Rain stops play

I’ve been properly tied up with work events for the last few weeks (with more to come this weekend). In the intervening two weeks since my last proper harvest, the heavens have opened. If I had known that this basket would have been the last decent crop of the summer, I might have given it more attention/appreciation.

I love the colour clash of yellow and orange against deep crimson and purple

Vases like this have a glorious end to the summer

Now, after days of rain, the allotment is sodden; the season has shifted. There is still colour but it’s pock-marked with the bruising that comes from torrential rain. The raspberries – still fruiting madly – are rotting on the canes. No point harvesting them now, they will become juice merely by looking at them.

The bees are still taking their fill but the sunflowers are bruised with rain

Poppies have set seed in the flower bed

My own fault this for not harvesting promptly enough, but the beans have gone feral in the rain. Runner beans as long as my forearm are joined by the magnificently witchy purple French beans, many of which I’m leaving on the vines for the seeds inside to fatten up. I love how their deep dark stems twist around the hazel poles, offset with the lighter shade of the verbena bonariensis. An accidental co-planting that really works.

The colour contrast of the purple French beans and the verbena bonariensis is an accidental winner

Purple and green beans

The abundant raspberries are rotting on their canes

The tomatoes do not stand a chance of ripening in this weather. They’ve been horrifically ill-treated this year – without a greenhouse, and knowing that on the allotment they would fall prey to rot, I kept them in far-too-small pots in the cold frame where they have grown unsupported, leggy and slightly mental. To their credit they did produce a crop, albeit a green one that has refused to turn red.

I’ve stripped the green fruit from the tomatoes to see if it will ripen indoors

It’s not just me who has struggled with the harvest this September. Once again Matt’s hops have languished, turning from golden architectural glory to a browning mass in the blink of an eye.

The hops are browning off now, once again unharvested

One monster enjoys this wet weather though. The mystery squash is now turning orange, flecked with green – pictured here with my foot for scale.

The mystery squash is thriving in the damp weather

Once this intense period of work finishes I’ll be left with bolted chard, cut-flowers gone to seed and bashed up sunflowers. It’s not long before the great clean up must begin. But hopefully – if only we could get some sun – there may be just a week or two of colourful vases still to come.

Also this week:

Harvesting: A few sunflowers, cosmos and salvia that have survived the deluge. There are chrysanthemums and dahlias, but too soggy to pick. The courgettes are still going on but I’m not picking them now. Pentland brig kale, leeks and parsnips up for grabs. The raspberries are abundant but too wet to pick.

Cooking and eating:
Anything easy, for work takes up all my time. Picked up some vintage Linconshire Poacher cheese and Lincolnshire Plum Bread when in Grantham for work the other week.

Reaping what we (didn’t always) sow

It was Harry’s birthday yesterday. Birthday meaning, the anniversary of the day of birth, which also means the anniversary of the day when – if it were not for 21st century medicine – I would have left this mortal coil. The days and weeks after giving birth were traumatic. So for all the joy of new toys and chocolate cake, the 10th September is quite a raw day for me and it does not help that there has been no space lately for stillness and quiet. I took a few hours out from the work emails and never-ending WhatsApp messages and got around to those small but important things that I know are grounding: lit some incense, popped to M&S for new knickers (how middle aged is that?), went to the allotment to strim the grass and harvest raspberries and sunflowers, and made a beef shin and mushroom pie from scratch. That, and drunk up half a bottle of very decent rose (last of the summer wine).

Knocking up a beef pie from scratch

I dislike how my late summers always seem to get consumed by work – it’s arts festival season, which means intense bouts of brochure-editing, planning out city-dressing (translated: the horrible job of lugging flags around) and worrying about visitor numbers. Festival management is a bit like childbirth in that when you’re going through it, it’s hideous, but then the event itself goes well and there’s a bit of a buzz and gradually the pain of it all gets forgotten about. I have events every weekend for the next month but after then……I can smell the sweet scent of freedom!

This time of year again…a pallet of Weekender brochures has arrived at Matt’s workshop

September is harvest time. Whether it’s babies, festivals or produce, it’s time to reap what we’ve sown. This week it’s time to bring the hops in which – as ever – are tall, majestic, and now expanding outwards to take over entire beds.

 

Some items are always a mystery though. This monster has turned up where the pumpkins should be – Lord knows it’s not a pumpkin – but I’ll leave it be in case it ripens up into something interesting.

Mystery squash

The leeks and parsnips have done OK and I pulled a first harvest for Harry’s birthday lunch on Sunday (what two year old doesn’t want creamed leeks?!).

