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.

October is the new August

There is so much ‘stuff’ going on at the moment. My mind has been (still is) tormented by the outside world, by heinous crimes against women, by leaders who fail to lead, by the climate emergency, by the inequality I see all around me. This stuff is there all the time, of course, but usually it can be held at a distance. Sometimes however the walls come down; I can not be the only woman who cried in the last week for Sarah Everard, for Terri Harris and her children, for Sabina Nessa and their families. And I certainly hope that I am not the only one who has used their influence to write to their MP and other elected representatives to demand they listen to what women are telling them about domestic and sexual violence. If this issue speaks to you, you can do worse than pay attention to what the Women’s Equality Party are doing and saying:

How can I think, let alone write, of flowers and vegetables at such a time? It turns out that I must, because this is where healing lies.

A basket of October: sunflowers, cosmos, dahlia, fennel, and you can’t see them but underneath the blooms are courgette, French beans and raspberries. Note the ripening pumpkin in the background.

October is the new August, or it least it is in 2021. After months and months of waiting, finally we have the annual courgette glut; we’ve had courgette with pasta, courgette with spicy tomato sauce, stir-fried courgette, roasted courgette, plus courgette that’s given away. I’m unusually grateful for the abundance of squash, for I thought it may never come. The varieties that I chose this year – Rugosa Fruilana and Genovese, both from Seeds of Italy – have been slow to turn to marrows and I particularly love the knobbly gourd-like appearance of the former.

Courgette are finally in glut territory…

Then there’s the raspberries. After a week away from the plot due to work, illness and childcare, I presumed that I’d missed the last of them – but not a bit of it. This is just one day’s picking and I think there’s STILL more to come.

…as are the autumn raspberries

The September and October cutting garden is a particular joy. It’s the time of the sunflowers, so majestic, but the smaller side-heads also do well in a posy-style arrangement with lime-green chrysanthemums and orange cactus dahlias. Yellow, orange, bronze, gold; it’s a table full of autumnal sunshine.

Orange, yellow and bronze dominate the colour spectrum now
The lime green chrysanthemum zap like fireworks

The cosmos plants got flattened in the late September storms, and so the flowers are now growing at an angle as they make their way up towards the sun. It makes for a floppy vase which actually I adore, the flowers twisting like snakes as they lobby each other for space.

Cosmos purity and dazzler with the last of the ammi visnaga

Fresh flowers are only half the story of course, for the sun room (aka the drying room) is now fill to bursting. Fennel stalks, with their starburst umbellifer flower heads, join the teasels, hops, hydrangeas, rose hips and cornflowers, waiting to fulfil their purpose in the winter days ahead.

The sun room is filled with drying flowers – hops, teasels, cornflowers, rose hip, agapanthus, fennel, hydrangea.

It’s harvest time but actually my head is already months ahead, thinking of next spring. An embarrassingly enormous box of bulbs was delivered this week, tulips, daffodils and crocus destined for the garden, for pots and for the allotment. There’s days of clearing and weeding to be done, and a pallet manure to collect and spread. It’s hard work but it’s good work; after the frustrations and urgency of summer, these tasks for autumn and winter allow for a more relaxed approach. We can celebrate success but also put away the failures, literally cover everything over, until we get another go, next time. Rest, renewal, redemption.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Courgette, raspberries, chard, French beans, cavolo nero, kale, last of the sunflowers, cosmos, dahlias, last ammi visnaga, fennel stems for drying. Also took home eggs from chickens at the house that Hannah is house-sitting for, including one still hot from the hen’s bottom.
Garden: Planted out back bed with narcissus actaea, ferns and alchemilla mollis. Potted up narcissi and crocus; will leave tulips for a few weeks more.
Cooking and eating: Speedy late night supper of courgette in spicy chipotle tomato sauce with eggs, smashed avocado and brown rice. Sticky sweet and sour sausages with plums. Pie and chips in Ludlow.
Also: Ludlow (sad to see that our favourite butcher has closed due to fire); Cheltenham Literature Festival (a joy after so long away from events); been ill again; work work work.

Autumn clearance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The drying room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borlotti beans twist themselves into spirals when dry

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

Sunflower seeds ripening in the sun room

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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
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!

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.

Muck spreading

Last week, with the concrete skies and the poorly-but-not-that-poorly baby, I fell into a fug of dis-inspiration. When Matt is working all hours and in contrast my work is quiet, I end up spending long days at home, alone, with little stimulus. The days drag and the evening are long. The radio predicts the end of world (well, Brexit) on an hourly basis. No point doing a nice dinner – who’s going to eat it? No point having a tipple in front of the fire – I’ll just get a bad head and then will be stuck with an entire bottle to get through. No point having my long-planned day off in London. No point doing anything really. So the days lull together into an endless tedium of cleaning and tea and afternoon telly and Instagram and feeling broke and singing chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo.

The thing is, these days of Fug are actually rare, and tend to only last for a week or so until a new creative project comes along. I am so, SO, acutely aware that for women in previous generations, and women in different circumstances today, this was/is their life. The endless drudge of housewifery, with no option of a professional life or a creative life or whatever it is that keeps a person inspired and alive. Don’t misunderstand me – I love my family, of course I do, but the weeks where I am home all the time are hard. So I think of those women who went before me, and pushed for the changes that mean that I have at least got the option of having a different kind of life, and I offer them a little prayer of thanks.

