Preparing for Winter

During the unseasonably (but not unwelcome) warm half term, we found ourselves on a glorious Friday afternoon, constructing the latest addition to our plot at the allotment…a pond! I’d dug the hole a week previously but we gathered with our co-working family to line and fill it, a very enjoyable task embraced by even the smallest of our helpers (namely because there was a chance of getting wet!) As we worked we chatted over our plans for the allotment and since then I’ve found myself thinking about the best way to prepare it for the winter ahead.

Some people merely ‘put it to bed’, covering their patches with black plastic or mulch. This is probably the more sensible option as it requires minimal visiting and tending during the cold and wet months. We, however, have gone for the more ‘productive’ option and have planted a variety of winter crops. Brassicas, lettuces, garlic, chard, kale, brussel sprouts and some very late carrots are currently doing their thing and we are fighting the whitefly and weeds. We still have a lot of empty beds now the summer crops have finally finished so there is space for more, if we can think of something we’d like to grow and eat!

These two approaches to allotmenting in the winter made me think of the differing ways in which we can survive the winter as people. Some people choose to basically hibernate, to go out only when absolutely necessary and to stay warm and dry as much as possible. They hunker down in their warm homes, entertain themselves with board games, films and other indoor activities.

Whilst I completely see the appeal of such a winter life-style, both me and the kids start to suffer from cabin fever if stuck inside for too long. We become irritable and stir crazy if we spend too much time within four walls. So we embrace (albeit not always wholeheartedly!) the approach to winter that is best summed up in the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’! Although we definitely have plenty of time under blankets, being cosy and trying to play happy families, we also make sure that we spend time out in the elements, getting some fresh air to brush off the cobwebs and grumpy moods.

And whilst I maintain that both are equally valid ways of spending the winter months, there is something to be said for a beautiful winter’s day, with the sun shining and your breath coming out in frosty clouds as you go for a stroll in the woods or on the beach. Or if you have little people, there is no joy quite like letting them jump in muddy puddles, watching their excitement as they get good and mucky. The benefit to both these things being that there is usually always somewhere great nearby that you can head to to warm up with a hot chocolate or mulled cider! So whilst it may not be my favourite season, I’m determined to enjoy our winter with a good amount of both hibernating at home and spending time outside, whatever the weather!


Autumn Days

I feel like Autumn has most definitely arrived over the last week or two with the recent
spate of windy and wet weather heralding the change in seasons. I know it’s a cliché but I can’t believe how quickly this year has progressed. With less than 10 weeks until Christmas (sorry!), I feel that despite predictions of an Indian summer, summer is now completely finished for another year.

At this time of year, our home education seems to always focus on traditions surrounding harvest time, Halloween and Guy Fawkes night as well as the science behind the life of trees. We’ve investigated why and how leaves change colour, why the nights are longer (we looked at the Autumn Equinox just a few weeks ago) and have chosen a nearby tree to observe throughout the changing seasons.

And whilst I love the long warm days of summer, endless beach trips, swimming in the sea and spending so much time outdoors easily, I do also have a massive soft spot for
Autumn. I love getting out the hand knits to keep heads, necks and hands warm. I love the excuse for having a fire in the evening, autumnal casseroles and soups and snuggling
under big blankets whilst the elements rage outside. I love mulled wine, roast dinners,
piles of golden and orange leaves crunching underfoot, the winter sun shining in a frozen sky.

What I don’t love quite so much is the near constant stream of Christmas and Birthday related chatter that has started to ramp up and will remain at a steady buzz until the events themselves. With all three kids birthdays and Christmas within a 12 week period, this is a busy time of year for us! Last year however, inspired by Monbiot’s article ‘The Gift of Death’ (about the effects of consumerism on the environment) and trying to stem the tide of unused toys building up in our tiny terrace, I committed to more thoughtful gift buying, both in terms of the recipient and the environment.

This year I am trying to do the same and make sure that we only choose to buy things that the kids really want or need, items that will be used and hopefully items that are long lasting and durable, unlikely to break or end up in the landfill within 6 months. I’m also trying to prevent the excitement from building up quite yet, if the kids spend weeks getting increasingly more worked up about an event, on the day itself, disappointment (and tears) inevitably awaits!

