Festive balls!

The hanging basket with its chicken wire ‘dome’.This week, my partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, has come up with a lovely idea to brighten up the outside of your house in a festive yet very natural way.

I do not claim to have one tenth of Joanna’s skills when it comes to flower arrangement or plant knowledge and most of my gardening ideas are somewhat ‘freestyle’. I work with what’s around and what inspires me and sometimes ideas work out really well and other times… well, let’s just say my compost heap gets a boost.

As December dawned I decide my hanging baskets were beyond saving and took them down, leaving my house looking very plain. Something green and festive, that’s what’s needed, I thought. But what? I vaguely remembered something about making ivy balls using two hanging basket frames wired together to make the ball structure. After excavating my garden shed I could only find two hanging baskets and not the four I would need to produce two arrangements – one either side of my front door. My first bit of improvisation was to wrestle two bits of chicken wire into rough dome shapes to form the top half of the ball. This actually turned out to be a very good idea, as you will see…

Next I set off round the farm, with the dog, a large carrier bag and my secateurs. Half an hour later, I was back with lots of ivy, some holly, someStarting to wrap ivy around the ball…old dried cow parsley heads and a surprising quantity of rosehips. Being a good forager I only took a few pieces from any one place, leaving plenty of cover and food for the birds and not disturbing the habitat too much. The dog was quite bored by all this and stumped round the walk carrying a large piece of wood as I was too preoccupied to throw her ball. Don’t worry if you don’t live on a farm, you could find plenty of material in areas of woodland or hedgerow.

Back in the garden, I spread out my haul on a tarpaulin and started to cover the balls. I began with lengths of ivy and wound them around. The chicken wire worked really well as it was easy to poke the ends of the ivy through and get them to stay put. I worked on the balls alternately to ensure they were looking fairly equal. I paused briefly to spray the dried cow parsley heads silver – and most of my hand at the same time – and left them to dry. 

Next, I added holly and more ivy, trying to cover as much of the ball structure possible. I soon realised I didn’t have enough, so started raiding the garden, adding some variegated ivy and holly and finding quite a bit of ivy in bloom on the back wall. The design I had envisaged was starting to come together, but lacked a bit of oomph. It suddenly dawned on me that the enormous pieris that I kept squeezing past where it had overgrown the I worked on the balls alternately to try and ensure they looked balanced.steps (I think it’s Forest Flame) was looking rather fine at the moment. A bit of judicious pruning later and I had the final part of the design. The pieris added some lovely red colouring and the flower spikes softened the shape really well.

The final touch involved me wiring up the various bunches of rose hips and dotting them around the two spheres. And absolutely finally, I added the silver cow parsley heads for a bit of subtle glamour.

And there you have it, two festive balls outside my front door! You could obviously use pretty much anything that you think will last and, even if it The finished festive ball!wilts a bit before Christmas, take out the wilting bits and add something else. If you could find mistletoe, that would be lovely and if you want more glitz, you could wire up some small silver or gold baubles and add those as well.

 

 

 

 

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An autumnal treat…

My field mushroom collection from last Saturday. Very nice on buttered toast!Hen pal and partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, has been enjoying an autumn harvest for free – so I thought I would get her to tell the story…           

During the last week it has suddenly got very autumnal here on Dartmoor, lots of mist and rain, but still pleasantly warm. This is great news for mushroom hunters like me!

I was walking the dog last Saturday morning and, as I strolled through some fields where sheep had been grazing, I spotted some bright white blobs among the green grass. Aha – field mushrooms I thought! Luckily, I had a plastic bag with me and picked some, which we duly ate for breakfast – lovely! When picking mushrooms, you want to look for nice clean, firm specimens – hence usually gathering mushrooms early in the day before they have been nibbled by insects, rained on or, most likely here, trampled on by a passing ewe!

I have been foraging for fungi for about 25 years now and it is a really interesting and rewarding thing to do when you are out in the countryside, strolling in a park, or just walking along a grassy verge. Scaremongers will tell horror stories about people poisoning themselves but this happens very rarely and, if you are sensible, learn from an expert and follow a couple of simple rules, you won’t go wrong.

