Little Green Shoots..

It’s beginning to brighten up here in Darkest Devon. In the morning, the woodburner is lit a little later. In the evening, the nights draw in a little more softly. And in the garden, all is quiet. Except, that is, for one or two stirrings, hidden in amongst last year’s mulch.

Today was a beautiful, cold, early spring day. And I thought, it’s been a long time since I wandered around my garden. These last few months, it hasn’t been easy to negotiate the uneven ground or climb the few steps at the back of the house. I’ve been a little nervous of stepping on black ice or slipping in a puddle. But today, it was sunny and dry – the perfect day for a little meander. And look what I found!

Hellebores - official evidence of spring!

Hellebores – official evidence of spring!

These hellebores grow in clumps on the east side of our house. They suit the shady, moist ground close to the wall of the house, and they’re already nodding their heads in the breeze.

Don't step on these crocuses!

Don’t step on these crocuses!

Irish has got the planting bug. He’s planning a bigger vegetable patch this year, and has been busy over winter, digging chicken poop, and a lime mix into the soil. I think it’s looking pretty good – and the chickens seem to be enjoying all the little grubs that his spade is turning over for them.

Nice Butt!  The chickens clearly agree..

Nice Butt! The chickens clearly agree..

And as I pottered about, I started noticing things I could do – little things, that wouldn’t hurt my sore hips. I thought to myself, ‘I could just cut back the old foliage those ferns so that the new shoots get some sun’. Or ‘Why don’t I quickly pick out all the dead grass on that bank that I couldn’t manage in the autumn?’. And I began, slowly, gently, a little bit painfully, to pick up my old hobby of gardening, the hobby I used to love before the PAO. And I realised how much I missed it – the fresh air, the birdsong, the turning things over. And underneath the old bracken and dead fern leaves, I found the best reward of all:

The best reason for gardening in February EVER.  Fact.

The best reason for gardening in February EVER. Fact.

A little patch of snowdrops that hadn’t existed at all last year! I may have been absent from my garden for the last six months, but it seems to be just waiting for me to return to it. And I can’t wait to get started.

A house full of flowers…

My last few – rather infrequent – posts have focused on my major pelvic surgery and the rehabilitation process, which has taken up most of my energy for the last month.  A side effect of this is that my poor garden has also had to take some pain.  I took this photograph just before I left for the hospital – the sun was out, the flowers were in bloom, the weeds were under control (sort of), and I really felt that the garden was starting to fulfil its potential.

Home sweet home…

Unfortunately, in the four weeks since my operation, I really have neglected things.  I’m tired, I’m sore, and when it rains (and we have had our fair share of rain this summer), I worry about my crutches slipping.  But the biggest inhibitor is the fact that on crutches, I have NO carrying ability – something I never considered before surgery.  Fancy a cup of tea?  You’ll have to drink it leaning against the kitchen worktop next to the kettle, because you won’t be able to carry it into the sitting room.  And drink it quickly – before your standing ability runs out entirely!  Meh.

For the first couple of weeks, I was too tired even to sit in the garden.  I missed my flowers, I missed my daily walk around the garden checking for the new buds that are developing, brutally removing anything slug like, or identifying the latest tendrils of honeysuckle.  So we decided to bring the garden indoors!

Sweet Williams in posy vases – chicken optional

..and again…

Flowers were banned in the hospital ward that where I’d spent the past 6 days.  It was necessarily a clinical, sterile, grit-free place. It was so good to see green and growing things again, and even better to surround myself with them – a symbol of new beginnings and blossomings. We knew that the sweet Williams would be over by the time I could get out to enjoy them, so we cut them all down and filled the house with them.  It looked pretty, but it smelled even better.  Putting the flowers on high places meant they weren’t in the way of my crutches.

We carried the theme on with alliums in the dining room…and hydrangeas in the kitchen.  And I discovered a weird thing about hydrangeas – they can look a bit seventies suburbia in the garden, but look stunning indoors.

Allium Christophii

Blousy hydrangeas in the kitchen

Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I’m back up to no good in the garden again.  Until then, my house full of flowers is reminding me to keep up my rehabilitation and physiotherapy – the garden needs me and I can’t wait to get back to my favourite hobby!

Colour Scheme? What Colour Scheme?

I am a bit of a gardening whore.  That is, I find it hard to resist temptation and buy plants without thinking about where they will go in my garden, and whether they will ‘fit’.  Which means that when it comes to colour schemes, my garden is a little bit ‘eccentric’.

A good example is this red rose next to this pinky-lilac poppy – especially clash-ful against the pale yellow walls of our house.  I don’t think I’d win any Chelsea medals for this combo!

Pink, red and yellow. I’m not sure it works, either..

The pink-red-yellow-athon continues in this bed with pink sweet williams and orangey-red poppies, alongside purple monkshood.

Mmm, ‘blended colours’. Maybe not..

