Perking up

The year has disappeared by stealth. We’re nearly half-way through August – my due date is now only a month away – and I have no idea where the summer has gone. Or the spring, for that matter. Most of January and February were spent in bed / with head over a sink, and April to July I was heads-down with Birmingham Weekender and other projects. Now, suddenly, it’s late summer and the entire world is on holiday, which is marvellous for me as my daily incoming email quota has shrunk significantly. Work still needs attention of course but I’m trying to regain a bit of balance ahead of the new arrival. Matt and I are putting days out into the diary (in the last week there’s been a wedding, a farm visit and more!) and – amazingly – I’m now finding the space for a few hours here and there on the allotment.

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At Rebecca and Ben’s wedding

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Bindi and glitter

Both on the allotment and in the back garden, the pinks-and-pastels of early summer have given way to brighter jewelled shades. On the allotment this is definitely by design; in the back garden it is a happy accident.

It’s a bit of a free-for-all on the allotment this year. The plants are responding to the last few weeks of cooler, soggy weather – I’ve learnt that my allotment issues this year can be 99% blamed on the lack of water between May and July. Matt never got around to raising the hopolisk and so the hops, greedy for vertical lines, have jumped to any likely-looking pole: they’ve commandeered the fruit cage, the sweetpea netting, the bean poles. At their feet is a carpet of self-seeded nasturtium – (why is it that the self-seeding stuff always does so much better than the seedlings that I’ve carefully nurtured for months?) – and, alas, brambles and thistles are threatening to encroach into the veg patches. I’m doing my best to keep them clear but, with a rock-hard basketball stomach and an increasingly unstable pelvis, this is easier said than done.

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A bit of a free-for-all, but all things considered, not bad going

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Jewel-flowers join the regular harvest

It’s the time when the delicate pale sweetpeas give way to the brighter sunflowers, zinnia, cosmos and marigold, and I’m enjoying the glass jars of blooms that now adorn our windowsills. And the courgettes, the sodding courgettes, they keep coming. I’m contemplating grilling up a load and bottling them with olive oil and garlic; summery food for cooler weather. It’s a relief to finally be getting several harvests a week…the freezer is now so full of soft-fruit that there is barely any space for anything else. Come the dark of January, I will be so grateful for these throwbacks to summer.

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It’s been a long-time coming but finally getting sink-fuls of harvest

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Windowsills are adorned with a few orange, blue, white and pink posies a week, plus the first sunflowers

Harvesting: Raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, pattypan, runner beans, chard, spinach, rocket, frills of hex, baby chicory, nasturtium, sunflowers, zinnia, cornflower, cosmos, marigolds, last sweetpeas
Taken out: The rubbish beans that I planted back in the spring, though the emergency plugs that I put in a few weeks back are doing well. Weeding.
Cooking & eating: Courgette with everything. Cinnamon buns. Mum and Dad’s parmigiana with home-grown aubergine and tomato. Citrus chicken.
Reading: Behind the Mask, the biography of Vita Sackville West.

Summer rain

After the months of dry, we’re now blessed with days of gentle summer rain. The greens have responded with gusto – we now have lettuce! And kale! And chard! The little patch of salad and brassicas finally looks how I would have hoped it would look back in May – brimming with growth. Even the new climbing beans that I planted a few weeks back are doing well. The lesson is that my skills in propagation have this year been lacking, and that water is everything.

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The August allotment finally has greens…three months late!

Finally, and as predicted, the sunflowers have perked up and many reach to my head height. They’ve timed themselves well, for they’ll be ready to pick just as the July cornflowers and sweetpeas fade away.

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Sunflowers are now about my height and I’ll be picking within the next fortnight

It’s the vine fruits that are really romping away. We have autumn squash the size of basketballs, daily courgette and spaceship squash, and – another type of spreading vine – the nasturtiums are epic this year.

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The nasturtium are epic this year, with zinnia just beginning to bloom

Each year I discover that something has grown to a massive size utterly unnoticed – usually it’s a weed but this year the surprise is rather more pleasant. Hidden in the back of the greenhouse I have discovered two plump aubergine, rather battered in appearance (the caterpillar discovered them before I did) but nonetheless elegant with their purple sheen.

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Two surprise aubergine, though the caterpillars have got there first

More more excitingly, the stars of the greenhouse show are the ugly, fat, fiorentino tomatoes. They are a mess of crevices and cracks, lumps and bumps, and I love them for it. The temperatures over the last fortnight have not been great for tomatoes – too great a dip between highs and lows – and blossom end rot has made its usual and unwelcome appearance. One must be philosophical: the rain makes the flowers grow, and the tomatoes pay the price. Yin and yang.

