Apples and Beetroot

Food-wise, the garden’s a bit quiet now, but I have harvested a few beetroot over the last few days. I did a late sowing in early October on the basis that I had free space in the raised beds and some old seed from magazine covers. Most didn’t grow much and are still pea sized, but a few grew big enough to be worth harvesting.

Late November beetroot

Late November beetroot

The other thing we’ve been eating are apples from the garden. Of the two more established trees we have, it was the Fiesta that yielded well this year. This was its fourth year and after a lot of thinning it produced around thirty decent sized apples.

Fiesta apples 2016

Fiesta apples 2016

I chose the Fiesta because my priorities were high yield, regular yield, good storage, and disease resistance. Fiesta scores well in those categories in theory, although its flavour is mostly just sweet in a Gala kind of way. Unfortunately it’s already developed a bit of a habit for biennial bearing despite regular thinning, which goes to show that advice from suppliers isn’t always accurate.

The other apple we’ve been eating is the Spartans. My grandparents have a tree that produces enough apples for them, us and my sister’s family, with plenty of windfall left over for the birds. And what apples they are.

Spartan apples 2016

Spartan apples 2016

If left on the tree until late October, until the skin turns a deep red, they have a lovely sweet taste, soft low-acid fresh, and hints of strawberry to my taste. I do like crumbly fleshed, low-acid apples – russets are another favourite of mine for the mild nutty flavour. If sweet apples are to your taste and flavour is your number 1 criterion, I think Spartan is a better pick than Fiesta.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the new Cockle Pippin tastes like in a few years time. Not being a common variety anymore, it’s hard to find samples or even good descriptions, and I picked it mostly for being a late, upright growing tree with fruit that stores well. It is russeted and words like ‘rich’ and ‘aromatic’ are used by Joan Morgan in her book of apples, so I’m hopeful.


I’m not a cat person. I might have mentioned this before… the idea that you can buy and feed an animal then let it roam free without supervision through other people’s property has never made sense to me. Cats are extended liberties denied to other domesticated animals.

Dog fouling, for example, is subject to fines, unlike cat fouling, but cat poo isn’t obviously less offensive and poses its own health risks to humans (toxoplasmosis). Not good when a bed containing root vegetables is being used as a toilet. Especially not good when you have a young child in the garden and cats are by far the most common medium – large animal in the neighbourhood.

This has been an issue with the new rose beds next to our front door. Before the roses went in, after the soil was dug over, they were being used by at least one local feline on a daily basis. Even leaving aside the unpleasantness and health risks of finding a  ew gift ever morning, I also don’t want my new bare-root plants being dug up in the process. Something had to be done.


There are a few things I’ve tried over the years to deter without harming the offending felines. The most common cat deterrents are:

1. Sonic devices

The high-tech solution. They emit high pitched noises that cats don’t like. I tried one years ago, and it did seem to deter cats.

The problem with these is (i) firstly that they only activate when a cat passes in front of them, meaning you need more than one to cover an area, (ii) they’re expensive, and (iii) children may be able to hear the noise and find it unpleasant too. They’re a bit like the Mosquito anti-loitering device.

On the plus side, they may be the only semi-effective solution for larger areas like raised beds where the forward / restricted activation angle isn’t so much of an issue.

2. Physical barriers

For very small areas, physical barriers or netting may be effective. The challenge here is that cats are very good at squeezing through small spaces, so if there are any gaps or  obstacles preventing a tight barrier being made then they might not be effective. They’re also good at climbing and jumping. Just sticking a few bamboo canes in the ground and tying netting to them is probably not going to be effective on its own.

3. Bad odors

Pellets and powders for deterring cats from lingering are commonly sold. These normally have a strong odor (garlic is a favourite) which cats are supposed to dislike. In my experience these aren’t very effective.


Al-cat-traz - keeping cats out of the rose beds

Al-cat-traz – keeping cats out of the rose beds

Welcome to Al-cat-traz! Because the rose beds are relatively small, I decided that restricting movement should be enough. In order to do their business, cats need room to dig and squat, so filling the space is an effective deterrent. The plastic netting alone wouldn’t be effective, but I’ve dotted short (blunt) pea canes around in the middle so that any squatting cat will be poked in the behind. As a final deterrent I also used some of the garlic scented pellets. This is a temporary solution since once the roses are established, having a spiny shrub there should be deterrent enough.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of cat poo buried in the middle of my potatoes, which will be an issue again in the Spring. The only solution there might be one of the sonic devices, since the area is too big to successfully make cat-proof with physical barriers.

