Tag Archives: bluebells

Getting stronger…

Cherry blossom front garden

Me, and growth in the garden, that is! An unexpectedly warm and sunny week in mid-April is just what the doctor ordered, encouraging me out to ever longer dog walks (dry and less treacherous underfoot, thank goodness) and also spurring the gardens into heavenly spring growth: tulips, daffodils, camellias, magnolias, epimediums, bluebells – all flowering at once…. Stunning!

I took the opportunity of a trip over to my son’s near Sevenoaks at the weekend to visit a garden I’ve always meant to visit: Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, perched on a fabulous vantage point above the A21, overlooking the Kent and Sussex Weald. It didn’t disappoint with intoxicating bluebell walks, stately rhododendrons, magnificent magnolias and fantastic views everywhere you looked. Dogs were allowed (on leads), a rare treat in these days where dogs seemed to be banned outright in many of the classic National Trust gardens. A sorry tale of the few cavalier dog owners spoiling it for the many who do pick up after their dogs and keep them under control in public places. For the odd child who veered away from our three (on their leads, good as gold). there were lots of others who were keen to come and coo and stroke them, especially my daughter-in-law’s working cocker spaniel, Ollie, who basks in all the attention, true therapy dog that he is.

Ollie in coat

Part of the reason I was able to have such a relaxed weekend was that I’d taken the plunge to get a cleaner back in to clean my house, partly because of my accident, but also to free up precious leisure time. I’d also, for the first time ever, paid for help in the garden, to do the heavy jobs I’d struggle to do with a weak, though recovering knee. A very good move: my overgrown lawn is now neatly mown, hard-to-access areas under trees and shrubs weeded, garden compost distributed around the hungry beds and my potatoes (Ulster Sceptre, Colleen and Bonnie) duly planted at the allotment. Such a relief!

On a side note, Ulster Sceptre is a variety I trialled from T&M some years ago and absolutely loved. I haven’t been able to find them since, but tracked them down to a grower in Yorkshire this year, only to see them described as the variety often grown as early Cheshires – no wonder I loved them, if they are the new potato taste of my childhood!

This left me free to spend a lovely afternoon just pottering on Sunday. I sowed more seeds in the propagator as others germinate and are moved out onto the conservatory windowsill: sweetcorn Ambrosia, courgette Defender and squash Crown Prince (from my own seeds saved from last year) and Early Butternut. Oh, and I’ve tried more celeriac this year (Monarch), having enjoyed it so much in cooking last year: so good with venison. It’s always been a martyr to slug damage whenever I’ve tried it before, but we’ll see…

I also got around to potting up my dahlia tubers, to get them going in the protected environment of my growframe before they go out in the open. Somehow or other I must have gone crazy at dahlia ordering time and have ended up with 10 new varieties! Six from Sarah Raven: purple Ripples, Shooting Star (cream tinged with mauve), Genova (mauve), Snowstorm (white of  course), Wizard of Oz (baby pink) and Daisy Duke (copper). The cream and purple shades are admittedly geared to my younger son’s July wedding, when it would be nice to have at least some blooms to accompany their lavender theme – weather permitting! I have bought a new raised bed kit to be dedicated to cutting flowers, but need help to install it: one for my gardener’s list, I think.

I had also succumbed to a Gardener’s World/Thompson & Morgan dahlia offer: four tubers for the cost of postage; who could resist?! These included Arabian Night, a deep red black cactus variety I’ve had before and loved – and since my favourite dark dahlia Rip City finally disappeared last year, this was an ideal chance to re-introduce that burgundy shade. The others were My Love (cream), Orfeo (another deep red) and Mingus Toni (speckled rose). I’m sure I’ll manage to shoehorn them all in somewhere… It may even be that some of last year’s, all left in the ground to overwinter as usual, haven’t survived the very cold temperatures we had earlier this year. Time will tell.

