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What do you imagine to be the essence of a ‘March garden’?
January and February stand for frosts, snowdrops, the brilliant colours of cornus stems and even the last remaining seedheads. By April, there are enough bulbs for us to talk about ‘a carpet’.
December and January mean frost and seed-heads – seen here at Doddington Place Gardens.
In March, the lawn is a muddy puddle. The snowdrops look moth-eaten or have gone over. There is the odd early daffodil poking its head out of a recently cleared bed. We’ve cut down the cornus stems and the grasses – or are about to. The birds have eaten the last lingering seed heads, rose hips and remaining autumn fruit. There are tiny buds on shrubs and trees, but you have to go up close to spot them.
By April there are enough bulbs for a show – if not always a ‘carpet’.
This may be rather slow of me, but until this year, I hadn’t realised that the March garden was actually the bleakest (if you live in the Northern hemisphere). In March, the gardening magazines coming through the letterbox are a blaze of colour, often from tulips. Tulips? March? I think not.
What is a March garden?
I needed a ‘March garden’ to feature in my ‘Middlesized Garden of the Month’ video on my YouTube channel.
I asked around my garden-loving friends. None of us could decide what a good March garden would look like, and we all agreed that no garden looks its best in March. It’s almost as if March is an embarrassing secret which the gardening world doesn’t talk about. And certainly doesn’t photograph…
These crab apples were still giving me winter colour in February. All gone by March though.
Many ‘professional’ gardens only open from April to September or October. There are just a handful of gardens open in March for the NGS, but all of them would look even better in another month of the year. Even Great Dixter, which I revere as the ultimate year-round garden, doesn’t open until March 30th.
But there is one brilliant thing about March…
I realised that March was probably the best time to see the bare bones of a garden. For the rest of the year, flowers, greenery, veg, fruit, grasses and seed-heads distract you from the question ‘how does this garden work?’ So I went along to the wonderful environmentally-aware, wildlife-friendly Abbey Physic Community Garden in Faversham to see it ‘undressed’.
The Abbey Physic Garden is historic. Before Henry 8th abolished the monasteries, it was part of Faversham Abbey which was established by King Stephen in 1148. It’s in the grounds of the Elizabethan Grammar School and backs onto one of Britain’s most ancient medieval streets. It’s a charity which aims to help vulnerable people through horticulture and outdoor activities. There’s also a Good Grub club where people can learn to grow and cook healthy meals on a budget.
The former Grammar School, dating back to Elizabethan times.
The garden has recently had a partial redesign, and this new curving path through the middle of it, with benches at its heart is a new addition. It’s a clever solution for a square garden, as it breaks up the space and gives the garden a heart, without subdividing too much. When the beds are filled the seats will be private, but you won’t lose the sense of openness. I was delighted to be able to see this new design now in March, without any planting around it.
The path curves through the centre of the square garden, creating a heart.
The area around the benches is an exciting new project. The Abbey Physic garden want to grow a grass-free lawn, using plants such as red-flowered daisies, wild thyme, cowslips, birds foot trefoil, chamomile, red and white clover, self-heal, bronze leafed bugle and more. It’ll need less care than an ordinary lawn, will be more hard-wearing than a chamomile lawn and will be loved by wildlife. They’re asking the community to donate any plants they have grown or propagated so if you can help them in this project in any way, please do get in touch with them.
How to dispose of your March clippings…
Taking clippings to the tip uses time and fuel. This garden uses up clippings as supports for plants, in a ‘dead hedge’ and composts them by using a shredder. They even throw sticks across the newly planted beds to deter birds from eating the seed.
In summer, this dead hedge is often concealed by nasturtiums or other climbing greenery. Here you can see how to layer clippings to create a hedge which offers shelter to wildlife, and will eventually slowly rot down, enriching the soil. So you can keep adding more clippings…
Branches and stumps are also used to make a ‘bug hotel’, layers in a hugelkultur bed and shredded into compost.
March is a good time to start the fight against weeds…
At the Abbey Physic Garden, you can now see some shrubs with a layer of cardboard around their base, weighted down with bricks. This will smother weeds and when the shrub is out, you won’t see the cardboard. Or you could cover it with a layer of bark chippings. The cardboard will eventually rot down, improving the soil.
Anti-weed layer of cardboard. It will hardly be visible when the plant is in leaf.
And sort out the water…
If the garden had been full of flowers, I’d never have thought about the water butts standing on their own, well away from any guttering.
Abbey Physic water butts
The water itself runs off from the roofs of buildings and sheds, so they siphon the water from those butts out to the butts in the middle of the garden. It’s a brilliant way of dealing with my main grouch over water butts which is that they get too full when it rains and empty after about 10 days of no rain – this is a way of having lots of water round the garden.
And there are some March garden flowers
Early flowering fruit trees are essential to feed pollinators who are just waking up from the winter.
Mahonia has rather fallen out of favour, but it is one of the few flowers that seems to be a reliable March flowerer, so it’s a good choice for a wildlife-friendly garden.
This mahonia has attractively coloured leaves and it’s one of the relatively few flowers out in March.
More tips in the video…
See the Middlesized Garden of the Month video here:
The Abbey Physic Garden is dazzling in the summer, and is always a place to pick up ideas, especially for wildlife-friendly or eco gardening. So if you are ever in Kent, do visit it (and Faversham is a delightful historic town, too.) And if there is any way you can donate, volunteer or help, it’s a very worthwhile cause.
The Abbey Physic Garden will also be open on Sunday June 24th as one of the 30+ gardens in Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day, so do put that date in your diary. The Middlesized Garden will be open as well, so do come and say hello.
I’ve seen other people make natural plant supports from clippings. But not being a very handy person, I hadn’t thought of actually trying it myself.
However, I can now reveal – it is really easy. Even if you’re someone who can barely change a light bulb, then you can make natural plant supports out of birch, hazel or willow twigs.
The border in summer – I have a selection of metal supports, but it does look cluttered until all the plants are in bloom. Natural plant supports seem to ‘disappear’ more.
We recently had our silver birch tree pruned, so we had lots of wood clippings. And even if you don’t have a birch tree, there are lots of silver birch in most parts of Britain. They shed their twiggy branches regularly, so keep an eye out.
Cutting the clippings
I cut most of the clippings to approximately the length of a garden fork. Choose – or cut – small branches that have at least 6″-9″ of fairly firm wood that you can jam into the soil.
It’s not very easy to see twigs in gardens – which is why twig plant supports are so great. But if you peer at this picture, you can just see what I mean by 6″-9″ of wood, and then the bendy, twiggy bits…
The rest of the birch cutting needs to be bendy and flexible.
