The Flower Garden

2 flowering red poppies with purple and yellow centres

Life is settling back down after our week away. We came back to discover that, in spite of the dry weather and nobody to water the plants, the garden had exploded into life and was making a bid to go back to nature. We spent our first free day after we got home cutting the grass and all the hedges, watering furiously and doing some serious weeding. However, it was still all looking a little ropey when someone we know from Aberdeen came to visit as part of their holiday. They are “real” gardeners too, and it wasn’t quite looking as tidy as I had hoped it might, but they seemed to like it all the same. They very kindly brought us a lilac and a lavender from their own garden, which spurred us into further action after they had gone, clearing a patch which had been totally overgrown with weeds and creating a new border. This involved digging up all the daffodil bulbs we planted at the beginning of the year, and they are now drying in the garage, ready to be stored for the autumn.

D also decided that the enormous Pampas grass needed a haircut and, in his own inimitable style, he set to with the shears. Not how you are supposed to prune a Pampas grass – Monty Don talks about running gauntleted hands through the fronds to pull out dead material – but ours is so large, gauntlets just wouldn’t be enough. You would need a full body suit and to actually get inside it (yes, it really is that big) and it just isn’t feasible. So, the shears it was. The result was – er – dramatic and only time will tell if it will ever recover fully. The shears certainly won’t. One of the handles snapped off altogether in his enthusiasm. I was secretly quite glad, or we may not have had a Pampas grass left at all! It did bring more light and air to the geranium and heuchera that I had planted underneath it though, so at least something benefitted from the cull.

Tall Pampas grass
My poor Pampas grass is looking very short now!
Red shears lying on grass broken
Somehow, I think we need a new pair of shears …

The cats had their own catching up to do after a week inside the house. After watching us work in the garden for a while, clearly wondering why on earth we would go to all that effort on such a warm day, they needed to revisit all their favourite spots. After a good sniff to make sure they hadn’t been invaded during their house-arrest, they then settled down for a nap in the sunshine – it’s hard work running a garden, you know!

In our absence, the new rose bed had burst into bloom. It would have looked fantastic, I think, if I hadn’t have had a crisis of confidence a couple of months ago and sown lots of annual seeds in the same bed. My thought had been that, as the roses were such new and small plants, they probably wouldn’t flower this year, and the bed needed a bit of colour. Unfortunately, not only was I wrong, but I didn’t check the relative sizes of what I sowed and so you can’t really see the roses for the tall navy cornflowers surrounding them. They are interspersed with marigolds too – no order or colour co-ordination in our garden! It wasn’t exactly a lack of planning or design flair, even though that is what it looks like – more just inexperience. I have learned from it though and, next year, I will leave our rose bed alone.

Rose bush with white flowers
The white Yorkshire rose in bloom

Two plants that have thrived after our over-enthusiastic pruning are the hydrangea and the buddleia. I cut the hydrangea back to nearly nothing last year, as it consisted solely of the remnants of two enormous blooms on spindly stems and a lot of dead wood. This year, we have over a dozen flowers coming and it is the most vibrant pink I have ever seen. Once the buds open on the goldenrods that are standing tall and proud behind it, it should be a striking display I think. That bed has also suffered slightly from my indiscriminate seed sowing, but at least the marigolds there, while densely packed (pricking out – what’s that??), are smaller than the other plants so don’t hide them altogether and the sweet peas have their own corner. The buddleia is covered with new leaves apart from at the bottom where it is covered anyway by something else and, after being convinced we had killed it back in March, we now have high hopes that it will flower later in the year.

Self-seeded poppies are attracting the bees, as is the hebe, beautifully set off by the purple clematis which has made its way through to us from next door. The photinia has gone mad and desperately needs tying back and so does the climbing rose and the honeysuckle which are both trying their best to escape from their shackles tied to a trellis behind the oil tank. Maybe we should train them over the tank and hide its ugly plastic shell. The pink roses smell divine and it is such a shame that they are difficult to reach behind the tank.

Poppy flower with 2 bees inside
Can you see the insects in here, feasting on the pollen?
White hebe with purple clematis running through it
Isn’t this a lovely combination? And the bees love it too

Finally, the petunias, which I lovingly reared from tiny plugs in the greenhouse, are now looking splendid in our handmade pallet planter on the wall next to the patio doors. We still have several pallets left from the delivery of our topsoil earlier in the year and, after seeing the tables at the pizzeria last week, it seems the possibilities are endless. I quite fancy a potting table next – now, where is D and that saw …

Blue wooden planter on a wall, filled with petunias
I am so proud of this!

