Thursday, 17 April 2014

I Wish I Could Be Like Monty Don

As sure as night follows day, the asparagus knife will go missing just as those succulent shoots are ready for harvesting. It spends much of its life lurking in the shed, making all who enter feel miserable about its lack of use and the associated lack of asparagus, then as soon as the cropping season is upon us, the knife goes AWOL. At this point, I ought to insert a photo of asparagus peeping enticingly through the soil, but having harvested it with a kitchen knife (again) and devoured it with the Easter egg hunt (again), you will have to make do with a quince. 

The Orchard at Le Grys Farm
I have a similar problem with seeds which should be sown in April (no, I don't eat them too). I spend the entire month of March looking at them and virtuously resisting the urge to sow them, then as soon as we hit April, all the packets of seeds go on a merry jaunt with the asparagus knife. This year, after two weeks of hide and seek, I have finally conceded defeat and am off to purchase new seeds today (along with another Easter egg hunt), after which the old seeds will leap out from behind a cushion or some other seed-concealing home furnishing, giggling wildly at my hapless attempts at finding them and squealing, “we were here all the time!”

'Stella' Cherry Blossom 
I know everything has its place, but herding it into its home can be a monumental effort involving massive quantities of self-restraint (a quality I appear to have mislaid along with the asparagus knife). I have seed containers arranged by the month à la Sarah Raven, but brand new shiny seed packets need to be read, admired, shuffled and chewed over, not filed away sensibly where I can actually find them. 

All March and no April
I wish I could be like Monty Don with his perfectly arranged shed filled with sharp secateurs and tidy trowels arranged in height order. Instead I have a pigsty (literally as well as figuratively) where the only things I can find with any regularity are roller blades and bicycles (neither of which appear to be of any use when cultivating a garden - although you may disagree).

Fritillaria meleagris in the orchard
So I have decided to give myself a Christmas present of an organised potting shed. No I haven’t won the lottery; the shed is an existing piggery and I shall attach hooks and well-positioned nails to create a home for all those myriad lost items. Then all I have to do is find the missing garden tools, hang them on their appointed brackets and use the reclaimed hide-and-seek-in-a-fluster time for actual gardening. 

Apple blossom
A few nails in a wall isn’t a major DIY project and once I start moving things into their new homes, old friends such as the long-lost loppers will hopefully come out from their hibernation behind the stack of tangled spring rakes. So why isn't this an Easter present? The truth is that I have more pressing business to attend to this weekend. There are seeds to sow; plants to plant; and a whole lot of chocolate to find.

Wishing you a very happy Easter. 

P.S. My humblest apologies if you are happily sowing your beans this weekend and humming a certain Jam song with David Watts replaced by Monty Don. It's small consolation I know, but the song is reeling round my head as I type. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Post About a Post Post

Gardeners like to experiment in their gardens, so if a gardener stumbles into the blogosphere, it stands to reason that before long the blogging gardener will start to experiment there too. 

My attempt at a blogging gardener's experiment is to try guest blogging and I have just had a guest post published at the Thompson & Morgan blog about one of my favourite high value, low cost plants.

I wasn't paid to do it, or even offered a packet of seeds. I just wanted to tell people about this amazing plant. I know it's a cheek, but I would be ever so grateful if you would be kind enough to click on the link and make a comment so I don't look completely like Sarah-No-Mates. Thank you! I will be back here tomorrow celebrating the best thing about spring.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Holey Clogs, the Garden Museum and a Day Out with Matthew Biggs

One Mothering Sunday not many moons ago, my children asked me what I would like to do to celebrate my special day. “You can do anything,” they said and my eyes lit up as images of me clad in a maternal swooshing skirt and skipping hand in hand with my beloved brood of smiling, plant-loving children through swathes
of daffs passed joyfully through my idealistic mind “...except visit a garden.
I clattered inelegantly back to earth and landed with an ungraceful thud.

