Take two garlics into the shower?

Just when everything was going so well in my perennial quest for Marie Antoinette -style self-sufficiency… I’m not exactly shampooing cattle, but there is something about the sight of a rustic wigwam draped with just-dug garlic that warms the soul. And yet, no sooner had I dug up my Solent Wight and hung it out to ‘cure’ when the English July did its usual thing and started raining. If garlic doesn’t dry properly, it won’t keep and what’s the point of buying the longest-lasting garlic variety if you’re chopping spongey, rotten bulbs come autumn?


This man seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to harvesting garlic, though it does all sound a bit complicated. Usually I just hang it up on the pergola for a week or so and then move it into the kitchen where I hang it up in a loose bunch (never could plait) where everyone hits their head on it when they bend down for a bottle of wine.

Heading out of town for the weekend, with more rain forecast and no convenient barn with drying racks to immediate hand, I dump my precious bulbs in the shower where they look less like a charming Mediterranean scene and more like something you’d see crawling out of your plughole had you gone to bed after eating a large Stilton.


Much as I love garlic, the smell of 40 or so heads of the stuff mingling with Tresemme quickly loses its novelty value. They have now been stuffed into the few inches of greenhouse not currently colonised by the triffid Costuluto Fiorentina tomatoes where they will remain until these unpredictable showers stop. This is yet another reason why I should be living in Provence, or at the very least a show farm in Versailles.

Bolted lettuce? Don’t panic, make soup. Just not this one…


It seems to happen overnight… one day the lettuce is growing outwards in the happy hope of turning into something big and round, the next it’s shooting to the heavens in a tower reminiscent of a Japanese pagoda. These ones hadn’t so much as bolted as moved country and changed their names by deed poll.

Bolting, the formation of a flowering stalk, can either happen in lettuces when they are left too long and are beginning their natural seed-forming process, or when they have had a shock in their little lives. I think I left these – a green oakleaf – in their plug cells a bit too long where they probably got thirsty. Anyway, whatever the reason, the things have gone skyward before going sufficiently outward and we all know raw bolted lettuce is a horrible thing – a bitter-tasting beast not worthy of a decent salad, however deceptively pretty the leaves might look in a salad spinner.


So what to do? Make soup of course. I chose the first one I came across on Google, which was a bit of a mistake, since the end result was an innocuous poor man’s version of leek and potato soup made with a disconcerting quantity of milk.

Diana Henry’s looks far more appetising, as does this and this Hugh F-W one

I’m now willing the rest of my lettuces to bolt so I can try them out…

July tips

Hot, stormy barbecue season…
You’re sowing less, tying in and harvesting more, as crops get into their stride, some, such as courgettes and squashes colonising vast areas apparently overnight. Blackfly and greenfly might need to be squirted off affected plants with a good jet of the hose, while slugs and snails can still be a problem, even if the vulnerable seedling stage is, in most cases, over. I put slugs and snails in a little plastic flip-top bin and then empty them into the food waste to be taken away by the council every week or so. At least that way I know they’re not coming back!
Plants are now producing in earnest – keep picking beans, courgettes and squashes to encourage the plants to produce more. This applies to sweetpeas too, if you’ve got these in amongst your beans. Keep pinching out the sideshoots of cordon tomato plants and feed them every week or so with a high potash feed such as liquid seaweed.

What can I sow now? Keep sowing carrots, french beans, peas, beetroot, chard, spinach, lettuce, rocket and other salad crops. It’s also time to sow florence fennel, chicories and kale. Most crops can be sown direct (and for fennel and rocket this is the best option), but if it makes it easier, sow other crops in plug trays and transplant when bigger.

Top tip… everlasting lettuce You can never have too much lettuce. For a constant year-long supply, sow a mix of varieties in a module tray, then transplant them to big pots or the soil when they reach the five leaf stage. Then refill the tray straight away and sow again. This not only gives you a year-round harvest, but a lovely variety of textures, colours and tastes. Try mixing crunch cos types with frilly oakleafs, both red and green.
Watch out for… Powdery mildew Looks like your courgette leaves have been dipped in talc? This fungal disease strikes when there is a combination of humid air and dry earth. Fight it by keeping plants well ventilated (by removing some leaves or even whole plants) and the ground well watered. Some people swear by mixing milk with water and spraying that on to the leaves, but this has never worked for me… anyone had success with it?

