For Mother’s Day my son bought me a heart with this on it – it’s now displayed in the kitchen and every morning it makes me smile – and reminds me to count my blessings. Eric Idle always makes me laugh.
Always look on the bright side of life If life seems jolly rotten, There’s something you’ve forgotten! And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing, When you’re feeling in the dumps, Don’t be silly chumps, Just purse your lips and whistle — that’s the thing! And always look on the bright side of life
As I write, all hotels, cafes, restaurants have been closed, all events cancelled, and a lot of people are in isolation – but at least it’s finally stopped raining and the sun is shining – winter is over and summer is just around the corner.
People have discovered that they really do not need to travel so much – it’s possible to work from home – and it’s relatively easy to hold a board meeting online.
Families are discovering each other – and finding things to do together. Books, jigsaws and family games have come out of hibernation and everyone is learning about home education. We home-educated two of our children (under very different circumstances!) and there’s a book telling our story on https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=barbara+rainford&ref=nb_sb_noss
As our family watched Boris Johnson last night, it reminded me of my mother telling me about the war – and how everyone used to huddle around the radio to listen to Churchill – and how he inspired everyone with his speeches: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” My son remarked: “At least we are fighting a virus now, not other people.” And it’s only toilet rolls that are rationed!
So here’s some happy pictures to cheer everyone up.
We can still dance and sing, enjoy music and films, sit in the sunshine and watch the butterflies. The flowers are still growing, the birds are still singing, the fruit trees are in bud, the bees are busy and the buttercups will soon be out again.
When we first found our dream home, the sun was shining on golden chains of laburnum and frothy pink cherry blossom. The wooden farm gate was open and as we walked down the drive wild birds fluttered away – and – I remember quite clearly – a jay flew across into the field – the first jay I had ever seen.
The house was totally empty – not even a light bulb was left – but it still felt warm and welcoming and we fell in love with it. The garden was neglected – no flowers – but the grass had been cut and there were lots of trees. The traditional Rowan tree by the back door to ward off evil – and a beautiful spruce tree – which we later found out is a Brewer’s Spruce.
We moved in on 3rd August, 1992 with two-year old Dane and Kirt on the way (born the following January), one border collie, two cats and 3 ducks – and lots of ideas for homesteading.
One of the first things I did was visit the local library to borrow books on sheep, pigs and donkeys (google wasn’t around then). After talking to local farmers, I soon realised that it is much easier to have someone else’s livestock in your fields – all the pleasure of sheep bleating in the morning without the problems of dipping, shearing and all the form filling – so that’s what we did.
But we bought some hens and geese to keep our ducks company – and later on I started breeding New Zealand White rabbits again.
With 4 acres, the possibilities were endless.
There was a massive shed for the poultry – which they all shared quite happily.
The conservatory on the side of the house was perfect for growing seedlings – I started out with growing flowers – and had soon filled the patio with tubs and hanging baskets – and some vegetables – potatoes and broad beans – and runner beans. Initially I dug a small vegetable patch which has gradually been extended year after year until it’s now big enough to grow everything – courgettes, pumpkins, onions, strawberries, purple sprouting – all sorts of vegetables – and a rhubarb bed.
I also grew my own herbs from seed. I had brought spearmint and applemint with me – cuttings originally from my aunt – whose green fingers I inherited. When Kirt started home-schooling one of the first things we did was to make a proper herb garden – we marked out squares with bricks and gradually filled them – then extended them. The herb garden now contains Rosemary, Bay, Sage, Thyme, Hyssop, Fennel, Lovage, Parsley, Feverfew, Lemon Mint, Oregano, Marjoram, Tarragon – and the latest addition – Angelica – which is a magnificent plant.
I used to dry herbs and hang them up in the conservatory – and freeze some (like mint) in ice cube trays. Now I dry some herbs in the warming oven, chop them in the blender and store in jars – but I also freeze some in small plastic bags which are perfect for soups and mint sauce – and retain the flavour better.
Mint and horseradish have their own separate spaces as they do tend to be rather rampant. And basil and coriander were grown in the conservatory as they like to be a bit warmer – and also the slugs love them! They were later relocated in the polytunnel.
I also found that dried herbs make wonderful firelighters – when cutting them down in the Autumn, tie them into bundles and hang up to dry. They are much better than – and greener – than traditional firelighters – ad because of the oils they contain – they work exceedingly well.
