There’s a drawer in my house that makes me feel guilty. In this dusty, wooden recess lies a testament to human fallibility. Crumpled paper and plastic packets announce themselves in faded, soil-splattered letters, as Nero di Toscana and French Touchon, Golden Bantam Dolce and Tricolour. Their edges are torn, their contents are leaking, they speak of broken promises and neglect. They share their space for some reason with a hacksaw, labyrinthine tangles of string and some old bulbs that have started to smell weird, all of which may go some way to excusing my reluctance to go there, but there is really no excuse. Over the course of the past 5-10 years I have bought these seeds and now I’ve abandoned them.
We all have a guilty drawer. Maybe yours is full of foreign coins, 3D cinema specs (yes, we’ll buy another set of four, please) and old mobile phones. But if you have ever gardened, chances are you have a drawer just like mine. And, as every year goes by, the seeds you bought with such hopes of burgeoning magnificence and harvest glories get older and mustier. You give them a wide berth.
Packets of seeds are not expensive, but when you have a drawer of 100 of them, it mounts up. There’s usually an expiry date on the bottom of the packet, two to three years into the future. But when this time is up, should they be thrown away? And what if the packet’s half used up? Do the remaining seeds last as long, their air-vacuumed state compromised? If it was a damp day when you sowed, would that affect the longevity of the rest of the packet? And how long do seeds last if you’ve saved them yourself in old envelopes? For the beginner vegetable grower it can be tempting to throw them away and start from scratch each year. Or, if you’re like me, you just leave them in a dusty, weird-smelling drawer for 10 years and pretend they don’t exist.
But no longer! This is the year of the seed drawer and I resolved to do something about it. First I put all my old vegetable seed packets in alphabetical order in an old wooden box. I’ve always been childishly opposed to alphabetising, on the grounds that the next step is socks under my sandals and the outlines of tools drawn on shed walls so they hang up neatly (actually, an extremely sensible idea), but as I get older, I find myself embracing these sort of nerdy practices. Because, you know what, complacent former me in my mid 20s, it saves time in the long run! And you won’t cut your hand on a hacksaw when you’re looking for climbing squash.
Next I chose some of the oldest, craggiest, sorriest-looking seed packets I could find and sprinkled a pinch of their seeds on moist kitchen paper on a plate. I can remember buying some of these carrot, kale and chilli seeds when my kids were teething. They’re now playing rugby and showing me how to use social media. Making sure to label the seeds, I then put clingfilm over the whole lot and put the plate on a windowsill inside.
There is no need to water – the clingfilm keeps them moist. After two weeks, everything that is going to germinate will have done. Over the next few days, my seeds gradually plumped up until, bingo, some actually put out a tentative white root. Six days in, and most of the carrots have already germinated and two kale seeds are leading the way. The chillis have eight more days to prove themselves. There’s life in (some of) the old seeds yet! But how much? And how does this help? Well, if, after two weeks, half the seeds germinate, I know I have to sow double the quantity to get the same rate of germination. If only one in 5 actually germinate, then I sow five times as much. If none germinate, I chuck them away with a clear conscience.
This makes me happy. At this time of year, as we all gaze into our guilty drawers, I’m offering you a way out. Get that saucer and test your seeds before you throw them away and throw money down the drain on new ones. Maybe next week I’ll show you what to do with all your 3D specs…
So I said I would post a photo of my home forced chicory after a month. Mmm, this is slightly embarrassing. That was almost three months ago and… let’s just say I’m not buying the pear, stilton and walnuts quite yet. Sheesh, these are some slow chicons. Also they look rather brown in places, which I am trying to ignore.
I now realise that, when you shove the roots into the compost you have to avoid getting compost over the cut part of the leaves since otherwise it just stays there, rotting the leaves. In other scintillating updates I’ve had to evict a couple of slugs from the pots (next time I’ll check the pots for slugs before upending them on top) and remove some slimy outer leaves with my bare fingers (which was fun). I’m anticipating eating these chicons in around November by which time they will have been in the shed for so long that they will have to be salvaged in a recovery operation from under a giant pile of cardboard boxes. Bon appetit.
