Friday 30 June 2006

How to hybridise garden peas

Two Alderman buds. The top one has reached the very latest stage where emasculation is possible (indeed this one turned out to be shedding some pollen already). The lower bud is just reaching the optimum stage for use as a pollen donor.

This is where the fun really starts, although most gardeners never venture into the world of hybridisation and breeding. DIY hybridising used to be common practice, and many of the best garden vegetables were originally bred by amateurs. But as commercial seed production has completely dominated what we've grown in our gardens over the last 60 years, and saddled us with same-old same-old commercial strains which are optimised for farmers and not gardeners, there are vast areas of potential for developing new and far more interesting varieties. The lost art of amateur plant breeding is way overdue for a revival. And peas are an ideal place to start.

Hand-pollinating peas is not difficult, although it can be fiddly and you have to know what you're doing. But it's a simple enough skill to acquire.

As I said in my other pea-post, I'm experimenting with a hybrid between Alderman, a tall, voluptuous variety with huge and very sweet peas, and Mr Bethell's Purple Podded whose culinary qualities I don't yet know but which produces beautiful pink flowers and purple pods.

I've done my homework on this and what I'm mainly interested in is a dominant gene called A, which is responsible for the production of anthocyanin in peas. Anthocyanin is what provides the purple, red and blue colouring in vegetables, and it also has nutritional value. Given the high proportion of purple colour in its leaves, stems, pods and flowers, it's extremely likely that Mr Bethell's Purple Podded is endowed with the A gene. By the same token I'm assuming that Alderman doesn't carry the A gene, unless there's some other reason why it isn't being expressed, because the plants show no trace of purple. Therefore (and this is pure guesswork) I would expect a cross between the two varieties to yield mostly plants with purple colouring, and the same for about three-quarters of the subsequent generation, because those will have inherited the dominant A gene. I can then select the ones I want and inbreed them for a couple of years to stabilise their characteristics. That's the theory anyway.

I might find that a hybrid between these two varieties results in a simple sharing out of the attributes of the two parents. The ideal would be to have the large succulent flavoursome peas of Alderman with the attractive colouration of Mr Bethell's Purple Podded, and as the colour should be dominant in all the offspring I might get lucky. But there's a complication which makes it a lot more interesting. Although the A gene enables anthocyanin production, it doesn't control where the anthocyanin is distributed. It's nothing more than a gateway for the production of purple colour. There are various other genes which control whether the purple is expressed in the pods, the leaf axils, the flowers, the seeds, or elsewhere. Some may be dominant and some recessive. And I have no idea what configuration of these genes Alderman might have, because without the presence of A those genetic traits are unexpressed. By introducing the A gene into Alderman I'm giving it the ability to produce purple colour but I'm also allowing all those hidden genes to express themselves and I may get some surprise results in which bits of the plant actually go purple. That's all part of the fun.

Let me stress that you don't need to do any genetic research before you make a hybrid. I just do it because I'm a nerd. You can choose your parent plants randomly or intuitively and just see what comes out. Even when you do take the trouble to research the effects of particular genes there always seem to be surprises in the results, because it's largely guesswork at the best of times.

OK, that's the theoretical basis for my hybrid. If you were bored stiff reading all that then don't worry, the practical bit is coming up.

To make a hybrid, you have to bypass Nature's usual mechanism and pollinate the flowers by hand. You don't need any specialised tools, but I've found the ideal implement in my art box. I'm originally a graphic designer by trade and although I've been doing it all on Apple Macs for the last 14 years I still feel the need to keep an old-fashioned artist's scalpel on my desk. This one is ideal, because I can use one end for slicing open the flower and the other end to poke petals apart and transfer pollen very precisely. Being plastic, the body of the scalpel has a slight static charge (especially when rubbed) which helps the pollen to cling to it.

Peas are rampantly self-fertile and shed their pollen at quite an early stage in the flower's development. That means you have to do a hand-pollination very early on in the bud stage. If you leave it until the bud is almost ready to open it will already have self-pollinated and you won't get your hybrid. On the other hand, if you do it too early the female stigma may not have developed enough to be receptive. The ideal stage of bud development varies with the weather, variety and time of year, but as a general rule you should use buds which are only just starting to show the tips of their petals (see photo). Sorry a lot of my illustrative photos are rubbish. I really need three hands to photograph the pollination technique properly, so I'll get my friend Caroline to help me do some better snaps at some point.

This Alderman bud hardly looks like a bud at all ... the petals haven't even begun to emerge from the sepals. But it's just about at the right stage for hand-pollination.

