The hop harvest

The harvest continues. Cousin Sue mentioned at the weekend that the September harvest is what the August harvest should have been – and YES is my resounding response. Normally the raspberries are long gone by now, but we’re only mid-way through the harvest, picking punnets and punnets of the luscious red fruits every other day. The cosmos are still on the sluggish side, but getting there, and the sunflowers are at their peak. I sometimes wonder why anyone ever bothers growing anything else; a sunflower grove is THE most joyous thing.

Sunflowers have come into their own
I love this whopper!
A delicate vase of cosmos purity and dazzler, plus ammi visnaga

But it’s the hops’ turn for glory. We have four plants in total, of two different Herefordshire varieties (I can’t remember which), and for most of the year they do their own thing, pretty much unnoticed. In the spring Matt cuts back the shoots to leave only three stems per plant, which are left to race up the hop twine on our home-made hopolisk. We don’t water or feed them, though I do hack back the numerous ‘spare’ shoots that grow out at arm level, because their barbed leaves are abrasive and leave me with scars that last for months. And then we get to August and one day I will notice that the hops are incredible: reaching at least 15 foot into the sky and covered in golden papery corms. Matt rips one up to check for ripeness, looking for yellow powder and a slightly resinous tackiness. It’s time. Cue the hop harvest.

Hops are a beautiful ornamental, if extremely vigorous, climber

It is significantly more difficult to harvest hops compared to, say, cavolo nero or cosmos. For a start we need tools….hammer, spanner, strong male arms. After cutting the hop twine and bines at the base, Matt bashes the bolt on the hopolisk (it will inevitably have rusted up a little) to make the whole contraption collapse sideways. Our job is to ease it down gently, gently, gently, so that it doesn’t take out the sunflowers, chard, parsnips, kale, pre-schooler, or whatever else lies in the way. Once safely down, the tops of the hop bines are cut from the metal support and then all 15 bushy feet of them are carried into the van and then home, leaving a trail of hop flowers and leaf debris in their wake.

Harry ‘helps’ take the hops down with his hammer
Gertrude is very interested in the new hoppy additions to the garden

In the 8 years on the allotment, Matt’s never once got around to making beer from his hops. They usually end up as decorations in the house (we used them to great effect at our wedding in 2018) or, worse of all, are left out to rot on the compost. But this year I sense a new resolve. For much of Sunday, he sat on the garden bench patiently separating hops from the bines, processing them ready for drying (To be used for beer, the fresh hops have to be dried to about one fifth of their weight). There’s talk of sending the picked hops to a brewer friend at the weekend. Let’s see what happens.

One last thing: hops STINK. It is quite incomprehensible just how strong their scent is, until your living space is filled with hop bines. Even with doors closed, their resinous smell permeates the entire house, slightly burning the throat. It’s not an unpleasant smell, just…strong. And slightly druggy – you could be forgiven in thinking we were growing monstrous amounts of weed. But no, just old-fashioned, organic, Herefordshire hops.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Raspberries, courgettes, cavolo nero, pentland brig kale, chard, beet spinach, sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi visnaga, last cornflowers. Hops.
Cooking and eating: Roast cherry tomatoes with garlic and oregano, samosa, cinnamon buns, oatmeal and raisin cookies
Also: Baddesley Clinton and Packwood with Harry. Dad’s 76th birthday buffet tea. Glorious late summer weather tipping into autumnal squall.

Coming into abundance

In the three weeks or so since I last blogged, the allotment has filled into abundance. (Its own version of abundance, mind, let’s not get carried away…) A good month later than normal, I’m filling multiple vases from one morning’s flower cutting, the fridge has spare courgettes and the freezer is filling with raspberries. Squash plants threaten to over-run the place, and sunflowers reach up high in shades of cocoa, maroon and saffron. Finally, there is some satisfaction.

There’s also been a birthday. We’ve kept Harry alive for four whole years, marked as ever with a gigantic chocolate cake topped with more chocolate and edged with…chocolate. The last month has been challenging, with work and illness, forever feeling behind, making it even more important to mark special events when they occur.

I went big on the birthday cake this year

Let’s do an allotment tour. The cosmos is behaving very oddly this year, putting on inches and inches of lush green growth, but barely any flowers. I turned to Instagram for answers and was advised by @Arthurparkinson that the issue is the seed: sourced from hotter climates than our own, the plants have a much longer growing season, so they just put on greenery and frankly can’t be bothered to flower. He advises pinching them out hard to give them a shock. Cosmos Purity and Dazzler are apparently the worst offenders – just what I’m growing. The few stems that I do pick last well, far better than the smaller, crimped flowering stock from earlier in the year. They go into a romantic vase with cornflowers (still going strong, incredibly), ammi visnaga and a few white pompom dahlias.

Growing behind the cosmos are the chrysanthemums, which this year are tall, healthy and (surprise surprise) late. We won’t be picking them seriously for for a few weeks yet. The sunflowers have finally come into their own, in rich autumnal shades, and they tower over the squash, nasturtiums and marigolds. I’m pleased with it all.

Finally coming into fullness: nasturtium, calendula, sunflowers, squash, cosmos, cornflower. Chrysanths are there too, tucked behind the cosmos.

The hops are late too. Matt still harbours ideas of making beer, but in the 8 (?) years of growing them he’s never managed it once. It’s more likely that these will end up in Christmas wreaths and boughs, along with dried hydrangeas, teasels, poppy heads and rosehips.

The hops are nearing harvest time, a good three weeks later than usual
Taking the wide view. In the foreground, the flowerpots support netting for savoy cabbage.

I don’t normally have courgettes coming into their own at the same time as the winter squash ripen. But that’s just what’s happened this year: after sitting in complete dormancy for weeks, finally I’m cropping several courgettes a week, and in the meantime the Jack Be Little squash are turning orange. The larger varieties are fattening nicely too; I’ll report on those at harvest time.

