Wednesday, 15 February 2017

February Flowers for Bees

While weeding a border yesterday, I was dragged from my winter torpor by a passing bee. Without a second thought for the hot drink I had been promising myself, I pursued the bee to see where it might be heading. 
There is plenty on the menu for early bees. Sitting prettily just above the surface of the soil are snowdrops, Crocus and Iris reticulataHellebores hang their heads shyly, as if scared to be noticed. Who can blame them when they are towered over by winter flowering shrubs pumping out great nostril-loads of scent and screaming for attention?
Snowdrops growing through Ivy. A match made in heaven

I do love a scented shrub. At the moment, the sweetest of the fragrance factories are the shrubby honeysuckles, Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'. Flowering from January to March in my garden, they are a valuable source of nectar for early bumble bees. Delicate creamy-white flowers hang on almost leafless branches. Their scent is not as heady as Sarcococca which is belting out fragrance at the moment, but Lonicera certainly packs enough of a punch to get attention. 
Lonicera fragrantissima grows to about two metres, so it needs space. It might be big, but it is not a dense shrub and it looks great with winter flowering bulbs and hellebores at its feet. Later in the year, dark green hellebore leaves make a wonderful foil for the lighter leaves of Lonicera
Crocus brightening up the car park border
Happy in sun or part shade, if there isn't room to let it romp, it may be grown as a wall shrub, but take care not to over-prune. I only ever trim a branch if it is encroaching on a path. I certainly wouldn't cut away more than two or three branches in any one year. Pruning should be undertaken straight after flowering. 
Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' has purple-red stems in spring and early summer. I can't say that this makes a great deal of difference to me as it like the flowers, foliage and the form of both Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'. Best of all, they get the bee seal of approval.

I am joining with other bloggers around the world to celebrate Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Why not pop over to and see what is blooming in gardens around the globe?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Planting for Wildlife

I recently saw a post on social media from a gardener who was worried about overwintering her Pyracantha cuttings. While many replies were supportive, they were littered with calls for the gardener to destroy her plants. My hackles were raised. Pyracantha is hugely valuable to wildlife. Fancying myself as a knight on a charger, I thundered to fair Pyracantha’s defence (only I’m a gardener at a laptop and I’m a little bit scared of thunder). 
My thoughts have been published on the fabulous Guardian Gardening Blog. I know it’s a big cheek, but I would be ever so grateful if you might take the time to pop over there and comment please so that I don’t look like a complete Sarah No-Mates. The link is below. Thank you.

I'll be back here soon with gorgeous February flowers for bees.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Life of a Kitchen Gardener

I was introduced to the wonderful world of nurturing, picking and eating homegrown produce when I was a child. I don't remember giving a second thought to growing food during my late teens; then I got my first home with a garden. It will come as no surprise to veggie growers to learn that I swiftly replaced the overgrown low maintenance planting with higher maintenance, but hugely rewarding edibles. An allotment soon followed. It was a neglected plot. Bringing it back into full production was extremely hard work, but every particle of soil reclaimed from the tenacious grip of couch grass meant more space for growing glorious food.
Over the years my love for growing and eating homegrown produce has not diminished, but the assortment of crops I grow has changed. When I became a parent to three children under three years old, I stopped growing anything requiring too much attention in the kitchen. Podding peas became a thing of the past, while strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra and peppers were grown in great numbers. I also embraced potatoes in pots, not because I was short of space, but because rooting around for spuds in a container is far quicker (and safer) than finding a fork and digging up potatoes with three hungry children trailing in your wake. The potatoes also came out cleaner than they did when lifted from the soil, which sped up the whole process of food preparation considerably.
As our children grew older I added their favourite foods to the mix. Shiny aubergines, asparagus, purple beans and sweetcorn were welcomed into the greenhouse and onto the plot. Our strawberry patch expanded and raspberries were given a free rein to walk wherever they pleased, so long as they fruited. At harvest time the children would run excitedly to the kitchen garden with their friends and delight in picking great bowlfuls of juicy tomatoes and succulent strawberries warm from the sun. Harvesting crops was a novelty for some of their friends. I hope that they will remember those sunny days of childhood and try growing food for themselves one day.
Now our children are teenagers with busy lives. For most of the year they barely have the time to notice that their food may have travelled only a matter of metres from the patch to their plate, but then in summer, when school’s out, I see them helping themselves to fruit from the kitchen garden or picking a salad for lunch.
For the past two years one of our children has grown chillies on her bedroom windowsill. She also has an ever-extending collection of cacti. May this be the start of a lifelong love of gardening for her. Our youngest teen likes to see flowers in the house. I am hoping that our new cutting garden will inspire her. As for me, I will be found in the vegetable garden, trying out new crops and looking forward to that point in summer when the school closes its doors and our children remember where their food comes from. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Garden Blogs and Good Intentions

I am one of those gardeners for whom the new year is like a starting gate catapulting open in a horse race. Waking up on January 1st is the point at which the door is released and the prize-winning filly hurtles towards the finishing line, only in my case I'm a mare running like the clappers towards the seed catalogues, and there is nothing prize-winning about me (my track record with raffle tickets speaks for itself).

