Things we like for the allotment

The dream shed....

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

If I had even a smidgen of Cleve West’s artistic shed-building acumen, I would of course have built my own arty shed out of dreamy gnarled bits of foraged wood. However, not really knowing which end of a hammer is up, I had little choice but to venture to the ready-made and chose this rather bonny shed made by the clever people at Forest Garden. It is the 6×4 pressure treated Overlap Apex Shed with Lean To.

I adore my shed and having one is a real treat. You see in my pre-shed days, allotment visits were quite hard work as one was forced to transport vast quantities of tools and other paraphernalia. Not only heavy but damn near impossible when one hand is occupied with controlling a nutter dog on a lead. Not very conducive to efficient allotmenteering.

Sheds will always be quite an investment and, if you’re lucky, you may inherit one when taking on a plot. I couldn’t do without mine.

Keep them upright

Zinc Divided Flower Bucket by Sarah Raven

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

My ideal is to cut flowers on the plot every day, either mornings or afternoons. Thankfully my allotment is but a short walk away but that does pose a rather unique problem.

Every flower farmer will tell you that you need to cut flowers straight into water. That’s not usually an issue, but it is if you’re walking home: flowers wilt quickly, and are easily damaged. Some kind of bucket/vase/magic plant supporter is required. 

Sarah Raven to the rescue. Made from galvanised zinc with a sturdy wooden handle, I just love these buckets. So much so that, if you’re in the area, you may see me wandering to and from the allotment swinging my flower pail..

Available either, as a round 28cm heigh bucket, or shorter 23cm oval bucket. I use them both; the oval for shorter blooms, and the round for the (still too few) taller stems. Granted, not the cheapest at £34.95, but they do the job, look the part and should last a life time!

Olive oil magic

Black soap available from Nether Wallop Trading

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

It may sound barmy, but I have always considered olive oil a regal product. Very much in the same league as wine and bread. There’s something rather pure, basic and even spiritual about olive oil but perhaps that’s all rather too serious for my allotment goodies feature….

One can imagine my glee at the discovery of ‘Black Soap’. Made from olives it is bit like a soapy Tapenade. This has become indispensable both on the allotment, and at home. You can clean everything with it, and as a real bonus it also deters garden nasties such as aphids, greenfly, red spider mite, and mealy bugs.

The scent is distinctly ‘olive’, which may require getting used to but it’s a wonderful soap. Available from the good folks at Nether Wallop Trading and is available in a dishy 250ml tube, or 1 litre bottle, or even as Garden Spray.

Tools for tall gardeners

Fiskars Xact range

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Hallelujah! There’s a company out there that have realised that gardeners come in varying sizes! Granted, I may be on the far end of the spectrum at 6ft 3″, but you get my drift. Fiskars have produced a set of tools that have made me very happy.

I was initially suspicious of the Fiskars Xact range. After all, aesthetically speaking, metal will never match the beauty of wood but I have come to realise that this is not a beauty competition: it is all about getting a tool which is the right height & weight for you.

Gardeners, especially us tall ones, put our backs through a lot of strain: all that digging, lifting and hearty forking is not conducive to a pain free lumbar region.It was quite a revelation to find a tool which allows me to dig while standing upright rather than all bent over like a crumpled hairpin. What’s more they are really light which means that you can keep going for much longer in between cups of tea. Simply brilliant.

They are simple, sturdy and do as they say on the tin. My new go-to tools; the Fiskars Xact range are available at most good gardening centres. For more information, see the Fiskars website.

Floral literature

Guidance from the professionals

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Even though I do it on a very micro level, I consider myself an aspirational (subsistence) flower farmer. Take some lessons from the professionals. If you can, then go and visit a flower farm - I learned a lot from my visits to Withypitts dahlia farm in West Sussex, Sarah Raven’s Perch Hill and Common Farm flowers in Somerset.