I cut a neat pile of silver birch clippings so I could make plant supports. When my back was turned, Mr Middlesize took them away to burn them. I got them back just in time…sense of humour failure all round.
Most gardeners make their plant supports in late April or early May, when the perennials have begun to spring out of the ground. However, I know where my dahlias are because I protect them over winter with a pile of mulch, marked with a stick.
I’ve always been slightly nervous of buying ‘unusual plants.’
Maybe they’re just for expert gardeners? More demanding? Difficult to grow?
Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ is a variant that has berries on it all year round, making it a wonderful garden plant, says Stephen Ryan. Nandinas have slightly fewer berries when grown in Britain, but are fine in US hardiness zones 6-10 (South East England would be considered approximately a US hardiness zone 8).
If you’re new to gardening, you will often be advised to ‘go round your neighbourhood, see what grows well, and plant that.’ It’s very good advice. But it is a trifle dull. And what if you don’t have the same taste as your neighbours?
What are the advantages of growing unusual plants?
Unusual plants start a conversation. Australian TV and radio gardening personality Stephen Ryan, who also sells rare plants, says that if your garden only has iceberg roses and box hedging in it, ‘the most people can say is that it looks neat. But if you have unusual plants, then people will ask what they are.’
If you prefer to watch a video rather than read a blog, you can hear what Stephen says about buying unusual plants here.
This is an unusual variety of a well-known plant – Abutilon megapotamicum variegata seems to dance in the breeze. It’s at the entrance to Dicksonia Rare Plants and people always ask ‘What’s that?’
He also says that plant diversity is being lost because just a few varieties of some popular plants are being wholesaled in large quantities into garden centres. In the days when most people bought from small nurseries around the country, you could expect to find different varieties as a matter of course.
So how to buy unusual plants?
I asked him for tips on buying unusual plants.
‘Go to a plant nursery and talk to the nurseryman (or woman),’ he says. There’s a British directory of local independent nurseries or you can usually find specialist growers at the various flowers shows and big fairs.
Stephen’s nursery is called Dicksonia Rare Plants, and is in Mount Macedon, near Melbourne, Australia. He says that the best approach is to talk to the nurseryman (or woman) and see if they seem to know the plants well. ‘If they can’t tell you much more than what’s on the label, that’s no good.’
But assuming you find someone knowledgeable, Stephen advises you to tell them about your garden, what plants you like, what you’re hoping to achieve and what your level of gardening expertise or ambition. Show them photos of your house and garden, too.
The less common variegated Fatsia brightens a shady wall, next to Pieris ‘Forest Fire’ which has unusual sprays of flowers and turns a wonderful autumn red.
When I first had a tiny garden in London, I went to a nursery (which shall remain nameless). I asked for recommendations of ‘easy care plants’.
‘Well, I don’t know why you’re bothering to garden at all if you’re not prepared to make an effort to look after the plants,’ grumbled the nurseryman. What I’d meant was that my garden was small, shady and populated by voracious snails, so I needed indestructible plants.
Most plant growers are not like Mr Grumpy. And I could also have been a bit clearer about what I meant by ‘easy-care’.
Then make a leap of faith…
Once you’ve established a rapport with a good plantsperson, then take their advice on what plant to buy.
‘One of the problems with some unusual plants is that they don’t look special in the pot. There are a huge number of plants that are getting quite rare because they don’t look good in pots when you buy them,’ says Stephen.
His Abutilon megapotamicum is one of those, but people buy it because they see it growing at his gate. However, it’s not possible to grow everything in a nursery, so there will be some stunning plants you simply won’t notice unless you ask for advice.
Even newbies can grow unusual plants
Growing unusual plants doesn’t have to mean buying something you’ve never heard of. Stephen points out that you can have an unusual variety of a common, easy-to-grow species. One of his specialities is canna lilies: ‘Why not have an unusual canna, instead of the ones that are widely available at the garden centre?’ he says. ‘They won’t be any harder to grow, and they’ll start a conversation.’
Canna ‘Torch Song’ from Dicksonia Rare Plants.
Canna lilies can be frost tender, so protect them in winter, with a thick layer of mulch or even some horticultural fleece. But otherwise, they’re relatively easy to grow and fast coming back into fashion.
Stephen stocks the less common varieties of well known plants, such as variegated Fatsia and interesting versions of Viburnum opulus and Pieris, along with many more.
Do you need to know alot of Latin names?
If you want unusual plants, you’re probably going to have to see a few Latin names. But you don’t need to be an expert. Stephen thinks some nurseries play fast and loose with plant names, partly because some are unpronounceable, and therefore less likely to sell. So plants get re-named.
If the plant experts aren’t being all that careful with names, then I don’t think we should get too worried about it. If it’s a good plant, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Make a note of the name somewhere, and soon it’ll be familiar.
This is a ‘species’ Canna ‘Warszewieczii’ at Dicksonia Rare Plants. Stephen thinks that it’s unlikely to become popular with such an unprounceable name.
There are thousands of different kinds of succulents, such as echevarias, sempervivums, crassula and more, but most people sell them under the blanket name ‘succulents.’ Some of Stephen’s came from one of the UK National Collections in Devon.
What’s the difference between an unusual plant and a rare plant?
A plant may be unusual to your area. For example, I fell in love with a Viburnum opulus ‘Notcutts Variety’ outside Dicksonia Rare Plants. It had the most glorious red berries, unlike the sterile form of the guelder rose you normally see in gardens. Its white flowers are less showy – but oh, those berries!
It was bred at Notcutts in Britain. In fact, it’s so rare in Australia that some people think that ‘Notcutts’ means that you can’t prune it.
It was too windy to photograph it, but you can see it in this video of my interview with Stephen.
How to buy unusual plants...make your garden beautifully different! - YouTube
A rare plant, however, is difficult to find anywhere. Stephen’s rarest is a kauri pine called Agathis montana from New Caledonia. It doesn’t look at all like a pine, and Stephen thinks that his may be the only one in a commercial plant nursery in Australia.
Would you believe that this is a member of the pine family? Agathis montana is a genuinely rare plant.
By an odd coincidence, I was staying in a house where the walls were lined with Kauri pine. It was built in the Victorian era, when the tree was less rare. And that’s another reason why you should encourage diversity in your garden. If we garden-lovers buy and grow unusual plants, we’ll be less likely to lose plants that we may find useful, either for their wood, medicinal properties, for food or many other uses.
The wooden boards in the background are Kauri pine, while the plant is a Wollemi pine. It’s the most ancient plant on earth, and comes from the time of the dinosaurs. There’s a song that says you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone – gardeners can help diversity hugely by growing unusual plants.
What if my unusual plant dies?
