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.

Notes for 2020

Back in April I handily noted a list of all this year’s sowings, so that I could check in on their performance at year end. Inexplicably – surely it’s just a few weeks since I made that list? – the season is at its end. Judgement time.

General Notes
Work had most of my attention between June-October, leaving little time for allotmenting. I prioritised the important job of harvesting but let the weeding go, so in this warm but wet summer, the grasses, brambles and stingers were rampant. And whilst this was VERY stressful at the time, actually, nothing terrible happened – we still had a regular crop of flowers and veg, and the extra weeds were all forage for insects. The verdict is that whilst it may look good, cleanliness is over-rated. I used no chemicals at all on the allotment and plan to continue in that vein. Also, generally speaking, we can get in far more plants than we currently do, so I must plant more rather than less as it keeps the weeds at bay.

The density of planting in the cornflowers was spot on

Flowers
Cut flowers have been the backbone of the allotment this year, with weekly cuttings from May to October. I planted in blocks, which worked well for sunflowers, ammi and cornflower. The cosmos, nigella and cleome did less well.

Next year, consider:
– 12-ish sunflower plants
– succession-sow the cornflowers to make 2 x 1m blocks
– have another go at sweet peas; plant at least 1m back from edge of plot to prevent grass getting into the nets
– put heartsease into pots at home rather than allotment
– attempt some options for foliage/greenery
– invest in new chrysanthemum and dahlia varieties for cutting
– attempt summer-flowering bulbs in the allotment for cutting
– harvest the hops as a cut-flower and don’t just leave them to rot on the vine
– cut and dry cornflower and nigella for use over winter

Some brighter chrysanthemums and dahlias would really add to this mix

Flower Notes:
Sunflower Valentine Too small for allotment, don’t bother
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix A winner
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1 A winner
Sunflower Red Sun A winner
Sunflower Giant Not a good cut flower, don’t bother
Nigella Persian Jewels Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Nigella Double White Possibly needs more sun; don’t plant out until June
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen Worked well, keep as a perennial
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries Beautiful, try again but plant out as more established plants rather than plugs
Cosmos Velouette Did not take to allotment; stick to Purity
Ammi Majus Graceland Does OK but bolted quickly; try the smaller form?
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder Worked well, keep as a perennial
Delphium Exquisite series, White King A few small blooms but kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire A few small blooms. Have kept plants in the ground to encourage perennial harvest
Cornflower Snow Man A winner
Cornflower Double Blue A winner
Limonium Suworowii Total fail, don’t bother again
Calendula Indian Prince Fine, nice colourful filler
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy Huge fun
Cleome Colour Fountain Failed but I planted out as plugs – if try again, take to much bigger plants. Needs hot summer.
Baptisia Australis False Indigo Total fail, don’t bother again
Mexican Hyssop Total fail
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies) Total fail, don’t bother again
Chrysanthemum I have many unknown varieties taken from cutting-after-cutting from a Sarah Raven mix. Time to shake things up with some new varieties, perhaps with yellows and oranges.
Dahlia Seem to prefer over-wintering in the allotment. Invest in some new tubers specifically for cutting, maybe with spidery and/or dinner plate flowers.
Summer bulbs Those planted in the garden where a 100% fail, perhaps eaten by the squirrel. Try a few in the allotment next year for cutting.

Veg & fruit
I kept the veg crop simple this year due to my available time and my growing interest in cut flowers, but actually I have missed a few allotment stalwarts, mostly the pumpkin and gourds. We had far too many courgettes (twas ever thus) but nowhere near enough beans – they absolutely have to be netted against the pigeons. The broad beans were brilliant, with half planted in pots in February and the rest direct sown in April.

Remember how many courgettes come from one plant, i.e. too many!

Next year consider:
– Plant more than I think we need. Apart from courgettes.
– Only 2 courgette plants
– 3-4 squash plants, for decorative use, e.g. turks turban, Jill be little
– Full row or even 2 rows each of leeks and parsnips
– At least 5 cavolo nero plants plus other kale and chard
– Put in some autumn spicy leaves, such as mustard or mizuna
– At least 40+ broad bean plants
– At least 12 climbing bean plants plus same again of borlotti. They absolutely need to be 100% pigeon-proofed.
– Only attempt tomatoes if the greenhouse is back in working use
– Have a go at something new, perhaps cornichons
– Attempt to re-plant the strawberries completely. The matting will need to be removed, the ground mulched and de-grasses, and new strawberry plants put in.

