Sowing the HAs and HHAs

We have three seasons in one weekend, as spring becomes summer becomes winter and then back to spring. March and April are so elemental – any hint of new life is pounced upon with rejoicing (a bee! bud break! bird song!) but the wise know that winter’s cold fingers still have stretch in them. Last week we had sunshine and ice creams, but today there is snow. Still, with Easter, I can feel the sap rising.

Daffodils at Wightwick Manor
Easter baking

It’s a slow start to the spring produce season, perhaps due to lockdown, or maybe it’s Brexit. There is purple sprouting if you know where to look, and very early English strawberries, but the tomatoes are still rubbish (I’d hope for some decent European ones by now). My annual early April pilgrimage to asparagus country – Evesham – did pay dividends however, and as usual, the clutch of suggestive green stems set me back a small fortune.

The annual early April asparagus hunt came up trumps

I’ve spent the last month or so getting back into the horticultural swing of things. Not on the allotment – still too cold – but rather in my ‘potting shed’, the sun room at the back of our house. Over the four springs we have been here I have learnt to refine my system to make the most efficient use of space, heat and light. Instead of sowing everything at once I now move slowly, gradually, starting with the hardiest varieties and responding to what the temperamental spring throws at us.

When I first started the allotment the phrases ‘HA’ and ‘HHA’ on seed packets were just another thing to ignore, but having lost too many French beans to a surprise late frost on our exposed plot, I have finally learnt to pay attention. So I start the sowing season with the toughies such as broad beans and peas, and when they are ready to go into the cold-frame, I start the half-hardies off inside. Then when the hardy baby plants in the cold frame are ready to be planted out, the half-hardy seedlings goes under glass and we sow again with the real softies. And on it goes. At least – that is the plan.

No room for any more seed trays now, hence the new system of timed sowings

Over time I have narrowed down the number of veg I sow, keeping it to the types I can either successfully grow, that we will actually eat or I would feel emotionally bereft without. In contrast the list of flowers for cutting expands and expands. They are a true joy of life that I can no longer do without, and growing them answers my need for nurture, colour, creativity, groundedness, wonder – not to mention the myriad affordability and sustainability issues associated with bought cut flowers. The allotment sowing timetable could, then, be called the Cutting Patch timetable. Which come to think of it means I need to rename the blog too – Notes from the Cutting Patch perhaps. In the meantime, here’s this sowing year’s plan:

The 2021 allotment sowing timetable:

March: Hardy veg and cut-flowers, including sweetpeas, cornflowers, broad beans, peas, kales & chard (plus tomatoes which stay under glass). Once germinated I can put these in the cold frame to make room for….

Early to mid April: Half-hardy annuals, including cosmos, strawflower, zinnia, amaranthus, ammi, cleome, plus courgette. I find that if I start them sooner they get all leggy in the fruitless search for light. I’ll also plant out the first lot of broad beans and peas at this time, which frees up pots for a repeat sowing. Once established the seedlings will go into the coldframe which then creates room for…

Late April to May: Sunflowers, climbing and dwarf beans, cabbages, squash, kohl rabi – the sunlovers and slow-growers, for later summer and autumn pickings. Also the biennials, such as sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty, which will be planted out in the autumn ready for early flowers next spring.

It’s a relief to not start everything at once, like giving oneself permission to take a day off. And in the meantime, there are other projects that are taking up my energies, such as finally sorting out the very back bed of our west-facing garden. Over Easter some bedraggled shrubs were removed, and there’s some remedial work to be done to the fence and retaining wall before I get on with planting. It’s a shady patch, and I’m drawn to the ideas of ever-green ferns and jurassic plants that can be fuel to a young pre-schooler’s dinosaur-loving imagination. Watch this space.

The next project, sorting out the unloved back bed

Also this week:
Sowing and planting: Hardy and half-hardy annuals, as outlined above. Replanted the herbery with new hyssop, mint, thyme, chervil and oregano. Currently planting up summer pots for front and back garden. There are broad beans and peas ready for planting out but the snowy weather will delay matters for a week or so. Garden is filled with narcissus and tulips on the tip of opening, and the forsythia is a golden joy.
Harvesting: Mustard, lettuce and rocket from the veg trug. Not much else.
Cooking and eating: First asparagus of the year, costing a king’s ransom, though purple sprouting is cheap as chips now. Easter biscuits, Easter chocolate cake and hot cross buns, obviously. Lamb kebabs with flatbreads. First bottle of rose wine of the year.
Reading: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, and I see for the first time how similar the life captured in this book (1920s rural Cotswolds) is to that of the 1950s Mediterranean peasantry that Patience Gray describes in Honey from a Weed. We’re all the same people, albeit divided by 20 degree celsius.

The seed list, 2021

I’m still struggling to break through the chill factor. I see people walk past our window wearing cute little canvas trainers, cropped trousers, no socks, and I am staggered at their bravery. Do people just not feel the cold?! For whilst the days might be lengthening (there’s now a dim silvery light at our daily 6.25am wake-up, which is preferable to pitch black) the wind penetrates to the bone. After a trip to the park it takes a good thirty minutes to defrost. On Instagram I see people sowing their seeds, berating themselves for being late, but I think, hold on, slow it down, winter’s not through with us just yet.

