Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 28 February 2014

Salad Days: Famine and Feast

Here we have two identical trays with identical amounts of compost, the same number of pea seeds in each and all lovingly watered with the same amount of liquid over the past few weeks.

I have no idea why there is such a dramatic difference between the two trays - the 'famine and feast' of this month's Salad Days post.

So whilst I lament on the reduced number of tasty pea shoots for my salad, I'm also mulling over the dangers of drawing too many conclusions from home-grown gardening experiments and trials. Repeatability is key, but how many of us do that in our gardening lives when something doesn't 'work' first time?

The replacement tray is coming along nicely.

How's your salad faring this month?

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book Review: Rosehips on a Kitchen Table

My latest book review is aimed squarely at foragers and foodies alike.

Rosehips on a Kitchen Table is as attractive on the inside as it is on the cover and serves up 56 recipes using fresh produce which have either been gleaned from the wild or pulled from the plot.

It's divided into four main sections (after an introductory section called Rich Pickings), covering over 20 different kinds of produce:
  1. Gleaning - wild garlic, nettles, elderflowers or berries, blackberries, rosehips and sloes. 
  2. Grow Your Own - recipes for rhubarb, sorrel, rocket, chillies, Jerusalem artichokes and chard.
  3. Gluts - a section to turn to when your harvest runneth over with broad beans, tomatoes, strawberries, runner beans, courgettes or root vegetables. 
  4. What on Earth do I do with This? - designed for those more mysterious items delivered in veg box schemes and includes celeriac, gooseberries, beetroot, quince, Brussels sprouts and kale. (I would have put Jerusalem (f)artichokes here as well, but that's a minor quibble).
Carolyn and Chris Caldicott owned the World Food Cafe in London and the recipes have a stripped down simplicity and marriage of flavours born from this experience. The photos show off each dish at its best and the more scene setting ones help the reader to make the link between harvest and plate.

I'm particularly intrigued by the marriage of lime and chilli in an ice cream and I'm definitely going to add cardamom the next time I make some rhubarb and ginger jam. Parsnip gnocchi and beetroot barley risotto also appeal. I wish I had some quince left because I want to make the spiced chicken casserole with quince right now.  

Meat or fish eaters should note that most of the recipes are vegetarian - there are 3 dishes for carnivores and just one with fish (chilli and cider mussels).

My only criticism is it's a little on the short side for a recipe book aimed at both foraged and grown ingredients - for me it would have been better if it had just focused on just one of these, particularly foraging as my cookbook shelves are lacking in this area. However, I see other reviewers are happy the book covers both aspects.

Here are the other reviews I've found so far:
Would you like you own copy? Then here's a tempting offer for you...

To order Rosehips on a Kitchen Table at the discounted price of £7.99 including p&p* (RRP: £9.99), telephone 01903 828503 or email and quote the offer code APG97

Alternatively, send a cheque made payable to:
LBS Mail Order Department, Littlehampton Book Services, PO Box 4264, Worthing, West Sussex, BN13 3RB.

Please quote the offer code APG97 and include your name and address details.

* = UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

Book: Rosehips on a Kitchen Table
Author: Carolyn Caldicott
Photographer: Chris Caldicott
Publisher: Frances Lincoln
ISBN: 978-0-7112-3388-1
Publication Date: 6th March 2014
Cover: Hardback, 128 pages
RRP: £9.99

Disclosure: I received a review copy and special offer from the publisher.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

How Advertising Works in Chippenham #35

  1. You want everyone to keep the allotment site tidy
  2. So you have some very helpful notices made so plot holders know what's what
  3. Arrange them prominently so they can't be missed
  4. Wait for a blogger with a camera to spot the notice is now more of a 'do what I say, not what I do'
  5. Et voila!
This notice has been on site for years looking quite normal, but has fallen victim recently to the stormy weather. It's a very minor casualty compared to what some parts of the country are experiencing (and my allotment neighbour whose plot currently resembles a lake), but it felt good to see some storm damage which made me smile for a change.

And some sunshine!

Monday, 17 February 2014

My Favourite Books - the Grand Reveal

Further to last week's post, a great deal of cogitation has gone into today's list. They're not necessarily the best books, but I've derived a great deal of pleasure from them all. If you're interested in finding out more about a particular book, the link is your better bet as I've written more about why these books have a particular resonance for me.

