Messing about with flowers


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cally and flowers

with homegrown flowers

It’s been an exhausting and enjoyable week. The entire family have been involved in a production of Jane Eyre at the town’s ancient Tithe Barn. The eldest child charmed the punters front of house and ate his own weight in leftover cake. The middlest nimbly lugged scenery around backstage.  The youngest endured the horrors of Lowood School and after a quick costume change reappeared as Betsy, a rosy cheeked country girl.  The man of the house  appeared dripping in stage blood as the ineffectual brother of the madwoman in the attic and I provided comic relief when life was looking a bit drear at Thornfield Hall (and a passable Gloucestershire accent).

Production week starts with the get in during the Friday and Saturday prior to production opening, when we move in the set which has been constructed like a giant piece of flat pack furniture elsewhere in our barn, over the previous months along with the lighting rig, set furniture, props, costumes and front of house kit. Experience tells me this is best done in rigger boots and not flip flops when you are the emergency stand in for a your sick son.

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre July 2014

Then, on Sunday we set up camp for a few hours to run the technical rehearsal, during which time we realise just how little time we have to move between scenes and try to remember our lines and stand in the right place whilst lights are readjusted and carpenters bang in nails around us.This is where the mothers on the cast really come into their own. The ability to block out superfluous sound and get a job done should never be underestimated.

our theatre for one week only - Bradford on Avon's Tithe Barn

our theatre for one week only – Bradford on Avon’s Tithe Barn

From Monday evening onward we’re into the real thing – with a dress rehearsal and a five night run followed by the get out the following Sunday. And all the while doing a full time job in the daytime and getting three very tired children out of bed and off to school in the morning and doing their homework as soon as they get home in the evening. But we love it, despite the fog through which we experience the following week.

Writing has been on hold for a few days as a result but I have enjoyed the calmness and routine of cutting flowers early in the mornings and arranging them for friends and neighbours. I even managed a meadow arrangement for a scene in the production. I love being involved in a project and this production has been an absolute joy but I shall miss working so closely with such a great group of people.

Of course, there’s only one cure for post-production blues and that’s to get involved in the next production. Sadly I am a little too busy at home and work to take that cure so messing about with flowers is a pretty good alternative. I’m harvesting lots of cosmos, nicotiana, cornflowers, salvia, malope, sweet peas, verbena bonariensis, snapdragons, dahlias and lots of foliage this week.

schoolroom flowers

flowers for a Victorian schoolroom



Exercise is good for you, laziness is not.


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Cally Smart at The Courts, Holt

in the kitchen garden at The Courts Photo: Nick Hook

I’m sure I’ve quoted Cliff Richard in this blog in the past and probably Shakespeare, Emily Bronte and Show of Hands. Today is a first for The Wombles. The middlest member of the family is still the only one mildly obsessed with the World Cup. Fortunately he is still young enough for it to manifest itself as a keenness to play football down the park with friends in an effort to recreate last night’s goal. The eldest has taken up cricket with a vengeance in addition to a spate of javelin victories.  The youngest has maintained her 100% record in winning the Sports Day sprint race. Fortunately, despite a failure to get to the gym I have been too busy to be accused of laziness.

In amongst the school Summer Fair, (where sales from the flower patch soared past £200 for this year so far) and signing up schools as Our Flower Patch members from September, I was interviewed and snapped by The Guardian, as you see,without having to dress up as a Viking or a Roman. Ellen at Frank and Elsie was on standby for a makeover if necessary. You can read the full article here and admire (above) the way Nick Hook has made someone who hates being photographed look so relaxed.

I’ll be back at The Courts in the Summer to run family activities on Thursdays on butterflies, bees, wild art and growing in unusual containers. They are all free to families visiting The Courts. Bring a sunhat and a sense of adventure.

Flowers, fruit, writing and interviews.


