Gardening again

The sun came out yesterday and it was just the ticket to get me going in the garden.

Oh my goodness, how I’ve missed it. The fresh air, the worms in our homemade compost, the tucking in of little plants to new homes. It was the happiest afternoon I’ve enjoyed in a long while. I blame the sunshine, mostly. It was so good that I had a little nap in the hammock between planting up the pots and arranging them on the patio.

I’m not sure which I enjoy more: transplanting new purchases (there was a trip to the garden centre in the morning) or watching old ones reawaken. My hosta, which I thought might have died, is putting on new growth almost daily:

My fern has had babies while I wasn’t looking:

But best of all, my £1 supermarket ‘cut flower’ hydrangea is still going strong one year later, as are two cuttings I took from it last autumn:

I also enjoyed moving these enormous and beautiful bulb lasagnas to a new location. Planted last autumn, we’ve enjoyed crocuses, daffodils and one lot of tulips so far, with a second nearly ready to come into bloom. I will be planting these again every year, as they have brought me so much pleasure over the past several weeks.

Ilse helped me sow four trays of flowers for the cutting bed, and as well as some cosmos and nigella direct. The lilies are reappearing, and the aquilegia are sending up their flower spikes. In fact, they’re self-seeded and I can’t wait to see what the new flowers look like, as they cross like nobody’s business. I was careful to avoid them in all my weeding. The peony is on the move, and we’re already on our second type of tulip for the house. What with the ever-steady alstroemeria, and the still-slumbering gladioli and freesias, there should be flowers for months, but I’ve put in some sweet peas and anemones because I love them.

If you peer very closely at the top picture, you might spot our willow fedges, planted about a fortnight ago. We have been watering them carefully and are crossing our fingers until they sprout. They are probably the best thing we’ve done to the garden for years. It’s amazing what a load of flimsy willow rods do to a space. Suddenly, I have three different gardens to tend, and it feels very liberating. Having spent the last two days on the flower part of the garden, I’m looking forward to getting going in the vegetable garden next week. But while the weeds and general air of dilapidation would normally frustrate me, the willow allows me to completely compartmentalise it. For some reason I am perfectly happy to ignore it for the time being. Fancy that.

I know that not everyone is as mad about their garden as I am every spring, so if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post then thank you! But if you haven’t gone outside and stuck your hands in some soil yet this year, I urge you to do so. Apparently it has some feel-good bacteria or something, but whatever the reason it cheers me up no end. Pick a sunny day and repot a geranium or something. It’s as simple as that. Happiness as nature intended.

Wishing you a very happy Easter, if you are that way inclined.

Madeleine

Do you love the start of the gardening season? Does it cheer you up too?

Still not gardening (sort of)

Having announced that I wasn’t going to be starting work in the garden before Easter, I have to confess that I did head out and do a little pottering on both days of last weekend, and have some more planned for today. Nothing major. But it would be a shame to let the tulips in my cutting garden bloom unseen:

or for the cuttings under the poly tunnel to go unwatered. I also have plans to plant two willow fedges before it’s too late, so Seb and I constructed three rather rustic-looking gates to keep the hens in the right part of the garden.

They aren’t finished – the willow ends need weaving back in on themselves, and the sticks need sawing off at the edges – but I’m glad to have them made and almost ready to hang. The plan is to add more and more willow to them over the years as the fence/hedges grow, and thus make them sturdier over time, although they are easily sturdy enough for now as it is. Our hens might be determined, but they are only hens.

The plan is to divide the garden into three: a civilised patio/ lawn/ flower area near the house, the rest of the lawn and the hen house, and the vegetable garden/ fruit patch/ compost heaps/ children’s dens tucked away at the back. Several of our neighbours have similarly divided gardens and it works well when they’re as big as ours.

For once, though, there is absolutely no wishing away of time until that project is complete, because in the meantime the garden is bursting into life in the most exuberant way. This is the view from the kitchen window:

and above the compost heaps the new buds of the cherry are fat and red against the rusty old keys of the ash tree beyond.

The hawthorn hedges are greening up nicely:

and there’s purple sprouting broccoli to accompany our Sunday roast.

