Sun, straw and plenty of annuals

The last two weeks have been about planting things out. Well that, and juggling three full-on work projects whilst trying to be mindful that when pregnant, one’s energy isn’t what it used to be. On Saturday the car was loaded with a boot-full of seedlings and small plants ready to plant out: courgette, squash, more beans, chrysanthemums, annuals for the cutting patch and salad greens. I’ve been raising most of these from seed in our sun room (I still think it’s hilarious that we have a sun room) and they’re healthy enough, although the slugs inevitably had a good go at them whilst hardening off.

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A boot-full of seedlings to plant out

I think I managed to plant about 100-or-so before my abdominal muscles informed me that I had to stop immediately. But that’s pretty good going, and all that’s left to plant out now are the sweetcorn, tomatoes, sunflowers and a few stray brassicas. Compared to some of the gardens I’ve seen in the Shire, which are now lush and full of green leaves, the veg patch is still mainly earth and grass – but I’ve learnt that on this exposed site that’s just how it is. Give it patience, and four weeks, and we’ll have caught up.

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Most of the cutting patch is in now, with just the sunflower poles waiting for their tenants

The intense rain followed by intense heat of the last week has brought on the strawberries: there are hundreds of berries, some fat, some small, on the turn of ripening. Last autumn I was given two sacks of straw by Ikon Gallery – it was used in an art installation and was going spare – and now it’s been spread underneath the growing plants to protect the berries from damp and bugs. Actually, come to think of it, the lengths of wood that I’m holding the netting down with are an art by-product as well… Recycle and reuse!

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Fruit has set on the strawberries, so they’ve been strawed and netted

Matt’s been busy lining the edges of the two main veg patches with wood to stop the grass encroaching – it’s instantly smartened up the plot, although the remaining three patches now of course look VERY scruffy by comparison. But we can’t do everything at once. His job for the week: getting the hopolisk back into operation!

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The new edging makes a real difference to the veg patches

Planted out: Chrysanthemums, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, borage, cornflower, sorrel, chard, spinach, squash, courgette
Other jobs: Netted all the soft fruit, continuing to keep the small greens covered, put in the sunflower poles

The plant-out begins

The most irritating thing about being pregnant is that I have no physical stamina anymore. Work is fine as I’m mostly desk-bound, but all those other regular daily-life events, like taking the washing upstairs, or walking up a slight hill, or planting out a few flowers, leave me breathless. By about 6pm I develop a stiffness around the pelvis that make me waddle like a runner duck – this is not a good look. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of Gertie’s book? She spends the day following the sun around the house, beginning in the bedroom for morning rays, moving to the top of the freezer for lunchtime sunbathing, and then spending the afternoon asleep on my desk.

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A normal working day involves sharing my desk with a fur monster

This lack-of-stamina means that everything on the allotment is way later this year than last. I started off my seeds about a month later than normal, meaning that the sunflowers, tomatoes, brassicas and cut-flowers still have a few weeks to go before they can go outside. Every year at this time I wonder why I don’t yet have stacks of flowers and veg to harvest and of course the answer is…a) we live in the Midlands, not Kent, and b) I don’t have a polytunnel.

Things are moving though. The strawberry plants are massive and the redcurrants have set fruit – I netted them today to prevent against bird attacks. The tulips are now over but the lavender is HUGE, surrounded by pops of vibrant purple from the aliums. Only two of Matt’s hops have made it through the winter but the survivors are in full growth, urgently needing their hopolisk support to be risen.

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Redcurrant fruits have set

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Aliums are giving some colour at least. (A good job, as the ones at home have all been eaten by the squirrel.)

This spring-summer in-between phase is a good time to get remedial tasks done. The greenhouse was in a state of virtual disrepair so Matt’s dismantled it to build a new roof – he has about two weeks to get the new frame and glass back on before it needs to be filled with tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines.

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Remedial work on the greenhouse

And the first veggies and flowers are ready to go out. Last week I planted out the sweet peas, runner beans, borlotti and stick beans, and today it was the turn of the sweet williams and marigolds that I started off last September, plus a load of lettuce, spinach, cima di rapa and kohl rabi seedlings. Everything that needs to be netted (against the pigeons) has been netted, those that need supporting have been supported, and those that need slug control have sadly received the necessary medication.

