Gardening in autumn

I love gardening in Autumn. For me its the absolutely best time. Weeds are slow growing, grass can be cut back and stays cut back, ground is there to be prepared and you’re not having to deal with seedlings being munched by pests of various sorts.

I like having fires too, and on my allotment they are only allowed in late autumn through to the early spring. I have a problem with couch grass and bind weed on my allotment, and short of massive barrels of rainwater to sak them in until they turn into slime, I like to be able to burn them.

I particularly like that moment when, because I use a fire steel and striker, the spark finally catches and turns to a flame as you blow on to the ember, its visceral and in a small way, very exciting. Its an experience that human kind has shared for millenia now, and there are too few of those moments.

Autumn is also a time for planting and rearranging, as well as pruning and cultivating. Garlic and other over wintered things should be going in, and I’m also in the process of moving my strawberry plants to a new home, I swear that this time they wont be so over grown, not that they seem to be bothered by that – they are still fruiting!

By the way, if you’re thinking about growing garlic, make sure you do, its brilliant to grow, I reccomend Solent Wight as a great variety. I’m also trying out the idea of perennial garlic, having left some underperforming plants in the ground this summer rather than pulling them – I want to see if they will grow into self seeded clusters – I’ll keep you posted -if I remember.

This autumn has been one of the busiest I remember, we were away last week, and I started this week with a to-do list as long as my arm, but I still deliberately take time to get out in the garden, its pure therapy. Manual labour is a vital part of my personal rhythm, and if your life doesnt incporporate it in some way, I suggest you consider it. There’s a lot to be gained from hands on involvement in the earth, interaction with the elements, participation in creation.

There’s no better time than now.

Spring is coming

I was outside this afternoon and I could feel the changing season, in the air, in the soil. I’m not the only one who can feel it, the rhubarb is waking from its winter slumber, some greedy blighters are forcing it already! I’ve seen loads of crocus and other bulbs showing their faces too.

For those of us who try to grow things, that doesnt leave us much time to plant things like Shallots or Garlic, which need cold weather to function properly – the further north you are the more time you should have, but March and April will be here before you know it. They should all have been in the ground by now, but hey ho – time gets away from you.

As a kind of ritualistic acceptance of the changing season, I am going to embark on a good clean of my trusty Teva sandals – I’ve had them for years, I wear them for about 7 – 8 months a year, nearly everyday (for the rest of the year, I wear army boots – which are much older but are in perfect condition). My feet have good circulation. My sandals smell. If I cant get the suckers good and clean before spring, then it may be the year of new sandals.

I was lucky enough to see a flock of wintering waxwings the other day – beautiful birds, the sight of them reassured me that it is still winter, and there is still time to get that planting finished – just not much.

Back outside at last

It’s been a long time coming, but this afternoon, at long last I was back out on our allotment again.  Except to drop off compost I have not spent any time on the allotment since the Autumn, and it shows, I mean it really shows.

Most of the plots which are under cultivation have been freshly dug, or are at least looking tidy, mine on the other hand looks like a disaster, broken glass on my cold frame and in my greenhouse, overgrown beds, long grass everywhere, and plenty of unpromising looking mud.

But its all grist to the mill, today I put two of the beds back to rights (more or less) ready to be raked and cultivated a bit more, before they can be planted. Lots of work to do all over the plot, but I’m glad to say that in the couple of places where I placed sheets of damp proofing plast last year, in an attempt to sheet mulch them, the ground beneath the plastic is now nice and clear, and ready for cultivation.

Everywhere needs a good tidy and sort out, which it will only really get in part, I dont really want it to be too tidy if I’m honest. I like there to be room for creatures to hide and flourish, and I love the variety of bees, beetles, butterflies and bugs that pootle around there in the summer months.

And most of all I like to sit down after some work, and enjoy a hot drink. I had to relearn the art of making fire when wood is damp and newspaper in short supply, but it didnt take long.

If you dont have a garden or access to an allotment, then try and find some other outdoor space that you can spend time in, and if possible, grow things in, it is pure therapy, it helps to reharmonise you with nature, and nothing is quite as relaxing as knowing you have accomplished a job.

That’s right folks, its the first Kelly Kettle picture of the year from me, fear not, there are bound to be more. If you’re wondering, the plastic tub is what I like to think of as my tinder box, containing cotton wool, and home made char cloth. Marvellous.


