How many potatoes can 2 people eat, anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, I promised a veggie tale, following on from the success of our fruit this year. What a productive summer it has been and what a bountiful autumn is promised! While the fruit keeps on coming (our freezer is full of apples, plums and rhubarb to see us through the winter, plus we get the occasional strawberry treat), the veg haven’t disappointed us either.

We started our potato harvest pretty early, with first and second earlies sprouting in the greenhouse from late spring. This was closely followed by more earlies in one of the beds and then the main crop Maris Pipers and Desires, which have been prolific and are now safely stored in hessian sacks in the cool of the pantry to keep us in potatoes for several months to come. Some of the Desires were particularly fun, we thought – like little characters all of their own!

Red Desire potatoes in a basket
The one on the right looks like it’s about to get up and walk …

Not for us the usual 4 bed crop rotation advocated for very sensible reasons by experienced gardeners such as Kettle Acres. One potato bed just wasn’t enough. The one we used for the earlies is now stocked with sprouts and cauliflowers which are bravely resisting the onslaught of the dreaded cabbage white butterflies and, having dug up the last of the main crop last week, D has been busy filling the space with leeks, onions and a couple more caulis which – hooray! are starting to show little white heads peeping through the green.

So you might be forgiven for thinking that we would be proud of our success with the humble tatty and calling it a day for this year. However, you would be wrong. Way back in the early summer, our thoughts turned to our Christmas table. We had tried to buy late crop seed potatoes last year and been unable to find any in our usual garden centre. However, this year we had more success and we may have gone a little mad, planting 5 bags in the greenhouse. Not as mad as they have though! We did plant them a little earlier than we had planned, as they had started to chit all by themselves and, in early September, they are starting to flower already. The chances of them getting to anywhere near Christmas are slim unless we store them very carefully.

5 green sacks containing growing potato plants
Our Christmas potatoes, out of the greenhouse for now. Maybe that will slow them down a bit?

It’s not all about potatoes! Last year, in our first attempt to grow carrots, they averaged about 2 inches in length and were mostly as fat as they were short. Some were almost square. The hard work digging the new beds this year appears to have been successful, and some of our carrots have been a little more traditional in length and shape. Not all though – one looked suspiciously like a demented octopus and we were breaking off tentacles for dinner all week.

The garlic has been disappointing in one way – it looks very limp, not very well-grown and definitely in the green. When we pulled one up, to see if it had grown at all, there was a single spring onion-sized clove, rather than a bulb, hiding under the soil. Once I cooked it, though, I stopped being disappointed very quickly. I have never tasted such sweet, delicious garlic. I used it in a tomato pasta sauce, made with entirely home-grown ingredients, and, once peeled, it mashed effortlessly into a paste to flavour the sauce. Our onions have been very similar – much smaller than those you buy, but sweet and mild, perfect for eating raw in a salad or on a sandwich.

And there is so much yet to come. The corn on the cob, which we bought on a whim and which has been a revelation to us. Who knew that it would sprout ears just like any other corn, but that the cob actually grows much further down the stalk after forming a hairy wig worthy of Donald Trump himself? The parsnips, also grown with Christmas in mind. We have discovered you need patience for parsnips, sown in April and to be pulled once the weather turns colder. Not as much patience as you need for asparagus though. For its first year, it has grown well and, following everything we have read, we have resisted the urge to harvest a single spear, allowing them to flower and then die back. Apparently, we can eat a couple of spears next year and then a few more the year after – they are definitely a commitment.

Corn on the cob forming on the plant
Sweetcorn wigs

We have leeks in the beds, peppers in the greenhouse and tomatoes pretty much everywhere. D’s succession planting has kept the beds full and things moving and we are proud of what we have achieved in this, the second year of our New Simple Life.

