Saturday, 21 October 2017

Moving on: the end of an era

Having left London, I've decided to make another change. I've loved this blog, and "Made with love and garlic" will always be a wonderful reminder of the gardening I did when confined to our little urban patch in London but for our new country life adventure I think that I need something new. So I do hope that you'll join me over at my new blog, London to Land Girl where I chronicle all of our smallholding and hobby farming exploits!

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Week one: Settling on our smallholding

What a week. And what a shame that so much of it has been spent inside but with a little boy and two cats (my life really is filled with marvellous small noisy beings), getting the house unpacked so that they could feel like they were home seemed to be a priority. We’ve had a couple of walks around our land and think we’ve sketched out the changes we want to make. Essentially we’d like to add a native hedging border to help the dormice and also to increase our crop of things like sloes, and we’re also going to adjust the ways that the paddocks are set out and to plant an orchard. I think we’re going to fence the pond off and let it grow wild to help the local wildlife and I’d really like to get our vegetable patch started. All in all, a lovely load of rather hard work that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into. If only there weren’t so many pesky moving boxes still in circulation demanding my attention! I’m still quite overwhelmed by all of this space. I had a rather na├»ve idea that we’d move and by the first weekend I’d be outside with a rotavator creating a vegetable garden so that I could plant out autumn garlic and greens and things and realistically I doubt that I’ll be doing that any time this month. We feed the alpacas every day and have had a few quick pokes about the garden but I’m still not entirely sure what’s actually there and what we can do and where the sun shines. We have a resident pheasant called Percy, and he appears to approve of us as he brought his wife over today to strut about the garden whilst our urban cats plastered themselves to the windows staring at what they presumably believe to be the biggest sparrows in existence.

This has been such a massive learning curve. I’ve learnt that nobody can find our smallholding, and that the best mobile reception is at the bottom of the alpaca’s field. I’ve learnt that I wasn’t imagining it, the alpacas really dislike me quite a bit and that I’m a bit tired of being greeted by five sets of ears laid back and brown teeth hissing at me when I come home. I’ve learnt that the people in the village are lovely, with several of them already popping round to welcome us. Everybody seems to know that we’re new and, oddly, where we live! We’re starting to learn which local pubs do the best food (priorities) and how to drive to our local town. I’ve learnt that we own far too much stuff and that frankly we could probably streamline our life as far as belongings go. I’ve also learnt that I can’t wait to get out into the countryside for a walk and that children dislike moving house. All in all we’re happy but tired and I just want to get outside to start pulling the land about!

I managed to make a complete and utter fool of myself yesterday chasing a perfectly nice if baffled neighbour through the whole village flashing my lights at him and gesturing out of the window for him to pull over in the mistaken belief that he was the OpenReach (telephone) installation chap and that he was just leaving my house as I arrived. Those familiar with the difficulties of getting a phone line installed in the UK may have some sympathy for my desperation when I thought he’d arrived early and was leaving again but the fact of the matter is that I felt like a moron and he has every right to think I’m a redneck loon for bearing down on him in such a ludicrous manner. Not, in retrospect, the best way for me to introduce myself to the neighbours. I suspect that any hopes we might have had of simply quietly joining the community and settling down as if we’d always lived here might be shot!

Still, I’m really happy every day when I wake up and wish there were more hours in the day so that I could get on with everything all at once. I shall console myself with the idea that this home will take shape over a series of years, and settle back to enjoy the changes.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Leaving London and moving to the country

In my 34 years on this planet I've lived in 17 different houses, but not one of them has ever affected me like this one. I'm sitting in an empty, echoing kitchen on a camping chair as I type this and in a few hours men in a big truck will come and pick up the last of our belongings and we'll drive down to our new home on our smallholding in rural Hampshire. But for now, I can't sleep for thinking about how much I will miss this place and this city. I've lived in London for more than a decade and I've had the absolute time of my life. This bright and vibrant lively place has been a much beloved home and whilst I fully believe that this move out of London to the country is the right decision for us, I'm quite surprised at how much I'm mourning the imminent loss of this town. 

