A Week in Books: Gardening by the moon, woodland tracks, a rose garden and a very keen bear

On a Sunday evening, I like to clear the shelf next to my desk, in preparation for the week ahead. There will always be a pile of books that have accumulated beside me. These will include stories my daughter has brought over for me to read to her and those that I have quickly grabbed to find a quotation, or check an ingredient for a recipe. There might be a seasonal book or two where I have looked up a flower name or gardening wisdom.

I enjoy the moment when I scoop them up and shelve them again, the titles on the spines evoke a diary of the days just passed:  A Week in Books.

Through the Woods by H.E. Bates

Written by the author of the Darling Buds of May, though a little less well known, I loved this book for it speaks of a small woodland, just like the one which we walk to near our home. It seemed only right to read the book amongst the silver birches, listening to birdsong. I started when the bluebells looked exactly like the cover and finished as the ferns were unfurling and the trees were in full leaf.

The narrative details a single woodland year and that wonderful gradual change of the seasons. Bates felt the industrial world encroaching upon these vital little ecosystems and I can feel the city ever-spreading, ever creeping, towards the village I live in. It is brilliant that Little Toller Press is bringing these important texts back into print for their Nature Classics collection, they are needed now more than ever.

The Natural Gardener: A Lifetime of Gardening by the Phases of the Moon by John Harris

The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2021 by Lia Leendertz

I have been trying to garden by the moon this year for the very first time. This has been made easier by keeping my own almanac and noting when the phases of the moon will be. I bought The Natural Gardener because having found this method actually does bring great results (the hollyhocks are currently over 8 foot tall …) I wanted to learn more of the scientific detail of why it is working.

The first quarter of the book is a very engaging and fascinating biography of a Cornish boy who loses his war veteran father at age 11 and is looked after by a group of “old boys” at the allotments. John Harris goes on to become a much respected gardener, managing the gardens of famous Cornish estate. It is well worth a read for this alone if you love gardening or learning about the post war years.

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth Von Armin

I’m gradually collecting the Penguin English Library classics. They are in a slightly larger typeface than Popular Classics and this means I can take them out with me, without needing my reading glasses (I wrecked my eyes reading by torchlight as a child). I had never heard of this one, a thin little book and a quick read. First published in 1898, it dates very well for the modern gardener.

Elizabeth falls in love with tea roses…

“How I long for the day when the teas open their buds! Never did I look forward so intensely to anything and everyday I go the rounds, admiring what the dear little things have achieved in the twenty-four hours in the way of new leaf or increase of lovely red shoot.”

… and quickly spends all of her allowance on as many plants and bulbs as she can. When winter comes:

“The bills for my roses and bulbs and other last year’s horticultural indulgences were all on the table when I came down to breakfast this morning. They rather frightened me…”

I think any ardent gardener might empathise.

The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley

I have just started to read this book cover-to-cover after happily flicking through and seeing what I could find. There are so many illustrations that it is really easy to pick a random page and immediately learn something incredibly fascinating – how to tell north from the size of an ivy leaf, or whether it will rain from the height that a swallow flies at. It now has a permanent place in my hiking backpack.

The Hermit and the Bear by John Yeoman

I bought this with my birthday money when I was seven from a bookshop in Ambleside, in the English Lake District. I have read it to all of my boys and am just starting to read it to my daughter.

It is the story of an exacting hermit who takes on a rather clumsy (though very keen) bear for private tuition. For a child, seeing the bear attempt all of the Hermit’s lessons is really amusing and, importantly, lets them see that trying new things can be daunting but also rewarding.

As a mum who has spent many years home educating five children, I think now that this was pretty solid grounding 🙂 I actually shelve this book with my Buddhist texts because sometimes, when I feel like I need to centre myself and remember my life philosophy, this is actually just the tonic I need.

Are you enjoying a book at the moment? I’d love to read your comment below. 

I wish you all a peaceful start to the week ahead.

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Almanac: The story of a year

This is the story of a year.

In March 2021 I started creating my own almanac. The weather reports are always a little hit-and-miss where we live. Predicted storms often swirl around below the hill and fail to touch us. Late frosts often do not happen, as sheltered as our little garden is. I wanted to live by the seasons as we experience them.

I figured it would take a few years before a true pattern emerged, but it would be an interesting project along the way. During the hard months of 2020 I found great comfort in watching the cycle of the seasons, when everything else in the world is unpredictable and unstable, it brings a calmness to me that I can anchor to.

Until this moment, I had marked the seasons by revisiting the same scene along my regular walk from my doorstep. Winter to me meant bare branches reflected in half-frozen flood water. I enjoyed watching the gradual return of the bright green grass of the meadow, of the leaves appearing on the trees, the blossoms forming bright white froth on the hawthorn hedgerow. I wanted a more detailed aid to my memory to accompany my photographs, to look back on over years to come.

