Garden notes: Up and out

The last vase of forsythia was thrown on the compost this week, and in came the first of the cherry branches. Their flowers hang in little pairs, compact, pale pink intensified into fuchsia buds. A day or two in the warm and they’ll be out: silly, frilly, and gorgeous. We are on a roll, now: forsythia, cherry, lilac and may – the spring blossom which spreads itself over the full three months of the season. It doesn’t matter that I can’t bring myself to cut the apple or the pear; plenty else is coming out.

Things are coming up, too, as I had hoped they would. It’s an act of faith, putting tiny seeds into the vast brown earth and trusting that they’ll emerge, days later, to dodge the weeds and the slugs and the violent rain and hail. Yesterday: bare earth. Doubt creeping into my mind, and a vague plan to sow more peas indoors, where I can control the process in a length of guttering. Today: a neat row of shoots, with not a single one missing, quarter of an inch high. Yesterday: weeds where the swedes went in, and worried consultation on how long they should take to come through. Today: gentle weeding and then a moment of recognition as, crouching and looking hard, the first tiny heart shaped leaves were spied. Yesterday: a lonely red onion, uprooted by the birds, pushed gently back into its hole. Today: fleshy shoots sketching out the rows in the vaguest of dot to dots.

After the warmth and light of last week, the past few days have been sullen and prone to angry outbursts. I wear my sunglasses and my waterproofs, pulling the hood down and glasses on as the quarter hour demands. Then the sun is hurried out of sight, and my hood comes up again. This is the sort of weather I find hard: when I’ve had a taste of what it could be and then: this. When I’m glad and disappointed all at once that I left the woollens out. The sort of weather when the garden simply doesn’t appeal, yet I know I must get out there as the weeds are growing and the only sunny things on the horizon are a multitude of dratted dandelions. So I rug up in my macintosh and head on out, and within ten minutes I am having a lovely time scrabbling around in the dirt. I welcome the new growth and shoo away the ever curious hens, before starting on those pesky yellow heads.

It’s a sign of how spoilt our hens are, that when they are put on the lawn they ignore the dandelions and nibble instead at the clover. They crop the grass like geese, and peck excitedly at insects. Yet when those selfsame weeds are pulled and put into my basket they become a delicacy, so that my progress around the garden is marked by a trail of nibbled remains, like a green-fingered Hansel or Gretel.

At last, after an hour or two, I know I ought to do those other things which are waiting for me: the wash with Mrs P, or the lunch which must be started, or the pile of rolled and ready ironing. By now I am so enjoying being out that I don’t want to go back in. So I pause for a moment, to see the bigger picture, and notice how the maple has come on overnight. The leaves are unfurling fast, still in their youthful shade of pink, offering shade to the hens below. It is the most colourful of all the trees in the garden, this little maple which stands before the chicken shed and softens that side of the garden. Over the next few months it’ll change from peach to mint to green to yellow to red, and then stand bare again the whole long winter. I’m so pleased to see it back in leaf once more: out, just as we all should be, at this time of year.

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Spring fashions, 1931

Hail one day, then glorious sunshine the next. April, in Yorkshire. Except that the sun has stayed with us for several days now, and temperatures are on the rise, and all that wool seems suddenly unseasonal. The time for cotton is most definitely here.

I have to admit that I really like changing our clothing over from one season to the next. There’s not that much involved. The pulling forward of cotton shirts and frocks. Making sure everyone has a set of decent bathers. Exchanging felt hats for straw, and heavy winter coats for canvas.

It’s the putting away which takes a little longer. Mrs P and I have been doing extra washes this week, of the woollens and the dressing gowns and so forth. Some things will stay out, refreshed, ready to be worn on cooler days or chilly evenings. Other things can be put away at the back of the wardrobe after a good airing, buttoned up and with the pockets basted shut to hold their shape. Boots are cleaned and polished ready for the next year or next child. Blankets flap on the line on a sunny afternoon and it feels like a thank you of sorts, this ritual week of putting things to rest. Sewing up little tears or undone seams, sponging dirty marks out of a lapel, putting our coats and jackets on the best padded hangers. They’ve kept us warm and dry all winter, and deserve to be looked after. They’ll be waiting when the calendar rolls on once more.