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The ugly fiorentino tomatoes – if they ripen – will be epic!

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The last few weeks of chilly temperatures mean we have blossom end rot again

Harvesting: Tiny numbers of runner beans, courgette, summer squash, first raspberries, blueberries, chard, spinach, lettuce, nasturtium, cosmos, sweetpeas, first zinnia, cornflower
Cooking: Summer fruit crumble, courgette with everything

 

Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

Last resorts

Bridget Jones is not known for her great wisdom, but she did point out the truism that as one part of your life goes spectacularly well (in her case it was bagging Hugh Grant) another falls spectacularly apart (her mother has an affair with an orange-skinned buffoon from the shopping channel).

My issues are not quite as extreme, but it can not be denied that whilst I’ve been distracted with professionally important projects, and a growing baby in my tummy, the allotment has not been thriving. This is a classic piece of English understatement.

The veg patch – which in previous July days has overwhelmed us with lettuce, spinach, chard, kale and other goodies – still looks like it did when I planted things out in early May. Nothing seems to be growing!

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The allotment is awash with abundance…or not

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The poor climbing beans are cropping at a few centimetres high

The cut-flower patch is doing slightly better but is hardly a picture of abundance. Take as an example this picture from July last year, when the sunflowers were as tall as me and I was picking several posies of colourful stems a week.

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This year’s cut flower patch is struggling to get going

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This time last year the sunflowers were as tall as me! Image from July 2016

So I’ve taken to last resorts and bought what I think must be the last vegetable seedlings left on the internet. This week a box packed with Russian red kale, sweet corn and French beans arrived at my door, and the little plugs have been planted out with a sense of hope rather than expectation.

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Last resort…bought seedlings of Russian kale, French beans and corn

I’m uncertain as to why the allotment’s not doing so well this year. The long-established plants – the blackcurrants, redcurrants, blueberries, lavender – are all fine, despite being ignored year-in year-out. The courgette and squash are also romping away, and they are meant to be hungry, thirsty plants (note: I never water or feed mine).

It’s the greens, legumes and flowers that are struggling, and yet the only major difference in how they’ve been treated is that I started everything off a few weeks later than normal. Could it be the dry spring? The lack of Chappers’ manure? The June heat? Perhaps this winter we need to organise a lorryload of poo to get some goodness back into the soil…though how I’ll do that with a tiny baby in tow is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, I make do with a few weekly fistfuls of sweetpeas and cornflowers, and the first few (wonderful) thumb-sized courgettes.

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Planted out: Plugs of Russian kale, Corn, French beans
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, first courgettes (hurray!), blueberries, blackcurrants, a scant handful of French beans, scant amounts of lettuce, beet spinach, Frills of Hex
Cooked: Redcurrant muffins. Broth of summer allotment veg (courgette, beet spinach, green beans, tomato, spring onion, garlic, veg stock) finished with pesto, with fillet of hake.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

The oppressive heat, horrible things in the news, and long, intense work hours have got the better of me this week. I received a work email on Friday lunchtime that, in ordinary circumstances, would have made me raise an eyebrow and swear. Except on this occasion I read it, took an in-breath, and burst into tears. Note: I very rarely do this. I’ve studied yoga for twelve years in an effort to NOT do this! (I am willing to grant that pregnancy hormone might also be at play.) So I decided to be my own HR department, slapped the laptop shut, then headed to the allotment for an hour of pottering and seed sowing. I’ve learned that a very important part of being your own boss is learning the art of self-care: I can’t hope to work effectively if I am working to exhaustion. Plus I don’t get paid enough to put up with excess levels of BS.

At the start of the week, the greenhouse thermometer was reading a whopping 50c – now that is HOT. I thought that would spell disaster for all things green but actually, the tomatoes and squash are thriving and the sweetpeas are doing well. It’s a different story for the beans, greens and cosmos, which remain stunted. I’ve decided to cut my losses so pulled up the bolted summer rocket, forked over the ground and started again: Friday’s melt-down resulted in a productive and satisfying hour sowing neat lines of lettuce, chard, parsnips, rocket, kale (for salads) and green beans. A positive outcome….if they grow!

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Scorchio!

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The courgettes and squash are thriving, and in a week we’ll be inundated

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But beans are a different story – the plants are just a few inches tall, my hand here for scale

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The ‘wild’ flowers I started from seed have come true, great for bees, but the cosmos plants are small and unpromising. I’m really saddened by this, it seems that cosmos are a vital part of my allotment happiness.

