Thursday, March 26, 2015

Cutting, tidying & a 10th anniversary

At this time of year I'm always playing catch-up with my gardening chores as there's just so much to to. I was desperate to get all the pruning done on shrubs and trees before the sap started to rise and my hands are really sore from all the chopping, sawing and pulling which is not good for arthritic hands. Ouch!

I did, however, enjoy taking some photos whilst snipping:

The colourful stems of these dogwoods need to be cut back hard each Spring to encourage them to produce their brightly coloured new growth which gleam throughout the winter months. The stems you see in this next photo have all grown since I pruned them last March. It's a procedure known as 'stooling' whereby the stems are cut back to within 6" of the ground each year. It is suitable for the more vigourous dogwoods but not for  Cornus 'Midwinter fire' which you can just see peeping through the stems of the red one. That requires a much gentler pruning regime and I haven't pruned it at all this year.



I grow lots of different Buddleias and I delay pruning some of them to spread the flowering season so that there's still lots of lovely nectar left for the butterflies and insects well into the autumn. As this part of the garden get battered by strong winds, I'd already reduced the height of this one by 1/3 in Autumn to reduce wind-rock which can disturb the roots.

It doesn't matter that they are already sprouting leaves, which often happens in a mild spell, as a good hard pruning encourages the stems to produce bigger flowers.

I took a moment to admire the beautiful bark.

I took this one down to a framework of about 15".

One of the benefits of all this pruning is that you get lots of woody sticks you can use to prop up plants in the borders instead of using bamboo canes (as long as the stems aren't bendy they are ideal). Here's my selection of brightly coloured stems together with 2 brown ones which look like small trees but are in fact the stems of cardoons which you can see here to the right of the gazebo as you look at it.

Of course, being immersed in the garden I spotted loads of weeds, some of which required eviction immediately before they set seeds and wreaked havoc amongst the beds. 

May I present public enemy number 1 - bittercress (aka Cardamine hirsuta):

Oh but look at its pretty little leaves and the sweet white flowers I hear you cry. Well, look a bit closer and you'll see 2 brown seedpods forming amongst the flowers. If allowed to ripen, which they do in the blink of an eye, they will scatter themselves far and wide whenever something brushes against them. When ripe, even the slightest touch sends them flying all over the place and they will grow absolutely anywhere!

It's flourished this Winter because the damp conditions suit it perfectly and it's all over the gravel drive as well as the flowerbeds.

Now is also a good time to get rid of the old growth that's been left on plants over winter. Here you can see the lovely fresh green chives peeping through.

It's really easy to pull out the dead stems and I leave them on the flowerbed so that the birds can use them as nesting material. What's left will then go onto the compost heap.

It's a good idea to try and get some of the dead growth out of ornamental grasses such as this Festuca Glauca 'Elijah Blue' before the new growth comes through.

I used my fingers as a comb to remove as much as possible. You can't get it all out but it makes it look much neater.

10th Anniversary

On Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of mum's death, I had a conference call with several people about join dementia research (JDR) in which I had to think and talk about dementia. I really didn't want to take part on that day but I'm glad I did because it made me realise how far things have come since I joined up with ARUK. Things have moved on so much and we talk more openly about dementia.

There were a few Lay Champions on the call and we all spoke about what we'd been doing to promote JDR and everyone had done a great job. I've been to local villages leaving leaflets in doctors' surgeries, sending out my usual newsletter to everyone who's sponsored me, spoken about it whenever I get an opportunity plus visited all the Nursing Homes with EMI Units (for the elderly mentally infirm - I HATE that acronym) in a town nearby. 

What I didn't share with everyone was that I missed out one EMI unit because I just couldn't face going inside. It was the one where mum spent the last few months of her life. I couldn't even drive my car into the car park as I felt a tightness in my chest and the tears welling up so I sat outside in the road trying to compose myself then headed for home. I was shocked that my emotions were still so raw after all this time.

RIP mum.

Another thing I've been thinking about is how our language relating to dementia has changed. By that I mean they way we describe people living with dementia and the words we use. This short video by the Dementia Action Alliance is really thought-provoking and well worth a look.

I have another marathon this weekend and I'm hoping the weather forecast is wrong because at the moment they are predicting wind and rain!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Crochet, cats and compost

A crochet & cat combo

I've done quite a lot on the blanket over the last few days but each time I've tried to lay it out flat on the floor for a photo Tilly has come and helped. So I've abandoned all hope of a full photo for the moment and will just show a couple of views with cat accoutrement!

