Friday, 13 October 2017

A Date with Mr Don....

I mentioned in my last post that I was writing on a train to a book launch in London, so now some more about that.
I was somewhat surprised to be invited to the launch of Monty Don's new book, titled Down to Earth, but was at the same time thrilled. Monty and I may have an interesting relationship what with #shoutyhalfhour but having worked together with Ross on Big Dreams, Small Spaces last year, in reality we actually have quite a lot in common. I have always been an enormous fan of his writing, which touches my soul in a really deep and emotional way. In fact The Jewel Garden:A Story of Despair and Redemption is one of the books I return to over and over and has pulled me out of moments of real crisis. What thrills me about Down to Earth is that it is a book about why we garden. For most of us, whether we garden for pleasure or for a living, or of course as with so many of us for both, we recognise that why we garden is as important as how we garden and those two things feed each other. I have been thinking about why I garden quite a lot lately and this book and the few words Monty said at the launch about why he wrote it, have really supported me to have that internal conversation. I will come back to that. It will not be an easy thing to write but I will get there.

The seating areas at Ham Yard Hotel were surrounded by beds filled with Cosmos and Mexican Fleabane, cool and calming colours in such an urban space.

Now back to the book. I haven't read it all yet. It's in the pile to read in the dark of December and January. But I have read the introduction several times and on first read I can't deny that the tears fell. There are two quotes that really made me think.
The first is "....good gardens are as much about the people that make them as the plants growing in them. You are an integral part of your garden. Without you it will not exist."
The second "Life is short and absurd and run through with pain and sorrow. But in the face of real suffering, gardening can make our days shine with joy."

I could spend my time discussing those quotes but needless to say my feelings about them are wrapped up in the role I play now, supporting others to garden, and in the deep connection that my mother had with her garden and with me through that space. Gardens have supported me through more loss than I can even describe, including the loss of mum, but through many a crisis, both mental and physical. For me, and for others I am sure, to find someone willing and able to annunciate those words is a joy. The writing is empathetic and deeply touching. And kind. And that is what I really think Monty is. It was lovely to be greeted with a warm welcome from him, the comment that it was lovely to be welcomed by a friendly face, and the feeling that the words were sincere. Our conversations went from how Ross was doing to Big Dreams and led onto a short but meaningful conversation about Gardeners World, initiated by Monty. And no, I am not going to tell you what was said dear reader, but the words were kind, considered and understanding. My critique of the programme has never been about Monty, and always about the programme which, and I am saying this now in public, has I believe begun to really improve now it is an hour long and taking on board a lot of the criticism and shortcomings that have been mentioned over the years.

The beautiful bug hotel on the edge of the veg patch. there are also two bee hives on the roof which will explain the amazing crops up there!

And all of this happened in a garden. A garden in the top of the roof of the Ham Yard Hotel in central London. With the bustling life of Soho below us, we wandered around this extraordinary space, with it's seating areas, flowers and beautiful vegetable garden, delighting in the garden and in the use of the space. I deeply believe that green roofs and gardens have a vital role to play in cities and to see such a wonderful space and be within it, whilst being surrounded by the roof tops and spires of Soho was entrancing and joyous. Even better was that I got to share it with other garden blogger pals, whose blogs and vlogs about the event I will post links to below.

I do just have to comment though on the sad folks who thought that it was ok to troll me on social media after the event. I didn't post a photo of me with Monty on Twitter because I knew what it might lead to, but someone did, and the trolls came out in force. Of course they are completely ignored but it's a sadness that people think that the point of #shoutyhalfhour is to personally ridicule someone. It never was, and it never will be. And in fact some folk will tell you that I have spoken to them personally if it has ever looked as if the criticism was becoming personal.

So in essence I think what I am saying is go out and buy this book. After the intro there are sections on a whole host of things, including urban gardens, small gardens, wildlife gardening and all have the usual down to earth, practical advice you would need to create a garden in the way you might want or need to. The book is peppered with photos that are stunning and my feeling is that not only is it a fabulous edition to your gardening library, but that it would also make a fabulous gift for someone who either is becoming interested in gardening, or who is just starting out in a garden, how ever small. But I also think it's the perfect book to inspire people to understand that horticulture, gardening or whatever you want to call it, is therapeutic. It's a thing we do as much for our souls as for the aesthetic and the power of those two creative elements joining can lead to the creation of some incredibly powerful spaces. Not all those spaces will appeal to everyone of course, but as long as you, the creator, loves it and it makes you happy, anyone else's reactions are by the bye.....

Other blogs about the day........

Saturday, 30 September 2017

I'm back........

