Notes for next year

I’ve been spending too much time working (sound familiar?), baby-caring (unavoidable) and wedding organising (least said about that the better) and not enough time sorting out the allotment. I usually spend about an hour there every other day, but this time is completely taken up with harvesting, picking, watering. In my absence, a sea of thistles has grown up, and the disaster zone at the back of the compost bins has reached a whole new level of jungle. So today I bunked off for a few hours and really grafted, trying to get things in order. And whilst I hoed and chopped and strimmed, I made a few mental notes for next year. Think of it as a gift of wisdom from present self to future self. Namely:

Cosmos: Ditch Antiquity, it always grows short and stunted. Purity, Double click cranberry and Dazzler are the ONES. Take care when propagating to do it properly, one plant per pot, with none of my normal slapdash-ness.

Crappy cosmos grown by me at the front, good cosmos grown by my mother at the back. They are late – we’re hoping for a September harvest – and look promising.

Cornflower: Work out why they are always so short and stumpy, and then try to do better. Definitely worth persevering.

Tomatoes: Stick to Costoluto Fiorentino as it’s pretty reliable, but ditch all the other varieties, including Noire de Crimee and Golden boy. Find an eating type (rather than a cooking type) that has bullet-proof resistance to blossom-end rot.

Beans: Find a different runner bean, perhaps one that is less stringy. Plant purple and yellow French climbing beans alongside the usual green ones. Blue Lake was OK but perhaps prefer Cobra.

Kale and greens: The Sarah Raven Nero di Toscana has performed really well. I miss the other types of kale though – can I track down Fills of hex again? Chard luculuss and Spinach Perpetual are unbeatable.

Love love love the chard and the spinach

Sweetpeas: SHOCK HORROR but it may not be worth the bother? Unless I can find ones that are reliably long-stemmed and greenfly-proof.

Parsnips and leeks: Remember to grow some.

Rocket: As above.

Cleome: Fun plant even though it stinks of cannabis. Definitely grow again.

Cleome: definitely related to dope and makes a totally jazzy cut flower

Rudbeckia: Not a great cut flower but will look fab in the back garden for late summer dark colour. Buy as seedlings as I never get them to grow well from seed.

Sunflowers: All the sunflowers have done really well. Get a new packet of the Seeds of Italy sunflower mix, and re-plant the Sarah Raven Magic Roundabout and Valentine.

Sunflowers are late starting this year because of the draught, but coming good now

Blackcurrants and blueberries: Need some attention. Do blackcurrants come to an end of a working life? Perhaps they need some food? Do a bit of research.

Broadbeans: Grow four times as many as you think you need. There are never ever enough.

Strawberries: Maybe time to dig them up and start again with tastier varieties.

The Wilderness: For God’s sake, sort it out over the winter. No excuses.

The wilderness. It’s the garden equivalent of a junk room.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Raspberries, raspberries, more raspberries. Chard, cavolo nero, tomatoes – only the Fiorentino though, the others have all had it. Runner beans, sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos, cleome.
Not harvesting: Courgettes. I just can’t take it anymore.
Sowing: Red devil kale, rocket, mustard salad mix.
Cooking: Raspberry meringues, chicken and bacon pie, a vat of chicken stock
Reading: According to Yes by Dawn French. Never read any of her novels before as I don’t think of her as a novelist, but my misplaced snobbery needs shaming. It’s brilliant. Plus she has great hair. Nothing not to love.

All the things I’ve messed up

Every so often I bump into someone who’s seen my allotment pictures on Instagram (@helenstallard) and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘wow, your veg is so much better than ours’! And of course I nod and smile but really it’s a big fat lie. Like everyone else I’m guilty of accentuating the positive and forgetting to record all the times that I cock up. So in the spirit of fairness, and as a learning exercise for future allotmenting, here are the Allotment Issues of 2018. There are many.

 

  1. The thicket of brambles and nettles

The area at the back of the plot has always been a bit of a wasteland but this year it has reached new (literal) heights. There are stinging nettles in there that are taller than me, brambles as thick as my arm. Well that is maybe a slight exaggeration….but this is not a good situation. The compost bin is pretty much inaccessible now, and bindweed is strangling the rosemary. It needs a day or two of determined effort to sort it out, but I have neither days nor determination.