Every gardening expert I’ve ever met – Monty Don, James Wong, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – stress that they have killed ‘thousands of plants.’
The unusual plants probably won’t die any more often than the common ones. Not all the plants you buy will survive. That doesn’t mean you’re a terrible gardener. It just means you’re a gardener.
The Diggers Club Garden of St Erth demonstrates simple garden ideas to home gardeners.
It’s a charming and very domestic-scale garden. Every idea in it could be taken back to your garden, wherever you live, to work in small and middlesized gardens everywhere.
Originally an 1860s miner’s cottage, St Erth is now a garden shop, nursery and visitor centre for The Diggers Garden and Environment Trust. But, as you can see, it’s on a very domestic scale.
In case you were thinking of St Erth in Cornwall, this St Erth is the name of a cottage and garden near Daylesford, Australia. But the ideas work whatever your climate.
1: Focus your efforts where you can see them
If you’re short of time or space, then focus your efforts near the house. Aim to create a dramatic, brilliant splash of whatever you love best in the beds nearest your doors and windows. That way you can see your favourite part of your garden most of the year.
The only herbaceous borders at St Erth are in a neat square directly outside the back door. As you open the door, you’re greeted by a blaze of colour from easy-to-grow perennials.
Stepping outside the back door, the herbaceous borders are framed by wisteria. A grass path leads to the rest of the garden beyond.
A close-up of the echinaceas, salvias, gaura and other well-known perennials in the herbaceous borders close to the house.
2: Use shape and texture to achieve easy-care effects
Colour in gardens means hard work. Flowers need feeding and dead-heading. Even the longest-flowering ones are only ‘at their best’ for a few months a year. They may need regular replacing. If you rely on colour for the effect all over your garden, you’re going to be doing alot of work.
That’s why it makes sense to focus your colour efforts where you can see them. In the rest of the garden, you can achieve a wonderful effect by making the most of different foliage and bark shapes and shades.
There are some imposing trees in the St Erth garden. They are underplanted with a range of different shades of green. I particularly like the way they’ve stripped away the tree branches lower down – which makes it lighter.
I love the contrast of the sharp, spiky cordylines with the softer more rounded shapes. Cordylines grow well in many temperate climates, although they’re perceived as exotic.
3: Simple garden ideas and combinations work so well…
Instead of having lots of different plants jumbled together, why not try just two? We spotted an attractive combination of three silver birches simply underplanted with hellebores. It looked so effective and needs almost no care.
Beautifully simple combination of silver birch and hellebores. This will look good pretty much all year round.
4: Don’t be afraid of underplanting under trees…
People sometimes think they can’t have a beautiful garden if there are too many trees in it. The St Erth garden shows that you can have a really quite woody garden and still have lots of different plants.
This striped euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ creates a patch of light and contrast beneath a tree.
People sometimes seem to be afraid of trees. They worry about whether the roots will damage their property or fret over the shade they cast.
But trees are absolutely vital to cities and towns. They convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, protect against wind and weather erosion, and are one of the best defences against global warming. And trees give your garden a sense of permanence and scale.
Most trees will not damage your buildings. Just don’t plant them bang next to the house.
5: Make the most of vertical space…
St Erth was one of the first certified organic gardens to be opened to the public in Australia. Its fruit and veg areas have lots of lessons for the domestic gardener.
You can make a very small patch of ground extremely productive by using vertical space. At St Erth there is an area around 6-8ft wide and long. They’ve combined poles and string to create a support structure around 6-7ft high. In shape, it’s rather like an upright portable clothes dryer….
A clump of upright poles, tied together, create a high density support for pumpkins, beans and tomatoes. Alot of produce grown in a very small space!
A close-up of a pumpkin growing in this tightly packed few square feet. You can see the bean flowers and pods entwined with it.
Other ways of making the most of a small space for vegetable growing is to major on cut-and-come again crops. Sarah Raven has a good system of easy veg growing for year round success, which helps you work out what fruit and veg will give you the most return for the least space.
6: Grow food up ornamental arches…
There were a number of decorative arches used for growing food. One had pumpkins growing up it, and another created an ornamental support for grape vines.
A small ornamental arch used for growing grapes. You could also use it for beans or pumpkins.
7: Combine food and flowers in the same bed…
Maximise your use of space by combining food and flowers in the same patch.
An arch over a bench at St Erth. To one side you can see sugar cane growing – you could get a similar effect with sweetcorn. The arch supports pumpkins, while verbena bonariensis grows alongside.
8: You can fit an espaliered fruit tree in almost anywhere…
There’s a cafe at St Erth. The area outside is divided up by espaliered pear and apple trees. This is one of the best simple garden ideas for very small spaces. You can use a single espaliered tree or a short line of them to shelter a terrace or cover an eyesore, such as a compost bin. They don’t need to be any higher than 4-6ft, and you’ll get fruit too!
Every garden needs a few slightly surprising touches. At St Erth I really liked a gate made of old tools.
A garden gate made of old tools…
10: Visit other gardens when you’re on holiday…
You may take your holidays in a different climate, but there’s still so much to learn from gardens in other countries. I’m based in Kent, England, but the St Erth garden in Australia has many plants that are familiar to me, such as echinacea. It also has a collection of exotic plants. With the return of exotic plants to English gardens, it’s interesting to see them in context.
The Diggers Club has three gardens open to the public. I’ve visited the one at Cloudehill, which is much grander than St Erth. It has stunning borders, and also makes a very good use of modern sculpture. If you can’t get to Olinda, near Melbourne (Australia), then take a look at this video:
Wonderful colour planting tips for flower and veg borders - YouTube
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It can be difficult to find the right indoor garden pot for your newly fashionable house plant.
The chain stores, such as B&Q and Ikea, do a good line in white china indoor garden pots, and also some trendy ribbed and patterned neutrals.
And James Wong told me that in London there are wonderful garden centres run by ‘hipsters with post-ironic beards’, which are great for house plants and indoor garden pots.
Here in Faversham, we do have hipsters with post-ironic beards, but I think they’re mainly brewing their own beer or playing jazz in basements. They haven’t quite got around to indoor plants, except possibly of a certain grow-your-own variety.
What a difference a pot makes…
James Hemsley of Plant Furniture imports 1970s indoor garden pots from Germany. ‘For us it’s all about foliage plants,’ he says. ‘And the right pot sets off the plant best.’
My mantelpiece with a cyclamen in its standard pot.
Exactly the same scene but this time the cyclamen is in one of Plant Furniture’s pots.
In the 1970s there were dozens of factories in Germany and Scandinavia making these kind of pots, but by the time James discovered them, there were only a few remaining. They’re very well made, with a soft base that won’t scratch your furniture.
