It shouldn’t happen to a gardener!

The best laid plans do not always come to fruition! Gardening is a great leveller. Whether you are growing on an allotment, in a window box  or own a huge private estate, nature always has the upper hand – and that is exactly as it should be.

Elderflower extravaganza!

The hedgerows are filled with creamy elderflowers. It’s time to forage!  Choose elderflower heads that are in full blossom and at their most fragrant to make delicious drinks, skin care and preserves.

I’ve been busy in the kitchen making elderflower champagne, liqueur, vinegar, sugar, oil and dried elderflowers too.  Here are the recipes.

Late summer polytunnel

It is the first day of September and autumn has been in the air now for a few weeks, earlier than usual here in Somerset. The garden is full of vegetables, fruit and flowers, bright with sunflowers and snapdragons, but now when I rise at 5 am the sky is still dark and the curtains remain drawn until almost 6 o’clock. I have ordered firewood…

Thai influenced golden raw summer vegetable salad

This gorgeous bright seasonal salad is almost a meal in itself and can easily be adapted to include other summer vegetables in your garden (and winter root veg later in the year). It is a zingy, delicious, colourful way to use up gluts.

Crunchy Courgette Gardener’s Muffins

I’ve been trying out a few variations of this seasonal muffin, using our course people as guinea pigs! Low in processed sugar, these satisfying baked treats are great to nibble on for an extra boost of energy when gardening. They also make a great breakfast muffin.

Seasonal summer frugal feasting

Regular readers of my blog will know that one of passions, and fortunately work, is harvesting seasonal homegrown vegetables, fruit and herbs and delicious food. For our no dig gardening day course at Homeacres on Saturday, I made lunch for 17 (including Charles and myself) using Charles’ gorgeous vegetables (plus some bought ingredients, things we can’t grow easily which I’ll explain later) for around £1 a head, including muffins.

A cornucopia of summer soft fruit … with recipes for homemade cassis and blackcurrant wine

Perennial fruit bushes play a key role in my garden, producing an abundance of delicious berries during summer months. These I preserve, to enjoy year round: jewel coloured jams, cordials, liqueurs, chutneys and other delicious additions to my homegrown larder.

Somerset Garden Day

Somerset Garden Day is happening today! I think this is a brilliant idea – of course I don’t need much encouragement to spend time in my garden, but this day is a bit different.

I am writing this in Kent, far from my own garden in Bruton, in the barn of a beautiful flower farm, whilst Charles gives a talk on No Dig gardening. Charles and I were intrigued when we first heard about the idea of Somerset Garden Day and were asked for our help launching the project. We are always keen to help promote ideas that encourage people to enjoy gardens and were delighted to help enthuse people to spend time enjoying their gardens.

The idea of Garden Day is to down tools and spend time celebrating your garden, whatever the size (even a window box!), spending quality time relaxing and consciously taking pleasure from your outdoor space, in whatever way feels good for you. You can spend all day, or just half an hour, enjoying a garden, experiencing the outdoor space and the season with all of your senses.

Garden Day is accessible to everyone – any age, any size of garden. If you have no garden, then spend some time visiting one of the many amazing gardens we have in Somerset – community  gardens, private gardens that are open to the public, National Trust properties, wild spaces, riversides, the coast, country walks: pack a picnic, take family and friends, or enjoy some outdoor solitude, whatever appeals to you!

I love the idea because I am absolutely rubbish at just sitting in and enjoying my garden, especially at this time of year when there is so much to do! It gives an opportunity to look at my garden and allotment from a different perspective, as a space to relax and socialise as well as work and grow food. At first I thought that the date was a bit too early in the year – as a veg grower, most of the plantings are quite small especially as it is just after the (hopefully!) last frost date for Somerset. But as I thought more about it, and looked at everything emerging in my garden last week – and the gardens I have visited this weekend in Sussex and Kent – I came to realise what a great time of year it is to encourage people to be outside and get pleasure from the warmer temperatures, let the spring sunlight clear away winter cobwebs, enjoy the pleasure of gorgeous early flowers and the anticipation of everything that is in bud, about to unfurl into summer glory.

As I am not at home, I’m going to make some time to just sit and enjoy my garden next week – and today, we will be celebrating gardens here in Kent, having lunch outside in the sunshine with the course participants in this lovely flower farm. Yesterday I spent time relaxing at Sissinghurst, enjoying the stunning garden there, where many of these photos are from (not Somerset I know, but this is where I am!)

It isn’t too late to enjoy Somerset Garden Day wherever you are, with an impromptu al fresco lunch or supper, invite neighbours round for an early evening glass of wine, search for insects with children, take a comfy chair outside and relax with a book – how will you celebrate your garden?

 

Clearing and planting

I’ve mostly been concentrating on my at home garden, so it was a real pleasure to be able to spend some time at my allotment, getting ready for everything that will be planted there over the next week or so.

I’d let the brassicas go to flower for the wildlife, but now needed most of the space for new plantings.

