Chipping the rasps

It’s still bitterly cold out but the thin, improving light means we are unquestionably heading towards spring. I enjoy a cold snap during March and April; it’s nature’s way of reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves, to not go speeding off. This winter has been kind to us, actually, with plenty of slow time and a few opportunities to get out and explore. The snowdrops at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire were wonderful, and a half term visit to London led to a surprise visit to Fulham Palace, with its ancient wisteria and enviable walled garden.

Snowdrops and cyclamen at Colesborne Park, Gloucestershire
An extraordinary ancient wisteria at Fulham Palace

I’ve been making an effort to cook again too, minded towards seasonality and health (sounds dull but actually I enjoy feeding a family with nutrition in mind). Forced rhubarb is still eye-waveringly expensive so it’s only had two outings this season, baked with blood oranges and honey. And the freezer is giving up last summer’s fruit hoard, with blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrants and raspberries making their way into puddings, compotes and cakes.

Roasted rhubarb and bread & butter pudding with blackberries

Outside, slowly but surely, there is emerging life. The spring bulbs have greened up the garden, whilst hellebore hide their bowing heads against the wind. The sweet peas that I sowed back in January are doing well, as are the broad beans.

January-sown sweetpeas coming along nicely

February is time for that most unpleasant of allotment jobs: cutting back the autumn raspberries, which actually means attempting to remove the rampant blackberries that have taken hold whilst not getting stabbed in the eye by a spent raspberry cane. I cut the canes back about two weeks ago now, taking advantage of a mild day, and rooted out the brambles as best I could (I will never win, it’s just a question of who – woman or bramble – has the balance of power at any one time). In order to keep the grass and weeds down, the patch also needed a really good mulch, which is a nuisance of a job because bark/compost/manure etc is HEAVY and everything has to be moved by hand. For the last three years I haven’t bothered but last summer the grass was taller than my head, and the raspberries also hated the drought, so action needed to be taken to keep weeds out and water in.

The raspberries – BEFORE

So last week we took advantage of a school strike day and had a family trip to Canon Frome in Herefordshire, to collect a van load of wood chippings from Say it with Wood. They make fences and stakes and suchlike from coppiced hard wood, and sell their waste wood chip for about £30 a square metre (that’s one JCB-scoop), which is about half the price of buying bark from a garden centre. I like this for three reasons: one, it’s a waste product that is having a second life. Two, it’s a local loose product, so its carbon footprint is low and I don’t have heaps of plastic to get rid of. Three, it’s always fun to visit small creative rural businesses, and they had a puppy to play with. Granted, mulching an allotment this way requires a van and a bit of elbow grease, but luckily for me Matt enjoys this kind of thing.

A JCB-scoop of wood chip takes a surprisingly long time to move by hand
Say it with Wood at Canon Frome, Herefordshire

So the wood chip was collected, moved from Herefordshire to Harborne, wheel-barrowed from the car park to the plot, and then spread over the raspberries. As usual, I could have taken the same amount of mulch again…it never stops amazing me just how huge our plot is and how it eats up raw materials.

Whilst Matt moved chippings, Harry and I planted out the calendula and cornflowers that I started off last September as an experiment in autumn-sowing. Truth be told, they are probably some of the worst plants I have ever grown – leggy, with a few greenfly – but if we get a harvest one- or two-months earlier than normal then it might be worth it.

Raspberries – AFTER
Autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers were planted out whilst Harry’s tractors seem to have endured a major incident

The slow season is drawing to an end now, and in a few weeks the sun room will be full of seed trays and pots again. I have dahlias and iris to pot up, and heaps of flowers and veg to start off. We’re just waiting for more light, and of course, a little more heat.

Also this month:

Harvesting and growing: Not much to harvest apart from last season’s soft fruit from the freezer. Planted out calendula and cornflower. Started off more broadbeans, mustard mix and snapdragons.

Cooking and eating: Slow roast lamb shoulder with tadig; Toscaka; lots of pancakes and waffles with freezer fruit; heaps of things from the River Cottage Good Comfort book including dahl soups, cowboy bangers and beans, cornbread and oaty cookies.

