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!


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.

The Wreath Lectures, 2018

It’s the last Sunday evening of 2018, I have gin, chocolate and Star Wars on TV, just enough time to wrap up my favourite wreaths of the year.

This year is going to be short-ish on text and big on images because there were just too many to choose from – in fact I’ve gone so far as to make collages, fancy!

First off, if we have a theme this year, it’s that wreaths have gone BIG. We have baubles, gold and silver trimmings, plastic cherries and wheat, red ribbons, cinnamon sticks and dried fruit – and they are all BIG! Some of these four are a little too artificial for my personal taste, but the effect of them is very impressive.

This one was probably the biggest of the lot – practically a third of the door space taken up. Huuuge! Eucalyptus leaves seem to be quite a trend this year, too.

Some others I really liked: silvery-white all natural wreath with what look like frosted apples and pears, red and white rags, heart shaped and star shaped. (Red and white rags possibly my personal winner this year, really stood out from all the rest).

EVEN MORE, red leaves, red ribbons, bells, robins, hearts, baubles. Bottom right was a first for me: a wreath hung in a window rather than on a door (on closed shutters) – looked really good.

Final four combo: totally plain fir tree branches against a geometric glass door, big brash wreath with white roses on a yellow door, big red ribbon on dark green door, and one with a wooden heart in the middle. Loved all of these ones.

My last favourite isn’t even really a favourite – it isn’t the sort of wreath I’d normally stop to admire, but it reminded me of something and I couldn’t think what –

Then it struck me, the frosted-tinsel look with red ribbon was exactly what the 5cm high wreath I used to hang on the door of my dolls house looked like. You can still get them, exactly the same as they were, and sold in a two-pack, exactly as I had (why, when the dolls house had only one door? – always puzzled me!).

So the frosty wreath on the red door gets a thumbs up from me.

That’s all for me from 2018 – I didn’t quite stick to my goal of blogging at least once a month this year, and certainly this has been the least garden-focused year I’ve had since I started, but branching out (pun intended) into other areas has been fun. And carving out time to write whilst rebuilding a career and keeping family life on the go has been good for helping keep the brain clear of other distractions (I finally gave up Plants vs Zombies, yay me!)

I do hope the poor garden gets a bit more love next year, but for now, a very happy New Year and back for more of the same in 2019!

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.

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.