Wild and woolly

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.

Helen Hunt Jackson

This is such a beautiful time of year, one that always makes my heart sing. We have been enjoying those perfect late summer days, with cloudless skies colour-washed in blue from pale duck egg, delicate as the finest porcelain, to a deep cornflower so achingly intense and pristine, it almost hurts the eyes.

Sunset brings a cloak of rich purples . . .

. . . or something altogether different if clouds have bubbled up during the afternoon.

I love the way the shift in light illuminates plants in the garden in different ways, like swivelling the beam of nature’s spotlight to a new angle, uplighting leaves and dappling fruit.

At other times, the weather has been the kind that took me so long to get used to when we moved here, the low cloud weaving itself moodily around the mountain tops bringing a level of light that instinctively says it’s time for long trousers and socks . . . but step outdoors and it’s still most definitely shorts and sandals territory. The warm evening air is still and laced with a sweet softness, scented with the unique fragrance of Japanese quince and a subtle hint of wood smoke drifting up from the village.

The air is clotted with spirals of swooping swallows and martins, feeling their wings and filling their boots before their thoughts turn southwards. Flocks of gaudy goldfinches have returned after their summer business, chattering and flapping low-level through the meadow, greedily plucking at fluffy seedheads in their noisy charge. Butterflies flap languidly, bumble bees hum sonorously, the robins strike up their melodious fluting once more; no question that the slow pulse of late summer is wrapping itself around us now.

One of my favourite things about our home is that it sits snuggly in its own patch of land; the garden area may not be particularly large but we benefit from borrowed light and space and landscape from the meadows beyond.

This time of year is a great one to actually leave the garden and go a-wandering further afield (no pun intended). The grass practically stops growing through August so the cows have been off the fields for some weeks and in their absence, other life is thriving even more than usual.

Our meadows are about as traditional as they come. When the cattle return, it will be as a small family troupe of one bull and several cows with calves of varying ages, everything from wide-eyed tots staying close to their mothers, to nonchalant, streetwise teenagers, haring about in rowdy gangs. They will graze here for a couple of weeks at most and then be moved on; over-grazing is something that simply doesn’t happen. As the land is so steep, no tractor can work it so there is no question of making hay or spreading manure: the cows are relied on to get busy at both ends to do the business! The result is a meadow carpeted with wildflowers . . .

. . . and the closer you look, the more you find.

For us, it is a lovely place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sheer exuberance of the life around us.

There is certainly no shortage of fascinating creatures to observe.

It’s not just the small things that are here, either. We often see deer spill like molten metal from amongst the trees to graze, then slip away silently into the woods; foxes are regular visitors, in particular a large dog fox with battle-scarred ears and a silver brush; wild boar rootle through under the cover of darkness, practising their own particular brand of ancient ploughing and the ghostly barn owl glides past, hugging the ground on its crepuscular hunting missions. For me, this is a perfect example of how it is possible to practise modern agriculture and food production on land that still retains an element of ‘wild’ and is home to a wealth of native species.

It’s incredible, too, how quickly nature moves to exert its authority once the grazing has stopped!

Back to the garden, and here we are revelling in nature’s bounty as well as beauty. Every day brings the need to harvest something (well many things, in truth) and it is pure pleasure.

Preparing our evening meal together, I sometimes look at the garden produce and wonder if maybe we should be inviting other people round for dinner? We are so blessed and it is something I never take for granted, especially considering this lot is about as wholesome and organic as you can get . . . and any leftovers make the perfect base for tomorrow’s lunch.

I love the way the season brings a new palette of floral features in the vegetable garden, too; part of me wonders if I’ll ever bother with flower borders again.

Chicory
‘Red Rosie’ lettuce
Globe artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke

There is verbena bonariensis everywhere so honestly, there’s no need to be fighting over a single flower!

This is traditionally the time of year when my thoughts turn to all things woolly; I normally have a small project or two on the go through summer but they’re always a bit haphazard and piecemeal as I’m generally just too busy to sit still for long. My first task was to finish the scraps patchwork blanket I’ve been pottering away at on and off for many months. Sewing the squares together didn’t turn out to be as arduous as I’d thought, and despite such a discrepancy in the amount of different colours I had to use, the finished piece doesn’t look too unbalanced. In fact, I quite like the jolly jumble of those simple squares.

I really enjoy working blanket borders, they pull the whole thing together and give the finished article a satisfying frame, a little weight and touch of decorum to finish the whole thing off. The composition of this blanket has been entirely dictated by the amount of yarn I had left from previous projects and the border was no exception; these certainly weren’t the colours I’d have chosen (oh, for some blues!), simply the ones I had most of.

After a lot of fiddling about with colour order, I settled on the above and worked a round in each, hoping it wouldn’t look over-pinked. It didn’t turn out too badly in the end.

So, with all my yarn scraps used up and only one ball of sock wool left it was definitely time to blow the dust off my spinning wheel again. As part of my zero waste campaign, I set out not to buy any new yarn at all this year and I’ve stuck to that so far, but now I need to get busy turning my box of fleece into skeins for future projects. Having had a good rummage through my fleece stash, I decided to start with some Blue Faced Leicester in natural shades of oatmeal and white.

Can I indulge in a little wool worship here? I love Blue Faced Leicester: of all the fleece breeds I’ve spun so far (I think it was ten at the last count plus alpaca, mohair and silk), it is by far my out and out favourite. If I could only have one kind of wool ever again, it would be this one. The sheep are not the prettiest, but the fleece is a dream. It’s one of the finest British breeds, not quite up there with the much-lauded Merino but not far behind and definitely far easier to spin. In fact, I often think that once the tension is sorted on my finicky old wheel, the BFL spins itself; I can let my gaze drift across the garden or down the valley, even turn and hold a conversation with Roger, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward is occurring between my fingers and the bobbin.

