In the news today ….climate change, young horticulturists and Marks and Spencer

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school flower patchYes. It is April 1st and the papers carry the odd joke story. Sadly a recent article in The Telegraph tweeted this morning, snortily comparing the new breed of ‘Young Horts’ who grow cucamelons on balconies in milk cartons, throw seedballs on waste ground and plant sunflowers at bus stops with ‘old school’ chemical squirting, double digging obsessed gardeners has all the hallmarks of a filler because the hack who was supposed to come up with the April Fool’s joke ran out of inspiration. The real story is that many young people are getting the growing bug in the way their parents haven’t. For the first time since the war I sense there is a feeling of growing with a real purpose amongst young and old alike. Community orchards are springing up, people are experimenting with exotic crops on many a kitchen windowsill and cut flower patches are de rigueur. In some cities municipal planting is edible. Vertical growing and roof gardens are not just for hardcore nerds. You don’t have to be young to be part of this growing evolution but the young in particular get the climate change message, the need to plant year round for pollinators and the positive effect that local, seasonal crops can bring. They can also harness the power of social media to work collaboratively and get ideas off the ground quickly. Growing To Young Horts is cutting edge, changing the world stuff. And so it should be. Clearly the Telegraph thought better of their snorting and have given the Young Horts better coverage today.

Climate change is still big news with a report published yesterday indicating that people are now beginning to feel the effects of climatic change  and the need to do something about it. Even Marks and Spencer are pushing their green credentials with a new way of water free, more compact distribution of flowers, thereby conserving water and requiring fewer lorries on the road. Now I wouldn’t want to diss good old M and S. They’ve provided generations of the female members of my family with robust underwear and stockings but fewer lorries and the need for less water is – pardon the pun – a drop in the ocean. We need to think bigger where crops are concerned. Listen to what Young Horts and their older supporters have to say.

Thanks to Our Flower Patch we have our own branch of Young Horts at school. They’ve started selling our home grown blooms on Friday afternoons – no miles, no chemicals, recycled packaging (in jam jars), beautiful, fragrant, seasonal and much appreciated by our customers. Our young horticulturists enjoy making people happy, making a noise about it on the school blog, Facebook and Twitter and making money. They’re doing what their grandparents did – using what they have to grow what they can. Maybe in a year or two some of them will be fully fledged members of the Young Horts. I do hope so.

And THIS is today’s real news.

 

 

 

Heatwaves, promotion and getting ready for seed sowing

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Charlotte's Spring PotCapability Charlotte’s Spring Planter

My, how I’ve neglected you! Those of you who tune in to my Twitter feed or the Latest News on Our Flower Patch or the Fitz Gardeners blog will know that I haven’t been idle. It’s just that I haven’t been round here much for a week or two. Let’s catch up now while you gaze at the Spring planting handiwork of local gardener and Drama Queen ‘Capability Charlotte’

Despite the predicted two week heatwave being restricted to a balmy day spent at the Chippenham rugby festival, Spring has sprung on the allotment and I have a crop of anemones and daffodils ready to cut and a lot of tulips coming along nicely. I’ve not had much luck with tulips in my borders where they flop, get munched by slugs and look untidy when they get to the open blowsy stage. None of this is in evidence when you grow them as a crop on the allotment, packed in close together and cut them before they go over.

The school garden is looking mighty fine too and last Thursday the children got a chance to blow their own trumpets on local radio when they sowed a poppy meadow and plenty of seeds on air whilst Sara and I talked about Our Flower Patch. We’ll soon have plenty of blooms for sale to parents and members of the local community, making the school garden a great fundraiser as well as good fun and a fantastic outdoor learning opportunity.

The rest of the time has been spent sorting out my stash of seeds ready for sowing and promoting Our Flower Patch. Last week I went to the local Headteachers cluster meeting where the idea received the general thumbs up, even from the secondary school, which I wasn’t expecting and we’re beginning to get enquiries from all over the UK as word spreads. Do take a look. It’s a great way for primary schools to teach the National Curriculum in a creative way, make full use of a school garden and raise some money for the school. The children with whom we’ve piloted it have had a ball.

