Dream vs reality

It ‘should’ be the season of abundance on the allotment, with buckets of cut-flowers and courgettes coming out of my eyes. But this year – not so much. Many plants are still tiddlers, and others are showing the effect of that cold dry spring.

We spent the midsummer solstice in Kent and Sussex, revisiting two old favourites (Perch Hill and Sissinghust) and discovering new creative inspiration at Dungeness. And whilst we had a lovely time I can’t help but notice the contrast in abundance between the gardens ‘down south’ and ours up in the Midlands. More of that later. For a while, let’s look at the dream gardens/cutting patches/kitchen gardens and see what inspirations can be taken for back home.

Perch Hill & Sissinghurst

Ah Perch Hill, garden of Sarah Raven, and Sissinghurst, home of Vita Sackville-West. Both of them exude femininity and abundance, but the soft edges are prevented from being overwhelmingly sickly by extravagantly expensive landscaping – this is not a criticism, merely an observation.

The oast garden at Perch Hill – crammed with plants, with plenty of structures to give height

Both gardens are massive of course, but because they are made of several garden rooms or areas, they still feel domestic. It’s easy to forget that it takes several full-time gardeners (and multi-million pound investment) to get them this good, so natural is the effect.

What I love about both, but Perch Hill in particular, is the way everything is crammed together. Crammed! Perch Hill has two cutting gardens (one perennial and one annual), a veg patch, trial grounds, rose garden, oast garden, Dutch garden and wild meadow plus glasshouses. I don’t think there is an inch of spare soil anywhere. It’s not all tidy-tidy either – the perennial cutting garden was notably full of self-seeders and weeds, and looks all the better for it.

The perennial cutting garden at Perch Hill, taken 18 June – lupins, poppies, love in a mist, astrantia and peonies predominate

In mid June, peonies, lupins, astrantia and poppies take centre stage for cutting, giving way to the annuals (cosmos, ammi etc) and then later in the year to dahlias and chrysanthemums. The cutting year starts with the narcissi, leading to tulips and alliums, then to biennials of foxglove and sweet william. Succession of colour is the big story here; it’s something I certainly aspire to but have yet to work out how to actually achieve given our limited space for starting plants off.

Love these lupins but also love how jam-packed and actually slightly untidy it all is
Astranita is on the cut flower list for 2022

At Perch Hill they put in a ‘lasagne’ system of growing to make the most of space. Dahlias are in the same bed as spring bulbs (narcissi and tulips), with annuals in the top. So the bulbs coming up in March/April, giving way to June poppies, and then the dahlias take over in late summer. I think this is a fabulous idea but I wonder how well it translates in a cooler climate, where annuals often don’t flower until mid-July.

An abundance of poppies is planted over top of dahlias, supported with impressive grid structures of silver birch
The entrance at Sissinghurst, always full of gorgeous cut flowers

The key take-aways for me are:
– Everything takes SO LONG to get started where we are so I need to plan for this. Include early flowering narcissi such as Pheasants Eye for both the garden and cutting garden – they can go overtop of the dahlias – and more tulips for April colour
– Look at putting more flowers into pots in 2021, particularly early spring bulbs such as Iris reticulata
– Add astrantia, poppies, lupins and gladioli to the cutting patch
– Biennials into the garden as well as cutting patch
– Artichokes can be underplanted with tulips
– If something isn’t working then change it. Sounds obvious, but they talk about ripping out whole sections because the look isn’t right, something I would be shy to do because it would feel so wasteful.

Dungeness

What a contrast from the rolling green hills around Perch Hill and Sissinghurst to the mysterious landscape of Dungeness. We came partly to see Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, and partly to see the weirdness of this pebble world of shacks and lighthouses framed by a nuclear power station.

