We plough the fields

I inhabit a few different worlds. My professional – and quite a bit of my personal – life is spent with energetic creative types who do fun and inspiring things amidst the urban din of Birmingham. People like this lot, who will be leading Birmingham’s Handover ceremony for the Commonwealth Games this weekend. There’s a rapper, a choreographer, a principal ballerina, a spoken word artist and a film-maker. We spent yesterday morning telling the press about plans for the ceremony, with time for a photoshoot amidst Digbeth graffiti. They will perform this Sunday to a worldwide television audience of around 1 billion people, so no pressure then (you can watch the Handover as part of the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday from 11am on BBC2).

The artists taking part in this Sunday’s Commonwealth Games handover…watch it on BBC2 from 11am

Then there’s the country/foodie life, which made me take a two hour round trip at the weekend as I had a hunch that new season asparagus would be on sale at Hillers, near Evesham. I was right.

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

And then there’s the parent life, which involves a lot of nappies, washing-up, more nappies, cuddles, early nights and giggling.

Harry is 7 months old and has discovered the shelf of baking equipment

It’s a good mix of things. When the arty stuff gets too irritating I can head to the hills, and when the shire is too stifling I can retreat back to Brum. Or indeed retreat to the allotment. Last week I was blessed with four hours childcare – FOUR HOURS! – and headed down for some grafting with Gary, Matt’s Dad. The snow seems to have finally gone, and whilst it’s not warm, it is definitely now spring and there was mulching and manuring and soil-prep to be done.

Gary gets to work on the allotment

Whilst I cracked on with putting a thick bark mulch on the raspberries, blueberries and currants, Gary stripped back the black plastic sheeting from the main vegetable plot. It was a relief to see that the soil was not in too bad a state: instead of forking and weeding it over in the autumn as normal, last October I merely pulled out the last of the sunflowers and covered the plot over with plastic (there was only so much I could achieve with a 1 month old baby). It survived this mistreatment well and only needed a light weed and fork before being mulched with rotted manure. Gary is incredibly neat and methodical, I discover – must be where Matt gets it from. I, on the other hand, take a ‘that will do’ approach and dig/manure half of the other plot in about an hour. I know whose approach is better (clue: not mine).

A few hours later, the main plot is forked over and manured. He did an amazing job.

I focused on putting a think mulch of bark on the soft fruit

My efforts at manuring are significantly less tidy than Gary’s…but it will do. The broad beans take up their new home.

After just a few hours the plot is transformed from winter weeds to clean edged plots ready for planting out. The soil is still cold – daffodils only just coming out now, a month later than I would expect – but there is a tiny harvest to be had: I take the opportunity to pick a handful of new sorrel leaves, to toss with new potatoes and butter.

One and a half plots, ready for planting

First picking of sorrel, for tossing with new potatoes and lashings of melted salted butter

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: A vat of bolognese, first season asparagus with salmon tart and new potatoes (phenomenally expensive but worth it), chicken marinated with yoghurt and ras al hanout, last of the simnel cake
Reading: Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, a love letter to Birmingham’s urban waterways

More seed sowing

Apparently it’s Easter, the herald of spring, but with the freezing cold lashing wind and concrete skies it is difficult to believe this. The daffodils are just beginning to bloom in Birmingham, which feels late to me – a quick check from my photos tells me that this time last year we were enjoying impressive displays of yellow. But we must be positive and so, once the baby is in bed, I am decorating the fireplace with kitsch Easter decorations along with vases of deep purple tulips masked with clouds of gypsophillia (to continue the kitsch theme).

Easter kitsch on the fireplace

The garden is just beginning to show signs of life. We came back from Cornwall to see the snow had finally melted, uncovering a pot of deep purple Iris, and today I see that the buzzing yellow forsythia is thinking about making its presence known.

Iris reticulata survived being buried in a foot of snow

The allotment has been ignored for months. Pretty much since October really. There is a pallet of manure to spread, bark to mulch the raspberries with, and two massive plots to fork over. (Finding time to do this with an attention-seeking six month old is a challenge.) I pulled back the black plastic a few inches to find that Matt’s hops are pushing up their first tentative shoots, blanched white and pink with the lack of light.

First tiny pink hop shoots are showing through

And so I retreat to my seed sowing area at the back of the house to get a few trays started. Last year I made a mental note to keep it simple this season – just two or three courgette plants, a few rows of flowers. Make life easy on yourself Stallard! That was my plan. No chance. I have managed to plant 36 sunflower pots. 36! But it’s still so cold that germination is far from guaranteed: the sweet peas that I started off in February have got about a 40% success rate and the tomatoes are not looking promising at all.

