The July allotment

In the past two weeks, now there’s some heat, I can see noticeable acceleration in growth – and about bloody time, I might add. The third week of July is late to be seeing the change. Without wishing to be too melodramatic, the allotment this year has driven me to the point of despair. Grass proliferates, and when even courgettes will not grow, what hope is there? So I’ve been looking, properly paying attention, to work out what The Problem is. And in an effort at balance, also take stock of what’s doing alright, actually.

A number of plants appear to thrive in our free-draining, exposed plot. Some are the self-seeders; others are the perennials or shrubs that I put in and leave to it. Of the first lot, the nasturtiums, poppies, marjoram and buttercup are rampant. Foxgloves, lavender, achillea, tansy and mullein have all become whoppers with no assistance from me. The connecting factor with all these is that they like the sun, they like to be free-draining, and they can cope with low nutrient soil. Not that our allotment soil is poor quality (years of manure put paid to that) but these particular plants get no assistance from me.

The lesson: plants that like sun, can tolerate drought and are low-maintenance will do well. Conversely, those that needs tons of water and molly-coddling (sweet peas, squash, beans) struggle.

The allotment on 19 July: broad beans finally thriving, as are nasturtiums, but the courgette and stick beans struggling to get going
Cosmos, sunflower, squash and ammi majus are getting going – plus note the thriving nasturtium and teasel at the rear
Greens and roots are doing OK – chard, beet spinach, carrots, parsnip plus (out of shot) cavolo nero, flower sprout and kale. In the mid-ground, Jill Be Little squash are still tiddly.

The chief disappointment, as has been the case for a few years now, is the stick beans. I recall that last year I sowed at least three times (at home and directly) before getting a crop, and even then it was small. This year is no different. The variety does not seem to matter – I have tried runner, three types of French and borlotti. They germinate well enough, but the plants started at home suffer from lack of sun, and those planted directly usually get knobbled by the pigeons. This year they’re having to fend off the self-seeded nasturtiums too, a plant so prolific that I may have to start culling it. Sweet peas similarly are frustrating, though I think lack of regular watering did for them this year. In an effort to out-fox the pigeons, I have put a final desperate new sowing of beans into the sweet pea netting – the triumph of hope over experience. My ever-sensible mother-in-law Jean suggests that I try growing stick beans at home instead of the allotment, where I can care for the them properly – a suggestion so obvious I wonder why I didn’t think of it earlier.

Climbing beans of all variety are struggling, but the self-seeded nasturtium is romping off
Sweet peas are dead. This is a third sowing – still no joy.

The cold spring has led to inevitable lateness. I would expect the cornflowers to be cropping a month earlier than they actually did, but now they are here, what a joy they are. Coming at the same time as the early cosmos and ammi they are, to me, the epitome of the early English summer. Just a bit later than normal.

Cornflowers are finally coming into their own, plus behind them are my Mum’s early-sown cosmos and ammi

The strange spring impacted the early broad beans of course. The ones I started in February are now scourged in black-fly, whilst the ones direct sown at the end of May are thriving and healthy. The early ones, interestingly, also have patchy pollination – the cold snap in April and May causing havoc to the wildlife.

The broad beans that were direct sown at the end of May are healthy and vibrant…
…but those started under-cover in February have succumbed to black fly and the pods have not been pollinated

Over on the new biennial and perennial patch, the dahlias are thriving. Both the over-wintered and the newly planted tubers are healthy, making me think that next year I should add to the collection. The biennials, on the other hand, were poor – but have potential. I started off new sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty at the end of June, and will plant them out in the autumn to give them chance to bulk up – rather than, as I did this year, in the spring when the weather was too cold.

Dahlias are doing OK, both the ones left in over-winter and the newly planted tubers

A word about teasels. I put these in as tiny plug plants in spring 2020, just as lockdown was coming in, thinking they would be a fun addition to my dried flower collection for the winter. Had I known they would become ten-foot whoppers I might have hesitated – though I can not deny that these green cone-shaped flower heads are a lovely addition to the vase. My chief concern is that they will self-sow all over the place, so I’m started to crop them now (before they fully flower and set seed) and dry them in readiness for winter arrangements.

