All things must change

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Sometimes I need a prod, especially when I’ve been so pleased with a part of the garden that I’ve not noticed when, actually, it no longer works. It happened with the bivouwac as I stubbornly resisted calls for it to go, first by Katie then the boys. I was convinced that my vision of a philadelphus clad den was best, despite the fact that it was too small and damp to be of any use. One day, annoyed at the latest dissenting comment I knocked the whole thing down, recycling the wood into other parts of the garden to form log piles and frog hides. In it’s place we put a fire pit and woodland area, with logs to sit on and oaks in pots mixed in with ferns. Not only did it look a million times better, but we all used the area too. I was wrong.

Recently the same thing happened again, only this time with the boys’ ‘pirate ship’. I was so proud of it (it was the first thing we built) that I didn’t notice that a) it was rotten in places b) the boys are 8, and being a pirate isn’t cool and c) the doorways were too small, being designed for three-year olds.

A few weeks ago the boys (encouraged I’m sure) produced a plan of their new den. It was great, but the old feelings of stubbornness still surfaced. There was nothing wrong with the old one, I told myself. Except there clearly was. Anyway I resolved not to do the dance this time and just to get stuck in with the conversion. Along the way (we are homeschooling after all) we learnt about budgets, coatings, schedules and spreadsheets as well as power tools, postcrete and guttering.

It’s already better – still unfinished, but it’s exciting to be recycling something that had clearly seen better days into something that’s going to be used. It’s a good reminder that a garden is constantly evolving, and that goes for the buildings as well as the landscaping and plants.

Update: a van load of recycled pallet wood later, from the lovely John in Rawtenstall, and it now looks like this:

Just the windows to go in and done landscaping on the front to do… and there’s been talk of a veranda…


Sharing the love

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Recently we’ve been helping with a project next door, creating a mini allotment in the alley where the bins are kept. Our bins were boxed in with some wood we found dumped, then a couple of bird tables were made (note recycled bass guitar!). A couple of slab pallets were repurposed into a greenhouse and a planter, lined with old plastic sacks, with some cladding and a wood burned sign to finish it off. An old, tall fence was chopped in half to mark the boundary and keep the puppy in. A week later and it’s starting to grow quite nicely 🙂 It’s great to see other people getting enthused by growing, and it’s added a little extra space for their kids, and the puppy.

Outdoor Learning

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It’s been important over the last few months to get outside as much as possible, not just for mental health but also to promote learning away from the living room ‘classroom’. Here’s a few things we’ve been up to:

Building an art box from scrap wood
Wood burning
Learning about the human body
Building a Japanese inspired moss garden
Outdoor painting
Building a spitfire
Planting and growing
Lots and lots of exploring local wildlife
Stonehenge modelling

I know not everyone has this opportunity, and I’m sorry for that. Let’s hope it improves soon.

May Days

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I love this time of year, everything is GREEN!

further reading

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Here’s a collection of books that have influenced the garden in some way:

Feral – George Monbiot


Lost Gardens of Heligan – Tim Smit


The Third Plate – Dan Barber


Where do Camels Belong? – Ken Thompson

No Nettles Required – Ken Thompson

An Ear to the Ground – Ken Thompson


Bee Quest – Dave Goulson


Silent Spring – Rachel Carson

The Sense of Wonder – Rachel Carson


The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben


The Soil Will Save Us – Kristin Ohlson


Norwegian Wood – Lars Mytting


Letters to a Young Farmer – Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture


The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees – Robert Penn


Wilding – Isabella Tree


First Bite – Bee Wilson


Microshelters – Derek Diedricksen


Wildlife Manifesto – Chris Packham et al


new fence!

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We finally replaced the back fence, which has been coming down for a while. It’s one of those jobs that we’d put off for years, but it had to be done.

We decided to reuse the old fence posts, even though they’re a little bit wonky.

The first job was the clearance, which took a while as there were lots of bug houses, log stacks and fruit bushes against the old fence. Everything got cleared onto the veg bed behind.

The boys were pretty excited when the wood arrived from North West Timber @NWTT_Ltd

We added batons to the original posts and then put in new horizontals to match the rest of the fences.