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First salads, brassicas and cut flowers are ready for planting out

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Sweetpea frame and bean sticks are majestic this year

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First cut flowers are out, with room for plenty more

All this effort, which took two hours, means that I can now barely stand upright. There’s still four months to go until this baby arrives and I can’t see it getting any easier!

Direct sowed: Carrots, parsnips
Planted out: Autumn-sowed marigolds and sweet williams, plus kohl rabi, sweetpeas, runner beans, French beans, borlotti, Tuscan salad mix, salad rocket, reine de glace lettuce, everlasting spinach, cima di rapa
Harvesting: Rocket, chives, wild flowers from around the allotment
Also noting: The grass is worse than ever this year! The hops urgently need the hopolisk to be raised.

Keukenhof, Amsterdam

After a week of chic Amsterdam loft-living, we’re having to get used to living in a Victorian terrace again. We were in town to visit the world-famous Keukenhof garden (about an hour out of the city), but the trip really turned into six days of mainlining carbs, reading, not-being-emailed-constantly and quality time with my man (a novelty as he works all the time).  I booked the flights back in January, when the desire for spring flowers had reached obsessive levels, only to find that by the time the trip rolled around, Britain’s spring had already been in full flow for at least a month…this rather took the edge off the urge for tulip-spotting.

No matter, for I quickly replaced one obsession with another: namely, the art of how to make a perfect Dutch appeltaart.

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Appeltaart at the Rijks Museum

Appeltaart is the dessert of choice for Amsterdammers, and I spent the entire week studying different versions to work out how it’s made. The pastry is cake-like, deeply filled with cinnamon-spiked chunky apple and raisins, and topped with latticework. The apples seem to break down around their edges into a brown-sugary-mass that holds the chunks in place, so there’s a contrast of textures. It’s not particularly sweet, is always served cold in enormously generous wedges and (hilariously) comes with a side of slagroom (whipped cream). If I ever succeed in making a decent version at home I will blog the results.

One other thing to note about Amsterdam is that everyone is dressed like a contemporary art curator. They’re all on bikes, wrapped up in smart tailored wool coats, trainers and thick-rim glasses, off to some glamorous arts job or perhaps simply to a cafe to scoff appeltaart whilst working on their Apple laptops. And I mean everyone – even the kids look cool. The place is spotlessly clean and ordered, except on King’s Day, when the city dresses up in orange, gets leathered on Heineken by 11am and congregates on party boats trailing around the canals with euro-pop and Wham! at full blast. But by 8pm, it is all over and everyone goes home for their tea. In Holland, it seems they like to lose  control in a very controlled fashion.

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Party boats for King’s Day in Amsterdam

Our loft apartment was painted entirely white, overlooked a canal (naturally) and was a short walk from a super-trendy street of independent trendy boutiques and classy food shops. I am sure that not everyone in Amsterdam lives this way, but for the few days we were there, it felt the height of civilisation.

But we were there for the tulips and it is the tulips that I must report back on. The Dutch LOVE tulips and they express their love at the Keukenhof, which is apparently the largest flower garden in the world. It’s only open for two months of the year, from March to May, and is essentially a massive trade show for Holland’s enormous flower industry. The formal beds of spring flowers and indoor pavilions are designed to show off the latest and favourite varieties of tulip, hyacinth and daffodil from individual bulb producers, and they do it with pristine attention to detail; we spotted a gardener placing metal rods into individual hyacinth stems to keep them upright. Imagine repeating that several million times, for that’s what it takes to keep this place looking great for spring flower season.

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At the Keukenhof, strips of ornate planting jut up against blocks of colour

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Clever geometric design

The geometric ‘designed’ beds are a useful way to highlight individual colours of tulip and I soon picked out a few favourites. The deep, inky-purple shades are dramatic, especially when planted against candy-pinks, but I’m increasingly enamoured by pale yellows, creams and greens.

