Tag Archives: dahlias

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

 

 

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Spring is in the air…

Aquilegia and hellebore foliage

I can’t believe it’s over a month since I last wrote – so much for my good intentions! What with pressures of work, a skiing holiday, decorators in painting the kitchen /utility room after having a new oak floor fitted at the end of last year, a wedding food tasting and lots of family visits, blog-writing has definitely taken a back seat of late. This weekend was Mother’s Day, with one son and his fiancée home, then a trip over to my parents’ to see all the family on Sunday – and beautiful spring weather for once too!

The recent springlike weather has tempted me out into the garden to mow my lawn (just the once!), cut back my buddleias and the giant lavatera, prune the roses, dead-head last year’s hydrangea flowers and chop back any remaining perennials that I’d left through the winter to provide shelter and food for birds and insects. There was still a cold wind when I ventured out on Saturday afternoon, but I was determined to pot up my new dahlia tubers from Sarah Raven and the overwintered monster begonias. I also sowed the first batch of seeds, always an exciting moment: sweet peas in pots on the conservatory windowsill (I’ve reverted to trying some inside this year after such a late crop last year, but I will plant more straight into the ground later too, when the soil warms up). Tomatoes (my favourite Sungold and the old-fashioned Ailsa Craig), chillis (Summer Heat and Padron), Romano sweet peppers, aubergine Bonica, lobelia Crystal Palace, and the three leek varieties Bandit, Pandora and Nipper for a succession of leeks all through the autumn/winter – all now tucked up in the propagator. Let the season commence!

Back side bed

I’ve still to distribute last year’s compost around the garden, but there’s always next weekend… In the meantime, let me finish with a springtime lemon & ricotta cake I adapted from a River Café recipe. I had some ricotta in the fridge and fancied a light, lemony and gluten-free cake. This was the result – exactly what I was looking for. The original quantities make a huge cake – I didn’t have a tin big enough and there were only five of us for dinner, so I cut the quantities back by a third – perfect. I found the original recipe here if you’re catering for a crowd!

River Café Lemon, Ricotta, Almond & Polenta Cake – serves 10

Lemon ricotta cake

150g butter, softened
170g ground almonds (you could also use almond flour)
65g fine polenta (whizz in the food processor if you can’t buy fine)
finely grated zest of 4 lemons
170g caster sugar
4 large eggs, separated
200g ricotta
juice of 2 lemons
icing sugar, for dusting

Pre-heat the oven to 150°C.  Grease a 24cm round springform cake tin and line the base with greaseproof paper.

Combine the almonds and polenta (whizzed in the food processor for extra fineness if necessary) and add the lemon zest. Beat the butter and sugar together using an electric mixer until pale and light.  Add the egg yolks one by one, then add the almond mixture and fold together. Put the ricotta into a bowl and beat lightly with a fork, then add the lemon juice. Stir the ricotta into the cake mixture. Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl until they form soft peaks.  Finally fold the egg whites into the almond mixture.

Transfer the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 40 – 50 minutes, until set.  Test by inserting a skewer, which should come out clean.  Leave in the tin to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out. Dust liberally with sifted icing sugar before serving, and garnish with fine strips of lemon rind if desired.

I served it with a jostaberry purée from the freezer, but any red fruit coulis would be good – and it was delicious on its own too. Enjoy!

Standen March 2017
Beautiful Standen near East Grinstead – perfect Mother’s Day outing

 

Putting the zest back into February

snowy-day-in-the-woods-feb-2017

Well, February hasn’t been much of an improvement on January so far. We even had a smattering of snow yesterday, not enough to transform everywhere into a magical winter wonderland, just leaden skies, bitter wind and uniform greyness. Yuk.

