Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

Blooming

For the past three weeks now I’ve had a steady supply of alstromeria blooms for the house. The marigolds are in full flood. And all along the garage wall the japanese anemones keep on coming. There is an embarrassment of flowers in my back garden for the first time ever, and it is making me very happy indeed. This vegetable grower has branched out into something new and beautiful. In fact, she’s even remembered to water the baskets of trailing nasturtiums hanging on either side of the front door. Now that really is unprecedented.

Despite all the flowers, I haven’t actually been in the garden all that much of late. I stole a visit late yesterday afternoon and found the sweet peas on the verge of starting. I also found the odd weed, but not nearly as many as I deserved. Beans – the first of hundreds – are dangling, mine for the picking, from their climbing vine, and a neglected courgette is masquerading as a marrow, but really, this is payback time out there. All that hard work in the spring is paying dividends now, and I have every intention of enjoying it.

It’s not all redecoration and housework around here: yesterday also involved a truly delightful luncheon by the Nidd with Mrs Bee, Mrs Eve and her sweetie pie baby boy. Really, we could have been on the riviera, enjoying the warm air and the splash of oars as holiday-makers paddled about in the water. What a treat, to sit in the shade and have a proper catch-up with two such lovely ladies. It did me good to shut the door on my endless to-do list and just make the most of a gorgeous summer’s day. Good company, smoked salmon sandwiches and a drink straight out of the fridgedair – blooming marvellous, I tell you.

Shuffling

What with the end of term in sight, and the end of Ben’s exams today, my mind has started tripping forward to a little reshuffle around the house. It’s already started in the sitting room: the chaise lounge, which I’d intended to move into the bay window as soon as we stopped lighting the fire, has finally been settled into its new place. Too cold for the winter, it’s perfect for summer evenings, and in the mornings we’ve been coming down to find Seb or Ilse tucked up behind closed curtains, under a blanket, lost in a book.

I like moving things around from time to time. Twice a year, when the equinox throws us from shorter days to long, then back to short again. It almost passed me by this spring, busy as I was in the garden and elsewhere, but it’s never too late for little changes. In truth, I’ve been waiting for Ben’s exams to be over, to put a long-planned scheme into place. He’ll be leaving home soon, slowly at first, with little hops out and back again, and will need a room to call his own for quite some years to come. Yet at the same time there will be long stretches when his room lies empty, and could be put to better use. He’s had one of the two nicest rooms in the house: a sun-drenched double bedroom which mirrors our own across the landing, and it seems a shame to let it be used less frequently. So he’s swapping with Seb, and moving into one of the back bedrooms.

We’ve never had a guest room – having as many people as rooms does that to a family – but things changing seems the perfect opportunity to make two rooms in one. I love spaces which can be one thing and then another: a dining room one hour, children’s study the next. We have lots of such spaces in this house, deliberately, and keep surfaces and other tables free so that they can be put to use for whatever takes our fancy. It takes a bit of thought and planning but really, in the grand scheme of things, university student’s bedroom/ guest room is an easy one to master. It’s lots of fun too, working out just what might go where, how much storage space is needed, how a desk can be a dressing table too. I’m even looking forward to taking down the curtains and having a clear out with the boys.

Nothing is ever static, and things change even faster when there are children in the mix. They insist on growing up, on changing, on moving on to something new. I could keep things just the same, and sit in his room when he goes away, feeling sad. But I suspect there be quite enough of feeling sad as it is. In which case, a little project seems just the ticket, to keep me busy and focused on good things: all the friends we’ll be able to put up in comfort, and see so much more easily. It’s not an end – nothing’s really coming to an end. It’s just a spot of shuffling around, as usual.

Oh so tiny

You’d think I’d be a dab hand at guessing the scale of baby clothes by now, but it seems that I’ve forgotten quite how tiny babies are. It took me two attempts to get this started, and in the end I had the trust the measurements on the pattern and adjust my gauge accordingly. But it was a pleasure from start to finish, knitting this little number. And once underway, it fairly flew off my needles at a rate that my own children’s knitwear no longer does. Five inches per arm, I tell you. Even Ilse’s latest cardigan feels enormous in comparison.

