3 Top Tasting Tomatoes…

If you only grew 3 tomatoes this year – which cultivars would you choose?

I’ve never had this dilemma before as the greenhouse is usually a jungle of tomato foliage by June and I always defend my excessive tomato habit by claiming that growing for the school fete necessitates producing several extra trays of tomatoes – as indeed it does. But this year, having passed the responsibility of the stall onto fresh hands, I might have to acknowledge the other reasons for the tomato chaos, which include:

  1. An inability to compost unwanted seedlings
  2. An endless desire to try out new cultivars
  3. Too much focus on sowing: not enough on growing

So this year, with no pressure to grow for others, I’m going to raise fewer plants and make more time and space to care for them better. I’ve decided to choose only my 3 favourites – the ones with the best flavour – along with 4 new cultivars. I’m just intending to grow one of each type (please hold me to this) and thus I’ll be reducing my normal tomato numbers by three quarters.

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Beautiful summery colours

Reading back through my records to decide on the 3 ‘keepers’, I’ve come across a few which just don’t quite make the grade:

  • ‘Millefleur’ – a centiflor variety with hundreds of small yellow fruits, but a little disappointing on taste
  • ‘Indigo Rose’ – a deep black cherry tomato with beautiful red skin under the calyx and a sweet, meaty taste, but doesn’t quite make the top three
  • ‘Black Russian’ and ‘Black Krim’ – lovely mellow beefsteak tomatoes, great for salads, but not quite enough yield to make the grade
  • ‘Gartenperle’ – my favourite hanging basket tomato with a sweet taste and excellent yield – would be my number 4

Other good tasting tomatoes have included ‘Tumbling Tom’ – red and yellow, ‘Tigarella’, ‘Sungold’, ‘Black Opal’ and ‘Heinz 1370’, but my self-restrained top 3 would have be:

  • ‘Green Zebra’ – my children’s favourite with vibrant green stripes and a fresh tangy flavour which adds a real zing to summer salads
  • ‘Gardener’s Delight’ – an unsurprising favourite for its reliability, thin skins and sweet taste
  • Golden Sunrise – a deliciously sweet yellow tomato and my top tasting cultivar

Tomatoes form the basis of so many summer meals

Alongside these I’m trying:

  • ‘Rosella’ – a smoky rose-pink cherry tomato with high anti-oxidant levels and very few seeds
  • ‘Red Zebra’ – high levels of lycopene, excellent flavour and I can’t resist the stripes
  • ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Red’ – a sweet container tomato for the kids to grow, reaching only 30cm

And I’d like to add another tomato based on flavour recommendation, so please leave me a comment about your top tasting tomato. I’ll choose one from your delicious favourites and sow all my tomato seeds in the next few weeks. Then hopefully, come June, the greenhouse will be home to seven healthy, heavily-cropping tomato plants, with plenty of room left over for my chillies, cucumbers, marigolds and cucamelons.

Happy sowing and growing! If you’d like to follow the progress of my tomato crop in 2018, do keep in touch via social media and subscribe to the blog below…

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How Our Love Of Gardening Began – With Thanks

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how my love of gardening began and asked readers to share their own stories as part of my research for a book I’m writing on our relationship with gardening and the natural world. I was overwhelmed by the response – over the next week, more than 200 gardeners from across the world contributed 25,000 words of personal recollections. Many readers, like me, dug far back into their childhoods, unearthing tales of Victorian coal cellars, air raid shelters, RAF gardens, memorial gardens and recoveries from mental illness. The stories frequently made me smile and, at times, cry – many spoke poignantly of the importance of gardening in their lives.

Almost every story begins with reference to a family member (most often a grandparent), an inspirational figure who passed on their knowledge and enthusiasm for growing flowers, vegetables and/or fruit. There are many recollections of childhood vegetable patches – supporting the idea that giving children the chance to have a go themselves is key in getting them involved with the process. The powerful experience of watching a plant grow is important to many, with lovely stories like the lady who recalls her father nurturing a weed all summer, knowing it was a weed, just to see it grow. She writes ‘I never forgot that tiny yard with its little weed that my father looked after.’

The importance of passing a love of gardening down through the generations is also emphasised by the number of people who mention their relationship with their own children and grandchildren. I was particularly moved by the lady whose love of gardening began:

 nearly eighty years ago in 1938 when, as a five year old, I first encountered the         wondrous kingdom of the allotment, but really took off later in the war when… [I] was befriended by a German prisoner of war who worked on the strawberry field next to the allotment field, who showed me with great patience and knowledge nearly everything I needed to know.

