14 Jan 2018

Seventeen, going on Eighteen

I feel a bit silly writing a review of 2017 a couple of weeks after the new year started and long after I started planning for 2018 but, while it seemed there was a lot to be glum about last year, looking back I've found quite a bit to perk me up.  I want to park my thoughts on last year so, in no particular order, here we go.

Yay! spring is coming! Late winter is all about the flowers

We're well into the beginning of January (or, as I prefer to say, half way through winter) but I trust you all had a really good christmas and New Year? I did. And, possibly for the first time ever, the tree was bought and decorated in good time, looking all twinkly and festive for many days before the big event. A good start to christmas - and, perhaps, a good end to the year.  The tree is now down, along with a tsunami of needles which dropped as I took the tree outside, the decos have been carefully wrapped and restored to their box on high, the indulgent puddings a distant memory. My new garden notebook has arrived and a stock take of the seed box is imminent - before I settle down to read through seed catalogues.

I've got a good feeling about 2018. I started thinking about the year ahead in the breathing space between christmas and new year; without becoming overly optimistic, I'm feeling a renewed sense of purpose and excitement when it comes to gardening. Last year, there were too many personal and work issues which threw a proverbial spoke into my wheels, but I'm nothing if not a gardener, so ... new year, fresh hope, clean slate. Moving forward with intention. Sounds good, yes?

Flowers bringing joy in late spring along with some veg

Every year there are lessons learned and thoughts to bring into the next round of growing so I'm taking a moment to look back at last year because, well, it wasn't all bad.

There were garden shows, plant fairs and trade shows - always a good idea to go to these if you can, you never know who you might get into conversation with or what you might learn. This past year I've met, or met up with, many lovely garden bloggers, writers, designers and brands. I would name names but you'd think I was boasting. πŸ˜‰

Garden Bloggers

Meeting other garden bloggers was a definite highlight; what could be better than chatting to people whose writing and opinions you admire and, let's face it, who'd pass up the chance of a good garden chat! We bloggers are a fun bunch too. The Garden Bloggers group on  Facebook and Twitter was set up in 2017 and has become a really good way to connect with other bloggers - including the end of month #gdnbloggers chat on Twitter. Worth checking these out if you're not already familiar with them. There's even a small (real life!) meet up planned for early April this year at the Great Dixter Plant Fair, if you're down Sussex/Kent way - check out the Facebook page.

Golden sweet corn in August; glass gem corn in November
(best to let this last one dry on the stem for deep colours).
More achocha (top middle) than I could eat! 

Garden Visits

I do love a garden visit, particularly walled kitchen gardens which, for my money, reign supreme, but it takes organisation and time. Last year, I squeezed in trips to West Dean in Hampshire, Winston Churchill's kitchen garden at Chartwell in Kent and the Skip Garden in Kings Cross, and came away inspired and motivated. The herb, veg and trial gardens at RHS Wisley are also worth visiting throughout the year, although last February my mission was to see the winter borders and to recharge my happy zone with a splash of spring colour on a sunny day. It's a day out that delivers.  Likewise Waterperry in Oxfordshire (an hour's drive for me) - lots to delight in during the summer but I also went in February when I was thrilled by carpets of snowdrops leading to the river walk and the surprisingly beautiful and thoughtful sculptures along the path.

There were other visits last year that stimulated ideas of good plant juxtapositions or unusual plants that will happily grow outside. I was thrilled that I managed to get to Tom Hart-Dyke's World Garden in Kent last September before driving on to Great Comp to see the collection of salvias and dahlias. I saw flamingos wading through the water high above the traffic of Kensington at the Roof Gardens during the GMG summer social and ate cake with Rosemary Alexander (founder of the English Garden School and prolific teacher/author/designer) in her Hampshire garden - one of the garden visits organised by the Garden Media Guild.  I've been a probationary member for over a year now and these GMG group visits are a real perk of membership as we're often the only people in the garden, with behind-the-scenes tours from the head gardeners.

Peaks, troughs and plants

In any gardening year there will be moments of bliss counterbalanced with frustration but, in 2017, I experienced more low points than anticipated.  Involvement with helping at the allotment diverted a lot of my time from my gardens at home, something that needs to be rebalanced this year. Despite that I managed to grow some wonderful flowers and vegetables, including several new plants that will go back onto this year's plan.

Even a badly managed plot will produce harvests!


A few were new to me plants - glass gem corn, Edamame beans, Tiger Nuts (chufa), Squashkin, Honeyboat Squash, Old Boer White squash, Cobaea scandens (cup and saucer climber), pale mini courgettes, 'Berries and Cherries' strawberries from Thompson and Morgan which have deep pink flowers and delicious small fruits; I grew those on my balcony but will transplant them to the garden this year.