In the meantime, the cotton is shaken out and pressed. The girls head off to school in crisp green gingham, with white ankle socks and goosebumps on their calves. By first play, they assure me, it’s simply scorching. The boys are eagerly awaiting shirt sleeve orders. They ride home with blazers draped over their handlebars.

And I? Well, I’m getting to know these summer frocks of mine again. I’m enjoying seeing something different when I open the wardrobe door. I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, and what it holds for us, and making sure we all have what we need. There’ll be lots of normal life: gardening and housework and popping into York. The odd smart occasion, for which I think I’ll dress up my peonies frock. And lots of camping too, in July and August, which can be awkward in a skirt.

I decided to be bold, in the end, and bought a pair of slacks each for Fliss and myself. Needless to say, she looks the part in them, and loved them at once. I may take a little longer to get used to mine – a process which has not been helped by Mrs P’s reaction. But they are blissfully comfortable and so very, very practical. I wouldn’t wear them to church, or out to tea, but they’ll be perfect for life in a tent. And I must say, they look rather smart with a gay pullover and a pair of heels. So you can think what you like, Mrs P – I’m going to wear them anyway. It is 1931, after all.

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Garden notes: tender

Raising plants from seed is much like raising children. You begin by catering to their every need, but gradually push them out of their comfort zone, hoping they’ll flourish. Our plants are at different stages just now, all needing different kinds of attention, all so very young and tender.

The smallest seedlings are still nestled in one bay windowsill, catching as much sun as they can. Each day a few more announce their arrival, displaying their sturdy seed leaves with pride and trepidation. This week Seb’s globe artichokes emerged, and the second cucumber, and the first of the courgettes. Nurtured and safe, far from harm, we’ll keep them there until they are ready for the wider world.

The tomatoes, though, and the brassicas, were outgrowing this little nursery. They spend their days in the greenhouse now, although I still bring them in to the warmth of the kitchen each evening. The days are warm, but the nights are still so very cold, and I wouldn’t be any more surprised by another heavy frost than I was by the sudden hail which fell on Saturday. Spring weather, at once tentative and bold. Baby blue skies which can be sent scurrying away by the sharp words of some arctic wind, or a towering bully of clouds. They try their very best, but aren’t to be relied upon just yet.

They are putting on leaf, these little plants, the second and third and even fourth leaves in some cases. I think they think they’re bigger than they are. They’re staying with me, just a little longer, until April ends and they really can fend for themselves. And I think they like it, really, being carried in and out. Having a gentle hand brush over their leaves to get them ready for strong breezes. Hearing a few words of encouragement each morning – and a few idle threats from Seb to hurry them along.

All these plants are visited before breakfast, before the rounds of toast and frying of eggs and general scramble for shoes and blazers and bikes. When I’ve kissed them all goodbye, I make another cup of tea and set off on my morning round of the garden, seeing what’s new, deciding upon the day’s tasks. The rocket is up, and needs netting against the pigeons. The carrots, which I thought had failed, are making an appearance. And overnight the radishes have popped out of the ground with almost comical enthusiasm. Under their cloches, the lettuces have settled in and are beginning to put on leaf. The patch looks so painfully empty, but I know that underneath the earth good things are stirring. White, thread-thin roots are pushing into the tilth. The husk of seeds are brushed aside, releasing their vulnerable cargo. On a sunny day there is a gentleness about the place, as though all things will grow, all will succeed. Even the pigeons, the bane of my gardening life, coo gently to me as they fly around in pairs. Then the sun goes in, and the sky turns ashen, and rain and ice pelt the tender seedlings.

Today, though, is a good day. Washing is flapping on the line. I couldn’t paint a clearer sky. Under the apple tree, the bulbs are thriving, tulips and bluebells forcing their way up and past the gentle hellebores.  The pesky dandelions wink cheerfully from the edges. And when I look up, I see the beginnings of leaves, bright green against the blue. Tiny, and tender, and stronger than we think.

