Thursday 25 February 2010

Our Garden; A History: Part 5

One of the first things we wanted to do in the garden was put up new fences. The old ones had holes and were falling apart at the bottoms. And with big plans of training fruit trees up at the back and having rows of raspberries up the sides, we needed to sort the fences out earlier rather than later.

First up we needed to work out what fences and posts to order. We are responsible for the back and the right side fences. At the back we had 5ft fences but at the side we had a range of 3ft to 5ft panels. Plus there's a slope at the side, so that the smaller fences seemed even lower and the taller fences even higher. We wanted to reverse this, to make the fence look fairly level across the tops of the panels.

So first up I took out a tape measure and a spirit level and Garden Girl helped me draw a scale drawing of the site. This meant I could really see where the garden was flat and where it sloped and how many of each panel size I needed to order. I could also see where I'd need to use some extra gravel boards on the really steep bit.

I decided to order all the bits from a garden centre although if I were doing it now I'd consider a timber merchant as trekking to the shop to order it was a bit of a pain. On the other hand I was able to return some bits that I hadn't used. And the Garden centre does sell all the screws and such.

On the day of the build, Grandad South and Uncle M came to help out. My memory of what happened next is pretty fuzzy but I'm pretty sure I took down the old fences while they drank some tea and ate some of Grandad South's famous rock cakes.

At the back, the previous owners had a special removable panel. Maybe so they could put a caravan on to the lawn. Anyway, this meant that they'd "taken out" a half sized post by smashing it into the ground with a sledge hammer. Of course, that meant we had to remove what was left before we could put in a new post.

Most of the rest was fairly easy. At the back we attached wooden posts to the mini-concrete posts that were already secured in the ground from the previous fence. And at the side we concreted wooden posts about a foot deep into the soil. By the end of the day we had all the panels up and some of the gravel boards too.

I started to do some more of the gravel boards a few weeks later but Garden Mum decided to go into labour instead and completing the gravel boards remains, nearly two years later, a note on our jobs list.

Monday 22 February 2010

Catching a Moment

It is snowing once more, so I am very pleased that yesterday we managed to catch a moment in the garden.

Before getting started we checked on the worms and decided not to feed them for a while. They still have a lot to work through. I think we were adding food to fast to start with. The wormery came with some bedding which also served as food so we probably need slow down a little bit until some of that has been gobbled up. The worms are no longer trying to escape though, so they are obviously feeling more at home now.

Then we got down to the real work; planting the last batch of broad beans. We did our first batch at the beginning of the sowing season with the intention of sowing successionally every couple of weeks, but good intentions went awry and now it is the end of the sowing season and until yesterday we hadn't returned to sow more. So yesterday we sowed a second and final batch of seeds to give a second harvest later in the season. Our Little Garden Helpers were eager and helpful and they were both happy to pop seeds in holes and cover them up. The ground was wet so the soil was soft, making the conditions ideal for sowing seeds in our usually hard soil.

Then we harvested a good selection of vegetables we had left in the ground over winter, including some spindly leeks, some lovey turnips and swedes, and a fresh, healthy looking selection of greens. They will make a lovely winter stew for dinner tonight to warm us up after playing in the snow. I also pulled up the last of the beetroots, which I should have done long before now. I will cook a few for tonights dinner and then pickle the rest. So at least whilst the snow has returned we can enjoy eating, if not planting, our vegetables.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Our Garden; A History: Part 4

Our attempts to get out into the garden have once again been thwarted, this time due to our Little Garden Helpers both suffering the high temperatures, rotten coughs and aching limbs associated with very bad chest infections. I am very much hoping that this slow start in the garden since Christmas will be followed by a very active spring and does not reflect the way things will be for the rest of the year. In the meantime however, I thought it would be a good time to return to the history of our garden.

At my last installment of Our garden; A History, it was June 2008 and Garden Dad, Grandad South and Uncle M had just completed our new fences. Garden Dad assures me that in the next few weeks he will write a post all about how they acheived this but as he is currently painting our kitchen I will not be pestering him too much; yet.

