Spring blues

Chionodoxa. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Long before the bluebells flower, my garden is swathed in the electric-blue colour from the blooms of hundreds of Chionodoxa. Every spring these hardy, yet very tiny, bulbs sprout up everywhere: in the flower beds, up through the gravel in the paths, all over the rockery, and in the barren earth where nothing much else is growing yet. They seed themselves and seem to appear in greater numbers each March.

Flowerbed_ and_pathways_covered_in_Chionodoxa
Blue carpet of Chionodoxa. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

This weekend, the sun shone brightly and the Chionodoxa were in full bloom. I expect that by next weekend the blooms will have begun to fade and the bulbs will begin their retreat back into the ground where they will lay dormant until next year.

Chionodoxa growing up through the gravel paths. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
Chionodoxa basking in the spring sunshine. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Whilst Chionodoxa like the open space and bright locations in the garden, Scilla prefer the shady parts which don’t get any direct sunshine. I found this newly opened little group growing amongst the roots of the Japanese Maple tree in the back garden. Scilla flowers lack the dazzling white star shape of the Chionodoxa petals, but they have an almost luminous quality, glowing from the shadows. Up close, you can see the tiny, glowing yellow centres; they were a true delight to discover.

Scilla. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
Single Scilla flower. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

One more spring flower that was at its peak this week is the Dogtooth Violet (Erythronium Dens Cannis). So pretty and dainty when it first opens with its hanging head of delicate pinky-lilac petals, but after a few days, it raises its head, turns up its petals and transforms into a slightly sinister-looking, upright bloom, revealing just how it gets its name. In my garden, it grows in a cluster on the rockery amidst all the Chionodoxa. These unusual looking “violets” with their strange spotty foliage make a striking contrast in amongst the bright blue and green of the tiny Chionodoxa.

Dogtooth violet newly opened and in full bloom. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
Striking blooms and foliage of the Dogtooth violet. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

One final image for this post: I saw my favourite insect in the garden today, also enjoying the sunshine. The first one this year, tucking into some aphids on a geranium leaf.

My first ladybrid of spring. Image: Kathryn Hawkins


Rhubarb ruminations and recipe ideas

Spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

At last, my forced rhubarb was ready to pick this week! Now I feel the season of Spring has begun. Long before all other fruits in the garden are even formed,  forced rhubarb gives us a flavour of all the sweet delights yet to come.

To me, rhubarb is associated with fond memories of my childhood. My grandparents used to grow “forests” of the thick, leafy stems in the summer – no summer holiday was complete without one of Grannie’s rhubarb crumbles.

If you fancy having a go at growing your own, now is the best time of year to buy yourself a  rhubarb plant (or “crown”) and get it in the ground ready for next year.

My first rhubarb harvest of 2017. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Rhubarb grows best in an open site, ideally in the sun, but it will grow anywhere. It likes a good mulching and needs plenty of soil depth as the roots, once established, run deep. Give it a good feed once in a while and it will do well. It is very easy to grow and a single plant will provide a good yield for a small family. Rhubarb is really a vegetable, but most of us regard it as a fruit because we serve it mostly for pudding. Only the stalks are edible – the leaves are high in oxalic acid and are, subsequently, very toxic.

Hold yourself back and avoid picking any stems in the first year of planting a new crown. In the second year, pull a few stems, leaving about half of the plant untouched. Once a plant is established – after 3 years – you can pick as many stems as you want. A rhubarb plant can be “forced” at this age, ready for an early crop in spring. You can buy special rhubarb forcers – very tall, slim, terracotta pots – which go over the crown in late winter. These are very expensive; I use the tallest pot I have and this works fine – as you can see in the image above. Although the pot covering doesn’t produce really long stems, they are good enough for me. I’ve put the pot back over the crown again, ready for the next batch of stems to grow – usually the plant produces four good batches of stems before I leave it to recover and rejuvenate for next year.

