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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Autumn Foraging In The RHS Forest Garden

“The mushrooms have arrived!” It was the cry everyone wanted to hear this afternoon as we finished arranging the forest garden plants and laying the woodland mulch. For the last couple of days the team, led by award-winning designer Jon Davies, have been creating an exciting forest garden installation at the RHS Autumn Show in the Lindley and Lawrence Halls, London. By tomorrow evening it will be completed for the preview and then the main show on Wednesday 25th and Thursday 26th October, when we’re all looking forward to chatting to visitors about the garden and its fascinating plants.

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The forest logs will harbour oyster and shittake mushrooms

The exhibit showcases the sustainable method of forest gardening – creating a self-supporting ecosystem based on natural woodland. Every plant has a role to play, either as a food source, for timber, medicine, material or providing support for other plants, by fixing nitrogen in the soil, creating shade or as ground cover to suppress weeds. In this way, the garden will be largely self-maintaining, lessening the need for human intervention and creating a diverse and resilient ecosystem. Forest gardens can be large areas, such as Martin Crawford’s seminal garden in Dartington, Totnes, but they can also be much more modest affairs like the one at the show, suitable for rural or urban areas in community spaces and private gardens.

One of the things I find fascinating about forest gardens is the way they combine a wide range of plants from across the world to create sustainable ecosystems. From Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis) to sausage vine (Holboellia coriacea) and society garlic (Tulbaghia violacae), the RHS Forest Garden celebrates exciting plants with a variety of uses. The garden has several areas with different growing conditions from the woodland floor, to a pond and boggy area, a woodland clearing and an open glade.

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Crab apples create so much colour and interest at this time of year

On entering the garden my eye is first drawn to the canopy of the magnificent forest pansy (Cercis canadensis) with its vibrant yellow cordate leaves. But difficult as it is to ignore the stunning autumn colours above, the woodland floor offers equally inspiring botanical beauties, just in miniature form. Ever since seeing them in Jon’s Hampton Court Forest Garden, I’ve been noticing and appreciating clover leaves wherever I’ve seen them and this garden includes some delicate purple and red forms of Trifolium repens which encourage the visitor to engage with the detail on the forest floor.

The journey through to the clearing leads past the pond area with a range of hosta, sedum and mint (all with edible leaves) and the umbels of skirret (Sium sisarum) with its sweet-tasting roots. Out of the water rise the impressive spathes of arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) in front of the fabulous red leaves of Viburnum dilatatum with its edible fruit and foliage.

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Creating the woodland clearing

Inside the clearing, the logs support a range of fungi including oyster and shittake mushrooms. The canopy is created by hazels, crab apples and hops, sausage vines and kiwi trailing up and over the wooden supports. This area has a lovely relaxing feel and creates a calm space in the heart of the garden.

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Hops (Humulus lupulus) festoon the woodland supports

On the far side of the forest garden, in a more open area, plants like the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), myrtle (Myrtus communis), sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) and the purple-leaved Japanese pepper (Zanthoxylum piperitum) thrive. In this area, more unusual understorey edibles like yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga) offer opportunities for new taste sensations, whilst traditional ornamental shrubs like Mahonia aquifolium, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) remind us of the multi-functional nature of many of our garden plants.

It’s exciting that this year’s RHS Autumn Show has a garden of this nature at its heart, surrounded by organisations like the Permaculture Association, Pennard Plants (with its engaging display of edibles) and the Rabbit Pop-up Food Stall offering seasonally inspired food and drink made from sustainable and wild British ingredients. It also fits in well with current national initiatives such as the launch, this weekend, of the National Forest Garden Scheme (NFGS) which aims to bring us individually, and in our communities, to a new level of harmony and well-being through planting, eating from, and enjoying Forest Gardens. In our changing world, forest gardens, with their mix of sustainable methods and diversity of plant species, offer a real opportunity to work with the land, promote biodiversity and widen the range of edibles upon which we all rely.