When it comes to outdoor colour choices, I have a rather chequered history.  When we moved in 2 years ago our lovely Devon house was painted white.  There are a lot of other white thatched cottages in our village, and we decided we would like something a little sunnier.  So we chose a gorgeous pale yell0w and were rather shocked when it seemed rather more, erm ‘luminous’ than the powdery lemon we had envisaged.  Eek. We toned it down with this grey on the woodwork, which we were really pleased with.

Luckily, the house has mellowed over time and the creamy yellow now looks gorgeous in the sunshine, and has met with the approval of other villagers (if you live in a village, you will know exactly how important this is).  Even more importantly, it always looks like a happy house, even in the rain – and we have had rather a lot of rain recently!

So the colour choices are not always intended – but I’m fine with that.  After all, the colours in wildflower meadows aren’t exactly planned by anyone.  What matters most, I think, is that the plants are happy growing in the place they’re in. That and the rigorous removal of slugs.

These beds contain the full spectrum of reds and pinks. What brings it all together, I think, is the inclusion of purple in the foxgloves and allium christophii.   More about purple flowers in an upcoming post.

Foxgloves, roses, clematis and allium – just don’t wear them all at once.

To me, cottage gardens are about masses of native species.  I love coming home after work, getting out of my car, and seeing it bloom all around me.  I don’t care if it matches!  The colour doesn’t matter.  It’s the pleasure of growing that counts.

Cake Fail. Meh.

Oh bugger it.  This one hasn’t worked out like I planned – at all!  This (see exhibit A) was my attempt at adapting a red velvet cake from the Hummingbird Bakery.  In fact, in this photo the worst bits have already been cut away (for which at least the chickens were very grateful)

Exhibit A. Red Velvet? Where?

It all started because I saw these delicious raspberries peeking out from under the leaves in our garden:

Raspberry Delight? Sadly, not.

Poor things, I should have left them alone.

We planted 70 canes in March, and I was delighted that they have fruited so quickly.  And they keep coming!  So I thought this recipe would be the perfect one to adapt.  If you haven’t seen a red velvet cake before, it’s supposed to look like this (from Alpine Berry – of course she gets it right, grrr):

Red Velvet Cake – Alpine Berry does it right

The bright red colour comes from a generous splash of red food colouring, mixed with cocoa powder.  And the texture comes from the buttermilk in the mix that gives it a slightly tacky, muffiny feel.  BUT.  No sign of red velvet in my cake.  Irish pointed out that ‘brown with reddish smears’ is not the most appetising cake colour.  However once I’d cut the burned bits off, and tidied it up with some cream cheese icing, it actually looked passable:

Phew! Raspberries make everything better..a bit..

I think the reason it went wrong was because I tried to make it with two deep layers instead of three shallow ones.  I used the leftover cake mix to make some cupcakes, which actually turned out quite well, although they too looked pretty appalling when they first came out of the oven.

Cupcakes to the rescue..

Luckily, both cake and cupcakes tasted a lot better than they looked.  The moistness of the cake works really well with the raspberries added on top, and given Irish’s alarm at its rather , erm, stained appearance, he did manage to eat half of that giant cake in just under 24 hours.

So I offer you the recipe and challenge you to tell me where I went wrong!

For the cake mixture will need:

  • 250g butter, softened
  • 600g caster sugar
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons red food colouring
  • 3 tablespoons best quality cocoa powder
  • 375g plain flour
  • 250ml buttermilk.  If you don’t have buttermilk, put a tablespoon of distilled white vinegar into a measuring jug and top up with milk until the mixture reaches 250ml. Leave to stand, and after about 5 minutes you will magically have buttermilk!  I don’t know how it works (not really strong on science) but it does.  Trust me (despite the burnt cake).
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
For the Icing you will need
  • 250g cream cheese
  • 600g icing powder
  • 100g butter, softened
  • a handful of fresh raspberries

Preheat the oven to 170° and line three cake tins (I used two, and made cupcakes with the rest of the mixture).

Use a hand held mixer to cream the butter and sugar together.  Then add the eggs, one at a time, continuing to beat well.  Mix the cocoa and food colouring together and beat into the mix.  After that, you can add some flour, beat it into the mixture, and then add some buttermilk.  Repeat this until all the flour and buttermilk has been combined into the cake mix.

Mix the vinegar and bicarb together, and then add this gently to the cake mix – be careful not to beat it too much.

Put the mix into your cake tins, put them in the oven and bake for 25 minutes.  NB: Mine were still absolutely uncooked in this stage according to the skewer test – this could have been because I used only 2, deeper, cake tins.  It took about 40 minutes until mine were burned – ahem, I mean cooked.  When they’re ready, take the cakesout of the oven and leave them to cool in their tins before you tip them onto a wire rack.

For the icing, mix the icing sugar with the butter until combined, and then add in the cream cheese and mix together.  Don’t over mix or the icing will go runny!  Use the icing to sandwich the cake together (and if you’re me, to hide the scars where I had to hack off the burned bits), and to decorate the top of the cake.  Then decorate with raspberries.

So – I burned a cake, and I liked it!  I think there’s a moral in this story, but I can’t quite work out what it is..

Yummy – but best eaten with eyes closed.

The Wildflower Takeover..