In the kitchen, a few feta-stewn salads are making their way into the late winter/early spring repertoire, but for everyone of those I make there’s still at least three items of stodge. Chelsea buns, crisply caramelised around their swirly square tops, and rhubarb crumble cake are sustenance for the winter body and the Lockdown mind.

Chelsea buns
Rhubarb crumble cake

Meanwhile thoughts have turned to the garden and allotment. The buds on the hydrangea seem to fatten in time with the government’s promise of lockdown easing – we’re nearly there, nearly there, but not quite yet. Until the weather turns, we have to be patient. And instead, do some planning: What can fill that tricky area of dry shade at the back (I’m trying out some ferns)? What can we add to the front garden to make it look slightly more loved (answer, persicaria and erigeron daisies)? Have any of the perennials made it through? Already I see bronze fennel shoving its feathery fronds up through the mulch, and there’s hints of the nepeta returning, but of course it’s too early to say. I’m distracted by pictures of staggeringly expensive shallow bowls of muscari flogged by posh florists and buy up a pack of bulbs for a fiver, so that Harry and I can make our own.

Potting up muscari bulbs

One thing that I HAVE decided this March is that starting off annuals in October then over-wintering them is a total waste of effort and money. Last autumn I started broad beans, sweet peas, cosmos, delphinium, lace flower and ammi, leaving them in the cold frame or a window sill over the winter, and only the sweet peas have made it through. (To be fair to the broad beans, they would have been OK but the slugs got them.) The rest are a complete, abject failure. I think it was the lack of light in our overlooked terrace that got them, so until I have the glasshouse of my dreams, I won’t bother again.

The sum total of attempting to sow annuals in autumn. Lesson: don’t bother unless you have a light-filled greenhouse.

Yesterday we prepared the sun room for its spring-time temporary role as a propagation centre. Out went the bags of plaster and cement (hurray) and in came the dinky wobbly tables, the heat mat and the cobweb-matted pots and trays from the shed. I’ll hold off sowing most of my seeds for a few weeks yet but the broad beans and sweet peas should be OK if I begin a few trays now. It feels good to be starting again: to paraphrase Vita Sackville West, to plant something is an act of hope.

The sowing room is set up and ready for action

Planning is key. I prefer to sow undercover and then transplant to the allotment, but I am mindful that we’re seriously limited on space for pots and trays. As if to remind myself of what to do and when to do it, I’ve listed all the seeds that I have accumulated for this year’s planting, noting when they need to be started off, so that I can have some kind of sowing plan. Then at some point in the next week or so I’ll draw up a plan of where they will all be planted on the allotment. There’s lots of old stalwarts in here but also a few new additions for 2021: flower sprouts, a lovely ugly bumpy yellow courgette, toadflax, scabious and honeywort. For those who like such things I list the seed list for 2021 here:

Edibles                                 
Broad bean – Aquadulce
Basil – Bush
Basil – Thai
Lettuce – Alpine mix
Lettuce – Salad bowl
Lettuce – Oakleaf
Lettuce – Merveille de quatre saisons
Rocket – Apollo
Carrots – Touchon
Courgette – Rugosa Friulana
Courgette – Genovese
Kale – Pentland brig
Kale – Cavolo nero
Pea – Blauwschokker
Flower sprouts               
Tomato – Red cherry
Parsnip – Dugi Bijeli
Spinach -Perpetual
Watercress                      
Chard – bionda di lione
Chard – Bright lights
Borlotti – Lingua di Fuoco
Climbing french bean – Anna
Climbing french bean – Cosse violette
Climbing french bean – Cobra
Dwarf French bean – Rocquencourt
Dwarf French bean – Vanguard
Dwarf French bean – Tendercrop
Runner bean – Scarlet empire
Pumpkin – Jill be little
Squash – Hokkaido
Squash – Golden butternut
Chicory – Variagata di Castelfranco
Kohl rabi – Vienna blanco
Cabbage – Savoy
Plus already in the ground: Blueberry, raspberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, strawberries, oregano, sage, rosemary.

Flowers for cutting                             
Sweet pea – Lady salisbury
Sweet pea – Mixed selection
Sweet pea – Elegant ladies
Sweet pea – Almost black
Dill                                    
Strawflower – Mixed
Strawflower – Salmon rose
Cornflower – Classic magic
Cornflower – Double blue
Cornflower – White
Cosmos – Dazzler
Cosmos – Purity
Cosmos – Velouette
Cosmos – Pied piper blush white
Amaranthus – Red army
Calendula – Nova
Calendula – Indian Prince 
Honeywort – Purpurascens
Scabiosa – Tall double mix
Toadflax – Licilia Violet
Delphinium – White king
Delphinium – Blue spire
Sunflower – Red sun
Sunflower – Oriental mix
Sunflower – Magic roundabout
Nigella – Persian jewels
Cleome – Colour fountain
Ammi visnaga – White
Zinnia – Early wonder
Digitalis – Suttons apricot
Sweet rocket                   
Verbena bonariensis    
Honesty                            
Echinacea                        
Sweet william                
Achillea – Cerise queen
Achillea – yellow

Plus already in the ground: Foxgloves (self-sown then transplanted into rows), dahlia (about 8-10 varieties), teasels, sweet william, lavender, allium, chrysanthemum.