You can see how green the old fence had gone. We used Algon to get it back to its natural colour, then treated the new fence with Lifetime Wood Treatment, available from The Natural Garden @NaturalGarden

It’s starting to match up well. Ignore the patches, I need to order some more…

kids in the garden

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Kids belong outdoors. Give them some mud, a stick and a few stones and they’re happy. Through imagination, that stick will become a spear, a bat, an arrow. The rocks will be thrown, balanced and crushed together. The mud will go everywhere. It’s innate, but it’s got to be harnessed in the early years before they come to see the outdoors as an alien space. 

No other animal separates themselves from the natural environment, either physically or mentally, in the way many humans do, and it’s that separation which can lead to seeing the natural environment as alien. It’s hard to instil a sense of responsibility for our natural environment if we don’t feel at one with it, and even harder if we feel fearful of it through lack of exposure or interaction. Children must first be bought up to experience their natural environment before we talk to them about caring for it through recycling, conservation or ethical eating. 

It’s not just imagination and responsibility that interacting with the natural environment encourages. Tree climbing or using tools to dig improves strength which, aside from the obvious health implications, can improve the motor control needed for writing. Playing together will improve negotiation and cooperation. Growing and harvesting their own food will give children a sense of nurture and achievement, and will probably make them more receptive to new flavours. Along the way they’ll get stung, scratched, bruised and bumped, but they’ll learn about danger and risk, and which things to touch and which things to leave alone. Add all this up and you get kids that feel at one with the natural environment and are more likely to care about it later in life. 

It’s not just kids that benefit either. Elderly, mentally ill, disaffected and handicapped people have all reported the benefits of being outdoors, and numerous programmes and studies back this up. I’m a firm believer in the garden being an extension of the house, not a space that’s tagged onto the front, back or side. Yes there are parks (use them or lose them) and wild outdoor spaces (same) but the garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is where it all starts. It doesn’t matter what kind of garden it is, front or back, grass or flowers, formal or wild, just think twice before you tarmac it.

Further reading:

Forest Schools
NCT on Outdoor Play
History of Outdoor Play
Gardening and Mental Health


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When I was at music college we talked a lot about inspiration. I tried harder and harder to find ever more obscure things to say I was inspired by, often after the fact – a Miro mural here, a Ginsberg poem there…. looking back I think that, for me, it was less about inspiration than intellectual points-scoring. There were a few brave souls who didn’t subscribe to all that nonsense. They liked what they liked and wrote honest music which said something about them and their interests. Not surprisingly, their music found audiences who wanted to listen. If you’re interested, there are a few links at the bottom of this page.

A garden should do the same I think. It should be an honest expression of the thoughts, needs and likes of the people that create it, whether that be a lawn with two goals or a woodland retreat. That’s why I find other people’s gardens fascinating. There’s always something to learn, either about the plants themselves or the people that created it.

The gardens that hooked me were at Heligan not just because of their beauty but also because of the tenacity of those involved. They gave me confidence to undertake our overgrown plot, and to try out landscaping and building structures as well as planting. Tim Smit’s book on the garden’s reconstruction is well worth a read, and put our efforts into perspective. The gardens at Arundel also made a big impression, as did those at Bodnant.

My dad’s and father in law Barrie’s gardens are smaller admittedly, but inspiring too in the way that they shape the garden to reflect their personalities and interests. They are very different, but full of ideas. I love the rustic feel of Barrie’s constructions, and the memories they evoke of past travels and experiences.


Da’s garden is very different, more formal, but I remember the vibrant plantings all the way through from childhood to now.

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As I’ve mentioned on previous posts, Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate is influencing the way I think about the ecosystem of the garden as a whole, from the way insects sense which plants to attack and which to leave alone to the way you can use weeds as an indicator of the quality of the soil. It’s also making me think more about how we eat from the garden, and how there can be a connection between the garden and the house.

Most of all I’m influenced by the wild spaces that we encounter, some well known like Snowden or Formby Beach, other less so, like the wonderful Fairy Glen which we only discovered a few years back despite living a few miles away. There’s a blurring of the edges in natural environments like this, like you don’t know where the painting stops and the frame begins, that have changed the way I think about the layout of a space.

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Composer links:

Tom Arthurs

Pete Meechan

Ben Wallfisch

Larry Goves

Dinuk Wijeratne

Philip Venables


why garden?

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Like most nine-year olds, I vowed never to be like my dad. Dad was, and still is, an avid gardener, and would spend long days in our garden or in the greenhouse at the school where he was head teacher. He’d run lunchtime gardening activities with the kids there, in the days when heads were more than corporate figureheads. I have two memories of that greenhouse garden – cacti, grown from seeds in terracotta pots, that for years never seemed to change, and a huge fennel, which amazed me with its liquorice scent when I broke a piece off.

