Make it bespoke – make it your own!

Make it bespoke – make it your own!

Meet our Grower of the Month for April, Carol Bowen Ball (@fromplot2pot2plate). In this blog post, Carol shares with us her gardening journey, what she loves to grow, and much more. Sharing tips with other gardeners/growers, she says to grow what you like rather than what everyone else is nurturing, and to make your own space ‘bespoke’ to you.

How and when did you start gardening/growing?

My earliest memories of gardening were somewhat predictably with my grandparents. My paternal grandfather was quite hands on when it came to showing his grandchildren his roses and I was always allocated the task of cutting the fresh mint for the sauce to accompany the roast lamb on Sundays. He also had an impressive number of daisies in his lawn which meant hours of daisy chain making. In contrast, my maternal grandfather, loved fuchsias (which I thought were flower ballerinas) but also had an impressive vegetable and greenhouse plot with beans, peas, tomatoes and cucumbers, which again I was tasked with picking. It is a little wonder I associate gardening or growing with food as much as flowers.

I didn’t have a garden of my own until after I was married, but because my job was as Household & Cookery Editor for Homes & Gardens magazine, I visited many, and soon began to have favourite styles I wanted to emulate. A love of structure meant that hedging and topiary appealed but I didn’t want over-restrictive formality so it has waxed and waned and adapted since those early formative years.

What I did develop however was a thirst for knowledge about plants as food and how to select, grow, cook and serve them. I was fortunate that a couple of books that I worked on helped to foster this (with the able and necessary help from experts who were early flag bearers for the organic movement). My own career took me into the recipe development sphere so I went on to write many recipe books (some specialising in salads, desserts, freezing food, eating for health and seasonal cooking), where so much of this found a wonderful audience.

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How has your garden changed since you first started growing?

I have had a few ‘gardens’ from a first balcony one, to a ‘little maintenance’ small one (when busy working), to a family one, a large 8-acre wooded one, to now a 1-acre quite-likely final one.

It was a virtual blank canvas with only a little hard landscaping when we arrived but essentially has 4 areas – front, back and two sides! The front has become a formal entrance to the house, the back has a lawn but also now a long perennial border (just 3 years old) and at the kitchen side, a herb garden. I longed for a greenhouse and designated plot for growing vegetables and cut flowers which I have developed over the last year on that final side. This was my late pandemic project. This greenhouse is my sanctuary and if I could move a bed in then I would!

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What do you grow? Do you have a favourite plant/vegetable crop, and why?

I have experimented with lots of crops, plants and flowers over the years and have quickly realised that soil type, location, weather and frost dates, and how much dedicated time you have often dictates success. I could have saved a great deal of time and money if I had observed what other locals were growing in their neighbouring gardens. But I have also realised that you grow to please yourself and feed your family so taking into account likes, dislikes and what brings true joy is paramount. We like peas and beans so I grow a lot of them but don’t eat many potatoes so give them a miss. My choice won’t be yours…

Also, because we love salad and eat some virtually every day, my vegetable plot and greenhouse growing reflects lots of seasonal salads of all types – many that you can’t buy ‘off the shelf’. Likewise tomatoes, peppers and chillies are a must for my cooking so I grow far more varieties than is maybe sensible.

I have inherited my paternal grandfather’s love of roses, so have many of them, but more recently have gone full tonto with dahlias – and even though they can be divas over the winter months I still keep adding to my collection.

My cutting flower garden is now my passion though and this is where I sow seeds with wild abandon – this year’s include ammi majus, sunflowers, corncockle, zinnias, cosmos, sweet peas, cerinthe, many edible flowers and my all-time favourite, malope. I am still adding to it … Nothing gives me as much pleasure as gathering an armful for a vase for the home or to give away.

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What is your typical day like, when it comes to tending your garden?

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Much to everyone’s amusement, and because I am a very early riser, I head out into the garden and to the greenhouse as soon as I can, regardless of time, light and weather conditions – and often (no, nearly always) to check everything in my slippers. One of my most used posting tags is #gardeninginmyslippers and my footwear often returns to the house very soggy.
I love the early quiet time when I can check all is well or if it is not. I always have secateurs with me for dead-heading, my camera phone for taking pics or visual reminders of what needs attention later, maybe a cup of coffee but always a sharp maybe critical eye. Seeing a garden in a different light and unusual time of day can provoke great surprising ideas.

The rest of the time is spent opening up cold frames, checking ventilation is adequate in the greenhouse, filling the watering cans from the water butt, and if it looks promising, return cushions to outside seating areas.
If the weather is poor then an hour or two in the greenhouse or orangery is fabulous for checking over the seed stores and ordering new ones and potting on seedlings. I have a comfortable chair in my greenhouse where I can also read (or doze) if the mood takes me. On a special day I might also choose to visit a garden that is on my wish or bucket list and come away with a mind full of horticultural and cooking possibilities.
Days are not fixed as such – although I have found that reminders mean tasks aren’t forgotten so easily. So I do always try to feed plants on a Friday; water or weed if necessary on a Wednesday, seed and sow over the weekend on a Saturday or Sunday, and love to do a mantelpiece makeover on a Monday from the cutting garden or long border. Evening time means closing the greenhouse and cold frames – which sometimes means going out with a torch if my mind drifts. And I loathe bringing in the cushions again if it is likely to rain.

