Garden notes: Abandon

Rain-drenched days. Pockets of sunshine whenever I am elsewhere. The school year coming to a head with sports days and performances, with exams to be taken and costumes to be thrown together. Between the downpours and the sunshine, the garden is going wild. The hens are eyeing up the bolting lettuces. I myself see nothing but the weeds in the cracks between the paving slabs.

At times like this I try not to think about the garden. I have abandoned her, for the time being. I have left her to her own devices, and can only guess at the havoc she might wreak. I dash out to grab a basket of spinach or a fistful of herbs, and mutter at the tasks which must be done: the weeding, the staking, the planting out. It feels wild and out of control. Dangerous.

And then a splash of red catches my eye. There are poppies in the fruit patch. I wander down, to take a closer look, and spot a hoverfly perched upon a petal. On the surrounding canes, the first raspberries are coming into their sweet tartness. There are aquilegia self-sown in the gravel. The roses are in full and fragrant bloom.

This isn’t an abandonment. It is an act of faith, a stepping back, a letting go. Trusting that the garden will still be there when I have time for her again. Hoping she’ll forgive me. And, thanks to the poppies and the roses, the sweet peas and the beans pulling themselves strongly up their canes, knowing that she will.

Warm head, snug hands, calm heart

There are rhythms all around us, so familiar that we barely notice them. Our heartbeats, our individual strides. The rise and fall of our chests at rest. Those tunes which play in the back of our minds, as though we had a wireless tucked away in there and couldn’t turn it off. Much of the time we simply tune it out. But then something sends the blood pounding through our veins. Ugly thoughts whip themselves into a frenzy, and our pulse lifts the internal music to an uncomfortable tempo. Fear begets fear, unless we intervene.

The best way to do this is to reset those rhythms. To slow things down, to take control once more. You can’t panic when you are walking at a comfortable pace. You can’t be tense if you push your shoulders down.

It seems that worries come in batches, feeding on each other. Some are legitimate: an unwell friend, the rise of xenophobia. Others are self inflicted: musical performances which set the stomach churning at the very thought. I’ve been for lots of walks, these past few weeks, read lots of comic novels. I’ve been for many cycle rides and felt better every time. Most of all, though, it is the basket of little knits I reach for. Knit one, purl one, focus on those cables. A hat, some mitts, a pair of woolly socks. It is almost all knit up now: all the wool left over from last year’s projects, plus a ball or three passed on from Ada. The scraps are eked out with care, so that the only tension is over whether there’ll be just enough to make it down the wrist. I love these little knits, where each completed object is a bonus, and squirrel them away for gloomy autumn mornings when a new hat or some fresh red mittens can chase away impending winter blues. Leaves are formed with yarn overs and slip-two-knit-one-passes, yellow gauntlets with endless stitches marching round and round on double pointed needles. They soothe my heart twice over: once in the making and then again in the rediscovery, next autumn, when even I feel as though someone else must have tucked these little bits of warmth away for us to find.

Calm is good, I know. This recent spurt of knitting tells me how much I need its tranquil influence. And yet. There are worries I have brought upon myself. Little ambitions, self-inflicted aims. When this performance is done, I know there will be something else, because I will set it. Just now I crave the calm that knitting brings, but I wouldn’t want it all the time. Because the other side of fear is thrill. Anxiety is just excitement, viewed from the wrong angle. Dread is anticipation, backwards. Failure: the flip side of success. It’s all about that moment, standing up in front of others, and yet it isn’t, really. It’s the preparation, the hours of practice, the setting oneself a task that one might not actually achieve. I need the thrill every bit as much as the calm. And well, if nothing else I’m getting lots of knitting done with all this nervous tension. Lots of knitting, and lots of practice, and neither is a bad thing in my book.

