All the Colours of the Rainbow* (and Joy)

*except possibly blue, green and violet.

It’s tulip season, and it has become a season of joy and colour, unexpectedly for me – I’d always usually say I prefer the earlier, paler spring flowers – narcissus and hyacinth, snowdrops, primroses: all the pastels, the more dainty and lovely the better.

I make an exception for bright yellow daffodils – my Welsh heritage for one reason – but bizarrely, ours didn’t flower this year – the leaves came up but no flower buds formed, and I’m sure it’s not the first time that’s happened with my daffs, I seem to remember the same happening a few years back.

Perhaps my bulbs are old and tired and have given up the ghost – not enough energy stored to make a flower? Is that a thing? Every year I plan to plant more bulbs for the next spring and every year I fail to – though I did successfully split a bunch of snowdrops last year which survived the experience, so that’s one small triumph.

However, when the girls noticed tulips in the back garden had flowered, I realised we’d gone straight into tulip season without even having daffodils, which felt very odd – but then I saw the glory of this front garden display while we were out and about:

and decided tulips deserved a blog post all to themselves – I mean, look at them! I dream of being able to maintain a front garden so well-ordered and full of colour, instead of the mishmash of gnarly old roses, sad-looking fuchsia and bluebell chaos in mine.

Then at Easter we went to Wimpole Hall (also the top picture) and saw all this riot of colour in their walled garden. I can’t decide whether I prefer the variegated ones or the single colours – the plain block of yellow is hard to argue with, though I’d never have believed a few years back I’d be drooling over plain yellow tulips!

Orange and dark pink together makes a pretty special show as well.

But also shades of pink and scarlet with white thrown in – somehow, whatever you put together with tulips, it all works.

Also in the orchard at Wimpole were these lovely white, yellow and lilac tulip-like flowers – I thought perhaps pasqueflower or something related to tulip, but Google doesn’t seem to think so – anyway they were dotted throughout the meadow and looked quite beautiful under the apple trees.

Back home and back to the school run – first day back was a shocker, raging hormones, preschooler and I winding each other up without the chilled-our big sister to act as a buffer, and the shock of returning to the routine made me a very grumpy bear – so on the second day, I tried to seek out a bit of calm.

This front garden (above) with cream and orange/yellow tulips against a beautiful range of greens and darker shrubs works a treat – the different heights make it look like a vista down a tiny rainforest valley.

This one with bright oranges, pinks and reds amongst the bluebells is another little window into a world of joy. These are the front gardens of dreams for me – the challenge is to actually put it into practice and plant the damn bulbs this year!

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Fixing the Prickly Problem

It had been a year of thinking and wondering what to do about our troublesome front garden, overgrown with holly, and too-narrow drive, a year of indecision driven not by (as would usually be the case with us) not knowing what we wanted, but in this instance knowing exactly what we wanted, but that to do it justice would be way out of our price range.

The cost of the full works we wanted to do – widening drive, new drive surface, new fence or brick wall, replanting front garden, creating a bin store so the bins didn’t have to live on the drive – was just impossible; and while we did nothing, the front wall and gate post got more and more dilapidated.

So at the end of last year, I thought I’d take decisive action: stop wringing hands over the cost of the big job and break it down, little by little. First, get the holly cleared out, and most of the rest of the main flower bed with it, by our tree surgeon neighbour; little more than half a days work for them, in early January.

That gave us the chance to see how much wider the drive felt without bushes and a self-seeded tree encroaching on it (turned out to be a holm oak, not common – sorry tree, you were just in the wrong place, you had to go!)

The drive felt bigger straight away – and when the Mr tried taking off the gates to see if he could back the car in more easily, the whole damn gatepost came down with it!

So much joy to see that ugly crumbling gatepost gone, and without even paying a builder to do it! At least it felt we’d made a start on it, and that was the push we needed to get to the next stage.

The Mr took his own decisive action and found a builder to get rid of the walls entirely and put us up a few courses of bricks with fence panels above – what most of our neighbours have, and by far the smartest option in my view.

This meant abandoning the plans for the drive, (which had been badly damaged by having a skip on it for 5 months back in 2014) but at this point, I was prepared to sacrifice that. Re-laying a drive to get it level is clearly a serious task and not one we could face at all at this point.

