A bit of cheer in the garden

Snowdrops and aconitesMy goodness, a bit of cheer in the garden can be hard to find in winter, especially one as wet as this, and I’m often poking about in search of snowdrops, or the first signs of aconites.

At this time of year, it’s the pots by the back doors that give me most pleasure.

The wonderful thing about containers is that all but the largest are easy to move and can be used to create an ever-changing scene throughout the year, including the winter months. Different containers can take on different roles – some providing a dark or neutral backdrop while others take centre stage for their moment of floral glory.

Starring roles at this time of year will, of course, go to plants whose leaves, stems or flowers are especially attractive in winter. This might mean hauling a potted camellia out of the wings so you can watch its tight spherical buds burst into bloom, or bringing some smaller tubs of crocus and other early spring bulbs you planted in autumn to the front.

I have been known to root around in hidden corners of the garden for clumps of snowdrops and primroses that are blooming unseen and unappreciated, dig them up and give them a temporary home in a pot pretty enough to bring inside.

Such evacuees can also be snuck in at the base of larger potted plants outside, with trailing ivy woven in among them to hide that ‘just-dug-up’ look, and can be returned to the garden – perhaps in a place where they’ll be more visible – when the flowers have died down. I do this regularly and the plants never seem to resent the disturbance. In fact, if you want to move snowdrops and aconites now, when they are ‘in the green, is the best time to do it.

It can be great fun to plant a winter container from scratch. If you choose the plants with care, it can give pleasure well into spring. As a centrepiece, I’d choose a winter-flowering shrub – such as witch hazel or a deciduous daphne whose flowers, on the bare branches, are best set off by a backdrop of dark evergreens.

Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ Skimmia japonica and Viburnum tinus both work well – with the surrounding planting chosen to complement the colours of the buds. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ has the darkest red, which looks dramatic with purple-leafed heucheras and pretty white cyclamen; while the greenish yellow buds of others such as ‘Fragrant Cloud’ would be lovely with white and yellow crocus or violas. All open to pure white flowers in spring, when brighter bulbs or early bedding can fill any gaps around the edges.

Water in, raising the pot on small feet to ensure good drainage, sit back, and enjoy the show.


A real tonic

I’ve never been much of a tea or coffee drinker, which is odd as the rest of my family are. I do like herbal teas though, and am especially fond of peppermint tea. I’ve recently bought a sweet little infusion teapot so, once the mint in the garden has grown, I can literally pick a few leaves and stick them in the pot with some boiling water for a very refreshing brew!

Herbal teas have become popular both for their flavour and for the many medicinal qualities they are supposed to possess. It’s claimed they can help with everything from easing a cold and indigestion to fighting infection and nausea. But when choosing a herbal tea remedy, make sure you pick the right one. While fruit flavoured teas – such as rosehip, apple and orange – taste nice, they are developed for their flavouring more than anything else.

Herbal teas on the other hand, such as thyme, peppermint and ginger really do have therapeutic uses. Check the label when you buy – if it mentions real herbs then the quality will be good. Try and avoid any teas with artificial flavourings.

My partner in crime writing, Julia, can’t take cold remedies anymore as she gets a rather violent allergic reaction, and she finds ginger or thyme tea really help when she’s fighting a cold. One of the benefits of peppermint tea is that it’s good for indigestion, so if you have over-indulged (which of course I never do!) it is nice to drink after a meal.

Here are my top five herbal teas:

Ginger: Ginger is a great remedy in the early stages of an infection because, as a warming spice, it can promote a fever and hasten healing. Ginger’s warming effects are also said to relieve rheumatic aches and pains by widening the blood vessels and stimulating circulation.

Chamomile: The small golden buds of chamomile give many people relief from mild insomnia. Chamomile is the principal ingredient in many ‘sleepytime’ tea blends. This is because chamomile contains tryptophan, an amino acid known for its tranquilizing effects. When taken as an infusion, these properties act as a relaxant and help you to sleep.

Thyme: This Mediterranean herb is an effective treatment for colds. This is because thyme contains volatile oils – constituents in the plant that protect it against virus and infection. When taken as an infusion, these properties act as a good decongestant for the chest.

Peppermint: A traditional remedy used for nausea and indigestion. By stimulating bile production in the gall bladder, peppermint breaks down fat in the digestion system, thus relieving nausea.

Nettle: I’ve waxed lyrical about nettles before on this blog! It is good to take when feeling run down as it has a rich mineral content. Nettle is a good source of iron, calcium and silica. Iron produces red blood cells, essential for energy while calcium and silica are important for building bones, hair and teeth.



Looking forward in 2014…

I always love the first few days of any New Year as there’s so much promise in what could happen in the next twelve months. If I look back over the past year many things have happened that I didn’t have a clue about this time last year, so there is always the excitement of what could be round the corner.

I know we have to take the bad times  as well as the good but I am going to try harder this year to make more good things happen. So often it’s the little things that make me feel good rather than the big things – I tidied my craft room over the Christmas holiday and that’s making me feel really good.

I’m going to give myself some ‘me’ time regularly this year, and I invested in some more scented candles and I’m going to enjoy nice perfume and maybe a book, a game or just some time cuddled up on the sofa with Wellington, whose days I know are numbered but while he is here, he is lovely to cuddle!

