Welcome to my Country Days Blog!

I’ve lived in Devon for over 30 years and while I spend most of my time working in my studio, or in front of a TV camera or on an exhibition stand, country living does give me some time and space… to think about my next project!

A crafter in the country is never bored – nature is a huge treasure trove! Beachcombing, walking on Dartmoor, or rummaging about in hedgerows (while Richard pretends not to notice) produces all sorts of goodies. Shells, feathers, wildflowers, leaves – natural things are so often the ‘light bulb moment’ that gives me an idea for something new!

I have hundreds – actually, make that thousands ­– of ideas and projects from crafts to cookery to flowers that I thought I could share with you through a weekly country-inspired blog.

I love hearing from fellow crafters and swapping ideas and useful hints and tips, so do please feedback your comments on my blog, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun!

Autumn leaves…

The drop in temperature this week confirms that Autumn has definitely arrived. Crisp Autumn days can be absolutely gorgeous and the beauty of Autumn leaves always makes me feel… well, what? Nostalgic? Romantic? Sad? All of those things I suppose, but there’s also a peaceful, ‘snuggly’ feel and the promise of wood smoke and conkers and fireworks… and then Christmas – one of my favourite times of year!! And then the cycle starts all over again…

But why do leaves change colour so dramatically before they fall? Leaves contain chemical pigments, like chlorophyll, that makes leaves green and help in the process of photosynthesis. The leaves also contain the chemical carotene which has a yellow colouring.

Carotene is in the leaves all year, but is hidden by the green of the chlorophyll. As autumn approaches and temperatures, especially those at night, begin to drop sharply, the chlorophyll breaks down and reveals the other pigments within the leaf (such as the carotene) that aren’t affected by the cooler temperatures… and hey presto, the beautiful reds and golds we love start to appear.

Autumn leaves are very beautiful and a joy to press. If you don’t have the time or patience to press them conventionally, you can always try ironing them between sheets of blotting paper. Iron them on a low to medium setting and then get creative!

A friend of mine wanted to replace the glass panel in her Victorian-era front door. She couldn’t find any etched glass to her taste, so she pressed some leaves, bought two panels of glass to the correct size and ‘sandwiched’ the leaves in between sealing the sandwich with some clear silicon sealant, the sort you can buy in any hardware store.

Once dry, she put her ‘double glazed’ panel in place and careful tacked the beading back. The leaves have been replaced once over the years, I believe, as they do fade in the sunlight, but it’s an unusual idea and one that has earned a lot of compliments!

I’d love to hear your ideas for Autumn leaves. Do you press them or simply mulch them to put back into your garden? Quite often, I’ll collect the brightest, plus a few conkers and cob nuts and put them in a bowl on the table just to admire such lovely natural beauty…

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Pear and bramble pie

Now is the time of mist and mellow fruitfulness… We have a pear and an apple tree in our garden, plus blackberries that ramble over the back fence. We therefore try all possible combinations in pies, and I actually prefer pear and blackberry to the more usual apple and blackberry mixture.

You will need:

 

  • 675g (11/2lb) self raising flour
  • 450g (1lb) white vegetable fat
  • 6-8 Conference pears
  • 450g (1lb) blackberries
  • 45g (3 tbsp) Demerara sugar
  • Water

 

Serves 8-10 people

Peel, core and slice the pears. Cook them gently in enough water to cover, with 30g of the (2 tbsp) of the sugar – it is important to cook them gently to keep their shape. Leave them to cool. Cook the blackberries with a little water and the remaining 15g (1 tbsp) of sugar and leave to cool. It is better to keep the pears and blackberries separate – it makes no difference to the taste but does improve the finished look of the filling.

Make the pastry by rubbing the fat into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add about a cupful of water to form a soft dough. Divide the dough in half and gently roll out the first half on a very well floured board. Lift the pastry by folding it over the rolling pin and line a greased 30cm (12 inch) dish with it. The pie is easiest served if the dish has straight sides. Mould the pastry round the edges of the dish and trim off any excess.

Drain the pears and blackberries (save some of the juice), still keeping them separate. Cover the base of the pie with the pear slices and then cover them with the blackberries. Spoon a little of the juice over the fruit and discard the rest. Roll out the other half of the pastry and, having moistened the edges of the bottom layer of pastry with water, place the pastry over the pie to make a lid. Press gently around the edges and trim off any excess. Brush the top of the pie with milk, or a mixture of milk and egg yolk, the use any scraps of pastry to decorate the top of the pie with leaves, apples or any other design you like. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200ºC (400ºF), gas Mark 6 for 25-30 minutes or until the pastry is cooked and golden brown

 

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No need to shell out!