So the builders came in, and within 3 days we had quite a transformation. I don’t like the concrete pillars – I wish it could have been wood – but I love the shade of the wood panels, was very relieved it was a nice, tasteful dark brown not an orangey pine-colour.

Here’s the view from the front:

– and you know what, once the car is on the drive, it doesn’t matter that the drive is a state because, guess what? – it has a car sat on it, you can’t see the wretched drive at all.

The fence being thinner than the old wall means we have a few extra cm to squeeze in and out of the car, so no need to demolish half the flower bed to widen the drive – and when we change cars, the new one will likely be smaller, giving us more space to play with. And we can sit smugly glad that we’ve done our bit for London congestion by getting at least one parked car off the public roads and onto a private drive.

The plans for a fancy bin shed were shelved when we thought – why not simply store the bins round the side gate in our garden? More hassle putting them out, true, but no ugly bins on the doorstep any more, hurrah. One of those obvious solutions right under your nose that fixed the problem and cost us no money, just requires a bit more effort every week to do the bins.

A bin shed with green roof would have looked smart and had kerb appeal – but the shape of our garden, path and drive didn’t lend itself to having one there anyway, there was no practical obvious place for it to go, and far more kerb appeal is to have NO bins in the first place, surely.

Our next challenge was to give the gate a facelift – two children and one dad tackled this with face masks and spray from B&Q one weekend morning, and how proud am I of the result? For a resolutely non-DIY family to have done any part of this ourselves is still a source of amazement to me.

It is so much smarter than I dared hope, for a fraction of the cost I feared it might be, that it has been a good lesson in how to tackle the tasks I had previously found too overwhelming to contemplate. (I have written before about my ability to feel such a dread of small unresolved household tasks piling up that I deal with it by tackling none of them)

In future I will always try to ask myself:

– Does it all have to be done in one chunk or can it be broken down?

– Is there a cheaper (or even cost-free) plan B you haven’t considered?

– Can you live with some ugly bits if most of the ugly bits are gone?

– Focus on the practical and your top priorities above all else, and compromise where you have to.

Our main priority was to get rid of the wall before it crumbled away, and to be able to park on the drive more easily. Storing the bins in the back garden isn’t massively practical, but we can live with it, in order to get the car off the road.

Compromise won the day: once we (I) had accepted it didn’t have to be perfect, nor did it have to be the entire job tackled all in one go, it made it so much easier to deal with, and it has made me feel less nervous of tackling the other small and not-so-small jobs inside the house, bit by bit.

The final piece of the puzzle will be replanting the front beds – at the moment, the bed near the drive has just a couple of rose bushes saved from the cull, plus whatever bulbs are coming up. No rush to do this, as I want the bulbs to have a chance to flower and die back before we start on anything else.

Snowdrops have already been and gone, daffodils and bluebells are coming – I’m obviously hoping not to lose the bulbs, but plenty of ideas of what else to add in.

For the first time in this garden, an almost-blank canvas to work with – an exciting prospect. Phase two of the front garden revamp follows soon.

How Summer slipped by

I managed to lapse into a whole month with no blog, more by accident than design to start with – I had all sorts of ideas of things I was going to write about, but I seem to have spent August letting all sorts of things slip.

Fitbit targets have gone out of the window, I haven’t had my eyebrows threaded for months, or hair cut since May, summer holiday tasks and clear-outs I’d planned have not even begun, and the garden was looking, frankly, its worst ever by the time we went on holiday.

This was the dismal, withered state of the raised bed at the time we went away – thankfully now much recovered after the August rain.

What water we could spare went on the vegetables, though I felt like I was betraying my poor flowers – though the tomatoes were worth the effort, I must say.

The heatwave was, to start with, unbearable, but it’s amazing what you can put up with when there’s no choice.

You go everywhere slowly, you rest in the shade, you carry tons of water everywhere, you save every saucepan of water and ‘grey’ washing up water for the garden, you buy inappropriately thin clothes you’ll maybe never need again – and you adapt to the new conditions. It got to the point where I didn’t really care how hot it was in terms of my own personal comfort – I’d acclimatised to it – I just wanted rain for the sake of the poor brown garden.