It's been a while. And I was going to start by apologising for that until I realised I've done that twice before and so I'm in a cycle and that cycle needs breaking.
I have nothing to apologise for, but I do want to share a few things to support some continuity. And the first of those things is that I haven't been very well. I don't think until yesterday even I realised how unwell, but the depression and anxiety have been back pretty much all summer. The result of this is a little voice in my head telling me not to do anything that the positive side wants to do, making the spiral into the black hole even more acute. Going out into the garden, working the allotment, writing here are all things that demon stops me from doing, telling me that even if I do, it won't be good enough, and generally bullying me into inactivity. It's a hideous, sad and lonely space to be and the pressure it creates is beyond frightening. 
But why? There's a question occasionally it's important to ask of yourself and deal with the answer properly. And one of the answers is that I have been beyond unhappy living where we are. We moved into our house 2 years ago, when my daughter and her partner were still with us, Des our little dog was still with us, and we were excited, or so I kidded myself, that we had a garden after just a courtyard in our city centre flat. But the reality has been much different. Our ward in Bristol was one of only a couple that voted to leave the EU, the provision for fresh food is dire, and its right up there in the most deprived areas of the city, and I had hoped to be able to work to support Incredible Edible Bristol into the area. But all I've heard is 'you don't come from round here' in various guises. Never have I felt so out of place. 
So yesterday we visited what will be our new home. It's perfect. Views across the city from upstairs, and a tiny garden that is a  completely blank canvas. Excited doesn't cover it. Reinvigorated, I have plans a plenty to really turn this into our home.
But there is something else I've battled with. An off the cuff remark by someone suggesting that, when I asked an online forum if others struggled to write at times, that my blog wasn't worth the effort if it didn't earn me any money, and nor was Incredible Edible Bristol. And that has brought about an internal, difficult conversation about worth. 
A lot, if not most, of what I do is voluntary. I don't hide that and I'm not trying to be some sort of saint. It's just the way it is. Incredible Edible Bristol is a voluntary organisation and as such supports expenses but funding for core costs is nigh on impossible. I really feel like I'm putting my head on the block writing this, but my thing is and always has been that If something needs doing let's do it. Waiting for funds often means things don't happen so we just get on with it! I think supporting 40 public realm gardens to begin and prosper over 4 years sets the precedent that just getting on with it, involving as many organisations as you can, and creating a buzz across the city, is the way to go to make real grassroots change. Yes it's meant sacrifices but its never occurred to me to prioritise my earning potential over getting on with it. My bag. My decision. 
Equally I write this blog, and my social media stuff for me. It's not my job. I'm aware of course that bloggers can and do earn a good living from blogging but although I'm not suggesting I never would, I never have. 
So that throw away comment really, really bothered me. Is everything we do supposed to be about financial worth? And if it is how do I change this so people take what I do seriously? I still don't have the answers to this but if anyone does, please share.....
So here I am, today, feeling much better, reinvigorated if not slightly nervous that firstly we have to move house which is my least favourite thing in the world to do ever, and that yet again I am wearing my heart on my sleeve. But there it is. Out there. 
Right now I'm on a train, off to a book launch in London and acutely aware I have books I've been sent to review, a garden and house to plan, and a very large project with Incredible Edible Bristol to plan. But today is a new day, those things will happen and the future is looking brighter.......

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Lavender-a life long love.........

I am not afraid to say that I adore Lavender. it's not my favourite plant because I am not sure that I could ever have such a thing for more than a fleeting second until my eyes flickered to something else, hence the Today's Favourite posts, but I cannot imagine a garden without lavender in it.
obviously sometimes it can be a somewhat problematic plant. It does get leggy and woody if it isn't pruned properly and for sure it sulks in a garden that is boggy and wet, and isn't to be advised in those situations, but in the right place, well looked after I think it's a magnificent plant.

There are of course a million varieties and several species within the genera and I have to admit that when I talk about Lavender I do very much mean the English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. I know L. stoechas, or french Lavender has it's charms but it does struggle to be hardy in wet soils in the west of the UK and so I stick with those English varieties in their many colours and heights. I am particularly fond of L. angustifolia Hidcote with it's bushy, short habit and deep violet flowers. As a short hedge it is a delight and can be used alongside other, taller varieties such as L.angustifolia x intermedia Alba, to create the most beautiful planting schemes.

During my time working in nurseries I grew more lavender than one person possibly can imagine in a lifetime, of many varieties and species. One particular season we grew 2,500 for a show garden and I spent many an hour pinching out the tips of the plants to get them bushy and in bud for early May, in the greenhouse that they were growing in. One particular day, a sunny March morning before the chaos of the Chelsea dance had properly begun, I remember almost falling asleep amongst the plants as they gave off their scent in the heat of the closed up greenhouse, and having to open the doors for a while just to stop their amazing scent from persuading me to lie down amongst the pots and have a doze.