At the back, you can see the untidy part of my plot – cloche hoops and sticks waiting in a heap on top of the plastic mulch* to be put to use.

(*the plastic mulch is there to kill off invasive horseradish, which was trying to take over. It will be there all year.)

Bees and other beneficial insects are loving the brassica flowers. Small birds are feeding on the many insects flying about there. Some of the stems are covered in aphids, useful food for all kinds of beneficial predators – fine on these as they are going to be composted soon but I wouldn’t be quite as happy if they were on my food crops.

Most of the plants needed removing; I left just some flowering kale (seen above in the photo with the blue sky).

Even though it has been so dry for weeks, these mulched beds have retained moisture so I was able to simply pull out the large plants. Using my very sharp copper spade*, I chopped them into 6 inch pieces, then added them to the compost heap. Allowing the plants to flower has another advantage – it helps to create more material for compost making. To the heap I also added ripped up cardboard and chopped comfrey leaves; there’s a lot of comfrey in the hedgerows at this site.

(* the spade has an alloy so it is really bronze)


After clearing, I walked over the bed to level it off and break down any lumps of composted manure that remained, then using my dibber made holes for the module sown peas. The moisture conserving properties of the mulch made the job easy, even though we have had the driest April here for 30 odd years. It was more difficult where the brassicas had been, as one would expect.

I had meant to add a picture of the module peas but forgot to put it in my media files before going away – I am in Sussex, at Sarah Raven’s where Charles is giving a day course. This is a photo of my view as I type!

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Back on the allotment, here are the peas after planting. I also planted module sown beetroot and spring onions down the sides of the beds – you can just about see the small leaves.

The self sown borage is huge now and full of bees.

The allotment after clearing – the garlic in the foreground is looking a little yellow due to lack of rain. I am hoping there’ll be some on Monday; if not, I will water them.  It’s looking quite bare but will be full within 2-3 weeks! Most of the plants are ready to go out next week, I was holding them back a bit because of the cooler temperatures last week.

At home, I’ve been clearing much of the polytunnel too. It was looking quite jungly, rather lovely really with all of those flowers, but I need the space for the tomatoes.

After clearing I watered using a hose with the sprinkler attached, for a long time, avoiding the back of the tunnel where I have a store of compost and the apricot.  I avoid drenching that, preferring to water the soil.

You can see how some of the garlic has suffered from dryness and growing amongst large brassica plants, something to remember for next year. I’m hoping it will perk up after a few days.

I’ve left some kale, chard, dill and turnip greens for a final pick. I harvest the green seeds of the coriander before clearing, delicious sprinkled on hummus.

Harvests included calabrese, carrots, spring onions and cabbages.

Then the tomatoes went in, with the string placed at the bottom of the hole. This helps to secure the string, which is fastened to the crop bars. I’m using baler twine as I have a huge quantity of it. Each piece is reused for years, not biodegradable unfortunately but as I have some, it seems sensible to use it up.

These tomatoes are mostly much smaller than I would usually plant, late sowing (due to the Italian trip) and so planted from module to tunnel without being potted on. An interesting experiment!

I also harvested the scrapes from the elephant garlic. These have gone into the fridge, I’ll cook them on Monday.

Next week, the aubergines will be planted and soon, cucumbers and melons – also, the edible flower companions and basil soon, too. An exciting transformation from spring to summer.

Basil flower tips and recipes

Basil flowers are beautiful to look at, smell gorgeous and attract bees and other beneficial insects. It is tempting to leave the flowers on because they look so pretty, but removing them encourages the plant to put its energy into continuing to produce abundant leaves for longer – for salads, pesto, preserving and summer cooking.

Rice and Zen

For the first time in 10 years I went on a holiday during the summer. Here is a short blog post with some photos from the trip. It was lovely to go away but oh my goodness, I came back to a lot of things to do – weeding, side shooting, picking, dead heading… (read about this here.) It was worth it though!

My daughter and I were visiting my dad who has lived near Chiang Mai for 3 years. It felt very strange leaving my garden and allotment during such a peak growing time. Fortunately one of my sons was in charge of watering pots, the greenhouse and polytunnel so I knew everything should still be alive when I got back (it was!) and Charles kindly weeded the allotment and raised beds in my front garden.

We flew to Bangkok where we caught another plane a couple of hours later to Chaing Mai.

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The view of rice fields as we flew into Bangkok

Dad lives in a village near to Doi Saket in Northern Thailand. It is very peaceful here, a lovely place to relax. We were especially excited about the swimming pool which was completed shortly before we arrived. It used a mineral filtration system, no smelly chemicals. It is a complete contrast with life at home. I’d brought some writing work with me – it was amazing working here on the veranda looking at these views and going for a swim whenever I felt too hot. I have visited Thailand in January and October, when it is hot but nothing like I experienced this time!

Here dad has created Of Rice and Zen, a boutique resort with two individual villas for rent – one has been there for a few years and a newer one  built using timber and tiles from an old rice barn. All of the scaffolding is made from bamboo.

