10 Sep 2017

And then it was September

Is that it? Is summer over?  You'd better believe it.  Leaves are falling from the fruit trees, children are back at school (hello again peaceful days!), seed catalogues are thumping onto the doormat and apples are blushing up nicely.  Unlike previous years, I'm feeling strangely calm about it all. Que sera sera, and all that.

The weather's been a bit tricky these past few weeks - hot one day, wet and mild the next. Luckily I'm no longer obliged to be outside putting my waterproofs through their paces; instead, as summer slips away, it's been the perfect chance to pop the kettle on and take stock.

It hasn't been the most productive of years for me for reasons explained in previous posts so I'm grateful for anything that survived my lack of attention. Except the weeds, of course. I still have one or two courgettes still pumping out little fruits, sweet peas are still flowering and the achocha plant that appeared earlier this year of its own volition has just started to grow its softly spined peppers. In previous years I've been inundated with achocha fruits by August so even this is taking its sweet time this year.

Late summer fruit, flowers, and veg collage

Soft fruit has been amazing this year, without exception - fat raspberries, sweet gooseberries, strings of redcurrants, punnets of blackcurrants from the plot and masses of Morello cherries.  Most of these have been munched by the kids living here but that's as it should be. Nothing like giving them a taste of freshly picked to pique their interest for next year.  She said optimistically ;)

Up at the allotment I've been pulling beetroot when needed, carrots are plumping up and the physalis plants have recently sprouted the flowers that will turn into cape gooseberries.  The big question is whether there'll be enough of a decent autumn for the fruit to ripen. The same goes for quite a lot of the other crops I've grown.  There are plenty of tomatoes but they're mostly green; sweet corn cobs are only just beginning to fatten, pumpkins and squashes are still small tiny.  Hopes of a small summer revival are minimal so these veg will either ripen ... or they won't. C'est la vie.

Physalis, corn cob, small squash and green tomatoes at the allotment

So what next? Well, ever the optimist, I've spread all my seeds out on the floor (still in packets, I hasten to add!) and dug out chard, spinach, wild rocket, winter hardy lettuce and komatsuna (a lovely deep green Japanese mustard spinach, great for stir fries and dead easy to grow). All of these rather enjoy the cooler temperatures of autumn so I should get a few leaves before the year end - or longer with protection. I'll also be sowing sweet peas and a few annual flowers for next year to get a head start and maybe even overwintering some broad beans.  That'll be a first for me, I usually sow in spring. My favourites - Red Epicure and Karmazyn - are both spring sown beans so I'm trying Stereo, a bean recommended as tender, excellent, and thin skinned, from Sarah Raven.

Despite the lack of a decent harvest, I was right to take a step back in August. I allowed myself time to breathe, to visit gardens, to sleep and to think. Now I'm ready to let go of this year and look forward to the next. We're not up to the autumn equinox yet but, like the kids going back to school, I'm ready for the new year - and, more importantly, looking forward to it.

13 Aug 2017


Readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven't been around for a couple of months. I've written this post by way of explanation and will then return to writing regular garden related content. 

I hadn't realised that becoming an orphan later in life could be so exhausting. Emotionally, creatively, productively.  It's something that I'm learning to come to terms with.

I wrote here of my mother's death three months ago.  After my Dad's death, fifteen months beforehand, I didn't grieve but got on with clearing and selling my parents' home on the coast (100 miles from where I live) and keeping an eye on Mum living in a care home. I watched as my mother struggled to recognise me, to talk and to eat, as a cloud of incomprehension and memory loss settled over her brain. She faded before our eyes, slipping into another world where we couldn't reach her. After her death, my brother and I liaised with solicitors, registrars, the taxman, funeral directors, printers, grave diggers, stonemasons, banks, florists, wake venues and the Naval padre (vicar), an old friend of the family who came out of retirement to conduct both funerals. The practicalities kept us busy but further loss awaited. I lost my country weekends when my Oxfordshire-based niece and her beloved family recently relocated to live in Boston USA for the foreseeable future. There has also been a family rift with one of my sisters who, until a year ago, was pretty much my oldest and best friend. Apparently it happens, when you lose your parents.

