Monday, 21 January 2013

Sarah Raven, Asparagus Peas and the Seed League Table

The ground may be blanketed in deep, crisp and not particularly even snow, but our valiant post lady has battled the elements to deliver a little bundle of hope and joy: my seed order. 
The farmhouse garden after the first snowfall.
I like a fresh challenge and although it is hardly as high-octane as Sprout's latest outdoor pursuit (dog sledging), I am more than a little excited about my newest venture (growing asparagus peas).  

The asparagus pea plant (Lotus tetragonolobus) is an attractive legume with pretty red flowers and winged, edible pods. Asparagus peas are half-hardy, so I will have to wait for warmer days before I embark upon my quest to grow them. 

I suppose I could pass the time by filing my tax return, but I have more exciting things to file. By the end of the next paragraph you might conclude that I really should get out more and since snow is preventing me from leaving the farm, you are probably right. You see, I am about to file my 2013 seed collection.

I tend to follow the Sarah Raven* method at the start of the season, which deteriorates into chaos by July (this is entirely my fault - Sarah Raven is not to blame). Sarah's system involves compartments in a box labelled with the sowing months and each seed packet is filed according to the month in which that crop is to be sown.  Should successional sowing be required, the packet is simply placed back into the system a month or two after each sowing. I have modified this technique with the addition of the grey-green subsidiary receptacle (stay with me on this - it could save a seed’s life). 

Once upon a time, the storage life of seed was determined by the timing of the next clothes wash, because after sowing, any leftover seeds would be stuffed into my pockets and immediately forgotten. Since using the sub-case to transport the seeds to and from the garden, no seeds have been making it into the washing machine and although a percentage of seed will still lose its viability each year, the storage life of my seed collection, which is housed in packets or envelopes in a cool, dry place, looks a little closer to this...

Top of the league on about 6 years or more are Courgette, Cucumber and Marrow
5 years or more for Aubergine, Celeriac, Celery and Chicory

4 years or more for Broccoli, Brussels Sprout, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Kale, Radish, Squash and Sweet Pepper

3 years or more for Beetroot, Chard, Leek, Lettuce and Tomato

2 years for Beans (Broad, French, Runner), Pea, Spinach, Swede, Sweetcorn and Turnip

and in bottom position, needing to be purchased annually, is Parsnip.

Which is all very well, but if the snow doesn't stop soon, there is a danger that my seeds will all have expired by the time I get round to sowing any of them. 

N.B. I have used a variety of sources for the approximate seed life expectancy league table, which isn't very scientific of me, but to be honest the figures differ from source to source and in any case, the league table is here to illustrate that the life expectancy of seed is significantly increased when the seeds are stored correctly and not accidentally put through a washing machine on a weekly basis. Although now I think of it, there might be some seeds which would benefit from washing powder scarification. Oh dear.

* Sarah Raven The Great Vegetable Plot

Friday, 11 January 2013

Miss Willmott's Ghost and The Sage

Miss Ellen Willmott, a nineteenth-century plantswoman, is reputed to have surreptitiously scattered the seeds of her favourite plant when visiting gardens, which is apparently why the striking silver thistle, Eryngium giganteum, is known as Miss Willmott’s Ghost. I am not suggesting that we seed bomb one another's plots like a posse of twenty-first century Miss Wilmotts, but this has got me wondering what we would like to see more of in 2013.

This is my hauntingly beautiful ghost,
not Miss Wilmott's.
Were I to go Miss Willmotting, I would float gracefully around gardens (an act requiring a body double, as I tend towards the frenetic) in an outfit accessorised with a wide-brimmed sun hat, watering can and an ornate dibber. I would remove my hat, under which were my rooted cuttings, pop a plant into the soil with the aid of my dibber and water said plant before floating off for a cup of tea. Clearly this would never happen in reality as I have a habit of mislaying garden tools (ornate or otherwise), losing hats and preferring coffee. 

My personal ghost would be bog sage; a plant which does not require a bog. Salvia uliginosa (bog sage) is at home in wet or dry conditions, but it does love full sun. I have seen it thrive in clay soil, where the borders are under water for part of the winter yet baked hard in summer, so it is certainly one to think about if you feel thwarted by this tricky combination.

Sadly, too many people have lost so much in recent floods and those who love their gardens may be looking to replace plants as quickly and cheaply as possible. Salvia uliginosa puts on annual growth fast and does not cost the earth. suspect that it might be invasive on wetlands somewhere in the world, but I have grown it for nearly a decade in the UK and although it walks a little within the border, it doesn't rampage and if I were the kind of person for whom this was a problem, I would still grow it, only in a pot sunk into the soil. 

The one above came home hanging from the handle of my child's pram. I swear it wasn't that big at the time, but this plant is capable of growing up to 2 metres high. If you have the space, bounce a few clumps of it through your garden to give structure and height. Surprisingly, despite its size, I have yet to feel the urge to stake Salvia uliginosa as it holds its shape well once it is established. 

I never cut back the stems in winter because they ripen to a deep burgundy-brown and offer structure in those dark months. I like to think that they also offer protection as Salvia uliginosa is considered to be half hardy, although I have yet to lose one. Come spring, when the border is full of fresh green foliage and exuberant flowers, I cut the brown stems down to ground level and before long those fragrant green sage leaves emerge.

A reminder of spring... fresh foliage,
flower buds and a path in need of weeding. 
Of course it is the flower colour which stops passers-by in their tracks; and the bright electric blue flowers last for weeks from late summer. For me though, much as I love the flowers and the burgundy stems and the way the plant moves in the breeze, the very best thing about Salvia uliginosa - the reason why I would like to see more of it in people's gardens and why I am risking your wrath by suggesting it for my personal Miss Willmott choice - is that bees and hoverflies love it. On a summer’s day this plant is abuzz with them. Unbeatable!