As past moves to present, she describes the ‘greatest moment… when my granddaughter brought her son (my great grandson) down to the plot and showed him where she herself had spent so many hours with me.’ Her recollections celebrate one of the fundamental pleasures of gardening – sharing the experience with others.

Gardens are also places where memories can be revisited, places of remembrance bringing us closer to loved ones who are no longer with us. Several stories touched on the way gardening creates a connection to those we’ve lost – plants taken as cuttings from family gardens, old tools lovingly used, smells which bring back warm memories and areas of the garden dedicated to loved ones, which all have a healing effect on the soul. This aspect of gardening is explained well by one writer who says ‘to me it’s more than gardening, it’s remembering time spent together’.

Mental and physical health are also recurring themes. The benefits of fresh air and exercise are well understood and the positive effects of gardening on mental health are now becoming more widely accepted by doctors. The stories describe the way gardening has helped people cope with breakdowns, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. One lady says that gardening ‘keeps me grounded’, another that it is ‘the one thing that’s keeping me sane’. This healing force is summed up by one gardener:

Gardening is so good for the mind and soul.

Senses emerge from the stories as an important part of our memories and none more so than smell. Many people wrote of the fragrance of tomatoes, alongside ‘the smell of earth’, ‘fresh grass’, ‘tuberose and jasmine’, ‘fertilisers’ and one gentleman’s memory of Uncle Wilf’s ‘two huge Victorian glass houses’ with the smell of ‘the coke and dampness inside when the heating went on’. Taste also evokes remembrance –  my mouth was watering as I read about delicious ‘Blue-Mouth Pie’, ‘wine that tasted like whisky made from parsnips’ and the best accompaniment to cheese sandwiches – crunchy pickled onions.

It’s lovely to read about those who come to gardening later in life, either when they  start growing houseplants or herbs on the windowsill, take on a new garden or begin to garden for or with someone else – a partner, parent or their children. These stories are filled with the joy of new discoveries, the sense of satisfaction when new gardens are transformed and several references to wonderful mother-in-laws who have passed on their knowledge – as one lady writes ‘I just can’t ask for a better mother-in-law nor a better gift than what she has taught me… introducing me to the pleasure that is gardening!’

For many, the interaction with nature is at the heart of time in the garden; as one gardener writes ‘quite simply I garden for nature’. Childhoods were spent playing in the woods and fields, birdwatching, learning the names of wildflowers, reading I-Spy books and adding contributions to the nature table (a tradition missing from many modern classrooms). Several people refer to a ‘kind of spirituality’ or innate connection ‘to the earth’ experienced whilst gardening which one gardener believes is ‘in everybody’s subconscious’. Whatever the essence of this love of the land, almost all the gardeners who responded are in agreement that it arises from contact with the earth and learning from inspiring friends or family members, and that it is important to pass on to others.

I began the first piece on how the love of gardening begins considering the inspiration I took from my Granny and I end the second with thoughts of how I might influence my own children. Although not everyone who responded had gardened throughout their lives, the majority saw the foundations of their love of gardening arising from their childhoods – even if they had come back to it later in life. In a society where engagement with nature is no longer seen as intrinsic to learning about the world, in a curriculum which marginalises nature study, we need, more than ever, to be sharing our love of gardening with the younger generation. ‘If children are introduced to gardening when young, it wires your brain for life!’ writes one lady and another suggests ‘we must teach our children about the natural world if we are to have any chance of protecting it.’

Thank you for sharing your inspiring stories – it’s lovely to read about the wide-ranging positive effects of gardening and to know that so many are passing on their love and knowledge for gardening and the natural world to the next generation. 

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Kaffir limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).

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Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.

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‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.

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Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂

Year Of The Almanac

2018 has brought me not one but two almanac treasures, each a joy to read and written nearly 200 years apart. The first is a beautifully illustrated hardback: The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To 2018 by Lia Leendertz which I bought a couple of months ago along with copies for friends, but hid away so I wouldn’t be tempted to read it cover to cover before the new year commenced. The second is a book of John Clare’s poetry published in 1827: The Shepherd’s Calendar which follows the progression of the year for the rural labourers of Helpston.

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The shepherd rests by David Gentleman

This is another attractive hardback illustrated with evocative wood engravings by David Gentleman which capture the essence of the rural Northamptonshire landscape and its people at work and play. Like Emma Dibben’s illustrations in The Almanac, Gentleman’s engravings use simple lines to build up precise detail, whether it be the grain of a particular wood in The Shepherd’s Calendar or the characteristics of different sheep breeds in The Almanac.

