We plough the fields

I inhabit a few different worlds. My professional – and quite a bit of my personal – life is spent with energetic creative types who do fun and inspiring things amidst the urban din of Birmingham. People like this lot, who will be leading Birmingham’s Handover ceremony for the Commonwealth Games this weekend. There’s a rapper, a choreographer, a principal ballerina, a spoken word artist and a film-maker. We spent yesterday morning telling the press about plans for the ceremony, with time for a photoshoot amidst Digbeth graffiti. They will perform this Sunday to a worldwide television audience of around 1 billion people, so no pressure then (you can watch the Handover as part of the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday from 11am on BBC2).

The artists taking part in this Sunday’s Commonwealth Games handover…watch it on BBC2 from 11am

Then there’s the country/foodie life, which made me take a two hour round trip at the weekend as I had a hunch that new season asparagus would be on sale at Hillers, near Evesham. I was right.

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

And then there’s the parent life, which involves a lot of nappies, washing-up, more nappies, cuddles, early nights and giggling.

Harry is 7 months old and has discovered the shelf of baking equipment

It’s a good mix of things. When the arty stuff gets too irritating I can head to the hills, and when the shire is too stifling I can retreat back to Brum. Or indeed retreat to the allotment. Last week I was blessed with four hours childcare – FOUR HOURS! – and headed down for some grafting with Gary, Matt’s Dad. The snow seems to have finally gone, and whilst it’s not warm, it is definitely now spring and there was mulching and manuring and soil-prep to be done.

Gary gets to work on the allotment

Whilst I cracked on with putting a thick bark mulch on the raspberries, blueberries and currants, Gary stripped back the black plastic sheeting from the main vegetable plot. It was a relief to see that the soil was not in too bad a state: instead of forking and weeding it over in the autumn as normal, last October I merely pulled out the last of the sunflowers and covered the plot over with plastic (there was only so much I could achieve with a 1 month old baby). It survived this mistreatment well and only needed a light weed and fork before being mulched with rotted manure. Gary is incredibly neat and methodical, I discover – must be where Matt gets it from. I, on the other hand, take a ‘that will do’ approach and dig/manure half of the other plot in about an hour. I know whose approach is better (clue: not mine).

A few hours later, the main plot is forked over and manured. He did an amazing job.

I focused on putting a think mulch of bark on the soft fruit

My efforts at manuring are significantly less tidy than Gary’s…but it will do. The broad beans take up their new home.

After just a few hours the plot is transformed from winter weeds to clean edged plots ready for planting out. The soil is still cold – daffodils only just coming out now, a month later than I would expect – but there is a tiny harvest to be had: I take the opportunity to pick a handful of new sorrel leaves, to toss with new potatoes and butter.

One and a half plots, ready for planting

First picking of sorrel, for tossing with new potatoes and lashings of melted salted butter

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: A vat of bolognese, first season asparagus with salmon tart and new potatoes (phenomenally expensive but worth it), chicken marinated with yoghurt and ras al hanout, last of the simnel cake
Reading: Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, a love letter to Birmingham’s urban waterways

Asparagus and tulips

At various intervals between April and July that Christmas song ‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ comes into my mind. From mid-spring to mid-summer, every few weeks a new miraculous thing happens that gives me zest for life….a hillside filled with bluebells in May, a meadow of wildflowers in June, and in April, the first bunches of precious green Evesham asparagus. I came across this brilliant sight on Saturday. The ‘grass is about three weeks early this year – there’s a chance this lot have been grown under plastic but I’m putting that to the back of my mind. What matters is that they were green, squeaky fresh and sweet.

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First Evesham asparagus!

The first asparagus of the season is not to be messed about with. It needs about three or four minutes in boiling water and then anointing with butter, sea salt and black pepper, and no more. I served these up with my favourite spring supper: a whole trout baked with vine tomatoes, shallots, olives and thyme, with a side of new potatoes. And with that simple meal, the winter has gone.

It’s not just the asparagus that’s early. On my last visit to the allotment, about a fortnight ago, the tulips were still thinking about making their presence known. I’d been thinking for a few days that I ought to go and check progress so I popped over there yesterday evening to find, if not a field, then a substantial amount of full-blooms ready for picking.

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I was taken by surprise as how far these have come along in a fortnight

I say ‘ready for picking’ – really, I should have started a week ago. The curious thing about tulips is that they need to be planted in colour blocks. On the allotment, in small strips of colour spaced quite far apart for ease of picking, they looked fun but nothing sensational. But an hour later, when separated out in vases in complimentary colours, they were brilliant.

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Shades of cream, yellow, orange and burgundy

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I collected an armful of tulips…

My current favourite is the combination of Purissima (the big fat cream one) and Moonlight girl (the pointy yellow one). Purissima is HUGE, which on the allotment looked ungainly, but in the vase looks wonderfully showy-offy. After the sparse months of winter, it’s uplifting to have some colour back in the house.

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…and they look a treat

My only concern now is that we miss the rest of the crop. In a few weeks we’re off to Holland in order to admire that great tulip gardens of Amsterdam. Oh the irony if I then miss my own…

Also on the allotment and in the potting-room:

Harvesting: Tulips, last Russian kale
Sowed: Chillies, chard, spinach, sorrel, cima di rapa, courgette, squash, pattypan, borlotti, string beans, runner beans, French beans, ammi, cosmos, cornflower, nasturtium, borage, poppy, zinnia, dill, rudbeckia, bells of Ireland
Other jobs: Strimmed allotment grass for the first time this year. It is making vast in-roads into the veg patches and needs controlling. Dug up the last brassicas and forked over the patch. It took 90 minutes and today I can barely move; our soil needs alot of work.

