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Edible flowers, bike rides and a self-watering polytunnel

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 10:51 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

aquilegia and honesty

aquilegia and honesty

Those brief, rather brilliant moments of spring have been a blessing, but blink and you miss them. I caught yesterday's burst of afternoon sun riding a bike across London. Despite all the petrol fumes you could catch that waft of spring in the air. Pussy willows glistening in Hyde Park, buds fattening in St. James's, violets in flower around the base of horse chestnuts and the sun blinding as it bounced between glass-fronted buildings (surely architects should consider such things?). I like the way manhole covers turn golden on such afternoons. It was a jolly ride, but I would rather have been in the garden.

And even an afternoon away and things have moved on. Those brilliant soft greens of new leaves that suddenly appear all over the place (mostly weeds but still it's growth and sign of things moving on). I am most impressed with aquilegias at the moment. That dusky purple hue on the underside of new leaves and they way the rain catches into pearls nestling in the middle. These, Martin Crawford of Forest Garden fame writes, are edible. I eat plenty of the flowers, but am a little wary of the Ranunculus family. It has some of our most toxic plants in it. Think of Monk's hood, a plant so poisonous that it can kill you, though it was used as a painkiller in the past (the pun being quite literal perhaps?) or hellebores, all of which are pretty toxic.

Orychophragmus violaceus

Orychophragmus violaceus/Chinese violet cress

But aquilegias are edible, Martin assures us, as long as you don’t eat leaves with mildew on. He doesn't explain why, perhaps its self-explanatory, they are hardly going to taste nice when diseased. I take a tentative nibble of the fresh young growth, the only bit you can eat.

They taste green, a hint of cabbage, a little sweet, entirely pleasant in fact and well worth adding to a salad. They look pretty too. My other salads are getting back into gear. The sorrel is in full swing, the land cress, winter lettuce, purslane and that divinely pretty February Orchid/Chinese violet cress/Orychophragmus violaceus are all merry. I've been supplementing them with the first new growth of dandelions from the parks and watching avidly as the nettles reappear. I can hardly wait to eat nettle risotto again.

Bean support on the allotment

The allotment is almost all dug over apart from the bit that will become the polytunnel. I have to mark out the space for inspection next week. I’m very excited about this. Then I will embark on the 'self-watering polytunnel project'. I am in two minds whether it is madness or a rather brilliant idea, but as I quite intend to have at least one or two weekends camping away this summer, someone will have to do the watering and if the polytunnel can do it, all the better! But more on this later…

I've also created a rather haphazard bean support at the end of the allotment. I wanted to create a little privacy as well as something sculptural. It’s made from hazel and red stemmed willow that the last tenants left. I’m going to grow sunflowers one side and runner beans the other. I’m going to go for those very tall 'Russian Giant' and a runner bean 'Moonlight', which is a runner that thinks it's a French bean, so self pollinates and tolerates dry conditions better (the main reason I'm using it as I think that the sunflowers might rob a lot of moisture).


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Alys, interesting that you should mention that aquilegias are edible - we took our two chickens over to my in-laws to be looked after while we were away for the weekend and one of them headed straight for the new aquilegia growth and tucked in. So hens like them too - try it out on yours (or not, if you want it all for yourself!).

  • Comment number 2.

    A self watering polytunnel, I am also planning to build one of those this year, I am really interested to hear how others are doing the same thing.

  • Comment number 3.

    Alys... I know you don't have much chance to chance this but... don't go!

    Just sit in front of the telly on Friday and laugh.. your next
    allotment/vegetable show will follow soon.

    Best wishes to your hubby.

    A fan.

  • Comment number 4.

    thank you for your interesting blog,I would love to grow orychophragmus violaceus, do you know where I might find the seeds, havent had much success in locating it, thanks

  • Comment number 5.

    Nettle risotto...?

    Recipe please.

  • Comment number 6.

    Having been practically housebound for months, aquilegias and nettles are almost all that I have springing up in the beds, maybe I can claim to have planned to eat these rather than the usual veg I would have usually got going! Thanks for the information, I'm not sure that I'm brave enough to eat the aquilegias but maybe, living up north I have a while to decide as they're only just up. I'm also intrigued by the idea of nettle risotto. The bean support doesn't look too haphazard to me, you clearly have higher standards than I do about these things, good luck with the beans.

  • Comment number 7.


    The simplest nettle risotto recipes is to make an ordinary white risotto (onions,garlic, arborio or carnoroli rice, a pint or more of stock, salt, pepper, parmesan) and then just as the risotto rice is beginning to thicken add wash and shredded nettles to steam on top of the rice, they take a minute or so to soften, then you can blend them into the rice, add more parmesan and serve. Otherwise you can make a white risotto and precook the nettles in water (again for no more than a few minutes to keep their brilliant green and goodness) and blend into puree. This can then be swirled into the risotto. it looks wonderful


  • Comment number 8.

    i see mealtimes at your place would be a constant adventure :)


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