Saturday 31 May 2014

Feeling the fear

I was reading one of Leanne's posts the other day where she mentioned being scared of her allotment.  When I read her words I suddenly remembered when I first took on my plot.  It was very overgrown, as most allotments are when they're handed over to a new person, and some of the weeds were head-high.  I was only given half of the plot; the top half with the fruit - raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries - was destined for someone else.  My bit was a shed with a storage area and rhubarb patch behind it, an asparagus bed and two areas of about three square metres for growing things.  On an early visit to the plot I happened to mention to some long-time allotmenteers that it was a shame the plot had been divided into two.  A couple of days later The Lady With The Clipboard rang and offered me the second half.  I said yes without hesitation - not only were there the mature fruit bushes, but it also gave me a lot more space for vegetables.  That night I hardly slept at all.  I was honestly terrified at this vast, scary, out-of-control space.  I couldn't really remember the top area clearly, but I did remember it was even weedier than the bottom bit and I remembered thinking that I didn't envy the person who had to clear it.  That person was now me and I had no idea how I would do it.

Well, gradually it was cleared, somehow, although the edges have never been neat, and somehow things were planted and thrived, and I got through a whole couple of years without being evicted for gross weediness.

And that brings us up to last Friday.  I hadn't been to the plot for maybe five or six days.  Not that long right?  But it had somehow gone from slightly weedy to absolutely insane.  The edges of everything were two foot high seeding grasses.  The asparagus had disappeared into a bed of every type of weed imaginable.  The weed-proof membrane was about a foot off the ground, being pushed up into the air by grass and goodness knows what else.

And that's before we even get started on the wildlife.

My plot neighbour greeted me with the news that there was a badger hole with a bees' nest at the bottom of it.  Que?

He wasn't wrong.  The badgers had dug down about two feet, in two places, so that the hole was "U"-shaped and in the bottom of the hole were several dopey-looking bumble bees.

Let's move on.  I rushed around randomly seizing handfuls of weeds while the eldest and the littlest squabbled over the hoe.  Here's what I found in the compost bin when I went to throw the weeds in.

More ants than you could shake a stick at.  Yes, the white patches are ants' eggs.  EEK.  We found about a dozen more nests dotted about the plot. It seems we have an invasion.

And that's when it suddenly came flooding back.  The fear.  This huge space, wildly out of control, doing its own thing, growing everything except food.  Absolutely everything is rampaging away, there are slugs galloping over everything, at home as well as the plot.  The allotment next to mine appears to have been abandoned.  It was being tended until the end of the last growing season, but it hasn't been touched this year.  The spinach is seven feet tall.  Literally.

Other plots on the site have been neglected as well, not many, but a few.

For a moment I felt like throwing in the towel.  It just seems so unlikely that it will ever come together.  But in the past two years I've learned that this moment will pass.  I'll put in some time, do some weeding, replace the cucumbers that I clearly planted out too early and pick my own body weight in blackcurrants and gooseberries, despite the fact that they're surrounded by weeds.

I'm reading this book in the hope that it will inspire me and somehow magically transform my plot in just two and a half hours a week.  I'm feeling the fear but doing it anyway.

At home things are only marginally less scary.  There are ants and slugs and weeds, and while I was eating breakfast this morning the boys suddenly all started yelling, "THERE'S A MOUSE, THERE'S A MOUSE, THERE IS, THERE'S A MOUSE THERE".  There was.  Outside fortunately.  Jumping all over the pots on the patio.  And I nearly put my hand on a huge spider the night before when I was about to open a drawer.  All this wildlife stuff is all very well but I'm starting to feel a bit beleaguered.  It's everywhere.  Top floor flats have a lot going for them, they really do.  I used to live in one and there were no mice and hardly any spiders and it was a red letter day when a snail made it all the way up three floors.

Next week I'll try and get my act together and put in some weeding time.

Today I'm simply holding my nerve.  Just.