Just days after the fences were completed, Garden Dad was busy fitting the gravel boards while Garden Girl and I were sitting in the sunshine eating homemade ice-lollies and I started to feel contractions. Garden Boy was on his way and just 7 hours later he was born. We never quite finished the gravel boards and while working in the garden took a back seat for a few months our neighbour plugged the gaps with bricks which have remained there ever since. Although the desire to have our own vegetable garden remained strong, we agreed to take a break for a while and enjoy the garden without the work. For two months, the nearest we came to a vegetable garden was looking after our friends courgettes when they went on holiday.

It was August before we started on the hard work again and with renewed energy Garden Dad pulled up some paving stones, took out his pick axe and started to smash his way through the concrete at the bottom of the garden. This revealed a rubble filled pit that had once been a concrete lined sandpit so after all the rubble infill had been piled up beside the shed there was more concrete to smash through. When it was finished we had a newly revealed patch of soil ready for the raised beds we were to build and a mountain of concrete, rubble and broken paving slabs piled up next to the shed which remained there as a monument to Garden Dad's hard work until 2009 when a new year finally urged us to get rid of it all and make room for a greenhouse.

Clearing the concrete and rubble was just the start of preparing the ground however, so we roped in some help from Grandad South to remove some of the lawn and level the ground where we wanted to build the raised beds. Garden Girl thorougly enjoyed helping out with the digging and quickly settled into her role as 'site supervisor' which she has held onto ever since!

With the digging done, all we had to do was build the raised beds and we would be ready to start 'growing our own' the following spring, but that is a post in itself so for now I will leave you stamping in the soil with muddy boots.

Friday 12 February 2010

Imagine a Garden

Whenever I suggest we go out into the garden, Garden Boy does an excited dance from foot to foot, pointing through the window and saying 'apple tree, apple tree'. Each time I must point out that we have already planted the trees and now we have to wait a long time for the apples to grow. His response to this is 'apple tree, apple tree'. I asked him earlier in the week if he wanted to go and look at them or plant more and he said he wanted to plant more. I suggested we plant something else, like broad beans, herbs or cress but he just pouted and said 'no, apple tree.' If he could, he would fill the garden with apple trees. This conversation inspired me to sit down with our Little Garden Helpers and imagine their perfect garden. When we had talked about it we made a picture to show what it would look like. And here it is;

Garden Boy wanted a garden full of apple trees, which was a perfect accompaniment to the garden full of bluebells desired by Garden Girl, so she could become 'Bluebell Fairy'. Bluebell Fairy needed a blue seat in the sun, with strawberries and banana's near by to eat. I can only assume Garden Boy will be eating the apples. They were unanimous in the request for a rainbow, with sun but no rain. In my own mind this means that it will always just have rained, so as the sun dries the flowers, there will be a beautiful scent in the air as we wander amongst the trees. Garden Boy also wanted lots of bumble bees and Garden Girl wanted blue butterflies. A shout of 'pink' from Garden Boy also added some pink butterflies to the final, beautiful garden, where I would love to spend an afternoon wandering amongst the trees and bluebells, before sitting in the sunny glade (beside the strawberry patch of course) reading a book and drinking lemonade while our Little Garden Helpers play hide and seek amongst the trees.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

LOB by Linda Newbery; A Review and an Interview

When Random House Children’s books offered me a free copy of Linda Newbery’s new book ‘LOB’, to review I was thrilled. I will readily admit to being a big fan of fiction for young adults and older children and I was already familiar with some of Newbery’s previous novels. LOB is aimed at the slightly younger audience of age 5-7, however this did not put me off as I knew from past experience the quality of Newbery’s writing. LOB did not disappointment and it is a genuine pleasure to be able to share the book with you.

LOB tells the story of Lucy, a young girl who has a special relationship with her grandfather, from whom she learns her love of gardening. She also shares a secret with her grandfather; Lob. Lob is a green man who helps out in the garden, filling up watering cans and removing slugs and snails. He stays where he is needed the most and is glimpsed but not fully seen, only by those exceptional few who really believe. Lucy and her Grandfather are just two of these people. When Lob is no longer needed he wanders the roads, scattering seeds and helping things grow as he searches for his next special place to stay.

