25 Nov 2015

Book Review: Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers


I've never had to grow flowers for a wedding or any special event, nor do I plan to.  But before we all turn away thinking that this book is for those who are insane enough to add growing the flowers to an unending list of things to do when planning a wedding, let's take a closer look.

This book has so much potential to get even the most humble flower grower excited.  I resisted accepting this book for review but I'm now thrilled that I caved in.  On my first read through, I thought of all you "In a Vase on Monday" blogger gardeners - wow, wouldn't your Monday vases be (even more) awesome after reading this, the inspiration on these pages had even my veg-hardened heart beating faster. In fact I'm mentally clearing over half my planting space for flowers now. There, said it.

But just imagine, weddings aside (because I hope that that's a few years off in my life and that of my 20 year old) that you know you've got a special event coming up next year:  Old friends visiting from afar, a landmark family party, a community shindig or you just want to put spectacular arrangements in the local church on Sunday and you want beautiful flowers to make the day. Of course you can go and buy them (at huge expense) or you can grow your own. Do you just sow seed in the springtime and hope for the best?  Or, more cleverly and in a far more organised fashion, do you choose the flowers that you want blooming in your garden at a specific time of year and work backwards from there?  With this book you can choose to do the latter. Yes, it can most definitely be done.

In case you haven't rumbled me yet, I am actually very impressed with this book.  All the information that anyone could need is comprehensively included within, which is not surprising as the author, Georgie Newbery of Common Farm Flowers, grows flowers for an average of 50 weddings a year. Just imagine that.  Brides and their mothers all a-quiver that everything should be just perfect on the day and all that responsibility resting on Georgie's shoulders. We can take it that she knows whereof she writes.

So, apart from a blindingly good read, what do you get?  The book is divided into three parts, an introduction, an afterword, appendices for plant names and a season planner and a resources section.

  • Part One covers planning ahead, growing your own annuals, biennials, bulbs and herbs for the big day, cutting, conditioning and containers
  • Part Two: Planning for your wedding (or event) - spring, early summer, high summer, autumn and - awesome!- even winter. 
  • Part Three: This is the section where you'll learn how to make bouquets, buttonholes, table centrepieces, garlands, a flower crown and even fresh petal confetti.  

Georgie Newbery has not only managed to compress all of this information into a wonderfully flowing read but has written it in such a way that all of her vast experience is presented in a way that would empower a complete novice to have a go.  No detail is overlooked.  Why, there's even a table at the end which lists a huge choice of flowers with their names (common names included), suitable growing conditions, growing and cutting times, what time of year they're at their best and other snippets of useful information.  Georgie is generous with her anecdotes and folklore which I found very engaging but also makes the whole vast undertaking seem eminently achievable which is surely no mean feat.



Consider this book an investment if you have a wedding to plan for; otherwise, flower arrangers should draw inspiration from the suggestions in the book using wildflowers, hedgerow, cutting patch and what's in the garden already.  I think this is a book that will be both a brilliant winter read and an excellent reference.  I give it a big thumbs up and might just have to rethink my whole seed list for next year.

UPDATE:  I went along to the launch of this book last night and learned from Georgie that wedding flowers account for a huge percentage of the floristry industry (I seem to recall £9.2 million being mentioned but I did have a glass of champagne in my hand at the time). Brides are keen to have British grown flowers rather than hothouse flowers flown in from abroad so this book is a very timely publication for the British Flower industry and amateur growers that want to grow their own. And how satisfying to know that you've been able to contribute, even if it's just the buttonholes or a centrepiece for your parents' golden anniversary or the flowers in church for a christening (as I suspect I am shortly going to be doing!).  Seriously, this book is great.






My thanks to Megan at Green Books for providing me with a copy of Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers by Georgie Newbury for review. If you want to order a copy, the book is on the Green Books website here for £24.99 or in the usual alternative outlets.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday


I spotted this, one of five buds, on my walk round a very soggy and cold garden at 8 a.m. this morning.

Shouldn't someone tell this sunflower that it's … {say it quietly} almost December?

