Tuesday 27 October 2020

Getting on

Mystery plant growing in dappled shade
The ten days that have elapsed since my previous post have sadly borne out the lack of Covid consensus and underline the need to press on with normal living to the degree that is possible. Time on your hands is not a good thing when so many worrying factors press in. So, I hope Codger can help a little as we press on with getting on

First, a slight distraction. Do you recognise the flower in the photo? I am pleased to say that it has appeared in the shady corner I worked on earlier in the year. This is one of those plants that like dappled shade. I have put several different plants there that like those conditions and this is one of them. Look next week to see if you have managed to identify it correctly (cheating via Google or any other browser is allowed! A good little test of an image search, actually)

Special Offer!

Here are the six planters I'm currently working on
One, mage up and ready to go, could be yours!
After finishing the previous blog (The long haul, 16 October), I had a further thought about the Spring bulb project: What about those readers not in a position to make up a planter? That can be difficult in a flat or any situation where it is hard to get outside. So, here is an offer: if you would like a Spring bulb planter – and live locally – just get in touch and let me know. I am in the process of making up six of these but could run to a few more if the demand is there. As you know, I do not charge but simply ask you to consider making a donation to the Birmingham City Mission (either by clicking here or direct to Codger)

Doing your own

You need a free-draining mix like this - plenty of grit
Following on from last week, here is a bit more information that may be helpful. I sourced reasonably priced planter planters on Amazon that are excellent for the purpose. If you hunt around, you can find a 40cm Venetian window box for a fiver. That is a good size because it will not be too heavy when filled

There is a little drawback with these things. Most come without holes – you have to drill these yourself. A little reminder: bulbs like a free-draining mix so it is best not to use potting compost straight from the bag. This other photo shows what you are aiming for – potting compost plus vermiculite plus grit. If you can add a little leaf mould and blood, fish and bone then so much the better

Project Number Two

This shot taken today - 12 days after sowing -
see previous blog post for varieties
Our second project was growing winter lettuce. You can see how mine are doing in this shot. Both varieties have germinated and will soon be ready for pricking out. But I fear I may have led you up the garden path. Watching one of Charles Dowding’s recent videos I now think we have started too late on this job. You see, it is not just a matter of temperature but, also, daylength. The Lollo Rosso lettuces that are doing well were sown about two months ago and are therefore well established. Obviously, newly sown lettuce will be in different situation. I shall persevere but with an extra twist. Let me explain …

Codger’s Curious Contraption

Two of the four original lamps working
(I repaired one of the three that failed)
Despite appearances the photograph is not of stage lighting but an attempt to build a contraption to grow plants during the dark winter months using grow lights. I had read that the cost of grow lamps had come down now that LEDs could be used

So, two or three years ago, Codger bought four cheap LED grow lamps on Amazon. Being cheap, they came on a slow boat from China, so we were really in the cold and the dark when they arrived. However, using a timer, I successfully germinated some seeds in the garage but then disappointment as one by one, three of the four lamps popped. I now realise that these cheap lamps are also a bit of a fire hazard so I can hardly recommend them here

However, there is an alternative type that appears to be safer, so I am about to have another shot at this. Watch this space (or listen for the bang!)

Lawn maintenance

Codger scraping out the moss and thatch
An operation known as scarifying
As you probably know, Gardeners’ World is compulsory viewing for Codger. He does have a problem, though. When it is broadcast in the nine o’clock slot there is a tendency to drift off just Monty comes to the jobs-to-do section as the programme draws to a close. I came round the other week to find him encouraging me to scarify the lawn. Or, perhaps, that was urged upon us earlier in the programme

Anyway, spotting a gap in the weather a week ago I found out the rake (the one with spung tines) and scratched away at the front lawn. To be honest, this is a job I do not enjoy but, despite, the hard work I stuck at it collecting a considerable pile of moss in the process. In theory, this should be great stuff to put on the compost heap but in my experience, moss refuses to rot down. I reckon it must contain some sort of natural preservative. I have also tried using it as a mulch but This time it went in the council green bin

This is the sort of rake you need - the tines are springy
Returning to the lawn, I was horrified to see just how bare some of the patches were now the moss had been removed. Maintenance turned into repair …

