The Great British Florist

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Great British Flowers

Great British Flowers

I love growing my own flowers but there is one downside – there’s no need for anyone to send them to me now. My mum does still ask if I’d like a bouquet for our wedding anniversary or my birthday but when nearly every room is filled with flowers throughout the summer it just doesn’t make any sense. I know, I know, as downsides go it hardly even registers on a ‘woe is me’ scale, so I’m by no means wanting any sympathy. However, when the lovely team at The Great British Florist asked if I would like to review one of the bouquets they are putting together for Mother’s Day I jumped at the chance.

I used to do yoga before I moved over to Wales. One day, mid-way through a class, the yoga teacher said she really missed going to yoga classes herself and she really must fit in a session sometime. It was a comment that stuck in my head because at the time it struck me as being quite odd. Initially, I didn’t understand what she meant; she taught yoga classes all week, how much more yoga did she want to do. It took a while for the penny to drop (it does sometimes). What she meant was that teaching yoga was very much different to being able to experience the full benefits of the class as a student and that even once you’re a teacher you still need to carry on learning. I know, you’re wondering why I’ve gone off on this tangent, I will be getting back to the flowers. It’s just that I think the yoga story is relevant to so much in life. It’s very easy to get quite fixed in our thoughts and habits with pretty much everything we do. Perhaps modern life makes this more likely, everything is done at such a pace so we can cram so much into our days that maybe we don’t have the time to stop and think and look at things in a different way. And this is where the beautiful bouquet which turned up yesterday comes in. Not only was it a really special treat for me, it’s good for the creative juices to see what other British flower growers are growing and how they put their arrangements together.

Stunning ranunculus

Stunning ranunculus

Anyway enough of me rambling, let’s get to the flowers. I’m aware when I talk and write about British flowers that not everyone has the space to grow them themselves or is lucky enough to have a flower grower local to them. But there is another alternative – mail-order. I’ve been a bit worried about mail order flowers in the past and whether they will survive being transported. Well I had no complaints about this bouquet. The substantial, sturdy box had clearly done its job as the flowers emerged looking beautiful. Rather than being packed in water, a water-soluble gel is used instead. This keeps the flowers fresh and contains plant nutrients and it won’t leak if the box is tipped over. I had chosen the vibrant Mother’s Day bouquet which came packed with scented narcissi, irises, lilies, freesias, ranunculus and alstroemeria. It was lovely to catch the intoxicating scent of the blooms as I lifted the bouquet out of its box. And the real joy – they’re all grown here in Britain. 

Great British Flowers

The two busiest times of the year for flower sales – Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day come early in the growing season. I’m sure a lot of people are completely unaware that it is possible to buy such a varied choice of flowers grown in this country at this time of year, even I was impressed with the selection. There was plenty of foliage too, a mixture of eucalyptus and bay. The £50 bouquet is huge and was enough to fill two good-sized vases. If I hadn’t been having one of those days I would have divided the material up into lots of smaller vases and put them all around the house. I’m pretty sure I could have had a posy in every room. There’s also a smaller £35 bouquet, the choice of a pastel-coloured arrangement and other selections throughout the year, if they are more to your taste and pocket.

The only tiny problem I had with the bouquet was the one sheet of plastic sheeting that was wrapped around the base of the flowers – all the other packaging is recyclable. There is, of course the necessary practicality of needing a watertight material in which to keep the flowers fresh while keeping the cost of packaging to a minimum. As Heidi from The Great British Florist explained, it is a balance trying to keep the flowers in tip-top condition whilst keeping the costs of packaging to a minimum, maximising the amount of flowers they can include in a bouquet and maintaining their environmental ethos. Considering all of this, it’s remarkable that the flowers come with so little non-recyclable packaging. I arranged a bouquet for a friend recently that was purchased from a high street florist and it came with a mountain of unnecessary and non-recyclable packaging.

Great British Flowers

The Great British Florist is part of Wiggly Wigglers, the company which became known for its worm composting products. Based at Lower Blakemere Farm in Herefordshire they grow some of their own flowers and the rest are bought in from specialist British growers across the country. The farm is run with caring for the environment and wildlife at its core. If you’d like to find out more about this idyllic place take a look at The Great British Florist. And, if you would like to order from them for Mother’s Day or throughout the year then here’s a link direct to the floristry section.

Thank you to the team at The Great British Florist for their gorgeous bouquet.