I had planned to focus solely on ornamental seeds during early January, but my head has already been turned by edibles. Pipiche is an attractive Mexican herb, so it might be considered ornamental, but Carosello looks like a hairy cucumber. Had I resolved to exercise more self-control, I would have failed in my resolution on day one. Thankfully, the older I get, the more resolved I become to never make a resolution, which is a resolution in itself. It only goes to show how unsuccessful resolutions can be.
When I started blogging I had no clear idea of what I was trying to achieve. I knew that I wanted to share the joy of gardening with nature in mind. All of the photos in this post were taken over the festive period. Had I cut back and tidied the plants in autumn instead of leaving them to provide food and shelter for our wilder friends, imagine how flat and dull my garden would have been. I might not win any raffles, but the wildlife and the sight of the plants on a frosty morn makes me feel like a winner.
It took a few months for me to pluck up the courage to publish my first post. I chose the easiest platform I could find and didn’t commit myself to a domain name. I had read blogs for some time and I really loved the blogosphere. I still do. Being part of this global community has taught me to be a better gardener. Now I want to learn to be a better blogger, so I am starting the year by asking for your advice.
If I were to change the blogging platform, are there pitfalls I should watch out for? Would adding a culinary section to the mix be a good idea? What about historical posts and comments - do they travel well? Have you ever changed the name of your blog? If so, was that an issue? What works and what doesn't about this blog? You may quite rightly be concluding that I have as much of a clue about what I’m doing as I have about growing that hairy cucumber lookalike, Carosello. Of course, if you have any advice on growing Carosello, it will be more than gratefully received.
Perhaps I should leave The Gardening Shoe well alone and go and focus on something more predictable, like selecting veggies to grow in 2017. The most predictable aspect of which will be the addition of a couple of ornamentals to the edible list. After all, there is bound to be something I forgot to order while I was getting sidetracked by Carosello and Pipiche. Such is the nature of seed catalogues and good intentions. 

Thank you for all your encouragement and support over the years. Wishing you health and happiness in 2017. I look forward to reading your blogs and salivating over your beautiful photos this year. Here's to you!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Gardening With Dogs and Chatting With Chickens

Chickens have been part of my gardening life for a few years now. They follow me around, listen to my ramblings, and rarely disagree with anything I say. They are an absolute joy! One morning when I was giving the chickens their daily weather update, I became aware that I was being watched. I turned to discover a mother and child scurrying away with unseemly haste from the scary chicken lady. Happily it hasn't put me off chatting to my chickens. They are mighty fine listeners - and it has nothing to do with the corn in my pocket.
Our dog is a ready listener too, although the kids insist that it is cupboard love. Unlike the chickens, he talks back to me because in the age-old tradition of dog parents, I have given him a voice. To the uninitiated it might sound as if I am talking to myself, but it is simple enough to work out who is speaking as the dog adds 'mum' onto the end of every sentence, because obviously I am the dog's mother and not the other way around. 
Gardening is just one of the many topics of conversation we have covered since Basil joined our family earlier this year. We share certain interests in the garden. We both like to dig, for example. The only difference between us is that I like to dig holes to pop plants in; he likes to dig holes to get those plants out again.
Basil and I are united in our love of lying on grass, but you won't see either of us for dust on mowing day. Basil is so anti-mowing that he has taken steps to hamper any attempt at grass cutting by storing his extensive collection of treasures on the lawn. 
We both deadhead flowers, although he doesn't think that it is necessary to wait until the flowers have bloomed; and his fondness for harvesting entire tomato crops irrespective of whether or not the fruit is ripe, is legendary. But the one thing he loves most is to see the garden filled with… well, filling.
He is adept at tidying up sticks. Sometimes those sticks might have fallen from a tree, although more frequently they are actually entire hedging plants which have been uprooted and taken for a few laps of honour around the garden before being filed away in his collection of treasures on the lawn. 
When I am planting I can always rely on him to pick up any empty plant pots. If he should stumble upon a pot containing a plant, he will remain unfazed and dispose of the plant and the pot together. He even saved me the effort of tidying away my pink gardening clogs by rendering them unwearable. What a thoughtful boy!  