If you are starting from scratch, I’d suggest you go on a fungi forage. You’ll find lots of these foraging walks arranged locally, often by National Trust properties, or other local nature organisations. This is a great way to pick up tips from someone who really knows their stuff, get to see the type of habitats that are good for mushrooms, and ultimately, discover if you enjoy foraging or not.

Despite knowing roughly what I am looking for, I am no expert, and I always refer to my trusty reference book – Roger Phillips ‘Common and important mushrooms’. I would recommend everyone starting out on this hobby buys this book.

Shaggy Inkcap – looks bad, tastes good!The first maxim I was taught on day one was: ‘If in doubt, leave it out!’ So if you pick anything you are not 100% sure about, DON’T try it, leave it out of your collection. The majority of mushrooms are not edible – but they aren’t poisonous either – they just don’t taste very nice. Quite a few are mildly poisonous and a few are lethal. Some are decidedly contrary and are poisonous raw, but edible when cooked… I confess I’ve never felt inclined to try any of these! 

One of the most common edible mushrooms you will see, often standing defiantly up in the middle of someone’s neat lawn, are shaggy ink caps. These are pretty unmistakeable, looking like judges’ wigs and, provided you pick them before they get to the ‘shaggy’ stage, they are lovely quickly browned in butter and served on toast.

Fly Agaric – looks good… but is deadly poisonous!Another mushroom that most of us are familiar with is the one with a red cap and white spots usually drawn with a fairy or pixie sitting neatly on the top. But don’t be fooled by its cheery looks – it is the deadly poisonous Fly Agaric and you shouldn’t even risk touching it. Which brings me to maxim number two: Always wash your hands thoroughly if you have been handling any fungi.

Fungi foraging is great fun and, like many things in the natural world, if you are sensible, and follow the rules, it is hugely rewarding.

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It’s all in the detail…

It’s all in the detail…Jayne Netley Mayhew is a wonderfully talented artist who first wielded a paintbrush at the tender age of two! All her siblings are artists too and Jayne has gone on to establish a reputation as a first-class wildlife artist and embroidery designer. She has produced a wide range of designs for Joanna Sheen Ltd over the years and her work is always immensely popular. We had a chat with Jayne to find out a bit more about the lady behind the paintbrush…

I think most people would say ‘Exquisite detail’ when they think of Jayne’s work. When she paints animals – big cats being her absolute favourite subject – she paints them hair by hair. “I just love detail!” she says. “If I have to paint a landscape, there has to be something detailed in the foreground or I just couldn’t take it on.”

She paints from real life as much as she can and when this isn’t possible, from photographs that her husband, Ian, takes for her. Jayne at work in her studio in Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

A great animal lover, Jayne has two huge pet dogs – Henry, a Newfoundland, and Dennis a Bernese Mountain Dog collie cross – that share Jayne and Ian’s home in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, in the heart of Dartmoor. She also keeps hens that she finds endlessly fascinating to watch and paint as they roam free-range in her garden. 

“Again, it’s all about the detail,” she says. Look at one of her chicken paintings and you can see every feather individually painted.

Jayne is unusual in that she works across a wide range of different media and is equally skilled in all of them. She was originally trained in oils by a local artist who gave Jayne, and her older brother an excellent grounding in painting. Next, she took up freehand embroidery and thrived on the incredibly detailed stitch work. Publishers David & Charles snapped Jayne up and suggested she’d like to look at developing cross stitch patterns for them. Sid the cockerel immortalised in watercolour.“I found these very easy to design, but drawing all the crosses by hand was really hard work but then, luckily, in came computers and it became a breeze!”

Today, Jayne works in acrylic, watercolour, pencil, pen and ink and pastels using whatever best suits her subject matter be it flora or fauna, big cat or new born chick. “Watercolour was a tricky technique to master as it is so unforgiving. With oil and acrylic you can over paint, but with watercolour it has to be perfect from the outset. I adore the subtlety and, of course, the detail that I can achieve with it,” said Jayne.

Always looking for something new to try, she has recently acquired a felting machine and is busily creating pictures with fibre and wool. “It’s a technique I am really enjoying experimenting with and I’ve been working on some miniatures, it’s really exciting.”