Of course as a plant lavender is beautiful and the scent is amazing but it has also been grown for centuries as a medicinal plant. Said to help mild depression and anxiety it is also a powerful sleep aid as can be seen from my nearly falling asleep in the greenhouse, and is a great scent to use in a space where you require calm and serenity. As someone who has spent many years dealing with the joys of insomnia, lavender oil on my pillow at bedtime is a frequent go to, and lavender pillows something I look out for and regularly buy to hang in the bedroom. Of course lavender is also a natural antiseptic and a few drops of lavender oil in water can really help to stop infection in cuts and grazes.

Of course many people use lavender as a flavouring and although I have to admit I am not a fan of it to eat, lavender shortbread and lavender ice cream are very popular. The flowers are definitely very pretty when crumbled over something and make cakes and puddings look delightful too.

I always cut and dry some lavender flowers. it's an easy thing to do, just requiring the cutting of as long a stem as possible, and then tying the flowers into bunches and hanging upside down somewhere warm and dry to dry. The flowers, once dried, can be crumbled into kilner jars and saved for use in pot pourri, in small bowls where the scent will fill the room, or in cooking, and they last for ages.

Recently my largest use of lavender has been in the Bearpit garden, a space designed for calming and so very apt! There are large, billowing hedges of plain Lavandula angustifolia and smaller hedges of Hidcote all around the space, inviting people to sit amongst it and relax, whilst watching the bees busy taking it's nectar as of course it's other great bonus is that it is adored by bees of many species. In fact in the Bearpit, a space in which no pollinators were regularly seen, by the time we had planted the first three plants last year, the bees had arrived and more and more came and followed us along the lines as we planted.

How do you use lavender? I would love to know!!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Today's Favourite....Tithonias

Tithonias. Those tall, gently swaying, orange flowers that fit so well into a late summer planting scheme, have just begun to flower in the garden. From seed sown in early April, they have gently just grown, needing only 1 potting on before I put them out, from modules to 9cm pots, more to keep the slugs away than anything else. Planted out in early June, it's only taken a month to get them into flower, and regular dead heading or picking for the house, will keep them flowering for a while.
All they need is a warm start and to be kept moist once they've germinated. Why not give them a go next year?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

An extra special garden visit-The Hardwicke Club

As you'll all remember I went to Dublin in early June to take part in Bloom Fringe and one of the things I was most looking forward to was meeting with Jay Sher and visiting the Hardwicke Club Community Garden.
Now it's no news that I am a huge advocate of community growing and gardening and spend much of my time supporting the creation of community spaces in Bristol, but it's always great to visit other projects, chat with other community gardeners and find out how other gardens work.
Shed/tea drinking space. I love the way the jars are nailed to the roof!
So The Hardwicke Club garden is in the centre of a social housing estate a very short walk from Dublin city centre. I met with Jay who is the gardens coordinator, I guess, although very much a volunteer and offering everything he does for the garden through a deep set belief that gardens support change. The garden is at both tiny and huge. It may take up a small space but its jam packed full of raised beds growing so much veg it was extraordinary. Potatoes, greens, spinach, name it. And not only was the produce there, it was thriving. 
Great use of raised beds.
There's an area to sit that's undercover that effectively is the project's shed. There are outdoor seating spaces. There are garden ornaments and crafted bits and bobs placed all over the space. This is a garden made with love. The bringing together of people has made this space what it is today. And that is what I want to focus on.
Whilst we were there we popped over to the community centre opposite for a 'comfort break' and as we were over there some magical things happened that made me realise some stuff....
Strawberries and borage that was covered in bees!
It was a hot Friday afternoon. Actually it was my birthday and I was exhausted after a very long and complicated journey which had only allowed me 2 hours sleep in 24. I'd gone into a meeting with Dublin City Council to espouse the joys of community gardening, growing and the Incredible Edible model almost straight off the ferry and that had taken pretty much all of my ever decreasing energy but I was determined to see this garden, mainly because I knew Ron had been the year before and had his socks knocked off. Walking through the estate and hearing about the pieces of gardening outside the main part of the garden had definitely started to give me back some mojo but this short time in the garden and outside the community centre reinvigorated me. 
Why? Because every single person who walked past the garden stopped to say hello, to have a chat, to tell us some news. The kids who were playing outside chatted to Jay about what they'd been up to and what they going to do in the garden in the summer, and everyone, without any exception was engaged.
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How? Because Jay lives there and has fought for the garden and made it what it is not by himself, but with all the residents of the estate. Not doing it for people, but doing it with them, being the catalyst, is how these projects succeed and this is a prime example of a man deeply rooted in his community helping to change it from within. 
All around the world there are people like Jay and we should be shouting their stories from the roof tops, supporting them on social media and being inspired to make our own change in our own communities. Because through the power of these relatively small actions, all be they life changing for those involved, a movement of change is taking place that will, and is, quietly changing the way communities work and people live their lives.
Get involved. It's the best thing you'll ever do. 

