How much land does a man need?

Six feet of it, according to Tolstoy in the story of that title (i.e., enough to bury you). We’re lucky to have several times that on our allotment, but cultivable land is always at a premium. So un(der)used bits become interesting – along hedges, tucked behind sheds. In this case, a space formerly filled with nettles, bindweed, hoarded panes of glass and rotting timber is made over as a carrot bed, benefiting from the southern exposure:


More land is effectively insurance for When Things Go Wrong – seeds failing to germinate, young plants failing to thrive, routine attacks from pests and weather. Carrots have a shaky record with us, or we with them, so we’ll see how this pans out.

Meanwhile, a shout-out to friends in Boston (Massachusetts), whose community garden shows how confined spaces can grow both vegetables and community:


Projects like the Chelsea Community Garden are, as ever, a salutary reminder that working the land in common is a form of wealth in itself. ‘Die Stadt ist unser garten,’ as the Germans say.


Light in August

As the season turns, a tale of two allotments – one grand, one homely. The first is the kitchen garden at Packwood House, near Lapworth, where they do things on a lavish scale – with the help of, well, the Help.

As any gardener knows, the main ingredient in successful growing is the work put in – in Marx’s words, mixing your labour with the earth. This makes labour sound like compost – which it is, in a sense: composted time. A lot of compost goes into Packwood.

After touring the gardens, we began a walk from Packwood toward its sister estate, Baddesley Clinton, passing other labourers on the way.

The other allotment of the week past is of course our own. The 2016 season has been alternately slow and accelerated in the Midlands, with a long cold spring followed by brief heatwaves and cool cloudy weeks punctuated by tropical downpours. Comme d’habitude pour l’Angleterre, at least in the age of global warming.

With August comes a change of light. Sweetpeas fading, sunflowers bigging up, verbena bonariensis glowing at the edges. Labour stays in the picture.

Hi(gh) summer

It’s been a while. We’ve missed documenting an eventful 2015, and are now deep into a turbulent 2016. But blog is not dead. So here’s a brief overview of our growing year, from earliest January to mid-July.


New year’s amaryllis


From Emily Jacir’s show at the Whitechapel Gallery this winter


Adorno’s urban allotment, Frankfurt, mid-January


Camellia on display at Frankfurt Botanical Garden


That’s its name, yes


Our new home (a fixer-upper)


The allotment on 17 April


First fruits


27 April


Bluebell walk, 8 May


The allotment at Chastleton House (Wolf Hall in the BBC series)


Zoe communing with the watchful Rollright Stones on her birthday in May


Allotment border on 9 June


Hollywood lighting, looming storm system – 24 June


West Sands St Andrews – a kelp allotment


The English Garden in Berlin’s Tiergarten – how English is it?


Encounter on Milburngate Bridge, Durham, mid-July

Return of the blog

It’s been a while. Seeing as how we’re in the late stage of one of those rare, near-perfect summers in the middle of middle England, though, it’s time to re-boot and take stock. First a look back at the interim since September 2013, beginning with a sample from last year’s harvest:


Boltardy, Crimson King, Golden


Borlotti beans

An October chestnut gathering expedition to Crackley Wood, with transatlantic help:

IMG_4485Isobel with chestnut

Putting the allotment to bed in November:

Putting allotment to bed

Seasonal cheer in the dark days:

Community hut Xmas tree

Inauguration of the new community hut, an idea of Volutina’s carried to completion with the help of many hands

N & K at Saxon Mill


The ritual New Year’s hail to the light from a hilltop in Ilmington:

Ilmington shadows

Spring visitors:



Late January, Aston Cantlow. Thanks for visiting, Aunt Gretchen!


Glad too that Erika and John could visit. Herewith the album cover for our new band, Vichy Douche Slab (name inspired by object in the spa museum, Leamington). We will literally rock you.

The allotment in mid-April:


New fruit trees, apple and pear


A lichtsome Easter voyage up to Glasgow, the isle of Mull and Iona, to see our friends before the oil wars break out at Gretna Green after this September’s referendum:


Bird? Plane? Independence?


Sketching en plein air


This may be the solution for our shed roof


Hebrides or the Med?


Front garden in Iona


Fragment of the abbey on Iona


Our column outside the Iona PO

An early May gathering at the new community hut:


Constructing an insect house with Bonnie’s help

Later in the month we stayed in London courtesy of visiting grandparents, checking out this year’s borders at Kew Gardens:


In June an al fresco supper of peas, beans and strawberries:


And harvesting sweet peas in July.