Veg notes:
Courgette Soleil Keep but only 1 plant
Courgette Bianca di Trieste Time to try something else
Courgette Costata Romanesco Time to try something else
Summer Squash Custard White Don’t bother as we never eat them
Pumpkin Cinderella Had only 1 fruit. Need to prioritise several different pumpkin and small gourds, for decorative purposes – definitely turks turban and also some smaller styles
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia Brilliant, definitely do again. At least 40+ plants; plant some into pots in February and direct sow the rest when the soil is warm enough.
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered Fine but nothing special.
Leek Musselburgh Cropped well but has been attacked by some kind of rust/bug
Climbing Bean Cobra Try again but net against pigeons
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette Try again but net against pigeons
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco Try again but net against pigeons
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop Not sure it’s worth it
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire Fine, cropped well
Parsnip Gladiator F1 Very nice, attempt several sowings if germination patchy
Carrot Nantes 5 No germination at allotment but worked OK in veg trug
Fennel Montebianco Don’t bother
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted
Tomato Gardener’s Delight Don’t bother unless have greenhouse sorted

Let’s grow the small pumpkins next year instead of getting them from Aldi

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
All the above are brilliant
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood) Don’t bother, beets never do well on our ground

Salads & Herbs
Lettuce Catalogna (a type of oak leaf)
Salad rocket
Tuscany salad mix
Viola Heartsease (a flower but I put it in salads)
Basil Thai
Basil Sweet green
Dill
Green Fennel
Not a great year for herbs. Plant lettuce as plugs but really it’s better in the veg trug. Rocket always gets attacked by beetle.

The rocket bolted, meaning that it sprouted up through the netting. Removal meant destroying the brassica cage – fail.

Garden Notes
The back garden suffers from lack of sun, so needs to be planted with shade-tolerant plants. Come July/August, need taller plants for back of the bed. Roses need supporting from the very start of the year, with 6-foot supports; everything grows taller than we think as it is searching for sun. Very back bed (by the shed) needs entirely replacing with shade-loving shrubs. Try again with the cat mint, but put it somewhere where the cats won’t destroy it!

Inspirations
Things I’ve seen this year to inspire next year’s planting:

Loved the way the Montessori Garden at Chelsea crammed in flowers in a tutti-frutti confetti style
Loved cat mint everywhere I saw it so must have another go – but put it somewhere where the neighbourhood cats won’t destroy it!
The bright oranges at Packwood House are always a joy
Herbs and ornamentals planted together at Baddesley Clinton
Maybe try some lupins next year
Do-it-yourself plant supports are always fun. Love this one made from hazel poles.
Note how dense the cut-flower planting is here, with blocks for ease of access.

Drying the autumn harvest

People talk about spring cleaning but it’s in the drag-end days of autumn that I’m busiest clearing and tidying. November falls into two sections: the bit where you’re waiting for the frost/wind/rain to finish the summer flowers off, and the bit after the frost/wind/rain has occurred and the work begins. My chrysanthemums and dahlias got zapped by the weather about two weeks ago but someone somewhere is still looking after their blooms, evidenced by this magnificent display at Croome Court in Worcestershire.

Although this is quite old fashioned display the zingy reds and oranges still makes a massive impact
Pumpkins fill the fireplace alongside semi-dried Chinese Lanterns

We have a new addition to the back garden. Matt’s parents turned up yesterday with a 5ft tree, Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’ (thankfully they chose to come in the car rather than on the bus). They had one in their back garden for years, which Matt had always admired, and tracked down a good specimen that can live in a pot in our shady patio.

Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Twisty Baby’

Now the allotment is pretty much finished for the year, it’s to the warmer countries that I look for seasonal goodies. The Halal shop on Bearwood Road has new season quince and pomegranate piled up in boxes against the window, massive enough to fill your fist and rich with the promise of aromatic stews and bakes. Venture inside and be met with crates of walnuts, sultanas and dates – evocative goods that call out for Christmas cooking.

First of this season’s quince

But it’s the clearing that occupies my mind at present, for I am on a deadline. This Friday I have a pallet-load of poo coming, for it is mulching time. Before I can mulch, I have to clear – and during this busy summer, the weeds have taken quite a hold. Over a few days I have removed the annuals, pierced a few dandelions and thistles, sworn over stubborn grasses and forked the ground. Happily, about 15 foxgloves have self-seeded so I have gently moved them to sit together in a few cut-flower patch, alongside the achillea and salvia that I grew from seed in the spring. The Sweet William and delphinium are staying put, the former because the patch is too established to move, the latter because the spindly plants seem too delicate for upheaval.