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Darkest purple contrasts with candy pink

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Enjoy the soft green merging into pink

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These are firecrackers!

The received wisdom for tulips is that you plant a single colour together in blocks, so I was surprised to find a few beds that were a riot of contrasting colours and shapes. And actually, after all the formality in the rest of the gardens, these tutti-frutti beds were a joy.

Matt rather dryly observed that there’s an element of the cruise ship about the Keukenhof and I know what he means – it’s fun, but quite an unreal, artificial creation. Plus it was full of coach parties. Take a peep outside of the fairyland creation and the Dutch landscape gives an insight into what these gardens are all about – marketing the acres-upon-acres of flowers and bulbs that keep the Dutch economy afloat.

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Outside, the Dutch landscape is as flat as their ubiquitous pancakes

So I was surprised at how little merchandising there was at Keukenhof…it was difficult to find the name of a variety of tulip and the bulb-shops were tiny. Perhaps maximising visitor-spending is an area of commerce that doesn’t appeal to the Dutch – equally, the cut-flower displays were all a bit ‘plonk them in a vase’, so it seems that floral design is not high on the agenda. (Compare this to, say, Chelsea Flower Show where designs are expected to be cutting-edge and they want to part you from every penny you’ve ever earned). The Dutch are horticulturalists first-and-foremost, and the Keukenhof is a shrine to their preferred artform.

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This is about as artful as the cut flower display got, alas

On a different note, this will be the trip that I’ll remember for when I felt the little monster in my tummy starting to wriggle around for the first time. It is the weirdest thing, like when you drive over a humpback bridge and your stomach takes a few minutes to catch up. I’m 20 weeks, have got an undeniable paunch and remain shocked at how out-of-breath I get from normal physical activity. Four-and-a-half months to go.

The Keukenhof is open from March to May. www.keukenhof.nl/en/

I read: Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry
We ate: Pasta, pizza, cookies from Stauch, appeltaart, cheese, more pasta, pastries. The Dutch like Italian food and carbs. Matt drank alot of beer.
We watched: National Geographic channel, mostly programmes about plane crashes, Einstein and an American vet

Asparagus and tulips

At various intervals between April and July that Christmas song ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ comes into my mind. From mid-spring to mid-summer, every few weeks a new miraculous thing happens that gives me zest for life….a hillside filled with bluebells in May, a meadow of wildflowers in June, and in April, the first bunches of precious green Evesham asparagus. I came across this brilliant sight on Saturday. The ‘grass is about three weeks early this year – there’s a chance this lot have been grown under plastic but I’m putting that to the back of my mind. What matters is that they were green, squeaky fresh and sweet.

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First Evesham asparagus!

The first asparagus of the season is not to be messed about with. It needs about three or four minutes in boiling water and then anointing with butter, sea salt and black pepper, and no more. I served these up with my favourite spring supper: a whole trout baked with vine tomatoes, shallots, olives and thyme, with a side of new potatoes. And with that simple meal, the winter has gone.

It’s not just the asparagus that’s early. On my last visit to the allotment, about a fortnight ago, the tulips were still thinking about making their presence known. I’d been thinking for a few days that I ought to go and check progress so I popped over there yesterday evening to find, if not a field, then a substantial amount of full-blooms ready for picking.

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I was taken by surprise as how far these have come along in a fortnight

I say ‘ready for picking’ – really, I should have started a week ago. The curious thing about tulips is that they need to be planted in colour blocks. On the allotment, in small strips of colour spaced quite far apart for ease of picking, they looked fun but nothing sensational. But an hour later, when separated out in vases in complimentary colours, they were brilliant.

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Shades of cream, yellow, orange and burgundy

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I collected an armful of tulips…

My current favourite is the combination of Purissima (the big fat cream one) and Moonlight girl (the pointy yellow one). Purissima is HUGE, which on the allotment looked ungainly, but in the vase looks wonderfully showy-offy. After the sparse months of winter, it’s uplifting to have some colour back in the house.

