40 things you can clean in a dishwasher

Got a dishwasher? Did you ever think its powerful cleaning capabilities could be used on other things than plates, cups and pots? Here are 40 things you can clean in a dishwasher:

Bin lids

Put them on the bottom shelf at the highest temperature for maximum cleaning.

Small plastic rubbish bins

If you have those little bathroom or bedroom bins (the 8 or 10 litre ones, or smaller), you can wash it in the dishwasher, if it fits. Just check the dishwasher’s cleaning blades still spin once it’s in.

Your kitchen compost collector

If yours is anything like mine, it gets completely disgusting with mold. Run it through the dishwasher regularly to sanitise it.

Fridge shelves

If the glass shelves of your refrigerator fit, you can clean them in the dishwasher regularly to keep them spotless.

Fridge drawers

For some reason, my vegetable drawers in the bottom of the refrigerator regularly get food residue on them. It’s easy to clean them up by placing them in the dishwasher, on either the bottom or top rack. Remove the dishwasher’s cutlery holder if you need a bit more space to fit these in!

Hobs

Those metal things that hold your pan off the heat on a gas cooker can usually be done in the dishwasher carefully. Check your manfacturer’s manual if you’re concerned about damaging your hobs. I’m more concerned with having a hygienic home and removing that impossible-to-shift grease that builds up. If that means the finish on the hobs gets a little less pretty, I can live with that. Put them through with half a tablet for peace of mind, and don’t do them more often than twice a year.

Grill tray

See the advice about hobs. The shiny metal part goes into the dishwasher no problem, but the grease-catching tray may rust if it’s not made to withstand intensive cleaning.

Oven rack

The shiny metal oven rack on which you put oven trays and casserole dishes can go in the dishwasher too. Position it on the bottom shelf carefully and check the dishwasher’s blades still spin. Don’t put cheap flimsy replacement oven racks in unless you don’t mind them getting a little rusty. Only use half a dishwasher tablet for oven racks.

Plastic laundry pegs (bag them first)

If your pegs have cobwebs or algae build-up on them, or just dirt from being outdoors, put them in a mesh bag and leave on the top shelf of the dishwasher to get them clean!

Safety child plugs

Those plastic plugs that stop toddlers sticking their fingers in electrical sockets? If they get dropped in treacle or paint, don’t worry, it’s easy to run them through the dishwasher. Just place under a cup to stop them moving around or getting lost.

Some lampshades

If your lampshade is plastic, you may be able to clean it in the dishwasher (carefully). I’d only use half a tablet and I’d also put the temperature to its lowest setting (such as a “quick wash” at about 50 degrees celsius. In theory, a lampshade should be able to stand higher temperatures (because they are next to light bulbs) but with modern energy-saving bulbs, some lampshades might not be up to the standards they used to be.

Glass mirrors (be careful)

Some glass mirrors can go in the dishwasher, but they need to be a) a sealed unit that can dry out b) non-electrical (don’t ever put illuminated mirrors in the dishwasher) and c) The backing needs to be protected. You can do this by covering the back with foil. I’d only do this as a last resort to try and fix a VERY dirty mirror (e.g. it has crayon or paint on it) as the best way to clean normal household dirt/dust off a mirror is using window cleaning spray such as Windowlene or Windex. There is a chance this could still ruin the mirror’s backing so do take care!

Glass from picture frames

Again, take a LOT of care and only put the glass in (not the frame). These can be laid flat on the top shelf. Small picture frames might not be heavy enough to stay put so I’d avoid putting in any that are lighter than an egg cup as I wouldn’t like to clean broken glass out of the bottom of the dishwasher. A better way to clean very delicate glass picture frames for ordinary household dirt/dust is to use window cleaning spray (see mirrors, above).

Toothbrush holder

Does the bottom of your toothbrush holder get a white or faintly yellow residue building up sometimes? Sort it out by chucking it in the dishwasher on the top rack with your cups.

Plastic cars

If your toddler has been feeding biscuits to his plastic cars, run them through the dishwasher to get them squeaky clean. Don’t put toys with very small parts (such as Matchbox-sized diecast cars with tyres) in the dishwasher.

Lego

Put dirty, sticky and chocolate-covered Lego (and derivatives) into a mesh bag such as the ones for washing powder tablets and put on the top shelf of the dishwasher or in the cutlery compartment if yours has an open area where you could put this.

Mega Bloks/Duplo

Bigger than Lego, I’d still put these in a mesh bag if they’ll fit, or place each individual block under a cup on the top shelf to get them clean.

Breast pump (cleanable/non-electric parts)

This can go in with your usual wash. Don’t put the tubing in. The basic rule is: if you can clean it in a sterilizer, you can safely put it in the dishwasher. Regarding hygiene, I would probably wait until your baby is about 6 months old before using the dishwasher, as before that, you need to use the sterilizer to properly obliterate the bacteria that your baby has no immunity to, yet.

Vases

Some vases can go in the dishwasher, if they’re either crystal/cut glass or glazed/fired pottery (such as Emma Bridgewater). Don’t run them through too often, but if a plant died in your vase while you were on holiday, this is a great way to properly clean it out.

Glazed pottery ornaments

Be very careful, especially if these are expensive. Small ornaments can be quite light and might get washed around the dishwasher, potentially damaging them. You need to be sure they are held down e.g. under a cup or in a (dishwasher-safe) net bag that’s anchored to something. I’ve had good results using the dishwasher to clean up cheap second-hand Jasperware I bought on ebay.

Plastic phone cases

If your phone case is plastic (not fabric or leather etc) you can spruce it up in the dishwasher. I put mine in the top rack, laid flat, and I put a cup on top to stop it escaping.

Dummies/pacifiers

These can go in your normal household dishwasher load. I hold them down by putting them under a mug so they don’t get washed around the dishwasher and end up in the bottom and dirty.

Children’s potty

If you’re toilet training your little angel, you might want to freshen up the potty every so often instead of rinsing it out all the time. Pop it in the dishwasher on a high temperature (follow the directions for the toilet brush, below, and remember the potty and toilet brush can go in together safely).

Toilet brush

Gross, right? Some people swear by it! I’m not entirely brave enough to try this one as I’d be scared of getting poo on my cups in the next wash, but if you’re going to try this, be sure to rinse off any brown bits in the toilet and put this through the dishwasher on a separate wash to anything you eat off. Use a wash temperature that’s over 65 degrees celsius to be sure to kill any bacteria (this is usually the 70 degrees celsius intensive wash option and has a picture of a pot with a lid).

