Today is gloriously sunny, but still very cold. Worryingly, I can see plants unexpectedly drooping due to low temperatures. I notice begenias, sage and rock rose all looking saggy, which I hope is temporary and that they will perk up. I have now received all of my seed potatoes, onion and shallots sets, and elephant garlic from Mr Fothergills. Our very kind postman was quite shocked when he lifted the box out of his van, a box of potatoes is quite heavy. I moved these into the polytunnel to check them and as soon as temperatures improve, I will put them in egg boxes, on shelves in the outer part of the outside toilet, to chit.
We are very keen on recycling in this house, we would prefer not to throw anything away and today, I have a surplus of bread, which means…bread pudding! This is a big family favourite (although not an ideal diet food!), greatly loved by grandad. All the spare crusts go out onto the top of the wall and will be consumed by a wide variety of birds, ranging in size from magpies and crows, to robins and wrens. We do very well for wrens here because they love brick walls. Another great recycler is Pecky the chicken, who apart from her layers pellets, eats a wide variety of other treats, any choice vegetables, fruit bits too good for the compost bin, bread and the end of the cornflake packets, and her absolute favourite, grapes, which she can swallow whole.
It is also lovely to see the girls wearing old clothes that I have saved for sentimental reasons. My mum was a wonderful needle woman and made all her own clothes, some I still have. She would have been delighted to know that her granddaughters wear things that she made. Last week, Meave wore at work (on zoom) a mohair jumper my mum knitted for me when I was in my 6th form, which would make it about 40 years old!
Today I have signed up for a symposium on Forest gardening and food forests. This was postponed from 2020 due to Covid and is now online at the end of May. This is being run by the Agroforestry Trust, which is Martin Crawford’s domain in Dartington, where I have previously attended a forest gardening course. It sounds really exciting, with some brilliant contributors and I probably would not have attended if it wasn’t online because it would have been hard to spare the time to physically attend a five day. This will really be something to look forward to.
The Patchwork/Tapestry Garden
Today is still extremely cold, incredibly, Scotland recorded temps of minus 23 degrees last night! We had a very hard frost so we are continuing with work inside. By lunchtime, I had finished my third patchwork panel and now I will design and prepare (pin and tack) the fourth panel.
Whilst doing this very pleasurable work, it occurs to me that creating these panels is very similar, in my mind, to how I create a garden. I have always conceived the kitchen garden in particular, as patterned areas joined together rather like a patchwork or maybe a tapestry. It is very important to both Patrick and myself how the garden looks from higher viewing points or above, and I’ve always thought that an image of the kitchen garden from above would make a good needlework sampler. When we are planning hard landscaping (paths, geometric raised beds etc) and when I am working out planting, my mind is considering the garden from all angles, as well as how it appears as you walk amongst it, and also how the plants are framed and presented. It is quite an intricate and detailed way of landscaping, which suits my personality. I love plants of all types and I am an avid collector, therefore I want to include as many as possible. I understand that it is better to group more than one plant of the same type and colour together for impact and that repeating patterns of planting give rhythm and coherence to borders. But, I’m sure my ‘magpie’ nature is evident in the wide range of plants and ‘rainbow’ colour schemes. I could never be described as minimalist! I really appreciate having this time to spend on other creative pursuits because, be it sewing or painting, they all inform my ‘gardening brain’. When I was growing up, I never stopped making things, painting and drawing, it used to drive my mum mad. However, my artistic ability came from her, she went to art school and worked as a commercial artist before she had children. Unfortunately, the combination of working full time and having children, plus the small matter of trying to rebuild and restore a derelict house and garden, had put my own artistic endeavours on hold for many years, apart from in the garden and guiding the girls with GCSE and A’Level art. Another massive benefit of our lockdown decorating/sorting out binge is being able to finally put art work on show. This includes quite a collection of old paintings, prints and photos but also artwork produced by the girls – both Diane and Meave took GCSE art and Diane took A’level art, and also paintings of my own. Today Diane stained the frame of a particularly beautiful piece created by Meave for GCSE. It consists of three images of highly magnified sections of plants reconstructed using coloured tissue (which is rolled and glued). I have always loved this piece and now it finally has a home, hung in my newly decorated bedroom.
