Grace goes gardening!

We have a sad little 4-year old here that has been so poorly with scarlet fever, but I am happy to say she is recovering well. I rather thought scarlet fever had disappeared and was an illness from my childhood era, but it seems not and several of her friends at the nursery have had it as well.

So despite being definitely on the mend, she is still fragile and not up for the usual high jinks with Grandpa down by the swing or any rough and tumble. So one of the things Richard organised with her was some gardening and the early planting of vegetable seeds ready for summer.

It only took a few demonstrations for her to catch on how to plant them and as she explained to me later, it was a bit like putting the seeds to bed! So we now have runner beans (Scarlet Emperor and Guinness Record), radishes and cos lettuce. Several varieties of tomato, including one that promises faithfully to be blight resistant – the jury is still out on that one – and Grace’s favourite… Nasturtiums using last year’s seeds from the plants which she had kept in an envelope over the winter.

I love the fact that she understands where vegetables come from, as she and I stood in the conservatory and watched Grandpa plant out the first early potatoes, she chattered away about how she hoped the rabbits wouldn’t steal our crops this year – too many episodes of Peter Rabbit and Mr McGregor on the TV there I think!

It is such a privilege to be able to spend time with a little mind, we heard today which primary school she has been allocated (her parents first choice – yay!) and I just have to wonder where the past few years have gone – but a lovely time to share with my family.

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s to a blooming good summer of flowers!

I’m sitting here writing this blog with glorious sunshine streaming through my workroom window – at last, Spring really does seem to have arrived! I strolled around the garden earlier and picked all the daffodils with broken stems, something I often do as the lovely blooms will only spoil if left flopped on the grass and, as they have already fallen it makes me feel less guilty for picking them! I always think a bunch of daffs is like a little ray of sunshine brought indoors, they cheer up my desk and their subtle fragrance is lovely.

I was thinking about cut flowers when scrolling through Sarah Raven’s glorious website during a quiet moment over Easter. Like so many gardening websites, they make life easy for us by grouping plants by colour, or growing conditions, ideal aspect and so on. Sarah seems to be particularly good on flowers for cutting and she does the loveliest selection of seeds for cut flowers. The current fashion for much more relaxed and wildlife inspired arrangements – bringing the outdoors indoors, so to speak – is just gorgeous and these seed collections are ideal for producing this look.

I also came across a company called ‘Meadow in my Garden’ who have lovely meadow seed mixes that will produce flowers all summer long. Growing from seed is the cheapest way to grow your flowers and will give you a wide choice of blooms – and also a clear conscience, as you won’t be contributing to air or road miles by buying your flowers from a shop.

You don’t need a great deal of space to grow flowers for cutting, as little as a metre square will do, although a bit more would be good. Find somewhere sunny, part of a neglected flowerbed or perhaps a tatty area of lawn that you’d love to see the back of. If you have raised beds, you don’t only have to grow veg in them – try flowers as well! When you sow seeds, there are two choices – neat rows or patches. Rows will give you better quality flowers on longer stems, whereas a patch looks less regimented and you don’t get obvious gaps when you cut your blooms.

For most of these seed mixes, you scatter them in a prepared bed and cover with a little more spoil, water… and wait! Provided your seeds aren’t old or out of date, you really can’t go wrong. One of my most favourite cutting flowers, sweet peas, can be sown direct, but I find I get the best results if I sow them in pots and then plant out. This year’s batch is already shooting and I’m getting excited just thinking about their heavenly scent!

 

 

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The beauty of birdsong

The magical song of a blackbird at dusk…

Is there anything more beautiful than birdsong? From the first trills of the dawn chorus to the solo blackbird singing as dusk falls, it is the most magical thing.

I read recently about some musicians holding concerts in woodland in the hope that a nightingale would join in the music – how magical that would be. Sadly, not many people have ever heard a nightingale as they have declined greatly over the past few years. The RSPB says there are fewer than 5,500 now, down from 60,000 a few decades ago. Isn’t that sad? It is only the male bird that sings and what makes the nightingale unique is that they sing many different notes and appear to respond to music made by humans.

A song thrush singing early on a summer’s morning.

The nightingale is the bird widely regarded as the star performer, but I can think of several others that frequently wow me with their musical skills. Many times up on Dartmoor I have listened to the beautiful trills and twitters of a skylark – only visible as a tiny dot, high up in the sky. A song thrush, again a bird in major decline, is also lovely to sit and listen to, it’s song so varied and clear. The gardener’s friend and surely one of our cheekiest birds, the robin, also has a delightful song and a blackbird’s solo at dusk is the perfect end to a day.

Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds. A bird ‘call’ says something definite about the caller – for example, “I’m a robin and I’m worried about that cat down there”. Bird ‘song’ is a specialised form of bird call that is designed to ensure the breeding success of the singer, to indicate clearly that he is healthy and fit and ready to breed.

And yes, as is so often the way, it’s largely a boy thing, designed so that other females of the same species are attracted and males of the same species are repelled.

A cheeky robin serenading us as we work in the garden!