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Slideshow of the finished garden

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4 Tastiest Crops Of 2017

It’s been a busy year of writing, studying, volunteering and looking after a young family, but the hard work is all worth it when projects and crops come to fruition. Not all our growing endeavours have been successful – we failed to get even one pear, most of our greengage fruitlets were blasted by a late frost and the outdoor tomatoes quickly succumbed to blight and needed swift processing into green tomato pasta sauce. Last year, around this time, I wrote about our least successful crops, so this year I thought I’d focus on those fruits and vegetables which have grown well and given us plentiful and delicious harvests…

1. Quince ‘Meeches Prolific’

Two years ago we added a quince tree to the newly planted side garden which we share with our neighbours. We’d always wanted our own quinces (and medlars – still a wistful dream) and finally had a place to add another fruit tree. Last spring the quince tree was covered in delicate goblets of pink blossom, which I brought inside to work on in watercolour and which, eventually, resulted in ten pale downy fruits. I couldn’t bring myself to thin or remove these precious quinces and wondered if the young root system might suffer as a result.

Quinces are worth growing just for the soft pink open blossoms

But this spring brought another flush of blossom and a whole basketful of delicious fruit. Some of these had started to split, as had the quinces in my parents’ garden – possibly because wet weather in mid-summer meant the fruits swelled faster than the tight skins could cope with. But we picked the split quinces and stewed them with apple and still had plenty of undamaged fruit which is currently filling the kitchen with its aromatic, spicy scent. We’ll also be making quince jelly (great with crackers and cheese) and cinnamon poached quinces (a special dessert for dark winter evenings).

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Quinces and apples from the garden

2. Potato ‘Nicola’

We grew a lot of potatoes this year – too many! But they are keeping well in the ground and still feeding us each week. We preferred the taste of ‘Nicola’ to the other varieties (‘Jazzy’ and ‘Swift’) and not only because of its superior name (!), but also its delicious taste. ‘Nicola’ is a smooth-skinned second early which has cropped well and produced delicious salad potatoes. The yellow flesh retains its colour throughout cooking and so it looks great on the plate. My ‘Nicola’ potatoes were kindly supplied by Kings Seeds and their seed potatoes are on sale from January 2018.

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Half of our potato crop…

3. Chilli ‘Ubatuba’

All the chillies have done well this year and are still cropping enthusiastically in the greenhouse. Of particular note was the perennially successful ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ – always good for stuffing and the chilli I’d grow if there was only room for one plant (unbearable thought!) Also a heavy cropper, ‘Joe’s Super Long’ is a spicier proposition for chilli jam and curries, but ‘Ubatuba’ has been my favourite new chilli. It produces delightfully squat fruits which are large and mild, with a slightly sharp tang. Another good stuffer, this is one variety I will be attempting to overwinter and definitely including in the reduced (honest!) chilli collection next year.

A selection of our chillies and the ‘Ubatuba’

4. Garlic ‘Persian Star’

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White bulbs with streaked purple cloves inside

Earlier in the year, Julieanne Porter (a lovely gardener and blogger with a self-confessed garlic obsession) kindly sent me some bulbs to plant in containers (and I sent her some of our quinces). She grows many different varieties and was interested in how they would crop elsewhere in the country. ‘Susan Delacour’ wasn’t too successful as some of the bulbs rotted off in late summer, but ‘Persian Star’ created large bulbs, as did my own ‘Red Czech’ and Elephant garlic. The beautiful purple striped cloves of ‘Persian Star’ have a rich taste, but not as strong as some other purple striped varieties. Overall this was a fabulous garlic to grow and cook with – I’ve already got a large bulb stored in the cupboard to plant again in the next few weeks – and the rest of the bulbs will last me through the winter months.

What would you rate as your tastiest crops of the year? Do you have any recommendations for delicious potato, chilli or garlic varieties I can add to my 2018 list? Thank you and Happy Gardening 🙂

My first attempt at depicting the striking goblets of quince blossom

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How Did Your Love Of Gardening Begin?

