Friday, 8 November 2019

The year in the gardens

Top to bottom, left to right: Hellebores; Allium 'Purple Sensation'; Paeonies; Heuchera 'Palace Purple' with Erigeron karvinskianus; Acer palmatum 'Sango-Kaku' with Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Golf Ball'; Achillea millefolium 'Cloth of Gold' with penstemons and clematis; Rosa 'Rhapsody in Blue'; Dicksonia antarctica; Salvia 'Amistad'.

It's been an unsettled year for gardening in London, with frequent unseasonal changes in the weather, although nothing like the challenge of last year's three month drought. An icy January gave way to a very muddy February, neither conditions ideal for getting early planting underway. Then came a long dry spring characterised by continued cold nights which inhibited growth in new plants.

Some plants thrived in the conditions: tulips came late, but very strongly once they were in flower; hellebores loved the long start to the year and paeonies were the best they've been for many years across several gardens. Acers suffered in the cold winds (and probably some waterlogging in some specimens) - I was called out to inspect and assess several Acers with withered branches - in some cases affecting as much as half an established plant. Those in sheltered sites in dappled shade seemed to fare the best.

Roses also had a good year, especially climbers heavy with blooms from June onwards. Other summer reliables such as Agapanthus and Hemerocallis had a steady, if not showstopping, year.

As summer gave way to a wet and sometimes windy autumn, leafy ferns came into their own in the damp conditions and trees showed their autumn colours early. Hylotelephiums (formerly sedums), dahlias and the tall Salvias such as 'Amistad' and 'Black and Blue' brought dramatic late colour to many gardens.

As I write this, the Nerines are just coming out, and we have the delicate blooms and sweet vanilla scents of Hamamelis, Sarcococca and Daphne odora to look forward to over winter, along with bright berries and the glossy green leaves of many evergreens.

The good, the bad and the puzzling - the year at the allotment

It's been a mixed year in the kitchen garden, with unpredictable successes and failures. Last year, it was easy to see that the long heatwave at the beginning of summer would be good for tomatoes, chillies and sweet peppers; this year has been much more unsettled.

There has still been plenty to celebrate. About six weeks ago, the bare earth container which holds the saffron crocus bulbs, started sending up little shoots, and for the last month I've been carefully tweazing out bright red stigmas to store as my first proper saffron crop.

Also coming good for the very first time is the fennel, a crop that has tended to bolt in previous years. I think the consistently wet autumn helped deliver steady moisture to the developing plants and produce some lovely crisp swollen stems.

Stalwarts that didn't disappoint included the globe artichokes: the plants, once established, produce multiple buds between May and July, then, after a rest in high summer, start sending up new buds again in September. We are just finishing them now.

Potatoes were terrific again this year: beautiful Lady Christls like unblemished hens' eggs in June, followed by delicious pink-skinned Rosevals and a long season for the maincrop Pink Fir Apples.

The weather was very slow to warm up in spring, which meant that chillies, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines couldn't go outside until much later than usual, and the seedlings stayed tiny until June/July. The sweet peppers, tomatoes and aubergines caught up quite quickly once they were finally planted out in the polytunnel and greenhouse (and the sweet peppers happily went outside); the chillies on the other hand, are still mostly green and I'm not sure the Carolina Reapers will ever fully develop.

The outdoor tomatoes fruited late but then they all fruited at once. We had about a month until the blight arrived at the start of October and then of course the plants were all gone over in the space of a few days. The greenhouse plants normally keep going until December, given mild enough weather outside, but having picked a load of little Black Cherries and the last few San Marzanos last week, I doubt we will get any more now.

Tree and soft fruit yields were similarly mixed. The red, pink and blackcurrants all fruited reliably but the whitecurrant bushes produced significantly fewer berries. I managed to net the cherry trees in good time (for once) and enjoyed a good cherry harvest. One day it would be nice to save some to make jam, or liqueur, but they are a bit too delicious to resist eating straightaway.

