Green Fingers

gardening, growing and outdoor fun

A Scented Christmas

At this point in the year, you can bet that Martha will have baked her Christmas Cake, completed festive gift shopping not only for her nearest-and-dearest but also for those unexpected guests who may drop in over the holiday season. Mulled wine is probably even now gently steeping on the Stewart household stove, and the turkey is gobbling a little more anxiously than last week. No such preparations are afoot chez nous; we are tardy as ever. Only Harry is our constant reminder that Christmas is not so far away, as his anticipation builds about the arrival of ‘Farmer Christmas’ (something may have been lost in translation there, but I do like the mental picture of Santa arriving on a large muddy tractor).

The one thing I have done today is plant up some bulbs to ensure that the house is full of festive colour and the intoxicating smells of winter hyacinth and paperwhites….

I love the process of choosing the bulbs; visiting the garden centre and filling a large brown paper bag with handfuls of these rustling bundles of promise.  This year I’ve chosen hyacinths of shades of delft blue and rich purples, which I’ll combine with white, silver and wood tones when decorating at home.  I’ve planted some in glass forcing jars so that Harry and I can watch the roots reaching out for the water and see the process of growth and flowering happen at close hand.

We carefully carried these into the dark coolness of the garage where they’ll sit for a few weeks until the tips are about 1.5 inches long, when we’ll bring them inside to flourish and scent the hallway.

Paperwhites exude a more subtle scent and love company, so I added a handful of these to a simple tin basin, tips just above the soil, before consigning them to the dark alongside the hyacinths.  We filled just about every available container with bulbs; they’re so cheap and plentiful, and their beauty distracts from the fact that they’re housed in old tin cans, mugs, mismatched flowerpots and jars (and besides, this was just never going to be a home where stuff matches, let’s agree..).

When we take to the woods this weekend on our usual expedition to hunt for bears (we more often find the ice cream van and the swings, but Harry remains hopeful), we will also be spotting places for the best mistletoe and holly berries, so that in the midst of one cold December morning we can nip out and gather some for our Christmas table.  This may be both the beginning and end of my Christmas preparations for now, but at least we’re off the starting blocks…

First Harvest

I wrote here about the moment in April when Harry and I caught Spring Fever and had an exuberant flurry of planting fruit and vegetables, before collapsing exhausted on the lawn with a stiff drink (of milk, naturally).  We are complete amateurs, seduced by the adverts in the garden centre which promise abundant produce from phoenix-like plants which thrive on neglect and rise from the dead every time.  Harry’s selection process involved choosing the brightest coloured packets which were reachable at knee-height, and that seemed as good a plan as any to me. It’s fair to say we put our feisty seedlings and their hardiness to the test, as did the British weather – the amount of floods and hailstorms we’ve had in recent weeks would suggest to the Biblically-minded that eternal damnation is quite possibly just around the corner.

Still, today we harvested our first crops and have held a small judging ceremony to score our efforts.  We have been generally tough on ourselves but start with the stand-out winners, our beautiful, abundant sugar snap peas.  Or perhaps I should just say peas; they grew way beyond sugar-snapping size and are now cheery fat pods bursting with perky peas. We’re very proud.

Our second crop was courgettes.  Everyone warned me that courgettes grow in the blink of an eye and that gardeners the world over will roll their eyes and tell you of the glut they always experience, and their weariness of having to cook courgette 50 different ways to try to run down their stocks.  It is thus with some embarassment that I confess we have managed to grow just one courgette.  One, Uno, Solo.  And that one is approximately the length of Harry’s finger, and only slightly wider.  It is perfectly formed, but insufficient for a meal, unless perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow was coming for dinner. We give ourselves 6 out of 10.

Chantenay carrots were my secret favourite crop; I pictured rustling up a bowl of them for Sunday lunch en famille, where they would glint under a knob of melting butter and look radiant and perfectly formed, yet just earthy and organic enough for it to be clear they were not from a supermarket.  Well, of all these goals we seem to have achieved only the latter; there aint no doubt that our carrots are not shop-bought….