Dish brush

All scrubbing brushes can work well in the dishwasher. Just don’t put them in with lots of pots and pans covered in thick sauces or other food residue, or the bristles will catch the residue. These could work well going into the dishwasher at the same time as the lint filter of your tumble dryer (see below).

Washing machine’s powder drawer

Have you ever pulled out your washing machine’s powder drawer? Were you horrified to discover that it was mouldy at the back? Maybe yours just has a build-up of powder/detergent residue in the compartments? Put the drawer in your dishwasher and watch it magically become clean! Be sure not to do this if you use a highly foaming detergent (most washing machines don’t) or you may end up with a dishwasher full of bubbles.

Tumble dryer’s lint filter

Put it on the top shelf of the dishwasher after removing as much lint as you can, to get rid of fabric dust and other ingrained yack. The dishwasher will clean it like any other fine-meshed sieve. Don’t put any papery filters in the dishwasher, or they will pulp!

Vacuum cleaner’s dust collection compartment (if no electrics in this bit)

If you need to get rid of all the dust in your bagless vacuum cleaner, put the dust collection compartment in the dishwasher; it will be sparkling in no time! Avoid putting paper-based vacuum filters in the dishwasher as they may turn to pulp.

Crocs

They’re plastic, so if you’re trying to remove ingrained dirt from your Crocs, you can run them through the dishwasher (not at the same time as your dinner plates, you don’t want cross-contamination). Remove any of those charms that you can stick to them, you wouldn’t want them getting lost!

Garden trowel

If it’s quality stainless steel or plastic, it can go in the dishwasher. Be wary of wooden handles, however, as these can be damaged if they’re left in water for too long (just like wooden spoons)

Empty plant pots

It’s easy to clean out your old plant pots (plastic or ceramic) ready to re-use for next year, just plonk them in the dishwasher together (in a separate load to your kitchen ware), add a tablet and hit “start”.

Beauty blender

Put it under a mug so it doesn’t wash away. Don’t put it in with an exceptionally dirty load of stuff because it’ll absorb the grease and grime instead of being cleaned.

Artists’ painting pallettes

Water and oil-based paint should come out in the dishwasher (dishwasher tablets are designed to cut through grease, after all). Acrylic is a bit trickier and cleaning dried-on acrylic paint in the dishwasher is less likely to produce a perfect result as acrylic paint is plastic-based.

Food trays (not ones which are cushioned)

These can go in your usual dishwasher load if there’s room.

Empty glass jars for recycling

Remove the labels first, or you’ll be scraping them out of your dishwasher filter later. If you want to reuse the jars for another project, running them through the dishwasher is a great way to clean them up. On the other hand, if you’re just putting them out to recycle, a quick rinse in the sink is far less effort.

Plastic fly swatter

The water jets in the dishwasher can get into all the crevices and get rid of those disgusting dead flies.

Paint roller drip tray

The dishwasher can remove water-based paint such as Rust-o-leum Chalky Paint but it can’t remove gloss or emulsions as these are usually designed to be resistant to water.

Paint roller handles (but not the fluffy part)

If they’ve gotten dusty or are otherwise manky from being left on a shelf for months, run them through the dishwasher.

Blender jug

Only if the jug separates from any electrical components, nothing electrical can go in the dishwasher. I find it’s particularly useful for cleaning the lid of my Kitchen Ninja (the rest of it can’t go in) which has the most awkward shape and is really uncomfortable to clean in the sink.

Hairdryer diffuser

Remove the diffuser attachment from the rest of the hairdryer and put it in the cup rack to get rid of product build-up

Hairbrushes (non-cushioned ones)

Plastic vent brushes, most combs, Tangle Teezer-type brushes (not travel ones) can all go in the dishwasher to get them effortlessly clean.

And some important exceptions:

Take care putting anything metal in the dishwasher. Cutlery is usually treated and alloyed to make it resistant to cleaning products and rust. Many other metal items are not. Metal oven cooking trays seem particularly susceptible to this.

Avoid putting anything electrical in the dishwasher. If your blender jug is like the Kitchen Ninja where the electrics are all attached to the jug, it cannot get wet so it can’t go in the dishwasher.

Never, ever, ever put anything aluminium in the dishwasher. This includes those continental coffee pots that heat coffee on the hob. I ruined a brand new one of these recently by trying to wash it in the dishwasher before using it. The inside is blackened and no amount of scrubbing gets it clean. Sigh.

Got any more ideas for things you’ve cleaned using your dishwasher? Let me (and everyone else) know in the comments!

Caution

Follow these tips at your own risk. The author takes no responsibility for damage to items washed in your dishwasher. Results could vary based on make/model/age/state of the things you’re trying to wash. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions.

Weekly writing prompt challenge: Jovial

This week, write 100 words about something jovial.

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.
  4. If you don’t want to write a blog post, or you don’t have a blog, feel free to write your 100 words in the comments of this challenge!

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Weekly writing prompt: Silk

Write 100 words about silk. This could be the fabric, or the legal person, or the way silkworms create their thread, or something else entirely. One of my favorite descriptors of dialog comes from one of the Harry Potter books (I forget which, sorry) where it says, “Snape said, silkily.” It really evokes an image of the way his voice spoke the words, and revealed a lot about his character. What can you come up with?

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

17 natural insect repellants in home made soap making: As proven by science

The past few weeks I’ve had a new problem which I’ve never had to deal with in my life before. I don’t know if it’s because I’m heavily pregnant (do the hormones change the way I smell?) or if the wasps in Donegal are just more persistent than the rest of the world, but I keep getting them showing way too much interest in me.

I actually got stung by a bee for the first time in my life last week! I was stuck at some roadworks and a bee flew between my dress and the car seat. I had no idea it was there, so when I leaned back to wait for the line to move, it stung me! Usually, insects avoid me. So I started wondering about natural insect repellants.

Being a scientist at heart, I couldn’t just buy any random essential oil rumored to work as a natural insect repellant, so in this article I’m going to give you an overview of the scientific evidence with links back to the original research so you can investigate for yourself which essential oils make the best insect repellants for soapmaking.

The factors affecting how effective an essential oil is as an insect repellant:

One of my favourite articles on this topic is a really detailed meta-analysis done by Maia and Moore in 2011, where they compared the results of a huge number of studies done on essential oils including citronella, neem, and the pine/cedar and mint families of essential oils. They found varying effectiveness. The main factor affecting how well an essential oil worked as an insect-repellant was the type of insect. Even different sub-species of the same insect could react differently to the same oil.

For example, two different types of mosquitoes are An. Arabiensis and An. gambiae. Studies have shown that citronella oil gives 90% protection from An. Arabiensis for 6 hours, and 100% protection from An. Gambiae for 6-7 hours.