Leeks and parsnips tell of seasons change

I am picking two baskets of flowers of week, and they’re all wonderfully rich and colourful: after their very shaky start the sunflowers and cosmos have come into their own, and I adore the madness of the strawflowers. As ever it’s always a surprise to me how late the summer colour comes to the allotment – we seem to be a month after everyone else – but when it does come, it’s marvellous.

Baskets of sunflower, dahlia, chrysanthemum and strawflower are a regular feature now

At home, the mantlepieces are adorned with vase after vase (rubbish picture I know).

Several vases adorn the house

So birthday survived; just 3 big events to get through and then we’ll be all ready for autumn.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Punnets and punnets of autumn raspberries, the best they’ve ever been. Runner beans, French beans, purple beans, kale, chard, courgette, leek, parsnip, sunflower, chrysanthemum, strawflower, first hyssop, cosmos. Mum’s tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergine.

Cooking and eating: Birthday roast beef and yorkshire pudding with first leeks and parsnips of the season, birthday cake, beef and mushroom pie from scratch, apple and plum crumble, lots of tomatoes on toast.

August pickings

The last fortnight has been consumed with work and childcare, meaning that the allotment is a wild rumpus. The high winds have given the sunflowers a bit of a battering – but given that they are so stunted this year compared to previous summers, and the stems are therefore short, they could have fared much worse. The courgette and squash are finally thriving, the greens are fine, we may actually have a few bean plants that make it to maturity. Blueberries are at their peak and the raspberries are just starting.

My joy at all this remains marred by the ever-encroaching bind weed, brambles, nettles, grasses and other unidentified self-seeders, and the irritation that I get about 1 hour a week to sort it all out. (It’s been a long day and I am deeply tired.) So in the absence of anything intelligent to say about any of it, photos of August cropping will have to suffice.

The wild rumpus. In my defence, Matt’s hops – now extending sideways and using the ammi as support – are part of the problem.

One good thing about brambles is that we will have a harvest of blackberries for the first time

Last week’s cropping – start of the chrysanthemums, dahlia and sunflowers

And today’s: the dahlia and chrysanthemums are now joined by the first achillea, grown from seed, plus strawflower, ammi, dill and a single sunflower

Not an allotment success but finally some joy from the veg trug at home. I was dead chuffed with these.

Finally some down time yesterday for making strawberry and redcurrant jam

This week:

Harvesting: Dahlia, chrysanthemum, first sunflowers, first achillea, ammi, dill, strawflower. Cornflowers are finished now. Courgettes, kale, chard, blueberries and a very few first raspberries.

At home: The back garden was looking great a few weeks back (within reason) but is now full of bare patches and tiny plants again. The slugs are ravaging the dahlias and the young plants don’t get enough sun. Something actually gnawed the head off a giant sunflower!

Cooking and eating: Redcurrant and strawberry jam (strawberries £3.50 a kilo bought from Harborne farmers’ market and grown at Hints near Tamworth). Cinnamon and blueberry buns. Flapjacks. Pasta. The usual. Lovely pizza from Baked in Brick on 10th August, which happened to coincide with Harry’s first trip there exactly one year previously, on his 11 month ‘birthday’.

Also: Tenbury show. Working on the Birmingham Weekender brochure etc and 5 other projects and therefore a distressingly unbalanced work-life balance.

Learning to live with chaos

At various points through the year I wonder what the point is of having an allotment. It is another call on my time, and because my child-free hours are now taken up almost entirely by work, I simply don’t get the opportunity to care for it as well as I’d like to. People talk about ‘mummy guilt’ – the idea that women feel they should be at home rather than earning money / having a life – and I have no truck with that at all. But ‘allotment guilt’….well, that I am familiar with. See also ‘allotment resentment’ (the sentiment of “oh bugger I really ought to weed the sunflowers but I just want to have a bath”), and ‘allotment self-doubt’ (the sentiment of “why do I even try, when I’m not even that good?”). Why bother, when my efforts will never result in the outcome that I want, such as these gardens that I saw at the weekend?

The summer border at Packwood House, Warwickshire

The extraordinary cutting garden at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

And as I take a rushed thirty minutes to weed those sunflowers, and ponder the question of ‘why do I bother’, I find myself coming to the conclusion that tidiness, finish, lack-of-weeds etc, do not actually matter. That the point of a kitchen garden, an allotment, a cutting garden, is productivity. If there’s a crop, then it’s all fine. And I also notice that the areas that have given way to weeds, to grasses, to brambles and to self-seeded friendlies such as the massive patch of oregano by the greenhouse, are now feeding a massive ecosystem of bees, insects and birds. So, far from being a scourge, the chaos is actually a source for good.

