Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Teaching a half-italian to cure olives

I inherited two mature olive trees with my north-facing back garden. They aren't quite in the right place - no self-respecting gardening book would advise planting Olea europea in a location where not even the slightest ray of sunshine peeps over the rooftops in deepest winter. However, it is a very sheltered spot and  the high summer sun is soaked up and absorbed by the brick paving to create a micro mediterranean climate which seems have persuaded my trees to flourish gloriously.
So, for the second time in three years, they have produced what I think is a pretty abundant harvest for west London. Two years, ago, I wondered what to do with them, and as I wondered, they dropped and rotted. The wildlife wasn't interested - birds and squirrels tried them, but obviously find raw olives as bitter as we do. But this time around, I couldn't let all those fruits go to waste.
It might be a bit of a stretch to get my own bottle of extra virgin. So, although, I am not a big fan of the pickled cocktail olive (make that pickles in general), I am attempting to cure some of my Acton olives (friends, this could be your next birthday present). My Italian mother taught me to speak her language fluently and the secrets of making a mean lasagne, but olive curing was not part of her repertoire. So thank goodness for the web. It's probably a bit late in the season, but I'm trying two methods. One jar of brine, which I just have to leave alone for six months and one of water changed daily for a month to remove the bitterness, and then the brine can be added. My thanks go to the honest food blog. I will have to see if what works for Californian and greek olives works for London olives. I'm already looking forward to a Martini under the trees next summer.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Leaves, shoots and keyboards

I try to get to the office allotment about once a week. Even though it's only round the back of the building, it's not easy to prize myself away from the tyranny of Outlook (emails, meetings, more meetings). But today I did sneak away for a soul-enhancing half hour, returning to my desk with mud on my jeans, an armful of assorted leaves, and some almost fresh air in my lungs; the ever-busy Westway looms over our vegetables like an industrial crag, so the health benefits are dubious, but the mental boost is vast.
But what always amazes me in these dank, dark midwinter days, is that things are still growing. Early Broad beans are now over 6in tall, newly sown early peas are just emerging. The chard continues to produce leaves (we've had almost 8 months' cropping - it has to be the best return on any seed packet); late stir fry and salad mixes are flourishing, some gone very prettily to seed - have you ever noticed how rocket flowers are so delicately veined? And I remain hopeful that the very late-sown carrots will produce something worth eating. But I'd like to award my Crop of the month medal to winter purslane, a heart-shaped, lush-looking spinach-tasting leaf.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Floriferous London

My weekly botany course is coming to the end of term. Taught by the wonderful David Bevan - a former conservation officer who is a curious, gentle hybrid of David Attenborough and Patrick Moore; we convene on Monday afternoons in Highgate to hear his stories of the plants that live alongside us.
So what have I learned?
To name and love those rogue weeds that appear in my garden. It sounds so much better to say that herb robert, herb bennett and gallant soldier are colonising my tiny borders.
That plants are valued for their ability to survive. And in London's landscape of disused railways, building sites and crumbling edifices, there is a whole parallel botanical world. Here, plants are economic migrants, blown, flown or transported in from different climates; they adapt to their new surroundings: buddleja is a native of cliffs in China, so think of it in a new light when you next see it sprouting from a wall or roof; they eventually even sound quite English: Oxford ragwort is Sicilian in origin and loves to grow in the klinker between railway tracks - it's like the volcanic ash of home.
That these wild London plants usually have some cracking good stories to tell: Gallant soldier is also known as Little Joey Hooker (after Sir Joseph Hooker who founded Kew Gardens...); Haringey Knotweed is a unique London hybrid - a cross between japanese Knotweed and russian vine - that inhabits, quite exclusively Railway Fields, just off Green Lanes (although was once found in a gutter in Crouch End); London Rocket, another mediterranean interloper, was first identified by 17th century botanists when it grew strictly within the City of London boundaries, only to disappear mysteriously in the 19th century - and return after the second world war.
And, next time I'm in the area, I must look out for the maidenhair spleenwort that favours the wall outside The Odeon at Muswell Hill.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

400 bulbs, ten people, two hours

Bulb planting causes quite a specific range of gardening aches and pains. Apart from the prolonged crouching and bending, which are more or less de rigeur for most types of gardening activity, there's the repetitive strain of digging many small holes in hard ground, deep enough to put off greedy squirrels, who treat bulb planting as an easy treasure hunt laid on by kind humans. In a couple of sunny, Sunday afternoon hours, a bunch of us planted what should prove to be a blaze of colour next spring. It's the third year of bulb planting in the burial ground at the end of my road - and each year, the colour spreads. This year, 250 tulip bulbs arrived courtesy of the Eden Project's Big Bulb Plant. But donations of daffs went in too. Roll on 2010. Makes the winter almost worthwhile, knowing these little colour bombs will be gearing up to explode into the late winter grey and wheedle me out of hibernation.

