How I Brought Nature Back to my Urban Garden

I am so proud to say that the birds are back! We currently have a jolly little resident robin and a pair of inquisitive blue tits, who although have yet to move in; have been exploring our homemade bird boxes and feeding in our food-draped tree for a while now. Starlings and blackbirds battle for space at the feeders and the ever-rare sparrow, perches cautiously at the fence as though mustering the courage to descend and enjoy an afternoon treat. This hasn’t been an overnight success, it’s taken around five years to get to the point where wildlife is finding us as well as us finding it. I live for nature and although my garden is a modest, postage-stamp, urban space, I have managed to create an environment where even the freest of birds are happy making their homes here and here’s how it happened.

Years 1-3

We bought our home in 2009 through a new-build home scheme. We were impressed by the sound eco-standards (Bonus – cheaper bills!) and although the outdoor space was small, it was infinitely better than our previous London dwelling where the ‘garden’ was a concrete slab by the communal bin store. Although by London standards, we felt pretty lucky even then! When we finally moved into our new home the front garden had been turfed and was bordered by a bee-friendly hedge which was good, so we turned our attention to the back garden – and goodness did it need some attention!

My eldest at aged 2, helping to weed the mud flat!

My eldest at aged 2, helping to weed the mud flat!

So we got to work improving our little slice of England and set about de-weeding the barren mud flat we had inherited. The soil quality was so bad and when we explored under the earth later on, we found tonnes of rubble and concrete left by unscrupulous builders. This in addition to a typical Kentish clay soil left us with a compacted, solid and unorganic piece of land from which we were hoping to create our very own piece of outdoor heaven. It was going to be a tough road! We began by using the neighbour’s rotivator (Tip: Beg, borrow and steal!) to turn the compacted land and then ordered a truck-load of organic soil from a local company, which helped to enrich the ground before laying turf. As a wildlife lover, I’m not a huge fan of masses of pristine lawn, but in order to create a space where our daughter could play, camp, kick a ball, it was necessary for us at the time. As you’d probably expect, our lawn has now shrunk quite considerably in order to make room for lush borders and a couple of raised vegetable beds.

A lawn to kick a ball around on.

A lawn to kick a ball around on.

The next job was planting an ornamental tree for rich spring blossoms and I went for the Cheal’s Weeping Cherry, which gives an early pink/white show of flowers in March (Usually just in time for my birthday!) before sweeping branches drip with lush dark green leaves in Summer. The leaves turn a beautiful deep red colour in Autumn before dropping in Winter and providing the ground below with a rich leaf-mould. This was no mean feat as when we began to dig the planting hole we discovered the soil depth was only about four inches – less than the depth of the spade we were using. Several telephone complaints, lots of organic matter and one determined hubby later, we finally got the tree in the ground – and going by the land it was planted in, it’s nothing short of a miracle that it’s still thriving! I had hoped that by installing a tree, its roots would help to break up the compaction that still existed under the soil. If you are doing the same in your garden – make sure you do your research and choose a tree with the appropriate final growing size! A fruiting cherry tree would have swamped our tiny garden – and house! A mistake no-less, made by our neighbours who had to hastily remove their new tree a year after planting on realising their error (Cue large sighs of relief from neighbours either side!)

The marshmallow pink of the 'Prunus Kiku Shidare blossom.

The marshmallow pink of the ‘Prunus Kiku Shidare blossom.

We then began to mark out and dig our borders and this is where the magic of time shows the most amazing results. For the the first few years I needed to build up a lush backdrop and began by planting flowering evergreen shrubs such as Choisya and Hebe and then began to experiment with wildlife-encouraging perennials. Lots of these failed of course and as an amatuer gardener I was learning along the way, but still each year some plants would come back and I was inspired by this and simply kept up a routine of filling the spaces with more flowering perennials each year, hoping to create a burst of bee-attracting colour and scent in the warmer months.

An early scabious proving endless joy for a little explorer.

An early scabious proving endless joy for a little explorer.

We began to use a compost bin to increase the nutrient content and bio-diversity of our garden and its soil and also installed a basic water butt to enable us to water our flourishing garden ecologically. It became a labour of love and soon I began to see a difference. The garden was beginning to feel like that little slice of outdoor heaven we were after.

