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Lemon Verbena

One of my very first knock-you-over moments in gardening came when I went to visit a gorgeous house in the Cotswolds.

It belonged to the Uncle of a cousin of mine, so we were lucky enough to have the run of this luscious piece of Lutyens, along with its garden, for a weekend. ‘Uncle’ wasn’t there, so we had a hilarious time dressing up in dusty old black-tie (there always seem to be random black-tie suits in the cupboards of spare bedrooms in grand houses). We found bowler hats, and walking sticks, and we took outrageous advantage of the butler (who, to be fair, had nothing to do) throwing a dinner party, and requesting breakfast in bed (shock horror)….

But I digress – the knock-me-over moment came when ‘Uncle’ returned, and he showed me the garden – quintessentially English…roses everywhere, bursting borders and buzzing bees, greenhouses chock full of fruit…and then, as we returned to the house, he pointed at a large pot, placed just outside the french doors leading to his office, and containing a rather straggly looking bush, proclaiming that this was his favourite plant in the world. I went closer, touched the leaves, which felt like a cat’s tongue, and as my hand came up to my face to tuck my hair behind my ears there it was, the most divine aroma, like an orchard of lemons, with a hit of bitter grapefruit and a faint floral note – so strong it took my breath away.

I have grown lemon verbena ever since, and I have given away more pots of it to friends than any other plant.

I have to say that it is the plant I use more than any other in the garden for the kitchen (with the exception of bay, parsley and thyme), and it is one of the most welcome sights when it comes up slowly in the border during the spring and summer months. If I had a greenhouse (and servants) I’d put it in an enormous pot (or four) and overwinter it indoors, having said servants bring it out again when the weather got milder. As it is, my plant dies down in winter and reappears with no special treatment at all, in late spring.

I use it as an air freshener (it’s great to freshen up a smelly car interior), and also in ice creams and drinks. The most useful thing is to make some syrup, which can be mixed to make any number of delicious drinks, ices and puddings. Here is a recipe from Mark Diacono’s new book ‘A Year at Otter Farm’.

Ingredients

200g caster sugar

200g water

a handful of lemon verbena leaves

Method

Heat the sugar and water together, stirring, to get the sugar to dissolve, then throw the leaves in and simmer gently for ten minutes. Cool, strain and store the syrup in a fridge, or freeze it

…and of course, there must be ice cream….my method for ice-cream is non-churn.

Lemon Verbena Ice-Cream

You need:

1 loosely packed cup of lemon verbena leaves (or more if you want it extra-lemon verbena-esque)

The juice of one lemon

170g icing sugar

420ml double cream (yup, you read that right)

Method:

Put the leaves, lemon juice and sugar in a food processor and wizz up until they are chopped very finely.  Leave this mixture alone for half an hour or so for the flavours to deepen.

 

Now whip the cream with 3 tablespoons of icy water until you get sumptuous soft peaks.  Add in the lemon verbena mixture and whisk it in.

 

Then just turn the whole lot into a suitable piece of tupperware, and just bung it in the freezer.  That is literally it.  I have scattered some lemon verbena leaves, and pelargonium petals on top to make it gorgeous-er.

 

 

Radishing around

I’ve been sowing things, as is my wont at this time of year, when the frantic gardening of spring is over and I find myself wanting to BEGIN something new in the garden.

My vegetable forays are mostly made in containers, simply because food crops are such high-maintenance that I need them to be right there, under my snout if they are not to be completely nuked by minibeasts (and in this category, I include marauding children). Children need to maraud, but “Do not touch, eat, yank out, or sit on ANYTHING in a pot” is easy to understand, and an order that can be administered in the heat of hasty shoe-removal just before they run out into the garden.

Slugs and snails and cats and squirrels heed no such warnings, but are less likely to do any damage if there is a murderous human nearby to pluck them off the plants, squirt water at them or chase them away. Slugs and snails can further be avoided with a container garden, as they must first climb up the side of the pot, or even better, get themselves up onto a table before doing so. This is why I garden so much in pots.