And then there were none.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Colours 3 - October

Not very season-of-mists-and-mellow-fruitfulness. Instead, my garden this month is summed up by these amazingly intense colours from an unnamed pompom-flowered purple aster, an equally purple aconitum (monkshood) and the barbie pink salvia. A bit of subtelty from the caryopteris just going to seed and a viburnum on the verge of flowering, with backing foliage from the olive tree, plus an olive to chime in with a local produce theme.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Harvest festival

Here's a selection of what I've grown (successfully) at home in pots and on the allotment at work. Shiny homegrown peppers before they went under the knife - a record crop of five this year.

Tomatoes a-ripening - but they may yet end up as green chutney as the shadow of White City is looming a little longer every day and we are running out of sun.

Winter minestrone ingredients coming along nicely. Cabbages get a bad press - these brassicas are really beautiful plants in their own right. The red kale glows in the sun and the Tuscan kale is like one of those fountains children's entertainers used to make out of rolled up newspapers.

But the prize winner is - the one and the only Butternut Squash. The sole offspring of the free BBC Dig In seeds.

This might represent my most successful veg growing season yet.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A night at the Museum

I went to the Garden Museum last night for a sneak preview of the photos in Dan Pearson's gorgeous new book.
The museum has become a vibrant hub for gardening glitterati, repositioning itself a la V&A, with less emphasis on the artefacts and more on looking at design, and gardens, today. I like what they're doing. It's a great space, the Vista talks are stimulating, the changing exhibitions are thoughtfully put together ("The Good Life...100 years of Growing Your Own" is coming soon and sounds like it will be a fun trawl through the archives). But it's a shame the lovely old tools, seed packets and gardening clogs have been hidden away upstairs like an eccentric aunt.
Still, saw some lovely photos from the book - I loved the ones of community gardens in New York, Japan and our own Bonnington Square in Vauxhall. Were they the first guerilla gardeners in London?

Monday, 21 September 2009

Colours 2

September in my garden brings pink to the flat heads of sedum, the first flush of autumn burgundy to the forsythia leaves, crocosmia seedheads, caryopteris in bud, speckled trycirtis and pale anemone in full bloom and a few sprigs of rosemary and pineapple mint.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Borrowing plants

When you live in such close proximity as a London terrace, it helps if you can borrow your neighbour's garden. I am lucky that I have generous gardeners next door, who have planted bananas, echiums, a gingko tree and as much as they can cram in, so we have a wonderful view to the rooftops beyond. And closer still, the wisteria is shared over the trellis that divides our plots. Yesterday Fabrice painted the wonderful pendulous pods so that he would stop bumping his head on them.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

September mourning?

That autumn back-to-school feeling never really goes away. And it feels especially acute after a long weekend. The trees seem to have started shedding lots more leaves just because it's the official first day of autumn; Radio 4 is glumly predicting the onset of winds and bluster.
What happened to the joys of an indian summer? Against the odds, I am clinging onto a faint whisper of optimism. Autumns have been so mild in recent years, that I have planted bulbs in short sleeves on the second weekend of October for at least the past two, into ground hard as concrete because it hasn't rained for weeks.
So today I celebrated September by planting out some basil. Excuse me? Yes, any book will not have in its timely advice that now is the season to plant out basil. But I had two pots, one supermarket bought and one grown from seed that never made it out into my garden, and deserve a better end to the season than languishing on the kitchen windowsill. So I thought I'd see if six weeks more growing time outdoors will generate enough new leaves for a jar of pesto.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Rurban life

I'm staying in my garden this weekend and that's just fine. In fact it's the perfect thing to do on a bank holiday weekend when everyone else is either doing things out of town or at the Carnival. Last week though, I had an attack of urbanitis and had to escape for a dose of Country.

Joyfully, I didn't have to go too far - a long drive and traffic jams are guaranteed to aggravate the symptoms. But a walk along the river at Richmond is surprisingly almost rural and helps start the cure. Once past the boating houses, the meadows at Petersham even host cows (nice to look at from afar, but assiduously avoided due to their current killer status); and the path along the Thames is fringed with wild plantlife and muddy enough to seduce you into feeling that you really are quite far away from the city; as long as you can ignore the underbellies of 747s flying into Heathrow. At only 20 minutes from home, it's definitely a no.1 Rurban experience.