It appears that an awful lot of thirty-somethings in London reach that milestone birthday and start to pine for a slower River Cottage-esque life in a vague sort of way. Suddenly dinner conversations regularly drift into country village musings, into mumbled "wouldn't it be nice to have some more space" territory that is then left hanging as everyone pours themselves into taxis to go home, checking out property in the Home Counties on their phones as they go. Slowly but surely, a lot of our friends are actually starting to make the move and tomorrow it's time for us to join their number. 

For years now we've been enjoying the city as a family but we kept thinking that actually our son would probably quite like a larger garden, some animals to look after, more country walks, and a smaller community and we've kept an eye on the property market. When our little smallholding came up we snaffled it up, and all of a sudden we're off to start a new rural life and if I'm honest, it's all so sudden that my head is still spinning.

There seems a bit of a conspiracy between those that choose to leave London. They airily talk about how dreadfully dirty London was, how the people were cold and cross, how the commute was awful and the garden tiny, how crime, house prices and terrorism were rising and how glad they are to have left that horrid place and I find it a bit socially awkward because I can't bring myself to agree. Yes, we will have more space, and a safer place to live, and I'm sure we'll have a lovely local community but I love London with a deep and abiding strength of feeling and I'm sorry to be leaving it. I'm sorry to leave our friendly road, where we know most people to say hello to. I'm sorry to be leaving a city where I've never once had to ask for help with a pram on a train. I'm sorry to leave the culture and the buzziness and the architecture and the constant entertainment at my fingertips. And I'm sorry to be leaving my friends because I'm scared I'll be lonely in that new place where we know nobody and will have to start from scratch. I've never had that easy ability to make friends that I've always envied in others and the thought is daunting.

But possibly (and unreasonably) most of all, I'm sorry to leave this house that I have loved so much. The very first time we viewed the house, we stepped inside and just knew that this was the one. I have never loved a home like this. It was here that we planned our wedding and where we returned as newlyweds. It was here that we brought home our little boy in a gloriously joyful state of chaos to learn how to be a family. It was here that we crawled home, dazed and broken to grieve after our little girl was stillborn. It was here that our little family flourished and was happy. This house has seen our annual Boxing Day party grow bigger each year, has seen raucous family Sunday lunches that stretch out into the evenings, dinner parties that ended with appallingly bad singing of folk songs, lovely lazy family days spent quietly playing train sets and jigsaws, regular gatherings of friends and family, birthday parties, rainy days spent in front of the fire with a huge stack of storybooks and drawing paper, Easter egg hunts and so much more. The garden has been completely re-done multiple times and my son helped to plant a lot of it. The house has changed out of all recognition, modified and extended whilst we camped out inside it in a building site. It seems extraordinary to me now that so much could have happened to us in such a short period of time. But now the only sound in this large room is the echo of the keys I type on (and, rather less poetically, the smaller of our cats scratching to go out into the garden). This house is a part of me and leaving it is heartbreaking. 

But life changes. We will move on, we will have new adventures, create new memories, and make a new home for ourselves and our little family. We will make new friends and enjoying having the old ones to stay. We're actually only a couple of hours from London and so doubtless we'll be up to town on a regular basis. This is the right decision and now is the right time to go and I have no doubt that we will be blissfully happy. I'm grateful that I had the chance to live in London and I do think we took full advantage of it. I'm excited beyond belief about our new project and I think it's going to be brilliant fun. But tonight, alone in this room, I am also sad that this glorious chapter of our life is drawing to a close. I will miss you London, and I will miss you, beloved little house, not least because of the memories of those within you. 

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Review of 2017: garden successes and failures

I've learnt a lot about gardening this year. I've filled my 44 hanging and wall baskets to bursting, as well as my four raised beds. Some things have worked well (I've grown more than £150 of organic produce and haven't bought tomatoes all summer!) and some less well (one measly squash from six plants?). So given the scope of the smallholding project we'll be taking on by the end of the week, I thought I'd look back on my biggest garden failures of 2017 to help me create a reminder list of things not to repeat once I have a proper garden. So here without further ado, are my top ten garden mistakes of 2017:

1. Believing the hype: Climbing strawberry / "Hanging basket" raspberry and blackberry
I have a tendency to believe the advertising hype of new miracle plants. A climbing strawberry and hanging baskets filled to bursting with raspberries and blackberries all sounded perfect for my tiny urban garden. What a shame that they simply didn't work. The strawberries grew a couple of long leaves and then simply stayed the same. Not a single fruit did they bear, and not a single tendril did they put out. What a waste of soil. From the two "hanging basket" raspberries and the two blackberries I got a total of 11 raspberries. Rubbish. From now on I shall be a lot more cynical!

