June in review

June is a month of two halves. We start still in spring – I didn’t get around to planting out most of my veg and cut flowers until the first weekend of the month – and finish it most definitely in summer. The allotment finally starts to get productive and the garden goes from politeness to an overgrown sprawl. The long, long days are bookmarked with short sleepless nights (at least they are if you’re a sleep-thief 4 year old), but thankfully we can take it. It’s a month of high energy before we get zapped by the heavy weather of July and August. It’s also the start of event season (I’m working or have worked on three outdoor arts events this month) and I find myself back in the familiar-yet-unfamiliar life of print deadlines, venue dressing and production plans.

I’m not cooking so much at the moment, so there’s real joy when someone else does. This cake table taken in Bushley for the jubilee is a case in point: joy, in cake form. Back home we did manage a little tea, with a little help from our corgi friends at M&S.

Few things are more enjoyable than a cake table in a village hall
Our humble jubilee tea

May ended at Chelsea Flower Show, which didn’t have the fireworks of previous years. The designs were markedly low impact (I don’t mean that in a bad way), naturalistic, loose, even a bit wild. It’s the kind of designs that look really easy to do but are of course nigh-on impossible to pull off. But I love the toned down shades, the purples, greens, deep dusky pinks, subtle yellows and whites.

Rewilding garden at Chelsea Flower Show
Loose planting of poppies and verbascum at Chelsea

A few weeks later I headed to Hidcote, possibly my favourite place on earth, to soak in the glory of an arts and crafts garden in midsummer. Harry came along and to explore this garden maze through his eyes is a fresh joy.

Slightly tighter, but still loose, and note the colour spectrum – midsummer at Hidcote
Love these 8 foot tall scabious
Pale yellow with bubblegum pink
A field of daisies never grows old

Down on the allotment, we started cropping lupins, alliums and sweet rocket back in late May. The allium christophii is both whopper and winner; some I’m cutting now for the vase and others I’ll dry ready for winter. The lupins are dropping now, but stepping into their place are the dahlias, the first of which are just opening now. There’s filler plants this year too, from cerinthe, ammi and a surprise crop of gypshopila, with its white elegance. It’s still too early for much veg, though we do have broad beans cropping now and the start of the soft fruit (strawberries, redcurrants, black currants). I’ll have a poke about the potatoes later this week…it’s always a surprise to me just how long one has to wait for a veg harvest.

Allotment on 4 June – self-sown poppies, lupins and the beans bedding in
Early June potatoes and still lots of bare earth
By 21 June, the broad beans are fat and the strawberries cropping, though it will still be some weeks before we reach full ‘fatness’
Of course, the healthiest thing is this thicket of flowering brambles
At home, the peas are threatening to creep into the sun room
Giant allium christophii, sweet william, foxglove and cerinthe
Cropping in June – sweet williams, sweet peas and sweet rocket

An hour down the road it’s a different story, and I come home from Worcestershire with a basket of raspberries and beetroot from my parents’ patch. Earlier this month I took my Dad foraging for elderflowers down lanes I never knew existed, and we now have three hefty bottles of cordial. (Store them in the freezer and there’s no risk of mould forming.)

Our strawberries, alongside Mum’s raspberries, broadbeans and beets
After an afternoon’s foraging on jubilee weekend we have bottles of cordial

It’s in July that things start to get serious: I’ve high hopes for the dahlias this year, having spent a small fortune on new plants, and that’s before we even get onto the chrysanthemums, gladioli, cornflower, courgette, squash, borlotti, French beans, kales, chard, peas… I can see the summer in sight.

Also this month:
Allotment: Planted out most plants first weekend of June, including dahlias and beans. Started off biennials. Tons of strimming and weeding and staking, at home AND allotment…
Harvesting: Strawberries, broad beans, oregano, sweet william, alliums, sweet peas, foxglove, cerinthe, first ammi, last lupins.
Cooking and eating: Fish finger tacos, meringues with homegrown strawberries, chocolate chip cookies, roast apricots, raspberries and blueberries with yoghurt, plenty of rose, bulgur wheat with broad beans and feta, birthday cake
Also: Chelsea Flower Show, Hidcote, Key to the City (Birmingham), Tappin’ In (Birmingham), What’s in Store (Bearwood), play dates and park visits.

Inspiration and perspiration

Having spent the first third of the year complaining about feeling locked down in some kind of post-Covid hangover, from mid-April onwards I’ve been keenly aware of the sap rising. Energy levels are up, both physically and intellectually. There has been a fair bit of perspiration and propagation, but also – more importantly – a focus on inspiration.

The last few years have been so difficult on that front, with galleries closed and movement difficult. So in the last month, as the weather has warmed, I’ve been soaking in visits to the Eden Project and Trelissick in Cornwall, Hestercombe in Devon, Chelsea Physic Garden, the Garden Museum and Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds, plus have knocked back books about Joseph Paxton, Gertrude Jekyll and the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in garden design. Later this week it’s Chelsea Flower Show, and meanwhile there is endless joy in country lanes filled with cow parsley. I don’t know as yet where any of this will lead…as my old English teacher used to say, it’s all grist to the mill.

