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.

More seed sowing

Apparently it’s Easter, the herald of spring, but with the freezing cold lashing wind and concrete skies it is difficult to believe this. The daffodils are just beginning to bloom in Birmingham, which feels late to me – a quick check from my photos tells me that this time last year we were enjoying impressive displays of yellow. But we must be positive and so, once the baby is in bed, I am decorating the fireplace with kitsch Easter decorations along with vases of deep purple tulips masked with clouds of gypsophillia (to continue the kitsch theme).

Easter kitsch on the fireplace

The garden is just beginning to show signs of life. We came back from Cornwall to see the snow had finally melted, uncovering a pot of deep purple Iris, and today I see that the buzzing yellow forsythia is thinking about making its presence known.

Iris reticulata survived being buried in a foot of snow

The allotment has been ignored for months. Pretty much since October really. There is a pallet of manure to spread, bark to mulch the raspberries with, and two massive plots to fork over. (Finding time to do this with an attention-seeking six month old is a challenge.) I pulled back the black plastic a few inches to find that Matt’s hops are pushing up their first tentative shoots, blanched white and pink with the lack of light.

First tiny pink hop shoots are showing through

And so I retreat to my seed sowing area at the back of the house to get a few trays started. Last year I made a mental note to keep it simple this season – just two or three courgette plants, a few rows of flowers. Make life easy on yourself Stallard! That was my plan. No chance. I have managed to plant 36 sunflower pots. 36! But it’s still so cold that germination is far from guaranteed: the sweet peas that I started off in February have got about a 40% success rate and the tomatoes are not looking promising at all.

February’s sowing of sweet peas has yielded a 40% germination rate

An added complication this year is the challenge of growing a few stems for our wedding in September. If I had done this two years ago I would have been ALL OVER this challenge, but my life is pretty full now and frankly I can’t deal with the pressure. So I have recruited my super-skilled and super-talented Mum and cousin Sue to be lead gardeners and florists. They will grow and style the bulk of the wedding flowers, with my veg patch (flower patch?) as a back-up, which is much more meaningful to me than buying in a load of blooms that have been hot-housed in Holland. To that end, I will start off the reliable cosmos a little later this year, and will re-sow some of the other cut flowers, in the hope that we’ll still have good specimens by the end of September.

The seed ‘library’ is actually a few biscuit tins saved from Christmases past. I’ll hold off sowing the cosmos for a few weeks.

Last weekend’s sowing: sunflowers, beans, courgette, chard, zinnia, fennel, dill.

Sowing: Sunflowers, zinnia, dill, fennel, viola heartsease, tomatoes, runner beans, string beans, French beans, borlotti beans, courgette, custard squash, chard, lettuce quatre saisons, salad rocket, winter salad mix, radish.

Eating: M&S hot cross buns and simnel cake. Bellini made with Ella’s Kitchen peach puree (i.e. baby food) and cava.

Cooking: Baby food, which is then rejected. Vexingly, he is mostly interested in bread and simnel cake.

Wishing I was cooking: All the usual Easter treats such as Easter biscuits, a filthy chocolate sponge, chocolate crispy cakes with mini eggs, grilled lamb, various Greek veggie dishes (which to me are very Easter-y) such as spanakopita and briam. But with Matt working all the time and a baby demanding attention there is little point/opportunity.

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Seeds of optimism

There are many life changes that come with having a small baby in the house. Some big (disturbed sleep, general worry) and some small but unforeseen. I had not realised, back in those summer days of waddling around as if nothing was about to happen, that my cooking would be seriously disrupted by Harry’s arrival.

To begin with, he wouldn’t let me put him down for more than a few minutes at a time. I quickly discovered that it’s impossible to chop, stir, fry, roast or boil with a wriggling baby in your arms. For this reason, between September to about early December I think I lived on tea, toast and hummus. He’s now happy to hang out in his chair or play mat for some time, but each day is different: On Monday he’ll babble to himself for an hour….then on Tuesday he’s having none of it and wants entertaining NOW Mummy!

So I’ve learnt to cook in short, sharp intervals. Anything that involves short periods of intervention or preparation work well – from the freezer pies that I can heat up after bedtime, to the quickly rustled-together poached egg on toast (there is still a general toast theme).

In recent weeks I’ve discovered that it’s possible to do bigger kitchen projects, provided that they need plenty of hands-off time. Last month’s marmalade is a good example, and this weekend I had a go at a blueberry couronne – a sweetened dough stuffed with cinnamon butter and blueberries, twisted and baked to gooey goodness. In total it took about 5 hours to make, but each intervention (making the dough, kneading, twisting) was less than 10 minutes. Perfect baby-friendly food.

Blueberry couronne

I used my recipe for apple buns, substituting the apples for blueberries and mixed spice for cinnamon. But instead of making buns, I baked the dough as per the recipe for chocolate couronne. Perfect for weekend brunching with the newspapers.

Perfect for weekend breakfasting

I don’t know if I can take the same approach with allotmenting…the challenges of gardening-with-baby remain unknown! But I did find an hour yesterday to sow the first seeds of the year, whilst the boys watched the Six Nations on the telly. Broadbeans, sweet peas and cleomes are now buried in their compost cocoons, ready for the strengthening spring sun to encourage them to life.

First seed planting of the year: sweet peas, broad beans, cleome

I now have the taste for planting but I must remember my plan to not do too much this year…no stress…no unnecessary hassle. It’s difficult not to get carried away with seeds; why plant 4 if you can plant 12? And before I know it, the allotment will be a jungle again!

