Thursday, 20 December 2012

Make a Twig Reindeer

bunch of twigs for stick reindeer

Find a few twigs on your next woodland walk and you will have the main ingredients you need to make a twig reindeer.  The simplicity and naturalness of the branches used makes a really wonderful Christmas decoration. 

We collected twigs from several walks.  We found that those from horse chestnut trees were ideal as they had thin branches that divided nicely like reindeer antlers.  We also cut some stems from the green and red dogwood in the garden.  So you don’t have to go too far for your supplies.  This meant we started with a lovely bunch of twigs which actually look quite good on their own in the vase.
Any young children helping with this project will need to be assisted with cutting the twig.  You could use scissors or just snap any very thin twigs.  For the thicker stems I used secateurs.

For the body you will need a piece of twig about 8/9 inches long.  Then you will need 2 “Y” shaped stems about 7 inches in length (though you could go shorter to about 4 inches).  You then need to attach the legs to the body.  Set them back about 1 to 1/2inch along the body.  We firstly tried to glue together.  However as this seemed not be too easy we opted for tying with red twine.  I think this also adds to the overall image of the reindeer.  We tied as tight as possible and kept the reindeer on its side until both sets of legs were on.  The front set of legs was very slightly inclined backwards.   You need to cut the stem on the back “Y”.

Twig Reindeer

Twig Reindeer

Choosing the piece de resistance was the best bit of the whole project.  We opted for some twigs that my son had found still with a few leaves on.  They were perfect.  Again we tied the two antlers to the neck in 2 different places, rather than sticking them with glue.

We will be making more of these in the coming days as it is a great way of bringing the outdoors inside – though not sure we make enough for them to pull Santa’s sleigh.  Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Missing the Mistletoe

It was a rather drab, grey and damp day when we started a December walk before a late lunch.  To add a bit of interest I proposed that we went on a search for mistletoe.  ‘What’s mistletoe?’ queried my seven year old.  ‘Well it grows high up in the trees, has white funny shaped berries and forms in a large ball rather like an overgrown bird’s nest.’ was my rather inadequate reply. ‘Look upwards and keep your eyes peeled we are bound to see some.’

winter walk

Apples, old mans beard and birds nest in winter

As we pottered along a slight nagging started in my mind.  I could only remember actually seeing mistletoe growing a couple of times in my life (I’m sure there must have been more).  Once was in an old orchard where every apple tree seemed to be host to a large bundle.  I’d also seen some earlier in the year in a snowdrop garden, again in an apple tree.  Perhaps they only grew on fruit trees.  We had seen an apple tree devoid of mistletoe at the beginning of our walk, but we were unlikely to see any more fruit trees.  So holly and Ivy were added to our find and seek festive list.  I was pretty certain that we would be able to tick these off.
We saw a lovely cascade of old man’s beard, high in one tree – a seed head usually found scrambling amongst the hedgerows. We also spotted several large birds’ nests, easily seen in the bare branches this time of year. Our hopes were raised that mistletoe might be close by when we saw what could have been a Mistle thrush at the top of tree.  Its favourite food is mistletoe. Alas its lunch was not in sight. We wondered what was named first the plant or the bird. Can anyone help?
ivy and holly berrries
Tipping your head back and looking towards the sky does bring a different perspective to a ramble. Sure enough we saw many trees covered in ivy and a large bush of holly still holding some of it berries. We were surprised what a lovely shade of plum the berries on the ivy were. They were almost more stunning than those on the holly.

Linear walks always work well because you always see vistas on the return journey you missed on the way out.  And yes, yes in the distance on our way back a large ball of vegetation was spotted in a faraway tree.  At last we could cross mistletoe off our list, but by then my son was busy using the dried stem of a cow parsley as a blow gun. His interest in our Christmas hunt was over.

Mistletoe on Apple Tree

On our return home my research confirmed that the main host plants for mistletoe are apple, hawthorn, lime and poplar trees. Mistletoe is apparently much more common in gardens, orchards and parks than in the general countryside.  At least I was able to show everyone my photos of mistletoe from the snowdrop garden.

We may have another go at this game with some of our walks over Christmas, when the location will be more carefully planned. By adding some more types of berries, such as rosehips, perhaps pine cones and, of course a Xmas tree, and we will have a full blown Xmas hunt to have fun with.

