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.


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 trail of mud behind us…

We have had cold springs before, we have had wetter springs, we have had snow in March not so long ago (in the spring of 2013 I swear it snowed every Monday for weeks on end). But I can’t remember a spring that has been as muddy as this one.

It’s not as if there has been *that* much rain, no worse than last year’s winter/early spring – but somehow the quantity of mud has increased, as if there are underground pipes somewhere constantly manufacturing mud and churning it out every night, even at times when it hasn’t rained much at all. The parks are all waterlogged, the buggy is mud-spattered, and still we plod on hoping for better weather and better walking conditions.

Just like last year, I had a yearning to see snowdrops – lots of snowdrops, not just the handful in my garden – and I’d read this blog about the art of photographing snowdrops. So with our National Trust app to hand, we decided to visit Nymans, a property with gardens famous for their spring flowers. 

As the blog had warned me, it’s actually quite hard to take a good picture of snowdrops en masse – where to the naked eye they look like a lovely drift of white against the grass or soil, on a camera screen it suddenly becomes a few white dots against a dark background – rather disappointing. 

So, close-ups are the way to go – and this means getting low down to the ground, quite a challenge in winter.

You can make a single flower your focus:


Or a clump:


And I tried them against a grassy background and then a soil background to see which I preferred: 

To be honest, I don’t really have a favourite, but they all capture the spirit of how lovely it is there. The house itself is a semi-ruin following a fire in the 40s, and provides a rather Gothic, Thornfield Hall-style backdrop to the gardens.  

My favourite part of the grounds was the walled garden, which, rather than being a very formal tidy place, was a rambling old orchard with swathes of snowdrops under the trees and this rather ornate (and larger than life-size) bench – I imagined it might be the perfect place for the Selfish Giant to sit and admire the blossom on his trees.  
We’d had a very relaxed morning exploring the gardens – but our big mistake was venturing off-road after lunch to the woodland footpath which was a hideous sea of mud like I’ve never seen before – and I was at Glastonbury in 2005

The buggy barely survived what should only have been a short woodland walk – we should never have attempted it, sure, but for people without buggies, a bit of bark chipping over the really muddy bits would have helped a lot. 

It was a slightly frustrating end to the day, with the prospect of some major welly boot and buggy cleaning awaiting me when I got home.

My hope of finding another good buggy-friendly walk thwarted by mud; the rest of the grounds were fine for a gentle wander but not enough to be considered a serious weekend walk. 

By the time I’ve got round to writing this blog, the snowdrops are long gone, but the mud is not. To get back into proper hikes with a buggy, we need some of that mud to dry up, and quickly too, please!

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.

Snowdrops, teacups and a white, white wedding

This time last year, I had just got married, on a frosty & cold February day, with no hint of spring round the corner.

When I picture us standing outside for the photos, I think of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ – ‘Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – to describe the sensation of cold that really did feel like it was biting into the bone.

Later on, it began to snow, which made the evening especially magical (albeit rather tricky for our evening guests – some ended up walking miles home!)

It was slightly different from our original wedding plans – we were going to have a spring wedding in April, partly so I could plan the decor around my favourite flowers.

My dream wedding flowers had always been spring bulbs – hyacinths, narcissi, lilies of the valley, muscari – and forget-me-nots. Besides the seasonal plants, I also wanted white roses (because it isn’t a wedding without roses, in my opinion) and greenery.

The flowers would also have to be real scented flowers, not sterile hothouse arrangements, and I didn’t want anything too ‘weddingy’ – I had a horror of conveyor-belt weddings, and wanted something more bohemian (setting aside the fact that the ‘shabby chic’ and ‘DIY’ wedding style is just as much of a cliche these days, but heigh ho…)

Within weeks of getting engaged, I was already indulging my inner bridezilla and began playing around with the flowers in my garden and the contents of my crockery cupboard.

I had a stack of tea cups which my mother dumped on me gave me a few years earlier, some favourite jugs, and a collection of rather funky beer bottles (St Peter’s Ale from Suffolk, my husband-to-be having willingly drunk the beer so I could keep the bottles!).

My yellow rose looked very dainty floating in a green and gold tea cup…

Yellow rose and teacup

Yellow rose and teacup

….and the green bottles were a perfect shape to hold stocks.

Stock and green bottle

Stock and green bottle

Neither of these, however pretty they were, fulfilled the brief of being spring flowers …and in any case, chance was about to play a surprising hand – I found out in August 2011 that I would be having a baby in April 2012, about the time we were meant to be getting married.

This led to a quick rehash of our plans, after deciding we wanted to go ahead with the wedding rather than defer it, and a date in February was set. I would be nearly 6 months pregnant, I wouldn’t be able to drink, but I was reconciled to having a winter wedding as I could, with a bit of luck, make use of early spring flowers after all.