Friday 30 May 2014

Half term wanderings

We found fairies in an orchard not far from here.  I think pink and purple dreadlocks are my absolute favourite hair.  Oh how I wish it was mine.  I would quite happily dress like that every day if I could.  Well, maybe not the wings, I can see that they might be a little tricky to manoeuvre in a school cake sale situation or squeezing into the car in the Aldi carpark.  Wings just for special occasions.

I found bee hives as well, more of my favourite things.

I tiptoed in close, it was quite buzzy.  I'm not sure whether tiptoeing in makes the bees cross, it was certainly quite loud close up.

I tiptoed back out again quite quickly so as not to upset them.  Bees are such miraculous little creatures.  They have such short lives, and they work so hard to produce honey.  Worker bees live for only six weeks, and each one produces less than a gram of honey its short life.  It makes me use honey with great respect and restraint.

In the garden the comfrey and the raspberries are covered with all sorts of bees whenever it's not raining.

The week is going quickly, despite the slightly damp weather.  We went for a picnic yesterday at the wildfowl and wetlands place we go to.  There are thousands of fancy birds there of all descriptions, but the boys were most thrilled of all that the pigeons would stand on their arms to eat.

At home there's been holiday food.  Artichokes and asparagus from the allotment on a pizza.

Between showers I've been hanging out the washing using my lovely new peg apron.

I won it in a giveaway from the lovely Christina at A Colourful Life and I absolutely love it.  It's exactly what I needed for keeping in pegs in.  Before, I was using an old carrier bag with a hole in and pegs were always falling in the mud.  Now I'm like Wonderwoman with the washing.

In the garden the beans have started to twirl nicely round the hazel poles that I got from the local community woodland.  I love that moment when they start to entwine the stakes and head for the sky.  First there's a couple of weeks where they wave around madly, feeling about to see what they can find.  And then suddenly they locate their stick and they're away.  They always twirl anti-clockwise.  I'm assuming in Australia they're doing it the other way.  Does anyone know?

The strawberries are swelling nicely.  These are honeoye, a fairly early one.  We should be eating them in three weeks or so I think.  Summer will definitely be here then.

And just in time for summer I finished knitting the scarf I was making.  I saw the yarn last year on Vanessa's blog, Coco Rose Diaries and fell in love with it.  I'm a huge fan of Vanessa's blog, and just about everything she makes, do have a look if you're feeling in need of inspiration.

My scarf was a lot less impressive than Vanessa's.  I found a really simple pattern that I could manage late at night when I'm tired, and I still made mistakes.  But it's done and it's not itchy and I still love the yarn so I'm happy.  And the weather's almost cool enough for a scarf right?

It's reminded me how much I love to make things.  I do wish there were more hours in the day.  Do you have any tips for making a little extra time?  Do tell, I need to squeeze out some extra moments.  Enjoy the rest of the week, especially those of you on half term or summer holidays.  CJ xx

Thursday 29 May 2014

The Colour Collaborative: May: Childhood

How bright the colours of childhood are.  There is nothing equivocal about them, they are reds and yellows and blues and greens.  No muted shades or subtle off whites.  They either are or they aren't.  Children can't be doing with taupe or dove grey.  Their favourite colours are definite, bright and clear.  Much like their opinions on just about anything.

When I was little my favourite colour was yellow.  I was absolutely certain it was, I didn't have to think about it when asked, and I always thought that anything and everything looked better with a splash of yellow in it.  It was the colour of sunshine and happiness and for me there were two types of picture, those with yellow and those without.  I don't think I ever made a picture without it.

Today I couldn't easily answer a question about my favourite colour.  I'd need to know, for what?  Decorating the living room?  A top to go with jeans?  A flower?  It's not simple any more.  Would the answer ever be yellow?  I don't know.  Somewhere along the line everything changed and became more complicated.

I like to think back to childhood days, when my favourite colour was always yellow, and my best friend's favourite colour was always blue.  Do I overthink things now?  Should I just answer without thinking?  Being creative sometimes means blindly following your instinct.  The things you create then will surely reflect who you are.  And by looking back at your choices, you will start to understand yourself and what makes you tick.  