Jack be little pumpkin, about the size of the palm of my hand
An heirloom Italian courgette, gnarly and interesting

Dahlias are of course the queens of the September flowerbed. Just three of these orange cactus types can fill a vase, and I have them dotted around the house in their look-at-me glory. I have failed to take note of the varietal names of any of them other than Labyrinth (the coral one pictured at the back), a favourite. Next year I must grow more. I use them fresh, but other flowers are meant for drying, notably the teasels, of which I’ve harvested box fulls. I’ve now ripped the teasel plants out for fear that these 10-foot whoppers would self-seed on our neighbouring plots, making me Public Enemy #1. Note to self: if grow teasels again, be sure NOT to accidentally grow the giant variety.

The dahlias are now putting on a good show but I have totally removed the teasels, for fear that they would self-seed on all the neighbours’ plots
One morning’s cut flower haul. I could pick more but we’re limited on vase space in this house.

We were meant to be in Cornwall this week, which alas didn’t happen in the end, so I’m using the time to get the put-it-off-until-next-week jobs done. It occurs to me that this is the first week I’ve had off work for one entire year, which is madness, and then I spend this time doing serious hard graft, which is also madness. It’s good to get the jobs done though; if I didn’t keep putting them off, they wouldn’t be so difficult. This stretch behind the sunflowers was meant to be my perennial/bulb area, planted with lavender, tansy and spring bulbs. However the buttercup and couch grass got in, choking the plants and threatening to overrun the plot. It doesn’t look much but clearing this took four hours hard work.

This strip was thick with couch grass and creeping buttercup, as well as the ancient lavender. It took four hours to dig it all out.

There’s more to do. The soft fruits are swamped with long grass again, and the area that I’m eyeing up for tulips is thick with self-sown marjoram. Weed control is the absolute number one bane of the allotmenter’s life.

More happily, there are creative tasks too. The biennials that I sowed back in June have thrived, and I’ve remembered to actually plant them out far earlier than I normally do, hoping that the warm weather will allow the plants time to get firmly established before the cold comes. The broad beans came up about a fortnight ago, and in their place go sweet Williams, honesty and sweet rocket. Come May, I should be picking buckets of lovely blooms.

About two weeks ago I picked the last of the broad beans. In their place go the biennials: sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty.

Gardening shows/books often advise in July and August to stop, relax and breathe it all in; to admire what you’ve created. What bunkum. I have realised that both my allotment and garden are at their most stressful in high summer, because things have a) either not worked out how I wanted, so I’m disappointed, b) got over-run with weeds, so I’m cross, or c) need picking NOW NOW NOW so there’s yet another job to do amongst all the others (looking at you peas and courgettes in a good year). September into October is surely the best time, when there are low-maintenance flowers to pick (dahlias just do their own thing); when the cavolo nero and pentland brig kale sit quietly waiting for a chop whenever I feel like it; when the raspberries turn red in abundance; when the squash tantalisingly fatten. Yes, this is the golden time. Though I do wish that all the jobs/weeds would take care of themselves.

Also this week (month):
Harvesting: Dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, cornflower, ammi visnaga, teasel, amaranthus, cavolo nero, pentland brig, russian red kales, chard, a few carrots, courgette, raspberries (they’re really going for it now), a few sparse meagre French beans, a few cherry tomatoes. Broad beans ended about two weeks ago. Buying up early English apples and pears from the local farm shops.

Jobs: Dug out the lavender patch of couch grass and buttercups. Started prepping ground by dahlias for spring bulbs. So much weeding. Took up broad beans and planted out biennials, savoy cabbage and kohl rabi, though I have not much hope for the latter. The climbing French beans that I planted directly are finally now flowering, after what feels like months of irritation at their performance. At home, re-seeded the lawn and dug/manured back bed ready for spring bulb planting.

Cooking: Invited my parents over for two-rib roast beef with all the trimmings and the Chapel Down sparkling rose that I bought in Kent for my birthday, to mark keeping Harry alive for another year. Made a massive chocolate birthday cake alongside kids’ party tea of pink wafers, pizza and capri sun. Cooking and eating has gone badly this month due to work, illness and strange bedtimes, and I’ve been even buying M&S ready-meals for myself, which is a sure sign of being out of balance.

Reading: I’ve recently given up on too many books to mention but I am enjoying How to be Sad by Helen Russell and The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Plus the Sarah Raven podcast and Ramblings on BBC Sounds.

Reflecting on a year-round harvest

I’ve been laid-low by some mystery chest-infection-type illness. Bed-bound for a week, I’ve been reflecting on what the veg/garden patch is all for….if I do a cost-benefit analysis of this summer, there’s been quite a lot of heartache and feeling up against it (the result of which is these bastard microbes who seem hell-bent on trying to kill me). So in an effort at balance, I will temporarily ignore all those brambles and slugs and dead sweetpeas, and instead look at what’s been achieved. And with it, I realise that I’m working towards a new goal: the holy-grail of the year-round harvest.

But first, pasta, pizza and ice cream at Verdi’s in Mumbles.

WE LOVE VERDI’s!
Harry loves ice cream at Verdi’s even more!

The season has tipped from high- to late-summer, which to me is a relief…life just seems more relaxed in September. The cut flowers are changing too, with the last of the tansy and achillea now finished, and the dahlias coming into their own. There is still life in the cornflower and the cosmos I started in April has not even bloomed yet – SO LATE, I still can’t get over it – and so we have overlap between the romantic whimsical high summer flowers and their showier early autumn cousins.

Whimsy of cosmos, tansy, teasel, cornflower and achillea
A whiter version, with dahlias and ammi visnaga added in
The dahlias are now showing off – some as big as dinner plates, others slightly more dainty
Just three of these is enough to fill a huge vase

Back to the year-round harvest. The point of all of this effort must surely be to have something to pick, whether it’s meant for the kitchen or for the vase, for most of the year. It needn’t be a lot – actually it’s better if it isn’t, for a glut is stressful and also requires effort to process. A vase a week. A punnet of berries. Beans for dinner. Kale for minestrone. And so on. So if I take the marker of success as having something of note to harvest at any point in the year, then actually we’re doing pretty well.

Here’s the year-round harvest list:

Jan: Kales, chard

Feb: Kales, chard, narcissi

March: Kales, purple sprouting, narcissi, tulips

April: Purple sprouting, early salads, Tulips

May: Foxglove, lilac, alliums, cow parsley, maybe a few tulips, early salads

June: Foxglove, sweet william, honesty, sweet fennel, cornflower, cosmos, ammi magus, nasturtium, peas or mange tout, redcurrants, rocket. Peonies add to this list in 2022.