Years 3-5

In the last two years we have expanded our borders and installed two raised vegetable beds. The small, round picnic lawn that remains is enough for us and our wide borders actually give the sense of more space, more depth. It’s funny how peering through thick green bushes at the back of borders, actually deepens this sense of space, this sense of mystery, it begs the question; ‘what’s behind there?‘ So even in the tiniest of gardens, don’t be drawn in to cutting perfectly straight, thin borders – go wild and create a deep, lush backdrop for your outside space. For really tiny gardens, bamboo canes work brilliantly for this; adding depth, height and texture, whilst taking up as little room as possible.

We built our vegetable beds from two basic raised bed kits bought for pennies from the local DIY store. Raised beds were a necessity for us as our soil was so bad, but they also help to contain your planting zone and help to structure and plan your planting. I usually operate a square-foot gardening technique rather than growing in traditional rows, and this is a great way to maximise variety in your useable space. Having them raised also brings them that bit closer to you when gardening (sore backs anyone?) and means you can easily target your soil, fertiliser and feed. I filled the first raised bed with homemade and shop bought compost and some left over top soil from when we cut our turf. The new bed was ready to use immediately and that was treat but it was also rather expensive to fill! We prepared the second bed a year before using it and in this bed we started by using as much ‘filler’ as we could, before topping with finer soil and compost. Into the void went; left over straw, some large pumpkin carcasses left over from Halloween – which had been two big for our little composter, some shredded paper, ‘rough’ compost from our own bin and some wicker strands which had come from a disintegrated old basket. It was only after the main volume had been filled that we topped this with soil and finer compost and then we covered it with tarp and left for a year, or perhaps longer, until when uncovered, a rich planting bed had been established. This way is so much cheaper than buying in a tonne of crumbly compost and is so much more friendly for the environment, increasing your own biodiversity as you do so.

Next to our vegetable beds we have a herb patch to die for, although it really does need sorting and investing in. At the moment we grow lavender, rosemary, marjoram, sage, mint and two varieties of thyme, as well as having some recent success with annuals such as dill. Moving forward, the herb patch is my next project, it needs expanding, organising and improving – any tips or inspiration from other small-garden growers? Might try barrels or pots next? Although it’s a productive patch its scruffy and the plants are definitely not at their best.

Our tree has really come into its own now and as well as solar-powered fairy lights, is strung up with all sorts of feeders for all sorts of birds. At it stands we have; peanuts, seeds, fat balls and a mealworm block. We also have two bird ‘houses’ for smaller, wild birds and of course, the seed heads left on in winter from all of my flowering plants. This ‘messy gardener’ method really works and makes you so much more time efficient! As the proverb advises with dogs, let the autumn leaves lie, and they will in turn give you a rich leaf mould to seep into your borders or to spread on your vegetable garden. As mentioned before, don’t snip and prune your summer plants at the end of their life – leave them be and their seeds will spread to double your stock next year and the birds will feast on them in the coldest of months, when abundant food is all but a sun-filled memory. Plus, hydrangea flower heads look beautiful on frosty mornings!

As well as the herb patch, I also have aspirations to grow more fruit; berries in particular and so this year I am going to try to find a spot for a burgeoning fruit cage; again if anyone has any tips for doing this on a small scale do let me know! I do have a new blackberry plant behind the veg plot now, which provides good cover for the birds and hopefully some yummy fruit this year for our jams and pies.

So, there you have it! A feast for man and beast alike in the smallest or urban gardens. I’d love a vast plot one day (wouldn’t we all!) but for now and at least the near future I have built my little slice of outdoor heaven and I hope this inspires other small-space gardens to do the same! Please share any questions, comments tips or tricks below! I’d love to hear from you.

Jaime xx

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Samphire Hoe – Dover

It’s crazy to think that we’ve been living in Kent just over five years now and we still have so much to explore and see! It’s a huge county, and Ashford; where we currently live, feels like the perfect epicentre between London to the north, the coast to the south, the downs to the east and the Weald to the west. It’s the nature lover’s dream!

