My column for the June 2019 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
My husband spent a large part of last summer turning our lawn emerald green.
He rolled and mowed and fed the grass so much that our lawn started to resemble the top of a billiard table. Although he had yet to implement the stripes pictured on grass seed and feed packets, that gave him something to aim for this summer. The man in B&Q didn’t know whether he was being serious when he asked for a pack of the stuff that makes your grass grow in stripes.
But now I’ve thrown a spanner in his lawnmower’s works by informing him that, according to The Guardian, the single best thing he can do for our garden’s ecology is to mow only once a month to a height of no less than 10cm (4 inches).
“How can you tell it’s 10cm?” asked my daughter, never having operated a lawnmower in her life. She was ready to lend him her ruler.
Apparently if we resist the lure of the lawnmower, without any further action on our part, our grass will naturally transform itself into a wildflower meadow, benefiting birds, bees and other insects.
So while the other man’s grass may be greener, my husband can claim the moral high ground, environmentally speaking. He’ll also have more time to sit in a deckchair enjoying the sights, scents and sounds of flourishing flowers and wildlife.
And at least our deckchairs are green and stripey.
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As I plug in the second four-way electric extension lead on my desk, I wonder how I can need so much electricity to write my blog. Despite the blazing sunshine outside, it’s always a bit shady in my small-windowed Cotswold cottage, so three of the eight sockets are for lamps, feeding my passion for task-focused lighting, rather than a bright ceiling lamp. One desklamp spotlights my computer, the other two perch, uplighting, on the piano behind me. But what are the other five sockets for?
Well, there’s the handset for the landline – one of four dotted about the house. Who’s prepared to put up with a single, wall-mounted phone these days? They’re so last century. There’s a computer charging lead, because (I hope) my netbook’s one-hour battery life will expire before my ideas do. My mobile charger is in permanent residence on my desk. If I put my tiny phone anywhere else for it’s overnight recharge, I’ll have forgotten where I put it by the morning. Those 1980s brick cellphones did have one upside: you’d never be able to mislay them. Ditto my iPod and camera rechargers. Yes, I could zap them both via a USB port, but they’d get in the way when I’m typing.
So eight sockets it is, then. But in this energy-conscious age, isn’t this rather a dissolute way to operate? Having avoided battery-operated toys as far as possible for my small daughter, I appear not to practise what I preach. So yes, I do feel guilty.
But at last redemption is in sight, for we’ve ordered solar panels for our roof. Embracing 21st century technology with a vengeance, we’ll soon be generating as much energy as we can use. In fact, more – and the surplus will be fed into the National Grid. So I’ll be able to beaver away at my netbook with a completely clear conscience.
And it’s not just the desktop gadgets that will be getting extra use. Washing machine, dishwasher, cooker, food processor – all of these will be buzzing away whenever the fancy takes us. True, I’ll no longer have an environmentally-sound excuse for avoiding hoovering and ironing. I might even buy a tumble drier – though it will take years to erode my conscientious objection to this alternative to garden wind-power. And hot baths will no longer be a rare, guilty treat instead of power-saving showers.
So the only finite energy resource that I’ll be tapping in future will be my own. I don’t think I can get an electrical hook-up from the solar panels to my brain, recharging the electrical impulses that zap round between the neurons. So I’ll just have to look out for a suitably recharging hat. Now, where did I put that solar topi?
Overnight my garden has had a makeover. When I opened the bedroom shutters this morning, I discovered my garden had turned green.
I should have anticipated this transformation last night, when I went out to collect some firewood from the shed and heard an unfamiliar noise on the conservatory roof: a soft, persistent drumming. I was given a clue as to its identity: wet slippers.
It was a very welcome sound, not least because it meant it was no longer cold enough for snow. There followed the rush of relief that a cloudburst must bring to drought-ridden nations. I told myself briskly not to be melodramatic – in my case, the arrival of rain was hardly a life-saver.
Even so, the sight of a verdant garden this morning was a delight after weeks of the monochrome of snow. For a moment I was Dorothy, opening the door of her black-and-white house, air-lifted by the Kansas tornado, to find the glorious technicolour land of Oz. I’d forgotten how green my garden could be in the middle of winter. Yes, there are rusting remains of sweetcorn and sunflower stalks, but these are eclipsed by bright and copious ivy, glossy grass and the ever-optimistic leaves of spring bulbs.
The experience felt like a mini Winterval celebration, a welcome reminder in the darkest depths of December, at the time of the shortest nights, that the sun will return. It’s surely no coincidence that this Christmas, amid blanking piles of snow, more people than ever seem to have felt the need to put up colourful outdoor lights. I was no exception.
I began Advent with a string of soft white lights in the apple tree in front of my house. Nothing garish for me, I decided, sifting through B&Q’s festive offerings. But when I got home, I discovered that against an all-white backdrop, my subtle choice was insignificant. I swiftly added some magenta and royal blue Christmas tree baubles to the stark brown branches and was astonished by how many neighbours remarked favourably upon them. Then a few days before Christmas, I decamped from any attempt at good taste and strewed a string of brightly coloured fairy lights over the porch. Along with my candle arch in the living room window and the Christmas tree lights in the old shop window (my house used to be the village post office), these conspired to lift my spirits (and my core temperature) every time I went outside the front door.
When I was a child, we used to make a game of spotting lit-up Christmas trees on the walk home from tea at my grandparents’ houses. I’ve played that game every Christmas ever since, dismissing from my mind any prissy environmentally-friendly thoughts about wasting energy and causing light pollution. (Who wants to stargaze in sub-zero temperatures anyway?) Though caustic about the first one I spotted in mid-November this year, by the time the snow fell I was going out of my way to seek them out.
