Tag Archives: garden with children

Sick of chipping away at bricks to recover ruined garden; an update on the fallen wall

THERE’S been very little gardening done by me since April. Not because of the wet weather – which hasn’t helped – but because of the couple of tonnes of brick that landed on our back garden two months ago.

Since the huge wall fell (see details here) we found that the insurance company wouldn’t pay out because it hadn’t been ‘hit by something’ (yeah, thanks for nothing Cooperative Insurance), and that the neighbouring Jesus Army house wasn’t covered either.

This means we do as much as we can ourselves, and then pay £2,000 for a brickie to come and re-build it.

Starting to clear into piles

Every weekend, every free time that Bloke and I had, we’ve been out in the back garden chipping away at piles and piles of Victorian bricks, getting the mortar off each one, sorting them into piles depending on whether they are still whole, and covering everything with yet more sand and dust.

Meanwhile my allotment has been completely neglected – prompting a polite but disappointed call from the allotment committee asking why my plot is such a mess. We’ve managed one trip since then to just strum the worst of it back and stick some beans in. I certainly don’t want it this way, I had high hopes for good crops this year, but have completely missed the window of opportunity because of those damn, damn bricks.


Wall foundations intact

We put the majority of the bricks into two big piles and since then have been standing chipping away with chisels and wallpaper scrappers to get rid of the old mortar and leave clean sides. The mortar is like sand, and sometimes comes off easily but mostly needs repeated hitting to dislodge it. It’s boring, mucky, repetitive work.

Pallets filling


Bloke and I have filled a pallet and a half now, and the bulk of the piles have been cleaned. Next door did a load in the first couple of weeks but haven’t moved on since then, which is frustrating. Their garden was untouched by the fall, while ours is destroyed and our privacy removed.

The kids can’t play out and are thoroughly bored because our weekends are spent sorting bricks.

The garden has been remarkably resilient. All the plants in the wall-side borders were completely flattened and under bricks for at least a week. However, two large climbing roses have righted themselves, despite no support, and are covered in buds about to bloom.

The raspberries were all broken off at the ground but have thrown up lots of new shoots, so I’ve dug them up and put them in big pots. Also moved to pots are the un-killable hardy geraniums, a hosta, another shrub rose, lots of crocosmia bulbs and three varieties of clematis. Still in the beds next to the wall are several huge ferns which came back from the dead and the climbing hydrangea petiolaris, which is in full bloom. Even the lawn is trying hard to recover, although very patchy and full of weeds.

Surviving border in May


The surviving border, which has been neglected because I simply couldn’t get to it to weed, is looking great under the circumstances. But there is a lot of bindweed starting to strangle the foxgloves and delphiniums, and the buttercups, while pretty, are taking over. Ivy on the lower left wall is usually cut right back in May but has been allowed to grow unchecked and is shading the border, making the plants lean for the light.

Once the piles are finished, which should be this week on our side, we need to dismantle the remains of the standing wall, which will require a whole lot more chip, chip, bloody chipping. Then we can get the brickie in, if he’ll still come,  to decide what to do next. The soil on the neighbour’s side is a foot and half higher than on ours and will need digging out and pinning back.

At least the wall seems to have a good foundation. Having expected the bricks to only go down one or two below the soil line on our side, it actually goes down about five bricks deep and even widens at the bottom.

It’s all been a thoroughly depressing process which has really brought me very low over recent weeks. It seems ridiculous to get depressed about a garden but every morning it’s so sad to see the garden in such a state. Allotment guilt is weighing heavy on my mind and I’ve just had to kiss off any chance of actual gardening this year.

Ho hum.

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Call the suncream police – my eight-year-old is SPF-free

I’m a stickler for suncream. The kids will grumpily confirm this. It’s one of the few rules of ‘proper parenting I stick to.

I’ve done too many features on sun damage and malignant melanomas to be lax on it. Cancer Research UK say a childhood sunburn can massively increase the chance of cancer in later life. How could you let them burn for the sake of a few quid on sun-lotion and greasy palms?

However, I just can’t find a suncream that doesn’t turn eight-year-old Billy’s skin into a burning rash of tiny pimples as soon as he heads outdoors.

