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’

Twelfth Night – or what you will

We don’t tend to celebrate Twelfth Night. For a start I can never work out whether it is the 5th or 6th January. For a second I am partied out and crave peace, simplicity, even solitude after the Christmas and New Year festivities. For a third, there is the business of a new school term to contend with along with the accompanying dreams of not being able to locate a class….or my notes….. or a set of marked books. You get the idea? These dreams never leave me before a new term starts, despite nearly thirty years of experience at the chalkface (or Smart board, as it is now). Finally it isn’t long till Hen Galan, traditionally the Welsh New Year which I’ve blogged about before.

If you feel the urge for a get together this weekend then I’m told that a galette is the cake to make complete with bean and pea secreted within its lusciousness and paper crowns for the King and Queen of Misrule. Charades is the game of choice. Someone pointed me in the direction of Mary Berry’s Twelfth Night cake, All fine and dandy if you can bear to mush up pineapple, snip dozens of dried apricots into tiny pieces and quarter a mound of glacé cherries. Not my way of achieving New Year zen, I can tell you.

At Country Gate we will be storing away the decs, relocating the tree in the front garden for the local hospice to collect for chipping and composting and sweeping up the detritus of the last two weeks. Clean sheets on everyone’s beds, freshly polished furniture and a cup of hot chocolate by the fire tonight is a fitting way to bring the season to a close. I have however snipped a few budding twigs from the front garden to frame some forced daffodil bulbs in an old bowl and topped it with moss scraped from the shady side of the terrace to celebrate the end of Christmas. If you didn’t think about planting daffs in pots weeks ago then think of me as your fairy godmother. Hear this! You can pick them up for a couple of quid in most garden centres and even some supermarkets now. It’s a great way for children to spend that last bit of pocket money Granny gave them before she went home. No tooth decay, no sugar rush and a thing of beauty to bring them joy in the dark days of January.

New Year Bakes

I’m ready for a burst of citrus. Not orange – I’ve had plenty of that over Christmas – but lemon. The Christmas cake is almost finished; the yule log is long gone and we have no stash of Christmas biscuits. In fact with teenagers in the house we have no stash of anything. So a simple lemon drizzle it is. I’ve abandoned loaf cakes, round cakes and all fancy-pants cakes. They don’t last long enough and someone in the house has a penchant for cutting a cake from both ends, much to the chagrin of his siblings! So traybakes are my cake of choice. I could have pimped this up with poppy seeds or limoncello but in January I want simple and unadulterated. Don’t for one minute think this is in any way worthy. There’s a whole heap of sugar in it and on it ‌‌but a small piece from time to time does you good. I stick (more or less) to St Mary Berry’s recipe.

Bonfires and clutter clearing

Emily Dickinson reflected that the passing from one year into another is a time to reflect on “how many things we have omitted to do which might have cheered a human heart, or whispered hope in the ear of the sorrowful…” My Twitter feed is buzzing with resolutions of spending more time with family and friends, slowing down, rekindling hobbies and volunteering. 

I am determined to tackle the build up of clutter. This will cheer ‌my heart. January is a good time for a bonfire. Yesterday’s prunings from the garden and some old paperwork made a good blaze on a chilly late afternoon. There’s something relaxing about watching woodsmoke curl upwards with a cup of coffee in your hands. There will be other bonfires this month as we prune the fruit trees, the wisteria and the roses whilst they’re still dormant.

Getting the teenagers to sort through their wardrobes and fill a bag for the charity shop will also gladden my heart – as will clearing my backlog of filing, sorting through the seed tin, making a list and ordering seeds to sow in a few weeks time. There are a myriad studies about the benefits of clearing clutter – whether you’re into feng shui or just crave a dust-free clear work surface, having a clear out gives you an opportunity to sort, organise and simplify your life, space to be creative and productive and a feeling of well-being. 

Happy New Year.

The Turning of the Year


The year turns in September for me and not in January. It’s rooted in my agricultural genes and reinforced by my career choice. Little has changed since yesterday in the garden. The signs of life – snowdrops, crocus and narcissus poking through, buds bursting forth on the Daphne by the front door, herbs, kale and leeks to harvest were there yesterday. And yet, there has been a turning of sorts today.

January 1st is the day when I turn the compost – unless, like last year it is raining hard. In fact half of it was ready to use to mulch the beds. So I did. Now that I have no allotment I’m thinking of investing in a double compost bin. One ‘cooking’ and one ready to use. We certainly generate enough garden waste and there’s something inherently satisfying about turning waste into a thing of beauty and purpose.

Contrary to popular belief there is nothing remotely difficult about making compost. Here are my five top tips to get you started if you haven’t already joined the green army.

