A Window Box Salad Bar

Returning home from Wendy Shillam’s inspiring ‘Leaf Lore’ workshop (see previous post), I lost no time in sowing some leaf seeds in my equivalent of the Rooftop Vegplot – a far from picturesque  container  beneath my kitchen window.  I’m hoping this will prove to be both slug proof and cat proof!  The seeds were an improvised mix of cut and come again varieties such as Salad Bowl, mizuna and rocket and I must say I’m impressed with the speed at which they’ve come up in the world.  I’m wary of cropping them too soon, although according to Wendy they are already at the super-nutritious ‘micro veg’ stage.  I’ll give it another three weeks and hope to be able to tuck into a good homegrown salad then.


lettuce container

Window box salad bar

Leaf Lore on the Rooftop Vegplot

Salad days are here again and with this in mind my visit to Wendy Shillam’s city potager for a workshop on leaf growing could not have been better timed. After a disappointing lettuce season last year, I’ve been yearning for delicious homegrown salads and itching to crack open the seed packets and so when Wendy kindly offered me a preview of her “leaf lore” workshop I jumped at the chance to get some hands-on advice to galvinise my growing.


Seed packets

A small selection of seeds to sow!

Wendy (whose garden features in the new edition of the London Garden Book) is a passionate advocate of growing fresh produce no matter how compromised your space is – fresh salad leaves and micro leaves punch above their weight in terms of vitamin and mineral delivery, so it’s worth growing even a few says Wendy. “So much of the food we eat is aged”, she notes, “fresh leaves  have  optimum goodness and are also a great source of fibre.”


Warming the soil

Warming the soil

Wendy’s interest in nutrition comes from a very personal place – diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in recent years, she successfully reversed the condition in just 9 weeks through  changes to her diet, and has subsequently gone on to gain a qualification in nutrition.  For her diabetes busting diet Wendy cut down on the calories but didn’t stint on her fresh fruit and veg intake, of which her homegrown produce was a significant part.

For the workshop Wendy ran through three simple techniques, which could be applied in any garden large or small. First up companion planting. Wendy’s three small raised beds necessarily have to work hard so in a bed that already had two purple artichoke plants and some garlic just poking its head above the soil line Wendy sowed some mesclun. This mix of lettuce, rocket, chervil and endive seeds came from Vilmorin (an historic French seed company distributed in the UK by Thompson and Morgan) and it promised to make a delicious “salade compose”. Even a mixed salad sounds nicer in French! To sow, Wendy just lightly hand forked the soil (which she had recently dressed with some bought compost) and sprinkled the seeds generously around the bed and tickled them in. When the seeds germinate she will use some for micro leaves, and harvest the rest as they get bigger on a cut and come again basis.

Mixed salad leaves, the French way ..

Mixed salad leaves, the French way ..


lettuce seeds

A Handful of Seed

Next we did a bit of cheating, courtesy of a shop bought pot of parsley from Waitrose. Wendy’s a big fan of parsley, using it not only for cooking but as a salad leaf too. It can be slow to germinate so co-opting a ready grown pot is a great way to steal a march on the season. The parsley was densely packed into its little black poly pot and by teasing the roots apart Wendy was able to multiply ‘one’ plant into about 15 individual parsley plants. These she planted in a sunny bed, in soil pre-warmed under a glass cloche, spacing them no more than 10cms apart. “These should last several years” Wendy told me, “and will self seed around too.”


Cheat's parsley

Cheat’s parsley

Dividing the parsley

Dividing the parsley

Parsley potager

Parsley potager

Wendy’s final technique was utterly ingenious, a scaled down version of square foot planting that can only be described as “square inch” gardening. A square of chicken wire was the template for a sowing of red and green Salad Bowl leaves, with Wendy sowing a couple of seeds in every other square in a quincunx pattern (like the five on a dice). This technique is ideal for successional sowing and the wire has the added bonus of keeping slugs at bay, according to Wendy (they don’t like moving over it, apparently). This alone is enough to recommend it to me as my salad crops last year were negligible due to slug damage. As an extra slug deterrent Wendy planted some little viola plug plants around the edge of the wire. The slugs love violas even more than they love baby lettuce leaves, and the viola flowers that do survive are edible, and perfect for prettying up a salad.