I blooming love chicory. Not so much the bitter red radiccio or even bitterer green leafy stuff beloved by the French and Italians, but those bitter-sweet crunchy white forced chicons that look more fungi than vegetable. There’s something so delicious about starting at the bitterer tip with its wings of yellow-green and then rewarding yourself with the sweetest most refreshing crunch at the bottom – as long as you don’t eat the base which is bitterer than that stuff you had to paint on your nails to stop yourself biting them. Or ear wax, but we won’t go into that.
We get through packets of chicory over winter, whether in salads with lumps of blue cheese, goat’s cheese or feta or with a sharp lemony dressing to go with pasta. But I’ve never grown it successfully – only once trying to force the de Treviso variety outside with a flower pot over it. It may have worked, but whatever shoots emerged, the slugs got too first, so harvest was nil.
In mid-summer this year I decided I’d give it a proper go, so took a load of fruit crates off the hands of our local greengrocers, filled them with regular peat free compost and sowed some forcing chicory – obviously I am not organised enough to have kept the seed packet but think it might have been Focus from Unwins. I put the crates in a shady spot and watered them when I remembered.
Despite the trays being woefully and probably inadequately shallow the plants have done OK and I’ve ended up with about 12 leafy plants that look a bit like a cross between a leggy cos lettuce and a dandelion. This morning I dug them up, cut the leaves back to an inch of the base and repotted 5 of them in a 30cm diameter terracotta pot that already has almost unused compost in it, thanks to a failed okra growing experiment this year (don’t bother). The roots were pleasingly chunky, like turnips. I replanted them at the original depth so the cut ends are sticking out. You can also use sand but I wouldn’t use any compost likely to have mould, algae or weed seeds in it.
I’ve bunged the pot in the shed and put another pot on top with a board over the drainage holes so it’s properly dark. Now I wait and see – the stumps (for want of a better word) are supposed to sprout the snow white chicons after about a month after which you can apparently snap them off for a second harvest.
I’ll post a photo of them in a month – will it be of plump, crunchy, pure white torpedoes or a pot of bare compost? Watch this space…
Discover how to grow delicious fruit and vegetables and make the most of them in the kitchen too!
In September I’m excited to be launching a new venture, Pot to Pot, a series of half-day workshops with cookery writer CJ Jackson. Pot to Pot was an idea drawn up over a cup of coffee after a chance meeting during a school drop off. Having grown up only a few miles apart, CJ and I now live on opposite sides of the Bourne Valley in the Kent countryside.
I’ve been growing fruit and vegetables for many years now, but my skills very much stop at the kitchen door. CJ, on the other hand, is expert at turning home-grown harvests into gourmet feasts so we’ve decided to team up for some half-day workshops, showing just what you can grow and how to get the best out of it in the kitchen. You’ll learn from me what varieties to go for, get some great growing tips and plenty of inspiration from our showcase vegetable container garden where we’ve been growing everything from squash to cape gooseberries, watermelon to sweet potatoes. CJ will then show you how to turn these potted wonders into gourmet fabulousness.
Pot to Pot workshops will be held at The Coach House, Long Mill Lane, Crouch TN15 8QB, Kent (near Sevenoaks) and the price includes coffee and homemade cakes on arrival, lots of growing tips, a tour of our jam-packed container vegetable garden and a delicious lunch prepared from seasonal homegrown produce by CJ. You’ll go home with a goody bag including seeds and our Pot to Pot booklet of recipes and growing tips. It’ll be fun, informal and, hopefully, you’ll learn a little bit too.
