Nettles and sorrel

I’m not sure I should admit this and do not wish to sound flippant, but now that last week’s hysteria has died down, I am thoroughly enjoying this enforced sabbatical. Pottering at home, pottering on the allotment, playing with Harry, cooking, reading…with no meetings or pressing deadlines…lovely. I am putting all financial implications of lost work out of my mind – right now I can do nothing about it, so why worry?

I have reclusive tendencies anyway but even Matt – who is always over-worked – said to me earlier that this is the most relaxed he’s been for about three years. It helps that we’re all well and that the past few days have been undeniably spring-like. We should not be deceived, for there is time enough still for cold and wet, but for now the garden and allotment are unrelenting in their awakening.

Forsythia brings welcome colour to both garden and allotment
Allotment-neighbour Martin’s crop of daffodils are simply fantastic

The need to be still and quiet, more mindful of our consumption and savvy in our housekeeping, appeals to me on many levels. Some of my favourite food writers – women such as Anna del Conte and Patience Gray – speak so eloquently of how to live well in times of hardship. They hark back to the old ways, to country ways, to knowing what the pantry, the garden, the vegetable patch and the hedgerow can provide. Not that we’re on our way to starvation anytime soon, but there is joy to be found in even the smallest degree of self-sufficiency. The biggest thing that has concerned me over the past week – far more than the potential loss of career or, even, illness – was that Boris would ban us from going to the allotment; when that fear was allayed, I knew that we would cope just fine with our current situation.

And so today, whilst Matt planted onions and manured the strawberry patch, Harry and I picked newly emerged sorrel leaves, tiny nettle shoots, self-sown marjoram and the leaves from last summer’s kale, spinach and chard, all of which I left in the ground and are now re-shooting. Once home, I tipped the bag of leaves into the sink and left them to soak for an hour or so to get rid of dust and creepy crawlies. Tomorrow I will wilt them down, stir them with a single egg, a scraping of cheese and finely chopped spring onion, wrap them in the filo pastry that’s been lurking in the freezer for months, and so they become a filling for spanakopita. I absolutely adore this kind of living and this type of cooking, and when I do it, I feel connected to generations of women past who have dealt with far greater hardships than we will ever know.

Yes, we will cope just fine.

Planting onions is a family affair
Nettle shoots for the wilderness area of the allotment
Last year’s kale is reshooting, and these leaves are full of goodness
Few things in life give me as much pleasure as a sink packed full of home-grown/foraged greens

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Pantry and freezer food is on the up, so it’s sausages with braised lentils, blackcurrant muffins (from last summer’s fruit) and bolognese. Now that McDonald’s is shut I can’t help but think this will be the healthiest Matt has ever been.

Reading and watching: Pride and Prejudice and various yoga books – nothing like Aunt Jane and the sutras to give a wise perspective on life. And the happy discovery that This Old House is now streaming again to the UK after an absence of several years, so we’re lost in evenings of home renovation in the Greater Boston area.

Sowing/Plotting/Planting: Potted up 15 dahlias (10 for the garden, 5 for the allotment as cut flowers). Most of the cut flowers and veg have been sown, including several kales, beet spinach, leeks, cosmos, strawflower, ammi, amaranthus, calendula and others I have forgotten. Planted onions and garlic. Dug and manured the strawberry patch.

Also: Finding a line between ‘school’ and play for Harry now that he’s home. Montessori resources are on order and in the meantime we’re doing lots of creative play, story time and outdoor messing around. And CBeebies of course.

We plough the fields

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

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

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

Meanwhile – asparagus is here!

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

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

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

Gary gets to work on the allotment

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

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

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

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

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

One and a half plots, ready for planting

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

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

The early June allotment

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

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

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Earliest elderflowers in bloom

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First harvest in evening sun

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Wildflowers in the hedgerow

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

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Exhibit 1: borlotti seedling totally decimated by unknown pest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hopolisk in full glory

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Broad beans near ready for harvest

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Onions and shallots fattening nicely

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Artichoke has once again turned into a monster plant

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Blackcurrants swelling in the sun

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

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

Planted out: More cosmos, sweetcorn, sweetpeas

Sowed: Fennel (indoors), sorrel (direct)

Potted on: Chillies, basil