A Very Nice House in the Country

Oh my, look at this garden. How lucky am I to sit out and stare at this every day?

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June 2016

To paraphrase Blur, we live in a very nice house in the country – how lucky are we? Technically it’s a bungalow, but we’re not going to quibble over the lack of an upstairs are we? One of the advantages of living in our “very nice house” is the beautiful garden we’ve created.  When we moved in there was just a lawn and a Silver Birch tree. No flower beds, no borders, just a lonely tree and a mouldering wooden bench. We’ve spent 20 years creating this garden and I can tell you where almost every plant came from. You know how I feel about full disclosure, so let’s give Mr T credit for his contribution to this garden transformation, which amounts to lawn mowing, dead pet burying and shed building! In the early days we had strict rules, whatever we bought had to earn it’s keep. That meant edible or evergreen, preferably both. We begged and stole plants from friends and neighbours, I sowed seeds and took cuttings. 20 years on I can see that all that early work was worth it. My garden gives me joy every day.

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Ruby Chard 2017

Our garden also feeds us – literally and spiritually – nothing helps restore balance better than sitting by the fire, drinking beer and eating food you’ve grown yourself. I’d like to say it’s deliberate, but it’s definitely the result of a lack of energy and inclination that we also have a bounty of free food in the form of weeds and wild flowers that flourish in our borders and in the hedges.

I’m busy transplanting seedling in the greenhouse, watching carefully for signs of activity in the perennial beds and getting excited about our first nettle soup of the year (we’ve already had risotto and gnocchi, soup is for the later, tougher stems).

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Nettle soup topped with creme fraiche and chives

It feels good to grow food; it feels even better that now we are able to find room for flowers and decorative shrubs that do little more than look pretty for a few weeks each year (but that’s OK too, they give me joy and that makes them pretty useful in my book). They’re also finding their way into dye pots, releasing magical colour and helping me find new ways of recording the memory of the garden (because one day we’ll move from here and I want to have something to take away).

In the last few years I’ve also noticed that gardens are pretty forgiving. Veg patches don’t mind if you occasionally forget to weed or to thin young plants. When the grass gets too long it gives the dandelions time to flourish (young leaves for salads, flowers for the dye pot and roots for our favourite dandelion and burdock recipes). Because we back onto farmland we’ve learned to accept that nettles and cleavers will always “win” if you try to control them, so instead we eat young nettle shoots and as a bonus the butterflies lay their eggs. Neater gardeners might frown at our lack of order, but for me it’s a bonus. Our garden is filled with all manner of wildlife and self seeded gems.

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Nasturtiums – essential salad garnish!

If there’s a lesson to be learned in letting my garden grow a little wilder these days it’s that the unexpected can bring good as well as bad. Not being in control is OK.

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Capturing nature

20160723_171515For most of last year I had a personal project to try and capture the colour and textures of my garden. It was a lovely change from the challenges of commercial design work and it made the contrast between my personal designs and my commission work even more obvious.

It’s been a difficult struggle, to reconcile my beliefs in sustainable textiles and natural processes with the commercial demand for “budget” makes that many of my clients have been asking for. Acrylic yarns in particular are not “environmentally friendly”, they aren’t biodegradeable, the process of making is energy intensive and the brightly coloured dyes are often harmful, chemical based products. So,  I’ve tried to separate my commercial design work from my personal projects.

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Dyeing yarn using plant materials (not extracts or commercial dye stuff) has been a challenge and a steep learning curve. But I am loving the results and the colours I’ve achieved. Inevitably this has led on to exploring other natural processes and rediscovering some of the techniques I used in my teaching days.

three plants fern box and tree

This year I’m exploring ways to capture different landscapes and locations that have a personal connection for me. It’s been good for me to learn new techniques and to spend time with other artists and practitioners who are willing to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for natural processes.

herdwick bag

Of course I’ll still be publishing knitting and crochet designs (which you can find over at Granny Cool) and in future issues of Inside crochet magazine I have some fantastic designs which make the best of British Wool including (finally!) the  pattern for this gorgeous crochet bag pictured here in my favourite Herdwick wool.