I’m also looking forward to finishing my second novel with my ‘partner in crime writing’, Julia. It should be finished in April or May, we are about a third of the way through at the moment. Although there’s a lot of head-scratching and plotting, it’s also exciting as the plots starts to unfold as you are never 100% sure how it is going to turn out!

Sometimes the things that make you feel good can take you by surprise, doing something that benefits someone else can be really uplifting.

On a more down to earth note I am aiming to declutter a room in my house each month this year, I don’t have twelve rooms that need decluttering but I am building in a ‘fail’ for some of the months when work gets too busy or other things grab my time and attention.

I would love to tell you that I intend to succeed spectacularly with my diet this year, but all I can do is try and be kind to myself if I falter and then fail as I have so many times before – but the trying is always the thing that counts. So my resolution for this year and the thing uppermost in my mind is going to be just that saying – the trying is always the thing that counts and who knows what will have happened by January 2015!


My top five festive reads

One day, I will have more time in my life to read. But at the moment my hectic lifestyle means that there is rarely time for me to sit down and get immersed in a book – despite it being one of my greatest loves! However, this Christmas, Richard and I are having a relatively quiet time, so I am optimistic that I will get a chance to get my nose in a book… but it’s just as likely that book might be the second novel I am busy writing with my partner in crime Julia!

But anyway, let’s suppose I do get a chance to read – here are my top five recommended reads for this festive season:

Recipe for Life – Mary Berry

Gosh, I do admire Mary Berry! She built a successful career and raised a family at a time when it was still a very unusual thing for a woman to do. She’s suffered tragedy and ill-health and come through it all with the support of her husband and family. Now, aged 78, when most people are putting their feet up, she’s possibly more famous than ever through her part in the ‘Great British Bake Off’! I’m really looking forward to reading all about her

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling!)

Like many people, I hadn’t heard of this book until it emerged that the author was J K Rowling, so I decided to give it a go – and very good it was! Rowling is a wonderfully talented author and, although this is a million miles away from Harry Potter, all her dash, style and storytelling skills are in evidence. It’s quite gritty, a bit quirky but the lead characters are endearing. As a bit of a detective fiction fan, I hope she writes more novels featuring Cormoran Strike… which, surely is a bit of a Potterish-name for a character!

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – Sebastian Faulks

I have always been a Bertie Wooster fan (I adored the TV series with Fry & Laurie too!) and I just love the gentle and utterly ‘silly’ old-fashioned humour. So I was somewhat shocked when I read that Sebastian Faulks had been commissioned to write a ‘new’ Jeeves and Wooster story. But the reviews of this book have all been so positive that I have hinted (unsubtly – how unlike me!) to Richard that I would really like a copy for Christmas! 

Preserves: River Cottage Handbook no. 2 – Pam Corbin

As you know, I love preserving and I really liked this little book. It has a lovely ‘feel to it’ (yes I know I like Kindles, but there is something very tactile about books!) and the recipes are straightforward and delicious. There’s also lots of really useful practical advice like sterilising, filling and sealing tables. If you’ve never preserved anything before – this book will give you an excellent grounding. Pam Corbin is a friend of Julia’s and used to run a jam company. Hmmm… jam company now I wonder why that sounds familiar…?

A Sticky End – Joanna Sheen & Julia Wherrell

Oh come on! You didn’t really think I would leave my own novel off the list, did you? It’s the perfect Christmas read, light and funny and, we have been told, hard to put down! The reviews on Kindle, and the lovely emails and letters we have received from readers of the paperback have been truly heartening. If you haven’t already bought a copy… go on!

It’s available on Kindle or through the website.

Happy reading!

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Festive decorations

I don’t have many decorations around the house – the main focus is always my huge Christmas tree. I have an eight-foot high Nordic spruce and we love covering it with happy family memories and decorations made by both the girls over the past 30-plus years. This year there’s going to be a small angel on the top with ‘Grace’ embroidered on her skirt – thank you John Lewis website!

The other items I concentrate on are a lovely wreath for the front door and, lastly, a table centre for the big meal itself. This year I decided I wanted a combination of the lovely country look of oranges and cinnamon with the elegance of orchids and roses – and it looks amazing! I am not blowing my own trumpet – this year my wreath has been made by Karen at 2020 Flowers who is an outstanding florist based here in the village. She delivered the wreath this morning and it really is fantastic. It must have been hard to incorporate everything I asked for and to get it just right, not that I am a demanding customer or anything!

I hang a wreath outside on my front door as I am lucky enough to live in rural Devon where the crime rate is pretty minimal, so I never worry about people stealing it from the door, which I realise might not be the case in a more urban setting. There are good things and bad things about having a wreath outside. It’s great because the cool air keeps it fresher longer and, as it is made on an oasis ring, it’s really easy to water. However, if we are unlucky enough to have a frost over the next couple of weeks, the orchids will get more than a little grumpy. Being near the coast, we often escape really bad frosts and it has worked pretty well most years – but then of course I haven’t had orchids most years!

I’ll keep you posted on how well it’s lasting!