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Leicester Longwool and Ryeland Sheep by Emma Dibben

The Almanac‘s entries for January include many facts to entice you out into the new year, even when skies are lowering and footpaths slippery with mud. I’m enjoying the supermoon tonight – where the full moon is particularly close to earth and at its brightest. With the times of the moon’s rising and setting noted for each day, I started my watching at 15.49 precisely and there it was, a huge orb perfectly framed by the silver birch tassels outside my study window.

One of the statistics for January which brings a glow to my heart is the fact that during the course of the month, day length increases by 1 hour and 12 minutes (in London). That’s nearly an extra hour and a quarter by the beginning of February to get out in the garden or walk along the footpaths. This is a fact which would have been of the utmost importance to John Clare’s community, relying as they did, on occupations out of doors. In ‘January: A Winter’s Day’, Clare conjures up the winter landscape:

While in the fields the lonly plough
Enjoys its frozen sabbath now
And horses too pass time away
In leisures hungry holiday

whilst, in the cottage:

The shepherd from his labour free
Dancing his children on his knee
Or toasting sloe boughs sputtering ripe
Or smoaking glad his puttering pipe

The Almanac describes ‘Wassailing’, a festivity which celebrates the cider crop, involving drinking ‘warm cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of brandy’, as a way to fill the indoor hours, or there is marmalade making – one of my favourite preserves made with Seville oranges, and a ‘date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding’ for indulgent winter suppers. Gardening jobs for January include pruning and planting fruit trees – jobs redolent of summer jams and autumn crumbles – although personally I’ll pass on the ‘Glut of the Month’ for January as one swede a year is too many; the thought of a glut of swedes brings me out in a cold sweat!

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Two almanacs to start the new year

Then, finally, the section on ‘Nature’ documents the monthly treats in store in the garden and countryside throughout 2018: the bulbs appearing (I saw my first snowdrop last week), hazel flowers with their filigree winter beauty, and fieldfares and redwings (a frequent reason for the dash for binoculars in our house as the redwing flock lands on next door’s cotoneaster – or even, one year, a museum of waxwings.) Clare also celebrates winter birds as:

…flocking field fares speckld like the thrush
Picking the red awe from the sweeing bush

although this comes in March, January being far more concerned with daily freezings:

The ickles from the cottage eaves
Which cold nights freakish labour leaves

set once more against the cosy cottage interior where:

…[the] keetle simmers merrily
And tinkling cups are set for tea

Both of these almanacs are objects to be used – with ribbon bookmarks for dipping in and out of sunrise times, recipe ingredients and monthly nature observations. I’d been looking forward to the publication of The Almanac for many months as I was involved, along with many other supporters, in crowdfunding the book through the publishers Unbound. The company has revived an old method of publishing whereby a network of supporters help fund the process, allowing authors to write the books which their audience wants and enabling them to get a much fairer percentage of revenue than they would from standard publishing.

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Supermoon, 1 January 2018

It is particularly apt that The Almanac has been published in this way as it also revives an old tradition of annual volumes which, in Clare’s words, give us details of ‘frost and snow’ and ‘wisdom gossipd from the stars’. More than this, almanacs connect us to the particularities of each year, through the combinations of the weather, the phases of the sun and moon, natural cycles of plants and animals, and our traditional festivities. It is heartening that the support has been there to enable Lia Leendertz to create this delightful volume, hopefully the first of many new almanacs. Although our modern lives are rarely as intimately entwined with the natural calendar as those of John Clare and his contemporaries, knowledge about the natural world, its cycles and constant changes is no less vital today, perhaps even more so, and traditions like the almanac help us to keep this information alive.

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 3)

I was chatting to a friend at the community garden yesterday as we collected leaves and pruned the willows about the beauty of oca with its lush trailing leaves and jewel-like edible tubers. To my mind, harvesting these colourful tubers is one of the most joyful moments in the winter garden, along with watching the birds pass through – we had long-tailed tits, goldfinches, goldcrest and red kite at the community garden this week. So for the final part of the series, I’m taking a look at the way seed heads, containers, crops and birds all add a little bit of extra magic to the winter garden.

