Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

The first bean on the vine

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

Here it is, in all its glory, fully three centimetres long. We await its growth, and the arrival of its many friends and relations, with impatience.

Peonies and roses

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

I haven’t given up a centimetre of my allegiance to peonies at this stage of the summer, but all the bunches on sale in London are  lying around panting in the heat, and the flowers are blown to smithereens. I like to buy peonies in tight bud so that I can enjoy a good week of them whilst they open, petal by petal. (I put a teaspoon of sugar in the water these days which seems to help all of them to open – in past seasons some of them have mutinied and stayed closed for ever.) And more than anything, I try to hold out for white peonies: the absolute top of the mountain.

I looked at the pink peonies in the market this morning but they just weren’t right, so I bought these glorious roses instead. The guy selling them suggested keeping them in the fridge overnight, vase and all – which in this weather I’ll certainly try. Meantime, aren’t they absolutely gorgeous? I keep walking back into the room to have another look and to catch a ghostly waft of their scent.

Peonies! Can asparagus be far behind?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010


The first peonies to arrive in London are, I think, from the Netherlands, and they’ve just hit the greengrocers and the flower stalls. What a joy! I love anemones and I usually name them as my favourite flower, but peonies are so extravagantly beautiful, and their scent so subtle – almost ghostly – that they come a very close second in my heart. I can’t afford the first rush of these gorgeous flowers (and in any case the first ones are always red, and I like the pale creamy ones best) but I’ll look forward to the price coming down to my level as soon as the English ones arrive. (In London, the last tranche of peonies come from the Irish republic wrapped in sheets of Gaelic newspapers. But that’s about 6 weeks away.)

Peonies and asparagus: two great joys in one month. I’m hoping to buy field-grown asparagus in the farmers’ market this Sunday – there are some around now from the Wye Valley, but they’ve been grown in polytunnels and their flavour’s not quite up to scratch. Call me fussy.

Revised version

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I saw what I assume is the definitive version of Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful poem in this morning’s Guardian, so I’ve updated the version I put together yesterday from her radio broadcast.

The definitive version is even better than my imagined one – see the real thing below.

Silver lining

Monday, April 19th, 2010


Carol Ann Duffy is a tremendous poet and this morning I heard her reading a new poem she’d written about the cloud of volcanic ash that’s covering Europe. As always, she has produced a pattern of images that are immensely rewarding to contemplate.

She read the poem on the BBC’s Today programme, and I haven’t seen it in print so I can’t know that I’ve got the punctuation or the layout right. But here’s a link to her reading it, as well.


Five miles up the hush and shush of ash,
Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate -
I could write my childhood there.
Selfish to sit in this garden, listening to the past
(A gentleman bee wooing its flower, a lawnmower)
When the grounded planes mean ruined plans,
Holidays on hold, sore absences at weddings, funerals… windless commerce.
But Britain’s birds sing in this spring from Inverness to Liverpool, from Crieff to Cardiff,
Oxford, Londontown, Land’s End to John O’Groats.
The music’s silence summons,
That Shakespeare heard, and Edward Thomas, and briefly, us.

By Carol Ann Duffy

A flowering vine, & Ms Minnie Mouser

Monday, November 9th, 2009


This photo, which is one of the ones I used on the latest blog intro page and promised to talk about, is of the flowering vine outside the front door in Key West, where I’ll be for ten days from the end of this week. The flowers look as ravishingly beautiful in real life as they do in this photo; their only fault is that they don’t have a scent: none at all. And somehow I can never feel complete respect or affection for a flower – however beautiful it may be – if it doesn’t also have scent. (Well, maybe I can – anemones are the exception, now I think of it. But the only one.)

I haven’t been in Key West for about a year and I’m looking forward to this visit. I hope to do some writing, and catch up with friends, and bike over to the beach path in the very early morning to walk into the rising run, and eat lots of fresh local fish. And high on the list of anticipated pleasures is seeing Ms Minnie Mouser, the cat I share with a friend and neighbour. Minnie is actually and totally Doreen’s cat these days, but both Doreen and Minnie are gracious enough to go along with my continuing part-ownership fantasy. So when I’m in town Minnie visits me regularly during the day, lies in the shade on our front porch, and asks me to supply breakfast and supper. But as soon as I leave town again she stops looking for me or for my food offerings, and reverts to her usual duties.

I should explain that her name – the Mouser part – is an honorary title rather than a descriptive one. There are no mice on the property as far as I know: I’ve certainly never seen any and I don’t believe Minnie’s ever caught one. There are certainly cockroaches (known locally as palmetto bugs, as if a cute tropical name makes them any less disgusting), plus the occasional scorpion and probably worse things, too – but not mice. So Minnie’s no mouser. Her duties, as she sees them, are to patrol the territory’s perimeter against intruders, and to meet-‘n’-greet guests in the property’s rental units, and she does both in a notable fashion.

I’ve never managed to take a good photo of Minnie but I’ll try again this visit. She’s worth it.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four …

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009


And here they are – the very first potatoes we’ve ever planted ourselves. It’s delightful to see them and also a considerable relief, because I thought that there wouldn’t be anything there when we dug the plants up. That’s not only because in times of trial I tend to fear the worst (Chicken Little is my alter ego); it’s also because the plants started off well, but then something ate the leaves to shreds in a sort of broderie anglais pattern. And although the books said that didn’t matter, you have to wonder – how could it not matter? And then all the plants died back without having flowered and I worried all over again; I didn’t even want to dig up one of them last weekend and learn what had happened, because I’d be miserable when I discovered disaster.

And there wasn’t a disaster after all! We’ve only dug up one plant so far but look! Three lovely ones, plus two tinies we’ve put on the compost heap and another big one that the slugs got to before we did.