It isn’t a hugely elastic wool – more draper than hugger – but it’s soft, fairly strong and has a beautiful lustre; the oatmeal might look a dull brown but when the flyer spins, the yarn shines like deeply burnished pewter.

There is much pleasure to be derived from spinning ready-dyed fleece and watching the colours build on the bobbin, or spinning white fleece to mess about with in my dye pot later, but there is also a certain charm to working with natural shades. I liked the idea of spinning equal lengths in both colours, then plying them together to make a marled yarn with an essence of natural things – pebbles, driftwood, pine cones, mushrooms, feathers . . .

I decided to spin the white slightly thicker, so the skinnier oatmeal would twist round it and puff it up a little to create texture; I also deliberately allowed a few slubs of fleece to slip through in bumps so that the finished yarn has a slightly rustic, earthy feel to it which somehow seems to suit the season.

Putting those pebbles back in my collection, I spied a contented little snake curled up under a piece of slate, a perfect echo of the colours, texture and form of my skein of wool. Nature, as always, having the last word. I like that very much. 🙂

The more of less

 “If one’s life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. ” 

The Dalai Lama

I think that ‘less is more’ is likely to be our motto for life this year. Take this blog, for example. I love blogging but this is the first post I have written for almost a month: less writing means more living. With the house renovation practically done, we can spend less time indoors and more time outside where we both prefer to be. Fewer planned visits to the UK will mean more time to explore Spain, both near and far. Fewer trips to source building materials or cart rubbish away means more time to simply ‘be’ at home, enjoying the beauty of this special place in which we live.

Living simply, however, doesn’t mean living lazily, and the first few weeks of the new year have seen us busy in so many ways. It has been wonderful to finally turn our attention to the lengthy list of outdoor projects that has been waiting in the wings for so long and – up until this week – the weather has been warm and dry and fully conducive to getting out there. One of the very first jobs I did when we moved here was remove hundreds of plastic bottles that had been tied to the fence at the end of the vegetable patch: goodness, that seems like a lifetime ago now! At long last, we have replaced the fence, taking in a couple of metres of field for extra planting space as we went. I suppose we should be thankful that there were no bedsteads involved this time but it was the usual mess of metal props, mesh and netting knitted together with endless strands of barbed wire, all on an impossibly steep slope.

There is much to do at this end of the garden, including tidying up the neglected horreo, but it’s amazing how a new fence has already changed the outlook and smartened things up. I’m planning to plant globe artichokes raised from seed inside the fence; if they grow half as well as our current plant, they should make a handsome hedge of silvery blue-green fronds. Beats plastic bottles in my book!

Our farmer friend Jairo delivered a huge trailerload of muck so we spent a couple of afternoons shifting it by hand to make a goodly pile in both vegetable patches, where it will rot down over summer into a pile of gorgeousness ready for spreading in autumn. Combined with homemade compost it is a rich, natural feed for our soil, the very stuff of gardening dreams. We’ve been hauling logs, too; how incredible that even in the depths of January, we are still putting more into the log shed than we are burning. I like that. The seating area on the courtyard is one of our most-used places, a favourite ‘room’ where we love to take a coffee break, eat meals or sit and watch the sunset. We’ve managed this far with the ugly and horrendously uneven concrete surface but at last plans are afoot for a serious makeover: a stone surround filled with building rubble to level everything, then covered in some huge stylish slates we saved from the old roof. Blimey, we won’t know ourselves!

Freed from the huge burden of house renovation carpentry, Roger has been enjoying himself with some more interesting projects. Having had to admit that our trusty old blue bench is literally on its last legs and really only held together by the paint, we decided it was time to replace it before there was a nasty accident (I hate the idea of our lovely old neighbour toppling off a rotten seat as he stops to catch his breath there). The old bench has been moved to a little-used corner (it’s still safe for one person if you know exactly where to place your behind!) and meanwhile, Roger has fashioned a new version from the wooden base of a single futon we have had for 25 years. With a lick of that Peacock Blue, it’s just the job . . . now all we need is the sunshine back. (To the left of the wall, you can see the river raging down the valley in full spate after 24 hours of torrential rain.)

Bits of planks left over from making the stairs have been fashioned into smooth, circular pot stands; these are just perfect for our ‘stove to table’ approach to cooking and are a welcome replacement for our disgracefully shoddy table mats. Treated with a food-safe oil, I’ve found they also make nifty little chopping boards.

Now, let me tell you about that rather lovely paring knife . . . a recent and rare indulgence I’m happy to own up to. It was made by my nephew Harry https://www.facebook.com/GoughCutlery/ who, for several years, has been perfecting the art of creating bespoke cutlery and believe me, what he doesn’t know about metallurgy isn’t worth knowing. I fell in love with this beautifully-crafted creation of stainless steel and recycled laburnum (fond memories of our hedges in Wales which had been planted with laburnum for tool handles), its size, shape and weight are just right for me and it is so sharp I swear you could slice air with it. There is something so satisfying using a piece of equipment like this that has been handmade with such care and attention, the application of an ancient art to modern living. Looked after properly and sharpened on a leather strop, it will probably last us for ever. Thank you, Harry!

So, after two months of virtual drought which has seen me watering pots and troughs to keep everything alive, nature is paying her debt with more water than we know what to do with. No problem, the garden was greatly in need and I have had plenty of indoor things to keep me busy. As cloth food storage bags and cotton hankies have been such a roaring success, I have sewn more of both. I finally dug out my dyeing equipment and dyed a skein of laceweight Merino for a gift; I’d forgotten just how much fun and how satisfying the dyeing process is.