Some highlights: My sweet red gooseberries finally fruited in abundance which was very thrilling. I had masses of lovely big Polka raspberries from the veg patch, sweet corn from the plot, squashes! yay!, superb plums from the plot (made into delicious crumble), autumn baby Nantes carrots (well worth resowing in July to get these). Cavolo Nero and curly kale was left to go to seed (the bees love the flowers) but continued to sprout baby leaves and are still growing strongly, and being picked, one year on.  The plants I brought to London from Mum's garden flourished - agapanthus, lily of the valley, eucomis, geum, pieris - all flowered and looked very healthy last summer. Croix lachryma jobi (Job's Tears) bead plants from 2016 regrew as well although there weren't as many beads, probably because I moved the plants into a pot. Job's Tears are not edible, unless you want to grind your own flour, but can be strung together to make bracelets. I advise using a thimble. The daily smile came from several Cobaea plants climbing through the pigeon netting on my balcony where I could see the flowers turn from pale green to purple at eye level, and the huge Scented Pelargonium which scented the air every time I shoved my way past it to step into the veg patch.

Not so good:  There were (are?) whitefly of biblical proportions feasting on my balcony salad and herbs; I'll have to clear everything, scrub and start again. Edamame beans seemed to be okay then struggled to grow and were finally taken down by slugs. Courgette and kale seedlings in the veg patch were eaten overnight, probably also by slugs - literally down to a stump - so I had to start again there. No french beans only broad beans, lovely Braeburn apples were all pinched before they could ripen (and so discarded with one bite taken out, grrr), ditto pears, five quince this year but all went rotten on the tree before being fully ripe, no plums (again) in the veg patch (but loads from the plot). As the veg patch plum trees have never fruited in eight years of growing, they're for the chop any day now ... especially now I have my chainsaw! I started several Physalis (Cape Gooseberry) plants from seed; it looked like I would have an abundance of fruit but none of them ripened before the frosts. Those plants were at the allotment where I thought they'd get more sun but it seems they prefer warmth over sunshine. Next year they'll be back in the veg patch. Leeks were a disaster. And I never got round to sowing any broccoli so no purple sprouting for me this year  - unheard of!

Echeveria and Pilea at home (top middle); Echeveria and string of hearts at Petersham (middle right)

Having never had any luck with houseplants, I dived in for another go, having discovered a few beautiful houseplants at Petersham Nurseries' new Covent Garden store. There I bought a 'String of Hearts' to add to my existing Jade plant (even I haven't been able to kill that one off) - and even got round to repotting Jade into new soil this year. I soon had a little collection of indoor plants to look after - crassulas, an aloe, jade plants, an echeveria and pilea peperomioides, the Chinese money plant. There's even a cardamom plant, for now. So far they're all surviving on a lack of attention and the merest hint of water. 

Last but not least ...

There were honours, which was a bit bizarre.  In January, I was amazed to be told that this blog was listed in Gardener's World magazine as one of 50 new things to try. (I'd never have known but a friend has a subscription to GW.) That's quite an honour given the circulation of the magazine but really bad timing as, having spent a few emotional months clearing my parents' home, my absence here was noticeable. I can only hope that anyone checking out the link stuck around but I seriously doubt it!

So, there we have it.  Another year gone, another year older and, with luck, wiser. Thank you to everyone who read, commented and generally made these pages a nice place to be - it's truly appreciated and I love getting you know you all!

Wishing everyone an excellent year ahead, may the garden gods smile on you.
Caro x



30 Dec 2017

Easy risotto with garden grown Squash(kin)


~ Squashkin, butternut and Old Boer White pumpkin ~

Let me tell you about one of the loveliest and tastiest squashes that I grew this year. I'm never without a butternut squash lurking somewhere in my kitchen so wanted to grow my own this year.  But how much better to grow a squash in the shape of a pumpkin! My eyes lit up when I saw seeds of a new hybrid called 'Squashkin' in the Marshall's catalogue last year and I promptly ordered some. But first, another tale.

I was never the child that tore into Easter eggs or birthday presents, instead I teased out the moment, savouring every tuck in the paper or release of tape, trying desperately to avoid a glimpse of what was inside. I could leave my Easter eggs in their cellophane for weeks and know it annoyed my siblings no end that I still had chocolate long after theirs had been eaten. It was my way of eking out the anticipation and choosing the right moment to indulge. Until, that is, a particularly beautiful Easter chocolate sculpture of birds in a nest with their speckled eggs was left too long in the sun and melted. Dismay, disappointment and regret ensued.



