Posted by: Naomi Slade | August 27, 2011

Reconciling the Seasons

Unknown but scrummy early cooker

Naomi's Mystery Apple

It is a bit bad to be thinking ahead to winter – even though the press releases for Christmas presents have been arriving for a month now and I am just working up to writing my December copy. I caught myself slightly wishing to snuggle up in a jumper the other day, in the absence of blazing sunshine. (In spring there is the opposite problem and I have to keep reminding myself that it is not too late to sow seeds).

But while my mind is working towards winter, my apple tree is thinking about autumn. It is a lovely tree – big chunky cooking apples that cook firm and make really scrumptious pie and crumble. It looks a bit like a bramley but is ripe in early September. I am still trying to work out what it is – I pondered Newton Wonder but I don’t think it is. When I get a chance I will take it to visit an apple expert or two and ask them (although not sure what to do if I get conflicting identifications…). All bright ideas gratefully received. This picture was taken using a zoom lens out of my study window. Suffice it to say, I’d make a rotten paparazzo.

Anyhow, the earliest fallers start coming off in August and it seems a bit rude and wasteful just to leave them on the ground. They are too hard and sour to crumble immediately but, instead, I have invented a nice sharp chutney. It also deals with the pervasive temporal dislocation, bringing together the states of mind and the times of year nicely. It is a pretty pinkish colour and tastes of Christmas – it manages the proto-glut of late summer while making thoughtful presents for chutney-loving friends and relatives.

Awesome Early Apple and Cranberry Chutney

2lb early apples (roughly peeled and cored)
1lb onions (peeled)
1/2pt spirit vinegar
12 oz light brown sugar
4oz raisins
1 tsp pickling spice
Salt about 1tsp
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
6oz fresh or frozen cranberries (or a packet of dried ones, but you may need to adjust the sugar)
Finely grated zest of a large orange
1tsp ground cinnamon
Warmed jars (about 6)

Chop onions and apples and put in a preserving pan with vinegar, sugar, raisins, salt and pepper. Tie the pickling spices in muslin, give it a good bash with a rolling pin and add to the brew.

Bring to the boil and cook for 10min or so before adding the cranberries. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. As the chutney thickens in the last 10mins of cooking, add orange zest and cinnamon.

It is ready when a clear path remains when you pull a wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan. Spoon the finished chutney into the warmed jars, stir gently to remove air pockets and put the lids on (tighten using a teatowel). Wait until cool before remove any spillage from the outside of the jars.

Break it out in early December or next time you are required to contribute to a seasonal event or hold your own at a Grow Your Own convention. Useful stuff, chutney.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | August 1, 2011

Big fish, botanicals and an Isle of Wight pickle frenzy

The red squirrels wouldn't stay still

Cornfield annuals at The Garlic Farm

This is the second post mentioning garlic in a short while, but I make no apologies. Having harvested nearly 150 bulbs of the stuff and finding myself in its spiritual home, the Isle of Wight (yachting eat your heart out) I had to go and visit the fabled garlic farm.

And jolly good fun it was too. A farm walk took us around the acreage and because they plant it on a seven-year rotation, there are fields of other stuff too: sweet corn surrounded by sunflowers, an asparagus-crown crop neatly takes up a couple of years at least and there are spreads of pretty wildflowers such as corn marigolds, corn flowers, poppies and corncockle. Horseradish also runs wild – and judging by the pickle enterprise quite a lot of it gets cropped and consumed. And, highlight of the trip, there are red squirrels.

The garlic experience is a room full of fascinating facts and about 20 different preserves that you can scoff to your heart’s content. Vampires be warned. A history section photographically records local habitation while there are flint arrow heads and a replica of a bracelet that Time Team found on a Roman lady who had managed to get herself stuck under a wall during an ancient skirmish.

Sadly they couldn’t fit us in the restaurant, so after pressing our noses against the glass for a bit we consoled ourselves with Rhubarb and Garlic ice cream. Just one between the six of us, though. We are not quite that brave.