If I look back now I find that the answer becomes clear.  My favourite colour today?  It's blue.  It speaks to me now, the way yellow used to.  Aqua, cerulean, petrol, Eton, steel.  It's the sea and the sky and the storm clouds.  I'll always have a soft spot for yellow, but somewhere along the way I grew and changed and now yellow is a little girl with ribbons in her bunches that I remember fondly but don't see any more.  Maybe one day it will all change again.  And I'll be ready, because change can be good, it can be growth and self knowledge.

Tell me, without thinking too long or too hard, what is your favourite colour?  Has anyone stayed faithful to their childhood love?

To visit the other Colour Collaborative blogs for more of this month's posts, including one from May's guest blogger, just click on the links below 

       Annie at Knitsofacto                                            Gillian at Tales from a Happy House

       Sandra at Cherry Heart                                       Jennifer at Thistlebear

       Sarah at Mitenska

                                          What is The Colour Collaborative?

All creative bloggers make stuff, gather stuff, shape stuff, and share stuff. Mostly they work on their own, but what happens when a group of them work together? Is a creative collaboration greater than the sum of its parts? We think so and we hope you will too. We'll each be offering our own monthly take on a colour related theme, and hoping that in combination our ideas will encourage us, and perhaps you, to think about colour in new ways.

Monday 26 May 2014

Gardening with children

This spring half term is the perfect time for gardening with children, in fact if you have a sizeable garden or allotment it's almost essential.  I thought I'd share a few tips that I've picked up (the hard way) and that I'll be using this week to entice my three down to the plot.

1.  Realistic expectations

The most important thing to remember is to have realistic expectations.  If you're looking for a beautiful fine tilth, perfectly neat rows and immaculate edges, well, don't take my children.  You may find that in fact you have more work after they've "helped" than you did before, in tidying things up and putting things right.  But producing little gardeners is a painstaking process, and there will be mud and tears (probably yours) before it is done.  Be prepared for rows of onions to be trampled while carrots are being sown, for flowers to be pulled up instead of weeds and for your best hazel sticks to be thrown on the bonfire.  Keep your eye on the end result - so long as they have some fun and maybe produce a little food or some flowers, you have succeeded.

2.  Grow something they like

Lettuce is a very easy thing to start with.  But it's an exceptional child who will be thrilled with a lettuce.  So think of the things they love to eat.  Strawberries are one of the best for beginner gardeners.  If you know someone who already has some you can beg some of the runners or little plantlets that strawberries produce in abundance.  Then really it's just a case of digging a hole, putting them in, filling the soil back and watering them.  Perfect for little helpers.   When the plants produce more little plantlets they can watch these grow and form new plants.  In autumn they can cut all of the leaves off with a pair of not-too-sharp scissors, and really, that's pretty much all of the maintenance needed.  If space is an issue, strawberries can happily be grown in pots.

My lot grow the things that they each enjoy.  This year one is growing radishes, one is growing sugar snap peas and one is growing sweetcorn, which can be tricky, but even if we don't get many usable cobs, he's had a go.  Novelty items are fun too.  We bought a packet of strawberry popcorn the other day.  The cobs are like small sweetcorn, but in various shades of pink.  When it's ripened you can put it on a plate under a glass bowl in the microwave and turn it into popcorn.  They can't wait.  And never underestimate the power of a little competition.  We've also got sunflowers growing, each pot carefully marked as to whose it is.  The growth of these will be taken very seriously I promise you.

3.  Make it fun

Your plot may need weeding, it may need nothing doing other than weeding, but they will probably only manage that for about ten minutes (or in some cases two) before they've had enough.  Again, you can introduce a little competition, but really, weeding's not much fun and that's that.  I ask mine to clear the bit of ground they want to plant in, which they're usually happy to do, but be prepared that very shortly they'll want something else to do that involves clipping things or hacking at things or just something with a little more action.  I've found that scissors are quite popular.  If you need the edges cut, someone might be prepared to do a (really bad) job of it.

4.  Let them wander off

Sometimes I need to just spend a bit of time doing something (usually weeding) and the children have done their bit of planting, their bit of cutting and have finished arguing over the rake and well, they're bored.  I let them explore our bit of the site.  The rules are no running (there are lots of short pointy sticks and poles sticking out of the ground everywhere) and no touching anyone else's plot.  Finding bugs is endlessly popular with small boys.