I have 3 rhubarb plants in the garden now. Each year, I rotate a plant for forcing, and the other 2 are left for summer eating rhubarb, and for freezing. Here are a few tips and ideas for cooking and serving rhubarb:

  • High in acidity, there are a few flavours that help temper the tartness of rhubarb: ginger, cinnamon, orange rind and juice, coconut, banana, angelica and liquorice.
  • Trim the leaves from spring rhubarb and discard, then rinse the stems well and slice off the base. Cut into 3cm pieces for really quick cooking, but leave in longer pieces for gentle poaching and using to top tarts or desserts. Spring rhubarb takes barely 4-5 minutes to cook. I usually place the pieces in a frying pan and sprinkle with sugar and add 1 – 2 tablespoons of water. Once it begins to steam, cover with a lid and cook gently.

    Preparing spring rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For a tangy sweet and sour sauce, cook rhubarb in a little water with sufficient sugar to make it edible, then add a dash of raspberry or balsamic vinegar. Served cold, it goes well with roast duck, smoked mackerel or pan-fried herring.
  • A favourite simple dessert of mine is to mix mashed banana, coconut (non-dairy) yogurt and vanilla extract together and layer in glasses with poached, vanilla sugar-sweetened rhubarb. It is absolute deliciousness guaranteed!

    Rhubarb, banana and coconut pots. Images: Kathryn Hawkins
  • For an easy pastry, bake-off a sheet of (gluten-free) puff pastry and allow to cool, then top with thick (dairy-free) custard and lightly poached stems of sweetened rhubarb. Always a winning combination…..rhubarb and custard.
    Rhubarb and custard tart. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    I have posted a couple of other rhubarb recipes in my blog over the months, here are the links Rhubarb, raspberry and custard crump (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan) and Rhubarb and custard ice lollies (gluten-free)

    Tender pink stems of forced rhubarb. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

My hellebore heaven

Helleborus. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

The weather has been kind these past few days and the spring flowers are really coming on. I spent a couple of hours in the garden yesterday afternoon and was delighted to see that all 4 varieties of hellebore are now in full bloom. Hidden away in different parts of the garden, they don’t stand out from a distance, but when you get up close, they are magnificent and unlike anything else in the garden at this time of year.

Dark purple-red bloom. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

I don’t know the names of any of the hellebore in the garden, but I do know that the plants are hardy, evergreen and deciduous, and they bring dramatic colour and structure to the borders in early spring, just when I’m wondering whether there will ever be life in the garden again. The large blooms last around 4 to 6 weeks and then they will fade gracefully into the foliage, leaving the glossy, bold leaves behind for another year.

Light purple with a ruffled centre. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Helleborus grow well in the shade or partial shade, and they like moist soil; they are a perfect plant for the Scottish climate. All mine are growing beside walls or fences. New plants take a couple of years to get established, and once they are embedded, they don’t like being moved, although you can divide clumps in the autumn.

A white variety with a hint of green. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Best of all, Helleborus are a low maintenance plant. Once they have flowered, just remove any fading foliage; give the plants a mulch, and allow them to hunker down for another year.

A group of white, burgundy-speckled, Helleborus. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Savoury oat and seed crunchies (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan)

Oat and seed crunchies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Every now and then I try very hard to cut back on the amount of sugar I eat. I find it challenging to find something to stave off the cravings. and I usually turn to seeds to do the job. This week, I started my latest “health-kick” and I found that I had built up quite a collection of different seed varieties from the last time. Many of the seeds are in half-opened bags stored in the fridge and are now coming up to the “best before” date; it seemed the perfect time for a healthy, and very much savoury, baking session. Bursting with  nutrition and flavour, and with super crunchy textures, seeds are one of the best foods to snack on without feeling too guilty.

Some of my current seed collection. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

You can use any seeds in this recipe, but a mixture of different sizes works the best. Introduce your own flavourings if you like; I kept mine plain and simple this time, but black pepper, smoked paprika, cumin, chilli, thyme and rosemary are good flavours to try if you like to experiment. I use the thicker milled, porridge  (or Scottish Porage) oats, the finer milled varieties seem to go a bit mushy and give a less crisp texture to the final bake. There is a small amount of gram (chickpea) flour added to the mix to help bind the ingredients together but the recipe works fine with other gluten-free blends if you prefer.

