Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Tips on how to grow successfully plants from seed

Now is the time of the year when gardeners start looking through seed catalogues choosing which plants they would like to grow.

Seeds can be ordered from various companies on line or bought in garden centres, but if you want to grow something different and interesting, 'Chiltern Seeds' based in England is a company I would recommend. They are set up to send seeds abroad.

Why should you choose seeds rather than buy plants in a garden centre.

  • Diversity - You have a much wider selection of varieties to choose from.  For example Chiltern Seeds has 20 different varieties of Basil and over 20 varieties of Sage to choose from, much more than you will ever find in a garden centre.  In addition seed companies offer unusual plants that you do not find in the garden centres.
  • Save money - It is much cheaper to grow your plants from seed, especially if you have a large garden.
  • Satifaction - January is probably the worst month of the year weather wise, often too cold to work in the garden. It is also the month in which seed catalogues for the present year become available. Selecting the seeds you want to try this year, to see them germinate and turning into plants gives enormous satisfaction.

So what do you need:
  • You'll need something to grow the seeds in, this can be a tray, an old plastic icecream container, plastic trays that contained salad leaves or fruit or just used plastic pots.   Makes sure you pierce holes into the bottom for drainage.  

  • A container larger than your seed tray.  When you want to water the seeds, you should not water them from above, but place them in a larger container that is filled with some water.  Place the seed tray in the larger container to moisten the soil from the bottom. This way you do not disturb the seeds or wet them by watering from above which can cause damping off,  a fungal infection encouraged by damp conditions.

  • If you are using trays and pots that have been used before, wipe the pots with 10 parts of water to 1 part bleach.

  • Potting compost.

  • A piece of glass or plastic (can be clingfilm) to cover the tray.

How to sow:

  • Empty some of the sowing compost in the middle of the tray and spread it out  till your tray is filled, level it and firm it lightly so that the soil is about 1 cm below the rim.

  • Sow seeds thinly in rows, 1/2 cm apart. Sowing too densely may result in thin, spindly plants and possibly damping off, a fungal infection.
  • Fine seeds and those that need light to germinate do not normally need to be covered with soil.  The general rule is that you sprinkle the seeds with a thin layer of fine sieved compost to the depth of 2 x the size of the seed.

  • Label and date the container, place the seed tray in a tray of water to dampen the soil and to prevent the seeds from dislodging. 
  • Minimize evaporation by covering the container with glass, plastic or a sheet of cling film.
  • Place them in a cold frame or serre or in an area of the house that received a lot of light.
  • Protect the seedlings from too much sun by providing some shade with newspaper.

What to do when the first leaves appear:

The first leaves that appear are the embryonic leaves (Cotyledon). Two primary leaves. These are not the true leaves of the plant.  The true leaves normally appear after an additional 14 days, depending on the conditions of where the tray is kept.

Once the true leaves have emerge, it is important to prick them out and transfer the plants to another tray or pots.

When pricking them out with a dipper or pencil, hold the seedling by the leaves, never by the stem or roots.

The new pot or tray should be prepared, filled with compost, firmed up and with a receiving hole (made by the pencil) for the seedling to minimize the transfer time.

Place the tray in another tray filled with some water to dampen the soil.  After a few weeks the plant will have developed into a full grown plant ready to be transferred into the soil (if frost has passed).
In the meantime trays and pots can be put outside during the day and taking inside during the night or cover them with fleece.  This way they slowly toughen up.

There are a lot of seed companies to choose from, 2 that I would recommend:

Both supply free catalogues of their products.

Photos: Web
Info:  RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening + Web 

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Fruity Cocktails - Guacamole

For the second year running we were lucky to have Gillian Duffy, culinary editor of New York Magazine, make some suggestions for drinks and edibles, very useful for this time of the year.

Sue busily preparing some nibbles.

Françoice McCredie very kindly, once again, allowed us to use her kitchen for the demonstrations.