Lawn repair

This may be of some help to readers, so let me tell you about the repair job. I am no great lover of lawns, but a mangy lawn is an insult to any Englishman who claims to be a gardener. So, honour drove me to spend ten pounds, or thereabouts. The big DIY stores sell a strange substance labelled Top Soil. How this is defined, I know not. However, they claim it is weed-free and the 20 litre bags were on special offer – cost £10. Grass seed is more straightforward, and I managed to get a box for £3.99

The soil temperature was 12 degrees when I sowed the seed.
That has now dropped to 9 degrees so we are on the edge, I fear
If you do this job yourself, I strongly recommend sieving the topsoil (so called). Sprinkle liberally where the making-good needs to happen and thinly sow the grass seed. Cover with a sprinkling of the sieved topsoil. I managed to time my operation just ahead of the rain. At this time of year you should see signs of life in about a week

I seed I used was packaged by Westland. The box usefully points out that you need a soil temperature of seven degrees or more. I have found that that is easier to achieve in the autumn than in the Spring. Remember the oft repeated autumn maxim, “sow while the soil is still warm”

Looks pretty drastic, doesn't it?
I got caught out in the Spring three years ago and phoned the Westland helpline. They honestly told that they had recieved lots of complaints. The problem was put it down to the cold weather; perhaps that is why they now state the germination temperature on the box

I spent £13.99 in total but with half the seed, and one of the four bags of topsoil, left over I reckon it cost me a mere tenner. I should also add the exertion do knock me about a bit and caused me to ask …

Am I a seven stone weakling?

Remember my tip about grit in previous issues? Buy chicken grit rather than pay through the nose for horticultural grit. However, I also mentioned the weight of the bags, 25kg. I now resort to the barrow and this got me thinking about the days when I could handle a one hundredweight bag of cement. So, the question arose in my mind: is the old hundredweight the same as 25kg?

Gets even trickier. Although the US hundredweight is 100lb their
cement comes in 94lb bags. Why? 94lb of cement occupies
one cubic foot! 
(with thanks to Wiki )
To my surprise the answer is a very big - No! The modern 25kg bag is only half a hundredweight. When I was doing A levels I got a holiday job on a building site. I found it to be an excellent finishing school, teaching a finesse that will be obvious to any sensitive observer. One of my jobs was unloading the cement lorry which brought the material straight from the manufacturing plant – usually the bags were still hot from the ovens. The knack to carrying them was to stand back to the wagon and let the bag flop on top the shoulders and then trot to the cement store. Stopping was fatal. Dropping a bag would cause it to burst open – what you might call a whitening experience. Looking back, I wonder just how many tons I managed to move at 50kg a time

Medieval metrication

Different commodities tended to use different sizes and measures
These are Royal Navy coal sacks
Older readers will remember learning their weights and measures. Fun was it not? One hundredweight equals 112 pounds – written, of course, as 1 cwt = 112lb. But why 112 and not 100? Well, I’m not 100% sure about this (or even 112% sure) but I think it relates to our old friend, the stone which originally weighed in rather less than the modern 14lb, 12½ lb, in fact. There are eight stones in a hundredweight – you can work it out. One effect of this was to create the long ton and the short ton – the latter being used in the States where 20 x 100lb = 2000lb – the short ton. The Imperial ton being 2,240lb – eminently sensible, of course! But I am rabbiting on ...

Finishing off

Remember the photo and the advert? Actually, a genuine guy
who was a bit ahead of his times. See the YouTube video below

Where does the seven stone weakling come in to all this? For the sake of younger readers, let me explain. When Codger was but a callow youth, there was a ubiquitous advertisement aimed at young men who feared being thought of as puny. They were urged to sign up and to develop a magnificent physique. I cannot now remember the cost of the Charles Atlas course, but I did cement bag training instead - courtesy of Bert King & Son, Builders, St Albans

Incidentally, you can see a fascinating period interview with Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano) here. I found it very interesting to hear his comments about the beneficial benefits of wartime rationing in England (by which he meant the UK, I suppose)

… and finally …

… a curious photograph. Now here is another fishy tale. Can you work out what is happening in this photograph sent in by expert aquarium-keeper, Brian Turner? 