Needless to say, there’s still nothing doing in the garden, although this is the perfect time to get on with ordering/buying seeds, potatoes and dahlias for the summer and indulge in a little wistful poring over the catalogues, online or print, to while away the grey days. I’ve been buying my seeds as I see them on offer in local garden centres, often half-price at this time of year, but still had to order a few specials online, like the Ammi visnaga from Sarah Raven, and squashes Crown Prince and Squashkin (a butternut/ Crown Prince hybrid from Marshall’s that sounded too tempting to miss!). I haven’t been overly impressed with the potato selections on offer in my local gardening emporia this year, so ended up ordering those online too: Jazzy from Thompson & Morgan, and Anya, a lovely waxy, salad variety I’ve had before and enjoyed, again from Marshall’s. They came ultra-quickly and are now chitting away in eggboxes in the conservatory – so I suppose that’s some progress!

I couldn’t resist ordering new dahlias too; not sure where I’m going to put them, but I’m sure I’ll find room – and there’s my son’s wedding to grow flowers for this year, of course! This year’s additions are Indian Summer, a spiky scarlet cactus variety, Labyrinth, a fabulous pastel peach confection (I did try this one last year, but with no success; fingers crossed it comes up this year) and Mel’s Orange Marmalade, another extravagant cactus type, purely because I loved the name and couldn’t resist the marmalade colour and fringed, almost marine-like petals.

Despite the lack of action in the garden, miserable weather is always a good excuse to spend time messing about in the kitchen and what better ingredients to use to add some zing to a grey day than citrus fruit? It’s the peak season for citrus just now, so my morning ruby grapefruits are extra-delicious and lemons and limes are plentiful. A neighbour, who I cat-sit for when they’re on holiday, very kindly brought around a big pot of home-made Seville orange marmalade on Friday and I even managed to buy my absolute favourite citrus fruits, blood oranges, in Lidl yesterday – they only have a very short season, so all the more reason to snap them up when you find them!

blood-oranges

So what did I make on this cold winter Sunday? First, a carrot, orange & ginger soup to add a touch of sunshine to a chilly lunchtime. Then I finally got round to using up some egg yolks that have been sitting in the fridge since last weekend, when I used the whites in a pineapple & coconut meringue roulade for my younger son’s birthday celebrations. Five egg yolks is quite a lot to have hanging around, especially when you’re cooking for one. The usual contenders of custard, or pastry, only use one or two yolks and my standby gooseberry & crème fraiche tart is best made in summer with fresh, not frozen gooseberries (too much liquid) and for a party to boot! A colleague on Foodie Translators had posted a tempting-looking recipe for lemon bars, based on a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, which sounded interesting, but used whole eggs. Researching further found an article in the Guardian by Ruby Tandoh, in which she makes lemon curd with just the yolks – and thus an idea was born….

First, the soup though. I make several variations on carrot soup, including carrot & coriander and a carrot & lentil from an ancient M&S cookery book. Both excellent, but if you fancy something both citrussy and slightly spicy, this really hits the spot.

Carrot, Orange & Ginger Soup -serves 6-8

carrot-orange-ginger-soup

750g carrots, peeled & chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 orange, juice and grated zest
1 cooking apple, peeled and chopped
1 2.5cm piece root ginger, grated (I store in the freezer and grate from frozen)
50g butter
Salt and pepper
1.25 l chicken stock (or you can use vegetable stock if you prefer)
Few sprigs thyme, leaves only

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the onions, garlic and celery. Sweat gently for 5 minutes or so while you prepare the carrots and apple, then add to the pan with the grated ginger and thyme leaves. Continue to cook for a few more minutes, then add the grated orange zest and juice. Pour in the stock, season and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes, or until the carrots are tender. Leave to cool slightly, then purée in a liquidiser until smooth. You may need to add more stock at this stage, depending how thick you like your soup – or you could add cream or milk if you prefer. Garnish with coriander or parsley if you have any; otherwise eat as it is and enjoy your little bowl of sunshine!

Needless to say, I had to tweak the Barefoot Contessa’s lemon bar recipe to suit the five egg yolks I had lurking in the fridge, so I more or less halved the quantities, cut down the sugar content, and went from there, adjusting as I went. I was delighted with the results, tangy yet buttery at the same time, but you might wish to tweak further!