Muck and Magic

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Heavenly hellebore

Heavenly hellebore

Who’d have thought that several weeks ago when we were being deluged with rain we would end up being treated to such a beautiful start to March; the clearest of blue skies and a gentle warmth to the sun. I’d be happy enough with this sort of weather in the height of summer let alone at the beginning of spring. Of course, spring can have a sting in its tail. Few of us need reminding of last year’s weather with a surprise cold snap dragging on well into June. Lets hope for growers and farmers alike that spring eases gently into summer this time around.

The prolonged period of dry weather has been perfect to get out and tackle all those jobs which were starting to mount up. I know this will sound a bit odd but one of the jobs I most look forward to is emptying the shed. After spending all winter barely being able to get into the place it’s a relief to free it of its winter clutter. There tends to be a point around mid-February where I’ve given up all hope or pretence of being able to keep the shed tidy. Visits to the shed involve little more than standing at the door and shoving in whatever needs storing in there as best I can. Wellyman might occasionally be wandering around looking for something and say, ‘I think that might be in the shed’. There’s a hopeful look on his face as he contemplates going to look for whatever it is until he realises the folly of this idea and its rediscovery will have to wait until spring. It’s all been made worse this winter because of the torrents of rain. When we had the brick path in the garden put in for some unknown reason the builder sloped the path down towards the shed. It’s not a steep slope, in fact it’s barely perceptible. The result though is even just an average amount of rain simply washes down the bricks and settles on the concrete floor of the shed where it refuses to drain away. This winter the floor of the shed was one large puddle from December until the middle of last week. Still considering the impact the storms had on so many we have got off incredibly lightly.

My spring garden

My spring garden

It makes such a difference having a run of several dry days making it possible to get sooooo much done. Seeds have been sown and are germinating nicely, roses have been pruned, the garden and allotment weeded. Grass paths at the plot have been edged and green manure cut back and dug in. The autumn raspberries were pruned, although it was a mistake to forget my gloves. Once I was at the plot though I couldn’t be bothered to walk back home to get them, I knew I’d probably end up making a cup of tea and not coming back. So I went ahead with the pruning anyway … gingerly. I was grateful for the stretchy long sleeves of my old jumper which provided a degree of protection but not enough if my scratched hands the following day were anything to go by.

My spruced up allotment

My spruced up allotment

Then there was the mulching. I still find it hard to believe when we live in an area surrounded by farmers and stables that the allotments can’t get hold of a good source of manure. A lack of tow bars and trailers on our part and an unwillingness to deliver by the those with the muck have led to a stalemate and an empty manure patch. Last year, I finally found a source of rich, dark, crumbly green waste soil conditioner – it’s just a pity that it’s in the next county and a 40 minute round trip but I’ll take what I can get. We collected and distributed on to the allotment beds nearly 2 tonnes of the stuff. It’s surprising how much of it we needed. Another trip would have been ideal but with the green manure and some of our own compost looking like it’s ready to be used we should have enough muck, for now at least.

As winter fades there’s always a part of me that wonders if some of my plants will reappear. And when they do it is quite magical. It’s new plants I’m most worried about. I planted two hop plants at the allotment last year and did think the incessant rain might have seen them off. It’s hard to beat the feeling when you spot some shoots appearing from the ground or big fat buds swelling on a plant you were worried might be dead. I’m pleased to report the hops have survived as have quite a few plants I grew on the plot for the book which I completely forgot about. I like surprises like that.

At Last – It’s Publication Day

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The Cut Flower Patch

So today is the day when my book is published. It feels like an age since I put the idea together and emailed it to a handful of publishers. I guess that’s because it is. It takes a relatively long time to put together a book with all its different stages. From idea to publication The Cut Flower Patch has taken 3 months short of 2 years, so to say I’m pleased the day has finally arrived is an understatement.

Tulips make stunning cut flowers

Tulips make stunning cut flowers

I have read some very lovely reviews and I’m over the moon that people seem to love the book. It really does make the hard work, sleepless nights and tearing my hair out at the weather worthwhile.

If you’d like a peek at some of the gorgeous images from the book to whet your appetite here’s a link to photographer Jason Ingram’s website. Whilst you’re there take a look at his own book Kitchen Garden Expertscreated with his wife Cinead McTernan, which will be out on May 1st. Whilst Jason was working on my book he was also travelling the length and breadth of the country visiting the kitchen gardens of some of Britain’s best chefs and their head gardeners. Their book is a brilliant combination of growing tips and delicious recipes direct from the experts.

So if you love flowers, fancy filling you home with flowery gorgeousness and want to embrace the seasons rather than relying on imported blooms then hopefully my book will provide some inspiration.

Right, enough self-publicity, I’m off to sow some seeds. x

To order The Cut Flower Patch at the discounted price of £16.00 including p&p* (RRP: £20.00), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG101. 
 
