Reaping what we (didn’t always) sow

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

Knocking up a beef pie from scratch

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

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

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

 

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

Mystery squash

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

Leeks and parsnips tell of seasons change

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

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

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

Several vases adorn the house

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

Also this week:

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

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

August pickings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally some down time yesterday for making strawberry and redcurrant jam

This week:

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

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

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

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

Learning to live with chaos

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

The summer border at Packwood House, Warwickshire

The extraordinary cutting garden at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

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

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

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

Letting the rocket set seed amidst the kale and lettuce

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

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

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

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

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

Staking the cornflowers

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

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

Also this week:

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

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

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

Cornflowers, broad beans and blackcurrants

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

Harry likes to get involved with processing the produce

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

Sweet william, cornflower, ammi and lavender

Cornflowers have grown incredibly tall this year

The lavender is vast and hums with bees

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

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

Strawflowers are the strangest thing I’ve ever grown

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

Yesterday’s harvest

Also this week:

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

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

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

Cornish wild flowers

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

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

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

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

The flower patch on June 1st…

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

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

The veg patch on 1st June…

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

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

Sweet William are at their peak now

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

The greenhouse base has already been taken back by nature

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

Sunset over Mawgan Porth, late June

Sun, grass, shorts: what childhood should look like

A sea of cornflowers planted on the cliff above Mawgan Porth

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

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

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

Hottentot Fig, a native succulent

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

Waves of valerian

Another mystery plant that is abundant

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

Echium Pininana – giant vipers bugloss

Also this week:

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

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

 

In praise of horta

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

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

Roses on the edge of bloom

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

Sweet William now in flower

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

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

Same arrangement in the vase

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

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

Cima di rapa

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

Saute the greens and serve on toast with an egg

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

 

Also this week:

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

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

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

Notes for next year

I’ve been spending too much time working (sound familiar?), baby-caring (unavoidable) and wedding organising (least said about that the better) and not enough time sorting out the allotment. I usually spend about an hour there every other day, but this time is completely taken up with harvesting, picking, watering. In my absence, a sea of thistles has grown up, and the disaster zone at the back of the compost bins has reached a whole new level of jungle. So today I bunked off for a few hours and really grafted, trying to get things in order. And whilst I hoed and chopped and strimmed, I made a few mental notes for next year. Think of it as a gift of wisdom from present self to future self. Namely:

Cosmos: Ditch Antiquity, it always grows short and stunted. Purity, Double click cranberry and Dazzler are the ONES. Take care when propagating to do it properly, one plant per pot, with none of my normal slapdash-ness.

Crappy cosmos grown by me at the front, good cosmos grown by my mother at the back. They are late – we’re hoping for a September harvest – and look promising.

Cornflower: Work out why they are always so short and stumpy, and then try to do better. Definitely worth persevering.

Tomatoes: Stick to Costoluto Fiorentino as it’s pretty reliable, but ditch all the other varieties, including Noire de Crimee and Golden boy. Find an eating type (rather than a cooking type) that has bullet-proof resistance to blossom-end rot.

Beans: Find a different runner bean, perhaps one that is less stringy. Plant purple and yellow French climbing beans alongside the usual green ones. Blue Lake was OK but perhaps prefer Cobra.

Kale and greens: The Sarah Raven Nero di Toscana has performed really well. I miss the other types of kale though – can I track down Fills of hex again? Chard luculuss and Spinach Perpetual are unbeatable.

Love love love the chard and the spinach

Sweetpeas: SHOCK HORROR but it may not be worth the bother? Unless I can find ones that are reliably long-stemmed and greenfly-proof.

Parsnips and leeks: Remember to grow some.

Rocket: As above.

Cleome: Fun plant even though it stinks of cannabis. Definitely grow again.

Cleome: definitely related to dope and makes a totally jazzy cut flower

Rudbeckia: Not a great cut flower but will look fab in the back garden for late summer dark colour. Buy as seedlings as I never get them to grow well from seed.

Sunflowers: All the sunflowers have done really well. Get a new packet of the Seeds of Italy sunflower mix, and re-plant the Sarah Raven Magic Roundabout and Valentine.

Sunflowers are late starting this year because of the draught, but coming good now

Blackcurrants and blueberries: Need some attention. Do blackcurrants come to an end of a working life? Perhaps they need some food? Do a bit of research.

Broadbeans: Grow four times as many as you think you need. There are never ever enough.

Strawberries: Maybe time to dig them up and start again with tastier varieties.

The Wilderness: For God’s sake, sort it out over the winter. No excuses.

The wilderness. It’s the garden equivalent of a junk room.

Also this week:

Harvesting: Raspberries, raspberries, more raspberries. Chard, cavolo nero, tomatoes – only the Fiorentino though, the others have all had it. Runner beans, sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos, cleome.
Not harvesting: Courgettes. I just can’t take it anymore.
Sowing: Red devil kale, rocket, mustard salad mix.
Cooking: Raspberry meringues, chicken and bacon pie, a vat of chicken stock
Reading: According to Yes by Dawn French. Never read any of her novels before as I don’t think of her as a novelist, but my misplaced snobbery needs shaming. It’s brilliant. Plus she has great hair. Nothing not to love.