If this sounds like a good thing to you, please tell your local school about us.

St Piran, budding flower patches and Lenten abstinence

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st piranIt’s St Piran’s Day, patron saint of Cornwall. What better way to celebrate than by supporting a Cornish seed supplier? It’s hardly surprising that one or two British flower growers have chosen to set up business in that corner of the British Isles including Higgledy Ben, who is the seed supplier for members of Our Flower Patch and has fed my seedaholic tendencies for a few years.

We’ve started our very own flower farm at school – albeit on a modest scale – with seed supplied from Cornwall. A few hardly annuals were planted by Year 5 back in the autumn and over the next few weeks Year 6 are driving the project forward, setting up a proper eco flower business. We hope to have a Friday flower market in operation at school from May and one or two blooms available before that, as we planted some bulbs and biennials back in the autumn too. I need to restock my own allotment flower patch too.

If you want to grow a few cut flowers yourself this year may I suggest Louise Curley’s new book as an excellent place to start. You can get oodles of advice too from Higgledy Garden’s website and I will put up a few top tips gleaned from #britishflowers hour on Twitter over the last few weeks.

I would have celebrated St Piran’s day with a scone and clotted cream but it’s the start of Lent and I rashly decided to give up brown food. Think about it. No bread, potatoes, cakes, scones, pastries, beer, chocolate. No meat…. not a problem for this vegetarian. No coffee.

Ummm. No coffee?

I may have to decide that coffee stays. It’s not a food after all. Some things one just can’t do without.

Inclement weather, winter roses and toasted buns

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Gerda played by Sarah Smart

Unlike my stateside sister and her family, who are waistdeep in snowdrifts at present, I can spot signs of Spring all around. The birds are happily house hunting and carrying out home improvements before moving in and it looks like my front garden daffs will be blooming in time for St David’s Day. Even the rain couldn’t spoil Half Term week, which means ‘showtime’ around here.

Last week the whole family were involved in a production of The Snow Queen, helping to transport the good folk of Bradford on Avon to the frozen North for a final showdown between the evil ice maiden and gutsy Gerda whose hope and faithful love - symbolised by a rose which bloomed in the depths of Winter - won the day. Toasted buns also featured prominently. I’d never refuse one of those.

As you know, I’m not one for flowers which bloom out of season but I like the idea of something good being symbolised by a flower. And so I am declaring this week Flower Patch Week.

There are three good reasons for this.

  1. Sara and I launch our new business later today.  Our Flower Patch will help primary schools and pre schools teach the new National Curriculum in a practical, hands-on way by growing cut flowers for sale. It’s true that any subject can be taught in the garden and you get to sell the product of your labours. Win. Win. Do check out the website and see what you think. Pass the information on to any primary school you know of.
  2. Our good friend and twitterchum Lou publishes her new book The Cut Flower Patch on March 6th to help and encourage allotment holders and gardeners grow cutting patches of their own.
  3. My new class at Fitzmaurice Primary have declared themselves up for the challenge of running a successful flower growing business in the school grounds.

And so, to celebrate Flower Patch Week I’d like you all to toast a bun or two and commit EITHER to tweeting pictures of last year’s cut flower successes OR to growing some cut flowers this year. In the case of intentions, tweet pics of what you’d like to grow. Advice and encouragement is on hand from myself, Sara and Lou. And you’ll be doing oodles for biodiversity, low flower miles, seasonality and the availability of british flowers.

Come on and celebrate Flower Patch Week with a flowery tweet to me @countrygate or @ourflowerpatch.

Stormy weather, Valentine’s hearts and an education.

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It seems that stormy weather has been unconfined this week – outside my window and even on my PC. As a teacher I’m all too aware that children are whipped up to a frenzy by high winds and it would seem that the same is true for parts of the Twitter community, much of it centering on this ‘bouquet’ – for sale to you at £195 (including vase).

For those of you who don’t know, it is this year’s ‘ultimate’ Valentine’s Day bouquet from big business Interflora in collaboration with the RHS. Every flower was chosen because of its symbolism. A flowery expression of love. Yet it has whipped up members of the relatively small but passionate and vocal British flower growing industry because of its lack of seasonality and ‘Britishness’, something which they would like the RHS to take on board.

