Stars of the season

August disappeared in the blink of an eye. For a few short weeks there was a flurry of family time, hot weather, ice creams and days by water.

Messing about on the River Wye
Eeking out the last of the summer at Kelmscott Manor

Then the rain came and with it a jolting change of mood. The start of a new school, which also marks the end of the baby years; a death and the anniversary of a birth. Eras ending and new beginnings, all in the space of three days.

First day of school
A moment in the nation’s story
And a moment in our own little story

The hot weather has brought on an early autumn, I think. Some of the summer flowers have gone over earlier than expected – or maybe it’s just my imagination, because summer came to a jolting end with the start of the school term. (For the record, I don’t think I will ever get used to the straight-jacket of term times.) Time to take stock of the stars of the summer.

On the veg front, the dwarf beans (Thomson and Morgan three colour mix) have been surprisingly brilliant this year, with a regular harvest over about 6 weeks that’s only now stopping. So too for the chard, which this year was the Seeds of Italy ‘Costa Bianca’. It did threaten to bolt in the hot weather but I cut off the flower stalk, and it’s still cropping just fine – perfect for creamy chard side dishes, stir fries and pasta. The kales are stalwarts, particularly the ‘cavolo nero’ and ‘redbor‘ varieties, as are the courgettes (take note that two plants is more than adequate).

A typical late summer veg drug – including the courgettes that got away

Not yet cropping, but doing well, are the squash and gourds – a Thompson and Morgan ornamental mix will be great for autumn decorations, and the ‘crown prince‘ should make good eating. These plants are fun, give great ground cover, and you can just leave them to get on with it. The borlotti beans are also doing well, and are of course beautiful.

One of the crazy gourds nearing ripeness

Other plants to mention: broad bean ‘crimson flowered’ and ‘super aquadulce’ gave a good length of harvest. The potatoes ‘charlotte’ gave a huge harvest that we’re still working through now. In the veg trug, the peas did fine but I think a mange tout might be a better use of the space. The soft fruit was all on the thin side, effected by lack of water, apart from the wild blackberries, which are magnificent.

The cut flowers have held up to the strange growing season admirably; there’s been something to pick every week since April, from the tulips through to the Sweet Williams, foxgloves and lupins, onto the high summer dahlias, cosmos and snap dragons. There are still promising numbers of chrysanthemums waiting in the wings.

A boot load of blooms

The high summer blooms have fallen into two categories this year – this by luck rather than forethought. First is the romantic, whimsical set, made of whites, pale pinks and the odd bit of hot pink, and spires offset with curves.

A romantic vase of whites and pinks

Star of this set is the white pompom dahlia (name unknown), the super huge white snapdragon Antirrhinum majus ‘White Giant’ F1, which I absolutely love, and of course the cosmos. This year I have a mixture of cosmos ‘purity’, ‘double click collection’, ‘dazzler’ and ‘candy stripe’. Also there was the odd bit of phlox ‘creme brûlée’, which I’ve never grown before, but has earned its place for delicate prettiness alone.

The phlox is a gangly plant but lovely in the vase
The cosmos is a stalwart of the august-september plot

Some plants that I thought I was growing for me actually quickly became colonised by nature. Insects love the scabious, the wild carrot ‘purple kisses’, ammi ‘visnaga’ and sunflowers, so much so that I haven’t got the heart yet to pick any of the latter.

Scabious and ammi are loved by bees
As is the wild carrot

On the other colour spectrum, this summer there’s been bright, carnival peacocks, in clashing shades of orange, hot pink, coral and purple. Most of this fun comes from the dahlias, but I’ll put a word in too for the gladioli, which I failed to take a single decent photo of, but who are the can-can dancers of the bulb world.

A typical bright summer vase

I planted, I think, about 8 new dahlias into the allotment this year, as a trial. Some have performed brilliantly, some less so. Dahlia ‘crazy legs’ and ‘ambition’ are the absolute cut flower winners, along with stalwart ‘labyrinth’. Others have been slower to establish, thwarted perhaps by the intense heat. Incidentally, the 10 or so tubers that got decimated by slugs both at home and on the allotment I rescued and potted up, and are now putting on heaps of new growth. Next year all the dahlias at home will be in pots, for slug protection. And on the allotment, I just want MORE – more oranges, more zing, more pizzaz.

The beginnings of the dahlia patch
‘Ambition’ at the front’, ‘Crazy legs’ at the back

I will make special mention of ‘bright eyes’, which is not a great cut flower but is a joy to have nevertheless. I first saw bright eyes in the Montessori garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2019, so I always think of it as Harry’s flower.