Winter Respite

Last week, from a train window, I gazed at snow coating the fields, reflecting cold light back onto a grey, February sky. A classic winter scene. When I arrived in Oxford, the snow was nowhere to be found, though the air remained frosty and the impressive college architecture seemed to echo a seasonally-approriate chilly solemnity.


The highlight of this quick day trip was certainly the opportunity to meet and catch up with sister-in-law Kate! A wonderful, and all-too-brief, treat.

Afterwards, I wandered down High Street to find the University’s Botanic Garden. Many plants in the outdoor beds were still sleeping, but harbingers of spring provided elegant splashes of color.



A distinctly unseasonal treat awaited me inside the glass houses where warm, moist air enveloped leafy fronds of jungle foliage –

IMAG0478Where crops were ready to harvest –

Cotton plant

Cotton plant

And ripe fruit (in season?) tempted the passerby.

IMAG0476In the next room, dry heat (equally exotic) bathed cacti and aloes of all shapes and sizes –

IMAG0474I thoroughly enjoyed the brief encounter with exotic climes – just a short train journey away. Now back to ordering and chitting potatoes and pruning fruit bushes. Spring is coming!

Chelsea PS

Just a few more images from the Chelsea Flower Show before I return to the reality of heavy clay soil and ravenous gastropods…

The show gardens presented beautifully designed and carefully curated outdoor spaces (see previous post), while the stands in The Grand Pavilion, in contrast, showcased plant varieties in all their glory. A celebration of variegated hostas, fragrant lillies of every hue, sumptuous roses, and – how could I neglect to mention? – superb vegetables.

Now that’s a harvest.


Lady Slippers

Child statues cavort in cascades of flowers.

And finally, the celebration of all things horticultural (and jubilee) spilled out into the surrounding streets of Chelsea. I happened upon this Corgi Queen and her two inquisitive pups while walking back to the Sloane Square tube station:


How much is that dress in the window?




A visit to Chelsea

I love looking at other people’s gardens. On the allotment you can take a brief stroll and eye up as many as twenty or thirty different plots in one go. Cheek by jowl, each is unique in presentation and production, and reflects the personalities of those who tend it. The variety is fascinating and my nosy wanderings leave me feeling alternately inspired, or competitive, or self-congratulatory, depending on what I find.

Last week I had the great good fortune to be able to meander around a similarly tightly-arranged group of gardens, but ones with much grander ambitions. A dear artist friend offered me her ticket to the Press Day of the Royal Horticultural Society’s premier event – The Chelsea Flower Show. Out of the blue I found myself taking the train to London and mingling with media, celebrities, and world-class horticulturalists and designers as I roamed the grounds, soaking in the atmosphere and reveling in the glorious show gardens. Take a look!

Full-size trees make a graceful canopy. Each garden is densely (and exquisitely) planted, creating a sense of permanence that belies the fact that it will be gone in a week’s time.

Chris Beardshaw’s woodland garden with thatched hut – a running Chelsea theme.

The “M & G Garden” – water, funky sculpture, and beautiful borders.

The Artisan Gardens were on a more intimate scale. Set in a glade within the Chelsea grounds, they were exquisite little jewels.

My favorite of the Artisan Gardens: “Satoyama Life” by Japanese designer Kazayuki Ishihara. The hut is covered in clumps of moss.

There was plenty that was conventionally beautiful, but Chelsea also highlights more esoteric and conceptual gardens. One of my favorites was “Quiet Time: The DMZ Forbidden Garden,” which evoked the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea. Man-made boundaries are overtaken by lush and wild greenery. The photo below shows bottles with messages for loved ones stuck into a chain link fence. A haunting, evocative garden.

Then again, Chelsea is also for showing off and having fun. Irishman Diarmuid Gavin created a seven-story pyramid of scaffolding – an urban riff on the hanging gardens of Babylon. I was lucky enough to be the very last person allowed to enter the structure (before the Queen herself arrived to take her annual promenade around the showgrounds.) I eschewed the industrial lift (elevator) at the center of the structure and instead climbed stairs and precarious ladders all the way to the top. Each level offered new vistas and a different environment. There were sheds, hanging seats, a shower, vegetable patches, trees, all many meters above the ground. The best moment came last when I zoomed down from the top inside a silver tube slide. Whoo-hooo!

The future of gardening for an over-crowded island?

A view of the Grand Pavilion from the top of the pyramid.

The BBC shooting a piece for its nightly Chelsea program in Joe Swift’s garden. (Joe is a presenter on “Gardener’s World” – watched religiously every Friday night by the residents of Birch Modern.) You’ve got to like a country that takes gardening this seriously!