Another example is thyme (variety: thymus vulgaris). This was found to offer 100% protection against An. albimanus for up to 105 minutes while it only offered 91% protection against C. Pipiens sallens for 65 minutes in a different study.

The concentration of the various natural compounds in an essential oil also makes a difference to the effectiveness. Using the above example again, thymus vulgaris offered 91% protection against C. pipiens sallens for 65 minutes when it was applied topically (directly on the skin) as linalool. When it was applied topically as thymol, it offered 91% protection for 70 minutes against the same insect. And when it was applied topically as carvacrol, it offered 95% protection for 80 minutes against the same insect.

This shows that different compounds in the essential oil can make it more or less effective. For best results, you need to ensure your essential oils are top quality and not diluted with any other compounds before you add them to your soap.

So if you’re looking to repel a specific type of insect, such as headlice, wasps or mosquitoes, it’s worth reading through this article to find out what will work best.

Which common essential oils work best as general insect repellants?

Citronella:

Citronella is widely known to be an excellent insect repellant. And now studies have been done to support this. The Israel Medical Journal published a double-blind study showing that, when citronella was used on school-age children, 12% got headlice, compared to 50% of the control group (who didn’t use citronella). That’s a reduction of 76%! Article here. It was also studied extensively in the article I discussed above, by Maia and Moore.

Neem:

Neem oil is well-known as an insect repellant. It has been shown to repel mosquitoes effectively by Sharma et al (1993) who found it provided 100% protection for 12 hours against mosquitoes. They mixed the neem oil with coconut oil then applied it directly to the skin. The results were published in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association. Article here.

In a second study, researchers looked at how effective neem oil was for repelling headlice. The study can be criticized as it had a complicated design measuring multiple factors at the same time (making it impossible to control variables), and a very small sample size (only 47 participants in total). The results showed combing with conditioner alone was 25% effective in removing lice while combing with conditioner and using neem oil was 35% effective in removing lice. The results were published in Advances in Pediatric Research. Article here.

Potentially confounding factors that made this research not very scientific include: The age of participants. Anyone from 6 months to elderly could participate. The participants were recruited from the local area and had to have at least “one headlice” to participate. Obviously, the treatment for someone with a mild headlice infestation or “one headlice” is going to be significantly easier than dealing with a severe infestation that has affected someone’s entire family for months. The home situation was not considered: It wasn’t considered whether pillows, bedding, towels etc were causing re-infestation before the person had been assessed as “cured”. In a home where multiple participants all have lice, the whole family should have been treated together and this was not done because they excluded anyone with specific hair treatments (e.g. coloured hair) and they didn’t control for cleanliness of the house, or sharing of hairbrushes, hats etc, all of which would cause re-infestation. So overall, I’m not happy with the lack of rigour of this study but it’s a great example of why “proven” results don’t always work the same way in real life.

In another multi-study review, Rossini et al (2008) found that neem oil had documented anti-lice activity. Link here. And in an analysis comparing evidence for neem oil and other natural oils for headlice, Heukelbach et al (2007) found that neem oil had an effectiveness of over 98%, repeated across two different studies. Unfortunately, the natural oils they looked at in this study were often mixed into other products so it’s not clear if it was the essential oils or other ingredients in those products that got results.

Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is sold almost everywhere in the UK and Ireland and I think a lot of people use it to try and repel head lice. Di Campli et al (2012) found a 1% concentration of tea tree oil killed 100% of headlice within 30 minutes, and a 2% concentration also killed 50% of lice eggs (full article here).

In other parts of the world, it’s used against other insects. In a study in Indonesia, researchers showed tea tree oil repels and even kills T. castaneum (commonly known locally as the red flour beetle). Research results here (this will download a PDF file from the researchers, as the researchers haven’t put this on a web page for some reason).

Meanwhile Fonesca-Santos et al (2016) researched whether a commercial mosquito repellant could be made from tea tree oil and found it was very effective against the A. aegypti breed of mosquito. You can read about it here.

Great, but what about using essential oil to repel wasps?

Wasps are my main concern right now. We had two more in the house while I was researching and writing this article, today, and I’m so tired of ejecting them.

A study was done by Boevé et al (2014) to assess whether essential oils worked to repel wasps. They tested many different essential oils alongside conventional chemicals, and repeated their tests several times with different wasps, which makes the study more reliable. They found winterberry oil (galutheria procumbens), marjoram oil (o. marjorana), anything from the artemisia genus (over 400 species of plant, including tarragon and mugwort) and wild mint (m. arvensis) were all highly effective at repelling wasps (more effective than DEET, in fact). As far as chemical compounds go, they tested linalool (a natural chemical found in a lot of citrus plants, including citronella) with good results too. You can read about it here.

In another study by Zhang et al (2012), 21 different essential oils were tested to find out how effectively they repelled wasps (if at all). 17 of the essential oils were found to be highly effective, including clove, pennyroyal, lemongrass, ylang ylang, spearmint, wintergreen, sage, rosemary, lavender, geranium, patchouli, citronella, Roman chamomile, thyme, fennel seed, anise and peppermint. Read the full study here.

And finally…

As you can see, there is a huge amount of rigorous, repeatable, reputable scientific evidence proving that essential oils can make excellent insect repellants. For soapmaking, this gives you tons of options for making soaps that are insect repellent but which also smell nice. From my own experiments in this area, I recommend combining no more than three essential oils in one soap. Don’t try to make one soap that repels everything.

I suggest you make a test batch and try it on yourself in the shower before making a bigger batch to give to friends and family, as some of the strong insect repellant essential oils can also be irritants in soap or shampoo bars. For the same reason, you may want to reduce the amount of essential oil in your soaps to avoid ending up with itchy skin. Lastly, be extra-careful using any potent essential oil or other insecticide on children’s sensitive skin.


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10 ways to get essential oils to be more intense in your soap (melt and pour and cold process)

So you’re probably looking for how to get your essential oils to be more intense in your soap. You might be making cold process soap or melt and pour soap. Maybe you’ve made some homemade soap with pure essential oils and it didn’t come out with a strong scent, or perhaps you’re planning your first homemade soap making project and are hoping to execute a perfect first-time soapmaking recipe…[read more]

How to safely use essential oils in home-made soap (infographic)

Essential oils can cause harm if used incorrectly because they are potent substances. Putting the essential oil on the skin neat (undiluted, or straight from the bottle) causes irritation and can leave your skin burnt. The oil is diluted in soap to a rate of about 3% (average) which makes it less likely to…[read more]

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Essential oils are often put into homemade melt and pour soap. They can create delightful fragrances that make your soap feel more luxurious. But there’s a lot to know about essential oils in soap. A lot of articles only focus on cold process, ignoring melt and pour, despite the fact melt and pour is a better choice for people with young children, pets or making soap in a campervan.