Five Veg Every Gardener Can Grow

20150519_102250It’s been a week of plots, plans, lists and hands deep in compost at every opportunity. Finally it’s time to start filling the windowsills with pots and seed trays. It’s a time of optimism and hope. I sprinkle seeds on warm earth, knowing that so long as I give them a little water and a little warmth tiny seedlings will appear like magic to fill me with joy and a sense of achievement.

Without fail, other gardeners will ask what I’m growing this year, not because they are interested in my plans, but it’s a chance for them to share and show off their own plans and perhaps, just maybe indulge in a bit of gardener’s one up manship. Oh yes ,were all guilty of that!

Growing fruit and veg is so easy, even when I didn’t have a garden I grew tomatoes and chillies on a sunny window ledge, pots of herbs on the doorstep and even a hanging basket by the front door of our flat filled with tumbling tomatoes. All you need is a bit of confidence, some spare cash to spend on seeds and compost and a little (or a lot) of patience. Borrow a couple of gardening books from your local library or check out some gardening blogs for ideas and inspiration. My favourite writers are Monty Don, Bob Flowerdwew and James Wong.

If you’re new to gardening, here’s my top five veg that everyone can grow without a greenhouse. If you have access to a sunny windowsill, you can start seeds off on there. Or, buy small plants online or from a garden centre. But,  for me so much of the joy comes from watching seeds germinate and flourish. It makes me feel incredibly clever!

Of course, along side these suggestions you should try and find room for a few herbs. A pot of basil on the window ledge or a small chilli plant will serve you well and are pretty reliable for beginners.

Onions

Cooks go through copious amounts of onions, and for me they are a kitchen garden essential. Choose your varieties carefully and you can have onions all year round. They’re easy to grow, relatively free of pests and the winter varieties especially, cope with a bit of neglect.

Tomatoes

These will do best if you grow them from seed on a sunny window ledge, but if that’s not possible, buy small established plants from a local garden centre (try to find one that raises their own plants from seed, they will probably be stronger and healthier). Choose tiny plum or cherry tomatoes to pluck from the plant, or big beefsteaks. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from.

Kale

While all the focus right now is on summer veg, start making plans for winter. Kale is easy to get established and will see you through the winter. I love kale raw, or  tossed in olive oil and roasted it’s delicious. Be warned, unless you want to feed your kale to the caterpillars, net it early or you’ll be left with shredded, good for nothing stalks that will make you weep in frustration (ask me how I know this).

Salads leaves

With a bit of planning you can grow fresh salads all year round. In fact, my autumn and winter lettuce do much better than summer ones, which just wilt in the heat or run to seed when I’m on holiday. You can buy packets of mixed seed. Just sprinkle a little in pots or straight on the soil every couple of weeks for regular crops.

Peas

I think almost everyone has a childhood memory of eating peas out of the pod. I grow mange tout, purple flowered ones that we steam. These are another crop that you can grow over a long season. By starting early and planting little and often you can have peas from June to late September if the weather is kind.  Mr T would sulk if there were no peas to pick as he wandered around the garden in the summer, we are like children as we sit in the sunshine with a handful of peas, shelling them from their pods.

Of course, these are just suggestions. Ask your neighbours what grows well for them, beg seeds from gardening friends and take all the advice you’re offered. You don’t have to follow it, making mistakes, experiencing crop failures and slug damage are all part of the learning process.

Now, if I haven’t put you off completely get out and grow!

Here’s a few of my favourite seed suppliers, gardening websites and sources of information.

Kings seeds

The Organic Gardening Catalogue

BBC Gardeners World Magazine

BBC Two Gardener’s World

Grow Your Own (magazine)

 

 

 

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On the Table and In the Garden in January

carrot-soupHow did it get to be February already? Every time I wander into the garden I see more signs of spring, the bulbs are peeking through and the early snowdrops are starting to flower. I know that we might still see snow, but just for today I’m thnking we might be at the tail end of winter.

