Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Going Off-Liste In The RHS Halls

February is the month when gardeners dust off their winter torpors, cast aside coffee-stained catalogues, grab their most capacious shopping bags and venture intrepidly beyond the garden gate to attend the Royal Horticultural Society’s first show of the year.
Carefully compiled shopping lists in specially selected gardening notebooks and hastily scribbled notes on the backs of envelopes are soon jettisoned in favour of a new must-have plant or garden item. It is difficult to ascertain quite what causes such retail fervour. Perhaps it is the heady scent of spring blooms, the choice plants whispering "buy me" (please don't pretend that you have never heard a plant speak) and the sudden splashes of colour which render the lists futile. I have never skied off-piste, not least because I am too scared, but when it comes to challenging pursuits such as shopping, I fearlessly venture off-liste on a regular basisGoing off-liste is a gardener’s folly and prerogative and if you can’t go off-liste at the first show of the season, then when can you? 
With all the floriferous wonder of spring filling the halls, you might imagine that I was to be seen dragging several laundry bagloads of stunners back to Norfolk; but no! My retail therapy was dramatically curtailed by Basil (the puppy, not the plant), who had travelled to London with me, although not the show (perish the thought). Since Basil is hardly pocket-sized, my shopping had to be, so I turned my back on scented Pelargonium and Pulmonaria to die for, in favour of tubers. I have enjoyed growing oca and yacon for a while now*, so I was delighted to stumble upon ulluco and mashua at the show. The ulluco tubers are pretty enough and I am excited about trying them, but they are hardly going to win the snowdrop beauty parade.
Oh to be a galanthophile in the wintertime! Imagine wandering into the RHS halls and coming face-to-face with the snowdrop of your dreams. I save myself a lot of heartache in the Galanthus department by examining all the price tags before looking at the snowdrops and then thinking (although not necessarily believing) that I will get as much pleasure from a glorious sunlit swathe of good old Galanthus nivalis as I will from a single, cherished, eye-wateringly expensive one. Of course, it would be lovely to have the opportunity to test this theory, so if I should ever find myself in possession of the winning lottery ticket, we can forget yachts and jets; I shall have rare snowdrops.
Gardening can be a solitary activity. This is part of its attraction for some. Time alone in the great outdoors is a pleasure to be cherished, but so is the sense of community we can find at allotments, horticultural societies, the internet, plant fairs and garden shows. If you have never been to a show or a plant fair, why not visit one near you this year? Please ensure that you take the time to compose an extensive wish list prior to your arrival at the venue. After all, if you don't know what you are supposed to be buying, how can you fully experience the guilt and joy of going off-liste?


Details about The RHS Shows may be found here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/shows-events

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Growing Delicious Food - The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence

A friend gave up her high-powered legal job in favour of a simpler, more self-sufficient lifestyle. During the first month at home she baked every day, systematically working her way through all the cake recipes in her cookery books. Once completed, she turned her attention to chutney, which was just as well since a cake-based diet, although a marvellous thing, is not without its side effects.

Unlike my friend, I have never tried all the recipes in one chapter of a cookbook. I dip in and out of chapters - and books. There are cookery books on our shelves which have not a spatter of batter glueing their pages together. They are pristine, treasured, and the cause of merciless mockery from those who do not understand the world of the voracious recipe reader.
Given my passion for gardening and reading recipes, I was delighted to receive The Allotment Cookbook by Pete Lawrence. Pete is an award-winning executive producer who has worked with a variety of TV cooks including Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson. For Pete, relaxation from food-related work takes the form of growing food, cooking food and writing about it. Obsessive gardeners will recognise this trait: many professionals spend weekends gardening and writing about plants, so we understand how the day job can also become a wonderful form of relaxation.
The Allotment Cookbook is not simply a collection of recipes, neither is it a gardening manual. Filled with anecdotes involving food and generations of family life, this book verges on becoming a love letter to fresh produce. It is not slushy, with the exception of the lovely rocket seedling proposal to his wife (I shall be discussing this with my other half as a standard to which he might aspire); rather it is an appreciation of the incredible positive transformation which can take place in our lives when we grow, rather than buy, our own fruit and vegetables.

