Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Challenge hapless

Dear readers,

In the past couple of days I've been asked to help two people out with two very different challenges. Now, I admire my friend Fraser and the brave @FrenchCathy for approaching me for gardening advice - I can only assume they have more faith in me than I have in myself.

However, rather than risk ruining their changes for a summer full of juicy fruit and hearty veg, I thought it best to pass on the challenge to you. These really are ones for the experts, requiring speed of thought and instant ideas to tackle two very different pressures.

Let me introduce them


The boy has a bit of time on his hands, and with the sun shining has been let loose in the garden. Here's what he asked:

Dear hapless,

On a lovely day, I  decided to dig a new veg patch, alongside a current one. It's seven paces long, and two paces wide.

It has been just grass for at least the previous five years, but has quite a crumbly texture soil once the turf has been removed.

I've no idea how notorious the soil is, and realise its fairly late in the year, especially as I have no plan what to do with it.

Quite keen on having stuff for the stewing pot.

So, what should Fraser plant, recognising he has itchy fingers and we probably only have sun for one more day..?

@French Cathy

A rather different challenge, somewhat urgent!

Argh!! Need help! Got a great white currant bush but dreaded GREEN caterpillar are munching away!! Any tips??

I would say "squish" but I appreciate that is probably not going to solve matters. Slugs and snails I understand, but caterpillars are a new beast to me. Are there any pest experts out there?

Get cracking with your comments or tweets and hopefully we'll have two very happy gardeners, along with a rather nervous BBC Radio 4. It's about time Gardener's Question Time faced a young upstart!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A little treat

Sometimes, I get so caught up in growing veg, I forget about the end product and the hypnotic pleasure of eating what you grow.

As regulars will know, raspberries are a favourite of mine, and one of my few successes.  I did a lot of things with them last year. I ate them fresh, I dunked them into my porridge, I made raspberry and mint ice cubes after a tip from my friend Kate, I put them in a cake, and on a cake. And I froze a load, just as they were.

I'd forgotten all about the frozen gems until today, with almost bare freezer I saw them nestling at the back. So I said to myself, it's time to let them shine.

Nothing complicated but something luxurious to mark the first day of summer. Pancakes, ice cream and blitzed raspberries (with a bit of sugar). Heaven.

If only I hadn't I burnt myself on the pan.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Location location location

When planning your garden, keep soft fruit away from where the birds, um, sit.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Sting in the tale

'Every picture tells a story' goes the phrase uttered by people like me too lazy to come up with their own lines.

We all have stories about stinging nettles, and we all have views on dock leaves - friend or fraud?

When I was a young cub scout there was an annual camping trip where we were free to run about and explore the grounds. Yes you could earn your badge learning to cook, map read or make a fire. But to truly earn your stripes you had to run through 'Stinging Nettle Valley'. In shorts.

So when Jay at Hedgehog Gardens (@gardensinfo) offered me the following rogue I knew exactly where she was coming from. A fear ingrained from childhood:

Here you can see them like media wolves at a celebrity's door, howling over Jay's young veg bed, scenting the opportunity to scoop.

Admirably Jay wrote "Whilst I appreciate their use for nettle tonic and their attractiveness to wildlife there is only so much nettle soup one woman can bear! If I get many more stings whilst trying to keep them out of my veggies they'll be able to hear my screams in Scotland!!!"

Yet this photograph, for me, perfectly captures the battle between the weak and the strong, and the role us gardeners play in choosing who to protect and who to cut down; the battle between good and evil, which ultimately is at the heart of any good story.

Thank you Jay for this most appropriate of rogues. If anyone else has a rogue they wish to nominate for the Rogues Gallery, the drop me an email, or tweet @haplessgardener. And remember, I'm looking for a photo that captures an unseen beautiful side of the rogue, or indeed as above artistically shows them in their most menacing light.

For more rogues head over to the Gallery

Friday, 18 May 2012

Guest Post: YIKES by Sarah Coomer (@ChantsCottage)


I don't think there's a single real word that sums up the emotion I'm going to write about. None quite hit the nail on the head as well as the exclamation of consternation so beloved of Dennis the Menace and chums. It is a kind of fear, but it's not completely negative. There's a kind of adrenaline surge whenever I think about just what I've let myself in for. I begin to breath a little faster, a lump comes to my throat and I think “I'm really not sure I'm cut out for this”. But, no, dear reader, I am not about to chuck myself off Victoria Falls in a brandy barrel (though I may keep the idea in reserve for when it really goes pear-shaped). This is a gardening blog, not an Edwardian upper-class extreme sports blog (though if you or any of your friends write one of those do let me know). The white knuckle ride of which I speak is creating a kitchen garden... 