Out and about: Fulham Palace Gardens, Natural History Museum and Horniman Museum during half-term; lunch with friends in Godalming; Birmingham Botanical Gardens; Athletics at the NIA; Matt did a half marathon with more in the pipeline; RHS exam number 1; yin yoga workshop. Thinking ahead to summer visits and inspirations.

Reading: Lucy Worsley’s biography of Queen Victoria. Sandi Toksvig memoir. A pile of reading for my RHS course that is waist high.


Jean messaged me earlier this week to ask what had happened to the blog because she missed it. A kind thing to say, and also a useful reminder for me to sit down and just do it. I think I’ve been wintering since about the end of November – after the noisiness of 2022 (three PMs, two monarchs, one child starting school, a gazillion work projects, climate crisis, cost-of-living crisis, having builders in…) I’ve felt the need for quiet. Plus all my creative/learning brain has been busy on my RHS course, which I will talk about here at some point, but suffice to say is intellectually all-consuming (and wonderful).

The allotment was covered early this year, by mid-November

The allotment got covered slightly earlier than normal this year, by mid-November, though the dahlias were still going strong in that strange, mild autumn that we had. I thought it wise to make the most of the warm days and get the plastic sheeting down early, because normally it’s a job I do with ice for fingers (not fun). There are so many things that need doing on the plot, from digging out the creeping buttercup Ranunculus repens* AGAIN, getting the pesky brambles out of the raspberries AGAIN, removing weeds in the perennial cut flower patch AGAIN, tidying the edges AGAIN, and so on. I’m not ready yet. It can all wait.

*For RHS exam purposes I am having to learn Latin binomial names. Every now and then I’ll yell out Hedera helix or Persicaria orientalis, like I’m casting a spell in Harry Potter.

Instead the focus is home, proper cooking, learning those aforementioned Latin names, and getting a few flower and veg seeds going. Matt’s rather pleased with the waffle maker that we’re baby-sitting for Emma and Chris whilst they’re in Vietnam for a couple of years (they probably won’t get it back). Meanwhile I’ve been keeping an eye on both pennies and health, cooking more with wholegrains, pulses, sturdy winter veg and the like.

Sunday morning waffles
My RHS course includes a spot of garden design, which I love. These are Matt’s watercolour pencils that he bought for A-level art.

The autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers are thriving in our chilly sunroom (it’s never above 10c in there during the winter), despite the odd patch of botrytis caused by lack of ventilation. Once the weather warms up I’ll pop them onto the allotment, hoping for an earlier-than-usual crop of orange and blue flowers.

autumn-sown calendula and cornflowers are doing well despite botrytis

I’ve been getting other early-starters going too. Three trays of broadbean (stereo green longpod, crimson flowered and aquadulce) and also the sweetpeas – ciprani, which is one of the very oldest varieties, dating from the 16th century, plus a lot of seed that I saved from last year’s tubs. I don’t know if they will come true, and that’s the fun – it’s like a no-pressure science experiment, and Harry and I are looking forward to finding the results. Over the spring we’re also going to do some soil pH testing, and have a go at making a mini-wormery.

Sweetpeas sown in mid-January, ingloriously perching on top of the washing machine

A few further experiments for this year – I want to grow more flowers for drying, so I’ll try Briza maxima (greater quaking grass), Lagurus ovatus (Bunny’s tail grass) and Xeranthemum annuum on the allotment, all of which are new to me. And given the success of the sensational White giant snapdragons, I’m trying another one bred for cutting – Antirrhinum majus ‘Potomac Crimson’. Hot magenta pink in colour, it should be a whopper.

Some new flowers that I’ll trial for 2023

So that’s it! Make the most of this quiet wintering time if you can, bringing with it rest and quiet renewal.

Also this month:
Cooking and eating: Lots of things from the River Cottage Good Comfort book, which has all the stuff you want to eat in winter, but made better for you: sticky pork ribs, corn bread, sausages and beans, dal, and so on. I’m doing a lot with wholemeal flour, lentils, carrots, swede, celeriac – sounds worthy and dull but is actually soul food.

Growing: Broad beans, sweetpeas, I’ll start the antirrhinum in a few weeks. Cut back the ivy and pruned the roses. Alliums are up already and narcissi are just poking their heads through.