The first step is to pull off (or at least pull right back) the sepals, which are those green leafy bits around the outside of the bud. With those out of the way, the bud comprises a double layer of petals. Gently fold the two layers right back and hold them in that position, but don't remove them. This will reveal the flower's inner sanctum, known as the keel, which is a sealed petal-bag containing all the reproductive bits. At this stage you will see why it is that bees don't get a look in with pea flowers. Under normal circumstances they're completely inaccessible.

Being very careful not to cut too deeply, slice open the keel and remove or peel back as much of it as you can. Inside you will find ten stamens (that's the little stalks with yellow blobby bits on the end) and a style, which is the extra long stalky bit. Depending on how far developed the bud is, the stamens may have grown right to the end of the style or they may be a couple of milimetres shorter. Shorter is better, because it's less likely that any pollen will have reached the stigma, which is the receptive spot on the very tip of the style. Still with me? Good.

If the yellow blobby bits (anthers) have started to release pollen, even in small amounts, it's too late to do the cross. Try again with another bud at a slightly earlier stage of development.

Here the keel has been cut open and you can see the anthers (yellow blobs) inside.

Before you do anything else, you need to emasculate the flower with either scalpel or fingernails (sorry boys, I know it makes your eyes water just thinking about it). Or to put it in layman's terms, you have to whip off all the yellow blobby bits. They usually pop off quite readily when gently scraped with a scalpel blade. Make sure you remove all of them.

The emasculated bud. Those frilly bits are the stamens after the anthers have been removed.

What you're left with is the female reproductive part of the flower, i.e. the style. The receptive part (stigma) is right at the very end (not to be confused with the little bristly bit just below the tip). That's the bit you need to pollinate. So now all you need is pollen.

On whichever variety you are using as the 'father', you'll need to find a suitable bud as a pollen donor. The exact development stage is not as crucial as it is for the 'mother' bud; as long as the pollen is fresh it will do the job. Fresh pea pollen is deep yellow and quite moist-looking. If it's pale and dusty it's past its best. The bud should be mature but not fully open ... the stage where the petals have grown out beyond the green sepals is ideal.

This is the 'dad', Mr Bethell's Purple Podded with the keel slit open to access the fresh pollen. This bud is more mature than the 'mother' bud and easier to work with.

Peel back the outer petals to expose the keel and make a small slit in it near the end. If you then poke the end of the scalpel into it (you can also use a paintbrush or a pen top) you should be able to collect as much pollen as you need. If you do it carefully you won't even damage the flower ... it will already have self-pollinated anyway and the pod should still develop as normal.

You're now ready to make the hybrid cross. Go back to the bud you just emasculated and dab the pollen over the stigma. You will see the yellow powder sticking to it if you've got it right. Then close the bud by folding the outer petals back into their original position, covering up the stigma. With most plants it's necessary to seal up (or stick a bag over) the bud to prevent pollen-carrying insects getting inside and spoiling your crosses, but with peas that isn't necessary because the bees aren't interested in them. It's only necessary to lightly close the bud to help prevent the stigma from drying out.

Lastly but most importantly, label the buds you've pollinated. Otherwise they'll end up in your shepherd's pie by mistake, and then you'll be sorry. You don't need anything elaborate. All I did with mine was twist a piece of green pipecleaner around all the buds I pollinated with Mr Bethell's Purple Podded, and tie a piece of brown string around the ones pollinated with Champion of England.

And that's it. It's a lot less complicated than it sounds. The ideal time to do crosses is when the weather is cool, but it's not essential. This morning I did seven hand-pollinations on Alderman buds: five using Mr Bethell's Purple Podded as the pollen father and two using Champion of England. And the results will be thoroughly blogged, even if it turns out to be a total f*** up. :)

Thursday 29 June 2006

A mega-post about peas

Large flowers are a feature of the Alderman pea

I was expecting Alderman to be tall, but I no longer have anything long enough to measure it with. It's exceeded all expectations, including those stated on the seed packet. It reached about 8ft before starting to droop a tiny bit at the top, which is quite impressive because its support cage is only just over 4ft high. The top halves of the plants are standing up on their own.

"What the heck did you put on them?" I hear you ask.

Uh, some of this.

And lots of this.

And a few grass cuttings as a mulch.

