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.

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.

Spring, sprung

Spring has undeniably sprung and not a moment too soon. Birmingham is now awash with yellow daffodils, on roadsides and in parks, and the early morning birdsong has picked up: there’s less of it here than in the country, but it’s a comfort nonetheless. If you know where to look, now’s the time to fill your boots with lush wild garlic. Forage for it now whilst the leaves are still tender and young, and it will bring a vibrant freshness to anything that you care to eat it with.

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Now’s the time to search for emerald green wild garlic

Encouraged by the weekend’s sunshine, but daunted at the amount of work that would need doing, I headed down to the allotment for what is only the third or fourth visit since Christmas. The greenhouse is surviving on a wing and a prayer: one gust of wind and it will be off, flying away as if trying out for the opening sequence of The Wizard of Oz. The grass is shaggy and long, there are tufty weeds emerging where they shouldn’t and the ground looks hard and cold….but on balance, it’s not in too bad a state at all. Nothing that a few hours of remedial carpentry (Matt) and grass strimming (me) can’t fix.

Plus there are still goodies to harvest. I planted this purple sprouting broccoli last April and it spent the summer covered in whitefly, but the winter chill has done its work. It’s now tall and lush, and cropping well – I’m not convinced that it warrants taking up a full eleven months of growing space, but it is good to be picking veg in the traditionally hungry-month of March.

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PSB ready for harvesting

I’ve been working out the growing plan for 2017 and the first planting – a set of healthy broad beans – has now gone in.

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This year’s allotment plan

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Broad beans ready for planting out

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First allotment planting of the year!

Back home in the ‘potting shed’ (i.e. the sun room/conservatory/junk room at the back of the kitchen) I’ve set up a temporary set of rickety tables and old newspaper, ready for seed sowing. Over the next few weeks I’ll get the 50-odd varieties of flowers and veg seeds going but for now it’s the turn of the tomatoes: the round yellow golden boy, the beefy fiorentino and a plum variety for passata.

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Inside, it’s time to sow tomatoes

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Hopefully Schofield will give them moral support

There’s also been a day of graft in the garden, though not by me. My folks came on Sunday armed with three David Austin roses for the new border (Gertrude Jekyll, Claire Austin and Mary Rose) and a host of alliums, which I’ve now supplemented with lavender Hidcote and some gorgeous white foxgloves. In a few weeks time we’ll have shades of pink, white and purple, hopefully giving way in the summer to dashing dahlias and cosmos. Spring: sprung.

Planted out: Broad beans
Sowed: Tomatoes
Potted on: Summer-sown marigolds & nigella
Harvested: PSB, Russian kale

It’s me, Sunflower!

There’s been a hiatus on Veg Patch whilst we’ve been gallavanting onboard the cruise ship Harmony of the Seas (you might have seen it on the telly). It turns out that cruise ships are actually just floating restaurants…the buffet was endless, the dining room offered up a four-course dinner every night and that’s before we even get onto the complimentary room service.

However, what goes around comes around: whilst we were enjoying the daily diet of waffles, steak and gateaux, back on the allotment the slugs and snails have been having a feast of their own. Many of my seedlings have been nobbled – this sunflower had its stem nearly bitten clean through, a similar fate befell the dahlia, and one of the borlotti beans has been nibbled to the ground.

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This was a healthy plant until the slugs got to it

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The dahlia’s stem has been chewed through

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Borlotti beans aren’t safe either

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The culprits. I think my pots are nurseries for slugs: for every large one there are about three tiny ones

Thankfully, this onslaught has come when most of the plants are large enough to withstand it, so they may pull through. Today I’ve put down a massive amount of Slug-gone wool pellets and, in a belt-and-braces approach, have hired my friend’s 8-year-old son to come slug-hunting during half-term. He will be paid 10p for every slug, snail or caterpillar he finds: money very, very well spent.

With the slugs dealt with, today brought another pressing job: the planting out of the sunflowers. Of the 25 or so that I sowed only 16 have made it through (some didn’t come up; others got scoffed by sluggy). The four Sunflower Club seeds have grown well, and given that they are meant to be TALL, they need proper staking. Canes are feeble and aren’t the prettiest, so I picked up 20 hazel poles for the princely sum of £9 from the allotment shop: just the thing.

