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.

Dealing with disappointment

I am writing in mid-May, wearing two jumpers, whilst outside it is raining for the 20th (?) day in a row, with the added delight of gale-force wind. This week we’ve had serious torrential downpours – the kind that cause flash-flooding – as well as hard bouts of hail. March was warm and sunny, April turned cold and unusually dry, May is a complete wash-out, and the combined strange weather of this spring is spelling disaster for my flowers and veg.

In one of the very few rain-free and child-free hours that I’ve had for the last month, I managed to get to the allotment on Monday to assess the damage. The grass, of course, is loving the rain – maybe I should just grow grass and be done with it – as is the creeping buttercup. And on the plus side, the wild cow parsley that lives near the shed is looking lovely against the dull grey sky; I put some into a vase with several stems of lilac plucked from the tree. Neither last long as cut flowers, but they are a welcome reminder that summer IS a thing and DOES exist.

Lilac and cow parsley, one of my favourite vases of the year

But the disappointments are many. The ancient rosemary that we inherited when we took over the plot eight years ago has not made it through the winter. I am uncertain if the cold got it, if the brambles choked it, if it got too dry, or if it simply reached the end of its life. I’m really sad about losing this gnarly beast and can’t help but feel responsible for its demise; we should have paid more attention to it earlier in the winter and now it’s too late.

The rosemary is no more

The peas and broad beans are an abject disaster. Awful. They were planted out as healthy seedlings one month ago and not only have failed to thrive but I think have actually shrunk – a bug has nibbled them obviously but I think the lack of water in April is what did for them. I was hoping the last few weeks of rain would perk them up but no; I think we have proper crop failure on our hands.

Pea plants should be lush, dense and green by now – not like this
The broad beans remain tiddly and many are blackened around the edges. My hand is for scale.

I do have replacements ready to go in, but whilst the weather remains so cold, wet and wild (and I remain with very few child-free hours to get any serious work done), the next set of young plants remain next to the cold-frame, marking time. And whilst they are fine, few of them are brilliantly healthy – can anything really thrive in this strange weather, with so little sunshine and warmth? This week’s storms have sent the climbing beans horizontal, even though they were in as sheltered a place as I could find for them.

This year’s seedlings are ready for planting out, but the weather is not ready for them
There must be a few hundred plants here, waiting for some warm dry weather
The climbing beans really need something to climb up

To complete my complaining, the few tender and baby plants that are left in the sun room are yearning for, well, sun. My tomatoes have shot away in the last ten days, as have the sunflowers, straining themselves taller and taller to find light that just isn’t there.

The tomatoes have grown leggy in the gloom
And the sunflowers have the same issue.

It’s not a complete disaster just yet. My sunflower seedlings are ALWAYS leggy but always recover, and we’ll still get a good summer’s crop of flowers and veg if only the weather warms a little. But these little set-backs together add up to a general feeling of disappointment and frustration: after what has been a challenging winter, I think we all hoped for a repeat of last year’s glorious warm spring.

I notice that there’s a bedraggled pigeon perched on the garden fence, braving the inclement weather to preen itself whilst standing in perfect balance on one foot. I remind myself of the Buddhist teaching which says that unhappiness is caused by expecting things to be anything other than what they are. Acceptance is key. Instead of raging against the weather, I need to be more like the pigeon.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Asparagus, Jersey Royals, A lovely Greek dish of a leg of lamb slow-cooked with tomatoes, wine and oregano until meltingly tender, served with Greek chips and feta. The best almond cake. Chicken baked with chorizo and peppers.
Harvesting: Nothing, is that a joke?
Also: Loving the BBC’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, in particular the glorious set and costume design. Reading City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The seed list, 2021

I’m still struggling to break through the chill factor. I see people walk past our window wearing cute little canvas trainers, cropped trousers, no socks, and I am staggered at their bravery. Do people just not feel the cold?! For whilst the days might be lengthening (there’s now a dim silvery light at our daily 6.25am wake-up, which is preferable to pitch black) the wind penetrates to the bone. After a trip to the park it takes a good thirty minutes to defrost. On Instagram I see people sowing their seeds, berating themselves for being late, but I think, hold on, slow it down, winter’s not through with us just yet.

In the kitchen, a few feta-stewn salads are making their way into the late winter/early spring repertoire, but for everyone of those I make there’s still at least three items of stodge. Chelsea buns, crisply caramelised around their swirly square tops, and rhubarb crumble cake are sustenance for the winter body and the Lockdown mind.

Chelsea buns
Rhubarb crumble cake

Meanwhile thoughts have turned to the garden and allotment. The buds on the hydrangea seem to fatten in time with the government’s promise of lockdown easing – we’re nearly there, nearly there, but not quite yet. Until the weather turns, we have to be patient. And instead, do some planning: What can fill that tricky area of dry shade at the back (I’m trying out some ferns)? What can we add to the front garden to make it look slightly more loved (answer, persicaria and erigeron daisies)? Have any of the perennials made it through? Already I see bronze fennel shoving its feathery fronds up through the mulch, and there’s hints of the nepeta returning, but of course it’s too early to say. I’m distracted by pictures of staggeringly expensive shallow bowls of muscari flogged by posh florists and buy up a pack of bulbs for a fiver, so that Harry and I can make our own.