Crocus is full of everything you need to combat the slimy things – (just go here). But my absolute favourite is their new wire cloche, which incorporates a copper ring at its base – a stroke of genius as it deals with all the above pests (including children) in one, beautiful, fell swoop.

I got myself a collection of Crocus pots last year, for sweet peas, pelargoniums, lobelia and other flights of fancy, and this year three of my favourites are given over to nasturtiums (a pink one called ‘Jewel Cherry Rose’ – not out yet, but beginning to cascade pleasingly down the gorgeous terracotta Tulip Pot, above) and lettuce.

The lettuce I bought as seedlings from a garden centre four weeks ago. I pick individual leaves off the outside of each one every so often, but I’m now going to wait for them to grow into full heads. This pot, full of lettuce, on a table is the prettiest, freshest thing to look at in the heat, so it’s doing its ornamental thing too, which makes me happy. Today I’m sowing more, but as a cut-and-come-again crop, and some radishes, which constitute a particular craving right now, paired with brown bread, butter and marmite (it’s a pregnancy thing.)

Radishes in a pot

You need:

Some radish seeds – To me, they all taste pretty much the same. Multi-coloured ‘Bright Lights’ are very pretty, and ‘French Breakfast’ are achingly posh – take your pick.

A wide shallow pot

Some multi-purpose compost

Method:

Fill your pot with compost, water it well, and then push the seeds in one by one, about 4 cm apart. Pinch the soil back over the holes you have made, pat it down and wait four to six weeks. That’s that. Don’t forget you can eat the tops too.

 

One wheelbarrow, out to pasture….It needn’t end up on the rubbish tip.

I had been meaning to re-purpose my rubbish old wheelbarrow by turning it into a mobile garden for my daughter for over a year, and finally got around to it a few weeks ago, girded into action by this brilliant book which landed on my doormat, full to the brim with ideas of wholesome stuff to do with children outside.

The concept is simple as apple pie; give a child ownership of their own bit of earth, and they will be far more inclined to get interested in gardening than if they’re constantly being told what to do, and not to touch (or destroy) things. Dawn’s book advocates filling the barrow with herbs, which is another sound plan – because kids love to bring things to the table, however small. In my usual rushed and slapdash way, however, I was faced with the need to embark on this project with only half and hour to spare, and a bored child at my heels, and so I used what I had around me at the time (including a pot of parsley)…and the regular jaunts out to her garden to fetch me parsley leaves have kept my daughter enthralled, and involved as the plants grow and expand.

You need:

An old wheelbarrow

A drill, or hammer and nails

A few crocks

A mixture of multi-purpose and John-innes No2 compost (half and half), although just multi-purpose is fine if you don’t have everything to hand

A selection of plants for the mini-garden. I used bacopa, pansies, alyssum, parsley, and a random primrose that I had lying about. I also used a little box of small summer-flowering bulbs for surprise factor.

A bag of pea-gravel

 

Method:

Drill or punch several holes in the base of the wheelbarrow for drainage, and place a crock over each one so it doesn’t get clogged up with soil. Then mix your compost and toss it in, leaving a couple of centimetres between the top of the compost and the rim of the barrow. Now put in your plants, as directed by your child, and finally poke in your little bulbs, if you are using them, between the plants. Lastly, mulch with gravel to keep it all safe and sound.

Give the whole thing a good dousing with a watering can, and then you can have fun deciding where to put it. We wheel ours about quite a bit, which also seems to give it extra powers of seduction (I’ve no idea why).

Finally, I am sourcing my new wheelbarrow and lusting after this beauty.

(it has a wheel that looks like it might make for extremely easy manoeuvring). I am also deeply taken with this accessory – the ‘Wheelbarrow booster‘…perfect for my autumn clean-up.

