Glam it up

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Tulips do pretty well on the glamour front – the smouldering exotica of ‘Abu Hassan’, perhaps, or the Marilyn Monroe waisted ‘White Triumphator’. Bearded irises and lilies are pretty showy, too. But lovely as they are, they’re just the supporting act.

For true, jaw-dropping showmanship, the kind of look-at-me A-lister screen goddess you just can’t ignore, it’s autumn flowering bulbs every time.

Think explosions of lipstick pink from Nerine x bowdenii erupting from a sun-baked spot by a wall, towering South African Crinum x powellii pulsing with perfume, and seductive naked ladies (Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’) sending up come-hither goblets of purest white.

Then there’s cherry-pink Amaryllis belladonna, whose flower stems rise like magic from bare ground, or rivers of butter-yellow Sternbergia dripping down rockeries, or the swept-back elegance of Cyclamen hederifolium peeking from the skirts of long-spent shrubs. Plant now for autumn colour to out-glam Hollywood.

Seedy harvests

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Edible flowers? So last year, darling.These days it’s all about seeds.

I grew my first edible seeds by accident, when my coriander bolted and I realised I had a packet of seeds just like that among my curry spices. I’ve never had to buy any since: coriander seed is amazingly generous.

Fennel seed pulled from the plant by the handful makes an aniseedy breath-freshener to chew after meals. Caraway seeds infuse bread with a unique, smoky flavour, while dill seeds make great pickle infusions.

Poppy seeds can produce disconcerting effects if you eat the wrong kind, so choose carefully. Blue breadseed poppy or Papaver paeoniflorum types are the ones for cooking.

Harvesting couldn’t be easier: collect the seeds into a paper bag once they turn brown on the plant, then clean off any chaff and store somewhere cool and dry till you’re ready to eat.

Discover your inner Eastern European

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Anyone who’s read Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian knows the importance of a well-stocked stores shelf. It’s about security, and knowing that whatever happens, you’ll always have a jar of chutney.

I think I may have been Ukrainian in a former life. Just lately, after our one-and-a-half freezers tipped from comfortably full to avalanche risk on opening, I’ve rediscovered bottling.

Carol Wilson, author of a brilliant little book called Self-Sufficiency Preserving, tells me a competition run by Napoleon Bonaparte prompted the invention of bottling fruit. Plums, raspberries, pears, and tomatoes: if it’s fruit, you can bottle it.

Basically, you pack your fruit into Kilner jars with water or syrup, then heat slowly till they reach fixed temperatures. For details, go to Carol’s book or Pam ‘The Jam’ Corbin’s River Cottage book. Line your kitchen with jars, and you’ll know that come the apocalypse, nothing can touch you.

Winter salads

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

If I might be permitted to be a teensy bit smug here, I haven’t bought a bag of salad for over a year. And we’re big salad-eaters.

That’s because, for the first time ever, I got the timing right on my winter salads. This requires remembering to do things at the right time, and not getting caught out by the weather: either, in my garden, is a gamble.

Two sowings in mid and late summer insure against warm autumns speeding up seedlings till they bolt early, or cold ones slowing them so much they’re still spindly when winter proper kicks in.

I went for a mixture of winter lettuces (‘Valdor’ and ‘Rouge d’Hiver’) plus winter salad mixes and mizuna. Transplant as 10cm hefty-ish youngsters outside under cloches or to follow greenhouse toms. You get a surprisingly long harvest: mine were still going strong when I evicted them in March.

The Hampton Court Hack

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

The mischievously subversive Helen Yemm, agony aunt to Torygraph gardenistas, told me about this – it’s her version of the Chelsea Chop.

It’s carried out a whole month later, in July, and is a great way of sprucing up the garden, giving early-flowerers a second wind and sending your garden into the late-summer doldrums re-energised.

Philadelphus and helianthemums are first for the hack: they’re liable to grow gawky and lank if left to their own devices, but puff up cushions of fresh new leaves when cut back now. Hack ’em back and geraniums have a second flush of colour, Alchemilla mollis reverts to apple-green and winsome in the rain, and pansies and violas are so outraged they erupt with flowers in protest.

Spent euphorbia flowers, tatty irises, thuggish astrantias, sawfly-shredded Solomon’s seal: cart them off to the compost heap. Your garden will never have looked so good in late summer.

Off with their heads

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

I’m not very good at wafty gardening. By which I mean the kind ladies do in BBC costume dramas: it involves wafting about a garden, leaning gracefully over rose bushes to snip off a spent flower. You have to wear a frock, too, which counts me so totally out.

