Hollyhocks and Heather

My love affair with hollyhocks continues, they must be one of the most cheerful flowers around. Tall and bright they immediately bring a smile to my face. Lots grow in Suffolk, the destination of numerous family holidays and day trips, so they also remind me of being on vacation.

Hollyhocks in a Suffolk garden

They are coming to an end now, so it’s a good time to collect seed and spread their cheer somewhere else.

Closer to home we walked on Tiptree Heath this week, the largest area of lowland heathland in the country and the only place in Essex where you can find all three heather species growing together – Ling, Cross-leaved and Bell. Pink and purple mounds draw the eye, painting the landscape with their cheery colours. They are also a haven for bees, which gently hum and buzz around us. The heather smells of honey, or perhaps it is that honey often smells of heather?

Pretty pink bell heather at Tiptree Heath

I look forward to visiting Dunwich Heath in August, the best place I know to enjoy the scent and sight of summer heather blooming. There, a purple haze stretches in every direction, only stopping where the cliffs abruptly head down to the North Sea. On lucky trips we spot a herd of Red deer, pretty as a picture as they daintily step through the heather and bracken.

I’d love to know where you love to see wild heather grow in the UK – drop me an email and let me know!

Sowing smiles

Is there anything as satisfying as growing plants from seed? Since sowing seeds with my daughter I’ve rediscovered the joys and extra big smiles they bring to my face, as well as hers.

In 2018 my daughter collected some seeds from my parent’s garden in Suffolk and ever since we have enjoyed the bright and eclectic colours of hollyhocks and Californian poppies. I love how resilient they are. They come up each year in a really hot and dry bed in which many plants simply haven’t survived.

Hollyhocks from collected seed

In 2019 my daughter picked out a packet of achillea seeds. Last year some of them flowered, and this year we have hot pink, coral pink, white and lemon yellow flowers all around the garden. Their flat umbels almost look like material, they are so textural. The pollinating insects love landing on them, especially the hoverflies.

My favourite hot pink achillea

We’ve grown sunflowers for several years but this year because May was so cold, and then I was so busy in June, we never got round to it. Luckily we had so many last year that several have sprung up nearby to where their parents once grew. It’s like they knew we needed them.

In our front garden, we have many self-seeders, plants that you only need to plant once, as they broadcast many seeds each year. We have enjoyed garden favourites including honesty, granny’s bonnet, foxgloves and love-in-a-mist, which fill any gaps in the flower beds by mid-Spring each year.

Other sowings haven’t worked out so well. A few months ago I bought a mixed packet of basil which I’ve not managed to successfully grow. There is half a packet left, so I haven’t given up quite yet.

I recently picked up some Plant Heritage seeds at their RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival stand – white foxgloves, yellow salsify and white cleome. I’ve pulled up all the love-in-a-mist in the front garden before they’ve shed their seeds so I’m going to try something different for 2022. They didn’t go to waste, we have hung them up to dry in one of the warehouses at work (a garden centre) so we can use them in a future display.

Do you grow plants from seed? I’d love to know, so do comment on this post and share your successes or future plans.

How’s your chatter?

Over the years I’ve learnt to quieten or ignore the negative chatter in my head. When it’s really bad I do activities that distract me from it, like gardening, a walk in the countryside or something creative like art or sewing. And, when life and my brain feels chaotic I get organised. I make a list of things I must do that day, or create a meal planner to remove any elements of stress for that week. Makes it sound easy, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t easy for a long time. I’ve had to work hard to get into a more positive frame of mind and, at times, the negativity can creep back in. That’s when I redouble my efforts to quieten it again. And if it’s spiralling down I get help. I might speak to my husband or brothers, or meet up with a friend to air some of my bothersome thoughts. If it is still persistent I get some counselling sessions booked.

I’ve just finished listening to Dr Ethan Kross, author of Chatter, on the Dr Chatterjee podcast, Feel Better Live More and I heard him talking about some of the scientifically proven methods for taking back control of inner chatter. Many of them reflected the tools I find useful, but there were others I hadn’t considered which I will be trying. For example, using distanced self-talk i.e. using my name to coach myself through a problem – “Come on Hannah, you can do this. Don’t let anyone tell you different, not even your brain”.

Are you aware of your inner chatter? Do you like what you hear? If the answer is no, here are some easy ways you can learn about the free tools and tricks which could help you reframe negativity into a more positive mindset. Dr Kross rightly says that different tools work for different people, so experiment and see what works for you.