Why mention this now? Well, I've been at it again, prolonging the moment to cook the squashes and pumpkins that I grew this year. Harvested in late October, they've sat in my kitchen ever since, where I can admire their rustic beauty. (Does anyone else feel like that about their pumpkins? I'd grow them for looks alone!) I searched through my cook books for inspiration, something delicious that both my son and I would enjoy. I wasn't sure that he'd be too interested in roasted veg, while soup didn't seem to do this beautiful vegetable justice. (Although I've since found a promising recipe in an old Delia book, rescued from my mum's kitchen last year.)



Finally, yesterday, it was time. After all the cooking and eating of indulgent Christmas fare, I wanted to cook something quick, easy and soothing. Risotto ... with the Squashkin. Way back in spring, I'd been tempted by descriptions of this squash being a hybrid with the thin skin and keeping qualities of a butternut and the superior aromatic flavours of a Crown Prince. So I anticpated that the skin would be easy to slice.  It was - as easy, if not easier than a butternut whose skin had hardened on a supermarket shelf. I also hoped that the flesh had ripened enough. Apparently, yes. (It wasn't a huge pumpkin and took ages to appear - in 2018 I'm sowing earlier.) A check round the kitchen gave me onions, garlic, chorizo, herbs and stock. Dinner was served half an hour later with some butter-fried chestnut mushrooms. (Peas and greens added after photo. Oops.)
πŸ˜‹



I always make extra for leftovers lunch the next day. This was so good that the pot was scraped clean for second helpings. Risotto is so easy to make that I feel silly offering this as a recipe - consider it more as inspiration. Sometimes I use leeks or shallots rather than onions, or stir blue cheese rather than parmesan through at the end, or no cheese at all, or perhaps some chicken leftover from a roast with sliced red bell peppers or a sprinkle of chilli flakes. A risotto of frozen peas and parmesan is perfect for small children - although squash added to that makes it very pretty and just as popular. I just love that the base dish is so adaptable. And there's no need for all that stirring and waiting, although that in itself can be very soothing.  My son, being a student with no time for faffing in the kitchen, taught me to throw everything in after sweating off the onions. He puts his in a big Le Creuset pot, gives it a good stir, pops the lid on and leaves it in a medium oven for 40 minutes. It tastes just the same.

The real reason for writing this post is to suggest Squashkin as a good vegetable to grow next year if you have the space. (Allow one square metre per plant.) The flavour was really good - and definitely superior to supermarket butternut squash and big orange pumpkins. Cooked in the stock with the rice, the chunks of squash softened and absorbed the other flavours and the end result was utterly delicious.  Job done!


(Recipe provided for anyone that has never made risotto.)

Easy Squash and Chorizo Risotto for 2-3 people

140g arborio rice
700ml hot stock (I use half home-made chicken stock, half Marigold bouillon)
1 medium onion, chopped finely
2 large garlic cloves, sliced very thinly
Half a large squash, about 600g before peeling
1 teaspoon of dried herbs (or fresh finely chopped thyme/rosemary from the garden)
125g chorizo, chopped into very small pieces (or buy a pack from Waitrose :D )
Olive oil and a half-ounce knob of butter

Add a splash of olive oil to a large casserole pot or non-stick pan. Have the pot over a low flame. Melt the butter in the oil and add the finely chopped onion. Stir to coat and cook on a very low heat until soft and translucent. Don't let the onion pieces burn but a long sweating is good as this sweetens them. Peel, deseed and cube the squash. Add the squash cubes to the onion as you go, stirring in. After 10 minutes or so, add the finely sliced garlic and cook gently for a minute.

Add the rice, stir to coat with the pan juices. Sprinkle with herbs, if using. After a minute, add a good splash of hot stock. Stir. After another minute of stirring, add all the remaining hot stock and stir for a few seconds. Pop a lid on and leave it to simmer, checking every once in a while to give it a stir and make sure nothing is sticking to the pan.

When the rice is soft (I like mine slightly over cooked, rather than 'al dente'), add the chorizo and stir through to heat. (At this stage cheese and/or chopped parsley can be added.) There you go, dish up and it's ready to eat. 



20 Dec 2017

Ways to keep warm while winter gardening


Hands up all those who garden through the winter?  And how many of those hands are currently getting cold while gardening? Or dog walking, foraging, chopping logs? Indeed any outdoor activity during winter. Personally, I find numb fingers very challenging. Well, my lovelies, I've found a solution in the gloves photographed above.

