25 Dec 2014

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (and women)

Finally, we're there. Christmas Day. For the next 24 hours I can put my feet up.  Sort of. The winter solstice, my favourite landmark day for the inherent optimism it brings, has passed; now we're at the start of winter, the days will start to get ever-so-slowly longer, brighter and, eventually, warmer.  I've had enough of putting the lights on indoors at half-two in the afternoon.  No wonder plants struggle.

So, onwards to the bleak midwinter. It's one of the UK's little ironies that just as we feel we're into a new year with Spring to look forward to, the weather can suddenly plummet into minus temperatures.  I'm ready. I have a new woolly hat and toasty sheepskin lined gardening boots.  Nothing like 'being prepared'.  (And, no, I was never a Girl Guide. Missed opportunity there, I think.)  Dare I say that, here in London, signs are good for another mildish winter like last year?  Hopefully without the wind and slightly less rain.

I've had a severe cold for the past week - the sort that gives you a temperature and sore throat, makes you ache all over, cough, sneeze, sniffle and generally be entirely unappealing to visitors.  Lots of hand washing has been taking place as I prepare for the big lunch today.  I'm quite proud of myself having put together a Charlotte Russe late last night, enduring through the fog of a head cold. It's one of those popular-in-the 70's retro puds that my mum used to make involving jelly, mandarin oranges, savoiardi biscuits (aka sponge fingers) and loads of cream and eggs. (Sensible eating will resume shortly.) It's one of my son's favourite puds and a complete faff to make although very delicious. Now all I have to do is turn it out of the mould in one piece and I shall be the (self-styled) Queen of the Kitchen.

Added afterwards, as requested!  
Here's what's left of it the Charlotte Russe - it was enjoyed immensely, despite colds.

Apologies for the lack of a post about wreath making - I've been feeling too wretched to think about taking photos.  I will do a post though as - to paraphrase - a wreath is not just for Christmas.  On my wanders I've seen some gorgeous flowerheads, foliage and seedpods which has made me think about making a wreath a permanent but seasonal feature in my home. It's a good way of keeping your eyes open and really noticing what the changing seasons are doing.

Sage, bay, juniper, lonicera, ivy, hebe, clematis seedheads, pine cones.

But for now, I'm going to wish all you lovely people the best of the season - with many, many thanks for coming back time and again to read and comment on my posts.

Happy Christmas and a fabulously productive 2015!

Caro xx

15 Dec 2014

Sneaking up on Christmas

Here's one for a tiny reindeer. 

Let's see now, what have I been up to? Well, I confess there's been very little gardening and even less blogging. I did take photos for the end of month records but then went away for a couple of weekends to visit family so lost the opportunity to post. Until now.  No, despite the glaring omission of a festive tree in my life (so far), I've been sidling in a most casual way towards Christmas. As I embrace a simple-ish life for most of the year, I don't see why Christmas should be different. This is partly for financial reasons but also I'm just fed up with excess consumerism and I refuse to lay my soul bare to seasonal stresses. It used to be different when I was younger (didn't everything?); there was less emphasis on presents, parties and dressing up for the big day and more focus on family, community and creativity - decorations went up at the beginning of December with the excitement and jollifications building up on Christmas Eve, not Hallowe'en.

Just yesterday, I put aside all pressing tasks and hopped off to a morning of outdoor festive willow weaving down in Covent Garden's Green Gym. (More about that later.) I had a lovely time, met some super people, made a door wreath out of natural materials and then wandered down to Covent Garden shops to buy some sketchpads (love Muji). All I could see as I gazed down Long Acre towards Leicester Square tube was a sea of slowly moving people, ebbing in and out of the shops. The streets were heaving with people moving about in a very lacklustre fashion to get their gift buying done. A fair few looked desperate, more looked bored or resigned (husbands, sons) and me?, well I took a deep breath, stayed calm and moved quickly towards the tube station after having made my purchases.

Compare that to last weekend when I drove to Oxfordshire to join family for a day of foraging and wreath making (this time with a foam core). We all went for a long muddy walk to gather supplies from the hedgerows, listening to the local steam train puffing along the line a few hundred yards away while Red kite birds of prey flew overhead; twenty five years ago, they were an endangered species and now it's estimated there are over a thousand pairs in the Chilterns area. It's quite the thrilling sight.

