Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A possible dearth of kingfishers

14th – 28th December were known as the Halcyon Days, a time when the gods ensured calm weather so that the kingfisher - whose old name was halcyon - could hatch her young in peace.

Christ mas tree at twilight
 With the wild and wet weather lately there's bound to be a shortage of kingfishers in 2014, sadly.

So, little opportunity to garden as the weather hasn't allowed and preparations for Christmas have had to take precedent. 

Christmas is always a good excuse to have lots of flowers in the house. The cats have enjoyed investigating the arrangements, knocking the cards down from every possible surface - accidentally of course - and have even helped open presents, especially Estella who has a penchant for paper.

Christmas swag

One can't enjoy gardening and not be an optimist. Winter jasmine and verbena are in full flower and primroses and hellebores are showing the promise of colour to come. Lots of spring bulbs are already making their presence felt and I've had great fun thinking about which plants to buy next year to fill a space previously occupied by a small topiaried holly tree which has gone to the great compost heap in the sky.

Here's to good gardening in 2014
A thought to carry into  2014


Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Quince jelly

For the very first time ever, my six year old quince tree not only flowered but produced fruit this summer. Looking very much like contorted furry pears, I duly picked the golden fruit as directed - in early autumn - with a mix of anticipation and delight.

Quince tree with fruit
The slightly furry fruit smells delicious and on Gardeners' Question Time some while ago garden expert Pippa Greenwood confirmed that she often had a bowl of quinces in her study, simply to scent the room. None of the team were enthusiastic about cooking with quinces alone and recommended adding them to apple recipes to enhance the flavour.

Some years ago I was given a Christmas present of a set quince jelly, known as membrillo which was usually eaten as an accompaniment to cheese. So, last weekend, armed with a substantial trug full of quinces, I determined to have a go at making quince jelly for myself.

Trug of golden quinces
What a palaver!

The fruit had to be peeled - not an easy operation given the shape of the quinces - then quartered, another difficult operation  as the fruit is so hard that my fingers were quite sore after all were finally prepared. They were then boiled for more than an hour to soften the flesh and left to soak in the cooking liquid overnight.

Liquid and chunky flesh were then poured into a jelly bag and left for hours to drain. I had to resist the temptation to help the process along by squeezing the pulp as this would have resulted in a cloudy jelly.
Estella's helping paws

Then, for every 17 fluid ounces of liquid, 12 ounces of sugar had to be added to the pan together with the juice of one lemon, the sugar dissolved and then the syrup boiled for 10 minutes until setting point had been reached.

For all that time and effort I ended up with 6 quite tiny jars of a glorious orange-coloured, clear liquid.
Admiring my handiwork the next morning I tilted a jar, only for the liquid inside to list sharply - the syrup hadn't set firm after all. Disaster!

Nothing daunted, I had to empty the syrup into a clean pan and boil all briskly again, adding the juice of another lemon for good measure. This time all went well. I did have a wonderful, membrillo-like solution which smelled delicious with a fragrant honey flavour, tempered with undertones of summer.

Summer captured in a jar

Sadly, my six jars had dwindled to four, with a small amount left over in a fifth jar. That one will have to be mine. The big decision now is how to decide which of my friends will be fortunate enough to be given a taste of summer in the depths of winter. Will it be you?

Friday, 8 November 2013

Still no time 'to stand and stare'

Despite everything slowing down growth-wise, this is such a busy time in the garden. I no longer ruthlessly cut back perennials, preferring to leave most plants to die back naturally, ensuring safe refuge for many over-wintering insects and leaving most seed heads for the birds, but even so there has been lots of shrubs needing to be pruned and mountains of leaves to be raked and swept. 
Epimediums before the frost
The first frost last weekend took its toll, fortunately I’d already moved tender geraniums and dahlias into the cold greenhouse and tucked them in for the winter. I’ve spent most of my spare time this week planting spring bulbs in the borders – all now half price at B & Q – especially tulips which mustn’t be planted before November or they may suffer from wilt.

The Christmas hyacinths are already under cover in pots in the garage and I still need to plant small terracotta pots with iris reticulata. I saw some for sale earlier in the year. They looked so pretty and were so expensive that I made a mental note to pot some up myself.