  1. Don’t include cooked food.
  2. Include a mix of greens (annual weeds, grass cuttings, soft pruning, veg peelings, dead flowers) and browns (shredded paper, cardboard, egg shells)
  3. Don’t pack it down too tightly.
  4. Chop everything up as small as you can to speed up the process.
  5. Cover your compost to prevent it getting too wet and keep in the heat.

There are all sorts of other tips and tricks, umpteen types of compost bin, toubleshooting techniques and tools but if you start with my top five tips, you won’t go far wrong and it will save you a fortune in bought bags of compost.

A few hours in the garden today was time well spent. A female blackbird has moved in over Christmas; next door’s cat has stopped using our plot as a toilet (perhaps she’s in the cattery?) and most of the autumn leaves have been bagged up and stashed round the back of the shed to make leaf mould.

All’s right with the world….. until I have to do battle with my feline nemesis.

Taking stock

It’s the end of a year. Time to reflect, say goodbye, make plans and move on for some.  For others it’s an opportunity to party.

I crave fresh air and to be with those I love.


Later I light the fire and lose myself in the flickering flames and read a beautiful book about the curative power of nature. It takes me an hour.

Whatever 2019 brings I wish you joy and for myself, I’m hoping for more days like these.

Deck the halls

After a few days with my in-laws in London I’ve returned home with ideas for next year’s Christmas decorations. The angels in Regent Street were remarkable, the Christmas tree at the pop-up ice rink at Somerset House charming but by far the best, in my opinion, was the faux mistletoe fashioned from white baubles and ornate green metalwork topped off with silver glitter globes and Victorian lamps at Covent Garden. I’d like to do something similar on a smaller scale at home.

I even loved the oversized baubles fashioned from footballs covered in fabric scraps and braid made on the Christmas version of Escape to the Chateau. Such idealised guff needs to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. It might well be styled to the max but there are some genius ideas among the sugar-coating. Even someone with my limited haberdashery skills let loose with a glue gun could succeed at this. Not that I could make it look as effortless as Angel Adoree. I know my limits – but my (un)walled garden is looking a lot more abundant in December than that of Monsieur Strawbridge. Smugness is never a good thing though!

Decorations have always featured highly at Christmas. I don’t remember a tree when I was very young. I’m not sure it would have fitted into our two – up, two-down cottage but there were candles, lots of greenery, holly wreaths and a multi-coloured pop up paper bell. Later, in a bigger living space there were a series of artificial trees – one of which my grandmother fell into after a drop too much Harvey’s Bristol Cream, necessitating a thirty mile round trip to A and E one Christmas Eve. I wonder what happened to the besmirched, lopsided angel/fairy who spent Christmas spread-eagled astride the tree-top in somewhat dubious fashion?

Our first Christmas tree was a tiny faux spruce artificial one acquired from the shop at Alexandra Palace when we lived at the bottom of the Park. We bought some lovely wooden beads and a few stars and baubles to decorate it at vast expense. They are still with us, although we donated the tree to a friend’s daughter for her bedroom some years later. Over the years the collection of tree ornaments has expanded. They all hold memories. I love unpacking them mud-December and laying them out on the kitchen table, reflecting on the best part of the thirty years during which we have acquired them. Some will leave with the children when they fly the nest. A more organised mother would have bought one ornament annually for every child until they left home. But I think they might prefer to choose their own. I’m sure they will choose their favourites from home to carry off at some point in the future.

Then, of course there is the set of hand-carved Russian Santa dolls which meant I went without lunch for a week to afford them, the beautiful ceramic nativity set and the Christmas bunting made by the mum of the lab technician at school. We bought nothing new this year except some lights to deck the laburnum in the front garden because of a December household reorganisation of furniture and books. (Yes there are cardboard boxes in the sitting room waiting to be sorted and/or charity-shopped in the new year). But next year there will silver globes, mistletoe and homemade oversized fabric baubles……..perhaps.

A Recycled Christmas


I know of people who take down their decorations on Boxing Day. I am not one of that breed. But there is an urge post-Christmas to use up leftovers, fill the latest bag for the charity shop and work out which day the bins are going to be collected.

We haven’t generated too much rubbish this year – experiences have featured highly rather than ‘stuff’, the young men of the house have large appetites, the Christmas tree is already booked in to be collected for chipping in January in aid of the local hospice and we have no sparkly wrapping paper, having decided to wrap our gifts in brown paper, string or ribbon, cinammon sticks, dried orange slices and greenery from the garden. All of this can either be reused, composted or will light and fragrance our log fire.

It’s good to start the new year without rubbish and clutter even though our decs will remain up until Twelfth Night.

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