Having sorted through my treasures in the attic, I am resolved to spinning far more this year as there is still quite a stash of fleece up there waiting to become socks (or other woolly delights). I’ve knitted a new pair of socks for Roger – having made them for practically everyone else last year, I thought it was about time! – and crocheted an intricate bohemian scarf as a birthday present. Gift wrap is such an environmental nightmare that I prefer to use brown paper which can at least be recycled or composted but it is a bit – well – brown. I flirted with the idea of printing with acrylic paint to jazz it up a bit but in the end I decided scrap yarn and old buttons were more my thing.

On the subject of scrap yarn, I’ve already made a patchwork blanket from leftovers but still seem to have oodles of colourful possibility left. I’m having a ball turning the more neutral colours into tiny finger puppets for little fingers; my Christmas gift to Ben, William and Evan is the promise of a regular parcel of ‘Puppet Post’ throughout the year. They are great fun but so fiddly! I’m enjoying evenings in front of the fire, rippling away at the ‘Cottage’ crochet blanket I bought with a birthday voucher last year but when it’s finished, there will be yet more spare wool . . . so inevitably, another patchwork event is on the cards. This time, solid three-round granny squares which take only four grams of yarn each which means I can use the tiniest scraps; this is the perfect pick up / put down project which will be good to take on my travels, too. It really has to be the most clueless of all my blanket projects so far: I have no idea what shape or size it will be as I have no idea how many squares I will end up with. Random or planned colour pattern? Joining? Border? No rush.

We kept free-range hens for over twenty years and I have to confess to missing a few about the place, I love their comic antics and, of course, the bounty of fresh, free-range eggs. We are lucky to have a regular supply from our neighbours but when they don’t have a surplus, I have started buying them from https://pazodevilane.com/en/, a Galician company whose philosophy I love.

The hens range freely in pastures just as ours did; their eggs are deep brown and speckled with tough shells and huge golden yolks and are some of the best we’ve ever eaten. They come ungraded (but with a minimum weight) in a sturdy cardboard box which is designed to be re-used; every year, the company asks customers to send ideas for their use and for every idea submitted, a tree is planted. This is definitely my kind of thing so I’m hoping that turning a box into a soap mould will be worthy of a new tree for future hens to scratch under.

The soap in question was actually my first attempt at solid shampoo using locally-sourced ingredients plus some goodies from https://www.thesoapery.co.uk/ : olive, coconut, castor and avocado oils, shea butter, tea tree and lavender essential oils. It was fascinating to observe a different set of ingredients undergoing the saponification process; the resultant bars are silky and herbal and hardening nicely . . . and when fully cured, I have just the box to store them in!

Less complicated than soap, I’ve also made solid hand lotion bars by melting the beeswax I purified before Christmas with coconut oil, shea butter and cocoa butter. Warmed gently between my hands, the bar melts into a rich, unctuous cream which feels and smells wonderful and can double as a lip balm. I’ve put one in an old Lush tin to carry in my handbag, and an empty gift tea tin is perfect for storing the rest until needed.

Eucalyptus forests and their processing factories are a hot environmental issue here and understandably so. The bright side for us, however, is a ready supply of leaves, bark and wood which we can put to good use in many ways.

What a simple pleasure it was to wander through our dripping woodland under my brolly this week to pick a handful of glaucous leaves, spicy scented and sparkling with raindrops. Using a recipe from James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I heated the leaves gently in almond oil with pine resin, cinnamon and cloves – mmm, the house smelt wonderful.

This would make a splendid winter bath oil, if only we had a bath! No problem, it’s just as good stirred into a basin of hot washing water, sprinkled onto a hanky or a steaming bowl as a decongestant or used as a body and massage oil, lovely on aching muscles after a hard run. It is so deliciously aromatic that I’m also tempted to try it in a batch of soap . . .

Second only to the ubiquitous eucalyptus, kiwis are another vigorous import whose exuberance rewards us with several month’s worth (and what feels like several tonnes) of fruit. Late February generally sees the end of our fresh supply so this week I’ve been experimenting with drying them to keep as a healthy snack; I’m thinking they would be particularly good to carry on long walks. Without a dehydrator or the desire to run an electric oven on low for several hours, it’s a game of chance played out on top of The Beast but so far, so good. Now it’s just a case of beating the blackbirds to the remaining fruit.

As part of our continuing efforts towards zero waste, this year I’ve decided to do things differently where recycling is concerned. We normally store our recycling in the underhouse barn then, every few weeks, load it into the car and deposit it as part of a trip out to do other things. No more. This year, I’m taking personal responsibility for carrying it weekly down to the village recycling point which is half a mile from home. There are three reasons behind my decision. First, Roger has spent several hours clearing the junk (yet another pile belonging to the former owner plus our own post-renovation stuff) from under the house, creating a clean, wide-open, useful space; it just no longer seems right to be met at the door by a mountain of recycling. Second, it’s a nice little jaunt in the fresh air which rings the changes from running and yoga, gives me the chance to chat with neighbours and provides a decent workout pulling myself back up the cruelly steep hill home. Third – and most important – by dealing with our recycling in amounts that I can comfortably carry, I’m hoping to shift the focus from collecting to connecting, from mindlessness to mindfulness. Recycling is fine but reducing is better and I’m on a mission to look for more ways where we can do just that. How gratifying that the very first week suggested a possibility . . .

Doing the recycling . . . spot my red coat between the bins!