How to find us
The Coach House is about 40 minutes drive from London, 20 minutes drive from Sevenoaks and just 10 minutes from junction 2 of the M20. Nearest train stations are Borough Green & Wrotham (10 minutes) or Sevenoaks (20 minutes) Click here for a map for The Coach House
CJ Jackson is a cookery writer, creative product development consultant, teacher and demonstrator. She trained at the Cordon Bleu School in London, where she worked as a teacher before moving to Leith’s School of Food and Wine in 1989 where she eventually became Vice Principal. CJ then ran her own freelance food consultancy for several years until taking on the running of Billingsgate Seafood School where she still works as CEO and Principal. She has written and co-authored a number of books including both The Leith’s Fish Bible and Leith’s Seasonal Bible (Bloomsbury) both of which highlight her passion for seafood and enthusiasm for cooking with seasonal produce. Other publications include The Ration Book Diet, The Times Food for Feasts and Festivals, The Billingsgate Market Cookbook (New Holland) and Dorling Kindersley’s Fish. She has a keen interest in food and travel and has organised and run cookery courses in Australia, the Middle East, Spain, Morocco, Italy, Singapore and Kenya. She lives in Crouch.
Last month I went to the A Friend, a Book and a Garden festival of garden writing organised by The Garden Museum at Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith’s place in Hertfordshire. It was a lovely thing. We all wandered around the dreamy flowering meadows, stuffed beds and courtyards of our hosts’ enviable pad and various gardening writers – all much more erudite than I – gave talks in various venues, from a summer fete-like marquee on a lawn nesting among topiary hedges to The Dairy and The Shed (a building that had more in common with Derek Jarman’s house than something you’d buy from B&Q)
I was one of the speakers and, since the theme was gardening writing, I thought I’d talk about how it’s changed in the age of social media. Anyway, for what it’s worth, I thought I might as well post what I said…
So, why do gardeners write? I think I should probably start this by saying why I write.
Eight years ago I was the television editor of the Sunday Telegraph. It was, in many ways, a dream job. I spent my days watching TV programmes before most people had seen them – often at my desk wearing headphones – then writing about them. Fairly regularly I would get to interview people from off the telly too – Victoria Wood, Derek Jacobi, a Footballer’s Wife. I even had a telephone row with Ruby Wax, which I think she won. My friends envied me. Plus I was always up to speed with the latest TV phenomenon so had a lot to say at dinner parties. I loved the pace of the job, the people and the opinions, but putting together a weekly guide got a bit Groundhog Day so I did a monumentally crazy thing. I jacked it in and decided to grow plants for a living instead.
This was particularly crazy because, at this point, I didn’t really know very much about growing plants. My tiny south London garden was great therapy away from the fluorescent lights and deadlines of a newspaper office but not really a training ground for becoming a master planstwoman. Especially when most things I tried to grow promptly died.
But I had a dream. It involved me wafting through a polytunnel in a straw hat picking tomatoes and growing vegetable plants that I was going to plant in rich people’s gardens and make loads of money from. I wanted to grow things. Be by own boss. Get my hands in the soil. Of course, as I know now, no one can waft around a polytunnel – you either ooze in summer or stagger in winter, but I wasn’t about to hear sense.
The Telegraph sent me on my way with a solar powered radio so I could listen to the Archers while sowing and a big book of organic gardening. This was helpful since I had a lot to learn. Not least that too-tight knee pads cut off all blood supply to your feet (no wonder I look so solemn).
I bought a polytunnel the size of an average church and rented some land off my dad, who, rather conveniently, is a fruit farmer so had some going spare. (To this day I don’t know why he didn’t lend me the land not rent it to me, but that’s farmers for you).
On the plus side I’ve never been so brown nor fit as I was over the next two years. On the downside, I soon realised that unfortunately, filling a 70 foot polytunnel with thyme plants, planting Jerusalem artichokes and learning how to make nettle tea wasn’t going to contribute much to the mortgage. At this point, it’s safe to say, none of my friends envied me any more – and I’d catch them glancing at my mud-encrusted nails with alarm. The penny finally dropped when I signed up to a fruit and vegetable growing course at the Chelsea Physic Garden that year, paid what I thought was the full course fee and then received a phone call thanking me for the deposit and politely asking when I might be able to forward the remaining balance.