Garden notes: Shift

If you stand at the kitchen window, the vegetable garden is a swathe of green where only weeks before it was bare earth. Spikes and frills, hearts and floppy pea stems – all can be seen from a distance. And in that green are blooms: pink where mangetout will grow, white at the top of the bolting rocket. Yellow, to herald new courgettes.

So many things have happened in the days and weeks and months between midwinter and today. The earth shifts in relation to the sun and the hours of daylight are drawn out, minute by minute, hour by slow hour. Sensing this, woodland plants send their shoots towards the sun before the trees get in the way. Snowdrops and hellebores lend their languid beauty to the still-cold earth. Beneath the surface roots stop hoarding their resources and spend them in a frenzy of resurgence, regrowth, rebirth. We sniff at the cold air like foxes, trying to smell the coming spring.

The earth is full of time bombs, laid in readiness for just the right degree. They crack open, and out snake roots and shoots, staking out their claims. Beneath the surface billions of life forms do their work of feeding and holding water, releasing nutrients and creating air-filled pathways. We work hard to keep it at its best, and yet, in a forgotten corner of the garden, just beyond the tree house, nature does it better. Soon the nettles can be picked, soon the yellow manes of dandelions will burst into hundreds of parachuting seeds to start again, next year.

Come May the days are long and warm. The vegetables are sturdy, though still small. The sun is on our side. Fat insects fill the air; the hens peck lazily at such abundance. The soil is warm, the roots are strong, the leaves soak up the sunshine. And then, at last, come June, the longest day is greeted by a flush of yellow blooms.

Six months, it’s been. Six months of lengthening, warming, reaching. And now, a shift. This evening will be shorter than the last, tomorrow’s dawn a little later. Summer hasn’t gone, but those in the know – the plants, the bees, the birds – are making the most of the heat stored in the earth beneath our feet. The garden hurtles on, surging towards its harvest. There are destinies to fulfil in the shape of peas, tomatoes, cabbages. It takes more than a simple order to turn this ship. Whispers of the shift will filter from the tree tops to the nematodes who go about their business in the dark, and one day, a season on from now, it will be time for rest. The longest day has passed, the waning has begun. The balance has begun to shift.

The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Garden notes: Song

Golden light which falls like a gentle reprieve at the end of an overcast day. Glowing lawns, and light-reflecting buttercups. Scents which hang heavy in the air as I cycle through them: rambling roses, stocks, elderflowers as sweet as syrup. Early summer days, bookended by the birds and their song.

The aren’t many nicer ways to start the day than to be woken by the birds. They stir at the very coldest hour, just before the dawn, and sing as if to urge the sun along. By the time it is breaking though the gap in the curtains, we are in that vague yet lucid state, half dreaming, half awake. Then the children come in or, on a good day, the cups are rattled on the tea tray and there is time to come to, slowly, while the robins and blackbirds give way to the warblers and wrens.

Everything is making the best of this warm weather. The birds are nesting, the washing is on the line. There has not been as much time as I would like for the garden of late, and when I hurried out to inspect the weeds after several heavy downpours I found other surprises: the first courgettes, pale and slim; spring cabbages big enough for eating, green raspberries all over the canes. I had time enough to set the leeks out in their final positions, and net the troubled swedes against those dratted pigeons. To pull a fistful of radishes, and pick a salad for our supper. There seems to be a moment, each year, when the garden grows exponentially, and this seems to be it.

I am not quite missing it, rushing out as I am to stay in touch. Sometimes a few moments, standing on the lawn, is all that I can manage. There is a musical project taking up all of my spare time these days, leading to a big performance in a few short weeks, and when I wake to the birds I think of the songs I will sing back to them, after breakfast, while they hop about the neighbourhood searching for grubs and worms.

I’ve taken to practising at the back of the house, near the garden that I can’t be in. Through the window I can see the bluetits almost bouncing between the earth and the lower branches of the trees. I can see the blackbird patrolling the lawn with his quick yellow beak at the ready. The hens, in their runs, are pecking and scratching and doing other such hennish things. I take a breath, and at the first note they pause, all those birds, wild and caged, to listen. The bluetits stop their darting flight and perch in the apple tree. The hens stand in a line at the wire, heads to one side. And the robin appears from nowhere to stand right at the kitchen window and watch me from the corner of his eye.

