A gooseberry salsa…(sort-of)

 

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Blogging food recipes has become a bit of a mind-game of late, and I’m fully blaming radio 4′s brilliant comedy ‘In and Out of the Kitchen’, about a food writer, Damien Trench, who lives in Queen’s Park with his partner Anthony, and who basically wants to BE Nigel Slater. His voice, when reciting his recipes is a  completely and perfectly crafted amalgam of all the food writers whose cook-books we started taking to bed and reading for pleasure way back when; that nonchalant ‘just toss it in a large, shallow pan and anoint liberally with very best olive oil’, peppered with sentences like ‘You can, (and should) add lashings of best butter’ etc. etc…

It is only when confronted with stuff like this that I realise how derivative my writing really is, and I look back and laugh, not at what I wrote, but the way in which I wrote it…not cringing exactly, just metaphorically patting my younger self on the head, telling her she was sweet to try, but look, you have your own voice you know.

Mark Diacono is one writer who doesn’t suffer from copy-cat tendencies. His new book could only be crafted by him, and I am greedily gobbling it up. Quite apart from all the recipes, it is a treat to get inside Otter Farm, and really understand how it is laid out (there is a beautifully illustrated, useful map to show you where everything grows), and the story of how it all began.

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Once again, I have gooseberries galore, from a bush, coincidentally bought from Otter Farm a couple of years ago. We like them raw in this family – even the small baby seems to relish the tartness, but there are always loads. Last year I did this relish, which was truly scrumptious, and I recommend it to anyone, but to celebrate this year’s harvest, I made Mark’s salsa…a recipe of which he claims he is ‘indecently proud’.

Being me, I rushed the whole thing and read the ingredients of the salsa recipe and the method for the ensuing one, (for Gooseberry Sauce), directly underneath it, which begins with the always welcome words ‘Put all the ingredients into a large pan’….this I did, getting rather excited about photographing the thing in its raw state, in the pan (i.e. thinking about the BLOG, rather than the actual recipe).

 

It did look very pretty indeed, but then I realised that half the ingredients are of course, supposed to be raw (it being a salsa and all). Hey ho.

So the result is NOT Mark’s salsa at all, but a sort of half-cooked relish of sorts. The shallot is translucent rather than crisp and opaque. The lovage, mint and spring chives are a rather sludgy green rather than the emerald that they should be. The gooseberries are rather too squishy but my goodness it is bloody delicious. I’m having a hard time leaving it be until it can be paired with some smoked mackerel and a salad, like wot it tells me in the book…sorry Hunk.

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A vase of Nigella

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Nigella – one of those blooms that makes you feel like a professional photographer…impossible to take a bad photo of it. I have an abundance this year, thanks to my sowing a few plants two years ago, and being scandalously lax with the weeding etc. ever since.

Their beauty is that they spread, without asking permission, but never making a nuisance of themselves. The perfect party guest.

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If you have none in your garden, then clear a bit of earth this autumn and get some seeds in. They need very little encouragement… a little thinning perhaps. They will flower, like these, next year, and you should cut lots, (for the bedroom I think…these are gloriously bedroomy blooms). Strip off the fennel-like leaves from each stem with a swipe of your fingers, and cut them short…(long is better as part of a big bodacious bunch, with other flowers). Leave a good half to go to seed (they are the most beauteous of seed heads, and then do nothing, letting the seeds fall and start the process again without your lifting a finger – that’s my kind of gardening.

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My little jug was a wedding present, from and by Annabel Ridley engraved with important information about some of my favourite plants:

Lavender ‘shall breathe forth the breath of Heaven’

Sage ‘for domestic virtue’

Rosemary ‘for remembrance and friendship’

Marjoram ‘joy of the mountains’

Thyme ‘like dawn in paradise’ (Kipling)

Hyacinth ‘for the feeding of the soul’

Fennel ‘for strength, courage and longevity’

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Chelsea 2014: Highlights

It was hot and sweaty…the kind of weather in which a lady in a corset would swoon.

Luckily I was not in my corset yesterday…but I do want to salute the high-heeled brigade; extremely impressive…I am in awe.

The judges have their criteria, but I know nothing of that.

Here are my top ten Chelsea snapshots…views that made me go oooh; ideas I want to steal; things that I won’t forget in a hurry.