Look closely – very closely – at any Jayne Netley Mayhew painting and you will eventually find a ladybird hidden somewhere within the design. Jayne laughs: “It’s quite funny watching people look at my work as they usually This stunning tiger is created using felt, fibre and wool.peer at it very close up, and then say ‘Aha!’ and I know they’ve found the ladybird. Only then do they stand back and appreciate the painting properly.”

So it seems it’s all in the detail for Jayne’s fans, just as much as it is for her…

To find out more about Jayne and her work on her website.

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The Forager’s Kitchen

Hedgerows are always a source of fascination, they are so full of flora and fauna. At the moment, they are dotted with glossy blackberries, and I can never resist picking them as I pass. My mother, the queen of preserves in our family, is already making jam and there has been talk of a blackberry and apple crumble coming our way too…!

My level of hedgerow foraging is fairly basic, but there is lots of ‘free’ food out there if you only know what to look for. My friend Julia Horton-Powdrill is a great forager and it was through her excellent Facebook page that I came across ‘The Forager’s Kitchen’ a truly fascinating cookery book that contains over 100 easy recipes from savoury to sweet, written by a Scots lady called Fiona Bird.

Don’t be put off by the title – this book is absolutely fascinating just to sit and read even if you have no intention of going and collecting any of the ingredients yourself. Not only does Fiona provide lovely (and easy) recipes, she gives lots of additional information about wildflowers, herbs, fruits and berries and more. Should you feel inspired, she also tells you how to forage, essential ground rules (how to avoid misidentification!) and a range of lovely little ‘wild notes’ with really useful hints and tips.

The book is divided up into sections – Flowers & Blossom, Woodland & Hedgerow, Fruits & Berries, Herbs and Sea & Shore. There’s a huge range of recipes – from Christmas Tree Cookies (using Douglas fir needs) through Carrot & Clover Cake to the most gorgeous looking Violet Macarons with Primrose Cream. Fiona writes very well and, whether you live in a city, the countryside or by the coast, if you follow her advice, you will find more ingredients growing in the wild than you could imagine!

Our ancestors knew what to pick and I do think it’s a shame that most people today are so ‘disconnected’ from the countryside and, indeed, wary of it. There is so much beauty in nature and such bounty out there if we only know what to do with it.

Fiona Bird is a mother of six children. She is a self-taught cook and past Masterchef finalist who has always had a passion for cooking and her approach to food is based on her knowledge of tight budgets and limited time. You can follow Fiona on her Facebook page. 

 

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Rare breeds are a rare treat!

A lot of you will already know that I am a bit of an old softie when it comes to baby animals and fluffy things in general… so you can image how incredibly soppy I get when surrounded by a farm full of gorgeous creatures that I am allowed to stroke and pet!

Totnes Rare Breeds Farm is a really rather special place. It was founded by Jacquie and Barrie Tolley in 2001, who were concerned about the decline of traditional British breeds. A scythe, a digger, and a lot of hard work later, they’d built a rare breeds farm, which opened in June 2002. Since then, the farm has been expanded and is still being improved.

What began as a collection of farmyard rare breeds has gradually grown. The smallest pygmy goats, and very inquisitive pigs! I am a big fan of pigs and can assure you, theirs are the sweetest!

You can also get close to the endangered wildlife of the English countryside, making this much more than just a petting farm. You can touch a hedgehog’s prickly spines or admire the gripping pads on a red squirrel’s foot.

Wizard the eagle owl – who is very large and actually a little bit scary – really seems to enjoy affection and he, and his eight feathered friends, can be seen up close and stroked. It’s amazing to be so close to these beautiful creatures and to be able to look right into their eyes.

What sets Totnes Rare Breeds apart is the opportunity it gives to really get close to the animals. The majority of pens can be entered, and almost all their inhabitants stroked, patted and cuddled. They will even give you a free pot of special food to take round to ensure you are the centre of attention!

The Farm is a non-profit-making organisation and relies on the work of volunteers and the support of its customers. You can sponsor the animals with all funds going towards vets’ bills.  And the final icing on the cake…? You can visit the Rare Breeds Farm in conjunction with the South Devon Steam Railway and there are joint ticket deals available. Heaven!

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