So this Autumn I’m trying to put the focus on our planned Bonfire Party on Halloween to clear up our allotment plot, fireworks at the rugby club, the making of our pond at the plot and embracing the present, rather than looking towards the tinsel laden and gift wrapped few weeks that lie tantalisingly ahead. So…bring on the baked apples and the woolly hats and let’s enjoy the Autumn, whatever it may bring!

News From The Plot

As anyone who has ever dabbled in some gardening will know, growing things is nothing if not unpredictable. A crop that was prolific last year may struggle to get off the ground this year round and something that you’ve always struggled to grow might leave you with a plentiful bounty to share with friends, family and pretty much anyone you encounter on the street! We are in the middle of our first harvest at the plot here in Topsham and although we have had a mix of successes and failures, it’s been a great experience nonetheless and for once (mostly due to my co-worker’s enthusiasm!) we’re even planting winter crops.

The season started with an abundance of strawberries and asparagus, beds that my co-worker inherited with the patch. Before I knew it, the kids were actually asking to go the allotment rather than being cajoled by me as they knew they could spend the whole time hunting for juicy red fruit and more often than not, eating it all before the adults got a look in! Our potatoes have been plentiful, the raspberry canes have been producing non-stop for weeks now and our paddy pan plants (an odd mix between a courgette and squash) are providing a steady and constant supply of yellow flying saucer shaped fruits. Our carrots were hilariously misshapen and tasty and the beetroot was delicious although there definitely wasn’t enough of it! Our spaghetti squash, sweetcorn and brussel sprouts are still growing but I’m looking forward to them being ready (especially for the former, an amazing variety of squash I once received from Riverford but never encountered again).

However, we have also had our fair share of failures. Our peas were repeatedly eaten by slugs and snails, our beans have been slow and not particularly abundant and more recently, my gorgeous stripy tomato plants caught blight! Apparently it’s spread across the allotment like wildfire so I don’t think we could have prevented it but I was so sad as nothing beats how delicious a home-grown tomato is compared to the watery, bland shop bought variety. I think the somewhat sporadic weather over the last few weeks is to blame (and is also the culprit of the prolific weeds which we are constantly warring with) but I guess that’s just the way it goes.

But as the season slows down and we turn our thoughts to keeping the plot maintained during the colder months of the year, the thing I’m most excited about is the fact that we are making a pond!! Someone mentioned to us that we could have a small pond if we wanted to use up a little of the space and we jumped on the idea! The kids are absolutely psyched as am I about the whole process, from digging the hole to filling it, choosing plants and hopefully watching wildlife appear and make it home!

I’ve said it before but I really think that growing things with your kids is of amazing value, from teaching them how to garden, to having an excuse to get them outdoors when tempers are fraying to the excitement of when they get to harvest the fruits that they’ve carefully helped grow over the last few months. It also has the added benefit of having a fairly quick turnaround so they see their results within just a few months of starting the process. No need to be naturally green fingered, we can all learn as we go and you won’t regret growing your own (or at least trying to), I promise!

Green Therapy

Just before Easter a friend of ours kindly approached me to see if we would like to share their plot at the local allotment. We enthusiastically accepted and consequently, the last few weeks have seen me nipping up whenever we can spare the time to get a bit of digging in. I had forgotten quite how much I love gardening and just how therapeutic it is. This plot has a few fairly overgrown areas that need tackling and even just the simple act of digging and weeding has brought me much joy (and peace) recently. I’ve taken to digging barefoot, mostly because it irritates me less than getting soil in your shoes but I must admit that there is something wonderful about feeling the earth between your toes as you get to grips with the task at hand.

The children have been nothing short of delighted to have a patch of ‘proper’ garden to tend to although their efforts at helping me weed have often been waylaid by the far more attractive option of exploring the site or darting off to play with other children. I will give them their dues though, they are diligent (and sometimes over enthusiastic!) water-ers and I suspect none of the plants will be going thirsty with Elijah around… I’m looking forward to the Easter holidays being over and dedicating a regular chunk of time once or twice a week to the allotment as part of their home education.