Dahlia ‘bright eyes’, a favourite

Gypsophila was a pleasant surprise as a romantic white filler. Cerinthe has a certain Halloween quality to it. The sweet peas, in large tubs this year, did brilliantly – by the back door so easy for a daily water and pick.

The season is still far from finished of course, with chrysanthemums still to come and the borlotti, squash and kale still to harvest. But my mind is already flipping forward to the autumn jobs – overgrown tansy to remove, brambles to deal with, ground to cover. And in some ways, after the summer frenzy, it’s a bit of a relief.

Also this month:
Harvesting: Kales, courgette, French beans, lettuce, last of the tomatoes; raspberries, dahlias, cosmos, amaranth, millet, last of the snap dragon, last of all the umbellifers.

Other jobs: Saved seed from sweet peas, marigolds and sweet rocket. Started off autumn trays of marigolds, cornflower, ammi, spinach and rocket as an experiment. Ordered spring bulbs, not so many this year in an effort to save money. Wondering if it’s time yet to plant up amaryllis and paperwhites.

Cooking and eating: Slow roast salt marsh lamb from the Gower; creamed chard as a side dish for roast chicken and lamb; roast new potatoes and carrots; bowls and bowls of plums; pasta with fresh tomato sauce and basil; pasta with courgettes; roast five spice pork belly – the leftovers stir-fried with allotment veg and noodles; chocolate birthday cake with raspberries; Jean’s apple and raspberry sponge with custard.

Also: Building work on the house still ongoing; Our friends left to go live in Vietnam; Last day of nursery; A week in Hay on Wye and the Gower; Kelmscott Manor; First day of school; CBeebies Land and children’s parties; Confounded by the death of a monarch, which was universally a shock, regardless of how expected it was and irrespective of anyone’s view on the monarchy. In all – a busy few weeks.

Sausage and (broad) beans on toast

It’s hard to believe that high summer is upon us already. As ever we’re trying to catch our breath, from several intense weeks of event management (me) and back-to-back fabrication projects (him)…but there is an end in sight. Which is well, because this time of year needs to be savoured, noticed, enjoyed. Harry and I disappeared to Sussex at the weekend to visit old friends, armed with bucket and spade. It’s so noticeably hotter and dryer down there, with golden fields ready for harvesting and sun-kissed calm seas.

We practically had the beach to ourselves

Back home, it’s time for a few remedial allotment jobs. The fruit cage, which never quite served its purpose, finally gave way to old age and was precariously close to collapse; it’s now been half taken down (because to take it apart properly would take too long and Matt’s always at work) so it sits haphazardly on its side, no longer a threat to Martin’s dahlias but at just the right height for me to whack my head on every time I take a look at the blueberries.

The fruit cage is no more

I’ve done a more thorough job of staking. My birthday present from Matt was my very own hammer, meaning I finally whollop the homemade oak stakes into the ground myself. Chrysanthemums, dahlias and sunflowers have now been supported with stakes and string – not the prettiest way of doing it, but it works.

Dahlias are supported with stakes and grids of string
The starburst chrysanthemums also need staking, as they can get to a good 5 feet tall

The week of hot weather has brought the harvest on. We have a sea of cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila, which is unexpected and joyous. Nestled amongst them are two courgette plants, which in the weekend I was away managed to give birth to two giant whoppers (marrows already!); I need to keep a closer eye on them. Behind them the climbing beans are finally starting to climb, and the sunflowers are shooting up. I like the mix of flowers and veg jostling for space; our allotment always takes an age to reach fruitfulness but when it does, it’s so satisfying.

The cerinthe, ammi and gypsophila have exploded, framed with beans and courgettes
Cornflower and calendula interspersed with self-seeded nasturtium

I’m now picking the last of the broad beans, plus the first of what I think as high summer flowers – the cornflowers, calendula, and this time for the first time, wine-coloured snapdragons.

Yesterday’s basket, with broad beans, chard, cornflowers, snapdragon and ammi

It’s the time of year when I have to make time for veg and fruit processing – as well as the broad beans I also had a trug-full of peas, which I had grown intending to eat as mange tout, but Harry was so in to eating peas from the pod, I left them in for a little longer. It look an hour to pod this lot, accompanied by Claire Balding walking the Sussex and Kent countryside on Radio 4’s Ramblings. Note the blueberries, coming fast now from my Mum’s bushes and also our own, plus the piddling handful of red gooseberries, the only ones to survive the pigeon attack.

Colanders of beans mean an hour’s podding
There’s potatoes too, a salad-drawer’s worth with more to come

On the flower front, I am not much of an arranger, but I do enjoy the contrast of the tall foxglove spire with the froth of ammi and gypsophila. There’s the odd dahlia now, plus jam jars full of English summer flowers – some garish, some tasteful, but always making a house feel more like a home.