Lemon Bars – serves 12

lemon-bars

125g butter
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
pinch salt
Grated rind of 1 lemon

5 egg yolks
200g caster sugar
Grated rind of 3 lemons
Juice of 3/4 lemons (110-120ml juice in total)
50g plain flour, sifted

Put the first five ingredients, for the shortbread base, into a food processor and blend together until mixed and starting to form a ball. Remove, knead together lightly and press into a greased 17.5cm (7″) square tin. Prick with a fork, then bake in the oven at 160°C, Gas 4 for 15-20 minutes until light golden.

Meanwhile, make the filling: blend the egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice and zest and flour with a hand whisk, then pour over the cooked shortbread base. Return to the oven for 25 – 30 minutes, or until set. Leave to cool, then dust with icing sugar and serve with a nice cup of tea. Amazingly good!

Flowers in October

flowers-in-oct_cropped

It was time for the autumn tidy-up this weekend as I’ll be busy for the next few weekends. Despite mixed weather – sunshine and showers – I managed to tick practically everything off my to-do list and can turn my back on the allotment with a relatively clear conscience now!

Despite it being mid October, the dahlias and the sweet peas are still going strong, and will no doubt carry on until the first frosts. Admittedly, the sweet peas were extremely slow to get going this year, but I don’t think I’ve ever picked such healthy bouquets this late in the year! There’s no doubt that having a cutting garden at the allotment makes for one of the most cost-effective – and delightful – crops, from May right through ’til November. Bliss. I’d extended my flower production to two raised beds this year and it’s worked better than I could have hoped: more dahlias, armfuls of ammi majus and a surprising star in the form of Achillea Summer Berries, sown from seed earlier this year and excellent for picking in a range of soft pinks and creams. The plants I planted out in the garden at home were devoured by slugs the minute they went in, but the allotment ones escaped unscathed and I’m hoping for an even better display next year. The bupleurum and euphorbia were disappointing, but more than compensated by the self-sown dill flowers (and alchemilla mollis from home) which provide that yellow or green zing for arrangements. I currently have no less than 11 vases of blooms dotted around the house, some admittedly just single stem posies, but for mid-autumn that really isn’t bad going…

As well as harvesting yet more glorious flowers, courgettes (also still coming aplenty!), leeks and the last of the main stems of calabrese, I also picked all my apples on Sunday to pre-empt the frosts. I thought there wouldn’t be as many this year, but as I filled bag after bag, I see I was mistaken! All now safely hanging in the garage, but I suspect I’ll have to give some away – far too many for one. As it was, I left two bags of windfalls on the allotment sharing table and there are quite a number of prime specimens still on the trees, out of reach without a long ladder. I may leave those for the birds…. Oh, and this is where I’m glad I pay 40p for the privilege of having my fortnightly online shopping delivered in bags! I’m all for saving on plastic bag use (and re-use canvas bags/bags for life wherever I can), but short of investing in an old-fashioned apple store, I’m not sure how I’d store apples without my good, old, sturdy Waitrose bags.

red-apples-2016

Other tasks crossed off my list included taking out the spent sweetcorn haulms and shrivelled squash plants for the compost. The squash have been a complete write-off this year, one of the few crops that haven’t done well. I can only assume it was the late, cold spring and not a long enough growing season. In their place I sowed next year’s broad bean seeds, Aquadulce as usual. Such a lovely thought that they will start growing now, while the soil is still warm, hibernate through the winter, and then produce their delicious bounty as one of the first crops of next spring/summer, with very little interference from me. I also planted some Oriental salad leaves under an Enviromesh tunnel, more as an experiment than anything else. I had intended to plant them at the end of September along with the rocket and hardy lettuce, but time ran away with me. We’ll see. When I’ve tried planting salad crops under fleece at this time of year before, I had a great crop of early salad leaves the following spring – definitely worth a go!