Remember the squash I grow every year called Turk’s Turban? It turns out to be a delicacy beloved of tropical fish. Here they are, enjoying the hat band!

 … with best wishes from the old Garden Codger

Note: next publication date is Friday 6th November - or, perhaps, a bit before if we can

Oh! And here is the advert that appeared in the comics I read in my youth. (I'm afraid to say that I was a great devourer of comics. I was once moved on by a policeman for reading on the pavement after picking up the Beano from the newsagent)

Friday 16 October 2020

The long haul

Fresh cut chrysanthemums

Well folks, we are obviously in for the long haul. I refer to the tiered lockdown, of course. Or, should that be tired lockdown – we seem to be losing consensus, don’t we? With the renewed lockdown very much in mind today’s edition features three growing projects for you to consider. I hope that at least one of them may provide a helpful distraction whilst normal living continues to be so curtailed

I am glad about one thing. Although I doubted the wisdom along the way, growing chrysanthemums has turned out to be a great idea. Because of my lack of experience, it is something I have not encouraged others in. But now I have persevered myself I can see the advantage: prolonged colour at the end of the season. And this applies both in the garden and in the house since chrysanthemums make such excellent cut flowers – they look good and last a long time

Hederifolium - the ivy-leaf type which is hardier
It is rather late to make a move now but you can buy a potted chrysanthemum. Obviously, that will give an instant result. If you can, look out for a hardy variety that can be planted outside. I see that Mrs Codger’s gardening magazine says that chrysanthemum have made a comeback so, perhaps, we are ahead of the curve

Speaking of hardy types, the same applies to cyclamen. I see lots of these at the supermarkets – but there is often a problem

Persicum - less tolerant of cold BUT it does not
like dry central heating - neither type do
The labelling is poor so you often cannot tell what variety is being supplied. If you want to plant outside you need cyclamen hederifolium – often called ivy leaf cyclamen. The other sort, often sold, is cyclamen persicum. These two photographs may help you. Neither sort like dry, centrally heated conditions, so I think a bit of mis-selling is going on here

Now let’s turn to our possible projects …

(1) Growing Spring bulbs

Growing tomatoes in May this year

Were you one of those who grew tomatoes in a container this summer? Good news, Spring bulbs are a great follow-on! Although not ideal, you will probably get away with popping in a few bulbs once you have removed the old tomato plants. However, there is a risk of the bulbs getting waterlogged so here is the old Garden Codger approach …

Doing it right

Potting compost becomes a bit caggy after a season of growing so it is best to liven up a bit. As a general rule bulbs like good drainage, so a growing medium remix is in order. My photo introduces you to the ingredients:

  • We start with the main component: the old compost used for growing tomatoes. It should be perfectly good enough to reuse for this purpose. The only thing to look out for is soil-borne pests and diseases like weevils – easy to spot as they are white grubs that are easy to see. If in any doubt then simply use fresh potting compost
  • Vermiculite. Available from the usual garden stores this will help lighten the soil and assist drainage
  • Grit
    Cheapest way of buying grit - good tip!
    . For really good drainage you need grit. If you are a regular reader you will know that my tip is to use chicken grit. Monty Don reckons you should use 30 – 50% grit. I think he is right, but the experts tend not to tell you that horticultural grit is ridiculously expensive – hence my suggestion. I have just ordered another bag of chicken grit from Amazon. £14 buys you 25kg. That is heavy, so please be careful
  • Blood, fish and bone. I am not sure if this is essential, but it seems wise to me to add a little fertiliser as the tomatoes will have depleted the nutrients in the compost. This step can be skipped if you are using fresh compost
  • Leaf mould – if you can get it! Not available for love nor money so regard this as an optional extra. Well, it is available for love – if, like me, you resort to roaming the streets with bag and shovel. (Collecting autumn leaves could comprise another useful lockdown activity – fresh air and good exercise!)