 

A Devon Break

Green hills in background with village tucked into the cove at the bottom with the sea coming in across rocks

After a relaxing week away, I probably have enough to fill several blog posts so I will have to try not to become a holiday bore! We spent a week in Combe Martin in North Devon, swapping our usual countryside views for the sea, and very beautiful it was too.

The B&B we were staying at, the Newberry Beach Lodge, made us feel instantly at home. The couple who run it love vintage furniture as much as we do, filling their home and the guest rooms with beautiful pieces which I coveted instantly. The house itself had a similar comfortable feel to our own, just on a much larger scale. As well as the bedrooms, there were several living areas – a library, a chillout room with a wii console in it and a large living room on the top floor, with stunning sea views. Our room was on that floor and, as the other room up there was vacant for most of the week, we had the lounge to ourselves. It even had a fridge for the wine (or scrumpy in D’s case – he was getting into the whole West Country thing …). The cove was literally across the road down some steps and we lay in bed at night, listening to the waves lapping against the shingle beach. It doesn’t get much better than that. If you are ever planning a trip to North Devon, I can’t recommend the Newberry Beach Lodge highly enough.

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We packed a lot into our week, from playing crazy golf at Woolacombe Beach (D thrashed me as usual), to visiting a couple of National Trust properties. We even popped down to Cornwall for a pizza! Not intentionally – we were exploring a little further round the coast and found ourselves in Bude. We didn’t even know we were heading over the border until we spotted the “Welcome to Cornwall” sign. Once we arrived, we stumbled upon a great little pizzeria called La Bocca Pizza Kitchen. The tables were made from old pallets, sanded, painted and covered in glass and there were some very cool light fittings too. They were doing a roaring trade in takeaway as well as the small restaurant. Again, if you are ever in the area, you need to try this place out – the interior is fab and the pizzas were too.

Cafe table made from a wooden pallet covered in glass
I loved these pallet tables
Cafe interior with bare bulb industrial style lighting over small tables
I loved the light fittings too!

There were two main highlights of the week and it’s no surprise probably to hear that they both involved gardens. The first was RHS Rosemoor which, like Harlow Carr near home was an inspirational day out. I finally know the difference between a vegetable plot and a potager. It was fascinating to compare the two and then to set them against a permaculture garden that we saw elsewhere. They all contained fruit and veg but grown entirely differently. The traditional veg plot was similar to what we have, albeit on a much larger scale, while the focus in the potager was on design, embedding fruit and veg growing with flowers in an attractive, decorative layout. The permaculture garden at Tapeley Park nearby was a new concept to me. Basically, it is a no dig approach to veg growing, where each bed becomes a mini ecosystem of its own. Plants jostle side by side and the owner says that they lose little to disease or pests, because everything is balanced and protected by the other plants around it. I think I liked the potager best, but as D likes a tidy garden, we will probably stick to the more traditional kitchen garden – for now, anyway!

Rosemoor had too many things to see for me to be able to cover it all and do it justice. The rose gardens were particularly beautiful, although it was a clematis that we really fell for in there – a stunning violet flower climbing high above the huge variety of roses. The wildlife was almost as amazing as the plants – there were hundreds of dragonflies down by the lake and there was even a snake in the kitchen garden, basking in the sun. Unfortunately, it glided away before I could take a photo of it, but to see it at all was a very special moment.

The second highlight of the week was our trip to Knights Hayes, a National Trust property outside Tiverton. The house is an impressive example of Victorian Gothic architecture and the gardens were gorgeous, with fun topiary dogs leaping over hedges.

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It would have been a great place to spend some time anyway and I would love to go back one day, but we were really there to see a dear friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen for a number of years. Jenny Kane is a novelist and was instrumental in me starting my blog in the first place. As well as being lovely to see and catch up with her and her daughter, I left, as I usually do when I have spoken to her, feeling inspired and like I could achieve anything. I can see why her company, Imagine, where she teaches writing workshops with her business partner, Alison Knight, is so successful. And her natural warmth comes through in her writing too so, if you have never tried her novels and fancy a light, romantic read this summer, I would start with either Romancing Robin Hood or Abi’s House.

Sadly, our week was over all too quickly and then we headed home, happy to see the cats but a little apprehensive about how the garden had fared during the hot weather while we were away. What we found on our return can wait for another week, but here is a taster, blooming to show us that we don’t need to go all the way to Devon to see some lovely roses.