Still, despite not really getting stuck into work out there just yet, I do have one goal for every day that I’m not at work, which is to enjoy at least one cup of tea al fresco. Which is why I’m going to log off and get straight out there to enjoy the sunshine while it lingers. In fact, I might even give the outdoor chairs a bit of a clean, and an airing. After all, that doesn’t really count as gardening, does it?

Madeleine

I hope your garden is bringing you as much pleasure as mine is bringing me – what are you particularly enjoying, just now?

Colours, inside and out

Normally I’d be in the garden at the very first signs of spring, but not this year. This year, for sanity’s sake, I decided that gardening would commence at Easter, and not before. So apart from watering the odd seedling on a sunny windowsill, I have no jobs to do.

Instead, I pop into the garden whenever I get the chance, and just wander about. I rugged up on Sunday and had a cup of tea in our lopsided pergola, surveying the emptying vegetable beds. We’ve been enjoying the last of the leeks and the parsnips, and the first of the perpetual spinach and PSB. Mostly, though, I just wander around, looking at what’s coming back to life. The most urgent garden-related job is eating our way through the bags of soft fruit in the freezer from last year and even the year before that. We need to make room, you see.

It is surprisingly liberating. On my way into mass last week I heard an older man comment to his wife that it was time to get the lawnmower out, gesturing to the lush new growth in the church grounds, and I just thought oh, there’ll be time enough for that. One of my neighbours was out dealing with the first dandelions of the season, and for once I thought that ours could wait. I’ve not lost interest in the garden. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am very excited about my plans for the new season. But I’ll start them when I’m ready.

In the meantime, I am quite happy polishing off my wool supplies. I finished a second little bonnet at the weekend and have tucked it away in my handmade gift drawer, ready for a teeny-weeny head. It’s even smaller than the last – more of a newborn size than 3-6 months, and used up the end of a ball of sock yarn. Since then, I’ve been crocheting a simple snood using up the odds and ends from all this winter’s colourwork knitting. I added a ball of vaguely mustardy yellow to the mix and am enjoying playing with the colours, just choosing the next stripe. It’s brighter than my usual makes, but I do like it. I’m not sure whether this will be for me, or another ready-to-hand present.

All things considered, I am quite pleased with my new approach to spring, even though it is really a response to the fact that I don’t have the time at home to do everything I want to all at once. I’m even beginning to think that might be a good thing. It certainly feels like it, from my vantage point in a sunny bay window. I might do a little final planning by the fire this weekend, and check my supply of seeds so that I’m all ready to go when the wool runs out. But that’s as far as the gardening is going to get, for now at least, and for once I’m okay with that.

Madeleine

Do you hit the ground running in spring or sit back and watch it instead? I actually think I might be enjoying it even more than usual this year, by just paying attention instead of making mental to-do lists. What’s your favourite approach?


Sleepy sewing

This was supposed to be a post about the start I’ve made on my 5″ square scrap quilt. Last weekend saw me dragging myself through the days, worn out by about six different factors, but determined to enjoy the days off. I managed a swim, some knitting, tidying the house (with lots of help from everyone, as usual), and a couple of hours in my little studio, sewing.

The quilt blocks themselves are easy enough to make. It’s going to be a randomised drunkard’s path quilt, meaning that all the curves will go off in different directions – you might remember me dying and cutting the pieces during the Christmas holidays. I made a highly technical template from a cardboard tea box, cut the first patterned squares into pieces and paired them with their grey counterparts to make quick, simple squares. Then I had the fun of arranging them into bigger, four block arrangements, like so:

Finally, all I needed to do was trim each little block down to the right size, and it was done. I merrily cut all 16 of the blocks I’d cut down to 4″ squares, before remembering (just as I was falling asleep one night) that 4″ was meant to be the finished block size. I told you I was tired.

No matter. Our potholders have been looking beyond shabby for some time now, so 16 squares will be perfect for two double-sided replacements. Worse things happen at sea.

Which means that I still have all 484 blocks to make. In truth, I have no intention of making that many this spring – I only have enough patterned squares to make half that number anyway. This is meant to be a long term project, using up scraps over the next two or three years. There’s really no rush, and the first 16 blocks were good practice anyway.

