Friday 22 July 2022

Gardening with a dodgy knee # 7

Despite the relative warmth in March we had a really cold spell at the beginning of April. I’d just sanitised the greenhouse - ready for the pre-ordered tomato plants - and didn’t want to lug my lemon tree back in there. It really is a small tree now and too heavy to lift if you’ve got a dodgy knee. And it might (might) have introduced bugs that the new tomato plants couldn’t handle. But as the lemon tree is so much heavier to shift now I wouldn’t just have had a dodgy knee - I’d more than likely end up with a slipped disc - if I lifted it. Yes I do need a trolley for manoeuvring my maturing citrus monster.

I decided to chance it and leave it outside. Friends have friends who leave their lemon trees out all winter - but mine hadn’t been hardened off. I feared it wouldn’t cope. 

I wrapped the once-protected tree in fleece, then bubble wrap and finally in a third layer of tarpaulin. All the fledgling lemon fruits were carefully protected too. We were expecting below freezing temperatures - cold winds rather than ice or snow - but potentially devastating for a mediterranean plant which had known such cosseting. 

By 11 April the cold winds had dropped. It was our wedding anniversary and we went out to Dyrham Park for a walk. The temperatures had picked up. We lunched in one pub on the top of Lansdown and had our evening meal in another. Covid was less of a threat by then.

Next day I needed to know the truth. Had my citrus plant survived the week of chilling winds? I carefully unwrapped the first tarpaulin layer. No errant lemon fruit had dropped off in the cold, as far as I could see. I removed the bubble wrap layer. Still all looked good. And finally I took away the fleece. And what did I discover?

Not only had ten semi-ripe lemon fruits stayed in situ: the plant’s leaves were still green, with no sign of frost damage and - even better - baby flowers were just forming. The gamble had paid off. The tree simply needed watering as its compost was dry.

Phew! I hadn’t lost my citrus wonder. 

I almost went into my new shed ( aka Nina’s gin palace) and poured myself a g&t with a slice from my brave, beautiful lemon tree.

But, on this occasion, I didn’t.

More next time.  

Wednesday 6 July 2022

Gardening with a dodgy knee - the Midwich Cuckoos edition

You would expect any link with John Wyndham’s novels and the (super) natural plant world to be about ‘The Triffids’, wouldn’t you?  Walking monstrous plants with tendrils that blinded any human in their path could be readily associated with gardens and plant life.  But, in my case, I liken tending to my lemon tree, climbing beans and tomato plants as a scene from Wyndhams ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. In my thoughts it’s plant life, not children, that have dominance over us, their humble gardeners. Truly. I do. 

My waking hours since returning from Dorset are dominated by these livings things. I have reminders on my phone and horticultural calendar about their feeding and watering regimes. I daily check that the climbing beans are free of predators. Every other day the tomatoes need water. (Then it’ll be a daily ritual.)Every week the lemon tree needs watering with its citrus feed. If it was this time last year I would be putting a parasol over it to protect the lemon tree leaves from the sun’s rays. It’s treated like a baby. A baby in the nest. A cuckoo. 

Daily I check the temperature in the greenhouse and see whether the tomato flowers have set. Now that the tomatoes are about twenty times the height they were when I placed them in their first pots they need staking. And if their flowers have set I need to give them tormorite feed in a week’s time. 

I don’t have a posh greenhouse so I leave the window open to allow tomato pollination from flying creatures. In order to ensure no overwintering bugs nor blight would weaken them I washed the greenhouse down with a Jeyes fluid solution before the darling plants ever stepped foot in there. Mustn’t upset the plant life or they won’t deliver.

It’s exhausting! 

And now - because we allowed ourselves a four-day holiday the herbaceous borders are paying me back by sprouting bloody bindweed.

So needy. So demanding of my time. Are the plants, like the Midwich Cuckoos, talking to each other? Causing me to change my indolent behaviour in order to give them my undivided attention?

I know I sound as if I am raving like a mad woman. I am, as far as I know, perfectly sane. But I feel the beans, lemons and tomatoes, in particular, need such a lot of support, both physically ie with canes and in terms of nurturing. They are, of course, plants that grow in south America and on the Med. That, rather than my mad notions of thought control, explains why they need so much tending. They are, when thinking more rationally, warm weather plants. 

For years I grew dwarf french beans. Absolutely no bother. No staking. No special temperatures - providing no frost was due. No special watering nor feeding required. No bending, even, as they grow in raised beds ie on legs. I check them at waist height. 