February’s sowing of sweet peas has yielded a 40% germination rate

An added complication this year is the challenge of growing a few stems for our wedding in September. If I had done this two years ago I would have been ALL OVER this challenge, but my life is pretty full now and frankly I can’t deal with the pressure. So I have recruited my super-skilled and super-talented Mum and cousin Sue to be lead gardeners and florists. They will grow and style the bulk of the wedding flowers, with my veg patch (flower patch?) as a back-up, which is much more meaningful to me than buying in a load of blooms that have been hot-housed in Holland. To that end, I will start off the reliable cosmos a little later this year, and will re-sow some of the other cut flowers, in the hope that we’ll still have good specimens by the end of September.

The seed ‘library’ is actually a few biscuit tins saved from Christmases past. I’ll hold off sowing the cosmos for a few weeks.

Last weekend’s sowing: sunflowers, beans, courgette, chard, zinnia, fennel, dill.

Sowing: Sunflowers, zinnia, dill, fennel, viola heartsease, tomatoes, runner beans, string beans, French beans, borlotti beans, courgette, custard squash, chard, lettuce quatre saisons, salad rocket, winter salad mix, radish.

Eating: M&S hot cross buns and simnel cake. Bellini made with Ella’s Kitchen peach puree (i.e. baby food) and cava.

Cooking: Baby food, which is then rejected. Vexingly, he is mostly interested in bread and simnel cake.

Wishing I was cooking: All the usual Easter treats such as Easter biscuits, a filthy chocolate sponge, chocolate crispy cakes with mini eggs, grilled lamb, various Greek veggie dishes (which to me are very Easter-y) such as spanakopita and briam. But with Matt working all the time and a baby demanding attention there is little point/opportunity.

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Heligan in March

In the space of a week we’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. Last weekend saw the temperature inside our house dip to 8c (I know this because I am obsessed with keeping thermometers in pretty much every room). The Beast from the East and Storm Emma conspired to dump a foot of snow outside the front door, and I took to putting the baby to bed with a woolly cardigan and two blankets. A week later, I’m in sunglasses basking in Cornish warmth.

Birmingham on Saturday 5 March…

…and Watergate Bay, Cornwall, on Saturday 10 March

It’s not hot here by any stretch, and the wind is strong, but it at least feels like spring is finally getting a look-in. The road verges are dotted with primroses and daffodils, and the sun – when not hidden by rain clouds – has some strength behind it now. (I fear that the return home will take us back to the Mordor of concrete skies and frozen toes.) As ever, despite best intentions, our holiday has been marred by the calls of work (will we ever just get a proper worry-free week off ever again?!) but when the emails finally stop, it’s wonderful to take in that sea view.

Harry’s ready for his first trip to the beach

A trip to Cornwall demands a garden visit, despite being so early in the season. The last time we went to the Lost Gardens of Heligan it was in June and the kitchen gardens were full of abundance. This time was an opportunity to see the bare-bones of the place: with just the tiniest green shoots in evidence, I could appreciate the importance of having a great hard structure and landscaping within which to plant. Of course they’re weeks ahead of us down here – cropping daffodils when ours are still frozen over – and so good timing for some allotmenting inspiration.

The walled garden in Heligan is already cropping daffodils. Notice the weed-free forked-over expanse of ground!

The cutting garden shows the benefit of strong landscaping: box hedges ready for roses, and rows of annuals and perennials are offset by the neat edging

Green shoots coming through in the cutting garden

I love the architecture of the espalier apple

I don’t use our greenhouse during the winter as it’s such a faff to get down to the allotment, especially with a baby in tow. One day I’ll have one at the back of my house and when I do, it will be white-washed, inspired by Victorian design, and full of peashoots and seedlings. Perhaps.

Pea shoots kept cosy in the lean-to greenhouse

Cold frames full of winter salad leaves

Over-wintering pelargonium and geranium provide a colourful taste of the Med

First blossoms in the peach house

Down in the Jungle, the ferns and exotic plants gave a false sense of being in the tropics. It may have still been scarf-and-hat weather but for a few hours, we had the promise of warmer days ahead.

