July summer harvest

July is here and the month has begun with a welcome warm spell: perfect weather for Sue to get on with the summer harvest.

The big flower shows are great places to find inspiration and marvel over stunning plant combinations in well-ordered gardens, and it’s super to see that increasing numbers of designers are recognising the value of outside spaces that look beautiful and are friendly to wildlife too.

This year’s RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival featured several plots planted with native wild flowers, including the ‘Back to Nature’ feature garden co-designed by the Duchess of Cambridge. This beautiful space has been created to resemble an area of woodland in which children can play and be close to nature.

Elsewhere the mini garden features created by schools are often a highlight of Hampton Court. This year children were challenged to come up with insect hotels, resulting in a brilliant collection of ideas. I especially enjoyed a cat-shaped entry, and one shaped like a mushroom, both of which looked great while simultaneously performing a valuable function. I was also interested to see strawberries growing in a bale or straw in the ‘Dig In’ area – something I’m going to try with some of this year’s runners. The idea is to make holes in the bale, add some compost and then insert the plant. The straw will gradually rot down, providing moisture and nutrients, but I reckon its rough surface will help deter slugs too.

Insect hotel

Sue Bardley

In the pink

While ‘wild’ gardens are bang on trend at the moment, on the allotment the colourful poppies springing up among the vegetables appear to be mounting a takeover.

 These beautiful pink flowers look great with the blues of phacelia and borage and white blooms of ox-eye daisies, and their seed heads will be ideal for insects looking for places to hibernate and birds searching for winter food. Next year, however, I’ll try a little harder to limit them to the areas designated for flowers, even though they do look pretty among the broad beans and garlic.

Potato and strawberry beds

Sue Bradley

Pounds of potatoes

The sunny weather that followed a long spell of rain has had a dramatic effect on the plot, particularly the potato beds.

I’m particularly pleased with the spuds planted in builders’ bags that I filled with weeds last autumn. The idea is that the rotting debris provides tubers with moisture and nutrients, while the potato foliage deprives the weeds of light, preventing them from re-sprouting. Once the crop is harvested, I should be left with a large amount of compost to dig into the allotment, while the ground on which the bags have stood will be free of grass and weeds and available as a productive space next year.

Each season brings a new experiment and, given the lack of space at home, I’ve set up a temporary ‘greenhouse’ against the south-facing side of the shed so that I can grow some tomatoes.

So far they’re looking good, and if the weather stays fair they may even avoid the dreaded blight. The biggest challenge is to keep them watered, but this isn’t too much of a chore given all the plastic bottles of rainwater I was able to collect during the wet spell a fortnight ago.

Potatoes are thriving in builders' bags

Sue Bradley

Strawberry fields forever

The arrival of Wimbledon always makes me think of strawberries, and there’s no shortage of delicious red fruit in the raised beds on the allotment.

None of the supermarkets sells the sweet-tasting varieties I grow on my plot: ‘Marshmello’ and ‘Buddy’, two of chef Raymond Blanc’s favourites.

And while a few fruits have attracted the attentions of hungry slugs, the majority are free of holes and, having been ripened by the sun, taste fantastic.

Not to be outdone, the raspberry canes are also yielding well, something that I’m sure is linked to the generous layer of mulch they were given early in the spring. As a result moisture in the soil hasn’t evaporated in the sunshine and is instead being taken up by the roots of the raspberries to produce lovely plump fruit.

I’ve been picking broad beans and pulling carrots from their dustbin beds for a few weeks now: I really like both when they’re young and full of flavour and growing my own means I can control when harvesting takes place. I’m especially pleased to see that the broad beans are now clear of blackfly, no doubt thanks to the efforts of the ladybirds I saw on them

Growing strawberries

Sue Bradley

Plenty to do

Other jobs on my ‘to do’ list include pulling up onions and garlic – something I really should have done before now but avoided because it was too wet – and collecting spent vegetables, such as the rocket-like stands of chard, and chopping them up for the compost.

Fortunately the long evenings and warm weather means it’s possible to spend one or two hours up on the allotment after work, with a blackbird providing a tuneful soundtrack and, come dusk, bats flying around after insects like the beautiful red-winged Cinnabar moths that have grown from the stripy caterpillars I found demolishing groundsel on the allotment earlier in the year.

This year I haven’t seen any hedgehogs on the plot, but the sight of holes in some of the manure heaps that have been made to uncover worms reassure me of their presence. I’m pretty confident that there are plenty of slow worms and toads too, not least because I seem to be winning the battle against the slugs, even after all the rain we had a couple of weeks ago.

My allotment isn’t as tidy and well-ordered as most of the gardens I saw at Hampton Court; some might even go so far as to say that right now it’s in need of a fair bit of attention, but simply being able to leave my desk and spend time in the thick of the flowers, bees, insects and birds and return home with baskets of delicious fruit and vegetables is more than enough for me.

Mushroom insect hotel

Sue Bradley