Dahlia, foxglove, ammi, gypsophila
Garish: clashing colours of calendula, sweet peas, foxglove and cornflower
More tasteful: single shades of sweet pea alongside wine-coloured snapdragon

What to do with all the broad beans and peas? It’s a good question: both these vegetables have a tendency to glut, and given that Matt’s not home so much, there’s only really me who will eat them. I blanched the lot, to give them a few extra day’s life. Some will make their way to a creamy, herby, garlicky pasta dish, and others I’ll blitz with lemon and garlic to make a beany-hummousy-dip. And then there’s beans on toast, or even better, sausage and beans on toast. The sausage is actually a kind of do-it-yourself chorizo, made from minced pork, paprika, garlic and fennel. The beans are broad beans and peas. Hash them together in a frying pan, perhaps with a few sliced potatoes and a fried egg, or just a bit of feta, and you have an easy flavour-packed brunch, lunch or supper dish.

Sausage and beans on toast

Sausage and beans on toast
Recide serves 4 but if it’s just you, the ‘chorizo’ will store in the fridge for a few days, or can be frozen for another day. Inspired by River Cottage Reunion, though I’m not slavishly following their recipe

First, pod enough broad beans and/or peas for four people, or you could use frozen. Blanch them in boiling water for two to three minutes, then drain. If they’re really big, pinch the broad beans out of their skins.

Make your ‘sausage’. Take 250g pork mince and squish it together with 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon smoked hot paprika, 1 teaspoon sweet paprika, two chopped cloves of garlic and a good pinch of salt. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the flavours to come together.

To cook, heat a large frying pan and crumble in the sausage mixture – you may want to add a little oil to the pan to get things going. Brown the meat all over, then add one thinly sliced red onion and the beans/peas. Hash the meat and vegetables together, turning in the paprika-stained oil until it’s all cooked through. You could add a slosh of white wine to get a little steam going. Finally add some chopped parsley to finish.

Serve on toast with a fried egg, or perhaps a little feta cheese. Sliced cooked potatoes and courgettes are also a good addition to this.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Blueberries, a handful of gooseberries, cos lettuce, first chard, last broad beans, peas, first courgettes, mangetout, new potatoes, ammi, cornflowers, calendula, foxglove, gypsophila, dahlias, nasturtium. French beans, beetroot, courgette, raspberries, and blueberries from Mum’s garden. From the shops, excellent English cherries, proper tomatoes, early corn, watermelon and strawberries. Excellent Amalfi lemons from Cowdray farm shop.

Cooking and eating: I really need to start making an effort again. Blueberry, raspberry and gooseberry crumble cake. French bean and potato salad. Flapjacks. Sarah made two outstanding salads at the weekend: green beans with an orange dressing and toasted hazelnuts, and a freekeh salad with pomegranate, mint, parsley and finely diced red onion. Also a home-made fish finger sandwich at The Lobster Pot near Bognor. I find I have to have a coffee a day now in order to function, and there is always wine in the fridge.

Jobs: Staking flowers on allotment. Planted out dahlias and salivas in the garden, which is now in that straggly in-between stage that lies between early and late summer. Feeding pots once a week. Watering allotment. And WORK, all the time, obviously.

Also: Reading nothing, I am too tired. Watching very little, I don’t get time. Visited Chichester, Arundel and Denman’s garden in West Sussex, a dry gravel garden, very interesting, but Harry not happy so no time to linger.

First seeds of the year

It feels like the year is warming up. Both literally – I was outside in just a thick jumper earlier today – but also in terms of stuff. After the confines of January, so far this month we’ve been to the British Indoor Championship athletics at the NIA, had a lovely day trip to the Cotswolds, been out for a fancy Malvern lunch (with a baby! Imagine!) plus there’s new work projects to occupy the mind and hopefully help the bank balance a little. It’s a relief to feel like we’re living again. Plus of course there’s been baking.

The BEST cinnamon buns

Valentine’s fairy cakes

Encouraged by blue skies, I’ve made the first few exploratory trips to the allotment of 2019. The raspberries require cutting back and the blackcurrants pruning, both jobs that I do not relish but actually, amidst the growing bird song and with a faint whisper of sun on my back, were enjoyable enough.

The first few exploratory visits to the allotment of the year. Daffodils are nearly out.

This year’s seeds were delivered a few weeks ago and have sat waiting on the side for some attention. I want to shake things up a little, so there’s new varieties of cut flower to try, and old-favourite veg to have another go at. With 5 summers on the allotment under my belt I am now more confident with my planting but still willing to make a few mistakes in the name of experimentation. With that in mind I’m trying a new seed company this year – Chiltern – who don’t go in for glossy photography and are therefore cheaper than my usual Sarah Raven.