In other, more successful news, may I introduce you to the first seedling of the season? It’s a Grandpa Admire lettuce, and I can’t wait to eat it.

But today is going to include neither sewing nor gardening, because I’ve a little woolly bonnet to finish, and a sunny seat by the window to enjoy while I do so. It’s been a week of early nights and as much rest as possible so far, and I fully intend to finish it the way we started. And besides, the next set of squares are ready and waiting for a more successful sew next weekend.

Madeleine

Any silly sewing mishaps lately? Or other foolish errors? I for one find it hard to mind with all this spring sunshine and new growth around.

Small pleasures

This little bonnet took an inordinate amount of time to knit – or rather, not knit. February wasn’t a particularly productive month, what with all the other commitments we had as a family, and in the end I spent a couple of very pleasant days over half term finishing off a few odds and ends. As well as helping Fliss with her Jane Eyre dress, I sewed through the remainder of the projects I cut out in January, and had the pleasure of wearing my new tulip skirt to work yesterday. Best of all though, I spent a few hours in the bay window at the front of our house, listening to dramas on the radio and finishing this new baby gift.

Of course, now that I’ve made it, I think I’ve enough wool left over to make an even tinier version, too. It’ll look good in blue, with a white trim and strap.

There are a few more projects that I’d like to complete between now and Easter, because my lovely aunt in Scotland sent me home with two bags of fleece last weekend. Come Easter you’ll find me skirting, sorting and washing these. They came with plenty of lichen, and what with the elderberries that I never made into syrup, and the bag of avocado skins I’ve been amassing, there’s lots of dyeing on the horizon.

Before I get to that, though, there are a few other odds and ends that need using up. I’ve had my fill of colourwork knitting, having done so much of it over the past few months, so I’m going to crochet these piles of leftovers into a couple of snoods. There’s a ball of mustard yellow on its way to lift this little pile:

and a bigger crochet hook to enable me to crochet all three strands of these yarns at once.

It seems that I won’t get around to making another Winter Flora this spring, and while part of me feels that I ought to, another part of me just wants to play with these colours in a different (and quicker) way. And that’s okay. After all, hobbies are meant to be a pleasure, not a chore.

One very definite pleasure is the book on my bedside table this week, lent to me by a friend. The night I started it I stayed up far too late, reading long after my bedtime. As a result, I’ve set it aside as my weekend treat, when I can finish in long greedy gulps.

Between the fleeces, a good book and a spot of patchwork in the evenings, I’ve a lot to look forward to at the moment. Really, nine tenths of pleasure is in the anticipation. With that in mind, I’ve set aside half an hour this afternoon to start one of those yarny projects with a cup of tea and a hot water bottle, and I just can’t wait. Small pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things.

What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: dressing up

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

***

As you are probably aware, it’s World Book Day next week. Fliss has been planning her costume for months – literally: since last October. And sometime between then and now, I made the promise to help her make an 1840s dress from scratch.

Now, before you start thinking that I am one of those mums who spends days planning and making her children’s fancy dress costumes, can I assure you that that is most certainly not the case. My children are more likely to be pointed towards the recycling bin and told to sort themselves out than have much input from me. Partly this is because I have had years of dressing up days to contend with, but it’s more down to the fact that dressing up days are, in my opinion, all about giving children the chance to flex their imaginations and creative minds and come up with something all by themselves. I flatly refuse to buy or hire costumes for them – don’t have a look at statistics on the number of costumes that get sent to landfill each November if you’re of a sensitive disposition – because it is the most ridiculously wasteful way to approach the issue. Added to the fact that it doesn’t stretch the children at all, it sets my teeth on edge.

Why, then, did I promise to help Fliss sew an 1840s dress? Well, we started with something reused and upcycled – a charity shop sheet that had already served as a spookily enormous cloak last autumn. But more than that, I was swayed by her utter devotion to the project. She has spent ages poring over Victorian costuming books, fashion plates and illustrations in her own copies of classic novels. She’s begged me to watch the Dressing up as a … videos by Prior Attire, in order to understand all the different layers. And, in truth, it’s an area that I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a while now. There are many incredible creators of authentic (and not-so-authentic) historical dress out there that it’s a rabbit hole easily tumbled down, I can tell you.