So now we wait, hoping for the mercury to rise and lockdown to end. And in the meantime, there’s rhubarb cake to be had.

Also this week:
Allotment/Garden: Matt removed the big blackberry from the raspberry patch using all kinds of hacking equipment. Prepped the sun room for seed sowing. Started off broad beans and sweet peas.
Harvesting: PSB, pentland brig kale, cavolo nero, rosemary.
Cooking & eating: Rhubarb crumble cake with Herefordshire forced rhubarb found in Aldi; chelsea buns; I’ve got skilled at making dinners in the morning that can be easily finished or reheated in 5 minutes after Harry’s in bed….sausage and fennel pasta bake; stir fried pork noodles; chocolate pear pudding, that kind of thing.
Reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, such a relief to read an intelligent book that isn’t weighted with identity politics / genocide / disease / disaster after my reading materials for the last few months. Watching This Country on iPlayer, which is deliciously observant of real life in the sticks.

Blackberries and PSB

Almost, almost. A few times over the past week people have said ‘it feels almost spring-like’. The mercury is certainly rising now, after the Arctic temperatures at the start of the month. During the cold snap we had to isolate after a few Covid cases at nursery; with the hours feeling like days, there was nothing for it but to cook. Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam (I burnt the jam but it turned out to taste toffee-like rather than carbonated); 5-hour baked lamb; all types of pancake – the larder, and my cookbook collection, is my Lockdown friend.

The potted blueberry became an ice sculpture at the start of the month
Pancakes are food for the soul as well as body: this puffy Norwegian baked pancake came with blueberries and maple syrup
Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam. Clotted cream mandatory.
5-hour baked lamb shoulder collapses into shreds with the poke of a spoon. Serve with tzaziki, baked new potatoes, green beans dressed with feta and spiced aubergine relish.

But all this domestic lounging around can’t go on for ever. As the plants start to green up and the daffodils swell, I can feel energy rising. We’re on the cusp of time to be getting busy, and within the next month or so I’ll start off the early seeds. A TO DO list is back up on the kitchen wall, full of tasks that take seconds to write but weeks to actually make happen (‘renovate bathroom’, ’tile kitchen’). And on the allotment, this little patch of anarchy has been provoking me: raspberries, wild blackberries and grass, all jumbled together into an unholy mess.

The autumn raspberries have been colonised by brambles and grass

February is the time for cutting back autumn raspberries, and I trim ours right down to the base every year at this time. We inherited these plants. If I was starting from scratch I’d plant the canes in neat rows, but as it is, they are uneven, unruly and thriving; every year we have more fruit than I can be bothered to pick. However a few years back a wild blackberry set up home here, sending out runners which have grown into lethal traffids. These in turn make it impossible to keep the grass down, a perfect storm of irritation. Incidentally, a blackberry plant is nigh-on-impossible to pull out due to their lengthy tap root, but I am told the key is to bury down into the soil a few inches, find a new little pink shoot, and cut below that to help weaken the plant. This needs to be repeated for several years. So today I made a start, heaving and puffing in the February winds, but some are so big I’ll have to bring out an actual saw (a saw!) to sort the buggers out.

This bramble requires drastic action
Raspberries trimmed and mulched – the biggest blackberry still in place waiting to be hacked out with a saw.

My reward for today’s graft was an early picking of purple sprouting broccoli. These were bonus plants that I was gifted last summer by my in-laws, which I planted and then ignored. Taking out the central flower now encourages side shoots, just like with a sweet pea or cosmos, except these are a far more tasty treat. I’ll blanch the PSB stems then toss them in olive oil, chilli flakes, garlic and parmesan, the most perfect sauce for oriechette.

An early crop of PSB

One bonus of the cold weather is that the white fly that has lived in the brassica cage since August has finally been zapped, leaving pristine cavolo nero and pentland brig kale. A quick rinse in cold water and we’re ready to go – I can feel a minestrone coming on.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb with aubergine relish, then the leftovers turned into wraps with massive flatbreads and fresh parsley from the Halal shop; burnt tayberry, raspberry (and redcurrant) jam; scones; apple caramel upside down cake; pea and paneer curry. Still no booze (body says no) which I continue to be sad about.
Harvesting: Kale, cavolo nero, PSB
Also: Trains, cars, stories, painting, Cbeebies etc etc etc. Reading My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem and Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy. Watching It’s a Sin, which is possibly the best TV ever made but devastating.

