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

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

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Cutting Patch: Into The Limelight

Last month I wrote about my allotment woes which had resulted in an accidental potato monoculture, but since then the allotment has been working hard, producing an exciting range of cut flowers by the bucketload. After an inspiring spring harvest of daffodils and tulips, I planted summer corms and tubers, and sowed a host of seeds with the intention of filling the house with brilliant colour and heady scent all summer long.

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This lot had to come back from the lottie in a bucket!

Taking Stock

I planned the summer cutting patch way back in January and it’s been a tale of two halves – with the gladioli and dahlias providing vivid, deep blooms which have lasted well both in the ground and in vases, whilst some of my seeds failed to germinate or develop strongly. Notable exceptions are the cosmos, sweet peas, cerinthe, rudbeckia, zinnia, salvia, nasturtium, bells of Ireland and calendula  – all now flowering with relish and abandon in the allotment and garden. Less successful were the bunny tail grass, poppies, scarlet flax and hare’s ear, so I’ll be having another go with these from seed next year and trying to sow a little earlier to give me a second chance if there are germination issues.

Limelight

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I was impressed by the height and impact of this year’s gladioli

Bright colours – deep magenta, rich purples and zingy lime greens were my inspiration this year. To this I added some soft creams with Dahlia ‘Cafe au Lait’ and ‘Henriette’, the arresting yellow/orange of Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ and the odd accidental bright orange Zinnia. These colours have given me lots of different combinations to play with – my favourites have all included the fresh limes of Gladioli ‘Green Star’, Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ and Moluccella laevis (Bells of Ireland), which act as a foil to the darker colours whilst adding a viridescent joy all of their own.

Pinks

Favourite pink performances this year have included Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Double Click Cranberries’, Gladioli ‘Plum Tart’ and Dahlia ‘Ambition’ and ‘Downham Royal’.

 

The dahlia patch just gets better and better

Purples

The combination of Salvia viridis ‘Blue’ (actually a purple colour) with the lime gladioli is perhaps the display which has given me most pleasure this summer. It has a fresh spontaneity which lights up the kitchen and really brings the outside in. Here I’ve added the orange Dahlia ‘New Baby’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ and Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’. We also had our old favourite Gladioli ‘Flevo Cool’ – a dwarf gladioli which survived being potted up and moved earlier in the year, Gladioli ‘Purple Flora’ with rich deep purple flowers and another rogue zinnia!

 

Oranges, Reds and Yellows

I have always found myself tending towards blue, purple, cream and white colour palettes, but in the last couple of years I’ve been experimenting with the rusty oranges of Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, alongside Thunbergia alata, Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’ and Potentilla x tonguei. This year’s cutting patch has confirmed my new appreciation for brighter flowers and I now can’t imagine my garden without a mix of vibrant and more restrained colours. Highlights at the vivid end of the spectrum have included Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ (definitely a keeper), Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Scarlet’, Argyranthemum ‘Grandaisy Pink Halo’ (more of a cherry red colour) and Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’, ‘Con Amore’, ‘Jowey Mirella’ and ‘Sam Hopkins’.

 

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New Plan(t)s

In January, I ended my post with the hope that the seeds, corms, tubers and bulbs I intended to sow and plant in the cutting patch would create a little magic during the year. The reality has exceeded all my expectations and I’ve really enjoyed learning more about growing annual flowers for cutting, to add to my love of growing edibles. Although I think my heart will always lie with perennials, edibles and plants which encourage wildlife into the garden, I do feel there’s a place for a cutting patch in my allotment next year – many of the flowers (like nasturtiums, calendula and cerinthe) have brought in the pollinators and the bright colours have lifted my heart. The cutting patch has provided flowers for my house and to give away to family and friends – bringing a little garden magic indoors. Now I’m starting to think about the mix for next year and I’m interested to know what has worked well for other gardeners.

What flowers have you grown this year which you wouldn’t be without? Are there any other green flowers/foliage which I should add to the limelight?

My go to suppliers for bulbs, tubers, corms and seeds:

Suttons – wide selection of seeds, plants and tubers with really interesting varieties like Ranunculus ‘Mirabelle Vert Mix’

Sarah Raven – lovely collections of bulbs and seeds – I particularly like the rich, deep Venetian collections

Special Plants Nursery – I always learn about new plants from the Special Plants Catalogue and the range of unusual flowers is breathtaking

If you’d like to follow my blog and read about my planning for next year’s cutting patch and a new perennial border over the autumn months, you can click below to subscribe, thanks very much and happy gardening…

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We aren’t the only ones enjoying the dahlias this year!!! 🙂

Tattie Troubles And Other Allotment Affairs

One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…

Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.

Filling Space

Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.

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Potato paradise or monocultural monotony?

But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to  try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.

One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…

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Potatoes through membrane – before they were sun-fried

The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.

In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.

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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing…

Growing Resolutions

Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:

  • to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
  • to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
  • to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime

In Other News…

The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.

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Gentle posy from the cutting patch

The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.

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Iridescent marsh mallow flowers

If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.