I am linking up this post with Learning for Life and Countrykids where you can find out what other families have been up to outdoors.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Salt Dough Christmas Decorations: A Tale of Competition between Friends

Salt dough xmas decorations

I recently spotted a great idea for using a handprint made from salt dough to make a Santa Xmas decoration.   It looked so cute that I shared it with friends and followers on Facebook.  My son had had a go at something similar a pre-school, but we had never tried salt dough at home. That rather misshaped ornament he made is now treasured and brought out every Christmas.

My garden craft is fine, but this kind of craft was more like cooking.  A day off school for my son provided some time and an opportunity to make and bake.

Here is the recipe we used:-
½ cup of salt

½ cup of plain flour
¼ cup of water, but only use as much as you need to make dough
Yes I did have plain flour in the cupboard.  What about the salt?  I only had a small amount of relatively expensive sea salt so I plumped for dishwasher salt thinking, it would probably melt in the oven.  Ist mistake.  It didn’t.

salt dough xmas tree
Apron donned – it really was just like making pastry.  We measured, stirred, kneaded and rolled out with a rolling pin.  Then we made the hand impression into the salt dough.  By then I began to realise that a 7 yr. olds hand is quite large.  Any imprint would make quite a chunky decoration, maybe not so easily hung from the tree.  So we decided to just make one and cut out shapes with our Xmas cooker cutters with the remainder of the dough.  We remembered to punch a hole in the top to enable hanging.  They were then baked in the oven 100c for about 2 ½ hours.

salt dough xmas decorations
We were really quite pleased with our results, despite the rough texture caused by the dishwasher salt.  I should say, I was pleased until two of my friends posted some photos displaying their decorations.  I am sure you can guess which ones are ours.
Oh well, baking was never my forte.  Not sure we will ever get around to decorating our ornaments.  It’s been great fun sharing ideas and experiences with friends.  It has helped us all get into the festive spirit.  Next time though, I may just check things out first.  So please don’t be put off, but do use table salt. My excuse for coming last in the class is that one friend’s profession involves dressing windows, hence the lovely photo at the beginning of the post.  My other friend, well her surname is Jones, so it really was a case of keeping up with the Jones’s!

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Enchanted Woodland: A Garden At Night

Enchanted Woodland

What a treat.  A night time walk in an enchanted garden, full of light, shadow, glimpses of majestic trees and other delights.  I couldn’t think of anything that could be more charming.

After dressing for the Arctic, we were stuck in London Friday night traffic for 50 minutes on our way there and my 7 year old decided that it really was a waste of time. He much rather be watching his favourite TV programmes.  Great start to our night trip to Syon Park in Isleworth to visit their ‘Enchanted Woodland’.  But please don’t worry, from the time he saw the search lights from the garden in the sky and even the  lights from the under belly of the planes en route to Heathrow, to meeting his friends, his excitement could hardly be contained.

There is no doubt that there is something very magical about a garden, particularly a large garden, at night.  This time of year we all tend to hibernate come dusk.  Night time trips are quite rare for my son.  Although I am all for wrapping up and getting outside there aren’t many winter evenings when we actually manage it.

I have visited the garden at Syon Park quite a few times, but never in the dark.  The Enchanted Woodland had come highly recommended and it did live up to all expectations.

winter wonderland

The garden was full of coloured lights of all shapes, sizes and types.  The reflections from the lit up trees in the water of the lake were simply quite stunning.  The route around the garden was about a mile.  It took us over an hour and a half, such was the level of interest from everyone.

kids looking in dragons den
There were constant delights for the children.  One of their favourites was the Dragons Den with its very own sound effects.
shadow acreen

A large shadow screen held all our attention for quite some time.  What a good idea. I have never done this outdoors before.  We could also view other families shadows from the other side of the lake, very spooky and surreal.

happy children in a nightimegarden

The tree and their structures were not the only ones lit up.  The children enjoyed being seen in different colours as well.

lit up tree

This children named this little display jurassic cove.  It really did look prehistoric and gunnera leaves next door helped to set the scene.

tree at night with birdcages and butterflies
The crowning glory of Syon Park Gardens in most definitely the Great Conservatory.  Our winter walk ended there with a tasteful light show and music.  The children had a dance, while the adults sat around mesmerised by the effect of the light and sound on this magnificent structure.  Our evening was then topped off by that winter essential -  mugs of hot chocolate. Perfection.
If anyone else has visited I would love to hear their views?  Are there any other similar events taking place in other areas of the country, because it really was a rather magical evening.
I am linking up this post with Learning for Life where you can find out what other families have been up to outdoors. 