I wouldn't mind but she has her own special snuggle rug on the chair seat (you can just see it in the photos).

Although she's been with us for 10 months she has shown no inclination to venture outside as she's very timid and still scared of visitors so we decided to let her tell us when she was ready. Recently she's been watching what's going on through the window and seemed to be much more settled so for the last few weeks we've been encouraging her to be brave and come outside just for a short time each day.

I'll let the photos show her journey. She was really scared at first and it took days to get her to even come out onto the patio (with me sitting on the sun lounger with a packet of Dreamies cat treats as encouragement!) and she'd just sit there sniffing the air and looking around.

I'm not sure…….

Here I come…..

…but then again…..

I like it here!

What's that then?

This smells interesting - it's Curry plant so the leaves are aromatic but she spent ages rolling underneath it so there must have been an animal scent there too.

There were lots of nice smells around the stacked wood by the barn

Hmmm, I think mum needs to get some weeding done in this bed!

First close encounter with ducks. Thankfully they quickly established the ground rules between them.

Now she's very keen to come out and we have several outings each day of about 30 minutes at a time. She wanders off and has her own adventures whilst I potter in the garden; then she comes to get me when she's ready to go back inside. Bless her!


Yep, I'm about to extol the virtues of a good compost heap. No, don't yawn, it's an important part of gardening!

For years I've been hoarding pallets (well, a girl can have an obsession other than yarn can't she?) in the hope that someone, ahem Mike, would make me some compost bays. We've only been here 12 years, admittedly a lot of that time was spent renovating the house itself and the garden had to take a back seat, but finally my dream came true and here they are:

They may not look pretty and you probably wouldn't want them in an urban setting but my goodness they are useful! Until now I've had to just create piles behind the barn and because they weren't closed in at all they attracted the ducks and badgers who would rummage through them for worms and make a right old mess. I also have piles of leaves rotting down, a pile of wood chippings which I use as a decorative mulch on some of the flowerbeds in the wilder areas and a pile of horse muck.

You can see I've got 3 bays; one to be left to rot down, the current one that's being built up and one for piling stuff to be sorted into the current heap - oh the luxury!  It's really important to get a good balance of ingredients so things rot down well. Mike puts the grass clippings in the end bay so I can add them to the current heap in layers as grass clipping just form a slimy mush if left in a pile on their own or added all at once.

The first thing I had to do was transfer my existing heap into the first bay. I did this at the beginning of February which was the ideal time as it's got time to finish rotting down before I start using it to dig in when I plant new things. It's really important to turn your compost heap to mix things up and get air into it but it's jolly hard work.

The lower I got into the heap the more worms I found; just look at these lovely composting machines. They help the rotting process by digesting things, which breaks them down, and by moving through the heap thus aerating it too.

But you don't need such a large area to compost things. When we lived in our flat we were lucky enough to have a small garden and I had a wormery just like this. I still chuckle when I remember that the brandling worms came through the post in a polystyrene container! We put all our kitchen waste into the bin together with some plant material and the worms did all the hard work for us. Not only did they produce the most crumbly compost, they also gave us a liquid feed (that's what the tap's for) which I diluted and used for our plants. 

When we moved to our next home the bin was full and I refused to empty it out so the removal men transported it for us. They were both fascinated and horrified when I showed them what was inside!

What do I put on my heap? Lots of things, some you might not have thought about composting. Here are a few things:

- things high in nitrogen such as plant material from the garden for example plant leaves and stems but not perennial weeds or annual weeds with seeds developed. I also add fruit and vegetable peelings and scraps, coffee grounds and tea bags (although not all teabags are compostible). I always have a few comfrey plants in the garden as their leaves speed up the composting process so I add them throughout the summer.

- fibrous materials such as dead and dried plant material and plant stems; but not anything too woody as they take a long time to rot down. If you want to add tougher plant material then you can put it through a shredder to help it to break down faster.

- I used to add rabbit dropping when we kept rabbits and I always add horse manure, egg shells, cardboard (ripped up and wetted) and paper towels.

So why am I showing you a photo of our beautiful pampas grass, taken last summer? Because I left the plumes on all through winter and they looked wonderful but I had to chop them down so that the new growth could come through.