Let’s start with the perspiration…

Perspiration

Propagation and preparing the soil is such a part of life now that I barely register I am doing it. Since I last blogged in April, the sun room has become full of nascent seedlings, all becoming leggy for want of light (I am used to this). Sunflowers, scabious, chard, tomatoes, squash, it’s all there. Meanwhile the outside space is full of trays hardening off; I’ve moved the more slug-vulnerable ones to the top of the wheelie bins. There’s been hours and hours of weeding, as I attempt to get the grass and buttercups into some kind of control.

Sweet rocket is now flowering, with the Sweet William due to bloom next. The brassica cage is ready for planting, and last year’s chrysanthemums have been put in next door.
The dahlias bed was rife with buttercup, which I’ve now removed. The gladioli are doing well (far better than in my back garden).
The long view, which looks very little, but represents hours of weeding. The alliums are now cropping, in the foreground.
Harry helps to hoe the potatoes

After last year’s pitiful efforts with the sweet beans and peas, I’m attempting a new approach this year. The sweet peas are in deep pots, trained up twine and bamboo sticks, and are catching the afternoon sun by the back door. I’ve also put in a few rows of peas in the veg trug, working on the assumption that they’re more likely to get watered if by the house than on the allotment, which I only get to once a week, if that.

As for cropping, I took few photos, but the pale Purissima tulips were a triumph – even bigger than the earth (!). As they faded, the alliums, lupins and sweet rocket are giving vases of pink, purple and white, and the Sweet Williams are waiting in the wings. My plan was to extend the harvest so that there was something to pick from March through to November – so far, so good.

Purissima tulips
It’s taken three years but the lupins are finally flowering
A vase of lupin, sweet rocket and allium

Inspiration

No comment here, just images of a few weeks of spiritual and intellectual nourishment, starting in Cornwall.

April evening on the beach in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall

At Hestercome Garden in Devon, we explored the amalgam of 18th century landscape park, full of follies and vistas; grand Victorian terracing, and an arts and crafts masterpiece by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens.

Gertrude Jekyll’s famous steps at Hestercombe, filled with eryngium daisies
Lutyens’ terracing often carried deep recesses of still water
A folly fit for a witch
Witching folly
Charcoal burning deep in the woodland

The Garden Museum and Chelsea Physic Garden are rife with generations of history, heritage and knowledge.

Central courtyard at the Garden Museum
Example of off-the-peg designs, 1930s
Dried flower installation
The Garden Corner
Lead water butt, 1670
Using hazel brushwood for training, Chelsea Physic Garden

In the Cotswolds, the arts and crafts garden at Snowshill Manor is framed by the perfection of English hedgerows in Maytime.

Nothing is more glorious than a lane lined with cow parsley
Orchard during no-mow May
Yet another lead water butt, age unknown. Harry’s there to show scale.
One of many garden rooms, using materials echoing the local vernacular
A path through a hidden garden
Single specimens on an old table, in a barn that looks ancient but is probably only 100-or-so years old.

May is surely the most wonderful time of the year – and there’s still the glories of June and Midsummer to come.

Also this week/month:
Harvesting: Sweet rocket, allium, lupin, lilac, soft herbs. Had a steady crop of narcissi and tulips from the allotment during March and April. I would be harvesting lettuces but they’re taking ages to grow.
Sowing/propagating: EVERYTHING. I started most things off later than usual, end of March and into April, and as yet there seems to be no harm done.
Planted out: Last year’s chrysanthemums, broad beans, peas, potatoes, lettuce. Direct sowed carrots and parsnips. Everything else will wait to be planted out until warm weather is guaranteed. In the garden, planted out salvias, hardy geraniums and achillea. Waiting on the tulips to die back before putting in the dahlias.
Reading: Biography and works of Gertrude Jekyll, biography of Joseph Paxton, history of arts and crafts gardens. Incidentally, working on two projects that have bamboo as a sustainable resource and the social justice/healing power of gardens at their core.
Visiting: Eden Project, Trelissick, Hestercombe, Garden Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Snowshill Manor, plus don’t forget the glory of an English hedgerow in May.
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, strawberries, rose wine. I still feel too busy to cook, which is sad, and I should sort it out.

Asparagus and gladioli

…even when you’re feeling warm
the temperature can drop away
like four seasons in one day.

Not my line, but Neil Finn’s. Crowded House were singing about New Zealand of course but the lyric is also true of the English springtime. Last week was sun, this week there is snow. Spring comes late to our patch of earth anyway and I still have pots of daffodils yet to bloom; it was a genuine surprise last weekend to visit the Welsh borders and see roadsides and gardens awash with yellow. The party is all happening elsewhere, it seems. And yet, earlier this week, it was warm enough to play outside in the garden, and Harry and I had a good close-up look at the bees as they visited Granny’s primroses. Three days later it was sleeting.

March 28: Playing in the garden with summer sunshine, framed by Granny’s primroses
April 2: Cloudy with a risk of snow. Daffodils brighten the banks at Coughton Court

The few days of warm made me turn my nose towards Evesham. Are they in yet? Is it time? The annual pilgrimage to find the shockingly expensive few spears of new asparagus came on 2 April. I simply boil these tender new stems for a few minutes until they are bright green, with a slight resistance to the tip of the sharp knife. I serve them dripping with butter. It is one of the most important meals of the year, marking the turn of the season. Plus they make your wee smell, which is always amusing.

First Evesham asparagus of the season at Hiller’s Farm Shop. I have taken this exact photo on roughly the same week for several years.

