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Wednesday, 21 September 2022

A day at Garden Organic and preserving seeds for the future

My ideas about gardening and the food we were eating changed when we had small children. One of my neighbours' garage held everything to kill things - weeds, ants, rodents, you name it, there was some toxic product to keep the garden pristine and repel all invaders. 

That wasn't going to happen under my watch in our small garden, and I began reading about growing organically, which I've done ever since. 

So, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to be at Garden Organic, near Coventry for a Garden Media Guild visit.

This is the home of the UK charity formerly known as the HenryDoubleday Research Association,  which encourages organic gardening and growing food in a healthy and sustainable way, carries out scientific research into the best ways of doing so, and preserves heirloom seeds for posterity.

The organic show gardens that we see now were only created over two years ago, designed around a beautiful glasshouse and framed prettily by cosmos and verbena bonariensis. Our guide is the wonderfully enthusiastic Head Gardener Emma O'Neill.

Inside, tomatoes, chillies, aubergines, melons and other heat-loving vegetables are grown in pots.  

Outside, the glasshouse is surrounded by four beds, one a perennial vegetable bed which includes skirret. This is new to me, but apparently, it dates back to Tudor times and its flavour is somewhere between a potato and a parsnip.
One bed is trialling the no dig method, and another features legumes, with heavy cropping beans climbing over archways.

 Beans are one of my favourite things to grow, so I made a beeline for them and was intrigued by one variety of runner bean "Slovenian White" Such delicate white flowers, so vigorous too, and when I saw some of the actual beans, they're large, bright white, and used primarily as a dried bean for soups and stews.

As we walk around, Emma is a mine of information and is very honest too, telling us how she's been having problems with the brassicas due to the heat, what plants have irritated her and why. This is the way to learn about growing plants, to hear of the failures as well as the successes,because it can be all too easy to be despondent at home when something goes wrong,   As Emma says, you can always try again, using a different approach, or use the advice pages on the Garden Organic website. 

Emma is proud of the ponds which have been established in the last two years, attracting all sorts of pollinators and the bug hotels around have attracted both bugs and children who are fascinated by them. After all, you are never too young to learn about organic gardening.

As you enter the polytunnel, there's the addictive scent of strawberries, so intense I want to snatch handfuls of the juicy fruits to eat, but I resist the urge and just admire them, as well as the very well-behaved tomatoes.

Organic gardening isn't just about growing food to eat of course and Emma O Neill loves her ornamentals too. 

After a quick lunch, (we all brought our own) we were off to learn more about the work of the Heritage Seed Library, which I found absolutely fascinating. Catrina Fenton is Head of the Library, and she's passionate about her work and why it is so important.

Apparently, we've lost thousands of varieties of traditional varieties of vegetables in the last fifty years or so. Catrina explains the introduction of intensive farming and EU rules introduced in the 1970s, meant the trade of seeds that had not been through an expensive registration process was restricted, which led to the extinction of heritage varieties.

That's where Lawrence Hills, the Founder of the Library stepped in. He realised that these old varieties needed to be protected, and since then, seeds of all sorts have been collected, sent or donated by growers who treasure the diverse range of varieties.

Each year, new ones arrive, and they are all trialled in  the grounds at Garden Organic, in open ground,  polytunnels and glasshouses.

Firstly we went into the polytunnels, one of which was bursting at the seams with what looked like tall  triffids, they were so lush and energetic, but they were Shropshire blackpods, an heirloom variety of runner bean grown by the same famiy for at least 100 years, plus Mr Wong's Shark Fin melon.

In one of the glasshouses, plants were drying out ...such as this Rousham Park Hero variety of onion, which was bred in the 19th century in Oxfordshire.

Meanwhile in the seed cleaning room indoors, Lucy the Seed Officer, oversees all the thousands of  harvested seeds  that arrive in here, including 3 to 4,000 tomatoes which come through the door. There's a winnowing machine, tomato seeds 

The results are kept in cold storage, in a room which houses thousands and thousands of treasures - heritage seeds of tomatoes, beans, peas, cauliflowers, carrots, squashes, you name it, filled with seeds which need to be protected.