I know that the birds love this sort of material for their nests and so when I'd cut them off I put a pile of them by the compost heap so they can help themselves.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pink parfait

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

I can't write a post without including the sad news that Terry Pratchett died last week. He fought valiantly against his version of Alzheimer's but sadly there was only ever going to be one winner in that battle.

Terry was a fantastic ambassador for Alzheimer's Research UK and following his diagnosis back in 2008 he helped both financially and emotionally to spread the word about the need for research into this devastating disease. He always referred to his condition as "the embuggerence" which I think is such a wonderful word!

Hilary Evans, Director of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

The loss of Sir Terry Pratchett will have a profound effect on both literature and the 850,000 people who live with dementia. Sir Terry’s uniquely witty and affecting announcement of his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s at our 2008 conference will be seen as a watershed moment for all people living with dementia. It engendered huge public awareness of Alzheimer’s and issued a call to arms for society to talk about dementia and take steps towards defeating it. 

Sir Terry’s legacy to dementia research is huge both financially and as an enormous motivation to our supporters and scientists. When he announced the inaugural Terry Pratchett research fellowship in 2010, he insisted on a single word to be engraved on the trophy: “strive”. Our scientists continue to act upon this powerful call, and push forwards with the research that will defeat the condition that took Sir Terry from us. We will miss him.
This is how I choose to remember him; wearing one of my marathon-knitted scarves outside 10 Downing Street on his way to speak to the Prime Minister.

Sophie's Universe grows apace

I've been crocheting like mad trying to catch up with the Sophie CAL (that's a Crochet ALong for those of you unfamiliar with the term). I'm up to week 7 and the CAL is on week 10 so nearly there!

The beauty of being a bit behind is I can see what's coming next which helps in my colour choices. If in doubt I try a small section in different colours. Here I'm deciding between cream and green for the next round - cream won.

I also like to stand back and look at it from a distance to see if the colour sequences please me. Here it is leaning against the small sofa with the curtains in the background.

More colour decisions:

This is where I'm up to now. I love how it's coming together with so much textural interest.

Close-up of a little green leaf.  A flower will be added soon.

In the pink

I've changed my header photo to make it more Spring-like and to remove the political associations as I think we're all going to be heartily fed-up with that soon enough with the election looming large!

The garden has been occupying a huge amount of my time as I try to get all the chores done - pruning back the apple trees/shrubs, tidying the grasses, weeding, checking for damage etc etc. Quite apart from the obvious yellow of the daffodils and white of the snowdrops I've been noticing just how much pink there is about at the moment.

Here's a selection from our garden:

Pretty pink buds of a rhododendron

Pink stems of a euphorbia

The buds on this Euphorbia myrsinnites are tinged with pink

Bergenia (aka Elephant Ears because of it's large glossy leaves!)

A cultivated primrose

Viburnam - the scent is amazing too

The deep pink shoots of Euphorbia Dulcis Chameleon

The marvellous serrated leaves of Melianthus Major

I have lots of running and gardening stuff to share but I'm afraid that will have to wait for another time.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

My first parkrun and how I started running

My first parkrun

I was really excited to be taking part in my first ever parkrun in Tunbridge Wells yesterday because it brought back so many memories of my first ever 5k, at the grand old age of 45, 13 years ago. I'll write about how I started running after I've documented the parkrun whilst it's fresh in my mind (see below).

Alzheimer's Research UK had put out a Press release for the local papers and Mike kindly volunteered to be official photographer for the day. It's hard being the support crew for someone like me who runs marathons but he was more than happy to come along to watch a run which would take me 30 minutes or thereabouts (plus, there was the offer of coffee and cake afterwards in lovely Tunbridge Wells which might have swung it!).

As we'd been told there was limited car parking space at the the Park we decided to leave the car in the town centre and walk there and back which was great because it stretched my legs out a bit. We'd never been to Dunorlan Park and it really is pretty. It was quite chilly first thing with a sharp wind.

People were just starting to arrive and the marshals hadn't set up so we wandered off to find the cafe.

Although there were some lovely smells emanating from the cafe it wasn't open. Mike tried staring through the window looking hopeful but to no avail so we went  to get a closer look at the lake.

There were lots of ducks and Greylag geese chilling out and some very pretty purpley coloured ducks (anyone know what breed they are please?)

Here we have the greater-spotted Redhead sporting her new ARUK vest - I know you can't see it but it was too cold to take my jacket off. Please note the colour co-ordinated capri pants with orange flashes  and my turquoise headband to match the new vest! 

