Welcome home

Photo by Alan Tyghe

I’ve experienced some enchanting views  this week. Some of them in daylight – misty views as I headed down into the village of Kilmerston as woodsmoke curled up from chimneys, thick Dickensian fog in Bradford on Avon and this one, near Great Chalfield Manor – one of my favourite places for a walk – posted by a friend who takes lovely, atmospheric pics.

But home is where the heart is.

January is when my front garden begins to bloom in earnest. Yes. Really. It’s a Winter garden. I blogged about it last year. Delightful Daphne is in full bloom, welcoming me home and  scenting my way to the front door, now that the Christmas lights are packed away.

The theme of the Chelsea Flower Show this year is loneliness and mental health and Jo Thompson helped a little by Zoe Ball has been commissioned to design a front garden which encourages conversations with neighbours and a friendlier community. 

I wanted to make our North-facing patch at the front of the house thrive and so I spend a fair amount of time in it. Certainly I’ve found that working in it has been a conversation starter. We’ve extended the patch by putting in an amelanchier lamarckii in a large painted oil drum container and repainting an old garden table as a pot stand. And I have plans for the summer for a few more pots.

It’s good to know that by creating and maintaining a garden that welcomes us home can also provide a place of beauty for others who live or pass nearby and an opportunity to have a chat with your neighbours.

 

Snowdrops

It’s blowing a hoolie. I’ve spent all afternoon watching the eldest teen taking part in a cycle race under dour skies. But there’s a log fire crackling and signs of life in the garden. I don’t usually pick snowdrops but I planted a few in the green last year especially for cutting after the twinkly lights and Christmas bunting have been packed away until November.

Charming, aren’t they?

A trip around the herb garden – Bay

 

 

Spending as little as five minutes in nature every day exposes us to natural light and helps us slow down and get or daily rhythms in sync. I’m particularly fond of walking on the grass in bare feet. I’ve blogged about this before. January is perhaps a bit extreme to indulge this too much so a wander round in boots, clutching a hot drink and looking for signs of life is more my thing. The bulbs are poking through; the snowdrops are in bloom; weirdly there are still some rosebuds clinging on – pretty strong evidence of the way the seasons are crazily mixed up now; and many of my herbs are still looking good.

Herbs are the first plants I remember growing and picking as a small child. My granny had an old Belfast sink in the garden where she grew mint and a lavender hedge over which she used to spread her hankies to dry in the summer. It was herbs that I grew on the windowsill of my student digs and now they take up more than their share of space in the garden. This year I’ll try to feature one herb a month, tell you about its history and talk a little about how I use it. Queen of herbs Jekka McVicar was showing deep love for her bay tree (above) over Christmas and the bay I transplanted from the allotment into the front garden is looking mighty healthy so let’s start with that.

Bay has a long and noble history. The ancient Romans and Greeks used to make crowns out of true bay leaves (Laurus Nobilis) to crown great and accomplished people – kings, war heroes and Olympians. As a teacher I’m honour-bound to point out that the term ‘baccalaureate’ originates from this giving of bay leaf crowns to signify success, as does the term “poet laureate”.

One of the constituents of a traditional bouquet garni, used to flavour soups and stews bay leaves are in regular use in my kitchen. Dried bay leaves that are more than six months old are pretty pointless in my experience. Pick them fresh and keep them from anywhere from a week to a month for optimum use.

Or try this recipe suggestion I picked up from Borough Market when visiting the East End in-laws
Bay two ways: try bay leaves infused into the milk of a rice pudding along with a little cardamom, which highlights that menthol and eucalyptus quality further; alternatively tuck it in  among forced rhubarb. Its gentle scent will work its way into those pink batons as they release their juices and cool. It’s easy and comforting. Give it a go.

Indoor gardening

I’ve taken my plants back to school today – a mixture of succulents, indestructible spider plants and potted bulbs like these crocus, which I snapped last year, cheering up the gloomy north facing window in one of our rooms at home.

Over the next few weeks they’ll be joined by some seed trays because my classroom windowsill is THE perfect place for starting off the annual cut flowers, herbs and a few veggies that will be planted out into my garden beds once the frosts have passed.

Indoor gardening has become really popular, especially among millennials, who may not have access to a lot of outdoor space but want to grow a few culinary herbs. In fact windowsill herbs was the first kind of growing I did as an independent adult in my student digs. Along with the obligatory yukka and spider plant there were a range of mints to make tea and some basil jostling for position on the windowsill.

I’ve even grown some peashoots for students to munch. The only down side is that my classroom is miles from any water source.