So, what do we think: London micro-climate, the warmth of a semi-walled garden or just the mild weather getting plants all confused? 

22 Nov 2015

A Garden Craft project for December: Botanical advent calendar

You know how it is when you come across a project that you just want to get started on straightaway? Well, that happened to me the other day.



There I was, happily skimming through the December issue of Gardens Illustrated in my lunch break when a particularly beautiful article called out for my attention.  It highlights the work of Sonya Patel Ellis of the Herbarium Project, an artist who gathers botanical samples from her garden throughout the year, presses them for preservation and uses them in her artwork.  She's exhibited recently at the Garden Museum and has now created a project for the magazine's readers - a flower inspired vintage looking advent calendar that gradually reveals a suitably seasonal message.

Never mind that the artist collects plant material throughout the year, I reckoned that there might be enough still in the garden to embark on this project.  And what's not to love about a bit of crafting that involves collecting flowers and leaves, drying them, sticking them onto luggage labels (serendipitously, I have these in my stationery drawer) and then tying them onto a board? That's the sort of christmas decorating that's right up my street.

So, even though it was getting dark (and decidedly chilly) by the time I'd finished work on Friday, I tucked a large paper bag (thank you, local bread shop) and scissors into my pockets and went to the garden to make a start.  I've wandered through the garden often enough to know what's still growing and where, so cutting samples in the dark didn't thwart my intentions and there was a bright half moon to light my way.

I quickly found sage (purple, pineapple and blackcurrant), fennel fronds, feverfew, honeysuckle, strawberry flowers and leaves, geum (I'd spotted one last flower earlier in the day), geraniums, pelargoniums, artemesia, petrovskia, erysimum, lavender, violas, helichrysum, nasturtiums, heuchera, thyme,  ivy and sweet cicely.  Other options might be hydrangea, bay, fatsia, holly, rosehips, box or Lonicera 'Baggesen's Gold'.



I returned with a large bag of cuttings within the half hour.  These were set out onto double sheets of kitchen paper, topped with another double sheet when I was satisfied with the arrangement and sandwiched between the heaviest of my gardening books. I threw Nigel Slater, Sarah Raven and Mrs Beeton on top of the stack for good measure.  Now I wait.  (Oh, alright then, yes I have had a peek to see how it's all going; I can't help myself.)  The flowers and herbs usually take one or two weeks to dry; ready or not, I'll be coming for them on 30th November when they'll be mounted with linen tape onto a board (cork? wood? cardboard? Not sure but hopefully something recycled).

In the meantime, I'm preparing the luggage labels by printing out letters from vintage Lexicon cards and glueing my message to the back. What will it be? 'Peace and Love to all mankind' would seem appropriate after recent events.



The photo below is of Sonya Patel Ellis' finished calendar, image taken from her website, link above. I'm not sure mine will be as beautiful as this one, but I'll have fun trying! 

(Image copyright Sonya Patel Ellis)

I'm wondering if any readers are working on craft projects for christmas? Do tell! 

21 Nov 2015

How to preserve an abundance of Achocha



So what do you do when nature has decided to dump your entire achocha harvest in your lap (metaphorically speaking) all at once?  You can either eat small green porcupine peppers for the next two weeks at every meal - a task fit to stretch anyone's culinary creativity - or you can turn to the preserving books on your (or the local library's) shelves.  I opted to preserve most and cook a few.

As a keen forager (when I have time) and grower, I have several excellent preserving books.  Although there's a wealth of advice on the internet, I prefer the tried and tested methods that have made it into print. This time I looked through Piers Warren's How to Store your Garden Produce (reviewed here)  and, newly gifted to my collection, The National Trust book of Jams and Preserves.  This is an extremely handsome book that has inspired a wealth of ideas for next year's garden produce.

