Chipping the rasps

It’s still bitterly cold out but the thin, improving light means we are unquestionably heading towards spring. I enjoy a cold snap during March and April; it’s nature’s way of reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves, to not go speeding off. This winter has been kind to us, actually, with plenty of slow time and a few opportunities to get out and explore. The snowdrops at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire were wonderful, and a half term visit to London led to a surprise visit to Fulham Palace, with its ancient wisteria and enviable walled garden.

Snowdrops and cyclamen at Colesborne Park, Gloucestershire
An extraordinary ancient wisteria at Fulham Palace

I’ve been making an effort to cook again too, minded towards seasonality and health (sounds dull but actually I enjoy feeding a family with nutrition in mind). Forced rhubarb is still eye-waveringly expensive so it’s only had two outings this season, baked with blood oranges and honey. And the freezer is giving up last summer’s fruit hoard, with blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants and raspberries making their way into puddings, compotes and cakes.

Roasted rhubarb and bread & butter pudding with blackberries

Outside, slowly but surely, there is emerging life. The spring bulbs have greened up the garden, whilst hellebore hide their bowing heads against the wind. The sweet peas that I sowed back in January are doing well, as are the broad beans.

January-sown sweetpeas coming along nicely

February is time for that most unpleasant of allotment jobs: cutting back the autumn raspberries, which actually means attempting to remove the rampant blackberries that have taken hold whilst not getting stabbed in the eye by a spent raspberry cane. I cut the canes back about two weeks ago now, taking advantage of a mild day, and rooted out the brambles as best I could (I will never win, it’s just a question of who – woman or bramble – has the balance of power at any one time). In order to keep the grass and weeds down, the patch also needed a really good mulch, which is a nuisance of a job because bark/compost/manure etc is HEAVY and everything has to be moved by hand. For the last three years I haven’t bothered but last summer the grass was taller than my head, and the raspberries also hated the drought, so action needed to be taken to keep weeds out and water in.

The raspberries – BEFORE

So last week we took advantage of a school strike day and had a family trip to Canon Frome in Herefordshire, to collect a van load of wood chippings from Say it with Wood. They make fences and stakes and suchlike from coppiced hard wood, and sell their waste wood chip for about £30 a square metre (that’s one JCB-scoop), which is about half the price of buying bark from a garden centre. I like this for three reasons: one, it’s a waste product that is having a second life. Two, it’s a local loose product, so its carbon footprint is low and I don’t have heaps of plastic to get rid of. Three, it’s always fun to visit small creative rural businesses, and they had a puppy to play with. Granted, mulching an allotment this way requires a van and a bit of elbow grease, but luckily for me Matt enjoys this kind of thing.

A JCB-scoop of wood chip takes a surprisingly long time to move by hand
Say it with Wood at Canon Frome, Herefordshire

So the wood chip was collected, moved from Herefordshire to Harborne, wheel-barrowed from the car park to the plot, and then spread over the raspberries. As usual, I could have taken the same amount of mulch again…it never stops amazing me just how huge our plot is and how it eats up raw materials.

Whilst Matt moved chippings, Harry and I planted out the calendula and cornflowers that I started off last September as an experiment in autumn-sowing. Truth be told, they are probably some of the worst plants I have ever grown – leggy, with a few greenfly – but if we get a harvest one- or two-months earlier than normal then it might be worth it.

Raspberries – AFTER
Autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers were planted out whilst Harry’s tractors seem to have endured a major incident

The slow season is drawing to an end now, and in a few weeks the sun room will be full of seed trays and pots again. I have dahlias and iris to pot up, and heaps of flowers and veg to start off. We’re just waiting for more light, and of course, a little more heat.

Also this month:

Harvesting and growing: Not much to harvest apart from last season’s soft fruit from the freezer. Planted out calendula and cornflower. Started off more broadbeans, mustard mix and snapdragons.

Cooking and eating: Slow roast lamb shoulder with tadig; Toscaka; lots of pancakes and waffles with freezer fruit; heaps of things from the River Cottage Good Comfort book including dahl soups, cowboy bangers and beans, cornbread and oaty cookies.

Out and about: Fulham Palace Gardens, Natural History Museum and Horniman Museum during half-term; lunch with friends in Godalming; Birmingham Botanical Gardens; Athletics at the NIA; Matt did a half marathon with more in the pipeline; RHS exam number 1; yin yoga workshop. Thinking ahead to summer visits and inspirations.