Our dress falls very definitely into the not-so-authentic category. For starters, we used a polycotton sheet, because pure cotton sheets are hard to come by in the charity shops around here. We didn’t have the time, inclination or fabric to make copious numbers of petticoats to support her skirts. And of course she doesn’t own a corset – not that she needs one! Instead, we dug out a 1950s style net underskirt that was in the dressing up drawer (full of ghosts of costumes past, and heavily drawn upon) and layered her ballet character skirt on top.

The deal was that I would make the bodice while she made the skirt, and that we had from exactly 10am until 4pm to get it done. (Otherwise I could have spent days on this, and I have other things to do this half term.) This was a fast, furious and not particularly careful sew. I took the speedier, electric machine and she took the 1916 Singer, which she prefers anyway. We simplified the skirt, deciding upon a simple elastic waisted one instead of making cartridge pleats and then fixing it to the bodice – her ‘dress’ is actually a skirt and top. I wanted her to be able to make it quickly and easily and all by herself, which she managed with aplomb.

Thanks to York libraries we had access to a fabulous book, and this is the earliest of all the Victorian projects in it. And while we took shortcuts with the skirts, I am proud to say that I constructed the bodice authentically. The only things I changed were not lining it (to save fabric) and bias binding the neckline (because I ran out of piping). My favourite thing about this dress, apart from how wonderfully Victorian she looks in it, is how Victorian the bodice looks laid open, with all the seams in the right places, and not a dart in sight.

The pattern was surprisingly easy to draft. Because Fliss is still significantly smaller than the adult size given in the book, I scaled it down using not much more than common sense and intuition – not something I’d do were I making her a modern blouse. But that’s the thing about Victorian patterns – to my limited knowledge, anyway. They were made to be taken in and let out, adjusted as they changed owners and body shapes. The seams are left exposed and unfinished for a reason – and you can change the fit of the garment quite easily. I fitted the bodice on Fliss while we worked, pinning it into place and then sewing. The shawl front, which is actually a whole second layer on top of a fitted bodice, is simply attached at the neckline and pleated before the top and bottom edges are finished. The sleeves are set so low that they are actually identical. In modern garments, there’s always a left and a right sleeve, to allow for more fabric (and ease of movement) at the back of each shoulder. Not so in this outfit. And so the sleeves were the easiest I’ve ever set in. Finally, I pinned the back together so that it fitted nicely, folded back the excess fabric and sewed on a row of hooks and eyes. I didn’t trim any fabric, so that she can let it out as she grows. I know I’d want to, if my mum and I had made a Jane Eyre costume together.

Much as I’d like to show you a photo of the full effect, head included, I don’t put pictures of my children online, so you’ll have to make do with some headless Victorians instead. Think of her as the friendly household ghost. I can, however, show you the back of her practice hairdo:

which really completes the look.

Most of the time I groan when the children tell me about yet another dressing up day, but this was even more of a delight to make than I had anticipated. I think we might have sown the seeds of a new passion, for me if not for her. I can see myself making another such outfit, by hand, in natural materials, from the inside out. Practising my skills by cording petticoats before moving on to embroidering a shift, knitting some stockings, and maybe even constructing a pair of stays. Who knows if I’ll ever make the time. I’ll certainly keep reading about it.

And, from the reception that her Jane Eyre dress has had, I expect that Fliss will be wearing it to dress up whenever the occasion allows. Who knows, it might even go into a box when she heads off to university one day. Surely that amount of wear would make it a very sustainable costume. Which makes me very happy indeed.

Madeleine

What have you been sewing lately? Anything fun?

Please forgive the grainy phone photos! I ran out of steam after all that speedy sewing, and was too busy in the garden to take proper photos the following day…

Everything but the knitting

It is still light when I get home from work, and I am feeling a tremendous urge to do everything but the knitting. Remember this shot from a couple of weeks ago? It hasn’t been touched since. Despite several bouts of feeling that I really ought to finish it off, it just isn’t happening. But that’s okay, because everything else is.