Outside, it’s still too early for any serious planting, but there is springtime remedial work going on. The autumn raspberries were pruned a month ago now, but the entire patch is dense with encroaching brambles and grass. The brambles I do my best to dig out, but the grass – dear GOD the grass! It is the constant perennial problem of our plot.

Believe it or not this is the ‘after’ shot! Autumn raspberries were pruned about a month ago, but the grass and brambles remain a perennial issue.

So today I spent a few hours forking out great clumps of couch grass and buttercups from around the perennial flower bed and vegetable beds. The soil in the veg bed feels hard, compacted, but around the flower bed it is soft and friable, and seems healthy. So I was surprised to see that the few short row of tulips, which I planted back in the late autumn, seem short and stunted this year – as if they’ve had insufficient nourishment. Perhaps it is too early and they will perk up? Next to them are two rows of alliums, planted for cut flowers, and up from them (not in shot) I’ve put in three rows of gladioli. They are new to the plot for 2022, and reminiscent to me of that former resident of Harborne (and lover of pink), Dame Barbara Cartland. What could be gaudier than a few hot pink glads in a vase? I’ve popped a few bulbs into my back garden too to see if they fare differently there to the allotment.

The first sign of growth on the perennial patch, with alliums and just a few tulips. Next to them (not in shot) are the sleeping dahlias, and then the emerging shoots of lupins and echinacea. Three rows of gladioli complete the scene.

Inside, I’ve started off a few trays of seeds, but I don’t want to start too early, not with these cold nights. Slow and steady, that will be my seed-sowing mantra for this year. In other exciting news, work has started on building a new lean-to greenhouse for the back of our house. Will it be ready for the proper hardening-off period in May? Watch this space…

Also this week:
Harvesting: First tulips for cut flowers. In the shops, first asparagus, first English strawberries.
Sowed: Tomatoes, broad beans, peas, lettuce, rocket, spinach, chard, courgettes, cornflower, amaranth, millet, snapdragons, cerinthe, calendula, phlox, scabious, wild carrot. Everything else can wait for a few weeks.
Also: Planted gladioli in garden and allotment. Weeding. Have trays of achillea, broad beans, sweet peas in the cold frame toughening up. Matt has started building the green house that has been boxed up in the utility room since February. Still no sign of the builder for our bathroom, however (5 months since quotation).
Cooking and eating: Slow roast lamb shoulder with garlic, cumin and paprika, bulgar wheat, hummus, green beans, roast onions and aubergine. First asparagus with salmon and broccoli tart. Lots of mini-eggs and hot cross buns though it’s two weeks to Easter. Ice creams in Hay on Wye.
Reading: Agatha Christie, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, picked up for a few pounds in a Hay bookshop.

Lamb tagine

My life feels more locked down now than it did during Lockdown. I’ve been trying to unpick why…a combination of a work boom (I’ve currently got 10 projects on the go with more in the pipeline, and some of them are deeply complicated), tempered with the age of Zoom (no-one goes anywhere any more, we’re at home chained to desks and video calls) and of course it’s February so even if we do venture out, there’s the gale force wind to contend with. Matt’s business is also running at its limits and he often works 7 days a week, so when my work ends, childcare and housecare begins. Somewhere, somehow, a social life or a creative life seem to have edged away.

Now obviously we are extremely blessed and I am aware that moaning is not really on – but running two businesses is hard and the juggle is real. There’s only so much that can be taken out before something has to go back in…sometimes I need to press pause. I was on a video call with colleagues in Bangladesh the other week (Bangladesh! Because it’s 2022 and that’s how we work now!) when this chap wandered onto the flat roof next to my office window. Did I stop the meeting to swivel the laptop around and show him to the group? Of course I did.

This chap has been wandering around our garden in the February sunshine

I mention all this because whilst I do have time to look at visiting foxes, I don’t seem to find time to really cook anymore. Obviously I make food….but I don’t really cook. Dinners need to be ready pretty much instantly, to refuel in the 30 minute gap between bath time and bedtime stories. And if Matt’s working at the weekend then there’s no real point in making extravagant dishes, for who will eat them? It’s such an easy slide into the world of convenience and fast cooking, but I am realising that my soul needs slow. The devoted attention to a puttering stew. The gentle tap of a wooden spoon when creaming butter and sugar by hand. The satisfaction of turning a mess of flour and water into dough as soft as a baby’s bottom.

So I’m trying, even if only once a week, to make something more involved. Last week it was sausage rolls with rough-puff pastry, plus a tray of parmesan pinwheels with the leftover pastry scraps. This week, it’s tagine.

Sausage rolls and parmesan pinwheels
Redemption comes in many forms; a big pan of bubbling lamb tagine being one of them.

This tagine comes from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, and used to be a family favourite until we both got so busy that we forgot to make it. Matt actually made this back in the very very early days, to give me the impression that he could cook. (Note – he’s an excellent cook, he just doesn’t do it very often). There’s room for your own take on the veg: he adds green peppers, I add sweet potato.

A word on the meat. If you can, don’t use lamb at all – go for mutton. You’ll get a better flavour and a better texture for long, slow cooking. For this I used a half leg of Herdwick mutton that I picked up in the Lakes last year; it’s been in the freezer obviously. I boned the leg and cut the meat into generous portions, and then meat AND bone went into the pot (it’s all flavour). Lamb shanks or shoulder would do just as well.

