Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Poppy Appeal

roadside poppies along the A350 in Chippenham

A little bit of plant magic has happened here in Chippenham, with the appearance of thousands of roadside poppies alongside the A350 by our estate. Part of this road was converted into a dual carriageway recently, and it's this area where the poppies are to be found. I almost lightly guerrilla gardened this stretch, as there was a lot of bare ground left after the work was completed. Now I'm glad I stayed my hand and let nature take its course instead.

Poppy seeds remain viable for decades and they need bare soil in which to germinate. This is so they're not out competed by the grasses and other plants which make up our usual roadside sward. It's also why the poppy is such a potent symbol of remembrance - the soil churned up by WW1's activities gave rise to the blood red poppies seen in profusion on Flanders fields.

I pondered whether these particular poppies were sown deliberately by the road contractors as part of the site's restoration, but it appears that the Department of Transport's approved mix consists solely of a few grass species plus white clover. There are some wildflower mixes available for the more ecologically minded, but these tend not to contain poppies. This is no surprise to me, as I'm sure any farmers whose fields border the restored land would take a dim view of such a deliberately sown - in their view - weed.

I also wondered whether they might be part of the recent 100-year WW1 commemorations, where there was a huge campaign to sow poppies across the country. I think this is unlikely as the campaign was timed for 2014, and I've not seen evidence of it continuing beyond that year.

Whatever way gave rise to these poppies, I'm glad they're here. I'm sure they're from the natural seed population found in the soil and I'll continue to enjoy them while they last.

Ladybird poppies at Great Dixter

I found some further poppy appeal at Great Dixter earlier this week. Pictures of Dixter's ladybird poppies are burned in my memory from Christopher Lloyd's articles and books, and it was marvellous to see them for real on Monday. I really must get around to having some of these here at VP Gardens.

Striking Papaver glaucum aka the Turkish or tulip poppy

Everyone was struck by this Turkish aka tulip poppy, Papaver glaucum at Great Dixter on Monday. Fergus Garrett told us these flower over several months and do well in various soils as long as it's well drained. I loved the form of this flower, which I likened to a cup and saucer on the day.

This is another poppy destined for my garden... they're great if you love poppies like I do, but don't have the space for several kinds to extend their fleeting season. Fergus said they got theirs from Chiltern Seeds, if you also like the look of them.

You may also like

An interesting article on cornfield poppies, Papaver rhoeas from Emorsgate Seeds.

  • My view of corn poppies whilst on holiday in Norfolk a few years ago
  • Another and different colourful view of the A350 near our house from 2011
  • 2014's post on various planting campaigns, including WW1's commemorative poppies
  • The jewel garden created near here last year. It's been just as spectacular in 2016
  • My previous visit to Great Dixter - there's more to come from this week's visit

My thanks to Nick Mann of Habitat Aid who was most helpful with information on roadside verge wildflower mixes. His mixes are based on the Emorsgate general purpose meadow mix linked to above, but he will also tweak them according to the local conditions and flora of the area where they are to be used. Good stuff.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Review: Riverford Recipe Box with guest chef Sarah Raven

Riverford Recipe Box: The arrival

The arrival of a big box is always exciting, like Christmas come early, and last week was no exception when a trial recipe box arrived courtesy of Riverford. They currently have Sarah Raven as guest chef and this was the first week out of four different recipe boxes on offer, with seasonally adapted recipes from her latest book, Good Good Food.

The box contains everything needed* to create three recipes with accompanying goodies for two people and retails at £36.95. There's a suggested cooking order for each dish; I reversed 2 and 3 as the chicken recipe requires marinading overnight. The dishes were:

  1. Tomato and Poppy Seed Tart served with salad leaves
  2. Sangria Chichen served with red rice and salad leaves
  3. Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry served with red rice

My box arrived on its appointed day last Wednesday at 7.30 am, much to our surprise. It seems deliveries can start as early as 6 am, so luckily ours arrived when we were awake**

As you can see from the above collage, everything is packed well. The meat and dairy items came in a cool bag well insulated with an ice bag, plus an intriguing woolly fleece developed by Woolcool***

* = except for a couple of store cupboard items (see below)
** = I'm checking on what flexibility there is on delivery times. You can also elect for delivery to be made at work, or left in a safe place or with a neighbour, though bear in mind the box contains perishable goods
*** = the cool bag materials are collected by Riverford if you have an account. The Woolcool fleece has all kinds of possibilities for reuse, which I'm contemplating for a separate post.

Pot and bottle selection
A selection of the little pots and bottles supplied, plus the store cupboard oil and salt I needed for this recipe box

The recipes

All the recipes were straightforward to prepare. From what I can tell, there's only been minimal adaptation needed to make them fit the current season and availability. Normal oranges replace late winter's blood oranges for the chicken, and fresh coriander for the curry is substituted with dried coriander leaves plus fresh parsley to serve. 

The recipe's amounts are adapted to serve 2 instead of 4, which in some instances means more ingredients are provided than needed. I was able to use all these leftovers in my day to day cooking.

Note that whilst the vegetables supplied look clean, Riverford recommends washing them where applicable. I microwaved the citrus fruit supplied to yield more juice.

Tomato and poppy seed tart - the results + cooking stages

Tomato and poppy seed tart

This tart's pastry base is lined with a layer of creamy soft sheep's milk cheese topped with basil leaves, then a thickened tomato sauce. For me, the addition of dry-fried poppy seeds to savory pastry was a happy revelation.

This is a great glutbuster recipe as it calls for a kilo of fresh tomatoes, plus 8 sun-dried ones. Note it takes quite a while to reduce these down to the thickened sauce required before they're added to the tart. The amount of tomatoes used in the recipe with the classic accompaniment of fresh basil gives this tart a rich flavour.

