Chelsea musings

We’re in recovery from our first ever trip to Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, to be truthful, it’s not Chelsea that needs recovering from, rather the shock of visiting a coffee shop on a Sunday morning in Clapham and being immersed in the culture of expensive-lycra-clad Londoners, shouting into their phones as they fork out £20 on a tiny portion of avocado on toast. (This is not an exaggeration. The bakery also had tiny, tiny little rolls filled with a single slice of boiled egg that would have set you back a fiver. I can only presume that the 20- and 30-somethings of South London are treating prosecco as a major food group and therefore actual food is not required. They should all visit Copenhagen sharpish and learn to live more Danishly).

Back in the scruffier, poorer, and significantly friendlier, surroundings of Bearwood, I can reflect on our visit and draw out some of the design inspirations that I may want to try at home.

The first thing is that Chelsea is bonkers. Absolutely mad. It’s not actually that big, yet it warrants as much prime-time BBC TV coverage as major international sporting events. What does this say about the British? What other nation would see fit to recreate a picture-perfect 1930s allotment IN A TENT, or to craft classic children’s TV characters out of chrysanthemums? It is eccentric, wonderful, madness.

What other country would replicate a full size allotment, in a tent? The British are bonkers.

No summer show is complete without some giant carrots and a croquembouche of cherry tomatoes

‘I know!’, said the chrysanthemum Society. ‘Let’s recreate Zippy out of orange Chrysanths!’

I LOVE the madness and find it heart-warming that so much effort is put into botanical creativity, usually by quite quiet, gentle, unassuming people who run specialist flower societies and nurseries. Because the other thing about Chelsea is that it really matters. Careers are made at this show and millions upon millions of pounds is spent every year on the show gardens and displays. Big investment banks put up six- and seven- figure sponsorship packages in an effort to look more human. There’s an interesting, and quite timely (yes, I am talking Brexit), dichotomy between the culture of London mega-bucks global image-making and the provincial salt-of-the-earth types who actually get the show made. It’s an uneasy relationship at times..but good for these worlds to meet.

On to the plants. The big draw for most visitors are the show gardens but I found the smaller displays far more relatable and interesting. Many designers used what I call a ‘confetti’ effect in their planting, with small, quite delicate flowers in a host of clashing colours, which together give a sense of fullness. This lily also caught my eye – Isabel – with its double flower ranging from white through to a deep pink.

Persicaria amidst a confetti style, colour clash arrangement

Oh and the sheds! Or – as they prefer to be known at Chelsea – the garden rooms! I never thought I would covet a shed but I do now. I am lobbying for a lean-to greenhouse to be attached to mine, as in this picture. These were actually the most ‘normal’ of all the garden furniture on display; the rest of it required a small stately home to carry off.

Shed envy

The most memorable garden for me was the Montessori Children’s Garden – I do have a slight bias as Harry is at a Montessori nursery – as of all the gardens, it seemed to be the most fun / least earnest. This is not just a garden for kids, but for anyone who believes that plants make people happy. It was a riot of colour, filled with that confetti-style planting I love, and with edibles rammed in alongside the delphiniums and poppies. The height of the plants means that the flower heads (and therefore bees and other insects) are at child head height, so they can be truly immersed in the outdoors. Wonderful stuff. And the plant markers were painted wooden spoons, which is such a brilliant idea that I will definitely use it on the allotment; so much better than those stupid little plastic labels that the blackbirds love to peck at.

The Montessori children’s garden

Dahlia ‘Bright Eyes’ amidst rich blues and yellows

Colour pops and height make this so much fun

One idea that I’ll definitely be stealing: wooden spoon plant labels

Elsewhere, the D-Day 75 garden used a drift of sea thrift, found along the shores of Normandy and the British Isles. I found the airy white and pink of this planting incredibly evocative and moving, far more so than any poppy display I’ve seen.

A drift of pink and white sea thrift at the D’Day 75 garden

There was also ALOT of green. I am not great with green; I don’t know enough about foliage plants to know what to get or where to put them, but I think I should try to learn more. It was especially effective on the Finland garden, where it acted as foil to the airy white foxgloves, daisies and peonies.

