Summer 2019: A good year for the roses?

Unlike Elvis Costello I’ve had better years with my roses. A particularly annoying leaf cutter has been carefully chomping on the leaves of “Lady Emma Hamilton’, ‘Emily Bronte’ looked like she might fade away like her namesake and ‘Munstead Wood’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Rambling Rector’ and the others have had far fewer blooms than last year. When they really needed feeding and watering assiduously, I was in the middle of my exam marking marathon. But if you truly love your garden, it will recover and pay you back tenfold in experience, if nothing else. Not unlike parenting or teaching. There’s always another day in the garden, in the classroom or with children. Parents or teachers who beat them selves up when things go wrong would be wise to remember this.

We never grew roses when I was a child. I‘ve had to learn how to take care of them – where to plant, when and how to prune, how to rid them of aphids, dealing with black spot….. That’s probably why they didn’t have a spot in the garden. Plants had to earn their place and virtually everything was for cutting or eating. In my own cottage garden, roses rub noses with other plants – some edible, some not. I rarely cut roses for the vase but use the petals for pot pourri and rose petal jam. They work well in a cottage garden, mixed with poppies, foxgloves, phlox, under planted with violets or alchemilla mollis or companion planted with lavender, chives, tarragon, fennel or thyme.

One of the first things I planted when we moved in was a beautiful cream climber beside the kitchen door. I’ve no idea what it’s called but it romped away and smells delicious. The last one was ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, whose buds are red, becoming orange in bloom, fading to a pale peach. Orange and blue are calming colours to look out on. Lady Emma knocks about with deep blue agapanthus in a bed easily seen from the kitchen window. I love seeing them when I’m washing up or doing the ironing.

Here’s the recipe for rose petal jam.

Gather about 60 rose petals. Deep pink or red roses are best and they need to be pesticide-free. Everything is in our garden. Cut away the light-coloured base of each petal, which can make the jam bitter. Place  a kilo of sugar and a litre of water in a saucepan or preserving pan and bring to the boil. Add the petals and simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.Add a teaspoon of citric acid, (available from the pharmacy) and stir for a further ten minutes until it reaches setting point. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. Once cooled serve with scones or ice cream. Delish.

Sweet peas and thyme-roasted tomato soup

Comfort cooking and gardening never fail to cheer up a grey day.

Spring is peeping out from behind the curtain but thoughts of summer are on my mind today. Lunch was a thyme-roasted tomato soup – lighter than the hearty tomato, red pepper, chilli and butternut squash one we tucked into at the weekend. I sweated down a red onion and a couple of fat garlic cloves in olive oil, added the roast toms, a glug of passata and seasoning and blitzed it with a swirl of cream. Simples.

A quick jaunt to see my mate Tim at Bradfords to put the world to rights and order the annual bulk bag of compost; an hour in the (pretty bracing) fresh air pulling up the weeds which have germinated since the snow. Both set me up nicely …….and informed me that my knees are not what they once were. The sun put in a brief appearance so I sowed a few pots of sweet peas to stash in the greenhouse (held together with gaffer tape, since the great hurricane of early February). Wonder how long I can resist the urge to sow in earnest?

I’ve abandoned root trainers for sweet peas. They cost a fortune and take up too much space in the shed, which has become a road cyclist’s pit station. About ten seeds in a deep pot does the trick for me now This year I’ve sowed Wuthering Heights, Beaujolais, Our Harry, Kippen Cream and Nimbus. I sow enough for the half an acre plot of my dreams – just in case my ship comes in but what I can’t plant will head to the school flower patch where I’m on a mission to spread the gardening love.

Not a bad way to waste a few hours of your school hols. Now where’s the ibuprofen gel?

On Moon planting and sowing the seeds of next year’s flower harvest

As many of you wlll know, I try to garden biodynamically. For someone spontaneous and somewhat haphazard in her approach to life as well as to gardening, following some simple rules has enormous benefits for me and our garden. For everything there is a season and for every garden job there is a time in the month when it is best to tackle it. So far, so simple.

Four or five years ago I started gardening using biodynamic methods and whilst I don’t yet fertilise with biodynamic preparations I do sow, plant, prune and mulch using the cycles of the moon as a guide. When I first started some of my friends thought it was properly mad and my allotment neighbour, Weedol Williie told me in no uncertain terms it was mumbo jumbo. He laughed helplessly and made endless jokes at my expense. At harvest time he stopped laughing so much and told me I was lucky that my tomatoes had not succumbed to blight and wondered which chemicals I’d used to get rid of the aphids which had damaged his broad beans. Of course now that some well-known supermarkets have come forward to say that they use the same methods to decide when to invite critics to taste their wine ranges, it has become much more popular and acceptable.

In my experience, plants which have been sown according to moon cycles have a better developed root system, stronger flavour, more vibrant flower colour and a longer shelf-life. What’s more – and this is difficult to explain – the garden itself feels more alive, somehow.

