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  • 12 Days of Christmas

    The story behind The Twelve Days of Christmas

    Why do we have Twelve Days of Christmas? Where did the song originate? And why are the presents from the “true love” so bizarre?

    The Twelve Days of Christmas - also known as Twelvetide - is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, which is why the first day of Christmas is Christmas Day. It’s thought to have been introduced by the Catholic Church centuries ago, with each of the 12 days up to and including 5 January honouring or remembering important figures or events in Christianity.

    The song came along quite a bit later. But what’s it all about?

    One theory is that the 12 gifts mentioned were a secret code used by Roman Catholics at a time when they were unable to practice their faith openly. So, “true love” means God, “a partridge in a pear tree” is Jesus Christ, 10 Lords-a-leaping are the 10 Commandments, and “11 pipers piping” represent The Apostles.

    This theory has been largely debunked, however.

    The other popular theory - that it was originally a children’s memory and forfeit game - seems much more likely. Children who made a mistake while singing the song would have to pay a ‘penalty’ - often a kiss!

    Although the words of the song were published in England in 1780 in a children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief, the tune’s origins are probably French.  The melody that we use today was written by the English composer Frederic Austin and was published in 1909.

    The bizarre gifts added to the fun of the game, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to explain their meaning other than they made the song more of a tongue-twister. And while other versions show some variations in the words, this is the one that has stood the test of time.

    So, on the 12th day of Christmas, the ‘lucky’ recipient will have accumulated this collection of gifts from their “true love” …

    Twelve drummers drumming

    Eleven pipers piping

    Ten lords a-leaping

    Nine ladies dancing

    Eight maids a-milking

    Seven swans a-swimming

    Six geese a-laying

    Five gold rings

    Four colly birds

    Three French hens

    Two turtle doves

    ...and a partridge in a pear tree!

    And on that note, we’d like to wish all our customers a happy and peaceful Christmas.

  • From small acorns ... how you can do your bit for National Tree Week

    It’s National Tree Week in the UK later this month, when people are encouraged to get out and enjoy the trees in their local green spaces - and do their bit to boost tree numbers by planting their own in their gardens or as part of a community project.

    National Tree Week is the biggest annual tree celebration in the UK and was first held in 1975 by the charity, The Tree Council, which still organises the event. This year, it’s on 23 November to 1 December.

    November to March is the best time to plant trees, because the wetter weather means they don’t need so much watering and they’ve got more chance of surviving and growing.

    So, which native trees should we be planting? Here are seven iconic trees that will bring colour and biodiversity benefits for years to come.

    English Oak - The mighty oak provides a wonderful home for insects and can live for hundreds of years.

    Alder - Another biodiversity powerhouse, attracting insects and birds, the alder is also a fast grower.

    Rowan - The Rowan’s leaves and bright red berries are a real treat for our birds and insects and they bring a welcome dash of colour, too.

    Silver birch - With its striking white bark, the silver birch is a real eye-catcher. It’s also fast-growing, so will make a rapid impact.

    Hawthorn - Providing wonderful white flowers in Spring and health-enhancing berries, the hawthorn is another native tree that’s much loved by insects and birds.

    Hazel - With their eye-catching ‘lamb’s tail’ catkins and supply of nutritious nuts, this is another tree that species such as dormice just love.

    Holly - A festive favourite with their red berries, holly trees provide excellent shelter for birds and hedgehogs. And they can live for up to 300 years.

    The UK has lost millions of trees in recent years and must now plant 1.5 billion trees by 2050 in order to reach the net zero emissions target. Your native tree might only seem like a very small start, but you know what they say about little acorns …

  • Say a few words for World Nursery Rhyme Week!

    Remember when you were little, and you’d learn reams of nursery rhymes off by heart and recite them all back, over and over again?

    Well, it seems that nursery rhymes are just as popular as ever - there’s even a World Nursery Rhyme Week which runs from 18-22 November.

    This got us reminiscing about our favourite nursery rhymes - and noticed just how many of them have a garden or nature theme. Like these super seven …

    Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (origins - England, 1800s)

    Here we go round the mulberry bush
    The mulberry bush
    The mulberry bush
    Here we go round the mulberry bush
    On a cold and frosty morning.

    Lavender's Blue, Dilly, Dilly (England, 1600s)

    Lavender's blue, dilly, dilly
    Lavender's green
    When l am King, dilly, dilly
    You shall be Queen!

    Ring-a-ring o' Roses (England, probably late 1700s)

    Ring-a-ring o' roses,
    A pocket full of posies.
    Atishoo! Atishoo!
    We all fall down.

    Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (England, 1700s)

    Mary, Mary, quite contrary
    How does your garden grow?
    With silver bells
    And cockle shells
    And pretty maids all in a row.

    Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue (England, 1700s)

    Roses are red,
    Violets are blue
    Sugar is sweet
    And so are you.

    Two Little Dickie Birds (England, 1700s)

    Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall
    One named Peter, one named Paul
    Fly away Peter! Fly away Paul!
    Come back Peter! Come back Paul!

    Sing a Song of Sixpence (England 1700s)

    Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye
    Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
    When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
    Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?
    The king was in his counting house counting out his money
    The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey.
    The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes
    When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

    Of course, one of the reasons that nursery rhymes have endured for centuries is because we pass them on to the next generation - and long may that tradition continue. They’re also educational, helping young children develop their language and numeracy skills. Two very good reasons why nursery rhymes have earned their world celebration week!

  • Celebrating Apple Day

    Did you know that the UK produces thousands of apple varieties? From the Bloody Ploughman in north-east Scotland to the Slack ma Girdle in the far South West of England, our orchards are home to varieties that go back hundreds of years - and many of them have wonderful names.

    To mark Apple Day on 21 October, here are 10 of the best!

    Anglesey Pig Snout - So-called because of its shape, this Welsh wonder is thought to originate from the early 1600s. Although largely culinary, it can be eaten as a dessert apple, too.

    Brown Snout - Another snout, this time from Herefordshire. Dating back to the mid-1800s, it produces a sweet apple juice and a mild to bittersweet cider.

    Bloody Ploughman - A spectacular deep red dessert apple from Perthshire. According to legend, it takes its name from a ploughman who was shot dead when a gamekeeper caught him scrumping apples.

    Cat’s Head - One of the oldest apple varieties in England - possibly going as far back as the 11th century. The cooker is so-called because of its supposed resemblance to the shape of a cat’s head.

    Greasy Butcher - Not much is known about this apple, other than it goes back a long way and was once found in orchards in South Devon. Probably a cider apple.

    Hoary Morning - A Somerset dessert and culinary variety first recorded in the early 1800s, this apple has a striking colour scheme, with pink and red stripes on its flesh. The name ‘hoary’ refers to its white bloom.

    Isaac Newton’s Tree - These cookers are direct descendants the original tree in Isaac Newton’s Lincolnshire garden, where the idea of gravity came to him when he watched an apple fall to the ground in the 17th century.

    Pig Skin - Another Anglesey apple with a memorable name. This variety is a sweet, colourful dessert apple dating back to the 1850s and gets its name from its rough skin.

    Slack ma Girdle - A heritage apple from Devon, producing sweet cider and good for jams. Lots of stories surround the name, some suggesting it’s about waistlines, another that it means “slack my girl”.

    Sops in Wine - Thought to originate in Cornwall in the 1800s, this is a lovely red variety of apple. It’s a good all-rounder and famed for its pink juice.

    After decades of decline and destruction of our orchards, there’s been a renewed interested in these fabulous old apple varieties in recent times - we’ll raise a glass to that!

  • Celebrating the colours of Autumn

    Autumn: for many of us, the most glorious season of the year, with all those hues of gold, yellow, orange, bronze and red.

    But just why do these fabulous colours emerge? And what happens to the green leaves?

    Without getting too bogged down in the science behind it, leaves get their colour from three pigments: green comes from chlorophyll, yellow from carotenes and reds from anthocyanins.

    The pigments are all present within the leaves, but during Spring and Summer, the sun and light-worshipping green chlorophyll takes over, effectively hiding the other colours.

    The arrival of shorter, cooler days breaks the chlorophyll pigment down, allowing the other pigments to suddenly become visible until eventually, they’re dominant.

    So why aren’t Autumns colours always the same?

    The answer is simple - it’s all down to the weather. If we get lots of very cold nights in Autumn, we’ll see more yellows because the temperatures will kill off the chlorophyll pigment and the carotenes will flourish.

    Warmer nights, on the other hand, are good for anthocyanins, which is why we see more reds and fewer yellows if we have a mild Autumn.

    Dry and sunny weather in Autumn has the same effect of accentuating the reds because it increases the sugar levels of leaves - something that anthocyanins love at this time of year.

    This vibrant show of colour doesn’t last long, just a few short weeks, before the leaves fall from the trees and winter takes over - so we must make the most of it while we can. We reckon a woodland walk followed by warming roast dinner is just about the perfect way to spend an Autumn day!

  • The perfect time for a new lawn

    An area of ground will cover with freshly laid grass near granite cobblestone pavement

    If you’re thinking of having a new lawn, then early autumn is a good time to do it.

