The garden: A place where awareness can grow

I’ve noticed that the Spring bulbs are starting to break through the frosty ground. I hope that you’ve had the opportunity, over the last week, to try the awareness practice and break some new ground. You may have experienced a subtle change in your sensory perception, as you engaged with all of your senses to take in the world around you.  You may have become more aware of your thoughts, emotions and your responses. In my experience, it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight but gradually you start to notice more, you become more alert to the subtleties of everyday life in each passing moment. It’s as if we’ve adjusted a lens – The external world appears brighter and sharper and our inner world of thoughts, emotions, and responses comes into focus. We sense them and feel them. We recognise them.  Continue to practice awareness. Remember, practice strengthens the mindfulness muscle.

This week we’re going to work to enhance our awareness of our inner world. We’re going to become more familiar with what can be referred to as “the monkey mind” – that’s a mind that jumps around all the time, jumping from one thing to the next, rarely settling. Most of the time we don’t notice that our minds are jumping all over the place. Thoughts arise of their own accord, with little or no influence from us. The interesting thing is that the thoughts themselves are not the problem, if we leave them alone they will very quickly disappear again, of their own accord. The problem arises when we engage with those thoughts and thoughts become thinking. When we focus on the thoughts, engage with them, we feed them energy. We create stories around them, we add fuel to their fire. If we can become more aware of when thoughts arise, we can learn to accept them just as they are, not engage with them and allow them to pass. If we can do that, we can help to settle the monkey mind. Our minds are like a glass of muddy water: if we continue to stir the mud the water will remain cloudy. If we leave the mud alone, the mud will gradually sink to the bottom of the glass and the water will clear. The mud is still there but it isn’t clouding the water. Sometimes things can appear from the mud when we have clarity. The seed of the lotus needs the mud to germinate and from the mud the beautiful lotus flower emerges.

 

The monkey mind

A lot of the time we run on autopilot, not aware of where we’re at in ourselves. We can make a daily commute without realising how we’ve got from A to B. We can feel annoyed or grumpy without really understanding where those feelings have come from. We are mostly unaware of where our minds are and unaware that we’re unwittingly feeding repeating patterns of behaviour and old, conditioned, habitual responses. The practice, this week is to become aware of our monkey mind and learn to recognise when we’re feeding it and the patterns that it gives rise to.

Awareness practice 2 – Recognising the unsettled mind (the monkey mind)

Use something as a reminder to check in with yourself at various points across the day, maybe an alarm on your phone or if you’re on the bus or train, use each stop or station to check in or if you’re driving, when you get stopped at traffic lights, check in.   Say to yourself, in those moments, “Where is my mind now? What thoughts are arising? What feelings are arising? What is that feeling, that emotion, that sensation? Where in my body am I feeling it? How do I feel about that feeling? Do I recognise the storyline I’m running? Can I just be with these thoughts, feelings, and sensations and make a choice not to engage with them and let them pass?” Don’t worry if you can’t fit all those questions in, the idea is just to begin to notice, to be aware of what’s going on in your inner world, to buy a bit of space in which to choose how you respond. For example, if If you’re at work and the phone rings and you see it’s someone with whom you’ve previously had a tricky conversation before you pick up the phone if you check in you might notice feelings and emotions in your body that could influence how you interact on this call. In that moment, you might recognise you’re about to repeat behaviour based on old facts. You can choose to take the call with an open mind and it might just result in a more productive call. If you are somewhere where you can make a note, record your answers to those questions and your responses. Gradually, you will recognise patterns, you will learn to recognise the thoughts that trigger those patterns. When you become aware of that, you can choose not to engage and to break the pattern.

Awareness can be rich and enlightening but it can also be difficult and confrontational. We all have preferences. Things or ways of being that we like and don’t like. Sometimes it can be hard to accept when we recognise patterns in us that are not what we hoped for, that we’ve turned a blind eye to and allowed to play out over and over. Mindfulness is awareness of what is happening while it’s happening, with acceptance and non-judgment.  Having become more aware of what’s happening, it can be difficult to meet that with acceptance and non-judgment. The self-compassion break practice is going to help to meet difficulty with kindness and compassion so that you can learn to be with whatever is happening with acceptance and non-judgment. It takes courage to break a pattern or habit that has been with you for a long time, it may even have come to define who you are. Be kind to yourself as you work to let it go, to replace it if it doesn’t serve you well.

I think it helps to understand that, in some way, we are all suffering. To some extent, we all want to alleviate suffering and increase happiness (for ourselves or for others). That’s our common humanity. Sometimes, we can feel helpless in the face of suffering. We don’t know how to alleviate it or we’re not sure how our small contribution can make any difference to a situation where there is suffering. However, no matter how small, how apparently insignificant our contribution may seem, if our intention is always to alleviate suffering and increase happiness, with awareness of thought and action we will serve that intention well. At the very least we will not add to the suffering and that might just be enough in that moment. Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do. Just being with the suffering, meeting it with acceptance, kindness, and compassion, can be enough.

I find that the garden is a great place to become more aware of my preferences, habits, conditioned responses. I use the garden and gardening, tending to plants, as a way of checking in. I’ve always believed that I’m not good with indoor plants (based on historical evidence where quite a number of them have failed to make it past a few weeks) but I love cactus and we have a good few in the house (and they are thriving, so there is evidence that my belief is not entirely founded). I got a new cactus as a gift at Christmas. It came in a gorgeous little pot and he looked very happy in his new home beside his fellow cacti (is that the plural of cactus?). However, very quickly he started to wilt – healthy cactus are firm to the touch. This wee soul was spongy. My conditioned response was to blame myself. I must have overwatered him, under watered him, whatever, it had to be my fault – I was no good with indoor plants. That thought, that belief self arose. By checking in, I became aware of it but rather than engage with it, I let it pass. I salvaged what I thought was one healthy leg from the cactus plant and re-potted it and got rid of the rest of it, accepting that for whatever reason, it just hadn’t survived the transition from garden centre to home. I gave the saved leg everything it could possibly need to survive and hopefully thrive, but alas, it too went the way of the rest of it. When I inspected the roots I noticed a couple of tiny flies. Maybe they were responsible for the plant’s demise. I discarded the plant, accepting that not everything is destined to live a long time. He offered a brief but beautiful contribution to the cactus collection and I was grateful for that. I scrubbed the pot clean and it now provides a home for a new cactus. In another example, there was a little fledgling in the garden last breeding season (a blue tit), all fluffy