Review: The Alternative Kitchen Garden, an A – Z

The Alternative Kitchen Garden, an A – Z by Emma Cooper.

I have a lot of gardening books, and I have looked at lot of other gardening books – but I have never seen one quite like this.

Most gardening books are basically either manuals, scientific text books, or encyclopaedias, but despite a title which might lead one to think that Emma Cooper’s book falls into the latter category – in fact it needs a separate category altogether.

This charming and easy to read book is in reality a manifesto – or perhaps its a kind of love-letter. Emma has used the conceit of an A-Z as a handy way of organising some of her thoughts, taking us through a series of plants and horticultural terminology according to their rank in the alphabet.  Now if you are looking for a book which works as a kind of exhaustive garden dictionary, then this is the wrong book – it isnt intended for that purpose. Rather it pulls together an almost random group of plants or ideas under a letter heading; P for instance is for Parsley; Peas; Peat; Peppers; Permaculture; PH; Phosphorus and Potatoes, while N is for Nasturtiums; Native; Nectarine;  Nettles and Nitrogen.  It then provides a short essay on each subject, and each one is delivered in Emma’s trademark accessible and knowledgeable style. She is a very ‘friendly’ writer, her work is easy to engage with and despite her wealth of knowledge you dont ever feel as if she is talking down to you.

I really like the book, as I say, it’s easy to read and it’s interesting, but that isnt really waht sets it apare. Most importantly Emma manages to exude a love for the subject – and this is what I mean by calling it a manifesto. Really this is a book which tells us to love our gardens, our window boxes or allotments – whatever we have to grow things in.It is a book which has mud under its fingernails.

Emma is a kind of garden evangelist, spreading the good news of growing things.

I think you can spot that I really like this book – but that’s not to say I dont have any criticisms, I was not sure about at least one piece of her advice, that Comfrey can be taken internally. Everything I have ever read before warns against it, and I’m not inclined to take her advice on that (sorry!)

The other negative aspect I think is the design, I think the wrong fonts have been used, which is a shame because it detracts slightly from the appeal of the book – however this is a very subjective thing, and I am a bit nerdy about fonts and suchlike. In any case, that side of things is down to the publisher not the author, I just dont think they’ve called it quite right.

The pictures throughout the book are great, and I love the fact that this is not a coffee table book, rather its the kind of book which can go with you out into the garden or wherever you go to think about growing things.

So in sum then – buy this book if you love gardens. Buy this book for people who need to love gardens. Dont buy this book if you want a full A-Z of plants and whatnot, there are plenty of other books out there for that purpose, this is a much more interesting and unusual text. This is a delightful and inspirational manifesto of gardening lore, with lots of good ideas and helpful information, and I’m looking forward to more from Emma.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden, an A-Z by Emma Cooper is published by Permanent Publications. RRP £14.95 ISBN: 9781856230469

Emma Cooper’s blog and podcast are available here.

it’s getting difficult to breath in here

I have the enormous privelige of having a small room to work in – it’s also the guest room, and general repository for things which dont have a more suitable home – Kel’s huge gym ball for instance. It’s a little chaotic at times, but in the main its a great place to work,and I like it very much.

However, its currently getting a bit tricky to breath in here – not only have I got four demi-john’s of country wine plurping away and pumping out massive amounts of carbon dioxide, but I have just bought half a dozen new bulbs of garlic for autumn planting – and they smell really strong.

I suppose that’s just a good reason for me to get on and do some garlic planting really.

In terms of wine by the way, we’ve got two lots of bramble wine, and two of elderberry wine on the go, I’m thinking of going for some rosehip wine too, although I have been put off by the rather disappointing results of rosehip tea…

Oh and while I think to mention it – look out for a review of Emma Cooper’s marvellous ‘The Alternative Kitchen Garden – an A- Z’ coming soon, you can rest assured it’s positive, get an order in for Christmas presents.

Back – with news of perennial garlic and surfing sheep

Yes I’m back, from another trip away with the family (working this time – not jolly holidays) and feeling slightly despondant about the state of the allotment. It really is scruffy this summer – yes it is fruiting, I harvested a ton of tomatoes on Monday, with another truck load still to ripen, but it looks very overgrown.

