I am writing the next instalment of the The Good Life at the House on the Hill on the day the BBC announced the new series of The Great British Bake Off. I received the news with great excitement and anticipation as I must confess to enjoying the series enormously over the past few years. The announcement of the new series led me to ponder about my TV viewing habits. Apart from political dramas such as West Wing, House of Cards (both the UK and US versions, although several decades apart) the hospital drama ER (I am reminded daily of the gorgeous George Clooney as I pause to make my coffee) and the compelling series of The Sopranos, I have not got particularly excited about new series on TV, other than anything Grand Design related. However that changed just a few years ago when I came across the first series of Ina Garten’s, The Barefoot Contessa cookery shows. She is a delightfully upbeat American celebrity chef who makes entertaining look easy and who starts every recipe with two sticks of butter and ends any ingredient assembly stage with the catchphrase “how bad can that be?” After following several series and now owning most of her cookery books, I can tell you that two sticks of butter as a start to a recipe are not the answer to staying slim and after each series I have had to carefully shed the pounds I gained as a result of trying out her recipes. However, she has been an inspiration not only for her recipes but also for kitchen equipment (I know, I must get a life) and most importantly she inspired the design of the kitchen and walk-in pantry, which have been closely modelled on hers.
Whilst very few TV programmes have had any great impact on our lives, that changed two years ago with the arrival of the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge. It does seem ridiculous that I enjoyed each series so much. It wasn’t that the show was terribly helpful about planting and growing techniques, nor were the cooking tasks beyond most allotmenteers’ capabilities. The challenges they were given with the flowers they had grown were in every respect beyond anything I would do, given my inept attempts at anything to do with flowers and houseplants as I alluded to previously. To be honest, watching the unfailingly encouraging Monty Don every week on Gardeners World is rather more educational, but for some strange reason, The Big Allotment Challenge spurred me on to experimenting in the new vegetable garden and between the lovely Monty and the allotmenteers on BBC2, I started the expansion of the vegetable and fruit garden at the House on the Hill and much to the amusement, admiration and then consternation of the family, the vegetable and fruit garden has grown enormously since that first year in 2013. I mention the family’s “consternation” as I have trebled the size of the veg and fruit garden and so have increased productivity and output accordingly. We are only at the end of July as I type and Richard and the kids are already showing signs of courgette and lettuce fatigue, and are vociferously declining anything gooseberry related. Luckily I have frozen the raspberries and blackcurrants that were not made into jam. We haven’t even started with this year’s runner and French beans….
At the beginning of 2014, whilst the garden was still dormant but at the point when thought had to be given to the spreading of compost and the preparation of the vegetable beds, I mentioned out loud to Elliot, the gardener, how lovely it would be if “we” were to dig over another quadrant in the veg patch and so give us a larger area for potatoes and onions as well as various varieties of beans and squashes, whilst leaving the existing quadrant for some fruit bushes, strawberries and the more delicate vegetables. No sooner said than done and over a couple of weeks the grass in the quadrant was turned over to help it to die off and then in due course this was dug over. In order to justify the use of “we”, I hired a rotavator and then spent an exhausting couple of hours preparing the roughly dug plot. Why had nobody warned me that operating a rotavator is a bit like standing on a Power Plate? I couldn’t move for nearly a week after rotavating the new patch.
Thanks to some very thoughtful gifts from friends and family, I planted gooseberry, redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes and a good number of strawberry plants. In addition, in the old quadrant I also planted leeks, beetroot, courgettes (both yellow and green varieties), sweetcorn, sugar snaps and purple beans (disappointingly these turn green when cooked) as well as parsnips and kale. I also tried broccoli, pak choi and various lettuces, but these failed miserably as I waged war on the slug epidemic. The new quadrant had runner and French beans, onions and potatoes as well as pumpkins.
We had an amazingly colourful and bountiful harvest. Much to Richard’s horror, I bought a commercial fridge and freezer from a local school that was refurbishing it’s kitchen. It was not the electrical items themselves he objected to, but rather the fact that they were taking up valuable space in the garage. I thought it would be best to ignore the outburst, quickly rearranged the garage so that the fridge and freezer were less obvious and then went about filling them up with the 2014 produce. We are only just coming to the end of last year’s courgette soup and there are still some pickled beetroots to be eaten and the last of the roasted pumpkin.
Encouraged by the results of 2014 and buoyed by the series of The Big Allotment Challenge later that year, you would have thought I might have decided to enjoy the expanded veg patch and experiment within that space. After all, with the addition of all the soft fruit I would be able to create a few showstoppers of my own. However with the start of the build, a rather abundant by-product of the demolition became available and it would have been environmentally criminal not to make use of it….
I am talking about the pile of floorboards from the old house as well as the wood from the rafters and joists, piled high and begging to be reused rather than burnt. Beautiful, seasoned wood in three to five metre lengths. How bad could that be?
I will not even pretend that “we” made the seven raised beds. Elliot, now joined by Oli as his business has expanded, spent a few hours each visit sawing and screwing the beautiful containers together and then I did my bit by filling them with top soil and compost. Our daughters then painted them in wood preserver and then I got very busy filling them with the tomatoes and cucumbers grown from seed in the newly acquired greenhouse as well as seeds for radishes, leeks, beetroots, lettuce, kale, broccoli, cabbage, peas and cannellini beans.
All that’s missing now is a little table and a couple of chairs and an electric socket for a kettle, which the electrician has promised will be fitted once he arrives for first fix. I have spent countless hours pottering around the greenhouse and sometimes I have simply given up any pretence of being busy and just sat down and gazed out at the vegetable garden and indulged in some daydreaming about the possibility of further expansion. After all, there is still quite a lot of wood left over from the old roof!