Summer has come to Neats Home Garden. Although the days are sometimes still cool, there's enough light in the sky and warmth in the soil to encourage growth and flowering. So the Weigelas are out in full flower, as are the Verbascums, Foxgloves, Geraniums, Poppies, and Alliums. This past week the roses, both wild and cultivated, have also bloomed, while the Penstemons are beginning to unfurl their tight purple buds in preparation for mid-summer flowering.
My work in the garden has been somewhat curtailed by my pregnancy - it's difficult to weed for long periods when you're carrying a heavy belly! So I took a pragmatic approach to the re-design of the long border - previously home to a massive Eucalyptus and many shrubs, sited along a long brick wall, in full sun. I've realised some of the re-design: I managed to plant all the Lupins, Verbascums, Foxgloves and Delphiniums which I'd grown from seed. But the roses, clematis and jasmine, as well as many other plants, will be planted this autumn.
Meanwhile, the Kitchen Garden is in full throttle. Broad beans, peas, lettuce and chard are all being harvested, as are parsley, chives and sorrel. Autumn-sown sweetpeas are flowering and perfuming the house with a light lemon-rose scent. Raspberries are forming on canes, under the fruit cage, but we have, alas, once again lost most of our gooseberries, since they stand in open ground, unprotected from the rapacious pigeons. Next year I aim to have them all under net, and we will hopefully harvest a decent crop.
This Tuesday I attended an enjoyable Snowdrop study day at Colesbourne Gardens. Our first speaker was Steve Owen, one of the National Collection Holders. Steve's brutal hygiene routine (regularly blasting his bulbs with dilute Jeyes Fluid) did create a few shock waves, and personally I think it's not a regime for the environmentally friendly grower. But everyone enjoyed his honest account of how he became an obsessive collector. Colesbourne played a key role in triggering his passion, and after spending some time walking the grounds, I can understand why.
The second speaker was Rod Leeds, a distinguished alpine grower and member of the RHS Joint Rock Garden committee. Rod demonstrated his own method for chipping and twin-scaling bulbs. He then talked us through some beautiful examples of snowdrops he and his wife Jane had twin-scaled. All in all, a helpful and informative talk, and from the volume of questions and photos taken, I could tell the audience really enjoyed it.
My own highlights from the day were as follows. First, seeing masses of snowdrops naturalised in grass, often alongside exquisite displays of Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium. Secondly, discovering a few beauties: the genuinely honey-scented Galanthus S. Arnott; G. 'Hippolyta', which was notably vigorous and healthy; and G. 'Lady Elphinstone,' a double with pale yellow markings on the inners. See below.
Thirdly and finally, Emma Thick solved a conundrum that had been bothering me for some time. She believes that when bulbs become too congested, they "rise to the surface." This winter I found masses of large bulbs lying on the ground near clumps of congested snowdrops, and wondered if I had been careless lifting and moving them last year. On the contrary, I suspect now that I hadn't divided all of the clumps, and they were in effect doing it for me.
A great day for snowdrop lovers. Well done to Chris Horsfall, Head Gardener, for organising it.
‘Tis the season for snowdrop lovers to rejoice. Not only are many of the bulbs out already, but there are so many wonderful places to visit to see snowdrops and galas to attend.
I remember visiting England during the memorably snowy winter of ’79, when I was a young child. I showed my mother the small white flowers poking through the snow in our front garden. What were they? Why were they flowering in the snow? “They’re snowdrops,” she told me. Plants that bloom in snow – what a beautiful and unexpected delight, especially for a child growing up in hot, dry Australia.
Fast forward a few decades, and in our first winter at Neats Home Garden, coping with a tiny baby and a dying father, my spirits were lifted when I discovered masses of snowdrops in the Wild Garden. Many were hidden under geraniums, Viburnum, and ivy, but they still made a memorable display. I have slowly begun clearing parts of these areas of ivy and shrubby saplings so that I can plant masses of Galanthus, Cyclamen, Leujocum, and Narcissus.