The quince tree, normally so prolific, only set four fruit this year. I think this may well be because we gave it its first proper pruning last winter. There was certainly plenty of blossom in late spring. And the pear trees nearby were so laden with fruit that I was giving away carrier bags full of fruit for a couple of  months in late summer. The perpetual spinach all bolted and I heard similar tales from other allotmenteers. The winter radishes, so plentiful in 2018, are this year still tiny and showing no signs of plumping up so far. We will just have to hunker down with the parsnips, beetroot, oca and yacon over the winter.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Grow your own - saffron

They say that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, gram for gram.  Historically and indeed in the present day, it is much-prized for the golden yellow colour it adds to food or cloth, and for its warm sunshiney aroma.

Its high price by weight is partly because the saffron threads barely weigh anything: you need around 450 filaments to yield a single gram. It's also labour-intensive to harvest: the three long red stigma (below) are the parts of the flower that are picked and all saffron is gathered by hand.

Saffron originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, probably in Iran, which remains the largest producer of the spice in the world today. While it likes the bright Mediterranean sunshine, saffron grows perfectly well outside in the UK given a sunny position. It's also an attractive, with pretty striped mauve flowers, golden yellow anthers and the distinctive red stigmas.

You cannot just harvest any old crocus, however: not all crocus stigma are edible and some are poisonous. You need the long red filaments from Crocus sativus, or saffron crocus. It's an autumn-flowering variety which lies dormant for much of the rest of the year.

For that reason I grow mine in a large container, an old discarded water tank. If I had them in the open ground it would be all too easy to let the area become overgrown with weeds, or, worse, to forget about the crocus and start trying to grow something else in the space. 

Growing in a container also means you can ensure it's the in right place, which in this case, means the sunniest spot on the allotment but also one that is fairly sheltered. The saffron crocus bulbs like to bake all summer long before throwing up leaves and flower buds in September/October. They also like well-drained soil: easier to control in the container which has gravel lining the bottom, then layers of multi-purpose compost before a surface layer of topsoil.

Each bulb, or more accurately, each corm, will throw up one flower in a season, so you need plenty of plants to start off with. The corms will, however, divide in following years, so your stock should increase so long as the plants survive. 

The bare corms are generally available in mid to late summer. Plant each one about 10cm deep, pointy end facing upwards, and leave 15cm or so between them. You may well have to protect the bed from birds and squirrels who like to dig the corms up. I initially thought this would only be an issue while the bulbs were establishing but it turns out that they will happily dig for crocus corms at any time. So my plants grow through black narrow mesh netting stretched across the top of the old water tank and stapled into place. 

Once planted out and protected from foragers, you can pretty well leave them alone. They're perfectly hardy in a UK winter. I got a few flowers to harvest in my first year, but in year two they started producing much more prolifically. The leaves die down completely over winter so your saffron bed will be bare throughout the summer until the shoots start poking through the soil surface again in August/September.

Once the flowers start to come, you should harvest while the red stigmas are just showing, and on a dry morning: in the wet all that lovely golden pigment starts leaching out. Carefully pull them away at the base - this, finally, is where I have found a use for the teeny-tiny tweezers in my Swiss Army knife.

The threads need to dry out before being stored for culinary use. Optimally, this should be done in a warm place, even over gentle heat - Aga owners have an ideal saffron dryer. The rest of us can use the airing cupboard. Once dried, the saffron can be stored in an airtight container such as a small jar, in the a dark cool cupboard, and a pinch used for flavouring paellas, sauce, rice and so on as needed.

Saffron crocus corms available from Farmer Gracy, Suttons and J Parkers, among others.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Show gardens at Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2019

Beautiful day for the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival - where the predominant theme over all the show gardens is the future for gardens and managed space in the face of climate change and weather extremes. Several of the others explore how gardens can help with physical and mental rehabilitation.
My personal favourites are the Stop and Pause garden, which I think brings a real sense of balance and harmony to a small garden in a very accessible way. And of course, the Drought Tolerant Garden created in homage to Beth Chatto, who died last year. This garden was attracting huge crowds today (almost more than for the RHS garden co-created by the Duchess of Cambridge) and deservedly so - the planting is beautiful throughout, just as at the original Beth Chatto gardens in Elmstead Market.

Dream of the Indianos garden, which reflects the style of the gardens created by migrants returning to northern Spain at the end of the 19th century after years in the Caribbean. 