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Getting several posies of sweetpeas a week, though only one single cosmos bloom so far!

It’s soft-fruit-glut-stress season. We were in Tamworth yesterday and Matt’s mum passed us a few bags of rhubarb and gooseberries from their allotment – she’d texted earlier to ask if I wanted any and I of course said yes but, and I quote, ‘not lots’. There are only two of us after all. But soft-fruit-glut-stress is a universal experience and so I quite understood when we were handed a few kilos of goosegogs and more rhubarb than I’d get through in a year. No-one likes waste. I’ve been plotting to alleviate my own soft-fruit-glut-stress by inviting my friend’s kids over to pick blackcurrants as an after-school activity (hopefully Helen won’t swear too much when she realises that this activity could lead to hours topping and tailing fruit before sweating over boiling vats of jam).

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Tamworth goosegogs and rhubarb

The Tamworth gooseberries are fab: plump and fat and firm. I also had a few strawberries kicking around from the allotment that needed using up and, inspired by last weekend’s forays into redcurrant and strawberry jam, wondered if the sweet strawbs would be a good foil to the sharp green gooseberries. Only one way to find out: gooseberry & strawberry crumble it is.

I don’t have any quantities for this, just a method that can be adapted according to whatever fruit is in season. It’s how my Mum makes crumble, and it’s probably what her Mum did before her. First, get enough berries to fill your crumble dish to the brim (they’ll cook down lots). Make sure the berries are hulled / topped-and-tailed, and pop them into a mixing bowl.

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For a summer crumble, prep the fruit and place in a mixing bowl

Add cornflour (to thicken the juices) and sugar to the fruit. For this quantity (feeds 4) I added 5 dessertspoons of caster sugar and two of cornflour, but if you like it sweeter then just add more sugar; I like my crumble on the sharp side. If I’d had any oranges lying around then I would have scrapped in some zest here too.

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Toss in sugar and cornflour, and perhaps orange zest if you’ve got some lying around

Pile the fruit into your oven-proof crumble dish, then make the crumble. Rub 150g unsalted butter into 300g plain flour until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs, then add 150g caster sugar and a handful of flaked almonds for crunch. Cover the fruit with a thick layer of crumble, pressing the topping down fairly firmly. There will likely be leftover crumble mix, in which case it can go into the freezer for another day. Bake the crumble at 170c for about an hour, or until the fruit is bubbling up the sides and the crumble is browned. The cooking time depends on the surface area of your crumble dish – the wider the dish, the quicker the crumble will cook.

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Top the fruit with almondy crumble mix and bake for about an hour

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Pink and bubbling!

I think this is better at room temperature than boiling hot, but each to their own. Cold runny cream is definitely a must. Gooseberries and strawberries…the essence of mid-summer.

Gooseberry, strawberry & almond crumble

Enough strawberries and gooseberries to fill your crumble dish

Caster sugar

Cornflour

Orange zest

for the crumble:

300g plain flour

150g cold unsalted butter

150g caster sugar

Handful flaked almonds

Prep the fruit: top and tail the gooseberries, and hull the strawberries. Put them in a mixing bowl and mix with cornflour and caster sugar. Quantities will depend on how much fruit you’ve got but for four people, I’d use 2 heaped dessertspoons of cornflour and 5 dessertspoons sugar.

Make the crumble: rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, then stir in the sugar and almonds. Top the fruit with the crumble and press down fairly firmly. Any leftover crumble mixture can be frozen for another day.

Bake at 170c for about an hour until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden. Cool slightly before eating.

Also this week:

Sowed: Chard, lettuce, Tuscan kale, Frills of Hex kale, parsnips, summer rocket, green beans, sweetcorn, basil, parsley
Harvesting: Sweetpeas, strawberries, winter rocket, baby spinach, last broadbeans (Note to self: grow at least 30 broadbean plants next year, we’ve had far too few this year)
Reading: A little history of British gardening by Jenny Uglow; The first forty days: The essential art of nourishing the new mother by Heng Ou – a book which draws on traditional wisdom to nourish the new family (physically and emotionally) in the first days postpartum. I love this book, which was a birthday present from my friend Claire, but Heng’s recipe for placenta-cacao smoothie is not one that I’ll be making anytime soon.
Also: A lot of work (brochure writing, budgets, print jobs etc etc). Birthday gathering at Claire’s complete with Colin the Caterpillar and beauty tips from Joan Collins. Tentative foray into researching baby equipment (am totally shocked at how expensive buggies are). Matt’s been working 15 hour+ days for several weeks.