I was asked recently to write a piece on where my personal gardening passion came from. The origins of inspiration is a subject which interests me in both my work with children and my writing. This is what emerged when I put pen to paper…

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All it takes is someone to sow the seeds                                     Thank you Granny xxx

As a child scrambling though the scrubby heather on Conwy mountain, a world of sensations stretched out in every direction. Buzzards and herring gulls calling, the honey scent of gorse: a back note behind the salty warm air, bilberry foliage leading to the ripe, tight capsules, each a burst, a sharp tang, hidden treasure on the wild slopes.

Nature was a constant thread in my life, from my two year old self in red wellies gardening with my dad, to a teenager walking the Welsh lanes with Granny, who loved nothing better than knocking hazelnuts down with a long stick, teaching me about wild flowers and scrumping in nature reserves, much to the horror of my father.

When I look back to where this connection with nature began, how it evolved, the end of the thread eludes me. It is woven into my past by inspiring individuals, my father and grandmother who spoke the language of the natural world, biology teachers who revealed the minutiae of plants and my English professor pointing out the spots where Wordsworth saw the Borrowdale Yews and the ‘host of golden daffodils’. My first garden gave me space to experiment with blackberries, daffodils, pelargoniums and mallow; each an exciting foray into new botanical worlds. Twenty years since this first garden and my love of working with plants and making garden spaces has grown far beyond the reach of secateurs or loppers.

The family allotment often sees three generations enjoying planting, sowing, harvesting or simply watching as the red kites and green woodpeckers fly overheard, or the wild poppies and purple salsify attracting bees in the verges. We share our astonishment at the immense size of our sweet tromboncinos and I wonder if the teachers will be concerned when my children tell them that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple.

Our garden is a place of fascination, experimentation and happiness. A modest space where edible and ornamental plants lovingly cohabit. Flowers for cutting are welcome residents in the vegetable beds and our front garden, ostensibly suburban in style, conceals a hidden allotment in its Chilean guava hedge, thyme path and green-roofed binstore. The side strip of garden, a blue drift of drought-tolerant planting with globe thistles, lavender, Russian sage and morning glory, is all the more satisfying for its communal nature as we garden it with next door who own half of the border.

There’s so much joy in reaching out to others through gardening. My adventitious roots are now firmly buried in my local community garden, I design outdoor spaces for local families, often surrounding areas for play and relaxation with edible, wildlife-friendly and scented planting. Engaging others through language, design and the sheer exhilaration of feeling your hands in the soil completes the growing cycle, this tapestry of intertwining natural threads that teaches, nourishes and inspires.

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We always had a bag or pot in hand!

This piece was one of three written for a Gardeners’ World magazine competition which I was fortunate enough to win. The feedback from the Gardeners’ World panel really made my summer:

‘stand-out winner of the writing competition: it’s Nic Wilson. Lovely writer, lyrical and reflective but also showed the strongest appreciation of style – general journalistic tone and magazine voice.’

It’s so interesting to consider how people first become engaged with the natural world. As a teacher, it has been fascinating to see the different responses from my students – some are inspired by their reading, their peers or their teachers, others by childhood experiences or learning new skills as young adults.

I’m keen to know how other gardeners first became engaged with the natural world. Please leave me a comment – I’d love to collate responses for a follow-up blog post (if respondees don’t mind). The answers will also be helpful to inform my work with children and my writing – I’m currently working on the chapter of a book considering how our relationship with nature begins. Many thanks and happy gardening!

Quick update: the response to my question about where our gardening inspiration comes from has been overwhelming. There have been stories about RAF gardens and air raid shelters, Victorian coal cellars, memorial gardens, knowledgeable friends and family members, and wonderful pictures of gardens and the people who inspired them. I’ve spent the past few days reading and responding to over 200 gardeners who have shared their stories about the origin of their love of gardening and nature.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to over 25,000 words about a love of plants and where it began. I’ll be reviewing the material in more detail over the next few weeks for a follow-up post and working it into a book on our relationship with the natural world. But in the meantime, the most common ways gardeners have been inspired are: through friends and family, individual plants or gardens, smells, tastes and textures, for gardening’s healing properties, through childhood experiences at school, through a desire to interact with nature and attract/protect it and through an early reading of the fabulous I-Spy books!