To begin with, I thought February would be a perfect time of year for snowdrops, alongside the equally dainty grape hyacinths (muscari). I had an idea that they would look pretty ‘planted’ in tea cups on every table – but this sort of fiddly work is not really the sort of thing your average wedding florist would want to do, I suspect.

Here, my mother-in-law, a flower arranger at her church, heroically stepped in. She and her friends agreed to grow heaps of snowdrops and muscari for me, starting them off in greenhouses and utility rooms so that they would be ready to bloom on cue in February. At one point it appeared that an entire village in Suffolk was growing snowdrops just for me!

I scoured local charity shops and vintage fairs for (non-matching) cups and saucers, plus a huge bundle of lace doilies which required quite a tussle on eBay to secure. The picture below gives a pretty good idea of what they looked like on the day.

Teacups and snowdrops

Teacups and snowdrops. (Picture from Flickr, one of our friend’s photos).

My mother-in-law also made some beautiful floral displays for the mantelpiece and side tables at our wedding venue, which left two major things to decide on – how to decorate the cake, and what to do for bouquets.

I had a vision of blue and white flowers cascading down the side of the cake, in a natural style, and I assumed it would be possible to create that look with real flowers. Apparently not – the sprays of flowers usually seen on wedding cakes are sugar paste. I was very disappointed as I wanted the real thing!

My mother-in-law again saved the day as she had a very pretty dolls tea-set and suggested we balance a cup and saucer on the top of the cake, and on each level, with flowers spilling out of them. It fitted in so well with my tea cup theme, and as I’m a lover (and collector) of dolls houses and miniatures it also felt very fitting.

Wedding cake

Wedding cake and tea set (photo from Flickr, another of our friend’s pictures).

The bouquet was made by a professional florist, along with button holes and posies for the flower girls – I had white roses, narcissi and hyacinths, so it smelt beautiful, and rosemary was added for greenery and its romantic associations (thinking of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ – ‘there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’ – OK, she does go mad, it’s not a happy ending, but it’s still romantic, right?)

(I have also just realised this meant I had a ‘Hyacinth Bouquet’ or should that be ‘Bucket’…ha ha ha…)

White roses, hyacinth and rosemary bouque

My wedding bouquet

In my original spring wedding plans, I would have had a looser wild-looking bouquet (in the parlance of wedding blogs, looking like it had ‘just been gathered from a hedge that morning’…if I had a pound for the number of times I’ve read that phrase!), but the formal shape suited the dress better, to be honest – it’s not as if I wore a floating floor-length gauzy Pre-Raphaelite gown, after all.

The best part of my wedding flowers is that because the snowdrops and muscari were planted with bulbs intact in the cups, I was able to share some out among friends, which was a nice way of being able to thank people who’d helped, and give them a little piece of the wedding joy to keep alive.

We planted the rest in my old garden, now sadly lost to me, but we were given a planter of muscari as a wedding present, which are just getting green shoots again, and also received snowdrops and lilies of the valley as a first anniversary present.

Hopefully the snowdrops will flower again on our anniversary for years to come. And of course, I still have a box of tea cups and saucers under the stairs to remind me of the day…I just have to find a use for them somehow!

No self-respecting wedding blog would be complete without credits….so here are some of the people who helped make it so perfect:

Our wedding planner Andri, of Always Andri, helped us set up and decorate the venue, and basically ran the whole day. She actually lived round the corner from our old house which certainly made life easier in those last hectic weeks of planning!

She also recommended the florist for my gorgeous bouquet, Liz of Blue Sky Flowers, who did an amazing job on the buttonholes and posies too.

Our photographer was Yvonne Blume, another local find. When I saw the photos on her blog they included a wedding of a bride who had recently had a baby, and the pictures (including the newborn) were so lovely I did a little cry, so pregnancy hormones had a part to play in that decision, I suspect. Luckily my hormones were spot on in this case!

The wedding cake was made by Sweetie Pie in Twickenham – they also made vegan cupcakes for the evening as we had vegan guests, and a layer of the main cake was gluten free.

My dress was made by Minna. I had been in despair trying to find a maternity wedding dress that suited my height (or lack of) and shape, and found Minna on the wedding blog Love My Dress. As luck would have it, their studio was in Stockwell, so my trips to and fro for fittings were very easy.

Besides my mother-in-law and friends doing the flowers, my mother made our wedding favours – jars of redcurrant, blackcurrant and blackberry jelly, which got positive reviews from pretty much everyone. We’d quite like it if she made another 70 odd jars for us every year, please Mum…

Finally, I should mention the person who put up with months of my tea cup and snowdrop obsession, my husband Matt. None of it would have been possible without him, and his tolerance of my bridezilla tendencies is just one sign of his endless patience and good qualities. Mwah.