Many have weird and wonderful names which delight, and every packet of seed tells a story of gardening  history, the people who grew them and a sense of place. These seeds can come a local grower, or from Europe and further afield, or from people who have come to live here but brought a taste of home with them. For example a seed search was conducted by Garden Organic back in 2012 across allotments in the the Midlands, to find seed originated from India. Again, these are an important genetic resource maintaining heirloom varieties. 

Before the end of out visit, we sat undercover in the Demonstration Garden, and over a  chat, we made ourselves useful. Some of us, were podding dried beans with Fiona Taylor, the charismatic Chief Executive of Garden Organic...

and the rest of us, were packing broad beans into packets, ready to be sent out to members of the Heritage Seed library early next year. Members of Garden Organic can join the Heritage Seed Library for an extra £18 and select six packets of seed from over 150 different types  of vegetables in a catalogue which plops throught the door in early December.

I drove home from the visit with my mind buzzing with visions of upping my own seed saving game, what to grow next year and planting methods and ideas which are so  relatable not just to my garden but so many others. 
There was also the sense of just how valuable Garden Organic is, in a world of unprecedented global, environmental change and challenges. 

The garden and Heritage Seed Library is open regularly to the public and pre- booked tours and workshops. Visitors are offered a guided tour and expert advice on organic gardening. Scheduled tour days are free for members and  cost £7.50 for non members.
Groups can also book a private tour 024 7630 3517 

More information can be found here

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

A day reviewing "The Secret Gardens of South East England by Barbara Segall

 Surely visiting a garden is one of the most pleasurable of pastimes?

For me, it's the sense of anticipation as you arrive, wondering which vistas, planting schemes, and colour combinations will excite you. Happiness on the way home, stuffed with cake and usually with a car boot containing some new little treasures in plant pots.

Well, this Bank holiday weekend, I visited twenty glorious gardens in Surrey, Sussex, and Kent, all without leaving my own home and garden. It's all thanks to gardening and food writer Barbara Segall and her latest book"The Secret Gardens of the South East of Gardens of the South East. A private tour" which is published next month.

This follows her previous collaboration five years ago with photographer Marcus Harpur "The Secret Gardens of East Anglia, which I really enjoyed. My review of that book is here...

 So I knew I would be in good hands as she introduces us to twenty very different gardens and their owners, this time photographed by Clive Boursnell.

The first garden in the book is a surprise, a small town garden in Whitstable, measuring a mere 45 feet by 14 feet, like so many Victorian houses. In 2010 when they moved in, it was a gravel garden with a membrane breaking up and impoverished soil, according to owners Paul and Phil.

Not now though, as they have embraced the fences, using them for height and structure, and are now packed with upwardly swarming plants in a riot of colours.

Donald and Charlotte live in a small house with a delightfully quirky 1.5-acre garden, in Beneden in Kent which through necessity and choice has been created on a shoestring budget. Recycling and getting most of the plants free, from cuttings or from seeds from their parent's gardens or elsewhere has been their mantra for years, plus growing lots of fruit and vegetables. For years too, Charlotte has been creating the most playful topiary animals from the yew hedges they planted, and the effect is stunning. 

So what about the other 18 gardens in the book?  Well, you're going to have to buy a copy to discover them for yourselves.

Quite a few of them have been inherited from previous generations. For example, the owners of Ramster Hall in Chiddingfold, Surrey are celebrating a century of curating the garden this year.

Doesn't the thought of inheriting a beautiful garden sound wonderful? Yes, it does, although that's hardly likely in my case. Nevertheless, with privilege and the urge to put your own mark on a garden, comes a responsibility - to enhance and restore it, of future-proofing, whilst being mindful of its past. This comes over quite strongly in the book how these owners have risen to the challenge.

