How To Grow Snowdrops

Nature can be a cruel mistress. 99% of the time, when you see a magnificent flower growing in the sunshine – a blowsy great tulip, say, or flawless flushed peony – the ideal time to plant them has already passed. Months prior, in the cool of autumn.

Not so the snowdrop, gawd bless its pure white unsullied heart.

As most hardened gardeners will tell you, growing snowdrops from bulbs is hit and miss at best, downright rage-inducing the rest of the time. The true way to guarantee swathes of delicate snowdrops at home in your own garden is to grow them “in the green.” A poetically horticultural way of saying “plants, instead of bulbs,” waiting until the flowers are just going over before planting them.

And that means… you haven’t missed your chance to plant snowdrops this year. Buy them from your local nursery or order them online right now, and you’ll be ready to plant them out just as soon as these frosts are over.

Hooray for Tim, who found 3 wraps of snowdrops in the market last weekend and brought them back for me with the Saturday papers. Arriving in damp newspaper with pretty-much-bare roots I quickly potted them up in some moist rich soil from under a tree in our garden. I now get to enjoy my snowdrops twice over – sat safely inside on my kitchen table while they flower, then again this time next year when they flower in their new home.

TO PLANT

  • Snowdrops like part shade (they’re forest flowers at heart) so I’ll be planting mine around the trunk of a tree in our front garden.
  • Damp, rich soil is the order of the day. Dig in leaf mulch or compost when planting if your soil could do with a boost.
  • Divide your plants into clumps of 3-4 bulbs before planting.
  • Plant each clump about 6 inches apart so that they have room to spread out and make themselves at home.
  • Existing plants can be lifted and divided again in late March/ early April to encourage an enormous great carpet of these late winter lovelies.

Now do excuse me. I’m off to stare at my snowdrops and look for spring around the corner.

 


Esiah’s Seeds Share

This? This right here is the most exciting little envelope to land on my doormat in a long while – a carefully filled packet of organic seeds from Seeds Share. Founded last year by Esiah Levy, Seeds Share’s mission is very simple: to allow everyone to grow food for free. Whether you’re a member of a community garden or lone gardening wolf all you have to pay for is a stamp. Madness.

Organic, mainly heirloom, irresistibly unusual varieties of vegetables and fruit FOR FREE. If, like me, most of your daily decisions are based around what you eat, this is nothing short of a horticultural miracle.

Here’s Esiah below, standing in his garden, gently cradling a giant squash as though it were a giant warty baby. I think I’m a little bit in love with him.

Highlights from my packet of joy include, from left to right: a Turban Squash so beautiful that I may well wear it as a hat, a Marina Di Chioggia Squash with bright yellow flesh perfect for roasting, and Double Red Sweetcorn (second from the left) – truly, an Instagramer’s dream.

As well as requesting seeds from Seeds Share’s seed bank, seed donations are gratefully received. What a fabulous enterprise. Now do excuse me, I’m off to plan my squash bonnet.


Christmas Gingerbread Biscuits

I have spent much of this morning filling the house with the smell of warm gingerbread and am now floating around in a festive cloud, singing carols to myself and piping icing on everything in sight. In truth, I may have inhaled too much ginger.

Though this recipe has little to do with the garden (if only we had the weather for proper ginger growing), these are Christmassy as hell and can be hung on a tree, so here they are, resplendent in their festive selves.

Makes about 15 – depending on the size and shape of your cookie cutter

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 suitably festive cookie cutter. I use a 10cm gold star
  • 300g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 3 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 120g unsalted butter
  • 100g soft light brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons golden syrup

For decorating:

  • 225g icing sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons boiling water
  • A piping bag with thin nozzle

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 180C (170C in a fan oven).

Tip all of your dry ingredients into a large bowl and put to one side.

Over a low flame gently heat the butter, golden syrup and sugar in a pan, stirring until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture takes on a silky appearance. Pour into the dry ingredients and stir until you have a smooth, stiff and biscuity dough. (I usually abandon the spoon and dive in with my hands towards the end).

Line a baking sheet with baking paper and lightly dust a clean surface with icing sugar. Cut the gingerbread dough in half, then roll out the first batch to a thickness of roughly ½ cm. Carefully cut out a round of biscuits with your cookie cutter, placing them one by one on the lined baking sheet. Push the remaining dough together and lightly roll it again for a second round of cutting (I wouldn’t try a third time or the dough could become a little overworked). Then pop them all in the oven for 8-10 minutes, watching to make sure they don’t catch at the edges.

Leave them to cool on the baking tray for a few minutes (now is the time to make holes in your biscuits if you’re going to hang them on the Christmas tree), then transfer them to a rack to cool completely before icing.

To make the glacé icing, sift icing sugar into a bowl then carefully add the hot water, little by very little, stirring with a wooden spoon. You’re after a thick cream consistency. Spoon it into your piping bag, and then unleash your inner festive Jackson Pollock.