The ras el hanout is essential and can be found in any supermarket or halal shop. Mine actually comes from a Moroccan souk, brought back by my friend Claire as a holiday souvenir (this was pre-Covid, which says a lot about the antiquity of my spice box). You will require a very big pot to hold this vast dish.

Moroccan lamb tagine
From Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. Makes 6 very generous portions.

2kg lamb or mutton – ideally on the bone – leg, shoulder or shanks
Olive oil
4 teaspoons ras al hanout
450g carrots, chopped into generous lengths
200g onions, sliced
8 new potatoes, such as Charlottes
1 can tomatoes
75g dried apricots
2 tablespoons honey
1.2 litres or thereabouts, chicken stock
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper
400g sweet potato, peeled and chopped into generous dice (optional)
1 green pepper, chopped into generous lengths (optional)

For the spice paste:
4 garlic cloves
2 small red onions or shallots
1 red chilli
Stalks from a small bunch of coriander
salt and pepper

For the spice paste, put the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth – let it down with a drop of water if needed.

Trim the meat of any excess fat. If using shoulder or leg, you will want to remove the bone and dice the meat into generous chunks. Shanks can be left whole. Season with salt and pepper.

In a very large pot big enough to take the whole stew, warm some olive oil and brown the meat (plus any saved bones) on all sides. This will need to happen in stages. Once browned, set the meat aside.

In the same pan, heat a little more oil and add the spice paste. Soften for a few minutes on a low heat. Add the ras al hanout and cook for one minute, then tip in the onions, carrots and potatoes and turn over in the spice. Add the tomatoes and stock, and bring to a simmer.

Return the meat plus any saved bones to the pan. Add the apricots, honey, bay leaves, salt and pepper, then cover. Either cook on the hob or put into a slow oven, 160c.

After one hour, check the stew, give it a stir, then add the peppers and sweet potatoes if using.

Return the stew to the hob/oven, and cook until the meat is tender. Lamb will need a total of about 2 hours, mutton a little longer. Check the seasoning and add more salt, pepper or honey as required. If the stew is watery, cook with the lid off for the last thirty minutes or so.

This is perfectly good the next day. You may want to fish the bones out before serving – cooks perk. Serve with couscous.

Also this week/month:
Cooking and eating: Very little, I live off tea, pasta and toast. Matt made some cumin-spiked potato cakes to go with the tagine. Black banana cake. Some seasonal rhubarb and blood oranges have made it to the house, as have the first hot cross buns of the season.
Allotment: It’s still there despite the gales. Sowed snapdragons. At home, the iris reticulata is flowering, as are the amaryllis and paperwhites.
Also: Indoor child entertainment is the order of the day: Legoland Discovery Centre, Sealife Centre, YouTube, Lego and Star Wars.

Veg patch to bed, rather later than planned

I always enjoy the first few weeks of January. The chance for a fresh start, with optimistic thoughts for the year ahead, and after the hullabaloo of December, the refreshment of a quiet month. It’s not so quiet for me actually this year due to some high octane work projects – but you get the point. This time last year we were all sick with Covid and locked in the house; this Christmas, there was the opportunity to get out and breathe. And after several months of intense work (and less than zero family time), we needed it.

The view across to British Camp, 27 December 2021
Trees caught in mid-winter mist

A day or two before Christmas I found time to wade through the armfuls of dried flowers that I’ve had hanging in the sun room since the summer, harvested from allotment and garden. I’d been finding their presence low-level stressful…every time I go in there to fish something out of the freezer, it was as if they were shouting at me: ‘why have you not used us yet eh?!’. And so I did. Vivid yellow tansy now sit next to the pale fawn of dried aqualegia, allium and teasel, with the lighter rounds of honesty giving contrast. I love the mixture of shape and form. It’s accidental – many of these plants were self-sown. I notice that tiny bunches of dried flowers now sell for £10 or more in the shops, and I am reminded how fortunate I am to be able to gather and keep my own supply.

The allotment and garden blessed us with armfuls of dried flowers this year
Two Christmas arrangements, with tansy, teasels, honesty, aqualegia and allium

There is one, rather larger, job that has been nagging at me as well. Usually I get the allotment mulched and covered in December, an enormous task that in previous years has involved one lorry, an entire pallet of manure, two strong men, one strong(ish) woman (me), and painfully frozen fingers. But this year, since my Dad has retired, we no longer have access to his lorry.

Plan B was to carry as much as we can in Matt’s van: 30 bags to be precise, barely enough to cover the smaller of the two main plots, but better than nothing. So in an enterprise that lasted two days, this weekend we drove to Worcestershire, pinched 30 bags of manure from my Dad’s seemingly never-ending supply, stacked it into the van, drove back to Birmingham, walked the bags from van to allotment, emptied the bags, then spread the black gold with a fork. To be on the safe side, I then covered the two plots with black plastic, my back-up armoury in the war against weeds. Muck Spreading Day is the most physically draining task on the allotment but possibly the most important one, hopefully keeping the annual weed seeds down, and also blocking light from the grasses and buttercup that seems endemic.

