The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

Snowflakes and snowdrops

Today felt like the first real day of spring, and not before time – January was a long, slow slog and today was one of the days when the fog began to clear (just mental fog, sadly; despite the sunshine I could feel the mouth-coating sensation of London air pollution just the same). This is still going to be quite a rambling blog all the same, as so much happened when we were in the January fog; I can’t quite believe it has only been four weeks.

It was that same week when Londoners were advised to stay indoors because the air quality was so bad, and the global event we’d all been dreading was approaching – the wretched inauguration – that our own minor crisis happened and I found myself calling for an ambulance at 5.30am. 

The Mr, it turned out, had pneumonia and managed to knock himself out getting up in the night to get medicine for the toddler, who was also ill (with tonsillitis, which later turned into an ear infection). Thanks to the awful air quality I had a hacking cough, too, and so we were all lost under a cloud of illness for the next few weeks. Pneumonia, it turns out, takes weeks to recover from, but he is doing much better now, thankfully.

Outside was mostly all gloomy and cold anyway – there were even a few snow flurries, but not enough real snow to excite the children. I certainly learnt that a chilly blast of snowflakes can make a toddler extremely miserable in a very short space of time – so much for the current depreciation of snowflakes as feeble and pathetic!

When I did get to go outdoors in better weather, I at least had something to admire in the back garden – we had a much-needed tidy up of the shrubs and bushes which were beyond my capabilities, by the excellent, and local, Capital Trees

The bay and olive tree we inherited from the previous owners had barely been pruned by us at all, and it’s a huge improvement to see them properly shaped rather than running wild. The cherry tree will also be getting pruned back later in the year once it has bloomed.

Then this week, finally, I was properly cheered when the snowdrops bloomed in our garden, and today with the weather finally improving we went to the Rookery to see what else was out – and to my surprise, lots was already.

Hellebores, crocuses, camellias, more snowdrops and the gorgeous buttercup style flowers I have not yet been able to identify…I was thrilled to see so much out already, and it has only just occurred to me that the entire slope is south-facing, and very sheltered, so no wonder it puts on a good show so early on.

This is, I guess, what we have to keep on doing – put on a good show. I put in a good hour tidying the front garden when I got back home and felt all the better for it – and days are getting longer, the daffodils and hyacinths will be up soon, and if they are putting on a good show, the rest of us can too.

A walk around….Chatsworth

At the end of our holiday (July – how long ago that seems now!) we broke the journey with a few nights in the Peak District, an area I hadn’t stayed in since I was a Venture Scout, and I was able to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting Chatsworth.


The Great Cascade – looking up

On arriving at the house and considering all the varied and eye-watering prices for entering different parts of the site, we decided to forgo the house and just focus on the gardens and the farm/children’s play area, which could be entered separately. 

I would love to see the art collection – some other time, when not encumbered by a 4 year old and toddler – but the house itself was partly under scaffolding so the visual impact of it was somewhat reduced. In any case, for me it was all about the garden, so we got started by climbing to the top of the Great Cascade – a really impressive piece of engineering.


The Great Cascade – looking down

From there, we walked on to the rock garden, and it was here I began to see the influence of Joseph Paxton, a man I associate with my own dear Crystal Palace park, but of course his link with Chatsworth is perhaps even more enduring than that with the Crystal Palace


Rock Gardens

The tumbledown style of the rocks was very reminiscent of the earth works and rock setting of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park – but on a much larger, mountainous scale. It was perfect for scrambling and exploring, and whilst like any sensible parents we exercised caution, you’d be hard pressed to keep a child from climbing up these formations.

The next spectacle was the site of Paxton’s great greenhouse, and here I was surprised and initially disappointed – I had expected to see something like the houses at Kew, but there was nothing there, just a huge walled sunken garden. 


Then, on reading the display boards and recalling dimly something I’d seen on TV years ago, I realised there was no greenhouse. It was demolished, deliberately, after WWI because there were not enough staff to maintain it, and the walled garden was built around the foundations – you can still see the entrances and exits and the stairs. 

It was a beautiful, haunting place, with the ghost of the shape of the greenhouse still there, just like the great terraces at CP park hint at the huge structure that once stood there, albeit in a rather more shabby and unloved way (though the terraces and dinosaurs are getting some long overdue restoration, I’m glad to say).

I could happily have sat there for hours soaking in the atmosphere – and handily there were some outdoor games like Jenga to occupy the kids – but we needed lunch, so we headed back to the stables block via the back of the house. 

This gave us a chance to see a bit more of Chatsworth’s famous outdoor art, including Henry Moore.


Art at Chatsworth 

I also liked the memorial to what must have been a much loved pet, and the horse sculpture in the stable yard was a big hit – no one objected to children being lifted on it for photos (see above) and its back had been well-polished to a shine after years of children climbing up there. 