Prospect Cottage is a lesson of right plant right place, but actually the planting is secondary in importance to the genius of an artist’s eye. The garden uses plants found all around Dungeness – vipers bugloss, poppies, sea kale – and each is its own miracle for surviving in this strange, barren landscape. But what makes the garden special is the placement of found objects washed in by the sea set inside circles of gravel in contrasting colours. Colour rules are broken with oranges clashing against reds and pinks. It could only have been made by a true artist.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness – all the Perch Hill colour rules are broken here, with clashing purple, pink, yellow, red and orange
The joy here is the exquisite placement of found objects and clumps of flowers set against the mysterious gravel landscape of Dungeness

This is not a garden to attempt to recreate – it would be impossible – but one to appreciate for the genius of its creator. Read more in this Guardian article.

The reality of home

Back we headed to Birmingham, and full of optimism, I head to the allotment sort of expecting it to have transformed in my absence into a garden of abundance. This, obviously, was not the case.

Now, there is some life now and we’re cropping vases of biennial foxgloves and sweet william, a few cornflowers plus the early annuals that my Mum grew undercover (cosmos, ammi). There’s also the very first broad beans, mange tout and chard. The few perennials I put in are doing just fine. But on the whole, this years veggies and the cut flowers are TINY. The courgettes have not really done anything since being planted out three weeks ago, and neither have the climbing beans or sweet peas. What’s going on?

And then back to my reality: weeds, disappointing growth and too much brown earth
This cut flower patch is still weeks behind those in Kent and Sussex but note the naturalised perennials and biennials in the background, now at full growth

A snoop around our neighbouring plots says that I can’t blame it all on the cold spring, for they have massive brassicas, dahlias, broad beans – it really is just us. Part of it is might be daily watering, which I am unable to do. Maybe I planted out too soon, when the ground was still cold. But I’m wondering if we need to take another look at how we start our plants off, for they seem to suffer from lack of sun and space in our wee terrace garden. I still have some strawflower, kohl rabi and savoy cabbage in the cold frame at home and they are struggling to get going; perhaps it’s lack of light when young. I don’t mean to moan, I am simply genuinely perplexed!

There is cropping to be had though – foxglove, sweet william, first dahlias, first cosmos, parsnip flower, first ammi, mange tout, broad beans and strawberries
Foxgloves, parsnip and ammi give heigh, sweet william, cornflowers and cosmos a hint of country romance

When we took on our allotment I was told it was a millennium project – never finished – and that is of course both the challenge and the joy. Always we can go back to the drawing board.

Also this week:
Harvesting: First broad beans, mange tout, first chard, lettuce, strawberries, redcurrants, foxgloves, sweet william, first cosmos, first cornflower, parsnip flower, ammi.
Eating and cooking: Far too much wine at Hema’s house (well it has been a year of no social life) but Patrick’s Trinidadian stew chicken is always a joy. Strawberries, nectarines, peaches and raspberries, eaten neat with yoghurt, ice cream or cream. So lovely to have the first spring veg, even if it is July. At Sissinghurst, a beautiful starter of potted shrimp with fennel – light and crunchy.
Also: We’re both working hard again now, as we exit lockdown. Talk of schools and reflection on how these early choices made for children profoundly affect lives.

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.

Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne

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Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins

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.

Look what’s here!

I still can’t quite bring myself to be out on the allotment, though it’s not for lack of jobs that need doing. I’m painfully aware that the autumn-cropping raspberries need a good chopping back (not a difficult job, but a lengthy one) and I should be thinking about getting some goodness into the soil (read: spread some manure). But the key word here is thinking…there’s alot of thinking and not much doing.

So whilst the great outdoors is still chilly – there was hail today – I’m contenting myself to sorting out my seeds for spring planting, and wondering where all these tiny seedlings are going to live for the next few months. Because, dear reader, this year I have the grand total of 50 varieties of vegetables, salads, herbs and flowers that will soon need starting off!

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The new batch of seeds for 2017 are here

There is reason behind this seed madness. My doctor has been telling me to take vitamins but surely to God that is why spinach was invented? And tomatoes, and sweetcorn, and kale, and chillies, and squash, and beans, and you get the picture. So rather than sink my hard-earned cash into the big pharma companies, I’m investing in my diet instead, and that’s where Seeds of Italy and Sarah Raven come in.