I wonder what they’re thinking, these birds who sing so well with neither instruments nor music. I wonder what they make of the music of a flute, long after the dawn has crescendoed into day. I wonder, does it seem strange to them, for someone to be whistling and chirping at such odd hours of the day?

In the evening it is the bluetits who seek out centre stage. They chirrup their high pitched little trills as the rest of the world is settling down to sleep, tired after a day of foraging, and parenting, and flight. When I have the time I like to return their compliment. I stand upon the lawn on these precious summer evenings and listen, really listen, to their song.

 

 

 

 

Squares

They are curiously compelling, these little squares. I had intended to make a few each summer, using up odds and ends of aran until one day I might have enough to make a blanket. It was a plan for dealing with the sort of balls that aren’t big enough to be worth casting on with. And as the pile of such balls grew smaller they went from pesky to precious. I found myself divvying them up with care: these ones for the centres, those bigger scraps for outer rounds, so that each square would still change colour with each row.

This is a portable craft – more so than knitting. A hook and a ball of wool can be slipped into a handbag, or a knapsack’s outer pocket, or a basket for the beach. By the time we came home from Filey I could have made them in my sleep: three triples, one chain, three triples, one chain, until you get to the corner and do everything twice. Once home, Fliss asked me to show her how it was done, and for a day or two she commandeered my hook and a half-ball of double knitting, until her surprise for Ilse’s birthday was complete, and wrapped carefully in tissue in her highest drawer.

Before I knew it, the aran was gone and there were no more squares to be crocheted. It was back to the leftover 2 ply for a pair of fingerless gloves with leaves growing up the wrists: fiddly and comparatively slow. Sometimes it is fun to make something you have to think about, but sometimes it is the repetitive twist and pull that we long for at the end of a busy day. So a second blanket was begun, simply a giant double knitting granny square to which colours will be added whenever there is wool left over, or a child’s pullover outgrown and frogged.

Because, really, it is when our hands are busy that our minds are free to wander. Perhaps I should have been thinking of more important things: of politics or literature or the people I know and love. Perhaps, another time, I will. Just now, though, I found myself content to plan a blanket or two. I’m quite looking forward to a bit more crotchet, once the last little knits are done. It’s a soothing shape, a square: predictable and easy. It doesn’t matter where you start from, or where you have to pause. I might keep them all small, or pick a single shade to link them all together. Other colours will be added as new jumpers are knit up, but the steady brown and cream will be the same. I’m not after a wild old time, just at the moment. The school year is coming to an end, there’s a riot in the garden, there are bigger projects underway. All in all, this was a good time for these squares, and I may not wait until next year to make some more.

Garden notes: Soak

The house seems to double in size at this time every year. Time for a cup of tea? Let’s have it in the garden. A bit of homework to finish off? Do it under the apple tree. Where’s Ilse’s teddy? She probably left it on the lawn. I can’t actually remember the last time we sat in the living room, given that we choose the green carpeted one for preference every time. Even chilly evenings and rainy days find us in the kitchen, looking out over the garden. Our lives have shifted towards the back of the house, where the sun shines longest.

Now that the trees are all in leaf, the little plants in my veg plot wait eagerly for the sun to swing round and touch their outstretched arms. They don’t have long to wait: there is only a short window of time in which I can give them a good soaking with the hose. A tiny northern tribe of bluetits finds me at it and swoops beneath the arc of droplets, gathering the worms which have been tricked into thinking it is raining. They flutter and hop about with surprising daring, daubed as they are with charcoal and woad, and I have to take care not to swipe them with the water. Once the swampy celery is sated, its roots damp once again, I can head off to do other things in the sun. This is the time of year when the house is sadly neglected, and I look for jobs outside at every opportunity. A spot of weeding? Yes please. Mowing the lawn again? If you insist. Picking the salad for supper, collecting the eggs, finding a patch of nettles to cut down… I’ll take any outdoor job that’s going.