Potato salad, here we come.

Five potato, six potato, seven potato more …

And speaking of pohutukawa …

Monday, April 20th, 2009

… which I was in the last blog post (see below).

Pohutukawa, in case you don’t know, are New Zealand’s most iconic tree. They grow impressively large with a spreading canopy, and produce glorious red flowers around Christmas time and during the rest of the summer months. The trees hold an important place in Maori culture, most notably among them being the small wind- and weather-beaten tree, about 800 years old, which clings to the cliff face near Cape Reinga, at northern tip of the country where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. This pohutukawa guards the entrance to a sacred cave, through which spirits pass on their way to the ancestral land of Hawaiiki. But all pohutukawa have a spiritual significance, and the trees are protected throughout the country.

The trees are very impressive with their dark leaves and twisting branches, and humans have used them in many ways – the timber was used by Maori for paddles and mauls, and by Pakeha for boatbuilding, firewood and furniture. The juice, the honey, and the inner bark of several species have medicinal qualities, and parts of the plants contain tannin, and ellagic and gallic acid: you can even make a dye from dried pohutukawa stamens.

Pohutukawa have been studied and written about by botanists, ecologists, entomologists, ornithologists, horticulturalists, zoologists, biochemists, conservationists, medical herbalists and anthropologists. They have also been written about by my friend Pam Gould, who found living with one in her garden a distinct trial. Here’s her poem, with loving thanks to her for allowing me to share it with the world. (Patuone, mentioned in the poem, was a famous Maori warrior.)

POHUTUKAWA, by Pam Gould

We shouldn’t live together you and I
You’ve always known it and
been prepared to tough it out.

In Patuone’s day you drew a warrior line
and lay in wait,
eager to deflower
our bitumen, our lawns,
our dainty English gardens.
Attrition, a smarter choice of weapon.

Patiently you drip unwanted bits
all day all night
the scatter battle, aerial attack
of leaves so leathery
they’ll long outlive me.
Placed exquisitely
to clog
and block
and suffocate.

If all this seems too tame
march out more roots
a new battalion,
pincer movement moles
to toss the driveway onto grass
and strangle anything herbaceous.

Pre-Christian heretic you enter into Christian rites
offering blood-stained petal
as your Magi gift
to cling and dye
those puny souls below
whilst from on high
you play an older god.

Your need to procreate sends swarms of seed
to prickle unsuspecting feet;
ingratiate and irritate inside and out
through shoes and washing, books and cars
anywhere the wind will take your sperm.

As modern malcontent you infiltrate
use us to blast your seed in air-conditioned fury;
or settle into rough-cast fissures
exploding bits of house
which join with driveway
on the lawn.

Outrageously you have enlisted
Law to be your friend – my law
(or so I thought) and finally
your sticks and stones have won -
although with one last playground taunt
I use my children’s voice
to change your name
and shout my parting battle cry


Not so many of them now…

Friday, January 9th, 2009

In June last year I posted entries about the fifty-seven baby leeks we planted in our veggie garden. They did fantastically well – mostly because of the rotten wet summer we had in London – and although generally we lose a few plants as soon as they’re in the ground, all the leeks survived and flourished.  And now we’re happily eating our way through the whole bed! An excellent leek soup from one of the Moro cookbooks; grilled leeks; leeks quickly steamed in a tiny bit of water and a dash of butter: they’ve all been delicious.

When you grow veggies, and especially when you grow them a bit of a walk away from where you live (our veggie plot is part of a community garden that’s about 10 minutes’ walk from our flat) you tend to feel high levels of anxiety about their welfare. Well, I do anyway.  We generally buy baby plants from a catalogue (Marshalls, the kitchen garden specialists, are the best I know) but sometimes we also plant seeds, and this year I’ve ordered a neat little propagator for the living room windowsill, so we can start off beetroot, pumpkin and squash seeds. 

I don’t think I have enough patience to be a real gardener, but I certainly have enough worry-genes to qualify. Will the seeds sprout this time? Will the baby plants be OK when they’re transplanted into the ground, and do we have enough cut-down plastic water bottles to protect them against slugs and snails?  Did we prep the ground well enough? One gardener I know feels as responsible as if they’re his children: all these helpless little things relying on him for survival. “I’ve practically given them names,” he says, “and I’ve done my best to choose the right schools.” So when the slugs and snails pounce (if such slithery things can pounce) he’s bound to take it personally.

Part of the pleasure of veggie gardening lies in the planning. We’ve just decided to give away our currant bushes (too many currants disappear mysteriously just as they’re ripe – and we net them, so it isn’t the birds). We’ve also given up Brussels sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli for a while because the last lot failed spectacularly, and maybe we hadn’t got the necessary rotation right. Our tomatoes never seem to ripen before tomato blight hits, and I’m sick of making green tomato chutney, so we’ve given them up too.

So, enter our new hopes and take a bow! Swift early potatoes, Boltardy beetroot, Hunter butternut squash and Crown Prince pumpkins will join our old favourites, the Prenora leeks and Enorma runner beans and the sweetcorn. We always have rhubarb and spinach and Swiss chard, and salad herbs and the gooseberry bushes (no one steals those fruit, the plants are too spiky).

And in the meantime, waiting for the sun to return and the ground to warm up, we have the rest of the leeks to enjoy. And believe me, we do.  Twenty-nine now, and counting down with pleasure.




And here’s the baby robin

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Yeah, I know this isn\'t the actual baby robin, in fact it\'s only a model of a baby robin, but it\'s the only image I could find that showed what the one in the garden looks like.

And yeah, I know this isn’t a real robin. It’s just a model of a robin but it’s the only image I could find that looks like the baby in the garden.