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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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Grow Your Community Via Social Media

… Over a year ago, Laila of Sow and So (who I also consider a close friend even though we’ve only met face-to-face once) asked me to write a guest post on globe-spanning friendships fostered through social media. Months after the request was made, I sent a draft and she asked that I include a bit on how those friendships expand the community of heirloom gardeners. This is that revised post.

IMG_1107The other day I wrote a post asking heirloom gardeners where they got their seeds? To begin what I hoped would be an informative and geographically-vast conversation, I shared my five sources: one mail order company, one mail order non-profit, a website, a local store, and my neighborhood garden club).

I shared the post with multiple Facebook and Google+ groups I belong to. Within hours, six people I consider part of my heirloom gardening community replied with answers they were glad to share with others. Their answers also provided me with five heirloom seed vendors I needed to check out as well as verification that my current supplies come from awesome sources.

I think my broadcast question/post/webpage of Where do you get your heirloom seeds? provides a good context for what makes for a purposeful non-geographically-based community and what makes for friendships even when those friends may never ever meet face-to-face.

Social Media

Sure, many of us have Facebook “friends” that should probably just disappear and others we see via social media just seem to litter up the internet with vitriol or cat videos. But there is some great —change-making— value created via social media.

When I am not a blogger/heirloom gardener  I am an advocate for social and economic justice causes. I know real change when I see it. I also know a lot about empty promises and precarious relationships. Both exist everywhere in the “real world” and on every social media platform.

The platform matters some to making friends and building community. But what matters most is the real work individuals put into forming and maintaining relationships and then building community.

Here’s my take on building relationships and community:

  • You need to genuinely give. Genuinely give helpful advice. And give heartfelt thanks when you receive it back.
  • Ask questions you really want answers to. Use the answers to create meaningful conversations. Report back on the answers that resonated with you, those that didn’t, and those that need some more explanation. (Laila’s always asking me to clarify some fleeting thought I have about how to “build the heirloom movement.” I really appreciate that about her.)
  • Don’t be jealous. In other words, as you build relationships with people you trust, connect them to other people you trust. (Laila was “introduced” to me via another blogging friend, Mia, of Modern Mia Gardening.
    The three of us often chat on each others’ Facebook feeds. We are always “liking” each others posts (i.e. Facebook and blog).

Now, here’s where it gets really fun. The friendship Laila and I first formed by commenting on each others’ blogs, turned into a Facebook friendship, and then periodic emails back and forth to share what was going on in our lives and with our families.

In Real Life

IMG_0717I was even lucky enough to meet Laila face-to-face when a trip to visit other friends in Luxembourg had me less than an hour’s drive from her and her husband Rogier’s budding garden/farm in Belgium. The couple welcomed me in the home they share with two rescue pups, Leia and Luke, for an afternoon of great conversation about growing healthy food, the future of our planet, and what they are doing to live their lives according to their values.

I hope to visit face-to-face with Laila and Rogier many more times in the future. I’m also pretty excited to run into Mia someday.

But I can’t stop with Laila and Mia, or their blogs and Facebook feeds. I have friendships and community built over at Instagram too. I love the beautiful garden, veggie, flower, and animal photos my friends via that awesome photo platform share. When I started, I just thought it would be about seeing and saving pretty pictures. But friendships formed there as well.

The comment sections are often lacking, but when someone decides to really write something about your photo on Instagram, they mean it. If you reply back, often other friends start chiming in. Before you know it, that “picture is actually worth more than a thousand words.”

Around The World

I need to give special shout outs to Isolde, also from Belgium; Richard, from the UK; Joanna, from Canada; Anne, from Norway; Helena, from Sweden; Prabhul, from India; Heppoko, from Japan; Juan, from Spain; and so many from across the United States. I also have to note that the Instagram photos from those south of the equator help me live through the bitter winters of Minnesota. Thanks to friends in Australia and New Zealand.

(Side note:  I am still learning how to build friendships and community via Google+ and YouTube. I know it can happen; I just haven’t optimized the platforms yet. That said, I need to make special mention of Audra Russell of Fat Earth Backyard Farm. She is a pro at Google+ and wonderful to watch on YouTube. She is also quickly becoming one of my best friends.)