If I had known these teasels would reach ten feet tall I may not have planted them – majestic though they are
Half a teasel stem, with my foot for scale

I have not pictured the grass, that this year seems worse than ever and has infiltrated the raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. The only hope is to strim for now, then in the colder months dig it out as best I can. Well either that or buy myself a gigantic house with a kitchen garden on-site that has no grass attached to it (I can dream).

I also believe a major issue is one of anticipation versus reality. What I want is abundance – and yet of course, too much abundance is stressful, for no-one wants gluts of vegetables and fruit that will go over before they can be eaten. I would like more early veg (broad beans, French beans, small courgettes) but the growing conditions will not allow it; we actually do much better in the late summer and early autumn, when the soft fruit, squash and brassicas come into their own.

Of course much of the allotment is now given up to flowers, and the trick here is to have a regular crop of modest proportions – anything bigger is overwhelming. I’m now getting about 4 or 5 small vases a week, perfect for the mantlepiece and kitchen table, and I can go for either a cool or warm colour palette. The cosmos, cornflower and ammi are the current queen plants, and they will give way in due course to sunflowers, dahlias and chrysanthemums.

Currently we’re getting about five of these vases a week, in cool blue/white/mauve/green and warmer yellow/purple/orange palettes
Achillea, cosmos, ammi, cornflower, poppy heads, teasel, lavender, nasturtium, tansy and calendula are all cropping now
Sufferagette colours: purple, green and white

Lessons to learn, then, are as follows:

  1. Only sow at the allotment what can be realistically watered; keep the fussy beans for home.
  2. Rethink the spring sowing plan, for the seedlings need to have more light and be tougher before they are planted out. Maybe it is time to bring back the greenhouse or, better yet, cobble together a polytunnel.
  3. Brassicas do well, so maybe try a few more of those, in different varieties.
  4. Flowers for nine months of the year are a possibility, but veg isn’t. Within current resources, do not expect much of a veg harvest before late July. Extend the flower season with spring bulbs and biennials, and think about a wider variety of dahlias. Perennials seem to excel, so consider a few more, for cutting.
  5. Over the winter, do something about the grass.

Simple, no?

Also this week:
Harvesting: At home, lettuce, thyme, oregano. From allotment, broad beans (scant), dwarf beans (scant), chard, beet spinach, cornflower, ammi, cosmos, lavender, teasel, nasturtium, first dahlias, achillea. Sweet william, foxglove, strawberries are now finished. Gift of stick beans, potatoes, fennel, carrots, raspberries and blueberries from my parents.
Garden: The garden is moving from the cool shades of early summer to the hot tones of high-to-late summer. Roses and bronze fennel at their zenith, with helenium and dahlias coming through. Potted on sweet williams that were started in June. Cut back aquilegia and allium heads for drying. Planted out new dahlias, salvia amistad and other orange/yellow palette plants for late summer – incidentally I thought that most of the garden dahlias had not made it over the winter but on digging around discovered that the slugs had been nibbling the emerging shoots whilst still underground. Serious note taking and thinking about next spring and early summer – spent a good £200 on spring bulbs for home and allotment, inspired by the trip to Perch Hill.
Cooking and eating: Whole lamb shoulder butterflied and barbecued, flavoured with cumin and harissa. Potato salad using Dad’s potatoes. Chapel Down sparkling bacchus, a joy.
Also: Visited Puzzle Wood. Reading The Mitford Girls biography and Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Flowers. No time or interest for telly. Am getting up early to be on the allotment at 8am before the heat is unbearable and the working day begins; life feels very full and busy again.

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.

Allotmenting for wildlife

Well what a difference a fortnight can make. Two weeks ago I was lamenting the cold, wet, windy spring, and then – overnight – we switched to summer. Warm dry days are followed by warm dry nights, the cold a distant memory. I fall into this warm weather in the same way that one might sink into a hot bath. How easy it is to succumb! What is a coat again? What are socks again? I can not remember ever having had a need or a use for them.

The plants of course are tumbling over themselves in joy. In my garden, the beds are an eruption of pinks, purples and whites as the roses, aquilegia and allium vie for attention. The warmth has brought into life a massive population of aphids; they cover the roses with thousands of tiny green bumps, leaving their sticky mess everywhere. I’m fascinated by them and wander out each morning and evening to take a closer look, conscious that my garden isn’t mine at all, but a shared space for hundreds of species. The air literally hums with insects. The fledgling magpies hop around the trees and chimney tops, testing their wings.