When I started soaping, I assumed essential oils would behave the same way in cold process soap and melt and pour soap, but this is not true. I have experimented with a lot of different essential oils and found…[read more]

How to get cheaper rail tickets in the UK (without booking billions of years in advance)

The price of UK rail travel has undoubtedly gone up over the past 2 years. What used to be a cheap trip is now double the price for a lot of people. This article explores some ways you can buy cheaper tickets, whether you’re a native or coming to the UK from abroad.

Many people suggest “oh, you have to book in advance to get the cheap tickets” but this isn’t helpful for many people. There are three issues with this:

First, if you try and book in advance, you might think you’ll definitely get the cheaper tickets. But let’s say you booked three or four months in advance. The cheap tickets won’t show up because they haven’t been released yet! How ridiculous is that? Nowadays, they don’t automatically make the cheapest tickets available for all advance customers, there’s actually a narrow window of opportunity, so you might be getting penalized for buying tickets too far in advance!

Second, those advance tickets often sell out quickly (especially to regular travellers who snap them up the day they’re released which is exactly 9 weeks in advance of the travel date).

Third, many people don’t plan their travel that far ahead of time. A few years ago, you could get a one-month advance ticket or a two-week advance ticket and get decent prices compared to an anytime single or day return. There was even a three-day advance ticket once upon a time! Now? The whole system is so broken it’s insane.

So whether you’re a planner or you live life by the seat of your pants, you’re probably getting ripped off for the cost of your UK train tickets. But there are still things you can do to reduce your train ticket costs for journeys within Britain:

Check what railcards you are entitled to buy

This is absolutely the first and most important step in saving money on a train ticket. Unless you are travelling alone and aged 30-60, there’s probably a railcard that will net you about 1/3 off your travel. You usually pay about £30 for the year (or £70 for three years) and the savings can mean this pays for itself after just one long-distance or big family rail journey!

Instead of family tickets, senior tickets, and other discounts at the point-of-sale of the tickets, train tickets in the UK don’t work like that (why would they? That would make sense, and nothing about British train travel makes sense, as the rest of this article will show). Instead, you need to buy an advance railcard and then book your tickets with it. Be sure to have the railcard with you when you travel or you have to pay full price (so keep the tickets with the railcard if possible and take the lot for your journey).

The railcard options are:

16-17 Saver Railcard (gets you 50% off travel if you’re the right age)

16-25 Railcard (gets you 1/3 off off-peak travel when you’re this age)

25-30 Railcard (same as 16-25 railcard; I don’t know why the two are not just combined into a 16-30 card to be honest)

Disabled person’s railcard (1/3 off peak AND off-peak travel for you and a carer/friend)

Family and Friends Railcard (great for group bookings, this gets you 1/3 off for up to 4 adults and 60% off for up to 4 children). You only need ONE family and friends railcard for your booking, not one per person.

Network Railcard (perfect if you live in the South East, this covers 16 of the home counties and London. You get 1/3 off for up to 4 adults and 4 children). However, if you can get the family and friends railcard, the discount is better than the network railcard, and the family and friends one covers the whole of Britain. Again, you only need ONE Network Railcard for your booking, not one per person.

Senior Railcard (1/3 off for the over 60s)

Two together railcard (1/3 off for you and one other person) This card has no age restrictions or other requirements so anyone can get this card as long as you’re travelling on the train with someone else.

Veteran’s Railcard (discount and terms unclear). This card is for anyone who has served at least 1 day in the UK forces (including territorial/reserves) or anyone in the merchant navy who has seen active duty on UK operations.

With so many cards to choose from, there is probably one that can get your ticket price down.

What if you can’t get a UK railcard?

If you aren’t eligible to get a UK railcard, look into whether you can get an Interrail or Eurail pass if you’re coming from another country (or if you have a foreign passport). If you’re doing a lot of traveling in a short amount of time, this could save you hundreds compared to the cost of individual tickets. The Interrail pass is for Europeans. The Eurail pass is mainly for Americans.

The terms and conditions are very specific to your individual situation so read all the info thoroughly. You may still need to pre-book tickets at the train station (don’t pre-book via Trainline or anywhere else online if you have an Interrail/Eurail pass as it won’t work properly and you may end up paying full price for the tickets which puts you back to square one).

With or without a railcard, another good way to reduce the cost of your ticket is to split the journey (ideally on the same train).

What is journey splitting?

Due to ticket pricing algorithms, it is often more expensive to buy a ticket from a main city to another main city (or tourist destination). There might be another train station right next to your usual one where prices are cheaper. For example, if you’re travelling from Stoke on Trent to Derby, it could be cheaper to get a ticket from Stoke to Uttoxeter, then Uttoxeter to Derby. As long as the two tickets together cover your full journey on the train, this is fully legal and allowed.

There are sites that can help you find the best price for splitting your journey, otherwise, you can “overbook” your ticket.

What is overbooking?

Overbooking is booking a ticket for more stops than you actually wanted to travel to. Bizarrely, it can sometimes be cheaper than a shorter journey. This works best with day tickets or day returns due to the way ticketing works.

Say you wanted to go from York to Leeds. The trainline goes Nether Poppleton, York, Leeds, Bradford (I’m simplifying the stops here). It could be cheaper for you to get a ticket from Nether Poppleton to Leeds, or from York to Bradford, or from Nether Poppleton to Bradford. Put all of these into your train ticket booking site (such as National Rail Enquiries) to find the cheapest ticket, then get on/off at your usual stops. So you could buy a ticket that starts at Nether Poppleton, but still get on the train at York. As long as your ticket is valid for the whole journey, this is allowed.

Does this work with ticket barriers?

I have never had a problem using a ticket at ticket barriers but it depends on the ticket type and how rigid your journey times are.

With an anytime single or day return, if you’re on a train with a long stop, e.g. York to Manchester, and you get off at Leeds to grab a McDonald’s then get back on the train for the rest of your journey, you would need to go through the ticket barriers to get to McDonald’s. The day ticket (anytime single) or day return would allow you to do this. The same would apply to an over-booked ticket, for the same reason. The ticket barrier doesn’t know why you got off the train, but it should know that the ticket is valid.

Instead of being classed as an “anytime single” or “day return”, some tickets are classed as a “this journey only ticket”. These might not register correctly at the barriers for a different station to the ones where the journey begins and ends, so trying to get on at a later station can be a little more risky, but a reasonable ticket guard would check your ticket, see it’s valid for the train at the platform, and let you get on.