The dilapidated greenhouse and compost bin is overrun with grasses, bramble, nettles and bindweed

but at least we’ll get some bonus blackberries this year

2. Tomato rot

I get blossom end rot every year and am resigned to it, but this year we have a new tomato-based calamity. The tiny fruits are shrivelling and turning black whilst still the size of a large pea: rot has set in. I don’t know what’s caused it but suspect it’s the difference between soaring 40c daytime temperatures and overnight chills (I don’t close the greenhouse door at night, don’t have the opportunity). I’ve lost about 50% of the crop to this. Very irritating.

50% of the baby tomatoes have turned shrivelled and black

3. Blackfly infestation

The runner beans have grown, which is in itself a miracle, but are now covered in black fly. These little critters are sucking the plants dry and seriously reducing the crop. There’s too many for predators to keep at bay and I won’t spray a crop that we’re going to eat, so I don’t think much can be done.

Infestation of blackfly on the runner beans

4. Errors of propagation

In fairness this isn’t entirely my fault, but the cosmos and other cut flowers aren’t thriving in this dry hot summer. I’m giving them a weekly water but it’s not enough; in previous years we’d have 5-foot bushes of cosmos by now, humming with butterflies and bees. These were all grown from seed but the first lot were thinned carefully and planted out as sturdy individual plants (my Mum did this, obvs) whilst the second ones – mine – were planted two seeds to a pot, didn’t get thinned (I forgot) and got planted out when still a bit too small. They are beyond crap. Next year I need to try harder.

These cosmos are taking ages and ages to flower…

…but at least they’re healthy, unlike these ones

I also tried some Bells of Ireland this year. Once again they were planted out waaaay too early, and then nearly got hoed as I mistook the seedlings for weeds. So survival is in itself an achievement – but they should be loads taller than this.

The Bells of Ireland should be calf-height, but they’re about the size of my little hand

The cornflowers are also stunted, and the chrysanthemums don’t look especially healthy. I’m not sure what the problem is/was. Maybe all the chi chi English cut flower growers that I follow have these issues too but also choose not to share them on Instagram?

5. Poor fruit harvest

In previous years I’ve filled massive cake-tins with blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries but this summer the harvest is poor. In particular, I’ve got a mere few hundred grams of blackcurrants. I’m wondering if these old grand dame bushes are nearing the end of their life – they must be at least a decade old. Must look it up. On the plus side, we do have gooseberries for the first time this year.

This year’s blackcurrant harvest is pitiful!

This is by no means the end of the cock-ups. I’ve not even mentioned the back garden that looked good during May and June, and then – paradoxically – seems to shrivel and become a jungle at the same time. But I have come to understand though that it’s in the mistakes that you can actually learn. Planting errors are an opportunity to find creative solutions and new planting schemes. Bug infestations are an opportunity to get a closer look at nature. They all teach you to let go, little by little. Life lessons on the allotment.

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Summer inspiration

An unforeseen pleasure of breeding, currently, is that this is the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not had a festival to organise. Except as I write this I remember that I am actually working on a festival as I speak. So let’s rephrase: it’s the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not been living, eating, sleeping and dreaming brochure deadlines, budget overspends, overwrought colleagues and where to put the sodding feather flags (this year’s Festival works at a gentler pace….so far….).

In about March, when that vile, dark, cold winter ended and 6-month-old Harry became more of an actual human (tiny babies still terrify me), I decided that I was going to really try and make the most of this summer. There would be barbecues! Days out! Allotmenting! Paddling pools! Ice-cream! And reader, I am keeping to that pledge.

In the last ten days I’ve taken my ever-patient child around two world-class gardens for some veg-patch and herbaceous-border inspiration. Last weekend it was Kew, and last week was Hidcote. Veg-patch visiting with a baby in tow does complicate matters slightly – Hidcote in particular is not very accessible, though they are doing their best. Of course Victorian (male) gardeners did not design with 4×4 buggies in mind. And at Kew, we were able to get into the newly-restored Temperate House but obviously did not explore the upper balconies, especially not in 30c heat.