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Poppy pavement It’s a bit crazy around Country Gate Towers at present. Obviously, the middlest child is in the midst of Football Fever. The eldest is training hard to protect his position as school javelin champ and the youngest is practising her sprint starts and psyching out the opposition technique ahead of the cluster athletics competition tomorrow. The one sporting an elbow injury is back at work, leaving me free to write activities for Our Flower Patch and Abington Park Outdoor Classroom. In theory, at least. Except I keep being interrupted.

  • There’s the burgeoning flower patch in the garden to watch and keep slug free.
  • There’s the mini quince and plums on the trees we planted last year to admire
  • There’s the excitement of mulberries on our bush on the allotment for the first time ever
  • There’s extra flower orders to pick for and arrange for our growing band of customers at school
  • There’s making the most of endless days of brilliant blue skies and gorgeous sunshine
  • There’s the plantings at the station to admire whenever I get on a train
  • There’s the streets filled with wild poppies which someone secretly sowed back in the Autumn

as well as the inevitable business of family life. I hope life is less busy for you. And if you need something to while away the time while you sit outside and have a coffee, here’s what my partner in Our Flower Patch Sara Willman gets up to during the rest of her week, as reported and photographed by Katie Spicer to celebrate British Flowers Week. My publicity stunt happens this week with an interview with the Guardian about working outdoors, which I do a lot. I’m doing it tomorrow(excitement) followed by a photo shoot on Wednesday (mild panic). When it’s published I’ll let you know….possibly.

Help. I need more space….



Cally's new patch

This cry is nothing new. My family will tell you that I frequently bemoan the lack of space there is in which to store books, propagate plants and stash the paraphenalia of life. However I have  reached the point of not having enough space in which to grow all those plants I started from seed and are ready to pop in the ground. For the first time ever. It’s a disaster! What’s a girl to do?

Get another plot of course!

Better still, get two!

The first is in the garden, where our dear late chickens used to live. We hadn’t got around to re-turfing it and so I suggested to the man I have shared my life with for the past quarter of a century that it would be much better used as a flower patch. In a weak moment he agreed!! I planted it up before he could change his mind and ordered some germander plants from Catherine at Pepperpot Herbs to make a bee- friendly hedge. Job done.

But I still have a lot of seedlings to plant out. I cleared the allotment beds which had been planted with spring bulbs for cutting not knowing where this year’s bulbs would go. On a whim I mentioned this to the staff at the Children’s Centre, where I used to run a ‘Get Growing’ project. The management of the centre has now changed, funding is in decline and their outside space is no longer used. An overgrown plot with three raised beds and potential for more is perfect, isn’t it?

As you see there’s plenty to do, but I’ve made a start by covering the beds with weed suppressant membrane. The next step is to strim the nettles, lay down some more mulch, set up a compost heap and rainwater harvesting and pop in some shrubs which can be used in arrangements.

I feel a weekend working party with coffee and cake and a pot luck lunch coming on.

By the Autumn it should be ready for a job lot of narcissi, tulips, alliums and ranunculus. It’s a gradual transformation. It’ll take time but at least I’ve taken the first few steps.

Book review: A Year at Otter Farm by Mark Diacono


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I have to say that the arrival on the doormat last Saturday of Mark Diacono’s new book was greeted with more than a little excitement at Country Gate Towers. ‘A Year at Otter Farm’ charts the first few years of dreaming, planning, growing, rearing and eating on Mark’s Devon smallholding. I read it on a short break to rainy West Wales and loved the dreamy mix of anecdote, aspiration and good advice on growing and cooking.

You may know Mark from his time spent at River Cottage, where he wrote three of the River Cottage Handbooks. You may know him from his award winning recipe book or his blog or his climate change smallholding. You may not know him at all. Never fear, I am here to correct that wrong. Anyone who can show me an edible use for those stalwarts of granny’s gardens everywhere –  fuscias – deserves world-wide recognition. (Not included in the book, however.)