July: Lavender, foxgloves, cosmos, cornflower, tansy, marigold, nasturtiums, achillea, teasels, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, broad beans, maybe stick beans if they ever grow, lettuce. Add in 2022: coneflower, delphinium, lupin, gladioli, echinops. Also I start to receive top-ups from my parents of potatoes, blueberries, tomatoes.

August: Dahlias, marigold, achillea, tansy, sunflowers, strawflower, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, courgette, chard, kales, carrots. Parental top-up of potatoes, blueberries, blackcurrants, tomatoes, sweetcorn, peppers.

September: Dahlias, sunflowers, chrystanthemums, hops, raspberries, courgette, chard, carrots, parsnip, rocket, mustard, kales

October: Chrysanthemum, parsnip, kales, pumpkins, rocket, mustard

November: Kale, parsnips

December: Kale, parsnip

Whenever I look at a year-round list I’m always amazed at just how little there is to eat until about June/July, then there’s about two months of fun, and then we’re back to kale again. The hungry gap must have been SO real before commercial agriculture was invented. Happily for me, I can fill this gap with cut flowers.

What not to grow: I’ve learnt that it’s just not worth the bother on our plot, with the time resources available and the sodding pigeons: sweetpeas, most of the climbing beans, tomatoes (they get blight), fennel (bolts), beetroot and turnips (they don’t seem to enjoy our soil). Far better to focus on the plants that need little intervention and that don’t get eaten.

And with that off my chest, I’m going back to bed.

Pickled nasturtium pods

Today has been about assessing wind damage. The teasels, sunflowers and chrysanthemums all came a cropper at the weekend, the heavy stems keeling over horizontally in the strong wind. Inevitably the flowers then turned their heads towards the sun, meaning the stems are now bent at right-angles – not a great look for cut-flowers. The colour palette is gradually changing now as we head into late summer, with the first dahlias and sunflowers coming through, and the feathery spider chrysanthemums looking promising.

Attention is moving to the late summer crops now – cosmos, sunflower, chrysanthemums and squash

This is such a strange year for growing. It’s mid-August and the broad beans are only now coming into their own – today I picked a load to have alongside the first courgette. The first courgette, and it’s 9th August! Last week I planted out tiny savoy cabbage and kohl rabi seedlings for a winter harvest, mainly in hope rather than expectation.

Tiny little savoy cabbage seedling plated out amongst the nasturtiums and broad beans

I’ve been picking flowers for drying as well as for the vase. Tansy, cornflowers, poppy heads and teasels are sure-fire winners. I do not hold much hope for dried marigolds but I think it’s worth a go to see how they fare. The strawflowers – backbone of winter dried flower arrangements – are not looking hopeful, however. They languished in the cold-frame for weeks (I had to re-sow a few times due to slug damage) and therefore got planted out late, just a week or two ago. In my experience it’s the late summer to autumn plants that really thrive on our plot so there is still a chance, but we’ll need the weather to be kind (sunny, warm) for a crop.

Flowers for drying: cornflowers, poppy heads, tansy, marigolds, teasels
The frothy romantic vases of cosmos, cornflower and achillea are still coming, now dotted with early white pompom dahlias

Whilst I am harvesting, there has not been so much of the epic afternoons of fruit and veg prep as usual. Just one big bowl of blackcurrants to be topped and tailed, and beans in dribs-and-drabs to pod. The blueberries are now cropping, plus a few errant blackberries that survived the winter weed, and the raspberries still a few weeks away.

Even in late July and August we’re still podding broad beans. Blackcurrants are finished now but the blueberries and blackberries have begun.

Produce processing is a summer chore that is also a joy. Chore because the task HAS to be done regardless of how much other work is in the way….but a joy because there is the chance to properly engage with what we’ve grown, be present in the moment and in the season. Soft fruit, green leafy veg and tomatoes are the usual time-takers, but this year I added a new one to the list: nasturtium pods.

Nasturtiums run rampant across our plot, all self-seeding after just one sowing years back. I do use the flowers and leaves in salads but mainly they’re there for the bees. Allotment neighbour Susan asked me the other day if I ever pickle the pods for poor-man capers, and the honest answer was Nope, I have never done this. Until now.

Pickled caper pods whisper to me of times past. They are product of the pottager and cottage garden; I can easily imagine them on an Elizabethan table as on a trendy salad in 2021. I have never eaten them but am drawn to the idea of an English, home-grown alternative to the caper. Here’s what you do – I can’t comment on the outcome as yet but will report back in November.

Pickled Nasturtium Pods (poor-man’s capers)

For one jar of pods, harvest about 100g of nasturtium pods. These are the seed pods of the nasturtium which swell and ripen once the flower has gone over. Pick them over for stems and errant leaves, then give them a good rinse under the cold tap.

Pick over nasturtium pods to remove stems and dirt, then rinse under the cold tap

Put the pods into a dish with 15g salt and 300ml water. Put the lid on then leave in the fridge in a day or two. The salting process helps to mellow the flavour of the final pickle.

Leave them in a water-salt solution for a few days

When you’re ready to finish the pickle, clean and sterilise a glass jar and lid. Rinse the nasturtium pods and dry them well on kitchen paper. Pop the pods into the jar with a pinch of herbs and spices (I used 1 tsp coriander seeds and two bayleaves). Black peppercorns, dill and white mustard seeds would all be good. If you like a slightly sweeter pickle add 1 tsp sugar. Then fill the jar with white wine vinegar until it reaches the very top, about 200ml.

Rinse and dry, then bottle up with white wine vinegar, herbs, spices and maybe a touch of sugar

Pop the lid on then leave to pickle and mature for at least one month before eating.

Bottled nasturtium pods. Leave for a few months to mellow before eating.

