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Small and sweet and no need to net, but you’ll never get too many just the odd tasty treat now and again. If you’re lucky enough to spot some growing wild then one or two berries squashed over a sheet of kitchen roll to separate the seeds on the outside from the main body is perhaps the best way of obtaining plants.

Let the strawberry mess dry for a few days to hopefully be still dampish and then carefully try and detach each individual seed, fiddly and time consuming yes, but worth the effort. If you leave for too long then the seeds will be stuck to the paper, and can only be released by placing the sheet on a saucer with a very small amount of water just sufficient to get the paper damp. I would add that a good nail works wonders in just being able to slip under the seed and prise it off. Transfer the seeds onto a new sheet and when you are happy that they are completely dry, place in a used envelope labelled and dated.

When it comes to germination the golden rule is not to cover the seeds, as light is very important in germination so a little perlite on the compost before sowing the seeds will help. Also a plastic bag placed over the seed tray helps to maintain moisture, and the final piece of advice would be to have a position of good light but not direct sunlight or likely to become too hot.

For those unlucky enough not to find any wild strawberries and not wanting to buy the seed, then a long shot is using over ripe “normal” strawberries, which as everybody knows don’t breed true to type, but with luck might eventually give the smaller European strawberry.

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Gooseberry – Size and Picking

Well now’s the time to decide big ones or little ones, or should I say fewer, but bigger? For there is always that choice to make when growing fruit you can have lots of littlies or fewer better sized ones.

I suppose it could be, and has been carried to extremes, for hailing from a gooseberry competition area where size is everything, and pigeon egg size was considered small by some. The chosen few, and only those, were allowed to grow on, strictly guarded and feed by secret recipes to reach mega proportions until the day of the competition or the sad dialect lament “its bars-ted”. Yes, even for people from that area it took a minute or two to get your ear round the lament, as the hopes for the year were rendered void.

For a more reasoned approach I recommend thinning off about 15% now. Yes it’s more than some would say, but think of it as a deposit into the plant for next year when it will repay that extra. It also has an impact on the number of fruit you will pick, being bigger you will spend less time picking, washing, topping and tailing, and in a nice pie just off warm the taste seems just that little better especially with the juice.

There’s always something to be said about having a routine in picking the gooseberries, based on how they develop on the bush. The routine as outlined to me was to pick from the bottom first where the fruit are in shade, then to move onto the middle of the bush, before finishing off with the ones on the outer edges of the bush. This I was assured matches how the fruit stops improving and yes it does take discipline.

However with cooking gooseberries I tend to wait for the blackbirds to whisper in my ear when they are ready, or to be more precise start stripping the bush. It then becomes a race against the ravenous birds as I don’t net the cookers, but wait for the best judge of ripeness to call time.

Master Gardener Robert has lots more useful blogs to help you with your growing, just take a look at his page

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Tomato grafts

Well the easy bit is that it’s probably the easiest graft. All you need is a sharp blade, by preference I’d go for a Stanley knife blade but do watch the edges, a wrapping of insulation tape does ease the potential problems, as I know from experience.

The cut needs to be diagonal to give some support, (45 degrees) but most importantly you need to have matching cuts and matching stem thicknesses. So if you cut the scion off at 40 degrees you need to make sure that the cut on the root stock allows a neat join and is therefore cut at the same angle. It goes without saying that it’s a job for young plants and their main stem below the top growth.

The secret of success lies in the join and keeping the top half (scion) attached to the bottom half (root stock). For this job there is a grafting clip which looks like a small clear sprung clothes peg which you force open with the ends and carefully place round the union to keep the contact in place and allow for healing.

These grafting clips can be sourced off the internet, and it’s either a slow boat from China for a lifetime’s supply or someone who breaks bulk, but supplies in days. There is an alternative and yes it’s not as easy to use or probably as good, and that involves cutting up some clear plastic tube, the thin type used in siphoning when making wine.

The first cut should be down the tube to open it length ways, you now need to trim again length ways to achieve the correct diameter for the tomato plants when re-closed. The tricky bit is now using some strips of clear tape to bind this round the union to give some support, not easy, and yes it will have to come off when the graft takes.

Perhaps the most important element to success is the care that the plants receive after the graft. If you have taken side shoot cuttings you will know that it’s a case of shade, moisture, warmth but not too much to stress the plants and lots of tlc.

