The hop harvest

The harvest continues. Cousin Sue mentioned at the weekend that the September harvest is what the August harvest should have been – and YES is my resounding response. Normally the raspberries are long gone by now, but we’re only mid-way through the harvest, picking punnets and punnets of the luscious red fruits every other day. The cosmos are still on the sluggish side, but getting there, and the sunflowers are at their peak. I sometimes wonder why anyone ever bothers growing anything else; a sunflower grove is THE most joyous thing.

Sunflowers have come into their own
I love this whopper!
A delicate vase of cosmos purity and dazzler, plus ammi visnaga

But it’s the hops’ turn for glory. We have four plants in total, of two different Herefordshire varieties (I can’t remember which), and for most of the year they do their own thing, pretty much unnoticed. In the spring Matt cuts back the shoots to leave only three stems per plant, which are left to race up the hop twine on our home-made hopolisk. We don’t water or feed them, though I do hack back the numerous ‘spare’ shoots that grow out at arm level, because their barbed leaves are abrasive and leave me with scars that last for months. And then we get to August and one day I will notice that the hops are incredible: reaching at least 15 foot into the sky and covered in golden papery corms. Matt rips one up to check for ripeness, looking for yellow powder and a slightly resinous tackiness. It’s time. Cue the hop harvest.

Hops are a beautiful ornamental, if extremely vigorous, climber

It is significantly more difficult to harvest hops compared to, say, cavolo nero or cosmos. For a start we need tools….hammer, spanner, strong male arms. After cutting the hop twine and bines at the base, Matt bashes the bolt on the hopolisk (it will inevitably have rusted up a little) to make the whole contraption collapse sideways. Our job is to ease it down gently, gently, gently, so that it doesn’t take out the sunflowers, chard, parsnips, kale, pre-schooler, or whatever else lies in the way. Once safely down, the tops of the hop bines are cut from the metal support and then all 15 bushy feet of them are carried into the van and then home, leaving a trail of hop flowers and leaf debris in their wake.

Harry ‘helps’ take the hops down with his hammer
Gertrude is very interested in the new hoppy additions to the garden

In the 8 years on the allotment, Matt’s never once got around to making beer from his hops. They usually end up as decorations in the house (we used them to great effect at our wedding in 2018) or, worse of all, are left out to rot on the compost. But this year I sense a new resolve. For much of Sunday, he sat on the garden bench patiently separating hops from the bines, processing them ready for drying (To be used for beer, the fresh hops have to be dried to about one fifth of their weight). There’s talk of sending the picked hops to a brewer friend at the weekend. Let’s see what happens.

One last thing: hops STINK. It is quite incomprehensible just how strong their scent is, until your living space is filled with hop bines. Even with doors closed, their resinous smell permeates the entire house, slightly burning the throat. It’s not an unpleasant smell, just…strong. And slightly druggy – you could be forgiven in thinking we were growing monstrous amounts of weed. But no, just old-fashioned, organic, Herefordshire hops.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Raspberries, courgettes, cavolo nero, pentland brig kale, chard, beet spinach, sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi visnaga, last cornflowers. Hops.
Cooking and eating: Roast cherry tomatoes with garlic and oregano, samosa, cinnamon buns, oatmeal and raisin cookies
Also: Baddesley Clinton and Packwood with Harry. Dad’s 76th birthday buffet tea. Glorious late summer weather tipping into autumnal squall.

Coming into abundance

In the three weeks or so since I last blogged, the allotment has filled into abundance. (Its own version of abundance, mind, let’s not get carried away…) A good month later than normal, I’m filling multiple vases from one morning’s flower cutting, the fridge has spare courgettes and the freezer is filling with raspberries. Squash plants threaten to over-run the place, and sunflowers reach up high in shades of cocoa, maroon and saffron. Finally, there is some satisfaction.

There’s also been a birthday. We’ve kept Harry alive for four whole years, marked as ever with a gigantic chocolate cake topped with more chocolate and edged with…chocolate. The last month has been challenging, with work and illness, forever feeling behind, making it even more important to mark special events when they occur.

I went big on the birthday cake this year

Let’s do an allotment tour. The cosmos is behaving very oddly this year, putting on inches and inches of lush green growth, but barely any flowers. I turned to Instagram for answers and was advised by @Arthurparkinson that the issue is the seed: sourced from hotter climates than our own, the plants have a much longer growing season, so they just put on greenery and frankly can’t be bothered to flower. He advises pinching them out hard to give them a shock. Cosmos Purity and Dazzler are apparently the worst offenders – just what I’m growing. The few stems that I do pick last well, far better than the smaller, crimped flowering stock from earlier in the year. They go into a romantic vase with cornflowers (still going strong, incredibly), ammi visnaga and a few white pompom dahlias.

Growing behind the cosmos are the chrysanthemums, which this year are tall, healthy and (surprise surprise) late. We won’t be picking them seriously for for a few weeks yet. The sunflowers have finally come into their own, in rich autumnal shades, and they tower over the squash, nasturtiums and marigolds. I’m pleased with it all.

Finally coming into fullness: nasturtium, calendula, sunflowers, squash, cosmos, cornflower. Chrysanths are there too, tucked behind the cosmos.

The hops are late too. Matt still harbours ideas of making beer, but in the 8 (?) years of growing them he’s never managed it once. It’s more likely that these will end up in Christmas wreaths and boughs, along with dried hydrangeas, teasels, poppy heads and rosehips.

The hops are nearing harvest time, a good three weeks later than usual
Taking the wide view. In the foreground, the flowerpots support netting for savoy cabbage.

I don’t normally have courgettes coming into their own at the same time as the winter squash ripen. But that’s just what’s happened this year: after sitting in complete dormancy for weeks, finally I’m cropping several courgettes a week, and in the meantime the Jack Be Little squash are turning orange. The larger varieties are fattening nicely too; I’ll report on those at harvest time.

Jack be little pumpkin, about the size of the palm of my hand
An heirloom Italian courgette, gnarly and interesting

Dahlias are of course the queens of the September flowerbed. Just three of these orange cactus types can fill a vase, and I have them dotted around the house in their look-at-me glory. I have failed to take note of the varietal names of any of them other than Labyrinth (the coral one pictured at the back), a favourite. Next year I must grow more. I use them fresh, but other flowers are meant for drying, notably the teasels, of which I’ve harvested box fulls. I’ve now ripped the teasel plants out for fear that these 10-foot whoppers would self-seed on our neighbouring plots, making me Public Enemy #1. Note to self: if grow teasels again, be sure NOT to accidentally grow the giant variety.

