Sunday, 11 August 2013

Border Beetroot, Anne Boleyn and a Clouded Yellow

If variety is the spice of life, then this has been a vindaloo week. Despite spending too much time jostling in the underground with not even a cut flower for company (if I had my way, nosegays and buttonholes would be compulsory for commuters), I managed to escape into the great outdoors for two wonderful, inspiring days.


My first fresh air was at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. The former home of the Boleyn family (Anne is said to have been born there) is one of my favourite places to walk and after an enjoyable afternoon exercising my legs and jaw with friends, I withdrew to the gardens to commune with the borders.


The hotter end of the double borders was looking particularly exuberant. I was reminded of your comments following a recent post on creative vegetable growing* so I thought I would share this photo showing ruby chard and beetroot ‘Blood Red’ making a valuable, yet cost-effective contribution to the planting scheme.  


The other big discovery I made in the double borders was that time is no great healer where plants are concerned. I have always loved Monarda, but after years of sorry plants with powdery mildew, I took the difficult decision to try to live without this beauty in our new garden. Then Monarda ‘Gardenview Scarlet’ caught my eye and guess which plant has been catapulted to the top of my must-have list? 'Gardenview Scarlet' has better resistance to powdery mildew than most cultivars, so I am hoping for a happily-ever-after ending to my Monarda love story.

Midweek, I found myself sharing shed space with representatives from nurseries and some of the most well-known gardens in the U.K. for a trade show focussing on sustainable ornamentals production; a subject close to my heart. We gathered at Howard, an excellent wholesale perennials nursery, where we were treated to enjoyable and enlightening presentations, followed by a tractor/trailer ride around the field grown areas of the nursery.



It was a day to consider issues of an important and serious nature, but maintaining an air of professionalism and composure is a challenge when you are bouncing merrily along on the back of a tractor through thousands of glorious perennials. The sight of a Clouded Yellow butterfly did little to quash my excitement.

Clouded Yellow butterfly
After a fascinating and entertaining presentation by Fergus Garrett on sustainability at Great Dixter, we turned our attention to sustainable growing media. This is a hot topic for me, as I choose not to buy compost containing peat. Using peat in the garden is inappropriate on so many levels: loss of habitat; CO2 emissions; and, as a friend pointed out recently, it is wrong to use something which has taken thousands of years to form, to grow an annual which will be dead in a matter of weeks. 

Scabious proving its credentials as a Peacock butterfly
 magnet at the nursery.
You may be surprised to learn that there are no plans in the U.K. to ban, or even place a tax on using peat; and while there are targets regarding reducing the use of peat in horticulture, these are targets - not legislation. Away from the trade, I wonder if gardeners really care about peat. Do people buy the cheapest compost irrespective of ingredients? Perhaps some gardeners are still smarting after having tried one of the earlier, less successful peat-free alternatives. I hope not. Peat-free compost has moved on; it's time we all did. 




50 comments:

  1. Very interesting post, must have been great to visit to visit Howard nurseries and also the tractor ride must have been fun. Great Dixter I have been visiting twice in the time Chr. Lloyd was still alive. I should have liked to attend a presentation of Fergus Garrett. About peat I can say I agree with you to use no peat in the garden.

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    1. Thank you, Janneke. It was great fun. I am delighted to learn that you don't use peat in the garden.

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  2. What an interesting week you've had. I love that hot border which incorporates ruby chard and beetroot, vegetables can be just as pleasing to the eye as ornamentals. How lovely to see the Clouded Yellow butterfly, that's a new one on me.

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    1. This is the first (and only) time I've seen a Clouded Yellow. It is a migratory species from north Africa/South Europe and I understand that there are "Clouded Yellow Years" such as 1947, when about 36,000 appeared in the UK.

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  3. The monarda is beautiful, I hope it works for you.

    I have been avoiding peat in my gardening for the reasons you mention and it has the added disadvantage of not working well in my climate. It's not easy, but I'll pay even more attention now and find other options that do work.

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  4. Peat is widely sold here. I didn't know about the environmental concerns, but don't use it because in our dry climate it creates a very hard 'mat' over the bed.

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    1. It seems that the extent to which environmental concerns about the use of peat are discussed depends very much on where in the world you live. You are so right about the tendency of peat to dry out badly.

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  5. These are beautiful photos. And this is a very interesting post. I had no idea about the environment concerns with peat. It is sold everywhere, and it is an added ingredient in quite a few of the products. I've learned something new - and important - today.

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  6. Finding an alternative to peat is quite a problem, as there is a load of rubbish out there but I do understand why peat shouldn't be used. I have never been to Blickling must rectify that some day - the borders looked lovely with the veg leaves mixed in - I planted some beetroot in my flower borders but now it has been harvested there are some big annoying gaps.

