Monday, 29 April 2013

Salad leaves

Joining in the 52-week salad challenge with Veg Plotting.  These are the salad leaf varieties I have in the seed box (an old shoe box); no idea how I come to have so many.  I am a real fan of growing salad leaves.  Initially when I started growing my own vegetables I thought they were too boring to bother with.  But I've since discovered that they are really quick and easy, and as we eat them every day they are well worth growing.  They really are the very best thing to start with when it comes to growing your own.  There is something for everyone, from ordinary butterhead lettuce to peppery rockets and lemony sorrel and blow-your-head-off mustards.  They don't take very long to grow, and quite often I squeeze them in where I can amongst the other vegetables. 

A bowl of different coloured leaves - light green, deep green speckled, burgundy red - scattered with whatever else you have to hand always looks lovely.  I add herbs - at the moment chives and parsley - and even chive flowers when they're available.

In the garden right now there is some of the chicory and a row of French Sorrel...

... and some of the Giant Red Mustards, which have a fantastic mustardy kick to them.

And I've just planted out some green oak leaf lettuce and these little mustards.

The only real problem I find is slugs.  And as far as I can tell no-one has the answer to that one.  I've been saving crushed eggshells all winter to sprinkle around the plants (slugs don't like the feel of it on their slithery little feet) and by the time summer arrives I should be armed with plenty of frogs (small boys notwithstanding), so all I can say is bring it on.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Beside the stream

We are lucky to have lots of streams criss-crossing the town where we live.  The local authority has made a feature of streamside walks, and we take every opportunity to wander along them to see whatever wildlife is around and to enjoy being away from the road.  It's a small town, and by the stream it feels quite rural and peaceful.

Today on the way to football training we could clearly see spring around us.  Acid green leaves, wriggling tadpoles and new buds and shoots everywhere.

We all managed to walk along the stepping stones without falling in - just as well as the water either side is several feet deep.  Children were looking in the pond for swimming things, and we watched a couple release some tadpoles that had appeared in a waterlogged plant pot in their garden.  The bird life along here is amazing, I've even seen a kingfisher further along the stream.

When I spotted some bluebells and cow parsley I couldn't resist bringing a few home. 

It seems so long since there were flowers in the house.  These have a wild exuberant quality to them which I love.   I put them in a little Caithness glass vase which seemed just right .

Beautiful, delicate nature.  Love it.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Hasta la pasta, baby

I'm having a go at squashes this year.  I've tried them before at home without much success but I'm hoping that the soil at the allotment will be rich enough for them to do well.  While the raised beds at home don't have particularly good soil, the allotment is another matter.  Before I took it over last July, the same man had had it for some 45 years.  He'd won awards for it and it was always pointed out on the open day as a plot to go and have a look at.  By the time I took it over it hadn't been touched for a while, but the soil is lovely, dark and rich, and the few courgettes I planted last year did really well.

I've put some seeds in; I do love squash seeds, they're so big and user-friendly, and the seedlings are chunky and healthy looking right from the start.  I'm growing three varieties, Hasta la Pasta (a spaghetti squash), Potimarron and Red Kuri, although I'm not sure the latter will germinate as they are just out of date.

The others are doing well though.  I've been consulting my favourite vegetable book, "The Great Vegetable Plot" by Sarah Raven.

The pictures are divine, and it is a very readable book.  In fact I've read the whole thing cover to cover, and as well as being enjoyable it's full of really useful tips. 

Apparently squash seedlings hate the cold and shouldn't go outside into the ground until early June.  They like a sheltered spot and lots of manure.  So a little fussy then.  I've tried them twice in containers before; the first year I decided to cut off a second stem which didn't have any fruit on it as it was straggly and battered.  In a moment of ridiculous inattention I cut through the stem with the squashes on it.  Couldn't believe how stupid I'd been.  The next year I remembered doing that and took much more care.  And somehow did exactly the same thing again.  Really.  I just sat on the ground staring at it in disbelief.  Stupid taken to a whole new level.  I'll be far more careful this year...

I'll leave you with one of my favourite quotes on my favourite mug.  Enjoy it while you can, as I'm quite clumsy so mugs don't last long in this house.  Are you sensing a theme..?