We left cheerfully, weighed down with garlic goodies and, feeling slightly pungent, headed for Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Built on the site of a Victorian sanatorium, the balmy microclimate is as good for plants as it is for invalids and it was such a hit with the family (abandoned to Botanic indoctrination while I went on a secret mission the previous day) that they insisted that we went back to show me all the wonders. It may not be as manicured and well-labelled as Kew, but it is fun and varied with lots of cool stuff and it is also free to get in, which is a bonus.

The lizards wouldn't stay still either

Unreal Eucomis

Our botanic garden top ten reads:
10. Agapanthus – ‘those exploding flowers a bit like alliums but not’
9. Bamboo tunnel (cue panda song)
8. Hydrangeas like Queen Mother’s hats
7. The sub-tropical garden
6. Fantastic cake (cream tea, chocolate brownie, carrot cake…earl grey)
5. REALLY big fish
4. A tree that looks like a pineapple
3. Exploding cucumbers (Hey kids! look at these I think they’re…!!Ouch!!!)
2. Pineapple lilies (They’re not actually real?)
1. Lizards – loads of them scampering around in the rocks

Ventnor Botanic Garden – so good we went there twice.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | July 7, 2011

Art and Edibles at Hampton Court

Flower shows are changing. Where RHS Chelsea has enthusiastically brought herbs and brassicas into the ornamental fold, so RHS Hampton Court now seems more design led. The formerly solid bastion of bouffant, naturalistic planting seems to have segued into sharp edges, clipped globes and concept-art.

There were, however, a satisfying number of productive-themed gardens which were, on the whole, rather good. I liked ‘An Urban Harvest’ with shady trees and coloured glass and I was very taken with Burgon and Ball’s ‘Five a Day garden’. Their smart woven-willow boxes leading up a flight of steps to a daisy-sprinkled deck had grow-your-own chic down pat.

The RHS were representing as well with the biggest exhibit of the show: The RHS Edible Garden. This mindboggling exhibit shook together nine edible areas including an olive and lavender field, hops and hop-pickers on stilts, a wheat field and food for free, as well as more standard fare of muscular brassicas and salad crops.

Inside the Grow Your Own Marquee the salad theme continued, juicy leaves dripping from every deck and sprouting temptingly from bowls in an ‘mmmmm, where am I going to find some vinaigrette dressing’ sort of way. Brogdale were promoting fruit growing – as were Copella in their pretty show garden outside – and The Garlic Farm had a rather nice garlic garden with a garlic roof on a (garlic) shed and… well… you get the idea.

Rather less yummy was the food-scape art display. With salmon seas, ‘trees’ of broccoli and celery, bread mountains (presumably no ironic ‘grain mountain’ pun intended) and illuminated garlic-bulb houses it was really, very, awfully post- Rodney Matthews, Roger Dean and Patrick Woodroffe style pop-art. Yet it lacked both their sci-fi charm and their darkness.

Tearing my eyes away from the album cover from hell exhibition, I scampered at speed to the other end of the marquee where I helped myself to an exciting looking catalogue from, whizzed past Jekka’s herb farm to pick up some Vietnamese coriander, sea lovage and a packet of red orach seeds and home for tea and medals.

Discovery of the day: Apparently you can eat sow thistles and they taste a bit like chicory. Serves them jolly well right.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | June 1, 2011

Mystic Veg

Living the dream

'A Child's Garden in Wales' at Chelsea Flower Show 2011

As that Hannibal Smith off the A-Team would say, I love it when a plan comes together. But more than that I love it when my crystal ball proves to be right.

A trip to Chelsea Flower Show last week showed that my earlier predictions on the rise of edibles were spot on: veggies and, particularly herbs, are now king of the plot. In amongst Cleve West’s pared back concrete pillars, the azure Monaco swimming pools, and Diarmuid Gavin’s red elevated garden (which, despite jokes about it taking up the entire GDP of Ireland, I quite liked – reminded me of a book I had when I was little), there was lots to see. Herbs like marjoram and thyme were used as bedding both horizontal and vertical while chives popped up as a floral addition to borders large and small. Sea kale, too, has stormed in from behind to take its place in the elegant and acceptable pantheon of ornamental gardening.