I had to really think about which recipes I could use; after all, achocha is not your usual allotment fare. Botanically speaking, achocha (Cyclanthera) are classified as a subtribe of curcubits, the same family as pumpkins, squash, courgettes, gourds, melons, cucumbers and, yes, even loofahs. Having said that, they're not fleshy like pumpkins and the mature fruits don't have the watery flesh of melons and cucumbers. For cooking purposes, achocha can be used like a diminutive cousin of the sweet green pepper. However, the pepper preserving recipes I found seemed to be aimed at chilli peppers so in the end I decided I'd be safe treating the fruits as cucumbers.  Whew, decision reached.

You might at this stage wonder why I didn't consider freezing them. Well, apparently extreme cold breaks down the cell membranes so they turn to unpleasant mush on defrosting.  My chosen recipes of cucumber achocha jam and sweet cucumber achocha pickle sounded much nicer. I don't usually eat pickle but I dislike wasting food and had the pickle ingredients in the cupboard; also I was intrigued by the thought of cucumber jam. Hmm, savoury jam? A bit odd but I thought I'd give it a go and it turned out to be surprisingly delicious. The author, Piers Warren, suggests the option of adding a good pinch of ground ginger to the jam at simmering stage which I did - along with a pinch of cinnamon for good measure and the finely grated zest as well as the required juice of a lemon.



I've yet to try the pickle.  Apparently the original recipe will go nicely with fish and chips. Again, I got creative with the recipe by adding in yellow peppers, chillies and mustard seeds to my sliced up achocha and shallots - it should give quite a pop of flavour!

A printable pdf of my jam and pickle recipes can be found here; could be useful for those who've decided to give the seeds a go next year. (Seeds will be posted this weekend. If anyone else would like some, let me know; I'm happy to share.)  I'm thinking now of growing achocha fruits specifically for making this jam next year - it's yummy on bread with cheese.  


16 Nov 2015

The Downfall of Achocha



It's been a bit blustery of late but I certainly wasn't expecting this last weekend.

I hadn't posted a garden update for a while and my sleep patterns hadn't yet shifted from British Summer Time so, having dusted off my breakfast and a huge pile of washing, I was in the garden by 7.30 a.m. last Sunday (Yes, Sunday. Lie ins are so last decade, at least in my case.)

The plan was this: take a few photos, see what needs doing, pop a few spring bulbs into the rain softened soil.  But you know what they say about best laid plans.

The first thing I saw when I got to the garden was that Saturday's strong winds had brought down the (admittedly very cheap) arches that I used as support for my climbing beans and achocha this year.  They looked so lovely during the summer, a leafy arch to walk under, weighted with produce. And that was the problem. The achocha vines were still chugging out an abundance of fruit while the beans were slowly fading so it all got a bit lopsided. Lots of rain had softened the soil that the arches were bedded into and after a prolonged blast of wind, down they came, twisting and buckling as one part of the base remained firm while the top pulled away and down.  It was a devastating sight.

There was no point in bemoaning the loss of the arches; instead, it was the sight of all those lovely peppers and beans sprawled across my broccoli plants that caused despair. Weather can be such a two-edged sword.  With all the rain we've had this year, the little spiny hedgehog fruits had soaked up all that water making them crunchy, sweet and juicy - ironically, a perfect harvest but one that I would have preferred not to have all at once.



Achocha can be a prolific vine at the best of times and will (accidents apart) keep going from late July until the first frosts. One plant can grow up to 20 feet in length with many fruit bearing side shoots and long sensitive tendrils curling like springs around anything they come into contact with.  The plant had woven itself into a tangled spaghetti and it took me two hours to cut the vines off the arches, removing the fruit as I went. Two overloaded colanders got brought back indoors but quite a few pods will just be used for seed. So that's that for this year. The achocha is finished.



The large black seeds can be easily saved straight from the pods in the kitchen - just slice off the stalk end and open up the pod. The seeds are held around a central stigma so can be pulled off in one movement. It's quite addictive - I now have a large bowl of fresh achocha seeds.  If anyone's interested in growing them next year, give me a shout and I'll happily post some.