Reading: Lucy Worsley’s biography of Queen Victoria. Sandi Toksvig memoir. A pile of reading for my RHS course that is waist high.


Jean messaged me earlier this week to ask what had happened to the blog because she missed it. A kind thing to say, and also a useful reminder for me to sit down and just do it. I think I’ve been wintering since about the end of November – after the noisiness of 2022 (three PMs, two monarchs, one child starting school, a gazillion work projects, climate crisis, cost-of-living crisis, having builders in…) I’ve felt the need for quiet. Plus all my creative/learning brain has been busy on my RHS course, which I will talk about here at some point, but suffice to say is intellectually all-consuming (and wonderful).

The allotment was covered early this year, by mid-November

The allotment got covered slightly earlier than normal this year, by mid-November, though the dahlias were still going strong in that strange, mild autumn that we had. I thought it wise to make the most of the warm days and get the plastic sheeting down early, because normally it’s a job I do with ice for fingers (not fun). There are so many things that need doing on the plot, from digging out the creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens* AGAIN, getting the pesky brambles out of the raspberries AGAIN, removing weeds in the perennial cut flower patch AGAIN, tidying the edges AGAIN, and so on. I’m not ready yet. It can all wait.

*For RHS exam purposes I am having to learn Latin binomial names. Every now and then I’ll yell out Hedera helix or Persicaria orientalis, like I’m casting a spell in Harry Potter.

Instead the focus is home, proper cooking, learning those aforementioned Latin names, and getting a few flower and veg seeds going. Matt’s rather pleased with the waffle maker that we’re baby-sitting for Emma and Chris whilst they’re in Vietnam for a couple of years (they probably won’t get it back). Meanwhile I’ve been keeping an eye on both pennies and health, cooking more with wholegrains, pulses, sturdy winter veg and the like.

Sunday morning waffles
My RHS course includes a spot of garden design, which I love. These are Matt’s watercolour pencils that he bought for A-level art.

The autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers are thriving in our chilly sunroom (it’s never above 10c in there during the winter), despite the odd patch of botrytis caused by lack of ventilation. Once the weather warms up I’ll pop them onto the allotment, hoping for an earlier-than-usual crop of orange and blue flowers.

autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers are doing well despite botrytis

I’ve been getting other early-starters going too. Three trays of broadbean (stereo green longpod, crimson flowered and aquadulce) and also the sweetpeas – ciprani, which is one of the very oldest varieties, dating from the 16th century, plus a lot of seed that I saved from last year’s tubs. I don’t know if they will come true, and that’s the fun – it’s like a no-pressure science experiment, and Harry and I are looking forward to finding the results. Over the spring we’re also going to do some soil pH testing, and have a go at making a mini-wormery.

Sweetpeas sown in mid-January, ingloriously perching on top of the washing machine

A few further experiments for this year – I want to grow more flowers for drying, so I’ll try Briza maxima (greater quaking grass), Lagurus ovatus (Bunny’s tail grass) and Xeranthemum annuum on the allotment, all of which are new to me. And given the success of the sensational White giant snapdragons, I’m trying another one bred for cutting – Antirrhinum majus ‘Potomac Crimson’. Hot magenta pink in colour, it should be a whopper.

Some new flowers that I’ll trial for 2023

So that’s it! Make the most of this quiet wintering time if you can, bringing with it rest and quiet renewal.

Also this month:
Cooking and eating: Lots of things from the River Cottage Good Comfort book, which has all the stuff you want to eat in winter, but made better for you: sticky pork ribs, corn bread, sausages and beans, dal, and so on. I’m doing a lot with wholemeal flour, lentils, carrots, swede, celeriac – sounds worthy and dull but is actually soul food.

Growing: Broad beans, sweetpeas, I’ll start the antirrhinum in a few weeks. Cut back the ivy and pruned the roses. Alliums are up already and narcissi are just poking their heads through.

Also: RHS course work. Enjoying the Sarah Raven podcast and planning for 2023 growing. Reading Expedition by Steve Backshall and Thinking on my feet by Kate Humble (they’re outside so I don’t need to be).

Stars of the season

August disappeared in the blink of an eye. For a few short weeks there was a flurry of family time, hot weather, ice creams and days by water.