This year relations sent me six romanesco brassicas. Three look remarkably healthy and strong. One is non-existent and the other two are struggling. They are not my choice of vegetable. I’m inclined to nurture the three strongest plants. And now I read they need mesh over them to stop the pigeons. What? Even more slave labour??

But will the vegetation-hive-mind get to me? Will their dominance over me force me to nurture all the plants in my care so that I daren’t leave the garden?

Or, do I do as a friend - now a winner of medals from the Royal Society - once suggested? 

‘Let’s go on holiday. Bugger the beans.’

Yes. I have been watching the ‘Midwich Cuckoos’ starring Keeley Hawes on Sky max. It’s all about control. Find someone daft enough to grow you on from seed to seedling then conjour a fate worse than death if your carer hasn’t given you every attention.

Is this why my eye blew up to twice its size 48 hours ago? Had pollen got under my eye lid causing redness, copious tears and great pain? I bet it was the plants. Getting their own back because I was cutting them down. 

They’re watching me, you know. 

Next year it’ll just be spinach and dwarf beans. Now give me nightmares, why don’t you?


Friday 17 June 2022

Gardening with a dodgy knee #5

After the spring equinox we were into our last week of long dark nights. Around March 20th it was dark about 7:15 pm and suddenly spring arrived when we changed the clocks and twilight happened an hour later. It was 70 deg in my ( slightly) heated greenhouse. Time to switch off the frost stat and prepare the greenhouse for another season.

Fundamentally I had a glasshouse for two reasons: i) to overwinter geraniums and other plants as I have no room in the house and, as yet, no conservatory  

ii) to raise seedlings and successfully grow tomatoes with a reduced fear of the blight. 

The year before my greenhouse arrived I spent every day for ten days moving my French beans in and out of the kitchen to harden them off. As I sowed 90 plus seeds it’s a lot to do. Plus I hardened the geraniums, courgettes and small tomato plants in the same way. It was too much. And I don’t have the window ledges needed to house them overnight. And it was taking up my garden table space so we couldn’t sit on the patio to drink a cuppa without feeling we were starring in ‘The Day of the Triffids’. 

Now I have the space, light, warmth and shelter of the perspex greenhouse. So much easier. I open a window - or the door - to let air through. Introducing fledgling plants to outside temperatures is much easier now with exterior and interior staging. Sigh!

But work had to start in earnest. I removed last year’s pots and washed them with the aid of one of my three water butts. I cleared the greenhouse flooring and made a solution of Jeyes fluid. Then wiped down the walls, the perspex lights, the roof and the corners. I mopped the floor and wiped down the shelving and under the shelves. It was tricky to reach the skylight as I’m only 5 foot 2 inches but I wanted to ensure no spores nor air borne bugs had overwintered in there. Jeyes is specially formulated for greenhouse and tool use. 

I allowed it to dry out for a couple of days and put down fresh tarpaulin and matting. There was a chemical smell in there. Not too unpleasant. I certainly don’t like an over-chemicalised world. But as an annual, once a year only, event I could live with it. And my dodgy knee didn’t complain. 

Then the staging, pots and tools went back in. My bagged compost arrived and I put my potting tray in my potting shed ( aka Nina’s gin palace). Ready for the sowing season to begin. 

I began with leek seeds. Just placed them in seed compost in small nodule trays on the greenhouse staging. And I thoroughly cleaned all pots and saucers ready for tomato plants much further down the line. My spinach seedlings were growing away in their raised beds and last season’s leeks were thickening beautifully in their very enriched deep ( raised) bed.  

I like cosmos and I decided to try growing schizanthus. I created a few seedling trays of each, sprinkling the seeds on the compost without burying too deeply. Then just giving them a light covering. After labelling them and putting them on the staging I recorded my sowing activities on my gardener’s calendar. I like to use it for future reference. It’s also my attempt to track how warm our springs are becoming with climate change. 

That was my flurry of early sowings - veggies and flowers. Sweet peas were still in the greenhouse. I may not bother overwintering them another year. I don’t bother much with broad beans now, either. But I love French beans. However I never sow them until May. There was time for that. 

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Gardening with a Dodgy Knee - early spring edition

For much of March I didn’t get a lot of time to work outside. It was either too wet or we were busy tidying, cleaning, decorating and sorting after having work done in the kitchen. The ongoing project. 

Other days we were in Bath enjoying ourselves with friends or with my brother and his family for my birthday treats. And our Latvian friends were helping fund long trips to rescue Ukrainian war refugees at the Polish border. We contributed, of course. We donated money for petrol ( it’s a long drive through Latvia and Lithuania to Poland and back) and we donated goods such as toiletries, dried foods, baby items and first aid packs. I also donated books for a separate fund raiser. 