Once mature, the pickled pods can be used in place of capers – in salads, on pizzas and with cheese.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cornflowers, cosmos, tansy, last ammi majus, marigolds, dahlias, first sunflowers, teasels, achillea, last lavender, first courgette (FINALLY), nasturtium pods, wild rocket, a tiny handful of climbing beans, broad beans, chard, blueberries, first blackberries, last gooseberries. Could be harvesting kale and cavolo nero but leaving them for a little while longer. Every trip to Grove House leads to a bootful of beetroot, potatoes, stick beans, carrots and more blueberries.
Also: Pulled up lettuce and peas. Planted out strawflowers, lupins, delphiniums. Sowed beet spinach, salad rocket, quatre saison lettuce and mustard leaves.
Cooking: The weather has turned rainy with a chill in the air, so roast pork belly it is. Mousakka with summer squash instead of aubergine. Chocolate roulade with strawberries.
Also: Trip to Liverpool for work, the joy of a cappuccino in a new city. Inspiration for new shades of achillea and echinops at Highbury Hall.

The July allotment

In the past two weeks, now there’s some heat, I can see noticeable acceleration in growth – and about bloody time, I might add. The third week of July is late to be seeing the change. Without wishing to be too melodramatic, the allotment this year has driven me to the point of despair. Grass proliferates, and when even courgettes will not grow, what hope is there? So I’ve been looking, properly paying attention, to work out what The Problem is. And in an effort at balance, also take stock of what’s doing alright, actually.

A number of plants appear to thrive in our free-draining, exposed plot. Some are the self-seeders; others are the perennials or shrubs that I put in and leave to it. Of the first lot, the nasturtiums, poppies, marjoram and buttercup are rampant. Foxgloves, lavender, achillea, tansy and mullein have all become whoppers with no assistance from me. The connecting factor with all these is that they like the sun, they like to be free-draining, and they can cope with low nutrient soil. Not that our allotment soil is poor quality (years of manure put paid to that) but these particular plants get no assistance from me.

The lesson: plants that like sun, can tolerate drought and are low-maintenance will do well. Conversely, those that needs tons of water and molly-coddling (sweet peas, squash, beans) struggle.

The allotment on 19 July: broad beans finally thriving, as are nasturtiums, but the courgette and stick beans struggling to get going
Cosmos, sunflower, squash and ammi majus are getting going – plus note the thriving nasturtium and teasel at the rear
Greens and roots are doing OK – chard, beet spinach, carrots, parsnip plus (out of shot) cavolo nero, flower sprout and kale. In the mid-ground, Jill Be Little squash are still tiddly.

The chief disappointment, as has been the case for a few years now, is the stick beans. I recall that last year I sowed at least three times (at home and directly) before getting a crop, and even then it was small. This year is no different. The variety does not seem to matter – I have tried runner, three types of French and borlotti. They germinate well enough, but the plants started at home suffer from lack of sun, and those planted directly usually get knobbled by the pigeons. This year they’re having to fend off the self-seeded nasturtiums too, a plant so prolific that I may have to start culling it. Sweet peas similarly are frustrating, though I think lack of regular watering did for them this year. In an effort to out-fox the pigeons, I have put a final desperate new sowing of beans into the sweet pea netting – the triumph of hope over experience. My ever-sensible mother-in-law Jean suggests that I try growing stick beans at home instead of the allotment, where I can care for the them properly – a suggestion so obvious I wonder why I didn’t think of it earlier.

Climbing beans of all variety are struggling, but the self-seeded nasturtium is romping off
Sweet peas are dead. This is a third sowing – still no joy.

The cold spring has led to inevitable lateness. I would expect the cornflowers to be cropping a month earlier than they actually did, but now they are here, what a joy they are. Coming at the same time as the early cosmos and ammi they are, to me, the epitome of the early English summer. Just a bit later than normal.

Cornflowers are finally coming into their own, plus behind them are my Mum’s early-sown cosmos and ammi

The strange spring impacted the early broad beans of course. The ones I started in February are now scourged in black-fly, whilst the ones direct sown at the end of May are thriving and healthy. The early ones, interestingly, also have patchy pollination – the cold snap in April and May causing havoc to the wildlife.

The broad beans that were direct sown at the end of May are healthy and vibrant…
…but those started under-cover in February have succumbed to black fly and the pods have not been pollinated

Over on the new biennial and perennial patch, the dahlias are thriving. Both the over-wintered and the newly planted tubers are healthy, making me think that next year I should add to the collection. The biennials, on the other hand, were poor – but have potential. I started off new sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty at the end of June, and will plant them out in the autumn to give them chance to bulk up – rather than, as I did this year, in the spring when the weather was too cold.

Dahlias are doing OK, both the ones left in over-winter and the newly planted tubers

A word about teasels. I put these in as tiny plug plants in spring 2020, just as lockdown was coming in, thinking they would be a fun addition to my dried flower collection for the winter. Had I known they would become ten-foot whoppers I might have hesitated – though I can not deny that these green cone-shaped flower heads are a lovely addition to the vase. My chief concern is that they will self-sow all over the place, so I’m started to crop them now (before they fully flower and set seed) and dry them in readiness for winter arrangements.

If I had known these teasels would reach ten feet tall I may not have planted them – majestic though they are
Half a teasel stem, with my foot for scale

I have not pictured the grass, that this year seems worse than ever and has infiltrated the raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. The only hope is to strim for now, then in the colder months dig it out as best I can. Well either that or buy myself a gigantic house with a kitchen garden on-site that has no grass attached to it (I can dream).

I also believe a major issue is one of anticipation versus reality. What I want is abundance – and yet of course, too much abundance is stressful, for no-one wants gluts of vegetables and fruit that will go over before they can be eaten. I would like more early veg (broad beans, French beans, small courgettes) but the growing conditions will not allow it; we actually do much better in the late summer and early autumn, when the soft fruit, squash and brassicas come into their own.

Of course much of the allotment is now given up to flowers, and the trick here is to have a regular crop of modest proportions – anything bigger is overwhelming. I’m now getting about 4 or 5 small vases a week, perfect for the mantlepiece and kitchen table, and I can go for either a cool or warm colour palette. The cosmos, cornflower and ammi are the current queen plants, and they will give way in due course to sunflowers, dahlias and chrysanthemums.