Also: RHS course work. Enjoying the Sarah Raven podcast and planning for 2023 growing. Reading Expedition by Steve Backshall and Thinking on my feet by Kate Humble (they’re outside so I don’t need to be).

Veg patch to bed, rather later than planned

I always enjoy the first few weeks of January. The chance for a fresh start, with optimistic thoughts for the year ahead, and after the hullabaloo of December, the refreshment of a quiet month. It’s not so quiet for me actually this year due to some high octane work projects – but you get the point. This time last year we were all sick with Covid and locked in the house; this Christmas, there was the opportunity to get out and breathe. And after several months of intense work (and less than zero family time), we needed it.

The view across to British Camp, 27 December 2021
Trees caught in mid-winter mist

A day or two before Christmas I found time to wade through the armfuls of dried flowers that I’ve had hanging in the sun room since the summer, harvested from allotment and garden. I’d been finding their presence low-level stressful…every time I go in there to fish something out of the freezer, it was as if they were shouting at me: ‘why have you not used us yet eh?!’. And so I did. Vivid yellow tansy now sit next to the pale fawn of dried aqualegia, allium and teasel, with the lighter rounds of honesty giving contrast. I love the mixture of shape and form. It’s accidental – many of these plants were self-sown. I notice that tiny bunches of dried flowers now sell for £10 or more in the shops, and I am reminded how fortunate I am to be able to gather and keep my own supply.

The allotment and garden blessed us with armfuls of dried flowers this year
Two Christmas arrangements, with tansy, teasels, honesty, aqualegia and allium

There is one, rather larger, job that has been nagging at me as well. Usually I get the allotment mulched and covered in December, an enormous task that in previous years has involved one lorry, an entire pallet of manure, two strong men, one strong(ish) woman (me), and painfully frozen fingers. But this year, since my Dad has retired, we no longer have access to his lorry.

Plan B was to carry as much as we can in Matt’s van: 30 bags to be precise, barely enough to cover the smaller of the two main plots, but better than nothing. So in an enterprise that lasted two days, this weekend we drove to Worcestershire, pinched 30 bags of manure from my Dad’s seemingly never-ending supply, stacked it into the van, drove back to Birmingham, walked the bags from van to allotment, emptied the bags, then spread the black gold with a fork. To be on the safe side, I then covered the two plots with black plastic, my back-up armoury in the war against weeds. Muck Spreading Day is the most physically draining task on the allotment but possibly the most important one, hopefully keeping the annual weed seeds down, and also blocking light from the grasses and buttercup that seems endemic.

30 sacks of manure makes for only a scant covering of the first plot, so to keep the weeds down I’m playing safe with a covering of black plastic
The larger patch won’t get manured this year, but the covers are down – leaving the heads of sweet fennel and sweet william to poke through

There’s part of me that enjoys the cleanliness of a freshly manured plot more than when it is covered in plants. With plants comes some inevitable disappointment; with black soil comes only potential. With the ground put to bed now for a few months, thoughts turn to planning, seed-sorting, list-making. The joy of searching the seed catalogues; the pull of creative potential!

In the meantime, planning for 2022 has begun

Also this week/month:
Allotment: Manured the small plot and dahlia patch, and covered the two main plots with plastic. Could be harvesting kale, chard, rocket and mustard leaves, except that I’m not, for I am a fair-weather gardener. Sowed a few sweet peas, with little expectation for them. Planning for the season. Peering at the amaryllis and paperwhites daily to check progress. Listening to the Sarah Raven / Arthur Parkinson podcast for inspiration.

Cooking and eating: Enjoying the time for proper cooking. Baked ham with a chipotle and marmalade glaze; bavette steak with tenderstem broccoli, feta and roasted red pepper; quince sticky toffee pudding; still working through Christmas biscuits and panettone.

Also: Booking up tickets for fun things after two years of austerity. Reading Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley, a brilliantly radical feminist re-telling of a familiar biography.

