From plot to pot…or tin can, wellington boot, decommissioned wheelbarrow…


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almost anything will make a planter

almost anything will make a planter

colander planter

This Thursday is my last foray of the summer holidays into ‘Fifty things to do before you’re 11 and 3/4′. This week we will be ticking off ‘Plant it, sow it, eat’ at The Courts in Holt.

The Courts has a charming and productive kitchen garden, which is planted up every year in a slightly different way. I particularly liked the Victory Garden a few years ago complete with scarecrow sporting a gas mask. This year homage is being paid to James Wong and his penchant for growing more unusual, exotic crops. Look out for electric daisies, red flax and Rudloph potatoes among the rhubarb and rainbow chard.

Few of us have enough space for an ornamental kitchen garden but it is possible tofill your jeans grow crops in a variety of unusual containers. Check out this pinterest board from Our Flower Patch to see what I mean. I’ll be showing you how to set up an allotment on your kitchen window sill, starting with an edible peashooter. Come along and see how it’s done and tick off one of your #50things.

Oxford Blues


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views of Oxford

views of Oxford

I’ve just got back from a week in Oxford (re)learning a dead language and am missing it like crazy. A week of intensive study at St Catz, fab food, the company of enthusiastic teachers and an opportunity to wander around Oxford after dinner. Who wouldn’t have the Oxford blues when it’s all over?

The study week was organised by the Cambridge School Classics Project in conjunction with the Classics department of Oxford University and was funded by the Department for Education to encourage the teaching of Latin in state schools and help increase the number of qualified Classics teachers, of which there are increasingly few.

‘So what?’ some people may think. ‘Who needs to learn a dead language anyway?’ One of the most eloquent and sensible voices to answer that question is that of Charlotte Higgins, chief Arts editor of The Guardian. I had the pleasure of chatting to Charlotte on Thursday after her lecture at the Classics department, where she was talking about her latest book, in which she answers that famous Monty Python question ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ by travelling around Britain in a camper van. Her enthusiasm for the subject  is infectious. You can read what she has to say here

Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.

Charlotte Higgins showing that the Romans may have discovered twerking.

I admit I enjoyed the week away from home rather too much and felt energised rather than worn down by intensive study from 9am  to 7pm. We covered a two year GCSE course in one week! Makes me think that university is wasted on the young. :-)

Until recently the preserve of public schools, Latin is now beginning to make strides into the state sector after the absence of many years. Sadly my local comp prefers to turn out Mandarin speakers instead.  There’s room for both, as far as I’m concerned and those who know me will not be surprised that I have set up a ‘resistance movement’ and am teaching Latin to my own children (and some others) via the eminently accessible Cambridge Latin Course at home. I shall start by putting it in context, spending a rainy afternoon watching the Vesuvius episode of Dr Who, as recommended by one of the teachers I got to know last week. Ironically Caecilius, whose family are the main characters in the first part of the course, is played by Peter Capaldi!

Quam felix sum!


A visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum



The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret

No visit to London is complete without an exploration of an area we haven’t visited before with the children. Earlier this Summer we decided on Cheapside and Sothwark enabling us to take in The Globe, the Shard, the Tate Modern, St Paul’s and some vibrant food markets. Of course it also provided me with ample opportunity to wax lyrical about ‘local boy’ Geoffrey Chaucer and Ian to pull out of the hat a visit to a museum I had no idea existed. However with two aspiring doctors in the family, it was a ‘must see’.

A few minutes’ walk from London Bridge tube station The Old Operating Theatre Museum is the oldest example of its kind in Europe and has a large and somewhat gory collection of surgical instruments which kept our would-be medics fascinated for a couple of hours. Located atmospherically up a windy wooden staircase in the quirky, herb garret of St Thomas’ Church, it tells the story of early surgery and medical training at St Thomas’s hospital. There are two main parts to the museum. The first is their permanent collection of items, including extensive information on herbal medicine, which kept me fully absorbed. The second is the operating theatre itself in which an extremely engaging and knowledgeable guide (wearing the most magnificent pair of Doc Martens I have ever seen), drew a vivid picture of early surgical medicine.

Certainly worth a visit – even if you don’t have a desire to practice medicine or a keen interest in medicinal herbs. Then you can nip along to the Tate Modern and spend an hour or two wondering if some of it really is ‘Art’. :-)

50 things to do in the holidays


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haunts of the summer holidays

haunts of the summer holidays

This holiday was always going to be a busy one with trips to family we haven’t seen since before Christmas, promised beach trips, rugby camps, youth club camps, a study week (for Mum), decorating and work to be accomplished. There’s been little time to get bored.

Thursday work space at The Courts

Thursday work space at The Courts

As you see, I’ve been back this year working for the National Trust on Thursdays running free activities for explorer families who have a whole summer to fill with great memories and plenty of material needed for that all too familiar first homework *Write about what you did in the Summer Holidays*.

We’ve already taken part in the Big Butterfly Count and made colourful butterfly feeders, found out about bees and explored the benefits of growing one of my favourite flowers Calendula. Did you know that it was used on the battle field in the civil war to help the wounded and that my great granny used to use it to give the butter she made a fabulous golden colour? These days it gets used by me as a cut flower or to make calendula salve but whilst it’s growing on my allotment the bees love it. It’s a great plant for children to grow because you can collect the seeds so easily and grow more next year….and spread the love to your friends by giving them some seeds in a pack you’ve decorated yourself.

This week whilst I am on a study week at Oxford University the Wild Art session is being run for me by Lucy but I’ll be back for the last Thursday of the holidays to tour the kitchen garden at the Courts, with its cucamelons, electric daisies, red flax and quinoa and to show children how to make an edible pea shooter.

summer fun - 50 things to do

summer fun – 50 things to do

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



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