Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Clemmie Hambro's gardening week 6th April

Meadow seed can transform an unused area of the garden into a swathe of colour humming with bees – but take the time to prepare the soil first

Written by Clemmie Hambro
The first and most exciting thing that happened this week is one of the ducks went broody and is sitting on a massive clutch of about 16 eggs. This has caught me rather by surprise as not one of the ducks has gone broody since I got my first ones about three years ago. But for the last few days, she has been sitting quietly on a nest in the stable with straw pulled up on top of her and just her little face peeking out. So fingers crossed that she will stay there and we will have ducklings this summer.

The other excitement of the week has been the preparation of the soil for the sowing of meadow seed. I am a huge fan of sowing annual meadow seed mixes – they can transform an unused area, which you are not sure what to do with, into a swathe of colour and joy that hums with bees and insects. Meadow seed mixes can also transform an area that you dug out to create a vast border but then find you can't afford to plant, which is what happened to me last year.

However, last year I also had a baby at this time and so wasn't concentrating, and it was a bit of a disaster – germinating only in patches, leaving large, bare areas of soil. However, what did flower was unbelievably pretty, and so I have geared myself up and done a bit of essential preparation. I use seed provided by Pictorial Meadows, which has been scientifically designed by clever people reliably to provide an extraordinary display all summer long. However, if you sow it into an area that resembles the soil equivalent of a car crash, you are going to run into problems.

The trouble is, the area is huge (about 200 square metres) and makes me feel unprepared just looking at it. We had sprayed it the week before, and now it was a sprawl of deadness. So Paul, who helps on a Friday, hired a rotavator and brought along his mate, Rob. Now, I am a feminist to my boots, but it seems only sensible to admit that some tasks require muscles that I am not in possession of, and wherever possible one should delegate the muscley-type jobs with joyful abandon. Where the soil was not compacted, stony and sodden, it was a fairly easy task. Where the soil was all these things – which was almost all of it – it was a Herculean undertaking.

It was nice and sunny, so we left some of the wet soil overturned to dry out a bit. Then a day or two later, we raked it over and added masses of sand to improve drainage and a couple of tubs of chicken manure pellets to give the soil a bit of a nutrient boost. As it dries out, I will need to rake it a few more times because what you are after is a fine tilth. This is going to be almost impossible to get in all areas, but we are giving it our best shot.

Sometime during the beginning of April is a good time to sow the seed, following the very clear instructions: one set that is fairly quick and easy, and one set for more precise types who know what a square metre looks like. And then you wait anxiously while the area turns first into what looks like an oversized salad bed followed by an ever-changing kaleidoscope of wild flowers. So what with that and the ducklings, I'm keeping everything crossed.

If you don't have the space to sow the seed directly into your garden, try sprinkling it in the largest pots you have for a low-maintenance container display that won't need constant watering, and that the bees will thank you for. u




Sarah Langton-Lockton on her allotment

There's a brilliant blue sky this morning, with bright sun to burn away a vicious little frost. A balmy day yesterday, following heavy rain, encouraged me on to the allotment to sow lettuces and carrots under cloches. I knew it was a gamble, so will not be heartbroken if germination is patchy. Meanwhile, on windowsills and in the greenhouse, seedlings are flourishing in the longer, brighter days, and rows of cut-andcome- again salads are growing in their greenhouse grow bags.

The charms of spring-cleaning my house have long been on the wane, but preparing for spring in the garden and on the allotment is altogether more alluring. I enjoy clearing away the detritus of winter crops and tidying up those, such as Swiss chard and oriental salad leaves, that can be coaxed into just a little more edible growth before bolting later in the spring. I like putting the finishing touches to this year's planting plan and grappling with my conscience over what new equipment I can't garden without, and what I fiercely desire as much for its novelty as proven practicality, and often trick myself into justifying on the basis that I must test it to report to readers.

The sizeable bag of Slug Gone wool pellets seems to fit into both these categories, but having been a nightmare to get delivered, its purchase has rather deflated my relish for online shopping. This is not the fault of Suttons Seeds, from whom I frequently order and whose customer service department is exemplary when things go wrong, but of the infuriating organisation called Yodel, which promotes itself on its website as 'your delivery partner'. Yodel ignores one's attempts to rebook a delivery online or by using a clunky automated telephone system and just turns up randomly, regardless of instructions, so it can then return the parcel to sender. If you manage to get to speak to a human being, they abandon 'partner' mode and refer you back to your supplier. Yodel's longsuffering delivery people, however, are invariably helpful.

I begged Suttons Seeds to intervene on this occasion, which they did, promptly and effectively, and I have just unpacked my parcel. A wonderful fragrance of sheep emerged, taking me back to my father's farming experiments in Northamptonshire when I was a teenager. Slug Gone pellets are made from sheeps' wool, are approved by the Soil Association and therefore suitable for organic gardeners. The pellets act as a mulch and are a rich source of nitrogen. The wool fibres swell on contact with water to form a barrier that absorbs some of the slimy substance under a slug's 'foot'. The pellets contain abrasive particles that irritate the foot and persuade the slug to wander off and feed elsewhere. The pellets contain no harmful chemicals and are safe for children, pets and wildlife. Suttons Seeds charges £9.99 plus £4.95 carriage for a 5-litre pack.

Slugs are my principal enemy on the plot, and I have developed quite an arsenal of techniques to thwart them in their quest to devour my crops. One of these is to start off plants in modules in the cold frame or greenhouse, planting them out when they are strong enough to cope with the odd nibble. I am rather hopeful about Slug Gone, and shall report to readers on its efficacy as the season progresses.

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