Saturday, 21 December 2013

the shortest day

It’s the shortest day of the year in this part of the world; the watery winter sun rose and crawled lazily along the top of the trees, before retiring to bed early for the last time this year. The leaves are gone and the ground is full of winter rain – time to stay off the veg beds and catch up with some clearing and tidying. When I do my wreath making sessions I end up with a bunch of half made ones from where I have been demonstrating the technique. Secretly, I like the undecorated ones best; the subtle colours of the bark and buds, the way the stems have twined obediently under my hands. I usually hang a few in the orchard for keen eyes to notice among the branches.

It’s also a good time to raid the hedgerows around the museum for bean poles and pea sticks. While cutting brash to plug some holes in the hedges, I came across our resident Celtic wildman getting ready to do his ‘Iron Age celebration of the solstice’ demonstration sessions. It seemed rude to turn up empty handed to such an event, so I quickly whipped up a ‘no basis in historical fact or evidence’ Iron Age solstice decoration, using one of my stash of wreaths. I think it’s my favourite out of all of the stuff I’ve made this year – the hazel catkins are so delicate and pretty.

So here’s wishing you all goodness and light on this darkest night



Sunday, 15 December 2013

i had a little quince tree, nothing would it bear..

In between all the Christmassy stuff this week, a quince tree that I had ordered turned up. There is already a mature quince in the orchard, but it hardly ever bears any fruit. I looked at it in blossom this year and there was plenty of flower, but the rest of the pears had long finished doing their thing. If you look in the books, quince are supposed to be self fertile, but everybody needs a friend, right?

The tree that I had ordered was bare root, which is by far the cheapest way to buy trees. They are available here between November and March - as the trees slumber gently, they are lifted from the ground, root-washed and posted off to their new homes. They are light as feathers compared to container grown trees so the postage is cheap too.

They're just a little bit more challenging to plant if you're not used to them, and they don't like to hang around. You've either got to plant them straight away, or give them a temporary home in a pot if the ground is frozen or waterlogged. But as it's been mild and dry here for the last couple of weeks, I decided to summon up our two trainees for a quick lesson in bare root fruit planting.

It's important to plant the tree at the same level as it was in the field 
- the soil mark is visible just below the graft union.

We staked it and tied it and mulched it

and pruned the leader back to a nice healthy looking bud 
(in case the tip of the shoot had been damaged in transit).

Then we wrote down what we had planted so we don't forget!

Now all it has to do is grow...

Monday, 9 December 2013

chuck out the tinsel and head for the hedgerows

This weekend I ran a couple of Christmas wreath making workshops.  It’s a very popular activity and we could have filled the sessions several times over. I buy in a couple of bundles of craft willow and cut some hazel from the hedgerows. To decorate the wreaths I gather a few baskets of greenery, coloured stems, herbs and seedheads from around the gardens at the museum. 

Here’s one I made earlier.

Everybody gets to make and take home two wreaths, one of which they decorate.

The speedy workers also get to make stars out of the apple prunings from the orchard.

The sessions always start in a great twitter of nervous excitement and self doubt - proclamations are made of impending failure and lack of talent. But with a few simple techniques and a bit of support, calm concentration descends. Okay - so not everybody’s work would necessarily make it to the front cover of ‘Homes and Gardens’, but I have never done this session without everybody being delighted with what they’ve made. They leave with a spring in their step and an armful of Christmassy loveliness.

It confirms that thing we all know; that reconnecting people with their craft skills and giving them space to play and create is very powerful. It doesn't matter what you make/bake/build - it's the doing that's good for the soul. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

the only ffactor with a tractor

It's the final of Fferm Ffactor* this week and we're all very excited in our house. Some of you may be unaware of this farming task based, reality show on S4C (Welsh language telly) - but take my word for it, it's the greatest show on TV. The contestants compete in various farm based challenges, to win a prize of a pick up truck, and the title of 'Best Farmer in Wales 2013'.

This year there's a woman in the final 3 - Go Gwenno!

So in honour of the occasion I thought I'd show you some pictures of our tractors at work! 