All the things I’ve messed up

Every so often I bump into someone who’s seen my allotment pictures on Instagram (@helenstallard) and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘wow, your veg is so much better than ours’! And of course I nod and smile but really it’s a big fat lie. Like everyone else I’m guilty of accentuating the positive and forgetting to record all the times that I cock up. So in the spirit of fairness, and as a learning exercise for future allotmenting, here are the Allotment Issues of 2018. There are many.

 

  1. The thicket of brambles and nettles

The area at the back of the plot has always been a bit of a wasteland but this year it has reached new (literal) heights. There are stinging nettles in there that are taller than me, brambles as thick as my arm. Well that is maybe a slight exaggeration….but this is not a good situation. The compost bin is pretty much inaccessible now, and bindweed is strangling the rosemary. It needs a day or two of determined effort to sort it out, but I have neither days nor determination.

The dilapidated greenhouse and compost bin is overrun with grasses, bramble, nettles and bindweed

but at least we’ll get some bonus blackberries this year

2. Tomato rot

I get blossom end rot every year and am resigned to it, but this year we have a new tomato-based calamity. The tiny fruits are shrivelling and turning black whilst still the size of a large pea: rot has set in. I don’t know what’s caused it but suspect it’s the difference between soaring 40c daytime temperatures and overnight chills (I don’t close the greenhouse door at night, don’t have the opportunity). I’ve lost about 50% of the crop to this. Very irritating.

50% of the baby tomatoes have turned shrivelled and black

3. Blackfly infestation

The runner beans have grown, which is in itself a miracle, but are now covered in black fly. These little critters are sucking the plants dry and seriously reducing the crop. There’s too many for predators to keep at bay and I won’t spray a crop that we’re going to eat, so I don’t think much can be done.

Infestation of blackfly on the runner beans

4. Errors of propagation

In fairness this isn’t entirely my fault, but the cosmos and other cut flowers aren’t thriving in this dry hot summer. I’m giving them a weekly water but it’s not enough; in previous years we’d have 5-foot bushes of cosmos by now, humming with butterflies and bees. These were all grown from seed but the first lot were thinned carefully and planted out as sturdy individual plants (my Mum did this, obvs) whilst the second ones – mine – were planted two seeds to a pot, didn’t get thinned (I forgot) and got planted out when still a bit too small. They are beyond crap. Next year I need to try harder.

These cosmos are taking ages and ages to flower…

…but at least they’re healthy, unlike these ones

I also tried some Bells of Ireland this year. Once again they were planted out waaaay too early, and then nearly got hoed as I mistook the seedlings for weeds. So survival is in itself an achievement – but they should be loads taller than this.

The Bells of Ireland should be calf-height, but they’re about the size of my little hand

The cornflowers are also stunted, and the chrysanthemums don’t look especially healthy. I’m not sure what the problem is/was. Maybe all the chi chi English cut flower growers that I follow have these issues too but also choose not to share them on Instagram?

5. Poor fruit harvest

In previous years I’ve filled massive cake-tins with blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries but this summer the harvest is poor. In particular, I’ve got a mere few hundred grams of blackcurrants. I’m wondering if these old grand dame bushes are nearing the end of their life – they must be at least a decade old. Must look it up. On the plus side, we do have gooseberries for the first time this year.

This year’s blackcurrant harvest is pitiful!

This is by no means the end of the cock-ups. I’ve not even mentioned the back garden that looked good during May and June, and then – paradoxically – seems to shrivel and become a jungle at the same time. But I have come to understand though that it’s in the mistakes that you can actually learn. Planting errors are an opportunity to find creative solutions and new planting schemes. Bug infestations are an opportunity to get a closer look at nature. They all teach you to let go, little by little. Life lessons on the allotment.

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Summer inspiration

An unforeseen pleasure of breeding, currently, is that this is the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not had a festival to organise. Except as I write this I remember that I am actually working on a festival as I speak. So let’s rephrase: it’s the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not been living, eating, sleeping and dreaming brochure deadlines, budget overspends, overwrought colleagues and where to put the sodding feather flags (this year’s Festival works at a gentler pace….so far….).

In about March, when that vile, dark, cold winter ended and 6-month-old Harry became more of an actual human (tiny babies still terrify me), I decided that I was going to really try and make the most of this summer. There would be barbecues! Days out! Allotmenting! Paddling pools! Ice-cream! And reader, I am keeping to that pledge.

In the last ten days I’ve taken my ever-patient child around two world-class gardens for some veg-patch and herbaceous-border inspiration. Last weekend it was Kew, and last week was Hidcote. Veg-patch visiting with a baby in tow does complicate matters slightly – Hidcote in particular is not very accessible, though they are doing their best. Of course Victorian (male) gardeners did not design with 4×4 buggies in mind. And at Kew, we were able to get into the newly-restored Temperate House but obviously did not explore the upper balconies, especially not in 30c heat.

