Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I don't grow my own, but I do have a glut

People often ask me why I don't grow vegetables. You're a keen gardener, they say, so where are the prize-winning peas? The Highly Commended cabbages? The meritorious marrows?
Here's why I don't grow vegetables. I find it all too easy to accumulate a glut of produce without even putting spade to soil. My neighbour Peter really does win prizes for his veg at the village show, so I benefit from his surplus, which he leaves for me on the "Sue Steps".
The previous owners of my house, Sue and her husband Norman, sold the bottom section of the garden to Peter, who wanted more space for veg and fruit trees. Peter built the dry-stone boundary wall himself - isn't it beautiful? He put in a little style at one end which he named the Sue Steps. I like to think of them as the Sue Steps too.
So far this year I have had tomatoes, courgettes, peppers (bell peppers), runner beans and mini cucumbers. All delicious. And they come in a cute little trug.

My younger sister and her husband used to be keen veg gardeners in their previous house, and I was delighted to see, on a recent visit, that they'd got back into it. They grow a lot of their stuff in containers, which has the additional benefit of making their terrace look incredibly green and lush in late summer, while at the same time being easy to clear away for the winter.

They were growing courgettes, cabbages, beetroot, runner beans, aubergines, squash and cucumbers. You can't really see it in the picture below, but the red flowers of the runner beans are an exact match for the rowan berries at the end of the garden. One of those happy gardening accidents!

Here are my rich pickings in the kitchen, but where to begin? Being a non-veg grower, I am not very creative when it comes to thinking of ways to use produce. So I called on my guru in these matters, Michelle at Veg Plotting. Here's how the conversation went.

Me: OK, so I'm planning to make ratatouille. Can I freeze it?

Michelle: Yes, you can. Ratatouille is a handy base for so many dishes as well as being a meal in itself. It's great to have some to pull out of the freezer in the winter for an instant taste of summer.

Me: And I seem to have more courgettes than anything else. Didn't you have a good recipe for a courgette cake when you did your Open Garden virtual tour on Veg Plotting?
Michelle: Here you are. This is the recipe I obtained from the last place I worked. Whenever it was available, everyone used to ring round to say go and grab some!

Me: Anything else I can make with courgettes? 
Michelle: My courgette, tarragon and lemon bread's proving popular. This, and the cake, are great standby recipes for when everyone's getting a bit tired of courgettes, so you need to start to disguise them. I've also used them in omelettes, made fritters like the ones we've had on holiday in Greece. If you also have a tomato glut, there's always pasta sauce - with or without bacon. I tend to make that one up on the spot, according to what's in abundance, though courgettes, tomatoes, onions and loads of fresh basil tend to feature rather a lot...
I've just started experimenting with a really simple salad to go with all my salad leaves [Michelle is running a 52 Week Salad Challenge on her blog]. Slice the courgette into thin ribbons and marinade it in lemon juice, olive oil, some crushed garlic and deseeded, chopped red chili. Mix in some chopped fresh mint just before serving.
If you're really overrun with courgettes, I've found What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes, by Elaine Borish, has loads of ideas. I giggle every time I see the cover.

Me: Any ideas for runner beans?
Michelle: Erm, no, we're not big fans of runner beans but everyone else seems to make chutney with them.

I may not have found a recipe that uses runner beans (which I love, by the way), but I did use up some of the remaining tomatoes (and boy, were there some remaining tomatoes) to make fresh tomato sauce for pasta. I used a Rose Elliot recipe which was very simple. Simply saute some onion until it is golden, then add chopped tomatoes and a couple of cloves of garlic, a splash of red wine (if you like) and some fresh oregano or basil if you have any. If you haven't, add a pinch of herbes de Provence.
Rose Elliot's recipe calls for one onion and 1lb of tomatoes, but I was a little more unscientific. I used two onions and what can only be described as "lots" of tomatoes. I find that "glut" tomatoes can be a little bit watery, so I added a couple of teaspoonfuls of tomato puree to give it a more intense flavour. 
Of course, what I should have done was to roast the tomatoes, which gives them a really intense flavour, and makes it easy to discard the peel.
I peeled the tomatoes by chucking them in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Leave them for five minutes, and then the peel splits and comes away. If it doesn't split, make a slit with a knife and then it will come off easily.
Once the tomato and onion mixture has simmered gently for a bit (say 30 minutes), let it cool and then put it through a sieve or in a liquidiser. I'm lazy, so I dumped mine in the food processor, but beware - it will be full of seeds. It's not unpleasant, it just has a more grainy texture. If you want a more sophisticated version, strain it.
The best strainer to use is a china cap, which is shaped like a cone, and makes it easier to push whatever you're sieving through. It's similar to a chinois strainer, but whereas a chinois tends to have fine mesh, the china cap is more like a colander, and is made of stainless steel with holes in the side.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Is less more? And for whom?