Here's my thoughts on why you should grow them:
If you like really green tasting veg (cucumbers, courgettes, peppers, beans) you should try achocha at least once. They're delicious eaten whole when small (a bit like cucumber, which they're related to). Older pods need to be cooked with the seeds removed; slice and stir fry or use as a substitute for peppers in casseroles. Fried in butter, they taste (to me) like asparagus. Yum. The pods will grow to about 2 inches long and are hollow when mature; stuffing them is how they were eaten by the Incas.
Achocha are reputed to be capable of lowering cholesterol (or so I've read).  Most importantly, in my opinion, achocha  flowers are pollinated by hoverflies who also love to eat greenfly - this I know to be true - and who wouldn't want lots of hoverflies in their garden?  They're also a great novelty veg for children interested in, or new to, gardening - don't be put off by the spines, they're very soft.

I've spent a good deal of time figuring out the best way to preserve my unexpected bounty. More in my next post but let me just say it might involve jam.  ;o)

1 Nov 2015

Autumn, you're looking good

Wisteria seedpods replacing the ubiquitous golden and red leaves of autumn. Gorgeous, aren't they?


This post has been a while in the writing.  I got a bit stuck because when I went looking for autumn, it just wasn't there. My mid-October trip up to Capel Manor gardens to meet up with friends provided me with lots of late summer planting inspiration but, apart from lots of acorns underfoot, autumn hadn't yet got started; trees were in full leaf, flowers were blooming and the sun was shining. Then we had the clocks going back which, although being a publicly devised event, seemed to be a signifier for the season to change. The ornamental cherry I can see from my second floor window has obliged by turning gold.


Also last weekend, as I went through my Capel photos and prepared to write a 'late summer' post, I was taken aback by a British gardener on Instagram writing "Winter's coming. Autumn's last days." Already? Surely not! The sun was shining and people were picnicking on Primrose Hill in t-shirts. Not a cosy cardigan in sight.  And besides, I've always thought of autumn as occurring between September and November, with fading summer at one end and the slow transition into the shorter and colder days ahead at the other. Winter months are then December to February (makes sense, no?) and, in March to May (Spring!), the garden starts to wake and we prepare for the year ahead. Anyone agree?

So here we are, a week later, and it seems that the tipping point has been reached.  We are now properly into autumn here; leaves are dropping and the veg patch's summer produce is winding down.  My creative brain is looking out for fallen leaves of all colours for a future arty moment, and thinking about evergreen foliage for festive wreaths, while my gardener's eye spots seeds to collect all around the neighbourhood.  Little brown paper envelopes are filling up with seeds of deep red salvia, maroon and pink hollyhocks, Cerinthe, Calendula, fennel, sweet rocket, sweet peas, Cavolo Nero and Achocha (the South American peppers that I grow). My chilli plant has optimistically been brought indoors.

This morning there was a deep mist hanging over north London after yesterday's sunshine; it didn't last as the sun burnt through to give us another day of clear blue skies. I have quite a bit to do in the garden still so I'm going to make the most of the dry weather while it lasts, particularly as I spent last Saturday digging out concrete posts in a friend's garden in constant drizzle! And for the rest of November I'll be enjoying autumn and prepping the garden for the winter months to come.

What are your thoughts - when does winter start for you? Have you wrapped up the garden or still enjoying a few lingering moments of summer glory?


As I don't want to just dump the photos that I took at Capel to the depths of Flickr, let's celebrate what could be growing in your gardens at the moment.

Magnolia bud, Passionflower, Ornamental ginger (Hedychium densiflorum 'Assam Orange') 

All these are perfect for late season pollinators:
Salvia cacaliifolia, Geranium pratense 'Mrs Kendall Clarke', Aconitum

The Daisy/Asteraceae family: Rudbeckia, Dahlia, Calendula

More daisies … and, hopefully, more bees!

Sunshine colour from  evergreen Libertia peregrinans, muted tones of Hydrangea 'Dark Angel' and I have no idea what this last plant is.  All suggestions welcome! 

Looking good at this moment: Shortly to slump Sedum, Callicarpa aka 'Beauty Berry' in its one annual moment of glory and Leycesteria formosa, boring all year but lovely seed pods in autumn. 





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