Garden notes: Deep sleep

No spinning wheels just yet, but plenty of gooseberry thorns to leave their tales upon my arms and legs. You have to fight your way past them to reach the hidden treasure. The beanstalks have raced to the top of their poles; the jerusalem artichokes tower above the height of the pergola and Ilse lost herself out there, like a little Thomasina Thumb, yesterday afternoon.

It is no wonder that so many fairy tales are about the garden and the wild woods beyond. After the long dreary winter of pottage and salt meat, who wouldn’t trade their child for a basket of sweet salad? We clear the woods to make a space for our tender plants to grow and then grow they do, becoming a jungle of their own. There could well be giants lurking in the nettles, tall and fierce as they are. Crack open one of my hens’ eggs and pure gold resides inside. Gardens are the very stuff of life itself: magical, exciting, hard work and yet ultimately out of our control. I love this time of year, when the plants are bigger than the weeds and it is all a glorious, fruitful mess. A cornucopia of marrows and cabbage, juicy spring onions and rocket which runs to seed faster than we can eat it. Even those tiny lettuces now tower over the beets, their thick stalks running white with bitter sap. The hens devour them, and I plant more out in their place.

Ben’s talents in the garden come to the fore just now: vanquishing the biting brambles with a blade and a younger sibling to be his knave. This is the kind of weeding he likes: thorny and fast with blatantly wicked prey. Seb is the best at turning over the plate-like leaves of the nasturtiums and squashing the yellow clusters of caterpillar eggs beneath. Fliss likes to harvest with me, filling baskets with blackcurrants and raspberries before the greedy birds take more than their share, and Ilse will do anything to speed me along so that we can play a game together, or read a story on the lawn.

We’ve been reading lots of fairy tales lately – Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom Thumb. Then we look around the garden and see why there is a myth of a bean which grows in a single night, or a girl whose mother craved greens. As we do so, I sneak in another little task: tying up the sweet peas, or weeding between the onions. She helped me cut the lavender on Saturday, and lent me her finger to hold the knots which tied it into bunches. They’re hanging from the airier on the landing, and as you walk upstairs the air fills with its sweet, clean, heavy scent. Once it’s dry we’ll shake it into little cotton sachets and make Christmas presents from them, to scent drawers and linen presses.

Just now, though, it is fulfilling an entirely different purpose. The end of term comes with its own particular tiredness: fretful and sleep-inducing all at once. Yet the lavender is working its magic: I’m not alone in dropping off the moment my head hits the pillow. We are sleeping deeply and well, thanks to those bunches of herbs hanging in the space between the bedrooms. I can’t account for the dreams of the others, but mine are punctuated by images of the garden: of brambles to be slain, tall meadows to be shorn, and bounty to be brought in and devoured.

Sewing for mermaids

Well, who would have thought that those old dance recital costumes would come in so handy? A waistcoat, a 20s style flapper dress, 45 minutes and a sewing machine et voila! One happy little mermaid, ready for family camp.

In the meantime though, the enthusiasm for all things aquatic continues. Penguins? Dolphins? Killer whales? Picture books are pored over. I know more about giant squid than I ever thought I would. The boys keep disappearing to the shed, asking for more string and nails and bits of board. There’s a seahorse in the making, and I swear I saw some frontal fins attached to an old potato sack. They’re busy, and I’m happy, being too busy myself in the garden to worry about the fact that the holidays have begun. They know how to make their own fun, my children.

There was a day last week, though, when despite the shining sun and endless array of jobs I felt listless and worn out. The past week or so I have fallen asleep nearly every time I’ve allowed myself to sit for more than a few minutes at a time. I would have done so on Thursday, had it not been for a little project I have been saving up. Ilse’s passion for mermaids won’t last long, and once it’s over that will be that, for me. My days of sewing children’s fabrics are numbered, as are her days of wearing little girls’ clothes. And what could be more little girl than a romper covered in mermaids, with hair as brown as hers, sea horses at the ready for a quick jaunt around the reef? I spent a while cutting it out, placing the creatures just where I wanted them. Sewing started post tea and was done just after my littlest’s bedtime. She did some secret reading, at my behest, and quarter of an hour after she should have been asleep she sneaked downstairs to admire the result in the long hall mirror.

Apparently this little outfit comes with certain conditions attached. It must be worn with the hair down, like a real mermaid. It must hang on the pegs in her bedroom, so that she can see it when she wakes. But my favourite, by far, is that fact that she tap dances everywhere she goes. With white pointelle socks, summer sandals and her straw boater, she thinks she’s Shirley Temple, and heel-shuffle-hops all the way to the bus stop. Tap dancing mermaids? Potato sack squid? Gangly sea horses and fierce she-pirates? Welcome to the wonderful world of home made summer holidays. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Garden notes: Scorcher

On my way downstairs this morning I found a neatly folded pile of blankets on the landing floor, just outside the linen cupboard. I stepped over them, knowing just why they were there and having no good ideas about where they might be moved to. You see, for much of the year the cupboard stands quite empty, its cosy innards strewn across our beds. It begins to fill in spring, when the eiderdowns are rolled and squeezed onto its shelves. Then come the blankets, and the odd quilt, and I can normally find a way to make it fit. But in a good summer the very last layers come off, leaving only sheets and a breeze from an open window – and this, for the moment, is a good summer.