As featured in Hors d’Oeuvres - Simple, stylish, Seasonal by Gillian Duffy

4 medium oranges (unwaxed)
1 bottle Provencal rose wine
½ cup cognac
½ cup sugar

Scrub the oranges then strip off the orange zest with a vegetable peeler avoiding the white pith, and add to the wine. Recork the bottle and set aside in a cool place for 15 days. Strain the wine, stir in the cognac and sugar, and serve.

Gillian preparing the Sparkling Holiday Punch

SPARKLING HOLIDAY PUNCH (makes 1 serving) or 4 servings
As featured in Hors d’Oeuvres - Simple, stylish, Seasonal by Gillian Duffy

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) fresh orange juice (12 oz)
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) pineapple juice (12 oz)
½ ounce (1 tablespoon) fresh lemon juice  (2 oz)
1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon) raspberry or strawberry  syrup (2 oz) (or to taste)
Dash Angostura bitters
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) sparkling brut (alcoholic or nonalcoholic) (12 oz)

Garnish -Sliced orange and lemon
Mix together the first five ingredients in a goblet or pitcher if making larger amounts and top with the sparkling brut. Garnish with wheels of orange and  lemon.


Gillian with the Limoncello


5 unwaxed lemons
1 liter bottle vodka or grain alcohol
3 cups white sugar
4 cups water

Scrub the lemons under hot water set aside to dry. Pare the zest from all the lemons with a  peeler, taking care not to include any white pith. Put the zest in a large clean jar and pour over the vodka. Cover with a tightly fitting lid and leave for a week, shaking the jar each day.
After one week, make the simple syrup by combining the  sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Do not stir. Boil for 15 minutes. Allow syrup to cool to room temperature.
 Add the sugar syrup little by little  to the vodka and peels until you achieve the desired sweetness, and leave for a further week, shaking the jar regularly. Strain into decorative bottles, adding a few strips of lemon zest to each bottle. Keep in the freezer.

Sue with helpers June Lynn & Betty


3 cups (24 oz) pineapple juice, chilled
3 cups (24 oz) cranberry juice, chilled
4 cups Ginger Ale
½ cup fresh or frozen cranberries
½ lime, thinly sliced
In a large jug or punch bowl, stir together the pineapple juice, cranberry juice and ginger ale.
Add the cranberries, sliced lime and ice. Stir gently to combine and serve over ice.

Note: Add some vodka or rum if you need a little kick to the drink.


Gillian stirring the Rum Punch

RUM PUNCH (Serves 1) My husband’s favorite version of a traditional West Indian Rum Punch as featured in Hors d’Oeuvres - Simple, stylish, Seasonal by Gillian Duffy

Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons instant dissolving sugar or simple syrup
3 ounces (6 tablespoons)rum
4 ounces  (½ cup) water
Ice cubes
Goslings Black Seal Rum (optional)
Garnish: whole nutmeg for grating

In a cocktail shaker, combine the lime juice and sugar or simple syrup, stirring. Add the rum and water, shake well and pour into a tumbler filler with ice. A floater of Goslings Black Seal Rum can be added if desires.
Grate a little fresh nutmeg over the top of the punch.


Gillian and Betty preparing the Guacamole

GUACAMOLE (Makes 8-10 servings) Recipe based on Josephina Howard’s famous version from Rosa Mexicano and featured in Hors d’Oeuvres - Simple, stylish, Seasonal by Gillian Duffy

4 teaspoons seeded and minced fresh jalapeno or Serrano chili pepper
⅔ cup white onion in ¼ inch dice
3 to 4 tablespoons minced coriander
¾ to 1 teaspoon salt
2 medium avocados, preferably Haas
4 tablespoons diced tomato, seeds and interior ribs removed
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (optional)

Corn chips for serving
In a mortar combine 2 teaspoons chili pepper, ¼ cup onion, 2 teaspoons coriander, and ½ teaspoon salt. Mash with pestle until the mixture forms a wet paste.
To cut the avocado, hold it in one hand and cut a full circle around the seed with a knife, then twist the halves in opposite directions to separate them. With the blade of a heavy knife, strike the top of the seed, give the knife a slight twist, lift the blade, and the seed will come with it.
With the tip of a small knife, cut the avocado flesh into ½ inch dice, do not cut through the skin. Lift the flesh from the skin with a spoon to avoid mashing, and add to a bowl. Gently stir in the paste from the mortar.
Add the remaining onion, coriander, the tomato, and 1 teaspoon peppers at a time, tasting with each addition, and stir carefully. Adjust the seasoning to taste with salt, coriander and peppers.
Serve immediately with corn chips. Add lime juice if the guacamole is not served immediately.

