• Kay

A new life for the old stove


Today, putting up the Christmas decorations continues…I said to Aideen, “At this rate we will be decorating until Christmas!”, she replied, saying that she considered this to be a good thing and that it was a lovely way to spend our time in the lead up to Christmas.

James and Aideen began the day assembling a 12 foot tall, artificial Christmas tree that we have borrowed to go in the middle of the courtyard. This is the tree that Aideen plans to decorate with mainly natural decorations. We have long strands of ivy, sprayed in silver or gold to use like tinsel, plumes of pampas grass are hung in the branches, as are teasels and dried allium flowers.

Alliums must be the best value bulb in the world…they produce beautiful long lasting flowers, then the dead flower heads continue standing and looking good. I then collect the dry flower heads and display them in different places around the garden and now they are being sprayed to make beautiful Christmas decorations. James is also adding upside down flower pots to the tree which look like bells, all in all, it is looking splendid.

I start the day by moving the orange and lemon trees into the polytunnel and then I continue to plant bulbs. I finish the two top sections at the top of the central border and I start planting the middle triangles, having first removed a lot of dead plant material. By the end of the day, I have planted all of the ranunculus bulbs (190) and one tray of last year’s display tulips (about 300).

Aideen is very keen to have a little fire in the courtyard for us all to sit around, however, Pat and I are very nervous about sparks near the house, so I suggest using the old stove. Patrick and I bought an old antique stove from the Uxbridge canal boat yard many years ago. At the time, we thought we would use it in the house, but in the end this never happened and it became a large ornament instead. James and Patrick carry it outside (it is very heavy) and Patrick remembers he had a ‘chimney like’ pipe made for it years previously. We attach the pipe and fiddle about fixing bits of the stove back in place and then we light it with paper and logs (we have no shortage of logs!). A lot of white smoke comes out of the chimney, but not much heat from the stove.

We sit around it hopefully, with cups of tea and mince pies, admiring the giant Christmas tree and then retreat back to the house to let the stove warm up. The stove does gradually get warmer and we will see if this becomes our new warm focal point of the garden. Anyway, all of this industrious activity has been very interesting for grandad watching from his window!


Grandad and Sunflowers


Today, I’ve decided to write a bit about my dad. Things have been rather grim with him over the last few days and I am conscious that amongst the people who read this blog, there are likely to be others caring for loved ones at the moment, or people that may have relatives in care homes. These situations are not easy and in my opinion should be discussed more openly.

A bit of background to dad’s story…Dad was quite involved with the clearing up process of Church Gardens right at the start in 1996, before we moved in. The previous year, when I was 6 months pregnant with Meave, my mum died, tragically young, of ovarian cancer (she had just turned 54). I think our restoration project was very therapeutic for dad at the time. He was comparatively young (early 60’s) and he spent the majority of his time with us anyway, so he threw himself into clearing undergrowth and lighting bonfires.

Although this involvement tailed off quite quickly, he was always interested in living with us at Church Gardens. In 2004, the annexe was built and dad moved in, with a shed for his collection of bikes.

Dad has now lived with us for 17 years. He suddenly became seriously ill with a massive infection last November. He spent about 2 weeks in hospital before being returned to us in a very sorry state. He was doubly incontinent, very frail, with reduced mobility and displaying symptoms of quite advanced dementia (initially put down to the infection). Dad’s mental state has not improved and I realise now that it had probably been deteriorating for some time prior to last November. It had not been particularly noticeable, because I was looking after dad already (cooking his meals etc.) and he only had to manage a very simple life.

We still do not know more than a vague diagnosis of what is wrong with Dad, apart from it being something to do with his bowels, doctors describe it as ‘big bowel loops’. However, I do realise how lucky we are, particularly Dad. Thank god he is here, he suffered terribly in hospital, practically not eating and losing the will to live. He would react similarly to a care home, in no time at all he would lose track of who we all are. Dads mind might visit surprising places, like, this morning he thought he needed to arrange Henry Cooper’s funeral, but he still knows who I am and that he is being cared for by his family. I am also lucky because I have the support of my girls. My main responsibilities for dad are at the start and end of the day. I get him up and deal with all the personal care and the same at the end of the day, unless there are any extra matters arising during the day. Diane makes him breakfast, Aideen makes his lunch, and Meave makes his dinner. This is lovely for him because he sees and chats to everybody. Also, he often has the company of Pip the cat who seems to have taken a particular interest in his welfare!

