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!

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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!

Spring has Sprung

Last year’s daffodils have just flowered in our rather forlorn front garden this week, adding a welcome splash of colour among the dull greys and browns. They may been flattened almost immediately by the recent storms but nonetheless, I’m counting their appearance, along with an increase in birdsong outside our bedroom window in the early hours, as a confirmation of the arrival of spring.  After what has felt like a particularly long winter, I’m looking forward to spending much more time outside and to escaping the four walls we’ve been stuck in before cabin fever well and truly sets in.

I am also looking forward to making a proper go out of growing our own fruit and veg this year. Although we have done so successfully many times in the past in other houses, our last two growing seasons here have been a bit of a failure. Pregnancy, a baby, territorial cats and a garden flooded with sewage were just some of the reasons that contributed to this.  However, I’m feeling confident that this year is our year! So today we unpacked our herb garden kit from the RHS to explore what we’d been given and put up their bright cheery posters, got some tomato seeds planted and generally made some plans about what we want to do and grow this year.

I was almost persuaded by Isaac to buy a lemon and orange tree from Aldi but managed to resist, rationalising that I should make proper plans before starting to buy things spontaneously. Dan had the genius idea of getting a little greenhouse, nothing fancy, to protect our plants from children, cats and birds alike. I’ve spotted one I like and have started planning what the shelves will be full of. Tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, salad, herbs, peas, sweet potato, squash, onions, garlic, broccoli and raspberries have made the (ambitious) cut so far but no doubt I’ll be persuaded to try one or two other things as well. No doubt also my more sensible other half will gently point out that I can’t fit all of that into the greenhouse and I’ll have to prioritise. But still, it’s good to dream big eh?

Apart from the satisfaction of not having to buy it from the shops and the fact that it tastes so much better, my favourite thing about growing our own is how much it engages the kids. They already love being outside so need little persuasion to get involved when I head out to garden. Sophia and Isaac are both very capable at basic gardening tasks and eager to help and I imagine that Elijah will be much the same this year. (The worried home-edder in me also loves that I can tick off science and maths in the process!) So why not pop to your garden centre with your small folk this weekend and get them to help you pick some seeds and do some growing of your own this spring?

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!

E+E Column: ​’Just try it, you might like it…’

This evening I managed to sneak a whole head of cabbage into our tomato and lentil soup without the kids noticing, or more importantly, complaining. It got me thinking though…why are kids universally so weird when it comes to food? With a few exceptions and the odd very specific dislike, most adults I know are very open minded when it comes to trying new foods and are amenable to a wide variety of foods. Every child I know, in contrast, is either very limited in what foods they will eat, are adverse to trying new foods or have gone through a fussy period that has now passed. 
It’s been the subject of countless books, articles and discussions on parenting forums and seems to be an issue that has plagued parents for generations; for once, not a new phenomena. But why? I can understand a certain reluctance to eat when they’ve been interrupted mid-play or when they have friends around. For a small person, there are a lot of things that must seem a lot more exciting than eating. But then when they are hungry, why is there often such resistance? 

At first I thought it might be a throwback from evolution, perhaps their gut instinct is to stick with what works. If they know what foods they like, what makes them feel full up, what helps them grow, perhaps they don’t want to deviate and try something unknown that might make them feel ill or not nourish them? But then perhaps (probably!) I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps it merely comes down to issues of maturity and control. So much of a child’s life is controlled and organised by their parents, food is possibly the one area where they feel that they can claw back some control. No matter how much cajoling, admonshing and bribing a parent delivers…ultimately, the child is the only one who can choose what they let pass their lips. As adults, we are able to choose what we prepare for our meals but rarely do we let children choose for themselves with the exception of sandwich filling or cereals. It must be pretty frustrating to have to eat what you are given, even if you don’t fancy it and to not be able to choose what you want to eat. Even worse when your parent presents you with something you’ve never eaten before that looks a bit odd…

I love getting a weekly veg box but it does sometimes present problems as I struggle to creatively serve some rather obscure veggies in a manner that the kids will accept. For the record, Sophia does not like kohlrabi fritters, neither of them particularly like chard pie and everyone (myself included) struggled with roast oca’s (a small knobbly tuber)! I’ve finally concluded that the best approach is to prepare a mix of familiar and unfamiliar meals over the course of a week, to try and always have something on the plate that I know they’ll like and most importantly, just to relax. At the end of the day, they’re not going to starve and if they don’t like takeaway curries or roast lamb quite yet, I’m sure they’ll grow to like them one day and for now that just means more for me!