When we arrived there was an impressive strawberry patch, an asparagus bed, rhubarb and raspberry canes galore. Since then potatoes, beetroot and sweetcorn have been planted, I have tomato and brussel sprout seedlings at home ready to go up and just today, my spaghetti squash seeds arrived (I’m a bit too excited about the latter…here’s hoping they are bountiful)! It has been a real pleasure to be up there in the recent run of beautiful sunshine and I don’t see our initial enthusiasm wearing off anytime soon, even if the weather does turn.

All three of the kids seem to have inherited my love of gardening and are keen to see the process of growing your own through from the admittedly sometimes boring stages of weeding and preparing beds to the exciting time that is harvest. I sometimes think that if I achieve nothing else significant with their home education, as long as they love being outdoors and can grow food, I’ll be happy. Nothing tastes quite as good as fruit and vegetables you’ve grown yourselves and although I might sound a little kooky, the conspiracy theorist in me thinks that in this day and age, it’s probably one of the must useful skills to have. So a huge thank you to Jess for letting us share her plot, we will do our best to help keep everything green and growing!

A Green Fingered Shift

As I worked in the Autumn sunshine alongside three enthusiastic helpers in our front garden this afternoon, it struck me that I hadn’t written a column about our gardening efforts for a little while. To be honest, after the garden being flooded with sewage earlier in the year and having to dispose of our potato plants, I was feeling fairly despondent about the whole thing.  That particular happening seemed to be the latest in a string of circumstances that seemed to hinder our attempts at green fingered-ness this year. From Elijah pulling up every seedling that grew, our turf dying in patches with all attempts at reseeding failed, the previously thriving plum tree suddenly looking rather sorry for itself and generally just being so busy that the garden sank down the list of priorities, I felt that gardening was going to be off the cards for us for a while.

But then two things happened. The first was that a friend from Church invited us to go to Broadclyst Community Farm to help out. We spent a very pleasant day there in the summer, getting to grips with where things were, weeding and planting out lettuces. We were made very welcome and hope to be back there again soon to get stuck in. The second thing that happened was that Eli got older. I know that sounds ridiculous but somehow, over the last few weeks, he has got just a tad less destructive and a tad more helpful, or at least less inclined to undo everything I’m doing.

Our front garden has been looking more and more overgrown recently and so yesterday afternoon whilst the kids were happy, I took my gloves and clippers out there to start tackling the irritating ivy that continues to prosper despite my best attempts to eradicate it. Before long, I had not one but three accomplices. Sophia took it upon herself to weed our flower bed, Isaac picked up all the garden waste we created and put it in the compost and Eli…well he just pottered. But, and this is a big but, he didn’t hinder our work. He tried to help dig a little bit, he played with the dustpan and brush, he chattered away and generally was just content to be with us as we got on with the task in hand. A repeat of the situation this afternoon and all of a sudden, I’m feeling inspired again for our garden. Sophia and I are resolved to properly rid the gardens of weeds and hopefully plant some bulbs in the coming weeks for Spring. And now that I know he won’t be quite such a pest next year, I’m looking forward to growing some veggies again. You can’t beat a few hours working in the garden to rid everyone of cabin fever and feel productive and inspired. So here’s to a 2017 with gardens overflowing with bountiful produce and many happy hours spent getting there!

Garden update

Unfortunately, I can safely say that this year has been my worst ever gardening year (in my grand total of six years of green fingered adventures). A combination of the arrival of Elijah into our clan, blight, pests, and an uninspiring and limited garden are to blame I think. I’m feeling rather glum about it but not motivated enough to work out what I can do to salvage the rest of the growing year. But I’m hoping I can use this post as ‘therapy’ to work through the problems and find a solution so apologies in advance for the self indulgence!