Gillian Duffy
Culinary Editor
New York Magazine

Photos - Mavis McQuade

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Garden Group Pot Luck Lunch - 30 October 2018 - Making a Winter Container

Now the skies are getting greyer and the garden is short of colour it is a good time to brighten things up with winter containers either in pots for the terrace or troughs for window-sills. 
The principals will be the same whichever type of container one uses. I am doing something simple with easily available plants at this time of the year but one can have fun doing more imaginative things and also prepare something festive for Christmas.

Choosing a container.

Terracotta or wood are probably best as they are not as cold as plastic . To help with insulation one can line the inside of the container with sheet plastic remembering to make drainage holes in the bottom. 

Pots standing on the ground are better raised up with terracotta feet, wood blocks or flat stones, this lets air circulate and raises the container from the cold ground also helping drainage.

In the bottom of the container put some crocks, stones or pieces of polystyrene to help with drainage.

Make a mixture of potting compost and grit .

If using bulbs in a mixed arrangement put a layer of this in the bottom of the container.

Having worked out a selection of plants, arrange them in the container and note spaces around them for the chosen bulbs, in this case small daffodils tête à tête and purple and white crocus. 

Remove the plants and place the bulbs in desired position and then fill the container to within 5 cm. of the top of the container. Now dig in your plants being careful to avoid the bulbs and fill soil firmly around them. Place the container in position and spray lightly with water.

Choosing Plants.

When choosing your plants remember that they grow very little in winter so have them big enough to make an impact.

Look for plants with complementary colours, interesting blends of leaf shapes and textures and have height variations. On the other hand one might want to make a splash  of colour with one type of plant such as cyclamen, pansies or polyanthus.

The plants  used were in the bottom layer Crocus and Narcissus 'Tête à Tête, then after another layer of earth in the middle at the back a bright green Chamaecyparis for height.  It should have been a taller specimen but unfortunately could not be found, then the rest of the trough was filled up with Pansies and Cyclamen finishing off with ivy lin the front, hanging over the trough.

For a different look instead of the Chamaecyparis a red Cordyliine and then fill up the trough with deep pink heathers, silver leaved Senecio and Calocephalus 'Silver Bush\.

If you are doing a round container and it will be against a wall put the tallest plant at the back, but if it is open to view all the way round put the tallest plant in the middle and arrange shorter plants around it.

Remember to place the container where it will get the best of the winter light.

The plants will grow slowly and do not need feeding as this would encourage new growth which would be soft an susceptible to frost.

Check soil regularly and water carefully neither over or under watering.

As plants grow remove dead stalks, leaves and flower heads.

Remember that many of the plants I will list can grow on in the garden after the winter container is over.

When planting it is a good idea to put your container in a tray. When filling up with earth the spillage will stay in the tray. 

List Of Suitable Plants

Bulbs and Corms
Tulipa 'Red Riding Hood'

Narcissus, small (like Daffodil tête à tête), 
Muscari ( Grape Hyacinths),
Scilla bifolia or similar small varieties,
Cyclamen coum
Anemone blanda
Tulipa, small tulip varieties.

Flowering Plants

Ajuga reptans 'Atropurpurea', the leaves of Ajuga come in green or reddish tints

Viola, Pansies large or small varieties
Ajuga reptans
Glechoma hederacea 'Variegata' ( variegated ground ivy) 
Ophiopogen nigrescens
Helleborus nigrum

Small Evergreens

Calocephalus 'Silver Bush'

Erica - Heathers
Nandina domestica
Skimia japonica
Gaultheria procumbens
Calocephalus 'Silver Bush' 


Festuca glauca

Festuca glauca


Hedera, various


Asplenium scolopendrium

Polypodium vulgares
Asplenium scolopendrium
Polystichum setiferum.