Avoid London if possible

Many tickets are more expensive if they include “London Terminals” (the big train stations in London). This includes travel via King’s Cross, Marylebone, St. Pancras, Waterloo, etc. If you can organize your journey avoiding these stations, you can probably bring the price down significantly.

For example, let’s say you’re travelling from Newcastle (Upon Tyne) to Bristol Temple Mead. Instead of going Newcastle to London on one train then changing at London to get to Bristol, you could specify a different route on your ticket booking to avoid London. So you could travel Newcastle to Birmingham New Street then Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Mead and it would work out cheaper (for this specific journey, this route is also quicker, and there’s usually a direct Newcastle-Bristol train that you could travel on, depending on the time of day you were travelling).

Some tickets even say, “avoiding London terminals” on them. If yours says this, you have got a cheaper ticket that hasn’t had the “London surcharge” applied to it.

Nice ideas, but what if you’re travelling TO London?

If you are trying to travel to London, you will probably be looking at the most expensive train tickets in the UK. No one knows why. The pricing of tickets to or from London doesn’t make any sense when you think about rules of “economies of scale” or “supply and demand” but there we go.

Travelling to or from London, you have two options to reduce your ticket cost, depending on where you live and whether you drive (or can get a bus) or not.

Your first option is to drive/bus to the edge of London, park at a train station such as Luton/Leagrave, Slough, Croydon etc then get just your TfL ticket for the overground/underground to reach your final destination.

The other option is, you could book your main train ticket to the edge of one of the TfL zones (the areas of London are broken up into zones and underground/overground tickets are priced according to which zones you’re going to) then use your debit card or oyster card to finish the journey. Paying separately like this can work out cheaper for some people, it depends on where you’re trying to go and what the cost for the full ticket is.

Overall though, get one of the railcards mentioned above to cover your main journey, then prepare to still bend over and be screwed a bit by the London train ticket prices.

Do also consider alternatives to the train (such as the bus) in areas of London where this is feasable. Some areas, especially at peak hours, the bus takes longer than just walking due to traffic, but other areas, such as Twickenham or Southwark, the bus is a reasonable and cheap alternative. I actually had a decently fast bus ride from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square during the middle of the day last time I was in London, though, so don’t rule this out even in Zone 1!

Will these methods add to my journey time?

Not if you were travelling that way anyway. If you were going into London, at some point you would have to change from a mainline train to an underground/overground train anyway, so you might as well do it in the cheapest possible way.

The TfL network has clear and transparent fixed prices for the different zones whereas the mainline (longer distance) trains tend not to have transparent prices–and that’s where you want to avoid getting ripped off. In my own experience the main thing that adds to journey time is transfers, so if there’s a lot of walking such as between a train station and an underground station, or from a station to a bus stop, then a wait for the next mode of transport, it can take ages.

But if you’re splitting a ticket and staying on the same train, or getting off the mainline one stop early and getting the underground, you shouldn’t have a noticeable difference in journey times. Use a journey planner to help you decide (Google’s one can be shockingly inaccurate), and make sure to include all the places you want to stop/change so you can get a realistic timing.

Conclusion:

There is a lot you can do to reduce the price of a train journey in the UK. It seems counter-intuitive to pay £30 extra for a railcard, but if it saves you £100 on a £300 booking, it’s absolutely worth it!

If you have any other (legal) methods to get train costs down, let me know in the comments.

Weekly writing prompt: Caution

Write one hundred words about caution. This could be a warning of a danger, or someone who is overly-cautious, or any other interpretation of the topic. In the twentieth century, in England, people would say, “he’s a caution” about someone when they meant the person was very funny.

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Weekly writing prompt: Cross

This week, write 100 words about “cross”. This could be a literal cross, such as the Saxon or Celtic crosses that can be found at the roadside in some areas of Britain, or perhaps something Christian, or perhaps your character is feeling very cross with another character. Or maybe you want to write about a crossing. It’s entirely up to you.

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Vtech Starlight Sounds polar bear keeps stopping? Do this right now!

So I bought this singing bear toy to get my child to sleep.

The box says it has features. Like features.

This bear can read a story, sing a song, play “nature sounds” (which include white noise) and do a mixture of singing a song with nature sounds in the background. Honestly? I have it standing on the table beside me, playing songs as I write this and I’m feeling my eyelids getting heavy.

It’s impressive. Now that I’ve sorted out how to make it work.

When I first read it, I couldn’t find anything in the instruction manual telling me how to get this beautiful Starlight Sounds Polar Bear to work properly. That’s because it’s a stupid, tiny note on the very last page of a double-sided instruction manual which naturally opened onto the reverse side (and it wasn’t clear it was all a 100% English manual with double-sided instructions).

It makes me sad that parents around the world will be returning this toy to the shop with disappointed children because of a big oversight in the layout of the instructions. The “note” at the very bottom of page 7 should have been on the front page (the one with the picture of the bear).

Previously we had the Chad Valley singing jellyfish which does three songs, just the melodies, in midi tones, with no volume control. The top of the jellyfish lit up but didn’t project. It was ok until our baby hit about 5 months then it stopped captivating him. The Starlight Sounds Polar Bear projects color-changing stars onto the ceiling and there are three different lighting modes.

It’s everything I hoped it would be.

But it almost wasn’t.

See, when we got the bear it would only play for about 30 seconds then it turned itself off. I followed the troubleshooting instructions in the manual which said to remove the batteries for a few minutes then replace them to solve any issues. Two new sets of batteries later, this bedtime bear still didn’t work properly.

We missed the window to get my toddler to sleep in his bed tonight and my husband took him out in the pushchair.

It’s been 8 months since we were last able to settle our baby in his bed instead of the pushchair (ever since the day we moved to our new home in Ireland) and I was so hopeful that the Starlight Sounds Polar Bear would change that.

I knew from the Little Baby Bum Singing Storybook that sometimes, toys have a “demo mode” so they can give a quick demonstration in the shop. I wondered if the polar bear was stuck on demo mode, but the instructions and box didn’t say anything about that. And I couldn’t find a switch anywhere. I’d even had the batteries out, as mentioned.

I was getting really disheartened and worried that I was going to have to return the toy and buy a different one (I’d had my eye on the Chicco one when I found the Vtech Starlight Sounds Polar Bear in Home Bargains in Derry yesterday; I paid £24.99 for it).

Then I found it. The reason the bear wasn’t working properly. The thing that was making the Starlight Sounds Polar Bear switch off every 30 seconds.

