How to plant a spring herb container

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One of the questions I am often asked is “What’s your favourite herb?” It’s a difficult one to answer because there are just so many to choose from. It’s a similar question I once asked of Lord Ashbrook whilst interviewing him in the grounds of Arley Hall, his family home in Cheshire.

“Lord Ashbrook what would you say is your favourite plant in these magnificent  gardens?” I began.

“Well that’s an impossible question to answer” he retorted. “That’s like asking me to  choose a favourite friend!”

It was an excellent response and, looking back, I should have high fived him and shouted “By Jove Lordy you’re absolutely right old boy!”

But I didn’t, I just thought ‘Blimey that’s not the most auspicious start to an interview’ and carried on regardless.

My choice of favourite is influenced by the season and the plants attributes at the time. For example; in summer I adore the intoxicating fragrance of sweet marjoram, I cannot resist stroking the soft buds and inhaling deeply. In winter I choose bay leaves as my favourite, the flavoursome leaves add flavour to the pot when little else is growing.

In early spring my favourite is rosemary. Such a forgiving herb because, as the year progresses, she fades into the background becoming a foil for other, prettier plants. But for now, she captivates me. Festooned in a cloak of intense blue she revels in the preposterous cold and teases me into believing better times are on their way. As if by magic the sky blue buds begin to unfurl just as the wild creamy yellow primroses burst into flower; this blue and yellow palette is a match made in heaven.

When flowering herbs are looking their best I gather them together and grow them in a container close to the house; they like a sunny spot. For my spring display I have chosen a small lollipop bay tree as a centre piece and under-planted it with trailing rosemary ‘Severn Seas’ and wild primrose primula vulgaris, white rosemary, lemon balm and myrtle.

 

 

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First choose a container with drainage holes at the bottom, add some extra crocking to the bottom as these herbs don’t like wet feet. I’ve chosen a wooden box and lined it with roof tiles to stop the soil falling through the cracks. Interestingly the tiles are referred to as rosemaries.

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Fill with a soil based compost like John Innes No3 and add some slow release fertiliser. Position the plants and fill to the top.

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Water and place in a sunny spot. Mine is right by the front door.

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I use rosemary in a variety of dishes including lamb, roast potatoes, stews and casseroles, it’s also good in shortbread and biscuits. Have a look in recipes at the top of the page for details on how to make lemon, rosemary and black pepper shortbread, it’s delicious. The primrose flowers I crystallise and use to decorate cup cakes for a spring celebration.

When these delightful herbs have finished flowering plant them in the garden where they will continue to flourish, ready to surprise you again next spring.

 

 

Hello Sweet Pea

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Do you know what Bear Gryll’s would have said if he had seen me this morning? He would have looked at my muddy little face and soaking wet clothes and said “Good effort”. He would be forgiven for thinking I had just rescued someone’s kitbag (aka Jamelia’s) from a croc filled river in a jungle in Costa Rica, although to be honest, I would forgive Bear anything.

My dishevelled appearance was the result of a pleasant morning spent moving things around on the allotment. During the warm, sunny hours of yesterday I decided to set aside the morning for tidying up my plot and planting my sweet pea seedlings. Waking up to the sound of heavy rain pelting my bedroom window wasn’t going to deter me (okay, okay I did have a slight wobble) I’m a Northern lass and we are made of tough stuff.

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The sweet pea seeds I planted a few weeks ago popped up and have been growing fast on the warm sunny windowsill of the youngest Broccoli’s bedroom. I’m a great believer in hardening plants off as soon as possible or just chucking the hardy ones out into the cold to toughen them up. Sweet peas are hard as nails and will withstand the frost and even a bit of snow so get them in as soon as you can.

Every year I plant sweet peas, you can’t eat them but their fragrance is so intoxicating I can’t resist having them on the plot. I grow the flowers up a wigwam of canes and invariably grow too many. “Too many sweet peas?” I hear you cry! Yes too many. To keep sweet peas flowering they must be picked regularly, any forgotten blooms quickly turn to seed and flower production diminishes.

