Friday, 13 September 2013

Hedgerow harvest

There's an expression you commonly hear in Scotland at this time of year (indeed, my husband, who was originally from Speyside, used to say it nearly every day in September). "Aye, the nights are fair drawing in." Roughly translated, it means: "Yes, the evenings really are getting darker."
It's a time of year I love. You still get lots of sunshine, the weather is still mild, even if it is raining, and the hedgerows are full of blackberries, elderberries and sloes. It's the perfect time of year to go for a walk AND come back with something to eat.
Where I live, in the Cotswolds, the hedgerows tend to be the classic mixture of mainly hawthorn, with field maple (Acer campestre),  native hazel (Corylus avallana) and wild rose (Rosa canina). You find brambles, ivy and Travellers' Joy (Clematis vitalba) scrambling about too, with the inevitable elders (Sambucus nigra) that seem to self-seed everywhere in the Cotswolds.
A mixed hedge supports a greater diversity of wildlife than a single species hedge. This makes them much more fascinating - there's a greater seasonal change to observe, and all sorts of creatures use the hedge as a larder or a home. At this time of year, they are humming with activity as bees, wasps and other insects gorge themselves on blackberries.
Perhaps it's childhood memories of blackberrying that makes me love traditional hedgerows. It's that element of serendipity - you never know what you are going to find, but it's always going to be interesting.
So today I took Rufus and a pail and headed up the hill to see what I could find.

This is one of my favourite walks: a public footpath which runs alongside the fields. There is a project going on here to encourage native wildflowers and skylark habitats.

 The sead heads of wild carrot (Daucus carota), which look like mini upturned crinolines.

Rufus likes this walk too. He just wishes I'd stop gawping at plants and get a move on.

September is a busy time for farmers, who have finished harvesting and now started ploughing. The fields are a patchwork of beige, chocolate and green.

Travellers' Joy, our native wild clematis, also known as Old Man's Beard. The funny thing about this plant is that I only ever notice it at this time of the year, when its silky seedheads are on display. I never seem to notice it when it is in flower.

The footpath leads up quite a steep hill (puff, puff), but once at the top, you get a fantastic view of the village, looking as if it is dozing in the late afternoon sun

Blackberries! Not the best crop I've ever seen or the sweetest, but there were enough to fill my pail. I wonder whether being able to buy cultivated blackberries (unheard-of when I was a child but now easily available in the supermarkets) has spoilt our taste for hedgerow brambles?

There were other berries in the hedgerows too. Hawthorn, above, 
which always looks so cheerful. 

Elderberries, from which you can make wine or cordial. I thought about it, but then reality stepped in. I knew I'd never get round to it. Don't eat the raw berries - always cook them

So here we are back home with a hedgerow bouquet (don't worry, it's all from my garden or creeping over the wall into my garden) and some blackberries. Walking home, I pondered what to make with them. Crumble? Apple and blackberry pie? In the end, I settled on bramble jelly, because it seemed to offer the best long-term reward for the time and effort involved.
The trouble with autumn is that one is overwhelmed with enthusiasm for new and interesting ways to use up fruit and vegetables. I'm the only person in my household who eats chutney, so there is absolutely no point in making jars and jars of it. On the other hand, everyone eats toast and jam, and a batch of bramble jelly will last for months. I'm going to cheat and use preserving sugar that has pectin added to it. Give me a break, I've just been on a really long walk!

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

I don't grow my own, but I do have a glut

People often ask me why I don't grow vegetables. You're a keen gardener, they say, so where are the prize-winning peas? The Highly Commended cabbages? The meritorious marrows?
Here's why I don't grow vegetables. I find it all too easy to accumulate a glut of produce without even putting spade to soil. My neighbour Peter really does win prizes for his veg at the village show, so I benefit from his surplus, which he leaves for me on the "Sue Steps".
The previous owners of my house, Sue and her husband Norman, sold the bottom section of the garden to Peter, who wanted more space for veg and fruit trees. Peter built the dry-stone boundary wall himself - isn't it beautiful? He put in a little style at one end which he named the Sue Steps. I like to think of them as the Sue Steps too.
So far this year I have had tomatoes, courgettes, peppers (bell peppers), runner beans and mini cucumbers. All delicious. And they come in a cute little trug.

