Notes for 2020

Back in April I handily noted a list of all this year’s sowings, so that I could check in on their performance at year end. Inexplicably – surely it’s just a few weeks since I made that list? – the season is at its end. Judgement time.

General Notes
Work had most of my attention between June-October, leaving little time for allotmenting. I prioritised the important job of harvesting but let the weeding go, so in this warm but wet summer, the grasses, brambles and stingers were rampant. And whilst this was VERY stressful at the time, actually, nothing terrible happened – we still had a regular crop of flowers and veg, and the extra weeds were all forage for insects. The verdict is that whilst it may look good, cleanliness is over-rated. I used no chemicals at all on the allotment and plan to continue in that vein. Also, generally speaking, we can get in far more plants than we currently do, so I must plant more rather than less as it keeps the weeds at bay.

The density of planting in the cornflowers was spot on

Flowers
Cut flowers have been the backbone of the allotment this year, with weekly cuttings from May to October. I planted in blocks, which worked well for sunflowers, ammi and cornflower. The cosmos, nigella and cleome did less well.

Next year, consider:
– 12-ish sunflower plants
– succession-sow the cornflowers to make 2 x 1m blocks
– have another go at sweet peas; plant at least 1m back from edge of plot to prevent grass getting into the nets
– put heartsease into pots at home rather than allotment
– attempt some options for foliage/greenery
– invest in new chrysanthemum and dahlia varieties for cutting
– attempt summer-flowering bulbs in the allotment for cutting
– harvest the hops as a cut-flower and don’t just leave them to rot on the vine
– cut and dry cornflower and nigella for use over winter

Some brighter chrysanthemums and dahlias would really add to this mix

Flower Notes:
Sunflower Valentine Too small for allotment, don’t bother
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix A winner
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1 A winner
Sunflower Red Sun A winner
Sunflower Giant Not a good cut flower, don’t bother
Nigella Persian Jewels Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Nigella Double White Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen Worked well, keep as a perennial
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries Beautiful, try again but plant out as more established plants rather than plugs
Cosmos Velouette Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Ammi Majus Graceland Does OK but bolted quickly; try the smaller form?
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder Worked well, keep as a perennial
Delphium Exquisite series, White King A few small blooms but kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire A few small blooms. Have kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Cornflower Snow Man A winner
Cornflower Double Blue A winner
Limonium Suworowii Total fail, don’t bother again
Calendula Indian Prince Fine, nice colourful filler
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy Huge fun
Cleome Colour Fountain Failed but I planted out as plugs – if try again, take to much bigger plants. Needs hot summer.
Baptisia Australis False Indigo Total fail, don’t bother again
Mexican Hyssop Total fail
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies) Total fail, don’t bother again
Chrysanthemum I have many unknown varieties taken from cutting-after-cutting from a Sarah Raven mix. Time to shake things up with some new varieties, perhaps with yellows and oranges.
Dahlia Seem to prefer over-wintering in the allotment. Invest in some new tubers specifically for cutting, maybe with spidery and/or dinner plate flowers.
Summer bulbs Those planted in the garden where a 100% fail, perhaps eaten by the squirrel. Try a few in the allotment next year for cutting.

Veg & fruit
I kept the veg crop simple this year due to my available time and my growing interest in cut flowers, but actually I have missed a few allotment stalwarts, mostly the pumpkin and gourds. We had far too many courgettes (twas ever thus) but nowhere near enough beans – they absolutely have to be netted against the pigeons. The broad beans were brilliant, with half planted in pots in February and the rest direct sown in April.

Remember how many courgettes come from one plant, i.e. too many!

Next year consider:
– Plant more than I think we need. Apart from courgettes.
– Only 2 courgette plants
– 3-4 squash plants, for decorative use, e.g. turks turban, Jill be little
– Full row or even 2 rows each of leeks and parsnips
– At least 5 cavolo nero plants plus other kale and chard
– Put in some autumn spicy leaves, such as mustard or mizuna
– At least 40+ broad bean plants
– At least 12 climbing bean plants plus same again of borlotti. They absolutely need to be 100% pigeon-proofed.
– Only attempt tomatoes if the greenhouse is back in working use
– Have a go at something new, perhaps cornichons
– Attempt to re-plant the strawberries completely. The matting will need to be removed, the ground mulched and de-grasses, and new strawberry plants put in.