Autumn clearance

Like the summer flowering plants, I have lulled into dormancy. This lockdown feels more depressing than the first, for there is no novelty, and of course darkness falls at 4.30pm. Whilst in March and April we may have had time to notice sap rising, this enforced stillness in November makes us aware of the year decaying, drawing in its energy. The spring and summer spent outdoors has been replaced by hours inside, fingers cold, fire on. Not that this necessarily needs to be a bad thing of course: there’s time for learning a new craft, for proper cooking, and for reflection. A few weeks ago I had a go at macrame for the first time, a craft that I would highly recommend for the simple reason that it has the good manners to be beginner-proof: if you make a mistake, no matter, just undo it and have another go.

macrame wall hanging, the close-up
macrame wall hanging, the long view

I’ve also been rummaging through the bunches of dried flowers hanging in the sun room (aka the Drying Room), most of them refugees from this summer’s garden and allotment, though some were foraged from hedgerows back in September. A vase of cornflowers, hops and strawflower makes for an easy long-life display – and when I bore of it, I’ll put the dusty stems in the compost and simply make a new one.

This summer’s flowers, now dried, make an easy longlife vase…
…though the poppies have left their legacy in the drying room, as
tiny seedlings try to make a life in our rotten window sills.

I have avoided the back garden for a few weeks, and though it is littered with leaves and the summer perennials are battered by the wind, there is still colour. Globes of undeveloped white flowers adorn the rose, and these chrysanthemums have finally decided to put on a show after weeks of dormancy. They look ridiculous, 1m tall plants standing alone in the bed (for their intended companions of sunflower and fennel have long gone), flopping around in the gales, but I haven’t the heart to cut them back just yet. These are new plants, put in back in April, with zappy firework petals. The lack of sun in our overlooked garden does not suit them, so next year I’ll move them out to the allotment where they can bake in the sun and provide months of cut flowers.

One of the new chrysanthemums, to be moved from garden to allotment
Firework colours and late to flower

On the allotment, thoughts turn to preparing the soil for winter. I had my last basket of flowers back on 1st April, and the dahlias have now been touched with frost, and the chrysanthemums are battered with wind. ‘Tidying’ is a dirty word these days and whilst I agree that we should not strip the land of all its life over winter, I do think it’s wise to remove the decaying annuals and give the land a feed with mulch whilst it has a period of rest. Besides, I actually think that beautifully mulched soil has its own aesthetic appeal.

The last basket of the year, cut 1 November (though I’m still harvesting kale and herbs)

More importantly in allotment terms, this is the time of year to take the vigour out of the perennial weeds. This year the culprit is creeping buttercup, which snuck in unnoticed by me and has set up rather than extensive home for itself amongst the cut flower bed. I spend a few hours bent double (I think garden yoga could be a thing) picking through roots, knowing that my efforts will by no means remove our guest but may stop it exceeding its welcome.

Time for the autumn clearance to begin
A few hours later, ready for mulch and cover

Normally I remove the chrysanthemums in November and my put-upon Mother takes cuttings from them for the next season, but this year the allotment chrysanthemums are staying put; an experiment in over-wintering. I have gained confidence from the fate of my dahlias, which I have ignored for three years (leaving them in the ground to face winter snow, rain and flood) and are now so big as to be a nuisance. I take these three plants up, their tubers so big I can barely lift them, and they will rest in the shed until the spring when I decide their fate.

Three dahlias, untouched for three seasons, now so large I can barely lift the tubers

As autumn clearance goes it’s pretty light touch, which suits both my inclination and, I increasingly feel, the needs of the soil. In a few weeks the manure will go down, then black plastic to keep the wind-blown weed seeds away, and next year we start all over again.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, last strawflower
Cooking and eating: A lot of cooking. Proper roast beef lunch, fuelled with a glorious Cremant de Bordeaux found, of all places, in the bin-end section of Homesense. Never underestimate the power of good sparkling white wine to take the edge of life. Also: ricotta doughnuts, pizza with Italian sausage, cranberry orange breakfast bread, Nigella’s self-saucing chocolate pudding.
Also: Setting A Suitable Boy aside as I am finding it indulgently long-winded and finding solace in EM Forster’s A Room With A View, a novel so staggeringly brilliant I have read it at least 5 time before and still finding new things to marvel at. Watching all the Toy Story films with Harry.

The drying room

As September draws to a close, summer still clings on. Chilly mornings herald blue-sky days; the roses are in second bloom and our house is filled with vase upon vase of brightly coloured cosmos, sunflower and dahlia. But the nights draw in early now, and the fire has been flipped on a few times – its role is to warm both the house but also our souls. As ever, with the outside world remaining as turbulent as it is, it is mindfulness of the moment, the season, the small things, that provide comfort. And my goodness, what a month to be outdoorsing it, with these glorious rich colours and an abundance of harvest.

