Are your houseplants environmentally friendly? | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Keep your ‘plant miles’ down by following these tips on importing, greenhouse use and propogating

I have been getting loads of questions about the sustainability of houseplants recently. To me, it’s very encouraging that people are so interested in greening their indoors (in both senses of the word). Here is a quick run down on the environmental impact of houseplants, and how to shrink it as much as you can.

The major concern I hear is that the vast majority of houseplants sold in the UK are imported, racking up “plant miles” on their journey from the huge nurseries in the Netherlands. However, all you need do is look at a map to see that Holland is as close, if not closer, to many of us here in Britain than other parts of the UK. Secondly, these plants are transported here by road and ferry, which produces not only a fraction of the carbon emissions per mile of flying, but significantly less than smaller scale deliveries would generate from UK nurseries. If you are driving to your garden centre to buy houseplants, the emissions from your car will almost certainly be greater than the emissions generated in getting it from grower to garden centre. In fact, it is fair to say that in the production chain of houseplants, transport is one of the lowest sources of carbon emissions wherever you chose to source them from.

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Hungry birds and marauding moles create a sense of wonder

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Fill up the feeders, grab some binoculars and a guidebook, and watch as the tits, finches and blackbirds swoop in

Denmark, end of December. The constant sound of the sea, the smell of wood smoke and salt. The air is almost kippered. It’s the wettest winter since their records began. Flowering daisies in the long grass, dead leaves lie like damp leather. Confused new shoots everywhere.

The moles have been busy tunnelling under the mossy ‘lawn’. I shovel up 20 hills, barrow the sandy soil to the edges of the plot. The raked-up leaf will lie there, too. I will sow it with wild flower seed in early summer to join the wood anemone, hepatica, forget-me-not and campion that thrive in the more shadowy spaces.

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Ripe for change: growing your own food means always picking it at the right time

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

When my mother shopped for gourds, they were enormous – now when I pick them, they’re a little larger than a sharpie marker

Most commercial fruit is picked underripe. It is stored for weeks or months, then gassed when it’s ready to be freighted and stocked on shop shelves. While there are logistical benefits to this, it does not allow us to consume the produce at maximum nutrient density.

A delightful discovery of farming is learning the point of maturity that things can, and perhaps should, be harvested at. Farming means I don’t have to have my choices dictated by perishability in a supermarket.

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Which plants are the best bird feeders? | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Although I feed song birds with meal worms, suet and seeds, I’ve come to realise that my garden can do the job just as well

I was admiring the glorious orange limbs of my strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, meandering elegantly and covered in bright red baubles of fruit among glossy green leaves, when I spotted a blackbird, its beak crammed full of a single fruit. I was contemplating preserving this year’s bounty of fruit, but the sight of that happy blackbird was enough to make me realise I didn’t need any more jam in my life. This tree is far more giving to all of us in the garden than I could have conceived when I planted it to obscure my neighbour’s shed.

Related: How to kill winter aphids and mealybugs | Alys Fowler

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Time to go wild with African violets

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Once widely popular, these lovely flowers rather vanished from view, seen as a bit chintzy, but it doesn’t have to be this way…

As someone who could never be accused of being in-step with fashion, I have always found the world of horticultural trends as perplexing as they are fascinating. In some ways they fulfil a valuable function, encouraging growers to experiment with new plants and techniques they hadn’t considered before. But the flip side is that we may overlook options that could otherwise bring us a huge amount of joy.

Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than with the African violet (Saintpaulia sp), once a ubiquitous fixture of almost every coffee table and kitchen windowsill back in the 1980s and now a surprisingly rare sight. I guess they are considered a little twee today, with many bred for the maximum number of pastel petals, lacy frills and curious colour breaks. But they don’t have to be this way. There are loads of members of the same family that are wonderfully wild and natural looking, with not a hint of crocheted tea-cosy about them.

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Bad knees foster a new intimacy with my garden | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Lying on the ground to weed proves more rewarding than it sounds

By the time you read this I will be in hospital. Or maybe on my way home. Recovering – I hope – from an operation I have been postponing for years. I am from a generation – or at least an inclination – averse to surgery if you can cope with pain.

It’s my fault, an old knee injury from my early 20s that has lain dormant for decades. Then it returned and it’s been insistent. I stopped walking to work, my early morning strolling along the canal. It started messing with my gardening, too – kneeling can feel crucial for weeding and sowing seed.

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How to kill winter aphids and mealybugs | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Winter is often rife with indoor pests and the central heating makes for boomtown for small suckers

My winter houseguests – the citrus trees, chillies and numerous other tender things that have to come in from the cold – have snuck in some unwanted extras: aphids and mealybugs.

Winter is often rife with indoor pests; the natural predators, ladybird and hoverfly larvae that might find their way in through an open window in summer, are deep in winter slumber, and the central heating makes for boomtown for small suckers.