This is a little hazel copse in the corner of the site.  Full of possibilities and spiders.

5.  Don't spend too long there, and take snacks

If you're gardening away from home, you'll need snacks and you'll need drinks, otherwise there will be a constant chorus of "I'm hungry, I need a drink".  Take a mini picnic, and if you have chairs let them set them up and have a sit down and something to eat.  If I'm honest, this may be the main attraction of going to the allotment for my three.  And leave before they get completely fed up.  Do this, they'll happily go again.  It may mean getting very little done and leaving halfway through a job, but remember point 1, realistic expectations.

6.  Let them do the good stuff

Planting, digging (even needlessly) and playing Harry Potter with the Dutch hoe as a broomstick are all acceptable gardening pastimes.  Cuttings things (anything) with secateurs (bigger children only, and mind those fingers) or blunt scissors is always a winner.  If you have room, take a little sandpit or let them dig a small (washing-up bowl) pond.

Watering is popular, especially with a hose.  But be warned, at the very least the waterer will get wet.  Very possibly you will be drenched too.  You may prefer to limit it to a small watering can.

I just asked mine what the best thing about the allotment was.  The two biggest came instantly back with a chorus of "planting", while the littlest boy shouted "eating".  Right now is a perfect time to sow loads of seeds - radishes, french beans, squashes and pumpkins, peas and carrots, to name but a few.

It's also a good time to put in little plants from the garden shop, such as sweetcorn and tomatoes.  You can plant things in a theme, for example, grow your own pizza toppings.

Soon the "eating" time will come, and picking the produce is definitely something they all love to do.  If you have soft fruit, such as raspberries, strawberries or blackcurrants, picking can keep them occupied for quite some time.  Peas are another favourite.  I grow sugar snap peas "Sugar Ann", so they can eat the pods, or if some are missed they can eat the peas.  And when the plants are tall enough we pinch out the tops and eat the pea shoots as well.  Much of the eating is done at the plot, straight from the plant, and this is just as it should be.  Where else will they have a chance to eat food with maximum flavour and freshness?  I'm hoping that one day they will remember the food we grew and how fantastic it tasted and that they'll want to do it themselves, with their children.

If you get the chance to do some gardening this week, with children or without, enjoy.

Thursday 22 May 2014


I've been rushing around this week not getting much done.  I feel like I wrote that last week too.  Maybe I did.  I don't quite know why, but I don't feel that I'm organised or focused at the moment.  Some scattered thoughts passing through my head right now are...

How nice the radishes are, the first of the season.  So very worth growing.

I don't know what to knit.  I finished the scarf I was making, but I haven't photographed it yet.  I have a very empty Ravelry page - this will be my second project.  I'm not sure how many things I should make before I put a link to my Ravelry page on my blog, I'd hate to be a disappointment.

I do have this lovely yarn that reminds me of water and summer and the sea.  I might just knit the same scarf again in this yarn.  Once I find something I like, I often stick with it.  The scarf has a nice texture and a pattern so simple even I can do it late in the evening when I'm tired.  Knit two, knit into the back of the third stitch, purl one.  Sometimes I mess it up.  Imagine what the mess I'd make of something complicated.

I was reading the lovely blog Down by the Sea this morning, and it make me think about my favourite plant in the garden at the moment.  Nothing flashy, but I love this acid green herb.  It's in a pot with a more ordinary green one, but the yellowy green really catches my eye and it always looks lovely with the other plants.  I think it's golden oregano.  It's one I often pick for omlettes and pasta sauces, but I'd grow it even if I didn't eat it, it's so pretty.  I really ought to try and take some cuttings.

In Aldi today I was seduced into buying this slightly tattered agave.  I couldn't resist.  I'm almost certain I'll buy another succulent next time I'm there.  I have a plant problem, I know.  I never mean to buy them, but they speak to me and I'm putty in their hands.  It almost feels like I am rescuing them sometimes.