Veg notes:
Courgette Soleil Keep but only 1 plant
Courgette Bianca di Trieste Time to try something else
Courgette Costata Romanesco Time to try something else
Summer Squash Custard White Don’t bother as we never eat them
Pumpkin Cinderella Had only 1 fruit. Need to prioritise several different pumpkin and small gourds, for decorative purposes – definitely turks turban and also some smaller styles
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia Brilliant, definitely do again. At least 40+ plants; plant some into pots in February and direct sow the rest when the soil is warm enough.
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered Fine but nothing special.
Leek Musselburgh Cropped well but has been attacked by some kind of rust/bug
Climbing Bean Cobra Try again but net against pigeons
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette Try again but net against pigeons
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco Try again but net against pigeons
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop Not sure it’s worth it
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire Fine, cropped well
Parsnip Gladiator F1 Very nice, attempt several sowings if germination patchy
Carrot Nantes 5 No germination at allotment but worked OK in veg trug
Fennel Montebianco Don’t bother
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted
Tomato Gardener’s Delight Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted

Let’s grow the small pumpkins next year instead of getting them from Aldi

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
All the above are brilliant
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood) Don’t bother, beets never do well on our ground

Salads & Herbs
Lettuce Catalogna (a type of oak leaf)
Salad rocket
Tuscany salad mix
Viola Heartsease (a flower but I put it in salads)
Basil Thai
Basil Sweet green
Dill
Green Fennel
Not a great year for herbs. Plant lettuce as plugs but really it’s better in the veg trug. Rocket always gets attacked by beetle.

The rocket bolted, meaning that it sprouted up through the netting. Removal meant destroying the brassica cage – fail.

Garden Notes
The back garden suffers from lack of sun, so needs to be planted with shade-tolerant plants. Come July/August, need taller plants for back of the bed. Roses need supporting from the very start of the year, with 6-foot supports; everything grows taller than we think as it is searching for sun. Very back bed (by the shed) needs entirely replacing with shade-loving shrubs. Try again with the cat mint, but put it somewhere where the cats won’t destroy it!

Inspirations
Things I’ve seen this year to inspire next year’s planting:

Loved the way the Montessori Garden at Chelsea crammed in flowers in a tutti-frutti confetti style
Loved cat mint everywhere I saw it so must have another go – but put it somewhere where the neighbourhood cats won’t destroy it!
The bright oranges at Packwood House are always a joy
Herbs and ornamentals planted together at Baddesley Clinton
Maybe try some lupins next year
Do-it-yourself plant supports are always fun. Love this one made from hazel poles.
Note how dense the cut-flower planting is here, with blocks for ease of access.

Drying the autumn harvest

People talk about spring cleaning but it’s in the drag-end days of autumn that I’m busiest clearing and tidying. November falls into two sections: the bit where you’re waiting for the frost/wind/rain to finish the summer flowers off, and the bit after the frost/wind/rain has occurred and the work begins. My chrysanthemums and dahlias got zapped by the weather about two weeks ago but someone somewhere is still looking after their blooms, evidenced by this magnificent display at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Although this is quite old fashioned display the zingy reds and oranges still makes a massive impact
Pumpkins fill the fireplace alongside semi-dried Chinese Lanterns

We have a new addition to the back garden. Matt’s parents turned up yesterday with a 5ft tree, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’ (thankfully they chose to come in the car rather than on the bus). They had one in their back garden for years, which Matt had always admired, and tracked down a good specimen that can live in a pot in our shady patio.

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’

Now the allotment is pretty much finished for the year, it’s to the warmer countries that I look for seasonal goodies. The Halal shop on Bearwood Road has new season quince and pomegranate piled up in boxes against the window, massive enough to fill your fist and rich with the promise of aromatic stews and bakes. Venture inside and be met with crates of walnuts, sultanas and dates – evocative goods that call out for Christmas cooking.

First of this season’s quince

But it’s the clearing that occupies my mind at present, for I am on a deadline. This Friday I have a pallet-load of poo coming, for it is mulching time. Before I can mulch, I have to clear – and during this busy summer, the weeds have taken quite a hold. Over a few days I have removed the annuals, pierced a few dandelions and thistles, sworn over stubborn grasses and forked the ground. Happily, about 15 foxgloves have self-seeded so I have gently moved them to sit together in a few cut-flower patch, alongside the achillea and salvia that I grew from seed in the spring. The Sweet William and delphinium are staying put, the former because the patch is too established to move, the latter because the spindly plants seem too delicate for upheaval.

Cut-flower patch before…
…and after. The Sweet William and delphiniums have been left where they are.
The veg patch before…
…and after. I have left a single leek in situ as it seems keen to flower, and who am I to stop it?

Clearing is not confined to the allotment. My small and experimental (that word give oneself permission to mess it up) flower bed has been cut right back, the dahlias lifted for winter and the roses trimmed. Again, foxgloves have self-seeded, but less welcome are the aquilegia that seem determined to take over with their muddy pink flowers. The shed, incidentally, remains a Work in Progress and has become a shelter for local wildlife – the neighbourhood fox, various cats, many fat squirrels and the odd pigeon have all taken refuge here.

