Monday, 31 December 2012

Celebratory Chicken with a Cheeky Sprout

What an interesting few months I have spent in the blogosphere. Thank you to everyone who has visited my blog, left comments, encouraged me and made me feel so welcome.

There is time for one last celebration in 2012.... 

before the dreaded January detox...

I can't work out if that is a guilty expression on Sprout's face, or deep disgust at the lack of anything worth chasing in there.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy new year!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Kitchen Gardens and Garden Kitchens

Sometimes the decision to nurture a particular plant can cause all kinds of problems at home. Take cucumbers, for example. Harmless enough, you may think, but you try growing some on your windowsill and see what it does for marital harmony.

The non-windowsill version
I, sadly, fell into the window-cucumber trap when I was given a few plants by a commercial grower one winter. Not wishing to heat my greenhouse, I lovingly arranged my cucumber collection along our kitchen windowsill. As the weeks went by and the window vanished behind a forest of lush foliage, I reassured myself that a bumper out-of-season crop of cucumbers would more than compensate for the complete lack of natural light in our home. It didn't - and I was obliged to promise never to grow greenhouse crops on our windowsills ever again; a pledge which placed me rather uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma.

You see, I adore growing and eating yellow peppers, which is all very well if you have somewhere warm to plant them; but I don't since we moved to Norfolk. Nonetheless, I sowed a few seeds on the off-chance that they might not germinate; but they did. At this point, I considered applying to The Council for permission to erect a greenhouse (our home is hundreds of years old and we are listed, so we need consent); but when this is the state of the roof you are hoping to put over your family's head, greenhouses are not a top priority.

So I quietly moved my handsome pepper plants to a cottage in the garden which cannot be let for holidays this year as we are converting the threshing barn. Incredibly, despite an appalling summer, this happened! 

Suddenly I was blessed with a happy family barbecuing glorious yellow peppers in the garden. Lo and behold, my beloved garden had become a kitchen! So why shouldn't the kitchen be my garden? Indeed, my family even enjoyed the luxury of sitting at a table to eat in my precious garden! Therefore surely, in the spirit of fairness, a few bulbs decorating the dining room table shouldn't be a problem.

Perhaps I need to speak to The Council about a greenhouse.... and a potting shed.... and, if these don't get into the soil very soon, a doghouse wouldn't go amiss.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

James Wong's Homegrown Revolution

Has the first page of a book ever irritated you so much that you slammed the book shut? This happened twice when I started reading James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution.  On the third attempt, I got off my high horse and ploughed on and ironically, given my earlier inability to get past the introduction, I was treated to a horticultural page-turner.

Although James Wong gardens in the UK, the book would be of interest to gardeners elsewhere in the world because it is chock-full of information and a truly satisfying read. So many gardening books list rules about the hows, whens and whats of garden tasks, yet there is often little or no explanation as to why we might bother to adhere to these rules. In Homegrown Revolution, explanations abound. Information leaps off the page and, unlike other books on lesser-known edibles where only common names are used (a dangerous ploy when people risk buying and eating the wrong plant or berries as a result), he includes Latin names.

Anyone who has been growing their own food for some time will undoubtedly have tried a few of the crops in James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution. Reading this book has added a handful of new plants to my wish list and happily we are at a time of year when I can make plans to include them. I am also inspired to eat some of the edibles I already grow as ornamentals and I am looking forward to giving Hosta greens and stir-fried wilted daylily flowers a try next year.

James Wong sets out to convert readers to growing more high-yield, expensive or difficult to purchase yet easily grown crops, but the value of the book is the information he includes: the history; the virtues of the crops he selects from his plant trials; recipes for homemade bug spray and fungicide; and advice on polyculture. It is a genuinely interesting read for anyone who is fascinated by plants, irrespective of whether the intention is to eat them.

Oh... and just in case you are wondering what made me so incensed on the first page... 

I believe that there is greater value to growing your own food than James Wong discusses in the introduction. I also believe that in the UK, all children should have the pleasure of putting a potato in a container or in the ground and nurturing it for a few weeks until harvest. The joy of harvesting new potatoes - that magic moment when you tip up a container or scrabble around in the soil looking for your haul of treasure should not be tossed lightly to one side in favour of fiddlehead fern fronds. 

