Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Poppy Appeal

roadside poppies along the A350 in Chippenham

A little bit of plant magic has happened here in Chippenham, with the appearance of thousands of roadside poppies alongside the A350 by our estate. Part of this road was converted into a dual carriageway recently, and it's this area where the poppies are to be found. I almost lightly guerrilla gardened this stretch, as there was a lot of bare ground left after the work was completed. Now I'm glad I stayed my hand and let nature take its course instead.

Poppy seeds remain viable for decades and they need bare soil in which to germinate. This is so they're not out competed by the grasses and other plants which make up our usual roadside sward. It's also why the poppy is such a potent symbol of remembrance - the soil churned up by WW1's activities gave rise to the blood red poppies seen in profusion on Flanders fields.

I pondered whether these particular poppies were sown deliberately by the road contractors as part of the site's restoration, but it appears that the Department of Transport's approved mix consists solely of a few grass species plus white clover. There are some wildflower mixes available for the more ecologically minded, but these tend not to contain poppies. This is no surprise to me, as I'm sure any farmers whose fields border the restored land would take a dim view of such a deliberately sown - in their view - weed.

I also wondered whether they might be part of the recent 100-year WW1 commemorations, where there was a huge campaign to sow poppies across the country. I think this is unlikely as the campaign was timed for 2014, and I've not seen evidence of it continuing beyond that year.

Whatever way gave rise to these poppies, I'm glad they're here. I'm sure they're from the natural seed population found in the soil and I'll continue to enjoy them while they last.

Ladybird poppies at Great Dixter

I found some further poppy appeal at Great Dixter earlier this week. Pictures of Dixter's ladybird poppies are burned in my memory from Christopher Lloyd's articles and books, and it was marvellous to see them for real on Monday. I really must get around to having some of these here at VP Gardens.

Striking Papaver glaucum aka the Turkish or tulip poppy

Everyone was struck by this Turkish aka tulip poppy, Papaver glaucum at Great Dixter on Monday. Fergus Garrett told us these flower over several months and do well in various soils as long as it's well drained. I loved the form of this flower, which I likened to a cup and saucer on the day.

This is another poppy destined for my garden... they're great if you love poppies like I do, but don't have the space for several kinds to extend their fleeting season. Fergus said they got theirs from Chiltern Seeds, if you also like the look of them.

You may also like

An interesting article on cornfield poppies, Papaver rhoeas from Emorsgate Seeds.

  • My view of corn poppies whilst on holiday in Norfolk a few years ago
  • Another and different colourful view of the A350 near our house from 2011
  • 2014's post on various planting campaigns, including WW1's commemorative poppies
  • The jewel garden created near here last year. It's been just as spectacular in 2016
  • My previous visit to Great Dixter - there's more to come from this week's visit

My thanks to Nick Mann of Habitat Aid who was most helpful with information on roadside verge wildflower mixes. His mixes are based on the Emorsgate general purpose meadow mix linked to above, but he will also tweak them according to the local conditions and flora of the area where they are to be used. Good stuff.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Review: Riverford Recipe Box with guest chef Sarah Raven

Riverford Recipe Box: The arrival

The arrival of a big box is always exciting, like Christmas come early, and last week was no exception when a trial recipe box arrived courtesy of Riverford. They currently have Sarah Raven as guest chef and this was the first week out of four different recipe boxes on offer, with seasonally adapted recipes from her latest book, Good Good Food.

The box contains everything needed* to create three recipes with accompanying goodies for two people and retails at £36.95. There's a suggested cooking order for each dish; I reversed 2 and 3 as the chicken recipe requires marinading overnight. The dishes were:

  1. Tomato and Poppy Seed Tart served with salad leaves
  2. Sangria Chichen served with red rice and salad leaves
  3. Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry served with red rice

My box arrived on its appointed day last Wednesday at 7.30 am, much to our surprise. It seems deliveries can start as early as 6 am, so luckily ours arrived when we were awake**

As you can see from the above collage, everything is packed well. The meat and dairy items came in a cool bag well insulated with an ice bag, plus an intriguing woolly fleece developed by Woolcool***

* = except for a couple of store cupboard items (see below)
** = I'm checking on what flexibility there is on delivery times. You can also elect for delivery to be made at work, or left in a safe place or with a neighbour, though bear in mind the box contains perishable goods
*** = the cool bag materials are collected by Riverford if you have an account. The Woolcool fleece has all kinds of possibilities for reuse, which I'm contemplating for a separate post.