You can see many of these gardens throughout Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria on the north coats of Spain: the signature palms, and profusion of hydrangeas and agapanthus are unmistakable markers of the historic northern Spanish garden.

Beautiful planting in the Drought Tolerant garden, which attracted huge crowds throughout the day.

The Drought Tolerant garden - a tribute to Beth Chatto with many of the plants echoing those in her Dry Garden.

I loved the distinctive planting, especially this juxtaposition of bright pink Astilbe and Asarum europaeum under the birch trees (if there is a tree of the show this year, it would be Betula and all its varieties)

The Stop and Pause Garden, inspired by meditation and the various ways in which it can be practised. A lovely calm space, beautifully balanced.

Now this is how to build a vertical succulent garden: a show-stopping display at Surreal Succulents in the Floral Marquee

Another garden with planting designed to adapt to increasingly dry and unpredictable conditions: fascinatingly diverse planting in the Thames Water Flourishing Future Garden. 

A beautiful, accessible space with lovely planting: the Urban Pollinator garden concentrates on plants which encourage visiting pollinators, especially bees.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Roberto Burle Marx: a visionary landscape architect and plantsman

These pictures of lush tropical planting in bold compositions come from the exhibition currently showing at the New York Botanical Garden, celebrating the work of Roberto Burle Marx. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition on my recent trip to  New York.

Flowing undulating shapes and swathes of colour characterise a Burle Marx garden, and in the mid-20th century this was a new look, contrasting with the formal geometric, straight-edged shapes that had been used in public and private spaces previously.
Burle Marx was an artist and landscape architect who had a massive impact on landscape design in the 20th century. Born in Brazil, he practised mainly in south America and the US: his seafront landscaping at Copacabana Beach and in Miami are internationally renowned.

File:Calçadão de Copacabana - Rio de Janeiro (2).JPG
Part of Burle Marx's large-scale landscaping at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro (Image available via Creative Commons licence.)
He was also a plantsman, travelling extensively in Brazil and south America to find and conserve rare and threatened plants, His concern for the preservation of the environment was some years ahead of his time and he was instrumental in the slowing down of the desecration of the Amazon rainforest.

Burle Marx popularised the use of bromeliads in landscape design; they were some of the many plants he found during his plant hunting excursions off the beaten track in south America.
The exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden includes both his art and his landscape designs, complete with a garden created especially for the event by Miami-based garden designer Raymond Jungles, which wonderfully evokes the spirit of Burle Marx and his love of bold planting design and architectural tropical plants.

Many of Burle Marx's best known works were in public urban spaces, but he also designed private residential gardens, with his signature single-colour beds, sculpture and geometrically designed groundwork.

Many of Burle Marx's artworks were broadly abstract but he would also create astonishingly detailed sketches for his planting designs.

This tapestry demonstrates Burle Marx's love of bold colour and shapes which are also found in his landscape designs. He was at home in many media, designing jewellery, fabrics and stage sets, as well as creating landscapes.
The Living Art of Roberto Burle Marx exhibition is at the New York Botanical Garden until Sunday September 29th. Tickets around $23.00 with concessions available.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Bolara 60: A kitchen garden for this Croatian guesthouse

Bolara 60 is a beautiful house in a beautiful setting: it sits up in the hills above the Adriatic coast of Croatia, in Istria, the large peninsula which juts out into the Adriatic Sea just south of the Italian border. Originally a farmhouse, it has been carefully restored and renovated in traditional local stone and wood and is now a comfortable guesthouse. Sustainable living was an important factor in the restoration: solar panels on the roof heat the water in summer months, rainwater is diverted into an underground aquifer and pumped to taps around the ground for irrigation.

Bolara 60 is owned and run by Anna Colquhoun and Matt Purver as a guesthouse, an ideal base for anyone wanting to explore Istria and Croatia, and to experience the food and drink of the region. Anna is a cooking teacher, food writer, and academic researcher, who ran cookery classes and a supper club in north London as the Culinary Anthropologist for some years before coming out to Istria. Many of the guests come here to expand their food horizons and Anna will give classes and demos to guests on request.