LOB is a gentle, effortless read, yet despite this, the story is intertwined with some difficult issues for young children, which Newbery deals with very sensitively and appropriately for the intended audience, including the death of a loved relation and the destruction of our green spaces through urban development. Whilst driving the story forward these issues however do not in any way mask the main thread of the book, which is the story of Lob, the magical Green Man. It is an enchanting story which engaged me from the outset and despite the sometimes sad elements, it is an uplifting book, beautifully written and accompanied by the charming illustrations of Pam Smy.

You do not have to be between the ages of 5-7 to read and enjoy it. It is for anyone and although some of the issues would have been too much for my three year old I did share with her, in my own words, the story of Lob, the Green Man, an idea she was enchanted by. So if you are looking for a book to inspire you before spring and give you a little nudge back out into the garden, this will have you shaking out your gardening gloves and rushing to the garden centre for a packet of seeds.

Linda Newbery was also kind enough to answer some of my questions about LOB, the answers to which you can read below.
  • The idea of a magical green man helping out in the garden is very appealing. What inspired you to create the character of Lob?
The idea came partly from a poem by Edward Thomas called LOB, and partly from a man I used to see walking along a main road, with his belongings in a carrier bag. In the days when I worked part-time as a teacher, I used to drive down an A-road several times each week, and quite often passed an old man walking along the verge. He wore boots, shabby trousers and an old hooded raincoat, and all he had with him was a carrier-bag; I assumed he was a gentleman of the road, to use an old term, or a tramp, and that he had all his possessions in that bag. He always walked at the same unhurried pace, whatever the weather. He wasn’t hitching a lift; he took no interest in the passing traffic. He was walking. Where was he heading? Where did he sleep? How did he find food? I didn’t know, and I still don’t.

In my mind this man became associated with a poem by Edward Thomas which I knew well: LOB, in which the Lob-figure is a conflation of traditional figures – Herne the Hunter, Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Man, Lob-lie-by-the-fire – walking through the countryside in various guises throughout time. The man I saw seemed to be a kind of emblem of the slow pace of country life, growth, the rhythm of the seasons, alongside the rush and busyness of workday traffic; he might have walked like that a hundred years ago, or six hundred, or hundreds of years into the future. Soon I began dreaming about Lob, and knew that a story was on its way.
  • The book raises a number of difficult issues for young readers in a very sensitive way, from dealing with the death of a loved relation, to looking at how our green areas are being destroyed by urban development. Had you decided to write a book which touches on these issues before you developed the story or did they arise as you wrote the story?
No, I hadn’t decided to write about these issues – I don’t like to think of my books as issues-dominated.  I just started with the idea of Lob as a garden helper, and then about the people who are special to him. And of course there had to be a separation of some kind.
  • You are obviously a keen gardener yourself. Is this a passion developed in your childhood or is it something you came to later?
I did enjoy gardening as a child – though rather spasmodically! At one time I had a little patch of garden of my own, and later I remember being absorbed in a gardening book, wanting to make a rock garden and saving up for alpine plants. But really it’s taken off since I had my own home, and garden. Gardening is a great accompaniment to writing, too – many a time I’ve worked out a plot details while pruning or potting.
  • What is your favourite place in your garden?
There’s an arbour where I can sit reading or writing – in the top corner of the garden, out of sight of the house. On the fence there I have a Green Man carving. I promised myself that if I got a contract for LOB I would commission a carving from a local stonemason, and I found the perfect craftsman – Bernard Johnson – to make it for me. I can look at my Green Man from the desk in my hut, and he’s acquired a superstitious importance to my writing.
  • The relationship between Lucy and her Grandfather is an important one in the book. Is this reflective of your own relationship with a Grandparent?
Grandpa in the story isn’t based on either of my grandfathers, but I did have very good relationships with all my grandparents, as I think a lot of children do. Christmas at my Nan’s house was part of my childhood, and I also liked it when I stayed on my own with either set of grandparents. I very clearly remember playing in the garden of my maternal grandparents, which had a shed and a swing seat – the garden must have been very small, but it seemed enormous to me as a child.
  • I love the idea of someone walking along the roads, scattering seeds as they go. Have you ever sprinkled seeds or planted something somewhere secretly to cheer up a roadside or bring a bit of greenery into an otherwise grey area?
Yes, I used to do something which I now know was irresponsible – pinching the seed-pods of Himalayan Balsam (or Policeman’s Helmet, as I knew it) to make them spray seeds into the air, or sometimes putting the pods in my pocket to burst them later, in the garden at home. It’s widely known now that this plant, attractive though it may be, is invasive, especially along the banks of streams and rivers. So I don’t do it any more – even though the seed-pods are hard to resist.
  • Although Lucy’s story and the loss of her Grandfather was too old to share with my three year old daughter I did share the story of Lob with her and she was enchanted with the idea. With the lovely illustrations of Pam Smy I think the more simplified story of Lob could easily capture the imagination of toddlers and be turned into a beautiful picture book. Is this something you would consider in the future?
That is a lovely idea. Picture books are so fascinating, and it’s an aspect of writing I’ve only just begun to explore. It’s a far more difficult challenge than a lot of people realise – but I certainly do like the idea of another story about Lob, in this form.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Staying Away from Home