However, none of this is easy, it wasn’t before Covid and it has certainly been harder still during Covid. If you are a carer during this time, you are basically obliged to shield alongside your vulnerable relative. My heart goes out to anyone in this difficult situation, particularly if they are coping alone. Hopefully, we can start returning to some semblance of ‘normal’ in the coming months.

Before getting dad up this morning, I went for a run. My new exercise regime had been put on hold for the last few weeks whilst I substituted it with helping to remove the hard-core pile, digging out the weeds from the terrace and then planting 21,000 crocus bulbs. However, it has been nagging at the back of my mind that I should try to keep it going. One reason for this is that I do think it helps with my general body aches and stiffness, maybe because it helps improve my flexibility. The problem I have with anything like organised exercise is that I am easily distracted, so I have simplified my routine so I don’t have to count seconds as I run/walk. I’ve decided one lap of the Kitchen garden can equal 90 seconds and therefore two laps can equal three minutes. This way, if my mind drifts off to what needs weeding or cutting back as I run or walk briskly along the paths, it doesn’t matter.

Today, I noticed more allium seed heads to collect for Aideen’s Christmas decorations. At the end of the final run I ‘cooled down’ by collecting the green barrow and pushing it back to the polytunnel, maybe I should call my routine the ‘Gardeners Workout’.

Today, the weather is wet and miserable all day and I plan to spend it in the polytunnel. First, I need to sow my latest batch of sweet peas, recently arrived from Marshalls and then I intend to make a start on removing dead plants from the tunnel, starting with the giant Sunflowers. This is quite a big job and some of them had their flower heads stuck at the top of the tunnel making them quite tricky to remove. I think I overdid the sunflowers in the tunnel this year, to the detriment of my cucumbers, so next year I will show more restraint. Maybe I will grow more outside, although in past years, I have had problems with their stalks being bitten through, I think by rabbits! As I drag my massive load of sunflowers to the compost heap, I take comfort in the thought that these dead flower heads full of seeds will make excellent food for our wild bird population.

Later in the day, I express concern at the increasing wind and James, Aideen and Patrick use my washing line to anchor the new tall Christmas tree to the wall and the shed…we do not want to lose this most recent Christmas addition.


Mystery Bulb Muncher!


There is an improvement in the weather today, but it still feels damp and grey and I am intermittently drizzled on whilst planting bulbs.

Today, Aideen is outside the front of the house gathering leaves. This is a very time consuming job; we are surrounded by a lot of trees! However, it may be tedious, but it is important, leaves left on the drive will soon turn to a slippery mess and they are much better converted to leaf mould.

When I first go outside, I am confronted by an unwelcome sight in my middle borders…something has been eating my tulip bulbs! I can see green shoots lying on the surface of the soil and bits of chewed bulb scattered about. This is very annoying; I do not relish giving up weeks and months of my life to plant bulbs for some creature to then come along and eat them! This happens every year and it is difficult to identify who is responsible. Usually, the badgers will dig up my tulip bulbs when they are in full flower. This was a problem in the organ pipe bed last year. I would come out to find beautiful, tall tulips knocked over like skittles and the earth dug up in large holes. However, badgers are not supposed to be able to get into the kitchen garden and this damage looks different to the organ bed damage last year. It could be rabbits but I have not seen a rabbit for years, I think Pip puts them off! I think the most likely culprits are squirrels, I suspect they spot the newly disturbed soil, scrabble about and unearth a few bulbs and then have a feast. I feel immense frustration at the sight of any destroyed bulbs, however, realistically there is a limit to how many bulbs the squirrels will consume. It is not practical for me to protect every newly planted area with chicken wire or something similar because of the huge quantity of bulbs I have planted.

Even Church Gardens’ squirrels are unlikely to eat 30,000 bulbs!

