Saturday, 15 July 2017

Lavender-a life long love.........

I am not afraid to say that I adore Lavender. it's not my favourite plant because I am not sure that I could ever have such a thing for more than a fleeting second until my eyes flickered to something else, hence the Today's Favourite posts, but I cannot imagine a garden without lavender in it.
obviously sometimes it can be a somewhat problematic plant. It does get leggy and woody if it isn't pruned properly and for sure it sulks in a garden that is boggy and wet, and isn't to be advised in those situations, but in the right place, well looked after I think it's a magnificent plant.

There are of course a million varieties and several species within the genera and I have to admit that when I talk about Lavender I do very much mean the English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. I know L. stoechas, or french Lavender has it's charms but it does struggle to be hardy in wet soils in the west of the UK and so I stick with those English varieties in their many colours and heights. I am particularly fond of L. angustifolia Hidcote with it's bushy, short habit and deep violet flowers. As a short hedge it is a delight and can be used alongside other, taller varieties such as L.angustifolia x intermedia Alba, to create the most beautiful planting schemes.

During my time working in nurseries I grew more lavender than one person possibly can imagine in a lifetime, of many varieties and species. One particular season we grew 2,500 for a show garden and I spent many an hour pinching out the tips of the plants to get them bushy and in bud for early May, in the greenhouse that they were growing in. One particular day, a sunny March morning before the chaos of the Chelsea dance had properly begun, I remember almost falling asleep amongst the plants as they gave off their scent in the heat of the closed up greenhouse, and having to open the doors for a while just to stop their amazing scent from persuading me to lie down amongst the pots and have a doze.

Of course as a plant lavender is beautiful and the scent is amazing but it has also been grown for centuries as a medicinal plant. Said to help mild depression and anxiety it is also a powerful sleep aid as can be seen from my nearly falling asleep in the greenhouse, and is a great scent to use in a space where you require calm and serenity. As someone who has spent many years dealing with the joys of insomnia, lavender oil on my pillow at bedtime is a frequent go to, and lavender pillows something I look out for and regularly buy to hang in the bedroom. Of course lavender is also a natural antiseptic and a few drops of lavender oil in water can really help to stop infection in cuts and grazes.

Of course many people use lavender as a flavouring and although I have to admit I am not a fan of it to eat, lavender shortbread and lavender ice cream are very popular. The flowers are definitely very pretty when crumbled over something and make cakes and puddings look delightful too.

I always cut and dry some lavender flowers. it's an easy thing to do, just requiring the cutting of as long a stem as possible, and then tying the flowers into bunches and hanging upside down somewhere warm and dry to dry. The flowers, once dried, can be crumbled into kilner jars and saved for use in pot pourri, in small bowls where the scent will fill the room, or in cooking, and they last for ages.

Recently my largest use of lavender has been in the Bearpit garden, a space designed for calming and so very apt! There are large, billowing hedges of plain Lavandula angustifolia and smaller hedges of Hidcote all around the space, inviting people to sit amongst it and relax, whilst watching the bees busy taking it's nectar as of course it's other great bonus is that it is adored by bees of many species. In fact in the Bearpit, a space in which no pollinators were regularly seen, by the time we had planted the first three plants last year, the bees had arrived and more and more came and followed us along the lines as we planted.

How do you use lavender? I would love to know!!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Today's Favourite....Tithonias

Tithonias. Those tall, gently swaying, orange flowers that fit so well into a late summer planting scheme, have just begun to flower in the garden. From seed sown in early April, they have gently just grown, needing only 1 potting on before I put them out, from modules to 9cm pots, more to keep the slugs away than anything else. Planted out in early June, it's only taken a month to get them into flower, and regular dead heading or picking for the house, will keep them flowering for a while.
All they need is a warm start and to be kept moist once they've germinated. Why not give them a go next year?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