If you would rather stay at home then there are some great books out there. These are some of my current favourites;

  1. Sarah Raven, The Cutting Garden: Growing and arranging garden flowers, Frances Lincoln, 1996. I have had this book since it was first published and it is my favourite. Superbly practical, plenty of expert advice and techniques and chock full of tried & tested recommendations.
  2. Vic Brotherson, ‘Vintage flowers: Choosing, arranging, displaying‘, Kyle Books, 2011. This book is basically visual candy which I use when in need of inspiration for arranging flowers. Beautifully styled and full of original ideas.
  3. Georgie Newbery, ‘The Flower farmer’s year: How to grow cut flowers for pleasure and profit‘, Green Books, 2014. Newbery’s oeuvre is a marvel. A true flower grower’s bible, filled with practical advice, hints & tips not only on how to grow your blooms, but also importantly to condition and finally to arrange.
  4. Louise Curley, ‘The Cut Flower Patch: Grow your own cut flowers all year round‘, Frances Lincoln, 2014.  Penned by a fellow blogger, Curley provides great personal insights, advice and guidance to growing your own cut flowers through the seasons. A super book, and an asset to anyone keen to have a go at growing their own blooms. Curley’s new book, ‘The Crafted Garden: Stylish Projects Inspired by Nature’, includes some lovely ideas for pressing, drying or preserving flowers. I now know what a floral fascinator is, if you don’t you’ll have to read her book…

Best kneelers

Kneelo kneelers by Burgon & Ball

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

He doesn’t wear gloves so I’d hazard a guess that Monty Don doesn’t require kneelers but I certainly do. Over the years, I have tried them all, but the Kneelo kneelers from Burgon & Ball are by far the best.

Stuffed with nifty memory foam, one’s knees are comfortably protected for long periods of time. Weeding my couch-grass infested allotment is made just that little bit easier with the right kit. Lightweight, practical and available in an array of colours, the Kneelo is, if I may risk a bad pun, the bees knees.

Also, available as knee pad- very handy indeed, especially when space is limited. Note to self - must leave wider gaps in between sowings….


Seed tray & pot tampers

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

For those of you handy with hammers, these tray tampers may seem an extravagance but for one who suffers from DIY allergies they’re just brilliant. I go through quite a few seed trays every spring, and these make the job that much easier.

The RHS and Waterperry are to blame for my tamper passion. Indeed. During my RHS courses at Waterperry Gardens, all students use the much venerated, wooden assortment of tools made by the ladies of Beatrix Havergal’s School of Horticulture. Seed trays, dibbers, tampers, rulers, they have them all. Good tools really do make a difference even if it’s just about tamping down soil in a seed tray.  I’m now programmed to do it ‘properly’ and I do like the look of an even layer of soil in a seed tray…

These tray tampers are available from the good people of the Nether Wallop Trading Company, and are available in two sizes. A small circular one, made from Yew wood is also available for small pots, and comes with handy Yew wood dibber.

To cool off, or to warm up

Snazzy travel mugs by Contigo

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Work on the plot is not for the faint hearted, particularly when you’re just starting out. Progress has been made, but I am still battling jurassic couch grass and serial weeds. A drink is therefore often in order to recoup, and I have found some rather nifty thermos travel mugs.

The Contigo range come with an awful lot of rather impressive technical blurb; ‘Autoseal’, ‘Snapseal’, ‘Thermolock’, much of which is beyond me but, importantly, they deliver what’s required. That’s keeping hot stuff hot, cold stuff cold and, as a bonus, they look rather snazzy.

A tea drinker I am not (terribly uncivilised I know) but I am very keen on Sarah Raven’s Rhubarb Cordial: a brilliant way to use up some of the forests of rhubarb we all grow. I like to mix it with a little lemon juice, ice, a few raspberries (frozen or fresh), and sparkling water.

Ever so fancy for sipping on the plot….

Horti homework....