To buy a house with a garden designed by Vita Sackville West or Gertrude Jekyll must be a privilege too, and Barbara has featured two of them, 

Barbara has woven the stories and history of these gardens and their previous owners with those of their current custodians with care and dexterity. I'm also pleased to see that the gardeners who work in them too are given their due and included in both the text and the photographs. 

Through her expert eyes, we are given a comprehensive overview of each garden but I like the way she hones in on specific plants, and features that others might miss. The devil is always in the detail.....

The gardens may be classed as secret, but some do open for private visits or as part of the inimitable National Gardens Scheme. 

I certainly plan to visit as many of them as I can when possible as they all look so inviting and beautiful. In the meantime, I've enjoyed quite a few happy hours poring over this guide to such an eclectic group of gardens, including one which even features a hornbeam church!

'Secret Gardens of the South East. A Private Tour'  by Barbara Segall and photographs by Clive Boursnall is published by Frances Lincoln on 20th September 2022.

NB I was sent this review copy by the publishers.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Days of picking raspberries differently with Sophie Kinsella

I've almost picked the last of the raspberries.

Each visit to the allotment to pick them has been different. At the beginning of the season, there were a couple of quick dashes to pick before heavy rain was about to fall. A case of throwing caution to the wind, and flinging as many ripe raspberries as I could into containers, then home, before getting soaked.

A few weeks ago, the sun was warm on my back as I made my way down the rows of raspberries canes, and picked leisurely. Treating myself at the end of each row to a handful of juicy berries,  lifting my face to the sun, I was thoroughly lost in the moment.

It reminded me of something, something I'd read years ago. A very funny Sophie Kinsella novel "The Undomestic Goddess" featuring a deliciously romantic romp


in the raspberry canes between the heroine Samantha and the rather gorgeous Nathaniel. 

Samantha is a hotshot overworked London lawyer who escapes to the countryside after she's blamed for a multi-million-pound error and Nathaniel is a gardener who teaches her that life in the slow lane can be more rewarding in more ways than one.  A few days later , I found the book in a bookcase upstairs and the raspberry picking scene.

"The raspberry canes are further down the garden, like rooms of green netting, with dry earthy floors and rows of raspberry canes As we enter there's no sound apart from buzzing insects and the flapping of a trapped bird, which Nathaniel shoos out.

We work  the first row wordlessly, intently, picking the fruit off the plants. By the end of the row, my mouth is tangy with the taste of them, my hands are scratched and aching, and I'm sweating all over. The heat seems more intense in this raspberry cage than anywhere else in the garden,

 We meet at the end of the row and Nathaniel looks at me a still second, sweat running down the side of his face.

"Hot work," he says. He puts his trug down and strips off his T-shirt.

"Yes."There's a still beat between us. Then, almost defiantly, I do the same. I'm standing there in my bra, inches from in, my skin pale and milky compared to his.

"Have we done enough?" I gesture at the trug,  but Nathaniel doesn't even glance down.

"Not yet."

Something about this expression makes me damp and prickly behind my knees. I meet his eyes and it's like we're playing truth or dare.

"I couldn't reach these ones." I point at a high cluster of fruit just out of reach.

"I'll help" He leans over me, skin against skin, and I feel his mouth on my earlobe as he picks the fruit. My entire body responds. I can't bear this, I need it to stop. And I need it not to stop."

Well, I'm going to stop there too as the attraction and tension among the raspberries continues rather well. I couldn't help thinking of that scene though,  during the heatwave when I went to the allotment to water the raspberries after doing some more picking. 

The heat, the sweating (mine). There the resemblance ended and I began to smile, then giggle, before crying with laughter. 

Romance was decidedly lacking. In the distance I could see Alan, in his eighties, back bent over digging, and then stopping to rub his back as he tried to get upright.  On the neighbouring allotment, Graham was huffing and puffing, not from any physical exertion I might add, he was too busy swearing at the same time. I don't blame him, thieves keep targeting our allotment site,  and I won't describe what he was going to do to them if found.

Truth can be so much more mundane than fiction.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of raspberries tucked away in the freezer, raspberry coulis too, and pounds of homemade raspberry and gin jam on my shelves.  