Monday, 26 November 2012

Celebrating National Tree Week

This week, 24 November to 2 December, is National Tree Week.  Its an opportunity to celebrate and highlight the importance of trees.  I noticed that the BBC Nature page was featuring a series of tree photographs, so thought I would review some of my favourite piccies.  I have chosen one from each season.

oak tree  in winter with hoar frost

This was taken after after a big freeze.  Everywhere was covered in hoar frost and this oak tree looked stunning.


oak tree summer

The same oak tree at midsummer in full leaf.

You can plant a tree this week or become involved in one of the community tree planting events.  However for most of us just thinking about the importance of these statuesque structures will be the way in which we participate.  Please go and have a good look at one close to you.   There has been much in press recently about ash dieback and its possible devasting effects.   Imagine a world without trees.

'A civilisation flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit'   Greek Proverb.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Autumn Leaf Hopscotch

Autumn Leaf Hopscotch

The autumn leaves in the south of the UK have been wonderful this year.  I have been seeing fantastic artwork, collages and patterns made from leaves.  This weekend a brief chat with my 7 year old about what use we could put some of the many leaves in our garden led to a eureka moment.  What garden game would be great to play with leaves outdoors?  We came up with autumn leaf hopscotch.  Hope you like the idea.

As it’s such a simple project  the photographs may explain it all. However we had such fun concocting it, counting, sorting, and deciding which leaves to use and then working out patterns for each number I thought I’d share a bit more detail with you.

We used leaves from the garden, but this activity is a great use of all those leaves bought back from an autumn walk that you never know what to do with.  Ours either lie dried up and shrivelled indoors or wet and soggy outside.  Flat leaves seem to work best, but you don’t have to use pressed leaves.  For some leaf shapes turning the leaf to its underside meant it was easier to lay them out.  It also gave us a chance to explore the vein patterns underneath and also note the different colourations.  Some of the leaves were really beautiful on their ‘other’ side.

leaf hopscotch

As for the hopscotch – do you remember how to play?  I had to think twice.  I had played it with my son when he was small and just learning his numbers, but not recently.  He obviously had not played it in the school playground (ever? or in recent past?) Oh dear the demise of playground games.  I’ll be popping a piece of chalk in his pocket this week.  I have a little book which we use as our Games Bible,  called 'The Games Book -  how to play the games of yesterday' which is currently available on Kindle.

Here’s a quick run down of the rules just in case you can’t remember either.  You number squares from 1 to 10 in the pattern shown in the first photo.   The aim is to be the first to finish to square 10.  The game can be played with a group or just one person.  You throw a small pebble onto square one.  If it lands fully within the square you jump over the square containing the pebble left foot in square 2 and right foot in square 3.  Continue hopping and jumping until you reach square ten then turn balancing on one foot and hopscotch back to squares 2 and 3 to pick up the pebble from square one.  If you touch a line, lose your balance or miss a square. Your turn is over and you must start at square one again.  You must never step on the square which has your pebble.

garden leaf hopscotch
This is how we spent our Sunday morning - a great way to be out in the clear frosty air.  If I had thought about it I would have used a fir cone instead of a small stone just to complete the autumn theme.
By the way 2 little points to note.  Yes you will step on the leaves and patterns and mess them up, but that can be easily rectified.  It was a lovely calm dry sunny day on Sunday.  This version of hopscotch probably won’t work on a windy day!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Floral Friday: Cosmos - Family Friendly Plants

cosmos family friendly plant

The Cosmos is the sort of flower that you may have seen in other people’s gardens and thought I would love to have that displaying in my garden.  It’s a lovely statuesque cottage garden flower, usually with very pretty pastel colours and feathery leaves. It is rather magical for toddlers as it grows to just about their height making it ideal for viewing, smelling and picking.  In fact the more picking the better as that will encourage more flowers to bloom.