Rosy cheeked from our brisk walk, we headed home past another of the steam trains setting off (this time being pulled backwards by a diesel locomotive), to a bowl of home-made soup and an afternoon of pushing stems, berries and faux robins into foam. I was the last to finish by a great many minutes which has left me wondering over the past week whether I'm perhaps embracing life in the slow lane a little too enthusiastically.

Still, that mindset has stood me in good stead for a bit of bread making. I love it on two counts - one, the rhythm of stretching out the dough is very relaxing, especially with Radio 4 on in the background; two, it tastes so much nicer than anything bought in the supermarket and you can choose the flour/s you want to eat. A wholemeal spelt/wheat/rye combo is my current favourite, although this one is white flour, maize meal, honey, hazelnuts and cranberries. My nod to a festive loaf.

Mince pies have also made an appearance. I made my mincemeat in late October when plums were still plentiful and used a River Cottage recipe for Plum and Russet Apple mincemeat. Of course, there's no actual meat in it - no, not even any suet so perfect for vegetarians. It's all cooked dried and fresh fruit with walnuts and a good slosh of sloe gin/vodka. So good, I could eat it from the jar. I took a jar for my niece on the previous weekend when I went to babysit and ended up staying for the weekend to make felt animals for the Christmas tree. (And Barbie outfits.) It wasn't all foxes but these are the first we made - aren't they cute? Love that my niece's 8 year old made one in ten minutes flat. Good girl. Chip off the old creative block.

Cake, coffee and creativity; just about sums up my weekend perfectly.

Last Thursday I had a surprise package.  I was grumbling slightly as I had to collect it from the sorting office on a busy day and had no idea what it was.  I soon had a smile on my face when I opened it as Green Books had sent me a copy of One Magic Square for review.  I'm hoping to get more children involved with the gardening next year and I think this book may have more than a few ideas to help with that as that's what they'll have to garden with - one magic raised bed each.

So, that's me for now. The next few posts will be book reviews and a bit of wreath making how-to, so let's have a quick look at the garden in December. We've had only one real ground frost, not even severe enough to see off my nasturtiums. So while there's only a few bits of veg in the garden (broccoli, spring onions, a bit of lettuce,  herbs), there's also a few splashes of colour and even, unbelievably, a few last raspberries in the first week of December from the Polka bushes. Amazing. And the rhubarb can't decide whether it's coming or going.

24 Nov 2014

The Barometer Effect

Fading leaves of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'

I wish I was a bear.  Not the cuddly fluffy kind but the sort that slopes off to the bunker to hibernate through the dark, wet, winter months. Such an appealing thought but the real world beckons so stuff has to be done. The weather isn't even that cold yet but I find that I'm increasingly drawn to snuffling under a cozy blanket on the sofa after dark … perturbingly, that's about 5 pm.

I'm often outdoors and have become a weather watcher, looking at the skies for signs of rain or, better, patches of blue. I find the isobars on the tv weather infinitely interesting as are cloud formations (so informative).  My dad was a helicopter pilot when younger and reading the skies was an essential skill for his work; it's from my dad that I learned the basics of cloud watching. Then there's the old oak barometer in my parents' hallway which has fascinated me for years, tapping on the glass to see if it changes. I found it utterly magical as a child, in the way that it could forecast the weather. See? Even back then.

In the same way that we're supposed to be influenced by the phases of the moon (if you believe such things), my body barometer has been affecting my energy since the weather changed at the beginning of the month. Up and down in tune with the weather. When it's grey and overcast, I'm challenged to structure my day into anything useful. Apart from a little bit of sweeping and tidying in the garden, I have done virtually nothing. (And, yes, I still have bulbs to plant having taken advantage of Crocus' half price allium sale.) Instead, I have been indoors sewing, cleaning, decluttering and redecorating. There's also been a bit of recipe research and I've made jars of delicious no-suet mincemeat for mince pies, blog post to follow. The dark evenings herald a return to the cave (sofa) and I can't seem to get through the evening without a quick snooze!

In fairness, I haven't been totally slothful. I've been redesigning a small front garden for a client, a job that came out of the blue after I was recommended.  I've no idea who by but, gosh, what a lovely confidence boost! It's been a joyful project to do and I'll share when I've finished.

