The One That Got Away

Every so often, I play fantasy Rightmove…don’t we all play fantasy Rightmove? Pick a place at random, plug in our budget (plus a bit more) and number of bedrooms, and see what our money gets us.

I’ve seen all sorts of dreamy but unsuitable places, places where the house was right but the schools weren’t, or there was a bypass thundering by, or the trains were the wrong line, or any number of other reasons not to buy it.

But even more fun for me is to play fantasy house move with an actual real house which we looked at but didn’t buy. I walk past it several times a week, and I’ve just noticed it’s back on Rightmove. Again.

The fact it’s back on the market again, and has failed to sell after repeated attempts, tells you there is something seriously amiss there – we heard a rumour about Japanese knotweed, and that several previous buyers had found they couldn’t get mortgages on it – so if we had tried to pursue it, undoubtedly it would have fallen through and we’d be left a lot worse off and back at square one.

Going for the safe option, then, the house which didn’t appear to be such a money pit, was the better choice, and all sorts of other reasons occur to me now why that house wouldn’t have been so suitable. It’s on one of the most ‘premium’ local streets, but which is also a rat-run choked with cars, and a constant jostling for parking spaces, and we wouldn’t have the advantage of the garage and drive we have at home.

But I still walk past the flaky garden wall with its straggling roses, and the tired old front porch (setting aside my own crumbling front wall and straggling roses for the time being), and think ‘I could have done wonders with that house. I could have turned it around’.

Having another chance to sneak a look on Rightmove, I can see all the things I liked at the time – high ceilings, an impressive Victorian staircase far grander than ours, two enormous double bedrooms upstairs – and the things I would have done to improve it.

There was a bizarre downstairs bathroom opening off a split-level dining room-garden room, which I would have turned into a kitchen cum family room like we have now. It was a fairly shoddy looking extension so I imagine we’d have had the whole thing demolished and redone.

The kitchen on a raised ground floor level would have become a study with cloakroom or utility opening off it – the room having two windows made it an easy option to split into two. If that didn’t work, the basement could have become a utility room or shower room.

Upstairs, besides the two large bedrooms there was a third bedroom split into two as a bedroom-study or dressing room – again, each with a window. This would have been a perfect nursery and bedroom for the girls when they were small, becoming a shared space (bedroom and playroom) when they were older, or eventually having the dividing wall removed to make one room.

Losing the downstairs bathroom would mean only one bathroom upstairs, but I imagine we could have squeezed a shower room in somewhere (when it’s fantasy Rightmove you can do what you like, hey?) and we could one day have converted the attic too, once the girls needed their own rooms, with a bathroom of its own.

We’d also have to paint the entire outside, lose the nasty 80s style aluminium windows, and get rid of that horrid porch. And do whatever I liked with the back garden – mainly just grass, 60 foot of it, a real blank canvas.

So I can daydream quite happily about what I would have done with the house that got away, without regretting it in the least. It would have been a bad mistake to try and buy it, we probably would have had to give up on it anyway, and if we had managed to buy it, it would have swallowed every penny we have – but I feel sad for the house itself.

Six years on, still shabby and unloved, and back on the market again. Somebody somewhere will take pity on it, I hope – but for better or worse, it won’t be me. Sorry, fantasy house. You are much easier to renovate in my imagination than in reality.

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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.

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.

Summer snooping, and assorted chaos

Well, it’s been a funny couple of months. No photos from attractive country locations to share, because we’ve been minus one driving husband for the past 6 weeks, and minus the car for half of that too.

Way back in May some time (I think?) the Mr tripped over a kerb coming out of the station, and several painful hours later decided he’d better take it to A&E. It was apparently only a minor chip to the bone, so he was wearing a boot for 2 weeks. Fine. 

Two weeks later, they realised the X-ray had missed a more serious fracture and the boot would be on for another 4 weeks. Damn.

He was managing alright with the boot outdoors and hobbling round at home, commuting the shortest possible journey in terms of walking distance – bus to the damn Northern Line, my nemesis for many years, but driving was out of the question.

Then we came downstairs one morning to find we’d been burgled and the car had gone anyway – this was at the end of May. We were dazed, but relieved that more hadn’t been taken from the house (just laptops and iPads, all backed up so nothing personal lost – always back up, folks!) but getting a new car was going to be an almighty great hassle.

It was a week later – 1.30am on the night of Bank Holiday Monday, we had the call – Police, we’ve found your car, can we come and collect the spare key in 10 minutes so we can move it? To be woken in the night with amazingly good news was, well, good, but befuddling. I was very sleepy but remember insisting to the Mr ‘check before you open the door, check it really is a policeman’.

Waiting for forensics, and insurers to sort out changing the locks took another few weeks, but the car is back, the door which was forced has new bolts top and bottom and we are throughly relieved all round. 

It has felt very strange not zooming out and about at weekends as we are used to doing, but then it was also the season of birthday parties so we’ve had that to keep us busy, plus the local paddling pool and trips to Greenwich and the Horniman at half term.

I’ve had to fall back on my local patch for admiring flowers – a few favourite houses I like to pass by, and a few new spots as well.