September colour: cosmos, chrysanthemum, strawflower, dahlia, nasturtium

Last week Matt took the hops down, using a hammer and brute force to drop the hopolisk to ground-level. It’s a good harvest this year, the hops rich with resin. Perhaps one year we’ll actually turn them into beer but for now they remain an ornamental, and I take lengths of hop bine, twist them into lengths then leave them to dry for a few weeks, ready to decorate the house over winter.

The hopolisk is down!
Up close, the hops are resinous and fresh-scented
Our current regular harvest, awash with rich colour
I took bines of hops and twisted them into hanging lengths

The ‘sun room’ at home (that’s what the estate agents call it) has become the Drying Room, the perfect south-facing glass-fronted space for drying the harvest ready for the cooler months. Since the spring I’ve been saving bunches of flowers, notably the strawflower, hydrangea and alliums, but also dainty cornflowers and a few poppy heads, tying and hanging them upside down to slowly dry in the gentle sun. Come December I’ll twist them into garlands and wreaths, a bit of Christmas botanical creativity that costs nothing.

The drying room, filled with (L-R) hydrangea, strawflower, hops, allium, cornflower

It’s not just flowers though. The borlotti beans are piled into an old vegetable box, their leathery skins becoming hard and dry as the beans ripen. If podded before drying, the skins curl themselves into spirals – perhaps another addition to a winter display. Once they’re fully dried I’ll take the beans and pop them in glass jars to store.

Borlotti beans twist themselves into spirals when dry

Seeds can be preserved too. These sunflowers I cut a few weeks back and have left to desiccate so that I can get the seeds before the squirrels do – some to eat, but the rest to sow again for next year’s blooms.

Sunflower seeds ripening in the sun room

Then there’s the foraging harvest, the hips and haws that are at their best in late September and October. This weekend I hunted down rosehips and hawthorn berries (and a bag of sloes which I’ve ferreted away into the freezer), and they join the Drying Room action. It’s all an experiment really – I don’t know if they’ll dry well or not – and half the fun is seeing what works, finding the possibilities.

Hawthorn, rose hips and spruce join the drying flowers, ready to be turned into Christmas displays

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias (abundant), cosmos purity and dazzler, sunflowers (now in a second bloom), chrysanthemum, zinnia, cavolo nero, kale, first pumpkin Jill be Little, runner beans, raspberries.

Cooking and eating: Excellent roast lunch at the Plough and Harrow at Guarlford, first time in a pub in what feels like years. Fish tacos with fresh corn. Home-made deep pan pizza. Plum Eve’s pudding. The hunt for the perfect samosa continues with a trip to the sweet centres of Smethwick High St.

Also: Work is full on and there is a mental shift as I realise just how much of my professional life must adapt to the Covid world; it’s not a great time for the cultural sector and friends are losing their jobs. Yoga provides ballast. Lovely few days play-dating at Rowheath Pavillion, celebrating my Dad’s 75th birthday and foraging on Castlemorten Common.

Rain stops play

It’s been a week of gales, rain, intermittent sunshine…and a rat attack. On last week’s only sunny day I took Harry to Bourton House in the Cotswolds to take a look at their famous summer garden. The planting was amazing of course – though it’s hard to take anything in when running after a sprinting two year old – but actually it was the use of wood that caught my eye. Just look at the incredible shadows created in this shade house, and the magic quality of the kinetic sculpture in the meadow.

The shade house at Bourton House, Bourton on the Hill
Kinetic sculpture in the woodland walk

A quick trip to my parents’ yesterday wielded another bootful of goodies. Corns, fennel, carrots, beans, spinach, and 14 castaway snails that I rescued from the sink, one by one. Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” (direct quote) but I am not sure that my Dad truly understands what crap is. My folks have been spoilt by years of living with tons of space and a protected walled garden – this isn’t as posh as it sounds, believe me, but the result is that even a massive harvest of corns is considered substandard. It occurred to me later that these children of the 1940s were possibly the first generation to grow things purely for pleasure rather than necessity, but the cultural memory of growing for need lives on. These days the winter store cupboard can always be replenished by a trip to the shops, but the age-old instinct of the country people to squirrel away the harvest for winter remains. I share this instinct, of course, and so the freezer is now full of sweetcorn, raspberries, blackberries, sliced apples…the list goes on.

Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” says my Dad, whilst hauling two buckets of corn and giant fennel bulbs
Corn being prepped for freezing, a still life

It’s a good job that my parents’ “terrible” corn harvest has still yielded extras, for on the allotment mine has been obliterated by rats. Or maybe mice. Whoever the culprit, they took their fill then scarpered, leaving only the evidence of a feast.

Corn left desolate after attack of the rats/mice

In fact, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs down there after the terrible winds and heavy rain of the weekend. Two sunflowers completely capsized, and the rest are growing horizontally, their bronze faces battered with wind burn. The new dahlias also took a beating, and I make a mental note to stake them properly next year. I think there is still a few weeks of cutting left but the real high point of summer has surely passed and it’s sad to lose the best of the crop so early. Like vegetables, I have started to think of my flowers as seasonal friends, here for a few short weeks and then gone again for another year. When they leave, I feel genuine sadness.