January on the table was mostly about soups, hearty stews and substantial puddings. We needed “stodge” to see us through the cold, dark afternoons. I stuck pretty close to my January meal plan and it has definitely saved us money (a household bill of £193). Scroll down to the end of this post if you’re interested in what we spent and how we could save more. The highlight was Diana Henry’s book Simple, which has fed us well. Our favourite has to be the Red Lentil and Pumpkin Dal, which also wins the prize for “meal that most looked the picture in the book”. We also swapped out the pumpkin for sweet potato a couple of times, equally delicious.

diana-henry-dal

You can pop over here to Diana’s website for a list of her books and some great recipes. It’s hard to recommend just one of her books, I love them all. She “sits” on the shelf between Nigel Slater and Sophie Grigson. I like to think of it as the  “hope they are as nice in real life as they write and appear on tv” category! Talking of Nigel Slater, his easy  Hot Chocolate Pudding from Appetite has appeared on the table more than once. Served with a dollop of creme fraiche it doesn’t photograph well, but it’s so easy and delicious. The recipe is available online on the Telegraph website, so why not pop over and give it a try. It’s the perfect last minute bake and gluten free, which is a bonus.

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As we move into February, I’m starting to think about plans for the veg plot. Last year we stuck to “old favourites” like peas, onions and potatoes. This year I’d like to be more adventurous again. Of course the fruit bushes and artichokes look after themselves, giving regular crops. This makes me a bit lazy and I must learn not to rely on the perennials. We still have a few leeks in the ground and onions in storage, and I’ve noticed the herb pots in the greenhouse are starting to look more “awake”. The parsley has seen us right through the winter and it looks like the chives and oregano I hid in a corner have fresh growth. I wish we had put more potatoes in pots, it was such a joy to have home grown “new” potatoes at Christmas, but they didn’t last long.  The daffodils and early bulbs are making strong growth, and the woodpecker is still visiting daily. The Goldfinches are still perching on the fennel heads, in the vain hope they might have missed a few seeds, and they sulk if the bird feeder gets too empty. The robins (we still have two regular visitors) are so bold now, they hop at our feet every time we venture out. Sometimes I oblige them by digging over a small patch of earth or pulling back a few dead leaves, which seems to make them very happy. I know it’s wrong to give them human characteristics, but they do seem to puff up and look so pleased with themselves when they root out a small grub from the freshly dug soil.

Indoors, I have been working hard on new designs. I still haven’t got much to share as contracts insist I keep things a secret, but work is steady and that’s a good thing. Don’t forget, if it’s mostly the knitting and crochet you’re looking for, head over here for updates on my latest pattern releases.

So, that was January. Dull, damp and gloomy it may have been. But our house was filled with laughter, good company and great food. That has to be a “win” surely?

Happy making x

 

What we ate and what we spent in January

Mostly, we stuck to the meal plan for January, and our household bills came to £193. I think that’s pretty good, especially as we both work from home, that works out at about £6 a day for all our food, cleaning products, toothpaste and toiletries. Of course we’re lucky that a well stocked freezer and larder mean we always have access to  herbs, spices and every day essentials. And, it certainly helps that we have garden produce. I did think about ways we could cut down this bill if we had to and came up with a few things I’m just not prepared to compromise on. When Mr T was made redundant many years ago, we mostly lived on value ranges –  bread (10p a loaf), beans (3p a tin) and tinned tomatoes (7p) – I feel so lucky that we came through that scary year unscathed and still able to live well. I also believe (perhaps wrongly) that supermarkets are still led by customer demand, so if I keep buying Fairtade or British products they’ll respond by offering more and better choices.

So here’s my “no compromise” list

Local meat, often from the farm gate or butchers I trust – supermarket own brand would be cheaper I know.