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Cleve’s planting, which went from this….

 

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…to this. Seamlessly…(somehow). The M&G Garden, Cleve West. (Gold Medal)

 

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The tranquility of that lawn…and those squished box balls – perfection. Telegraph Garden, Tommaso del Buono & Paul Gazerwitz (Gold Medal)

 

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Immaculate hard landscaping, and soft colours. Laurent-Perrier Garden by Luciano Giubbelei. (Gold Medal, and Best In Show)

 

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An incredibly moving mound. No Man’s Land, by Charlotte Rowe. (Gold Medal)

 

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A beautiful auricula in the most perfect of pots.

 

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Meconopsis confection.

 

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A very pretty new Gaura called ‘Freefolk Rosy’

 

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A wall of chamomile. The Mind’s Eye, by LDC Design (Gold Medal)

 

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An amazing outdoor table

 

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My very own Best In Show, and somewhere I would really rather like to live…

 

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The Topiarist Garden at West Green House, by Marylyn Abbott…

 

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…with strawberries, and ferns, and mossy stone dogs…

 

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Bliss… (Silver-Gilt Medal)

 

 

Mini lawns, minus the mowing

 

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The weather has turned, and I need to mow, but it’s too wet, so I’m satisfying my need for a tidy sword indoors with some Chamomile (added benefit…it has the most delicious appley smell).

Here’s how to do it, and some other ideas for indoor lawns.

 

There are men in my garden…

…they have been busy doing things for a while.

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First they dug a hole.

I’ve noticed that generally, men love to dig holes. Just look at them closely next time you pass some road-works. They have a good dig, and then they straighten up and admire the hole they’ve made. They often chat about the hole to their mates, and point to different bits of it (different bits of a void). The two men in my garden are no different. They took enormous care with their hole. And I had to admit, when they’d finished, that it really was very, very beautiful.

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Then they started mixing cement.

They shovelled sand into their mixer, and added water, and they carefully poured the cement into their hole – not all in one go, but very carefully, in sections, making sure it was perfectly level (with a tiny, imperceptible drop, for drainage). This took effort and time, and great skill. They smiled while they worked, smoothing the cement with a long, thin piece of wood, balancing expertly on their haunches, like landing acrobats, or someone in the jungle with a javelin, stalking prey…all this with squinty eyes, and a perpetual roll-up, poking out of their mouths.

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Then they began laying bricks.

London stock – soft pink with apricot undertones. They worked from the centre, using taut string for guidance, and a spirit level on each and every brick, checking and re-checking. They stopped regularly for tea and cigarettes, and to eat over-processed sandwiches – a few words exchanged between them – always looking at the work, always surveying the next bit. Once dry, they began brushing sand between the bricks, painstakingly poking it and packing it tight into every crevice with palette knives. Squinty eyes. Cigarettes.

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Then they began the wall.

It’s a tricky job, to create a retaining wall that slopes with the natural contours of the garden, melting down at the bottom, into nothing (well, lawn, and  bulbs). The top of the wall must be sit-on-able, with each brick on its side. Many of them must be cut to size. Each one must be examined…mulled over…thought about. Slop of cement, tap tap tap, spirit level, tap tap, squinty eyes, cigarettes. The sun comes out, and Babety gets home from school. She runs past them and jumps on the trampoline, waving at them. They wave back. They leave at 5pm. I wait for them to go, and rush into the garden and stroke the bricks, marvelling at the men, and their skill, and the joy of watching something slowly materialising out of nothing. I think about the value of repetition…Tap tap tap. Spirit level. Tap tap, repeat.

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The last leg appears.

I suddenly have the urge to feed them, these men who never speak, and just smoke and smile and tap and slop. I buy sausage rolls. Big ones, from a posh butcher. I hand them over; “for you” I say, gesticulating wildly, pointing at my mouth. They smile at me indulgently, mutter thanks, and turn back to their work. At last the central stone is cut. I had originally wanted an old piece of  York stone, but time was not on my side, and we ended up pilfering from the terrace (which will go someday soon). It looks perfect. It is flat. We can put a fire bowl on it. I am in raptures. They leave as quickly and quietly as they appeared, removing all the rubbish to reveal flattened, yellowed lawn beneath, and I rather miss them. It is only when I wave my thanks, that I realise not a single sentence has been exchanged between us.