James points out that terracotta pots are permeable, so when people use them inside, they can leave watermarks. So if you’re thinking of bringing your outdoor garden pots inside, then do protect your surfaces if necessary.
Another ‘before’ – in its garden pot.
And in its Plant Furniture 1970s pot….
I would point out that I didn’t have any larger house plants – and I couldn’t find them locally. So I simply fished a Sarcococca Confusa out of a corner in the garden where it had been dumped in its pot. A beautiful aspidistra or parlour fern would look even better. But it does show that the pot can make even a an insignificant plant look really quite special.
Vintage garden pots and planters
We do have alot of charity shops in Faversham, plus some great junk, vintage and antique shops and markets. So I trawled them for house plant pot ideas. However, you can’t rely on finding particular things in a charity or second-hand shop. It is a bit random.
These vintage planters came from car boot fairs – you just need to be patient, and go to lots of car boot fairs or garage sales to find the right ones.
However, be patient. Re-visit the charity shop or go to the car boot fair or garage sale whenever it’s on, and you’ll find the perfect pots in the end.
Put out an auction alert…
However, I found a wonderful collection of brass and copper planters in a friend’s Victorian house.
My friends’ copper and brass Victorian planters, bought by leaving an alert with a local auction house.
They place an alert for ‘copper pots’ and ‘brass pots’ with the local auction house. When one comes up, they leave absentee bids and stick carefully to their budget. That’s usually £20-£30, or a bit more for a big one.
My friends say that they only get about one in five of the pots they bid for, but over time, that’s built up to quite a collection.
I love the texture of this beaten brass pot with the fern.
Their house is Victorian. That was the great age of exotic indoor plants, so it really suits the house. But it would also contrast well with a more modern look.
Garden pots from your travels…
The same friends go to various parts of Africa for work. They bring back baskets made by local women’s collectives and use them as containers for house plants.
Baskets woven by women’s collectives in Uganda, plus one of the auction house brass pots. Baskets are easier to bring home than china!
Let me know your suggestions for beautiful indoor garden pots. I originally found James Hemsley and Plant Furniture because he commented on my post on the 1970s house plant revolution, so it is worth commenting and reading the comments in a blog. You never know what you might find.
I’m creating a super-list of the best vegetable varieties to grow.
Out of curiosity, I threw myself on the mercy of Twitter. I asked the garden and allotment bloggers which one vegetable variety they wouldn’t be without. It should be easy to grow and tasty.
The answers were really surprising. I expected a roll call of familiar old favourites, but I’ve also discovered several unusual, delicious and easy-to-grow vegetables.
And I found some very interesting new posts on growing veg in the process.
Best tomato varieties to grow
Richard of the Homeallotment.com blog votes tomatoes as his favourite veg, and particularly loves ‘the fantastically named Japanese Black Trifele. It grows well as a cordon, either outside or in the greenhouse, and just needs the usual feeding and watering. They’re good either raw or cooked.’ Available from Brown Envelope Seeds.
Richard is also a Seed Guardian with the Stroud Community Seed Bank, and has written a very interesting post on 5 Reasons Why I Sow Seeds.
Richard’s Japanese Black Trifele Tomatoes
And The Chatty Gardener recommends Tomato ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’. It’s an old-fashioned big tomato, cordon-grown and an RHS AGM winner.
And because tomatoes are really one of the most popular home-grown vegetables, there is a third recommendation. Daily Mail gardening writer Constance Craig Smith says that ‘Sungold’ tomatoes are at the top of her list: ‘Irresistible!’
Best vegetable varieties you’ve never heard of…
There were some really exciting new recommendations. Professional gardener Joff Elphick of the Pot and Cloche Garden Podcasts loves growing puntarelle and agretti/barba di frate. ‘Puntarelle is something of an obsession in Italy. And I remember taking agretti to the Wilderness Festival and the chefs couldn’t get enough of it. I was backwards and forwards picking it to keep up with demand.’
Agretti or barba di frate is otherwise known as Salsola soda, Friar’s Beard or saltwort. It is a delicacy with a taste somewhere between seaweed and spinach. Serve in salads, stir-fries or lightly steamed.
Puntarelle is a variant of chicory, with light green stems and dandelion shaped leaves. It can be served raw or cooked. For stockists of both, see the end of the post.
The tastiest potatoes….
Once again, there were some unexpected recommendations. Robbie Cave of the Clockhouse Nurseries says that Spunta is one of their most popular sellers. Clockhouse Nurseries have 91 seed potatoes in their list. They don’t do mail order, so if you live too far away, there are suppliers at the end of this post.
New blogger, the Country Cottage Gardener, says she tried four seed potatoes last year, and loved Jazzy. And Julieanne Porter of Gwenfars Garden blog says that ‘ Sante is a good all-rounder and the most divine baked potato I’ve ever grown.’ Available from the Organic Gardening catalogue. She added that she’d like to nominate sorrel, too. ‘It’s a perennial, needs almost no work and rewards you all the year round.’ See her post on sorrel.
Beetroot is a must-have…
One of the great bonuses of growing your own veg is to be able to enjoy unusual varieties. Many people mentioned beetroot as a top vegetable to grow. Steve Mercer (@stevemercer4) is a member of the RHS Veg Trials Forum and he says that ‘Boldor, a golden beetroot, is always on my list.’
Richard Chivers of the allotment blog Sharpen Your Spades also recommends a golden beetroot, Burpees Golden. ‘It’s much sweeter than the reds’.
Everybody loves garlic…
I was amazed by how many people had garlic on their ‘must-grow’ list. I’ve tinkered with growing garlic myself, but not wholly successfully. I was about to give up. However, I am freshly inspired by everyone’s recommendations. Gigi Allen writes a blog on interiors, art, gardens and all things flowery. She says she ‘wouldn’t be without elephant garlic. It’s milder, roasts beautifully and is delicious alone, on kale, or in fish, roasts or pasta. And it does well in my clay soil.’
My last garlic harvest was two bulbs, but everyone has inspired me to have another go.
…and cavolo nero?
Kale and cavolo nero cropped up in many recommendations. Liz of Hay Bulbs, a private botanical collection, says that her family’s health has improved enormously since she started growing cavolo nero, due to its high calcium and magnesium content.
Magnesium is associated with a number of benefits – it aids circulation, helps restless legs and calms horses (my words not hers). When my daughter was heavily involved with riding, I was curious to discover that people were giving their horses magnesium to calm them down. There certainly wouldn’t be any placebo effect on horses!
Personally, I am wedded to kalettes. The whole family loves them, even the kale haters. But maybe this is the year to try cavolo nero.