Late-flowering clematis with honeysuckle
I finally made the decision to have a small holly tree removed and the space this has opened up is extraordinary. I’ve had a semi-circle of paving placed under the old apple tree and, following two useful outings to Egglestone Hall Nursery, quite a few different perennials are now in place in the left border. Daffodils, narcissi, tulips and alliums have been planted and there is still room for more plant-buying expeditions in the spring - can't wait!                                                                                    

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Harvest Festival

I seem to have mixed up the seasons and am just now waking up after hibernating, blog-wise, over the glorious summer months, many of which I’ve spent visiting other gardens and horticultural shows.

Dalmain House

I need to gird up my loins, however, as I've been asked to open Pablo's garden under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 6th July next year. Crikey! Too soon to cross fingers for fine weather.

The glory of golden rod - solidago

 Lots of tidying and cutting back to be getting on with and with only another three garden bins due I fear I’ll be paying lots of visits to the local tip. I do so regret that the garden recycling scheme ends in November. It’s far too soon for Pablo’s garden as I’m often still working in it well into January and would prefer to have the option of monthly collections during the winter. If we have to pay Durham County Council £20 for the privilege of having the bins emptied perhaps they’ll consider extending the service. Some chance!

Astrantia 'going over'

The pear trees have served the crows and starlings well. Both trees are now too large for us to harvest the fruit but we do gather windfalls which fall on to the lawn. Although the small fruit don’t look especially appetising they taste wonderful. Sadly, they don’t keep very long.

I used to have manic days making jam and chutney and wine but now I try to give most of the pears away. (Many friends now pretend to be out when I call with my annual harvest festival. They’re all too exhausted from their own frantic jam making and can’t face yet more fruit). I have made a really nice pear and ginger cake, however. Just replace pears in any apple cake recipe, add a dash of ginger and some stem ginger if you have it and voila!

Greenhouse tomatoes

We have four old apple trees, varieties unknown, and again, despite some of the fruit looking unappetising (we don’t look after the trees as we should), they also taste delicious. I’m not sure which if any are designated as eating apples but I cook with them all so it doesn’t matter. I do enjoy picking them.

Apple heaven
Herewith my favourite apple cake recipe which just happens to be:-
Mary Berry’s Very Best Apple Dessert Cake

8 oz self raising flour
1 level teaspoon baking powder
8 oz castor sugar
2 eggs
half teaspoon almond extract
5 oz butter – melted
12oz cooking apples, peeled and cored (windfalls are fine)
1 oz flaked almonds

Preheat the oven to 160C/Fan 140C/Gas mark 3
Lightly grease an 8inch loose-bottomed cake tin

Measure flour, baking powder, sugar, eggs, almond extract and melted butter in a bowl. Mix well until blended, then beat for one minute.
Spread half the mixture into prepared tin.
Thickly slice apples and lay on top of the mixture in the tin, piling mostly towards the centre.
Roughly spoon the remaining mixture over the apples.
*Make sure mixture covers the centre well as it will spread out in the oven.
Sprinkle with flaked almonds.
Bake for 1hour and fifteen minutes, approximately until the cake is golden and coming away from the sides of the tin.
Dust the top with icing sugar before serving.

Delicious served with ice cream or crème fraiche as a dessert, or eaten warm with morning coffee.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravely ground:
My father, digging, I look down

Till his straining rump among
The flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the
Bright edge deep.

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog,
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper.
He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the
Squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

               Seamus Heaney

                                        from Death of a Naturalist collection 1966

Perfect peace

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Surviving - just

The Mediterranean-like warmth of the last few days has been a pleasure but has caused much pain in Pablo's garden. The borders are so dry that in some parts of the borders autumn is almost upon us. 

Area behind the greenhouse suffering in the heat
Many flowers have already gone over to producing seed for next year's promise and the holly tree has decided to speculate on more dry weather to come by shedding some of its leaves in anticipation. 

Perhaps we now need to emulate the great Beth Chatto and seriously consider utilising a Mediterranean style of planting which uses perennials that thrive in hot and dry conditions, often surrounded by areas of gravel?

Or maybe not.
Despite much of the expected colour at this time of year having been bleached by the unremitting sunshine, some plants have come into their own and have produced stunning flowers for the first time in the  garden.