The tip of season’s change

Summer keeps threatening to take a leave of absence – and then changes its mind, coming back with gusto. One day it’s cloudy, rainy, muggy (thoughts turn to pies and crumble), but then the hot sun returns and it’s ice-lollies and barbecues. The social media feeds are still full of holidays, glamping and festivals – no-one seems to be fully at work. And I know that I should be dealing with the back garden in the new house but really, it’s all I can do to manage a spot of allotment weeding. This late summer heaviness is preventing anything getting done. More than once this week I’ve heard people yearn for autumn, for the kids to get back to school and life to get back to normal.

Well, it’s nearly here folks. For every hot pink zinnia and bright sunflower that I’m picking, there’s a bunch of burnished crysanthemums, punnet of deep crimson autumn raspberries and bags of mustardy wintery leaves. I came home on Tuesday with an actual armful of flowers (and yes, I did feel more than a little smug).

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Summer pink zinnia…

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and the dahlias keep getting better and better

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One view says summer…

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…but this beauty suggests autumn, in my favourite pumpkin shade

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More burnished shades of crysanthemum

The hops have been quietly coming along, and the cones are nearly ready to harvest. One of the plants totally failed to grow this year and the other has shed half its leaves, but the crop itself is larger than ever.

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The hops are nearly ready for harvesting

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Cones of the hop, ripening daily

The sweetcorn aren’t quite ready to pick but are nearly there – this late summer sun will do them good, boosting the sugar levels. Planted in their geometric grids they add a rare touch of order to the plot, which I enjoy.

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The corns are near ready, the silks browning at their ends

I’m so pleased with the winter chicory, which is really starting to establish themselves. Last year we had leaves from September through to March – brilliant – so I’ve planted two varieties this year: red Treviso and a variegated Castelfranco. The slug got a few but they seem to be growing back vigorously, the mark of a true cut-and-come-again plant.

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Chicories are doing brilliantly! Treviso on the left, and Variegato di Castelfranco on the right

Along with pumpkins, plums and apples, aubergines say autumn to me. Look at this gorgeous specimen – skinny but dark, with a mottled shine finish.

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Beautiful, shiny, dark, mysterious and LONG aubergines

The long view gives us that late August, early September quandary: summer or autumn?

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Long view on 1st September

Harvesting: Last courgettes (thank God), autumn-winter lettuce, rocket, reine du glace lettuce, green beans (but hardly any of these), cavolo nero, frills of hex kale, chillies, tomatoes, raspberries (loads), cosmos, sunflowers, crysanthemums, zinnia

A summer of mixed fortune

It’s been a summer of mixed allotmenting fortune – good sunflowers, cosmos and courgette; fair-to-middling salads and sweetpeas; rubbish beans and tomatoes. This is the time of year when, although humans are deep into their summer holidays, the natural world is turning towards autumn: the sun falls lower in the evening sky, leaves are crisping, blackberries are ripening.

Time, then, for a spot of reflection on how things are going.

Well, the sunflowers are going great guns! The Sunflower Club seeds are well over 2m tall, but they’re actually overshadowed by the cutting sunflowers, which must be closer to 3m. We’re getting a few jolly bunches a week. At their feet, the cosmos are forming a wall of dazzling pink colour.

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The Sunflower Club seeds went to 2m 22cm!

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The wall of cosmos ‘dazzler’ with ‘purity’

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You can see just how tall those sunflowers have become!

Puzzlingly, the crysanths – taken from cuttings from 6 different plants – have turned out to be uniformly pink or orange. Even more mysteriously, they’ve been in flower for a month already, which is about 8 weeks earlier than last year. I think they’ve suffered from some wind or rain damage though as the blooms all look slightly mottled, slightly bashed.

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The crysanths have been out for a few weeks already – a good two months earlier than last year

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Up close (and weather-battered)

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A few asters survived the slugs, now out in flower

The calendula and ammi are a disaster. Least said about these the better.

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But the ammi and calendula this year are a no-show. I have no idea what went wrong.

In happier news, the brassicas have bounced back convincingly after the slug wars of May and June. The unusual frills of hex kale is now a small, rounded bush of frothy leaves, resembling some kind of sea vegetable.

