Friday, 23 July 2010

City fruit and veg

After a wander round Borough Market, I can highly recommend popping into the Union Street Urban Orchard which is empty of tourists and full of fruit trees, flowers and birds.
Borough Market is great for sampling food treats - cheeses, salamis, sauces and marvelling at beautiful, pile-em-high vegetable displays. But the price tags are exorbitant: can you imagine paying £2 for a single tomato? Well, I did, (surely the world's most expensive?) - my excuse is that I was seduced by childhood memories of Italian markets and misshapen ripe pommodori that tasted of sunshine. This one, sadly didn't live up to my expectations. But it did make me want to rush out and order my seeds for next year.
So it was good to see some real food growing in the Orchard, a temporary community garden nestling alongside some railway arches. The high walls make a perfect sheltered garden and it's a welcome pocket of greenery in a very built up area. In assorted containers - pallets, hessian sacks, stacks of truck tyres - there are peaches ripening, apples, a cider shed awaiting the harvest, courgettes flourishing and summer bright geraniums, and pansies recycled from the Pansy Project garden at Hampton Court.  It's a great use of an otherwise empty site, built as part of the London Festival of Architecture just for this summer. And after September, all the plants are going to be redistributed around community gardens and plots in the area, by the wonderfully named Wayward Plants project.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Garlic and onions

At the work allotment today I got chatting to one of the gardeners who maintains the workscape. It was just before they were rudely moved on by some officious jobsworth in the overlooking building, for eating their packed lunches in an inappropriate location - why they couldn't picnic by the allotment I have no idea.
Dan, a young guy from Grenada with the gentlest of Caribbean accents, is still amazed at city living and how we buy all our food. He told me about his home, where his mother grows everything they eat and tends the goats and all the kids have chores to do, or there's no dinner. They don't have many material posessions, but when all the work is done, there's still time to sit and just relax and chat. He said that growing food makes you feel responsible because you've taken care of it right from the start.
Dan spoke some very wise words. There is nothing quite like that sense of pride and amazement at harvesting your own food. I never get tired of it: one garlic clove turning into a whole new bulb; those first potatoes of the season discovered in a spadeful of earth.
Today I took home the first garlic of the season - and also some garlic flower buds. I love these elegant-stemmed emergent flowers, with the pointiest of tips. Last year, I let them bloom, but this reduces the size and punch of the bulb of course. So this year, I reluctantly gave them the snip. But I'm told they are delicious to eat, so they will find their way into a stir fry this week or maybe a pesto sauce, like this recipe I found.
And I am in complete, blissful wonderment at how a tiny black seed turns into an onion or a leek. It's my first year of growing them from seed and I am amazed that onion-shaped bulbous growths are starting to appear. I am thrilled and excited and will never use sets again - that's cheating.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Hampton finds itself

It's another big flower show week for London, with Hampton Court bringing together lots of out of town nurseries, designers and plenty of other gardening treats. Hampton has been suffering in recent years from the poor relation syndrome. Inevitably compared to Chelsea - and never in the same league - it has been struggling to find its own identity. Once known for its water gardens and the big Daily Mail film set of a pavilion, after these had gone, the show flirted with the family tag, food growing, brought in conceptual gardens and floating Thai markets and really seemed to have lost its way. Even the weather has been more than a little unkind: torrential rain, extreme mud and high winds have been typical of Hampton week the last few years.
But today, as the show celebrates its 21st year, it feels like it really has come of age and this show lives up to the spectacular backdrop of Henry VIII's palace. It was gloriously sunny too and soon made me forget that it had taken me the best part of 2 hours to travel  around 10 miles (getting there on public transport is challenging).
The conceptual gardens are still very much part of the show, as is the food growing and family stuff, but it seems to have found the right level. Food is at the heart of the show - literally, with the Home Grown exhibit  of lots of conventional and exotic veg and some rather gorgeous chickens;  and it leads you neatly into the Growing tastes marquee (love those elephant garlic heads).

And vegetables are liberally sprinkled through many of the small and full-size gardens. For families, there's the scarecrow comeptition and lots of involvement with brownies and girl guides planting up strange objects including filing cabinets and cookers and even a Lego garden (the plants are real...).
The conceptual gardens are bigger and stronger than before and in a more high profile location where you can see them in the context of the main show gardens. There's even a bit of conceptual thinking creeping into other exhibits: check out the giant, hovering pink tap - entitled A Matter of Urgency, it represents bladder control issues on behalf of one of the main show garden sponsors Astellas Pharma.

Meanwhile there is poetry about oak trees and visual statements about disappearing hedgerows in the sustainable area.
I chatted to the artist behind conceptual garden The Pansy Project. Paul Harfleet simply plants pansies at the nearest available spot wherever homophobic abuse has taken place. I'm sure Hampton Court has been the site of its fair share of abuse over the centuries, so its quite fitting that his cracked slabs provide a darker context for the humble pansy that you are used to seeing in window boxes and hanging baskets.
The new floral marquee is fantastically huge, and thankfully for the growers, even if it does pour with rain this week, a little sturdier than the old tents that used to leak. And you can shop to your heart's content (always the big bonus for Hampton vs Chelsea, where you can't buy plants).  I came away with a white gaura and a ruby red achillea. Plus the new Gardens Illustrated pavilion will be the place to find a tasteful, zen-like spot out of the heat, to see some tantalisingly beautiful (but expensive) pots and country bouquets from Charlie Ryrie's Real Cut Flower Garden among other gorgeous things.