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Snow truant

Feels like playing hooky...

garden

I love days like today: it's like playing hooky.

Not that I ever played hooky, that I remember. And not that I'm not working - I'll be back to it in a minute.

But when you're snowed in, and you have to cancel your appointments, and you know no-one's coming to the door, the day feels like bonus time. You can eat what you like, have a nap if you want one. It's a white world out there and nobody's looking.

I should have been at the dentist this afternoon, but the inch of snow that fell in the night is more than enough to make driving here impossible. There's a hill from our house to the gate, from the gate to the end of the drive, and from the end of the drive, in either direction, you once again have to go uphill. Without a 4x4 it's a no-go.

So, here I sit in a big leather recliner, wrapped up in a slanket (courtesy of my sister last year). We knew this was coming, so we got plenty of food and drink in. We lit the woodie first thing and the house is toasty warm, as are we in our fleece layers. The dog and the cats are arrayed around the fire (curiously, they never seem to GO anywhere in this weather...). Ravel on the radio. Had a walk round the garden earlier, with the dry powdered snow blowing off the barn roofs and the frozen ponds covered in rabbit footprints.

The parrotia tree, which came into bloom a week ago with its tiny crimson jewels of flowers, is alive with coloured flutterings. I'm about to feed the birds for the fifth time and so harsh is the weather, we have a whole new set visiting us outside of the usual titbirds and robins. A yellowhammer turned up this morning - the first I've seen at the bird table - and a multitude of greenfinches and chaffinches, dunnocks and nuthatches, all vying with the great spotted woodpeckers and blackbirds for our wild bird seed mix, chopped cheese and fatballs, not to mention water. The poor beasts need all the help they can get and I'm glad I bought a 5kg sack of seed. 

Right, that's me away to work an hour or so before a hot chocolate and ginger cake call.

Stay wrapped up, people. And if you venture out, do it carefully. 

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The shed of the sixth happiness

Every girl needs a shed.

Shed

I am typing this blog, for the very first time, in our new shed. 

When I say 'our', I really mean 'my'. His nibs will get to use it, of course, but I claim first dibs on decorating and furnishing it. It's my girly girly girl cabin. 

What I actually wanted was a caravan that I saw advertised on a local site - just 250 euros. My husband's snobbery and flat refusal have resulted instead in our 2,500 euro 'winter palace' - a shed some 10.5m square, on its own concrete square with verandah.

It is - I must admit - a place of perfect contentment, tucked away down here at the bottom of the orchard, barely visible from the house even in winter, turning its back to the slope of our neighbour farmer's hill. One side is hidden by the laurel hedge we put in as a windbreak, the other by the hedgerow line we planted some years ago. 

Getting it built has been a bloody nightmare, with the builder hurting his back, the ground freezing, the inabiilty to hire plant because of the wheat sowing, the endless rain. It took the efforts of four builders, three farmers, a digger, a concrete mixer, a whacker plate, two tractors and ourselves just to get the base in, and five days after the DH and I assembled the actual structure (which went up easy-peasy, log cabin-style), we lost the bitumen roof in a storm. 

But still, we can forget all that, now that's it's in, and it's lovely. 

There's no floor in yet, nothing on the walls and no furnishings other than a couple of recliners and a drop-leaf table, but nevertheless, it's the place in the garden that has become our daily destination. 

shed 2

From where I'm sitting, I look across the pond to the small deck, the nameless acer - now leafless - the Wedding Day rose covered with tiny red hips, and on, up the slope of the garden, under the pear tree, through the cherry thicket, and on to the piggery and upper barn, almost invisible through the trees. 

The DH looks across all three ponds, to the willow hedge and the Paul's Himalayan Musk, the Kiftsgate rose and the lower barn. And the bamboo clumps that will one day be groves 30ft high. 

It is very private. There are birds singing all around me, and the comforting smell of the fir from which the building is made. The sun is traversing between the barn and the house, before it sets behind our lower barn. It's remarkably warm inside, considering there is no heating or insulation. 

I am absolutely in love with my shed, which is something I've wanted for years. A few years ago I bought a tent on Ebay and pitched that down here for the course of the summer, and it was brilliant. I came down every morning to do my yoga, opened up the zips and would find my (sadly now deceased) cat Lucy ensconced in one of the deckchairs. But this is even better. 

I now have, of course, all sorts of plans for my shed, which is going to be beach house style. A thin white wash inside, open shelving with a table and hopefully a small cooking hob. Mineral water, biscuits and magazines; a big mirror to reflect the light; curtains for the doors and windows. The flooring will be autoclaved pine planks, which have to be ordered from Rennes, 90km away (but at half the price of local offerings), and my old Heal's daybed will replace this teak recliner, with plenty of fleeces and duvets to cuddle up in. 