Messing about on the River Wye
Eeking out the last of the summer at Kelmscott Manor

Then the rain came and with it a jolting change of mood. The start of a new school, which also marks the end of the baby years; a death and the anniversary of a birth. Eras ending and new beginnings, all in the space of three days.

First day of school
A moment in the nation’s story
And a moment in our own little story

The hot weather has brought on an early autumn, I think. Some of the summer flowers have gone over earlier than expected – or maybe it’s just my imagination, because summer came to a jolting end with the start of the school term. (For the record, I don’t think I will ever get used to the straight-jacket of term times.) Time to take stock of the stars of the summer.

On the veg front, the dwarf beans (Thomson and Morgan three colour mix) have been surprisingly brilliant this year, with a regular harvest over about 6 weeks that’s only now stopping. So too for the chard, which this year was the Seeds of Italy ‘Costa Bianca’. It did threaten to bolt in the hot weather but I cut off the flower stalk, and it’s still cropping just fine – perfect for creamy chard side dishes, stir fries and pasta. The kales are stalwarts, particularly the ‘cavolo nero’ and ‘redbor‘ varieties, as are the courgettes (take note that two plants is more than adequate).

A typical late summer veg drug – including the courgettes that got away

Not yet cropping, but doing well, are the squash and gourds – a Thompson and Morgan ornamental mix will be great for autumn decorations, and the ‘crown prince‘ should make good eating. These plants are fun, give great ground cover, and you can just leave them to get on with it. The borlotti beans are also doing well, and are of course beautiful.

One of the crazy gourds nearing ripeness

Other plants to mention: broad bean ‘crimson flowered’ and ‘super aquadulce’ gave a good length of harvest. The potatoes ‘charlotte’ gave a huge harvest that we’re still working through now. In the veg trug, the peas did fine but I think a mange tout might be a better use of the space. The soft fruit was all on the thin side, effected by lack of water, apart from the wild blackberries, which are magnificent.

The cut flowers have held up to the strange growing season admirably; there’s been something to pick every week since April, from the tulips through to the Sweet Williams, foxgloves and lupins, onto the high summer dahlias, cosmos and snap dragons. There are still promising numbers of chrysanthemums waiting in the wings.

A boot load of blooms

The high summer blooms have fallen into two categories this year – this by luck rather than forethought. First is the romantic, whimsical set, made of whites, pale pinks and the odd bit of hot pink, and spires offset with curves.

A romantic vase of whites and pinks

Star of this set is the white pompom dahlia (name unknown), the super huge white snapdragon Antirrhinum majus ‘White Giant’ F1, which I absolutely love, and of course the cosmos. This year I have a mixture of cosmos ‘purity’, ‘double click collection’, ‘dazzler’ and ‘candy stripe’. Also there was the odd bit of phlox ‘creme brûlée’, which I’ve never grown before, but has earned its place for delicate prettiness alone.

The phlox is a gangly plant but lovely in the vase
The cosmos is a stalwart of the august-september plot

Some plants that I thought I was growing for me actually quickly became colonised by nature. Insects love the scabious, the wild carrot ‘purple kisses’, ammi ‘visnaga’ and sunflowers, so much so that I haven’t got the heart yet to pick any of the latter.

Scabious and ammi are loved by bees
As is the wild carrot

On the other colour spectrum, this summer there’s been bright, carnival peacocks, in clashing shades of orange, hot pink, coral and purple. Most of this fun comes from the dahlias, but I’ll put a word in too for the gladioli, which I failed to take a single decent photo of, but who are the can-can dancers of the bulb world.

A typical bright summer vase

I planted, I think, about 8 new dahlias into the allotment this year, as a trial. Some have performed brilliantly, some less so. Dahlia ‘crazy legs’ and ‘ambition’ are the absolute cut flower winners, along with stalwart ‘labyrinth’. Others have been slower to establish, thwarted perhaps by the intense heat. Incidentally, the 10 or so tubers that got decimated by slugs both at home and on the allotment I rescued and potted up, and are now putting on heaps of new growth. Next year all the dahlias at home will be in pots, for slug protection. And on the allotment, I just want MORE – more oranges, more zing, more pizzaz.

The beginnings of the dahlia patch
‘Ambition’ at the front’, ‘Crazy legs’ at the back

I will make special mention of ‘bright eyes’, which is not a great cut flower but is a joy to have nevertheless. I first saw bright eyes in the Montessori garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2019, so I always think of it as Harry’s flower.