30 sacks of manure makes for only a scant covering of the first plot, so to keep the weeds down I’m playing safe with a covering of black plastic
The larger patch won’t get manured this year, but the covers are down – leaving the heads of sweet fennel and sweet william to poke through

There’s part of me that enjoys the cleanliness of a freshly manured plot more than when it is covered in plants. With plants comes some inevitable disappointment; with black soil comes only potential. With the ground put to bed now for a few months, thoughts turn to planning, seed-sorting, list-making. The joy of searching the seed catalogues; the pull of creative potential!

In the meantime, planning for 2022 has begun

Also this week/month:
Allotment: Manured the small plot and dahlia patch, and covered the two main plots with plastic. Could be harvesting kale, chard, rocket and mustard leaves, except that I’m not, for I am a fair-weather gardener. Sowed a few sweet peas, with little expectation for them. Planning for the season. Peering at the amaryllis and paperwhites daily to check progress. Listening to the Sarah Raven / Arthur Parkinson podcast for inspiration.

Cooking and eating: Enjoying the time for proper cooking. Baked ham with a chipotle and marmalade glaze; bavette steak with tenderstem broccoli, feta and roasted red pepper; quince sticky toffee pudding; still working through Christmas biscuits and panettone.

Also: Booking up tickets for fun things after two years of austerity. Reading Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley, a brilliantly radical feminist re-telling of a familiar biography.

A confusion of seasons

There’s a confusion of seasons. We had snow in November, and a bitter wind, only for it to have melted into this warm, dank December. It’s 13c today. In the garden I have roses still in bloom, whilst in the cold frame, disorientated narcissi are pushing up their shoots. Our magpie couple have started building a nest in the tall sycamore tree, their efforts made visible by the bare branches; there is no leaf cover in December. The robin is singing.

I always think there is a conflict of feeling at this time of year. On one hand Christmas is upon us, with its bachalian exuberance, and all is hurry rush hurry (got to get all my work done before everyone disappears for the holidays, as well as the billion other jobs that are the woman’s lot at Christmas time). But the natural world is telling us to slow down, to respond to the low light, to pay attention to the turn of the bottom of the year. Next week is the shortest day and gradually the swing upwards begins. To recognise the beauty of deep winter, one needs to pay close attention: the tiny red rosehips gleaming like children’s sweets, the sweet scent of viburnum, the eruption of snowdrop leaves. It’s all there, if only we take time to look.

The idea of seasons confused is not new. Claire Leighton wrote this in 1935: “But this year the merging of the seasons is exceptional, and frightens gardeners. For all around are the first spears of spring bulbs. Scylla show above the earth, and tulips and daffodils point upwards…. Villagers shake their heads at the ‘unseasonable weather… It is hard to believe that Christmas is upon us.” Four Hedges by Claire Leighton, Little Toller Books.

My kitchen has been confused for much of the year. I made my first easter cakes in January (anything to get through lockdown with a three year old), and a batch of mince pies emerged in November. Stir-Up Sunday became Stir-up Saturday and took place on Zoom, as does so much of life now. This year my pudding pals Helen and Charlie joined me in trying out a new recipe, one of Nigel Slater’s, which seems lighter than my normal one due to the omission of black treacle. The puddings sit maturing in the cupboard. I’ll let you know how they turn out.

First (and only) batch of mince pies made 13th November
I am trying a lighter Christmas pudding this year, recipe courtesy Nigel Slater
Stir Up Sunday had to happen on Zoom, because this is how we live now

On the allotment, work has ceased completely. Usually all is manured and cleared by now, but this year we’ve been unable to get the pallet of muck here, so the ground sits still uncovered, a mess of buttercups and couch grass. The November storms did for the chrysanthemums which was a shame, as I think they could have kept going to Christmas – the last picking came 16th November. There are still parsnips to pull and the cavolo nero to crop, but the truth is that I am a fair weather allotmenter and with no flowers demanding instant attention, my trips to the plot lessen.

The last floral picking of the year, 16th November

Instead there are more pleasing tasks at hand. This year I ordered my paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs early, though problems with supply mean they didn’t arrive until the very end of November. I have pots and vases of them planted and maturing in the chill of the sun room, ready to give splashes of colour and scent in January.

Potted up indoor paperwhites and amaryllis for blooms in January

Then there’s the wreath. The wonderful Rachel at The Hedge in Stirchley sorted me out with a kit of evergreens, bracken, eucalyptus and lavender twigs, which I turned into what I can only describe as a 6 out of 10 wreath. My issue was time. I am very, very busy with work and have to get a more-than-full-time job done on three and a bit days a week, plus Matt’s been away and consequently there’s alot single parenting at present. What should have been a lovely relaxing job of creative wreath-making got condensed into a rushed hour before nursery pick-up time. So the wreath is fine, but I could do better. www.the-hedge.com

My rather mis-shapen wreath

The robin is quiet now but I can see blue tits hopping around the forsythia, and I notice that the cotoneaster has turned a delicious vibrant orange-red. Next week I’ll head to Great Witley to pick up the turkey, and in the deepest countryside I know the hedgerows will be full of old man’s beard, ivy and hawthorn. It’s all a reminder to stop and pay attention.

Also this month:
Eating and cooking: I have hardly cooked at all and when Matt is away dinner often consists of two easy-peel satsumas plus a mince pie at 9.30pm. However, panettone and tunis cake are back on the menu, and pomegranate seeds have made their way into several slaws of shredded red cabbage, fennel and apple. Harry and I shared Thanksgiving with Rob and Anu, and tucked into Ginger Pig turkey, mash, stuffing, roast sprouts and a lovely salad of fennel, watercress and pomegranate. Banoffee pie to finish.

