Monday, 18 June 2018

Working on the Garden

I've mentioned a few times lately how hard we've been working on the garden over this spring and early summer, and I thought it was time I finally got around to writing a post and showing you some of what we've been up to. You have to bear in mind that our budget is small and our free time is very limited. There isn't much money for new plants, never mind the kind of serious landscaping I would like to do and, given that we have two active children and a very active dog, we are never going to have a perfect lawn. 

The first thing I wanted to do was rescue this sad corner of the garden, which is the most visible from the kitchen window (somewhere I spend a lot of time), and try to turn it into somewhere lovely to look out on.

The trampoline is much used but very ugly, and I knew that we could move it to the opposite corner of the garden where is it screened by some large cordyline plants and palms. At nine and eleven, the children are no longer at an age where I need to be able see them in the garden, and so I was all for hiding the trampoline.

The other issue was the two rotten fence panels behind the trampoline which badly needed replacing, so that was the first job.

Although they don't perfectly match the colour of the existing ones, they are a huge improvement and will blend in over time as they weather. Next, my mum and I cleared away all the wood chip under the trampoline and dug out more flowerbeds, extending the border which runs along the bottom of the garden into the corner.

We were able to take some large shrubs  - two pink toned Red Robin bushes and a euphorbia - from my Grandpa's garden before his house was put on the market, and the others were moved from other parts of the garden. Large plants are so expensive, and I wanted to plant as much greenery as cheaply as possible.

Finally, John laid turf over the remaining patch of bare earth. This has all been happening slowly as you can tell from the plant growth; the fence was replaced at the start of April, the border created at the end of that month, and the turf was laid at the start of May.

I took these photos at the end of May during half term, when the rain had made the grass greener and the beautiful rhododendron bushes were in bloom. As you can see, I have a hard time keeping that straight border straight and I might make it more deliberately curved over time. There is no scheme or idea behind the planting here, I just want to look out on as much green and as little brown as possible, so I'm hoping that the shrubs will grow to cover the earth and fence. I did buy a few Verbena Bonariensis plants as I think they add fantastic height and colour, and the flowers last for a long time. 

The other job we really wanted to tackle was the decked area directly outside the patio doors from our kitchen-diner. We use this space so much, when the weather is warm it really is like having another room. But it was in really bad shape; the decking was unfinished, wobbly in places, covered in mildew and slippery; the parasol cover had torn in high winds; the table and three chairs were so rickety that the chair arms actually fell off when you sat on them; and no-one ever sat on the pink bench as you get spiked by the cordyline and it's also really uncomfortable.

We began by jet washing and staining the decking with some wood stain that would protect the wood and make it less slippery.

We also finished off the edges of the decking, something we'd been meaning to do since we moved in three years ago.

We were able to order a replacement shade for our parasol which I was really pleased about. I love that cantilevered parasol because it provides so much shade and also gives a nice enclosed feeling to the decked area, making it feel even more like a room outside.

We also built a new table and benches. Now, good quality outdoor furniture is really expensive and we just didn't have the budget to go out and buy new everything. But this time last year I saw this amazing table and, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like this would be an affordable solution. Plus, John was really up for making it. We didn't feel to bad about getting rid of the old garden furniture - it was given to us by some friends when they moved to Australia and was only ever meant to be temporary - so it will become firewood. 

We bought seven scaffolding planks - three for the benches and four for the table - and some hairpin legs from here, choosing four heavy duty white ones for the table and eight smaller yellow legs for the benches.

John cut the planks and glued them together, then fixed them on the underside of the table and benches with batons and screws. Then he sanded the top.

Next the legs were screwed on, then it was all sanded again and given three coats of wood oil to protect it from the elements a little, although I want it to look quite weathered and beaten up over time.

The finished result is so lovely. It is such a sturdy, solid table but the hairpin legs make it look lighter than it is, and the benches are brilliant for seating lots of people.

We eat outside so much more frequently now that we have somewhere roomy to sit and don't always have to carry outside a fourth chair, or wobble bottles precariously on the old sloping table top. It has genuinely made a difference to how we use the garden.