A little investigation reveals that, in fact, the RHS has taken seasonality and ‘Britishness’ on board by linking with Tregothnan, the ancient Cornish estate which takes its sustainable credentials seriously and supplies beautiful, seasonal cut flowers. It’s just that the RHS are not exclusively promoting British-grown, cut flowers.

Whatever your views on the aesthetic beauty (or lack of it) of the Interflora bouquet, its homage to the language of flowers, the tightrope that charities have to walk between awareness raising and fundraising (often by their links with big business) and the need for all businesses (multi national and artisan) to make money, it has certainly caused a bit of a stir. It has also confirmed my long-held feeling that the key to changing people’s attitudes about local, seasonal produce and getting them to see things from your point of view – even if they still don’t agree with it - is education.

The day before this hit the headlines I had been discussing the very topic of seasonality and flower symbolism with my Year 5 gardening class. (The ones who are growing a cutting patch.) We are mid preparation for a poppy meadow in school to commemorate the start of the Great War. We also plan to sell poppy seedballs and instructions to members of the school community to sow in their gardens at home.

Amidst the designing of seed packets, the writing of sowing instructions, the construction of signs to mark the area where the meadow will grow and posters to sell our poppy packets, we discussed the irony that a flower which means so much on November 11th is not in bloom in Britain on that day. After some debate about the problems of artificial poppies (all that paper and plastic weighed up against the need to sell for fundraising) and importing poppies from warmer climes (air miles and fuel versus work for those involved in their growth and the logistics of sending them here), the children decided that planting a modest meadow to bloom year after year was the very best kind of commemoration even if it looks ‘pretty uncool’ in November. “We could take photos”, someone suggested.

I had no need to take part in the debate!

At this point I’m reminded of that ancient Chinese saying that is wheeled out on every teacher training course in the land.

Tell me, I’ll forget.

Show me, I’ll remember.

Involve me, I’ll understand.

I think our flower growing project in schools is going some way towards ensuring that our young people understand the issues surrounding seasonal, home-grown flowers. Not only will they know how to grow them, but they can make informed choices about what to buy in the future and, as they are eco-aware children, you can be sure that their parents will be told all about it too.

And where Valentine’s bouquets are concerned…..well, I am a girl with simple but elegant taste; the kind of girl who would be delighted were my husband to arrive home clutching either of these next Friday.

Tregothnan hearta favourite splash of scalet from Tregothnan

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daffs to melt a Welsh girl’s heart from Sara Willman

Five years on – rain, allotment plans and dreaming of dahlias

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There has been a splendid display of aconites over the last two weeks in a lane nearby; the snowdrops are open and the daffs are putting on a spurt. Despite the dreary rain and heavy grey skies there is no denying that Spring is in the air.

As I recall, the weather was pretty much the same five years ago when I started this blog. There hasn’t been much time for marmalade making recently but I do still need to put the finishing touches to my allotment plan and see if I can squeeze in a few more dahlias. I love dahlias in vibrant jewel colours. My mother grew a splendid crop of dahlias for vases, church floral arrangements and impromptu gifts for friends who turned up with vegetables, jams, chutneys and home made cordials. And so do I.

In general, I have always found dahlias easy to grow. I buy tubers, plant them deep with a goodly amount of grit and leave them in the ground, mulching thickly with leafmould after the first frosts. I have lost few and have a plentiful supply over the season.  Karen (@PeterNyssen) and Richard (@WithypitDahlias) were both on hand on Twitter last Monday to share their expert knowledge of dahlias and as usual plenty of #britishflowers growers were happy to chip in with questions and anecdotes – me included with my ace tip on planting a sacrificial salad crop around your dahlias to keep marauding slugs at bay!

If you are hoping to grow a few blooms on your allotment or in your garden this year, here are the Twitter top tips.