I’ve been wanting to visit Samphire Hoe for a while now – I’m always looking for rugged new spots for Sunday afternoon walks, and so when the sun began to shine brightly this weekend, we quickly donned our boots and thermals and headed down to the coast.

Samphire Hoe is a beauty spot located at the famous white cliffs of Dover, and in the low sun this Sunday, these majestic white cliffs certainly provided a magnificent backdrop. The Hoe has a plenty of metered parking and also a tea room/info centre, which is – according to their website- open everyday during peak season and every weekend year round. We couldn’t find anyone serving tea but we did speak to a friendly gentleman in the site office, who let us park for free when we had run out of small change, for the rather old fashioned pay machine (no pay by mobile here!) Located just of the A20 heading to Folkestone from Dover, it’s easy to find and makes a great place to stop for a quick stretch of legs or rustic family picnic.

Hope our photos give you a taste of what to expect at this lovely Kentish beauty spot.

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Jaime xx

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Recipe: Damn Good Damson Jam

Ahh scrumptious September! It’s that time of year when the fruit of the summer sun’s labour really comes to light and hedgerows are filled with free sweet delights to see us through the onset of Autumn. Ours is unseasonably warm this year and while writing this blog the girls are at the park enjoying a warm dusk and the windows of my home are flung open wide to entice in the cooling late summer breeze.

We are luckily enough to live very close to lots of productive foraging sites; as well as the usual nettles and dandelions we are lucky to have blackberries, rose hips, and of course, damsons, just a short stroll away and we are accustomed now to bringing an array of baskets and bowls with us whenever we walk, for the acquisition of the ripest of nature’s sweets.

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Damsons are a relation of the plum, although they are much much smaller (about the size of a very large grape) and are recognisable by their beautiful dark indigo colouring, which is usually covered in a white ‘pith’ which rubs away with the oils of your hands. Damsons contain a single small stone and should have a fairly pale amber flesh. They have a very tart taste when eaten off the tree and a juice that will cut through grease and clear your palate. I just love damsons, and this damson jam recipe will bring the essence of a hazy Indian summer into your darkening mornings as Winter sets in.

This recipe makes about six jars.

Ingredients:
1kg damsons
1.25kg preserving sugar
400ml water

*De-stoning the fruit:
There are two options here and in my most recent batch I used the method detailed below, but another way to ensure a stone free jam is to cut the fruit in half and remove each stone before using them. Time consuming, but ultimately worth it!

Method:

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Put the fruit and the water into a big high-sided pan and simmer until the skins are soft and the liquid has reduced by a third. As the fruit is softening, press it against the side of the pan to release the stones and remove with a slotted spoon. (Turn the heat off if this process is taking a while – you don’t want to burn the fruit)

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Take the pan off the heat and add the sugar, stirring gently until it’s all dissolved. (It can help if you warm the sugar first, by putting it in the oven for 10 minutes)

When the sugar has dissolved, return the pan to the heat and boil it rapidly until the setting point is reached. Take the pan off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes. Skim off any scum that has formed, then pot up into sterilised* jars and store in a cool dark place until ready for use.

Why not tie ribbons around some of the jars and give them out as Christmas presents this year? There are some fab editable and printable labelling tools online, give it a go!

*to sterilise your jars simply wash them and put them through the dishwasher (alternatively use a microwave) on its hot setting while you’re making the jam. Spoon the mixture into the still-warm jars and seal immediately with a lid. The heat of the mixture and the jar will enable it to seal effectively and prevent any bacteria from disturbing your beautiful batch of jam.

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Pondering the Point

I recently spent the night sleeping under the stars. No tent, no yurt, no canvas teepee strung up with lights. Just a friend and blankets and a balmy night. It’s the small things that change us, that open up doors and give us vision, an ability to see things we largely would have missed before. This experience is one of the things that inspired this post.

We humans are as cruel to ourselves, as we are to each other in this money and materials driven society we have built around ourselves. Like an overbearing, mass, clipped-wing our daily lives have become the zoo of the human world. We seem unable to fathom the extent of our plight, and are therefore akin to the trained animals of the circus the good ones among us may fight for; motivated by regular, insignificant treats and comforted by flat-pack shelter, packaged food and meaningless rules. We are terrified of change, of different, and of running away from the society that keeps us. We keep our eyes on her. Updating, buying, spending, judging; flitting between each empty charade like a chained-up bear, fearful of the whip.