Dahlia ‘bright eyes’, a favourite

Gypsophila was a pleasant surprise as a romantic white filler. Cerinthe has a certain Halloween quality to it. The sweet peas, in large tubs this year, did brilliantly – by the back door so easy for a daily water and pick.

The season is still far from finished of course, with chrysanthemums still to come and the borlotti, squash and kale still to harvest. But my mind is already flipping forward to the autumn jobs – overgrown tansy to remove, brambles to deal with, ground to cover. And in some ways, after the summer frenzy, it’s a bit of a relief.

Also this month:
Harvesting: Kales, courgette, French beans, lettuce, last of the tomatoes; raspberries, dahlias, cosmos, amaranth, millet, last of the snap dragon, last of all the umbellifers.

Other jobs: Saved seed from sweet peas, marigolds and sweet rocket. Started off autumn trays of marigolds, cornflower, ammi, spinach and rocket as an experiment. Ordered spring bulbs, not so many this year in an effort to save money. Wondering if it’s time yet to plant up amaryllis and paperwhites.

Cooking and eating: Slow roast salt marsh lamb from the Gower; creamed chard as a side dish for roast chicken and lamb; roast new potatoes and carrots; bowls and bowls of plums; pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil; pasta with courgettes; roast five spice pork belly – the leftovers stir-fried with allotment veg and noodles; chocolate birthday cake with raspberries; Jean’s apple and raspberry sponge with custard.

Also: Building work on the house still ongoing; Our friends left to go live in Vietnam; Last day of nursery; A week in Hay on Wye and the Gower; Kelmscott Manor; First day of school; CBeebies Land and children’s parties; Confounded by the death of a monarch, which was universally a shock, regardless of how expected it was and irrespective of anyone’s view on the monarchy. In all – a busy few weeks.

Sausage and (broad) beans on toast

It’s hard to believe that high summer is upon us already. As ever we’re trying to catch our breath, from several intense weeks of event management (me) and back-to-back fabrication projects (him)…but there is an end in sight. Which is well, because this time of year needs to be savoured, noticed, enjoyed. Harry and I disappeared to Sussex at the weekend to visit old friends, armed with bucket and spade. It’s so noticeably hotter and dryer down there, with golden fields ready for harvesting and sun-kissed calm seas.

We practically had the beach to ourselves

Back home, it’s time for a few remedial allotment jobs. The fruit cage, which never quite served its purpose, finally gave way to old age and was precariously close to collapse; it’s now been half taken down (because to take it apart properly would take too long and Matt’s always at work) so it sits haphazardly on its side, no longer a threat to Martin’s dahlias but at just the right height for me to whack my head on every time I take a look at the blueberries.

The fruit cage is no more

I’ve done a more thorough job of staking. My birthday present from Matt was my very own hammer, meaning I finally whollop the homemade oak stakes into the ground myself. Chrysanthemums, dahlias and sunflowers have now been supported with stakes and string – not the prettiest way of doing it, but it works.

Dahlias are supported with stakes and grids of string
The starburst chrysanthemums also need staking, as they can get to a good 5 feet tall

The week of hot weather has brought the harvest on. We have a sea of cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila, which is unexpected and joyous. Nestled amongst them are two courgette plants, which in the weekend I was away managed to give birth to two giant whoppers (marrows already!); I need to keep a closer eye on them. Behind them the climbing beans are finally starting to climb, and the sunflowers are shooting up. I like the mix of flowers and veg jostling for space; our allotment always takes an age to reach fruitfulness but when it does, it’s so satisfying.

The cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila have exploded, framed with beans and courgettes
Cornflower and calendula interspersed with self-seeded nasturtium

I’m now picking the last of the broad beans, plus the first of what I think as high summer flowers – the cornflowers, calendula, and this time for the first time, wine-coloured snapdragons.

Yesterday’s basket, with broad beans, chard, cornflowers, snapdragon and ammi

It’s the time of year when I have to make time for veg and fruit processing – as well as the broad beans I also had a trug-full of peas, which I had grown intending to eat as mange tout, but Harry was so in to eating peas from the pod, I left them in for a little longer. It look an hour to pod this lot, accompanied by Claire Balding walking the Sussex and Kent countryside on Radio 4’s Ramblings. Note the blueberries, coming fast now from my Mum’s bushes and also our own, plus the piddling handful of red gooseberries, the only ones to survive the pigeon attack.