It is hard work spending a whole week avoiding your own house. While our builder has been working in our kitchen I have been keeping our Little Garden Helpers away from the dust and wet plaster, entertaining them elsewhere all day, every day. Some of our lovely friends willingly offered us warmth, food, toys and hours of entertainment. Garden Boy also got to spend a morning with his sister at playgroup while I carried out my 'helping mummy' duties. We have visited the library, the playground, the craft shop and the soft play centre and indulged in Pizza Hut's 'All you can eat ice cream factory'.

It is strange, because our days are usually filled with lots of activities, but the ability to come home for lunch and a cup of coffee obviously makes a big difference to how quickly my batteries are recharged. Staying away from the house has also meant staying away from the garden, so the week passed by without a single hour spent out there. Only the worms were given brief visits to deliver food.

The weekend arrived and we made a trip to visit Garden Cousin, who was celebrating his first birthday and the presence of energetic Auntie's and Uncle's to entertain our Little Garden Helpers gave me some much needed relaxation. We have been doing some DIY today in the hope that we can paint this week and our Little Garden Helpers will have their toys back downstairs as quickly as possible, so the garden has again been sidelined. But with my batteries recharged I am looking forward to the week ahead and the chance to get back out there. I have some seed packets sitting at the ready and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some mild weather.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Review: JoJo Maman Bebe Packaway Waterproof Dungarees

When Garden Boy took his first steps out into the snow this year it was only moments before he was in tears and demanding to be picked up. The snow was too deep for him and as soon as it fell down his wellies and soaked through his trousers he was no longer having fun. Garden Girl's dissappointment at having to abandon her snowman half finished and with only one eye, encouraged me to look for some weatherproof trousers for our Little Garden Helpers.

The trouble was that I knew how difficult it would be to wrestle them into the all-in-one waterproof suits that many of their friends wear, so I was initially looking for weatherproof trousers. Then I came across these lovely waterproof dungarees at JoJo Maman Bebe and was thrilled when they agreed to send me some to test and review and we all love them. 

We have thoroughly tested them, wearing them first at Whipsnade Zoo where the wind and cold at this time of year are always a force to be reckoned with. Taking Garden Girl on a walk in a cold wind usually ends in tears, as once she has started to really feel the cold she loses her enthusiasm for walking and simply wants to get back home as quickly as possible. The dungarees made a huge difference. They claim to be windproof and I think that Garden Girl would agree that they are.  She only started to ask about returning to the car when she removed her gloves to eat her grapes and her hands got cold. Her legs and bottom, she assured me were still warm.