Garden Styles

I’ve been thinking a lot about garden styles recently. A few months ago, during his first visit to our house in years, my uncle called our garden a ‘wildlife garden’. I remember at the time holding back from correcting him, because I wasn’t confident what label would be better.

Before we bought the house, when the garden was only a doodle on paper, the words I would have chosen were ‘forest garden’. The very first plans I drew up had fairly dense tree cover all the way to the house. The canopy was a mix of traditional fruit trees and more unconventional trees like Siberian Pea trees, Cornelian Cherry, and Devon Sorb Apples. The first gardening book to inspire me was Martin Crawford’s magnum opus, and it showed.

Then came the compromises. The first was to eliminate many of the more adventurous trees in the plan on favour of proven productive species, given our limited space.

I also made an allowance for more open space and grass close to the house, for barbeques and social use of the garden. The whole place was still a mess back then, with young trees and lots and lots of woven plastic sheeting to clear the grass and the weeds. My wife becoming pregnant right after we moved in gave impetus to this, and I moved a raised bed to expand the lawn that I was in the process of removing elsewhere.

The next compromise to that vision came with an expansion of traditional vegetable gardening. In early years I planted tomatoes and cucumbers through holes in the mypex, expecting that eventually those spaces would be shaded. But the truth is a garden that just produces dessert fruit and leafy perennials isn’t very nutritionally balanced. I’d always left open the possibility of a greenhouse, but a couple of years ago we built one with a lot of help from the family. I added another raised bed, and when one of the plum trees died at the start of this year I earmarked some of the space as a permanent home for more vegetables.

I’ve also gradually broadened how I choose what to grow. In the early days almost everything was chosen to be directly edible or fertility enhancing. Many of these were attractive, such as violets or mallows, but to earn their place they also had to be useful.

I guess the expansions so far have been:

  1. Plants with other historical uses such as soap (e.g. Soapwort) or medicine (e.g. St John’s Wort). Some of these I might not be sure about using and are there as much for interest as anything else.
  2. Plants to attract or help wildlife (e.g. Buddleja)
  3. Ornamentals

The last category is mostly filled with low-growing ornamentals useful for ground-cover / weed supression, with roses, and with very early (spring bulbs) or late (Hellebores) flowers. In the late spring and summer I don’t need more flowers. Winter is a depressing time, and a deciduous / herbaceous garden looks mostly brown otherwise. My taste in flowers still veers to the unenhanced, even now – I’m not a huge fan of artificially huge or fluffy pom-pom flowers.

So where does this leave me? The third of the garden close to the house is lawn. Probably an additional 10% – 20% is devoted to the greenhouse and my annual veg beds. The rest is covered by deep beds separated by curving pebble-lined paths and arches, and dotted with stepping stones. The placement of herbaceous plants is a bit haphazard and has been driven a lot by a combination of ‘where is there a gap?’ and a general preference for plants to be in order of ascending height except where trees or shrubs get in the way. There are 9 fruit trees and a lot of fruiting shrubs, most of them underplanted.

The best label for a garden of deep beds where the functional and ornamental are mixed together is a cottage garden, and I guess that’s what our garden is even though it’s in the centre of a large town. Perhaps there’s also a bit of wildlife garden in there, but to me wildlife gardening has to be integrated. I don’t set aside a corner and let it go back to nature.

If it is a cottage garden, then it’s a cottage garden in the old sense of the word, where much of the planting is for at least theoretical utility, not a modern cottage garden where the ornamental side has overwhelmed the functional. I actually don’t like lot of cottage garden staples like foxgloves and delphiniums since they are too garish for my taste, which is the main reason why I’m still not sure that the label is right.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:

The earliest cottage gardens were more practical than today’s, with emphasis on vegetables and herbs, fruit trees, perhaps a beehive, and even livestock. Flowers, used to fill spaces, gradually became more dominant. The traditional cottage garden was usually enclosed, perhaps with a rose-bowered gateway. Flowers common to early cottage gardens included traditional florists’ flowers such as primroses and violets, along with flowers with household use such as calendula and various herbs. Others were the richly scented old-fashioned roses that bloomed once a year, and simple flowers like daisies. In time, cottage-garden sections were added to some large estate gardens as well.

