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. 🙂

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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!

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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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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.