We have also made a trip to the playground in them, done some gardening and been puddle splashing and on all occassions we were very impressed. We went to the playground with some friends, returning to their house afterwards for coffee and it was much easier to just take off the wet, muddy dungarees than search around for a complete change of outfit at someone else's house. They also fold up small, packing away into a built in pocket, so they don't take up too much room in the changing bag and as a result I now take them out with me every day, ready for any impromptu muddy puddle walks. And unlike some 'pack-away' garments on the market, the pocket is hidden when the dungarees are worn, rather than being visible on the back or front of the dungarees. The pocket actually sits snugly inside the front of the dungarees and our Little Garden Helpers love their 'secret pockets'. Garden Boy, who has recently started stuffing things down the front of his t-shirts and vests to carry them around is thrilled to have somewhere to put things where they won't eventually reappear from the bottom of his trousers, while Garden Girl has somewhere to keep her hair clips safe when she inevitably takes them out. They will also be a fabulous place for our Little Garden Helpers to keep seed packets safe in spring when they are sowing their vegetables.

I think the dungaree style is better than the all-in-ones because they will still be able to wear them over the top of a lightweight jumper or t-shirt later in the year when the weather is warmer, to help with the muddy gardening, or to puddle splash on wet, but warm summer days. And lets face it, we have a lot of those! At this time of year, their winter coats fit well over the top to keep them warm, while the dungarees keep their legs dry and warm. Garden Girl at 3 years 4 months fits the 3-4 year size well, with plenty of room for growth, so there is no doubt they will still fit in summer, while Garden Boy at 20 months was too big for the 18-24 month size which just didn't have the leg length to fit him even now. The age 2-3 dungarees however fit well, so I would recommend for the smaller sizes perhaps looking at the next size up for your little ones.

The dungarees also unclip on the shoulders very easily, so for a toddler who urgently needs the toilet, they are a lot more practical than the all-in-ones. On an urgent 'roadside call of nature' it was even possible to unclip the dungarees from under Garden Girl's coat without her having to get cold. In summer the extra coverage provided by the dungarees, rather than waterproof trousers, will be useful when we go paddling in the river and our Little Garden Helpers  sit down on a submerged rock to rest! The trousers even tuck snugly into wellies with elastic around the feet to stop the trousers riding back up so they no longer walk around with one leg tucked into the welly, while the other trouser leg hangs over the top.

If your little ones like the outdoor life then these really are an excellent product and stylish too. Garden Girl and Garden Boy love the flower and boat designs on their dungarees, although I have to admit Garden Boy wanted the one with pink roses, while Garden Girl wanted the blue one with boats!

Monday 1 February 2010

A Missing Wall and Fruit Trees

This weekend we had to empty everything out of the living room, kitchen and hallway to allow the builders in to knock down a wall and make a small amount of extra space in the kitchen. Garden Girl enjoyed the excitement of it all, although I don't think she really believed us when we said the builder would be knocking down a wall. When we returned from our day out today to find a wall missing she exclaimed in surprise 'Oh, the builder REALLY DID knock down the wall!' Garden Girl and Garden Boy then ran around in excited circles until dinner was ready, suprisingly occupied by empty space, rather than toys. Garden Boy hadn't initially been quite as impressed by our weekend activities, as he watched his toys disappear upstairs box by box. Eventually be stood at the bottom of the stairs shouting 'Back, Back, Back'.

Both our Little Garden Helpers, however, were more than enthusiastic to head into the garden and help plant our new apple trees and temporarily pot our gooseberrys, redcurrants, whitecurrants and raspberries.

Although it was cold, it was very sunny and it was lovely to have an excuse to leave the building preparations alone for a few hours and get back to the garden. Fully occupied with tree planting, filling watering cans with compost, pouring compost out of newly filled plant pots, watering newly planted trees and finally uprooting newly planted trees, our Little Garden Helpers didn't have time to think about cold fingers and we all remembered why we have so much so fun in the garden. There will be no holding us back now.