The girls skipping through the daffs (yes, they were bribed)
I reminisce dewy-eyed on the good old days, when all I had to do was suggest a trip to a beach which just happened to be in close proximity to a garden I wanted to see and they would clamber unwittingly into the car, trailing their buckets and spades behind them. Over the years they have grown wise to my pathetic ploys and I am subjected to trial by teenager if I so much as utter the words “day out”.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' in the farmhouse garden
The wiser the children grow; the more creative I must become. Days out with dual interests work well, so long as my hidden horticultural agenda remains undiscovered. Many zoos have superb gardens; and do you think I would have driven my offspring all the way to Legoland had I not harboured a burning desire to ogle the landscaping? So you can imagine my excitement on hearing about an exhibition exploring the relationship between fashion and garden design at the Garden Museum in London. All I had to do was conceal any reference to gardens and I would have my day out. 

Bergenia 'Silberlicht' in the farmhouse garden
It is a fascinating exhibition, spanning centuries of design from the use of botanically accurate images of flowers on clothing during the 1600s to Valentino’s spring/summer 2013 couture collection. Apart from the jaw-droppingly beautiful clothes, I particularly enjoyed a collection of paintings featuring gardeners at work. Gardeners were once such a source of pride that they were painted. Imagine! I would certainly need some new clothes if I were to be captured on canvas doing my mulching. 

My least holey clogs after years of mulching
This leads me to one of the questions raised by the exhibition. "How did people dress to garden, or to visit gardens?" The 18th century landscape movement may have given rise to a new style of dressing, which eventually developed into the outdoor clothing we see in glossy magazines, but I am not altogether convinced that this stylish ideal holds much relevance for real gardeners with brittle nails and that half moon sun strip around the midriff which never seems to fade. In any case, we know what we wear to garden these days, as we have already chewed over the issue of gardening clothes here:
Crocus tommasinianus proving its value to wildlife
 in the farmhouse garden
When it comes to visiting gardens, twenty-first century style choices can be astonishingly diverse and bewilderingly unpredictable. For example, there was a time when I might visit a garden sporting beach clothes accessorised by sand, seaside buckets and spades. These days however, I might dress as if I were on the verge of accompanying my teenage children to a music festival, but got lost en route and found myself visiting a garden. Ahem.

P.S.  Update on the children... After the initial horror of finding themselves duped yet again into a garden-based day out, they relaxed and enjoyed the exhibition. The level of forgiveness will be assessed on Mothering Sunday later this month. You never know, they might be reading this and decide (completely without any hinting from me at all) to treat me to a day out with Matthew Biggs. 

Information about the Fashion and Gardens Exhibition can be found on The Garden Museum website:

Friday, 14 February 2014

Triumphant Teasel and the Great Cheese Challenge

There are 700 named cheeses produced in Britain and I am on a mission to try them all. Fellow cheese fanciers will understand that the magnitude of this task might prevent a blogger from posting for a good few weeks. For those 
non-turophiles among you, my feeble excuse for posting absolutely nothing of late is that we moved into a house without a phone line. (Thankfully the property was fitted with a fully functioning fridge filled with cheese, so I used my time wisely).

Perfect conditions for a move
We awoke for the first time in our new home on Christmas Eve and although there is still plumbing* and door hanging to complete, we do at last have Wi-Fi, so I am back in the blogosphere and having a fascinating time catching up with your posts.

home heaving with builders is hardly a relaxing place to hibernate with a laptop, so occasionally I feel obliged to peel myself away from the screen and work off my cheese hips in the garden. I refrain from tidying borders until spring as seed heads provide nutritious food for birds and once the seeds are gone, the husks and broken stems make excellent minibeast and ladybird sanctuaries. Consequently, at this time of year I focus my gardening efforts on that exhausting duo of calorie burners: staring at borders and compiling lists. 

My most recent border patrol had me reminiscing over the extraordinarily extended and valuable performance by Dipsacus fullonum (teasel). Although it is a plant we see growing naturally around the pond and in the paddocks, I use it in the farmhouse garden because of its significance for wildlife. It also happens to add structure to the borders for very little financial outlay and does a fabulous job of linking our garden with the countryside beyond. In summer, its nectar-rich flowers are much loved by bumble bees, hoverflies and butterflies. If you have never watched teasel come into bloom, you are missing a treat. The purple flowers open in a most intriguing order, demanding daily inspection (usually with a mug of coffee in hand) to see what is going to happen next. 