Quite apart from the speed, though,  I wanted to make a present for a friend as she sets out on her own adventures in motherhood. A little something to keep her firstborn warm through February and March, and into April too. You see, lovely Mrs Eve is expecting an arrival any day now, and we are all very excited. It’s one thing, knitting or sewing a garment and imagining all the expeditions and discoveries a child might make in it. But knitting for a yet-to-arrive baby? Well, they could turn out to be anyone, and perform any number of ordinary and extraordinary feats.

Still, knowing Mr and Mrs Eve, I felt confident that this little cardigan would suit. Cosy round the neck, with snug cuffs and an I’m just off to the library air, I hope he or she will like it. More than that though, and much, much more importantly, I hope all goes smoothly with the little one’s arrival. I’m so looking forward to meeting Mrs-Eve-the-mummy, with an oh so tiny baby in her arms.

After the storm

Mrs P came home today, wrapped in blankets in the back of an ambulance, to trees blown bare of every last lingering leaf and streets scoured dry by the wind. After the storm, the sun came out, and it was in this sunny interval that she made her careful way up the stairs to bed. She’s in safe hands, that’s certain, and there isn’t a neighbour or a friend who hasn’t visited with beef tea or broth or both.

As well as the branches littering the streets, and bins blown sideways in front gardens, there was a pile of scraps by the side of my sewing machine, and thread and fluff all over the living room floor. I sorted and tidied with no small satisfaction: everything big enough has been cut into strips for Ben’s quilt, or made into little bags or other gifts. Only a pile of crumbs remains, and those are destined for an afternoon of sewing cards. Order restored, it was time for a cup of tea and a daydream, watching the yellow light spill in through the window and stain the room with coloured beams. A little daydreaming, for the what feels like the first time in ages. A reverie.

Which is the name of the piece I’ve just started learning, oh so hesitantly, at the piano. After my lesson I did wonder if I’d set my sights a little high, but after half a painstaking hour this morning I had begun to string the notes of the first few lines into something resembling music. I set the needle on the record and let the gramophone play it properly while I sewed the last few pieces. Sometimes I wonder whether I choose the music to suit the mood I’m in, or whether my mood is dictated by the music. It’s probably a bit of both. Today was most certainly not a day for Mahler: although there are sunbursts in his symphonies there are also many storms. Today was a day for something gentler, something soothing and delicate and beautiful, after recent worries.

By mid afternoon the wind had dropped and the clouds moved in once more, uncompromisingly dark. Yes, after the storm there is always the sunlight, but it often passes all too quickly at the moment. Today everything was right in my little world, but I am increasingly aware of the angry and the dispossessed. Since the crash it seems that it’s not only our economy that has suffered: our tolerance and generosity has, too. We had a leaflet through our letterbox last week, inviting Ben and Fliss to join the youth arm of Mosley’s New Party. They didn’t, of course. I worry, though, about where all this is heading, only fourteen years after the Great War. Yet at the same time, when the light slips in through the windows and good friends are on the mend, it seems impossible that such madness could ever reoccur. After such a storm, there should be sunlight for a hundred years at least.

What the doctor ordered

Rest, fluids and warmth, in that order. Our dear friend Mrs P has come down with pneumonia, and there isn’t much else that anyone can do for her. She’s in York Hospital at the moment, stable after a frightening weekend when her chest fluttered feebly through 48 hours and we thought the worst might happen. But she is, as she herself would put it, a tough old bird, and thank goodness for that. The worry hasn’t passed, but there are glimmers of the woman we know and love and, fingers crossed, she’ll be bossing the staff nurse around soon and sent packing home to Acomb.