As a final thought don’t throw away the unused top growth from the rootstock, why not go for a double graft, or just use it like a cutting and pot it up. (See previous blog “tomatoes another twist”).

For those in need of a small challenge for the summer why don’t you see how many side shoot cuttings you can get to fruit before the end of the season from one plant.

For more tips from Robert, take a look at his page

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I’ve always been an advocate of lettings things grow to see what they are, or how they develop. Don’t get me wrong, once I know what they are, I am as ruthless a weeder as the next person, but a little curiosity can be a good thing for it occasionally brings about beneficial surprises.

In a flower bed, foreign territory to me, but all hands to the pumps for early season weeds I came across a young self seeded gooseberry, and determined to let it develop to see the fruit it produced. Over time it responded to encouragement and produced more than acceptable cooking gooseberries, as there was space in front I was modest in my pruning allowing the low growing branches to touch down and root, perhaps the easiest way to propagate gooseberry’s for your involvement is only to ensure contact with the soil and nature takes over, producing roots on the end of the branch, and a growing eye from which a main stem grows in the next season.

If you let this grow on, not only does it produce a stout vigorous stem, but a better way to establish a gooseberry standard bush I have yet to find. Separate from the main plant by cutting the branch from which the root developed as close to the new growth as possible, either the end of the season or the early start will do. Support with a cane to prevent rocking and remove those side shoots as they appear.

If you let things go for another year or two, further eyes and shoots will grow from the original branch. This gives you the opportunity to have a bush form which is linear. The shoots develop in the same line along the branch, so instead of having a round bush you have a straight line. Now this really does have added benefits when it comes to picking and pruning, not to mention space saving attributes. If you like your bushes round you can always cut up the original branch and have each growth eye as a separate bush or I should say bushes.

How good is the method, well 30 plants later and virtually no involvement from me, and all these beneficial attributes, I have to say it sure beats taking cuttings. This only leaves me having to find good homes for them before I become overwhelmed.

As it’s a new variety produced from a chance seed dispersing blackbird, it only leaves me to give it a name to reflect its attributes, hence the title. Tasty , as it goes well in pie or sorbet, green for the colour, and the name after one of the oldest residents, born in the village, and a better gardener you’d be lucky to meet.

I haven’t forgotten about the grafting, it should follow next……

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Plants are a growing!

Mattishall, MG Robert demonstrating

There has just been that sudden turnaround in temperature, which we all hope heralds the start of Spring.

I usually do all my seed sowing in the last two weeks of March, but this year I have delayed a week in the hope of getting the plants off to a quicker start. I find that in the long run there is some difference in trying to avoid the seedlings sulking in the cold and poor light levels of too early a planting, perhaps I should go for a good heated propagator.

One of the things I intend to experiment with this year is grafting tomatoes. I have brought grafted plants in the past with limited success, and grown on side shoot cuttings, but in reading through some of the seed catalogues they are claiming increased productivity and healthier plants. It would appear that all the commercial growers use grafted plants, so perhaps it’s time to experiment.

I, and many other gardeners have noted the prolific nature of Shirley and Moneymaker, but sadly the lack of that rich ripe tomato taste, the bloom of freshness that in an instant transports me back to my Grandfathers greenhouse and the untold luxury of being able to eat as many tomatoes as you liked, but only one at a time. These are going to be my root-stock on the grounds that I hope they will provide the vigour as to scion, or top bit, I’m currently spoilt for choice.

However the important thing is to plant all your seed at the same time as you need to have similar girths. As to technique there are two possibilities which I will outline next week, one of which, and possible the easiest, requires some grafting clips which I am in the process of sourcing.

That only leaves me to add the comment that I received early in my gardening days, there’s no better dividend to the labour of weeding than to attack vigorously in the early moist soil of spring before the plants are fully awake, for even the deep rooted personalities tend to slide out without breaking their roots.

For more advice from Master Gardener Robert, why not visit his page.

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A different way to get an apple tree!

No, not from the shops or garden centre, or even from a seed (though growing from seed would be a voyage of discovery), with probably better odds than the national lottery of a commercially viable new variety, which could even be named after you. I’m thinking of cuttings, one of the easiest ways to achieve a new tree. Granted with a seed you only need to place it in a pot and cover with compost (although for best results a cold spell say 60 days in a bag in the fridge with some damp sandy grit would improve its chance of germination).

