Spring up

The sight of asparagus spears poking up from the earth is a wonderful moment in the gardening year. The tips emerge looking like something prehistoric; reptilian heads covered in overlapping scales tinged purple, sniffing the air.


After finding the light, they tend to grow quickly, each day rising higher. Sometimes, its path impeded, a stalk will curve and curl like a fiddlehead fern, but most reach straight for the sky.

To harvest asparagus you should use a sharp knife and cut the stalk slightly below the surface. With mature plants over three years old you can keep cutting the spears as they appear for a month or so. By June, however, it’s time to stop, allowing the plants to succeed in completing their mission of developing tall airy fronds. By doing so, you allow asparagus to store the energy supply they require to come back with vigor next year.

We’ve had two miserly servings from our little asparagus bed so far. We are hungry for more and eagerly watch for new eruptions. I keep saying we will “do it properly” and buy new crowns and plant them in a large, perfectly prepared bed – soft and deep, dark with manure and free from weeds. But since I haven’t arranged this yet, we are left with our few, hand-me-down plants. Perhaps the spears taste so exquisite because we know there will be no glut to work through, just a brief, delectable spell of ultra-fresh, verdant deliciousness.




Elegant Celebrations

Spring accelerated sharply last week when the weather produced an unseasonably hot and blue-skied summer’s weekend. In response, many flowering trees and shrubs erupted in floral jubilation.

At the allotment, my little pear tree’s buds were the first to burst into white blossom. The Morello cherries followed its lead and today are also smothered in beautiful white blooms.


Our old apple, fighting disease and recently festooned with amazingly symmetrical woodpecker holes, is taking its considered time, as is its relative, the young Bramley. Both are just now beginning to reveal vividly pink buds.


I can’t help lingering on the gorgeous flowering trees that seem to be everywhere now – from blackthorn in the hedgerows to magnolias in the front gardens. It is their moment in the limelight; in the blink of an eye the show will be over as the season advances and less showy foliage follows.

Perhaps the tree that has most captivated me this April is a cherry growing on the edge of nearby Abbey Fields. How old must it be to have such a thick trunk and branches with such impressive reach? Despite its obvious age, it still greets the season with stunning abandon.



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.


Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

What a difference a year makes. I’m not much better a gardener today than I was last year at this time, but if you measured my success by “vegetal output” you might think I was. For instance, in 2012 my tomatoes, so lovingly mulched with grass clippings and fed on homemade comfrey tea (vile-smelling but richly nutritious), lay withered on the vines, besieged and vanquished by fungal blight. We managed to harvest about five in total, which turned out to be wan and watery.

Consequently this year I transplanted my overgrown tomato seedlings into a patch of earth with few expectations. I didn’t mulch them, nor did I feed them with any kind of specially prepared sludge. Beyond tying them to a few stakes, I left them alone to fend for themselves. Who wants to get too attached to something that’s going to fail? Besides, I swore last year (see prior posts) that I would stop bothering to grow tomatoes outdoors because it always ends in disappointment here in England. I was going to content myself with peas and potatoes and kale. So what was I even doing chucking a few into the ground now?

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

Well. We came back from our summer holiday to find the tomato plants had grown into a jungle. With no one to nip out the side shoots and re-stake them, they had become massive sprawling plants, dripping with clusters of ripening fruits and festooned with  yellow blossoms. Even more amazingly, several plants had seeded themselves in other beds and were just as vibrant. I cut off the growing tips and tried to strip a few leaves from the lower branches, but basically I’ve left the plants as is (as you’d see them in the New World, their native environment).

Ripening tomatoes - a joyful sight.

Ripening tomatoes – a joyful sight.

Now, blight might still be around the corner. Surely not all those green clusters will get to ripen in September sunshine before frost and falling light levels put an end to them. But hey, this year we can say we harvested tomatoes: piles of yellow (Ildi) and red (Gardener’s Delight) cherry tomatoes, and several luscious Marmandes. And they’re delicious.



How susceptible we gardeners are to the vagaries of weather. Despite our efforts to protect and cosset plants, it really comes down to light levels and temperature and hydration. I experimented with miniature polytunnels this year for the first time – and will do so as we head into autumn and winter – but I know that this kind of environmental manipulation only gets you so far. What you really need is good weather – and good luck!

Summer’s lease

Late summer flowers line the path to the old apple tree. Welcome back to the allotment!

Late summer flowers line the path to the old apple tree. Welcome back to the allotment!

After a month away, the garden has transformed. Sun and warmth have worked their magic (and friends have deployed the watering cans). A proper summer at last.

Bean tendrils reach for the sky.

Bean tendrils reach for the sky.


We’ve been gorging ourselves on green and purple and runner beans.

Peeking through a  wall of climbing beans.

Peeking through a wall of climbing beans.

Rudbekia, cosmos, dahlias, and sweet peas tangle together along the border, inviting bees and butterflies to visit.

Rudbekia, cosmos, dahlias, and sweet peas tangle together along the border, inviting bees and butterflies to visit.

Spring on a plate

Asparagus and radish

Asparagus and radish – the first harvest of the new season

Bean, squash and courgette plants may be shivering in the little plastic-covered greenhouse at home, but we are sustained for the moment by the magical emergence of asparagus spears, the fattening of radish bulbs, and the peppery fire of soft rocket leaves. I hunch over the ragged lines of beetroot, spring onion, chard, and fennel seedlings, willing them to shake off the cold and begin to grow!