Now, you know I love a before and after photo. Even in the rain, even with a grainy photo taken on my phone, you can see the difference.

It's still evolving though, as the sweet peas I planted in the large grey planted start to grow up the canes. I'm so happy with what we've done and I really hope you enjoyed seeing it come together here.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

ABC Cross Stitch Sampler

I finished the My Sweetiepie ABCs sampler at last, and finally got around to framing and hanging it over half term. It took a long time - two years - which is unusual for me as once I've started a project I usually complete it fairly quickly, but this one was picked up and put down many times over two holidays and lots of evenings.

I like this kind of project because it's large enough to be interesting, but not so huge that you can't ever imagine finishing it, and the many different motifs and pictures stop you getting bored. 

It would usually take me a few hours - spread over days - to complete one letter and image, which is nice because I can usually remember where I was and what I was doing when I stitched it. That octopus, for example, I mostly stitched while staying up late with John one night watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And all the other letters below were sewn while on holiday in the Loire Valley in August 2016; I can particularly remember sitting in the shade after lunch one very hot afternoon and sewing that little white envelope.

Most of the house was stitched in the car in February when John and I drove up to Yorkshire and back to celebrate our friend's birthday.

The kettle and daisy below are two of my favourites, lovely to stitch and and to look at. 

And the quilt! I love the quilt. I found that there was something very charming and nostalgic about these little pictures and that they really reminded me of the books of my childhood. I think I like the quilt so much because it reminds me of one in one of the Brambly Hedge books, which I adored as a child. 

I do wonder though if three cross stitched samplers is enough, and maybe it's time for something else, and by that I just mean more embroidery. I have recently become fascinated by embroidery art, most of which I've discovered through Instagram, and there are so many crafters and artists out there producing the most incredible images and patterns with needle and thread. Not all of it is for me, but it's made me realise how much you can do with embroidery and how many different stitches there are which I've never tried, and just what you could do with them. I would like to explore that more.

I bought the pattern from here and the linen from here. I didn't go and buy all the different threads in the pattern (too many!), I just matched them as closely as possible to ones I already had at home unless I really didn't have anything in that colour. I think I bought maybe ten. And isn't it funny how the linen looks quite grey until it's on the grey wall, then it looks much more brown. 

I decided to have a go at framing this sampler myself and while it was fiddly, it wasn't hard, so I've put together a little tutorial below if case you wanted to try it yourself.

How to frame your embroidery

Before you start, iron your embroidery on the reverse side so that you don't crush or damage any of your stitches. You will need a frame (any kind, nothing fancy - mine was an old IKEA Ribba frame), foam board or foamcore (I used this), a sharp knife or scissors, and pins.

Cut your foam board to the size of your frame. I found that drawing around the glass panel or back board is the easiest way to do this. Then position your foam board over the back of your embroidery in roughly the right place.

Flip it over and start tacking pins around the sides, gently pinning the fabric to the side of the foam board. You will want to leave a little room to alter or tighten the pinning. 

You should be able to push the pins all the way in the the foam board so that none stick out around the edge. 

Now go all the way around the edge, adding more pins, smoothing and pulling tight the fabric as you go. You want to pull it was tight as possible without distorting the pattern, so it looks nice and even.

When you're happy, flip it over, tape the excess fabric to the back of the foam board and then put it in the frame.

I chose to remove the glass from the frame, which is just my personal preference; I like being able to touch the fabric - I'm weird like that.

It's certainly not as beautifully done as a professionally framed picture in a made to measure frame, but it saved me money - around £50 I think - and I think it looks pretty good. 

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Cookery Calendar Challenge: May

Hi lovely folk! Well, here we are already well into June and so it's time to review my choice for May's Cookery Calendar Challenge. This is a monthly project in which I, and anyone else who fancies it, joins in with Penny of The Homemade Heart to select a cookery book and try out a couple of new recipes. I tend to choose titles that have been sitting on my shelf unopened for a few years because opening them up is like being reunited with an old friend, plus it helps me justify my ever expanding cookery book collection. 

