Owed to an apple

plums2We ate a lot of fruit as kids. Growing up on a fruit farm we sort of had to. It would have been churlish to declare a lack of interest in Bramley apples, russets, Victoria plums, cherries and Conference pears. An allergy to fruit would have been considered family disloyalty.

The minute the first baby pears and apples started to form, my brothers and I would stop our bikes and knaw at them, unbothered that they had no sweetness whatsoever. As the summer went on, they got sweeter and plumper until, one day, all of a sudden, they weren’t there any more. Picked, packed and on the way to the supermarket – or possibly the big forbidding cold stores across the orchards where dials and flashing lights kept the fruit in a sinister kind of hibernation.

pears2At harvest time we went in search of the sweet pollinators dotted inamong the Bramley trees and stretched our school jumpers with tens of Spartans, Miller’s Seedling, Worcesters and English Delicious, waddling back to the house with our haul. As you can imagine we at a LOT of baked apples in our time. And we are no strangers to stewed apple.

But it wasn’t all eating. Oh no. Growing up on a fruit farm was political too. When the French Golden Delicious hit our shores, Dad handed us ‘I’m an English Apple Eater’ stickers which we plastered all over our schoolbooks and bedroom walls as protest at this Franco invader. No records survive of this brave endeavour but I’m sure it scared the French.

blackberries2As the years passed, the picking workforce changed. First it was local women laughing and shouting jokes at each other over the branches, then quiet, breathtakingly efficient Eastern European students, camping in tents and saving up for houses and cars. I’d help out, picking pears in the rain or, much more preferably, sunbathe on the bonnet of a tractor reading DH Lawrence until the call for ‘Tractor’ roused me to pick up a full bulk bin and move it to the collection point. I developed a crush on a Bosnian that summer. It was the DH Lawrence.

grapes2The visiting pickers would have big parties at the packing sheds, making their own bootleg alcohol and using the tractor lights as disco lights. One year we had a whole load of Mongolians who worked out how to reverse the charges on the payphone. They weren’t asked back.

As the supermarkets became ever more controlling of the fruit market, the orchards changed. Out came the cherries and the plums, in went more pears and Bramleys because that was where the money was. The trees got smaller, pruned into squat shapes. I missed the plums and cherries.

figs2Now I live in the city I get a bit wistful about my farm childhood, particularly since a lot of the orchards are grubbed up now, awaiting who knows what endeavour. But this summer has seen my little garden give my nostalgia a run for its money.

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This has been the best summer for fruit I can remember in this garden. I might not be filling my jumpers with Spartans, but I’m picking figs for breakfast every day, grazing on handfuls of blackberries and blueberries, gorging on plums. June saw an ambrosial crop of apricots and some sweet if rather disoncertingly wrinkly peaches. My French pears – disloyalty alert, the Conference doesn’t quite cut it for me taste-wise – are frankly ginormous, and the grapes are plumping up nicely. It wouldn’t make any impact on the supermarkets, but right now this little farm does it for me.

Monet, Monet, Monet

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Some jobs are fun to do – and some are REALLY fun to do. One minute you’re contemplating the aphids on your roses and suddenly you get a phonecall from The Sunday Telegraph and are in a taxi at 6.15am on the way to Eurostar.  The occasion? James Priest has just taken over the head gardener job at Giverny, Monet’s garden outside Paris, and he’s British. Zut alors! Read my interview with him in The Sunday Telegraph here…

Glossy magazines and holey knees

w&h p1Last year, on three occasions, I had a garden panic. These corresponded entirely with the arrival of Woman & Home magazine’s homes and garden’s editor and her photographer. They arrived once in the spring, once in the summer and once in the autumn to photograph my little London garden for an article all about how easy it is to grow fruit and vegetables even in small spaces, showing how the garden changes over the growing season.