Monday, 22 April 2013

At the weekend

On Saturday afternoon we took advantage of the National Trust's "Visit for Free" voucher and went to beautiful Newark Park in Gloucestershire.

The grounds were lovely and in the sun it really felt like spring.  The children had to look for dragon clues as we walked, which helped move them along, although it was nice to dawdle a bit too.

Everywhere under the trees was smothered in strong-smelling wild garlic.

Inside the house was very relaxed.  Most of the rooms were not roped off, and visitors were encouraged to feel at home.  We sat in here for a moment, enjoying the view and the piles of Country Living magazines.  Of course, small boys don't sit still for long so then we were off upstairs.

The house is on the edge of the Cotswold escarpment, and the view is breathtaking.  You can literally see for miles and miles, and to have lived there and to have woken up to see this must have been amazing.

I found this amazing quilt on one of the beds.  Then everyone had finished the indoor trail questions and we were back off outside.

There was plenty of space to play, and a choice of croquet, chess, chequers and garden-sized Jenga, which entertained them for ages while the grown-ups sat on benches.  OH practised his golf-swing with a croquet mallet until I pointed out that if the end flew off he could kill someone.  Later on the littlest boy managed to get the end off of his.

Of course, there were peacocks, and they wandered around amongst us while we played.  And further out from the property there were dozens of plump pheasants grazing in the fields.

And lambs, lots of lambs.  All in all a fantastic afternoon.  The kind that restores your soul and helps you face the week ahead.  Thank you National Trust for the opportunity to visit for free.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Books, blocks and buds. Oh, and an apple pie

A little spring reading.  The top book was treasure found at Oxfam Books in Cirencester - "We Didn't Mean to go to Sea" by Arthur Ransome.  I absolutely loved Arthur Ransome when I was young, and I'm hoping the boys will enjoy him too, although I think they might not be quite ready yet.  In the meantime I'm thinking I might read it.  I read the first part of Steig Larsson's Millemium Trilogy a few weeks ago; ready for the next one now.  And in our local community bookshop I found Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle", which I have heard great things about, but which I have never read.  Apparently it was voted no. 82 of the nation's 100 best-loved novels, so definitely worth a look.  I'm really enjoying Cleve West's "Our Plot", which is about his allotment, and which is hugely readable as well as being inspirational.  And there is also a little cookery - a book from Demuth's, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Bath, which I used to go to regularly Before Children; a little photography and finally some crafting, although whether I'll have the time to try it is another matter.

Some little hints of our late spring in the garden.  A magnolia blossom just peeking out, gooseberry leaves, chives and this fantastic red mustard, which has the most amazing kick to it.  I made an apple pie yesterday which hopefully will last over the weekend (although I did do some chocolate brownies as well just in case) and in the evenings I've been working away on squares for the quilt I'm making.

Looking forward to a little sun this weekend and maybe some photography practice at the eldest's football match on Sunday.  It is a balance between watching the match and watching the 4-year-old.  Last time I looked away from the action to check where he was and missed a goal.  I am usually the one saying, "What happened?  Who scored?"  I shall try to pay attention, though for a dreamer this is hard at the best of times.

Hope you have a good one, see you on the other side.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Build it and they will come

Back last year I had a sudden urge to create a little wildlife pond in the garden.  I'd heard how important they are to all manner of creatures, and how there is a real shortage of ponds now that farmers have done away with many on their land.  I knew it couldn't be too big or too central in our garden, which is, primarily, a football pitch/tennis court/running area for three extremely energetic boys and also a practice chipping area for a golfer (not me).  Our garden is not a thing of beauty, more a functional place, with things squeezed in around the edges to leave maximum turfage in the middle.  So with this in mind I decided to put the pond right alongside the fence.  I drew a few diagrams (I'm that kind of girl) and then headed out with the spade.

This was where the problems started.  Our garden is over a layer of rock, albeit crumbly rock, which really doesn't lend itself to deep digging.  I excavated what must have been tons of the stuff when I dug raised beds when we first moved in, and about six inches down into the pond hole I struck it again.  I have a massive five foot iron bar that we inherited with the house, that is used purely for "digging" in the garden, and my neighbour very kindly set to with that.  Another neighbour lent us an enormous pickaxe, and with a great amount of sweat, pain and blisters a small hole was slowly created.  I had intended to use a rigid liner, but a huge unbreakable boulder put paid to that idea so I used a flexible liner on top of some beautiful new wool carpet off-cuts that I got from the local Sort-It centre in a highly illegal removal-from-skip manoevre that the nice man in charge let me perform, on the condition that I didn't fall in and sue. 