  • Download the Chatter toolbox from Dr Kross. It’s a quick, free and simple way to pick up some tips
  • Want to go more in-depth? Listen to his interview with Dr Chatterjee. It’s an hour and forty minutes long, but I found it fascinating and listened in the bath (over two sittings!). I was delighted to hear him talk about the power of nature (about 1.28 in) which I know helped to pull me from illness and despair back into good health and a positive mindset.
  • Still want more? Buy his book. I haven’t ordered a copy yet, so can’t vouch for it. I’ll update with a quick review once I’ve read it.

Do email me or connect on social media, if you have any advice on how you deal with your inner chatter. I’d love to know your own hints and tips. Or perhaps it’s a work in progress? Share your intention to improve and that might just make sure you follow through on your plans.

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An unlocking of emotion

When I was ill, and before I was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder, I tried acupuncture to desensitise my nervous system and speed my recovery.

At the first appointment, I ventured in with trepidation. I don’t like injections or blood tests and have to look away to ensure I don’t faint so I really wasn’t sure how I would feel being used as a pin cushion. I was pleased to find myself cocooned in comforting and uplifting aromatherapy scents. After giving my medical history and explaining what I hoped the acupuncture would do, I nervously let the needles be put in. Some of them hurt, but not for long. Others hummed with energy or felt hot. Inevitably because of my FND, they made my nervous system jump, and my torso or limbs would twitch in response. After one was put somewhere in my chest, I burst into tears and felt the need to sob my eyes out. It was overwhelming. I can only describe it as a great unlocking of emotion that I had unknowingly been physically holding onto. 

I made it home in a daze, all the way from Victoria, heading east to South Quays on the Tube. I was exhausted for 24 hours, feeling a great sense of relief. The appointments gradually got more manageable and helped dampen my nervous system. Being in a heavenly-scented treatment room introduced me to aromatherapy. It’s such a lovely way to influence your mood or perk yourself up.

Years later, needles helped me to conceive. Or maybe I would have anyway, but it certainly happened quickly, with me falling pregnant within two months of trying.

I still have acupuncture now, every 6-12 weeks or so. Often, I have a back treatment combined with a massage, to alleviate headaches and tension from sitting at a desk all day. I also have the option to have a balancing treatment, to dampen my nervous system. A needle in between the eyes can be powerful, zonking me out for the rest of the day.

Over the last twelve years, I’ve had three brilliant practitioners and one who just didn’t work for me. After two or three sessions I couldn’t feel the benefits of her treatments. Like any treatment, you need to find the right person.

There is much to be recommended about acupuncture, on top of the potential medium to long-term health benefits. It feels super relaxing once the needles are in, which admittedly can be a bit ouch. Any regular, supportive treatment sessions make me feel like I’m not addressing health problems on my own and that there is someone in my corner.

I’d love to know if you have tried it, and if you have found it useful?

Are my teeth still there?

Lots of people are wary of going to see a counsellor, a therapist, a shrink. They have visions of the tough New York shrinks seen in movies. They think it’s not for them. They don’t need help. They don’t want to drag up their past.

Counselling has definitely improved my life. I went for several years after a series of bereavements in 2001 and have gone back more than once since. It’s brave to admit you need help and scary to take that first step. But when you do, you have someone on your side. Someone who knows only what you tell them. They are professionally trained to listen and to guide you through their process, which will vary depending on their training and specialisms. I sought help from a Jungian psychoanalyst, psychotherapist and counsellor – simply because her website said that she was a bereavement counsellor. This is what I needed when I first went to see her.

During those first sessions in 2001, she would just sit and let me speak. Sometimes nothing came out, and it felt awkward. She would ask what had popped into my head. Sometimes there were only tears. The early sessions began with an outpouring of emotion around the deaths I was dealing with. Once those surface emotions were processed, we started to explore why the deaths had affected me and my relationship with loss and endings.

There were times when I didn’t want any more counselling. I was resistant to her suggestions of how to accept my feelings and move on. She had to work very hard. In some ways, it got worse before it got better, but there was always a feeling that at least I was doing something. I wasn’t going to let depression get the better of me. Often at the end of the session, she would pose a question for my subconscious to consider. I thought I knew the answer, but I’d have vivid dreams or thoughts that would pop up in the days after my appointment, perhaps telling a different story to what was on the surface. I had a recurring dream that all my teeth were falling out one by one. On waking, it was so real that I anxiously ran my tongue around my gums to check if my teeth were still there or not. Apparently, this is quite common and indicates you are going through a period of change.

I was quick to go back for more therapy when I got ill. Then after my daughter was born, when I was sleep-deprived and in danger of getting sick again. I returned in 2019 for more counselling when I had some mild health issues, which reawakened my anxieties. I know the signs to look out for – a spiralling of negative thoughts, a nagging feeling that I am not on top of things.

Therapy has made me a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, employer and friend.

