About Sel Calderbank

I'm a journalist, English teacher and gardener in Brussels, Belgium. I love gardening and writing about my garden, so I hope you enjoy reading my blog and sharing your gardening moments and photos too.

Six on Saturday: 30 Jan 2021: Citrus boost

This week I was reminded that January brings one of the best harvests, from the citrus groves of Sicily. We have an Italian neighbour who has a connection to a grower on that sun-soaked, fertile island, and brings in a lorry-load of crates laden with oranges, lemons, grapefruit and clementines, which he stores in his garage and sells to neighbours. We got a box of oranges and another of lemons, so should be able to make it through the rest of winter with enough Vitamin C!

Night time in the neighbour’s garage!

No visions of citrus from today’s rain sodden garden though, but let’s see it has to offer in this week’s Six on Saturday, hosted by the committed Propagator.

1 Narcissus ‘Paperwhite’. Indoors rather than outdoors, this has just started flowering. It has a very sweet, spicy scent, which would be cloying as a perfume but is fine for the occasional sniff.

2 Sarcococca confusa. Perfume outside now, in a pot on the patio the sweet box is coming into flower. It’s not overwhelming me with scent, to be honest, but it’s only just getting going, and it could do with a less damp atmosphere to play its part.

3 Helleborus argutifolius. I’ve featured this before but it deserves another turn. None of the coy downward facing flowers of the oriental hellebores, pretty as they may be, this is a vision of health and vibrancy. It shines from its corner in the glade, even more so in the rain, which given how much it’s raining this year is a definite plus.

4 Spanish bluebells. Next to the hellebore is a spreading clump of Spanish bluebells. Previous owner here was Spanish, so there might be a connection there. I am looking forward to these, even if they are not quite as delicate as the English bluebells.

5 Asiatic salad. In the little greenhouse I’ve got a tray of Asiatic salad which I sowed a tad late last autumn. The roots are coming through the holes in the tray, so I need to transfer to a larger container and hopefully get fresh salad leaves soon. In front is an experiment in autumn-sowing sweet pea Matucana, they’re ok but a bit floppy.

6 Chillis: Thai Red Dragon and Biquinho. Let’s loop back indoors now to show you my LED lights in action, giving my just-germinated chillis a helping hand. I’ve gone for two ends of the scale this year, a hot Red Dragon for our Thai curries, and a very mild yellow Biquinho for adding to salads, making salsas etc. There is a third row of yet to germinate sweet green peppers. By the way this is how dark it is at 9 a.m. on a rainy Saturday – urgh!

That’s all for this rather wet week. We are now trapped in Belgium with closed borders, and haven’t seen family in the UK since last August. This is a strange feeling, to have your freedom of movement restricted, and in a foreign country, though I totally understand the reasoning behind it. I feel a slight sense of creeping claustrophobia though, but then I realise I am not alone in that, and many are aching to get out and about again. I hope the garden and the lengthening days provide welcome distractions for all.

Wordless Wednesday Whorls

A close-up which reminds me of wool.
From a distance, reminds me of a hippo’s head emerging from the water.

This was taken on my “Neolithic walk” in the forest last week, when the sun came out. I’m back indoors today, no inclination to head out into the murky greyness. I think I’ll light a fire instead, and work on my newsletter for gardeners in Belgium…

Six on Saturday: 23 Jan 2021: Catkins

I’m still a little high on the novelty of a patch of blue sky and a few weak but welcome rays of sunshine, which arrived here yesterday after weeks of grisaillle (the Belgian/French word for miserable, grey weather: as grim as it sounds). Today also looks promising and mild. I had a lovely bike ride in the forest yesterday, getting a bit carried away with archaeological imaginings at a 6,000 year-old Neolithic site, and noticed that the beech nuts on the forest floor were germinating. On that encouraging note, let’s get started with this week’s Six on Saturday (six things in the garden on Saturday):

1 Rose pruning. I’ve done the two climbers, and the six bushes along the front path. Tick! Next up is the more intimidating job of pruning the old and too tall apple tree. The other half will need to help (he can go up the ladder, I’ll stay safe on the ground holding it I think!).

2 Euphorbia characias ‘Silver Edge’. A dwarf euphorbia which I planted last autumn to bulk up the cottage garden planting near the pink roses. As I was doing my rose pruning, I noticed the slightest hint of pink on some of the leaves.

3 Pieris japonica ‘Variagata’. Another white, green and pink number. They say everyone has a good side and less flattering side in profile, and this is the good side of my Pieris. She’s rather bare on the other half, but never mind, perhaps she needs a good prune to stimulate growth.