The newly restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Inside…I should say something profound and academic but our main experience was that it was flipping hot

Aside from the Temperate House, I was keen to see the Hive installation. Earlier in the year I worked with a producer who had planned the opening of this artwork-come-engineering project, for which I have a streak of professional envy. I have no idea how the science works, but the structure hums and lights up in sync with an actual bee hive.

The Hive Installation at Kew

But actually the star of the day was the Marianne North gallery. I had heard of this Victorian artist as a woman who succeeded in her chosen field despite the (patriarchal) odds being against her, but actually it’s the impact of the hang that takes the breath away. You can not help but say ‘wow’ when walking into this space, packed close with hundreds of finely worked botanical paintings, created in the field in Java, South Africa, the Americas, you name it. She painted all these whilst wearing ridiculous skirts and a corset. She told the men where she wanted her gallery to be built and how they were to display her paintings. What a woman.

The Marianne North Gallery

Obviously there was still time for veg patch gongoozling, particularly of the trend for adding cut-flowers to the beans and tomatoes. My cornflowers never look as good as this.

Matt admires the brassica netting

Get ready for veg patch envy…

Excellent veg patching, in particular this bush of 4 foot-tall cornflowers

Inspiration at Hidcote was of a more sedate order, not least because I was unable to get close to the planting with the buggy. The roses are over now, with border gaps filled with plenty of grasses and…..lots of other things that I can’t identify. Next time I need to take my Mother to tell me what everything is.

Herbaceous border at Hidcote, alas not pushchair friendly so this is the closest I could get

Parched fields of Gloucestershire

Back home, once I’d finished daydreaming about having a Cotswolds cottage with an arts-and-crafts garden attached, or giving it all up to do a three year course at Kew and indulging in writing a dissertation about veg-patching, I got busy. I’ve replanted the back garden with plants for late summer – dahlia, helenium, scabious, aster, salvia, rudbeckia. On the veg patch we’re harvesting beans and courgettes, dahlia and sweet peas. The land is parched with this never-ending summer heat.

My humble efforts

Harvesting: French beans, runner beans, courgette, summer squash, blueberries, blackcurrants, chard, lettuce, spinach, oregano, basil, sweet peas, sunflowers, borage, dill, dahlia, zinnia, cleome. Cosmos are thinking about flowering but are stunted by this dry weather.

Cooking: Spanakopita with chard and courgette, blueberry and nectarine cobbler, blueberry and cinnamon buns, roast chicken with oregano, focaccia

Reading: One woman’s truth about speaking the truth by Jess Philips MP (LOVE HER); A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson; a biography of Marianne North bought from Amazon for about £3

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Heading to drought?

When did it last rain? A month ago? We’re into a second week of hot weather – too hot for me, I’m desperate for some drizzle and a cagoule – and the ground is rock hard. Well, the bit that I manured is; the non-manured bit resembles sand. But actually, given the searing temperatures and dry wind, things are holding up pretty well.

We had a reasonable crop of strawberries and loads of redcurrants, enough to make a good few pots of my favourite jam. Both fruits have finished now and attention will soon turn to the blackcurrants and blueberries, and thence to the masses of raspberries (we’re on a glut warning).

Redcurrants and strawberries for jamming

There’s fruit set on the tomatoes although a few of these tiny green swellings have already succumbed to rot, turning black and shrivelled. I’m hoping that it’s normal blossom end rot rather than blight and have trimmed back a few dodgy looking leaves to be on the safe side.

Fruit set on the tomatoes

Meanwhile the beans are at the top of the poles – success for the first time in YEARS! – and there’s tons of lettuce, chard and spinach to be had. We’ve got the first of the courgettes and loads of edible flowers: borage, nasturtium, violas. Beautiful fresh, healthy, goodness-giving food.