Four seasons in one day

There’s a famous Crowded House song that tells of the changeable weather in New Zealand:

The sun shines on the black clouds hanging over the domain
Even when you’re feeling warm
The temperature could drop away
Like four seasons in one day.

Lyrics that could easily apply to England in April 2016. What is going on with this crazy weather? Through glass the sun is HOT (temperatures hitting 35c+ in my greenhouse) but then blink and suddenly it’s snowing, or at least sleeting. My late afternoon visit to the allotment resulted in freezing fingers and reddened cheeks.

It’s difficult weather for veg and flower growing as I have seedlings that need to be outside already. At the weekend I succumbed and planted out my overwintered sweet-peas, which were threatening to literally put down roots in the greenhouse unless given a new home. They’re surviving this week’s Arctic blasts cheerily enough, protected from the wind by some perspex squares salvaged from an art project, and cosseted with thorny branches to ward off the pigeon.

The lettuces aren’t doing so well – the lollo rosso looks suspiciously slimy – but the spinach actually looks happier now than when I planted it out. Some veg do well for the cold weather, of course, and the parsnips and leeks (sowed one full year ago) look a heck of a lot better now than they did back in our warm, soggy autumn.

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Last of 2015’s leeks and parsnips, better now than in the autumn

But spring is apparently here: I have tulips in bloom and the cherry tree outside our flat is tinged with delicate pink blossom. It was St George’s day at the weekend, the traditional start of the English asparagus season, and so today I took a VERY circuitous route home from a meeting to track down some of Evesham’s finest.

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Evesham asparagus is back in the farmshops, but expect to flash a bit of cash

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New season grass – a culinary highpoint of the year

Two bunches of asparagus set me back the princely sum of £9.66 and even the seasoned assistant in the farm shop took a sharp intake of breath. I don’t care. It’s NEW SEASON ASPARAGUS…the first culinary highpoint of the year. These spears are to be lightly steamed and served with jersey royals that I will toss in butter and anoint with sorrel from the allotment.

In other allotment news, I’ve planted out the potatoes and direct sown various kales and brassicas (I want to see how these lot do against the ones that I’m raising under glass). Oh! And we’ve got hold of some guttering to see if it does indeed make a happy home for salad plants. Keep you posted.

ps. Dear reader, we have a mortgage and aim to move house in a few weeks. Thanks for all the nice messages to keep one’s chin up in the face of mortgage-madness.

Sowed direct: PSB, Frills of Hex, Cavolo Nero, Cima di Rapa
Sowed in a gutter in greenhouse: Chives, Chard, Tuscan lettuce mix, Spinach
Planted out: Autumn and January-sowed sweetpeas, Reine di Glace lettuce, Spinach Medania, Lollo Rosso, seed potatoes

Blossom and grass

On opening the greenhouse on Saturday morning, I discovered a take-away box full of sweet pea seeds left there by one of our allotment neighbours. I am uncertain of his name so I call him Sweet Pea Man.

Last year, Sweet Pea Man grew armfuls of scented blooms and kindly let me pinch some to take home. I noticed last week that he had planted out this year’s seedlings, and mentioned to him in passing that he gave me confidence to plant mine – which inevitably lead to an offer of more seed, which he collected and had left over from last year’s crop. So I’ve sown yet MORE sweet peas and we’ll see if they work.

Having mentioned the desire to have pretty flowers on the allotment this year, I now face overload. A trip to Worcestershire at the weekend ended with trays of new foxgloves and aquilegia, with more to follow (amazing!), but I have no idea where all this stuff is going to go. There’s been a lot of standing and staring, attempting to visualise just how big things are likely to get and where the blooms can happily be slotted in.

Speaking of blooms, the cherries are putting on a tremendous show. The one in our communal wilderness (garden) at home has been out for a week and is thrumming with bees and bugs. I actually hear them through the double glazing. In Worcestershire they are just as good:

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Trees coming into leaf

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My parent’s crab-apple in bloom

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Flowering cherry

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Buds waiting to open

My mother’s broad beans are making a mockery of mine. Whilst the allotment beans barely reach my calf (and this is not just my beans, but everyone’s beans!), in the shire they are verdant and bushy and, frankly, a bit too showy-offy for my liking.

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My mother’s broad beans make a mockery of my 30cm tall efforts

This is all immaterial when faced with the most exciting sign of the year. It’s asparagus time! Or grass, as the Evesham locals call it. In a week or so there will be hand-painted signs on the side of roads as farmers trumpet their wares. For now, we made a pilgrimage to Hillers Farm Shop to stock up on the good stuff, and picked up the first punnet of local strawberries at the same time. The prices are eye-watering…but worth it.

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Highlight of the year: first pickings of asparagus

Evesham asparagus, which was steamed and served with herbed roast chicken for dinner


Dug over rest of veg patch; finished bark-ing the fruit bushes; planted onions and shallots


Put in more sweet peas & sweetcorn; potted on leeks