Hah. Flights. Like number 67 buses. You don’t so much as look at an aeroplane for years, and then you’re in one four times in two weeks. To say nothing of a 600-mile round trip to Cumbria in between.
I’ve been off on my travels again, for the third time in as many weeks. I am not accustomed to such excitement, and it’s left me a little breathless. And with a huge backlog of work to catch up with. It’s all very well this gallivanting malarkey but you do pay for it after.
Anyway, mustn’t complain. The most recent of my gallivants was to Guernsey, to give a talk or two at the invitation of the Guernsey branch of Plant Heritage.
I was more than a bit chuffed to be asked, as I’ve long been curious to see Guernsey. Just nine miles by five, a few miles from the coast of France, this little lump of rock is nonetheless a horticultural legend. I know it chiefly as a place where, above all other things, they Grow Stuff.
It is an elegant isle: wild rocky coastline tumbling down to little secret sandy coves and mile-long pristine beaches, rolling round to a more urbane, harbour-dominated sophistication around the capital, St Peter Port.
It is also resolutely and proudly British. The Queen is head of state, and the flag is a Union Jack. They have pound notes, for goodness’ sake.
But on closer inspection, it isn’t quite that simple. The island has its own government (the States) able to set taxes – though not defence or foreign affairs – and the people have no vote in British elections. Shop names, entire restaurants, most people’s surnames, the street names and many of the place names are in French.
The last time the island belonged to France was in the middle ages, when it used to be part of the Duchy of Normandy. It became British in 1204, when the people had to choose and voted to join Britain. But – in a quirk which says it all – they also chose to retain a Norman legal system.
Guernsey is far closer to the French coastline and everyone goes to St Malo and Paris for the weekend. But they send their kids to school in Britain and commute back and forth for work. The truth of it is that back in 1204 they were choosing to be British, but with French food. Sounds eminently sensible to me.
Even as I flew in over the island’s rocky coastline the island’s horticultural heritage was obvious: below were rack after rack of massive greenhouses. Even in private gardens people seem to have bigger-than-average greenhouses here. And in fields, by farms, in fact studding the island wherever you look are massive ranks of horticultural greenhouses, covering acres of land.
But things ain’t what they used to be. Guernsey’s horticultural industry is reeling in the wake of a fifty-year battering. First it was cheaper imports from the Netherlands: grapes, tomatoes and more recently daffodils and other cut flowers succumbed. Then changes to close a VAT loophole a year or two ago mainly aimed at the record company, HMV, had the devastating side-effect of removing all the mail-order horticultural business the island had come to rely on, practically overnight.
It’s left many horticultural businesses broke, dozens more clinging on by their fingernails, and just a small core of success stories still standing. It is still a place of horticultural excellence, with a handful of companies flying the (British) flag for Guernsey with pride and considerable success. But that’s a shadow of the hundreds of horticultural companies there used to be.
But what that horticultural legacy has left behind, more hopefully than the broken, empty greenhouses, and improbable fields of abandoned arum lilies, is an island nation of gardeners.
Every garden is beautifully tended and full of half-hardy delights like Madeiran geraniums and self-seeding echiums, relishing the benign climate and the envy of shivering gardeners on the mainland. ‘Hedge veg’ honesty boxes are a popular way of distributing the surplus from enthusiastic veg growers; and there are some spectacular Victorian greenhouses, and subtropical gardens full of gingers, palms and colocasia.
It’ll take something stronger than tax laws and EU competitors to drive the horticulture out of Guernsey. They may be a bit confused about the whole British-French thing, but they’re gardeners to the core.
Off to Warwickshire at the weekend to visit the Edible Garden Show, making a welcome return to its original home at Stoneleigh Park after an ill-advised foray into London for a year or two. That means the smallholding section is back (yay!) with proper pigs and a few chickens, some sheep and a few goats. Right up my street: when you start to grow your own food, assuming you’re not vegetarian, it’s not long before you start eyeing up a few livestock too.
Anyway: despite getting very distracted by piggies (my latest obsession: more later) I was really here for the kitchen gardening. Specifically, to see what’s new: this is a great show for tapping into the zeitgeist as anyone who has anything that’s a bit innovative to do with kitchen gardening shows up.
So here are a few things which caught my eye this year:
Sometimes the simple ideas are the best. Take an ordinary plastic drinks bottle: fill with birdseed: replace the lid with this handy little screw-on tray: turn it upside down and hey presto: you have a bird feeder.