Pale red rose in full bloom
Our first rose in our own rose bed

A family party

Village view of medieval market building and stone church

And so, just 2 weeks after the Manchester attacks, the outside world forces its cruel way back into our sheltered and happy lives. I can’t really add to what I said about Manchester, except that we are, again, thinking of everyone affected by the London attack at the weekend.

It is hard to write cheery gardening posts when scenes of such senseless brutality appear on our TVs daily. However, as the One Love concert in Manchester on Sunday night demonstrated so well, the only response we can give to these attacks is to resume our daily lives as much as possible. So I will turn my attentions back to home and family, to hopefully provide a moment of escapism for us all.

The good news is that the Princess is now fully recovered from her illness, has regained the weight she lost and is back to her usual active and chatty self. We were away last week for work and it was clear that both girls missed us – they woke us hourly on Friday night to tell us how much. They checked out their territory on Saturday morning, ensuring that all was still well after they had spent a week indoors. Then, after a spot of lunch (“Hooray – you are back! We didn’t get lunch while you were away …”), they asked to go back out to just double check. However, we were off again, this time to a family party in Oxfordshire, so they were disappointed. They sat by the patio doors, noses pressed to the glass and waves of disapproval radiating off them. “You’ve only just come back, what do you mean you are leaving us again??” Feeling like thoroughly bad parents, we ignored them and set off regardless.

How have I got to an age where my sister can be celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary? It seems, well, maybe not quite like yesterday, but certainly not 20 years since we all gathered in the pretty Oxfordshire village where she lives to watch her walk up the aisle to marry the man who would be the best husband she could ask for – they complement each other so well, providing a perfect foil for each other’s strengths and challenges, even if they do bicker constantly! They have 2 very beautiful teenage daughters, of whom we are all incredibly proud too, and it was my younger niece who arranged the surprise party for her mum, with a bit of help from her dad.

Couple standing together cheek to cheek
My lovely sister and husband after 20 happy years together

The party was loud, boisterous and tremendous fun – a bit like them. All their friends turned out to celebrate with them and we got to catch up with sisters, parents, nieces and friends, always such a pleasure. My brother-in-law excelled himself in writing and performing a poem for his wife, encapsulating the past 20 years in a few well-written lines and looking ahead to the next 20. All in all, the whole thing reminded us all how special love and family can be. Then we headed home again, to snuggle down with our own little family, all 4 of us cuddled on the sofa for the evening, happy to be together again.

There won’t be a blog next week – we are taking a break. I will be back as usual the following week though and, until then, I wish you all a peaceful, safe and contented couple of weeks with plenty of sunshine and laughter.

A Trip to the Vet

The Princess has been under the weather. She had been biting at her back paw for a few days, so we were keeping a watching brief to see if it developed into anything serious. She spends so much time stalking the hedgerows, we wouldn’t be surprised if she got a thorn or something lodged in her foot.

Of course, she waited for the weekend before showing any sign of being ill. On the Saturday morning, she lay in the study doorway and showed no signs of interest in breakfast or attention. Fearing that we had, indeed, missed an injury which had become infected, we picked her up and inspected the paw. It looked fine but she growled at us anyway and that was enough for us. The Calamity Cat growls at anything but it’s not seemly for princesses, so ours doesn’t do it very often. Fortunately, our vet has a Saturday surgery so we popped her into her cat carrier (I am making that sound much less challenging than it is, although she didn’t put up as much of a fight as usual, a sure sign that all was not well) and off we went.

Why, oh why do cats always come alive when they get to the vet? You give the vet a tale about how they haven’t moved all morning, how lethargic and unresponsive they are. In the meantime, said cat has leapt down off the table with great agility and enthusiasm and is prowling around the consulting room, sniffing in all the corners and finally coming to rest by the fridge, just in case there is something more interesting in there than prescription drugs. The Princess was so alert, she was keeping watch through the glass door when the vet went to get a nurse to hold her and they couldn’t get back in until I scooped her up and put her back on the table. We told the vet our theory about the paw and she prodded and stretched her limbs with only the smallest complaint from our girl. Just when the vet was giving up, she must have touched something raw and the growl came from deep within. So she touched the same area again – nothing. She tried the other leg and again, she growled. Aha! The vet went back to the same spot and got no response – all very contrary and confusing.