It’s not like he’s got any other allergies. We’re lucky. No asthma, no hay fever, no food intolerance. Probably because they’ve been brought up in a house that gets vacuumed when the dirt becomes too visible to ignore and dusting only happens on cakes with icing sugar.

We’ve tried for years with a long list of brands, types, concoctions and SPF levels. Every sunscreen, even the organic, anti-allergy, mega-block types don’t do anything but make him miserable and itchy.

School ask that parents suncream their offspring before school on sunny days and they can bring cream to put on themselves. Although Bonnie has to put up with the morning sticky rigmarole of sun lotion and even the older two have to endure their mother dragging them back to apply SPF before they leave the house – very uncool. (They said today they actually don’t mind, having seen friends enduring the agony of a hearty slap when someone sees a pink neck.)

I’ve stopped sending Bill to school pre-sunscreened. I had to apologise and explain to his teacher when he went on a school trip in blazing sunshine  last week why he wasn’t armed with the obligatory Factor 30. He’s a fan of hats, has floppy long hair at the moment, will wear a coat even when it’s 25 degrees outside and comes back in the house when the sun gets too much so I’ve not had to worry about sunstroke.

This weekend, with the hot weather making us all expose far more skin than we’re used to, and an overdue all-day trip to the allotment planned,  was worried about whether it was better to go with the rash-inducing suncream or leave him without. We decided to run the risk, with the proviso he kept his t-shirt and suncream on at all times.

After a couple of hours he’d abandoned his shirt alongside his bare-chested brothers and Bloke.

When we got home, we checked. Jed had a tiny patch of sunburn on his arm which he’d missed with the cream. Doug, who spent the blazing afternoon in the Franklin’s Gardens stands watching rugby, was burn-free. Bonnie, who had soaked her dress in the water-butt and ran around in her knickers, and a liberal layer of factor-30, was similarly unblemished.

And SPF-free Billy? Not a patch of pink. Completely burn-free.

Perhaps he’s just lucky. I can’t really remember sun-protection being such a massive issue in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid, and my Mum would be horrified that I never used sunscreen over several hot summers growing up on the beaches of North Devon. The first time I ever got sunburn was when I lived in London aged 19. I’ve worn suncream every summer since and made sure the kids have too.

Not putting cream on Billy still makes me paranoid though. Especially when we checked Bloke – who had forgotten to put cream on himself. Lobster pink and stinging, all over his back.

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Fifty things for kids to do? Don’t try this at home

THERE was a report (tenuous press release) this week about the ‘bucket list’ of 50 things children should do before they are 12, which included making mud pies, flying kites and collecting frogspawn. My lot, despite being townies, have ticked off most of the things on the list (except perhaps hunting fossils and ‘geocaching.’)

They take great pleasure in getting as mucky as possible at the allotment, have to camp every year, get let loose in parks and gardens at every opportunity and love beach exploring at their grandparents.

I mentioned to the kids that there were many things I did as a child that I certainly wouldn’t want them doing before they were 40, let alone 12. Then I couldn’t actually tell them for fear it would give them ideas.

However, for your eyes only, (look away kids, and my Mum and Dad) here’s a few things you won’t see on a children’s must-do list:

Make a ‘death slide’ over a fast running stream while trespassing on an angry farmer’s land;

Search the ashtrays in the cars in the village garage for used fag butts – and then dare each other to smoke them,

Remove half bottles of dad’s homebrewed wine and top it up with water, replacing the corks with a hammer,

Accept rides from older teenagers on motorbikes, even if it is ‘just across a field,’ or

Lie under jumps while your horsey friends – on their horses – jump over you.

It’s a wonder most of us with free-range childhoods are still here to tell the tale.

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How my garden was obliterated in less than three seconds

IT has taken eight years to develop my shady, urban, child-infested back garden, but it took less than three seconds to destroy it.

At around 1.30am on Sunday, I was woken by what felt like the house shaking. Or was it just a dream? My nocturnal other-half came to bed a few minutes later.

“The wall in the back garden has collapsed,” he muttered, before rolling over and attempting to go to sleep.

That wasn’t going to happen. I was wide awake. I went to peer out of the children’s bedroom window to see what he was talking about. It was too dark.

Downstairs to the window nearest the garden. All I could see was a sheet of the climber hydrangea petiolaris, hanging forlornly in a sheet, not clinging to much at all.

