Paved with gold.

It’s been cold, damp and foggy all week. The lack of October wind and rain has allowed the leaves to turn to their autumnal colours and fall gently to the ground. My walk from home to my studio takes only a couple of minutes. The pavements are covered leaves of every conceivable shape and colour, its mesmerizing. Thanks to front gardens and tree lined streets there must be 40 to 50 different kinds of trees along this short walk. A concrete arboretum. Here are some leaves I picked up yesterday. How is the autumn colour where you are ?

25 10 2012

Howard Sooley

Beans talk

I am not sure what it is with me and beans but they seem to have an almost mystical appeal, from the green sliced runners of childhood to the dried brown or black beans of nomadic people. Maybe it is because it is a seed eaten as seed. Maybe because they are a staple of food cultures I revere from the Middle East to Mexico. Maybe it is because the Cherokee Trail of Tears the Seed Ambassadors gave us as one of our first crops come with an unbelievable fertility and a heartbreaking tale. Maybe it is just because they are one of my favourite things to eat and grow.

We sowed Aquadulce Claudia on Sunday as an overwintering crop, a hopeful message in a bottle cast into choppy, wintry seas. We will add Crimson Flowered to them in spring. We often eat broad beans straight from the pod; at most, at home, lightly steamed, lightly dressed with good oil.

We grow Trail of Tears, blue Blauhilde, buttery Gold of Bacao, beautiful borlotto in summer, also field beans as green manure in winter, though not this year. I think part of the appeal lies in their ancient appearance, as though they have been found in a pharoah’s tomb. Fresh, in or out of the pod, or dried for protein for poor people without access to much fish and meat, there is an unassuming purity about them.

It is also that for growers they are givers not takers, fixing nitrate rather than exhausting land, returning dozens of pods for one seed: such good value. Do you, too, have crops that have a hold on you? If so, please share.

22 10 2012

Allan Jenkins

(photos Howard Sooley)

Friday night, Sunday morning.

Friday, Rose and I got the bus up to the allotment with the idea of collecting leaves for supper and seeing if the twigs put down last week had given any protection from the veracious pigeons. It was hard to tell if the decimated seedlings had recovered at all. Everything was gloomy, dripping with damp and particularly miserable. Nothing growing except fungus and slugs. We relocated several slugs to the compost heap, hoping they’d be just a happy over there, then gathered salad and chard for a chard tagliatelle.

Sunday morning, I met with Allan at the plot with bundles of string to run between sticks, hoping to create an insurmountable obstacle course for the pigeons. In our heaped corner of the shed we found an old roll of netting and it seemed like a safer insurance policy. It was duly pegged out with cut hazel.  We cleared some space for planting by pulling up a few red treviso chicories. They looked like they weren’t going to grow any larger, more likely succumb to damp and mould, and then planted a couple of rows of broad beans.

22 10 2012

Howard Sooley

Touchstone tomatoes

It sometimes seems to me there are ‘totemic’ crops if you aspire to being a ‘proper gardener’. For me, two of the few are potatoes and tomatoes. The trouble of course is they are also those most prone to disease. There has been blight at Branch Hill for ever, since way before we were there. Every year without fail, they fail.

For our first couple years we would nurture tomatoes from seed, worry about them at work if the weather was cold or wet, like they were newborn lambs. We would replant them to the plot, watch the fruit form, take shape and allow ourselves to hope (there is a longer post to be written one day about hope, inherent to our gardening). We would watch as the fruit firmed and took colour. We would cast an anxious eye over the other plots for signs of brown leaf. And of course the blight would invade and lay them low, like cancer, eating away at their soul.

We took to buying strong super-healthy seedlings (somehow the hurt when they sickened wasn’t quite the same). Then I started having a few plants in pots at home. I needed somehow the delicious pleasure of picking sun-ripened, warm fruit. I have even taken salt and olive oil with me while I check for the perfect tomato.

I will skip over the trauma of digging slushed, diseased spuds, their creeping sickness previously hidden from sight. Potatoes feel somehow (I am not sure quite why) more ‘important’ to grow. It’s maybe because they start in winter, their first leaves one of the first signs of spring. But it also may be linked to my memories of digging them with my foster father, to be eaten within the hour.