My younger sister and her husband used to be keen veg gardeners in their previous house, and I was delighted to see, on a recent visit, that they'd got back into it. They grow a lot of their stuff in containers, which has the additional benefit of making their terrace look incredibly green and lush in late summer, while at the same time being easy to clear away for the winter.

They were growing courgettes, cabbages, beetroot, runner beans, aubergines, squash and cucumbers. You can't really see it in the picture below, but the red flowers of the runner beans are an exact match for the rowan berries at the end of the garden. One of those happy gardening accidents!

Here are my rich pickings in the kitchen, but where to begin? Being a non-veg grower, I am not very creative when it comes to thinking of ways to use produce. So I called on my guru in these matters, Michelle at Veg Plotting. Here's how the conversation went.

Me: OK, so I'm planning to make ratatouille. Can I freeze it?

Michelle: Yes, you can. Ratatouille is a handy base for so many dishes as well as being a meal in itself. It's great to have some to pull out of the freezer in the winter for an instant taste of summer.

Me: And I seem to have more courgettes than anything else. Didn't you have a good recipe for a courgette cake when you did your Open Garden virtual tour on Veg Plotting?
Michelle: Here you are. This is the recipe I obtained from the last place I worked. Whenever it was available, everyone used to ring round to say go and grab some!

Me: Anything else I can make with courgettes? 
Michelle: My courgette, tarragon and lemon bread's proving popular. This, and the cake, are great standby recipes for when everyone's getting a bit tired of courgettes, so you need to start to disguise them. I've also used them in omelettes, made fritters like the ones we've had on holiday in Greece. If you also have a tomato glut, there's always pasta sauce - with or without bacon. I tend to make that one up on the spot, according to what's in abundance, though courgettes, tomatoes, onions and loads of fresh basil tend to feature rather a lot...
I've just started experimenting with a really simple salad to go with all my salad leaves [Michelle is running a 52 Week Salad Challenge on her blog]. Slice the courgette into thin ribbons and marinade it in lemon juice, olive oil, some crushed garlic and deseeded, chopped red chili. Mix in some chopped fresh mint just before serving.
If you're really overrun with courgettes, I've found What Will I Do With All Those Courgettes, by Elaine Borish, has loads of ideas. I giggle every time I see the cover.

Me: Any ideas for runner beans?
Michelle: Erm, no, we're not big fans of runner beans but everyone else seems to make chutney with them.

I may not have found a recipe that uses runner beans (which I love, by the way), but I did use up some of the remaining tomatoes (and boy, were there some remaining tomatoes) to make fresh tomato sauce for pasta. I used a Rose Elliot recipe which was very simple. Simply saute some onion until it is golden, then add chopped tomatoes and a couple of cloves of garlic, a splash of red wine (if you like) and some fresh oregano or basil if you have any. If you haven't, add a pinch of herbes de Provence.
Rose Elliot's recipe calls for one onion and 1lb of tomatoes, but I was a little more unscientific. I used two onions and what can only be described as "lots" of tomatoes. I find that "glut" tomatoes can be a little bit watery, so I added a couple of teaspoonfuls of tomato puree to give it a more intense flavour. 
Of course, what I should have done was to roast the tomatoes, which gives them a really intense flavour, and makes it easy to discard the peel.
I peeled the tomatoes by chucking them in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Leave them for five minutes, and then the peel splits and comes away. If it doesn't split, make a slit with a knife and then it will come off easily.
Once the tomato and onion mixture has simmered gently for a bit (say 30 minutes), let it cool and then put it through a sieve or in a liquidiser. I'm lazy, so I dumped mine in the food processor, but beware - it will be full of seeds. It's not unpleasant, it just has a more grainy texture. If you want a more sophisticated version, strain it.
The best strainer to use is a china cap, which is shaped like a cone, and makes it easier to push whatever you're sieving through. It's similar to a chinois strainer, but whereas a chinois tends to have fine mesh, the china cap is more like a colander, and is made of stainless steel with holes in the side.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Is less more? And for whom?