Seed Heads

During the winter months, as we gardeners spend a little less time outside due to short days and cold weather, the birds increasingly use our gardens to supplement their winter diets. The berries on my cotoneaster and pyracantha disappear into the bills of hungry thrushes, pigeons and even, in cold winters, waxwings, whilst winter seed heads attract smaller birds. Supplementing these natural food sources with seed feeders is important, but nothing beats watching birds feed on the seed heads and berries in your own garden.

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Waxwing in next door’s tree

Stems and seed heads also create winter habitats for invertebrates which, in turn, provide more food for birds. Perhaps my favourite seed heads in the garden are the tight balls of globe thistle (Echinops ritro) against the dusty light grey plumes of Russian sage (Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’). In the back garden, the softer combination of Verbena bonariensis and Knautia macedonica provides ideal perches for passing charms of goldfinches. These gilded songster bend the heads low, balancing delicately, bobbing up and down as they search for seeds, delighting my children who are watching from the window. Echinacea, phlomis and sedum seed heads also have mesmerising shapes and I love any form of umbellifer head, such as fennel, at its best when encrusted with rime frost on cold mornings.

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One of a small crowd of redwings in the cotoneaster

Containers

Even if there’s little scope to add plants to your garden, or your plot is a courtyard with no planting area, a winter container will brighten up the entrance to a house or an area on the patio visible from a window. Simple arrangements of violas, pansies or primulas create a cheerful effect and in larger pots you could include shrubs or grasses for a longer lasting display. I often plant a dogwood as the centrepiece as my ‘Midwinter Fire’ has a tendency to sucker so I always have dogwoods looking for a home. Adding some of our excess black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) from the front garden creates a contrast around the base of the container and leaves room for winter bedding or early spring bulbs like snowdrops, iris or miniature daffodils.

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The large container outside our front door

Crops

Finally, I can’t ignore the potential to grow food in the winter garden. Most of the fruit is now over, with the quince (Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’) and Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) being amongst the last harvests in October and November. The autumn raspberries peaked early this year and were gone by the end of October, whereas last year we were still picking ‘Autumn Bliss’ and ‘All Gold’ on Christmas Day! But this doesn’t mean all the colour and edible potential has to come to an end with the arrival of winter in the kitchen garden. Early winter is the ideal time to harvest oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – by now the foliage is generally frosted so it’s an unprepossessing looking crop above ground, but it more than makes up for this below the surface. Stealing out into the garden or allotment on the grimmest of winter days, armed with fork and trug, to unearth strange red, orange and yellow nuggets is one of the joys of growing your own.  The tubers taste best after a a couple of weeks sweetening on a sunny windowsill, so you will be able to enjoy the gleaming hoard arrayed like Christmas decorations for a full fortnight before adding them to a Sunday roast, warming stew or spicy stir-fry.

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Trays of oca which I harvested from the allotment last year

Sprouts are another winter pleasure, especially if they also add to the culinary colour palette. Last year I grew ‘Rubine’ with its purple-red balls of sprouty goodness which looked attractive in the cold allotment and tasted great after the first hard frost had sweetened them. Later on we also ate the cabbagey heads of the plant which shared the same purple coloration. Kale is another cruciferous delight, both to harvest and simply for its textured beauty which equals that of any ornamental plant.

Frosted cavolo nero and purple sprouting broccoli in the garden

I love the festive magic that Christmas lights bring to a dark winter garden, especially if they are used to highlight an attractive tree trunk or well clipped hedge and I’m excited by the prospect of visiting the sparkling trail of over one million lights at Kew Gardens next week. But before you switch on the Christmas illuminations this weekend, spare a thought for the garden by daylight and add a plant or two to create some winter glamour up to Christmas and beyond.

If you would like to read the first two parts of Creating A Winter Garden, you can find them here…

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

For further reading about winter gardens, I would recommend...

The Year Round Garden, Geoff Stebbings

The Winter Garden, Val Bourne

What Plant When, RHS Publications

What plants have you added to the garden this season to add that extra sparkle when the weather turns cold? If there was one plant which every winter garden should include, what would it be? 

Do leave me a comment and let me know what winter brings to your garden. Thank you and happy gardening (once the snow clears 🙂 )!

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

Last weekend, the first part of Creating a Winter Garden considered structure and flowers. Thanks to everyone who shared images of their winter gardens: those small moments which lift our spirits on short December days.