Alderman is wonderful. I've grown peas many times before and I've never had anything like this. All my previous crops have been standard varieties. Growing tall Victorian types for the first time I've found them to be superior on just about every level. Although they're meant to be shelling peas they are just as good if you pick them when they're still flat and eat them as mangetout (they remain stringless until quite a late stage) so they are effectively a dual-purpose pea. The pods grow at a height that makes them easy to pick (well away from the soil and the slugs) and they keep cropping prolifically for several weeks, producing an average of nine very large peas per pod. The flavour is absolutely bloody out of this world. Even the mature pods taste good eaten raw, straight off the plant, if you peel off the fibrous layer on the inside. The plants are fast-growing and untroubled by pests, so they're particularly well suited to organic culture.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the variety was introduced by Laxton's in 1891 and was developed from another old variety called Duke of Albany (now rescued from apparent extinction by the HDRA). One observation I've made ... some sources of information suggest that Alderman bears its pods in pairs. Mine have all been produced singly. Not that I'm complaining, because the yields are very generous. The photo above shows one day's harvest (35-40 pods) from my plants, which occupy an area of land only 2ft by 5ft. As you can see, the mature peas are so huge they're trying to squish each other out of the pod. And even when they reach this size they remain exquisitely sweet. If you pick them younger they taste unbelievable.

Another reason to grow tall peas. You can see the developing peas inside the pods when the sun shines through them. No more harvesting big fat succulent pods only to find that the peas inside are the size of pimples.

Alderman is one of the most readily available of the heritage peas. That doesn't mean you'll find it in the average garden centre, unfortunately, but you can certainly get it from The Organic Gardening Catalogue.

The other two varieties of pea I'm growing this year are harder to find. I got my seeds from the magnificent and ever-bountiful Heritage Seed Library.

I think it's fairly safe to say that Mr Bethell's Purple Podded is one of the less well known pea varieties. A Google search yielded only three hits, two of which were for this blog. So there you go. I have the distinction of being the world's greatest contributor of web information on this variety. And so I proudly present this photo showing the exotic colouring in the leaves, stems and flowers.

The leaves are a pale and rather flat olive green, quite different from other peas I've grown. The purple-maroon colouring is strongest in the leaf axils and in some of the stems and tendrils. Some of the leaves are also flushed or streaked with maroon. Flowers are pink with a darker cerise petal below. They start off very pale pink and darken as they mature, eventually turning blue when they've gone over.

The flowers go through constant colour changes, finally turning blue

Almost nothing seems to be known about it. The HSL catalogue just says it originates from the north of England. Presumably it was named after the person who donated it to the Heritage Seed Library, or the last person who was known to grow it. It's one of several purple peas offered by the HSL but as I've never grown them before I'm not sure how they compare.

Beautiful and colourful though it is, I'm slightly nervous because purple-podded peas have a reputation for being inedible unless you snaffle them up as mangetout. We'll see.

Champion of England (below), originally introduced in 1843 as Fairbeard's Champion of England was much prized throughout the 19th century for its superior vigour and flavour, and became very popular in Canada and the US too. It was bred by William Fairbeard, a nurseryman in Teynham, Kent, who was a highly respected pea specialist of his day. Indeed Charles Darwin wrote to him in 1855 asking for information about cross-pollination and inherited traits in pea varieties, as part of his research for Natural Selection. Darwin had obviously spotted that most plants decline in vigour if they're inbred for too many generations but that peas are one of the few plants that don't suffer from this phenomenon. Even today it's not completely understood, but it's known to be a genetic function, the opposite of hybrid vigour, and is called inbreeding depression. Peas don't succumb to inbreeding depression because they're natural inbreeders, designed to self-pollinate. Their flowers are fully enclosed and pollen is shed directly onto the stigma before the buds have even opened. So even when two varieties are grown together they are unlikely to mingle. Fairbeard told Darwin that accidental cross-pollination between pea varieties was so rare that he didn't take any special precautions to stop it, which confirmed what Darwin had noticed in his own garden. Several decades later peas played a crucial part in the discovery of genetics.

Fairbeard introduced several other acclaimed pea varieties which have slipped into obscurity or extinction. It's taken me two years even to find a source of Champion of England seeds and there's limited information available online. So I'll be sure to post plenty of information and pictures of mine as it matures. At the moment it's just beginning to develop its first flower buds.

Now that all three pea varieties are at the flowering stage I'm going to experiment with some hybridisation. The fact that peas don't naturally hybridise makes it all the more fun (and easier to keep control of). Wouldn't it be nice to cross Alderman with the Purple Podded to see what happens? Pink-flowered Alderman? Purple pods with bigger sweeter peas? To do this I'll have to hand pollinate a few buds. Watch this space.

Sunday 25 June 2006

Today in the garden ... and elsewhere

Mr Bethell's Purple Podded pea, aka Mr Bethell's Purple Tendrils

Well, this is a first. I went out to a garden centre ... my favourite one, in fact ... and came away empty handed. I can't think of a single occasion in my whole life when I've done that. But there was absolutely nothing I wanted.