The flower bed has been cleared ready for its winter mulch.

A guiltless harvest at this time of year are the bounteous heads of hydrangea, now bowed by the wet weather. We have two bushes, one of which produces numerous handsome pink blooms the size of a baby’s head, the other produces sparse numbers of MASSIVE heads. I am drying both kinds ready for spray-painting at Christmas. The strawflowers that I harvested through September and October are now dried and I will use them for some kind of wreath, I think, in a full throwback to 1980s crafting.

Fat hydrangea heads are drying, ready to be spray painted for the winter
The strawflower may have a more creative end, perhaps turned into a wreath to brighten the dining room

After the busiest of summers I relish this comparatively calm time. Rather than being a burden – as they have been when I am busy – our small patches of land are now giving me time to be outside, breathe and absorb the last of the autumn sun. We pack away the year, cleanse and ready ourselves for the next onslaught; as one readies the ground for winter, it is actually I who is nourished.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: STOLLEN. Harry and I went on a stollen hunt to Aldi and happily came up trumps with the first of the seasonal goodies. Golden syrup and apple sponge – like a steamed sponge but baked. Jean’s tayberry and apple cobbler. Gateaux from the Eggless Cake Shop on Bearwood Road; it remains a mystery to me how they manage to make light sponge with no egg.

Harvesting: Carrots from the veg trug. Hydrangea heads. Last of the leeks. Chard, kale, cavolo nero and beet spinach.

Allotment and garden: Lifted chrysanthemum. Moved achillea, foxgloves and salvia. Cut back all the perennials in back garden and pruned roses. Lifted garden dahlias (allotment stays put). The first seed catalogues are dropping through the letter box.

Pear and honey tea bread

I went out with actual adult human beings last week. Out! After dark! Our Weekender farewell dinner was great fun but – despite not drinking – I was rewarded at the weekend with a two day migraine. It’s all the body’s way of saying Love, time to step away from the chips and the Instagram and the email and have a few weeks of quiet / pottering / wholegrains.

You know that festival season is done and dusted when the Big Wheel moves into Centenary Square

Remember the mystery squash from the allotment? I picked it before it was ripe but happy to report that it has come into fullness just in time for Halloween.

Mystery squash turned into a handsome massive pumpkin

There’s glorious light at present. After Saturday’s endless drizzle (not that I noticed, being comatose in bed) Sunday gave us low, golden, warm rays. Woodland at the moment has the sweet smell of fermenting leaves and at Baggeridge Country Park the hills are abundant with hips and haws. Their fat redness is a vivid, lipstick-like come-hither gesture in contrast to the brown bareness of hedgerows and stems.

Low autumnal light at Baggeridge Country Park

We’ve been in Herbert Road for three years now yet every time autumn comes around it’s a genuine shock to see condensation dripping down the windows and find my fingers numb. Make no mistake, this is a COLD house. It won’t be long before I’m sleeping in my moth-eaten ancient cashmere jumpers. I’m trying to avoid having the heating on during the day (saving the planet and all that) so I’ve shifted out from the back office – with a window that won’t shut and no insulation to speak of it’s not fit for human habitation – and into the dining room. Working here causes many issues of distraction. There’s the view out to the garden, now golden and swept with leaves. And then there’s the kitchen, with things to cook.

This tea bread is adapted from the Vintage Tea Party book by Angel Adore (from Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau). She uses plums and walnuts in her recipe, but as plum season is long gone I’ve subbed in diced firm plums. It has a subtle spice hint from the nutmeg, reminiscent of classic fruit cake or gingerbread, but is lighter. This is best served warm from the oven and is good for breakfast. Go easy on the bicarb though, as too much ruins the delicate flavour balance.

Pear and honey tea bread

Pear and Honey Tea Bread
Adapted from the Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adore

200g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
grating of fresh nutmeg
1/2 tsp fine salt
175ml low-fat yoghurt or buttermilk
125ml runny honey
2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 egg
1 fim pear
pearl or demerara sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 170c. Grease and line a 450g/1lb loaf tin.

Prep your pear: quarter and core, then finely dice. Place the flour, baking powder, bicarb, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon in a bowl and stir to combine. Measure the yoghurt, egg, honey and oil in a jug and whisk to combine. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry, then fold in the pear. Tip the lot into the loaf tin and smooth the top. Sprinkle pearl or demerara sugar on top for decoration. Bake for about 50 minutes until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Serve fresh and warm.

Cobnuts and clearing

Just like that, summer has passed. I’ve been heads down with festival event management since July and now that the work is done, I look up and see golden leaves and fading light. In a bid to escape the tyranny of WhatsApp we escaped to a regular haunt of Mawgan Porth (no phone reception) for a few days. Back in June we saw two owls during our visit, one of which was still there, presumably on its own as I could hear midnight twits but no twoh-s.