Perhaps because I am so horribly neglectful of my actual, life-size lawn…

Perhaps because while I wait for the weather to dry out enough to mow, I yearn for some orderly eye-candy in the form of a nice, tidy sword…

Perhaps because I have always, always coveted a chamomile lawn, but will never have one, because, frankly, I lack staff.

Here, I give you my perfect, indoor lawn, which requires no work; only fondling in order to release the appley-dappley scented odour. I have it by my bed, but if you are the sharing type, then it should obviously go on your table (indoor or out).

You will need:

A wide shallow container

Chamomile plants – either Chamaelelum nobile, or the variety ‘Treneague’ which is non-flowering. Both have that amazing smell.

Ordinary multi-purpose compost, but make sure it’s free of any big bits, as this plant is a bit of a diva and will only creep onto fine soil.

Method:

Squish your plants in, and fill in any gaps with compost, water and enjoy.

I used to put this plant in tea-cups and give it to people as presents (back when teacups were only used for drinking tea). It always caused delight, and probably still would, but the ubiquity of vintage teacups and general tea-cuppery has, for me, elevated the humble terracotta pot to new heights. Terracotta with bright, grassy green is perfection.

 

Two other suggestions for easy lawnage – admittedly more time-consuming, but huge fun to do, especially if you are stuck at home with children.

1. Wheatgrass. This is wonderfully easy to do, and something I will be blogging here over the next few weeks. It creates a beauteous, even lawn-in-a-pot, of brightest emerald shards which you can have at your table to admire, or juice (if you can stand it). Watch this space for instructions.

2. Pea-shoots. Even easier than wheatgrass (and a good deal more delicious), you can grow pea-shoots from ordinary pea seeds, laid close to each-other underneath a cm or so of compost in a container. The resulting shoots (or baby pea plants) are utterly delicious plucked and eaten raw on salads, and the gorgeous curly tendrils and oval leaves make for a really stunning table centre.

 

 

Lily bulbs: Photogenic no?

Burgeoning signs of Spring have me in a fit of the raptures, wanting to plant stuff, do stuff, mess around in the undergrowth. This year I am making up for a grave, inexplicable error that I made in 2013, which was to forget to plant any lilies. An embarrassment of lilies is perhaps the easiest way to make your outside space not only look sumptuous, but smell divine. I’ve been sinking those big bulbs in pots ever since I first started gardening and have never regretted the effort or expense in doing so (and frankly the expense is pretty trifling when you consider how much cut stems are sold for in florists).

Here’s my recipe for a pot of lilies. Follow and repeat, ad infinitum.

You need:

Lily bulbs. My favourites:

Lilium regale – obliging, tall and heaven to smell

Lilium Casa Blanca (pictured below) – as above, but whiter than white, like milk.

Compost – I use a mixture of Peat-free multi-purpose and John Innes No 2.

Sharp sand

Granular fertiliser

Tall pots… because lilies are tall, and they need balance. These are perfect…and not just for lilies:

Method:

Mix up the compost and fertiliser, and sink your bulbs about 10 cm deep, sprinkling a layer of sharp sand beneath each bulb. I put three bulbs to a 30 cm diameter pot. Water until you can see that the compost is thoroughly soaked, place in a sunny spot and wait for the magic to happen. If you plant now, then you should have lilies for June.

Note that lilies hate to be too wet, so don’t water until you can see that the compost on top is dry. Squish any bright red lily beetles on sight. They are bad and nasty.

That’s it – nothing more. I will post pictures as soon as they emerge.

…speaking of which, here’s that second lot of spring bulbs I planted way back in October, styling it out gorgeously on my bedside table, and proving at good things come to those who wait.

How-to for this is here.

