Friday 17 July 2015

In Grandma's Irish Country Garden ...

Emi loves coming to my parents' house here amidst the rolling hills of south Tyrone. For me it's a pleasure to see him enjoy the simple pleasures that shaped my own childhood: the long country walks, the fragrant of vases of sweet pea that find their way into every room, the soft fruit ripening slowly under the July sun and the constant round of visits to friends and family with all the in-jokes and tall stories that invariably get told in the process.

I'm hoping that his Grandma's garden will make an impression that will last a lifetime for him. It's not that it's some fancy pants garden. It really isn't. It's just a country garden that's been my mother's pride and joy for almost half a century. She's spent a big chunk of her life in that garden, taking care of her precious plants, planning for next season, feeding her family from its bounty and enjoying its crazy, slightly chaotic colour.

Today it's full of scent: sweet peas, pinks, mock orange, sweet William, carnations and the most exquisite scented peony roses that I've ever beheld. I've put a photo of this last beauty below, and, believe me it's the most exquisite thing that's ever grown in a flower bed. 

One thing that my mum has understood very clearly from the get-go is the importance of looking after her soil. It's been well nourished over the years with loads of rotted manure and her own home-made compost. If you step onto one of her flower beds you feel the slightly spongy sensation under foot of thick, well-aerated soil that's been hoed and hasn't compressed. 

There are plants from just about everywhere she's visited. Some have been propagated from the odd seed pod that's surreptitiously found its way into her pocket. Others have come to their new home as slips, cuttings that have been carefully carried back in her handbag. And when it comes to buying her a present, well there's nothing that will bring a bigger smile to her face than something she can plant in her garden.

At the moment she's got an amazing display of poppies that came from a trip many years' ago to the Chelsea flower show, where someone sold her a few packets of mixed Himalayan poppies. They've grown and reseeded and kept the colour blooming faithfully every year for the better part of a decade. 

And then there are her little feathered friends. She feeds them conscientiously, and they watch out for her from the hedgerows around the lawn. Sometimes they mistake me for my mum and follow me around the garden too, watching to see whether I've got some treats for them. It's a funny feeling being stalked by sparrows and blue tits.

We've never really got too bogged down with the highfalutin botanical names for the plants.  The Mock Orange above is one of my favourites. It grows as an untidy looking shrub on an East-facing slope in the garden, but its fragrance is sublime. A friend who's a landscape gardener, always pulls an appalled expression when I mention how much I love this shrub. In her view it's an architectural disaster that looks like a badly constructed bird's nest. Harsh words, but for me the issue starts and finishes with its wonderful scent.

And in this garden nothing goes to waste. Delivery crates are up-cycled into flower pots. Wellington boots with holes in that have no chance of keeping your toes dry any longer find a new lease of life as homes for geraniums. 

I always come away with a serious case of delphinium envy. Aren't these blue beauties (above) stunning? They just won't grow like this for me in London. 

At the back of the garden the lawn morphs into a pathway that leads on to the field beyond. There's lots of cow parsley, fox gloves and meadowsweet down there at this time of the year. It's a haven for wildlife. Occasionally they find a hedgehog cuddled into a nice cosy clump of dry elephant grass in the autumn.

And this (below) is Miss Blondie, my mum's dog, who guards the garden from any interfering pussy cats who might be tempted to come in and dig up the plants. She's a sweet old girl who's seen a fair few summers, and ranks well above the Wonder Dog in our little household pecking order. As the junior cadet he respectfully waits his turn, and generally does what he has to in order to stay on her good side.

The climate here is quite damp. Moss grows really well, as does lichen. Just look at the beautiful growth on this dead branch. I think it's got moss grown over with a couple of different types of lichen. It's really much too pretty to prune.

And that's about the size of it: nothing that's going to win us any RHS gold medals, but it's our very own little corner of garden heaven nonetheless.

Happy Friday! And all the best for the weekend,

Bonny x

Thursday 16 July 2015

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge ...

Yesterday Emi, my father and I visited one of my favourite childhood haunts, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, just outside Ballycastle in County Antrim. I remember coming here as a little girl and being both scared out of my wits and exhilarated with the challenge of crossing the bridge. Reaching the other side safely always felt like a really big deal to my eight or nine year old self.