For May, I chose Apples for Jam by Tessa Kiros, a book I've had for about ten years. I cooked from it a lot when I first bought it but for some reason it's fallen out of use which is a shame as it's a really nice book. You may remember that I wrote about one of her other books, Falling Cloudberries, in my June Cookery Calendar Challenge post last year. As with that title the emphasis on this collection is family and memory, with recipes that have been handed down through the generations, full of history and heritage. It's another covetable book, a great heavy hardback with a gorgeously photographed dust jacket, a ribbon bookmark (so important!) and page after page of recipes and the most beautiful photography, interspersed with sketches, memories and family photographs.

The only issue I have with this book is the unusual chapter layout, in which recipes are grouped together by colour, rather than anything sensible like "salads", "lunches", "cake" etc. It's charming and whimsical - all the tomato and strawberry dishes in the "red" chapter for example, pumpkin in "orange" - but really irritating when you're looking for inspiration for just one kind of meal. However, It does encourage prolonged browsing of this book though, and that's enjoyable, because it makes you slow down when you're in a hurry. 

Our first dish was Pasta with Tuna, Tomato and Olives, something that appealed because it ticks all the boxes: it's easy, quick, convenient (who doesn't always have chopped tomatoes and tuna in the cupboard?), healthy and economical. 

You begin by frying some garlic and a couple of chopped celery sticks with their leaves attached, and adding a tin of chopped tomatoes, letting it cook for a while. When your pasta is almost ready, add the tuna and olives with some chopped parsley and basil.

I served this with fusili pasta but penne would go really well too. I was a little wary of cooking this dish because I remember doing something similar for John and I some years ago and while I loved it, he was really not keen. (I think that dish may have been more of a pasta puttanesca with lots of capers and anchovies, so quite strong flavours.) But this one was a huge success all round; the kids loved it and inhaled it, Angus made those "mmm" noises he makes when he's really enjoying something he's eating, and the olives where large enough for him to pick out and pass over to Bella, who loves them. And John and I both enjoyed it a lot. It's not a fancy dish but so easy and really full of flavour and great for a week night meal. 

Our next meal was less successful: Escalopes with Ham and Cheese. You bash pieces of steak into as thin a layer as possible, stuff with ham, cheese and a dollop of bechamel sauce, then roll over. Then you dip this little meat sandwich into first flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, before frying. 

This is not a healthy meal, dripping as it is with double meat, double dairy, and some bread too for good measure, but I like how the author made no apologies for that in the introduction, and just mentioned how much her children enjoyed eating it. There was no talk of this being a treat or an indulgence, no cautionary word about how we should only eat it now and then with a large salad for "balance" (I mean, we did eat it with salad, but I made some oven baked chips too). I like the way she just trusted the reader/cook to have a brain and figure that out for themselves. Everything in moderation, I say. Anyway, it was ok, but not amazing, and didn't justify the amount of washing up it created. 

Finally I tried Berry and Buttermilk Cake, which the recipe suggests we make with blueberries or strawberries. Having half a pack of strawberries in the fridge which were starting to look quite withered and sad, I decided to use them up in this cake. It's a fairly low sugar and butter sponge cake recipe, and the buttermilk (or plain yogurt mixed with milk which is what I always do as a substitute) makes it very light and moist. You scatter the berries over the top of the batter before sprinkling a couple of table spoons of sugar on top and then baking. 

It was delicious, especially when freshly baked and still warm. It was still good for a couple of days after that but the moist strawberries mean that you need to eat it up fairly quickly.

So, overall, another lovely Tessa Kiros book, and definitely one recipe that I will make many times in the future. 

I hope you're all having a great weekend. We've had a pleasant day today, seeing family, going for a long walk with the dog, and pottering around at home. I am flying through a small crocheted baby blanket for a colleague and friend and will mainly be doing that tonight while watching Netflix. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Late Spring

Every time we go to the beach, Ziggy ventures just that little bit further into the sea. Today, he went in up to his armpits. Some of the things he loves the most - Bella and Angus, other dogs - all go in the sea but he is very wary. I can't see him doggy paddling any time soon.