*UK ONLY – Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.
If you’re in North America you can find The Cut Flower Patch at Amazon.com

Inspiring a new generation

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Our Flower Patch

You might have gathered by now I’m passionate about flowers and particularly British grown cut flowers. The overwhelming majority of cut flowers available in the UK are imported. It’s a little odd then to think that we used to supply all of our cut flower needs up until the mid-twentieth century. The advent of motorways and air travel brought the flower industry in Britain almost to its knees. But, over the last few years, I have discovered that there is an inspiring group of small scale flower farmers out there who are trying and succeeding in turning the tide away from imported blooms. They are embracing social media to get the message across that British flowers are the best, whether it’s via forums, Facebook, Instagram or the hugely popular hour-long Twitter chat on Monday evenings from 8-9pm with the #Britishflowers. They are a delightful group eager to share and help and it’s how I came to meet Sara. She came to my rescue last spring when I put out a request on Twitter for some seedlings. We ended up meeting in the car park of a hotel and swapping plants from the boots of our cars and a friendship was forged.

Sara is addicted to flowers and her enthusiasm is contagious. So it was no surprise when I heard that she wanted to use her love of all things flowery to inspire a new generation of gardeners. With her friend, Cally (you might know Cally from her blog Countrygate) they have devised Our Flower Patch. Both Cally and Sara were teachers before life took them in different directions. Cally now designs and delivers outdoor education projects for bodies such as the National Trust and Sara grows and sells cut flowers from her field on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The idea behind Our Flower Patch is to combine their knowledge of education and their passion for flowers.

Our Flower Patch

Our Flower Patch

When you think about it, growing plants is a perfect way to teach children so many different skills, whether it’s using maths to measure out flower beds, using science to understand what a plant needs to grow, improving communication and team working skills as they garden together or learning about geography by finding out where plants originated. So Sara and Cally have put together an online resource for schools, community gardens or youth groups such as the Scouts. The hope is that they will develop their own cut flower patches using this as an opportunity to teach aspects of the National Curriculum and, at the same time, it will offer those who take part the chance to make some money by selling the cut flowers they produce.

Both Sara and Cally understand the importance of being introduced to growing at an early age. ‘Growing a few flowers is an easy introduction into gardening for children of all ages. It’s very visual which is important to children. Even the most random patch can look beautiful. You don’t need lots of space. Flowers can be grown in old buckets and I haven’t yet met a child who wasn’t overjoyed to pick a bunch of flowers they’d grown and take them home whereas they can be less than enthusiastic about salad or carrots, perhaps fearing that they might actually have to eat their handiwork’, says Cally. Sara’s young son has already been bitten by the bug. ‘He likes sniffing the flowers, and watching the many butterflies and bees that come and join us there. There are usually a few friendly birds that come and join us too. At his age it is enough to pick a single flower and present it to someone, you can see the joy it gives both him and the recipient.’

Our Flower Patch

Our Flower Patch

Cally has fond memories of the childhood garden she grew up in. ‘My mother never grew flowers in borders. They were a crop for the house and church. Dahlias, sweet peas and sweet Williams were favourites along with lots of bulbs in spring. My granny grew herbs in old Belfast sinks near the back door and had a large lavender hedge. She used to spread her linen on top to dry it.’

One of Sara’s earliest garden memories involves flowers too. ‘I used to pick lots of different flower petals and mash them all up to make “perfume” in its loosest sense of the word!! I’m sure it would have smelt absolutely disgusting and would probably have been more use as a plant food than a perfume. I used to have more success with drying petals to make potpourri, not the terrible artificially scented dyed stuff that is sold in some shops, but the lovely really delicate beautiful smell of garden rose petals, other petals and herb leaves dried & mixed together. I guess I started rather early with drying flowers & (many) years later even dried all my own flower petal confetti for my wedding day.’

Our Flower Patch - seed sowing

Our Flower Patch – seed sowing

For Our Flower Patch, Sara and Cally have joined forces with Higgledy Garden and specially selected a collection of flowers which will appeal to children and suit the needs of a school cut flower patch. For Sara, her must-have flower is Nigella ‘Persian Jewels’ for its excellent mix of colours and its fantastic seed pods. Calendula is Cally’s favourite. As she says, ‘It’s easy to grow, self seeds enthusiastically and is the perfect plant to get children to understand about collecting seed’. They have also devised a series of projects from learning about compost and the water cycle to creating art using nature and the importance of providing food for pollinating insects. Cally and Sara will provide members with regular blog updates, activities and advice. The site will also encourage adults and children alike to share their experiences with the hope that an online community of flower growers will blossom.