The Jungle looking like a tropical lagoon in the early spring sun…

…but bobble hats (or bear outfit) were the order of the day

Also…
Cooking: Porthilly mussels with cava, smoked bacon and watercress; Mutton biriani
Eating: Fudge, pasties, fish and chips, crab linguine, beer, cream tea. Obviously. Marking Harry’s 6 month birthday at The Beach Hut at Watergate Bay.
Also: Dropping the late night feed and moving Harry onto solid food. He’s loving mango, strawberries and plums, but not so keen on squash or peas. Thanks to Faith Toogood for a brilliant session on weaning: www.faithtoogood.com

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A big pile of poo

I am not a very scientific allotmenter. Old-school gardening books talk about soil structure, phosphorous, lime, pH levels and so on, and I’ve never got to grips with any of it (though never say never). But I do know that – just as you can’t expect a human to perform well on a diet of Big Macs and Coke – our soil needs a little help every now and then. Poor soil = poor veg. And so this weekend my Dad brought a lorryload of manure to Birmingham and we spend a few hours carting (or wheelbarrowing) bags and bags of the stuff from the lorry to the allotment.

It’s not been spread yet – a job for another day. And actually, given that most of my days are spent on the floor/sofa/bed singing If You’re Happy and You Know It, it was good to be outside, stretching my limbs. I just need the weather to warm up. Spring, come soon!

Matt gets his hands dirty

Dad wears his blindingly yellow coat

A pallet of poo successfully moved

Now just got to spread the stuff…

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Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne

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Hello winter!

Hibernation has set in, as it does every year. When I realised that I’d have a small baby during the winter I was certain I’d get down in the dumps, but it turns out that the gentle rhythm to our day sits beautifully with the darker months. The Harry-shaped alarm clock means we’re awake before dawn, and every morning I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to venture out into the dark and cold to head to an office (hurray for self-employment). Harry gets his first breakfast, then hot tea with cranberry and orange breakfast bread, emails and the Today programme are the order of the day before baby gets washed and dressed and devours his second breakfast. A million jobs are done between nap times and other feeds, then by 5pm the fire is on and it’s time for our nappy-free-disco (half-)hour. So by Harry’s 6.30pm bedtime it’s dark anyway and there’s no yearning to be out in the evening.

Despite not feeling Christmassy in any way, shape or form (this despite the decorations having been up for a week), I am all over seasonal change. Yesterday I bought thirty quid’s worth of candles to see me through until April, and today we donned our waterproof outfits to trudge out in the snow. We’ve been to Lichfield Cathedral and breathed in the flickering candlelight, and in the kitchen, soups, curries and anything-with-gravy are the order of the day.

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Shrine to St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral

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Latest addition to the household

On the allotment, I find that the black plastic sheets I put down a fortnight ago have escaped and that our kind allotment-neighbour Martin has tried to secure them into position with stones. Affirmative action is needed. Fingers numb with cold, I pull the sheets back into place and drag planks of wood on top in a last-grasp effort to keep them in place. There’s no-one around and the only sounds on the snow-covered plots are birds going about their business.

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An inch or so of snow has fallen overnight

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The allotments are peaceful on a wintry lunchtime

I have a fairly bad case of baby-brain at present and so I’ve been looking at my pictures from the year to try to remind myself what I actually got up to in 2017. I notice that the kale and cavolo nero plants have been cropping since July, and now in December they’re still going strong – if anything they’re better than ever, relishing the cold that has zapped the whitefly. Today’s picking will probably be stir-fried with ginger and garlic to accompany a warming rabbit dhansak (Matt’s creation).

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Only thing growing now is cavolo nero and Russian red kale

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Today’s gatherings, whitefly-free for the first time this year

Eating & cooking: Cranberry & orange breakfast bread, Dad’s soup, rabbit pie, rabbit curry, giant yorkshire puddings with sausages wrapped in bacon, chicken baked with parsnips, rosemary and clementines, Aldi stollen, Aldi & Wilko panettone (these are the very best and I’ve tried many)

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage, Russian red kale, cavolo nero

Reading: The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

Sweet potato & pumpkin curry

In the two-and-a-bit months since the baby was born, the allotment has gone from high summer productivity to sodden and vaguely overgrown. The so-called compost bin is overflowing with the debris of the season, sunflower stalks, hop vines and mouldy chard. The veg patches are green with weeds and the fruit bushes are bare saved for the buds of new life, already visible on the branches. I pop down when I can for a spot of tidying – the success of this depends entirely on what mood Harry is in, and how much sleep I’ve had (or not had) the night before.

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Harry is not much help when it comes to allotmenting

I’ve covered both of the main beds with black plastic, partly to keep the weeds down over winter but also because I don’t know how much I’ll get around to cultivating next year. Left uncovered this soil becomes a carpet of weeds in a blink of an eye; this is a case of an hour’s work now saving me serious amounts of graft come spring.