I am hoping to link this review with Roses and Other Gardening Joys all I have to do is work out how to join a meme. I don’t even know how to pronounce the word, so if I manage to join, I won’t embarrass myself by telling anyone. Happy reading!

If you are interested in knowing more about James Wong's work, his official site is:

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

There's No Fool Like a Blackberry Fool

Blackberries are not camera-shy shrinking violets. They snare you into photographing them by being beautiful, or by surprising you when you least expect to see them, or by popping up in the most unlikely places. This is why I have a camera full of blackberry snaps (which sound more like culinary delights than a worryingly extensive collection of mediocre photographs).

These blackberries were growing on wasteland in Italy in early September. While I adore our British hedgerows, I would not turn my nose up at an occasional bunch of succulent grapes nestling among the brambles. 

There is something romantic about brambling. Perhaps it is the notion that generations of country folk have foraged for hedgerow fruit; their hands, faces and clothes stained with blackberry juice. The same cannot be said for all the food we harvest. Try as I might, I am incapable of getting all romantic at the prospect of pulling up turnips.

I don't know if previous generations discovered the protective powers of the dressing gown. Our daughter insists that it is the best garment for brambling. She claims that it reduces the impact of thorns, although some of you might rightly suspect that she is simply a staunch supporter of pyjama days. 

Of course, the juiciest berries are always out of reach and so they should be. I like to think of brambling as a fair exchange with the creatures who enjoy our cultivated fruits. We may be taking some of their berries, but we will leave the best pickings for them, not least because even a dressing gown will not protect our arms if we are foolish enough to scale the hedgerow for those tempting, unreachable fruits. 

As for the fool. Well, we just put the blackberries with a couple of tablespoons of sugar in a pan on a low heat for ten minutes, then mash them and leave them to cool. Then we mix them with lightly whipped cream and chill this delightful mixture for about thirty minutes before we remove it from the fridge.  After a few minutes at room temperature, a blackberry fool should look like this...

Friday, 21 September 2012

Dancing While The Weeds Take Over

Asking a gardener to convalesce is like putting a Border Collie on bed rest. Nothing can reduce the desire to be outside; not even a stack of thoughtfully selected books - for the gardener not the Border Collie, a breed famed for its intellect but not for devouring meaty novels, unless "the dog ate my homework" counts.

Of course, gardeners listen to the pleas of our loved ones to rest, we really do; it's just that the second their backs are turned, we break free from our garden beds in the shade and gently potter (or putter, depending on where we live). In my case, having spent some time in hospital, I was released into the wilds of our garden for a spot of outdoor convalescence and while gently potter-puttering, I quietly planted a hedgerow. My loved ones were shocked and concerned and who can blame them? Summer is hardly the hedge-planting season, but as I tried to explain as they frogmarched me back to the comfort of my garden bed, it was perfect planting weather and in any case, I had been nurturing these native plants in containers since the bare-root season and saving them for this precise moment (the completion of the rabbit fencing - not the enforced convalescence).

This fabulous Stipa gigantea really lifted my spirits in hospital. The gardens at the hospital are actually a landscaped car park - a practical and necessary part of hospital life, yet the most blissful place for staff, patients and visitors to enjoy. They underline the importance of beautiful, practical public spaces. The same can be said of our wonderful Olympic Park (below).

I loved the Olympic Park. My friends and I deemed it to be the happiest place on the planet. I wanted to spend as much time there as I could and I was thrilled to be involved in the Olympic Closing Ceremony. After months of rehearsals, my lovely new friends and I donned our yellow outfits and had the time of our lives dancing, or in my case, hoping that I was doing what everyone else was doing and preferably at the same time as them. Here are some of us shortly before the ceremony. Our ages range from teenage to 80 years old.  