I know how passionate both Sara and Cally are, so I’m sure Our Flower Patch will be a huge success. If you are involved in education or youth work, are a parent or you know someone who might be interested in setting up a school flower patch then you can find more information about how to subscribe at http://www.ourflowerpatch.co.uk, Facebook Our Flower Patch and Twitter @ourflowerpatch. You can also contact Sara and Cally direct.

My New Year

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Scented narcissi

Scented narcissi

I feel like I’m slowly emerging from hibernation. The weather isn’t perfect, in fact it’s raining again today but there has been a taste of spring over the last two weeks which has tempted me outdoors. It’s the last day of February today and technically the last day of winter but, as is quite typical for this time of year, the seasonal transition has brought some of the coldest weather so far. There’s a saying if March comes in like a lion then it’ll go out like a lamb and vice versa. Every year I mean to keep some sort of record of whether this has any real basis – I always forget. I hope the snow and frost predicted for this weekend count as March coming in like a lion and we’ll all be basking in spring sunshine by the end of the month.

The lengthening days and the warmth in the sun have given me enough of a spur to start tackling jobs in the garden. I had one of those days last week when I didn’t plan on doing anything in particular, just a bit of cold frame re-jigging, but before I knew it the patio was a sea of pots as both the cold frames and greenhouse were emptied entirely, staging was removed and there I was giving them a full-blown spring clean. I didn’t realise how dirty the greenhouse had got until I had finished and it was now sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine.

Seedlings

Seedlings

This sudden burst of enthusiasm had been prompted to a certain extent by some weekend seed sowing and the realisation that space was already a bit on the tight side. Reorganisation was needed. It’s already looking like another one of those years where my plans far outstrip the space I have to carry them out.

It’s always a pity when good weather is so limited to spend a glorious day inside when there’s so much I could be doing outside, but my trip to London and the RHS Lindley Library last week had been planned for a while. Still, if I was going to be indoors on a sunny day there can’t be many better places to be. It was my first visit and it was garden book bliss. I was there doing research and got through quite a few books in my limited time but I had only scratched the surface of what was on the shelves. I can’t wait to go back there again.

A few days by the sea in South Devon at the start of this week gave us a much needed break. It was a pity to hear from the owner of the bed and breakfast that people had cancelled their planned breaks because of the recent storms. There were places where there was visible storm damage, sand bags, trees uprooted and plants burnt to a crisp by salt-laden winds but, in general, it’s remarkable how unscathed most places were. For areas so dependent on tourism it’s incredibly important to support the local economy and the best way to do this is go there on holiday. I don’t know why I’m always surprised at how much milder it is in the south-west. In the sheltered little fishing villages and coves there were scented narcissi in full bloom already. I have the same bulbs on my cut flower patch and even though it has been a mild winter, with hardly any frost, it’ll be another month or so before mine flower.

A sea view

A sea view

I picked the first posy of flowers from the allotment yesterday – a handful of Anemone coronaria, and there are primroses galore in the garden so I have a few small jars of those dotted about the house too. With seedlings appearing in trays on the windowsill and packages of seeds and bulbs arriving through the post it all feels quite exciting. For me this is the real start to the new year.

Say it with British flowers

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primrose posy

primrose posy

Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest times for flower sellers across the world is approaching. You can’t get stirred for the ubiquitous red rose, deemed the perfect expression of love, but it’s a gesture that comes at a considerable cost. Whilst the creep of supermarkets into the world of floristry has made a bouquet of roses more affordable for the masses, demand means a single stem can still cost into double figures from your high-end florists. But it’s not just the impact on your bank balance there’s the cost to the environment too.

Ten or fifteen years ago a revolution in food started here in the UK. We started to appreciate locally produced food for its freshness, seasonality and provenance. I really hope that we can start to care that little bit more about the flowers we buy too. Most flowers for sale in the UK are imported, grown in far-flung countries using chemicals often banned here in the EU. The environmental impact can be huge, depleting the local area of its water resources and damaging eco-systems. Flowers are beautiful and I can’t imagine not being able to have them in my home but let’s face it, they are non-essential. And, for that reason, I think we should care about the environmental cost of the flowers we buy even more. It feels even more careless that an indulgence should damage the planet. Taking a stance and refusing to buy imported blooms doesn’t mean you have to do without though. Caring for the planet doesn’t have to mean donning a hair shirt, it’s about taking a look at what we have closer to home and sourcing British grown flowers or growing your own.