 

The tiles are 100 years old. I thought they look beautiful.

The gardens here are gorgeous, there are so many possibilities growing in the tropics. The edible plants in dad’s garden include coconuts, mangosteens, mangoes and pandanus, a grass-like vanilla flavoured herb used in cooking both sweet and savory dishes. I’ve tried to grow it in the UK several times but without much success. Between the garden and the rice field, the khlong is used to channel water and irrigate the pond and rice field. Here one can forage for wild plants including edible morning glory and bitter gourds. The villagers also collect frogs and fish.

July is the start of the rainy season in Thailand. It was very hot and humid (especially for a person used to English summers) with incredible thunderstorms. One morning the khlong had overflowed, flooding part of the garden. It looked very dramatic, but soon drained away.

Organic growing is becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. This wall painting is in a large shopping centre:
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One of the many markets inspired by sustainability, healthy eating and organic growing.

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I enjoyed exploring the many stalls.

Here I bought some Thai organic potions to experiment with – an Egg Hormone for fruit (think I will try some on the aubergines) and Soybean Hormone. ‘Hormone’ is an unusual term for plant feeds, I wonder if it is one of those words that translated unusually from Thai to English.

I love tropical fruits and Thai cooking and came back full of ideas of how I can adapt home grown vegetables and fruit to create meals influenced by the colours and flavours of Thai cuisine.

Mulching and planting my no dig polytunnel

I love tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, peppers and chillis – having a polytunnel gives me the opportunity to grow these in abundance. Last Monday morning (23rd May) the polytunnel looked like this:

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so I brought the laundry in and cleared the last of the winter lettuce, moved most of the pots outside and removed any emerging bindweed which creeps in from the right hand side. Having base rails was the best solution for the space I have in my back garden, it meant that I was able to have an additional 2 feet or more width to the tunnel, but the disadvantage of base rails over digging the polythene in is that the latter method also acts as a barrier to creeping weeds.

At the back are tomato and tomatillo plants waiting to be planted.  Beside the rear door is a grapevine, in front are some overwintered garlic – on the left is elephant garlic. In the middle of the tunnel you can see two Grenoble Red lettuces which I am growing in order to save their seed, to the right are Rocket new potatoes. I left the self sown night scented stock because the scent it so gorgeous – here I had just begun sprinkling rock dust.

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Remaining in the tunnel are some young plants in module trays which are remaining here until ready to plant. I grow a lot of beans because I’m also supplying some clients. These are climbing and dwarf French beans, runners, borlotti and Czar.

There were two compost heaps ready to mulch the tunnel: one plastic ‘dalek’ type with year old compost and a larger heap made from pallets and old wood. This heap had 3 year old compost on the bottom, two year old on top. Neither heap have ever been turned. The compost is beautifully rich, dark and crumbly. The ‘dalek’ composter simply pulls up, revealing a neat pile of compost. It also revealed some unwanted inhabitants, the ants were very alarmed!

Charles came to help with the mulching. The polytunnel wasn’t mulched last year so I thought I would give the soil extra treats – powdered seaweed meal and rock dust – to add minerals and zing to the soil. It looks a bit strange at first, as if I have spread concrete dust! Here Charles had added the first wheelbarrow load of ‘dalek’ compost.

_MG_8485Strangely, no matter how careful I think I am being with my composting, I always find unwelcome bits of plastic in the resulting compost. So we had two buckets when loading the wheelbarrows – one for anything that needs to continue composting such as sticks (these go in one of the current heaps) and another for rubbish – and checked the compost thoroughly before using it. We spread a good two inches of compost on the wider middle bed and the two narrower side beds, using my copper rake.

There was enough compost left to do the parts which we couldn’t mulch because they had pots on them. I was amazed that one big and one small heap could produce enough compost to cover all of the beds in here. This makes me feel confident that I can produce enough at home for the spring mulch next year – one of my plans for the garden is to try to make it as closed-loop and self sufficient as possible.

The mulched polytunnel!

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I planted most of the tomatoes. I grow them up strings (made from baler twine) put under the tomato when I plant it and attached to more baler twine stretched across the crop bars – the same string that I hang my washing from. Most of these tomatoes are not tied up yet because I want to replace the top twine with fresh string.

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Then we celebrated by sharing a cider.

Over the week I have continued planting the tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillo, some aubergines and cape gooseberries. There are still more aubergines, sweet and chilli peppers, melons, basil, other herbs and edible flowers to plant tomorrow and Thursday. The garlic here is a bit thin, I think because I planted it amongst the cabbage plants and it has got too dry – a lesson learned there. Some annual weeds are popping up, so I’ll hoe those tomorrow morning too. It’s good to hoe off weeds before they get too big, or even before you even see them. Charles was told this old gardeners’  saying: “If you hoe when you have no weeds, you’ll have no weeds.”

Here is the polytunnel this evening, a view from each door.

And inside the tunnel…

I’ve harvested the potatoes too, looking forward to some of these for tea.

Rocket first early potatoes
Rocket first early potatoes