And on the way home I stopped off at a racing stables on Cleeve Hill where they have bags of well-rotted horse manure on offer at the roadside for a quid each. That's something I do need. But even when I'm shopping for shit I have standards, and having worked with horses during my childhood I know decent dung when I see it. Frankly their crap was crap. It was a mixture of newspaper and manure, but mostly newspaper, compacted, claggy and hardly rotted at all. You couldn't put it straight on the garden in that state. Not only that, the bags were two-thirds empty and you barely got more than a shovelful for your quid. A complete rip off. There was even a sign up asking people to bring the bags back afterwards. Bloody cheek.

I've also been out collecting elderflower to make another batch of cordial. Doing a bucketload this time. This involved pillaging the hedgerow up on Prestbury Hill which, like most of Gloucestershire, has an abundance of elder. I came across some interesting wildflowers along the way, including some beautiful sainfoin (never seen that on the hill before) and an uncommon subspecies of poppy with smaller orangey-red flowers.

I grew this foxglove Primrose Carousel from seed

Back in the garden, the fruit is going into full-scale glut mode. Blackcurrants, tayberries, raspberries and strawberries are all ripe and begging to be picked (and the birds are certainly obliging). Gooseberries and whitecurrants are not far behind.

Meanwhile I've been starting off more tomatoes. Yes, I know it's technically a bit late for sowing them now. But in my experience, tomatoes just sulk in their pots up until the summer solstice and then go completely nuts. It doesn't matter whether you sowed them in February and nursed them on a windowsill or whether you left it till June and stuck them in at the last minute. They all seem to perform about the same in the end. As I have an obsessive-compulsive unusual-vegetable-seeking disorder I was unable to stop myself from buying some exotically striped Green Tiger tomatoes on a recent visit to Marks & Sparks and planting a couple of its seeds. The fruits are very striking indeed with their skins streaked in dark red and green and their flesh a very luscious crimson. The flavour is not absolutely to my taste but it's pleasant enough. So I'll see how that does. I'm also having to resow one of my American tomatoes, Isis Candy, since something has managed to snap the stem on the one seedling I had. The whole of the veg garden has put on a surge in the last few days, helped along by some nice sploshy rain. Climbing French beans are going like the clappers ... this is Kew Blue in the picture.

Wednesday 21 June 2006


It's that time of year again. Driven indoors by the stench of burning flesh as everybody in the neighbourhood dredges out their barbecues. I've been vegetarian for 15 years and the smell of roasting meat really turns my stomach. And just to add insult to injury it sets off my asthma.

I steeled myself for the unavoidable and denuded the Tewkesbury Baron apple tree of 10 out of its 12 apples, before they get too plump and shiny and untouchable. The tree didn't want to let go of them either, which made it harder. But it had to be done. I ate one. It was disgusting. But I was still delighted with it.

The other vegetables are doing well though and some things are now ready to harvest. Climbing French bean Mrs Fortune's (right) is working its way up the bamboo poles. Runner bean Black Magic is already at the top of its 7ft poles. The red-flowered broad beans are just producing the first mature pods, and although they are now being pestered by blackfly it's a fairly light infestation compared to other varieties. Pea Alderman is around 8ft high and yielding very generously ... the peas are so sweet it would be a crime to cook them, so I just stuff myself with them every day straight from the plant. Pods an' all. (Even when they're way past the mangetout stage, the pods are very edible if you peel away the hard starchy membrane on the inside and just eat the outer part.)

I'm also starting to harvest potatoes. I dug up a few plants of Edzell Blue, primarily because I've completely run out of growing space and needed to clear something to make room for other things. They are pretty much ready anyway, because they don't grow very big compared to modern spuds. As you can see in the photo, they are a beautiful colour and scrub up a treat. I cooked these as new potatoes, and very tasty they were too. Unfortunately they aren't ideal for boiling ... they lose their colour (they just end up a murky brown colour and the water goes dark green) and they also readily disintegrate, but you can't have everything.

Freshly harvested Edzell Blue potatoes, which look especially nice when they're scrubbed up

It may be time to declare a crop failure on the Grando Violetto broad beans though. They've been so badly afflicted by blackfly they've stopped growing altogether. They have a few pods which are developing OK but not much of a yield. Unless I pretend I was growing them as a green manure all along. Yes, that's it. I only wanted the nice nitrogen nodules on their roots. Blub.