Shades of green offset the white foxgloves and peonies in the Roots in Finland garden

I thought there would be more contemporary, gardening-as-art, style displays as there has been in previous years but perhaps the old guard aren’t ready for that yet. (I found even the high-end garden sculptures on sale to be of questionable artistic merit.)

But I do leave with plenty of practical inspiration for the summer. And memories of an enjoyable day out that seems to sum-up all the contradictions, eccentricities and polarisations of Brexitland Britain.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Harissa lamb kebabs with broad beans dressed in yoghurt and garlic, with Greek chips; lots of strawberries and raspberries, first Spanish cherries, a delicious Provencal rose from Aldi, of all places.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias and remaining annuals, took delivery of a van load of Mum’s plants including the hanging baskets. Picking sweet rocket, alliums and persicaria. Roses are in bloom. Mum’s first lettuce, broad bean, spinach and radish.

Marry a carpenter

One of the many benefits of living in a big, multi-ethnic city are the chance encounters I encounter with food of other cultures. The other day I went for a meeting at my colleague Sophina’s flat to find that she’d been packed back to Brum with a suitcase-full of tropical fruit and veg from her parents in Leicester. Whilst working very, very hard, I had a masterclass in how to chew tamarind flesh from the seed, how to approach a custard apple and the best way to guarantee fragrance and juice from an alphonso mango (the trick is to roll it hard on a flat surface, like you would a lemon).

Trying out alphonso mango, fresh tamarind and custard apple with Sophina

In the meantime, Matt’s been busy on greenhouse renovation. I say renovation – it’s really a full remake. Over Easter he completely removed the dangerously-ramshackle old structure from the allotment, taking each panel apart piece by piece and then rebuilding it in his workshop to make accurate measurements for a replacement. The new greenhouse will be ready in a few weeks (I am promised) and will be made from American white oak. If I have any advice for aspiring young allotmenters, it would be #marryacarpenter.

Reassembled at Plane Structure HQ

I’m also getting a van-full of stakes, which will come in handy for this year’s dahlias and other cut flowers.

Big pile of hardwood stakes to help with the dahlias and other cut flowers

Speaking of which – the great plant out has begun. Last Sunday I snuck away for a few hours with my Mum, and we managed to put in blocks of ammi, cornflower, cleome and strawflower, as well as rocket, lettuce, runner, borlotti, french and dwarf beans. It’s possibly a bit early to be doing this (the weather is still nippy) but one has to take the opportunity when it arises – I have no spare days now for several weeks.

Planting out has begun – this is the cut flower patch with cleome, cornflower, strawflower and ammi

Beans have also gone out

Some plants don’t need to be cosseted, of course, and chief amongst these are the hops. Now galloping their way up the hopolisk, they’ll be reaching the top in a matter of days.

Hops are already thriving (toddler for scale)

Finally, pleasingly, I harvested my first real flower crop of the season. An armful of sweet rocket, which I sowed last summer, is joined in the vase with lilac and persicaria (both essentially growing wild on the allotment, planted by previous tenants).

First armful of the season – last summer’s planting of sweet rocket

Sweet rocket in the vase

Also this week:

Sowed: Leaf and bulb fennel

In the garden: First rose is in bloom, and the alliums are on the cusp of explosion. Matt is making footings for a new garden shed.

Cooking and eating: Hazelnut, oat and raisin cookies, lots of asparagus, bunny pie, tiramisu, fruit salad with first English strawberries in the supermarket.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.

The full sowing list

There’s still chill in the air but the natural world is marching on. Trees are in bud break, the back garden is rich with verdant greens and yellows, and cherry trees are full of ethereal pink blooms. Weather like this sends my asparagus radar twitching so I headed to Hillers on Saturday to track some some of the first English stems of year – this, along with the first (glasshouse grown) tomatoes and strawberries that are always around at the same time, is one of my favourite food shops of the year.

Cherry blossom outside the Wallace Collection, Marylebone

First asparagus is hitting the shops

Compared to previous years, I have so little time for anything these days. So it’s pleasing to see that both allotment and garden are getting on quite nicely with very little intervention from me: snowdrops, primroses, daffodils, alliums, aquilegia, foxgloves…all are blooming or fattening quite happily of their own accord. It’s the gardening equivalent of making bread: a few small interventions now and then, but generally you must leave nature to do its own thing, rise when it’s ready.

