As regular readers know, one of my freelance hats is as one half of the news team for the RHS journal The Garden. That means I spend an awful lot of my time trying to find out what’s going on.
The Olympic Parkappeared out of a vast stretch of wasteland somewhere in the east of London to become perhaps the most talked-about green space ever. Sarah Price did her stuff, as did James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett and Hillier Nurseries, which grew 2,000 of the legions of Olympic trees.
Britain’s ‘finest landscape garden’ rose from the ashes in probably the most talked-about restoration of the year: the shiny new Wrest Park comes complete with French parterre, rose garden and an Italian Garden. And it ain’t over yet: the American Garden is unveiled in 2013.
Carol Klein’s nursery in Devon closed its doors amid an unseemly row about trees and compost heaps.
Forest gardening: and permaculture, and anything that involves growing food in among your other plants.
Foraging: getting food for free from all sorts of unlikely places, even the towpath of Regent’s Canal. Though you can just stick to elderflowers and sloes if you want.
And what’s not:
Peat: after many years of pontificating about the damage peat extraction was doing to the environment, the government finally committed, in a rather woolly way, to a voluntary deadline, whatever that is: 2020 sees peat-based composts disappear from garden centre shelves. We hope.
I got an email the other day pointing out, very politely, that ‘minimalism meets the Villa d’Este’ isn’t an entirely accurate way to describe Tom Hoblyn’s Chelsea garden for first-time sponsors Arthritis Research UK. In fact the word ‘minimalist’ – as used in the Chelsea press launch the other day – wasn’t to be taken literally at all.
He’s well known for his affinity with nature: his own garden is, in his own words ‘unkempt’, and it’s telling that in his description of it he talks more about the wildlife and wildflowers than he does about the biodynamic veg garden or the 40 trained fruit trees and ‘a few flower beds around the house’ – stuffed, of course, with bits of old Chelsea gardens.
How to Make Your Own Drinks
A little word of caution: this is not a book about gardening. Nor is it written by a gardener: Susy Atkins writes about wine, and very well at that, but I’m not sure she enjoys getting her hands muddy that much.
So let’s not expect this book to do more than it promises. It won’t tell you how to grow the plants you make drinks from: but then there are dozens of other books which will help you there.
She gives just one page to ‘the garden and orchard’; and recommends growing grapes and rhubarb, among the largest and most thuggish of all fruit and veg plants, on a ‘spacious, sunny balcony’ in a city. Hmm. That’s ‘spacious balcony’ as in ‘roof garden’, then. And she suggests offering to help friends and neighbours on their allotments in exchange for crops – but not actually getting an allotment yourself.
But this is carping: and, as I say, expecting the book to do something other than it sets out to do.
Because the big strength of this book is that it gets you to take another look at your kitchen garden. As Susy points out, ‘it takes a small but significant mind-shift to start making drinks instead of food from home-grown produce. You’ve perhaps never thought of making wine out of your much-treasured rhubarb – only crumbles or fruit fools. Blackcurrants are for pies and jam, but what about cordials or crème de cassis?’
This paragraph alone had the effect of setting several dozen pennies clattering loudly to the ground in my head. It was a revelation, and to be honest I felt pretty damn stupid.
I go to such trouble to grow my own, and the family’s food, so my kids can eat well and so I know where my food has come from. But whyever don’t I do the same for drink, too? We pour so much junky sugary squash down our throats, to say nothing of sulphite-packed wine and beer, without a second thought; but, and it took Susy’s book to point it out to me, there is another way.
Her brief introductory pages – the ones which try to talk about gardening when they should just avoid the subject, really – also include some much more useful advice on using preserved fruits and vegetables for making drink (sloes are better after freezing; and you can make wine from dried fruit, though Susy is less than enthusiastic about it). And there’s an extremely useful list of which drinks ingredients are in season when, so you can plan your cordials, ahem, accordingly.
On the whole, though, these opening chapters are padding: a lot of the tips given fall into the category of the bleedin’ obvious – I didn’t really need to be told that farmers’ markets are a good place to buy fresh produce, or that when you’re foraging you should wear long sleeves to avoid getting stung.
The book gets into its stride, though, when you reach the bit Susy is really interested in. From her ‘ten essential bits of kit’ to the list of extra ingredients you might need – some of them rather unusual: I’ve never heard of pectic enzyme – this is must-read stuff for the beginner drinks maker. Similarly she’s great on wine-making: fermenting, racking off, ageing wine – it’s all here. This is where Susy clearly feels most comfortable: when the recipes start, things get even better.
So far I’ve made just one: elderflower cordial, the recipe for which will be appearing on m’other blog in the next few days. It’s turned out wonderful, despite my initial scepticism about including limes in the mix. Next time I might play around with the quantities of sugar – we found it a little sweet, though that’s personal taste. But it was astonishingly easy, taking me just half an hour to brew a couple of litres, and one thing’s for sure: we’ll definitely be making it again.