For all its fascinating unfurling, I love teasel most when it is going to seed. Glorious in the autumn sunshine, it raises its skinny teasel arms in triumph. 
Tah dah! Teasel, champion of the goldfinch seed chart and all-round good plant. Sow in spring and since teasel is a biennial, it will suppress weeds with its rosette of leaves for months on end and flower the following year, after which you will be able to marvel at your own triumphant teasel’s bulging biceps. 

For more information about beautiful British Cheese, visit

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Balboa Park, Broadening the Mind and Bletting

I am languishing in that gloriously indulgent state of post-holiday torpor where everything needs doing and nothing gets done. This predicament is not helped by our medlar crop (all one of it) which catches the sunlight far more impressively than a stack of unopened post and entices me outside for a spot of medlar-gazing every time I am in danger of doing something useful.

Travel broadens the mind; or in my case, the mind and the waistline. Having eaten my way around sunny San Diego (with a few L.A. days thrown in for good measure), I have returned to icy Norfolk besotted with a vegetable I grow only because it is sown when I am raring to get outside and prod some seeds into the soil and it crops so quickly that I feel clever in the catch crop department. There has never been any great desire to actually eat it; until now. I refer, of course, to the potentially fiery and rather beautiful radish. Who could have imagined the transformation from compulsory (because we grew it... again) to desirable (we want to grow it again and again) achieved by showing these little beauties a pan? Next year I shall embrace the humble radish, elevate it out of the compost bin and place it proudly atop the pedestal of great veg (I only hope that my culinary skills are sufficient to fulfil this pledge). 

Calotropis gigantea - Balboa Park Botanical House
It would be a long way to travel solely to expand our experience of salad veg, but thankfully California has much more to offer than revelatory radish dishes. Seeing a creature for the first time is a significant event and despite the fact that the internet is brimming with pictures to download, I like to record these moments with my own camera. I would love to share one of my hummingbird photographs with you, but while I was adept at capturing the flower a hummingbird had just left, the hummingbird itself resembled a clod of clay with blurred fins attached. I now have profound respect for anyone who succeeds in photographing hummingbirds; give me a bumble bee any day of the week.

It was while on a visit to Balboa Park in San Diego that the unthinkable happened: I actually heard myself declaring that the botanical house was so beautiful that I wouldn’t mind if it contained no plants (I was clearly driven to distraction by my failure on the photography front). Happily, this building, which is one of the largest lath structures in the world, is home to a couple of thousand plants, so there was no risk of having to eat my words along with a side order of fries and a slab of Monterey Jack cheese. Away from the botanical house, the rose garden was a mass of colour. Roses bloom here from March to December and with 2,500 plants and almost 200 varieties which are clearly labelled, this is more than a great backdrop to wedding photos; it is also a fabulous resource when selecting roses to grow. The adjacent desert garden is impressive; but the extraordinary juxtaposition of the winter-flowering rose garden and the desert garden will live with me long after the holiday weight gain has been worked off (if indeed I ever get round to enough exercise to burn a single calorie). 

Cacti and succulents against a backdrop of roses
One of the joys of blogging is that, like travel, it can broaden the mind. I particularly enjoy reading about gardeners’ experiences of growing plants in different parts of the world and it is always fascinating to discover that a benign plant in my corner of England is a rampaging bully elsewhere on the planet. I was serenading a plant with superlatives in California when I was stopped mid-flow by a local, who explained that the object of my passion was the bane of his borders. A weed? How can anything as attractive as Asparagus densiflorus be dismissed as a weed? 
Asparagus densiflorus
Perhaps I should look more appreciatively at my own weeds as someone, somewhere might be envying those frothy clouds of ground elder flowers or the beautiful twining stems of bindweed. On the other hand, perhaps I should stop dreaming and start weeding. First though, I will pour myself another coffee and spend a few moments pondering bletting my solitary medlar.