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Happy times!

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What’s In A Name? Capsicum Annuum

Chillies are deliciously fascinating – their forms, colours and flavours tantalise the senses; their names alone are enough to make your tongue tingle in anticipation.

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The alluring colours of last year’s harvest

I’ve been growing far more chillies over the past few years than sanity should dictate. I’m drawn in by the evocative colour and spice of names like ‘Bolivian Rainbow’, ‘Numex Twilight’, ‘Machu Pichu’, ‘Trinidad Perfume’, ‘Peruvian Lemon Drop’, ‘Apache’, ‘Cayenne’ and ‘Prairie Fire’. There’s a gentle charm to ‘Russian Red Fatty’, ‘Bulgarian Carrot’ and ‘Chocolate Cherry’, and a sense of mystery behind ‘Ubatuba Cambuci’, ‘Albertos Locoto’ and ‘Aji Fantasy’. Once I’ve tasted an exciting name, it’s too late, I’m hooked.

 

 

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This year’s darker crop

Capsicum, the genus including both chillies and sweet peppers, is a member of the Solanaceae family which also includes tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade. Chillies originate from South America; a fact reflected in many of their names. The origins of Capsicum are obscure, but it may have come from the Latin capsa ‘box’, referring to the pods (hence the name of chillies such as ‘Aji Bolsa De Dulce’ where bolsa is Spanish for ‘bag’ or ‘purse’ – literally the ‘chilli bag of sweetness’) or the Greek kapto meaning ‘to gulp’.

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Today’s chilli harvest…

When Capsicum is combined with annum ‘by the year’, I like to think of my chillies as my ‘yearly gulp’. I’m not sure whether this refers to the relish with which I sample the first ‘Comet’s Tail’ of the year (a chilli whose parent seeds have spent time in space on the Chinese Academy of Space programme to improve size and yield by exposing them to zero gravity) or the yearly uncomfortable swallowing motion experienced when I see the hundreds of tiny seedlings emerging every spring and wonder how I will:

a) accommodate them all until they can be transferred to the unheated greenhouse

b) explain the chilli invasion to my husband

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Chillies make everything OK!

Next year I’m planning to add a few new chilli labels to the collection with ‘Aji Habanero’, ‘Pearls’, ‘Fresno Supreme’, ‘Trinidad Chilaca’, ‘Loco’, ‘Hot Lemon’ and ‘Poblana Ancho’ and I’ll be sharing seeds from my current plants with others to spread a bit of chilli magic. With names like these, who could resist growing a few… and then a few more? Just don’t tell my husband!

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First batch of chilli jam

If you’d like to follow my blog and read more about my crops for 2018, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Remaking The Seasons

Charting the year’s progress through seasonal celebrations is comforting, but can it eclipse the wondrous yet understated transformations taking place each day outside our back doors?

Autumn is a big word, a catch-all for subtly shifting seasonal changes. On 2 September this year, a colleague remarked that it was nearly Christmas. Behind this provocatively jovial comment is a reductive modern mindset which I have a tendency to fall into if I spend too much time inside. Condensing the year into a parade of seasonal celebrations involves turning away from a reading of the year which delights in its rich, heterogenous and ever-changing beauty.

So autumn is gentle, hearty and comforting. It arrives almost imperceptibly; there’s a morning coolness, the slight weight of dew in the air, but I can still sit outside writing at 6.30am in my pyjamas, the crocs haven’t yet disappeared into the loft and the plastic croquet set and buckets still adorn the lawn. I can hear strident geese calling behind the murmur of tits and soft sub-song of a hidden robin in the birch tree. Elsewhere the geese are massing ready for wetland reunions, the knot are beginning their winter murmurations which we caught, enchanted, in Norfolk last week and the hirundines have already deserted our autumn shores.