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Hazel poles for staking

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Sunflowers planted, mulched with wool pellets and tied to stakes

The grid of 16 sunflowers against their hazel supports looks a little, well, witch-y. I LOVE THIS. If Matt can have his hopolisk May Pole, then I can grow myself a coven of sunflowers. Speaking of which – the hops are still shooting up the hopolisk, all bar one, which has simply refused to grow.

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Hops are soaring up the hopolisk

Spring is on the cusp of becoming summer. The grass on the allotments is growing like the clappers – as are the weeds – and the plants are establishing themselves in the warmer weather. We have green fruit on the strawberries, and the gooseberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants are studded with tiny green sour-bombs.  I have a few sweetpeas in bloom, their scent pungent and delicious. The tulips have finished now and the alliums are stealing the glory with their bright, purple pompom flowers. Next week the foxgloves and pinks will bloom and then, hopefully, it will be the turn of the cosmos and calendula.

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First sweetpeas are in bloom

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Strawberries are setting their fruit

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The row of alliums is vibrant

Planted out: Sunflowers, squash, cosmos ‘purity’, dahlia
Direct sowed: Beets, carrots, parsnip, bells of Ireland, savory, parsley, cima di rapa (Note: None of the things I sowed back in March and April made it through; too cold)
Also: Potted on zinnia. Wool pellets on everything. Thinned out the frills of hex. Good watering – soil is dry and still a little cold, despite the warmer weather.

The great crysanth plant-out

Children of the 1980s will remember how, in Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin sets about defending his house against a pair of robbers. He draws plans with his felt-tips, goes about making clever traps involving an iron and fire-crackers, then sits in wait. When the Wet Bandits finally turn up his plans work out OK….then they don’t….but then the old man neighbour turns up and saves the day.

Having an allotment is not dissimilar to this. I had a (felt-tip) plan; I’ve put the plan into action – seeds sown, architecture erected, pigeon-netting in place – and now we have to wait. Come high summer, we’ll know if the plan will come good. Inevitably, some things with work and others won’t. But when I get stuck, there will be a parent or opinionated allotment neighbour on hand who will know just what to do.

This weekend marked the true start of the season to me: with temperatures in the mid-teens, it was time to start the Great May Plant-Out. First up were the chrysanthemum cuttings, which have been lovingly tended by my Mum since December. Matt’s Grampy’s heirloom varieties and my favourite plants from last autumn have yielded in excess of 30 new plants – a plantation of crysanths! In they went, alongside some aster seedlings. I take no credit for any of this; Mum (and Grampy) did all the work.

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A box of crysanth cuttings…

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…and in they go!

The climbing and borlotti beans I sowed back in March have become fabulously healthy plants. They’re now planted in, and this year they’re pigeon protected with netting. I will keep the net on for a few weeks until the plants are strong enough to withstand the greedy attackers.

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Climbing and borlotti beans are in and pigeon-proofed

The first of the cutting garden has also gone out – ammi, calendula and cosmos, planted under netting for support.

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First of the hardy annuals are planted out, the start of the cutting garden

More netting, this time over the redcurrants, which are swelling by the day.

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Redcurrants have been netted against the birds

In the greenhouse, I had the miserable job of choosing 12 tomato plants to grow-on from the 24 that I’d raised from seed. How can one reject healthy plants?! Matt says to put the spares on the compost but that is simply unbearable. So now I am asking around friends – please, take a tomato plant! On Saturday my Dad performed his annual task of making a frame of canes for the tomatoes to grow up. They’re ready for it; the first flowers are in bud.

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In the greenhouse, tomatoes have been planted into their final position, canes and all

So, after a weekend of graft, the grass is strimmed, the ground is forked, the first weeds are pulled. The potatoes have been earthed up. Will the plan come good? Summer, I’m ready for you.

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The long view

Planted out: Ammi, calendula, cosmos, borage, dill, cornflower, courgette, PSB, cavolo nero, petit posey, crysanths, nasturtium, aster, viola, borlotti beans, climbing beans
Greenhouse: Tomatoes into growbags and pinched out; tomato canes installed
Hardening off: Dahlia, verbena, leeks, rudbekia
Other jobs: Earthed up potatoes, first major weed of errant raspberry canes, tied-up sweetpeas, cut back sorrel hard

Hop on board

Suddenly, the season switches. One week ago we had rain and wind; now we bask in hot sun, wondering how we ever survived the winter. We’re back in the city now and here people are in shorts and vests, risking sunburn as pale skin is exposed for the first time in seven months. Thoughts turn to warm weather food and last night’s pork chop came with couscous instead of potatoes.