Beautiful blooms on the beans

The chard, lettuce and cavolo nero are abundant

Sweet williams and borage

An arch of hops

The long view

Also this week:

Harvesting: First courgette, chard, lettuce, spinach, rocket, borage, nasturtium, viola, last broad beans, last strawberries, sweet william, first dahlia

Cooking: Redcurrant & strawberry jam

Reading: Good Good Food by Sarah Raven. Inspired, I popped to Holland & Barratt to stock up on whole nuts, buckwheat flour and flax seeds and left with…..some normal bulgar wheat. It’s fascinating to read some of the science behind healthy eating but the price of her recommended super-foods is madness. £5 for a tiny pack of coconut oil?  It’s a serious issue: healthy eating can not just be for the super elite. For now I’m going to stick to my allotment veg and Malvern water.

Days out: Too damn hot to do much at all but headed to Alexander Stadium yesterday for the British Athletics Champions. A great family friendly day-out which, paradoxically and pleasingly, involves a lot of sitting.

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After the flood

What a stonker of a May it’s been. A May of sundresses, chilled rose wine on the terrace, abundant blossom and verdant green leaf. It was a long time coming of course – only 10 or so weeks ago we were still in deep snow – and now we pay the price with thunder storms and torrential rain. On Sunday Harborne experienced 58mm of rain in 1 hour – that apparently is what would normally be expected in a month – so you could say that it got a little soggy. I should not be glib about this as parts of the city have experienced genuinely devastating floods, and a man had to be rescued from his car on the Hagley Road, about half a mile from our house. The lightening above Birmingham was epic, from a Hammer horror film. But the worst damage I can claim is that five of my (leggy) sunflowers got snapped clean off from their pots.

Sunflowers snapped off by the torrents of rain

Down on the allotment I think we’ve been incredibly lucky. The Chad Brook runs down the bottom end of our plot: normally a babbling stream it turned into a raging river for a few hours, destroying entire beds and leaving metres of debris. We got off incredibly lightly but plots on the other side of the brook to us have been devastated. Harborne Road remains closed as the tarmac was smashed up by the flash flooding.

The plots feel as wet as sand on the Mawgan Porth shoreline but the plants actually seem to be thriving in the warm humid weather. Most remarkable is that the sweet william, which were planted a full two years ago but failed to flower last year, then got practically destroyed by the Beast from the East, are now on the brink of coming into bloom – and what a mass of flowers there will be when that day finally comes.

The cut flower patch is as wet as shoreline sand

But the sweet william are heading towards flower

Planted out: Sunflowers, dahlia, cleome, heartsease viola, spinach, cavolo nero, rocket, lettuce. Also this week I’ll get the cosmos, cornflower, dill, salvia and cornflower out.

Cooking & eating: A very disappointing brick-like cornbread, redcurrant & peach cobbler, Patrick’s stew chicken, Dad’s roast beef (though Mum actually did all the work). After years and years of not touching the stuff, have got back into coffee….my liver must be improving. Got the first of the season’s cherries from the markets.

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Back to life

Now that it’s sunny and WARM, it feels as if the entire world has sprung back to life. Lightwoods Park is teeming with families at the weekends, the tinkling ice cream van decorates the streets and the back garden is lush green and dappled with light. After such a hard winter – particularly so with a newborn – I drink in the spring. It’s time for a party! We had a welcome-to-the-family gathering for Harry, which was a good excuse to make a huge party cake and bake a batch of Matt’s favourite sausage rolls.

Party fridge!

Party buffet!

Party boy!

Outside, we’ve been blessed with a few weeks of balmy blue skies. The trees have exploded into blossom, a few days of hot sun encouraging their expansion to fullness. On the allotment, the lilac has grown to encompass our shed and I pick an armful of purple heads for the vase – I know they won’t last, but they are too pretty and too abundant to ignore.

Finally, blue skies and blossom

Perfumed lilac overhanging the shed

An armful of lilac, honesty and wild carrot

Matt’s calmed down a little on the work front so this, coupled with the long sunny days, means we’ve found time for some remedial allotmenting. This weekend I amused myself pulling rhubarb and planting out chard whilst Matt saw to his hops and – fanfare – the hopolisk has risen again! The hop shoots are romping up the string, fat with vigour.