I'm always fascinated by people's reactions to gardens. What is it that makes a garden a good space to be in? Is there a harmonious combination of proportions and ingredients that could be analysed mathematically, like the golden ratio? Or are we predisposed - by memory, or education, or tradition - to like a certain sort of garden? Is the English Landscape style, for example, intrinsically good design, or have we just been trained to think that way because the rich landowners who employed it were the (unquestioned) celebrity trend-setters of their time?
I was thinking about this when I visited Anne Wareham's garden at Veddw, just across the Welsh border, the other day. As befits the founder of the Thinkingardens website, Veddw is a garden that makes your brain do a few stretching exercises before embarking on a full-scale workout. It is full of metaphors, contrasts and allusions.
I have to declare an interest here. I love Veddw, but then I adore Anne. She has built up a reputation in British horticulture as the Bad-Tempered Gardener, but I have only ever found her to be extremely kind. (Whoops, there goes her credibility. Sorry, Anne!) Her garden is just like her: challenging, stimulating but oddly restful. An afternoon in the company of Anne and her husband Charles is like a large gin and tonic - refreshing and relaxing at the same time.

This is the iconic view of Veddw; the Reflecting Pool, with its curving yew hedges. To me this represents the essence of the garden - a space that visually references the local landscape (hedgerows, hills and woodland) while at the same time transcending those references to become something with a character all of its own. I find the reflecting pool incredibly satisfying and relaxing. I could sit there all day.
So I was astonished to find that Helen, who was visiting with me, disagreed. She said it made her feel uneasy. (You can read what she thought of Veddw here.) She's not alone. Another blogger said they found it sinister. Comments like this make me question my own view. Am I being uncritical by liking it? Do I like it because I like Anne?
No, I think I like it because it satisfies some need in me for stillness and calm. The strong lines of the hedges gaze back at themselves from the pool, providing a visual dialogue uncluttered by flowers or sticky-out bits. It doesn't demand minute inspection of each specimen or analysis of the planting plan - just that you sit down and take it in.

The beds of hostas were also the subject of debate. Was this taking a monoculture too far?
Helen thought it was. I thought not. Look at those leaves! So varied in texture and colour. Anne suggested that perhaps it needed a vertical punch from something like scarlet crocosmia (Nectaroscordum siculum does the job earlier in the year.) I'm not a huge fan of representative sculpture in the garden, but I would be very tempted to commission a row of stakes with lifelike slugs impaled on the tips, like the severed heads of traitors displayed on London Bridge in the olden days.

This view of the yew rooms and beyond, the tithe map parterre - which represents the ownership of local land in the 19th century - is another example of the way in which Anne has distilled the character of the Welsh countryside into an ultimate abstraction. It looks a bit like that sort of pixellation you get when a photograph is building online.

Veddw is not just about representation and metaphor, however. There are areas of planting that appear to justify their inclusion by sheer exuberance. These inula, combined with Campanula lactiflora and the physocarpus (Dart's Gold?), were a delight. They seemed to be going down well with the bees, too.

Formality has a place even in the "meadow". An avenue of Turkish hazel and a mown path makes a strong statement that sets off the frothy informality of the grasses and seed heads. Earlier in the summer, the meadow was a sea of buttercups, punctuated by the tall spires of camassia.

One part of the garden is dominated by this white persicaria, almost shoulder-height. I'm always very admiring of designers who can restrict themselves to one plant, because I think it takes the sort of strength of character I know I haven't got. In this case, however, standing in the middle of a sea of persicaria just made me feel good.

Rectangular topiary monoliths rise above banks of wild flowers. Below them, out of sight behind the hedges, are gravestones, each marking the evolution of a local name over the centuries.

This is the area I call the faux veg garden. It appeals to my sense of humour. Yes, you could eat the cardoons, and technically you could eat the purple heuchera (the leaves are supposed to be edible, if somewhat bitter). That's not the point, though. It gives the impression of being a kitchen garden, without actually performing that function, and without all the backache-ing labour. (I've got a better picture of it, taken earlier in the year, which I will post as soon as I can find it.)
I also happen to like the combination of grey and purple foliage, but according to Anne it is not to everyone's taste. This strikes me as odd. In a real vegetable garden, you very often see these colours - the purple of cabbage foliage, the dark red stems of beetroot or chard. What do people dislike about it, I wonder? Perhaps they feel that Anne has somehow got one over on them by either suddenly presenting them with a contemporary garden, or leading them up the garden path about the purpose of this particular plot?

The Bad-Tempered Gardener herself, looking remarkably sunny. I'd like to tell you that Charles put this T-shirt on deliberately to match the crocosmia but that wouldn't be true. On the other hand, they have put their Twitter names on the birdbath. Fabulous.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

So, where was I...?