 

Garden visitors

Peacock butterfly on flowering mint

At the weekend, I experienced one of those perfect moments, a timely reminder of how lucky we are to enjoy our new simple life. It was early morning, still very quiet and the sun was shining. I sat outside, eating toast with home-made plum jam, sipping on fresh coffee and sharing the patio table with the Calamity Cat, who was stretched out sunbathing. It was a moment to breathe, to feel fully in the moment, and I was making the most of it. Slowly, I became aware of a background noise – not the usual distant rumble of the A59, but a constant buzzing around ground level. The herb garden is next to the patio, so that we can collect the herbs easily and so that we can enjoy the scents that surround us as we brush past it – mint, lemon, rosemary and even the occasional whiff of Indian food from the curry plant. I have said before that the herb garden is a cut-throat world and it is again getting out of hand. The mints, always the chief culprits in their bid to take over the whole patch, are in flower and, along with the oregano, are trailing over the edge of the path. I have been planning to cut it all back to regain control but, as I realised on that beautiful Saturday morning, the pruning will have to wait. The bees, the butterflies and a variety of other pollinating insects are all absolutely loving it. And I love to hear the buzz as these creatures go about their business. There were literally dozens of them that morning and, every time I go out to gather some herbs for dinner, I disturb a cloud of flying visitors. Along with our revitalised buddleia and the petunias in our pallet planter, we are definitely doing our bit for pollinators. Even more exciting, we have several holes in our bug house up in the orchard plugged with leaves, which is usually a sign of solitary bees nesting within.

Bee on a mint flower
Just one of the many bees to be found on our chocolate mint
Wooden bug house with 4 holes plugged with leaves
Hopefully this is more bees nesting in the bug house on the plum tree

We have a range of other visitors. We rescue the odd frog from the garage (goodness knows how they end up in there but I have a feeling they too hang out in the shelter of the nearby herb garden, probably snacking on my insects) and one has happily taken up residence in our veg patch, helping to control the slugs and other creatures all too happy to dine on our hard work. I’m not sure who is the more shocked when we disturb it when we are watering – it leaps out of the potato plants and watches us from the edge of the raised bed until we have finished. The slugs and snails are far less in evidence than they were last year – hopefully the nematodes we apply every six weeks, along with the frogs, are keeping them at bay. I did find a snail in the petunias the other day, half way up the house wall – it was clearly going for a snail mountaineering award. It reminded me of my first holiday abroad as a child, when one of my sisters plucked snails from a wall and then frantically tried to stick them back on again because she thought she would get into trouble for playing with them. In this instance, I relocated the adventurer to the hedge, where it could do less damage.

Frog sitting on a potato leaf
Our new friend in the potato patch

The sparrows, fledged in the hedges this year in spite of the cats’ best efforts to reduce their numbers, are all grown up now and moving on, as are the starlings who nested in our eaves. The pigeons are as prevalent as ever, either roosting in the apple tree or feeding on our newly-planted onions (D has our veg on a very efficient conveyor belt and, as fast as we eat one planting, more are starting life in the greenhouse or being planted out to keep up us going later in the year). We often see the swallows swirling around in the sky above as we spend our evenings with a glass of wine in front of the chiminea and there was even an evening where I was buzzed by a bat as I went looking for the Calamity Cat.

The cats are spending long hours outside as if they know that very soon, the evenings will be drawing in, the weather will grow colder and they will be coming in earlier, so they need to take advantage now while they can. Calamity, usually the more home-loving of the two, is particularly reluctant to come in and sits under the hedge, just out of reach, steadfastly ignoring our pleas. She will sit there for most of the evening, lulling us into a false sense of security and then vanishing just as the time is growing late and we want her to return home. She is usually tempted out from wherever she is hiding – never far – by Dreamies, but she is becoming very skilled at taking them and the retreating at speed before we can catch her. The Princess is oddly far happier to come home, usually asking to come in around 7pm for a snack, before she quietly puts herself to bed upstairs.

It was with mixed feelings yesterday that we saw our first robin of the season, heralding the autumn and winter to come. It won’t be long before we will be lighting the fire again and snuggling down in front of it as we feel the summer slowly drawing to a close.

 

A fruitful harvest

2 bowls of Victoria plums and a basket of apples

August has brought us a bounty like we could not have imagined. All our hard work in the garden earlier in the year is now starting to pay off and the kitchen is full of the fruits of our labour – quite literally.

It felt for a while like the tomatoes were never going to ripen. We faithfully checked them daily, convinced that the wet summer was to blame for the fact that they stayed resolutely green. Even my sister, on a visit one day, went up to have a look at them. The Calamity Cat went with her and they had quite a chat about it, apparently. Calamity assured her that tomatoes were overrated anyway – she wasn’t keen, apart from when they were used to make a sauce for beef pouches of Felix.