I'm always fascinated by people's reactions to gardens. What is it that makes a garden a good space to be in? Is there a harmonious combination of proportions and ingredients that could be analysed mathematically, like the golden ratio? Or are we predisposed - by memory, or education, or tradition - to like a certain sort of garden? Is the English Landscape style, for example, intrinsically good design, or have we just been trained to think that way because the rich landowners who employed it were the (unquestioned) celebrity trend-setters of their time?
I was thinking about this when I visited Anne Wareham's garden at Veddw, just across the Welsh border, the other day. As befits the founder of the Thinkingardens website, Veddw is a garden that makes your brain do a few stretching exercises before embarking on a full-scale workout. It is full of metaphors, contrasts and allusions.
I have to declare an interest here. I love Veddw, but then I adore Anne. She has built up a reputation in British horticulture as the Bad-Tempered Gardener, but I have only ever found her to be extremely kind. (Whoops, there goes her credibility. Sorry, Anne!) Her garden is just like her: challenging, stimulating but oddly restful. An afternoon in the company of Anne and her husband Charles is like a large gin and tonic - refreshing and relaxing at the same time.

This is the iconic view of Veddw; the Reflecting Pool, with its curving yew hedges. To me this represents the essence of the garden - a space that visually references the local landscape (hedgerows, hills and woodland) while at the same time transcending those references to become something with a character all of its own. I find the reflecting pool incredibly satisfying and relaxing. I could sit there all day.
So I was astonished to find that Helen, who was visiting with me, disagreed. She said it made her feel uneasy. (You can read what she thought of Veddw here.) She's not alone. Another blogger said they found it sinister. Comments like this make me question my own view. Am I being uncritical by liking it? Do I like it because I like Anne?
No, I think I like it because it satisfies some need in me for stillness and calm. The strong lines of the hedges gaze back at themselves from the pool, providing a visual dialogue uncluttered by flowers or sticky-out bits. It doesn't demand minute inspection of each specimen or analysis of the planting plan - just that you sit down and take it in.

The beds of hostas were also the subject of debate. Was this taking a monoculture too far?
Helen thought it was. I thought not. Look at those leaves! So varied in texture and colour. Anne suggested that perhaps it needed a vertical punch from something like scarlet crocosmia (Nectaroscordum siculum does the job earlier in the year.) I'm not a huge fan of representative sculpture in the garden, but I would be very tempted to commission a row of stakes with lifelike slugs impaled on the tips, like the severed heads of traitors displayed on London Bridge in the olden days.

This view of the yew rooms and beyond, the tithe map parterre - which represents the ownership of local land in the 19th century - is another example of the way in which Anne has distilled the character of the Welsh countryside into an ultimate abstraction. It looks a bit like that sort of pixellation you get when a photograph is building online.

Veddw is not just about representation and metaphor, however. There are areas of planting that appear to justify their inclusion by sheer exuberance. These inula, combined with Campanula lactiflora and the physocarpus (Dart's Gold?), were a delight. They seemed to be going down well with the bees, too.

Formality has a place even in the "meadow". An avenue of Turkish hazel and a mown path makes a strong statement that sets off the frothy informality of the grasses and seed heads. Earlier in the summer, the meadow was a sea of buttercups, punctuated by the tall spires of camassia.

One part of the garden is dominated by this white persicaria, almost shoulder-height. I'm always very admiring of designers who can restrict themselves to one plant, because I think it takes the sort of strength of character I know I haven't got. In this case, however, standing in the middle of a sea of persicaria just made me feel good.

Rectangular topiary monoliths rise above banks of wild flowers. Below them, out of sight behind the hedges, are gravestones, each marking the evolution of a local name over the centuries.

This is the area I call the faux veg garden. It appeals to my sense of humour. Yes, you could eat the cardoons, and technically you could eat the purple heuchera (the leaves are supposed to be edible, if somewhat bitter). That's not the point, though. It gives the impression of being a kitchen garden, without actually performing that function, and without all the backache-ing labour. (I've got a better picture of it, taken earlier in the year, which I will post as soon as I can find it.)
I also happen to like the combination of grey and purple foliage, but according to Anne it is not to everyone's taste. This strikes me as odd. In a real vegetable garden, you very often see these colours - the purple of cabbage foliage, the dark red stems of beetroot or chard. What do people dislike about it, I wonder? Perhaps they feel that Anne has somehow got one over on them by either suddenly presenting them with a contemporary garden, or leading them up the garden path about the purpose of this particular plot?

The Bad-Tempered Gardener herself, looking remarkably sunny. I'd like to tell you that Charles put this T-shirt on deliberately to match the crocosmia but that wouldn't be true. On the other hand, they have put their Twitter names on the birdbath. Fabulous.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

So, where was I...?