Stems and Bark

The scarcity of winter flowers means that a wall liberally covered in clematis ‘Freckles’ is a precious sight, but a successful winter garden needs to rely on more than flowers for year-round visual impact. Stems and bark create drama in a garden of any size – if you have room for a small tree like the popular Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), it will add a coppery sheen to even the dullest winter afternoon. I used to have the privilege of a mature specimen just beyond the garden and without any room in our own plot for extra trees other than the apples, plum and greengage I planted upon arrival, I counted myself fortunate to be able to ‘borrow’ this cherry, along with a tall silver birch in my neighbour’s garden to the left and a hazel to the right which drops its nuts over our fence. Then, a few years ago, the cherry was removed to make way for a shed. I still mourn the loss of the mahogany giant, more than I miss the resulting loss of privacy beyond our fruit cage.

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Himalayan silver birches at Anglesey Abbey

Himalayan silver birches have an ethereal quality which lifts any dark space. In the magnificent grove at Anglesey Abbey these slender trees are underplanted with evergreen Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ and tulips in spring. However, unnamed forms of Himalayan silver birch (Betula utilis) vary greatly in size and most will outgrow a small garden. Val Bourne recommends Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ as the smallest, slowest growing birch with white bark, reaching 8m when mature. The Chinese red-bark birch (Betula albosinensis) is also a winter beauty with smooth cinnamon bark beneath the peeling layers, although cultivars will reach up to 15m when mature. Acer griseum – the paper-bark maple – also looks spectacular in winter as its textured bark peels and flakes like a lizard shedding scales. At a mature height of 10m or less and with vibrant red autumn foliage, this is a hard-working tree for any medium-sized garden.

If your garden, like mine, is too small for additional trees – don’t despair! Rich colours can still be achieved by using stems rather than tree trunks. Bamboos offer colour all year round. Phyllostachys nigra has matt black culms and Phyllostachys aurea golden-yellow. Over the summer I visited the 2 acre Henstead Exotic Garden in Suffolk, where the bamboo grove is both delightful and powerful; the height of the plants alongside the sheer density of the thicket, transported me to another world. I felt drawn to the plants, to run my fingers up the smooth grain and round the ridged nodes. Even a small area of bamboo can create a tranquil ambience in a garden with its exotic form and gently swaying culms, but the atmosphere will be far from relaxing if the bamboo rhizomes transgress outside their allotted space, so always find out which species are suitable for your garden and add any necessary barriers to protect the rest of the garden from exploring roots.

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Bamboo grove at Henstead Exotic Garden

I couldn’t end my musings on winter garden stems without mentioning shrubby dogwoods. As regular readers will know, I admire these plants for their resilience, versatility and vibrancy in the depths of winter. I currently have ten dogwoods in my garden, of three different species: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, but I also love the variegated Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and the dark, almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, both of which I’ve planted in previous gardens and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ which was looking fresh and alive with such bright yellow-green foliage en masse at Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk earlier in the year.

 

 

Grasses and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ creating contrasting layers in Bressingham Gardens

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Potting shed ‘Midwinter Fire’

The advantage of these shrubs is that they can be stooled (cut back to near ground level) in spring and will slowly regrow throughout the summer as a quiet backdrop to other shrubs and perennials, and then be ready to take over once winter arrives. Single plants can be used in this way in small borders, but they look better in groups of three or more, especially if they are kept as smaller plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not as tolerant of hard pruning as the other species, so I lightly prune the three in the front garden each year to manage their size and shape, and to encourage new stems which have the best winter colour. I have a larger specimen in the back by the potting shed, which I leave to grow to around 1.5m and cut back by about a third every couple of years. ‘Midwinter Fire’ also has the advantage of gentle orange autumn colour and this year, in the shelter of the back garden, the foliage remains even though it is long gone at the front.

Scent

One of the most pleasurable sensations on a winter walk is when you suddenly catch a sweet scent stealing over a garden wall or from a hidden shrubbery. Using fragrance in a winter garden entices you to stop and appreciate the sensory experience, grounding you in the physical garden rather than just passing quickly through en route to the warmth of the home. Plants with winter scent need to be situated carefully – in a place where their fragrance will be caught in passing, so front gardens and containers are ideal spots. One of the best plants for winter aroma is Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) with its tiny white flowers belying its intoxicatingly sweet scent. Alongside evergreen foliage, its tolerance of shade and ability to create a neat hedge mean that Christmas box is a must have for any serious winter garden.

