And Then There’s the Time

In my garden budget, the thing in shortest supply is time. The garden has to compete with my job and the daily commute, my son, the housework, family activities, and the odd bit of relaxation, which means that the garden has to do quite a bit of looking after itself. In a typical week, excluding a quick daily watering check on conservatory/greenhouse plants, I manage to average 2 – 3 hours during the weekend for all other tasks, including sowing, potting up, planting out, chemical-free weeding, and so on.

This weekend, for example, the time was spent:

  1. Pricking out 54 seedlings from seed trays (~45 mins)
  2. Putting plastic mulch around the new apple tree to suppress ground elder (~30 mins)
  3. Sowing most of the remaining seeds for this year (~15 mins)
  4. Weeding another of the beds with my handy new root stabbing tool (~90 mins)

Spring is the busiest time due to my ambitious sowing and planting schedule, and it’s a struggle to cover everything on the to-do list.

The only thing that makes it vaguely feasible is that I’m not set back to square 1 each year. I invest the majority of my time and space to planting perennials, which means that large sections of the garden come back on their own each year, and the proportion that’s more or less self maintaining should increase a lot this year as I fill up much of the remaining space with the hundreds of seed-grown plants I expect to eventually prick out and pot up. And as the garden fills up, I hope that the minimum time required should decrease, in favour of optional time (e.g. gradual replacement of “available” plants for “interesting” plants). Having densely planted beds should also decrease weeding time for much of the year, as the established plants compete with and shade out any new volunteers.

The jostaberry was slow to establish, but did it without supervision and is flowering heavily for the first time this year

The Jostaberry was slow to establish, but did it without much help or supervision and is flowering heavily for the first time this year

If I’d gone for large sections of annual bedding plants, or decided to turn our 300 – 400 m2 of garden into annual veg beds, the sheer amount of work required would have made the whole project a failure years ago. Perennial plantings have their disadvantages, such as the difficulty of weeding around established plants and the dearth of productive perennial vegetables, but I think they’re the only answer for the very time-limited gardener. There’s a high initial investment in getting the garden planted out, but averaged over time the workload is lower.

The Wrong Elaeagnus Won

What species springs to mind when you hear ‘Elaeagnus’? I’m going to guess the answer has an × in the name and was introduced by Mr Ebbinge. Unfortunately, this particular hybrid sells its entire family short.

To be fair, it has its good points. It’s extremely hardy and does well neglected, in poor soil and difficult conditions, thanks to its ability to fix nitrogen. It’s evergreen, and can be trimmed into a nice dense hedge. But as a free-standing specimen shrub it lacks any redeeming features: it’s just an uninteresting block of silvery green that does nothing much except expand outwards at a rate of knots. It’s also reluctant to flower or fruit, despite suggestions to the contrary.

For me, elaeagnus multiflora and other closely related deciduous species are much more interesting. The goumi bush has quite a lax, messy, untidy habit when untrimmed, and unlike Elaeagnus x ebbingei it flowers and fruits profusely. At this time of year the flowers are opening, and filling the air with an amazing scent, soon to be following by rhubarb flavoured fruit. The one downside of this plant is that it’s inexplicably a thousand times harder to get hold of than its more boring cousin.

Goumi leaves and flowers

Goumi leaves and flowers

If you want one, they can be bought from the Agroforestry Research Trust as bare-root plants in the winter. You’ll have to get in early though as they always seem to sell out quickly.

Cucurbit Planting Day

Today is curcubit sowing day! Courgettes, cucumbers, watermelons, melons, and achocha are all now in little cells on the windowsill, and will hopefully be ready to migrate out to the greenhouse in three or four weeks.

I’ve had success with most of these before, but melons so far haven’t worked out for me, and this is the first year I’ve tried achocha. This is how Real Seed describes it:

We like searching for interesting things to grow that are good to eat too. Achocha is one of these – an unusual vegetable from South America that is remarkably easy to grow. It is impressively productive, loves our variable UK summers, and can be used raw in salads when small a bit like a cucumber.

Apparently they taste like peppers when cooked.

Achocha fruit, source: Wikipedia, Dr. A. Thimmaiah

Most of my veg seed this year comes from the Real Seed Catalogue, who offer a wide variety of open pollinated, non-F1 seeds and also less common varieties targetted at the amateur grower. A lot of these are supposed to do well in short growing season climates and come from countries like Russia or the northern US states. Given the very late ripening of my tomatoes last year in the indifferent late summer, I thought it was worth a try.

Flowers Present and Future

Sometimes it feels like gardening mostly consists of waiting. Of course there’s also all the planting, weeding, …, but after all of that there’s then often a gap of years before the desired result that kept you going appears. Years before fruit appears, or that ground-cover fills out, or even just until you finally succeed in getting those seeds to grow (this year I finally got Liquorice to germinate, but Sweet Woodruff so far is still stubbornly refusing to play ball).

Today was one of the days when the waiting paid off. I give you (drum roll!) the first flowers ever on my Yellow Egg plum tree, 3 years after it was planted as a 1 year old maiden. This is the fifth of eight fruit trees I planted after moving house to flower, with one of the others now dead and two still flower-free.


Yellow Egg plum flower

The succession of spring flowers is also underway elsewhere. As well as the spring bulbs, some of the gooseberries are also in flower or even already setting fruit, the Siberian honeysuckles and Sweet Violets are out, as are the Chaenomeles. The pears will get there soon, probably in the next week or so. Then in May we should get the apple blossom, the medlar (with luck!), and a vast array of other fruiting shrubs and herbaceous perennials. Combined with the gradual return of green to the mostly deciduous garden, it’s a beautiful time of year.

And then there’s the newest exercise in patience. As of Thursday we now have a rose in our garden (thus the rant against double flowers a few days ago). The variety we planted is ‘Kew Gardens’, which is not only completely thornless to prevent accidents with our son, but should also be covered in bee-friendly single white flowers every summer once it’s established. Whether we’ll see any flowers this year or not is the big question… I suspect we might have to wait a year or two.

Stay Single!

Source: Wikipedia, Stan Shebs

This is a rose. Notice how it combines elegant simplicity with practicality, the ability to charm people and to attract hungry bees. The petals are wide open, leading any passing pollinator straight to the yellow centre where the magic happens. This is a flower as flowers were meant to be.

Source: Wikipedia, Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

This is that rose after being put through the selective breeding equivalent of a shredder. Just as you can still make out the odd character in your shredded mail even though the whole make no coherent sense, so you can see hints of form without function. There are colourful petals to attract, but they clump together and block access. Stigmas and stamens are converted to petals or even completely missing, rendering the entire effort pointless.

And it’s not just that – perhaps it’s just me, but by applying the usual ‘more is better’ logic, the plant breeders have turned something elegant and wonderful into something that somehow looks cheap despite the hefty price tag. They’ve turned roses and other species into the tacky nouveau riche of the plant world. Please do yourselves and the bees a favour and stay single flowered.

And if my word isn’t enough, here’s the RHS and Alan Titchmarsh to back me up:

RHS Perfect for Pollinators

Avoid plants with double or multi-petalled flowers. Such flowers may lack nectar and pollen, or insects may have difficulty in gaining access.

Alan Titchmarsh: Stay Single with Roses

The trouble with great big double blooms, beautiful though they are, is that they are no use to insects at all. All those extra petals invariably take the place of the flowers’ reproductive parts and without stamens and stigmas there’s no pollen or nectar for bees and other insects.