During all this time I carried on working full time, as would most people. When asked, I said it was fine, I was okay, my parents had both lived to a good age and they'd enjoyed a really good life. But was I okay? Seemingly, yes, but the bedrock of my life had shifted. There had been too much change. I was warned by a blogger friend that I was likely to hit an emotional wall and I did, but not in a visible way.  I lost the motivation to write, to garden, to exercise beyond a slow walk to the shops. I would sleep for seven hours and wake up still tired.  But still I ploughed on with life as habit dictated, except that I preferred my own company and that of the television.

In daily life I became easily irritated, insensitive to others, occasionally volubly indignant and impatient. There has been overeating and too much comfort food.  It took a while but I finally realised that I was angry, sad, vulnerable, exhausted. Angry that fate had given my parents an undignified death, sad that I was unable to do more for them, vulnerable because the emotional support they gave was gone and exhausted from suppressing all these feelings.  Those feelings were equally applicable to the rift in the family. The time had come for more, but better, change.

So last week, I retired. Which is to say that I've given up working with small children. For the past seven years I've worked as a childminder in order to be at home, to blog, to be my own housekeeper, to garden and to support my son. (Not necessarily in that order!) It was fun, creative, enlightening and exhausting. I was graded Outstanding by Ofsted so I'm bowing out at the top.  But, never say never; I might go back to it but, for now, I'm taking some time to consider what else I'd like to do. My background is creative: artist, photographer, graphic designer, illustrator. To that I'm now adding writing, workshops, training.  My body is learning to sleep beyond 6.30 am - such a novelty! - and I'm eating sensibly again. (Sometimes. What would teatime be without cake?)

My passion for gardening is on the rise once more although that's been a snakepit of problems this year. Children who live in the flats here have, for many months, been denied access to our fenced playground (a repair issue, apparently) so have taken to playing football around the veg patch. I now walk past to see what, if anything, is still standing.  Plants have been smashed or crushed, fences toppled, pots broken, gates left open for urban wildlife to creep in and fruit stolen - not a scenario which is conducive to spending more time on growing things.

Things are not going well at the shared allotment either. At every visit I spend hours weeding because I happen to think a well-kept plot is important. The other two women who are supposed to be helping don't believe in weeding - ever.  I've asked, the plot holder has asked, but to no avail. Their stand-off was tolerated as one of them said that what they grew was for everyone. Then I picked one of their cucumbers and the other one sent a terse text saying they don't want to share and I wasn't to pick 'their' produce.  I took a deep breath, said nothing and stopped going for a few weeks. It was a development that added to my downward spiral. Last week, during my newly freed up days, I went back as I remembered that I have pumpkins, squashes, carrots, leeks, beetroot, sweet corn, tomatoes, flowers and cape gooseberries (groundcherries) growing there. I restricted myself to weeding around my crops only - a bit mean-spirited perhaps but a step on the path to self-realisation and improvement.

It's still early days, I still miss my parents and feel sad, but I feel some of the weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Giving up the daily grind will do that for you. I'm quietly optimistic about exploring new possibilities and will be writing here more regularly. My apologies to readers who have looked for posts and not found any; and my thanks to those readers that have stuck with me. I've  missed being part of this community.  I have a lot of catching up to do but I'm back - and I hope my readers will be too.

28 Jun 2017

Almost Wordless Wednesday: Plot poppies

Yesterday I dashed up to the allotment. With the threat of rain from heavy grey clouds, I thought to tidy up the plants on my balcony but couldn't find my trowel. I've had a lot on my mind recently and have noticed a tendency to forget things or flit from one thing to another. To be honest, I do that even when I haven't got a lot on my mind. It's not good.

My trowel is a particularly beautiful copper one that I've had for years & love; I would be distraught to lose it so I racked my brains as to where I might have used it last.  I have a very good visual memory and could picture it in my hand as I weeded at the plot last weekend. I had to know if my vision was correct so a quick visit to the plot ensued as the first tiny drops of rain started.