Thinking about this tapestry/patchwork type of gardening reminded me of two excellent books that champion this style. ‘The Layered Garden’ by David.L.Culp, based on his own garden at ‘Brandywine Cottage’ in Pennsylvania. The concept of this garden is to provide a succession of eye-catching combinations (or layers) from earliest Spring into Winter. This particularly echoes my own efforts to be constantly observing, ‘adding to’ and shaping planting areas to get the maximum benefit for the longest period. The other book in this vein is, ‘A Tapestry Garden – The Art Of Weaving Plants and Place’, by Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne. This is based on another American garden ‘Northwest Garden Nursery’ in Eugene, Oregon. The story of this garden has some parallels to ourselves. The property was acquired in June 1972, a 1918 farmhouse lacking many modern amenities…although they did have water and electricity! They also wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible, real kindred spirits. The O’Byrnes garden is renowned for stunning plant combinations and variety of habitats, and they specialise in hellebores. Both of these books really chimed with my own personal horticulture philosophy, each entwined with the authors own life story.
At 7pm, when all the family were gathered in the extension, Aideen exclaimed in surprise, “There’s a fox on the wall”, and there on the wall, which is no more than 2 feet away, was a fox eating the crusts we had put out for the birds! We all stood up close to the window and he looked at us and decided to carry on with his meal…incredible!
When I looked outside the extension window this morning, practically all the crusts of bread had disappeared. This is quite remarkable as the top of the wall was well laden with leftover bread. Patrick commented that he had seen the robin on the wall, but unless the robin has grown to the size of a turkey, I don’t think it ate all of the bread!
The McHugh school of cookery is still in full swing, we might not be quite in the league of Darina Allen and T Ballymaloe Cookery School (despite me owning several of her books, surprise, surprise!) but we can dream! Last night, Aideen was cooking her favourite dinner…meat and potato pie, whilst Meave was preparing for her ‘Dishoom’ curry night, planned for the following evening. This is quite an achievement in our kitchen, which to quote our own zoom talk, “has yet to be improved from basic conditions”. We have one tiny work surface which can make food preparation a challenge. The kitchen is on the list of DIY tasks to attempt during lockdown.
Meave moved to the even more tiny space besides the sink to prepare her masala sauce which involved cooking seven chopped onions to a point of perfect caramelisation and marinating some dates and tamarind. More than an hour later, poor Meave was still stirring her onions! However, the resulting sauce, when combined with tomatoes and spices, smelt amazing!
I put out on the wall another lot of bread crusts and some left over pasta with bolognaise sauce which had been left in the fridge. This was much enjoyed by a wide variety of birds during the day and when light faded the fox returned, hopping nimbly up onto the wall. Later in the evening, Minxy started to look curiously out of the window and James turned round to see a badger stretching up to reach the food on the wall. Unfortunately, he was the only one present to see this remarkable sight but we all kept looking hopefully out of the window for the rest of the evening. It is remarkable that considering we have lived alongside an extensive badger set for nearly 25 years, we rarely see the badgers. In fact, I’ve never seen them in the garden, only occasionally trotting along the track outside Church Gardens. I see evidence of their presence when the grass is dug up, or maybe spotting a trail of sweetcorn stolen from the garden leading to their set, but they are very private, reclusive creatures. This makes it even more surprising to see one directly outside the window. There was one more sighting of the badger that evening by Aideen, but I missed him again! We put the wildlife camera outside and I just kept hopefully gazing out of the window.
Meave’s curry was a ‘pièce de resistance’ but we ate even later than usual because of how much effort was involved. We had Mattar Paneer (the dish with multiple onions), sheekh kebabs, keema puffs (samosas), Gun powder potatoes, rice, tamarind chutney and mint sauce washed down with Cobra beer, fantastic!
This morning (still freezing cold) was like watching an episode of Spring/Winter watch. James had multiple videos on his wildlife camera for us to watch and it was amazing. There was more footage of the fox but the real star of the show was the badger. We had ‘badger stretching up to investigate food on the wall’ and ‘badger stretching up and looking in the extension window!’. We had multiple close-up videos of the badger eating food left for him on the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such close-up, clear, photography of a badger. You could see every detail of his paws and how he ate, at one point, he sat there with a crust poking out of his mouth. Even more amazingly, one of the videos showed Pip, who had gone out for a late night wee, sitting on the wall looking down at the badger, as cool as a cucumber! (I’m not sure how I feel about that!) She then waited for the badger to depart and then she casually sauntered past the camera.
Today is mass DIY day, Patrick and Diane are helping James and Aideen to put down the new flooring in their room. When that is done (it looks lovely) Patrick and Aideen work on adapting the old wardrobe into panelling for the room.
I finish the 4th panel of patchwork and start pinning and tacking together the 5th panel. I’m really on a mission with this patchwork project, I’m finding all sorts of bits and pieces to add. Today it was a tiny white and yellow button, decorated with a picture of a duck, that was left over from a tiny knitted cardigan that mum made for Meave before she died (mum died 3 months before Meave was born). I knew I had saved it, along with the beautiful knitted jackets and booties that mum made for the granddaughter she never met. Hopefully, one day they will be used again if we have grandchildren.
