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.

Outdoors-ing it

The flowers and veg plugs are ready to be planted out – and with these long warm days, outdoorsing it is the best way to live. A week or so back we headed out to a farm shop in the middle of nowhere to stock up on proper tomatoes, strawberries and bacon, then ventured down the riverside path, overgrown with cow parsley and scented with mayflower. Smelling freedom, Harry made a bid for a buttercup-filled meadow – toddler life as it should be.

Making a bid for freedom

Meanwhile at home he’s the lucky recipient of another new garden structure, a climbing-frame/slide created by his Dad whilst he had time on his hands. Harry’s not the only one who has taken advantage of Matt’s carpentry skills – he’s also knocked up a trug for my lettuce and rocket, so that I can wander out the back door and pick leaves for tea. So much more practical than having them at the allotment where they only get harvested once a week.

The new climbing frame
My new lettuce trug. Also at the front is my experimental watercress, which does surprisingly well in a container provided that it gets watered daily.

In mid-May the tulips finally faded, and in their place comes the vivid pink roses, foxgloves and delphinium. The return of Getrude Jekyll is like welcoming back an old friend.

Rose Gertrude Jekyll
They’re going over now, but 10 days ago the azalea and allium were a perfectly contrasting match

Don’t be fooled though – I’m really pleased with the April-May garden but as we go into June, when the tulips fade and the alliums go to seed, there are gaps and holes a-plenty. I am nursing trays and trays of annuals to put out in a few weeks, things like sunflower, cosmos, lace flower, but for the next few weeks the glorious roses stand alone in their beauty, bordered by the bedraggled leftovers from spring. Such is life.

On the allotment, that unexpected late frost did for the beans. I remembered to net against pigeons but it never crossed my mind to fleece against the nighttime chill. But then would it be a spring unless I had to have at least three separate attempts at growing a humble bean?

The late frost did for the beans

All else is coming along though, late as ever. This week I planted out a few early squash, chrysanthemums, strawflower and sunflowers, and the cosmos and zinnia aren’t far behind. We also re-sowed the parsnips that inevitably failed to materialise.

Planting out has begin

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, life has busied in the last week or so. The gradual easing of lockdown means that Matt has had a load of new commissions in, so we’re both working whilst trying to keep Harry gainfully occupied. He’ll be back at nursery for a few days next week. Tradesmen are back at it and so my office is finally getting the makeover that was started in March, which is great but does make for mess and disruption. I’m not really ready for all this, feeling keenly the rudeness of ‘normal’ life interrupting my domestic haven. There are some things about lockdown I fully intend to hang on to. The garden has become a creative outlet, playground, refuge. The once-a-week food shop is now so much more mindful, and I am using more farm shops than before (the meat and veg is better so why wouldn’t I?). I’m reading a book a week. Once the world stopped I found an abundance of time to think, time to listen, time to live, and isn’t life better for it?

Also this week:

Allotment and garden: Planted out sunflowers, strawflower, chrysanthemums, first squash, salad rocket, other lettuces. Re-sowed parsnips. Harvesting lettuce, alliums, persicaria. Sowed new sunflowers, sweetcorn, zinnia, dill and marigolds.

Cooking and eating: Massive rib of beef for Matt’s birthday, Angel Delight for the hell of it (it wasn’t good, the recipe’s changed since the 1980s and the whole thing split in the fridge); a Victoria Sandwich birthday cake that I messed up by not putting the baking powder in; lamb kebabs with flat breads, asparagus and salads; strawberries; first bobby beans. An unexpected joy of lockdown is ordering a load of proper bread online from a small-scale baker then venturing forth to a trading estate in Stirchley / Stirchley High St / Moseley Bog (delete as appropriate) to collect the goodies a few days later.

Reading: The Bone People by Keri Hulme, with which I feel in the presence of greatness.

Bonus crops

Week 4 of lockdown and we’re just about keeping the show on the road, if that means finally staggering downstairs at 10am and giving into the pleas for Hey Duggee! at 10.01am. I have near-enough lost the power of independent intelligent thought; actually lockdown is not dissimilar to maternity leave in that regard (Anyone who is finding this period to be great for their creativity/productivity is clearly not living with a toddler.) I only really venture out of the house for a short walk around the park or to the allotment, and the very infrequent trips to the supermarket feel like both a treat and an ordeal (again, just like maternity leave). Going back to proper work, if and when it happens, will be one hell of a shock.