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…and they look a treat

My only concern now is that we miss the rest of the crop. In a few weeks we’re off to Holland in order to admire that great tulip gardens of Amsterdam. Oh the irony if I then miss my own…

Also on the allotment and in the potting-room:

Harvesting: Tulips, last Russian kale
Sowed: Chillies, chard, spinach, sorrel, cima di rapa, courgette, squash, pattypan, borlotti, string beans, runner beans, French beans, ammi, cosmos, cornflower, nasturtium, borage, poppy, zinnia, dill, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland
Other jobs: Strimmed allotment grass for the first time this year. It is making vast in-roads into the veg patches and needs controlling. Dug up the last brassicas and forked over the patch. It took 90 minutes and today I can barely move; our soil needs alot of work.

Spring, sprung

Spring has undeniably sprung and not a moment too soon. Birmingham is now awash with yellow daffodils, on roadsides and in parks, and the early morning birdsong has picked up: there’s less of it here than in the country, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. If you know where to look, now’s the time to fill your boots with lush wild garlic. Forage for it now whilst the leaves are still tender and young, and it will bring a vibrant freshness to anything that you care to eat it with.

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Now’s the time to search for emerald green wild garlic

Encouraged by the weekend’s sunshine, but daunted at the amount of work that would need doing, I headed down to the allotment for what is only the third or fourth visit since Christmas. The greenhouse is surviving on a wing and a prayer: one gust of wind and it will be off, flying away as if trying out for the opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz. The grass is shaggy and long, there are tufty weeds emerging where they shouldn’t and the ground looks hard and cold….but on balance, it’s not in too bad a state at all. Nothing that a few hours of remedial carpentry (Matt) and grass strimming (me) can’t fix.

Plus there are still goodies to harvest. I planted this purple sprouting broccoli last April and it spent the summer covered in whitefly, but the winter chill has done its work. It’s now tall and lush, and cropping well – I’m not convinced that it warrants taking up a full eleven months of growing space, but it is good to be picking veg in the traditionally hungry-month of March.

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PSB ready for harvesting

I’ve been working out the growing plan for 2017 and the first planting – a set of healthy broad beans – has now gone in.

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This year’s allotment plan

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Broad beans ready for planting out

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First allotment planting of the year!

Back home in the ‘potting shed’ (i.e. the sun room/conservatory/junk room at the back of the kitchen) I’ve set up a temporary set of rickety tables and old newspaper, ready for seed sowing. Over the next few weeks I’ll get the 50-odd varieties of flowers and veg seeds going but for now it’s the turn of the tomatoes: the round yellow golden boy, the beefy fiorentino and a plum variety for passata.

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Inside, it’s time to sow tomatoes

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Hopefully Schofield will give them moral support

There’s also been a day of graft in the garden, though not by me. My folks came on Sunday armed with three David Austin roses for the new border (Gertrude Jekyll, Claire Austin and Mary Rose) and a host of alliums, which I’ve now supplemented with lavender Hidcote and some gorgeous white foxgloves. In a few weeks time we’ll have shades of pink, white and purple, hopefully giving way in the summer to dashing dahlias and cosmos. Spring: sprung.

Planted out: Broad beans
Sowed: Tomatoes
Potted on: Summer-sown marigolds & nigella
Harvested: PSB, Russian kale

Look what’s here!

I still can’t quite bring myself to be out on the allotment, though it’s not for lack of jobs that need doing. I’m painfully aware that the autumn-cropping raspberries need a good chopping back (not a difficult job, but a lengthy one) and I should be thinking about getting some goodness into the soil (read: spread some manure). But the key word here is thinking…there’s alot of thinking and not much doing.

So whilst the great outdoors is still chilly – there was hail today – I’m contenting myself to sorting out my seeds for spring planting, and wondering where all these tiny seedlings are going to live for the next few months. Because, dear reader, this year I have the grand total of 50 varieties of vegetables, salads, herbs and flowers that will soon need starting off!

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The new batch of seeds for 2017 are here

There is reason behind this seed madness. My doctor has been telling me to take vitamins but surely to God that is why spinach was invented? And tomatoes, and sweetcorn, and kale, and chillies, and squash, and beans, and you get the picture. So rather than sink my hard-earned cash into the big pharma companies, I’m investing in my diet instead, and that’s where Seeds of Italy and Sarah Raven come in.