Chicken wire templates

Chicken wire templates

No tools required

No tools required

viola plants

Companiable violas

Throughout the summer Wendy and her husband Mike not only enjoy salads from the Rooftop Veg plot but they eat them in situ too, adding to the holistic aspect of the enterprise and topping up their Vitamin D levels at the same time. Wendy’s  illness, and subsequent recovery, confirmed to her why her little veg plot is so much larger than the sum of its parts and why the effort in tending it is worth it. ”Sowing seeds is so easy” says Wendy “it’s really the work of a moment but the rewards are so great”.


Parsley under wraps

Parsley under wraps

I can’t wait to put Wendy’s ideas in to practice – the high predation rate from slugs, rodents, birds and badgers on the allotment means that this year I’m sticking to growing salad crops in my garden where space is much more at a premium and where the Rooftop Vegplot approach should work well. I’m even wondering whether the chicken wire will also deter our neighbour’s cat – the other predator in my home garden. Time will tell – but that’s what this time of year is all about, the growing season stretches ahead of us and optimism as well as Spring is in the air!


French gardening

Inspiration – one of Wendy’s favourite books

Wendy’s Leaf Lore worship runs this Friday, 10th March; for more details of this and Wendy’s other workshops please go to



Wordless Wednesday: Snowy at the Herge Museum

Snowy at the Herge Museum, Brussels

Snowy leads the way

A walk in Edford Wood

One of the highlights of last weekend’s Shepton Snowdrop Festival was a guided walk through Edford Wood to see snowdrops growing in the wild.

Somerset Wildlife Trust Nature reserve sign

Edford Wood


The wood, which is owned by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, is a designated ancient woodland, meaning that it has existed continuously since 1600. It mainly seemed to be made up of coppiced ash, with a sprinkling of other species, including yew. Although the size of our group (about 40 walkers) precluded us seeing much in the way of fauna, the variety of flora that we encountered more than made up for this.

Snowdrop Walk through Edford Woods, Somerset

And they’re off

Following a roughly circular route through the wood we came across bright red Elf Cap fungi, growing like terrestrial coral on fallen branches beside our path.

Red fungi

Elf cap fungi


We also saw colonies (not sure if this is quite the right word) of aconitium, the very poisonous monkshood, their fresh green young leaves standing in vivid contrast to the predominantly brown woodland floor.

Acontinum, Mells River

Wild monkshood, by the Mells River

I also spotted what looked like euphorbia, but I don’t know what variety. It was a bit straggly – garden escapee or a wild (native?) variety?

Euphorbia, Edford Wood

Euphorbia, Edford Wood

Edford Wood is also known a place to see native daffodils and these were already in evidence, with one or two just about poised to open into flower. We were perhaps just a week or two early for the daffodils, so those few that we did see were a bonus. These native daffs are much stockier than the leggy varieties that tend to be used in garden scenarios – but to my mind these shorter stems would be much better suited to a garden (I am not keen on daffs in a border setting, particular in the aftermath of flowering when the foliage looks so messy).

Bedford Wood daffodils, Somerset

Wild daffodils, Edford Wood

As for the snowdrops, these were not quite as numerous as I had anticipated, but there were plenty to see nonetheless and it was indeed lovely to see them in a winter woodland setting. Our route took us along side the meandering Mells river, and this is where the snowdrops looked their best, obligingly arranging themselves in attractive clumps on the river bank. It’s tantalising to wonder if James Allen ever walked these woods in search of rogue snowdrops to breed from; certainly seeing them growing wild made a refreshing contrast to the rather artificially imposed clumps that dot my own garden.

Wild snowdrops, Edford Wood

Wild snowdrops, Edford Wood



The Snowdrops are comin’ home

February can be a pretty bleak month in the garden so a new festival celebrating one of the month’s few horticultural reasons to be cheerful is  good news.  The Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival (http://www.sheptonsnowdropfestival.org.uk), which took place for the first time this weekend (17-19 February), is the brainchild of the town’s horticultural society (http://www.sheptonhortsoc.org.uk).

snowdrop stencil motif

Snowdrop stencil on cobbles

The festival’s theme hasn’t been randomly plucked out of the air – Shepton Mallet, the Somerset market town otherwise known as the birthplace of Babycham (http://www.babycham.com/history), was the home of James Allen, a Victorian amateur horticulturalist who was the first man to hybridise snowdrops.  The festival aims to put Allen and his snowdrops back on the map, with a community minded three-day programme of events ranging from face painting and snowdrop cupcakes to poetry and photography competitions, along with a snowdrop ramble through Edford Wood (see separate post), and a market complete with snowdrops for sale  and snowdrop ID service, provided by Elworthy Cottage Plants (http://www.elworthy-cottage.co.uk).