It’s amazing how facing financial penury can get you off your backside. I went home, emailed an old contact at the newspaper and asked ‘I don’t suppose you’re looking for a new column about growing fruit and vegetables are you? From someone who doesn’t know much about growing fruit and vegetables?’ Amazingly, she did. I wrote that column, in various permutations, for the next six years and it led into my three gardening books, The Girl’s Guide to Growing Your Own, The Edible Balcony and The Rurbanite. So I suppose I have the Chelsea Physic Garden to thank for my writing career.
The early years of the column were the most fun. The world of garden mistakes is fertile ground for the columnist and gets round the bossiness garden writing can otherwise invariably fall into. And since I genuinely knew very little so there was certainly no danger of that. My kales were shredded by caterpillars, my courgettes covered in mildew. But I did discover I had one skill, albeit an inadvertent one. Growing miniature vegetables. My potatinis, carotettes and brusellteens were all delicious though you did have to wash them carefully since they had a tendency to fall down the kitchen plughole.
So that’s how I got into gardening writing. But there are so many gardening writers out there. Why? Well, for a start I think it’s because we’re useful. People know surprisingly little. And I say this from no position of arrogance because I didn’t know anything either when I started. I can’t speak for other generations, but I’m constantly amazed by how little people around my age know about gardening. I’ve seen impressive radio producers literally gibber in the corner of their balcony when faced with a potted shrub with a few brown stems. My friend Jerry called me one day delighted his tomato plants were growing so well but ‘Should I cut off the flowers?’ For many people, they don’t realise pots need drainage holes. Gardening is a practical subject and there will always be a need for people to write about how to do it.
For the gardening writer, of course, there is a real irony in this. The more you know about gardening the less you think you know. The minute you get your head around vegetables you realise you know nothing about half-hardy annuals. I can’t be the only gardening writer who keeps expecting the tap on the shoulder and invitation to leave by the side entrance. But this is great because it keeps us on our toes, always learning, always excited.
There’s another reason gardening writing is so prolific. People who garden love gardening. With a passion. When you love something you want to celebrate it and share it and you can do this by putting it into words. It’s all the more pressing because gardens are ephemeral. Flowers fade in days, sometimes hours. Capturing that flower in its perfection that has just opened as you walk round you garden, whether in words or in a photograph, is a way to preserve it. To immortalise beauty and cheat decay.
But there’s another reason too. I think writing about gardening is a way to connect to other people. For me, personally, I realised that I’d inadvertently chosen two of the most solitary jobs in the world – gardening and writing – and for someone who quite likes other people it got bloody lonely at times. It didn’t help that, at this point I also had two young children so I could go through entire days either taking thyme cuttings or talking about Petit Filous and Makka Pakka from In the Night Garden. So the comments and emails I got about the column were fantastic and I fell on them with a low growl. But book writing is lonelier still – months on end of solitary work with little collaboration.
And that’s why I think the internet has made such a huge impact on garden writing. It’s a way for gardeners to meet each other, to break out from their little universes. Write a blog entry and people might comment on it. Sometimes within minutes. Write a Tweet and you might get replied to, retweeted, even favourited, in seconds. You are no longer alone. Personal blogs and Twitter have revolutionised the way we write about gardening, and we’re flocking to them in droves.
Garden writing is particularly well suited to social media because it’s a practical subject. You can learn stuff, and you can share information. You can find out how to build a wormery or discover what that weird mould on your tomato leaves is. And you can share your knowledge too. If you can ID a wild flower someone’s photographed and put on Twitter you’ll feel clever all day.
You can find your people. The internet has room for all niches. If you have a passion for marginal pond plants, rare orchids or heritage vegetables you’d be lucky to find someone on your street who shares it. But go online, and you’ll find a community. And they might not even be living in the same country. Pretty soon you have built up an online gang of like-minded gardeners just as obsessed with ornamental grasses or weird South American edible tubers as you are.
