Sunday, 8 March 2015

Hocus crocus

Spring guarantees a cliché

Has it sprung? Have you seen the first sign? 

You'll know it's happening when the snowdrops appear, daffodils show a glimpse of yellow, someone sits outside a pub in a t-shirt...

I approach that first glistening snowdrop with dread. It means things are going to get out of control pretty damn quickly. It starts with the weeds, then the bugs, all creeping up on you like a cheat on sports day taking small steps to get a head start.

It seems unfair. My poor chilli seeds have been sat on the window sill, my peas in the grow house, chives sown in a pot, hoping that they'll take the hint from the daffodils and get cracking. But it seems none of them have done. All lifeless and hibernating. It's as if they can't even hear the noise from the tables outside the pub next door...

Perhaps I need something else to signal that the race has started. Maybe I've become a little too down hearted about spring, despite a big of effort this year to get things going. As it happens, a little spell was cast on me this week down in Devon. Walking down the steps to a jetty, my eye took to a bold flower defying the cut-throat wind. A crocus.

I'd almost forgotten about this flower, and given I know so few flowers I really have no excuse to forget any. Strong, confident and clearly quick off the mark, I think this is the flower I and my sluggish plants need to get ahead of those dastardly interloping weeds.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Chit lit

This is a tale about commitment. 

Today I rekindled my love affair with the humble potato, one that started a long time ago when my heart was taken by a fiendish roast, but which has never flourished into the garden.

In truth, me and potatoes have never been apart, and I could often be found indulging in a creamy mash. Or chips. But rarely have I had the commitment to grow and stick to my own. Just the once before in fact and it didn't last, blight set in and I only got a small crop. I thought about growing them again but something to do with the temptation of other veg that freed up the bed quickly - beans, radish, you know the crunchy types - led me astray.

But now I've grown up, moved on. Now I have a proper kitchen...

And so potatoes, roast potatoes in particular, have taken hold. my Sundays are all about perfecting a roast chicken's best friend. I've tried all the tips - and I don't buy the goose fat myth - a good par boil, steam dry and roughing in the pan, high heat and oil, mmmm, the perfect roast...sorry, day dreaming.

Four weeks ago I took the plunge and bought my seed potatoes, ready to 'chit'.

A strange word, chitting. Reading gardening books it implies a technique, a deliberate careful method to get the best potatoes. To me a chitted potato is no different to that neglected spud at the bottom of the vegetable rack. But still, I took the care to find suitable egg boxes to house them and checked their progress every day.

I've learnt a lot in four weeks, based on the advice of others. 'Don't put them by the window, they need to be in the dark'. 'Don't put them in the dark there, they make the kitchen look untidy'... 

Feeling unwanted, the poor things took a while to show any enthusiasm to wake up, but I stuck with them and finally in the last 10 days the shoots showed real promise. 

Last week I prepared their space in the raised bed, today I increased the depth with more top soil, and planted out a row of 6.

My only worry is that they're a bit shallow. In the raised bed I mean. Despite the extra soil, the bottom of the bed is probably only 5cm deep. I fear they'll realise that for all my commitment, they may not hang around!

Friday, 5 December 2014

George's marvellous medicine

I'm looking for a cure to that apparently male affliction - the desire for a shed.

I personally think it's an affliction more universal than some would have us believe, so this may all sound familiar...

I first noticed a problem when I felt a pang of pain. I was carting my larger tools off to a temporary home, 5 miles away at my girlfriend's father's garage. 

It felt wrong. How can you call your spade a spade when it can't hear you?

With forks banned from the house as though mud corrupts, there was no chance of me cradling my strimmer and its blades of grass, still clinging on to the base months after its last use. Everything big had to go.

The second symptom came on my now regular walks through the Gloucestershire commons; the 5 valleys that surround Stroud and the National Trust land at its heights.  This is a truly beautiful part of the world with a landscape of deep valleys and winding lanes that hide not only gorgeous cottages and grand homes but sheds. Lots of sheds. Not a weekend walk goes by when my girlfriend and I don't share a romantic whisper of 'I like the colour of that shed.'  