Pot and bottle selection
A selection of the little pots and bottles supplied, plus the store cupboard oil and salt I needed for this recipe box

The recipes

All the recipes were straightforward to prepare. From what I can tell, there's only been minimal adaptation needed to make them fit the current season and availability. Normal oranges replace late winter's blood oranges for the chicken, and fresh coriander for the curry is substituted with dried coriander leaves plus fresh parsley to serve. 

The recipe's amounts are adapted to serve 2 instead of 4, which in some instances means more ingredients are provided than needed. I was able to use all these leftovers in my day to day cooking.

Note that whilst the vegetables supplied look clean, Riverford recommends washing them where applicable. I microwaved the citrus fruit supplied to yield more juice.

Tomato and poppy seed tart - the results + cooking stages

Tomato and poppy seed tart

This tart's pastry base is lined with a layer of creamy soft sheep's milk cheese topped with basil leaves, then a thickened tomato sauce. For me, the addition of dry-fried poppy seeds to savory pastry was a happy revelation.

This is a great glutbuster recipe as it calls for a kilo of fresh tomatoes, plus 8 sun-dried ones. Note it takes quite a while to reduce these down to the thickened sauce required before they're added to the tart. The amount of tomatoes used in the recipe with the classic accompaniment of fresh basil gives this tart a rich flavour.

It was the first time I'd tried soft sheep's milk cheese which is quite mild. The recipe recommends goat's cheese as an alternative which I think would give a nicely sharper flavour. 

The recipe calls for a 28cm loose bottomed quiche tin which I don't have, though there was no problem using one of my ordinary ones instead. This tart serves 6 comfortably, so we had enough left over for a further 2 meals.

The accompanying salad leaves were an interesting selection of chard, ruby streaks mustard, pak choi, baby leaf lettuce, rocket and tat soi. We've been spoiled with oodles of my own home-grown leaves, so we thought the packet supplied was quite small.

There was enough fresh basil left over for a spaghetti sauce, and as I used a slightly smaller quiche dish, it meant there was sufficient cheese left over for my lunch the next day.

Sangria Chicken - Result + cooking stages

Sangria chicken

I thought this was a special enough recipe for our Sunday meal last night and it proved to be so. It's a delicious combination of chicken pieces with a fennel bulb and half a head of celery marinaded overnight with orange juice, lemon juice, mustard, oil, a little sugar, fresh thyme and white wine vinegar (or sherry). It's then baked in the oven and served with a side salad and red rice.

I would have preferred skinless chicken, which I think would take on the flavours of the marinade a little better. Perhaps I've got too used to using skinless chicken thighs for our suppers. Whilst this was a nice meal, NAH and I agreed it was number three in our order of preference.

Pssst! If you'd like to try before you buy, Amazon's entry for Good Good Food, currently has a clickable picture of the recipe.

There's plenty of celery and fennel left over for this week's salads, plus half a lemon (Pimm's anyone?) and plenty of fresh thyme.

Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry - Result + cooking stages

Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry

NAH makes curry at least once a week, so it's no surprise this was our favourite meal of the three. The amounts given are generous, with enough of the curry sauce left over for another meal for the two of us. I'll cook this again when my brother-in-law and family come to stay as they're vegetarians.

This is a glorious blend of sweet potato, chick peas, wilted spinach, onions, garlic, chilli, dried coriander, lime and dry-fried spices served over red rice. It's the first time I've used coconut milk to make a curry and I thought it worked well... except for when I cut my finger when I washed the lid ready for recycling. Take care, that edge is extremely sharp!