The packets of seeds sold in the shops are usually those of Cosmos bipinnatus, which is an annual, and the variety you will most commonly see in the summer. 

The characteristics that make it family friendly and a good seed to sow with you children are:-
  • It is pretty easy to grow from seed.
  • It usually only takes about 12 weeks from sowing to flower – so you will not have to wait too long.
  • It has a long flowering period, as it will flower from June to September or even the first frosts.  Certainly I have seen them flowering into late October this year.
  • You can sow in pots or direct into the ground.  Although not a wildflower they were used to magnificent effect  in the Olympic Park planting scheme this year.
  • Good cutting flower.
  • Butterflies love Cosmos.
cosmos under apple tree
There is also one other type of Cosmos worth a mention because children love its scent.  It is the Cosmos atrosanguineus   If I say a good variety to buy is 'Chocamocha'  then I am sure you will have guessed the aroma.  Yes there really is a plant with a chocolatety smell. 
This is a perennial plant which means it will comeback every year.  However it is not fully frost hardy.  To minimise frost damage you need either to protect its roots with a cloche or to take the plant into a frost free environment, such as a greenhouse for the winter.
Add  a packet of  cosmos seeds to your spring shopping list or even better pop a couple of packets in your children's Christmas stocking this year.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


I have been playing well outside the garden recently and having great fun.  This Saturday I tiptoed nervously for the first time into a conference for bloggers, called the Mumsnet BlogFest.

My BlogFest day started brilliantly.  I love coincidence and unplanned meetings.  I once went on holiday to southern Ireland and met a family for the first time who lived 4 doors down from me in my London house.  On Saturday the first person I started chatting with was a blogger, Natasja King from Crochetime.   She mentioned to another participant that she had recently decorated a local fence with some of her work.  A couple of days ago I had seen a photo from one of the social networks of a beautifully decorated bench, which I now know had been yarn bombed (watch for future posts about this).  We discovered that not only had she decorated that bench, but that she only lived a couple of miles from me.  Not a bad coincidence from an audience of over 300.  From then the day just got better and better.  We laughed, shared, digested, networked, chatted, listened, and learnt all in the spirit of BlogFestHood. 
This Blog is now over 3 years old and I have loved and looked forward to writing for it, thinking about what I might post, and taking and learning to take photographs for it.  As with a garden I couldn’t help feeling that it was time to dig in a few new plants and load a lot of more fertiliser onto the plot and to breathe some new life into the blog.  I hoped that the Blogfest would provide me with a few pointers on how to achieve this.   It did and it gave so much more.   A top tip early into the day I was reminded that to write and write well is like exercising a muscle that need to be stretched again and again.  Regular posts = improved writing.
Another very strong message  was to be true to yourself then you will start to find a sense of your identity and your own voice in your writing.  I always find it difficult when to make the decision to stop editing a piece and hit the send button to publish the post.  My thought are always, have I said too much, too little, crossed the border between the public and the private, expressed feelings and emotions I would rather remain private or might affect other people.
A number of bloggers on the platforms I attended had set themselves boundaries between their private and personal personas. I never identify any members of my family and others in my blog.  You may have noticed that this also includes photographs.  There is obviously much food for thought here. One of the most interesting questions from the audience full of mummy bloggers was what she should do now that her 16 yr old son had requested her to stop blogging about him.  A response from the Times journalist, Tania Bryon, that she should respect his wishes received a large applause from the audience. 

Caitlin Moran at Mumsnet Blogfest
I want to blog to connect with people and share experiences that may be familiar to them or that they may want to try in the future.  I would love people to read what I write and say yes what you say resonates with me.  Or think I’m kind of interested in your views and I’ll come back to this blog at a later date.  I loved Caitlin Moran’s take on good writing.  That it was like playing pool, where you had to walk around the table and take the shot on the ball no else has. I’ll now be doing lots of traipsing around my and other people’s gardens working my way through the angle I need to write about.
The day really made me think about what blogging was all about.  What makes it different from writing a book, a series of articles or a regular column in a newspaper or magazine?   My view following the Blog Fest is that it is most similar to that now rather old fashioned form of communication, the personal letter.  Several of those speaking on Saturday said they had a particular person in mind when writing.  A friend who now lives in India says that she often reads this blog as a way of keeping up with me and my family.   So maybe she will be my ghost reader.
Sunny Spells
Oh and by the way the day also ended brilliantly.  A goody bag to die for was the icing on the cake.  I loved everything in it, but what I liked best was the message above displayed on an umbrella box.  Well the sun certainly shone on Saturday.  Thank you so much Mumsnet for such a lovely lesson in Blogging.  It couldn't have been better
 Read more about the BlogFest here.


