Blog, gardening

March Towards Spring?

It feels more like we’re backing into winter!

I was planning to tell you all the things I’d be doing in my garden during March. Today is officially the First Day of Spring here in the UK.

Then The Beast From The East met Storm Emma.snowyshed 2

That sounds like a Fifties B-movie or a wrestling bout. Instead,  it’s a combination of weather systems fighting it out over Europe. The UK has practically ground to a halt. Countries who see snow every year are having a good laugh at our expense. I don’t blame them. Many of our main roads impassable. People have been sitting  in their cars for up to seventeen hours, stuck in endless traffic jams. Airports and trains have been at a standstill from the second snow began to fall.

In our defence, we’ve seen more snow in this country over the past forty-eight hours than we usually see in a whole month during the winter.

We’re simply not set up for bad weather here in England. It doesn’t happen often enough. OH and I used to fit winter tyres to our cars every autumn, but after years with no problems, we never bothered to buy them when we changed our cars. Snow chains are worse than useless unless there’s a good depth of snow, and in any case the lightest snowfall renders the one-in three lane between Tottering Towers and the country road connecting us to civilisation impassable.

So…there are my excuses. Now, down to work. In advance of the bad weather I travelled 40 miles to fetch a full canister of propane gas for my greenhouse heater. That would normally last for a month at the rate I use it. Temperatures have been well below freezing for days, so I dread to think how fast the gas is being used! I haven’t dared open the greenhouse to check. It’s well insulated, all the citrus trees and overwintering cuttings are clustered close to the heater, but there’s a limit to how much cold they can take.

Paperwhite narcissi, flowering in January. I wish you could experience their scent!

I’m not so worried about my fig trees, which also live in the greenhouse. They’re a bit hardier, and still dormant.  The apricot flowers I wrote about a few days ago may be damaged by the extended cold period. I’ll have to wait and see. The strawberry plants haven’t come in to be forced yet, and at this rate they’ll be staying outside! Once I can get into the greenhouse again I’ll be topdressing all the fruit trees with fresh compost. All the bulbs I forced for flowering at Christmas and in the first few weeks of the new year have been moved from the house into the greenhouse, waiting to be replanted in the garden when the weather warms up.  I’ll give them some plant food this month, to keep them going.

March is traditionally the main seed-sowing time, but they’re safer off in their packets for a day or two. I won’t be sowing anything for a while. There’s no point. It’s too cold to keep them growing, once they’ve germinated. The tomato and lettuce seeds I sowed a few days ago are living on my office windowsill, safe inside Tottering Towers, but they’ll soon get long and lanky. They need moving out into the greenhouse, but they won’t appreciate the conditions out there right now! OH wants me to get electricity in my greenhouse so I don’t need to worry about heating and lighting for my seedlings, but Tottering Towers is prone to power cuts. That’s why I rely on a propane heater.

There’s nothing to be done outside when everything’s covered with snow. The shallots I wrote about last week are snug under an insulating layer of snow. I have seed potatoes ready to plant for an early crop, but I’m holding them back.  A sheet of black polythene has been warming the soil in the kitchen garden for them. It’s been there since New Year, but I’m not going to risk planting them yet.

I need to thaw out  the hens’ drinkers with warm water several times a day, and make sure they are shut inside their insulated houses each evening. I bring the feeders in, as rats would soon discover that easy source of food. Fetching them at dusk is a challenge which means floundering downslope in the snow, then back uphill with my hands full. Alex our mad dog doesn’t help the process, dancing round my feet. One day I’ll trip over him and end up flat on my back in the snow, covered in hen food!

What’s the weather like where you are? Do you have any tips for dealing with wintry conditions?

Blog, gardening

That’s Shallot!


It’s been a long, dark winter. Gardening is a great cure for the February blues, but a cold wind is slicing in from the east. The forecast doesn’t give much hope of it getting any warmer for the next week. The garden is still so wet, walking on it squashes all the air out. That’s not good for either the soil structure or helpful mini-beasts like worms. Despite that I managed to plant some shallots and garlic today, by working off  a scaffolding plank. The old rule of thumb was to plant them on the shortest day, harvest them on the longest. Mid-winter weather isn’t always kind enough for that!