Harry is spending a great deal more time with his Dad than in normal life, and is developing a predictable interest in saws, hammers and screwdrivers; there’s plenty of ‘helping’ as Matt makes his shed. When Matt’s mum sent this picture of Matt with his Grampy taken back in the 1980s, it seems that history is now repeating itself.

Matt with Grampy, around 1986

Down on the allotment, the hopolisk rose again over the weekend, threaded with twine and ready to support the staggering growth of this year’s hops. Underneath them lie the broad beans, some put in as young plants and a few rows direct sown.

The hopolisk was raised over the Easter weekend, as is now traditional

March and April are meant to be the ‘hungry months’, with the winter veg running out of steam and new season’s crops not yet mature, and whilst this is true, I’ve been relishing what I think of as bonus crops these last few weeks. The forager – if they know where to go – can find carpets of wild garlic, even in the city, whilst in the veg trug the young pea plants are giving up their succulent shoots to add to salads and pastas. I’ll take this first harvest then leave the plants to mature to pods.

A carpet of wild garlic
Pea shoots in the veg trug

Meanwhile on the allotment, now’s the time that the self-sown herbs and green weeds come into their own. There are nettle shoots all over the place (lovely stir-fried or in a risotto) and oregano is sending up the first precious new growth of the year.

Self-sown oregano is now all over the allotment, a welcome intruder

As for the cultivated plants, the brassicas that I left in the ground over winter (chard, spinach beet, kale) are now sending up delicate new shoots – there’s a few pickings before they finally go to seed – and the leaves of the blackcurrant bushes need a couple of weeks before they reach their full fragrance and can be turned into the alchemy that is blackcurrant leaf sorbet: a true delicacy of mid-summer.

Blackcurrant blossom amid freshly unfurled leaves, waiting to be made into blackcurrant leaf sorbet

The happiest bonus crop of all are the little posies of narcissi and tulips, taken from bulbs that I planted years ago, and which astonishingly are still sending up vibrantly colourful stems.

Tulips, narcissi and a few leaves of freshly-sprouted chard

I’d say that these unexpected weeks at home are an unprecedented time to live differently, cook differently, get in touch with nature, blah blah blah. But the truth is that I’ve always allotmented and cooked in this way. Maybe it’s my peasant roots. To find honey in a weed is the great skill of the cook and the housekeeper, and to be in lockdown with a two year old means we have no choice but to live with a routine and keep one’s sh*t together, and that is what we shall do.

Also this week:
Sowing: All the seeds are now sown and doing well – a bonus of lockdown is getting all these jobs done.

Garden and allotment: Planted out broad beans and potatoes, direct sown parsnips, broad beans, peas. Hopolisk raised. Black plastic sheeting has been taken off the beds. In the garden, the shed is going up but still needs a window, though it’s taken a year to get to this point so I am not complaining. Hardening off the first seeds, the rest are in the sun room.

Cooking and eating: I’ve been lusting after modest food, inspired by Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and her talk of Lenten fasting and Easter feasting – to whit, I made a dish of cannellini beans, soaked overnight and then simmered with onion, celery leaf, tomato and bay in a suitably rustic pot. Matt’s had similar urges but heads to India for inspiration – chick peas transformed into dahl with copious spices and coconut milk. The warm weather has transformed our cooking: we see the first of this year’s asparagus, always a joy, plus from the freezer and store cupboard there’s slow roasted lamb shoulder studded with anchovy and garlic; boulangere potatoes, chocolate easter cake (of course), Welsh cakes, spiced pumpkin muffins using last autumn’s squash, and leftover topside stir-fried with black beans and green peppers. Harry just wants to eat chocolate eggs.

Nettles and sorrel

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, we will cope just fine.

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of the bramble

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

The garden at Wightwick Manor on March 1st

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

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

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

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

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

The planting plan, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.