At least two sunflower plants have been lost in the weekend winds, and the rest are leaning on the wonk
Dahlias flattened in the wind – the lesson, next year we stake

I’ve been distracted this week with the nature of things, post-lockdown. Apparently there is a term for people like me, who have seen their income drop by a mile due to Covid-19: we are the nouveau-skint. Actually I don’t have a problem with it per se – as long as there is food on the table and a roof over the head, that is what counts – but as I’ve emerged from the lockdown bubble, what has also re-emerged is that nagging feeling that I should still be achieving everything at the same time. Earning a living whilst keeping work interesting, renovating the house, sorting the garden, coming up with amazing things to do with Harry, getting fitter/stronger/healthier, working out what I think about 21st century feminism/decolonialisation/race relations, writing my book, the list goes on.

The problem is that all the other domestic stuff gets in the way, things like getting the boiler fixed, doing the Aldi shop (nouveau-skint, no Waitrose anymore), mopping the floor, sorting the allotment aftermath of the weekend winds. Last week I had an 8am Zoom with colleagues in Pakistan and then promptly turned round and scrubbed the bathroom. This is the reality of the educated working mother. We are the central rock around which everything else revolves.

And then yesterday I was given this picture of my Granddad, taken some time in the 1940s when he would have been around my age. Ivor Yapp works the fields of Herefordshire, ploughing the dense clay earth with his horses – apparently to use three horses with your plough was unusual and meant the land is particularly solid. It’s a picture that asks many questions. Who took this photo? For what purpose? What’s this lone farm-hand thinking of as he walks miles a day, earning a few bob to keep his wife and children in coal and bread? You can almost hear the silence on this image, punctuated only by the snorts of horses, squeak of plough, sqwark of crows.

My grandfather Kenneth Yapp ploughs Herefordshire fields, 1940s

Would this man be able to imagine how the working world could change so quickly in two generations? Our society has transformed in less than 80 years to a place of hyper-speed, hyper-connectedness and so much NOISE. No wonder the adults are knackered and no wonder the kids and teenagers are confused. I think this is why I put so much time and effort into growing things and cooking things, even if they don’t turn out quite as planned. It’s a connection to a shared history, a previous life. Amidst all the nonsense of the 21st century, it is a return to the elemental.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Plums, eating and stewing for the freezer; also freezing blackberries, raspberries, apples, blueberries, spinach.
Harvesting: Sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi, calendula, amaranth, delphinium, courgettes (marrows really), spinach, chard, french beans.
Also: Reading Still Life by Elizabeth Luard, her account of travelling Eastern and Northern Europe in the 1990s to learn of peasant cooking.

Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Despite my best efforts, life has completely returned to normal. Matt’s working long hours (including weekends) so my days are a juggle between work and childcare, with the occasional foray to the outside world. I’m not complaining too much (I’m lucky to have any work at all, frankly, as the creative industries are currently screwed) but our leisurely days of lockdown are absolutely over. Plus there’s potty training. And renovation of my office. It’s been ages since I posted because my headspace for creative activity is pretty much zero. But there are still socially-distanced playdates to be had: thank God for Warley Woods, Lightwoods Park and our back garden, which are the setting for many hours of pre-school adventure.

Me and Harry in Warley Woods
Blowing bubbles

Harvesting has notched up on the allotment. The cut flowers are providing the interest at present, with the intense Venetian jewel colours of the sweet peas, soft purple lavender, romantic cornflowers, long-stemmed vivid orange nasturtiums and – just today – my old friends the dahlias have started to flower. The strawflower, sunflower and chrysanthemums will be out within the fortnight, I predict.

The veggies, on the other hand, are taking a while to get going this year. There will be courgettes and French beans – though the runner beans have gone AWOL – and the chards and kales look fine. Today I planted out an unexpected bounty of brassicas gifted by Matt’s parents, cauliflowers, purple sprouting and sprouts, which have had to be nestled in between overgrown broad beans and the self-sown alpine strawberries. Come January I will curse myself for planting them right in the middle of the veg patch, surrounded by a quagmire of soil, but there was nothing else for it.

There’s a lot of self-sown plants on the allotment this year, which previously I would have called ‘weeds’, but now I see as pollinator-fodder who have chosen to set up home with us. Some are the hangover of previous summers (borage, ammi and nasturtium have all seeded themselves from plants introduced by me) but the alpine strawberries, poppies and mullein are truly wild. I am leaving them be, seeing them as a food source for hungry bees and, potentially, extra harvest for me.

On the allotment, things are happening – self-sown poppies, borage, nasturtium, ammi and alpine strawberries have taken up home amongst the squash, corn and cut flowers
Photos do not do justice to the thicket of cornflowers, nasturtium and sweet peas
Ten days ago I was just harvesting sweet peas…
…today I add cornflower, lavender, achillea, nasturtium and dahlias to the mix

For my birthday treat, I had intended to visit both Hidcote Manor Garden and Cowley Manor, but The Disease put an end to that plan. Instead I took myself on a rare child-free few hours to Kiftsgate Court Gardens near Chipping Campden. Dear reader, it was glorious. Clear blue skies, warm (but not hot) sun, the sweet scent of old rose in the air, and no-one telling me they’ve done a wee. After so many months of being in one place, it felt so good to be free, even if only for a lunchtime.

