Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Things I Learned Travelling Alone

I've always loved travelling alone, be it a short bus journey or a ferry to another country. It's a way to wipe the slate clean, assume any identity you wish (not in a weird The Talented Mr Ripley way) and learn more about yourself by observing others. Now that I am working part time, I have more freedom, but am almost always with my almost three year old. I've seen so much of what Co Cork has to offer in the last three years, but always with my side kick in tow, so I was very excited to get the chance to go to Brussels for a weekend in May to visit a friend. I flew from Cork to Amsterdam and took the train to Brussels, a wonderful trip along canals and walkways with beautiful summer houses and allotments dotted along the route. The weather was beautiful, leisurely cyclists were everywhere just making me feel good by watching them, I was travelling light with a small back and feeling free.
For entertainment and enlightenment on the train, I had downloaded lots of TED Talks on random subjects. I watched presentations on creative design, outer space and the human psyche and thought about life, well my life mostly. And here is what I learned on my trip:
  • The power of time off
There is an amazing scheme available to me at work that allows me to apply to take a block of unpaid leave. For the last two years I have taken a six week break. Apart from a weekend away, I've spent the time living the slow life - cooking good meals, gardening, visiting family and just not rushing anywhere. Not that I live a particularly fast paced life normally, but I work to live so the less time I can spend commuting and in an office, the better for my health and my head. My earnings are dismal in comparison to a few years ago but my money seems to go further.

  • The power of self-reflection and anonymity
Once of the biggest challenges, I found, becoming a parent was the loss of [my perceived] identity and becoming suddenly more visible in public. Simple things like having to navigate a buggy on a busy street makes me feel unmoveable, awkward and at the mercy of others. My smiley toddler who says hello to everyone attracts attention that sometimes I don't want. Travelling alone I can move quickly and silently, wear different clothes because I am more lightweight and make decisions based on my own desires alone. It also helps me appreciate the joy of my normal life - the fact that I am never lonely because I have an exuberant child who will accompany me to the ends of the earth, even if it is hard work at times.

  • 100 reasons not to be negative
Terrible things happen to us all, more to some, and it's healthy to react emotionally during difficult times but positivity is such a warm and contagious trait to have. I'm not sure if it can be learned or if it is innate to a person, but the more time I spend around negative people the more I see how your attitude to life determines whether or not you will be happy. How awful it must be to be miserable most of the time. Sometimes it's better to look out, rather than inwards, and not put yourself at the centre of the universe.

  • Sometimes being in a crowd can be beautiful
I'm usually trying to find the quiet place but being in a busy city on a fine day with music playing and festivities surrounding me just made me love people, all so different and interesting.

  • Olives are a great portable snack!
I never leave the house without food and always looking for filling foods that don't need refrigeration. Hurray for olives. And I discovered cream cheese stuffed peppadew peppers. Oh my god.

  • Sometimes, do nothing
It's harder than it seems and it's why I still haven't bought a smart phone. It's nice to be truly idle sometimes, just looking around and taking it all in.

  • Everyone looks fabulous in the sunshine
Clothes get more colourful and experimental and everyone seems so much happier.

  • People care about me
I expected to slip away for the weekend and return as if nothing happened but I was pleasantly surprised when people made contact to see how I was getting on.

So if you are feeling at a bit of a hiatus in life, and have the freedom to get away for even a day, go on a little adventure by yourself and hopefully you'll come home feeling better for it.

Monday, 25 July 2016

2 Easy Gardening Projects For Children

Let's be all inclusive - you don't need a child to try out these fun experiments. Maybe you don't have any gardening space at all but want to see something living in your home. It is such a buzz when a seed germinates and these tidy projects will let even the smallest of kitchens become a garden.