There are many routines, rules and trends that we take part in but don’t necessarily agree with, but why do we do it? What exactly are we signing up for and why aren’t we living now? This life feels real but we spend hours of it frozen in front of meaningless television, we buy food wrapped in plastic, so disguised from its original form that we could not attempt to tell you exactly what it is that we are putting into our bodies. We visit zoos and sea life centres to teach our children about animals; they in turn become comfortable with cages and keepers for habitats. We forget we are animals too, we deny it so much we literally cleanse the natural world away; landscaping the wild, lest it remind us of our true form. Our true home. We live within concrete and plastic, keep pets but eat meat and have never spent a night sleeping unsheltered under the stars.

Strip it back, find you and change your world.

Jaime x

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Seven Steps to Sustainable Living.

Ok, so reading this won’t turn you into an off-grid permaculturalist, but I hope it will give those, still unwavering slaves to major brands, some simple steps to going a little greener. It’s easy to be green. Going green, or greener, doesn’t have to be hard work or expensive. In fact, it is often far cheaper to buy ethically, or even make your own, with many basic products. Stop! Don’t panic, I’m not asking that you go and whip up a batch of cleaning spray, but just to ‘stop and think’, with every purchase or habit – could this be done more sustainably and possibly more cheaply in another way? It’s about change and growth and new ideas; yes you’ve always used that brand of deodorant, but could you be missing out on one that is more effective and better for you? Perhaps that supermarket you shop at is draining more that just your bank balance, and although your local farm shop cannot claim to compete with these giants for quantity, it sure can on quality. Who on earth needs a billion food products wrapped in plastic anyway?!

Below is a list of seven really, really simple ways to go greener and improve not only your own health, but the health of those you love and you’ll help to save the planet while doing so!

1. Buy recycled toilet tissue.
This to me, seems a complete no-brainer, I genuinely have no idea why there is a market for luxury loo roll, but millions of Britons everyday, still feel the need to spend lots of their hard-earned pounds on quilted, patterned and frilly rolls of toilet tissue that is simply going to be flushed away seconds after use! For the same money or at times even less (depending on where you shop) you can purchase loo roll that has been made from recycled material. For all your guilt-free bottom wiping needs!

2. Visit your local farm shop or farmers market.
We have two glorious farm shops nearby; Pluckley Farm Shop which also has a fabulous range of local preserves and handmade goodies, and The 4 Seasons Farm Shop which in addition to the usual veggie-shaped wares, sells homemade gluten free cakes and even stocks coconut oil! Whilst you may not be able to – or want to – do your entire weekly shop at your local farm store, you will be surprised just how much you can purchase and it’s fun too! I regularly take my children to visit farmers markets in the local area and really enjoy meeting other like-minded families, visiting the gorgeous places they’re often held in and seeing what’s actually is season. [You will not find strawberries in February] Remember organic isn’t fancy – it’s the original way to shop and eat; our grand parents didn’t have ‘organic’ food because their shopping was intrinsically more seasonal, local and organic than it is now. They also didn’t do ‘big shops’ – they shopped locally and regularly. Plus, as my grandfather did; most families grew at least some varieties of vegetables at the bottom of the garden.

3. Walk or cycle more.
It’s a sign of the times and we are all guilty of jumping into the car for those short journeys that really could be walked or cycled. We live busy lives these days and it’s often due to time constraints that we resort to burning petrol, as we have a million and one things to get done in that half hour we have before starting work. To offset this, try spending time in your local area at the weekend or on holidays, exploring on foot or two-wheels when you do have time to roam. My children and I recently discovered a whopping great blackberry bush not far from home whilst out walking together, so we now have even more beautiful free fruit to pick, as well as saving the planet by spending our family time in this way! Result!