Summer 2019: A good year for the roses?

Unlike Elvis Costello I’ve had better years with my roses. A particularly annoying leaf cutter has been carefully chomping on the leaves of “Lady Emma Hamilton’, ‘Emily Bronte’ looked like she might fade away like her namesake and ‘Munstead Wood’, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Rambling Rector’ and the others have had far fewer blooms than last year. When they really needed feeding and watering assiduously, I was in the middle of my exam marking marathon. But if you truly love your garden, it will recover and pay you back tenfold in experience, if nothing else. Not unlike parenting or teaching. There’s always another day in the garden, in the classroom or with children. Parents or teachers who beat them selves up when things go wrong would be wise to remember this.

We never grew roses when I was a child. I‘ve had to learn how to take care of them – where to plant, when and how to prune, how to rid them of aphids, dealing with black spot….. That’s probably why they didn’t have a spot in the garden. Plants had to earn their place and virtually everything was for cutting or eating. In my own cottage garden, roses rub noses with other plants – some edible, some not. I rarely cut roses for the vase but use the petals for pot pourri and rose petal jam. They work well in a cottage garden, mixed with poppies, foxgloves, phlox, under planted with violets or alchemilla mollis or companion planted with lavender, chives, tarragon, fennel or thyme.

One of the first things I planted when we moved in was a beautiful cream climber beside the kitchen door. I’ve no idea what it’s called but it romped away and smells delicious. The last one was ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’, whose buds are red, becoming orange in bloom, fading to a pale peach. Orange and blue are calming colours to look out on. Lady Emma knocks about with deep blue agapanthus in a bed easily seen from the kitchen window. I love seeing them when I’m washing up or doing the ironing.

Here’s the recipe for rose petal jam.

Gather about 60 rose petals. Deep pink or red roses are best and they need to be pesticide-free. Everything is in our garden. Cut away the light-coloured base of each petal, which can make the jam bitter. Place  a kilo of sugar and a litre of water in a saucepan or preserving pan and bring to the boil. Add the petals and simmer for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.Add a teaspoon of citric acid, (available from the pharmacy) and stir for a further ten minutes until it reaches setting point. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. Once cooled serve with scones or ice cream. Delish.

Sweet peas and thyme-roasted tomato soup

Comfort cooking and gardening never fail to cheer up a grey day.

Spring is peeping out from behind the curtain but thoughts of summer are on my mind today. Lunch was a thyme-roasted tomato soup – lighter than the hearty tomato, red pepper, chilli and butternut squash one we tucked into at the weekend. I sweated down a red onion and a couple of fat garlic cloves in olive oil, added the roast toms, a glug of passata and seasoning and blitzed it with a swirl of cream. Simples.

A quick jaunt to see my mate Tim at Bradfords to put the world to rights and order the annual bulk bag of compost; an hour in the (pretty bracing) fresh air pulling up the weeds which have germinated since the snow. Both set me up nicely …….and informed me that my knees are not what they once were. The sun put in a brief appearance so I sowed a few pots of sweet peas to stash in the greenhouse (held together with gaffer tape, since the great hurricane of early February). Wonder how long I can resist the urge to sow in earnest?

I’ve abandoned root trainers for sweet peas. They cost a fortune and take up too much space in the shed, which has become a road cyclist’s pit station. About ten seeds in a deep pot does the trick for me now This year I’ve sowed Wuthering Heights, Beaujolais, Our Harry, Kippen Cream and Nimbus. I sow enough for the half an acre plot of my dreams – just in case my ship comes in but what I can’t plant will head to the school flower patch where I’m on a mission to spread the gardening love.

Not a bad way to waste a few hours of your school hols. Now where’s the ibuprofen gel?

On Moon planting and sowing the seeds of next year’s flower harvest

As many of you wlll know, I try to garden biodynamically. For someone spontaneous and somewhat haphazard in her approach to life as well as to gardening, following some simple rules has enormous benefits for me and our garden. For everything there is a season and for every garden job there is a time in the month when it is best to tackle it. So far, so simple.

Four or five years ago I started gardening using biodynamic methods and whilst I don’t yet fertilise with biodynamic preparations I do sow, plant, prune and mulch using the cycles of the moon as a guide. When I first started some of my friends thought it was properly mad and my allotment neighbour, Weedol Williie told me in no uncertain terms it was mumbo jumbo. He laughed helplessly and made endless jokes at my expense. At harvest time he stopped laughing so much and told me I was lucky that my tomatoes had not succumbed to blight and wondered which chemicals I’d used to get rid of the aphids which had damaged his broad beans. Of course now that some well-known supermarkets have come forward to say that they use the same methods to decide when to invite critics to taste their wine ranges, it has become much more popular and acceptable.