After lunch we went to the farm and play area – an extremely ambitious adventure playground, with a stream running through it and lots of sand and messy play. Here we came up against one big problem – we had (for the first time in a long while!) forgotten the changing bag, meaning no nappies or spare clothes – the horror! A kind passing mum who saw our plight was able to lend us a spare nappy, so we were safe on that front, but no spare clothes meant neither child was allowed to throw themselves into wet play with abandon. Boo hiss.


There wasn’t much in the way of garden to admire in this area, but there was on one side of the farmyard a beautiful wall, thick with moss, lichens and toadflax – a really gorgeous sight.

From the play area we walked back into the main gardens for me to have a final snoop around the remaining glasshouses (some of which didn’t have public access, in fact, nor did the areas I assumed from the maps to be kitchen gardens – these were all staff access only).

However there was one much earlier glasshouse – one of the first ever purpose built, in fact, housing a collection of camellias and passion flowers…


…and back on the edge of the lawn outside, a wild flower meadow – well, the most manicured, least scruffy wild flower meadow I’ve ever seen – with a range of colours of cornflowers the like of which I’ve never seen before. It may not be strictly as nature intended, but it was impressive.

My lasting impression of Chatsworth will be the sheer epic scale of it. The setting of the house itself was not quite as monumental as I’d been led to believe – I think I was expecting the drama of seeing it for the first time as Elizabeth Bennett sees Pemberley – but the surrounding car parks and the scaffolding detracted from that a bit. However, the impact of the grounds themselves, the scale of what was undertaken in a project like Paxton’s greenhouse, was unforgettable. 

It’s not a warm and cosy garden, not intimate, despite all the secluded glades and winding paths – you are aware all the time that you’re on the film set of some epic family saga, with so many famous names associated with Chatsworth – the Kennedys as well as the Mitfords, Cavendishes and the royal family, Lucian Freud, and the other artists Debo Mitford supported. It was a thrilling experience – and I will be back one day to do the interior.

The Outside Room

This summer, it has felt like we’ve finally got the garden to work, as a part of the home, rather than just the nice green bit which sits behind glass and occasionally gets tended to. It turns out there are a couple of really simple things you can do to help make this happen, and one of them cost only £40, and the other was free. Let me explain…

Last summer, the first when we had the new living space at the back and the bifold doors, I certainly spent a lot of time sat on the sofa looking at the garden but not much time in it, unless I was doing actual gardening. 

Mostly, though, I was sat on the sofa, with a baby rolling around on the rug, drinking tea, and making grand plans for all the things I was going to do in the garden this year

Now, at the end of the summer, I cannot, hand on heart, say that I have created the den at the bottom of the garden, but it hasn’t stopped the Big Girl doing it for herself – round the back of the silver birch tree is her Ice Palace and there is usually some game being played there or story being enacted whenever a friend comes round to play. 

There is a lot I could do – and hopefully still will do – to make it into a proper child friendly play area, but of course what I should have known all along is that a child’s imagination will do all the heavy lifting – they don’t need lots of money spent to enjoy grubbing around in the soil with a stick.

We did still have the challenge of what to offer the baby sister, though, who was crawling at the start of the summer and walking by the end. As I wrote about here, the big thing preventing me from getting out into the garden during daylight hours was her love of climbing, scrambling and balancing on the edge of the raised bed in terrifying fashion. 

I realised we had to find some outdoor toy of some description which could occupy her safely, so that we could all spend time in the garden without having to repeatedly pull her down from the raised bed or patiently re-plant the sedums in my planter which she pulled up over and over again. 

Turns out the solution is very simple. I kept my eye out on Facebook, and when someone local offered a Little Tikes slide – the cube shaped one – for £40, we snapped it up. The first afternoon it was out on the lawn was the first ever I was able to drink a cup of tea while it was still hot, and without having to retrieve a grumbling baby who’d got stuck at the bottom of the garden.


It has been a huge success for her, as she is just the right size to climb up and onto it without help, but even better is how both the children play on it together. The moment the doors are open, they are both out there, sitting on top of it, hauling out trolley loads of toys and setting up tea parties.


I didn’t expect the Big Girl to be interested in it at all, so her willingness to join in has been a great delight. By next summer, I imagine they’ll both be too old for it, but the entertainment that slide has brought them for £40 was money well spent. 

The other thing which helped? Well, that was something we couldn’t have planned or predicted, but one day in early August we spotted a fledgling robin sitting on the garden bench (and using the arm as a pooing post, thanks robin!)

He (or she) was unusually tame and curious for a wild bird, as robins often are, so we started leaving out crumbs, and pretty soon he was a regular visitor.


Over the course of August he’s grown from a speckly, still slightly fluffy fledgling to an almost full-grown bird, and we’ve seen him virtually every day.


Isn’t he a cutie?