In the end, unable to find anything specific, she wormed her, gave her an anti-inflammatory injection and sent her home, with strict instructions for us to bring her back if she became worse. From the loud complaining coming from the carrier all the way home, she was fine and most indignant about being poked and prodded for no reason like that.

Grey and white cat sitting with eyes closed on a pale blue patio table
This is one of my favourite photos of the Princess when she is well – enjoying the sunshine on the patio table

Once home, though, it was a different story. She retired to the safety of the wardrobe to groom the vet smell out of her fur and then went back to her spot in the doorway. She became increasingly unwell throughout the rest of the day, barely looking up when I touched her or offered her water. Mid-afternoon, she dragged herself downstairs to be sick, then went straight back up to the study, not moving again for the rest of the day. Mind you, I shouldn’t think the rodent she threw up had had the best of days either.

I got very little sleep that night, worried sick. And then – in the dead of night, I suddenly heard a noise downstairs. Was that, could that be – crunching?? The Calamity Cat isn’t that fond of biscuits, whereas the Princess is known for her midnight feasts. I had to check. I got up and bumped into her on the landing, on her way back up from her snack. She followed me into the bedroom and proceeded to jump on me, headbutting my nose and purring very loudly. It seemed normal service was resumed. Heartily relieved, I fell asleep with her curled in next to me on the pillow.

The next day, both cats asked to go out before breakfast as usual. As the Princess seemed fine, we opened the door and out they trotted. She wandered up the garden, having a good sniff at everything to see what she had missed the day before. She was on her way back down the path, clearly heading back to the house for breakfast when, without warning, she collapsed. We rushed outside and brought her in, where she lay on the table, apparently unable to move.

As soon as we could, we got her down to the emergency vet. By then, yet again, she appeared to have recovered and was making her feelings known very loudly about being stuffed in a cat carrier and taken back to that horrible place. At least it wasn’t full of dogs on a Sunday. It wasn’t full of anything when we got there – including the vet, who had been held up at a previous call-out.

The upshot of the whole saga is that our beloved girl had had a seizure, probably brought on by eating something diseased or poisoned. However, after a raft of blood tests the next day, I am pleased to say that they all came back clear. We kept her in for a couple of days, much to her disgust, and then, our hearts in our mouths, we let her out again. It didn’t take her long to prove she is back to full strength, hunting once again and even paying the neighbour a visit, as he told us the next day: “I was sitting in my front room, minding my own business, when this little grey face peeped around the door …”

Grey and white cat on hind legs on a windowsill, trying to get out of the window
“Pleease let me out!”

Cats’ memories are relatively short. It may take us a little longer to recover. Every time she lies down, we jump up and feel the need to check on her. Every time she leaves the garden, we don’t totally relax until she is safely home again. We have been reminded that our precious girls’ lives are so much shorter than our own, with dangers at every turn. All we can do is value and make the most of the time that we do have together and shower them in all the love and care they deserve.

 

We stand with Manchester

Yellow and black bee in mosaic form

This wasn’t the blog post I had planned for this week. I was going to share our fears last weekend when our precious Princess was taken ill. However, that can wait for another day.

Like everyone, I watched in disbelief and horror as the news of the Manchester terror attack unfolded this week. Although now living in Yorkshire, I am proud of my Manchester heritage and this attack felt personal. Most of my family still live in towns to the north and east of the city. Outside the Arena is a common drop-off point and my youngest sister goes through that station every day on her way to and from work.

I am lucky – none of my family went to the concert, or were passing at the time. I cannot begin to understand how people who had children, brothers, sisters, friends there must feel. Whether their loved ones are safe but traumatised, injured or worse, it is something most of us just hope we never have to experience.

If there are positives to take from this terrible attack, it is that the community pulled together when it counted. I only hope that this solidarity continues when the dust has settled. I have faith that it will.

In the midst of such tragedy, I have realised that, totally unconsciously, I have written of “hope” and “faith”. We need to hold on to those things at times like this. And I wanted to make public that, again like everyone else who was not involved, we are thinking of those who were.

As blog posts go, this is one of my shortest. However, I make no apology for that. As the young singer whose concert it was said herself – “There are no words”.

