Look what’s here!

I still can’t quite bring myself to be out on the allotment, though it’s not for lack of jobs that need doing. I’m painfully aware that the autumn-cropping raspberries need a good chopping back (not a difficult job, but a lengthy one) and I should be thinking about getting some goodness into the soil (read: spread some manure). But the key word here is thinking…there’s alot of thinking and not much doing.

So whilst the great outdoors is still chilly – there was hail today – I’m contenting myself to sorting out my seeds for spring planting, and wondering where all these tiny seedlings are going to live for the next few months. Because, dear reader, this year I have the grand total of 50 varieties of vegetables, salads, herbs and flowers that will soon need starting off!

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The new batch of seeds for 2017 are here

There is reason behind this seed madness. My doctor has been telling me to take vitamins but surely to God that is why spinach was invented? And tomatoes, and sweetcorn, and kale, and chillies, and squash, and beans, and you get the picture. So rather than sink my hard-earned cash into the big pharma companies, I’m investing in my diet instead, and that’s where Seeds of Italy and Sarah Raven come in.

New discoveries for 2017 come courtesy of Seeds of Italy, who are offering this particularly fancy-looking pumpkin and my favourite UFO-shaped squash custard white. I’m also having a go at runner beans this year for the first time (notwithstanding the ongoing slug-wars) and a late-to-bolt spinach, Tuscane. Plus there will be the usual mix of kale, courgette, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes and chillies, though no beets this year – grown on our soil they only seem to taste of, well, soil. Ugh.

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Two fun types of squash this year…

On the flower front, I’m bolstering my favourite white cosmos purity with a host of brightly-coloured newbies. There’s a carnival of colour with this zinnia mix, and I’m hoping that the cosmos bright lights mix will go well in a mixed bouquet with the sunflowers claret and valentine. I’ve also plumped for the delicate antique pink of cosmos antiquity and I’ll have another go at rudbeckia (last year the slugs ate the lot).

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…and loads of bright annuals!

The issue now is where to put them all. When we lived in the flat, I used to balance seed-trays on our windowsills with the help of a few trusty paperbacks. This house, though bigger, has very few suitable windows and those we do have are prime hanging-out territory for the cat (I’ve learned that Gertrude and seed trays do not go together). SO I’ll have to make an interim potting shed in the ‘sun room’ and balance the trays on a few trestle tables pinched from Matt’s business. It’s a plan. Only thing now is to actually get the pots and compost together and get planting!

BIG UP: A final note to big up my Mum and Dad who braved the inclement weather on Saturday to plant a climbing rose in my back garden. This lovely plant was a gift from Matt’s Mum when we moved house last summer, but it’s taken several months for me to clear out three massive hydrangeas and prepare the parched soil so that it has a cosy place to live. I am, however, hopeless with a drill so my Dad finally arrived with his power-tools to put the wire supports in place. My Mum then trained the shoots into place. It rained. It wasn’t fun. They are troopers. Big up the parents and parents-in-law!

Hints of spring

We’re not 100% back in the land of the living, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. My gradual emergence from hibernation coincides with an indisputable lengthening of the days: the mornings are lighter, the evening darkness falls ever-so-slightly later. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make a difference.

There’s been no gardening for weeks but, left to their own devices, the plants and bulbs are quietly waking up. Tulips are pushing through (notwithstanding the inquisitive squirrels), there are a few tentative green leaves forming on shrubs and, on the allotment, a patch of snowdrops raises a smile.

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Squirrel damage in the tulip pots

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Leaves are erupting in the garden

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A clump of snowdrops on the allotment

It’s easy to caught out by these first few hints of spring – there will doubtless be numerous more arctic days to come – but we must take our joy where we find it. I’ve moved a pot of narcissi to the front door so that, when they finally bursts into bloom, their yellow faces will make passers-by raise a smile.

Small things, big difference.

Pause for breath

I feel just-a-little-bit broken by 2016, what with all the political turmoil. I’m not sure which is worse: the fear of terrorism, or the fear that extreme politicians are managing to persuade certain groups of people that it’s OK to hate other groups of people because they are different to themselves. Plus we bought a house (which used up my life savings), moved a workshop, worked continuously and didn’t get in a decent holiday. And lots of really good people died.