This insight may lead to a whole new approach to allotmenting:  planting, or tending, for productivity and insects alone, rather than some concocted notion of what is pretty and proper. To whit, the rocket that bolted several weeks ago is still in the ground, providing nectar and pollen to those who need it. The self-seeded poppies I’ve left alone, for the same reason. And the groundsel and other unidentified green things that are rampant on the cutting patch….well, if they’re not doing any harm to the flowers, but they are providing a home and food for a critter, maybe they should just stay put.

My cutting patch is a bit more….loose around the edges

Letting the rocket set seed amidst the kale and lettuce

This is not to say that I want to let nature do entirely her own thing. I’m not happy with the grasses that have encompassed the strawberry patch, and the greenhouse is an ongoing concern. But I am reminded of the yogic idea of ‘santosha’, which roughly translates as contentment. It means do your best, do what you can, but find contentment in whatever result comes your way. Letting go of our ideas of what things should be like, ought to be like, but finding the good in just what is. It’s an incredibly freeing notion. I love it when the allotment has lessons for living like this.

These grasses – nearly as tall as me – have staged an assault on the strawberry patch

The greenhouse has been taken back by nature – more specifically, by self-seeded marjoram and brambles

But this is what happens when you let nature run its course: food for bees

So in the spirit of doing only what I can do: the cornflowers have become top-heavy now so I’ve attempted to stake them up with stakes and hop twine. In another life they would be beautifully trained using hazel poles…but as long as the stems stay up-right, and I get a crop, then ‘good enough’ is OK.

Staking the cornflowers

And the crops are lovely. Weekly bunches of ammi and cornflower are now joined by the first dahlias and chrysanthemums. The beans are late this year due to the pigeon and slug damage, but we do have early kale and chard, the first courgettes and a wonderful supply of fat blueberries. I’m also feeding bees and pollinators with my efforts. For two self-employed working parents of a 22 month old, in the middle of the city, that’s not bad going.

The patch is still productive. So does a little chaos really matter?

Also this week:

Harvesting: Cornflower, ammi, strawflower, first allotment delphinium, blueberries, blackcurrants, last broad beans, first courgette, pentland brig kale, russian red kale, lettuce. Sunflowers and chrysanthemums are just starting. From my mum’s house, french beans, runner beans and beetroot. From Clives, first plums and proper, sun-warmed strawberries, a million times better then the chilled ones we get from Waitrose and Aldi.

Cooking and eating: Tomato and ricotta tart; plum crumble cake; meringues; blueberry cinnamon buns; Nyonya chicken curry; homemade sushi.

Also: Despairing over British politics, a PM voted in by a tiny number of rich people living in the Home Counties, Brexit and the pointlessness/horror of it all. Distraction comes by watching the Tour de France, visiting Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House, and meeting Abi and Sam’s delightful new baby Edie. That, and work work work.

Cornflowers, broad beans and blackcurrants

I spent several minutes this morning flicking back through photos from this time last year. Aside from an extremely smiley baby who has now become a very active toddler, the main difference to notice is how late our produce is compared to last summer – this time in 2018 we were harvesting spinach, kale, runner beans, sunflowers, dahlia AND chrysanthemums. This year’s cooler spring, and cooler summer come to that, means that climbing beans are still weeks away. The broad beans, on the other hand, are fantastic: tall, bug-free, but the beans still small and tender. Growing some in pots from February, with a second lot direct sown later in April, has extended the harvest very successfully. One thing that hasn’t changed is the blackcurrant harvest, which returns like clockwork during Wimbledon fortnight.

Harry likes to get involved with processing the produce

The star of June was the sweet William. Although it’s now going over, its warm, musky, slightly spicy scent still fills the air. Taking its place now are the cornflowers, lavender and ammi, whose ethereal tall stems are to me the essential sight of summer. These are the best cornflowers I’ve ever grown – usually they are short and stunted, but somehow this year they are dense, tall and abundant.

Sweet william, cornflower, ammi and lavender

Cornflowers have grown incredibly tall this year

The lavender is vast and hums with bees

Cornflowers and ammi – a taste of the country, in the heart of the city

The strawflowers are also now coming into bloom and are without doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever grown. Like dried flowers even when still in the grown, the flowers are crisp and dry, with no scent at all. They take me right back to 1980s dried flower arrangements; a bit of retro kitsch.

Strawflowers are the strangest thing I’ve ever grown

Life is busy again at the moment, with two major works projects, lots of other smaller ones, and a toddler to keep alive. So whilst we’re waiting for the real summer goodies – the French beans, runner beans, borlotti, courgette and squash, and raspberries – the twice-weekly baskets of lettuce, broad beans, blackcurrant and cut flowers are still a welcome reminder to be still, absorb the moment and appreciate the richness of the season.