As I peered I could see . . .well, not the garden anymore. Just a sheet of bricks. It was an extraordinary sight. Like an instant patio.

. . . after

To be honest, I cried. Yes, I know it’s just a garden and the fact it happened in the night meant everyone is still alive (it would have killed anyone in the garden, it fell so fast), but after recent nocturnal misadventures, like the car getting squashed and finding a strange drunk man asleep in the dining room, it just feels like we are cursed by bad luck.

Self pity? Yeah, but it took me eight years to build that garden. I write about it as a garden journalist. So no, I don’t feel very laid back about it at all.

The wall was too tall. A Victorian garden wall, bordering the large garden of our neighbouring house’s garden really, all the way around their’s, just one border on ours. It had stood for over 120 years, and yet collapsed in one devastating sheet of bricks, covering the right hand garden border and our entire lawn. A lawn the kids had been playing on just 36 hours earlier.

The following morning it felt unreal to see it. Huge amounts of brickdust covered all the plants and the neighbours’ outside lights, strung presumably on their side, where the ground is a foot or so higher than on ours. Like a horticultural Becher’s Brook.

I couldn’t even start to organise what to do next, as sons needed taking to rugby matches and general life needed to go on as normal.

Bloke spoke to the neighbours the next day. Discussions, apparently, that involved talking to our respective insurance companies. I rang them, they said they’d get back to us. They did, only to tell us the wall wasn’t covered because nothing had hit it, “like a car or something.” Unsurprisingly, getting cross and emailing them the photos didn’t make any difference.

Since then it’s been raining solidly, and each morning when I get up and look out of the window at the missing garden, a little part of my soul wizens. Under all those bricks, somewhere, along with all the other crushed plants, is a snowdrop named ‘Bonnie Scott’, named after my daughter.

What to do next? I can hardly face it.


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Princess turns into Dirt Girl as worms become new pets

AS previously mentioned in these ramblings, our four-year-old daughter Bonnie is not absorbing the influence of her rowdy elder brothers and becoming a tomboy.

Quite the opposite. Much to my surprise and bewilderment, she can be the girliest of all girly-girls. She’ll always choose a floaty dress rather than trousers, will chat away about ‘pretty things’ with her pals, the Disney Princesses, and will pronounce, over-dramatically, “I’m scared” about everything from dinosaurs to the dark, (when she clearly isn’t).

However, she did me rather too proud at the weekend when I finally got a blessed hour or two to tackle some over-due gardening tasks.

Worm girl

Turning the compost heap has been on my to-do list for about a year, and as I shoveled the upper layers into a wheelbarrow, she spotted dozens of creepy-crawlies running, wriggling and slithering for cover.

I expected her to decide that she was scared of beasties but to my surprise she delved right in with her bare hands, gleefully collecting fat brandling worms and letting them wriggle about on her palms.

My requests for her to carefully put the worms back because they needed to be away from the sunlight fell on deaf ears – they were ‘her’ worms. They would be her friends. I had images in my head of finding dead worms in her doll’s house or chest of drawers.

I explained that to the worms, she was a giant – “I’m not a giant, giants are big” – and that she might be scaring them. Only then did she reluctantly give them up to go back into the compost heap.

That’s when she spotted the prehistoric-looking centipedes, running for their lives. She jumped, and hid behind me, unwilling to share my enthusiasm for the speedy bugs. “I’m scared of those,” she announced.

I’m keeping quiet about my similar dislike of moths . . .

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It’s the 4th Cottesbrooke Plant Finder’s Fair this weekend

This is a piece about the forthcoming Cottesbrooke Plant Finder’s Fair, courtesy of www.northamptonshiregardens.wordpress.com

Hopefully the weather will stay dry, but take a brolly just in case.

Cottesbrooke Plant Finders’ Fair started four years ago in the grounds of a magnificent stately home in Northamptonshire.

The ethos was to be up-market, presumably to entice the wealthy North London-folks up the M1. Potential exhibitors, paying a lot for a stand on which to sell their wares, were vetted before being allowed into what was being pitched as an exclusive club. Garden gnomes and bedding petunias wouldn’t be entertained in such exclusive company.

However, after a slow start, and despite the economic climate, the up-market  ethos seems to have worked. The number of exhibitors at the Cottesbrooke plant fair for 2011 has more than doubled from year one and currently stands at 70.

