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18/04/2008 14:50 - Temperature gauge

Let's get the weather over with first. Don't get too excited though: 'Brisk and chilly easterly wind continues to affect the UK, with bands of cloud and rain spreading north across England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland mostly dry with sunny spells, best of sunshine to sheltered western spots. Temperatures near or a little below normal and feeling cold near North Sea coasts, around 9 to 14C (48 to 57F). Overnight lows 3 to 6C (37 to 43F).' This weekend's weather was brought to you by Kirsty McCabe. Well at leasts it's growing temperature (active growth in the veg garden starts with a daytime soil temperature of around 8C). I'm begining to get used to not filming on a Friday (it happens on a Wednesday and Thursday now). It's lovely to have a relaxed end of the week and it gives us plenty of time for pick-ups (unfinished tasks from filming). Joe finished our new melon bed a week ago or so. It is a triumph. We have relocated it next to the greenhouse. The coldframes used to be there, but we moved them to the other side of the veg garden to maximise the winter sun. In their old location it would be long past midday before they would defrost. Come this time of year the sun's moved round just enough for the greenhouse walls to bake and thus I thought the melon bed would benefit from such a location. We religiously turned our donkey poo for 14 days till it really started to heat up; once it was begining to really give off, we filled the bed up. The melon bed is now sunken, it goes roughly half a metre down to make use of geothermal heat (or at least insulation) and then is built up into a raised bed, with a makeshift polycarb frame on top. It started off at a rocking 60 degrees celsius, but has now tempered down to a constant 20-21 degrees, which is has maintained for a week or so. We're forcing some spuds in bags while the melons get to planting out size. We're growing two varieties Sweetheart and Petit Gris de Rene; the latter is a 400-year old variety from The Real Seed Company. It's supposed to be the champagne of cool temperature melons. Fingers crossed, this might just be the year of the melons.

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10/04/2008 15:50 - weekend weather

Every Friday a nice meteorologist from the BBC sends me the weekend weather. The fact that we stop recording the weekend weather a while ago seems neither here nor there to them. So rather selfishly I've never said otherwise about this weekly delivery. In a way the weekend weather is a funny sort of perk of the job. I like the fact that they are rather personal. Last week Peter Gibbs wrote, 'So its fleece at the ready, and I won't be bothering to sow anything this weekend!' I like knowing what the BBC meteorologists are up to in their gardens. However, I now see this as a self-centred act. Therefore as long as they continue to send their emails, I promise I'll post them. This week the weather is brought to you by Alex Deakin. ' A weekend of April showers for all parts of the UK. There will be some decent spells of sunshine between the showers, especially in the mornings, but when the showers come along they will be heavy with the risk of thunder. Temperatures by day will be around the average for the middle of April at 9 to 12C; the nights will be a little less cold than they have been all week but still with the threat of a touch of frost.' On a different, but loosely connected note, for the frist time I have broad beans without a single nibble from the slugs. I was toying with why this year they are so perfect, when last year I could barely get one up without it being munched. I'm coming to the conclusion that it's the different location. They are opposite the compost bins, which you would think is a like a red rag to a bull. But actually it's a very shady corner that rarely warms up at this time of year. Where as the rest of the beds in the veg garden are at a very happy growing temperature of 8 degrees Celsius, (yup, I really do check my soil temperature on a daily basis) this bed is a far cooler 6 degrees Celsius. As anyone who has ever put nematodes down will know, it needs to be at least two degrees warmer for serious slug activity. So for this weekend at least I guess my broad beans will remain blemish-free.

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28/03/2008 15:20 - Going nuts: early easter meltdown

I've come to the conclusion that an early easter has done us all no good. Everyone (including the garden) seems out of kilter. It is hard not to want to rush the rest of spring along. That wet summer rolling into a wet autumn and winter has meant we're all a little stir crazy for summer, green growth and some real heat. Still we're pricking out and potting on at a furious pace. The greenhouse is groaning with seed trays. From here on in it's a juggling act to keep everything growing at the right speed. Outside the alpine house is starting its first flush of colour and various daffs are going over as the others pop up to take their place. The new bulb area by the pond is awash with blue anemones and our Fritillaria meleagris are finally just starting to poke their heads out. I noticed the ones down by the brook over the road are fully up. I guess ours are just taking time to settle in. Today has been all giggles. Joe was sowing some chilli seed (actually he might have been trying to persuade a slug to eat the chilli seed), when he did the classic rub your eyes with chilli fingers thing. Only to grab an lemon off the lemon tree cut it open and squeeze it into his eye (i'm laughing so hard just thinking about it that I can barely write). His reason being that his mother said that this would counteract the hit of the chili. Safe to say he spent the next ten minutes washing his eye out with water. The funny thing is he stuck to his story that lemon counteracts chilli. I know, I know, it's not funny. It only marginally beats Geoff phoning directory enquiries to get a number of a garden therapy charity, to hear, 'we don't have that number, is there any other therapy you might need . . . '

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11/03/2008 17:01 - Turning into an Auden day

Nice lunch spent in the sun. Long afternoon spent dashing for cover from the ever darkening sky, which made me think of Auden: The sky is darkening like a stain; Something is going to fall like rain, And it won't be flowers. (The Witnesses) neither flowers, nor fear, just rain in the end. During a dash I noticed that the first Eyrthroniums are up and unfurling their heads along with three Trillium sessile. This reminded me of The Wanderer and the line: In spring, day-wishing flowers appearing, Avalanche sliding, white snow from rock-face, That he should leave his house, No cloud-soft hand can hold him . . .(The Wanderer) and with that I'm off for my own wander for a couple of days.

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11/03/2008 14:50 - Rhubarb

We ate the first of the rhubarb today. I stewed it slowly with some pears and a dab of honey. We also had rabbit (thank-you Ray) and a salad of mostly weeds, winter purslane, chichory and a little very peppery rocket. We sat by the pond in the sun. It was a good lunch.

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07/03/2008 15:11 - Cucumber seeds

After the tip off from the allotment message board I thought I'd check out a certain supermarket on the way home (I don't think I'm allowed to say exactly which, but lets says it's German in origin and very cheap). Said supermarket had lots of interesting things to offer Magnolia 'Susan' for under a tenner, lots of spring and summer bulbs (that may take ages to settle in, but at that price, who cares?) and very, very cheap seed. Now I'm a big fan of cheap seed, particularly when a lot of said supermarket's seeds are clearly open pollinated (no hybrids) and thus you can seed save from them. So there I am happily filling my basket with lettuce, sunflowers, yellow beans and spring onions when I spot a certain packet of seeds.Now I've just spent the last two months hunting for Asian cucumbers ever since I declared I was going to grow them on the Christmas special. I learnt a thing or two in this hunt, mainly not to open your mouth on camera and claim you're going to grow something until you've actually got the seed in your hand. Asian cooking whether it's Bangladeshi, Korean, Japanese or Chinese loves a certain kind of cucumber. It's longer than our western one, often with a ridged skin and smaller seed cavities. I've tasted lovely pickled versions in Malaysian food, had it in soups in Japanese dishes and stir-fried in Korean meals. It's only recently that I realised it's all one and the same thing. After lots of emailing to a Californian based seed company (to find this out) that specialises in Asian vegetables I picked five different hybrids from 'Kyoto Three Feet' (the longest Japanese cucumber out there) to one called 'Lucky Dance' because I like the name. Thing is the company couldn't provide a phytosanitary certificate for the seed, not because the seed isn't clean, just because of the cost involved. This means you can buy the seed, but it's not legal. So back to square one, this is a bit of shame because the seed catalogue has the most amazing recipes in the back. I guess you can tell where the story is going. It turns out my elusive cucumber was hanging out in my local supermarket all this time, for 29p. Of course my Asian cucumber would be in a very non descript supermarket in Brum, why didn't I look there in the first place, heh? It's not a particularly long one, nor does it have such a lovely name, but it's an old, non-hybrid variety of Asian cucumber. I'm not sure this story has a moral other than fate has declared this the year of the long cucumber or why else was the seed packet hiding among some tomatoes?

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29/02/2008 15:27 - Long and windy

I'm in a thinking, rather than a doing, mood right now. Partly I guess because there really isn't that much to do. I've sowed, pricked out, weeded, chitted and dug all I really can. Now I just have to wait for spring do its thing. Ho hum, tap, tap, tap, tap. So I've got lost on the internet instead. It started out with an innocent trawl of other gardening blogs over lunch, which turn into a lengthy read of Cyclotherapy at the Indy before seeing sense and trawling for under-cropping with green manures. Green manures are crops grown to increase soil fertility such as clover, field beans, rye and mustards. They are short term crops that are turned back into the soil to increase humus. Some green manures are also very good at breaking up difficult soils as they have deep fibrous roots. I fell in love with green manures when I got my first garden at home. Because I live in a city, ride a bike and don't know anyone with cows/ponies/goats near me (though I have found a guinea pig breeder!) getting hold of animal poo is a real problem, buying a packet of green manure seeds and cycling it home, is not. It seems to me the perfect solution, except you have to wait around a lot. Great for bare winter soil, a bit you haven't got round to, but its a bit of a pain if all you have is a small plot. Giving over half of it to something you can't eat means I often didn't get round to green manuring. How lovely then if you can eat and manure at the same time. If you really want to know about green manure go find some vegans. Not only do some vegans not want partners who eat meat (apparently those that dabble are called carniwhores) they also don't want animal manures in their gardens so they thought a lot about this. I found a great wealth of information at the Vegan Organic Network (and lots of other good fact sheets about soil). The idea of under sowing with green manures (UGM) is that it reduces the time needed in the fertility-building phase. By employing UGM you can increase soil fertility and yield a crop. You wait until your crop is up and established, sow a green manure, harvest your crop and then dig the green manure in. There were some very important points highlighted about using green manure as a replacement for animal poo. Firstly you can't get away from the need for a fertility break. But you can spend the whole winter with your veg garden clothed in a blanket of green. Bare soil equals leaching of nutrients, so the more you cover, the more you save. The other point about green manures it that you get increased soil activity. Worms and soil fauna love covered soil as it offers a constant source of food. So where you have green manure you have more critters. Unfortunately that also means slugs. They did say that after several years of green manuring the system sorts itself out and the slugs begin to die out. So far, so common knowledge. The real clinch is using green manures as an under crop to keep weeds down and deter certain egg laying pests (clover under brassicas deters many pests that lay on soil level for instance). Last year I tried using red clover under cucumbers. The clover did much better in the poor weather than the cucumbers. And clearly that's a problem. But I think I didn't really let the cucumbers establish themselves well enough before sowing. Here are some of their suggestions: Red clover sown under beans when they are a several feet high. White clover under tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse and red clover under courgettes (though surely the courgettes will out compete the clover?). They also said that under sowing lettuce was not a good idea. Oh and that there needs to be a lot more research.