TM dahlia offer

Most of the tuberous begonias I’d overwintered in the shed had perished in the extremely cold temperatures, but two of my monster tubers still feel quite solid and have been duly potted up. I’ve had them all for a good couple of years, so they owe me nothing; we’ll see if they shoot, and if not, I’ll start again with fresh plants and new varieties. Such is the joy of gardening 🙂

My final task of the weekend, still from a gentle sitting position with my potting tray moved to my garden table, involved pricking out the fibrous begonia seedlings my parents had brought over the previous weekend from Dove’s Barn, a nursery near them in East Grinstead, always very reasonably-priced for a wide range of seedlings and young plants. These are very tricky to grow from seed yourself unless you have a heated greenhouse, so I usually buy them at the tiny seedling stage and prick them out myself. These were one stage further on as mini plug plants, but it’s still a lot cheaper to buy them like this than to buy trays of garden-ready plants in a month or so’s time. And while it may seem unadventurous to always have begonias in my garden tubs, I know from experience that these are such good doers: come sun or rain, slug epidemic or drought, these do well whatever the season throws at them.

Bluebells at Tapsells April 2018



Bluebells, tulips and wild garlic – a bounty of bulbs!

What a fabulous season it’s been for bulbs! The bluebells on my daily dog walks have been absolutely heavenly this year, obviously relishing the heavy rains of winter. That scent as you walk through them is just knockout – making you inclined to linger and not return to the desk at all!


As for the tulips, well, they’ve been brilliant too. I’m lucky to have (at least) two beautiful tulip events to visit round here, with the deservedly renowned Pashley Manor Tulip Festival (http://www.pashleymanorgardens.com/) last weekend for stunning drifts of tulips in an immaculately maintained country garden setting and the backdrop of a wisteria-clad manor house. Bliss….


The weekend before I’d made time to go to the tulip open day at Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden (https://www.sarahraven.com/perch-hill), just south of Burwash and not very far from here either. I always look forward to Sarah’s open days, especially the tulip one, as she grows her tulips in amongst the vegetable and flower beds and I always come away inspired.


This year I’d ordered the Brandy Snap mix shown in the image above for my own tubs, but mine didn’t all flower at the same time for some reason, so whilst they were gorgeous, they didn’t look quite as spectacular as Sarah’s. This mix contained tulips Ronaldo, Bruine Wimpel, Belle Epoque and Cairo and was a really sensational smoky blend of colours. I think in future I might revert to having one colour per tub, though, as I’ve done in previous years, just for the sheer massed effect of one colour. Sarah offers both tulip mixes where you get a mixed bag of 4 different tulips, and collections, where each tulip variety is bagged separately and I think that’s the way to go – for me at least.


I adore bulb-planting time in the autumn and am like a child in a sweetshop when it comes to choosing new bulbs each year. I always buy new tulips for my five large oak barrels, and then, when it’s time to empty the barrels of their winter offering ready for the summer planting, I look at the bulbs to decide whether to keep them. If they have split into lots of tiny bulbs, it’s not worth saving them as they’re unlikely to flower again, and I just compost them. If, however, the bulb is still a good size, I plant them out in the garden and enjoy them for years to come. The bulb growers never give any guidance about which ones are perennial and which ones aren’t – and indeed it varies according to your soil and the position they’re planted in! I have colonised the communal island opposite my house (as viewed from my study window!) as the perfect spot for tulips and Mediterranean-style plants. The soil is pretty poor – I suspect it was the builders’ soil repository when they built the three new houses next door to my plot back in 2000 – but it is south-facing and banked and the tulips love it! The varieties I have found to be reliably perennial include Purissima (early white – always the first tulip to flower here), Doll’s Minuet (as shown in the foreground above, a delightful fuchsia-pink lily-flowered tulip which has really bulked up in the ground) and red Oxford, which has a striking yellow base, visible as it opens fully. There’s also a beautiful pink variety, tipped with silver, but the problem with planting them out and seeing what comes up is that I’m not sure which variety it is! I suspect it’s Pink Impression, although I’ve also had Menton, which is similar, and Judith Leyster, another potential contender. Motto: keep better records of where you’ve planted what! Either way, it’s a fabulous tulip and comes reliably year on year. There’s also a deep burgundy tulip, but mysteriously I’ve no records as to what that might be! It’s always worth a try, in any event – as long as the bulbs are a reasonable size. I’m due to start emptying my spring pots next weekend and am hoping that at least some of this year’s beauties are suitable for planting out…