The environmental cost isn’t the only reason why I dislike imported flowers. Even if the roses came with a zero carbon footprint I wouldn’t want them. They speak little of a thoughtful gift and a declaration of love and more of the way big business dictates to us what we can buy. It was the Victorians that first made a big deal about Valentine’s Day, but before the advent of air travel lovers would have had no choice but to exchange small posies of spring flowers. It’s only really been in the last twenty to thirty years where flowers have become a commodity to be traded on a global scale.

Imported roses always look fake to me. They never open fully and, worst of all, they have no scent whatsoever. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I know for some nothing other than a red rose, or a dozen of them, will do. But there are alternatives, blooms which are seasonal and scented, which will bring spring cheer to a gloomy, soggy February. It’s hard to believe when you look out the window on to a garden that is muddy and forlorn that it is possible to substitute those imported flowers for home-grown blooms, but it is. Our reliance on imported flowers has disconnected us from the seasons.

Valentine's heart

Valentine’s heart

Walking around my garden the other day I was able to pick a small posy of primroses. I added a few ivy leaves and tied with twine and there you have it – the sweetest and simplest of flowery gifts. All the stormy weather we’ve had recently means it’s a great time to go out and collect windfall stems. Weeping birch is perfect for making wreaths because it’s so bendy. I collected these on Friday and bent them into a heart shape, securing at the base. Scouring the garden again I picked some scented stems of Viburnum bodnantense, Viburnum tinus, sacococca and winter honeysuckle. I tied these into the base along with some ivy which I wound around the heart. A home-grown, hand-made and completely free (well apart from the twine) Valentine’s gift. Pop it in a vase or jug of water and it’ll last a week. Plan ahead and you could also have early flowering daffs or any number of bulbs in pretty pots.

Now I know that men purchase the vast majority of flowers on Valentine’s Day and some of them are possibly not going to be scrabbling around in the garden for flowers and making wondrous woven hearts, but that doesn’t mean red roses have to be the default alternative. Subtly or not so subtly, depending on how you approach these things in your relationship, point him in the direction of the increasing number of amazing flower farmers here in the UK. They are springing up all over the country and many deliver too. To find your nearest try the Flowers from the Farm website or The British Flower Collective. It might seem bleak and bare out there but even in February we have British grown scented narcissi, tulips, hyacinths, pussy willow, muscari and hellebores to choose from. So this Valentine’s Day say it with British flowers.

The Grumps

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It's raining again

It’s raining again

I’m grumpy. I am sat here at my desk writing, with the rain and wind lashing against the window, wondering if this weather will ever stop. I can’t remember the last time I saw sunshine. It has been the wettest January for a hundred years in parts of the south. No mention of how Wales has fared yet but if someone tries to tell me there has been a wetter January …. well it just can’t be possible. A simple 5 minute walk to the post office or to pick some vegetables from the plot requires head to toe waterproofing and I am sick of looking like a trawlerman every time I need to leave the house. I’m even fed up of having to wear my beloved wellies. I’m not just grumpy with the weather I’m grumpy with myself for constantly banging on about the weather. As I commented to Flighty the other day, I’ve started to bore myself.

My muppet-like crocus

My muppet-like crocus

Back in the autumn I planted up a variety of bulbs for indoors. The narcissi, hippeastrum and hyacinths have all been and gone now but I planted up some crocus too. I love crocuses and their cheery flowers but hate the fact that they seem so easily damaged by the weather. I have found the best compromise is to fill some small clay pots with bulbs, put these in the greenhouse and when there are signs of greenery bring them indoors. They flower a little earlier with the extra protection, last so much longer,and I get to enjoy their flowers from the warmth of my kitchen. Well, that is if you get to them before the slugs do. Slugs in January, now that just made me even grumpier. The distinctive silvery trail ran across the top of the pots and the crocus stumps they had left behind. I’ve also discovered this odd phenomenon where some of the petals seem to have not developed properly but the distinctive orange stamens have poked out. It makes them look like mini versions of Beaker from the Muppets. Has anyone noticed this before? It doesn’t look as if I can attribute the blame for this to the slugs. Fortunately, some of the pots were untouched and I now have the flowers of Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’ appearing unscathed, so all is not lost and it looks like ‘Snow Bunting’ and some of the ‘Barr’s Purple’ have survived too. A couple of crocus in the garden have reared their heads but they really shouldn’t have bothered as they look forlorn and mud splattered at the moment.

Crocus 'Cream Beauty'

Crocus ‘Cream Beauty’

The real delight of bringing plants like crocuses indoors is that you get to look at them close up. It’s hard to get close to something that might only be 10cm tall when it’s growing in the garden. In a pot on my window sill I can see the delicate markings on the petals but best of all I have discovered that crocus have a scent. You need to get right into the flower to catch a whiff of the perfume but it’s worth it. It isn’t a scent which permeates a room, which is a pity, but every time I pass by, I stop to have a sniff, and it’s enough to lift the spirits.