 

exotic-emperor-tulip

I’d ordered my new-season tulips from Sarah Raven (my annual treat!) a few weeks ago and most of the varieties bar one have arrived, so I finished planting up my spring barrels, taking out the old tuberous begonias (far too top-heavy this late in the year) and storing the dinner plate-sized tubers in brown paper bags in the shed for next year. I’ve tried to opt for earlier varieties in this year’s selection, so that I get more of a splash of colour at the same time: Vanilla Cream and soft pink Design Impression for my pair of tubs by the front arch, pale lemon lily-flowered Sapporo near the front door and Spring Green and Exotic Emperor, both white with green, in the back garden. I can hardly wait!

tulip-sapporo

I also lifted some of the wallflowers (peachy-pink Aurora) I’d sown from seed in May and planted some of the sturdy little plants in the barrels too – hoping for an impressive display next April/May. Blue pansies bought en masse (and on offer) from my local garden centre, Tête-à-Tête daffodils and Cream Beauty crocus complete the mix. Now to stop the dog digging up the pansies in search of the deliciously-scented (to him at any rate) chicken pellet fertiliser I’ve obviously used far too liberally!

leo-at-richmond

 

 

 

Spring Rush

Green roof_cropped

It’s at this time of year, after the clocks have gone forward, the sun finally shows its face and the soil gradually starts to warm up, that the rush is on to get everything going in the garden. It’s often a case of dodging the showers and making use of the limited time you have available to sow seeds here, prepare ground there and generally tick off all those spring jobs.

I sowed my first seeds two weeks ago, but most are now up and can be removed from the propagator to make room for the next batch: tomatoes (two old favourites, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight, and a new variety to me, Black Russian, a medium beefsteak heritage tomato, supposedly with an outstanding, rich flavour – we shall see!) and cucumber. I’m reverting back to Marketmore this year, a variety I used to grow with great success in my big greenhouse in Scotland, but I’m hoping it will like the conditions on the open allotment too, as I haven’t had a lot of success with other varieties I’ve tried outside to date.

Other jobs include planting up my new dahlias. I leave my existing dahlia tubers in the ground over the winter, well-mulched, and they seem to thrive, but as I’m cutting down on potatoes and adding another cutting flower bed at the allotment this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to treat myself to a couple more! I ordered Café au Lait (from Crocus) plus Labyrinth and Wizard of Oz (from Sarah Raven), all in pastel shades that will extend my existing range of colours beautifully – and with half an eye to my son’s wedding next year, I must admit! These are started off in pots in my grow frame at home, then will go into the open ground when they are established and better able to cope with slug attacks. I’ve also started off my tuberous begonias, now huge tubers after two seasons’ worth of growing. I may have to ask friends for the loan of some space in their large glasshouse when I run out of room in the grow frame/conservatory windowsill for these monsters!

I also like to use fibrous-rooted begonias in my summer tubs as they don’t mind rain or shine and are also pretty slug-resistant. I buy the tiny plug plants from my local garden centre, sold in 24s for pricking out at home. In actual fact, each plug often contains two tiny plants and I invariably manage to get at least 60 plantlets once I’ve prised them apart. A very economical way of buying bedding plants, especially as these are notoriously tricky to grow from seed without specialist conditions.

Other jobs included dead-heading last year’s hydrangea flowers, another way of instantly tidying up the garden. These crispy flowerheads have done a great job of protecting the new foliage from late frosts, but we should be safe now to snip them off – although I once did this in late March when we lived in Scotland, only to have a very severe frost a couple of nights later, ending up with frosted new shoots and far fewer flowers than usual – you have been warned!