Of course he had to have a name, and between us, he was christened Cheerio Bubbles (don’t ask…)

It has been a key element of making the garden feel like a proper part of the house that we live in, knowing there is a friendly small creature interested in us, and busy making our garden his home, too. And of course it’s been a privilege to watch him growing and realise that the children are getting to see wildlife as a daily part of their life. 

Remembering to save some crumbs for him and put them out after breakfast, and looking out to be the first person to spot him that day, have all become part of the daily routine. We hope he’ll be one of the family for a long time to come.

April showers lead to May & June…showers.

I have been listening to rain pounding very pleasingly on our skylight windows – pleasing as long as they don’t start to let water IN, which they aren’t at the moment, luckily. The act of recalling summer camping holidays and the sound of rain on canvas, without actually having to get wet – an instant hit of nostalgia with no tent-based discomfort.

There has been no end to the rain these past few weeks, it seems, but I can’t bring myself to complain. It has been (mostly) warm and it has been occasionally sunny in between the downpours and thunderstorms, so the garden has responded eagerly and put on its best early summer showing I can remember yet.
Partly I have been delighted by some of the plants I picked up cheap as chips at a local school fair last year – some of them were planted as tiny seedlings last July, so it has taken almost a full year for them to come into bloom, but it was worth the wait.


These amazing poppies, for instance – they are huge compared to typical field poppies, and whilst bright bold scarlet wouldn’t usually be my colour of choice, I find that I love them.

There is also this enormous triffid plant which came from the school fair – no idea what it is, but it grows bigger & bigger by the day.

Both the poppies and triffid-plant are in the raised bed which is finally looking like someone has planted it in a proper planned way (so far from the truth!) – once all the finished bluebells were pulled up, the other plants all immediately seemed to creep into the bare patches until there was hardly any soil left visible (bar 1 or 2 problem patches). Up close there are plenty of flaws, and some plants I’d rather not have there at all, but overall, by some miracle, it works.


The empty spaces in my shady woodland garden under the shrubbery are also finally filling up – foxgloves and periwinkle both steadily expanding, and I have added a new Pulmonaria with lovely pale leaves (and pale creamy flowers rather than the usual pink and blue, when they finally come) and a Dicentra. There are a few other shade-loving plants I still want to find – would love to have some comfrey to fill in the bare spaces at the back as I know it spreads very easily – it self-seeded in my old garden but I’ve not seen it in any garden centres and I suspect most would see it as a weed!

Apart from all the rain, there has been one other big challenge keeping me out of the garden, in the shape of a toddler. She is not quite walking yet, but can put on some serious speed when crawling, and scramble up onto flower beds and precarious ledges. 

If my back turns for an instant she is usually cramming dirt into her mouth or pulling up plants – it makes for rather slow progress if I’m trying to do any gardening, or even trying to sit with a cup of tea. 


Our new garden bench doesn’t get much use as a quiet place for tea and contemplation, more for scrambling and balancing tricks. Oh well, one day I will get to sit there undisturbed, I guess.

The one positive to come out of this rather demanding toddler phase is that I’ve taken to doing a lot of gardening in the evenings – the perfect time to be out there when the days are so long, enough time to stop and look at what actually needs doing rather than just hacking away for 5 minutes here and there – and of course in the evening light and at sunset I can stop and appreciate how nice it’s all looking. 


It’s now the longest day, so nights will start drawing in again (boo!) and it’s currently raining cats and dogs AGAIN, but at least everything looks green and lush and I don’t have to worry about the water butt running dry this year. Silver linings, eh?

Let it snow, let it sleet, let it hail…

This weekend, it felt like a door opened just a crack and we got a tiny glimpse of Spring, what a real spring day feels like. I actually sat out in the sunshine for two consecutive days. I can’t think when that last happened!

Up until Saturday, the week had delivered snow and sleet on Tuesday, hail on Wednesday and thunder and lightning too, then more hail on Friday. And yet, thanks in part to all the rain (and the lack of really cold weather, despite the snow flurries), Spring marches on – the leaves are out, flowers are blooming, we’ve seen birds gathering nesting material. It just hasn’t felt like Spring up until now.

On one of the sunny early April days which was much colder and windier than it ought to have been, I had a chance to revisit one of my favourite local open gardens. The site is on one of the loveliest roads in Herne Hill, in fact the very one I walked up many years ago to visit the Velodrome for the first time – and thought to myself ‘some day I’d like to live round here’. 

Well, I never made it as far as moving to Herne Hill, but I’m close enough, and it is certainly a pleasure to be able to return to this particular garden. 


It has a fantastic wild area at the bottom – great inspiration for how my birch tree might look in a few years, if I can persuade anything to grow under it!


And a very palatial looking bug hotel, with child beside it for scale.  This puts me to shame as I have made no attempt to create a bug hotel at home and there is no excuse, I’m sure I can find some way of cobbling one together.


