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In praise of Crape Myrtles

This is a collaborative post

Although strongly associated with the southern states of America, the Crape Myrtle can, with the right care, thrive in cooler more northerly areas as well.

In fact there are several types of Crape Myrtle trees from thetreecenter.com that are able to cope with the colder winters that USDA zones 7 and even 6 have to offer, just so long as the grower is flexible in their approach and is prepared to keep an open mind.

crape myrtle 4
Courtesy of Modern Mia

The Crape Myrtle tree is popular because it blooms spectacularly for three months in the summer and boasts very attractive bark that comes in many shades – cinnamon, white, cream, brown and grey. In southern states they pop up all over the place, even in car parks, and everyone loves them. In fact, the only thing gardeners in USDA zones 7 to 10 need to concern themselves about is which colour looks best in their garden and how they can get the longest possible blooming season out of them.

Cooler climes

Northern gardeners meanwhile – USDA zone 6 – often fall in love with the Crape Myrtle after a trip down south and want to try and grow one of their when they get home.
This isn’t beyond the realms of possibility because they can select a hardier variety such as Sarah’s Favourite, which is white, or Velma’s Royal Delight, which is magenta. However, they will need to manage their expectations a little and satisfy themselves with fewer blooms – a small price to pay for what is still a most attractive addition to anyone’s garden.

crape myrtle 1
Courtesy of Modern Mia

Even in USDA zone 5, Crape Myrtle fans can have a go at cultivating these hardier varieties, or perhaps could try the shrubbier ones that grow more as perennials. Each winter it will appear that the tops have been killed by the cold and frost, but rest assured they always leap back to life in the spring. However, be aware that growing a perennial Crape Myrtle means it won’t offer the peeling bark, but if it’s warm enough there may still be some blooms at least on the smaller shrubs – the ones around four feet tall – that will add a splash of mid-summer colour to your garden.

crape myrtle 2
Courtesy of Modern Mia

Tips for increasing cold hardiness

• Avoid pruning or fertilizing your Crape Myrtle in the autumn – you also need to avoid too much water at this time of year because the plant needs to harden off for the winter.

• Don’t place it against a south-facing wall because a sunny day in January, or a brief thaw, might fool the crape myrtle into thinking spring has arrived early.

• After the leaves have fallen in autumn, mulch the tree well with leaves and straw to provide insulation around the roots.

• Think about growing miniature Crape Myrtle – they’re small enough to “wrap up” in winter to protect them from the cold. In late autumn, cover them with screening or mesh-wire cages that can be packed with leaves and straw.

• Not all gardeners have to worry about hardiness, so they can consider cultivars such as Osage or Seminole, which are resistant to the dreaded black sooty mildew. There are also cultivars like Catawba and Tonto, amongst others, that offer resistance against leaf-spot.

• …and remember, regardless of where you live, all Crape Myrtle need full sun and an acidic soil as an absolute minimum.

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First Asparagus at Sowandso Belgium

Last year I sowed some asparagus seeds and planted out the seedlings a bit late in the season in the new bed near the house.

Seeds

Growing Asparagus from seed is a tricky business as you never know if the plant will be a female or male plant. As Bridget mentioned before in Asparagus at the Villas males produce better spears than female. But growing from seed is a lot cheaper so I was willing to give it a go.

Asparagus

Fall came and the little feathery leaves died back, weeds took over and covered the bed. I was sure the plants did not survive the fluctuating winter weather we had this year. Ready to clear the bed of weeds and grow something new I started to clean it vigorously.

Asparagus

15 plants

Suddenly my eye caught sight of a tiny asparagus and I went down on my knees, carefully clearing away the weeds around it. I planted in rows so I checked the rest of the bed and found more than 15 tiny plants some with more than 5 little spears. I immediately contacted Bridget as she is my go-to woman when it comes to Asparagus and she advised me to leave the spears this year, than tentatively harvest a few next so I can enjoy a full harvest in year 3.

Asparagus

These asparagus will stay in the same bed for the next 20 years or so, thus a little patience is not too much to ask. I think I am going to sow a few more now!