Currently we’re getting about five of these vases a week, in cool blue/white/mauve/green and warmer yellow/purple/orange palettes
Achillea, cosmos, ammi, cornflower, poppy heads, teasel, lavender, nasturtium, tansy and calendula are all cropping now
Sufferagette colours: purple, green and white

Lessons to learn, then, are as follows:

  1. Only sow at the allotment what can be realistically watered; keep the fussy beans for home.
  2. Rethink the spring sowing plan, for the seedlings need to have more light and be tougher before they are planted out. Maybe it is time to bring back the greenhouse or, better yet, cobble together a polytunnel.
  3. Brassicas do well, so maybe try a few more of those, in different varieties.
  4. Flowers for nine months of the year are a possibility, but veg isn’t. Within current resources, do not expect much of a veg harvest before late July. Extend the flower season with spring bulbs and biennials, and think about a wider variety of dahlias. Perennials seem to excel, so consider a few more, for cutting.
  5. Over the winter, do something about the grass.

Simple, no?

Also this week:
Harvesting: At home, lettuce, thyme, oregano. From allotment, broad beans (scant), dwarf beans (scant), chard, beet spinach, cornflower, ammi, cosmos, lavender, teasel, nasturtium, first dahlias, achillea. Sweet william, foxglove, strawberries are now finished. Gift of stick beans, potatoes, fennel, carrots, raspberries and blueberries from my parents.
Garden: The garden is moving from the cool shades of early summer to the hot tones of high-to-late summer. Roses and bronze fennel at their zenith, with helenium and dahlias coming through. Potted on sweet williams that were started in June. Cut back aquilegia and allium heads for drying. Planted out new dahlias, salvia amistad and other orange/yellow palette plants for late summer – incidentally I thought that most of the garden dahlias had not made it over the winter but on digging around discovered that the slugs had been nibbling the emerging shoots whilst still underground. Serious note taking and thinking about next spring and early summer – spent a good £200 on spring bulbs for home and allotment, inspired by the trip to Perch Hill.
Cooking and eating: Whole lamb shoulder butterflied and barbecued, flavoured with cumin and harissa. Potato salad using Dad’s potatoes. Chapel Down sparkling bacchus, a joy.
Also: Visited Puzzle Wood. Reading The Mitford Girls biography and Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Flowers. No time or interest for telly. Am getting up early to be on the allotment at 8am before the heat is unbearable and the working day begins; life feels very full and busy again.

Dream vs reality

It ‘should’ be the season of abundance on the allotment, with buckets of cut-flowers and courgettes coming out of my eyes. But this year – not so much. Many plants are still tiddlers, and others are showing the effect of that cold dry spring.

We spent the midsummer solstice in Kent and Sussex, revisiting two old favourites (Perch Hill and Sissinghust) and discovering new creative inspiration at Dungeness. And whilst we had a lovely time I can’t help but notice the contrast in abundance between the gardens ‘down south’ and ours up in the Midlands. More of that later. For a while, let’s look at the dream gardens/cutting patches/kitchen gardens and see what inspirations can be taken for back home.

Perch Hill & Sissinghurst

Ah Perch Hill, garden of Sarah Raven, and Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West. Both of them exude femininity and abundance, but the soft edges are prevented from being overwhelmingly sickly by extravagantly expensive landscaping – this is not a criticism, merely an observation.

The oast garden at Perch Hill – crammed with plants, with plenty of structures to give height

Both gardens are massive of course, but because they are made of several garden rooms or areas, they still feel domestic. It’s easy to forget that it takes several full-time gardeners (and multi-million pound investment) to get them this good, so natural is the effect.

What I love about both, but Perch Hill in particular, is the way everything is crammed together. Crammed! Perch Hill has two cutting gardens (one perennial and one annual), a veg patch, trial grounds, rose garden, oast garden, Dutch garden and wild meadow plus glasshouses. I don’t think there is an inch of spare soil anywhere. It’s not all tidy-tidy either – the perennial cutting garden was notably full of self-seeders and weeds, and looks all the better for it.

The perennial cutting garden at Perch Hill, taken 18 June – lupins, poppies, love in a mist, astrantia and peonies predominate

In mid June, peonies, lupins, astrantia and poppies take centre stage for cutting, giving way to the annuals (cosmos, ammi etc) and then later in the year to dahlias and chrysanthemums. The cutting year starts with the narcissi, leading to tulips and alliums, then to biennials of foxglove and sweet william. Succession of colour is the big story here; it’s something I certainly aspire to but have yet to work out how to actually achieve given our limited space for starting plants off.

Love these lupins but also love how jam-packed and actually slightly untidy it all is
Astranita is on the cut flower list for 2022

At Perch Hill they put in a ‘lasagne’ system of growing to make the most of space. Dahlias are in the same bed as spring bulbs (narcissi and tulips), with annuals in the top. So the bulbs coming up in March/April, giving way to June poppies, and then the dahlias take over in late summer. I think this is a fabulous idea but I wonder how well it translates in a cooler climate, where annuals often don’t flower until mid-July.

An abundance of poppies is planted over top of dahlias, supported with impressive grid structures of silver birch
The entrance at Sissinghurst, always full of gorgeous cut flowers

The key take-aways for me are:
– Everything takes SO LONG to get started where we are so I need to plan for this. Include early flowering narcissi such as Pheasants Eye for both the garden and cutting garden – they can go overtop of the dahlias – and more tulips for April colour
– Look at putting more flowers into pots in 2021, particularly early spring bulbs such as Iris reticulata
– Add astrantia, poppies, lupins and gladioli to the cutting patch
– Biennials into the garden as well as cutting patch
– Artichokes can be underplanted with tulips
– If something isn’t working then change it. Sounds obvious, but they talk about ripping out whole sections because the look isn’t right, something I would be shy to do because it would feel so wasteful.

Dungeness

What a contrast from the rolling green hills around Perch Hill and Sissinghurst to the mysterious landscape of Dungeness. We came partly to see Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, and partly to see the weirdness of this pebble world of shacks and lighthouses framed by a nuclear power station.