The 5 Valleys standard paint-job

Is this a shed?
Finally, when it became clear I was wandering through the cottage looking for somewhere to lay my hat, a space that I could call my own, she said 'get a shed'. I'm sure we've all been, or will be there one day, but that sense of excitement on realising that your own shed is now within the realms of possibility allows you to make that instant leap from melancholy to madness...

Enter George. 

Pin the shed on the garden...
At the time of writing, 8pm on Thursday nights tools are downed and the TV is on for George Clarke's amazing spaces. Here you can watch magic happen. People take the smallest, strangest spaces often with just the change in their pocket and more drive than you find in a North American cattle ranch, they create (as the title suggests) Amazing Spaces.

Well give me some of that! I'm addicted / cured depending on how you view this. In my head, my shed is now the place of envy. Painted, kitted out and open for garden business. 

In reality though, I still need to decide where to put it and how big it can be. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the garden is big enough to take my ideas, so any advice on where I can put a shed here are very welcome

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Buried pleasure

I'd forgotten how to garden.

Not that I'd ever come close to mastering it in the first place. 

I'm in a new garden now, one that had stolen my attention over the milder months and has become my home. I've said farewell to my small Victorian walled haven and swapped it a view from an old weaver's cottage looking out to Laurie Lee country, nearby allotments mocking me as I'm drawn to the valley beyond.

There is a tale of woeful horticultural neglect to come one day soon, but for now I just wanted to share the spoils of the one tiny bit of gardening I did manage in the last 12 months:

Yes, even one afternoon building a small raised bed, planting a few seeds and then wandering off as if growing food was that easy has shown me that it can be, well, that easy.  Oh, ok this may only be a red onion and beetroot among the weeds (yeah they look the same to me too), but perhaps tiny steps back into it and I'll soon be back on form. A bit more weeding here, an allotment there (you know it, they're only over the road...)

But if it's this easy to get excited by it, and growing a spot of root veg seems so simple it begs the question, why is gardening so damn hard!?

Friday, 13 December 2013

Hi, I'm an Australian lady...

Such are the subtleties of language, the slightest inflection or letter can alter the meaning.

My Spanish extends no further than a traditional Brit abroad - "por favor", "gracias" and of course "cerveza". So it was with some (in)trepidation that my friend James and I approached our home stay with a Costa Rican family, tucked away in the mountain village of Mollejones. 

Not that we had much time for nerves or trepidation before our arrival. In the telling of this story I've jumped ahead a few days from the start taking you to the day of a 65 km cycling 'epic'. Epic in the bad sense, oh yes it's probably a good thing my Spanish is basic, lest a tirade of Iberian cursing pierce this most tranquil community.

I don't know if you've ever ridden up a mountain in heat and humidity? If you have, you'll understand those moments of pain that shoot through your legs with every turn of the pedal that propels you but an inch a time.
"We're all broken inside"
Suppose you have conquered such a climb, enjoyed the pause at the top, snap the group with forced smiles - we're loving this honestly - a banana perhaps and then the freefall downhill to reach the valley below. Maybe you have called it a day, rested your buttocks on something more comfortable than a razor seat?

For us, it was merely a warm up for the next climb to our midday restaurant. Those shots of pain giving way to more psychological challenges. The inner child defiance ('I don't want to play anymore'), the knowledge of the hours ahead with little prospect of comfort of a hotel at the end. 

Instead there was the prospect an evening of awkward British politeness in the company of a family to whom Mr Bean is most likely found on a menu with Mrs Rice.

Actually, thank goodness then for lunch. Yes there was beans and rice, of the most nourishing kind, accompanied by the sort of vista that makes you realise that the value of a reward is intrinsically linked to the effort you put in. 

I earned this view.

It was here that one of the Australian contingent, Kate, tried to teach me some basic Spanish so that I could at least introduce myself. "Me llamo Tom, soy un Australiana' (we were sure the English / Aussie difference wouldn't be noticeable). Alas, apparently I should have said Australiano, much to Kate's amusement, and that of the group as the word spread that perhaps I secretly spent my weekends known as Priscilla. Oh yes, when a few days later our raft was dubbed 'the girls raft' for no other reason than a lost splash fight, it was noted that I was indeed an Australian lady.

