Tag Archives: the modern gardener

Can daffodils ever be modern?

As I’ve mentioned before, daffodils aren’t my favourite flower. In fact, for me they really only belong in cottage gardens. They are cheery though, and zillions spring up in our garden every year. I religiously go around cutting them all, preferring them in a big arrangement in the house than peppering our garden.

This year I got to asking myself, can daffodils ever be modern? To meet that challenge I turned to one of my favourite flower arrangement books, Flowers By Design by Jeff Leatham, who arranges for the fabulous George V hotel in Paris.

I was very lucky to receive this signed copy from my dear friends Arabella and Kouky, and it provides me with regular inspiration. Here was the image I needed to get me excited about my daffodils:

And here is my interpretation below. Okay, so I may have cheated a little by not using fully opened daffs, but I think I have achieved my goal – they look smart and crisp, and I’m actually looking forward to seeing them open.


Window farms: allotments for city dwellers

I just caught wind of this brilliant new movement, started by a very cool chick in Brooklyn, New York. By combining recycled 1.5l water bottles, clay pellets, plastic tubing, a fish-tank air pump, and a dash of hydroponic know-how, this clever gal has developed a vertical window system for growing greens in the city. Watch her film here:

The project has become an international collaboration, and window farms are popping up in different and improved iterations across the globe. It looks like these farm ‘curtains’ will also soon be available to purchase off-the shelf, although there are clearly extra green points for using the recycled elements.

Loved seeing this modern micro-farming idea – very clever!

Winter flower arrangement: dried hydrangeas

When the garden is at it’s least showy, we need to get creative with flower arranging. I like winter, and I think it is important to find beauty in what is traditionally considered a bleak season. I like to celebrate the time that nature takes to shut down and have a rest, and that’s why I’m enjoying these brown, dried hydrangeas. Having survived outside through months of rain and snow, they have understandably faded from their vivid blue. Their delicate skeletons and frail anemic petals beautifully represent the end of nature’s last cycle.

I am not normally a fan of dried flowers, as they seem a close relative of those other dust-collecting ornaments, the silk flower. But in this case, I think the wintry look is right for the time of year, and will provide a fantastic contrast for when we can finally pick spring flowers.

The white vase is an Alvar Aalto design, produced by Iittala. The clear vase is actually a tumbler!

The last harvest of 2009

RB and I spent a solid day working in the garden today. Between sowing seeds, clearing beds and pruning back bushes, we’ve been busy!

We pulled up the last of our leeks this morning, the last of our 2009 vegetable garden. It is amazing to think that we planted these guys nearly a year ago – they are extremely tolerant considering this is the coldest winter we’ve had in the UK in over 30 years. These leeks are the ‘Meziers‘ variety, so they are long and thin. For 2010 we are going to try a fatter variety, although we may not be enjoying them as long as we did these.

It is zero degrees here, so we decided to make a leek and potato soup to warm us up when we came in around sunset. It is so easy to make, and really warming. Some crusty homemade bread and a small pile of crunchy toasted chorizo on top gave it an extra kick and turned the modest soup into a treat.

Pruning a mature apple or pear tree

Pruning our mature and neglected pear tree has been on the to do list for ages. Having done a bit of research, we decided now is the time.

I stumbled upon a super fact sheet created by the Ohio State University Extension programme – they allow their material to be copied given appropriate credit. And credit is indeed due! I paraphrase their suggestions here.

—    A good fruit tree should not make a good shade tree!
—    Prune late in the dormant season to minimize cold injury.
—    Prune heavily on neglected/vigorous trees, less so on less vigorous cultivars.
—    Make all heading back cuts just beyond a bud or branch.
—    Make all thinning cuts just beyond the base of the branch being removed.
—    Avoid pruning too close (See Figure 1.)
—    Don’t prune a “shade tree” back to a fruit tree in one year. Do it over a few.
—    Wound dressings are unnecessary for trees pruned in dormant season.
—    Match pruning tools to the size wood being removed. Shears for twigs, loppers for branches, and a saw for larger limbs.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 1. Flesh cuts heal slowly; so leave the collar.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 2. Pictured from above, space scaffold branches to allow access.

How to prune a mature apple or pear tree

Figure 3. The suggested pruning cuts.