and new to the world, unaware of the dangers outside of the safety of the nest. It had made its maiden flight but flew into the kitchen window, bounced off it and landed with a bump on the table. My instinct was to save it, to pick it up and take it to safety. It was chirping to attract the attention of the parent birds who could be heard in the trees at the back of the garden, frantically calling out to the fledgling. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t come to retrieve their baby. I was flapping about like a crazy parent bird but realised that instinctive response wasn’t serving me (or the fledgling) well. I stopped flapping and became aware of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I realised that in my desire to help, I was actually doing more harm. My conditioned response was adding to the suffering rather than alleviating it. My own happiness (to save the bird) had become the intended outcome without me realising it. I stepped away from the fledgling and once I was a safe distance away, the parent bird came down and encouraged the fledgling to take flight again. Doing nothing was the best thing I could do in that moment.

In moments of difficulty or suffering, the following practice is helpful. It helps to access our self-soothing system. We are reminded that difficulty and suffering is part of our shared common humanity and we meet it with kindness.

Practice 3: Self-compassion break

Put your hand on your heart. Breathing a little more deeply than normal, in and out and say to yourself (in a kind soft voice):

“This is a moment of difficulty or suffering”

“Difficulty or suffering is part of everyone’s life”

“May I respond with kindness”

Allow yourself to feel soothed, to understand that it’s ok not to be ok, and just be with whatever is happening, with acceptance and non-judgement.

In the garden this week, or when you’re out and about, look out for the first signs of spring. Snowdrops are usually the first spring bulbs to break through. Put food (and possibly more importantly) water out for the birds. This is a difficult time of year for them, with snow and ice making it difficult for them to find food and water. It’s also a great time to notice the migrating geese. They fill the crisp blue winter skies with their enthusiastic honks and beautiful V formations.

Please share your experiences, comments, and feedback to help me with my thesis research. 

Any comments made may be used, in relation to research for my thesis, in full or in part (to highlight keywords/themes etc) but will never be attributed to or recorded in relation to any individual. Any information provided relating to ethnicity, gender or age will be used solely for the purposes of profiling the readership of the blog (to compare against the typical profile of gardeners and mindfulness practitioners).

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Betsy’s Garden is back…..And with a new twist!

 

 

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but I am very excited to say that Betsy’s Garden Blog is back and there’s an exciting new twist to it. For my final year of my Masters Degree (MSc in Mindfulness Studies), the subject of my thesis is “Mindful Gardening: Integrating the benefits of Mindfulness and Gardening through a mindful gardening blog”. There is a substantial body of writing and research on the benefits of gardening and also on the benefits of mindfulness, for both physical and mental health, but to date, there has not been a lot of research specifically on the benefits of combining the two. So, starting from the hypothesis that both gardening and mindfulness are beneficial to health and wellbeing, Betsy’s Garden blog will invite you to experience mindfulness in the context of gardening. I’ll invite you to share your experience via comments on the blog. I will also be recording my own experience of using the blog as a way to share mindful gardening. Mindfulness concepts and practices will be introduced progressively with each new blog. Don’t worry, you don’t need to have practiced mindfulness before, or to be a gardener or even to have a garden, in order to share in the practice. The garden context is open to personal interpretation and can be as real or virtual as you want it to be. This is experiential research so all I ask is that you experience and embody the practices with curiosity and with an open, or beginners, mind. There is no right or wrong answer, no right or wrong way, there is just experience and reflection. It’s useful to keep a journal (or notes on your phone or tablet) to capture your reflections and to record your own mindful gardening journey. In my own experience, it can be an enlightening experience and a real joy to read the journal back and to see progress made, challenges overcome and to witness moments of insight and wisdom. Whilst there is no obligation to share or to comment, I’d be grateful for anything shared (in comments on the blog) to help in my research (solely for my thesis). You are invited, when posting feedback or comments, to put in brackets, age and/or gender (to see how the readership of the blog compares to the typical profile of gardeners and mindfulness practitioners), but there is no obligation to add anything in addition to the comments or feedback.  Any comments made may be used, in relation to research for my thesis, in full or in part (to highlight keywords/themes etc) but will never be attributed to or recorded in relation to any individual. Any information provided relating to ethnicity, gender or age will be used solely for the purposes of profiling the readership of the blog (to compare against the typical profile of gardeners and mindfulness practitioners).  In order to comply with research ethics, that highlighted statement will appear at the bottom of each blog.

The mindfulness practices and concepts that I will introduce through the blog are based on my studies (the University of Aberdeen & The Mindfulness Association, MSc in Mindfulness Studies) and practical training (Mindfulness Association, MBLC {certified Ready to Teach}). In keeping with the structure of the MBLC course, the practices and concepts will be introduced progressively over eight weeks (one blog per week) but will not necessarily follow the content or delivery of the MBLC course. The blog is not intended to deliver a course, but rather to integrate two loves of mine – gardening and mindfulness, through the blog, with the hope that it will bring you joy and benefit you in whatever way it can. Your feedback will help me to understand how you have benefited and will help me in my final writing for my thesis. At the end of the eight weeks, I will provide some links for further reading and learning so you can take your journey forward.