The border at Kiftsgate Court, which was heavily scented with sweet rose

Kiftsgate is both a family home and a national treasure, which is quite a difficult trick to pull off. A garden created by three generations of women, there are design influences from the 1930s, mid-century and contemporary periods. Late June is the time to go if you can, for the roses are incredible. Incidentally, the Kiftsgate rose is famous for its vigour. The visitor guide warns against purchasing one unless you are entirely sure you can cope with it: apparently it can take the roof off a garage with ease. But in its natural habitat it looks an innocent mass of white froth amongst the pink.

The inner courtyard, a mid-century design filled with the gentle sound of falling water
The rose garden is bordered with pink leading to a sculptural focal point.
Above it, the white mass of the Kiftsgate rose.
I always enjoy a makeshift bit of engineering, such as this rose support

For me though, the unsung hero of the garden are the sculptural trees that frame the landscape and lend the eye to the rolling Cotswold valley below. I’m always fascinated by trees in a landscape, for whoever plants them never sees their vision come to fruition; I am no expert but these must be decades, even centuries old.

The trees are the real stars of Kiftsgate

The Cotswolds are, of course, hilly, and Kiftsgate answer to this problem is steep terracing to echo the gardens of Tuscany. The black pool that looks out and down to the valley is a genius of design: infinity in front, infinity below.

Looking down to the 1960s pool and beyond it, the Cotswolds
Italianete terracing

Cotswold buildings are often a joy, and this one is no exception. The slightly-off symmetry makes one wonder…was this intentional ? An accident? What stories this old house could tell.

The off-symmetry of the side of the court is pleasing

The cafe is shut for the present but the meadow is open for picnics. (Surely an unexpected bonus of lockdown is all this time out-of-doors). For a time-poor working parent, I am so pleased that I took the chance to seize the day. This is an English garden at its midsummer best.

English meadow on a summer’s day

Also this week:
Harvesting: Sweetpea, cornflower, nasturtium, very first dahlia, very first cosmos, achillea, lavender, broad beans, peas/mange tout, rocket, lettuce, first blueberries, alpine strawberries. Gifted tayberries, blackberries and last asparagus by Jean and Gary.

Allotment: Planted out cauliflower, PSB, sprouts

Garden: Planted out annuals – zinnia, cosmos, sunflower – and false indigo and rose from Kiftsgate. First dahlia blooming.

Other things: Potty training and work so been housebound for a bit. Not had much time for cooking and it’s back to simple mid-week meals: sausage pasta, leftover roast beef stir-fry, make-ahead moussaka. Buying up nectarines & strawberries.

Planting out

Note: No pics this week due to technical issues. Imagine small plants in soil and the occasional flash of a foxglove, and you’re pretty much there.

Last week was hard, no? We may be easing out of lockdown but it’s now that the reality of the situation hits home. Jobs are uncertain as businesses have to respond to social distancing and spooked customers. What does this mean for my industry, my work? It’s not yet clear, but people are worried. On top of that comes the renewed and emotional debate about racial equality, which because I have both professional and personal interest, always feels challenging. The world is realigning itself, perhaps, but centuries of engrained injustice will not be resolved overnight. It did not help that the sun has been replaced with relentless concrete grey skies.

I was cheered though to see the antics in Bristol and the removal of the Edward Colston statue over the weekend. Young people taking matters into their own hands and not putting up with the status quo – marvellous. The removal of a statue of a man involved in slavery isn’t denying history, this is saying that the story we’re telling about history is not a story we are proud of. We don’t want to be defined by the subjugation of one group over another. And so we choose to tell a different story, a story where the people of a city work towards equality. That statue now has a new history attached to it, the story of ‘now’. It’s brilliantly evocative stuff; the curators, story-makers, historians of Bristol have been given a gift with this symbolic gesture. This article by the historian David Olusoga explains all this in a far more articulate manner than I ever could.

Aside from all that, there is peace to be found with the plants. Take your sustenance where you can find it. Today I found it with planting out a heap of dahlias and other flowers grown from seed – isn’t there a joy in raising a plant from infancy to maturity without messing it up too much?

I’m pleased with this year’s allotment planting plan, which is blocked and – unusually for me – in straight lines. Usually I only grow for the allotment but this year I remembered to hold things back for the garden as well, so we now have cleome, amaranthus and chrysanthemums settling into Bearwood soil. It will be interesting to see how the same plants respond to differing conditions.

This year’s updated planting plan

Meanwhile, the harvest has started again – only slim pickings for now, of foxglove, sweetpea and broadbeans – but experience tells me that the late May/early June lull after the spring explosion of tulips and daffodils is just that – a lull – a rest before the abundance of July begins.