Some plants in the garden haven’t escaped winter slug damage. The flowers of snowdrops have been nibbled too, as have some primroses. It all makes me wonder about climate change and gardening. In 2012, we had no summer to speak of. Instead we had grey skies, cold days and lots of rain. Last year we had no real spring with cold days lingering on well into June. I remember vividly that first week in July felt as if we went from winter to summer. My memory of this is so good because I needed an extension on the deadline for my photographs for the book I was writing. It’s hard to conjure up summer when you haven’t had one yet. And, so far, we are yet to have a winter. No real frost, no snow and interminable amounts of rain. I’m wondering what 2014 and beyond are going to bring. Will we ever get to garden this year or should we start to farm cranberries?

The Cut Flower Patch

The Cut Flower Patch

As well as the appearance of the crocuses something else which managed to lighten my mood was the arrival of an advance copy of my book. A small number of books arrived just after Christmas, ready to go out as review copies to newspapers and magazines. The rest will arrive in the coming weeks, closer to the date of publication. I knew the book was on the way, so when I saw a parcel in the postman’s hand and the label of my publisher on the envelope I got a little excited. I know it might seem a little odd that I sound surprised I got excited about it, but I am. I have seen the images and text so much over the course of the last year that I feel like I know them inside out, so I did wonder whether it would be a bit of a let down when the book finally arrived. I’m pleased to say that wasn’t the case, and to see it all together, as a finished product, did make me grin in a slightly inane manner for quite a while. Wellyman, bless him is actually reading the book, even though he must feel like he knows it all inside out too.

It’s been quite cathartic to write about my grumpiness but I can’t put off the inevitable any longer. I have kale to pick and it appears to still be raining so where are those waterproofs…..

Kale and hearty

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Red Russian Kale

Red Russian Kale

Kale has been one of those vegetables that has had a bit of an image problem in the past. Robust and super hardy plants, they have a certain don’t mess with me attitude about them and can cope with whatever the winter weather will through at them. I’ve been growing them since I took on my plot and they have stood unflinching through minus 15 degrees C, being buried under several feet of snow and this winter have coped with the deluge of rain deposited on them.

Popular in Britain as a crop for thousands of years, it’s thought they may have been introduced by the Romans. A rich source of vitamins and minerals kale, like its brassica cousin the cabbage, would have been an important part of the diet of our ancestors. There is an earthiness and sense of the peasant about kale and perhaps this is why it has proved unpopular in recent times. Competing with imported out of season tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, which bring a splash of the summer to our gloomy winters, is going to be a hard sell. Then there’s the taste, when you eat kale you know it’s good for you with its rich irony flavour. Palates used to blander tastes and imported vegetables are going to struggle with such a hale and hearty vegetable.

This is a pity though because kale is one of the easiest crops to grow and one of the most versatile in the kitchen. Curly kale is the classic variety, with cavolo nero being the most fashionable but my own favourite is Russian red Kale which I find to be sweeter than other kales. It must be up there as one of the prettiest vegetables, a must for any kitchen garden. Grey-green leaves with pink veins are an unusual and striking combo. And, as the light levels and temperatures drop the colours become more intense. The leaves are frilly and capture raindrops which glisten like droplets of molten silver. They look even better with a dusting of frost. Red Russian is one of the hardiest too, originating from Siberia.

Crimson stemmed red Russian kale

Crimson stemmed red Russian kale

Brassicas are one of those crops which can break even the keenest and green fingered of gardeners. They seem to suffer from more than their fair share of pests and diseases. Club root, a fungal disease which causes the roots of brassicas to swell and the plants to become stunted can stay in the soil for over twenty years. No amount of crop rotation is going to eliminate this from your veg garden. Then there’s cabbage white butterflies whose caterpillars can strip a plant bare over night. If you’ve struggled with cabbages and are fed up with attempts to grow broccoli then you need to give red Russian kale a try. Club root is in the soil at my allotments but kale, and red Russian in particular, seems oblivious to this fact. Even the caterpillars of cabbage whites seem to show little interest. Perhaps this is because fellow allotment holders are kindly growing more appealing, and sacrificial, cabbages. White fly will take up residence but other than a plume of tiny winged creatures filling your kitchen they seem to be no problem for the plant itself.