On the allotment, it’s not full steam ahead just yet, but there are signs of things preparing for proper action. The peas, which two weeks ago I had written off as dead, are fighting back and have grown at least a foot in the last ten days. The broad beans too are reviving, and whilst I won’t be winning any prizes for best beans anytime soon, I think we’ll still get a crop.

Finally, finally, the peas have taken off in the warmer weather

Last weekend we planted out the climbing and dwarf beans – several varieties are jumbled up together – and once again, whilst they’re not quite thriving, they’re hanging on which I take as a victory. The same goes for baby chard, beet spinach, cavolo nero and flower sprouts. Everything is netted against the pigeons of course.

Meanwhile the climbing and dwarf beans are bedding themselves in
Chard and beet spinach sits undercover to protect from pigeons

I’ve not mentioned the hops yet this year. Two of our old plants are zipping up the hop twine, but Matt has replaced the others with new baby plants that will take a year or two to get going.

We will have two substantial hop plants this year, plus two babies

We also have fruit set. The green swelling of baby strawberries, blueberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and gooseberries can all be seen, though I think it will be a small crop this year as a result of the April cold affecting the blossom.

A surviving strawberry finally bears fruit

As for the cut flowers, I took a tiny first cut of foxgloves and sweet william today. The latter all self-seeded last year and I made the effort to move them to their own block in the autumn, for which I will be richly rewarded over the next month as all 30 or so plants are thriving. The sweet william I had actually given up on but this few weeks of warm has revived them, their sweet scent a welcome reminder of summer.

I had given up on the Sweet William but they too look ready to put on a show
About 30 foxgloves are waiting in the wings for their moment

Back to wildlife. For the first five years or so I didn’t give much thought to the wildlife on our allotment, other than to be irritated by slugs and birds. (Lately the slugs seem to have moved elsewhere and I’ve learnt to net everything, which has solved the bird problem.) I certainly didn’t hate the insects and invertebrates but I had a sure sense of ‘This is my dance space, that is your dance space, let’s not get too close’. But over time my view has completely changed and I’ve come to relish being in close quarters with wild creatures going about their business – hence wandering out to look at what the greenfly are up to on the roses.

This has influenced how I keep the plot. There are plenty of weeds around the perimeter of our allotment which I purposefully keep in, as they are great food source for winged insects. An entire strip is dense with pollinator-friendly plants, some of which I have put in (alliums, lavender, sorrel) but others that have self-seeded (buttercup, foxglove, oregano, tansy) and I have either let them be or I’ve moved them to a slightly more convenient location. Take the mullein, for example, that seems to love our patch of ground and seeds itself everywhere. I have let four stay, and each is now home to the mullein caterpillar, a pretty little thing that will absolutely decimate the plant before it becomes a moth in a few weeks time, but is also a useful food source for birds.

The insect-friendly strip with sorrel, foxglove, mullein, buttercups, tansy, allium and lavender
Common mullein plant – my foot is there for an idea of size
The mullein moth has been busy: caterpillars can decimate the mullein plant

Elsewhere a few minor interventions can make for interesting rewards. Last spring I planted a few teasels, thinking they would be a lovely dried flower, but I hadn’t realised what an incredibly majestic plant this is when allowed to thrive. (I’ll share pictures when it flowers in a few weeks.) And this parsnip was left in the ground over the winter and is now ready to flower, so another food source for insects plus I’ll get to save the seeds. But what a whopper of a plant! It’s already reaching my chin and will be covered with pretty yellow umbellifers.

I left two of last year’s parsnips in the ground, and they are now preparing to flower
Parsnips are an umbellifer and part of the carrot family

Elsewhere by the brook there are nettles, cow parsley and brambles and no, it’s not tidy, but what a relief it is to let go of all those old ideas as to what constitutes beauty and worth, and instead think of oneself as inhibitor of a shared natural space. As long the allotment is productive – not just in veg, fruit and flowers but also in wildlife and yes in providing joy – that is how I measure success these days.