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22/02/2008 13:30 - Sowing frenzy

It's just Isabel and I today. Lovely and peaceful, except the post-lunch slumber is hard to move when there's no-one around to jolly things along. I've spent the morning pricking out and sowing to 6 Music, which was entertaining enough. Isabel slept on a piece of capillary matting on the bench and the morning gently passed. We've sown a real mixed bag of flowers this year. After Seed Swap at Gardeners' World Live I went a little mad at the RHS stand and just took on a great job lot of stuff. I've got Calandrinia grandiflora, Paris quadrifolia, Lillies, Narcissus, Veronicastrums, Anchusas, Echiums, several Euphorbias, Paulownia tomentosa, Silenes, Ononis spinosa (which i sowed entirely on the basis of its' name) and all sorts of other things that are vaguely ridiculous to sow in a TV time frame, but I couldn't quite help myself. I'm fast running out of space (not quite sure how I'm going to explain that to the production team when they next turn up) and have gone to the rather drastic measure of splitting half trays into thirds. Let's face it this sort of sowing is just therapy. No-one in their right mind needs the amount of Amaranthus caudatus var. viridis that we've got growing. The cull will come sooner or later when I've cleared my head. 'Till then I'm going to turn up the radio and work it out of my system.

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12/02/2008 15:20 - Satisfying bean moment

Alan's peas and beans

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12/02/2008 15:20 - Ryton potato day

I thought I'd share some of Clare's pictures from Potato Day at Ryton Organic Garden. It was a real frenzy of potato love and I bought far, far too many spuds. I just kept falling in love with different varieties. I'm very excited about getting hold of Mimi, a designer purple skined, very small spud that looks perfect for containers. I also finally got hold of some British Queen and was recommended by many to try Swedish Epicure (not quite sure how it differs from its Hampshire relative) and Dunbar Rover. I bought some more Annabelle, missed out on the Sharpo Miro that had sold out in seconds and snaffled some Red Duke of York, Pink Fir Apple and a Dutch one called Milva which was said to have good blight resistance. I also managed to catch up with Alan Romans (Mr Potato to you and me) and chew the fat on new introductions and pest control of eelworms. He had a lovely stall full of buckets of peas, beans, flowers and other veg. The peas and beans were bought by the half pint glass and stored in sandwich bags. His theory was you were paying more for the pretty picture on the seed packet than the seeds. There is something very satisfying about dipping into a bucket of beans, so I bought far too many of those as well. Some people are shoe shopaholics, I it seems, am developing a seed shopping vice.

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12/02/2008 14:40 - Spring

Watching 'Life in Cold Blood' last night reminded me about our newts and a happy stolen moment I spent last spring watching them eat tadpoles and frog spawn. On land the newts are slow, sleepy things that look like beautiful broaches. In water they become sleek prehistoric killing machines. I watched as two young newts herded, dived and devoured a great many. It was an extraordinary sight. All this warm weather will mean that the newts will start stirring soon. The pond, however, is still frozen and not much of a playground yet. There is life, left right and centre. You see stems greening up, little spikes of green appearing and buds fattening. The garden and its many inhabitants are proclaiming, 'IT IS HERE'. And tomorrow, back the crew come for our first day of filming, so it must really be spring.

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01/02/2008 12:02 - Ryton Potato day, more bonfires and lovely sun

After that wind, today is glorious. We lost an old plum and part of another in the gales. It made us take a good look at our other old dears around the property. We have a huge lombardy poplar that is dead and needs to come down sooner rather than later. I'm always a bit reluctant to take down dead trees as they offer such amazing habitats for insects, bats and birds. But these trees run along boundaries and next to drives so I guess the health and safety police will win out on this one. The roofers are off today so we're having another huge bonfire to burn all the old battens and offcuts. I'll leave the environmental debate about bonfire over landfill (where the offcuts were heading) to someone else to muse over and pocket all that ash with glee. Much of the timber/palettes have been saved for future DIY projects. I can already see the beginnings of a chicken house, some new anti-pigeon frames and a compost loo (that is if I get my way). Still it's too nice to sit indoors. Especially as I have a meeting with Monty et al in Birmingham this afternoon which will rob me of a good part of this glorious day. I'm off to potato day at Ryton on Saturday. I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to buy this year. I'd like to try something new (to me) and have a bit more of a variety than last year. I grew 'Smile' and 'Charlotte' and 'Red Duke of York' in pots at home last year. I expect to be there mid morning, so if you're going, come and say 'Hello'. Oh and my first 'February Gold' daffodil came out today!

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24/01/2008 10:10 - Joe lives up to his name

We've spent the week cleaning out our ditches. We thought we'd be good neighbours and tackle the neglected mountain of blackberries. We started on black Monday or whatever they were calling it. We decided it was a rather pleasing job and that we'd counterbalance the nation's dark mood. Particularly when Joe realised that he was finally living up to his namesake (Hodgsons are ditch diggers apparently). Still it has its dire moments. I realise how secluded we are in Berryfields, all those high hedges mean that not only do we never see people, we never truly feel the brunt of the wind and rain. Everytime you lifted your head up out of the ditch you were blasted by the wind and rain. By day two we had cleared all the brambles, dug the ditch bottom so that flowed into a pleasing rivulet. Next we had a huge bonfire with a lunch of bonfire-baked potatoes and baked beans. But before lunch we went on a little tour of the field to inspect our other neighbours' ditches (not a scratch on our own) and generally take a wider look at the world around us. We found a very wild pond at the far corner, a sure sign of where our newts must have originated, some lovely old crab apples with their bounty rottings in a big yellow smile around their base and many beer cans that Joe dutifully picked up to recycle. Off we went back to our bonfire and cheesy beans with a now very dirty Jack Russell and a considerable pile of rubbish. And there we were with our rather blackened potatoes, sitting on a piece of plastic, so pleased with ourselves for being such good stewards of the countryside when Isabel spotted another dog. At this point Isabel decided that not only does she own Berryfields, but being a dog of a certain stature she might as well take on the field. This poor old lady was accosted by one very dirty looking Jack Russell that has taken to a rather proposterous leap as she barks. Of course it's all bravado and not much else, once she's done her bark she rushes back to hide behind your legs. But there we were a filthy dog, the three grubby looking, bean eating ditch diggers with a huge pile of cans. It was at this point that we realised we looked more Grundy family than the Archers. Still it is a very nice ditch. . .

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15/01/2008 17:02 - Mud, compost and a ray of hope

It's all mud and rain here. By the time you've put boots, hat and waterproof gloves on it seems almost too much effort to go and do something, let alone lift turf, but that we must. It is on days like these that a tiny radicle is not just a sign of hope, but something of wonderment. My lovely Fritillaria assyriaca in the alpine house produced lots of seed late last spring. I sowed it in autumn in a very gritty compost of leafmould, compost and sand and left it in a cold frame to weather the winter. It may be only radicles at this point, but oh, how exciting. My father and I were talking about peat-free compost (I had a very, very short slot on the Today programme about using peat-free composts, but more on that in a minute). He said that the problem with this time of year is that we invest so much in a few seedlings. If they come up all is well, if they fail it seems to be a sign that spring may never come, that we somehow just imagined it last year. So your compost, your trays, your propagator, your choices seem loaded and yet in a month or so when everything is germinating left right and centre you wonder why you kneeled in front of a few seedlings and just stared in awe. As for The Today programme, well it was harder than you think. You're stuck in this tiny little sound proof room with a mic, some headphones, ominous clock and lots of radio equipment. You hear a buzz through the headphone and there's London on the line. As I cycled through the fog that morning I thought there was little to be scared of, that is till you're sitting there. That and the feedback which meant every word I said was repeated rather loudly in my left ear making stringing a sentence together rather a robotic experience (according to my husband I was too close to the mic). Ah well you live and learn. The story was about peat-free compost. A Gardening Which? report found that many of the peat-free alternatives are not quite up to scratch compared to their peat relatives. I fear this may be true for some brands. A year or so ago you'd open up bags and think, perhaps I'll mulch with this, but in the last year there have been some great improvements. I say hunt high and low for the peat-free ones supported by the John Innes Foundation (formulated into No. 1, 2 and 3) or make your own. And if you do buy one that is not up to scratch be a good consumer and tell the company. It's the only way to get an improvement. Oh and don't treat peat-free like peat. It requires different management in terms of feeding and watering. Many peat-free are higher in nitrogen as they have a high percentage of greenwaste and they don't tend to dry out so quickly due to all this organic matter. I think it would all be a lot easier if the ingredients in manufactured composts were made a little clearer on the packaging. If you can get hold of the Which? report it's worth a read as it tells you what the main ingredients of the compost are. But please don't give up on peat-free if you've had a bad experience. I think one of the many mistakes (though we all do it when in a rush) is to use multi-purpose for seed sowing. To get good consistent results you really need to add something to open up the structure, whether that's leaf mould, vermiculite or sand (or a mixture). The problem with multi-purpose is that it is a jack of all and master of none in someways. I try very hard not to use it straight. It's lovely stuff once you get used to it. I'm so used to growing peat-free (Kew is peat-free) that I actually find peat rather difficult to manage, not because it is, just because I'm used to a different system. Anyhow enough rambling (which this truly is at this point) as the little dog and I have a very dark cycle home in the rain.

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08/01/2008 19:53 - Why life's never been so good.

I love the radio. I have to admit that I love it as a medium far more than TV. I love the sound of the switch as you turn it on. I love the expectation between stations. I love the distant voices. I love Radio 4, Radio 3 very late at night and Radio 2 very early in the morning ( I like the woman who's on very early and seems to specialise in stream of consciousness rambles, show-tunes and racing horses). But really I just flirt momentarily with other stations, my heart lies with Radio 4, The Archers and all that good conversation. If I know anything it's because I listen to Radio 4. I've spent most of my gardening life tuned in. But last year I got an MP3 player and sort of wandered off the truth path that is radio. But now thanks to the January sales Berryfields has a radio. A lovely DAB version with shiny buttons and a screen that tells you what's on. We are even considering changing our lunch hour so we can take in the new gardening quiz on Monday (Radio 4, 1.30pm with mellifluous Anna Ford). Thanks to the radio I've cleaned every dirty plant label we own and learnt about wakame ( a very tasty Japanese seaweed brought over to France for oyster farms) invading our shores. Why parakeets might or might not be an ecological disaster and about giant underwater sand dunes, covered in coral, off the coast of Scotland. Actually that sounds made-up. Perhaps I was day dreaming at that point. Still there is only so much time you can spend in the greenhouse at this time of year. When not hooked to the radio we've been working on the lawns. We've hired a very good hollow tiner and Joe's been up and down, back and forth leaving little plugs everywhere for us to rake up. We got a pathetic looking, but effective electric scarifier that we've taken all over the place ripping up great mountains of moss. The lawns look very worse for wear at this point, but given a little time, it will jump back into life just in time for our new mowers. I finally got my dream lawnmower, a truly beautiful 17 inch cylinder mower with a motor that purrs (it's the closest I'll ever come to being a petrol head). I've also got some environmentally friendly models to have a go. I'm not entirely sure this is a sane thing to say, but I'm actually really excited about mowing again. . . Now all I have to do is to find an excuse to be in the greenhouse in time for Women's Hour tomorrow.

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02/01/2008 14:40 - Back again

It's been a soggy first morning back. There's a little late afternoon sun now, just enough to warm the dull colours of winter. It's very welcome as I could easily get depressed about having to come back to work. The long break meant I made it into my own garden to prune and plan the year ahead. It is the first time I've ever had my own space. It's a funny feeling when all your working life you've been gardening for someone else to find you have free will and no one to answer to. Very seductive indeed. Still, who cares about my own space (except for me!). Beth and I have spent the morning making a pantry for the pantry-less (that's a dustbin in the ground with a good lid). By sinking the dustbin you get a very cool, dark environment where you can pack your winter roots, cabbages and whatnot between straw. I need as much of the veg garden cleared at this point. The odd beetroot or two, swede and turnips meant that many beds were half dug. The dustbin pantry will store away our lunch from nibbling things. Beth carefully cleaned and prepared each root, she was ruthless about any damage and as long as we keep checking I'm hoping things will store for the next couple of months. By tomorrow we should have finished most of the digging and be able to start on the roses.

