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.

Nettles and sorrel

I’m not sure I should admit this and do not wish to sound flippant, but now that last week’s hysteria has died down, I am thoroughly enjoying this enforced sabbatical. Pottering at home, pottering on the allotment, playing with Harry, cooking, reading…with no meetings or pressing deadlines…lovely. I am putting all financial implications of lost work out of my mind – right now I can do nothing about it, so why worry?

I have reclusive tendencies anyway but even Matt – who is always over-worked – said to me earlier that this is the most relaxed he’s been for about three years. It helps that we’re all well and that the past few days have been undeniably spring-like. We should not be deceived, for there is time enough still for cold and wet, but for now the garden and allotment are unrelenting in their awakening.

Forsythia brings welcome colour to both garden and allotment
Allotment-neighbour Martin’s crop of daffodils are simply fantastic

The need to be still and quiet, more mindful of our consumption and savvy in our housekeeping, appeals to me on many levels. Some of my favourite food writers – women such as Anna del Conte and Patience Gray – speak so eloquently of how to live well in times of hardship. They hark back to the old ways, to country ways, to knowing what the pantry, the garden, the vegetable patch and the hedgerow can provide. Not that we’re on our way to starvation anytime soon, but there is joy to be found in even the smallest degree of self-sufficiency. The biggest thing that has concerned me over the past week – far more than the potential loss of career or, even, illness – was that Boris would ban us from going to the allotment; when that fear was allayed, I knew that we would cope just fine with our current situation.

And so today, whilst Matt planted onions and manured the strawberry patch, Harry and I picked newly emerged sorrel leaves, tiny nettle shoots, self-sown marjoram and the leaves from last summer’s kale, spinach and chard, all of which I left in the ground and are now re-shooting. Once home, I tipped the bag of leaves into the sink and left them to soak for an hour or so to get rid of dust and creepy crawlies. Tomorrow I will wilt them down, stir them with a single egg, a scraping of cheese and finely chopped spring onion, wrap them in the filo pastry that’s been lurking in the freezer for months, and so they become a filling for spanakopita. I absolutely adore this kind of living and this type of cooking, and when I do it, I feel connected to generations of women past who have dealt with far greater hardships than we will ever know.

Yes, we will cope just fine.

Planting onions is a family affair
Nettle shoots for the wilderness area of the allotment
Last year’s kale is reshooting, and these leaves are full of goodness
Few things in life give me as much pleasure as a sink packed full of home-grown/foraged greens

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Pantry and freezer food is on the up, so it’s sausages with braised lentils, blackcurrant muffins (from last summer’s fruit) and bolognese. Now that McDonald’s is shut I can’t help but think this will be the healthiest Matt has ever been.

Reading and watching: Pride and Prejudice and various yoga books – nothing like Aunt Jane and the sutras to give a wise perspective on life. And the happy discovery that This Old House is now streaming again to the UK after an absence of several years, so we’re lost in evenings of home renovation in the Greater Boston area.

Sowing/Plotting/Planting: Potted up 15 dahlias (10 for the garden, 5 for the allotment as cut flowers). Most of the cut flowers and veg have been sown, including several kales, beet spinach, leeks, cosmos, strawflower, ammi, amaranthus, calendula and others I have forgotten. Planted onions and garlic. Dug and manured the strawberry patch.

Also: Finding a line between ‘school’ and play for Harry now that he’s home. Montessori resources are on order and in the meantime we’re doing lots of creative play, story time and outdoor messing around. And CBeebies of course.

Battle of the bramble

Slowly, slowly, we’re venturing out and turning our faces to the sun. These are tentative early glimpses, a foretelling of spring, but it’s there. The blackbird has started singing again, and the forsythia is bring her yellow showy-offy-ness to the back garden. At Wightwick Manor last weekend, the skeleton trees had their bases lit up by a mass of glowing daffodils.

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

Whilst we’re at Wightwick, I must make a note of their wonderful dried flower hanging rack, which brightens up the scullery (clearly the place that I was born to hang out). I love everything about this, from the uniformity of the hang (that’s art-speak) to the choice of colours to the fact that the flowers still look vibrant several months after picking.