Harry’s big enough to go beach combining now

Matt’s outfit indicates that he’s as confused by season’s change as I am

It’s good to reconnect with family life and go back to something approaching simplicity; phones are so rude for the way they demand attention, 24-7. Back in Birmingham I attempted to keep my rural idyll going with a visit to the Sandwell Park Farm, a delight of a Victorian small-holding and kitchen-garden once owned by a very rich farmer, and now open to the masses for just a few quid entry.

Dear God, won’t you send me a walled garden complete with box hedging

Harry knows that my mind is turning to manuring the allotment and garden. A big pile of steaming poo is always a draw.

Actually, the kitchen garden reminded me of my parents house, for the soundtrack of a visit here is thundering vehicles on the M5. One side of the wall is calm, the other is tumult. The gardeners have been busy picking pumpkins ready for halloween – and I can report that the mystery squash I pictured on the allotment a few weeks ago has indeed turned orange, and is now forming an autumnal display in my sitting room prior to being carved and illuminated with a tea light.

The harvest of pumpkins at Sandwell Park Farm

Meanwhile – away from the dream of a Victorian kitchen garden and to the reality of an allotment owned (rented) by a time-poor working parent – this is what a summer of work/child rearing has done to my plot. Cut flowers gone to seed; grass left to grow tall and nettles as tall as me in the wilderness.

Time to start clearing this lot up

Don’t be fooled though, it’s not as hideous as it looks. I’ve ripped the tall grasses from the strawberry patch, cut back the brambles from around the soft fruit and had a good thwack against the nettles and brambles by the shed. Matt’s taken the hops down – their colouring always a sign of autumn – and with them the beans, sunflowers, courgettes, cornflowers and ammi have gone too.

The hops are down, as are most of the annual vegetables and cut flowers

What’s left is still cropping well. If our plot was sectioned out into tiny little beds then it would look like a bonanza – but as it is, with our two massive growing areas, it’s the weeds and debris from the season that you see first whilst the good stuff loses its impact. The pentland brig kale is the best I’ve ever grown, sistered with russian red kale, cavolo nero, spinach beet and chard. There’s still leeks and parsnips to be had, plus the dahlia, chrysanthemums and strawflower are (remarkably) still giving up a harvest – I’ve been picking them since August, I think, so that’s a good 10 weeks of colour.

Greens are still doing well

Strawflower give welcome colour to a dreary day

Whilst Harry is napping I devote an hour to a favourite October activity – shelling and toasting cobnuts for munching with a glass of something. To gather a fistful of papery cobnuts and smell them is the inhale the very essence of autumn. It’s the scent of woodland and Castlemorten Common, both fresh and festering, all rolled into one unpromising-looking brown husk. I used to waste time double-peeling cobnuts but now I leave the final layer of papery brown skin on, reckoning that it’s all fibre and therefore good for me. These cob nuts are not wild-food (they came from Waitrose, for goodness sake) but the finding and processing of them awakens a cultural memory of an older, slower way of being.

The joy of a bowl of cobnuts, waiting to be shelled

Toast the nuts with a pinch of salt and eat as they are or add to a salad

Also this week:

Harvesting: Leeks, parsnips, kale, beet spinach, chard, last of the raspberries, dahlias, chrysanthemums, strawflower

Cooking and eating: All the Cornwall usuals (crab sandwich, fudge, seafood at Watergate Bay); cob nuts; spatchcock chicken with dried chilli and oregano; apple crumble muffins; more cinnamon buns; Malay leftovers donated by Simi after her Mum’s 80th birthday party

Reading: The Wild Life by John Lewis-Strempel, the account of an eccentric posh Hereford farmer who literally lives off his land for a year. A love letter to the Western valleys of my ancestors.

Not-reading: Emails, WhatsApps or Instagram. Amen to that.

Rain stops play

I’ve been properly tied up with work events for the last few weeks (with more to come this weekend). In the intervening two weeks since my last proper harvest, the heavens have opened. If I had known that this basket would have been the last decent crop of the summer, I might have given it more attention/appreciation.

I love the colour clash of yellow and orange against deep crimson and purple

Vases like this have a glorious end to the summer

Now, after days of rain, the allotment is sodden; the season has shifted. There is still colour but it’s pock-marked with the bruising that comes from torrential rain. The raspberries – still fruiting madly – are rotting on the canes. No point harvesting them now, they will become juice merely by looking at them.

The bees are still taking their fill but the sunflowers are bruised with rain

Poppies have set seed in the flower bed

My own fault this for not harvesting promptly enough, but the beans have gone feral in the rain. Runner beans as long as my forearm are joined by the magnificently witchy purple French beans, many of which I’m leaving on the vines for the seeds inside to fatten up. I love how their deep dark stems twist around the hazel poles, offset with the lighter shade of the verbena bonariensis. An accidental co-planting that really works.