Dad bought us some apple trees and a greengage and we bought some blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and a loganberry. A friend gave us a cutting of a thornless blackberry – and some raspberry plants. Loganberries, blackberries and raspberries all need lots of space – and need cutting back vigorously every year.
Fruits are wonderful for homesteading – when you have made enough jams you can use the rest for making country wines. Home-made jams taste divine. Wines are a bit more hit and miss – but they are always good for cooking – and elderberry wine makes excellent mulled wine mixed with sugar and spices.
When I lived in Birmingham, I used to breed New Zealand White rabbits – and I had brought all the equipment with me – so we found some breeding stock and started again. Baby rabbits are born blind, deaf and without any fur – but, by the time they are 3 weeks old, they are little white furry balls hopping around and they are absolutely gorgeous. Rabbit manure is excellent for the garden so makes a wonderful addition to my natural recycling programme. Rabbits like lots of wild plants like comfrey, clover and wild garlic – as well as dandelion leaves – and carrot leaves are their absolute favourite.
So we don’t have a green bin to put out for the refuse collectors. We have a compost bin, the rabbits eat a lot of the weeds, the hens eat scraps from the kitchen (their favourite is bacon rinds but you are not really supposed to give them meat!), the dog has meat scraps and the cats demolish most of the chicken bones. And the ducks eat the slugs and snails. I have also seen the hens eat mice and frogs on occasions.
When digging over the vegetable garden in winter, pause for thought and watch the hens scratching about for worms – stop for a cup of tea and return to find the robin sitting on the spade handle waiting for titbits.
The trees are amazing, here is the beech tree through the seasons
There’s a beautiful silver birch and a really old willow tree – which the boys loved to climb when they were little.
This is the oak tree in the field – with broom growing beneath it.
Some of the hedges are ancient hedgerows with blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, alder, beech, hazel and oak, interwoven with brambles and honeysuckle.
We kept part of the field as a wildflower meadow with ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, knapweed, restharrow, pink campion and lots of different grasses. The butterflies love it and I have spent wonderful sunny summer afternoons counting holly blues, commas and painted ladies – and peacocks, red admirals and small tortoiseshells on the buddleia – and joining in the Big Butterfly Count.
JANUARY is the time when all the garden catalogues arrive and you can spend hours deciding what you would like to plant – the only problem with having enough room to grow everything is restricting yourself to what you can physically manage.
I soon learned what grew well on our sandy soil – and what our family would eat – which were not always the same things! Peas are definitely better from Bird’s Eye. By the time you have grown them from seed, planted them, protected them from pigeons, fed them, picked them and podded them – it’s blindingly obvious that frozen peas are a much more sensible alternative.
The first winter I was absolutely delighted to discover at least 3 different varieties of snowdrops growing in the garden, closely followed by celandines and coltsfoot.
There’s a badger sett in the big field – our neighbour says it’s been there as long as he can remember. Badgers make scuffs in the ground looking for worms and truffles so you can see when they have reappeared from hibernation. There’s also rabbits and moles – so our field is a sort of combination of Wind in the Willows, Watership Down and Duncton Wood. There’s an ancient beech tree – Queen Fagus – and an oak tree – King Quercus – and on our morning walks we often hug a tree – we can only just reach around the beech tree – finger-tips touching!
The variety of birds is simply amazing – the first time the Great-Spotted Woodpecker graced us with his presence I was simply dumbfounded. He is so beautiful – he loves peanuts but also sunflower seeds.
I have also seen a kestrel perched on the fence – and a sparrowhawk on the table outside the kitchen window. Buzzards are often seen being chased by crows – and the finches and tits love the pine trees.
We’ve put bird boxes up and the great tits and blue tits use them – but the blackbirds, robins and wrens prefer to make their own nests in various places in the barn – especially in the holly wreaths that I hang up ready for renewing the following Christmas.
The frogs return to the pond and you can hear them burbling late into the evening, then frogspawn appears and gradually morphs into tadpoles.
Best of all, the birds start singing in the mornings and we open the bedroom window to listen to the liquid notes of the blackbird floating in on the breeze.