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20/12/2007 14:30 - Rob and Clare

Rob, cameraman, and Clare S (researcher) in the Spring Garden.

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20/12/2007 14:21 - Waiting for the next take

Gary, first camera, and Monty.

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20/12/2007 14:21 - Laughter

From left to right: Rose (series producer) Joe (assistant head gardener) Ben (researcher) and Sharon (director) sharing a joke with Gordy.

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20/12/2007 14:21 - Joe and Isabel

Joe and Isabel

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20/12/2007 14:13 - Wintery shots

Here's some behind-the-scenes pictures of the Christmas special. They were taken by lovely Gordy, our soundman and documenter of all things the other side of the camera.

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20/12/2007 14:04 - Joe in an O

Here's a funny picture of Joe in the veg garden.

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19/12/2007 13:39 - Happy Christmas

I've wadded through the tissues, the olbas oil and paracetamol to come out the other side. The trick with the horseradish (see last blog) works wonders. No only that, but I've done all my Christmas shopping. All this means I've got no excuse but to knuckle down and get on with the veg plan for Monty's approval. Researcher, Clare, who has also finished her Christmas shopping, has come down to bolster me on and sort out the 'out of date' veg seed. Both of which I am very glad of. The boys and Laura (another researcher) have gone off to shovel donkey poo out of the van. Lovely Joe from the farm down the road lets us have mountains of the stuff. We then let is sit a bit longer here so that it turns into beautiful well-rotted manure. I've just dug great quantities out of the melon bed and it's alive with wriggling compost worms (the red kind). Geoff and I have dug the best part of the veg garden over and Joe has courageously pruned the old apples in freezing easterly winds. There is just enough digging left to burn off the post Christmas cheer. With all this hard work achieved means there is only one thing left. . . Christmas lunch. And with that, have a lovely break and a happy Christmas.

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11/12/2007 19:03 - man flu

I've got a cold. I pride myself on being the sort of person who doesn't get a cold. But I've got one. I tried to do a little digging, I thought some physical exercise might shift it. My head thumped as the pressure simultaneously moved from one sinus to the other. I'm afraid my head is filled with little else than snot, so I can note no more than it was very cold today. This is a good thing as it may finally kill the cabbage white caterpillar and white fly lurking around my lunch. However it was too bitter for someone with a cold and thus most of my day was spent hiding in the warmth of the office pretending to get next year's veg plan straight for Monty. By tomorrow I plan to be over this. I'm defaulting back to the person that doesn't do colds. In either case, I'll still be digging as there is little else to do at the moment.

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30/11/2007 12:41 - Clearing away the tv world

It's been a week of clearing up. Tackling all those behind the scenes places that get junked up with pots of this and that, things I believe are useful, but never find a use for and the general detritus of life surrounded by cameras. I've been guerrilla gardening, squirrelling leftover plants here and there. If truth be known the nectar border is at least 40 percent leftovers carefully blended together. Yesterday we cleaned up the shrubbery, which was becoming over run with Anemanthele lessoniana (oh for it to have remained Stipa arundinacea, so much easier to pronounce) which in our fertilie soil had decided to self-seed itself everywhere. Pretty as it's autumnal colours are, it was time for a culling (and a move to the stock beds). I was pleased to see how well the shrubbery in general is doing. Despite a difficult summer last year, the shrubs have bedded down well and all put on a good degree of growth. There have been failures, the large semi-mature hornbeams are still not sure of their settings, where as the young, whippy ones at just several feet high have settled and grown rapidly. Point made, I think, always buy young, small trees that can adapt to their environment. Or better still sow seed and let nature do all the work instead. Once all the clearing up is done, it is possible for a month or so to forget the tv world and just be. I realise that for many it would be far more preferable for us to be on all year. But for a month or so this place is our garden and I do love that.

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23/11/2007 15:30 - Lunch

I'm on my own today. Just me, the little dog and the shredder. I blocked the shredder one too many times with cabbage stems and Rudbeckia so I gave up and made soup instead. It was a funny sort of soup, not unappealing, but a little odd. I tried to recreate a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe I'd seen on TV with lettuce and radishes. But I couldn't quite remember how it went or much of the ingredients. My ad hoc version included radish, rocket, rice, sorrel, endives, garlic chives, kaffir lime leaves, chilli and garlic cloves (which I have to admit were the leftovers from planting). It was sort of sour, lemony and peppery all at once. Still it's warmed me up immensely. I think I'll go back and tackle the shredder before doing a frost check sweep round the garden as I think this weekend's going to be chilly.

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21/11/2007 15:10 - Bulbs and garden writers

We've spent all day planting tulips. Well half the day preparing to plant, and then a frenzied 3000 in an hour and a half. . . in the rain. At one point I was on my elbows and knee, nose inches off the ground, scrabbling around for some space under a hazel, covered head to toe in mud. It was around then when Joe threw his trowel in and declared that he didn't want to see another bloody tulip. It's funny what you learn about when you're sopping wet and still have a thousand or so bulbs to go. I shan't go into details other than it is safe to say that bulb planting brings out the confessional in oneself. The borders are jam-packed with bulbs now. It should be a good display. At least I hope so as I'm not sure I want to do it again. Still it's one more job off the list. The long borders are tidy and weed-free, ready for a good mulch - and that, thankfully, is it till spring. The tree dahlia cuttings are already sprouting, which is lovely, but begs the question of what we're actually going to do with more beasts of that size. We have quite a collection of oversized specimens in pots. I spent the wet end of the day reading blogs (I have a tedious wait for a train that leaves me finger loose and web happy). The best was James Alexander-Sinclair’s witty observations (he liked my glasses, what more can I say) on the garden writers' guild awards bash last Thursday. If I was clever I'd link you out that way, but I can't. Do an internet search for him, if you fancy a bit of gossip and far more glamorous pictures then this damp wet one I'm offering.

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13/11/2007 14:30 - thermal weather

Oh it's cold outside. I've donned my thermals and brought out my woolly hat. Usually the first really hard frost is a bit heart breaking, but this time I just felt relief as it means we can really get to work now, putting the garden to bed. We had a good day on the long borders mulching and cutting back. I'm trying to get on top of the Echinops ritro, which just seems to have got all over the place and doing a last thorough weed before we add a really thick mulch. I've yet to decide what to use this year. We used mushroom compost last year which was very effective. I wish we had enough homemade compost, but I think we'll use most of our supply of the veg garden. Oh to have mountains of homemade stuff. We had a huge bonfire after clearing the scrub which has given us a good amount of wood ash which will now go back a layer at a time onto the compost to act as an activator. Geoff and I lifted the tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, from the long borders as it has just got too big. We've divided and stored the tubers for the winter. We've also taken some experimental cutttings. I'm not sure how they'll take at this time of year with such low light levels. It's a really fun plant to take cuttings from as it just wants to root so readily. You basically take a chunk of stem with two nodules and then place it on its side in compost, so that one half is covered. And voila, a new tree dahlia! My kind of cutting really, fail safe and satisfying.

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05/11/2007 19:21 - A feast full of autumn

It seems we've spent all week feasting on our harvest, calabrese, chillies and garlic on spaghetti (a lovely cheap dish I endlessly dined on in New York), stir fries full of pak choi, cauliflowers, oriental greens and lovely cabbages, homemade roasted tomato sauces and hearty celeriac soup. All this feasting is not conducive to afternoon digging. I've tried justifying it as fattening up for this cold winter we're supposed to be having, but in reality it's just an extra layer to get between me and the spade. In penitence I spent the afternoon yielding a pick axe trying to remove bramble roots and a thicket of ivy from a bit of scrub that's slowly taking over the back of the garden. I've had my eye on this bit ever since I got here and I've finally come up with an excuse to clear it (well a bit of it). Secretly (or not so since I'm writing it here) I'm hoping that it might turn into a forest garden. It's the perfect spot as it only needs a little work and it's half there. It is painfully slow work as if you don't make an effort to take out every nettle root or bramble bit it all turns so quickly back to scrub. That and there's more leaves to rake as they are all coming down in droves now. Still we just dug up a bumper crop of Jerusalem artichokes. I'm going to turn them into a gratin with parmesan, so it's a good thing there are still lots of leaves to rake.

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24/10/2007 12:16 - cold comfort

We've been on a DIY bender. As Joe says it's a bit like wet playtime, we get out all the powertools and then Joe and I compete for best project. Geoff reverts to his teaching days and critiques each project whilst offering helpful tips. Yesterday went something like 'Hmm have you thought about using a cloth hinge . . . I think if you used this hammer it might work better'. The results? Joe produced a very cool looking coldframe from recycled polycarb, fencing slats and a cloth hinge made from old pond liner, Geoff built a kit-form cold protection lean-to and I worked on a variation of a coldframe made from a palette. With some thriftiness, all of our projects could be built for around a tenner. Though I guess we're lucky as we do seem to have a never ending supply of off-cuts around the back of the shed. If I get my act together I'll take some photos. Then we raked some leaves. And now it's back to raking leaves. I like autumn jobs for that matter, it's a slow process of waiting for things to turn brown, and sure certainty that they will, which under this current climate is rather reassuring.

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16/10/2007 14:40 - Volcanic dust saves the earth

Although this techincally, very unscientific experiment is not actually finished, I wanted to post the results so far. Volcanic rock dust, well, rocks. This volcanic byproduct is used to remineralise the soil. I can't really explain what remineralisation is. But it something do with the ability of the soil to absorb atmospheric carbon, which in turn can produce vigorous, mineral-rich vegetation. It's also got something to do with worms that seems to go mad for the stuff. Those that love this stuff really believe in it and that it is part of solution to sustainable agriculture. The best results come from tired soils. This is why we initially used it at the end of the long borders where we had a pan. The results have been lots of lovely lush growth, good flowering and very little pest damage. This one of the few areas where the dahlias have survived the slugs. But it's a bit hard to compare the results to anything as there wasn't a control. I also tried some in the nectar bar. Again with no control to measure it against it, so all hearsay. But my has that border flowered its socks off. The last place I tried I was a little more scientific (but not enough to actually put on a white coat and do some statistics). In the veg garden I tried one bed with and one without and then systematically sowed exactly the same crops in both beds. Although I haven't seen a difference in the size of vegetables. I saw an overwhelmiing difference in germination rate and resilience to pest damage. It seemed to have a big effect on the onion family so that in some instances the germination was up to 80 per cent better in the remineralised bed. Lettuce would be munched with in an inch of their life and still come bouncing back. I also noted more worms (which is a key part of it's secret) in this bed. I picked as many courgettes from both beds. However I got more parsnips and more brassicas in the remineralised bed. I'm not finished trialling. I want to do some more controlled experiements, probably with bedding. In the meantime I'm going to continue to use it around the garden. It's far too intriguing a product not to carry on exploring.