Sharing Struggles

IMG_0346In fact, it here is where I can really say a lot about the positive community building value of social media… especially Instagram. I struggle with anxiety and depression. I am very open about this for a variety of reasons. And my social media feeds are among the places I share.

It is in this regard that I have to say social media is a treasure. If I post about my struggle, I immediately receive supportive comments from friends everywhere… and I do mean everywhere. Again, the comments are not from folks who’ve ever met me.

But they really care about me.

And they often share how something I wrote or a picture I shared — my garden, my imaginary friends, or in posts and photos about my depression/anxiety — inspired them.

What a pick me up! What a community! A community that is there for one another.

Michael DahlIf I am not gardening or writing about it, I am likely engaged in social justice advocacy (my other vocation), practicing yoga, or consuming some mental bubble gum on TV or some internet platform.
Michael writes profusely on his blog “Dissident Potato“, and can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
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All I want for Christmas is…..a veg plot!

Some people think that to be a successful vegetable gardener you need a big garden, but this is simply not true. Even if you have just one square metre of space you can grow a worthwhile crop. Have you considered the balcony? Or the steps outside the back door? Or even the roof of your shed? I’m going to demonstrate here how easily you can set up your first-ever vegetable plot in a very small space and at very small expense. If you know someone who is an aspiring gardener, but needs convincing, here is an ideal Christmas gift for them!


For the purposes of this exercise I’m going to assume that you have no “real“ garden space, such as a raised bed, or a border or a lawn which you could dig up, so the first thing you would need is a set of containers. Let’s assume that you have only about one square metre of space. You probably therefore need about four to six decent-sized containers. Get a few big ones, not lots of small ones. If you can afford it, buy good-quality ones like these from Stewarts:

Good quality planter

If you are short of cash you could use cheap ones from your local “Poundshop” or you could even improvise. Lots of shops and restaurants are happy to give away used containers like this one, which was formerly used to hold “Chinese marinade” at my local butcher’s shop. Don’t be shy: go and ask for them!

Cheap plastic pot


Then you need some “growing medium” – preferably compost. I don’t recommend using garden soil, because it is heavy and gets compacted too easily. General-purpose commercial compost is OK. You don’t need anything very fancy. Again, shop around for a good price. Garden Centres are often not the best place to buy compost (although they sometimes offer attractive bulk-buy deals). A small nursery that makes its own compost is the best place to go, but if you don’t have one nearby, you can probably get what you need from a supermarket or discount store. The amount you need of course depends on the size of the containers you plan to use, but one 75-litre bag will probably be enough.



Then you need some seeds. Yes, you could buy seedlings or plug-plants from a Garden Centre, or via mail order, but this can be an expensive option. A packet of seeds will give you dozens or even hundreds of plants, for the price of about 6 plug-plants. Good vegetables to grow in containers include Radishes, Carrots, Beetroot, Lettuce, Tomatoes and miniature Cucumbers.


Make sure you choose suitable varieties though. Some Tomato plants for instance (the ones described as “indeterminate”) grow to about 8 feet tall, whereas the “Bush” or “determinate” types are much smaller. My favourite is “Maskotka”.

Tomato seeds

Similarly, some Carrots grow to be enormous, but ones like “Parmex” or this “Paris Market 5 – Atlas” type produce small round roots eminently well-suited for growing in containers.

Carrot seeds


Herbs are also a good choice – especially Basil, Chives, and Thyme, but I wouldn’t recommend Coriander for a beginner: it tends to bolt very readily, which could be discouraging for a beginner! Those 3 items – container, compost, seeds – are your essentials, but it you want to add a bit extra I suggest these: a small watering-can with a fine rose and a small trowel, or perhaps a “Widger” like this:


The Widger is simply a small (15cm) piece of stainless steel which can be used for lifting small seedlings and for general “cultivation” – in other words scratching the surface of your growing medium to aerate it and remove weeds etc. I use mine a lot and wouldn’t be without it these days. They are widely available (e.g. on Amazon) and cost about £1.50 or £2.00). Of course, you could probably manage just as well with an old table-knife…


So, a kit like this will be will enable you to set up shop and start growing veg. Of course, if the kit is genuinely to be a Christmas present, you will have to dissuade the recipient from sowing their seeds too early. You will have to convince them that it makes sense to wait until the weather warms up and the days get longer – which may be difficult if they are fired-up with enthusiasm! (P.S. My Birthday is in March, which is a really good time for receiving gardening-related presents.) 🙂

Veg growing in containers

Mark WillisA long-time gardener specialising in edible plants, Mark lives in Hampshire, UK, about 30 miles south of London. He maintains a small but very productive garden, the life of which is constantly described on his blog Marksvegplot. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
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Can You Build Your Own Pond? Of Course You Can!