The dahlias are now putting on a good show but I have totally removed the teasels, for fear that they would self-seed on all the neighbours’ plots
One morning’s cut flower haul. I could pick more but we’re limited on vase space in this house.

We were meant to be in Cornwall this week, which alas didn’t happen in the end, so I’m using the time to get the put-it-off-until-next-week jobs done. It occurs to me that this is the first week I’ve had off work for one entire year, which is madness, and then I spend this time doing serious hard graft, which is also madness. It’s good to get the jobs done though; if I didn’t keep putting them off, they wouldn’t be so difficult. This stretch behind the sunflowers was meant to be my perennial/bulb area, planted with lavender, tansy and spring bulbs. However the buttercup and couch grass got in, choking the plants and threatening to overrun the plot. It doesn’t look much but clearing this took four hours hard work.

This strip was thick with couch grass and creeping buttercup, as well as the ancient lavender. It took four hours to dig it all out.

There’s more to do. The soft fruits are swamped with long grass again, and the area that I’m eyeing up for tulips is thick with self-sown marjoram. Weed control is the absolute number one bane of the allotmenter’s life.

More happily, there are creative tasks too. The biennials that I sowed back in June have thrived, and I’ve remembered to actually plant them out far earlier than I normally do, hoping that the warm weather will allow the plants time to get firmly established before the cold comes. The broad beans came up about a fortnight ago, and in their place go sweet Williams, honesty and sweet rocket. Come May, I should be picking buckets of lovely blooms.

About two weeks ago I picked the last of the broad beans. In their place go the biennials: sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty.

Gardening shows/books often advise in July and August to stop, relax and breathe it all in; to admire what you’ve created. What bunkum. I have realised that both my allotment and garden are at their most stressful in high summer, because things have a) either not worked out how I wanted, so I’m disappointed, b) got over-run with weeds, so I’m cross, or c) need picking NOW NOW NOW so there’s yet another job to do amongst all the others (looking at you peas and courgettes in a good year). September into October is surely the best time, when there are low-maintenance flowers to pick (dahlias just do their own thing); when the cavolo nero and pentland brig kale sit quietly waiting for a chop whenever I feel like it; when the raspberries turn red in abundance; when the squash tantalisingly fatten. Yes, this is the golden time. Though I do wish that all the jobs/weeds would take care of themselves.

Also this week (month):
Harvesting: Dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, cornflower, ammi visnaga, teasel, amaranthus, cavolo nero, pentland brig, russian red kales, chard, a few carrots, courgette, raspberries (they’re really going for it now), a few sparse meagre French beans, a few cherry tomatoes. Broad beans ended about two weeks ago. Buying up early English apples and pears from the local farm shops.

Jobs: Dug out the lavender patch of couch grass and buttercups. Started prepping ground by dahlias for spring bulbs. So much weeding. Took up broad beans and planted out biennials, savoy cabbage and kohl rabi, though I have not much hope for the latter. The climbing French beans that I planted directly are finally now flowering, after what feels like months of irritation at their performance. At home, re-seeded the lawn and dug/manured back bed ready for spring bulb planting.

Cooking: Invited my parents over for two-rib roast beef with all the trimmings and the Chapel Down sparkling rose that I bought in Kent for my birthday, to mark keeping Harry alive for another year. Made a massive chocolate birthday cake alongside kids’ party tea of pink wafers, pizza and capri sun. Cooking and eating has gone badly this month due to work, illness and strange bedtimes, and I’ve been even buying M&S ready-meals for myself, which is a sure sign of being out of balance.

Reading: I’ve recently given up on too many books to mention but I am enjoying How to be Sad by Helen Russell and The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Plus the Sarah Raven podcast and Ramblings on BBC Sounds.

Reflecting on a year-round harvest

I’ve been laid-low by some mystery chest-infection-type illness. Bed-bound for a week, I’ve been reflecting on what the veg/garden patch is all for….if I do a cost-benefit analysis of this summer, there’s been quite a lot of heartache and feeling up against it (the result of which is these bastard microbes who seem hell-bent on trying to kill me). So in an effort at balance, I will temporarily ignore all those brambles and slugs and dead sweetpeas, and instead look at what’s been achieved. And with it, I realise that I’m working towards a new goal: the holy-grail of the year-round harvest.

But first, pasta, pizza and ice cream at Verdi’s in Mumbles.

WE LOVE VERDI’s!
Harry loves ice cream at Verdi’s even more!

The season has tipped from high- to late-summer, which to me is a relief…life just seems more relaxed in September. The cut flowers are changing too, with the last of the tansy and achillea now finished, and the dahlias coming into their own. There is still life in the cornflower and the cosmos I started in April has not even bloomed yet – SO LATE, I still can’t get over it – and so we have overlap between the romantic whimsical high summer flowers and their showier early autumn cousins.

Whimsy of cosmos, tansy, teasel, cornflower and achillea
A whiter version, with dahlias and ammi visnaga added in
The dahlias are now showing off – some as big as dinner plates, others slightly more dainty
Just three of these is enough to fill a huge vase

Back to the year-round harvest. The point of all of this effort must surely be to have something to pick, whether it’s meant for the kitchen or for the vase, for most of the year. It needn’t be a lot – actually it’s better if it isn’t, for a glut is stressful and also requires effort to process. A vase a week. A punnet of berries. Beans for dinner. Kale for minestrone. And so on. So if I take the marker of success as having something of note to harvest at any point in the year, then actually we’re doing pretty well.

Here’s the year-round harvest list:

Jan: Kales, chard

Feb: Kales, chard, narcissi

March: Kales, purple sprouting, narcissi, tulips

April: Purple sprouting, early salads, Tulips

May: Foxglove, lilac, alliums, cow parsley, maybe a few tulips, early salads

June: Foxglove, sweet william, honesty, sweet fennel, cornflower, cosmos, ammi magus, nasturtium, peas or mange tout, redcurrants, rocket. Peonies add to this list in 2022.