As well as renovating the old farmhouse, Anna and Matt have planted fruit trees in the meadow below the house, and in the main garden, giving them figs, quinces, peaches, grapevines, kiwi fruit - a very popular shade-giving plant in Istria - and sour cherries. They have also restored the old kitchen garden, abandoned for over 30 years, with a new stone wall boundary and edged beds.

Anna invited me to come out to Bolara 60 to work on planning and planting the vegetable garden at the start of the 2018 season. Armed with my best secateurs, a suitcase full of seeds, and Anna's vegetable wishlist, I set off for Bolara 60 via Stansted and Ljubljana for a two-week working stay.

The vegetable garden is optimally situated on a south-facing slope. A line of bamboo (still standing among the ruins when Anna and Matt first set eyes on Bolara 60 in 2012) at the foot of the hill soaks up the water that runs down the slope, and provides canes to support beans and other climbing plants. Also here is the strawberry bed, and a separate perennial herbs bed with rosemary, thyme sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, tarragon, and lovage. The banks are planted up with more rosemary, thyme and sage bushes and also lavender. Globe artichoke plants, apricot and plum trees line the side walls. That leaves six long rhombus-shaped beds for annual vegetables.

It's not often that you get a complete blank slate to work on with a vegetable garden. Matt rotovated all the beds, which were then left a few days before being hand-weeded. We - a team comprising Anna, myself and Bolara 60 volunteer Caitriona Courtney - cleared out the beds. Any perennial plant which was taking up valuable space was moved. Two globe artichoke plants were moved to nearer the side walls, where they sulked for a week before deciding to make a go of it and put on new growth. A couple of gooseberry bushes were taken out of the beds and transplanted to a shadier place between the kitchen garden and the house - ten days later, they were already showing tiny incipient fruit.

The garden needs to supply the kitchen and a continual houseful of guests, so there was much discussion about which crops to concentrate on. Anna and Matt don't at the moment want to grow potatoes or onions - plenty always available in the local farmers' markets. They do however want lots of tomatoes and various beans, from Borlottis to local varieties whose seeds are wrapped in unmarked paper bags. Tomatoes can be made into passata and used throughout the winter months, while the beans can easily be dried and likewise kept for months. So after some mapping and redrawing, we divided the beds into 1) tomatoes, 2) beans, 3) courgettes and cucumbers, 4) lettuces and salad leaves, 5) brassicas and beets, and 6) bitter leaves and roots.

Chillies and aubergines could be planted in the narrow beds set against the south-facing rear wall and benefit from the heat reflected off the stone, and Anna was also keen to grow squashes. Why not train them up the wall to scramble over the top instead of rambling haphazardly over the garden? There was space at the sides to dig out 60cm wide beds and grow the squash here. Melons could go along the side wall as well.

Sitting at the long dining table, which comfortably accommodates up to 16 guests in season, we pooled our seed resources. I'd brought with me a selection of Franchi seeds, with their provenance mainly in northern Italy, just over the border 45 minutes away, some old favourites such as my carefully hoarded Turkish rocket and tomatillos, and some that Anna had requested: purple sprouting broccoli, and good eating squash.

We stocked up on seed-sowing modules from a local agrarija (like Wickes, if only Wickes sold rows and rows of 250ltr vats for making wine, and olive oil presses) and spent a happy afternoon or two sowing 45 varieties of vegetable and constructing a mini-greenhouse from plastic sheeting and split canes. In fact we ended up calling on Caitriona's experience as a trained architect to advise on the design of the mini-greenhouse and her expertise paid off: the mini-greenhouse worked superbly.

I miscalculated the adjustment required between a Mediterranean climate (Istria) and a warm temperate one (London). While the squash seeds germinated after about a week and the brassicas in just a few days, as they do in the UK, the salad leaves, sown directly into the open ground, clearly enjoyed the warmth and the irrigation and germinated within 48 hours, Puzzlingly, the tomatoes wouldn't germinate at all. "How is this possible?" I asked. "Tomatoes always germinate." But I had failed to take into account that while the days were very warm, the nights were still cold, and the drop down to 10-12 degrees was too cool for the tomatoes. The tomato modules were brought indoors and seedlings started to appear in the next day or so.