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Tipple

When we moved into this house, we found a number of things left about the place by the previous owners. Some of them were useful: lots of bamboo canes, for instance. Some were less so: the twisted goal posts and rusted wheelbarrows, unearthed when we cleared the bramble jungle. One of the better finds was a stash of demijohns, neat and dusty on a set of shelves, the remains of someone or other’s home-brew ambitions. We took this as an invitation to have a go.

Some things have gone mouldy, and been chucked out. Others have been enjoyed. More have been dreamt up than have been made. Eighteen months ago, though, faced with a bumper elderberry harvest, I decided the time was right to try a classic country wine. I boiled it and stirred it and mixed in the sugar and yeast. I poured it into the demijohns and was amused to find a row of children watching the bubbles rise, rise, then break through the airlocks. Then I put them in the shed, and never racked them off.

There’s been a flurry of spring cleaning, around here. The shed has been emptied and swept out, spider webs dealt with, garden tools sharpened and oiled. I dusted off three demijohns of wine,  wondered briefly what to do with them, and put them back. And there they sat until John, inspired by the last of the forced rhubarb, pulled them out. We tasted it (with some trepidation) and pronounced it really quite nice. A sort of fruity dry sherry, clear and rosy against the light. Perhaps, just perhaps, we were more inclined to like it than most. I don’t think I’ll inflict it on any guests, unless they truly want to try it. But we like it, and I’ll be making it again, this autumn.

In the meantime, John has filled a couple more containers with the type of tipple he is best at. So now there is rhubarb liqueur slowly infusing beside last year’s sloes. Day by day, the colour leaches from the fruit into the liquid, so that the drink turns pink while the rhubarb slowly fades to white. A few more days, a few more turns, and it can be put away for a while.

There are gardeners who raise whole allotments of parsnips or gooseberries each year with the sole purpose of making wine. I’m interested, but not that keen. When it comes to home made drinks, I’m definitely a dabbler. A little here, a little there, a bit of experimentation. I’d like to try an ale, soon. And an elderflower champagne.

In the meantime, there are drinks to be made which are best drunk straight away. Ilse brought me a doll’s teacup of cold mint water the other day, and very refreshing it was, too. I’ll make mint syrup as soon as there’s enough of it. In the meantime, I like to add a sprig or two to a cup of black tea. Warm and sweet and freshly herby, it’s the perfect brew for this time of year.

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Garden notes: slim pickings

The hungry gap is officially upon us, and harvest suddenly seems a very grand word for the little that is coming in. We are at the end of the old, and the very earliest beginnings of the new. There are plenty of apples still in store, but the parsnips will run out in a week or two. The tender shoots of brocolli are getting smaller and smaller, so that each time we pick a little more leaf and a little less bud. This is the way it goes, in the garden: you eat what there is, all of it, because you grew it and it tastes good.

Thankfully, the scales are slowly tipping in favour of the new. The spring cabbages are oh so nearly ready. The rhubarb is getting on just fine, in its new and sunny spot, and I can’t resist pulling the odd stem. And everywhere, inside and out, on windowsills and dressertops and in the crumbly brown beds themselves, seeds are sprouting and putting on leaf. Miniature leeks have almost finished touching their toes, and are reaching up to salute the sun. The brassicas are moving on from their familiar curvy seed leaves to frillier adornments. They each have their own style: dark green for the wintry savoys, light green for the summer cabbages, a hint of purple for the fussy cauliflowers. Tomatoes reach towards the light and it is a balancing act between flooding them with sunshine and keeping them safe and warm. Radishes, beetroot, rocket and scallions: none are anywhere near ready to be eaten, but they are in.

This is the time of year when I scout around the edges looking for a free harvest. One which took no sowing, no weeding, no feeds. Our Sunday chicken was adorned with fresh oregano as well as lemon. Fish comes with a taste of parsley. We all keep nibbling the mint.

The main haul at the moment, though, are the nettles. Young and bright and superbly full of sting, they are an unexpected favourite in this house. Each year I expect someone to complain, but no-one ever does. Perhaps it’s the witchiness of it, or the fact that they’re good for so short a time. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s so little else on offer. Or maybe it really does taste as good as I think it does, this scavenged soup, in a recipe made differently each time.