There's been a line from an old rock song trying to be in my head all day, something about agave.  The lines from songs often pop into my head.  I can usually trace where they've come from.  My subconscious is always on the lookout for a subliminal message.  But this line isn't coming through clearly.  Maybe tomorrow, after I sleep on it.

There's something wrong with my phone.  I don't know what but I can't use it and it's another thing to be added to the list of things I need to tackle.

There's something wrong with the way I'm reading blogs.  I can only see about three-quarters of the photos.  I never know how to fix this technological stuff.  I usually just switch things off and switch them back on again.  So far that hasn't worked.  I may have to resort to something more advanced like Googling it.

A storm passed over today.  I spent some time looking out of the window at all of the different colours.  I love the rain so much these days.  An excuse to be inside, at home, while the plants are watered.  

It's been a week of helping out with the boys' things.  School in the forest on Monday with the littlest boy, who stuck to me like a bit of goosegrass from the moment I arrived at school.  We sat together on the coach and he ignored his friends when we got to the forest.  I asked him if he didn't want to play with them.  He said, "You're my friend".  The motto when you're in the forest is "No pick, no lick and careful with that stick".  Not a bad mantra for life either really.  The sun was shining through the trees, there was a wildflower meadow to roll around in and a fire with toasted marshmallows.  I wouldn't have missed that afternoon for the world.

In the evening I went to different woods with the middle boy's cub pack.  It rained and I didn't have a coat, just a t-shirt.  I told them that I'd been specially trained by Bear Grylls (who's the Chief Scout) to survive anything.  Otherwise it would have looked as though I hadn't Been Prepared.  

Yesterday evening I did softball with the biggest boy's scout troup.  At ten he is a brand new scout.  Some of them are fourteen.  It was quite an eye-opener.  Teenagers.  They were big and loud.  I am nowhere near ready for that kind of intensity.  They did make me laugh though.  And I did see the odd hint of maturity and decency which gave me hope.

It did remind me to enjoy the moments of smaller people though.  I'm wondering what to read to them next.  We've just finished The Outlaw Varjak Paw by SF Said which they loved.  When I first brought it home from the library they weren't interested.  But when I read it to them, they absolutely loved it.  The trick is getting them to try something new.

Some of these are too advanced to be read to the littles.  I'm leaning towards the Philip Pullman.  I'm a huge fan of his, he has a little magic in his writing, it is always entrancing.  Someone (the Observer?) said something to the effect of "Is he the best storyteller alive today?"  Well yes, I think he is.  When I read His Dark Materials trilogy I actually kept stopping to say, "This book is so good".  

And so the week bumps along.  I can't help thinking that next week maybe I'll be organised.  Although as it's half term I very much doubt it.  The week after maybe.  I am trying.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Built on wool

We had a little wander round beautiful Painswick, so-called Queen of the Cotswolds today.

First stop was the church with its many yew trees.  Legend has it that there are 99 of them, and that if a hundredth tree is planted it will be withered by the devil.

Some of them have the most fantastic shapes, and they're beautifully maintained, really closely clipped and thickly growing.

Inside is cool and serene as you'd expect.  The church was mainly built in the 14-1500s, with the spire added in 1632.

All of the pews have lovely hand stitched kneelers, made by parishioners in the 1980s.  The littlest boy insisted on being in this picture.

Painswick was built on the wealth of the wool trade in the middle ages.  I like to try and imagine what things were like back then.  The houses would have been grand, and many of the rich wool merchants and their families are buried in the churchyard.  No doubt it was largely their money that paid for the construction of the church.

All around are the beautiful Cotswold hills that were once home to the Cotswold sheep, considered at the time to provide the very best wool in the world.

Yew trees are dotted throughout the village.  I was fascinated by the ones growing out of the pavement, in tiny spaces.  They grow so closely, pressed to the buildings, and tightly clipped.

Yew re-grows from old wood, so it's possible to cut it back hard if need be, and in time it will be all green again.

Some of the houses had other things, still very attractive, growing by their doors.

All in all Painswick is a really lovely place for a visit.  And it's another excellent reason to love sheep and all things woolly.