1. Bean Seeds in a Bag

You need:
A little clear plastic sandwich bag
A bean seed or two
Compost to fill the bottom three inches of the bag
Sticky tape

You do:
Punch a few little holes in the base of the sandwich bag
Wet the soil in the bag until it is nicely moist but not soaking
Plant the bean seed[s] about a inch below the surface of the compost
Tape the bag to a sunny window

You see:
Bean seeds are quick to germinate and very visual so if you check the bag every day, you will soon see the seed starting to grow roots, loosing its jacket, sending up a shoot and growing leaves
When the seed has germinated and has grown two true leaves (the first two leaves you see are the "seed leaves", wait until another two are grown), transfer it to a pot of compost and keep the soil moist. Finally move to the ground or a large pot when the plant is about 3 inches high.

2. Gardening in a Glove

You need:
A clear plastic glove
5 cotton balls
[Ideally] 5 varieties of seed - I'd suggest bean, basil, radish, carrot, spinach but almost anything will work
Sticky tape

You do:
Wet the cotton balls and put one in each finger of the glove (hold the glove upside down by the wrist)
Place a seed in each cotton ball - for large seeds like beans use just one, but for small seeds sprinkle a few.
Write the variety of seed on each finger
Blow into the bag to fill with air and tie the top of the glove
Tape to a sunny window sill

You see:
The seeds will [hopefully] germinate, and all at different rates. You'll learn which types of vegetables grow faster and how different they look at each stage
Make it fun by asking your children to predict which seedlings will emerge first.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Make Your Own Plant Labels

I've been having trouble finding satisfactory plant labels. Wooden ice cream sticks work well but I don't eat enough ice cream and they are too narrow. I've bought plastic ones but find the marker can wash off. And they are not very attractive either.

A simple, free and surprisingly beautiful solution is to use smooth beach stones and permanent marker. It was a wonderful excuse to take a late evening walk on the beach this week. We had an awesome thunder shower that day, with a lot of lightening and flash flooding, but by the time I got to the beach the sky had cleared into a swirling mass of bright blue and white with a rainbow. It was incredibly peaceful. Give me that over sizzling on hot sand under a high sun any day.

Here are some of my stones:

Wherever you are, I hope you're near a nice beach so you can make your own.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

My Garden: 11th June 2015

June is a wonderful time in the garden. By this time we've gotten ample sunshine and rainfall to really get things started. Some long awaited crops, like broad beans, are ready for eating, everything else is making good progress and there is still time to sow seeds.

My over-riding plan for this year was to promote polyculture in the garden by growing vegetables, flowers and herbs alongside each other. I found it surprisingly difficult to get it started, trying to think outside the box when I was planting, but as the beds have filled up, I am getting more adventurous and creative with plant placement. And I have noticed the results massively. My broad bean crop is healthy and bountiful, and I like to think that the bright colourful pansies surrounding them have helped attract pollinating insects to the beans. I've been growing broad beans for a few years and this is my best year yet.

In my main veg bed (first photo) I have garlic, beetroot, parsnips, lupines, thyme, broad and borlotti beans, pansies, coriander, dill, radish, nasturtiums, Gypsophilia elegans (Baby's Breath) and spinach. I've noticed a massive lack of pest activity (namely slugs) and I believe this is because of the mix of plants camouflaging each other. Certainly my lupines in other areas of the garden are being well damaged by slugs, whereas the flower stalks in the vegetable bed are pristine.

The variegated leaves of the nasturtium reveal the first flower of the season. I've been nibbling on the leaves and they have a massive peppery kick. They are nestled among garlic and spinach which has gone to seed in the heat. The low lying, creeping leaves of the nasturtium is a nice balance to the tall spikes of the garlic:

Radishes grow in a line and you can see thyme to the left:

Peas are just starting the flower. You can really see the importance of a trellis - the bottom of the plants are quite chewed by slugs but the tops are out of their reach:

On the patio at the back of the house (south facing) I have my courgettes and tomatoes in pots. The biggest courgette in the foreground is in a 20 litre pot and the effect is incredible. I am planning to move some tomatoes into similar sized pots and the others into a bed. I've never grown tomatoes in a bed before and I'm looking forward to seeing what difference it will make:

That's all the highlights at the moment. I could show you photos of my giant comfrey plant covered in bees or the potatoes beginning to flower but I think I've taken enough photographs for one post. Till next time...

