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.

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The Wreath Lectures, 2017

Another year has rolled round and I’ve been sneaking up to front doors and admiring wreaths yet again. Last year was all about the mistletoe and silvery wreaths, this year what I’ve been noticing were cones. Big cones, little cones, it’s all about the cones.

First of all, cones with cinnamon sticks, a huge red ribbon and what looks like the contents of the fruit bowl.

Big cones, small cones and fake shiny fruit including cherries. I saw this wreath on quite a few doors locally and was slightly bemused by the apparent introduction of cherries to the festive fruit canon.

Cones with silvery leaves. Lovely.

And more cones with more silvery leaves and big silver baubles. This was perhaps the point at which I decided cones were the ‘thing’ this year.

What looks like a home-made wreath, I always like a low-hanging wreath (or perhaps I should call it a sub-letterbox? Or a below the fold?) I particularly liked this one because of the slightly wonky Easter-eggish shape.

This one appears to be coneless, but I liked the asymmetric gold leaves against the yellow door. (Poor photo, as it was a big house with steps up to the front door so I couldn’t get any closer, but I didn’t want to leave this one out).

Another yellow door and a really spectacular display – wreath PLUS ivy PLUS holly PLUS a big offcut of the Christmas tree. If you have a big grand yellow door, why the hell wouldn’t you? I would.

And in contrast, a plain green wreath not even hung up, just dropped straight on the doorknob, against an austere black door. Classy.

Another plain black door, this time with a twiggy wreath with a hint of sparkle underneath. Endorsed.

Finally, a poinsettia wreath not on a door but simply propped casually on a windowsill. Audacious, but it works beautifully.

Those are my best finds of the year, with no repeats – and finishes off a very happy Christmas. Hello to 2018 (in 20 minutes) and a big far off wave to Spring. I have a big pile of gardening jobs with my name on and I am looking forward to getting started!

Christmas Trees, and letting go…

This year feels like the first time I have properly relinquished control of the Christmas tree.

I was well aware it was bound to happen, and that as children grow older, letting them take charge of Christmas decorating is all part of the fun (for them). For me, I knew I would have to rein in my Monica Geller-style tendencies, and not fret too much if a favourite decoration of mine was not hung in an optimum place, or the two snowmen ornaments were hung side by side, rather than placed well away from each other, to create a properly balanced tree.

There are limits to what one tree-obsessed mum can take, of course – you have to apply some control over distribution of decorations, otherwise they will all end up on the lower half of the tree, and limit the number of times a particular item is fiddled with and taken off and put back on, or risk setting off a flood of needle-drop.

Apart from that, (and a little bit of rearranging after they’d gone to bed), the tree is entirely mostly their own work, and I am pretty pleased with the communal effort. It helps that the tree is a nice shaped one, and for once, not on a wonk.

I’ve also given them free rein with decorations in other areas – the Mr has helped them with paper chains (I don’t get involved, all that rustling paper drives me mad) and we’ve made some ‘stained glass’ tissue-paper window decorations which were great fun to do – and look nice against the glass no matter how scruffily they’ve been made. (See below – I rather like the freestyle approach to what colour a reindeer ought to be).

I even encouraged the use of cotton wool balls to try and make a snow picture; I can’t say the results were outstanding, but it kept the big girl happily occupied for a while.

One thing I noticed after the tree was finished was the lack of baubles, and I realised we now have so many ‘good’ decorations we don’t need to fall back on the non-breakable red or gold baubles which were formerly used to fill in gaps, and are so basic they live in a plastic bag in the garage, because there is no room for them in the Christmas decoration boxes. (Poor basic baubles, now I feel like they are Mary and Joseph in the stable and I should invite them in out of pity, but there is simply no space on the tree!)

The lack of space doesn’t mean there are no new decorations on the tree, though – I had resisted buying anything new, but still seem to have acquired things – the children each chose a decoration from a craft stall and the big girl embellished hers with a few extra sparklies (could I ever have imagined the day I’d allow bright acid yellow on to my tree? Reader, it happened).

Then the toddler came home from preschool with a salt dough tree decorated by her – she insisted on holding it all the way home, so more glitter ended up on her and the buggy than the decoration – but still it is pretty well glittered.

There is also a rather jaunty snowman made by the big girl at school, and another salt dough star which came from somewhere or other.

Finally, I succumbed to temptation (in a church, of all places!) and bought two olive wood fair trade guilt-free decorations made in Bethlehem. (Bought at the St Martins in the Fields gift shop).

I have not had much time for making decorations this year, as I’ve been making a mobile as a present for the toddler instead (pictures will follow). At my current pace, perhaps it should be set aside for her birthday in Feb to give me time to make a few more decorations, if I can squeeze them on the tree.

For yet another year, I’ve also contemplated my very tiny and drab wreath and wondered if I could or should do something better, but time has run away with me and I’ve put that on the mental to-do list for next year. No shortage of good wreaths out there to nick ideas from, though: I have a very long list already to whittle down for my annual wreath round-up!

Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

A West Country Round-Up

Autumn has blown itself in very promptly, with rain and winds accompanying the return to school, but seeing as we aren’t facing hurricanes here, I am resolving not to grumble too much.

Still, our summer holiday does seem rather long ago now, and I did want to capture a bit of it before I forget too much. This may wind up being a two-parter, though.