And other green leaves…
My own personal recommendations of the best vegetable varieties to grow include Swiss chard. I prefer the silver variety, but others like the Rainbow colours. If you pick around the sides, then one plant will crop for months, often during the winter. Travel and lifestyle blog Fossils in my pockets agrees: ‘Swiss chard for me – stir fry, Sunday lunch, spanakopita, Thai curry, soup, pasta sauce, salad…keeps on trucking all winter and always there when you need it.’
I also adore komatsuna or Japanese mustard spinach. It is like spinach, but is easier to grow and less watery.
Komatsuna and Swiss chard are two of my top, easy-care, versatile green veg.
No veg patch should be without beans…
Brighton allotment holder and artist Pemblebee Art says ‘borlotti beans for me. They’re easy to grow. I just leave them on the vines to dry and when the weather starts to turn, I lay them out to finish drying on a tray in the window. But you could just pod them and eat them fresh or freeze them.’
New blogger Katharine from The Tea Break Gardener says that ‘Cobra’ climbing French beans are her must-have. ‘They look so pretty, with lilac flowers, bountiful green beans and grow up a wigwam so take up very little space.’ Cobra is one of my favourites, too, so that will go on the list.
And an unusual, delicious squash..
I was just going to wrap this up when one more tweet came in from ‘allotment geek and unusual veg enthusiast’ Modern Veg Plot. ‘Winter squash is a must-have for me, and Black Futsu is my favourite variety. It has a nutty flavour, firm flesh and stores well over winter.’ Available from Plant World Seeds.
Where to buy…
No single supplier stocks everything recommended here. I have included stockists for the most unusual ones, such as Japanese Black Trifele tomato and Black Futsu squash, in their entries above.
Mr Fothergill’s also stocks eleven: kalettes, Sungold tomatoes, Jazzy potatoes, agretti, sorrel, beetroot Burpees Golden, Elephant garlic, Swiss chard, komatsuna, Cobra climbing beans and Lingua di fuoco borlotti beans.
Thompson & Morgan have Beetroot ‘Boldor’, kalettes, borlotti beans, Swiss chard, Jazzy potatoes, Sungold tomatoes, Elephant garlic and sorrel, as well as lots of other veg. I particularly like the look of their four variety All Season Long Kale Mix which includes cavolo nero. They also have a ‘5 packets of seeds for the price of 4’ offer on at the moment.
Franchi Seeds of Italy have agretti, puntarelle, sorrel, Costoluto Fiorentino tomatoes, Spunta potatoes and more.
Start the adventure now…
I’ve placed my orders. To buy seeds or seed potatoes for everything in this list cost me around £85 in total, including shipping. Although my maths is not brilliant and I did have to buy from about five different companies so that figure is approximate. I’ll let you know how it all goes (so do subscribe if you’re new here).
It’s really quite exciting to have other people decide what I will grow, rather than dithering over seed catalogues myself. Although, of course, I’ve done my share of dithering, too.
PS: February’s Garden of the Month on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel is Posy Gentles’ long narrow urban garden. She is mapping out a few changes so if you have a thin town garden, do pop across to see what she’s doing:
A long narrow garden - top tips in February's Middlesized Garden of the Month - YouTube
YouTube gardening videos are a very useful resource. If you want to know how to prune roses, make a raised bed or plant potatoes, seeing it on video is fast, easy and free.
‘Let’s YouTube It’ is almost as popular as ‘Let’s Google It’ amongst my daughter’s generation. And even I now turn to YouTube before Google to solve any practical problem. YouTube often has better ‘how to’ videos done by individuals than the ones put out by companies.
So if you’re trying to work out how your camera works or what to do with a tin of chickpeas, ‘YouTubing it’ can save you so much time and trouble.
Of course, YouTube videos are rather variable. A friend of mine spent several minutes watching one which purported to help her mend her washing machine. It consisted of the YouTuber pressing every button and dial. This was accompanied by a disconsolate voice: ‘yeah, it’s broken… sure is broken.’ Not entirely helpful.
Our pergola has benefited from my brother-in-law’s YouTube skills
On the other hand, my brother-in-law has learned how to build corrugated iron sheds entirely from YouTube videos. He built a corrugated iron pergola for us, too, with his YouTube-found skills.
The world of YouTube gardening
The YouTube gardening scene currently seems dominated by the US, Australia, Canada and India/Pakistan. They’re interesting and often useful channels, except when the weather is too different. But for a sense of community (and tips that work in your climate), nothing beats homegrown YouTube gardening.
And the allotment and veg growing community on YouTube in Britain is vibrant. Plus it’s clearly growing fast. There are lots of channels to follow and excellent videos with great tips.
However, I have had huge difficulty in finding a ‘domestic’ YouTube gardening channel which reflects us ‘ordinary’ gardeners. That’s partly why I’ve started the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel, but I would like to know if there’s anyone else like me out there! Do let me know if I’ve missed someone…
There are lots of videos which are essentially slide shows with music, often called something like ’20 Small Backyard Garden Ideas.’ There are also channels where people peer fuzzily at the lens and lose track of what they’re saying. They wave the camera about so much that it’s like viewing a garden from a small boat being tossed in a storm. All very like some of my own videos admittedly…
Allotment YouTube channels to follow
There are some excellent YouTubers amongst the allotmenteers. Charles Dowding, champion of ‘No Dig’ gardening, has a really helpful channel. His videos get straight into the topic. They’re clearly shot and the sound is good. They offer straightforward good advice, and I’ve found them very useful. Start by viewing his introductory video:
Introduction to Charles Dowding videos, easier ways to grow great veg - YouTube
Broadcasting from the Isle of Man, you will find the lovely Tanya on Lovely Greens TV – Gardening, Beauty and Bee-keeping. Her channel is picking up new subscribers by the thousands. Last year, she won a week’s training from YouTube as part of their ‘Next Up’ programme of encouraging successful new YouTubers. As a result, her videos are professional, well filmed, and generally delightful.
Here in the UK, Sean James Cameron is a top ‘YouTube gardening influencer’. He has a distinctive style and legions of fans. They really love his work. When he posted a video which started ‘I’ve just woken up, and it’s dark outside so there’s nothing I can show you’ (roughly paraphrased by me, not exact words), he got lots of appreciative comments. This year he is moving his beds from one part of the allotment to another, which is high drama in the allotment world. It is fascinating and I can see that his subscriber counts continue to rise fast.
New on the YouTube allotment
Amongst the newcomers are Life at No 27 and Agents of Field. Agents of Field produce stylish, witty videos that make allotmenteering look very hip (which it is, of course). Life at No 27 has a young, energetic feel and is also well produced with good photography and sound. (These things matter!)
But where are the domestic YouTube gardening channels?