It’s half term here next week and I am very much looking forward to a few days off with the children, as well as tackling a few projects around the place. I am desperate – desperate – for some time in the garden. I know it’s early, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am spending so much more time indoors these days, at work. Whatever the reason, that’s where I’ll be spending a whole day, as well as any little snippets of free time I stumble across. Just now, it is in that funny late winter state of being both a terrible mess (think blown down brassica cages and piles of sticks still waiting to be burnt) and beautiful (think bulbs). The crocuses are up and they are just the loveliest little blooms, minding their own business here and there until someone takes the time to crouch down and appreciate their charms. I love them. As well as admiring the flowers, I also want to sort out some chicken-proofing and get on with planting lots and lots of seeds. Having decided against a full vegetable garden in the autumn, I have now done a U-turn and intend to plant a full vegetable garden. Will I curse myself for this in June? Maybe. But I want to get my hands into the dirt, and have endless salad for free. And there are few things more therapeutic than a spot of watering after a long day at work.

In the spirit of getting ready for spring, I am also going to spend a day or so ploughing through the end of all those sewing projects I cut out at Christmas. The last two weekends were completely obliterated by the children’s ballet show, so I’ve got a couple of things that haven’t made it to the machine yet, including a prototype skirt for next year that I’m very keen to start wearing. And I’d also like to do a spot of pre-spring cleaning, while I have the time.

Conscious that I’m quite capable of spending the entire week ticking things off a project list, the children have each been told to choose something that they’d like to do for an entire day with me. In no particular order, the three younger ones have chosen: playing cafe with real food all day (the menu has been in progress ever since), making a mid-Victorian dress so as to dress up as Jane Eyre for World Book Day the following week (I’ve got a book out of the library to help) and doing a spot of twitching in a bird sanctuary (we’ll be choosing the warmest day for this). We’re also going to be seeing Ben, and are looking forward to seeing what he chooses for us all.

Doubtless I will also find time to finish that lovely little baby bonnet, which will be very satisfying indeed. After which, I’m inclined to put away my needles for the time being. I’ve a garden to grow, and plenty of sewing to do in the form of quilt blocks and pattern samples. We’ve been saving avocado pits and skins in the freezer, as well as the elderberry harvest, and are hoping to spin and dye a little fleece on rainy days. Then again, if it snows you’ll probably find me by the fire once more, casting on for something or other. I blame it on the weather.

Madeleine

Have you had half term this week, or are you off next week like us (or not at all, if you live outside the UK)? Done anything fun? We’re open to recommendations!

Habits, old and new

In February, more than any other time of year, I find myself relying on old habits. Good ones, to keep life running smoothly. They might be easy – grabbing a jar of soup from the freezer as I head out the door to work – or require a bit more effort (my Tuesday night swim definitely fell into that category this week), but habits really do work.

Thankfully, new habits are relatively easy to create, one at a time. I tend to throw one in every few weeks, just for fun. This week was the week of starting to eat a salad for lunch every day, on top of my usual mid-morning soup. It’s only been three days and already I’m planning my next batch. And loathe as I am to join in with food trends, I have to admit that jarred salads are pure genius. I’m making them three at a time and the third was as fresh and appealing as the first. I just grab a jar from the fridge as well as the freezer on my way out the door now.

Like all families, we tend to let things slip a bit when life gets busy, and our children asked John and I whether we might revamp our plastic-free efforts a bit. I was all too happy to agree – some plastic has begun to creep back into our shopping – and we had a look through our bin to see what the culprits were. It turned out that it was mainly the odd unusual purchase – and lots of plastic from food that friends gave us when they emptied their fridge before a recent holiday. While there are a few things that we’ve reverted to buying in plastic (for instance our toothy-tab supplier ran out for a while, so we’ve been back on tubes of toothpaste), for the most part habits have kept our bin slim. Neither John or I would think of heading to the shops without our shopping kits in tow, and really, it is no extra effort at all. So we’ve just made a list of plastic-free goods we need to replenish to avoid some packaging we have fallen back into buying, and that’s about all we plan to do for now.