Eryngium courtesy of Chris from the allotment

The tiny pond area has been an ocean of calm and cool despit the paucity of yellow flag iris this year.
But oh where are the frogs? I have only ever seen one and he vanished immediately I spied him (or her).
I trust the terrible twosome haven't been dabbling paws in the water as they've been spied near the neighbour's pond, looking longingly at the goldfish.

An tiny ocean of calm

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Garden for Pablo

Tribute to Pablo cat
Despite spending lots of time working in Pablo's garden, I've not spent time recording the development of the garden borders since Pablo left us.

The catkins are a delight but I feel disloyal to our little pal, somehow, by depicting them in his garden. However, life does go on and I need to recognise this and move on also.

No matter how much Portia  and Estella become family members, Pablo Cat will always have a special place in our hearts and, even now, I imagine  I see him skulking in the borders, hiding in his 'penthouse' flat in the greenhouse and waiting to welcome me home with his own special hello.

Estella reclining

Portia hiding

Friday, 21 June 2013

Garden visits

Such a busy time in the gardening calendar, even so I've been neglecting my garden, gallivanting - visiting inspirational gardens in Cheshire in the company of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens.

Norton priory walled garden

Who could resist venturing in to this Georgian walled garden at Norton Priory via this amazing garden gate?

I saw some wonderful planting and garden layouts  which have made me reconsider parts of Pablo's garden. These may be jobs for the autumn as the borders  currently are filling up with wonderful colour, so much so that the plants that I just had to buy on my travels will be really hard to insinuate into the borders currently.

How to create a vista - at Levens Hall

However, it's a task which I will relish once I finally finish planting tubs and hanging baskets - I wasn't exaggerating when I said I'd abandoned my garden temporarily for unfamiliar gardens, but how glad I am that I did.

It is so refreshing, as well as life-enhancing to wander, in brilliant sunshine, through glorious landscaped gardens that you haven't had to weed and tidy! Despite many of the plants being familiar, seeing them in different planting schemes and hence contexts allows you to really see and appreciate them.


The glory of the every-day, oriental poppy


I'll leave you with inspirational words from Fletcher Moss's Parsonage Garden near Didsbury where, incidentally, the inaugural meeting of the RSPCA took place  as a result of a local lady's objection to the use of bird feathers to decorate womens' hats.

Birds of a feather...

A garden for all

Monday, 27 May 2013

Time flies

May has all but vanished in a cloud of frantic gardening catch-up sessions with no time to ‘stand and stare’ and formally document the changes taking place in Pablo’s garden. The care of the two new arrivals also takes time but it is time well rewarded as Portia and Estella are delightful and help to fill the gap left by Pablo.

I acquired a goodly number and selection of perennials from the Botanic Garden plant sale and, unusually for me, have actually planted them all out in the borders as I already had ear-marked areas where there were gaps. Also a neighbour has had a tree removed near the perimeter fence, opening up more possibilities for additional planting. I’m currently checking out RHS books for likely, colourful shrubs to fill the shady gap.

I want something which will give good colour all year round and am leaning towards a particular acer which grows in neighbouring gardens and is currently a fantastic mix of yellow, orange and green. I can’t find it listed in my books and am gearing up to knocking on doors to find the answer! I also would like more dogwoods especially the lime green variety which will look wonderful against the euphorbia.

The glories of the bluebell wood

I did manage a walk in the bluebell woods adjacent to Durham’s Botanic Gardens a couple of days ago – hence the one solitary image shown – kindly sent by friend Elaine. It had rained heavily beforehand, making the walk difficult in places, but it was so worthwhile – hosts of bluebells with their sweetly smelling perfume – such an uplifting and glorious sight. The bluebells in Pablo’s garden are something of a misnomer as they range from blue to pink and even to white. I picked a few, together with garlic flowers and leaves, earlier today but need to place the jug somewhere safe from inquisitive claws …

Thursday, 25 April 2013

No time to stand and stare

Starting to activate now sunshine has appeared I am in the throes of a manic tidying session.
My kind neighbour, Steve, has allowed me to fill his garden bin as well as my own, saving me another visit to the tip for the time being.
Yellow crocus

Seeds are mostly planted in the cold greenhouse and so far sweet peas and lupins have made an appearance and indoors the tomato seeds are also sprouting - albeit slowly. It is such a joy to see some of last year's newly-planted perennials begin to wake up - proof positive that nature, not love, conquers all. It is almost time to air the summer house cushions and prepare for balmy nights in the garden. The new cats have another two weeks before their next round of injections and only then they can be let loose on  Pablo's garden.