I’ll start with some pictures and positives though, here’s what the gardens are looking like at the moment:

back garden
front garden

I can’t remember whether I mentioned already but as you can see we finally got around to laying some lawn in the back garden. I’m not going to lie, we did a shoddy job as we were rushing to get our bargainous and slightly yellowing rolls of turf (reduced to £1 each!) down before the rain fell. Consequently, it’s a fairly bumpy lawn but a lawn nonetheless. We only did one side on the premise that the other side would be covered with all the plants we’re growing but as that hasn’t been the most successful endeavour this year I am tempted to put some turf down on that side as well. Even just having a small stretch of grass has made a massive difference though. The kids go out there more, we’ve had lunches and dinners sat on the grass and there is somewhere to put Elijah whilst we’re outside pottering. So that’s a definite plus.

The front garden isn’t particularly exciting but is better than it was. The bed you can see is full of bedding flowers and just out of site are a few strawberry plants which while not abundant, have at least been producing some fruit. I had planted our Christmas tree in the gap you can see in the paving but it was obvious by February that it wasn’t going to survive and has spent the last 5 months getting slowly more and more brown, whilst losing all it’s needles. Embarassingly though, I only dug it up and cut it into pieces yesterday. Our garden is definitely the most untidy in our row! So now I’m thinking about what else I could put in the space – I like the idea of a little fruit tree, there are some nice lemon and orange trees in the garden centre so maybe I’ll try one of those. All my plans though are plagued with the small voice at the back of my head querying how much effort I want to put into a rented garden when it comes to things like trees that can’t necessarily be moved with us. I think the other voice that just wants a nicer (and less embarassingly messy) garden will probably win out though.

Other successes have been our potatoes as part of the Grow Your Own Potatoes competition (although we started eating them before I could take a picture of our modest haul – enough potatoes for perhaps half a dozen meals), peas briefly (until they all died for some reason) and salad (though it’s pretty hard to go wrong with salad!). Unfortunately though, that is the extent of our successful growing so far this year.

My tomato plants got blight, although weirdly the potatoes didn’t catch it. I tried cutting off the offending main branches but I didn’t catch it in time. I have one plant left that may or may not have escaped it – only time will tell. I’m assuming the pea plants caught it though as after their first crop they withered and died. The broad beans I was growing for the University of Sussex’s Beas and Beans project all got coated in minuscule black bugs or some sort of fungus so they’ve gone into the compost bin. The radishes are looking a bit out of control (is heady a gardening term?) and all my pepper plants got eaten. My cucumbers also didn’t survive past seedling stage. Sigh.

So what now? Elijah is obviously here, getting bigger and in some ways less demanding on our time and I’ve fully recovered from his birth so that’s not an obstacle to my gardening anymore. I can’t do much about the blight and bugs and we’re not going to be moving anytime soon so I’m stuck with the garden that we have, small and uninspiring may it be. So I guess I need to be content with what I have and try some new innovative ways of growing. I don’t think I’m too late to grow pumpkins and I have seeds from last year so maybe I’ll try and get them going soon. If anyone reading this knows what else I could start growing at this time of year please do let me know! Maybe I could try one of those pallet herb gardens that are all over pinterest!? Dan’s quite handy with the tools…

It’s been a bit of a lesson in humility, this growing season. I have been blessed with large, easy gardens for the last two years and before that we shared an allotment with friends so my haphazard style of gardening largely didn’t seem to adversely affect my crop come harvest time. Turns out that when growing on a smaller scale I should have been much more on the ball with pest control, watering and pruning. Maybe it’s something to do with everything being in pots rather than beds this year? I don’t know much about the theories behind permaculture but I remember reading about putting different plants together in order to stop pests (I want to say tomato and basil grow well together but I might have totally made that up!) so it kind of makes sense to me that plants would do better in the ground as well with a more varied nutrient source to use rather than just the compost I’ve put in the pots.

But I’ll chalk this up as a learning experience and just keep trying. In the meantime, I have a few lovely friends with big gardens who are happy for me to go and dig with them so that’ll keep my fingers green for this year whilst I try and reclaim my garden and prepare myself for a better growing season come 2016. What’s going on in your garden this year? Have you any wise words you can share with me? I love hearing from those patient enough to read my wild ramblings!

The feast on our doorstep

I’ve been away this weekend for my friend’s hen do.We all had an absolutely great time and are pretty exhausted now.