Then, suddenly, we started to spot patches of red on the plants. We now have a wide variety of shapes and sizes – big ridged beef ones, round salad ones, oval plum tomatoes and small, extra sweet cherry tomatoes that I love to eat straight from the vine like the fruit they are. I have plans to make my own passata at some point – I’m just waiting for some new jars to arrive from Amazon.

2 clear plastic containers holding large and small tomatoes and several strawberries
A range of our tomatoes – and a few strawberries too

I have used all the jars we had in the pantry already, making jam. The fruit trees in the orchard have gone crazy this year. Although it is still relatively early, both the cooking and eating apple trees are covered in apples and we are picking up and using windfalls daily. Last year, I tried storing the cookers, wrapping them in paper and storing them in the summer house. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a success. All the apples either went mouldy or turned into dried up husks. This may have been because I totally forgot about them and didn’t try to use them until a few weeks ago or it may be because I just didn’t store them in the right place, who knows. What I did know was that, this year, I needed a different strategy.

I duly Googled “freezing apples”. Last year, I cooked and froze a lot of apple sauce and, while that was useful, there is only so much apple sauce you can eat, even in our favourite apple crumble. So, this year, I resolved to freeze the apples raw to maximise their use. It took us quite a while to peel, core and slice them, before dunking them in lemon juice and laying them out on baking trays to pop them into the freezer. The results were pretty good and I am hoping they will keep us well fed throughout the winter. The only problem is that, a week later, we have just as many sitting in the basket, waiting patiently for us to do something useful with them.

Sliced apples in rows on greaseproof paper
Ready for the freezer

So, my next plan was jam. Last year, I was disappointed that we had no plums on the tree, as I love them. It has certainly made up for it this year, though. We picked around 2kg, made the essential plum and apple crumble with a few and then I got adventurous with the rest.

I have made plum jam before, many years ago now, with plums given to me by a friend and it was fairly successful. I decided this time to make plum and apple (I didn’t want the apples feeling left out, after all). The recipe said to boil the fruit and sugar vigorously for twenty minutes. After an hour, where the jam stubbornly refused to set, I was tearing out my (by then very sticky) hair. The whole kitchen was sticky, for that matter, not just me and my hair. In the middle of it all, Calamity decided it might be fun to bring a live mouse into the house, and we had to spend some time trapping it in a bucket and returning it to the relative safety of the hedge at the back of the garden. It was a cute little thing, looking more curious about its adventure than anything, but it did distract me for a while.

Calamity clearly knew the best way to encourage jam to set – to walk away from it. On my return to the kitchen, I discovered that it was definitely looking better. More in hope and optimism than confidence, I switched it off and we started to spoon it into jars that we had sterilised in a very hot dishwasher.

Plums and apples cooking in a large pan
Is it ever going to set?

Several burned fingers later and with the kitchen even stickier than before, we had jam! We were a bit nervous when we opened a jar at breakfast the next day, I admit, but it was very tasty. Perhaps a little runnier than shop-bought, and definitely not as sweet but all the better for it. And it had used up all our plums – hadn’t it? Hmm, a week later and we had to go back up the ladder to pick more. I think we have even more this time so all plum recipes gratefully received!

5 jars of home made jam, with green and white labels
Hooray! We have jam!!

Along with the fruit trees, the rhubarb keeps on giving and we are rescuing at least a few strawberries from predators (in spite of the netting, they are still being eaten by something), so we have enough fruit to keep us going for a while. The only disappointments have been the blueberry which is a stunningly beautiful bush but any fruit has been swiftly found by the birds, and my much-loved and wanted gooseberry bush. Not only have we had no gooseberries, the entire bush looks like it is being systematically eaten by some sort of insects. I suspect we may need to replace and re-site it at some point.

And then there is the veg. But that’s a different story …

 

The Kitchen Garden

Last week, I focused on the flower garden and how it had flourished while we were away. But what about the other side of the pretty cream-painted wooden gate, I hear you ask. What about the kitchen garden?

It’s probably fair to say results are mixed. We had moved the seedling carrots, leeks and sprouts from the greenhouse to the kitchen for the catsitter to water, along with the larger cauliflowers that we had also grown from seed but not yet planted out. So they were fine, until we got back at least. The day after we returned, we put them back in the greenhouse, unaware of just how hot the day was going to be and, unfortunately, it was more than our newly-germinated sprouts could take. The next day, we found them shrivelled to nothing in their tray, in spite of the automatic roof vents. Another lesson learned – the greenhouse can get too hot!