I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂

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3 Floral Favourites at RHS Tatton Park

We took the kids to RHS Tatton Park this year and they thoroughly enjoyed the children’s activities – decorating plant pots, studying butterflies, sky-riding on the big wheel and learning about the history of the site on the discovery trail. But when my 8 year old asked to explore the floral marquee (it had been his idea to accompany us in the first place) and began to hunt for genera which he particularly wanted to see, I saw the enthusiastic stirrings of a thirst for botanical knowledge which inspires me in all of my work. His favourites were the hostas and cacti – he liked the variation in foliage colours of the hostas and the different shapes and arrangements of the spines on the cacti.

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My littlest going in for a closer look at the sumptuous Hydrangeas in the plant village

I love my hostas – which thrive in pots on the shady patio, dusky glints of copper tape visible beneath the corrugated canopy, and my cacti collection which I began last year in an attempt to recapture my youth – the nearest I’ve yet come to a mid-life crisis. But at Tatton this year, my eye was drawn to both bold and understated uses of colour in the planting palette:

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Zantedeschia ‘Cantor Black’

1. Zantedeschia ‘Cantor Black’

I bought my first zantedeschia, or calla lily, just after Hampton Court in 2015, lured in by those aubergine spathes and the delicately speckled foliage. It was supposedly ‘Cantor Black’, but when the flamboyant funnel finally unveiled, the expected velvety soft blackness was actually a mild pink. This year I tried again and when my new calla lily opened this week it revealed the inky throat and luscious sheen I’d been hoping for.

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A moment of joy when a deep purple black flower finally unfurled

In the floral marquee, Brighter Blooms presented a striking display of calla lilies – looking dramatic en masse with wide swathes of purples, whites and pinks. As usual I preferred the deeper colours – ‘Cantor Black’ and ‘Picasso’ (a large, bi-coloured variety displaying white trumpets with purple veining and purple throats). It must be something about zantedeschias, as I’ve also grown this variety and instead of the eye-catching colour contrast, mine, once again, produced a pink (albeit rather lovely) flower.

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The supposed Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’!

I grow my zantedeschias in pots on the patio which means I can bring them inside in winter out of the frost and, just as importantly, out of the wet. Unlike Zantedeschia aethiopica (Arum lily), the coloured zantedeschias don’t like to be too wet and favour well-drained compost in a sunny spot. I put mine out in late May when the danger of late frosts has passed, and wait for the inevitable pink flowers to appear!

2. Allium ‘Red Mohican’

It’s hard to believe what variety and interest stem from a flower which is, essentially, a purple ball on a stick. But alliums bridge the seasonal gap between tulips and the perennial summer stars, working beautifully alongside other early herbaceous flowers, adding vertical structure to evergreen backdrops such as box or grasses, as edging along a path or creating visual continuity when dotted throughout a border.

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Alliums in the front and back garden

I love any allium where the purple blends with red tones – my favourite is the stately Allium atropurpureum. At the W.S. Warmenhoven stand (one of the 5 RHS Master Growers this year), amidst a wash of bees, I found Allium ‘Red Mohican’. This maroon-red drumstick allium with its tufty yellow flowers at the tips grows to 1m tall and would work well in borders or pots. I’ll be giving this quirky late spring-flowerer a try next year as I generally have to treat alliums as annuals due to my clay soil. Alliums thrive in free-draining soil in full sun and even with grit underneath the bulb, they struggle in my garden. But that does allow me to trial new varieties every couple of years, in a relatively small garden, so I’m not complaining.

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Allium ‘Red Mohican’

3. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’

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Many verbascums have soft, dusky orange and peach flowers with subtle darker tones in the flowerbuds and centres which stop the colour becoming cloying. One of my favourites in our garden is Verbascum ‘Clementine’ with washed-out orange petals and a rich purple centre. It creates a lovely contrast planted amongst blue perennials like Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’ has delicately ruffled petals which I’d say were more salmon than pink. It makes a soft foil for purple flowers like these drumstick alliums and also blends well with the glaucous foliage in the background, so would combine well with eryngium, perovskia, artichokes (Cynara scolymus) and cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

 Striking Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and soft ruffles of Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’

4. Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’

Yes, I know I can’t count and that Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ offers colour in its foliage rather than flowers, but I couldn’t resist adding it as its presence was everywhere at the show. I first noticed it in the cool basement of The Live Garden and then I struggled to find a display or garden with evergreen structure where the spreading white-flecked spider’s web fronds weren’t engaging in photo-bombing fun.

The Live Garden

I first used this Japanese aralia in a garden a few years ago and it offers a smaller alternative to the standard fatsia (‘Spider’s Web’ reaches 2.5m x 2.5m). It likes partial shade and the delicate white variegation helps to add light to these darker areas, especially when combined with other plants with white flowers or foliage, like Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Joubert’.
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Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ can be a bit of a marmite plant – but I love it

It was lovely to experience this last RHS show of the year with the family, rather than visiting with colleagues or by myself with a camera, notebook and pen for company. We returned today with two decorated plant pots filled with oregano and thyme nestled in the car door pockets and a shared sense that our family plant explorations are only just beginning.