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04/10/2007 15:20 - brassica love

It's painfully slow here today, actually it's been slow all week. We're waiting for the leaves to fall, for things to turn red, yellow, orange and brown just anything other than green. Still the sun is blazing-a perfect autumn day-and if you have to wait around autumn is a pretty good show. I've just planted out some spring cabbage. I'm still head over heels in love with brassicas at the moment. The baby Brussels, the tiny heads of spiralling Romenesco cauliflowers, the red cabbage and the kale; they're a majestic group. I've always thought of them as old man territory and somehow difficult to grow. But despite a deluge of caterpillars and aphids they've been a doddle. Although the caterpillars have clearly had their fill, the kales and cauliflowers have just outgrown the damage. I'm taking advantage of this lovely weather and sowing coriander, radish for seedheads, mizuna and spring onions to see if I can squeeze out another crop. Beth dug up the chillis and potted them to overwinter them. This way with luck we may get some this winter and if not we'll get an early supply next year. The two sweet peppers, the sum expenditure of a long row are very slowly staining black, a sure sign that red is on the way. Now I'm off to sow sweet peas. We've got a lovely green flowering version for the green garden called Lathyrus chloranthus. It's a native of Turkey and Asia minor. As it's a species, it has a fairly small, but lovely lime green flower. Some say sow now and others say spring. I'll do half and half and compare the results.

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24/09/2007 17:01 - Gathering the summer in

I've re-ordered the office so that now I look out onto the garden. Monty's pears are ripening on the window ledge and the garden is suddenly taking on a different colour in the late slanting light. So here it is - autumn. I've gone into a picking frenzy, mostly the herbs. Despite the weather we've had a good crop of basil. I'm in love with a lemon basil that gives chicken soup such a zing. I've frozen all the basil and air-dried the oregano, thyme and rosemary, to which I add lots of sea salt. It's a perfect seasoning on pizzas or for pasta water. The tarragon has gone into white wine vinegar and the pineapple sage into sugar. Now all I have left is to dry stuff for tea, the lemon verbena, lemon balm and the azetec sweet herb. The boys have been teak oiling the greenhouse and coldframes before the worse weather appears again. We washed all the windows and cloches. Light will become so precious shortly that we can't afford to lose it to dirt. Geoff and Joe dug up the sweet potatoes. One was huge, a proper shop-bought size. The rest were tiny, pathetic things. I wonder if we dug too early? We certainly watered enough. I've come to the conclusion that they make better houseplants than anything else. Still, Joe dug up the outside ones which we'll overwinter and try again next year. The soya beans made delicious edamame - I'm hooked. Unfortunately, the outdoor crop is a bit of a flop, but indoors I could barely keep up with picking. The last sowings of spring onions, lettuce and oriental greens have sprung up. These greens are essential come winter, when there seems to be nothing but cabbage and turnips left in the garden.

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17/09/2007 12:14 - I bolted and am back.

I managed to find a corner of England where it's truly hard to get the internet. And thanks to this absence of white noise I've made it through a great chunk of my book. And when I wasn't doing that I read and slept on salty, windswept beaches, flopping into the sea when ever I felt brave enough to stand the cold. It was bliss. I've caught the last of this summer in just the right mood. Two weeks ago the thought of raking leaves, mulching and digging my way through to the new year made me terribly blue. I found myself sitting on the bench by the pond crying - too much fresh air, too many organic vegetables. My world here at Berryfields may be lovely, but eight solid months and I was ready to see a different horizon. I gathered the dog, Clare (GW researcher and fellow wild swimmer) and my husband and headed south. We saw the last of summer wild flowers, a few sea thrifts, great swathes of rock samphire, towering echiums; centranthus in its many hues from vermillion to pink; some lovely pink centurea scabiosa and something that I thought was a harebell, but once I got back to look it up, I thought it was too small to be so; lots of wind ravaged sea kale and a bank of marjoram in flower. I know these are not rare things, but I still get excited by them. I like wild things in wild places. I like that kind of gardening - a little wild - a tussle between you and nature, with nature winning out. And now I'm back with a bag full of pebbles ( I bought a lovely book called Pebbles on the beach, about how they are made) and a rosy glow that won't last much longer than the leaves on the trees. On an entirely different note, if you grew bush tomatoes instead of indeterminate did you survive blight-free? It's just an idea I've been mulling over that if you didn't pinch out (less wounds) you might have been able to fight off the blight. the minute I stopped pinching out my lone tomato picked up and soldiered on. I'm hoping that once I get back there may even be one or two ripe tomatoes (that is if the boys haven't got there first).

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26/08/2007 22:51 - the last of the summer quiet

It's rather late on a Sunday night to be writing, especially from home. But it is inevitable that things will keep me from the computer next week. Perhaps the most pressing one being that I don't have one. The poor Berryfields beast (i'm still talking about the computer) has been taken away after yet another turn for the worse. That coupled with me drowning the work mobile (I left it in the pocket of raincoat as I continue to work through one of many endless downpours, only to find it floating in several inches of water) has meant little contact with the outside world, a strange blessing in disguise. Still this is all about to change as next week we start filming, hence the lack of white noise from here; I've just been manically trying to get things in order. Still among all the weeding, pointing, schlepping (does it have a C?) strimming and endless raking of grass there are snippets of news. As my mother pointed out, it's all well and good to let all your grass grow long, that is, until you have to make hay by hand. Still Beth and I flopped into great piles of hay scented with lady's bed straw and for that moment it seemed worth while. Joe and Geoff are off on holiday. I miss them terribly and am openly envious of their being elsewhere. Beth has come to the rescue and filled their place, perhaps a little too well. I wander into the kitchen at lunchtime to find her cooking weird and wonderful culinary delights, the last being a strange, yet delicious stir fry of mooli, courgette and plums. I'll be sad to see Beth go back to school. But back she must go and forge her path to being a truly brilliant horticulturist. Here is some horticulture for those who come here looking for it: we've finally got results for our grass composting trial (see previous blog, scroll way, way down) Both methods took a year to succesfully rot down, so much for the grass and paper being quicker. Both results are miraculous, the anaeorobic method using soil and grass has turned into a rich, crumbling soil that's good enough to go straight into our mixes. The scripts and grass mix is rough, rich, bulky stuff - the sort that clematis and roses go wild for. Both methods prove that you can rid yourself of grass clippings with little effort (neither pile was turned) as long as you have spare soil/paper to hand. There is more, but you'll have to wait. It's too late to be writing and I am afflicted by that strange nervous energy that comes with a whole bunch of people decending on my quiet world next week. Still the sun looks set to shine for a little while longer and I still may pull it all off. . . but only if I get to bed first.

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06/08/2007 17:03 - dahlia musings

I have a lone tomato standing in rank. I think I'm just being sentimental as I'm sure it will go down soon, but it's held off the blight so far. It's ironic as I have a bumper crop of tomatilloes (see I've learnt how to spell it) and no tomatoes to make the salsa. Anyone got an alternative tomatilloe recipes? This is the first day in a while when I've actually done some gardening (other than hard landscaping, but that's another story). I went into Carol's garden to find it swamped in bind weed. I've spent all day crawling between echinops and spiny cardoon leaves trying to extract the roots. I've come to the conclusion that it's really not worth digging up dahlia tubers. The ones we over-wintered in the ground are larger, healthier and have survived the great slug onslaught of this summer with a greater degree of success. Those that we dug up and stored have been munched within a inch of their lives (quite literally, as they are merely midribs now). I've always been a bit of tough grower, for instance I underwater by many peoples' standards. When I was at Kew I worked with a guy in the alpine unit who swore by treating his plants mean. He said that you have to toughen them up to get the best response in flower and shape. Otherwise he said they became too dependent on you. Maybe it's mean, but I figure that if the dahlias (and cannas for that matter) can make it through the winter with plenty of mulch, they'll survive the summer.

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13/07/2007 15:50 - DAMP

Its' wet, I'm wet and so is the dog. Only our all-female possy of ducks (isn't that a bit weird?) and the clematis seem to be thriving in this weather. Everything else is as damp as my spirits. To top it all off I've just seen the first signs of tomato blight (text book case: attack mainly occur during wet weather). I think I'll have a cup of tea before I contemplate my next move.

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06/07/2007 09:51 - the year of the cabbage

I now understand why Laurence Hill always goes on about the cabbage wheel. (Hill is one of those organic circles names that everyone likes to reference, and for good reason - very sound advice. Hunt him out in second hand bookshops, just don't make his homemade sprays; they sound a bit dodgy). It baffled me for ages why he harped on about the brassica family so. I like cabbage, broccoli, kale and the rest, I've found a new fondness for Kohlrabi, but really 'a cabbage for every month of the year . . .' You'd think there was nothing else to grow. And then it rains and rains and rains. You begin to understand why everyone harps on so about them, whatever the weather the cabbage family grows. In short there'll be lots of cabbage soup and, I fear, very few tomatoes. Realistically we've got less than eight weeks for the outdoor tomatoes, peppers and aubergines to flower and set fruit. So there you go Laurence and all his lovely wisdom is right and me all my arrogant youth is wrong, again. Actually as I'm turning 30 this year I don't think I can even claim youth any more. Perhaps it's me that needs the sun most, I'm a little weary of this weather. Still the pond looks lovely, so lush and green and although the meadow has folded on itself somewhat, it looks beautiful. The mallows and cornflowers are out, there is lady's bed straw in huge clumps and that pretty little yellow potentilla which is a cheery sight on grey days. There have been plenty of meadow browns flitting around, seemingly unbothered by the rain. All my successes it seems are nature, and my failures human.

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26/06/2007 14:21 - a letter from a cold pot washer

It's chilly here. The rain may have stopped, but it still feels more like autumn than summer. The cucumber and pumpkins are sulking, as if to say 'what's this all about?' However the soya beans and sweet potatoes are happily romping away in the greenhouse. The long borders are flopping and folding from all the rain. We'll have to get in there tomorrow and do some damage limitation. Still it's good to go into the summer with plenty of rain under our belts, just a little more sun and we'll soon catch up. We have one thing to thank the rain for. This year's June chop was a great success. The brunneras, geraniums and pulmonarias recovered in record time and have a fine new flush of growth. The roses haven't faired so well, the old blooms hang mushy and rotten, stuck to the leaves and many of the buds remain wrapped up in a sodden mess. Tomorrow we'll tackle the long borders, remove the best part of the remaining opium poppies and fill in the gaps with dahlias and chrysanthemums. But for the rest of today it's back to the sheds for their end of term clean. Joe has been sorting through mountains of fleece, bits of netting, old Gardeners' Word Live banners and other such things that the mice have been making fine homes from. Geoff is lost in a world of nuts and bolts, each now in their own tin with a label (I've warned him that this is a very slippery slope) and I, as per usual, got left with a mountain of pots, propagators and trays to wash.

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07/06/2007 15:43 - the daily battle

Well the coffee seems to be working. We get a box a week from our local coffee shop (about 4kg), which we hastily spread everywhere. The smell is a little overpowering, but so far so good. Now there's just the pigeon to contend with. Isabella is getting better at chasing it, but doesn't yet understand that the same rule does not apply to the ducks. Other than that things are ticking over nicely. The long borders are awash with purple hues as all the opium poppies are coming into flower. The green garden is beginning to bulk up and is looking as verdant as its name suggests. The meadow is beginning to swing into action and thanks to our new relaxed mowing regime (so much better for the wildlife), the bottom of the garden has softened and is full of pignuts, buttercups and lady's smock in flower. I'm planting soya beans and sweet potatoes in the greenhouse. I was going to try them outside but I've run out of space in the veg garden. This way hopefully I'll ensure a crop good enough to turn into edamame (Japanese dish of salted, whole pods of soya beans delicious with very cold beer). We've been playing with our compost system, ever trying to perfect our technique. Joe has added a palette to the bottom of bay two. This will draw air into the base of the pile and hopefully up the heat and thus the time it takes to turn. It got hot enough today that we decided to bake eggs in it for lunch. Once you got over the rather earthy smell, they tasted delicious - a perfectly baked four minute egg.