The very smallest harvest, though, I ate alone, in one greedy, excitable mouthful. Celeriac has such tiny seeds that you can’t help dropping too many into each pot. I took the nail scissors to them yesterday, for a spot of miniature pruning, before popping all the offcuts stright into my mouth. And although I knew that they should taste like celeriac, it was a joy to find that they did.

Am I the only gardener who takes a nibble here, a nibble there from the emerging seedlings? You’d think I was starving, but I’m not. There are baskets of veg coming home from the market. There is plenty else to eat. We are not really hungry in the hungry gap, living as we do in the nineteen thirties. Just impatient, and excited by a taste of what’s to come.

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In the garden

I’m an unreliable narrator. Ask in the depths of winter why we bought this house and I’ll tell you that it was for the tall sash windows and the number of rooms. The fact that we can all peel off to do our own things, indoors, but also congregate before the fire. We can spend the whole of the cold season here and not get cabin fever.

Ask me at any other time, though, and I’ll tell you that it was for the garden. The long, wide, village garden which dwarfed that of our little modern semi, squeezed onto the outskirts of York. The garden which we stepped into on a fine April day, the very first time we visited, and saw nothing but a large lawn, and flowers, and a little veg patch halfway down. A garden big enough for hens and all my other plans. Entranced, I failed to notice that the bottom half of the garden had been left to brambles – but that’s another story.

In truth, I’m not a particularly good gardener. I will never have the sort of garden that people exclaim over, and clasp their hands with joy at. I’m not very good with flowers, much as I love them. Creating a bed with different heights and textures and colour all year round is something which eludes me. Which isn’t great, when the fashionable thing, just now, is to have a garden in three parts: a patio, just outside the house, then a lawn surrounded by flower beds, and a little kitchen garden at the end. This is the goal, in 1930s gardening, as people move away from functional back yards to dream homes in the suburbs.

Our garden isn’t like that. If it has zones, they are these: a chicken shed, a veg patch, a fruit patch, another veg patch, a lawn, a fire pit and a wild bit at the end, for the children to get lost in. You won’t find me staking the peonies, because there aren’t any. Instead there are daffs, pushed into spare bits of soil and the herb pots. There’s a row of giant daisies along one fence. There are sweet peas and marigolds, raised each year from seed, in among the vegetables. There is damson blossom in the spring, followed by the apples and the pears. Nasturtiums self seed and grow willy nilly through the hawthorns. The new hellebores are flowering under the apple tree, where nothing else would grow.

This week I’ve been rushing out there each time it’s stopped raining, to sow a little of this or that. I’ve been weeding, and know it’s been a good day when I close my eyes to sleep and dandelions swim behind my lids. I plug away, putting inordinate amounts of time into little crops which may or may not succeed. Just as I know we’ll be drowning in parsnips every year, I know that many things will disappoint. The pigeons will get the cabbages, or the caterpillars the swedes. I might forget to earth something up, or to feed it once it flowers. I have no expectations of this space, but many, many hopes. And for some strange reason there seems no link between the hours I spend with a trowel in my hand and that let down feeling when I find the slugs have eaten my seedlings. These two things, the gardening and the harvest, are held apart by something else. It’s nature who has the final say. Nature who makes the sun shine and the showers fall, or the days so humid that blight hits and all is lost. Nature who gifts us with the pleasure of a day spent grubbing around in the soil while the birds watch where we are planting those tasty little seeds. Nature who takes the blame, and also all the glory.

There are master growers out there who put my little patch to shame. Who know just what to do to coax life and growth out of the direst of conditions. I’m not one of those. I just try to look after the soil, and am as pleased at the moment by the smell of dirt on my hands as I am by the pigeon-hassled broccoli which keeps producing, meal after succulent meal. My children can name every plant in the garden, and I’m prouder of that than of any prize-winning carrots. Which is a crop which always fails for me, by the way. I’ve sown some this year, anyway.

No, my garden isn’t what I’ve grown, but what I do. It pulls me out of the house and into the soft spring sunshine. Within minutes, the children have come after me, to play another game of tig. They run around and shout while my mind marvels at the sheer number of worms wriggling away from my touch. Let the late frosts come. Let the summer sun blaze and spoil the fennel. Today the sun is shining, in between showers, and we’re all out in the garden.