The beauty of red Russian kale is you can have it pretty much all year round. You could sow throughout the year if you wanted baby leaves to use in salads and stir-frys. Sow in spring and you can crop from summer right through until the following spring or sow in late summer for plants which will go through the winter. Simply keep picking the leaves and they will go on producing. I find three or four plants are enough, as you never want to strip a plant bare, they do need some leaves to keep on growing. I always sow into modules or a seed tray and nurture young plants in my greenhouse or cold frame until they are big enough to go out onto the allotment. But I’m sure you could sow the seeds direct too, just make sure you protect the young seedlings from slugs.

Kales are becoming trendy again. We’re learning to embrace stronger flavours, we love the idea of super foods and are harking back to comfort foods and rustic cooking. Kale fits the bill perfectly. It’s getting easier to come by in supermarkets and farmer markets, particularly the curly and cavolo nero varieties but you’ll struggle to find red Russian. I’ve only seen it once in an organic shop in Hebden Bridge. I was so surprised I squealed ‘red Russian kale’, much to the consternation of the fellow customers. So if you’re going to grow one kale grow this one.

kale spanokopitta

kale spanokopitta

As for what to do with it, well you can simply lightly steam it. It only takes a minute or two so don’t cook it into oblivion. You can add it to pasta sauces, frittatas and use it as a spinach substitute in dishes like spanokopitta. This is my own take on this Greek dish and is perfect in winter.

  • Roast some butternut squash and red onion for about 30 minutes until soft.
  • Steam a handful of kale.
  • Mix these in a bowl with feta cheese, cashew nuts and hazelnuts.
  • Season and then use as a filling, wrapping in sheets of oiled or buttered filo pastry.
  • Bake in the oven for 20 minutes until golden and crispy.

Hooked

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crocheted tea cosy

crocheted tea cosy

I know there’s always something I could be doing in the garden or on the allotment but the incessant rain since the start of December has meant that they have been no-go zones really. I always find the sight of a ‘bare to the bones’ allotment a bit too demoralising anyway. My own plot hasn’t fared too badly considering. I didn’t think it was possible to rain more than it did in 2012 but this has been the first time I have seen standing water on my plot. I fear for the tulips tucked up in the soil but there’s little I can do about it now. The green manure I sowed back in late summer and early autumn has made a real difference to how the soil has coped with the rain. Neighbouring plots look as if the soil has literally been pummelled, the rain has been so intense. Whereas the beds on my allotment, covered in phacelia, look as if they haven’t been touched. It’s just a pity I couldn’t cover more soil. One of the downsides to using green manures is needing bare soil to sow into at the right time for it to have time to germinate and put on enough growth. With such a mild autumn I still had flowers going into November. By the time I pulled them out it was too late to sow.

Gardening does take up such an enormous amount of my time during the year that it leaves a fairly large void when winter comes round. So what does a gardener do when they can’t garden, when it’s cold and wet outside and nothing is growing? For me the winter break gives me the chance to get crafty. Crochet is the craft of choice at the moment. It’s perfect for whiling away the long dark nights sat in front of the fire.

I have dabbled with a crochet hook in the past. I made a hat for Wellyman one Christmas, although I massively underestimated the time it would take to make it. I got there with hours to spare but developed a touch of repetitive strain injury in the process. Perhaps this is why I took a break and put the wool to one side. But this autumn I returned to it again and I’m completely addicted.

Vintage sewing box

Vintage sewing box

The pile of crochet books are building up by my bedside table and I’ve acquired quite a stash of wool. And I was over the moon last weekend when I was given a beautiful sewing box by my in-laws. I had been on the lookout for one for a while and planned a visit to a flea market in the new year to track one down. Instead I am now the proud owner of the one which belonged to Wellyman’s grandma, and that family connection makes it all the more special. I love the functionality of the design and its simple Shaker-style beauty.

flowery brooch

flowery brooch

It turns out though that even when I crochet gardening and plants aren’t that far from my mind. This flower brooch was a Christmas present for my mum. And the colours I used for my tea cosy were inspired by the a drive we did several years ago, in Ireland. We found ourselves passing through a place called Sally Gap not far from Dublin. The scenery was stunning with dark, rich green moorland and pink, purpley tones of heather.

crocheted garden twine coaster

crocheted garden twine coaster

I’ve even found that garden twine makes a very interesting material with which to crochet. It’s much harder to work with than wool because the fibre is tougher but the texture the jute gives to projects is fantastic. It’s more robust than wool too which makes it perfect for table mats and coasters.

Strangely there is little recorded history about crochet. It became popular in the 19th century from Britain to Africa and across to Asia but, prior to this, there is nothing to suggest the origins of using one hook and a thread to create a fabric. Knitting however can be traced back to the early medieval period. Every time I make something I find it incredible that simply by using one hook and a material it is possible to create so many different patterns and designs. I have lots of plans; an old duvet cover is to be cut up and crocheted to make a bath mat, there are cushion covers to make, a blanket to finish. The nights are getting a little lighter and the first of the seed orders has been made. So as the garden starts to make it demands I guess there’ll be less time to crochet in the coming months, but that’s fine, as I’m itching to get my hands into the soil again.