Still, who needs to eat carrots when you can give them false eyes and name them individually? (this one above is The Lobster, by the way…).  We may not be close to winning any beauty prizes for our efforts, but we’re having a lot of fun growing them…

Outside in.

As we restore our crumbling, ancient home I’m continually drawn to natural materials and a muted palette, be it the newly laid wooden floors, the kiln-dried accent logs we’ve stacked high around our wood-burning stove, or the stone fireplaces we’ve sourced from reclamation yards.  I recently papered Harry’s room in this beautiful winter Woods wallpaper from Cole & Son, aiming to create the aura of a nighttime forest, with a soft canopy of fairy lights. This week’s project was to create a tree stump bedside table (finished article above) on which toys, storybooks and a glass of water can perch whilst he sleeps.

Image courtesy of Cole & Son

To make the table I ventured down to the log pile at the end of our garden, home to every invertebrate known to man (including – mortifyingly – some which jump…) I’d love to boast that I fearlessly hefted a few likely logs into my wagon and strolled casually back, but in truth I wimped out and rustled up my husband to do the dirty work whilst I mutely pointed at the logs I wanted with a trembling finger, from the safety of the patio.

I chose a couple of level, even logs and let them dry out in the sunshine for a couple of days before chipping off loose bark and sanding until smooth.  This latter stage sounds deceptively swift; in reality it’s relentless and dull and likely to cause your arm to go numb and induce temporary deafness. Still, it’s worth it (sort of).  Once your log is really smooth, the final stage was to wax it; I mixed up 3 parts natural liquid wax (wood oil will work fine) to 1 part white emulsion, and applied two coats to give it this soft warm glow.

So now my first log project is complete and has pride of place by Harry’s bed, and his room is almost complete.  The memory of the spiders, sanding, paint fumes and the sheer weight of the finished table as I dragged it upstairs are rapidly beginning to fade, and I’m already pondering what to attempt next… here are 3 gorgeous projects from elsewhere around the web which caught my eye; hmmm, which to choose?

Log pencil holder from

amazing log sofa from

Log candles from

Sunshine Projects!

When Harry whips out his shades (albeit upside down), you know that Summer is right around the corner, and some outdoor project planning is called for. In anticipation of a heady season of outdoor living and loveliness – fortunately optimism comes naturally to us both – we now have a sunshine project list that is beyond our wildest capabilities. Still, dreaming alone is intoxicating stuff…here’s a few of the things that made our Top Ten:

Inspired by a hotel we stayed at last Summer in the beautiful Guia D’Isora region of Tenerife, these  pebble curtains would look stunning on a terrace or even inside in a bathroom – we’re collecting interesting stones in preparation…

Simple concrete or terracotta pots add an on-trend colour pop to the garden when sprayed in neon technicolour; the use here as an accent works more powerfully than a top-to-toe dousing; we’ll be trying this for sure next weekend.

Despite the hosepipe ban sweeping Britain after just one week of sunshine, I’m determined that we’ll have our own carwash up and running by August, catering for all the neighbourhood scooters, ride-ons and tricycles…

And when we’ve worked our way through some of those, we’ll kick back with a bowlful of these beauties; after all, frozen yoghurt and fruit has got to be good for you, right..?

And all of these of course will be in addition to our Great Sunflower Race, launched here; if you planted a seed too, ping me a photo or link with your progress and we’ll have a race pitstop to check who’s germinated, who is racing ahead and who has yet to pop through the soil – bate your breath! It’s not too late to join in, though illegal stimulants might need to be added to your watering can to ensure any late entrants catch up…

Photo credits: Neon pots via  Carwash via

Feathered Afternoon tea

The sun is shining at last and the birds are chirping gaily in the trees, the Biblical torrents of rain a distant memory.  Let’s draw a veil around the fact that the chirping tends to begin at around 5am in the particularly large tree right next to our bedroom window, and be grateful for small things.  Still, action is called for; Harry tends to make the most noise when he is hungry, so applying the same logic to our dawn chorus I have set about constructing these tea cup feeders (below).