Viburnum x bodnantense is another shrub whose insistent perfume causes a pause for a moment’s joy when out walking and Dan Pearson recommends the cultivar ‘Deben’ or Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey with its white scented flowers. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has lemon scented flowers which cover this rather untidy looking shrub for much of the winter. It doesn’t stand alone as a specimen plant, but works well combined with evergreen shrubs, waiting in the background whilst its perfume pervades the surrounding area. Daphnes also provide a beautiful winter scent, with Daphne odora and Daphne mezereum being the best choices for colder gardens. It’s worth noting that daphnes are highly poisonous, so not suitable for gardens with young children. Where scent is concerned, it only takes one fragrant shrub to add magic to a cold bare garden and if grown in a container, once the flowers have gone, the container can be moved to make way for spring bulbs.

 

 

Look out for winter jasmine this month and flowering quince and hazel flowers in late winter/early spring

Part 3

On Saturday, I’ll be looking at seed heads, containers and crops in the winter garden. Hopefully the weather will be kind over the weekend and enable a few forays out into the fresh air. 🙂

If you’d like to follow my blog, I’ll be adding Creating A Winter Garden (Part 3) at the weekend…

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ have begun to festoon the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly trailing along the ground. I planted the clematis by the post closest to the dining room window so that we could see it from the table and judging by the profusion of tight buds, we should be enjoying their swaying bells throughout the next few months. I’ve just been chatting to Nick Coffer on BBC Three Counties Radio this afternoon (our chat starts at 2:38:20 on the iplayer link) about the precious beauty of winter flowers and why every garden should have at least one dogwood to shine out in the darkest days (but I would say that!)

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

To my mind, one of the key aspects of a successful winter garden, especially on a smaller plot, is being able to see plants from indoors. Although I love nothing more than wrapping the family up like a troupe of miniature snowmen to venture out in frost or snow to explore magnificent winter gardens like those at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Hyde Hall, the average back garden doesn’t have the space for groves of silver birch or sweeping vistas of dogwoods and willows, and much winter viewing will be conducted from the warmth of the home. So it’s important to consider the overall winter structure of the garden first, to ensure that when viewed from the house there will be strong lines to create interest. Then other factors can be explored, such as adding scent and colour to the garden within the evergreen structure.

Structure

The key element of any garden is its underlying structure, created by the hard landscaping (patio, paths, etc…) and its use of evergreen plants, especially trees and shrubs. When other plants lose their foliage as winter approaches, these evergreen stalwarts take centre stage and the bare bones of the garden are revealed.

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Front garden rosemary hedge from January to March

Traditionally low hedges and topiary are used to create this structure, often in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) or holly (Ilex). In my front garden, we’ve adapted this principle by using edible evergreens – trisecting the space with a rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis) and defining the boundary with a low Chilean guava hedge (Ugni molinae). Alongside three box balls, the hedges give the garden a strong structure in winter and their low height allows my summer flowers to quickly overtop them, softening the garden and creating a less formal atmosphere.

 

Winter bare bones followed by summer profusion

We’ve also used this idea in the side garden, where the relatively slow growing balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ create a stunning contrast to the golden gravel. These chocolate-purple shrubs with their sprinkling of light green new leaves are a good alternative to box balls if your garden suffers from box blight (a fungal disease) or box tree caterpillars (extra-voracious versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

 

The evergreens going in and maturing

DSC_0071 (2)Summer brings a looser feel to the garden

If you don’t have space to add shrubs in the ground, any of these plants can be grown in containers and simply moved into position in beds and borders to act as winter focal points when the perennials die down. Using containers also has the advantage, in a small garden, of allowing winter stars to shine in their season and to be moved into a less obvious positions as the spring and summer plants get into their stride. For this reason, I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) in containers behind the shed, ready to place on the patio in full view of the windows as their flowers emerge in late winter and to return to the shelter of the shed later in the year.

 

‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in flower

Flowers

As I write, sitting on the window seat in the December sunshine, I can see next door’s mahonia (very likely Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) with its yellow racemes of flowers reaching into the blue. I used to dislike mahonia with its tough, spiny foliage and cold lemon flowers, but recently I’ve come to admire the colour it adds to the garden on darker days and its tolerance for partial shade and a wide variety of soil types, including our heavy alkaline clay. My volte-face was complete when I learnt that the fruits are edible – their common name is ‘Oregon Grape’ and they are often used for preserves in the US due to their tart, earthy flavour and large number of seeds.

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How could I have failed to relish the sheer winter joy that is mahonia?

Hellebores are also an important element in many winter gardens with their delicate down-turned flowers encouraging a close-up study best undertaken lying recumbent in the leaf litter. I’m excited to be growing hellebores for the first time this year, especially as I bought the plants from our community garden open day, so their exact colour is currently a mystery. It’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow for many years and I’m looking forward to getting to know this understated woodland beauty better.