All this excitement means that I have barely been home this summer and if I have been in Norfolk, I have spent too much time watching the swallows swoop across the sky above the piggeries and not enough time gardening. However, I did enjoy a bowl of strawberries within 60 days of planting them (as promised in the 20th June post) and I am absolutely converted to 'Darlisette' which has the most perfect level of sweetness I have ever tasted in a strawberry. You will note that I failed to get round to laying down a straw mulch, along with a million and one other jobs this summer. 

I feel guilt-ridden, but I will confess that despite all the rain and the misery of blight affecting so many, my first experience of growing tomatoes without a greenhouse has been surprisingly successful... 

.. and much as I don't like to boast, a summer of neglect has led to spectacular weeds in the flower borders.

 Aren't they beautiful?

* Please note that the photo of the yellow-clad people was not taken by me and belongs to a member of TP7. The first picture is proof (were in needed) that flowers in wildlife seed mixes attract wildlife.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd and Defending my Beloved

One man’s meat might be another man’s poison, but when it comes to gardening, there are few things more likely to make a placid gardener’s blood boil than somebody maligning one of their best-loved plants.

Think of Beth Chatto when she read The Well-Tempered Garden and discovered that Christopher Lloyd had no time for bergenias. Beth, of course, grows hosts of bergenias, using them to great effect in creating breathing spaces after more complex planting. So troubled was she by his comments that she took the time to write and tell him.

Several years ago, I was watching a gardening programme on television and the presenter hacked one of my favourite plants from a border, peppering the slaughter with less-than-sparkling asides about my beloved. I was furious! I should have written in. Of course, I never got round to it because of my old friend, procrastination. I am still incensed about the televised butchery and character assassination of a choice plant, so today I am going to set the record straight.

A member of that distinguished cohort, the deciduous year-round interest brigade, Leycesteria formosa is a plant with many common names - Himalayan honeysuckle, Pheasant berry, Flowering nutmeg and Granny's curls to name a few. New shoots with a bluish bloom emerge in spring to form arching bamboo-like fresh green stems from which burgundy bracts drip from early summer to mid-autumn, carrying white flowers and later, raspberry coloured berries which ripen to a deep claret.  

The green tapered leaves are red where they join the stem and as summer progresses, they become red-edged with hints of wine-coloured veining flooding through the leaf.

The flowers are abuzz with bees in summer, then in winter, plump berries provide food for birds. In the dormant months, the skeletal bamboo-like stems make a hauntingly beautiful contribution to the winter garden. It is a plant that I would not want to be without and I am planting six of them in the farmhouse garden here in Norfolk.

Beth Chatto’s letter provoked an invitation from Christopher Lloyd to meet him for lunch, which in turn led to a long-lasting friendship and a collection of their inspirational letters to one another in Dear Friend and Gardener. That is how it should be done. I have learnt an important lesson today. I feel better for defending my beloved Leycesteria formosa and if anyone speaks ill of one of my cherished plants ever again I will not stew furiously for years and do absolutely nothing about it. I will speak out with confidence... immediately...

... just let me weed the borders first... pick some beans... and courgettes... feed the chickens.... eat some chocolate and gather my thoughts for a year or two.

* You will probably have guessed that the first photo was taken in Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter; the second, of Bergenia 'Silberlicht' was taken at The Beth Chatto Gardens.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Skinny Beans and Falling in Love 

Isn’t it great when you look forward to something and it turns out to be even better than you had anticipated?

I had wanted to see Felbrigg Hall's walled garden for some time, but since I am a seasoned procrastinator I only got round to it a few days ago. Thankfully there are no photos of me stepping into the garden, although I am certain I wasn't the only visitor who stopped dead in their tracks and stood open-mouthed with eyes like organ stops.  

The use of wall-trained plants was superb. Uncompromising mass planting resulted in a whopping wall wow-factor. I have never been the number one fan of climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). It is a solid, dependable plant and I rely on it to do a job, which it does very well, but it has never set my heart aflutter, until Felbrigg. 

Here is what the wall looked like from the other side. These are not the best photos in the world. No camera shake facility is any match for a flabbergasted gardener.

They were not in full flower when I saw them. Imagine what they will be like this week! The same full-on effect was achieved with figs in the allotment area. 