The plants are good and if you don’t get to go to the likes of Hampton Court and Gardener’s World Live, this is a great way to buy plants from people who actually know how to grow and care for them, and who are usually happy to give you some advice.

This year’s fair, which is supported by the Telegraph (Daily, not Evening) and Gardens Illustrated, is set to take place from Friday June 24th – Sunday June 26th and is open daily from 10:00am until 5:30pm

For the uninitiated,the Plant Fair brings a lot of nurseries and horticultural sundries all together in one place selling their wares, plus your admission fee gives you a chance to tour the very lovely gardens.

There are also high-profile guest speakers, including Dan Pearson, Helen Yemm, Stephen Lacey, Val Bourne, Derry Watkins, Juliet Roberts and local garden buffs Ursula Buchan and James Alexander Sinclair. Last year they charged extra for access to the talks but the 2011 entry fee includes the talks if you book in when you arrive (subject to availability (of seats, presumably)).

There’s a plant crèche to stash your purchases, a free plant swap for those organised enough to bring a pot of something with them and help available to take purchases back to the car park.

A word of advice: The food queue was horrendous last year so a picnic might be advisable. It’s not too far from the car park to nip back for your lunch.

A mixture of plant nurseries from as far afield as Ireland will attend, including Crûg Farm Plants from North Wales. This year there’s a print-out of who is on which stand, and a story-teller for the kids

Carla Cooper, Cottesbrooke’s Administrator said “This is all good for the local economy and in time may give the county’s tourism a little boost. In fact next year we hope to offer local hoteliers a preferential ticket price so that they can offer a Fair weekend break deal.”

Here’s the price for up-market though: entry to the fair is £8.50 on the gate. Thankfully, this year there is an advance booking line where tickets are £6.50, although annoyingly, there’s an additional £1 ‘booking fee’ PER TICKET. The booking line is 0845 130 7778 and charged at a local rate. Children get in free.

If the weather stays fine, this could be the CPFF’s best year yet.

Visit www.cottesbrookehall.co.uk for more details and a list of exhibitors and speakers.

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Gardening karma at the allotment

See this? This is just a small section of my new (moved down the field) plot.

I’ve been tackling it bit by bit over the past few weeks and just when I thought I was going to get a clear couple of hours to do more, some cantankerous old b*gger threw a spanner in the works. (To avoid litigation, I’ll spare you the boring but annoying details).

Anyhoo, along comes an avenging angel in pensioner form. An allotmenteer so up-to-date with his own plot that he offered to help out with mine.

Not only did he identify weeds/plants I didn’t recognise (horseradish, unfortunately), he helped bag up rubbish, dug-over and weeded several rows and even commandeered an unwanted incinerator for my growing pile of burnable prunings.

In short, his help in a few hours has accelerated the plots readiness by a couple of weeks.

We’re all very suspicious of strangers, but on the allotment field, everybody needs good neighbours.


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My signs of Spring


For many it’s the snowdrops and the daffodils that kick-start that spring feeling.

For me it’s seeing dull shrubs burst into life.

First it’s the leggy forsythia,(*adopts Brucie voice* “Good show, good show”) so boring and unkempt for most of the year, apart from the soul-lifting yellow splash that suddenly arrives in March.

I don’t like forsythia in my own garden, but I love to se it everyone elses’ front yard to tell me everything is about to get more colourful.

Then it’s the flowering currant, with its bright green textured leaves, just like its edible cousin, and hundreds of dangley clusters of pinky red flowers.

Flowering currant

Now it’s time to be impressed by the magnificent magnolia trees. I have several favourites as I drive across town every morning to drop the kids, and was appalled when a large specimen, probably two decades old, was chopped down in a front garden a couple of years ago.


It possibly blocked some light but would have been leafless for many months and flowers come before the leaves. Shame.
There seem to be lots of new ones being planted though, as small magnolia stellata seem to be everywhere on my school run. Watch it though, because even though they look small now, they will grow to 15 or 20 feet.

Magnolia stellata

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Chickens as pets? No clucking hope

It seems to be the accepted truth that anyone with children must, by default, have pets too.

But we don’t.