I think its still late spring, but the weather feels like summer, and I bought my first bunch of peonies this week, always a sign that summer is on it's way. It's been gorgeous here this weekend, just the right amount of warm and sunny without everyone feeling like they're wilting. In fact, as I sit here at the end of a week off with such a sense of contentment, I think that it's been a pretty successful half term. Our friends from Yorkshire, old and dear friends, came to stay this weekend and it was such fun. We ate and drank a lot, chatted, stayed up late planning holidays, went out for lunch, to the woods, to the beach. The weather has been mixed but good when it needed to be - the bank holiday and this weekend - and the rain midweek meant that I haven't had to water the garden much. We've completely worn out Ziggy and he's now slumped on the rug in the living room, out for the count.

We've eaten well; barbecues, ice cream-cookie sandwiches, pavlova, plus a few lunches out for half term treats. There was also Nigella's chocolate coca-cola cake to celebrate John's birthday. I went a bit overboard with the icing but I don't think anyone minded. 

There are nineteen candles on the cake because that's all I had left. Add another twenty one and you'll have his age. His gift was a shiny new coffee machine which he's having fun getting to grips with. I'm having fun drinking all the coffees he keeps making.

We have spent every moment we could in the garden and it honestly has been like having another room. Fed up with our hard wooden garden bench which is crippling to sit on for more than ten minutes, we bought a new one. John happened to see it was on offer and before you knew it we were discussing which colour we should get. 

It's the most comfortable bench I've ever sat on, like a sofa, and everyone wants to sit on it all the time. 

John sanded and painted the railings that encircle the balcony at the front of our house. They're a lovely period feature of our 1960s home but not the most fun DIY job to do, and one we'd been putting off since we moved in over three years ago. The whole job was hot, dirty, fiddly and awkward, and John worked really hard on them. Everyone else around us has painted theirs black so of course we went for mint green. They are glorious now, and the colour goes with the grey roof tiles and hot pint flowers I planted in the hanging basket by the front door. Every time I drive down the street towards the house and see them it makes me happy.

Meanwhile, I was sanding and painting something else indoors: one of our chairs, which Ziggy had chewed really badly. (Incidentally his chewing is much better now, although don't ever leave a pair of sunglasses lying around, and he hasn't really destroyed anything for a while. He's moved on to digging. So that's good.) Anyway, the ends of the chair arms were so badly chewed that we just sawed them off, then sanded the rest of the chair. 

I then painted it white (three coats of water based undercoat, two of water based eggshell) and I feel like we have a new piece of furniture! It's not an expensive piece of furniture but one we like, and I see no reason to get rid of it when it can be salvaged. 

As well as all this DIY and gardening, there was lots of craft time this week too and I got a few projects finished, including this large floor cushion for Angus's room.

It's based on a pattern I saw in Supersize Crochet but I just couldn't follow the pattern exactly because it called for ten balls of t-shirt yarn and at around £9 a ball that's one expensive floor cushion. So instead I found some super chunky acrylic yarn and played around with hook sizes until I was happy. Actually, the design is really fun - you crochet a kind of square cushion shape and then, when you're ready to sew it up, you lie it flat, then pick up the centre of the front of the top row and match it to the centre of the back row and then make that your seam, creating a pyramid shape. It's hard to describe but really effective. I made an insert with cotton to hold all the beanbag filling - my, that stuff is hard to work with, it wants to go everywhere, and any you drop on the floor pools together like mercury -  and I'm happy with it, Angus loves it, and so we're calling it a success. 

This stitch sampler from the Spring Craftpod is another addition to the hoop wall. I enjoyed the reduced colour palate of just a few shades of green, and the simplicity of the design. I also enjoyed sitting in the garden quietly working on it here and there.

So yes, a good week. It's back to school and work tomorrow for seven more weeks. Deep breath, dig deep - it's going to be busy. But I am hoping for lots more good weather and time in the garden between now and then.