Yesterday’s harvest

Also this week:

Harvesting: First blueberries, blackcurrants, lettuce, broad beans, first kale, cornflower, lavender, ammi, strawflower, last of the sweet William.

Cooking and Eating: Lots of summer eating now: salads of broad beans and feta; burnt red peppers with tomatoes and beetroot; crunchy green lettuce with parmesan and lemon. Peach sherbet (ice cream) made by blitzing poached peaches with their syrup and whipped cream, then freezing. Pissaladiere, fougasse, meringues. Lots of supermarket-bought strawberries and raspberries, which I am not happy about – so much plastic waste – but there are few other places in Birmingham to buy them.

Also: Slipping back into pre-baby working ways, with full days in Warwick for Imagineer’s Bridge project (imaginebridge.co.uk) whilst simultaneously planning Birmingham Weekender. Time spent at home is precious, like last Sunday’s Picnic in the Woods at Warley Woods, where we happily bumped into friends and neighbours.

Cornish wild flowers

We got back from a blissful week in Cornwall to a work sh*tstorm – why is this always the case? – the result of which is that I’m now sick with summer cold. The trick is to not get too drawn in; to have the confidence to take criticism (fair or otherwise) in good grace and to try and pass that skill on to the youngsters now coming up. And in the meantime, rather than dwelling, there is watering and harvesting to be done.

Every year I say this, but I’m always surprised by how late our allotment comes together. It’s now the start of July and it’s only this week, really, that I’m getting our first proper food harvests of the year. The broad beans are the best I’ve ever grown; tall and lush, with no hint of black fly, and because I succession sowed we still have a few more weeks of picking still to come. Harry and I picked a bowlful of redcurrant at the weekend and so, with the fresh green salad leaves and edible flowers (calendula ‘Indian Prince’ and viola ‘heartsease), it feels like summer is truly here.

July 1st harvest: broad beans, lettuce, edible flowers

We’ve had some cut flowers already (sweet william, foxgloves) but the next tranche is approaching its peak. The ammi, cornflowers and strawflowers in particular are thriving, and the sunflowers are now picking up after the cold May and early June. The cosmos and cleome are abysmal, perhaps from being planted out too soon, or from not liking the cold spring. It is curious how one can feel grief when a flower fails: the opportunity lost, the effort that has led to disappointment.

The flower patch on June 1st…

…and July 1st. The cornflowers (back, left) and strawflower (back, centre) are doing well.

I’ve had to direct sow a load more beans (borlotti, French, runner and dwarf) after the pigeons ate the first sowing and the slugs got to the second. This time I have remembered to net the entire area. Speaking of pigeons, they’ve also managed to decimate the cavolo nero by pecking through the brassica cage, which is my own fault for letting the plants grow too close to the edge of the netting. The rocket did not like the change from cold spring to heat AT ALL and bolted almost instantly; it’s nearly too spicy to eat now but I’ll leave the flowers be for a few weeks for the insects.

The veg patch on 1st June…

…and on 1st July. The lettuces and brassicas are doing well, rocket has gone to seed, leeks and courgettes are fine but (as usual) the beans are struggling

The star of the show is the sweet William. From one sowing of seed in 2016, they are incredible: there were no flowers in 2017 but then in 2018 they put in an amazing performance, which they’ve matched again this year. They last for weeks in the vase and smell divine. One of the best things I’ve ever grown.

Sweet William are at their peak now

Also doing well – of course – is the wilderness. It’s now a mess of creeping, unkillable brambles, 6-foot tall stinging nettles and grasses. Amazing how the plants we grow ourselves, so mollycoddled, can fail and yet this area is actually kind of frightening in its fecundity. In just a few weeks, the space where the greenhouse was (and will hopefully come back to once it’s been rebuilt) has become like the Lost Gardens of Heligan, with a tuft of grass grown taller than me and with bramble taking up residence. The buzzword in gardening at present is Rewilding and we are achieving this with no effort at all.

The greenhouse base has already been taken back by nature

I mentioned holiday. The week before last we were in Cornwall, glorious Cornwall. I meant to publish these images last week but didn’t get any desk time (did I mention the sh*tstorm?).

Sunset over Mawgan Porth, late June

Sun, grass, shorts: what childhood should look like

A sea of cornflowers planted on the cliff above Mawgan Porth

Cornwall in June means wild flowers, which are in colourful abundance right now. As it’s coastal, the timing and genus of plants are quite different from the ones we see at home. Here’s a pick of my favourites.