Mark’s approach to growing is based on producing tasty food. How refreshingly sensible! He has a whopping  17 acres to play with but even a few pots of unusual herbs and a mulberry bush will make a difference to what you can serve up to your family and friends. I know, because that’s what I started with on a windy North London balcony many years ago. This book will inspire you to experiment in the space you have available. It isn’t the work of a trained horticulturist or chef but that of an experienced,experimental and observational gardener and cook with a knack of communicating just the right balance of inspiration and realism to make you believe that your life will be made that little bit richer by planting salsify, foraging for wild garlic or keeping chickens.

Divided up month by month Mark documents activity on the farm, outlines which crops are at their peak and gives hints and tips for growing them successfully. At the end of each quarter a few delicious sounding recipes are included as a starting point for what you can rustle up in your own kitchen. There are one or two of his famous cocktails and plenty of original ways of using veggies. I may have fallen in love with Jerusalem artichokes again as a result of his Jerusalem Artichoke cake!

If you’re interested in a warts and all account of growing exciting and unusual food successfully despite changing weather patterns then this is the book for you. Engaging, humorous and rooted in reality (see ‘Dear Henry’on page 54)  it’s beautifully photographed too – mostly by Mark himself. Some people are sickeningly talented, aren’t they?

The only omission is the lack of a cut flower patch on Otter Farm to provide beautiful blooms for the table. But I can advise on that. Mark – cut flower patch – do it now. You’ll be able to eat many of the blooms too. Win. Win!

Published in hardback by Bloomsbury and available priced at £18 from here.

Aquilegias and working with nature.


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“But I thought you hated those flowers” said my husband as I added a few aquilegias to a couple of jam jar flower arrangements last Friday.

“Well. I’ve changed my mind.”

Gardens never stand still, do they? And nor should gardeners. There was a time when I was irritated by blue or pink aquilegias springing up in my carefully designed planting scheme. It’s not that I abhorred them. I save that kind of vehemence for fuscias and municipal bedding. It’s just that they would pop up uninvited and spread into places where I wanted to grow something else. But now I’m embracing their abundance and looking upon their propensity to self seed as a gift rather than an irritation.

Aquilegias AKA granny’s bonnets or columbines have been a cottage garden favourite for hundreds of years. There are literally dozens of varieties. And if they do self seed you may not get a flower which is exactly like the parent flower. See what I mean? Constantly changing. They add a country feel to jars of flowers and the wide range of shades mean that there’s sure to be one that matches your floral colour scheme. If they do willfully decide to grow where you don’t want them, chop them down for the vase. They seem to love heavy clay and are happy in the shade. Cut them when some of the flowers on the stem have started to open and some are still in bud.

I’m a convert – so much so, that I’ve decided to sow a few different ones this year to add to the freebies – Nora Barlow, Black Barlow and Ruby Port.

It’s a lesson in life as well as gardening. Embrace what you’re given, work with it and you’ll make something beautiful.


You’ll find out more about aquilegias here


Tulips, books about compost and the start of Summer.


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It’s May Day. How did that happen? I’ll tell you how. In between all those trips to the hospital with the member of the family with the smashed elbow and the frenzy of mothering, writing, teaching and allotmenteering which is my life, the blossom unfurled, tulips blossomed and slugs munched happily on new shoots. I admit to being a little out of kilter when it comes to seasonal preparations this year as a result. My seed sowing was late; the Simnel cake got its marzipan covering on Easter Monday five minutes before tea and a flurry of family birthdays were handled with military precision at the last minute rather than in my usual, relaxed way. And now it’s the start of Summer – at least if you’re a Celt.

Beltane, May Day, Calan Haf – whatever your take on this time of year, know that my ancestors and probably yours were bedecking themselves with flowers and ribbons, dancing round the Maypole and driving their cattle out to Summer pasture through the smoke of bonfires lit to bring health and fertility to their crops and livestock in the coming year. In this house we are celebrating with a working oven which should bring health to the cook in the household as the stress of living in an episode of Butterflies was all too much.

