Plant firm Thompson & Morgan sows seeds of despair

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Mail-order company is taking weeks to deliver and fails to update customers on orders

I am writing to suggest you look into Thompson & Morgan, the mail order gardening firm. Check out its Trustpilot page which lists a host of very unhappy customers.

They mail us every few days with “offers”. They then fail to deliver. Because the orders are likely to be for just a few pounds, maybe most people don’t chase up non-delivery.

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For a piece of Jurassic Park in your lifetime…

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Until 1994, amazing Wollemi pines were presumed long extinct. Now you can grow one for yourself

I know gardening is supposed to be about patience, but some plants can test even the most resolute of characters. Almost 20 years ago I bought myself a little monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), having had a fascination with them since I was a child. Dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, it is thought their spiky green leaves evolved to defend against Brachiosaurus attacks. Seeing great forests of them as a teenager in the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, I was desperate to capture a small piece of this primordial landscape in my family’s tiny suburban semi. Flash forward two decades, and I am still waiting. The damn thing is barely 1m tall and is pretty much the same width it was when I first bought it, despite generous lashings of water and liquid feed every summer.

The samples of Wollemi pine astonished the world of plant science

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Down to earth: the joy of digging potatoes | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Planting out the early potatoes is a statement of intent – and yields dividends later in the season

Time for some chit chat: our potatoes are in. Dad would be proud, though he only grew King Edwards. He wasn’t one for turning, didn’t want different varieties for this and that. If he found something that worked for him, he stuck with it. We tend to differ that way.

I often agonise about growing spuds, they take up extravagant room, spread luxuriantly. But the allotment gardener I most admire, who quietly encouraged us at the sticky start, always grows them. And he’s one of my garden gurus.

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For some plants, April is a crucial time | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Tree ferns, bamboos, cherries… spoil them rotten now and you’ll get great growth for the rest of the year

After months of slumber, the beginning of April feels as though a starter’s pistol has been set off in the garden, triggering explosive growth everywhere. With so much bursting into life all around, it can be tricky to know where to start, with seed-sowing, planting out, lawn-mowing and getting a head start on weeds all vying for our time. However, there are some common garden plants that pack in almost all their growth for the entire year into just a few short weeks in April. So, if you have time to do only one thing outdoors this weekend, make it giving these horticultural sprint racers a treat that will set them up for the entire season. Almost everything else will be happy to wait a week or two more.

To prepare themselves for their long winter dormancy, perennial plants from temperate latitudes need to spend months building up reserves of energy to see them through the lean months, as well as toughening up their new growth to brace themselves for sub-zero temperatures. After a fleeting window in April (sometimes edging into May) these species will carry on photosynthesising, looking lush and green, but will barely send out any new leaves or branches. This means that, if they are deprived of water and nutrients in this time, their entire year’s growth can be compromised. So here are my top four plants that really deserve a little spoiling right now.

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The time to sow is now | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Warmer weather, spring sunshine and gentle rain means it’s time to plant your seeds

It’s April, the time of showers and warmth, so it’s likely safe to say it’s the month to unleash your soil. Uncover cloches if you sowed hardy vegetables in March, and lift them from any over-wintered chards and kales.

Plant any potatoes you haven’t yet got in the ground and earth up any earlies already in. Go back over seed beds. We don’t divide our plot into beds except by sowing different rows in different directions: a combination of leaves, say, running one way, beets another, herbs perhaps scattered through, calendula, too, for colour and companion planting. There is no right or wrong, though best not to sow the same seed in the same place every year if you have enough space avoid it.

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‘Strange and delicious’: a guide to pickling young petals | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Douse young blossoms such as magnolia and dandelion in vinegar to make peppery preserves this spring

Having made peace with my magnolia, Magnolia x soulangeana, and accepted that the bottom of my garden will always be cast in its dappled shade, I’ve rather fallen in love with its twisted trunks and its flurry of pink blossom. As it began to unfurl, the first smudges of pink against the sky had me reaching for the vinegar.

Pickled magnolia buds and young petals are strange and delicious. Each species has a slightly different flavour, but the base notes are gingery and peppery. This quickly turns perfumed and then, if the petals are too mature, bitter. But if you get in there when the petals are young and add vinegar, everything is enhanced in the most marvellous manner.

Related: How to buy and set up a tall cold frame

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Say hello to aloes that will thrive outdoors | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

With good drainage, many succulents grow well outside

As a lifelong lover of succulents, it’s exciting for me to see that they are suddenly back in vogue. Driven in large part by social media, sales of these wonderfully low-maintenance houseplants have seen a sharp increase in recent years. But despite their incredibly exotic appearance, many succulents will grow perfectly well outdoors. If you have run out of windowsills for your growing army of desert plants, here are some of my favourite aloes that will let you increase your collection outside.

We tend to think of aloes as larger, statement plants when grown indoors, but if you have a sunny spot outside, the low-growing, bunching rosettes of Aloe aristata make a wonderfully effective ground cover. They help green up the bare patches of gravel between bigger specimens in dry or Mediterranean-style borders, where they will also suppress weed growth, and even reward you with spikes of bright orange tubular flowers held on elegant stalks each summer.