I've divided the list into categories to make this post a bit more readable.

Formative books

These are the books which have helped to shape the way I am and my thinking.

The Cat in the Hat - one of the first books I read and I loved it's sense of fun, use of language and the realisation that being quirky and different is a good thing to be.

A Town Like Alice - I read this as a teenager initially for the strong love story, but it's a multi-layered book and I especially love its premise that an individual has the power to shape a place into something much better. I've realised lately that I've never felt 'at home' with anywhere I've lived except when I was at university. Perhaps it's about time to bring some of the strengths of Newcastle down to Chippenham.

The Kraken Wakes - my geography teacher introduced me to the delights of science fiction as a reward for looking after her garden during the hot summer of 1976 whilst she was in China. I particularly like John Wyndham's novels because he writes about everyday situations and people. His writing appealed to my need to escape from my own world at the time, and I like the premise that anyone - no matter how ordinary they are- can experience extraordinary things.

Philip's World Atlas - an unusual choice I know, but as a child I used to spend ages looking at the maps, planning where to go and giggling over the impossible juxtaposition of British place names as seen in the USA and Canada, plus the wonderful place names in Australia (who could help but love a name like Woolloomooloo?).

Viking's Dawn - my dad bought me Henry Treece's Viking trilogy as a reward for passing my 11-plus exam. I love history when it tells the story of how people lived (the later emphasis on dates, royalty and political acts at secondary school left me cold) and Treece's novels are rattling good yarns. These stories also made me realise the Vikings were more civilised than conventional history usually tells us, thus it's important to consider all sides to a particular tale.

Books evocative of a time and place

These are books which generate strong memories of where I was and what I was doing at the time.

Out of the Silent Planet - I was an average English student in my first 3 years at secondary school. Then Mrs Schiff was our teacher for the fourth year onwards and my abilities changed simply because she chose texts which I enjoyed enormously. C. S. Lewis's Narnia books will be more familiar to you, but I like his Cosmic Trilogy - this is the first of them - even more. I'll always regret the look of disappointment on her face when she asked me to study English A Level and I turned her down.

Henry the IVth Part One. Another Mrs Schiff special. I think she understood my need to be shouty at the time and so awarded me the role of Shakespeare's hot headed Hotspur.

Coming Up For Air - I read all of George Orwell's novels whilst waiting for my medical and dental student friends to finish their first year exams. I've chosen this over his more famous novels because it was the first time I found an unlikeable character and a dreary situation a compelling read. It's a novel with humour and written just before the outbreak of WWII - it's extraordinarily prescient about the changes about to happen.

To Kill a Mocking Bird - enormously popular with many people, but we studied it for O Level. This is usually guaranteed to kill any liking of a book, but if anything it made me love it even more. It's my favourite book of all time.

Someone Like You - Roald Dahl is famous for his children's stories, but his shorter ones for adults are much darker and have a twist in the tale. As a student I used to go down the pub for the 'last hour' with my friends and then we'd go back to hall and read these stories to each other into the wee small hours.

Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain's personal account of the futility of war, a lost generation and a changing world. I'm reading an anthology of WWI war poems at the moment, which in turn has led me back (after 30+ years) to this autobiographical tale told from a woman's perspective.

Year of Wonders - nearly 20 years of commuting to Bristol meant I read lots of books on the train. This is a delightful discovery I made by reading a few pages over the shoulder of someone sitting next to me (as you do). It's a story inspired by the plague village of Eyam and is much better than that sounds.

Books with a personal resonance

These are books with a strong sense of place or are a memoir with which I also have strong associations.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum - Kate Atkinson's delightful debut novel set in York. NAH went to school there, so we often visit.

Cider with Rosie - beautifully written and a childhood memoir of the area of the Cotswolds my great grandmother came from, which is set at around the time she grew up there.

Poems on the Underground - when I worked in IT in the 80s and 90s, I often had to visit the company's London office. I hated going to London, so the discovery of new poems and authors on the posters across the underground network helped keep me sane.

The Hobbit - Sarehole Mill in Birmingham was Tolkien's inspiration for the Shire, and was a place I often visited with my friends who lived nearby.