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Start Home Composting this Spring

sponsoredSpringtime gardening can be a tedious waiting game, as the earth has not yet fully recovered from a winter thaw. With plants not yet ready to begin their growth before the prime of summer, you can often feel at a loose end in your garden. A valuable way to spend your time in the spring period, however, is gathering materials to produce your own compost.

Image by Joi Ito - licence

Image by Joi Ito

Home composting is not only good for the environment, making use of household waste to prevent unnecessary landfill and incineration, but can also save you quite a lot of money on store-bought compost — the price of which mysteriously peaks in the summertime, when everyone is looking to use it! Here are a few simple tips on how you can start producing your own compost this spring — starting the process months in advance of summer will allow you to enrichen your plants with natural, resourceful compost when you really need it.

How does composting work?

Composting is nature’s way of establishing a full life cycle for plants. A plant lives its life before dying, decomposing, and enriching the earth with nutrients to promote further plant growth. If you localise this decomposition process to a compost heap, you can stockpile the compost to use as and when you need it, on all different types of plants. Your compost solution consists of decomposed organic matter, with the all-important plant-enrichening nutrients retained.

What do I use to make compost?

More local councils are starting to charge for the privilege of removing your garden waste. This is taxing on gardeners, as you can already spend quite a lot of money on improving your garden before worrying about waste disposal costs. Not only will home composting save you money on buying compost, but also on garden waste removal charges.

Compost 2

Rotten fruits and vegetables are great for composting, as are decomposing plant matter and grass cuttings. You can also use old newspapers and shredded paper, as well as tea bags and coffee grounds. However, never use garden waste consisting of diseased plants or flowers, as this will contaminate your compost. A huge list of compostable items can be found on the Recycle Now website.

How do I make compost?

Composting can be as simple as gathering all your materials into a pile and waiting for them to decompose, but this is a very inefficient and wasteful method, as the elements will often wash away or reduce the size of your compost heap. The most efficient way to produce compost is by using a compost tumbler.

Compost 3

Composters from Mantis can produce lovely, earthy compost in as little as 14 days. And as they have turning handles on them, the drum can be spun easily — this distributes the heat generated by composting and speeds the process up. A mere compost heap or static drum is not afforded this assistance, which can lead to poor compost.

Dispersing the compost among your plants can be trickier than you think, as some plants respond better to compost being laid below the surface of the soil, whereas other like it on the surface, for example. A helpful guide to laying compost is available at WikiHow the guide also explains when to tell your compost is ready, which is very handy.

Hopefully with this starter’s guide to home composting, you will feel motivated to begin preparing your garden for the summer by producing your own compost — saving both money and the planet in the process.

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I’m In The Garden

It has been a while that we have posted something new here at sowandso.

During winter nothing much goes on in the garden. Here in the Ardennes even the hellebores can’t handle the Ardennes weather. It hasn’t been extremely cold, but there were a lot of temperature fluctuations which played havoc on the hellebores, the clematis I planted last year and a few other plants I really hoped would survive.

Rough Patches

Talking about survival, I have also been out of commission lately. I suffer from anxiety and depression. Have been for years but it hasn’t been this bad for a long time.

One of the side effects is the lack of creativity, or the lack for wanting to do anything really. I felt as grey and dull as the garden. However, gardening is one of the things that usually help me through a bad period.

in-the-garden

Gardening

One of the key things to do is exercise when you are depressed. The thought of getting on a treadmill is daunting for me. I have always preferred to be outside. I discovered that gardening is really therapeutic. Even turning the compost heap in the rain can be satisfying and creating life when planting a seed in soil and seeing a plant form gives hope, and hope is what people with depression and anxiety issues need.

Spring is everywhere

And now the first signs of spring are showing, the crocuses are the first ones, their light purple colour are a welcome sight in the front garden. The other bulbs are close behind. Tiny buds are showing some colour on the lilac, and the shrubs in the back garden.

The tomato and chilli seedlings are well on their way and I took a chance and planted out some French bean plants in the poly. Snugly covered with a fleece I am hoping they will survive the occasional night frost we will still have.