To this end, I went to my first Snowdrop Sale at Myddelton House Gardens last Saturday. We arrived an hour early, and took our places behind visitors from Holland and Belgium, as well as enthusiasts from Kent and Essex, who’d been queuing since dawn. Head gardener and event organiser Andrew Turvey built momentum with a stagey countdown; the gates opened; the hoards sprang forward! I’d been warned that it would be a scrum. Although a few did jump the queue and push forwards, most people were in fact perfectly well behaved.
Some stands were so crowded it was impossible to gawk over peoples' shoulders, let along squeeze in to buy a bulb. Another - manned by no less an expert than Matt Bishop - was relatively free of customers. I made my first purchase, thanking Matt as I handed over £15 for “Yaffle.” Onwards, as I debated other purchases. Should I really pay £20 for “Little Dorrit”, or £40 for “Eucosson D'Or”? Had I gone mad?
Alice, my guide in this event, approved my purchases, with an eye on future swaps. We retired for coffee and bacon butties, and then wandered off to admire the new greenhouses and snowdrop walk. Opinions on the garden design and planting, however, were mixed. I was advised on how to label and keep track of my collection, warned against keeping them in pots, and generally entertained by fellow plant enthusiasts. All in all, an enjoyable and highly sociable event.
Next up: visits to Welford Park, Colesbourne Park, and the Shaftsbury Show. If you are new to snowdrops, then here are a few places that I’d recommend visiting:
Colesbourne Park – an historic collection dating back to the late nineteenth century, improved under the direction of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, and their previous head gardener John Grimshaw
Kingston Bagpuize House – local to me. An Oxfordshire classic.
Welford Park, near Newbury. A stunning display in a Beech wood.
The Cambo Estate in Scotland. National Collection Holders. Worth a weekend trip with a willing friend or partner.
For the last two autumns I have planted about a thousand tulips in the garden. During recent work in the main border, I inadvertently dug up some of these bulbs. Many had grown several baby bulbs in the course of one season. This is probably down to several factors. We had a wonderfully warm, dry summer and autumn in 2014. The main border, where they're largely planted, is south-facing and sunny. And the soil in that part of the garden, in particular, is exceptionally gritty and free-draining - a nightmare for some gardeners, but a condition I appreciate, since it is means bulbs will thrive.
I plant my tulips as deep as I can manage, with a good sprinkle of bonemeal, to support root growth. Grit is unnecessary. Other than that, I leave them alone, letting the foliage die back to the ground before removing it.
In praise of 'Single Lates'
In my first season I planted a wide range of tulips: my first tulip season was that some tulips work much better as display flowers than others - in particular, single lates. These have simple goblet shaped flowers, and tall, strong, stiff stems. The flowers last well even in wet conditions, and the foliage does not "creep" up the stems, as it does with double cultivars like "Angelique."
Recommended Pink Tulips
I found the following pinks worked really well: Dordogne - a pink flushed with orange; Menton, a similar multi-tonal pink orange; and Pink Diamond, a very soft pale pink. These work well planted with soft whites like Angels Wish, and Blushing Girl, a lilac-edged ivory white. (Images below from Peter Nyssen.)
Recommended Yellow Tulips
I particularly love yellow flowering plants - roses, narcissus, crocus, tulips. So I've planted up a semi-circular raised rockery in a yellow and white colour scheme, with muscari, crocus, narcissus, tulips, and Dutch irises, to provide sustained colour from late winter through early summer. I'm excited to see how this works out.
Here are the tulips I've included in the area. Daydream - a yellow turning apricot to orange; Golden Apeldoorn - as the name implies, a lovely golden yellow; Big Smile - a bright lemony yellow with unusually egg shaped flowers; and Fringed Elegance - a fringed primrose yellow. I've combined these with Ivory Florade - a creamy ivory yellow, and Swan Wings - a fringed pure white. (Images below from Peter Nyssen.)
This week my friends raided the garden and showed me how to make wreaths. Sue supplied green willow, which we bent into a circular shape. Neats Home Garden supplied holly, Cotoneaster loaded with bright red berries, soft pink fluff from spent Cotinus coggygria flowers, variegated Euonymus and Elaeagnus foliage, the dried flower heads of Hydrangea aborescens 'Annabelle,' pink-berried Spindle (Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'), etc.