I am still picking tomatoes from the three pots on the roof. I can see their struggle for warmth and can feel their life-force slow. But today, towards the end of October, we will eat outdoor toms with our supper. I am sure my foster father would approve.

But do you, too, grow crops which feel totemic to you, and why?

17 10 2012

Allan Jenkins

The Birds

The thing I always seem to forget about autumn is the pigeons. I forget they become ravenous for leaves in autumn. Just when it looks like your winter crop is successfully underway down they drop like oversized conkers from the sky and razor all in sight. They seem particularly keen on the kale, they like chard, at a push they’ll eat sorrel, small seedlings of any description go down well, but at the moment they are steering clear of chicories. It happens every year and we never really know how to deal with them. It’s an aesthetic thing really. We don’t like nets, we don’t like the feeling of enclosure. On Saturday, Nancy and I cut a mini forest of twigs and stuck them into the soil hoping they would hold off the pigeons attentions for a while. I don’t feel that hopeful and suspect we will have to buy some more netting, unless anyone has any better ideas?

15 10 2012

Howard Sooley


Autumn tastes, tones, textures.

I love summer, of course I do. How could you not love the beans sprouting after three or four days, salad leaves doubling in size in a week, cascades of calendula and tagetes bringing colours, bees and other insects to the plot.

But autumn has a melancholic majesty summer cannot quite manage, where the gardening is less easy, the growing is more perilous, the fight for life against the onslaught of pigeons, slugs and snails somehow more precious. It seems right that gardening should sometimes be more serious, that its gift shouldn’t be taken for granted, that the things you don’t do are as important as what you do.

Sunday saw the last of the beans, the putting away of the wigwam, the only structure we have. I love having height on the plot, even if it’s only fennel flower going to sweetly to seed. But the subdued autumn aesthetic of plants hugging closer to the ground also appeals.

I clear the spaces, hoe and rake around, wondering whether the bare patch will be home to onions, shallots, broad beans (seems we’ve succumbed again this year) or a new home for the baby kale which needs protecting from pigeons. Never taken to netting, preferring instead to plant a thicket of sticks, like Viking defences against invasion.

I gather salads and chard and chat away to Mary (we seem to see much more of each other at this time of year) while we use her patent cropper to pick apples off the shared tree. So happy to be there, and here, and with you. Now, any gardening or other stories you’d like to share?

09 10 2012

Allan Jenkins


A stolen hour from a busy day to clear the beans. Saturday afternoon on the plot and not a soul around. The leaden beans had proven too much for the old brittle hazel poles which had toppled or snapped under the immense weight. Above the ground was  a twisted tangle of beans, stems, leaves and poles, which I hacked through into manageable and compostable heaps. Beneath the ground there was staggeringly little roots to support the vast structure above. Perhaps beans aren’t deep rooted or they just didn’t need an extensive root system with the plentiful rain of summer ?

I collected beans for next sowing next year. Ivory white pearls from the inky blue pods of ‘blauhilde’ and iridescent black shinny beetle beans from the ‘indian trail of tears’ ..thinking mother  nature must have been having one of her more aesthetic moments when she designed them.

07 10 2012

Howard Sooley

First post

There’s no mistaking it’s autumn again. One day it’s late summer, you go to bed, wake up and it’s autumn. There’s real chill in the air today. I’d forgotten what it felt like to have cold hands. The leaves are spinning from the trees then sticking to the wet pavement. It’s remarkable how from their totality of green uniformity that now every leaf is now a kaleidoscope of bejeweled individuality.
Plot 29 has felt the breath of autumn too. Growth has slowed right down as the sap thickens. A quiet and suffocating dampness sits close to the soil. The hazel poles have finally twisted and fractured under the swamping weight of the beans (we used last years poles and they have proven to be too brittle..shall use fresh poles next year). Perhaps the beans will come out at the weekend and open up some space for transplanting winter greens from their nursery beds. Hopefully this is the year we manage to move from summer, to autumn, to winter with a good succession of crops. Our winter crops have traditionally gone in too late as we enjoyed the spent beauty of late summer / autumn.
The change in air temperature has encouraged the chicories to change colour, their green fleshy leaves turning purple black almost overnight. We are hoping they will beef up their hearts a bit more before winter arrives.
We gathered salad for supper and made a plan to return on Sunday to tidy up.
What do you grow over winter..?

Howard Sooley