I saw a version of this idea here and fell in love; ever since I’ve been scooping up random bits of china from charity shops (I also use them in cake stands like my one here, and to make pretty filled candles).  Leftover spindles and paint from our house restoration provided the other parts – though old broom handles or curtain poles would work great too, particularly for larger cups.  Paint the spindles, glue cup to saucer and saucer to spindle and hey-presto! a bird feeder.  Not just any feeder at that, but a chic and tasteful one that can be painted to contrast with (or coordinate with) your garden.  A happy consequence of the small saucers and the petite scale of these is that squirrels find them particularly challenging…. I mounted mine by our pond (below) and have watched a small army of them attempt – and fail – to hustle some seed.

A few tips… if your spindle has a particularly pointy end, use that one to dig into the ground (obvious I know, but worth evaluating carefully before you set about glueing on tea cups…).  Shallow cups and saucers work best so that the birds can access the seed very easily and without having to hop into the cup and risk missing a sighting of the local cat / fox / toddler who is stealthily heading their way.  For location, try a few ideas out – I found they look best in groups, and when spaced at different heights.  Moving them around in this bucket of sand allowed me to decide on their final position without too much exertion.  Not least because my long suffering husband was the one who lugged the pot around behind me, as I waltzed around the lawn crying ‘left a bit! No, not there!’, until steam rose gently from his brow.  Hmmm, some marital brownie points to be re-earned, I think…

Seedlings, soil and a spot of light toil…

I’m feeling all green-fingered again. I’ve been swept away by a tidal wave of good intention and the recurrent vision of becoming a self-sufficient, kaftan-wearing earth mother who harvests dinner every night from her Kitchen Garden and whose offspring can name every variety of tomato under the sun. Like most fantasies, alas, this is impossibly far from the truth.  The kaftan-wearing bit in particular is just never going to happen.

Still, a well-lived life is one of constant reinvention, as I’m sure someone must have said as it sounds very profound.  Harry and I have duly cracked open the Dorling Kindersley Guide to Gardening for Complete Amateurs, and begun sowing in earnest.  Initially we’ve just planted lettuce, carrots, radishes and salad onions. The DK guide warns me ominously that carrots are plagued by the psila rosae Carrot Fly and must always be planted alongside onions, which will, it promises, have the same effect as Kryptonite on Superman or garlic to Dracula, thus ensuring that the evil weevils keep a flight exclusion zone around our precious harvest.  This is just as well, as I wouldn’t be able to identify a psila rosae if it fell into my gin and tonic.  Especially then, in fact.

I found this rather cool and slightly more macho planter for Harry (below), and once he’d wedged himself into it a couple of times and ascertained that it achieved a max speed of about 2km/hour when pushed along, he was happy to plant it up instead, bashing each tender seedling heavily with the spade for good measure.

And finally, what I’m hoping will be the most verdant and productive of all; this grafted tomato, which the garden centre has led me to believe is the genetic equivalent of Usain Bolt and will deliver such a bountiful harvest that even the sight of a tomato, come September, will make us feel a little queasy.