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The ‘frills of hex’ kale has completely rejuvenated itself

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It really is frilly – it reminds me of some kind of maritime plant

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The less exotic PSB and sprout flower plants are coming along

After three failed sowings, I had one last go with the parsnips back in July and lo and behold, we now have seedlings!

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Miracle of miracles: parsnip seedlings, at last

The courgette are still cropping well but the ornamental squash have essentially taken over the plot with their bulbous green fruit. Come September I’ll crop these and use them with the crysanthemums for an autumnal display.

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The ornamental squash are now as big as my feet

The beans have finally grown back after the slug wars, but it’s been a disappointing year. We may still get a good crop of borlotti – essential in a chilli con carne in my view – but the green beans have caused far more pain than pleasure. In a triumph of hope over experience, however, I will sow some runner beans next year for the first time; I grew up with those towering plants and their quirky red flowers, and now feel them to be an essential element of the veg patch.

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It is not a great year for beans, but they are regrowing after the slug wars

One of the hops didn’t grow at all this year and one other has shed half of its leaves, but the other two are now massive compared to previous years. The cones are now forming… Will Matt actually get around to making any beer this year? Who knows.

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Hop flowers!

The autumn raspberries are just about coming into ripeness and we look set for a bumper crop. The patch is humming with bees taking their fill of nectar.

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It’s looking like a bumper year for the autumn raspberries, the plants humming with bees

In the greenhouse, the combined efforts of a cold spring, hungry slugs and pesky caterpillars has decimated the tomatoes harvest. The chillies, on the other hand, are rampant. I don’t even eat that many chillies – what to do with all these?!

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Chillies, chillies, chillies. I don’t even use that many chillies in my cooking.

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The black krim tomatoes have not been particularly abundant, but they are now thinking of turning black

In a new first, we also have two aubergine plants this year and, joy of joys, there are two baby black fruit ripening daily.

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And for the first time – aubergine!

Taking the long view, it’s not been an outstanding year – but perhaps our expectations are too high. We need more manure, more organic matter, more water, fewer weeds, fewer grasses and more time!

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Taking the long view on an August evening

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As I leave, I spy blackberries coming into ripeness

Most importantly, there is a daily harvest. Have I bought any fruit, flowers or veg lately? No, not really…and that is the most important point of all.

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A standard mid-August harvest – flowers, tomatoes, berries

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The last of the summer sweetpeas with zinnia…

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…as the vases now fill with sunflowers and crysanths

Harvesting: Sunflowers, crysanths, cosmos, chard, spinach, courgette, tomatoes, green and purple beans, rocket, oregano parsley, basil, blueberries, raspberries

August National Trust-ing

No summer holidays for us – no cash – but we do have our National Trust membership to fall back on. The past few weeks have taken me to Croome Court, Packwood House, Baddesley Clinton and Biddulph Grange – and each visit has given new ideas for both the allotment and our newly-acquired back garden.

When the National Trust began back in the 1880s, its co-founder Octavia Hill was on a mission to provide green-spaces for put-upon urban dwellers…and as I wandered around the late-summer borders at Baddesley yesterday, I smiled at how her intentions are still coming good, over a century later. I think it’s fair to say however that our pal Octavia wouldn’t have taken Argentinian-style snacks with her on her countryside visits. The Olympics have inspired Matt to do some South American cooking and his pasty-sized empanadas made for great picnic food.

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It’s not a picnic unless there’s a grease-soaked paper bag involved

Today’s post is nothing more than a pinning of ideas that I like so that – hopefully – they can inspire my planting next year. I don’t even know what some of these plants are called so I am hoping that my mum will come to the rescue.

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Packwood House, Warwickshire

At Packwood, the borders were filled to the brim with sky-high hot-colour plants. I spotted lilies, sunflowers, agapanthus and dill, off-set with green foliage and grasses.

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I love the hot red against the acid yellow

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More hot yellow planting

In the veg garden at Packwood, cosmos and calendula were planted en masse with rudbeckia (?) for beds with real wow-factor.

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In the veg garden, cutting flowers are thrown in together for a riot of colour

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Matthew gets in the way of the camera, as usual

Baddesley Clinton is smaller than Packwood but the walled garden felt very, very special yesterday. One edge is given up completely to dahlias, with the surrounding borders filled with swathes of painterly-style bright colours plus tall stands of everlasting sweetpeas. Yes, the grass is traditional, but it’s neatness provided structure to balance out the beds. My photos don’t really do the planting justice; it was verging on garish – but I think it’s marvellous!

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Baddesley Clinton is more pared back – but the drifts of colour feel a bit more achievable

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Hello YELLOW!