Towards the equinox I had, however, managed to edge part of the lawn. The clods of earth were heavy to lift following successive downpours and at some points tugging them did pull on my neck and back. The dodgy knee didn’t seem to react to my digging, though, which was good news. I raked the lawn as it still hadn’t had its first cut of the year and I got up the last of the winter leaves. 

A beautiful new rose called ‘Molineux’ from David Austin Roses sat in the freshly dug flower bed. I had prepared the planting hole well with plenty of organic matter in and around the hole. It was a birthday present from my brother who lives a 10 minute hop, skip and jump from David Austin’s nurseries. It’s my brother who follows the footie at Molineux, though, not me.

As with a lot of flowers and shrubs it’s best to plant the rose at the same depth as it was in its pot, keeping the roots deep. The graft union should be underground and the planting hole should be bigger than the pot, with the roots spread out. I also watered the new rose in even though the soil was damp - it was still only mid-March - and I added plenty of mulch. 

That same weekend ( mid-March) I showed off my lemon tree to my brother and my niece. I hadn’t watered it much over the winter. And, although it was in a slightly heated greenhouse, I’d wrapped it in bubble wrap. Just to protect against a real drop in temperatures. And it was truly exciting to be able to peel away the bubble wrap and reveal 12 developing fruits. Good little lemon tree! 

The year still felt young. Bright yellow-faced pansies and pretty blue and pink ones adorned the patio and the first set of steps up to the lawn. Family members in our guest bedroom could look down on their colours. It did look pretty, but the bindweed hadn’t started wrapping itself around more cherished plants. The sun tried hard to warm us. The garden was awake. But the hard work was yet to come.

More next time.

Sunday 29 May 2022

Gardening with a Dodgy Knee #3

My first foray into gardening this year was back in February. We’d had the cooker moved, new splash backs and a cooker hood installed and some painting and decorating done to spruce up the kitchen. That occupied us until the weather opened up.

On February 11 I put spent indoor hyacinths in the greenhouse which had had had the frost stat on for 2 months. It felt warm inside and all was doing well in there. The sweet peas were growing and the geraniums had overwintered well in the just-above-freezing temperatures.

As it was likely we’d still get a few days or nights of frost I planted the certified garlic bulbs in a small raised bed and a few more in the veggie plot in pre-prepped soil. The soil was workable - which shows we’d had a mild winter - and it was just like planting onion sets except that garlic is supposed to need frost to help them develop. Hence the need to get them in the ground without delay. (To keep the birds off I covered over the rows of planted garlic with fleece - so no hungry beaks could pluck at them.)

The next day the weather was still open allowing me to do some cutting back of old growth and the greenhouse was up to 50 deg F. I pinched out the overwintering sweet peas for bushier growth. And it was light outside until about 6 pm. Although it was still only mid February the day had the feel of shifting out of winter into almost early spring. 

A week later I’d created enough dead growth clippings to fill the garden waste bin. Then a few days after that I couldn’t do any gardening:  we were in the thrall of Storm Eunice which created turbulent winds. We were lucky not to have anything too wild here in the south west of England. And for the first winter in years no fence panels had blown down. But as well as the terrific winds it was very wet out. 

On February 24th the truly saddening news that Russia had invaded Ukraine was across all news media. February 24th. I will never forget the date. All I had to think about was sowing my leek seeds. Others were sheltering from bomb blasts or escaping to the West with babies, one bag and a dog - to a very uncertain future.

As a distraction from this disturbing news I bought pink and yellow primulas at our local farm shop and, as they were destined for the beds in our front garden, it didn’t affect my dodgy knee. I plant them at the height of the steps… going down. So it causes very little bending. It was a beautiful sunny day - by contrast snow was on the ground in Ukraine - and I got up the last of the winter leaves. Not a creative job. It makes my back ache but there are fewer drifts of leaves now we’ve had two deciduous trees cut back. 

By the last day of February pretty pink and blue pulmonaria were growing in ‘mum’s garden’. Crocuses were looking good at the front of the house along with the miniature daffodils. The patio tubs were full of white cyclamen and they needed very little tending but my miniature irises were doing very little. I would have thought they should have been displaying their violet and yellow petals. Yet they had the growing habit of leeks.

Were they leeks?

Had I got my planting arse over tit? Only time would tell. But given the plight of the Ukrainians it was nothing to be bothered about.In the scheme of things.

And on March 1 we officially entered a new season. Winter was behind us. 

Until next time. 

