How Summer slipped by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

A walk around…Wakehurst Place

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

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

For a start, there was colour:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Tale of a Tree

As I wrote towards the end of last year, one of the garden plans for 2016 was to do something about our scruffy old shrubbery, and plant a tree. 

It took a few months to get going with this project, but I can now safely say, we have begun. Our first task was to remove the gnarled old buddleia stump – I sawed back what I could manage of the trunk, the Mr did the rest, and we discovered the underneath of the stump was completely rotten anyway, so it all came out with a few hefty kicks and levering from him. 

Here’s how it looked at the end of Feb:   

And once the stump was all gone we were left with this:    

I spent a few hours raking up twigs, digging out roots and pulling up ivy till we had a nice clear patch of bare earth, uncovered properly for the first time in years. 

(This was the remains of the buddleia stump, or rather about half of it!):   

I had canvassed opinions from various gardening friends and we had decided – as anticipated – to buy a silver birch

One recommendation had been to buy a multi-stemmed tree, which would give the appearance of being a fully-formed mini grove of trees rather than a solitary trunk. This would fill out the empty corner very well, we thought, and also mean the tree would not grow as tall as a single trunked one would – as we already have a tall cherry tree in the garden we didn’t want anything to have to compete with that too much.

My only worry was that a multi-stemmed tree would be three times the price – 3 trunks meant 3 trees, right? – but luckily that was not the case, and my favourite local garden centre sold us a lovely multi-stemmed tree for the same price as a single stem.

They also sold us a wooden stake and gave us some helpful advice about positioning it, but we are certainly not experts and when the tree arrived on Easter Saturday, the tree itself went happily into the ground but the stake snapped in half when it was hammered in.

One return trip to the garden centre a few days later, a bit more explanation needed about correct staking procedure, replacement stake given free of charge (hurrah!) and we were in business!

(Staking tips: apparently you need to angle the stake so that it’s outside the tree root system, and also the stake must not rub against the wood of the trunk, so you need a rubber tie thing which goes around stake and tree in a figure of 8. So now you know).

The leaves were just coming out on the tree when we planted it, and it has had plenty of good soakings since then (thank you April showers), so now in full leaf, it really shows what a good choice it was to fill that dull spot:

  
The broad, generous shape of the three trunks already feels like it was made to go in a corner, and the dancing golden green leaves bring the whole area to life. What was a particularly dark and gloomy corner of the garden is now full of movement, interest and colour. What a joy!

  
From a distance looking down the garden it really shows how well it has filled the empty gap:

  
In a word, I am thrilled with it. Less thrilled that the poor Mr has damaged a shoulder from all the digging, but he seems to be on the mend now, and I won’t ask him to plant any more trees for me for a while…I promise. 

Too much else to plan now, that I have a mini woodland glade at the bottom of the garden, I don’t need more trees, the question is what else to plant around and under it? And what about the children’s play area? (When are we going to get a chance to do that, exactly?)

We are not going to plant anything too near the tree yet – let it get established first – but there are plenty of other gaps in the shrubbery that need filling now that I’ve thinned out a bit of the dull stuff, and lots more inspiration to seek out first before I make any decisions!

Farewell to summer, autumn’s on the horizon…

Back in the day, it always seemed as if there was a distinct chill in the air on the first day back at school, so I always anticipate a crisp biting feel to early September, but the truth is more likely that the first day of school was the first in six weeks I was up early enough to feel that chill, after a summer of lazy starts. 

The last couple of years, though, we’ve barely even had a frost at the height of winter, let alone autumn, so that first chilly morning just doesn’t register with me at all, and I measure the gradual change in seasons by other means – the day I put away my flip flops and reluctantly got out my slippers, and the day I much less reluctantly made plum cobbler with the fruits of  Beryl-down-the-road’s tree, along with the first Sunday roast of the season. 

  

Our garden is still looking lush and green, after a few spectacularly wet days which restored the lawn from its summer dry spell, and we took the opportunity to do a bit of real – if rather basic – bit of structural work to the bane of my life, the raised bed.

One of my repeated frustrations with having such a large raised bed was the inability to work on it without trampling plants – and I end up gardening round the edges and never in the middle.

So a quick trip to Homebase for some aggregate and stepping stones later….

  
…and I now have the ability to cross the bed from front to back without having to tread on anything. I’m hoping the stepping stones will also give a bit of structure to the bed, and if I can encourage creeping plants to bed in around them and soften the edges, I’ll keep working towards my goal of as little visible bare earth as possible.

Here’s how it looks a week or so on – lovely cosmos in the left foreground which I hope is going to flower before the end of the year, but on the far side of the bed I’m still swamped by marigolds which no amount of weeding and hoeing can get rid of.

  
I suspect it will go on being a work in progress (aka dog’s dinner) for a long while yet – but at least the stepping stones make it a more practical space to work in now.

Beyond our own little patch, I’ve seen a few signs of autumn approaching – and given me yet again a few ideas of plants I’d like to have in the garden one day.

On Wimbledon Common we saw gorgeous teasel heads:

  
– a must-have in the garden for attracting seed-eating birds like goldfinches, and in their own right as a beautiful piece of natural sculpture.

At Dulwich Park we saw a favourite from my childhood (and from Flower Fairies of the Autumn), the glorious spindle, a plant so glamorous I can hardly believe it exists in nature.

  

Aren’t they splendid? If the shocking Schiaparelli pink outer shell of the berry weren’t impressive enough, they split open to reveal a flame coloured berry within. Such an unexpected contrast! I’ve decided I definitely MUST have spindle in the garden somewhere.

(However surprising that clash of pink and orange, it can’t beat the shades of these heathers I saw in Homebase the other week for unnatural garishness. How these colours were achieved other than by spray-painting them, I don’t know. And who would want such horrid plants in their garden, I have no idea).

  

Dulwich Park also has a lovely wild flower meadow which was packed with poppies and cornflowers when I saw it last. Much more restful to the eye.

  

Then we were back in Suffolk for a weekend and every field seemed crammed full of fungi, including this specimen:

  

– I certainly don’t know enough about fungi to take any risks (and I don’t endorse anyone picking anything without knowing what it is), so I left that one well alone, but I did decide I recognised a plain old field mushroom well enough when I saw one and took these beauties home:

  

(And no ill effects from eating them roasted alongside our home grown tomatoes, so I think I’m safe).

  

What’s next? I still have a few pie-in-the-sky gardening plans before the end of the year which I’m trying to make a bit more concrete, but in the mean time, let’s make hay while the sun shines and keep enjoying it all.

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…