For a while, my sister, brother and I had our own little plot in mum and dad’s garden. I’d advise all parents to do this. We were free to do with it what we liked. Aside from an old tap, which I painted black and stuck in the ground, I don’t remember much about our little gardens. But I do remember that they were all very different – two ‘formal’ and one ‘wild’. Hours were spent tending my patch, making potions or seeing if woodlice could swim in the puddle that formed on the garage roof (they couldn’t, but they could walk for ages underwater).

During teenage years gardening changed its meaning. It became the endless watering of hundreds of begonia-laden hanging baskets while mum and dad were on holiday. Inevitably I would forget, the begonias would meet their doom and I would think up ever more elaborate excuses as to how they’d died (it’s amazing how many heat waves Northampton saw in the 90s). Dad, of course, knew.

As a student, gardens were the furthest thing from my mind. If we were lucky enough to have one it would grow into a mass of long grass and weeds, brilliant for wildlife but bad for dad, who’d arrive every few months with a mower (optimistic) and shears (more realistic) and tame the lawn. We’d vow to look after it, have one barbecue then leave it for another two months, distracted by Manchester’s finest student attractions.

It was only when I began work as a teacher that I began to realise what gardening is about.  We’d moved to Eastbourne and rented a ground floor flat with a little patch of grass out the back. I wanted an instant place for us to relax – out came the mower, the sheers, the weedkiller. I had no idea what I was doing but I didn’t care. Plants were pruned (hacked?) to within and inch of their lives and a lot were planted in the wrong place and died. But surprisingly, the garden forgave me. It became a beautiful place to forget the distractions of life. I read a lot about the frustrations of gardening – slugs will always win – but I realised then that gardens are also pretty forgiving. I’d got the bug.

When we moved up north a garden was a priority and we were lucky to find this place. As I describe on the other blog posts the garden, and my attitude to it, has evolved. I’ve learnt to be patient and not throw chemicals on everything to get an instant fix. I value the peace and distraction the garden give me – it’s therapy, in its best form. I love watching our boys exploring it wholeheartedly, covered in mud, though I draw the line at woodlice experiments. And most of all, I will never, ever grow tired of the excitement and amazement that I feel when I see a tiny green shoot poking up out of the soil after the cold, dark, winter months. It’s like I’m nine all over again.


building the green roof

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The green roof is up! It was a fairly straightforward process in the end. It cost about £40 in the end. I used leca, pond felt and liner and some arris rails and batons.

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First things first, I checked the structure that I was putting the green roof on (if in doubt, consult an expert – it needs to be safe). Our posts were concreted in and the back half was well supported, but I added an arris rail on the front to give extra support (it bows a bit, but it’s solid. I jumped up and down to see if it was…you might want to find a safer way!)

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I checked the drainage too, it needed to have a slope otherwise the water would sit on the roof, making it very heavy and potentially drowning the plants. The original roof was felt, held down with batons. The felt was in good condition, so I just moved the batons to the front and side edges, leaving the back for drainage.

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I’d intended to use arris rail for this, but I thought this would make the planting area too deep and heavy. Instead I opted for 3x2cm baton. Sedum should work well at this depth, though you’d need to investigate depths for other plants.

Once the batons were in place I added pond felt (stapled to the batons) and pond liner. These are cheap to buy and are available in lots of sizes. I used more batons to secure the liner in place just by screwing them n top of the others.

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For drainage at the rear of the roof I used small logs, held in place by a board screwed across the back of the structure. I used these for two reasons. Firstly, being uneven, the logs gave natural drainage holes, and secondly they will give homes to lots of creatures and fungi. They’re easily replaced if they rot.

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Next, leca (expanded clay) was added, mixed with sand and compost. 60 litres gave me enough for 2.2mx1.2m at 2cm depth. Leca is light and well suited to sedums. I didn’t want a rich compost as it would be unsuitable for sedums and potentially very heavy. I added some more logs and rocks as bug homes then planted up with sedums taken from around my dad’s garden and my own. I faced the batons just to make it look nice from the front and sides.

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So far the garden’s taking well. The sedums are all growing well and it seems to be draining as intended. I’ll post some photos as it progresses.