A week before Halloween, I planted garlic. Early winter is the time to plant it, as it gets a head start and so once summer rolls back around, the bulbs are plumper than spring planted.
a bulb of solent wight
Garlic has been not only used to ward off vampires, but cholera, flu and even the plague. Now it is accepted that it is good for our blood and hearts. But most of it all I grow it for its pungency and deep, versatile flavour.
On my own and on client’s plots, I have planted ‘Solent Wight’. It has been bred in the UK- the Isle Of Wight- and so is used to our grey days and chilled winter nights.
Planting them is as simple as it comes- break up the cloves, dig down a few inches and space them 6 inches apart. As I planted them, their heady, thick fragrance filled the autumn air.
Garlic is good grown as a companion plant- a plant that can be grown alongside other plants to keep pests at bay. Growing without synthetic chemicals and fertilisers means you have to look at cultural methods and view growing as a more connected, linked up affair. Growing garlic alongside other crops- such as carrots to befuddle carrot root fly- is an example of this.
Come early summer, there should be plump, fresh cloves for roasting with cherry tomatoes, for slicing paper-thin into salads and for frying in yellow, creamy butter.
For the season before death and decay, frost and ice, there is so much sweet and ripe about life right now.
October is a time to marry baked fruit, crumbly pastry and aromatic spice.
Right now, apples are at their peak. A ripe apple should come away from the branch with a gentle twist, and ultimately, taste good.
Over the last BBQ of the year, we grilled bread topped with fresh chilli, ripped nasturtium flowers and salted butter.
On the plot, cob after cob of corn is now full and ripe. Corn enjoys a long growing season, so I sow it indoors early in spring and plant it out as soon as the frosts have cleared. Six months is a long time to wait for a corn on the cob, but slathered in garlicy, peppery butter, every month is worth it.
At this time of year, the warmth, the sweetness, the shine of summer is gone from the air, but now it hangs in berries and fruit, hedgerows and trees.
One of the best things about growing your own is picking food at the perfect moment. Supermarkets have to pick under-ripe, so it makes the journey from field to shelf without bruising or bleeding. In my own allotment, I wait til the fruit is almost bursting its skin with juice and sugar, before twisting it from the branch.
Booze is good and fruit is good and the two together are even better. You can make alsorts of fruit liquors by just leaving fruit and sugar in alcohol to slowly do its thing- but this is perhaps my favourite.
Damsons are in the same family as plums- but sharper and smaller. Their soft, huey purple is like the colour of the sky at night.
750ml bottle of gin
Either give the damsons a light bashing or a little pricking (like a sexed up Mrs Beeton), pour them into a jar with the sugar, and then glug in the gin. Leave it for as long as you can. I have the first of mine at Christmas- its colour and warmth is perfect for an icy December day.
Nine months- a summer, a spring and a winter ago- we took on a patch of earth. It was January, it’s Britain, the previous owners didn’t leave behind a massive amount of inspiration. The place looked cold and tired, like life in greyscale. Dreams of the good life in this patch of earth seemed distant. The willow tree is now full of leaf and life and shades our little shed. But in January, it stood stark against the slowly rotting pumpkins, plastic and weeds.
The soil was compacted. Weedkillers had been used. Before we had arrived there had been no plan.
I wanted to breathe life and beauty and productivity back into the earth. But some things you can’t rush- after being compacted and poisoned by sprays, soil takes time to heal. I spread barrow after barrow of leaf litter, cow muck from a friend’s farm and even hops that smelt of sweet beer onto the beds. Over the months it became one with the soil, and gave me a space I could sow into.
By the time it was mid spring, we had made the beds and the first of the crops were in. We knew were on the right path. We built the shed- four months of building- alongside shaping the plot, and suddenly we had a base, a centerpiece, of our plot.
As late spring rolled into midsummer, we stood back and looked at what we had done. Nine months ago here was a lifeless space, a space with no heart. Here, now, there is a plot with colour and life- and hopes of spring after the winter that’s sliding towards us.
When you are working with the earth, it’s never just physical. Don’t view gardening as a list of tasks. Planting, nurturing, eating is always much more than that.
It is the height of summer. The days are still and long, and after sunset, light lingers in the midnight sky.
At no other point in the year is there more energy for growth. After rainfall, the earth is warm and damp and it is perfect for life to thrive.
After a morning of rain, I visited the plot. Along the pathways, ryegrass hung heavy under the weight of a nights rain. In the salad bed, the reds and greens of the leaves stood stark against the black earth. Egg shells and coffee grounds lay on the ground in a vain (but non-toxic) attempt to deter the slugs.
We have been eating our first strawberries of the year. No moment is sweeter. I have sown wildflowers in and left ‘weeds’ and now there is a bed of blooded berries and sprawling leaves.
Here and there I have planted nasturtiums. Their leaves are punchy and spiky with heat and pepper and their flowers are the colour of summer. Raindrops collected on them like glistening jewels.
In late May and early June, the chives burst into flower, and they are perfect for picking and scattering into dinner.
Walking the plot, picking, eating, will never fill my belly but it brings together months of work and rolling skies and nothing could be more satisfying.
As the end of last year slipped into deepest winter, we took on an abandoned allotment, with dreams of a shed and rows of vegetables and sun-baked days.
In a world with terrorism on the tele and dog shit on the streets, building a little space amongst fruit and vegetables and wildflowers seemed a good idea.
We challenged ourselves to build the shed from anything that could do with a second life. We rummaged in skips, plundered street corners and searched antique shops.
We barrowed bricks in a thunderstorm, put up a bench in mid-winter drizzle and fixed up the roof in milky April sunshine.
Slowly, the shed came together. Plank by plank, nail by nail, the shed took shape.
We could have bought a shed from B&Q. But amongst the old planks and wooden-frame windows, there was character and beauty.
Building with reclaimed materials means that lines and corners aren’t perfect, but there’s a charm to creating new from old.
From cast-offs and rotting timber, we have a base to everything else we want to achieve- to nurture, to grow, to eat and drink.
With some seed in my hand and a little earth in which to sow, things feels good. Sowing a seed is sowing a promise- a promise of life and growth, and at the end of it, a promise of something to put on my plate. All you need is a few pots, a little compost and seeds of whatever you like to eat. Put them on a windowsill and give them a little water and before long, you will see signs of life.
Salad, herbs, chillis and corn have burst into life on my little windowsill. Suddenly I have something to nurture, with the hope of long summer days and food to pick.