Bundling up the plastic waste ready for my Recycling Ramble, I quickly realised what a lot of yogurt we eat. It’s little wonder that with such an abundance of lush pastureland, Asturias produces dairy foods of the highest quality and we are only too happy to indulge in thick and creamy local Greek-style yogurt on an almost daily basis . . . but I only had to look at the pile of plastic packaging to realise Something Had To Be Done. Cue my first ever go at making yogurt, not without a certain sense of trepidation because if I am totally honest, I expected to produce an unpleasantly runny, acidic substance that neither of us would really like. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

The process was ridiculously simple: after scalding the modest pile of equipment with boiling water, I warmed fresh whole milk to body temperature, poured it into a kilner jar, stirred in a couple of tablespoons of yogurt (not our usual one as there was no indication that it contained live cultures so I opted for one of those ‘probiotic’ thingies instead), covered the jar in a pile of towels and snuggled it up next to The Beast overnight.

Wow, but how I smiled next morning to find a jar full of thick, sublime deliciousness!

Shameless in my quest for the true Greek-style effect, I turned the lot into a colander lined with a clean tea towel and let some of the whey drain off; oh my goodness, I could die happy eating this stuff, it is so thick and fresh and clean and mild and divinely yummy.

I shall keep a bit back for a new starter which means no more plastic pots and lids, just one extra milk bottle per shop and homemade yogurt for ever. Happy, happy day. By the way, the whey didn’t go to waste, either; it’s a good food with many uses, so Roger whacked it into his spelt and seed sourdough, making a scrumptious loaf to accompany squash and chilli soup served with chestnut croutons for our dinner. Not a shred of recycling (just composting) in that homegrown, home-cooked little lot, just great wealth and pleasure from living simply with less . . . and for us, that’s what it’s all about! 🙂

September Bouquet Blanket

There’s still something so pure and heartfelt and emotional and genuine about a bouquet of flowers . . . Vanessa Diffenbaugh

With my self-imposed finish line of early July looming ever closer, I recognised the need to crochet like a mad thing in order to have the ‘September Bouquet’ blanket ready for its trip northwards. Not for the first time, I was thankful that those squares were pretty easy to make and so I just made sure I picked up my crochet hook in any spare minute to get all 90 done. That of course was the easy bit! Then came putting them all together . . .

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I suspect that most proper and talented designers have a clear picture in their minds or on paper of exactly how their finished work will look, backed up with research, sketches, colour swatches and lots of practice bits and bobs. That never seems to work for me; ideas just hover around the periphery of my imagination and it’s not until I have everything in front of me to mess with (I’m very much a visual learner, I think!) that I start to see the finished thing. I’ve never made a ‘colourwash’ project before, so having scrubbed the floor, I laid the squares out and began to play.

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My goodness, did that take some time! I switched and swapped and swapped and switched then walked around looking at them from every angle . . . then started all over again. It’s a good job I have a very understanding husband as I was blocking the main thoroughfare through the kitchen for quite some time. Eventually, I settled on a plan: purples moving through blues to greens then yellows. As the final round still had to be worked on each square as the joining round, I could at least tell that the finished blanket would be big enough. No need for any extra squares. Phew!

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If I had made much smaller squares and used more colours, I think the most effective way of organising them would have been to mix them through a bit; for instance, different shades of blue next to one another with an occasional purple or green at either end. These squares somehow felt more comfortable sitting together in their own little colour groups, sort of ‘not quite stripes.’ I joined them vertically which meant changing colour every one or two squares; this made the job more interesting and as each new strip was added, the solid blocks of horizontal colours appeared as if by magic.

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I’m not sure if this is what I’d been imagining but I felt pretty pleased with the outcome.

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So, on to the border. I hadn’t given it a single thought until the squares were joined at which point all I can say is I knew what I didn’t want. The sunburst flower pattern creates a fairly dense square which in turn makes for a cosy, weighty blanket. This was definitely not the place for a lacy border, nor anything too open and airy or too narrow; I wanted something firm and closely-woven to echo the feel of the squares, with the possibility of using plenty of the colours in the process. Having hunted about for ideas and tried a few things out, I opted for the linen stitch edging by Lucy at Attic24. This is a simple and speedy stitch which builds up into a tight-knit border of beauty and – even better – allowed me to use all eighteen colours! Given that the first colour would have to nestle comfortably up against the other seventeen, I opted to start with ‘Parchment’, the most neutral shade I had. Similarly, I knew from finishing the ‘Granny Patchwork’ blanket earlier this year that ‘Parma Violet’ makes a subtle outer edge colour that sits more harmoniously than stronger shades against whatever surface it rests on.

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All that remained to be done was fill in the space between the two and with so many colours being used, I felt the need for a little plan to keep me on the straight and narrow.

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The most important thing about working this border was not to pull it too tight so I switched hooks and opted for a 5.5mm bruiser; it’s a rather snazzy metallic green number but boy, did it feel chunky! Still, it’s amazing how quickly it moved around the blanket and revealed the charming pattern. Here’s the ninth round being worked: almost halfway there . . .

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. . . and the other nine done.

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Blanket finished, with time to spare. I feel like I’ve moved a long way from my starting point of the beautiful wedding bouquet Sarah made for herself but I hope at least there is an echo of the colours and textures that she gathered together in such a stunning way and carried under a brilliant blue September sky almost five years ago.

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Certainly for me it has been a huge, indulgent pleasure to remember such a happy day with every stitch I’ve made. How can such a simple pastime bring so much joy?

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Now I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s finished in time to take and give in July – a little early I know, but we have Sam and Adrienne’s wedding (yes, another wedding!) to attend and I am so excited! Happy, happy days! 🙂

 

 

 

Lone thoughts from abroad

Once again, the month of May has brought me a time of solitude.  Just a few days this time rather than the three weeks of last year but the principle is the same. I’ve never minded being alone – in fact, I think times of gentle solitude are a beneficial thing for everyone now and then – but I do find the days very long, so the key is to keep busy. No problem there, I am never short of things to do and – if you will excuse the photo pun – I’m not short of time, either.