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Winter sun washes the hellebores in Regent’s Park

Part 2

Next time I’ll be considering scent and stems/bark as ways to extend the season of interest in the garden. In the meantime, enjoy the unexpected sight of any winter flowers (although in my garden a couple of summer annuals seem not to have realised that it’s December) and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. Happy December!

If you’d like to follow my blog, I’ll be adding Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2) later in the week…

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is living up to her name and resolutely refusing to admit that it’s December!

 

 

 

Snapdragons of Autumn Twilight

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
Love’s Labours Lost

Cerise snapdragon heads (Antirrhinum majus) nod gently each morning as I pass the garden at the top of Benslow Hill. The flowers are doubly surprising – out of season and out of time. This snapdragon has persisted well into November, whilst all around it leaves drifted or hung with marcescent tenacity on the low beech hedge behind the fence. Along with a couple of renegade scilla and bluebells, it is a survivor of an earlier garden, carefully tended by an elderly lady for the eleven years I walked the path and probably for many years before. The small front garden had a central circular depression in which her chaotic, life-affirming collection of spring bulbs and summer blooms, like a miniature amphitheatre, charmed me anew each year.

When the plot changed hands three years ago, the garden was excavated to make way for a new house. In its place appeared the mandatory paving, drive and hedge, but around the peripheries, echoes of the former garden remained. For a while, I felt wistful that the eclectic cottage planting was gone, that this once cherished space existed now only as garden in memory. Then I mentioned it to a friend and she remembered it too; she’d also felt the joy of the gardener in the exuberant planting and even now, like me, sees the old patterns beneath the new when she passes the garden. It pleases me to think of the collective nature of this recollection and I wonder how many more share these local memories and see this garden as a botanical palimpsest through which different layers of plants and memories can be unearthed.

The snapdragon itself possesses a collective past which exists in shared childhood memories. I remember the intensity of colour and texture when I made the hinged mouths yawn, the sudden transformation to mythic beast. The sugar-candy flowers never wore their colour as easily as the low mats of Mesembryanthemum, but their tactile heads drew me in – to squeeze, peer and dream. Now I grow tall red and white snapdragons: Antirrhinum majus ‘Royal Bride’ and ‘Crimson Velvet’. They don’t fit with the more naturalistic, largely compound flowers in the rest of the garden, but they’re comfortable companions, connecting my past with my children’s present as they pinch and wonder, much as I did. My plants also self-seeded this year – the resulting seedlings didn’t flower until late, but they persisted. Generally Antirrhinum majus (a short-lived tender perennial) is grown as an annual or biennial, but more recently it’s been surviving the milder winters in local gardens and now seems more able to spread by seed too.

It is, perhaps, apt that this Janus-headed flower spike simultaneously faces the past – our childhoods and the memory of landscape, whilst also looking towards the future – a plant which no longer needs the attentive gardener to raise it from seed or buy it as a bedding plug in milder areas of the UK. The snapdragon now fills a perennial niche in my local area and though its post-aestival blooms cheer the eye on a dank November morning, the fact that they owe their success to our warming climate makes their unseasonable flowering a bitter-sweet pleasure.

 

 

‘Crimson Velvet’ and ‘Royal Bride’

Thanks to all the gardeners who have contributed their tales of plants from the past and layers of history beneath their own gardens on the Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve also been receiving reports of snapdragons still in flower all over the country, some are now on their second flush – and overwintering during the past two to five years as far north as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Skye. 

There are also plants still flowering in Edinburgh, Staffordshire, Derby, East Yorkshire, North Wales, Lincolnshire, Midlothian, Hartlepool, Worcestershire, Manchester, Cornwall, the Midlands and 500ft up on an exposed hilltop wall in South Yorkshire! Also reports of snapdragons blooming in Portugal and in the US in Portland, overwintering in NE Pennsylvania and in North Carolina they are winter flowers, put in during autumn as the summer weather is too hot for them. It’s been a fascinating insight into snapdragon growing around the world – thanks!

Pumpkin and Apple Season: Two Warming Autumn Soups

Facebook has just reminded me that five years ago I spent the day at the Luton Hoo Pumpkin and Apple Day, retreating from the crowds from time to time to sit on the haystacks and feed my 6 month old daughter. Today I have been in the town square enjoying our community garden Apple Day. We’ve been selling apples, pears, quinces and our juice (made with windfalls and unwanted apples collected from local gardens and orchards), running craft workshops for the children and chatting to Hitchin shoppers about all things apple related.