I managed to fill the pond, which is probably about 70 gallons, with rainwater collected in trugs underneath a broken guttering on a single wet bank holiday Monday.  I literally spent the day running outside every hour and lugging full trugs up to the pond.  The edges are slightly disguised with slate and pebbles, and there are a few little plants - some oxygenating weed, water mint, an iris, a miniature water lily and a water arum.  The water lily did send up one perfect little bud, which the littlest boy promptly pulled off.  Maybe this year.

But the amazing thing was the wildlife that the pond attracted.  Despite being in an open area we had all manner of creatures visiting.  And despite not being the most attractive pond you'll ever see, it actually works!

Most fantastic of all, was a frog, who took up residence in the grass alongside.  Any time he was disturbed he would perform a fantastic leap straight into the middle of the pond and disappear from sight.

Which brings us to now.  All was quiet over the winter, and then the other day the oldest boy came running to find me to tell me there was frog spawn.  I asked him if he was sure.  He thought he was.  I went to inspect.  And there it was, masses of it.  I mean masses. 

I can't imagine how many frogs it took to produce that much.  It's a little scary.  What are we going to do with all of those froglets?  (Remember all the football and tennis and running and golf, not to mention the dangers of the lawnmower.)  So, a little anxious, but very excited to watch them develop.  Already some of them are out and swimming, although some are much smaller and clearly a different batch.  How many frogs have we got already???  I am just hoping that they eat all of the slugs.  Otherwise they may have to hop it.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Being challenged

It's a long time since I had a day to myself.  A very long time.  And even longer since I had two whole days to myself.  But this weekend I did, and what a huge treat it was.  I went on a fantastic photography course deep in the Wiltshire countryside and it was honestly amazing.  The course was for beginners and was mainly theory, so I didn't actually take many pictures.  It was hours and hours of learning the basics - how to use the various settings on the camera and how they all interact with each other.  It sounds hard work, but it was really enjoyable to switch off from everything else and just focus on something that I love.  It was incredibly inspirational to meet like minded people and to be taught by a real expert with years of experience.  As a time out from every day life it was very welcome.  Normally weekends are busy, busy, busy, with football training, football matches, parties and various outings with the children.  So to step out of my life for a little while really gave me some perspective on things.  It reminded me that there is a whole world out there, filled with interest and opportunities.  And it filled me with renewed enthusiasm for photography.  Now I just need to find some time to practice before I forget it all...

The above isn't the best photo ever, but it made me so happy to see a big fat fluffy bee.  You can see how heavy he is by the way the flower is being pulled down.

All in all a great weekend, although I have had to swear to the littlest boy that I will never leave home again and that I will stay with him for ever.  He does like to have me at his beck and call.

Tomorrow is set to be a day of housework, supermarket, school runs and normality.  The trick will be to hold on to a little of the magic and try and keep this positive feeling of creative energy alive.

Enjoy your week.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

It must be spring

A few signs of spring spotted this week...

Mute swans working really hard together building their nest.  It was lovely to watch them pulling the twigs into place and pushing them down.

A moorhen...

             ... and a coot.  They all seem to think that spring is coming, it must be a good sign.  And finally a single magnolia bud that has lost its furry cover.  The first one on a big tree to show its purple petals - surely, surely, spring must be close.

I'm spending this weekend on a photography course that I won at a promises auction.  Today was an overload of information; apparently tomorrow it will all become crystal clear.  I'm really looking forward to getting out and taking some pictures.  Today was wet, with driving rain, and no good at all for budding photographers.  Am really hoping for an improvement in my picture taking skills!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The allotment

Not the most inspiring sight, but this was my allotment yesterday.  Back in the autumn I sowed some green manure, which was supposed to be a mixture of wonderful things but mainly seemed to be very strongly growing grass.  It has taken me two digs to get it even half dug in, and I'm not sure I'll bother again, although I'm hoping that it did stop some of the nutrients from leaching away in all of that rain that we had.  My allotment is at the bottom of the site, as far away from the gate and the road as you can get.  Behind the shed is the boundary of the site and behind that is a lovely babbling stream that I can hear when I'm working.