A confusion of seasons

There’s a confusion of seasons. We had snow in November, and a bitter wind, only for it to have melted into this warm, dank December. It’s 13c today. In the garden I have roses still in bloom, whilst in the cold frame, disorientated narcissi are pushing up their shoots. Our magpie couple have started building a nest in the tall sycamore tree, their efforts made visible by the bare branches; there is no leaf cover in December. The robin is singing.

I always think there is a conflict of feeling at this time of year. On one hand Christmas is upon us, with its bachalian exuberance, and all is hurry rush hurry (got to get all my work done before everyone disappears for the holidays, as well as the billion other jobs that are the woman’s lot at Christmas time). But the natural world is telling us to slow down, to respond to the low light, to pay attention to the turn of the bottom of the year. Next week is the shortest day and gradually the swing upwards begins. To recognise the beauty of deep winter, one needs to pay close attention: the tiny red rosehips gleaming like children’s sweets, the sweet scent of viburnum, the eruption of snowdrop leaves. It’s all there, if only we take time to look.

The idea of seasons confused is not new. Claire Leighton wrote this in 1935: “But this year the merging of the seasons is exceptional, and frightens gardeners. For all around are the first spears of spring bulbs. Scylla show above the earth, and tulips and daffodils point upwards…. Villagers shake their heads at the ‘unseasonable weather… It is hard to believe that Christmas is upon us.” Four Hedges by Claire Leighton, Little Toller Books.

My kitchen has been confused for much of the year. I made my first easter cakes in January (anything to get through lockdown with a three year old), and a batch of mince pies emerged in November. Stir-Up Sunday became Stir-up Saturday and took place on Zoom, as does so much of life now. This year my pudding pals Helen and Charlie joined me in trying out a new recipe, one of Nigel Slater’s, which seems lighter than my normal one due to the omission of black treacle. The puddings sit maturing in the cupboard. I’ll let you know how they turn out.

First (and only) batch of mince pies made 13th November
I am trying a lighter Christmas pudding this year, recipe courtesy Nigel Slater
Stir Up Sunday had to happen on Zoom, because this is how we live now

On the allotment, work has ceased completely. Usually all is manured and cleared by now, but this year we’ve been unable to get the pallet of muck here, so the ground sits still uncovered, a mess of buttercups and couch grass. The November storms did for the chrysanthemums which was a shame, as I think they could have kept going to Christmas – the last picking came 16th November. There are still parsnips to pull and the cavolo nero to crop, but the truth is that I am a fair weather allotmenter and with no flowers demanding instant attention, my trips to the plot lessen.

The last floral picking of the year, 16th November

Instead there are more pleasing tasks at hand. This year I ordered my paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs early, though problems with supply mean they didn’t arrive until the very end of November. I have pots and vases of them planted and maturing in the chill of the sun room, ready to give splashes of colour and scent in January.

Potted up indoor paperwhites and amaryllis for blooms in January

Then there’s the wreath. The wonderful Rachel at The Hedge in Stirchley sorted me out with a kit of evergreens, bracken, eucalyptus and lavender twigs, which I turned into what I can only describe as a 6 out of 10 wreath. My issue was time. I am very, very busy with work and have to get a more-than-full-time job done on three and a bit days a week, plus Matt’s been away and consequently there’s alot single parenting at present. What should have been a lovely relaxing job of creative wreath-making got condensed into a rushed hour before nursery pick-up time. So the wreath is fine, but I could do better.

My rather mis-shapen wreath

The robin is quiet now but I can see blue tits hopping around the forsythia, and I notice that the cotoneaster has turned a delicious vibrant orange-red. Next week I’ll head to Great Witley to pick up the turkey, and in the deepest countryside I know the hedgerows will be full of old man’s beard, ivy and hawthorn. It’s all a reminder to stop and pay attention.

Also this month:
Eating and cooking: I have hardly cooked at all and when Matt is away dinner often consists of two easy-peel satsumas plus a mince pie at 9.30pm. However, panettone and tunis cake are back on the menu, and pomegranate seeds have made their way into several slaws of shredded red cabbage, fennel and apple. Harry and I shared Thanksgiving with Rob and Anu, and tucked into Ginger Pig turkey, mash, stuffing, roast sprouts and a lovely salad of fennel, watercress and pomegranate. Banoffee pie to finish.

