Notes From a Small Garden

My new garden robin.jpgWe have a new Robin, I spotted him on Tuesday. He’s much more cautious than our “old friend” who has kept us company all winter. This new visitor is smaller and as I approached the bird feeder he pressed his back against the fence-  wanting to edge away –  but  also hopeful that I was bringing snacks. I sprinkled a few sunflower seeds on the ground at my feet, he waited until my back was turned before hopping down to seize the plumpest and flying into the apple tree’s branches. I wonder how long it will be before he grows as bold as his friend (pictured above), who would hop down and follow me from the back door to the bin where I store bird food,  then scold me if I didn’t throw a few treats his way before making my way to the hazel tree where I hang the feeders.

I feel sad that we have lost our “old friend”, all winter there have been three robins visiting the garden, but only one has become bold enough to sit beside me as I drink my early morning cuppa on the garden bench. The others kept their distance. I wonder if this is a sign that spring really is here and soon they will start competing for territory, no longer keeping the winter truce which has allowed them all equal access to the food we put out for them every morning. I wonder what happened to my friendly robin? Maybe he failed to spot the sparrow hawk that visits each lunch time, or came off worse in a scuffle with another male. Perhaps (and I hope not), he was caught by the pesky cat “no tail”, who prowls around looking for  birds to toy with –  but not eat – he’s too well fed to make a proper meal of them. He often left them, shocked (or worse, needing to be put out of their misery) on the back step, but as he has learnt he’s not welcome here, he prefers the hidden space behind the shed where he can bask in the sunshine unseen from the house and lick his lips as he hopes for easy prey.

This new robin is quite tiny, his plumage bright red and his eyes beady black. Today he sat and watched me as I added some veg peelings to the compost bin, edging closer as I searched through the top layers, hoping to see signs of the brandling worms that have been buried deep over winter. Soon they will make their way to the top layers, their bodies entwined as they respond to the warmer weather, a writhing mass of breeding worms that turn my garden waste into rich, black gold to mulch the veg patch. This robin hasn’t learnt what a rich source of food can be found in the compost yet, it won’t be long before he’s hopping in and out. The wooden lid doesn’t fit properly and the older, wiser birds know that it’s full of meaty morsels, slugs, beetles and grubs that have made their home in the warm, moist compost.

male blackbird

As I walk back to the house, the blackbird calls to me and as I turn to listen, the tiny pink flower of the hazel catches my eye. It’s the first time this year I’ve spotted them in our garden. I’ve been too busy rushing in and out of the house, avoiding the cold blasts, the rain and even snow this winter. I have photographed them on my walks, but this is the first from my own garden.

Female hazel catkin.jpg

Standing at the door, I watch out new robin squabble with the hedge sparrows and scuffle under the feeders for dropped seed with a couple of gold finches and a  thrush that turns over leaves looking for snails. We may only have a small garden, but on mornings like these it has as much to offer as any nature reserve and I head back indoors grateful to be home from my London trip , and not even grumpy any more that I was woken by these same birds singing their  dawn chorus at 5.30am!

If you want to know more about the robin, or the rest of our common garden birds, a good place to start is the RSPB website.

Garden Update

july 2013Well, this week has flown by and I’ve hardly had time for anything but work, work and more work. It’s especially difficult when you’ve been commissioned to make heavyweight home accessories in aran and chunky yarns. Pity me in this heat!

The garden is absolutely loving the sunshine and everything is growing much better than last year. The raspberries are just appearing and there promises to be a bumper crop of autumn fruiting ones too. The sweet potatoes have completely taken over the greenhouse, and their glossy green leaves are beautiful (and I believe edible). Last week we had a lovely day with friends and I took along a chocolate roulade covered in chocolate ganache and raspberries*. You can find my favourite roulade recipe here. I’ve also been putting the finishing touches to projects for my “Materknitty” knitting class, which is proving very popular. I was also thrilled to see the beautiful styling and photography of my Kidsilk Haze wrap in the new issue of Craftseller.

We’re off to Cumbria this weekend for some much needed relaxation and hopefully walks on the fells. Whatever you’re up to , have a lovely time. I’ll be back on Monday with a special “one off” post on the subject of Granny Squares. This is part of Agrarian Artisan’s blog party.

T

* I made this a delicious gluten and lactose free treat by using dairy free chocolate and Lactofree cream.

Gardener’s Hand Salve

My hands work hard, and I like to pamper them. Not with manicures and glossy polish, but a home made salve that soothes and leaves them soft. It’s easy to make, even in the smallest of kitchens and the ingredients are easily sourced. If you don’t have a decent herbal supplier nearby then you can order online from Neals Yard.  I first shared this recipe way back in 2009 and I’m still making it.

One of these days I’ll take a fresh set of photos, these are awful! Thanks to the” instagram generation”, we all expect beautifully styled images, artfully arranged to tell a story and inspire us to roll up our sleeves and emulate our favourite posts. Me, I still snap away on my smart phone and rarely think about composition! So yes, these photos look “clunky”, old fashioned and maybe even a little out of focus, but they’re honest and they’re mine – not “borrowed” from pinterest or shamelessly retouched in picasa!!

To see the real beauty of this salve, make a batch for yourself. Even buying all the ingredients from scratch will probably cost you less than a tube of organic or fancy pants hand cream and you’ll be able to impress all your friends with home made gifts (yes, I still give this at Christmas). You can buy small jars, but I like to rinse and re-use face cream jars or even those tiny little tins you buy mints in. Be resourceful, use your imagination and have fun in your kitchen! I’ve always “pottered about” with home made cosmetics, making face masks with fruit or egg white, concocting lip balm coloured with beetroot (not a great success, pink hands, pink worktop) and I like the idea that what I put on my skin is as natural as what I eat. It’s a lot easier to find organic, “natural” cosmetics these days, but it still pays to read your labels carefully.