This year’s seeds are here, with some new varieties to shake things up a bit

Today I finally got around to sowing the early starters. There’s the standard leeks and tomatoes, plus newbies to the allotment party:  agastache mexicana (Mexican hyssop), baptisia australis (fake indigo), delphiniums, crimson-flowered broad beans and – deep breath – helichrysum bracteatum monstrosum, also known as straw flower, which I saw growing at Baddesley Clinton last autumn and thought it was wonderful in its kitsch-ness. I’ve taken scissors to the trusty black seed trays, splitting them into 4 blocks of 10 plugs, to make them more easy to move around: when you’re sowing in confined spaces, you have to make life easier for yourself.

The age-old plastic trays have come out again

Sun-room is starting to fill up

According to the worryingly-bossy seed packet, the baptisia australis require 6 weeks in the fridge and then another few weeks sunbathing at 20c, or some such. The delphiniums are equally as fussy. Really, who can actually provide these conditions? I decide to stop worrying and just give them a go: they’ll either grow or they won’t, and that’s all there is to it.

Delphiniums go into the cold frame

The bulk of the year’s planting won’t begin for another month or so, but it’s pleasing to feel that spring has begun.

Also this week:

Eating and cooking: Steamed syrup sponge, venison in red wine, chicken and chickpeas with tomato, paprika and cinnamon.

On the allotment: Pruned the soft fruit, cut back the raspberries, removed the brassica cage so the birds can have their fill

In the sun room: Started off tomatoes (gardener’s delight and costoluto fiorentino), leek musselburgh, broad bean crimson-flowered, cleome, delphinium (white king and blue spire), false indigo, Mexican hyssop, strawflower, ammi majus.

Reading: Re-visiting How to be a domestic goddess and feeling inspired to make fairy cakes again. Once again I see how Nigella’s early books were ahead of their time in their vision and flavour combinations.

Wedding flowers and wedding cake(s)

September began with parties and ended with a wedding! After a summer of growing, my cut flowers were OK (nothing special) but thankfully, I had a squad of growers watching my back. Step forward my Mum and Cousin Sue, who between them grew an entire FARM of blooms for our wedding displays. When I asked Sue to help out, back in April, I thought we’d have some pretty flowers that would be just fine, but what we ended up with was better than some professional florestry I’ve seen. I love that our wedding gave an opportunity for creative friends and family to shine.

Sue’s flowers, picked and conditioned, ready for transport

My offerings – not as impressive but still some colour and variety

Together with my Mum, Sue made up some incredible displays for tables and plinths, all using home-grown stems. Plus she made beautiful bouquets for myself and my two nieces, and some seriously impressive buttonhole work. Note the use of hops and clematis seed heads for a bit of country chic.

Sue fashioned the botton holes and bouquets

These exquisite displays were put together by Sue and my Mum

More table decorations

After the wedding the vases made a welcome addition to my back garden

If someone is thinking of doing their own wedding flowers I would say do it…but only if you have a talented team to do all the work. If I was arranging flowers at the same time as making sure the bar was in order and the caterers were OK and having my hair and make-up done, I would have collapsed in a heap. So all respect to Sue and my Mum for their extraordinary skills – I don’t use those words lightly; I couldn’t have asked for more on the floral front.

As someone who has never wanted a big wedding, let alone a bit formal wedding (ugh), it was important to me that we included as much of our normal life into the day as possible. Normal life in Bearwood means regular trips to Chandigarh sweet centre for samosa – THE best samosa in the region – and it gave us great joy to pile 300 onto MDF boards for after-ceremony snacks. 

The best samosa this side of the Punjab

My favourite picture of the day

Normal life also meant Matt messing about with massive bits of wood – this time by sticking our heads onto temporary exhibition walls – and me organising this event like any other work event that I’ve ever been involved in (cue production schedule, production budget, and various bits of tech).

Tres amusement

I digress. The other noteworthy creative skills were from our bakers, and in particular Helen Annetts (my work sister) with her epic allotment cake. I didn’t want a regular wedding cake so Helen “volunteered” to have a go at making a novelty cake – as it turned out, a brilliant centre piece to our table of cakes, generously brought along by our guests for the best pot-luck dessert table I’ve ever seen.

A room devoted to cake

Helen Annett’s allotment cake

Why have one cake when you can have 30?

So now we’re holed up in a farmhouse in Cornwall, looking forward to life getting back to normal and introducing Harry to the joy of October beaches and cream teas.