For a really shocking contrast, here’s Greenwich Park taken in late July, the main open area (unwatered) below vs the Queens House/Maritime Museum side above, which was still being looked after. These two photos were taken literally on opposite sides of the same path. Just unbelievable.

BUT a great deal more has happened this summer, more than will fit in a single blog. Holidays and other new projects will wait for the next one, but the big double win for this summer was a girl finally out of nappies (except at night, obvs) and going buggy free.

Pictured here with the sunflower she grew herself at preschool – back in July when we were changing pants many, many times a day and I thought it would never end (and that my poor sofa would never recover).

People say ‘if they don’t get it straight away, it clicks after two weeks’ but 3 weeks in and we were still struggling. No going back, though, as she was nearly 3 and a half, and I was determined to be out of nappies for the summer holiday. By a miracle, we managed it, with just a couple of dodgy tummy incidents on holiday leading to ‘accidents’, and life without nappies has been marvellous.

The buggy-free thing came about because our first trip into town after the holiday was to see The Tiger who Came to Tea, going via Brixton where the lifts are out of order. I said ‘we’ll go without the buggy this time’ and since then she’s just got on with it.

Of course everything goes more slowly and we don’t cover the distance we used to – hence those lost Fitbit goals – but she doesn’t grumble or ask for the buggy and I am so glad to have my hands free instead of always pushing something.

I do obviously have to carry everything that used to go under the buggy, but I am learning to travel as light as possible (though still carrying tons of water bottles weighs me down a bit). Not carrying nappies now helps with the bulkiness, but spare outfits, wipes and nappy bags still needed for emergencies.

Compared to how emotional I felt at Easter saying goodbye to her old playgroup, losing the buggy and nappies has been a liberating experience; not a tear has been shed. She’s a big girl delighted at how grown up she is, and I’ve seemingly managed to let go of the physical baggage without any emotional baggage attached.

Mind you, if we actually dispose of the buggy I might feel differently, but it’s folded in the porch now awaiting its fate. I dare say on a rainy school run morning it may get used again, so we’re not quite ready to let it go yet.

A Prickly Problem

We are no nearer to solving the challenge (?) problem (?) dilemma (?) of our front garden.

Every time I approach our house I feel a little sag of the shoulders at the sorry, weedy, shabby state of it – the house, far nicer now than a few years back, but the thing in front of it, not so nice.

This is the big prickly problem which bothers me the most – the holly. Now, once upon a time I thought I liked holly. Christmas, red berries, wreaths, jolliness, The Holly and the Ivy, all nice warm cosy things, and when we moved into the house, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly large amount of holly, so it stayed.

And then grew, and grew, and spread – I keep finding seedlings everywhere – and never had a single berry. The wrong kind of holly, apparently. Now it has taken over half the main flowerbed and trying to cut it back, even with long sleeves and heavy-duty gardening gloves, is like wrestling with a herd of angry scratching cats.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that holly is prickly – right? – but our holly just seems to inflict pain beyond a point that I find reasonable, and now I just want it gone, the whole lot. Humbug!

Apart from the objectionable holly, there is lots I DO like about the front garden. On the other holly-free bed, across the path, we have Mexican daisies which I adore, mingling with lavender and spilling across the path in proper cottage garden style.

Behind, a red-pink (I want to say scarlet, but I don’t know for sure) hydrangea which at this time of year is reminding me why I like it so much (the one on the other bed having died last winter).

In between the daisies and hydrangea is one of the front garden’s many roses – most of them all old, gnarled, straggling and ridden with black spot, but this one I can’t bear to part with as the flowers are so gorgeous – very pale pink with a hint of yellow at the heart.

How could I banish something as lovely as this from the garden?

Then I have Japanese anemones, which seemed to be in everyone’s front gardens a few years back, so I followed suit and planted some, which seem to have settled in after a few uncertain years (no photos as they haven’t flowered yet), and the bliss of Canterbury Bells which I bought discounted somewhere last summer, planted out very late and they came back up triumphantly this year.

Besides the holly, though, there are some things which are either simply not to my taste – arum lilies, too funereal – or right plant, wrong place, the wretched camellia which looks lovely for a week or so and then drops rotting brown flowers everywhere.

