Archive for February, 2014

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Think of compost as a must have rather than a waste product. This was the key message in organic grower and gardening celebrity, Bob Flowerdew’s talk to Norfolk Master Composters last night.

In a lively session peppered with amusing anecdotes and startling ‘factoids’, Bob enthused the audience with his knowledge of how plants respond to home-made compost and all the other DIY concoctions he uses in his own garden in South Norfolk. Including improving the flavour of home grown food, he said.

He isn’t one for feeding his open ground plants with anything much more than his home made compost, but swears by a combination of ‘teas’ to keep his container grown specimens in top condition – diluted liquid feeds of Comfrey, Borage, Stinging Nettles and compost all feature in a cycle of feeding during the growing season. And he reckons that apart from benefitting the overall strength and productivity of his pot plantings, they help to prevent diseases and pests by coating the leaves.

How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference - Basil seedlings
How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference – Basil seedlings

Bob’s basic thesis is that all plants expect compost- left to nature animal droppings and decaying organic material would provide them with all that they need to survive (along with sun, water and CO2 of course). By making our own compost and adding this to the ‘designed’ planting that is a garden, we are mimicking nature. And apart from the nutrients this rich mix can give, it also contains millions of micro organisms that are constantly in search of food and will themselves help to keep bacterial and fungal infections down- naturally.

Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity
Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity

And encouraging wildlife into our gardens not only for the role many can play in removing harmful pests, but in the droppings they leave on the ground (and maybe less usefully, our cars) is also a way of boosting the natural ingredients that plants need to thrive as well as survive. He is also a big fan of snails (but not slugs). Grazing in the main on algae, these critters get an overly negative press, he reckons. Their droppings are another fantastic addition to soils (like worm casts), and maybe we should even ‘farm’ them in a mini ‘Snailcatraz’ just to provide this material!

Bob also estimates that a Blue Tit can deposit 6lbs of droppings in a season- just one of his mind-boggling figures.

Snail Farming?
Snail Farming?

He is a great advocate of putting pretty much anything organic into his own compost heap (which he visits and cossets every day)- old clothing (cotton,wool and other natural fibres only of course), citrus peel (despite recommendations from some authorities to keep this out), wood and even ferrous metals- all will rot down in time he says, and add a wealth of nutrients back to your soil.

His zeal for the home-made stuff is matched by his dislike of pretty much any commercially manufactured composts. Most seed composts are not much good he says and likewise potting composts lack the oomph that can be had from your own material. And some commercial composts that use municipal – processed organic waste should be carefully inspected, he says, as he’s worried about what can get through the filtering processes. He cites an example of a lump of concrete in a bag he’d bought and is worried about small batteries that might leak mercury. Based on trials of his own versus the commercial compost rivals, his own seems to win every time.

I was particularly struck by his tip about how he sows and grows in pots using a layering of his own compost in the bottom 75% of a pot, topping off with a seed compost, in which he sows his seed- the plant, once germinated, is then able to seek out the richer mix of nutrients lower down. Commercial seed composts are generally low in nutrients as if they were richer this might prevent the germination of smaller seeds. Home-made (but sieved) compost can be used to sow and grow the larger, more robust seeds like melons, cucumbers and so on.

Bob is a self-confessed ‘compostaholic’, seeking out anything that can be added to his heap.

Along with human and animal hair and fur- and the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag – he sings the praises of bird feathers as a powerful source of nitrogen and therefore a wonderful activator in a compost heap (along with his own urine of course). And after several experiments he’s found that it’s OK to add bones to the heap as these too will rot down- but only if they’re ‘green’ and not cooked. The latter tend to splinter and will not easily rot down.

He also now looks on weeding as an exercise in gathering compost material – certainly a positive spin to what many see as an onerous task!

Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap
Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap

Again, perhaps controversially, he says putting food scraps, including meat and fish, on the heap is OK. These are often advised against because of the risk of attracting rats.

‘It’s likely that there is a rat somewhere within 15 feet of where we are sitting now’

he said last night, indicating that they are already around in the nooks and crannies of buildings as well as in the open. So, we don’t need to attract them , he says, as they are already there! But he does urge putting out poisoned bait alongside compost heaps that contain such material as a precaution.

The meeting also heard from David Hawkyard, County Coordinator of Master Composter, about the continued funding of the Norfolk Master Composter scheme for at least another year and plans to raise its profile to encourage more Norfolk households to compost at home. A wonderful ‘Compost Bin’ Cake – complete with very realistic apple cores and smiling worms – rounded off an enjoyable and thought- provoking evening.