July: Lavender, foxgloves, cosmos, cornflower, tansy, marigold, nasturtiums, achillea, teasels, strawberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, broad beans, maybe stick beans if they ever grow, lettuce. Add in 2022: coneflower, delphinium, lupin, gladioli, echinops. Also I start to receive top-ups from my parents of potatoes, blueberries, tomatoes.

August: Dahlias, marigold, achillea, tansy, sunflowers, strawflower, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, courgette, chard, kales, carrots. Parental top-up of potatoes, blueberries, blackcurrants, tomatoes, sweetcorn, peppers.

September: Dahlias, sunflowers, chrystanthemums, hops, raspberries, courgette, chard, carrots, parsnip, rocket, mustard, kales

October: Chrysanthemum, parsnip, kales, pumpkins, rocket, mustard

November: Kale, parsnips

December: Kale, parsnip

Whenever I look at a year-round list I’m always amazed at just how little there is to eat until about June/July, then there’s about two months of fun, and then we’re back to kale again. The hungry gap must have been SO real before commercial agriculture was invented. Happily for me, I can fill this gap with cut flowers.

What not to grow: I’ve learnt that it’s just not worth the bother on our plot, with the time resources available and the sodding pigeons: sweetpeas, most of the climbing beans, tomatoes (they get blight), fennel (bolts), beetroot and turnips (they don’t seem to enjoy our soil). Far better to focus on the plants that need little intervention and that don’t get eaten.

And with that off my chest, I’m going back to bed.

The July allotment

In the past two weeks, now there’s some heat, I can see noticeable acceleration in growth – and about bloody time, I might add. The third week of July is late to be seeing the change. Without wishing to be too melodramatic, the allotment this year has driven me to the point of despair. Grass proliferates, and when even courgettes will not grow, what hope is there? So I’ve been looking, properly paying attention, to work out what The Problem is. And in an effort at balance, also take stock of what’s doing alright, actually.

A number of plants appear to thrive in our free-draining, exposed plot. Some are the self-seeders; others are the perennials or shrubs that I put in and leave to it. Of the first lot, the nasturtiums, poppies, marjoram and buttercup are rampant. Foxgloves, lavender, achillea, tansy and mullein have all become whoppers with no assistance from me. The connecting factor with all these is that they like the sun, they like to be free-draining, and they can cope with low nutrient soil. Not that our allotment soil is poor quality (years of manure put paid to that) but these particular plants get no assistance from me.

The lesson: plants that like sun, can tolerate drought and are low-maintenance will do well. Conversely, those that needs tons of water and molly-coddling (sweet peas, squash, beans) struggle.

The allotment on 19 July: broad beans finally thriving, as are nasturtiums, but the courgette and stick beans struggling to get going
Cosmos, sunflower, squash and ammi majus are getting going – plus note the thriving nasturtium and teasel at the rear
Greens and roots are doing OK – chard, beet spinach, carrots, parsnip plus (out of shot) cavolo nero, flower sprout and kale. In the mid-ground, Jill Be Little squash are still tiddly.

The chief disappointment, as has been the case for a few years now, is the stick beans. I recall that last year I sowed at least three times (at home and directly) before getting a crop, and even then it was small. This year is no different. The variety does not seem to matter – I have tried runner, three types of French and borlotti. They germinate well enough, but the plants started at home suffer from lack of sun, and those planted directly usually get knobbled by the pigeons. This year they’re having to fend off the self-seeded nasturtiums too, a plant so prolific that I may have to start culling it. Sweet peas similarly are frustrating, though I think lack of regular watering did for them this year. In an effort to out-fox the pigeons, I have put a final desperate new sowing of beans into the sweet pea netting – the triumph of hope over experience. My ever-sensible mother-in-law Jean suggests that I try growing stick beans at home instead of the allotment, where I can care for the them properly – a suggestion so obvious I wonder why I didn’t think of it earlier.

Climbing beans of all variety are struggling, but the self-seeded nasturtium is romping off
Sweet peas are dead. This is a third sowing – still no joy.

The cold spring has led to inevitable lateness. I would expect the cornflowers to be cropping a month earlier than they actually did, but now they are here, what a joy they are. Coming at the same time as the early cosmos and ammi they are, to me, the epitome of the early English summer. Just a bit later than normal.

Cornflowers are finally coming into their own, plus behind them are my Mum’s early-sown cosmos and ammi

The strange spring impacted the early broad beans of course. The ones I started in February are now scourged in black-fly, whilst the ones direct sown at the end of May are thriving and healthy. The early ones, interestingly, also have patchy pollination – the cold snap in April and May causing havoc to the wildlife.

The broad beans that were direct sown at the end of May are healthy and vibrant…
…but those started under-cover in February have succumbed to black fly and the pods have not been pollinated

Over on the new biennial and perennial patch, the dahlias are thriving. Both the over-wintered and the newly planted tubers are healthy, making me think that next year I should add to the collection. The biennials, on the other hand, were poor – but have potential. I started off new sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty at the end of June, and will plant them out in the autumn to give them chance to bulk up – rather than, as I did this year, in the spring when the weather was too cold.

Dahlias are doing OK, both the ones left in over-winter and the newly planted tubers

A word about teasels. I put these in as tiny plug plants in spring 2020, just as lockdown was coming in, thinking they would be a fun addition to my dried flower collection for the winter. Had I known they would become ten-foot whoppers I might have hesitated – though I can not deny that these green cone-shaped flower heads are a lovely addition to the vase. My chief concern is that they will self-sow all over the place, so I’m started to crop them now (before they fully flower and set seed) and dry them in readiness for winter arrangements.

If I had known these teasels would reach ten feet tall I may not have planted them – majestic though they are
Half a teasel stem, with my foot for scale

I have not pictured the grass, that this year seems worse than ever and has infiltrated the raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. The only hope is to strim for now, then in the colder months dig it out as best I can. Well either that or buy myself a gigantic house with a kitchen garden on-site that has no grass attached to it (I can dream).

I also believe a major issue is one of anticipation versus reality. What I want is abundance – and yet of course, too much abundance is stressful, for no-one wants gluts of vegetables and fruit that will go over before they can be eaten. I would like more early veg (broad beans, French beans, small courgettes) but the growing conditions will not allow it; we actually do much better in the late summer and early autumn, when the soft fruit, squash and brassicas come into their own.