Less elegant was an appalling concatenation in the Great Pavilion. It looked a bit like a contemporary florist had had a mid-air collision with a greengrocer and landed on Ikea. Perhaps just fill in the resulting taste crater and move on.

Chelsea is art. A confection of dreams. And, therefore, should not be taken too seriously as a metre by which to live one’s life. I aspire with the best of them, yet my favourite edible garden was not Bunny Guinness’ mega-potager but Silver medal winning A Child’s Garden in Wales by Ysgol Bryn Castell and Heronsbridge School with Anthea Guthrie. Set in 1947 it epitomises the grow-your-own necessity of the time, with recycled fencing, traditional veggies and a scatter of cloth toys. Pretty and unassuming, it was a garden one could grow, eat and live in and therefore, for me, it was far closer to both dream and reality.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | May 14, 2011

An Excellent ‘Do

A fine head of curly kale

'Unmistakable Similarities' by Ute Klaphake

I have heard of people looking like their pets, but looking like their plants? Well, I visited the International Garden Photographer of the Year Exhibition at Kew last week and judging by Ute Klaphake’s entry, it is a definite possibility!

Fine heads of curly kale aside, I was struck by the presence of fruit and vegetable growing throughout. In the same way that Chelsea Flower Show is embracing productive gardening, there were veg and veg-growers aplenty amongst these beautiful landscapes, awesome wildlife shots (there is a phenomenal picture of a metamorphosing tadpole), and dreamlike studio compositions.

A young gardener is shown harvesting her first carrot and there are several portraits of allotment holders. One chap gardens in the Heathrow flight path and is dwarfed by a vast aeroplane roaring over his plot, a striking contrast to the peace and isolation of Andrea Jones’ immaculate veg garden by a remote Scottish loch.

Both Jason Ingram and Marianne Majerus submitted fruity and veggy portfolios, capturing fruit trees and figgaries, potagers and moodily decorative bunches of asparagus. In a visually saturated world it is hard to thrill but the impressionistic and conceptual nature of the photographs lifted the exhibition, as did the often guileless ‘right time, right place, right light’ quality of many of the shots.

I struggled to pick a favourite picture. I was taken by Marianne’s pumpkins on pots, admired Sam Scott-Hunter’s ‘Passion Flower Tendril’ and the image that remains with me is ‘God of Small Things’ by Sam Kirk– a tiny clump of brilliant green moss in a crack in the paving. Plants. You can’t stop ‘em.

The exhibition is open from 14th May to 25th September 2011,, but if you can’t make it down to Kew or are too busy gardening and prefer to marvel at art after dark there is a book: ‘The International Garden Photographer of the Year Collection 4’ available from The book also contains the ‘Highly Commended’ shots omitted from the exhibition, plus info on how each picture was set up and subsequently tweaked. If you like your visuals, it is well worth a look.

A final note: The competition is open to everyone, amateurs and professionals alike. If you are handy with a camera check out for information on entering – closing date 30th Nov 2011.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | March 24, 2011

Naomi’s Chelsea Preview

Floating rocks!

Malaysia Garden at RHS Chelsea 2010

I love Chelsea Flower Show. Exhibiting there was part of my job when I first joined the gardening industry (which I suppose makes me a professional exhibitionist….) and it is all about the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint. Or rather, the beep of reversing wagons, the smell of the bark mulch and that pre-gig fizz of excitement.

In amongst all the perfection and catwalk horticulture, Chelsea has never been a particularly kitchen gardeny sort of show. There might be a romantic tumbledown gardener’s cottage with ye olde self-set veg plants, but other than that it was over to the Great Pavilion to eye up Ken Muir’s strawberries. Perfect, scarlet, fantastically scented, tantalising…and the ultimate in standoffish noli me tangere show fruit. You get your wrists slapped at the very thought of eating one.