Also this week:
Planting out: Dahlias, chrysanthemums, sweet peas, ammi, peas, red kale, chard, spinach, cavolo nero, flower sprouts, echinacea, climbing beans, dwarf beans, courgette, fennel, tomatoes.
In the garden: Roses are at their best, plus aquilegia, allium, fennel all looking good. Planted out sunflowers. Cut back forsythia.
Harvesting: Start of the foxgloves and sweet william, ammi, cow parsley.
Cooking and eating: Strawberries, first cherries, first barbecue of the year. Inspired by Rick Stein’s Venice to Istanbul book (which I borrowed from the library via a Covid-safe appointment system straight from a Victoria Wood sketch) made Kisir, a bulgur wheat salad from Turkey, and now want to cook the entire book.
Also: Visited Chatsworth, our first proper family day out since September. We could really do with a holiday.

Dealing with disappointment

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

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

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

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

The rosemary is no more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hop twine bean poles

We have strange weather to match the strange times. April started like a lamb, with warm sunshine and ice lollies all round, only to give way to weeks of dry frost; now as we tip into May we are hit with rain and blustery winds – I think of it as Cornish weather. All is confusion: one part of me trips trying to keep up with the changing season (the trees are vividly green now and the garden has grown lush in the space of one week), but then I’m also frustrated at the lack of progress as the cold keeps my veg seedlings small.

But then do I always feel this way at the start of May? I cling to the idea that the veg plot will be lush and productive with broad beans and salads by now, but the truth (every year) is that there won’t be anything to crop for weeks. Daffodils can still be in bloom in June in these parts, and May is the season not of the bean but of the tulip. It’s a good job we don’t have to live purely off our crops, because we would never make it through the Hungry Gap of late spring. This weekend I visited the Tulip Festival at Morton Hall, near Redditch, and this shot of their super-expensive veg patch rather eloquently proves my point: not a leaf of spinach or rocket in sight, but plenty of very elegant spring bulbs.

The beautifully prepared veg plot at Morton Hall is still sparse in May
Cut tulips at the Morton Hall Tulip Festival

In the meantime, I am obsessed with my seedlings. Obsessed. The trays inhabit three areas depending on the need and size of the plant: The babies begin life near the windows of the sunroom, then some make it to the cold-frame, and when they are big enough the trays are propped outside in rows against a sheltered wall. This is not a foolproof system by any means, but it’s the best I can do with the space I have. The inside seedlings germinate well but risk legginess and sunburn, whilst the outside babies have been battered this week with rain, wind and hail. Every morning and every afternoon I check their progress, give them a turn, move some out, move some back in again, give them water, see who is happy and who is struggling. All is a tentative dance to keep up with the weather. It’s a challenge I love, a way to keep fully engaged with the rapid changes of spring.

Indoor seedlings including beans, sunflowers, fennel, beets, salvia and strawflower
Space remains at a premium
This weekend’s hail and wind have battered the outside seedlings, so back into the cold frame they go to recover
The cold has inhibited the sweet peas and broad beans, so it will be a later harvest than normal

The only crop that thrives currently are the rocket and lettuce seedlings, which I planted into the veg trug under the plastic cover to keep the squirrels and cats off, but of course it’s added weather protection too. We’ll be able to start cropping these in a week or two.

Salad leaves in the veg trug

So whilst I wait for the plants, attention is focused on plot architecture. The hopolisk went up this weekend, ready to take the weight of the four hop plants. Normally we would put in a load of hazel poles at the same time, to support the climbing beans and sunflowers, but this year coppiced hazel is impossible to find. Instead we are trialling a new system of climbing the French, runner and borlotti beans up hop twine, which is then fixed into place with this nifty bit of wood that Matt whizzed up on his CNC machine. It’s all held together with a steel leg pushed deep into the soil. It’s kind of like a May Pole, but using beans rather than ribbons.

This year’s bean supports: hop twine is tied to the holes, supported in place by solid steel legs

These are an experiment really – the hop twine will surely take the weight of a bean plant (especially if I’ve grown it – my beans are always terrible) but the spacing between each plant may be a challenge; they will jump and spread to the neighbouring twine. One thing is certain though, and that is that this device will last loads longer than the hazel poles.