On the allotment: Chrysanthemums taken up and presented to Mum in the hope of some cuttings in the new year. Dahlias cut back and mulched. Everything else has been ignored in the hope that the weeds will just magically disappear.

In the garden: Pruned the roses and cut back the summer perennials – I wasn’t going to do this until February but some horrid urge at tidiness took over. Several sessions of leaf clearing. Planted bulbs in November – tulips, narcissi, anemone.

Also: Thanksgiving in London and took Harry on a tour of Tower Bridge, Tower of London, a boat ride, Big Ben and London Eye – all the major locations from Go Jetters on CBeebies. Lots of Christmas activities including panto, CBSO, meeting Santa, all that. At the same time am working on various different things for the Birmingham 2022 Festival, which is wonderful, but intense.

Blackberries and PSB

Almost, almost. A few times over the past week people have said ‘it feels almost spring-like’. The mercury is certainly rising now, after the Arctic temperatures at the start of the month. During the cold snap we had to isolate after a few Covid cases at nursery; with the hours feeling like days, there was nothing for it but to cook. Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam (I burnt the jam but it turned out to taste toffee-like rather than carbonated); 5-hour baked lamb; all types of pancake – the larder, and my cookbook collection, is my Lockdown friend.

The potted blueberry became an ice sculpture at the start of the month
Pancakes are food for the soul as well as body: this puffy Norwegian baked pancake came with blueberries and maple syrup
Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam. Clotted cream mandatory.
5-hour baked lamb shoulder collapses into shreds with the poke of a spoon. Serve with tzaziki, baked new potatoes, green beans dressed with feta and spiced aubergine relish.

But all this domestic lounging around can’t go on for ever. As the plants start to green up and the daffodils swell, I can feel energy rising. We’re on the cusp of time to be getting busy, and within the next month or so I’ll start off the early seeds. A TO DO list is back up on the kitchen wall, full of tasks that take seconds to write but weeks to actually make happen (‘renovate bathroom’, ’tile kitchen’). And on the allotment, this little patch of anarchy has been provoking me: raspberries, wild blackberries and grass, all jumbled together into an unholy mess.

The autumn raspberries have been colonised by brambles and grass

February is the time for cutting back autumn raspberries, and I trim ours right down to the base every year at this time. We inherited these plants. If I was starting from scratch I’d plant the canes in neat rows, but as it is, they are uneven, unruly and thriving; every year we have more fruit than I can be bothered to pick. However a few years back a wild blackberry set up home here, sending out runners which have grown into lethal traffids. These in turn make it impossible to keep the grass down, a perfect storm of irritation. Incidentally, a blackberry plant is nigh-on-impossible to pull out due to their lengthy tap root, but I am told the key is to bury down into the soil a few inches, find a new little pink shoot, and cut below that to help weaken the plant. This needs to be repeated for several years. So today I made a start, heaving and puffing in the February winds, but some are so big I’ll have to bring out an actual saw (a saw!) to sort the buggers out.

This bramble requires drastic action
Raspberries trimmed and mulched – the biggest blackberry still in place waiting to be hacked out with a saw.

My reward for today’s graft was an early picking of purple sprouting broccoli. These were bonus plants that I was gifted last summer by my in-laws, which I planted and then ignored. Taking out the central flower now encourages side shoots, just like with a sweet pea or cosmos, except these are a far more tasty treat. I’ll blanch the PSB stems then toss them in olive oil, chilli flakes, garlic and parmesan, the most perfect sauce for oriechette.

An early crop of PSB

One bonus of the cold weather is that the white fly that has lived in the brassica cage since August has finally been zapped, leaving pristine cavolo nero and pentland brig kale. A quick rinse in cold water and we’re ready to go – I can feel a minestrone coming on.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb with aubergine relish, then the leftovers turned into wraps with massive flatbreads and fresh parsley from the Halal shop; burnt tayberry, raspberry (and redcurrant) jam; scones; apple caramel upside down cake; pea and paneer curry. Still no booze (body says no) which I continue to be sad about.
Harvesting: Kale, cavolo nero, PSB
Also: Trains, cars, stories, painting, Cbeebies etc etc etc. Reading My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem and Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy. Watching It’s a Sin, which is possibly the best TV ever made but devastating.