Container gardening and indoor plants are now so fashionable so there are lots of individual videos, often done by fashion, homes and beauty bloggers. The award-winning gardening journalist Jane Perrone has recently started an indoor plant YouTube channel.
Mr Plant Geek Michael Perry charts his some of his garden travels on his YouTube channel. The food bloggers stray into gardening from time to time, almost as an afterthought. And the big brands, such as Waitrose and B&Q, have ‘TV’ channels. Gardening features as a secondary stream to food or DIY, using top gardening TV names, such as Alan Titchmarsh.
The RHS, of course, has a YouTube channel – definitely worth subscribing to for more about the RHS shows and gardens.
You can also ‘YouTube it’ for individual tasks, such as this excellent ‘how to prune roses’ video from the English Garden magazine’s YouTube channel. In fact, my How to Prune English Lavender video is one of the most popular on my channel. ‘YouTube gardening’ and ‘How to’ go together like strawberries and cream.
How to prune English lavender - YouTube
But there isn’t the same casual, energetic community feel amongst the ‘garden’ channels that I’ve found in the allotment and veg growing ones. Or have I just not looked hard enough?
On the Middlesized Garden, I hope to create that sense of a gardening conversation, based on real gardens. There are regular features – the Middlesized Garden of the Month, which will be a middle-sized garden you probably wouldn’t otherwise see, because they’re too far away and/or not open to the public. There are garden tips on Wednesdays, and a Garden Tour of my garden once a month. Here’s February:
February garden - the Middlesized Garden 1st of the month tour - YouTube
So do drop in and tell me what you think. And if you have a YouTube channel, tell me what you think.
If you want to take your garden up a notch, book a garden appraisal.
Maybe you’ve moved to a new house and you don’t even know what’s in your garden?
Or your life has changed – you now have more time (or less) for the garden, and it needs to change too. You want more interesting plants or need easier-to-look-after ones.
A garden appraisal isn’t a re-design
You’re not considering calling in the heavy diggers. Instead, you want a fresh eye from someone experienced enough to give you practical, creative ideas to improve your garden. Or you want to know what you’ve got in the garden and how you can make the best of it.
A garden appraisal is best carried out by an experienced gardener or garden designer whose style you like. If you want to focus on plants, then a professional gardener is probably more appropriate than a garden designer, but it depends on the individual. Many garden designers are very knowledgeable about plants, but not all.
Posy Gentles’ style is a subtle use of colour and texture. Her garden appraisals include planting plans and creative garden ideas.
If you have a gardener for a few hours a week, you probably already have an ongoing system of appraisal built into the way you work together. But even so, it’s sometimes illuminating to bring an outside eye in. (Although make sure your gardener is happy with that, and doesn’t see it as criticism of his or her work.)
And if you don’t employ a gardener, a garden appraisal from time to time can give that essential professional input.
Step-by-step garden appraisal
Gardener Julie Penny is approached to do appraisals ‘when people move to new gardens, and have no idea what plants, trees or shrubs they have. ‘I usually walk round with the client,’ she says, ‘asking them to take notes, so they can understand it better if they’re not very knowledgeable.’
She identifies plants and then emails the client with a list, with when and how to prune or cut back. ‘I send email prompts at appropriate times of year. Sometimes I’ve been asked to do the actual maintenance work, but I’m too fully booked, so I have recommended jobs to other All Horts members in the area.’
The garden appraisal plus strategy…
While there’s a slight difference between finding out what’s in your garden and getting a garden appraisal in order to make changes, one naturally leads to the other. Your first garden appraisal might be an introduction to your garden – what’s there and how to deal with it.
But a year or two down the line, you’re likely to want to look at it all again. Do you want the garden to be more easy-care or more colourful? More privacy or shade? Have you either fallen in love with or taken against a particular type of plant? Maybe you were a complete novice but now you have the gardening bug?
Do you want more colour and wildness or easy-care shrubs….?
Garden maker Posy Gentles has often been asked to assess a garden or border, and give suggestions for taking it up a notch.
In that post, I go into how much to pay a gardener. The Gardeners Guild recommends £20-£40 an hour, which is very similar to what you would pay most self-employed trades people, such as decorators, carpenters etc.
If you are getting a garden appraisal, it should be by someone who is experienced/qualified (no point otherwise). So you will be paying at the upper end of that scale. And a garden appraisal doesn’t just involve going round a garden. You will also need to pay – usually at an hourly rate – for the time spent in research, planning, writing reports, sourcing plants or travel. Julie Penny estimates that her garden appraisals will cost a minimum of £75.
Garden appraisals are usually costed at an hourly rate
The price will be affected by the size of the garden, how much you want to change it, and what your ambitions are. If you just want to change a single border in a small plot, that’s obviously going to cost much less than making more dramatic changes in a larger garden.
After all, the gardener will spend 2-3 hours walking round your garden on a garden appraisal, giving one or two ideas verbally. Then he or she will go home and think about it, researching ideas and checking things, then writing a report with recommendations. If they do a plant list, with where to get those plants, and pricings, that’s going to take another hour or two.
So it all depends on how big your garden is, how much you want to change and how much you’re prepared to spend on carrying out the strategy. A garden appraisal could take anything from around 3 or 4 hours to 10+.
At a rate of £20-£40 an hour that’s anything from £75 to £400+. But it is a one-off or an annual investment, not one you would make every month.
How do you find the right person to carry out a garden appraisal?
I think word of mouth is probably the best way to find the right gardening specialist for this sort of work. Which gardens locally do you like? Who does the garden? You will need someone with experience and/or qualifications. You could try The Gardeners’ Guild, who have a list of members.
Ask local nurseries, garden centres or large open gardens if they know anyone who carries out such work. Remember that you do need someone experienced – for example, the Head Gardener of a grand garden near you if he or she does some freelance work. You’re not looking for a horticultural student, but someone who really understands what works and what doesn’t in gardens like yours.
How do you tell if someone is right for your garden?
Have an initial chat with your prospective garden expert, and ask them what sort of gardening they personally like doing. If they have a website (most self-employed people have websites now), then you can check out their style there, too. Some people may have a portfolio, and other experts open their own gardens for a few days a year, for local open garden schemes or the NGS.
And you can also ask to talk to previous clients, because you’ll get a much better impression of what sort of a gardener he or she is. If you love vibrant colour, it’s no good employing a minimalist to do a garden appraisal for you.
Posy Gentles charges for the initial site visit, because she gives some ideas there and then. She asks garden owners what they like about their gardens, what they want to keep and what they don’t like. What do they most want to change? What colours do they like? And what do they use their garden for? Is it mainly to look at from the house or do they entertain in it in the summer? Then she makes initial suggestions, followed by a written report with plant recommendations and creative ideas.