One very dark and wet evening a couple of weeks ago was particularly challenging.  I'd been invited out to the Garden Museum and really dithered about going. Why? Because it was dark, because of the fifteen minute walk in the wet, because of the rush hour tube journey, because of what to wear, because of Waterloo or Vauxhall, both dismal areas at the best of times. What a wimp!  But I gave myself a good talking to and went - luckily. It was a get together to celebrate the publication of The Flower Farmer's Year, a book by Georgie Newbery of Common Farm Flowers about growing cut flowers for profit or pleasure. I enjoyed a fabulous evening, bumping into old friends, making new ones, some delicious canap├ęs and several glasses of wine quaffed in an atmosphere buzzing with floral love, chat and laughter. Utterly worthwhile.  Thank goodness for my swift kick up the backside.  I will, of course, be reviewing the book very soon as it's a keeper and flower growers might want to add it to their respective seasonal wish lists.

On the upside, with even a small improvement in the weather, my energy is boosted and away I go.  On one such day, I drove down to the south coast to visit my parents. I went via the Meon Valley, cutting south through the beautiful Hampshire countryside, and just caught the sun setting over the Isle of Wight as I drove round the bay to my parents' home.

Weekends there used to be about long walks on the beach, gardening and shopping in the outlet stores in Portsmouth; now the time is more usefully spent sitting quietly reminiscing, encouraging eating and drinking, looking after but not looking too far ahead.  My mum (dementia sufferer) sometimes forgets the words she wants to use or what she's saying but she holds firm on her delight in having her children visit. My dad (Alzheimer's) is less forgetful but stooped and tired and nevertheless pleased to see us.  I find it quite moving to see how these two go-getting globe trotters now sit quietly together, rarely moving outside the house but carefully looking after each other in their dotage after decades of devotion. There is a sense of the sun setting indoors as well as out.

Acer leaves in the Capel 'woodland' area.

As I write this on Sunday afternoon, it's pretty much been raining for 48 hours here so it's uplifting to look at photos taken last week when I popped back to Capel Manor to check out a few plants before going on to a couple of nurseries. I was on familiar territory and it was a clear, bright day - perfect for a stroll around the grounds. It felt good just to be able to wander, taking photos, and seeing what was going on. I wanted to have a look at edible hedges in the Which? trial grounds and happened across a very tasty evaluation of late November raspberries … but I think that had better be another blog post as well.

Only a tiny twig of a tree, but Oh My! what a lot of crab apples

1 Nov 2014

October, another good month

Pineapple sage - both leaves and flowers are edible.

Amazing. Only two months left until the end of 2014 and I've spent a chunk of yesterday morning watching a bee gathering nectar and pollen in warm sunshine. We've had the best of both worlds as autumn has surely arrived with wind, rain and slowly falling leaves but late summer is also just clinging on. I haven't even thought about putting the heating on yet or switching over to my winter duvet. October has been pretty decent, weather wise.

The morning's walk through the garden had the feel of a misty autumn morning, the sun not yet risen and the veg leaves silvered with dew. The spider webs seem to have disappeared for now, thank goodness.  I still haven't quite recovered from walking through a giant spider web spun between a tall privet hedge and my car. There was a delayed moment of realisation (and, yes, panic) when I saw a huge garden spider hanging from my hair close in front of my face. It was worse when it dropped and I couldn't find it as I was just off on a long journey. Hallowe'en, Shallowe'en - been there, done it.

Apparently a winter Pimms is available. Borage, the perfect accessory.

So, October finished on a gift of a warm sunny day. The soil in the garden is damp, making weeding a bit sticky (but quite achievable - take that, chickweed!) and the mild temperatures have prompted lots of growth, mostly flowers and herbs kicking out one last flush.  Most of the leaves have dropped from the fruit trees, the best borage plants ever are flowering in the garden - as are other edible flowers such as violets and edible daisies (Bellis perennis), and I'm still picking a few courgettes. I'm still waiting for signs of any saffron crocus flowers, so far only leaves but I can be patient. And the nasturtiums … more floriferous than ever. By the way, nasturtium flowers look and taste very nice with home-made mushroom soup.