Leek & Smoked Haddock Tarts With a little cheddar and chive

Leeks are at their very best during the coldest months of the year, and though mine won’t be ready until early spring (they’re tucked up in bed overwintering as I type) the shops are full of these mellow UK grown alliums – just in time for festive entertaining.

Sweet butter-softened leek and lightly smoked haddock are a match made in taste bud heaven. Perfect for a quietly impressive starter or light lunch with friends. Sustainable, non-dyed haddock from the fishmonger or counter will make all the difference.

N.B. I’ve added a few nasturtium flowers for decoration as mine are still rollicking all over the garden. This is purely for appearances’ sake.

Serves 4

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 4x 10cm loose-bottom fluted tart tins
  • 320g good quality shop-bought shortcrust pastry
  • 3 leeks, sliced
  • 50g mature cheddar, grated
  • 150g sustainable smoked un-dyed haddock, skinned, cut into 2cm chunks
  • 100g crème fraiche
  • 100ml vegetable stock
  • 30g salted butter
  • A few sprigs of thyme, marjoram or oregano
  • A small handful of chives, chopped finely
  • A glug of white wine/ vodka
  • Plain flour for dusting
  • Cayenne pepper/ smoked paprika for sprinkling
  • Salt and pepper
  • Nasturtium flowers to decorate (if yours are still growing)

Method

Pre-heat your oven to 180C.

Lightly flour a clean surface and roll out the pastry to the thickness of roughly a £1 coin. Cut 4 circles of pastry, using the tins as a template, 2cm wider than their circumference. Carefully line each tin, pressing the pastry into each flute/ dimple, and then pop them into the fridge to chill for 15mins or so.

In a large heavy bottomed frying pan, melt the butter until golden and just beginning to brown. Add the leeks, white wine/ vodka, and turn up the heat for a few minutes. Add the stock and herbs, turn down the flame, then leave to cook down for 15mins or so, until the leeks are tender and the stock nearly all absorbed. Fish out the sprigs of herbs, then set to one side.

Take the pastry-lined tart tins out of the fridge, prick the bases with a fork, line with baking paper, fill with baking beads/ uncooked rice, then pop in the oven for 15mins. Take them out, remove the paper and beans, then cook for a further 10mins until the pastry is lightly golden.

Divide the leek mixture and haddock chunks evenly between the 4 tarts. In a small bowl, mix the crème fraiche, cheddar, chives and seasoning, then pour over the filled tarts until they’re full to the top and perilously close to spilling over. Pop the tarts onto a baking sheet and cook for 20mins until golden and starting to turn a darker brown in places.

To finish, sprinkle with a few more chopped chives, a dusting of cayenne pepper/ smoke paprika, and a nasturtium flower per tart.


Saying Goodbye To A Garden

It was scrappy. It was tiny. It had wonky fences, a dodgy shady end, and you could only get to it by walking through our bedroom. But it was ours, and we loved it.

34a St Stephens Ave, Shepherds Bush, London. A pint-sized basement flat sandwiched between the fabric shops of Goldhawk Road and the Caribbean, Syrian, Afghani, Polish and everything-in-between restaurants of Uxbridge Road. On summer days 90s R&B and 60s reggae would play through the neighbourhood’s open windows. In the winter you could hear church bells.

I wrote my first book here. Hit my gardening and cooking stride. We hosted birthdays, Halloweens, celebration dinners and pop-round-for-Sunday-lunches. Grew vegetables, fruit and flowers. And in our last summer, brought our rampant terrorist of a puppy home to rip up my carefully planted borders and violate the rhubarb.

In short, it was a happy place. A sanctuary from hard jobs and a city that didn’t always feel like home. Not that it looked like that when we bought it.

I took these pictures on the day we moved in, shown here in black and white to really enhance the post-apocalyptic communist state vibe we found it in. A barren shale-strewn garden with only an old Golden Wonder crisp packet to jolly up proceedings. To our eyes, it was Eden itself. Or at least it would be, once we’d spruced it up a bit.

If there’s one thing I learnt during our 4 years at St Stephens, it is just how dramatically you can transform an unpromising space without the slightest bit of prior experience.

What we lacked in budget we made up for in lateral thinking, begging, borrowing, outright stealing and bribing friends to help. Raised beds built from second hand scaffold planks. Knackered fences disguised with rambling rose, jasmine and honeysuckle. Mistakes laughed at and started again.

But this was far from a passive ornamental garden. Diminutive as it was, this was a place of intense use – a modern kitchen garden. The ingredients I managed to grow in such a munchkin space astonished me. Beans, potatoes, yellow courgettes, ringed beetroot, and summer-sweet strawberries. In learning to grow I learnt to cook with the seasons, flavours and recipes following the rhythm of nature. The way I cook, the way I eat – even the fundamental cravings of my appetite – have changed accordingly. Use every bit of the vegetable. Put it at the centre of the meal. This is how I cook now.

St Stephens was never meant to be a permanent home, but I foolishly thought that I wouldn’t miss it when we left. As is so often the case, I was totally and utterly wrong. At a point where life is about to take off in a new direction, the memory of that garden has floored me. The soil and the seasons, things planted and tended and still growing without us – the echoes of our time there reaching out to me now.