This isn’t meant as a complaint, more of an observation that I’m running on empty: what’s needed is a proper break and time to regroup. The natural world can teach us a lot about pausing for breath: trees let go of their leaves, animals go into hibernation, all to conserve energy for the next year. On the allotment the ground is bare now, save for the winter greens, and will stay that way until the spring. The chrysanthemums are wrapped up in straw and tucked away in the greenhouse to over-winter.

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Allotment stripped back to the earth

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Over-wintered chrysanthemums

We headed down to Cornwall this weekend for two days of big skies and big beaches. We were ostensibly there to catch the Padstow Christmas Festival (I spotted Rick Stein, Brian Turner and Fern Britton wandering around town) but really, we were there to eat pasties, walk on the beach and feel fresh air in the lungs.

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Greetings from Mawgan Porth

It wasn’t a two week holiday, but a change is as good as a rest. Plus we had a brilliant dinner at Zachry’s at Watergate Bay and I’m newly inspired to have a go at some new recipes: the prawns with gobi sauce, hake with romesco sauce,  and panna cotta with burnt oranges were outstanding.

Bring on Christmas!

Sweet peas are made of this

I know it’s wrong to wish one’s life away, but my goodness, this winter now needs to be over. We’re still waiting on the mortgage confirmation, Matt faces a week or more of juggling work with moving his workshop, we’ve both been laid low with February colds: altogether life feels more than a little UGH. I’ve succumbed to buying bunches of spring flowers to brighten things up.

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Daffodils brighten up the flat

What with my mind being a fugg of viral infection, I’ve been struggling to summons up any excitement for the new growing season, but time marches along and it’s seed buying time. A huge envelope arrived on Saturday with my Sarah Raven order, a heady mix of scented flowers for cutting, all the usual veg and a few left-field choices (squash that grows up a trellis anyone?). In fact, there are now so many seeds that I’m uncertain where on earth I will find room to propagate them all.

Alas the sweet peas that I sowed back in the autumn have taken a bit of sun damage. They’ve been hanging out in the greenhouse, survived the harder frosts easily but have faltered at lack of water (I’ve ignored them for the last two weeks). All being well they’ll recover but I’ve planted up a new tray just in case.

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Second sowing of sweet peas take up residence on the windowsill

I’ve also started off my tomatoes, five varieties this year in 36 plugs, though I only have room for 12 plants in the greenhouse. There’s two passata varieties here, plus a red plum cherry, a yellow round and black krim, a huge black traditional type.

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First tomato sowing: five varieties, 36 plugs

Part of the issue with waiting on this mortgage decision is that I feel in limbo, irrationally unwilling to spend any cash until our future looks more certain. And so whilst I’ve splashed out on seeds, I can’t bring myself to buy new pots and trays and am making do with battered old things that really should be in the recycling. Reuse, repair, recycle: it’s an attitude that suits the allotment. But perhaps I should succumb and at least get some proper labels….not sure that these post-it notes will last the distance.

Sowed: new sweet peas (seeds from sweet pea man), broad beans, tomatoes

Pruning time

Our flat is surrounded by a kind of communal wilderness that masquerades as a garden: think lots of grass, a few very overgrown shrubs and the occasional empty crisp packet blown in by the wind. Last year I planted hundreds of spring bulbs in the rock-hard earth with the hope of brightening it up a little, and this week the green was broken by the first dainty yellow heads of tete-a-tete narcissi and deep purple crocus. I admire their bravery, for although the weather is generally mild and wet, there is still the chill breeze to contend with. The flowers bob around in the wind, withholding the onslaught.

On the allotment, where the ground is more exposed, the bulbs are only barely beginning to break through the soil. Everything there seems to come to fruition about a month later than I expect it to. Is it the wind? Some lack of nutrient in the soil? I did today manage our first harvest of purple sprouting, grown from plants gifted to us by Matt’s parents (though they’ve been picking theirs since before Christmas).