What with worry over our old friend and the combination of a new term and awkward hospital visiting hours, it’s been a bumpy few days. There’s not been a lot of sleep, or a lot of calm in general. Add to that the grey skies and near incessant rain, and it’s enough to drive anyone round the bend. Thank goodness that it’s Mrs Thistlebear’s party this week: some time spent making things is just the medicine I’m after. So I’ve prescribed myself some fabric, in easily swallowed doses. There’s been some stitching – six pot holders, the top of a starry table runner – but mostly there’s been cutting. Nothing fancy: squares for little make-up bags, rectangles for larger sponge bags. A growing pile of snippets to turn into birthday cards. And lots and lots of scrappy strips which are the start of Ben’s going-away quilt. I want to include as many different fabrics in it as possible, so that he’ll remember all of us each time he uses it.

I know that it’s only sewing – and mostly only cutting out at that. But what else can I do when it’s not quite time for bed and my thoughts are too distracted to settle to a book? I’m not just cutting; I’m making order out of chaos. I’m planning for the future: a future that brings all the things we hope for. Hot pans full of meals. A table to sit around, and eat. And Mrs P, home again and well enough to join us.

Garden notes: Kew

Kew must be a surprise whatever time of year you visit. In late summer, when the sun is strong and the trees are in full and darkened leaf, the palm house shouldn’t be as much of a shock as it is. The very air drips; the moist leaves shine; fleshy blooms flirt from across the walkway. A jungle, in south London, locked away in a house for almost two hundred years. Put that way, perhaps it’s no wonder it beguiles.

Kew is a bit of a magical land. It is the botanical world in miniature, a microcosm of the planet’s plants, a snapshot of natural history. A day’s stroll will carry you beyond the jungle to the deserts, where carnivorous plants wait to trap small beasts in their pitchers, and other plants pose as stones. Amazonian giants patrol the warm ponds with a lazy flick of the tail, and rare orchids are common as weeds. Then on, to a walk through the trees, looking into their crowns as an equal, seeing the London skyline as they do. It was a little lesson in botany, given that the leaves and the seeds were out in force, and the children could name them all. We strolled through a rose garden and chose the sweetest smelling. We lingered by full flowerbeds. And all the time our little host, at just four years old, was naming flowers and trees for us: agapanthus, oak, plane, aquilegia. What a garden to have on your doorstep. What a playground. What a school.

It was in the arboretum that we spread our picnic mat. We were visiting dear friends – friends who John has known for many years – and their children, and spent a few days in London, doing London things. Windsor Castle. The site of the signing of the Magna Carta. A special shop or two. But best of all was Kew: the Royal Botanical Gardens, founded in 1759 and forming the most fascinating 300 acres in London. This is the place to which plants have been carried from all over the world: periwinkles and peonies, hibiscus and hostas. And in response, the place was humming with visitors, wandering from flower to flower, shrub to shrub, tree to tree. Gathering the sights and smells, new things to know, and the feeling of sun on their backs. It was wonderfully, gloriously, and appropriately alive – with all sorts of people enjoying all sorts of plants in all sorts of ways.

Of all the attractions though, one stood out for me – and I suspect many people would choose the same. The waterlily house, hot with red and orange blooms without, steamy and green within, was the highlight of my day. A pool full of great lilypads, some flat and smooth, others with upturned, serrated edges. We saw the daytime blooms and read about those which rise from the water at night to set a trap for unsuspecting beetles. Wild plants, exotic plants, floating green and calm on a mirror-smooth pond. And in the water, if you look carefully, you can just see the wrought iron framework of their protective cage, amplifying the English sun. To me, this house was Kew Gardens in miniature: the essence of a curated botanical world. And the joy of it is that we have three more seasons to see it in, and much more besides to explore. We will most certainly be going back to Kew.

Pirates and creatures of the deep

There’s a particular type of pleasure in knowing just what to expect. It wasn’t just me, with my packing list or John, map at the ready. The children were raring to go, even before we pulled up at our own traditional pitch, longing for their cousins to arrive. We were a day before anyone else, and camped a dark night under the stars with only the wind in the trees for company. The following morning Seb and Ilse scouted out old dens and ran the perimeter of the wood before settling themselves near the gate and to wait for their friends.