 

A dry spell

4 small plants in pots in a blue shelf-style planter

Anyone who follows my Facebook page or Twitter account knows that I have been hoping for rain recently. With D away, watering the garden became my responsibility. With the water butts dry and the number of watering cans required increased daily, I was spending up to an hour every night filling can after can at the outside tap and then carrying it all the way up to the kitchen garden. I watered faithfully every night and then every morning the beds were as dry as ever. By the end of the week, I was quite seriously contemplating trying a rain dance and, while D and I love to dance together, it might have looked a bit odd if I started spinning around the lawn on my own.

animated-dancing-image-0106
Animation taken from http://www.animatedimages.org

 

The weather finally broke at the weekend with some overnight rain (just as D was back – typical!) and what a difference it has made. Flowers are appearing daily – everything from the chives to the peonies to something unidentified in the patio pots. Yes, I did plant the bulbs in the patio pots but I can’t remember what I put in there! The poppies are in bud and – hooray! – so is the hydrangea, which I cut back hard last year.

Hydrangea plant in bud
Buds on the hydrangea

On the subject of containers, I have been busy planting up my new pallet planter. When we had the topsoil and gravel delivered for the kitchen garden, everything arrived on pallets and my creative juices have been flowing ever since. I cannot believe the things you can make from pallets – Pinterest is full of ideas. In the end, I decided to keep things simple. D cut one in half for me and attached it to the wall of the house so that all I had to do was paint it and fill it with plants. I bought some petunias in plugs and have been growing them on in the greenhouse for a few weeks. I carefully watched Gardeners’ World, took in Monty Don’s advice to harden young plants off before planting them out – and then totally forgot to follow it. I now have twelve young petunias out facing the big wide world, albeit in the relative shelter of a planter. Oops! They are holding their own so far and I am looking forward to a frothy display of flowers trailing from each tier in the coming months.

12 young petunias planted in black square pots
The petunias look huge here!
Bright blue planter made from a pallet and mounted on a brick wall
But they’re really just babies

Another success for us is all the work we put into the lawn. It still has a way to go, but it is looking and feeling much better already. The Wilko grass seed was particularly effective and we ended up with strange oval crop circles where D spread the seed in a wide arc. It looked so good where it had grown that we went back for some more but we treated ourselves to a spreader this time too, to get a more regular sowing. We spread the seeds that day and the birds have been enjoying them ever since. Watching a family of sparrows brought me so much pleasure, I forgave them every seed. Mum, Dad and baby all hopped around the grass, with the parents feeding the young one, even though, judging by the foraging it was doing, it was clearly capable of feeding itself. Every time the parents strayed a little too far, the baby flew the short distance to bridge the gap. It was the perfect family and I loved every minute. The swallows have also returned and watching them swirling around in the evening sky was truly magical.

Unfortunately, not everything has thrived as well as the grass. The carrots are slow to develop and the onions and leeks look like they have been eaten. As we haven’t seen any slugs this year so far (is this down to the cold start to the season or to the Nemaslug I ask myself), they have either had their tops nibbled by the cats or by pigeons – either is possible. Even worse, the larger tomato plants we bought have been caught by the frost and one may not recover. We have 1 solitary garlic plant and the parsnips have shown no sign of germinating so far. More positively, though, one of the asparagus roots we planted has grown and we have a spear standing tall and proud. The only problem with asparagus is that we can’t harvest it for at least 2 years, so for the moment, we just need to admire it from afar.

Oh, and the rain dance seems to have worked with a vengeance – it’s not stopped raining for days and it’s a serious case of “be careful what you wish for”. Hopefully the sunshine will be back again soon.

 

 

A creative interlude

Piece of white crochet on a red hook, with a ball of wool sitting on an instruction book

Some of you may remember my excitement last Autumn when I retrained as a professional curtain-maker. I shared my fabrics, my new skills and my samples with you all and, along with them my hopes and dreams for the future. And then it all went quiet. The blog returned to its more usual themes of cats and gardening, and it was almost as if I had never done the course. Or at least, that is how it may have appeared.

The truth was that I have been practising in the background, although probably not as much as I should have and, beyond that, I had a huge “what am I doing” panic. D and I talked about “the company”, almost as if it existed but I put off actually doing anything about it for some time, focusing on home and garden for a while, until I felt a bit braver.

Happily, before panic set in, I had signed up to attend my first trade fair in April, thinking at the time that I would be up and running by then. The company may not have come into being, but April arrived anyway and, before I knew it, I was on a train on my way to stay with a friend in Worcester, so that I could attend the fair in Cheltenham.

And boy, am I glad I went. Firstly, it was great to see my friend settled in a new home (and her curtains, I am happy to report, are very well-made!) Her partner offered me some sound business advice too and, with that echoing in my head, I set out for the fair feeling less apprehensive than I had expected.