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First, and probably only, picking of purple sprouting

I’m uncertain what happened to January; it vanished in a whizz of house-viewings and new work contracts. Suddenly it’s February, nearly the start of Lent – and we’ve yet to have anything that even vaguely resembles a proper winter. This is the month to trim back the autumn raspberries and so I got to it today, breaking my brand-new secateurs in the process. The patch is now clear of dead raspberry canes – but alas their removal revealed a healthy crop of buttercup and grass. As one job is completed, another presents itself: a good few hours of weeding and mulching is called for to clear out the weeds, one of my least favourite tasks.

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The raspberry patch, post-prune. At least we can grow buttercups.

I feel like the weather, or at least the season, needs to catch up with the busy-ness of our current lives. At home and at work there is so much (too much) activity, new projects to be nailed down, this house-buying-bureaucratic-nonsense to be dealt with, things moving and changing. Yet outside the season is one of dormancy and sleep. In anticipation of season’s change I bring home my seed trays to wash (well, half of them: they get showered in the bathtub which is a two-batch process) and go through old seed packets to see what is needed for this year’s plantings.

Spring, hurry up please.

Allotment: Picked PSB, pruned raspberries, scrubbed pots, thinking about seed ordering.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

The past week has been swamped with unexpected stress: we are trying to buy a house! And whilst I knew that the house-buying process is not easy, I had not fully grasped just how many bureaucratic hoops have to be jumped through to get to the end goal. Time and energy is wasted spent attempting to get hard-copy bank statements (because internet print outs aren’t accepted), sorting ID details (only to find they are incorrect and have to be changed), getting our trading accounts in order and generally worrying about money.

It’s horrible and therefore is very good yoga practice. I try to remind myself that bureaucracy is what it is and can not be changed…and that if the purchase doesn’t happen, we haven’t actually lost anything (apart from initial legal fees but I’ll gloss over that), so no point getting stressed. This is of course much easier said than done and so I have taken to writing motivational messages on the fridge.

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Note to self…

Amidst all this nonsense I am suddenly very busy with work and Matt’s preparing to move his business to a new workshop. It’s good at these times to focus on some very normal, everyday, grounding activities. What can be more grounding than a spud? Or – better – a bag of spuds?

My Dad always manages to come up trumps when it comes for goodies for the allotment. This week he produced a net of seed potatoes, all ready for chitting. For the uninitiated, potatoes have to be chitted before they get planted out; all this means is that you leave them out in the daylight so the shoots can grow. I’ve been saving egg boxes for just this purpose and emptied said spuds into them this morning. They are now laid out on the spare bed so they can start doing their business.

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Let’s get on with normal business. Potatoes are laid out for chitting…

These are Charlotte potatoes and should be ready for planting out in a few weeks, for a crop mid-summer. They lasted less than a minute in their new home before getting a nosey visitor.

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…but how long will they last?

Frostbite and reclaimed land

I found time to get to the allotment last weekend, curious to see what effect the frost has had on the last of the summer greens. Predictably enough, they haven’t fared so well: chard, spinach and chicory had turned into a slimy mess, coating my gloves with brown goo. But that’s OK: planted in April and lasting until January, they had a good innings.

In the meantime, the winter brassicas have overcome all the odds (for we do not garden brassicas at all effectively) and there is purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) and sprout tops to harvest. No sprouts, mind, but I think sprout tops are more 2016 anyway.

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The greens have finally been zapped by the frost

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PSB waiting to be picked

Before Christmas I foolishly removed the netting from my cavolo nero, thinking that the last of the caterpillar threat must surely have passed. What nonsense, for now they are shredded to the stem. What do you get if you feed the caterpillars? Fat caterpillars. I spotted one, lime green and bloated with kale.

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Shouldn’t have uncovered the cavolo nero

The leeks look perkier from the frost, the grubs that were eating them alive having been zapped in the sub-zero temperatures.

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Leeks break up the expertly-laid poo

In the greenhouse, a tray of winter lettuce has germinated, the tiny green seedlings pushing north against the cold. It isn’t the best time to sow these seeds, light levels being so low, but they’re giving it a good go regardless.