This blog feels a bit like one of those movies where the words "Three years later" come up on the screen, thus neatly sidestepping any tedious narratives about what everyone has been doing in the meantime.
I suppose the edited version of the past six months would go something like this:
The long cold winter finally came to an end. The kitchen was finished, the stone floor was laid and the living room was redecorated. I managed to start planting my garden, and spent quite a lot of time weeding and pruning. Other people came and did major hacking and pruning.
I went to San Francisco, to the Garden Bloggers' Fling, where I felt a bit of a fraud (having not written a single post for half a year). By the time I got back, a heatwave was in full swing, thus putting paid to any good intentions I had about catching up with my blog. Oh, and I won second prize in the village show for my picture of a lupin in the rain.
I've posted some pictures here, because I know how much people love "before and after" stories.

This is the kitchen back in February, when the old units and fittings had been ripped out. The house, which was built sometime between 1800 and 1850, had originally been a two-up, two-down cottage and in the past 40 years, it had been extended twice. When I moved in, it felt very much like two different houses joined together, so I decided to lay a stone floor in the kitchen and through the entrance hall to try to give some feeling of cohesion.

Here's the stone floor just after it was laid. It's French limestone from the Bourgogne. The patchwork effect is created by the natural differences in colouration, and the guys who laid it spent quite a long time working out which slabs would look best where - just like piecing together a quilt.

At last! I'd been without a kitchen for about two and a half months before the fitters could finally come in and get on with their work. The kitchen was designed and built by McCarron and Company and I love it to pieces. McCarron are fairly local to me; they are based in Devizes, where they build all their units at their own factory. You can go and see the process from start to finish, beginning with the sawmill and finishing with the paint shop. I loved the idea that the money for my kitchen was going into the pockets of local craftsmen - and of course, it meant that if we hit any snags or queries, someone could come straight round and have a look.
I suppose you'll want to know what has happened to the garden too. First, I should remind you that in the middle of all the chaos, a small person called Rufus joined the household.

Rufus arrived at Awkward Hill at the end of February. He was quite a quiet, shy little puppy - I can remember wondering if he was able to bark, because he hardly made a sound. He's made up for it since (below). He spends most of his time woof-woofing by the front gate to attract the attention of tourists, then grovels shamelessly for attention. He must feature in thousands of Japanese iPhoto albums.

It had been difficult to get any work done in the garden over the winter because of all the snow. This was a rare mild day in early March, when I grabbed the chance to clear out the two borders behind the house. They were so choked with weeds, it seemed easier to take off the top three inches of soil. Well, when I say easier...

... it was actually a long, laborious task, involving a lot of heavy lifting and de-turfing, while at the same time rescuing huge clumps of Iris sibirica, snowdrops and crocuses. Eventually both the borders were cleared, and mulched with well-rotted farm manure before being replanted. The strange black structures in the border are a set of nesting metal tables from Ikea. I put them there to stop Rufus and the cats using the border as a litter tray. It sort of worked.

I was desperate to introduce some colour into the garden, especially after such a long bleak winter, but I didn't want to buy anything too expensive in case I changed my mind about the layout. In the end I settled for bomb-proof stalwarts that I knew would encourage pollinators and provide months of floriferous display.

These included the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve' (described by the RHS as a plant every garden should have), Sedum 'Herbstfreude', Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii and a selection of hardy geraniums, including G. cinereum subcaulescens for the front of the border, G. 'Sandrine', a new variety called 'Midnight Clouds' (makes a big dark-leaved clump with creamy-pink flowers). Other favourites that had to be given a place were Mexican daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), Alchemilla mollis, Verbena bonariensis and a couple of box balls.

I also decided I couldn't live without two 'Ballerina' roses, whose clusters of single pink flowers seemed appropriate for a country garden, and Dianthus carthusianorum, which I had lusted after since seeing it at Knoll Gardens. The Cotswolds is a great place to grow roses and clematis, so I expected the Ballerinas to perform well, but the dianthus was a revelation. It went crazy, and competes with the 'Bowles Mauve' for the title of "Most Loved by Pollinators Plant". Here's a Peacock butterfly enjoying the benefits.