Here are some examples of the finished wreaths.
Recently Peter, a friend, asked me what fruit and veg I'd grow next year. Well, here's the current top list - as well as a word of warning on what not to grow in 2015.
Best fruit & veg 2014
1. (Autumn sown) Broad beans - Aquadulce Claudia
Still a classic. Great taste and early cropping. Hard to find sweet tender broad beans in the supermarket, so definitely worth growing. I've just sowed next year's crop to overwinter.
2. 'Green Globe' Artichokes
Easy to grow from seed, tough, and they all cropped in their first year! Delicious boiled and dipped in butter.
3. 'Polka' Raspberries
These are large, sweet, and productive, even after a long dry summer, and in their first year. We're going to grow more of these - they are eaten as soon as they're picked.
4. (Summer sown) Dwarf French beans
A revelation. Small, tender, delicious. No air miles! No carbon footprint! A delicious crop to sow in mid to late summer for an early autumn harvest.
As regular readers know, a long standing favourite of mine. A hot peppery taste, and chemical free Don't get carried away, as I did, and end up with a spring glut; unless you have a family of twenty, instead, sow parsimoniously.
6. 'Migonette' Alpine Strawberries
Tiny, yes, and hence so small you hardly taste them. But they are ever so fun to pick, especially with small children, who are excellent at spotting the ripe berries hiding under low-lying leaves. The berries look lovely decorating puddings. The blossom is also decorative, so the plants make good edging.
7. Parsley, thyme, basil, chives
Divide chives, pot up, grow on next year. Thyme is tough enough to over-winter. Parsley and basil sow fresh. If you have the space, grow Parsley in the ground rather than in pots (it puts on a deep tap root and romps away). I have blitzed my spare herbs into melted butter, and frozen it, for use on fish and veg.
Worst veg and fruit 2014
1. 'Wizard' Field Beans
This was a variety I purchased from the Real Seed Co. They do warn about it being suspectible to chocolate rust. But boy - I've never seen anything like it. Most of the plants were heavily mottled with rust, and even those that weren't still produced a bitter tough bean. Yuk. Try as we might, we eventually gave up eating these, and binned the lot.
2. 'Crystal Apple' white cucumbers
This was a Thompson & Morgan special. They describe it as follows: "The crisp, tender flesh has a sweet flavour with no bitter after taste." Rubbish. There is hardly any flesh on these - the insides are full of seeds - and the flesh is extremely bitter. Prolific, but absolutely grim eating. Again, in the end, after numerous bitter meals, we gave up on these.
3. 'Rossa Ricciolina da Taglio' Red lettuce and 'Rossa di Treviso' Raddicio
Bitter, bitter, bitter. That's all I can say. And I like bitter lettuces! Again, we tried, but couldn't bring ourselves to eat much of them.
4. Radishes - Red Globe
Unless you are Peter Rabbit or my father-in-law, you will be probably be defeated by these hardy, productive, peppery radishes. Sow thinly!
I grew several varieties, including Cambridge Favourite, Red Cascade, and Honeyoye. I netted them closely, but whatever I did, the mice and grass snakes still nibbled them. Honestly, I'll give them one more year, but I doubt I'll keep growing them.
Recently a friend showed me her mother's method for making marmalade. The secret to her mother's method is that the fruit is cooked in a pressure cooker, and includes a lemon and a lime. The result is a chunky, slightly tart marmalade, which is simply delicious spread on hot buttered toast.
2 pounds / 900g Seville oranges
1 lemon and 1 lime (unwaxed)
3 pounds / 1.3 kg granulated sugar
0.5 pounds / 200g jam sugar
2 pints water
Note: for a tarter marmalade, use 3 pounds / 1.3kg sugar.
1. Place the whole oranges and the lemon in a pressure cooker, covering with 1.5 pints water. Cook for about 20-25 mins at pressure. If you don't have a pressure cooker, slow cook them in a low oven for several hours until the skins are soft.
