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.

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