I’ve actually run out of space on the front beds, unless I dig up yet more lawn (!), so my thought this year is to plant some (fingers crossed!) down at the allotment, between my asparagus rows. That bed is pretty empty at this time of year, apart from the burgeoning asparagus shoots which are cut down as soon as they reach 8” tall – mmm! I thought it might be a nice idea to have some tulips there as a cutting crop – especially as I can never bring myself to cut the ones at home, even though they make a prolific show nowadays. I’ll report back on how I get on!


Final bulb of the season has to be the wild garlic, which has also had a good year. It seems to arrive all of a sudden, and I find myself heading back from my bluebell walks with a rucksack full of wild garlic leaves (prompting the postmistress to ask what the smell was one day last week! Oops…). Wild garlic pesto is delicious and allows you to steal a march whilst you’re waiting for this year’s basil seedlings to grow. Thanks again to Sarah Raven for the recipe, from her Garden Cookbook, one of my favourites:

Wild Garlic Pesto

  • 2 handfuls (about 100g) of wild garlic leaves with flowers
  • 200ml extra virgin olive oil, plus a bit more for sealing
  • 50g pine nuts
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 50g Parmesan cheese, grated
  • salt and black pepper

Blanch the wild garlic leaves in boiling water for about 10 seconds. Refresh in cold water and pat dry on kitchen paper. Put the wild garlic, olive oil, pine nuts or walnuts, together with the garlic cloves, into a food processor and blend to a puree. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the grated Parmesan. Season carefully and put into a sterilised jar. Pour over a little extra virgin olive oil to seal and cover tightly.

I must admit, I don’t think you need to add the extra garlic cloves as it packs quite a punch anyway! Certainly don’t add them if you’re freezing it. I found it kept in the fridge for a good week, ideal for use in pasta sauces and, sublimely, in risotto.

I often adapt Delia’s oven-baked risotto these days, just so I can get on with other things as it cooks and don’t need to stand by the stove, stirring away. You can use any other vegetables you like, of course, but here’s my suggestion for a delicious wild garlic, leek and bacon risotto:

Wild Garlic, Leek and Bacon Risotto

100g smoked bacon, chopped

225g leeks, trimmed and sliced

150g arborio risotto rice

50g butter

1 small onion, chopped

75 ml dry white wine

approx. 500 ml homemade stock (vegetable, chicken or ham)

1 dspn chopped fresh thyme

2 tbsp wild garlic pesto (see above)

2 tbsp Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated

salt & pepper

To serve:

50g Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, grated

Chopped parsley or toasted pine nuts to garnish.

Pre-heat the oven to 160°C, Gas 4. Cook the bacon and the onion in the butter until soft and golden – 5-7 mins. Place a 9” square baking dish (2” deep) into the oven to warm up. Add the leeks and the rice to the pan and stir through to get a good coating of butter. (It will look as though there’s not nearly enough rice at this stage but it swells during cooking.) Add the wine and the stock, then the thyme, a couple of good spoonfuls of pesto and seasoning and bring to boiling point. Transfer the contents of the pan into the warmed dish, stir and bake, uncovered, for 20 mins.Then stir in 2 tbsp Parmesan and add more liquid if it’s all absorbed – I find it always needs more, so make sure you allow extra. Return to oven and cook for a further 15 mins, before serving with extra cheese and toasted pine nuts as a garnish – or parsley if you prefer.


I find this makes enough for two (hungry) people and enough left for arancini (risotto balls) for lunch the next day – just roll the leftover risotto into balls and put a cube of cheese – Taleggio or Gorgonzola are ideal – in the middle of each one). Either cook in a preheated oven at 180°C as they are, or, if you want to do it properly (as when my perfectionist and budding Masterchef student son is home!) dip alternately in flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs, fry off briefly, then finish in oven. Either way, they are delicious, served with homemade tomato sauce if you have any (or passata with appropriate seasoning and herbs will do otherwise).