There are many definitions of Mindfulness. In the blog, the definition that I’ll be working with is: Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening, while it’s happening, with acceptance and non-judgment. It’s a way of being. It’s experiential and embodied. It invites us to be present, to notice our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions, to notice when we become distracted and to recognise habits, patterns, and storylines that we run and acknowledge the connection between body and mind. I learned a beautiful analogy in my studies; that mindfulness is like a bird – it has two wings: mindfulness technique or practice and the attitude that you bring. The bird needs both wings to fly.

We’ll look at some of the practices (and concepts) of Mindfulness over the next 8 blogs and I’d encourage you to practice as much as possible.  Mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting (not always, but for simplicity, we’ll say sitting) with the intention to meditate mindfully. It strengthens the mindfulness muscle so that mindfulness can become part of everyday life. We move from doing to being – we don’t do mindfulness, we practice mindfulness so that we can become mindful. For the goal orientated amongst us, our goal (or our intention) is to be mindful. We’ll come back to this, but for now, try to remember that our intention is our last stop base. If nothing else, maintain the intention to be mindful. In terms of attitude – try to bring an attitude of curiosity, acceptance, kindness, gratitude, and non-judgment and to look for the joy in your experience.

I invite you to join me on this path, on a journey, sowing the seeds of mindfulness and watching them grow to create your own beautiful mindful garden in a mindful life.

One of the most significant and exciting things we did in the garden in the last year was to create a new pond. The old pond was very small and badly positioned. It was taking up room in a planting bed, where the space could be better given over to flowers or shrubs, and because it was in an enclosed, raised bed, it was difficult for wildlife, like frogs and toads, to access it easily. The new pond isn’t huge, but it’s definitely big enough to sustain a friendly eco-system for pond life. To supplement it, we added a bog garden as a staging post for fledgling life, offering a place of rest and protection from prey during their first tentative steps outside of the pond. We were fortunate (as were the frogs) that we found a puddle that was full to the brim with frogspawn but was fast drying out, due to lack of rain.   We transported them (in a bucket, which was their home for a couple of days to help them acclimatise to new surroundings) and gradually introduced them into the pond. Weeks later, accompanied by shrieks of delight (from me), we discovered the tadpoles had hatched. There were loads of them. Their slow, gradual metamorphosis from tadpole to froglet to frog was fascinating to witness.

A lot of them left (or were maybe eaten). Some spent some time in the bog garden before heading off (or were maybe eaten) and at least one stayed for good. He (that’s an assumption based on no evidence or knowledge of frog life whatsoever, but he looked like a boy) liked to come out at night; I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the torchlight searchlight cast on him ahead of the nightly dog walk, but it made our night to see him. Occasionally when the sun was really hot, he’d bask on the stones at the side of the pond or peek out from the shade of an overhang. I discovered through those encounters that the markings on frogs are unique – our frog had very different markings to frogs that we saw outside of the garden on nightly meanders.

As the weather turned colder and eventually frosty, he disappeared, but I’m assuming that he’s retreated to the bottom of the pond to hibernate and we’ll hopefully see him again (or hear him during the annual mating rituals) in the fullness of time. Sadly a few late bloomers were still at the late tadpole/early froglet stage when the cold weather hit. I’m not sure what would happen to them but I doubt they’d have enough reserves to see them through hibernation. I subsequently learned that if there are a lot of tadpoles in the pond, their development will be slower than if there are fewer of them or if they are in a bigger pond, as they compete for resources.

When I read that, I recognise that it sounds relaxed and carefree, suggesting I take it as it comes; if he (the frog) reappears again in the Spring, good and well, if not…so be it. If they get eaten, hey that’s nature….but in truth, that’s not me at all. I’m a planner and an organiser (and a bit of a control freak, if truth be told) and that means I have expectations that I really rather prefer to be met. I desperately want that frog to re-emerge in the Spring and to encourage a mate to join him and for them (and others) to produce a new batch of frogspawn for our pond, so the cycle can start all over again and I can learn more and experience the joy and delight I did last year.  If I engage with that expectation, with that storyline, if I hang on to the desire to see the frog re-emerge, I stand a very real chance of being disappointed. Disappointment might give rise to other feelings and emotions, like sadness or despondency and I might respond to those feelings and emotions by deciding not to tend to the pond in future, just in case I’m disappointed. If that scenario plays out it’s likely that I would still feel disappointed, sad and despondent. I’d still be suffering. In fact, I’d be feeding the suffering – feeding a disappointment that hadn’t actually come to fruition and might never do so. However, if I can learn to be aware of my feelings, emotions and the storylines I’m running, I can recognise that if I stop striving and accept that, despite my best efforts, sometimes nature and life will simply follow it’s own unforeseen course and I can’t control the outcome with any real degree of certainty, I stop the cycle of suffering. Acceptance begins with awareness.

In today’s blog, I’m going to introduce mindfulness practice or meditation to cultivate awareness. A lot of the time we are running on autopilot, rushing through our day not really aware of what’s going on in the outside world or in our internal world. By becoming more aware, our external experience becomes richer, engaging all our senses to interact with the outside world. We learn to recognise when we become distracted (which is probably more often than you realise), how certain things make us feel, what sensations they give rise to, what thoughts and emotions they stir. We learn to understand what the triggers are and how we respond. Are we running familiar storylines, conditioned responses, entrenched patterns, and habits? Awareness is the beginning of creating space to choose how we respond to what is going on around us. This practice will set the basis for mindfulness practice, help us to become more present and to cultivate our awareness.

If you’re going to keep a journal (or a record of your journey), it might be useful to jot down how you feel before the practice and any comments about what you hope to get from the practice.