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Winter lettuce seedlings

Finally, I removed the black matting that has been covering the last bit of overgrown, weedy plot. It’s been in place since last spring, so about 10 months, and look what beauty was uncovered! Weed free soil, perfect for a crop of potatoes.

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Reclaimed land waiting for a potato planting

Allotment: Dug up last of the chard, spinach, chicory. Removed mustard spinach. Uncovered ‘potato patch’ land.

Review of the year: 2015

The Christmas holidays provide time for reflection, rest – and finally doing those jobs that didn’t get done in the autumn. Top amongst them is the important matter of manuring the allotment, which requires a trip to Chappers’ field in Castlemorton (where the horse poo lives), a strong man to shovel and carry said manure, an empty van to transport it all in, and plenty of time for unloading at the other end. My Dad’s old coal bags came in useful this year, much better than potato sacks (last year these soaked up water from the soggy poo and promptly split, leaving their smelly contents across the pavement. In Harborne! Whatever next!).

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Dad’s old coal bags come in useful…

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…for a good morning’s muck collecting

A morning’s manure shovelling gave enough sacks to fill Matt’s van, but that’s only sufficient for half of our vast vegetable beds. So either we’ll have to make a return visit, or come up with a Plan B come spring-time.

In the meantime, on this, the last day of 2015, I’ll indulge in a brief review of the year’s horticultural (and culinary) highs and lows.

January-March

The plan for 2015 was simple: more greens, more flowers. I started a few things in February, indoors for protection, with spinach, lettuce, chard, kale, sweetpeas and sunflowers at the top of the wishlist.

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I gave sweet peas a try for the first time. These seeds were planted 26 January

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15 February, the year’s planning begins

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25 February: the tomatoes and other plug veg began life

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A memorable chocolate-hazelnut couronne

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February saw the first rhubarb bellini of the year

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By the end of March, the soft fruit had been mulched and grass tidied

 

April-June

Spring was cool, giving way to a cold summer, so whilst some things thrived, others took a little bit longer to get going. Chief amongst the disappointments were the climbing beans, desecrated by the slugs.

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April marked my tenth year in business. To celebrate, a chocolate dacquoise (and fizz) with friends

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April 5 and the hops began to shoot: the promise of things to come

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The Malvern bluebells, glorious by the start of May

A trip to Cornwall had to include mussels, straight off the boat at Newlyn

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19 May and the greens were coming along. Some were planted from plugs (lettuce, sorrel) and others direct (chard, spinach, beets)

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25 May and it’s the great allotment plant out! Tomatoes went into grow bags, and everything else took its final spot on the allotment

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By the start of June, the hops were exploding up the hopolisk

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But the slugs and newly cold weather conspired against my borlotti and climbing beans

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We had to wait until June of the first real trugfuls of loot

July-September

It was a long wait, but finally the work came good. The greens, oh the greens! So much green! And so many flowers, enough for weekly posies right through the summer and autumn.

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5 July and the redcurrants were ready to pick a bumper crop

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We had posies from the end of June right through to the start of November

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The ammi and calendula bordered the veg patch with lacy colour

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End of July and the gourds had taken over, though it was too cold a summer for most squash

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I succeeded in my goal of growing more greens, in production from July and still going strong in December

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However the goal of kale and chard for winter failed: these, planted out in July, did not survive the slug onslaught

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Sunflowers were the stars of 2015, bold and brash and amazingly long-lasting

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The tomato harvest began at the end of August, alas they were all poor in flavour – too cold for them to ripen properly

October-December

September finally brought heat and then, almost imperceptibly, summer changed to autumn, autumn drifted to winter. The slug issue continued and I started a love story, an unexpected one, with the humble crysanthemum.

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Finally, we succeeded in growing a carrot!