Sunday, 4 November 2012

Stourhead Revisited: The Beauty of Autumn Colour

Last year we visited Stourhead, Wiltshire, one of the best landscape gardens in the country.  It was so beautiful we couldn’t resist returning again this year.

There are over 600 species of trees and shrubs in the landscape gardens assuring a fantastic long-lived autumn display.  The expectation was for a good spectacle of autumn colour this year.  The wet summer helped the trees to produce large numbers of leaves whilst the spell of warmer weather later in the year allowed trees to increase their sugar levels.

We were not disappointed.  We visited slightly later than last year and some trees which had been in full autumn colour had already lost their leaves.  The carpeting of the ground was prefect though.  Other foliage, not in full colour last year was truly stunning.

If you read last week’s post you will know that I saw autumn colours at Wisley with a group of gardening buddies.  This visit turned out slightly different.  It was just me and my seven year old who made the trip.  The gardens are a fantastic space for children.  They have plenty of space to run around, points of interest, a grotto and are great for hide and seek. 

The beauty of the gardens make it almost compulsory to take photographs.  In fact the day we were there nearly everyone was busy with their cameras.  However, of course, I should have realised that it’s not just adults who want to take shots – 7 year olds are pretty keen as well.  So note to self, if I want sole use of my camera then I need to make sure that my son remembers to bring his. 

I was pretty pleased with the photo of the acer palmatum at the beginning of this post. As we walked away from the tree I noted there was possibly an even better shot from amongst some very ancient rhododendrons.  Click went my camera, thump went my son as he slipped of the branch of the rhododendron he had been climbing.  Silence for a very long couple of seconds and then a tremendous yell.  He had bumped his head and slightly hurt his hand, but thank goodness in the main was fine.

I am a strong proponent of children tree climbing.  However Stourhead with its many ancient specimens is not the location to practise this skill.  The thick branches of the rhododendron were also mossy, very slippery and clearly unsuitable for trainers.  My autumn colour visit to Wisley had been the perfect combination, today I had not achieved that.  But I had learnt a lesson about cameras, 7 year olds and trees not mixing. 
I have no doubt we will be visiting Stourhead again.  And when we do it will be 'remember that time you fell off a tree'- the memory of the glorious autumn colours will be relegated to second.

If you would like to take a look at last year's post here it is.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Share Some Local Autumn Colour

I recently sent out a newsletter featuring the Woodland Trust’s Top Ten Woods for Autumn colour. I hoped it would inspire families to get out into the woods this half term. The list certainly got me yearning for a helping of autumn colour. If I am lucky this week I may get to visit one of those woods on the list Stourhead, not really a wood but a landscape garden.

However I feel I have been really lucky already. On Thursday I visited one of my regular haunts, RHS garden Wisley in Surrey with a group of gardening chums.


Its wide range of deciduous shrubs and trees give visitors a lovely selection of autumn colours and vistas. Also unlike some gardens, I have recently visited, the herbaceous borders remain intact ensuring that structure is retained through the garden.

I have been pondering as to why I enjoyed my walk around  such a well visited local garden much more than anticipated.  There is no doubt that the journey there is like visiting an old friend, conferring a level of certainty and comfort. However this time these feelings were tinged with surprise and delight when I saw familiar spots lit up in a different light and colour. 


But it may be that the word 'friend' is the key here.  Walking around the gardens with like-minded people and sharing expressions of delight when colourful and beautiful foliage was spotted was a truly enjoyable experience.  Was the sense of well-being I felt at the end of the day due to the walk in the fresh air, stunning vistas or chats with friends?  I'll never know that main cause, but it was the perfect combination.

