Yesterday on St Swithun’s Day – a golden day – I drove across the Wiltshire downs to Marlborough for a mooch around the bookshops and charity shops.
A lovely shabby chic pot holder and pots caught my eye. I’m going to smarten it up at the same time as repainting the terrace table and chairs – an annual task as they’re outside in use all year round. They’ll hold herbs in the summer and candles in the winter, I think.
I also found a copy of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, ripe for making copious director’s notes in preparation for next summer’s show at the Tithe Barn in Bradford on Avon, which I’m directing. A gloriously atmospheric gothic tale of Cornish smugglers.
Paperwhites for Christmas with glass baubles from Sarah Raven. It’s a Country Gate tradition – even though there are bags of tulips in the garden shed which still need planting, a million leaves blowing around the garden which need to be bagged to make leaf mould and sweet peas to sow in the greenhouse. If it ever stops raining, I will get out in the garden for a green workout as an antidote to the mince pies!
Some years I’ve made my own wreath from homegrown apples and chillis; sometimes a simple holly ring; I even contemplated fashioning one from Brussels Sprouts when we had an abundance; last year it was made by a student on a horticultural therapy project; and then there was the year our super special wreath made by Sara Willman, long time friend and one time business partner was stolen from our front door whilst we were having supper in the kitchen. The youngest member of the family spotted it being torn from the door; we gave chase but the thieves were super speedy and Sara, bless her heart, made us another.
Here is this year’s made by Sara. She has created dozens overthe last few wweeks and helped countless others create their own. If you are anywhere near Upavon then check out her workshops and home grown blooms of gorgeousness. It was so lovely to catch up on all her flowery plans for next year over a coffee today as I collected this beauty.
I can’t remember when I took on my allotment. I know I applied for one when we first moved to Bradford on Avon and I waited nearly three years on the ‘list’ so it must have been ten years ago, judging by these photos of the children with their allotment beds.
After months of clearing brambles, weeds and even mounds of rubbish which had been buried and covered with old carpet I started to grow potatoes to break up the soil and planted some raspberry canes, strawberries, gooseberries, currants and rhubarb. Gradually I laid some wood chip paths, built a double compost bin from recycled wood and installed some raised beds. I collected dozens of green wine bottles which I used to edge the long cut flower bed and planted herbs and foliage plants to add to cut flower bouquets but I never really tamed it. It was always on the edge of getting out of control as I fought back the encroaching brambles, the council hedge which was rarely trimmed as resources were cut and the huge diseased horse chestnut trees and hedge on the edge of the neighbouring municipal golf course, which never were.
I have spent hundreds of hours on the allotment with the children when they were small and working alone as they got older and gardening became less interesting for them. They even coined the phrase ‘allotment time’ to describe my propensity for nipping over there for half an hour and coming back four hours later. Best of all I have fed my family with homegrown produce and grown hundreds of my favourite flowers for cutting.
In truth I have a difficult relationship with my allotment. I loathe the inaccessibility when it’s time to mulch with compost or manure, the lack of water – no standpipe and regulations preventing putting up a shed from which I could harvest rainwater, the visiting badger who is determined to dig up bulbs as soon as they are planted and knows exactly when the sweetcorn is ripe enough to eat and the occasional thieves who pop in and help themselves to whatever they fancy. I’m not too keen on the person who regularly allows their dog to defecate in front of the gate and doesn’t pick it up. But I love the space to grow, to be alone with my thoughts only two minutes’ walk from home and the memories of the children growing up playing archaeologists and then learning to grow things over ten years.And the herbs grow better on the allotment than in the garden.
I have nurtured this little piece of Bradford on Avon for a long time but everything has its season and returning to the classroom has given me even less time to spend on growing. I need a space i can pop out to for ten minutes before leaving for work or whilst the supper is cooking and , in all honesty, it won’t be long before the children fly the nest and I want to make the most of the years we have left. I’ve put in two potager beds in the garden now that it no longer serves as a football pitch and so the time is right to let the allotment go.
Over the last few months I’ll admit that I have struggled with this. I thought about looking for a partner to share the allotment but that didn’t seem quite right and now that I’ve made the decision to give it up I am at peace. I remain true to my precept of always leaving a place better than I found it. I hope the next keeper of plot 2b has as much joy as I have over there. I’m even a little excited to see how it develops in someone else’s hands.