Last year we lived in a very nice end of terrace house with barely a garden of any kind. I took it upon myself, pretty much out of the blue, to fill our tiny back yard with pots and containers and plant them with salads and vegetables and herbs and a few companion flowers. I'd never done any gardening before but I was completely hooked by this form of alchemy – you put a bit of a plant in some mud, wait a bit and lo – amazing fresh vegetables and usually a jolly nice plant to look at by way of a bonus. (Not MANY vegetables, admittedly but that's what comes of cramming everything in like so many John Malkoviches in the restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich.) 

So when we moved, the one thing I knew we would have to have was room for a proper vegetable garden. And now I have that vegetable garden, sort of. And now it's Spring. And everything's getting a little bit scary. I've dug six beds, made two lasagne beds and have one hugel kulture bed (which is a kind of natural raised bed made from rotting stuff around a 'frame' of big branches). I went a bit overboard on the seed buying and sewing front, and now have enough seedlings to fill the beds about sixty four times over. And I can't possibly just get rid of them. And because I was very impatient and sowed them all about six weeks before I should have done, the seedlings themselves are bursting out of the sides of the trays or, for the lucky ones, pots they are in.

Last night I was repotting limp courgette plants until it got dark after I found that there was virtually no compost left beneath the surface of their pots. I felt like reporting myself to the RSPCC (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Cucurbits). I'd planted too many too early and now they're dying because they have nowhere to go. It's not very warm and it's blowing a gale so I don't feel inclined to wing it and plant them out. When I do plant them out it will be in the bed I had earmarked for my asparagus bed. Because I've never got round to sorting out the asparagus because I couldn't decide on whether to plant seeds or crowns, get posh expensive ones or risk the cheap ones because frankly I didn't have a clue. And asparagus is a scary, snooty, precious kind of vegetable, way out of my league, surely. Now it's too late, and anyway, I need somewhere to put my cucurbits, and quick. 

And then there are the weeds. As a novice gardener, I had no idea about weeds. I thought they were a bit annoying but you just kind of mangled them up with a hoe, and bosh, job done. I know. Stop laughing. No, actually, carry on. I deserve it. Weeds are terrifying. Horror film stuff. As fast as I cut them down they are pushing up through the soil, like Carrie's hand. Couch grass. Brambles. Dandelions. You don't want it? We've got it. And dock plants – I have never seen such incredible roots. Because I've never bothered looking much at roots before. It didn't help that I doused everything liberally with some of the horse manure we got as a free gift when we bought the house. Manure is great stuff undoubtedly but it seems that nettles really quite like it too. 

And I have no idea what these are imitating my peas, but there every time I look there are more of them. My slightly smug excuse is that I would never resort to using weedkiller but there again there are plenty of organic gardeners whose veg plots do not resemble the municipal tip after garden waste collection day. 

I'm a natural worrier and now I have a billion more things to worry about, it seems (that's one worry for every seedling). Is my sweetcorn going to get blown down? Are those cabbages supposed to be that colour? Does it matter if there are ants in my lasagne bed? How can a thistle that small have roots that long? And there's so much to do, it bamboozles me to the point that often I think of something more urgent that needs doing elsewhere (this usually involving eating something). I still haven't put either pea sticks or cordons up for my tomato plants. I don't even know how to do it. There is literally nowhere at the moment for the runner and borlotti beans to go. I really should finish the other hugel kulture bed. Tackle the weeds properly. Mend the greenhouse door. Yet here I am, writing a guest blog outlining what I should be doing instead of doing it. But I suppose if I did all that and then wrote the post I'd have to write one on feeling smug, and no-one wants to read that do they?

But here's the thing - even though it's all a bit scary and I'm a bit rubbish and I have probably wasted quite a bit of time and energy in some places and not nearly enough in others this year I still love it. It still excites me. The fear means I'm bothered about it. I will get most of the things I need to do sorted. My potatoes are looking amazing. My experimental chickpeas are thriving and I just scoffed my first proper sized radish. If I squint the whole thing sort of looks like a real allotment. I am learning all the time and next year I will be more organised and have a much better grasp of what I need to tackle and when. And if it really gets the better of me, there's always the barrel...

Sarah's 'YIKES' is the latest in a series of emotions that gardeners are releasing into the wild, only to be captured and tamed over on my Guest Bed page.