We've already bought a rather scary-looking Tilley lamp and if, as we intend, we can replace the doors with glass ones in time, then we'll also install a butane heater to make it cosy. In summer it will be our guest accommodation, and all year round, a shelter from the rain and cold, somewhere to work when the sun is too bright, and just a place to get away and enjoy nature. 

 

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Butterflies and bees

It's a easy job to make your garden more wild-life friendly - starting with insects

I've been truly delighted this year at the number of butterflies in the garden.

Apart from the swarms of Painted Ladies - a massive hatching that was noticed back in Morocco in the spring and which, right on time, hit France a couple of months ago - this year has also seen Red Admirals, White Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Clouded Yellows, Brimstones, various small blue butterflies that don't stand still long enough for me to see them, Swallowtails, Cabbage Whites and Marbled Whites in greater profusion than I ever remember. As you walk past our buddelia bushes, the butterflies rise up in great clouds. This year I even left some ragwort in the hopes of encouraging the Cinnabar Moth, and have seen hoardes of their stripy yellow and black caterpillars, so my hopes are high. 

We've tried wherever possible to plant our garden - formerly a bleak, windswept field - in a way that encourages wildlife. We have pheasants and partridges, which wander in from a nearby copse; a family of rabbits (regularly killed by our cats, sadly); red squirrels; innumerable voles and moles galore (whose molehills I collect as beautifully-turned garden soil).

There are also one male and three female deer that regularly visit the garden - preferring my rugosa roses to pretty much anything else, and stripping the willow and cherry bark in springtime. Therefore we leave every seedling tree, knowing that the deer will kill at least a third of them. They're partial to rosebuds and rosehips too, and only those out of their reach survive. This, however, is a loss we're willing to accept for the occasional thrill of seeing one ambling along in the dawn or twilight, munching casually. We are on a deer migration route and they were here long before we were. 

We aim at biodiversity in the garden, so we allow patches of nettle and bramble, and allow the wildflowers such as kidney vetch and clover to flower, along with grasses which are the food plants for many caterpillars, especially those of moths. We also scatter hogweed seeds around, and honesty, foxglove, euphorbia - anything that will grow and fill up a corner. Nettles are an important food plant for the Red Admiral caterpillar among others, while Swallowtail caterpillars like the feathery fronds of fennel.

Even more important than the butterflies, of course, are the bees, especially given that we have an orchard. I have looked into beekeeping but find the idea a tad intimidating at the moment. But it is an easy matter to make life easier for bees, while at the same time making your garden more beautiful. Here are 10 tips to make your garden more bee-friendly.

1 Plant flowers in the colours blue, yellow and purple. These are the colours that bees prefer. I have a lot of white, so need to skew the garden a little. Lavender, lilac, asters etc are all useful plants.

2 Don't use chemicals, of any kind. Ever. 

3 Plant flowers with single flowers, rather than double-flowered varieties where the bees can't get at the pollen. Single-flowered roses; buddleia (where the flowerhead is made up of hundreds of tiny single flowers); and 'umbelliferae', where the flower-heads are shaped like umbrellas (think yarrow, hogweeds, cow parsley, elder etc) are all bee magnets. So, of course, are flowers such as foxgloves, which break all the rules for colour and shape - but only the bumbles can get in!

4 Plant flowers in big, plentiful swathes, and have some diversity in there so the bees can forage around and get different sorts of pollen. Don't make some poor insect fly across acres of lawn and then find only a couple of flowers to harvest. Mix up the flowerbeds with flowers of different kinds and choose a mixed hedge rather than a single-species hedge. 

5 Have some water around, including shallow, muddy areas (some bees use mud to make nests and some butterflies like to drink muddy water). Even an old saucer laid on the ground and filled with water will soon turn into a haven for insects, toads, frogs, you name it. In larger containers, add some rocks at one corner so that animals can climb out if they should fall in. We have small water containers in every flower bed - some deep, some shallow, to act as waystations for wildlife. When we walk around the garden, our dog and cats regularly stop off for a drink.

6 Plant for year-round flowering. Our early bees come out to play for ivy flowers in January (good food for the birds, too, with its plentiful berries), then move onto willow in February and March before the cherries and plums come in, in April. Planting for year-round colour results in a beautiful garden for humans too.

7 Provide some habitat. A corner full of old twigs and brushwood; a rotting log hung up in a tree; a log drilled with holes. All of these make great houses for bees and other insects such as beetles. If a tree dies, leave it where it is and grow a climber over it such as a rose or clematis (or both).

8 Don't tidy up too much. A messy garden, full of dying vegetation over winter provides habitat for animals. Don't clear up until spring. 

9  Favour native plants. A native oak is scarcely less beautiful than a scarlet oak, but it will support hundreds more species of native insects.

10 Choose plant varieties with lots of pollen - don't worry about your allergies, these are caused by wind-born pollens, not the heavy, sticky pollens of insect-pollinated plants. 

Tomorrow: encouraging birdlife

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