There are also several fuchsia which I want to love, but behave so unpredictably that I distrust them. Every winter they leave a mess of dried sticks when the leaves drop and I never know whether to leave or cut back – will there be fresh growth or have they given up? Which branch to cut and which not to? The plant gives me no clues, so I get annoyed with it.

The real problem zone, though, is the drive and accompanying wall and gatepost. It has crumbled slowly over 5 years and now has a crack on the wall and a loose top to the gatepost (we suspect a neighbour clipped it going into the side return).

It looks shabby, it IS shabby, and the drive with herringbone brick paving is just as bad – ridden with weeds, despite my efforts with a fancy weeding tool.

We need a wider drive to fit the car on properly, and a better surface than paving so I’m not constantly battling weeds, we want the ancient old gates gone, we’d like a bin shed rather than having the bins up by the front door; I’d like a fancy bin shed with a sedum roof, but now we’re getting into pie-in-the-sky territory.

What I’d really love, too, is to replace the weeds in the drive with some proper planting along the edge – a soak- away with gravel and mesh so that we can have something low-growing like thyme or more sedums as a feature. We’ve already had Mexican daisies and violets self-seeding there, and I’d love to encourage them but lose the weeds.

Widening the drive and creating a bin store would also mean losing some of the problem plants, killing two birds with one stone – but doing one half of the garden and leaving the other half (the less troublesome flowerbed) untouched would look a bit odd and unbalanced. I can’t bear the thought, though, of losing plants I do want to keep and have taken time and effort to nurture!

And let’s be honest, this job, when it finally happens, is really about the practical task of getting rid of the wretched wall and sorting out the drive; any actually landscaping or replanting will be a byproduct of the building work, not the main event.

I can definitely say what I’d have if I was doing the whole thing from scratch, though – my inspiration is a house round the corner which went for the gravel-and-mesh look, done a year or so ago, and it looks amazing now, with a really stylish wooden fence too.

It’s got taller plants like red hot pokers and alliums towards the back, and things like sedums, daisies and thrift at the front, which have spread to virtually cover the gravel completely.

This front area is even used as an occasional parking space and it doesn’t seem to affect the plants at all. And it looks like the perfect choice for a sloping urban garden – Mediterranean-style plants which cope well with poor soil and drought seem to be thriving. I walk past it every day and drool for a front garden as impressive as this one. At this rate, it *might* not be this year…but maybe next.

A walk around…Wakehurst Place

In between the dismal weather, we have had a few nice days out in the country recently, but a couple of trips to Kent have reminded me that, no matter how lovely the countryside, the hum of a motorway is never far away. When your own back garden in inner London is quieter than an idyllic Kent valley, you know something isn’t quite right.

That isn’t a criticism you could level at Wakehurst Place, where we went a few weekends ago. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but neither was it cold or wet, and the place has an atmosphere no grey skies could dampen.

For a start, there was colour:

I hadn’t known really what to expect – I knew it was an RHS site as well as a National Trust one, and I knew it had the Millennium Seed Bank, but beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions. To start with, it was country house landscaping of the kind I’ve come to expect – then to turn a corner and find the huge banks of colour, almost took my breath away.

The bright pink swathe of whatever it was in the top picture (not a rhododendron, maybe an azalea?) was the most impressive, I nearly missed it as the path had snaked down and round the pond – I happened to turn and look back, and saw the flowers looking like a fuchsia pink waterfall tumbling into the water.

From the landscaped areas around the mansion, we took a path which dropped steeply down a valley and into proper woodland (though being RHS woodland, there were still flowering shrubs popping up everywhere, and of course bluebells).

As the path dropped further down towards a lake, I began to appreciate the calm even more – though also began to worry about the walk back UP and the likelihood of one child doing a face plant and the other needing a wild wee (yes, both happened). The site is HUGE – we saw maybe less than half of it, and we never made it into the Seed Bank either.

It was the Mr who pointed out, though, how quiet it was. I had felt the difference, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. No aeroplanes, though we weren’t far from Gatwick, no motorway drone, no screaming kids except our own.