NOTE TO SELF- get out and turn the compost heap!

Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award
Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award

Useful links:

Norfolk Master Composter Facebook Page

Garden Organic composting advice

Old School Gardener


PicPost: A Roar Across Sheringham

Aurora Borealis as seen in Sheringham, Norfolk, 27th February. Photo by Chris Taylor

An early show from Euphorbia characias in Old School Garden
An early show from Euphorbia characias in Old School Garden

To Walter Degrasse – 27th February 2014

Dear Walter,

Mild weather has continued here and so I’ve taken the opportunity to start lightly turning over the soil, cutting back dead stems on herbaceous perennials and grasses and recently pruned back some shrubs such as Cornus and Buddleja to channel the new growth that’s starting to emerge.

In the last couple of weeks, the basal growths of new leaves around many plants have started to push upwards and the pattern of planting in the mixed borders is slowly taking shape – a very satisfying sight too.

I was surprised at how easily my kitchen garden soil responded to a light forking over, which included turning in some green manures and removal of a few weeds. With all the rain we’ve had I was expecting it to be rather claggy, but then again my sandy loam is always a joy to work with, so I should have known better. It’s also been perfect weather for dividing and moving some herbaceous perennials I didn’t get around to doing last year.

Having repaired the little storm damage we’ve had (a few bent hinges on one of the garage doors and a fence post needing to be replaced), I’ve also finally taken apart my wooden planters built about 7 years ago, but unfortunately not with pressure treated timber, so that all the money and effort has not lasted as long as I’d hoped. Still, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at an offer from a Scottish Raised bed manufacturer (‘Woodblockx’).

They’ve kindly donated me a new planter  and I’m finalising my plans about where best to use this, possibly as a feature in the courtyard with alpines  or maybe somewhere in the kitchen garden for food growing. The system they use looks both very strong and relatively easy to build, but I’ll do a review on the blog as I get to grips with the build in the next few weeks.

Having completed all the pruning and clearing of spent stems and foliage, I’ll also be turning my attention to further spring soil turning in the next few weeks. My first batches of seeds have germinated pretty well and I’ll be potting up some french marigolds and moving on some early food crops (Calabrese, Cauliflower and Leeks). To date the new bed of asparagus I planted last  autumn doesn’t appear to have made any growth above ground, but it’s still bit early for that, perhaps.

Next door the garlic bulbs and most of the broad beans I sowed last autumn are now doing well, as are the patches of onion sets (Red and white) and some Red cabbage and spinach. Mole activity seems to have subsided a little of late – hopefully it will tail off further as I get to give the lawn its first cut – and new grass will come up where the mole hills once lay.

Further afield, I’ve continued my new support at Fakenham Academy (a local high School), helping three groups of students prepare a food growing plot each in their school garden; in fact three plots of 12m x 6m, all of which have either been covered with weeds or grass.

Getting these ready for sowing is proving to be a tough job, the weather requiring us to turn over the clumps of grass/weeds and soil to allow for some drying out, so that we can remove most of the soil before piling up the weeds and turves in separate heaps for rotting down. Still, it does look like we’re making progress.

However, I discovered the other day that due to there being some asbestos in the better of two greenhouses  there, we will have to wait longer for a propagation space. This is unfortunate as I’d hoped to have broken up the hard physical toil with some lighter seed sowing activity especially as I have now bought the seeds and seed potatoes in line with the crops the students say that they want to grow. It’s fun working with these students, though not surprisingly they can get tired and bored of digging and so behaviour standards can sometimes drop!

Yesterday I returned to Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum (where I volunteer) and was pleased to commence a tidy up of the gardens I’m responsible for. It was also encouraging to meet two new volunteers, Jonathan and Mike, as well as two new Heritage Gardening trainees, Sam and Sonny.

This new injection of person power will make it a lot easier to keep on top of the maintenance of the gardens and may even allow us some scope for further improvement projects.

It was a lovely day too, which makes garden tidying a real joy! The museum opens to the public again on 9th March, so next week no doubt we’ll all be trying to get the gardens looking presentable. The tubs of pansies and spring bulbs I planted in the autumn are looking good and along with other spring interest should give the gardens a splash of early colour- the pinky blushed Hellebores in the Education Garden are looking good for example.

I’m just back from a morning at my local primary school (first visit since early winter) to help with their ‘outdoor learning’, focusing on the garden. The morning began rather wet but we managed to spend a couple of hours with two groups of children turning over soil and weeding as well as moving a pile of wood chips around the fire pit- these had come from a fallen hawthorn tree that toppled over in the main drive during the recent storms. Some of the children also worked out how many potatioes they’d need for one of the raised beds and I took in a few fruit boxes with moulded paper liners to help with ‘chitting’.

