Keep calm and drink Chamomile

I received an interesting text from a lovely friend of mine the other day. Acknowledging that I would probably be very busy doing what I do at the Tatton flower show, she wondered if I we could catch up. At the time of receiving said message I was up to my neck in thistles and cleavers in my clients rampant border and gleefully responded that alas, I was not ‘doing’ the show this year and would have to forego the opportunity of hobnobbing over a refreshing glass or two of Pimm’s. Then I wondered to myself…Has no-one noticed my calm and peaceful aura so different to the usual franticness that engulfs me at this time of year? Do they not sense the serenity that exudes from me as I waft contentedly through gardens and countryside, utterly at one with nature? T’would appear not.

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So let me explain. I have taken a year of from exhibiting at the show as middle child is in the process of leaving junior school and I wouldn’t have missed the cacophony of tear jerking leaver’s concerts and jubilant parties in the park for anything. These fleeting years are too precious. And also, our beautiful home has been extended leaving me with a never ending list of ‘job’s to do in the house’. (As I write eldest child is still pestering me to re-build her bed now that the paint is dry and the carpet fitter has fled and youngest child is insisting on a game of chess. Pesky kids!) Oops sorry, precious years and all that.

So, how can I be so calm in the midst of such chaos I hear you ask? Well, apart from avoiding the hurly-burly of flower shows I have taken Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Feelin’ groovy’ as my daily mantra.

“The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.

Hello lamppost,
What cha knowing?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growing.
Ain’t cha got no rhymes for me?
Doot-in’ doo-doo,
Feelin’ groovy.

Got no deeds to do,
No promises to keep.
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep.
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me.
Life, I love you,
All is groovy.

And, as if that isn’t enough, I have been dabbling with natural herbs with strong relaxant properties. Yep, you guessed it, I have been imbibing the chamomile.

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This gorgeous little cluster of flowers crept up in the middle of my overgrown lawn without me noticing. Then, one morning, there they were, wafting ever so daintily in the summer breeze. I hadn’t planted them there, not intentionally anyway. Is this what that the infamous folksters S&G were referring to when they wrote the immortal lines ‘Let the morning time drop all it’s petals on me’? Experiencing something so lovely and free and unexpected that your heart sings.

I had grown this annual herb last year to encourage my girls to venture out into the garden to pick their own chamomile tea ( I will go to great lengths to involve my children in gardening!) At the end of the season I emptied the pots onto the compost heap then, in early spring, used the soil to fill in a small hole in the centre of the lawn. And now, Hey Presto! my own little clump of chamomile.

IMG_0615My chamomile is the german strain Matricaria chamaemelum and is the best for making chamomile tea. It’s a hardy annual so sow the seed in situ in spring. Flowers are produced in summer and, to make the tea, simply pick 5-6 flowers on a sunny day, place in a cup and add hot water. Leave to brew for a few minutes before discarding the flowers, sit back and enjoy.

The medicinal properties of chamomile are very relaxing making this the perfect brew after a day spent tending the garden, writing blogs, entertaining children and building beds.

Although Pimm’s is also a very good choice…….but I will leave that for another day.

Obviously I couldn’t not visit the flower show at Tatton. I will be live on air with BBC Radio Manchester discussing all that the show has to offer and answering gardening questions between 11 am -12 noon 95.1 FM

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Harry (left) Cathy(right) and me ( middle).

BBC Radio Manchester gardening experts look forward to courgette cake

As some of you may be aware, I have recently acquired the rather grand title of ‘BBC radio Manchester gardening expert’. It’s not just me, there are a few of us including landscape gardener Andy Hewitt and the utterly delightful Harry from Kersal allotments in Salford. There are, I suspect, a few others I have yet to meet.

Being a BBC radio Manchester gardening expert, oh how I wish there was an acronym for this, involves rocking up at a pre-arranged destination of a horticultural persuasion and chatting to like minded individuals. It’s chaotic; microphones, headphones and gardeners make for an unusual mix but none the less it’s lots of fun.