I’d love to hear about what you do during the winter gardening hibernation.

Winter blooms

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Hyacinth 'L'Innocence'

Hyacinth ‘L’Innocence’

My regular readers will know I approach January with a certain degree of trepidation. It’s much easier to feel positive and optimistic when there are twinkly Christmas lights to brighten the short, dark days of winter. Mince pies and mulled cider help too. Then January arrives, the Christmas decorations come down, there’s the metaphorical tightening of belts as we recover from seasonal expenditure and the physical loosening of belts to cope with all that festive food. The sense of anticipation which accompanies the Winter Solstice ebbs away as I’m still scrabbling away in the dark when I get up on a morning.

Something that has made a difference for me this winter has been the decision to grow indoor bulbs. This has been the first time I have managed to get my act together, remembering to not focus purely on spring and the outdoors when I ordered my bulbs back in the autumn. On the list were hyacinths, Narcissi ‘Paper White’ and ‘Grande Soleil d’Or’ and Hippeastrum ‘Red Velvet’. I was a bit dubious about whether I would like them or not so I stuck a tentative toe in the water and I didn’t go mad with the order.

Forced hyacinth flowers

My reluctance partly stemmed from my dislike of probably the most popular of all bulbs to force, the hyacinth. They have always seemed funny plants to me. With their short stumpy stalks and fat stubby trumpet flowers they just look a little odd, particularly when they’re grown directly in the ground. Perhaps if the flowers were more delicate or their stems longer, but as they are they have never done it for me. If Narcissi ‘Paper Whites’ are the Kate Moss of the bulb world, all willowy and sylphlike, then hyacinths have always seemed, to me, like a Les Dawson character, solid and stocky. Then there’s their famous scent. Potent is how I remembered it. My mum used to grow them, and with several on one windowsill I remember them being so overwhelming that a particular room was off-limits whilst they were in bloom. But browsing through the bulb catalogue back in August I thought I should give them another go. And I’m rather pleased I did because I have several in flower now brightening up the January gloom and filling my house with a delightful perfume. My selection of variety may have something to do with my new-found love of hyacinths. I picked the white flowering ‘L’Innocence’ which not only looks more stylish and modern than some but it also seems a little more delicate and a little less dumpy. As for the scent, it isn’t overpowering at all, and with the very occasional patch of sunshine or heat from the radiators warming the air the aroma is wafting through the house. So for bulbs indoors I’m won over but I remain to be convinced by them as additions to my borders.

Narcissi 'Paper White'

Narcissi ‘Paper White’

The hyacinths weren’t the first of the bulbs to flower with the Narcissi ‘Paper White’ timing their opening for my birthday in November. They are the most delicate of flowers with a sparkly sheen to their purest of white petals. They are also one of the most perfumed of narcissi. The jury is still out on whether I like their scent or not. Occasionally I would wander into the kitchen and sniff the air and then start looking around for the offending aroma, checking the soles of shoes, emptying the bin etc, only then would I realise it was the narcissi. I have heard it likened to the whiff of cat wee before. But then there would be other times when it would smell completely different and quite beautiful. I’ll grow them again because they are so easy and home-grown flowers for a November birthday are too good to ignore.

Hippeastrum 'Royal Velvet'

Hippeastrum ‘Royal Velvet’

The winter blooms continued with my hippeastrum. Its huge bulb took a while to get going but then I dug out my heated propagator and sat the pot on the base of this. It wasn’t long before a green stalk emerged. It kept on growing and growing in a triffid-like manner. When it reached nearly 3ft it started to show signs of a flower bud. Slowly, four individual trumpet-shaped flowers appeared with them finally opening on Boxing Day. The variety ‘Red Velvet’ couldn’t have been better named or more suited to the Christmas period with its luscious and humongous flowers. It was fascinating to watch it grow because I had never tried it before, and there’s nothing like rekindling that child-like wonder by cultivating something new. I might look to see if there are any smaller varieties though as it’s tall and increasingly leaning flower stalk have given some cause for concern.

In the greenhouse I have a large pot of Narcissi ‘Grande Soleil d’Or’ and some crocus waiting to be brought indoors. The extra warmth inside will speed them into growth for an earlier show and keep up the succession of winter blooms. And, whilst I’m waiting for the days to lengthen and the weather to improve, my indoor flowers are providing some much-needed cheer.

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