Like many others, I was always told that if you keep your extremities warm (feet, head, hands), the rest of your body would stay warm too.  In the days of coal fires and cold rooms when I was very young, I remember my grandad wore his woolly hat to bed in winter; his head was almost bald so needed the extra protection! My mum made sure that my siblings and I had warm knitted mittens, thick socks, wool coats and hats on before she shooshed us outside - and it worked, we stayed warm and had rosy cheeks from the fresh seaside air ... even if we looked like the Start-Rite kids.

Much more recently, there was a conversation thread on the Facebook Garden Bloggers group about what gardeners wore to keep warm.  It was generally agreed that layers was the way to go, with thermal vests and tights under t-shirts and trousers, and jumpers or fleeces under protective gardening garb. Woolly hats were recommended, thick socks under gardening boots helpful.  A flask of hot water for tea or coffee, essential. Tea, toast, cake and a warming fire something to look forward to at the end of the day; several mentioned the hypnotic allure of a good bonfire in the garden at this time of year.  It became apparent that many gardeners don't stop in winter but wrap up warm and get on with it. Those fruit trees and shrubs are not going to prune themselves.

As for me, I like to be able to move freely so use a lightweight fleece lined jacket over wool jumper and vest, and that does the trick for me. I'm also lucky to have a pair of very warm wellies. Once I get moving, I heat up very quickly. But my hands sometimes get cold, even with leather gardening gloves to take the edge off.  Recently, I was delighted to spot these thermal gardening gloves on the Briers website then saw that they were out of stock. I phoned to ask if they were getting any more in and was told that they'd restocked the day before and would I like a pair?  Ooh, yes please! I wore them for the first time yesterday in the garden and they exceeded all expectations. I emptied trugs of icy water, dug weeds from soggy soil, lifted cold pots and gathered wet leaves with my hands. My usual gloves would have been wet, cold and my hands the same; with these Ultimate Thermal gloves, my hands were toasty warm, dry and comfortable. Need I say more? (Except perhaps that they're washable.)

My opinion? Essential kit for all winter gardening.


Disclosure: Briers gifted me a pair without asking for a review but they work so well that I wanted everyone to know about them.

Here are the details:
Briers Ultimate Thermal gloves. Now £5.99. Flexible down to -30ΒΊC; double insulated with brushed fleece inner liner for added warmth; foam coated palm for added grip. (The coating also makes the fingers and palm water resistant.) Sizes: Medium, Large, Extra Large. (I have small hands; the gloves were slightly loose but not overly so, and worth it for the warmth they gave.)  Washable.



9 Dec 2017

Gardeners' gifts and a really lovely and useful GIVEAWAY

Thank you to everyone who took part in this giveaway.  The winner's name drawn from the bucket last week is Karen Gimson. Congratulations, Karen - enjoy your fabulous prize!




I'm feeling very pleased with myself as christmas is usually a last minute thing in my home but, yesterday, a real Nordman fir tree was purchased and the first flutters of christmas excitement began. The box of decorations has been retrieved from up high, candles will be lit, cakes made and snowglobes brought out.

The twinkle of indoor lights is especially welcome this winter as I've lost most of the light coming into my home thanks to scaffolding boards sitting just above the window lintels. Add in short days and grey skies and the room is in more or less permanent deep gloom. Never have I needed a deep dose of hygge more.  So to brighten my day, let's have a look back at a cornucopia of lovely things that have come my way this year and might give some inspiration to fellow gardeners - and, if you read (or skip) to the end, there's news of a very generous and lovely giveaway.

↓ πŸ˜ƒ ↓

5 Dec 2017

Early December in the Veg Patch

How many people are currently hunkering down inside, away from plummeting temperatures and relishing the warmth and cosiness of being tucked away from the cold?  I know the temptation to stay indoors on a dreary, possibly drizzly, day gets me every time. Grey skies do not motivate me. But I always surprise myself with how good it feels to get outside, wrapped up against the cold, for a walk or an hour's work in the garden.  There are always jobs to do, even (or especially?) at this time of year.  I still have leaves to rake and store, bulbs to plant and mulching to finish. Trees need pruning and a few perennials need to be relocated. I admit I enjoy the peace of working outside in winter, it clears my mind and gives me the headspace to think.

Last weekend Michelle at Vegplotting blog hosted another of her #mygardenrightnow challenges, inviting gardeners to get together on social media with a snap of themselves in their winter gardens.  We've had such a good warm autumn (and by that I mean temperatures still in the mid to high 50F range (10-15C) with occasional sun) that many of those gardeners were able to show plants in bloom.  Could I match that with anything in the veg patch? Let's have a look.


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