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Peace

It always takes me a little while to find my rhythm, somewhere new. A couple of days to discover how our days flow best, in a different place, under different circumstances. Things clicked quickly at the bothy, more quickly than usual, and by the second dawn I knew the drill. I knew what everyone needed, and when, to make the day go well. I think this was partly because I felt at home in that little valley. But it was also because life there was so very simple. John would light the stove each morning. I’d cook some breakfast, putting a big pan of water on to heat at the same time. The children would be outside, playing some game or other, engrossed in their own endeavours. Then a quick clear up and tidy around, shaking the bedding back into shape. Everyone mucking in. Discussing what we would eat, later in the day, and who would cook it, before heading out to the bench near the swing, book in one hand, mug in the other, to listen to the honking of the geese.

We keep a fairly simple home in York, without extraneous clutter. We try to live simple lives. Yet still the world encroaches, with its demands on our time, our attention, our focus. In the woods, all that was so far away. Cook. Eat. Wash. Play. Sleep. In peace.

I know that, had we really lived there, there would have been other things to do. Children to school. Clothes to launder. Livings to be made, somehow. It was a holiday, which is not the same as real life. The winter would have been harsh, and cramped, and so very dark and damp. The children would have grown bored, and begun to bicker and hanker after the modern world with its picture houses and records and school friends. And still, knowing all this, I would have stayed a while longer.

The truth is, I would have stopped all spring if I could, scratching a garden out of the hillside, fetching our hens and rearing some orphan lambs. I’d have put a bedstead in, with thick quilts from home, and a couple of carver chairs for John and I to sit across from one another in the evenings. I’d have built a bookshelf and signed us all up with the local library. Sent the children to the village school.

Isn’t that what holidays are for? To imagine yourself into a different landscape? To play at being different people, doing different things? Sometimes these jaunts are busy, full of sightseeing and guidebooks. Sometimes they are only little breaks, to enjoy the seaside or another city for a day or two. But this holiday was all about the peace. Peace and quiet and a deepening sense of contentment. We’re hanging onto that, this week. I’ll try to make it last a little longer, once the children are back at school and the hurly burly starts again. I’ll shut my eyes, and see that glassy lake, and watch the swans come in to land. Take a deep breath, and go back for just a moment or two of utter peace.

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Storm

I knew before I opened my eyes that the wind was up. It hurled the rain against the window, forcing droplets through small gaps in the frame, spattering the deep stone sill. And I won’t pretend my heart didn’t sink, just a little, after the pure gold of the day before. A walk had been planned, a long stride over the fells. The children hankered after more time with the rods. And here was a storm, stirring up the water in the valley bottom. It would be wild on the tops.

So, bacon for breakfast, and several of mugs of tea, and from these small comforts a new plan took shape. It was time to visit the nearby towns, and avail ourselves of tea shops and lunch out and maybe a second hand bookshop or two. Other pleasures, other delights.

In the brochure advertising the charms of Maryport, it lingers in a state of perpetual summer. The sun beams down on the square, the harbour, the funny little ensemble of fishermen and a dog, caught in stone on the water’s edge. The day we went Ilse’s hat blew off three times before John stuffed it into his pocket. We put on all the clothes we had, and were still cold. There was no-one else out and about, no-one at all.

But. The lifeboat station was manned and cheery, complete with a dog ready to play. There was the vessel to admire, and stories to be listened to. There was a collection of Roman altar stones, away on the top of the hill. There was a long clifftop drive, looking out over the grey and white Irish sea. And then afterwards, in Cockermouth, lunch in a cafe with hot creamy soup and sandwiches and Ilse’s first ever pink lemonade.

The second hand bookshop yielded some treasure, too: a couple of hours back at the bothy with each of the children engrossed in new tales. More knitting, by the stove, and then a trip to sit by the open fire at the pub for a while before supper. Good things. Cosy things.