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Gardening is always my first port of call, partly because we grow so much of our own food and those plants need to be looked after but also because for me, time spent outdoors being busy in the fresh air and totally engrossed in nature is so precious and rewarding. We have had a very concentrated effort together over the last week, so all the major preparation and planting have been done and now it’s down to me to keep an eye on it all and potter away at general ‘caring’ activities – weeding, tying in, watering, bug patrol and the like. I love the way everything grows so quickly at this time of year, there’s such a feeling of burgeoning growth and excitement in the patch and something truly wonderful about the promise of all that good food to come.

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Of course, it’s not just about food and I’m always happy to spend time with my nose in the flowers, too. I’ve been potting up geraniums for ripples of summer colour.

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The roses and jasmine are building up to a spectacular show and their heady scent hits my senses and feeds my soul every time I step out of the door (which is always open at this time of year to invite those tantalising perfumes to waft inside).

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I have no idea what variety this rose is but happily we have several of them, deep-scented and gorgeously resplendent, cartwheeling down the walls in their ruffled cancan petticoats.

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Wandering around the garden, I find myself seduced by those unexpected moments, the kaleidoscope of plants and flowers doing their own thing. Here, a white rose mingling with Jacob’s ladder, pretty as a picture.

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There, self-set mustard in a halo of acid yellow, thrumming with insects.

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A single Welsh poppy, soft as a sigh.

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The filigree pincushion of a flowering Welsh onion.

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How can I not smile . . . and how can I drag myself indoors to attend to other things with so much beauty to savour? Well, of course at some point I just have to, in part because I need to eat! Making bread has become a way of life for us and I see no reason to abandon that just because I’m on my own so I’ve been happily beating back the dough this week. It is one of the great bonuses of our lifestyle that we have the time to bake and we are blessed with a wide choice of flours and plentiful supply of fresh yeast. Our usual loaf is made from a mix of white, wholemeal and spelt flour flavoured with seeds or walnuts (the traditional local bread) but we love to make ‘world’ breads, too and think nothing of throwing together some naan or tortilla, pitta or pumpernickel or whatever, depending on what we’re planning for dinner.

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Tapenade rolls

Bread making is such a wonderful activity; for me, it’s like making mayonnaise – something to be done with care, patience and love. One type of bread we’ve always had mixed results with is sourdough but that has all changed since our recent UK trip. Sam and Adrienne (who have the whole sourdough scene totally sussed) gave us a jar of starter to bring home and I can’t describe the enormous responsibility I felt towards it. After all , it’s a living organism that needs careful feeding and I was slightly terrified of killing it before we had even made the Spanish border. By an amazing coincidence, the book I was reading at the time told how the Pilgrim Fathers had carried a single crock of leaven on their famous journey across the Atlantic, keeping it alive all the way;  suddenly, West Sussex to Asturias didn’t seem quite so bad!

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Sourdough starter feeding time: strong white flour and rye at the ready.

Our first try at a couple of sourdough loaves was fascinating; the speed with which they rose in the oven was totally insane! We have a long way to go to perfect the technique – particularly getting the scoring right – but so far the bread has a lovely texture and is completely delicious. Here’s to many more happy sourdough bread moments!

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Like making bread, planning and preparing our evening meal together is a huge part of our lifestyle. Always based on what’s good in the garden, we love to indulge in old favourites and try out new recipes alike. One of our preferred dining styles is a tapas / meze type of meal with lots of different small dishes combined to make a perfect whole. It’s such a great way to eat and suits homegrown veg so well as a little bit of something special – a few asparagus spears, a globe artichoke, a handful of baby broad beans – can be made to go a long way.

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Cooking for one, though, can be a bit awkward. It’s very tempting to live on scrambled eggs (during last year’s time alone, thanks to the warm generosity of our neighbours I ended up with four dozen eggs!) or soup which is fine but not very exciting, so for me at this time of year the answer is salads. I LOVE salads, I think they are such a wonderful way of celebrating the season and there is nothing better than a freshly foraged mix of leaves, herbs and flowers packing a healthy punch of crisp colours and zingy flavours.

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It’s certainly nothing new. I keep coming back to this passage, originally written in Italian in 1614:

Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce. When these precious herbs have been picked clean and washed in several waters, and dried a little with a clean linen cloth, they are dressed as usual, with oil, salt and vinegar. An offering to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, by Giacomo Castelvetro.

How on earth in latter times did limp lettuce, slimy cucumber and tasteless tomato become an ‘acceptable’ salad? Whoever thought that was a good idea? What a truly wonderful thing it is to wander about picking edible bits and pieces to combine in a dish of gorgeousness: here I chose Little Gem lettuce (we have a pile that needs eating out of the tunnel before the melons take over), baby chard leaves, mint, chives, marjoram, chervil, lemon balm, baby peas and pea shoots with borage, coriander, calendula and chive flowers. Of course, I made way too much so there was plenty left for lunch the next day.  🙂

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When I was raising a family or going out to work, cleaning the home was always something of a chore, a necessary activity to keep our household ticking along but not something I ever particularly enjoyed. Now I have to admit to feeling a sort of contentment at spending time cleaning. In part, I think this is because I can now do it at my leisure, rather than cramming it into tired evenings or precious weekends. As we’ve spent two years slowly but surely turning a grotty hovel into a bright, warm, comfortable home, caring for it brings a sense of achievement and celebration. Also, our living space is fairly small (four rooms and an entrance porch) so it’s hardly an onerous task! I favour a ‘green clean’ policy: like organic gardening, I think it’s better for us and the environment we live in and natural cleaning products are so much more pleasant to use than all those heavy duty, chemical-laden gloops and squirty stuff. My basic cleaning kit comprises white vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, bicarbonate of soda and lemon essential oil – simply add elbow grease.