The daffodils are out – at one time there must have been a hedge in the big field but all that remains now are three clumps of daffodils.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd – a host of golden daffodils” – which I believe was written about Stourhead – but daffodils always remind me of this poem.
Seed sowing starts in earnest. My Dad bought me a small propagator which is marvellous for starting off difficult things that like the warmth – courgettes, tomatoes and pumpkins – and sweet peas – I used to have real trouble getting sweet peas to germinate until last year I bought some Eckford Sweet peas – an old fashioned variety – which grew really well
Time also to plant early potatoes – and the first rhubarb appears – lovely and sweet and tender at this time of year – perfect for rhubarb crumble.
APRIL – the swallows return, swirling and swooping over the fields.
Oh, to be in England Now that April’s there … While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now … Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge Leans to the field and scatters on the clover Blossoms and dewdrops—
The apple blossom appears – the crab apple tree first almost luminescent in the twilight of lengthening evenings. The blue tits and great tits are busily feeding chicks, popping in and out of nest boxes.
The yellow flag irises are out in the wild pond
Beltane 1st May – the first day of summer in the ancient Celtic calendar – and the Druid celebration of fertility when the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God. We celebrate with lots of flowers in the house, music – and lighting candles.
Time to plant runner beans and French beans in pots – ready for planting out once the last frosts have gone. Dig a bean trench and fill it with compost from the compost bin – and put the bean sticks up. Plenty of hazel trees in the field hedgerows to cut bean sticks from.
Clear out pots and hanging baskets ready for geraniums, lobelia, impatiens and petunias – lots of colour for the summer patio.
The elderflowers are in full bloom – ready to make elderflower cordial and elderflower champagne.
The cushions are put out on the chairs around the patio table ready for breakfasts in the early morning sunshine – and summer barbecues. We always celebrate Midsummer Eve – like the Moomin family – it’s a special day – with music and dancing outside under the stars. In the past we had to rig up a speaker with wires connected to a stereo – now we just have a Bluetooth speaker and a mobile phone!
New potatoes, broad beans and strawberries are all ready to pick. There’s nothing like broad beans fresh from the garden – and I love podding them – sitting on the bench in the sunshine. Small sweet broad beans only take 5 minutes to cook. New potatoes, freshly dug, cooked with mint and melting with butter are divine!
JULY Hot summer days, the patio is a riot of colour. The great tits are busy feeding their brood on the bird table. Last year Daisy, our Dorking hen, hatched 4 chicks and Jemima, one of the Indian Runner ducks hatched 4 ducklings. Amazing to watch the chicks crowding around mum, as she pecks corn into tiny pieces for them to eat. When the ducklings are a few days old we give them a bigger bowl of shallow water so they can have their first swim – they get so excited and whiz around the bowl quacking ecstatically.
The raspberries are ripe – and the ducklings love them. Raspberry jam – and jelly – and raspberry wine. Blackcurrants also make delicious jam and wine – and redcurrants for redcurrant jelly to eat with chicken – and turkey at Christmas.
The poppies are out
AUGUST – shooting stars – lying on the trampoline on quilts and blankets looking at the stars – and spotting wishing stars – and planes and satellites – and watching the bats across the darkening sky.
The sunflowers are out
The butterflies are at their best and I can spend ages watching them on the buddleia – and on the ragwort with the bees and the stripy cinnabar moth caterpillars
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare …”
1st August is Lughnasadh or Lammas and marks the first day of harvest – when corn dollies were made from the first straw and bread from the first wheat.
Time to lift onions and set them out to dry before tying into ropes.
Courgettes tend to be rather prolific at this time of year and I’ve been quite inventive in using them up before they turn into marrows. Curries, soups, salads, all benefit from the addition of grated courgettes. They are of course best fried in a little butter!
The greengages are ripe – I found the best time to pick them is when it’s raining – as there aren’t many wasps about. They are the sweetest plums and best eaten fresh – although they are also good bottled for winter use.
SEPTEMBER – the harvest – I am usually picking runner beans and freezing them – and picking tomatoes – and skinning them, chopping them and freezing them in tubs to use in Bolognese, curries and soups.
Blackberries are ripe for blackberry jam and blackberry wine – along with loganberries and elderberries. One year I made a ‘many berry wine’ from a mixture of fruits left in the freezer – and elderberries.