I know I really need a new cap but I can't bear to get rid of this one as it's been worn for almost all of my 42 marathons and of course now it's got my special crochet patches on it to remind me of London marathon 2014

Note also that I'm wearing trail shoes as I'd been advised the course was muddy in parts.

We loved the shapes of these amazing trees (pine or cedar?) near the start line .

Before we set off running, all of us first-timers were gathered together and told the procedure. It was a 2 lap course, a mixture of tarmac paths and muddy grassy bits and some updulations (spell-check keeps wanting to change that to undulations!). We were told to be courteous to other park users and there were certainly lots of dog-walkers out and about.

When you sign up to parkrun you are sent a unique barcode which has your name and emergency contact details. You have to print this off and bring it with you each time you take part otherwise you won't have your time recorded.

I had no idea how many people would be taking part but found out later there were 110 runners.

Just before the start at 9am we were called together for a briefing when they explained that you must only go throughout he finish tunnel once as this would mess up the timing system. They also gave out a prize, kindly donated by Sweatshop,  to someone the organisers thought was most deserving (this could be because of their number of parkruns done, improvements made, volunteering) and we first-timers all got a round of applause too.

As you can see, the sun had come out by then and it wasn't as cold although I expect the marshals might have felt chilly just standing around. All the marshals were volunteers and I thanked them all as I went past as I always appreciate the work they do in standing around waiting for us runners to go past. 

Then we were off.

First we ran down the hill towards the lake then alongside it before heading off across some grass. In this sort of run the start is almost always a bit congested, especially when you're running on narrow paths. This means it can be difficult to get into your stride but you just have to accept it and push ahead when you can.

After I'd disappeared out of view, Mike wandered off to explore the park a bit more and found this lovely Grecian Temple. Then he sneaked off for a coffee to warm himself up before coming back to catch me finishing my first lap.

This next photo was taken on the second lap when the field was much more spread out.

There was a real mix of runners and it was wonderful to see some youngsters taking part and running really well too. I saw one little girl stop and she looked rather crestfallen but when I got alongside her I shouted "well done, you're doing really well" and she said thank you and started running again with a big smile on her face. It was wonderful to see several children running with a parent and there were a couple of dogs too.

Here I am, striding out in the last stretch by the lake before heading up the hill towards the finish line.

I think I was trying to spot Mike here.

You can see the marshal who I think is using a stopwatch to mark finish times. As you run into the finish funnel (the 2 strips of yellow tape), you are handed a token with a barcode on it which has your finish time on.

You then take this token together with your own personal barcode and hand them to another marshal. They then scan both barcodes to record your time which is then emailed to you later together with lots of data.

I'd guestimated my finish time to be around 30 minutes as I wasn't going to push as it was a bit too soon after my last marathon so I was delighted to check my GPS watch and see my time as 30:25.

We had a very pleasant walk back to the car so I could get out of my running gear and into more appropriate apparel for wandering around Royal Tunbridge Wells. Mike took a sneaky photo of me getting changed in the car but I think for the sake of my modesty I won't include that here! Then it was time for coffee and cake in a new cafe we found (my piece of chocolate and raspberry torte went down rather well thank you very much).

By the time we got home there was an email telling me my time etc:
Royal Tunbridge Wells parkrun results for event #44. Your time was 00:30:25.
Congratulations on completing your 1st parkrun and your 1st at Royal Tunbridge Wells parkrun today. You finished in 63rd place and were the 14th female out of a field of 110 parkrunners and you came 1st in your age category VW55-59. Take a look at this week's full set of results on our website. Well done on your first run. We have set this as your PB.
You achieved an age-graded score of 60.33%. For an explanation of age-grading, please see the WAVA age grading overview.
You have earned 87 points for this run, giving a total of 87 points in this year's Royal Tunbridge Wells parkrun points competition.
Very efficient and it was interesting looking at the range of finish times which went from 18:46 - 44:03. 

What did I like most about it? That I wasn't competing against anyone except myself. 

We can get bogged down in statistics if we aren't careful and it was nice to just run for the sheer enjoyment of it without worrying how fast, or rather how slow, I was. I have a 10k pb of 52:48 set in Brighton which suggests my 5k time should be less than 26 minutes so should I be disappointed? Not at all; the courses are completely different - Brighton is flat and run on tarmac, Tunbridge Wells is neither.