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The onions were pulled in September, to last through the winter

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The unexpected love story: jewel crysanthemums, which lasted into December

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Oops: 4 October and once again we missed the hop harvest

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September was a humdinger but by the end of October, summer was undeniably over

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The October clear out: artichoke had outlived its welcome so out it came

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In the kitchen, sloes made their way into a beautiful jelly

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Happily some of the winter greens did make it through: mizuna and mustard spinach (just) survived the slugs, cropping from November

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My favourite variegated chicory, at its best in December but pickable all through the year

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The mild start to winter was manna to the sorrel, chard and spinach

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The year ends with Grampy’s crysanths, wrapped and ready for spring

Thoughts for 2016

The flowers made the allotment this year, the act of gathering a fist-full of blooms a joy. There must be more of this next year and more colour too, away from the white cosmos to brasher shades.

The slug issue needs to be addressed if we are ever to eat spring lettuce again.

The brassicas should be wearing a fat sign of Could Do Better. We really could, and should, do better.

Oh, and I now have a cold-frame (thanks Mum and Dad), which should make the plug plants that little bit sturdier. Could it lead to the promised land of an earlier harvest? We’ll see.

Happy new year!

Chrysanthemum care

Today is a welcome respite from all the Christmas stress festivities. Presents are wrapped, the gammon is simmering (which admittedly is Christmas-related, but hardly difficult) and the TV is most-decidedly switched off. By some kind of miracle, this morning was gloriously sunshiney and so I headed to the allotment for an urgent task: chrysanthemum care.

Some background is needed here. Matt’s Granny and Grampy, now in their mid-90s, used to run a literal cottage industry growing and selling chrysanthemums. Their garden was heaving with them and come harvest-time the living room (so I am told) was filled with black florestry buckets overflowing with blooms. Apparently, when Matt was a boy, his job was to help put paper bags over growing buds to protect the saucer-sized flowers from the elements.

Knowledge of chrysanthemums is the Hunter/Foster-family legacy. It’s shaped Matt’s upbringing in much the same way that knowledge of coal and how-to-light-a-fire has shaped mine (my Dad and his father before him were in the coal trade).

So when Grampy heard that I had an interest in growing my own, he very generously offered a load of plants out of his garden. We arrived home yesterday with a tray full of soil, root and twigs, and strict-instructions for what to do with them.

The pressure is on.

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From October this year. In 2016 I’d like a whole lot more of this!

My chrysanths this year were brilliantly colourful, but I think slightly lacking in blooms. Next year I’d like to grow more and also see if I can extend their season, maybe bringing some indoors to protect them from the Birmingham winds.

Grampy told me that I have to dig up the faded plants, trim the stem down to a few inches, and put them in a shallow tray filled with compost. They will stay thus confined, in the greenhouse, until they start to shoot in the spring at which point we will take cuttings. Any signs of frost and they need covering with fleece.

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Grampy’s plants, trimmed and tray-ed

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They’ll over-winter in the greenhouse, ready for cuttings in the spring

I feel genuine pressure at being primary care-giver for these important plants – it’s a bit like being asked to cook for a really really good chef. Let’s hope we don’t let Grampy down.

Also on the allotment: Harvesting mustard spinach, mizuna, chicory, spinach, chard, leeks, parsnips.

Seeds are here, tomatoes are in

My friend and work-mate Antonia had a mooch around the allotments at the weekend with a view to taking one on. It was good to see what the neighbours are up to. There’s a lot of potato activity going on – trenches everywhere – and great mounds of manure ready for spreading. Archie the allotment-boss was in his office-shed as normal, surrounded by piles of potatoes protected under wool blankets. There are snowdrops out and the daffodils are on their way. Spring won’t be long now.

The seeds are here! I started the tomatoes off yesterday along with some basil. In a week or so I’ll sow some catnip for Gertie, which will hopefully prevent her nibbling on the sweet pea seedlings.

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Seeds! Seeds!

All the seed trays needed a good scrub. No outdoor water supply here so they’ve had to go in the bath instead, dead wasps, snails and all.

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Seed trays are all scrubbed

I’ve sowed the tomatoes about two weeks earlier than last year and it will be interesting to see if this has any effect on the crop. Soon every windowsill in the flat will have seed trays balanced on them.

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Tomates are sowed. This year I’ve actually labelled them so should have a vague idea of what is what.

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But somebody had a different idea about labelling