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Love these!

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What feels like a mile of dahlias

One corner at Baddesley is a herb-garden-turned-border. I actually looked at it for several seconds before I even realised that all these plants have a culinary use, so good was the effect. A tarragon had been allowed to grow into a sizeable shrub, the blue hyssop was humming with insects, and the parsley, sage, camomile and thyme gave good ground cover.

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The herb garden is transformed into a border with hyssop, parsley, tarragon and sage

With a few weeks of summer still to run, I’m hoping to get to a few more places to help get the creative sparks buzzing!

www.nationaltrust.org.uk

 

Gardening with the enemy

I picked the first tomatoes yesterday. It should be a cause of celebration…but I had to resignedly chuck half of the ripe ones out. The reason? Caterpillars and rot. This summer has been terrible for the toms: it’s been too cold to get them really, flavourfully ripe; the temperature fluctuations have led to blossom-end rot on all the passatta varieties, and even more irritatingly, creepy-crawlies have been getting fat on my produce. They’re not just eating the leaves mind, but are setting up home in the actual tomatoes themselves. Who wants to pop a cherry tom in their mouth and get a surprise crunch of caterpillar? Not me!

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Tell-tale caterpillar poo. I’ve picked off about 10 caterpillars in the last week but the damage is done – who knew that caterpillars liked to eat tomatoes?!

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On the top, all is well…

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…but the bottom tells a different story

I’ve also got an issue with splitting, particularly on the Black Krim and Plum Cherry types. I think this is down to over-watering, or inconsistent heat. On the plus-side, there are still loads of green fruits so if we get a few weeks of heat then the later-ripening tomatoes might come good.

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If they’ve not been eaten, or rotted, then they’ve split

The courgettes, on the other hand, are unstoppable. This week we’ve had courgette risotto, courgettes on toast, courgettes in pasta – I’ve yet to make courgette cake, but it’s a possibility. The climbing courgette Tromboncino (actually a variety of butternut squash) are not climbing particularly brilliantly, but the fruits are setting well. They look like creeping sea-monsters! I’m going to let them get big and then store them over-winter for cold-weather cooking.

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But we do have sea-monster squash! (Real name: Tromboncino)

The early blueberries got nibbled by a bird but we do finally have a crop, and the autumn raspberries are beginning to think about doing their thing. I’ve turned them into my blueberry crumble cake, lovely served warm with a dollop of thick cream.

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First blueberries, first tomatoes, first autumn raspberries – and yet more courgette!

Harvesting: Tomatoes, courgette, first blueberries, first autumn raspberries, chard, beet spinach, sweetpeas, sunflowers, cosmos
Planted out: Chicory, lettuce reine du glace, chard lucilus, Russian red kale
Sowed: Turnips

Take a kilo of blackcurrants…

I promise there will be no whining this week about slugs and bugs. Instead of looking at all the disasters, let’s spend a few minutes appreciating all the things that are going right…and there are a few.

Take, for example, the sunflowers: since planting them out I’ve given them no attention all  bar for the occasional tying in to their supports. And look! They’ve shot up, the tallest one now almost as tall as me (5’7″). In a few weeks we’ll have a raucous display of blooms.

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The sunflowers are nearly as tall as me!

The climbing squash are sending out their creeping shoots and all three plants now have baby fruit. I’m tying them into their posts to see if they will begin to hold their own weight.

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Climbing squash are thinking about heading north

In the past week the zinnia and cosmos have opened with shades of hot pink, crimson and red. They look great bunched with the faded silken purples of the sweet peas and offset with the white lacy ammi.

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Now picking sweet peas, cosmos, ammi and zinnia

But the real star of the show this week is the blackcurrants. There’s an irony here: so many of the plants that I sweat over, prodding and weeding and feeding and de-bugging, seem to refuse to thrive. The currants, on the other hand, receive no food, no water, no attention, and year after year they bear fruit. On Saturday I picked an enormous cake tin-full of currants – several kilos worth – with many more left to harvest another day.

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Blackcurrants stole the show this weekend

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Several kilos of currants here – with more still to pick

So my main job for this week involves processing this lot into ice-cream, compotes and fool; despite the cloudy skies, this is the very essence of summer.

Harvest: Blackcurrants, broad beans, courgette, reine du glace, lollo rosso, Italian salad mix, last strawberries, sweet peas, first zinnia, cosmos, ammi, calendula
Sowed:  Treviso chicory, sweet william, parsley
Also: Defoliated the tomatoes