The new bean poles, tied up and in place

Also this week:
Allotment and garden: Bought 12 beetroot plugs only to discover that there were actually 50+ seedlings in there, so I pricked them out and re-potted the lot. We will have Russian levels of beetroot come September. Planted out peas in a burst of seasonal enthusiasm but the lack of rain means they struggle. In the garden, tulips are in bloom and the alliums are on the cusp of glory.
Cooking and eating: Asparagus; Jersey royals; Smoked salmon and spinach tart; Red gooseberry and almond sponge (using up last year’s fruit); Choc chip cookies.
Also: Visited Morton Hall Gardens & Winterbourne House; got hailed on twice in two days; re-reading Brideshead Revisited.

Sowing the HAs and HHAs

We have three seasons in one weekend, as spring becomes summer becomes winter and then back to spring. March and April are so elemental – any hint of new life is pounced upon with rejoicing (a bee! bud break! bird song!) but the wise know that winter’s cold fingers still have stretch in them. Last week we had sunshine and ice creams, but today there is snow. Still, with Easter, I can feel the sap rising.

Daffodils at Wightwick Manor
Easter baking

It’s a slow start to the spring produce season, perhaps due to lockdown, or maybe it’s Brexit. There is purple sprouting if you know where to look, and very early English strawberries, but the tomatoes are still rubbish (I’d hope for some decent European ones by now). My annual early April pilgrimage to asparagus country – Evesham – did pay dividends however, and as usual, the clutch of suggestive green stems set me back a small fortune.

The annual early April asparagus hunt came up trumps

I’ve spent the last month or so getting back into the horticultural swing of things. Not on the allotment – still too cold – but rather in my ‘potting shed’, the sun room at the back of our house. Over the four springs we have been here I have learnt to refine my system to make the most efficient use of space, heat and light. Instead of sowing everything at once I now move slowly, gradually, starting with the hardiest varieties and responding to what the temperamental spring throws at us.

When I first started the allotment the phrases ‘HA’ and ‘HHA’ on seed packets were just another thing to ignore, but having lost too many French beans to a surprise late frost on our exposed plot, I have finally learnt to pay attention. So I start the sowing season with the toughies such as broad beans and peas, and when they are ready to go into the cold-frame, I start the half-hardies off inside. Then when the hardy baby plants in the cold frame are ready to be planted out, the half-hardy seedlings goes under glass and we sow again with the real softies. And on it goes. At least – that is the plan.

No room for any more seed trays now, hence the new system of timed sowings

Over time I have narrowed down the number of veg I sow, keeping it to the types I can either successfully grow, that we will actually eat or I would feel emotionally bereft without. In contrast the list of flowers for cutting expands and expands. They are a true joy of life that I can no longer do without, and growing them answers my need for nurture, colour, creativity, groundedness, wonder – not to mention the myriad affordability and sustainability issues associated with bought cut flowers. The allotment sowing timetable could, then, be called the Cutting Patch timetable. Which come to think of it means I need to rename the blog too – Notes from the Cutting Patch perhaps. In the meantime, here’s this sowing year’s plan:

The 2021 allotment sowing timetable:

March: Hardy veg and cut-flowers, including sweetpeas, cornflowers, broad beans, peas, kales & chard (plus tomatoes which stay under glass). Once germinated I can put these in the cold frame to make room for….

Early to mid April: Half-hardy annuals, including cosmos, strawflower, zinnia, amaranthus, ammi, cleome, plus courgette. I find that if I start them sooner they get all leggy in the fruitless search for light. I’ll also plant out the first lot of broad beans and peas at this time, which frees up pots for a repeat sowing. Once established the seedlings will go into the coldframe which then creates room for…

Late April to May: Sunflowers, climbing and dwarf beans, cabbages, squash, kohl rabi – the sunlovers and slow-growers, for later summer and autumn pickings. Also the biennials, such as sweet william, sweet rocket and honesty, which will be planted out in the autumn ready for early flowers next spring.

It’s a relief to not start everything at once, like giving oneself permission to take a day off. And in the meantime, there are other projects that are taking up my energies, such as finally sorting out the very back bed of our west-facing garden. Over Easter some bedraggled shrubs were removed, and there’s some remedial work to be done to the fence and retaining wall before I get on with planting. It’s a shady patch, and I’m drawn to the ideas of ever-green ferns and jurassic plants that can be fuel to a young pre-schooler’s dinosaur-loving imagination. Watch this space.