The physical changes to the house and garden seemed dramatic at the time, but as they recede into the past, they seem almost negligible - little blips on the calendar that are barely more than punctuation marks. What you can't see, but which is far more important, is the realisation that this has become my home, rather than somewhere I moved to.
A few weeks ago, I discovered that the garden I left behind in London - Victoria's Backyard - had been radically remodelled. I'd expected this to happen, because the new owners had young children who wanted a goal posts and a trampoline and all the usual things that allow the under-12s to let off steam outside.
It still felt quite sad, though, and while I was in San Francisco, looking at gardens full of palms and cordylines and succulents, I felt very nostalgic for my old sub-tropical oasis. I bored Helen at Patient Gardener, who was in SF with me, with wistful yearnings.
Coming home to an unexpected heatwave, and a garden full of roses and lavender, put all thoughts of exotica out of my head. How could I possibly feel regret about anything else when I had all this?

Sunday, 24 February 2013

I, Rufus

You may be wondering why there has been very little news from Awkward Hill recently. That's because Victoria has been very busy looking after ME. My name is Rufus, I am a Tibetan Terrier, and I'm 10 weeks old today.
I joined the family at Awkward Hill just over a week ago, and Victoria says I'm getting bigger and hairier by the day. I also like gardening, as you can see. (Just as well...)

We Tibetan Terriers are an honourable and ancient breed. We're not really terriers at all (that's just what ignorant Westerners called us when they first came across us in our homeland). We are working dogs, and for hundreds of years we have herded livestock and even guided travellers along mountain paths.
Victoria says that having a new puppy is like having a new baby in the house (except that you don't have to run round the lawn at 6am with a new baby). I'm training her to feed me on demand, take me outside to play ball every five minutes (yes, I can already retrieve a ball) and generally cater to my every whim. She's slowly getting the idea.
I know some of you will want to know how the cats reacted to my arrival. I'd like to say that they greeted me with open paws, but Luigi swore at me and Mario vanished upstairs. I ran after him to say hello, but he just ran even faster.

Luigi really scared me - he fluffed up all over! He will now agree to come within a yard of me, but he still gives me The Look when he thinks Victoria isn't looking. Mario is still upstairs.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Gonna dust myself off, start all over again

If you're wondering why I haven't responded to the email you sent me, or the text message, here's why. The entire house is under a layer of dust, or dust sheets, while the new floor is laid in the kitchen and the hall. Most of the time, my computer is under a layer of dust, or dust sheets, and so is my mobile, and the land line.
During the next few days, life will become even more complicated because a self-levelling screed is going down tomorrow, which needs 24 hours to set. I haven't quite worked out how I am going to negotiate this, since the screeded bit will be between my bedroom (where I sleep, obviously) and the living room (where all my stuff is). It's all very well having the contents of the kitchen in the living room if I can't actually access the microwave and the fridge.
The cats will be OK, because I'll shut them in the living room with a litter tray and their food. Come to think of it, I might even get myself a litter tray.

The living room, which currently has all the living room furniture, plus the dining room table and chairs, all the coats from the hall, the contents of the kitchen cupboards, the microwave, the toaster and a mini fridge. And the cats, of course.

The kitchen. It's going to get a self-levelling screed tomorrow, then a new stone floor and new units.

Another view of the kitchen. Please give it up on a global scale for my brother-in-law, who took out all the old units, plus the downstairs loo and utility room; took up all the parquet flooring in the kitchen and spent today jack-hammering off about 10 square yards of quarry tiles to give the tilers a reasonably level surface to screed. He is a hero.
It was a really tough job - and the tiles were so difficult to drill out that he ended up having to fill a couple of holes with concrete. He put down boards, which you can see in some of the pictures, so that the cats wouldn't walk on the concrete.
However, the cats managed to avoid the boards and leave little footprints in the concrete after all. Aren't  they clever?

The hall, minus the banisters,  and plus the kitchen doors,  which have been temporarily relocated. Somtimes, I would quite like to be temporarily relocated too.

Another view of the hall. That's some of my gardening gear on the stairs. Well, a girl can dream, can't she?

The study. Under some of the dust sheets are my piano, my desk and my computer. There are lots of other things in here too, but they've been under dust sheets so long, I've forgotten what they are.

Dust! That white patch is where I put the cat food for five minutes. I keep telling myself it will all be worth it in the end. I have to go wash my hands now - they're filthy from using this keyboard.