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    1. It is getting easier to buy better peat-free products. I find that I have to adjust very slightly the way I treat plants growing in peat-free compost, but it's very well worth the effort. DO go to Blickling! There is also a lovely walk around the lake and I recommend doing a tour of the house.

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  7. I must admit we are struggling to find a half decent compost. We think we have found one then find a different bag of the same compost performs totally differently.

    Beetroot is a beautiful plant and goes well against yellow orange flowers like marigolds.

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    1. Consistency has been a problem, but development is ongoing and the quality of peat-free compost is improving. Beetroot is lovely. I shall certainly be adding it to my ornamental borders next year.

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    2. The inconsistency is the main problem. have you found one that is consistently good

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    3. Have you tried New Horizon Organic and Peat-Free Multi-Purpose Compost, Sue? It is very good. It isn't cheap, but deals (3-for-2 etc) are available.

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    4. We have. Some bags of it have been very good but we have also had some duds. One had a fungus growing in it. I pricked out some voila seedlings in some of this brand and they just are not moving so I'm going to try feeding them. Trouble is that if they use green waste that in itself is variable and I am a bit concerned as to where they source the green waste from. The manure issue we had a few years ago has left me very suspicious.

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    5. I don't blame you for being suspicious about manure - the issues we had gave me the jitters about using it. Although I haven't had problems with pricking out and growing on in the New Horizon O +P-F Multi-Purpose, I did once half-drown a more mature plant before I realised that the compost was retaining water far better than I expected!

      Feeding requirements can be pretty specific for peat-free composts - this one is no exception... after 4-6 weeks, feed every 7-14 days with New Horizon Multi-Purpose plant food or J Arthur Bower's liquid plant food. The RHS recommends that we should use the brands suggested by the compost company (or one with a similar NPK ratio), since the balance of nutrients differs from product to product.
      It's a shame about your Viola seedlings. I hope that you see an improvement after feeding them.

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  8. Love those beds of Yarrow... and it turned out to be a bumper year for butterflies, hasn't it?

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    1. It has indeed! I am noticing lots of lovely moths too!

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  9. Those borders are crazy awesome!!! I have to educate myself further on peat...I don't use it but would like to understand its environmental risk factors further. Looks like you had a lovely couple of days!!

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    1. Here's the RHS' stand on peat for starters....

      http://www.rhs.org.uk/Gardening/Sustainable-gardening/Peat-and-the-environment/Peat-and-the-gardener

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  10. Peat is in everything here, and the only one alternative I have found was, as you say, a great disappointment. I shall just have to try and produce more of my own compost for potting instead! Lovely post - like the image of you bouncing along in a tractor trying to be serious! :D

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    1. Thank you! I agree with you about producing more homemade compost. It is what we are trying to do here (we also have some lovely turf stacks on the go).

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  11. We hope you finally do get some success with MOnarda, that 'Gardenview Scarlet' looks beautiful!

    Interesting two days, with the garden in Norfolk (which has loads of beautiful gardens) and that colourful field, wow! Must have been a sight to behold in the flesh.

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    1. We are blessed with some fabulous gardens in Norfolk; I am never short of ideas for a day out!

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  12. Blickling Hall Gardens look wonderful-it's great to get out and find inspiration. I would have loved to hear Fergus giving a presentation, I've read lovely articles about him and how he worked with Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter.
    Peat free compost really needs to be mixed with your own home made compost I think as it's not usually great. I now have two lovely almost ready compost heaps after two years from starting them. Slow worms live in my compost heaps-so another reason to have them and it's so easy to do. Buying plants in peat free compost is much harder!

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    1. You are so right about the significance of compost heaps for wildlife. A well-managed heap can be home to an extraordinary number of creatures.

      Sourcing plants in peat-free compost is difficult. I don't think it will always be this way. I saw some trials at a nursery recently and was very impressed with the plants grown in peat-free media.

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  13. Hmm, I think you should start an online petition re nosegays on the underground... I made a similar promise to myself about monardas, too many mildewy failures, good luck finding one that doesn't turn horrible on you. As for peat, the temptation to buy the cheap stuff containing it is high now that I am gardening on such a reduced budget, but I refuse to, preferring to make other compromises, such as growing fewer things in pots, sowing more direct. In time I hope to become almost self-sufficient, using the compost heaps and leafmould.

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    1. Good for you, Janet! Your decision to cut back on the garden budget in other areas makes a lot of sense. I, too, hope to be almost self-sufficient in compost here, but it will take a while. It is feeling very autumnal today; it won't be long before we can start gathering leaves for leafmould!

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  14. Peat is for sale everywhere here and the only people who seem to be educated about it are hard core gardeners. The masses remain woefully ignorant, as usual. I only use coir to start my seeds and don't add peat to my soil. I have lots of mildew resistant monarda and it's super humid here. I'd try it again. :o) Gorgeous peacock butterfly. We don't have those here.