New discoveries for 2017 come courtesy of Seeds of Italy, who are offering this particularly fancy-looking pumpkin and my favourite UFO-shaped squash custard white. I’m also having a go at runner beans this year for the first time (notwithstanding the ongoing slug-wars) and a late-to-bolt spinach, Tuscane. Plus there will be the usual mix of kale, courgette, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes and chillies, though no beets this year – grown on our soil they only seem to taste of, well, soil. Ugh.

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Two fun types of squash this year…

On the flower front, I’m bolstering my favourite white cosmos purity with a host of brightly-coloured newbies. There’s a carnival of colour with this zinnia mix, and I’m hoping that the cosmos bright lights mix will go well in a mixed bouquet with the sunflowers claret and valentine. I’ve also plumped for the delicate antique pink of cosmos antiquity and I’ll have another go at rudbeckia (last year the slugs ate the lot).

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…and loads of bright annuals!

The issue now is where to put them all. When we lived in the flat, I used to balance seed-trays on our windowsills with the help of a few trusty paperbacks. This house, though bigger, has very few suitable windows and those we do have are prime hanging-out territory for the cat (I’ve learned that Gertrude and seed trays do not go together). SO I’ll have to make an interim potting shed in the ‘sun room’ and balance the trays on a few trestle tables pinched from Matt’s business. It’s a plan. Only thing now is to actually get the pots and compost together and get planting!

BIG UP: A final note to big up my Mum and Dad who braved the inclement weather on Saturday to plant a climbing rose in my back garden. This lovely plant was a gift from Matt’s Mum when we moved house last summer, but it’s taken several months for me to clear out three massive hydrangeas and prepare the parched soil so that it has a cosy place to live. I am, however, hopeless with a drill so my Dad finally arrived with his power-tools to put the wire supports in place. My Mum then trained the shoots into place. It rained. It wasn’t fun. They are troopers. Big up the parents and parents-in-law!

Too many tulips? Never!

Suddenly, there are apples everywhere. We visited Matt’s 90-something-year-old Grampy at the weekend and the first sight on entering the house was these stacked apple crates, plus a sign at the front door claiming apples for sale. I make a mental note to track down a recipe for the Dutch apple cake that I saw in Rotterdam back in May, generously crammed with fruit and topped with cinnamon-spiked crumble.

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Grampy’s apples are literally piling up

Against all odds, the borlotti beans have come up with a bounteous harvest and I picked a carrier bag-full of marbled pods yesterday. The beans inside are big, around the size of a thumbnail, and milky creamy – I prefer them in this youthful state. Rather than dry them, I’ll pod these and stick the beans straight in the freezer, ready to be thrown into chillies and minestrone when needed. So much simpler than the usual palaver of soaking and boiling for a day.

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First picking of borlotti beans

I’ve brought in the ornamental gourds too, in their stripy green and yellow jackets. They’re brightening up the fireplace with autumnal colour.

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The trug of gourds

But the real job of the weekend was getting started on the bulb planting. A few weeks back I went a little crazy, possibly after imbibing a sherry or two, and ordered a massive number of tulips, narcissi and allium bulbs for autumn planting. The idea was to have a patch of spring cutting flowers on the allotment that could just sit there all year round, perhaps being over-planted with lettuce or suchlike once the flowers have died back.

The bulbs duly arrived (the postman warned me over the weight of the box and was incredulous then I said it was bulbs) and I realised that I may have slightly too many. 310 to be precise. Now I am not the best when it comes to spacial awareness, but there was no way that the designated patch was going to take all these…

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A gazillion bulbs waiting to be planted

As the bulbs were going into one patch of clear earth, we simply dig out trenches and laid the bulbs out in grids. I say ‘we’: Matt did the graft whilst I supervised.