Of course much of the allotment is now given up to flowers, and the trick here is to have a regular crop of modest proportions – anything bigger is overwhelming. I’m now getting about 4 or 5 small vases a week, perfect for the mantlepiece and kitchen table, and I can go for either a cool or warm colour palette. The cosmos, cornflower and ammi are the current queen plants, and they will give way in due course to sunflowers, dahlias and chrysanthemums.

Currently we’re getting about five of these vases a week, in cool blue/white/mauve/green and warmer yellow/purple/orange palettes
Achillea, cosmos, ammi, cornflower, poppy heads, teasel, lavender, nasturtium, tansy and calendula are all cropping now
Sufferagette colours: purple, green and white

Lessons to learn, then, are as follows:

  1. Only sow at the allotment what can be realistically watered; keep the fussy beans for home.
  2. Rethink the spring sowing plan, for the seedlings need to have more light and be tougher before they are planted out. Maybe it is time to bring back the greenhouse or, better yet, cobble together a polytunnel.
  3. Brassicas do well, so maybe try a few more of those, in different varieties.
  4. Flowers for nine months of the year are a possibility, but veg isn’t. Within current resources, do not expect much of a veg harvest before late July. Extend the flower season with spring bulbs and biennials, and think about a wider variety of dahlias. Perennials seem to excel, so consider a few more, for cutting.
  5. Over the winter, do something about the grass.

Simple, no?

Also this week:
Harvesting: At home, lettuce, thyme, oregano. From allotment, broad beans (scant), dwarf beans (scant), chard, beet spinach, cornflower, ammi, cosmos, lavender, teasel, nasturtium, first dahlias, achillea. Sweet william, foxglove, strawberries are now finished. Gift of stick beans, potatoes, fennel, carrots, raspberries and blueberries from my parents.
Garden: The garden is moving from the cool shades of early summer to the hot tones of high-to-late summer. Roses and bronze fennel at their zenith, with helenium and dahlias coming through. Potted on sweet williams that were started in June. Cut back aquilegia and allium heads for drying. Planted out new dahlias, salvia amistad and other orange/yellow palette plants for late summer – incidentally I thought that most of the garden dahlias had not made it over the winter but on digging around discovered that the slugs had been nibbling the emerging shoots whilst still underground. Serious note taking and thinking about next spring and early summer – spent a good £200 on spring bulbs for home and allotment, inspired by the trip to Perch Hill.
Cooking and eating: Whole lamb shoulder butterflied and barbecued, flavoured with cumin and harissa. Potato salad using Dad’s potatoes. Chapel Down sparkling bacchus, a joy.
Also: Visited Puzzle Wood. Reading The Mitford Girls biography and Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Flowers. No time or interest for telly. Am getting up early to be on the allotment at 8am before the heat is unbearable and the working day begins; life feels very full and busy again.

Dream vs reality

It ‘should’ be the season of abundance on the allotment, with buckets of cut-flowers and courgettes coming out of my eyes. But this year – not so much. Many plants are still tiddlers, and others are showing the effect of that cold dry spring.

We spent the midsummer solstice in Kent and Sussex, revisiting two old favourites (Perch Hill and Sissinghust) and discovering new creative inspiration at Dungeness. And whilst we had a lovely time I can’t help but notice the contrast in abundance between the gardens ‘down south’ and ours up in the Midlands. More of that later. For a while, let’s look at the dream gardens/cutting patches/kitchen gardens and see what inspirations can be taken for back home.

Perch Hill & Sissinghurst

Ah Perch Hill, garden of Sarah Raven, and Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West. Both of them exude femininity and abundance, but the soft edges are prevented from being overwhelmingly sickly by extravagantly expensive landscaping – this is not a criticism, merely an observation.

The oast garden at Perch Hill – crammed with plants, with plenty of structures to give height

Both gardens are massive of course, but because they are made of several garden rooms or areas, they still feel domestic. It’s easy to forget that it takes several full-time gardeners (and multi-million pound investment) to get them this good, so natural is the effect.

What I love about both, but Perch Hill in particular, is the way everything is crammed together. Crammed! Perch Hill has two cutting gardens (one perennial and one annual), a veg patch, trial grounds, rose garden, oast garden, Dutch garden and wild meadow plus glasshouses. I don’t think there is an inch of spare soil anywhere. It’s not all tidy-tidy either – the perennial cutting garden was notably full of self-seeders and weeds, and looks all the better for it.

The perennial cutting garden at Perch Hill, taken 18 June – lupins, poppies, love in a mist, astrantia and peonies predominate

In mid June, peonies, lupins, astrantia and poppies take centre stage for cutting, giving way to the annuals (cosmos, ammi etc) and then later in the year to dahlias and chrysanthemums. The cutting year starts with the narcissi, leading to tulips and alliums, then to biennials of foxglove and sweet william. Succession of colour is the big story here; it’s something I certainly aspire to but have yet to work out how to actually achieve given our limited space for starting plants off.

Love these lupins but also love how jam-packed and actually slightly untidy it all is
Astranita is on the cut flower list for 2022

At Perch Hill they put in a ‘lasagne’ system of growing to make the most of space. Dahlias are in the same bed as spring bulbs (narcissi and tulips), with annuals in the top. So the bulbs coming up in March/April, giving way to June poppies, and then the dahlias take over in late summer. I think this is a fabulous idea but I wonder how well it translates in a cooler climate, where annuals often don’t flower until mid-July.

An abundance of poppies is planted over top of dahlias, supported with impressive grid structures of silver birch
The entrance at Sissinghurst, always full of gorgeous cut flowers

The key take-aways for me are:
– Everything takes SO LONG to get started where we are so I need to plan for this. Include early flowering narcissi such as Pheasants Eye for both the garden and cutting garden – they can go overtop of the dahlias – and more tulips for April colour
– Look at putting more flowers into pots in 2021, particularly early spring bulbs such as Iris reticulata
– Add astrantia, poppies, lupins and gladioli to the cutting patch
– Biennials into the garden as well as cutting patch
– Artichokes can be underplanted with tulips
– If something isn’t working then change it. Sounds obvious, but they talk about ripping out whole sections because the look isn’t right, something I would be shy to do because it would feel so wasteful.