Rose hips are ripe – they contain lots of vitamin C (twenty times more than oranges) – ideal for keeping winter coughs and colds away. During the war – when there were no oranges – children were given rose hip syrup from the Ministry of Health. Rose hip syrup is quite easy to make – it makes a lovely summer drink with ice cubes – and a warming winter toddy diluted with hot water.
Time to pick apples and store them for winter use – the rabbits love them and so do geese. One of the pleasures of keeping livestock is enjoying watching them eat titbits – during the summer the rabbits have lots of plants from the garden – in winter it’s mainly apples and carrot tops.
Hallowe’en is always special – The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter and we have a sort of combined Guy Fawkes and Hallowee’en around the weekend of 31st October – with a bonfire and sparklers – and ‘Jack’o’Lanterns. There’s a lovely story about ‘Stingy Jack’ and how is destined to roam the earth with his Jack’O’Lantern. https://barbararainford.co.uk/halloween-in-barbaras-back-yard/
The last few years we have had an Indian Summer and the days have been really sunny although the nights are drawing in. Runner beans have carried on cropping into November – when the first frosts finally finish them off – and the nasturtiums are ‘gone willy-nilly, umbrella and all’.
For the last few years I have made an autumn wreath with berries and crab apples and hung it on the bird table, the birds don’t seem to be very interested, but it looks very pretty.
Time to clear the garden, remove the rest of the weeds, take down the bean sticks and tidy up the herb garden. Cutting down or pruning the herbs I found a really good use for the cuttings – I dry them on top of one of the wire hen pens and then tie them into bundles, hang them up to dry in the barn, and they make really good firelighters – and much better than those smelly paraffin alternatives!
Time also to pick holly – before the birds pinch all the berries – and store ready to make holly wreaths.
1st December is Yule – make a Yule Log with holly and pine cones and candles for the table – and holly wreaths with moss and holly and ivy, laurel and spruce and hang them on the old front door – and the barn door. I always think about all the other people in times gone by who have hung a holly wreath on the very same doors hundreds of years ago. Although the house has five bedrooms it has been extended at least 3 times and must have been originally a traditional cottage with two rooms downstairs, 2 bedrooms and a thatched roof. The study still has the original oak beams and thick sandstone walls – and a fireplace which must once have been an old range.
There must be lots of secrets that have never been uncovered – there’s a wall safe that’s never been opened; when we extended to connect the studio to the main house, the roof beams were exposed and you could see the remains of the burnt timbers where we assume the thatch caught fire. There are still some old wide floorboards on the landing.
We’ve installed a wood burner and it’s wonderful to curl up in front of a real fire on a Sunday afternoon with a good book – sometimes watching snowflakes swirl outside or with a glass of mulled wine on a winter evening.
December we usually visit Croft Ambrey to see the mistletoe on the hawthorn trees – and bring a small piece home. There’s nowhere to hang it because the ceilings are so low so it hangs over the Yule log on the dresser.
Our Christmas tree always comes from Holly Farm Nursery just up the road – all their trees are grown locally at Fauls Christmas Tree Farm so are very carbon friendly.
Maynards Farm, two doors down, provide local geese, turkeys and hams for Christmas dinner and we save the last of the parsnips, potatoes and carrots to go with them. We have home-made apple sauce and redcurrant jelly. One year I even managed to grow some sprouts and cauliflower that survived the pigeons and slugs – which were delicious!
And so to New Year and the circle of life begins again.
I finally found a farmer to cut the grass in our fields – and make hay – 164 bales! I had to pull all the ragwort out first – fortunately a cinnabar moth fluttered past – which reminded me that they lay their black and yellow caterpillars on ragwort – so I left some plants at the edge of the field.
Cinnabar moth – photo courtesy of butterfly conservation
I check on the caterpillars every day when I take Duke for his morning walk – and of course the bees, hoverflies and butterflies also love ragwort so there’s quite a visual orchestra to watch every morning.
The caterpillars absorb the toxins from the ragwort which makes them taste bitter and they are unpalatable to most birds – an exception being the cuckoo – and most other predators – except ants. If there is not enough food they will also eat each other!
This is a small copper
And here is a speckled wood
I will of course have to remove the ragwort before its seeds blow everywhere but hopefully the caterpillars will have finished eating by then and turned into pupae!