Strawflower and limonium hung in bunches on a rack from the ceiling
The colours are still strong, several months after picking

This weekend we ventured to Snowdonia for some much-needed family time; the first for about 5 months I realised. Between us we work a lot of weekends, that’s just how it is, so consecutive days spent as a threesome are really rare. And whilst sun is never guaranteed in West Wales, it did show itself – briefly – and the birds sang a crescendo of joy. This is not an exaggeration! Living in the city I forget just how loud country birds can be, be they crows or pigeons or gulls or blackbirds or even, my favourite, the barn owl. I do not know this part of Wales and the landscape felt extraordinary to me, a place so alive with the feeling of the ancient past.

Sheep sheep everywhere
Have you even been to Snowdonia if the view isn’t like this?
Harry has to take a train or a bus or a tractor or a lorry with him, wherever he goes

Spring means life and birds and sun…but it also means jobs. Not that this is a bad thing. My limbs are desperate to be stretched and I value the creative fun that the allotment gives me after solitary hours at the desk. I’ve drafted up my planting plan for the year, with blocks of cut flowers in one bed and lines of greens and veg in the other.

The planting plan, 2020

But the thing that has really been on my mind are the brambles, specifically the ones that have infested the autumn raspberries. I took advice from lots of people and the general consensus was to dig them out, albeit carefully, trying to avoid the raspberries. This proved to be significantly easier said than done, given that the raspberries have been there for years and have made the place very much their own; there is no ordered line of planting or any of that, it’s a free-for-all. That, and the fact that these brambles have the longest tap root I have ever experienced. I yanked and I heaved and I pulled and I fell over several times and gradually, I made progress.

One of the invading brambles with a tap root as long as my forearm
A semi-victory over the invading forces

I am under no illusion that this is the job done; I think this exercise will need repeating throughout the next few years. And it also taught me that there is no way in hell that the brambles in The Wilderness by the shed and greenhouse can be dug out: as Matt tells me, some of the stems are wider than my wrist. It would take an excavator, or at least someone with a heck of a lot more strength than me to do it.

The raspberry patch now. It may not look like much but this is a major improvement.

As I was digging and falling over and swearing, I realised that it wasn’t just me who was out. Life is springing up again at the allotments. Martin was happily moving his brassica cages and we had a chat about Coronavirus. Lynn came over and I admired her fruit cage (it is a thing of beauty and I feel ashamed of our tardy efforts at tidiness) whilst her husband had a bonfire. I came home smelling of woodsmoke. It’s good to be back.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Green papaya salad with Thai green curry; barabrith; veal meatballs cooked in an Aga at our holiday let; new season rhubarb (some of it sweet, some of it like licking a battery)
Visiting: Harlech, Snowdon and the surrounding area, staying in a marvellous Georgian manor with a tennis court and mysterious old walls, barns and lanes that felt from a different place in time. Also Wightwick Manor where Harry insisted on eating a massive cake all to himself.
Reading: Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a dark tale about an affair between a woman and a man who turns out to be what was in the 1990s called a conman, but who would now described as a perpetrator of coercive control. Wonderful but unsettling.

The planting diary

A few weeks ago now I received several bulging packages of seeds in the post and got out the dusty old biscuit tubs of last year’s seeds to sort out what’s staying and what’s going. Here’s the list – it’s work-a-day, just an aide-de-memoire of what to sow/plant when, with a bit of succession sowing in there for good measure.

January (already done)
sweetpeas
broadbeans
Mustard salad leaves (undercover)

February
Peas for pea shoots
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Leeks
Dill
Plus: cut down the raspberries

March
Kale Emerald Ice
Kale Pentland brig
Kale nero di toscana
Spinach perpetual
Mustard salad leaves
Peas Blauwschokker
Viola heartsease
Broadbeans (direct sow)
Basil
Verbena bonariensis
Cosmos
Cornflower
Nigella
Sunflower
Strawflower
Ammi
Calendula
Cleome
Honesty (?)
Sweet rocket (?)
Sweet william (?)