These were spotted in the garden of flats just by Streatham Common – amazing pink daisies, the bees loved them, and the gorgeous colour combination of orange poppies with white nigella.


A view of my very favourite local garden (featured before, I’m sure) – house painted strawberry ice cream pink, which always reminds me of the ‘strawberry pink villa’ in My Family and Other Animals, although SE London does not resemble Corfu in many other ways, I imagine. 

The planting is always beautifully done in purples, reds, and pinks to complement  the house, and the big girl decided she loved the ‘umbrella flowers’ – striped petunias really do look a bit like beach parasols! So I hunted the local garden centres until I found a striped petunia for her. 

A riot of even more purples and pinks: hydrangea, geranium, hollyhocks, clematis. Particularly love that shade of hydrangea – none of mine are flowering yet and one of the front garden ones has barely got going this year at all. Like most of the front garden, it’s rather a mess, but that’s another story.


Something from my own garden I can be proud of, our lovely white rose in the back garden (sadly scentless, but otherwise one of my favourites). I spent a good half hour this morning dead-heading it, so it’s now looking much more sparse, but it always grows back so vigorously I never worry too much about it. 

On the other hand, one of the other roses which was still flowering, I noticed was looking a bit bare in places – so I looked a bit closer…


See those little critters? Here’s a closer look.


It must be the Very Hungry Caterpillar and his friends! Luckily we have enough rose leaves to go round, and we are enjoying doing 30 Days Wild, so this was our ‘wild thing’ for the day. Quite thrilling for small children and me too.


The car/broken foot curfew is almost up, but next few weekends are busy with the school fair and other fixtures – Lambeth Country Show of course – but we will be back to days in the country soon, I hope.

Howling gales do not a happy gardener make

There’s not been much gardening done yet this year, and it’s been getting on my nerves – a wet and windy January has been followed by a wet and windy February, and the garden feels like a remote foreign land to me. 

I’ve seen it under snow, and much more waterlogged and neglected than it is now, but somehow the past month has made me feel much more cut off from it than ever before, and it has never looked as bleak and empty as it has done recently. 

I’ve only really been out the back lately to put out crumbs for the birds – I feel like I’m venturing into someone else’s territory, the domain of the cats, squirrels and foxes, not my back yard at all.

I suspect it’s because this time last year, I had a new baby on my hands and I wasn’t paying much attention to the garden – by the time March rolled around I was ready to get back out there and start gardening. 

This year, on the other hand, I’ve had time to notice how folorn the garden looks, every time I look outside, but the endless rain and howling winds have put me off wanting to actually go out there. It has not even been very cold, but everything has looked so dreary that I’ve felt rather uninspired. 

Perhaps I ought to have a baby every February to distract me from the lack of satisfying gardening I get done – rather extreme, I know – I suppose proper grown up gardeners use the time to read up on new plants and do their planning for spring, but that’s unlikely to be me being that organised any time soon.

We did have a mild-ish Sunday in January when I got into the front garden and did some tidying up – weeding and pruning back the roses, holly and hydrangea made me at least feel the public face of the garden was a bit more respectable. A quick bit of work that gives very satisfying results – every time I come in and out of the house I look at the fresh green hydrangea leaves just opening and the sprawling mass of holly now wrestled under control and feel quietly pleased.

Then of course the bulbs start to come up and again there is a quiet spike of joy – snowdrops back again in the exact same week! And there do seem to be more every year (I know that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is so delightful to see!)

  
Plus we have grape hyacinth and crocuses…

   
 
My only regret is that I didn’t do a serious attempt at planting some more bulbs back in the autumn, to give us even more to enjoy now – but I’ve plugged a few gaps with some potted bulbs which should come up a bit later in spring, and I can at least be pleased that what I have put in already is spreading nicely and well-established – the snowdrops were all planted since we’ve moved here, as far as I remember, though the other bulbs were mostly there already.

One new treat which I’ve been delighted to see is some lovely pale primroses which my mum planted last spring – they were tiny seedlings from her garden, so wee and easy to miss last year I was constantly worried I’d pull them up as weeds by mistake, but one year on they are suddenly huge and in full bloom already – just lovely.

  
These two are on the north facing bed and seem to be thriving there under the kerria – some others she planted in the south facing bed shrivelled up completely, as have several other plants there which I’ve tried to keep an eye on. The ground on that side of the garden seems much poorer quality, dry and rock hard even in winter, and I wonder what I can find that will do well there? Something to ponder as we head into spring.

Springtime snooping, 2015 style

i was gifted a lovely day off last week – the Mr booked me a trip to a hotel spa where I had a morning lounging around in the pool and steam room, followed by a massage, whilst he wore out the big girl (I can’t call her a toddler any more) at Battersea Park zoo. 

I was then delivered two suitably tired children, who were happy to have a rather quiet and non-stimulating afternoon (well, baby sister doesn’t get much choice on the matter yet, anyway) and I got to do what I like best, take a long leisurely walk past some of my favourite local gardens. 