This time, we watched the party evolve. John and Ben knew how to help put the marquee up. Familiar faces arrived by the hour, so that the crowd swelled from our little picnic of eight to thirty, then a hundred, then more. That first evening the adults were sitting around the fire, sharing news of the past two years, while the children were already running wild in the dark, electric torches flashing through the trees. Two years older, two years more independent, they stayed out of sight for as long as possible, delaying the inevitable call to bed. And yet, the faster you went to sleep the faster the dawn would come, with sausages for breakfast and then a quick bathe in the sea before more friends arrived, and the party proper would begin.

There aren’t many places where children can really run free. We read about them in books: the Walker children with their camp on Wild Cat Island, the Famous Five roaming the Cornish coast. We seek these places out: in cub camps and long walks over the bare winter landscape, in gardens big enough for the children to be hidden with their penknives and their flints. This is what I want for my children, and what I have made sure they have had: dirty knees, smoky hair, something sticky smeared around their faces. A length of string dangling from a pocket. As big a world as we can muster, making room for an even bigger one in their heads. Games which go on over hours and days and even years, put down and picked up when the same little gang gets together again. Friendships which endure over time, with children they might only have met once before, in a far off place, a quarter of a lifetime ago. Adoration for the big ones in the gang. Care for anyone smaller. Tumbles and grazes and dock leaves pressed on stings. And always, in the background, a safe place where the grown ups are.

I think this is how much of the weekend felt, to them. Until the entertainer arrived with his magic and his music and tomfoolery. After that it was time for the donning of costumes and the clearing filled with pirates and creatures of the deep. Our own made an appearance: our mermaid and giant squid, our pirate and our silly seahorse, water-wings and all. John and I were pirates too, adorned with fake tattoos and stripy shirts and neckerchiefs. There was a luminescent jelly fish, and an deep sea anglerfish with an oh-so-mesmerising light dangling just before his teeth. There was a gaggle of mermaids and their pets, and a ghostly butler from the long-since-sunk Titanic. The hog roast was dished out by a sailor in his whites, and I almost walked past Father with his dark false beard and tricorn hat.

In the dusk, we listened to sea shanties and joined in when we knew the words (what shall we do with the drunken sailor?), then sat back to more music from singers and players alike. There was a rum bar, and a couple of barrels of something else for the landlubbers among us. There was dancing, and sitting by another fire. Finally, at some time in the early hours, there was bed.

The next day could have felt a little empty, seeing so many people leave. Some we’d met two years ago, others we’d known all our lives. More still we’d met just the previous evening. They were all off on holidays, or back to work, or off to visit family. But us? We struck out for the loveliest beach in Devon and spent an afternoon in and out of the surf, before walking slowly home along the cliffs. There were the remains of a hog roast to be shared amongst we remaining campers, and a final night of talk around the fire. The following morning saw the last few families on their way and as the rain began to fall it was just us left camping in the woods. We weathered the storm in the best way we knew how: by striking out for somewhere beautiful, and picking up fish and chips for supper on our way back in the evening. It would have been much sadder, but for one important fact: the theme for the next family camp had already been discussed.

Knots

Ever since my aunt sent me my very first snood, I’ve been wanting to learn how to crochet. I borrowed a book from the library and pored over it for hours, hook in hand, but couldn’t work it out. Other people were encouraging: it’s easier than knitting, they told me. You only have to learn four stitches. I’m surprised you can’t do it already.

I was sure I could do it, if I could only get started. I crocheted the cut steek of Fliss’ foxgloves, pulling slip stitches through the edge of the knitted fabric, making it secure. With something there to connect to, it was simple. But starting from scratch, with a length of cotton before me, seemed impossible.

So Mrs Roberts and I hatched a plan some months ago: an afternoon in a cafe, for tea and cake and a skills swap. I would teach her to knit intarsia. She would teach me to crochet.