On the allotment: Chrysanthemums taken up and presented to Mum in the hope of some cuttings in the new year. Dahlias cut back and mulched. Everything else has been ignored in the hope that the weeds will just magically disappear.

In the garden: Pruned the roses and cut back the summer perennials – I wasn’t going to do this until February but some horrid urge at tidiness took over. Several sessions of leaf clearing. Planted bulbs in November – tulips, narcissi, anemone.

Also: Thanksgiving in London and took Harry on a tour of Tower Bridge, Tower of London, a boat ride, Big Ben and London Eye – all the major locations from Go Jetters on CBeebies. Lots of Christmas activities including panto, CBSO, meeting Santa, all that. At the same time am working on various different things for the Birmingham 2022 Festival, which is wonderful, but intense.

Aunty Betty

Today was the funeral of Aunty Betty, at which I wrote and read the eulogy with memories of her life. Here’s what was said:

Asked to talk about Betty, I had a chat with Sandra, David and Sue about Betty’s life and it was revelatory – I discovered lots of things about Betty from before I was born, that I had no idea about, and what a joy this has been.

It’s hard to think of Betty without thinking two things. 1 – Cockney. 2 – Fun. 

Betty spent her childhood years in London, on Carey Street, just behind the Law Courts, and she never forgot her roots. When my brother Rob got married in London, about 18 years ago, she took Sandra to see all her old haunts, reveling in the memories of time past. I’m told there’s a letter somewhere from King George VI, congratulating Betty for staying in London and at school during the war.  

She married my uncle John in 1961 at Caxton Hall in Westminster, which is where all the famous people got wed, people like Liz Taylor, Joan Collins, Ringo Starr and Barry Gibb all tied the knot there. She was 23. I’ve seen pictures from this time of she and John, him looking dashing in his Grenedier Guard uniform, she looking swish in her fashionable fit and flare dress. You know that a night out with them would have been the best fun. They went to coffee bars in Soho, once taking my Mum Liz with them, hoping to bump into the celebrities of the day like Billy Fury. 

And I wonder what on earth must it have been for this girl about town to move to the country, to Worcestershire, starting married life on a farm, for this is what she did. Sandra came along in 1963 and David in 1965. The coffee bars of Soho was replaced by a milking parlours of Malvern. Both Sandra and David remember the endless rice puddings that Betty produced when John came home every day with raw milk, straight from the cows, after the morning milking. Once John left that job she swore she would never make another rice pudding ever again.

Sandra remembers a tale when Betty took a lift back to London with her friend Colin, who happened to be working on the M5 building bridges. Once on Oxford Street the tail board fell off the back of his lorry, holding up all the traffic. Betty and Colin had to put the board back on, laughing and giggling at the mayhem they caused.

Betty was a real people person. Team games were her thing, and she was a key member of the local darts team, and loved a bit of skittles too. She helped to arrange street parties and carnivals, roping in John in his lorry to drive the carnival float. She also had a strong group of girlfriends – ‘the girls’ she called them – who regularly went out for lunches and weekends away.

Betty also loved a joke and I think she met her match in my Uncle John. An example: One Christmas, a year when my Nan spent Christmas day at their house, John wanted to have his tea early for some reason, maybe there’s something on the TV that he wanted to watch, but Betty said no. She then went out to take the dog for a walk. Whilst she’s out John put the clock forward by an hour. When Betty gets back she was none the wiser, just thought blimey that was a long walk. So he got his tea early, and it took Betty a few days to realise what he’s done!

In the early 1980s, during the Falklands war, Betty left her catering job and became a military driver, so she could do her bit for the country. David and Sandra, teenagers at The Chase at the time, wouldn’t see their mum for days as she was up at 4am ferrying important people from the military around the country, often taking them to GCHQ in Cheltenham. 

Intrepid Betty, in her American tan tights and high heeled shoes, had to learn how to check under her vehicle for bombs, do maintenance of her vans, plot journeys and, presumably, keep quiet about her work……which may be been a challenge for Betty because you ALWAYS knew she was there. 

Looking at the family of Betty, John, Sandra and David from the point of view of niece and cousin, the word that springs to mind is warmth.  These are such a warm group of people. You might call them game. When Sandra and David got motorbikes as young adults, obviously to begin with the parents lost their mind, but after they came round they both had a go. 

John crashed David’s little Honda into the back fence, and Betty would sometimes ride on the back of Sandra’s massive bike, except of course Betty was so short that Sandra had to have the thing practically horizontal before she could fit onto it.

John sadly passed away in 2001, and I saw a transformation in Betty. She grieved, of course, and then after a year or so, she became this adventurer, a world traveller. She called these trips her SKI holidays, SKI meaning Spending the Kids Inheritence.

She drove across America with her friends and I remember meeting her and my sister-in-law Anu in New York, where we went to the restaurant of the amazing chef and food writer Anthony Bordain. I was quite overwhelmed at being in this temple of gastronomy and literature, but not a bit of it for Betty – she was the life of the party. Rob, my brother, also took her out to various bars in Manhattan and they had a great time. 

She took a cruise in the Caribbean and plenty of coach trips around the UK. Her suitcase was always full of fancy dress supplies, because as we all know, Betty was always up for a laugh and a party, particularly if there was fancy dress involved. 