The wild part of the garden is coming along nicely. Look at this lovely monkshood flower spike (Aconitum napellus) with a bee just poised to shove its proboscis in there. It's highly poisonous but the bees love it. Having a wildlife-friendly garden has its downside though. I started work on a path I've been making between the fruit and veg plots, and had to move the polythene sheet I'd put down to kill off the lawn. I peeled it back very carefully, because there are usually slow worms under polythene sheets in this garden. They adore polythene. Sure enough, I uncovered an elaborate nursery of baby slow worms. There were four of them just under one corner. Very cute they were, only about 4 inches long. The dried up lawn had formed a layer of matting over the earth and they were sitting curled up in little round hollows underneath. They all poked their little faces up through the straw when I disturbed them. So it doesn't look like I'll be building my path now until the autumn. And neither can I walk on the polythene. Which means the only way I can access the fruit bushes for the rest of this season is by trampling over the vegetable plot and wading knee-deep through potato plants. Ah well, nothing I can do about it.

I saw a couple of ants attacking a ladybird today. I didn't know they did that. The ants were going ballistic but the ladybird seemed only mildly bothered.

And finally, I came across this mutant poppy, which has two flower heads on one stalk (although it actually seems to be two stalks fused together). Since taking this photo it has flowered, and the buds opened at different times. I have found a few other examples of this in other poppies around the garden so I assume it's just something that poppies do from time to time.

Monday 12 June 2006

Today in the garden ...

Self-seeded field poppy (Papaver rhoeas). This is the same flower that was shown as a bud on my June 2nd post.

The sky exploded early this morning (well, not quite, but it sounded like it) and resulted in a ferocious deluge. It saves me watering the garden this morning, a job which was becoming a twice-a-day necessity in the recent heatwave, but I wish I hadn't left the cushion out on the garden bench. Oops. Soggy arse for the next person who sits on that.

The rain smacked the heads off all the remaining oriental poppies, so no more pollen-diving fun for the bees. They did very well this year though because they mainly flowered during the dry spell. At its peak the orange Allegro poppies had 19 flowers at once, all of them the size of my hand. They may only last a couple of weeks but they are stunning. And just as they are going over, the annual poppies are coming out (see above). You never know what colours you're going to get with annual poppies, which is one of the reasons I love them.

No sooner had I written that when one last bud of oriental poppy Princess Victoria Louise came out. And so did a whole load of brown butterflies. I even managed to photograph them together.

And there's no shortage of frogs now. As I was walking down the garden path this morning something landed with a great splack right in front of me. A very knobbly frog with a green head and a black back. Thought it was a toad at first, but it wasn't quite that knobbly.

I know it's getting a bit late for sowing stuff now, but I've just had some tomato seeds through the post from America. Unusual varieties which you can't get over here. Two of them are marbled and striped in red and yellow, the other supposely looks like black cherries. They sent me a freebie packet too. Bless.

I have this nerdy obsession with seeking out the unusual ... can't just go down the garden centre and buy normal stuff like everyone else. It cost me more in postage than for the seeds themselves, but I don't care. I'll have the only marbled and black cherry tomatoes in Cheltenham.

I do have a minor concern about buying seeds from America though ... there is such widespread use of GM material in the US, most of it unlabelled, I wonder how much stuff over there gets accidentally cross-pollinated. I don't have any means of testing for it and I assume the risk of GM contamination is small, especially with tomatoes since they're natural inbreeders (i.e. they usually self-pollinate). But if anyone knows anything about this issue I'd be grateful to know.

The Alderman pea is still going nuts. Advertised in the Organic Gardening Catalogue as reaching a height of 5ft, mine is now just over 7ft. And those tendrils are still reaching for the sky. I'll be posting another pea-specific report shortly.

My climbing French beans are all coming along nicely now, having benefited from the clement weather. It's actually not the cold which devastates these plants, it's the wind. During late May it was very breezy and my newly planted Trionfo Violetto and Meraviglia di Venezia (which I'm growing together over an arch) suffered a lot of damage to their leaves, and in their weakened state fell prey to slugs. I wasn't sure whether they'd make it or not but in the last week they've made a miraculous recovery, have grown beyond sluggy reach and look very green and lush. Trionfo Violetto is already in flower (right). Then there's the two varieties I got from the Heritage Seed Library. Kew Blue is now recovered from the shock of finding itself planted out in the real world and is starting to shoot upwards. I'm growing it in a small clearing in a potato patch, and as the potatoes continually encroach it does get a little shady and claustrophobic. But it's also very sheltered, and that has kept the leaves lush and pristine green ... in contrast to Mrs Fortune's, which I planted in a sunny open site and whose leaves have been rattled and flapped and baked to parchment (although it's still thriving well enough). I was also afraid the Kew Blue might be eaten by snails down in the moist verdant undergrowth but they've been largely untouched and most of the snails I've been finding there are just broken shells. I assume that means the moist verdant undergrowth is populated by hungry frogs and slow worms.

Climbing French bean Kew Blue sitting in a mulch of horse manure and grass cuttings. See how the colour of the leaf stalk graduates from purple to green.