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    1. It is a shame that the message about peat isn't getting through to everyone - and as you prove in your lovely garden, it really isn't necessary to use peat.

      I will try Monarda again; and if you have lots of mildew resistant cultivars, I suspect 'Gardenview Scarlet' might be the first of many!

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  15. I am always amazed how grey and drab people look on the subway here. Colored coats are an apparition. Compulsory nosegays and buttonholes would be a wonderful improvement.
    It must have been wonderful to see the flower borders at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. I love the mix of flowers and the swiss chard.
    I have heard some concern expressed here regarding peat, but not very often. I think it is an issue that is just beginning here.

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    1. Here's hoping that peat becomes a hot topic very soon, Jennifer.

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  16. I used to use peat-based compost a long while back, before the knowledge spread about the fantastic damage it was doing to the environment where it was removed. These days I use a mixture of compost, own compost and manure. The compost is peat-free (I'm sure it is, you know, I don't remember now, it must be, I really ought to go check) and the rotted manure bulks it up and gives it body. I'm certainly aware of the impact of peat compost and I hope the new is spreading.

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    1. I am going to try mixing our compost with peat-free next year. Your experience of adding manure too is very interesting.

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  17. Smashing place to visit and quite a thought provoking post. I think your friend has made a sensible comment.
    I have to admit to not checking the contents of compost I buy - I don't buy much if I'm honest. I tend to use soil improver in the garden but again don't know the contents.
    I grow a couple of Monarda and found the powdery mildew a bit of an issue. I was given a tip of mulching in autumn. I did this and have seen no sign this year. That could be down to the perfect growing conditions this year and only time will tell.

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    1. Hi Angie - I had hoped the post would be thought-provoking. It's always worth checking the contents of compost. Words such as "organic" can lull gardeners into believing that what they are purchasing is peat-free, but unless the bag is labelled as such, the compost is unlikely to be peat-free. Interesting tip about mulching - I am a strong believer in the benefits of a good mulch!

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  18. I steadfastly refuse to buy anything with peat. Nature should not be violated. Oh! attending that meeting must have been exciting. I was going to end up buying all those perennials. You British really know how to garden! I need to take a trip there, one day, just to see all the gardens.

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    1. Yay! I absolutely agree with your views on peat; and I hope you get to come to the UK on a tour of our gardens very soon!

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  19. Last time I visited Blickling was with a close friend I hadn't seen for several years. It was a good day. I'm kicking myself for not thinking about peat more critically. When we first gardened we used it, mainly because it was what everybody did. We are now reviving some old, unloved beds with our own compost and horse manure. The soil is already much improved.

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    1. I think many of us are kicking ourselves for having used peat at some time in the past. The important thing now is that we move on to more sustainable growing media. I bet the soil in those borders has improved!

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  20. The gardens at Blickling look wonderful; I love Monarda, too, so I'll look out for 'Gardenview Scarlet'. The Clouded Yellow is lovely; I saw my first Clouded Yellow butterflies yesterday - a real treat. And I agree with you about the use of peat; your friend has summed up the reason not to buy it perfectly.

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    1. Hi Wendy, how wonderful to see more than one clouded yellow. Lucky you!

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  21. What I wouldn't give to have a Blickling Hall to wander around on a sunny afternoon. those gardens look absolutely amazing. any ideas on a good peat alternative? I don't use it a lot, but for seed starting in the spring it is indispensable.

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    1. Here, peat-free compost tends to be wood-based (fibre/sawdust - i.e. waste products). Coir is used in some and although this involves shipping coconut fibre around the world, it is a light, compressible waste product. In the UK, we also have access to green compost which is made from composted green waste.

      I don't use peat to start seeds; I use peat-free and have not encountered problems. In fact, I have been particularly pleased with peat-free compost at this stage in plants' lives! Select your peat-free compost carefully and give it a whirl. I think you will be pleasantly surprised!

      Here's an article which you might find interesting...
      http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jun/15/gardens-peat-free-compost

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  22. Really enjoyed this post - you have such a lovely style of writing.

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    1. Thank you, Patricia, for your encouraging comment.

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  23. I always read the Which? trial results on peat free composts with interest every year, they seem to be getting better but I still have to work within my budget. This year, the council reintroduced it's bagged compost made from the borough's green waste which is useful, although not always exactly what I need. I was interested in wool compost at Chelsea this year but it's hugely expensive!
    Love that Monarda - I have a purple one but it was great in the first year (double tiers of flowers!) but has looked a bit jaded in the past two years. A scarlet one would be great!

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    1. I read the Which? trials too - I couldn't live without Which?! I tried wool compost a few years ago and I wasn't crazy about it, although it might have improved since then. My brother tried it for the first time this year - I must find out what he thought.

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