There’s another reason. The internet has democratised gardening writing. Let’s be honest, traditional garden writing of the past has usually been the domain of the rich and privileged. They had the contacts, the independent wealth and, frankly, the gardens, to make their writing fly. But anyone can set up a blog. For free. Whether you have a small courtyard, a tiny roof terrace or a suburban garden, you can celebrate it in words. It’s a world of keen amateurs and all the more diverse, energetic and exciting for it. The quality is variable, sure, but much of what is out there is elegantly written, cleverly argued stuff, equal if not superior to what’s out there in hard print. And what isn’t brilliantly written is often so useful you won’t care.
But there are challenges too. For the reader of course, how do they find the good websites, trawling through all that stuff out there? For the writer there are other hurdles. In the old days, a garden writer simply wrote. These days, you’re expected to be a great photographer too. Not only that, but a self-publicist, technological whizz and designer. You have to update your website often enough that people keep coming back to it. Oh, and make it look good, as well, with beautiful photos taken on a proper camera – not blurry ones with your iphone out of the car window – and great user-friendly design. And then you have to think about how people see you. What’s your brand? What makes you unique? Vita didn’t have to worry about all this. It’s enough to make you want to go for a nice lie down.
Especially when it can be such a cacophony out there. We’ve all been guilty of humblebragging on Twitter eg ‘I have no idea how my book made it into this top 100 list, they must be mad…’ or the classic ‘Here’s me talking nonsense again in the * insert national broadsheet of choice *,’ but what’s the etiquette? Everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t you?
In your own blog there is only one editor wielding the red pen – you. Having complete control over your published work means you’ll never find your ‘best paragraph’ cut by a sub-editor you may never meet, but there’s no one to correct your dodgy grammar either. No one to say, ‘You know, maybe we’ve heard enough about food miles for a while’ or ‘Not sure that joke about chitting in the greenhouse is quite working.’ It’s far easier to get on your high horse when you’re publishing yourself, and some blogs can get a bit hectoring and bossy. But, of course, the fact is that independent editors do exist. The reading public. And if they don’t want to read your stuff, they won’t.
There’s a psychological issue too. If you have any neurotic tendencies – and obviously I would never put myself in this category – this constant stream of updating chatter can be addictive. But does it always have value? How often do we really have anything interesting to say? I for one can definitely go through an entire day, if not week, without a single interesting thought. At times like that, silence is golden, and I should probably remember that. It can be distracting too. The need to get feedback, recognition and, well, just keep chatting, can stop you doing any actual work. The other day I tweeted I was going outside to the garden do something. I didn’t go outside, I just sat there waiting to see if anyone had commented on what I said I was going to do. It’s Twitter paralysis. At moments like this, I should lock my iphone in a box and go for a walk to, literally, smell the roses. But I’m more likely to check my blog stats instead.
We’re adapting to this new technology. Yes, the constant stream of chatter can seem like a cacophony at times. And, yes, unless you’re very lucky, online writing is not going to pay – not much anyway. For ‘professional’ writers, a blog or Twitter presence is, at its most pragmatic, a shop-window to attract paid work from traditional print media or book publishers. It can feel like a lot of hard work for no guarantees. But I think the pluses far outweigh the minuses. Gardening writing in the social media age may not make you rich, but it’s more democratic than the old days, more diverse, more engaged and more accessible. You’ll make friends and learn stuff. If Vita Sackville-West were alive today, would she be holding her iPhone out of her turret window, snapping a photo of her white garden via Instagram and asking Twitter what it thought of her new creation? Would Christopher Lloyd be blogging about his hot garden, then anxiously awaiting comments on whether taking out the Lutyens roses was worth it? We’ll never know of course. But I like to think that they would.
At the risk of being pelted with virtual potatoes (just dug of course), here’s a list of what I consider to be the best garden blogs out there. I’m bound to have missed loads of good ones out so please add any other suggestions…
Great gardening writing on the web: a few places to start
I have a new hobby – driving along country lanes having mood swings. I can go from elation to despondency in a few hundred metres, depending on what is growing or not growing at the side of the road. Round here we’ve gone from bluebells studded with white starry stitchwort to big lolloping globs of cow parsley, purple vetch, red campion and herb robert (Look who’s eaten the Collins Nature Guide to Wild Flowers of Britain & Europe).