But this year it is promising to be different. On the show garden front Bunny Guinness will be building a stylish potager for the M&G Garden – a stylish take on the traditional Kitchen Garden and B&Q will be demonstrating how you can bring every space into food production with an 8m vertical tower garden. Elsewhere Jekka McVicar will be launching her new blends of organic herbal tea and W Robinson and Son will be showing the climbing courgette ‘Black Forest’. Watch out RHS Hampton Court. Fruit and veg is fashionable and Chelsea is coming to get you!

My guess is that there will be edible plants tucked into all sorts of stylish places – especially with the new emphasis on sustainability in the Artisan gardens. And I, for one, am looking forward to checking it all out.

Finally, a mention for the Tamata New Zealand garden by Xanthe White. After the show they will be auctioning off their plants, including 1000 New Zealand native species, to raise funds to help the Red Cross in Japan and Christchurch.

The picture is James Wong’s garden from Chelsea 2010. Not much to eat but it sure looks pretty.

Posted by: Naomi Slade | March 8, 2011

Feeling the Heat


Getting and early start with seed sowing

The coriander seedlings are ready to pot up

My love affair with heated propagators is a fairly new phenomenon, but one that sees no sign of cooling any time soon.

Thanks to a combination of getting organised and the absence of a foot of snow throughout February, I have started sowing much earlier than the last few years. My aubergines and chillies were started off in late Feb or early March rather than April and they are already sticking their little shoots out. When I lived in London with its balmy microclimate and long growing season, April sowing was just fine and they were happy to live outside. But it hasn’t worked all that well lately, even in the greenhouse, and I fancy they just need that bit longer out here in the sticks.

With longer days, I am now organising a stand-off between my trusty Sankey workhorse and a spanking new Stewart windowsill propagator. So far I have sowed some lovely coriander, sweet peas, the bunny tail grass Pennisetum ‘Cream Falls’, tomatoes, aubergine ‘Violetta di Firenze’, antirrhinums… it’s all going on and I have only just started. I suspect that I will just give in to the temptation to fill both to the brim and pot until I can pot no more, but for the record, the Compare and Contrast goes like this.

The big, capacious Sankey propagator is excellent for more robust seedlings, but it does take up a fair amount of space and finding somewhere light enough for it to live can be a challenge. The slim windowsill propagator is neater, particularly if you just want to sow a few seeds and I am finding it useful for small seedlings because it is located somewhere I check regularly so I can keep a close eye on ventilation and watering. That said, my only suitable windowsill is south facing so it will only really be an early season option or it will need shading.

I found the removable heat mat on the Stewart windowsill propagator slightly faffy as it shifts a bit on the flex and I keep worrying that I’ll knock the whole lot onto the floor – less of a problem if you have really good, deep windowsills, I imagine, but actually it is over a radiator anyway so I just took it out and carried on. On balance though, I prefer the solid heated bottom of the bigger propagator.

So there we have it. But the important thing is that with two propagators, I can organise different levels of light, heat and humidity and it is that which is proving to be the most appealing and versatile aspect. And they are both quicker off the mark than the unheated greenhouse at the end of the garden where my peas and mangetout are sulking in the chill.

I am looking forward to packing in even more exciting crops, plants and flowers. Miscanthus sinensis, sweet corn and cucumbers are waiting in the wings, but with enough compost and enough time, right now it feels like the sky is the limit….

Posted by: Naomi Slade | February 9, 2011

Biding Time

Mistletoe on Afal 'Pren Glas'

Spring proper is still a long way off, but I have been out in the garden, giving the brambles what for and generally making my presence felt. 

When we moved to our current house four years ago, the idea spot for a compost bin presented itself. We were going to have two bays, paint them a fetching shade of sage green and create a shrub border and mini-woodland to render such utilitarian leanings invisible. 

The border and woodland combo are actually coming together nicely, but what actually happened on the compost front was rather different. We threw garden waste, egg boxes and kitchen scraps into a corner. The heap was grumpy and sprawling. Engaged in what is known as the cool composting method (ie most organic things will rot if you leave them to their own devices for long enough), it pretty much minded its own business. It steadily grew. Stylish green bins failed to materialise. 