snowdop stall Elworthy Cottage Plants

Elworthy Cottage Plants stand

As part of the preparations for the festival, members of the Shepton Hort Soc planted up thousands of snowdrop bulbs around the town last autumn, including one mass planting of 30,000 bulbs on the ‘Rock Flock’ roundabout coming into Shepton.  At the weekend, the roundabout’s iconic flock of stone sheep were not only sporting green and white snowdrop festival scarves, they were grazing in a sea of white flowers.  A lovely touch.

planter oil drum stencilled with snowdrops

Oil drum planter



Born in Shepton in 1832, James Allen went on to breed over 100 varieties of snowdrop  from his home on Park Road, and later at nearby Highfield House, and corresponded with the great and good of the horticultural world, including EA Bowles (the Crocus King to Allen’s Snowdrop King).  For all the glacial purity, snowdrops can really be considered the spoils of war – returning Crusaders supposedly first brought Galanthus nivalis bulbs to these shores, with G. plicatus being introduced here centuries later by soldiers coming home from the Crimean War. Allen was the right man at the right time, with added bonus of the right soil – snowdrops thrived in the light soil of his garden at Park House and he was quick to spot any variants that he might breed from.

Park House Shepton Mallet, snowdrop stencil

Snowdrop stencil, Park House

Highfield House, Shepton Mallet

Highfield House, Shepton Mallet

Although Allen’s collection was ultimately destroyed by botrytis and insects, some of his Shepton varieties are still available such as ‘Magnet’ and ‘Merlin’, both of which are AGM.  ’Merlin’ is distinguished by having entirely green inner segments, while ‘Magnet’ has well-proportioned flowers on long pedicils that  shake prettily in the breeze.  ’Magnet’ is  the festival’s logo flower and appears in the charming planters and street stencils that waymarked the ‘Snowdrop’ festival trail through Shepton, from Park House to the cemetery where Allen is buried.

Hightailed House, Shepton Mallet, snowdrops

Snowdrops at Highfield House

Excitingly, the festival might bring to light some of Allen’s lost varieties – certainly that was the hope among those organising the snowdrop ID service (and if Allen was anything like Bowles, he would have given plants to visitors, friends and family and so there may be some original Shepton varieties still blooming locally today). The festival also aims to raise funds to repair and restore the Allen memorial in Shepton Cemetery.


Snowdrop 'Merlin'

Snowdrop Merlin

Judging from the buzz around the market place on the opening day, and the full take up for  Sunday’s snowdrop ramble, Shepton has taken its homegrown festival to heart, with local  local traders getting into the mood too with  snowdrop themed window displays and merchandise.  It’s wonderful to see James Allen’s achievements being remembered and celebrated in his home town – I’m looking forward to next year’s festival already.


Wordless Wednesday: Snowdrops



Potatoes by Proxy

Too much choice can be a difficult thing to handle, at least when it comes to choosing potatoes.  This year my disappointment at not being able to attend our local potato day (http://www.potato-days.net), was tempered when I recalled how traumatic I had found last year’s event (the first I had ever attended).  A potato day novice,  I simply had not realised how many wonderful varieties of potatoes would be on offer, nor how many other tempting goodies – from dahlias to day lilies, barerooted fruit trees, soft fruit and old fashioned roses. The heady sight of tub after tub of exciting sounding tubers stretching around the village hall prompted a decision making meltdown and a lot of  dithering – exacerbated by the eager and ever-growing queue building in my wake.


Potato tubers for the allotment

A potato in the bag …

This year it was all much simpler (and more relaxing!).   Friends who were going to the potato day offered to pick  up a few bits and pieces for us.  We left the choice to them (they are keen veg and flower growers so I knew we were in safe hands).  And so it proved.  This year, it turns out, we will be growing Swift (a very early variety) and Sarpo Axona (an AGM award winning, blight resistant main crop).  As I had heard of neither variety I looked them up and they sound just the ticket, Swift is a waxy new potato  with  partial eelworm resistance, while among Sarpo’s virtues is a willingness to produce heavy crops.  http://how-to-grow-potatoes.co.uk/first-early-potatoes/swift-seed-potatoes/  http://sarpo.co.uk/portfolio/sarpo-axona/.