I like a good storm. I like it when the wind howls and the rain pelts you with a vengeance. I’d rather that sort of rain, if it’s going to rain at all. It’s the sort of weather that has made its mind up. It broods, and lashes out, and forces you to be cheerful in return. It wasn’t the sort of day we had hoped for, on our spring holiday in a little stone hut. But it was a good one, nonetheless.

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By candlelight

It’s funny how quickly we grow accustomed to new things. As a child, every evening was lit by candlelight, or the soft glow of the paraffin lamp, or the steady flame of gas jets set into the walls. Now we live in a world of modern conveniences: hot and cold running water, an Aga, incandescent bulbs. I can plug my iron into the light socket and work my way straight through a pile of sheets without stopping once to change it for another, heating on the range. I can turn the wireless on with the flick of a switch. Everything is clean, bright, and easy. And as a result, our walls are painted in soft greens and creams, and stay unsullied by soot.

Yet we fall into the old ways quickly, too. Heating a pan of water on the edge of the stove, for washing up in. Splitting rain-damp logs down the middle to expose their seasoned cores. Lighting candles as the sun slips quickly away, and remembering why the walls are painted white. Recalling other candlelit nights, when we didn’t all have power all the time. And other people, who still don’t have it now.

There are so many ways to pass a candlelit evening. The black letters of scrabble stand out well against the milky tiles. It is easy to distinguish between the red and black suits of cards. There is cooking to be done, and eating, too. You can knit, bringing the wool close to the flame only when a colour change is called for, for the blues and greens are hard to tell apart. And the evenings are shorter, too, the gentle light letting you feel how tired you are, and sending you to your bed. I love a candlelit evening, now and then.

But you can’t do many tasks, by candlelight. You can’t read much, without straining your eyes. You can’t work your way through a pile of mending or a set of accounts with any ease. Candlelight keeps people in the dark, to some extent. Paraffin lamps are pretty, but they smoke, and damage your chest. And the walls need whitewashing afresh each spring.

Given the choice, I’d opt for a candlelit holiday any day. I’d even go for a full candlelit summer. But in the winter, when the nights are long and there is much close work to be done, it is another story. It was fun, teaching the children all this. Showing them how to hang the sconces high up on the walls. Dividing the wax candles by the number of nights ahead. Getting some tasks done before dusk fell, and saving others for the darkness. It was a glad lesson, and an important one, to be had by candlelight.

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Golden

It doesn’t seem to matter to the children: rain or shine, they are out the door before, during and after breakfast. They eat it standing on a tree stump, on a rock, swinging over the water, holding their food high out of the reach of the dogs, before jumping down to pet them and play yet another round of fetch.

But as the day wore on and the sun stayed steady and warm above us, even their habits shifted, a little. There was a jaunt to Cockermouth in their uncle’s car, resulting in a seething paper bag of maggots and another of worms. Then stillness for a long time, forcing the wriggling bait onto hooks, tying lead shot onto the lines, placing the floats just so. And after that an even longer period of casting out and reeling in, casting out and reeling in. A warm and lazy day on our little pebble beach, interrupted only by good things: mugs of soup and tea, slabs of fruit cake. A little more knitting, edging towards the end of the second sleeve of my cardigan. A few pages of a novel.

Later there was a walk, for those who wanted one, and not, for those who didn’t. Up into the woods, following the crisscrossing paths under the knotted shadows of the trees. Balancing along the trunks of those which had fallen. Racing pooh sticks under a rickety bridge. Clambering over a waterfall, with John’s hand always just near enough but not quite touching, free and safe all at once. Some of us peeled off sooner than others, down the steep slope back to the bothy and the gentle play beyond. Others strode the whole length of the wood, and came back with new walking sticks just ripe for whittling.

Later still there was a mile-long wander to the pub, where we were served great wedges of pie and pints of local ale. Outside, the ewes baahed deep and throatily to their lambs as the sun slipped over the fells. Then a walk home, in the falling darkness, as the first stars appeared and we named them, one by one, getting some right and some surely wrong. Who cares? We didn’t. It wasn’t about the naming. It was about a shining silver ending to a golden day, the very first day of spring. A day in which nothing was caught, bar a few twigs, but so much was enjoyed.

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