June on the allotment

I made it to the allotment yesterday, mid-migraine, for the first time in 10 days. What with the house-moving and a (currently) insane work schedule, there’s been no time for the veg patch. In my absence we’ve had warm weather plus a monsoon rain of biblical proportions – and the baby plants have LOVED it.

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First of my mum’s broad beans

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Mine will take a few weeks yet before they’re ready. The rain has made the leaves filthy and they’ve had insect damage, but we’ll get a good crop.

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Three attempts later, we have carrot seedlings!

The tulips have all gone now, their black and orange tones replaced with the delicate purples and pinks of the alliums and foxgloves. The bees are lapping up the nectar greedily.

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The monster alliums

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Foxgloves are gloriously weird

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Pretty pale apricot foxglove

The heat has brought along the soft fruit; we have fat strawberries, redcurrants and blueberries just waiting to ripen. And as for the hops – they are heading to the heavens.

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First strawberries are ripening

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The hops on an early June evening

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Glorious sweetpeas

As I left my allotment neighbour Alex turned up, looking cool-as-you-like with her powder blue vespa and leathers.

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My allotment neighbour Alex turned up with her very cool blue vespa

This weekend is marked in the diary as MOVING HOUSE. So hopefully, when the boxes are moved and the wardrobes are dismantled and re-mantled (is that a word?), normal service will resume on Veg Patch.

Planted Out: Sweetcorn, leeks, zinnia, verbena, grand green beans

Sunflower Club

We awoke to a light dusting of snow this morning. I think it’s a mark of age that my first thought on seeing the white stuff was to wonder how my seedlings in the greenhouse are doing (the answer is that they seem fine).

This is typical April weather, by turns cold, hot, wet, dry, blowy and still. I always think that spring-time seed sowing is a gesture of defiance in the face of wintery weather; since becoming an allotmenter I’ve realised that there’s a heck of a lot more winter in this country than there is summer. But the days are undeniably warmer now than they were a month ago – digging the veg patch today I had to strip off to shirt sleeves – and the sun stays up until well after 8pm. The greenhouse has been reading temperatures in the 30s. So I have brazenly decided to ignore the snow and try a little direct sowing of seed – in go carrots, parsnip, chard, spinach and lettuce into freshly prepared beds, covered with fleece to keep them cosy. If they germinate, wonderful, and if not, I’ll try again in a few weeks.

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The lettuce seedlings have perked up and I’ve direct sown more lettuce, chard and spinach alongside

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The other veg plot has been dug, first seeds sown and the soil – seeded or not – covered with fleece to encourage warmth

Meanwhile the greenhouse is so chocka that I’m having to keep seed trays on the floor. Today the tomato and flower seedlings were joined by two trays of sunflowers, 24 pots in total. My friend Annabel has challenged a group of her chums to join Sunflower Club (sorry – I think the official name is #sunflowerclub) where we have been given the same seeds to be planted on the same day, then the person with the tallest flower come summer wins. If the last two summers of sunflower success are anything to go by, we’ll do OK.

Sunflower seeds all ready to go

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24 sunflowers potted up and colour-coded

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The greenhouse is now so full that I’m having to leave trays on the floor

It’s the time for tidying up. I finally got around to mulching the raspberries and the grass is crying out to be strimmed before it takes over the world.

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Raspberries have been mulched

The next jobs – sort out the hopolisk, get the bean and sweetpea sticks up and plant the potatoes. Don’t know about #sunflowerclub, it’s more like #knackered.

Sowed indoors: sunflowers
Sowed direct: carrot ‘nantes’, ‘harlequin’ and ‘paris’, parsnip ‘tender and true’, lettuce ‘salad bowl’, chard ‘silver’, beetroot ‘chioggia’ and ‘bolt hardy’, spinach ‘perpetual’ and ‘medania’, kale ‘rouge di russie’, broad beans ‘stereo’
Hardening off: autumn-planted sweet peas
Also: Prepared right-hand vegetable bed, fleeced the brassica bed to warm the soil, mulched raspberries

The early June allotment

Overnight, the weather turns. The gales are a distant memory and suddenly there are endless blue skies, the hum of insects and the lightest of breezes.

I made my first elderflower cordial of the season this week, using the earliest of Malvern Hills blooms. Truth be told, I’m not that happy about the result – it’s too ‘green’ – so will leave it for another week or two before rustling up another batch.

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Earliest elderflowers in bloom

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First harvest in evening sun

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Wildflowers in the hedgerow

It’s at this time of year that the allotment is most cruel. Whilst gardeners fling open their doors for visitors, be it through the Yellow Book or through village open gardens (of which there seem to be hundreds during June), on the veg patch there is little to show. Actually, worse than that, things are actively either dying, being zapped by wind / birds / foxes or threaten to be overtaken by grass and weeds. Twice this week I’ve visited full of vim for the tasks at hand – and twice I’ve left depressed with the slow progress and failures. For example:

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Exhibit 1: borlotti seedling totally decimated by unknown pest

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Exhibit 2: Despite forking out for all that bark, the raspberries and blueberries are studded with grass and buttercups

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Exhibit 3: The pigeon has got fat on my red kale seedlings. I am leaving them in to see if they regenerate.