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The vinegar is brilliant for cleaning windows and mirrors. Mixed with lemon juice and bicarb, it makes a great all-purpose paste for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom. A small amount of olive oil with a squeeze of lemon juice and few drops of essential oil makes the best wood polish I’ve ever used. Any bits left over are mixed with a squirt of eco-friendly mild washing-up liquid and hot water to wash the floors. Job done – a bright, sparkling home smelling of freshly-squeezed lemons and garden flowers.

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Who needs air freshener?

What has been especially lovely about cleaning this week is there has been the guestroom to prepare, too; Roger’s mum is flying back with him for her first trip to Asturias so it has been a real delight to make everything ready and comfortable for her. We’re hoping it will be the first of many such visits!

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A glimpse of the guestroom.

The evenings are the time of day that seem to stretch out when I’m alone so there’s been nothing for it but to resort to my unquenchable wool habit. What a pleasure to sit in the evening sunshine serenaded by the raucous birds and crickets, then move indoors at sunset and curl up with a mug of tea, some background tunes and a basket of yarn. I’ve been having a bit of a birthday sock knitting bash of late; it’s an activity that I truly enjoy but I now really need to turn my attention back to the September Bouquet blanket if I have any chance of finishing it by early July. I’ve been doing bits in odd moments here and there and the squares are starting to mount up but probably not fast enough. Thankfully,  the sunburst flower pattern is a lovely, easy make with that ‘sunflower’ snuggled in the centre of every square.

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My starting point for the blanket is 90 squares, five in each of the eighteen colours I’ve chosen; from there it will be a case of working out the finished size I’m looking for, accepting that I might have to work some extra squares. Then of course there’s the joining and border which will both take time. I’ve resisted the temptation so far to start messing about with possible layouts but my eye is constantly drawn to those piles of squares nestled in my basket and I can see how the whole colourwash idea might just work.

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Time to make haste and get those squares finished. Mmm, yes but . . .

I’ve banned myself from starting any new knitting until the blanket is finished and in all honesty, it would be good if I could just focus completely on this project. Good . . . but totally out of character because as always there’s an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch for some time and this week I had a little nudge in the right direction (or wrong direction, depending on your perspective). Now that we have lovely clean, dry storage upstairs I’ve finally moved my sewing machine-and-other-stitching-paraphernalia box down out of the horreo. Having a little sort through my treasures, I found a wooden quilting hoop that I bought for a few pennies in a closing down sale many years ago; I subsequently discovered it was much easier to quilt on the sewing machine so the hoop had become completely redundant until I had a little lightbulb moment. I have been toying with the idea of making a mandala for several months; it seems to be one of those essential crochet rites of passage but as I’m really not a ‘make woolly mats to stand things on’ sort of person, it’s been hard to find an excuse. Until now, that is . . . because I think the children’s sleeping den we have created upstairs needs something bright and colourful to jazz it up before Annie’s visit and what better than a giant rainbow dreamcatcher worked inside the quilting hoop?

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I’m using the starflower mandala pattern from Zooty Owl  and my goodness, what an amazing project it is! My plan is to work the rounds in the order of rainbow colours and keep going until the circle is large enough to stretch on to the hoop in a colourful web. This is so different to working blanket squares and every round seems to bring a magical change; I need to concentrate very hard, not least because I’m mentally converting from US to UK terms as I go along, but I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

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Actually, since starting on my crochet adventure last year, I have had as much enjoyment from the things I’ve made to use up scraps as I have from the major works and there’s a lot to be said for that – except perhaps for the fact that they distract me so much from the matter in hand. Ah, but how can I possibly resist such dazzling temptation?

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The ebb and flow of the days bring other activities, too: sharing emails and Skype chats with loved ones; pushing on with my Spanish study; taking photos and drafting blog posts; walking through the woods; chatting with neighbours. Time ticks away and very soon I shall need to turn my thoughts to airport taxi duty and a special homecoming meal. How lovely it will be to have company, conversation and shared laughter once more. Until May comes round again, perhaps? 🙂

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A Lazy Affair

I am currently reading The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift for the fifth (or is it the sixth?) time. It’s an exquisitely crafted book about her twenty years spent developing a National Trust garden in east Shropshire. The eloquent prose is woven with golden threads of horticulture, geography, geology, history, country lore, biography and acute, beautifully-described observations that make the book a rich tapestry of a read. It never fails to fascinate, move and inspire me. In a memorable passage, Katherine describes how long-term illness kept her out of the garden for many months; on her return, she was completely horrified to find that nature had taken over and gone completely off-plan. However, she soon realised in delight that all the bolting and seeding, rambling and scrambling, shifting and drifting had in fact created a garden of infinite magic and wonder, the plants setting up stunning partnerships of colour and form that could never have been contrived or designed.

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Our own Shropshire garden in 2015

I love this passage because this is how I garden all the time! It’s a personal thing but I have never felt the need for too much discipline and control in the garden; I’ve always been a curvy lines, wonky wigwams, daisies-in-the-lawn sort of gardener and I think there are three main reasons for that. The first is that a huge number of my favourite plants are very prone to flaunting themselves and self-seeding or running out of control: foxgloves, granny bonnets, lady’s mantle, calendula, borage, angelica, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, forget-me-nots, mint, nasturtiums, verbena bonariensis, Welsh poppy, Californian poppy, shirley poppy . . . try keeping that bunch under control as they march their riotous pageant of colour and scent across the garden. How many times have we discovered new ‘borders’ in unexpected corners, as if planted by some unseen mischievous hand?