Dungeness

What a contrast from the rolling green hills around Perch Hill and Sissinghurst to the mysterious landscape of Dungeness. We came partly to see Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, and partly to see the weirdness of this pebble world of shacks and lighthouses framed by a nuclear power station.

Prospect Cottage is a lesson of right plant right place, but actually the planting is secondary in importance to the genius of an artist’s eye. The garden uses plants found all around Dungeness – vipers bugloss, poppies, sea kale – and each is its own miracle for surviving in this strange, barren landscape. But what makes the garden special is the placement of found objects washed in by the sea set inside circles of gravel in contrasting colours. Colour rules are broken with oranges clashing against reds and pinks. It could only have been made by a true artist.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness – all the Perch Hill colour rules are broken here, with clashing purple, pink, yellow, red and orange
The joy here is the exquisite placement of found objects and clumps of flowers set against the mysterious gravel landscape of Dungeness

This is not a garden to attempt to recreate – it would be impossible – but one to appreciate for the genius of its creator. Read more in this Guardian article.

The reality of home

Back we headed to Birmingham, and full of optimism, I head to the allotment sort of expecting it to have transformed in my absence into a garden of abundance. This, obviously, was not the case.

Now, there is some life now and we’re cropping vases of biennial foxgloves and sweet william, a few cornflowers plus the early annuals that my Mum grew undercover (cosmos, ammi). There’s also the very first broad beans, mange tout and chard. The few perennials I put in are doing just fine. But on the whole, this years veggies and the cut flowers are TINY. The courgettes have not really done anything since being planted out three weeks ago, and neither have the climbing beans or sweet peas. What’s going on?

And then back to my reality: weeds, disappointing growth and too much brown earth
This cut flower patch is still weeks behind those in Kent and Sussex but note the naturalised perennials and biennials in the background, now at full growth

A snoop around our neighbouring plots says that I can’t blame it all on the cold spring, for they have massive brassicas, dahlias, broad beans – it really is just us. Part of it is might be daily watering, which I am unable to do. Maybe I planted out too soon, when the ground was still cold. But I’m wondering if we need to take another look at how we start our plants off, for they seem to suffer from lack of sun and space in our wee terrace garden. I still have some strawflower, kohl rabi and savoy cabbage in the cold frame at home and they are struggling to get going; perhaps it’s lack of light when young. I don’t mean to moan, I am simply genuinely perplexed!

There is cropping to be had though – foxglove, sweet william, first dahlias, first cosmos, parsnip flower, first ammi, mange tout, broad beans and strawberries
Foxgloves, parsnip and ammi give heigh, sweet william, cornflowers and cosmos a hint of country romance

When we took on our allotment I was told it was a millennium project – never finished – and that is of course both the challenge and the joy. Always we can go back to the drawing board.

Also this week:
Harvesting: First broad beans, mange tout, first chard, lettuce, strawberries, redcurrants, foxgloves, sweet william, first cosmos, first cornflower, parsnip flower, ammi.
Eating and cooking: Far too much wine at Hema’s house (well it has been a year of no social life) but Patrick’s Trinidadian stew chicken is always a joy. Strawberries, nectarines, peaches and raspberries, eaten neat with yoghurt, ice cream or cream. So lovely to have the first spring veg, even if it is July. At Sissinghurst, a beautiful starter of potted shrimp with fennel – light and crunchy.
Also: We’re both working hard again now, as we exit lockdown. Talk of schools and reflection on how these early choices made for children profoundly affect lives.

Allotmenting for wildlife

Well what a difference a fortnight can make. Two weeks ago I was lamenting the cold, wet, windy spring, and then – overnight – we switched to summer. Warm dry days are followed by warm dry nights, the cold a distant memory. I fall into this warm weather in the same way that one might sink into a hot bath. How easy it is to succumb! What is a coat again? What are socks again? I can not remember ever having had a need or a use for them.

The plants of course are tumbling over themselves in joy. In my garden, the beds are an eruption of pinks, purples and whites as the roses, aquilegia and allium vie for attention. The warmth has brought into life a massive population of aphids; they cover the roses with thousands of tiny green bumps, leaving their sticky mess everywhere. I’m fascinated by them and wander out each morning and evening to take a closer look, conscious that my garden isn’t mine at all, but a shared space for hundreds of species. The air literally hums with insects. The fledgling magpies hop around the trees and chimney tops, testing their wings.

On the allotment, it’s not full steam ahead just yet, but there are signs of things preparing for proper action. The peas, which two weeks ago I had written off as dead, are fighting back and have grown at least a foot in the last ten days. The broad beans too are reviving, and whilst I won’t be winning any prizes for best beans anytime soon, I think we’ll still get a crop.

Finally, finally, the peas have taken off in the warmer weather

Last weekend we planted out the climbing and dwarf beans – several varieties are jumbled up together – and once again, whilst they’re not quite thriving, they’re hanging on which I take as a victory. The same goes for baby chard, beet spinach, cavolo nero and flower sprouts. Everything is netted against the pigeons of course.

Meanwhile the climbing and dwarf beans are bedding themselves in
Chard and beet spinach sits undercover to protect from pigeons

I’ve not mentioned the hops yet this year. Two of our old plants are zipping up the hop twine, but Matt has replaced the others with new baby plants that will take a year or two to get going.

We will have two substantial hop plants this year, plus two babies

We also have fruit set. The green swelling of baby strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries can all be seen, though I think it will be a small crop this year as a result of the April cold affecting the blossom.

A surviving strawberry finally bears fruit

As for the cut flowers, I took a tiny first cut of foxgloves and sweet william today. The latter all self-seeded last year and I made the effort to move them to their own block in the autumn, for which I will be richly rewarded over the next month as all 30 or so plants are thriving. The sweet william I had actually given up on but this few weeks of warm has revived them, their sweet scent a welcome reminder of summer.

I had given up on the Sweet William but they too look ready to put on a show
About 30 foxgloves are waiting in the wings for their moment

Back to wildlife. For the first five years or so I didn’t give much thought to the wildlife on our allotment, other than to be irritated by slugs and birds. (Lately the slugs seem to have moved elsewhere and I’ve learnt to net everything, which has solved the bird problem.) I certainly didn’t hate the insects and invertebrates but I had a sure sense of ‘This is my dance space, that is your dance space, let’s not get too close’. But over time my view has completely changed and I’ve come to relish being in close quarters with wild creatures going about their business – hence wandering out to look at what the greenfly are up to on the roses.