New rasp bed 2

Down at the allotment, I finally managed to finish digging over my new raspberry bed and have planted up the new autumn canes, Polka, ordered from Thompson & Morgan. Having lost all my autumn raspberries last year due to some unknown virus, I thought I’d try a different variety: Polka is bred from the classic Autumn Bliss, but it supposed to have double the yield. I’ll report back in due course! I also dug up some summer raspberry suckers from where they are thriving underneath the Bramley apple tree and made a new row of summer fruit too – you can never have enough raspberries! I’ve finally found a taker for the top part of my allotment, so won’t have my original fruit bed any more – but I don’t think I’m going to go short any time soon….

Raspberry Polka

All in all, a very satisfying weekend’s gardening.

After a meat-filled few days over Easter, with family and guests, I fancied something simple and vegetarian this weekend. There’s very little left on the allotment at this time of year (a few remaining leeks, parsnips, purple-sprouting broccoli and spinach), so I opted for an old favourite, based on spinach, originally from my friend Bridget up in Cheshire. This is so quick and easy, but delicious – life’s definitely NOT too short to stuff a mushroom!

Garlicky Stuffed Mushrooms – serves 2

Garlicky mushroom

4 large flat mushrooms (Portobello), wiped and stalks removed

Knob of butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

2 generous handfuls of young spinach, washed, large stems removed and chopped

Seasoning

1 Boursin cheese

 Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the chopped onions and garlic. Cook until translucent, then add the chopped spinach and continue cooking for 5 mins or so until nicely wilted, then season to taste.

Divide the spinach and onion mixture between the flat mushrooms in a roasting tin and add 3-4 tbsp water to the base of the tin. Top each mushroom with a generous slice of Boursin (blue cheese or even goat’s cheese also work well). Cover the tin with foil.

Cook in a hot oven (180°C, Gas 5) for about 20 minutes, then remove the foil and cook for a further couple of minutes to brown the cheese slightly.

You can serve these with crusty bread to mop up the garlicky juices, but I like them just as they are – who needs meat with flavours as good as these?!

Flowers for the house?

Bridget's arrangementOne of the things I love most about having an allotment is that it enables you to grow masses of flowers to cut for the house. With only a small rear courtyard garden and a not much bigger front garden at home, I can only really pick small seasonal posies without spoiling the display in the garden, which of course lasts for much longer if not picked! I love to see colour all year round, so the garden at home is planned for a succession of colour, but I get so much pleasure from that when I’m working from home, or coming in and out, that it seems criminal to snip more than a few flowers here or there. It’s lovely, too, to have bunches to give away when visiting friends for dinner – a hand-tied arrangement is often far nicer than anything you could buy and people are always thrilled that you’ve grown them yourself.

dahlias in situDown on the plot, however, I have a whole bed dedicated to flowers: mainly dahlias that stay in the ground year after year and have now reached monster proportions! So much so, that I really need to think about lifting and dividing them this autumn to make room for new varieties. I’ve also squeezed in some gladioli, which don’t take up much room and are far more effective used for picking than standing awkwardly in a flowerbed, and a couple of cosmos plants. I have a framework of blue-hued sweet peas (Singing the Blues from Mr Fothergill’s seeds) alongside my mangetouts and have been picking huge bunches every couple of days since the beginning of July – heaven!

sweet peas in situNext year, I’m planning on growing even more flowers by sacrificing a potato bed. I used to grow three beds of potatoes, 20 tubers in each, covering early, salad and maincrop varieties, but I cut back to two last year, when my boys left home, and I’ve realised that even two beds is far too many for one, even if I give them away to visitors! Wireworms and slugs tend to get there before I can with the later crops, and then there’s blight at the end of the season, inevitable on a large allotment site. Far better, I’ve decided, to devote another bed to flowers, preferably earlier-flowering varieties so I can extend the cutting season.

