After the flood

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

Sunflowers snapped off by the torrents of rain

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

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

The cut flower patch is as wet as shoreline sand

But the sweet william are heading towards flower

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

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

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Back to life

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

Party fridge!

Party buffet!

Party boy!

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

Finally, blue skies and blossom

Perfumed lilac overhanging the shed

An armful of lilac, honesty and wild carrot

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

First picking of rhubarb

Hops on 1 May…

…and on 12 May with the hopolisk now erected

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

Bean and sweet pea sticks in place

Art shadow

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

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

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

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

More seeds

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

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

Impromptu trip to Liverpool

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

Cropping last year’s tulips

Vintage smoked shades

Plus yellows and greens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We plough the fields

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

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

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

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

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

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

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

Gary gets to work on the allotment

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

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

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

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

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

One and a half plots, ready for planting

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

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

More seed sowing

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

Easter kitsch on the fireplace

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

Iris reticulata survived being buried in a foot of snow

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

First tiny pink hop shoots are showing through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heligan in March

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

Birmingham on Saturday 5 March…

…and Watergate Bay, Cornwall, on Saturday 10 March

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

Harry’s ready for his first trip to the beach

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

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

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

Green shoots coming through in the cutting garden

I love the architecture of the espalier apple

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

Pea shoots kept cosy in the lean-to greenhouse

Cold frames full of winter salad leaves

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

First blossoms in the peach house

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

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

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

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

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Sun, straw and plenty of annuals

The last two weeks have been about planting things out. Well that, and juggling three full-on work projects whilst trying to be mindful that when pregnant, one’s energy isn’t what it used to be. On Saturday the car was loaded with a boot-full of seedlings and small plants ready to plant out: courgette, squash, more beans, chrysanthemums, annuals for the cutting patch and salad greens. I’ve been raising most of these from seed in our sun room (I still think it’s hilarious that we have a sun room) and they’re healthy enough, although the slugs inevitably had a good go at them whilst hardening off.

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A boot-full of seedlings to plant out

I think I managed to plant about 100-or-so before my abdominal muscles informed me that I had to stop immediately. But that’s pretty good going, and all that’s left to plant out now are the sweetcorn, tomatoes, sunflowers and a few stray brassicas. Compared to some of the gardens I’ve seen in the Shire, which are now lush and full of green leaves, the veg patch is still mainly earth and grass – but I’ve learnt that on this exposed site that’s just how it is. Give it patience, and four weeks, and we’ll have caught up.

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Most of the cutting patch is in now, with just the sunflower poles waiting for their tenants

The intense rain followed by intense heat of the last week has brought on the strawberries: there are hundreds of berries, some fat, some small, on the turn of ripening. Last autumn I was given two sacks of straw by Ikon Gallery – it was used in an art installation and was going spare – and now it’s been spread underneath the growing plants to protect the berries from damp and bugs. Actually, come to think of it, the lengths of wood that I’m holding the netting down with are an art by-product as well… Recycle and reuse!

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Fruit has set on the strawberries, so they’ve been strawed and netted

Matt’s been busy lining the edges of the two main veg patches with wood to stop the grass encroaching – it’s instantly smartened up the plot, although the remaining three patches now of course look VERY scruffy by comparison. But we can’t do everything at once. His job for the week: getting the hopolisk back into operation!

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The new edging makes a real difference to the veg patches

Planted out: Chrysanthemums, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, borage, cornflower, sorrel, chard, spinach, squash, courgette
Other jobs: Netted all the soft fruit, continuing to keep the small greens covered, put in the sunflower poles

The plant-out begins

The most irritating thing about being pregnant is that I have no physical stamina anymore. Work is fine as I’m mostly desk-bound, but all those other regular daily-life events, like taking the washing upstairs, or walking up a slight hill, or planting out a few flowers, leave me breathless. By about 6pm I develop a stiffness around the pelvis that make me waddle like a runner duck – this is not a good look. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of Gertie’s book? She spends the day following the sun around the house, beginning in the bedroom for morning rays, moving to the top of the freezer for lunchtime sunbathing, and then spending the afternoon asleep on my desk.

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A normal working day involves sharing my desk with a fur monster

This lack-of-stamina means that everything on the allotment is way later this year than last. I started off my seeds about a month later than normal, meaning that the sunflowers, tomatoes, brassicas and cut-flowers still have a few weeks to go before they can go outside. Every year at this time I wonder why I don’t yet have stacks of flowers and veg to harvest and of course the answer is…a) we live in the Midlands, not Kent, and b) I don’t have a polytunnel.

Things are moving though. The strawberry plants are massive and the redcurrants have set fruit – I netted them today to prevent against bird attacks. The tulips are now over but the lavender is HUGE, surrounded by pops of vibrant purple from the aliums. Only two of Matt’s hops have made it through the winter but the survivors are in full growth, urgently needing their hopolisk support to be risen.