Our allotment is prone to blight so this selection could be the perfect potato pincer movement – early cropping Swift might avoid the blight, while Sarpo will hopefully withstand it. I’m looking forward to seeing how they get on – could the key to successful plant selection be delegation? Perhaps this is an idea that could work in the flower garden too – it’s much easier to be decisive in other peoples gardens than in one’s own.

Shallots for the allotment

That’s your lot

I usually grow a few shallots, and our proxy potato buyers selected Longor. Again it’s a variety I’ve not grown before but it’s another goody – an AGM winner that produces long bulbs, which hopefully will be easier to handle than their fiddly round relations.  Our modest haul also included a spring planting variety of garlic, Solent Wight.  I’ve already planted autumn varieties, but  I want to be self-sufficient in garlic this year so this new bulb went in yesterday.

Garlic bulb, spring planting

A garlic bulb moment

Last year I was disappointed by the size of the onion harvest on our allotment (probably something to do with not buying enough sets while suffering from Potato Day paralysis) so this time around, I’ve gone for a bulk buy of onion sets from B&Q.  Tempted by the ‘two for £5′ offer,  I plumped for a  yellow variety Shuron, and a red variety, Karmen. I never seem to get the spacing right with onions – always keen to get decent sized specimens, I tend to plant too far apart.  A big waste of space on the allotment so this year I am going to cram them in more closely and see what happens!

Onion sets, spring planting

All set to go this spring



Wordless Wednesday: Blossom in January

Pink viburnum blossom in January

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

In the papers

‘Tis the week before Christmas and the newspapers are filled with seasonally adjusted book selections, and ‘books of the year’ round ups  … I always love reading these but this year I’ve been scanning them with an extra frisson of anticipation, as The London Garden Book A-Z, 2nd edition has just hit the shops (and the reviewers’ desks … gulp).   Rather wonderfully, the book has been picked up by several reviewers , including this  lovely piece in the Sunday Times recently (glad that they ‘dug’ it!)


Review of The London Garden Book A-Z, Sunday Times November 2016

Sunday Times, 6 November 2016

and Tim Richardson also included the book in his selection of ‘Best of a Bumper Crop’ of 2016′s gardening books in the Telegraph

Review of the London Garden Book A-Z, Daily Telegraph

Daily Telegraph 17 Dec 2016


The London Garden Book also featured in Ruth Pavey’s round up of gardening books in the Ham&High:


and has also been kindly mentioned by the  Roof Top Veg Plotter, Wendy Shillam in her blog:


Autumn on the Allotment

So, autumn is here and another growing season on the allotment has more or less come to an end (bar some stalwart Swiss chard,  a few lingering, enormous beetroots, and some brassicas yet to come on stream).  What with the recent Marmite scare and the news that olive oil is going to become more expensive than gold (thanks, Brexit/climate change/nasty olive bugs), it looks like next year it will be worth trying to make the allotment as productive as possible as food  prices are surely only set to rise.   So although I’ve no plans to convert the plot into an olive grove quite yet, the general gloom has got me thinking about what to grow next year, and to try to assess what has grown well this year, and what has not.

In fact ‘next year’ has already begun, in that I’ve planted some garlic – two pretty basic varieties from our local hardware shop: Germidor and Thermidrome), and sown four rows of Aquadulce broad beans.

Autumn garlic planted

Autumn garlic planted

Broad beans were among the star performers of 2016, at least the ones that were sown in the previous autumn – my attempt at successional planting in this department failed as the spring sowing fell prey to predator or predators unknown (birds/rodents are the likely suspects). But successional planting may well be the key to successful post-Brexit allotmenteering, so next year it looks as though I’ll be having to take pest control a little more seriously.

Runner beans too did well – in the end, after a wobbly start.  I sowed some at home in modules, and then some in situ as a safeguard but the end result was the same: the slugs had a field day.  I felt too discouraged to sow more or dig up the sorry little stumps that the slugs had left but for once inaction was the right thing to do – by some miracle the beans resurrected themselves to perform well towards the end of the summer (it wasn’t their fault that their moment of peak production coincided with our late summer holiday and that we couldn’t pick them as young and tender as Monty Don recommends).