Prospect Cottage is a lesson of right plant right place, but actually the planting is secondary in importance to the genius of an artist’s eye. The garden uses plants found all around Dungeness – vipers bugloss, poppies, sea kale – and each is its own miracle for surviving in this strange, barren landscape. But what makes the garden special is the placement of found objects washed in by the sea set inside circles of gravel in contrasting colours. Colour rules are broken with oranges clashing against reds and pinks. It could only have been made by a true artist.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness – all the Perch Hill colour rules are broken here, with clashing purple, pink, yellow, red and orange
The joy here is the exquisite placement of found objects and clumps of flowers set against the mysterious gravel landscape of Dungeness

This is not a garden to attempt to recreate – it would be impossible – but one to appreciate for the genius of its creator. Read more in this Guardian article.

The reality of home

Back we headed to Birmingham, and full of optimism, I head to the allotment sort of expecting it to have transformed in my absence into a garden of abundance. This, obviously, was not the case.

Now, there is some life now and we’re cropping vases of biennial foxgloves and sweet william, a few cornflowers plus the early annuals that my Mum grew undercover (cosmos, ammi). There’s also the very first broad beans, mange tout and chard. The few perennials I put in are doing just fine. But on the whole, this years veggies and the cut flowers are TINY. The courgettes have not really done anything since being planted out three weeks ago, and neither have the climbing beans or sweet peas. What’s going on?

And then back to my reality: weeds, disappointing growth and too much brown earth
This cut flower patch is still weeks behind those in Kent and Sussex but note the naturalised perennials and biennials in the background, now at full growth

A snoop around our neighbouring plots says that I can’t blame it all on the cold spring, for they have massive brassicas, dahlias, broad beans – it really is just us. Part of it is might be daily watering, which I am unable to do. Maybe I planted out too soon, when the ground was still cold. But I’m wondering if we need to take another look at how we start our plants off, for they seem to suffer from lack of sun and space in our wee terrace garden. I still have some strawflower, kohl rabi and savoy cabbage in the cold frame at home and they are struggling to get going; perhaps it’s lack of light when young. I don’t mean to moan, I am simply genuinely perplexed!

There is cropping to be had though – foxglove, sweet william, first dahlias, first cosmos, parsnip flower, first ammi, mange tout, broad beans and strawberries
Foxgloves, parsnip and ammi give heigh, sweet william, cornflowers and cosmos a hint of country romance

When we took on our allotment I was told it was a millennium project – never finished – and that is of course both the challenge and the joy. Always we can go back to the drawing board.

Also this week:
Harvesting: First broad beans, mange tout, first chard, lettuce, strawberries, redcurrants, foxgloves, sweet william, first cosmos, first cornflower, parsnip flower, ammi.
Eating and cooking: Far too much wine at Hema’s house (well it has been a year of no social life) but Patrick’s Trinidadian stew chicken is always a joy. Strawberries, nectarines, peaches and raspberries, eaten neat with yoghurt, ice cream or cream. So lovely to have the first spring veg, even if it is July. At Sissinghurst, a beautiful starter of potted shrimp with fennel – light and crunchy.
Also: We’re both working hard again now, as we exit lockdown. Talk of schools and reflection on how these early choices made for children profoundly affect lives.

Chocolate almond macaroons

Sun shining, a day out to the nearest edge of the Cotswolds for a first posh lunch out as a trio since 2019, then an ice cream in the shadow of Broadway Tower. Cow parsley, buttercups, long long grass, hawthorn blossom and stinging nettles.

Broadway Tower

Back home, the foxgloves are in flower, majestic spikes of pink, peach and white, marked with spots of purple and orange. Foxgloves are absolutely in my top 5 flowers – so architectural and plain weird – and even better, these all self-sowed so cost not a penny. Here I’ve placed them with alliums and sweet william for an interesting mix of height and form.

Foxgloves, sweet william and allium now cropping

I made a big batch of chocolate gelato at the weekend, overcome by the hot weather. It was good – very good – but even better are these chocolate almond macaroons that use up the left-over egg whites. They’re now my go-to recipe whenever we have egg whites hanging around, say after a carbonara or custard, and – unlike meringues, which never get eaten – they’re a firm favourite for both pre-schoolers and early-middle-agers. I found the recipe from a blog about living in a vicarage, so this is recipe is also known as Church Biscuit No.70.

Chocolate almond macaroons

Chocolate almond macaroons

2 egg whites
200g ground almonds
30g cocoa powder
175g icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180c and line a baking sheet with parchment. Sift the almonds, cocoa and icing sugar into a bowl and using a wooden spoon, mix in the unbeaten egg whites to a firm dough. Simple.

With wet hands, roll out walnut-size balls of mixture and place on the baking sheet, flattening each one slightly as you go. Bake for 11-15 minutes, until dry on top and slightly cracked. You want to keep a certain squishiness in the middle. Cool before serving.

These last several days in the tin and are good on their own or as an accompaniment to ice-cream.

Also this week:
Harvesting: sweet william, foxgloves, last of the spring rocket, last of the chervil.
Allotment and garden: Watering twice a week (it’s not enough, no rain for two weeks now) but the veg are still small despite the warm weather. Admiring the roses, now at their peak. Delphiniums just coming out whilst the aquilegia go over.
Eating and cooking: Lunch at The Fish of asparagus with brown shrimp followed by Fowey mussels. Rhubarb ice cream at Broadway Tower. Cost a fortune but a joy to be out at last. Made chocolate gelato from the Rick Stein Venice to Istanbul book. Eating more Greek salads than most Greeks at present.
Also: Reading Under a Mackerel Sky, Rick Stein’s memoir.

Allotmenting for wildlife

Well what a difference a fortnight can make. Two weeks ago I was lamenting the cold, wet, windy spring, and then – overnight – we switched to summer. Warm dry days are followed by warm dry nights, the cold a distant memory. I fall into this warm weather in the same way that one might sink into a hot bath. How easy it is to succumb! What is a coat again? What are socks again? I can not remember ever having had a need or a use for them.

The plants of course are tumbling over themselves in joy. In my garden, the beds are an eruption of pinks, purples and whites as the roses, aquilegia and allium vie for attention. The warmth has brought into life a massive population of aphids; they cover the roses with thousands of tiny green bumps, leaving their sticky mess everywhere. I’m fascinated by them and wander out each morning and evening to take a closer look, conscious that my garden isn’t mine at all, but a shared space for hundreds of species. The air literally hums with insects. The fledgling magpies hop around the trees and chimney tops, testing their wings.

