Category Archives: Uncategorized

Ready, Steady, Grow!

Elderflower blossom

A wet week and a busy social weekend over Father’s Day saw me dodging the showers and downpours in a desperate bid to finish planting out my summer veg and flowers at the allotment, later than I’ve ever done it before. It seems to be one of those rules that when work is on the quiet side, the weather refuses to play ball, so you can’t get outside and make the most of the extra free time. I did, however, manage to find a dry (and blustery) day to pick some elderflowers at last for my annual cordial making ritual. I even picked more than enough for a change, so decided to experiment with some of the week’s crop of gooseberries and make gooseberry & elderflower gin. I enjoyed last year’s rhubarb gin so much – my favourite drink of last summer – that if the gooseberry & elderflower is half as nice, it will still be eminently drinkable*. Like last year, I used Aldi’s Oliver Cromwell London Gin, which gets excellent reviews.

Gooseberry & Elderflower Gin*

Gooseberry and elderflower gin

1 litre gin
500g gooseberries
strips of orange rind, peeled thinly from 1 orange using a vegetable peeler
250g granulated sugar
6-8 elderflower heads

Top and tail the gooseberries, then cut in half and place in a large 2 litre Kilner jar. Add the granulated sugar, orange rind and elderflower heads. Put on the lid and shake the jar well. Leave to stand in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks, then strain into another bottle. Serve with ice, tonic and lime for a refreshing take on the ubiquitous G&T.

But back to my allotment: after working in my garden at home last weekend, I was determined to finish sowing my French beans and planting out my squash this weekend. Sunday was dedicated to a family lunch for Father’s Day, so that left Saturday afternoon. It had looked promising weatherwise, but the skies were looking very ominous when I headed up there after lunch. The rain held off for the first couple of hours, giving me time to prepare the beds (more bags of manure!), erect the wigwam bean structure, sow the beans (Cosse Violette and Neckarkönigin this year), and plant out the Crown Prince squash. I also took out the last remaining purple-sprouting broccoli plants, long since gone to seed, and did some essential weeding. So far, so good.

Netting the soft fruit was my next priority: the fattest pigeons in the village have already made inroads into my redcurrants, despite them still being green, so I was keen to net them before I lost the lot! Having unearthed last year’s net from the darkest corner of the shed, I managed to cover the bed, gooseberries and blackcurrants included, without too much ado and only needed one peg to seal the inevitable hole. Fingers crossed that this keeps the birds out and the fruit in…

My final job of the afternoon was potentially the most time-consuming and typically the rainclouds were gathering by this stage. No matter, I was determined to complete my list! Bit firmly between my teeth, I set about the task of removing the weedproof membrane from the final stretch of the newly reclaimed flower beds at the top end of the plot, and digging over the soil to remove any stubborn traces of perennial roots, and especially couch grass and the dreaded bindweed. Inevitably, that took longer than I’d have liked, so by the time I was ready to apply another two sacks of farmyard manure, the drizzle was coming down quite steadily.

Undeterred, I carried on, planting my six new dahlias: Penhill Dark Monarch, Emory Paul, Perch Hill, Rip City and Café au Lait Royal, all from Sarah Raven, and Marble Ball, a purple-speckled variety I picked up for 50p at my local garden centre a few weeks ago – who could resist?! The same garden centre’s discount bin also had some striking purple and cream gladioli Dynamite – they were clearly selling off all their bulbs and tubers at the end of the planting season, but definitely not too late to plant out! In too went another dwarf mulberry tree (Charlotte Russe) to match its twin planted a few weeks ago, a large helianthus Lemon Queen picked up at a plant stall near my parents’ house in Copthorne, and a peony I’d moved from the garden at home where it steadfastly refuses to flower and clearly doesn’t get enough sun. A couple of chrysanthemums I’d ensnared at the village Open Gardens day also went in; the pink variety I acquired from the same source last year had come through the winter, somewhat to my surprise, and had been great for later autumn flowers, even after the dahlias had stopped.  I also planted out some seed-sown Antirrhinum Royal Bride to accompany the Callistephus chinensis King Size Apricot (Chinese aster) I planted a few weeks ago and the zinnias I sowed direct one evening (Mazurkia, Purple Prince and Envy). They could do with some more warmth to take off properly, but fingers crossed the slugs don’t get them first…

Allotment top end, Leo and the new beds

A couple of spare squashes and an unknown cucurbit seedling that had appeared in the garden compost distributed around my roses completed my afternoon’s work. This will be a bonus plant – could be a melon, cucumber, squash or courgette – who knows?! If it survives, I’ll be sure to let you know :-). By this time the rain was coming down in stair rods and I resembled a drowned (but satisfied) rat.