As the light was beginning to fade, we had another amazing ‘nature moment’. Our barn owl, which hunts with its mate across the neighbouring field, flew straight past the extension window that has become our wildlife café. It was incredibly close and the best view I have ever had of her or him! Moments like that are so precious.
As a mark of Valentine’s Day, I decided to accompany Patrick on his early morning dog walk. He often suggests to me that I should come on this daily ambulation, but I must confess to not being keen. This is partly due to my husband not keeping to normal hours…he gets up ridiculously early to work. It used to be 5am but he has moderated slightly and now usually gets up at 6am. He now takes the dog out somewhere between 6-7am. This is partly because he likes to get up early but also to avoid other dog walkers…Bella doesn’t like other dogs, she considers herself human. Going for a dog walk at 6am, in the dark and present muddy and freezing conditions, does not appeal to me. However, I woke up early this morning and Patrick woke up slightly late, so we went together before 7am.
I have to take my hat off to Patrick because this walk is a measure of his devotion to Bella and his enjoyment of being outside. It is still very hard for Patrick to walk, as he still suffers considerable pain from his fractured ankle, the replacement joint has not resolved the problem. He is now suffering with his other foot, with a recurrence of another problem which he suffered from before his accident. There is also the not inconsiderable issue with his breathing, which is particularly bad at the moment, not to mention him suffering from a very painful shoulder which has been going on for months. Luckily, he doesn’t need his shoulder to walk! If anyone in this house is ever tempted to complain, I point to Patrick who just gets on with life and considers himself to be very lucky…bless him!
We have a nice walk, which has a couple of resting spots for Patrick to catch his breath. Bella loves her walk, running everywhere and exploring everything, she must be one of the luckiest dogs ever because she has full run of three acres of garden at home all day and an hour-long walk every morning. However, she is a Collie and without this level of exercise and diversion she would drive everyone mad!
I can sense that the temperature is rising, Pecky’s water was not frozen this morning, so hopefully tomorrow I can get back in the garden. We have tried to make Valentines plans for this evening, but for Diane and Meave, this involves virtual dates with their loved ones, which is sadly the new normal. Apart from this, we intend to eat, drink and be merry. We will make the most of tonight because we intend to give a lot up for Lent…including alcohol and chocolate…oh dear!
Today was incredibly mild, it was unbelievable that the weather has gone from below freezing temperatures, to ‘not even needing a coat’ in 24 hours. This change in temperature affects everything. Pecky has produced an egg (this had stopped during the ultra-cold conditions), the birds are singing and even the perfume of our scented winter gems is increased. I am almost knocked out by the scent of the sweet box by the backdoor, the first time I’ve ever noticed it so strong. This alteration in natures thermostat has an immediate effect on myself. I hardly ever want to be inside but in the last week, I’ve been glad to stay inside and sew, the polytunnel has remained closed and the succulents covered in fleece. However, today it is a different story and I am outside watering the winter salads in the tunnel and planning my garden jobs for the next week.
Time was rather limited today because the washing machine went haywire and Patrick and I spent some considerable time trying to investigate the problem, only to later have the machine written off by the engineer. Perhaps this is unsurprising as it has been sounding like a helicopter taking off recently. Apparently, the fixings for the drum have broken.
When I do go outside, I decided to chit the potatoes. I do this by standing them in old egg boxes on shelves in the lobby of the outside toilet. Chitting is particularly helpful for early potatoes as it gets them off to a quicker start by pre-growing their shoots. I’m growing even more varieties than usual this year because we finished up all of our potato stock before Christmas, so we obviously need to grow more. This year I am growing first earlies: Casablanca, Maris Bard, Premiere and Winston (the last two are new varieties for me). Second earlies: Charlotte, Vivaldi and Acoustic (another new one). Main Crop: Cara, Maris Piper and three new varieties (for me) Jazzy, Picasso and Carolus. Finally, late main crop: Sarpo Mira and Setanta.
A sure sign of milder weather is when Tiggy persuades me to follow her into the orchard for ‘The Game’. This is when she persuades anyone who is willing to follow her across the grass until she allows you to catch up and give her a lovely stroke, and then she trots off again, looking over her shoulder in a ‘come hither’ way, to check you are following and goes through the same procedure again! ‘The Game’ is a great favourite with all family members and obviously Tiggy, but it only happens when the weather permits!
At the end of the day, I checked my planting diary for last year and confirmed that I need to start sowing early crops – tomorrows job!