Practice One: Mindful Awareness

Find somewhere to sit (or stand if you prefer or if it’s easier), where you have access to plants or trees – they can be in your garden, in a public garden, at the side of the road on your way to work or in woodland when you’re walking the dog or indoors on a window shelf. If you’re outside, make sure you’re warm. The body’s temperature can drop when you’re relaxed. Try to find a time when you won’t be disturbed or where there aren’t too many obvious distractions. Eventually, you will be able to do this amidst the hubbub of a normal day (it’s like carving out a tranquil space in the midst of chaos), but in the beginning, it’s better to limit the surrounding stimuli. Adopt a posture that is relaxed but alert – you’re not looking to nod off or switch off, you’re looking to be aware of what’s going on. You can close your eyes if you prefer, but if you can, try to keep your eyes open with a soft (blurry) focus. Set an intention to practice mindfulness (maybe say to yourself “my intention is to practice mindfulness, to the best of my ability in each moment”. Beginning every practice with posture and an intention sets the scene. It says I’m here and I’m ready and I’m engaged. That’s a great start. Then take a moment to find your motivation for the practice and say to yourself something like “my motivation for practicing is to learn to become more aware of my surroundings and my feelings and emotions, to learn to recognise them, for my benefit and for the benefit of others with whom I come into contact”. This motivation will help you to stay with the practice. Gradually become aware of the breath in your body, wherever you find it. Maybe around the nostrils or in the chest or the abdomen. Don’t analyse it, just become aware of it. Breathing a little more deeply than normal, take a few moments to follow the in-breath, in through the nostrils, down through the body, deep into the belly and then gently releasing the breath, notice the out-breath, notice the sound of the out-breath. Do this two or three times…………. Now we’re going to regulate the breathing by making the in-breath and the out-breath the same length. We can do this by counting in to the count of three or four, (pause), and count out to the count of three or four. If you don’t want to count, you can say “Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in, (pause), breathing out, I know I’m breathing out”. Follow your breathing and the counting. Do that five or six times. If you notice that thoughts arise, that’s ok. In fact, that’s natural, there are thoughts running through our minds all the time. Just notice that you’ve become distracted and gently bring your attention back to the breathing and the counting. It doesn’t matter how often you do that, just keep bringing your awareness back……….. Now focus more on the out-breath, noticing how the body relaxes a little more with every out-breath. Do this a couple of times then gradually let your breathing fall back into a natural rhythm and let go of the counting. Become aware of your body, sitting on the seat or your feet standing on the ground. Notice any sensations in the body. If you find yourself distracted by thoughts, just bring your attention back to the body and notice any sensations or feelings or emotions that might be present. Don’t analyse them, just be aware of them. Notice where feelings and emotions give rise to sensations in the body. Where do you feel certain feelings and emotions in the body? What do those sensations feel like?………..  If you have your eyes closed, gently open them and allow your senses to take in their surroundings. Bring your attention to the plant or the tree and really notice what the plant looks like (colour, shape, size, any flowers, spikes and so on), reach out and notice what the plant feels like (if it’s spiky be careful touching it, hold your hand slightly away from the plant and notice if you feel any heat or sensation from the plant), if you can, rub the leaves and notice any texture. Lean in and smell the plant, noticing any difference in smell between any flowers and leaves, notice the smell of the earth that the plant sits in. Notice how the smell intensifies if you rub the leaves in your fingers. If it’s a herb, you can always try a taste, but be cautious about eating any part of the plant if you’re at all unsure how edible it is. Notice any sound as the wind moves through the plant. Let your attention move out beyond the edges of the plant. Notice how it fits into its surroundings and become aware of the space around the plant, the space that helps to define it. Notice your own body in relation to the plant, your body supported by the ground, the plant supported by the earth. Become aware of your whole body and the space around your body. Remember, if thoughts arise, bring your attention back to your body, resting on the ground, supported by the earth……… Now let go of any intention to meditate and just do nothing. Simply rest where you are for a few moments. To conclude the practice, we dedicate the practice. You might like to say something like “I dedicate this practice to the joy of mindful presence and awareness, for my benefit and for the benefit of others”……. Slowly get up if you’re sitting and stretch, taking the benefits and any learnings from the practice with you as you go about the rest of your day.

You might want to make a note in your journal (paper or tablet/phone) about anything that you would like to record about the practice, maybe noting down feelings, emotions, sensations, where you felt them in your body and what they felt like – describe them, so that you might recognise them again.

Try to do the practice once a day for a week. and note down any changes that you notice, and how that makes you feel.

Try to notice a new plant, tree, colour, texture, sound….when you’re in the garden or out and about, every day. Engage all your senses. (In the event that you can’t get out, look out the window and notice how the sky changes colour, the variation of blue or greys, the changing cloud formations, the gradual dwindling of daylight as night falls and notice any stars and how they move and interact with one another). When writing in your journal, maybe head the page up “I am grateful today to have noticed…….” and record any feelings, emotions or sensations associated with that noticing.

Please feel free to share, comment or feedback in the comments.

Not to forget the gardening, even at this time of year there are a few things that you can do that will reap benefits now and later in the year: so this week, remove any leaves that have gathered around plants, to prevent clogging and rotting. You can use the branches from the, now redundant, Christmas tree to cover delicate plants that are not frost hardy (if they are too big to move indoors or if you don’t have a greenhouse or other place to move them to).  If you do have a greenhouse, now is the time to clean it out. This ensures any pests and diseases are cleared out and not passed on to new seedlings. You can still plant spring bulbs now too. I stagger bulb planting from November right through to January so that the bulbs come up in stages, giving you flowers for longer. Just make sure it’s not going to be frosty on the day that you plant them. You should also check birdboxes, cleaning them out where necessary or making repairs, or take this as an opportunity to put up some new birdboxes so that the birds can start to choose potential nesting sites for later (or to use them for roosting over winter). Happy Mindful gardening!

I hope you enjoy the blog and the practice. Please feel free to feedback and comment.

(Next blog will go out on Sunday 20th January)

Posted in awareness, betsysgarden, bird box, birds, blog, bulbs, garden, gardening, grateful, gratitude, greenhouse, inspiration, January, journal, journey, learning, meditation, mindful, mindfulness, outdoors, pests, planting, pond, practice, seeds, spring, sunflower, thesis, winter | 5 Comments

New beginnings. A fresh perspective.