4. Try crafting!
It’s a simple, productive and therapeutic hobby. I save up pretty jars, lovely card fronts and ribbons from gifts I receive and turn them into beautiful hand made items for future gifts (or my own enjoyment!) At christmas I did hampers for my mother and mother-in-law, each filled with some paid-for farm shop produce and some handmade items such as chutneys and jams, inside reused jars. Many of us claim not to have time for such endeavours but I challenge you to drop a TV program (or three) each week and try it! We are all far more creative than we usually give ourselves credit for so try a new hobby, save money and help the planet while you do so!

5. Reuse and redistribute some of the waste water in your home.
This really is so easy and so valuable, especially during Summer when thirsty plants and lawns need daily watering. So much waste water is simply poured down the drain each day in the UK, but it doesn’t have to be difficult to harvest and use more of the grey water in your home. Grey-water recycling systems are wonderful and I certainly have one on my wish list but in the meantime, I keep a pretty jug out on my kitchen windowsill ready for filling and distributing waste water at any time; be it from my morning kettle, washing-up bowl or tumble dryer, it can be used to keep those plants and veg patches happy! Oh and set up a water butt outside, they’re brilliant!

6. Buy ethical brands.
Ok so not all of us have the time or inclination to make cleaning products from scratch and we all want results right? Just buy from greener companies and you can have your fix of ready-made, shop bought products but at much less of a cost to the earth as your traditional choices might be. Ecover is not without its faults, but is a great go-to-brand for easy greener cleaning, with typically much less harsh chemicals that it’s relatives on the shelves and its a company that at least has the right idea. Selecting a weekly food box from an online company such as Abel and Cole, not only gives you an organic health boost and saves time but also contributes your money to companies who are at least trying to work in a sustainable way. They even stock all your store cupboard essentials, including a growing vegetarian/vegan range and lots of the cleaning range from Ecover.

7. Save on heating.
Please don’t switch on your heating system yet!! It’s the end of August and I am already hearing people say that they’ve turned on their heating in order to stay warm. This is not ‘staying warm’. This is complete unnecessary indulgence and it’s costing you money as well as burning fuel that harms the planet. Save the heating for the depths of snowy winter and instead, for now, shut your windows, put on a jumper and keep warm by moving more; perhaps by doing your new greener hobbies or a daily yoga session. You’ll keep fitter, feel happier and sleep better. Anyway central heating is notoriously bad for your health so again, reap the benefits of choosing a more sustainable way to keep warm!

Well there you have it! Seven sustainable living ideas that are so simple you can get going right away. So go on, change your life today, give yourself a challenge and see where this new direction takes you.

Jaime x

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Springtime – Best in Show

It’s mid-spring and I couldn’t be happier! The cold of the winter is melting away and summer is on our doorsteps, but spring is more than just a quiet pre-cursor to the heat of summer; it’s glorious in its own blooming right.

I love getting into the garden at this time of year; the soil is still moist from April showers and beginning to warm, ready to receive precious seedlings full of promise. That’s the great thing about Spring; new growth, new life, new beginnings.

In mid-spring, as it is now, the beautiful pinks and whites of blossom; once stark and bright against the cold bark of empty trees, is fading; sliding away like sweeping theatre curtains – revealing the lush, green leaves that had formed in its show-stopping shadow. That’s spring.

I saw a newt today in the garden. It scuttled past my gloved fingers in a flash of green-brown camouflage, as I weeded the veg patch before scurrying quickly away into hiding. I don’t have a pond but it certainly inspired a thought that I might find space! Although my burgeoning veg patch has already eaten a large portion of my already postage-stamp sized garden. Perhaps not then. But I’m so pleased it had the notion to visit, I have a compost bin not too far from the spot where I knelt with those gloved hands and so I am sure it soon found it’s lunchtime fill.

While hot on the zig-zagging tail of my watery guest, I spotted another seasonal treat – a large, lolling, bumblebee feasting away on my spring-flowering perennials and shrub border. I watched entranced as it devoured its sweet treat and then bobbed along to do the same at the next natural take-out. Bees are just so precious and I’m so pleased that this one stayed long enough for an impromptu photo shoot. Sorry I couldn’t catch the newt.

It’s these small moments in life that at times, we’re all too busy to savour. I’m so pleased I was present in that glorious spring moment today.

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