Sweet peasI already grow sweet William and wallflowers as decorative edging to some of my vegetable beds, and I have daffodils under my apple trees and tulips in the asparagus beds, along with beautiful lilac opium poppies. Yet I’m craving peonies for lavish armfuls in early summer, plus those useful early annuals such as Ammi and Bupleureum for adding white and lime green froth respectively to spring and summer arrangements. Alchemilla mollis I already have in abundance at home, and a visiting friend this weekend had the inspired idea of using golden yellow dill flowers to accompany my deep red, pink and white dahlias – a stunning combination, as you can see above! Our local florist at one of my favourite local tearooms, Beal’s Barn, often has fabulously decadent double ranunculus in her spring arrangements and that’s another bulb I’d like to try in my new bed, possibly with freesias too, on a friend’s recommendation. Hardiness may be a concern, but if the dahlias survive the winter, there’s every reason to suppose these might too.

Glorious gladioliAt this time of year my house is already full of flower arrangements – I counted as many as 14 in one go, from tiny posies of sweet peas or roses in my office, to statuesque vases of gladioli and big, blowsy bunches of old-fashioned dahlias. I love it!

Dahlia Sugar Diamond July 2015

Sowing the seeds of summer

Gerrie Hoek

Despite the chill winds of mid-March, now is the time to start off those early seeds for summer crops. I sowed my chillis (Apache), aubergines (Bonica) and sweet peas and lobelia just over a week ago before escaping to the Alps for a sunny ski break. The lobelia (dark blue Crystal Palace) are up already, but no sign of the chillis and aubergines – not that I expected there to be! They can take up to 3 weeks, even in a heated propagator, so all the more reason to get them in early. You can, of course, buy young plants later on, but that’s much more expensive and I find they are more prone to disease and aphids if you buy them in, presumably because they are hot-housed in great numbers…. The sweet peas (Singing the Blues) are sitting 5 to a pot on the sunny conservatory windowsill and usually take around a fortnight to germinate. I soaked the seeds in warm water overnight this time before sowing; this used to be recommended practice, but advice seems to have changed in recent years, resulting in much worse germination in my experience – so back to the old tried and trusted methods! I usually sow another batch of seed straight out in the open in April too, and they invariably catch up by mid-summer, and extend the picking season too.

Today I’ve planted parsley (Champion) and basil (British Basil), both in small pots in the propagator, and also three kinds of leeks : Nipper for early baby leeks from September onwards, Pandora for mid-season leeks and the blue-green Bandit for late winter leeks. Last year’s plantings are still going strong; in fact, I’m probably going to have to lift and store them in the next couple of weeks to make room for the new-season crops! Yes, they are in the ground a long time, but such a good-value crop for very little outlay and effort…. I would hate to be without my leeks! Each packet of seed usually contains plenty for two years of sowing – watch out for parsley, though, as fresh seed usually gives best results.

I’ve also potted up some new dahlias from Sarah Raven, ordered a few weeks ago: I love browsing through her catalogue (www.sarahraven.com) and try and experiment with new ones each year, if I can find room! I jettisoned some single yellow dahlias I’d grown from seed last year, which didn’t go with my deep red, white and pink colour scheme down on the allotment, so just room to shoe-horn in a couple more! I’ve gone for a white and purple bicolour collection: Edge of Joy and Alauna Clair Obscur, as well as two pinks: a spikey cactus type, Sugar Diamond, and Gerrie Hoek, a pale salmon pink waterlily type – can’t wait! I find it’s best to start them in pots in my grow rack, allowing them to get going away from the harmful effects of slugs, then transfer them out when the shoots are growing well. Once they’re established, I usually leave them out to overwinter as they’re planted deep enough in the raised beds to withstand the worst of the winter weather, even when we had sustained periods of ice and snow a few years back.

Alauna Clair Obscur dahlia Sugar Diamond Edge of Joy

My final task of the day was to pot up the tuberous begonia corms I bought last year and had overwintered, well-wrapped in brown paper bags, in the shed. The corms had tripled in size since last spring and seem firm enough, so I’ve potted them up in large pots and put them in the grow rack with the dahlias – just hope we don’t get any severe cold spells now!

Just time after all that for a brisk walk down to the allotment with the dogs to bring back some leeks and purple sprouting broccoli to accompany my duck breast and parsnip purée for dinner. Sublime…