Garden notes: On a June evening, after work

It took me a while to drop off last night (longer than a minute) and so I passed the time quite pleasantly compiling an A-Z of plants in our garden. I think I got as far as P, and then John was bringing me my cup of tea and it was time to get up.

Later, while I was watering the pots and enjoying a little post-work deadheading, I remembered my list, and wondered whether it could actually be done.  I started looking around in the beds, consciously naming as well as seeing. So much of my restorative time in the garden is spent in a purely sensual world – all those smells, the unexpected nettle stings, that green. I don’t often see a lily and think, lily. I’m not entirely sure what I do think, but it isn’t that. Probably, pesky lily beetles.

A short while later, while eating our tea, I laid the challenge at the children’s door. Some letters were easy, and had everyone promoting their own top choice – all those Cs, for instance. Others were a little more challenging, but this is what we came up with:

apple and ash trees (it’s going to be a good year for the Cox’s Orange Pippins) :: borage (for the bees, and tomato salads) :: courgettes (or cucumbers, or cosmos, or…) :: daffodils (no, damsons, said Seb) :: e… e…? (Japanese anemones! cried Ilse. No, I told her, that begins with an a. Oh, she said, just spell it with an e. If you do it confidently, no-one will notice) enemones* :: freesias (my current love) :: garlic (geraniums, too – lots of geraniums) :: hellebores, and hostas, and a rather lovely climbing hydrangea that hides a corner of the garage :: irises (Ilse’s, in her little garden under the lilac, and a rogue one that recently popped up where I’m sure I planted tulips) :: jasmine! cried Seb. No, we don’t have any jasmine, I said. Japanese enemones, then, said Ilse. Or Jerusalem fartichokes but, thinking about it, we do have some winter jasmine on one fence :: kale (hard to grow it without the slugs getting there first, though. Remarkably frustrating for such an easy plant) :: lilac, and lilies, and leeks. Loads of lovely lettuces, too :: marigolds (the English sort, good for adding to nasturtium pesto amongst other things) :: nasturtiums (which have self-seeded everywhere, and which I keep pulling up in an attempt avoid being the birthplace of every single cabbage white in Yorkshire. Things got out of hand last year), and nettles, which I allow to grow in a patch at the very back, behind the tower, for the butterflies and other little beasts to feast upon. It repays me by trying to grow everywhere else, too) :: onions (red and white, and of the spring variety) :: parsnips, and peas (mange tout and sweet) :: queen anne’s lace (or something very similar. It’s appeared next to my rambling rose, appropriately enough, because next up is…) :: rambling roses (and rhubarb, which will be united with said roses in a jam jar next weekend) :: spinach (with home laid eggs for breakfast, anyone? a current favourite) :: tulips (which were magnificent this year, lasting for ages in a pot on the patio) :: umbellifers (thank goodness for weeds) :: violas (I’ve just realised that I’ve planted pots and pots of violas in suffragette purple, green and white, which is a happy coincidence on this centenary) :: wisteria (oh my goodness, the wisteria. On a pergola, no less. If you squint it’s a bit like Enchanted April, only in May :: x… (look up a latin name, suggested Ben. So I did.) xanthoceras. And no, we don’t have any of that in the garden :: yorkist roses (an historical contribution from Fliss) :: zinnias. Oh, okay, they’re dahlias, really. But let’s pretend.

And even then, driving the middle two to scouts, we were still coming  up with more. Like nigella, and aquilegia, snowdrops and hawthorn and beans. We could probably do it all over again, if it wasn’t for the xyz.

Madeleine

* Elderflowers! shouted Ilse, from bed, quite a while after her light was turned out. Oh good, now we can all stop puzzling, and she can go to sleep.

PS How does your garden grow? Could you do an A-Z? Any suggestions for a better xyz for us? We thought about yew, but we don’t have one. (Nobody will know, said Ilse. Except Bapan. And he’s hardly going to leave a comment correcting you.)

PPS Should I be worried about Ilse?

Low hanging fruit

There were times, towards the end of October, that I thought we’d never get the apples in. There was always something more urgent or important to be done. The days slipped by and the weather steadily worsened. Fliss and I spent the finest afternoon of the holiday at Father’s allotment, helping him to bring his own crop in. But at home the Bramleys languished on the tree, occasionally thudding onto the kitchen roof or the patio or lawn.