I collect the bulbs from the basement and finish planting the middle triangles of the central borders, consciously planting the tulip bulbs deeper in the hope of hiding their presence form greedy squirrels. The bulbs I have been planting so far have been Ronaldo (very dark purple/black tulip) and Jimmy (orange/hint of coral). I felt these colours were appropriate to add to the ‘hot colour’ triangles. I then moved down to the four end sections of the central borders, concentrating my attention on the two beds that contain weeping cherry trees. I cut back all the dead foliage (mainly Valerian) and weeded the two beds in preparation for planting the remaining Ronaldo/Jimmy tulip bulbs. The two sections at this end of the central border containing the columnar cherry trees and the remaining four ‘cool colour’ triangles in the central border will be planted with the two remaining trays of last year’s bulbs. These bulbs include Orange Dynasty (an orange/pink Triumph tulip) & Mistress Mystic (a pale pink/silvery lavender Triumph tulip).

I end the day by digging up some leeks for Aideen who wants to make a pie. The poor leeks are suffering badly from ‘Allium Leaf Miner’ and will have to be used up soon before they are destroyed. I teach Aideen how to make ‘rough puff pastry’ and she makes a chicken, leek, carrot and celery pie…she doesn’t want to include mushrooms!


The Wrong Christmas Tree


Today was a ‘run’ day, I am trying an alternate day regime for my ‘Gardener’s Workout’. The weather started beautifully, sunshine, blue skies and quite mild. I still find the running hard going…I’m not built to run anywhere…but being outside, with the sun glistening on the leaves and seed heads was magical.

When I came outside to work, I started by planting the remaining Ronaldo and Jimmy tulip bulbs into the two sections of the central border that I cleared yesterday. Whilst I was immersed in this job, Aideen came out to ask my opinion on the identity of the two Christmas trees. We had bought two beautiful, real Christmas trees that were delivered last week. The two trees had very distinctive personalities, one was very densely branched, a lovely shape, ideally suited for the living room and my mass of decorations. The other was a more natural tree, more appropriate for outside. The problem was, viewing them lying side by side, wrapped up in special Christmas tree mesh, we couldn’t tell them apart. I decided that the slightly fatter bundle must be the living room tree. I was then called back some time later to look at the two trees in situ…I had given the wrong instruction. The rather wild tree was in the living room; very large and blocking the TV, whilst the more civilised tree was standing primly outside the house! Then there was an agonising period of trying to decide where it was worth the massive upheaval and resulting mess of swapping 6 foot trees, now unwrapped! Finally, it was decided to swap them, no mean feat. I skulked guiltily away back to my bulbs and remained there until I felt it was safe to return for a very late lunch. By which time, the trees were correctly positioned, but now surrounded by a sea of mud and pine needles! By the end of the day, I had planted all the Ronaldo and Jimmy bulbs, cut back the vegetation in the four ‘cool colour’ triangles of the central borders and weeded two of them in preparation for the planting of the final Orange Dynasty and Mistress Mystic tulips. I really notice the lack of daylight hours, by the time I have got Grandad up and had breakfast I am lucky to get outside before 11am and you cannot work much past 4pm – if you have lunch at a normal time, it is a very short day. Tomorrow is expected to be wet so the remaining bulbs will have to wait a bit longer to be planted. I will probably spend tomorrow in the polytunnel which still needs a lot of tidying up, although now it is minus the many giant sunflowers.

The polytunnel is quite an amazing place at the moment, considering we are half way through December. The tomato plants are largely still alive (but fading) and I have quite a lot of ripe edible fruit. This includes some of the large varieties which is particularly surprising. There are still chillies ripening, although the actual plants are beginning to fade and there are a few peppers still to bring in. The most amazing sight today were some particularly beautiful passion flowers, blooming close to the orange and lemon trees. I got Aideen to take some pictures because it was such a ‘tropical’ image, not at all what I would expect in the week before Christmas. I still have flowering geraniums and climbers blooming, including bright orange thunbergia. It has obviously not been cold enough yet to kill off these plants.

Waiting on the bench I have more broad beans and peas to plant outside, and lettuce, spinach, and various brassicas to plant in the tunnel borders when they are clear.

By the time I come in, the outside Christmas tree is covered in coloured lights and everything looks very welcoming for tonight’s pupils.


Lilies at Church Gardens


Today starts off unexpectedly dry. I am quite tired because Grandad decided to buzz at 3am to see what’s going on. My Dad does seem to be inhabiting an alternative universe, where he goes for long walks and arranges funerals for famous boxers. Most of the time I can join him in lengthy conversations on the weirdest of topics, but I must admit to be less on his wavelength at 3am!