The next project, sorting out the unloved back bed

Also this week:
Sowing and planting: Hardy and half-hardy annuals, as outlined above. Replanted the herbery with new hyssop, mint, thyme, chervil and oregano. Currently planting up summer pots for front and back garden. There are broad beans and peas ready for planting out but the snowy weather will delay matters for a week or so. Garden is filled with narcissus and tulips on the tip of opening, and the forsythia is a golden joy.
Harvesting: Mustard, lettuce and rocket from the veg trug. Not much else.
Cooking and eating: First asparagus of the year, costing a king’s ransom, though purple sprouting is cheap as chips now. Easter biscuits, Easter chocolate cake and hot cross buns, obviously. Lamb kebabs with flatbreads. First bottle of rose wine of the year.
Reading: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, and I see for the first time how similar the life captured in this book (1920s rural Cotswolds) is to that of the 1950s Mediterranean peasantry that Patience Gray describes in Honey from a Weed. We’re all the same people, albeit divided by 20 degree celsius.

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.

Blackberries and PSB

Almost, almost. A few times over the past week people have said ‘it feels almost spring-like’. The mercury is certainly rising now, after the Arctic temperatures at the start of the month. During the cold snap we had to isolate after a few Covid cases at nursery; with the hours feeling like days, there was nothing for it but to cook. Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam (I burnt the jam but it turned out to taste toffee-like rather than carbonated); 5-hour baked lamb; all types of pancake – the larder, and my cookbook collection, is my Lockdown friend.

The potted blueberry became an ice sculpture at the start of the month
Pancakes are food for the soul as well as body: this puffy Norwegian baked pancake came with blueberries and maple syrup
Scones with raspberry and tayberry jam. Clotted cream mandatory.
5-hour baked lamb shoulder collapses into shreds with the poke of a spoon. Serve with tzaziki, baked new potatoes, green beans dressed with feta and spiced aubergine relish.

But all this domestic lounging around can’t go on for ever. As the plants start to green up and the daffodils swell, I can feel energy rising. We’re on the cusp of time to be getting busy, and within the next month or so I’ll start off the early seeds. A TO DO list is back up on the kitchen wall, full of tasks that take seconds to write but weeks to actually make happen (‘renovate bathroom’, ’tile kitchen’). And on the allotment, this little patch of anarchy has been provoking me: raspberries, wild blackberries and grass, all jumbled together into an unholy mess.

The autumn raspberries have been colonised by brambles and grass

February is the time for cutting back autumn raspberries, and I trim ours right down to the base every year at this time. We inherited these plants. If I was starting from scratch I’d plant the canes in neat rows, but as it is, they are uneven, unruly and thriving; every year we have more fruit than I can be bothered to pick. However a few years back a wild blackberry set up home here, sending out runners which have grown into lethal traffids. These in turn make it impossible to keep the grass down, a perfect storm of irritation. Incidentally, a blackberry plant is nigh-on-impossible to pull out due to their lengthy tap root, but I am told the key is to bury down into the soil a few inches, find a new little pink shoot, and cut below that to help weaken the plant. This needs to be repeated for several years. So today I made a start, heaving and puffing in the February winds, but some are so big I’ll have to bring out an actual saw (a saw!) to sort the buggers out.

This bramble requires drastic action
Raspberries trimmed and mulched – the biggest blackberry still in place waiting to be hacked out with a saw.

My reward for today’s graft was an early picking of purple sprouting broccoli. These were bonus plants that I was gifted last summer by my in-laws, which I planted and then ignored. Taking out the central flower now encourages side shoots, just like with a sweet pea or cosmos, except these are a far more tasty treat. I’ll blanch the PSB stems then toss them in olive oil, chilli flakes, garlic and parmesan, the most perfect sauce for oriechette.