A more charming, instantly disarming duo you would be hard pressed to meet, though of course this didn’t stop me going into a garden-preparing frenzy for weeks beforehand, tying things in, cutting things back and  hiding toddler’s trikes in the shed. Obviously, I was so panicked about the garden that I forgot to actually dress myself appropriately and wore jeans with a hole in the knee – like some tragic Just William scallywag rather than the sophisticated thirtysomething woman I’m probably supposed to be, but moving on swiftly. Anyway, it’s in the newsagents now: May issue, Woman & Home magazine, and the article looks LOVELY and, if you’re not persuaded to stump up on glossy magazines merely to see a small London garden and a woman with incomplete jeans you also get the cover story all about the fabulous Sarah Parish. Result! Self-promotion announcement over, and breathe…

No fidgeting at the back

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In a mere nanosecond my first ever online lecture Edible Gardening Made Easy will be up and running over at MyGardenSchool, a buzzy new online tutorial hub of all things gardening from design to photography. My course Edible Gardening Made Easy is for all those who yearn to grow their own fruit and vegetables but don’t know where to start. It takes you through a whole year in the edible garden from scratch, telling you the best crops to grow and best way to grow them. No jargon, no show-offy technical stuff, no unnecessary heavy lifting – just no-nonsense advice to make a great fruit veg garden, however small your plot and busy your schedule. With two small children, book writing and an addiction to Twitter to maintain, I know how important it is to find a way to grow delicious crops without spending every available hour outside, trowel in hand. So expect lots of time-saving tips.

I’ve written and recorded the 4-part lecture, which has loads of images and zingy graphics. And there’ll be homework, so no gossiping at the back.

Click here if you want to find out more or book the course…

Wild about Greenwich

Now, I’m the first to admit I am an edible gardening obsessive, nay bore – I can spot the difference between a Gardener’s Delight tomato plant and a Sungold at 10 paces and am boffinishly discerning about the type of kale I will grow in my little London garden (Cavolo Nero best with sausages, Green Curly Kale prettier in soups). But when it comes to wild flowers – those I can’t eat anyway – I’m a dunce. I love looking at them, obviously, we all do, but if it’s not Buddleja growing out of railway siding wall or dandelions on a sports field I’m not too confident.

So when I came across this blog post by Dusty Gedge of Green Roofs UK fame, I got a bit excited since this patch of new ‘meadow’ is minutes walk from my house and I’ve often walked by it without a moment’s distraction from my takeaway latte/toddler screeching down the ramp into the path of incoming cars.

I intend to go down there later and gaze at it purposefully and then return throughout the summer. Maybe, ‘owning’ this little patch of wildflower meadow will be the beginning of a new love for wildflower spotting. At the very least, walking past a woman with a notebook might prevent the daily wave of homecoming Greenwich commuters from bunging their Evening Standards into the grass.

What to do in the edible garden in March

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Oh March, so full of promise, so full of false starts. The minute John Humphrys says ‘Good morning it’s the 1st of March’ it’s all I can do to restrain myself from leaping out of bed and into the garden with an armful of seed packets and broadcasting them beardy parable-like into the wind.

This would be silly. Most of them would sulk and rot in the cold soil. For spring is a temperamental animal. We want it so badly we conveniently forget it happens slowly, not overnight. One day it might be all sun, buzzy bees and blossom, the next you’d swear it was mid winter with a Tupperware sky, relentless drizzle and a night frost. So I hide the back door key and, instead, settle for indoors sowing in plug trays on the kitchen windowsill – aubergines, sweet peppers, tomatoes, basil.

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Once the apricot blossom has come and gone, I deem it’s safe to sow direct into garden soil. The traditional maxim is, if you can sit on the ground in your pants (for which, American readers, read underpants) without leaping up in shock then it’s warm enough to sow into. I have no intention of sitting on my garden soil in salopettes let alone pants so the apricot blossom test works for me.