I've had the plot only since July, so this will be the first proper growing season, although I did put some courgettes in back in July which did really well.  A bit too well in fact if I'm honest.  I put a Post-It note on the door at home saying, "Nobody leaves without a courgette".  And I took to yelling, "Courgettes" instead of "Lunch".  But all that is a distant memory now, and although I've got windowsills full of seedlings there's not much at all happening down at the plot. 

On Monday I took out a huge mint plant.  I'd heard that they were invasive, but it wasn't until I had to dig one up that I really appreciated what this meant.  I have a feeling that there is still some lurking in the soil as well.  Before I took over the plot, it had been looked after by the same man for over 45 years.  The soil is fantastic, but it was fairly weedy as it had been neglected for quite a while.
This is the view back then in July, looking from behind the shed up towards the high street.  Most of what you can see beyond the shed is weeds, except for a fantastic patch of asparagus, and some blackcurrants, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries.  The huge weeds are gone, but there are plenty of smaller ones still to be tackled.  Occasionally I have a bit of a panic attack about the amount to be done, but little by little hopefully it will be dealt with. 

Yesterday I planted a little plum tree and did some weeding, kept company by this little chap who was on the lookout for worms.

He really came incredibly close.  You can see some garlic to the right of him; I've grown this at home in the raised beds I have here since we moved in, and it always does well.  It must be one of the easiest things to grow.

And finally, a little mystery from the depths of the shed.

I found this gardening glove which has been eaten away over the winter by something.  I'm thinking mouse and trying very hard not to be a complete girl about it.  But honestly, if it's a rat I will be screaming.

Indoor lemons

Growing quietly at the top of the house is a small lemon tree.  For some reason over winter most of its leaves fell off, but it does have five lemons on it, which is good enough for me.  I love lemons in things, so the big question is, what will I make with them.   Lemon curd?  Lemon tart?  Lemonade?  I'm not sure when they'll be ready, or when lemon season is.  I've got three lemon plants in total and they seem to flower randomly through the year.  In fact they seem to have growth spurts at odd times too - new shoots appeared in December, when there is least daylight available.  They are a bit of a mystery, but so long as there are lemons, I'm happy.

Linking up with Lou for her "Nature in the Home" series.

(While fiddling around with the link, I lost this post.  I feel like I have experienced some kind of initiation.  Another lesson learned.)

Monday, 8 April 2013

Above the River

From our upstairs windows, we can just see a long silver strip of river in the distance, the mighty River Severn.  Whenever we travel up on the main road, the river is visible alongside, three or four miles away, and on walks we can often see it, glinting in the far distance from whatever hill or common we are on.

Whilst upstream there are beautiful English scenes of life by the river, with little boats, bullrushes, picturesque cottages, children laughing and playing in the water, summer picnics on the grassy banks and lazy, contented ducks, downstream the river changes into a vast, moody, dangerous body of water.  It is the longest river in Britain, at 220 miles, and it has the second (or third, depending on your source) highest tidal rise and fall of anywhere in the world.  The huge tides cause lethal currents.  Stand near the edge of the Severn Estuary at, say, Portishead, and you can see whirlpools where the river and the sea are pushing against each other.  There are no little boats here, no little ducks.  You hold your children's hands tightly and try and instill respect of the river in them.  No-one can swim in this water.  Many have drowned.

Vast cargo ships head carefully up the channel to the docks at Avonmouth and Gloucester.  As well as immense tides, there are mudflats, sandbanks, rocky platforms and salt marshes.  It is compulsory for large vessels to have a pilot, and these travel out to cargo ships from the docks to bring them safely in.

So why "Above the River"?  Well, mostly the river is a distant shining line across the countryside to us.  We can see it from our home and when we are out at many of the places we visit.  Indeed, we often go to various places along its banks.  We look down on it from a place of safety, admiring its beauty and power. It is a beacon, a sign that we are not far from home.

And as the boys grow up, I hope for them it will bring happy memories of childhood.