Related: How to grow rowan trees | Alys Fowler

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The look of Aus: the eucalyptus tree

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

The Australian icon that thrives both Down Under and in our gardens over here…

Sometimes garden inspiration can come from surprising places. Re-watching David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planetfor the fourth time, I know I should have been wowed by epic aerial shots of kangaroos and wombats on snowy mountain tops, but all I could focus on were the amazing plants. Statuesque alpine snow gums rising out of the cold and ice, with lacy, evergreen canopies swaying in the breeze, were to me something straight out of a sci-fi film. The incongruity of such fresh, green life against the face of all environmental adversity just felt so magical. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it all is that such rugged origins mean these impossibly exotic trees will be perfectly happy in Old Blighty. In fact, there are few trees that are better suited to increasingly small, urban plots, and yet they still remain inexplicably underused.

The highland home of snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp niphophila) has turned a plant whose lowland relatives include some of the tallest trees on Earth into a true dwarf, up to 90% smaller. Reaching a maximum of 10m tall when allowed to grow as an upright standard, it can be further shrunk by cutting out the leader after planting, resulting in a beautiful, multi-stemmed specimen reaching as little as 4m tall. This pruning will also constrict the root growth, improve the character of the tree and prevent it toppling in high winds, so I can’t urge you strongly enough to do this, especially on smaller plots.

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Plan your plot for 2020: think about seeds and new beds

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

It’s cold and quiet, but the stirrings of a brighter future are starting

New dawn, new day, new year. Feeling good about it. Things have turned, honestly. Though there is bound to be wind and rain, maybe snow, we will have an hour a day’s more daylight by the end of the month. The sun is moving, but not yet the temperature, though welcome frost will break up heavy soil.

Try to keep off wet ground to avoid compacting it, but think about seed potatoes. This is the month to order your choices and lay them out in trays to chit. First earlies should be ready for planting in mid-March in warmer areas, but leave it until later where it is cooler. Look out for nearby potato fairs (potato-days.net) where you can also buy onion sets and shallots for planting in the coming months. Reacquaint yourself with a good garden centre.

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What to do with your Christmas tree | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

The needles make excellent ericaceous compost and the branches can be used for pea or bean supports

Is your Christmas tree looking a little sad? One might imagine it is by now, for the ghost has truly flown, and left a flurry of needles on your floor. Still, let us not waste this moment to honour the tree’s life with a good bit of recycling.

If I am honest, I don’t have a tree to recycle because I am not a fan of the Christmas tree tradition. So mostly I have to steal other people’s trees. I go around collecting up the corpses left out with the bins (clearly not the ones destined for the council recycling scheme) and take them back to my allotment.

Related: Worm composting: a beginner's guide | Alys Fowler

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How to care for cacti | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Keep your desert dwellers alive and give your succulents succour

A man is met by the devil at the gates of hell with a greeting: “You killed 30 succulents. Do you know how hard that is?” When this viral meme floated across my timeline, I’ll admit I cracked a smile, but to me it also highlights one of the great indoor gardening myths: the idea is that cacti and succulents are universally easy to grow. Trust me, under the right conditions killing cacti and succulents is really quite easy, at least eventually.

Fortunately, getting it right with these plants is almost as easy as getting it wrong, as long as you understand a few basic facts about their native habitat and how to replicate this at home. So here are two incredibly simple tips for success with these beautiful, popular and surprisingly forgiving plants.

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A year in review on Plot 29 | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

A look back over 2019’s sowing and reaping, from a bumper bean crop to stunning sweet peas

The end of another year, our 12th at the allotment, since Mary kindly took us in, gave us a garden home, a place to grow in exchange for humping sacks and building bits and bobs.

It was a good year for broad beans, with two sowings (early Aquadulce, later Witkiem) both steamed or eaten straight from the pod. Their tops were a spring gardening treat dressed with olive oil. I left it late for early potatoes, missing the RHS spring fair, though they cropped well enough. Basque tears peas as always, were enjoyed young then left to seed. Later, I trained morning glory up the pea poles, an astonishing blue-mauve catching the morning light. We loved them and will be growing them again in 2020.

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Super flower: lemon myrtle can clean, cook and makes great marshmallows

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Drought tolerant, with blossoms like Lucille Ball’s eyelashes, lemon myrtle is an Australian summer super star

“Back-whose-it-what’s-it?” my daughter exclaims, pointing to the glorious flowering bushes under our covered netting.

“Backhousia citriodora,” I explain “is the Latin name given to this native bush food and medicine that Indigenous Australians have been using for thousands of years.”

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How to grow non-climbing ivy | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

These ivies look lovely, as well as providing valuable wildlife habitat and a late food source for birds and bees

A workshop near me is clothed in ivy like a shawl. It’s tightly woven into the building’s fabric and in autumn it shimmers with bees buzzing as they sup up the late harvest from its flowers. Ivy is truly a sight. It’s very good for pollinators, offering an excellent late source of nectar for many insects, notably bees, but also larval food for the beautiful holly blue butterfly (there are two generations of larvae a year and the second loves to dine on ivy). It’s a dense habitat for many others, too: peer inside any older specimen and you’ll find it full of life, from spiders to bird nests.

Finally, it has beautiful black berries that offer an invaluable food source for birds through winter, and well into spring and early summer. But, as anyone with a wall of ivy knows, it has a habit of using its aerial roots to cling on to whatever it climbs and then stubbornly refusing to let go, which can be a disaster for old mortar. There is a way around this: not all ivies have to climb.