Friday, 25 January 2013

That "leave the garden for a year" rule

Running two blogs is trickier than I thought. When I started up this blog, about life in Bibury, Gloucestershire, I thought I would use my old blog, Victoria's Backyard, to write about gardening in general, and my new blog to write specifically about my own house and garden.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but only a couple of months in, I find myself writing about a subject that would sit equally well on either. So ... it's going on both! Apologies if you feel cheated. What can I say? I'm a cheapskate.

The classic advice when you move into a new house and garden is to leave the garden for a year before you make any changes. This allows you to see what is in the garden - to identify trees that may not have been in leaf when you moved in; to discover what bulbs come up in spring; to find out where the hot/dry spots and the cool/damp spots are; to determine the best place (shady or sunny, depending on your personal taste) to put your garden table and chairs; to see how your views of the neighbourhood (or their views of you) work when trees are both in leaf, and bare in winter.
Indeed, there are a whole host of good reasons not to rush into making changes in a garden you have only just acquired.
What the experts don't tell you, however, is that it is incredibly frustrating simply to sit and look at a garden if you are used to pottering happily outside, cutting a new lawn edge here or replanting an area there. Luckily, my garden is under a blanket of thick snow at the moment, so that has meant a few days less in the year when I am not driven mad by the urge to go outside and CHANGE THINGS!
However, it's still only January. What on earth am I going to be like by the time I've been to the Malvern Spring Show, to the Chelsea Flower Show, to Barnsley House down the road, or to the local gardens that open under the National Gardens Scheme? Even a visit to the garden centre is sometimes enough to inspire me to rejig a part of the garden completely. Must I completely ignore all these sources of inspiration and temptation?
Then there is the long list of plants that keep metaphorically poking me in the ribs, chorusing: "Plant us, plant us!" Must I really go a whole year without putting in Rosa 'Ballerina', or Viburnum plicatum tomentosum 'Lanarth', or Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', or Dianthus carthusianorum or the whole host of other things on my wish list?
Yes, there are snowdrops coming through, which is very exciting (at least, it would be if I could see them). Somewhere under all that snow, there are primroses and bluebells waiting in the wings, and I'm looking forward to their gala performance later in the spring. 
However, there are other bits of the garden that I really don't want to see in their current state this time next year - or indeed in six months' time. One is the gap between the two terraces, at the back and the side of the house, and I have already had a new walkway built that connects the two. "Now you can follow the sun right round the house with a drink in your hand," said the builder. With a drink in my hand? Are you kidding? With a heavy load of plants in my wheelbarrow, more like.
Running alongside the terrace at the back are two small borders. One is full of marjoram (where it isn't overgrown with grass, nettles and perennial weeds such as plantains). The other has a huge clump of what looks like Iris sibirica at one end, and a matching selection of grass, nettles and weeds.
When I first viewed the house, in late August, the irises had long gone over, and the borders looked a bit of a mess. I thought then that tidying them up would probably be my first project.
I've already made the borders deeper and deturfed the bits that were completely overgrown. They are full of bulbs - lots of snowdrops, by the look of them - so a full-scale replanting can wait until March. Technically, spring is too early to split the iris, but I'm going to take some of it out next month anyway, and pot up the divisions to plant in the other border or elsewhere in the garden. If they don't take, it's not the end of the world, and if they do, they will help create a sense of unity.
The experts say Iris sibirica should be divided in summer or early autumn, but the experts also say its spread is around 30cm to 90cm, depending on the variety. This particular clump, or cluster of clumps, is about 6ft in diameter. So much for experts.
I want a classic cottage-garden look here, with billowing clumps of hardy geraniums, lavender, Verbena bonariensis and roses, followed by sedums, grasses and rudbeckia to carry the torch on into early autumn.

Work on the new bit of terrace got under at the beginning of December. It's a basic block wall construction, with a traditional dry stone facade.

It's now finished, but for the first couple of weeks, I couldn't bring myself to walk on it. I was so pleased with it, I didn't want to spoil it with muddy footprints!

Making a start on the borders at the back of the house. Oh, for lighter evenings! If you do something in the garden at this time of year, you have a daylight window of about four hours. And by the time you've remembered to take a photograph, it's dark.

Ooooh, look - there's a paved bit hidden away underneath here. How lovely - almost as exciting as snowdrops.