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.

The Last of the Melting Snow

We finally had the thaw today, and seems appropriate to use the title of a song by one of my favourite bands, The Leisure Society. We went out for a few hours today, snow still thick on pavements and lawns, and came home to find it mostly gone. Rain just as it got dark took the last of it away.

This (above) was how it looked a day ago!

Seems bizarre that just two weekends before we’d been enjoying almost spring-like weather – we’d been to Emmett’s Garden where we’d seen amazing bluebells a few years ago.

It turned out late Feb was not nearly such a special time there, barely any snowdrops, and daffodils only just appearing, but it is a lovely setting at any time of year, and has what must be one of my favourite views, anywhere.

This photo doesn’t really do it justice, but take it from me, you can see a long way into the distance, across the Weald and towards what must be some part of the South Downs, blue in the distance.

However, the blast of cold we’ve had in early March was hardly unforeseen – it had been the talk of Facebook for several weeks beforehand (I have a weather guru friend), and pretty much exactly what was predicted, came to pass.

It feels very different from the last real snow we had – 2013, memorable to me because we had just moved house and the big grown-up girl was only 9 months old.

I was terrified of going down the steep hill to our nearest high street with a buggy, and went everywhere by bus instead, because I could walk to the nearest bus stop without having to negotiate any major slopes.

I particularly remember the Monday morning trudge to the Pilates class I’d signed up to – I could get most of the way by bus, but had to edge my way down another hill to get to the church hall where the class was, and back up the hill to the library where we’d retreat from the cold for a bit, before heading home. All through the winter of 2013, well into March, it seemed to snow every Monday – that may be a slight exaggeration, but when I picture that church hall in my mind, it’s always with snow falling outside.

These days, the thought of a day where getting to a Pilates class is the only challenge, seems like a far-off dream – though, after a gap of a few years, I am doing Pilates again, much to the relief of my back and arms, which were quite tired of carrying toddler.

Despite the snow, the school run went on, meetings had to happen, and appointments kept, all with a constant stream of nose-wiping and night-time coughing and whimpering about cold feet.

Having a five-year-old who LOVES snow is thrilling, and seeing her make snow angels for the first time a joy, but when you add in a three-year-old who only wants to experience snow from under a blanket and behind glass, it gets tricky.

I had forgotten that we even had a footmuff for the buggy – it hasn’t been used for years and I had no idea where it was – so had to improvise with blankets and even a hot-water bottle to try and forestall wailing the entire length, there and back, of the school run.

Finally, school gave in on Thursday lunchtime, asked us to pick the children up early, and cancelled school on Friday. A bonus day at home was just what was needed – most of half term had been lost in a fog of sickness, and to have a free day to do fun stuff was like a bonus prize at the end of a lot of cold dull January and February days.

The down side was not being able to go out and sledge and enjoy the outdoors – the small snow refusenik would not have tolerated that – but we did the library and had haircuts and made cakes and played dominoes and had a disco party with Alexa.

Of course it didn’t go perfectly; right at the end of the day a toy got broken in a catastrophe of glitter which is never going to be satisfactorily cleaned up, but the cakes were pretty damn good.

And, before I get my soggy muddy green garden back, I will remember that, just for a minute, it looked like this….

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.

Now that your rose is in bloom…

Please forgive the entirely gratuitous 90s-tastic title, but I couldn’t resist – great excitement in the garden as the Wren has bloomed and here is how she looks:

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I am delighted with her – the petals slightly more pink than apricot than I was expecting, but when the flowers are in bud they have a lovely orangey tinge, and the shape of the bloom is very pleasing.

(Although I’ve now discovered that I’ve made a wildlife faux pas – roses with double petals like this are not recommended as good pollinators, presumably as the plant is bred to expend more of its energy to produce purely decorative, unnecessary petals, which would be better used producing more separate blossoms, therefore increasing its pollination potential. Oops. Sorry, the bees).

The scent is rather slight as far as I can tell so far, but is very pleasant, and the dark foliage is lovely.

My mystery yellow rose is also beautifully, abundantly in bloom – a good 2 weeks later than it’s flowered in previous years, to give you an indication of how late the spring is this year – and Albertine is about to bloom too.

I may not quite have the Misselthwaite Manor walled rose garden of my childhood dreams (just give me time…) but with 3 stunning roses in flower or about too, I’m not doing too badly for a pocket-handkerchief sized urban cottage garden, I think.

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Apart from the roses, the garden is looking rather parched after a couple of weeks of heat and drought, my water butt which overflowed continually in April is getting low, and 2 muggy days of cloud have produced thunder and rain seemingly everywhere in the south-east except my postcode, it would appear.

Of course all you non-gardeners out there want the dry weather to stay, and I’m no spoilsport, I like my rain in the early hours of the morning, not mid-afternoon, purely to aid the garden, clear the pollen-ridden air – and if only to prove the old wives’ tale, ‘Rain before Seven, Fine before Eleven’ (it really does work that way more often than not, honestly).

Anyway, it’s bound to rain soon – Wimbledon’s coming up.

Living due east of the All-England Club as I do, Wimbledon telly coverage is a great weather aid for me. If the covers go on and rain stops play, I know I should be taking my washing in and expecting the garden to get a good soaking about 20 minutes hence. A very useful service (hah!) provided, serendipitously, by the BBC and worth an extra penny or two on my licence fee, I’m sure.