I hate throwing things away, especially natural things, so I’m always interested in ideas for recycling. Egg shells are of course lovely things in their own right, and we’ve talked about blowing and painting them before… but what about the typical broken egg shells that we throw away every day after we’ve used the eggs?

My Hen Pal, Julia Wherrell obviously has lots of eggshells and has some interesting ideas on what to do with them, plus some ideas she’s been told by other hen enthusiasts… see what you make of these…

1. Sprinkle broken up eggshell around your garden to deter pests

Soft-bodied insects like slugs or snails don’t like crawling over sharp pieces of shell, I find it works really well.

2. Give your tomatoes a calcium boost

Blossom-end rot is a common tomato problem and it’s caused by a calcium deficiency in the plant. A very successful veg gardener friend of mine puts eggshells in the bottom of the hole when he plants out his tomatoes to help combat this problem. I’m definitely trying this next year as my tomatoes were rubbish this year!

3. Use them to start seedlings

I think this is a lovely idea, especially if you are short of space. Give your smaller seedlings a start in rinsed-out shells! An egg box fits perfectly on a small windowsill so use this to hold your eggshells. They need to be at least half shell in size, so try and remember that when you’re next cracking some eggs, rinse them clean and then plant up your seedlings as normal but obviously, best to stick to smaller things, like herbs. When you come to plant out, gently crush the shell as you plant it and it will decompose in the soil around your plant.

4. Compost them

Add calcium to your compost by adding shells to your compost bin.

5. Sow directly into the soil

If you don’t have time, energy or inclination to compost, simply dig crushed shells directly into your garden. It’s still better than just chucking them out!

 

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Beautiful hair – naturally

The best way to impart the benefits that various herbs can give to your hair is to use the plainest, mildest, natural shampoo, choosing the best quality you can afford. You can then add extra ingredients such as herbal extracts or fragrance at home. The resulting shampoos will be gentle, but will have strong herbal properties tat will boost your hair’s condition and looks. Here’s a nice simple one for normal hair:

Gentle herb shampoo

  • 100ml (7 tablespoons) mild, unscented shampoo
  • 6 drops geranium essential oil
  • 4 drops lemon essential oil
  • 2 drops parsley essential oil

Method: Carefully drop the essential oils into the shampoo bottle. Replace the cap and then shake thoroughly until they are blended with the shampoo.

Avocado conditioner

For all hair types

  • 1 small or half a large avocado
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 5ml (1 teaspoon) wheatgerm or avocado oil
  • 3 drop parsley essential oil

Apart from making you feel a little foolish as it looks as if you’ve dunked your head in a bowl of guacamole, this treatment gives you hair a soft and shiny finish.

Scoop the flesh out of the avocado and place in a small mixing bowl with the egg yolks. Using a fork, mash the two ingredients together. Then add the wheatgerm or avocado oil and the drops of essential oil, and blend thoroughly.

Using your hands, massage the conditioner into your hair and scalp, making sure it is well covered. Wrap your hair in kitchen foil and relax for about 15-20 minutes. Then rinse your hair with plenty of water and dry as usual.

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Don’t be too tidy… and help wildlife!

I really don’t want to admit it, but Autumn is here. It’s September and the days are getting noticeably shorter.

Even for those animals and creatures that don’t hibernate over the winter months autumn time is very much a time to stock up on supplies. You’ll see more birds gorging on autumn berries in the garden and fattening themselves up on whatever they can.

If I do any digging at the moment I find myself closely watched by a beady eyed but very tatty little bird… it’s a young robin. It still has the pretty gold speckling of youth and patchy bits of red breast just starting to show. It pounces on every worm and I watched it gobble up two enormous worms the other day. It had a third lined up, but kept pecking at it half-heartedly, I really think it was completely full, but couldn’t bear to leave it! He eventually gobbled that one down as well – a very full tummy!

They are such lovely little birds, but robins are renowned for their aggressive territorial nature. I hadn’t realised until I looked it up the other day that the juveniles don’t develop their red breast until they are mature because otherwise their parents would attack them and drive them away just as they do other robins!

If you want to encourage wildlife in your garden don’t be too tidy! Late butterflies will be tempted by fruit that’s fallen from trees in the garden and you may get more of an opportunity to see hedgehogs as they look for food to stock up on their reserves in preparation for hibernation.

There are still seeds to be found on the likes of sunflowers and thistles, so by allowing this kind of vegetation to die off it provides more food and shelter, for birds in particular as well as other wildlife.

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