Tomorrow morning Harry and I will be broadcasting live from my allotment on Grosvenor Road in Ashton on Mersey. Laziness on my part I confess, I can just roll out of bed, potter down the road and I’m there. In light of this occasion I thought it best to go and tidy up my plot as it’s been a little neglected of late. Not for any lack of desire you understand I have just been swamped with other people’s gardens, that dirty little word called ‘work’. Although to be fair I have had a very enjoyable week out in the warm sunshine making gardens beautiful and clients happy and getting paid for it so I won’t moan.

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Photo of clients garden

However when I looked at my plot I remembered that I am a deluded chronoptimist and didn’t have a cat’s chance of getting it into any sort of order. Also this is radio so no-one’s going to see it anyway!!!

My allotment is scruffy. Feathery tufts of mare’s tail waft gaily through the strawberry patch while bindweed twirls and dances up the raspberry canes. The grass at the back hasn’t been cut for ages and the shed still sports a broken window from last winter’s storms. But it’s still beautiful. Beautiful in its abundant wantonness, its desire to grow, wild and free.

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Butterflies flit and dance across the lavender that fills the air with intoxicating perfume. Brightly coloured nasturtiums pop up unexpectedly, lost seeds from last years harvest. Umbelliferous fennel flowers in buttery yellow punctuate the butterfly border festooned with seeding grasses.

IMG_0531My crops are still there in rows, like regimented soldiers ready for battle, natures yin and IMG_0528yang. Giant, golden flowers that signal an endless supply of courgettes shine out against the shocking pink begonias I grow just for fun. Fluffy rows of marigolds mark the spot where carrots grow, a failed attempt to fool the carrot fly. And the dahlias, the gorgeous, austere dahlias, tall and regal amongst the runner beans, a new addition this year and definitely one to be repeated.

IMG_0526So you see this is a crazy plot where order and control has gone out of the window and loveliness has moved in. A colourful tangle of happiness that I wouldn’t change for all the time in the world.

Harry and I will be on BBC radio Manchester 95.1 FM between 11 am and 12 pm Saturday July 19th July. Amongst other gardening mayhem we will be discussing our favourite plot to plate recipes and eating delicious courgette cake. Mmmmmm

Spiced courgette cake recipe can be found in my recipes at the top of the page.

 

Wicked Welsh onions

For a blog to be successful there is a suggestion that, amongst other fine qualities, it must be updated regularly, and preferably, on the same day each week. I aim for a Sunday as this is a restful day when we chose to indulge in leisurely activities such as gardening and reading (and also because I know one particular reader enjoys this blog on a Sunday evening). However I am as erratic as the weather and rarely stick to the same day so today I will give myself a pat on the back because today is Sunday and here is my post.

For the last few months my house has been in chaos. Builders have knocked walls down, built rooms up, taken roof’s off put better ones on.  As a result my garden, allotment and my life has been a mess and not very much has been planted, tended or achieved. Without a kitchen cooking has been difficult, it’s a wonder the kid’s haven’t got scurvy with the diet they have endured! Sorry kids it will get better, I promise.

Living in these circumstances has made me appreciate the perennial edibles in my veggie patch that supply me with wholesome fodder without any involvement from me. There’s the rhubarb, which, as you know, I am trying hard to like, and there’s the fabulous Welsh onions that are positively thriving. Hurrah.

Welsh onions are a perennial onion, also referred to as Japanese bunching onions because they do just that, they bunch. Clusters of little bulblets produce hollow green stems that have a delicious onion flavour. The fleshy base of the plant can be eaten like a spring onion while the stems can be chopped and added to a variety of dishes (or just munched raw whilst gently hoeing). As the plant grows the flavour intensifies so be warned, even a little nibble may result in those uncontrollable onion tears.

 

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In May the plant produces pretty creamy coloured flowers that the bees absolutely adore. I always know mine are in flower by the eerie drone that comes from my veggie patch as the bees feast. Removing the flowers diverts the plants energy back into making bulbs but I like the bees so the flowers stay. In autumn the flowers set seed and these can be gathered and stored for sowing in pots next spring.

One of the things I love about Welsh onions is the amount of plant you get in a small space. For those with just a yard or balcony this plant is perfect as it is as happy in a pot as it is in the ground. Grow the onions in rich, well drained soil in a sunny spot and you will be harvesting from early spring to late autumn.