I would put this down to it being ‘wildlife friendly’ but in fact its just down to me not having spent a day there since late spring. sigh.

As I have already mentioned, we have a massive garlic crop this year, and I’m certain that’s a trick which can be repeated over and over again, but I have also become intrigued by the idea of ‘perennial garlic’ – which I read about here, after seeing a mention here.

I love the idea of a garlic patch which is effectively no dig – although I would struggle to get the required mulch, and I would also struggle to get the required birds to till the required mulch – however, it’s very interesting none the less.I may try it on a small scale this year, although I suspect it will take some time to really get going.

And while we’re on the subject of things which interest me, I see the nice people at the British sustainable surfwear brand Finisterre are busy breeding a kind of sheep which will grow suitable wool here in the UK, to make their super snazzy Merino garments with. Merino wool is usually garnered from down under – the globe that is, not the sheep. And Finisterre have been very strong on the ethics of their Merino gathering, I wont bore you with the details.

Anyhow, they are breeding rare breed Bowmont sheep, especially for their fleece – very good idea! I tried unsuccessfully to do something vaguely (but not terribly) similar on a much smaller scale in Wales once, I wasnt breeding the sheep you understand, as this would have been tricky in a Welsh terraced house – rather I had plans to buy certain type of rare breed wool and turn it into garments – sadly I never managed to find a company which would spin it to a thin enough yarn for what I wanted, and the whole project snuffed it. May have another go 0ne of these days.

Finisterre however are much better at these things than I am though – and they are proper grown ups too – which I wasnt, and still arent. Although they do make very childish adverts…

The fruits of my labours

It’s a lovely time in the garden at the moment (when I can get into it) – much fruiting is taking place, from redcurrants and strawberries to broad beans, garlic, onions, herbs and so on.

I was a bit at a loss to know what to do with the redcurrants, it seemed a shame to have grown a load then not have anything to do with them… so I combined them with some rhubarb and put them into muffins – the kids love ’em.  All good fibre…

I finally got fed up with spring greens hogging the sunlight, so I’ve cut the rest of them and given them away. Dont really know why I grow them… and despite the slugs’ best efforts (they wiped out dozens of seedlings in one week), some of my lettuces have survived and we are well stocked for the summer I think. Reminds me of the days of slug wars.

The strawberries are fighting it out with the borage plants, they are supposed to be best friends, although to be honest they seem like rivals to me. Borage eh… lovely plant but a really good self propagator, you should only ever need one packet of seed for those monsters. Perhaps I shouldnt have left it to self seed last year?

I’ve got about 50 bulbs of garlic drying in the greenhouse, with plenty more coming in a ‘second wave. ‘ I’ve given a load of garlic scapes out, now I have to work out with the dozen or so I have still got. Garlic flavoured salad anyone?

Broadbeans that went in last autumn are now well developed and having made it through the winter (just about) their fat little beans are now in the freezer. I put Kel to work weeding the herb bed the other day, she is a champion weeder… this particular bed has lavender, rosemary, winter savory, two types of mint and a couple of other things in it – next week I’m putting her to work on the perennials bed, which is currently looking a bit ropey given that it is somewhat swamped with weeds.

The greenhouse seems to have been taken over by the worlds most enormous tomato plants, apart from two rather sad looking specimens in one corner, who just dont seem to have joined in with the other on the whole ‘grow grow grow’ thing.

So all in all, things are coming along nicely, I have hopes for the potatoes, although the second earlies are looking a lot less emerald coloured than the first earlies… not sure if its because of the variety or if they are lacking something? Anyhow, I’m not too worried, que sera sera.

Oh and by the way, not sure why, but beans have been a complete failure so far this year (broad beans aside). There’s still time I suppose, even if the equinox has passed us by, I will still be planting thanks very much. Just need a bit more rain…

Elderflower ‘sham-pagne’

Not being a drinker, I dont have to consume my own home brew – but Kel hasnt put up any objections so far – the bramble wine and elderberry wine have gone down well, and this year I am thinking about expanding my repertoire to include nettle wine too…

But by far the easiest bit of ‘brewing’ I’ve done so far is the elderflower stuff I’ve just been bottling. The whole process of making this drink has probably taken an hour, including the picking and bottling – it really is that easy.