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25/05/2007 14:41 - free slug defence

I happened across a really good slug defence. It seems that our slimy friend is not, like me, addicted to a daily cup of joe. In fact it can't stand coffee. Coffee grounds send it dancing across the ground, as it slimes itself in a dehydrate mass. I've never seens a slug dance before (it's a macabre number): it wiggles and hunches and wiggles a bit more. The best coffee grounds seem to be expressed ones. I've done a deal with my local fix and collect their weekly grounds, which i've spread liberally over the veg garden. The best method so far is not to mound it up, but spread a thin, but consistent layer. In order for it to be effective the slug has to travel across a good 3-5 centimetre barrier. Joe has also started collecting the slops from the local pub. The slugs were drinking us dry and even buying just value range rot gut was mounting up. I suppose at some point I shall stop writing about slugs, but not until the battle is a little more even. Stop press: Joe beleives he has found the mother of all slugs hanging out in Carol's garden. It is fair to say that this slug has gone elsewhere having eaten a great many of our young, tender vegetables. Joe is certain that the rest will all die as we've got the queen bee. This fantasy is of course not true, but it will keep us going until the next attack.

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15/05/2007 11:52 - compost everywhere

I must apologise for not writing. For once it is not weeds, slugs or even camera crews that have kept me from writing, but spent mushroom compost - 18 tonnes of the stuff! 18 tonnes is a lot, it's enough to happily cover Berryfields with plenty left over. It was a slip of the pen on the delivery notice. And it came in great mounds poured all over the drive. After three barrow loads it quickly became obvious that we were never going to move it by hand. So we got in a mini digger and very sweet little dumper truck (any excuse for my new found talents). We moved the lot in just under a day. It was fun and I think I'm truly beginning to master the digger. It's a sensitive beast; it judders as if in horror at your inexperience. With practice, you can turn into a graceful swan necked thing that elegantly swings and shifts great mounds of stuff. I don't think I'll be running to a construction site any time soon, but it is nice to begin to master something. Now, of course, we have to find something to do with all that compost. A fair amount has gone on the long borders, admittedly a little too late as the plants are quickly bulking out. But with care with have at least filled the gaps and swamped the weeds out for a while. Thanks to all this rain, with locked in fair amount of moisture too. However you turn your back from the vegetable garden and away it runs. Things are moving so fast here. The tomatoes are happily gaining ground; the tomentillas, beans, and sweet corn are all settling in. Things are being munched, but on the whole a great deal is big enough to survive the battle. But now is no time to rest, so out I must go to tidy, sow and thin.

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27/04/2007 12:20 - Battle fields

I read a review in the London Review of Books about a new book called "Defiant Gardens: making gardens in wartime" by Kenneth Helphand. The book is about gardening both in war and in peacetime, but always in implausibly hostile conditions. It cites soldiers gardening in the French trenches during the Second World War and more recently a soldier in Baghdad lovingly tending to a single strip of turf with hand scissors, "he said that he had felt nostalgic for the green of his native Oregon". The review suggests that this is a "version of pastoral: that's to say, not nature conceived as a simple refuge from history, but an ordered, serene nature secluded from its wilder self." In some ways that sums up gardening for all of us. We've spent a peaceful week with the cameras away, but in another sense it's been a week of battling - against slugs, pigeons, moor hens, weeds and all the other things we try to exclude in order to create our version of pastoral. I hate to admit it but am truly upset by an incomplete row of veg. That one broad bean that's been munched, the bare patch in the turnips, the khol rabi that has been stripped bare. It bothers my sense of order. It disturbs my aesthetic desires - but should it? Of course in the wider scheme of things it isn't important. I believe rightly or wrongly that I won't really be judged for my poor military skills when it come to slug warfare. But deep down it niggles away, partly because my ego is bruised. I am not the carefree gardener I thought I was. I like rows and order. Still, we picked, slimed and drowned a fair few slugs over the last week. The pigeons will have to look elsewhere for their morning munch. And the moor hens? Well they are fine birds - made finer by their exclusive diet of British wildflower seed from Landlife. I've re-sown turnips, swede and celeriac and one can only hope that this week they'll struggle through enough to tackle next week's enemies.

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19/04/2007 16:14 - the big dig

As filming is happening elsewhere for two weeks, we took the opportunity to leave the funny world that is Berryfields and go on an adventure. For sometime now I have harboured a secret desire to be a heavy machinery operator. I've always liked the idea of sculpturing the earth on a really big scale. Dumper trucks and diggers hold a beguiling appeal. Thanks to the pond Geoff, Joe and I finally had a reason to learn to drive a digger (albeit a rather small one). So there we were, first thing on a Monday morning, with our high visibility jackets standing in a dust bowl in awe of a 14 tonne digger. I guess for obvious reason I had to be the first in line to have a go. They are sensitive beasts and I managed to judder and bang it into control and before I knew it I'd dug a trench. Joe went next and afterwards admitted that he thought I was just rubbish, but actually it was quite hard. Then Geoff who, after being thrown the gauntlet that it was hard to teach anyone over a certain vintage, put us all to shame and did a lovely job of making it look graceful. By the end of the day we were all merrily digging holes, filling them back up again (so much harder than it sounds) and rushing up and down hills (a sort of cheap fairground ride of an experience). Thanks to delayed trains I ended up in the centre of Birmingham and got lured into shopping. There I was in work wear, covered in dust and sweat, buying fancy silk underwear, which must have been a funny sight. Anyhow we are now all fully certified up to dig very small holes on very small diggers. As for the rest of the week, I've spent it doing very normal gardening things in very abnormal weather. I don't think I have ever had to water so much in April. It's lovely weather for the weekend, but I do wish it would rain.

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11/04/2007 16:22 - Spring forward

This lovely weather has brought out many good things and a few rather dubious ones, such as my and Geoff's legs, as today was deemed warm enough to wear shorts. Just like it's important to hard off your tender shoots, you have get your legs out quick, or else summer comes and it's frankly too embarrassing. Apart from outing our legs we've planted out our seedling onions, sown parsnips, radishes, swedes and salisify. And I've experimented with a pak choi,carrot mix and a carrot, scabious, and nigella mix (supposed to confuse the carrot white fly and hopefully draw in more beneficial insects). Of course this lovely weather means we're pricking out and potting on a furious rate. Monty and I were discussing how we are going to deal with our tomatoes. They've grown at such a rate that they are plenty big enough to go outside. But that crucial even night to day temperature is still at least three weeks off.

We've decided to risk it, plant them out in two weeks and construct some sort of fleece tent. Otherwise we are going to have lots of floppy tomatoes.

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29/03/2007 11:02 - Calling Rob Johnson

Rob, all I need your help. I want some advice on how to grow melons outside. I want to know if you are using the frame filled with horse manure like the good ol'days or just planting them out in a deliciously warm spot? What do you grow them up and when do you plant them out? I'm assuming end of May, but I read in one historic tome that I should plant them out in April ( though I imagine I should have a boy stoking the fire at five in the morning as welll...)! I am determined to grow them outside without using any external source of heat (other than rotting manure or some such). But I clearly need some help on this one.

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27/03/2007 11:21 - Life changing events

Well I survived Sunday. I wobbled my way through my speech, spoke too fast and stumbled, but I think it somehow worked. I even got a gasp from one of the audience members. Though I am not sure if it was because of my audacious statement about money power and large gardens or just they could seen through my thinly veiled John Berger/ John Carey influences. Still I stuck to my argument that gardening is for masses and doesn't need to be categorised into art in order to elevate it to some new ground. We're doing fine where we are. Back down to more earthy things. Joe (H) wants me to tell you about his five-star accommodation for the toads. I am waging a war on the slugs. This is taking ever more Heath Robinson tactics, such as growing peas in gutters surrounded by slug electric fences. However, perhaps one of our saner solutions was to tuck a small pond into the veg garden and introduce two happy toads. Joe has built them a wonderful home full of wood and stones to hide in. The soil temperature has warmed up enough to start using nematodes. One way or another we'll win. I am trying to tack advantage of this warmer weather and have started sowing in earnest outside. Beetroot, spring onions, cut and come again lettuce and spinach have all gone in. We've sown leeks and sweet peppers in the greenhouse. In the spots where the peppers, tomatoes and aubergines are going to go (pray it's a hot summer), I've sown green manure as Berryfield soil is so liable to dry out and crack that it is best to cover it with something green. We've used red clover as there is just enough time to get up and dug in before the fruit needs to go out. Finally, I have one last thing to tell you about. Juliet Glaves (of Grow your Own Veg fame) is making a documentary about 40 years of Gardeners' World. She is looking for anyone who has a story to tell about Gardeners' World. Has it changed your life? Are you a long-term fan or a new convert? You can contact her on GW40@bbc.co.uk or leave a message here. One thing's is for sure, it has certainly changed my life. And with that I am going to wade into the pond and make it a little more pretty.

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15/03/2007 12:06 - Is it art?

Much is happening here, but I shan't tell you about it or I'll spoil your Friday nights. It's safe to say that the garden is stirring and we're all running apace to keep up with it and our thousand seedlings. Instead I am going to tell you about something else. Next Sunday I am going to talk at a debate as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. The theme of the debate is 'the garden as a form of art'. Which is all fine and lovely and I think I have something to say. I'm just not sure I have the guts to stand up and say in front of people. Still Geoff and I have been musing over the subject for weeks now. There is, of course, an art to gardening. Some gardens are truly an art form and some are clearly not (very subjectively speaking). However I draw just as much from science as I do art in my day to day workings. I may be taken aback by the sheer beauty of say the Fritallaria assyriaca in the alpine house or the way in which the daffodils nod in the orchard, but I am equally drawn to the feeding needs of my passiflora or the wonders of seed technology. One subject informs the other; they cannot, in my mind, be separated. And this speaks nothing of the wonders of day digging when you need to release some tension or the solitude of weeding, where you can find space to sort all that clutter in your mind. By boxing the garden into a single category you confine some its most pleasing elements. Gardening isn't art, it's truly life. But still I would like to garner some others' opinions. So, what do you think? Am I alone it wanting gardening to be a bit more than just art?

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06/03/2007 17:12 - Finer compost faster

We've spent the day doing something radical to Berryfields. After a quick consultation with Monty, we've gone from a three bay compost system to six. This isn't merely composting and proud. This is showing off. Now the vegetable garden boasts a line of compost bays that mean we should be able to make finer compost faster. We took three compost bays which were at the bottom of the garden and never really worked and added them to the three in the vegetable garden. The bays at the bottoms were situated under very large beech trees that meant that, even torrential weather like this, the compost remained bone dry, took an age to turn and never got hot enough to kill off the weed seed. The new system is not just a grand statement to what matters most to us, it puts composting at the heart of the garden and thus is much more useful to us. It was fun pulling apart the old system and looking at layers upon layers of our work slowly turning back to where it came. In my bid to prove that I am just as strong as the boys (constantly failing, but I like to think that I make up for it an other ways) I thought I should have a turn with sledgehammer. It was a very comedy moment with me leaping in order to reach the post (I'm not very tall). Joe had a look that was simultaneously worried and amused as he held the bin steady. He also got to have the best line of the day: Joe: "You're really stubborn, why don't you just admit you';re a girl?" Me: "I never, ever said I wasn't a girl, I just want to prove that girls can use sledgehammers too. Are you saying I can't use a sledgehammer?" Joe: "Nooo. It's just you can tell your mother was a feminist . . . .and a little bit short."