I've recently started reading her blog, Chants Cottage, over at is a great read - with the lively passionate style above a regular feature. I've also added her to my list of blogs on the right hand side so you can keep tabs. Definitely one to follow.

Sarah was bold. She knew deep down there were feelings kicking and screaming inside of her desperate to get themselves onto a page; to be shared with the wider gardening world. She wrote to me asking to jump into this bed and you too can join in the fun by emailing or contacting me on Twitter @haplessgardener

If you're new to the guest bed then check under the covers and see what takes your fancy from the following:

Love   ----------    Disappointment  ---------- Frustration  ---------- Sorrow  ---------- 

Hopeless Romance  ---------- Anticipation  ---------- Guilt  ---------- Surprise ---------- 

Enthusiasm  ---------- Helplessness  ---------- Wonder  ---------- Oh What the Hell!  ---------- 

Awe  ---------- Hope  ---------- Planternal Instinct  ---------- Pride  ---------- Glum  ---------- 

Or failing that, just jump right in and see what you find

Friday, 11 May 2012

Guest Post: Glum by Jono Stevens


I write a self-proclaimed ‘cheery allotment blog’, but sometimes being cheery all the time can get you down. The opportunity to be miserable on someone else’s webby was an opportunity not to be missed.

Standing in the middle of my plot, I’m surrounded by bare beds. I lost my leeks to rust and my promising purple sprouting broccoli has faded badly. Inexplicably, I forgot to sow spring greens.

If it wasn’t for half a row of seemingly immortal perpetual spinach, a few young rhubarb crowns, and last year’s stored squashes, I’d be contemplating meals with no contribution from my allotment whatsoever.

We’re in the hungry gap. That time of year when I have to resort to getting veg from those things called shops. It’s a humbling experience. I live in a small town, a place where friends and acquaintances  spot me buying veg, and approach with a knowing, smug look. ‘Oh, Jono, thought you got all your veg off your allotment?’ they enquire. ‘What are you doing buying it?’

I laugh off their mickey taking, but I’m left glum. Glum that I’m stuck in this miserable rut where I’ve exhausted all my winter veggies, but there’s nothing ready to replace them with.

The feeling is not dissimilar to that of riding my bike in hills, as I do when I’m not at the plot. I’ve flown down that fun, exciting descent but now the buzz has worn off, and I realise I’ve got another whacking great hill to climb before the enjoyment can begin again.

I’m saddened that although my broad beans are looking healthy and verdant, I’ve got a good few weeks before I can boil up some of the sweet little beans with my tea. Likewise the beets, carrots and radishes I’ve sown. Despite the steady rain and rising temperatures, I know I’m still some time before they’re ready for harvest. My pea plants are small, and the potatoes are only just poking through their trenches.

None of this is particularly cheery. Cheery has given way to glum, and a subsequent growing apathy. My plot and I are feeling bereft of ideas, food and energy. I’m writing a Glum Allotment Blog.

I have a fight on my hands. A fight to ward off this glumness. Fortunately, help is at hand. I know it feels like bleak midwinter out there, but spring is here. Really, it is. The sun has come out, and I’ve just remembered that I’ve also got lettuce ready to harvest. Yes, my asparagus is crap (I did get the crowns from Woolworths), but I’ve found a little farm hidden away on a quiet road where no one can see me buying it.

Even better, I’ve got a friend who runs a veg box scheme. If I ask her nicely, she might leave a box round the back where nobody is any the wiser. ‘Yes, of course I grew those brilliant early spuds…’

The hungry gap: not a time for scratching around the Internet searching deeper and deeper for yet another thing to do with perpetual spinach, but a time to get on that bike again.

There’s a hill to climb, but just the other side good times are ahead once more.

For all my best efforts, that turned cheery, didn’t it? Oh well, maybe I’m just not cut out to write a Glum Allotment Blog.

As my allotment neighbour says, ‘happy gardening’.


When I first saw the emotion Jono chose I was totally surprised. It just wasn't in keeping with, as he says, his cheery and determined outlook on growing his own food. It made me appreciate even more that gardening matters. It's on our minds even when we're distracted by the day job, the finances and people who wander past as you're drinking your tea - ah people watching, never gets boring. 

Jono's website is a treat, one of my favourites, and I particularly like his experiment to see if what we all deep down believe is true – that we can save money by growing our own food. And of course, I wholly agree with the name

And if you're the emotional type there is a veritable orgy of writers getting in touch with themselves over in my Guest Bed - get involved! I'm open to people who would like to write for the Guest Bed, have a read and see if you want to, then email me or tweet @Haplessgardener. Don't be shy now...

