A change of heart

When we first dug out the veg plot, I thought it was huge. It was, compared to what I’d had at our old semi: measuring 20 by 30 feet it took me a little while to get used to caring for it all. The newly planted fruit bed beyond, of about the same size, felt almost empty with great swathes of bare earth between the blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb. We squeezed a few strawberries into the gaps, to make the most of the space while everything grew. It was marvellous.

After about three years, though, I began wishing for more. Just think, if I dug up the lawn we could probably be self-sufficient! The children made it very plain that they thought that was a terrible idea, so instead I dug up an aimless old flowerbed and started planting vegetables in there, too. They did well, and the following year we extended it.

The thing is though, that no matter how many vegetable beds I add, it’s never enough. I love them. I’d rather sit and gaze on a row of lettuces than anything, really. A well-tended veg plot is the most beautiful way to garden. Except that, all of a sudden, I’ve had a change of heart.

It started with Ilse’s little bulb garden, under the lilac. A second patch of colour in the early spring was a splash of joy, just across the lawn. So we decided to work on the patio area, and plant lots of flowers in pots. Father did so a year or two ago, and his looks glorious all summer long. Ilse and I spent Sunday afternoon arranging things and making a shopping list of plants, before collapsing into a pair of chairs we’d hauled out in the process. We made Ben admire it when he came down from the study, but although he liked it the second thing from his mouth was: you need to dig up that gravel and make a flower bed there. He was right. I’ve spent seven years walking over the patio and away from the house to get to my favourite patch at the end of the garden, and never saw how easy it would be to scrape up a bit of gravel and surround the patio with a sea of colour. He’s promised to help, as soon as his exams are over, and I can’t wait.

They say that one thing leads to another, and that everything happens in threes, which perhaps explains why I had a change of heart about that extra vegetable bed in front of the greenhouse. It’s not quite the right place for a flowerbed – not of the come-and-admire-me border-ish sort. But nor do we want it full of cabbages this year. Thus I find myself embracing an idea I never thought I’d surrender the space for: a cutting garden, providing flowers for the house. We’ve lots of young plants left over from the sowings for our pots, and what with the addition of some bulbs at the right time of year and some judicious purchases, we’ll fill it in no time.

Wandering the garden this morning, secateurs in hand, I came across a solitary aquilegia in a patch of nettles and weeds. I snipped some flowers for the house, and stopped and thought a while. It’s one of those wildlife corners, left a little rough, in between the chicken run and the hedge. I’ve tried to grow things there before, with little success, and had left it to the bees and insects. Yet all it would take is a shearing, a thick layer of newspaper and a packet of seed to turn it into a whole patch of the graceful blooms.

All of a sudden, everywhere I look, there are places for flowers in our garden. How unlike me. I suspect I’m getting old. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for the veg plot, and I’m sure it’ll remain where I spend the bulk of my gardening time. But I rather like it as it is, 600 square feet at the foot of the garden, with its lopsided pergola and battered old bench within. And much as I like sitting on our new-and-improved patio, it was to that old bench that I took my drink last night. Sitting there, under the wisteria, there were literally dozens of bees feeding on the blooms and the nettles and the fruit blossom. More birds than I could name were making their presence known. And before my very eyes the bare earth was filling up, set for a season of growth. So perhaps I’ve not had a complete change of heart. Just a shuffling around, to make room for something new.

A bit of (a) pickle

Sometimes, when I’m not quite sure what to do with a day, it can leave me a bit fed up. Listless. Fretting about things that are beyond my control. In a bit of a pickle, really. Yesterday morning was a bit like that: I’ve a few stitches in my back as the result of a (very) minor procedure and can’t stretch and bend as usual. Housework is fairly uncomfortable. Hanging out the washing is a bit sore. Stretching my arms forward around a quilting hoop is just silly. So once the hoeing was done and the essentials under control, I found myself in the drizzly garden wondering what to do next.

We’ve been having a bit of a dry spell here recently, and are getting all of April’s rain this week, along with May’s. The earth is dark and moist and just begging to be planted. Indoors, the tomatoes are ready to go out, except that the greenhouse is still full of fennel. We’ve had it braised, roasted under a joint of pork, sliced thinly into an orangey salad and still there’s more of it. I ducked in beside it to avoid the swelling raindrops and then, without further ado, pulled the lot, carried it indoors and dug out my favourite preserves book.

I remember looking at this recipe when I was first given the book and thinking that a glut of fennel sounded like a wonderful, if highly unlikely, thing. Well, I was right about part of that. All told I had three pounds of it to pickle once trimmed and chopped. The rain pattered more persistently against the kitchen window as I washed and sliced and blanched in a pot of salted water. The house filled with the scent of liquorice and, knowing how the children love to nibble it, I left a bowl of slices on the table for them to eat, like sweeties, later.