This has influenced how I keep the plot. There are plenty of weeds around the perimeter of our allotment which I purposefully keep in, as they are great food source for winged insects. An entire strip is dense with pollinator-friendly plants, some of which I have put in (alliums, lavender, sorrel) but others that have self-seeded (buttercup, foxglove, oregano, tansy) and I have either let them be or I’ve moved them to a slightly more convenient location. Take the mullein, for example, that seems to love our patch of ground and seeds itself everywhere. I have let four stay, and each is now home to the mullein caterpillar, a pretty little thing that will absolutely decimate the plant before it becomes a moth in a few weeks time, but is also a useful food source for birds.

The insect-friendly strip with sorrel, foxglove, mullein, buttercups, tansy, allium and lavender
Common mullein plant – my foot is there for an idea of size
The mullein moth has been busy: caterpillars can decimate the mullein plant

Elsewhere a few minor interventions can make for interesting rewards. Last spring I planted a few teasels, thinking they would be a lovely dried flower, but I hadn’t realised what an incredibly majestic plant this is when allowed to thrive. (I’ll share pictures when it flowers in a few weeks.) And this parsnip was left in the ground over the winter and is now ready to flower, so another food source for insects plus I’ll get to save the seeds. But what a whopper of a plant! It’s already reaching my chin and will be covered with pretty yellow umbellifers.

I left two of last year’s parsnips in the ground, and they are now preparing to flower
Parsnips are an umbellifer and part of the carrot family

Elsewhere by the brook there are nettles, cow parsley and brambles and no, it’s not tidy, but what a relief it is to let go of all those old ideas as to what constitutes beauty and worth, and instead think of oneself as inhibitor of a shared natural space. As long the allotment is productive – not just in veg, fruit and flowers but also in wildlife and yes in providing joy – that is how I measure success these days.

Also this week:
Planting out: Dahlias, chrysanthemums, sweet peas, ammi, peas, red kale, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, flower sprouts, echinacea, climbing beans, dwarf beans, courgette, fennel, tomatoes.
In the garden: Roses are at their best, plus aquilegia, allium, fennel all looking good. Planted out sunflowers. Cut back forsythia.
Harvesting: Start of the foxgloves and sweet william, ammi, cow parsley.
Cooking and eating: Strawberries, first cherries, first barbecue of the year. Inspired by Rick Stein’s Venice to Istanbul book (which I borrowed from the library via a Covid-safe appointment system straight from a Victoria Wood sketch) made Kisir, a bulgur wheat salad from Turkey, and now want to cook the entire book.
Also: Visited Chatsworth, our first proper family day out since September. We could really do with a holiday.

Rain stops play

It’s been a week of gales, rain, intermittent sunshine…and a rat attack. On last week’s only sunny day I took Harry to Bourton House in the Cotswolds to take a look at their famous summer garden. The planting was amazing of course – though it’s hard to take anything in when running after a sprinting two year old – but actually it was the use of wood that caught my eye. Just look at the incredible shadows created in this shade house, and the magic quality of the kinetic sculpture in the meadow.

The shade house at Bourton House, Bourton on the Hill
Kinetic sculpture in the woodland walk

A quick trip to my parents’ yesterday wielded another bootful of goodies. Corns, fennel, carrots, beans, spinach, and 14 castaway snails that I rescued from the sink, one by one. Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” (direct quote) but I am not sure that my Dad truly understands what crap is. My folks have been spoilt by years of living with tons of space and a protected walled garden – this isn’t as posh as it sounds, believe me, but the result is that even a massive harvest of corns is considered substandard. It occurred to me later that these children of the 1940s were possibly the first generation to grow things purely for pleasure rather than necessity, but the cultural memory of growing for need lives on. These days the winter store cupboard can always be replenished by a trip to the shops, but the age-old instinct of the country people to squirrel away the harvest for winter remains. I share this instinct, of course, and so the freezer is now full of sweetcorn, raspberries, blackberries, sliced apples…the list goes on.

Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” says my Dad, whilst hauling two buckets of corn and giant fennel bulbs
Corn being prepped for freezing, a still life

It’s a good job that my parents’ “terrible” corn harvest has still yielded extras, for on the allotment mine has been obliterated by rats. Or maybe mice. Whoever the culprit, they took their fill then scarpered, leaving only the evidence of a feast.

Corn left desolate after attack of the rats/mice

In fact, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs down there after the terrible winds and heavy rain of the weekend. Two sunflowers completely capsized, and the rest are growing horizontally, their bronze faces battered with wind burn. The new dahlias also took a beating, and I make a mental note to stake them properly next year. I think there is still a few weeks of cutting left but the real high point of summer has surely passed and it’s sad to lose the best of the crop so early. Like vegetables, I have started to think of my flowers as seasonal friends, here for a few short weeks and then gone again for another year. When they leave, I feel genuine sadness.

At least two sunflower plants have been lost in the weekend winds, and the rest are leaning on the wonk
Dahlias flattened in the wind – the lesson, next year we stake

I’ve been distracted this week with the nature of things, post-lockdown. Apparently there is a term for people like me, who have seen their income drop by a mile due to Covid-19: we are the nouveau-skint. Actually I don’t have a problem with it per se – as long as there is food on the table and a roof over the head, that is what counts – but as I’ve emerged from the lockdown bubble, what has also re-emerged is that nagging feeling that I should still be achieving everything at the same time. Earning a living whilst keeping work interesting, renovating the house, sorting the garden, coming up with amazing things to do with Harry, getting fitter/stronger/healthier, working out what I think about 21st century feminism/decolonialisation/race relations, writing my book, the list goes on.

The problem is that all the other domestic stuff gets in the way, things like getting the boiler fixed, doing the Aldi shop (nouveau-skint, no Waitrose anymore), mopping the floor, sorting the allotment aftermath of the weekend winds. Last week I had an 8am Zoom with colleagues in Pakistan and then promptly turned round and scrubbed the bathroom. This is the reality of the educated working mother. We are the central rock around which everything else revolves.