There is one more thing you need to know about Welsh onions. They are imposters, pretenders, through no fault of their own, they have been labelled Welsh. It’s easy to see why and no, it’s not because they resemble a leek, or look like a daffodil, it’s all down to the name. Welsh is a corruption of the word German word ‘Walsh’ meaning foreign, because this onion comes from much further afield. It has its roots in Siberia and is very popular in Asia, particularly Japan where it is an ingredient in the popular Miso soup. So perhaps it is best to refer to this onion as the Japanese bunching onion, it seems better suited.

As you know I like to give you readers a recipe that involves my blogging subject. This time I chose Japanese miso soup which includes the Japanese onion. But there I was, standing in the World Food aisle of the local supermarket, browsing the oriental section looking for dashi, miso paste and silken tofu and I realised I didn’t have a clue what I was looking for. I gave up. I realised that while I do know my onions, I have absolutely no idea about Japanese cuisine!

 

Arley Hall garden festival and egg custards

There was something a little bit exciting about seeing the words ‘Jacqui Brocklehurst You mentioned you in a tweet! this morning when I opened my e mails. And there was more to come ‘A tweet you were mentioned in was re-tweeted!’ I think it is twitters clever use of exclamation marks that does it! It just adds that extra touch of glee!

me lord and lady a     Photo courtesy of Cheshire Life. Lord and Lady Ashbrrok and Jacqui Brocklehurst

The reason for such activity was an article I wrote for Cheshire Life, about Lord & Lady Ashbrook and their gardens at Arley Hall, has just been published and tweeted by the magazine. I have to say I am relieved that it has gone down well, I wanted to make the feature more human and less historical garden, but I don’t know what possessed me to confess to hedge hopping my way into these glorious gardens several years ago! I seem to have got away with it though I just received a call from Helen at Arley Hall to say Lord and Lady Ashbrook really enjoyed the piece. Phew. She was also phoning to ask if I needed anything for my herb display at the Arley garden festival in a couple of weeks. Aaaarghhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I don’t know if I need anything, I kind of, er, haven’t planned anything. I remember my friend Tim phoning and saying “You should do the Arley garden festival, in the floral marquee. We could be next to each other and ‘mind each others stalls’, like Little Mo in ‘stenders”. Brilliant idea thought I, I don’t even watch ‘stenders!!! But booked a pitch anyway. I confess I think my head was turned by the prospect of Chris Beardshaw being there too, I like Chris Beardshaw, whenever he comes on the tele Mr Broccoli always laughs and shouts” Speak up a bit, It’s whispering Chris!”

Anyway, I was left feeling a bit panicky and decided the best thing to do was, no not plan, BAKE! It’s a fabulous stress reliever and 11 am is too early for wine, even by my standards.

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I have had lots of eggs stacking up as the girls seem to have gone into an egg laying frenzy. The younger Broccoli’s and I dusted off the scales, cranked up the oven and set to work making egg custards. We chose Paul Hollywood’s recipe for individual tarts, it’s not very accurate but with a bit of adjustment we did it, we made 12 little tarts and 2 big ones. Very pleased with ourselves. The problem with Paul H’s recipe was the pastry was far too sticky so we added extra flour. The eggy mixture was spot on in taste but makes enough for 24 tartlets not the 12 stated. Still, amidst a cloud of sugar and flour, we whipped up some more sweet pastry and made two big pies for later. We have nibbled a couple warm and they are delicious, best put them to one side and try to concentrate on more pressing issues. Herb displays? I hear you ask. No, there’s something else bothering me. In the Great British Bake Off the contestants were given a technical challenge. They had to make Paul Hollywood’s egg custards with only half the recipe, it went horribly wrong for all of them, soggy bottoms here, burnt crusts there. I wonder if the recipe was to blame and not the brilliant bakers. Was it another of the BBC’S moments of jeopardy?

Make your own egg custards using the recipe in my recipe link at the top of the page.

The Arley garden festival is on 21st-22nd of June. Come and visit the floral marquee where I will be with a fantastic range of herbs and edible plants.

Our Easter chick

 

Just a little extract from my diary….