What a difference a little footling about can make to a day. That fug of barely sweetened, spicy vinegar was just what I wanted to steam up the windows. I left one ajar and the smell drifted into the garden, following me and my bucket of feathery fronds all the way to the compost. By tea time there was a row of bright jars cooling on the counter, a crop was saved from bolting and there was room in the greenhouse again. Outside it might have been bucketing but inside was cosy and spicy and acid-sweet. Really, it felt more like autumn than spring.

This morning the labelled jars are lined up in the larder, ready to be eaten with smoked mackerel and other oily fish next winter. I almost can’t wait. But then there’s the rest of spring and summer and autumn to come before that, with all the gardening and bottling that they entail. I’m in no danger of wishing that away. It’s the kind of simple pleasure that I appreciate more and more. A garden to grow things in. Good things to eat and do. A bit of pickle, to get me out of a pickle. That sort of thing. You know.

Beautiful

From a distance, the veg patches are still bare, apart from the end of this winter crop or that. But if you look closely, things are beginning to come up. You can see the broad beans without squatting now, and trace their zigzag rows down each side of the bed. The rocket is still wearing only its seed leaves but they are bigger and ready to part and allow the true leaves through. There are no signs of the leeks yet, and I might try a second sowing, but indoors the other winter veg is starting fairly well. I tried a new variety of tomato, Legend, and it is twice the height and breadth of its contemporaries and threatening to topple the little pots. The chilli peppers might decide to survive after all, if this good weather stays. We’ll see. And the annuals – more colour than I’ve ever grown before – are turning into sturdy little plants and will soon bear to be planted out. Sweet peas, nasturtiums and marigolds are old and familiar favourites, but we’ve added more to the mix and I don’t really know what to expect. Flowers, hopefully, to plant among the vegetables and make the patches even more lovely than in summers past.

Each year I like to try something new, out there. For a long time it was vegetables: different varieties or more beds or a different way of sowing. This, we have decided, is the year of making the garden beautiful as well as practical and productive. Only in places, mind: it’s a big space and a thousand shades of green is a lovely sight in itself. So far we’ve had the usual show of bulbs under the apple tree by the kitchen, as snowdrops gave way to tulips and daffs and the crocuses which were eventually mowed away with the lawn. Just now the bluebells are bowing their pretty heads over the fading hellebores. Ilse’s garden has added to the scene, her bulbs flowering in their turn under the lilac which is so bountiful just now. Many of the new flowers were chosen for her space, on the basis of the picture on the packet alone, which is an aspirational and admirable way to garden, in my opinion. I’ll help her plant them soon, just beyond the almost invisible fence which keeps the chickens off. For my part, I’ve a patio garden planned, and have been collecting pots from round about the place to add to the scene. Nothing fancy or expensive – just a motley collection of old pots with sweet peas and geraniums and other simple blooms in. Another little fence, to keep the chickens off, and a spot to drag a couple of wicker chairs out of the kitchen and into the dappled sunshine. I’m hoping it’ll be my spinning spot, all the glorious summer long. Even if not much blooms, it’ll be lovely if the sun shines. And if not, I’ll keep the chairs indoors and watch the rain bounce on the patio slabs instead while I carry on indoors. Just a few flowers, that’s all it really needs to transform it from something hard and plain to something beautiful. Well, that and a little more of this  sun. That would be very nice indeed.

Outside: Potting on

It’s official: I have run out of space on the kitchen windowsills. All the way around are pots full of seedlings: marigolds, lettuces, cauliflowers, sweet peas… I ran out of trays weeks ago and so they stand on a motley assortment of old plates and the like. Each burst of germination sends me hunting round the house and shed for something – anything! – to put the next lot in, and that something is always found. Tin cans, toilet roll inners, things the children have fashioned out of newspaper – it all works well enough. But more space is not something we can magic up that easily. And I’ll be needing more next week.

I don’t remember ever having such an abundance of seedlings all at once before. Partly it’s because I’ve taken a leaf out of my friend Mr. White’s book and started my brassicas inside this year. Partly it’s because spring seemed late and cold and nothing went in until April. And partly it’s because by the time you’ve found a new source of ‘pots’ and ‘trays’ you may as well pot on every last seedling, as someone will surely want it.

Thankfully while it all seems to be coming up thick and fast, things are about to start moving on quite quickly too. I suppose that’s the beauty of sowing in April: May is only just around the corner and I think the tomatoes will be happy in the greenhouse soon. I’ve earmarked some plants to go out into the soil under large-jars-as-cloches, and another lot to pass on to other gardeners.