The coastal path is filled with acid yellow flowers – oil seed rape escapees that are thriving in the wild

Some kind of umbellifer – notice the tiny, lone red flower amongst the pink and white

Hottentot Fig, a native succulent

Anyone know what this is? It grows all over the place but looks like a garden escapee

Waves of valerian

Another mystery plant that is abundant

But my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE is the echium pininana, or ‘giant vipers bugloss’. It’s another garden escapee that must love the Cornish climate because you can see it on roadside verges all over the place. It’s actually a native of the Canary Islands, and is related to the much much smaller echium vulgaris, the regular ‘vipers bugloss’. The light on this image does not do it justice so trust me that the spikes are enormous, at least 8 foot tall, and covered with little blue-purple flowers that the insects adore. I know it’s daft, but obviously I want some  echium action in my life so I’ve spent a whopping £6 on a packet of seeds and am giving it a go, in the hope that next year our garden/allotment can have a little (well actually, quite a lot) of a Cornish feel about it.

Echium Pininana – giant vipers bugloss

Also this week:

Harvesting: Broad beans, lettuce, rocket, redcurrant, sweet william, marigolds, viola

Sowing and planting: Direct sowed more beans: runner, French, borlotti and dwarf. At home, putting in perennials in the hope of filling in the border, notably cat mint and fennel from the Duchy nurseries in Lostwithiel. Tomatoes are staying in the cold frame as the greenhouse isn’t ready; will be interesting to see how they do in small pots as a bit of stress can lead to tastier tomatoes. The slugs finished off the brachyscome multifida (daisies) that I sowed back in February so I’ve filled their pot with a lovely penstemon and some cat mint. Potted on the salvia, basil and baptisia australis seedlings. Lots of watering now as temperatures hit over 30c at the weekend.

 

In praise of horta

As we edge towards midsummer there is a general lightness, in all senses. Light mornings and light evenings. Lighter food. Light, frothy flowers in the back garden. A lightness of spirit (longer, warmer days translate to having more energy, for me anyway). It’s my absolute favourite time of the year, with days filled with discovery and adventure.

The border in our back garden is coming into fullness. This is only its second season – and it’s still rife with gaps and errors – but I love watching for daily micro changes as the roses bloom, delphinium hover on the edge of flowering and foxgloves provide food for hungry bees. The allotment, as usual, is a mixture of disaster and fecundity: the climbing beans have been all but destroyed by the birds, and the cut flower annuals are as tiny now as when they were planted a month ago. The perennials, on the other hand, are thriving, with Sweet William the latest arrival to the June cutting party.

Roses on the edge of bloom

All the flower annuals are now planted out, though most are stumpy and far from thriving

Sweet William now in flower

I added a few stems of wild, self-sown cow parsley and foxgloves to today’s cut flower harvest of allium, sweet rocket, persicaria, flowering sage and the Sweet William; I’m particularly pleased with this pink, purple and pale cream arrangement.

June pickings: allium, sweet william, sweet rocket, foxgloves, flowering sage and cow parsley

Same arrangement in the vase

When it comes to home-grown veg, it’s still a sparse time of year, and it will remain so for ages, given the stumpiness of my seedlings. And this is where the joy of GREENS comes in. I don’t mean the massive, leafy cabbages or lettuces that we’ll get in a few weeks time, but rather the small, palm-sized leaves that thrive in early summer. There is a tradition in parts of the Mediterranean to collect wild greens – called horta – which are then eaten raw, or very slightly cooked, to supplement the lean, home-grown diet. In warmer climates this can go on year round, but here in England we only really start to see lush green growth in late April. Patience Gray discussed horta in great detail in Honey from a Weed, and makes wild claims that a plateful of herbs has an ‘oiliness’ to it that can keep the eater going for hours. Whilst that may be disputable, there is an undeniable vigour to freshly picked young greens that can not be replicated by any supermarket packet.

I do not collect wild greens (though I could – the allotment is FULL of nettles, and they would be grand) but I do look forward to this time of year, when the fridge has a constantly re-filled bag of fresh greens in it. Currently on the go is cima di rapa, which I grew in the veg trug from a sowing about 6 weeks ago, rocket from the allotment, and young spinach, radish tops and beetroot tops that I thieved from mum’s vegetable garden (her pickings always come a month earlier than mine).

Cima di rapa

All these young, gentle greens need is a quick wash, then to be wilted in a hot pan with a lick of butter or olive oil, perhaps a few thin slivers of garlic or chili, and a bit of salt. They take mere seconds to cook. Have them as an accompaniment to something else or – my preference – turn them into the star of the show. Horta on toast with a poached egg is my June brunch of choice, and orecchiette with cima di rapa and fennel sausage is a classic for a reason.