On the allotment, it’s not full steam ahead just yet, but there are signs of things preparing for proper action. The peas, which two weeks ago I had written off as dead, are fighting back and have grown at least a foot in the last ten days. The broad beans too are reviving, and whilst I won’t be winning any prizes for best beans anytime soon, I think we’ll still get a crop.

Finally, finally, the peas have taken off in the warmer weather

Last weekend we planted out the climbing and dwarf beans – several varieties are jumbled up together – and once again, whilst they’re not quite thriving, they’re hanging on which I take as a victory. The same goes for baby chard, beet spinach, cavolo nero and flower sprouts. Everything is netted against the pigeons of course.

Meanwhile the climbing and dwarf beans are bedding themselves in
Chard and beet spinach sits undercover to protect from pigeons

I’ve not mentioned the hops yet this year. Two of our old plants are zipping up the hop twine, but Matt has replaced the others with new baby plants that will take a year or two to get going.

We will have two substantial hop plants this year, plus two babies

We also have fruit set. The green swelling of baby strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries can all be seen, though I think it will be a small crop this year as a result of the April cold affecting the blossom.

A surviving strawberry finally bears fruit

As for the cut flowers, I took a tiny first cut of foxgloves and sweet william today. The latter all self-seeded last year and I made the effort to move them to their own block in the autumn, for which I will be richly rewarded over the next month as all 30 or so plants are thriving. The sweet william I had actually given up on but this few weeks of warm has revived them, their sweet scent a welcome reminder of summer.

I had given up on the Sweet William but they too look ready to put on a show
About 30 foxgloves are waiting in the wings for their moment

Back to wildlife. For the first five years or so I didn’t give much thought to the wildlife on our allotment, other than to be irritated by slugs and birds. (Lately the slugs seem to have moved elsewhere and I’ve learnt to net everything, which has solved the bird problem.) I certainly didn’t hate the insects and invertebrates but I had a sure sense of ‘This is my dance space, that is your dance space, let’s not get too close’. But over time my view has completely changed and I’ve come to relish being in close quarters with wild creatures going about their business – hence wandering out to look at what the greenfly are up to on the roses.

This has influenced how I keep the plot. There are plenty of weeds around the perimeter of our allotment which I purposefully keep in, as they are great food source for winged insects. An entire strip is dense with pollinator-friendly plants, some of which I have put in (alliums, lavender, sorrel) but others that have self-seeded (buttercup, foxglove, oregano, tansy) and I have either let them be or I’ve moved them to a slightly more convenient location. Take the mullein, for example, that seems to love our patch of ground and seeds itself everywhere. I have let four stay, and each is now home to the mullein caterpillar, a pretty little thing that will absolutely decimate the plant before it becomes a moth in a few weeks time, but is also a useful food source for birds.

The insect-friendly strip with sorrel, foxglove, mullein, buttercups, tansy, allium and lavender
Common mullein plant – my foot is there for an idea of size
The mullein moth has been busy: caterpillars can decimate the mullein plant

Elsewhere a few minor interventions can make for interesting rewards. Last spring I planted a few teasels, thinking they would be a lovely dried flower, but I hadn’t realised what an incredibly majestic plant this is when allowed to thrive. (I’ll share pictures when it flowers in a few weeks.) And this parsnip was left in the ground over the winter and is now ready to flower, so another food source for insects plus I’ll get to save the seeds. But what a whopper of a plant! It’s already reaching my chin and will be covered with pretty yellow umbellifers.

I left two of last year’s parsnips in the ground, and they are now preparing to flower
Parsnips are an umbellifer and part of the carrot family

Elsewhere by the brook there are nettles, cow parsley and brambles and no, it’s not tidy, but what a relief it is to let go of all those old ideas as to what constitutes beauty and worth, and instead think of oneself as inhibitor of a shared natural space. As long the allotment is productive – not just in veg, fruit and flowers but also in wildlife and yes in providing joy – that is how I measure success these days.

Also this week:
Planting out: Dahlias, chrysanthemums, sweet peas, ammi, peas, red kale, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, flower sprouts, echinacea, climbing beans, dwarf beans, courgette, fennel, tomatoes.
In the garden: Roses are at their best, plus aquilegia, allium, fennel all looking good. Planted out sunflowers. Cut back forsythia.
Harvesting: Start of the foxgloves and sweet william, ammi, cow parsley.
Cooking and eating: Strawberries, first cherries, first barbecue of the year. Inspired by Rick Stein’s Venice to Istanbul book (which I borrowed from the library via a Covid-safe appointment system straight from a Victoria Wood sketch) made Kisir, a bulgur wheat salad from Turkey, and now want to cook the entire book.
Also: Visited Chatsworth, our first proper family day out since September. We could really do with a holiday.

Dealing with disappointment

I am writing in mid-May, wearing two jumpers, whilst outside it is raining for the 20th (?) day in a row, with the added delight of gale-force wind. This week we’ve had serious torrential downpours – the kind that cause flash-flooding – as well as hard bouts of hail. March was warm and sunny, April turned cold and unusually dry, May is a complete wash-out, and the combined strange weather of this spring is spelling disaster for my flowers and veg.

In one of the very few rain-free and child-free hours that I’ve had for the last month, I managed to get to the allotment on Monday to assess the damage. The grass, of course, is loving the rain – maybe I should just grow grass and be done with it – as is the creeping buttercup. And on the plus side, the wild cow parsley that lives near the shed is looking lovely against the dull grey sky; I put some into a vase with several stems of lilac plucked from the tree. Neither last long as cut flowers, but they are a welcome reminder that summer IS a thing and DOES exist.

Lilac and cow parsley, one of my favourite vases of the year

But the disappointments are many. The ancient rosemary that we inherited when we took over the plot eight years ago has not made it through the winter. I am uncertain if the cold got it, if the brambles choked it, if it got too dry, or if it simply reached the end of its life. I’m really sad about losing this gnarly beast and can’t help but feel responsible for its demise; we should have paid more attention to it earlier in the winter and now it’s too late.