We are weeks away from moving into a new home. In Dorset. A house by the sea with an unhinged overgrown jungle of a garden to tame and make our own. It is, in part, why I’m starting this blog. A new life. A new garden. A new career. But as I look at these colourful photos, I find myself looking back. Out through the hideous UPVC back door we always wanted to replace and could never afford, and into our first garden, when Lettuce was still a tiny puppy, and Tim was… Well, Tim. Taunting her with a Fab lolly.

If you happen to be reading this, I have just one more thing to say before I go: if you’re lucky enough to have one, love your scrappy little wonky garden. It is indelibly tied to who you are, your life now, your personal history, and when you look back at it, you will miss it more than you thought possible.


New York Potato Latkes

From my book How To Grow: a guide for gardeners who can’t garden yet.

If you’re making potato latkes for breakfast, you’re going to have a bloody brilliant day. There is no bigger breakfast treat. This is also the messiest recipe I’ve ever had the pleasure to get all over myself and the kitchen of a morning. It relies on activating your potatoes’ starch, and good lord do they get sticky. Brace yourselves. I first discovered the joy of potato latkes sitting at a counter in a proper New York deli. They made them right there in front of me, on the hot plate. It was love. Or ‘lwuv’ if you want to pronounce it in true New York accent.

Serves 4

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1kg potatoes, peeled
  • 1 big onion
  • 25g fine matzoh meal or plain flour
  • 1 large free-range egg, beaten
  • A big sprinkle of sea salt
  • A few big cracks of black pepper
  • Olive or vegetable oil, for frying

To serve (optional):

  • Good-quality smoked salmon
  • Homemade horseradish sauce
  • Fresh chives

or

  • Soured Cream
  • Apple sauce

Method

First of all, it’s grating time. Find yourself a large mixing bowl, a sturdy grater and an almost inhuman reserve of energy. Grate all the potatoes and onion on the largest grater setting and mix together in the bowl (I use my hands).

Turn out the grated potato and onion onto a large clean tea towel. Roll it up and squeeze with all your strength to remove as much moisture as you can. The drier the mixture, the better the latkes will turn out.

Drop everything back into the bowl and add the matzoh meal, egg, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands. If it’s getting stuck all over you, it’s going well.

In a deep frying pan, heat the oil until moderately hot. Place heaped tablespoons of the mixture into the pan a little distance apart, pushing down on each one with the back of a wooden spoon to flatten them out. Turn down the heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes on each side, flipping when the edges turn from golden to dark brown. If they brown too quickly, knock the heat back or take the pan off the heat for a minute.

Remove the latkes from the pan and set on kitchen paper to drain. Continue cooking until you’ve used up all the mixture, then serve while they’re still piping hot.

Serve with a dollop each of soured cream and apple sauce, or – my personal favourite – a helping of really good-quality smoked salmon, homemade horseradish sauce and a sprinkle of fresh chives.


Salt Baked Beetroot

From my book, How To Grow: a guide for gardeners who can’t garden yet.

As my splendid friend, Ben ‘Yes Chef’ Christopherson said when I ran him through this recipe, ‘I love this, it tastes amazing, and there is the element of “why the hell am I doing this, this can’t possibly be right?”, which all the best recipes should have.’ Wise words, Ben. Wise words.

Serves 2 as a side dish, or 4 as a starter with smoked salmon.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 nice round beetroot
  • 1 box of Maldon Sea Salt (or any good quality salt)
  • 2–3 sprigs of thyme

Method

Preheat your oven to 160C/300F/gas 2.

Rummage around for the smallest ovenproof dish that will fit your beetroot as snuggly as possible. Pour a generous layer of salt into the dish, making a large dimple to rest your beetroot on, and pop him in. Add the thyme on top and around your beetroot, then keep pouring salt until your beetroot is entombed in a salt mountain. Then pop him in the oven for 45–60 minutes.

The beetroot is done when a sharp knife slips in easily. A bit like pasta, the perfect texture of beetroot is down to personal taste. I like it a little firm in the middle, so take it out after 50 minutes. It also depends on the size of your beetroot, so pop him back in for a bit longer if he isn’t quite done.

Once cooked, remove the dish from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes. Then dive on in there and rescue your baked beetroot. (I let the salt cool, then keep it in a Kilner jar to use again.) Slice his skin and ends off by running a knife from top to bottom, gently peeling it away. Carefully slice into thin slices, then arrange in an impressive, arty fashion on a plate.

An excellent side dish, or delicious starter served with slithers of smoked salmon, watercress, good olive oil and freshly grated horseradish.


Woman’s Hour Appearance on BBC Radio 4

https://twitter.com/BBCWomansHour/status/852092240801521665

Bloody hell, mum… I’m on Woman’s Hour. Listen to the lovely Hayley Bishop, senior gardener at National Trust Kingston Lacy, and I give gardening advice while trying our best not to die from over-excitement in front of Jane Garvey, live on BBC Radio 4.

You can listen to the podcast here.