So, clubbing, L plates, high heels and feather boas? Not quite….we spent our weekend mostly making fire instead!

The hen herself doing the honours

The hen herself doing the honours

We took Jo to Plaw Hatch Farm near Forest Row in Sussex for a day of bushcraft and foraging followed by a BBQ and night under canvas. The weather couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to do (but then we had booked it for the same weekend as Glastonbury so that’s our fault right?!) but it mostly rained when we were under the cover of trees and more importantly was dry for the campfire in the evening and for packing up the next morning so I think we were pretty blessed in that regard.

We had a busy day learning about different ways to chop wood, build fires and light them, learning to weave baskets out of rushes (mine is now proudly being used to store our eggs in the kitchen), making a healing salve and taking part in a most interesting foraging walk during which we gathered plants for a salad, the main ingredient for our salve and made a delicious nettle and cleaver tea. In the evening we enjoyed a well earned break and celebrated with drinks, cake and plenty of BBQ-ed food as we sat round the fire that we had built ourselves. Most satisfying!





The bit that I really wanted to talk about though was the foraging walk. I’ve dabbled in using commonly grown plants for (mostly) edible purposes over the last year or two but my eyes were really opened to the absolute abundance of plants we can use and consume that grow all around us unbeknownst to most of us. We spoke about how we’re at a turning point and how important it is that this knowledge doesn’t get lost. It really enthused me to learn more about plants that we often ignore or dismiss as weeds. I’ve used elder for it’s flowers and berries, blackberries for jam and general eating and toyed with the idea of nettle but not taken it further than that. But crikey, I’ve been missing a lot!

For instance, I found out that nettle is a natural antihistamine and you can roll up the seeds into a little ball and eat them (actually quite tasty!) to help with allergies. Nettle is also a tasty leafy vegetable that you can use in soups and other dishes (cook as though you would spinach), it makes delicious tea and can help with ailments such as eczema, muscle aches and pains and asthma as well as allergies. We learnt that cleavers (the sticky plant that kids love to pick and stick on peoples back for fun) is great for the lymphatic system and you can brew a tea with it that can really soothe and help breastfeeding mothers suffering with mastitis.

We were shown how to strip down thistles and eat them (they were surprisingly delicious!), picked a salad made out of dock leaves, dandelion leaves, hawthorn (nicknamed cheese and bread because the whole plant is edible-a foragers delight!), wild mustard leaves, wild rose petals and clovers and identifyed plants such as the delicious smelling pineapple weed (a type of chamomile) and more that I can’t recall right now.

Finally, on our way back to the camp we were shown and picked plenty of plantain for our salve. When she said plantain we all looked and each other, slightly confused and thinking of bananas! She actually meant this, a common weed that I’ve seen all my life and been completely oblivious of. Recognise it?


Turns out that Plantain is incredibly useful as a healing plant. It apparently has a ‘drawing out’ quality so is great for stings, burns, bites and grazes. If you have toothache and are waiting to see the dentist we were told that chewing some of it and putting it next to the tooth in question can really help with the pain. What an amazing plant! We went back to the campsite and simmered the leaves with a little oil in a bain-marie before melting some beeswax, adding some lavender oil and pouring into little tubs so we all had a tub of cure all salve to take away with us!

I just couldn’t believe how many plants there were just on a short walk that we could eat, drink or use for medicinal purposes. Nature really is amazing! I think in future I’d be much more inclined to try some natural, herbal or plant remedies before resorting to manmade medicine. Obviously being able to accurately identify what you’re picking is important but there is a lot of information available online, plenty of books you can buy (especially field ones that you can take with you) and if you’re really feeling a bit cautious you can book a foraging course with someone so you can get to grips with some of the basics.

I would really really recommend thinking a bit more about what is growing in your garden or our country lanes and the potential of using them. I was quite nervous about eating some of the plants and especially drinking the nettle tea but I am absolutely 100 percent convinced. Nature has provided us with some amazing plants to help us and feed us and providing we’re respectful in our gathering, I think we owe it to her to use them and pass on the knowledge before it all gets forgotten.