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And now it’s my turn.

I’ve been digging hard, removing many stones, and planning my assault of plants. It will soften, and make the circle recede (or at least, this is what I hope it will do). I am enjoying having a flat space to put my cup of tea. It will be a space for eating and drinking, and for plonking oneself. There will be cushions aplenty. I am ridiculously happy about my circle of bricks.

Agapanthus 101

 How to grow Agapanthus

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My first day off yesterday, in just short of a year, and I got to spend it ogling at pretty flowers with the marvellous Debora who lunches with me irregularly, and shares my passion for extremely bad television.

We were at the RHS Spring Show – that vast hall, with the concentrated scent of new fresh growth, punctuated by narcissi, hyacinth, mimosa…depending on where you are standing.

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I am a sucker for spring…I cannot tell you how many bluer-than-blue corydalis, whiter-than-white anemones; how many tiny pots of scented pelargoniums I have bought at these shows – they totally see me coming. This year I was utterly sidetracked though, by Agapanthus. Hoyland Plant Centre, who hold the National Collection of Agapanthus, had a stand, complete with a lovely, geeky table explaining the different stages of growth, and (crucially) small plants in 9cm pots, and divided sections of larger plants, which I can actually afford.

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We went upstairs and sat down to listen to Steve give a talk on Agapanthus, and, as usual, I learned more from this twenty minute question and answer session than I’d gleaned from years of reading books or internet. One person with a passion, who knows his subject inside out and is able to explain it in plain English – the whole audience was rapt.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned.

There are two different types of Agapanthus. Deciduous and Evergreen. Deciduous are hardy pretty much everywhere. Evergreen need to be in the south (or see below for methods of protection).

Compost.

Needs to be well-drained. Steve uses two parts ordinary multi-purpose mixed with one part sharp sand or grit. Treat them mean. Too many nutrients will produce leaves and no flowers. (see below for fertiliser)

 Root restriction.

The rumours are true; these plants like their roots restricted at first. This helps the rhizome to form and bulk up, allowing for flowering. Obviously they therefore do well in pots. Here is the kind of pot-bound-ness that is perfect for an agapanthus. Don’t re-pot until this level is achieved.

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Here’s a plant that is too pot-bound and needs re-potting:

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If you want to plant in the ground and the roots are not yet congested enough, sink them inside a pot with the bottom removed.

 Feeding.

Feed regularly with a high potash feed (that’s the ‘K’, or Potassium in your ‘NPK’ fertiliser; their feed is 30% potash) from March to September. This will encourage flowering.

 Winter care.

Give containers a really good soaking in November, buy a bag of bark chippings and mound them over the crown of the plant (in amongst the leaves if it’s evergreen) and, if you can move them, bring them inside somewhere frost-free (evergreen will need light, deciduous won’t) for the winter. If you can’t move them, wrap the container with bubble wrap and then the whole thing with fleece. If you’re in a sheltered area you’ll get away without doing this, but if your plant is super-precious to you, then Steve says you should do it anyway.

In the border, just use bark chippings and mound them up over the buds.

 Dividing

Use a knife that’s an appropriate size for whatever you’re chopping. Steve likes his meat-cleaver. He also uses one of those Nigella-type mezzaluna things for smaller plants. He looks rather better than Nigella wielding the thing. It is a sight to behold. Sorry I didn’t get a picture.

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Hack away…these plants are tough, but if you are using something serrated, then be sure to shave the cut with a knife afterwards so that the wound can heal cleanly (it’s the difference between having a clean cut and a graze on your skin – clean cuts heal better and quicker. Leave the pieces to heal over for 24 hours before re-planting in the compost above. If you’re re-planting in the ground then you don’t need to do the plastic pot trick if the plant has flowered the previous year and has flower-buds on it – the rhizome is sufficiently bulky.

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I have a container-grown agapanthus that I’ve neglected for years and hasn’t flowered for the last two or three. It’s so pot-bound that it’s pushing itself out of the container. I was about it release it from its pot, chop it up and re-plant in the border, but Steve says I should re-pot it first in a larger pot, feed and mollycoddle it for another year, and then chop it up, once it’s flowering again – invaluable advice, brilliantly delivered.