Decent coffee, usually Fairtrade – we only drink one cup a day and even buying top of the range is still cheaper than I’ve seen people pay in “Costabucks for a latte!

Organic, local, fresh in season veg – using what we have definitely saves us money – but I won’t give up my Fairtade bananas!

Tinned beans and pulses – yes, dried are cheaper.  After a busy day it’s so much easier to reach for a can of lentils or chick peas, these are my “ready meals”.

Indulgences we could do without

We’re still working our way through the dozen bottles of wine we bought at Christmas – dry January? Not in this house!

 

 

 

 

 

Recipe: Salads with a Twist

I love beetroot, jewel colours, tiny globes of sweet flavour which brighten up winter mealtimes. Yet, for most people, mention beetroot and their first thought is the vinegar steeped slices bought from the supermarket. If you can get hold of fresh beetroot it’s truly delicious, easy to cook, versatile and very good for you. You can even eat the tiny young leaves in a salad.

LOWRESthenaturalvegmen_3143Earlier this week, I picked up a bunch of tiny, overwintered beetroot from the Veg Men (I wrote about them here). I decided to make a salad for lunch, using up a few left overs from the fridge, added some slivers of Gabriel Blue (a ewe’s milk cheese) bought from my favourite Cockermouth deli last weekend and a few slices of baked beetroot. Looking for a bit of added “crunch” I made some candied nuts as a gluten free alternative to croutons. Here’s how you can recreate your own version. Mix and match your flavours to suit what you have. Think of it as a twist on the classic goats cheese salad you find on so many restaurant menus and experiment.

sliced beetrootThe Basics

150g of mixed salad leaves (either home grown or find a local producer)

100g candied walnuts or pecans (see below for instructions)

75g goats cheese (I used a blue ewe’s milk because that’s what I had – and I didn’t weigh it – a small handful should suffice) chopped into small cubes.

3 or 4 small baked beetroot (see below for instructions)

A simple dressing made with 3 tablespoons  walnut oil and 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

Method

Whisk together the oil and vinegar to make the dressing. Shred the salad leaves, slice the beetroot and combine all the ingredients in a large salad bowl. Leave to stand for a few minutes for the flavours to develop beofre serving.cheese and walnut salad

Candied Nuts

The ideal nut for this salad would be walnuts –  the eagle eyed among you will spot I used pecans – that’s what I had in the cupboard! To be honest, that’s what I’d use again, the flavour of cooked pecans worked really well with the blue cheese.

1 tablespoon of dark muscovado sugar

3 tablespoons of water

100g nuts

Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved, add the nuts and stir until well covered in the syrup.

Pour onto a baking tray lined with silicone paper or baking parchment and cook at gas mark 6 for about 5-7 minutes. Start checking after five minutes, you want the nuts cooked, but not burnt. Leave to cool. The nuts can be stored in an airtight jar for about a week. They make a great snack too.

As a variation you could substitute maple syrup for the sugar, add a little ground ginger, plenty of sea salt and perhaps even a little paprika. Combine with a small bag of mixed nuts and make the perfect gluten free nibble to serve with drinks. These may take a little longer to cook, in my oven I give them 10 minues.

Baked Beetroot

Wash the beetroot, but don’t scrub. It’s important not to break the skin or the colour will “bleed”. Trim off the leaves, leaving about 1cm of stalk and  then trim the roots. Place in a shallow baking dish and add a little water (as a general rule I add a tablespoon for each beetroot). Cover with foil and bake at gas mark 2 for about an hour. The baking time depends on the size of your beetroots, “golf ball” size take about an hour, larger ones will take longer).

Once cooked, leave to cool before trimming the stalks and roots. You can then peel them if you wish and add them to salads, make a delicious dip or make a puree.

Veg Men salad

When I was a little girl, a “salad” meant a slice of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and if we were really pushing the boat out, slices of hard boiled egg. This would be smothered in Heinz salad dressing. Today, we eat some kind of salad almost every day. Even if you only have  a small plot or a window ledge, it’s easy enought o grow a few salad leaves. Even during the winter you’d be surprised what will grow.