My garden hasn’t shed its summer garments yet; the scented pelargoniums still line the paving, zinnia, dahlia and cosmos still blaze and the sweet peas are ready for cutting again. But there are shifts – I can see the blueberry foliage burnishing slowly in the fruit cage, the acer tips are reddening and the quinces swelling. The waning of one phase allows the waxing of the new and this is surely one of the joys of autumn. In spring, as the crisp, pale winter days reluctantly give way to warmth and life, I rarely feel the pull in both directions – I’m too impatient for dawn warbling, primroses by the writing bench and the first tentative sowings. But autumn gently mixes memories of long summer days with the incipient excitement of allotment soups, warm jars of quince and crab apple jelly, woollen jumpers and stout walking boots, chilli harvests, hazelnuts, falling leaves and bonfires on darkening evenings. Each week the temperature, the colours and the atmosphere in the garden and the countryside changes and to appreciate these shifts is to engage with the natural world in all its diversity and richness.

As a child, each yearly remaking of the seasons denoted by the behaviour of familiar plants and animals, formed the backbone to my temporal self: a secure calendar against which I measured time and my progress through it. Nowadays this is no longer always the case as climate change establishes new rhythms as yet unknown, but not unfelt. I find these changes deeply unsettling. Apple blossom in August, snowdrops in December or even, a couple of years ago, a small tortoiseshell butterfly drifting past the fairylights on Christmas Day might be thought seasonal treats, but in reality, they are troubling abberations, early signs of more significant changes to come.

Unless we understand the subtle progression of the seasons, unless we appreciate autumn as something more than the beginning of a new school year, Hallowe’en and Bonfire night amidst the falling leaves, we will lose track of our natural rhythms and the opportunity to be inspired by each season as it unfolds, and we will miss the profound changes taking place both naturally and unnaturally outside our backdoors. There’s a physical calender in the garden, through the fields and along the hedgerows. Seasons are changing slowly, miraculously, whether we notice them or not. They are there to be appreciated, to teach, warn and inspire, and we should celebrate that.

 

7 Best Alliums To Plant This Week

Growing alliums makes me happy. I love their versatility, their diversity and their sheer brilliance in the spring borders. They are equally at home in cottage gardens, amongst perennial grasses, in containers and as an architectural feature throughout contemporary planting schemes. I’ve grown quite a few varieties over the years and have reliable favourites which always make it into the garden alongside new additions each year, chosen either for their striking colours, interesting shapes or to extend my allium season. With their dramatic globe-flowers fading to structural seed heads, alliums create interest in the garden for much of the spring, summer and into autumn (as I type, the tall ‘Cristophii’ in the back border are still punctuating the late summer rosemary growth).

Bee Happy

Allium flowers delight the bees – in fact at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show this year on the allium stands, it was hard to decide whether the displays were there to celebrate the flowers or their apian companions. This adaptable plant can be used in so many ways in gardens and containers, depending on the size and height of the flowerhead and the density of planting. Alliums can be planted in the next few weeks in borders, cut flower patches and pots – so here are my favourites, either planted in my garden or to be added this year…

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The bees loved these Allium ‘Giganteum’ at Tatton Park

1. Atropurpureum

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This is my absolute favourite allium for its graceful shape and rich crimson-purple starry florets with deep smoky plum centres. It has real presence in the border, but is subtle enough to co-exist happily with other alliums (I grow it in the narrow herb border beneath the espalier apple trees alongside ‘Cristophi’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Sphaeracephalon’). At around 75cm high, they create continuity throughout the long, narrow border without being imposing and the thick stems make them ideal for cutting.

2. Purple Rain

I first grew this allium a couple of year ago and was delighted by its spreading firework flowers. As a cross of A. ‘Purple Sensation’ and A. ‘Cristophii’ it is a reliable allium with sturdy stems up to about 1m. I grow it beneath the windows in the front gravel garden where it thrives and, unlike many of the bulbs in the back garden on our clay soil, in the front sandy soil by the foundations ‘Purple Rain’ has proved consistently perennial.