First picking of rhubarb

Hops on 1 May…

…and on 12 May with the hopolisk now erected

Matt’s also had fun erecting the bean poles. Every year I watch Monty Don faff around with his wigwam set-up and I wonder what he’s messing at – why have a wigwam when you can have a top-strengthened line of hazel, complete with geometric shadows?! Happily the cold winter seems to have kept the slug population in check so, unlike last year, I’m pretty confident of growing some healthy plants this summer.

Bean and sweet pea sticks in place

Art shadow

There are more jobs to be done – the cut flower patch still needs digging and manuring – but with the long days, warm air and (best of all) a baby who is currently sleeping 12 hours a night, these feel more like a pleasure than a chore.

Also on the allotment
Sowing: Winter squash
Potting on: Cleome
Hardening off: Zinnia, borage, sunflowers, courgette, second sowing of sweet peas, rudbeckia
Planting out:
Sweet peas, runner beans, French beans, borlotti, chard
Also: Netted redcurrants, hopolisk is up, ‘cage’ for brassicas and leaves in place

Cooking: Party cake with strawberries, mascarpone & chocolate fingers, sausage rolls, chocolate sorbet, redcurrant tea bread, a lot of summery Middle Eastern-style baked chicken, salads & flat breads, daal and squished fruits for Harry

Reading: The Vintage Tea Party by Angel Adoree. I love her and have spent actual money on a vintage-style hair band and kimonos. Alas the skill to style my hair into 1940s ‘victory rolls’ eludes me.

More seeds

Spring came, then summer came for two days, and now we’re back to a chilly east wind. Everything is late. This actually suits my purposes because it turns out that childcare is a full-time job – who knew? – and with Matt busy on work projects and a wedding to organise I haven’t had chance to get on top of many allotmenting tasks.

Harry and I zoomed up the M6 to Liverpool during the warm spell to visit Matt, who was working on a show at the Bluecoat gallery. It felt good to get a taste of a different urban life for 24 hours.

Impromptu trip to Liverpool

I came back to a tulip patch bursting with colour. Just like last year I actually missed the optimum picking time – a day of 24c heat brought the buds unto full bloom – but these feel like a bonus harvest given that tulips are only meant to last for one season. The flowers are definitely smaller this year and look more than a little bashed – but something is better than nothing and I gratefully cut a few handfuls of clashing stems.

Cropping last year’s tulips

Vintage smoked shades

Plus yellows and greens

With Harry distracted in his walker and waving his favourite wooden spoon around, I try to crack on with more seed sowing and potting on. My sunflowers have germinated well but – as ever – resemble wiggly worms in the way they have grown; leggy and at weird angles. This happens every year and they still come good, so I am not too worried. The last few weeks’ and days’ enterprises include:

Sowing: more sweet peas, perpetual spinach, blue and pink clary, pink limonium, bells of Ireland

Potting on: Sunflowers, tomatoes, borage, courgette, squash

Hardening off and planting out: Last year’s chrysanths, broad beans, sweet peas, runner beans, climbing beans, borlotti beans

Coming along: zinnia, cosmos, chard, fennel, dill, heartsease viola, cleome, lettuces, cornflower, nigella

Desperate for attention: the hops, as ever, in need of the hopolisk!

Eating: Asparagus but only that in Worcestershire farmshops; the Birmingham stuff is still from Peru

Also… Wedding food, invites, outfits & flowers, all basically an excuse for spending too much time on Instagram

We plough the fields

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

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

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

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

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

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

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

Gary gets to work on the allotment

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

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

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

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

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

One and a half plots, ready for planting

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

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

More seed sowing

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

Easter kitsch on the fireplace

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

Iris reticulata survived being buried in a foot of snow

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

First tiny pink hop shoots are showing through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heligan in March

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

Birmingham on Saturday 5 March…

…and Watergate Bay, Cornwall, on Saturday 10 March

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

Harry’s ready for his first trip to the beach

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

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

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

Green shoots coming through in the cutting garden

I love the architecture of the espalier apple

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

Pea shoots kept cosy in the lean-to greenhouse

Cold frames full of winter salad leaves

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

First blossoms in the peach house

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

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

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

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

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