The rosemary is no more

The peas and broad beans are an abject disaster. Awful. They were planted out as healthy seedlings one month ago and not only have failed to thrive but I think have actually shrunk – a bug has nibbled them obviously but I think the lack of water in April is what did for them. I was hoping the last few weeks of rain would perk them up but no; I think we have proper crop failure on our hands.

Pea plants should be lush, dense and green by now – not like this
The broad beans remain tiddly and many are blackened around the edges. My hand is for scale.

I do have replacements ready to go in, but whilst the weather remains so cold, wet and wild (and I remain with very few child-free hours to get any serious work done), the next set of young plants remain next to the cold-frame, marking time. And whilst they are fine, few of them are brilliantly healthy – can anything really thrive in this strange weather, with so little sunshine and warmth? This week’s storms have sent the climbing beans horizontal, even though they were in as sheltered a place as I could find for them.

This year’s seedlings are ready for planting out, but the weather is not ready for them
There must be a few hundred plants here, waiting for some warm dry weather
The climbing beans really need something to climb up

To complete my complaining, the few tender and baby plants that are left in the sun room are yearning for, well, sun. My tomatoes have shot away in the last ten days, as have the sunflowers, straining themselves taller and taller to find light that just isn’t there.

The tomatoes have grown leggy in the gloom
And the sunflowers have the same issue.

It’s not a complete disaster just yet. My sunflower seedlings are ALWAYS leggy but always recover, and we’ll still get a good summer’s crop of flowers and veg if only the weather warms a little. But these little set-backs together add up to a general feeling of disappointment and frustration: after what has been a challenging winter, I think we all hoped for a repeat of last year’s glorious warm spring.

I notice that there’s a bedraggled pigeon perched on the garden fence, braving the inclement weather to preen itself whilst standing in perfect balance on one foot. I remind myself of the Buddhist teaching which says that unhappiness is caused by expecting things to be anything other than what they are. Acceptance is key. Instead of raging against the weather, I need to be more like the pigeon.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, Jersey Royals, A lovely Greek dish of a leg of lamb slow-cooked with tomatoes, wine and oregano until meltingly tender, served with Greek chips and feta. The best almond cake. Chicken baked with chorizo and peppers.
Harvesting: Nothing, is that a joke?
Also: Loving the BBC’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, in particular the glorious set and costume design. Reading City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Hop twine bean poles

We have strange weather to match the strange times. April started like a lamb, with warm sunshine and ice lollies all round, only to give way to weeks of dry frost; now as we tip into May we are hit with rain and blustery winds – I think of it as Cornish weather. All is confusion: one part of me trips trying to keep up with the changing season (the trees are vividly green now and the garden has grown lush in the space of one week), but then I’m also frustrated at the lack of progress as the cold keeps my veg seedlings small.

But then do I always feel this way at the start of May? I cling to the idea that the veg plot will be lush and productive with broad beans and salads by now, but the truth (every year) is that there won’t be anything to crop for weeks. Daffodils can still be in bloom in June in these parts, and May is the season not of the bean but of the tulip. It’s a good job we don’t have to live purely off our crops, because we would never make it through the Hungry Gap of late spring. This weekend I visited the Tulip Festival at Morton Hall, near Redditch, and this shot of their super-expensive veg patch rather eloquently proves my point: not a leaf of spinach or rocket in sight, but plenty of very elegant spring bulbs.

The beautifully prepared veg plot at Morton Hall is still sparse in May
Cut tulips at the Morton Hall Tulip Festival

In the meantime, I am obsessed with my seedlings. Obsessed. The trays inhabit three areas depending on the need and size of the plant: The babies begin life near the windows of the sunroom, then some make it to the cold-frame, and when they are big enough the trays are propped outside in rows against a sheltered wall. This is not a foolproof system by any means, but it’s the best I can do with the space I have. The inside seedlings germinate well but risk legginess and sunburn, whilst the outside babies have been battered this week with rain, wind and hail. Every morning and every afternoon I check their progress, give them a turn, move some out, move some back in again, give them water, see who is happy and who is struggling. All is a tentative dance to keep up with the weather. It’s a challenge I love, a way to keep fully engaged with the rapid changes of spring.

Indoor seedlings including beans, sunflowers, fennel, beets, salvia and strawflower
Space remains at a premium
This weekend’s hail and wind have battered the outside seedlings, so back into the cold frame they go to recover
The cold has inhibited the sweet peas and broad beans, so it will be a later harvest than normal

The only crop that thrives currently are the rocket and lettuce seedlings, which I planted into the veg trug under the plastic cover to keep the squirrels and cats off, but of course it’s added weather protection too. We’ll be able to start cropping these in a week or two.

Salad leaves in the veg trug

So whilst I wait for the plants, attention is focused on plot architecture. The hopolisk went up this weekend, ready to take the weight of the four hop plants. Normally we would put in a load of hazel poles at the same time, to support the climbing beans and sunflowers, but this year coppiced hazel is impossible to find. Instead we are trialling a new system of climbing the French, runner and borlotti beans up hop twine, which is then fixed into place with this nifty bit of wood that Matt whizzed up on his CNC machine. It’s all held together with a steel leg pushed deep into the soil. It’s kind of like a May Pole, but using beans rather than ribbons.

This year’s bean supports: hop twine is tied to the holes, supported in place by solid steel legs

These are an experiment really – the hop twine will surely take the weight of a bean plant (especially if I’ve grown it – my beans are always terrible) but the spacing between each plant may be a challenge; they will jump and spread to the neighbouring twine. One thing is certain though, and that is that this device will last loads longer than the hazel poles.

The new bean poles, tied up and in place

Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Bought 12 beetroot plugs only to discover that there were actually 50+ seedlings in there, so I pricked them out and re-potted the lot. We will have Russian levels of beetroot come September. Planted out peas in a burst of seasonal enthusiasm but the lack of rain means they struggle. In the garden, tulips are in bloom and the alliums are on the cusp of glory.
Cooking and eating: Asparagus; Jersey royals; Smoked salmon and spinach tart; Red gooseberry and almond sponge (using up last year’s fruit); Choc chip cookies.
Also: Visited Morton Hall Gardens & Winterbourne House; got hailed on twice in two days; re-reading Brideshead Revisited.