As the garden is showing promise for the new season I am ready for some therapeutic times spend getting my hands dirty and my mind a bit calmer.

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New year, New beginnings

Winter is finally upon us. Last weekend we had a lot of snow and now the temperature has dropped to minus 10 degrees centigrade.

Snow

The garden is covered with snow, almost knee deep, so it is even hard to differentiate between path and raised bed. Together with a friend I cleaned up the snow inside the polytunnel before heavy frosts make it impossible to sweep the snow from the top. Inside, the calendulas are getting a beating. I am pretty sure that with a few days of heavy frosts they will finally succumb to the winter weather. Everything else is at a standstill. I still have a few spinach, kohlrabi, endive and cabbage greens but they are all small and not growing very fast.

Poly with snow

Seeds

So there is nothing else to do now but plan for the coming season and wait until spring comes around the corner. My organic as well as some heirloom seeds have arrived from Vreeken zaden in the Netherlands. They have an amazing selection of varieties and I spent some happy hours filling that shopping cart on their site.

Seeds

I decided on a bit more of an adventurous journey in 2016 with tomatoes. Last year’s tomato experience was an enormous success. So this year I have gone for the bush cherry tomato Whippersnapper, a beef tomato called Glory of Mechelen (a city in Belgium), and two varieties of medium large tomatoes. As usual I have probably gone overboard choosing four different kinds but since I started selling some of my surplus vegetables to colleagues I need to have some kind of business sense and want to present them with varieties of tomatoes you would be unlikely to find in the supermarket.

Chillis

I have bought a lot of chilli pepper seeds as well. As a big chilli fan, it is a must to grow at least two or three varieties. Last year I had little time for gardening and my chillis punished me for that. The yield wasn’t as big as I had hoped. This was all due to irregular watering…. and lack of talking to them. This year I am hoping to better myself and have set myself a new goal. I have bought the Caribbean blend which consists of 25 seeds of a selected variety of chillis. Some very rare ones. The funny part is that I will have no idea what I will be growing until the chillis are formed. Next to that I will grow Ancho chillis and Chilhuacal negro chillis and I will try to sing to all of them to keep them happy.

Colourful Chillies

Courgette

My colleagues love my homegrown courgettes. They claim the taste is so much better than the supermarket ones. I wouldn’t know because I hardly ever buy courgettes. I eat them homegrown when in season and out of season I eat seasonal vegetables. So the packet from Vreeken  All colours and shapes will appeal to my work mates. With 40 seeds I am pretty sure they will all get sick and tired of my courgettes …and maybe even my courgette chocolate cake – eventually!

Courgettes in the october polytunnel

The only outside of the box seeds I will be sowing are Canadian blueberries. I love blueberries but the plants are expensive to buy. It will probably take me a few years but growing them from seed will be cheaper and will give me stronger plants.

I just can’t wait to start sowing!

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Best Apple Pie EVER!

Our apple trees are bursting with ripe juicy fruit …so now’s the time to make the best apple pie EVER!

Homegrown apples

Apple Pie recipe for 8 people

Ingredients

Pastry:
300 g flour
200 g butter
150 g caster sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Filling:
1.5 kg Jonagold apples (I used homegrown Golden Rennet) chopped into big chunks or slices
1 small pot of apple puree
Large tablespoon cinnamon
2 cups raisins
a little sugar to taste

Crumble:
90 g flour
40 g brown caster sugar
1 sachet vanilla sugar
40 g butter

Homegrown apples

Preparations

Mix all the pastry ingredients together, knead the dough (if needed add a little bit of water) and leave the dough to rest in the fridge for half hour. Divide the dough across a 26 cm pie dish, press firmly. Make sure there is a sufficient dough up the sides.

Preheat the oven to 190 C. Add the apple slices in a baking pan and bake them for a few minutes (the apples will soften and some of the water will evaporate which will prevent soggy pastry. Make sure the apple doesn’t burn! Mix the apples with the apple puree, raisins and if necessary a little sugar. Add this to the pastry dish and press firmly.