Cross dressing aside, I could have happily settled down with a cerveza and watched the hummingbirds feed on nectar. - pigeons simply don't have the same grace around my bird table at home. 

But no, there was one more climb to go. There wasn't even the assurance that this was an easy climb. In fact, this was set to be the hardest climb of the lot. Off road, never ending beast of hill.

Growing up in Cambridge - the flatest city in England where the only hill was our school playing field conveniently used by the teachers for cross-country - everyone had a mountain bike. This particular afternoon I was finally introduced to the terrain a mountain bike was built for.

I'm afraid these photos don't do justice to the brutality of this climb. Here's just a short stretch above and below. Take me on trust that around both corners lay hell for all those who seek only leisure from two wheels.

I'm going to leave this story here for now, the final mile is a story in its own right.

One thing I did learn though, applicable as much to gardening and life in general is that you can be faced with tasks of endurance, where the challenge appears never ending, where you fall, get up, fall, get up fall, stay down, you feel physical and emotionally broken, but when you get to the top the truth is you, once you get over the humbling sensation of what you've achieved...'ll think of every lazy person you've ever known, and feel one very smug *******

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Tales from Costa Rica: #1 Why did the sloth cross the road?

See Tales from Costa Rica page for more

Sloths have a bad name and it's not deserved. 

Meet Tico the Costa Rican sloth:

You may well ask yourself what a sloth has to do with gardening, and I'm sure I'll have found a tenuous link before this post is out, but just pause for a moment and reflect on your perception of a sloth...

Slow? Yes. Lazy? Almost certainly. On benefits? Without a doubt. 

I'd barely started my adventure when a small group of us came across this curious character. Had it not been for Don's chain snapping within seconds of leaving our starting point we would have missed this charming fellow.

Indeed, I would have missed him anyway had Karen not screamed 'Sloooooooooooooth' causing us all to stop, take a break and a photo (I soon discovered this wouldn't be the last time I'd have to take a break on the bike...).

Most sloths hang from trees in a little bundle. However, this go-getter decided the time was right to see if the grass, or possibly trees, were greener on the other side. He looked left, he looked right, he waited for a car to go past. Time to cross? Not just yet, got to pose for the tourists taking photos first.

It got me thinking, what would you do in this situation? Me, I took photos of the charmer with the intention of getting back on my bike and continuing my adventure. The old Costa Rican lady with a walking stick in the back of a car that pulled up, and Vito with a stick pulled from a tree, had other ideas.

Before my eyes, I saw the locals carefully place a stick under the front legs and one under the hind legs, lift and cart this pampered pretend primate from one side of the road into the long grass on the other where it made like Usain Bolt on sedatives to its new home. I was so stunned and it happened so quickly I forgot to capture the moment.

Unfortunately for those whose chains didn't snap, this top sighting passed them by. Juan Carlos was like a patient parent to the cries of 'when are we going to see a sloth', every day until the final day - the day he said we'd see one. We'd be crawling up hills - 'do sloths hang out here?' and racing down mountains 'was that a sloth? Crash. No.

But thankfully I had this thrilling video to keep them happy until the next sloth sighting. 


Three garden-related things struck me about my sloth experience. 

Firstly that if you don't keep your eyes open you'll miss more than you could possibly realise. It's hard sometimes, but I think the same applies to the garden. Often, I'll get totally caught up in weeding that I'll miss the cat leaving a parcel in the veg bed behind me. Or it might be a new bird quietly checking out the food on the bird table.

Secondly, that the famed Costa Rican care for their natural world was evident in the simplest of gestures. Next time I'm rushing for work, no harm in taking a bit longer to soak some bread and leave it out for the birds, or to put some slug pellets down (you know, to help the plants...).

And finally, that it's ok to be a sloth. Sure the garden may not stay as neat and tidy, but things will take care of themselves. And when you're as good looking as this, what's the rush?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Apple piggy

Lets face it, we all chase happiness like a toddler chases a pigeon. Fully focused yet just out of reach, except that actually in chasing we sometimes forget we're having a riot.