In the meantime, there is muck spreading to be done. 25 sacks of manure have been piled up by the compost bins since February, waiting to have their contents piled up onto the ground where the sunflowers used to be.

25 x 50-litre sacks of manure still do not cover an entire bed

It’s phenomenal just how far these heavy bags of manure don’t go. All that heavy lifting, and there’s still several square metres of land that didn’t get mulched today – just not enough to go around. As I worked, the inquisitive robin hopped around the plot, taking advantage of the feast of snails, slugs and woodlouse that emerged from underneath the plastic sacks. The weather was dry today after days of wet, and the sun was low in the sky but surprisingly warm…enough to thaw out fingers that had grown numb inside sodden gloves.

Both veg beds are now covered in plastic as best I can, to keep the weeds down

If there’s any doubt about the efficacy of covering ground – this patch has been hidden under manure sacks since February and all greenery has gone, leaving a feast of slugs and worms for the robin

I have now covered both of the main vegetable beds in plastic to keep the weeds down, weighed down with more bricks and stones that have been uncovered now that the wilderness area is being cleared. A bit of graft now is much preferable to hours and hours of weeding in the early spring – and sometimes, getting mucky and soggy can be an effective way of removing The Fug.

On Thursday I was drenched…

…but today merely covered in poo

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Matt’s amazing curry dinner (tandoori chicken, chicken curry, spinach flatbread, Tune’s carrot salad & aloo jeera), profiteroles, Jean’s cider loaf. I have rashly pre-ordered a goose from Mrs Goodman for Christmas, which will live in the freezer at Grove House for a month, and thereby saved myself about £30 by buying early.

Illness update: Harry is now fine but has passed his mouth disease to Matt.

Reading and watching: Winter by Ali Smith; the return of Escape to the Chateau on C4 (once again coveting all things Dick & Angel, including the berets and kimonos).

First frosts and whiskey cake

Our house needs a big red cross on the front door: once again we are diseased. Well actually it’s not that dramatic – potentially a bit of hand, foot and mouth, except Harry’s spots are on his bum, knees and mouth. I haven’t googled “bum, knees and mouth childhood illness” as I’m pretty certain it’s new to science. Whilst Harry’s potentially infectious and therefore off nursery, I’ve been mentally bouncing off the walls at being nearly-housebound. The worst is over so today we even went to Ikea out of desperation.

In the meantime, autumn has taken hold and Birmingham is bathed in golden colour. It’s good to pay attention to these things…the changing light roots me into the passing of the seasons. We’ve had a few frosts now which have finally meant the end of the cosmos – the Cosmos Purity and Dazzler gave me blooms from June to November, which is pretty impressive.

My allotment visits look like this now, meaning it’s almost impossible to get anything done

Cosmos have finally been zapped by the frosts

A week or so back I managed to take out the remaining plants from the one veg bed and get some black plastic down, to protect the soil from the worst of the winter weather and limit the weeds. Keeping the plastic in place is always a feat of “that’ll do” – pegs and staples are useless here, so I use any bits of heavy material I can find including, this year, the hopolisk, some discarded fencing and (my favourite) a marrow.

The one veg plot has been covered in plastic, though the brassicas are still going strong

Without really meaning to, I have become the proud owner of a gazillion dahlias – none of which are in the right place. The ones at home have now been dug up so that I can over-winter them indoors and replant in the spring. The allotment ones also need to come up (just need to find the time) and they will get the same treatment.

First crate of dahlia tubers for over-wintering

All this is diversion from what Harry and I spend most of our poorly time doing, which is cooking. Every morning I plonk him in the high chair so he can watch me concoct something – today it was a lentil and vegetable stew, which he later scoffed very happily, and yesterday it was a parsnip and cheddar soda bread. I know that he’s very young to be indoctrinated into Stallard cookery but I like to think that he will learn by osmosis.

One of his favourite treats of recent weeks has been an Irish Whiskey Cake that was leftover from the cake table at our wedding. He (and I) liked it so much that I pumped my friend Felicity for the recipe, which she in turn had to get from Mrs Audrey Flint from Smethwick Old Church. Audrey very kindly came up with the goods, and I discovered that my naive assumption that the whiskey would have been baked into the cake was wrong wrong wrong. It’s actually a tea bread, and the key ingredient is drizzled on after cooking to increase the moisture content…which means that my son has started his boozy life extremely young.

Here is Audrey’s fine typed-up version, which I see no reason to re-type as I can not improve on this excellent piece of food culture. Thank you Mrs Flint for carrying on the fine tradition of simple yet richly fruited, boozy loaves that keep forever.

Irish Whiskey Cake courtesy of Mrs Audrey Flint of Smethwick Old Church

Also this week:

On the allotment: Covered one vegetable bed with plastic. All the cut flowers are now finished, but still harvesting chard, beet spinach and cavolo nero.

Cooking and eating: Chocolate Eve’s pudding, parsnip & cheddar soda bread, banana muffins, lentil and vegetable stew.