That is until one day, when Seb and I were home alone, and decided to go out and pick the low-hanging fruit. Just an hour, we promised each other: an hour and a couple of crates. We didn’t even get the stepladder out, but picked whatever we could reach with our feet still on the ground, laying all our bounty on the garden table. In under an hour we had well over a hundred apples picked, wrapped and packed, and I could bear to look at the tree again.

Needless to say, the apple- picking squad assembled the very next day, ladders and all. But I like to think they wouldn’t have, if Seb and I hadn’t got the ball rolling. Whatever the reason, we have apples enough for a whole winter of puddings, and compotes and roasts.

Reaching for the low-hanging fruit has become a bit of a theme around here in the past couple of weeks. The Liberty blouse I have planned seems far too onerous a task to begin. So too does my simple quarter circle skirt, the materials for which are laid out ready on the dining table. Instead, I’ve embarked on a little cross-stitch project, which is mesmerising and beautiful in its novel imperfection. I’ve been knitting simple things. I hear that Father Christmas has started his list with the presents he gives out every year: socks and books and foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Tick them off, I say. It’s got to be done anyway, so you may as well start with the low-hanging fruit to get you in the mood for a bit of stretching at the top of a rickety ladder.

Sugar and spice

We almost had a frost last night. I woke, snug under the covers, to the sound of the tea tray at the bedroom door and the news that I’d slept until nine. Nine? Surely not. But when I drew back the curtains and saw the fog I knew why the sun hadn’t woken me.

It was in the fog that we finally picked the pears: Ilse, Seb and I. It’s only a gnarled little tree but it yielded several pounds and Seb spent the morning helping me peel and stud the halves with cloves before pickling some and bottling the rest in sweet spiced cider. By lunchtime they were just about done, as was the soup that we’d set bubbling on the warm plate of the aga, and the kitchen was full of the smells of our preserving as well as the garlicky lentils and bacon of our lunch. For afters the children took an apple each, picked from Father’s allotment only the day before when we’d helped him bring the end of his harvest in.

That’s what this week’s holiday has been all about. The Bramleys have finally been picked and wrapped and laid neatly in wooden market-traders’ trays. The remnants of the summer cabbages have been jarred. Those almost-forgotten red tomatoes have made splendid lunchtime treats, and the green used up in chutneys. The fennel, still too small to harvest, is safe under a cold frame. Only the leeks stand in the beds, and the swedes and purple sprouting brocolli, savoys and Jerusalem artichokes. Parsnips grow steadily on, waiting for that first frost to bring their sugars out. It can come now, and blacken the lingering nasturtiums and courgettes.

In the kitchen there’s a bowl of dried fruit soaking in brandy. Tomorrow we make the Christmas cake and pudding, and heady apple mincemeat. The season is shifting from early to late autumn, looking ahead to the winter. Until today we put up what was in the garden: tomorrow we bake with more exotic ingredients. Lemons and oranges all the way from Africa nestle in the fruit bowl with apples from only down the road. There’s an extra bag of sugar on the shelf to turn their empty rinds into a marmaladish jelly. I popped a glacé cherry into each of the children’s mouths and watched their faces as they recognised the sweetness. The larder shelves are very nearly full with the work of another year, indoors and out. This is the sort of cooking that looks as far ahead as our gardening plans do: into the weeks and months before us. I know how much we’ll enjoy these bright jewelled jars of spicy goodness and the flavours they’ll bring to the winter table.

For now, though, at the end of another long day in the kitchen, the sitting room fire beckons. That, and a glass of rhubarb gin, bottled in the long-ago spring. You see, we knew then that we’d be glad of it now, and so we are. Who wouldn’t be? Because sugar, spice and all things nice are what the things in the larder are made of. Mmm.

Culinary compensations

Friday afternoons find me on the sofa in the kitchen, a pile of cookbooks balanced on one velvet arm, the calendar in my lap. Were I to go about our meals summer-style it’d be cabbage every night, with endless apples after. So it’s back to planning again, and pencilling in each dish on the calendar in the hall. The children check it as they pass and squeal with delight at near-forgotten favourites: toad-in-the-hole, beef stew, cheese and onion pie with an orange pool of beans.

