April showers

The only April showers we have had this week were the ones created by our garden sprinkler. Not to miss out on an opportunity, mother duck came in  for a taste of ‘virtual rain’ in our pond!

Refreshed and invigorated and maybe contemplating a bit of egg sitting next?

This lack of rain is becoming as tedious as the lockdown. Watering with the regularity of June or July is no joke but it is so necessary to get everything growing strongly and healthily at this time of year, ready to ward off all the summer pests and diseases which are still waiting in the wings.

One disease that has already shown its colours, quite literally, is the peach leaf curl affecting our almond trees this week.

Looking rather like an angry red blister, peach leaf curl  is a problem for several stone fruit, especially peaches, nectarines and almonds and occasionally apricots. Caused by a fungus (Taphrina deformans), it causes crumpled, thickened and distorted leaves, often red in colour, which then fall prematurely. It requires extra energy expenditure for the plant to make new ones and thereby reduces its vigour. It can be prevented by covering wall trained fruit with a plastic cage from about November to May as the fungus spores are carried in water droplets. Here is a link to a PDF document for any DIY enthusiasts worried about their peaches next year.

Peach-Leaf-Curl-Lean-to-Diagram (1)

Failing that, prompt removal of all affected leaves to prevent the disease being carried over to the following year would be a good thing to do.  Although this disease will weaken a tree  and may reduce fruiting potential, it rarely affects the fruit itself.

The crazy swings in temperature this week have been a challenge, for gardeners and plants alike. On Monday it was so cold I was back into thermals with about four top layers and still I was shivering in the biting wind but by Wednesday it was shirt sleeves and sun cream again! For plants that have enthusiastically put on their first flush of growth or burst into blossom, this sudden drop in temperature and strong wind can be a nasty shock. If you see brown leaf tips or wilted new growth on some of your plants, it is likely to be wind scorch or frost damage. Not harmful to the plant in the long term and it will soon make new leaves to replace the damaged ones.

There is so much promise of things to come in the gardens.  In the community garden the rhubarb and purple sprouting broccoli have been popular but it would be nice to have more to offer. A bit more waiting is needed! The potatoes are just coming through, radish and carrots have germinated, the autumn sown broad beans are in full flower, cauliflowers are growing well, the first spears of asparagus are poking through the soil and the strawberry plants are full of flower. All to come later. Patience is the gardener’s game.

This time of year in the vegetable garden is often referred to as ‘the hungry gap.’ As winter moves into spring the frost hardy veg like brussels sprouts, kale and hardy cabbage might be the only fresh greens available. Purple sprouting broccoli picks up in March and April but there seems a long wait for the first overwintered broad beans or peas and the fresh salad from spring sowings. It will be June before cropping starts to gather pace, gradually leading to the other end of the spectrum, the autumn glut. We gardeners are never satisfied!

To avoid the scarcity of the hungry gap, a polytunnel is extremely useful and planning ahead is vital. July, August and September are busy sowing months if you want plenty of fresh salad in May! Time for us to get our new polytunnel put up and get experimenting for earlier crops next year.

Apart from all the necessary watering we have been busy with several other jobs this week. The lack of rain has kept grass growth slow but the shadier areas are growing strongly and it helps smarten things up to run the mower over the grass areas every now and then.

If the grass is being slowed down by the lack of rain that certainly doesn’t apply to the dandelions as Paula discovered when she mowed the community garden. The dandelions on Dovehouse field are a sight to behold. Good job she doesn’t need to mow out there!

Cutting back the woody herbs such as thyme, hyssop, lavender, germander is a long job in the walled garden because we have so many of them. While we are all missing our trips to the hairdresser and bad hair days are becoming the norm, why not practice your hairdressing skills by giving your herbs a haircut instead? They will look much smarter later in the year and it prolongs their life. I wish you could say that for a human haircut!

Before and after a trim for one little thyme bush. I don’t think I will be practising on my own head just yet!

One good thing about all this herb trimming is the amount of perfect compost material it produces. A good balance of woody stems for carbon and fresh new leaves for nitrogen. Mixed with Paula’s grass cuttings and it should make wonderful compost in no time and with the shortage of bagged compost at the moment the more we can make the better.

Alison has been giving all the container plants some attention to set them up for the rest of the season. The permanent pots have been weeded and topped up with a top dressing of fresh compost with added plant food (see jobs for the week below).

They will be watered at least on a weekly basis from now on and this will ensure they have all the nutrients they need through the growing season. Other containers have been planted up for a summer display with herbs, pelargoniums and salvias. We are optimistic you will all be back to enjoy these summer pots even though you have missed our spring container displays.

One sad item of news for this week is the demise of our final bee colony, a great disappointment for Jan and all of us. They seemed to be doing ok two weeks ago but when Jan checked this Tuesday there was nothing but dead bees. It is a mystery what went happened and we will probably never know but it comes as a bitter blow after the loss of our other two hives last year. Our only option now is to hope for a swarm later this year. Jan has set up several bait hives which might attract a passing swarm and we are on the swarm request list of the Braintree beekeeper association. It is thought that a bait hive might have more chance of attracting a swarm if it is placed high up…….on top of the porta cabin!

Blossom of the week

This week my choice of blossom is the wild cherry (Prunus avium) which are completely laden with frothy white blossom at this time of year.

Just look at this cherry tree to the right of the Barley Barn. It couldn’t be trying harder to attract some attention and what a shame it isn’t getting any from our usual visiting public. No doubt the local insect population is very appreciative mind you.