Today’s Treasures – Our Beautiful British Butterflies
Buddleia bushes can tend to be a bit rampant and take over a small garden but, if you cut them right back in the autumn, the following summer the flowers will be covered in butterflies and you can spend a wonderful sunny afternoon watching them fluttering and floating and gathering nectar from the purple blooms. Definitely recommended as one of the most relaxing and stress-relieving ways to pass the time.
And you can also take part in the Big Butterfly Count: Launched in 2010, this is a nationwide survey which helps assess the changes in our environment. It is one of the world’s biggest surveys of butterflies. Over 100,000 people took part in 2018, submitting 97,133 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across the UK
Anyone can take part – anywhere – parks, school grounds, gardens, fields or forests – or during a walk – simply count butterflies for 15 minutes during bright (ideally sunny) weather – and record them online at www.butterfly-conservation.org.
Sir David Attenborough, President of Butterfly Conservation, Alan Titchmarsh MBE, Mike Dilger, Nick Baker, and Joanna Lumley OBE have all given their enthusiastic backing to the project.
The European Peacock butterfly lays its shiny black caterpillars on nettles or hops. The butterflies drink nectar from a wide variety of flowering plants, including buddleia, willow, dandelions, marjoram and clover.
The red admiral migrates from North Africa and continental Europe. The butterflies continue flying into October or November and are typically seen nectaring on garden buddleias or flowering Ivy.
The speckled wood butterfly likes brambles in hedgerows and partially shaded woodland and feeds on honeydew in the treetops – and occasionally on marjoram and buddleia. They like dappled sunlight and can often be seen chasing each other making spirals in the sunshine.
The ringlet also likes field edges with brambles and privet, butterflies also feed on oregano, thistles, scabious and hogweed. But the female lays her eggs in grassy areas and the caterpillars feed on grass. The ringlet can often be seen with characteristic bobbing flight on cloudy days when other butterflies are inactive.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Today’s Treasures – The Eckford Sweet Pea Festival – Wem
The Eckford Sweet Pea was first bred in Shropshire – but it is named after the horticulturist, Henry Eckford who was born in 1823 in Edinburgh.
In 1870 Henry Eckford was in charge of a garden at Sandywell in Gloucester and his employer encouraged his interest in breeding plants. When they moved to Boreatton in Shropshire, Dr. Sankey encouraged him further and he started the development of the sweet pea which had changed little since it was first introduced from Sicily in 1699. In 1888 Henry Eckford moved to Wem and established Eckford’s Nursery which specialised in sweet peas and now sweet pea lovers from all over the country visit Wem in July each year for the Eckford Sweet Pea Festival, organised by the Eckford Sweet Pea Society – and Wem has become the ‘Home of the Sweet Pea’.
There are over 70 classes of displays of sweet peas including formal vases, baskets, bowls, plants, floral art and a children’s section. The show includes a Society Stand with experts available to offer advice and answer sweet pea questions and seeds of pre 1910 Old Fashioned Sweetly Scented Varieties are available to purchase along with gardening accessories, plants, souvenirs, collectibles, and jewellery. There will also be crafts including a willow weaving demonstration (have a go).
Despite winning an award for ‘Midland Specialist Event of the Year 2014/15’ by Going Places, this may well be the last Eckford Sweet Pea Show as the society has failed to find new volunteers to join and help with running the event.
Eckford sweet peas have a beautiful fragrance – and I have also found them to be much easier to germinate than other varieties I have tried.
There were 7 puppies in the trailer – all clamouring for attention. They were different colours as their mother was a blue merle border collie – both parents were working dogs. I instinctively chose the one that looked most like my old Duke. I picked him up in my arms and was speechless. It had been so long since I had held a dog in my arms, it was a wonderful feeling, a dog of my own again. And this time, he would be living with me all the time. A permanent companion, sharing my life outside – but such a lot to learn first!
I asked what food he had been having – standard dried dog food mixed with milk (dairy farm dogs nearly always get milk with their food). I took a small amount of the dried food home with me. And we also had the paperwork for his microchip. Since April 2016 every puppy has to be microchipped and registered by 8 weeks of age.
I got the towels ready for the journey home – nearly two hours – he slept most of the way – but was sick three times. We finally got home and I found a old collar for him (he wasn’t terribly happy about having it round his neck – but he soon got used to it).