It is no exaggeration to say that my little heart sings when I see these teeming billowy borders and they make the seemingly endless driving and diesel consumption of my new country lifestyle all the easier to swallow.
But all too often this loveliness is cut to the ground, mown down by the councils. I get it when it’s a safety issue, like a junction. Or if pedestrians need access. But most of the scalped verges round here aren’t areas people walk on or need to see over. All those lovely flowers, vital to pollinating insects (and we all know they’re a precious thing) are toppled before they can set seed for next year.
If they would just wait till mid-July, an even more lovely diversity of flowers would come up next year, and the insects would get another month and a half of nectar and pollen. Last week I drove past a particularly pretty mass of wild flowers on the way to the shops. On the way back, nothing remained of them but the smell of grass cuttings (see picture below). Why oh why etc ad infinitum. Ranting ensued. Small children in the back quaked.
SEED:Ball and River of Flowers are doing a #nomow campaign on Twitter, encouraging people to send in before and after shots of brutally scalped verges. Taking photos from a moving car, of course, isn’t easy but you could always pull over on the, er, verge. On second thoughts maybe find a nice layby.
My new book The Rurbanite, Living in the Country Without Leaving the City (Kyle Books) comes out on March 1. It’s been a blast to write, and I’ve met some fantastic people along the way, from beekeepers to community gardeners, foragers to wild flower gurus – all of whom see the green beyond the grey of city life. The world is becoming more urbanised so we might as well make our cities better places to live. An exciting new band of people is doing just that, realising that you don’t have to move to the middle of nowhere to meet nature head on.
Split into 3 sections, GROW, FIND and KEEP, there are loads of projects in the book, such as how to put a green roof on your garden shed, or turn your front garden into a wildflower meadow. You’ll learn to identify the easiest edible urban weeds and get some ideas of how to cook them. You’ll get the lowdown on urban beekeeping, henkeeping, even quails and ducks. Whether you want to be a guerilla gardener, an urban homesteader, making your back garden a mini farm, or a city farmer, getting to know your neighbours in a shared food zone, there are plenty of tips and advice. You’ll also meet some rurbanites from Brooklyn to Berlin, all of whom are making their mark on their own city in inspirational ways.
Ok, this is getting ridiculous. On the eve of the Garden Media Guild Awards 2012 I notice that the last entry on my blog was written the day after the Garden Media Awards 2011. And, yes, they only happen once a year. This is embarrassing even to a lazy laggard such as myself. So I am hauling myself to the keyboard to prove I am still alive. I have a few excuses for my absence from horticultural bloggery – I’ve been building a house (not literally though at times it has felt like it), moving to it and writing a book. And then, just when the children are relatively house trained we got a puppy. I am also trying to plant a 3-acre orchard and turning a concrete farm yard into a blatant attempt at a rip off of Beth Chatto’s garden. Did I mention that the puppy currently has diarreah?
Anyway, as the hortirati raise their Cava in recently nail-brushed hands tomorrow, I wish them all well as I try work out how to plant standard apple trees eight metres apart in straight lines using only the benefit of my eyesight – wonky at the best of times – and a large collection of bamboo canes. My new book is due out in March – it’s called The Rurbanite: Living in the Country Without Leaving the City. I realise that as I now live in the country, this might prove something of an irony, but I did live in London for longer than my Clinique All About Eyes cream would dare to admit so I’m an urban girl at heart. Just an urban girl with a field. In Kent. I’m not complaining.
The Edible Balcony was a finalist for Practical Book of the Year 2011 at the Garden Media Guild Awards a couple of week ago. I broke off from my lamb cutlet to receive a framed certificate which I have in no way turned into a shrine on the kitchen dresser sitting on a pile of various versions of the book. Every time I think, Oh, what’s the point of this writing lark, when I’m paying n pounds in childcare to do it, I look at it and it makes it all feel worthwhile. Thank you, nice people of the Garden Media Guild!