Others I can’t wait to try: lavender lemonade, blackcurrant cordial, blackberry cordial and cherryade. Next year, when I’m feeling braver, I may turn alcoholic: mead, quince vodka, creme de cassis and raspberry gin are all high on the list: sloe gin is also here. There are wines, beers, teas, tisanes and infusions, too.
This is a book which has changed the way I use my kitchen garden – and that doesn’t happen very often. I can see it becoming much scribbled on (like all my favourite recipe books) and slightly sticky over the years. I’m looking forward to it.
I’ve had a technical setback – also known as a senior moment. I’ve lost my b****** camera cable somewhere between my house and Chelsea so can’t upload pictures. The irritating thing is that I’m sure I packed it into my bag before I left, in fact I have a distinct memory of doing so. But then that may have been Thursday. Or indeed Tuesday. They say you lose about 9,000 brain cells a day after the age of 19 (which seems a little young to start on the senility trail, but then I suppose you must have a lot to start with). Right now, I am mourning my lost neurons. What it is to get old.
Delayed last two days of Chelsea will arrive when I’ve ordered a new one. Harrumph.
Woke up this morning to a hard frost, one of the few we’ve had this winter. Since I can’t get a fork into the ground, even I have to stop gardening – so I went out with my camera instead. Is there anything more beautiful than sun on frost in a winter garden?
Another session with the overgrown pond today, and I’ve at last had a go at the sadly overgrown forsythia which dominates that corner. It’s interwoven with an equally neglected Kerria japonica, and though they make quite a display in the spring, it’s in that brassy yellow which is better reserved for my kids’ paintboxes. They’ve got to go.
So out came the pruning saw, loppers and secateurs, and I’ve now got a towering pile of bonfire material waiting for me to set a match to it. The area looks a whole lot clearer already, but I’ve yet to tackle the really difficult bit – digging out those massive rootstocks. There must be 15 years’ worth of growth there, and it’s going to be a horrible job.
I’ve put it off for now, as failing light meant I had the perfect excuse, but before long I’ll have to put the concrete breaker to it – my standard solution to unyielding shrub and tree roots. It’s a massive piece of iron, so heavy I can barely lift it, with a spike on one end and a wedge on the other. Once you’ve dug a hole into the rootball, you thrust the spike into its heart, and then jump on the other end – it takes a few attempts, but I’ve yet to come across the rootball that can withstand the onslaught! Easy work it is not, though – I’m not looking forward to this…
I have a small and very overgrown pond at the end of the garden that’s been woefully neglected over the last few years. It was pretty bad when we moved in, as the previous owner hadn’t thought to net it in the autumn so it was very silted up with leaves and stank to high heaven.
I had been getting on top of that problem – last year I almost had it clear – but I’m cursing now because I didn’t get around to putting down the net in October, and now have a pond full of leaves again. It doesn’t help that the pond is sited under a willow tree, with a big old forsythia the other side. It’s also at the “woody” end of the garden, where all the apple trees are, and also close to our tree-lined boundary with next door. Clear proof of the old advice never to site a pond near trees.
Anyway, so I spent some time today doing a repair job on the leaves situation, as best I could, and then put the net down anyway as the forsythia is still hanging on to some yellowing leaves on a particularly large branch overhanging the pond itself. The words lock, stable, horse and bolted come to mind, but there we are, it can’t be helped. I have lots of ideas on developing this area in the long term, but for now it’s a clearance job. Lots of hard work ahead here, I think.
I’ve just planted up a potful of bulbs – yes, I know, much too late really, but these were a freebie from a magazine and they missed my main bulb-planting push, so I’ve only just got around to putting them in.
To make matters worse, they didn’t put in quite the combination they’d promised in the freebie – result, I missed out on the one plant I wanted (Allium neapolitanum) and ended up with a mish-mash of nice plants, but in colours which don’t go with my colour schemes so left me a bit non-plussed as to where to put them.
So I took the easy way out and put them all in a big pot on my patio. I used the “layer” technique – where you plant the tallest bulbs on the bottom layer, then just cover them with soil and plant another layer of shorter bulbs on top.
So here’s what I did:
- Layer 1: Ranunculus asiaticus: this will be the latest one to flower of them all, putting up big powder-puffs of blowsy flowers in July in lots of wonderfully vulgar colours!
- Layer 2a: Allium ostrowskianum: a new one on me, so I’ll be very interested to see how these come up. They look very pretty on paper – pale mauve flower heads in June.
- Layer 2b: Tulipa tarda: these are among my favourite tulips, a lovely species with pale yellow, cheerful little flower heads in April. I put them in a circle around the Alliums.
- Layer 3: Pushkinia libanotica: these tiny little gems will be the first to flower, in February or thereabouts, and since they’re so tiny I’ve popped them in on top.
I’m so looking forward to it – the last time I tried a layered pot it was one of the most beautiful displays I’d ever had on my patio. Fingers crossed I haven’t left it too late, that’s all…