Now if only I could get the wife onboard with the idea of bee-keeping…

Preparations for Winter

It’s the time of year now where the to-do list is mostly preparations for next year. The ground needs to be prepared for bare-root plants, and seeds that need stratification need to be sown in time to get a decent winter chill.

This weekend has been a bit of all of that. Yesterday’s task was to cut holes into the vast expanse of concrete along the front and side of the house, so the climbing roses can be planted when they arrive. This wasn’t as easy as expected… it took me and my much more powertool handy father hours with a grinder, a breaker, a crowbar and a spade to cut three small holes in the very old and very hard concrete. The end result was three mostly straight edged rectangles:

Hole in the concrete drive for a rose bed

Hole in the concrete drive for a rose bed

I dug them out and mixed in new topsoil and manure today, but we’re now debating whether to put pondliner around the outside down a foot or two to stop water ingress through the solid wall. So I might have to dig it all out again in a day or two anyway.

Today was preparations for my long lost order of non-rose plants. This was supposed to arrive last Wednesday, but the supplier sent it to another customer who happened to have the same name as me. You read that right: they dispatched it without checking the address against the order details. It was then recollected from the accidental recipient on Friday and is supposed to be arriving tomorrow. This is the second winter in a row when a next day delivery has been anything but, and I’m starting to get a feeling of dread whenever something is supposed to show up.

Hopefully, the following will show up tomorrow:

1. Chaenomeles ‘Nivalis’ – I built wire supports to vertically train this. Hopefully it’ll do better than the Cido variety.

2. Chinese Toon – a tree with onion-y leaves, popular in China. I’ll keep it trimmed and bushy. The hole is dug – I hit a few Babington’s Leek bulbs on the way down.

3. Actinidia Kolomikta ‘Dr. Szymanowski’ – less vigourous, very hardy kiwi species. Another kiwi nearby isn’t doing so well so I’ve prepared a bottomless pot for this one. With this I have 5 plants, with 2 female varieties and 1 male variety.

4. Zingiber mioga – Japanese ginger. You can never have too many shade tolerant plants when you like planting trees as much as I do.

And after all that, there was a bit of seed sowing. I normally sow seeds that need stratification early and then just leave them in the greenhouse over winter, since it’s so much easier than putting seeds in the fridge and it’s basically how nature does it. The only benefit of the greenhouse is that it keeps weed seeds and birds, rodents etc. out of the seed trays.

The most interesting seed this year is Cephalotaxus Fortunei, a species which is somewhat hard to find and that supposedly produces edible fruit in very shady conditions. We’ll have to see if the seeds germinate in the spring, and if so if any fruit is ever produced.

The First Home-Grown Medlar

So my hopes in May of a decent medlar yield were dashed again. My Iranian medlar tree set quite a few fruit but most didn’t develop well and dropped off early. That’s an improvement over last year, where the flowers dropped off before the fruit stagr, but still a long way from the tens or hundreds of delicious medlars I was hoping for.

But one fruit did make it, and today it was ripe enough to eat. Medlars are described by almost everyone as an ‘acquired taste’, but I don’t understand why since I liked the first one I ever tried. They taste like apple purée with a dash of  lemon juice, and with a slightly flakey, oat-like texture and dryness mixed in there. Since they’re eaten when overripe (but not rotten) they also often have a slight winey taste to them. Since the skin is tough and there are big seeds mixed in, the only way to eat them is to suck the flesh in, swirl it around a bit, then spit the seeds out.

Based on my first trial of an Iranian medlar, the flesh was smoother, sweeter and less dry/oat-like in texture than the more common Nottingham variety. Definitely a good taste, I just hope that next year’s production is more than one ripe fruit.

Ripe medlar

Ripe medlar

Inside of an Iranian Medlar

Inside of an Iranian Medlar