In Need of Winter Cheer – and how to get it

With the long, dark nights now upon us (and the gloomy daily news) we could all do with a little cheer to take us forward.  It isn’t too late to take a small step towards obtaining it for there is nothing quite like flowers in the house to lift the mood.  Now is a good time to plant bulbs for indoor flowering.  The choice is surprisingly large and some can have quite exacting growth requirements but the simplest of these – that anyone can succeed with even if they don’t have green fingers – is the sweetly scented, white-flowering Narcissus Paperwhite.

The delicate looking bloom of the Paperwhite Narcissus

Unlike the majority of Narcissus (Daffodils) they do not require a period of complete darkness to encourage them into growth.  In fact, they do not even need to be planted for they will happily flower just anchored in a bowl or pot of gravel that is kept moist.  However, I think they are better planted in potting compost and look far more aesthetically pleasing.  I never bother with special bulb fibre that is sold for the purpose mostly because I tend to have half-open bags of compost kicking around the place that need to be used up.  If you plant the Paperwhites now and bring them straightaway into the house they can be in flower in six to eight weeks.  Those in the photos below were placed in our conservatory and, with the unanticipated warmth from a week of late autumn sunshine which accelerated their growth, have come into flower in just three weeks from planting.  So much for having them in bloom over Christmas!

Note the use of twigs to provide natural looking support

The secret to the planting is to cram as many bulbs as you can into the pot, either in a single or double layer.  If choosing the latter don’t plant directly over one another but stagger them a little so they all have freedom to grow without struggling to push past.  The bulbs in the glazed earthenware pot here were planted in a single layer all touching one another – that way I was able to squeeze in twenty-eight bulbs into a container measuring just twelve inches in diameter. 

Put as many bulbs in the pot as you can squeeze in

Paperwhites have a tendency to flop just when they look their best and the quickest way to prevent this is to push twigs into the compost.  If you do this at the time of planting or very soon after the plants grow strongly through them and look far more natural than when you try to rectify it once they have collapsed.  It is also far less fiddly than using canes and string and looks more natural too.

I have always found hyacinths far more difficult to grow well although I know plenty of people who never seem to have any trouble whatsoever.  They need to be kept in darkness until the flower bud just shows.  I have found them to be rather erratic with their growth and, in the days when I had to provide huge displays for the big country houses I worked for, I grew them in individual, small pots.  By growing more than I really required I could select those of matching height, remove them from their pots and then replant them into the display pots.  They never failed to impress and I never let on how I managed to get such a uniform display!  Far easier are the little grape hyacinths, Muscari, growing here in a glass bowl – an idea I copied after I was given them one year as a gift.

Grape Hyacinths are often sold under the name Muscari

Perhaps one of the loveliest bulbs I have planted in recent years is the miniature iris, Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’ (I have spelt that right!).  Once, again, very easy to grow – just keep them in the dark until they start to grow and then bring them indoors.  After they have finished flowering they can be planted in the garden where they will flower each spring for many more years.

Iris ‘Sheila Ann Germaney’
The Iris’ beautiful markings can be more readily admired when they are indoors

Amaryllis or Hippeastrum are spectacular giants that aren’t to everyone’s taste.  I’m not too keen on them as an individual plant grown on a kitchen window sill although they will bloom there quite happily.  I prefer to use them as cut flowers and for this I tend to grow them in a greenhouse, although a light windowsill would work just as well if you have the space.  They are very straightforward, do not need to be kept in the dark and are often sold complete with pot and compost in gift boxes.  When used as I suggest, several stems placed together in a tall vase look superb.

home-grown Amaryllis used as a cut flower

I have found tulips to be less successful as indoor bulbs although the shorter types should work; I’m just not very keen on those so have never bothered to try.  However, if you have an unheated greenhouse that lies idle through the winter plant the exotic double types there.  Protected from the worst of the cold and rain they flower weeks earlier than normal and can be harvested as exceptionally beautiful cut flowers.

I find tulips for indoors are best grown as flowers for cutting

The secret to indoor bulb growing, as with all forms of gardening, is to experiment and find what works best for you.  Over the years, I have tried all sorts, some surprisingly successful and some, if not quite disasters, they certainly weren’t worth bothering with a second time.  With success, you will have an endless supply of colour and scent for your home and, of course, they make great Christmas and birthday gifts.  This last sentence also gives me the excuse to remind you all that my book Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?  is still available from Amazon or through booksellers and also makes a great gift!  In it you will find all sorts of hints and shortcuts that I used during my years as a Head Gardener when it was essential that the displays both in the house and the garden were as good as they could be.  Happy bulb planting!

A perfect gift!

Embellish with Relish

With Christmas not many weeks away and with it, the annual angst of choosing presents for friends and family, I was delighted to come across this inspiring and original recipe book. It combines not just two of my loves – the Lake District and cooking but is also a jolly good read.