It’s a constant shuffle, this potting on business, a funny sort of dance involving pots and trays and rather a lot of compost, but an elegant one all the same. Somehow, at the end of each day spent making such moves, everything ends up in the right place, and there is just enough room for it all.

Bringing it in

Now that the garden is back under control, we can settle into our usual rhythms: a little weeding every day, some planting or staking or some other important task – just a couple of hours out there, four or five times a week. For the last couple of years I’ve made weeding the first thing I do when I step outside. I wander round all the fruit and veg beds and pull up every last little weed I can find. It’s become a habit, partly because I practised it but mainly because it works. My beds have been cleaner than they ever were before. (Just don’t peer into the corners of our garden. We call them wildlife havens, and the air above them hums with life, but most people would call them neglected, instead.)

This year, though, I’ve decided that bringing it in will be the first thing I do each day. I started on Sunday, and found four fennel bulbs to sit our joint of pork on, and a basket of the last of the sprouting broccoli, each stem slender and tender and a deep forest green. On Monday there was cherry blossom, cut from the side which overhangs a veg bed slightly, and between getting it through the back door and into a vase in the sitting room the house was strewn with petals. It was so nearly over that I almost left it out there, and only came back to it after pulling a handful of beetroot from its overwintering in the greenhouse. Half an hour later the blue sky turned black and the rain pelted down, and through the kitchen window I could see the dark sky fill with pale confetti, ripped from the dancing branches. On Tuesday there were bluebells, cut from the patch Fliss discovered self-seeding behind the compost bay (another wildlife haven), and enough little gem leaves, yet again from the greenhouse, to put one or two into everyone’s sandwiches.

There’s not a lot out there just yet, but there’s so much more than I can see standing at the kitchen sink. If I didn’t go looking I’d have missed those bluebells, and that rain would have whipped the end of the cherry blossom from under my very nose. There may not be bowlfuls of salad, but oh! what a difference a little fresh crunch makes in an April sandwich. And even if it’s only a basket of young nettles or beetroot tops to treat as chard, it’s something. I shudder to think how much I’ve missed over the years, waiting for the harvest. So that’s my springtime resolution: keep up with the weeding, and do a different, extra, task each day, but first of all, bring something – anything – in. A little harvest, each and every day. It’s absurd how much pleasure that brings me.

What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

Out there

I’ve been waiting and waiting for the excitement to hit, but it just hasn’t so far this year. Normally by now I’m out there every day, planting things ever so slightly too early, impatient for the weather to warm up, but not this spring. I took a stroll around the garden with Father on Sunday afternoon and was dismayed by how weedy and forlorn it looked – my own fault for neglecting it this long – but instead of rising to the challenge I wasn’t quite sure I was up to it. I’m tired, and there are so many things pulling at the corners of my mind that I don’t seem to have a moment to daydream about the warmer months ahead.

But then the sun comes out, and I promise myself that all I have to do is go out and cut some purple sprouting broccoli for supper before I can come back in. Two hours later I’m still out there. There’s a basket of broccoli and another of celeriac, before it runs to seed. I found some tiny red onions, missed in last year’s harvest, sprouting zingy greens to go with tomorrow morning’s eggs. And of course rhubarb, which I so often forget to pick: enough to stew for an easy weeknight pudding, topped with a dollop of cream. I’ve weeded the fourth of the veg beds and made a plan of attack for the upcoming holidays – a sort of jump-start into the season ahead. Best of all, I sat on our bench in the sunshine and watched the birds come and go. A wren, gathering moss for her nest. Our hens, their feather armour slip-sliding smoothly over their sun-warmed necks. A pair of doves, balancing in the uppermost branches of a nearby tree. And the tits, flitting in and out of the hollow in the trunk of that old apple.

In years gone by I’ve been the one leading the way outdoors at this time of year, coaxing the children out with slightly unseasonal ices or drinks. This time they’ve beaten me to it. They’ve had whole afternoons in the hammock, played cricket on the lawn and are shutting up the hens each evening. Ilse’s little bed is beautifully well weeded. And this morning, before school, they each put in a request for what they’d like to sow this afternoon. I’ve got more flower seeds than I’ve ever had before, and promised to buy some bedding plants in after the last frosts. This isn’t very me at all.

But I don’t particularly mind. How nice it is to have someone else to lead the way when you’re feeling tired out by it all. What a pleasure it is to sow something different, and watch new plants emerge. Their enthusiasm’s catching, as is the sun, and I was glad that my quarter of an hour grew into so much more. When I came in I mapped out all the beds and what’s going where, and began to get a little bit excited. I think an evening with a gardening book is in order. In fact, from where I sit I can see blue skies through the window. Perhaps I’ll make a pot of tea and head outside right now. After all, it’s looking quite appealing, out there.