This is the first blog on Betsy’s Garden for 2017 and the first after quite a few months with no posts. I have been travelling with work between Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris for the last few months and I’m now back home, just in time for the arrival of Spring and to get stuck in to what is undoubtedly the busiest time in the garden. Quite literally, what I sow now, I will reap later. No sowing…no reaping, so no time to waste!

I didn’t order seeds this year. It’s usually part of my annual gardening calendar and the excitement associated with selecting the seeds and eagerly awaiting their delivery, has been sadly missed. However, I was unsure where I’d be and how much time I’d have to spend on the garden, so it was a sensible, if somewhat out of character, decision. Luckily, I have, in reserve, from previous seed buying sprees, lots of seeds that are still good to use and, if I’m honest, could keep me in seeds for years without having to buy any new ones.

I am lucky that the garden is fairly well established, so it does, to some extent, take care of itself over the winter months. It shuts down, goes into a sort of hibernation. Apart from moving the delicate plants into the greenhouse for over wintering and general tidying and maintenance, if you’re going to be away from your garden, the winter is the time to do that. dsc_0937The hardest job in the winter garden is keeping up with the hungry demands of the birds who seem to empty the feeders a lot quicker than I can fill them up.

I missed the garden when I was away and I found myself craving time outdoors. My apartment was close to the river and was a lovely brisk walk from the centre of town. The Liffey is a compact river as it flows around the city. It seems to breath life into the city, providing a near constant activity and hustle and bustle.

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For me, it was a marker. I knew where I was, in an uncharted city, depending on where I was in relation to the river. It was my compass, my North Star. If in doubt, find the Liffey and go from there. Dublin has plenty of beautiful gardens, in and around the town centre. They became my temporary gardens. I’m not sure if it’s because the gardens are surrounded by buildings on all sides, creating a confusing micro-climate, but the Autumn colours that I’m so used to seeing never really seemed to take hold. I did consider that there might be someone going around painting the autumn colours back to vibrant green, but I think that was probably unlikely. What the Winter season limited in terms of flowers and colour, was made up for in the fresh crispness of the air and the regular community of swans, herons, pigeons and small garden birds that had befriended the local population of office workers whose offices were privileged enough to sit atop these beautiful gardens.

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I became fascinated by the ways in which people managed to create outdoor space and gardens in the tiniest of spaces and in the most unusual ways, overcoming whatever difficulties the infrastructure or the climate created. In Dublin, they love a balcony. Virtually every apartment in town had a balcony of sorts. Most were put to primarily either functional use, for example drying clothes, or recreational use, like sitting watching the sun cast it’s last rays of winter sun over the Liffey. However, in almost all of them, they had created micro gardens. Pots filled the floor space, a myriad of pots nestled around a table and a couple of chairs and when floor space was full, they moved up and out. Trellis covered walls and pots with hooks that clung on to the edges of the balcony moved the tiny garden upwards and out into the space in front. Bamboo fencing was used to shield the balcony and the people and the precious plants from the harsh prevailing, biting wind. In Paris, balconies were not de rigeur. In their place were window boxes and beautiful french doors and patios that opened out onto a rooftop vista framed by trailing ivy and delicate winter flowers, bolstered by the still warm french winter sun. Roof terraces became wonderful elegant roof gardens, tree lined with clipped box and bay, extending the day further into the night with beautiful lighting, patio heaters and wonderful dining areas. I imagine that Jasmine will fill the air in these roof gardens in the Summer. In Paris, just like Dublin, being without a garden made me realise that there are gardens and green spaces everywhere to be explored and enjoyed. It made me realise how many times I will have passed through or alongside beautiful city gardens using them as nothing more than a route from A to B, or as an all too familiar backdrop. That familiarity masking the true beauty and reality of the freshness of the gardens, taking them for granted, to the point where they become almost invisible. I’d encourage everyone to look for the beauty in the green spaces in and around whatever city they call home and see them with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. I visited the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh last week and put that to the test, delighting in the indulgent expansive garden set in the very heart of the city.

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Back in the garden, the birds are stocking up, both in terms of building up their own reserves (I feel like I am single handedly keeping the bird nuts and seeds industry in business) and gathering the raw materials to make their nests. When we brush Bud we put the fur from his coat into a feeder and the birds use that to line their nests.

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Bud loves getting brushed and the birds need the fur, so everyone is a winner. We cleaned and painted the bird boxes and put them back up in what we call bird box alley, so it’s looking spring fresh. The bird realtors have been round already, eyeing up the houses for prospective inhabitants. There’s been a lot of interest, so no doubt, after a few squabbles, residency will be decided soon. The bird boxes used to be home to Blue tits, but they seem to have been pushed out by the Great tits in the last couple of years and it looks like they are the most interested parties again this year. We’ve also got a couple of Robins and Blackbirds living in and around the evergreen bushes at the back fence.

Unfortunately, there has still been no interest in the bird box that we put up amongst the trailing ivy. It’s set low to attract the likes of robins (and hopefully wrens) and the ivy has rather obligingly grown thick around the box, providing shelter and protection,dsc_0912but it still doesn’t seem to be piquing the interest of any prospective home owners. I think it might be facing the wrong direction and by that I mean as per the compass, as opposed to the entrance hole facing inwards towards the fence rather than outwards ;-). I saw an unusual robin; unusual in that it had a yellow/orange beak as opposed to the usual brown/grey beak. I looked it up and it seems to be an American Robin. Maybe their taste in houses will be different to the local Robins. Hopefully they’ll see merit in the ivy clad house and move in. I do suspect, however, that he might just be passing through and is unlikely to hang around long enough to look for a house. An unusual addition to the bird feeders this year is the chaffinch. They have never fed from the feeders here before, but they are here in numbers this year, adding to the already overwhelming demand on the feeders from the blue, great and coal tits. Then, to top it all off….this morning I noticed what I thought was the Robin who has become a frequent visitor at the patio doors, darting around the edge of the doors, picking up small nuts. Wrong! It was a mouse. Now, for all intents and purposes, a mouse is just like a cute ground dwelling bird, right?…wrong! I can’t explain why, but having a cute little robin bob around your patio doors is one thing but having a “cute” little mouse, scurrying around your patio doors is quite something else. I can’t explain it, but one I like and the other, I don’t. As if that isn’t bad enough, I thought he looked unusual. He had big ears, like Jerry from Tom and Jerry. He was a cartoon mouse. I looked him up…..eewww…..he’s a house mouse. Not a field mouse. A house mouse! (This is a picture from a pest control site). I’m hoping that he’s interested in the ivy clad house, outside on the fence. I don’t fancy the idea that he’s free-loading here in the house with us. I might paint a little arch doorway on the ivy clad house – just like the one in the skirting board in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, to lure him in.