Because the rain has yet to set in, I start off outside. I finish weeding the four ‘cool colour’ triangles and decide to plant my 12 trumpet lily bulbs. It is only recently that I’ve decided to add to my lily collection because I’ve always been nervous of the danger of lily pollen on the cat’s fur (if they wash it off, it is toxic). However, this is primarily a problem for cut flowers indoors and cats brushing past vases. They are very unlikely to brush past the flower of a 1.6m trumpet lily in the garden. I could be accused of over protective ‘helicopter parenting’ in this instance! I have long admired members of the giant lily family and last year I planted Lily Regale, Martagon Lilies with their swept back petals, Giant Oriental Lilies and Goliath Lilies which can reach 2.5m in height! I started last year’s lily bulbs in pots, hoping for better success than I had obtained with previous efforts when I’ve planted straight into the garden. This was partially successful, most of the lilies bloomed with their magnificent giant colourful trumpet like flowers, but they did not achieve their towering height. The Martagon lilies in particular put on a very poor show. Because of this, I decided to plant the trumpet lilies straight into the ground. The bulbs are enormous and are almost ‘artichoke’ like in appearance, with curving ‘petal like’ sections. I cannot wait to see them next year. I planted three each of ‘Golden Splendour’ (a deep golden yellow), ‘Pink Perfection’ (vivid purple/pink), ‘African Queen’ (gorgeous orange) and ‘Regale’ (White with a Yellow centre). The other exceptional characteristic of these amazing flowers is their heady scent that was incredible last year. By this time, the rain was setting in so I retreated to the polytunnel, already occupied by Minxy sleeping in a nest of empty plastic bulb bags.

I continue with my clean up operation. I remove all of the broccoli which was planted this time last year and has produced brilliantly all year, although the florets are now going to flower. I then started to remove the tomato plants, picking off the tomatoes and placing them on the bench. Some are still green, many are pale orange and some completely ripe. I take a large handful of tiny bright red cherry tomatoes inside for lunch.

Tonight is my last teaching night before Christmas, I was only expecting four students because pupil numbers have been decimated by my ‘school age’ pupils being sent home to self-isolate. Soon, I am contacted by the family of 3 who had lessons scheduled tonight and I am told that the youngest has been sent home to self-isolate and therefore they cannot attend. What a sad way to end 2020, with only one out of the ten pupils who would normally attend Wednesday evening lessons still able to come for a lesson. Let us hope that 2021 brings better news for us self-employed musicians! Otherwise, I will have to seriously investigate becoming self-sufficient!


Minxy Helps to Decorate the Christmas Tree


Today, the weather is beautiful, sunny and warm. My plan is to continue with the planting of the central border. Yesterday, I finished preparing the four ‘cool colour’ triangles, removing weeds from potential areas for bulb planting. These triangles are quite densely planted, so there is not much spare space to add bulbs, but I’m determined to squeeze in as many as possible. All of these borders have had bulbs planted in before, the central borders which were planted in 2017 would have had bulbs added that Autumn. I remember carefully planting hundreds of daffodil bulbs alongside the zig zag box hedging. This is fine because daffodils are well behaved and come up every year. Some of the tulips have kept going as well, but by last Spring I did feel the central border was becoming a bit ‘thin’ in the tulip department. I knew it would be a long job planting this border because there are so many sections – six large triangles along the main path, four beds beside the fountain and two at the start of the border. I am not planting extra bulbs in the four rear triangles that contain the pampas and banana trees. I am very happy to spend the day doing this job because it is so lovely to be outside. We are incredibly lucky in this country that so much of our winter is mild.

Aideen and James go outside and continue collecting leaves…yes that job is still going on! By the end of the day all the cool triangles are planted and I finish by cutting back all the dead plant growth in the last two sections besides the fountain.

When I come inside, Diane and I start decorating the main Christmas tree in the living room. I love this job because every set of decorations has a story/memory attached to it and I’m very sentimental about them. However, the tree is big and decorating it takes ages, especially when Minxy gets involved. Minxy loves Christmas decorations, first she chased and attacked the string of lights, next she has her eye on the tinsel.

Finally, she breaks into the organ room and falls inside a deep cardboard box that had contained an illuminated reindeer Christmas decoration. In the end, we have to pass her out of the room, inside the box. Luckily, at this point she settles down on the sofa and goes to sleep and Diane and I can finish the tree. Now it really feels like Christmas!

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