2. Herb overgrowth
A lot of my herbs went to seed this year. I actually don't mind too much because then they attract lots of lovely bees, but it is a shame not to be able to eat them. I think I need to make sure I cut them down to the ground every so often so that they don't all turn into flowers next time. 

3. Pathetic peppers and peas
Actually I don't have much of a learning point here for the simple reason that I have no idea whatsoever why every single one of my eight pepper plants keeled over. I hypothesise that snail hastened their eventual end but I don't quite know why only one of them developed a fruit (which then rotted and fell off). The peas, on the other hand, were snaffled by snails. It was brutal. One day I had climbing peas and a few beans, and the next day, just some sad stalks. I was robbed! Note to self, go after snails. 

4. Squashes / pumpkins vertically
I was very pleased when I managed to get my "hundredweight" pumpkins and my "crown prince" squashes to climb up trellises. But in all honesty, given that they took up most of two raised beds, and that I only got three fruits from nine vines overall, I'm not sure they gave me much bang for my space buck. Vertical gardening is great for small spaces and small gardens but I don't think that squashes and pumpkins are the best choice for really tiny patios. I also had to prune them on a fortnightly basis to stop their triffid-like growth strangling everything else in the garden. All in all, I'll definitely have a pumpkin patch at the new house, but I don't think that I'd grow pumpkins or squash vertically again. 

5. Planting too close together (beets and carrots)
This one is a mistake I've made before and find really hard not to repeat. I always find myself squeezing in more plants than are meant to be in any given patch of soil. But the result is that a large amount of my crop is really quite puny. Next year, with a proper vegetable patch, I'm hoping to be stricter with myself in giving my crops the room they need to grow. 

6. Pinching out tomatoes
I actually think I did enough pinching out of my vines but what I didn't do is to take off the growing tips or to tie the side shoots in properly (again, lack of space made this tricky). But I have to say, given that six vines and a few hanging baskets with cherry tomatoes have supplied our whole family with tomatoes all summer, it doesn't seem to have adversely affected the crop. It did, however, provide copious space for enormous spiders to set up residence. The "mountain magic" tomatoes were growing outside so overcrowding wasn't an issue, and actually they've been enormously prolific. So although I'll grow them properly in the poly tunnel next year, I think I'll leave the outdoor ones to ramble.

7. Chillis
I planted two chillis this year, one gifted to me by a friend and one that I bought as a plug. The first fell prey to the voracious appetites of the South West London slug population, and the second produced two good-sized chillis that never passed green and eventually developed black sides. Bizarre. Why didn't they ripen? Was it too cold outside? I don't know, but I'll try them inside next year just in case, 

8. Pollination problems (plum)
I"ve had my little plum tree for nearly four years now so it should be cropping very heavily and indeed, every year I get a decent bunch of plums and every year they all drop off of the tree. I feel like a total moron because it wasn't until this year when I had problems with pumpkins doing the same thing that I realised (thanks to the geniuses on my Instagram feed) that it was because the tree wasn't being pollinated! We've bought fruit trees for the new house and I've made sure that I have pollination partners for all of them to plant in close proximity. 

9. Buying plugs
Actually I think that one of the main problems I had overall was that I didn't plant out my seeds myself. I bought a lot of plug plants from what I thought were reputable nurseries and by and large they were utterly disappointing. They generally arrived pale, weak and often with their leaves completely stapled by the packaging. I will never, never buy plant plugs again. They're simply not strong enough and I'm convinced that the time they spend in the post makes them punier still. Never again. They're also considerably more expensive than seeds. What a waste!

10. Leeks (didn't plant out soon enough)
The leeks were a bit of a disappointment and I think it was because I sowed them directly. I did thin them but they never really grew to anything approaching pencil thickness, let along actual leek size. Another one to try sowing properly inside next year I think,

All in all I think I'm going to call 2017 a year of gardening practice rather than much else. Still, bring on next year, I'm sure that things can only improve.