All of this has got me thinking and planning for the garden. I’d like to make more use of the fence space that we have and I’d like to make or create more space for planting more vegetables. I’m going to try to come up with some ideas to create space where there is none and to creatively use existing space better. That’s one of my challenges for the garden for this year. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, I’ll finish off with a couple of pictures of the first glimpses of spring in the garden which provide more than enough inspiration to get out into the garden and to make the most of it.

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So happy to be asked to be a guest blogger for Gardeningknowhow

I love #gardeningknowhow and I am just so pleased to have been asked to be a guest blogger. Check it out if you get a chance and please feel free to like or leave a comment. B x

http://blog.gardeningknowhow.com/guest-blogg…/betsys-garden/

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Someone tell the weather the clocks have gone forward

Fall back, Spring forward. That’s how I remember it. In Spring, we turn the clocks forward an hour. We lose an hour in our bed and for a few weeks it’s a little darker again in the mornings, but the big upside is the lighter nights. It’s the start of that magical journey, the unfurling of summer, where our days lengthen and our nights shorten. It invites memories of summer barbecues and picnics. You start to feel the hint of heat, to dream of warm balmy evenings in the garden, the pop or hiss of a bottle and the click woosh of that incredible invention, the widget. However, it hasn’t panned out like that. I think someone forgot to tell the weather that we put the clocks forward. We have caught the odd, fleeting glimpse of summer but mostly we have remained in the dark, cold, wet and even snowy clutches of winter. The winds have howled and snow, sleet and rain have played a rather bleak soundtrack in the garden.

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Whilst the weather may not be playing the tunes of impending summer, the birds and the plants in the garden most definitely are and we even had a very early first bee sighting. Apparently they are warm blooded so the feisty Queen can get an early start on the Spring flowers. DSC_0167We’ve also had the first bee save of the year. They fly into the greenhouse when the doors are open or in through the vents and can’t find their way back out. I discovered a very good use for the fly swat – the tired bee climbs onto it and you can gently transport her out into the open air. As the Summer heats up that becomes a fairly regular job in the greenhouse, especially when the pumpkin and cucumber flowers open up. The bees go crazy for them.
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DSC_0898It’s March/April in the garden now. The spring bulbs are hardy creatures, almost thug like in their disregard for the weather. Pushing their way through hard, frost cracked ground, bringing light and cheer and colour to the garden.

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New shoots and new growth are appearing everywhere and there’s even a flash of delicate rhubarb pink as the crown tentatively emerges from the earth. I’m never very sure exactly where it is during it’s hibernation stage when it retreats fully beneath the surface, invisible except as a memory so when I’m planting bulbs, it’s inevitable that some of them will come up in and around the rhubarb. DSC_0904I speculate that’s how rhubarb and custard was inspired because the beautiful pink of the rhubarb goes so well with the bright yellow of the daffodils.

I toyed with the idea of taking the overwintering plants out of the greenhouse and into their place in the garden but I thought it probably needed to warm up a little more first. However, whilst breaking that news to the globe artichokeDSC_0157 I spotted some rather plumpcious greenfly free-loading on it’s stalks. The heat in the greenhouse alone (it’s heated to around 5 – 7 degrees just to take the chill off and prevent frost damage) wouldn’t be enough for them to hatch but combined with a couple of days of (albeit weak and cool sun) streaming through the windows, it was enough to kickstart the hungry monsters. The decision thereafter was easy – the globe artichoke was moved outside and given a thorough soaking of garlic solution and the Gunnera, Mexican orange, lemon plant and fig were all taken outside and given a similar dousing. The Gunnera was moved into it’s outside position, the Mexican orange was given a slightly sheltered position near to the side of the greenhouse and the lemon and fig were fully inspected for signs of insect life and once given the all clear, allowed back inside the greenhouse. Thankfully, the greenfly were spotted early and dealt with but all surfaces in the greenhouse were washed down with a soapy solution and any greenhouse plants or seedlings were given a delicate skoosh of garlic solution as a preventative measure.

Talking of seeds and seedlings, the greenhouse is already a hive of activity with the first planting of seeds having sprouted very well and most of them have been potted on as seedlings. Once they get a true pair of leaves (rather than just the seedling leaves) I’ll sow the next batch of seeds to ensure a good, steady succession of plants. The idea is to avoid a glut through over sowing and to avoid a famine due to under sowing. You’re just never sure how many of the seeds are going to sprout so it’s best to wait until they have moved onto the seedling stage before sowing some more. The potatoes have also chitted so they’ll be ready for planting into the potato bags very soon.

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Revisiting this blog a few weeks later, we’re now in late April and the tentacles of winter are still reaching out and reigning in the full promise of summer. Snow on the 30th April!?? What’s that all about?