Thursday 19 May 2022

Gardening with a Dodgy Knee #2

As we wallow in and out of warm weather I reflect on my ideas for the garden ( and my dodgy knee) at the top of the year: 

It’s cold and dank out there. I want to plant primulas to give a little pale colour in my front borders, now we are entering a cold, dark season. 

That change in pace. That change in feelings, in thoughts and in our sense of comfort. We emerge from a period of self indulgence; scoffing mince pies and chocolate, watching films and adjusting biblical figures in our nativity scene. 

My knee, barely oiled through indolence, suffers from negotiating the steps at eight o’ clock in the morning. Sharp spikes of cold hit my damaged kneecap. It’s barely light. There’s a film of frost glinting on the tarmac. We have to get the car out but the shock of scraping the windscreen pushes the festive period back into the shiny box of Christmas memories.

This is no longer hogmanay. It’s a bleak, barely back-to-life winter’s morning. The world is cold. I want to retreat to the comfort of the warm sitting room and not be concerned about whether the car will start. Or whether my knee will hurt. 

Down the hill the village square is devoid of human life. The lights are on at the supermarket and seem unusually welcome. We can wait in there, stay warm, do a shop, until the bus arrives. The bistro and the cafe won’t open for an hour. The bus shelter affords no protection from the icy roars belting around the corner on to this treeless pavement. In summer the heat beats through the bus shelter’s perspex roof. There is no shade. In winter there is no protection from the wind.

The farm shop with its early spring-coloured hyacinths and primulas is still in darkness. No colourful flowers for our front garden this morning. 

It’s barely dawn. We haven’t been out so early for weeks. Back then we were having the warmest December on record. It was hardly daylight but there was no winter chill. 

Now is a time for stillness. The garden will need to be still too. Not even a snowdrop has emerged. We wait.

Sunday 15 May 2022

Gardening with a dodgy knee #1

One of the glories of late spring, when thermometer readings race above 50 deg F, is that it’s time to start growing flowers and veg, under glass. But also the pain in my knee seems less.

There’s something about warmth: warm sunshine, warm water or even a hot water bottle, that soothes a dodgy knee. And physical activity gets easier. But I do have to garden in a slightly less vigorous way now. It’s not because I’m ancient that I have a dodgy knee. It is a result of having to jump off a boat that ran aground in Exmouth 30 years ago. The trauma to the knee when I landed badly ( trying to protect my back which had caused me some pain) meant I lost cartilage. I was told I’d likely get trouble with that knee in years to come. So here we are.

More positively there’s a scientific explanation for heat therapy. Warmth makes blood vessels dilate which means more oxygen flows to the muscles - presumably around the knee in my case. And when the muscles are pliable the knee joint is flexible - and lubricated - and the stiffness goes. Also, we all know how we feel when the sun is out. Warmth, on a neuro-psychological level, is good for us and decreases the pain signals to the brain. So warmth is good.

It doesn’t alter the fact that I have 3 or 4 prescription pain killers a day when I’m back out in the garden. I can’t kneel to weed as shooting pains charge up my thigh and I can’t get up. So I dig - with a fork or spade - and weed that way. When the soil is really dry I have a hefty hoe to weed between plants, if I’m lucky, or between rows if I’m not. There are ways around gardening with a dodgy knee. I get less done per hour than I used to. But, as I have all the time I need, now I’ve stopped tutoring, I don’t have to garden in a rush. 

Weeding between patio slabs, where I can’t dig with a spade is a trial. Sometimes my husband helps. Occasionally I resort to the least harmful weedkiller possible. There may be a tool on the market for such a job. I have joined a fb gardening group. They are so helpful - I’d better ask them.

Being outside at least 10 minutes a day is good for us psychologically, so says Dr Michael Mosley, who researches such things. It has been a very dry few weeks and I’ve barely been out to a pub, restaurant or to see friends over the last eight days as there’s been so much to do in the garden. But there’s also been much sitting out in the sunshine. 

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot?

As I write I remember I left my amaranth - celosia plants out overnight. They should have hardened off by now. And the same goes for the romanseco ( calabrese) which arrived a fortnight ago in a cardboard book wrapper from cousins in Leeds. I repotted them and they are a good few inches bigger now. My lovely dwarf beans have also hardened off and I told my brother I would send him photographs of the rose he gave me for my birthday. It’s called Molineux. No guessing what the colour of the petals is!

But I’d better get on with it! A day’s light gardening to do. I may have to put a few plants in at ground level but many will go in the raised beds. The latter is much easier to do with a dodgy knee. Far less bending is involved. 

Until next time.