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George says: grow chard

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The name “chard” comes from the Latin “carduus” meaning thistle (as in cardoon, for example). Like cardoon, chard has thick edible ribs to its leaves and the Romans, who grew both for their stalks, called the two plants by the same name, thus setting up centuries of confusion.In fact, they are not even members of the same plant family. Just to perplex you further, chard is also sometimes known as Swiss chard, but no, that doesn’t mean it comes from Switzerland. And it is sometimes known as sea kale, or silver kale, but it's not kale either (kale is a brassica). We have to look at the botanical name,Beta vulgaris subsp vulgaris, to see that chard is actually related to beet, along with quinoa (who knew?) and spinach. Does that mean it produces an edible root? Sorry, no. Whatever you call it, however, it’s worth growing, both for its nutritious leaves and its colourful stems. There’s nothing quite as cheering as the brilliant stalks of Chard ‘Bright Lights’ illuminated by a low autumn…

George says: all hail the kale

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If the months of lockdown have inspired you to start growing your own, you may be thinking about continuing through the winter. Kale has become a staple of British winter cooking, but it is also an incredibly attractive plant, especially the variety known as cavolo nero (“black kale”), or Tuscan kale. Its bobbly black leaves and stiff stalks give it an architectural quality and provide a lovely textural contrast in the veg patch or even in a mixed border. According to Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds, the British were responsible for reintroducing cavolo nero to Tuscany. It had dropped out of favour with the Iocals, but when British ex-pats started buying up property in Tuscany, they brought it with them, thinking they were growing something authentically Italian.  I’m going to put in a barefaced plug for Franchi, because I love the idea that their company has been in the same family since 1783, and that they supply mainly smallholders and allotmenteers. I also love their big seed packets –…

George says: alliums, who'll buy my alliums?

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As George explains below, the Dutch growers Warmenhoven, founded in 1885, have done a huge amount to popularise alliums as garden plants. My daughter and I were at the RHS Tatton Park show a couple of years ago and we were amazed and thrilled by their spectacular exhibit, which featured alliums every which way – even hanging from girders (above).

The Warmenhoven display was part of a special exhibit organised by the RHS to celebrate master growers, and it was huge, featuring all the bulbs they grow. It also included a fascinating series of photographs illustrating the history of the company. 

We all have our favourite alliums, and while I tend to be loyal to ‘Purple Sensation’, I was amused by the dark red ‘Mohican’ alliums featured on the Warmenhoven stand (above) which have a little Mohican-style tuft on the top of the flower. If you want to see spectacular alliums closer to home, the walled garden at Buscot Park near Faringdon (below) has a wonderful display.

One thing that puzzles me …

George says: grow chrysanthemums

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I associate chrysanthemums with autumn, and their distinctive scent seems to evoke memories of bonfires and my birthday, which is in October. At the beginning of the wartime best-seller Mrs Miniver, it describes her coming away from the flower stall with a “big sheaf of chrysanthemums”. She has bought the big mop-headed ones, which I love too. I can remember my mother buying big bunches of these chrysanthemums when I was a child, but these days, the prices have rocketed, compared to spray chrysanths. If you are lucky enough to have visited New England in the fall, you will have seen pumpkins and chrysanthemums decorating white clapboard houses for Halloween. All the garden centres there are full of them in autumn – huge great pots of yellow, orange, burgundy, purple and pink. But as George says, they don’t have to be an autumn event – you can grow them year-round.



There are chrysanthemums for all seasons. They come in many colours and have different characteristics; they are good for cut …

George says: pass the sugar, it's blackcurrant time

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I know two things about blackcurrants. One is that they are full of Vitamin C (four times as much as orange juice) and anti-oxidants (twice as much as blueberries).  I think my mother, who has always been a fan of alternative medicine, must have known about the Vitamin C, because when I was a child, the only jam we ever ate was blackcurrant jam, and the only soft drink we were allowed was Ribena, diluted to a pale pink. The second thing is that, unlike oranges and blueberries, blackcurrants are difficult to buy in the shops. Ninety per cent of the British blackcurrant harvest goes to Ribena, and this guaranteed market is a lifeline for growers, because the fruit is difficult and expensive to grow commercially.  According to the Blackcurrant Foundation, it takes three years for blackcurrant bushes to produce and another six before producers break even. The crop is weather-sensitive – a late frost creates havoc, windy weather can rip off the berries, and sunshine is needed to ripen them. Co…

George says: grow mouth-watering raspberries

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Whenever anyone mentions pruning alternate canes or stems, my brain tends to seize up in the way that it does if someone says “maths” or “physics”. For this reason, I have never grown soft fruit, despite my late husband’s liking for raspberries. Given half a chance, he would have turned our whole garden in London into a huge fruit cage to grow raspberries, and being a patriotic Scot, he favoured the varieties bred in Scotland by the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, now the James Hutton Institute. For decades, long before we had year-round raspberries from Morocco and Spain, Scottish raspberries were reputed to be the best in the world. You can tell which is a Scottish-bred raspberry variety, because their names all start with “Glen” – ‘Glen Ample’, ‘Glen Lyon’, ‘Glen Clova’ and so on. 'Glen Mor', pictured above left, is one of the newest to come on the market. None of your Sassenach Malling rubbish for us, thank you very much! (Only joking – there’s nothing wrong with the Mallin…

George says: gild (or rather grow) the lily

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I'm fairly laid back about insects in the garden. I keep honeybees, so I don't like using bug sprays. But if there is one critter that brings out any kind of murderous instinct in me, it is the lily beetle.
These bright scarlet pests lay their eggs on lilies, cardiocrinums and fritillaries (all members of the lily family), and not only do the larvae eat the leaves but they live in lumps of their own excrement. So not only do you have a defoliated plant, but one that is covered in poo.
Lily beetles are easy to spot, but difficult to catch. They have a habit of turning upside down, or even dropping to the earth, the minute you try to lay a finger on them. Best time to catch the little b****** is when they are mating, because they are too busy concentrating on what they are doing to perform the upside down trick. (Well, wouldn't you be?)
I agree with Monty Don that the best way to control lily beetle is with a nice hard thumbnail, which you deploy in a combination of squish …