This blog feels a bit like one of those movies where the words "Three years later" come up on the screen, thus neatly sidestepping any tedious narratives about what everyone has been doing in the meantime.
I suppose the edited version of the past six months would go something like this:
The long cold winter finally came to an end. The kitchen was finished, the stone floor was laid and the living room was redecorated. I managed to start planting my garden, and spent quite a lot of time weeding and pruning. Other people came and did major hacking and pruning.
I went to San Francisco, to the Garden Bloggers' Fling, where I felt a bit of a fraud (having not written a single post for half a year). By the time I got back, a heatwave was in full swing, thus putting paid to any good intentions I had about catching up with my blog. Oh, and I won second prize in the village show for my picture of a lupin in the rain.
I've posted some pictures here, because I know how much people love "before and after" stories.

This is the kitchen back in February, when the old units and fittings had been ripped out. The house, which was built sometime between 1800 and 1850, had originally been a two-up, two-down cottage and in the past 40 years, it had been extended twice. When I moved in, it felt very much like two different houses joined together, so I decided to lay a stone floor in the kitchen and through the entrance hall to try to give some feeling of cohesion.

Here's the stone floor just after it was laid. It's French limestone from the Bourgogne. The patchwork effect is created by the natural differences in colouration, and the guys who laid it spent quite a long time working out which slabs would look best where - just like piecing together a quilt.

At last! I'd been without a kitchen for about two and a half months before the fitters could finally come in and get on with their work. The kitchen was designed and built by McCarron and Company and I love it to pieces. McCarron are fairly local to me; they are based in Devizes, where they build all their units at their own factory. You can go and see the process from start to finish, beginning with the sawmill and finishing with the paint shop. I loved the idea that the money for my kitchen was going into the pockets of local craftsmen - and of course, it meant that if we hit any snags or queries, someone could come straight round and have a look.
I suppose you'll want to know what has happened to the garden too. First, I should remind you that in the middle of all the chaos, a small person called Rufus joined the household.

Rufus arrived at Awkward Hill at the end of February. He was quite a quiet, shy little puppy - I can remember wondering if he was able to bark, because he hardly made a sound. He's made up for it since (below). He spends most of his time woof-woofing by the front gate to attract the attention of tourists, then grovels shamelessly for attention. He must feature in thousands of Japanese iPhoto albums.

It had been difficult to get any work done in the garden over the winter because of all the snow. This was a rare mild day in early March, when I grabbed the chance to clear out the two borders behind the house. They were so choked with weeds, it seemed easier to take off the top three inches of soil. Well, when I say easier...

... it was actually a long, laborious task, involving a lot of heavy lifting and de-turfing, while at the same time rescuing huge clumps of Iris sibirica, snowdrops and crocuses. Eventually both the borders were cleared, and mulched with well-rotted farm manure before being replanted. The strange black structures in the border are a set of nesting metal tables from Ikea. I put them there to stop Rufus and the cats using the border as a litter tray. It sort of worked.

I was desperate to introduce some colour into the garden, especially after such a long bleak winter, but I didn't want to buy anything too expensive in case I changed my mind about the layout. In the end I settled for bomb-proof stalwarts that I knew would encourage pollinators and provide months of floriferous display.

These included the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve' (described by the RHS as a plant every garden should have), Sedum 'Herbstfreude', Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii and a selection of hardy geraniums, including G. cinereum subcaulescens for the front of the border, G. 'Sandrine', a new variety called 'Midnight Clouds' (makes a big dark-leaved clump with creamy-pink flowers). Other favourites that had to be given a place were Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), Alchemilla mollis, Verbena bonariensis and a couple of box balls.

I also decided I couldn't live without two 'Ballerina' roses, whose clusters of single pink flowers seemed appropriate for a country garden, and Dianthus carthusianorum, which I had lusted after since seeing it at Knoll Gardens. The Cotswolds is a great place to grow roses and clematis, so I expected the Ballerinas to perform well, but the dianthus was a revelation. It went crazy, and competes with the 'Bowles Mauve' for the title of "Most Loved by Pollinators Plant". Here's a Peacock butterfly enjoying the benefits.

The physical changes to the house and garden seemed dramatic at the time, but as they recede into the past, they seem almost negligible - little blips on the calendar that are barely more than punctuation marks. What you can't see, but which is far more important, is the realisation that this has become my home, rather than somewhere I moved to.
A few weeks ago, I discovered that the garden I left behind in London - Victoria's Backyard - had been radically remodelled. I'd expected this to happen, because the new owners had young children who wanted a goal posts and a trampoline and all the usual things that allow the under-12s to let off steam outside.
It still felt quite sad, though, and while I was in San Francisco, looking at gardens full of palms and cordylines and succulents, I felt very nostalgic for my old sub-tropical oasis. I bored Helen at Patient Gardener, who was in SF with me, with wistful yearnings.
Coming home to an unexpected heatwave, and a garden full of roses and lavender, put all thoughts of exotica out of my head. How could I possibly feel regret about anything else when I had all this?