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.

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/whohit]