The newly restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Inside…I should say something profound and academic but our main experience was that it was flipping hot

Aside from the Temperate House, I was keen to see the Hive installation. Earlier in the year I worked with a producer who had planned the opening of this artwork-come-engineering project, for which I have a streak of professional envy. I have no idea how the science works, but the structure hums and lights up in sync with an actual bee hive.

The Hive Installation at Kew

But actually the star of the day was the Marianne North gallery. I had heard of this Victorian artist as a woman who succeeded in her chosen field despite the (patriarchal) odds being against her, but actually it’s the impact of the hang that takes the breath away. You can not help but say ‘wow’ when walking into this space, packed close with hundreds of finely worked botanical paintings, created in the field in Java, South Africa, the Americas, you name it. She painted all these whilst wearing ridiculous skirts and a corset. She told the men where she wanted her gallery to be built and how they were to display her paintings. What a woman.

The Marianne North Gallery

Obviously there was still time for veg patch gongoozling, particularly of the trend for adding cut-flowers to the beans and tomatoes. My cornflowers never look as good as this.

Matt admires the brassica netting

Get ready for veg patch envy…

Excellent veg patching, in particular this bush of 4 foot-tall cornflowers

Inspiration at Hidcote was of a more sedate order, not least because I was unable to get close to the planting with the buggy. The roses are over now, with border gaps filled with plenty of grasses and…..lots of other things that I can’t identify. Next time I need to take my Mother to tell me what everything is.

Herbaceous border at Hidcote, alas not pushchair friendly so this is the closest I could get

Parched fields of Gloucestershire

Back home, once I’d finished daydreaming about having a Cotswolds cottage with an arts-and-crafts garden attached, or giving it all up to do a three year course at Kew and indulging in writing a dissertation about veg-patching, I got busy. I’ve replanted the back garden with plants for late summer – dahlia, helenium, scabious, aster, salvia, rudbeckia. On the veg patch we’re harvesting beans and courgettes, dahlia and sweet peas. The land is parched with this never-ending summer heat.

My humble efforts

Harvesting: French beans, runner beans, courgette, summer squash, blueberries, blackcurrants, chard, lettuce, spinach, oregano, basil, sweet peas, sunflowers, borage, dill, dahlia, zinnia, cleome. Cosmos are thinking about flowering but are stunted by this dry weather.

Cooking: Spanakopita with chard and courgette, blueberry and nectarine cobbler, blueberry and cinnamon buns, roast chicken with oregano, focaccia

Reading: One woman’s truth about speaking the truth by Jess Philips MP (LOVE HER); A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson; a biography of Marianne North bought from Amazon for about £3

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Heading to drought?

When did it last rain? A month ago? We’re into a second week of hot weather – too hot for me, I’m desperate for some drizzle and a cagoule – and the ground is rock hard. Well, the bit that I manured is; the non-manured bit resembles sand. But actually, given the searing temperatures and dry wind, things are holding up pretty well.

We had a reasonable crop of strawberries and loads of redcurrants, enough to make a good few pots of my favourite jam. Both fruits have finished now and attention will soon turn to the blackcurrants and blueberries, and thence to the masses of raspberries (we’re on a glut warning).

Redcurrants and strawberries for jamming

There’s fruit set on the tomatoes although a few of these tiny green swellings have already succumbed to rot, turning black and shrivelled. I’m hoping that it’s normal blossom end rot rather than blight and have trimmed back a few dodgy looking leaves to be on the safe side.

Fruit set on the tomatoes

Meanwhile the beans are at the top of the poles – success for the first time in YEARS! – and there’s tons of lettuce, chard and spinach to be had. We’ve got the first of the courgettes and loads of edible flowers: borage, nasturtium, violas. Beautiful fresh, healthy, goodness-giving food.

Beautiful blooms on the beans

The chard, lettuce and cavolo nero are abundant

Sweet williams and borage

An arch of hops

The long view

Also this week:

Harvesting: First courgette, chard, lettuce, spinach, rocket, borage, nasturtium, viola, last broad beans, last strawberries, sweet william, first dahlia

Cooking: Redcurrant & strawberry jam

Reading: Good Good Food by Sarah Raven. Inspired, I popped to Holland & Barratt to stock up on whole nuts, buckwheat flour and flax seeds and left with…..some normal bulgar wheat. It’s fascinating to read some of the science behind healthy eating but the price of her recommended super-foods is madness. £5 for a tiny pack of coconut oil?  It’s a serious issue: healthy eating can not just be for the super elite. For now I’m going to stick to my allotment veg and Malvern water.

Days out: Too damn hot to do much at all but headed to Alexander Stadium yesterday for the British Athletics Champions. A great family friendly day-out which, paradoxically and pleasingly, involves a lot of sitting.

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