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Spring fever breaks out | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

As the hour goes forward, it’s all systems go for everything from the windowbox daffodils to the street magnolia

So that’s it. British Summer Time Sunday, slightly later this year. We’ve had meteorological spring for a month and the equinox was over a week ago. So is it all gardening systems go? Well, sort of, though it helps if you have a greenhouse, perhaps a polytunnel or even a tray on a windowsill.

Of course it will be brighter in the evening. Day workers get to go home in daylight, or in my case try to steal away for an hour or two in the vegetable patch. Our rooftop daffodils are all out, the street magnolia, too. Assorted frothy blossom colours my walk to the plot. I am currently obsessed with spring – with frogspawn and blackthorn flower.

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Want to attract orange tip butterflies? Planting honesty is the best policy | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Wherever the hardy brassica is sown, the delightful springtime butterfly will follow

There are many reasons to grow honesty, Lunaria annua: for the transparent, silvered, papery discs of the seedpod that persist all winter; because it merrily self-seeds, so once established you need do little else than remove the odd seedling in the wrong place; or for the froth of flowers in purple, lilac or white that dance effortlessly between tulips and daffodils.

But for all its elegance, the real reason to grow lunaria is to entice its guests to your garden. Where there is honesty, there is always a fluttering of orange-tip butterflies. These are some of the first spring-emerging butterflies in our gardens and they are such a delight – a welcome sign that the new season has arrived.

Related: How to make the most of your garden if you’re renting | Alys Fowler

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Indoor plants that move out for the summer | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Look beyond garden centre standards to these flowering, fragrant plants that love a holiday in the sun

It’s that time of year when garden centres first start filling up with tray after tray of bedding plants, ramping up for a season of summer growing. Despite often being considered terribly out of horticultural fashion, planting tropical or subtropical species such as fuchsias, begonias and pelargoniums outdoors for the warmer months is an effective way of providing a full season of interest that extends far beyond what many temperate plants, with their comparatively short flowering season, can ever hope to provide.

However, it is a shame that so few of us venture beyond traditional favourites, for any cool-weather-tolerant indoor species can be treated in the same way. With the extra light and humidity, many houseplants positively revel in a summer holiday outdoors, plus you’ll save yourself a couple of quid in the process by getting a two-in-one option. And, as these plants can then be brought indoors when the first autumn frosts are expected, they can be a more sustainable choice than buying a new batch of bedding every year.

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Why a garden can feel like an old friend | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

After a period of time away, returning to the allotment feels more like catching up with friends and family

It can be an odd relationship, one with land, like with an awkward relative or friend. Sometimes the plot can feel almost absent-minded, needing reassurance, hand-holding, company. Though maybe that’s me.

I have been away, you see, on holiday following surgery, so I have been absent more than before.

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How to get a new perspective on your garden

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

When I sat still, I decided a scented climber was what my garden needed

Gardeners rarely sit down, for long at least, in their gardens. Once you do, you spy an errant weed or a plant that needs staking or something else to do other than sit – and off you go again. But sitting is a good thing for both you and the garden. When you are always busy, you are not necessarily observing the bigger picture. Sitting down allows you to pull back from the detail and take it all in.

I have an iron bench that I have been dragging round the garden for years trying to find its perfect spot. Then a week ago, in some fine spring sun, I hauled it over to the furthest corner and, after the effort of carrying it, sat down immediately to catch my breath.

Related: How to get the best harvest from seed potatoes | Alys Fowler

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Small chillies which pack a huge punch

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

These pretty, fiery little plants will thrive on your windowsill – and add plenty of heat to your cooking

It’s time to start sowing possibly my favourite of all home-grown crops: chillies. Since I moved to the UK 20 years ago, the meteoric rise of this veg has astounded me. Once considered verging on inedible by most of my mates, these days the very same people are now going to chilli festivals each summer to hunt down the weirdest and most wonderful cultivars that have made it here from all over the Americas. There is even a booming collection of indie UK farming start-ups now growing hundreds of varieties to meet this demand. Many at pretty eye-watering prices.

But the UK isn’t great for chilli-growing, at least outdoors. Our summers just don’t have enough heat to fuel the growth of most chilli cultivars, which hail from the tropical warm of South America. Plus, if it is maximum fire-power you are after from your crop, growing them in our climate may further disappoint you as capsaicin, the spicy chemical in chilies, is produced in response to heat. The warmer the temperatures they bask in, the more fiery they will be.

The warmer the temperatures the chillies bask in, the more fiery they will be

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It’s the equinox and gardening’s new year. Time for action… | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Clean out the shed, sharpen tools and plan bean rows

Back at the plot, the cold has lifted – at least for now. Spring bulbs are out in abundance: our secret stash of wild garlic is coming, Mary’s tulips are bursting through, Jeffrey’s daffodils are in flower. Our shallots and garlic are doing well, though we had a 100% failure with red onions that I am trying not to take personally.