Half fill with new mix and place the bulbs before topping up
Rather like making a cake, the next step is to mix the ingredients. You will obviously need a tub, or whatever. Having done that, half fill the planter you are using. I had re-used the tomato planter as in the photo. Usual routine: cover the drainage holes with old broken crock first. Place the bulbs and then top up with the remaining compost, leaving an inch gap. Sprinkle with a layer of gravel or grit, and you are done!

Spring bulbs

The choice of bulbs is up to you. There are loads of online offers at the moment. You will often see bulb packs at B&Q / Homebase and garden centres. And there are many online offers. I got mine from the Secret Garden Club. I have recommended this outfit before. (Free delivery over £25 – much lower than most companies. They are reliable and fast. The prices are good, and you can get 20% off - just to drop me a line as to how)

The term Spring bulbs refers to those that produce small flowers like tête-à-tête daffodil, iris reticulata and so forth. These are, say, four to ten inches high and differentiated from the bigger bulb plants like more standard daffodils and tulips which need not be planted for a week or two, yet. It you want a good show of Spring bulbs – start now!

Leaf mould being sieved - wonderful stuff!

Leaf mould

My list of ingredients includes leaf mould. I must have referred to this before. Leaf mould is marvellous stuff and easy to make. The simplest method is to stuff a black plastic bag with fallen leaves. Tie the top and bodge a few holes in the bottom. Best left in a forgotten corner but in contact with the soil. That way the creep-crawlies will get to work. Even so, it will probably take two years to rot down

This is lettuce I have growing outside at the moment
Use only deciduous leaves. When it looks ready, rub through a sieve. I wear gloves for this so I can use the sieve like a cheese grater. Look out for worms – too precious to kill by accident

One last point about the bulbs. Squirrels alert! They love to dig them up. Easiest protection is wire mesh. Fancy another long lockdown project? Why not grow some winter lettuce? Here’s how …

 (2) Winter lettuce

I'm trying a couple of varieties new to me
As with the Spring bulbs this will work well in a long container. But first, you will need to sow some lettuce seed and get them established before planting them out in the container. I carried out a late summer experiment with sowing lettuces. Some straight in the ground, some in plug planters and some in a seed tray – these subsequently had to be pricked out. The traditional seed tray plus pricking-out worked best – so this is the way I shall go with this project

Sow the seeds in a seed tray or similar receptacle. Ordinary potting/seed compost will work OK but I prefer to sieve it first and then lighten it a bit with vermiculite. Moisten the mix and then sprinkle the seeds thinly, firm down so they are in good contact with the soil and cover with a thin layer of vermiculite or sieved compost. Place on a sunny windowsill or in cold frame / greenhouse

This time I've ordered from a smaller company near Frome
Which lettuce seed? Winter Density is a favourite but it does not do well for me so I am trying something different this year. Charles Dowding recommends a variety named, Grenoble Red. I tracked this down under its French name Rouge Grenobloise. It is available from, Simpsons seeds, a small company near Frome. I also ordered Artic King more good measure – sounds hardy! The order came yesterday so, taking advantage of the nice day, I sowed the seeds straightaway as you can see in the photos

You may find other suitable varieties in your local garden centre. The online companies are worth checking, too. For example, I have just had an email from Thompson & Morgan with a 79p per packet offer. The big thing is to get sowing soon and I’ll take you through the next stage in our next episode (see note on publication  below)

(3) Broad beans

Sowing broad beans. I like to use a line - a bit old-fashioned
I'm sowing through a top mulch of DIY compost mixed with magic mountain
My method is simple - push the seed through into the soil below
(Note my posh kneeling pad - essential these days, I'm afraid
I like to grow broad beans for two reasons. First, they do well as an overwinter crop and, secondly, they taste good. If you follow this through, I’ll give you a super-speedy recipe for a snack lunch that will keep you coming back for more! A really tasty lunch in only 15 minutes

If you can spare a patch of soil that gets a reasonable amount of sun, then you are in with a chance. Broad bean seed is readily available, but you will need to check the packet to make sure that it is suited to autumn sowing. I can thoroughly recommend Aquadulce Claudia but some lower growing varieties may suit you better

Sowing very close to leeks but
these will be harvested soon
and out of the way

Depending on the space you have, plant the seeds in a rough square or circle about eight to ten inches apart. That way the plants will support each other although you will probably need to stake as well. If you have any garden compost, then spread this first. There is no need to dig it in, worms are expert at doing this and they tend not to get backache!