Apples make me happy, ridiculously so. I think they were the only healthy thing I liked as a child. The wonderful children's book 'Apple Pigs' is a classic in our family. 

We had two apple trees in our garden - cooking apples for which my parents unfortunately had little time or inclination to do much with, as would you with four tearaways and a job each to handle. All I can remember is being told to go out and pick up the rotten ones.

The apple tree in my garden bears the most seductive fruit. Today, I picked one to accompany my cup of tea. Everything from the accidental squelch of the the rotten fruit underfoot, to the selection of the perfectly ripe one, to slicing through the crisp flesh brought with it the sense that not only was I chasing a pigeon but I'd damn well caught the bugger, roasted it and dished it up with thick gamey gravy.

The taste? Half cox, half braeburn; sweet and sharp. 

And the best bit? Look what's left...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Just desserts... least, that's all I'll be making on the back of this summer's harvest. 

As you can probably tell by the lack of writing on my blog in recent months, I've not been active in the garden at all. In fact, so bad is the situation, a recent visitor to
the garden proclaimed "you really are the hapless gardener..."

The garden can be a daunting place at times. A close friend of mine recently moved into her new home and faced with, as she put it, "200 years worth of brambles" duly got stuck in and only retired back indoors once the cuts had sapped every drop of energy from her.

So I admire all you gardeners who put aside all your worries elsewhere, and embrace the challenge that is keeping your outdoors in check. I don't even have the excuse of a bad summer.

But as I've discovered before, the garden can also be a very forgiving place.

I have a very old apple tree and in the orange hum of autumn afternoon, its fruits have been singing. In answer to the tune I've been apple picking, using a simple technique my mum taught me - twist to see if they're ripe, one turn and they should fall neatly into the palm of your hand. It felt almost wrong to remove them from the tree, so perfect do they look hanging from every branch... 

To my surprise, as I was caught up among the apple tree's tentacles I discovered that the snails hadn't eaten all my runners, not all the pears were rotten, and that even a few borlotti beans had survived my neglect to brighten up my box.

I'm relieved and happy with my mini harvest, I just need to figure out what to do with all this?


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Ray ban

Bristol is getting its tan on. 

Every flower in the city has been stripping off and flaunting its petals at the rays of the summer sun in the hope of turning a gorgeous colour with which to wow the crowds. Oh yes, beach culture has hit the garden

But as with every beach, there are sights we'd all rather not see. Don't get me wrong now, I'm one for all types to be on show. But when there's a spot of over-indulgence at the expense of variety then it's time to step in.

In the case of my garden it's sadly not the flowers but the dandelions, ground elder and unwelcome grasses that seem to think now's a good time to rise, shine and take over the lawn. En mass they've appeared and fought for the good spots and although it may have done them some inner good, I've had to avert my eyes. So much so that I've been avoiding the garden altogether. 

I know, I know this is not how one should behave with a responsibility such as a garden. But in truth I've given up trying to manage this unruly mob. I know there are dangers in taking on the nasty ground elder, anticipating that it'll fight back vigourously. But I don't know how long I'll be caring for this particular garden and rather than tackle the root causes (ha!) I've opted for a bit of cosmetic surgery courtesy of my lawn mower.

Sadly though, I've botched the job

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Burnt offerings

IF... can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on the heat, if you can trust yourself to water when all of twitter doubts'll be a gardener my son.

Otherwise you'll burn your blueberries

(I may have borrowed a line or two from a Mr R Kipling)

The Hapless Kitchen Gardener

My photo
I only feel hapless because some people make it look easy to grow 10 ft marrows or a banquet of greens whereas my courgettes got nabbed by killer slugs and I only got one raspberry. So tips and stories from people less hapless than I are more than welcome. As a disclaimer though, none of my comments should be taken as expert advice on which you can rely! © Unless stated otherwise, and with the exception of guest content where that guest retains copyright, all photos and posts are the copyright of Tom Carpen and may not be used without permission.