White gold, green gold

It's been a funny season in the vegetable garden. Our weather has been very erratic, and some things have struggled. I planted two small crops of potatoes and we decided to investigate them at the weekend. One batch was planted as a pioneer, right at the end where the really poor soil was. I wasn't expecting much, but it is always exciting to shove a fork in, turn the earth and see what comes up.

At first it seemed as if there would be little or nothing, but two plants provided enough for dinner. They were rather misshapen and scabby, but a good scrubbing brought up the  yellowy skins and they were, in fact, delicious. 

My planting in the front patch has also been hit and miss; I envisaged a carefully landscaped herb patch with pretty little alpines spotted about. However, I planted dwarf comfrey. Wild comfrey grows quite large, so when I bought some 'dwarf' comfrey roots, I anticipated that they would be of a fairly modest size. 

This has not turned out exactly as planned; dwarf comfrey does, in fact, grow just as large as wild comfrey. It has grown into a many headed beast. My reason for cultivating it was purely practical; comfrey leaves (I have read) make excellent liquid fertiliser. The good news is that I have plenty of them and the plants thrive on being cut back. The bad news is that they are far too much of a thug to grow here and will have to be relocated to a wild patch, where they can flourish without drowning out their smaller neighbours. (Somewhere behind this lot are two lavender bushes and a curry plant). 

I harvested a fair amount. The leaves were torn into pieces and are now soaking in water, in a  not-very-picturesque plastic bucket. They rot down very quickly and produce an almost black, viscous liquid which frankly stinks to high Heaven. I'm going to need a bigger bucket. 


Mixing up green

My sketch books have many little hastily scrawled notes lurking in the back pages. They are my bank of ideas and often I have a plan in mind for them which I know may not be implemented for some time. For my first foray back into printing I chose this thumbnail of one of my cats, drawn in 2011. 

Mousie was a very slug like little creature and she was fluidly sprawled over a large cushion in deep sleep. At the time I knew that I'd want to turn this sketch into a two colour print, not knowing that it would take me eight years to realise this. 

Back in the present day, I re-drew the original sketch, adding more tail and took the artistic liberty of changing little browny-grey Mousie to a bright orange, which suited the sludgy green I wanted to use for the cushion. Then I cut two small, simple lino plates and backed them onto board to strengthen them.

I opened my tins of oil based printing ink with some trepidation, as they had been dormant for so long. They had acquired dried rubbery caps on top, but they were fine underneath. Could I still mix colour? Well yes, as it happens. To my surprise, I managed to achieve the understated green easily.


I had kept my home made registration block, despite nearly binning it a few years ago. I was glad I did; it's only made from thick board but is still useful.

I made several test pulls as the lino thirstily soaked up the ink and the first batch was quite patchy. I also needed the practice of smoothly inking up the plate. Eventually (and with some trepidation) I moved on to my newly purchased printing paper. It took most of the evening to produce the quantity I needed and by the time I had finished I had amassed  a considerable amount of green blobs.

Only some of these were up to scratch, which is fine. Some will do for the first test pulls of the next stage, the orange cat.

When they were dry, I sorted them into three piles - poor, passable and spot on. Now I need to move on to the second plate, which should be less nerve wracking, as I've learned from my mistakes and should be able to produce a small edition of good prints. I've only attempted multi-block printing once, many years ago when I was at college, so this will be interesting. 


Secret gardens and hidden darns


This summer I have found myself making miniature landscapes and oddly, they have become a form of self portrait. Not that I am a small green hump with vegetation growing on top, but the tiny houses often appear  difficult to get to, with minuscule windows implying a shy or sometimes alarmed expression.


The winding paths are one of my favourite motifs. You would have to walk up them to get to the house - and would there be anyone at home when you got there? Or are the occupants at home but not available to visitors?

I think, judging from feedback on my Facebook page and Instagram feed, that perception is everything with these pieces. The majority take them at face value; they are what they are. Sometimes people are a little alarmed at the proportionally 'giant' topiary figures. Others find them comforting. As for myself - I like the ambiguity.

'Creeper Cottage' is a case in point. The looming, topiary snail, could be seen as a threat to the house...or a gentle guardian.

I have also been adding extra surface elements, such as patches, as  visual puns. The patch on the front of  'Thimble Row' is deliberately clumsy, with over sized stitches and using a thick thread, as if a child had attempted their first mending project. I think the needle must have frightened the cottages, as they are leaning back and seem somewhat shocked.

'Halfpenny Hill' is similarly 'repaired'. In an actual garden, a bare grassy lawn area is re-seeded. Here, two very small visibly stitched fragments of cloth add interest to the plain hummock. One is hidden away at the back.  In life, we mend old clothes and much loved toys. In these worlds, the landscape is similarly refurbished.