Potting up muscari bulbs

One thing that I HAVE decided this March is that starting off annuals in October then over-wintering them is a total waste of effort and money. Last autumn I started broad beans, sweet peas, cosmos, delphinium, lace flower and ammi, leaving them in the cold frame or a window sill over the winter, and only the sweet peas have made it through. (To be fair to the broad beans, they would have been OK but the slugs got them.) The rest are a complete, abject failure. I think it was the lack of light in our overlooked terrace that got them, so until I have the glasshouse of my dreams, I won’t bother again.

The sum total of attempting to sow annuals in autumn. Lesson: don’t bother unless you have a light-filled greenhouse.

Yesterday we prepared the sun room for its spring-time temporary role as a propagation centre. Out went the bags of plaster and cement (hurray) and in came the dinky wobbly tables, the heat mat and the cobweb-matted pots and trays from the shed. I’ll hold off sowing most of my seeds for a few weeks yet but the broad beans and sweet peas should be OK if I begin a few trays now. It feels good to be starting again: to paraphrase Vita Sackville West, to plant something is an act of hope.

The sowing room is set up and ready for action

Planning is key. I prefer to sow undercover and then transplant to the allotment, but I am mindful that we’re seriously limited on space for pots and trays. As if to remind myself of what to do and when to do it, I’ve listed all the seeds that I have accumulated for this year’s planting, noting when they need to be started off, so that I can have some kind of sowing plan. Then at some point in the next week or so I’ll draw up a plan of where they will all be planted on the allotment. There’s lots of old stalwarts in here but also a few new additions for 2021: flower sprouts, a lovely ugly bumpy yellow courgette, toadflax, scabious and honeywort. For those who like such things I list the seed list for 2021 here:

Edibles                                 
Broad bean – Aquadulce
Basil – Bush
Basil – Thai
Lettuce – Alpine mix
Lettuce – Salad bowl
Lettuce – Oakleaf
Lettuce – Merveille de quatre saisons
Rocket – Apollo
Carrots – Touchon
Courgette – Rugosa Friulana
Courgette – Genovese
Kale – Pentland brig
Kale – Cavolo nero
Pea – Blauwschokker
Flower sprouts               
Tomato – Red cherry
Parsnip – Dugi Bijeli
Spinach -Perpetual
Watercress                      
Chard – bionda di lione
Chard – Bright lights
Borlotti – Lingua di Fuoco
Climbing french bean – Anna
Climbing french bean – Cosse violette
Climbing french bean – Cobra
Dwarf French bean – Rocquencourt
Dwarf French bean – Vanguard
Dwarf French bean – Tendercrop
Runner bean – Scarlet empire
Pumpkin – Jill be little
Squash – Hokkaido
Squash – Golden butternut
Chicory – Variagata di Castelfranco
Kohl rabi – Vienna blanco
Cabbage – Savoy
Plus already in the ground: Blueberry, raspberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, strawberries, oregano, sage, rosemary.

Flowers for cutting                             
Sweet pea – Lady salisbury
Sweet pea – Mixed selection
Sweet pea – Elegant ladies
Sweet pea – Almost black
Dill                                    
Strawflower – Mixed
Strawflower – Salmon rose
Cornflower – Classic magic
Cornflower – Double blue
Cornflower – White
Cosmos – Dazzler
Cosmos – Purity
Cosmos – Velouette
Cosmos – Pied piper blush white
Amaranthus – Red army
Calendula – Nova
Calendula – Indian Prince 
Honeywort – Purpurascens
Scabiosa – Tall double mix
Toadflax – Licilia Violet
Delphinium – White king
Delphinium – Blue spire
Sunflower – Red sun
Sunflower – Oriental mix
Sunflower – Magic roundabout
Nigella – Persian jewels
Cleome – Colour fountain
Ammi visnaga – White
Zinnia – Early wonder
Digitalis – Suttons apricot
Sweet rocket                   
Verbena bonariensis    
Honesty                            
Echinacea                        
Sweet william                
Achillea – Cerise queen
Achillea – yellow

Plus already in the ground: Foxgloves (self-sown then transplanted into rows), dahlia (about 8-10 varieties), teasels, sweet william, lavender, allium, chrysanthemum.

So now we wait, hoping for the mercury to rise and lockdown to end. And in the meantime, there’s rhubarb cake to be had.

Also this week:
Allotment/Garden: Matt removed the big blackberry from the raspberry patch using all kinds of hacking equipment. Prepped the sun room for seed sowing. Started off broad beans and sweet peas.
Harvesting: PSB, pentland brig kale, cavolo nero, rosemary.
Cooking & eating: Rhubarb crumble cake with Herefordshire forced rhubarb found in Aldi; chelsea buns; I’ve got skilled at making dinners in the morning that can be easily finished or reheated in 5 minutes after Harry’s in bed….sausage and fennel pasta bake; stir fried pork noodles; chocolate pear pudding, that kind of thing.
Reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, such a relief to read an intelligent book that isn’t weighted with identity politics / genocide / disease / disaster after my reading materials for the last few months. Watching This Country on iPlayer, which is deliciously observant of real life in the sticks.

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.

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…

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