4 Tropaeolum tuberosum. I had been looking out for a supplier for these edible nasturtium tubers. There was a waiting list for them with a French supplier that fellow gardening blogger Fred had recommended to me for seeds (merci Fred), and as soon as they became available again, I snapped them up. There are three tubers, one of which has already sprouted, so I had better pot them up this weekend.

5 Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blossom’. Really looking forward to seeing this in flower soon, just look at those fat buds. I have to admit, this was an impulse buy. I was supposed to be getting one for a friend while visiting a specialist clematis supplier deep in the Flemish countryside, but it was March, the plant was in flower, and was simply irresistible. Luckily, I happen to have a warm, sheltered wall for it to clamber up. Phew…

6 Hazel catkins. I have two trees planted next to each other, right outside the front of the house, and we get a pretty view of the yellow catkins from the living room window. Hazel is wind pollinated, and has both male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious if you like a technical term). The male flowers are born in huge numbers on the catkins, and for the first time I noticed the tiny female flowers with their crimson styles (see last photo). No need to attract the bees, no need to be showy!

Tiny female flower visible just above the end catkin

So there we are, thanks as always to our host The Propagator, you’ll find many other Six on Saturday contributions on his blog from many corners of the globe. From this Belgian corner, I wish everyone a great weekend, may the weather be kind to you!

Forest wandering with Neolithic man

I had a very pleasant afternoon reliving my childhood dream of being an archaeologist. After finishing my morning’s English teaching, helping a group of European diplomats sound more persuasive and, well, diplomatic, I grabbed the camera and hopped out on my bike, forest bound. This is the great advantage of working as a freelancer, you can seize the moment. I had no clear objective other than to enjoy the first blue skies and sunshine we have had in weeks.

Taking a moment…

My first stop was just a scrubby clearing near the entrance to the forest, but I like this place because you get a bit of a vista, and something about the landscape is even vaguely Mediterranean, with Spanish broom and pines growing in the open ground. It’s off the main track, and nobody else comes here – there is only the faintest little grassy path.

A scrubby clearing with pines on the horizon

After some time just taking it in, I hopped back on my bike and went a little deeper into the forest, on Chemin des Deux Montagnes. This takes you to an intersection with the intriguingly named Chemin des Tumuli, which is where the Neolithic site is located. This is what you initially see as you approach it, looking over a low hedge, just a gentle dip in the ground with two mounds either side of it, and the stubs of some felled trees.

Yet there is definitely something suggestive of human sculpting of the landscape, there are quite clearly visible earthen mounds.

Looking from the top of one mound to the other, with a felled tree trunk in the foreground.
Looking from the opposite perspective, towards the smaller of the two mounds.

A small sign by the road indicates that this is the listed archaeological site of Deux Tetres (or Tumuli), that sits alongside the remains of a camp belonging to the Michelsburg civilisation, an important Neolithic culture in central Europe between 4400-3500 BC. They occupied a swathe of western-central Europe from Northern France, through Belgium and into Germany, where one of their most famous sites was found on a hill in Michelsburg, whence they get their name.

A map of the archaeological site

What I love about sites like these are two things: the ability to just scramble around them unheeded and unshepherded by anyone, and the exercise that unfolds imagining the lives of the people who lived here some 6,000 years ago, just a short bike ride from where I live now. My Dad took me to similar sites of mounded earth on trips to visit family in the south-west of England, and I found them mesmerising. The same giddy imagining overtook me on a visit to Merv, the ancient Silk Road city that the Mongols razed, and of which just rounded mud-coloured mounds remain.

Stumps mark the felling of trees to protect the site

The only modern-day interference that is visible here is the felling of trees to ensure that the site is not damaged by them. The sign states that while the cover of the forest did help limit erosion for a long time, the planting of several beech trees in 1808 and their subsequent aging threated serious damage, should one fall and uproot large sections of tumuli!

The site marks a high point in the forest here (good for defensive purposes), but just down the hill there is plenty of water. I don’t know if the people on this particular site practised agriculture and how much forest there was at that time. Archaeological evidence suggests that colonists from the Michelsburg culture were instrumental in the spread of agriculture to other parts, including Scandanavia and the British Isles.

A lake a short way downhill from the site: water and civilisation are never far apart

So after some scrambling around and taking photographs, I whizzed down the hill to the lake, which is a peaceful spot, despite the fact that today lots of school kids were walking about there. I am glad they are getting their exercise.