I have to do it when I’m hungry: after a meal I have no interest in thinking about the next. But pre-tea, when there’s a cake in the oven and my lunchtime soup feels a long, long time ago, I approach this task with gusto. It’s so easy in the autumn: so many good things are in season. It’s more a case of choosing what to leave off than what to put into the plan. How many types of pie can a family eat in a week? Which day shall we have kippers, or porridge, or toast? There’s leftover mash to be made into bread, but also pots of herbs to knead into a different sort of dough. Can we get through all those sweet and spicy autumn puddings before the fruit is off the trees?

Nothing can be wasted, but the kitchen fills with unexpected treats. Ben goes foraging with his pals and brings back baskets of good things: rose hips and elderberries and sloes. I make a floral-orange syrup and give it to the children, hot, for breakfast, as a drink or drizzled in their bowls. Sloes mean gin, and sugar; elderberries wine. The pears are falling quickly now, and will sit hard and sulky in the bowl until suddenly going off if I don’t cook them. We still haven’t picked the Bramleys.

In spring food is so exciting: green and fresh and new to our tired and jaded palates. In summer it is easy – salad and cold cuts and a bowl of minted, boiled new spuds. In autumn it’s such fun to think of all the dishes we’ve not had for all this time, and fit the increased cooking into the rhythm of my days. Sundays: roast. Mondays: leftover pie, and chicken soup to last the week. Different things on the next few days until on Friday I look in the larder and wonder which cake to bale. Last week there were courgettes but no butter or eggs: I waited for the feathered ladies to oblige before making a batter with oil and grated veg, with mixed spice to add depth and lemon juice to give a little lift. Luckily everybody loved the faintly greenish cake. You see, in summer I might pop out to the shops quite often, just as I do to the veg patch in the garden. But in autumn it’s a point of pride to make it through the week with just what I wrote on my list.

It’s a funny time of year, both cornucopial and lean. Yes, there are good things everywhere to eat. But this is it now, until that first bowl of bright green nettle soup next spring, so it must be made to last. I quite like the planning and the making of my lists. There are lots of things I dislike about autumn, not least that it heralds the winter months of cold and grey and dark. But on the plus side, there are so many good things to eat. Say what you like about October: it most certainly has its culinary compensations.

Garden notes: First fruits

Six years ago, we planted a Cox’s Orange Pippin half way down the garden, on the right hand side. We had an apple from it once, bright and crisp and archly sweet. Just one, cut into six wedge smiles with my gardener’s knife and nibbled there and then on the dewy autumn lawn.

This year we might have an apple each. Or even several, if things go on the way they have begun. The drop, it seems, is over: the discarded prototypes picked up before the lawn’s latest cut. Not a barrel of apples, not a stockpile for the colder months. But enough to fill the fruit bowl for a good few weeks.

First fruit: the thrill of the new harvest. It’s infectious. Each night, after school, the children take turns to pick the berries and fill a jug with cream. Last night it was raspberries, mixed into a simple salad with this season’s sweet and juicy nectarines. On Sunday Ilse chopped the tops off strawberries and fed them, stalks and all, to overexcited hens. The blackcurrants are ready, and a day or two of jam-making awaits. I’ll tuck it away in the pantry, ready for October and its call for bread and jam for tea. For now, tea is a glass of milk and a visit to the garden to nibble whatever takes your fancy. Mange tout, spicy rocket leaves, as many raspberries as you can find from under their shady leaves. Even the gooseberries are sweet enough to eat just as they are.

There is hidden treasure in the hedges surrounding Father’s allotment, too. Fat raspberries abound, and the wild roses are dropping their leaves in time for the hips to swell. Blackberries are in evidence, small and hard and greenish white. His apple tree is laden, his rhubarb gathering strength for the following year. We went together, yesterday, to bring in his very first harvest: fistfuls of broad beans inside fuzzy protective pods; firm new potatoes, smelling of the earth; a sprig of mint to scent their water.

It was an ordinary, special day. It marked a shift in the life of that allotment: from a place of labour to a place of harvest. Before that, it was laid bare. Before that: chest high in weeds.