The French beans  (a variety called Kentucky Wonder, purchased from Pennard Plants) and the Borlotti beans were not quite as robust – a few specimens soldiered through the slug assault, but the crop wasn’t brilliant.  I’ve kept the pods  to use the dried seeds in stews etc. In the case of the Borlotti’s there are enough for a single meal, cooked in this way.  Must try harder next year!

Crops that did unashamedly well were the squashes – Turk’s Turban (from last year’s saved seed, a real result), and Rouge Vif D’Etampes pumpkin did brilliantly.  I got around 9 really decent sized pumpkins and a good handful of TT.  I’ve already save some TT seed from this year and will be doing the same with the Rouge Vif, as they are expensive to buy.  Courgettes too were excellent and I’ve only just stopped picking the last few tiny ones that would only have got knobbled in the frost that’s forecast for tonight.  Romanesco were the variety and I planted out four plants – two too many probably, but I adore courgettes and can stand a glut of them.

I went a  bit mad on beetroot this year and they too produced a good crop.  I hope to repeat this next year – I know all the foodies recommend the Chioggia variety and I have grown it in the past, but I prefer the full-blooded red types such Pablo, an AGM winning F1 hybrid, and good old Boltardy.

Rhubarb.  But when does it not do well? I should have made some chutney.

On the flower front, all the perennials bloomed their little socks off – from gaudy gladioli, to some luscious purple and yellow lupins (grown from seed, and so even more rewarding). We inherited quite a few dahlias when we took over the plot, and added a few more (not realising that we had so many already) and these have only just ground to a halt.  They overwintered last year just fine, and I’m hoping they’ll do the same this time around. I’ve spotted some rather sweet mini pompom varieties in a neighbour’s garden, which might be a bit easier to give vase space to than the rather hefty types we have, so I’ll probably try some of these smaller bloomed varieties when the time comes.

Last gasp Dahlias

Last gasp Dahlias

And those crops that didn’t fare quite so well?

Parsnips.   A complete no show, even though I did buy fresh seed. I diligently went for a February sowing, but perhaps this was too early.  The chair of the allotment committee, a former professional gardener, told me he had sowed his seed in March and promptly went over to his plot to dig up a beautiful parsnip, the fruit of said sowing. It’s always good to learn from your fellow allotments!

Lettuce.  Poor germination, and then the dreaded slugs.  Rocket did okay though, but it’s nice to be able to have mixed leaf salad instead of pure pepper.  Next year might have to be the year of the slug pellet (an organic variety).

Redcurrants and blackcurrants.  A pretty thin crop.  I think I may have overpruned them, and a heavy dose of sawfly didn’t help them either.

Gooseberries.  Nada.

Potatoes.  A light crop from the tatties  carefully selected at our local Potato Day – Cara, Desiree, Belle de Fontenay and Anya. I’m putting it down to the dry conditions.  Blight struck (as it always does on our plots) so I cut down all the foliage as our allotment committee commands us to do, but I don’t know how much this will have affected the crop.

Onions.  A bit on the small side.  Again, I think this was down to the weather.  I brought a mixed bag of white, red and yellow onions from Potato Day – a mistake, on reflection.  Next year I’ll plant more sets but I’ll choose individual varieties, including a red one for sure, but I’m going to go for quality as well as quantity, as onions are such a staple for us.

So what are my resolutions for next year? Try to make better use of the space – I either seem to plant too far apart, or too close together. Perhaps I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and use a line to lay out the rows.  I’m also going to aim to improve my successional sowing and keep weeds and pests under better control – more regular trips down to the lottie should help with this.  I’m very tempted to put some more fruit trees in – we have one small and unproductive apple we inherited, and I took out a dead plum tree this year – nothing fancy, maybe a dual purpose apple, and a Victoria plum.  To save space I might try a restricted form of the former, and if I’m doing that I may as well stick in a pear as well.  I’m still pondering what veg crops/varieties to try next year – but that’s all part of the “winter wondering” process, and that’s not to be rushed! Some of the tried and test varieties will return for sure (at least the ones that did well this year), but it’s also fun to try new things, and be a bit adventurous – so watch this space.

Infrastructure too is on the agenda – our allotment shed has had its day.  It’s a sentry box style one that has blown over numerous times over the past year, in the process upending the contents and loosing several wooden slats.  We’ve got our sights set on bigger things, and maybe even a little space outside the shed where one can pull up a chair and admire the view.

View over the allotment, October 2016

View over the allotment, October 2016