It was the first time I'd tried soft sheep's milk cheese which is quite mild. The recipe recommends goat's cheese as an alternative which I think would give a nicely sharper flavour. 

The recipe calls for a 28cm loose bottomed quiche tin which I don't have, though there was no problem using one of my ordinary ones instead. This tart serves 6 comfortably, so we had enough left over for a further 2 meals.

The accompanying salad leaves were an interesting selection of chard, ruby streaks mustard, pak choi, baby leaf lettuce, rocket and tat soi. We've been spoiled with oodles of my own home-grown leaves, so we thought the packet supplied was quite small.

There was enough fresh basil left over for a spaghetti sauce, and as I used a slightly smaller quiche dish, it meant there was sufficient cheese left over for my lunch the next day.

Sangria Chicken - Result + cooking stages

Sangria chicken

I thought this was a special enough recipe for our Sunday meal last night and it proved to be so. It's a delicious combination of chicken pieces with a fennel bulb and half a head of celery marinaded overnight with orange juice, lemon juice, mustard, oil, a little sugar, fresh thyme and white wine vinegar (or sherry). It's then baked in the oven and served with a side salad and red rice.

I would have preferred skinless chicken, which I think would take on the flavours of the marinade a little better. Perhaps I've got too used to using skinless chicken thighs for our suppers. Whilst this was a nice meal, NAH and I agreed it was number three in our order of preference.

Pssst! If you'd like to try before you buy, Amazon's entry for Good Good Food, currently has a clickable picture of the recipe.

There's plenty of celery and fennel left over for this week's salads, plus half a lemon (Pimm's anyone?) and plenty of fresh thyme.

Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry - Result + cooking stages

Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry

NAH makes curry at least once a week, so it's no surprise this was our favourite meal of the three. The amounts given are generous, with enough of the curry sauce left over for another meal for the two of us. I'll cook this again when my brother-in-law and family come to stay as they're vegetarians.

This is a glorious blend of sweet potato, chick peas, wilted spinach, onions, garlic, chilli, dried coriander, lime and dry-fried spices served over red rice. It's the first time I've used coconut milk to make a curry and I thought it worked well... except for when I cut my finger when I washed the lid ready for recycling. Take care, that edge is extremely sharp!

Flat parsley was used as substitute fresh coriander for this meal's garnish as UK-grown coriander is not quite in season. Whilst the parsley worked well, I think coriander would be even better.

There was plenty of parsley, garlic, chilli, and spice mix left over to go towards our usual meals. I've used the sweet potato to make carrot and sweet potato soup for lunch.

Final thoughts


  • Great for trying something different 
  • The recipes are easy to follow and work well
  • A recipe box works out cheaper than sourcing the ingredients individually from Riverford
  • Saves time as there's no need to go shopping and the all ingredients needed are collected together and measured out ready to start cooking
  • Free delivery
  • The box is better value than it appears at first. There was enough food for six generous meals rather than the three advertised, plus quite a few bits and bobs left over to go towards our regular meals


  • Relatively expensive compared to the equivalent supermarket brands of organic food. However, I found less than half of the ingredients were available there, so I would have to substitute with non-organic foods, or home-grown where possible
  • There's quite a lot of waste materials due to the proliferation of pots, bottles, and bags. However, most of these plus the box and cooling materials can be re-used or recycled by yourself or via Riverford (if you have an account with them)

On balance, I'd order something like this as a special treat again, rather than as an everyday option, and I'll definitely be making the tart and the curry again.

Win your own Sarah Raven recipe box

Riverford are running a competition to win a Sarah Raven recipe box, plus a copy of her Good Good Food book, a bottle of prosecco, and a large veg box. The closing date is Wednesday 6th July 2016, and you will receive the final box (week 4) of her guest chef residency in the week commencing 11th July. In the meantime, there are weeks 2 and 3 to consider...

... alternatively there are other recipe boxes available, including 2 meal, vegetarian and quick meal options.

Note: I received a recipe box to review courtesy of Riverford. There are no affiliate links associated with this post.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Comfrey Update

Comfrey 'hedge' on my allotment

It's been a couple of years since I took my first cut of comfrey for my compost heaps, and I'm really pleased how my plants have filled out in their allotted space on the allotment. They make a neat boundary between the compost bins/water butt and the upper growing areas on the plot.

Close up of comfrey flowers

I really like the flowers too, they're rather reminiscent of the frilly pantaloons my mum used to wear. I wonder what else can be tempted in to admire them more closely?

An acrobatic bee on a comfrey flower, with pollen sac clearly on view

Ah yes, the ever acrobatic and hard working bees simply can't get enough of comfrey flowers.

Another bee demonstrates how it uses its hooks to hang onto a comfrey flower

A pause to watch their antics reveals they use the hooks on their legs to cling onto a flower whilst taking their fill of pollen and nectar. There's always something new to learn about bees.

I took these photos before I went on holiday, and seeing it's National Insect Week, now's the perfect time to show them to you.

The bees have taken their fill and the flowers have faded, so it's time post-solstice* to take my first cut to make comfrey feed. I'll be using the dry, pong-free method advocated by James at Yeo Valley Organic Garden and described by Emma Cooper... as soon as I've sourced a suitable lidded container to cram the leaves inside. Note that as my comfrey is the Bocking 14 cultivar, I don't need to heed her warning about seeds, as they're sterile plants.

* pre-solstice, nitrogen-rich feeds such as nettle are made to encourage healthy growth, then post-solstice, a phosphorus/potassium-rich feed - such as comfrey - encourages less sappy growth (needed if plants are to overwinter well), plus flowers and fruiting.
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