Flat parsley was used as substitute fresh coriander for this meal's garnish as UK-grown coriander is not quite in season. Whilst the parsley worked well, I think coriander would be even better.

There was plenty of parsley, garlic, chilli, and spice mix left over to go towards our usual meals. I've used the sweet potato to make carrot and sweet potato soup for lunch.

Final thoughts


  • Great for trying something different 
  • The recipes are easy to follow and work well
  • A recipe box works out cheaper than sourcing the ingredients individually from Riverford
  • Saves time as there's no need to go shopping and the all ingredients needed are collected together and measured out ready to start cooking
  • Free delivery
  • The box is better value than it appears at first. There was enough food for six generous meals rather than the three advertised, plus quite a few bits and bobs left over to go towards our regular meals


  • Relatively expensive compared to the equivalent supermarket brands of organic food. However, I found less than half of the ingredients were available there, so I would have to substitute with non-organic foods, or home-grown where possible
  • There's quite a lot of waste materials due to the proliferation of pots, bottles, and bags. However, most of these plus the box and cooling materials can be re-used or recycled by yourself or via Riverford (if you have an account with them)

On balance, I'd order something like this as a special treat again, rather than as an everyday option, and I'll definitely be making the tart and the curry again.

Win your own Sarah Raven recipe box

Riverford are running a competition to win a Sarah Raven recipe box, plus a copy of her Good Good Food book, a bottle of prosecco, and a large veg box. The closing date is Wednesday 6th July 2016, and you will receive the final box (week 4) of her guest chef residency in the week commencing 11th July. In the meantime, there are weeks 2 and 3 to consider...

... alternatively there are other recipe boxes available, including 2 meal, vegetarian and quick meal options.

Note: I received a recipe box to review courtesy of Riverford. There are no affiliate links associated with this post.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Comfrey Update

Comfrey 'hedge' on my allotment

It's been a couple of years since I took my first cut of comfrey for my compost heaps, and I'm really pleased how my plants have filled out in their allotted space on the allotment. They make a neat boundary between the compost bins/water butt and the upper growing areas on the plot.

Close up of comfrey flowers

I really like the flowers too, they're rather reminiscent of the frilly pantaloons my mum used to wear. I wonder what else can be tempted in to admire them more closely?

An acrobatic bee on a comfrey flower, with pollen sac clearly on view

Ah yes, the ever acrobatic and hard working bees simply can't get enough of comfrey flowers.

Another bee demonstrates how it uses its hooks to hang onto a comfrey flower

A pause to watch their antics reveals they use the hooks on their legs to cling onto a flower whilst taking their fill of pollen and nectar. There's always something new to learn about bees.

I took these photos before I went on holiday, and seeing it's National Insect Week, now's the perfect time to show them to you.

The bees have taken their fill and the flowers have faded, so it's time post-solstice* to take my first cut to make comfrey feed. I'll be using the dry, pong-free method advocated by James at Yeo Valley Organic Garden and described by Emma Cooper... as soon as I've sourced a suitable lidded container to cram the leaves inside. Note that as my comfrey is the Bocking 14 cultivar, I don't need to heed her warning about seeds, as they're sterile plants.

* pre-solstice, nitrogen-rich feeds such as nettle are made to encourage healthy growth, then post-solstice, a phosphorus/potassium-rich feed - such as comfrey - encourages less sappy growth (needed if plants are to overwinter well), plus flowers and fruiting.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Allotment Folk: Yorkshire Style

Some characters seen on an allotment in Helmsley

The journey from our holiday cottage to the market town of Helmsley proved a favourite one over the past couple of weeks. It took us up Clay Bank (as shown on Sunday's Postcard), then over Bilsdale and Ryedale moors through the most exquisite of upland scenery and a scattering of stone-built villages and farmsteads.

