Taking care

This time of year is always a bit of a slog. It should be wonderful – the weather is warm, the school year nearly over, sometimes the sun even shines. But we’re not quite there yet. Ben’s exams run for the next three weeks. Fliss has a ballet exam soon, and the extra lessons that that entails. John is busy at work, getting everything in place for the Christmas chocolate frenzy. In the garden there’s lots and lots of salad, but not a great deal else. All those things that we’ve worked so hard for have not quite reached fruition, and we’re getting tired.

So I have declared the next month to be the month of Taking Care. Early nights. Good food. Jaunts out at every opportunity, for a little change of scene. Adjustments to the routine, and little treats for everyone when they least expect it.

Outside in the garden, which is so tantalisingly close to the start of the harvesting season, the weeding and watering must go on. There are plants to be staked, and successional sowings to be made. This morning I planted out ten baby fennel bulbs and two rows of fledging lettuces, before sowing more seeds indoors. And although I still pick a bowlful of lettuce each and every day, there are now rocket leaves and baby chard to add to the mix. Seb slipped out before breakfast to pick the first of the raspberries. And there are so many roses on the bush behind the hen house that I’ve filled a vase to overflowing, and more are still in bud.

By contrast, the cutting garden looks quite bare, with pale spears gladioli just breaking through the surface. Beside them, the marigolds are settling in, as are the dahlias, sweet peas, alstroemeria and starflowers. The sunflower seeds have sprouted fat dicotyledons. They are all working very hard, and would benefit from a bit more sun, and I know that there will be flowers sooner or later. To settle our impatience the bedding plants are doing splendidly in their new bed, and putting on a show in purples and pinks and blues. Better still, you can see them from the sofa in the kitchen, and from the sink, and the table, and even the back bedrooms upstairs. It’s brought the garden closer to the house, that bed of Ben’s, so that even those of us who don’t have the time to get out there every day can enjoy the pleasures of June.

Further back, the elderflowers are already beginning to brown and drop their petals. I could be rushing around, making one more batch of cordial to carry this month into the winter. But we’ve plenty of that in store, and of jam. In fact, we’re eating things up at the moment, to make room for this year’s bounty. Sunday evening saw the last jar of 1931 blackcurrants stirred into a marbled, creamy fool. The remaining spring cabbages came straight in from the patch to the pan. Jars of Emergency Pudding (a phrase the children love) mean that there are always mulled pears to satisfy that need for just a little something sweet. There will be time enough to restock those larder shelves. During the summer, when we will have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the things we choose. When a whole day’s agenda might be: Make Chutney. For now, though, we’re taking things as easy as we can, and making life comfortable. Dropping anything which isn’t strictly necessary. Slowing down. Taking care.

Garden notes: Picking

We’ve been away an awful lot this summer, one way and another. Between outings and overnights, camping trips and tramps around the country, home has been a place to get the washing done and have a bath before heading off again. Things have been different in the garden, too – periods of neglect (in which the tomatoes were saved only by the kindness of a neighbour with a key) followed by a two or three day stint of hours and hours out there. Once back from our final jaunt earlier this week, I was ready for a change of pace. To get back to taking my time, pottering about and making the most of the autumn sun. To seeing all the jobs that must be done and choosing one – just one – to make a start on. And, in this precious time before the clocks go back, using the time between tea and supper to wander around with a basket on my arm, seeing what is ready to be picked.

I love this part of the day. The part when the children flop about on the sofa or the rug, full of bread and jam, ready for a bit of quiet after school and before some game begins. More often than not I am alone in the garden. I check the tomatoes first, then the cucumbers and courgettes. Lettuce next, then it all gets taken in and the leaves plunged into cold water. Then outside once more to the inevitable beans. The low-hung sun shines in my eyes, and looking down I see a spider wobbling about on elongated limbs. The round leaves of nasturtiums steal a march across the paving slabs, heralded by their own radiant blooms, so I pick a basketful of those, too, to make a spicy paste. There are squat green insects here and there, scuttling about on crooked legs, and new webs appear daily between one green creeper and another. The cabbages are safe, now that the caterpillars have moved on to pastures new, but the aphids have arrived in their camouflaged hundreds and tomorrow, really, I should deal with them. For now, though, I have time to sit on my bench and watch the bees make their way from bloom to bloom, drunk and heavy with nectar.

Inside, I watch the hens in happy frenzy on the fresh-dug soil as I rinse the dirt from another panful of potatoes. Boiled, I think, with beans and fish and parsley sauce. Tomorrow there will be cabbage. I must send a child out to pick a Cox for each of them for school. There will be scallions in the morning, and green swiss chard, and flowers for my salad. I could eat like this forever, grazing on the bounty of the earth. Recipe books lie abandoned at this time of year. I keep an ear out for complaints: about green beans again, or more courgettes, or not another cabbage. They haven’t started yet. Perhaps it’s because with green beans come windfalls from the sky, stewed with cinnamon for breakfast. With courgettes come berries in the hedgerows to slow your journey home from school. Or perhaps they simply appreciate this fresh green food as I do, knowing that it cannot last forever. Whatever the reason, they’re eating. And if they keep eating I’ll keep picking, and those plants will keep producing, and everyone will be happy.

Cuttings

As many of the flowers begin to fade out of doors, those indoors are getting our attention. Oh, there’s still plenty in the garden, and to be seen on hedgerow rambles. Into the house come cuttings of sweet peas, and anemones, and umbellifers. There is hibiscus by the armful, and the grass is full of buttercups. But on a rainy day, when the first of the woollens are called for, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in pulling out old shirts and frocks and cutting them up for quilting.

In the mix, this time, is Ilse’s romper from last summer, and an old green dress of mine. There are a number of shirts for plains and stripes, from Father and John and Ben. There’s a blouse Fliss loved but splashed something on in a chemistry lesson. And there’s a little Liberty, too – spared from a length I bought in London to make a new case for my flute – a splash of something special to bring the quilt to life.

I’ve had a lot of company on my afternoons of cutting. Not just the customary Poirot on the wireless, and the tray with its pot of tea. Seb has been hovering, picking bits out of the scrap pile for some puppetry project or other. Ilse has been snipping off the buttons for the jar. Fliss wandered in and out, casting an eye over the proceedings and glowing quietly with pleasure as she noticed each new fabric in the pile. I’ve had helpers to count the 63 white squares cut from a worn out sheet, and the 32 setting triangles. The multicoloured strips have been arranged and rearranged in various colour combinations. It’s been a lovely way to pass the rainy summer holiday afternoons.

We’re just about finished now, with all the cutting. Next comes the stitching together of the long strips, before they are cut into short trios of squares and resewn into nine-patch blocks. Then the whole top can be pieced and set on point to create a diamond effect: a Jewel in the Crown quilt.

But not today. Today, the sun is shining, and I know a green lane where the hedges are groaning with blackberries. Today is a day for stained lips and prickled fingers and baskets heavy with fruit. The quilt can wait for another rainy day. I have different cuttings to take: from the anemones in the garden to give to a friend of mine, which I hope will bloom next summer.

That’s the thing about cuttings: they grow into something wonderful. A whole new plant from a length of root. Crown jewels from cotton chintzes. And in the kitchen this evening, jam from unbidden brambles.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Garden notes: Scorcher

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

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

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

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

July planning

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

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

Garden notes: Shift

If you stand at the kitchen window, the vegetable garden is a swathe of green where only weeks before it was bare earth. Spikes and frills, hearts and floppy pea stems – all can be seen from a distance. And in that green are blooms: pink where mangetout will grow, white at the top of the bolting rocket. Yellow, to herald new courgettes.

So many things have happened in the days and weeks and months between midwinter and today. The earth shifts in relation to the sun and the hours of daylight are drawn out, minute by minute, hour by slow hour. Sensing this, woodland plants send their shoots towards the sun before the trees get in the way. Snowdrops and hellebores lend their languid beauty to the still-cold earth. Beneath the surface roots stop hoarding their resources and spend them in a frenzy of resurgence, regrowth, rebirth. We sniff at the cold air like foxes, trying to smell the coming spring.

The earth is full of time bombs, laid in readiness for just the right degree. They crack open, and out snake roots and shoots, staking out their claims. Beneath the surface billions of life forms do their work of feeding and holding water, releasing nutrients and creating air-filled pathways. We work hard to keep it at its best, and yet, in a forgotten corner of the garden, just beyond the tree house, nature does it better. Soon the nettles can be picked, soon the yellow manes of dandelions will burst into hundreds of parachuting seeds to start again, next year.

Come May the days are long and warm. The vegetables are sturdy, though still small. The sun is on our side. Fat insects fill the air; the hens peck lazily at such abundance. The soil is warm, the roots are strong, the leaves soak up the sunshine. And then, at last, come June, the longest day is greeted by a flush of yellow blooms.

Six months, it’s been. Six months of lengthening, warming, reaching. And now, a shift. This evening will be shorter than the last, tomorrow’s dawn a little later. Summer hasn’t gone, but those in the know – the plants, the bees, the birds – are making the most of the heat stored in the earth beneath our feet. The garden hurtles on, surging towards its harvest. There are destinies to fulfil in the shape of peas, tomatoes, cabbages. It takes more than a simple order to turn this ship. Whispers of the shift will filter from the tree tops to the nematodes who go about their business in the dark, and one day, a season on from now, it will be time for rest. The longest day has passed, the waning has begun. The balance has begun to shift.

The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Garden notes: Soak

The house seems to double in size at this time every year. Time for a cup of tea? Let’s have it in the garden. A bit of homework to finish off? Do it under the apple tree. Where’s Ilse’s teddy? She probably left it on the lawn. I can’t actually remember the last time we sat in the living room, given that we choose the green carpeted one for preference every time. Even chilly evenings and rainy days find us in the kitchen, looking out over the garden. Our lives have shifted towards the back of the house, where the sun shines longest.

Now that the trees are all in leaf, the little plants in my veg plot wait eagerly for the sun to swing round and touch their outstretched arms. They don’t have long to wait: there is only a short window of time in which I can give them a good soaking with the hose. A tiny northern tribe of bluetits finds me at it and swoops beneath the arc of droplets, gathering the worms which have been tricked into thinking it is raining. They flutter and hop about with surprising daring, daubed as they are with charcoal and woad, and I have to take care not to swipe them with the water. Once the swampy celery is sated, its roots damp once again, I can head off to do other things in the sun. This is the time of year when the house is sadly neglected, and I look for jobs outside at every opportunity. A spot of weeding? Yes please. Mowing the lawn again? If you insist. Picking the salad for supper, collecting the eggs, finding a patch of nettles to cut down… I’ll take any outdoor job that’s going.

The garden is at its very best, with a full complement of little plants in ordered rows. They aren’t at the stage of sprawling yet, or hiding trouble under luxuriant leaves, but they are safely out of the seedling stage. The slugs, though still a nuisance, hold less horror for me now. The pigeons can’t wipe out the peas in a single feeding. Everything is coming along nicely, and some are even feeding us with delightful regularity. I would be tired of lettuce, if it wasn’t so deliciously thick and juicy. The rocket disappears by the handful each time I bring a basket of it to the kitchen table. Little radishes are rinsed off under the garden tap and eaten then and there. And spinach and eggs are a match made in heaven: a point proven almost daily in this house.

The tomatoes are in flower, the peas not far behind. The potatoes are so tall I won’t have earth enough to bury them, but I’ll do the best I can. New spring cabbages, to cut and come again all summer, are very nearly ready. And then there are the slow growers: the savoys and brussels, the swedes and parsnips. The carrots, appearing once more from nowhere (there’s magic afoot in that patch, I tell you) have quite a way to go. But there’s plenty to keep us going, and the flavours keep on changing the whole season long. We’ve been pulling rhubarb for a while, and now the little gooseberries are almost at their peak. Seb is keeping a beady eye on the strawberries, and on the thieves that steal them. And to keep it all changing, to keep it even fresher than it already is, are the herbs. I pick them by the handful: thyme and oregano on roast chicken, chives in our spinach omelettes. Rosemary with tender spring lamb. Mint-boiled new potatoes.

What it is about the sun which makes it so compelling? It pulls us out of doors, as if by sitting and soaking it up we could grow big and strong just like our plants. As if, by being in its presence, we’ll be made well again. As if we could bottle up the warmth and take it winterward with us. We can’t, of course. Only the plants can do that for us: in the trees which become logs, the fruits and stems and leaves which become our food.  I know all this, but it won’t stop me trying. A bit of mending? I’ll do that on the garden bench.

When evening comes and the sun departs it is as if it was never really there. In fact, I need a jumper of some sort to keep me warm. Where did I leave my cardigan? Oh look – it’s on the garden bench, soft and brown and wonderfully warm from soaking up the sun.

Beside the seaside

The children had a checklist: wave jumping, ice cream eating, sandcastle building and lots of fish and chips. And I had mine: walks along the beach, with the sand between my toes. A little pot of winkles on the seafront. A picnic rug, and a spot of crochet. Happy children.

We fulfilled a few of these wishes in our very first afternoon there with Miss Stevens, who drove us over in her motor. She’d never been to Filey before, and I think she liked the way the waves crashed against the defences before retreating to leave behind a wide and sandy beach. Filey is the sort of beach resort I remember from my own childhood: lots of Edwardian boarding houses overlooking the sea, tea shops round every corner, and donkey rides up and down the sands. Chilly weather when you were hoping for the sun, and then, when you have just about given up, the clouds part and there it is, in time to warm you through. Nothing fancy, nothing new. Just spray thrown in your face by the high tide, and lips that taste of the salt air. Sticky fingers from fast melting ices, and sand in your socks. And then at night, tired out with bracing air and strolling up and down along the sands, sleep, with the shushing of the sea and the promise of the beach just after breakfast.

As a child, the charms of the seaside are obvious. Who doesn’t want to visit that strange and magical margin dividing land and sea? The shore, which vanishes and reappears, is different every time, and offers up new treasures. The bucket full of shells is filled, dumped out, sorted and half emptied before being swiftly filled again. Mussels are the thing – no, cockles now – no, sea glass with its jewelled translucent softness. There are moats to be dug, last minute, as the tide swirls in and washes whole kingdoms away, and the little court decamps and starts again. And there are white steeds to jump with growing confidence until an unexpected swell knocks you into the water and you squeal with shock and delight in equal measure.

As an adult, its charms are even greater. There are no chores to be done, beside the seaside. There are no dishes to be washed: those vinegary fingers need only a quick lick before the children are back in the sea. The boarding house breakfast isn’t mine to cook, the floors not mine to sweep. So there is nothing left to do but play and rest. Solve the mystery of Five Red Herrings with Lord Peter Wimsey. Linger over a pot of tea and a scone. Pick our way out onto Filey Brigg and see the whole world reflected in a rock pool. Hang a piece of bacon on a string and wait and wait and wait for the big brown crab to come and grab it with its greedy claws. Paddle in a little deeper than you should, so that the cold North Sea soaks the hem of your dress. The day’s laundry is the rinsing of the bathers in the bedroom sink, the day’s cooking a choice between one form of sea food or another. A complete holiday, in other words, only a bus ride away from home, squeezed into the middle of an otherwise busy term. It’s a different world, truly, beside the seaside. And all the children want to know is when we are coming back. Soon, my lovelies. Soon.