Today I planted the sweet peas in moderation. I erected just one wigwam and planted two plants to each cane, one for me, one for the slugs. With a few left over I decided to try growing them up my fruit trees, I’ll keep you posted.

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The miniature daffs were a lovely surprise, I had forgotten how early they bloom. I rather rudely dug them up and moved them around as I’m having a re-jig of the whole plot, pretty-ing it up so to speak. I’m introducing cut flowers into my garden so picking a handful felt like a good start. The rosemary is just on the tip of blooming. Tiny little sky blue flowers will soon decorate the aromatic, evergreen stems of this essential winter herb.

I use rosemary a lot. I add it to roast potatoes, pies and stews, I also use it to flavour breads and shortcake; it’s so good with lemon. I grabbed a handful of rosemary before I left, knowing I would use it in the kitchen, and discovered the greenery looks amazing combined with the jubilant yellow of the daffs.

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It was only when I got home, kicked off my wellies and peeled off my sodden coat that I realised just how hard it had been raining. The water that seeped through a minuscule hole in my jacket had penetrated every layer of clothing, even my knickers were wet!!!

 

Let it go

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At last the weather is calm and still; a welcome respite from days filled with howling winds and bitter cold rain. Night times have been spent trying to identify the crashes and clashes that rip through the darkness and pound my already befuddled mind. These uncontrollable elements have brought my enthusiasm for gardening to an abrupt halt.

I had planned to move the fruit trees on my allotment to a new position. Right at the front, where the sun shines the brightest, I intend to construct a frame on which I can train my fruit trees as espaliers. This method of growing encourages good yields in small spaces. I will under-plant my trees with herbs such as chives whose pungent aroma is rumoured to keep scab at bay.

Around the edges of my plot I am planning my cut flower borders. Obelisks of hazel will provide support for sweet peas that punctuate plantings of tulips, lark spur, rudbeckia and roses. Structures and tall plants will enhance the feeling of enclosure I seem to be craving. That’s the problem with allotments, they lack the warm, strong embrace that makes a walled kitchen garden so alluring.

I can only hope that my natural enclosure will survive the most destructive of elements; the wind. Blustering out of nowhere, picking up speed, twisting and turning it is a force out of control. We try to harness it and turn it into energy, we try to protect against it, we try to predict its movements but to no avail, the wind is a true free spirit.

We are pretty adept at channelling the other elements in our gardens. Water, so versatile, provides movement, reflection and sound. We scape the land to meet our requirements and grow the plants we chose in the places we desire them.

Fire too features in many gardens, including my own. I love a good fire. So much so I am writing this whilst sitting in front of a warming blaze in the comfortable warmth of my lounge. The log that is burning sits on a bed of red hot coals; the edges are all burnt to charcoal and I know that if I poke it, stoke it and disturb it I will be rewarded with a leap of flickering flames. But I don’t want to. The gentle glow is soporific and good. I am lulled into a peacefulness I have no desire to change. If the wood catches I will delight in it, an unexpected moment of enchantment. But for now, I will leave things  be; the fire, the garden, the evening, the now. For often the best things are those that have escaped our control, the mountains, the meadows and waterfalls, the very aspects of nature that inspire us, are beautiful without us.

 

 

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(Apologies if you now have a slightly annoying song stuck in your head!)

 

 

A beautiful winters day

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The outside world has been transformed into a glittery winter wonderland and I am enchanted. Blue skies create the perfect backdrop for bare trees now dusted with white frost. I want to run, laugh and sing in this glorious day. I want to head for the hills and fill my lungs with the sharp, ice-cold air that will refresh my befuddled mind and make my spirit soar.                                                                                                                                 I don’t know why I love these clear, cold days so much, my daughter suggests it’s because I am a winter baby. We have a theory that everyone loves the season they were born in and for me it’s true.                                                                                                       I want to explore a cold day more than a warm one, invigorating and short these days are the perfect excuse to snuggle up with a mug of hot chocolate and whipped cream; after a brisk walk of course. I love that Mother Nature indiscriminately makes everything beautiful with a shimmering coat of ice; nothing is forgotten, even the sheds and old fences shine.