When you want to spend the day in the garden digging a new herb bed, weeding and potting up the last of the box of dahlia tubers (did I really order that many?) and the nearest you’ll get to it is this brave host of daffs under the trees glimpsed through a rainy car windscreen, I find it hard to rejig my plans. I have a script to work on, rehearsal schedules to organise and schemes of work to finalise for next term. I won’t be idle but I REALLY would prefer to be outside planting these under the hazel near the compost bin.
After weeks of being cooped up in classrooms for the daylight hours getting outside, even for half an hour every day is essential. My heart and mind tell me it’s spring despite the view through the kitchen window. My great grandfather and mother planted potatoes on Good Friday every year. The former was of the generation of farmers who advocated dropping your trousers and placing your bare backside on the ground to test the soil temperature in Spring. I don’t grow potatoes and prefer to use the germination of annual weeds as a reliable indicator that all is warm enough to get sowing but I have oodles of work to do.I guess today is not the day to start in earnest.
My timeline is full of people congratulating themselves for having taken down the Christmas decs and given the house a thorough clean ready for the new year. My day is less fraught with activity. The tree still graces a corner of the kitchen and the Christmas candles are throwing a rosy glow over proceedings. Today’s activity is firmly rooted in my plans for the coming season.
There was a year when I spend a few carefree hours turning the compost but as a nod to the damp weather, today’s activity is cerebral. A pile of seed catalogues are lined up on the dresser awaiting perusal – although my seed merchants of choice are online – Higgledy Garden and Real Seeds. I like their ethos and seed germination rates have been excellent over the last few seasons. I’ve made a list (unusual) and among the abundance of cut flowers this year I am making room on the plot for some purple podded climbing beans, heritage lettuce and purple carrots. I’ve also plumped for field beans ‘Wizard’ rather than broad beans. Only two of the household are fans and these are hardy. A more organised woman would have sown them back in October but teaching is so often an all-consuming activity and so a few will be sown now and the rest later. I still have tulips to get in the ground, after all!!
If you want to make this year a better one than last then you’d do well to spend more of it in the garden. This is a good place to start with #five new year’s resolutions for gardeners. It’s American and written in 2012 but those of you who have followed this blog for a while or subscribed to Our Flower Patch will be familiar with the principles. I’m going to take my own advice because 2018 is already shaping up to be busy with the children being variously occupied with driving tests, university applications, GCSEs, county rugby and a production of Goodnight Mister Tom to direct, thirty years of marriage to celebrate and the usual frenzy of life at the chalkface.
And after the seed order is in I will continue with my pile of new books (reviews to follow) and a spot of baking.
Today at The Courts, despite a forecast of torrential rain and thunderstorms we had a lot of fun under the trees making ‘plant potions’. To many children ,particularly those who have experienced the delights of forest schools, plant potions usually means mixing up mud, sticks, leaves and water to make a sludgy brew. It’s great fun. Today however, rather a lot of children and quite a few interested adults went home clutching bags of beautifully scented pot pourri and recipes for comfrey feed, calendula salve and hints and tips for drying flowers, cooking with lavender, how to make dandelion jelly and why nettles are good for you, good for the wildlife in your garden and have dozens of uses. There are a thousand and one useful things that can be made from your flower patch
I promised a few people that I would pop up links to posts I’d included previously. Just click on the appropriate highlighted links above. I also said that I would include the recipe for calendula salve, which is one recommended to me ages ago by permaculturist and all-round good egg Carl Legge. Click on Cally’s Plant Potion Recipes for the recipe sheet we handed out today. Thanks to Jane Ingram for the design.
With a little supervision, even young children can make something useful and which looks professional enough to give as a gift. Calendula is one of those plants which has been used by herbalists since ancient times. It is known to have anti: allergic; inflammatory; microbial and oxidant properties. So it’s perfect for treating cuts and grazes bruises, sores and rashes. We always keep a jar handy in a kitchen drawer.
Calendula is one of my favourite flowers. It looks so jolly, is great for bees, cuts well for the vase and as well as made into a salve it can be eaten in salads or, as my granny used to do, added when making butter to make it beautifully yellow. The seeds are rather quirky too and look almost as though they might crawl out of your hand. They are easy to sow, grow well and self seed prolifically. Children can also collect the seed very easily and pack them up to give away to friends. A perfect addition to any garden, as far as I am concerned.
I’ve been running summer holiday activities again this year for the National Trust at The Courts, Gardens in Holt. Many of the children who come along are under ten, but it’s a delight to me that many of their parents and grandparents are just as keen to get involved, curious to learn and make something from or for the garden.
