Battle of the bramble

Slowly, slowly, we’re venturing out and turning our faces to the sun. These are tentative early glimpses, a foretelling of spring, but it’s there. The blackbird has started singing again, and the forsythia is bring her yellow showy-offy-ness to the back garden. At Wightwick Manor last weekend, the skeleton trees had their bases lit up by a mass of glowing daffodils.

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

Whilst we’re at Wightwick, I must make a note of their wonderful dried flower hanging rack, which brightens up the scullery (clearly the place that I was born to hang out). I love everything about this, from the uniformity of the hang (that’s art-speak) to the choice of colours to the fact that the flowers still look vibrant several months after picking.

Strawflower and limonium hung in bunches on a rack from the ceiling
The colours are still strong, several months after picking

This weekend we ventured to Snowdonia for some much-needed family time; the first for about 5 months I realised. Between us we work a lot of weekends, that’s just how it is, so consecutive days spent as a threesome are really rare. And whilst sun is never guaranteed in West Wales, it did show itself – briefly – and the birds sang a crescendo of joy. This is not an exaggeration! Living in the city I forget just how loud country birds can be, be they crows or pigeons or gulls or blackbirds or even, my favourite, the barn owl. I do not know this part of Wales and the landscape felt extraordinary to me, a place so alive with the feeling of the ancient past.

Sheep sheep everywhere
Have you even been to Snowdonia if the view isn’t like this?
Harry has to take a train or a bus or a tractor or a lorry with him, wherever he goes

Spring means life and birds and sun…but it also means jobs. Not that this is a bad thing. My limbs are desperate to be stretched and I value the creative fun that the allotment gives me after solitary hours at the desk. I’ve drafted up my planting plan for the year, with blocks of cut flowers in one bed and lines of greens and veg in the other.

The planting plan, 2020

But the thing that has really been on my mind are the brambles, specifically the ones that have infested the autumn raspberries. I took advice from lots of people and the general consensus was to dig them out, albeit carefully, trying to avoid the raspberries. This proved to be significantly easier said than done, given that the raspberries have been there for years and have made the place very much their own; there is no ordered line of planting or any of that, it’s a free-for-all. That, and the fact that these brambles have the longest tap root I have ever experienced. I yanked and I heaved and I pulled and I fell over several times and gradually, I made progress.

One of the invading brambles with a tap root as long as my forearm
A semi-victory over the invading forces

I am under no illusion that this is the job done; I think this exercise will need repeating throughout the next few years. And it also taught me that there is no way in hell that the brambles in The Wilderness by the shed and greenhouse can be dug out: as Matt tells me, some of the stems are wider than my wrist. It would take an excavator, or at least someone with a heck of a lot more strength than me to do it.

The raspberry patch now. It may not look like much but this is a major improvement.

As I was digging and falling over and swearing, I realised that it wasn’t just me who was out. Life is springing up again at the allotments. Martin was happily moving his brassica cages and we had a chat about Coronavirus. Lynn came over and I admired her fruit cage (it is a thing of beauty and I feel ashamed of our tardy efforts at tidiness) whilst her husband had a bonfire. I came home smelling of woodsmoke. It’s good to be back.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Green papaya salad with Thai green curry; barabrith; veal meatballs cooked in an Aga at our holiday let; new season rhubarb (some of it sweet, some of it like licking a battery)
Visiting: Harlech, Snowdon and the surrounding area, staying in a marvellous Georgian manor with a tennis court and mysterious old walls, barns and lanes that felt from a different place in time. Also Wightwick Manor where Harry insisted on eating a massive cake all to himself.
Reading: Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a dark tale about an affair between a woman and a man who turns out to be what was in the 1990s called a conman, but who would now described as a perpetrator of coercive control. Wonderful but unsettling.

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

Back to the jungle

I’ve returned home to find the city turned into a jungle. The hops now tower above my head, the autumn raspberries come to my knees – and alas the stinging nettles and cow parsley threaten to take over. Amidst it all, I find that we have a visitor: this wasp was busy building a nest in the shed, sculpting a paper dome complete with honeycomb cells.

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Wasp nest in its infancy

The lettuce and beets seedling have been in for about a month and, protected by fleece, have pretty much all germinated. Alas the weeds have too. I uncovered the fleece to be faced with this:

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The seedlings revealed, before…

Two hours later they looked like this. In a month there will be chard, spinach, cima di rapa, beets, kale…that is, if the birds and the bugs don’t get them first.