Our garden was once a farmyard and the soil is very stony. Basil is a hero when it comes to digging out stones. He will never let a plant stand between him and his one-dog mission to improve the soil and create stoneless borders.
When it comes to training shrubs, he takes hard pruning to a whole new level. Here is what was left of a standard rose after it had been 'Basiled'. Admittedly it's not the cleanest cut I have ever seen.
If I’m honest, I would prefer Basil to be a little less boisterous in my borders, but he is still young. It’s his first birthday this week. I am looking forward to the day when Basil is happy to relax on the lawn and watch me nurture the plants he so energetically uprooted during puppyhood. In the meantime, we will celebrate his birthday in style by planting and removing a new hedge together. He’s really looking forward to it… or so he tells me.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sweet Peas, Gin and The Perils of Gardening Clubs

November is a month for harvesting leaves for magical leafmould, planting bulbs, and preparing ground for new hedges, yet I am always overcome by the urge to sow seeds at this time of year. I suppose it is because it seems like forever until the next sowing frenzy.
I usually start sweet peas in November or spring. A few weeks ago I was told that October is the optimum time to sow them and it was music to my ears. My desire to pop some seeds into compost is at its height in October. I carefully selected the varieties I wished to grow and was all ready to sow, then life being life, did its thing and got in the way of my plans so I shall be sowing them this month as usual. 
My sweet peas grow haphazardly up hazel poles with strings woven round onto which they can cling. I pick them all the way through summer and autumn (there are a few in a vase on my desk right now). These blooms might not be atop the longest, straightest stems you will ever see, but they smell divine and at the height of the season I pick them by the bucketful.
I remember many moons ago watching a television programme featuring an exhibitor who explained all the rigmarole of cutting off sweet pea tendrils, tying the peas in, and then laying them down and training them up a cane further along the line. I thought at the time that the poor man should get a life. Now I rather envy him. 
The Royal Norfolk Show 2016
The person from whom I learnt about October sowing exhibits sweet peas. He has won awards for the quality of his blooms. I have never had any urge to grow show standard flowers and arrange them in a bikini vase, or nurture a giant onion and enter it in a show. It would be like stuffing one of my kids into a pretty frock and shoving them into a beauty pageant. I realise that a lot of people do this, it’s just that I’m not one of them. Yet suddenly, after decades of gardening, I am inspired to grow exhibition quality sweet peas. 
The Royal Norfolk Show 2016
This whole sweet pea obsession has caused me to start a cutting garden. I am landscaping it at the moment and pride of place will be given to my sweet peas (if I ever get around to sowing them). Such is the danger of going to a gardening club talk given by a passionate sweet pea grower. Needless to say, I was mightily relieved that last week's talk was about gin. I've never been particularly partial to gin, but guess what? I'm converted! At this rate, summer 2017 will be spent flouncing around horticultural shows, polishing my straight-stemmed sweet peas, gin in my hand. I daren't even ask what next month's talk will be about. 
The local gardening clubs I attend are:

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Farewell to The Dillon Garden

A summer of gallivanting has taken its toll on my borders. Deadheading (that delightful gardening task undertaken while enjoying a drink of choice) has been neglected in favour of inspiring trips to other gardeners’ gardens. I have returned filled with remorse and overflowing with ideas. 
One of the gardens I visited was at Helen Dillon’s house in Dublin. Famed for her ever-shifting seasonal containers and no-nonsense advice, Helen Dillon’s garden was one of the most inspiring town gardens I have ever had the pleasure to spend time in. I say was, because the garden has closed. For good. 
We all have to leave our gardens eventually. Sometimes the garden continues to open to the public, as is the case at Great Dixter. In other instances the gardener moves on complete with plants and embraces the creation of a new garden, as is Helen Dillon in Ireland, and fellow garden blogger Helene at Graphicality-UK* in London.
A relationship between visitors and much-loved gardens deepens over time, and with it something akin to a sense of ownership develops. As I wandered around admiring the fruits of Helen's labours on that cloudy Sunday, other visitors were keen to express their views on the garden and its future. One local lady had been a regular visitor over the years and was there to say goodbye to it. Another was outraged, claiming that in the UK we would have preserved this gem for posterity. I disagree. One of the many wonderful things about this garden was Helen’s use of containers. Plants in pots are perfectly capable of travelling a few miles down the road to add value in the creation of a new garden.
Gardeners are a generous bunch. I have yet to meet one who refuses to share knowledge. Helen Dillon is a natural teacher. On the afternoon I visited she was in her garden, endlessly answering questions as if they had never been asked before, even though she must surely have answered those same questions thousands of times. Since I am not a natural born staker I need plants to hold themselves well, so I was keen to pick Helen's brains on a particularly strong pink Phlox with sturdy upstanding stems. Realising what a good plant it was, she arranged for a piece of it to be dug up so that she could take some of it with her to her new garden. She also made sure that I had a little to take back with me to England. The plant had come to her from someone else’s garden and she didn’t know the cultivar. Unable to give me the name, she gave me something better. 
Helen Dillon & I with the glorious pink Phlox
Now a little piece of Helen Dillon's extraordinary garden is settling into my shabby borders. Next year my garden will not look so sorry for itself. There will be pots aplenty and more than a few dustbins like the one behind Helen in the photo above. 
It seems a tad strange to be writing about a garden that is unlikely to exist ever again in the form we see in these photographs, but gardens don't stay the same. Great gardens move on, and in this case a great gardener is moving on. Here's to the future of all our gardens.

All photos were taken in The Dillon Garden, Dublin.

*Helene, who moved hundreds of plants to her new garden in London, blogs here: