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?

But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

June in a jar

12 June 1933

I don’t eat an awful lot of jam, and there are certain batches that I make purely to appease the children: blackcurrant, for example. Or a rare jar made of the tiny bilberries that stain fingers purple and teeth a pleasingly gruesome shade of grey. Mostly, though, jam is too sweet for me, and I reach past it for the marmite.

There are, however, a handful of jams that I make year in, year out, and green gooseberry and elderflower is one of them. At this time of year, when the pollen is so high that a casual passing sniff leaves yellow smears on the tip of your nose, there’s nothing for it but to give in to the heat of the kitchen on a sunny Sunday and boil up a batch of this sugary elixir. I only made a small batch – six jars, plus the inevitable part-filled jar to be eaten the next day at tea – but that’s enough. I just need to know that, tucked away on the larder shelves, is an olfactory snapshot of early June in the garden. The sort of June that 1933 is throwing our way: sunny and warm and high with promise and scent. Then, one grey and sulky January morning, I’ll open up the first. Cold from the stone shelves, it’ll barely smell at all, but smeared on a buttery crumpet the sun will begin to rise again. One bite of the sweet-tart gooseberries, the elderflower hanging mysteriously around it, will be enough. I’ll be able to shut my eyes and imagine that it’s June.

There are two other ardent fans in this house. Fliss and Ilse both love this jam almost as much as I, and surely eat far more of it. By way of encouragement, they rashly offered to pick the gooseberries for me. The recipe only calls for a couple of pounds, but these first green gooseberries are so tiny, and my request that they thin the crop so specific, that they quickly came to me with their regrets. Fliss weighed their first scant attempt to both their great dismay, but off they traipsed for more. Really, that’s how good this jam is. In the end, they spent so much time walking up from the fruit plot at the far end of the garden that I took the scales to them, and, eventually, they reappeared, triumphant. A trip out for ices was in order, and Fliss sat quite happily under the apple tree, snipping the tops and tails off with a pair of scissors, while Ilse ran around gathering the frothiest, most exuberant blooms.

Their help made this one of the quickest batches of jam I’ve ever made: so much so that I’m tempted to make another lot next Sunday. But I don’t think I’ll find anyone to thin the gooseberries again. That is, not until another winter has reminded them of what a treat this is. I couldn’t help but notice, though, on my watering-can rounds of the garden, that the scented roses are about to bloom. Paired with the end of the rhubarb, we might soon have another taste of June stored away in the larder. A little posher, perhaps, as all things rose-scented tend to be, but it’ll all still just come from our garden.

Cecily

For my future self

There’s an awful lot of thought involved in sewing, but exponentially more when you are trying to use every last scrap in a number of long-term projects. If I start with quilt A, I’ll want a bit of that fabric for variety, but what if I don’t leave enough for the cornerstones in quilt B? Yet I can’t start with quilt B until I know that there’ll be enough wadding left over from C. Then there are old sheets to be divided three ways and dyed all the right colours, and all in all it is far too much to think about when I have a scant hour to get my machine out and sew in the middle of term.

These quilt packs, then, are a little gift to my future self. The summer holidays are the perfect time to sit down and work out patterns for the two that I’ve designed myself, and make lists of all the types and sizes and numbers of pieces required. It’s not something I’d normally do, cut three quilts out at a time, but in this case it really is the only way forward. Some of it is straightforward: cut the background fabric for one quilt and slice the rest up into strips and squares to enrich the other two. Other elements are a little more nail biting: could the wadding set aside for one quilt really stretch to two? Just – with a lot of crazy piecing for the one which will be quilted so heavily it won’t matter. And should I use those fabrics on the fronts, or save them to piece a back? There’s lots of measuring and calculating, but I think I’ve got it all worked out, and written instructions for my future self to make sense of each fat pack.

It would be so much easier to throw this lot away and buy a few yards of brand new fabric to make each quilt top. I could buy a roll of batting, and some extra wide yardage to back them all. But that seems very wasteful when it turns out that I have just enough after all. There’ll be a single trip to the haberdashers to buy the thread needed to sew each quilt, but that will be that.

Originally, I’d anticipated diving straight into one of these quilts as soon as the packs were complete, but now that I’m in the mood for thinking, I might press on with a couple of other head-scratching projects and get them done. One is a little rocking chair we’ve had for a couple of years now, waiting for a sanding and a brand new cover. The other is a wingback chair I bought on a whim for a song a couple of weeks before I realised quite how many projects lurked around the house. Ben’s already sanded that one for me, and it too needs new upholstery. So perhaps I ought to tackle them before the hurly-burly of term begins again.

From the outside it may seem dull, all this maths and cutting and sorting, but in little increments it’s rather fun. I make a pot of tea, put the wireless on and before I know it I’m joined by one or other of the children, wanting to make something too. Yesterday Fliss cut into some lovely florals she got for her birthday, to make a little teddy quilt. They are much, much prettier than my crazy-paving wadding. And as I had my eye on that gorgeous aqua print, she cut me a couple of strips to add to Ben’s scrappy quilt. I tucked them away with the other pieces, looking forward to getting them out one rainy autumn afternoon. I think she’s rather lucky, my future self.

Loose ends

What with the end of term only a matter of days away, I’ve had a second wind. The last few days has seen my to-do list grow to ridiculous proportions, but I am getting through it, bit by steady bit. Yesterday I had a bit of a surge and tied up a lot of loose ends – those pesky final tasks which get in the way of a job being done. There were things to do in the children’s rooms, at the end of the big shuffle-around. The hem of our bedroom curtains had come down in the wash and I couldn’t bear to lie in bed and look at it for another evening. I had a pile of bills to pay, and our account to balance.

Most importantly of all, though, were those final arrangements for our holiday. We’re not quite there yet, but we are on our way. Ferries are booked. We’ve found places to stay in all three of our destinations, and written to the owners with arrival times and travel arrangements. The children’s cousins have sent an excitable postcard, and we really ought to send one back. See you in Greece! it says. Seb drew them a picture of the Parthenon in return. It’ll be such fun, having a holiday with my brother and his family, and it has already doubled the thrill for our younger ones. They love spending time with their cousins.

Apart from all the letters and bookings, I’ve been looking through everyone’s things. A knapsack each? Yes. Decent bathers? Absolutely. Enough cool clothes to cope with the heat of Athens? Mostly. A sunhat for each of us, to keep the glare off our faces? Um, almost. There’s a little bit of sewing to be done. I’ll add that to the list.

Luckily there’s time. Thank goodness for a second wind. There won’t be many more quiet days now before the children are at home with me each and every day. And while I look forward to that – I really do – I also know that it’s a good idea to get the dull jobs out of the way before that happens.

Because then… why then the real fun begins. A visit to the library, to choose good holiday novels. More Greek myths to read. The selection of a privileged favourite teddy. And for me, a visit to my embroidery box, to choose a little something to keep me busy on our travels. I can hardly wait.

 

Anyone for tennis?

Since Wimbledon drew to a close the weekend before last, Seb has been rather keen to try his hand at a spot of tennis. It’s Fliss who most often gets pressed into playing – she’s the only one of us who’s any good, anyway. I certainly never played when I was growing up. But it’s been all the rage with girls recently, what with Helen Wills retaining her number one status for so long. Fliss was practically jumping up and down by the wireless during the women’s final, but Wills seemed unperturbed, taking the trophy in two straight sets.

So she and Seb can often be found on the lawn after tea, hitting a ball up and down to one another, an imaginary net slung across the grass. He’s getting better, and if his serving continues to grow stronger I might suggest they play farther away from the windows. Perhaps this summer I’ll book them a court at the park the odd time.

But it’s after supper that you’ll find them all out there, making the most of the lingering summer light. A tennis ball and a cricket bat is all that’s needed for a game of French cricket, with doggy chances for Ilse (and anyone else who gets out on the first throw). The hens retreat into their run, the woodpigeons coo in the tall ash tree, and the sun slips lower and lower in the sky until I notice the time and send Ilse to bed. Summer evenings have got the be the loveliest of the year, whatever it is you’re playing.

The sea is calling

I love the sea in all seasons, but it calls particularly loudly in the summer months. We haven’t been to the beach for a while, but Seb is heading to the coast on a day out soon with school, and it’s got me thinking that we could do with a family visit too.