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

Horta need no recipe or any grand instruction. They are the essence of what it means to grow, and cook, your own food. In this age where we are so deeply indoctrinated into supermarket food culture, I find that a plateful of simple greens can root me back to the peasant tradition – born of necessity of course, but none the worse for that – of eating what nature provides, when she provides it.

 

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out chrysanthemums, marigolds, chard, spinach and bulls blood. Netted the blueberries. Grass is growing at a distressing rate. Annuals are not doing so well – it is so dry – and climbing beans have been eaten by the pigeon. Broad beans have set. Back garden nearing its peak, with roses, foxgloves and delphinium.

Harvesting: Sweet William, last Sweet Rocket, alliums, cow parsley, persicaria, flowering sage, foxgloves. Rocket, spinach, broad beans (from Mum’s garden), chives, oregano, mint.

Cooking & eating: Chicken in white wine with tarragon from garden; gateau with strawberries and raspberries; Lincolnshire plum bread from work visit to Grantham.

Chelsea musings

We’re in recovery from our first ever trip to Chelsea Flower Show. Actually, to be truthful, it’s not Chelsea that needs recovering from, rather the shock of visiting a coffee shop on a Sunday morning in Clapham and being immersed in the culture of expensive-lycra-clad Londoners, shouting into their phones as they fork out £20 on a tiny portion of avocado on toast. (This is not an exaggeration. The bakery also had tiny, tiny little rolls filled with a single slice of boiled egg that would have set you back a fiver. I can only presume that the 20- and 30-somethings of South London are treating prosecco as a major food group and therefore actual food is not required. They should all visit Copenhagen sharpish and learn to live more Danishly).

Back in the scruffier, poorer, and significantly friendlier, surroundings of Bearwood, I can reflect on our visit and draw out some of the design inspirations that I may want to try at home.

The first thing is that Chelsea is bonkers. Absolutely mad. It’s not actually that big, yet it warrants as much prime-time BBC TV coverage as major international sporting events. What does this say about the British? What other nation would see fit to recreate a picture-perfect 1930s allotment IN A TENT, or to craft classic children’s TV characters out of chrysanthemums? It is eccentric, wonderful, madness.

What other country would replicate a full size allotment, in a tent? The British are bonkers.

No summer show is complete without some giant carrots and a croquembouche of cherry tomatoes

‘I know!’, said the chrysanthemum Society. ‘Let’s recreate Zippy out of orange Chrysanths!’

I LOVE the madness and find it heart-warming that so much effort is put into botanical creativity, usually by quite quiet, gentle, unassuming people who run specialist flower societies and nurseries. Because the other thing about Chelsea is that it really matters. Careers are made at this show and millions upon millions of pounds is spent every year on the show gardens and displays. Big investment banks put up six- and seven- figure sponsorship packages in an effort to look more human. There’s an interesting, and quite timely (yes, I am talking Brexit), dichotomy between the culture of London mega-bucks global image-making and the provincial salt-of-the-earth types who actually get the show made. It’s an uneasy relationship at times..but good for these worlds to meet.

On to the plants. The big draw for most visitors are the show gardens but I found the smaller displays far more relatable and interesting. Many designers used what I call a ‘confetti’ effect in their planting, with small, quite delicate flowers in a host of clashing colours, which together give a sense of fullness. This lily also caught my eye – Isabel – with its double flower ranging from white through to a deep pink.

Persicaria amidst a confetti style, colour clash arrangement

Oh and the sheds! Or – as they prefer to be known at Chelsea – the garden rooms! I never thought I would covet a shed but I do now. I am lobbying for a lean-to greenhouse to be attached to mine, as in this picture. These were actually the most ‘normal’ of all the garden furniture on display; the rest of it required a small stately home to carry off.

Shed envy

The most memorable garden for me was the Montessori Children’s Garden – I do have a slight bias as Harry is at a Montessori nursery – as of all the gardens, it seemed to be the most fun / least earnest. This is not just a garden for kids, but for anyone who believes that plants make people happy. It was a riot of colour, filled with that confetti-style planting I love, and with edibles rammed in alongside the delphiniums and poppies. The height of the plants means that the flower heads (and therefore bees and other insects) are at child head height, so they can be truly immersed in the outdoors. Wonderful stuff. And the plant markers were painted wooden spoons, which is such a brilliant idea that I will definitely use it on the allotment; so much better than those stupid little plastic labels that the blackbirds love to peck at.