If you do nothing else in 2019, get your hands dirty by growing a garden and do it aligned to the moon’s cycles. You won’t regret it, I promise you. You can find moon planting guides and calendars online. Alternatively, buy Lia Leenderz’s almanac and the info is all there along with a myriad other great ideas for celebrating the seasons.

The winter garden

January can be a tad depressing. Certainly, on my dark drive to school in the mornings, the absence of twinkly Christmas lights is all too evident. I quite enjoy the winter months nevertheless, embracing the opportunity to pop on my favourite woollen socks, layers of smocks, cardigans, coats and scarves and have a tramp around outside or light candles, brew coffee and curl up with a good book by the fire. But the one delight of January above all others is our shady front garden. A bit of research  about what would grow well in a small shady, north facing triangle, a few bags of mulch and some judiciously chosen shrubs, bulbs and evergreens , a few cuttings from friends and some self sown foxgloves has transformed what seemed to be an uninspiring space into a thing of beauty. And it starts to come into its own in January.

Just when the days are drear, delightful daphne welcomes us home for weeks with her delicious scent. Pockets of snowdrops spring up and the hellebores nod gently in the breeze. Viburnum, euonymus, winter jasmine and Christmas box are at their best. The bay is a stately addition to the border and there are the first signs that we will have  beautiful drifts of narcissi once spring really kicks in, along with snakes head fritillaries, tulips, bluebells, foxgloves, alliums and sweet woodruff. Later still and the plot will be transformed by the lilac and wisteria, laburnum, roses, geraniums and lady’s mantle but this is a garden predominantly for winter and spring. When the days lengthen and the weather turns hot we shift our attentions to the back of the house and the hotter colours of sunflowers, dahlias and rudbeckia. 

I Iove the idea of giving different parts of the garden their moment in the spotlight. I think it was Gertrude Jekyll who first put me onto the idea that, rather than dotting spring bulbs around the garden you should concentrate them into one border which you cram with goodies. It works. We have another dedicated spring area under the shade of a hazel in the back garden, near the compost heap where cowslips, oxslips, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones thrive.

 

 

 

Winter definitely has its positives.

 

 

 

Thoughts of spring on dark days

Seed catalogues  have been landing on the doormat daily since just before Christmas – such temptation. The pull of spring ought not to be ignored but, for a teacher, seed orders need to be completed before the start of term tomorrow – or they won’t happen until February half term. This year, with no allotment I need to rein myself in so I’ve gone for some veg, a few cut flowers and a handful of new dahlias. Unusually I’m going to sow cut flowers meadow style in one of the beds. This is mega easy provided that you prepare the bed thoroughly and ensure you’ve eradicated all the weeds. I’m fairly confident because I’ve worked the bed for a couple of years now. I’ll cover the bed with black plastic in spring to encourage any annual weeds to germinate once the narcissi have been harvested, then how them off before broadcast sowing.

I have a few seeds from last year in my tin but I ‘ve ordered dahlias from Peter Nyssen, veg from Real Seeds and cut flowers from Higgledy Garden and Sarah Raven, the latter is expensive but germination rates are good.

Garden 2019 veg and flower order

Agapanthus Midnight Blue, Agapanthus Polar Ice,  Agapanthus Twister, Brodiaea Hyacinthina (Triteleia), Caryopteris Dark Night, Crocosmia Carmine Brilliant

Dahlias  – Ariko Zsaza,  Black Jack, Blue Boy, Art Deco, Art Fair, Happy Halloween, Jescot Julie, and Karma Naomi

Helianthus annuus ‘Sonja’, and  ‘Claret’, Lupin hartwegii mix, Papaver somniferum ‘Dark Plum’, Cobaea scandens, Cottage Garden Mix 6g seed, Country Lane Mix 10g of pure wildflower seed

Edamame Bean, Beetroot ‘Chioggia’, Chilli ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, Kale ‘Curly Scarlet’ Kale, Spinach ‘Perpetual’, Spinach ‘Medania’, Organic Lettuce Seed Collection, Mustard wasabi, Salad Rocket ‘Serrata’

Bonfires and clutter clearing


Emily Dickinson reflected that the passing from one year into another is a time to reflect on “how many things we have omitted to do which might have cheered a human heart, or whispered hope in the ear of the sorrowful…” My Twitter feed is buzzing with resolutions of spending more time with family and friends, slowing down, rekindling hobbies and volunteering. 

I am determined to tackle the build up of clutter. This will cheer ‌my heart. January is a good time for a bonfire. Yesterday’s prunings from the garden and some old paperwork made a good blaze on a chilly late afternoon. There’s something relaxing about watching woodsmoke curl upwards with a cup of coffee in your hands. There will be other bonfires this month as we prune the fruit trees, the wisteria and the roses whilst they’re still dormant.

Getting the teenagers to sort through their wardrobes and fill a bag for the charity shop will also gladden my heart – as will clearing my backlog of filing, sorting through the seed tin, making a list and ordering seeds to sow in a few weeks time. There are a myriad studies about the benefits of clearing clutter – whether you’re into feng shui or just crave a dust-free clear work surface, having a clear out gives you an opportunity to sort, organise and simplify your life, space to be creative and productive and a feeling of well-being. 