Planting: Cleome, broad beans, sweet peas
Cooking: Beef cheeks braised in red wine, freezer-fruit crumble, coq au vin, blueberry couronne

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Look what’s here!

I still can’t quite bring myself to be out on the allotment, though it’s not for lack of jobs that need doing. I’m painfully aware that the autumn-cropping raspberries need a good chopping back (not a difficult job, but a lengthy one) and I should be thinking about getting some goodness into the soil (read: spread some manure). But the key word here is thinking…there’s alot of thinking and not much doing.

So whilst the great outdoors is still chilly – there was hail today – I’m contenting myself to sorting out my seeds for spring planting, and wondering where all these tiny seedlings are going to live for the next few months. Because, dear reader, this year I have the grand total of 50 varieties of vegetables, salads, herbs and flowers that will soon need starting off!

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The new batch of seeds for 2017 are here

There is reason behind this seed madness. My doctor has been telling me to take vitamins but surely to God that is why spinach was invented? And tomatoes, and sweetcorn, and kale, and chillies, and squash, and beans, and you get the picture. So rather than sink my hard-earned cash into the big pharma companies, I’m investing in my diet instead, and that’s where Seeds of Italy and Sarah Raven come in.

New discoveries for 2017 come courtesy of Seeds of Italy, who are offering this particularly fancy-looking pumpkin and my favourite UFO-shaped squash custard white. I’m also having a go at runner beans this year for the first time (notwithstanding the ongoing slug-wars) and a late-to-bolt spinach, Tuscane. Plus there will be the usual mix of kale, courgette, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes and chillies, though no beets this year – grown on our soil they only seem to taste of, well, soil. Ugh.

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Two fun types of squash this year…

On the flower front, I’m bolstering my favourite white cosmos purity with a host of brightly-coloured newbies. There’s a carnival of colour with this zinnia mix, and I’m hoping that the cosmos bright lights mix will go well in a mixed bouquet with the sunflowers claret and valentine. I’ve also plumped for the delicate antique pink of cosmos antiquity and I’ll have another go at rudbeckia (last year the slugs ate the lot).

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…and loads of bright annuals!

The issue now is where to put them all. When we lived in the flat, I used to balance seed-trays on our windowsills with the help of a few trusty paperbacks. This house, though bigger, has very few suitable windows and those we do have are prime hanging-out territory for the cat (I’ve learned that Gertrude and seed trays do not go together). SO I’ll have to make an interim potting shed in the ‘sun room’ and balance the trays on a few trestle tables pinched from Matt’s business. It’s a plan. Only thing now is to actually get the pots and compost together and get planting!

BIG UP: A final note to big up my Mum and Dad who braved the inclement weather on Saturday to plant a climbing rose in my back garden. This lovely plant was a gift from Matt’s Mum when we moved house last summer, but it’s taken several months for me to clear out three massive hydrangeas and prepare the parched soil so that it has a cosy place to live. I am, however, hopeless with a drill so my Dad finally arrived with his power-tools to put the wire supports in place. My Mum then trained the shoots into place. It rained. It wasn’t fun. They are troopers. Big up the parents and parents-in-law!

Sowing the seeds of…hardy annuals actually

Easter heralded a well earned rest and a fair few proper feeds. Brilliant. Chappers popped round with some HUGE eggs from her chickens – so big that the egg box had to be strapped shut with an elastic band. I’d choose these over chocolate eggs any day.

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Chappers and her monster eggs

Grampy’s crysanths have been showing definite signs of life and so off they went to Worcestershire for my mum to take cuttings. This is a far safer option than me trying to do it: firstly, I don’t know what to do, and secondly, these little plants wouldn’t stand a chance with Gertrude the Destroyer around. We now have about 50 cuttings on the go and let’s hope some of them root. Though perhaps not all…that would be ALOT of flowers.

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Grampy’s crystanth cuttings

With the growing season begun I’ve finally started to plan this year’s plot. The challenge for 2016 is making room for all the flowers – not simply the crysanths, but the armfuls of cut flowers that I’m hoping to grow throughout the summer and into autumn. The sunflowers and sweetpeas demand their own section, but the remainder will be strewn amidst the vegetables: I like this pick-and-mix approach.

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Plans for this year’s planting are coming together…

So with the plan freshly drawn, I got down to sowing this year’s hardy annuals. There is greater variety and more colour than last year, but this is all a gesture of hope over experience…Who knows if they will actually grow? We have hot pink cosmos to sit next to the purple shades of zinnia and rudbeckia, softened with white love-in-a-mist and jewelled cornflowers. There are orange nasturtium, blue borage and garish red marigolds, plus the elegant long stems of verbena and ammi to attract the bees and butterflies.

Time to start sowing the hardy annuals

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Marigold seeds look like desiccated worms…

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…whilst nasturtium seeds are like shrivelled brains

The first problem has presented itself: there is no-where for the seed trays to go. We’re already at peak windowsill usage, and I’ve barely even started on this year’s sowing. So they sit on the kitchen table until I come up with a solution. Reader, we need a bigger house.

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It’s the time of year when the kitchen table is full of seed trays

Allotment: Forked over patch by shed, planted out broad beans and A/W lettuce under cloches. Moved spinach/kale/lettuce seedlings to greenhouse.

Sowed: Borage, Rudbeckia Cherry Brandy, Verbena Boneriensis, Zinnia mix, Cosmos Dazzler, Nasturtium Alaska, Cornflower mix, Nigella double white, Calendula mix, Viola

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