Birdsong is most highly developed in a group of birds called ‘passeriformes’ which include wrens, robins, blackbirds and song thrushes. Basically, it means ‘perching bird’ and it’s an enormous group – around 5,400 of the world’s 8,000 to 9,000 species are ‘perching birds’ and all of them sing differently.

Each species has its own signature song. Some are basic, chiff-chaffs just go ‘chiff chaff’, but many are complex and never fail to lift the spirit – the blackbird being possibly the best example. Each song is different. It has to identify the singer’s species and also say something about the health of the singer. Many species even mimic other birds’ songs just to increase their repertoire, and it’s not unknown for other sounds, such as cats’ calls, to be included as well!

Birdsong is an integral part of the soundtrack in our everyday lives (well, for we lucky country dwellers at least) and when the singing stops – it is quite unsettling. I recall when we had an eclipse about 10 years ago and, as we stood outside, marvelling as the light quickly faded as the sun disappeared… the birdsong ceased. I found that silence along with the sudden gloom, very unsettling. A world without birdsong would be a barren place indeed.

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Joanna Sheen Cardmaking Collection

I know many of you will have spotted this Cardmaking Collection back in January when it was released, but we have had so much positive feedback from it – I’m so glad everyone has enjoyed playing with the freebies and the papers – that I thought it would be good to just mention it again.

There are many nice bits and pieces that come with the set – a FANTASTIC embossing folder, that I have loved and used and used, a jug on a lace tablecloth that just goes so brilliantly with the flowers in the kit or any other flowers you choose. The daffodil die is of course very appropriate as the daffs are all struggling to come out now the snow has cleared (at least down here in Devon it has!) and there are so many different designs you could create with this die.

I have to say thank you to some of Practical Publishing’s team that made some of the cards in this picture, Nicky Gilburt, Jo Boland and Sue Hughes. There are many more card designers that worked on this issue and I wish I could mention them all – they are a very talented team.

Also included in this kit is the pretty stencil and of course fabulous rubber stamps and not forgetting the sheets and sheets of backing papers and toppers.

Currently, we have a few copies left so if you fancy one, grab it now before they disappear forever – they never republish an issue!

 

 

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Cookery for the ‘Middle Classes’!

Sorting my book collection is rather like painting the Forth Road Bridge – it’s a task that never ends! OK, so it’s rather more interesting than the paint job and sometimes, as happened last week, I come across a gem of a cookery book I didn’t even know I had!

I can only guess that this ancient coverless book was one of my Mother’s. It has the wonderful title of: ‘Miss Tuxford’s Cookery for the Middle Classes’. Can you imagine how a title like that would go down in 2018?!

Miss Hester Tuxford M.C.A first published this book in 1925 and several updated editions followed. In the edition I have (dated 1933, I think) she tells us proudly in the preface that the book has so far sold upwards of 200,000 copies – which is a very impressive figure indeed! I haven’t been able to find out any more about Hester Tuxford online, which is a shame, as I rather like the sound of her. She lived in ‘Westwood’, Tattershall in Lincolnshire, but that’s as much as I know.

Offal: Awful!

The book itself is fascinating as a piece of social history. Compare this to a contemporary cookery book and it is hard to believe that only about 90 years have passed since Miss Tuxford was writing her recipes. It seems much longer…

Back then, meat was a staple of all meals – and almost every part of the animal was consumed – from offal, to head to feet! The number of recipes featuring tripe is quite terrifying, including options to stew it, fry it, put it in a pie or make a tripe ragout. Equally, the range of meat eaten would make most of us excuse ourselves from the dining table pretty rapidly – including rabbit, pigeon and rook. Rook pie, anyone?

Miss Tuxford manages only a small section on vegetables and, from the outset, she makes it clear that they need to be treated with caution. She writes:

‘RULES FOR COOKING GREEN VEGETABLES
Green vegetables should always be cooked with the lid off the pan to allow all poisonous gases to escape that are generated whilst cooking. A little salt and a small piece of soda should be added to the boiling water before placing in the green vegetables. All vegetables should be well soaked in salt water for an hour before cooking.’

The section on puddings and sweets is extensive and includes such gems as Puzzle Pudding, Honeymoon Cheesecakes and Canary Pudding. Fortunately, the latter refers to a yellow lemon sauce rather than poor little baked birds as in the Rook Pie! There are no less than five roly-poly recipes and many more substantial puddings, most of which involve a large amount of lard and margarine.

It’s all very well for us to marvel at this stodgy fare but between the wars, life was pretty spartan. Central heating was a luxury and domestic appliances were not that commonplace, nor was car ownership, so calorie-rich meals were essential for warmth and physical energy. Most vegetables were what you managed to grow yourself and many would have been root vegetables. None of the exotic fruits and vegetables that we enjoy today were around, such as avocados, butternut squash and blueberries. Britain was a much greyer place.

Reading Miss Tuxford’s book certainly made me reflect on how fortunate we are today with the food and comfort that most of us enjoy. If you come across a copy of this book, or any others from that era, it really is absolutely fascinating reading…

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