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26/02/2007 16:52 - Counting the days down

I had one of those rare moments where I resented being a gardener last week. I finally succumbed to buying a new bike. Too many hills, a rapidly growing dog in a very heavy basket and a work load that means I'm half dead by the time that I leave the garden, all I realise, could be alleviated with just a few more gears. So off the dog and I cycled to the local bike shop to purchase a shiny new Pashley. With its grand sum of three gears it feels such a luxury after none. As the dog and I waited for the basket to be fitted, the bike mechanic took a cursory glance at my hands and said 'what do you do for a living?' When I answered a gardener, he said, 'thought so from the state of your hands'. I've got that sort of 'perma' dirt that's worn into my fingers, clearly visible calluses and fingernails, well, at least they're strong. In short I have gardener's hands - well worn, reliably strong, unattractive things. And briefly, for that moment in the bike shop I longed for thin, attractive hands, a skirt instead of muddy jeans and perhaps even a pair of heels instead of rigga boots. To save my vanity from coming awash with mud I've slicked on some eye-liner and mascara and gone back to sweeping the garden clean for first days of filming. It's a rush now to get it all ready. We're washing glasshouses, cleaning up, set dressing plants, mowing, pricking out, sowing away and hopefully we'll be ready for your visit next week. I hope you'll like what you find? Until then think of me knee deep in mud dreaming of reading Vogue in the bath. . . .

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14/02/2007 11:32 - Where has time gone?

How, oh how, can it be only two weeks before filming starts? It's so busy here, so busy that I can barely find time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards). Every time I look out the window I see whirling dervishes passing only to realise that it's the boys rushing past from one job to the next. I'm in love with Jiffys (appropriately for valentines day). My reservations were unfounded. Things seem to germinate super quick and then are happy enough to sit in their warm homes till I get one minute to pot on. I recommend soaking them in the hottest water your hand can bare; otherwise they take an age to expand. Let them cool down a bit and pop the seeds in (I'm going for two seeds per Jiffy to avoid failure). The hot water seems to set the perfect conditions for germinating. However, I would advise only doing seeds that you are sure of success, such as tomatoes, geraniums, peppers and aubergines. It's not that they are too much effort, but if you were sowing old seed or something very fine, they take up a lot more space; something that is always limited at this time of year. For old seed or something with sporadic germination, use a half tray and make as many lines horizontally with a plant label as you can fit and then sow into these. If things come up, you have to move very quickly and prick out, if not you have lost little space. Well, apart from a sea of pricking out to shortly occur, we have a mountain of hardcore to move, a pond to landscape (and yes, Joe will need a boat to get across it in its present state) and patio to lay. At this point I can only pray that the rain holds off and we get it all done.

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25/01/2007 12:32 - The cradle will rock

The wind came and went with little damage save some fences that toppled over. It seemed to whip round us and headed off to Birmingham. I can't help think it was luck this time and now it's the frosts to contend with. I am grateful for this cold snap. The beds in the veg garden need a little bullying and perhaps it will keep the errant slugs at bay, for a moment at least. It has meant tip-toeing around the place trying not to do too much damage to the grass. In a brief sunny period Geoff gallantly got out the mower to put the paths back into the meadows. It was odd, but delicious to smell cut grass in January. So far the plants are holding up to the cold. There are odd patches of damage, but nothing too serious. I've been sowing a second batch of onions. I am not happy with the first lot, I think the lack of light and the warmth has meant that they have grown too long and leggy and are flopping all over the place. I know it's perceived wisdom to sow in winter, but without the right conditions I really think waiting a little is better. There is just that extra light in the day that means they should catch up quickly. I've sown a batch in Jiffy 7. These are small dehydrated coir block that you soak before sowing. They swell into neat little plugs contained by a thin mesh. I found a great batch of them in the potting shed, which I imagine is because Monty swears by them. In his honour I thought I should give them a go. I am slightly afraid that without stringent watering they will dry out very quickly. It may be very cold, but the light is wonderful and with only February to go spring will happen, right?

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18/01/2007 13:40 - When the wind blows

There are waves on my pond. The wind is driving me mad. It's not so much that it's cold, but that it gets everywhere. I've spent more time chasing after Epimedium leaves than I have cutting them back. It has forced both me and the dog inside. She is happily chewing a pigs ear and I am chewing the last of the leeks. I have to make room for the broad beans, so it's been a leek a day for the last week. I am afraid that the autumn sown peas have been a disaster. A paltry or two are braving the winds, the rest have disappeared. My experiment to see whether dipping them in paraffin or covering the rows with holly has failed; the mice it seems are not put off by either method. Still, there have been other successes around the garden. We have built a pretty little rill across the edge of the wildflower meadow. This will take the water collected off the roof into the pond. The initial idea was to dig a very deep trench and bury a large grey pipe. The truth is this method just seemed too much effort. I have had my fill of claggy, grey clay after the pond revamp. The rill is a pretty feature that can be planted up with early-flowering irises and other things. The apples and pears are now pruned for this year. Now it's onto wisteria and roses, but before that I am going to go and brave the winds and plant out the broad beans before they walk out of their pots.

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11/01/2007 13:00 - Enormous change at the last minute

I've been so busy that I clearly forgot to blog last week. It's been all change here at Berryfields. We sadly said goodbye to Sheryl who has gone off to work for HDRA down in Yalding, and recruited Isabel, the Jack Russell, to chase pigeons and dig holes in inappropriate places. Not that Sheryl ever dug holes in inappropriate places, and as much as Isabel is lovely, she can hardly replace the hole Sheryl leaves. Still, we wish her good luck and will be down soon with chocolate biscuits!. We've attacked the long borders and won (hopefully). We spent a week rearranging, reordering and removing. A proper renovation job and it looks all the better for it. We started by making a foot or so wide path at the back of the border. We did this partly so we could get to the back and maintain them better and partly to give the yew hedge a little more breathing space. We removed and split the most over-crowded clumps of herbaceous, such as the Echinops maracandicus, Delphinium finsteraarhorn and Salvia uliginosa. The later being a lovely thing, but boy does it spread itself round. There were one or two surprises. I found several Cimicifuga simplex hidden behind great clumps of fennel and some lovely seedlings of Ferula communis behind some Calamagrostis. I've been reading Tracy Disabato-Aust's book The Well-Tended Perennial Garden; she wasn't called the queen of dead-heading for nothing. I am now very inspired to chop earlier and more ruthlessly to get a better second flush come early autumn. We had five tonnes of pig and cow poo delivered, which is one way to burn off the Christmas cheer! The veg garden is all dug over and ready for a new year. Yesterday Geoff and I cut back all the grasses, which was an intensely satisfying job. The general rule of thumb is: if it goes brown, cut it right back in late winter. Evergreen grasses such as Carex, can be given a light trim to get rid of any split ends, and a quick rake to remove any thatch. It has been so mild here that all sorts of things are poking their heads out. The aconites are up, and I keep tripping over fat spires of daffodils that I had forgotten existed. The alpine house is full of cheer. The asphodelus is flowering away, as are the Ipheion and cyclamen. If only the weather was as pleasant. It's rained so much that the pond has become a lake and the waterbutts are now waterfalls. I hate the sodden look the garden takes on. It is hard to want to work when you and everything around is drenched. But I must as filming is only seven weeks away and there is still so much to do.

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14/12/2006 10:51 - Song tracks to garden to

As I came into work today the heron was wading knee-deep in the pond. He, or she, I'm not sure how you tell them apart, took one seemingly mournful look and took off for someone else's pond. It almost made me sad that we hadn't stocked the pond with fish for him. He's been around a lot this week. He even had a scrap with a local seagull, which was quite a sight. As I turned the corner, I startled a lone pheasant. It made me feel like an impostor in the garden: I wonder who else comes to play when no one is around? It's lovely to have such a diverse wildlife. They add a pleasing sound track to the garden. But I have to admit that I often crave a different kind of sound. It is not that bird song isn't one of the most pleasing sounds, but that, like a lot of my generation, the ipod and radio are firmly part of my lifestyle. I love to weed to Radio 4. A morning spent with Andrew Marr or Melvyn Bragg seems like such a pleasant way to live: fresh air, lots of plants and some of the best free, intellectual company around. There is a time, though, when a good pop song helps the job along. Something with a good beat to mow to, or with a thumping bass line to dig to. So here's my take on this year's musical offering, and my recommendations for albums to garden to. For mowing, I've become addicted to Hot Chip, their electro-pop seems made for the mower. It has a good repetitious beat that's just fast enough to get you flying across the lawn. Their song 'Over and Over' contains the perfect grass cutting lyrics: 'Over and over and over and over and over/Like a monkey with a miniature cymbal/The joy of repetition really is in you.' Couldn't have put it better myself. I've loved James Yorkston, 'The Year of the Leopard' It's hard to categorize Yorkston, but I guess English folk, although it's better than that sounds! I had a sublime afternoon raking up horse chestnut leaves in the late autumn sun to this. Many of the songs are about the joys of summer beginning. It was a lovely nostalgic thing to rake to. The American songwriter and harp-player Joanna Newsom has just released a new album called 'Ys' and it is most definitely beautiful. You need to start a task that will take you through the whole album, with its epic 16-minute long tracks. And you have to be outside. It's full of wonderful fables, fairy tales and lots of nature. And finally, for Monty, The Beatles. The remixed album 'Love', produced by George Martin, and his son Giles, is 90 minutes of genius. It starts with 'Because' which is full of bird sounds, including a touching recording of a wood pigeon to 'make it more British'. They've done lovely things like taking the beautiful track 'Blackbird' and mixed it seamlessly with 'Yesterday'. It's a triumph of an album and makes me feel less guilty about not listening to my own birds. Garden however you please to this album, it will suit any task. And on that note, I shall plug myself in and go and prick out the violas.

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07/12/2006 09:31 - Fever pitch

I was ill last week. I came to work on Monday feeling groggy and left with a raging temperature. I spent the next four days fluctuating between quiet, somniferous lulls and feverish nightmares. In one of these nightmares, a weird sort of cow-like thing came and ate the long borders - I think that needs little interpretation! Anyhow, I've managed a week standing and, although the weather is doing its best to persuade me to go back to bed, things are moving along here at Berryfields. The last of the leaves have been picked up for this year and we've now got this down to a tee. One of us blows the leaves into a pile, and the other one runs over them with our mulching mower. The results are impressive - a fine, crumbled mass of chopped-up leaves. Under the large beech and poplar trees that run the length of the bottom half of the garden, I've been content just to mow, leaving the trees with a fine mulch that should help them through the following year. Everywhere else we've meticulously swept them up and collected them for leaf mould. I think it's going to be a good vintage, if there is such a thing? I've sown early peas ('The Meteor') and broad beans ('The Sutton' and 'Aquadulce Claudia'). I'm never convinced about sowing in autumn - I always feel that a March sowing will catch up just as quick - but I need the veg garden to have hints of life when filming comes back. In that way, perhaps winter sowings are just that hint of life that's needed, when little else is stirring. I guess I should brave the outdoors and continue to mulch. This is the time of year when you have to bribe yourself with one good task for one bad one, so this afternoon I will continue to prune the apples. It's my all-time favourite job, but that's another story . . .