Chamomile hand salve:
Ingredients: 50g dried chamomile flowers, 150ml olive oil, 1tablespoon chopped of beeswax, 10 drops of wheatgerm oil, 5 drops of benzoin tincture, 10 drops of chamomile essential oil. A bain marie or double boiler*, 2 small, sterilised glass jars.
method:
Put the chamomile flowers and the olive oil in a bowl over a pan of simmering water (or use a bain marie if you have one), warm gently for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, grate or chop the wax. Strain the chamomile and oil mixture and return the infused oil to the bain marie, add the beeswax and stir until it has melted. Remove from the heat. Add the wheatgerm oil and benzoin tincture and stir gently. Pour the liquid into the glass jars, add 5 drops of chamomile oil to each jar and stir gently with a cocktail stick.

Leave to cool completely before sealing the jars.
You can use a different essential oil if you like, but chamomile is gentle and soothing.

This salve can seem a little hard at first, so warm it, by rubbing gently between your fingers before massaging into your hands (or, even the rough skin on your feet, it’s bliss after a day’s sight seeing).

NOTE:Certain essential oils are not recommended if you have a medical condition, are pregnant or breast feeding, always take advice before using, if in doubt leave them out!

*Just a bowl over a pan of simmering water – just like you would melt chocolate.

 

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This Week I’m Loving …

In between trying to create a little scrapbook of our Mum and Daughter mini break I’ve been checking out a couple of bakers who blog …

Miranda (Runner Up on the Great British Bake Off), has been quietly working on a book, but her blog has some great bakes from the series, I’ve made most of them and they all come highly recommended by “Chez Todhunter”.

You should also check out Hannah’s Home Baked Blog, a bit of sewing, bit of nattering and some delicious recipes too.

Also, I discovered this lovely little site selling illustrated cards made by Charlotte Strawbridge (thanks to a proud Mummy Brag on twitter – best way to discover new talent!)

I am also still in love with Pinterest, especially being able to look at what others have pinned, a bit of late night mooching led to this beautiful discovery, although I need google translate to make sense of it, the photography is stunning.

I’m also loving, the growing harvest from the allotment, so far this year: peas, beans, spinach, onions, garlic, fresh coriander and enough lettuce to feed the entire village!

Wriggly Wrigglers

OK, so not eveyone can get excited about making their own compost.

home made compost Once a year I spend a day digging out last year’s compost bins ready to pot on my tomatoes, mulch the roses and sieve compost to sow seeds. I always think that the process where all that shredded cardboard, veg peelings and garden waste turns into black gold is a kind of alchemy. It’s mainly down to these amazing creatures and the micro-organisms that can’t be seen.

wiggly wigglers

Best not to look too closely if you’re squeamish.  But as a result, my garden  is blooming lovely!

large white roses

Recipe: Elderflower Champagne

The elderflowers are here! Just a few sunny days and they’ve gone from tiny, tight buds to full bloom and I’m ready to spring into action. First up is the annual batch of Elderflower Champagne. Always a big hit at summer barbeques, I try to make plenty, but there are so many delicious things to make with this crop that there never seems to be enough. This June seems to have been  so much warmer and sunnier than last year, let’s hope that’s a good indication of how summer will be this year. So, in anticipation of  glorious summer evenings sitting outside with good food, friends and family , here is my 20 years old and never failed yet recipe for elderflower champagne:

6 – 8 heads of elderflower, picked warm from the sun on a dry day

4 litres of boiled and slightly cooled water

500g granulated sugar

juice and finely chopped zest of 2 large organic  and unwaxed  lemons

2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar

Method

In a non metallic container:

Dissolve the sugar in the water, add the lemon zest and juice allow to cool, add the remaining ingredients, cover and leave for 4 – 5 days in a warm, dark place (I put mine under the sink as the airing cupboard gets too hot).

Then, strain through a double layer of muslin into a jug and pour into glass screw top bottles. Don’t screw the lids too tightly (I screw mine on then undo a quarter turn just to be sure). Leave for 4-5 days in the dark. Check the contents are beginning to fizz, if not leave and check daily. After a week or as soon as the bottles are effervescent, tighten lids and store in the fridge.

Ours get drunk quickly so I’ve no idea how long the bottles last unopened. But according to River Cottage, they should last several months. And, if you aren’t used to making your own wines or cordials, this might prove helpful.

Just a couple of tips if this is your first time making hedgerow drinks, cordials etc:

Do make sure you shake the flowers thoroughly to dislodge any bugs – and do rinse the flowers thoroughly! (2015 update – the Elder tree is full of Cockchafers!)

You might find it easier to strip the flowers from the stalk if you rake them with a fork (hold the flowers over a large bowl to catch them as they fall).

Finally, whatever you do, don’t be tempted to try and stuff the flowers into a narrow necked bottle.I’ve seen lots of these photos on Instagram this year –  and while it makes a great photo – it’s a real chore to try and strain the liquid. Keep your pretty bottles for storing the finished drink or giving as gifts!

Don’t forget to sterilise your bottles (any decent preserving book will advise you).

I’ll be sharing some of my other  favourite elderflower recipes later, including a flavured gin, cordial and the ever popular elderflower curd.

And yes, I have blogged this recipe before. Some readers said they had trouble finding it, so here it is again in full.

Enjoy x