The plants seemed more exuberant than any others I have seen this summer. Clearly the walls help to protect them, but we mustn't overlook the addition of a jaw-dropping 75 tons of mulch which has been applied every winter since 1999. They use their own garden compost on the main borders and mushroom compost in the vegetable gardens. Oh how I love a good mulch.

The allotments there are delightful. Trug-loads of delicious fruit and vegetables are interspersed with flowers which are grown thickly in serried ranks of great gorgeous herbaceous hedges

Areas are set aside for families to grow their own food. Fruit and vegetables grown in the garden supply the restaurant and when fruit is ripe in the orchard, visitors are invited to take one piece to enjoy. Bees are encouraged and no pesticides are used on the vegetables, fruit, or borders in the walled garden.  
Bantams control insect pests in the allotments and rescue guinea fowl free range in the orchard. It is this generous, inclusive approach which makes the garden all the more special.

For me, the most relaxing area was the orchard. Mown paths meandering through longer grass and a thoughtfully placed bench is an unbeatable combination, especially when you are still recovering from Hydrangea heaven.

Having feasted my eyes on all these uberplants**, my thoughts turned to my climbing French beans which are not their usual feisty selves this year. Their stems are skinnier and the leaves are set further apart than usual. The same thing has happened with a number of my friends’ runner and French beans. I have taken the precaution of a later sowing, just in case cropping is reduced. Of course, now I have done this, we will be in for a great bean glut later this summer. It’s a good job that we love beans as much as we love mulch (although, much as we love it, we don’t eat the latter).

* Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk.

** I'm sorry, I don't know where my laptop keeps its umlauts.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Juggling, strawberries and forget-me-nots

A few years ago I was inundated with sets of juggling balls. I don’t know why there were so many, perhaps they were fashionable at the time, or possibly I looked like a person in need of another juggling kit. Obviously I couldn’t juggle all the sets at once, but I fared adequately with three juggling balls - a skill I have now lost, along with the ability to do handstands or sit on a swing without feeling queasy.  

(I would have liked to have taken and inserted a photo of me struggling to juggle at this point, but that would have been multi-tasking gone mad, so instead here is an altogether less frenzied photo of a friend sunbathing outside my kitchen window).

Perhaps I was given juggling sets to prepare me for the day when I would find myself juggling a family, work, a barn conversion and a blog. In an uncanny twist, life has been mimicking my limited juggling skills and the fourth ball - the blog - has been dropped in the bedlam created when sickness bugs, work and a building project collide. I have missed the blogging community far too much, so I shall try very hard not to drop this particularly rewarding part of my life ever again.

Many beautiful plants have come into flower since my last post. One plant that I do not like to be without is Nepeta racemosa 'Walker’s Low'. It is hugely popular with bees; the colour shines in the evening light, so it is lovely to come home to after a long day at work; and ‘Walker’s Low’ behaves itself with me and doesn't get too leggy. 

Here in the farmhouse garden, the rabbit fencing has been installed and the landscapers are now laying paths. The gate to the field is sturdy and double-latched to keep out the cows who should soon be hanging their heads over the fence in search of a spot of nutritional variety in the form of interesting garden plants which have been carefully selected not to poison passing cattle.

This little corner of the garden might not look too promising at the moment, but in my mind I see borders brimming with beautiful plants which blend with the countryside beyond and attract and nurture an abundance of wonderful wildlife. Of course, while there is mud, rubble and a dream, there are no pests or disappointments, but I am an optimist, so I am planning for a positive outcome on the pest front and everything in the garden will be rosy and the cows will stick to grazing on their side of the fence.

Since we moved to Norfolk I have been missing my old strawberry patch, so yesterday I planted three varieties - 'Mara des Bois', 'Darlisette' and 'Chelsea Pensioner' (guess which flower show I was at when I ordered them). These three varieties, a perpetual, an early and a late, have been kept in cold storage so they will fruit within 60 days. I have tried this before and it was a great success. The photo of forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) is here because I love to see forget-me-nots nestling among strawberry flowers. I have never noticed a worrying reduction in the size or quality of the crop, so it is a frippery I plan to enjoy in my new strawberry patch next spring.