Sweet Dreams

Here’s my valentine present to myself…

I didn’t plan it this way, but those bulbs I planted back in October are up and out, and sitting right there in front of my nose as I sleep (which is not very much, but hey ho). They are beauteous, so I make no apology for several gratuitous photos, and I really, really love having a whole swathe of them in a box…

This one is filled with iris reticulata and crocus. The irises have popped, and the crocuses are hot on their heels. I have another box waiting in the wings (outside) filled with tiny narcissi and muscari. I KNOW…I am totally SPOILING myself…

…and this whole state of affairs has made me feel so happy every morning, that I’m going to keep filling them up…

It’s just a wooden box with some bulbs in it, but it’s one of the best presents I’ve ever given myself (and I’ve given myself a LOT of presents)

There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of red roses – it’s the thought that counts, and being together, and loving one-another…and anyway, Hunk totally excels himself when it comes to giving (non-floral) presents….

…but I firmly believe in creating history, which is why I often make him model my favourite flower-things, as if he were offering them to me….because after a while, when my brain finally goes kaput, only the picture will remain in my mind’s eye…see what I mean?

Happy valentine’s day x

It’s a love thing

Funny how things change…

I used to despise valentine’s day, naff cards, scentless roses, awkward dinners.

…or worse, NONE OF THE ABOVE.

Now every year it comes around and I put out a small breath of gratitude that I don’t have to think about it that way any more. I tend to use it as an excuse to let the people I love and admire know just how special they are in embarrassingly demonstrative fashion; you might say that I have single-handedly brought Valentine’s day to a whole new level of naffness. You’d probably be right about that.

It starts with a list of excellent people who enrich my life:

- My daughter’s school-teacher who inspires and delights her

- Two or three local mothers with whom I regularly giggle

- My ace parents…

- etc. etc…

…and then I go and find something cheerful and pretty…something that looks wonderful right now, and that doesn’t cost the earth. Here I’ve got cyclamen, (with appropriate shaped leaves), sexy little primula and some armeria (which I’ve put together in a larger pot, hoping they’ll spread out.)

And I put it into a small terracotta pot with some compost around it…just enough to make it feel comfortable.

And finally I tie some string around it (or even a bit of silken ribbon if I’m feeling flush), with a silly little label which takes the whole thing out of ‘potted plant’ territory and plonks it firmly into ‘pretty present’ land.

…and if you don’t have time for all that, then click over here, and let lovely Crocus do it all for you, with magical muscari in little pots, all ready for you to give away to the person you love most (and – just so you know – it’s perfectly alright if that person is YOU).

 

 

Hellebores on high

photo by Jill Mead

Hellebores are a bit like shoes, I find

- each one you buy is the bees knees, and then suddenly you see one that you absolutely and categorically *have* to have, as if your life depended on it. My small colony of them (mainly helleborus x hybridus) has grown in this way over the years, so that I am left with a look that, whilst not exactly uniform, is nonetheless perfectly jewel-like in its speckled splendour.

I’ve ordered this lovely trio to feed my hellebore habit.

…They are plug-plants, which makes them affordable, and developed in Germany – vorsprung durch technik? – … which (in my head) means that they are probably indestructible. I like having hellebores in all sorts of naughty places, like in window boxes and hanging baskets. They’re not supposed to be happy in these places, but I promise you, they are…so if you lack space, (or a leaf-mouldy, dappled-shady type of place) then don’t despair, and plant away in a container…just make sure they are hybrid hellebores, which are generally smaller than the other types.

Here’s my recipe for container hellebores:

A hellebore that you adore. This is a permanent planting, so think long and hard about it. I’m a bit of a puritan and prefer the singles to the doubles, but it’s YOUR hellebore. The lovely thing about having it hanging is that you’ll be able to look up into the flowers and see their speckled beauty..something you usually have to get on your knees for when they are in the ground. My website favourites (for what it’s worth) are:

Pretty Ellen Pink

Harvington Shades of the Night

White Spotted Lady

…or of course you could also use a plug-plant and wait patiently for it to fill out.

Container. I love these hanging baskets, which are gorgeously, sumptuously deep, (See more of it here)…but honestly, any will do.