I've lifted the last of the tomato plants and discovered the parsley sown companionably underneath - still tiny, will be lovely for next year. Likewise, I removed a courgette whose trunk had snapped and found the Cavolo Nero kale plants I'd sown from seed. I'd been wondering what had  happened to those; it's what happens when you sow to fill the gaps and don't expect your experimental Ikea bag grown courgettes (more of which later) to suddenly take off when planted out late in the season. (These are the ones that are still producing fruit now in November.)

A few bush bean pods were left for next year's seeds. The weather has been dry enough to leave them on the plant but I think now would be a good time to pull the plants out and hang the pods up to dry, leaving them any longer would be chancing it seeing as tiny snails are bulking up on the green buffet in my garden.

The big surprise of yesterday was seeing the first head on my broccoli plants. I was a bit slack with my brassicas this year, sowing seeds into modules in mid-May and then not potting the plugs on until end of June. These little plants then didn't go into the veg patch until early August. Privately thinking I'd left it a bit late, I remained hopeful and the weather was kind. Looks like I'll have broccoli after all which is great as it's a constant on my shopping list.  I've grown several types as they were labelled 'Autumn' broccoli, 'Christmas broccoli', 'Early Spring' broccoli - so, experimentation and weather notwithstanding, that should keep me in greens for a bit. The first head was cooked and eaten last night with a dusting of parmesan; it was sublime.


Not so good in the garden are sightings of Rosemary Beetle.  I don't even have to spot the culprit to know that they're there as the tops of the rosemary leaves are all munched. This does not make for a happy gardener as I rely on my herbs throughout the year, especially the evergreen ones in the winter months. At this time of year, the adults have mated, the larvae have hatched and all will feed on the rosemary foliage until spring when the larvae will drop into the soil, pupate and emerge in early summer to start the cycle again.  Can I offer some advice?  Squish with extreme prejudice. It's hard because they're very handsome beetles but the alternative is dead plants or pesticides. And I say no to both those options; they have no natural predators.

The beetles lurk on the stems but have a preference for the shoot tips as you can see.

Moving into November, I'm choosing seeds for next year and sowing sweet peas and erigeron (daisies). Next week I'll dig out my seed packets and have look at any veg that I can start off now - peas and broad beans, I think - that can sit the winter out in a cold greenhouse or under polythene. The benefit of starting hardier seeds off now is that a strong root system will develop even though the top of the plant is doing very little. Result: earlier crops. We'll see.

A Polka raspberry, still producing just a few berries. This may be the last.

Joining in with the Garden Share Collective where garden bloggers from around the world share news of their food growing gardens.

23 Oct 2014

Days Like These

I'm so fickle.  When snowdrops and daffodils burst into life, I declare that I love springtime. But I like to move with the times so, as the weather gets warmer and flowers and veg grow strongly, summer is my new favourite.  Autumn will always win my heart over with vibrant displays of colour.  Truth is, I just love everything about being outdoors in nature and its moments of beauty.

Walking round the 'hood in the aftermath of gale force winds and sporadic lashing rain, this is what I've been spotting this week:

Looking up ...

Big London skies above Parliament Hill Fields

And  looking down:

Who's spotting who?
I only saw the squirrel in the long grass when his bushy tail appeared as he moved. He was oblivious to people passing by as he rummaged around almost undetected but popped up to face me when he heard the camera on my phone. It was one of those moments.

Still looking down, I saw autumn in puddles … which made me think of the beauty of fallen leaves.

Every autumn I'm completely obsessed with colours and patterns as leaves turn from green through all the yellows to red. There are some great leaf shapes falling and now is a good time to go leaf collecting with children - either for making leaf mould in sacks for the garden or to collect colours and shapes for creative work.

(They call me) Mellow Yellow

(I've started my collection already … )

Ready for pressing between heavy books...

I'm totally energised by blustery and bright weather and just have to be walking outdoors - and that's when colours really start popping out at me. Even after years of knowing about the beauty berry plant (Callicarpa bodinieri), I'm still awestruck by the vivid purple of its autumn berries (bottom left).

These photos were taken over several days out but even after all this awesome loveliness, it was still thrilling to see the mind-blowing colours of the nasturtiums in the garden and one of the poppies is about to flower for the third time this year! 