Plus
Map out the allotment plan – make room for:
– x5 new dahlia tubers (allotment and/or garden)
– lupins, teasels, chrysanthemums (allotment)
– pumpkin and climbing squash (allotment)
– sweetcorn (allotment)
– amaranthas (allotment and/or garden)

April
Sweetcorn Swift
Watercress
Pumpkins and Squash
Courgette
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Dwarf french beans
Climbing french beans
Runner beans
Borlotti
chard
Parsnip (direct sow)
Basil
Dill
Salad bowl
hyssop
perennial delphiniums (x5, allotment)
teasels (x5, allotment/garden)
nepeta (cat mint, x1, garden)
white nicotiana (x5, garden)

May
Chicory variegate di castelfranco
Chrysanthemum starburst (x5, allotment)
lupin mixed (x30, allotment)
Oak leaf lettuce (direct sow)
Salad bowl
Foxgloves

June
Watercress
wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Basil
Dill

July & August
Watercress
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
mustard salad leaves

September & October
Mustard salad leaves
Dill

Also this week:
Eating and cooking: 
I’ve been doing a lot with slow-cooking and leftovers. Sunday’s 6 hour slow-cooked pork shoulder (bay, fennel seeds, seville oranges, white wine, onions, garlic) was cut up and slow-cooked again with black beans, tomato, onion, chipotle and spices to make a Tex-Mex-style Monday-night stew. Celeriac and potato gratin shoved in the oven to eat alongside a roast (still rare) venison haunch. Also slurping up blood oranges, a regular late January/early February treat.
Reading: How to eat a peach by Diana Henry. Also having my first ever go at a Jilly Cooper, which reads like it’s from a different age (it is).

Cut flowers in mid-winter

If you, like me, feel particularly emotionally jangly at present – what with the politics, the expense of Christmas, the darkness, the drizzle, etc etc etc – then can I suggest a few hours of gentle botanical crafting to ease frazzled nerves. Over the last few weeks I’ve been using up the dried stems of summer’s strawflower and hydrangea, arranging them into wreaths and swags for yuletide displays. And I mean ‘yuletide’, Pagan that I am, for there is something extremely grounding about bringing the natural world into the house as we approach the winter solstice.

Now, just because I like this kind of activity, doesn’t mean that I’m actually any good at it. My canister of gold spray paint is professional standard, procured by Matt (obviously) and therefore way too posh for me – just trying to get the nozzle to stay on led to this unfortunate drippy decoration of the skimmia plant outside the backdoor.

The skimmia got attacked by a drippy can of gold paint

Once I finally got the paint to work, I lightly sprayed the hydrangea stems, allowing some of their natural pink to show through. These are lovely as single stems in wreaths or grouped together in a massive vase.

Hydrangea heads sprayed gold

The strawflowers make a lovely simple wreath – dead kitsch and retro. I used the glue-gun to secure individual stems onto a willow base, which cost a few pence, for a display that will last for years.

Strawflower wreath (terrible photo, sorry)

For the front door, I decided to make my own swag using evergreens pilfered from my Mum’s garden, plus a few more hydrangea, strawflower and that spay-painted skimmia. I think it’s important to have a range of textures in these winter displays, and scent if you can – I used rosemary but bay would also work well.

Laying out the stems for the front door swag

I simply worked the greens together into a display that I liked, then tied them tightly with string and ribbon before trimming the ends. Half an hour’s work, cost is negligable, and – most importantly – we have a display that is absolutely rooted in the English mid-winter enlivened with a few colourful memories of the English summer.

This year’s floral swag
Strawflowers are the gift that keep on giving

Also this week:
Cooking and Eating: Blackforest Arctic Roll – whisked chocolate sponge stuffed with amaretti and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, cherry jam, amaretto and clementine zest. A baked ham spiked with allspice and marmalade. Mince pies. Pomegranate seeds in everything, they seem never-ending.
Doing: Mainly hibernating and attempting to protect myself from politics and political fall-out (Birmingham is the most politically active city I have ever been in). But also a visit to the CBSO Christmas concert for tots, which was a joy, and to Lichfield Cathedral to see the Christmas trees.