    There are two options for creating a new lawn - from seeds or from turf. Both methods have their advantages. A new lawn from seeds is cheaper and can produce excellent results. A new lawn from turf is quicker and can be used again within a day or two.

    Why now?

    Early autumn usually offers the best conditions for sowing a new lawn. It’s not too hot or too cold, there’s plenty of moisture but the soil is still warm - all ideal for the seeds to germinate. The conditions are also good for laying turf. With little mowing needed during the winter, the new turf can be left to establish itself with minimum disturbance and without the need for frequent watering.

    Whichever option you choose, there are three steps to follow - preparation, creation, and aftercare.

    Preparation:

    If using seeds, choose a seed mix that’s right for your purpose. Do you want a general-purpose lawn, a fine lawn, or is the lawn in shade?

    Whether sowing or turfing, good seed bed prep is needed, so remove weeds (but not with residual weedkiller as it will stop the grass from growing) and cultivate the soil. Get the surface as level as you can.  Ideally, you should then leave it to settle for five to six weeks - or even longer if possible.

    Creation:

    The more care you take, the better the results. The RHS has a precise, step-by-step guide on how to make a new lawn from turf or seeds, with links to both methods at: www.rhs.org.uk/advice/in-month/september/lawns .

    Aftercare

    If you’ve sown a new lawn, you will need to lightly re-firm the soil when the grass reaches about 7.5cm (3 ins). You can do this by carefully treading any raised areas. Wait for another two or three days and cut the grass down to about a third of its height - make sure your mower blades are very sharp for this important job. It shouldn’t need mowing again until the following spring. Try not to use the lawn until early summer.

    Aftercare for a turfed lawn is simpler. You can mow the lawn, with the blades high, once the grass has grown to around 5cm (2 ins). Keep the turf moist by watering it once a fortnight during dry spells.

    And finally, enjoy!

  • Don't bin those fallen leaves!

    fallen leavesWant some freebie compost, or a healthy supplement for your lawn? Then take a leaf out of our book: don’t throw out your fallen leaves this autumn - put them to good use instead.

    Leaf mould is packed with fabulous properties that boost moisture and drainage - great for use all around the garden.

    Start collecting now

    If you gather your fallen leaves up regularly, you’ll soon be accumulating a decent amount for your store. Depending on the size of your garden and the volume of leaves, you can use a rubber rake, leaf boards or a vacuum. But collect by hand around flowers and plants to prevent damage.

    A covered cage outdoors is a good storage idea if you have lots of leaves, and you can help the process by treading on the leaves and watering them before covering the top of the cage. Keep adding fallen leaves and perhaps top them with an inch or so of soil.

    If you’re using big bin liners to store your leaves, make a few holes to let air in and always dampen the leaves with a hose before filling the bags. Tie the tops of the bags and store them away.

    3 great things about fallen leaves

    Lawns - If you have leaves on your lawn, shredding them finely by mowing them with a rotary mower (use a high cut setting) will speed-up the rotting process and add nutrient-rich grass clippings to the mix. You can leave this on the lawn as a lawn supplement for the winter or add to your leaf mould.

    Plants and fruit & veg - The fibre and microorganisms in leaf mould are a healthy addition for bulbs, alpine plants, border perennials, woodland plants and fruit & veg. Use a garden sieve first, however, to filter out any parts that haven’t completely decomposed.

    Biodiversity - Birds and insects are attracted to leaf mould - especially if it’s stored in an outdoor cage.

    Worth the wait

    Deciduous leaves will generally take a year to turn into leaf mould. Others, such as oak and beech, will take two years or more to rot down. Beech, oak and hornbeam are especially good.

    So, while it might take a bit of effort and patience, to begin with, your on-tap free store of compost, mulch and soil enhancer is definitely worth the wait.

  • Dig in for National Allotments Week 2019

    Allotment weekIt’s National Allotments Week on 12-18 August - but you don’t need an allotment to grow your own food.

    In fact, more and more of us are setting aside a part of our gardens to grow fruit, veg and herbs. According to Garden Design Magazine, it’s one of the top garden trends - and it’s a trend that just keeps on growing.

    If you do have an allotment, then lucky you. If not, there are plenty of things you can grow at home - even if you have only a small space. Here are a few easy-to-grow foods for you to try.

    Containers and pots:

    Microgreens are dead easy - all you need are seedlings and a pot - even an old yoghurt pot or takeaway container with holes in the bottom for drainage will do the trick.  Pea shoots, cress, and mustards are good to start off with - a tasty and colourful addition to a meal.

    Pots are also great for herbs. The list is endless, but easy ones include parsley, sage, oregano, mint and rosemary.