A plum job I hate

It’s that time of year again, the time when I have to do something that goes against every thread, every iota of my being. So reluctant am I to approach this task that I have to do it in stages, over several days, to make the pain that little bit easier to bear. But it’s not just time to try to get a press pass out of the RHS for the Hampton Court Flower Show – a disheartening process that involves having to prove you are a real journalist and not just a tryhard hack imposter desperate to travel all the way across London so they can stand in a muddy field, drink warm Pimms and then buy some plants that will get squashed in the train on the way home.

No, it’s also time to thin your plums. I love plum trees – their weeping habit and their pretty early white blossom, but most of all the lush melt in the mouth that reminds me of my country childhood when we would ransack my farmer dad’s plum orchards, then get freaked out by the jelly stuff we sometimes found inside. What is that stuff by the way?

In my little London garden my Victoria tree is a gem, though so very generous with itself that I have to thin it ruthlessly in July. It’s really worth doing this because otherwise the tree will exhaust itself and you’ll end up with nothing to pick next year. The heavy crop can also break the branches. Thin the plums so that you end up with a pair of fruits every  15-16cm or six inches (approximately a hand’s breadth). It’s devastating I know, but well worth it, even if you do get left with this dispiriting handful…


What a lot of lolly – well, five at least

Take three blackcurrant bushes, a toddler and a woman with that slightly maniacal ‘I’m going to do something FUN with the kids today’ enthusiasm that is best acted on in the morning before it wilts to ‘Let’s see who’s playing at Wimbledon’ apathy by midday.

I’ve never considered myself the sort of person who would make my own ice lollies. God forbid. But then I had children. It’s weird how little projects like this become feasible when you’re trying to entertain a two and a half year old who will otherwise launch himself off a large garden beanbag onto a willow obelisk.

My three extremely scrubby blackcurrant bushes, planted in a dry, shady and overcrowded part of the garden, have always been a bit of a disaster. Their annual crop would fit in a shoe. But luckily, that’s all you need to make five ice lollies. Lakeland provided the moulds, and  this recipe seemed adequately idiot-proof.

So we picked them…








Then simmered them for a bit with sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice…








Poured them into the moulds…








And then realised they didn’t fit in the freezer…

But they did fit in my neighbour’s freezer.

Four hours later and small child is transported to blackcurrant lolly heaven.









Obviously I ate the other four.

Darwin over daiquiris

The launch party for Miles Irving’s The Forager Handbook a couple of nights ago served up some great cocktails – mean mojitos and cherry whisky sours – and moreish canapes, but there was no disgruntled crush at the bar. Could this be because most of the guests usually have to wade through thorns to get their sustenance? You could tell the foragers from the other folk since, in the chrome and glass, city trader-environs of The Paternoster Chophouse in St Paul’s, they were the ones wearing shorts, with brown faces. Miles himself, longish hair and three-quarter length trousers was in happy mood as he signed copies and chatted to some of the chefs he supplies with foraged finds, such as The Paternoster Chop House’s Peter Weeden and Simon Wadham, head chef of The Rivington Bar and Grill who zips between the Shoreditch and Greenwich branches on his motorbike.

Anne Misselbrooke, a forager who supplies Miles with plants from Cornwall, has no time for gardening. ‘I can’t be bothered,’ she said, ‘foraging is so much easier.’ Comparing my dressing-gowned pottering in SE10 with scrabbling around on a windswept beach for sea purslane and sea beet, I didn’t get it, till she explained, ‘You’re always having to battle against pests to keep plants alive. In the wild, something’s either there, and healthy, or it isn’t there at all.’ Flashes of nasturtiums and broad beans bowed under the weight of blackfly and ants and daily blasted by the garden hose in a vain attempt to win the fight came into my mind, and I rather saw her point. She’s going with natural selection, we gardeners battle it all the way.