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24/11/2006 14:43 - Pretty things

I've just been splitting a Chaerophyllum hirsutum 'Rosea' in the cottage garden. It's a lovely plant with its delicate, yellow-green, fern-like leaves and umbels of deep pink flowers in early summer. It was fairly congested and I got about 10 or so good clumps from it. I've spent the rest of the day trying to sort out the cold frames to make space for all these divisions. On no scientific basis whatsoever, I have a hunch it's going to be a very cold winter, although today is positively mild if you're out of the wind. Still, I want to make sure these new plants stay snug and warm. I planted some Camassia cusickii around one side of the pond for a little late-spring interest. Camassia is a great genus if you have heavy, moist clay soil as it thrives in such conditions. Camassia cusickii has lovely deep steel-blue flowers, and green linear leaves with wavy margins. After all of the renovation work on the pond, yesterday the water began to lap over into the bog garden. I was delighted, and was just about to do a celebratory leap onto the bank between the pond and bog, when I noticed it was full of little shoots coming up from the rushes, despite a digger repeatedly driving over it. It amazes me how alive the world is and how desperate things are to grow. Nature really does abhor a vacuum. The pond may still look raw, but it's very much alive and kicking.

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17/11/2006 11:50 - On our own again

It's been a funny sort of week, as the main programme has finished filming for the year. It's odd to be so free on a Friday, and we're all feeling a little aimless. We've spent most of the week tidying up after a year of filming. Our sheds are finally in order. They look so lovely and neat that I find myself wandering in just to have a look. I spent an entire afternoon sorting bamboo canes into neat bundles according to size. This took me back to my first year as a gardening apprentice, when I spent a very happy few autumnal days sorting canes for the fruit department at Wisley. There's even a special knot for tying the bundles. The knot has a rather long-winded story about 'a rabbit running around a tree and popping up a hole' but I think it's just a glorified slip knot. Still, it brought back nice memories of sitting by kiwi bushes and bundling things up. I tried to teach Geoff the rabbit knot, but he just gave me a funny look and muttered something about getting rid of some wood. Sheryl's been sowing onions, planting shallots and finishing off sowing Monty's broad beans outside. Jennifer Cook from the Seer Centre in Scotland is coming for a visit this afternoon. There's been a lot of talk about the many benefits of rock dust and we're keen to try it out. Rockdust is 420-million-year-old, ground, untreated volcanic rock from various Scottish quarries. The benefits are many, as you're adding a huge range of minerals and trace elements back into the soil. We're going to add it to the end of the long borders in order to rebalance the elements, and hopefully increase the microbial activities. We are also going to trial it in the vegetable garden, as you are supposed to get amazingly huge, healthy, highly nutritional veg. I'm very excited about this as I secretly harbour a passion to grow giant vegetables and enter lots of village shows. Monty believes this will be my downfall, but we shall see!

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09/11/2006 10:01 - Autumnal tints

I've been off for the past few weeks visiting my in-laws in Tennessee. It's wonderful country: rolling green hills with tracing paper mountains in the background, and endless forest that cloaks every available space. Autumn is definitely the time of year to visit. You could wax lyrical about those reds, yellows, oranges and purples for hours. Their tapestry effect is truly awe-inspiring and endlessly fascinating. It's the reds, of course, that get you. Our native trees do wonderful rusts, brilliant yellows, even some startling oranges, but we never get that red. This is something that has been taxing scientists for years. It's a good story, partly because it's not as obvious as what meets the eye. There are three main leaf pigments: chlorophyll, carotenoids and anthocyanins. Chlorophyll is green and supplies plants with the energy they need to grow fruit and flower. Carotenoids function as accessory absorbers of light and are responsible for the yellow and orange colours. The third pigment is anthocyanins. These produce the many reds, oranges, pinks, purples and blues in flowers and fruit, as well as the brilliant reds and oranges of autumn colours. Interestingly, chloryphyll and carotenoids are always present in leaves, but anthocyanins, however, are produced on spec. Leaves that contain high levels of carotenoids, such as birch and hickory, will change from bright green to yellow as the chlorophyll disappears, revealing the underlying carotenoids. The interesting thing about red pigments is that a leaf with only a few weeks left to go summons all its energy for a burst of bright red pigment making - why? Well, there are two theories: one is that essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, that are being absorbed back into the tree are very vulnerable to damage from bright light. As damaged essential nutrients are no good for new growth, the anthocynains act as a powerful sponge that absorb free radicals and screens the leaf against high light levels, thus protecting the essential nutrients being absorbed. Red, it seems, is nature's sun block. On the other hand, other scientists suggest that anthocynanins act as anti-freeze by protecting the plant's water supply. Anthocyanin, unlike carotene and chlorophyll, is a water-soluble pigment. The thought is that this might protect the plant from drought by helping it to obtain water. The water-soluble pigment can reduce the loss of water through a leaf's surface and depress its freezing point, thus acting as a natural anti-freeze. This is why the best reds often appear after frosty autumn nights and are especially prolific in areas that experience cold temperatures in the autumn, like Tennessee! In north America, there are a lot of autumn days where the skies will be crystal clear and it might be 30 degrees Fahrenheit on the leaves. That is a lot of pressure for the plant, so it is understandable why it would produce a mechanism to protect against this. It's probably safe to say that there is not one unified explanation for red pigments. As new experiments throw new light onto pigment production, scientists will eventually settle the debate. Until then, let's stick with poets and enjoy the colour: "We love to see any redness in the vegetation," wrote Henry David Thoreau in his essay Autumnal Hints. "It is the colour of colours. This plant speaks to our blood. It asks a bright sun on it to make it show to best advantage, and it must be seen at this season of the year."

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16/10/2006 14:01 - Post pond experience

The new pond in its raw state definitely divides opinions. In its post-cosmetic surgery condition, it looks bruised, muddy and somewhat like a crater. You can either see great potential in all that open space, or you think it looks like a lot mud and clay. I am firmly standing in the 'great potential' camp and can already see it swathed in green and fully in flower. There were moments during the process, however, that even my optimism was tested. Hugh and Steve, from the Pond Conservation Trust, took on this herculean task with unwavering enthusiasm and a lot of skill. The whole process started with draining the pond. This included a human chain of duck poo removal that took over three hours and covered everyone involved. Then Hugh and Steve arrived with the heavy machinery and it all got really mucky. The pond liner is called Bentamat and it looks to all intents and purposes like carpet underlay. It contains silica that once wet expands between layers of fleece. It's incredibly heavy and cumbersome to move around, so you have to lay in it strips. You then cover it with soil, which compresses the silica, and once this has happened, you can fill it up with water. You need to see it to really believe it, but the pond is already filling up. It will take all winter before the pond is full, and we still have to divert a water source off the roof to ensure a constant supply. But it's all very exciting. On Wednesday, Grant and Jan from Landlife (the National Wildflower Centre) will arrive to help us sort out the wildflower meadow to the left of the pond. The digger ended churning up a lot of the meadow, so it looks like we are going to have start again. I'll let you know what we choose for the new mix. So there you go: in my first six months as head gardener, I have created one huge muddy field - successful, eh?

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10/10/2006 10:40 - Pond week

I knew from the day I started this job that one of the tasks I had to tackle was relining the pond. I love ponds and everything that goes with them. I think I secretly just like getting wet and muddy: give me some water to play with and I'm a very happy gardener. And there's definitely been plenty of water. It's been raining cats and dogs, all, of course, in the week when we have to drain the pond. So it's been a sort of comedy of errors, with lots of sliding and falling into mud. Next week sees the arrival of Hugh and Steve from the Pond Conservancy, a digger and lots of liner. The idea is that in two days we can remove the sludge, put the liner down in strips, backfill onto the liner with soil, put all the plants back in and then do a rain dance. The empty pond looks huge: a great crater of grey sludge that the ducks are happily dabbling around in. The end product will be much smaller and shallower. A wildlife friendly pond doesn't have to very deep; 70 cms (2.4 ft) is plenty deep enough. The bottom needs to be fairly rough to provide plenty of different habitats. We're going to backfill the pond with soil and rubble and then drag the digger across to make a rough bottom. The pond will be saucer shaped, with gradual slopping edges. The idea is that in winter it will flood, like a dew pond, and in summer, the edges will come alive with irises and other pretty flowering things. Anyhow, there is plenty to do between now and then, so wish me luck, and no rain until it's finished!

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29/09/2006 11:30 - The lawn is dead: long live the lawn

The lawn is one of those odd spaces in gardening where you really can see nature and culture clash. In nature, grass should flower, set seed, die and then start all over again. But in the garden, it's kept in an odd, almost timeless, loop where it grows a bit, only to be cut down and then encouraged with fertilisers, topsoil, etc, to start the whole doomed process over again. I feel very conflicted over the whole lawn issue. On the one hand, lawns are not environmentally sustainable. It's all that energy that bothers me: yes, you can use a push mower, but if you're working to tight deadlines, when push comes to shove (all puns intended) you always end up using a petrol mower. On the other hand, some of my happiest memories are around lawns. Falling asleep on them on warm summer evenings; playing cricket with my brother and sister, counting the numerous green-winged orchids, Orchis morio, that grow on my mother's lawn and walking barefoot - perhaps the only real reason for a lawn. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, in the long term, I'm not sure they are sustainable, but if there is anything we can do to improve the situation then I'm going to embrace it for the sake of my memories. So, when I had the chance to re-sow the lawn between the shrubbery and the conifer garden, I wanted to choose the most sustainable lawn. We've used a mixture that contains microclover, dwarf perennial rye, creeping red and chewing fescues and smooth stalked meadow grass. The beauty of this mixture is modern breeding: tough, dwarf grasses that can rough it through the drought and not grow like the clappers during the wet. Its secret weapon is the microclover. It's really, really small clover that grows just below the canopy of the grass. The clover provides a natural source of fertiliser in the form of nitrogen. This keeps the grass green and healthy (hopefully) all year long. Now is the perfect time to seed a lawn, the ground is still warm and there's moisture around, so seeds can get off to a good start before winter. You need around 35 grams of seed per square metre. The easiest way to get an even spread of seed is to divide the lawn into sections, and use lots of seed for each section. Work left to right, then top to bottom. Lightly rake in and, if you have a roller, give it a gentle roll. Fingers crossed, a month later you'll have the beginnings of a lawn.


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22/09/2006 10:10 - Bulb planting week

Bulb planting is one of those things that seems terribly daunting when you start, and then, as it nears the end, you suddenly want more. A thousand crocus bulbs suddenly seems a paltry number (well, perhaps not to the budget). The ground here is so hard, we ended up finishing Monty's daffodil bulbs off with a mattock. Joe swung the mattock, and Sheryl and I followed behind inserting the bulb. It was a fast, efficient method for our heavy soil. For the crocus, we used the turf cutter. We cut various lengths of turf, rolled them back, rolled the bulbs down the strip like a bowling alley and placed the turf back. A thousand bulbs took just under half an hour. Monty also planted some Fritillaria imperialis in his shade garden. These are wonderfully majestic plants. They're naturally found growing from Iran to North India, and do best in heavy soil where the surface is rarely disturbed. It's a good idea to add some rich, partly-rotted organic matter when planting, as these are large, hungry plants. I love bulbs: so full of hope, full of promise for the year to come, and for me, the perfect job to do on a filming day as you can quietly squirrel away in the background.