Colanders of beans mean an hour’s podding
There’s potatoes too, a salad-drawer’s worth with more to come

On the flower front, I am not much of an arranger, but I do enjoy the contrast of the tall foxglove spire with the froth of ammi and gypsophila. There’s the odd dahlia now, plus jam jars full of English summer flowers – some garish, some tasteful, but always making a house feel more like a home.

Dahlia, foxglove, ammi, gypsophila
Garish: clashing colours of calendula, sweet peas, foxglove and cornflower
More tasteful: single shades of sweet pea alongside wine-coloured snapdragon

What to do with all the broad beans and peas? It’s a good question: both these vegetables have a tendency to glut, and given that Matt’s not home so much, there’s only really me who will eat them. I blanched the lot, to give them a few extra day’s life. Some will make their way to a creamy, herby, garlicky pasta dish, and others I’ll blitz with lemon and garlic to make a beany-hummousy-dip. And then there’s beans on toast, or even better, sausage and beans on toast. The sausage is actually a kind of do-it-yourself chorizo, made from minced pork, paprika, garlic and fennel. The beans are broad beans and peas. Hash them together in a frying pan, perhaps with a few sliced potatoes and a fried egg, or just a bit of feta, and you have an easy flavour-packed brunch, lunch or supper dish.

Sausage and beans on toast

Sausage and beans on toast
Recide serves 4 but if it’s just you, the ‘chorizo’ will store in the fridge for a few days, or can be frozen for another day. Inspired by River Cottage Reunion, though I’m not slavishly following their recipe

First, pod enough broad beans and/or peas for four people, or you could use frozen. Blanch them in boiling water for two to three minutes, then drain. If they’re really big, pinch the broad beans out of their skins.

Make your ‘sausage’. Take 250g pork mince and squish it together with 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon smoked hot paprika, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, two chopped cloves of garlic and a good pinch of salt. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the flavours to come together.

To cook, heat a large frying pan and crumble in the sausage mixture – you may want to add a little oil to the pan to get things going. Brown the meat all over, then add one thinly sliced red onion and the beans/peas. Hash the meat and vegetables together, turning in the paprika-stained oil until it’s all cooked through. You could add a slosh of white wine to get a little steam going. Finally add some chopped parsley to finish.

Serve on toast with a fried egg, or perhaps a little feta cheese. Sliced cooked potatoes and courgettes are also a good addition to this.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Blueberries, a handful of gooseberries, cos lettuce, first chard, last broad beans, peas, first courgettes, mangetout, new potatoes, ammi, cornflowers, calendula, foxglove, gypsophila, dahlias, nasturtium. French beans, beetroot, courgette, raspberries, and blueberries from Mum’s garden. From the shops, excellent English cherries, proper tomatoes, early corn, watermelon and strawberries. Excellent Amalfi lemons from Cowdray farm shop.

Cooking and eating: I really need to start making an effort again. Blueberry, raspberry and gooseberry crumble cake. French bean and potato salad. Flapjacks. Sarah made two outstanding salads at the weekend: green beans with an orange dressing and toasted hazelnuts, and a freekeh salad with pomegranate, mint, parsley and finely diced red onion. Also a home-made fish finger sandwich at The Lobster Pot near Bognor. I find I have to have a coffee a day now in order to function, and there is always wine in the fridge.

Jobs: Staking flowers on allotment. Planted out dahlias and salivas in the garden, which is now in that straggly in-between stage that lies between early and late summer. Feeding pots once a week. Watering allotment. And WORK, all the time, obviously.

Also: Reading nothing, I am too tired. Watching very little, I don’t get time. Visited Chichester, Arundel and Denman’s garden in West Sussex, a dry gravel garden, very interesting, but Harry not happy so no time to linger.

June in review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration and perspiration

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

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

Let’s start with the perspiration…


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

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

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

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

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


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

April evening on the beach in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asparagus and gladioli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veg patch to bed, rather later than planned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, planning for 2022 has begun

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

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

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

A confusion of seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last floral picking of the year, 16th November

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

Potted up indoor paperwhites and amaryllis for blooms in January

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

My rather mis-shapen wreath

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, fireworks

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

The glorious menu at the Hazelmere at Grange Over Sands

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

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

Harry loved the heritage railway at Haverthwaite

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

First parsnips, carrots and three mystery pumpkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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