The garden is at its very best, with a full complement of little plants in ordered rows. They aren’t at the stage of sprawling yet, or hiding trouble under luxuriant leaves, but they are safely out of the seedling stage. The slugs, though still a nuisance, hold less horror for me now. The pigeons can’t wipe out the peas in a single feeding. Everything is coming along nicely, and some are even feeding us with delightful regularity. I would be tired of lettuce, if it wasn’t so deliciously thick and juicy. The rocket disappears by the handful each time I bring a basket of it to the kitchen table. Little radishes are rinsed off under the garden tap and eaten then and there. And spinach and eggs are a match made in heaven: a point proven almost daily in this house.

The tomatoes are in flower, the peas not far behind. The potatoes are so tall I won’t have earth enough to bury them, but I’ll do the best I can. New spring cabbages, to cut and come again all summer, are very nearly ready. And then there are the slow growers: the savoys and brussels, the swedes and parsnips. The carrots, appearing once more from nowhere (there’s magic afoot in that patch, I tell you) have quite a way to go. But there’s plenty to keep us going, and the flavours keep on changing the whole season long. We’ve been pulling rhubarb for a while, and now the little gooseberries are almost at their peak. Seb is keeping a beady eye on the strawberries, and on the thieves that steal them. And to keep it all changing, to keep it even fresher than it already is, are the herbs. I pick them by the handful: thyme and oregano on roast chicken, chives in our spinach omelettes. Rosemary with tender spring lamb. Mint-boiled new potatoes.

What it is about the sun which makes it so compelling? It pulls us out of doors, as if by sitting and soaking it up we could grow big and strong just like our plants. As if, by being in its presence, we’ll be made well again. As if we could bottle up the warmth and take it winterward with us. We can’t, of course. Only the plants can do that for us: in the trees which become logs, the fruits and stems and leaves which become our food.  I know all this, but it won’t stop me trying. A bit of mending? I’ll do that on the garden bench.

When evening comes and the sun departs it is as if it was never really there. In fact, I need a jumper of some sort to keep me warm. Where did I leave my cardigan? Oh look – it’s on the garden bench, soft and brown and wonderfully warm from soaking up the sun.

Beside the seaside

The children had a checklist: wave jumping, ice cream eating, sandcastle building and lots of fish and chips. And I had mine: walks along the beach, with the sand between my toes. A little pot of winkles on the seafront. A picnic rug, and a spot of crochet. Happy children.

We fulfilled a few of these wishes in our very first afternoon there with Miss Stevens, who drove us over in her motor. She’d never been to Filey before, and I think she liked the way the waves crashed against the defences before retreating to leave behind a wide and sandy beach. Filey is the sort of beach resort I remember from my own childhood: lots of Edwardian boarding houses overlooking the sea, tea shops round every corner, and donkey rides up and down the sands. Chilly weather when you were hoping for the sun, and then, when you have just about given up, the clouds part and there it is, in time to warm you through. Nothing fancy, nothing new. Just spray thrown in your face by the high tide, and lips that taste of the salt air. Sticky fingers from fast melting ices, and sand in your socks. And then at night, tired out with bracing air and strolling up and down along the sands, sleep, with the shushing of the sea and the promise of the beach just after breakfast.

As a child, the charms of the seaside are obvious. Who doesn’t want to visit that strange and magical margin dividing land and sea? The shore, which vanishes and reappears, is different every time, and offers up new treasures. The bucket full of shells is filled, dumped out, sorted and half emptied before being swiftly filled again. Mussels are the thing – no, cockles now – no, sea glass with its jewelled translucent softness. There are moats to be dug, last minute, as the tide swirls in and washes whole kingdoms away, and the little court decamps and starts again. And there are white steeds to jump with growing confidence until an unexpected swell knocks you into the water and you squeal with shock and delight in equal measure.