Related: How to grow rowan trees | Alys Fowler

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Insta cheer for the darkest winter days | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

There’s not much to do for the garden except plan, so it’s time to start scrolling through social media for inspiration

I don’t know about you, but, as someone with an obsession with the botanical world, the dark days of December are always a source of huge frustration for me. It’s not just that as plants slide into dormancy and you don’t get to see as much growth and life around you, but you have only a few fleeting hours of daylight in which to do so. Add to that the fact that the ground is often so sodden that stepping on it can damage soil structure, meaning whole swathes of most gardens become no-go zones, and it can feel like living with your hands tied behind you.

Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue for me. Thanks to the amazing connectivity of Instagram, even when it is soaking wet and pitch black outside, I can learn fascinating horticultural techniques, discover new plants I had never heard of before and drool over the work of the world’s best garden designers. I feel it has democratised garden media in a way never seen before, opening us up to all sorts of global influences. So here are my current favourite accounts that are “must follows” this winter, to inspire you for the spring.

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The darkest day and the promise of returning light | Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

It’s the winter solstice, so the days may not get warmer but they will get longer, and plans for spring can begin

We are finally at the winter solstice (4.19am today to be precise, when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun). This then is the shortest day, nearly nine hours less light than in high summer.

Enough science. Suffice to say, the dark is downhill from here. Yes, there are many weeks of winter still to come – February, not April, is the cruellest month for me – much rain, maybe sleet, perhaps snow. But at least later there is also more light. The first potatoes can go in in late February if you live in the south; early nasturtiums and calendula.

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Festive plants you can bring out every year | James Wong

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Three living Christmas decorations that, with minimal care, will last you for many new years to come

In the run-up to Christmas, it seems even people who would never normally be tempted by indoor greenery get temporarily bitten by the houseplant bug. Lush poinsettias, powerfully fragrant hyacinths and tiny flocked conifers put on a dazzling indoor show for a few short weeks, before almost certainly being consigned to the bin along with the tinsel come January.

If you’re not a horticulturist, you might think the lack of a green thumb is at fault, but I promise you that this is almost certainly not the case. Most seasonal houseplants are either cold-climate species entirely unsuited to the extreme warmth and dark of living room conditions – or they’ve been forced by a cocktail of growth regulators to flower at an unnaturally small size and they soon exhaust themselves. There is a reason you never see a poinsettia in anyone’s house in August. But things really don’t have to be this way. Here are three living Christmas decorations that, with minimal care, will last you for many new years to come.

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Mooching and melancholy in the garden| Allan Jenkins

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

December in the garden is a time to sit, watching the birds and appreciate the silence

It is largely empty at the allotments. The usual few hardy gardeners linger. Covers are coming on in different corners of the site. Wrappings of various types. I am still a little resistant, more open to accidents: unexpected shoots breaking through, flowers falling over. My preference is to see, say, robins rushing around and searching out seed, watch them and hope I might unearth a worm, turn over leaf mould or manure. Though I am more mindful now since seeing a kestrel swoop and carry off a young bird distracted by keeping me company.

We have netted two small areas of the plot, being careful to leave sections of the sides open for birds to get in and out. And, yes, I know their freedom of movement is not the idea, but I have had too many traumas freeing frightened blackbirds caught in others’ fruit cages. Our thinking is to limit the damage of hungrier pigeons as they decimate the kale leaving only brassica bones, a bird battlefield.

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'The real jewels of the plant kingdom': growing heirloom tomatoes

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

They may require a bit of coaxing, but with smart companion planting, home-grown tomatoes will be the best you’ve ever tasted

As growers of food, we must look for the silver lining during times of increasing environmental discord. This season I’m grateful for the beautiful summer and winter squashes that I harvested very early. I’m grateful for the hardy mango flowers that have clung on in defiance of the drought, which has dropped and dried out most of the early fruit, flowers and leaves from the avocados and guavas. I’m grateful to the Panama passionfruit that continues to thrive despite not being given any water or attention.

It’s the tomatoes that have me most in awe though. They have sent down deep lateral tap roots to search out moisture. They sustain themselves so resourcefully and continue to flourish in this scarcity. Of course we aid them by mulching generously so moisture and nutrients in the soil do not leach out.

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How to make last-minute Christmas gifts from your garden | Alys Fowler

Gardening Advice - the Guardian -

Infuse gin or vodka for a delicious festive tipple

I am tempted to say that you cannot find a better Christmas present than a small Jack Russell in a big red bow, but I am not in the business of suggesting puppies for presents. Instead, I am here with a few ideas that you can raid from your garden for a more individual, sustainable gift.

You’ve still got time to infuse the flavour of your garden into something – be it gin, vodka or vinegar. Find a pretty bottle and a nice label, and you’ve got a present that won’t go to waste. You don’t have to buy expensive alcohol – own-label brands are ideal; and I tend to use raw cider vinegar for infusing, but white wine vinegar is a good substitute. Then it’s time to get inventive with the flavours.

Related: How to grow onions and shallots | Alys Fowler

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