The Rotters' Club - set at the time I was growing up in the 70s with characters who lived in the same area of Birmingham as I did. Key events like the Birmingham pub bombings and the industrial strife at British Leyland formed the background to my childhood as well as the book's. The main characters also attended schools in the same foundation as mine, so the portrayal of school life is very familiar.

Books with a personal involvement

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - the first spontaneous telephone call my niece ever made to us was to discuss the plot of this book and how much she loved Harry Potter. A very special moment.

Lakes, Rivers, Streams & Ponds of Britain & North-West Europe - this is the most thumbed book on my shelves. It has helped me teach the importance of invertebrates as indicators of water quality to dozens of OU students, volunteer water monitors here in Wiltshire, teachers across the UK, plus Spanish and African scientists. It also reminds me of one of the best years of my life - studying for my masters in freshwater biology at Cardiff university.

Around Darlington in Old Photographs - NAH's mother was a local historian with 13 books to her name, which are neatly lined up on our bookshelves. This particular volume includes NAH and me in the dedication :)

Phew, that's it! You may like to see what everyone else has come up with. There's a diversity of great books for you to choose from, if you're looking for something new to read...
Do join in with your own list if you want to, let me know where it is in the Comments below and I'll add yours to the links above.

Those of you wishing for something more gardeny, might like to look at Emma Cooper's Plant Nutter's Book Club. The discussion of the first book is happening now and the reading of the second nominated book (details also in that link) starts on March 1st.

The image is a modified version of this image available in WikiMedia Commons.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

GBBD: Spring Blooms

The constant gales and driving rain have thwarted my plans for this month's Garden Bloggers Blooms Day. My idea was to show you this forthcoming new stamp issue and match the stamps with the blooms in my garden.

Today's weather means I'm stuck indoors instead. The trees are howling and I daren't go under them even for a quick snap of the snowdrops. A quick gallop around the garden earlier in the week confirmed I have 3 out of the 6 featured flowers in bloom at the moment - primrose, snowdrops and lesser celandine, with the daffodils and blackthorn well on their way too. I must add some dog violets so I can claim all 6 next year.

As you can see the hyacinth experiment* I started in January has indeed resulted in stumpy flowers. Whether this is down to the alcohol used or other factors is hard to say. This experiment merits further investigation, though whether I can stand a kitchen constantly smelling of stale booze is another thing - perhaps my choice of cheap cooking sherry was a bad idea ;)

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

* = I was wondering whether the reported method of restricting the growth of paperwhite daffodils by growing them in alcohol would also work for hyacinths, which I've found also flop over when grown indoors.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Seasonal Recipe: Roasted Squash Soup

Remember my Bucket o' Squash? We've been munching our way through them steadily these past few months. Our favourite version du jour is a warming soup to keep the rain at bay. These small squashes have good keeping qualities so they still count as seasonal fare.

I've found roasting them first makes it easier to prise away the flesh from their skin and scoop out the seeds. I pop a couple in the oven on a Sunday alongside the roast, so I'm not using up too much energy in their initial preparation.

I'm also using the tops of my leeks instead of onion - their mildness complements the squash beautifully and it means I can use the greener tops of the leek, rather than adding them to the compost bin. A good dose of home-saved coriander seed adds some warmth and adds a subtle citrus tang too. It's one of my favourite winter flavourings.

The following recipe serves 4 comfortably.


2 small squash or equivalent cut from a larger cousin, about 500g (1lb) uncooked weight
1 litre stock (chicken or vegetable)
Tops of 3 large leeks (about 4-6 inches of viable leek each)
1 large carrot
1 large bay leaf
2 heaped tsp coriander seed, freshly ground
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

  1. Roast the squash whole for 20-25 minutes in a medium hot oven until softened. Allow to cool - which is why Sunday roasting and Monday soup making works perfectly here at VP Gardens
  2. Add the vegetable or chicken stock to a large pan and bring slowly to the boil
  3. Meanwhile, take off the tough dark green parts of the leek tops and compost them. You'll be surprised how much viable leek there is to be found hidden inside the greenest of tops. Wash out any soil underneath the layers of the leek you'll be using
  4. Slice the leek and carrots and add to the pan
  5. Skin the squash, scoop out the seeds and compost them. You may also need to scrape the skins first to obtain all the flesh suitable for soup making. Add the squash to the pan - any non-scraped flesh should be cut into largish chunks
  6. Add the bay leaf and coriander seed
  7. Add salt and black pepper to taste
  8. Once all the ingredients are assembled and the soup is boiling, turn down the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes
  9. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed
  10. Turn off the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, then liquidise the soup with a hand blender*
  11. Reheat the soup, then serve with lots of just-baked homemade bread
* = I keep the bay leaf as it adds some further warmth to the flavour, but you may prefer to remove first

Monday, 10 February 2014

My Favourite Books

It all started with a Saturday evening tweet from Lazy Trollop...