Talking of stress, I can’t recommend enough growing tulips as a crop in trenches as opposed to spending hours placing them in groups in your border, only to see them open, flop and look messy in the blink of an eye. It took me half an hour to plant loads on the allotment. They looked a picture and I have brought bucket loads home to place in vases round the house and to give to friends. We picked up a couple of bags for next to nothing at the Sarah Raven sale and popped them in a trench bed at school (as you see above) and have sold them to parents on our Friday afternoon flower stall. I’ll never plant a tulip any other way again.

My second stress buster has been turning the compost. I’m evangelical about compost as you know and was delighted to find out recently that another Wiltshire resident is equally committed to getting the compost message out to the next generation of gardeners. Ben Raskin is Head of Horticulture for the Soil Association. He’s written a great family friendly book about making great compost. Kids will love the format and parents will find the information useful. If it doesn’t have you getting out your hammer and knocking a bin up from old pallets, nothing will. Ben was kind enough to talk to me about the background to the book and his own experience of gardening as a child and as a father of two. You can read the interview in full here.

The Case of the Missing Larkspur


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pic of lovely larkspur from Bespoke Confetti

Every gardener has their own personal nemesis in the garden. Without doubt mine is larkspur. I can root out ground elder. I can deal with plagues of slugs with a combination of copper bands, sacrificial lettuce and late night forays into the garden with a bucket of salty water. I can plant endless patches of calendula to attract aphid eating hoverflies. But I can’t germinate larkspur for love nor money.

True. It’s a bit fussy but, despite what my children think, I can follow rules to the letter occasionally. (I am the mother who drives the wrong way round the car park and sends her children to school on an Inset Day…. but that was only once and I did rescue them within ten minutes of their leaving the house.)

I love larkspur which says something about its delights as it comes in colours other than red. I dream of vast swathes of the British countryside covered with larkspur of varying hues, like a giant patchwork quilt. It’s sickening to think I can’t sow even a small patch on the allotment.

A few weeks ago Rosie Ellis very generously provided an online seed sowing masterclass for anyone who wanted to grow luscious larkspur. That’d be me then. In a nutshell, here are her top tips:

  •  Use fresh seed. This is more about the conditions in which seed is stored than how old it is. Larkspur remains viable for years provided that it is cold stored and not exposed to heat in transit. If you’re serious about larkspur, buy online from a recognised supplier who is open about how they store their seed. I bought seed fresh this year from Kings Seeds, who know their stuff, according to Rosie.
  • The best time to sow is in the first two weeks of September. This allows the seed to germinate and form a small flat rosette which will withstand the Winter. It also allows vernalisation to take place. (Bear with me, it’s explained below!) Result – strong larkspur with long stems and prolonged flowering. Chance would be a fine thing. Do you know how busy I was at the start of September?
  •  If you sow in Spring then you need to do so as soon as the ground becomes workable to ensure that the plant has the necessary six week exposure to cold temperatures. It’s called vernalisation. (Useful for pub quiz nights and Scrabble.) Bradford on Avon was under water for weeks and then we had a heatwave. I took remedial action and stored my seed in the freezer.
  • Cover lightly. Sorted. I can do that.
  • Sow direct into the ground as larkspur doesn’t like root disturbance but if your soil is clay, you’re stuffed as larkspur doesn’t like to have its feet sitting in water. I’m stuffed.
  • Larkspur needs a free draining soil. See previous point. I garden on clay but I am an optimist and reckon that I can sow into trays and carefully transplant before my plants get too big. Next time I’ll remember to sow into a seed tray with drainage holes. Then when a downpour happens my larkspur won’t drown.

I’m giving larkspur one last go this season………. in a seed tray with drainage holes, having refrigerated it first and having left it outside to fend for itself. Tough love might just do the trick!

Fortunately I have a plan B. It’s called ‘get your business partner to sow extra and swop for something she wants.’ Thank goodness for Sara.


Yes of course I’ll be giving larkspur a go in September.


Because gardeners are optimists, always believing that next time things will be better and I REFUSE TO BE BEATEN.