Salvia officinalis 'variegata'

Salvia - Sages (variegated) Parsley
Rosmarinus (rampant)
Helichrysum - Curry plant  

Ornamental Cabbages.

Presentation, text and photos by Mavis McQuade
Some photos from the Web

Monday, 22 October 2018

Jardin de la Graviere, Pierrefeu-du-Var, 25th September

Driftwood Horse

Text by Sue Spence
Photographs by Gilly Phillips

Our visit to Jardin de la Graviere, Pierrefeu-du-Var on 25th September on a glorious sunny afternoon was the last for 2018 and turned out not to be a gravel garden (Graviere was the name of the area, not the type of garden!).   Quite the opposite, it was a haven of green spread over 13,000 sq.m. in what had been a corn field when the owners (Alain L’Honoré, professor of Physics, and his wife Francoise, hospital theatre sister, both now retired) bought the house in 2000.

 Initially they kept horses there and as the number of horses reduced, the garden grew larger (or was it the other way round?) and now it is all garden and no horses.   The boundary of the plot was planted up first and the large pond dug out.  They received the status 'Jardin Remarkable' 18 months ago.

Victoria amazonica, a water lily that can be 3m in width on a stalk of 8m long.  Native to tropical South America.The genus name 'Victoria' was given in honour of Queen Victoria. 

Nymphaea 'Blue Beauty'

Metal Heron Sculpture

An enviable difference between gardening on the flat and in the hillier areas of the Var is the absence of hidden rocks.   In Jardin de la Graviere they were able to simply dig the hole and plant, whereas elsewhere in the higher areas of the Var it is all about compromise.

Dasylirion acrotrichum, native to Mexico

Corymbia ficifolia, Eucalyptus family

Corymbia ficifolia, Eucalyptus family

Where you wanted to spend max 30 minutes planting your latest purchase turns out to be an all afternoon exercise wielding a pickaxe to remove what now transpires to be a metre square rock!   At which point you give up and plant it one metre to the right or left;  a couple of years later you wonder why the plant is mis-placed by one metre, start moving it and re-discover the rock!

Cycas revoluta, originally from Japan/South-East Asia

Hedychium coronarium

Add to that the natural water lurking beneath 2.5m of fine earth and then a layer of shale with the result that huge mature trees turn out only to have been planted some 15-18 years previously.
One member remarked “there are no weeds!”   No, because where there is planting there is  professional pepiniere-strength weed suppressant membrane pegged to the ground with crosses cut through which to insert plants which is then covered by mulch, gravel or stones to retain moisture (the L’Honorés have a mulcher and, of course, they have several stands of bamboos whose leaves make a great mulch).

String of dried flower pods

Alyogine (Hibiscus) huegelii (Mavaceae family), I think. The leaves that are visible are deeply lobed like they are for the Alyogine.  The summer heat must have caused the leaves to drop.  A plant will always try to flower as a last resort to form seeds for the next generation.

The visit ended up by the entrance gates in the totally shady fernery with a great collection of New Zealand tree ferns amongst the ferns.   It was a strange sight to see such a wide verdant selection of healthy plants in deep shade, a tribute to the green fingers of Professor and Mme. L’Honoré.
The garden is described as a “botanical garden” but also has intriguing objets and sculptures from the Far East and Africa together with wonderful driftwood sculptures scattered throughout the garden which include a wooden Catherine wheel which turned out to be a cut-off tree stump positioned vertically so I will let the photos do the talking.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Return visit to Les Confines, Noves, 25 May 2018

Four years later and we were making a return visit to the gardens of Les Confines, south of Noves in the Bouches des Rhones, since 2015 in the ownership of Andrew Trotter (British).   In 1990, this bare 20-acre field with four trees, a large farmhouse and a barn was bought by architect Bruno Lafourcarde and his wife Dominique, an artist.   He renovated the house, she designed the gardens.

