In some ways this time of the year is quite wonderful. The sky may still be crushingly grey, the soil still covered with snow, and hat and scarf essential armoury against the cold but it is also the time that this gardener emerges from her brief hibernation. February gardening does not require much back-breaking bending or five layers of clothes to keep warm. It is a much more sedate affair that involves a bench, potting compost, seed trays and pots, and little packets full of promise and hope.
At the start of the year the first padded envelope containing carefully selected seed packets fell through the letterbox. And a couple of weeks ago I returned from Paris to a second set of seeds. Crisp new packets of seeds always trigger a frisson of delight and a strong sense of possibility in me, and my latest selection was no different.
Prospective old friends and new acquaintances
As ninety per cent of our patio garden is devoted to food cultivation, most packets contain a future crop. Some conjure up the promise of fresh vegetables whose taste and texture is so intense that their memory is still vivid weeks after savouring them, like the bitter fibrous cavalo nero kale or the much underrated sorrel, which combines the piquancy of wild rocket and consistency of baby spinach. Other packets I read with extra care as they contain experiments or variations on a past success.
Carrots were the real discovery last season. To say that our crop was modest would be an understatement. A dozen and a half of chatenay carrots is not much more than a token but as they were the result of an experiment involving two dozen seeds and an old wine crate, I was delighted. Particularly, as the flavour was an absolute revelation! The crispiness of the natural sugars and the slight celery-like smell of the leaves charmed me so much that I decided then and there to grow more carrots in 2012, both short and full-sized ones.
And after an abundant harvest from our cherry tomato plants in 2011 I resolved to diversify next season’s crop. The midi cordon tomatoes will offer a super alternative for rustic panzanellas, hearty bruschetta and that Flemish speciality Tomaat Garnaal (tomatoes stuffed with tasty grey shrimps and mayonnaise) whilst tumbling tomatoes will be happy in hanging baskets, allowing me to free up more space for main crop potatoes as well as non-edible produce.
Frivolous, responsible flowers
Last summer I realised that something was missing in our garden. It seems quite ungrateful to focus on what we did not have when Mother Nature so kindly turned the seeds, peat-free compost, sprinkling of fish, blood & bone meal and water into a plentiful tasty harvest. But there was no denying it: I missed flowers. Frivolous, fragrant, pretty flowers!
So this year, I have ordered a selection of seeds (and more pots) to squeeze in some (half) hardy annuals. As space is at a premium, I am limiting my choice to those that can hold their own as cut flowers in my attempt to avoid imported non-seasonal blooms, the price of which does not begin to reflect the true cost of the CO2 emissions and overburdened water resources involved in their cultivation.
My first selection came from my regular vegetable seed supplier and includes flowers I remember from my childhood: stocks for their heady fragrance and unassuming drama; cornflowers for their nonchalant beauty, and Sweet William for casual colourful posies. I also ordered godetia, scabiosa and gypsophila seeds from Higgledy Garden*, a flower growing company on a mission. I opted for the first two based on their colour and Mr Higgledy’s joyous description of these forgotten English blooms. And as a classic filler foliage, gypsophila is a handy extra that will turn a handful of buds into a bouquet ‘pour offrir’ as the French would say.
My foray into growing flowers from seeds is taking me into uncharted territory. I am not sure yet whether there are enough sunny spots in our postcard patio garden and postage stamp forecourt; whether the soil is sufficiently free-draining; or how to adapt advice about growing in rows to my general approach of growing in drifts. But based on my experience with vegetables, I know that I can look forward to a year of hope, wonder and discovery; hours of dipping in and out of horticultural books; and impromptu calls to the vivacious J., my septuagenarian green-fingered friend… And of course, the possibility of months of home-grown flowers!
* Higgledy Garden is a small flower growing company whose mission resonates with me. Its owner Benjamin Ranyard wants to promote local seasonal cut flowers as an alternative to the bland, uniform bunches that are ubiquitous in the UK. He not only sells bouquets in season, he also supplies an array of seeds and boundless encouragement to allow individuals to take their own modest action against the floral monoculture we are ‘offered’ by the large retailers and distributors.