More spring flowers

In the allotment mountains of manure have been spread. Many more raised beds have been prepared and my International Kidney potatoes have been planted at last. The ground is beginning to warm up and soon vegetable planting can begin in earnest. Preparation for the annual Pollards Allotments plant sale on 18th May is under way and seed trays crammed with tiny bedding plants have made their appearance in the communal greenhouses.

Harrogate Spring Flower Show started today - voted the best garden show according to Which readers.
Well worth a visit, it continues until Sunday - enjoy!

Thursday, 18 April 2013


No time to garden proper this past week as two new arrivals have made their appearance - Estella and Portia - 8-month old sisters, from a cat rescue. We've forgotten what a handful young cats can be but, although only being here 7 days, they've already made a niche for themselves and wormed their way into our hearts. They are really nice with each other and, despite having lovely new beds each, prefer snuggling up together.

Their personalities have already made themselves known; Portia is extravertly friendly and likes nothing better than trying to eat my breakfast porridge, whereas Estella, the more introvert of the two and much more reserved, is really slyly mischievous and has already tried to climb up the chimney. Fun and games yesterday when the vet arrived to give them their first injections and worming. Blood was drawn - both Jean's and mine - and Estella took the huff and spent forever lying above the cooker hood, refusing all coaxing to come down.

Today, however, all seems forgotten as they vie for food and attention.

I can't wait until they're allowed out into Pablo's garden but fear for the birds..

Estella musing
Portia reflecting

Friday, 5 April 2013

Spring Has Come

Easter flowers

There is an old saying that sping has come when you can put your foot on three daisies and at The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle on Wednesday some of the lawns were awash with them. I  was always told it was unlucky to step on a daisy and in the Jubilee Park in Spennymoor as a young girl I had to tread exceedingly warily. My Aunt Bell had a lovely poem she used to recite about daisies but for the life of me I can't remember it and noone else in the family can recollect it either.

In Scotland daisies are known as bairnwort because of children's habit of using them to make daisy chains. The leaves were used in Elizabethan times as a cure for rheumatism and gout.

Ringtons vase with spring flowers

Buttercups and daisies
Oh, the pretty flowers;
Coming ere the Spring-time
To tell of sunny hours
                                   Mary Howitt


Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Language of Flowerrs

I discovered a forgotten poetry book entitled 'A Present to the One I love' in a bedroom drawer. The poems are all anonymous and, despite being somewhat mawkish, I found the one below which seemed relevant to a garden blog.

Flowers Have Tongues

What flowers shall I select, love,
  To declare my heart to thee?
First, I will name the Moss Rose,
  An emblem of love in me.

Geranium Pink I prefer you
  To all the world so wide;
Mezereon, I wish to please you,
  The Violet, my love will abide.

Peach-Blossom, I am your captive:
  The Pink tells my love is pure;
Heart’s-Ease, you occupy my thoughts;
  Vervain, your conquest is sure.

Witch-Hazel, by love I’m spell-bound,
  Red Tulip, I declare it;
Valerian, do you accept my love,
  And live with me to share it.

The Honeysuckle and Heliotrope
  Avow my true affection;-
O point me to the Christmas Rose,
  To calm my sad reflection.

The Moving Plant I hope will touch
  Your breast with agitation,
And the green Palm a vict’ry speak,
  The Myrtle, love’s creation.

The Thornless Rose, I live for thee,
  The White Pink, thou art ever fair,
The Hawthorne tells me still to hope;
  Trefoil, we shall a Union share.

Friendship, like Ivy, will be the knot,
  Canterbury-Bell, shall constant be;
Then be it so, says Forget-Me-Not,
  Amen! Says the Everlasting Pea.

Still not gardening weather although the sun has shone today.
We did visit the wonderful Egglestone Hall Gardens yesterday and enjoyed the delicious coffee and scones in the newly-decorated tea room but the plants in the nursery gardens were hidden under a covering of snow so I wasn't tempted!

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Put a spring in your step

Do not despair!

