Being mindful

Mug with redcurrants design containing Earl Grey tea with no milk

As part of the process of weeding out my stress and anxiety, I have started a mindfulness programme. It is teaching me to live in the moment more, to fully experience whatever I am doing, rather than living on autopilot, which leaves the mind liable to stray into areas I am not yet ready to deal with. The cats are a little bemused – they have been trying to tell me for months that what matters is the here and now, and they don’t really understand why I need to practise. It’s even stranger when practice consists of me lying on the floor to focus on my breathing and on relaxing each area of my body in turn. There is an upside to this, of course – it makes me available for climbing over, sitting on and even occasionally settling on for a companionable sleep. I find the experience so relaxing, sometimes I join in with the nap myself.

Focusing on each experience is actually more challenging than it sounds. As a reader and a writer I tend to internalise everything I do, weaving sentences in my head, even as I am trying to give my attention to whatever I am up to. I listen to podcasts as part of the course, and the oh-so patient tutor reminds me in the recordings that my mind will wander – it’s what minds do. The trick is to bring it back to focus on whatever I need to and to do so without judging myself as having failed the exercise. I am learning to experience things in the moment with all my senses, enjoying the physical nature of a walk or eating a home-cooked meal. My thoughts and ideas, while still an important part of who I am, are being put into a wider perspective of the whole, rather than dominating my existence.

Getting out and about is a vital part of this learning. I recently walked the city walls in York. Every time I found myself thinking about work or how I could write up my trip into a blog post, I stopped, took a couple of breaths and refocused on the beauty around me. It was a cool day, with a threat of rain in the air and I could feel the breeze against my cheek. Somewhere, someone had been cutting grass and its scent mingled with the unique smell of impending rain. I could hear the traffic on the other side of the wall but it faded into the background as I was enveloped by the peaceful scenes of back gardens in the Minster Close. As I passed families and couples also walking the walls, probably on their holiday, I caught snatches of conversation in a variety of languages and smiled at them all, feeling briefly like we had all ventured back in time just a little. Oops – there I go again, disappearing into my imagination …

 

Summer gardens and trees with York Minster in the background
View of York Minster from the City Walls

The walls around York are not complete, have never been complete as one side of the city was protected by a deep and treacherous pool of water. The pool is long gone, replaced by a retail park and my mind was definitely jolted back to the present and to the experience of the walk by walking down some steps and coming face to face with Carpet Right. I noticed the difference in the noise level and in the scents as I crossed the busy road to follow the River Foss around to the next section of wall. Even there, there was beauty to be found, as a family of black Canadian geese sailed up the river, avoiding the wide swathe of water lilies which spread across the water.

 

Black-necked Canadian goose swimming down the river with water lilies in the foreground
Canadian goose on the River Foss

And yes, I know, I have taken my physical experience and turned it into a blog post anyway. But at least I waited until I got home, rather than writing it in my head as I went round. It’s a bit like taking lots of photos wherever you go – if you aren’t careful, you only see the photo, rather than the view.

And on that note, I am off for a mindful cup of tea. Try it – next time you brew up, put your book down, switch off the TV and don’t think about your to-do list. Instead, focus as you drink – feel the weight of the cup, the heat against your lips, the flavour and how the hot liquid slides down your throat towards your stomach.  Savour every moment of your chosen beverage. I promise that, if you can do it (and it’s not easy!) your brain will feel as refreshed by the break as the rest of you.

I have something totally different for you next week. A fellow blogger, Lovely and Grateful, has nominated me for the Liebster award. Liebe is German for love and the award is a way for bloggers to share the love and other blogs that we enjoy. I am thrilled that Lovely and Grateful, whose blog I have been following for a while (she has the most beautiful cat called Mara – check out her site!), enjoys mine enough to want to share it with her readers and I am looking forward to doing the same for some others next week. I have to answer some questions about myself too so who knows, you might just learn something new about me as well as discovering some new blogs to follow!

 

 

Taking time to breathe

And so it seems that the stresses of modern life have finally penetrated our Yorkshire idyll. The huge changes of the past few years caught up with me in the end and I have had to take a few weeks out to assimilate my feelings and start edging towards a way forward for the future.

Stress is a little like bindweed, I think. If you keep your garden tidy, it is easy to spot and remove. You can never get rid of it completely, but you can keep it under control and stop it from smothering your chosen plants. We have a bed in our front garden that needs attention – I am planning to pull most of it up next year and start again. I walk past that bed for weeks, not seeing the tell-tale heart shaped leaves as the bindweed works its insidious way up the tangle of geranium and other plants which have run rampant. Only when it has taken a firm hold do I finally see it and removing it is much harder than it might have been. I see a few leaves first, start to remove them and then suddenly they are everywhere. Weeding them out is a daunting task.

 

Green heart shaped bindweed leaves and stems winding through a pink geranium plant
Bindweed leaves winding their way through our flowerbed

Stress is the bindweed of life. Whilst most areas of life are under control, it is easy to recognise and manage – never going away completely, of course, but at a level which can be used to challenge us, keeping us on our toes and even encouraging our creativity and fulfilment. However, as life throws more and more things at us, often so slowly we don’t see them coming, stress puts out its tendrils, winding through our lives until it feels impossible to eradicate. Finally, when everything feels out of control, just like our flower bed, we realise how we deeply entrenched it has become and addressing the problem can feel very daunting indeed.