I expected him to wake in the night so I slept on the settee downstairs, surrounded by newspaper. He slept in the old cat basket which was just the right size. Surprisingly, he slept through the night. I took him out for a wee first thing in the morning – then he got back into bed with me.
The next night we made a bed for him on the floor in our bedroom and he slept on that. But subsequent nights he kept waking up – and waking us up – so he now sleeps on our bed – between us – and with his head on the pillow if he can possibly manage it!
I fed him on the dry food mixed with a bit of tinned food but he was sick every time he ate. He usually ate it all again, and second time around it stayed down. I asked advice from our local animal food supplier and Belinda said to feed him dried food soaked in water in small amounts at regular intervals. This generally worked and it was only if he ate something different – or too much at once – that he was sick.
His name was pre-ordained – as he looked like my old Duke – he became Duke II – and learned his name quite quickly, along with sit and stay.
Our garden is fairly secure but, from previous experience, if a border collie wants to get out – he will get through anything – so we had to watch him all the while. He had been brought up with hens in a farmyard so didn’t chase them – but Dillon the cockerel wasn’t terribly happy with this new addition to his domain.
Duke sniffed inquisitively at the rabbits – Lunar, mother rabbit with babies in the hutch – got quite cross at puppy sniffing at her and turned her back on him. Offended, he barked at her – she was not impressed!
Duke was used to hens – ducks were a different matter – and Duke was fascinated with these strange things – he wanted to investigate further – but of course they ran away when he went near. So this is going to take a bit of time. The ducks learned to keep out of his way – but Jasmine duck has just hatched 3 tiny ducklings so we’ve had to provide a secure pen – and Duke will have to have some lessons in looking after the ducks – my old Duke used to round up my ducks at night and put them to bed.
So, to our first walk in the field. The grass is quite high in places and Duke couldn’t see where he was going, so he followed ‘doggedly’ in my footsteps – until we reached the badger set – where the grass is shorter – and he started sniffing around. Then we had a dig in the sand by the rabbit holes – and he got sand all over his nose.
He’s now learned to fetch a ball – he will bring it back if he gets a treat. He still curls up in the cat basket – but he’s really too big for it now and ends up half in and half out of it.
Potty training is not going terribly well – he hasn’t got the hang of going to the toilet on newspaper so we’ve given that up – instead we take him outside every time he wakes up and after he’s eaten – but he still doesn’t seem to know the difference between inside and outside – and if it’s raining he really doesn’t want to go out – for a farm dog he’s certainly over-fond of his home comforts.
He loves serrano ham treats – and melon rind – and he’ll play for ages with a broad ben pod. He’s nearly wrecked the conservatory – I’ve had to move everything off the worksurfaces as he’s managed to climb up – somehow.
He’s had all his injections and we’ve been patiently waiting for the day we could go a proper walk – which was Thursday – but it hasn’t stopped raining since then! Made a mental note to remember the poo bags! Wonder how he’ll get on with other dogs?
As soon as the buddleia comes out I always take some time to watch the myriad different butterflies who just love the purple spikes. There’s often a dozen peacock butterflies sunning themselves on the flowers, sipping nectar, fluttering their wings and showing off their spectacular colours.
Counting butterflies on a beautiful sunny afternoon is a tranquil, calming experience, watching them flutter from flower to flower, sometimes dancing together against the blue sky and skating clouds, seeing how many different butterflies join the feast; large and small whites love the flowers and there’s usually one or two red admirals and commas as well. This year there were also two painted lady butterflies – but no small tortoiseshells – evidently they have been attacked by a parasitic fly – one of the reasons why David Attenborough’s butterfly count is so important – we can see the effects of these invasive insects.
Butterflies love buddleia because it produces lots of nectar, its deep flowers are accessible only to insects with long tongues and its flowers are clustered together so a butterfly can collect lots of nectar from one place. Verbena and cosmos also attract butterflies – and food plants for their caterpillars include nettles and thistles. Also ragwort which is a fascinating plant to watch – dozens of different insects love the flowers and the black and yellow caterpillars of the beautiful red cinnabar moth love the leaves.
I also discovered that we have two different blue butterflies – the common blue – which likes bird’s foot trefoil – and the holly blue which (as the name suggests) feeds on holly (and ivy).