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Time for Some Optimism

seed cataloguesWell, the decorations are down and it’s time to start thinking about spending more time in the garden. I would be out there now, but it’s raining hard and the wind is blowing. Instead I have lit the fire and gathered together a big pile of gardening catalogues. I am definitely going to plant cucamelons and sweet potatoes again, they were such a huge success and so easy. Check out James Wong’s website for details and where to buy. I want more flowers, that means heading over to Sarah Raven for inspiration. The sweet peas I bought last year did us proud, flowering right through to October and so they will definitely be on the list.

But, as for what else to grow…. I am lacking inspiration. As poor students and then even poorer new parents, our garden was  built on the rule that everything planted (except seeds) must be evergreen or edible. Finally, after more than 25 years together Mr T has agreed that gardening can be more indulgent. He bought me garden vouchers for Christmas and I hope that some of my floral ambitions might be realised at long last. I want huge blousy peonies and Hydrangeas, scented roses which bloom all summer and masses of cut flowers for the house. Such grand plans require serious thought and I foresee quite a few garden visits on the horizon.

This still leaves me with the problem of what to plant in the vegetable patch and what to add to the cutting garden I planted last year. Time for strong coffee, then a long wish list to be written. There are few better ways to while away a wet January afternoon!

Where do you go for garden inspiration?  I’d love to hear your favourites, especially if they’re in the North West of England.

Already I have these on my list:

Stonyford Cottage (just up the hill)

Bluebell Cottage (another local favouite)

Walkden Gardens (never been, but much recommended)

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Cherish the Simple Things

2013-11-03 10.24.21Sometimes, you just have to stop, pause for breath and breathe in some fresh air.

This weekend Mr T and I found ourselves with “nothing to do”, by which I mean no work commitments, no family outings, no plans made of any kind. We woke up on Saturday to glorious sunshine and over coffee and breakfast agreed to head out for a walk.

We pulled on our boots, and as we live so close to Delamere Forest that seemed like the obvious destination. We walked, we admired the brave “Hell Runners”, caked in mud. We dodged bikes, toddlers and friendly dogs.

We cam home refreshed, a pocket full of the last sweet chestnuts of the season and a determination to get out and “do nothing” more often.

An afternoon of gardening followed, we lit a fire and drank mugs of tea until it was dark enough to light some fireworks we had lurking in the back of the shed. We lit sparklers and watched the stars.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s not “things” that make us truly happy, but “simple things”, like love, friendship and time spent together.

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The Handcrafted Home

september 20th 2013This week I’ve been able to indulge in all my favourite activities. First, I managed to finish “The Teen’s” Owls jumper. No buttons on this one either, but she has worn it almost every day so I judge it’s a success. The yarn is gorgeous Artesano British Wool, not only is this lovely to knit with, but washed successfully at 30 degrees on a wool wash! Practical and stylish, just what every student needs in their wardrobe. The Artesano yarn comes in some gorgeous colours, I’m tempted to make another (yes, another) for myself. This is such a great pattern, ideal for tv knitting on cold winter evenings. If you’re not familiar with the “Owls” jumper, click through to Kate Davies page on Ravelry and see for yourself how fabulous it is.

Next on the agenda was baking, a delicious trifle cake. I have promised the recipe to so many people, next week I will post it here for you all to enjoy. It really is a very simple pudding, but it is a bit of a “show stopper”. I made one last week for a barbecue and it was demolished within minutes. It’s also gluten free, which is a bonus if you need to please a crowd.

The highlight of the week was an early birthday present, a willow weaving course at Nettle, a gorgeous little shop near Tattenhall in Cheshire. Our tutor, Juliette was both inspiring and encouraging and much to my delight I brought home a rather wonky obelisk to grow my sweet peas up next summer. Juliette runs courses and sells at venues across Cheshire, check out her website for details.