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Exhibit 4: French bean seedling suffering, and a few have died. Cause is unknown but might be wind damage.

Also – not pictured – one of the gourds has been completely snapped off at the stem, either by the strong wind or, more probably, by the fox. On a similar note, the chrysanthemum seedlings arrived this week and one was instantly taken by the wind, causing all the growing stems to break off. I’ve potted it up anyway in the hope that it might send out new shoots.

I am told that set-backs are inevitable. But in professional life, failure is hard to take, so why should downtime pursuits be any different? Perhaps there is a lesson there to be learnt. The yogis have a phrase, Ishvarapranidhana, which loosely translates as ‘surrendering to grace’. In other words, if we stop trying to control every last thing then * shock horror! * the world will keep on turning and all will be well. We might even be surprised at the good things that result. I’ll try and keep that in mind.

For all my carping, there are good things happening. Matt’s hops are now 12 feet tall, towering over the beans and the greens in a display of vivacity. We’ve a few broad beans ready for picking, and the lettuces are brilliant. (They are marketed as winter lettuce mind, so the fact that they are at their best now, in June, doesn’t bode well. I’ll gloss over that bit).

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The hopolisk in full glory

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Broad beans near ready for harvest

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Onions and shallots fattening nicely

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Artichoke has once again turned into a monster plant

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Blackcurrants swelling in the sun

There are buds on the nigella and cosmos, and the foxgloves that I sowed from seed last year are nearing perfection. The sweet peas are not good, only a few inches tall. Perhaps this is normal? I have no idea. The carrots and parsnips have come on a few centimetres this week, which I will take as a major victory.

In the greenhouse, the tomatoes are growing with vigour and a few are in flower. So I try to have patience and hope that the graft will all come good in the end.

Planted out: More cosmos, sweetcorn, sweetpeas

Sowed: Fennel (indoors), sorrel (direct)

Potted on: Chillies, basil

Carrots and spring onions: hope over experience

A whole weekend passed with no outdoor time. We did a restaurant review on Friday night, headed to Tamworth for Matt’s mum’s retirement party on Saturday and then my friend Tune came for lunch on Sunday. Usually, a friend ‘coming for lunch’ means that you get angsty working out what to feed them and are then left with a mountain of washing up as reward. Not so with Tune. She’s from Calcutta, is an amazing cook and turned up bearing enough food for the entire street. These are the friends we need in life.

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The Scrabble letters say it all

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Proper Indian food. The green beans with coconut were properly delicious but the Kashmiri lamb takes some beating.

Both of us also had to fit in several hours work. I’ve been editing a book tracking the recent social history of Birmingham’s Stratford Road, which for years has been the arrival place for new migrants to the city. You might know it as the Balti Triangle. Editing a book essentially means staring at a laptop for days on end until the brain goes squiggly whilst getting cross at mis-placed apostrophes. So with the manuscript more-or-less signed off, I took two hours yesterday morning to escape. There was important work to be done.

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Daffodils are hanging on in there

The seedlings have outgrown their windowsills and needed sending off to big school, aka the greenhouse. For most gardeners this is not a big deal. For me it’s a commitment: once they’re in, I have to visit every day (or at least every other day) to make sure they get the watering they need. I’ve been putting this move off for several days, but no longer. The beans responded by shooting up 3cm, literally overnight, and we now also have baby corn, courgette and purple sprouting.

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Another year begins in the greenhouse

Another fast mover is the hop. I reckon this seemingly innocuous plant could take over the world; it’s already up to my mid-thigh and was barely a tiny shoot at Easter. The same can not be said for the broad beans which, despite being in flower, are laughably pathetic.

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Hops now come to mid-thigh

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Comically small broad beans. Other people’s are now two feet tall!

Of the seeds planted at Easter, only two brave little kale seedlings are through (I need to get on with sorting out a bird-protection system). Compared to a fortnight ago, when the ground was soft and yielding, today it is caked and hard, like the top of a chocolate pudding. I forked over an area to accommodate carrots, parsnips and spring onions, scattered the seed, and hoped for the best. This is the triumph of hope over experience – last year none, repeat NONE, of the carrots germinated and I had to re-sow most of our other seeds in May after the early lot failed.

To join them, I planted three pinks, which are in flower too early but whose scent take me straight back to my mother’s garden in Worcestershire.

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Dianthus, or pinks, are a classic flower of the cottage garden



Tomatoes, sunflowers, sweetcorn, courgettes, violas, chillies, parsley, coriander, basil to greenhouse.

PSB, sorrel and lollo rosso outside, still in seedtrays

Sowed carrot, parsnip and spring onion. Planted out pinks.


Started off more basil, squash, cavalo nero