On holiday with Sandra and Richard one year, she stole a ride on Richard’s pushbike, ending up in a bush. In Dunoon in Scotland, she got stuck in a lift. Where there was Betty, there was laughter.

Betty adored her family and was a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She idolised her grandson Richard, and adored Ruby, his daughter. Not many people can say that they spent time with their Great-grandmother, but Ruby can.  

In her later years she had a wonderful carer, Rachel, who Betty adored – and Rachel I know that Sandra, David and Sue wish to extend their gratitude to you for the care and love that you gave to Betty whilst you were together. I’m told that Rachel would take Betty to M&S, where they would have lunch and try on silly hats and sunglasses, taking selfies of their antics. After Lockdown, when Betty was able to go back to Marks, the staff cheered and clapped to see them return. 

Betty loved life and people, and they loved her.

I will finish with a message from my brother Stu, who can’t be here today, which I will quote verbatim: I remember Betty always being sweet. She always made a point of listening, which when you’re a kid seemed pretty rare.

Stu’s now in his mid-40s and the fact he can remember this feeling from childhood strikes me as being pretty special. 

After today’s service we’re going to the Green Dragon, home of many a Darts evening, which happens to be on the stretch of road where John taught Betty how to drive in a green Cortina with David and Sandra in the back, no doubt quaking with fear. 

I suggest that we raise a Bacardi and coke, or a tea with no sugar, because as Betty used to say, she’s sweet enough, and say thank you Betty, for bringing your infectious Cockney spirit to bring joy to our days. 

Rest in laughter, dear Betty.

Finally, fireworks

Before we get to floral fireworks, take a moment to admire this menu from The Hazelmere Bakehouse in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria. Revel in the mention of a beesting, sigh over a Yorkshire curd tart and then exhale to the glories of a Cumberland rum nicky. I live in a city that is awash with (American-influenced) cronuts and brownies, triple-chocolate snicker doodles and salted caramel cheesecake – and whilst of course there is a place for all that, let’s not forget the glory that is traditional British baking.

The glorious menu at the Hazelmere at Grange Over Sands

The only thing that could improve this menu for me, lover of baked goods as I am, is an acknowledgment that the 18th century imports of cheap sugar and spice that popularised English fruited cakes and tarts was made possible not just because of trade with the West Indies (which they mention) but also because of enslaved labour; it’s an unsavoury truth of our culinary history that shouldn’t be ignored. The threads of the past feed into the present.

The trip to Grange was part of a few days in the Lakes as a replacement summer holiday; there was a steam train, a boat, lots of cakes, and of course a fair bit of drizzle.

Harry loved the heritage railway at Haverthwaite

I’ve mentally moved away from summer now. That may seem an odd statement, in the final week of October, but the seasons are so wobbly and in any case I always seem to be a few months behind everyone else. Our roses are deep into their second bloom and the raspberries are still cropping, their fruits the deepest, darkest crimson imaginable. This weekend I pulled a few carrots and parsnips, along with three plump pumpkins grown from seed gifted to me from my school friend Hannah McNeil, the variety a mystery.

First parsnips, carrots and three mystery pumpkins

Calling time on summer, in allotment terms, means starting the great clear up. Out have come the spent sunflowers and cornflowers; gone are the rotting courgette and pumpkin leaves. I’ve been ruthless, actually, and ripped out the cosmos even though they had a few weeks of flowers left; the wind had blown them horizontal over the path, which is both a practical hindrance but also a very visible reminder of my failure to do things (i.e. stake) properly. The rampant nasturtiums have suffered a similar fate but really, they are bullies with their tendency to spread and romp. Left to their own devices, I would have a plot made fully of self-seeded nasturtiums, grass and buttercups. After an hour or two of clearing, what remains is the morning after the night before: bare soil, tons of uncovered weeds, and occasional squares of flowers and brassicas given the reprieve.

The chrysanthemum square remains, leaving a palimpset of weeds and soil where the summer annuals once lived
The nasturtiums have taken over a quarter of the veg patch, so out they come

I enjoy a good clear out; to remove the remnants of summer is to let go of the past and, as I manure and cover the ground over the next few weeks, make the soil good again for next year. The writer Laura Cummings talks about ‘the redemption of Monday morning’ – the idea that every working week has a fresh start, the chance to put the excesses of the weekend behind you. Yes, I think, yes. October on the allotment is a little like Monday morning. Let go of the disappointments and reset again for next year.

Except there are some things that I’m not ready to let go of just yet, as they are just coming into their own. I’m talking of course of chrysanthemums, once the mumsy also-rans of the cut flower scene, and now (at least, I think) super chic. The smell of chrysanthemums instantly takes me to the churchyard in Hanley Swan, where as a child I used to help my Mum tend to my Nan and Grandad’s grave. That might sound a little morbid but it shouldn’t; to me chrysanthemums are smell of security and the countryside. I also love that Matt’s Granny and Grampy were semi-professional chrysanthemum growers; he has stories of how they used to protect their blooms from the rain with paper bags. There’s some serious legacy there to live up to.