In the news today ….climate change, young horticulturists and Marks and Spencer


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school flower patchYes. It is April 1st and the papers carry the odd joke story. Sadly a recent article in The Telegraph tweeted this morning, snortily comparing the new breed of ‘Young Horts’ who grow cucamelons on balconies in milk cartons, throw seedballs on waste ground and plant sunflowers at bus stops with ‘old school’ chemical squirting, double digging obsessed gardeners has all the hallmarks of a filler because the hack who was supposed to come up with the April Fool’s joke ran out of inspiration. The real story is that many young people are getting the growing bug in the way their parents haven’t. For the first time since the war I sense there is a feeling of growing with a real purpose amongst young and old alike. Community orchards are springing up, people are experimenting with exotic crops on many a kitchen windowsill and cut flower patches are de rigueur. In some cities municipal planting is edible. Vertical growing and roof gardens are not just for hardcore nerds. You don’t have to be young to be part of this growing evolution but the young in particular get the climate change message, the need to plant year round for pollinators and the positive effect that local, seasonal crops can bring. They can also harness the power of social media to work collaboratively and get ideas off the ground quickly. Growing To Young Horts is cutting edge, changing the world stuff. And so it should be. Clearly the Telegraph thought better of their snorting and have given the Young Horts better coverage today.

Climate change is still big news with a report published yesterday indicating that people are now beginning to feel the effects of climatic change  and the need to do something about it. Even Marks and Spencer are pushing their green credentials with a new way of water free, more compact distribution of flowers, thereby conserving water and requiring fewer lorries on the road. Now I wouldn’t want to diss good old M and S. They’ve provided generations of the female members of my family with robust underwear and stockings but fewer lorries and the need for less water is – pardon the pun – a drop in the ocean. We need to think bigger where crops are concerned. Listen to what Young Horts and their older supporters have to say.

Thanks to Our Flower Patch we have our own branch of Young Horts at school. They’ve started selling our home grown blooms on Friday afternoons – no miles, no chemicals, recycled packaging (in jam jars), beautiful, fragrant, seasonal and much appreciated by our customers. Our young horticulturists enjoy making people happy, making a noise about it on the school blog, Facebook and Twitter and making money. They’re doing what their grandparents did – using what they have to grow what they can. Maybe in a year or two some of them will be fully fledged members of the Young Horts. I do hope so.

And THIS is today’s real news.




Heatwaves, promotion and getting ready for seed sowing


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Charlotte's Spring PotCapability Charlotte’s Spring Planter

My, how I’ve neglected you! Those of you who tune in to my Twitter feed or the Latest News on Our Flower Patch or the Fitz Gardeners blog will know that I haven’t been idle. It’s just that I haven’t been round here much for a week or two. Let’s catch up now while you gaze at the Spring planting handiwork of local gardener and Drama Queen ‘Capability Charlotte’

Despite the predicted two week heatwave being restricted to a balmy day spent at the Chippenham rugby festival, Spring has sprung on the allotment and I have a crop of anemones and daffodils ready to cut and a lot of tulips coming along nicely. I’ve not had much luck with tulips in my borders where they flop, get munched by slugs and look untidy when they get to the open blowsy stage. None of this is in evidence when you grow them as a crop on the allotment, packed in close together and cut them before they go over.

The school garden is looking mighty fine too and last Thursday the children got a chance to blow their own trumpets on local radio when they sowed a poppy meadow and plenty of seeds on air whilst Sara and I talked about Our Flower Patch. We’ll soon have plenty of blooms for sale to parents and members of the local community, making the school garden a great fundraiser as well as good fun and a fantastic outdoor learning opportunity.

The rest of the time has been spent sorting out my stash of seeds ready for sowing and promoting Our Flower Patch. Last week I went to the local Headteachers cluster meeting where the idea received the general thumbs up, even from the secondary school, which I wasn’t expecting and we’re beginning to get enquiries from all over the UK as word spreads. Do take a look. It’s a great way for primary schools to teach the National Curriculum in a creative way, make full use of a school garden and raise some money for the school. The children with whom we’ve piloted it have had a ball.

If this sounds like a good thing to you, please tell your local school about us.


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