I don’t need to tell you how rainy it’s been for the last, ooh, forever.  This has meant I haven’t been out in the garden as much as I like.  I’m gutted!  All those plans I had for barbecues, picnics, lounging around drinking Pimms and G and Ts…have obviously still gone ahead, but indoor Pimms just isn’t the same, is it? Meh.

So the garden is in a bit of a state and my weeding hasn’t been as dedicated as it might have been.  In fact, I haven’t weeded at all for rather a long time.  And in that time, the garden has been taken over by some truly beautiful wildflowers.  I’m delighted!

Campanula

This campanula looks stunning growing up into the ivy hedge.  It runs all the way along a Devon bank, and has put on a fantastic display this year.  I know lots of people aren’t fond of campanula because it’s really hard to eradicate and so vigorous that it overtakes a lot of other plants.  But to be honest, there’s so much space to cover in our garden, that I’m just glad it’s there to compete with the Ivy!

Welsh Poppies

Welsh Poppies are springing up everywhere too – which is rather intriguing as last year, we didn’t have any at all.  Perhaps the wet weather has really helped them thrive.  I’m pleased because it’s quite difficult to get these dainty little plants to establish, but once they do, they seed themselves quite happily year after year.  Note the foxglove growing in between the rocks in the background – I think this will make a lovely pairing and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together!

Herb Robert or ‘Stinkbob’

Herb Robert is a ‘marmite’ wildflower, I think.  You can recognise it by the dark red stems and musky, herby smell that people either love or hate!  No wonder the nickname for this plant is ‘stink bob’.  I love the smell – it’s fresh and reminds me of walks in the woods.  I bought a couple of tiny plants from Rosemoor Garden, just up the road from us, and planted them into one of our Devon banks.  Since then, the plants have exploded and covered a tremendous amount of ground with frothy leaves and dainty pink flowers.  They look so pretty mixed in with other woodland or hedgerow plants like white or pink campion.

Ferns and Foxgloves make a lovely pairing

This is another lovely pairing that is working well in soggy, shady weather.  Ferns and foxgloves don’t need huge amounts of light and work well in our Devon banks, hedgerows and under trees.  The fronds of the ferns really complement the tall spires of the foxgloves, and together give some great height and interest to borders.

I love how ferns unfurl their fuzzy leaves slowly in springtime, like furry caterpillars – it’s unlike anything else in our garden.

Ferns unfurling their leaves

So despite my fears, it seems that the garden is thriving.  It might even be a good excuse never to weed again!  I’ll definitely be sowing some wildflower seeds and encouraging more native planting in my garden in future.

Recovering from the 50 year storm…

The sun is out – hooray!

Like the rest of the House, our garden is a bit of a project.  When we bought the House, the garden was completely overgrown and full of weeds and non-native trees that didn’t fit with the conservation zone we live in.   We are in the process of landscaping the gardens, and this year we hope to build some raised beds to improve our self-sufficiency.  Part of this blog will be about the journey of the House and its garden, because watching it change and develop is one of my happiest pursuits.

After a vicious storm last night, the sun finally made an appearance in Darkest Devon today!  The first thing I did was check the garden to see which of my beloved plants had suffered the most.  It turns out that the bigger you are, the harder it is to survive stormy weather.  The worst hit was our beautiful copper beach tree – which is about 300 years old, the same age as our house.  I lay awake last night wondering if it was going to collapse on us through the roof as we were in bed.

Lots of branches were caught in the thatch of the house, and many others are  spread over the lawn. Luckily it seems to take more than a ’50 year storm ‘ to worry this tree, and when the sky finally turned blue, the dark purple hue of its leaves really stand out.  Strangely, the leaves usually turn green before they go purple, but the old tree was late coming into leaf this year, and when they finally came through, the leaves were the most vibrant purple that they have ever been.

Lupins

The plants that survived the best, were those that had been delayed by the all the rain.  Most of my lupins and foxgloves are  at right angles, which looks rather strange although the bees don’t seem to mind too much.  This lupin bed (left) has survived though, phew!

My favourite of the day is the bank of tiny purple and white flowers that are spreading vigourously under this blue hydrangea bush (see below).  Sadly I have no idea what this plant is called – it just miraculously appeared  over the last couple of weeks, but these tiny flowers seem to have flourished in the storms.  I love the contrast  between the enormous flower heads of the hydrangea and the tiny pinpricks of this flower.  If anyone can enlighten me as to what it is, I’d be so grateful as ‘the House’ has  plenty of ancient Devon banks that would really suit this pretty plant…

What I’m discovering about living in an old house is that you never really feel like you own it.  It feels like we’re looking after it for the next generation.  So in that sense I suppose it’s no wonder I feel a bit anxious when I hear the House creaking and shuddering in the storm.  But the pay-off is the sense of history.  The House is in the centre of our village and the residents have countless stories about its previous occupants.  The other day I found out that a couple of hundred years ago, it used to be a house for ‘fallen women’.  And seeing as I fall over at least once a day due to my rubbish hips, it’s nice to know that some things will never change!

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