Not that this isn’t interesting for a 3 year old too – we stop to say hello to cats or dogs, watch birds and snails, and see which plants and trees she can recognise. But mainly, it pleases me and soothes my soul…. so let the snooping begin!

  
First of all, I was seeing irises everywhere. The white, dark purple and yellow variants were all familiar to me, but I’d never seen the pale purple and yellow variety before – nor the bright yellow with a dash of burgundy.

To my mind, irises are best growing wild by a pond, what I know as yellow flag, and while the lilac ones in my back garden look very nice when they are flowering, they are a bit ugly at other times of year when a big messy-looking bulging mass of roots is left behind (rhizomes, as my mum has taught me). Still, they do add a bit of drama and height to a bed, as you can see above.

  

I caught sight of something next that I hadn’t seen in years, and hardly ever seen in urban areas – cuckoo’s spit. The curious name hides a tiny green bug, the larvae of the froghopper – I had to resist the temptation to clear away the froth to show the big girl what was inside (I always used to do this as a child, but now it seems a terribly cruel thing to do, to leave the tiny thing without its defences).

Then I saw a plant – and smelt a smell – which always makes me think of summer, gorse. I know it flowers all year round, as the old saying goes, but the heavenly scent of gorse is one that always recalls summer holidays to me, walks along cliff tops and sand between the toes. Not very often seen in urban gardens, either, so it was very cheering to see it there.
  

This wasn’t just aimless wandering, either, (though there ain’t nothing wrong with aimless wandering!) – I am actively on the look out for ideas of plants which might fill in a gap, or things I’ve been missing from the old garden and yearning to replace. 

Some of these I spotted and photographed – Nigella (love-in-a-mist, to give it the prettier name) and California poppies (how I love that splash of vivid orange!) I have already bought seeds for, and waiting for the right time to plant them. Honeysuckle I long for – need to find the right spot for it. And snapdragons can be fitted in any old where, I just need to find some from somewhere!

I’ve already had a few successes this year – a heuchera and Mexican daisies which were transplanted during the building works last year are thriving in their new locations, and I’ve found an old friend, London Pride, on a recent trip to a garden centre and am thrilled to have it growing in my garden again.

The weather has been a bit too hit and miss to do any serious gardening, but it’s looking pretty good out there right now – and there always plans afoot for more things to do…

Front garden snooping: the uniformity of suburbia

One thing I’ve noticed about the time I spend traipsing back and forth with a toddler to various playgroups, crèches and parks is…how *little* I notice, relatively speaking.

We’d been retracing our steps along one particular road for several weeks, in the slightly ‘naicer’ part of town, and I’d been enjoying the general ambience of attractive suburban houses with well-kept gardens – houses like mine, but slightly smarter, with slightly posher cars outside – but without dawdling, as we’re usually on our way home and have other things on our mind, namely how soon the toddler can get to her milk and CBeebies.

Last week, however, was the last walk in that direction for a while, as a particular playgroup is coming to an end and our routine is changing. So I decided, for a change, to dawdle, and take some pictures on the way.

First of all, I saw a flower you don’t often see in the city, and a real harbinger of spring for me, Lesser Celandine. Nothing quite so heart-lifting as these lovely yellow starry flowers.

Lesser Celandine

Further along the road, though, I suddenly started noticing a rather depressing uniformity – rockery after rockery, and in virtually every garden, this rather garish lime-green plant.

I have no idea what it is, but the ubiquity of it reminded me of elephant’s ear, which I was seeing in front gardens everywhere last year (including my own, though I can’t quite face the epic task of digging it out and am reluctantly letting it thrive there).

Unknown lime-green plant

Granted, perhaps this lime green Triffid has self-seeded across various gardens, (in which case, I wonder why they haven’t dug it out…) and perhaps these people actually like it, in which case, good luck to them, but it won’t be welcomed in my garden I’m afraid.

I then spotted a slightly more subtle pleasure – beautiful lichen on a wooden gate post. They always say lichen can only flourish in good air conditions – the more lichen, the lower the air pollution – so I hope that’s a good sign…

Lichen

I was just ready to push on home when I spotted another garden I had walked past many times on the other side of the road, and never noticed – which just shows that hidden gems can be there amongst suburban uniformity.

This one had evidently drawn inspiration from Sissinghurst, as there was a beautiful white floral theme – including hyacinths and (new to me), a really lovely white forget-me-not, which I would love to have in my garden if I can find it somewhere!

White forget-me-not

Beyond that, though, what struck me about this garden was the variety of shrubs and trees used to form a backdrop for the white planting – a perfect contrast of green and white.

They even had topiary dotted around, rather than in a formal hedge – very random and apparently disorganised, but SO pleasing to the eye compared to all those other identikit gardens. So many different shades of green, and a variety of heights and textures which helps offset the otherwise basic colour scheme.

White garden

I would just like to salute those people, whoever they are, for their fine front garden. The all-white colour scheme is such a classic, and it makes me wonder what I could do with my front garden if it wasn’t already full of pink, blue, yellow, orange, red and purple flowers? (Yes, it currently resembles an explosion in a paint factory, but what can I say, I rather like it…)

Our front garden

Our front garden, spring 2014