One night when leaving my sister’s house, I braved ice-packed sidestreets to investigate a glow of near-daylight intensity. I followed the light, magi-like, to the end of a cul-de-sac, where four houses were festooned with enough flashing Santas and prancing reindeer to necessitate 24-hour sunglasses for the residents. It was worth the dangerous detour.
And now, mid-morning, there’s a fine mist descending, the teasing ghost of the snow that’s melted away. As spring steps up to the starting line, all that will be left is a white memory, dwindling to homeopathic strength. By the New Year, we’ll all be sighing nostalgically about how beautiful it was while it lasted, all thoughts of school closures, delayed mail order and car crashes forgotten. But even so, I’ll be very surprised if we’re craving a white Christmas next year. Here’s to colourful New Year!
You don’t need me to tell you that the autumn colours have been fantastic this year. Each day late October, early November, I kept thinking “I really must bring my camera with me next time I’m out”. Everywhere I went, breathtaking treescapes of gold, amber and bronze, dramatic as fireworks, rose out of rich, dark, newly-ploughed hills. Then, overnight, they disappeared. Strong winds stripped the trees bare, leaving muddy heaps of compost at their feet. It was as if a herbicidal maniac had been on the rampage. Suddenly it was winter. The clocks had gone back. And it was dark.
My sense of loss at this overnight tragedy made me less dismissive than I might otherwise have been when a day or two later I spotted my first Christmas tree of the year in the front window of a house near my mum’s. Not only had the occupants put the tree up on the wrong side of Remembrance Day. They’d also sprayed lavish drifts of fake snow on the windowpanes, as if egging on the winter to do its worst. The shiny red stars and golden bells were a garish echo of the subtle russets and auburns of the departed autumn leaves, but boy, was it a cheery sight.
All at once I found myself looking forward to the rash of Christmas lights that would inevitably follow. Nothing cheers me in winter as much as bright lights. In a former life I must have been a Druid. For the rest of the year, my usual mantra is “Put that light out!” (So maybe I was once an ARP warden?) My husband and daughter treat our household like a Christmas tree all year round, in terms of lighting, and for the rest of the year, I go round turning unnecessary lights off, muttering disapproval. But when it comes to midwinter, I need a burst of light to stop me hibernating.
Certain local routes round here provide a real tonic at this season. Last year, the white-lit Christmas trees, hung proudly like flags above the shops through the centre of Tetbury, were as cheering to me as any Olympic opening ceremony. And who can resist the uplifting annual switching on of the Christmas lights? Passing by the Arboretum, I’ll slow down to savour the “shop window” for the Enchanted Wood, which revitalises bare trees with coloured floodlights. And just a little further down the Bath Road, there’s an ever-growing beacon that takes many by surprise. The first time I passed that way after dark, I was convinced that I was about to come across a major conflagration on the road ahead. I listened out for sirens, but there were none. Rounding the bend, I discovered it was actually just Willesley’s cattery and kennels in all their electric glory. Their furry residents must feel ever festive by Christmas Day.
In the past, I’ve shied away from too lavish a Christmas lighting scheme at my own home. Think Ikea candle arches, and you’ll get the picture. But this year, in the depths of this dark winter, I feel the need to throw caution to the winds. That’s appropriate enough, as my electricity comes from the wind-powered Ecotricity in Stroud. If their profits suddenly go up next quarter, you’ll know the reason why: I’m planning to splash out this year on the festive lighting front. Now, can anyone tell me the best place in Tetbury to buy an illuminated reindeer?
Wishing all Tetbury Advertiser readers a very merry Christmas, and a New Year filled with light. Let it glow, let it glow, let it glow…
(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser)
Keeping a pot plant on your desk is meant to make you more creative, happier and healthier. But if your desk is in an old cottage with small windows and not much natural light, that’s easier said than done.
Especially if you’re not very good with pot plants. I tried hard in my first flat, (light and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows), but I still couldn’t get much more than tradescantia to survive. I once overheard my father saying to a visitor “And this is the area where Debbie tortures plants”.
Not long after that, I had the opportunity to learn from a master of the art of desktop gardening. I went to work in an open-plan office where my desk adjoined that of Gloria. Gloria loved houseplants so much that her desk resembled a small rainforest. She certainly had green fingers: some of the plants were almost as big as she was. Her massive money-plant seemed particularly auspicious, given that this was a sales office. We were a happy and successful team until one day management asked her to cut back a bit on the undergrowth. She took umbrage at this and felled the lot. Things were never quite the same in our office again.
But now I don’t need green fingers because I’ve discovered some fabulously realistic plastic pot plants in Ikea. They are pleasingly tidy, don’t need watering and have a restful, refreshing effect on any room. I’ve just installed a pair of them on the windowsill above my desk. Whenever I glance up from my work, they almost seem to smile back at me. I’m so taken with them that I think I’ll invest in a few more. One for the bathroom, two for the kitchen, then maybe I’ll move onto the bedroom.
But not yet. This weekend my gardening efforts will have to be redirected out of doors. I’ve a conservatory full of vegetable plants, thanks to the Gardening Club’s recent sale, and they all need to be transferred to the garden. I wonder if Ikea makes convincing plastic vegetables? They’d be so much easier to maintain. But hang on, with the barbecue summer the weather forecasters have got lined up for us, they might melt. And in any case, I’d never get them past the judges on Show Day.
This post was first published in the June 2010 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.