So, there are three lockdown projects to consider – speaking of which …

Difficult times

A few weeks ago, I gave details of how to get the Covid figures for your local area. The Government have changed access to the interactive map in just the last couple of days – in fact, they have changed the appearance and features of the map, as well

Here is the updated information. Start by clicking here. You are taken straight to the map and invited to type in your postcode. When you do this a pointer will mark your location on the map of the UK. You then have to zoom in. You will see the various local areas coloured to indicate the severity of the outbreak (purple means really bad). Everything then depends on pointing and clicking. (An additional feature allows you to track the figures over time – try the slider above the map)

The new map has a download feature - hence I can reproduce this image
- it shows you our local area as of yesterday - it is updated daily
The most badly affected districts are coloured blue to purple (400+)
So, I’m leaving you with a bit of reality check. All the more reason to have a shot at a growing project – perhaps I need to come up with a few more ideas – we shall see

Well, friends, I hope that you will be back for the next post. But kindly note that the timing will be different to usual. I hope to publish in about ten days’ time on Wednesday 28th October …

… best wishes from the old Garden Codger

These photographs did not make it through to the final cut - but may be interested:

This is the lettuce currently under production. Lollo Rosso - does well for me

I'm growing salvias ready for the next Codger season - this is Blue Merced

The Black Country can be a strange place. A question for locals: Do you now here this is?

Pan right and you see a Romany Caravan

Even stranger. You may even encounter a gardener with piratical tendencies eating homegrown figs

Friday 9 October 2020

Come ye thankful

Well, we did come – that was last Sunday. And we were thankful

There we were in our masks and properly socially distanced. The hardest thing was not singing. Perhaps a rewrite is called for: Come ye thankful people come, hum the song of harvest home

As difficult as not singing was not fraternising. I could not help thinking about the injunction: addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. True worship has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension

However, we had a great focus: Psalm 104. A perfect choice for harvest. If you would like to drop in and see how it went just click here – you will find much to interest. It is set out so you can pick and mix, so please feel free. I think you will be struck by the note of genuine thankfulness

Thank you again

And speaking of thankfulness it good to see that, although now leaving the growing season, we are still getting donations for BCM. If you are new to this blog, let me explain. For reasons of accountability I use give.net – you can see it here. Users are required to set a target, so I made an initial guess at £500. However, we cleared that in the first few weeks of lockdown. After a second shot, I eventually decided on £1500 as that would have probably been the sum raised by the Webb’s annual charity plant sale had it gone ahead

Well, the figure has been exceeded and it looks as though we might well make £2000. (Reminder: I must find a way of resetting this target for next season.) Yes, old Codger has decided to have another shot next Spring, but we are very much hoping that the charity plant sale will also take place in the summer of 2021. We certainly do not wish to detract from that well-established event. But who dares look that far ahead at the moment?

Sowing and reaping

Well, we do have to look ahead. That is one of the great positives about gardening. So, I am hoping for a chance to get out later today so I can start sowing. In the greenhouse, we are approaching the changeover period when the tomatoes come to an end and they will be space to grow other crops through the winter. At a minimum, I need to start some lettuce off that can be planted in the main bed

Our main attention this time of year has been, of course, on reaping. The outdoor tomatoes have been prolific but are now completely finished. Day by day I am picking a pear or two. These go into store in the garage and are then brought out to ripen and eat. There is one other fruit tree still producing – fig! I love them. This is their first main season – remember that I have only had a proper greenhouse for a couple of years

The little plastic greenhouse now holds over half of next year’s nursery flower stock. These contraptions are remarkably cheap but, as previously observed, the covering deteriorates quite quickly – hence the bubble-wrap repair as shown in this photo 

It is hardly a greenhouse - I use it as a cold frame. But, even so, I can get caught out with plants suffering in strong sun

Pond report (1)