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13/09/2006 16:01 - Autumnal apples

"And then the perfume of the ripening apples evokes other years so powerfully"- Collette. We are not filming this week because of the Ryder Cup, so it should have been a blissfully quiet week. Somehow it hasn't quite turned out that way. We had an amazing demonstration of an industrial shredder that I think I've fallen in love with, but I think it will blow the budget. I'm quietly hoping that someone might buy me one for my birthday. It turned a huge bonfire into a barrowload of shredded material in mere minutes. Well, a girl can dream . . . The autumn is racing on, spreading its colours across the garden. The long borders have turned from vivid purple to more rustic hues and the fruit trees are heavily laden with fruit. It's the perfect time to take stock of what the summer has offered. Someone on the message board wanted to know what I had learnt from growing veg under a hose pipe ban. So here it is: the summer's greatest successes were definitely the Heritage Seed Library tomatoes that were a local variety. They have cropped heavily, even though we did not water or feed them all summer long. The variety is called 'Kenilworth' and they have a very thick skin, which I believe has stopped them from splitting. I am a complete convert to outside tomatoes. Also, the corn and courgette combination has worked wonderfully. The corn was block-planted with the courgettes around the outside. Both crops have been very successful and the courgettes worked as perfect ground cover, keeping moisture in and weeds out. The perceived wisdom is that a good watering is about 22 litres per square metres, but as my mother says, one gallon of water at five in the morning is the equivalent of 50 gallons by 10 o' clock. So, water early in the morning or in the evening if possible. Many companies offer timers for sprinklers and if you are lucky enough to be able to use hose, they are a worthy investment and mean more time in bed. Water gently; a fine rose is a valuable thing. Large droplets can destroy the soil surface and damage tender seedlings. If you can, mulch immediately after watering. I have fallen in love with mineralised straw; it's a perfect mulch as it doesn't hold onto the water. Spread it thickly and dig it in to add bulk to the soil at the end of the season. It definitely saved our Florence fennel from the worst of the drought. If water is scarce, conserve it for critical periods of growth. For example, leafy vegetables such as celery require a lot of water. If you have to limit your watering, a heavy watering ten to twenty days before the plant is ready for harvest is better than many, small doses ( which will be lost to evaporation, especially if you haven't mulched). Joy Larkcom's 'Grow your own vegetables' has an excellent chapter on watering and is well worth a read.

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06/09/2006 14:01 - Life, lunch and compost

When I started this job, the first thing I wanted to get done was to standardise our compost mixes and find some good solid bins to the hold the stuff. I roped Monty into the plan, and now we have three lovely recipes and four lovely, luminous yellow bins. Monty came up with the recipes that hold Berryfields' compost, leafmould, top soil and sand in various ratios. Number one is a seed mix, number two is for potting on and number three is a basic mix for more mature plants, which can have grit, fine bark and other such stuff added when needed. All we have to do now is keeping making compost. Turning compost is a wonderful job, but not one, for some reason, I relished this week. Joe, our production runner, came to the rescue and happily spent all of yesterday turning away. He says it's his all-time favourite job and happily left the Gardeners' World office to give us a hand. My father called me up to tell me he knew plenty of recipes for the okra we've grown, and was sending me a book full of information. He's telling everyone that the only communication he has with his youngest these days is through this blog. So, 'Hi Dad'. Actually, I think he just wanted to know if I was happy in this job. 'Was it', he said 'the right lifestyle choice?' The answer is undoubtedly 'yes', and there's plenty of reasons why. The biggest joy is the vegetable garden followed, in tandem, by lunch. It's a great job, where lunch begins in the veg garden, is instantly tossed into a pot and leisurely consumed under the shade of a tree. Our meals are quickly enticing the rest of the team to come here on non-filming days. This week Clare (hort researcher), Sam (hedge cutting genius) and Joe have all dropped by and gone away happily fed. I'm sure by lunchtime, someone else will have turned up. It beats eating a sandwich at your desk any day. Today we are going to try our aubergines, which are bountifully cropping. Ours are grown in the greenhouse. I was wondering if anyone had much success growing them outside this year? I'd like to try them outside next year as it would free the greenhouse up for winter salads. Clearly I think too much with my stomach, so on that note, I'll go back to weeding and dreaming of lunch.

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31/08/2006 12:11 - The grass issue

I know I always write about the weather, but minor obsessions apart, all this rain means a lot of grass cutting. We're blessed with a cornucopia of mowers here: everything from a little push cylinder mower to a great big sit-on thing. I'm fonder of the push mower as I prefer human-propelled things. The sit-on just seems to take an age to get anywhere and I get bored easily, and you don't burn any calories either. Our main problem is what to do with all the clippings, as we produce too much to lose it solely in the compost bins. As anyone who has ever left grass clipping in a pile will know, if left in a big heap it never rots down. I've come up with two methods of composting to experiment with, in hope that I will find a solution to the problem. I read in one of my (dusty, old) books that it's entirely possible to compost grass anaerobically, i.e. without oxygen. All you need is an air-tight container, in our case a sealed plastic compost bin, and some soil. For every 25cm (10 inches) of grass clippings, you add a layer of soil and seal the bin up again. A year or so later, you are supposedly left with very nutritious mulch (as none of the nutrients have leached away). I am not entirely sure whether you are supposed to mix the soil and grass at some point or just leave it in layers, so I'll have to keep you posted on that one. My second method is going to recycle the large volumes of scripts, running orders and schedules that get left around after filming, which I shall add to the grass clippings and compost in a plastic compost bin and turn regularly. This is a shorter method as it has the advantage of air and therefore should be ready in six months or so. On a completely different note, I need some recipes on how to cook okra as our plants are happily fruiting away. I'm assuming that I can just pick the fruit at the required size and fry in oil? Has anyone got any suggestions?

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22/08/2006 15:21 - Back to school

Filming starts again this week. I can't quite believe the summer break has gone so quickly. And I have to admit there is a slight sense of sadness, already tinged with nostalgia for these past months of silence. It's as if Berryfields goes from being a garden back into a being a set. I can only describe it as going back to school. You want to see all your friends again, show off all your finds from the summer, but those endless long days of the summer holiday are gone for good - at least this year. Of course, it's not like we were really on holiday (look at all those pots we washed for starters). And I have a 101 things I want to show the team: the celery is coming on a treat and there's a bountiful harvest in the veg garden; Carol's garden looks wonderful and I hope Joe will be pleased with his veg. And I do want to show the garden off again. We've been endlessly weeding, edging and mowing in preparation. At the end of the day though, I think Sheryl, Geoff and I are actually very lucky as we get the best of both worlds: the private joys of the garden, freshly cooked vegetables everyday and wonderful plums and then, once a week, the world drops by to pay us a visit!

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22/08/2006 15:10 - Horse chestnut leaf miner

I managed to steal a couple of days away from Berryfields, which explains the absence of blogs. I went to Prague with my husband. It's a lovely city, picture postcard perfect and with lots of hidden treasures: the botanical garden is worth a trip. I was also very impressed by the huge open green space in Mala Strana. Just below the observatory is a wonderful, large mixed public orchard that was filled with wildflowers; a very delicious, community-spirited thing to do, and fruit for free is one way to ensure society gets its five-a-day. But in spite of all those lovely apples and plums, some of Prague's trees were not doing so well. The horse chestnuts were covered in horse chestnut leaf miner, Cameraria ohridella. I have never seen such a bad infestation before. Huge, majestic trees with curled brown leaves and only the shiny green of the fruit seemingly alive. It saddens me to see such damage, but even more so as we have the same problem here on our chestnuts at Berryfields. I am glad to say it's not at such a drastic stage, but it's here nevertheless. I went onto the Forestry Commission website to find out what we could do about the problem. It's hugely informative and I recommend anyone who's interested to visit it: www.forestresearch.gov.uk. I am relieved to find out that it won't kill the trees off immediately, but these longer, hotter summers are providing a perfect climate for the beast. And the Forestry Commission says that it "may pose a greater threat than originally foreseen". The miner, as the common name suggests, burrows an s-shaped mine between the upper and lower leaf surface. At first, the mine is translucent and if you hold the leaf to the light you can see the miner wriggling about. After a while, the mine turns brown and leaf begins to dry, eventually turning upward and inward, so that by August the tree looks positively autumnal. The adult is a moth that appears in April and has chestnut brown wings with white stripes. The best method for control at home is to remove all the fallen leaves in autumn and destroy them. Most domestic compost heaps won't get hot enough to kill the eggs, so it's best to put it all in the bin.

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08/08/2006 10:21 - The art of trench celery

It's rained a little here at Berryfields. Not much, but enough to refresh the worst-off plants, giving us a well-needed break from watering (and pot washing). We spent a lot of last week in the veg garden, getting to grips with harvesting and sowing Chinese salads, carrots and the like before we go back on air. This year, Monty wants us to trial growing both self-blanching and trench celery, Apium graveolens. I've grown both types before, but I can't say celery is my forte, particulary the trench types. I had to do a fair bit of revision on how best to blanch the celery. I've read a lot of dusty books and even tramped around some allotments this weekend in hope of finding an old boy to show me the way. In the name of experimentation, we've blanched them using all available techniques known. Thick paper and roofing felt both seem like good, easy methods. But earthing up is another matter. I had to dig out some old books my parents had given me to find the best method (it seems there are many). I like the one that starts 'Earthing up Celery is an art': not at all off-putting, then? Thankfully an old RHS veg book had black and white photographs to guide me through the process. If I've learnt anything from the experience, it's that Sheryl (another gardener here) and I need to wear more tweed and get some trilby hats: old-fashioned gardeners had very stylish apparel! I've also learned that if you're going to avoid getting earth in the heart of the celery, you have to make mud pies and make the soil very wet. It may yet take me another 50 years to master this art.

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02/08/2006 15:02 - I'm not a pot washer, I'm a pot washer's son

Two months ago I left my office job for good and came back to where I started my working life - in a garden. When I left the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, I had every intention to go straight into gardening, but ended up taking a five year tour around various offices, writing and making programmes about gardens. I had a ball. However, I always felt a fraud with such clean finger nails. Coming back to full-time gardening has been very interesting. I love the early mornings, turning compost, drinking tea and eating biscuits with grubby fingers. But I do hate the hosepipe ban: although we're not in a drought area, Monty imposed a ban on Berryfields in order to look at the effects it would have. Well, perhaps 'hate' is a little too strong, but I've never looked upon hoses with such longing before. We've come up with some novel methods to deal with the problem. We've installed several pumps: we have an electric, swan-necked one for our water butts and a submersible one for our underground tank. Although we get moving water it doesn't last long, a week at best. After that it's rain dancing. During the heat wave all of Berryfields flopped, including us. For want of something cool to do in that heat we started pot washing. Pot washing is usually a winter task, but it's not as crazy as it sounds. With the hosepipe ban in place, we're currently doing an experiment to see the effect of using grey water (washing-up water, etc) for watering, versus just rain water. We water one side of the long borders with grey water and the other side is surviving on rain alone, so the excess water from washing the pots was duly added to the borders, and the results were instant. Lots of clean pots, lots of happy plants, not quite so happy gardeners- you try washing a year's worth of pots!

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