These words are taken from my free e-book – The Green Recovery – which looks at how I recovered from burnout and a functional neurological disorder. I explore how counselling, acupuncture and cranio-osteopathy, together with the small wonders of nature, helped me get better.

You can read the full e-book for free until the end of June by signing up for my newsletter here.

What do you notice?

The ants are under our patio again, and their excavations have left sand near the garage door. Eating my lunch, I watch a flock of sparrows descend to enjoy some boisterous dust baths. I’m glad I didn’t sweep away the sand.

When I burnt out, I learned to listen to my body and notice what was going on. Today the NERVA app tells me not to notice my IBS symptoms too much to avoid focusing on them. I’ve asked D and E to help me. They are not to mention when I am bloated or burping. It makes me wonder if I need to step back from thinking about my health in a wider sense. I probably do spend a lot of time thinking about it. So, I need to notice the positives and not fixate on the negatives. Easier said than done on some days isn’t it?

Today is the first day of June, and I’m using the beginning of the month to pick out three small wonders of nature from the previous month.

Bluebells in Pods Wood, Tiptree
  • We go for a short drive to find the bluebells. Since we last walked these paths, the green carpet has turned blue and up above, the fresh and luscious beech leaves have emerged to decorate the wood. My spirits soar, and I stand for a moment, taking it all in. Spring is the loudest season.
  • May’s soundtrack was dominated by a male blackbird, sitting proudly at the top of my neighbour’s fir tree, belting out his entire back catalogue. We may not show our appreciation outwardly, but his efforts have not gone unnoticed. I hope the female blackbirds are equally wowed.
  • As night falls one night at 20.35, I hear the nightingale sing in a nearby tree. We are fortunate to have these birds returning year after year. Their song is extraordinary like the whole orchestra has turned up to play.

I also want to visualise the wonderful flora and fauna I know I will see in June, so here is what I am most looking forward to:

  • Getting the moth trap out again. I’ve had only one go so far, and look forward to trying it in different locations.
  • Awesome alliums. I just love their circles, their jauntiness and their longevity. Purple sensation is already out but others are yet to ‘pop’.
  • The sound of a cuckoo, which has evaded me so far this month.
My front garden in May, spot the alliums yet to pop!

Why does nature make us happy?

Here’s a bit of (light) science. I think it helps to know that what you are doing to improve your life, however small, will make a difference. Believing something will make a positive difference is very powerful. So here goes…

  1. A study by Lyubomirsky* showed that 50% of your happiness is genetic. Your environment makes up 10% and the remaining 40% is the way you think. It’s this 40% which interests me, as I know myself that we can change the way we think. And nature can definitely help us reframe things more positively. By focusing on small wonderful details we can remind ourselves we are part of something bigger! Taken from Freedom to be Happy by Matt Phelan

2. You probably all know about feel-good hormones? Well, nature can help increase them. You can increase levels of serotonin by getting outside in nature and being out in the sunshine. And by celebrating small wins we can boost dopamine. So nature can change our chemistry, pretty cool! Read more about hacking your hormones here.

3. Biophilia is our innate need to engage and connect with nature. Research shows that being in nature can decrease blood pressure and heart rates and increase productivity and creativity. The good news is that being with nature for just two hours a week can have positive benefits.

4. Being in the moment – which means not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future – can improve our wellbeing. Savouring nature’s beauty and seasonal changes is a great way to be present. The Mind website has more on this.

Many people have recently given me examples of how nature has helped them, or someone they know. The elderly lady who was fed up and tearful for no reason, and perked up after an hour in her son’s garden. The lady who walks in nature to process emotions around bereavements, and often finds herself near water. Another has suffered a recent bereavement and has found solace in gardening, and in chatting to her neighbour about their gardens each weekend. I was emailed by someone who loves how bluebells come up year after year, reminding her to be resilient, which she takes strength from. Someone else read an earlier blog post and is now using houseplants to give her something to focus on and care for, at a time when her health is challenging.

Whatever is going on in your life nature can be a wonderful comfort and a never-ending source of positivity. Magic moments may be fleeting, but they all add up to something wondrous. You just need to look hard enough and leave space around you to let it in.


Lime green whatchamacallit?!

In the last week or so, have you seen these lime green plants springing up at the side of the road? Every year I see them and think WOW, now what are they called again? This year was no different. I checked in my wildflower guide and was reminded they are alexanders. I am determined to remember them for next year and maybe by writing about them I can consign them to my horticultural memory bank.

The leaves are a fresh green, and the flower bracts above them are a piquant lime green that demands to be admired. The flowers will bloom yellow later in the year. It’s also known as horse parsley and all parts of the plant are edible. I daresay when people used to live off the land it was much more well known.