In terms of plant inspiration I was spoilt for choice – gorgeous Yellow Archangel (top) with its deceptively nettle-like leaves, but so much more glamorous than the ordinary varieties of dead-nettle, the dainty fritillaries (bottom) which are probably far too delicate to survive in my garden right now, and in the middle, something I have discovered the name of but promptly forgotten: forget-me-not flowers but with the lovely heart-shaped leaves, very striking and definitely a plant that’s going on my list for the shady garden patch. (They have it in the local garden centre, so at some point I will buy some and hopefully remember the name….).


The garden also has lovely sculptural features – box balls next to a bird bath on a plinth, a rusty wire mesh fox (does it keep away the real ones I wonder?) and stone birds next to, um, a giant egg. 

I also really liked the use of wood and gravel here – another idea I’ve been mulling over is whether to put more gravel around some of my more drought-ridden areas, to try and keep weeds down and help disguise some of the bare patches of soil that plague me.

I have been keeping an eye out for other pretty things, too, and it is possible, if you look only at the pictures taken on nice sunny days, to imagine we really have had a spring after all. 

We had a sunny (but briskly cold) afternoon at the Horniman museum, and I was keen to see how their formal beds had been planted this year – and I wasn’t disappointed! 

The whole series of beds had been planted with pink, blue AND white forget-me-nots (White ones! Who knew?), with dark burgundy tulips dotted like sentinels throughout. 

The effect was charming and haphazard up close, but a seriously spectacular view when you look down the full length of the beds – patchwork of flowers so dense you could hardly see a bare space. And whilst tulips have never been a real favourite of mine, here they add some height and drama to an otherwise very pretty, delicate forget-me-not patchwork.

If the good weather is here to stay for a while, I will keep my eyes peeled for more inspiration – in the mean time, this lot have given me plenty of ideas to be going on with!

Our new room, inside & out

We are about 2 weeks in to having a fully functional kitchen – hurrah! – and the honeymoon period is still definitely on.

True, there have been a few bumps and scrapes on paintwork already, and the ‘fun’ of learning my way round a new oven, washing machine and dishwasher, but there is no mistaking we have a proper, workable family room at last.

Getting used to a large kitchen is an interesting challenge – room for two adults to prepare food without getting in each other’s way is a plus, but a looong walk to get to a tea towel or open the fridge door is something to get used to!

Other big improvements are a proper recycling bin rather than an overflowing bag, and finally enough deep drawers for all the saucepans.

Here’s a picture of the kitchen as it looked at the weekend: not at its tidiest, but looking well-used, I hope (we have thrown ourselves back into proper cooking with a vengeance: veg soup, roast dinner, shepherd’s pie AND veggie mushroom version, macaroni cheese, lemon pudding…I am rediscovering the joys of having enough leftovers to make Monday night dinner!)

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The dining area we all love already – table, light, and awesome fitted shelves and cupboards which we haven’t even filled…yet. Just being able to sit round the table properly to eat after months of eating on our laps is a joy.

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The bit that doesn’t feel quite finished yet is the sitting area overlooking the garden – currently occupied by my old red sofa, soon to be home to a bigger new sofa, but still awaiting storage for toys and a coffee table and whatever else we think might be missing.

The one thing I knew I would love is being able to sit down there and look at the garden – finally it doesn’t feel like the garden is separate from the house, it has become an integral part of the home.

The amount of light coming into the room is even better than I could have imagined, and even on a wet day, with rain pouring down the Veluxes, it’s a pleasure to be there just taking it all in.

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Finally, here’s some pictures of the odd little nooks and corners:

What used to be our funny inside-outside corridor, now mostly an outdoor side return, which may eventually house some kind of storage unit for garden things: it looks so much bigger than when it was ‘indoors’ it feels like a waste not to use it for something!

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Next is the teeny tiny utility cubby hole, what was going to be an actual utility room. Just big enough now for the washing machine and boiler, but it is also somewhere to leave muddy boots and gives us that little bit of extra space between us & the outside world. (And we also have, not photographed, the holy grail of the downstairs loo, and some proper hall storage for shoes & coats courtesy of a trip to Ikea this weekend).

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After a severe drenching at the weekend, the lawn we are trying to reseed is looking pretty dreadful, but we did get an hour of work done tidying up the garden on Saturday morning, before the serious rain set in.

Flower pots have been returned to the patio and overgrown shrubs hacked back, and it’s all looking a lot smarter than it has for the last few months.

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And there is always the view of the house, plus the new patio and path which I’m still in love with, to stop and admire while I’m working.

It has been a long, stressful four months of having strangers in our house 6 days a week, noise, dust and chaos, but we have gained a very happy house – now to get on with the job of living in it, and planning for Christmas. Other projects and plans can wait now for 2015 and beyond!