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We (read: Matt) dug out an entire trench to make planting easier

I’ve planted in blocks, so that each colour stays together. There was only room for tulips in the end – the allium and narcissi will have to go into pots or into the garden at Herbert Road, which is no hardship. In went (all from Sarah Raven):

Purissima: a pale cream shade

The Dutch Still Life collection: Helmar, Jan Reus and Bruine Wimpel, a deep red flowers offset with a yellow/red fiery striped and a dusky orangey-pink

The Brandy Snap collection: A mixture of smoky silken shades, with Belle Epoque, Bruine Wimpel (again), Cairo, Ronaldo

Spring green: I love this, a pale white with green stripes from the centre of the flower that lead down onto the stem

Moonlight Girl: An elegant yellow with pointed petals

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Covering them back up

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Covered over and levelled, just waiting for the weeds to take over again

The only question now is…will they all grow?! I went home with about 100 bulbs that went unplanted, knowing that there is now no excuse and I MUST make a start on the Herbert Road garden.

Planted: Tulip bulbs
Cleared: Sunflowers
Harvested: Borlotti, still more courgettes, gourd, dahlia, chrysanthemums, chard, spinach, rocket, chicory

Rhubarb upside down cake

The first allotment architecture of the 2016 has been raised! First the sweet pea poles went up, at which point we were on a roll and so the bean sticks were installed too. It’s a tricky thing, choosing where to put the sticks – we’re stuck with them now for a good 8 months – and they provide the height and structure for half the plot.

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First garden architecture of 2016 is raised: bean and sweet pea poles

Meanwhile the hops are needing their own supports; this one has shot up a foot in the past week.

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The hops are crying out for the hopolisk

The sorrel that I chopped down to the ground a few weeks ago have grown back with gusto! I love its lemony freshness and given that my lettuce seedlings are pathetic, this is a great salady perennial to have in the veg patch.

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Sorrel ready for cropping

Matt came home from Tamworth on Sunday with a ‘small amount’ of rhubarb from his parent’s allotment – yup, it’s that time of year when we enter the rhubarb glut! Our rhubarb plant is still small but will be cropping well within a fortnight.

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The first of the rhubarb glut

What to do with all this pretty pink fruit (and yes, I know that technically it’s a vegetable)? I’ve made two versions of this pudding-cake in the past week, once with frozen stems (rhubarb freezes particularly well) and once with fresh. It comes out with a pretty pink top but the caramel turns the sides of the cake treacly, which helps to offset that mouth-stripping acidity of rhubarb. This upside-down cake is now a permanent addition to my rhubarb repertoire.

Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

500g rhubarb, fresh or frozen (no need to defrost), sliced into 5cm pieces

60g soft brown sugar

60g butter

Grated zest of 1 large orange

125g soft butter

175g caster sugar

3 eggs (though if using massive eggs from Chappers, use only 2)

175g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp milk

Toasted flaked almonds

Grease a 8-inch round non-stick springform or push-pan tin and place it on a baking tray to catch any drips. Preheat the oven to 180c.

First make the caramel rhubarb. In a large frying pan, melt the butter and brown sugar together, then tip in the rhubarb. If using frozen rhubarb, allow the fruit to sit in the caramel on a very low heat until defrosted, about 10 minutes. If using fresh rhubarb, allow it to cook in the caramel until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the orange zest. Remove the rhubarb with a slotted spoon and place in a pretty pattern on the base of your cake tin. Bring the caramel to the boil and bubble until reduced and sticky, then tip over the rhubarb.

Now make the cake. Beat the butter and caster sugar until pale and light, then alternatively beat in the eggs and flour until well mixed. Add the baking powder and milk. You want a light, pale batter with a soft dropping consistency. Spread the batter over the top of the rhubarb and smooth the top.

Bake for about 50 minutes but keep an eye on the cake and cover with foil if it’s looking too brown. It’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Leave the cake to rest in the tin for about 20 minutes and  then turn out directly onto a plate. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds.

This is lovely served warm with a dollop of thick fresh cool cream.