It’s a bit frost sensitive, so is more often seen in the South and in coastal areas. I live in Essex, not far from the Blackwater Estuary. I found this display next to Abberton Reservoir. Only five minutes away by car we regularly visit the causeway to see the swans, ducks, egrets, herons and crested grebes. At sunset all the birds come down to the trees or the water and are bathed in a magical light. The egrets settle into their nests with a peculiar “walla walla walla” sound which always makes us smile. It’s a very special place.

Bring the outside in this Easter

I have more than 100 houseplants as I love being surrounded by the sight, smell and textures of flowers and greenery. In addition, I look for other, easy ways to bring the delights of the natural world into my house. This is especially important in colder months when I am outside less.

I’d like to share some easy ways you can bring plants and flowers inside this Easter (and throughout Spring).

  • Bring in branches and stems of flowering plants like Cherry or Almond blossom, pussy willows with furry catkins or bright yellow forsythia and pop them in a vase!
  • Put bulbs (from your garden or buy in pots) into a miniature garden. I used anemone and grape hyacinths (Muscari). Finish off with moss (I pulled this out of our lawn!) and a homemade birds nest. I found pliable hazel, birch and cornus twigs and wove them into a circle. To keep them tightly together I used string to tie knots and left the ends untidy to make it look like there were pieces of string in the nest. The daffodils I picked in our garden and poked into the moss. They didn’t last more than 12 hours, but would be perfect for an Easter table.
  • Create a small table arrangement. I used a flower pot lined with foil and filled it with soaked oasis foam*. I cut greenery, twigs and pussy willow / forsythia to add some colour and interest.

You can see all these arrangements, and how to make them, in a video on my Facebook group The Cactus Surgeon, a private group that you’d be welcome to join. Together we celebrate nature’s small wonders.

I believe that by connecting with nature we can create joy and find some peace, even on the hardest of days. Vincent Van Gogh said, “How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.” I couldn’t agree more. And, at this time of the year it is a symbol of Spring. A reminder that longer, warmer days are on the way.

Pussy willow catkins are tactile, and I challenge you to pick some without stroking them! I bet you can’t. I don’t have this or forsythia in my garden but asked a friendly neighbour if I could pick some from two huge bushes in his garden, which hang over the verge. Most people are more than happy to share their bounty. If you can’t find any look for bunches of cheerful yellow daffodils or potted bulbs which can be put in the garden after you’ve enjoyed them in the house. I do this every year and am building up quite the collection outside.

*this year I hope to find a more sustainable replacement for Oasis foam, but for now I am using up old stocks.

Skipping into Spring

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see flocks of hundreds of birds (Goldfinches?) feeding on Millet seed heads in a field. It was a wondrous sight, and the chattering, melodic sound filled the air and followed me as I reluctantly walked away.

Winter is the best time to enjoy lichen, before the trees are full of leaves again. I’ve recently learnt that lichen is two organisms living in the same body!! One is a fungus and inside is a green alga. Mind blowing stuff and confirmation that nature is amazing. Not that I needed any convincing! Thanks to The Wonders of Nature for that fact, a book I bought for my daughter because secretly I wanted a copy. My love of nature stems from my childhood – picking up facts from my parents and grandparents but also from a couple of nature books. One had a picture of a dissected owl pellet – full of tiny bones – which opened my eyes to the wonders of the food chain. And the Osborne book of birds eggs had me enthralled.

This week I bought two new houseplants and have been raving about them to anyone who will listen. Firstly, Orchid Oncidium ‘Twinkle’ (pictured), which has tiny cream and orange flowers which smell like a tropical greenhouse, with hints of Vanilla. It smells more strongly in the morning and makes me happy every time I walk into the kitchen. And then I came across Dischidia ‘Pangolin Kisses’ with its fleshy, scale-like leaves. A sculptural, interesting plant with a super cool name. Definitely two to look out for.

I’m Skipping into Spring this March, for Garden Releaf Day in aid of Greenfingers. They build beautiful gardens for children’s hospices and bring joy to so many people’s lives, at a time in their lives when joy is hard to find. I’ve committed to skipping every day and can now manage 5 minutes. I am not very fit and I’ve had many soft tissue injuries as a result of Functional Neurological Disorder. Since my daughter was born eight years ago my hips really don’t like to be stretched – so it’s a real challenge for me. Please do sponsor me if you can. Everything I raise will be match funded by Perrywood.

UPDATE – Sadly my hips did not like the skipping and later in the month I had to withdraw from the challenge. I did pay to wear my floral top on Garden Re-leaf Day and in total we raised £500 for Greenfingers.