As an adult, its charms are even greater. There are no chores to be done, beside the seaside. There are no dishes to be washed: those vinegary fingers need only a quick lick before the children are back in the sea. The boarding house breakfast isn’t mine to cook, the floors not mine to sweep. So there is nothing left to do but play and rest. Solve the mystery of Five Red Herrings with Lord Peter Wimsey. Linger over a pot of tea and a scone. Pick our way out onto Filey Brigg and see the whole world reflected in a rock pool. Hang a piece of bacon on a string and wait and wait and wait for the big brown crab to come and grab it with its greedy claws. Paddle in a little deeper than you should, so that the cold North Sea soaks the hem of your dress. The day’s laundry is the rinsing of the bathers in the bedroom sink, the day’s cooking a choice between one form of sea food or another. A complete holiday, in other words, only a bus ride away from home, squeezed into the middle of an otherwise busy term. It’s a different world, truly, beside the seaside. And all the children want to know is when we are coming back. Soon, my lovelies. Soon.

Garden notes: Under a pergola

Having moved in during August, it was October half term before we unearthed the pergola. The weeds – nasty ones, like brambles and nettles – stood so high that we fought our way towards the back fence square foot by square foot, freeing an odd litany of treasure and rubbish along the way. Old goal posts. Hundreds of bricks. Two wheelbarrows with holes rusted right through them. A lizard, rehomed in the then-new wildlife area. And, one day, a pergola.

Of course, we knew it was there. We could see its upper half, swathed in something green, drowning in the chaos. But it was a surprise, nonetheless, for Ben and I to finally find a paved floor and that wisteria twining strongly up its legs. (Though not as much of a surprise as Fliss had, upon mishearing that we’d found a burglar in the garden.) We decided it called for a celebration, in the form of a very English whatever-the-weather picnic. Ignoring the shivers and chills, the fact that there weren’t enough seats, that there was no table at all and that we were surrounded on three sides by prickles and stings, it was just lovely. A pergola, at the bottom of the garden. How wonderful.

Once conquered, it was abandoned as we marked out the new fruit patch with what was once a rockery. We ignored it as we dug the veg beds, and laid paths of all those bricks discovered in the autumn. We turned our backs on it as we dug holes for the gooseberries, and slipped the eager raspberries into slits cut in the earth. And in the spring, while I sowed and hoed and weeded, the stone floor gradually grew green once more with docks and grass and nettles.

Then, as every spring about this time, it came into its own. The wisteria, as if it knew just what was wanted, grew little leaves which let the sunlight through, then trailing bunches of soft blooms like floral grapes: hints of exotic luxury and warmth. We slung a hammock in its listing frame, and when summer came the leaves grew thicker, to shade us from the glare. Encouraged by the cooling autumn winds they fell and let the warming sunlight in again.

I have a thing for this hard-won little spot. After a bout of weeding, it’s the best place for a pot of tea. It’s where the children loll and eat their ices once they’ve cycled home from school. Where I munch my solitary weekday lunches, where John might read the paper on a lazy afternoon. A private place, used only by our family. Big enough for one, or two, or three who don’t mind getting cosy.

And on a late spring evening after a day’s work in the garden it’s the only place to be. A glass of wine, some handwork in my lap, I might lie back and just admire the blossom. From where I sit, the beds spread out before me. The fruit lies to my right. Beyond the brassicas Ben is playing with the chickens, and Ilse rides her bike across the lawn. Seb is watering his artichokes, again. Through the kitchen window I can just make out Fliss’ outline, doing something at the sink. Soon John will be home, and I hope he’ll come and join me. Until then I’ll just admire the garden: our own little kingdom of green, best viewed from under a pergola.