Cherries are mainly a tree of the Southern half of Britain and they prefer chalky soils. It is a short lived tree but the timber is valuable, being reddish-brown and capable of being polished to a finish resembling mahogany. The fruits are a further asset, which are produced in great quantity in some years. They can be bitter but are perfectly edible from late July and are the ancestor of our cultivated cherries. They are the best type for making cherry brandy, following a recipe similar to sloe gin. A small bottle full of wild cherries and a couple of tablespoons of sugar, topped up with brandy and left for three or four months. In these times of culinary experimentation and greater self sufficiency, maybe some of us will be making a bottle or two!

In medieval times cherries were the only major fruit eaten raw for preference. Native wild cherries continued to be popular through the Middle Ages and ‘cherries in the rise’ figure in all sorts of medieval horticultural and literary records.

‘Hot peascods, strawberry ripe and cherries in the rise. Hot sheep’s feet, mackerel and rushes green‘ were the street cries of late fifteenth century London  according to a poem by John Lydegate 1370 – 1451.

The medievals liked their cherries ultra-ripe and picked them when they were ‘wine red’. Cherry red was next in popularity after ‘rose red’ and ‘lily white’ among medieval similes.

For my unusual edible this week I have chosen edible flowers from the walled garden and made a rather attractive looking salad.

Colours and presentation were extremely important at the rich man’s table, especially when demonstrating one’s wealth, and therefore power, to guests. Many types of edible flower were used, both for taste and visual appeal. Flowers were also set at the table to enhance the presentation of the food. Large and elaborate sculptures and settings of ‘flowers’ were even made of cut vegetables and herbs, if attractive flowers were not in season.

In my version we have primroses which were eaten to relieve aches and pains, cowslips which were added to wine and used to decorate desserts. There is heartsease (viola), eaten as a cure for ‘heart straitness’, borage which was once used as a flavouring for red wine and cider. Marigold petals which were put into stews and pottages as a sort of petal pepper, rubbed into cheese to keep its colour bright and sugared into a conserve. Finally the petals of rosemary and a scrawny looking dandelion (one that Paula missed!). Altogether very pretty and makes the lettuce look a lot more appetising.  I am not sure we could taste any of them except the rosemary flowers (which really taste of rosemary!) but it certainly looked nice. I found myself wondering why we no longer eat flowers in the way they did in Tudor times. The closest we come is cauliflower or purple sprouting broccoli, both types of flower of course!

In these strange time even our garden tools are practising social distancing, as we have our own sets of tools stored at opposite ends of the tool shed! Our quiz this week (see below) focuses on some curious garden tools from the past. Many tools which the Tudors used would in fact have been very familiar to us, as many have remained virtually unchanged in design for centuries. This illustration from Thomas Hill’s ‘The Gardener’s Labyrinth’ (1577) doesn’t look too dissimilar to us working on the community garden (although perhaps wearing rather different outfits!).

woodcut_gardenerslabyrinth

This illustration from John Evelyn’s ‘Elysium Britannicum’ (17th century) is fascinating to look at to gain an insight into how gardening was done in the past. I particularly like the object which resembles a small four-poster bed – an early form of cloche perhaps?

Garden tools, 17th century

Quiz

Answers to last week’s quiz

Last week we showed you a rainbow of Cressing Temple plants to identify:

Red: Wallflower (Erysimum cheiri)

Orange: Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Yellow: Cowslip (Primula veris)

Green: Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Blue: Forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica)

Indigo: Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) – we confess to using a bit of artistic license to use this to represent indigo!

Violet: Periwinkle (Vinca minor)

This week’s quiz

Can you guess what these garden tools are/were used for? A couple of them were used at least as far back as the Tudor period, whilst others were created by the Victorians.

Plant of the week

In full flower in the Cullen garden this week is the glorious tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa). Tree peonies are actually small shrubs, rather than trees, producing gorgeous, goblet-shaped flowers in late spring. Unlike herbaceous peonies, which die back each year, tree peonies are taller and retain a permanent framework all year round. We have found that the rabbits don’t seem to like peonies, so last year we planted some more! The new additions are another type of peony known as ‘intersectional hybrids’ which combine the best characteristics of tree and herbaceous peonies and flower in early summer.

Jobs for the week

Weeding

The lack of rain might mean that we have fewer weeds around at the moment, but it is still good to try and get on top of any which do appear. Annual weeds such as hairy bittercress, groundsel and common chickweed need removing quickly before they get an opportunity to set seed. They can be hoed off or hand-weeded and then added to your compost bin. Perennial weeds such as bindweed and couch grass have fleshy roots or rhizomes that make them harder to control, as they will re-grow from even a small piece of root left behind. In borders dig out as much of the roots as possible and then watch out for re-growth and remove that too. The roots of perennial weeds cannot be composted of course, but the top growth can safely be added to your compost bin.

Containers

Spring is a good time to give some TLC to any shrubby plants which you have growing permanently  in containers such as camellias, acers, lavenders etc. Remove any weeds and then topdress  by removing about 5cm of compost from the top of the pot and replacing it with fresh compost. Remember to use ericaceous compost for shrubs which prefer acidic soil, such as camellias, azaleas and pieris.

We hope you have enjoyed this week’s read. Another sunny (and dry) week ahead so keep on gardening or just enjoy the warm spring sunshine.

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