I have some time off work next week so I'm hoping to get to RHS Wisley. The autumn colour there should be amazing - I'm looking forward to seeing the spindle (Euonymous europaeus) and liquidambar trees. I'd better take a bag for collecting some fallen leaves, I've a feeling there will be more days like these.

18 Oct 2014

No more pretending

That's it then. The garden and I have been firmly tipped into autumn this past week. Ten days ago, I enjoyed a lovely warm sunny afternoon and then, the very next day, got soaked tying up some garden waste bags. The sky went from drizzle to deluge in minutes and, despite a showerproof coat, I was literally soaked to the skin (and feet) in minutes. Hence the filthy cold that has dogged me for the past few days. Cough, sniffle, sneeze - evenings spent heading off early to a cozy bed with a stack of books and a hot drink.  I love those clouds with silver linings.

Ferocious wind and rain last weekend flattened so many plants in the garden.  There was more torrential rain on Monday morning but I took advantage of a break in the clouds to get outdoors. The air in the garden smelled of crushed lovage (a bit like spicy celery and a lovely herb to add to soups and stocks) and several of the brassicas will need staking up but, on the plus side, everything sparkled with a dusting of raindrops.

The biggest of my courgette plants has been toppled by the storms.  I'd picked the monster courgette/marrow the night before (luckily) with a handful of tomatoes and some spring onions. I've been putting together a new Pinterest board of seasonal recipes which I call 'Autumn in the Kitchen' (See? over there on the right!) and rather liked the look of a stuffed courgette creation that I came across. I cooked this last night, sharing half the giant courgette with my gardening neighbour, and tweaked the recipe to use up a few pre-weekend-shopping fridge ends - a bit of chopped red pepper, a few mushrooms, a shallot, the spring onions from the garden, chopped garlic, some bacon, half a small pot of yogurt. The giant courgette was gutted and it's innards chopped and added to the mix which was then piled back into the shell. Popped in the oven for 20 minutes with cheese on top, it was delicious and made more so by the smug feeling of having eaten really healthily. I love adaptable recipes and will make this one again, maybe next time using breadcrumbs or rice in the stuffing. It was a bit dark to take a photo of the finished result - sorry.

Trawling through the internet for culinary inspiration using seasonal fruit and veg is a really fun way to anticipate the pleasures of autumn. Once the evenings get darker, I'm happy to be found in the kitchen cooking up sturdier, warming food - stews, casseroles, pies and cakes.  I've found some tempting recipes (butternut squash pancakes with sage butter, pear and damson breakfast muffins, plum pudding cake),  mm-mmm, sounds good! For now I'm still eating at least one salad each day with homemade coleslaw, (love that crunch!) but am adding bookmarks to two wonderful books that I've borrowed from my local library.  Serious slimmers should avert their eyes now.

Excitingly (for me), I have "first fingers" (as my son would say) on these books; childishly, it gives me huge pleasure to be the very first person to open the pages of a new addition to the library and these two are a couple of corkers for the autumn recipe hunter. I've already got my eye on blueberry bread and butter pudding from Rachel Allen and will definitely be making sweet beetroot pie (in the tradition of an American pumpkin pie) from Paul "Great British Bake-Off" Hollywood.  And there was me thinking that, with my son at uni, now would be a good time to try and lose a few pounds.  

I've spent a lot of catching up time in the kitchen this past week, bottling tomatoes and making plum jam and fruit roll-ups (recipes will be forthcoming) but there is a tiny glimpse of blue between grey clouds today so I think a bit more garden tidying is in order … especially as for tea I have a Plum and Cinnamon crumble cake whose recipe I've rediscovered having used it to bookmark a recipe for a spicy carrot and tomato relish.  I definitely need to get out more, if only for the sake of my waistline!

Ma-hoo-sive marrow (courgette); the last of my homegrown tomatoes on toast (Yellow Pear and Cherriettes of Fire);
Plum and Cinnamon Crumble cake with Elixir of Sage, recently bottled; Plum cake being assembled.

5 Oct 2014

It's Autumn, but not as we know it.

The late Christopher Lloyd, renowned for his fabulous borders at Great Dixter, adopted a practise of taking a morning stroll around the gardens each day with his head gardener to discuss the plan of action for the day. It's a great habit to get into as often the garden itself will suggest what needs to be prioritised.