April 23rd 2012

Easter, the perfect time for egg collecting, has brought new life. Children, perfect and unsullied, living in the now, have unknowingly brought uproar to the garden. Eggs collected in wide eyed innocence have transformed our lives.

Childhood is a wonderful time. Let these remarkable minds infiltrate ours and we will live forever in days filled with excitement and discovery, unfettered by the drudgery of familiarity that surely breeds contempt.

Our eggs were gathered from a hen house, perfectly suited to the cottage garden where we found ourselves one late afternoon. Our wild, unruly children, high on fresh country air, were encouraged to hunt in the hen house and gather what eggs they could find.  As eager hands gathered eggs, a colourful array of feathery chickens clucked melodiously and Lucky the rooster crowed majestically.                                                                                      As day turned to dusk we said our goodbyes thanking our friends for the eggs, a gift intended for Easter morning. But these glorious futures never made it to the breakfast table.

Lucky the rooster was a handsome devil and very aptly named. He spent the first couple of days of his life, as an egg, in a fridge. He was saved from becoming a cooked breakfast when a hen turned broody and a clutch of eggs were returned to the nesting boxes. Three weeks later Lucky hatched.                                                                                                    The children had overheard this story being told and realised that, if there is a chance in life, however small, they should take it. And those eggs, lovingly gathered were their chance. Lucky had made his presence known in more ways than one and there was no way, absolutely no way, these children were going to eat these eggs if there was a chance they would hatch. No way.

Often a serendipitous moment will occur causing an unforeseen chain of events to happen. The next day a friend, who keeps chickens, mentioned she had a broody hen and was thinking of getting some fertile eggs to hatch. Three eager, desperate, pleading pairs of eyes gazed up at me. I got the eggs.

*****

Sally, a large, disgruntled, matronly looking hen was ushered out of her nesting box and we carefully placed five, perfect eggs in the warm straw. Hearts filled with hope and trepidation we crept anxiously away. Our surrogate mother seemed unperturbed by the sudden, new arrivals and settled herself down to do what nature had burdened her to do, incubate. For hours on end she would sit and turn, sit and turn those eggs, appearing only briefly to scratch at her food before fluffing her feathers and returning to the nest. Daily we would visit, willing her to do a good job, our hopes and dreams as fragile as those shells. The stark fragility of lifehit home one afternoon when Sally appeared anxious and disturbed. A shattered egg, the cause of her distress lay dripping in the nest. Dismayed by her clumsy footed ways she refused to sit, for several, long hours until instinct, once again, kicked in.

And so it was that three weeks later one violently chirpy chick broke the mould and emerged, wet and disgruntled, into our lives. Gregarious and bolshie, almost sucking the life from its surrogate, it staggered forth to capture our hearts.

We named our little bundle Omelette, a simple reminder of what could, and should have been.

The other eggs showed no signs of hatching. With little hope we carefully peeled off the shells only to discover three lifeless, deformed chicks.  A genetic disorder could be to blame but more likely poor incubation. Whatever the case, our little chick, just like its father, is lucky to be alive.

*****

We visit our chick daily, watching it grow. It sits on our hands and chirps defiantly. Soft, downy feathers gradually change from yellow to white. My friend goes away and I am solely responsible for her chickens and mine. Every evening, as dusk falls, I hurry down the lane to put the chickens to bed. Then, one night, I am later than usual. As I reach out to open the garden gate a fox tears through the hedge, eyes glittering in the moonlight. Terrified I stifle a scream. My heart is pounding and my wide eyes struggle to focus in the darkness, afraid of the carnage that surely confronts me. I see Omelettes little coop in front of me and I can see straight through it. That can only mean one thing.                      The end of the run where the nest box lies, my chicken’s place of safety, has been opened, pulled apart by the scrabbling’s of a sly, hungry fox. I feel sick, my knees buckle and I realise I am crying, I have utterly failed these defenceless creatures and my heart is breaking.

As I sink to the ground a slight movement catches my eye and I turn and look, and there, at the very end of the run is a hen, a very angry looking hen, and peeping out of her feathery breast is Omelette, chirping softly.