No one thing can be held responsible for my stress. I love my life here as much as I ever have. The cats and garden are thriving, D supports me with his usual unswerving love and practicality and I still feel extremely lucky to be here. However, it cannot be denied that we have been through large life changes at a time when the world itself feels like it is shifting and changing in potentially dangerous ways and we have never really stopped to draw breath and consolidate the changes fully. I have needed the past few weeks to start that consolidation process.

Home has become my refuge and yet the best way I have found to start weeding out the stress is to go out and re-engage with the world. I have started small. Sitting in the gardens at Beningbrough Hall, listening to the bees in the flower borders and even on one occasion communing with a mouse who popped out of the wall to say hello. Walking down the towpath along the River Ouse, leaving the bustle of the city of York far behind me, greeting the dog walkers and ramblers along the path. Taking time to enjoy the garden at home and eating well, chiefly home grown fruit and veg. Spending time with the cats, with D and with family. Taking care of myself.

Pink poppies in a wide flower border with several insects feeding on the nectar
The insects are enjoying this border at Beningbrough Hall as much as I did

 

River with trees and lots of greenery on both banks
You would never know how close to York you are here – it’s so peaceful

I am starting to see my way back as I pull out more and more of the bindweed to reveal the flowers beneath – the things that really matter. I am lucky that I have so many positives in my life which I have never really lost sight of – they were temporarily covered but never totally buried. And when life goes back to normal, which it will eventually, hopefully I will have learned from the experience to take at least a little time to weed out the stresses early, while those bindweed leaves are still small and the stems weak, leaving me to enjoy the beauty of our chosen New Simple Life.

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 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.

 

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

Greenhouse Day

Man standing in greenhouse

After what has felt like a very long wait, Greenhouse Day eventually dawned grey and drizzly. We waited anxiously, hoping that the gardeners we had employed to build the base and the structure would turn up. We were hopeful – they had laid the concrete base in a snow shower, so it was unlikely a bit of rain would put them off. Sure enough, they arrived not long after breakfast. They were soon up at the top of the garden, examining instructions and scratching heads as they tried to work out how to put the structure together.

We left them to it for most of the morning, apart from taking them a cup of tea. D’s study overlooks the garden, so he could see what was going on from there whenever he looked up from his computer. They got most of the frame up OK but then the rain started in earnest. As the glass needed to be fitted in dry conditions, eventually the gardeners had to call it a day, coming back the next day to finish the job. It was perhaps as well, as there was a piece missing (isn’t that always the way when you are trying to do a jigsaw like this?) and the supplier promised to courier a new one over.

 

Greenhouse frame with no glass on a concrete base in a garden
End of Day 1

As a family, we went up to explore our new building at the end of day 1. Like a child with a new Wendy house, I went “inside” and imagined what it will look like once it is done and filled with plants – the seeds we would germinate on the shelving down one side, with growing sacks and growbags lining the other side full of potatoes and tomatoes. The Calamity Cat came too, sniffing about curiously, looking at me as if to say “ooh, is this a new place for us to play?” That will be no, Calamity. The Princess was also clearly curious but played it cool, watching us from the safety of the longer grass under the apple trees. D, practical to the end, was busy working out where to site the new butts that will collect the rainwater dripping off the roof.

Man fixing water butt in place on greenhouse
D finding the perfect spot for the new water butts

The next day was fine and we were looking forward to seeing our new space complete. The chaps started bright and early and worked carefully and precisely, adding each pane of glass in turn to slowly enclose the structure. But then – crisis! – D received an email from the supplier. The replacement part wasn’t going to arrive until the next day. Such a disappointment! The gardeners couldn’t come back until the following week, when we were away for work, so we agreed they would come and fit the final part the week after. The rest is done and it looks great, but sadly, we have a pane missing in the roof. We have planted potatoes in sacks regardless and popped them in there, but it isn’t quite the same somehow.

Looking at the positives, in spite of very changeable weather, it is really starting to feel like spring. The days are longer, the fruit trees are coming into leaf, with even some blossom starting on the plum tree, giving us hope that we might get some fruit this year. The cats are enjoying it too, starting to come in later in the evening. The Princess has found a new door and insists on coming in most of the time through the study window upstairs via the flat roof. We go outside and call her and, just as we are about to go back in, convinced she isn’t there, we hear a trill from above and see her peeking over the edge of the roof. It is then up to us (she is the Princess, after all and we know our place) to close the door and run upstairs to let her in. She usually tells us firmly as she jumps up through the window that she has been waiting there for ages, and we should have been more vigilant in looking out for her. Oh, and she will have her tea now, if it’s not too much trouble.

As long as she doesn’t try jumping into the greenhouse through the gap in the roof, we will be OK.

Grey and white cat on a wooden beam
The Princess on next door’s roof height trellis but you get the idea – the expression is the same!