Planting out: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, lace flower, grasses, cleome, amaranthas (garden). Amaranthas, calendula, zinnia, annual delphinium, all the beans, cosmos (allotment).

Harvesting: very first tiny sweetness, first broad beans, foxgloves, cos, round lettuce, rocket.

Cooking and eating: My first Lockdown banana cake, about two months after everyone else. Strawberries topped with vanilla mascarpone and demarera sugar with biscotti on the side. Beetroot hummus. Watermelon.

Reading: Family Life by Elisabeth Luard, coinciding with European Peasant Cookery by the same writer. Couldn’t read last week though, the combined hit of centuries of endemic racism, economic meltdown and disease finally broke my ability to concentrate. On order from the library: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddi-Lodge.

Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Bonus crops

Week 4 of lockdown and we’re just about keeping the show on the road, if that means finally staggering downstairs at 10am and giving into the pleas for Hey Duggee! at 10.01am. I have near-enough lost the power of independent intelligent thought; actually lockdown is not dissimilar to maternity leave in that regard (Anyone who is finding this period to be great for their creativity/productivity is clearly not living with a toddler.) I only really venture out of the house for a short walk around the park or to the allotment, and the very infrequent trips to the supermarket feel like both a treat and an ordeal (again, just like maternity leave). Going back to proper work, if and when it happens, will be one hell of a shock.

Harry is spending a great deal more time with his Dad than in normal life, and is developing a predictable interest in saws, hammers and screwdrivers; there’s plenty of ‘helping’ as Matt makes his shed. When Matt’s mum sent this picture of Matt with his Grampy taken back in the 1980s, it seems that history is now repeating itself.

Matt with Grampy, around 1986

Down on the allotment, the hopolisk rose again over the weekend, threaded with twine and ready to support the staggering growth of this year’s hops. Underneath them lie the broad beans, some put in as young plants and a few rows direct sown.

The hopolisk was raised over the Easter weekend, as is now traditional

March and April are meant to be the ‘hungry months’, with the winter veg running out of steam and new season’s crops not yet mature, and whilst this is true, I’ve been relishing what I think of as bonus crops these last few weeks. The forager – if they know where to go – can find carpets of wild garlic, even in the city, whilst in the veg trug the young pea plants are giving up their succulent shoots to add to salads and pastas. I’ll take this first harvest then leave the plants to mature to pods.

A carpet of wild garlic
Pea shoots in the veg trug

Meanwhile on the allotment, now’s the time that the self-sown herbs and green weeds come into their own. There are nettle shoots all over the place (lovely stir-fried or in a risotto) and oregano is sending up the first precious new growth of the year.

Self-sown oregano is now all over the allotment, a welcome intruder

As for the cultivated plants, the brassicas that I left in the ground over winter (chard, spinach beet, kale) are now sending up delicate new shoots – there’s a few pickings before they finally go to seed – and the leaves of the blackcurrant bushes need a couple of weeks before they reach their full fragrance and can be turned into the alchemy that is blackcurrant leaf sorbet: a true delicacy of mid-summer.

Blackcurrant blossom amid freshly unfurled leaves, waiting to be made into blackcurrant leaf sorbet

The happiest bonus crop of all are the little posies of narcissi and tulips, taken from bulbs that I planted years ago, and which astonishingly are still sending up vibrantly colourful stems.

Tulips, narcissi and a few leaves of freshly-sprouted chard

I’d say that these unexpected weeks at home are an unprecedented time to live differently, cook differently, get in touch with nature, blah blah blah. But the truth is that I’ve always allotmented and cooked in this way. Maybe it’s my peasant roots. To find honey in a weed is the great skill of the cook and the housekeeper, and to be in lockdown with a two year old means we have no choice but to live with a routine and keep one’s sh*t together, and that is what we shall do.

Also this week:
Sowing: All the seeds are now sown and doing well – a bonus of lockdown is getting all these jobs done.

Garden and allotment: Planted out broad beans and potatoes, direct sown parsnips, broad beans, peas. Hopolisk raised. Black plastic sheeting has been taken off the beds. In the garden, the shed is going up but still needs a window, though it’s taken a year to get to this point so I am not complaining. Hardening off the first seeds, the rest are in the sun room.

Cooking and eating: I’ve been lusting after modest food, inspired by Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and her talk of Lenten fasting and Easter feasting – to whit, I made a dish of cannellini beans, soaked overnight and then simmered with onion, celery leaf, tomato and bay in a suitably rustic pot. Matt’s had similar urges but heads to India for inspiration – chick peas transformed into dahl with copious spices and coconut milk. The warm weather has transformed our cooking: we see the first of this year’s asparagus, always a joy, plus from the freezer and store cupboard there’s slow roasted lamb shoulder studded with anchovy and garlic; boulangere potatoes, chocolate easter cake (of course), Welsh cakes, spiced pumpkin muffins using last autumn’s squash, and leftover topside stir-fried with black beans and green peppers. Harry just wants to eat chocolate eggs.