In my experience, plants which have been sown according to moon cycles have a better developed root system, stronger flavour, more vibrant flower colour and a longer shelf-life. What’s more – and this is difficult to explain – the garden itself feels more alive, somehow.

If you do nothing else in 2019, get your hands dirty by growing a garden and do it aligned to the moon’s cycles. You won’t regret it, I promise you. You can find moon planting guides and calendars online. Alternatively, buy Lia Leenderz’s almanac and the info is all there along with a myriad other great ideas for celebrating the seasons.

The winter garden

January can be a tad depressing. Certainly, on my dark drive to school in the mornings, the absence of twinkly Christmas lights is all too evident. I quite enjoy the winter months nevertheless, embracing the opportunity to pop on my favourite woollen socks, layers of smocks, cardigans, coats and scarves and have a tramp around outside or light candles, brew coffee and curl up with a good book by the fire. But the one delight of January above all others is our shady front garden. A bit of research  about what would grow well in a small shady, north facing triangle, a few bags of mulch and some judiciously chosen shrubs, bulbs and evergreens , a few cuttings from friends and some self sown foxgloves has transformed what seemed to be an uninspiring space into a thing of beauty. And it starts to come into its own in January.

Just when the days are drear, delightful daphne welcomes us home for weeks with her delicious scent. Pockets of snowdrops spring up and the hellebores nod gently in the breeze. Viburnum, euonymus, winter jasmine and Christmas box are at their best. The bay is a stately addition to the border and there are the first signs that we will have  beautiful drifts of narcissi once spring really kicks in, along with snakes head fritillaries, tulips, bluebells, foxgloves, alliums and sweet woodruff. Later still and the plot will be transformed by the lilac and wisteria, laburnum, roses, geraniums and lady’s mantle but this is a garden predominantly for winter and spring. When the days lengthen and the weather turns hot we shift our attentions to the back of the house and the hotter colours of sunflowers, dahlias and rudbeckia. 

I Iove the idea of giving different parts of the garden their moment in the spotlight. I think it was Gertrude Jekyll who first put me onto the idea that, rather than dotting spring bulbs around the garden you should concentrate them into one border which you cram with goodies. It works. We have another dedicated spring area under the shade of a hazel in the back garden, near the compost heap where cowslips, oxslips, bluebells, primroses and wood anemones thrive.

 

 

 

Winter definitely has its positives.

 

 

 

Thoughts of spring on dark days

Seed catalogues  have been landing on the doormat daily since just before Christmas – such temptation. The pull of spring ought not to be ignored but, for a teacher, seed orders need to be completed before the start of term tomorrow – or they won’t happen until February half term. This year, with no allotment I need to rein myself in so I’ve gone for some veg, a few cut flowers and a handful of new dahlias. Unusually I’m going to sow cut flowers meadow style in one of the beds. This is mega easy provided that you prepare the bed thoroughly and ensure you’ve eradicated all the weeds. I’m fairly confident because I’ve worked the bed for a couple of years now. I’ll cover the bed with black plastic in spring to encourage any annual weeds to germinate once the narcissi have been harvested, then how them off before broadcast sowing.

I have a few seeds from last year in my tin but I ‘ve ordered dahlias from Peter Nyssen, veg from Real Seeds and cut flowers from Higgledy Garden and Sarah Raven, the latter is expensive but germination rates are good.

Garden 2019 veg and flower order

Agapanthus Midnight Blue, Agapanthus Polar Ice,  Agapanthus Twister, Brodiaea Hyacinthina (Triteleia), Caryopteris Dark Night, Crocosmia Carmine Brilliant

Dahlias  – Ariko Zsaza,  Black Jack, Blue Boy, Art Deco, Art Fair, Happy Halloween, Jescot Julie, and Karma Naomi

Helianthus annuus ‘Sonja’, and  ‘Claret’, Lupin hartwegii mix, Papaver somniferum ‘Dark Plum’, Cobaea scandens, Cottage Garden Mix 6g seed, Country Lane Mix 10g of pure wildflower seed

Edamame Bean, Beetroot ‘Chioggia’, Chilli ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, Kale ‘Curly Scarlet’ Kale, Spinach ‘Perpetual’, Spinach ‘Medania’, Organic Lettuce Seed Collection, Mustard wasabi, Salad Rocket ‘Serrata’

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