The Montessori children’s garden

Dahlia ‘Bright Eyes’ amidst rich blues and yellows

Colour pops and height make this so much fun

One idea that I’ll definitely be stealing: wooden spoon plant labels

Elsewhere, the D-Day 75 garden used a drift of sea thrift, found along the shores of Normandy and the British Isles. I found the airy white and pink of this planting incredibly evocative and moving, far more so than any poppy display I’ve seen.

A drift of pink and white sea thrift at the D’Day 75 garden

There was also ALOT of green. I am not great with green; I don’t know enough about foliage plants to know what to get or where to put them, but I think I should try to learn more. It was especially effective on the Finland garden, where it acted as foil to the airy white foxgloves, daisies and peonies.

Shades of green offset the white foxgloves and peonies in the Roots in Finland garden

I thought there would be more contemporary, gardening-as-art, style displays as there has been in previous years but perhaps the old guard aren’t ready for that yet. (I found even the high-end garden sculptures on sale to be of questionable artistic merit.)

But I do leave with plenty of practical inspiration for the summer. And memories of an enjoyable day out that seems to sum-up all the contradictions, eccentricities and polarisations of Brexitland Britain.

Also this week:

Cooking and eating: Harissa lamb kebabs with broad beans dressed in yoghurt and garlic, with Greek chips; lots of strawberries and raspberries, first Spanish cherries, a delicious Provencal rose from Aldi, of all places.

Allotment and garden: Planted out the dahlias and remaining annuals, took delivery of a van load of Mum’s plants including the hanging baskets. Picking sweet rocket, alliums and persicaria. Roses are in bloom. Mum’s first lettuce, broad bean, spinach and radish.

Marry a carpenter

One of the many benefits of living in a big, multi-ethnic city are the chance encounters I encounter with food of other cultures. The other day I went for a meeting at my colleague Sophina’s flat to find that she’d been packed back to Brum with a suitcase-full of tropical fruit and veg from her parents in Leicester. Whilst working very, very hard, I had a masterclass in how to chew tamarind flesh from the seed, how to approach a custard apple and the best way to guarantee fragrance and juice from an alphonso mango (the trick is to roll it hard on a flat surface, like you would a lemon).

Trying out alphonso mango, fresh tamarind and custard apple with Sophina

In the meantime, Matt’s been busy on greenhouse renovation. I say renovation – it’s really a full remake. Over Easter he completely removed the dangerously-ramshackle old structure from the allotment, taking each panel apart piece by piece and then rebuilding it in his workshop to make accurate measurements for a replacement. The new greenhouse will be ready in a few weeks (I am promised) and will be made from American white oak. If I have any advice for aspiring young allotmenters, it would be #marryacarpenter.

Reassembled at Plane Structure HQ

I’m also getting a van-full of stakes, which will come in handy for this year’s dahlias and other cut flowers.

Big pile of hardwood stakes to help with the dahlias and other cut flowers

Speaking of which – the great plant out has begun. Last Sunday I snuck away for a few hours with my Mum, and we managed to put in blocks of ammi, cornflower, cleome and strawflower, as well as rocket, lettuce, runner, borlotti, french and dwarf beans. It’s possibly a bit early to be doing this (the weather is still nippy) but one has to take the opportunity when it arises – I have no spare days now for several weeks.

Planting out has begun – this is the cut flower patch with cleome, cornflower, strawflower and ammi

Beans have also gone out

Some plants don’t need to be cosseted, of course, and chief amongst these are the hops. Now galloping their way up the hopolisk, they’ll be reaching the top in a matter of days.

Hops are already thriving (toddler for scale)

Finally, pleasingly, I harvested my first real flower crop of the season. An armful of sweet rocket, which I sowed last summer, is joined in the vase with lilac and persicaria (both essentially growing wild on the allotment, planted by previous tenants).

First armful of the season – last summer’s planting of sweet rocket

Sweet rocket in the vase

Also this week:

Sowed: Leaf and bulb fennel

In the garden: First rose is in bloom, and the alliums are on the cusp of explosion. Matt is making footings for a new garden shed.

Cooking and eating: Hazelnut, oat and raisin cookies, lots of asparagus, bunny pie, tiramisu, fruit salad with first English strawberries in the supermarket.

5 hour Easter lamb

Easter is my favourite of all the bank holidays. There’s none of the excesses of Christmas, the food is great, it’s often a time for a genuine holiday (rather than running around stressed from one family engagement to another) and there’s a sense of optimism in the spring air. What a humdinger of an Easter we’ve just had, with shorts and ice creams being the order of the day.