The tulips are magnificent in the sun, pops of colour against brown earth. Over in the fruit patch, tiny red currants are setting fruit and the black currants and blueberries are covered in blossom. And in the greenhouse, the tomatoes are flying up, now about 1 foot tall.

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Tulips add striking colour

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Red currants have set fruit

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Tomatoes are nearly ready for their grow bags

But surely this is a false summer? I’m still prepared for a return to the chill… but having said that, I am brave enough to remove the fleece from the lettuce and brassica seedlings. The salad greens are looking like actual plants now and – touch wood – have not been attacked by the slug, so it seems that the expensive wool pellet protection seems to actually work. The carrots and beets haven’t done so well: the seeds sown a month or so ago didn’t take in the cold weather (I never learn) so in go a few more rows.

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Salad patch is coming along

But the important business of the day is the hopolisk. The young hop shoots have shot up in the past few weeks, now reaching to my hip, and without any support are being snapped in the wind. Matt’s devised a new top for the hopolisk this year to better cope with the increased weight of the bines as the plants mature. He arrived clutching his creation like a proud father and, granted, it is a beautiful thing. The top is attached to the top of the hop-pole and then tied with proper hop twine, a sturdy old-fashioned rope that comes in enormous balls. A few minutes later and up the hopolisk goes, like a 5-metre tall allotment may pole.

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The new top of the hopolisk

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In situ at the top of the hop-pole

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Ball of hop twine – peg for scale

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The hopolisk is risen, our allotment maypole

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And off they go!

I’ve made my own creations too, albeit less showy. I’m growing my annuals through netting this year for a bit of support; in a week or two I’ll plant out the cosmos and calendula for this year’s cutting patch.

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Arched netting will support my cutting flowers

We’ve moved the fruit frame to the main veg patch for this year’s cunning plan: climbing squash! I have three climbing courgette plants and will plant one against each leg of the frame, hoping that the long squash fruits will get to the top and then hang down from the horizontal bars. This may be something I live to regret (I am certain to be bashed in the face by a courgette more than once) but at the moment this plan seems great fun.

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The fruit frame has been moved in preparation for the climbing squash

In a bid to keep the pigeons out, we’ve netted the brassica seedlings and those baby lettuces.

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The brassica cage is up

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Lettuces are protected from the pigeons

With a few hours work (and a little sunburn) we have the bones of the 2016 allotment.

Sowed direct: Carrots, parsnip, beets (re-sow as first lot failed), bells of Ireland, cosmos ‘purity’, more broad beans
Sowed in drain pipes: Radish ‘caro’, spring onion ‘North Holland blood red’
Planted out: Tuscan lettuce mix, Mum’s year-round lettuce
Potted on: Courgette, squash, chilli
Hardening off: Climbing and borlotti beans, dill, calendula, borage, chard, cornflower, ammi, nasturtium
Architecture: Brassica frame, salad frame, hopolisk, moved the fruit cage

Four seasons in one day

There’s a famous Crowded House song that tells of the changeable weather in New Zealand:

The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain
Even when you’re feeling warm
The temperature could drop away
Like four seasons in one day.

Lyrics that could easily apply to England in April 2016. What is going on with this crazy weather? Through glass the sun is HOT (temperatures hitting 35c+ in my greenhouse) but then blink and suddenly it’s snowing, or at least sleeting. My late afternoon visit to the allotment resulted in freezing fingers and reddened cheeks.

It’s difficult weather for veg and flower growing as I have seedlings that need to be outside already. At the weekend I succumbed and planted out my overwintered sweet-peas, which were threatening to literally put down roots in the greenhouse unless given a new home. They’re surviving this week’s Arctic blasts cheerily enough, protected from the wind by some perspex squares salvaged from an art project, and cosseted with thorny branches to ward off the pigeon.

