Category Archives: Garden and allotment

Writing about the garden and allotment, what is currently growing, plans and activities

Home again… to a golden day

I’m home at last and a sunny frosty, clear gorgeous day. A day when there is snow, and yet the leaves are still golden on some of the trees. A day of blue and gold and white, when – rather than writing – I am going to go outside again… I walked through the countryside in and out of the beech trees this morning, and now… I’m going to walk some more…

The view from the conservatory

This morning, fresh from a long night’s sleep after I returned from the EuroSTAR conference, I sat in the conservatory and watched the sky – a skein of autumn geese flew high, by v-skewed across the pale autumn sky. A murmuration of starlings. The parliament of rooks that sweep across the garden. I refilled the bird feeders for the smaller birds, and reflected, how blessed I am to have found this place as my haven and my home.

Photos for April, May and June

Here are three more of the photos featured on the website and blogs.

4 April NZ

Stream bed New Zealand April

I used a crop of this on the website, on the Learn with Isabel page.

Garden in Bangkok May

Garden in Bangkok May

6 June Australia

Shallow sea bed Australia June

This one I cropped into three sections and used on the website on the About, CV and Blog pages.

Allotment adventures: making flower oils and salves

This year I have made flower oils and salves for the first time.

I grow calendula (pot marigold) on the allotment as a food plant for insects and also because I am fond of the flowers. They give a bright splash of colour across the plot, and I enjoy the simplicity of the daisy flower form. We also use the petals in salads, as a garnish and herb.

This year the calendula grew and flowered particularly prolifically, to the point where I was weeding them out as they encroached on other crops.

It happens that calendula oil and salve are both quite expensive, so I decided to see if I could make them myself. It turns out to be quite easy to do, provided you get the ingredient proportions and the working temperatures right. There are good instructions in various books and websites including those listed below.

Harvesting the calendula petals happened during a particularly hot spell of weather so I just put a jar of petals packed in olive oil on the windowsill, and turned the jar round each day. I forgot to dry the petals first – I am not sure how much difference that will make. The oil turned a dark yellow as the petals gave up their essence. After three weeks, I strained the oil, and bottled it. I bought some beeswax, and melted it in a bowl over a saucepan of hot water, then added the cold strained oil. It instantly set as the cold oil hit the hot wax – that was exciting – so I beat the mixture thoroughly until it went creamy. This ended up with a good textured salve which I ladled into a couple of containers.

Of course I had to test it. I tried it on 3 experimental subjects: my husband, a friend and myself. We’re pleased to report that there were no ill effects, and that the salve does seem to sooth dry, rough or damaged skin. I’m not sure if this is the calendula, or whether it is just the effect of olive oil mixed with beeswax. The smell is quite strange – slightly medicinal, but not offensive.

Next, I tried lavender. A neighbour has a very large lavender bush and asked if I would like to harvest some of the lavender before he cut it back. This time I followed a different recipe, specifically for lavender oil. I dried the heads and stalks and then steeped the lavender in olive oil as before. This time, the weather was cooler and less sunny, so I left the flowers steeping for much longer, about 6 weeks. The recipe for the lavender oil suggested heating the oil with the beeswax, and then pouring the liquid to the storage jars, allowing the mix to set in the jars. So I did that, and the result is a much harder texture than the calendula salve. The smell is lovely, and the texture of the salve when applied to the skin is very good, and it goes into the skin more quickly than the calendula salve. I am not sure if the difference in texture is because the proportions on beeswax to oil are different in this recipe, or if the beating the calendula salve whipped air into it making a more mousse-like texture.

For the lavender salve, I have extended the test group and given small pots to 5 experimental subjects: my husband, 3 friends and myself. Now awaiting reports from the others, but I think it seems to be pleasant to use.

I shall try making more oils and salves next year, and will experiment with changing proportions and methods until I get the texture I like best. I may also try other flowers and herbs from the garden and allotment.

Useful references and recipes:

I looked at two books from the library:

  • Make your own skin care products: how to create a range of nourishing and hydrating skin care products by Sally Hornsey
  • Natural soap by Melinda Coss

And I also looked at various websites and used these recipes:




Allotment 2014 – the year of fruit, raised beds and bees

We had two big projects on the allotment this year. We wanted to increase the amount of fruit we are growing and to make raised bed edges for the vegetable beds.