It's such a magical place though (I must do a video one day) that, once there, time stood still & the rain stopped, briefly. I found my trowel, still buried in the soil where I'd been removing weeds from around the broad beans. I dug out a few more weeds, wandered a little, munching raspberries as I went, sat awhile on the bench and then slowly walked back along the paths to the gate.

These self sown poppies were battered by winds last week but more flowers had opened in the sunshine. The metre long strip of tissue paper thin flowers and seed heads lit up the path on an otherwise rather monochrome day, adding to the magic of the place.

I'll be keeping an eye on those seedheads & gathering a few to sprinkle around next year - 
which flowers are brightening your life at the moment?

28 May 2017

Round up (no, not the weedkiller)

My plan to be more organised has been completely blown out of the water in the past couple of weeks so my apologies for the delay in posting here. Not only is this an incredibly busy time for planting out all the veg that I've been hardening off but I managed to squeeze in three garden visits in three days after a day down on the Hampshire coast.

I was in Hampshire with my brother to sort out the funeral arrangements for my mother who died peacefully almost three weeks ago on 9th May.  When she went, I felt it was a release for her.  Long time readers of this blog may remember that my mum suffered from dementia, a cruel disease of the brain which slowly builds over years to impede normal life, conversation and memories. I like to think that her spirit is now back to how I knew her - smiling, chatty, interested in everything and everyone, hopefully reunited with my dad and free. Tiny spaces gave her claustrophobia and she loved being outdoors. It's a huge relief that she is no longer cooped up in the (albeit very good) care home where she spent the last year, just sitting with strangers and well meaning staff but not entirely confident that her visitors were, in fact, her beloved children and grandchildren. In my heart I know that she would be glad it's over. She had a great life, lived to the full, loved by all and loving. Here's to you, Mum.

Mum and Dad up in a hot air balloon, Australia 1994. 

But back to gardens. My visit to Hampshire was originally planned to coincide with a visit to a rather fabulous private garden near Petersfield, courtesy of the Garden Media Guild. The garden belongs to Rosemary Alexander, a landscape architect and gardener who founded The English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden.  I was slightly in awe of her before I went but the beauty of these visits is to meet the owners; Rosemary is warm, welcoming and an engaging talker - and readily prepared to point out all the mistakes in her garden. (Although we really wouldn't have noticed!) Her garden is full of inspiration, including topiary, an inherited dwarf apple tree, fabulous plants and a cool green woodland area that would be just heavenly in this week's heat.

~ Rosemary talking to the GMG crowd; the woodland area of her garden ~

The next day my tiny car wound its way to the RHS Malvern Spring Show in Worcestershire. As I missed the deadline to apply for Press Day at the Chelsea Flower Show, I thought I'd head up to Malvern as I'd not been before. The drive through countryside was lovely - and quite exciting to suddenly spot the Malvern Hills in the distance! - but, once there, I felt that the show itself over-emphasised food, sitting areas and trade stands and, unless I missed the obvious, only a tiny handful of show gardens. The Floral Marquee, usually a highlight of the shows for me, was so packed with people (it being a Saturday when I went) that I didn't linger and saw very little of interest apart from one gorgeous striped Lily of the Valley. I would have bought it but was told, "they're all gone" by the sour little man running the display. Perhaps he'd had enough of the crowds too.

There were a few highlights: Buckfast Abbey's Millenium Show garden was popular and I thought it rather lovely, once I'd been able to squeeze myself through the surrounding throng. As a keen herb grower I wanted to see the herb-based 'Health and Wellbeing' garden designed by Jekka McVicar and the Edible Gardens, raised beds which showcased what can be achieved in spare ground and small corners. It was here that I found fellow blogger Sara Venn, she of Incredible Edible Bristol among many other gardening exploits, and her friendly team. This hashtag board sums up the feel good vibe in that area!