The children don’t mind where we go – they like the kiss-me-quick of Scarborough and the Bridlington donkeys as much as the next person, but given the choice John and I always head to Filey. Just a little resort, it has a short promenade above a long, sweeping beach and when the tide comes in you can walk up and down along the seafront, or stroll up the nearby grassy hill for a spin in the pedalos or a turn on the putting green.

True to form, the English summer has been a bit variable of late, but I have high hopes for a bit of timely sun. Call me greedy, but I haven’t had enough fine weather yet. After last week’s deluge, I’m ready to start watering by hand again, but I don’t think I’m going to need to for a while. In the meantime I have school concerts and assemblies, debating meets and end-of-term performances to keep me happy indoors. But a spot more sunshine would be seasonal and very welcome, as would a day out at the sea. Here’s hoping.

Moving out

I wasn’t expecting Ilse to be the one moving out this summer, but that’s what she cheerily announced on Sunday afternoon, blanket under one arm, cushion in the other. We’ve all been working on transforming the little tower for her in spare pockets of time. John made a swing with her, which hangs beneath the house part and is hidden by the raspberry canes. I took her to a jumble sale to buy the basket which hangs on a pulley, ready for lifting up treats. Lovely Mrs East gave her the squishiest hand-knit pillow, all wool and cables. We found a rug to spread over the wooden floor, and an old beanbag, and a biscuit tin. She’s taken out a notebook to keep a log in. And on Saturday she and Fliss made the bunting and strung it up themselves, right over the F which has been there since we tidied it up for Fliss several years ago. We ought to look out for an I, but are keeping the F for posterity. And because she keeps disappearing up there, too, and pulling that stick-door shut behind her.

And what about Seb, I hear you asking? Don’t worry: he’s building a base out of an old tarpaulin, a ball of string and roughly 6,000,000 sticks. He works for a bit, then stops to raid the fruit patch before getting back to it. He’s very happy.

Between them, I am getting almost hourly requests for a date on which they’ll be able to sleep out there this summer. I keep thinking about the fox who comes to visit the chickens, and the fact that neither space can be seen or heard from the house, and a thousand unsavoury possibilities. Then I remember that they camp out in the garden every summer. It’ll be fine. It’s inevitable, really. Time ploughs on, children get bigger, and one by one they all move out, if only for one night.

 

Mornings, in summer

There is everything to love about waking up on a summer’s morning. The sun already seeping through the curtains. Sheets and blankets half kicked off. The yellowness of the light, telling you that it’s going to be another sunny day. A tea tray, with a pot that stays hot while you potter out of bed, through the laundry basket, into the bathroom and down the stairs. Wandering down the garden in your dressing gown and wellies to pick something for the pan: spring onions, perhaps, or chard. Hens already up, the day’s eggs waiting smooth and warm in the clean dry straw. Sending children off on bikes in the good weather, with no moans about wind or cold or misplaced gloves. A quiet breakfast on your own, once the house has emptied. The sun, lingering in the high sky, so that the day yawns on before you. Time, then, for another cup of tea on the patio.

How I love these blessed summer mornings. And noons, and sultry afternoons. It’s hard to feel stressed with the hot sun on your back, easing your muscles into buttery relaxation. Why bother dragging yourself in when there are so many things which can be done outside, instead? Yesterday I popped out to water the tomatoes and came in, four hours later, the beds weeded and watered and generally tidied up. It’s hard to mind about a bit of dust in the house, or the roses which are dropping their petals all over the kitchen table. Leave it for a rainy day – and there’ll be some of those soon enough.

Instead, wander around outside and look at how everything’s grown. The marigolds are ready to bloom. The broad beans are in full flower. The first nasturtiums have popped open, and we’ve hung a basket of their cheery blooms on either side of the front door. Just flowers, just in my back garden. What’s bloomed and what’s not doesn’t really matter to anybody else. But to me, each unfurling petal is a little wonder. A win. A tiny celebration of the summer, new and soft as it still is. I love each climbing bean, each burgeoning lettuce, each visiting bee. Each meal on the lawn, each supper with the french doors flung wide open. And the mornings, of course. I even love mornings, in summer.