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Redcurrant fruits have set

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Aliums are giving some colour at least. (A good job, as the ones at home have all been eaten by the squirrel.)

This spring-summer in-between phase is a good time to get remedial tasks done. The greenhouse was in a state of virtual disrepair so Matt’s dismantled it to build a new roof – he has about two weeks to get the new frame and glass back on before it needs to be filled with tomatoes, chillies, peppers and aubergines.

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Remedial work on the greenhouse

And the first veggies and flowers are ready to go out. Last week I planted out the sweet peas, runner beans, borlotti and stick beans, and today it was the turn of the sweet williams and marigolds that I started off last September, plus a load of lettuce, spinach, cima di rapa and kohl rabi seedlings. Everything that needs to be netted (against the pigeons) has been netted, those that need supporting have been supported, and those that need slug control have sadly received the necessary medication.

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First salads, brassicas and cut flowers are ready for planting out

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Sweetpea frame and bean sticks are majestic this year

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First cut flowers are out, with room for plenty more

All this effort, which took two hours, means that I can now barely stand upright. There’s still four months to go until this baby arrives and I can’t see it getting any easier!

Direct sowed: Carrots, parsnips
Planted out: Autumn-sowed marigolds and sweet williams, plus kohl rabi, sweetpeas, runner beans, French beans, borlotti, Tuscan salad mix, salad rocket, reine de glace lettuce, everlasting spinach, cima di rapa
Harvesting: Rocket, chives, wild flowers from around the allotment
Also noting: The grass is worse than ever this year! The hops urgently need the hopolisk to be raised.

Keukenhof, Amsterdam

After a week of chic Amsterdam loft-living, we’re having to get used to living in a Victorian terrace again. We were in town to visit the world-famous Keukenhof garden (about an hour out of the city), but the trip really turned into six days of mainlining carbs, reading, not-being-emailed-constantly and quality time with my man (a novelty as he works all the time).  I booked the flights back in January, when the desire for spring flowers had reached obsessive levels, only to find that by the time the trip rolled around, Britain’s spring had already been in full flow for at least a month…this rather took the edge off the urge for tulip-spotting.

No matter, for I quickly replaced one obsession with another: namely, the art of how to make a perfect Dutch appeltaart.

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Appeltaart at the Rijks Museum

Appeltaart is the dessert of choice for Amsterdammers, and I spent the entire week studying different versions to work out how it’s made. The pastry is cake-like, deeply filled with cinnamon-spiked chunky apple and raisins, and topped with latticework. The apples seem to break down around their edges into a brown-sugary-mass that holds the chunks in place, so there’s a contrast of textures. It’s not particularly sweet, is always served cold in enormously generous wedges and (hilariously) comes with a side of slagroom (whipped cream). If I ever succeed in making a decent version at home I will blog the results.

One other thing to note about Amsterdam is that everyone is dressed like a contemporary art curator. They’re all on bikes, wrapped up in smart tailored wool coats, trainers and thick-rim glasses, off to some glamorous arts job or perhaps simply to a cafe to scoff appeltaart whilst working on their Apple laptops. And I mean everyone – even the kids look cool. The place is spotlessly clean and ordered, except on King’s Day, when the city dresses up in orange, gets leathered on Heineken by 11am and congregates on party boats trailing around the canals with euro-pop and Wham! at full blast. But by 8pm, it is all over and everyone goes home for their tea. In Holland, it seems they like to lose  control in a very controlled fashion.

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Party boats for King’s Day in Amsterdam

Our loft apartment was painted entirely white, overlooked a canal (naturally) and was a short walk from a super-trendy street of independent trendy boutiques and classy food shops. I am sure that not everyone in Amsterdam lives this way, but for the few days we were there, it felt the height of civilisation.

But we were there for the tulips and it is the tulips that I must report back on. The Dutch LOVE tulips and they express their love at the Keukenhof, which is apparently the largest flower garden in the world. It’s only open for two months of the year, from March to May, and is essentially a massive trade show for Holland’s enormous flower industry. The formal beds of spring flowers and indoor pavilions are designed to show off the latest and favourite varieties of tulip, hyacinth and daffodil from individual bulb producers, and they do it with pristine attention to detail; we spotted a gardener placing metal rods into individual hyacinth stems to keep them upright. Imagine repeating that several million times, for that’s what it takes to keep this place looking great for spring flower season.

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At the Keukenhof, strips of ornate planting jut up against blocks of colour

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Clever geometric design

The geometric ‘designed’ beds are a useful way to highlight individual colours of tulip and I soon picked out a few favourites. The deep, inky-purple shades are dramatic, especially when planted against candy-pinks, but I’m increasingly enamoured by pale yellows, creams and greens.