A bridge over the water

As I contemplated the lake, I looked down at my feet and saw hundreds of acorns. There are a few European oaks in this predominately beech forest, but what was odd was that some of them were pink. This made me look closer, and I realised that many of these nuts were just germinating. If you look closely, you can see the process beginning. If anyone knows why they go pink, do let me know!

Acorns, and the beginning of germination
A closer look, and a distinctly pink seed bursting out of its hard casing.

After that, it was time to go home, as I’d already missed my lunch. So up the hill I peddaled, out of the forest, along the avenue of houses of the extremely wealthy right by the forest, to the train station, across the main road, and into my neighbourhood. Fast forward 6,000 years of civilisation. So I wonder, 6,000 years from now, who will be trudging over earthen mounds and contemplating our lives, will they even be human or will we have left the earth by then?

Six on Saturday: 16 Jan 2021: let there be light!

Mid January. At this time of year, I often feel like a participant in the Chinese communists’ famous 6,000 mile trek, the long march to freedom of the 1930’s, except that instead of the emergence of Chairman Mao as undisputed party leader, it’s the emergence of spring that we are marching towards (and perhaps freedom from the tyranny of Covid-19!). So let’s keep marching folks, the way seems long, but there are only two more Six on Saturdays until February! On this endurance feat, am keeping my spirits up with some good music (am flitting this week between Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and The Best of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music), many cups of tea, some nice food and planning a new world order (or do I mean planting schemes?).

I’m going to start with some snow, a brief white interlude:

1 A dusting of snow. We were promised snow in Brussels this week, and this is all we got, it lasted for all of two hours on Thursday morning. I was mighty quick to get the camera, before it all melted. Honestly, I was expecting better, but hey ho, perhaps next time.

2 LED Plant Grow Lights. A new bit of kit! Arrived this week, can’t wait to try them out when I start sowing in February. Hopefully, goodbye leggy seedlings. It clips on easily to the window ledge, has four flexible arms, dimmers, timers for 4/8/12 hour bursts and a remote control! Cool. Here my Aloe is enjoying the full spectrum light. I feel like joining it.

3 Gaultheria mucronata berries. These are still doing well in their big blue pot.

4 Garlic. Planted in the veg bed in October, it’s pushing through healthily now. I counted about ten, which I think is how many cloves I planted.

5 Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’. Already showing buds, this one flowers quite early in April. Although I lost two plants in the summer drought, one survived and I divided it into three, and planted these divisions in my new purple-orange themed border. They are a cheerful sight in flower – as shown in the second photo taken last spring.

6 Borage. Right plant, wrong place. I have decided that borage can’t grow in the veg bed. Simply gets too big, even though it’s an excellent decoy for blackfly/aphids, which left my veg alone last year, going for the borage instead. I love it though, so I’ll find a new place for it, but this fellow and his friends are going to have to come out. I wrote a post about borage, you can see it and photos of its brilliant blue flowers here. It’s worth growing not only for the beauty of the flowers and the bristly foliage that glimmers in morning sunshine, but also for its value to pollinators: scientists have found that after a bee visits a flower, it refills with nectar within two minutes, making it like a busy service station for bees!

To finish off, I’d like to thank readers for the great comments made on my post on herbs last week. I used all the herbs I mentioned to make this rather delicious topping for bread: chickpeas, red onion, lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper and all the fresh herbs I could lay my hands on. It felt like a taste of summer. That’s all from me this week. Check out the Prop’s site for lots of interesting Six on Saturday reads from all over the globle. Till next time.

In a vase on Monday: A tale of two seasons

Each Monday Cathy at Rambling In The Garden invites us to share a vase of materials gathered from our gardens.

I have to confess that on a grey day like today (I know, another one!), I didn’t think I’d even venture out into the garden, but then I did anyway, without high hopes. I picked a sprig of Helleborus argutifolius, mainly going to seed now, as I find the lime green quite cheering. Then I started pruning some of the roses along the front path, and there were still some soft pink blooms bravely hanging on. So we have a combo of June flowering roses and winter flowering Hellebore. Well, it takes all sorts.

I added a few sprigs of variagated ivy, a couple of fern leaves that have still remained green despite usually being brown at this time of year, and then finally one of my favourites, silver helichrysum. My hand now smells slightly of curry, but that’s ok, because the vase itself smells of roses!

Six on Saturday: Waiting: 09 Jan 2021

A cheery delivery.