The lettuces aren’t doing so well – the lollo rosso looks suspiciously slimy – but the spinach actually looks happier now than when I planted it out. Some veg do well for the cold weather, of course, and the parsnips and leeks (sowed one full year ago) look a heck of a lot better now than they did back in our warm, soggy autumn.

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Last of 2015’s leeks and parsnips, better now than in the autumn

But spring is apparently here: I have tulips in bloom and the cherry tree outside our flat is tinged with delicate pink blossom. It was St George’s day at the weekend, the traditional start of the English asparagus season, and so today I took a VERY circuitous route home from a meeting to track down some of Evesham’s finest.

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Evesham asparagus is back in the farmshops, but expect to flash a bit of cash

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New season grass – a culinary highpoint of the year

Two bunches of asparagus set me back the princely sum of £9.66 and even the seasoned assistant in the farm shop took a sharp intake of breath. I don’t care. It’s NEW SEASON ASPARAGUS…the first culinary highpoint of the year. These spears are to be lightly steamed and served with jersey royals that I will toss in butter and anoint with sorrel from the allotment.

In other allotment news, I’ve planted out the potatoes and direct sown various kales and brassicas (I want to see how these lot do against the ones that I’m raising under glass). Oh! And we’ve got hold of some guttering to see if it does indeed make a happy home for salad plants. Keep you posted.

ps. Dear reader, we have a mortgage and aim to move house in a few weeks. Thanks for all the nice messages to keep one’s chin up in the face of mortgage-madness.

Sowed direct: PSB, Frills of Hex, Cavolo Nero, Cima di Rapa
Sowed in a gutter in greenhouse: Chives, Chard, Tuscan lettuce mix, Spinach
Planted out: Autumn and January-sowed sweetpeas, Reine di Glace lettuce, Spinach Medania, Lollo Rosso, seed potatoes

Sunflower Club

We awoke to a light dusting of snow this morning. I think it’s a mark of age that my first thought on seeing the white stuff was to wonder how my seedlings in the greenhouse are doing (the answer is that they seem fine).

This is typical April weather, by turns cold, hot, wet, dry, blowy and still. I always think that spring-time seed sowing is a gesture of defiance in the face of wintery weather; since becoming an allotmenter I’ve realised that there’s a heck of a lot more winter in this country than there is summer. But the days are undeniably warmer now than they were a month ago – digging the veg patch today I had to strip off to shirt sleeves – and the sun stays up until well after 8pm. The greenhouse has been reading temperatures in the 30s. So I have brazenly decided to ignore the snow and try a little direct sowing of seed – in go carrots, parsnip, chard, spinach and lettuce into freshly prepared beds, covered with fleece to keep them cosy. If they germinate, wonderful, and if not, I’ll try again in a few weeks.

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The lettuce seedlings have perked up and I’ve direct sown more lettuce, chard and spinach alongside

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The other veg plot has been dug, first seeds sown and the soil – seeded or not – covered with fleece to encourage warmth

Meanwhile the greenhouse is so chocka that I’m having to keep seed trays on the floor. Today the tomato and flower seedlings were joined by two trays of sunflowers, 24 pots in total. My friend Annabel has challenged a group of her chums to join Sunflower Club (sorry – I think the official name is #sunflowerclub) where we have been given the same seeds to be planted on the same day, then the person with the tallest flower come summer wins. If the last two summers of sunflower success are anything to go by, we’ll do OK.

Sunflower seeds all ready to go

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24 sunflowers potted up and colour-coded

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The greenhouse is now so full that I’m having to leave trays on the floor

It’s the time for tidying up. I finally got around to mulching the raspberries and the grass is crying out to be strimmed before it takes over the world.

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Raspberries have been mulched

The next jobs – sort out the hopolisk, get the bean and sweetpea sticks up and plant the potatoes. Don’t know about #sunflowerclub, it’s more like #knackered.

Sowed indoors: sunflowers
Sowed direct: carrot ‘nantes’, ‘harlequin’ and ‘paris’, parsnip ‘tender and true’, lettuce ‘salad bowl’, chard ‘silver’, beetroot ‘chioggia’ and ‘bolt hardy’, spinach ‘perpetual’ and ‘medania’, kale ‘rouge di russie’, broad beans ‘stereo’
Hardening off: autumn-planted sweet peas
Also: Prepared right-hand vegetable bed, fleeced the brassica bed to warm the soil, mulched raspberries