Knead the flour, vanilla sugar and butter and make a crumbly dough. Add the caster sugar but hold off on the kneading. Divide the crumble evenly over the top of the apple pie. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 50 minutes, making sure the crumble topping is golden brown.

Enjoy!!!

Apple pie

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How to Increase your Tomato Harvest!

I have this amazing polytunnel but have never been able to grow tomatoes successfully. Until this year that is! After coming across a special tomato planter on the internet we decided to give it a try…

Yellow Shoulder Disorder

Last year I grew Roma tomatoes and ended up with yellow shoulder disorder. The tomatoes that is …not me of course. I was told yellow shoulder disorder is caused by extreme heat and/or poor soil conditions. The years before that, when I grew them in pots in the conservatory, I ended up with wrinkled tomatoes which is apparently caused by erratic watering.

Tomato Planter

After last year’s disaster I was determined to do things differently. I started off loading heaps of compost on the beds in the polytunnel and doing a bit of research on the internet. There I found an article about a man who made tomato planters. The concept is extremely easy, we already had most of the components required so Roger set to work.

You need wire mesh, some pipes or wooden posts to keep the wire in place (we actually used bicycle wheel rims) and a 20 litre bucket. You drill holes in the bottom of the bucket and fill it half way up with compost. Then you sink the bucket half way into the soil, plant the tomato plants around it and place the mesh around the plants.

Tomato planter

Tomato planter

Water

We used a 20 litre bucket. The important thing to remember is that you will need to provide each tomato plant with 19 litres of water per week. We calculated that with a 20 litre bucket and three plants we have to water the plants every other day. We made two planters with three plants each. The variety I chose is Moneymaker, one of the easiest ones to grow.

Tomato planter

Fertilizer

After the plants started to flower I added some fresh nettle and comfrey leaves to the bucket but besides that no extra fertilizer was used. The mesh kept the plants in place leaving room for other plants to grow and watering was done every other day – only pouring straight into the bucket, thus leaving the leaves dry. Once the tomatoes were fully grown I removed some of the leaves near the centre of the planter to increase air circulation.

The result was amazing – we have harvested over 20 kilos from only six plants, all juicy and sweet. No pests, no fungus, no yellow shoulder disorder or wrinkly fruit in sight. We just had A LOT of tomatoes. We are definitely going to use these planters again next year and I am looking forward to trying them out with some different varieties next time.

Tomato harvest

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How to Grow Chickpeas

I love chickpeas and I have a polytunnel. So this year I thought I’d do something daring and grow them here in the Belgian Ardennes.

Sowing

I bought some seeds and planted them in seed trays (April to May) to plant out after last frost. Much to my surprise they all germinated which left me with too many seedlings for the little bed I had in mind in the polytunnel, so boldly I decided to plant the leftover seedlings outside. Bit of a long shot right?

Chick pea

Bees

Chickpea plants are really quite lovely, with ragged little leaves and tiny white flowers which bees simply adore. They wriggle themselves inside the petals with great enthusiasm, pollinating the chickpea plants while they do it. Soon after, the little pods appear. Coated with tiny hairs and full of air, these pods have one or two chickpeas inside.

chickpeas

Preparing and preserving

The young green chickpeas are ready to harvest when the pods feel hard to the touch but are still bright green. Check out this recipe for chickpea edamame or mash them and add them to your homemade guacamole. However, if you are thinking of storing the chickpeas, then it might be better to leave them on the plants until the leaves start to turn yellow. Pull up the plants and hang them to dry in a cool airy place. Once dried, the rather fiddly business starts, breaking open the dried pods and removing the chickpeas. It took me two hours and bruised fingers but I did manage to get a decent amount of dried chickpeas as my reward.

Chickpeas

Under cover

Even though the seed package stated that in our temperate climate chickpeas will only grow under cover, I can happily say that the plants outside were also productive. Perhaps not as much as those inside, but I think if you have a sheltered spot you can easily grow them yourself.  Chickpeas do not require a lot of water but they are pest-resilient and disease free. I have since learnt that you can even grow dried supermarket chickpeas!

So what are you waiting for? Add chickpeas to your list of things to grow next year!