  • Start tubers off in pots as they shouldn’t be planted in the ground until danger of last frost has passed. 
  • When starting to grow in their pots you can use copper tape, or the much more economical smear of Vaseline around the pot to keep the sluggy marauders away.  Also crushed eggshells or sharp grit make a good top dressing both when in the pot and after planning out. 
  • Cuttings produce stronger stemmed blooms and better quality colour than tubers. Take cuttings early from above a leaf node.  
  •  Disbudding the first two side buds down the stem will help produce longer stemmed blooms.
  • Dahlias like rich soil and moisture – a good reason to add mulch/well rotten manure to retain moisture when planting.
  • Dahlias are very tasty to slugs, so a slug deterrent (and a wildlife/environment friendly one ideally) is imperative! Oatbran was  recommended – place a ring of this around the plant – slugs eat it, it swells up and kills them. Gardening is not for the squeamish! (See previous mention of my sacrificial salad crop – more humane but effective) And a few frogs in your garden will help too.
  • Give dahlias a balanced feed until September; then one that is higher in potash to keep colour and stems strong.  A comfrey feed is recommended. You can also plant dahlias with comfrey leaves in the planting hole – or buy comfrey pellets if you don’t have space to spare for a patch of comfrey .
  • Earwigs can also be a pest. The best way to deal with them is to place an upturned flower pot filled with straw on top of the canes you are training the dahlias to.  Earwigs crawl into the cosy bed to sleep – you empty them out early in the morning, and deal with as you choose (squashing, stamping etc).
  • Mildew and Thrips can be a pest in a glasshouse crop . I only ever grow them outside thus avoiding the problems.
  • Many dahlias do make big plants, and with the luscious blooms as well they need good staking and supporting.  Stretch pea netting horizontally between the stakes, before the dahlias put on too much growth, then they grow through it – this holds them securely as they grow. But do check regularly and tie in as necessary.
  • Dahlias are best cut as they are opening, but don’t cut too early as you risk them not opening fully.
  • Recommended for cutting are the Karma varieties as these have good vase life.  It is also good to grow some single flowered types as these are beloved of bees and other beneficial insects, and we need those on our side.   Dahlias that got a special mention: Black Wizard, Anna Lindh, White Ballet, Peaches, Hootenanny collarette, Arabian Night, all Bishop types, Twyning’s After Eight, Café Au Lait, Witterman’s Red, Kenora Fireball, Carolina Wagermanns, Caribbean Sunset, Pontiac
  • Leaving tubers in the ground year after year is not recommended if you are growing for cutting as they will weaken and eventually ‘revert to type’ apparently. I have had no problems and don’t have the room to lift and store them over Winter so I’ll take my chances and replace as and when necessary.
  • If you are planning to leave in situ put plenty of sharp sand or grit underneath, plant at least 15cm deep and mulch. 
  • Leave top growth on at the end of the season because the stems are hollow, so a cut stem will act like a straw and let the rain in.
  • If you dig up your dahlias and store them for the winter, do leave in the ground long enough until a frost has blackened the stems.  Make sure they are kept dry and frost free during storage.

Follow this advice and you should have a super duper crop of stunning blooms over the Summer until the first frosts.

Let’s compare notes.

#britishflowers hour on Twitter takes place from 8-9pm on Mondays. Do join in. Tonight they are covering seed sowing tips.

It’s January. What better time to be organised?

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This has been the craziest start to a year …. EVER. I’m in the middle of a big writing project; I’m setting up a new business with a friend and the tiny matter of weekly trips to the fracture clinic with my temporarily incapacitated husband (he of the shattered elbow) has meant that I have had no time for the January blues and life has taken on the feel of a military operation. Organisation is my middle name!

Happily the #britishflowers folk had picked up on my mood last Monday. Here’s the round up from Sara.

As the first hour of the New Year we thought it a great idea when Organisational Hints and Tips was suggested as an area to cover – so that was the evening’s theme.  As usual it was an hour full of excellent advice, as well as lots of catching up.

Labels prompted a lot of discussion.  From the resolutions made this year to label everything, and not rely on memory (a personal one and I wasn’t alone) to how best to tackle them:

Write them now, whilst waiting for the weather to be right to sow seeds (but don’t then forget where you’ve stored them.  Suggested putting them in the seed packets.