The colour contrast of the purple French beans and the verbena bonariensis is an accidental winner

Purple and green beans

The abundant raspberries are rotting on their canes

The tomatoes do not stand a chance of ripening in this weather. They’ve been horrifically ill-treated this year – without a greenhouse, and knowing that on the allotment they would fall prey to rot, I kept them in far-too-small pots in the cold frame where they have grown unsupported, leggy and slightly mental. To their credit they did produce a crop, albeit a green one that has refused to turn red.

I’ve stripped the green fruit from the tomatoes to see if it will ripen indoors

It’s not just me who has struggled with the harvest this September. Once again Matt’s hops have languished, turning from golden architectural glory to a browning mass in the blink of an eye.

The hops are browning off now, once again unharvested

One monster enjoys this wet weather though. The mystery squash is now turning orange, flecked with green – pictured here with my foot for scale.

The mystery squash is thriving in the damp weather

Once this intense period of work finishes I’ll be left with bolted chard, cut-flowers gone to seed and bashed up sunflowers. It’s not long before the great clean up must begin. But hopefully – if only we could get some sun – there may be just a week or two of colourful vases still to come.

Also this week:

Harvesting: A few sunflowers, cosmos and salvia that have survived the deluge. There are chrysanthemums and dahlias, but too soggy to pick. The courgettes are still going on but I’m not picking them now. Pentland brig kale, leeks and parsnips up for grabs. The raspberries are abundant but too wet to pick.

Cooking and eating:
Anything easy, for work takes up all my time. Picked up some vintage Linconshire Poacher cheese and Lincolnshire Plum Bread when in Grantham for work the other week.

Reaping what we (didn’t always) sow

It was Harry’s birthday yesterday. Birthday meaning, the anniversary of the day of birth, which also means the anniversary of the day when – if it were not for 21st century medicine – I would have left this mortal coil. The days and weeks after giving birth were traumatic. So for all the joy of new toys and chocolate cake, the 10th September is quite a raw day for me and it does not help that there has been no space lately for stillness and quiet. I took a few hours out from the work emails and never-ending WhatsApp messages and got around to those small but important things that I know are grounding: lit some incense, popped to M&S for new knickers (how middle aged is that?), went to the allotment to strim the grass and harvest raspberries and sunflowers, and made a beef shin and mushroom pie from scratch. That, and drunk up half a bottle of very decent rose (last of the summer wine).

Knocking up a beef pie from scratch

I dislike how my late summers always seem to get consumed by work – it’s arts festival season, which means intense bouts of brochure-editing, planning out city-dressing (translated: the horrible job of lugging flags around) and worrying about visitor numbers. Festival management is a bit like childbirth in that when you’re going through it, it’s hideous, but then the event itself goes well and there’s a bit of a buzz and gradually the pain of it all gets forgotten about. I have events every weekend for the next month but after then……I can smell the sweet scent of freedom!

This time of year again…a pallet of Weekender brochures has arrived at Matt’s workshop

September is harvest time. Whether it’s babies, festivals or produce, it’s time to reap what we’ve sown. This week it’s time to bring the hops in which – as ever – are tall, majestic, and now expanding outwards to take over entire beds.

 

Some items are always a mystery though. This monster has turned up where the pumpkins should be – Lord knows it’s not a pumpkin – but I’ll leave it be in case it ripens up into something interesting.

Mystery squash

The leeks and parsnips have done OK and I pulled a first harvest for Harry’s birthday lunch on Sunday (what two year old doesn’t want creamed leeks?!).

Leeks and parsnips tell of seasons change

I am picking two baskets of flowers of week, and they’re all wonderfully rich and colourful: after their very shaky start the sunflowers and cosmos have come into their own, and I adore the madness of the strawflowers. As ever it’s always a surprise to me how late the summer colour comes to the allotment – we seem to be a month after everyone else – but when it does come, it’s marvellous.

Baskets of sunflower, dahlia, chrysanthemum and strawflower are a regular feature now

At home, the mantlepieces are adorned with vase after vase (rubbish picture I know).

Several vases adorn the house

So birthday survived; just 3 big events to get through and then we’ll be all ready for autumn.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Punnets and punnets of autumn raspberries, the best they’ve ever been. Runner beans, French beans, purple beans, kale, chard, courgette, leek, parsnip, sunflower, chrysanthemum, strawflower, first hyssop, cosmos. Mum’s tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergine.

Cooking and eating: Birthday roast beef and yorkshire pudding with first leeks and parsnips of the season, birthday cake, beef and mushroom pie from scratch, apple and plum crumble, lots of tomatoes on toast.