And then yesterday I was given this picture of my Granddad, taken some time in the 1940s when he would have been around my age. Ivor Yapp works the fields of Herefordshire, ploughing the dense clay earth with his horses – apparently to use three horses with your plough was unusual and meant the land is particularly solid. It’s a picture that asks many questions. Who took this photo? For what purpose? What’s this lone farm-hand thinking of as he walks miles a day, earning a few bob to keep his wife and children in coal and bread? You can almost hear the silence on this image, punctuated only by the snorts of horses, squeak of plough, sqwark of crows.

My grandfather Kenneth Yapp ploughs Herefordshire fields, 1940s

Would this man be able to imagine how the working world could change so quickly in two generations? Our society has transformed in less than 80 years to a place of hyper-speed, hyper-connectedness and so much NOISE. No wonder the adults are knackered and no wonder the kids and teenagers are confused. I think this is why I put so much time and effort into growing things and cooking things, even if they don’t turn out quite as planned. It’s a connection to a shared history, a previous life. Amidst all the nonsense of the 21st century, it is a return to the elemental.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Plums, eating and stewing for the freezer; also freezing blackberries, raspberries, apples, blueberries, spinach.
Harvesting: Sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi, calendula, amaranth, delphinium, courgettes (marrows really), spinach, chard, french beans.
Also: Reading Still Life by Elizabeth Luard, her account of travelling Eastern and Northern Europe in the 1990s to learn of peasant cooking.

Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Despite my best efforts, life has completely returned to normal. Matt’s working long hours (including weekends) so my days are a juggle between work and childcare, with the occasional foray to the outside world. I’m not complaining too much (I’m lucky to have any work at all, frankly, as the creative industries are currently screwed) but our leisurely days of lockdown are absolutely over. Plus there’s potty training. And renovation of my office. It’s been ages since I posted because my headspace for creative activity is pretty much zero. But there are still socially-distanced playdates to be had: thank God for Warley Woods, Lightwoods Park and our back garden, which are the setting for many hours of pre-school adventure.

Me and Harry in Warley Woods
Blowing bubbles

Harvesting has notched up on the allotment. The cut flowers are providing the interest at present, with the intense Venetian jewel colours of the sweet peas, soft purple lavender, romantic cornflowers, long-stemmed vivid orange nasturtiums and – just today – my old friends the dahlias have started to flower. The strawflower, sunflower and chrysanthemums will be out within the fortnight, I predict.

The veggies, on the other hand, are taking a while to get going this year. There will be courgettes and French beans – though the runner beans have gone AWOL – and the chards and kales look fine. Today I planted out an unexpected bounty of brassicas gifted by Matt’s parents, cauliflowers, purple sprouting and sprouts, which have had to be nestled in between overgrown broad beans and the self-sown alpine strawberries. Come January I will curse myself for planting them right in the middle of the veg patch, surrounded by a quagmire of soil, but there was nothing else for it.

There’s a lot of self-sown plants on the allotment this year, which previously I would have called ‘weeds’, but now I see as pollinator-fodder who have chosen to set up home with us. Some are the hangover of previous summers (borage, ammi and nasturtium have all seeded themselves from plants introduced by me) but the alpine strawberries, poppies and mullein are truly wild. I am leaving them be, seeing them as a food source for hungry bees and, potentially, extra harvest for me.

On the allotment, things are happening – self-sown poppies, borage, nasturtium, ammi and alpine strawberries have taken up home amongst the squash, corn and cut flowers
Photos do not do justice to the thicket of cornflowers, nasturtium and sweet peas
Ten days ago I was just harvesting sweet peas…
…today I add cornflower, lavender, achillea, nasturtium and dahlias to the mix

For my birthday treat, I had intended to visit both Hidcote Manor Garden and Cowley Manor, but The Disease put an end to that plan. Instead I took myself on a rare child-free few hours to Kiftsgate Court Gardens near Chipping Campden. Dear reader, it was glorious. Clear blue skies, warm (but not hot) sun, the sweet scent of old rose in the air, and no-one telling me they’ve done a wee. After so many months of being in one place, it felt so good to be free, even if only for a lunchtime.

The border at Kiftsgate Court, which was heavily scented with sweet rose

Kiftsgate is both a family home and a national treasure, which is quite a difficult trick to pull off. A garden created by three generations of women, there are design influences from the 1930s, mid-century and contemporary periods. Late June is the time to go if you can, for the roses are incredible. Incidentally, the Kiftsgate rose is famous for its vigour. The visitor guide warns against purchasing one unless you are entirely sure you can cope with it: apparently it can take the roof off a garage with ease. But in its natural habitat it looks an innocent mass of white froth amongst the pink.

The inner courtyard, a mid-century design filled with the gentle sound of falling water
The rose garden is bordered with pink leading to a sculptural focal point.
Above it, the white mass of the Kiftsgate rose.
I always enjoy a makeshift bit of engineering, such as this rose support

For me though, the unsung hero of the garden are the sculptural trees that frame the landscape and lend the eye to the rolling Cotswold valley below. I’m always fascinated by trees in a landscape, for whoever plants them never sees their vision come to fruition; I am no expert but these must be decades, even centuries old.

The trees are the real stars of Kiftsgate

The Cotswolds are, of course, hilly, and Kiftsgate answer to this problem is steep terracing to echo the gardens of Tuscany. The black pool that looks out and down to the valley is a genius of design: infinity in front, infinity below.

Looking down to the 1960s pool and beyond it, the Cotswolds
Italianete terracing

Cotswold buildings are often a joy, and this one is no exception. The slightly-off symmetry makes one wonder…was this intentional ? An accident? What stories this old house could tell.

The off-symmetry of the side of the court is pleasing

The cafe is shut for the present but the meadow is open for picnics. (Surely an unexpected bonus of lockdown is all this time out-of-doors). For a time-poor working parent, I am so pleased that I took the chance to seize the day. This is an English garden at its midsummer best.

English meadow on a summer’s day

Also this week:
Harvesting: Sweetpea, cornflower, nasturtium, very first dahlia, very first cosmos, achillea, lavender, broad beans, peas/mange tout, rocket, lettuce, first blueberries, alpine strawberries. Gifted tayberries, blackberries and last asparagus by Jean and Gary.