All the potatoes were doing well and we actually harvested the two bags that we had started off in the greenhouse before moving them outside a month or so ago. The first bag was disappointing, I have to say – the crop was tasty but only lasted us a scant two meals. The second bag was a better haul though. There is nothing quite to beat the excitement of pulling up the stems and seeing what lies beneath, burrowing into the earth and finding the treasure that is a potato you have grown yourself. The miracle of nature and its cycle continues to make me marvel – the fact that the discarded plant goes into the compost bin to help grow the harvests of the future brings me so much pride and pleasure. We also pulled our first few carrots, also from greenhouse bags. Although they are bigger than those we grew last year, they were still a bit curly. We have been told they grow well (and straight) in sand, so we might try that next year.

Grey and white cat looking at a basket of potatoes sitting on a lawn
“Is that it?”
3 home-grown curly carrots sitting on a wooden chopping board
Definitely looking more carrot-like this year

The other veg are coming on slowly. We made a classic mistake back in early Spring when, excited by our work replacing the raised beds, we planted lots of things out too early and the frost hit them. Nothing actually died, but everything stopped growing and most of it is only just recovering now. The sweetcorn, planted slightly later, is doing better but has suffered from attention by, we think, the fat and well-fed pigeons who hang out in the apple tree and laugh at the cats. Still, we have some garlic coming up slowly, as well as leeks, onions, carrots and some parsnips that we sowed straight into the ground and that we are hoping will be ready for our Christmas table. The salad that had done so well over the winter is much less happy in this more clement weather, unfortunately, and has bolted. While the flowers are pretty, as far as salad goes, we will be relying on the various tomato plants we have around, which appear to be doing well.

In fact, most of our fruit is thriving. In the orchard, the cooking apple tree is already groaning under the weight of the coming fruit and we are back to picking up small unripe windfalls daily. The eating apple appears to be doing better this year as well and to my joy, the plum is also promising to bear lots of fruit after a barren year last year. The rhubarb loves its new home too, in spite of the apples landing in its bed each day. I can feel a jam-making session or two coming on over the next few months. As the new gooseberry is still settling in, we definitely won’t be seeing any gooseberries this year, probably to D’s relief, as he doesn’t like them but the blueberry is starting to show signs of fruit and is the most beautiful colour when you look closely.

We are getting a few strawberries too although, just like my childhood recollections, it was a toss-up whether we got there before the birds. In the end, D created a fruit cage out of spare wood from the garage, some netting, a couple of bamboo canes and a lot of ingenuity. One of the canes has weighted the netting so that it will sit in place, but it can be lifted back when we come to pick the strawberries. It makes the harvesting less of an adventure in a way, but at least we are getting some of them. The birds get up earlier than we do, so they were definitely winning the race!

Fruit cage covering strawberry plants in a small raised bed
Another example of D’s practical and creative abilities

And, speaking of birds, they are also thriving. There is a blackbird family next door and young birds of all descriptions everywhere you look. It is lovely to watch them but it is always with a little trepidation, in case one of the cats gets too close. The Princess, particularly, is hunting again when she can, although both the neighbour and I are determined to protect the blackbirds. We hear him banging on the window regularly to chase her off and we are constantly bringing her inside when we hear the shrill alarm call of the parent birds. We have found a few frogs as well, including one who had made it into the garage and resisted all attempts for us to rescue it for some time. Eventually D got it into a bucket and we decanted it into the aptly-nicknamed Frog Patch area of the garden, where they usually shelter in the undergrowth, enjoying the damper conditions caused by the drystone wall.

Hopefully, we are now entering the stage where the kitchen garden will be little work beyond watering, pulling up the odd weed and harvesting, while the flower and front gardens seem to require more input daily to keep on top of the weeds and the deadheading. We need to remind ourselves sometimes that a garden is also for sitting in, for meditating, reading, chatting and enjoying. The cats try to tell us – now all we need to do is listen.

Grey and white cat lying in a greenhouse
“See, this is what a greenhouse is for – sunbathing”

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 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 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!