3. Mount Everest

Another of my front garden alliums, A. stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’, creates a striking contrast dotted within drifts of purple alliums such as ‘Purple Sensation’, or it can be planted en masse for greater impact and set off against the dark foliage of shrubs like Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. The creamy white flowers also emphasise the fresh green allium foliage and the pea green eyes at the centre of each floret.

4. Cristophii

IMG_20170511_164912‘Cristophii’, or star of Persia, lives up to its name with its spiked purple florets touched with silver. At around 50cm and with its imposing, yet intricate globes, it encourages the eye to focus on the details in a border, which in my garden always includes bees feeding from the florets. ‘Cristophii’ is a reliably perennial allium and the seed heads are long-lasting. Last year we collected the ageing seed heads and after a few weeks drying in the shed, sprayed them silver to use in a Christmas display with dogwood stems and fairy lights.

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5. Red Mohican

I met this allium at Chelsea last year and have been wanting to add it to the garden ever since. Its funky topknot gives it a modern charm which would add a sense of fun to a border and I love the rich burgundy colour dotted with creamy white florets. A rather more expensive cultivar than some, this would be good to dot through a border with white alliums or the darker A. atropurpureum.

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6. Purple Sensation

One of the most popular alliums, A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, marks many people’s first foray into allium growing, mine included. Its bright purple spheres create impact in large drifts, but also look spectacular under planted with blue Camassia leichtinii or the greenish-yellow flower clusters of Marsh Spurge (Euphorbia paulstris). It’s an affordable allium, so can be bought and planted in greater numbers than some of the rarer cultivars.

7. Sphaerocephalon

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These small, late-flowering drumstick alliums are a cheerful addition to the July garden. They can be planted in swathes against paths and border edges to soften the margins and lead the eye through the space. ‘Sphaerocephalon’ also look great mixed in with grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima. I’ve been growing this variety for several years and unlike the larger alliums in the back garden, not only is ‘Sphaerocephalon’ reliably perennial, it also self-seeds along the path edges. With its tight, rich blackcurrant heads it creates a dramatic flash of colour and can be bought in bulk to create maximum impact as it is the cheapest allium bulb available.

Growing Alliums

Allium bulbs should be planted in early autumn, so this week is a great time to place an order or start getting your bulbs in the ground. They prefer well-drained soil in full sun, so if you have heavier soil (as I do), it is a good idea to use a handful of grit (about 5cm depth) under each bulb to improve drainage. They should be planted at 3-4 times their own depth to help ensure they remain perennial. Smaller alliums should be 8-10cm apart and larger ones 20cms. After planting, firm down the soil to remove air pockets and add a balanced fertiliser in spring on poorer soils.

Over the past few years I’ve mostly bought my allium bulbs from Sarah RavenSuttons and JParkers, all suppliers of quality bulbs with good allium ranges to choose from.

What are your favourite individual alliums and combinations? What spring bulbs are you most excited about planting this autumn?

If you’d like to follow my blog and read more about my bulb planting and plans for next year’s new perennial border, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Mix of atropurpureum, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Cristophii’ seed heads

Still Life

I went on an early cycle round the Greenway yesterday, with the field margins and hedgerows full of movement and vigour, wildflowers, birds and fruit, whilst the field itself seemed stilled and characterless, until a skylark gave it life. This is the prose-poem I wrote when I returned… 

Silver lifting, undersides of leaves blown back in the dancing hedgerows, flashes of sloe gin, damson jelly and hazelnut brittle. This foragers’ fringe, ablaze with ripening abundance and the verge beneath, a study in vetch and clover, irregularly spiked with pink sainfoin beacons. Finches thrill above me, flocking, dipping, two-dimensional as they turn, absorbed by the air then wheeling, blackening the sky with their profiled presence.