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Darkest purple contrasts with candy pink

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Enjoy the soft green merging into pink

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These are firecrackers!

The received wisdom for tulips is that you plant a single colour together in blocks, so I was surprised to find a few beds that were a riot of contrasting colours and shapes. And actually, after all the formality in the rest of the gardens, these tutti-frutti beds were a joy.

Matt rather dryly observed that there’s an element of the cruise ship about the Keukenhof and I know what he means – it’s fun, but quite an unreal, artificial creation. Plus it was full of coach parties. Take a peep outside of the fairyland creation and the Dutch landscape gives an insight into what these gardens are all about – marketing the acres-upon-acres of flowers and bulbs that keep the Dutch economy afloat.

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Outside, the Dutch landscape is as flat as their ubiquitous pancakes

So I was surprised at how little merchandising there was at Keukenhof…it was difficult to find the name of a variety of tulip and the bulb-shops were tiny. Perhaps maximising visitor-spending is an area of commerce that doesn’t appeal to the Dutch – equally, the cut-flower displays were all a bit ‘plonk them in a vase’, so it seems that floral design is not high on the agenda. (Compare this to, say, Chelsea Flower Show where designs are expected to be cutting-edge and they want to part you from every penny you’ve ever earned). The Dutch are horticulturalists first-and-foremost, and the Keukenhof is a shrine to their preferred artform.

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This is about as artful as the cut flower display got, alas

On a different note, this will be the trip that I’ll remember for when I felt the little monster in my tummy starting to wriggle around for the first time. It is the weirdest thing, like when you drive over a humpback bridge and your stomach takes a few minutes to catch up. I’m 20 weeks, have got an undeniable paunch and remain shocked at how out-of-breath I get from normal physical activity. Four-and-a-half months to go.

The Keukenhof is open from March to May. www.keukenhof.nl/en/

I read: Living Danishly by Helen Russell, Playing to the Gallery by Grayson Perry
We ate: Pasta, pizza, cookies from Stauch, appeltaart, cheese, more pasta, pastries. The Dutch like Italian food and carbs. Matt drank alot of beer.
We watched: National Geographic channel, mostly programmes about plane crashes, Einstein and an American vet

Asparagus and tulips

At various intervals between April and July that Christmas song ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ comes into my mind. From mid-spring to mid-summer, every few weeks a new miraculous thing happens that gives me zest for life….a hillside filled with bluebells in May, a meadow of wildflowers in June, and in April, the first bunches of precious green Evesham asparagus. I came across this brilliant sight on Saturday. The ‘grass is about three weeks early this year – there’s a chance this lot have been grown under plastic but I’m putting that to the back of my mind. What matters is that they were green, squeaky fresh and sweet.

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First Evesham asparagus!

The first asparagus of the season is not to be messed about with. It needs about three or four minutes in boiling water and then anointing with butter, sea salt and black pepper, and no more. I served these up with my favourite spring supper: a whole trout baked with vine tomatoes, shallots, olives and thyme, with a side of new potatoes. And with that simple meal, the winter has gone.

It’s not just the asparagus that’s early. On my last visit to the allotment, about a fortnight ago, the tulips were still thinking about making their presence known. I’d been thinking for a few days that I ought to go and check progress so I popped over there yesterday evening to find, if not a field, then a substantial amount of full-blooms ready for picking.

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I was taken by surprise as how far these have come along in a fortnight

I say ‘ready for picking’ – really, I should have started a week ago. The curious thing about tulips is that they need to be planted in colour blocks. On the allotment, in small strips of colour spaced quite far apart for ease of picking, they looked fun but nothing sensational. But an hour later, when separated out in vases in complimentary colours, they were brilliant.

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Shades of cream, yellow, orange and burgundy

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I collected an armful of tulips…

My current favourite is the combination of Purissima (the big fat cream one) and Moonlight girl (the pointy yellow one). Purissima is HUGE, which on the allotment looked ungainly, but in the vase looks wonderfully showy-offy. After the sparse months of winter, it’s uplifting to have some colour back in the house.

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…and they look a treat

My only concern now is that we miss the rest of the crop. In a few weeks we’re off to Holland in order to admire that great tulip gardens of Amsterdam. Oh the irony if I then miss my own…

Also on the allotment and in the potting-room:

Harvesting: Tulips, last Russian kale
Sowed: Chillies, chard, spinach, sorrel, cima di rapa, courgette, squash, pattypan, borlotti, string beans, runner beans, French beans, ammi, cosmos, cornflower, nasturtium, borage, poppy, zinnia, dill, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland
Other jobs: Strimmed allotment grass for the first time this year. It is making vast in-roads into the veg patches and needs controlling. Dug up the last brassicas and forked over the patch. It took 90 minutes and today I can barely move; our soil needs alot of work.