New bed unknown curcurbit on frame

Just some harvesting to do before I could escape from the rain – my parents were coming for dinner to stay the night before we drove together to my son’s the next day. Asparagus, broad beans, dill, lettuce, strawberries and another kilo of gooseberries later, I was done. Four hours of very hard and soggy work, but at least I’d accomplished what I’d set out to achieve.

My parents had already arrived and let themselves in when I finally got home, dripping, exhausted, but happy. And my mother’s voice as I opened the kitchen door, saying “I’ve just made a pot of tea”, was balm to my gardener’s soul and just what I wanted to hear. You can’t beat a nice cup of tea after a long session at the plot…

New bed delphiniums

* Sadly, I’ve just tried the gooseberry & elderflower gin and am very disappointed. I’d read that gooseberries need longer to infuse than rhubarb, so left it 3 months, but, after straining, the resulting gin tastes very harsh and metallic, not at all gooseberryish. Perhaps dessert gooseberries might work better? You live and learn…. I’ll stick to the ambrosial rhubarb & ginger gin next time.

A damp start to the year…

Allotment rather the worse for wear
Allotment rather the worse for wear

So much for my good intentions of catching up with the garden and allotment in all that free time over Christmas and the New Year: not only has it been a hectic, social whirl, but the monsoon conditions have definitely not been conducive to outdoor pursuits!

I finally dismantled the Christmas tree and decorations as the rain lashed down outside yesterday, but today it let up slightly, enough for a muddy walk with the dogs at our local reservoir, Bewl Water, and a quick visit to the allotment to harvest leeks and parsnips for dinner. I’ve been lucky and haven’t had any significant storm damage over the last few weeks, apart from my mini polythene greenhouse trying to blow away. I eventually gave up and let it lie, weighted down with a solid garden chair and the inevitable puddle of rainwater. Other plotholders have lost sheds to the gale-force winds, but the dastardly allotment thieves have also taken advantage of the lack of activity up there and vegetables have gone missing that can’t be attributed to the wind: Enviromesh neatly severed and the underlying chard removed? Hmmm… As if the weather isn’t enough of a damper!

Despite the wet, I’m still harvesting parsnips, leeks, swede, Swiss chard and spinach, although the brassicas have been poor this year: slug and caterpillar-attacked in spite of their netting/mesh overcoats. The kale and purple-sprouting broccoli has fared better and looks promising for a month or so’s time – unless we get snow to wreck the taller netting structure and let the pigeons in, that is. I’ve plenty of apples, small potatoes, pumpkins and butternut squash in storage, and a freezer full of soft fruit and beans, so last year was pretty good on the whole.

Returning home, I was able to do a little more tidying up: finally taking the chillis off the now-yellowing plants that have overwintered in the conservatory, storing them in a net bag in the kitchen and spreading the spent gritty compost over the clay soil in my raised beds, which are always grateful for a top-up. I also managed to cut the leaves off all the hellebores, as they were showing signs of unsightly leaf spot: removing them now should hopefully prevent the fungus spreading and allow the emerging buds to gleam purple, pink and white in all their glory over the next few months. One of my favourites, the pretty double Party Frock, was badly affected by black spot last year, so I cut all its leaves off in autumn and dosed it with liquid feed. I can just see signs of new growth and even the odd flower bud, so fingers crossed it has survived….

Final job of the day was transferring very wet kitchen compost from the overflow containers outside the back door (to save the long traipse to the main compost bins behind my garage in inclement weather). Not a pleasant task at the best of times, but even the overflow containers were overflowing after the Christmas festivities, so needs must, and well worth it in the end when there’s that lovely black magic compost to spread on the borders in a year or so.

Not at all what I’d hoped to have achieved by this time, but a start nonetheless – and it feels so good to come inside on a dull day having had your fingers in the earth, no matter how little. Roll on Spring!

Daphnes from the garden
Daphnes from the garden