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Nature is clothed in glory; evergreens show off their winter finery, some adorned with rich, red berries. Forgotten leaves, the season’s remnants, come back to life with intricate outlines of white. These filigree forms make me want to draw, make me want to lose myself in their iridescent beauty. The birds are attracted for different reasons and my garden is a hive of activity. Blackbirds are hopping around throwing leaves and debris in the air in their search for food. Flocks of blue tits twitter and twirl their way backwards and forwards along this green corridor. I have no desire to garden today, no need to change coax and manipulate, because everything is perfect out there, just the way it is.                        IMG_20141229_133705

 

A rose for life

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My sister came bustling in the other evening all aglow with Christmas cheer. In addition to her usual peculiarities she appeared to be wrestling a large, brown paper sack into my living room, a room already under siege from a recently purchased, very wet, over-sized Christmas tree.

“I’ve brought you your Christmas present” she proclaimed joyfully. ” I had to bring it early ‘cos it probably won’t survive if I hang onto it.”

This ruled out my initial thought that she had been on the sauce and decided to bring me a sack of spuds for Christmas; I like potatoes but not as a gift. With much giggling she delved into the paper sack and brought out…….(drum roll)…….with a flourish………da da daaa…..A TWIG!

The appearance of this five pronged piece of vegetation, with it’s long, dirty roots, made my merry little heart leap. What an ace gift from my blue haired sister, a rose bush!  But this is not just any rose bush, this is a David Austin rose bush.

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David Austin roses are amongst the finest in the country and, out nine hundred varieties to choose from, she has picked the perfect rose for me.

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Rosa gallica officinalis,  also known as the Apothecary’s rose, was once one of the most highly regarded medicinal plants in medieval gardens, a ‘must have’ for monks across Europe and beyond. The aromatic rose petals release an astringent when boiled in water and it’s these oils that were so important in early medicine to cleanse wounds and promote healing.

The fragrance of roses is irresistible. Who can resist burying their face in the soft, warm petals of a rose on a summers day. I find myself inhaling deeply and releasing my breath with a satisfactory sigh, totally blissed out. And so I should be because the scent of roses lifts the spirit, it is a natural feel good aroma that makes us happy.

Nowadays rose oil is big business as the benefits are being recognised in the skin care industry. I spent a lovely evening in the company of friends being pampered with Temple Spa products. These paraben and alcohol free cleansers and moisturisers are full of essential oils including rose oil. They smell amazing and I can honestly say we all felt very chilled and happy at the end of the evening, and we had beautiful, glowing skin too. The scent of rose is also included in fragrances, candles and oils to evoke a sense of well being. While I am all for good skin care products and a well balanced fragrance, I love using the real thing too.

My rose bush may look like a twig at the moment but this little twig is full of potential. All it needs are the right conditions, a little bit of tender loving care and the right time to bloom. And bloom it will. In summer, tightly packed buds will gently unfurl to reveal deep pink, scented blooms. I can’t wait to sip my first cup of rose petal tea in the garden where the fragrance of rose lingers in the air, or perhaps I will scatter the petals in an early morning bath, listening to birdsong as a new day unfolds.

Whatever I choose, it will be good, for me and the garden. This is a gift that keeps on giving, every year getting bigger and better, it’s a fantastic gift.

A rose is for life not just for Christmas!

If any of you are lucky enough to be given a bare rooted rose for Christmas, here’s what to do.

Soak in water for a couple of hours, it will be thirsty after its journey.

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If like me, you haven’t decided the best place for it, plant the rose in multi purpose compost in a pot. Ensure the graft is above soil level and firm in.

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Your rose will be perfectly content outdoors so get back inside, put you feet up and enjoy a warm mug of Gluhwein.

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Frost has gone all Mondrian

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What’s happened to Jack Frost ? Hurrying back from the school run this morning I noticed that the delicate, fern-like drawings usually left by this mischievous sprite, had changed. Instead cars doors were patterned with parallel lines and blocks of muted white; a far cry from the extravagant and flamboyant masterpieces usually created in the early hours of a cold winters morning. What’s up Jack, are you miffed that it’s taken so long for winter to arrive?