With over 80 stalls, all aiming their services at interiors-industry professionals, it was totally overwhelming. So overwhelming, I failed magnificently as a blogger and didn’t take any photos at all. Fortunately, the organisers, the Curtain, Blind and Furnishing Makers Friendly Forum (or CABMFF for short) took loads and put them on their Facebook page, so feel free to have a look at the link if you are interested. Everywhere I looked, there were fabrics, curtain poles, gadgets that I had never dreamed existed and so much more. It took a while to pluck up the courage to talk to any of the stall-holders. I felt I had “Not a real curtain-maker” stamped on my forehead. Everyone seemed to have specific questions for them such as things they were seeking for clients, and I didn’t know where to begin.

In the end, I approached a haberdashery supplier and asked for a catalogue. I was totally honest about just starting out and that I had come mainly to get a feel for these events and they couldn’t have been more encouraging or supportive. Of course, they are hoping I will be a new customer for them but even so, I felt bolder. So I moved on and started talking to others, collecting contacts and information as I went. My leaflet collection grew and so did my courage. I sat in on a talk and raised my hand when she asked if there were any curtain-makers there. That felt strange but very exciting too. Everyone I spoke to treated me as someone who belonged in the industry and, by the end of the day, I felt like it was true. I was no longer playing at this – I am proud to say that I am a (very new) professional curtain-maker.

At least as fascinating as the stalls were the conversations I heard around me. Phrases like “This fabric was £150 a metre – I had to get it right”, “And I told her, this is my business not a hobby, you know” offered tantalising glimpses of the challenges I have ahead. The best story for me, as a Lancashire lass now living in Yorkshire, was the chap who had been asked at interview in a Yorkshire firm about his Lancashire origins. He got the job, though, so I presume it all worked out OK.

I came home totally inspired. That week, we registered the company and I started work on business cards and the website. I still have a way to go, but I am aiming for a July launch, so watch this space!

Being surrounded by so much creativity had even more benefits. I had started to attend a craft and natter session at the village club at around the same time, and one of the ladies had shown me how to crochet. I am – sorry, I have to say this – hooked. I am feeling firmly back in touch with my creative, textile side and I am loving it.

Blue crocheted rectangle with white edging
My very first completed piece of crochet – a dishcloth with embroidered trim

I am writing this in the garden, finally enjoying some late evening sunshine and the results of our hard work on the lawn. Surrounded by beauty and all the love and support I could ever ask for, I am confident that my future will be an altogether more creative one.

A match made in Heaven?

Grey and white cat sitting in a raised garden bed

It is often felt that cats and gardening do not mix well. Where a dog is hailed as a suitable faithful companion for the gardener – Monty Don’s Nigel and Nell have made careers out of it after all – the cat seems to be seen more as the gardener’s nemesis. After all, they dig up beds, hunt birds and other wildlife and use gravelled areas as litter trays, don’t they?

When we bought our house, the cats’ needs were very much at the top of our agenda and we loved the garden for its feline possibilities as much as for our own. It has been one of our greatest pleasures to share the outside space with them and watch them enjoying adventures only they truly understand. Spring has again given them a new lease of life that belies their 13 years and we feel we have proved that it is possible to be gardeners and cat-lovers at the same time.

The lawn has become a playground since we found a bright yellow bouncy ball in one of the borders and the Calamity Cat particularly loves to chase it across the grass, reaching speeds we never thought she could. When the grass is long, it turns into their own private jungle, where they stalk bees and butterflies (never catching them though) and occasionally each other, hiding behind a bush and jumping out at each other before they both tear off like crazy things under the hedge and into next door. The grass is also a valuable source of fibre in their diets, which has in turn inspired us to take an organic approach to our lawn-keeping. It is rewarding our hard work by greening up nicely.

Grey and white cat lying on a lawn, washing behind its ear
The Calamity Cat enjoying some spring sunshine

Yes, the cats dig the beds that we have lovingly prepared but mainly when they are empty. After all, they have watched us dig in there too and they want to help. They also want to try out our assertion that they are “beds”, settling down for a quick snooze in the sun now and then. As soon as things start to grow, though, they tend to lose interest and find somewhere flatter to sleep. And if they do dig up a few seedlings here and there, what are a couple of plants between friends?

