How Does Your Garden Grow?

DSCN8248

I feel very lucky to spend my life around cooks and gardeners. They’re givers. Eat! Grow! Look! Try! Spend a few minutes in their company and it’s almost impossible not to come away with a recipe, a tip, a cookie or a cutting.

I thought about this the other day when a fat brown envelope dropped onto the mat from Ben Ranyard. It was filled with packets of seeds and a note which began, ‘You won’t need all of these seeds – you will have some left to give away.’

Ben runs Higgledy Garden, a mail order seed and cut flower company in Cornwall. British flowers never had a better friend. He grows them without harmful chemicals and with an enormous amount of joy.

I got to know Ben, his flowers and his terrible jokes on Twitter where he tweets as @higgledygarden. He’s given me great advice as well as quite a few laughs over the past year so if you like flowers and you like laughing, you might think about following him. He also writes an inspiring blog, the kind which makes you want to rush out into the garden and grub about.

Spring and grubbing about feels like a long time off right now, but these packets of seeds help to remind me that it’s coming. Ben signed off his letter ‘Thin all seedlings to about a foot…and life will be sweet.’ I believe it.

What I’m Growing This Spring:

This is the selection Ben sent me, with instructions that the cornflowers, calendula, sunflowers and malope are edible, so with any luck my garden will taste as good as it looks.

Calendula ‘Art shades’
Corncockle
Black and blue cornflowers
Cerinthe
Vanilla ice sunflowers
Malope trifidia ‘Vulcan’
Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’

Christmas at Columbia Road Market

DSCN7939
Yvonne Harnett and her trees.

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.”
from Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories by Garrison Keillor

Yesterday we got up very early to go to Columbia Road Flower Market. We go every Sunday, but this week we were under strict instructions from stallholder Yvonne Harnett not to slope up at our usual, slothful 10ish if we wanted a really big Christmas tree. And we always want a really big Christmas tree. Yvonne’s husband Shane is a fourth generation nurseryman and his family have sold Christmas trees on this corner of Columbia Road and Ravenscroft Street for over a hundred years, so I’m inclined to do as she says.

We reported for tree-purchasing duty at an eye-blinkingly early 8.30am, fortified ourselves with coffee and excellent sausage rolls from the Lily Vanilli Bakery and picked out a fine 10-foot Nordman Fir from Yvonne and Shane’s stall. Then we loaded ourselves up with other Christmas essentials: some scarlet poinsettias, a tray of miniature cyclamen, a bag of fir cones and a couple of Turkish fruit wreaths which I’ll use to decorate our table with the addition of some fat church candles. Next week, I’ll stock up on holly, ivy and mistletoe to drape along mantles and banisters and hang from chandeliers. I am a maximalist.

DSCN7954
Urban forest.

DSCN7981
Stuart with his poinsettias. Every week he makes me laugh with his cheeky sales pitches.

DSCN7974
Mick and Sylvia Grover. During the summer, they sell all kinds of culinary and medicinal herbs but at this time of year, their stall is piled high with wreaths and garlands which they make themselves. They give our dog Barney a Christmas present every year and are two of the kindest people you could ever meet. It shows in their faces, don’t you think?


DSCN7973

Mick and Sylvia’s wreaths.


DSCN8021

Turkish fruit and berry wreaths. I bought two of these for the Christmas table, so pretty with a fat church candle in the middle.


DSCN8029

Sean, whose bric-a-brac and book stall is a great favourite of mine. I think he would make a very good Father Christmas.


DSCN7955

Fortifying sausage roll from Lily Vanilli Bakery


DSCN7947

Festive decorations around the door of this café.

DSCN7949
Jones the Baker gets into the Christmas spirit.

DSCN7986
Dazzling proteas.

DSCN7990
Sparkly branches.

DSCN7977
Ilex berries.

DSCN8012
Fat amaryllis buds, one of my favourite winter flowers.

DSCN7996
Mountains of holly and mistletoe.

DSCN8006
Birdfeed baskets.

DSCN8002
Christmas planters.

DSCN7994
Crates of pine cones.

DSCN8010
Pots of hyacinths. Do what I do – transplant these into pretty bowls and pretend you’ve grown them yourself.

Hidden promise

 

DSCN7557

I’m really bad at delayed gratification. This serves me well in my career as a cook: think of a cake, bake a cake, eat a cake. Repeat as desired. This impatience, however, is a very poor quality indeed in a gardener. So much preparing and tilling and sowing, tending and pruning and nurturing and waiting. Endless sun-scorched, rain-lashed waiting. Gardening is optimism in action.

Fortunately, to keep us cheerful, some of the most glamorous flowers of all sprout quickly and undemandingly, going about the business of turning themselves into objects of beauty and wonder with precious little intervention from us.

Each autumn I go through the Blom’s Bulbs catalogue, seduced by its loving descriptions of colour, form and scent. Soon the catalogue is more Post-it note than paper. I find the descriptions as soothing as a cup of warm milk at bedtime: ‘Extremely strong and free flowering …Showy and weather resistant …Many small lilac flowers in the shape of stars…Lemon yellow cups becoming milk white with age.’

DSCN7560

 

DSCN7550

My order just arrived – a pleasingly heavy box filled with brown paper bags labelled with gaudy photographs, the number of bulbs carefully hand written in the top-right-hand corner. It’s astonishing to think that in a few months, these fat, papery bulbs will push through the cold spring soil in a bobbing tide of yellow, orange, purple, pink and white.

It’s easy to understand the tulipomania that engulfed Holland in the 1630s, so beautifully evoked in Deborah Moggach’s luscious novel, Tulip Fever.  And as I squint at the greedily long list on my delivery note, I draw a little comfort from the thought that in 1637, a single tulip bulb cost more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. How very lucky we are.