With all this activity, you might think I’ve had an easy week – far from it – four samples posted off, a pile of paperwork and a gorgeous delivery of new books to review. Top of the pile of books on my bedside table right now is the newly published Mollie Makes Crochet. I’ll tell you more about it next week, but if you have friends who love Mollie Makes Magazine, this should definitely be on their Christmas list. So far I’m loving the clear instructions and pretty projects.

Lurking in my local news agents today I noticed I have some patterns out in: Love Crochet (handwarmers), Handmade (Christmas Stockings), Homemade with Love (a rather gorgeous headband), Inside Crochet (stool cover)) and the very new and very fab Crochet Gifts for Christmas, a special edition from Practical Publishing which has some rather stylish ways to decorate your christmas presents this year! It was also quite a thrill to spot one of the ladies at knit group today knitting my tea cosy pattern from Let’s Get Crafting, I hope she brings it back when its finished for us all to admire.

We’re off to Cumbria this weekend, I’ll be taking a basket full of knitting with me and hoping for some autumn sunshine as we’ve planned a couple of walks. Whatever you’re up to, have fun and be happy.

T x

Garden Update: Compost!

There are few greater pleasures than creating “something from nothing”, maybe that’s why I get such pleasure from taking the lid off the compost bins each April to reveal the black gold inside them!

This year the worms have done a particularly good job at turning cabbage leaves, carrot tops, weeds and cardboard boxes (amongst other things) into the perfect mulch for the raspberries, dug into the sweet pea beds I expect a riot of colour and I have even been known to sieve it, bake in the oven and use to coddle young seedlings!

I love my garden, much neglected over the winter I am finally able to spend time out-of-doors. We sit and watch the blue tits and goldfinches raid the bird feeders, the robin follows us around as we dig and plant.

On days like this, all seems right with the world and life is good.

T x

Snowdrops

I’ve just been out to hang the washing on the line and noticed the snowdrops are all out – how lovely it is to see the first signs of spring – not so lovely to be reminded how much weeding and tidying needs to be done!

I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t spent nearly enough time outdoors, the daffodils are peeking through and buds have appeared on the trees. The sun is shining and all seems well with the world.

Enjoy your day x

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  • When you look up from the tv and realise outside is far more interesting! Happy Bank Holiday weekend everyone. I shall mostly be harvesting onions, drinking g&t and reminding myself how lucky we are to have this view.
#slowliving #thankful #girlgardener #mygardenrightnow #cheshirelife #thewayweliveinthecountry #permaculture Finished a new shawl. Far too hot to wear it, but luckily my shed is a great backdrop! Yarn is King Cole Riot. 
#crochet #crochetgirlgang #neverenoughshawls #sheshed #madenotmanufactured #crochetlove Free food! Next best thing to growing your own food is eating other people's homegrown. I'm looking after my neighhour's garden & boy does he have a lot of radishes just now! I have written a blog post about more of my favourite (almost) free foods. Link in profile, now I'm off to pickle these radishes.
#frugalfood #foraging #ediblegarden #growyourownfood #girlgardener #allotmenteering #eattheseasons #permaculture  #zerowaste #slowliving #gardentotable #organicgardening #forktofork I'll admit it, I grow this mostly for it's amazing colour - but the stems are delicious sauted with chorizo or streaky bacon!
#mygardenrightnow #girlgardener #girlsthatgarden #permaculture #growyourown #ediblegarden #bakingandmaking #slowliving #organicgardening I do love a formal garden. I walk through this one every Friday on my way to knit group.  Castle Park is a hidden gem.
#gardens #castlepark #parksandgardens Thanks @simplycrochetmag for featuring my crochet picnic basket :) The pattern is available  now in Simply Crochet celebrations edition. You'll need a cardboard box to upcycle & some chunky cotton yarn, I used DMC Natura XL & finished it off with leather buckles from Bag Clasps. 
#crochet #crochetgirlgang #upcycling #reloved #crochet #makersgonnamake #lovecrochet
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