For Mother’s Day

For Mothers’ Day this year I had a lingering illness which might have ruined the day but for the gifts I received. They were carried in with the morning tea tray: a little handmade coaster, a bag of Pontefract cakes and a voucher. Oh, they know what I like, and what’s on my mind just now. They know I’d like nothing better than to be out in this glorious sunshine, setting the garden to rights, and that I just don’t feel up to it. So nothing could have been better than their voucher promising me a day’s labour out there. I don’t mind how many times they’ve given me this gift; I’ve never loved it more than I did this Sunday.

For my part, I did some fiddly little jobs – pricking out the tomatoes, pushing the onion sets into trays of compost to bring on indoors for a while. John cleaned out the hens and mowed the lawn and built an urgently required chicken-proof fence. Ben spread compost on the beds and turned the newer heaps onward through the bays. The younger three fetched and carried and helped out wherever and whenever they were needed, and from their bare feet and and legs and arms you’d have thought it was high summer.

I took Seb in the motor to visit my own mother with the gift of a bowl of violas. All the talk of allotments with Father sent me home keen to visit my own space: just a little amble, nothing more. John and I cut a basket of tender brocolli before the buds split into yellow blooms. We noticed that the damson has burst its first white tender bud. And when we opened the door of the greenhouse, the aniseed fragrance of fennel spilled out into the cooler, outdoor air.

In the last hour before supper I carried a rug and my old chocolate tin of seeds out to the garden bench. There’s something very pleasing about making a list of what needs to be planted when, and what’s already in. It made me disproportionately happy. Around me, the day dissolved from industry to play. The children soaked themselves in one last water fight before their baths; John hammered in the last stake; an easy Sunday roast was on its way. Thanks to them, I can sow the next lot of seeds as soon as I like, in the freshly composted beds now safe behind the fence. I needn’t worry about the height of the lawn. And no, nobody wanted to do the weeding for me, even if it was Mothering Sunday, but that’s all right. I’ve had a whole day of gardening despite feeling under the weather, and more has been accomplished than I could ever have achieved alone. And they did it all quite willingly. I couldn’t really ask for anything more for Mothers’ Day.

Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Feels like spring

Now, I do know that it is only February, and that Spring Proper is quite a way off yet. But there’s no harm in pretending. After all, the bulbs are flowering around the garden bench, and it was warm enough to work in the garden in only a jumper yesterday. The washing has been flapping on the line. It feels like spring to me.

Never mind that those bulbs are actually the winter flowering snowdrops and crocuses, and that I solicited the help of a child to drag the bench into their midst. Let’s forget that we had to pull the washing in before the heavens opened yesterday afternoon. We’ll pretend that I wasn’t wearing thermals and a snood while I worked in ‘just a jumper’, and that much of the warmth came from the bonfire of winter clippings we had finally got round to burning. At the tail end of winter, it pays to see things selectively. It feels like spring, to me.

It felt like spring to the children, too. They spent the whole of the day in the garden for the first time since I don’t know when. Ilse discovered that her irises had flowered in her little patch of earth under the lilac, and came racing up the lawn, shouting in her excitement. She spent the next hour diligently weeding them, much to my delight, and spying the emerging crocuses which are not quite out. Seb spent ages digging up strawberry plants from their unproductive shady site and replanting them in a strawberry pot I’d bought for that very purpose a mere five months ago. Fliss laid plans for a hen-proof fence across the middle of the garden to protect the vegetables from the chickens’ beaks and claws once they are all out and about again – an upgrade from last year’s hodgepodge of brassica cages and hastily constructed barriers. I wandered round the garden and made a list of all the tasks which ought to be done over the next month, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it might actually be doable. Weeding, mainly, and a final spread of compost, before the seeds go in. We’d got more done over the winter than I’d remembered.

Mostly, it just felt good to be outside again. What with all the sewing that’s been going on around these parts, most of my free time has been spent inside. Productively, but by the fire. Just to step outside made it feel like spring again, and has set the ball rolling for a couple more days in the garden this weekend. By the time I’d burnt all the winter prunings, though, I’d had enough for one day and went indoors to bathe and wash the smoke from my eyes and hair. It was tempting to reach for a new-sewn cotton blouse, given the day I’d had, but even I couldn’t stretch the imagination quite that far, and settled for a clean pullover instead. Yes, my mind tells me that it feels like spring, but my body says that it is most certainly still winter.