Happy New Year.

The Turning of the Year


compost

The year turns in September for me and not in January. It’s rooted in my agricultural genes and reinforced by my career choice. Little has changed since yesterday in the garden. The signs of life – snowdrops, crocus and narcissus poking through, buds bursting forth on the Daphne by the front door, herbs, kale and leeks to harvest were there yesterday. And yet, there has been a turning of sorts today.

January 1st is the day when I turn the compost – unless, like last year it is raining hard. In fact half of it was ready to use to mulch the beds. So I did. Now that I have no allotment I’m thinking of investing in a double compost bin. One ‘cooking’ and one ready to use. We certainly generate enough garden waste and there’s something inherently satisfying about turning waste into a thing of beauty and purpose.

Contrary to popular belief there is nothing remotely difficult about making compost. Here are my five top tips to get you started if you haven’t already joined the green army.

  1. Don’t include cooked food.
  2. Include a mix of greens (annual weeds, grass cuttings, soft pruning, veg peelings, dead flowers) and browns (shredded paper, cardboard, egg shells)
  3. Don’t pack it down too tightly.
  4. Chop everything up as small as you can to speed up the process.
  5. Cover your compost to prevent it getting too wet and keep in the heat.

There are all sorts of other tips and tricks, umpteen types of compost bin, toubleshooting techniques and tools but if you start with my top five tips, you won’t go far wrong and it will save you a fortune in bought bags of compost.

A few hours in the garden today was time well spent. A female blackbird has moved in over Christmas; next door’s cat has stopped using our plot as a toilet (perhaps she’s in the cattery?) and most of the autumn leaves have been bagged up and stashed round the back of the shed to make leaf mould.

All’s right with the world….. until I have to do battle with my feline nemesis.

Potted bulbs and gardening

 

 

December 20th -Potted bulbs and gardening

Paperwhites for Christmas with glass baubles from Sarah Raven. It’s a Country Gate tradition – even though there are bags of tulips in the garden shed which still need planting, a million leaves blowing around the garden which need to be bagged to make leaf mould and sweet peas to sow in the greenhouse. If it ever stops raining, I will get out in the garden for a green workout as an antidote to the mince pies!

Time to say goodbye

I can’t remember when I took on my allotment. I know I applied for one when we first moved to Bradford on Avon and I waited nearly three years on the ‘list’ so it must have been ten years ago, judging by these photos of the children with their allotment beds. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After months of clearing brambles, weeds and even mounds of rubbish which had been buried and covered with old carpet I started to grow potatoes to break up the soil and planted some raspberry canes, strawberries, gooseberries, currants and rhubarb. Gradually I laid some wood chip paths, built a double compost bin from recycled wood and installed some raised beds. I collected dozens of green wine bottles which I used to edge the long cut flower bed and planted herbs and foliage plants to add to cut flower bouquets but I never really tamed it.  It was always on the edge of getting out of control as I fought back the encroaching brambles, the council hedge which was rarely trimmed as resources were cut and the huge diseased horse chestnut trees and hedge on the edge of the neighbouring municipal golf course, which never were.

I have spent hundreds of hours on the allotment with the children when they were small and working alone as they got older and gardening became less interesting for them. They even coined the phrase ‘allotment time’ to describe my propensity for nipping over there for half an hour and coming back four hours later. Best of all I have fed my family with homegrown produce and grown hundreds of my favourite flowers for cutting.

In truth I have a difficult relationship with my allotment. I loathe the inaccessibility when it’s time to mulch with compost or manure, the lack of water – no standpipe and regulations preventing putting up a shed from which I could harvest rainwater, the visiting badger who is determined to dig up bulbs as soon as they are planted and knows exactly when the sweetcorn is ripe enough to eat and the occasional thieves who pop in and help themselves to whatever they fancy. I’m not too keen on the person who regularly allows their dog to defecate in front of the gate and doesn’t pick it up. But I love the space to grow, to be alone with my thoughts only two minutes’ walk from home and the memories of the children growing up playing archaeologists and then learning to grow things over ten years.And the herbs grow better on the allotment than in the garden.

I have nurtured this little piece of Bradford on Avon for a long time but everything has its season and returning to the classroom has given me even less time to spend on growing. I need a space i can pop out to for ten minutes before leaving for work or whilst the supper is cooking and , in all honesty, it won’t be long before the children fly the nest and I want to make the most of the years we have left. I’ve put in two potager beds in the garden now that it no longer serves as a football pitch and so the time is right to let the allotment go.

Over the last few months I’ll admit that I have struggled with this. I thought about looking for a partner to share the allotment but that didn’t seem quite right and now that I’ve made the decision to give it up I am at peace. I remain true to my precept of always leaving a place better than I found it. I hope the next keeper of plot 2b has as much joy as I have over there. I’m even a little excited to see how it develops in someone else’s hands.

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