I broke my journey home with a short visit to my niece in Oxfordshire. Sunday dawned bright and clear and as the family live a short drive away from Waterperry Gardens in Thame, we headed over there to give everyone a good run around. I haven't visited Waterperry often but it's always a delight to be there. The garden has a very special history and atmosphere, especially the river walk and the long borders which are dazzling now. With small children in tow, and having been totally distracted by the beautiful meadows, there wasn't time on this visit to linger over the rows of espalier and cordon pears and apples - I last saw them bare branched in February and they're definitely a sight worth seeing!

I'll write more about all of these garden visits in future posts but in the meantime I'm having to focus on what I'm growing at home - the windowsills and balcony are all full up, I have more seeds to sow and a ton of planting out to do.  And, despite all the fabulous advice given to me about growing pea shoots, trial #2 produced one shoot and trial #3 is yet to produce anything.  I think I might have found my gardening nemesis.

14 May 2017

Salad Challenge: Mushy Peas

~ Successful pea shoots (for growing on) in previous years ~

I have to confess to my first major fail of the season. As part of my all year round salad bar, I thought I'd grow some pea shoots as they're reputed to be quick and incredibly easy to grow.

The first time I became aware of pea shoots was while watching Alys Fowler rave about them in her 2012 series 'The Edible Garden'. As I recall, she made pea shoot cocktails out of her harvest.  I remember thinking "Eeeuww, really?" (These days I'd probably think it was delicious.)  A bit of googling reveals that the Pea-tini cocktail (as it was) is the brainchild of chef Mark Hix who created it during a campaign to promote pea shoots to diners. At that time, I don't remember pea shoots being very mainstream as a salad leaf but I've read that they were available in M+S and Sainsbury's (big UK supermarkets) in 2008. How far have we come since then! These days they're much more readily available - but, as with all salad leaves, why not grow your own and avoid eating a cocktail of chemicals? Supermarket salads are washed with chemicals to prolong the shelf life of the leaves.

My opinion of pea shoots was changed for the better a couple of years ago when the meal served for supper at a friend's house was pea shoots with pulled ham hock, peas, watercress and a dressing. There might have been mint in there as well; what was memorable was it's tastiness.  But still I didn't grow pea shoots as a salad leaf, even though I grew peas in the veg patch.

Striving for a full year of salad leaves, I hope to change all that but I'm having to start again.  As far as I can tell, pea shoots can be grown from any pea seeds whether they're the remnants of last year's packets or supermarket dried peas.  I had some leftover seeds so filled a box with compost, pushed pea seeds into the compost and watered them.  A week later the lettuce leaves that I'd sown had all germinated but there was a complete lack of action from the pea seeds.  I gave them a few more days. Nothing. So I poked around a bit which was when I discovered ... mushy peas. There were no signs of germination, just globules of pale mush.

I've now started again but this time using supermarket dried marrowfat peas and watering slightly less. And there will be NO poking around as I've since learned that pea shoots can take a bit longer to germinate. Let's see how that goes.

What I'd like to know, though, from anyone that has successfully grown pea shoots, did I do anything wrong?  Do the pea seeds need less watering; are they prone to going mushy; has anyone else found that they've had mushy peas rather than pea shoots?  A couple of things that might be to blame is perhaps I didn't sow the seeds deep enough; I gave them a light covering of soil rather than pushing them down about an inch. Also, I used multi-purpose compost rather than lighter seed compost and watered them in well; perhaps that was it?  If there's any light to be shed on this mystery, please do tell.

~ Mushy pea seeds on the left after a bit of poking around.  Definitely not a thing of beauty. ~

A little bit about my 52 week challenge
I'm sowing a range of salad leaves into small window boxes (above photo). Some of these seedlings will be pricked out to be grown into bigger plants and the rest left for cut and come again leaves on my balcony.

First salad leaves were sown on 30th April.
Salad Rocket appeared within a couple of days (it's not called 'Rocket' for nothing!);
Komatsuna was up by day 3 after sowing;
Mr Fothergill's mixed leaves appeared on day 4 after sowing.
Lollo Rosso leaves had poor germination rates but were from an older packet.

Second sowing on 14th May.
Lamb's Lettuce
Viola's (edible flowers)
Drunken Woman Lettuce

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