The polar bear has white legs. Next to one back leg, there’s something that looks like a white label. Neither my husband nor I saw this while looking for a way to make the polar bear work better. Look carefully at the photos (I’ve made it easy by circling the label in red):

It’s not a label. It’s the tab that keeps the bear on demo mode. Pull the tab out and discard. Your bear should work now. You might still need to do a hard reset by following the troubleshooting instructions (switch off, remove the batteries for several mins, replace batteries, switch on).

As you can see in my second photo, there’s writing on the tab that says “please remove this strip”. Unfortunately, because of the way these bears are packaged, the tab gets folded so you don’t see that side at all until you are already looking for a tab to pull out.

If they’d inserted the tabs the other way around, or folded the tab in the other direction, it would have been a lot clearer, but with a white tab against white bear legs, it just wasn’t obvious at all that there was a pull tab to take this toy out of demo mode. I felt so silly when I got to the bottom of it, but at the same time, it seriously wasn’t obvious.

The only other issue I’ve had with this polar bear is that I tested the “sound-activated” aspect (when your baby cries for more than 4 seconds, it should light up and play soothing sounds). I varied my cry patterns, loudness and pitch, but it’s not turning itself back on for me. I would want to see this in action with a baby before saying that feature isn’t working on my model, because it might be attuned only to baby voices e.g. to filter out adult conversation or TV voices so it’s not constantly getting activated by the wrong things? I’m not sure.

The voices on the singing feature are good, and Vtech have chosen a strong selection of songs and nursery rhymes to get a baby to sleep. There is a playlist in the instruction manual. The sounds and music are good, too.

There is variation between the UK/Ireland version (where the product is called the “Little Friendlies Starlight Sounds Polar Bear”) and the US version (where the product is called the “Li’l Critters Soothing Starlight Polar Bear) and, like the Toot Toot Cory Carson car range (aka Go! Go! Cory Carson in the US), they have re-recorded the voicing to make it sound a little bit more local.

The volume control is also excellent, and you can make it louder if your baby is trying to sleep in a bigger room (or to make the toy heard over a car engine, for example) or you can make it quieter if your baby is in a smaller room or if you live in the country where the nights are quiet. Except for all those animal noises.

The toy itself doesn’t look very cuddly and I didn’t think it would get a lot of mileage as a soft toy, but my little one doesn’t like cuddly toys anyway. He likes things that light up and make noises. So this was an instant winner.

Now that I know what went wrong with using this as a bedtime sleeping aid tonight, I feel more confident about trying again with it tomorrow night and seeing if we can build a habit of little Jellyfish finally going back to sleep in his own bed.

You can buy the Little Friendlies Starlight Sounds Polar Bear on UK Amazon. This currently says dispatch time to Ireland and Northern Ireland (I tried both my addresses) is 1-2 months (seriously??) so I’d recommend getting it from Home Bargains instead.

Buy the Li’l Critters Soothing Starlight Polar Bear on US Amazon.

A beautiful peacock butterfly came to visit

Following on from my posts about attracting pollinators to the garden and which plants are good for pollinators, my buddleja has been sitting outside the patio doors for the last couple of weeks waiting to be placed in its final spot (once the flowerbed has actually been laid) and we’ve had two lovely flying visitors!

Both of them are peacock butterflies which is super exciting! They were so lovely. I spotted them on one of the buddleja’s flowerheads enjoying some pollen. Quickly, I reached for my phone to photograph them and… disaster! My phone wasn’t in the house! I’d left it in the car!

I tried to hurry (not easy at 6 months pregnant) and managed to grab it, then I went around the side of the house hoping to sneak up on the butterflies at the back. This was a mission because my dear husband has a habit of laying all his wood out on the concrete path that leads around the back of the house instead of putting it away somewhere, so I was wobbling around on the uneven drainage ditch in flip-flops trying to get a snap of these butterflies!

I got into the perfect position, a few feet away, and tried to open my phone, but the unlock screen glitched! Arrgh! My iPhone 7 often refuses to recognize my fingerprint so I had to put in the full passcode. I tapped it out. Got the camera open. Started to zoom in on the butterflies. And they decided they weren’t hungry anymore so they flew off!

That was yesterday.

Today, one of them came back. I snapped some pics through the glass of the patio doors but I wanted a clearer image.

I managed to open the patio doors without scaring the butterfly away, and here are the pictures I managed to take!

The peacock butterfly is widespread across the Island of Ireland. It’s easy to recognize by its beautiful markings which range from yellow and blue to black. It’s quite a big butterfly compared to some of the others (such as the white butterflies you often see). When its wings are closed however, they look completely brown!

I hope our new butterfly friends visit again soon!

You may also like to know about the black frog that visits our garden.

10 Plants for Pollinators in Ireland and UK (and how to plant them)

When we first viewed our new home, I was surprised that the back garden was just grass. There was no fencing on one side of the garden, either, and next door’s back garden (and the one after them) were also just grass. It seems like people on our street just don’t really bother about landscaping.

Mowing the lawn seems to be a pastime here. Most of our neighbours have either a petrol mower or a ride-on petrol mower! I know our garden is large (compared to most of the ones in our price range… still not large enough to accidentally plant the wrong type of willow tree, see below) but seriously, I couldn’t imagine using petrol to mow! Most people do their front lawns weekly and their back ones every two weeks.

When I think about it, I wonder how many “new build” estate houses (ours isn’t that new but it was built in the 21st century) just have a big green blob of grass out back which people mow because heaven forbid any grass actually grow to its full height out there.

I’m looking at our grass-covered garden as a blank canvas. We’ve already completed some big projects this year, such as drainage, but mostly there’s so much that needs doing, we’re basically just getting it ready for next year.

One thing we’re both in agreement on is turning the final metre of garden into a wildflower haven to attract pollinators. One of the best things about high-pollen plants is they are usually very beautiful to look at, too.

Obviously, if you have allergies you need to plan your pollinator garden more carefully but there may still be ways to do it. For example, if you’re allergic to night pollen, plant flowers which produce more pollen during the day and avoid things like night-scented jasmine; if you’re allergic to tree pollen, give your garden height with shrubs instead of trees.

Pollinators are the insects such as bumblebees that pollinate all plants. Pollen-heavy plants attract them, but once they’re here, they will also pollinate your vegetables, fruit trees and other plants as well. And their numbers are decreasing. For more ideas about how to attract pollinators, check out this article.

With that in mind, here are ten plants that attract pollinators and how to plant them:

Buddleia (aka buddleja)

This lovely shrub grows to about 1.5 metres cubed (actually it won’t be cube-shaped, but you know what I mean) and attracts butterflies and bees. I’ve talked about it before in this article.