There have been a few casualties – the Gunnera in particular has not taken well to the cold, the wind, the rain and the snow. His leaves have been frosted. They are tinged brown and have all but dried up and fallen off. The stems, however, are still plump and fresh looking and the corm looks pink and healthy, so hopefully he’ll recover from this setback and will bloom bright again once he gets a bit of heat in him. Unfortunately, he was too big to move back into the greenhouse and, to be honest, the damage was done at the first overnight drop in temperature, so there wasn’t much point in moving him back in, after Jack Frost had already bitten him.

Pink and red are becoming the predominant colours as the yellow from the daffodils and primulas begin to fade. The rhubarb is looking great – the pink and red really stand out against the brown earth and he’s taking back ownership of his spot in the garden. He’s got a lovely relationship with the daffodils. Having shared the space with them, letting them showcase the space as he quietly and slowly emerged from under the ground, as they start to die back, he unfolds in all his glory, filling the space where the daffodils once were.

DSC_0903The tulips have burst open too. They’re a beautiful translucent pink tinged with a hint of red and they contrast beautifully with the last flush of daffodils and complement the candy pink of the mossy saxifrage. Little speckles of blue from the forget me nots and white from the candytuft offer a cool vista along the edges or borders and under the Willow a little pocket of blue and white has emerged in the shape of hyacinth and the delicate and striking striped squill.

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In the Greenhouse, there is a hive of activity. The sunflowers, peas, sweet peas, cucumbers, basil and mint have all been potted on and are thriving. More seeds have been planted to ensure good succession. I would have started to harden some of them off by now but can’t take the risk of another overnight frost. I’ll need to wait for more settled temperatures before I start to move them out. DSC_0878As a result, the greenhouse is looking a little crowded but that’s okay. DSC_0882It’s only temporary. The fig has put on a beautiful early show of flamboyant leaves and some early fruit. It’s the best he’s ever looked. I gave him a top dressing of blood fish and bone at the
beginning of the growing season and it seems to have done the trick. The lemon plant, on the other hand, has lots of nice new growth but any fruits that form quickly drop off. I suspect I’m over watering him and he probably didn’t take too kindly to his garlic bath designed to rid him of any sign of greenfly. I’ll keep an eye on him and hopefully as the weather warms up he’ll settle down and can hang on to some of his fruit. The tea plant is looking lush with lots of new growth.

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Finally, the birds have settled their property differences and have moved in – great tits into the long birdhouse and blue tits into the short birdhouse. Still no residents in the small birdhouses (I think they are just too small and the roof style doesn’t offer as much protection as the other houses). They have been collecting Bud’s fur from the fat cake feeder and from the little clump of fur I tucked into the willow tree, DSC_0702to line their nests, having cleaned out the old fur and tumble dryer lint that they used last year. DSC_0147

 

 

 

 

Bud loves getting his coat brushed and the birds love the fur so everyone’s a winner. We’ve noticed a blackbird flying backwards and forwards with next building materials. We’re not sure exactly where the nest is being built but we suspect it’s in the ivy that covers the fence at the front of the house. It’s a nice dense thicket and a quiet spot. We also suspect that the great tits have moved back into the chinese pot at the front door, that they used last year.
We haven’t seen them in it yet, but we’ve almost been caught in the flightpath as we’ve come out of the front door as a bird is coming in to land. In one swift move it pulls the throttle up and rises up into the air again, a collision averted. One last comment in relation to birds. The wood pigeons, who are the rabbits of the bird world – they seem forever to be engaged in mating rituals, chasing each other relentlessly around the garden, displayed some bizarre behaviour when they were caught in a particularly harsh hail storm. DSC_0273At first they puffed themselves up, as you’d probably expect them to, but then they lifted their wings at right angles to their bodies so that the hail drilled down onto the exposed underside of their wings and bodies. I can only speculate as to why (I’ve searched and can’t find an explanation) – maybe they liked the sensation of the hail on them, the equivalent of a wood pigeon massage? Or maybe it was a chance to get a good old deep clean in areas usually hard to reach? If anyone has any thoughts or ideas, I’d love to hear them.

I’d like to leave you by wishing you Happy Beltane! It’s the 1st of May and there is a heady hint of Hawthorn in the air. The May trees are late to blossom here this year, but that perfume on the wind tells you the blossom is coming and hopefully that means Summer is not far off.

 

 

 

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Wishing you all happy Imbolc. Hope Springs eternal

Well it’s blowing a hooly outside today as storm Gertrude blows us towards the end of what has been a challenging month for the garden and for many of us too. Mild temperatures at the beginning of the month fooled us, the plants and the birds into thinking that Spring had arrived early. As we consigned big coats and jackets to the attic in favour of lighter windbreaks, the bulbs planted at the end of November and early December started to spring up through the warm earth and the birds started to squabble early over residency of the bird boxes.DSC_0111DSC_0238However, by mid-month, the temperatures had plummeted and brought traditional winter scenes of fresh crisp snow, followed by icy rain and biting winds. Coats, hats, gloves and snow boots were rescued from the murky depths of the attic ready to brave the elements and to make the first snowmen and snow angels of the season. I’m sure if it had been possible, the poor early shoots would have ducked back under the earth for cover. But they are hardy little blighters those early spring bulbs. I actually think a little nip of frost does them good – seems to embolden them to become stronger and more vibrant. It’s also good for the rhododendrons and azaleas to get a frosty bite. It makes them develop flowers as opposed to just putting on lots of new leaf growth, so long as they don’t get too wet in the early months of the year. In some parts of the country, terrible floods have ravished homes never mind gardens so we should be thankful that when we think conditions are tricky, someone somewhere is having to contend with an awful lot worse. Hopefully as we approach the beginning of February, the whiff of Spring will not be too far off. Other than clearing and weeding and general maintenance around the garden, January is a quiet time for the gardener. A time to ponder, reminisce and to plan ahead. It is that magical time in the garden calendar when seeds are bought or delivered and plans are hatched and virtual pots and beds are sown in the heads of every gardener. There is genuine excitement when the seed packets arrive. They are like little packets of hope and aspiration, they represent a journey that can lead to success and abundance, surprise and joy. Yes, there will be failures and disappointment but with those little packets of jewels as yet unopened, anything and everything is still possible.

