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Better late than never

boysgardenrainbowOk, 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.

I got a certificate

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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!

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

seedpackets

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.

apricotblossom

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.

lettucesonions

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.

showercap

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.