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…and after


– Netted redcurrants and blackcurrants

– Uncovered beets/salad seedlings

– Massive general weed

– Moved courgettes and beans to harden off

The last day of summer

It’s the last day of August today, which to me is the last day of summer. I spent three hours doing the jobs that I’ve been putting off for a few weeks whilst the weather has been so miserable – namely, weeding. Sodding weeds. They get everywhere. Fat hen, thistle, grass, butter-cup, loads more that I can’t identify…we have them all and they are virulent. The violas which I grew from seed back in March have come up, now exhausted after their long season of colour. And the foxgloves have gone in, to hopefully acclimatise for next summer.

The best solution for weeds is total ground cover – just starve them out. The squash are doing an excellent job of that, only 10 weeks old and already threatening to take over the entire neighbourhood. These are Turks Turban and I’m hoping that they get sufficiently gnarled and weird-looking in time for Halloween. There are 9 plants, and around 3 fruit per plant….that’s a lot of squash.

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Squash weed control

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Baby Turks Turban

Only one of the fennel seeds I planted a couple of weeks ago has made it up. I think it’s the bit of land they were planted on – we only had one successful carrot from that patch too. Not much you can do with only one carrot. However I think this little seedling needs saving and so it got its own little covering to stop it being gobbled by the pigeons.

Speaking of being cosseted, the greenhouse tomatoes are proving to be – if I’m honest – a bit of a disappointment. The fruits all seem to be ailed with one of four conditions:

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Issue 1: Blossom-end rot. I thought I’d got rid of all these but obviously not. You could stick your finger in this brown patch and it would come out covered in gunk.

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Issue 2: Scarring. I think this is due to the variety but not sure…it could just be another example of being High Maintenance.

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Issue 3: Splitting. Apparently this is something to do with heat and/or water. Also known as Definitely Being High Maintenance.

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Issue 4: Being gobbled by unknown creatures

I don’t think there’s much I can do now about the first three issues, but I can the last one. The creature in question left a trail of poo which led me to discover its identity (caterpillar) and hiding den (under a leaf). It got chucked onto next door’s strawberries (is that bad?) to survive another day in the Palace of Pigeons.

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Poo! On my tomatoes!

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The culprit. That’s a lot of poo for something so small.

But on the bright side, we’re not far off a hop harvest. Matt’s threatening to put these in the freezer (he’ll be lucky, there’s no room what with all the raspberries) but I think they’d make a good kitchen decoration. God only knows if they will actually ever get turned into beer.

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Flowers nearly at harvesting stage

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Challenger hop has nearly made it to the top of the hopolisk

Took up: violas, marigolds

Seedlings protected: fennel, cima di rapa, spring onions, chard, spinach

Planted out: foxgloves

Harvested: patty-pan, the Spring spring onions, tomatoes


The trendiest weed of all

For the past month or so I’ve been admiring a pink orchid-like weed that had seeded itself at the back of the allotment, by the stream (aka the Chad Brook). When I did that foraging evening with Loaf the other week I asked if they knew what it was and they did, it’s Himalayan Balsam.

Since then I’ve heard about Himalayan Balsam all over the place. It is the weed du jour. No other weed has been so trendy. Apparently it explodes its seeds like little bombs, spreads mercilessly and tramps out everything in sight. Saint Bob of Flowerdew says to pull it up and chuck it on the compost. So I did. I also did the neighbours. And woah! This is some serious weed!

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The culprit

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But no roots!

For something so fat – it reminded me of bamboo – this weed has no roots. To put another way, all fur coat and no trousers. I have new respect for the humble buttercup that is so discrete until bang! It’s everywhere and impossible to dig up.

Having now decided that it is Officially Autumn, despite being August, the yellow mac came out today (see above). When wearing this coat it is impossible to be miserable; it should be prescribed on the NHS. I took a wander around the allotment site to see what else is going on, and spy this:

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Marrow – forgotten or abandoned?

We haven’t had a single marrow this year. This was the aim but there’s mixed feelings. On one hand smugness (queen of the courgette croppers!) but on the other we’ve missed out on that yearly saga of working out what the hell do I do with THIS?

Also spy this:

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Know what I’ll be doing on 30 August.