My little notebook soon expanded from simple temperature and weather notes into a garden journal. Then I started to add field notes and details of all of the seeds and bulbs I had planted.

Moon cycles, constellations and planets to look for in the night and morning skies soon got jotted in at the start of each month.

We found that every sunrise is different. We started working our day around solar noon, in order to watch each day dawn.

As the fields started to warm and the footpaths became passable again, lists of wild flowers to search for in the hedgerows and woodlands gave our walks added interest.

As I start to share the story of a year here, I hope that you will not mind if I wind the clock back to winter, so that I can start at the very beginning.

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Listed below is the diary I use for creating my almanac.

I want to stress that any notebook or computer spreadsheet would work 🙂

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Hobonichi Journal

Art Journal: Collecting wild seeds and finding inspiration

On an afternoon when it is too hot to be outdoors, I unroll some parcel paper on the table and set out our recently foraged seeds. Cloud parsley, milk thistle, clover, grasses and rose hips.

My little daughter can see that I have plants all over the table. She runs out to the garden and returns with a freshly harvested fuchsia flower.

“Away on a Breeze”

The feathery seeds are awaiting their first flight on the tiniest of air currents. Every time I breathe, they start to float out of frame. I carefully encourage them back into place. I hold my breathe. Time stops. Click.

My daughter returns from another garden visit and hands me two fallen hollyhock blossoms.

One of my younger boys runs through the kitchen singing. Grasses scatter across the table whilst milk thistles take to the air. He happily helps me catch them as they float towards the door, a practised skill from many hours spent chasing delicate storm bubbles in the garden.

“Gentle Partings”

The patter of footsteps. My daughter has found six faded rose petals and a handful of leaves.

Of everything in this wild harvest, the cloud parsley seeds are my favourite. I almost prefer them to the actual flower. I lift the sprig out of the diorama and study it in detail, turning it in my hands, before laying it back down carefully. The brittle stem makes a scratching sound against the thick paper.

“Be Free”

When I have completed my work, my daughter is still intrigued, standing on her tip toes to see.

I recreate her mouse doll in petals, using delicate little seeds as the eyes and lashes. She asks if her mouse can be a dancer, so we use the hollyhock petals as the skirt and give our ballerina a tiny fuchsia crown. Snipping a piece of the cloud parsley, we give the mouse a miniature flower stem of her own.

“At midnight, Mouse transforms into a Dancer”

We take a photograph together and safely store the seeds away to sow in our garden.*

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*We only gather a few common seed heads that have already fallen to the ground in the hedgerows near our home. Wildflowers in bloom should be left to go to seed so that they may return the following year. Please respect the wildflower laws wherever you live.

Almanac: Patterns of nature, ripening blackberries and a sketchbook

The last time I wrote about these fields was in late April. The seedlings had just started to show themselves in thin rows under a grey-blue sky. The house martins had just made their return to nest in the eaves of our house, and were circling above us in an otherwise quiet and sleepy landscape.

What a difference a few months can make.

July has finally broken into sunshine.

My 12 year old son is with me today. He loves to draw, so has brought his sketchbook along. At first we talk together about our day, until the undulating path before us proves irresistible and he charges off, skimming his fingers through the swaying wheat as he goes.

A pair of cabbage white butterflies flutter skywards in a helix-like courtship dance, before disappearing again. This year we have seen more varieties than ever before and today we spot not just cabbage whites but common blues, peacocks, tortoiseshells and orange tips.

On the sunny south side of the farm, the corn grows tallest. The waxy leaves clatter against each other; like the sound of a polite applause.

We crouch down, looking along the lanes between the crop drills, so neatly ordered that you can see right to the other side of the vast field. For a moment our perspective tilts and it seems as if we have shrunken to miniature size, surrounded by towering blades of grass.

In the hedgerow beside the path, the blossom is bathed in full sunlight and has unfurled early this year. The blackberries are already ripening and will be ready to pick in just a few week’s time.

In the meadows, there is a constant low clicking of grasshoppers. It reminds us, joyfully and somewhat unnervingly too, that everywhere is teeming with unseen insect life.

Then, a dash of metallic blue across our path … a dragonfly! Utterly distracted from our uphill climb, we try to spot more. Our eyes steadily grow accustomed to the flickers of glinting colour. Soon it is like we are standing knee deep in an aquarium of darting tetra fish. A giant one; we follow after. It zigzags at speed and then disappears in a flash of silver.

The blackberries in the upper field are a few week’s behind those we saw earlier. It is shadier here and the stems have to put all of their energy into seeking better light before they can even think of producing flower buds. The effect is a glorious unfurling of pink petals, cascading over the top of the hedgerows. A heavy floral scent hangs in the air.