New discoveries for 2017 come courtesy of Seeds of Italy, who are offering this particularly fancy-looking pumpkin and my favourite UFO-shaped squash custard white. I’m also having a go at runner beans this year for the first time (notwithstanding the ongoing slug-wars) and a late-to-bolt spinach, Tuscane. Plus there will be the usual mix of kale, courgette, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes and chillies, though no beets this year – grown on our soil they only seem to taste of, well, soil. Ugh.

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Two fun types of squash this year…

On the flower front, I’m bolstering my favourite white cosmos purity with a host of brightly-coloured newbies. There’s a carnival of colour with this zinnia mix, and I’m hoping that the cosmos bright lights mix will go well in a mixed bouquet with the sunflowers claret and valentine. I’ve also plumped for the delicate antique pink of cosmos antiquity and I’ll have another go at rudbeckia (last year the slugs ate the lot).

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…and loads of bright annuals!

The issue now is where to put them all. When we lived in the flat, I used to balance seed-trays on our windowsills with the help of a few trusty paperbacks. This house, though bigger, has very few suitable windows and those we do have are prime hanging-out territory for the cat (I’ve learned that Gertrude and seed trays do not go together). SO I’ll have to make an interim potting shed in the ‘sun room’ and balance the trays on a few trestle tables pinched from Matt’s business. It’s a plan. Only thing now is to actually get the pots and compost together and get planting!

BIG UP: A final note to big up my Mum and Dad who braved the inclement weather on Saturday to plant a climbing rose in my back garden. This lovely plant was a gift from Matt’s Mum when we moved house last summer, but it’s taken several months for me to clear out three massive hydrangeas and prepare the parched soil so that it has a cosy place to live. I am, however, hopeless with a drill so my Dad finally arrived with his power-tools to put the wire supports in place. My Mum then trained the shoots into place. It rained. It wasn’t fun. They are troopers. Big up the parents and parents-in-law!

Hints of spring

We’re not 100% back in the land of the living, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. My gradual emergence from hibernation coincides with an indisputable lengthening of the days: the mornings are lighter, the evening darkness falls ever-so-slightly later. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make a difference.

There’s been no gardening for weeks but, left to their own devices, the plants and bulbs are quietly waking up. Tulips are pushing through (notwithstanding the inquisitive squirrels), there are a few tentative green leaves forming on shrubs and, on the allotment, a patch of snowdrops raises a smile.

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Squirrel damage in the tulip pots

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Leaves are erupting in the garden

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A clump of snowdrops on the allotment

It’s easy to caught out by these first few hints of spring – there will doubtless be numerous more arctic days to come – but we must take our joy where we find it. I’ve moved a pot of narcissi to the front door so that, when they finally bursts into bloom, their yellow faces will make passers-by raise a smile.

Small things, big difference.

Pause for breath

I feel just-a-little-bit broken by 2016, what with all the political turmoil. I’m not sure which is worse: the fear of terrorism, or the fear that extreme politicians are managing to persuade certain groups of people that it’s OK to hate other groups of people because they are different to themselves. Plus we bought a house (which used up my life savings), moved a workshop, worked continuously and didn’t get in a decent holiday. And lots of really good people died.

This isn’t meant as a complaint, more of an observation that I’m running on empty: what’s needed is a proper break and time to regroup. The natural world can teach us a lot about pausing for breath: trees let go of their leaves, animals go into hibernation, all to conserve energy for the next year. On the allotment the ground is bare now, save for the winter greens, and will stay that way until the spring. The chrysanthemums are wrapped up in straw and tucked away in the greenhouse to over-winter.

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Allotment stripped back to the earth

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Over-wintered chrysanthemums

We headed down to Cornwall this weekend for two days of big skies and big beaches. We were ostensibly there to catch the Padstow Christmas Festival (I spotted Rick Stein, Brian Turner and Fern Britton wandering around town) but really, we were there to eat pasties, walk on the beach and feel fresh air in the lungs.

