That’ll do micely

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Prune plays with a catnip mouse 

Two old bachelors were living in one house;
One caught a muffin, the other caught a mouse.

The Two Old Bachelors, by Edward Lear, 1894

I have two cats who barely require artificial stimulation to behave like crazed hellions, perching cosily on the cooker hood, slinking along shelves and mantle pieces, dive-bombing guests from the tops of doors and wardrobes and brazenly eating the dog’s dinner while he looks on mournfully.

So providing them voluntarily with catnip (other than the free-range stuff they shred and roll on outside) is a perilous activity. But for the purpose of the book, I briefly became their pusher. Yuki, our patient and lovely photographer, managed to capture Prune’s eyes-closed-in-ecstasy, holding-on-with-claws-of-steel pose, before the poor little mouse was shredded to death. An interesting point: the dog was just as interested in the mouse as the cats were, though he ignores the catnip growing outside.

If you don’t grow catnip, do give it a go. It will certainly bring all the cats to your yard, but it’s terribly undemanding and pretty. Its soft purple flowers and silvery green leaves fill in many a blank space in my garden, and they’re great as underplanting for roses where they cover up the boring sticky bits wonderfully. It also makes a very good, calming tisane. Someone should tell the cats.

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Catmint mice

Scraps of strong cotton fabric, corduroy or tweed
String or ribbon, for the tails
Hollow fill fibre toy stuffing, available from craft suppliers
2 teaspoons dried catmint for each mouse
Scraps of felt for the ears
Embroidery thread, for the eyes
Pins
Needle and thread or sewing machine

For each mouse, cut a heart-shaped paper template, approximately 18cm at its widest point. Pin this to your fabric and cut round it. Cut the fabric heart in half along the central point so that you have two pieces. Place the right sides of the fabric together and tuck the tail in position so that you catch it as you sew around the mouse. Pin together and stitch, leaving a gap of about 3cm in the base of the mouse. Turn the mouse right-side out and press.

Fill the mouse with the hollow fill fibre and a couple of teaspoons of dried catmint, then sew up the hole in the base securely. Cut small triangles of felt for the ears and stitch them on. Embroider small crosses for eyes. The catmint mouse’s scent will remain strong for several months.

Growing Catmint

Hardy perennial catmint, Nepeta, gets its common name from the near-narcotic effect it has on cats, but it makes a very attractive border plant in its own right. Plant in well-drained soil in sun or light shade and when the first flowers have faded, cut right back to within a few centimetres of the soil line to encourage lush growth and a second crop of flowers. if you are cultivating it for your cat, you’ll need to protect it. Cats will roll around on the plants in a state of ecstasy and gnaw the foliage down to the stems. Poking some twigs or sticks into the ground around the plant and tying some garden twine in a web between the sticks can help stop the worst of the damage.

Gifts from the Garden by Debora Robertson (Kyle Books, £16.99) Photography: Yuki Sugiura

Deck the halls

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Every December, I buy a plain evergreen wreath from Mrs Grover’s stall at Columbia Road. She sells her own beautifully decorated wreaths but I love the slow, scented ritual of creating my own. This year, I raided the kitchen cupboards to make a cook’s wreath finished with some of my favourite flavours of the season: oranges and lemons, cloves, cinnamon and star anise.

Making a wreath is incredibly easy and – a bonus – it gives me the chance to get my glue gun out (£2 at a church jumble sale, thank you very much). In my enthusiasm, I always forget how bloody hot the glue gets. Still, and I’m sure Martha would agree, nothing says ‘Happy Christmas’ like a new set of fingerprints.

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You need…

  • A plain wreath
  • Glue – a glue gun works brilliantly, particularly if you are on the run, but any strong, clear-setting glue is fine
  • Green florist’s wire from garden centres or DIY shops
  • Raffia or ribbon
  • A selection from the decorative bits and pieces below


Dried orange slices
Preheat the oven to 130°C/250°F/Gas Mark 1. Slice the oranges about 4mm thick. Lay them out on a tea towel and press out some of their moisture with another tea towel or kitchen paper. Lay them on an ovenproof rack and place it on top of a baking tray. Place in the oven and after the first 15 minutes, turn the oven down to its lowest setting and leave the oranges to dry out for about 5-6 hours, turning them halfway through and opening the door from time to time to let out the steam. Turn off the oven and leave them to continue to dry out in the cooling oven. You can dry apple slices in the same way.

Once the orange slices are completely dry, glue them together in piles of three or four. Poke two holes in the stack of slices with a dowel and thread enough green florists’ wire through the holes to hold them together and to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire by sticking a star anise over the top.
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Cinnamon bundles
You can buy packs of cinnamon for crafting quite cheaply on Ebay – I bought mine, £2.50 for 40x8cm sticks, from www.floristrywarehouse.com. Stick them together in bundles, tie some floristry wire around them with enough excess to tie them around the wreath. Hide the wire with a raffia or ribbon bow.

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Oranges and lemons
Whole fruits look great and smell wonderful tied to your wreath. Poke a hole through the fruit with a skewer, thread some wire through the hole, leaving enough excess to tie around the wreath. If you like, you can stud the fruit with cloves.

Other things you can tie or stick onto your wreath if you like…

  • Pine cones
  • Bundles of woody herbs such as rosemary or thyme
  • Bits of holly or ivy
  • Nuts
  • Sprigs of eucalyptus or laurel


To assemble your wreath…
Simply tie all of your orange slices, lemons and bundles of cinnamon to your wreath, twisting the wire several times at the back of the wreath to secure them firmly. Trim off the ends of the wire with secateurs. Lighter things, such as apple slices and nuts can be glued directly onto the wreath.

Impractically perfect in every way

When we were building a new kitchen onto the back of our Victorian house a couple of years ago, we planned to build a desk in the old, long-abandoned fireplace. How practical. The narrow alcove could be inexpensively adapted to house a writing surface for typing up recipes, paying bills and scribbling shopping lists. I’m bored just typing that.

One wintery afternoon, as I snaked along Oxford Street on the 73 bus, I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted at all. I wanted a proper fireplace, at waist height, like the ones I’d see in houses in France and Spain, one where we could grill a few steaks or sardines, roast some vegetables, cook a shish kebab or two. At great expense, the old chimney was lined. Supports were sunk into the heat-proof concrete to hold the grills.

If I’m honest, we don’t use it much to cook on. When the wind’s blowing in a certain direction, it smokes like it’s auditioning for a bit part in Shameless, staining the perfect white walls and ceiling with soot and stinging our eyes like a particularly vengeful onion. But I love it. The smell of it, the sight of it, the way it warms by back when I’m at the stove. Most of all, I love its wildly unruly and wilful presence in what would otherwise be a pristine steel and glass cube.

Firelighters
I’m all for recycling and one thing we have a lot of in this house is corks. I tip these into a jar filled with cheap brandy, a few cloves and a stick or two of cinnamon. They make great little firelighters tucked in among the crumpled newspaper and kindling, and they smell wonderful too.