The new organic garden

A decade or so ago, had you wanted to learn how to make bread or understand the art of preserving, you’d have found a cookbook, followed the instructions and generally hoped for the best. No longer. Cooking courses are now two-a-penny as the likes of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Richard Bertinet teach us how to perfect our pastry and butcher a pig. Cooking has become a lifestyle choice, an aspirational escape from everyday life.

It’s taken a while for gardening to catch up but there are now a few individuals selling the horticultural lifestyle dream. Sarah Raven is chief amongst them, with her numerous books, bountiful Sussex garden…and courses about veg and flowers. And so last weekend we headed south to Perch Hill, Sarah Raven HQ, for a day learning about The New Organic Garden.

The course was devised and delivered by the Belgian plantsman Peter Bauwens, who is justly famous in his home country but isn’t known over here – he is unable to get an English language book deal, probably because he hasn’t been on telly. This is a nonsense because Peter knows all there is to know about the growing of veg, particularly veg that is vegan (more on that later), unusual, nutritious and a little bit fun. This course is well-timed because my recent veg-sowing session ended up looking like this…I need help.

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Last week’s sowing efforts…it’s not easy to grow veg on a kitchen table with an inquisitive cat around

This was my second trip to Perch Hill and actually I was pleased to see that their beds, currently filled with tulips and over-wintered brassicas, looked quite achievable at home. They have planted bulbs everywhere, including with long-lasting vegetables such as asparagus, for year-round interest. In a week or so this garden will be vibrant with colour.

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Perch Hill on a rainy April morning

So what is Peter Bauwen’s New Organic Garden? It seems to boil down to five things:

  1. Aim for a year-round crop
  2. Think of your veg as plants
  3. Feed your plants well
  4. Root disturbance is worth worrying about
  5. Try new things

Let’s look at these in turn.

Year-round vegging
I was really hoping this year for some early brassicas to get us through spring – cavolo nero, maybe a few leaves of kale, nothing special. In fairness to me I did try, but the pigeons and slugs had other ideas, so all we ended up with was a few sprigs of purple sprouting.

Peter encouraged us to persevere. The trick is to think of these plants as biennials, starting them now (March or April), sowing direct to the garden because they don’t like their roots being disturbed, protecting them well, and with any luck there will be a harvest the following spring. This outstanding crop of PSB has made me want to give the brassicas another go.

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Peter Bauwens and a staggering crop of purple sprouting broccoli

The other trick is to use the greenhouse. This is so obvious I don’t quite know why I didn’t think of it before…silly me. Just look at these amazing salads and spinach, sown in the depths of winter and doing very well under glass in the early months of the year.

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These salads in the Perch Hill greenhouse put my efforts to shame

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Spinach Medania

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Hardy mustard mix, lasting well into spring

I had some glorious baby salad leaves in my greenhouse and planted them out a few weeks ago, and now they look MISERABLE. They should have stayed where they were.

Think of vegetables as plants
Well of course vegetables are plants, aren’t they? What Peter means is to stop focusing entirely on the end product. Say you sow a tray of cauliflower. When the tray needs thinning, these tiny seedlings are your first crop. Then they get planted out and the leftover plants are a second crop. As the plants get bigger you can make a stir-fry from the outer leaves. You may then get a full-size cauliflower, so slice off the curds but leave the plant where it is. In a few weeks time, there will be more baby cauliflower stems, for another crop. And on and on.

Apparently if you harvest a leek by slicing, leaving the roots in the ground, it will grow a tasty leek-flavoured shoot – a second crop. We all know that broad bean tops are great sautéed with garlic, but if you cut the plant back to the ground and allow it to regrow, you’ll get a crop of new leaves and shoots for another meal. Rocket and radishes that have bolted should be left where they are, for the flowers are edible, as are the seeds.

And on it goes. I love this idea and will be slicing some leeks forthwith.

Feed your plants well
This is where the vegan thing comes in. Apparently vegan fertilisers are a big deal on the continent right now and I suppose it make sense – if you are planning to eat your lettuce raw, and you’re a veggie, it’s nice to know that it hasn’t had horse poo or fish blood sprayed on it. Peter brought out a load of interesting vegan fertilisers that he mixes into his compost, from raw cacao to sugar cane and alfalfa hay.