Cut-flower patch before…
…and after. The Sweet William and delphiniums have been left where they are.
The veg patch before…
…and after. I have left a single leek in situ as it seems keen to flower, and who am I to stop it?

Clearing is not confined to the allotment. My small and experimental (that word give oneself permission to mess it up) flower bed has been cut right back, the dahlias lifted for winter and the roses trimmed. Again, foxgloves have self-seeded, but less welcome are the aquilegia that seem determined to take over with their muddy pink flowers. The shed, incidentally, remains a Work in Progress and has become a shelter for local wildlife – the neighbourhood fox, various cats, many fat squirrels and the odd pigeon have all taken refuge here.

The flower bed has been cleared ready for its winter mulch.

A guiltless harvest at this time of year are the bounteous heads of hydrangea, now bowed by the wet weather. We have two bushes, one of which produces numerous handsome pink blooms the size of a baby’s head, the other produces sparse numbers of MASSIVE heads. I am drying both kinds ready for spray-painting at Christmas. The strawflowers that I harvested through September and October are now dried and I will use them for some kind of wreath, I think, in a full throwback to 1980s crafting.

Fat hydrangea heads are drying, ready to be spray painted for the winter
The strawflower may have a more creative end, perhaps turned into a wreath to brighten the dining room

After the busiest of summers I relish this comparatively calm time. Rather than being a burden – as they have been when I am busy – our small patches of land are now giving me time to be outside, breathe and absorb the last of the autumn sun. We pack away the year, cleanse and ready ourselves for the next onslaught; as one readies the ground for winter, it is actually I who is nourished.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: STOLLEN. Harry and I went on a stollen hunt to Aldi and happily came up trumps with the first of the seasonal goodies. Golden syrup and apple sponge – like a steamed sponge but baked. Jean’s tayberry and apple cobbler. Gateaux from the Eggless Cake Shop on Bearwood Road; it remains a mystery to me how they manage to make light sponge with no egg.

Harvesting: Carrots from the veg trug. Hydrangea heads. Last of the leeks. Chard, kale, cavolo nero and beet spinach.

Allotment and garden: Lifted chrysanthemum. Moved achillea, foxgloves and salvia. Cut back all the perennials in back garden and pruned roses. Lifted garden dahlias (allotment stays put). The first seed catalogues are dropping through the letter box.

Cobnuts and clearing

Just like that, summer has passed. I’ve been heads down with festival event management since July and now that the work is done, I look up and see golden leaves and fading light. In a bid to escape the tyranny of WhatsApp we escaped to a regular haunt of Mawgan Porth (no phone reception) for a few days. Back in June we saw two owls during our visit, one of which was still there, presumably on its own as I could hear midnight twits but no twoh-s.

Harry’s big enough to go beach combining now

Matt’s outfit indicates that he’s as confused by season’s change as I am

It’s good to reconnect with family life and go back to something approaching simplicity; phones are so rude for the way they demand attention, 24-7. Back in Birmingham I attempted to keep my rural idyll going with a visit to the Sandwell Park Farm, a delight of a Victorian small-holding and kitchen-garden once owned by a very rich farmer, and now open to the masses for just a few quid entry.

Dear God, won’t you send me a walled garden complete with box hedging

Harry knows that my mind is turning to manuring the allotment and garden. A big pile of steaming poo is always a draw.

Actually, the kitchen garden reminded me of my parents house, for the soundtrack of a visit here is thundering vehicles on the M5. One side of the wall is calm, the other is tumult. The gardeners have been busy picking pumpkins ready for halloween – and I can report that the mystery squash I pictured on the allotment a few weeks ago has indeed turned orange, and is now forming an autumnal display in my sitting room prior to being carved and illuminated with a tea light.

The harvest of pumpkins at Sandwell Park Farm

Meanwhile – away from the dream of a Victorian kitchen garden and to the reality of an allotment owned (rented) by a time-poor working parent – this is what a summer of work/child rearing has done to my plot. Cut flowers gone to seed; grass left to grow tall and nettles as tall as me in the wilderness.

Time to start clearing this lot up

Don’t be fooled though, it’s not as hideous as it looks. I’ve ripped the tall grasses from the strawberry patch, cut back the brambles from around the soft fruit and had a good thwack against the nettles and brambles by the shed. Matt’s taken the hops down – their colouring always a sign of autumn – and with them the beans, sunflowers, courgettes, cornflowers and ammi have gone too.