I've been experimenting with very basic CSS coding on my blog template and have discovered how to highlight the plant variety names in my posts in a separate colour (without having to go through and code them all individually ... how cool is that?) So now people who google in here looking for information on specific varieties should find it easier to spot the ones they want. Let me know if it looks weird in your browser or the colour annoys you.

How to make a Rebsie-style bamboo frame for huge floppy vegetables

This method will make a frame about four and a half feet high, just under four feet long and a foot and a half wide. I'd use a frame of this size to grow three cordon-type tomato plants. Or a row of peas, if you add a few spiky twigs for them to climb up.

You will need:
Set of three 5ft bamboo hoops (available from garden centres)
Five 4ft bamboo canes (you can use more if you want extra bars on your frame)
Rubber bands

Put five rubber bands on each hoop, one at the top and two on either leg, at a roughly equal height (you can adjust them later). They should be tight enough to grip the poles but still manoeuvreable.

After preparing the soil, lay two of the bamboo canes out on the ground as measuring rods, then position the hoops along their length with equal spacing. The outer hoops should be an inch or so inside the straight poles.

Hook a pole through the lower rubber band on the central hoop, and then hook either end of it into the bands on the outer hoops. Do this for all five poles. You will then have a nice sturdy structure. Try to make sure the poles sit on top of the rubber band, so that it acts as a support underneath.

Tie some string tightly around each rubber band joint to give the poles extra support. Why do you need to do this when the rubber bands are already holding it pretty securely? Well, try leaving the rubber bands out in the sunshine for a few weeks and you'll see what happens.

And here's the finished article, complete with three Black Plum tomato seedlings. Yes I know they look sweet and innocent at the moment (in fact they're so miniscule you can hardly see them) but they'll soon be splurging over the top of the frame.

Sunday 11 June 2006

Today in the garden ...

Well, my elderflower cordial was a success. Husband glugging the stuff like there's no tomorrow. I need to go and get a bucket from the homebrew shop so that I can make it in bigger quantities. I'll also need to take a trip out into the Cotswolds with the secateurs ... I don't want to pillage my own tree any further because I like elderberry beverages too and I want to leave it with enough blossom for that. There's no shortage of it around here though. Previous wildflower recces suggest that Leckhampton Hill might be a particularly good place for elder.

Of course I'm not superstitious. *cough* Not at all. It's just that I have a curious feeling of respect for elder trees and always like to ask them nicely before taking their blossom.

I love this time of year in the garden ... everything looks at its best in June, before it all goes blowsy and flops over. This picture was taken from the window of the music room, the room where all Revolving Doris's music is recorded (or my half of it, anyway). Looks nice at this time of year, doesn't it? No wonder I'm not getting much music done.

The music room is now being supplied with some especially lovely red Dianthus flowers, courtesy of the plants which I picked up on a trip to Devon a few months back. I'm usually reluctant to cut flowers because they look so lovely in the garden, but it's nice to have a jar of them on my desk too. I tend to bring in mature flowers anyway, because Dianthus is at its best when it's aging a bit. The pistils curl up into a very attractive spiral after they've been pollinated and the flowers still last for ages.

The broad beans are doing very well, and the red-flowered type now has huge numbers of tiny pods. Still a few flowers on there too. Grando Violetto began to set pods much earlier, and some of them are getting big, but it seems to produce them one at a time so there's never enough for a meal. Grrr.

The blackfly season is well underway. Even the red-flowered variety is now under attack, although interestingly it's only the largest and lushest plants which are affected. Some of the plants have stayed quite small and those are still clean as a whistle. The Grando Violetto variety is suffering quite badly and I'm having to hose them off on a daily basis. The plant tops are looking very feeble now (probably from being violently blasted with a water jet every day as much as from the blackfly) and it doesn't look like I'll be getting a huge yield from them.

Had a toad hopping about on the patio this afternoon. I've noticed an increase in their numbers over the last couple of weeks and a corresponding drop in the slimy invertebrate population. Hooray.

I dunno about you, but I like to spend a lot of time just standing around in the garden staring idly into the middle distance, especially in the twilight. Yesterday evening when I was doing this I heard a snuffling noise and a hedgehog came sauntering out of the 'cornfield' patch straight towards me. This happened once before when I was sitting on the bench in the wild garden and a hedgehog came over and started snuffling at my foot. I had my eyes closed and didn't realise it was there until it touched me and I went "waaaaah!" and leaped about three feet in the air and the hedgehog scarpered. They certainly can shift if you frighten the shite out of them. This time though I kept very still and the hedgehog passed within two feet of me, carried out a brief inspection of the broad beans and waddled off into the raspberries. Very cute. And very snuffly.