DSC_0143I’m continuing the theme of quality over quantity again this year with heritage varieties high on the agenda. I’m also planning to make the greenhouse more productive with more regular succession sowing and to make room for flowers in the greenhouse to add some variety of colour and scent. Companion planting is another theme, so I’ll be growing herbs like basil and mint and marigolds alongside tomatoes and cucumber to naturally deter aphids.  Given the success and the joy of the sprouts at Christmas, I’m planning to grow the potatoes, sprouts and parsnips for Christmas Dinner 2016. I’m also looking forward to the challenges (and rewards) that the likes of the lemon tree and my exciting gift of a tea plant, that I got for Christmas, will bring.DSC_0240 DSC_0246

A final theme for this year will be to record and catalogue the variety of bees that visit the garden. I’m hoping to photograph each variety and record their numbers, habits and their preferences. I read that bees are warm blooded so they can venture out fairly early in the year, so I need to get organised for their arrival. I’m excited to see which variety is first to wake from it’s winter slumber.

Finally, I wanted to share a picture that suggests I’ve successfully grown cotton. However, whilst the photo on the left is in fact a cotton plant (photographed at Gardening Scotland in summer 2015), the one on the right is actually little blobs of snow atop the seed heads of a dill plant, taken at night in the garden. I’ll maybe need to try that one for real?

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Well, as we speak, we find ourselves having passed through January and in the 1st of February. The 1st of February is Imbolc. Originally a Pagan festival to honour the Goddess Brigid. It falls roughly half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Folklore has it that if the weather is fine on Imbolc the remainder of winter will be long. If it’s a foul day then winter will be shorter. Fingers crossed for a foul day. To mark the day you can make a Brigid cross or a Brigid doll (called a Brideog). Candles and fires are lit to represent the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun.Well, today is the 1st of February and the weather is indeed foul. Here’s to a short run into Spring.

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That’s a wrap!

What a wonderful year in the garden 2015 turned out to be. There’s a simple pleasure in every flower that blooms, every bird, animal or insect that takes the time to visit and in the beauty of nature as the seasons wind their way through the unfolding year. It’s hard work trying to create the right conditions and to provide the correct nutrients for your plants, and all gardens are, to some degree, at the mercy of the weather and nature to provide the right amounts of natural light, heat and water. But the hard work is repaid with rewards that exceed the opulence of the produce or the beauty of the blooms. Bearing witness to the creation and unfolding of life in the garden is amazing and mesmerising. It was great to be able to give the pumpkins a helping hand. DSC_0345In some cases, the results are none the less sweet when nature has been left to her own devices and produces something surprising or unexpected. For example, the beautiful wild varieties of foxglove that appeared as a result of self sewn seeds and the ranunculus that weren’t planned but simply appeared one day as if by magic. I had no idea what they were until they flowered.

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There were three themes for the garden for 2015. One was quality not quantity, favouring heritage varieties over bulk producing or “guaranteed” varieties, looking for fulsomeness of flavour and scent, showcasing the unusual and tackling the difficult, the tricky and the fickle. The second theme was a desire to create a wildlife haven – a place where the birds, bees, insects and pond creatures would want to either take up full-time residency or simply pay a fleeting visit and the third theme was to create a garden that was a delight to be in, that caught your interest, that made you want to visit again, that raised questions and piqued your curiosity, regardless of the season or the weather. Looking back over the pictures and the memories from 2015, there’s lots to suggest that the garden has lived up to its ambitious brief; bees and butterflies in abundance (so many different varieties of bees – I am so fascinated with this after my observations in 2015 that in 2016 I’m going to catalogue the different varieties of bees that visit the garden), the lovely frogs and toads that have had the good grace to live in a pond that is rather too small to fit the brief of pond but it seems to have done the trick despite its size, DSC_0505 DSC_0470

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the incredible and dazzling display of birds: from the excitement of catching a glimpse of the shy wren that looks like a mouse darting around the garden, the familiarity of the incessant and cheeky chirping of the blue tits and great tits as they bicker over residency of the bird boxes and feeding rights at the bird feeders and the brazen confidence of the Robin sitting stubbornly outside the patio doors to highlight the need for seeds. They are all wonderful DSC_0365and along with the mafiesque wood pigeons in their buttoned up starched collars and ties, are familiar figures in the garden, but the most exotic (and unexpected) feathered visitor of 2015 was the blue eared starling who had escaped from an aviary. DSC_0096He shone like a rare jewel and coveted interest from passers by, initially drawn in by his unusual clipped call as he tried to find the mate he’d left behind at the aviary. He was the talk of the dog walk. Finally, a highlight of the year was the sharing of the garden and the fantastic response from people and the shared learning and understanding and swapping of stories and tips. In 2015 I entered a photo competition run by #Gardeningknowhow (photo of a heritage cucumber called Crystal Apple). I won! DSC_0209It wasn’t the winning that was the best bit – the best bit was the opportunity it gave me to interact with other gardeners, to find myself in amongst gardeners gardening in different conditions and with different challenges and triumphs but with a shared passion and interest. I also entered the West Lothian Gardens Competition and won a bronze award. The plaque hangs proud on the back fence and glints in the sun. IMG_3377It’s a nod and testament to hard work but again, that’s not the best bit; the best bit was becoming part of a family of local gardeners, each working hard and succeeding in their own way, each sharing their successes and failures, trials and errors, being able to share their gardens, to learn and grow through their knowledge and experience.

The tail end of 2015 was a busy time in the garden – clearing, cleaning and preparing. Bulb planting, over-wintering of delicate plants, the sheer delight of ordering the seeds for 2016, and the simple pleasure of providing the sprouts for Christmas Dinner.
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A great end to a great year in the garden. I’m full of anticipation as we start 2016.

 

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