Big fat allium heads are swelling

Having said that, I’ve been finding the odd half hour here and there to carry on with seed sowing. The list of plants that I’m growing from seed is impressive but the reality is (despite the lack of space) it’s all pretty easy. A bit of thinning, a bit of turning and watering, a spot of potting on, and in a few weeks we’ll have a productive allotment without spending a fortune.

Sowing runner, climbing, French and borlotti beans

The Sun Room is full to the brim with pots and trays

This is the full list of seeds that I’m trying this year; I’ve now started off all of these with the exception of parsnip and fennel (waiting for the weather/soil to get a little warmer).

Flowers

Sunflower Valentine
Sunflower Ornamental Multicolour mix
Sunflower Magic Roundabout F1
Sunflower Red Sun
Sunflower Giant
Nigella Persian Jewels
Nigella Double White
Achillea Millefolium Cerise Queen
Cosmos Pied Piper Blush White
Cosmos Double Click Cranberries
Cosmos Velouette
Ammi Majus Graceland
Salvia Farinacea Blue Bladder
Delphium Exquisite series, White King
Delphium Exquisite series, Blue Spire
Cornflower Snow Man
Cornflower Double Blue
Limonium Suworowii
Calendula Indian Prince
Helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum (Strawflower) Paper Daisy
Cleome Colour Fountain
Baptisia Australis False Indigo
Mexican Hyssop
Brachyscome Multifida (daisies)

Veg

Courgette Soleil
Courgette Bianca di Trieste
Courgette Costata Romanesco
Summer Squash Custard White
Pumpkin Cinderella
Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia
Broad Bean Crimson Flowered
Leek Musselburgh
Climbing Bean Cobra
Climbing Bean Cosse Violette
Borlotti Bean Lingua di Fuoco
Dwarf French Bean Tendercrop
Runner Bean Scarlet Empire
Parsnip Gladiator F1
Carrot Nantes 5
Fennel Montebianco
Tomato Costoluto Fiorentino
Tomato Gardener’s Delight

Greens
Chard Bright Lights
Kale Pentland Brig
Kale Russian Red
Kale Cavolo Nero
Spinach Perpetual
Beetroot Leaf Blood Red (also pleasingly known as Bull’s Blood)

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

Finding the space to plant out all these DOES worry me, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: The start of Easter treats, crispy cakes, mini eggs and hot cross buns. Fairy cakes studded with raisins; Meatballs baked with aubergine, tomato, orzo and mozzarella; Baked cod with fennel, capers and blood orange; First asparagus of the year; Beef shin braised with pasatta, rosemary and rose wine; apple crumble.

The allotment season begins

For the past few weeks, there’s been a table of green seedlings in the sun room. Then the table of green was joined by several trays of dahlias, then a few more trays of rocket, cosmos and sunflower, and now there’s barely room to breathe.

Taking full advantage of our south-facing sun room

Particularly pleasingly, the false indigo that I started back in February have germinated. This was the tricky one that demanded scouring with sand-paper, piercing with a needle, soaking and heating – obviously I did none of these things, taking the view that if a plant has to be molly-coddled that much, then it’s not going to survive on our plot.

False indigo has germinated

Remembering my notes from last summer, I’ve been fastidious about thinning my seedlings this year. Thus far they’re all looking pretty healthy – but when I visit the allotment (for the first time in weeks) I’m confounded by all the new green life erupting, wild plants crammed in together, battered by floods and winds and all the stronger for it. I have yet to attempt making a stinging nettle risotto from allotment weeds but this spring may be the time to try it.

Speaking of winds, March’s gusts have left the greenhouse in an even sorrier state of affair. Two more panes of glass have slid out, leaving dangerous shards in the wilderness area. I’m pleased that I’m growing only the hardiest of tomatoes this year as what is left of our greenhouse will offer the slightest of protection against the elements; it will be a miracle if the structure lasts another growing season (every time I step in there I wonder if glass is going to rain down on my head).

The wilderness is re-erupting, with tasty-looking stingers.