    There are so many varieties of tomato, that it seems a shame that so few choices are on offer in the supermarkets. Growing your own means that you can pick your own toms, literally. If you enjoy a bit of spice, get yourself a chilli pepper plant and a biggish pot.

    Citrus fruits, especially lemons, are also increasingly grown in pots in the UK - but you’ll need to bring them indoors during cold winter spells.

    Soil

    So much veg to choose from, where on earth do you start? For beginners, beetroot, courgettes, French beans and radishes are among the easiest to grow. Globe artichokes are another one to try.

    For those with a bit more space, there’s nothing better than home-grown fruit. Apple trees are probably the easiest to grow but should be bought from a specialist nursery. And what goes well with apples? Blackberries! Cultivated blackberries are more productive than wild blackberries and thornless varieties will even grow in pots.

    Blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are also very easy to grow. Yum!

    Of course, it also makes sense to grow the things you enjoy the most, ensuring you have a fresh supply of your favourite fruit and veg. The RHS website has an A-Z of grow your own produce, with all the advice you need for success -  www.rhs.org.uk/advice/grow-your-own. For more on National Allotments Week, visit the National Allotment Society website at  www.nsalg.org.uk/news-events-campaigns/national-allotments-week/

  • Tap into the benefits of a water butt

    No ifs, no buts - water butts save you money and water as you care for your garden at this time of year.

    And, with the UK’s National Drought Group recently urging everyone to use water wisely and conserve water supplies, it makes sense for us to harvest as much rainfall as we possibly can.
    It has been estimated that up to 24,000 litres of water can be saved from the average house roof each year. Southern Water calculates that average rainfall in the South East of England can fill a water butt up to 450 times a year and that a butt can fill 25 watering cans - that’s 11,250 watering cans!

    It also means we’re taking less water from our rivers, conserving a precious resource that is needed for our drinking supplies.

    There are other advantages to using harvested water in our gardens. For a start, plants, fruit and veg prefer natural rainwater because it’s packed with beneficial nutrients. Tap water, on the other hand, commonly contains chemicals.

    The ambient temperature of water from a butt is also better for the garden than the water we get from our cold taps.

    And of course, a butt provides a handy source of water for your garden, if you don’t have an outdoor tap.

    So, what are the practicalities of having a water butt? They come in various shapes and sizes - most household butts tend to be from 100 to 500 litres. You can connect several together, using butt linking kits. Most are plastic, but wooden and metal ones are also available. Prices typically start at under £30.

    Water butts are relatively simple to install. The key requirements are a level ground surface and a downpipe from your roof. In simple terms, a connector hose diverts the water into your butt.
    It might be too late to benefit from a water butt this summer, but if you install one now, you can start saving up for next year. Time to tap in?

  • Get a flutter for our butterflies

    The UK’s 2019 Big Butterfly Count takes place across the country from 19 July to 11 August, when people are encouraged to find a nice spot in their garden, park or local woodland and take 15 minutes to record sightings.

    Last year, more than 100,000 people took part, making it the biggest citizen science insect survey in the world. Between them, they spotted almost 1 million of the 19 target species.

    The count is run by Butterfly Conservation and gives us a picture on the health - or otherwise - of the environment.

    The nature charity also offers tips on how we can attract more butterflies to our gardens. With three-quarters of British butterflies in decline and some facing extinction, they need all the help we can give them.

    Here are a few simple things we can do.

    Introduce nectar-rich plants - preferably in a sunny, sheltered spot. Choose different plants to attract more types of butterfly but clump the same plants together. And have plants that flower at different times of the year, so butterflies have a rich source of nectar from spring to autumn.

    Top butterfly plants include buddleia (blooms in July and August), English lavender (all summer), perennial wallflower, or Bowles’s Mauve (from April), wild marjoram/oregano (June to September), and verbena bonariensis (August to October). Other butterfly-friendly plants are red valerian, common knapweed and hemp agrimony.

    Deadheading the plants will allow them to flower for longer, and regular watering will keep them healthy. Do these two things, and the butterflies will keep fluttering back.

    Allow part of your grass to grow long and let a patch of weeds such as dandelions to flourish - butterflies and bees love them.

    Butterflies enjoy basking in the sunshine, so give them somewhere they can ‘sunbathe’ such as a fence or a flat rock.

    There are some important don’ts, too: Don’s use pesticides; don’t use peat-based compost because many butterfly species need peat bogs; and don’t keep your garden too neat and tidy during winter, as a small area with logs or leaves provides shelter for butterflies during their dormancy.

    To log your sightings during the count period and for tips on how to make your garden butterfly-friendly, visit www.butterfly-conservation.org - it also has a butterfly identification page.

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