Allotment: Planted out cauliflower, PSB, sprouts

Garden: Planted out annuals – zinnia, cosmos, sunflower – and false indigo and rose from Kiftsgate. First dahlia blooming.

Other things: Potty training and work so been housebound for a bit. Not had much time for cooking and it’s back to simple mid-week meals: sausage pasta, leftover roast beef stir-fry, make-ahead moussaka. Buying up nectarines & strawberries.

Planting out

Note: No pics this week due to technical issues. Imagine small plants in soil and the occasional flash of a foxglove, and you’re pretty much there.

Last week was hard, no? We may be easing out of lockdown but it’s now that the reality of the situation hits home. Jobs are uncertain as businesses have to respond to social distancing and spooked customers. What does this mean for my industry, my work? It’s not yet clear, but people are worried. On top of that comes the renewed and emotional debate about racial equality, which because I have both professional and personal interest, always feels challenging. The world is realigning itself, perhaps, but centuries of engrained injustice will not be resolved overnight. It did not help that the sun has been replaced with relentless concrete grey skies.

I was cheered though to see the antics in Bristol and the removal of the Edward Colston statue over the weekend. Young people taking matters into their own hands and not putting up with the status quo – marvellous. The removal of a statue of a man involved in slavery isn’t denying history, this is saying that the story we’re telling about history is not a story we are proud of. We don’t want to be defined by the subjugation of one group over another. And so we choose to tell a different story, a story where the people of a city work towards equality. That statue now has a new history attached to it, the story of ‘now’. It’s brilliantly evocative stuff; the curators, story-makers, historians of Bristol have been given a gift with this symbolic gesture. This article by the historian David Olusoga explains all this in a far more articulate manner than I ever could.

Aside from all that, there is peace to be found with the plants. Take your sustenance where you can find it. Today I found it with planting out a heap of dahlias and other flowers grown from seed – isn’t there a joy in raising a plant from infancy to maturity without messing it up too much?

I’m pleased with this year’s allotment planting plan, which is blocked and – unusually for me – in straight lines. Usually I only grow for the allotment but this year I remembered to hold things back for the garden as well, so we now have cleome, amaranthus and chrysanthemums settling into Bearwood soil. It will be interesting to see how the same plants respond to differing conditions.

This year’s updated planting plan

Meanwhile, the harvest has started again – only slim pickings for now, of foxglove, sweetpea and broadbeans – but experience tells me that the late May/early June lull after the spring explosion of tulips and daffodils is just that – a lull – a rest before the abundance of July begins.

Planting out: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, lace flower, grasses, cleome, amaranthas (garden). Amaranthas, calendula, zinnia, annual delphinium, all the beans, cosmos (allotment).

Harvesting: very first tiny sweetness, first broad beans, foxgloves, cos, round lettuce, rocket.

Cooking and eating: My first Lockdown banana cake, about two months after everyone else. Strawberries topped with vanilla mascarpone and demarera sugar with biscotti on the side. Beetroot hummus. Watermelon.

Reading: Family Life by Elisabeth Luard, coinciding with European Peasant Cookery by the same writer. Couldn’t read last week though, the combined hit of centuries of endemic racism, economic meltdown and disease finally broke my ability to concentrate. On order from the library: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddi-Lodge.

Reaping what we (didn’t always) sow

It was Harry’s birthday yesterday. Birthday meaning, the anniversary of the day of birth, which also means the anniversary of the day when – if it were not for 21st century medicine – I would have left this mortal coil. The days and weeks after giving birth were traumatic. So for all the joy of new toys and chocolate cake, the 10th September is quite a raw day for me and it does not help that there has been no space lately for stillness and quiet. I took a few hours out from the work emails and never-ending WhatsApp messages and got around to those small but important things that I know are grounding: lit some incense, popped to M&S for new knickers (how middle aged is that?), went to the allotment to strim the grass and harvest raspberries and sunflowers, and made a beef shin and mushroom pie from scratch. That, and drunk up half a bottle of very decent rose (last of the summer wine).

Knocking up a beef pie from scratch

I dislike how my late summers always seem to get consumed by work – it’s arts festival season, which means intense bouts of brochure-editing, planning out city-dressing (translated: the horrible job of lugging flags around) and worrying about visitor numbers. Festival management is a bit like childbirth in that when you’re going through it, it’s hideous, but then the event itself goes well and there’s a bit of a buzz and gradually the pain of it all gets forgotten about. I have events every weekend for the next month but after then……I can smell the sweet scent of freedom!

This time of year again…a pallet of Weekender brochures has arrived at Matt’s workshop

September is harvest time. Whether it’s babies, festivals or produce, it’s time to reap what we’ve sown. This week it’s time to bring the hops in which – as ever – are tall, majestic, and now expanding outwards to take over entire beds.

 

Some items are always a mystery though. This monster has turned up where the pumpkins should be – Lord knows it’s not a pumpkin – but I’ll leave it be in case it ripens up into something interesting.

Mystery squash

The leeks and parsnips have done OK and I pulled a first harvest for Harry’s birthday lunch on Sunday (what two year old doesn’t want creamed leeks?!).

Leeks and parsnips tell of seasons change

I am picking two baskets of flowers of week, and they’re all wonderfully rich and colourful: after their very shaky start the sunflowers and cosmos have come into their own, and I adore the madness of the strawflowers. As ever it’s always a surprise to me how late the summer colour comes to the allotment – we seem to be a month after everyone else – but when it does come, it’s marvellous.

Baskets of sunflower, dahlia, chrysanthemum and strawflower are a regular feature now

At home, the mantlepieces are adorned with vase after vase (rubbish picture I know).

Several vases adorn the house

So birthday survived; just 3 big events to get through and then we’ll be all ready for autumn.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Punnets and punnets of autumn raspberries, the best they’ve ever been. Runner beans, French beans, purple beans, kale, chard, courgette, leek, parsnip, sunflower, chrysanthemum, strawflower, first hyssop, cosmos. Mum’s tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergine.

Cooking and eating: Birthday roast beef and yorkshire pudding with first leeks and parsnips of the season, birthday cake, beef and mushroom pie from scratch, apple and plum crumble, lots of tomatoes on toast.