An early crop of PSB

One bonus of the cold weather is that the white fly that has lived in the brassica cage since August has finally been zapped, leaving pristine cavolo nero and pentland brig kale. A quick rinse in cold water and we’re ready to go – I can feel a minestrone coming on.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: 5 hour lamb with aubergine relish, then the leftovers turned into wraps with massive flatbreads and fresh parsley from the Halal shop; burnt tayberry, raspberry (and redcurrant) jam; scones; apple caramel upside down cake; pea and paneer curry. Still no booze (body says no) which I continue to be sad about.
Harvesting: Kale, cavolo nero, PSB
Also: Trains, cars, stories, painting, Cbeebies etc etc etc. Reading My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem and Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy. Watching It’s a Sin, which is possibly the best TV ever made but devastating.

Autumn clearance

Like the summer flowering plants, I have lulled into dormancy. This lockdown feels more depressing than the first, for there is no novelty, and of course darkness falls at 4.30pm. Whilst in March and April we may have had time to notice sap rising, this enforced stillness in November makes us aware of the year decaying, drawing in its energy. The spring and summer spent outdoors has been replaced by hours inside, fingers cold, fire on. Not that this necessarily needs to be a bad thing of course: there’s time for learning a new craft, for proper cooking, and for reflection. A few weeks ago I had a go at macrame for the first time, a craft that I would highly recommend for the simple reason that it has the good manners to be beginner-proof: if you make a mistake, no matter, just undo it and have another go.

macrame wall hanging, the close-up
macrame wall hanging, the long view

I’ve also been rummaging through the bunches of dried flowers hanging in the sun room (aka the Drying Room), most of them refugees from this summer’s garden and allotment, though some were foraged from hedgerows back in September. A vase of cornflowers, hops and strawflower makes for an easy long-life display – and when I bore of it, I’ll put the dusty stems in the compost and simply make a new one.

This summer’s flowers, now dried, make an easy longlife vase…
…though the poppies have left their legacy in the drying room, as
tiny seedlings try to make a life in our rotten window sills.

I have avoided the back garden for a few weeks, and though it is littered with leaves and the summer perennials are battered by the wind, there is still colour. Globes of undeveloped white flowers adorn the rose, and these chrysanthemums have finally decided to put on a show after weeks of dormancy. They look ridiculous, 1m tall plants standing alone in the bed (for their intended companions of sunflower and fennel have long gone), flopping around in the gales, but I haven’t the heart to cut them back just yet. These are new plants, put in back in April, with zappy firework petals. The lack of sun in our overlooked garden does not suit them, so next year I’ll move them out to the allotment where they can bake in the sun and provide months of cut flowers.

One of the new chrysanthemums, to be moved from garden to allotment
Firework colours and late to flower

On the allotment, thoughts turn to preparing the soil for winter. I had my last basket of flowers back on 1st April, and the dahlias have now been touched with frost, and the chrysanthemums are battered with wind. ‘Tidying’ is a dirty word these days and whilst I agree that we should not strip the land of all its life over winter, I do think it’s wise to remove the decaying annuals and give the land a feed with mulch whilst it has a period of rest. Besides, I actually think that beautifully mulched soil has its own aesthetic appeal.

The last basket of the year, cut 1 November (though I’m still harvesting kale and herbs)

More importantly in allotment terms, this is the time of year to take the vigour out of the perennial weeds. This year the culprit is creeping buttercup, which snuck in unnoticed by me and has set up rather than extensive home for itself amongst the cut flower bed. I spend a few hours bent double (I think garden yoga could be a thing) picking through roots, knowing that my efforts will by no means remove our guest but may stop it exceeding its welcome.

Time for the autumn clearance to begin
A few hours later, ready for mulch and cover

Normally I remove the chrysanthemums in November and my put-upon Mother takes cuttings from them for the next season, but this year the allotment chrysanthemums are staying put; an experiment in over-wintering. I have gained confidence from the fate of my dahlias, which I have ignored for three years (leaving them in the ground to face winter snow, rain and flood) and are now so big as to be a nuisance. I take these three plants up, their tubers so big I can barely lift them, and they will rest in the shed until the spring when I decide their fate.

Three dahlias, untouched for three seasons, now so large I can barely lift the tubers

As autumn clearance goes it’s pretty light touch, which suits both my inclination and, I increasingly feel, the needs of the soil. In a few weeks the manure will go down, then black plastic to keep the wind-blown weed seeds away, and next year we start all over again.