Saturday, 4 June 2016

My Garden: 4th June 2016

The weather is scorching and life is good. We are so spending most of our free time in the garden. The sunshine makes everything so much easier.

Our next main crop is broad beans. We've eaten some young pods steamed and they were delicious but I prefer to let the beans mature. They're not quite ready but I couldn't wait so I picked the fattest ones today.

Last year most of the pods were half empty so I was delighted to find that every pod was full of beans. I think this means pollination was successful. They are still on the small side but that's nothing that time won't fix. Yum yum.

In the flower kingdom, my beloved lupines are being ravished by slugs but thankfully flower spikes are pushing through.

Isn't this cute? I bought the ornament for the fish tank but it was too large:

Keeping thirsty plants like courgettes and tomatoes happy, when they are in containers, can be difficult. I'm planning to move some of them into beds but for the ones that do stay in pots, I've made a simple self watering system using an empty bottle:

I bored holes in the cap of the bottle and cut the base off. By keeping it topped up with water, it will keep the soil moist by gradually leaching in. It's a great reminder to add water when you see the empty bottle, rather than having to check the soil.

Problems in the garden include bolting spinach but that's the price for sunny weather and bad germination with my carrots and leeks.

That's all for now folks.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Building a Flower Bed

My masterplan for 2016 largely includes making an effort to build up the garden's display of decorative plants. Up to now my floral efforts have been sporadic and ill-thought out, with not much thought given to plant placement and year round display. My motivations are not primarily aesthetic, although as I progress my mind is becoming more design sensitive, but to introduce biodiversity to the garden.

There are many great reasons to grow flowers and vegetables together. Complimentary plants can help pest management. The nasturtium, which is a flower common to many gardens, is said to reduce aphids, cabbage worms and whiteflies, so grow it among your brussels sprouts and broccoli. As well as looking great, it provides ground cover like a mulch and as a bonus, the leaves, flowers and seeds are edible. I've planted it in a few areas this year and cannot wait to see the effect of the creeping orange and red flowers among my vegetables.

The area of the garden in which I am currently concentrating my efforts is a patch near the patio that was cleared when a huge bush of box honeysuckle was removed. This is how overgrown the area at the back of the house had gotten (blame a new baby):

I can't believe we let it get so bad, and look at the ivy eating one of the bedroom windows:

A few days work in the good weather and we removed the ivy, all the brambles by the back door and the huge bush. After this photo was taken, the big spiky plant was cut back (I don't know what it's called but I know it's common enough).

Here's how the area looked a few weeks ago. The box honeysuckle has proven vigorous and has grown back but I am keeping it trimmed. Wood chips were laid down months ago but they are thin on the ground at this stage. In the foreground you can see pansies, wallflowers and a purple sprouting broccoli. Under the spiky bush are nice creeping plants that will release tiny flowers in many colours later in the year. I'm hoping they will have spread by then. In the pots are lupins, some of which have been moved into the ground now.

Vacant space around the big spiky bush:

And the area where the brambles once roamed:

To get my flower patch off to a good start, a very generous neighbour gave me a load of flower divisions from her garden. Look at all this:

There were at least twenty varieties in the pile, of all shapes and textures. I got to work immediately planting them, continuing even as a massive hailstone shower hit. When everything was in the ground, the result was unimpressive at first as many of the plants are small slips, but even after just a few weeks of sun and rain, they are already beginning to fill out and flower.

I'm slowly building up a rockery around the base of the spiky plant to hide the huge ugly root:

Little scraps of creeping plants are positioned around the base of the root and hopefully these will spread like crazy:

In the open area, I've planted out garlic that I had over-wintered in modules, in my efforts to mix flowers and veg. Beetroot seeds have also been planted and I am looking forward to seeing the effect of the purple leaves among the flowers.