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Some of the varieties that have been available for shoppers to try and buy today

Within a couple of hours many of the apple varieties had sold out

Throughout October our house has had an underlying scent of apples – cooking apples stewing, crab apples boiling for jelly and cupboards full of apple boxes stored for eating or cooking later in the year. Our recently harvested quinces have added to the aroma and at the Stotfold Steam Fair last weekend we bought a mammoth pumpkin from a local grower. This has pleased the kids no end as last year I was late to the shops and we ended up celebrating Hallowe’en with a carved watermelon (on the grounds that any cucurbit was better than no cucurbit!)

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You’d never have known that our Hallowe’en cat (designed by my son) was carved out of a watermelon!

There’s no doubt that October brings the excitement of the autumn harvest and related festivities, but it also brings wastage on a grand scale as much of the pumpkin flesh removed prior to carving goes straight in the bin. Sara Venn, co-founder of Incredible Edible Bristol, highlighted this waste at the beginning of the week in her article ‘Please don’t play with your food…’ with the appalling figure that 80,000 tonnes of pumpkin flesh went to landfill in 2014. She has been blogging with pumpkin recipes all week and has asked readers and fellow bloggers to add their recipes and ideas to the mix. So here are some pumpkin soup recipes with a bit of apple thrown in for good measure. The spices in the first soup and sweetness of the apple in the second help to add flavour to commercial Hallowe’en pumpkins bred for size and colour, not for taste. The soups are based on recipes in the Luton Hoo ‘Pumpkin and Apple Gala Cookbook’, bought from the Apple and Pumpkin Day five years ago and much used since…

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Savoury and sweet – this cookbook has recipes for the whole family to enjoy…

 

Pumpkin, Prawn and Coconut Soup

Ingredients

400ml can coconut milk

1 lemongrass stalk or several leaves, bruised

2 tsps Thai green curry paste

4 Kaffir lime leaves

500ml hot chicken stock

1 tbsp nam pla fish sauce

About 500g peeled pumpkin flesh, chopped

250g pack MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) prawns

Juice of 1 lime

1 chilli, deseeded and chopped

A bunch of shredded spring onions or chopped chives

Method

Add the coconut milk, Kaffri lime leaves and lemon grass to a pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Thai green curry paste and hot stock. Stir gently until the paste has dissolved.

Add the pumpkin and simmer until tender (10-12 minutes). Add the prawns and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the lemon grass and Kaffir lime leaves. Add lime juice and fish sauce to taste.

Serve topped with shredded spring onions/chives and chilli.

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Regular readers will know I am a Thai food lover. I love growing Thai veg and herbs and this soup used our lemongrass and Thai lime leaves as well as the pumpkin

 

 

Roast Pumpkin and Bramley Apple Soup

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin

2 tbsp olive oil

25g butter

1 small onion, chopped

1 small Bramley ( or other cooking) apple, peeled and chopped

700ml vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Cut pumpkin into quarters, scoop out seeds (rinse and save), brush flesh with olive oil and roast for 25 minutes at 180ºc or until flesh is soft. Once cool, scoop flesh out of skin.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the onion. Soften for 10 minutes without browning. Add stock and pumpkin flesh. Simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the apple and simmer for a further 5 minutes until tender.

Blend the soup, add salt and pepper to taste and serve with natural yoghurt and ground black pepper.

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A wholesome warming soup for cold autumn evenings

 

As a tasty extra treat, the discarded pumpkin seeds can be toasted for 20-25 minutes at 180ºc spread out on an oiled baking tray. Remove from oven when toasted. Toss in seasoning and herbs or spices to taste (we used salt, pepper, cumin and paprika) and scoff as a pre-dinner snack.

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Toasted pumpkin seeds – no waste – great taste

The pumpkin and apple harvest adds a sparkle to October meals – there are so many delicious ways to make the most of these hearty ingredients

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My two little helpers enjoying the apple tunnel in a local orchard

For more apple recipes, try some tasty Apple and Cinnamon Butter, Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers or our family favourite Rhubarb and Apple Sponge.

If you have other cucurbits to use up, try Stuffed Summer Squash, Courgette and Chilli Cornbread or Courgette Tea Bread.

I’d love to hear about other favourite pumpkin and apple recipes – with all that pumpkin flesh going spare in the next few weeks, every delicious recipe counts. And if you’d like to explore more recipes with me, you can follow the blog below:

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