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But at last it has arrived and I breathe a sigh of relief because now I can hang up my gardening gloves and curl up indoors. After a year of hard graft I can stoke up the wood fire, charge my glass with Gluhwein and lose myself in a stack of gardening books.

There is no better time than winter to gather our thoughts and plan for the year ahead. I have decided to transform my allotment into a beautiful kitchen garden. Obviously it’s nothing like the size of a Victorian kitchen garden but I can live with that. After all I married for love not money and am unlikely to find myself living in a country manor any time soon so a bijou garden it will be. I don’t expect to be self sufficient but what I do want is to enjoy something fresh from the garden every day of the year. Even in the depths of winter there is always a little morsel of flavour to be had in the form of evergreen herbs like bay and rosemary.

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A new aspect to my kitchen garden will be cut flowers. It’s not an area of gardening I have indulged in before but I love having bunches of flowers in the house. To help me I have a fabulous book called ‘The cut flower patch’ written by Louise Curly aka Wellywoman. Filled with beautiful photographs of flowers and arrangements it makes me fill a little bit giddy for the future.

So now I have dusted off my drawing pad, sharpened my pencils and measured up my plot. I have 195 square metres of ground to play with and play I will. For just like Jack Frost I am a carefree creature, happiest when I can behave as I please, with no obligations, I am able to flourish.

Time to dig up the parsnips, like life, so much sweeter after a frost!

Creativity

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” I am an artist! “

There, in response to an invitation to live an artful life, I have ‘outed ‘ myself. It’s such a relief to discover there isn’t something wrong with me, it’s simply that I am a ‘creative’.

I have often wondered why I couldn’t define a business card. I couldn’t narrow down what I do to one or two words. Some days I design and build gardens, other days I cook with produce I have grown in my own garden. I tend other peoples gardens, I give talks on edible gardens, I write about gardens, I grow herbs. I clearly have a passion for gardening; sometimes I feel if you cut me my blood would run green.

I can’t stick to one thing. My amazing husband Mr B thinks it’s hilarious and, when I took on a steady job in a plant nursery a few years ago, he suggested it wouldn’t last. He was right. I loved it for a couple of years then felt like an animal caught in a trap. It was time to move on.

Moving on is completely liberating because moving on means changing and changing means developing and developing is growing and growing is good.

” We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”.

 

Walt Disney

You’ve got to love Walt Disney the cartoonist and philanthropist. I had to google philanthropist; it is a person with a “love of humanity” in the sense of caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing “what it is to be human”. So much more to that guy then funny films.

Being human is to be creative and a life lived creatively is a beautiful, satisfying life.

Gardening is my creative expression and, even in the damp, cold of winter it brings me great joy. There’s always something to do in the garden and something to look forward to, because a garden is a gift that just keeps giving.

Happy Gardening everyone !

 

Pickled beetroot

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I really need to warm my poor, frozen hands up a little before I make a start on pickling my beetroot or I may not know if I am awash with beetroot juice or have actually lost a finger. The beetroot I am pickling is Boltardy. It has been steadily growing since I planted the seeds in april and I now have a fine harvest of deep red, round, firm vegetables. Beetroot seedlings need to be thinned to allow them to develop, a task I failed to do. As a consequence I have a mixed bunch of medium sized and marble sized vegetables. The reasonable sized ones I am pickling the little ones will be made into beetroot, pear and feta cheese salad; a delicious side dish to have with lamb and cous cous.

The first thing to do is heat the oven to 180 degrees gas mark 4. While the oven is warming, wash the dirt and the occasional slug off the beetroot and trim off the leaves. These leaves are too tough to be eaten so they are going on the compost heap. Wrap the beetroot up in foil and roast in the oven for 1-2 hours depending on the size.

While the beetroot is roasting the pickling vinegar can be made and the jars sterilised.

For 2 kilos of beetroot you will need

1.5 litres of malt vinegar                                                                                                          1 tbsp of black peppercorns                                                                                                10 whole cloves                                                                                                                     1 bay leaf                                                                                                                             250 g granulated sugar

Method

Put all the ingredients in a large pan, bring to the boil and boil for 1 minute. Turn the heat off and let the spices infuse for 1-2 hours.