Thursday 8 June 2006

Today in the garden ...

Cheltenham Green Top beetroot ... with a rather groovy flower spike

Mowed the lawn and used the cuttings as a mulch around the peas and beans. At this time of year I only apply the mulch very thinly, which means it doesn't really work as a weed suppressant but it does still keep the warmth and moisture in the soil, and allows water to penetrate. After a few days it dries out into a kind of mat of hay, rather than a compacted slimy mess, and breaks down very quickly into the soil. By reapplying it every couple of weeks I can get a lot of organic matter into the soil without having to spend weeks composting it first.

I think this is going to be a good year for fruit. The gooseberries are coming on well, as you can see. Looks like the Ashmead's Kernal apple tree couldn't be arsed to blossom this year, but Taynton Codlin produced one flower cluster and now has one solitary apple. Tewkesbury Baron, by contrast, was such a mass of blossom it looked like a funereal tribute. And now it has loads of swelling apples. But the tree is not even two years old, so for its own sake I'll have to force myself to take them off. Blub.

The damselflies are everywhere now, like miniature dragonflies but in bright red or sky blue. I've now managed to get a photo of one, which hasn't been easy because they're so thin and elongated my camera's autofocus can't pick up on them. They're also a bit camera shy and tend to fly off. They are a delight though. Tiny levitating sticks of turquoise.

Unless I'm much mistaken this is the imaginatively named Large Red Damselfly. Seen here posing on Fortyfold potato leaves.

Monday 5 June 2006

Today in the garden ...

The bees can't get enough of this oriental poppy. They go in and roll around in the pollen. Actually this one looks rather like a miniature guinea pig.

I found some supports for the Champion of England peas. I was disinclined to drive out to a garden centre to buy canes (although I'll have to go soon because I've run out of horse manure). It occurred to me that I could plunder the mature lilac thicket at the far end of the garden, which is full of overcrowded suckers from last year. I just pruned out a few reasonably straight ones which were over 6ft and used those to make a wigwam. Of course they're all straggly and look a complete mess, but I don't mind as long as they stay up.

I planted the two Champion of England plants which are of suitable size (the others need to grow on for a bit). It's very easy to do because you just bury the whole bog roll in the soil. Meanwhile Mr Bethell's Purple Podded pea is steaming skywards, and Alderman is a joy to behold.

The peas they do grow high ... the 'Alderman' plants have outgrown their bamboo frame and have now overtaken me (I'm 5' 6").

It has to be said that Daughter of the Soil is not a Daughter of the Kitchen. In fact I was booted out of my domestic science class at school and ended up with a CSE Grade 3 in woodwork instead, which was far more useful. I'm competent enough at cooking, it's just that I don't much enjoy it. In an ideal world I'd just grow everything and let somebody else do the culinary stuff. But this morning the newly opened elderflower blossom at the bottom of the garden smells so fantastic I was motivated to stew up some sugary gloop which I hope will transform itself into elderflower cordial. I consider myself very lucky to have an elder tree in the garden, though I expect it got there as a weed when the previous owners weren't looking, and it's crammed in among the damson trees where it doesn't get enough sun. I love elder. It's supposed to be a defence against witches, although it hasn't got rid of me yet.

Home made elderflower cordial ... yum yum yum yum yum yum yum

Sunday 4 June 2006

Today in the garden ...

Walking down the garden path this morning I was stopped in my tracks by a beautiful sweet scent. Really strong and very lovely. The dog rose beside the veg plots has suddenly come into flower (no, it's not orange) and is producing a tangible aura of scent over the whole area. I inhaled another deep lungful and ... uuurgh. Petrol.

Bloke next door was using a motorised leafblower. In June. Why?! The leaves are on the trees, for feck's sake.

It's the scourge of English middle class suburbia. Whenever the sun shines at the weekend, EVERYONE round here piles into the garage to rev up garden powertools. My views on garden powertools, and my neighbour's unhealthy macho obsession with them, have been well documented elsewhere and the song I wrote about it has become a minor radio hit. But honestly ... must I breathe toxic fumes in my rose bushes? Does it really take a two-stroke internal combustion engine to blow a few little bits of dust down the garden path?

But ... I appreciate it could be worse. I don't have any real problems with my neighbour other than a My Pink Half Of The Drainpipe style rebellion against his unimaginative worldview. I used to live in the unsalubrious St Paul's area of Cheltenham, and there on a summery Sunday you would feel the house gently vibrate to mega-decibel drum 'n' bass and hear the distant screams of street fighting in the adjacent council estate. I'd rather have the leafblowers, really I would.