Jay in the garden!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Strawberry chicken-a recipe.

What quite a few of you won't know is that before I became a horticulturist I was a chef.....
I started off in restaurants and ended up in an exclusive nursing home cooking for 40 elderly and mainly lovely older people who had chosen to spend the last years of their lives somewhere they would be looked after properly and well. I helped out in the gardens too and ran a little gardening club.....

Anyway every year we held events for the residents, their families and the friends of the home group, and one year we decided on a strawberry themed event. 
Easy I hear you say but not that easy when you've promised an entire menu that includes strawberries in every course! What on earth do you serve as a main with the knowledge that most older people aren't keen on salad?
And then Hugh Fernley Whittingstall came to the rescue! Strawberry chicken was a recipe on one of the early River Cottage series and so I decided to trial it in the menu to see how it went down.
Older folk tend not to like anything new so there was only a small take up but my usual guinea pigs took up the challenge. I had already trialled it with some of the care staff who had definitely enjoyed it so off we went. 
The guinea pigs lapped it up, especially my dear old pal Frank who was always up for trying something new, and so we decided that it would go on the strawberry lunch menu.
So how do you make it? Well it's very easy. 
Take enough chicken breasts to feed however many people you're feeding and roast in the oven, making sure it's well seasoned. You can use chicken quarters too.
Once they're cooked, pop the chicken on a plate and cover with foil to keep hot and then make a gravy using the juices in the pan, mixing in some chicken stock at about 150ml per person, and thickening it with some cornflour. Once it's thickened to your personal preference, put the chicken back in along with a good slug of cream, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper. Leave it on the hob on a really low heat, just enough to keep it all hot, and slice some strawberries. I usually used 4/5 fruits per person. Once sliced pop them into the gravy and just allow them to heat through, and then serve. 
Now what is important in this dish is the seasoning is correct. It needs a good whack of black pepper to cut through the sweetness of the fruit. It's just a great combination and don't scoff until you've tried it!
Firstly a massive thank you to Richard Chivers of who recently wrote a blog around 10 best strawberry recipe,and gave me the idea to write this blog. If you haven't already you should subscribe to his blog. 
I'm going to start posting a few more recipes here too. Sharing things I love and make regularly as well as recipes for preserves, pickles and other things I enjoy. Let me know if there's anything you'd like me to focus on!!


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Today's Favourite........Sunflowers!!

I spent this morning in Bristol's Millennium Square where we, as in Incredible edible Bristol, have 5 raised bed gardens that grow food for people and pollinators. One bed is completely given over to pollinator rich planting, mainly to give me an excuse to play with ornamentals, but also to feed the bees that live on the roof of At Bristol, the science museum.
Two years ago we planted out loads and loads of sunflowers and since then they have set sown themselves each year. I cannot remember which variety these are, but they are typical, tall sunflowers but multi headed rather than the annoying, in my opinion, Russian Giant, that grows and grows but only has 2 or 3 flowers at the most.


Of course there are a multitude of varieties to choose from, from Teddy bear with it's fluffy flower heads and lack of pollen, to the beautiful dark red and brown varieties like Earth Walker which I love for a vase. Velvet Queen, Valentine, Pastiche, Italian Cream, Solar Flash, Little Dorrit, Vanilla Ice.......there are so many and they are a pretty easy grow.
Buy seeds, sow in mid March to early April, keep well watered and plant up into 9cm pots if the weather looks rubbish in May, or if you want to grow them on enough so that they don't get decimated by slugs. then plant them out and watch them grow and by the end of June to mid July, the first flowers will be appearing. Keep cutting the flowers and they will end up flowering on and on until October and the first frosts. I always leave a few of the last flowers to dry out and hang them up for the birds to feast on.


I get my seeds generally from either Higgledy Garden or Chiltern Seeds but you can also find them in garden centres and if you don't remember to sow them in time, most garden centres that stock seedling vegetable plants, will have sunflowers at some point in the year-just keep your eyes open for them!!