Compost: Use a half and half mixture of peat-free multi-purpose and John Innes No 2.

Water retaining granules. These are essential for hanging baskets – you can find them here.

Fertiliser granules. Another hanging basket essential

An empty pot to stand your basket on while you work.

 

Method:

Water your hellebore thoroughly.

Line your hanging basket with a sheet of sphagnum moss, and then fill it, to about 10cm shy of the rim with the pre-mixed compost – liberally beefed up by fertiliser and water retaining granules (follow the instructions on the packet as to quantities). Water the while thing and leave it a couple of hours for the water-retaining granules to expand. This way your compost won’t overflow once you plant. Finally, remove your plant from its pot, gently rubbing the roots to signal the end of their confinement, and plant it firmly in the centre of the basket. Now you are ready to hang the thing up – and make sure that whatever you use is sturdy…a watered hanging basket is heavy.

Keep it watered. That’s the only rule.

I never get tired of looking at hellebores, so I do that cliched thing of floating the blooms in a shallow bowl – the easiest thing in the world to do and somehow something which looks chic and expensive and time-consuming, though it is none of those things.

 

There’s a disturbing and annoying triumvirate of ‘shoulds’ which tend to pile up for me around the end of November, and they go something like this:

1. I should have written (and addressed) all the Christmas Cards.

2. I should have bought (and wrapped) all the Christmas presents

3. I should have planted all my bulbs (both indoor and out)

The truth is, that I have done none of the above. The Christmas cards will get written, addressed and sent in the second week of December sometime, if I am lucky. Some years they get sent out as New Year Cards. Nobody cares.

The Christmas presents will get wrapped on the evening of 24th December. I will forget somebody and end up promising to get them something early in the new year. This will never happen, and they will not care.

The bulbs will go in progressively, when I have five minute bursts of freedom between the beginning of December and late February. They will eventually catch up with everyone else’s, and the garden will not care.

As I get older, I realise slowly that the more ‘shoulds’ I have, the less I actually get done; the ‘should’ leeches the joy out of it all, and the rebel inside me just won’t have it. She sabotages every ‘should’, stamping her foot resolutely, and eating another slice of cake.

You’re not like that though, are you…(are you?) It matters not, either way, because you can pot up amaryllis at pretty much any time in the winter and watch it zoom into green, rocketing glory over the next twenty days or so before your very eyes. I love it, and will get going on mine over the next few days (big, fat, juicy bulbs are waiting for me in an unheated room…they will need nothing other than to be soaked briefly and plonked unceremoniously into pots (see below). For illustrative purposes though, here are some I did a couple of years ago. The photos are by Jill Mead, which is why they are beauteous, unlike my own.

Hippeastrum to lift your winter blues and turn them deep, velvet red.

I love red Hippeastrum (by the way, amaryllis is just another name for it). White is fine, but I really get a kick out of that thick, velvety red that looks like the curtains from a tart’s boudoir….but that’s just me. You can get them sweetly tinged pink at the edges (as above) if that floats your boat, or crazily veined with red. These kits are a lovely present for difficult people…particularly children of a certain age, I find – say between the ages of six and ten. Quite seriously though, you could kill many birds with one stone and give everyone a hippeastrum. A neighbour of mine does this, wrapping them up in clear cellophane with pretty ribbons, and that’s her Christmas, sorted.

You need:

Hippeastrum bulbs – as many as you can afford. One on its own looks lonely and sad.

Pots – I like to put each bulb in its own pot so I can have them in configurations throughout the house. For this use ordinary terracotta, and I’m always guided by the diameter of my bulbs (you don’t need a lot of room around the edge, just a nice lot of space for the roots). Having said that though, a large pot such as the Lucca pot, crammed with hippeastrum would be a real sight to behold, and if I had the space indoors, (like in my next life, when I will be a Duchess), I’d definitely be doing that.

Compost – I use a mixture of two thirds John Innes No. 2 and one-third multi-purpose.