*****

 

 

Up the garden path

In a well maintained kitchen garden the growing beds are often kept in shape by the paths. Is it the paths that have edges to stop the gravel spilling over or is it the beds that have edges to keep them from spreading on the paths? Whatever it is, I like a good strong edge.

For several years I have battled with wooden edging and used bark chippings for my paths. They haven’t been great. In this damp northern location that I call home, slugs and snails thrive. They have made my timber edges their home for too long, sneaking out at night to rampage through my salad crops and raise my carrot seedlings to the ground. The recycled wooden chippings haven’t helped either, gradually rotting down to a useless mush and losing the fight with the endless weeds that inevitably push through.

I can see the merit, and beauty, of a firmer path be it gravel, brick or hoggin.( Okay I’m never really going to have a hoggin path but it’s such a lovely word I wanted to include it.) These scratchy surfaces make life just a little bit more difficult for the mean little molluscs and, with a bit of luck, they will dry out in the sun or get gobbled up by birds as they venture across my plot. Laid well on a good sub-layer of sand or hardcore a brick path will last for years and years. Leaving gaps in the brick work will provide planting pockets for low growing thyme.

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Woolly thyme Thymus pseudolanuginosus is a low growing variety, just 2 cms high. Tiny silvery, grey leaves spread to around 20 cms and is covered in soft, pastel pink flowers for most of the summer.

Thyme ‘Redstart’ is another low growing variety reaching 5 cms in height. Pretty, dark green oval leaves spread to around 20 cms and a profusion of bright red flowers are produced in the summer.

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Both these thymes release a delicious, spicy aroma when crushed underfoot. Thymus serpyllum ’Lemon curd’ is another creeping variety that will spread along the cracks of the brick path, bears pinky white flowers in summer and the leaves have a distinctive lemon scent. A fine thyme to get your nose twitching and the bee’s will love them too!

As I am writing this blog there are great thuds and crashing sounds going on above my head. Today the builders are removing the roof tiles of my house and yes, you guessed it! I have already commandeered 500 tiles to become the beautiful path edges I long for. I can’t wait for my walls to be demolished so I can start laying my paths…     

 

Kitchen gardens v Allotments

Allotment; what an ugly word. When uttered it conjures up a hodgepodge of images; suburban shanty towns peppered with decrepit sheds, wonky bean poles and forgotten corners.

Say ‘kitchen garden’ to me and my heart skips a beat. Images of weed free, gravelled paths edged with clipped box fill my mind’s eye. Perfect rows of vegetables in freshly turned crumbly earth, expertly labelled, make me a little bit giddy inside. Allow me entrance into a beautifully maintained Victorian glass houses, warm and muggy and I am gone.

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Tatton Park Knutsford, Cheshire

Allotments give me the impression of being taken over by The Borrower’s whereas a kitchen garden is a breath taking sight. Bold, structural layouts of paths, pruned fruit trees and terracotta forcing pots make these gardens a delightful place to be, even in the depths of winter.

So, I have called for change. Our family allotment is no longer to be called an allotment, or a plot, it is the kitchen garden. After all they both perform the same function. Both are areas of land given over to the production of fruit, vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Kitchen gardens take it one step further, they provide flowers for the house too.

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I am a great believer in a productive garden being a beautiful one and proved this with my edible gardens at the Rhs flower show Tatton. My reason for creating beautiful, productive gardens was because not everyone can get an allotment and most of us don’t live on a large country estate. Using our own gardens creatively to look amazing and provide us with healthy produce is the answer. Why have ornamental grasses when you can have sweetcorn with it’s bonny tassels. Ditch the begonias and petunias and plant borage and pot marigold instead. Both self-seed freely, flower profusely and can be added to salads or made into herbal tea.

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Tulips for the house, feathery fennel for the kitchen.

The plans to turn my own back garden into a productive one have been scuppered by our five feathered friends. I wouldn’t part with my chickens, they are fantastic egg layers and fun to have around but they really do demolish a garden. So my kitchen garden is a hop, skip and a jump away, behind a hedge huddled together with some other  ‘edible gardens’. I will just have to imagine that I do live in that country estate and am just taking a short stroll across parkland (aka Ashton Park) to fill my basket with lettuce, beans, strawberries, radishes and a handful of sweet peas for the house.