But it may be that the word 'friend' is the key here.  Walking around the gardens with like-minded people and sharing expressions of delight when colourful and beautiful foliage was spotted was a truly enjoyable experience.  Was the sense of well-being I felt at the end of the day due to the walk in the fresh air, stunning vistas or chats with friends?  I'll never know that main cause, but it was the perfect combination.

This coming week we will be out on family walks in the woods and perhaps that visit to Stourhead.  We had a fantastic time there last year.  It will no doubt be a different sort of shared experience!  Hope you also manage to get out and see the autumn colours close to you.  You may not have to travel far.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Floral Friday - Michaelmas Daisy - Family Friendly Plants

Bee on Aster

A good late summer performer for the garden is the Aster or Michaelmas Daisy. So called because it has daisy-like flowers from pink, purple to blue and it flowers at the time of Michaelmas, on 29 September when in parts of Europe remember Archangel Michael.

Its reliability and hardiness help to make it a truly family friendly plant. Other characteristics include

  • It is can be bought as a perennial, which means it comes back every year.

  • The bees like it and it provides late summer nectar for them.

  • It is low maintenance.

  • It does not succumb to slug and snail damage.

If growing with children you could grow from seed. However for me this plant’s value lies in providing instant late summer colour. There are many other flowering plants that would be easier for them to grow. I would suggest a visit to the garden centre from the end of July onwards to see what varieties are available.  You will need to cut back the plant at the end of the season.

A number of common varieties are about 4 feet high, but some of the taller varieties can start to look a bit scraggy towards the end of the season. Worth considering are shorter and dwarf varieties like the one below, no more than 2 feet tall and which will not be such a target for a football .

Aster lateriflorus 'Bucks Fizz'

This Floral Friday post is one of a series suggesting family friendly plants you and your children could grow in your garden.  Please take a look at our previous suggestions.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Floral Friday - Aquilegia - Family Friendly Plants


If you know this flower, other names for it are Columbine and Grandma Bonnets; you may be saying what so family friendly about it? It is a cottage garden plant with thin stems holding up the very pretty flower heads which could easily get knocked by a ball or trampled upon. I say yes all of these things are true, but it is a lovely flower to have in May. It blooms about the same time as For get me nots and bluebells.

For me, its family friendly characteristics include:-

  • It is really easy to grow.
  • It flowers early in the garden.
  • Lots of multiple flowers on one plant.
  • It is perennial, which means it will come back the next year.
  • It is low maintenance.
  • It does not get nibbled by slugs and snails.
  • It is available in a wide range of colours, pink, cream, purple, white and yellow. If you have a child who loves pretty flowers they are going to adore these.

Columbines are a short-lived perennial (4 or 5 years, usually), so let them re-seed from parent plants and you’ll always have some around.  You can grow them easily from seed.  As they flower early you can sow them in pots and trays from January onwards.  If you want to go for an easier option buy a couple of different varieties as soon as they are in the garden centres at about Easter time.  As they self-seed and cross pollinate easily then you will find many more and different varieties in your garden in the following years.

You will need to cut away old foliage in the late summer.  But as you see from the above photograph taken in my garden in mid-October the foliage soon reappears.  It provides an attractive plant throughout the winter.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Floral Friday - Chives - What to plant with your Kids


It is its versatility that makes chives such a great plant to grow with your kids.  It is of course a culinary herb and part of the onion family, but its flowers are beautiful – a delicate ball of pinky, purple.   

The child and family friendly properties of the chive plant Allium Schoenoprasum include :-

  • It is a hardy perennial, which means it will come up every year.

  • It has edible leaves and flowers.

  • It requires little maintenance.

  • It is relatively pest free.

  • Its clumps will cope with being hit by balls.

Chives are an essential addition to any herb garden. Equally you could equally grow them in any flower border or in pots. Ideally they like well-drained soil and full sun, but they will grow in other conditions. You can grow from seed in the spring or buy one or two pots from the local garden centre. You will need to cut it down in late summer or autumn so it can grow again in the spring.

This year in our house we have watched and photographed the flower heads developing, picked them as a cut flower and eaten both leaves and flowers. We still have some dried chive flowers in a vase. All from one plant. Not bad I reckon!

If you liked this then please take a look at other family friendly plants selected for our Floral Friday feature,
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