It must deliver on its promise, as I have a title to uphold; last year my very undersized efforts scooped the ‘Most Artistic Tomato’ prize in my friend’s annual Tomato Festival (a deliciously drunken garden party where tomatoes feature loosely, and other equally tenuous categories include ‘Best shop-bought tomato’ and ‘Best wine to drink with tomatoes’..).  I strung a handful of dwarf cherry toms together to form a fetching necklace and earring set which I duly wore (below); it did the trick – and works a treat when you get hungry and the canapés are far away – but I think that substance is going to have to trump style this year if I am to retain my title…

And in closing; a gratuitous montage of some of the most distracting spring blooms in the rest of the garden.  One of our great pastimes (having moved into our house in the depths of winter) is watching to see what bursts into bud, then flower, as the weather turns.  All helpful advice on identifying and naming the varieties of beauties below is more than welcome…

The Great Sunflower Race

I have found a new nemesis. He’s called Hans Peter Schiffer, and I’ve never met him. ‘Who??’ I hear you cry. WELL, Herr Schiffer may be a benign, helpful German flight attendant by day, but apparently in his spare time has somehow managed to seize the World Record for the tallest sunflower ever grown, a whopping 8.03m. Lordy. Who knew that the very hands used to highlight emergency exits and demonstrate seatbelt positioning could produce such unfettered glory in the garden?  Eight metres of it no less.  So, competitive juices in full flow, we’ve decided to start a new family tradition; the Great Sunflower Race.

Initially thinking we would just have a Mummy / Daddy / Harry race, we carefully chose 3 pots to sow our seeds, hoping that a short spell indoors would give us a head-start come warmer weather and planting out.  Amidst much jostling and inter-marital suspicion we opted to label the pots with chalkboard paint and pen to ensure no crafty tag swapping once the growing began in earnest.  (Damnit; my master-plan thwarted before germination even occurs…)

We took to the garden for some cavalier tossing of compost; very little landed in the pots themselves but the lawn will, I’m sure, benefit from all the additional nutrients it received.

Sunflower seeds are amongst the most reliable of all so can be sown just one to a pot with confidence.  Or so says the packet.  We’ll see….

With a nearly-full pack of seeds leftover, we decided to ask friends and family to join in the race, so carefully packaged up a sprinkle of seeds into little vellum envelopes (below) and issued the challenge.  Some packets were collected by Harry’s friends at our egg-hunt this weekend, the rest will be mailed to Grandparents and other feverishly keen competitors in the week ahead…

So, without further ado, let the Great Sunflower Race commence!

p.s. Global entries welcome… the Big Measure will take place in July, just as soon as my entry is towering magnificently at an impossible peak (and there I go again; ambition completely outstripping skillset…)

Spiders, leaky roofs and that cheese obsession again…

This week’s project: a slate cheese board made from one of the ancient roof tiles which I found tucked away in the shed at the bottom of the garden.  This shed, which looks as if it would fall down if someone so much as coughed loudly in its presence, contains a myriad of dusty and (to me) beautiful abandoned garden bits and bobs left by previous owners.  A mountain of tiny, hand-formed terracotta plant pots are ready to be transformed into summer candles (on my long list of things to do…), but it was the slate tiles that caught my eye this time.

Taking the filthy and unpromising specimens below, the first step was to give each a long, hard scrub before coating with a durable matt varnish to bring out the original depth of colour.  Actually, I’ve abbreviated the process somewhat; the first step was to pick up a slate tile, carry it halfway in doors before dropping it, shrieking, onto the lawn as a generation of arachnids large and small leapt off the tile and scurried hastily back to the security of the shed. Having recovered from the mild hysteria this provoked, I carefully checked that no-one had observed me before casually retrieving the tile and continuing with the stages described above.

I used two cupboard handles shaped like chillies to attach to either end for carrying – I’d found these a year ago in a sale bin at the local DIY store and finally they’ve found a natural home.  I used epoxy resin to attach them securely, though those more savvy with drill-bits might want to have a go at doing this properly and making holes in the slate itself; mine looked a bit fragile to take it.  Now for the fun bit of accessorising the new cheeseboard; these decorative parchment leaves look great against the black, and a simple white pastel pencil works well on the slate, and is erased with one wipe of a wet cloth.  I’ll also be using it for tapas, with perhaps a trio of white bowls for contrast.