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If left to its own devices, the allotment would be this overgrown all over

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I’ve put black plastic over the beds to keep the weeds down

There’s not much to pick now but the cavolo nero is still going strong, as is the kale and chard. What I do have though is a serious pile of pumpkins; having served their time as Halloween decorations, it’s time to transfer them to the pot.

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Cavolo nero still going strong, as is the kale and chard

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Pumpkins form the basis of this easy curry

This is an easy curry that I have shamelessly pinched from Nigella Lawson, though in truth it’s more the kind of dish I’d expect to find on a yoga retreat than from a ‘sleb chef. It’s vegan (shock!) and cheap (horror!), and more to the point I am able to cook up a massive vat of it in the few minutes that the baby is asleep in the afternoon. If you’re not lucky enough to have a pumpkin pile at home, use butternut squash instead.

Sweet potato and pumpkin curry
Recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson. Makes loads, about 8 portions.

1 red onion, cut into chunks
1 red chilli, stalk removed
Thumb of fresh ginger, peeled
3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tsp turmeric
2 heaped tsp whole coriander seeds, bashed in a pestle and mortar (or 1 tsp ground coriander)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 vegetable stock cube (I use low salt)
Salt
Sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
Water
1 large sweet potato, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1/2 pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
Juice of 1 lime

First, make the curry paste. In the food processor, whizz together the onion, chilli, ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon  and stock cube, adding a splash of water to help it combine if needed.

In a large casserole or stock pot, warm the oil over a medium heat and add the curry paste with a pinch of salt. Fry for a few minutes until the oil begins to separate from the paste. Add the solid coconut cream from the top of the tin of coconut milk, fry for a few minutes more, the add the rest of the coconut milk and tomatoes. Swill both tins out with water and add to the pan.

Finally slide in the sweet potato and squash, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until the veggies are soft – about half an hour. Some of the squash will disintegrate into the curry, which helps it to thicken. Season with more salt and lime juice to taste, then serve with brown rice and a dollop of yoghurt.

Pictures of autumn

Somehow we’re deep into autumn. I say ‘somehow’ as I didn’t really notice the summer (was working too hard) and then September vanished into a new baby fug. I am still in new-baby-fug of course, and will probably stay in the fug for the next 18 years, BUT we are now able to leave the house and generally do stuff. (This all depends on how many times I’ve been up in the night of course. But let’s live positively.)

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Cousin Sue made an amazing patchwork quilt for Harry

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Meeting the pigs at Clive’s Fruit Farm

The allotment has turned into a jungle in my absence – I find this very stressful but have decided it’s good practice in learning the art of going-with-the flow. Harry’s visited a few times, hanging out in the greenhouse whilst I harvest and weed.

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Harry’s made a few visits to the allotment….he hangs out in the greenhouse

The annuals are finished now but the greens and purple beans are still going strong – they are surviving slugs and caterpillars and whitefly and weeds. The massive foliage of the squash patch has died back to reveal a treasure-trove of striped fruits, just in time for Halloween, and the self-seeded nasturtium are threatening to take over completely. All those summer months of prodding and weeding, but it’s taken two months of no intervention for much of the harvest to come good.

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The autumn clean-up has started veeeerrrrry slowly. The sunflowers and cutting flowers have been taken up and that’s about it.

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In the last two months the greens have become a weeded jungle. Mega chard, mega spinach, massive beans.

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And the self-seeded nasturtiums have made the sweetpea netting their own

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Better late than never, we finally have a massive harvest of stick beans

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The squash harvest!

The light is softer now and the air damp. Small trips to the allotment provide a brief respite from the house, thirty minutes of quiet time.

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Browning leaves, soggy days, muddy boots: pictures of autumn

Harvesting: Final tomatoes, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, frills of hex, squash, stick beans, potatoes (thanks Mum & Dad for digging these), chrysanths
Jobs to do: Oh Lord, EVERYTHING needs tidying up.

Perking up

The year has disappeared by stealth. We’re nearly half-way through August – my due date is now only a month away – and I have no idea where the summer has gone. Or the spring, for that matter. Most of January and February were spent in bed / with head over a sink, and April to July I was heads-down with Birmingham Weekender and other projects. Now, suddenly, it’s late summer and the entire world is on holiday, which is marvellous for me as my daily incoming email quota has shrunk significantly. Work still needs attention of course but I’m trying to regain a bit of balance ahead of the new arrival. Matt and I are putting days out into the diary (in the last week there’s been a wedding, a farm visit and more!) and – amazingly – I’m now finding the space for a few hours here and there on the allotment.