Thick milled Scottish porridge oats. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

These crunchies are very easy to make and will keep for a week or so in an airtight container. Enjoy them broken into large shards as a crispbread, or crumble them on to soups or salads for extra nutty flavour. Here’s what to do…….

Makes at least 10 big pieces

  • 90g thick or coarse milled oats
  • 175g assorted seeds – I used chia, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and flax seeds
  • 25g gram (chickpea) flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tsp soft dark brown sugar or maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • Approx. 100ml warm water
  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C (170°C fan oven, gas mark 5) Line a large baking tray with baking parchment. Put the oats and seeds in a large bowl and mix well. Stir in the remaining ingredients until thoroughly combined.
  2. Gradually pour and stir in approx. 100ml warm water to make a clumpy mixture. Leave aside to soak for 15 minutes, then squeeze the ingredients together with your hands to make a ball. Add a little more water if the mixture is still a bit dry.
  3. Put the mix on to the prepared baking tray and flatten with your hands. Place another sheet of parchment on top and roll using a rolling pin to make a rectangle approx. 36 x 25cm minimum. Remove the top layer of parchment.
    Making the oat and seed dough. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

    4. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until lightly browned around the edges. Place a sheet of parchment on the surface of the bake, lay another baking tray on top and carefully flip the mixture over. Peel away the top parchment and return to the oven for a further 15-20 minutes until crisp and lightly golden all over. Cool for 10 minutes then slide on to a wire rack to cool completely.

    A freshly baked slab of oat and seed crunchies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    When cold, transfer to a board and either snap into pieces with your fingers, or break into shards using the tip of a knife.

    Oat and seed crunchies. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

    As an alternative way to bake, you can divide the dough into 10 or 12 portions, flatten each one separately, and roll into thin rounds. Bake in the same way for about 5 minutes less cooking time. The crunchies are delicious with all kinds of savoury spreads, but I prefer mine with crunchy wholenut peanut butter.

    Ready for snacking. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

Marvellous March

Under a blue sky, snowdrops in full bloom. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

It’s been a wonderfully bright start to the new month. Blue sky, a light breeze, and warm(ish) sunshine. It is chilly in the shade, with frosts overnight, but the spirits are lifting as the flowers are blooming. In the garden, snowdrops are the main stars of the show and small clumps are in flower all over the place.

Snowdrops growing under the beech hedge. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

There are also little pockets of sunshine yellow, here and there, as the Tête á Tête Narcissus have burst into flower these past few days. These are a favourite of mine, with their sweet, spicy perfume as well as their bright, almost glowing, petals.

Miniature Narcissus. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

It’s only occurred to me this year, how much of the heather in the garden flowers at this time of the year. In Scotland, heather is something I associate with as a mid to late Summer flowering plant, when it grows over the hills as far as the eye can see. I have planted lots of heather varieties in the garden over the years, and mostly by good fortune, there are plants flowering in all seasons. This pure white one overhangs the driveway.

March flowering white heather. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

A couple of the early flowering rhododendrons are just about fully in flower. At this time of the year, they are vulnerable to frosts, but, so far (with fingers crossed), they have been unaffected. Both shrubs have been in the garden for many years, and are well established; they pretty much look after themselves.

Early flowering rhododendrons. Images: Kathryn Hawkins

In a few shady spots in the garden, where the sun doesn’t reach, the hellebores are opening out. Probably one of the most challenging flowers to photograph owing to their drooping heads, this white one with dark red spots is one that grows more erect. It is the first one to bloom fully; the darker varieties are not quite open yet, but will feature in next month’s post.

White Hellebore. Image: Kathryn Hawkins
Hellebore: close up and personal. Image: Kathryn Hawkins

To close my post this month, the most pleasing sight in the garden yesterday was this little fellow, standing alone, just a few centimetres tall. In a couple of weeks, the bare garden soil and gravel paths will be over-run with Chionodoxa and Scilla; there will be speckles of bright blue everywhere. These tiny, wee plants herald the start of the new season in my garden, and are a delight to behold.

The first Chionodoxa. Image: Kathryn Hawkins