Our main objective for the first of these trips was to visit Helmsley Walled Garden - a blog treat reserved for another day - which I've wanted to visit for quite some time. A stroll around town afterwards proved equally rewarding, especially when I found the Yorkshire version of the Allotment Folk I wrote about recently.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the chap on the left. Evidence of May's Tour de Yorkshire greeted us in most places we visited or travelled through, with all kinds of brightly painted yellow and blue bicycles, oodles of bunting and proud Yorkshire flags providing evidence of the route taken by the race's cyclists.

They may have been long gone, but each village and town's remnant finery served to make us feel cheered and welcome. We found the above scene whilst walking from the castle into town. It was on a long narrow plot, which I suspect is remnant of the burgage plots created when the town was granted its Borough Charter in the late 12th century.

Strictly speaking I'm stretching the term allotment here. Burgage plots are a much earlier beast which consisted of a house with a narrow street frontage plus a long plot of land stretching behind it. These were rented from the local king or lord, and most were cultivated to provide meat and vegetables for the household. Some of the plot's produce may have been included in the tenants' payments, depending on the local rental agreement in force.

Aerial view of Helmsley

If you zoom in on the aerial photo of Helmsley in Google Maps, you can see how these plots have influenced much of the town's central layout by the castle. X marks the spot where I found my Allotment Folk, Yorkshire style.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Postcard from Yorkshire

The How aka mound with trees at Ingleby Greenhow

We've just got back from a wonderful two weeks spent in a cottage tucked just inside the North York Moors National Park. The photo shows you the view at the back of the cottage - a glacial moraine crowned with beech trees; the greenhow from which Ingleby Greenhow takes its name.

You can just see the North York Moors behind the how (from the old Norse haugh which means hill or mound), towards Clay Bank which has the most amazing views across the Cleveland plain.

The view from the how towards our cottage

Here's the view down the hill from the how towards our cottage. The strangely shaped mound you can see in the distance is Roseberry Topping, an icon from NAH's childhood as a walk to the top was a favourite trip of his parents, plus the history and geography of the surrounding area was studied extensively by his mother. Part of the shape is possibly due to the local ironstone and alum works which may have collapsed.

The hill to the right is Easby Moor, home to Captain Cook's Monument, who went to school in Great Ayton - a village overlooked by the monument and one of the larger villages (and a pretty one) close to our base.

Our cottage was smack in the middle of old ironstone and jet mine workings, though you'd never know it as the mines and their noise have long gone. The only sounds we heard were the local butcher's sheep in the field opposite, our cottage owner's horses, owls hooting, and the bubbling cries of lapwings and curlews.

It was a fabulous base for our holiday. There are some garden and other highlights to come...

From the viewpoint at the top of Clay Bank
From the viewpoint at the top of Clay Bank
Our cottage is in the clump of trees in the middle of the fields you can see towards the centre of the photo 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

GBBD: Separated at Birth?

A while ago I blogged about my mystery clematis and then its Case Solved, but I've never actually shown you the blooms at the centre of the mystery together. Both are looking especially lovely here at VP Gardens this year, so I couldn't resist making them the subject of this month's Blooms Day.

The mysterious clematis is the one on the right, sold to me as C. 'Crystal Fountain', which is actually the one on the left. You can easily see why I was puzzled, and also why my bloom with its mistaken identity still has the wow factor with anyone visiting the garden.

Several years after it appeared here, Raymond Evison launched my mysterious bloom as C. 'Diamantina' at Chelsea Flower Show. It's a sport of C. 'Crystal Fountain', so I really do have a case of Separated at Birth in my garden.

What delightful mysteries have you had to solve in your garden?

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

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Plant Profiles: Verbena bonariensis

A comma butterfly sips nectar from a Verbena bonariensis bloom
A comma butterfly sips nectar from a Verbena bonariensis bloom - in my garden last year 

May's always a tense time of the year... it's peak gardening time with lots of spring jobs clamouring for attention, and then there's the key question... have all my precious plants survived the winter? There are always some alarming gaps in my borders which can't be written off and replaced until the end of May.