No doubt regular readers are expecting a pond report. If you were with us last week you may remember that rain had stopped play as I was trying to get the pond to rights following a muddy water episode. Several planting baskets had got overturned and their contents emptied onto the pond floor. The pond pump and the pond filter were in jeopardy and therefore the health of the fish

Dare I say? It has been very reliable - Hozelock filter

I am glad to say that the pump kept going – most probably because I repeatedly cleaned the filter. The model I have permits this to done by turning a handle. In demonstration videos you usually a nicely presented model delicately turning handle. What you don’t see is the dirty water being jettisoned. What a waste! In fact, a double waste. I divert that water into an old dustbin. The dirt (mainly fish poo) quickly settles to the bottom. I draw off the clean water and return it to the pond. The residue goes either on the garden or is added to the compost heap. Fertiliser for nothing!

Not quite drinking quality


Strangely, you may think, there is a connection here with Psalm 104. One message of that poem/song/prayer is that we see the Creator’s greatness in the very sustainability of his creation. It has been designed in a dynamic way so that it continues to function – and we are the beneficiaries. It was, in part, this realisation that drew me into gardening – so, surprise, my first project was a compost heap!


Dr Shewell-Cooper
I was sparked by something I had read by W.E. Shewell-Cooper – now, I fear, a forgotten pioneer and not adequately recognised, in my view. This was in the days when horticulture and agriculture seemed dominated by Imperial Chemical Industries. I feel an episode coming on so, perhaps, I’ll tell you more about Shewell-Cooper another day. (For older readers, he would put you in mind of a military version of Barry Bucknell, the unlikely Do-It-Yourself-er of the 1960s. Imagine a rather grainy 405-line black & white.)

Pond report (2)

Plastic filter medium - new and old
Pond filters need maintenance. The filter performs a dual role both mechanically removing particles but also biologically purifying the water through bacterial action. This process depends upon a filter medium in which a colony of bacteria is built up – see the photos. It is, in fact, the same process that you benefit from and why it is good to pay your water rates

You may wonder if there is a more natural process that can be employed. The answer is Yes – a reed bed. Prince Charles has one at Highgrove but I, sadly, lack his princely space and resources

A low-maintenance reedbed filter! (Lovely job)

As I have commented previously, pond keeping can be a pastime that easily takes over one’s life. A simple wildlife pond where no filter or pump is involved is a far easier option. However, once you have fish the whole operation becomes more complicated

An extra complication, in my case, is that I try to protect the fish from the predations of our local herons by providing hiding places. Thus, I have inverted a couple of old bread crates that support the water lily baskets and give the fish a fighting chance by allowing them to hide underneath

Spot the old inverted bread crate
When it all works (!) I have lovely water lilies, healthy fish and reasonably content herons who are allowed to take a few of the smaller specimens

But there is a limit – hence the (nearly) invisible line I told you about last week. It seems to be working so I have extended it to another side of the pond


Fascinating fish fact

My fish seem to be happy – they certainly breed – our younger granddaughter counted about thirty small fry earlier in the year

Observe the gradation - black above, gold and silver below
During my recent aquatic exertions I made a discovery. I have previously observed how the young koi start off a uniform black and then, later, develop colour. What I had not previously noticed is that the colour change starts below on their belly and works it way to the top

Thus, during their teenage years, so to speak, they still appear black when viewed from above. Excellent camouflage. I now know why the heron scratches his head when peering down into the pond. Clever bit of design, I reckon

Magazines last call

I really don't want to take them to the dump!
As the evenings draw in, Mrs Codger has restarted decluttering operations. Among the excellent items we are moving on is a library of Royal Horticultural Society magazines. The Garden is the official monthly journal of the Society. As such it must surely be regarded as the most prestigious of all gardening magazines. I would characterise it as being authoritative yet not stuffy. Great coffee table material to flick through – lots of great photographs. I have sets covering whole years in the 1990s and also the early years of the present millennium

I am afraid this has to be the last call. Any takers? Otherwise I shall reluctantly book my slot at the local tip

Well, folks – please excuse me if I draw to a close whilst there is still a chance to get outside. Thanks for reading …

.. best wishes from the Garden Codger

I thought I should show you the water quality AFTER it has passed through the filter