An extra special garden visit-The Hardwicke Club

As you'll all remember I went to Dublin in early June to take part in Bloom Fringe and one of the things I was most looking forward to was meeting with Jay Sher and visiting the Hardwicke Club Community Garden.
Now it's no news that I am a huge advocate of community growing and gardening and spend much of my time supporting the creation of community spaces in Bristol, but it's always great to visit other projects, chat with other community gardeners and find out how other gardens work.
Shed/tea drinking space. I love the way the jars are nailed to the roof!
So The Hardwicke Club garden is in the centre of a social housing estate a very short walk from Dublin city centre. I met with Jay who is the gardens coordinator, I guess, although very much a volunteer and offering everything he does for the garden through a deep set belief that gardens support change. The garden is at both tiny and huge. It may take up a small space but its jam packed full of raised beds growing so much veg it was extraordinary. Potatoes, greens, spinach, name it. And not only was the produce there, it was thriving. 
Great use of raised beds.
There's an area to sit that's undercover that effectively is the project's shed. There are outdoor seating spaces. There are garden ornaments and crafted bits and bobs placed all over the space. This is a garden made with love. The bringing together of people has made this space what it is today. And that is what I want to focus on.
Whilst we were there we popped over to the community centre opposite for a 'comfort break' and as we were over there some magical things happened that made me realise some stuff....
Strawberries and borage that was covered in bees!
It was a hot Friday afternoon. Actually it was my birthday and I was exhausted after a very long and complicated journey which had only allowed me 2 hours sleep in 24. I'd gone into a meeting with Dublin City Council to espouse the joys of community gardening, growing and the Incredible Edible model almost straight off the ferry and that had taken pretty much all of my ever decreasing energy but I was determined to see this garden, mainly because I knew Ron had been the year before and had his socks knocked off. Walking through the estate and hearing about the pieces of gardening outside the main part of the garden had definitely started to give me back some mojo but this short time in the garden and outside the community centre reinvigorated me. 
Why? Because every single person who walked past the garden stopped to say hello, to have a chat, to tell us some news. The kids who were playing outside chatted to Jay about what they'd been up to and what they going to do in the garden in the summer, and everyone, without any exception was engaged.
Add caption
How? Because Jay lives there and has fought for the garden and made it what it is not by himself, but with all the residents of the estate. Not doing it for people, but doing it with them, being the catalyst, is how these projects succeed and this is a prime example of a man deeply rooted in his community helping to change it from within. 
All around the world there are people like Jay and we should be shouting their stories from the roof tops, supporting them on social media and being inspired to make our own change in our own communities. Because through the power of these relatively small actions, all be they life changing for those involved, a movement of change is taking place that will, and is, quietly changing the way communities work and people live their lives.
Get involved. It's the best thing you'll ever do. 

Jay in the garden!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Strawberry chicken-a recipe.

What quite a few of you won't know is that before I became a horticulturist I was a chef.....
I started off in restaurants and ended up in an exclusive nursing home cooking for 40 elderly and mainly lovely older people who had chosen to spend the last years of their lives somewhere they would be looked after properly and well. I helped out in the gardens too and ran a little gardening club.....

Anyway every year we held events for the residents, their families and the friends of the home group, and one year we decided on a strawberry themed event. 
Easy I hear you say but not that easy when you've promised an entire menu that includes strawberries in every course! What on earth do you serve as a main with the knowledge that most older people aren't keen on salad?
And then Hugh Fernley Whittingstall came to the rescue! Strawberry chicken was a recipe on one of the early River Cottage series and so I decided to trial it in the menu to see how it went down.
Older folk tend not to like anything new so there was only a small take up but my usual guinea pigs took up the challenge. I had already trialled it with some of the care staff who had definitely enjoyed it so off we went. 
The guinea pigs lapped it up, especially my dear old pal Frank who was always up for trying something new, and so we decided that it would go on the strawberry lunch menu.
So how do you make it? Well it's very easy. 
Take enough chicken breasts to feed however many people you're feeding and roast in the oven, making sure it's well seasoned. You can use chicken quarters too.
Once they're cooked, pop the chicken on a plate and cover with foil to keep hot and then make a gravy using the juices in the pan, mixing in some chicken stock at about 150ml per person, and thickening it with some cornflour. Once it's thickened to your personal preference, put the chicken back in along with a good slug of cream, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper. Leave it on the hob on a really low heat, just enough to keep it all hot, and slice some strawberries. I usually used 4/5 fruits per person. Once sliced pop them into the gravy and just allow them to heat through, and then serve. 
Now what is important in this dish is the seasoning is correct. It needs a good whack of black pepper to cut through the sweetness of the fruit. It's just a great combination and don't scoff until you've tried it!
Firstly a massive thank you to Richard Chivers of who recently wrote a blog around 10 best strawberry recipe,and gave me the idea to write this blog. If you haven't already you should subscribe to his blog. 
I'm going to start posting a few more recipes here too. Sharing things I love and make regularly as well as recipes for preserves, pickles and other things I enjoy. Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to focus on!!