This morning we woke up to the first frost of the year: a welcome change. All week, we’d had grey skies, cold and gloom, and in those circumstances what choice is there but to wait, to sit the month out? I’m waiting to sow all those seeds I mentioned last week, oh and a few more that just arrived in the post as an early birthday present for me. For my birthday tomorrow, my son promises to make me a chocolate cake (he has just recently learnt how).

Continue reading

A loaf and well

During our first lockdown in Belgium, in the spring of 2020, seeking to stay at home as much as possible, I picked up a new skill: bread baking. I’d never done it before, and had assumed it must be difficult and time-consuming. Of course, it’s no such thing – after all, bread-baking is one of humanity’s most universal and basic skills. If you can mix flour and yeast, and indulge in some really quite therapeutic kneading of the dough, then you can make bread.

There was only one problem: everyone else had the same idea. Everytime I went to the shops, whether they were large supermarkets or small artisanal shops, the shelves stocking flour were empty (ditto for the infamous loo roll shortage, of course, but strangely our survival depends less on that). There was also a bit of a blackmarket / barter economy springing up around yeast, with friends of mine offering loo roll in exchange for it. I’d managed to get hold of yeast, more or less legally, but not flour, until I spotted this unwanted bag in my little local supermarket.

Not really knowing what it was, I picked it up anyway. In Belgium, food has to be labelled in both French and Dutch (and sometimes German too), to reflect the official languages. This can be a help, and here there’s a clue in the Dutch: Speltmeel. So this is Spelt flour, an ancient grain in the same genus as wheat but a different species.

So I did a quick bit of research, and it turns out that Spelt is just fine for bread-making, and can be easily substituted for wheat flour. Even better, it’s somewhat more nutritious than wheat, easier to digest (with slightly less gluten, so it feels less filling) and has an interesting, nutty, sweet flavour. High in fibre and protein, it also is rich in quite a few vitamins and minerals. One thing that is a definite plus for me at this time of year, is that it can boost energy levels due to its complex carbs, which are digested more slowly and therefore give you energy over a longer period of time. I don’t know about you, but I could do with that, even in hibernation.

To make things more interesting, I added some of these black sesame seeds to top the loaf.

When the aroma of baking bread fills the home, you can almost forget the rather depressing grey, cold weather outside. I admit to one major error: this time, I forgot to grease the baking tray before sticking the loaf in the oven, so it was something of an ordeal to unstick it. But you can’t see the loaf’s bottom in my photo, so it doesn’t matter! Also, as I baked bread today, I feel no need to cook an elaborate dinner tonight: looks like it will be beans on toast and bread with butternut soup.

January calls for comfort food

January is a miserable month, in my opinion, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also the month of my birthday, so I need to make an effort to stay positive. It’s now getting too cold for gardening – we are hovering at zero degrees C or just below, without the upside of actual snow. To compensate, there is reading and eating, both essential for good winter hibernation.

So here’s a meal that really lifted my spirits this dismal Monday in January, and whilst being classic oven-baked comfort food, is a healthy version. If anyone’s looking to cut down on meat and minimise dairy, as well as increase fibre, I recommend it. The wholewheat lasagne pasta actually makes it even tastier, it got the thumbs up from my somewhat fussy 13 year old as well as my slightly less fussy but not-a-natural-vegetarian husband.

Healthy Veg and Feta Lasagne

The recipe if anyone’s interested (this serves 3 people):

  • 8 or 9 strips of wholewheat dry lasagne sheets
  • 2 finely cut shallots
  • 1 or 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • a generous handful of mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 tin of whole tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons of dried herbs: herbs de provence, dried celery and sage
  • Salt and pepper
  • One pack of fresh feta cheese
  • Basic bechamel sauce: 1 tablespoon plain flour, 250 ml milk, 2 bay leaves

Method: Heat your oven to 180 degrees. Fry the shallots in vegetable oil until soft, then add the garlic and red pepper. Add the spices, then the mushrooms. When the veg softens slightly, add the tinned tomatoes, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste (just a pinch of salt, as the feta is quite salty). Allow to simmer while you make the bechamel sauce. Heat some vegetable oil in a pan, add the flour, then stirring quickly, add the milk, stir continuously to avoid lumps. Crumble one third of the feta cheese into the sauce and add the bay leaves. Allow to thicken.

Find an oven-proof dish, and add some of the tomato-veg sauce to cover the bottom. Layer 2 or 3 sheets of lasagne on top, then top with more tomato-veg sauce, followed by a layer of bechamel sauce. Continue to make layers in this way. For the third and final layer, top with bechamel and then place strips of the remaining feta cheese on top.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with a fresh green salad. We had watercress and tomatoes. Feel duly comforted!