I'm relieved that Leafblower Dave didn't catch me digging over that patch of lawn yesterday. He disapproves of lawn erosion. I assume it's because he makes part of his living mowing other people's, and just has a thing about lawn. Lots of it. This whole garden was grassed over when I moved here (which must've been paradise for him) and every time I've reclaimed a chunk of it to make a vegetable bed he comes over to the fence the moment the spade slices the first turf, curls his lip and says "Aaah. You diggin' that lawn up then, are you?"

Well, obviously.

This time I dug up a straight two foot strip right the way across so he hasn't noticed it.

I gave it a good digging over today and got the worst of the horsetail and couch grass out. Top dressed it with manure, seaweed and organic fertiliser. I'm planning to plant out my Champion of England peas in it first, because they're starting to outgrow their bog rolls. I only have a few plants of this variety, because the Heritage Seed Library only supplies small quantities and most of them had germination problems. I started off another 3 seeds with some perlite added to the planting mix and that seems to have resolved the rotting-off issue. But at best I will have five plants. And as I have no more seed, it's imperative that I grow these to maturity.

The other trouble with Champion of England is that it will grow big. About 7ft, according to the info I have. And since the Alderman pea is supposed to grow to 5ft and mine is already reaching 6ft and still rampant, I suspect it's going to need something pretty sturdy to hang on to. I don't have any pea sticks of that height, and I've run out of tall bamboo canes. So I'll have to think of something.

Saturday 3 June 2006

Today in the garden ... orange

Iceland poppy Red Sails. Yes I know. It's orange.

Lots of new flowers have come out today. And they're all orange. Whether they were meant to be or not.

I've been nurturing the Iceland poppy from seed for two years expecting it to have red flowers. That's poppies for you ... always coming out different from what you expect. Also out today is this oriental poppy Allegro and some bright orange gazanias.

Most of my work today was in the vegetable plots. Blasting the blackfly off my Grando Violetto broad beans with a hose jet. Interestingly the red-flowered broad beans are not suffering from blackfly. Just one plant, the bi-coloured black and pink one, has a minor infestation. But the others are completely clean (see photo) with not an aphid in sight. This is exactly what happened last year so I'm assuming the red-flowered bean is naturally blackfly-resistant. What a turn up for the books in a variety that's already won me over with its beauty and taste.

I planted out the Kew Blue climbing beans against wigwam canes. They are still quite small, as they've been slow growers so far, but I thought they might as well take their chances in the open ground rather than hanging about in trays on the patio.

So, what do you do when you realise you've sown far too many vegetables and you haven't got room for them all?

That's right. You dig up another chunk of the lawn.

And use the strips of turf to earth up your spuds. Seen here with Witch Hill potatoes. Note hi-tech irrigation system made from sawn-off Ribena bottles.

If you angle the turfs in an inverted V-shape along the row they form a nice moisture-conserving trough, which you can then top up along the middle with fine loose soil to earth up the potato haulms. Stacking the turfs like this holds the sides of the trench together, prevents water from running off and being wasted and absorbs it into the mats of decomposing grass, which helps to keep plenty of moisture around the roots and developing spuds.

It does have a downside: it requires vigilant weeding. Some of the grass roots always regrow, especially bits of couch.

Friday 2 June 2006

Today in the garden ... slow worm fisticuffs

Buds on a self-seeded poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

When there's a bustle in your hedgerow, as the song says, it could be a spring clean for the May Queen or it could be what at first looks like a writhing double ourobouros. In this case it wasn't quite, it was two serpentine creatures not biting their own tails but clamping their gobs round each other's midriffs in a most antisocial manner. A pair of slow worms having a dust-up.

I don't know what slow worms argue about. Maybe one was accusing the other of pinching his legs. But anyway they were coiled around each other and thrashing about, each trying to get its mouth further round the other's body. Then one scarpered, and the other rippled away through the chain link fence ... only to bump into another slow worm coming the other way. There was an awkward impasse for a while and then the first one turned round and made a sudden dash for the potato patch.

Oooh, I saw a damsel fly today. A bright red one. They are SOOOOO beautiful, I love them. It couldn't wait to get its proboscis stuck into a few valerian flowers. Yum.

The patio tends to get cluttered up with seed trays at this time of year ...

The garden is reaching its prime now, and the poppies are about to burst open, which is always a lovely time. Because of the slug crusade there's a much smaller number of opium poppies this year ... about 500,000 seedlings came up and were promptly eaten. But the field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and variants thereof are doing very well.

Bad news on the blackbirds though. A neighbour's cat got in there on Tuesday night and took the babies. Such a shame, because they were so close to being ready to fly.

But you've got to admire the resolve of that female bird. She spent a couple of days sitting around looking depressed but now she's busily ransacking my flowerpots for nesting material. Starting all over again.