My firework chrysanthemums are just coming into bloom now, which is absurd given that they were labelled ‘early’ on the catalogue. I have the Woolmans Starburst collection, for which I paid £12 for 5 seedlings in those innocent pre-pandemic days of January 2020. After a feeble start in my garden last summer, Mum kindly took cuttings and I now have an excellent, if excessively tall, patch for cutting. As ever I staked them badly and they are all wonky but I don’t care: I love them.

A mix of lime yellow, russets and carmine, in firework form
First proper cutting of this year’s chrysanthemums, along with dahlia and a few strawflowers

Next year I need to get more of the more traditional, fuller blooms to sit alongside the firework-style. Something like the Jewel Collection from Sarah Raven. Incidentally she recommends moving your chysanths into the greenhouse, root-ball and all, to extend the season, which I would love to do if only I had one. But as long a the weather stays kind, I’ll be cropping these for several weeks yet.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Chrysanthemums, dahlias, last French beans, first carrots, first parsnips, last raspberries, two tiny strawflowers (crop failure).
Planting: Planted tulips and alliums on the allotment. Won’t be able to plant tulips at home for weeks yet as the garden is still too abundant, such warm weather.
Eating and cooking: Cumberland sausage, chips and beer in the pub; Vanilla slice in Grange over Sands; Westmoreland tea bread; Autumn cooking at home now: proper deep filled apple pie; cauliflower cheese; beef ribs with red wine, cinnamon and star anise.

October is the new August

There is so much ‘stuff’ going on at the moment. My mind has been (still is) tormented by the outside world, by heinous crimes against women, by leaders who fail to lead, by the climate emergency, by the inequality I see all around me. This stuff is there all the time, of course, but usually it can be held at a distance. Sometimes however the walls come down; I can not be the only woman who cried in the last week for Sarah Everard, for Terri Harris and her children, for Sabina Nessa and their families. And I certainly hope that I am not the only one who has used their influence to write to their MP and other elected representatives to demand they listen to what women are telling them about domestic and sexual violence. If this issue speaks to you, you can do worse than pay attention to what the Women’s Equality Party are doing and saying: https://www.womensequality.org.uk

How can I think, let alone write, of flowers and vegetables at such a time? It turns out that I must, because this is where healing lies.

A basket of October: sunflowers, cosmos, dahlia, fennel, and you can’t see them but underneath the blooms are courgette, French beans and raspberries. Note the ripening pumpkin in the background.

October is the new August, or it least it is in 2021. After months and months of waiting, finally we have the annual courgette glut; we’ve had courgette with pasta, courgette with spicy tomato sauce, stir-fried courgette, roasted courgette, plus courgette that’s given away. I’m unusually grateful for the abundance of squash, for I thought it may never come. The varieties that I chose this year – Rugosa Fruilana and Genovese, both from Seeds of Italy – have been slow to turn to marrows and I particularly love the knobbly gourd-like appearance of the former.

Courgette are finally in glut territory…

Then there’s the raspberries. After a week away from the plot due to work, illness and childcare, I presumed that I’d missed the last of them – but not a bit of it. This is just one day’s picking and I think there’s STILL more to come.

…as are the autumn raspberries

The September and October cutting garden is a particular joy. It’s the time of the sunflowers, so majestic, but the smaller side-heads also do well in a posy-style arrangement with lime-green chrysanthemums and orange cactus dahlias. Yellow, orange, bronze, gold; it’s a table full of autumnal sunshine.

Orange, yellow and bronze dominate the colour spectrum now
The lime green chrysanthemum zap like fireworks

The cosmos plants got flattened in the late September storms, and so the flowers are now growing at an angle as they make their way up towards the sun. It makes for a floppy vase which actually I adore, the flowers twisting like snakes as they lobby each other for space.

Cosmos purity and dazzler with the last of the ammi visnaga

Fresh flowers are only half the story of course, for the sun room (aka the drying room) is now fill to bursting. Fennel stalks, with their starburst umbellifer flower heads, join the teasels, hops, hydrangeas, rose hips and cornflowers, waiting to fulfil their purpose in the winter days ahead.

The sun room is filled with drying flowers – hops, teasels, cornflowers, rose hip, agapanthus, fennel, hydrangea.

It’s harvest time but actually my head is already months ahead, thinking of next spring. An embarrassingly enormous box of bulbs was delivered this week, tulips, daffodils and crocus destined for the garden, for pots and for the allotment. There’s days of clearing and weeding to be done, and a pallet manure to collect and spread. It’s hard work but it’s good work; after the frustrations and urgency of summer, these tasks for autumn and winter allow for a more relaxed approach. We can celebrate success but also put away the failures, literally cover everything over, until we get another go, next time. Rest, renewal, redemption.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Courgette, raspberries, chard, French beans, cavolo nero, kale, last of the sunflowers, cosmos, dahlias, last ammi visnaga, fennel stems for drying. Also took home eggs from chickens at the house that Hannah is house-sitting for, including one still hot from the hen’s bottom.
Garden: Planted out back bed with narcissus actaea, ferns and alchemilla mollis. Potted up narcissi and crocus; will leave tulips for a few weeks more.
Cooking and eating: Speedy late night supper of courgette in spicy chipotle tomato sauce with eggs, smashed avocado and brown rice. Sticky sweet and sour sausages with plums. Pie and chips in Ludlow.
Also: Ludlow (sad to see that our favourite butcher has closed due to fire); Cheltenham Literature Festival (a joy after so long away from events); been ill again; work work work.

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.