Grey and white cat lying in a raised garden bed
“Well, you did say it was a bed …”

We did wonder how they would react to the gravelled paths in the veg plot as we had heard that gravel made a good substitute for cat litter. We made sure we bought the larger kind and we have had no problems at all. In fact, the Calamity Cat doesn’t even like walking on it.  On the whole, they both prefer to come in and use the litter tray anyway – their view seems to be that they would have to be mad to go outside when they can use a perfectly comfortable toilet area indoors – and who can blame them?

They both show an interest in our gardening activities, with one or the other of them usually accompanying us up to the kitchen garden to keep an eye on our efforts. They have explored the new greenhouse and decided it is worthy of their presence, being a cosy space when it’s a bit breezy outside. They have learned the hard way to be wary of the dreaded watering can. They keep us company while we work, then return to the house with us to demand their tea, exhausted after a hard day’s supervision.

Grey and white cat and a pair of secateurs sitting on a green garden kneeler
Can I help?

The wildlife is a harder one to stomach I admit. They rarely catch the insects they go after and fortunately the birds tend to be quicker than they are too. Unfortunately, the Princess has more success with small rodents and we are waiting with trepidation for her to start her reign of terror in the hedgerows this year. So far, she has shown little interest, preferring to sleep in the house for most of the day and then lounging around on the woodshed roof in the evenings. We are also waiting for the frog season to start in earnest – the Calamity Cat has already started to check out the drystone wall daily to see if her friends have returned but there is no sign yet. Perhaps, with the new rose bed replacing the water feature, there will be fewer this year.

And it isn’t just our cats who enjoy our outside space. Several other cats from the area use our garden, either as a cut-through from the back to the street or simply to sit and take in the view. After some fights and arguments last year, our two seem to have decided that it isn’t worth objecting – they usually pretend they haven’t seen anything and the guest moves on before it becomes an issue. Both the Princess and the Calamity Cat make sure they patrol carefully after these visits, reasserting their claim on the territory, but in a suitably pacifist sort of way (i.e. when they are sure that the other cat has gone and they will not be called upon to defend their garden further).

Two grey and white cats lying on a blue patio table looking out in opposite directions
On guard – sort of. Keeping a watchful eye anyway

I am, therefore, proud to say that we are living proof that it is possible to be both cat-lovers and gardeners and that owning cats (although we all know really that they own us) has very much enhanced our gardening experience. In return, sharing our garden adds a new dimension to all our lives. It has become a valued family space for all of us, one I hope we can all enjoy for many years to come.

 

 

 

 

RHS Harlow Carr, Harrogate

Yellow clumps of flower in a waterside rockery

I took advantage of the Bank Holidays to book some time off work over the past couple of weeks. D managed to take a day as well and we had a day out at RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate. I had never visited an RHS garden before and wasn’t sure what to expect but we had a fantastic day.

The whole place is beautiful and there was no way we could get all around it – we were overwhelmed by how much there was to see. From the heathers and the alpine house, which made us want to run home and replant the unkempt area above the drystone wall that we usually refer to as the Frog Patch (for obvious reasons – the frogs loved it last year) to the kitchen garden with the clever rope paths through the herbs, through to the stunning borders of spring bulbs, we didn’t know where to look first. Although it was busy, it is so huge that the crowds were quickly absorbed and some areas felt very private and secluded. We came upon benches dedicated to people who had loved the garden in years gone by and upon shelters and summer houses, tucked away and just waiting for us to rest a minute and take in everything we had seen so far. I took over 100 photos in just a couple of hours, partly to remember what some plants were and partly because everywhere was just so beautiful to look at.

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Eventually, we picnicked in a newly planted area, currently a field but it will probably become a woodland in time. There were also some interesting meadow areas, which showed us what an organic lawn can look like- full of different plants and providing far more interest (to me at least) than a perfect bowling green-style lawn. We even saw the odd dandelion in and amongst the rest, proving that even the professionals can’t totally obliterate them, so maybe I am doing all right after all.

 

Lawn which contains a variety of different green foliage
Organic lawn – complete with dandelion!

 

The garden is clearly a thriving workspace as well as a tourist attraction. There were student allotments and a large education centre and an experiment was underway to discover the best way to control slugs and snails. I will be interested in the outcome of that one, as we have invested in a Nemaslug programme this year and are hoping it will work. Gardeners were out and about, planting, weeding and generally doing their stuff and the whole place made me want to retrain immediately. I know – I have already retrained and am working towards a new career in soft furnishings but I can combine curtains with horticulture, right? Gardening in the sunshine, curtains when it is cold and raining, would that work?? OK, maybe not but I am certainly thinking about some of their day courses.