About as luxury-end as the bird feeder was thrifty: but I did like the idea of a garden sauna. I had a sauna once, in Finland: it involved jumping into the Baltic Sea afterwards, which I could have done without, but the sauna bit was pretty fabulous and made you feel like you were playing a starring role in a Scandi-noir movie. This one retails for a shade short of £13k but that includes absolutely everything except the towels, and lets you choose from a range of finishes.
Now never mind all this fantasy gardening: let’s get down to the nitty gritty. I have for some time been agonising about the amount of plastic in my garden: in fact so much so that I’m on a bit of a crusade about it (I may shortly start banging on about it at more length on this very blog). So I was intrigued to see that soil blocks are now available in a more manageable size. Previously they’ve been whopping great tools requiring you to stand up to use them: for sedentary gardeners there are now these fantastic little gizmos. They make blocks up to 10cm across: no plastic module trays, no root disturbance. I will be giving these a try…
Whenever you see something and find yourself thinking, ‘Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?’ you know you’re onto a good thing. This is the Garden Tower: it might look like a big plastic planter: but in fact it’s a wormery. The central pipe is perforated: you fill it with kitchen waste and worms, and the outer pockets with compost to plant up as normal. Then the worms – as well as making worm poo compost and worm wee plant feed as they would in a conventional wormery – travel back and forth between compost and kitchen waste, pulling the nutrient-rich compost with them to feed your plants. Fantastic idea.
Now these caught my eye partly because they were circular – and I’m a sucker for a non-square bed – but also because there were people picking them up and walking off with them tucked under their arm. Not what you’d expect to do with a raised bed. But then most raised beds are made from heavy-duty scaffold boards and the like (part of the reason for the predilection for squares and rectangles): whereas Grow Rings are made from lightweight, flexible polypropylene. I wouldn’t like to vouch for their durability, but the man assured me they’ll last for five years. And you can stack them: put down a large (4ft diameter) one, fill with compost, then pop a smaller 55cm diameter one on top for a double-height tower effect with a much deeper root run in the centre. You can put them up in seconds, on a patio, a patch of grass, pretty much anywhere you want some growing space, really. Perfect for lazy gardeners – or just those who aren’t that good at woodwork.
Not much gardening going on yesterday: it was blowing a hooley again and though it wasn’t exactly raining hard, what there was flew at you horizontally on the wind like needles. I am an unashamedly fair weather gardener: I don’t see the point of turning your garden into a muddy slurry pit under your feet and mashing your soil into a sodden pulp just so you can say you’ve been gardening in the rain. Good job I don’t work in a Proper Garden where they can make me go outside even if I don’t want to. Anyway: on days like yesterday, I beat a dignified retreat and spend the day at my desk.
Today though was a different story: lovely sunshine, a balmy breeze and everything was drying out nicely. Time to do a bit more sowing: the first peas and broad beans are already in the cold frame hardening off, and the next batch of mangetouts are now cooking nicely in my 15°C propagator.
I’m not quite venturing outside yet: the soil is still chilly to the touch and we’re regularly slumping to zero at night so direct sowing is still a few weeks off yet. That’s not to say you can’t plant, though.
The above curious little witchetty grub lookalikes are a new venture for me this year. These are Chinese artichokes, crosnes, or Stachys affinis: take your pick. Whatever you call them, they’re hardy so you can plant them direct outside whenever you want – unlike my other exotic veg (mashua, oca, yacon) which are still confined to the frost-free greenhouse. So I’m going to give them a go.
I’ve planted them in a patch by the pond in the exotic edibles garden. It’s a little triangle that’s quite nicely confined, having a stone wall on two sides and the pond across the third. The reason for the fencing is that these are veg with ambitions: they will multiply and spread, even if you eat lots of them, and while it’s never a bad thing to have a lot of anything edible it can be a pain if they’re anywhere near other plants (see Jerusalem artichokes and mint, to which Chinese artichokes are related).
They were easy enough to plant: bury on their sides about 5cm deep, and around 15cm apart (not that it matters too much as they’ll soon form a dense mat). They look like deadnettle once they’re up, so I may have to liven them up with a few flowers or this is going to be a dull little corner indeed.
You harvest them from about October. Cleaning is a bit of a faff: it’s easier if you grow them in lighter soils, but in heavy soils you’ll need a bit of elbow grease and a nailbrush. There’s no need to peel. They have a crunch like water chestnuts and a delicate artichoke flavour. Sounds great. I shall report back.
Just back from a little sojourn in France, where I was helping my mum look for a little pied á terre – nothing too fancy, just somewhere we can all go and have a nice time without having to break the bank.