Garden memories

Black and white photo of a young woman in front of a house in the 1950s

One day, I will own a gooseberry bush. Partly because I like gooseberries – I love their tartness and their texture – but also because a gooseberry bush represents home to me more than any other plant except perhaps rhubarb. Rhubarb holds powerful childhood associations for both D and myself. For D, it was something grown by his father and his plant still lives on in the back garden of the family home. For me, it takes me back to playing in the garden at my great aunt’s house. As a child, I didn’t like rhubarb much but I still remember being fascinated by the enormous leaves and the delicate pink of the stems. My aunt would poach the fruit, making pies and crumbles galore. She also used to give lots away, to my parents and grandparents and to neighbours, who repaid her with bunches of lily of the valley, one of her favourite flowers. So, when it came to deciding our first crops last year, we were in total agreement that we wanted rhubarb growing in our plot.

Gooseberries, though, were less of a given. D isn’t keen on the taste and has no family history of growing the plant. My aunt’s gooseberry bush sat next to her rhubarb although it was much less hospitable. I remember helping to harvest the fruit, doing my best to avoid the sharp spikes which did an excellent job of protecting the precious berries by stabbing anyone foolhardy enough to try to pick them. Then came what felt like hours of endless topping and tailing before finally, she would cook them. More pies, more crumbles and, my particular favourite to this day, rich and creamy gooseberry fool.

I have mentioned my aunt’s garden before, but it seems a fitting time to revisit it now, during what would have been her birthday week, although we have been without her now for over 10 years. She lived in a modest 1930s semi, not unlike the one we now call home, in the house that she moved into as a teenager with her family. She, my grandmother and their brother lived there for the rest of their lives, and my father was, like me, brought up playing in the garden.

Woman sitting on a box in a garden with a black dog and a boy
My aunt with my father as a child with the family dog, all enjoying the garden

When I was growing up, and only my beloved great aunt remained, the garden had the feel of a traditional cottage garden. A lawn at the back was surrounded by borders, where the rhubarb and gooseberry sat comfortably next to a climbing rose and a range of decorative flowers. Raspberry canes and blackcurrant bushes jostled for space with wallflowers and snapdragons and her front garden was a riot of early colour, with bursts of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all bringing joy and promise of a glorious summer. She loved colour and scent, loved her roses, her peonies and gladioli, and the mass of white Marguerite daisies that grew along the side passage leading you on to the back of the house.

She did have a veg border right at the back and I have vivid memories of picking and shelling peas and of the wonder of pulling new potatoes and carrots from the ground to have for tea. In later years, this area was totally given over to her favourite fruit – she had rows and rows of strawberries just waiting to be picked and eaten. We had to move fast to beat the birds, who loved them nearly as much as she did, and the disappointment of finding a large, ripe strawberry, only to find the underside already eaten stays with me today. What we did manage to harvest, we usually ate raw, sometimes dipped in sugar but often on their own, or with fresh cream. Some made it into cooked puddings and she turned what was left into ice cream. She would mix cream and sugar, then fold in the fruit before putting in a container in the tiny freezer compartment of her under-counter fridge. She took it out every hour to break up the ice crystals and churn the mix, until it was frozen and ready to eat – a real treat, all the more so for being made by hand and with love.

It is no surprise, then, that I have wanted to recreate a touch of that magic in my own garden. We have created a soft fruit patch outside the greenhouse and filled it with strawberries and a blueberry bush. To have a gooseberry bush to go with it would wrap all those memories into one spiky parcel and bring me pleasure for many years to come. It would, however, not be my first attempt at gooseberry growing. I had a bush some years ago, which sat in a container on my patio quite happily and gave me fruit in the first year but, when I left it to move to Scotland, it went into an almighty sulk. A friend offered to look after it and planted it in her large and well-tended garden but it threw all its leaves one day, as she said, “in a fit of pique”. Eventually, it was rehomed by another friend, an experienced and talented gardener, but the move was too much for it to take and, despite her care, it died. I am told gooseberries don’t like change, so we will need to make sure that we find just the right spot for our new bush when I finally convince D to buy one. Somewhere in the orchard, I am thinking – much as I loved the higgledy-piggledy mix of fruit and flowers in my aunt’s garden, ours has clearly defined areas, with the orchard and veg plot – rapidly becoming “the kitchen garden” in my head – being divided from the flowers and lawn by steps and a gate.

Sadly, unlike D’s childhood home, my aunt’s house and garden are no longer in the family. The memories are all the more precious for that, and the home we are building here is a tribute to happy memories created by both families, as well as a way of creating our own to share.

Older woman and young woman arm in arm in a garden
My aunt and I in the garden many years ago. I still miss her every day