But I should do more of it. It’s a lovely excuse for spending summer evenings among your plants when you don’t feel much like gardening of the back-breaking, muddy sort but still want to be outside. Gardeners, of course, are genetically unable to sit still, so dead-heading is a good halfway house.

Roses need it most, but you can dead-head anything tatty, from delphiniums to dahlias. You end up pruning lightly: follow the stem from spent flower to the next leaf junction to make your cut. This encourages lots of little side-buds – so you’re guaranteeing more flowers to come, too.

Go on a creepy-crawly hunt

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

I have a secret weapon when it comes to dealing with garden pests. Or rather, two: one is 13 years old, the other is 11, they’ve developed a serious Haribo habit, and they need funds.

My current per-slug rate is 10p, though it’s getting expensive: all it takes is one damp plank and I’m £5 down.

I could just put them on lily beetle duty. These are easy to spot, being bright red, but difficult to catch as they chuck themselves off the lilies at the slightest touch, flipping over to show their much-less-visible black tummies.

You can adapt this to any unwanted pest as long as it’s large-ish and easily identifiable. Shiny green rosemary beetles, black-and-tan asparagus beetles, wriggly green cabbage white caterpillars: child-power keeps them all at bay. It’s organic, keeps the kids occupied, and you get to do whatever you want instead. Worth every penny.

Mow your meadow

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

In the great lawn debate, I’m with Carol Klein. She used a speech at the Hay Festival a couple of years ago to urge people to ditch the grassy sward for something more interesting instead.

I hate mowing with a passion. Plus lawns are biodiversity deserts. I’ve done for two lawns since I got here: one went for vegetable garden, the other for cut flowers. Now the third (and largest) is in my sights.

I have in mind a damp meadow thick with meadowsweet and ragged robin, buttercups and geums. I might mow a path through, but otherwise it’s a once-a-year job. When the flowers have set seed in late summer, I shall hack the whole lot down, let it dry for a few days to release the seed, then rake it off to let the new growth through next year. Now that’s my kind of lawn.

Plant Christmas roasties

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

We gardeners like a challenge. Good thing too, what with slugs and the weather and the inverse ratio between a supporting structure’s complexity and its ability to stay up.

One of the Everests of the grow-your own year is putting a home-grown Christmas lunch on the table. Sprouts, carrots and parsnips are a doddle, but spuds need cunning. You can, of course, just use maincrops stored earlier: but where’s the fun in that?

Normal seed potatoes have long disappeared from catalogues, so you need ‘second cropping’ varieties – tubers kept in cold storage so they don’t sprout at the usual time. ‘Carlingford’ is the classic choice, but nowadays you’ll also find melt-in-the-mouth ‘Charlotte’ and stalwarts like ‘Maris Peer’ too.

Grow in dustbins, earthing up as you go, and keep scrupulously frost free: bring indoors if it gets really cold. Start in late August for plump tubers by Christmas Day.

Whip fruit into shape

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Training fruit is where gardening becomes art. You’re sculpting a living thing, turning an unpromising twig into a beautiful fan, or espalier, or cordon. Plus you can really pack fruit into the tiniest of spaces.

Cordons are easiest: essentially, you’re growing fruit on single stems. Cram them in at just 60cm apart – that’s four varieties of apple, gooseberry, redcurrant or pear within an eight-foot stretch.

Summer pruning cordons is a lovely, relaxing sort of job, the type you can do with a glass of Prosecco in the other hand. Just snip back sideshoots to three leaves if they come off the main stem, or one leaf if they’ve grown from previously pruned-back sideshoots. And that’s it.

Stepovers are really just horizontal cordons, so treated in much the same way. Fans and espaliers are a teensy bit more intricate: the RHS’s weighty Pruning and Training guide has forensically detailed pictures.

Plant green manures

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Now, if we were all good gardeners there would never be an inch of bare soil. We’d have sown dwarf French beans at the perfect time, so they could follow the new potatoes, and we’d be industriously planting out chard youngsters the moment the broad beans come out.

Yeah, right. Unfortunately life gets in the way of the best-laid plans, so the likelihood is there will be some major gaps opening up by now.

Rather than let weeds move in, sow green manures – fast-growing plants which improve your soil, from breaking up claggy clay (deep-rooted fenugreek) to drawing nitrogen from the air (winter tares).

Broadcast-sow the seed, keep it watered till it’s germinated, and that’s it. Shear off the top growth for the compost heap a month before you need the space again, then dig in the roots to rot, releasing nitrogen to feed the veg that follow.

Bake your pumpkins

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Pumpkins always remind me a bit of big fat orange Buddhas, tummies swelling in a self-satisfied sort of way as they sit in the shade of a big broad green leaf. You can almost see the beatific smile.