Buying of labels – LBS were recommended as a supplier.  Angled tall types with upward facing surfaces were desirable types to go for and coloured marker pens were popular.  Sharpies were mentioned, I think they are a type of marker, they got good and bad reviews.

Coloured labels were suggested to help keep track of succession sowing.

Make your own labels by recycling white plastic food containers

Sounding totally gorgeous were labels made from cutting old slate roof tiles – definitely worth trying if you have time to spare. Another lovely creative idea was using old wooden spoons.

Scrap wood painted with big lettering.

Making (and keeping notes):

Keeping a diary was mentioned many times – and recording weather information, seeds sown, germination times etc.  Some preferred to take photo records, or make notes on phones – but whatever the method chosen, keeping some form of notes deemed invaluable.

Anyone who has devised a fool proof spreadsheet system for seed sowing and wanting to share it, you’ll have plenty of takers!

In the Sarah Raven diary there is also several pages of seed sowing tables, hints and tips – worth a look on the website as they are probably reduced now.

Make a note of the last frost date each year and transfer this to new diary (ongoing) to help maintain a record of when you will aim to be sowing.

Storage:

Use curtain poles to store ribbons, string etc (also try keeping string in recycled jars)

Pencil storage pots (desk tidies) good for storing wire

Plastic business card holders for storing pins

Seeds stored in sowing order was a good idea (you can also alphabet sort them if you like to be orderly)

Pinterest was mentioned as a great way of saving ideas – think of it as a digital scrapbook, if you’ve not tried it yet, be warned, it’s addictive! (Tip, get a ‘pin it’ button for bookmarks bar, it makes life a lot easier – I’m going to have to try this one myself)

Google cal was recommended for time managemente start of the growing season

‘Favourite’ things that appeal to you on Twitter and then transfer them at a later date to the Notes app on your phone so always with you

Take lots of photos – they are a great way of keeping records of time and place, as well as something lovely to look back on.

Making your plans:

If you are a Mind Map sort of person, the Simple Mind app (for iPad) is great fun and easy to use.

Well there you have it but don’t worry. You still have a few more weeks to get everything ship shape for the start of the growing season.

Mum’s on a ‘horse’

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That suprised you, didn’t it?

Banish all thoughts of me galloping with abandon around Wiltshire, hair flowing in the wind. The ‘horse’ in question is a ‘valuable and inspirational learning experience’; an ‘opportunity to bond with like-minded others’ and ‘have a good lunch’. In other words – a course. It’s a family joke. Several years ago when my children were very little I disappeared for the day to run just such an event.  Upon my return, my middle child had drawn a beautiful picture of me riding side saddle over an enormous hedge and wearing a scarlet jacket.

January seems to be THE month to book a course. My inbox is full of exhortations to try anything from beekeeping to directing Shakespeare and making perfect preserves. Twitter is alive with all sorts of tweeps running social media for business days, hedgelaying, getting your PR spot on, photography and flower farming for beginners. If you want to learn something new, someone is there to show you how to do it….. at a price. In fact, for every course there are dozens of people who purport to do it better than anyone else. Don’t be fooled by the one who shouts the loudest and who is ‘endorsed’ by business associates. Look for independant reviews. Ask to speak to individuals who’ve been on the course and find out how useful it was for them. If they were hoping to become a whizz at watercolour painting and they haven’t picked up a brush since, in my book, that wasn’t a good course, however good the cake or glass of wine over lunch.

How’s a girl to choose?

Some courses choose themselves – like the ones I’ve attended recently offered by Cambridge University’s Classics Department to encourage schools to bring back the teaching of Latin. They are free, conveniently located, provide ample opportunity to share ideas with teachers who are at various stages on the journey and delivered by someone who clearly knows their stuff and is experienced and well respected in their field.What’s more they remain at the end of the phone for advice at a later date and they don’t charge extra for it. I like enthusastic individuals who are generous with their time.