I think it is a mark of how lovely a time we were having that we suddenly noticed the diners coming in for their evening meals. Our lunch dishes had long since been cleared, afternoon tea had been taken. Waitresses had stopped by our little table to see what we were making, and add their own tips to the mix. Mrs Roberts had written out a pattern for me, unintelligible at first and entirely comprehensible by the end. With her encouragement I made a flower, and once we were onto double and triple crochet it all made sense. She showed me how to vary stitches on the scarf she was making, before pulling the yarn free again, rolling it up and stuffing it back into its little pouch. Her attitude was so can-do, so why-not that I caught it. I think I could make anything now, with crochet.

Of course she needed very little help to get started with her fairisle, knitting together a stunning medley of creams and purples. She has plans for a jumper for autumn, and I can’t wait to see it. Watching other people make things is very nearly as much fun as making them yourself. In fact, the next day, I showed Fliss how to crochet and she whipped up a set of matching bracelets to share with all her friends. It was fun to watch her pick it up so quickly. That was easy, she said. Because it is. And I’m so glad I’ve learned to do it at long last. It was a good afternoon, for Mrs Roberts and I: both productive and purposeful.

Better still, though, was what was happening while our hands and eyes were busy. A long talk, without thought of chores or deadlines. Sharing anecdotes and hopes, long stories and their meanings. Being able to focus on just the two of us, without interruption or complaint. We tied a lot of knots, that afternoon, but the best of all was the one which pulled us closer. Continue reading “Knots”

A happy birthday

It so happened this year that my birthday fell on a soup club day. Another example of Mrs Bartlett’s wisdom, soup club is a weekly meeting of friends where we take turns to cook for one another. Whatever fills our lives, we pause to sit down together, and eat, and talk.

I made a honeyed fruit cake to share, full of dried figs and apricots. I had been looking forward to spending part of the day with friends. What I hadn’t expected was for so many of them to greet me with birthday wishes, cards and presents. Mrs Weston surprised me with a bottle of homemade wine. Miss Stevens and Miss Smith had scented soap and cold cream, beautifully wrapped. Lovely Mr White, on hearing that it was my day, disappeared only to return minutes later, bearing a card.

As I was already out and about I spent the afternoon running errands in town. I got home as the children did to find John already there, having lit the fire and cut slabs of Christmas cake ready for tea. He had arranged my presents under the tree, and when we were ready Ilse passed them to me, one by one.

They know me well, my family. Every gift was both beautiful and useful. There were things for the kitchen, and for the garden. And there were hand-crafted gifts as well, including a basket from my very favourite weaver.

Our house is slowly filling with Mrs Doney’s baskets. They hold vegetables, laundry, wood, hats, gloves, toys, wool, books: anything which needs a home. There is even one of dogwood and willow which I made, under her tutelage, some years ago. Each has its own character, and plays its role with quiet pride. Traditional and sturdy, they will be with us for years to come.

Ilse had drawn me a picture, while Ben gave me a voucher for labour in the garden. Fliss and Seb had pooled their resources to buy me some sharp new needles. Everyone had given me what I wanted, even though I hadn’t really wanted for anything. I felt cared for. More than that: I felt loved.

Who would have thought that I would like becoming thirty seven so much? I should have guessed. It gets better each year, this life. And the older I get the more I value it and those who help me make what I do of it.

After supper I spent the evening weaving in the ends on the last of those hats, while John and I discussed his gift. John is good at presents. One year he promised me fifty two weeks of flowers, and kept to it. Even in winter, when the market stalls were empty, he would seek out some greenery from somewhere.

This year we are off to the hardware shop, to buy everything I need for the coming garden season, and perhaps something special besides. After that, we’ll have tea in town, all six of us.

I would ask for the flowers again, except that there’s no need. You see, the habit stuck. More often than not I walk into the scullery on a Saturday afternoon to find the sink full of blooms, waiting to brighten another day.

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