It is the vernal equinox this week, 20 March. The days at last equal (sunrise 6.04am in London, sunset 6.13pm). There is no more denying light now.

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How to make the most of your garden if you’re renting | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Short-term fixes to cheer up your space for summer

Two trees and a bare patch of earth. Not the most auspicious start, but a garden nonetheless. The true sadness of this space, though, is not the soon-to-be-cast shade or the weedy alkanet that’s just about to pop up, it’s that the person it belongs to has only six months left on the lease.

Renting can be brutal if you start to fall in love with a place before you must move on – and that applies to gardens as much as homes. But there are some short-term fixes. If the garden is bathed in good light, not fighting for space with big tree roots, the answer would be simple: dig out the alkanet and buy every cheap packet of annual seeds that take your fancy, scattering the garden with poppies, cornflowers, calendula, corncockles and Queen Anne’s Lace. Not everything will take, but plenty will; and just as the time comes to pack up and move on, the garden will be a riot of life – paying it forward not just for the next occupants but the bees and butterflies, too.

Related: Get set, sow – it's time to start growing vegetables | Alys Fowler

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Three neglected herbs to enrich your kitchen garden

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Plant lovage, hyssop and summer savory for both your patch and your table’s sake

As a botanist obsessed with food, I have always found one particular statistic perplexing. Of the estimated 300,000 plant species on Earth, about one in six are edible. Yet our species subsists almost exclusively on the harvests of only a mere 100 plant species. That’s astonishingly just 0.2% of what we could be eating, meaning we are missing out on 99.8% of the options that are available. Talk about a culinary travesty. In the past century this limited repertoire has shrunk even further, with hundreds of crops that were once commonplace falling out of cultivation as part of the increasing homogenisation of global diets.

We miss out on 99.8% of earth's edible plant options

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Gardeners’ minds are turning to seed – as usual | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

It’s time to turn out drawers and boxes and bags of seed – and confront my lack of self control

It’s again time to talk about seed. About planning for the year ahead, thinking about the future, about nurturing and growth.

It’s time to turn out your drawers and bags and boxes, wherever you keep seed. Ours are nominally sorted into styles. There is a box for herbs and salads, another for chicories, another for greens you need to cook. There is a box for flowers for my daughter Kala’s garden and the plot, plus multiple bowls of dried heads that still need sorting through.

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How to buy and set up a tall cold frame

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

It’s a big investment, but you’ll reap the rewards if you sow and grow under glass, says our gardening expert

Every gardener dreams of one day owning a greenhouse. It is an inevitable path that starts with a bit of fleece and the miracles of growth that happen with just a few extra degrees of heat, and ends in lusting after luxury bespoke greenhouses online and fantasising about pineapples. Growing under protection changes the game: seedlings grow strong and robust in a way that never happens on a windowsill. You can extend the season and ensure heat-loving plants still bake in less-than-perfect weather.

For me, this has been a fantasy for years. I have built lean-to structures, fashioned from skip finds, old windows and used fish tanks, but they have all fallen apart. This year, as I trawled through online sales of fancy glasshouses, I did a cost-per-wear analysis. I realise that such metrics are usually reserved for handbags and expensive jackets, but my world is floated by happy green things and my windowsills are starting to buckle and warp from years of seedlings grown on them. If I bought this handsome, tall cold frame, it would cost just under £20 a week. Put another way, every tomato I eat this year will cost me a pound – but oh, how wonderful they will taste. A single plant can produce up to 200 fruits, so from five plants I could harvest 1,000 tomatoes.

Related: Plant Jerusalem artichokes now for a plentiful supply | Alys Fowler

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Bean-eating bug gets into top 10 worst garden pests

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Experts point to climate change for shift in garden pest and disease rankings

An invasive bug with a taste for beans has jumped into the top 10 list of the worst garden pests as it benefited from the warm summer.

The Royal Horticultural Society said its latest annual list of which pests and diseases were causing the most trouble in gardens revealed the impact of the hot dry weather in the UK last summer.

Related: All eyes to the skies – and the weeds | Allan Jenkins

Related: Get set, sow – it's time to start growing vegetables | Alys Fowler

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Hardy orchids make dazzling summer flowers | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

The right orchids work as well in temperate British gardens as in subtropical forests, so plant bulbs now and enjoy flowers for years to come

It’s finally March and we’ve already had the first signs of spring. If the arrival of blackbird song and daffodils are wonderful enough on their own, they are also the gardener’s cue to plant summer bulbs for a season of colour ahead. However, beyond the garden-centre mainstays of giant hybrid dahlias and petal-packed begonias, there are amazing finds for adventurous growers, including my ultimate summer bulbs, hardy orchids.

Full disclosure: I love hardy orchids because I am unashamedly obsessed with exotic-style gardening. But unlike many other exotic-looking plants, hardy orchids look as at home in rustic cottage-style gardens and temperate woodland glades as they do planted under a subtropical canopy of exotic ferns. Given their striking beauty, amazing garden versatility and ease of culture, it’s a shame they are still so underused. This is my attempt to change that, starting with three of my favourites.

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