A few days ago, I went to the garden here intending to take photos for the blog. Three happy hours later I'd got photos, staked up some flopping raspberry canes, lifted (chucked) piles of overgrown nasturtiums that were shading herbs, pruned some lavender that was becoming a tripping hazard on the path, dug out some horseradish, weeded around the broccoli and cut off some old courgette leaves to make the space more manageable. I also cut back leaves to allow the tomatoes to put energy into ripening the remaining trusses and found that one of the Sungold plants had gone rotten half way up the stem so I was able to cut the plant down and save those tomatoes to make a green tomato chutney.

I'm wondering what possessed me to put rhubarb, courgettes, globe artichoke and nasturtiums in this tiny space! Lush, though, isn't it?

That still left me with a bit of a jungle down one end of the veg patch - and the realisation that with Linaria (the plant edging the path, above) you most definitely can have too much of a good thing. (It's self seeded into every crack and corner in the veg patch but the bees love it.)  I was also then able to look at the garden with a fresh eye this morning when I took another walk round with my neighbour Karen who helps out and also gardens the border under her window. Friday is our community gardening day, when time permits.

What we saw was new spring growth all around: new raspberry canes, poppies flowering having completely regenerated in the past month, same with the globe artichoke, the rhubarb leaves are now as big as a gunnera with no sign of dying off, the nasturtiums have formed a river of flowers down the path and even the cowslip is in flower (usually not seen until March).  Karen reports that her daffodil bulbs are starting to sprout. While this is all utterly delightful, it shows that we can't rely on the plants knowing which season they're in; it would seem their seasonal clocks have been thrown off the beat by the chillier weather of a few weeks back, now replaced by warm t-shirt weather in early October.  Better make sure to have some horticultural fleece ready when the frosts do come!

In other news, I'm still harvesting a few raspberries, courgettes, tomatoes, radishes, salad onions, salad leaves, spinach and a few beans. The bean leaves are looking very tired so some of the beans have been cut down (roots left in the soil so the nitrogen fixing nodules can return nutrients to the soil) and any remaining pods on the others will be allowed to grow into seed beans for next year.  These are the Canadian Wonder beans that I really didn't think would amount to much this year but have done wonderfully well once protected with anti-slug wool pellets.

Sugar snap peas sown at the end of summer are now flowering so pods won't be far behind. The yellow sunflowers are finished and I'll harvest some of the seeds to shell and add to salads.  The others will be left for the birds.

Yellow Pear tomatoes, Sugar snap peas, Cherriettes of Fire tomatoes
Polka raspberries, physalis, courgettes

The brassicas (broccoli, kale, romanesco cauliflowers) are growing really well, as are the chard and beetroot. I wonder if this is due to the wool pellets around them - they help keep the slugs at bay but also leech nutrients into the soil when it rains and as they decompose. Hopefully this bodes well for early and late winter veg. The photo above reminds me that this lovely extended summer encouraged the physalis to reflower in early September; providing the pods ripen, I can greedily anticipate another two dozen Cape Gooseberries before the year ends! Oh, okay, I'll share.

Thanks to the warm, and sometimes wet, weather, there's still a rainbow of colour throughout the York Rise gardens. I particularly love the chinese plumbago (Ceratostigma willmottianum) - I'm drawn to its startling blue flowers every time I pass, especially as it sits next to the salmon coloured pelargonium 'Pink Needles', an amazing colour contrast.

Sunflower, Impatiens giganteum, pineapple sage
Blackcurrant sage, scabious, pelargonium 'Pink Needles'
Verbena bonariensis, calendula, violet
Anemone, borage, plumbago
And let's not forget the roses; there are so many more than this but you get the idea ;)

I honestly didn't think I'd have anything to write about this month but, actually, it's all come right and been rather special. Heavy rain is forecast for the next few days but, for now, me and my garden are in a good, good place.

May October be kind to us all.  Caro xx

Jobs for October:
Keep on top of weeding
Clear plants as they die off
Sow seeds in pots for early spring flowers
Get ready to fleece on cold nights!

Linking up with the Garden Share Collective over in Australia.  If you want to see what's growing on in other parts of the world, pop over to Lizzie's blog for all the links.
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