The hops are down, as are most of the annual vegetables and cut flowers

What’s left is still cropping well. If our plot was sectioned out into tiny little beds then it would look like a bonanza – but as it is, with our two massive growing areas, it’s the weeds and debris from the season that you see first whilst the good stuff loses its impact. The pentland brig kale is the best I’ve ever grown, sistered with russian red kale, cavolo nero, spinach beet and chard. There’s still leeks and parsnips to be had, plus the dahlia, chrysanthemums and strawflower are (remarkably) still giving up a harvest – I’ve been picking them since August, I think, so that’s a good 10 weeks of colour.

Greens are still doing well

Strawflower give welcome colour to a dreary day

Whilst Harry is napping I devote an hour to a favourite October activity – shelling and toasting cobnuts for munching with a glass of something. To gather a fistful of papery cobnuts and smell them is the inhale the very essence of autumn. It’s the scent of woodland and Castlemorten Common, both fresh and festering, all rolled into one unpromising-looking brown husk. I used to waste time double-peeling cobnuts but now I leave the final layer of papery brown skin on, reckoning that it’s all fibre and therefore good for me. These cob nuts are not wild-food (they came from Waitrose, for goodness sake) but the finding and processing of them awakens a cultural memory of an older, slower way of being.

The joy of a bowl of cobnuts, waiting to be shelled

Toast the nuts with a pinch of salt and eat as they are or add to a salad

Also this week:

Harvesting: Leeks, parsnips, kale, beet spinach, chard, last of the raspberries, dahlias, chrysanthemums, strawflower

Cooking and eating: All the Cornwall usuals (crab sandwich, fudge, seafood at Watergate Bay); cob nuts; spatchcock chicken with dried chilli and oregano; apple crumble muffins; more cinnamon buns; Malay leftovers donated by Simi after her Mum’s 80th birthday party

Reading: The Wild Life by John Lewis-Strempel, the account of an eccentric posh Hereford farmer who literally lives off his land for a year. A love letter to the Western valleys of my ancestors.

Not-reading: Emails, WhatsApps or Instagram. Amen to that.

Rain stops play

I’ve been properly tied up with work events for the last few weeks (with more to come this weekend). In the intervening two weeks since my last proper harvest, the heavens have opened. If I had known that this basket would have been the last decent crop of the summer, I might have given it more attention/appreciation.

I love the colour clash of yellow and orange against deep crimson and purple

Vases like this have a glorious end to the summer

Now, after days of rain, the allotment is sodden; the season has shifted. There is still colour but it’s pock-marked with the bruising that comes from torrential rain. The raspberries – still fruiting madly – are rotting on the canes. No point harvesting them now, they will become juice merely by looking at them.

The bees are still taking their fill but the sunflowers are bruised with rain

Poppies have set seed in the flower bed

My own fault this for not harvesting promptly enough, but the beans have gone feral in the rain. Runner beans as long as my forearm are joined by the magnificently witchy purple French beans, many of which I’m leaving on the vines for the seeds inside to fatten up. I love how their deep dark stems twist around the hazel poles, offset with the lighter shade of the verbena bonariensis. An accidental co-planting that really works.

The colour contrast of the purple French beans and the verbena bonariensis is an accidental winner

Purple and green beans

The abundant raspberries are rotting on their canes

The tomatoes do not stand a chance of ripening in this weather. They’ve been horrifically ill-treated this year – without a greenhouse, and knowing that on the allotment they would fall prey to rot, I kept them in far-too-small pots in the cold frame where they have grown unsupported, leggy and slightly mental. To their credit they did produce a crop, albeit a green one that has refused to turn red.

I’ve stripped the green fruit from the tomatoes to see if it will ripen indoors

It’s not just me who has struggled with the harvest this September. Once again Matt’s hops have languished, turning from golden architectural glory to a browning mass in the blink of an eye.

The hops are browning off now, once again unharvested

One monster enjoys this wet weather though. The mystery squash is now turning orange, flecked with green – pictured here with my foot for scale.

The mystery squash is thriving in the damp weather

Once this intense period of work finishes I’ll be left with bolted chard, cut-flowers gone to seed and bashed up sunflowers. It’s not long before the great clean up must begin. But hopefully – if only we could get some sun – there may be just a week or two of colourful vases still to come.

Also this week:

Harvesting: A few sunflowers, cosmos and salvia that have survived the deluge. There are chrysanthemums and dahlias, but too soggy to pick. The courgettes are still going on but I’m not picking them now. Pentland brig kale, leeks and parsnips up for grabs. The raspberries are abundant but too wet to pick.

Cooking and eating:
Anything easy, for work takes up all my time. Picked up some vintage Linconshire Poacher cheese and Lincolnshire Plum Bread when in Grantham for work the other week.