Recipes

This is what my first book The Virgin Gardener was about. The recipes are simply projects, set out 'cookbook' recipe format. I'll be posting new recipes here monthly, and of course, you can find lots of them in my book.

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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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.

Here is the inimitable Steve with some of his cleavers. IMG_6709

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.

 

Summer relish

 Another rather late post, because your gooseberries will be gone by now, but I wanted to share the gooseberry love, and also the glory of my garden to which I have done precisely NOTHING, and which nevertheless was styling it out beauteously in June and July (see pics below)… As Maria sang, I must’ve done something good.

 

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When I was little we used to go for sunday lunch with my grandparents. I don’t remember much about these lunches, but I do recall the fact that they often merged into teatime. My grandmother had proper china tea in very thin cups that needed a silver spoon placed inside them before the tea was poured, lest the china should crack under the heat. I don’t remember milk being an option (though I’m sure it was there)…everyone, including children had weak lapsang with a slice of lemon and that was that. And then there was also something called ‘sticky bread’, a treacly, molasses-laden confection which came from the supermarket, and which we spread with butter. Memories.

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This only relates to gooseberries because I was an eater of lemons, pilfering the delicious sunshine coloured semi-circles and scoffing the juicy flesh without so much as a squint. Sour is one of my greatest pleasures, so no surprise then, that I’m a gooseberry lover. I take them and eat them neat, even early in the season. I love the hairy skin, and the fact that they burst in your mouth. I love that other people aren’t interested in them – less competition…all the more for moi.

I got my bush from Mark Diacono at Otter Farm, who sells a lovely selection of good, bare-root plants. Mine is Invicta, and it gave me an absolute bumper crop this year…too much to demolish in passing (even for me). I don’t give it any special treatment. You could grow it in a pot if you wanted, but mine is in a raised bed with a redcurrant, some roses and a bit of lavender. Picking is a prickly business that needs to be done slowly and with some care if you want to emerge unscathed. Take care…it’s worth it.

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The advice from Twitter was to make relish, from a recipe by the utterly brilliant Pam Corbin in her River Cottage Handbook ‘Preserves’. It couldn’t be simpler and, well, there’s none left.

Just heat 500g sugar with 100ml cider vinegar and 100ml water, along with some spices (Pam suggests mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, nigella and fenugreek seeds). Dissolve the sugar and set aside for a while to infuse. Then add the fruit (1kg), along with some raisins and cook gently for 20 mins until you can pop the gooseberries and the thing is thick and gloopy. Pour into sterilised jars and use within a year.

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Five of the best for February

I went into the garden today (bit early, I know – how unlike me…I mean it’s not even MARCH yet is it)

…but there was a sliver of sunshine, and the grass was gleaming, and the whole thing just sort of said ‘come hither’. So out I waddled, inappropriately dressed as usual, and stood next to the Lonicera, and breathed deeply. I planted this shrub three years ago, when I bought it in a small pot at the garden centre. I never dare to hope too much when it’s something I truly madly deeply love, so the fact that it has shot up and out and everywhere and is now blooming its gorgeous heart out is the best feeling…like I just won something in a raffle.

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If you don’t have one of these, they’ll be on sale NOW, flowering so you can sample that sweetly floral pong. Buy one and put it in. QUICK. It will make your Februarys sing.

There are snowdrops too.

I find it ridiculously difficult to get a good photograph of a snowdrop, but here you go. These are a slowly increasing patch of I forget which one…S. Arnott perhaps?, which are prettily scented, and which I pick mercilessly (naughty me)…but then I’m not in the garden enough over the winter to praise them like I should.

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Buy them now. Put them in a pot if you don’t have a garden (these come from a pot where I’d kept them, on my windowsill for five years). Use John Innes no 2 compost, with some added grit. Enjoy.

Hellebores are the very loveliest of things out now, with their speckledy petals and wonderful bruised colours..

It is for this reason alone that I forgive them for not having scent (cardinal sin) but you can’t have everything…you mustn’t be greedy. I grow them under my apple tree, but also in window boxes and hanging baskets, where they do well enough for me to murmur to myself ‘I must’ve done something GOOD’.

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An essential plant in any garden (sorry to be bossy, but it is true), and, as I said, you don’t need a garden to have one or two in your life. Multi-purpose half and half with John Innes no 2 and you’re laughing.

Sarcococca. I won’t go on about sarcococca

….I blether about it far too much. Suffice to say if I had to choose between House of Cards (which I am LOVING) and my sarcococca, then Netflix would have to do without me. Here’s var dignya, for your delectation.

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…And yes, if you don’t have a garden, then it will do perfectly gorgeously in a pot…nice and deep please. Thank you.

 

And an update on my indoor shenanigans:

I sowed basil and some peashoots, amongst other things, just under three weeks ago on my Crocus blog. Basil just appearing now (it takes its own sweet time, does basil), but I’ve been eating sweet pale green peashoots for a couple of weeks now, and they look (and taste) just DIVINE.

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…it’s like you can FEEL the chlorophyll, coursing through your body, doing you GOOD. Time to sow another pot I think. I also have rich micro-pickings of lettuce, coriander and dill.

Even if it’s only February, my plate says it’s summer time.

 

Garden sluttery and lavender baggery

 

The garden has been neglected (and is none the worse for that)…I’m sluttily leaving it until the second half of September, when I shall whip things into shape in that ‘back to school’ way we all have.

What HAVE I been doing?

well, mothering really. A three year old takes rather a lot of creative energy. You have to stay one step ahead.

I rarely manage it, so it’s mostly me, running on a treadmill, really fast, just to stay in the same place, if you see what I mean.

 

This is not a blog, just some pictures of the lavender bag we made together… (or rather, I sewed, and she said ‘oh commmoooooooon mummy’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes I think this blog should be titled “An excuse to show you my small daughter’s beautiful dimpled hands”.

…but for information’s sake, you dry your lavender for a couple of weeks, pull it off its stem, make a little bag from some old, thin Liberty lawn (and using backstitch, of course…this is not the sort of thing for which one would go hoiking out the sewing machine…cumbersome things). I do not even hem – pinking shears do nicely – and tie the thing with a proper ribbon or bit of grosgrain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The result is surprisingly heady, and I shall probably make more, because one small bag really does make a whole drawer smell delicious.

I’m taking a break for a bit now. Normal business will be resumed when the blogging god tells me to get on with it.

Until then xx