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At Rebecca and Ben’s wedding

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Bindi and glitter

Both on the allotment and in the back garden, the pinks-and-pastels of early summer have given way to brighter jewelled shades. On the allotment this is definitely by design; in the back garden it is a happy accident.

It’s a bit of a free-for-all on the allotment this year. The plants are responding to the last few weeks of cooler, soggy weather – I’ve learnt that my allotment issues this year can be 99% blamed on the lack of water between May and July. Matt never got around to raising the hopolisk and so the hops, greedy for vertical lines, have jumped to any likely-looking pole: they’ve commandeered the fruit cage, the sweetpea netting, the bean poles. At their feet is a carpet of self-seeded nasturtium – (why is it that the self-seeding stuff always does so much better than the seedlings that I’ve carefully nurtured for months?) – and, alas, brambles and thistles are threatening to encroach into the veg patches. I’m doing my best to keep them clear but, with a rock-hard basketball stomach and an increasingly unstable pelvis, this is easier said than done.

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A bit of a free-for-all, but all things considered, not bad going

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Jewel-flowers join the regular harvest

It’s the time when the delicate pale sweetpeas give way to the brighter sunflowers, zinnia, cosmos and marigold, and I’m enjoying the glass jars of blooms that now adorn our windowsills. And the courgettes, the sodding courgettes, they keep coming. I’m contemplating grilling up a load and bottling them with olive oil and garlic; summery food for cooler weather. It’s a relief to finally be getting several harvests a week…the freezer is now so full of soft-fruit that there is barely any space for anything else. Come the dark of January, I will be so grateful for these throwbacks to summer.

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It’s been a long-time coming but finally getting sink-fuls of harvest

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Windowsills are adorned with a few orange, blue, white and pink posies a week, plus the first sunflowers

Harvesting: Raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, pattypan, runner beans, chard, spinach, rocket, frills of hex, baby chicory, nasturtium, sunflowers, zinnia, cornflower, cosmos, marigolds, last sweetpeas
Taken out: The rubbish beans that I planted back in the spring, though the emergency plugs that I put in a few weeks back are doing well. Weeding.
Cooking & eating: Courgette with everything. Cinnamon buns. Mum and Dad’s parmigiana with home-grown aubergine and tomato. Citrus chicken.
Reading: Behind the Mask, the biography of Vita Sackville West.

Summer rain

After the months of dry, we’re now blessed with days of gentle summer rain. The greens have responded with gusto – we now have lettuce! And kale! And chard! The little patch of salad and brassicas finally looks how I would have hoped it would look back in May – brimming with growth. Even the new climbing beans that I planted a few weeks back are doing well. The lesson is that my skills in propagation have this year been lacking, and that water is everything.

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The August allotment finally has greens…three months late!

Finally, and as predicted, the sunflowers have perked up and many reach to my head height. They’ve timed themselves well, for they’ll be ready to pick just as the July cornflowers and sweetpeas fade away.

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Sunflowers are now about my height and I’ll be picking within the next fortnight

It’s the vine fruits that are really romping away. We have autumn squash the size of basketballs, daily courgette and spaceship squash, and – another type of spreading vine – the nasturtiums are epic this year.

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The nasturtium are epic this year, with zinnia just beginning to bloom

Each year I discover that something has grown to a massive size utterly unnoticed – usually it’s a weed but this year the surprise is rather more pleasant. Hidden in the back of the greenhouse I have discovered two plump aubergine, rather battered in appearance (the caterpillar discovered them before I did) but nonetheless elegant with their purple sheen.

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Two surprise aubergine, though the caterpillars have got there first

More more excitingly, the stars of the greenhouse show are the ugly, fat, fiorentino tomatoes. They are a mess of crevices and cracks, lumps and bumps, and I love them for it. The temperatures over the last fortnight have not been great for tomatoes – too great a dip between highs and lows – and blossom end rot has made its usual and unwelcome appearance. One must be philosophical: the rain makes the flowers grow, and the tomatoes pay the price. Yin and yang.

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The ugly fiorentino tomatoes – if they ripen – will be epic!

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The last few weeks of chilly temperatures mean we have blossom end rot again

Harvesting: Tiny numbers of runner beans, courgette, summer squash, first raspberries, blueberries, chard, spinach, lettuce, nasturtium, cosmos, sweetpeas, first zinnia, cornflower
Cooking: Summer fruit crumble, courgette with everything

 

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