Yesterday was no exception.
When I returned from a quick salad and ginger beer lunch at nearby Sam’s Kitchen, a group of ladies were waiting for me eagerly so that they could do a bit of therapeutic tussie mussie making. They even followed the trail around the garden to find out more about the language of flowers.
Neil, who looks after the vegetable garden at The Courts has been bitten by the cut flower growing bug this year and his blooms are a delight, as you see. I’m always happy to share my enthusiasm for cut flowers with everyone and with three buckets of herbs and flowers from my allotment and a bucket of cheery dahlias from Not so Secret Garden at Hartley Farm I did just that.
A tussie mussie is a small posy of flowers and herbs carried by people in Medieval and Tudor times to hide bad smells. They were also thought to protect people form disease – particularly the plague. We used mint, rosemary, bay, lavender or marjoram as the basis for fragrance – although any sweet smelling herb will do. Then we added a couple of flowers with a special meaning, bound the posy with raffia and wrote the message on an attached label.
Both children and adults found the activity highly enjoyable and everyone went away smiling, clutching a posy with a message for someone special.
Flowers seem to be appreciated universally and a walk around the gardens at The Courts is always therapeutic.
Cut flowers are good for bees too and last week’s activity shone the spotlight on the bees. Here’s Di, the beekeeper at The Courts telling everyone about her passion.
While the adults listened intently the children and I took part in the’ Bee Friendly Games’, learning about how bees communicate with each other, protect their hives from intruders and make honey. Finally everyone followed the trail of beautifully handcrafted skeps around the arboretum to discover some fascinating bee facts.
And , of course I couldn’t return home without a jar to keep my family happy.
My children have been outdoor explorers for years.
Teenagers now, one of them is halfway up a small mountain in the Lake District with a small band of Explorer Scouts on a quest to secure a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. His mobile phone has been unused, but I’m sure we’d have been contacted if he wasn’t safe.
The other two have occupied the first few days of the summer holiday alternating between sorting out their wardrobes, recycling an accumulation of bits of paper and string, pre-season rugby training, playing badminton in the garden and emailing their friends about swimming dates, shopping trips and holiday plans. It’s hard to stay away from screens entirely but my three are not completely bereft without laptop or phone. (We don’t have tablets or games consoles)
It seems parents who want their children to spend time having outdoor adventures in the school holidays have a champion in Chief Scout Bear Grylls. Recently he launched a summer manifestoof suggestions to get young people out and about enjoying the great outdoors. For those of us who work with children in this context it is nothing new, but Bear Grylls gets noticed so why should I complain that he’s taken up the flag that others have been waving for years?
Not so many weeks ago, school children were stuck in classrooms for days on end tackling examinations – SATs, GCSEs, A levels,school’s own. For weeks beforehand many pupils were undergoing booster sessions or completing practice papers on a daily basis in an effort to improve their chances of obtaining a higher level and the school’s chances of creeping up a few places in the performance league tables. PE was on the back burner for some. Yet in enlightened schools, headteachers prescribed time spent outdoors as relaxation for stressed out pupils.
Being outdoors is good for children. There have been numerous studies citing the positive mental and physical benefits of being outside looking at nature. Nature has a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention and improving performance in cognitive tests. As well as outdoor PE, some schools run Forest School sessions and horticultural programmes as an alternative to traditional classroom based lessons.
Children are genetically predisposed to move, to explore the space around them, and to discover its contents. All green spaces offer physical activity and free-range learning. The richer the environment, the richer the learning will be. Schools with extensive grounds have an advantage but for those who don’,t local parks are a great alternative.
For some time now I have been working with Eco Kids in Northampton on a lottery funded project to explore Abington Park,an urban green space with a rich history, as an outdoor classroom.
Many outdoor learning programmes already exist which cater for children’s emotional and social needs and provide practical, problem solving opportunities in an outdoor environment and an antidote to the sedentary, screen-based activities which fill the days of a number of youngsters.
Heritage sites provide rich hands on activities for studying history and the natural environment is well catered for in environmental education centres up and down the country.
Many children do not learn effectively, exclusively within a classroom. They need alternative, hands-on learning environments to match their varied learning styles.
The packs I’ve written for Eco Kids,in addition to learning about the flora, fauna and history of Abington Park itself provide teachers, parents and youth leaders with the tools to encourage them to take learning outside and reap the rewards of this approach.
Learning in the open air builds resilience, encourages creativity, develops resourcefulness, sparks discussion, fosters team building and inventiveness.