A garden appraisal can include a list of plants with their names and where to get them. The gardener can also order them for you, but remember that the longer they spend on your project, the more it will cost you, as it’s usually an hourly charge. They should also be able to advise you how to look after the plants.
I first heard the term ‘re-wilding’ at Glee 2017, the horticultural trades show. It’s one of the big new trends in gardening.
It means appreciating, re-introducing or conserving the wild plants, animals and bugs that live in your environment. Let nature take its course, and don’t be too controlling.
This week, I have read three completely different publications, each addressing a different aspect of re-wilding. So I will review all three, because together they show the different ways in which ‘re-wilding’ can enrich your life.
‘Re-wilding’ in your garden
When you hear the term ‘re-wilding’, do you think of swapping your lawn for a meadow, and sowing wild-flowers? That is, indeed, part of it.
Wild salsify in an urban garden – we’re now growing a wider range of wildflowers in our gardens.
But Val Bourne gives it a wider context in her new book, The Living Jigsaw’ (how to create a healthy garden ecology) which I have just been sent for review. (Note: links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means I may get a small fee if you buy through them, but it won’t affect the price you pay.)
Val describes her re-wilding ‘damascene moment’. When she explained what aphids were to her nieces, she also explained how the ants farmed the aphids, how ladybirds ate the aphids, and how baby birds need to be fed with thousands of tiny insects. ‘All these creatures fit together like a living jigsaw,’ she says. ‘They all need each other in order to survive.’
The Living Jigsaw is about gardening without segregating ‘insects and pests into “saints and sinners” – look at them as part of a self-limiting food chain.’
She goes on to talk about the insect life and bird life in your garden, and how to deal with slugs and snails without using pellets. She particularly warns against slug pellets containing metaldehyde.
Apple trees are in Val Bourne’s top 100 plants for an eco-friendly garden.
At the end, there is list a Top 100 Plants for an Eco-Friendly Garden. I checked how many of them I have in this garden. We have around 50 of the 100. I could do better, as I like to support wildlife.
‘Re-wilding’ on holiday
Plant-lovers say that nothing teaches you more about how to grow plants than seeing them growing wild in their native countries. Many keen plantaholics choose their holiday destinations specifically for that purpose.
When I interviewed Gill and Peter Regan for The English Garden magazine, Gill told me that they’d struggled to keep peonies alive until she took a photograph of a peony growing under a tree in Iran. ‘I realised that our peony roots were probably rotting due to the damp in our garden.’ The Regans gained similar insights from trips to see Sternbergias in Turkey, bergenias in Yunnan, and plants growing wild in China, Western Australia, Peru and more.
Connect with plants in their natural habitat
I visited my brother, Hugo and his wife, Anna, in El Canuelo, a small village in Andalucia. Although I wrote about crazily wonderful gardening ideas, I didn’t think about the wild flowers.
I’ve just been sent Tony Hall’s Wild Plants of Southern Spain (Kew Publishing) to review. It’s a botanical book with clear, close-up photographs, botanical names and even a small printed ‘ruler’ on the back cover flap. ‘Take photographs of the plants you want to identify’ advises Tony (rather than pulling them up or cutting the flowers).
I’ll enjoy walking around the village and hillside near El Canuelo in Andalucia even more if I learn to spot the wild plants.
I plan to give this book to Anna and Hugo, because El Canuelo is on a fairly wild hillside. Hugo frequently goes for long walks in the countryside, as do their many guests. I feel that taking this book and identifying the wild flowers of the region is part of today’s mindfulness trend. Knowing what the plants are helps to give a sense of place. Also, as a gardener, I can learn from seeing how and where wild plants grow.
‘Re-wilding’ in the city
I recently went to a pop-up gallery in Floral St, London WC2 for an evening run by Rakes Progress and Women In Journalism. Rakes Progress is one of the new breed of independent magazines, which are proving that ‘print is not dead.’
Women in Journalism seminar and hanging flower installation at Rakes Progress pop-up shop in Floral St, Covent Garden.
Somewhat appropriately, the Rakes Progress exhibition was called ‘Dead Beautiful’. The art and ‘floral installation’ showcased the beauty of dead and dying flowers. Swathes of flowers and greenery – some living, some dying, some dried -hung from the ceilings, along with branches.
And there was a swirl of petals on the floor around even apparently conventional flower arrangements. My mother would have taken a broom to it all.
Almost ‘traditional’ flower arrangement at Rakes Progress, except that the fallen petals and dying flower are part of it, and there are more on the floor around the pedestal.
So why is this ‘re-wilding’? Well, when someone goes into a gallery like this and thinks ‘that plant looks amazing,’ it often triggers an interest in more plants that look amazing. An imaginative display (or floral installation as I think we must call it now) can lead to people buying plants for their home, balcony, courtyard or window-sill. From there, they may start to visit gardens and appreciate the impact of public parks on the environment and health.
A forest in the city? Well, a floral installation to remind city dwellers of real wood and forests….including fallen leaves and bark, and a swathe of sawdust where the trees have been cut down. That’s my interpretation anyway.
What individuals do and say matters. Urban front gardens have been concreted over in their thousands to create parking spaces. But once the owners of those houses start to appreciate the beauty of plants, they are more likely to try to create at least some greenery amongst the concrete. Fashionable floral installations can get people thinking differently about plants, because they demand that you stop and stare. If only to mutter that the floor needs a good sweep.
Re-wilding taps into the cycle of life
It’s that return to the appreciation of natural materials, traditional ways and the cycle of life that makes a magazine like Rakes Progress part of ‘re-wilding’. In my view, anyway, although Tom Loxley, co-founder of Rake’s Progress, also aligns it with the ‘slow living’ movement.
‘Re-wilding’ the London bar scene with hanging drapes of plants? In fact, this has definite echoes of the way Faversham decorates its town in the traditional hop festival….
Flip through the pages of issue 6 of Rakes Progress in this video, where I review it. It is gardening made hip, with gorgeous, brooding photography, interviews with ‘floral artists’, garden designers, craftsmen and more. There’s no advertising and no date on the issue. These magazines aim to be as timeless as books. However, unlike in coffee-table books, the writing is important, too. There are long, detailed articles, which will take you a while to read.
Rakes Progress magazine reviewed - YouTube
I’ll also be reviewing Val Bourne’s The Living Jigsaw and Tony Hall’s Wild Plants of Southern Spain in more depth on the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel.
If you’re interested in why ‘print is not dead’, by the way, we discussed how magazines are changing in response to the changing tastes of people today, especially Millenials.
Wildflowers hanging upside down from the ceiling in a floral installation by the Urban Flower Company at the Rakes Progress popup shop.