Now my boss may not be very supportive of my idea for 'women's chainsaw group' - but as we are in the same dept as the farmers, we are encouraged to be competent with the animals and the tractors.

Mostly, that means pootling around after a few sheep or cattle on our little red 'story-book' tractor.

But sometimes I get to drive the big one...

Usually at haymaking time, when my ability to drive like your grandma in the supermarket carpark, is appreciated by those perched on top of a trailer full of hay bales. But this weekend I got an impromptu extra lesson in how to use the loader bucket at the front, and the PTO plus winch on the back. We have had some new fencing done, and the contractors had put in a gate that was blocked by some huge old, fallen oak trunks. Rather than chop them up to move them, we used the winch to drag them under the trees, where they will make great wildlife habitat as they decay gently.

Unfortunately I didn't get any pics - I was too busy pulling levers and being scared.

I'm not generally much of a petrol head,
but the chance to drag enormous bits of stuff round with a tractor and a winch was too good to miss. 


*'Ff' in Welsh is pronouced the same as a single 'f' in English. 
(A single 'f' in Welsh makes the English 'v' sound)

Monday, 25 November 2013

it's that time again

Orchard pruning time is here again - it's a job I find really satisfying.

This time last year, I dragged Mr Asparagus Pea out of bed and into work with me on a Saturday morning, to shoot a video of how to prune a pear tree. The weather was unkind.
It lashed down, and all the shots were spoiled by rain on the lens. 
So one year on, with a sparkly sunny day forecast for Saturday, we thought we'd have another go.

It was a fabulous frosty morning, and I'm really pleased with how our little film turned out. 

Fruit pruning is a big subject - many worthy tomes have been written. 
I wanted to demonstrate the process, and give people confidence to have a go.
(Hopefully without boring the pants off them). 

Massive thanks, as always, to my patient, clever husband for his camera and editing skills.

Monday, 18 November 2013

all the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey...

Imagine, if you will, a line stretching from the Amazon rainforest (lotta trees – no grass), to the steppes of Russia (lotta grass – no trees). Somewhere on the middle of that line is me standing in an orchard in Cardiff (some trees, some grass), raking up leaves. Grassland is fussy and will only persist if it is regularly grazed either by animals or lawnmowers, (or me with a scythe). Also, if I allow the fallen leaves to lie,they will kill the grass underneath. - not in a vicious hand to hand battle, just with a gentle suffocating sigh.

Now I’m talking about a lot of leaves here, because as well as the fruit trees, the garden is flanked by a stand of mature beeches. Last year I grumpily raked them up, wheel-barrowed them out through the gate and dumped them back underneath the trees.
It was a gesture designed to say ‘There you go – you can have them back!’ 
A bit like throwing your neighbour’s cat poo back over the fence...
( - not that I would ever do that). 

I’m not sure if the trees noticed. 

Then, when February rolled round and it came time to build the hotbed, a bit of research in Beeton’s Book of Garden Managementsuggested that beech leaves would be the perfect filling ingredient for those finding themselves a little short of fresh horse manure. So back out through the gate I went, and sheepishly barrowed in as many as I could be bothered to rake up.

Again, to their credit, the trees ignored me
(I told you they were mature).

So this year I’m trying to turn my frown upside down’ (barf), and view the deluge of leaves as the delivery that I ordered for February. I’m raking them into holding piles between the compost heaps, where they’ll gradually reduce in volume till I’m ready to use them to build the hotbed. After nearly a week off work with a bad back, it feels good to be out and about doing something so satisfyingly seasonal.

Monday, 11 November 2013

a knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork...

On Friday I spent the morning with a group of volunteers planting wildflower plugs into a piece of grass by the big museum in town. The plan is to create an urban meadow, with lots of stuff that's good for bees - then install some beehives on the roof. It's not my project, but I've been helping out with a bit of hort support. It was lashing with rain while we were doing the planting, so I was suitably dressed in waterproofs and boots. Before driving back to my museum, I decided to remove all my wet stuff and change my boots. While doing the 'don't put your socked foot in a puddle' dance by the back of the car, I seemed to have managed to stuff up my back. By mid-afternoon I felt strangely in need of a hip replacement, and my drive home was mostly in third gear as I was having trouble lifting my leg up to depress the clutch pedal.