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So what can you sow direct into the soil outside in March?
Radishes, spinach, chard, peas, beetroot, carrots, broad beans, lettuce, wild rocket, spring onions. And don’t forget you can now plant your potatoes too.

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And what could you be sowing inside in a heated greenhouse or sunny windowsill?
Tomatoes, sweet peppers, chillis, aubergines, basil

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And now for some things about sowing I wish someone had told me when I started so I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes…

1. Tomato, chillis, aubergine and pepper seedlings need to be in a really warm place while they’re germinating (inside the house works best), but once they’re up they’re surprisingly happy in an unheated greenhouse as long as they have some bottom heat. A heated mat is a great investment – I set it to about 15-18 degrees C and all my seedlings seem fine (as long as I remember to check the compost doesn’t dry out). Outside they get plenty of light so won’t get all weedy like the ones you raise inside the house. And the added bonus is they won’t take up every available surface and window of your house turning it into a dimly-lit horticultural Miss Havisham’s.

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2. Hotel shower caps make great mini propagators (above). Pop one over a plug tray of germinating seeds. And it’s recycling, people. Note the comma there – I wouldn’t recommend actually recycling people.

3. Most germinating vegetable seeds – with the exception of parsley and lettuce –don’t need light to germinate. But the minute they’re up, take off any propagator lid and get them into the lightest spot you can find.

3. A fleece tunnel is another useful bit of spring kit – pop it over rows germinating seeds outside to keep the soil a bit warmer and the neighbourhood cats off.

4. Growing Success Advanced Organic Slug Killer. Changed my life.

Eat up your greens!

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On April 7 I’ll be breaking out the champagne – or at least a sunflower seedling salad. It’s the publication day of my book The Edible Balcony (Kyle Cathie) for people who want to grow delicious fruit and vegetables in tiny spaces even if they live several storeys up. You really don’t need garden soil to eat your own home-grown crops when you can grow lettuce on the wall, tomatoes on your windowsill and strawberries in a basket hanging from your railings. Even in the heart of the city you can have your own little sky allotment – hang herbs from your balcony railings and let cucumbers and squashes clamber through them; and you don’t need to spend money either – bicycle tyres make great planters for strawberries and old hatstands the perfect home for climbing runner beans.

From New York to Mumbai to a teeny balcony in Tufnell Park, the book’s full of awe-inspiring edible roofs and balconies and easy growing projects so you can turn your space, however teeny, into an edible Eden in the sky.

Beans are good for the heart

Today has been dubbed Blue Monday – a date of such irretreviable gloominess and abject awfulness that you might as well pull the duvet back over your head or sink into a puddle on the floor in front of Murder She Wrote. It’s dark, it’s raining, you’re too fat, you feel ill, all your family feels ill and you haven’t done your tax. The days might be getting longer but they also seem to be getting darker.  What’s the solution? Get on a plane, of course. But if you can’t do that? Sow something. Anything. Sow your gardening gloves if you have to.

I sowed broad beans, oo, eons ago – probably late November – a collection of loose seeds I found at the bottom of my bag, helpfully tipped out by toddlers and probably years old. Rather than throw them away I checked to see if they were still ok by putting them between damp kitchen roll until the good ones sprouted. A surprising amount did.

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I popped the sprouted ones into pots in the greenhouse and now look at the little troopers. I’ll plant them out in a couple of weeks but for now I just want to stare at them. Every time I feel miserable I tramp outside and gaze through the sliding door like a tramp looking through a television shop window until I’ve had my fix. In a few weeks I’ll plant them out. Until then, they beat going for a run or looking at a light box. They don’t hurt and they don’t make my eyes ache.

broadbeanseedlings

To maintain my “Oo, look it’s sprouted” fix, I sowed some sweetpeas yesterday, also in pots in the greenhouse which give me an excuse to include this. If you still feel glum after looking at a photo of sweetpeas then there’s nothing for it, you will have to get a taxi to the airport. Tenerife’s very nice this time of year.

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