The link pointed to list on Amazon called 100 Books to read in a lifetime - the kind of list to ponder, argue over and agree it's a very strange list. Various people joined in the conversation - Arabella Sock, Patient Gardener and Lucy Corrander to name but 3.

We're yet to top Lazy Trollop's revised count of 33 out of the 100 and Catch-22 was considered unreadable by most of us - I'm the only one to own up to having managed to finish it. Sharp-eyed Lucy spotted the vital evidence that the list was indeed American in origin - the substitution of Sorcerer instead of Philosopher in the listed Harry Potter book was the giveaway.

A fab Chinese meal out with friends* and a day later I returned to Twitter to find the list still under considerable discussion. I suggested we come up with our own list, which was taken up enthusiastically by everyone around at the time, with Arabella suggesting we limit ourselves to just 20 each and see how much we overlap.

And there you have it, My favourite books, a new meme to ponder and come up with your own ideas. There's no limit on genre, you just need to say how or why you've come up with your selection. Arabella is deciding which books coincide with key moments in her life and I'm going down similar lines as some of the books I started to consider evoke such clear memories of what I was up to at the time of reading. You don't have to do that - fiction or non-fiction; prose, plays or poetry; trashy or classics- or a delicious mixture are welcome.

I'll be posting my response in a week's time - my list is down to 30 and it's proving tricky to squeeze them into the final 20 so I need the time to do that. Like Piano Learner, you're welcome to join us. Write a blog post any time this week with your selection and leave a comment here with your post's URL next Monday (February 17th). I'll make sure the links to your posts are added to mine, so we can come and see what you've come up with.

If nothing else, this should give us lots of recommendations for new reading matter to help while away the last remains of winter :)

* = Hon Fusion in Bath, seeing you're asking - well worth a detour into Widcombe :)

The image is a modified version of this image available in WikiMedia Commons.

Update: The BBC has produced a similar list with a built-in tally for you to assess your score. This list is closer to the choices we've made, but gives plenty of scope for future reading choices too :)

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Be Mine - A Snowdrop Valentine

One of my best birthday presents ever was when NAH gave me 1,000 'in the green' snowdrops just after we'd moved here. They form the basis of my annual count, which I've oft blogged about. It's all about making sure they're the present which keeps on giving :)

I hope NAH's reading this because now there's the chance to fulfil mine and many a gardener's dream, by merely buying one further bulb.

Tom Mitchell - he of Evolution Plants fame - has a rather fine snowdrop for auction on eBay. It's very special because it has yet to be named. That's what the auction winner gets to do - the right to name it,* as well as owning a single bulb ready to bulk up in their garden.

It also forms the perfect flower for Valentine's Day, because there's a clear inverted heart marking on the flower's inner segment. Who could fail to be charmed by such a token? Not me.

I've always thought of snowdrops as a symbol of hope as they bloom when winter is often at its harshest. I also think it's an apt sentiment for a Valentine's token.**

The auction closes on February 13th - so hurry up and get going NAH!

* = I have a vacancy for this opportunity seeing my mystery clematis has since become C. 'Diamantina' instead of C. 'VP'.

** = who needs red roses anyway?

NB the picture is courtesy and copyright of Evolution Plants.

Update 15th February: The snowdrop sold for £1,502, so Tom now has the world's most expensive snowdrop. I'm expecting extra security precautions to be in place when I visit him on Monday.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

I Love February For...

... the return to the light

I really struggle with February. It's tucked in right at the end of winter and it's usually remorselessly dull and grey without the brightness of Christmas to cheer it up.

When I commuted to work in Bristol, it was the fourth month in a row when I started out in the dark and returned home in the dark.

And then, right at the end of the month, I'd look out of the train carriage window and realise I could still see things when we were coming into Chippenham.

You have no idea how glad I felt at that moment.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

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