Deep in that valley, we felt completely cut off – not in an oppressive ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ way, but in a peaceful, ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree‘ way. Give me a little cabin there by the lakeshore and I’d have been quite happy (provided there were no mozzies).

The climb back up to the mansion was much slower, with grumbling children in tow – we are well out of the days of buggy walks now, though much of the site could have been negotiated with a buggy. I stopped to admire raindrops on Alchemilla, one of my favourite plants, late flowering narcissus, and those gorgeous red unidentified leaves. There was more gorgeousness to come – a walled garden full of tulips. I must forget there was ever a time I didn’t really like tulips (did I ever really think they were too garish? Look at these lovely subtle colours!)

We also found a well-stocked mud kitchen, where a t-shirt got irrevocably ruined, and a potting shed where children could plant sunflower seeds.

Plus I haven’t even mentioned yet the impressive nature-inspired sculptures dotted around. I liked these ones in the bee-friendly garden which looked like giant seed-heads, and also a bit like (now I come to think of it), the 2012 Olympic torch.

And I nearly forgot to include the troop of goslings we encountered, and the very tame pheasants wandering around.

Looking back at the photos, I am amazed we packed so much in – and still so much more to see when we next go back.

Definitely adding to the list of favourite places, and when I need to escape the pavements grey, I’ll think myself back into that valley where the rest of the world seemed to drop away.

We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

A walk around…Kew Gardens

I have mixed experiences, shall we say, of visiting Kew.

The first time I went, in 2001, I had a lovely day there with my mum, but the memory is tainted by the fact I got mugged the next day. The photos from our day at Kew are the last ones, unknowingly, I had of my nice burgundy bowling ball style handbag which I was about to be relieved of. Grrr.

The next time was a much bigger success – it was during an exhibition of work by Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor, and his work was, to me, the perfect match for the setting. Elegant spirals and globes of coloured glass floating on the lake in front of the great Palm House was really quite special.

The most recent visits have had their up moments, but have been hampered by rain. We went in January, when everyone was on the verge of being ill, and it was a struggle to have the energy to do anything much. Then we went again at the start of the summer holidays, on a day which had started out lovely, but clouded over within minutes of getting in the car.

Now, there are plus points of a wet day at Kew – the greenhouses are good whatever the weather, and there is an acceptable indoor play area for children which tries to shoehorn in some plant facts, but is mostly just fun.

The other plus side is, in between the showers, you get to see everything looking lush and green with raindrops on roses everywhere you look.

The downside is, there is a lot of ground to cover between the different indoor areas, and surprisingly little tree cover along the main paths, as they are such broad walks with flower borders, the trees are set far back from the path.

Still, we found plenty to explore in the middle of the day before the rain set in – we went to the Hive, a light and sound installation which mimics the activity of bees.

We'd seen it back in January in a fairly dormant state, but now it was in full flow with lights flashing on and off continually, and very restful ambient music playing. If this is a bee's life, I like it.

(Photos show the exterior and interior of the Hive).

From there it's a short hop through the rain to the Princess of Wales greenhouse where the lily pads (see picture near the top) and a real actual iguana were the big draws.

Then, with rain getting harder, we slogged around the lake and through the Alpine garden to get to a toilet stop, (this is another pacing problem, toilets all seem rather awkwardly located, too close to each other and not very close to the big greenhouses).

Then on to the Palm House for a bit of respite from the cold rain – of course we didn't really dry off, just steamed in the humid air – and a final trek back to the car, wishing for a little sunshine so we could have stayed another hour.

Plenty of nice borders and details to snap on the way back, though….(love the giant ornamental thistles, I keep seeing these everywhere at the moment).

I cannot say these wet days out at Kew have been a disappointment when we have still managed to see and do so much, it is just a shame to leave with so much more unseen! I would love to take the children to the pagoda and the treetop walk, and down one of the long avenues which leads to the river, but it's just not doable on a wet day.

Plus the map indicates all sorts of hidden gardens and less well-visited areas I'd love to explore properly.

None of that matters to the children, of course; the indoor play and the very good outside playground next to it would be enough for them, but I hope they'll get more out of it as they get older. One of them may still have an inner botanist yearning to get out. Just a botanist that needs a good sunny day to really appreciate the best that Kew has to offer.