Thursday, 10 May 2012

We have lift off...

I'm fast running out of rocket puns, and I imagine you're all sick of me harping on about it all the time.

Last year, I set readers a rocket challenge because I was astounded at how easy it was to grow.

This year, I challenged readers to be a bit more creative with their salad and see if it was possible to grow rocket in something crazy, and to do so by Easter Sunday.

Now, this is a small spare-time blog, not one of the more glamourous, professional websites that run lovely competitions attracting many entrants (usually including me!) However, it's all about quality, and I have been so thrilled ever since I received my one entry because it quite simply shows how something simple can inspire a bit of fun.

May I introduce @chantscottage who made me jump up, with a kind of leap of joy at such a cracking response to the Easter challenge. Rice krispie cakes for the grow your own generation (just don't eat the soil!)

I'm can't decide what I love the most - the ability to coax green life out of such a tiny amount of space in a cake case, the voracity of the rocket or the bewildered chick! 

I strongly recommend you head over to the rather wonderful blog to find more from where this little gem came from! 

Now, I promised that I too would participate and grow my own rocket in a can. Which I did, and it survived the abusive winds that took down my grow house. I also hoped to decorate my tin can. Which I didn't. Because I'm rubbish at anything remotely involving colouring in. However, that really doesn't matter when you have rocket as abundant as this:

But lets face it. If you didn't take up this challenge because you just didn't have time, or were just not inspired enough, or perhaps you think the supermarket grows it better for you, then I think it's about time you were shamed by some (talented) kids. Yes, there are five boys (aged 3 - 11), offspring of my good friend and co-writer at yummymummycookingschool Ruth, who have got off their behinds, made their own rocket rockets and are writing about it. On their own blog (five boys bake)

Now if that's not a rocket up your...I don't know what is.

Rocket for the rocket

Reach for the stars

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


It's a modern word, forged in the heat of a post-match interview by part-time wordsmith / football manager Iain Dowie. Yes, it's an awful word (especially when uttered by Tim Lovejoy), but it means the ability to go on from a losing position to win.

You may have read my traumatic last post that saw the demise of many of my seedlings. Well not the peas.

Not only did they survive but they still managed to look damn gorgeous when faced with a camera. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Gust unbelievable

Look, I'm perfectly capable of screwing things up in the garden myself. I don't need this:

I'm so despondent I can't even come up with a decent pun.

It happened a second time just before I had to travel north for work last week. With a 6:30am train to catch I didn't have time to rescue anything. The picture isn't the true carnage - I've cleaned much of it up in a traumatised daze, but my early seedlings are ruined, having been rescued after the first collapse a couple of weeks ago (and typically just as I was about to head north for work too).

This didn't happen to me last year, I always make sure I weight the things down, not least with the compost-filled trays.

I don't know what others have experienced, but for me I had a strange mix between 'my computer has crashed and I've lost all my work, I can't face it all again' and 'I was actually quite attached to those seedlings - the potential in them, they were going to live good lives and I feel a small sense of loss'. A kind of private mini-mourning (not getting too dramatic).

I say that, but when the winds were at their menacing worst I had the following nightmare...

I woke up to a violent crash, and there in my face were the roots of the pear tree. It had been uprooted, been thrust across the garden, taking out the grow houses and indeed everything else in its bath, through the back window of my ground floor flat and, smash, within inches of my unsuspecting sleeping self.

Realising that this was absolutely ridiculous I properly woke up, but went outside just to check, as you do,  and to my total horror the tree had actually been uprooted, destroyed the garden, taken out a whole wall from the back room and left me panicking about how to tell the landlady.

Then I really did wake up, was late for work and it was only the grow houses that had blown down. Relief and sadness at the same time.

Dreams are weird, but it's clear I'm now very much attached to what I grow. 

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Pier weed of the day

Weed of the day is back!! 

Inspired by this indomitable specimen growing on Clevedon Pier I thought it about time that we give an annual nod to those plants that defy convention, and often physics to make a home wherever they see fit. 

I once wrote in defence of weeds - and given they are just plants in the 'wrong' place, I'll be looking for examples where plants are sticking two fingers up at us who know better. Not ones to shy from a challenge, and given how much they thrive, who can criticise them for their choices? Especially when you consider this restored Victorian gem your home:

To reminisce in weed wonder checkout some old favourites:

The first weed of the day
Iron weed of the day
Shy weed of the day
Hapless weed of the day
(sea) weed of the day

The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.