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Vegan fertilisers, including alfalfa, cacao and sugar cane

He is a sensible man though and grants that it’s hard for everyday gardeners to get hold of this stuff, in which case, stick to the manure. His other tip was to mix your potting compost well – he makes his own compost, lightens it with coconut fibre and sand and aerates it with a sieve.

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Home-made compost lightened with coconut fibre

It did feel lovely stuff…but as long as I am doing my gardening on the kitchen table with a nosey cat alongside, this level of attention to detail will have to wait.

Some plants hate root disturbance
This is one of those annoying things that you only learn by messing it up a few times. Some plants loathe having their roots disturbed, whilst others couldn’t give a monkeys. Peter advises sowing all brassica-type plants directly (chard, spinach, kale, broccoli) so you don’t have to transplant them. Other plants can go into fibrous pots which allow the roots to grow through them once they are planted out. Incidentally, Peter pots on his seedlings much deeper than I do, up to the first leaves on this tomato.

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Tomato plant in a fibrous pot…it’s loads shorter and planted much deeper than the ones back in my greenhouse

At Sarah Raven they get around the root disturbance issue by sowing salads into gutters in the greenhouse, then sliding the lot into the veg patch when they’re big enough. I’ll definitely be giving this a go.

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Plants are sown into gutters to limit root disturbance

Try new things
Peter went to art school in his youth and has an appreciation of beauty in plant form. His books and seed packets are photographed so well that I wanted to applaud – British seed companies have a lot to learn on this front.

His nursery advocates lots of unusual, nutritious and good-looking vegetables, including quinoa, edamame beans, white strawberries (apparently the birds won’t eat these), pink potatoes and blush-coloured currants. Beetroots with long roots have better flavour than those with round roots, so it’s worth hunting out a few different varieties. Japanese greens and radish are good winter veg – sow them in autumn. Oh! And you can sow courgettes in July for a second autumn crop, so I might try that out.

In the spirit of trying new things, I picked up a packet of ‘Seeds of Hex’, a kale variety where you can eat both the leaves and the flower heads.

Frills of Hex, an unusual kale variety from Belgium

Other tips I picked up on the day from my fellow students are that beer traps for slug do work, but you have to use very cheap beer (because it’s sugary) and it’s worth adding a pinch of yeast to the booze to get it frothing.

Peter finished by telling us that food plants are like a paradise to be shared with others, a suitably poetic end to the day.

You can read more about Peter Bauwens in this Telegraph article.

Allotment:
Sowed rest of flowers, kale, beans, herbs. Plan to trial direct sowing of brassica/greens against sowing undercover and transplanting.

Sloe apple jelly

A few years ago my parents had a bumper crop of crab apples and my Mum turned the knobbly, gnarly fruits into a beautiful pale pink jelly. Not the children’s party sort, but the kind that you have with cheese or use to rescue a gravy. She’s good at preserves, my Mum; I like to think that she was trained by my Nan, but I don’t actually know if that’s the case.

Despite years of practice as a kid, my jams, chutneys and marmalades are usually terrible, more akin to polyfilla than anything else. But I feel it a case of domestic pride, a nod to my feminine heritage, to never give up. Also, I bought a sugar thermometer, which changed everything. (No more messing around with wrinkle-tests and saucers in the freezer!) So I made a batch of sloe apple jelly and you know what, it’s pretty darn good!

This is a beautiful, jewel-coloured concoction, its sweetness masked by the ripe tannins of sloes. It’s a bit like a set sloe-gin. You could have it as it is, with cheese, use as a glaze for lamb or game, or to add sweetness to a stew or sauce.

The first thing to do is to prepare the jam jars. It’s a bore, but is necessary to avoid your preserve going off and, more importantly, stop any bacterial nasties from giving you a tummy complaint. Details of how to do this can be found here: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/videos/techniques/how-sterilise-jars

The next thing is to get all the kit together. Jellies need straining, which you could do using a square of muslin set over a sieve…or you can use a proper, old-fashioned jelly bag.