Monday, 21 May 2012

Rabbiting on

As a fully paid-up member of the ‘do as I say and not as I do’ brigade*, heeding my own advice is about as natural as the sweet heady scent of freshly mown astro turf. However, miracles can happen - even in twenty-first century Norfolk.

In all honesty, I would rather spend my garden budget on something exquisite which pleases as many of my senses as is physically possible, so anything humdrum and sensible, like rabbit fencing, is way down my list of desirable purchases. Or it was. I have been preaching to clients about correctly installed rabbit protection for years and I have finally heard my own message.

Of course, lists of rabbit-resistant plants are readily available, but Br'er, Peter, Roger and Buggs haven’t read any of them and will invariably munch their way through specimens which are, according to the experts, off the menu.

I love to grow my own food and if I eat the food, the chances are that the rabbits will too and I know who is more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning and will get to the crops first. So a considerable proportion of my garden budget will be blown on rabbit fencing which will, hopefully, keep the bunnies out. I like to think it will be a fine long-term investment for my plants and my sanity. After all, little is more disheartening than discovering that your garden is now the eatery of choice for the entire cast of Watership Down.

The photos above are of my auntie's travelling Geum. I took some from her Cambridgeshire garden, planted it in Essex, then moved a little of it with me to Norfolk. It's a spreader, so it travels within the garden too, although not in a pesky way - just enough to enable us to share it with others. It is Geum rivale. I think it is beautiful and even better, bees love it.

Our barn conversion continues apace. Tonnes of soil have been removed and the barn is still standing despite howling gales and hailstorms.

We have had many heaps of soil bigger than the one below (although this one is unusual in that it is basking in the sunlight). We have managed to reuse them all, so nothing has been disposed of off-site.

The dog enjoying his morning constitutional is Sprout. I can't believe how clean he looks in that photo!

This week it is Chelsea Flower Show, so my camera battery is recharging and I am getting all excited about catching up with old friends and meeting new plants. I can't wait!

* Please see the 'Chocolate and Cherries' post March 2012

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Silver Linings

I love the British weather. It is so capricious. It lures us into over-dressing or even, perish the thought, under-dressing - and challenges and exasperates us, but at least it has the decency to do so in a loveable rogue kind of way.

Raindrops on Geranium Rozanne = 'Gerwat'

Recently though, it has taken on a new predictable persona and all this rain, while great for water reserves, is just plain frustrating and if it doesn’t ease up soon, I fear the hens will develop webbed feet and our veggie patch will produce a bumper crop of dandelions and little else.

In an acute attack of optimism, I have been scouting for silver linings to all these rain clouds and of course, the plants have come up trumps. Who could ever tire of looking at raindrops collecting on the leaves of Alchemilla mollis?

Even drought tolerant plants such as those found in the gravel garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex, seem to be enjoying the rain and are putting on lush growth. Unfurling leaves are vibrant and fresh - here is a bluebell wood I spotted on my travels last weekend.

In my own garden, recently planted hedges are flourishing. Were it not for the rain, it could have been a very different story. After all, bare-root hedging and hosepipe bans are seldom happy bedfellows.

I must confess that I rarely enjoy mowing lawns, so the rain is a blessing as it would be foolhardy to mow wet grass. Had I been able and willing to mow, I might have missed out on these cowslips which have made themselves at home in the lawn. 

Like many people accustomed to the physical exertions of gardening, inactivity is taking its toll and my clothes are tightening by the day, so I am grateful to be involved in some small way with the forthcoming Olympics. I am no highly-tuned sportsperson so I am not a contender- unless competitive chocolate consumption is an Olympic event these days - in which case, sign me up.

Like many of the Olympic volunteers, I feel privileged to be part of an exciting occasion which gives me the opportunity to meet diverse, enthusiastic and supportive people. I feel the same about the blogosphere. I haven’t been here long, but I am having a wonderful time in this community of diverse, enthusiastic and supportive people. So despite the rain, I am happy!