Twenty years ago, Mark and Maria Whitehead launched The Hawkshead Relish Company and this beautifully illustrated cookbook comes as a celebration of it being established. Often the best things come out of necessity and the book tells the story of how, with the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease effectively closing down tourism in the countryside, their café was facing disaster. Lack of customers gave them the time to develop further the small range of home-made chutneys that they produced for the café and to market them to a wider public. Today, their family-run business is thriving, employs local people and exports produce across the world.

As the business expanded, so did the Hawkshead range and as well as chutneys and pickles they have now created such sweet temptations as Raspberry & Vanilla Jam and Salted Caramel Sauce. The recipe chapters are gathered around the key Hawkshead product for as Maria says in her introduction, how often do we have half-opened jars in the back of the store cupboard or fridge that need using up? However, the recipes sound and look so good (for each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the finished item) that they stand in their own right and you will be buying from Hawkshead specifically to try them out.

Although I suppose I should really start with one of the savoury dishes, I am a sucker for a good Bakewell Tart and with raspberries being my favourite fruit this had to be the first recipe to try. The recipe was clear, concise and the result superb for, unlike most, as well as the jam there were chunks of raspberries throughout the mixture.

My second recipe was the Spiced Lamb Flatbreads. Again, straightforward to create and absolutely delicious although I have to admit that the finished result didn’t look quite as professional as the ones in their photograph!

There really isn’t a good reason not to use Hawkshead Relishes in the recipes for their range is available from selected suppliers as well as by mail order (click here for more details). However, I am sure that it is quite possible to adapt the recipes to your own store cupboard, for the cookbook is too good not to have a copy on the shelf. An alternative, of course, is to take a trip up to the Lakes and stock up at the Hawkshead Relish shop which (unsurprisingly!) can be found in the centre of the village of Hawkshead.

The cookbook “Embellish with Relish” is available from good booksellers or direct from The Hawkshead Relish Company. Published by Meze Publishing, ISBN 9781910863497, £16.00.

PLEASE NOTE: all the photographs used in this post are from the cookbook “Embellish with Relish” and are copyright.  they should not be reproduced elsewhere without the relevant permissions.

GROW YOUR OWN MISTLETOE

With Christmas almost upon us one of the most traditional of purchases along with the tree, goose or turkey will be sprigs and bunches of mistletoe. Placed carefully above a doorway where passing under it is unavoidable many of us will be subjected to the torture of being kissed by those we’d rather not and disappointed by those that we would have liked to have been but ignored.Mistletoe (5)   copyright.jpg

The tradition of kissing beneath mistletoe is very much a British one although it is rapidly gaining popularity (and why not?!) around the world. Our own mistletoe, Viscum album, (European Mistletoe) grows throughout much of Europe but is decidedly fickle as to its requirements. The majority of British mistletoe grows to the west of the Cotswolds, especially amongst cider orchards found in the counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. However, in other areas in the south, there are isolated populations where it can grow locally abundantly – the photos for this blog, for example, were taken in a garden in the Chiltern Hills. The further north, the rarer mistletoe is, being absent from much of northern England, Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.Mistletoe (2)   copyright.jpg

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant – or to be more accurate hemiparasitic – attaching itself to its host tree, most commonly cultivated apple or lime. Strangely, mistletoe rarely is found on the wild crab apple, perhaps due to its more congested growth. Likewise, it is rarely found in woodland where the density of trees probably reduces the amount of light and air circulation required. Although mistletoe, being green, carries out some photosynthesis this is limited and where it grows in abundance on one tree, it can weaken the host plant and reduce fruiting potential.

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European Mistletoe in flower

In the past, mistletoe has been very much associated with fertility and winter solstice rituals and its use as a decoration is still sometimes banned in churches. The Druids held the plant sacred, especially if it was found to be growing on oak (which it rarely does). Modern-day Druids now hold a festival each December at Tenbury Wells to celebrate the plant.Mistletoe (7)  copyright

 

Growing your own mistletoe is relatively easy for most of the difficulties commonly associated with germination are false. Ideally, fresh berries should be ‘sown’ in February. These can be gathered or purchased or you may prefer to store those from Christmas. If choosing the latter option, store them in a cool, light, airy place and rehydrate in a little water before use. Squeeze the seeds out of the berries and remove as much of the stickiness as possible; they will still attach easily to the bark. Choose young branches away from the trunk and fix to their underside. There is no need to nick the bark or cover the seeds although it is probably advisable to mark the branch in some way to identify it in the future. The seeds germinate quite quickly but it will be four years or more before any real growth is apparent.   Mistletoe (like holly) have separate male and female plants so it will be necessary to have several plants to ensure cross-fertilisation and berry production.

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European Mistletoe: anchor point (haustorium)

 

There are over 1500 different species of mistletoe growing throughout the world. In America the native mistletoe looks very different to our own – one of the reasons why, to British eyes, plastic mistletoe sold in the shops looks so unreal: it is modelled on the American species.

For a huge amount of fascinating information on folklore and medicinal use, advice on conservation and purchase of mistletoe seed do visit The Mistletoe Pages website where much of the above information has been gleaned.

For those interested in Druidry: The Mistletoe Foundation