1970s jelly strainer holder with bag from Lakeland Plastics, courtesy my mother

This jelly strainer kit usually lives under the stairs at Grove House (my parent’s house) and despite using it regularly for my 35 years, it still takes ages to successfully put it together. I got there in the end.

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The jelly strainer isn’t very sturdy, but has exciting geometric lines

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Complete with jelly bag and bowl

The other essential bit of kit is a preserving pan. Ours – another sturdy 1970s heirloom – has a really wide base, which makes for a large surface area and helps the mixture to reduce and get to temperature quickly. Whatever you have, use the biggest pan possible – hot sugary liquid expands in volume and you don’t want it boiling over.

Sloe apple jelly needs sloes and apples. These sloes were picked from Castlemorton Common back in August and have been hanging out in the freezer since. The apples are bramleys, roughly chopped but with the pips and skins left in – that’s where the pectin is, and pectin is what will set our jelly.

Sloes, picked in August and frozen

Chopped bramleys (keep the pips and skin)

In separate pans, cook each fruit with just enough water to cover, until soft – about 10 minutes.

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Simmer the sloes and apples separately

Now for some fun. Each mixture has to go through the jelly bag separately: for our contraption, this means ladling the cooked fruit into the bag one spoonful at a time, hoping that the whole thing doesn’t collapse and flood the kitchen with sticky purple juice. Just let the juices strain through the bag at its own rate – don’t be tempted to squeeze or push it through, else you’ll get a cloudy jelly.

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Strain the juices separately, using aforementioned jelly bag

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Strained sloe juice

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Strained apple juice

Now take equal quantities of the sloe and apple juice, and slosh them into the preserving pan.

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Measure equal quantities of each juice into the preserving pan

There’s one more ingredient to go: sugar. We need 450g sugar for every 570ml of juice. All preserving recipes say to gently warm the sugar in the oven before using; I don’t really understand why we do this, but everyone says we must, so who am I to argue. Add your measured warm sugar to the waiting juices.

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Sorry sugar police: to make jelly, you’ll need a bag or two of this

Gently heat the mixture to melt the sugar, then bring to a boil. A sugar thermometer helps here – boil until the mixture reaches 105 degrees celcius, which takes about 20 minutes. There will be lots of impurities that rise to the top – remove them with a slotted spoon.

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Bring the mixture to the boil, skimming off impurities as you. It needs to get to 105 degrees celcius.

Once the jelly has come to temperature, allow it to sit for five minutes to cool slightly, then decant into your waiting jars. Cover with waxed paper and a lid, then leave to cool completely.

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Pour into prepared jars and leave to set

This is a loose-set jelly, which I prefer as it feels fresh and more contemporary than the super-solid jellies of old. It’s a glorious colour, but has a really grown up flavour – those tight tannins from the sloes stop the jelly from edging over to sickliness. It’s a good addition to the autumn preserving repertoire.

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Jewel-coloured sloe apple jelly

Sloe apple jelly

Recipe adapted from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, p324. This recipe made me 3 and a half jam jars.

6oog sloes

600g cooking apples (I used bramleys)

Granulated sugar – exact quantities below

Plus jelly strainer, preserving pan, sugar thermometer, jam jars and lids

Wash and sterilise the jam jars. Warm the sugar packets in a very low oven for 30 minutes or so. Get the jelly straining bag ready.

Chop the apples, keeping the pips and skins, and cook with enough water to just cover until soft. Separately, cook the sloes with enough water to cover until the skins burst. Put each fruit through the jelly bag separately.

Measure equal quantities of apple and sloe juice and put into a preserving pan. Add 450g of the warmed sugar for every 570ml juice. Stir on a gentle heat until the sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil and cook until the mixture reaches 105c. Remove any impurities with a slotted spoon.

Once it’s at temperature, leave to stand for five minutes then decant into the prepared jam jars. Cover and seal. Keeps well for several months.

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