Nice textures are filling up the blank spaces but I've still a bit of weeding to do:

Forget-me-nots are flowering:

A few shells are added to the rockery and lots more decoration needed. Another good excuse to go to the beach:

So far the flower bed has cost me next to nothing. Now I have to give it my time and allow the plants time to grow. If you don't need the instant effect, growing from seed and cuttings is a really cheap way to garden. I cannot wait to update this post with photos in a few months and I guarantee my patience will have paid off.

*Update 15th June*

Look at the difference a month made in my other veg, flower and herb bed: 

June is a wonderful month!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

My Garden: 27th March 2016 (Easter Sunday)

I haven't anything posted in months but I have been working in the garden.  I always try to get as much in the ground in autumn as possible so I have something to be tinkering with over winter. From November to March, I've been mulling over my broad beans which were getting leggy in the cold frame (it's been milder than usual), gazing at my garlic (three varieties which I planted in containers and a raised bed) and picking at my purple sprouting broccoli.

I ended up planting out the broad beans in January after the extreme wet weather had eased off a while. It was a risk at that time of year but they are looking fairly healthy, if a bit twisted.  Even though the variety is dwarf, they need some support so I've built simple tepees with bamboo and twine.

We have been eating purple sprouting brocolli (PSB) with a few weeks now. The crop isn't as good as last year but I think that was down to me being late moving them from pot to ground. Apart from one towering plant, the rest are on the small side. I think they also benefit from a bit of frost and the winter was quite mild and wet. As you get three cuts per plant, there is still plenty fruit to come. I think PSB is the staple plant to include in your garden plan and I'll be sowing my seeds for next years crop very soon. Picture below shows some that I'll need to cut very soon as it looks like it is starting to go to flower.

Back in October I planted some garlic (softneck variety Solent Wight) in window boxes and this will be eaten young and green. This week I sprinkled some spring onion seeds on the surface and watered in so hopefully they will happily grow around the garlic.

My main garlic crop has been in a raised bed since October, a mix of Solent (single layer on the left) and Lautrec (hardneck). The stem of the Solent is noticeably thicker than the plants of the same variety that are in the window boxes. It's interesting to see the differences in results between various settings. I'm not 100% but I may have added a layer of seaweed to this bed back in the autumn, which would have given the plants a boost. Again I have sprinkled some spring onion seeds on the surface this week.  The third variety of garlic, early Purple Wright, is in other beds around the garden.

The first direct sown seeds of spring were planted yesterday - two rows of beetroot, one Bolthardy and the other Chiogga. In my efforts to mix vegetables and flowers, nasturtiums will go in between the rows. This bed got a nice treatment of a thick layer of seaweed in Autumn plus some garden compost and the soil is looking really well. 

Dormant flowers are starting to revive and I'm hoping for some surprises. Below is some 'Braunherz' which will spread its luscious thick purple leaves to give ground cover. 

Last year I planted lupins from seed and got bountiful foliage but being a biannual, no flowers. This year the foliage is coming back beautifully and hopefully come May I'll have towering explosions of colourful flower. The seeds were mixed so what emerges will be a surprise. I can take basal cuttings now so hopefully I'll be able to successfully multiply the plants, and give some for gifts.

My pansies were ravished by slugs this year so I was delighted to get a photo of this perfect flower before she is nibbled away to nothing.

Pea seeds are swelling and starting to sprout. Yesterday I planted marigolds in the remaining cells. The marigolds, which attract the beneficial hoverfly, will be inter-planted among the vegetables.

And to finish, a picture of my Bowles's Mauve wallflowers which have just started their flowering season but have always had a bloom or two at all times over winter. It's a perrenial plant that has a tendency to get leggy so after the flower stalk finishes blooming, cut it back down at the base. This is another plant that I'll be taking cuttings of soon. It makes a wonderful fragranced cut flower.

Till next time.