Plum torte

Despite the fact that this weekend was the hottest August bank holiday on record, I’m sticking my neck out to say that it’s not summer anymore. This afternoon on the allotment – although it was still warm – the sun was low enough in the sky to cast softened light and the air had the voluptuousness to it that comes as we teeter into autumn. Leaves look slightly tired; sunflowers set seed. Apples ripen. Without fail at this time of year I wonder what happened to my summer (answer, I am usually working flat out all through it) and whilst that’s true enough this year, we have tried our best to seize the season. This Sunday even saw a barbecue (Morroccan lamb shoulder with griddled courgettes, tabbouleh, tzatziki and flatbreads from the halal shop).

Produce is showing the shift in season. My allotment is at least a month behind my mother’s veg patch, so we’re only now getting going with the runner beans and the bulk of the cut flowers. My folks keep us going with baskets of green peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and sweetcorn. In the farm shops, the first apples are in and there are boxes of greengages, plums and damsons to be had.

Season’s change at Clives: crates of early apples plus damsons and plums

The white dahlias are phenomenal this year

I’m particularly pleased with today’s cut flower pickings – the orange chrysanthemums provide a great foil to the golden sunflower and dahlia, picked out with purple verbena bonariensis, achillea and cosmos. The little pincushion-headed flower is a self-seeded weed that I consider pretty-enough to make it to the vase.

The pinks of June and July have given way to fiery yellows, purples and oranges

What has slipped a bit is the cooking. In the hot weather we eat a lot of salads (interesting ones, obvs) plus Matt’s been cooking loads more lately whilst I’ve had my head buried in a laptop. And although he’s a great cook, one thing I definitely beat him at is the time-honoured (female) skill of opening the fridge door, seeing what needs eating, then doing something with it. Like my japple pudding – the ends of a jam pot covered with sponge then topped with sliced apples that were on the wrinkly side.

Japple pudding: jam topped with sponge topped with sliced apple

This plum torte comes from a similar need. I had a load of black plums from Aldi that were on the edge of going over, plus some nectarines, and I wanted to make a pudding. The Tuscan Plum Torte recipe in Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook provided a base recipe – instead of just plums I added in the nectarines, and also a bit of lemon for a citrus edge. The Italians have a fine tradition of cake that isn’t too rich but is actually more biscuity-bread like, and often eaten for breakfast. This one is easy enough, just go easy on the caramel – I took mine too dark and it made for a sponge that tasted of treacle rather than syrup.

First, simply whizz together self-raising flour, unsalted butter, caster sugar, zest of 1 lemon and a squeeze of juice in the food processor until well combined. Add in 3 eggs, one at a time, and whizz until smooth.

Whizz butter, flour, sugar, eggs and lemon in the food processor

Meanwhile, in the pan that you plan to bake your torte in, melt together sugar and water until completely dissolved, then simmer until you have a pale caramel (I took this too dark for my taste).

Melt sugar with water to make a light caramel (this is slightly too dark)

Add in sliced plums, nectarines or peaches. When you do this the caramel will bubble alarmingly and go several shades darker, be warned. Although mine looks burnt it actually isn’t, but the flavour was slightly too far on the treacly-side for my liking.

Add in plums and nectarines; be aware that your caramel will turn several shades darker when you do this

Then smooth the batter on top of the fruit, and bake for about 45 minutes until risen. Leave to stand for a few minutes before turning out and be warned – caramel is HOT HOT HOT. Nice on its own, with cream or plain ice cream.

After baking, turn the torte out onto a large plate. This isn’t burnt I promise; I simply used black plums!

Tuscan Plum Torte
Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

For the caramel:
275g granulated sugar
150ml water

For the topping:
Up to 900g stone fruit – plums, nectarines, peaches
175g caster sugar
150g unsalted butter, softened
200g self-raising flour
3 eggs
Zest and juice from 1 lemon

Pre-heat the oven to 170c and have ready a 25cm sauté pan that is oven-proof.

Whizz together the caster sugar, butter, flour, lemon zest and juice in a food processor until combined. Add in the eggs one at a time and whizz until smooth.

For the caramel, melt together the sugar and water in your sauté pan until totally dissolved. Bring to a simmer and cook until a pale caramel is achieve. Meanwhile stone and slice your fruit.

Place the sliced fruit onto the caramel – it will bubble and turn several shades darker, so be careful that you don’t burn yourself. Spread the batter on top of the caramel and smooth to the edges. Bake for about 45 minutes until risen and cooked through. Leave to stand in the pan for 5 minutes before turning out.

Also this week:

Harvesting: First runner and climbing beans, courgettes, first raspberries, last blueberries, chard, spinach beet, courgette, chrysanthemums, dahlia, sunflower, cosmos, achillea, verbena bonariensis, strawflower. Hops have set flower.