And finally they add: backyard trees are rarely over-pruned, but inexperienced growers often procrastinate on pruning for fear of damaging trees. ‘Topping’ or shearing a fruit tree is about the worst thing that can be done, but even that may result in better fruit for a year or two. Ultimately shearing will produce a dense crown that inhibits access for sunlight, sprays, and harvest, and invites weak structure and breakage. As long as pruning cuts are made to remove, head back, or thin as the examples illustrated and discussed, no nightmares are necessary. Don’t use hedge shears. ‘Just do it.’

And with those final words of encouragement, we went for it. Here is the tree first thing in the morning:

Pruning mature pear tree - before and after

And here is the result, a bit obscured by the trees in background.

Pruning mature pear tree - before and after

And now to tidy up the mess we’ve made.

The economics of vegetable gardening

Last June, when our first Strawberries were picked, I decided I would keep track of our vegetable patch’s productivity, much like a business does. As an economist and entrepreneur it made perfect sense to question the cost/benefit of money invested versus lovely organic produce generated. Rather geeky, I know!

There are so many variables and everyone’s patch is different, so this case study is not making any universal statements – it only applies to The Modern Gardener vegetable patch and our approach. After all, some people don’t have tools when they start out, others don’t bother with raised beds,  and some stick vegetables between flowers and in window baskets – all of which would certainly affect ‘profitability’ (where profit basically = value of vegetables out of the ground minus money handed over to the seed and soil merchant).

On the other hand, time is money too, so many of you may argue that the countless hours spent sowing, watering, weeding and harvesting must also be calculated as an ‘opportunity cost’ (the value lost when you could have been doing something more lucrative). This would in turn require that we calculate the mental and physical health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and in my case having quality time with my husband. And finally, we get car loads of free well-rotted manure from a farm down the road – how to account for that?

I have decided instead on a very simple model of separating out the CAPEX (capital expenditure – the initial investment outlay in, say, timber and pots), and directly comparing OPEX (operational expenditure, basically seeds and soil/food) against the value of the produce. Value of produce was calculated using the Waitrose organic price at the time of picking. We use Ocado to deliver our shopping as we both work, so although we could have found a cheaper price it made sense for our purposes to use them for the value comparison.

Here are the results in short:

Capex                                    £189
Opex                                        £89
Revenue                                £293
Gross profit 2009        £204

So in 2009 The Modern Gardener vegetable patch made a profit and paid off our initial outlay. In 2010, we expect to be a in the money by a long way!

My other observations are to do with best value, so if you only grow one thing make it either courgettes, runner beans, parsnips or tomatoes (avoiding the last if you’re short on time). On the flip side we learned that potatoes have a negative return if you don’t take the time to earth up for a larger crop.

All in all it’s an interesting, fast and easy bit of information to compile that I am going to repeat year after year to see how our patch ‘performs’ over time. But it’s a far cry from the perfect study – the spreadsheet certainly doesn’t tell you how good those carrots were fresh out of the ground and therefore their incalculably high value to us!

Harvesting sweet corn

Sweet corn brings back California for me, with barbecues and Mexican food being two of my favourite culinary categories. I really wasn’t confident about the prospect of getting cobs in Southeast England, but it has been with great pleasure that we have harvested 7 this weekend.

You know to start thinking about harvesting sweet corn when the silks (the hairy tassels at the top of the cob) start to brown. Sweet corn should be picked in the ‘milk stage’, when a milky liquid is drawn from pressing a fingernail into a kernel. If the liquid is watery, it’s too early, and if doughy, it’s too late. Be sure to pull the husk down sufficiently when testing, as the tips of the cob are most immature and can deceive you into thinking they’re not ready.


There’s not much magic to harvesting sweet corn: just hold the stalk with one hand, hold the ear at the base with the other. Twist the ear firmly downward, like turning a door handle. Sweet corn starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it’s picked so it’s best to harvest when you know you can eat it, otherwise refrigerate.


For lunch we rustled up a simple dish using corn, onions and green bell peppers from our garden with a bit of Spanish chorizo. We sweated the onions and then fried up the rest of the ingredients – it was wonderful!


Mountain out of a mole hill

Drat. We have worked hard on getting our lawn looking good. We have delighted at the vast population of earthworms we benefit from. Nice lawn + earthworms = heaven for moles. Our neighbour says a shotgun is the only way, I think we’re happier using the phone book and calling someone in.