I like these big pink banana shallots, Longor, for roasting whole. Slipped in around the roast or cooked on their own in a mixture of butter and olive oil, within an hour they are chestnut-coloured, stickily savoury, and equally good hot or cold.. They go well in casseroles, too. The round varieties  such as Red Sun fit into jars better, so those are the ones I use for pickling in the autumn. A nice, crisp pickled shallot with cheese and crusty home-made bread makes a great snack.

Shallots do well in the garden at Tottering Towers. Garlic struggles to make big bulbs here, but I keep trying. Whatever size of clove I plant, whichever variety and whether they’re planted in autumn, winter or spring, the resulting heads of garlic are always small-to-medium sized. This year I’m trying the variety Marco. I haven’t grown it before, so it’ll be interesting to see if the results are any better.

Are you trying any new varieties this year?

apricots, Dead Woman Walking, gardening, holidays, Women Of Bristol 1850-1950

A Rest Is As Good As A Change…

By Henriette Browne
For the last four months, I’ve been putting in hours of extra work a week while trying to write two books at the same time. 

My first job each day is to collate the research I’ve done so far for my major non-fiction project, Women Of Bristol, and add to it. All that work is done on the computer. When I need a break from the screen, I curl up with a pencil and a big refill pad of lined paper. It’s the way I like to write fiction, so that’s how the next book in my Brackenridge Series, Dead Woman Walking, is taking shape.

Last week, OH had a week’s holiday. He was going to spend it doing repairs and maintenance around Tottering Towers, but I led him astray. Apart from rain over the Bank Holiday weekend, the weather was fine and dry. It seemed such a shame to stay indoors working, so the two of us spent seven days roaming the countryside. 

Bees hard at work
As a result, I didn’t write a word all week. I can’t remember the last time that happened! Not only did I do nothing, I was guilty of doing what my old English teacher used to call doing less than nothing by distracting OH, too. I took him out to lunch a couple of times,  and persuaded him to visit the open day at Jekka McVicar’s Herb Farm with me. We visited a garden centre, which meant another lunch out for him, and some retail therapy for me. 

Delicious, and good for you, too!
I ended last week with a total word count of zero, but a dozen new plants. Our apricot crop set the seal on the week by ripening all at once. It’s just a little tree, so there were only three fruits. I sneakily ate them all myself. Call it gardener’s perks! 

Today it’s back to writing work, but I love it so much there’s no danger of the post-holiday blues. I feel tons better for my break, and can’t wait to get writing again.

What’s your favourite remedy for working too hard?
gardening, Longest Day

This Writing Life…in Summer.

Sun Behind The Heel Stone, by Andrew Dunn
It’s high summer here on the border between England and Wales.  The 21st June is the Summer Solstice, and for the next day or two the days will be longer and the nights shorter than at any other time of the year. That means different things to different people. 

While Druids, hippies and others gather at Stonehenge to celebrate, I’m busy putting the last of my tender plants out in the garden, and looking forward to the first baby vegetables of the season. 

I’m already enjoying the lovely Turkish delight fragrance of the rose you can see further down this page, Louise Odier, and honeysuckle Graham Stuart Thomas as they drape round my favourite fine-weather writing spot in the garden. Their scent is particularly powerful at dawn, or after a shower.

The trouble with all these extra hours of daylight is that it’s not only the fruits, flowers and vegetables which get growing. The weeds have eighteen or more hours of daylight to stage their takeover bid, so it’s hard to keep on top of them while I’m writing all day. When I leave the office, I have to catch up on all the cooking and washing before I can get outside and start weeding.

We’re usually eating new potatoes fresh from the garden by early June. The old saying that you should plant your early potatoes on Good Friday comes from the time when working people had hardly any paid time off, so they had to do all their chores on public holidays such as Easter. I was so busy with the release of His Majesty’s Secret Passion  and Her Royal Risk this year, I didn’t get a chance to plant ours until much later. You can’t stop a potato growing, so they’re trying hard to catch up but it’ll be a while before we’ll get to eat them. You’re supposed to sow parsley seed on Good Friday too, and I missed out on doing that too, this year!

Right now, I’m working on a Christmassy short story. Publishing schedules are a bit like gardening— you have to think months in advance. If you’d like to help me choose the cover art for my next release, you can join my mailing list here.