When we had taken in as much as we could – and there was a lot we didn’t see – we inevitably made our way to the shop. With so many plants for sale, it was as overwhelming as the rest and we had to be very firm with ourselves – we could easily have bought far too much. Eventually, we settled on a dicentra with perfect heart shaped flowers and eye-catching acid yellow leaves, a new thyme plant to replace the one that died over the winter and – hooray – I finally got my gooseberry bush – one with red berries, just to be a bit different.

Dicentra - lime green foliage with pink heart shaped flowers
We loved these heart shaped flowers and just had to buy one

After signing up as fully-fledged members of the RHS, we rushed home to plant our new purchases and make our plans for the future of the frog patch, totally inspired by what we had seen. I can’t wait to see how Harlow Carr changes through the seasons and I am sure we will be back very soon.

We’re going on a bear – no, make that a lion – hunt!

Dandelion plant in flower

As a former children’s librarian, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was always a favourite at storytime. I have been reminded of it recently in the garden, only it’s a lion hunt – dande-lions, that is.

Last year, the dandelions taunted me, springing up into flower every time I turned my back. I pulled the flowers off as much as I could to stop them spreading their seed, but it clearly wasn’t the best approach. This year, they have come back as strongly as ever, all over the lawn in the flower garden and in the grass paths in the kitchen garden as well. We don’t want to use chemicals because of the cats, as well as to protect the wildlife a little, so we had no choice. I bought a long-handled weeding tool and started digging them up.

Green garden kneeler with muddy daisy grubber
The dandelion weeder

There is something strangely compelling and addictive about digging up weeds. I have become obsessive, leaping up, weapon in hand every time I see a tell-tale arrow shaped leaf or a yellow flower. Every time I lie down to go to sleep, a dandelion plant dances before my closed eyes. We no longer have dandelions in the lawn but it does look like we might have moles, as I have left big holes in the grass everywhere. The lawn looks to have suffered generally over the winter, with moss driving out the grass near the drystone wall and bare patches near the steps and gate up to the kitchen garden and my attempts at weeding have just made it look even worse.

Close up of mossy grass
You can see all the moss in here – not good

Unsure how to improve things without chemical weed and moss killers, we turned to our trusty reference source, the Gardening World magazine for advice. This time, it was Alan Titchmarsh who came to our rescue, with a timely article about organic lawns. Although daunted by the task ahead – our lawn is a fair size – we set to work. I took the lawn rake and removed as much thatch and moss as I could, while D put regular holes (not quite as big as my dandelion ones and much neater) all across the grass to aerate the land and improve the drainage. We used a hollow-tined fork for that, which left very suspicious-looking clods of earth all over the garden – it looked like the cats had taken to using the lawn as a litter tray for a while. They hadn’t, honestly!

Patchy grass with a row of drainage holes
The whole lawn looked like this for a while

A week later, D went over it all again, this time with an ordinary rake, to remove yet more thatch and moss and to break up the soil a little. We then covered the whole area with a fertiliser and grass seed mix. Keeping the spread of seed even was nearly impossible with the applicator built into the box, so I suspect we will have a lovely lush lawn soon – but only on one side. To try and balance it out, we bought some extra lawn seed from Wilkos. It hasn’t improved the lawn very much so far but the blackbirds are looking well fed!

Alan Titchmarsh had warned that keeping an organic lawn was a lot of hard physical work and he was certainly right. We ached for days after all that preparation. We couldn’t even get rid of what we had removed as there was no space in the garden waste bin and we had enough green stuff in the compost. We temporarily stored a barrowful of dead material in the shed, where the Calamity Cat used it as a cosy nest.

Grey and white cat in a wheelbarrow full of thatch and moss
She was in here all afternoon

In the meantime, I will carry on pursuing the dandelions (they may not run very fast but boy, are they tricksy little blighters – almost impossible to catch totally). The ones in the path on the patio are the worst to dig up and my poor weeding tool has become bent beyond all recognition or use. Its replacement is more substantial and hopefully will last a little longer. After all, I might have the lawn in the flower garden under control but I suspect the kitchen garden variety are made of stronger stuff, and I haven’t even thought about the ones at the front yet.

Garden with central lawn, path and white gate at the far end
After all our hard work – lets hope it greens up soon

Last year, I won a battle or two – this year I am determined to take the field, victorious, at least for a while. And if my attempts fail, I could always have a go at making dandelion wine!