January Garden Journal

I’m surrounded by seed and plant catalogues because this is the time of year when I reflect on what worked and what didn’t in the garden and decide what to grow next year.  I have to start by confessing that I don’t learn.  In fact, I am remarkably similar to the pheasant I spotted taking seed from the feeder today.  Every time he pecked it, it swung back and hit him.  But he still staggered forward for another peck, undeterred.  Why don’t I learn for instance that if you plant 20 courgette plants, you will get 20 tons of courgettes?  And I don’t mean those cute little ones either.  The cuties hide under leaves and morph overnight into monster marrows that are no good to anyone except as assault weapons.  How many did I plant this year? Oh yes, dear reader, 20.  And boy did they do well.  Can I report my faves?  Bianca di Trieste (a little pale one), Romanesco (striped and ribbed) and Soleil (yellow).  You can get all of them as seeds from Sarah Raven.  I also like Nero di Milano which is a very deep and shiny dark green.

Let’s plunge into the disasters;  squashes. I decided to try planting them in straw bales.  You condition the bales for two weeks beforehand, with a high nitrogen fertiliser (lawn greener will do it or alternatively just pee on them) and lots of water. Provided you provide gallons of water, the decomposing (and quickly hot) interior of the bales will apparently give you super-sized pumpkins.  Or not.  It wasn’t just that the novelty of aiming at bales wore off for my husband, but the whole episode coincided with some really hot weather.  They withered and died.  Never mind, onwards and upwards.  Squashes I like are Turk’s Turban, beautiful things that look like a cottage loaf, orange on the bottom with a striped top, Red Kuri (the onion squash) which is, duh, red and not too huge.  It’s very nutty in taste.  This year I grew them up a wigwam along with a yellow and orange flowered climber called Spanish Flag (Mina lobata) which looked very fancy. I also grow butternut squashes (a reliable and easy variety called Hunter).  This year I’m going to grow Burgess Vine Buttercups.  These are relatively small pumpkins which are good eaters and store well.  Finally, triumph over adversity, I’m going to plant Muscat de Provence.  This is a fabulous thing which is the classic Cinderella pumpkin although it does apparently roam about all over the place with enthusiastic abandon.  In my dreams.

The other place I get veg seed is The Real Seed Catalogue.  They have a fantastic selection and a great hit for me this year were an old-fashioned pea variety from them called Champion of England.  More than 6’ tall (grow them up a wigwam of twigs), they produce masses of lovely peas.  Another big hit were Greek Gigantes, these are the beans that you eat in tomato sauce when you are on holiday in Greece.  Very easy to grow.  In fact, all my beans did really well this year.  We ate beans for weeks along with masses of curly kale (Redbor).  We are still eating leeks, carrots, spinach, and chard from the garden.  Did I mention Bright Lights?  This is a chard with a rainbow of different coloured stems.  They are bulletproof, you could stick a few seeds in a largish pot and providing you keep cutting them, you’ll get masses of lovely leaves – and they look fabulous.  Beetroot also did well.  I grew a fancy type this year called Chioggia.  When you cut it you get a white slice with pink rings. They provide a big oo-ah factor in salads.  And really easy to grow. If you ever go to Venice, head south across the lagoon to Chioggia.  It is the veg capital of Italy and if you look at the seed catalogues, you will frequently see the term ‘Chioggia’, as in Viola di Chioggia, the purple-tinged and delicious small globe artichoke.  Chioggia is also a fishing port, with a famous fish market so a double reason to visit the market, inspect the veg and have a memorable fish dinner too.

I was unexpectedly (as in normally things eat them before I get to them) successful with Calabrese (broccoli) and cauliflower.  Bursting with pride that I can even grow a thing that looks like what you’d buy in Sainsbury’s, I have now ordered some Brussel Sprout plants from Marshalls (a company that specialise in brassicas and onions).  I can grow brassicas from seed, but life’s too short to cosset them and their tricksy ways.

It’s January,  it’s freezing outside but I’m just about to sow seed of aubergines, peppers, and chilli in the propagator.  I’m chitting my potatoes (garden speak for sticking them in egg boxes on the windowsill to sprout) and also sowing some sweet peas and broad beans (a variety called Aquadulce).  The days are getting longer already and Spring is a glint in the eye.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a picture of one of my huge collection of Salvias.  This one is Salvia leucantha – a gorgeous thing with fluffy, outrageously purple flowers that kept on going well into November before the frost threatened and I had to move them into the greenhouse. The bright pink flower in the same pot is a species pelargonium from South Africa, that is as tough as boots called Pelargonium sidoides.  Enjoy the catalogues.

August: A month of rest for most, but not me!

We are only 10 days into the month of August and so far I have been very busy. Here are three completely contrasting things I have been doing so far:

Here’s a commentary from me, just published in Nature .

Everyone is getting in a froth about gene edited embryos and talking about the need for ‘conversations’.  I am making the point that the really urgent conversations that need to be had are about genomics which is now entering mainstream NHS care, rather than about a technology which is many years ahead and likely to be for the very few.  I say this particularly in the context of the UK Chief Medical Officer’s report ‘Genome Generation’ which calls for a social contract between patients and the NHS, especially about the use of data.

Here’s a piece that I wrote for the Mail on Sunday about the Princess of Wales and the furore over a documentary revealing tapes recorded by her voice coach. 

Astonishingly, it is 20 years since the death of the Princess of Wales.  I worked with Diana for 12 years while she was Patron of Birthright, the mother and baby research charity that was then part of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.  I was its National Organiser, running the research programme but also all its fundraising events

I was a rookie charity organiser aged 26 and Diana was a rookie princess when we first met in 1982 at an event, ‘The Brilliant and Beautiful Evening of Fashion’ at London’s Guildhall.  We got on famously.  I called her ‘Miss’ and she mocked me for my short skirts and my ever constant clipboard.  I watched her grow from anxious ingenue to confident world superstar and she was a very important part of my life for over a decade. After her death, I became a Trustee of the Diana Memorial Fund.   Although it is now two decades ago, the week between her death and her funeral was one of the most extraordinary in British history and remains sharp in my memory.

And here’s a pic of the World Energy Expo.  I recently visited Astana in Kazakhstan for the World Energy Expo where I facilitated two conferences for the Future Energy Forum.

Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh Expo pavilion (which was inside a huge ball) was outstanding, incredibly well presented and thought out.  After going up in a lift to the top, you made your way down through different levels, with each one representing a different sort of renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass, space and so on.  It was fascinating.  I watched a lot of very excited Kazakh children in the space section and wondered if a decade or so hence, they will be the astronauts and engineers of the future, having been inspired by their visit to Expo as children. In the UK I am sure that we will have a Tim Peake generation of engineers in the same way that there is a generation (who constantly tell me this) that were inspired to take up engineering and science by watching Tomorrow’s World.

I also visited the Great Britain pavilion which has a fascinating installation of a yurt made of perspex struts which lit up when you touched them, completely surrounded by a landscape panorama.  As the yurt lights came on, so the representation of light in the corresponding piece of the panorama changed, going from day to night or from sunny to cloudy. Sounds weird on paper but it was mesmerising to watch.

I was in Astana to facilitate two conferences of the 12 conference series, ‘Future Energy Forum’.  Kazakhstan has vast reserves of oil and gas and a booming economy based on oil but seem committed to a future in which renewables become more and more important.  They are especially interested in energy efficiency, as well they might be with a temperature range of over 80 degrees, running from +40 in the summer to -40 in the winter (Oh, and add a windchill factor of another 20 degrees).  I really enjoyed talking to young Kazakhs in particular at the conferences.