If you want a pond in your garden you have 2 choices: Pay someone to install one for you or dig it yourself! For a beginner, the second option might be scary, but it’s not as hard as you might imagine, so let’s get stuck in shall we?

A healthy garden pond makes a wonderful focal point

for your garden and attracts lots of wildlife!

A Healthy Pond Is A Happy Pond

It is possible to make a pond that keeps itself healthy. The right combination of aquatic life and plant life will keep the water cycling and keep algae at bay. But it’s not easy to get right, so installing a pond pump is a good idea. A pump simply pumps water and oxygen into the water to keep it aerated.

Lilly pond

Another important consideration is position. So before you dig your pond out, figure out where to put it. Too much direct sunlight may kill the plant life and make the liner brittle, but putting it under a tree may mean you are forever fishing out leaves.

How To Choose A Pond Pump

We already decided we need a pond pump. So what type should we go for? There are lots of options and it can be confusing. Here are some rules of thumb though:

• If you want to keep fish, get a pump with a filter

• Ensure your pump is powerful enough for your pond

Once you have your plan (more on that later) you can calculate the approximate capacity of the pond and select a pump accordingly. Also keep in mind the height of the pump if you have a shallow pond.

Solar powered pumps will save energy and make installation easier but may not be suitable if you plan to have fish since they don’t work so well at night.

Coming Up With A Plan

How you design your pond will depend on what you want it to be. Some people like big water features, but personally I like to attract lots of wild life. Sketch out your pond however you want and don’t start digging until you have settled on a design. Here are some ideas:

• Include shallow areas where animals can drink safely

• Include deep areas for fish and for plants to get established

• Include some stones or a ramp in case hedgehogs fall in

The more complicated you make your designs, the more features you can add and the more variety your pond will likely be able to sustain. But if you are unsure, or don’t have much space, there is nothing wrong with creating a very simple pond.

Pond plan

Get Digging

Once you have your plan you can start digging out the pond. The simplest way to do this is to dig the biggest layer first to a uniform depth (the depth of the shallowest shelf) and then mark out the next layer and dig to the next depth.

Before digging, peel away the turf carefully and save it for later!

Let’s Talk About Pond Liners

The pond liner is what holds the water in the pond. It is a simple sheet of plastic to separate water from soil, but don’t let that fool you, there are options to be considered:

Moulded Liners Or Sheets?

A regular pond liner is just a sheet of PVC, but you can get more robust pre-moulded ones. These are much heavier duty and will generally last longer, but they cost a lot more and limit you to certain shapes. If your budget allows they may be worth the investment though.

If you go with a sheet, there are different materials to consider. My advice is to go with a rubber sheet rather than PVC as PVC can get brittle as it ages. A rubber liner will last longer. It is also worth investing the extra in a UV stabilised liner to protect against sunlight.

How To Install The Liner

• Fish out stones and anything sharp

• Cover soil with a layer of fine sand

• Insert the liner and push into the corners

• Use slabs or stones to secure the liner

Filling It Up

The last step is to fill your pond with water. If you went with a sheet liner, be aware that as the pond fills the liner will tighten, so pull up the sides if necessary and once it is full trim off the sides leaving a border of a few inches.

Pond plants

Finishing It Off

Finally, you can use some of the turf you saved from earlier to place around the border. Eventually this will grow back in and re-enforce the edge of your pond.

If you want to add some plants to your pond you should wait for a couple of weeks first for the water to settle – of course if you are planning to start your build in early spring then getting your timing right will mean that you will be adding those plants at just the right time.