The air is hot. The earth is hot. Even the soft green grass is warm to the touch. The potatoes, which we began to dig a week or so ago, are keeling over, yellow. Unwatered plants don’t wilt, but crisp. I picked the first tomato yesterday and nibbled it as I opened the greenhouse vents. In the space of a week, the broccoli has doubled in size. I forgot to cut the courgettes and have a harvest of marrows to contend with. The garden is full of butterflies, trying to get through the netting to my cabbages’ swelling hearts.

I keep finding myself in the veg patch, trowel in hand, wanting to begin a job. I pull a few weeds before retreating to the shade. I have young lettuces to plant out, and watering to do, and try to fit those jobs into the cool of the early morning. But for most of the day it is simply too hot to interfere with the plants. Water them and they’ll burn, the droplets magnifying the already strong rays of the sun. Transplanted seedlings will shrivel and die. It is too hot for salad or fennel seeds. Yet the garden is where I long to be.

As happens so often in life, one problem solves another. A blanket on the lawn, in the dappled shade of a tree, is the perfect spot to enjoy this weather from. A book, a little bit of knitting, a notebook full of summer plans. Sat here I can cool down enough to have another cup of tea, despite the fact that, yet again, it looks set to be a scorcher.

Under the sea

Under the sea, everything is shimmering and slick. Sharks flash by with hollow grins. Small fry twist and dodge in choreographed synchronicity. Far away, over the blue horizon, mermaids sunbathe on the rocks between underwater races and the rescuing of hapless humans. And far below, giant squid glide effortlessly through the dark, their great plate eyes searching for yet another victim.

Or so they tell me. Family camp is fast approaching, and costume making has begun in earnest. There’s painting in the garage, and the cutting up of old potato sacks. Ilse has presented me with a coloured pencil drawing of her tail. Fliss has requisitioned the sewing machine. Ideas are broached, discarded and resurrected in the course of a single mealtime. Best of all, they are all occupied and happy, these children of mine, leaving me free to think about the things we’ll need for a camp on a hill in Devon. Top of the list? Why, bathers of course. Because I have every intention of getting into that sea.

Garden notes: First fruits

Six years ago, we planted a Cox’s Orange Pippin half way down the garden, on the right hand side. We had an apple from it once, bright and crisp and archly sweet. Just one, cut into six wedge smiles with my gardener’s knife and nibbled there and then on the dewy autumn lawn.

This year we might have an apple each. Or even several, if things go on the way they have begun. The drop, it seems, is over: the discarded prototypes picked up before the lawn’s latest cut. Not a barrel of apples, not a stockpile for the colder months. But enough to fill the fruit bowl for a good few weeks.

First fruit: the thrill of the new harvest. It’s infectious. Each night, after school, the children take turns to pick the berries and fill a jug with cream. Last night it was raspberries, mixed into a simple salad with this season’s sweet and juicy nectarines. On Sunday Ilse chopped the tops off strawberries and fed them, stalks and all, to overexcited hens. The blackcurrants are ready, and a day or two of jam-making awaits. I’ll tuck it away in the pantry, ready for October and its call for bread and jam for tea. For now, tea is a glass of milk and a visit to the garden to nibble whatever takes your fancy. Mange tout, spicy rocket leaves, as many raspberries as you can find from under their shady leaves. Even the gooseberries are sweet enough to eat just as they are.

There is hidden treasure in the hedges surrounding Father’s allotment, too. Fat raspberries abound, and the wild roses are dropping their leaves in time for the hips to swell. Blackberries are in evidence, small and hard and greenish white. His apple tree is laden, his rhubarb gathering strength for the following year. We went together, yesterday, to bring in his very first harvest: fistfuls of broad beans inside fuzzy protective pods; firm new potatoes, smelling of the earth; a sprig of mint to scent their water.

It was an ordinary, special day. It marked a shift in the life of that allotment: from a place of labour to a place of harvest. Before that, it was laid bare. Before that: chest high in weeds.

So much work goes into these brief harvests. So much time, so much thought, so much money spent on seeds and tools and strong young plants. Those broad beans might be the most expensive Father ever eats. Those apples, the most eagerly anticipated since the fall of Eve. One bite, though, and all is forgiven. Those first fruits are worth every backache, every penny, every tick of the kitchen clock. Worth all that and much, much more.

New music

To my surprise, I find that there are other tunes to listen to. There, beside the gramophone, they have been waiting for me. I run my fingers over the cardboard sleeves, settle upon one at random, and pull it free. Some hissing, a little scratching but then the music which has been turning over and over in my mind, viewed from every angle, is replaced by the steady pulse of an orchestra and the the gentle rise and fall of piano notes above.

Throughout the rest of the day, other melodies have risen to the surface. Other snippets of song, other chords, other timbres. Some linger, some pass swiftly on, but it’s good to hear them again. Good to listen to something that I don’t know the name of every note of. Good to have a change.

That afternoon, in the garden, I find the slugs have been eating my savoys, and lift the cage off for a closer look. I bring two big bowls of raspberries in to have after supper, with cream. The mange tout are growing large and stringy so I pick the lot, and eat the bright sweet peas straight from the toughest pods. I weed a little section, and Ben passes me short lengths of cotton twine to tie things in. I snip at prickly brambles and carry them, at arm’s length, to the pile for burning. The hens follow me around, and I think that they are pleased to see me.

Inside, there is new fabric to be washed, and a new pattern to be cut. There is a little mountain of ironing to smooth the wrinkles out of. Ben gives me his old shirt, acid holes burned in the front from a chemistry lesson mishap, and I add it to the pile I was sorting, months ago, for Fliss’ quilt. There are two cards waiting to be written on the mantelpiece. There are novels by writers other than Christie to be read. There is a piano to be played, and a school play to enjoy. A party in a week or so. Holidays to have.

I hadn’t realised quite how far away I was – not consciously at least. Little piles were building in this house where little piles are never left to clutter up a surface. Books to be read, and new clothes to sew for little people. Recipes I’d like to try, thank you letters to be written. Even though the floors were swept, the dishes washed, the meals cooked and eaten, it seems I wasn’t fully there. Half my mind was elsewhere, rehearsing, remembering, and trying not to worry. It’s silly, really, to get so caught up in a project. To let it dominate a month or more.

But then I’m so, so glad I did it. I’ve become a better player, and learned to deal with nerves. I’ve remembered what it’s like to be eighteen and faced with exams, hard work and uncertainty about the outcome. I’ve seen how well my own children cope, and tried to learn from them. I’ve given four performances, and come out smiling.

Now I can relax, and the summer can begin. Never mind that it is raining, or that temperatures are low. There are so many things to do that I can’t wait, and so I haven’t. The garden got a burst of my attention yesterday. I’m popping into town to have my hair cut. Lots of little projects are coming back to life, and my full attention is right there with each and every one. And between them all – between the sewing and the writing and the tidying of the house – I think it’s time for some new music.

Garden notes: Speed magnification

Yesterday the anemones were just tight-furled buds atop their gangly stems; today the first have spread their petals wide. Courgette cigars swell to marrows the moment I turn my back. The mange-tout peas are ready, the raspberries a-ripen, the strawberries are reddening our lips. Every day, it seems, something new appears, or grows, or reaches its fruition. Already July, humid and heavy. Already the round of plays and performances. Already the harvest has begun.

There was a moment, hanging out the washing, when I caught sight of those anemones, and a crackly, imperfect cinema reel began to play in the back of my mind. Not a metaphor for memory, you understand, but a memory itself of a trip to the pictures when I must have been fifteen. There was a new film out by Percy Smith – a short, shown as part of the Saturday programme – but not flies lifting dumbbells or nursing baby dolls. No, this was something new: The Birth of a Flower. Long after it was over, and the feature – Jane Eyre, perhaps? – was reaching its denouement, those flowers burst open in my mind’s eye. Tulips and lilies, roses and snowdrops, sped up so that what should have lasted a few hours or even days took less than a minute to portray.

I don’t know what prompted Smith to photograph flowers in this way. Was it a sense of life going so slowly that we couldn’t see the changes taking place? Or was it an embodiment of this feeling I have now – of time rushing by, relentless, glorious and cruel. Already the evenings are noticeably shorter. Already the summer clothes are fading on the line. I only know one way to stop the rush: to join it, and be carried along in its current. It’s into the garden today, to plant and pick and weed. To take careful note of each new leaf, each inch the beans have climbed. I don’t want to miss another moment.

July planning

There is nothing nicer than an English summer’s day. Warm enough to saunter round the garden in your dressing gown before the breakfast rush, cool enough to wrap your hands around a cup of tea. Even in the height of summer the countryside is gloriously green, and the blue skies wrap the world in a subtle, Madonna-esque sense of peace. The verges are crowded with the sorts of flowers other, more exotic nations might just overlook: poppies and forget me knots. Cow parsley. Clover. There is time to stop and stare, in an elongated summer’s day.

And stop and stare you must. The English summer is fleeting and ephemeral. It always leaves you wanting more: one more doze upon the lawn, one more tea spread on the picnic rug. An extra week of Wimbledon, the treat of an Indian summer. Some years it acquiesces; others it barely stops to hang its hat up in the hall before passing on to milder, southern climes. Yet we are nothing if not hopeful. We plan for the summer as though it were a certainty, and pack our macs in case of likely rain. Soon the children will be at home for the six week holiday, and so camping trips and other adventures are the order of the day. We’ve spent a little while putting them on the calendar, and keeping our fingers crossed. The summer is taking shape, and I can’t wait. Today, though, the sky is most definitely blue. There’s a spot in a hammock with my name on, and a little extra wool has come my way. Time for a spot of lazy crochet, and another cup of tea. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.