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Today's Favourite........Sunflowers!!

I spent this morning in Bristol's Millennium Square where we, as in Incredible edible Bristol, have 5 raised bed gardens that grow food for people and pollinators. One bed is completely given over to pollinator rich planting, mainly to give me an excuse to play with ornamentals, but also to feed the bees that live on the roof of At Bristol, the science museum.
Two years ago we planted out loads and loads of sunflowers and since then they have set sown themselves each year. I cannot remember which variety these are, but they are typical, tall sunflowers but multi headed rather than the annoying, in my opinion, Russian Giant, that grows and grows but only has 2 or 3 flowers at the most.


Of course there are a multitude of varieties to choose from, from Teddy bear with it's fluffy flower heads and lack of pollen, to the beautiful dark red and brown varieties like Earth Walker which I love for a vase. Velvet Queen, Valentine, Pastiche, Italian Cream, Solar Flash, Little Dorrit, Vanilla Ice.......there are so many and they are a pretty easy grow.
Buy seeds, sow in mid March to early April, keep well watered and plant up into 9cm pots if the weather looks rubbish in May, or if you want to grow them on enough so that they don't get decimated by slugs. then plant them out and watch them grow and by the end of June to mid July, the first flowers will be appearing. Keep cutting the flowers and they will end up flowering on and on until October and the first frosts. I always leave a few of the last flowers to dry out and hang them up for the birds to feast on.


I get my seeds generally from either Higgledy Garden or Chiltern Seeds but you can also find them in garden centres and if you don't remember to sow them in time, most garden centres that stock seedling vegetable plants, will have sunflowers at some point in the year-just keep your eyes open for them!!

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Review.....Allan Jenkins' Plot 29, A Memoir

I first read an extract from Allan Jenkins book, Plot 29, in the Observer Food Monthly and was somewhat bowled over by its honesty then, from a tiny segment. Having waited with baited breath for the book to be published, I bought it without any thought of requesting a review copy, because I just wanted to read it, so I've not been paid or sponsored in any way to write this.....
The book is a story of Allan's life, and in particular that life seen from the view of a year of discovery. It covers hard and upsetting issues. Abuse, childhood neglect, fostering and adoption, death; they all raise their heads and are talked about with frank honesty. Mixed with these difficult and very real, painful stories are tales of the allotment Allan grows on, with his friend Howard. The allotment is a space that holds community, forges and supports friendships. The allotment is a safe space where contemplation happens. A safe space. A haven.

The story is raw. It is uncomfortable, sad, revelatory. But most of all, for those of us who use our allotments as places of refuge where our minds can relax, restore themselves, work through issues, it is a memoir that makes sense to the reader of the importance of that piece of land. The importance of the seasons and the tasks that must take place within each of those periods of time. The importance of the sowing of seeds, the miracle of germination, of growing, harvesting and eating by the seasons.
A book that makes the reader cry on a train, smile wryly, be shocked, saddened, relieved, pleased and all those emotions again and again  might sound a bit too hard to read, but in fact this is one of the most fascinating stories I have ever read. The complexity of lives is fascinating. The effect of adults behaviour on young lives startling and the ongoing effects of that behaviour profoundly saddening. 
I'm aware I'm not painting a great picture but throughout the sadness the reality of this memoir is that it is brilliant. Without even trying the importance of that piece of land, of the growing of crops and the deep friendships forged there allow the reader to know that the author has hope. That there is something bigger than him urging him forwards, giving not just hope but deep levels of support.
So get this book, and read it. Then read it again. It's bravery is what you're left with, alongside a deeper understanding of the importance of being in touch with seasons, soils and food and how for so many allotments, gardens and growing spaces are vital for far more than growing some veg.