This project would be even easier with new slate tiles if you happen to come across them or have neighbours who are in the process of repairing their roof; a word of caution however – it was only when I whipped this out at dinner with much fanfare and self-congratulation that I noticed my husband peering at it a bit too closely. ‘Would that be one of the handful of original tiles I’d set aside to repair the annexe roof?’ he queried, in the kind of voice that tells you we both know the answer already.  Oops. So check that the roof slate is spare before coming over all artistic, would be my advice.  Still, it looks great

Spring Fever

After a couple of stuttering false starts, it’s clear that Spring is just around the corner and Harry and I are alternating between indoors and outdoors at the drop of a hat.  Thank heaven for wipe-clean wood flooring. When the sap is rising and the buds are bursting into colour, it makes me come over all green-fingered, so this week we’ve been experimenting with growing cress, the ultimate in instant-gratification gardening.  There’s something so bafflingly magical about being able to toss a generous and unfettered handful of seeds onto some damp cotton wool and see them sprout forth overnight. For those with patchy childhood memories, each stage is demonstrated with gusto by Harry, below. Our admittedly rather camp collection of Cressmen are now 5 days old and ready for a first trim…

Step 1: moisten some cotton wool in lukewarm water

Step 2: Insert carefully into your egg cup.  Pause to wipe hands on your jumper.

Step 3: Scatter a small handful of seeds carefully into the cup, covering the cotton wool

Step 4: Abandon this plan; instead, scatter seeds flamboyantly over all surfaces

Step 5: Your work is complete. Retire for a nap whilst Mummy clears up and entertains herself attaching eyes and moustaches to your efforts, in homage to The Village People.

And then… For something a little more grown-up, and to give the impression that great culinary endeavours occur in my kitchen, I also planted up a few wilting supermarket herbs into a variety of different decorative containers (including a copper coffee tin, right), and am diligently watering, trimming and tossing into any dish which may warrant additional greenery… aesthetics may outweigh flavour here, but at least they look pretty. Maybe a little understated compared to the Cressmen, but then there’s only so many things you can attach fake eyes to…

Potato chitting

One of my grand New Year’s Resolutions (note to self: do not write when tipsy and full of ridiculous ambition…) was to create a chic kitchen garden outside the backdoor, which bloomed verdantly by day and bountifully produced all of the fruit and veg we could hope to consume.  Come dusk, it would gently scent the terrace and be something our friends would stroll through, glass in hand, exclaiming on its beauty and the magnificence of its produce.  It would of course necessitate buying a host of attractive hand-made gardening tools and a divine leather half-apron, and of course a beautifully shaped trug to collect the peas, carrots and herbs which would be needed for dinner each evening.  Oh, and a petite Kew Gardens watering can for ad-hoc sprinkling.  And some of those lovely wooden vegetable markers that no serious gardener would cast a second look at…. …Well, as you can see I had not got much further than the retail opportunity offered  by this resolution, and certainly had not contemplated the actual hands-on aspect of it all.

A couple of weeks ago I raided the library bookshelves in order to create at least some semblance of a planting plan and a little amateur knowledge. The Dorling Kindersley guide for children did the trick (I have no pride or shame in this regard), and so I learned that I should be urgently, urgently chitting my potatoes in order to get a head start come Spring.  A few more minutes of research translated this rather alarming instruction into the simple task of setting out some seed potatoes in an eggbox somewhere cold but bright.  Given that the entire house is very cold and generally bright, the perfect spot was not hard to find.  (The books do make a sweeping assumption that the inside of every house is free from frost – I challenge them to over-winter here before being so confident in future).  This milestone in the launch of my new kitchen garden enterprise took about 45 seconds, and I duly forgot about them

Lo and behold! Two weeks on and blow me if the blighters haven’t begun sprouting and jostling in their cups, as if hell-bent on making a final bid for freedom before the soil beckons.  If it is possible to feel pride at so basic an achievement, then pride it is.  Hoorah.