs of life.

The way in which Aquilegia leaves repel water and promote the formation of little pearly droplets never ceases to fascinate me!

Take a close look at the core of one of the little plants, and it really does look wierd. Here you can see the pink-coloured new leaves beginning to push up through the woody remains of last year's leaves, all covered in strands of cobweb.

In one of the pots there is a very luxuriant worm-cast:

The worm-cast is simply the compost / soil (etc) that has been digested by and passed through a worm. Worm-casts allegedly make an ideal seed-sowing medium since they are very finely "processed".

I'm quite glad I labelled all my Aquilegia, because the young plants all look very similar at this stage!

Last year I had some red-and-yellow ones, grown from seeds sent to me by Diana in Malaysia:

At the end of their flowering season I scattered seeds from these ones all along the base of the fence where in the past I have had only the plain pink and plain blue Aquilegias, so hopefully this year I will have a bit more variety there.

Aquilegia poking up under the fence panels

 I don't want to bore you too much with pics of emerging Aquilegias, so here are a couple of other things that are "bursting out all over"...

The Chives I re-potted are looking healthy

Leaves of Snakeshead Fritillary

Rhubarb "Timperley Early"

Is it just me that sees a Rhinoceros / Dragon head in that rhubarb photo..???

Friday, 21 February 2014

Crocus showcase

What a difference a bit of sunshine makes! A few days ago I wrote about the Crocuses being reluctant to open. No such problem now. In this post I'm going to let the Crocuses do most of the "talking"...

To me, the Crocus epitomises Springtime and the long-awaited end of Winter. Whilst indivdual blooms are indeed beautiful, I think they work best in clumps:

I have planted several of them around the bases of the three trees in my back garden - and lots more seem to have found their way in somehow or other...

The purple ones with white stems are "Crocus Tommasinianus", which is almost "feral", in the sense that they often seem to just appear spontaneously. The ones around the trees I did plant, but the ones peeping up from under the bricks around the compost did they get there?

My camera has difficulty in deciding what colour these Crocuses are. From certain angles they look very purple, but from others they are definitely blue! (No, don't bother telling me again about White Balance!)

My other Crocuses - the "posh" ones - are only just beginning to show colour. They are the same ones as last year, because I didn't buy any new ones in 2013. I have "Prins Claus", "Ruby Giant" and one called simply "Yellow" though it looks suspiciously like "Gypsy Girl" which is yellow with dark streaks. I'll show you some photos of those 3 in due course.