   "Growing veg feels right. When you hum the same tune 
   as nature - get into its rhythm - then you will learn to    
savour produce at its very best."  - Pete Lawrence                

Pete Lawrence’s love for growing food shines through. It is a gentle, enjoyable read with delicious echoes of Nigel Slater’s writing. This book is not just for foodies and wannabe plotters, it is also a great read for experienced growers and voracious recipe readers. 
The Allotment Cookbook will not remain pristine in my house. I promise, in spite of everything stated earlier, that I will have cooked and eaten every dish in the radish and courgette sections by the end of this growing season -  not because I will be wrestling with gluts, but because I want to eat them. Roll on summer!

*Photos feature crops I have grown, picked and enjoyed eating. There would have been more strawberries and raspberries in the first picture, but they are notoriously challenging crops when it comes to picking and not eating.

Monday, 1 February 2016

New Introductions

Introducing new plants into a garden is always exciting. Sometimes the impact can outweigh the outlay because we plan and use our additional plants carefully. We might create a new focal point; add lemon flowers to lift a blue and white scheme; or increase coherence by repeating the same plant or form at intervals throughout our borders. It would be wonderful to post about a new, improved planting scheme today, but my garden is suffering from a surfeit of new introductions at the moment; and although I am very happy with them all, they are not exactly making my borders look any fuller, more beautiful or bountiful. 
RIP Herby Chicken
The first new introductions of 2016 were additional hens. Herby chicken died a few weeks ago and since a solitary chicken is such a sorry sight, I got Hippy Chick some new friends in the form of the cluckiest blue chickens in Norfolk 
(Iris and Hyacinth), and a sweet little Russian Orloff called Voddy. 
The hens had all settled in wonderfully well until I introduced a puppy called Basil into the mix yesterday. Iris and Hyacinth secured their position as top guard hens by marking his arrival with a deafening fanfare of clucking. Measures are already in place to reconcile Basil with the girls; and I am reconciling myself to more chaos than I might wish for in the Barn Garden. An eight-week-old puppy and three new chickens is not a combination famed for its positive impact on lawns and borders, but this doesn’t matter; it is a joy and a privilege to take care of animals, be they pets or wildlife. 
This is why I am not too upset about the state of Iris reticulata 'Blue Note'. I had been looking forward to a spectacular display of these beautiful flowers in the Barn Garden this year, but many of the stems have been scattered hither and thither by the hens' over-exuberant scratching. It is a small price to pay for seeing the girls happily settled in their new home. 
Wild birds have started to help themselves to our garden fare at last; I hope that they are late because there has been plenty on offer in the surrounding countryside. Plump Pyracantha berries have persisted through most of January, but they are now being eaten. I know many gardeners view Pyracantha as a mundane plant, but I could not disagree more. Not only does Pyracantha add wildlife value, with nectar-laden flowers for pollinators, juicy winter berries for birds and year-round cover, it makes a wonderful addition to more formal planting when clipped as an espalier, or trained into a grid pattern. I think it is one of the most under-appreciated plants in our gardens.
The arrival of February heralds a period of deepening envy as I read about other gardeners sowing seeds under cover. I allow myself to sow a few flower seeds which will cope with life in the cold frame as they grow, but without a greenhouse, it makes sense to wait until spring to sow many edibles. Doing nothing is incredibly hard work, but it is better than the alternative (cucumber kitchen curtains linger long in the memory*). I am optimistic that I will be so busy with Basil that I might sail through the big wait to sow this year. Here he is on his first morning with us, busily practising the important life skill of helping gardeners tidy up after themselves. This will come in useful when I introduce new plants into the borders. I shall remain optimistic regarding the length of time these new introductions will remain in the soil... there are only so many plants a puppy and a few hens can dig up, surely?