We already had some fruit, including blackberries, Worcester berries, Josta berries, black currants, a red currant and raspberries (summer and autumn). We also have rhubarb in the fruit garden.

The planting of the new fruit trees and bushes was done in February and March, so that about half the plot is down to top fruit and soft fruit, with the other half still being for vegetables. In the new fruit area, in February and March, we planted:

  • Three apple trees (cordoned) Worcester Pearmain, Lord Hindlip and Howgate Wonder;
  • One Victoria plum (standard maiden of Pixie rootstock);
  • One old-fashioned Greengage (standard feathered maiden on Pixie rootstock);
  • An additional black currant bush and two additional red currant bushes (I have not got the varieties for those in front of me – I will check next time I go to the allotment);
  • Two gooseberry bushes (1 green variety called Careless and the other a red variety called Captivator); and
  • Two new blueberry bushes (Varieties Jersey and Goldstrusse).

The Gooseberry Captivator did not come into leaf, it must have died during its transfer from the nursery field, so I have just got a replacement which I will plant in the next few weeks. The new fruit trees had to be stopped from fruiting this year, so they could build up their roots and form new wood. I did not realise this until after the fruit had set, so I picked it off while it was still small. I have nursed the new trees and bushes through the year, and now they have lost their leaves for winter. The new buds look healthy so fingers crossed for crops next year. I think the apples will still need to be restricted in number that I allow to set.

The other big project on the allotment was building some new raised beds for the vegetable. We are using the roof tiles from when the house was re-roofed last year. The resulting beds are excellent – raised, so better for drainage, protected and cosy because the tiles provide shelter and warmth. The vegetables from the raised beds already done have been excellent, especially the garlic which benefited from the additional drainage and shelter last winter.

The vegetable crop was very good. In particular we had huge numbers of excellent tomatoes and cucumbers, while the patty-pan squashes were unstoppable, and delicious. Good year for the brassicas too, especially the Samantha savoy cabbages. I am surprised that the purple sprouting broccoli is already cropping. I planted it for picking next spring. We grew three varieties of carrot: Maestro, Autumn King and Eskimo. All good flavour, and we’ll grow them again. We are still harvesting Eskimo carrots as they stand the frost so well, and the parsnips are ready to start picking. One good addition to the cropping plan this year was autumn leeks. We’ve grown a winter leek crop very successfully for a number of years, but the autumn variety was excellent – smaller and sweeter.

The three failures on the vegetable front were potatoes, sweet corn and winter squash. With all three I did what I have always done, but this with no success. I really am not sure why. A task for this winter therefore is to track back and think about what was different this year that might have affected the crops. One of the pleasures of the winter season is to think back (a little bit of a retrospective) and to plan the following year.

A swarm of bees in June…

… is worth a silver spoon according to the old rhyme, and on June 11th a swarm arrived on the allotment and took up residence on a post on the corner of the raspberry bed.

It was the first swarm I have seen in real life, and it was quite amazing – a very peaceful, undulating mass moving around the post in a spiral mound.

I went and asked neighbours for help, and they called the beekeepers who came round in about half an hour, with boxes, smokers and other kit.

The process of persuading the bees into the box involved smoking them to calm them down, and then the bee keeper shook the bees off the raspberry canes. Unfortunately most of them were on the post and not shakeable so he started then moving parts of the swarm by handfuls into the bee box until the queen was moved, when the whole mass started get agitated at her removal. I certainly would not want to pick up bees by the handful. He then put a lid with a small entrance hole onto the box, and the rest of the swarm started following in, while fanning with their wings to send the scent of the queen out to the rest of the swarm. They just want to be with the queen.

The beekeepers left the box for a while so that the rest of the bees would follow in and then took the box away.

It was really useful that my neighbours knew to call the beekeepers’ association. If you get a swarm of honey bees look up your local beekeepers’ association who will be able to help you.

Altogether – I’m pleased with what we have done. New raised beds in good progress, and have worked well, so we’ll make some more next year. We’ve mostly fed ourselves from what we’ve grown, and we’ve enjoyed the plot. And we’ve been visited by a swarm of bees.

Now I’m looking forward to the 2015 season.