Set in the flat plain of the Durance valley, the house had no view so Mme. Lafourcade created a view from the deep gravelled terrace the length of the house with its lily pond created from the foundations of the original barn.

Two different views of the lily pond with the garden stretching out beyond

A central rill flanked by a line of huge terracotta pots planted with olive trees each side of the rill. Next to the terracotta pots, a parallel line of topiary in the shape of semi circles on a square base. Viburnum tinus was used for these large shapes, native and very suitable for our climate.  This again was bordered by high yew hedges.  A sense of perspective is created by newly planted, clipped  Quercus ilex ( Evergreen/Holm Oak) at the end of the central part.

Terracotta pots planted with olive trees in the background 

To counteract the fierce mistral wind, individual “rooms” are surrounded with high hedges.   Andrew Trotter told us that when Dominique Lafourcade owned the house the gardeners were not allowed motorised tools to cut the hedges and it would have been wonderful to have seen the face of Serge, the gardener, when he was presented with a can of petrol and a selection of motorised garden equipment!

A good view of the yew hedge and recovering buxus, previously attacked by the box tree caterpillar.  This Asian caterpillar made its appearance for the first time in 2005, when it arrived in Germany with imported Buxus (Box) from China.

A trellis on either side of the central part is made up of Wisteria and Vines, underplanted by Iris, Nigella, Aster, Hemerocallis, Petasites hybridus (overgrowing areas in the shade) and Perovskia and many more in the different seasons.

From the trellis walk, one of the areas you come to is the pool area which used to have an African theme.  On the wall near the pool house are some African heads sprouting green leaves.  This is very cleverly done.  The shrubs, Viburnum tinus are planted on the other side of the wall and then led through a hole above the heads to form the hair (foliage):

A tree house at one end of the gravel terrace leading to the Buxus garden

It is always fascinating to hear the history of a garden and house, and the story of the 2015 purchase of the property will surely be entrenched in the annals of the history of Les Confines.   Andrew Trotter was one of two final offers under consideration for the purchase of Les Confines and he was summoned to a meeting with Mme. Lafourcade who asked what his plans were for the gardens.   “To replace trees where necessary, add a tennis court and an arboretum.  The other hopeful purchaser, a German whose offer was higher than Andrew’s, was asked the same question and he immediately said “remove all the hedges and create a huge lawn”.   Predictably, his offer was not accepted!

There are several play areas for the children to enjoy.  Last Easter each of Mr. Trotter's 4 children was allowed to choose 2 chickens, an interesting variety of what they chose is now present in the chicken coop.

At the far end of the garden

The pond with Ligustrum lucidum in the background

One of the areas to be replanted was the rose garden (enclosed, of course, by a wall and high hedge), where all the roses except the two climbers were removed and replanted with bare-root repeat flowering David Austin roses.   The roses were so well established it was difficult to believe that this had only been done 18 months ago.

 A wrought iron pod planted with Erigeron karvinskianus

Little of the garden has changed from the original design but at the entrance to the house and tucked close to the boundary hedge in what had been rough grass parking area, a tennis court has been built with classic square black-painted metal posts topped with round balls (the attention to detail extends to the black fruit cage netting used instead of the usual chainlink fencing).   Time will tell whether it will survive the rigors of children using it as a climbing wall !   The old parking area is now mown and a grassy mound sits in the middle – the result of Andrew’s reluctance to part with €2,000 to remove the earth excavated during the creating of the tennis court - a miniature piece of Dorset in Provence.

The garden is full of topiary and evergreen hedges.  For low hedges Lonicera nitida as well as Rhamnus alaternus has been used 

For larger topiary shapes, Viburnus tinus.

For evergreen hedges Taxus baccata (Yew), for deciduous hedges,  Corylus avellana (Hazel) and Carpinus betulus (Hornbeam).

Text:  Sue Spense
Photos: Mavis McQuade


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