Ebb and Flow

(Little late this one I’m afraid but I still liked it enough to post it late!)

Even if you don’t make a conscious effort to mark or celebrate the summer solstice or equinox, you are probably aware that the longest day of the year was last week, a signal that we are almost exactly half way through the year. If you are anything like me, you are probably enjoying the light-filled evenings (although perhaps not the early starts quite as much – my youngest seems to be a little bit like a farmer, rising with the sun…which at 5am is just a bit too early for me at the moment!) My evenings have been fairly languid and lazy, I’ve been going for evening walks with friends, watering the parched plants at the allotment and generally fully embracing this time of year.

However, it has taken me a little while to fully acknowledge the natural ebb and flow effect that the seasons have on other areas of our lives. Recently I’ve been fretting that the kids haven’t been doing enough ‘sit-down’ work and that we have been spending a lot more time outside, in nature and on organised home education day trips. It took me a while to remember that this happens every year and for us, is just part of our normal academic rhythm. Each winter, when the weather is unwelcoming and hostile, I throw them outside for Forest School once a week and then we spend the rest of our time hibernating and engaged in quite a lot of project-based work and more traditional academic learning. At some point in the winter I start to worry that I’ve overloading them with information and that we might be doing too much and then usually these worries are put on pause by the Christmas holidays.

As the weather improves each Spring though, our ratio of indoor to outdoor learning seems to slowly swing the other way and by late June I am worrying about our lack of time spent indoors at the table! Remembering this has filled me with relief and also allowed me to fully enjoy spending as much time as possible outdoors whilst the weather is still fine. So we’ve been at the allotment enjoying soft fruit season this morning, we’re off to Tiverton Museum for a field trip tomorrow and our regular hall-based group on Thursday is temporarily moving to the beach to make the most of the heatwave whilst it’s still here.

This realisation has been a reminder of two things for me. Firstly that learning can take so many different forms; the kids can learn through hands-on maths whilst we’re pottering at the plot or at the beach, through discovery at Forest School of new plant or animal specimens, can develop their physical skills through outdoors sports and can work on their social skills almost constantly through the people we meet. Secondly, that there is so much to be gained from observing the seasonal changes around us and not fighting against the opportunities they present. So this week, I’d encourage you to take any opportunity you can to get outside and be in nature, soaking up the sun or perhaps relaxing in the shade, before Wimbledon brings with it the inevitable week of summer rain (although at least the gardeners will be grateful)!

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Plans from the Plot

It’s been a while since I’ve bored you all senseless with my green fingered musings so I thought now that Spring is possibly, finally here it was about time to make some public plans for the 2018 growing season. I woke up rather early this morning after a long (22.5 miles) training run on Dartmoor yesterday with Dad and the first thought that popped into my head wasn’t an assessment on which part of my body hurt the most but rather a bit of a panic that it is approaching mid-April and we have nothing growing up at the plot! Or to be precise, nothing that we have planted growing at the plot…weeds however, there are plenty.

I’ve been buying seeds here and there but with the snow and various other factors, hadn’t got round to actually planting any of them! We stopped at a local garden centre this afternoon in the hopes of picking up some strawberry seedlings (cheating I know but time is of the essence!) and potatoes but were thwarted by their lack of card payment facilities. I had to make do with a vigorous weeding session this afternoon as I mentally penciled in what I was going to start planting, when and where. But now the majority of the beds are ready for planting with hops dug in, I’ve got a big bag of seed compost and half a dozen different types of seeds. So first thing tomorrow, me and the kids are going to get the seeds sown and on windowsills and hopefully before the week is out we’ll start to see the first shoots of green gradually emerging from the dark soil beneath.

In an effort to engage the children more fully with the allotment this year I told them they could choose one fruit or vegetable each to grow and be fully in charge of that. Sophia chose peas, Eli can’t seem to decide between tomatoes or our pear tree (although that’s not really something that requires any work) and Isaac pulled the wild card with watermelons. I told him firmly that they don’t grow in England before spotting some seeds in Lidl and to his delight we’re going to give them a go. I’ve supplemented these choices with cucumbers, spaghetti squash, basil and tomatoes and we’ll be getting the aforementioned potatoes, strawberries and hopefully some carrots, peppers and beans as soon as I have cash in my wallet when I’m passing Plants Galore!

I’m sure my co-worker has even more plans as well so I’m looking forward to seeing what is successful and hopefully having a gloriously abundant season of growing our own this year. We also need to sort out our pond which is still resembling a muddy pool of water rather than a haven for wildlife and we desperately need a new shed as ours is, quite literally, falling down. So lot’s to do but I’m not feeling overwhelmed; more excited by the challenge ahead and spending more time outdoors, especially with the promise of doing so in the sun!

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!