I bought a beautiful chunk of Agapanthus praecox from Hoyland – an evergreen that I’m going to put with all my other agapanthus  in a special new bed I’m creating….updates soon.

 

A little languid sowing…

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I completely forgot to post this little foray with Cobaea scandens...pretty much my fave climber.

Thanks to Mr Higgledy (who writes on his blog everything you ever need to know about this plant), I was reminded this morning…so here you go.

I ALSO forgot to say that I usually put a little plastic bag over each pot to keep things humid and steamy, which aids germination.

Bedside bulbs #2

Daffs and muscari.

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…started off life like this, (below) back in October….

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I put them by the bed, because I am up a lot at night, and, well, they add a bit of cheer to the proceedings..

xxx

x

 

Go outside and play!

Lovely parcel in the mail the other day. I don’t think that childish thrill of getting a parcel in the post will ever leave me. Brown paper packages and all that…

This one was in a jiffy bag, and it contained Dawn Isaac’s new book:

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I suppose I should give you a disclaimer here, because I know Dawn from twitter (and now in ‘real’, as some call it), and I’m a big fan. Her energy is infectious – she’s a bit of a kid herself (and I say that as a compliment). Little wonder then, that she has nailed one of the most difficult and overcrowded genres in the book shop. Gardening/crafting with children.

I’m sure my mum would deny it, but I *do* have a memory of being told to ‘go outside and play’ as a child. The thing is, sometimes you just need a little inspiration. There are so many things I love about this book. The ideas are brilliant – from planting a lettuce ball, to making flower fairies (see below) and creating a mobile herb garden (all things I want to do with my little one), to simple, pleasurable, wholesome outdoor stuff, like catching autumn leaves and making dens.

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Everything is photographed, but there’s no annoying snazzy styling, just simple, joyful pictures of kids having fun doing stuff. The best bit is the writing, which is directed towards the child, with references, here and there to an alien species called ‘the grown-ups’. When I read this I’m immediately placed into the mind and heart of my child (emphasis on going out and having loads of fun…NOT making picture-perfect stuff! *stern face to self*).

Last Saturday, when Babety was slumped in front of Beebies after a particularly taxing morning dancing to ‘Man in the Mirror’ (don’t ask), instead of saying the usual “it’s such a lovely day, why don’t we go to the park”, I scooped her up, stuck a thick piece of masking tape around her wrist (sticky side up) and sent her off with a friend and The Hunk to make ‘Nature Bracelets’ (page 94). She bombed out of the door like a rocket. Sadly the bracelets got covered in mud because everyone started squelching about in puddles, so no photo here, but you get the point…it’s #whatevergetsyououtside.

I showed her Dawn’s book when I got home, and asked her to mark everything in it that she’d like to do. This was the result, and I think it speaks volumes:

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 Thanks Dawn x

You can find Dawn’s blog, full of ideas for gardening with children, right here.

She’s also on Twitter and Facebook

Snowdrops and Happiness

Snowdrops, gone over but not forgotten from Laetitia Maklouf on Vimeo.

I made a little video…many reasons but mainly because I sit around tapping away at my computer for far longer than I strictly enjoy. Doing a video takes less time, and I get to smile at you (yes, all three of you….love you mum, dad, hunk). I like smiling…and thinking aloud.

This one is about what to do with your gone-over snowdrops (yes, either plant them, or give them away). I may do more, if I am not laughed out of town… Thanks for indulging me *smiles*

 

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In other, much more sumptuous news, I’m taking part in a competition with Neom Organics (amazing bath, body and smelly candles company that use only organic ingredients and NO nasties whatsoever). They’re celebrating spring with a big Happiness Prize Package. I love their stuff, particularly the candles and reed diffusers which I tend to use in the winter when I’m desperate to be reminded of warmer weather and the wonderful scent of Spring and Summer.

There’s a big bundle of prizes on offer (including books by me) - click here, or on the images to check it out, and good good luck!

Oh, and I also have a special discount code for you to use at Neom – just sign up (below), and I’ll send it to you….don’t worry, you can always unsubscribe when you’ve got the code…and I’ll never ever share your details with anyone else – it wouldn’t be cricket.

happiness candle