The planting diary

A few weeks ago now I received several bulging packages of seeds in the post and got out the dusty old biscuit tubs of last year’s seeds to sort out what’s staying and what’s going. Here’s the list – it’s work-a-day, just an aide-de-memoire of what to sow/plant when, with a bit of succession sowing in there for good measure.

January (already done)
Mustard salad leaves (undercover)

Peas for pea shoots
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Plus: cut down the raspberries

Kale Emerald Ice
Kale Pentland brig
Kale nero di toscana
Spinach perpetual
Mustard salad leaves
Peas Blauwschokker
Viola heartsease
Broadbeans (direct sow)
Verbena bonariensis
Honesty (?)
Sweet rocket (?)
Sweet william (?)

Map out the allotment plan – make room for:
– x5 new dahlia tubers (allotment and/or garden)
– lupins, teasels, chrysanthemums (allotment)
– pumpkin and climbing squash (allotment)
– sweetcorn (allotment)
– amaranthas (allotment and/or garden)

Sweetcorn Swift
Pumpkins and Squash
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Dwarf french beans
Climbing french beans
Runner beans
Parsnip (direct sow)
Salad bowl
perennial delphiniums (x5, allotment)
teasels (x5, allotment/garden)
nepeta (cat mint, x1, garden)
white nicotiana (x5, garden)

Chicory variegate di castelfranco
Chrysanthemum starburst (x5, allotment)
lupin mixed (x30, allotment)
Oak leaf lettuce (direct sow)
Salad bowl

wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons

July & August
Wild rocket (direct sow)
Lettuce Merveille de quatre saisons
mustard salad leaves

September & October
Mustard salad leaves

Also this week:
Eating and cooking: 
I’ve been doing a lot with slow-cooking and leftovers. Sunday’s 6 hour slow-cooked pork shoulder (bay, fennel seeds, seville oranges, white wine, onions, garlic) was cut up and slow-cooked again with black beans, tomato, onion, chipotle and spices to make a Tex-Mex-style Monday-night stew. Celeriac and potato gratin shoved in the oven to eat alongside a roast (still rare) venison haunch. Also slurping up blood oranges, a regular late January/early February treat.
Reading: How to eat a peach by Diana Henry. Also having my first ever go at a Jilly Cooper, which reads like it’s from a different age (it is).

Cut flowers in mid-winter

If you, like me, feel particularly emotionally jangly at present – what with the politics, the expense of Christmas, the darkness, the drizzle, etc etc etc – then can I suggest a few hours of gentle botanical crafting to ease frazzled nerves. Over the last few weeks I’ve been using up the dried stems of summer’s strawflower and hydrangea, arranging them into wreaths and swags for yuletide displays. And I mean ‘yuletide’, Pagan that I am, for there is something extremely grounding about bringing the natural world into the house as we approach the winter solstice.

Now, just because I like this kind of activity, doesn’t mean that I’m actually any good at it. My canister of gold spray paint is professional standard, procured by Matt (obviously) and therefore way too posh for me – just trying to get the nozzle to stay on led to this unfortunate drippy decoration of the skimmia plant outside the backdoor.

The skimmia got attacked by a drippy can of gold paint

Once I finally got the paint to work, I lightly sprayed the hydrangea stems, allowing some of their natural pink to show through. These are lovely as single stems in wreaths or grouped together in a massive vase.

Hydrangea heads sprayed gold

The strawflowers make a lovely simple wreath – dead kitsch and retro. I used the glue-gun to secure individual stems onto a willow base, which cost a few pence, for a display that will last for years.

Strawflower wreath (terrible photo, sorry)

For the front door, I decided to make my own swag using evergreens pilfered from my Mum’s garden, plus a few more hydrangea, strawflower and that spay-painted skimmia. I think it’s important to have a range of textures in these winter displays, and scent if you can – I used rosemary but bay would also work well.

Laying out the stems for the front door swag

I simply worked the greens together into a display that I liked, then tied them tightly with string and ribbon before trimming the ends. Half an hour’s work, cost is negligable, and – most importantly – we have a display that is absolutely rooted in the English mid-winter enlivened with a few colourful memories of the English summer.