It goes without saying that I do have some bad habits – drinking endless cups of tea is one I’m tackling at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with the odd cup of tea, but from time to time I find myself drinking nothing but the black, caffeinated variety all day, which can’t be good for me. So far, I’ve cut it down to two cups a day, and I’m finding myself ready for bed a little earlier with each missing cup. Seriously, I’m sleeping like a baby at the moment, and this is from someone who normally sleeps well. Who knew it was having such big effect?

Then there are habits that are good for the environment but not always so good for me, like not buying flowers any more. In the summer, this doesn’t matter as I grow my own, but in the winter I rely on the odd flowering pot plant. Well, this week I have been doubly blessed by a bunch of alstroemerias regifted by those same holiday-going friends, and the most gloriously bright bunch of tulips as a thank you from another friend. What a joy it is to have flowers in the house again. They make me smile every time I see them.

What’s more, they’ve got me thinking about my own garden again, and those bulb lasagnas I planted in the autumn. I wonder how they’re doing? I must pop out and check on them, as well as the other things under cover, and give them all a drink. Soon enough it’ll be time to get back into the habit of watering them every few days and pulling weeds when I get in from work. That’s the lovely things about habits in a temperate climate: they shift with the sun. Nothing lasts for ever – not the winter and its challenges, nor the habits we build to survive it – and that’s just the way it should be.

Madeleine

Have you been trying out any new habits recently? I’d love to know – and maybe try them for myself!

Preparing for spring

Over the past few years, I’ve come to make the winter months precious by filling them with winter-only activities. Come spring, I’ll be needed in the garden, and I’d like to immerse myself in a fleece or two on rainy days. That means that there won’t be much – if any – time for knitting. So I’m doing a little pre-spring cleaning, and using up the bits and pieces left over from other makes.

So far, three such projects have graced my needles: a long-awaited (we’re talking years) tea cosy for our house, a pair of colourful wrist warmers and the start of a sweet little bonnet for a soon-to-be-born little person. I started the bonnet on Sunday afternoon while watching a film with the girls and went wrong twice before finally reading the pattern properly. I have to say, I didn’t mind a bit. I was so cosy, wrapped up on the couch in front of the fire, and working on something so small that it was the work of an hour to pull it out and start again. The yarn is leftover from the socks I designed, with the idea that the busy new parents will be able to throw it in the machine when it gets grubby. I’ve been there.

The wrist warmers were a bit of a slog, if I’m honest. Not because they were hard (they aren’t) but because there were three yarns used in every colourwork row, so I had to keep dropping and picking up two of them. They were one of those projects that I had to set an end date for. I’m glad I did, though, because Fliss loves them and I’ve set them aside for next Christmas.

Bringing me the most pleasure, though, is the new tea cosy in my life. This is going to sound ridiculous, but why did I not know how effective these things are? They keep the tea piping hot for ages, even in our somewhat chilly house. I used a pattern from this book, and have plans to make little birds with the last of my leftover scraps. More Christmas presents, you see. The pile on the present shelf is growing, as there have been some little sewing additions too, of late, and it is so satisfying to reach for a gift you made a few months earlier with just that person in mind. Come next Christmas, it really will feel as though the elves had made it all.

With the lengthening days, the urge to read about the natural world has come again, and I found myself scanning the library nature writing section. In the end, I plumped to reread The Shepherd’s Life. We’ll be going to the Lake District in the spring, and journeying through its pages feels almost like setting off on that little jaunt a few weeks early.

I love having so much to look forward to, but instead of thinking I can’t wait, I find that really, I can. I can because I have so much to enjoy doing between now and then. Next up will be another pair of wrist warmers, and a second snood, and perhaps even a second little bonnet to tuck away for another, as-yet-unknown baby. A few little birds might find their way into the children’s rooms. There are winter walks to enjoy, still, before reading about the rest of the year indoors, in the warm. Come the spring, I’ll be out there all the time, with my hands in the cool dark soil. For now, though, I’m preparing for spring in the most pleasurable ways I know.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

How are you preparing for spring? Or is it not on your mind just yet?

Winter Flora publication – and we have a winner!

Thank you so much for your comments on the Introducing Winter Flora post. I’m delighted to announce that the winner of the pattern is Cathy. A copy of the pattern will be landing in your inbox later today.

The pattern is now available in my Ravelry and Etsy shops.

Madeleine