Method:

Fill a big bowl with luke-warm water and soak your bulbs for a couple of hours.

Mix up your compost and plant your bulbs roots-down, only half-submerging them. You want half the bulb to be out and proud at the top of your compost.

Water the whole thing well and leave your pot in a cool bright room, (unheated please) or on your porch if you’re lucky enough to have one. No frost will be tolerated, so don’t risk it.

…keep the pots watered and very soon you’ll get that stunning flower you’ve been waiting for; at which point everyone will think you’re fabulous, despite the fact that you didn’t get anything done on time.

 

October bulb-fest

October is a game-changer for me in the garden. If I actually manage to get out and do some clearing it can make all the difference to how things pan out for the following seasons. I’m not big on tidying ones borders and ‘putting them to bed’, but I am keen on making room for spring bulbs – specifically tulips and alliums, which play a huge part in my feeling smugly good about myself the following March and April. The show can be astonishingly sumptuous, and because the work is done the previous autumn, and all but forgotten come springtime, it makes the whole thing all the more magical.

Being tied to a small baby has meant that my ability to get out and blitz the garden has been limited, but I have managed to do the odd five or ten minutes every day and that all adds up nicely after a while.

I tend to wait until it gets rather cooler before I plant my tulips and alliums all together, but the shops are bursting with bulbs and I am unable to resist fumbling about with a bit of earth to make presents and decorations.

Every container poses an opportunity for me, and my apple-picking activities flagged up these very useful and beautiful wooden boxes. They stack obligingly, but look wonderful singly in the centre of a table, and crammed with flowers.

I am planning to plant these up with little bulbs, along with a couple of sussex trugs, and a few other containers. My method for all of these are the same. Although it’s fine to plant directly into any container you like, I find it easier and more flexible to use a plastic tray or pot, and sink that into my chosen container, hiding everything with sphagnum moss when the time comes to show it off. This way things don’t get weather-beaten while the bulbs are appearing.

To plant up baskets (or anything) with little spring bulbs you will need:

Plenty of little bulbs – I use small narcissi, muscari, species tulips, iris reticulata and crocus.

plastic pots and trays that will fit easily inside your chosen container, or you could be VERY organised and use these special bulb planting baskets.

multi-purpose compost

Method:

Simply fill your containers with the compost and squidge the bulbs in, leaving a bit of space between each one. If you were planting in the garden for the long term, you would make sure that your bulbs were planted at twice their depth, and perhaps sprinkle a little grit at the bottom of  each hole, but this is different, and temporary, so feel free to take terrible liberties with your bulbs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover them up with more compost, water and leave well alone in a corner somewhere, checking periodically to make sure the compost doesn’t dry out. When those lovely green spears appear, it’s time to plonk them into your chosen container, cover over with sphagnum moss and display them or give them away. It’s a good idea to line your container before you do this. I use old plastic bags (see above picture), cutting off the excess around the sides and covering the edges up with moss.

 

 

I have a tiny little field of fritillaries in my garden, which seems every year to be going from strength to strength, with absolutely no input from me. As with most things that turn out well in my life, this little area was brought about in an entirely slapdash way: I had a packet of snakeshead fritillary bulbs, festering in a corner, and planted them, roughly and without too much care and consideration, under the influence of a guilty voice in my head which told me to plant the things or throw them away, but do SOMETHING at least. To my astonishment and joy, they appeared and are thriving, and I’m now greedy and gluttonous…I want more. Another voice in my head is telling me that these ones wont work, because I CARE about them too much…oh the silliness of it.

I have planted a mixture of species tulips, muscari, fritillaries and leucojom aestivum this time, all in my scrubby lawn, and using my new favourite tool:

This made very light work of the whole business. It cut through my tough, stony sward, and made perfect deep holes into which I dropped the bulbs. The plug of earth it removes is then easy to push out of the tool, and squish back in to its hole. It took no time at all.

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