Winter aconites in Auckland Castle grounds

Spring must be just around the corner for, despite the night frosts and the cold, bleak days, the birds are stealing the linings from hanging baskets and  scrambling amongst the planted tubs, yanking out winter pansies, in their desperate need to prepare for nest building whilst creating such an upset in their wake.

Hellebores emerging
Daffodil and tulip bulbs are popping up all over the borders and we have been anxiously awaiting Norman's annual visit to prune back the overgrown leylandii and the crown of the old holly bush etc before the birds have had time to built their nests.

Almost despairing - today, despite the cold and rain, All Seasons Arboralists did arrive with their wood-munching machine. Within a few hours they had transformed the overgrown tangle of trees and shrubs at the bottom of the garden into a smart peripheral hedge.  The rampant white rambling rose, Kiftsgate, has been tamed, allowing the ancient apple tree some respite from the rose's tortuous thorns.

I can't wait now for some dry weather to allow me the opportunity to tidy up the rest of the garden, spring-clean the summer house and begin to plant both flower and vegetable seeds in the cold greenhouse.
Gro-bags and compost have been ordered from Pollards Allotments so I'm all set to begin gardening in earnest in 2013.

More hellebores - much more advanced, growingin the shelter of iris foetissimus

The greenhouse was cleaned and disinfected some weeks ago. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm to capture the emerging spring bulbs on camera, I'd popped said camera into the pocket of my fleece whilst sorting out the cleaning of the greenhouse and, while washing seed trays in Jeyes Fluid, I leaned over and my wonderful digital camera disappeared into the soapy depths! Hence the paucity of garden images in the last couple of weeks.

Shy hellebore flower in close-up

I promise to do better in the future and spring into action very soon.

Friday, 1 March 2013

White Rabbits

From being small,on the evening of the last day of February, just before going off to bed, my aunt used to  remind me that the following morning,1st March,  I was to walk downstairs backwards repeating 'white rabbits'. I never asked why and now I'll never know. It was only as I altered the kitchen calendar this morning that I realised that once again I'd forgotten to do it.

February has been a difficult month -

One day - a sunny yet frosty morning

The next - the garden smothered in snow

Even so, while we were huddled together trying to keep warm indoors, miracles were taking place underground.

The winter pansies shook off the snow and greeted Kathrine Hodgkin, a delightful form of iris reticulata.

If gardening doesn't teach us anything else it should teach us faith in a future - as a sign of hope the elegant snowdrop is hard to beat.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Pablo Cat 1994 - 2013

R.I.P. little pal

What do cats remember of days?

They remember the ways in from the cold,
The warmest spot, the place of food.
They remember the places of pain, their enemies,
the irritation of birds, the warm fumes of the soil,
the usefulness of dust.
They remember the creak of a bed, the sound
of their owner’s footsteps,
the taste of fish, the loveliness of cream.
Cats remember what is essential of days.
Letting all other memories go as of no worth
they sleep sounder than we,
whose hearts break remembering so many
inessential things.
                                         Brian Patten

Monday, 11 February 2013

A walk in the park

When North Winds do blow

It’s too cold to garden but the perfect time to take a walk in the park - Auckland Castle Park of course - which is what friend Elaine and I did a couple of weeks ago, in the snow.

View from the Deer House

Quite a few others had had the same idea, including, of all people, a man riding a unicycle! A walk last year in the snowy park elicited a skier which was fairly unusual for Bishop Auckland, but a unicycle in the snow was completely bizarre. 

Close-up of amazing  tree bark

We wanted to take photos of the trees draped in snow, but, ironically, the snow had only just peppered the trees so we concentrated on the deer house. 

Sadly, the Deer House is almost a deserted folly as deer are rarely to be seen although there are substantial herds at nearby Whitworth Hall and also some miles away at Raby Castle. In its heyday, the Bishops, their family and guests used to picnic in the tower of the Deer House while watching deer caring for their young in the central courtyard below.

View of  the roof tops of the Deer House

The future of the Bishops’ Park and Auckland Castle are now assured with their recent purchase by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer. His plans to make Auckland Castle a major tourist attraction and a centre of ecclesiastical history are on target and - especially of interest to gardeners -  work on restoring the walled kitchen garden has already begun and, hopefully, the garden will be open to the public later this year.

Looking upwards in the Deer House