For a cutting look for good healthy shoots grown last season and when cutting aim to include just a little of the prior year’s growth. This basal cut should be below a bud, and use a sloping cut behind and away from the top bud. In terms of height aim for 6 to 9 inches and place the cutting in a gritty compost, out of direct sunlight and don’t let it dry out.

To improve your chance of success use horizontal branches or ones at a slight slope rather than upright shoots, it’s just that these take better. This process has an optimum time of the year in which it is likely to produce the best results, and guess what; February is the best month in which to carry it out.

It’s interesting to think that 200 years ago apples produced using this method were even said to be better than those produced by grafting. This though might have more to do with rootstocks having canker problems.

Apple Grafting

For more great growing tips from Robert, visit his home page

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I’ve been watching the apple buds like a hawk to see if there is any sign of them breaking their dormancy. It’s perhaps not the easiest thing to describe but you just get the feeling that there’s been a change, a slight swelling, the look of life, the bud no longer being so tight, but it doesn’t matter for although it’s been such a mild winter I don’t think the sap is moving. So sharpen those secateurs and take a bottle of white spirit and a cloth (disinfecting after cutting out a problem), for its the last chance saloon for apple pruning.

I’ve written about it before so check back with the previous articles.  In a nutshell first look for disease, go on the principal that if doesn’t look right cut it out, the tree will always grow back and a stitch in time can save nine as they say. Next look for crossing branches and any that are too close. A tree needs air and sunlight for the best fruit. Finally look for the shape that you require, and don’t forget a nicely weighted branch (string tied to stones in a bag) can often produce just the result you need, for its little point having a branch so high you can’t get at the fruit.

The other job which nicely falls in line, particularly as things are so advanced is rooting around in the mint bed to find some of those strong white runners with their little embryonic green buds that speak of the delights to come. Pot them in some rich garden compost, the larger the pot the better, and place them in a cold greenhouse to escape some of the worst of the weather. Don’t forget mint really does need moisture so don’t let them dry out! The pay back for this forward planning is going to be fresh mint with those new potatoes, not to mention that with an early Easter this needs to get off to a good start for Spring Lamb.

If you are a little bit adventurous, then that mint sauce can be given a boost by freshly chopped Garlic mustard, otherwise known as “Jack by the hedge”. If you are tempted to grow from seed then a little scarification (rub between two sheets of sandpaper) and stratification (a long spell in a fridge) certainly improves germination.

For more great growing tips from Robert, visit his home page.



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Spring into action!

Spring into action!

Hopefully the lengthening hours of daylight and the dusk territorial calls all indicate the possibility of a new growing season. What to do first, I’ll take it as read that garlic was left in the ground at the time of last year’s harvest to allow it to grow in it’s own good time, five or six inches should now be showing, and the other thing I’ll take for granted is that shallots went in on their traditional date the shortest day to be harvested on the longest day. If not then they are a good place to start to catch up.

The real subject is first early potatoes, firsts because they are quick and therefore beat some of the later season problems, but I grow them in large pots in the greenhouse as a first stage in recycling my compost heap to the garden. Why pots? Well I live in a frost pocket and even using a surround of secondary double glazing, with a patch work of canes on top to hold a covering of plastic sheets has not proved up to the job, and besides which as the season wears on there’s a tidy job to do in taking off and putting back, believe me pots in a cold greenhouse have their benefits.

There are an increasing number of new locations from which you can buy seed potatoes, and it could only just be me, but their price seems to becoming more competitive. The obvious place is a good seed catalogue like “organic gardening”, but you have to wait for delivery and for some, price as well as being able to see their purchase (lots of little ones please) prior to the decision is important, for these people Dereham market and the discount stores like Roys of Wroxham have their attractions.

What to look for, well “no bad ‘uns” as an old acquaintance used to put it, is a good place to start. As a general rule you want the eyes undeveloped so that they are not going to be damaged either in transit or getting out of the netting bag. This last part is why I always buy early, the other reason is to be able to chit the potatoes well before planting. This just involves placing them in a wide cardboard box in good light but not direct sunlight, so that the chits which develop are fat small and look like a plant to be, and not the eerie white laces that develop when potatoes are kept in the dark (they’ve expended too much effort in reaching for the light).