Veg & fruit bedside reading

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to growing crops on your plot. I therefore gladly take advice from those who have gone before. These are some of my go-to staples;

  1. Mark Diacono, The New Kitchen Garden, Saltyard Books 2015. Don’t tell him, but Diacono is a rather talented sort. He’s responsible for occupying much space on my bookshelves. I love the New Kitchen Garden for too many reasons that I can list here, so I refer you to the full review on my blog.
  2. Cleve West, Our plot, Frances Lincoln, 2011. By far the best allotment book out there. Wonderfully written, providing great advice on the practicalities of allotmenteering but with an endearing personal touch. A true lover of soil and nature, this book will bring you down to earth. Literally.
  3. Mark Diacono, ‘A year at Otter Farm‘, Bloomsbury, 2014. Another super oeuvre by Mr Diacono on not just what to grow, but how to cook it. The man is not just a great gardener, a great photographer, but also a great writer. Filled with gardening and culinary inspiration, this book is must.
  4. Sarah Raven, ‘Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook‘, Bloomsbury, 2007. I love this book. Invaluable to both cooks, as its filled with brilliant recipes, and to gardeners as its filled with tips and advice on how to get the most out of your soil.
  5. Jekka McVicar, ‘Jekka’s Complete Herb Book‘, Kyle Cathie 2009. If you are interested in herbs, look no further than this the absolute herb bible. Jekka McVicar is a national treasure and guru of all things herbs. I simply love this book, and reading it I can’t help but feel humbled by McVicar’s extraordinary knowledge and fortunate that she decided to pour it all into this magnum opus.
  6. Monty Don, ‘The Complete Gardener‘, DK, 2009. Monty doesn’t do things by halves and this book is testament to that. The Complete Gardener has to be one of the best gardening books out there covering all the practicalities of gardening in great detail and absolute clarity.  I wouldn’t be without it.
  7. Carol Klein, ‘Grow your own veg‘, Octopus Publishing, 2007. Carol knows her stuff. ‘Grow your own veg’ is detailed, well written, concise and confident and I love it for that.

Nifty trugs

Elho Lizzy bag

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

These bags are probably perfect for shopping or for carrying spare bikinis and freshly laundered towels between beaches but I use them as trugs. They are big enough for weeds yet practical, light and easily carried.

Small enough to store in my little shed I really like them.They come in a variety of dishy colours - with hindsight I probably should not have chosen a white one as it is now a bit muddy!

The Elho Lizzy bags are available online from the usual suspects, but also from Harrod Horticultural for £14.95. For more information, I refer you to the funky people at Elho.

The Swiss army knife of scissors

Cuts+More Multi-purpose scissors

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Familiar orange handle, sturdy just like most Fiskars scissors but, and this is a big BUT, these scissors come apart! Indeed. No, I have not broken them it is all part of the cunning design.

The Cuts+More Multi-purpose scissors work beautifully as normal pair of scissors and wire cutters but, when apart, they are so much more: bbottle opener, power notch for light rope, pointed blade, sharpener, tape cutter and blade sheath. There, even more stuff than you ever thought you needed.

Available in good garden centres, or online in the usual places. For more information, see the Fiskars website.

And yes Mr Fiskars, I know that mine need a clean….

Harvest holdalls

Basket, trug & giant colander

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Now I realise that an old tattered plastic bag will do the job of carrying one’s harvest  just fine, but…. I suffer from a skippingly-romantic-Jane-Austen-long-live-the-costume-drama syndrome so I like to use suitably picturesque carriers. So there.

My three favourites;

  1. The superbly practical, Leather trimmed reed basket which reminds me of the ‘Kikapu baskets’ we used everyday when I lived in Kenya. Holds lots of veggies. I bought mine a year ago from the delightful Foodie bugle.
  2. A true Sussex Trug. There’s no denying, I do love a trug. Monty Don seems to have a whole array of them including some enviably large ones. Mine was a very kind gift from the talented Serena Fremantle - RHS Gold winning designer, responsible for the lovely 2015 RHS Chelsea ‘A Trugmaker’s garden‘.  Serena recommends Sarah Page at The Truggery.
  3. Giant colander. My mighty colander. It’s big. But then I’m tall so it all looks rather proportional. A great harvesting device, takes simply masses of veg and keeps it all beautifully. I bought mine years ago from Sarah Raven but, alas, they have now been discontinued. However, just type ‘giant colander’ into google and a whole array of stockists will appear.