No dogs, cats, fish, lizards, rats, rabbits, snakes, gerbils, geckos or guinea pigs cluttering up and stinking out our house. (Just Bloke and the kids cluttering up and stinking out our house).Weird huh?

It’s not like it hasn’t been discussed. And often.

Bloke and I both had dogs we adored while growing up, and have wavered many times over the years about getting one, but could never really agree. He doesn’t like small dogs and I don’t want a whopper. We both agreed if we did get one it would be a puppy from a rescue centre and be a mongrel, but then, what if the dog was unpredictable around kids? And what about the extra mouth to feed? And vet’s bills? And being able to go on holiday?

Ultimately, the big “No” came because we thought it wouldn’t be fair on the dog. We both work and a puppy needs round-the-clock attention. Even though I’m a freelancer and often at home, sometimes I’m not, and that unpredictability is the issue. It might be fine, it might not.

I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right time. After all, we sometimes struggle to keep up with the demands of four small humans, without adding another being into the mix.

We actually had a hamster, once upon-a-time, when Jed and Doug were about four and five. It was called ‘Outfit,’ and named after Dougie mis-heard the name of a cartoon hamster called “Elephant.” (Something to do with American accents).

Despite all the promises, Outfit’s care, attention and cleaning out ended-up being my sole responsibility. Everyone else in the house seemed to lose all sense of smell and forgot that the poor little critter quite liked a tumble around the living-room in his plastic ball. And although the books claim hamsters only live a couple of years, Outfit seemed to last FOR EVER. Until, of course, he died.

And then suddenly everyone behaved like they’d lost their best friend. Weeping went on for days. We had a solemn burial in the back garden where the overflowing compost heap now stands.

After Outfit’s demise, we had two more children to distract everyone from getting pets.

But for the past few years, the nagging has returned. Dougie is actually a little fearful of dogs, having been flattened by an over-amorous Bernese Mountain Dog when he was about seven, but still begs us for a dog he can care for and take for walks.

Billy asks for a Real Dog every birthday and Christmas. Jed too promises he’ll care it and walk it, even if it’s December and raining. “And it’s not like it could make the house look any worse,” they plead.

I stand resolute. “Maybe one day. . .”

This weekend, Bonnie and I ended up at Bell Plantation garden centre in Towcester. If you’ve never been, it has an impressive poultry section. As well and loads of different hens and cockerels, it has rabbits and ducks and has recently added three pigs. (Bonnie decided they were called Peppa, George and Chloe, after the characters in her favourite TV show, but the store has yet to announce their names by a public vote).

Bonnie was initially impressed by the pigs, but they were too busy eating to even look at her. She was far more interested in the chickens. They did, predictably, cluck over her, coming to the front of the hen houses and not even nipping her when she disobeyed orders and stuck her digits through the wire.

“Can we take hens home?” she asked, optimistically.

I admit it, I wavered, despite the potential cost and smell. (I grew up in Devon, spent much of my childhood on farms and can officially confirm that chicken poo and pig poo are next in line behind humans for olfactory offensiveness).

Bonnie with pigs 'Peppa, George and Chloe'

It does sound nice, doesn’t it, having fresh eggs from the garden? Hearing that gentle clucking? They are supposed to be ‘easy’ to keep and good with children? The hen-houses on sale look study and could fit in our small garden?

Have I been mean by never letting my own children know the joy a family pet can bring?

Bloke was consulted. “The fox will get them. It will be carnage.”

“What fox?”

“The fox that lives in every urban street, the one which will kill any chickens we get.”

While a dog will continue to be the number one choice, it still appeals to me, keeping chickens, although the boys wouldn’t have anything to take for a walk and they don’t lend themselves to being house-trained or snuggling up on your lap.

I must stand resolute. “Maybe one day. . .”

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I have moved allotments

After about five years sweat, toil and tears, I have moved allotments. Not completely, but just from one end of a field to another.

I have left my five pole square to move to a 7-8 pole which comes with a small, top-heavy and precariously wobbly shed.

It’s fairly overgrown in places and I feel like I’m starting from scratch.

But it also has loads of fruit bushes and trees – most of which I don’t recognise. I’m actually quite excited about seeing what comes up and plan to invest in a petrol strimmer asap as my cordless one just isn’t up to the job.

 Here’s what it looks like now: (mine is the overgrown one on the right).

Wish me luck and fine weather.

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