The Christmas Chronicles, Part I – Door wreaths and horticultural projects

I’d forgotten how much full-time teaching is so all-enveloping. You find yourself spinning in a vortex of lesson preparation, marking, exams, reports, meetings, extra revision sessions for keen students and duty nights for weeks and then, at the end of term it spits you out and you land with an almighty thud, able to pick up the pieces of the rest of your life which have had scant attention since the last school holidays.

Term ended earlier for me than for my children – one bonus of teaching on Saturdays – and since then I have had time to mooch around Bath doing some Christmas shopping, watch the middlest child’s football match, clutching a thermos mug of coffee and wearing a bobble hat on a foggy Sunday afternoon, buy a Christmas Tree at vast expense (but Woodland Trust certified), decorate the house and buy a holly wreath handwoven by Joe, who has learning difficulties but has found his niche on a horticulture project. I’m so pleased to see that gardening still has the power to transform the lives of young people who don’t always fit into a rigid school system. If you want to make your own wreath then you can always visit Our Flower Patch (our educational project which seems like light years ago) where Sara will guide you through the process.

And so ends episode one of my own Christmas Chronicles, (name inspired by Nigel Slater’s new book). In addition to the above I’ve made Christmas pot pourri, written and posted most of the Christmas cards, had the annual conversation with my sister about whose turn it is for the Christmas wreath on our parents grave and reminisced about dad opening the Christmas chocolates early and the year Mum bought such a monster of a turkey that we had to saw off its legs to fit it in the oven, hunted down a mini-poinsettia, decorated the fireplace with some new red baubles, dug out the wrapping paper and ribbons and thought about the Christmas foodfest….. at a relaxing pace.

Today the whiff of just made red onion marmalade scents the kitchen and my typing is frequently interrupted by the son with a throat infection looking for hot drinks and ‘food I can eat’. Homemade soup, apple crumble and stem ginger cookies await.

Half Term hijinks

a visit to St Pancras
a visit to St Pancras

We’ve had a busy few weeks. I finally managed to plant all the daffodil and allium bulbs I ordered back in the summer; we finished painting the front door and the children’s bedrooms; two school residentials to the Brecon Beacons and the Lake District have been undertaken; large batches of Christmas chutney have been made; I ran an Autumn themed workshop for the National Trust and we managed to fit in an exciting trip to London.

Sarah and I went up on the train for a girly jaunt around my old Bloomsbury and Euston haunts (including bumping into my old PGCE lecturer at the Institute of Education), a visit to the British library, which Sarah has wanted to do for ages and a stay in a hotel complete with posh bubble bath, facemasks and telly in bed! The boys used the car and stayed with the in-laws and visited the poppy installation at the Tower of London.

Spectacular_poppies_Tower_of_London_

We did meet up on Wednesday though – for the main reason for our London trip. The services of the youngest member of the family were required by Radio 4 Extra for a recording of Junior Just a Minute with Nicholas Parsons, Josie Lawrence and Jenny Eclair who were charming and hilarious in equal measure.

Now the children are back at school, Ian is once more trekking round the country, the Christmas cake is in the oven and I am back at work writing materials for the Abington Park Outdoor Classroom Project and Our Flower Patch.

I’ll be writing about the former soon on this blog. In the meantime you can read a bit about Our Flower Patch here in an interview we gave to Michelle Chapman. Incidentally we have a giveaway on the Our Flower Patch blog this week. All you have to do to win the best book I have come across on growing cut flowers at home (Louise Curley’s The Cut Flower Patch) is to leave a comment and subscribe to the blog. Simple!

Exercise is good for you, laziness is not.

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.

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.

Tulips, books about compost and the start of Summer.

tulips

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.

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

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

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.

St Piran, budding flower patches and Lenten abstinence

st piranIt’s St Piran’s Day, patron saint of Cornwall. What better way to celebrate than by supporting a Cornish seed supplier? It’s hardly surprising that one or two British flower growers have chosen to set up business in that corner of the British Isles including Higgledy Ben, who is the seed supplier for members of Our Flower Patch and has fed my seedaholic tendencies for a few years.

We’ve started our very own flower farm at school – albeit on a modest scale – with seed supplied from Cornwall. A few hardly annuals were planted by Year 5 back in the autumn and over the next few weeks Year 6 are driving the project forward, setting up a proper eco flower business. We hope to have a Friday flower market in operation at school from May and one or two blooms available before that, as we planted some bulbs and biennials back in the autumn too. I need to restock my own allotment flower patch too.

If you want to grow a few cut flowers yourself this year may I suggest Louise Curley’s new book as an excellent place to start. You can get oodles of advice too from Higgledy Garden’s website and I will put up a few top tips gleaned from #britishflowers hour on Twitter over the last few weeks.

I would have celebrated St Piran’s day with a scone and clotted cream but it’s the start of Lent and I rashly decided to give up brown food. Think about it. No bread, potatoes, cakes, scones, pastries, beer, chocolate. No meat…. not a problem for this vegetarian. No coffee.

Ummm. No coffee?

I may have to decide that coffee stays. It’s not a food after all. Some things one just can’t do without.

Inclement weather, winter roses and toasted buns

Snow Queen 2014 008

Gerda played by Sarah Smart

Unlike my stateside sister and her family, who are waistdeep in snowdrifts at present, I can spot signs of Spring all around. The birds are happily house hunting and carrying out home improvements before moving in and it looks like my front garden daffs will be blooming in time for St David’s Day. Even the rain couldn’t spoil Half Term week, which means ‘showtime’ around here.

Last week the whole family were involved in a production of The Snow Queen, helping to transport the good folk of Bradford on Avon to the frozen North for a final showdown between the evil ice maiden and gutsy Gerda whose hope and faithful love – symbolised by a rose which bloomed in the depths of Winter – won the day. Toasted buns also featured prominently. I’d never refuse one of those.

As you know, I’m not one for flowers which bloom out of season but I like the idea of something good being symbolised by a flower. And so I am declaring this week Flower Patch Week.

There are three good reasons for this.

  1. Sara and I launch our new business later today.  Our Flower Patch will help primary schools and pre schools teach the new National Curriculum in a practical, hands-on way by growing cut flowers for sale. It’s true that any subject can be taught in the garden and you get to sell the product of your labours. Win. Win. Do check out the website and see what you think. Pass the information on to any primary school you know of.
  2. Our good friend and twitterchum Lou publishes her new book The Cut Flower Patch on March 6th to help and encourage allotment holders and gardeners grow cutting patches of their own.
  3. My new class at Fitzmaurice Primary have declared themselves up for the challenge of running a successful flower growing business in the school grounds.

And so, to celebrate Flower Patch Week I’d like you all to toast a bun or two and commit EITHER to tweeting pictures of last year’s cut flower successes OR to growing some cut flowers this year. In the case of intentions, tweet pics of what you’d like to grow. Advice and encouragement is on hand from myself, Sara and Lou. And you’ll be doing oodles for biodiversity, low flower miles, seasonality and the availability of british flowers.

Come on and celebrate Flower Patch Week with a flowery tweet to me @countrygate or @ourflowerpatch.

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