 Callitriche verna

When choosing plants you should consider things like the local climate, how deep your pond is and how much work you want to put in. For example:

Zebrinus is a pretty grass that can provide cover for small insects, but it can take over your pond so you will have to divide it every year to keep it healthy and in check.

Cyperus involucratus grows well in shallow water and is a hardy plant that shouldn’t take too much maintenance. Plant it in 2 inches of water and watch it emerge in late May.

Callitriche verna is an oxygenating plant, it is also a nice cover for tadpoles, so ideal if you want to encourage frogs into the pond. But in a hot climate it may not fare as well.

This guest post was written by Ricky Peterson. Ricky works at and when he’s not at work he loves to spend time in the garden or out and about.
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Addicted to Chillis, Guest Blogger Mark Comes Clean


Whilst a lot of young men would not want to admit that they were fond of gardening, they would certainly not hesitate to admit to growing chillis. Chilli-growing has recently developed into a very popular cult – and a very male-dominated, macho one at that! At approaching 60, I definitely don’t fit that stereotype, but I do love growing chillis.


Many people presume that to grow chillis you need lots of expertise and lots of special kit – and definitely a greenhouse. I don’t subscribe to that view. I don’t have a greenhouse, and I don’t claim any special expertise, but starting from scratch I have learned a lot over the years by the “trial and error” method. These days I have little trouble producing some respectable chillis. I think the key to success is dedication and persistence.


Continue reading Addicted to Chillis, Guest Blogger Mark Comes Clean

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Five tips for gardening in tight spaces

Small space gardening

guest postIt’s gardening season, and for many of us that means it’s time to get new and exciting plants in the ground to tend for the next few months. Indeed, during this time of year you’ll find a nearly endless stream of advice about which flowers and vegetables are best for your home garden, and how to care for them properly. But for some of us, the issue isn’t necessarily working out what to plant – it’s working out where to plant it.

If you live in an urban environment, or a home with limited garden space, or even if you already have a large garden and can’t find space to add more to it, your gardening concerns this season may revolve around finding ways to squeeze in just a few more plants as efficiently as possible. Small space gardening is in many respects an art form, as it requires careful planning, delicate execution, and basic creativity – but it can be done! Here are five particularly useful tips and methods for small space gardening that may help you in the coming months.

1. Try a single pot veggie garden

Many people worry that concentrating too many plants in a single pot will cause them to grow poorly and it is certainly possible to overdo it. However, a single large pot on your porch or in your garden, can yield enough vegetables to put some truly delicious food on your tables! Web Ecoist notes a lovely combination of tomatoes, basil, chives and jalapeño, all of which can grow in a tight space together and contribute to the same recipes in many cases. This is merely one example of how handy a one pot veggie garden can be.

5 tips for gardening in tight spaces 2

2. Grow vertically

Perhaps the best tip for gardening in limited spaces is to go vertical with your plants. This can be done in a number of different ways. Whether it’s hanging plants from a porch roof, growing flowers and vines that climb up railings, or even organizing a veggie garden in containers that hang one above the other (many people use sections of rain gutters), vertical gardening options can save a great deal of space. Additionally, they can look very stylish and surprisingly natural.

3. Rearrange existing garden space

If your issue is that your existing garden seems a bit cramped or pushed for space, a bit of rearranging may be in order. Consider picking up a new hedge trimmer from MySmartBuy to trim back hedges and create more space along the borders, or adding a second tier to your garden by growing on top of surfaces like garden tables. Some careful rearrangement can create space that allows you to add new plants.

5 tips for gardening in tight spaces 1

4. Use a self-watering box

A self-watering container essentially consists of a planting container placed inside what’s called a “reservoir container.” The apparatus is arranged in a way that allows the plants to soak up water from the bottom instead of relying on typical watering methods by which we pour water onto the top layer of soil. The self-watering container system provides your plants with a way to soak up water in a more natural way, even if they are in a small space in your garden, home, or on your deck.

5. Use unorthodox spaces

Finally, make use of strange or unusual locations if you’re yearning to work in extra garden space. Some people run a tray of plants down the centre of a porch picnic table; others put in a flower bed around the base of a mailbox. Whatever the case, there are likely to be a few unused, perhaps unusual bits in your garden that could accommodate a few extra plants!