Vases for your floral harvests

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

Daily flower harvests require vases. I love them and have far too many. Unfortunately  I am unable to provide source links as they’re antique, vintage and/or gifts, but here are a few places you may wish to look;

  1. The Foodie Bugle - The empire of the amazing Silvana de Soissons and her charming husband John-Paul. Silvana is a professional cook, writer and food stylist and has a shop in the heart of Bath showcasing artisan food, drink, homeware and - wait for it- vintage stuff. If you are nowhere near Bath then try their online shop.
  2. Sarah Raven - Ever so cunning, Sarah has always managed to source great finds, including vases. These Glass Troughs are brilliant for the dining table and to show case your homegrown flowers. I also love the Nero vase.
  3. LSA glass - distinctly modern but good quality glass. I find their suitably named ‘Flower’ range very useful, especially the ‘Grand Posey’ vase.
  4. Art in Action fair at Waterperry Gardens. One of the best art fairs in the country, showcasing about 400 artists, crafters, performers and musicians. Artists are carefully selected and can only exhibit for a few years, which means that every year there’s always new blood. My favourite exhibits include the ceramics and the glass markets. Art in Action 2016, will be held on the 14-17th of July at the lovely Waterperry gardens in Oxfordshire. Oh, and if you attend, you have to try one of the freshly made Belgian waffles as they’re utterly delightful and worth the inevitable queue.

For more vase inspiration, I refer you to the wise words of our editor Tiffany Daneff who has much more to say on the subject.

Biodegradable gloves

If you lose them, they're compost

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

The first round of digging through the allotment I can’t tell you how many old gloves I dug up. Quite a frightening object to find, bringing back nightmarish memories of that terrible film ‘The Hand’ starring Michael Caine.

Even though I consider myself quite careful with my own gloves the odd one does go missing from time to time. I was therefore quite pleased to find that Showa have made a fully biodegradable glove without sacrificing performance. Genius. According to Showa, if lost in the garden the Showa 4552 will biodegrade within 24 months. That gives you enough time to find them before it is too late.

For more information on the Showa 4552 I refer you to their website, or email Incidentally, for those jobs where disposable gloves are needed, they also produce biodegrable disposable gloves; Showa N-Dex 6105PF.

Grasping secateurs

Rose pruner by Burgon & Ball

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

No matter how well you’ve laid out your cutting patch, however accessible it may be, there’s always one flowering stem that is just out of reach. More often than not, the unwieldy ‘balance on one leg, stretch and cut’ motion will result in either flower or gardener landing prostrate in the mud. This may all be new to you, but it happens to me rather too often.

Burgon & Ball to the rescue. These secateurs are rather clever: made originally to keep hands clear from thorny roses the action of squeezing the blades together causes a gripping device to lock onto the stem holding it firmly in place until safely gathered in. Genius!

Available from most good gardening centres, or direct from the clever people at Burgon & Ball.

Nifty kits

Practical stuff made by Nether Wallop Trading

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

I’m a sucker for a box of practical goodies, The clever people at Nether Wallop Trading, have come up with several packages many of which I use on the plot.

I’m a fan of their amusingly named ‘Put Your Shed to Bed‘ set which contains all manner of sheddy goodies: sharpening stone, oil can with pump action, natural black soap, pack of pegs and a wooden scraper. Similarly, there is the Cut Flower Kit, pictured here which contains pruners, scissors, leaf stripper/de-thorner, a bundle of raffia and some copper wire.

In good company

The dogus - not for sale (even when he's farted...)

Words & Pictures: Petra Hoyer Millar

The discerning reader may classify this entry as a ‘filler’ but bear with me as there is some relevance.

My partner in crime, our dog, always comes with me when I’m heading to the plot. He’s great company though he despises anything remotely related to gardening as it all bores him silly. This labrador is sadly no Nigel, that’s for sure.

The shed is kitted out with several items to make monsieur more comfortable; a blanket, on which he never sits (preferring freshly dug earth or a bed of prized lettuces), a dog bowl for water, and best of all, a tin of dog biscuits. If it wasn’t for the latter, he’d never come with me. Annoyingly, he’s now become rather used to hitching lifts from fellow allotmenteers as he’s innately lazy and prefers being driven home rather than walking. So if you see a dog hitch hiking, that’s Dudley….

Despite all that, I am very grateful for his company, and allotmenteering wouldn’t be half as fun, or rewarding, without him.