But somewhere along the line, the orange peel and grass clippings transformed themselves into a mine of glorious crumbly mulch. And spreading joyous lashings of it on the borders and around fruit bushes and shrubs is an extraordinarily satisfying job. The woodland has pretty primroses and with a bit more space those bins are a definite for this year. Honest.

Down in the orchard, I just found mistletoe growing on apple ‘Pren Glas’. We have been trying, on and off, to get some going for ages. It might be considered a little perverse to spend time trying to establish obligate parasites on one’s plants, but we are pretty impressed down here I can tell you!

Posted by: Naomi Slade | January 12, 2011

Impractical Gardening

Impractical Pruning Conditions!

This is what my pear tree looked like last January...

I don’t know what I did over Christmas, but New Years Day saw me shackled in some sort of self-inflicted horticultural gulag, as I tried to get as much winter pruning into as short a time as possible.

Actually I rather enjoyed pruning the apples (about 17-odd trees, I lost count), snipping and sawing quietly away. Thinking botanical and literary thoughts. Deciding what exciting gardening and writing projects to do next.

For this sort of pruning, my system is simple: If it is congested, diseased, crossing, damaged and within reach then off it comes. I will have to go around again (with someone else to hold a ladder) and repeat the procedure for the higher up stuff, but given that it is a fairly young orchard I could do a fair amount from the ground. If you discount Arthur Turner which is romping away and growing antlers, and the increasingly mighty Lord Derby, Blenheim Orange and Katy… Oh those M25 rootstocks!

But in the afternoon it was grapevine time. The vines had not been pruned in two years and so there was a lot of dead and twiggy stuff to remove. In the end it was quite a neat job, but six vines down, when you have been standing with your arms in the air for the last two hours and your feet are getting cold, it all starts to get a bit less funny.

Darkness stopped play(/penal labour, depending on how you view these things) but I got the torch out to plant a rose and a viburnum that had arrived as Christmas presents, anyhow. In for a penny, in for a pound. But much as I like winter, I keep finding myself with the urge to garden at impractical times like 9pm. Roll on June…

The picture is of my pear tree this time last year. Don’t prune when it looks like this, kids!

Posted by: Naomi Slade | December 21, 2010

Of Mice and Propagators

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

I keep humming ‘I’ve got a brand new heated propagator’ to myself, to the tune of ‘Brand New Combine Harvester’, although I confess I am having trouble with the next line. ‘I’ll give you some seeds’, probably. (Makes a nice change from ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, anyhow). It is a shiny new window-sill one from The Stewart Company and I am looking forward to trying it out. But it is the winter solstice in the coldest December for 30 years (apparently) so it will be a bit short of light and warmth for growing anything for a while.

Back in my callow youth, I lightly scoffed at the idea of propagators but with age comes wisdom and enlightenment. There is no better way to turbo-charge seedlings and they rocket out of the soil with the sort of speed that we in gardening are not often privileged to enjoy.

I was given a Sankey one for my birthday a while back and it has served me well. It was on my desk (don’t ask – it is to do with light levels) and the other day I heard a scrabble and looked up to see a slightly vexed whiskery face looking at me. Hard to tell who was most surprised. A mouse had climbed through the vents; they were just out of reach and he couldn’t get a proper gnaw going on to make a hole and climb out so he was quite lucky I found him. I think there may be some future in the heated propagator mouse trap model, rather like a lobster pot.

Other than designing elaborate and cosy mouse traps, it is nothing doing on the gardening front. Like many people I have been waiting for the ground to thaw enough to get my last few daffodils and the garlic in for well over a month. It was late but allowable when all this cold started. Having decided that pots are the only way, the compost is now indoors in the kitchen defrosting…as you do.

It is dawn as I write this. It looks like a Christmas card outside, with frosty roofs, bare trees and lights twinkling on the hill behind. Merry Christmas everybody, and a Happy Gardening New Year!

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