Within all this elasticity, this marginal vigour, an absence: the ploughed void. September movement stilled, the colours muted, diversity subdued, until my eye adjusts to a sharper focus. Then a skylark twitches and, for a moment, dun uniformity is replaced with form and colour. Tawny feathers shake against the fissured landscape and the lark assumes its customary stillness, its pebbled mantle absorbed again by the ploughed earth.

Plot To Plate: Tomatillo Salsa

It’s that time of year, when fruit and vegetables are entering and exiting the kitchen faster than bemused lovers in a French farce. Bags of windfall quinces, cooking apples and boxes of plums are competing for space in the fridge and the green tomatoes (salvaged from the outdoor blighty plants) are attracting fruit flies on the work surface. Pasta sauces, stewed fruit, jams, jellies, pickles and chutneys are being bottled, frozen and consumed in large quantities, so it’s a relief occasionally to make a dish which needs no cooking and for which little chopping is required.

Spice It Up

Some of my favourite ingredients at this time of year are the spicy curry vegetables, fruit and herbs which we use for the Thai, Indian and Mexican dishes which we love. This year’s crop of tomatillos started ripening this week and the first tubful arrived from the allotment accompanied by thechorus – supporting roles being provided by ‘Red Czech’ garlic, ‘Numex Twilight’ chilli, red onions, Vietnamese coriander and tomatoes.

Supporting roles are being played by my chillies, red onions and garlic

Tomatillos

The tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica or Physalis ixocarpa) is originally from Mexico and belongs to the Solanaceae family along with tomatoes, potatoes, cape gooseberries, aubergines and deadly nightshade. The fruits look similar to green tomatoes (although they can also be purple) and are encased in a papery husk. Unlike cape gooseberries, which I find crop late and produce poor harvests in my garden, tomatillos crop heavily outside, with 2-3 plants providing easily enough fruit for a family. Given space, the stems will bend and trail along the ground, often rooting from the trailing stems, creating even more productive plants. I’ve grown tomatillos for three years and the only issue I’ve encountered was last year when my seeds proved tricky to germinate, but in other years I’ve not had the same problems.

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The related Cape Gooseberry in its similar papery casing

Tangy Taste

These cherry-sized fruits taste like slightly tart tomatoes, but with a lime tang which gives the flavour added depth. I’ve used them fresh in salsa and guacamole, and a summer glut can easily be halved, frozen and then added to soups or casseroles at the beginning of cooking which gives the final dish a mellow fruity flavour.

Tomatillo Salsa

This year’s first tomatillo harvest disappeared swiftly into salsa – served with homemade mackerel pate on toast…

Ingredients

Couple of handfuls of tomatillos removed from their casing and washed (don’t remove until you plan to use them as it help to keep the fruits fresh)

Equal amounts of cherry tomatoes

1-3 chillies depending on variety and personal taste, chopped finely

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small red onion, finely chopped

Juice from 1/2 – 1 lime

Handful of Vietnamese coriander (or annual coriander), finely chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

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Star of the show – ‘The Tomatillo’

Super-Simple Method

Mix the ingredients together in a blender

Add extra salt, chilli and/or lime juice to taste

Once the salsa is complete, the curtain can rise on a Mexican banquet or it can be enjoyed in my favourite way – with nachos, soured cream and our homegrown pickled chillies for supper with desperados (or in my case, a gluten-free beer like Celia).

Now I’m hungry! Time to make another batch of salsa…

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Our spicy prima donna is ready…

I buy my tomatillo seeds from Suttons (who are also selling tomatillo plants for 2018) and from Real Seeds. I’ve grown purple and green varieties – both crop really well and taste great.

Other ‘plot to plate’ recipes using our garden, allotment and hedgerow harvests include:

Plot to Plate: Courgette Tea Bread

Plot to Plate: Spiced Crab Apple Jelly and Crab Apple Fruit Leathers

Plot to Plate: Apple and Cinnamon Butter

Plot to Plate: Stuffed Summer Squash

If you’d like to follow my blog and hear about the next ‘plot to plate’ experiment, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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