Some years ago when I was teaching ‘extreme’ gardening to 25 children during 20 minutes in the lunch hour I attended another course for bods running school gardening activities. It took place at the very swanky Daylesford Organics farmshop in the Cotswolds, where it’s not unusual to bump into Liz Hurley amongst the caramelised onion and goats’ cheese tartlets. This had all the ingredients of a successful course – inspirational venue, fabulous food, opportunities to share ideas with others, organised by a well respected expert in the field (in this case, Garden Organic), a mix of theory and practical demonstration and it was free, so one is prepared to make some allowances.

We all had a fabulous day.We exchanged ideas and moaned about the difficulties of gardening in our lunchtime. Garden Organic fulfilled their mission to encourage and equip teachers to lead gardening activities in their schools. Daylesford Organics acquired some skilled and willing volunteer labourers for the day to work in their kitchen garden. Job done……. except it wasn’t.

Once back at the chalkface in our own schools and facing the inevitable pressures of lack of time, resources and multiple demands on us, our good intentions fell by the wayside. What we needed was a regular ‘fix’ of inspiration, ideas and mentoring through the difficulties. 

Sara and I have thought long and hard whilst setting up Our Flower Patch about how to make growing in schools really work for teachers and pupils. We believe we’ve cracked it on our soon to be launched website.

We’ll look forward to hearing what you think when we launch in earnest. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to keep up to date with our progress and news about growing cut flowers in school.

Broken bones, Our Flower Patch and a trip to Devon

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It’s been quite a start to the year, what with trekking back and forth to the hospital to visit the man of the house, who was air lifted to hospital after a fall, shattered his elbow and broke a few bones in his arm, a road trip to Devon to meet up with dozens of British flower growers and working hard with my ‘partner in grime’ Sara Willman on our new venture Our Flower Patch.

Monday’s visit to Cullompton was an opportunity to meet and share ideas with flower growers around the country. Those of you who visit regulary will know that I’ve been banging on about the decline in the British cut flower industry for a long time. I’m not alone in wanting to see a resurgence in British grown cut flowers. All around the UK growers are doing their best to buck the trend and this has been helped by the popularity of THe Great British Garden Revival on BBC2 recently. There’s even a new flower grower setting up not a million miles from Bradford on Avon.

Britsh growers will never compete with supermarkets on price but there is no comparison between a bunch of unscented roses which have been flown from Columbia and kept for days in a refrigerated container, only to die soon after making it into your vase and a bouquet of highly scented seasonal paperwhite narcissus which were picked yesterday in Cornwall. And if you can’t afford to splash out on British blooms you can always grow a few of your own. That’s where Our Flower Patch comes in.

For some time now we have been scrutinising the National Curriculum, talking to schools about their school gardens, what works and what doesn’t, how they want to use their grounds and trialling  cut flower growing in schools. The result of all this work is a fledgling business supporting schools in setting up small-scale profit making flower growing enterprises and raising the profile of British flowers among the consumers of tomorrow.

We’ll be launching in earnest in time for the start of the growing season but would love to hear from schools and individuals who would like to know more about how to become part of our first year inspiring a new generation of growers.

You know where to find me. That’s right. In a school garden or the fracture clinic at the RUH.

New year, new moon, new adventures…

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paperwhites

If red is the colour of Christmas, then white is the one for New Year. I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions and fresh starts on January 1st. I seem to be programmed for fresh starts, new stationery and new plans at the start of the academic year and agricultural calendar in September.

That is not to say that the start of a new year is not the time for clearing out the old and starting on a fresh adventure. Twenty five years ago today we set off on our adventure into married life (Yes. I was a child bride!)This year – when the new year coincides with a new moon for the first time in nearly two decades – seems particularly auspicious too. I have never felt readier to clear away the clutter of Christmas, get the leftovers finished and replace the Christmas table decorations with a pot of beautiful homegrown paperwhite daffodils (which I remembered to sow eight weeks ago. Yay!)

There are one or two new adventures on the horizon on the plot for 2014 – but more of that in the weeks to come.In the meantime out with the old, in with the new. Have a very Happy New Year. Blwyddyn Newydd Dda. Make the most of all the opportunities it will bring.

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