Gardening writer, Alice Vincent, herself a Millenial, said that her generation don’t want to hear about shopping. ‘We either rent or have very small flats, so we’re more interested in experiences or something we can talk about.’ She also thought that the fashion for gardening amongst the young is a trend that will stick around. ‘Clean eating was a fad, and is now considered to be “over”, but it drove the current growth in veganism.’
Garden tools as part of the Rakes Progress art installation. I love it – this is an idea that would translate well into a home. If you don’t have space for a garden shed, hang your tools on the wall and appreciate their beauty. I particularly like that these are not all vintage tools – there are brand new ones there too.
So why does re-wilding matter to you?
Scientific tests have proved that slowing down to enjoy all your senses and ‘mindfulness’, helps stress, concentration and sleep. But to take it back to Val Bourne’s book – we are all part of the living jigsaw. We need bees and pollinating insects, and they need flowers and plants. At some point in the chain, even the less attractive bugs and beings play their part.
We don’t necessarily know how much each species contributes to the jigsaw. And we certainly can’t foretell the consequences of one or more disappearing from the earth. Even when re-wilding is a token activity – in an art installation, for example – it still has a message for us all. Let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.
Yasmin Hossain makes natural dye from garden plants. She uses it to dye beautiful silk and wool fabrics.
And I believe that grow-your-own dyes from garden plants is a trend that will grow enormously in popularity in the next few years.
It’s creative and almost anyone can do it, although there’s a certain amount of experimentation involved. If, for example, you’re a knitter or crafter, how much more exciting is it to dye your own wool and felt? Especially as you’re using ingredients that would otherwise be thrown away, such as vegetable skins and dead flower heads.
The soft pink blanket is dyed with natural dye made from avocado skins and stones. The yellow one is dyed from daffodil heads from Doddington Place.
Yasmin experiments with flower dyes in her own home. She is also one of a partnership in Juniper & Bliss who make clothes and bedding from natural organic materials, dyed with plant dyes. Juniper and Bliss aim to be completely sustainable and ‘zero waste’. ‘We want to leave the lightest environmental footprint,’ says Yasmin.
Fabrics are made and dyed by small scale producers and artisanal co-operatives around the world, such as Scottish micro-mills or co-operatives in India. Clothes and bedding are then sewn in atelier protege in Belgium. (This roughly translates as ‘protected workshop’, along Fair Trade principles.)
Avocado skins and pips, given to Yasmin by a local cafe, waiting to be distilled into dye in Yasmin’s kitchen.
Flowers and vegetable skins for dyes at home
At home in Kent, Yasmin brews up avocado pips and skins from a local cafe and asks beautiful local garden Doddington Place if she can have their daffodil deadheads in late spring. She is even drying a bunch of flowers sent to her as a gift.
These are dried flower heads from a bunch of flowers given to Yasmin as a gift. They will soon be brewed up to create beautiful, natural colours for dye.
I recently did a video on dyeing tablecloths with Dylon, but it can’t be used for wool or silk. So when I heard about Yasmin’s natural dyeing, I was keen to hear more.
And now that cut flowers are joining the grow-your-own movement, along with a desire to minimise waste and chemicals, I think the trend towards using natural dyes in your own home can only grow and grow.
First choose your flower or plant
I joined Yasmin for a dyeing session using avocado skins and pips. The principles of natural dyeing are approximately the same for many flowers and plants.
However, natural dyers are always trying things out and tweaking their recipes, so keep a note of how your natural dye turns out. More avocado skins and pips? A longer boiling time? Do you need to add a fixative (known as a mordant)? Each recipe is different, so let’s go from start to finish with Yasmin’s avocados.
If your household eats alot of avocados, you can save the skins and stones, but Yasmin gets hers from a local cafe. The discarded material sits in a bowl in her living room or kitchen until she’s ready to brew up.
I’ve done a video showing the process, which you can see below:
DIY plant dyes from your garden! - YouTube
Brew it up
Yasmin added a few handfuls of avocado skins and stones to a large stainless steel pan. She added water, to a depth of two to three times. Then she brings it to the boil and simmers it for around an hour until she estimates the dye is strong enough.
Check the strength of the dye with a spoon. Just over an hour later, it looks about right to Yasmin.
Meanwhile, in another stainless steel bowl, the natural wool is soaking in water.
The wool or cotton needs to be wet if it is to take the dye evenly, so soak it in another bowl while you’re making the dye.
The next stage – add the natural dye to the wool or fabric
Squeeze out the cotton or wool so that it is damp, but not soaking.
Then strain the dye liquid. You may be able to brew up another dye from the same material, and the ‘2nd dye bath’ will come out slightly different (usually paler, not surprisingly).
Allow the dye liquid to cool a little before adding the fabric.
Remove larger pieces with a slotted spoon, then drain the liquid with a sieve to get the detritus out.
Return the pan to the heat, but be careful not to allow it to boil for more than a few seconds or it will felt the wool.
Swirl the wool or fabric around in the pan so that the liquid is evenly distributed. Then return the pan to the heat, bringing it very briefly to the boil.
Turn it down to simmer immediately and simmer for around an hour. Don’t let it boil or it will felt the wool.
Not all natural dyes need to be boiled. Yasmin had a large pot of eucalptus leaves infusing in her kitchen, and these won’t be heated up.
When the wool is approximately the shade you want, lift it out of the dyeing water, and hang it up to dry. It will probably be paler when dry, so experiment a bit.
I’d say the process is similar to making marmalade in terms of time and effort. It takes quite a long time, because of all the simmering and steeping, but for most of that time, it’s just brewing away without much interference from you. We were able to enjoy a delightful lunch while the dye was boiling and simmering.
When you judge that the dye is ready, drain the dye and gently wash the wool in a very mild detergent. Wool doesn’t like going from one extreme of temperature to another. So allow it to cool a little and also use warm water for washing it. Once any excess dye has been washed out, hang the wool or cotton up to dry.
More colours from natural plant dyes
The orange swatch was made from Black Cat dahlia, which I also have here. It’s a very deep red -so plant colours don’t always turn out the way you expect.
The Modern Natural Dyer, A Comprehensive Guide to Dyeing Silk, Wool, Linen and Cotton at Home by Kristine Vejar is also highly rated. And gardeners who want to think about what to plant in their garden should enjoy Rita Buchanan’s The Weaver’s Garden.
Note: links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means I may receive a small fee if you buy through them, but it won’t affect the price you pay.
There are also workshops where you can learn about dyeing. These include day and weekend workshops from Flora Arbuthnott. Craft Courses is a website that lists dyeing, spinning and other crafting courses around the UK.