The more challenging stage of our hike now complete, we settle down for a rest. My son sketches stems of wheat, the distant horizon and outlines of trees. I am nearby, photographing clusters of bees.

We are so immersed that when someone passes by and calls “hello” we both jump slightly. It is a local artist, out searching for butterflies to paint. We point him in the direction of the lower meadows where we found countless common blues and tortoiseshells.

On the way home, my son pauses every few steps to sketch. I fall a few steps behind so that he feels no need to hurry.

As we pick up pace together, the fast chatter, from when we first started out, has disappeared. Instead, we find ourselves remarking on the nature around us. A flock of rooks flies over and we stop to watch their progress until they are tiny specks on the horizon.

Walking onwards, we remain like this, living in the moment, until the rooftops of houses appear over the tree line and thoughts turn back to the day ahead.

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Almanac: Winter woodland – The delight to be found in the simplest of things

Dusk falls in the winter woodland. The birdsong echoes out more clearly without the rustle of summer leaves.

My 18 month old daughter has recently learnt the word, “another.” From behind me, where she sits in her carrier, she excitedly calls “tree!” A pause. “An-o-ther tree!” A pause. We wait. Luckily, she has been distracted by a sparrow in the hedgerow. “Bird!” she waves goodbye as it takes flight.

We have picked a different route today, to the east of the woods. It is a gentler, quicker walk and, hopefully, less swampy, as it is on higher ground.

We fall into our usual marching pattern. My husband keeping up with our two youngest boys, who go at running pace. Our second son zipping back and forth between us. My eldest son chats to his sister and helps me, pointing out trip hazards and low branches – hard to spot whilst shouldering a baby carrier.

These fences are a new sight. Previously, the wardens relied on bright red tape to keep walkers out of the protected areas. Instead, how natural this woven barrier looks, merging with the trees beyond. It will double as a haven for wildlife too.

The boardwalk will look stunning in springtime, surrounded with bluebells and bowers of blossom, but it is most welcome today, when it protects us from storm-washed ground.

It ends a little too soon. One glance at this path and we all take a diversion through the undergrowth.

When we three stragglers catch up with my third son, he is transfixed. Autism gives him an unwavering attention to details that might otherwise be missed. I call to him yet he does not move nor answer. Thinking that perhaps he is watching a timid creature, I approach him quietly.

I wonder what it was in this scene that captivated him – perhaps the symmetry of the trees framing the fields beyond, or the vibrant greens after many weeks of steady rainfall? Maybe the striking silhouettes against the pale sky. I gently place my arm around him and he nestles in as we share this moment of stillness together.

Afterwards, it is as if my mind has been sharpened to the sights before me; my son constantly reminds me of the delight to be found in the apparantly simplest of things. A little way on, I see the mossy tree trunks, almost iridescent in the strange glow of the pre-dusk light. I turn to tell my son and, of course, he is already down at ground level, inspecting them.

A last view of this February woodland before heading home. Spring is almost here. The rambling thorny brambles that carpet the forest floor will be covered in delicate white blackberry blossoms and scattered amongst them will be countless English bluebells. The Charnwood Forest has been seemingly dormant for months, but very soon it will burst into life.

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Almanac: Woodland on the cusp of spring – watching the seasons with children

Just on the horizon in the picture below, you can see the shadowy arch of our local woodland.  It takes around 20 minutes for us to walk there from our doorstep, across the fields.  We always try and spot the continuous changes in the landscape – which can be different every day.  We thought we’d share how everything looks now, just before spring, when everything suddenly bursts into life – and invite you to watch the seasons pass alongside us this year.

The hedge to the right will be full of blackberries at the end of the summer, when we collect them in colanders for jams and cakes.

Today’s lovely surprise was that the wild primroses are out and lining the forest paths.

Halfway through the woodland is an old bench – it signals picnic time.

Just beyond the bench we spotted these beautiful wood anemones …. and also a portly and gloriously scarlet pheasant, in full plumage, crossed the path in front of us (but at the sight of four really excited children, it scarpered before I could snap a photo).

This scene might look a little empty now, but in a few weeks, it will be a vivid carpet of bluebells.

The stream bed beneath this tiny bridge is dry at the moment, but at rainy times quickly fills up.  It leads to a little pond, criss-crossed by fallen trees, right in the centre of the wood.  Our seven year old is convinced he saw a Gruffalo there once.  You can just make out the clumps of green bluebell leaves, not long to wait now …

We returned with a small bag of fallen twigs, that we are going to use as support canes for our French Beans and baby sunflower plants.  That’s today’s task 🙂

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