No faffing around with demi-johns and air locks, no leaving it to ferment for month after month, you literally pick the flowers one day, and bottle the stuff the next. How it will taste of course, is anyone’s guess. However, there’s loads of elderflowers around, and if you were to take a couple of flower heads of half a dozen bushes, you will be making very little impact on the amount of berries it will go on to produce.

The recipe I followed is a very basic one:

12 heads of elderflower, picked on a sunny day and full of scent.

1 1/2 lb of Unrefined white sugar.

The juice and zest of 1 lemon.

2 tbs white wine vinegar.

1 gallon of water.

Mix all the above in a bowl or pan, and leave it for 24 hours. I couldnt resist giving it a prod everynow and then with a spoon, to make sure it was all ‘getting involved’.

Then strain it, and bottle it (in screw top bottles preferably – corked bottles may not stand the pressure.

There’s no need for any extra yeast as there’s plenty of wild stuff on the flowers. I would suggest though that you try and pick your flowers from somewhere that hasnt been too popular with cars, I am not too keen on exhaust fumes where I can avoid them.

The drink should be consumed, after a fortnight, but within three weeks – so it’s probably best for a party, or for giving away as a gallon of water equates to about half a dozen wine bottles, or four and half  plastic litre bottles, which is what I used.

Just be aware though that although there can surely be hardly any alcohol in this drink, like all home brew, the strength will be hard to guage. So make sure you drink it in moderation, and that you arent driving after you have supped.


I should have pointed out to the unwary that you should also make sure your bottles are sterilised, if they are glass you can do this with boiling water or in the oven, for plastic bottles and caps you can just use Milton fluid for easiness sake.

Normal service is about to recommence

Good news today, my wrist is all healed up – what a relief! I no longer have a cast on, only a rather medical looking ‘splint’ to be worn when needed.

Now I can type again, and as of tomorrow will be getting back to work (and blogging) proper. Unfortunately I now have a very long to-do list, but I’m sure I’ll get through it eventually.

At the moment I’m also awaiting the arrival of my new (second hand) bike, which is to replace my old mountain bike which doesnt seem to have healed itself over the last few weeks. The good thing is that the insurance has paid for the bike to be replaced, and because I’ve bought second hand (thanks ebay!) I’ve ended up with a better bike than I started off with. Just hope I can remember how to ride it 😉

And right now, as I type – rather gingerly it must be said – I’m taking the opportunity to listen to the Charlie Gillett tribute show that was broadcast over on Radio 3 recently. It’s a really great show, and a fulsome tribute to a wonderful broadcaster. Check it out if you have any interest in music that isn’t mainstream.

As I listen I am also looking forward to WOMAD in the summer, from where I hope to be doing some live blogging. The lineup is looking really good already, more on that some other time.

Steve and I have also been working on plans for a big exhibition of comic art work in the autumn, we’re really excited about it – more details as they emerge…

Last but not least to mention, the garden, its a wonderful time of year on the allotment, lots of greenery everywhere. I popped down to do some watering earlier and came home with cabbage, spinach, asparagus and radishes. Fortunately it seems that not all of my potatoes were too badly affected by the frost last week, so the future is looking bright for them after all – what a relief  🙂

So as of tomorrow morning its back to my portfolio of work after a four week hiatus – rather looking forward to it actually.

How to get rid of compost gnats

It's a gnat trap cutey, and you've been caught!

Have you got little black flies in your plant pots? When you water your house plants, do little flying creatures escape from the compost?

If you are suffering with this problem, and it can be really REALLY annoying, particularly when the horrid little blighters colonise a mint plant or some other windowsill herb, then there is a simple, organic, natural remedy.

You dont need to spend lots on getting a nasty sticky flypaper or some other fly trap, instead just get a small plastic lid, such as the top of a milk bottle.

Half fill the lid with Almond oil – aka ‘Sweet Almond Oil’ and place said lid in among the plants of next to an infested plant. Leave it and be amazed by how many flies find it irresistable and meet a sticky end.

In the garden, wormwood is supposed to be an excellent deterrant for unwanted insects, I have a small tray of wormwood seedlings growing on one of my windowsills, and interestingly I havent noticed any flies near them – yet.

Venus fly traps are good too of course, although a bit temperamental in my experience, and quite keen to die.