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Shropshire again. There was a vegetable patch in there somewhere . . .

Second, this laissez-faire approach appeals to my idle side: I love to be busy in the garden and actually relish the really hard graft, but if things want to take care of themselves and do their own thing, who am I to argue? Nature fills a vacuum so let it get busy and if the result is a semi-wilderness, so be it. Great for wildlife, great for us.

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. . . and here (2013) in our French garden, too.

Finally, I’ve always thought that bulbs and tubers that plump up, doubling and trebling, roots and rhizomes that run amok and seeds that scatter and self-set, sneaking into whatever places and spaces they can find simply want to be there. They’re happy and they’ll likely thrive, so let them be.

All this has been running through my mind this week as I’ve been trundling back and forth with my barrow, moving the compost heap slowly (very slowly – that hill is so steep!) to a new location. The Lazy Gardener Syndrome is alive and well here, it seems. Take for instance this sumptuous beauty with silken petals that shift from maroon to deepest plum to blackberry like light catching the swish of a taffeta ballgown.

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When I planted the bulbs in November, I chose to put them in glazed pots of Moroccan and malachite blue, thinking the combination would be pleasing to the eye. It is – but nothing like the stunning backdrop of acid yellow that appeared of its own accord. The fizz and bang of those colours together is like champagne bubbles up my nose,  bitter sherbert on my tongue. The yellow is a humble mizuna, self-set in a concrete crack. I left it for the insects. I’m so glad I did.

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Calendula (or pot marigold) is one of my all-time favourite plants. I love its cheerful disposition, it’s unpretentious down-to-earth attitude, it’s sharp herbal scent and tiny fingernail seeds. No need to plant, it was already here in little flashes of sunny light amidst the jungle of neglect. True to its name, it flowers all through the year but in April it is at its best, showing off in a hedonistic burst of sun-worshipping brilliance, carpeting the vegetable garden in huge swathes and exploding in pops and bangs in quiet corners. Last year, I planted a clematis montana ‘Elizabeth’ to grow up the stock fencing around the vegetable patch. Poor thing, I have dragged it round several gardens in several countries but here at last it is settled. Roots down, head up, it seems to have found its spiritual home. It is about to flower for the first time in three years, the plump bauble buds on the cusp of bursting into a profusion of pink. Lovely . . . but how much more striking will it be with the self-sown calendula snuggled underneath?

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What hearty little troopers these marigolds are. Here in a clump beneath the glaucous thistle leaves of a globe artichoke, a heap of gold beneath an arching dragon’s wing; here in a shady forgotten spot beneath a Japanese quince, mingling with red deadnettle and sweet violets, a posy of weeds: I could not have planted a prettier patch if I’d tried. They can’t have it all their own way, though. I have lifted a few stray wanderers to plant in blue pots and make a splash of colour on the steps; they’re under control for now but I suspect those seeds will travel when the time is right.

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I have started to plant small flower borders where I can, a few favourite perennials mixed with bulbs and annuals. Even here, any sense of design or control has already gone with the wind. I grew lavender from seed, raised peach carnations from cuttings . . . but the forget-me-nots currently stitching them together are nature’s idea. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Even pottering about the polytunnel, pricking out and planting on, I am not safe. Beneath the staging, between the lettuces and in every available nook and cranny there are nasturtium seedlings lifting their shields against the metallic blue prongs of Californian poppies. Can you imagine what a riot this will be if I let it continue? I need to make an effort, exert a bit of control here . . . but not today.

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Borage needs no encouragement. It drifts up and down the garden in fuzzy waves of cerulean stars, flowering all year round which makes me happy – and the local honey bee population even happier. Just look at it nestled with the bright flowers of komatsuna. Both self-set; honestly, you’d think they’d planned it.

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The flowers are thrumming with bees, their frantic activity shaking and bending the slender stems. Here they fill their pollen baskets: dandelion yellow from the komatsuna, grubby white from the borage. I stand and watch transfixed at the whole precise busyness of it, the bees exploring the tiny throats of the yellow blooms, the whiskery black centres of the blue. I love this affirmation of life, of connection, of dependence; like that colour combination, it’s a beautiful thing.

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Emptying the final barrowload of compost and forking through the new heap, my eyes drift to the broccoli. The plants are spent, the harvest over; time to clear the terrace for sweetcorn . . . and yet, all on their own they are creating a splash of colour as beautiful as anything else in the garden. More bees here, too; the corn can wait awhile. Let’s enjoy that soft buttery yellow against the dusty purple. Opposites on the colour wheel: a marriage made in heaven.

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On the subject of marriage, I have started to make petal confetti this week. I made some several years ago for Sarah and Gwyn’s wedding when advice and guidance seemed thin on the ground; it was rose petals all the way, a bit of a problem when I had no blooms in the garden. I did have cornflowers, though; a whole prairie of them which had encroached on the vegetable patch (of course). I followed the instructions to the letter, selecting, picking, tying, hanging, drying, crumbling. It worked. It was very pretty but on the day, gone in an instant. I fancy something more substantial this time.

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Luckily, things have moved on, ideas changed and developed. How happy to find thay anything goes. Daisies? No problem. Calendula? Mmm, might have a few of those. Music to my ears. What a pleasure, picking from the great abundance around me; what a joy to simply leave them spread out to dry. By July, I shall have such a heady mix to scatter over Sam and Adrienne on their special day!