This year’s floral swag
Strawflowers are the gift that keep on giving

Also this week:
Cooking and Eating: Blackforest Arctic Roll – whisked chocolate sponge stuffed with amaretti and chocolate ice cream, whipped cream, cherry jam, amaretto and clementine zest. A baked ham spiked with allspice and marmalade. Mince pies. Pomegranate seeds in everything, they seem never-ending.
Doing: Mainly hibernating and attempting to protect myself from politics and political fall-out (Birmingham is the most politically active city I have ever been in). But also a visit to the CBSO Christmas concert for tots, which was a joy, and to Lichfield Cathedral to see the Christmas trees.

A big pile of poo

I am not a very scientific allotmenter. Old-school gardening books talk about soil structure, phosphorous, lime, pH levels and so on, and I’ve never got to grips with any of it (though never say never). But I do know that – just as you can’t expect a human to perform well on a diet of Big Macs and Coke – our soil needs a little help every now and then. Poor soil = poor veg. And so this weekend my Dad brought a lorryload of manure to Birmingham and we spend a few hours carting (or wheelbarrowing) bags and bags of the stuff from the lorry to the allotment.

It’s not been spread yet – a job for another day. And actually, given that most of my days are spent on the floor/sofa/bed singing If You’re Happy and You Know It, it was good to be outside, stretching my limbs. I just need the weather to warm up. Spring, come soon!

Matt gets his hands dirty

Dad wears his blindingly yellow coat

A pallet of poo successfully moved

Now just got to spread the stuff…



Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne



Hello winter!

Hibernation has set in, as it does every year. When I realised that I’d have a small baby during the winter I was certain I’d get down in the dumps, but it turns out that the gentle rhythm to our day sits beautifully with the darker months. The Harry-shaped alarm clock means we’re awake before dawn, and every morning I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to venture out into the dark and cold to head to an office (hurray for self-employment). Harry gets his first breakfast, then hot tea with cranberry and orange breakfast bread, emails and the Today programme are the order of the day before baby gets washed and dressed and devours his second breakfast. A million jobs are done between nap times and other feeds, then by 5pm the fire is on and it’s time for our nappy-free-disco (half-)hour. So by Harry’s 6.30pm bedtime it’s dark anyway and there’s no yearning to be out in the evening.

Despite not feeling Christmassy in any way, shape or form (this despite the decorations having been up for a week), I am all over seasonal change. Yesterday I bought thirty quid’s worth of candles to see me through until April, and today we donned our waterproof outfits to trudge out in the snow. We’ve been to Lichfield Cathedral and breathed in the flickering candlelight, and in the kitchen, soups, curries and anything-with-gravy are the order of the day.

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Shrine to St Chad at Lichfield Cathedral

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Latest addition to the household

On the allotment, I find that the black plastic sheets I put down a fortnight ago have escaped and that our kind allotment-neighbour Martin has tried to secure them into position with stones. Affirmative action is needed. Fingers numb with cold, I pull the sheets back into place and drag planks of wood on top in a last-grasp effort to keep them in place. There’s no-one around and the only sounds on the snow-covered plots are birds going about their business.

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An inch or so of snow has fallen overnight

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The allotments are peaceful on a wintry lunchtime

I have a fairly bad case of baby-brain at present and so I’ve been looking at my pictures from the year to try to remind myself what I actually got up to in 2017. I notice that the kale and cavolo nero plants have been cropping since July, and now in December they’re still going strong – if anything they’re better than ever, relishing the cold that has zapped the whitefly. Today’s picking will probably be stir-fried with ginger and garlic to accompany a warming rabbit dhansak (Matt’s creation).

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Only thing growing now is cavolo nero and Russian red kale

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Today’s gatherings, whitefly-free for the first time this year

Eating & cooking: Cranberry & orange breakfast bread, Dad’s soup, rabbit pie, rabbit curry, giant yorkshire puddings with sausages wrapped in bacon, chicken baked with parsnips, rosemary and clementines, Aldi stollen, Aldi & Wilko panettone (these are the very best and I’ve tried many)

Harvesting: Rosemary, sage, Russian red kale, cavolo nero

Reading: The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

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