The person who finishes last covers the same distance as the person who finishes first. You can have good days and bad days but in the scheme of things it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that you get out there and take part. As I do my training runs alone I always enjoy running in company at events.

I know a lot of you reading my blog live outside the UK but please do take a look at the parkrun website where you'll see that the parkrun phenomenum has gone global! From the statistics on my blog I can see that some of the countries you live in appear on there already (Australia, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, Russia and the USA) but if your country isn't there perhaps you could think about starting one yourself?

How I started running and how it saved my life (and my sanity)

When Mike and I were in our early 40s, we decided to have a fitness drive. This involved us donning track suits and training shoes and trying to go for a run. Mike had run a marathon in his early 20s, I had never run before. I struggled, huffing and puffing up the steep hill outside our house until I was bright red in the face and couldn't carry on. I hated every step of it and was mightily relieved when we stopped all that nonsense.

Several years later when we lived closer to London than nowadays, we joined a local gym. Mike gave it up after a while, claiming he was too busy with work to fit it in, but I didn't and boy am I glad that I continued as it became a very important part of my life.

Then I left work to become a full-time carer for my mum. Each day I would head off to the gym whilst Mike kept an eye on mum. I had a 10 minute walk there, 40 minutes on the equipment (including fast walking on a treadmill) and then a 10 minute walk home. That hour I had to myself became very precious as it gave me some time to recharge my batteries.

One day I was searching on-line for something and a small icon kept flashing at me; an advert for the Race for Life, a women-only 5k event to raise money for Cancer Research UK. I had lost a friend to Leukaemia  and I felt I just had to do it to raise money in her memory. I told Mike about it and after we'd stopped laughing hysterically at the very thought of me running 5k I decided that I was going to do it even if I couldn't run all the way.

The next day at the gym, in February 2002, I started to run on the treadmill and after what felt like 15 minutes I had to take a walk-break. I had in fact only managed to run for 2 minutes! I then devised a plan in which I would run for 2 minutes, walk for 3 and repeat this for 30 minutes. Each week I added an extra minute of running and reduced the walk-breaks to 1 minute until finally I could manage to run for the full 30 minutes. Then I had to learn how to run outside which was quite different but I was determined to do it.

I completed my first ever 5k race at the Race for Life in Croydon on my 45th birthday in June 2002. I have no idea what my exact finish time was but it was somewhere around 26 minutes. I have never felt so proud and this photograph lives in my office to remind me how far I've come since then.

I had caught the running bug and wanted to try running further but Mike very sensibly pointed out that I did get very red-faced after a run and perhaps we should get me 'checked out' in case I had an underlying medical condition.

Off I went for a BUPA health  assessment feeling the best I had in years and expecting to get a clean bill of health. However, the various tests discovered that cancer had entered my life unbeknown to us and quite uninvited and we were referred to Professor Albert Singer, one of the leading experts in the management and treatment of cervical cancer, who used to be a marathon runner too. He explained everything to us in great detail stating up-front that my results must be wrong as I'd only had a smear test the year before. Sadly they were not wrong and were in fact much worse than expected. He told me that I was lucky as if I'd been referred to him on the NHS his waiting list was 18 months by which time it would have been too late to do anything.

I was lucky and I'm still here but, to quote Forrest Gump, that's all I have to say about that.

The reason I mention my own experience is that through the work of Cancer Research UK many people survive cancer and that's where Alzheimer's Research UK want to be with dementia asap. In their words:

We have established our Global Clinical Trials Fund to support critical early phase drug trials. It will help push more promising treatments through development and into the hands of people with dementia. We’ll be working with other research funders, charities and industry at home and around the world to make sure all the discoveries you help fund are quickly put to work in creating better treatments, improved diagnosis and preventions. We’ll be doing more than any other charity to find the answers we all need.
A generation ago we took the fight to cancer. People broke down the stigma, talked about their diagnosis and supported research that has made many cancers survivable. We are now in a fightback against dementia. We are putting in place the resources, expertise and an army of scientists that are creating real benefits for people with dementia.
We need your help to grow this further. We need you to talk about dementia, to know that the diseases that cause it – like Alzheimer’s – can be defeated, and to support us in reaching the breakthroughs.

You may have noticed that my latest fund-raising efforts involve me running 13 marathons in 12 months to represent the 13 years I've been running.

Please help me to raise funds for vital research into this devastating disease.