This year’s geometric Easter cake

I spent a happy half hour on Easter Sunday drawing up this year’s allotment plan. The idea is to separate the two main beds into vegetables and cut flowers, and then attempt to block plant in each, partly for ease of harvest but mostly because I think it will look great. In reality I may have to shift this plan around – there may be just too many plants for either side to contain.

The low-fi allotment plan for 2019. Separate plots for vegetables and cut flowers, with plenty of blocks.

Yesterday was a full day of allotmenting, the first for months and months. And actually, the first with Matt for probably around a year. He got to work raising the hopolisk whilst I removed the black plastic that has been covering our two main beds and tackled the tufts of couch grass that are at constant threat of taking over entirely. Perhaps optimistically, I also sowed a line of parsnip and carrot, knowing that direct sowing rarely works well on our plot…but this year I have a feeling that they’ll come good.

Sowing parsnips next to the sweet rocket and broad beans

Matt has laid plastic near the brook in an attempt to curtail the spread of wilderness as it reaches peak summer growth

The hopolisk is risen, as are the bean sticks.

Removing grass is hard, hard work. Since having Harry I’ve noticed that my general fitness has grown poorer and on the allotment I realised why: full days like these, lugging around trugs of turf and crouching in currant bushes, are the best way to stay strong and flexible and yet I rarely get the chance these days.

But back to Easter food. If it’s Easter then lamb is probably on the menu (as well as chocolate cake adorned with mini eggs, obviously), but – to be controversial – I think that the traditional English roast doesn’t quite hit the spot. What I want is lamb that’s been cooked for so long that it is shreddably tender, full of flavour, and with some chewy gnarly caramelised ends. In the summer I might cook a boned leg of lamb in the kettle barbecue for an hour or two, but this Easter I went for a Middle Eastern-inspired half shoulder, rubbed with spices and then baked – fully encased in foil – for 5 hours. It was sensational. No photos I’m afraid, but here’s the recipe:

5 hour Easter lamb

The day before you wish to eat, take a half shoulder (or a full shoulder if feeding a crowd) of lamb and trim any excess fat. Leave the bone in for good flavour. Place in a bowl with three or four big bashed cloves of garlic, a good pinch of cumin seeds and dried chilli flakes, about a tablespoon of sweet smoked paprika and the same of ras al hanout (I used the blend brought back from Morocco a few weeks back by Claire Fudge). Salt and pepper generously, add a splash of oil and really massage the flavourings into the meat. Cover, and leave to marinate in the fridge overnight.

The following day, preheat the oven to 140c. Place a large sheet of foil in a roasting pan, put your lamb and the marinade on top and squeeze over the juice of one orange. Cover with more foil and bring the edges together to make a tight seal. Place in the oven and leave to putter away for 4 to 5 hours, checking every hour that it’s not drying out – if it is, and this is a vital step, add a splash of water from the kettle to your foil parcel, then re-seal. (The foil is important unless you want to spend hours with a scouring pad.)

As it cooks, the lamb will become more and more tender, and the edges and juices will become more and more caramelised. When the lamb is meltingly tender, remove from the oven and increase the heat to 200c. Remove the top layer of foil and siphon off any juices – if they’ve overly caramelised then you can start again by moving the lamb to a fresh foil base. Blast the meat for another 20 minutes until the top is caramelised and crisp.

To serve, shred the meat into large chunks. We enjoyed ours with tahdig from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food, a glorious way of cooking rice that makes it as buttery as popcorn, plus a mezze of broad beans, garlic, mint, dill and yoghurt; another of cucumber, onion and yoghurt; chopped tomatoes and masses of new season asparagus.

For leftovers, Matt made Persian burritos. Take a tortilla, then stuff with leftover tahdig rice, refried crispy lamb, yoghurty cucumber and a spot of cheese. Serve with sweet potato chip and salad. Glorious.

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Sowed leeks and carrots. Removed black plastic from the main beds and placed some over the back wilderness. Heavy weeding of the edges of the main beds and around the currants. Raising of the hopolisk. Building of bean sticks. Matt has started to dig a hole for the foundations of a new shed and is muttering about re-building the greenhouse.

Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb, tahdig, broad bean and yoghurt mezze, Persian burritos, thousands of chocolate crispy cakes, never-ending Easter chocolate cake, Mum’s salmon with tarragon sauce and asparagus, Mum’s cheesecake, baked chicken with lemon and honey at the farm with the university gang, salad of avocado, edamame and tender stem broccoli at Arco Lounge that was surprisingly good. Harry had his first Calippo (except he didn’t as it was a fake Aldi version) and enjoyed it immensely.

Reading: Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray by Adam Federman.