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Guest post Raiye; Bouncing back from Gardening Failure


Weeks ago, when I started my seeds, I wrote about my fears of failure. Sadly, those fears have been realized. Almost every single seedling is dead. What remains are a few sugar snap peas, some spinach that’s looking kind of not so good, and a few very stunted looking kale seedlings. Let’s also not forget the curious case of the chive seeds that migrated from the pot in which I planted them clear over to the other side of my yard where they took root amongst the grass, giving me crazy smells every time I mow the lawn.


Having gone into this gardening season mentally prepared for at least some failure, I’m not quite as devastated as I could be. There are things that I could have done better, however, for the most part, these deaths were cause by some terrific rains that swept through the North American midwest a few weeks ago. We were fortunate to not have sustained any flooding damage, many in the surrounding areas lost everything. We did enjoy making lemonade from the lemons by boating in the retention pond in the park behind our home.

Guestpost Raiye Gardening Failure 1 Guestpost Raiye Gardening Failure 2

Buying plants

I fear it might be too late to start some of the seedlings over again, particularly for tomatoes and peppers. I’m not giving up, though. I will need to revert, at least for some things, to buying plants. All is not lost on my quest for more wholesome, organic and non-GMO, though. I have found a source in my home town who will be selling organic, locally grown seedlings tomorrow. I’ve perused their offerings in the past and know I’ll find some amazing heirloom varieties that will be delicious.

photo(1)This is a post by Guest Blogger Raiye Rosado Cichon. Although she is a moderately experienced gardener, she is also mother to five and an IT business development professional – time is limited. She’ll be documenting her progress and sharing time-saving tips. Check out her blog; Raiyesnewnormal



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Guest Blogger Raiye; 3 Steps to Gardening Success

New Project

Starting a project is sometimes a scary thing for me. I am a perennial beginner of projects. I have a laundry list of things I’ve thought were amazing ideas, things I have spent considerable time, effort and money on, only to walk away from those projects. Sometimes it’s because the scope has gone out of whack and the job seems too big. Sometimes it’s simply because I’ve failed at the task. Other times, I decide that it no longer meets the needs of me and my family. I’ve become almost afraid to begin anything new, already asking myself “are you going to finish it this time or what?”


Planning this new garden has not been exempt from my project fear and self loathing. I had pep-talked myself, encouraging me to keep the scope of the garden simple, to start slowly and to build this up over several years. And then I sat down with the kids to see what kinds of vegetables they wanted to grow. I took their suggestions for nearly an hour, discussing all manner of fruit and vegetable, which ones would be tasty, what might thrive in our yard. Where I had intended to have maybe 10 different vegetables, some strawberries and a cook’s herb garden, I ended up with over 3 dozen fruits and vegetables plus herbs. And a greenhouse.

And then I got scared.

3 steps

Scared of failing. Scared of falling off. Scared of losing interest. Scared of just about every darn thing. Stupid, really, to get scared of gardening. Cultivating food has been going on for thousands of years. Millions of people were successful at it even before Al Gore invented the interwebs and Pinterest for us to share the tribal knowledge. Although there is a manure-ton of arcane knowledge and best practices around vegetable gardening, growing food is really pretty basic, only three steps.

Step 1: Plant seed in soil.

Step 2: Add water and sunlight.

Step 3: Collect Profits.

Surely, I can do those three things, right?  I mean, NOT doing those three things GUARANTEES I will fail. But doing those three things gives me about a gazillion percent better chance of success than not doing any of those three things. So I jumped in.

Continue reading Guest Blogger Raiye; 3 Steps to Gardening Success

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Building a garden at Shangri La House

This is a post by Guest Blogger Raiye Rosado Cichon.

Raised beds

I had to lose a lot of my previous life in order to find this place I am in now. One of the more painful things to me was losing the home at which I had created a raised bed garden. I was so very proud of the fact that I had salvaged the wood from someone’s trash pile, hauling it to the house in a tiny car stacked to the roof. It was lovely. I have missed it and really, I have missed gardening.