The wobbly bridge swings in the sea breeze between the mainland and Carrick-a-Rede island, some 100 foot or 30 metres above the waves spanning the 60 foot/ 20 metre chasm over the sea that makes Carrick-a-Rede an island. These days the nice people at the National Trust award Crossing the Bridge certificates to the brave folk who make it out and back again. 
Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, County Antrim

Carrick-a-Rede is an anglicisation of the Gaelic Carraig-a-Rade, which translates as rock in the road. The road here is the sea route of the Atlantic salmon, which follows a westward journey past the island, and the island is the rock in that road. 

Sunday 12 July 2015

Waiting for the Holyhead to Dublin ferry ...

On Friday Emi, the Wonder Dog and I arrived in Holyhead six hours early for our ferry crossing to Dublin. I really hadn't intended to be quite so early, but with the vagaries of what the traffic might be like on the M6 we'd left London first thing in the morning to arrive in plenty of time. As luck would have it we encountered no problems on the roads, but arrived half an hour too late to make the earlier sailing. So what could we do with six hours to spare in Holyhead?

Thursday 9 July 2015

Home-made black currant cordial that won't rot your teeth ...

Last weekend the Fates were on my side, and Mr B, who’d been delegated the task of picking the black currants down in Devon, came home with just over a kilo of wonderful, ripe fruit. I’d asked him to get them for me never thinking that he’d actually follow through and deliver. But, notwithstanding my skepticism, and against all the odds, Mr B found his way to the black currant bushes, recognised them for what they were and harvested the crop – or as much of it as was ripe for the picking. He promises me that there are more yet to ripen in the not-so-very-hot Devon sunshine.

I decided to turn them into some black currant cordial, which I can add to a glass of Cava or still white wine on a hot summer evening. I have even been known to add it an innocent glass of sparkling mineral water to turn it into a minor celebration too.

It reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in the north of Ireland there weren’t many fruit crops that we could consistently rely upon to deliver jam-making produce in our cool, damp summers. But our little black currant bushes never failed us. As a consequence my mother and grandmothers relied heavily on this rare bounty for making jams, jellies, cordials and pies.

They’re a real heritage crop. In the dark days of the Second World War when the Nazi naval blockade was threatening the nation’s nutrition the government seized upon the black currant crop as the only means by which they could prevent an entire generation from being weakened by scurvy. The currants are full to bursting with vitamin C, and, as part of the War Effort, they were turned into syrup, which was then fed to the children to keep them healthy.

More recent studies have shown that consumption of black currants can also help reduce the effects of heart disease, diabetes and maybe even Alzheimer's. They're a bit of an all round superfood.

And I have to sing their praises for today’s gardener. They fruit reliably every year. I've had very little to worry about from either aphids or mildew - or anything else for that matter. They don’t need much attention. You just plant them in a hole in the ground, mulch around the roots a bit and let them get on with it. Prune them towards the end of winter and that's about it.  If you’re only going to grow one fruit crop in your garden I strongly recommend that you chose this one. 

And having packed all that fruity goodness into my cordial the last thing I want is to include cavity-inducing, tooth-rotting sugar, so I've substituted xylitol in place of regular sugar. If you wanted to use normal sugar that would work fine too.

Anyway if you’d like to make some cordial here’s the recipe:

Sunday 5 July 2015

10 Top Knitting Tips for Avoiding the "Grim Ripper" ...

I’m having a rip roaring time at the moment. I’m knitting a summer cardigan using a 4-ply cotton yarn in a lovely sea-blue colour that really makes my heart sing. As usual I couldn’t find a pattern that gave me what I really wanted so I’ve set about designing my own perfect cardi. Working out how to make it all hang together with consistent pattern repeats has been pleasingly mathematical, which isn’t to say that it’s all been plain sailing.

But, over the years, I've learnt a few tricks that help make the whole business a little bit easier, and help avoid some of the inevitable ripping. Here are my top 10 tips for saving your sanity and avoiding the grim ripper ...