 All I need to do now is prune the raspberries, and  re-read Sophie Kinsella’s novel……

Saturday, 23 July 2022

Days of discoveries and changes at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire

There's always something different to see at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, even a surprise or two.

One of the biggest surprises this month in terms of size, is the fact that the recent, blisteringly record high temperatures we've been experiencing have uncovered something very special.

This is a view of the South Lawn at Chatsworth, usually a lush-looking green.

Now though, like thousands of lawns across the UK (including mine), it's scorched and in places the colour of straw.  Unlike others, this lawn has revealed what is left underneath of a much earlier garden from the the17th century.

The pattern looks intriguing, doesn't it? What's even more fascinating is that the historians and gardeners know what exactly was here from this illustration of the ornate design of the garden which was created in 1699 for the Ist Duke of Devonshire.

It's lovely to see these echoes of the past, proof that the gardens at Chatsworth have constantly evolved and changed over 300 years.
What a coincidence that this should happen now, as the garden has been going through its biggest transformation in the last 200 years.

I came to Chatsworth last September to see the changes which were taking place across the 105-acre gardens and was bowled over by the time, energy and sheer scale of the alterations and creation of a new15 acre garden called Arcadia on a ridge above the more formal gardens, at a cost. of around £15 million.

You can read about it here..

Last month I was back to see what else has been happening since then. Arcadia continues to delight, and it's good to see Tom Stuart Smith's designs of woodland and meadow glades in a different season, a different palette of colours.

The rose garden has also had a make over, the first since 1939. Designer Tome Stuart Smith says he wants more romance, and has planted over 100 different varieties of roses and introduced the underplanting of foxgloves, bearded irises and violas to provide a show from early spring to autumn.

A bigger and bolder move is enhancing the Rock Garden, designed by Joseph Paxton. It's the oldest and largest in the world and has delighted visitors for many years. 

Not only are there more rocks strategically placed to add depth to a vista but they are also accompanied by new, prolific swathes of planting to add colour and more all-year-round interest.

This centrepiece of the Rock Garden still commands awe and attention. and my case, longing. It was such a hot day, I had an intense urge to stand for a while under the falling cool water.

I don't think Steve Porter, the amiable Head of Gardens and Landscape would have approved somehow, but he likes the fact that visitors are spending more time now in the Rock Garden, not merely walking through it. There is more to see, and areas to sit and drink in the views.

"The more time people engage with a garden and revisit a garden is a measure of success," says Steve, and that's happening already, with more visitors returning, eager to see what's going on in the garden. 

The most hardworking three acres of gardens at Chatsworth are very productive ones. A fruit garden, a vegetable garden, and a cutting garden  are set on the hill with wonderful views across to the rolling parkland  

Mick Brown is the Production Garden Manager, leading a team of three gardeners and eleven volunteers.

He says there have always been kitchen gardens at Chatsworth in different areas, but this site was very much unloved until the early 1990's.There were greenhouses, but the 11th Duke and Duchess Deborah were inspired by the popularity of the grow your own movement, at the time, to make the kitchen gardens beautiful as well as productive, and open them so that the public can see the area.

The cutting garden is undeniably decorative and it was so pleasing to see rows and rows of peonies. I was especially taken with the exquisite "Evening World " which I will definitely introduce into my garden next year.

I wasn't the only one transfixed by the cutting garden....Camilla Anderson and Sylvia Travers,  also from the Garden Media Guild were too.

All of these flowers are grown to be seen here in the garden, to be cut for floral bouquets for the House itself, for weddings and other events held at Chatsworth House, and for the floristry workshops 
held here too. Not a single bloom is wasted ....

The vegetable garden is similarly intensively cultivated, as the vegetables and salads aren't just grown to feed the Duke and Duchess and their family.

They are supplied to hotels, pubs, and the Farm Shop which is owned by the Estate well as the newly opened Chatsworth Kitchen in nearby Rowsley, serving locally sourced food each day.