We were looking in the Médoc area, just to the north-west of Bordeaux on either side of the Gironde (the confluence of the Dordogne and the Garonne – its estuary hits the Atlantic just below the Charentes Maritimes. You can see it on even quite big maps of France as a kind of cut-out triangle a little over halfway down on the left hand side).
House hunting is exciting at the best of times, but even better when done in a foreign country. Especially one where they have grands crus wines of international repute and restaurants that cook food so sublime you remember the meals for years after. It is not as reliably thus everywhere in France as it once was: which is why it was so lovely to find a little corner that was still untainted (mostly) by the worst bits of modern life.
They’re keen gardeners in these parts, too. Garden centres a go-go (unusual for France, where they tend to be a bit sparse and mostly confined to a corner of the monster DIY sheds), and lots of beautifully tended gardens too. The magnolias were out everywhere: they can grow olives outdoors here, though not to such spectacularly gnarly effect as further South, and they clearly do get frosts as the bananas and palms were carefully wrapped in several layers of fleece. But you can obviously be a little more daring than you can in the UK.
The local housing style is very charming, though a bit tricky for the combination of three-bed house and small-but-useable garden we were after. Lots of old sandstone maisons à deux étages in the towns, but with barely any outdoor space; and out in the country there were maisons médocains, on the face of it a bungalow, but that is to do them a disservice. These little single-storey dwellings sit on their own small plots and are made of the same sandstone as the larger houses, under a little ruffle of old clay tiles.
I think it may be one of these we end up with, much to our surprise as we’d never really considered a single-storey. But a town house with no garden is out of the question: you can’t have a house in the heart of the Médoc without somewhere to sit outside on sunny days and sip the wine.
Most of the really up-together houses are way out of our budget, so I’m thinking we may have some serious DIY ahead of us… but then I can’t help feeling we’d be letting the British side down a bit if we didn’t go for something à rénover. After all, we have a reputation to maintain: the Brits are famous in France for buying the kind of ruins any sensible Frenchman (or woman) wouldn’t touch with a bargepole and then breaking their backs and bank accounts doing them up again.
It was a wonderful four or five days in which we got to explore a whole new bit of France. We’ve hit on the exact area – around the town of Macau on the west bank of the Gironde – and now Mum just has to pick a house when she goes back (without me, sadly) in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space!
One of my girls has turned into a boy.
I’m talking hens: or rather, in this case, cockerels. This spring I had a slightly chaotic little spate of broody hens and just sort of left two of them on a couple of clutches of eggs. This turned out to be a very bad idea, as hens, it seems, get very jealous of each other when they’re sitting on eggs. It was when I turned up at the henhouse to find one broody sitting plumb on top of the other one in an attempt to hatch out her eggs as well that I realised I probably should have shut them both into separate broody cages.
Well, you live and you learn: unsurprisingly hardly any of the eggs hatched as the moment the hens got a chick they wandered off and abandoned the rest of the clutch. But I did get two precious little chicks, one for each broody, from my haphazard and rather traumatic experiment.
I did think that both were female and was quietly congratulating myself: chickens are notorious for producing clutches which are 99% male therefore forcing you to have to dispose of a lot of unwanted cockerels.
However now, coming up for a year later, it is rather obvious that one of my ‘she’s’ is in fact a ‘he’.
This is a bit of a blow. And it brings me up short against my stated desire to be self-sufficient in as many kinds of meat as I can manage (save beef: I just don’t have the access to enough land, or the right body clock, to keep cows).
I have so far managed pork, lamb and pheasant without once killing anything with my bare hands. But chickens are a different matter: unless you raise a lot, enough to justify taking them to the local slaughterhouse, it’s definitely DIY.
I hold the opinion that if you aren’t prepared to face up to the realities of killing animals, you should be vegetarian. So this is my test. If I can’t kill my chicken myself, it’s lentils all the way.
One of the things that’s holding me back is simple fear of doing the animal harm and killing it inhumanely through my own ignorance. So since I know a friend who is an old hand at wringing chickens’ necks I think I’m going to co-opt her and get her to oversee my efforts, and advise the least painful way to do it (preferably without the chicken knowing a thing about it, which is what I always strive for).
I’ve got to get on with it soon as Clive (Big Kahuna cockerel and baby-cockerel’s dad) is starting to notice there’s a young pretender in the flock and there is more squabbling than I’m happy with. And that can only get worse.
At least there will be roast chicken for tea at the end of all this. Wish me luck…