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Sarah has always had an artistic and creative talent, an eye for colour and a love of country flowers. It was no surprise, them, when on the day of her wedding with Gwyn she chose to pick her own bouquet. Literally. She bought a bunch of sunflowers from her local Co-op but everything else was foraged from her garden – flower beds, vegetable patch, hedgerows, hidden corners and wild places. The result was stunning, a beautiful creation that captivated me all day (there was even a little robin’s pincushion hidden in there!). When I started to plan the design for a blanket – a gift for their fifth anniversary in September – this was my natural starting point.

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How I agonised over my plan, though! I spent days messing about with different motifs and colour combinations, those sunflowers dominating every idea I had  . . . until I realised that was the problem. Go back, look again. Yes, the sunflowers were totally striking but for me it was the supporting act that truly made the bouquet: the foliage in so many shades and shapes, the froth of meadowsweet and curve of honeysuckle, those deep, rich purples and delicate silvers. That is where the beauty lies, a beauty I could never capture in a few shades of yellow, a couple of greens. I chose eighteen different colours.

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What a happy moment, to make a start outside in the sunshine this week. I am working squares in blocks of solid colour, each with a sunburst flower motif ( a ‘sunflower’) in the centre. My plan then is to join them in a gentle colourwash, moving through the blanket as if up the bouquet: greens of foliage, yellows and purples of flowers, blues for that clear September sky and a sense of balance in the overall scheme of things. The finished design hovers at the periphery of my imagination, I really don’t know how it will turn out. No problem. I have learnt that blankets, like gardens, are best left to their own devices at times. Pick a pattern. Choose the colours. Now let them decide how they want to be.

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I have to confess in my last blanket project, I had to exercise a little more discipline. Well, just like the garden, sometimes it’s necessary, I suppose. I wanted to create a rainbow and really there’s no arguing with the colour order of that one, is there? Science had me pinned down for sure! This was another gift blanket, for a new baby expected in August. Traditionally, we dress and wrap babies in white or the very palest of pastels. With my head brimming from the rich research and curiosity in The Morville Hours, I suddenly needed to know why. Is it historic? Religious? Cultural symbolism? Superstition? Oh sit down, my overeager imagination – the answer, I found, is far more prosaic! Babies need a lot of linen and white textiles have always been easier to bleach and launder in hot water. It’s a practical thing, nothing more. I happen to love bright colours around babies, hence my choice to make a rainbow. It might not be practical but I hope the message is as loud as that ridiculous shade of orange: a new little life – how wonderful, how exciting, how precious. What a tremendous thing to celebrate. Let me shout it out in loud and vibrant colours!  🙂

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It’s not about ‘where?’

With the nights drawing in, we are spending at least some time indoors before bed each evening and that has been a good excuse to dig out my patchwork blanket and work some more squares. Who needs television? 🙂 It is such a simple and gentle activity giving my mind ample opportunity to wander; it was during one such ramble that I realised in many ways this blanket project exemplifies everything that is good and central to our way of life.

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I love making things from yarn: I have knitted since I was a child and in more recent years I’ve also developed a passion for spinning and dyeing my own wool. I had dabbled in crochet here and there but had never really cracked it for all the usual reasons – too busy, too tired, life too full of more important things to be done. This year it has been such a treat to finally find the time to have another go and I have had so much fun making colourful bits and pieces for the new babies in my life. I can’t describe how much pleasure these simple, creative activities have given me.

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The idea for my patchwork blanket was born from my natural inclination not to waste. Several biggish projects have left me with a good quantity of leftover yarn, a resource that has been manufactured, transported and paid for; to my mind, it would be a crime to do nothing with it. So, using the most basic of equipment which I’ve had for years (crochet hook, wool needle, scissors) I’m spending happy times with scraps of yarn, making a practical and colourful all-purpose blanket which I hope will have a busy future. When I started it, I deliberately excluded the hot colours and screaming pinks but I wasn’t too many squares in before I invited them back  – the blanket was looking a bit too harmonious and sophisticated for my liking. I want a rowdy carnival of colour and clashes to make me smile!

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Another thought that has occurred to me as I have been happily hooking away is a point I need to make very clearly before I go too much further: this blog is not designed to be a guide to country living. Yes, we live in a very rural spot so obviously many of the experiences I write about and the photos I include will reflect that, but we haven’t moved out from a town or city to the countryside in order to live our simple way of life; we’re country born and bred and we’ve always lived out in the sticks. We’ve had several lucrative urban job offers over the years but we’ve consciously avoided the big bucks and bright lights because we preferred to stay in familiar territory and raise our family in the country. My point is, though, that everything I believe constitutes simple and happy living can just as easily be practised and enjoyed in an urban setting – in fact, some aspects are probably easier (rural life doesn’t come without its downside). Take my crochet blanket: it could be made absolutely anywhere! You don’t need to live in the country to create beautiful and practical things for your home, revamp old furniture, declutter, cook delicious meals, find time to exercise your body and brain, enjoy company and conversation, dance, laugh, love . . .

You don’t need a rustic farmhouse kitchen to bake bread, turn fresh, seasonal ingredients into dishes of gorgeousness or fill old jars with homemade preserves.

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You don’t need a huge patch of land to grow a garden; in fact, you don’t even need a garden at all. It’s amazing what can be achieved in a few pots on a windowsill or balcony.

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My blog is about taking control of life and living it to the full, having so much more through having less, focusing on what is truly important, appreciating and enjoying the simple things that make each day special, putting experience over ‘stuff’, being kind to the environment and living a simple, gentle but utterly fulfilling life. It doesn’t matter where you call home. It’s nothing to do with location and everything to do with attitude. You can take it with you wherever you go. Now that’s a lovely thought.

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