Cooking and eating: Japple pudding, only barbecue of the summer (lamb shoulder), a lot of home-made curry. First purchase of a half-case of wine since before pregnancy.

Out and About: Chatsworth; Cotswold Farm Park; Matt’s building the shed.

August pickings

The last fortnight has been consumed with work and childcare, meaning that the allotment is a wild rumpus. The high winds have given the sunflowers a bit of a battering – but given that they are so stunted this year compared to previous summers, and the stems are therefore short, they could have fared much worse. The courgette and squash are finally thriving, the greens are fine, we may actually have a few bean plants that make it to maturity. Blueberries are at their peak and the raspberries are just starting.

My joy at all this remains marred by the ever-encroaching bind weed, brambles, nettles, grasses and other unidentified self-seeders, and the irritation that I get about 1 hour a week to sort it all out. (It’s been a long day and I am deeply tired.) So in the absence of anything intelligent to say about any of it, photos of August cropping will have to suffice.

The wild rumpus. In my defence, Matt’s hops – now extending sideways and using the ammi as support – are part of the problem.

One good thing about brambles is that we will have a harvest of blackberries for the first time

Last week’s cropping – start of the chrysanthemums, dahlia and sunflowers

And today’s: the dahlia and chrysanthemums are now joined by the first achillea, grown from seed, plus strawflower, ammi, dill and a single sunflower

Not an allotment success but finally some joy from the veg trug at home. I was dead chuffed with these.

Finally some down time yesterday for making strawberry and redcurrant jam

This week:

Harvesting: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, first sunflowers, first achillea, ammi, dill, strawflower. Cornflowers are finished now. Courgettes, kale, chard, blueberries and a very few first raspberries.

At home: The back garden was looking great a few weeks back (within reason) but is now full of bare patches and tiny plants again. The slugs are ravaging the dahlias and the young plants don’t get enough sun. Something actually gnawed the head off a giant sunflower!

Cooking and eating: Redcurrant and strawberry jam (strawberries £3.50 a kilo bought from Harborne farmers’ market and grown at Hints near Tamworth). Cinnamon and blueberry buns. Flapjacks. Pasta. The usual. Lovely pizza from Baked in Brick on 10th August, which happened to coincide with Harry’s first trip there exactly one year previously, on his 11 month ‘birthday’.

Also: Tenbury show. Working on the Birmingham Weekender brochure etc and 5 other projects and therefore a distressingly unbalanced work-life balance.

Learning to live with chaos

At various points through the year I wonder what the point is of having an allotment. It is another call on my time, and because my child-free hours are now taken up almost entirely by work, I simply don’t get the opportunity to care for it as well as I’d like to. People talk about ‘mummy guilt’ – the idea that women feel they should be at home rather than earning money / having a life – and I have no truck with that at all. But ‘allotment guilt’….well, that I am familiar with. See also ‘allotment resentment’ (the sentiment of “oh bugger I really ought to weed the sunflowers but I just want to have a bath”), and ‘allotment self-doubt’ (the sentiment of “why do I even try, when I’m not even that good?”). Why bother, when my efforts will never result in the outcome that I want, such as these gardens that I saw at the weekend?

The summer border at Packwood House, Warwickshire

The extraordinary cutting garden at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

And as I take a rushed thirty minutes to weed those sunflowers, and ponder the question of ‘why do I bother’, I find myself coming to the conclusion that tidiness, finish, lack-of-weeds etc, do not actually matter. That the point of a kitchen garden, an allotment, a cutting garden, is productivity. If there’s a crop, then it’s all fine. And I also notice that the areas that have given way to weeds, to grasses, to brambles and to self-seeded friendlies such as the massive patch of oregano by the greenhouse, are now feeding a massive ecosystem of bees, insects and birds. So, far from being a scourge, the chaos is actually a source for good.

This insight may lead to a whole new approach to allotmenting:  planting, or tending, for productivity and insects alone, rather than some concocted notion of what is pretty and proper. To whit, the rocket that bolted several weeks ago is still in the ground, providing nectar and pollen to those who need it. The self-seeded poppies I’ve left alone, for the same reason. And the groundsel and other unidentified green things that are rampant on the cutting patch….well, if they’re not doing any harm to the flowers, but they are providing a home and food for a critter, maybe they should just stay put.

My cutting patch is a bit more….loose around the edges

Letting the rocket set seed amidst the kale and lettuce

This is not to say that I want to let nature do entirely her own thing. I’m not happy with the grasses that have encompassed the strawberry patch, and the greenhouse is an ongoing concern. But I am reminded of the yogic idea of ‘santosha’, which roughly translates as contentment. It means do your best, do what you can, but find contentment in whatever result comes your way. Letting go of our ideas of what things should be like, ought to be like, but finding the good in just what is. It’s an incredibly freeing notion. I love it when the allotment has lessons for living like this.