This was a fairly different holiday from the last two – we almost exclusively did without the buggy this time round. The scooters didn’t come out of the car boot a single time. This meant, a slower pace, a lot of children carried on shoulders and stopping and starting, but on the plus side, we could now tackle stiles.

Our first proper walk was to try and get down to the beach where we were staying, near Sidmouth in Devon. This was the first bit of sunshine after a morning of rain, so we were determined to make the most of it.

It started easily enough, from the donkey sanctuary (nice cafe), a steep path through the woods which turned into this seemingly idyllic stroll across a field. It looked like another stretch of woodland below us, and the sea not terribly far away.

The reality was quite different though – that lovely green field was actually soaking wet and muddy, and once both children had fallen on their knees, we began to lose hope. Another walker toiling back up the hill warned us that it got a lot more slippery further down, so we turned back at that point.

I did get in a walk by myself that evening, though – down to the nearest hamlet (barely more than 2 farmhouses and one of those was half-ruined), and I got to experience a true deep Devon lane. Plenty more lanes like this were to come, but I think this was the only one I got to walk down blissfully all by myself.

We got a nice sunset that evening, too.

The next day was forecast to be the Good Day of the week, so we decided to go to Lyme Regis. Unfortunately (or otherwise) it was the Lyme Regis carnival with Red Arrows display that evening.

We found a parking space by the skin of our teeth, and headed into town to find it crawling with people, and the beach even busier. I knew that the proper beach – the fossil bit – was further down, so once the kids had paddled and we’d had lunch, I dragged them all down there.

It took quite a lot of hunting, but we found some of the ammonites eventually. Really quite a thing! The looming, crumbling cliffs were slightly terrifying though, especially seeing people scrambling around and excavating bits (why would you??)

We ventured back to the hordes in town, watched the lifeboat launch on what turned out to be a false alarm, and walked out to the end of the Cobb for the views back along the coast.

Lots of people crabbing, but we thought the two year old was much too great a liability to be allowed near any big drops – I warned the children what happened to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, not that they were much interested – we just admired other people’s crabs instead.

By then we had pretty much decided it was too hot and exhausting to try and last until the Red Arrows display, so after another paddle, and tea, we headed home. A good move, as it turned out – with so few routes in and out of the town, it was gridlocked trying to leave later on.

Still, crowds or no, Lyme remains one of my very favourite places and I’m very glad we went.

Our last day in Devon was spent at Branscombe, a much cloudier day, but a proper chocolate box place (National Trust of course) and some very impressive cliffs with holiday cabins and mobile homes clinging to the sides in terrifying fashion.

The pebbly beach was quite hard going walking with children, so I abandoned the attempt to get up close to the huge rock pillar at the beach end, but contented myself with hunting out some marine flora.

We ended the day in the neighbouring village of Beer, which if anything I liked even better than Branscombe – it was still a proper fishing village, but with no quay – boats pulled up on the shingle alongside the beach cafe.

Here we were able to buy fresh fish to cook at home – though it didn’t come cheap – and there was a cabin right down by the beach set up as a tiny, free exhibition about all things marine (seemingly so tiny and obscure I can’t even find a reference to it on Google, but it was well worth a visit!).

This was the end of the Devon leg of our holiday – next day, on to Cornwall. To be continued…

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.

Exploring the White Garden at The Rookery

I was going to call this A Whiter Shade of Pale but I just couldn’t bring myself to. So in place of awful pun, a very pedestrian title for a beautiful place.


I have written more than once about the Rookery, our lovely local walled garden on Streatham Common, and we go there more than ever these days, due to the upgraded cafe, much-loved paddling pool and the convenience for dropping in on the way to or from school. 

With our visits being so frequent, I wasn’t sure there was anything new to write about – till I realised I had never really looked closely at the famous White Garden

It’s right at the bottom of the main walled garden, secluded and usually peaceful, but a bit of a through-route to the other half of the common, Norwood Grove, so I’d never spent time really sitting and appreciating it.


However, recently I had the time, and a compliant toddler, so I decided to stop and have a proper look. (And it was probably the time of year to see it at its best, too).

Apologies that so few of the shrubs or trees are identified – I’d love to know what some of them are, though I do know some of the planting is meant to reflect the history of the gardens and replicate some of what was there originally.

Sweet peaHydrangea
To begin with, there were sweet peas growing up tripods which were exclusively white – I must admit, a little dull when you are used to the classic pastel shades – and a gorgeous pale hydrangea.

The next things I noticed were plants evidently chosen for the pale or silvery foliage (ok, in the second image here, it’s still fairly green, but it has a kind of silvery sheen on it I rather like).

CranesbillOx-eye daisyArum lily
Then there were more cottage garden-y plants – a white cranesbill, popular with the bees, ox-eye daisies (ditto) and the slightly more exotic arum lily.


A proper view of the border gives you a real sense of the scale of the place – the way the greenery is offset by the warmth of the brick wall is very pleasing, with little dashes of white here and there, and the dramatic height of the tree behind.


I especially liked the contrast of this frothy, fluffy shrub against the wall.


And on the other side of the garden, another even more fluffy bush. No idea what it is, but I love it!


Finally, a view of the other border, which is dominated by the tree left of centre – it was hard to get a good picture of it alone, but it had creamy white flowers like a magnolia, but flat rather than bell-shaped.

Not much else to say except what a pleasure it was to take these photos and how glad I am I took the time to have a proper up-close look at the White Garden. 

Please, if you’re lucky enough to have local parks and gardens as nice as this, visit them, enjoy them, appreciate them!