Garden centres aren't as plentiful in Istria as in the UK, but the agrarijas sell seedlings in season and are well worth visiting in spring to pick up new stock as it comes in. We found chilli and aubergine plants, local tomato varieties, courgette and watermelon seedlings, which could go straight out into the garden and save a lot of space in the mini-greenhouse. The irrigation lines - essential in this Mediterranean climate where the year's rain falls mostly in winter and spring - were realigned to ensure that all the germinated seedlings and bought plants were getting their fair share.

By the end of the fortnight, we felt we'd made good progress. The brassicas were all in, the salad leaves growing apace, and the courgettes, chillies, aubergines and tomateos all well established and putting on good growth. Here's hoping for a bumper season at Bolara 60 this summer - Anna has reported that since I've been back in London, they have had their first batch of strawberries, their first artichoke and there are tiny courgettes already forming. 

I'm planning to return in October to help with the harvest and to get the garden ready for the winter months. For more details about Bolara 60 and planning a visit, see the website at, or for more on this stunning and unspoiled part of Croatia, look up Istria at

The outdoor grill: the large stone dining table is made from a single slab excavated during the renovation of the main house.
Kiwi fruit vine: the large leaves provide welcome shade in summer, and plenty of fruit in the autumn.

Shrubby herbs planted into the steep banks help to prevent soil erosion with their spreading roots and also attract bees and other beneficial insects int the kitchen garden. 

An old wood-fired range, now reborn as a strawberry planter.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Taming the Yacon monster

I have grown a monster. This is the harvest from just one plant, grown from a tiny seed tuber back in April 2017. Each one of those long oval roots is the size of a marrow. For all that it looks like a sweet potato it is in fact a yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), a tuberous perennial hailing originally from South America, historically grown on the eastern slopes of the Andes. It's also known as Peruvian ground apple and, in its native South America is also confusingly known as jicama. It's definitely not a jicama, though - jicama is a Mexican legume also grown for its underground rhizomes, although the taste is not dissimilar.

It is however related to the Jerusalem artichoke and therefore also kin to the sunflower. The relationship becomes apparent when the plant begins to grow in early summer with its sturdy, slightly hairy, stem and broad leaves. At the end of summer the yacon plant produces small bright yellow flowers very similar to those of the Jerusalem artichoke.

I first read about yacon in Mark Diacono's book A Taste of the Unexpected. At the time I was experimenting with growing oca, another South American tuber, and finding the results somewhat underwhelming. The idea of devoting yet more space to another 'lost crop of the Incas' did not really  appeal.

I was surprised by just how vigorous and tall the yacon plants grew, reaching around 2m by August. Even so, I had no idea what lay beneath until I harvested the first plant at the beginning of November. That yielded three fat sweet-potato-sized tubers, and I was pretty pleased with myself, so much so that I tweeted the following:

Little did I realise that I'd just pulled up the (very much) smaller of the two. The second plant I left to grow on, mindful of Mark Diacono's advice that the roots will stay happily in the ground until - and beyond - the first frosts.

There's no way I can use all this yacon at once. After adding them to salads where the mildly sweet, juicy crunch gives a winter salad some welcome texture, I also tried yacon remoulade, stirring julienned yacon into creme fraiche laced with mustard and a bit of lemon juice. They were julienned again with carrot for a dish based on a south-east Asian papaya salad: sprinkled with a dressing made with fish sauce, lime juice, crushed garlic and sugar, and topped with cashew nuts. That went down very well.

The roots store like potatoes: keep cool - say, around 5-10 degrees Celsius - in the dark, not too dry (they will wither), but definitely not damp (they will rot). Some roots won't keep, but those that do should stay good for weeks if not months.

There's also no need to to buy yacon starter plants each year. Once the giant swollen tubers have been removed, you're left with the stems and the small round buds around the crown. These will grow again the following season. Bury this remaining haulm and nodules in barely damp soil or sand and keep somewhere cool and dark - possibly the same place that is storing the roots for eating. Plant out again in spring, somewhere sunny and well mulched with manure, once the soil has warmed up a bit and the frosts should be over.  

You should probably protect the new leaves from slugs and snails, but I found the emerging plants needed little in way of cossetting. Last year was a notably good growing season for many 'long season' crops so it will be interesting to see how they do this year in whatever conditions 2018 throws up.