Also this week:
Harvesting: Cavolo nero, last strawflower
Cooking and eating: A lot of cooking. Proper roast beef lunch, fuelled with a glorious Cremant de Bordeaux found, of all places, in the bin-end section of Homesense. Never underestimate the power of good sparkling white wine to take the edge of life. Also: ricotta doughnuts, pizza with Italian sausage, cranberry orange breakfast bread, Nigella’s self-saucing chocolate pudding.
Also: Setting A Suitable Boy aside as I am finding it indulgently long-winded and finding solace in EM Forster’s A Room With A View, a novel so staggeringly brilliant I have read it at least 5 time before and still finding new things to marvel at. Watching all the Toy Story films with Harry.

The drying room

As September draws to a close, summer still clings on. Chilly mornings herald blue-sky days; the roses are in second bloom and our house is filled with vase upon vase of brightly coloured cosmos, sunflower and dahlia. But the nights draw in early now, and the fire has been flipped on a few times – its role is to warm both the house but also our souls. As ever, with the outside world remaining as turbulent as it is, it is mindfulness of the moment, the season, the small things, that provide comfort. And my goodness, what a month to be outdoorsing it, with these glorious rich colours and an abundance of harvest.

September colour: cosmos, chrysanthemum, strawflower, dahlia, nasturtium

Last week Matt took the hops down, using a hammer and brute force to drop the hopolisk to ground-level. It’s a good harvest this year, the hops rich with resin. Perhaps one year we’ll actually turn them into beer but for now they remain an ornamental, and I take lengths of hop bine, twist them into lengths then leave them to dry for a few weeks, ready to decorate the house over winter.

The hopolisk is down!
Up close, the hops are resinous and fresh-scented
Our current regular harvest, awash with rich colour
I took bines of hops and twisted them into hanging lengths

The ‘sun room’ at home (that’s what the estate agents call it) has become the Drying Room, the perfect south-facing glass-fronted space for drying the harvest ready for the cooler months. Since the spring I’ve been saving bunches of flowers, notably the strawflower, hydrangea and alliums, but also dainty cornflowers and a few poppy heads, tying and hanging them upside down to slowly dry in the gentle sun. Come December I’ll twist them into garlands and wreaths, a bit of Christmas botanical creativity that costs nothing.

The drying room, filled with (L-R) hydrangea, strawflower, hops, allium, cornflower

It’s not just flowers though. The borlotti beans are piled into an old vegetable box, their leathery skins becoming hard and dry as the beans ripen. If podded before drying, the skins curl themselves into spirals – perhaps another addition to a winter display. Once they’re fully dried I’ll take the beans and pop them in glass jars to store.

Borlotti beans twist themselves into spirals when dry

Seeds can be preserved too. These sunflowers I cut a few weeks back and have left to desiccate so that I can get the seeds before the squirrels do – some to eat, but the rest to sow again for next year’s blooms.

Sunflower seeds ripening in the sun room

Then there’s the foraging harvest, the hips and haws that are at their best in late September and October. This weekend I hunted down rosehips and hawthorn berries (and a bag of sloes which I’ve ferreted away into the freezer), and they join the Drying Room action. It’s all an experiment really – I don’t know if they’ll dry well or not – and half the fun is seeing what works, finding the possibilities.

Hawthorn, rose hips and spruce join the drying flowers, ready to be turned into Christmas displays

Also this week:

Harvesting: Dahlias (abundant), cosmos purity and dazzler, sunflowers (now in a second bloom), chrysanthemum, zinnia, cavolo nero, kale, first pumpkin Jill be Little, runner beans, raspberries.

Cooking and eating: Excellent roast lunch at the Plough and Harrow at Guarlford, first time in a pub in what feels like years. Fish tacos with fresh corn. Home-made deep pan pizza. Plum Eve’s pudding. The hunt for the perfect samosa continues with a trip to the sweet centres of Smethwick High St.

Also: Work is full on and there is a mental shift as I realise just how much of my professional life must adapt to the Covid world; it’s not a great time for the cultural sector and friends are losing their jobs. Yoga provides ballast. Lovely few days play-dating at Rowheath Pavillion, celebrating my Dad’s 75th birthday and foraging on Castlemorten Common.