Another greenhouse pane met a sorry end

The point of today’s visit was to plant out the broad beans, which have grown strong and fat in the cold frame. Two varieties this year – aquadulce claudia, which should flower pretty soon, and the pretty crimson flower. I’m also having a go at direct sowing a few rows, which never seems to go well on our plot but with the soil warming nicely, it’s worth the experiment.

Broad beans planted out

Really healthy plants this year

It’s still sparse out there, of course, but there are a few heartening clumps of green. The sweet rocket is galloping into growth, as is the sorrel, and there’s still pickings to be had from last year’s chard lucullus and beet spinach.

Sweet rocket is galloping into growth

Still pickings of chard and beet spinach to be had

On the To Do list: Start Sowing The Veg.

Also this week:

Sowing: Cosmos, sunflower, cornflower, rocket, brachyscome, achillea millefolium (yarrow)

Cooking and eating: Victoria sandwich with homegrown and homemade jam, rhubarb, apple & amaretti crumble with Jean’s rhubarb, noodles and pork tossed in kecap manis.

Plus: More illness – chest infections, blood tests & x-rays; visited Leicester museum to look at their Arts & Crafts collection.

 

First seeds of the year

It feels like the year is warming up. Both literally – I was outside in just a thick jumper earlier today – but also in terms of stuff. After the confines of January, so far this month we’ve been to the British Indoor Championship athletics at the NIA, had a lovely day trip to the Cotswolds, been out for a fancy Malvern lunch (with a baby! Imagine!) plus there’s new work projects to occupy the mind and hopefully help the bank balance a little. It’s a relief to feel like we’re living again. Plus of course there’s been baking.

The BEST cinnamon buns

Valentine’s fairy cakes

Encouraged by blue skies, I’ve made the first few exploratory trips to the allotment of 2019. The raspberries require cutting back and the blackcurrants pruning, both jobs that I do not relish but actually, amidst the growing bird song and with a faint whisper of sun on my back, were enjoyable enough.

The first few exploratory visits to the allotment of the year. Daffodils are nearly out.

This year’s seeds were delivered a few weeks ago and have sat waiting on the side for some attention. I want to shake things up a little, so there’s new varieties of cut flower to try, and old-favourite veg to have another go at. With 5 summers on the allotment under my belt I am now more confident with my planting but still willing to make a few mistakes in the name of experimentation. With that in mind I’m trying a new seed company this year – Chiltern – who don’t go in for glossy photography and are therefore cheaper than my usual Sarah Raven.

This year’s seeds are here, with some new varieties to shake things up a bit

Today I finally got around to sowing the early starters. There’s the standard leeks and tomatoes, plus newbies to the allotment party:  agastache mexicana (Mexican hyssop), baptisia australis (fake indigo), delphiniums, crimson-flowered broad beans and – deep breath – helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum, also known as straw flower, which I saw growing at Baddesley Clinton last autumn and thought it was wonderful in its kitsch-ness. I’ve taken scissors to the trusty black seed trays, splitting them into 4 blocks of 10 plugs, to make them more easy to move around: when you’re sowing in confined spaces, you have to make life easier for yourself.

The age-old plastic trays have come out again

Sun-room is starting to fill up

According to the worryingly-bossy seed packet, the baptisia australis require 6 weeks in the fridge and then another few weeks sunbathing at 20c, or some such. The delphiniums are equally as fussy. Really, who can actually provide these conditions? I decide to stop worrying and just give them a go: they’ll either grow or they won’t, and that’s all there is to it.

Delphiniums go into the cold frame

The bulk of the year’s planting won’t begin for another month or so, but it’s pleasing to feel that spring has begun.

Also this week:

Eating and cooking: Steamed syrup sponge, venison in red wine, chicken and chickpeas with tomato, paprika and cinnamon.

On the allotment: Pruned the soft fruit, cut back the raspberries, removed the brassica cage so the birds can have their fill

In the sun room: Started off tomatoes (gardener’s delight and costoluto fiorentino), leek musselburgh, broad bean crimson-flowered, cleome, delphinium (white king and blue spire), false indigo, Mexican hyssop, strawflower, ammi majus.

Reading: Re-visiting How to be a domestic goddess and feeling inspired to make fairy cakes again. Once again I see how Nigella’s early books were ahead of their time in their vision and flavour combinations.

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