Planning a Garden for Shangri La House

Forever home

It wasn’t really possible for me to garden until now. I know it is possible to garden in rental properties but really, I just didn’t want to expend the time investment until I was somewhere to stay. This past summer, we found our forever home, bought it and we are now settled into our future.  It’s a lovely home, with plenty of space for our large family and a large backyard that abuts to a beautiful park with a playground, ball field and .4 mile track.  It is truly our Shangri La.
Continue reading Building a garden at Shangri La House
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Japanese Knotweed At Life At The Villas

Stinging Nettles and Brown Canes

We moved into our house in early winter so the piece of ground behind the Villas that the estate agents had described as ‘amenity land’ was pretty much bereft of any vegetation – except for banks of stinging nettles and in one corner a cluster of brown canes standing about two metres tall which, being gardening rookies, we couldn’t identify and pretty much ignored …at least to begin with.

Japanese Knotweed

Months later, whilst chatting over a cup of tea with our next door neighbours, Sandra mentioned the bane of her gardening life – the Japanese Knotweed that persistently popped up in her flower bed on the other side of our shared fence. “Japanese what?” I remember thinking and our neighbour’s casual remark went on to provoke hours of research about the plant.

Japanese Knotweed (or JK as we now call it at the Villas) is a tall perennial plant which dies back in winter and re-emerges in spring. The red asparagus-like shoots start to appear in late March to early April and as they grow into canes the red colour turns into speckles on an otherwise green stem. The heart shaped leaves are bright green and about as big a your hand. In September the plants (that rapidly reach a height of two to three metres) develop abundant small white flowers that provide a good source of nectar for insects. Around November time the plant drops its leaves and flowers and the brittle hollow brown stems remain as an indicator of where the plant stood in the summer. The next year the plant will re-grow from the same spot out of what is known as the crown.

The story behind JK

The JK story started back in the nineteenth century when it was introduced to Europe as an exotic garden plant. Horticulturalists were attracted by its vigorous growth habit and its penchant to form dense screens. However it was not until as late as 1981 that the British government recognised its invasiveness and the problems that it was causing. It is now a worldwide menace.

Continue reading Japanese Knotweed At Life At The Villas

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Just Pottering At The Villlas

This is a post from Co-blogger Bridget Elahcene. Bridget writes about her Life At The Villas (@lifeatthevillas)

As I sit by a roaring woodburner on this winter afternoon, hearing the rain beating on the window and strong winds howling Wuthering-Heights-style outside, my thoughts turn to battening down the hatches and hoping the garden will survive undamaged.

Thanks to Michael, the TV aerial is now securely bolted to the side of the house and I’m not concerned that our trees will be blown down because they are all under three years old and are whippy enough to take anything Mother Nature throws at them but I can’t help wondering if the collection of pots and planters that we have accumulated recently will stay upright in weather like this…

Plotting the potting

Indeed, when growing outdoor plants in pots there are several things to bear in mind:

  • What size the plant is ultimately going to be
  • If the pot is stable – does it rock or wobble?
  • Whether the type of plant you want is happy growing in a pot – not all are
  • If the shape of the plant suits the shape of the pot (not just aesthetically – stability is vital so think about wind resistance)
  • Weight and mobility. Depending on what you are growing, are you going to want to move the pot at certain times of year for example into the greenhouse or conservatory?
  • Whether the pot itself is frost resistant – unglazed terracotta is likely to crack in sub zero temperatures so to minimise risk, keep the growing medium as dry as possible over the winter months
  • Bigger pots have more impact and won’t dry out as quickly

Continue reading Just Pottering At The Villlas

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Seed Management At The Villas

This is a post from Guestblogger Bridget Elahcene. Bridget writes about her Life At The Villas (@lifeatthevillas)

Seed Catalogues

Buying seeds surely has to be one of the most exciting parts of growing your own. Tantalising seed catalogues arrive in the post with colourful pictures of perfect produce… Many an hour of a winter evening have I spent trawling through such publications and dreaming of the months to come and I know I’m not alone.

Try and try again

Poppy seedlingsIndeed, as the years go by I have tried all sorts of weird and wonderful things that I have chosen because they cheekily winked at me from the pages of one seed catalogue or another. Some have worked while others have not. With growing as with a lot of things in life, you never finish acquiring knowledge and surely that’s what makes it such fun. Inevitably we find out what works and what doesn’t work and importantly learn from our mistakes. Consequently when a particular vegetable is a success, it makes sense to grow it again and again.