In many parts of the world, it’s a weed, and you might recognize it if you commute to London on the train as it really likes TfL’s railway embankments. I’ve also seen it thriving in the wild in Belfast, Donegal and Aberdeen so it can definitely cope with everything Britain/Ireland have to offer in terms of temperature/weather!

Buddleja Davidii seems to be the most common buddleia available at the moment, and it comes in several colours/sizes, but there are actually lots of other varieties of buddleia available to buy/plant. As it’s a shrub, it’s usual to buy a ready-grown shrub from a garden centre then plant it in a nice spot and watch it grow, rather than cultivating from seed. I got mine from Letterkenny Homebase and it was about 30cm when I bought it but in the past month it’s already grown to about 45cm.

How to grow buddleia:

Plant out: May-Sep

Flowers: July-Sep

Buddleia allegedly needs full sun and well-drained soil, but in my experience, it’s a very forgiving plant and can tolerate some shade and imperfect soil. If you don’t have good drainage, add horticultural grit or sharp sand to your soil and mix it in. The amount of grit/sand you need depends on the original state of your soil. Buddleia can thrive in partial shade, too, so don’t give up if you don’t have a full-sun spot for it!

Verbena

Growing up to 2m high, verbena can add height and structure to your garden, creating a layered effect when planted along with plants of other sizes. Verbena has purple flowers at the top of long, thin stalks. Visually, it can work well with lavender, sea holly and rosemary.

How to grow verbena:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-May

Flowers: Jun-Sep

Verbena needs well-drained soil that is watered regularly. It prefers full sun but, due to those long thin stalks, it needs to be sheltered from high winds–a difficult twin requirement to pull off unless you have a south-facing garden with a short-ish fence at the bottom. The best way to plant it is by the fence that gets the most sun in your garden, then plant something shorter in front, such as lavender, to protect the verbena’s stalks without obliterating your view of the flowers.

Salvia

The main variety is salvia officinalis, commonly known as the herb sage. But there are tons of other salvias available in all sorts of beautiful colors and sizes. With over 900 subspecies to choose from, some salvias can be quite fussy while others are very hardy. Some other salvias aren’t as attractive to pollinators as they don’t produce enough pollen, so do your homework before placing an order with a nursery.

How to grow salvias:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-Jun

Flowers: Jun-Nov

Salvias need to be in full sun. They also require well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil (such as clay soil) you need to add sand or horticultural grit to your garden and potentially put in a drainage system such as a French drain (named after a Mr. French, not the country). The fussiest salvias are not frost resistant, so plant those ones in containers that can be put in a greenhouse or a potting shed over winter and during cold snaps.

Lavender

With its characteristic fragrance, it’s easy to identify lavender. There are varieties in purple, bluey-purple, pink and pure white, making it easy to match lavender to the rest of your garden’s planting scheme. Most varieties don’t grow too tall, making it an ideal choice for borders. And the visual effect of lavender works extremely well when you plant a section of about 2 metres or more.

Lavender has a reputation for being tricky to grow from seed, but I’ve found it wasn’t, certainly compared to some other plants, such as echinacea. The main two varieties of lavender are English (lavandula angustifolia) which has smaller heads and overall is a more compact plant, and French lavender (lavandula stoechas), which is taller and has these odd long petals that make it look like it grew a ponytail! The French version is more fragrant but the English one is not lacking in scent, either! I’ve grown English lavender from seed this year (see picture above).

How to grow lavender:

Sow/Plant out: Sow indoors March-June; plant out June-Aug.

Flowers: It doesn’t flower in the first year. After that, it should flower Jun-Sep.

Lavenders prefer full sun but they also enjoy growing in partial shade. Their main requirements are excellent drainage alongside a constantly moist soil. In pots or planters, lavender can easily dry out if not watered frequently enough. As far as soil type, they prefer sandy soil, so if you have heavy clay, consider creating a raised bed and adding a hefty amount of sharp sand to the soil to accommodate lavender. They don’t really need extra plant feed or fertiliser. Lavender will die in waterlogged heavy clay.

Campanula Rotundifolia

One of the most beautiful sights along the Donegal coastline is the wild, natural campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell, AKA the harebell) which grows in clumps alongside the sandy paths on the way to the beach.

There are a few other varieties of campanula which you can grow (and 500 worldwide varieties in total). The Scottish bluebell variety is edible and can be used to decorate cupcakes (although the picked flowers will shrivel if left more than a day, of course). I’m not sure about some of the others, but there are other varieties such as campanula rapunculus which are also edible. You can buy the campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell) variety in packets of seeds, but check the full Latin name of the seeds you’re buying before eating, in case you have one of the other types of campanula.

I’ve noticed Homebase and Tesco in particular are bad at not giving the full genus/species name for plants they’re selling (I have a plant from Tesco that’s just called “aloe” with nothing on the label stating whether it’s aloe vera or aloe barbadensis or something else enirely). This article from Gardener’s World outlines 10 of the most interesting campanulas to grow in the UK/Ireland.

I bought my campanulas. The RRP was €6.45 but I got mine for 50¢ as they were “looking a bit dead”. As you can see from the photo they have perked up a lot over the past two months and are now flowering!

How to grow campanula rotundifolia:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: June to first frost, so usually October in most parts of UK/Ireland

Campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebells/English harebells) grow best in well-drained soil, they don’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, but they also don’t enjoy 100% sand soils, because they like a bit of fertility to their soil. They are a coastal plant in Donegal and native to some of the rest of the Irish west coast, too, which tells you they like it wet and well-drained! They don’t require any pruning/maintenance, although you might need to thin them out every so often if you planted a lot of seed close together.

Erica (heather)

If you’ve ever been to the Scottish Highlands, you can’t miss the way the landscape changes from grassy, human-cultivated fields to a magical wilderness where heather takes the place of grass and suddenly the ground is a riot of colour.

Heather can work well in an ericaceous garden (surprisingly, since all heathers are ericas), alongside hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, although none of these others are especially attractive to pollinators. An ericaceous plant that does appeal better to pollinators is the blueberry bush.

How to grow heather:

Plant out: Depends on type (see below).

Flowers: Depends on type. Some flower at Christmas, due to being accustomed to the colder temperatures of very high latitudes/altitudes, while others are summer-flowering in the UK/Ireland.