'Swan Haven' is one of my more fanciful pieces; the topiary swan can never swim, but it carries an entire dwelling within a garden, as if it were a bizarre form of static barge.

The first garden I created earlier this year was the most secretive and difficult to photograph. This is entirely deliberate, as it is intended for the eventual owner to enjoy from a certain angle. My favourite view is simply head on, as if I were about to brave the long, straight path which leads to the tall, silent manor - protected (or guarded) by twin trees. Someone inside definitely knows you are coming.

'Shepherd's Cottage' is another patched and darned affair, with the sheep 'shepherding' the house - or possibly about to nibble it.

Many years ago, when I was an art student , I was taught that a good sculpture has points of interest from all views, so I delight in putting the darns in the least likely of places, where they will not at first be noticed.

The final landscape is the tiniest of all, designed to fit into a ring box. 

Behind the rather melancholy looking house, is  a neat,  incy-wincy darn in an unlikely shade of pink. This diminutive piece of felted real estate is now on a long journey to a new home, where I hope the owner will enjoy this snippet of 'the artist disguised as a house'. 


Making space for printing

When Andy and I moved to the cottage in 2012, the front room became the 'storage area'. And it's stayed that way ever since, as I've simply not had the mental energy, interest or funds to do anything with it. It has improved over the years, but last month Joe and I decided to really tackle it.


In the end it was just  case of getting rid of the old futon base and various cardboard boxes and shifting the furniture around. 



The room still needs re-wiring, re-plastering, re-decorating and something doing to the very old, cold linoleum on the floor, but for the moment this will do.


My principal motive for all of this was to make a small work area, as I am finally in the right frame of mind to start printing again. I haven't printed since 2011, when Andy and I lived in our tiny rented Cotswold cottage. (See 'Printing Little Hare').

A few months later, we would have moved to Shropshire and soon after that my life would be in pieces. Now I feel able to start again, and carry on where I left off. However, my poor old printer, which spent a few  years in the damp top shed, was also in much need of some TLC.

Time to get out the magic 'Liquid Wrench'. This is marvelous stuff, but being an American product it is hard to find over here. (I buy mine from the only UK seller on eBay who stocks it) It is a fabulous de-ruster and lubricator and I wouldn't be without it.

It looked worse than it really was, and after an hour or so with a sanding pad, I had it looking nice again and rolling smoothly. The big old cupboard is perfect for storing print gear in, and is just the right height for me.

Brian-next-door helped to to hoick the (very heavy) cast iron press up into its new space and drove me out so that I could get some thick plates of glass cut for ink rolling.  And then I was all set up for printing again, having unearthed my box of inks and rollers. Now I just had to get over the hurdle of actually using it.



Tall beans and broad beans

This is the first year since moving here seven years ago that I've managed to get the vegetable patch properly dug over and planted up. It isn't very large and there is a bothersome area which is mostly clay and rubble. All that considered, it's been rewarding seeing everything grow, especially considering it was a paved over area once.

Broad beans are not to everyone's taste; they are called fava beans in other places and the strong, irony taste can be off putting.

We have been mixing them in with warm potatoes, as a summer salad.

I remember having to shell some once when I was a child, at an aunt's. I loved the 'furry' lining inside the pods. Once opened, the beans seem strangely vulnerable, as if a small sleeping creature had been uncovered and hadn't quite woken up yet.

While I was sat on the draining board by the kitchen window, busily shelling, Jean-next-door popped round with a small offering of raspberries, the first from their garden. This is a tradition started from my first year here, and is always welcome. I offered her some beans, but they are firmly in the not liking them camp.

Podding took over an hour and to be honest, it seemed like a lot of work for half a large bowl of beans. But we never had any illusions about being self sufficient, especially with limited growing space. All the empty pods went back onto the potatoes to rot down as extra fertilizer.

Blanching is one of those necessary things for long term freezing - it sounds like a bit of an effort, but actually takes less than twenty minutes. I don't use iced water to cool them down as I find that cold water works perfectly well. In the end there were enough for four double portions, which will be a nice treat in the winter.

Earlier in the year I planted a whole packet of Purple Podded Peas, a heritage variety which came with the warning that they can grow up to 2 meters high. I  managed to find some very tall canes and planted them alongside the fence, to maximize growing space. They did reach an astonishing height, outgrowing the poles and tumbling over themselves at the top, forming tangled bundles.

Apart from anything else, they are simply beautiful to look at and very prolific. I had meant to pick them earlier, but being pre-occupied with Joe's health, gardening took a back seat. I was worried that I had left them for too long, as most of the pods were wrinkled. 

Happily, most of them were fine.

After another long podding session and with careful sorting, I ended up with some dried peas for next years planting,  two batches of green peas and one batch of older peas which I can make into that  traditional British stalwart 'mushy' peas. All now frozen and waiting to bring us summer joy later in the year when the warm weather is a distant memory.