2. Cook the lime separately, for about 30 mins or until the skin is soft.
3. Remove all the fruit from the pans, and break open. Scoop out the pips and pulp from the fruit skins, and place the pips and pulp into a sieve over the jam kettle to capture the pectin and help the marmalade set. Press them through the sieve, using some of the liquid to help, then discard.
4. Place the fruit skins on a chopping board and chop into 2-4cm pieces, depending upon how fine or chunky you like your marmalade.
5. Meanwhile measure out the sugar into a bowl. Place in a cool oven for about 20 mins so that it warms up.
6. Strain out 2 pints liquid, adding water to top it up if needed. Mix the liquid, chopped fruit, and warmed sugar. Bring to a roiling boil for about 20 mins, or until a jam thermometer reads 221 F / 105 C.
7. Remove the pan from the heat. Let stand for 20 mins. Meanwhile, place your sterilised jam pots and lids in a low oven so that they're less likely to crack when you add the hot fruit.
This is a slow cooked stew, using relatively cheap ingredients. It's filling enough to fuel autumn and winter gardening without slowing you down.
Approx. 900g pork ribs, cut into individual ribs
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlics, peeled and crushed
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 bulb fennel, finely chopped
2 tspns dried marjoram
1/2 tspn celery seeds
1 pint good quality chicken stock
1 cup cooked grains or chickpeas
some creme fraiche to serve, if desired
1. Brown the pork ribs over a medium-high heat. Remove from pan.
2. Gently saute the onion for 10 mins.
3. Add the garlic and saute for a further 1-2 mins.
4. Add the remaining vegetables, herbs, pork ribs and chicken stock.
5. Bring to the boil very briefly, then place in the oven at a low temperature (110-140).
6. Cook for minimum 2 hours, up to 4.
7. Taste and adjust seasoning (especially salt and herbs), then add cooked grains/chickpeas, if you'd like a thicker, soupy-stew. Add some creme fraiche if you'd like a richer dish.
8. Serve with buttered bread and some fresh peas and beans.
Friends for dinner
Last weekend we had friends over to dinner and I served a saffron & seafood risotto, with a decorative side salad.
I would be over-reaching myself to claim the seafood risotto was 'seasonal': while the dill and chives came from my garden, the saffron and mussels did not!
Home grown salad
However, the salad was 100% home grown, and a fun experiment. The peppery rocket came from the vegetable garden, while the silene and mustard had been growing in large bags in the ruined greenhouse, where they'd enjoyed the cool nights and warm days. The yellow and red tomatoes were also home grown. I decorated the salad with violet basil, and blue borage flowers from the orchard, then dressed it with a balsamic vinegrette. Enjoy!
This dish may appeal to the child in you. The proper name for the dish should be stuffed courgettes. But having stuffed, fried, and served them, we thought they looked like fried mice.
This is the quick cheat's version of the dish, for those without a deep fryer. It serves 2-3 people as a side dish.
Six courgette or pumpkin/squash flowers
About 80g Feta cheese
2 tbspns creme fraiche
3 tbspns plain flour, mixed with half a crushed oatibix
1 tbspn finely chopped fresh dill, lemon rind, pepper, oil
Mash together the feta cheese and creme fraiche. Add half a beaten egg, and the dill, a little finely grated lemon rind, and a grind of pepper. Don't add salt; the feta cheese is already salty. Mix to a dense, creamy texture; taste, then adjust seasoning, if necessary, before stuffing the flowers.
Carefully peel back a flower and push a few tspns of the mix inside. Dip the flowers in the remaining beaten egg, then in the flour and oatibix mix.
Heat oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Fry for about 5 minutes, turning every few minutes to create an even golden colour. Serve, and enjoy.
Note: I use oatibix because I find it adds a subtle taste and crunch. You could use wheatibix or dry breadcrumbs instead.
Good suppliers of flower, veg and unusual plant seeds.
Cornish bulb supplier. My go-to for daffodils. Helpful staff.
All-round fab website for bulb hunting. Excellent quality tulips.