These grasses – nearly as tall as me – have staged an assault on the strawberry patch

The greenhouse has been taken back by nature – more specifically, by self-seeded marjoram and brambles

But this is what happens when you let nature run its course: food for bees

So in the spirit of doing only what I can do: the cornflowers have become top-heavy now so I’ve attempted to stake them up with stakes and hop twine. In another life they would be beautifully trained using hazel poles…but as long as the stems stay up-right, and I get a crop, then ‘good enough’ is OK.

Staking the cornflowers

And the crops are lovely. Weekly bunches of ammi and cornflower are now joined by the first dahlias and chrysanthemums. The beans are late this year due to the pigeon and slug damage, but we do have early kale and chard, the first courgettes and a wonderful supply of fat blueberries. I’m also feeding bees and pollinators with my efforts. For two self-employed working parents of a 22 month old, in the middle of the city, that’s not bad going.

The patch is still productive. So does a little chaos really matter?

Also this week:

Harvesting: Cornflower, ammi, strawflower, first allotment delphinium, blueberries, blackcurrants, last broad beans, first courgette, pentland brig kale, russian red kale, lettuce. Sunflowers and chrysanthemums are just starting. From my mum’s house, french beans, runner beans and beetroot. From Clives, first plums and proper, sun-warmed strawberries, a million times better then the chilled ones we get from Waitrose and Aldi.

Cooking and eating: Tomato and ricotta tart; plum crumble cake; meringues; blueberry cinnamon buns; Nyonya chicken curry; homemade sushi.

Also: Despairing over British politics, a PM voted in by a tiny number of rich people living in the Home Counties, Brexit and the pointlessness/horror of it all. Distraction comes by watching the Tour de France, visiting Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House, and meeting Abi and Sam’s delightful new baby Edie. That, and work work work.

Cornflowers, broad beans and blackcurrants

I spent several minutes this morning flicking back through photos from this time last year. Aside from an extremely smiley baby who has now become a very active toddler, the main difference to notice is how late our produce is compared to last summer – this time in 2018 we were harvesting spinach, kale, runner beans, sunflowers, dahlia AND chrysanthemums. This year’s cooler spring, and cooler summer come to that, means that climbing beans are still weeks away. The broad beans, on the other hand, are fantastic: tall, bug-free, but the beans still small and tender. Growing some in pots from February, with a second lot direct sown later in April, has extended the harvest very successfully. One thing that hasn’t changed is the blackcurrant harvest, which returns like clockwork during Wimbledon fortnight.

Harry likes to get involved with processing the produce

The star of June was the sweet William. Although it’s now going over, its warm, musky, slightly spicy scent still fills the air. Taking its place now are the cornflowers, lavender and ammi, whose ethereal tall stems are to me the essential sight of summer. These are the best cornflowers I’ve ever grown – usually they are short and stunted, but somehow this year they are dense, tall and abundant.

Sweet william, cornflower, ammi and lavender

Cornflowers have grown incredibly tall this year

The lavender is vast and hums with bees

Cornflowers and ammi – a taste of the country, in the heart of the city

The strawflowers are also now coming into bloom and are without doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever grown. Like dried flowers even when still in the grown, the flowers are crisp and dry, with no scent at all. They take me right back to 1980s dried flower arrangements; a bit of retro kitsch.

Strawflowers are the strangest thing I’ve ever grown

Life is busy again at the moment, with two major works projects, lots of other smaller ones, and a toddler to keep alive. So whilst we’re waiting for the real summer goodies – the French beans, runner beans, borlotti, courgette and squash, and raspberries – the twice-weekly baskets of lettuce, broad beans, blackcurrant and cut flowers are still a welcome reminder to be still, absorb the moment and appreciate the richness of the season.

Yesterday’s harvest

Also this week:

Harvesting: First blueberries, blackcurrants, lettuce, broad beans, first kale, cornflower, lavender, ammi, strawflower, last of the sweet William.

Cooking and Eating: Lots of summer eating now: salads of broad beans and feta; burnt red peppers with tomatoes and beetroot; crunchy green lettuce with parmesan and lemon. Peach sherbet (ice cream) made by blitzing poached peaches with their syrup and whipped cream, then freezing. Pissaladiere, fougasse, meringues. Lots of supermarket-bought strawberries and raspberries, which I am not happy about – so much plastic waste – but there are few other places in Birmingham to buy them.

Also: Slipping back into pre-baby working ways, with full days in Warwick for Imagineer’s Bridge project (imaginebridge.co.uk) whilst simultaneously planning Birmingham Weekender. Time spent at home is precious, like last Sunday’s Picnic in the Woods at Warley Woods, where we happily bumped into friends and neighbours.