The rest is easy, very large pot with a few inches of garden compost, in goes the seed potato, a small covering of compost and watering. It’s now a case of topping up the pot each time they break the surface until you reach the top. Watch out for frosts, and cover with bubble wrap if danger lurks. Water well in dry weather, and bear in mind that they can only drink what you give them, so there is some more work.
Finally, when you start to crop at a good size withdraw the water to ensure that the plant withers sending down to the tubers every last drop of goodness; it also saves work in tidying up. At this stage I have mine outside to allow room for other things, so shade them from the rain.

For more great growing tips from Robert, visit his home page.

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Winter’s blast at last!

At long last winter seems to have arrived, albeit rather later than usual. This period of mild weather has had a major impact on plants, for in those warm balmy days around the December equinox my grass was still growing, not to mention raspberries in flower, or daffodils and primroses, but perhaps a bigger shock was having willows breaking buds, so much for January cutting (done as soon as I saw the buds break).

What does this all mean for the keen fruit and veg growers? Well the easiest part is that long established traditions and practices can no longer be relied on, for about the only thing you can say about the weather is that its pushing new highs or plunging new depths so long gone is any certainty, if it ever existed, about the best time to do things, so be adaptable and questioning.

Taking this year in particular the winter kill-off of pests is going to be compromised so watch out, and be more vigilant than ever. Clear out and clean your cold greenhouse.  Are those few plants acting as a source of survival for over-wintering pests, be they aphids or white fly?  I try to make sure that any little packets of orange fluff (spider’s nests) are left intact with attendant mum, you need all the help that’s available. Check for over wintering slugs and snails, usually found under pots or drip trays where it’s damp and frost free. Exploit this tendency by having a few well made set ups to catch them.

In more open ground remove weed cover if not already done, and mulch cleared ground with wet newspaper and cardboard ready for planting, but this also removes an overwintering food source and provides ideal grounds to control slugs and snails who happily lurk just beneath the cover waiting to be collected when the cover is lifted, but first and foremost ask yourself a simple question about the state of your ground after these heavy rains, will it do more harm creating a quagmire? There you are adapting to circumstances, and not following dogma.

Yes it’s as simple as that, now for those seed catalogues and a planting calendar. On this score perhaps this should be the year you consider planting by the lunar calendar. For if the moon creates tides that move all the water in oceans so what might it do at soil level to the moisture that’s available to seeds and growing seedlings? Could this give you an edge in growing to counter the variable weather?

For more seasonal growing tips from Master Gardener Robert, visit his home page.

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Sprucing up the Blueberries!

Sprucing up the Blueberries!

Blueberries could no doubt do with a little seasonal care, remove dead leaves, a source of infection if you haven’t done so already.

With most blueberries grown in pots it’s now an ideal time to check out their roots, is the plant pot bound? Consider some root pruning to reinvigorate and provide a fresh layer of new compost. Go for taking away about an inch all round roots and supply fresh compost.

Ask yourself whether a bigger pot would be a good investment, it will certainly prevent them falling over in the wind,  one of the commonest problems is expecting a plant to thrive if it hasn’t sufficient room. As a rule of thumb look at what’s above the ground so to speak, now the big question is can you match it below the ground?  The more space the better able the plant is to cope with temperature extremes and maintain the level of moisture it requires. On a much simpler level think of it like buying a school uniform “the child needs room to grow”.

Now for the bad news, no roots in sight and a lack luster crop of berries.  Is the compost waterlogged, or have those little garden friends (vine weevil grubs) been munching their way through, can you spot any creamy white bodies?  The easiest solution is biological control later on in the spring when the plants start to grow and again in the autumn.  The alternative involves a large water butt and gently shaking off, in water, all the compost to drown the blighters, but remember keep it slow so no air pockets develop.

Now for the seasonal tip, blueberries love a mulch to maintain moisture, it also saves you a watering job or two, not to mention the removal of competition from weeds. Many of the books highly rate pine needles as they add acidity and also recreate the conditions of the plants natural habitat. There’s only one problem, where do you get them from? I’ve not yet seen them for sale in a garden centre bag, and the alternative if you don’t have pine trees is bleak, but what about that arboreal character that was only recent decked with chocolates and lights not to mention decorations. Yes right in one, cut off all the branches, pile them on a tray and wait for the natural drying process to give you what you need, add a little newspaper underneath when mulching a plant to help spread them out further, but also great for tucking under round the rim to prevent those irritating weeds that pop through.

For more great growing tips, visit Robert’s home page.

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