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Greetings from Mawgan Porth

It wasn’t a two week holiday, but a change is as good as a rest. Plus we had a brilliant dinner at Zachry’s at Watergate Bay and I’m newly inspired to have a go at some new recipes: the prawns with gobi sauce, hake with romesco sauce,  and panna cotta with burnt oranges were outstanding.

Bring on Christmas!

Over-wintering

I have been ‘encouraging’ Matt to make me a snug box to keep my chrysanthemum plants for over-wintering, but it’s been coming to naught. He’s been leaving the house at 6am and rolling home at 8pm, smelling of wood and glue and enthusing about the set he’s making for a theatre in town. So just like replacing the boarded-up window and putting all our art on the wall, the chrysanthemum box is at the bottom of the To Do list.

But then the other day he popped to the Original Patty Men to drop some stuff off that his friend Matt had made for them (another bearded fabricator with a wickedly dry sense of humour. They share a name, a profession and a workshop. Keep up.) For those not in the know, Original Patty Men are one of the hippest places in the city right now – their Twitter description is ‘purveyors of filth’. Think burgers, craft ale and beards that reach down to navels.

Anyway, the cool OPM chaps have happily gifted my man with an insulated polystyrene crate, the kind that meat and veg get delivered in. So now the chrysanths have somewhere cosy to over-winter, just like Grampy has instructed. Good timing too, as the first winter frosts are taking hold. As soon as it stops raining, I’ll head out and dig up the browning stems.

In the meantime, I harvest the last blooms of the year, alongside a few bedraggled chillies and, pleasingly, tiny winter salad leaves: rocket, mustard, spinach.

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Final chrysanthemums and chillies

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Winter salad leaves doing well under glass

We took much-needed time out this weekend for a bracing autumn-winter walk down Worcestershire lanes. Autumn came late this year and I don’t think it will last long. With the Christmas lights being switched on, and stormy weather, it seems that we are on the brink of season’s change, once again.

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Broadway, Worcestershire

Harvesting: Rocket, chicory, spinach, chard, cavolo nero, frills of hex kale (outside); winter leaves (greenhouse), last crysanthemums

Now is the winter of our discontent

Well yesterday was a bombshell moment wasn’t it? We were awake from 3am, periodically refreshing the news feed on my iPhone, despite knowing that news-checking would only increase the sense of impending doom.

I did expect this outcome, surely we all did: the “cry of the forgotten man” has been a regular refrain in the post-Brexit referendum analysis and in this age of globalisation, it is a cry that is being felt across the Western world. Whilst some people are benefiting from the modern age, so many others feel left behind and the result is an existential crisis that is playing out through society, politics, the media.

My sister-in-law (American but living in London) declared that both countries of which she is a citizen have taken crazy pills. The news today tells us that more people actually voted Clinton than Trump. A nation is divided and it has an impact on the entire globe. On this side of the Pond, we have to watch and wonder what new order awaits.

I have been reading several books lately that were written in the 1930s: some novels, some gardening books, a few memoirs. Yesterday morning, I got to thinking: what must it actually be like to live a time of even greater political uncertainty? Of actual war? With hate speech in the air? What could the ordinary person do to keep themselves sane? And the answer is there in the books*. They got busy. They looked after their own, got their hands dirty, did normal, elemental things to remind themselves of goodness and rightness.

So when there was nothing else to be done, I headed to the allotment and took up the dahlias, now stunted by the first winter frosts. The tubers will go into dormancy, over-winter indoors, and then I’ll plant them out for a new life next spring.

Now it’s grey outside, hailing in fact. But there is always knowledge that spring will come.

Hope must out.

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Dahlia tubers ready for storage

* These books are: Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M.Delafield, which is a much, much funnier book than it sounds and worth a read; various novels and gardening literature by Vita Sackville West; and Country Matters and Four Hedges by the extraordinary Claire Leighton. Books on a similar theme (daily life in a time of political extreme) include Alice B. Toklas’ Murder in the Kitchen, which records her life with Gertrude Stein in France during World War One,  and the masterpiece, Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray, telling of life in some of the poorest villages of post-war Europe.