Meadow browns (left) and ringlets (right) love the marjoram in my herb garden.
Published in the August edition of the Whitchurch Gossip
Every year I end up with too many courgettes and don’t know what to do with them – so this year I have tried out a few innovative recipes:
Nearly marrow sized courgettes can be cut into one inch thick slices and baked in a little oil for around half an hour at 180°, turning occasionally, until soft. (I use a mixture of sunflower, olive, groundnut and sesame oils but any mixture is good.) Liquidise and use in curries instead of tinned tomatoes. You might need to add a little more spice than usual to give more flavour – but my family never noticed the difference.
Grate courgettes and add to salads (don’t overdo it else they do get noticed!)
I have also added grated courgettes to spaghetti Bolognese, stir fries and pasta dishes.
Brush whole baby courgettes with oil and barbecue alongside sausages.
I finally let the chicks and ducklings out of their shed to free range today.
Because I have lost so many hens, ducks and rabbits to foxes, polecats and goodness knows what else I have been extremely careful with these new ducklings and chicks. So they haven’t got 4 acres – they have 10 square yards with a hedge and a duckpond – and a big shed. So it’s not exactly free range!
The first thing the ducklings did was eat some grass, then they ran round and round quacking excitedly, they are so delighted to be outside. They haven’t found the pond yet – I moved their water bowl outside and they are dipping chunks of bread in it.
They keep out of the way of Doris (head honcho hen) but seem to get on fine with Grace (grey hen) and the chicks. They are very inquisitive, poking their beaks into everything, trying different plants – and spitting some of them out! They like plantains but not burdock or feverfew. When they find something distasteful they quickly dunk their beaks in the water bowl. It’s lovely to see them outside. They keep together – if one runs after something – the other quickly runs too.
Grace has wandered off for a dust bath under the hedge – she seems very relieved to be out in the fresh air with some grass to eat.
The chicks are exploring, occasionally cheeping to one another when they find something interesting – or get too far apart. They have most of their feathers but are still fluffy whereas the ducklings have all their feathers.
Doris has followed Grace and gone off for a dust bath and left the little ones in peace. They are finishing off the bread and scraps. When Doris comes back to the water bowl for a drink, the babies keep well out of her way.
The Herb Garden is my favourite place to sit and dream. As you can see, it’s not just herbs – there are a few wild flowers as well – the foxgloves just come and go as they please, setting seed in the most unlikely places – and there are poppies in every corner of my garden.
Herbs are so versatile – some have pretty flowers like thyme, borage and hyssop – all of course have definitive scents – lavender and lemon balm, sage and tarragon, fennel, basil and coriander.
They make delicious flavours for the simplest meals – tarragon chicken, rosemary lamb, garlic and parsley bread, chopped chives with potato salad, mint sauce, sage and onion stuffing.
I love experimenting with herbs – my latest success was potato wedges roasted in olive, sunflower and groundnut oil sprinkled with a mixture of herbs freshly picked and chopped. Traditional horseradish sauce made with freshly chopped horseradish root, salad cream, fresh cream, mustard powder and a hint of cayenne pepper is divine.
Mint sauce made with apple mint, vinegar, cabbage water and a spoonful of sugar makes even the blandest cabbage delicious. Cooked carrots fried in a little butter with chopped lovage leaves give a continental twist to any meal. Fresh basil livens up any pasta sauce – sprinkle curry with coriander leaves just before serving for a more authentic taste.
Herbs also have healing properties – you don’t need to buy expensive packets of herbal tea – you can make your own by simply pouring boiling water over leaves of your choice.
Hyssop tea is good for maintaining healthy blood pressure – whether it’s high or low it helps stabilise it. Peppermint tea helps digestion and soothes an upset tummy. Chamomile is calming, sage is stimulating, fennel is relaxing.
You can add the flowers and leaves of calendula, nasturtium and borage to salads to add colour as well as flavour. Borage flowers frozen into ice cubes made an attractive addition to summer drinks. Mint is an essential ingredient of any Pimm’s cocktail. Poppy seeds can be added to cakes and cookies – and sprinkled onto bread rolls.
Wherever I am, I will always have a few pots of soothing, fragrant, healing herbs on my windowsill.
Published in the July edition of the Whitchurch Gossip