DSCN7552
This year’s list.

Gives good face

 

FennelHoneyFaceMask020_small 

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing Gifts from the Garden was devising all of the beauty creams, lotions and balms. It made me feel a teeny bit witchy, which I like, but it was also enormously thrifty, which I love.

Most of the projects are made with things from the garden or kitchen cupboards, but some of the ingredients (such as the benzoin tincture used here) required a trip to Baldwins. Even now, with the book deadline a distant memory, I think of excuses to visit. It’s London’s oldest herbalist and has operated on Walworth Road since 1844. Go if you can, to enjoy the sight of shelves filled with jars of dried herbs and flowers and bottles of essential oils. They also have an excellent mail order service if you live further afield and their staff are enormously knowledgeable, patient and helpful. They also stock supplies for soap- and candle-making. I think if I was locked in there for, oh, three or four years, I would be perfectly content.

Fennel & honey face mask

Fennel is a natural astringent. It cleanses the skin and reduces puffiness. In India, gram or chickpea flour is used in many natural beauty treatments as it helps draw impurities out of the skin and is a gentle exfoliant. You can buy it from Asian stores and some supermarkets.

Makes approx. 170g, enough for 4–5 applications.

3 tablespoons fennel seeds, roughly crushed in a pestle and mortar
100g gram or chickpea flour
4 tablespoons runny honey
½ teaspoon benzoin tincture (a natural preservative)

1 jar or pot

Place the fennel seeds in a small pan with 80ml water. Bring to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Let the mixture cool and infuse, then strain through a fine sieve. Whisk together with the gram flour, honey and benzoin tincture until you have a thick paste. Spoon into the cold, sterilised jar or pot and seal.

The face mask should be smoothed onto a clean face and neck, left for 15 minutes, rubbed gently into the skin, then wiped off with a facecloth soaked in warm water. Rinse the skin in tepid water and pat dry with a fluffy towel before moisturising.

The face mask will keep in the fridge for 2 weeks.

packaging idea Tuck a soft, pretty facecloth into the package with the jar or pot for a simple, inexpensive but nonetheless thoughtful gift. Include a card with instructions for how to use the face mask too.

Growing Fennel

Airy fronds of fennel swaying in the breeze are such a pretty sight, and undoubtedly earn Foeniculum vulgare a place in the flower border, let alone the herb bed. Fennel can grow up to 1.5m tall and prefers rich, well-drained soil in a sunny site, though it will tolerate less-than-perfect conditions with fairly good heart. During the summer, keep picking at the fronds to encourage lots of sweet, young leaves. F. v. ‘Purpureum’, or bronze fennel, is less vigorous and has a milder flavour but is equally beautiful. The ripening seeds take on a yellowish shade.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

That’ll do micely

CatnipMice034_small 
Prune plays with a catnip mouse 

Two old bachelors were living in one house;
One caught a muffin, the other caught a mouse.

The Two Old Bachelors, by Edward Lear, 1894

I have two cats who barely require artificial stimulation to behave like crazed hellions, perching cosily on the cooker hood, slinking along shelves and mantle pieces, dive-bombing guests from the tops of doors and wardrobes and brazenly eating the dog’s dinner while he looks on mournfully.

So providing them voluntarily with catnip (other than the free-range stuff they shred and roll on outside) is a perilous activity. But for the purpose of the book, I briefly became their pusher. Yuki, our patient and lovely photographer, managed to capture Prune’s eyes-closed-in-ecstasy, holding-on-with-claws-of-steel pose, before the poor little mouse was shredded to death. An interesting point: the dog was just as interested in the mouse as the cats were, though he ignores the catnip growing outside.

If you don’t grow catnip, do give it a go. It will certainly bring all the cats to your yard, but it’s terribly undemanding and pretty. Its soft purple flowers and silvery green leaves fill in many a blank space in my garden, and they’re great as underplanting for roses where they cover up the boring sticky bits wonderfully. It also makes a very good, calming tisane. Someone should tell the cats.

CatnipMice010_small

Catmint mice

Scraps of strong cotton fabric, corduroy or tweed
String or ribbon, for the tails
Hollow fill fibre toy stuffing, available from craft suppliers
2 teaspoons dried catmint for each mouse
Scraps of felt for the ears
Embroidery thread, for the eyes
Pins
Needle and thread or sewing machine

For each mouse, cut a heart-shaped paper template, approximately 18cm at its widest point. Pin this to your fabric and cut round it. Cut the fabric heart in half along the central point so that you have two pieces. Place the right sides of the fabric together and tuck the tail in position so that you catch it as you sew around the mouse. Pin together and stitch, leaving a gap of about 3cm in the base of the mouse. Turn the mouse right-side out and press.

Fill the mouse with the hollow fill fibre and a couple of teaspoons of dried catmint, then sew up the hole in the base securely. Cut small triangles of felt for the ears and stitch them on. Embroider small crosses for eyes. The catmint mouse’s scent will remain strong for several months.

Growing Catmint

Hardy perennial catmint, Nepeta, gets its common name from the near-narcotic effect it has on cats, but it makes a very attractive border plant in its own right. Plant in well-drained soil in sun or light shade and when the first flowers have faded, cut right back to within a few centimetres of the soil line to encourage lush growth and a second crop of flowers. if you are cultivating it for your cat, you’ll need to protect it. Cats will roll around on the plants in a state of ecstasy and gnaw the foliage down to the stems. Poking some twigs or sticks into the ground around the plant and tying some garden twine in a web between the sticks can help stop the worst of the damage.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura