Garden notes: Reluctant

Parts of the garden, at least, seem as reluctant to accept the autumn as I am. The tomatoes keep on coming, as do the valiant courgettes which I’d expected to succumb to their layer of powdery mildew weeks ago. Nasturtiums flower cheerfully in oranges, reds and yellows, and the herbs keep growing fragrant and bright green. If I only look in certain places, I can convince myself that it’s still summer.

It’s harder in the kitchen, though. True, last night’s supper was a simple combination of cheese omelettes, soda bread and greenhouse-fresh tomatoes, but I slipped the fruits into the frying pan to warm through in melted butter. Beside them cooked this evening’s supper –  a simmering pot of sunny carrot soup. It seems the salad days are coming to an end.

True, there are trays of baby little gems and other winter leaves waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It almost looks like springtime. But these will be planted in the greenhouse, and will grow too slowly to feed us all each day. These winter salads won’t be filling any bowls. What they will do, though, is brighten up a ham and chutney sandwich. They’ll bring a dash of greenery to a plate of smoked mackerel and toast. They’ll persevere, when all is wet and windy.

Mrs P is bothering about the house these days, washing the last of the curtains, turning out the rooms. It was she who urged me to book the sweep and order a delivery of coal. Yesterday, she rapsodised for a full half hour about the joys of wearing woollens, and cold, fresh morning air. Oh, I know what she means, but I’m just not ready yet. Don’t tell her I haven’t ordered anyone’s new woollen combinations, or even thought about putting the summer frocks away. No-one’s told me that they’re cold – yet.

Reluctant as I am, though, some progress has been made. The first of Ilse’s dresses is very nearly done, and went together smoothly. A bolt of woollen suiting came today. This Sunday finds us at the yarn fair again. And in the kitchen drawer lie all those wintry flavours needed to bottle this year’s pears: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I’ve had a sniff or two, to get me in the mood, and am feeling almost ready. I’ll do it on a rainy day, and be glad of the warm and spicy fug. That, and some new wool to knit with, and a bit of successful sewing, and I might feel a little less reluctant about the tilting of the world.

On the way

You wouldn’t have thought, yesterday, that we were halfway through September. The children were playing barefoot on the lawn, I’d taken my cardigan off by midday, and the windows were open to let the heat of our roasting dinner out. Summer came late this year but it’s making up for it now, hanging around until the very last minute, and nobody’s complaining. In the mornings, though, there’s sparkling dew on the grass. It’s just about dark by Ilse’s bedtime. It’s happening, much as I’d like to ignore it: autumn is on the way.

Most of us have enough to wear this year, should the first frosts suddenly strike. Fliss seems to have stopped growing, or slowed down at any rate, and Ben’s things are new enough to last a little longer. Seb’s trousers are a decent enough length to buy me a little time. But Ilse has shot up this past year and needs new everything. And while I can fill a few gaps with old things of Fliss’, she does need new school dresses and something to wear at the weekends. Not just any old something, mind you. Ilse knows exactly what she would like, please. My plans for some little dropped waist dresses were not well met: how does she know they belong to the 20s? They still look wonderful on little girls: easy and swishy and without an ounce of fuss. Happily, her own plans are equally practical and sweet. What she would like, please, are dresses with high yokes and full skirts to just above the knee, with three quarter length sleeves (so they’re warm, but they don’t get in the way) and possibly a peter pan collar. Three buttons at the back, like the pinafore  she loves so much, and definitely some pockets to keep her precious finds in. It took a bit of sketching and and explaining and pointing to parts of other dresses around the house, but we got there in the end, and are both pleased with the design.

Making the pattern turned out to be a breeze, and not at all the afternoon of careful calculations I’d built it up to be. The block I made for her this summer was still in the drawer and, thanks to the fact I made it a size up, still big enough. So it took less than an hour to adapt it, and not much longer to cut out the fabrics she’s chosen. We’re starting with a Saturday dress in blue corduroy, the yoke lined with an old gingham shirt of John’s she’s always liked. It’s a bit of a relief, really, to have got to this stage. What with the cutting done, the rest is easy: I’ve made enough dresses now to sew a quick seam here, seam there in odd pockets of time. Dress number one is on the way.

As is the grey wool I’ve ordered for her school frocks, and my new spinning wheel, and the knitting fair next weekend. Autumn crafting is upon us. As is the season itself, though you wouldn’t know it by looking out the window. Stick with us, summer, for as long as you like. But when autumn comes my little girl will be ready with something warm to wear, just like the rest of us. And just as importantly, I’ll have a basket of wool to knit up, as well as two fleeces to learn to spin with. I have to admit, autumn does have its compensations.

Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

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Not stopping, but slowing

Some people seem able to put their gardens to bed for the winter. They rake up the leaves, plant fresh bulbs for spring and watch the weather from behind their kitchen windows.

My garden never goes to bed. At most, it might take a quick snooze under a heavy fall of snow. It doesn’t ever come to a complete halt, but slows, like the laying of the hens as the sun’s brief visits grow ever shorter.

It has been a mild and rainy autumn, which is one reason that I am behind on my garden plans. For weeks, the lawn has been awaiting its final cut. A section of hawthorn hedge still needs trimming into shape. I need to weed the veg plot one last time. After all that comes the winter work of moving plants, creating new beds and pruning the soft fruit. The trees need cutting back. The hens, though not laying much, need cleaning out more than ever. There are leaves to rake, every day, and still – still – apples falling from that tree.

As the day was bright and breezy I decided to make the most of it and cut the lawn myself. It was so long that I had to run at it to get the blades spinning, and complete each pass at an insistent jog. Hat and pullover were quickly discarded, and I have three new blisters. I don’t mind: it won’t be cut again until spring. By then I will be longing for the clattering whirr of those red blades. In March, the garden will begin its catch-me-if-you-can once more, barely glancing back at me as it rushes, exuberantly, into life.

But now it is November, I can catch up easily. The rituals continue – the ever optimistic check for eggs, bringing in some veg from the patch. Today I pulled three leeks, grown sturdy on this warm weather, to add to our stone soup. There is a bowl of chard ready for the morning fry. Then I’ll spend an hour or so cutting something back, or digging, enjoying being warm and busy in the chill damp air. Basking in what little light there is. Spying the first spears of woodland bulbs. Waiting for the robin to keep company with me. If I take a lesson from the garden, and slow right down, I can make these tasks last all the way to spring.

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Armistice

On Sunday there were military parades and church services. People gathered at the cenotaph and laid their wreaths of poppies – there and at other cold stone memorials around the country. Ilse learned In Flanders Fields and recited it at her school pageant. Seb and Ben marched with the Scouts. Fliss made garlands of red and black and green. I bought a crocheted poppy from Mrs Roberts, who is raising money for the British Legion, and pinned it to my coat. There was ceremony, and solemnity.

Today is Armistice Day. It is twelve years since the end of the Great War. In that time Ben has grown from four to sixteen, Fliss from two to fourteen. I count the years by them. Seb and Ilse have appeared, from nowhere, because John came home. My brother’s second child has done the same. My sister has married a man she didn’t know existed then, but who came home nonetheless.

Next door, Mrs Ellis still has a cupboard full of her husband’s clothes. She gave a suit, for the first time, to the children’s guy this year. Mrs P works to support Mr P, who came back a different man. Their daughter is a widow. There are empty places in the ranks before the cenotaph, but also in the schools and on the playing fields. Whole generations of dreamed of families have gone missing.

At eleven o’clock this morning Mrs P and I laid down our knives and took off our aprons. I poured two small sherries, in the best cut glass, and set them on the sideboard. For two minutes, the world was hushed.

I don’t know what Mrs P was thinking, but I can guess. I prayed for peace, lasting peace, so that we will never see a conflict like that again. I prayed for Ben and Seb and all the other boys. I prayed for the the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and lovers of those who were killed or maimed. I prayed for broken families and dislodged families, whichever nation they belong to. I prayed for those who had fled, and those who have yet to find home again.

Finally, when we were both ready, we raised our glasses to memory and love and hope.

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Conquering

Maps in hand, we set out for the horse chestnuts. The season is well under way, and I wasn’t quite sure of what would be left. Fortunately, the children have been finding conkers in dribs and drabs over the past few weeks, and already had a reasonable selection. I think that what they really wanted was the promised expedition.

We traversed mountain ranges and waded through razor sharp mangrove swamps. In the trees the parrots called to the puffins. Lions ran at us, tongues out, panting, to share their games. We passed all sorts of indigenous peoples: eskimos in their beaded collars and embroidered sealskins, bright against the achingly white landscape; aboriginals with dreaming dots about their brows, inviting us to go walkabout with them; and the odd Sioux, on horseback, with long dark hair blowing like silken strands in the cooling breeze. Several times we had to stop and check our compass, or squint at the sun to guess at our latitude. I flitted between the north pole and the antipodes, carried by the fancy of whoever I was talking to.

No wonder the explorers were in need of provisions by the time we arrived at that long rumoured haven, where the conkers lie thick and plentiful on the ground and everything tastes, somehow, of ambrosia. I unrolled the woollen rug and spread it on the still crisp leaves. Cocoa was sipped as quickly as it cooled, pork pies sliced and spread, ever so daringly, with mustard, boiled eggs shelled then dipped in a twist of salt. There followed a long pause for conker hunting and knitting. Both pursuits were, thankfully, fruitful, and celebrated by the passing round of slabs of seed cake.

My personal triumph was waiting at base camp: a hotpot, ready to feed the returning expedition, cooked for so long that it felt as though someone else had made the supper. I only needed to add the pastry crust.

Once home, the focus of the expedition shifted. A pair of expert, retired conquerers shared their secrets with the raw recruits. The smooth dark spheres were suspended in vinegar, baked in the oven, or stored, in a paper bag empty of pear drops, at the back of the airing cupboard. That particular treasure will be unwrapped and carefully drilled next year. Finally, Seb and Ilse fetched from their treasure boxes a single conker each, collected the year they were born and quietly growing in strength ever since. They were carried, ceremoniously, to John’s shed, to be made ready for battle.

The fresh air of the Arctic, of the North American plains and of Uluru had renewed the party’s appetites, and short work was made of both hotpot and pickles. I wiped the table so that the children could sit there, after supper, while I washed the pots in the scullery.

The new conkers will be ready soon, ready to take on playground challengers and defeat all comers. In the meantime, at the kitchen table, my three conquerers occupy themselves by filling in the blank spaces on their maps with all they had found while they were taking over the world.

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Late-harvest chutney

There is a period, each August, when the tomatoes ripen thick and fast. Every day I leave a bowlful on the kitchen table. We eat them in sandwiches, with or without cheese; fried for breakfast with a panful of eggs; or just as they are.

Bit by bit, our enthusiasm for them fades. As their numbers dwindle in September I fall out of the habit of picking them every day and by the end of the month I am content to close the greenhouse door on them.

It was my garden task, yesterday, to dismantle that little jungle. I sliced through twine and stems with my curved knife, arranged the canes neatly in a corner of the potting shed, and carted load after load of compost to the heap at the far end of the garden. Then I cleaned the greenhouse, sweeping it clear of desiccated leaves and previously encouraged spiderwebs. I washed the glass inside and out. I scrubbed slippery algae from the paving slabs. I wiped the woodwork, and made a note of where it needs another coat of paint. When all that was done, I had almost nine pounds of tomatoes to bring indoors.

There has been enough of a lull for the red ones to be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Most of them are green, though, and need to be cooked. Hence the late-harvest chutney.

I’ve been following the same recipe ever since we’ve had a garden large enough to produce a surplus. Occasionally I make tangy yellow piccalilli, or spicy red relish, but not this year: those are the sorts of recipes which come and go. They depend on the weather, the harvest, and my holiday plans. But I make late-harvest chutney every October because it uses what I have in abundance: windfall Bramleys, marrows, onions and green tomatoes.

Sitting down to read through the recipe, I realised with a start that I have seemingly never done this before. The ingredients were familiar, the method as simple as I remembered – yet apparently I am supposed to peel the tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes is one of those tasks which I do not do. It falls into the same bracket as ironing tea towels, or buying little china ornaments to dust. Succumb to these tasks and there would be no time left for the important things in life like talking – really talking – to John, playing with the children, or watching the fast-changing autumn skies. In truth, if I had to peel the tomatoes I simply wouldn’t make the chutney.

So I made it anyway, skins and all. I took the time to arrange all the fruit in order of colour and size, and paused to admire that little segment of rainbow. Once the meditative chopping was done, I stopped again, to wonder at the all shades which fall between white and green. I even admired the sheen on those taut tomato skins.

All told, it is quite a mountain of vegetables, and takes a while to collapse beneath the rim of the pan. I let it get on with this while I prepared the spice bag: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and fragrant ginger. I put in a couple of extra cloves, and, once I had smashed the ginger root with my rolling pin, held back a slice for myself. It only wanted boiling water and a spoonful of honey. Cup in hand, I spent an important fifteen minutes watching clouds scud across the brightening sky.

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Hedgehog season

Beyond the lawn and the veg patch, in the unclaimed land between my garden and the start of the children’s territory, stands the pergola. It leans to one side, and I’ve grown to love its weary dilapidation. A wisteria, once trained up it for support, now holds the structure together, and each spring dangles slender bunches of lilac blooms into its interior.

To its left is the fruit bed and to its right, a shaded, forgettable bed which, until this year, has ended each season deep in weeds. Last spring I hit upon the idea of growing jerusalem artichokes there and they have flourished, forming an impassibly lush and vaguely prickly wall. The beans took up the bed to the front of the pergola, and the wisteria linked arms with them as soon as they were tall enough, forming a seamless transition from ceiling to floor.

We sling the hammock in this green room, and I’m sure I was not the only one to imagine myself on an Amazon expedition as I swung there in muggy July.

But now it is October, and time for its walls to come down. I spent an hour this morning pulling up the spent beans, having first collected the mottled pods full of next year’s seed. The robin moved in as I left, hopping over the dark bare soil, hoping for a worm. The hideaway is no longer.

Yet I am careful to leave a boundary: an untouched edge of hedge and fallen leaves which is disturbed as little as possible. The toads live here, and the hedgehogs and, once, we even saw a lizard zig-zagging his way to the safety of a crevice. We leave the nettles standing all summer for the butterflies to feast on, and piles of old logs for beetles and solitary bees to set up house.

At tea time there was a knock on the door and six or seven of the village children were crowded there, asking whether mine might come out to collect wood for Bonfire Night. Seb bolted his milk and in a few minutes he and Ilse were scarved and hatted. Ben took his electric torch to ward off the gathering darkness. I started to remind him not to let the children build the bonfire until the fifth, but he nodded impatiently. He knows what hedgehogs like to do.

Once the door was shut behind them, their simmering excitement pouring down the lane to the farmer’s house, Fliss and I looked at each other, the same idea in each of our minds. The dough was rising for supper, next to the stove where vegetable soup spluttered lazily.

She divided the dough in two while I cleared the tea things. Then we shaped dough noses, snipped prickles and pressed fat raisin eyes into place. We set the little creatures down for a rest, under a clean tea towel, before finishing them in the oven.

At the supper table Ilse and Seb were full of their triumphs: the strong pine tree trunk Mr Stevens had been saving for them all year, the woodwormy wardrobe Mrs Cornwall was only too pleased to be rid of, and the promise, from next door, of a moth eaten suit for the guy. Ben had taken them all hunting for conkers, too, shining his light into the orange leaves which lay, thick and unbroken, on the green. Too soon, though, a definite rustling in the leaves persuaded them to abandon their endeavours.

There had been many eager pockets and too few conkers to go around. Seb asked whether we might run a half term expedition to a row of horse chestnuts we know, near the knavesmire. I agreed at once, on the proviso that Ilse would be cartographer and Seb navigator. I would provision the company.

Fliss had decorated the hedgehog loaves with fallen leaves, conkers, and acorns. They prompted happy bouncing from Ilse, a bloodthirsty ‘can I eat the eyes?’ from Seb, and a kiss from John as I sat down. It was the end of one happy day, full of plans for another.

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Little knits

Autumn does not deepen in a steady flow, but hesitantly, advancing and retreating like an incoming tide.

This morning was the occasion of another little rush forwards. We woke up to clear skies and a heavy dew and, suddenly, out of drawers and cupboards, came the little knits. They have been squirrelled away, tucked in, all summer, behind the socks and vests, but their time has come. October is the month for little knits – on go hats and mittens, scarves and socks – enough to keep that nip in the air at bay without recourse to a heavy coat.

Like autumn itself, though, the day will grow warmer before it is colder, and those same hats will be shoved down the sides of satchels on the journey home from school. Because of this, October is also the month of lost little knits. Gloves, discarded, cannot be found when the frost strikes a week later. I sewed Ilse’s mittens to a ribbon and ran it through the arms of her cardigan. The others are disdainfully too old for such precautions, but Ilse, at least, will still have two mitts by November.

Outside, I wished I’d put my new wool socks on. By the time I’d pulled out the shrinking cucumber vines my toes were numb. I found no fewer than twenty-six cucumbers, hiding from the cold in the remains of the lush tangle. The hens were sunbathing, snuggled together in a corner of their run. And happily, the slugs had not ventured near the windfalls.

Inside the house, a ladybird had come to share our warmth. She ambled along the white windowsill, unconscious of how conspicuous she was in her red and black jacket. I took her out to the bush where hundreds of her kind sleep each winter. There is still time for her to bed in.

In the warmth of the afternoon I knitted. At the bottom of my basket, beneath the sleeves and half-knit body of Fliss’ Foxgloves, is a half-finished scarf for Ben. I worked on this, today.

Most of my little knits are made in the summer months. I like to use up the odds and ends of wool – balls left over from cardigans, half a skein remaining from my nordic pullover, or from another little knit. There’s a rhythm to my knitting: cardigans for John and I in the spring and then little knits right through until late September, when I know the children won’t grow out of their new pullovers before they’ve worn them. These smaller knits are easy to take on the train, to the beach, and on a picnic. They don’t lie hot and heavy in my lap. By October, my wool basket is empty and the corners of everyone’s drawers are full of cosiness.

I looked at John in his new hat, and remembered the three evenings I spent knitting it: mid-August, the windows open, a serialisation of the latest Agatha Christie on the Home Service. My own oak leaf hat: a rainy week in July when we couldn’t get out of doors. Ilse’s mittens: the meandering train ride to my brother’s family in Devon, one either way.

When all the others had left, I watched Ilse from our bedroom window as she set off for school, exclaiming over jewelled webs with muffled claps of joy. Those mittens will remind her of dewy mornings, frosty gates and, hopefully, pushing carrots into snowmen’s faces. But they remind me, already, of telegraph poles oscillating by train windows, of the first glimpse of sailboats in Devon harbours, and of the promise of the summer ahead.

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Plotting

It might have been the reappearance of the sun, after so many days of grey skies. Or perhaps it was simply that I had wandered into the garden with no particular task in mind.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to pull out the cucumbers. The trees are still in leaf, so cannot be pruned. And I flatly refuse to cut away the hibiscus which has grown into my bench. I spent some time diving down the backs of the laurels and lilac, cutting away at rogue brambles. That done, I wandered to the fruit plot, and began to weed.

The strawberries were heavy with fruit which will never ripen. The rhubarb, too, was suffering in the shade of the ash. Both needed a sunnier spot. Which meant that I’d have space for at least three new fruit bushes – blackcurrants or gooseberries, most likely. But in order to move the unhappy plants I would need a new perennials bed, in full sun. I abandoned my weeding and set off, pacing the lawn, carving it up in my mind.

Gardening is an optimist’s game. Ask me, any time, and I will always reply that the garden will be better next year. It’s not just about autumn. In winter we pencil convoluted calculations of appetites and planting distances in the margins of seed catalogues, determined to get it right. Then there’s the thrill of green buds in spring, dancing above us as we nurture the first fragile rows of seedlings. By summer these have translated themselves into fruits and flowers, and we sow the overwintering plants between them.

In each of these seasons we work away, diligent and hopeful, making the very most of what is before us.

In autumn, only in autumn, can we tear up the plans. At a stroke of a pencil, lawn becomes bed, and bed, lawn. New trees are drawn in where, a moment before, there were none. Hard landscaping appears, changing the feel and function of the plot.

We have a window of opportunity, once a year, to reimagine everything. I have a tendency to plan my garden on my own. I ran into the house for paper and pencil, squeezed onto the bench beside the hibiscus, and began to sketch. I got as far as having the old pine tree removed before I paused. If we cut it down at head height, it would leave the perfect space for a den. And the children have been asking whether they might reinstate the secret passage behind the hawthorns. I pushed my plan aside.

In the house, I spread a larger piece of paper on the kitchen table. On it I sketched a compass and the bare bones of our garden. The rest I left blank.

This evening, after supper, we shall fill it in. Together. We can each plot our treasures on this map. It will be a jumble, a mixture of piratical Xs and neat, scaled sketches. But I will make sense of it. I will make a list, alongside, of what is to be done. Then, with everybody’s help, I will begin anew. I love our garden, and with everyone’s input, it will be better still next year.

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