Heather thrives in peaty, nutrient-packed soil with a high organic matter content, with high moisture and acidity. It won’t enjoy most clay soils, because clay is generally alkaline (not all clays are like that… test yours with universal indicator paper cheaply available from any soapmaking supplier, or a pH meter if you have cash to splash), so you would have to put heather in a specially-adjusted area of your garden, or grow it in a planter. Planters are difficult for heathers because you have to fertilise regularly to maintain the level of fertility they require, which can be effort for the busy gardener.

Snowdrop

Another plant with a billion different species, the snowdrop (genus galanthus) is a winter-flowering plant. The most common one is galanthus elwesii, and this is the one you might have seen quietly blossoming on the forest floor during a crisp winter walk.

Snowdrops are perennials, and more will grow each year. Thinning is required once a year in March or April (dig them out and plant the extra ones somewhere else) to ensure they’re not competing with each other for nutrients, water and space.

How to grow snowdrops:

Plant out: October/November

Flowers: December-March (depending how far north you are)

Snowdrops like shaded areas such as beneath trees in wooded areas, and they dislike full sun. Most pollinators are hibernating in the winter months, but those who aren’t will surely appreciate your efforts to provide them with some delicious pollen! They require fertile soil rich in organic matter (ideally humus from dead and decayed plants, so compost is a much better choice than manure for snowdrops… think of them as vegetarians). Snowdrops tolerate wet soil, but like most other plants, they don’t like being drowned during heavy rain, so a soil with at least passable drainage is best if you want year after year of snowdrops (remember that when they’re not flowering, the bulbs lie dormant in the ground for the rest of the year). Mostly, if you get the growing conditions right, they’ll take care of themselves (aside from requiring thinning as mentioned above).

Borage

A bright blue plant with distinctive, star-shaped flowers, borage is an edible plant whose flowers can be used as a garnish for dishes, although the leaves can also cause dermatitis if you’ve got sensitive skin, so be careful. Because it’s edible (and non-toxic), borage is a great choice to plant in a child-friendly garden or near your vegetable patch to attract pollinators.

Borage is an annual, so it lives and dies in one lifecycle, but it’s also self-seeding, so when it dies, its flower heads drop seeds that will grow again next year.

How to grow borage:

Sow/Plant out: Sow March-May, plant out May-June

Flowers: June-November (may stop flowering earlier depending on when the first frosts are)

Borage prefers full sun or very partial shade, but it will still survive in a bit more shade and less sun. It also needs well-drained soil. Borage doesn’t grow well in containers as it has a taproot (like carrots and dandelions) that needs at least 30cm of well-drained soil to enable it to grow to its full size, but it’s doable with a very deep container.

Willow trees

The willow tree is one most people have heard of. But did you know there are a lot of different varieties, and there’s almost certainly one which will suit your garden! The fluffy catkins attract pollinators.

Depending on what sort of garden you have, you might want to grow a salix chrysochoma, aka the weeping willow (loves waterlogged soil, but has a huge root network so needs to be about 20m from your house at its full height), or you might prefer a salix alba, the upright white willow, so-called because of its pale trunk, branches and twigs. It prefers a slightly less wet garden but still drinks a lot of water and grows very tall.

If you have a smaller garden, the more compact salix caprea (which grows to only 2m high at its tallest) or salix purpurea pendula (which reaches 2.5m high), both of which will require regular pruning to keep them from looking like a giant birds nest.

How to grow willow trees:

Plant out: All year round. Don’t plant in the middle of a hot sunny day, wait until evening or risk scorching the roots. Likewise, don’t plant out during a frosty spell, the roots might freeze in the cold soil.

Buy a sapling from a garden centre. Check the full Latin name of the tree you are buying to make sure you are getting the right type of willow tree for your garden. If you have a small garden, take care not to buy something from a supermarket that’s just labelled “willow tree” because it’s likely to be one of the tall ones (they’re cute when they’re babies but be sure you have the room for when they reach 20 metres tall).

Willows will mostly take care of themselves but you do need to ensure they have enough water, either by watering them yourself or (better) only planting them if you have a soil that’s damp most of the year around. Prune them in October (it’s illegal to prune trees during bird nesting season which lasts March-September).

Poppy

Another plant with many different varieties to choose from, the poppy is a beautiful wildflower native to the UK and Europe. The most recognizable poppy for anyone who grew up in Great Britain is the red Flanders poppy, which the cardboard November 11th Remembrance Day poppy sold widely in Britain is modeled after. Poppies are easy to grow and some seed companies even do children’s grow-your-own varieties.

Aside from the Flanders poppy, there are also poppies in different colours and sizes to choose from, such as the Himalayan blue (which has the hilarious Latin name meconopsis), the great scarlet poppy, or the bridal white poppy, which in recent decades has become an increasingly-popular symbol of peace in the UK. There’s also the orange Californian poppy and the yellow Mongolian poppy. Really, look at the range on a seed site like Thompson and Morgan and you’ll be amazed at just how many different poppies you can buy!

Be aware that not all poppy seeds are edible, and some can be toxic. Poppies are where the old-fashioned drug opium came from and some countries ban them completely because of this (you cannot get poppy seed rolls in China, for example), so be sure not to try flying with a packet of poppy seeds!

How to grow poppies:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: May-July

Some poppies are a little longer-lived than others, but like most summer-flowering plants, they’re best sowed between March-June (although if you live in the Highlands of Scotland or Ireland you might get away with planting them into July). They thrive in almost any soil type (except waterlogged) and prefer full sun or partial shade depending on the variety.

Allium

A tall, gangly plant with a long, thick stalk (like a daffodil’s) and a globe-shaped flowerhead, allium is actually a flowering variety of onion. In fact, if you’ve ever tried growing your own onions, you may have had a couple that flowered instead of becoming onions. If you plant a supermarket onion that has sprouted, it will flower, too (I tried this once).

Alliums are gaining popularity amongst gardeners because they are a structural, geometric-looking plant which is great for pollinators. They’re also fairly easy to grow and can tolerate most soil types.

How to grow allium:

Plant out: Sow directly into the ground in Oct-Nov.

Flowers: May-June

Alliums will grow best in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter, but they’ll tolerate almost every soil type. They are planted in autumn to “overwinter” which means the bulbs will lie dormant in the ground until springtime when they will finally start to grow (much like autumn-planting onions, shallots and garlic, which they’re related to).

Alliums are annuals and I haven’t yet managed to get them to self-seed. The usual advice is to dig them back into the garden (mulching) once the leaves have died.


Read next:

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

Bees have been in decline for about the past 15 years. I believe it was 2006 when David Tennant uttered the immortal line on Doctor Who: “Why are the bees disappearing?”

It was a question they never answered. Because no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no noisy battle with the Daleks could fix the problem. The bees ARE disappearing… [read more]