According to Mick Brown, the high demand for their vegetables from local chefs is energizing his team because they can see the value in what they do each day, and they are growing a wider variety too, with historic crops enjoying a resurgence. Mick's enthusiasm for his job is obviously infectious and he's proud of what his team are achieving.

The produce of the fruit garden and orchard is in demand too, such as the Derbyshire Beeling Pippin apple and other local traditional varieties. 

Mick also oversees the glass houses, including the wonderful vinery, a huge glasshouse which was originally erected in 1835 with two others to house orchids.


Since the 1920's though, the space has been used to grow muscat Alexandria grapes and peaches. It's a glorious space, even though what sounds like shots ring out at intervals. We're assured that it's just the blackbird scarer, so we all relax and tuck into some produce from the Estate, such as beetroot and horseradish chutneys and heritage green tomato chutneys, with cheese and biscuits.

 Delicious limoncello, orangecello and even some Great Conservatory rose pink gin too.....thimblefuls, I might add, otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to navigate home.

Unfortunately, it was time to leave, but I'll definitely be back again. Visiting Chatsworth House Garden really is the gift that keeps giving, with something new to discover with every visit, 

Chatsworth House Garden is currently open daily from 10.30am until 5.30pm.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

days of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee 2022

Living in the UK, you couldn't have avoided the Jubilee celebrations last week even if you had tried.

Four days of events and gatherings were held across the country to mark the Queen's 70 years of service as the longest-reigning monarch in our history.

In London, there was the Trooping of the Colour, a concert outside Buckingham Palace, thousands thronging the Mall, big fancy affairs, church services, and thousands of more modest street parties. 

You couldn't move far without spotting flags and bunting throughout the land..and there was  one event which united all parts of the kingdom. It's the old tradition of a beacon chain. Lighting a beacon chain in villages, towns, and cities was a tool of communication, perhaps used to warn of invasion and danger. Now, it's used to celebrate jubilees and as a symbol of unity and celebration.

Back here at home in our teeny, tiny village, we celebrated too. With less than thirty houses here, our events aren't on a grand scale, but we do enjoy ourselves.

Our beacon lighting event took place last Thursday at 9.45pm in a huge field on the top of a hill which is only a couple of hundred yards outside the village. You can see for miles from here.....

The beacon was set and expertly lit by Phil on the right side of this photo...

Some of us brought a bottle or two of something to celebrate, some didn't but everyone enjoyed meeting up, chatting, and watching the amazing skies putting on their own dramatic show.

It grew darker and some began to edge away from the beacon which was well and truly alight and throwing out quite a fierce heat

Thanks to Joe (below on the right) who lent his fabulous field for the beacon lighting 

We now have two lovely Ukrainian families living in our village and it was so good to see them join in the celebrations. As we chatted, they told me about the ritual of a bonfire on Kupala night back home which takes place every July. 

After sunset, young couples, holding hands, leap over the bonfire. If they don't separate their hands, they will marry and are destined to be together ...if not, their relationship won't last. It's a fascinating tradition, but luckily no one attempted to do that over our beacon bonfire!

Later as I walked home with friends, we all agreed that it had been a wonderful evening. Standing on the hilltop and watching other beacons light up in neighbouring and more distant villages, made us feel part of something bigger, I loved the conversations in the open air by firelight at a time when we would all usually be indoors, the sense of community and feeling invigorated.

On Sunday morning, there was a special Jubilee service in our village church which was beautifully decorated with flowers.

Afterwards there was a village barbecue. This should have been held on the land behind the village hall, but the rain put paid to that idea.

Luckily, a family offered their barn to host the barbecue and bring and share lunch.

Ian and his son Dan worked hard on the barbecue,

Everyone spoilt the two new babies in our village, and it doesn't matter what age you are, a few party games never go amiss.

Whilst others caught up for a chat....

The pomp, ceremony and sheer razzamatazz of the Jubilee celebrations elsewhere seemed far away as we marked the Jubilee here in our small village. Instead, there was just a real sense of enjoyment, of being together, and of making memories of a landmark year in our little part of the world.