These gaps are where the tender salvias, dahlias and short-lived perennials live, joined in my daily anxious searches this year by the Verbena bonariensis 'curtain' between my double terrace beds. The good news is a couple of the plants have survived... the bad news is a couple of them haven't.

This was a bit of a surprise as Verbena bonariensis is relatively hardy for my part of the world - rated as H4 according to the RHS - but the cold heavy clay of my garden always causes more winter damage than the hardest of frosts. We had a mild yet wet winter here in Wiltshire, so my plant casualties are a little more than usual this year. I'm sad to see my Salvia 'Amistad' and Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve' have succumbed too.

However, my garden has provided me with an immediate solution, for the verbena at least. It's a notorious self-seeder, and indeed a couple of seedlings have appeared in the shelter of my central patio steps. With some careful relocation, the gaps in my display will be complete.

Cultivation Notes

Flower 'parachutes' from Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis grows tall, reaching around 2 to 2.5 metres in height and up to a metre wide. However, it's quite a see-through plant and so can be used successfully all around the border, not just at the back. My friend L in Tetbury uses it as a see-through screen to great effect combined with low growing cottage-style plants in the narrow border between her patio area and the main planted part of the garden. It's a good plant for prairie-style borders too.

It prefers a sunny spot, in a moist, well-drained soil, and isn't that
Insect homing in on a Verbena bonariensis flower head
Click on the pic for a surprise!
fussy pH-wise. It flowers from August to October and it's a great plant for attracting pollinators to the garden. It produces dense clusters of seeds, which smaller garden birds feast on throughout the winter. I love watching their balancing antics as they perch on the tall stems. For this reason alone I leave the stems over winter and only cut them down in the spring. After all, any unwanted seedlings can easily be edited* out of the garden.

Mildew on a Verbena bonariensis leafIf growing in a colder part of the UK, a winter mulch will help to protect your plants. In view of my winter losses, I'll try that myself this autumn.

I haven't had much in the way of problems pests or disease-wise, though I did have a problem with mildew a couple of years ago. This was due to the dry summer that year, combined with a late planting, which I didn't water sufficiently. Watering, plus the milky drink I refer to in the above link were sufficient to bring my plants through to grace last year's garden.

Verbena bonariensis has the RHS Award of Garden Merit, though non-UK based readers should note that it's regarded as invasive in some parts of the world. For instance, it's considered a weed in Fiji, New Guinea and other Pacific islands, and is on the invasive species watchlist for Washington State in the USA.

* = editing is the term used when a wanted plant needs taking in hand, rather than weeding which is reserved for, er... weeds ;)

Latin without tears

Verbena bonariensis hails from South America, which is reflected in its species name - bonariensis means from Buenos Aires. As well as Argentina, it's found in the warm tropical regions of South America such as Brazil, Chile, and Columbia.

Verbena refers to the Latin name for the sacred boughs of olive, myrtle and other plants carried in processions. 

Sponsorship covers my blogging costs; the words and pictures are my own. There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Allotment Folk

Last weekend saw Chippenham's main event of the year, the Folk Festival and I'm delighted to find a couple of allotment folk appeared at the same time up at the plot. Coincidence? I don't think so, let's consider the evidence...

With that stance and style of hat, our first character has to be a folk dancer of some sort, and with a stick in her hand, I'd wager she's of the Morris persuasion.

At first glance our second character seems to have a more Cavalier attitude, but those dangling bells are a giveaway. It's another Morris dancer for sure. I love the ribbons used - they say, "You are my sunshine". I wonder which folk dance fits that tune?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

GBMD: Another summer's Day

Alliums in my June garden
From: A Something in a Summer's Day 

The rich purple alliums bobbling through my garden confirm it's June, and the start of summer.

Shame the weather here at VP Gardens today doesn't agree - I often think the phrase 'Flaming June' can be taken two ways ;)
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