When the beetroot is tender and cool, peel and slice. Place the slices into sterilised jars, warm up the pickling vinegar and fill. Put the lids on, store and enjoy.

A squash and a squeeze

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Two winter squash plants, that have spent the summer weaving their tendrils across my plot, have yielded three good sized pumpkins. This optimum harvest has delighted the younger Broccoli’s in our household, who all have a pumpkin to call their own. IMG_1087

I am not a great fan of Halloween, it’s too ghoulish for me, but I do appreciate the creativity that goes on in my kitchen on this occasion.

The biggest pumpkin has already been allocated to the smallest child. During the growing season he fed his pumpkin a regular drink of beer in an effort to increase its size and, like many real ale drinkers, its girth swelled magnificently.

It’s the outer skin that attracts the children, a blank orange canvas on which to display their art. However its the richly coloured flesh that interests me, and the seeds, the flat husks of dormant life that will explode into being next spring.

I’m a sucker for a great name which resulted in my choosing a variety of pumpkin called ‘Magical’. I sowed the seeds singly, in pots on a sunny windowsill, in March. When all danger of frosts had passed, at the end of May, I planted the seedlings out. The soil had been enriched with well rotted manure in winter and the pumpkins were, well, happy as pumpkins in muck.

So that’s the kids sorted and my kitchen is awash with seeds, scoops, knives, secret diagrams and candles. Better not tell social services!!!

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As for me, I find small is beautiful and my attention has turned to the tiny little squashes smuggled back from Belgium. I want to collect the seeds from these and grow them next year. As any of you who have grown pumpkins will know, they don’t half ramble and can smother other crops in the blink of an eye. For this reason I am planning on using the space saving technique of growing upwards. Smaller squashes can be trained up hazel wigwams and arches and look superb in autumn. This will give me a greater variety of fruits and therefore a greater variety of flavour.

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I am planning on stuffing my little squashes with rice and spice and all things nice while the mischief makers walk the night gathering slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.

For my stuffed squash recipe click on the recipe at the top of the page.

The Optimistic Gardener

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My other half is sitting next to me, mostly hidden by the enormous newspaper we like to indulge ourselves in over the weekend. Behind this paper thin wall I hear giggling then full blown laughter, now he is in hysterics. He peers at me over the sheets, eyes lit up with glee. ” Come on then, out with it” I mumble pretending to be not at all interested.

He is reading an article, written by Sarfaz Manzoor for The Telegraph weekend. It’s a brilliant article about ‘a wife who sees the brighter side of life’. Sarfaz reflects on his struggle to live with an optimistic wife, a woman who is always late, always in a rush and always believing she can pack more into a day than is humanly possible. I want to hang out with his wife.

My husband is tickled by this read because he knows better than anyone that I too am a hopeless chronoptimist and will always have a glass half full. But of course I am. I am a gardener after all, an outdoorsy type, affected by the changing seasons that, right now, are wickedly luring me into cosy hibernation. I slide into this restful period happily, for I am confident of the explosion of new energy in spring. Surely all gardener’s are optimists, if we weren’t, would we ever get anything done? When we buy a packet of seeds and they tumble out of the packet, dry and lifeless, we have no doubt at all that a couple of weeks after planting, new life will emerge and we will be delighted. We will plant out our tiny offspring and revel in it’s maturity.

Even weeding is full of optimism, the satisfaction of surveying our beautifully hoed earth leaves us no time to contemplate the prospect of having to do it all over again in a week or two. And when we do, no doubt the sun will shine, the air will be fresh and we will enjoy a deep rooted sense of well being.

One of the tips in The Telegraph’s ‘How to cope with an optimist’ suggests that         ‘The next time the optimist in your life is late, pass the time waiting for them by muttering “punctuality is overrated” and smashing your pointless wristwatch into pieces.’

Chances are, if you are waiting for an optimistic gardener, they won’t own a wristwatch for they are indeed pointless. After all, who needs a wristwatch to tell you you can squeeze another hour of gardening out of a gradually shortening day, surely the moon is there for  reason…

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