Getting seriously fat requires dedication, though, so feed, feed, and feed again. Liquid seaweed, comfrey tea, manure: doesn’t really matter. Cram it in. That leaf has to go, too: pumpkins sunbathe for months to turn that orange. Difficult in the UK, I grant you, but I snip away overshadowing leaves anyway. Well-ripened pumpkins store better, too.

And get them off the ground away from slugs and damp before they require two strong men for lifting (or a fork-lift truck, if you’re record-holder Ron Wallace of Rhode Island USA and his monster 2,009 lbs pumpkin – that’s just shy of a tonne). Bricks will do, or if you’ve got a record-breaker, a pallet.

Race your runners

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

There comes a point in your veg-growing year when your arrival at the dinner table with the night’s lovingly home-grown repast is greeted with howls of anguish, along the lines of ‘not runner beans again, Mum!’

Do not be dismayed. We all get to the point where the generosity of our veg patch outstrips our ability to be thrilled by bypassing the fresh veg section of the supermarket for the third month in a row.

And above all, don’t stop picking. Runner beans, French beans, peas and courgettes all grind to a halt if you leave them too long, thinking they’ve done their job by producing seed so can go to sleep and not bother any more.

Collect the harvest every two to three days, though, and they’ll keep going till the first frosts. Come October, when everyone else is back resignedly pushing supermarket trolleys, you’ll be glad you did.

Flowers everlasting

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

There is a shed behind the glasshouses in the glorious kitchen garden at Knightshayes in Devon where they dry basket loads of flowers. It’s a wonderland of delicate, starry petals in sepia shades of ivory, dusty pink, bronzed orange and the occasional powder yellow.

They’re hung upside-down in bunches from canes hung from ceiling hooks: you must dry flowers slowly, or they lose colour and texture, so forget the airing cupboard and find a spot with a through draught that’s cool, dry and shady.

Try Anaphalis, with tiny pearly-white flowers each with a purple eye; Helichrysum bracteatum and statice in every shade from pink to coppery brown. All hold colour and shape to perfection on drying.

Knightshayes adds the huge fat silvery pompom flowers of elephant garlic; brilliant orange spidery crocosmia flowers and ivory necklaces of Greek cress flowers. Arrange in exuberant tumbling excess and enjoy for months to come.

String 'em up

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Rule no. 1 of the Domestic Goddess Handbook: in your kitchen must hang at least one charming string of onions, suspended from hooks, preferably attached to a 16th century beam.

Luckily for your goddess credentials, this is dead easy (apart from the beam bit): all you need is a row of onions and a bit of string.

Dry your onions for a fortnight, then trim off roots plus all but around 15cm of stem. Then make a loop of string around 1m long.

Pull an onion tight into the loop and weave the stem in and out of the string in an ‘S’ shape. Repeat with each onion, working upwards so the weight of each onion holds the one below in place.

Et voilà: the perfect rustic touch for your kitchen, plus home-grown onions for months. Eat your heart out, Nigella Lawson.

Herbal tease

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Having ‘a few’ herbs is the gardening equivalent of half a bottle of Moet et Chandon. Something that special needs quantity, excess, indulgence: magnums not glasses, and great generous swathes, not mingy little clumps in corners.

So plant your herbs with abandon, in drifts and waterfalls – the kind of quantities for cutting carpets of rosemary for your roast lamb to rest on, or fragrant, home-made mint teas every evening when you get in from work.

Trouble is, that’s serious outlay.

No matter: just grab the secateurs and start multiplying. Poke young, flower-free shoots of shrubby thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena and French tarragon into gritty compost for new plants for free within six weeks. Or – even easier – dig up clumpy herbs like mint, marjoram and chives and tease apart into smaller plants. Check the invasive tendencies of mint by restricting them to pots buried to their necks.

Cheat's cuttings (half-ripe/Irishmen's cuttings)

Words & Pictures: Sally Nex

Jokes about Irishmen are frowned upon nowadays, and quite right too. But you’ll have to excuse me as I’m about to venture out of politically correct acceptability and talk about Irishman’s cuttings.

These are so named because even the most black-thumbed of gardeners can take them and be reasonably assured of success. Perhaps we’d better revert to the technical term and call them basal cuttings, before I get cross letters from hordes of exceptionally talented Ireland-based gardeners.

Some plants, you see, produce shoots towards the base of the plant which have a few roots attached already, before they’ve even left the parent. Phygelius (cape figwort), violas, artemisias, chrysanthemums… all, and more, can be propagated this way.

Identify your shoot, scrape the soil away and detach with a few roots attached. Pot it up, water in and it’s almost guaranteed to sprout – no further mollycoddling required.