Continue reading Seed Management At The Villas

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Wine Making at Life At The Villas

This is a post from Guestblogger Bridget Elahcene. Bridget writes about her Life At The Villas (@lifeatthevillas)

Start of an adventure

My first wine making adventure started three years ago. It was late summer, our rhubarb had cropped well, a neighbour had offered us several kilos of apples from his orchard and an elderly aunt, well into her eighties, had come to visit. We sat in the garden enjoying the gentle September sunshine whilst eating scones and jam and engaged in what became an increasingly interesting conversation about what to do with a glut of fruit.

“Bridget, you can make wine out of virtually anything – it’s not a science” my aunt said. “I always used to have wine of some kind or another on the go! Not so much these days though – I’m old now and the demijohns are just too heavy for me…” She proceeded to promise me all her winemaking equipment that had sat unused in her garage collecting dust for many years and the following weekend we drove over to her house, collected it and brought it home.

It was a lifetime’s collection of paraphernalia that comprised books (dating back to the seventies), demijohns, fermentation locks, rubber bungs, a large plastic funnel and a siphon tube – in spite of what she’d said, it all looked very scientific to me!

First attempts

My first attempts were exciting but I have to admit, not terribly successful. That autumn I made apple wine (which turned out cloudy – an acknowledged problem when making apple wine, I went on to discover), rhubarb wine which was beautiful to behold but oh-so-sour and quince wine (quinces courtesy of my mother’s next door neighbour) which turned out much too sweet. Determined not to waste them, I decided to cut my losses and mix them all together and the resulting blend was bottled and slightly awkwardly offered to various family members that Christmas. It was palatable but only just.

Blackcurrant and oak leaf

Since then I’ve had more success and last year made two beautiful wines, six bottles each of blackcurrant and oak leaf… I kid you not – oak leaf wine is awesome and highly recommended for its clarity and subtle flavour and blackcurrant wine is such a pretty colour!

This year I have three varieties on the go – oak leaf again of course (we have several oak trees nearby – June leaves are best as they contain less tannin), quince (I’m determined to make it work this time and have put in less sugar) and for the first time beetroot! You can’t hurry a good beetroot wine though and we won’t be sampling the fruits of this particular labour for at least twelve months.

In the meantime… Cheers! Proost! A votre santé!

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A proper Tree at Life At The Villas


Populus Tremula Erecta

Earlier this year we bought a 3m high Populus Tremula Erecta (Swedish Aspen) for the garden. It cost about £150 but I felt it was worth it as I am not patient enough to start off with a sapling – even though they are apparently very fast growers!

It’s a very striking tree with branches that ascend almost parallel to the trunk making for a tree that is shaped a bit like a candle flame. This is one of the main reasons I chose it – I didn’t want a tree that would cast an ever increasing shadow and have a detrimental effect on our vegetable growing!

Zone 2

Like all varieties of poplar, it needs lots of sun which happily it gets in Zone 2 of our garden (Zone 1 is the patio area outside our back door,Zone 2 is still under construction and Zone 3 includes the green house, the fruit cage, a small orchard, the lawn, four raised vegetable beds, the rammed earth shed and the hen run).

Once established and with good growing conditions, the tree should grow at least a meter a year. In fact I reckon it’s grown a good half a meter just since planting back in February. I’ve read that while less prone to suckering than many of the poplar family, Populus Tremula Erecta will sucker when its roots are damaged. Therefore I shall be a little bit careful when landscaping around it. We have staked the tree into the prevailing wind.

Poplar roots are invasive and they will find their way through small cracks in older sewer lines (non-plastic) as the joints on these frequently leak. This is not a problem however with poured concrete foundations or black plastic sewer lines.


In spring when the leaves first appear they are pinky orange to red. Their leaves open without any chlorophyll, but with some of the carotenoids (yellow and red) and anthocyanins (red and purple pigments) in place. If the weather is cool they stay this colour for a week or two but in warm temperatures this colouring lasts only a few days…

Now it’s November the leaves are currently bright yellow and are falling thick and fast as winter approaches…