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What do you enjoy most about gardening?

There’s so much to enjoy about gardening – it satisfies my curiosity, creativeness, need to move about more, and so much extra. It certainly feeds the soul and can be a wonderful balm in troubled times. Within the last two years my mother, father and best friend have passed and when it all becomes a bit overwhelming then the garden becomes a shoulder to lean on. It asks a few questions but generally is the quiet supportive friend that lets you just be what you want to be that day – I like and need that.

More recently it has become a place for huge enjoyment with my grandchildren. They love ‘gwanny’s park’ and I love showing them how things grow from seeds – and they enjoy showing me all the bugs we have in the garden!

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What tips would you offer to other gardeners/growers?

Quite simply grow what gives you pleasure rather than what everyone else is nurturing. Make your own space ‘bespoke’ to you. My harvest basket of fruit, vegetables and flowers reflects what I adore to eat, what I cook with most of all and therefore is a thrifty investment, and what gives me unbridled joy to arrange in a special way or just into a jam jar.

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I would urge other gardeners to compost their waste – I now have 3 systems – an open outdoor one, a hot bin for raw garden and kitchen waste, and a new state of the art Food Cycler which takes my cooked waste and makes it into a granular ‘compost’ that I can sprinkle on my outdoor beds. I have very little waste and only tend to put my recycling bin outside for collection.

Likewise I would also encourage others to look at upcycling or re-using everyday packaging. So many jars, cans, cartons, containers, old tyres, old baths, sinks, pallets etc can be used in an imaginative way without spending any money. Check out ideas on social media and be prepared to be amazed at some ingenious ones.

What are some of the benefits of growing your own?

Cost is often quoted as the biggest benefit but it’s not mine. Variety and convenience have to be my choice. Much of what I grow can’t be purchased in a supermarket – ever tried to buy asparagus peas, very unusual herbs, special heritage tomatoes, and wild flower type floral bunches? You might, but the cost is likely to be exorbitant.

Plus of course the freshness and convenience of being able to just pop outside and gather some salad, a handful of herbs or what has just ripened or matured enough to harvest whilst at its best. Pure joy! And with seasonality comes the virtue of variety in meal times.

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Have you used any coir-based products? What are their benefits?

I only became familiar with coir-based products about a couple of years ago. I was reading a blog post from someone who had an allotment and they said how terrific the product was and especially in terms of weight and portability – they didn’t have to lug big bags of compost to their uphill plot, just take up some coir blocks, add water and leave for a little while.

I have suffered with shoulder problems and can’t (or shouldn’t) lift things that are very heavy and so I thought this would help me. I therefore ordered some and bingo I didn’t have to beg for help with getting compost  to my greenhouse anymore and had the practical solution literally at my fingertips!

As a result I experimented with coir coins and was delighted with the results with sowing seeds in such a practical and successful way. My trials comparing germination rates, potting on and transplanting out demonstrated the prowess of the coir medium.

I intend this year to try out the cubes, seedling trays and gro-bags. Aside from the obvious eco-friendly attributes they have (as a sustainable and renewable alternative to peat) I also like the pH neutral status it has (since my soil can be a little too acid in places). I have been impressed with water retention too which means I don’t have to constantly be making journeys with the watering can! It also satisfies my organic ethos for the vegetable garden, has a consistent and reliable quality, is affordable, doesn’t smell odious and promotes good growth. All ticks in my box.

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What are your future plans for your garden?

If I had a magic wand then I would love to double the vegetable and flower cutting garden area! Merlin isn’t helping with this so I shall simply strive to spread out just a little further and infringe on other garden zones but also move upwards. Aside from some obelisks for sweet peas and climbing roses I don’t have any other sky-high structures. I think I could do something special and productive with some arches across the raised beds and pathways so that’s a plan. I intend to grow squashes, speciality beans and soft fruit up and over them. So the plan is to go up in the world…

Plus I wish to invest in some step-over fruit trees – apple and pear – to divide up the kitchen garden and give it a more linear and defined structure. Some can replace the buxus which has taken a bit of a battering this last couple of years.

But I also want to encourage more wildlife and pollinators so will be bringing maybe a small pond into the mix – the children will love the wriggly pond life I hope it will attract. 

Anything else you want to share?

Just some inspiration for using some of that produce – be it vegetables or flowers – a few special items, a glut or seasonal bounty!

I post many recipes, craft ideas, interior ideas for florals as well as snippets of advice on my Instagram page. Pop in if this interests you – you can be sure of a warm welcome! Sharing knowledge, pitfalls to avoid, and ideas is in its own way caring too…

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