After an early morning distress call to the osteo on Saturday morning, I am mobile again but extremely tender.  So what do you do when you're in an analgesic haze, with an attention span of about 10 minutes, and a fuse of about 5 seconds?

photograph cutlery - obviously!

As part of the kitchen renovations we put in a dishwasher - I've never had one before. It soon became clear that six forks was not going to be enough in this brave new world of domestic appliances. So the highlight of this weekend was a short shuffle round the corner to our favourite junk/vintage store. There are always a few trays of assorted cutlery and kitchen bits there - I find them very poignant, little fragments of ladies' lives that remind me of my nana's house. We have spent so much money and made so many 'choices' as part of the building process, that it felt good to assemble a haphazard handful of useful items delivered by the random gods of house clearance.

While Mr Asparagus Pea was downstairs perusing the defunct electrical equipment (his all-time favourite thing), I was on my hands and knees (can't bend over), rifling through the kitchenalia.  In amongst all the usual mixed stuff I found a little wooden box containing these stylish beauties.

They're from the 'Studio' range by Viners of Sheffield, designed in the 60's by British silversmith, Gerald Benney. Very mid-century modern with their elegant lines and bark textured handles. Now I don't normally buy with a view to putting stuff on eBay (unlike my canny husband), but a girl only needs so many fish knives (or in my case none). So I might cover the cost of my cutlery haul by selling this set of six.

(I do plan to wash all of this before it goes near any food -
 but the floor was the most comfortable place to take the pictures!)

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

getting my house in order

Anyone who has had any major building work done on their house will know that there is not really a definite end point. Sorting out the niggles and snags takes weeks, and in the meantime you slowly reclaim the living space and the scattered shreds of your sanity.  It's not like on the telly where Nick Knowles leads you into your fabulous new kitchen with his hands over your eyes, while 67 plumbers, sparks and plasterers stand around weeping about how much you deserve it. Off camera in another room, lurk the boxed up contents of your old kitchen cupboards, including your collection of antique jams, and a host of suspect looking jars of condiment from the early part of the century.

But we have (mostly) crossed the finish line and I feel ready to post some pics. I thought I would be able to do some really coherent 'before and after' shots, but it's making my head hurt even thinking about it. So I'll just try and give you a flavour of what we have managed to achieve.

These houses were built with three handsomely proportioned reception rooms to the front, and a tiny poky kitchen with outside toilet and lean-to conservatory to the back. The back of the house is south facing, so the outside lav was the best seat in the house. Knocking that through into the kitchen creates extra space, but throws up the problem of how to shoehorn a (much needed) second WC into the house. As a house full of 6 footers we were determined not to end up with a poo cruncher toilet in a head banging cupboard under the stairs.

The solution we settled on was to divide the third reception room in half to create a laundry room with WC accessed from the hallway, and a study/office/piano room leading off the dining room. We also needed to put in a new boiler, so that has gone in the attic. I'll show you the laundry and office when they are photo shoot ready. In the meantime - here is the new kitchen and sunroom...

Most of what we have spent the money on is structural work, plus the big ticket items like floors, kitchen units and work surfaces. But I'm really pleased that we've managed to hang on to the smaller, quirkier design details that make this space work for us:

pantry and fridge next to each other - putting the shopping away is one of my pet hates.

pantry door handle salvaged from one of the kitchen doors we took out

chairs £10 each - from local shoe shop closing down
nest of tables - £5 eBay
ceramic dish £3.50 - charity shop
tiles on wall salvaged from the outside lav

painted pegboard for hanging space

We never wanted 'new for the sake of new' - this project was about breathing new life into what had clearly been a much loved family home. Sorting out the structural and practical issues has allowed us to create a warm, light filled space that works for our family. I think it's what the house deserves...