Still not cured, though, I headed further afield. Officially in the country, but only a short Sunday drive into deepest, darkest Surrey, lies the wonderfully-named village of Friday Street. Thankfully it is very poorly signposted, so perhaps will remain undiscovered by townie daytrippers like me Dan, Nick and Ian. With mossy, gnarled woods to walk through, a hidden treasure of a pub, a sumptuous pond and an honesty table of plants for 50p a pot (I bought an unnamed tiny succulent), it felt like we'd taken an enchanted turn off the M25 and reached Dorset in less than an hour.

But this was just an interlude before our intended destination, the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden/. We enjoyed lunch at the Stefan Langton Inn so much (it was pudding heaven) that we left ourselves barely an hour before Hannah rang her closing bell, but it was just enough for a taster tour.

I first visited 10 years ago and loved it as much this time, although being a woodland garden, spring is probably a better time to visit. But the sculptures do sit in the landscape so well, whatever the season. There's a mix of the fun, the cliched and the beautifully crafted, and we entertained ourselves with the reflective pieces; but my favourite was the fence-sculpture made of reclaimed dead branches, and I wish I had £6k spare and a big garden to display it in... Modern art aside, the ducks in the pond were the stars of the show.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Going to seed

City seeds should be standard issue. If we all carried around a handful in our pockets and scattered them as we walked, colour would slowly colonise the capital. Seeds I'm saving this year: nasturtium, foxglove, poppy, hollyhock. These are earmarked to bring some colour to the little graveyard at the end of my road next summer.
Seeds I don't need to save: red valerian - these morph quickly into fluffy fly-away things and there are new shoots sprouting from every crack in the paving; aquilegia too are appearing everywhere so I will transplant the seedlings next spring.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Me and the beanstalk

It's not hard to imagine how the story started. Beans are really quite magical. Fast to germinate, natural climbers and prolific too. It just takes a small leap of a childlike imagination to think that your climbing french beans could go on upwards forever if you didn't pinch out the tops.

And when the flowers actually turn into beans, it is nothing short of miraculous, never mind finding a giant. I swear that the slithers of pods I checked and left behind yesterday because they were too small to pick have swollen overnight into fully fledged green beans that could quite proudly hold their own in an EU-regulated supermarket veg line-up. Some people think homegrown equals misshapen but tasty - but my French beans are quite gorgeous.

Last night I cooked the ones that were just the right size according to a newly acquired (although I probably knew it all along) principle: anything grown above the ground should be cooked in cold water brought to the boil; and anything grown below the ground should be dropped into boiling water. This apparently preserves the flavour. Well, it wasn't a controlled, scientific test, but my beans really did taste a whole lot better than those packets of slimline, ready topped and tailed green tubes that get flown in from Kenya.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


This week's colours in the garden are: nasturtium red, orange crocosmia, pale pink succisa, ruby valerian, blue ceratostigma and yellow courgette.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Go east

Columbia Road is a small kernel of London greenery. We may be feted for our parks, gardens and tree-lined avenues, but here is a nugget of lush, growing urban outdoor life, flourishing in a very ungreen, densely populated part of town. It's as as much about the people as the plants; as every city space should be.

From the overstuffed balcony of foliage that graces the tenement flats at one end, to the other where this small street is crammed with market stalls selling plants that most regular garden centres wouldn't touch with a long-handled rake, it's a feast for urban gardeners.

I went in search of a deckchair and Sunday morning atmosphere, both of which are unavailable at my local diy barn. And, a once regular market-goer, I was also harbouring some wistful thoughts of Sunday morning's past. I promised myself I wouldn't buy any plants (is there ever such a thing as no more room in your garden?). So I came away with an old lampshade, a vintage ordance survey map of Land's End, an off-beat-designer blouse and a selection of culinary herbs. And an armful of summer blooms.

I could point out that things ain't what they used to be, and rail against the tide of gentrification that is engulfing our quirky urban corners. I could mention that my favourite coffee shop was still there (along with at least a dozen new ones), but its staff were grumpier than I rembember; that there seems to have been a proliferation of gift shops specialising in mugs (how many mugs do people need - really?); and how my ideal deckchair carried an £89 price tag.

But all of that distracts me from the Flower Market, which is what Columbia Road has staked its reputation on. Shoreditch overflow apart, those stalls are still stuffed with an abundance of plants and people walk away from Columbia road with as much of these floral wares as they can carry, trailing a thread of greenery out into the city. All the evidence suggests that even in these financially challenged times, the market is still doing a roaring trade.

Not for Columbia Road the fate of Covent Garden, overrun by shopping mall shops without even a hint of its former life as a flower market. Where else can you can buy a half dozen enormous sunflowers for a fiver? Somehow on a grey August Sunday morning, that seems like a good old-fashioned bargain.