The children seemed to have a great time and were especially interested in the warmth that had built up in the pile of wood chippings – a great opportunity to explain the rudiments of composting!

I’m also pleased that we have some extra help in the garden, in the form of Ann, one of the students on the GYO course I did last autumn and a parent of one of the children at the school. And our current house guest, Lisa, also helped out with groups spotting the ‘first signs of spring’. Lisa is staying with us for a few months to experience British school life and brush up her English before commencing her own university career with a view to teaching. She’s from Muenster in Germany – and we are also eagerly anticipating the arrival of her mother, Anne tomorrow for a weekend stay.

Seems like this is the time for important germans to visit the UK, as their Chancellor, Angela Merkel is in London today, addressing the Houses of Parliament and taking tea with the Queen!

The Garden Design course that I’m running at Reepham seems to be progressing well, with 9 enthusiastic participants. They have all pretty much surveyed and drawn up a scale base plan of their gardens and are now exploring functional and form layouts as well as developing sketch designs incorporating ideas for creating structure in their designs. Next week we turn our attention to planting design as the ‘fourth dimension’ (seasonal variations) adding to the 2D and 3D views of the garden we’ve covered to date.

Tonight I’m off to County Hall in Norwich to attend an event for the Norfolk Master Composters, featuring a talk by well known Norfolk organic gardener, Bob Flowerdew – and there’s a buffet too!

I hope you and Lise are well and getting stuck into your plot once more – remember to take it easy and limber up before you do anything strenuous – you don’t want that back problem again!

all the best,

Old School Gardener

PicPost: Unfurling

Phacelia via Gardening Naturally

To conclude my photo board of my sunny trip to Canterbury here is a selection of shots of architecural detailing and other views looking up in various spots around the city….

Old School Gardener

20140225_123456My friend Jennifer sent me these lovely pictures of the spring flowers at Myddelton House, Enfield today.

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This was the home of E.A. Bowles who transformed the garden at Myddelton and, as a keen traveller, especially to Europe and North Africa, brought home with him many specimens of plant. Such was his collecting zeal that, by the turn of the 20th century, he was growing over 130 species of colchicum and Crocus- very much the ‘Crocus King’.

If you’d like to see something of the gardens in summer here’s a link to an article I wrote last August.

Old School Gardener


The Benefits of Winter Outdoor Play

Great ideas from Wilko Life! Click on the title for the full article.

Old School Gardener

Convolvulus tricolor
Convolvulus tricolor

A genus of about 200-250  shrubby annual, perennial herbaceous and rock plants, the name Convolvulus comes from  the latin convolvo, referring to the twining habit of some species. It is widely distributed around the world and is commonly known as Bindweed and Morning Glory, both names shared with other closely related genera.

Growing to 0.3–3 m tall, their leaves are spirally arranged, and the flowers trumpet-shaped, mostly white or pink, but blue, violet, purple or yellow in some species.

Many of the species are problematic weeds, which can swamp other more valuable plants by climbing over them, but some are also cultivated for their attractive flowers. Some species are globally threatened. Convolvulus species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera.

Other species names include:

C. althaeoides – like an Althaea (hollyhock)- referring to the flowers

C. cantabrica Cantabria, Spain

C. cneorum – meaning is obscure, from the greek Kneoron, a plant

C. lineatus – with lines

C. mauritanicus – of Mauretania (Morocco)

C. nitidus – somewhat glossy

C. soldanella – leaves like a Soldanella

C. tenuissimus – most slender

C. tricolor – three- coloured

C. althaeoides- from Flora Graeca
C. althaeoides- from Flora Graeca

Sources and further information:


RHS- growing C. sabatius

RHS- growing C. cneorum

Old School Gardener

My Botanical Garden

Viburnum tinus is among  stars of the Mediterranean spring. Its dark green leaves contrast fragrant pentamerous flowers in white or pale pink, evolving into dark blue fruit resembling small pearls. Yet this obvious picture from maquis has its invisible side .It is called domatium, after Latin word domus, for home. Domatia are microscopically small chambers at the under sides of the evergreen leaves. Plant grows domatia to host mites. In this way Viburnum tinus can be seen as a botanical skyscraper with many  tiny apartments for arthropod neighbors. Imagine a little mite calling her friends to come over for a party at her condo! I am kidding, it only fascinates me to recognize there is another life underlying the botanical beauty of the plant we can see with our eyes. It is like a parallel world. Only the question remains, are the mites, or are we , at the right…

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