So much work goes into these brief harvests. So much time, so much thought, so much money spent on seeds and tools and strong young plants. Those broad beans might be the most expensive Father ever eats. Those apples, the most eagerly anticipated since the fall of Eve. One bite, though, and all is forgiven. Those first fruits are worth every backache, every penny, every tick of the kitchen clock. Worth all that and much, much more.

Not stopping, but slowing

Some people seem able to put their gardens to bed for the winter. They rake up the leaves, plant fresh bulbs for spring and watch the weather from behind their kitchen windows.

My garden never goes to bed. At most, it might take a quick snooze under a heavy fall of snow. It doesn’t ever come to a complete halt, but slows, like the laying of the hens as the sun’s brief visits grow ever shorter.

It has been a mild and rainy autumn, which is one reason that I am behind on my garden plans. For weeks, the lawn has been awaiting its final cut. A section of hawthorn hedge still needs trimming into shape. I need to weed the veg plot one last time. After all that comes the winter work of moving plants, creating new beds and pruning the soft fruit. The trees need cutting back. The hens, though not laying much, need cleaning out more than ever. There are leaves to rake, every day, and still – still – apples falling from that tree.

As the day was bright and breezy I decided to make the most of it and cut the lawn myself. It was so long that I had to run at it to get the blades spinning, and complete each pass at an insistent jog. Hat and pullover were quickly discarded, and I have three new blisters. I don’t mind: it won’t be cut again until spring. By then I will be longing for the clattering whirr of those red blades. In March, the garden will begin its catch-me-if-you-can once more, barely glancing back at me as it rushes, exuberantly, into life.

But now it is November, I can catch up easily. The rituals continue – the ever optimistic check for eggs, bringing in some veg from the patch. Today I pulled three leeks, grown sturdy on this warm weather, to add to our stone soup. There is a bowl of chard ready for the morning fry. Then I’ll spend an hour or so cutting something back, or digging, enjoying being warm and busy in the chill damp air. Basking in what little light there is. Spying the first spears of woodland bulbs. Waiting for the robin to keep company with me. If I take a lesson from the garden, and slow right down, I can make these tasks last all the way to spring.

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Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

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Late-harvest chutney

There is a period, each August, when the tomatoes ripen thick and fast. Every day I leave a bowlful on the kitchen table. We eat them in sandwiches, with or without cheese; fried for breakfast with a panful of eggs; or just as they are.

Bit by bit, our enthusiasm for them fades. As their numbers dwindle in September I fall out of the habit of picking them every day and by the end of the month I am content to close the greenhouse door on them.

It was my garden task, yesterday, to dismantle that little jungle. I sliced through twine and stems with my curved knife, arranged the canes neatly in a corner of the potting shed, and carted load after load of compost to the heap at the far end of the garden. Then I cleaned the greenhouse, sweeping it clear of desiccated leaves and previously encouraged spiderwebs. I washed the glass inside and out. I scrubbed slippery algae from the paving slabs. I wiped the woodwork, and made a note of where it needs another coat of paint. When all that was done, I had almost nine pounds of tomatoes to bring indoors.

There has been enough of a lull for the red ones to be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Most of them are green, though, and need to be cooked. Hence the late-harvest chutney.

I’ve been following the same recipe ever since we’ve had a garden large enough to produce a surplus. Occasionally I make tangy yellow piccalilli, or spicy red relish, but not this year: those are the sorts of recipes which come and go. They depend on the weather, the harvest, and my holiday plans. But I make late-harvest chutney every October because it uses what I have in abundance: windfall Bramleys, marrows, onions and green tomatoes.

Sitting down to read through the recipe, I realised with a start that I have seemingly never done this before. The ingredients were familiar, the method as simple as I remembered – yet apparently I am supposed to peel the tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes is one of those tasks which I do not do. It falls into the same bracket as ironing tea towels, or buying little china ornaments to dust. Succumb to these tasks and there would be no time left for the important things in life like talking – really talking – to John, playing with the children, or watching the fast-changing autumn skies. In truth, if I had to peel the tomatoes I simply wouldn’t make the chutney.

So I made it anyway, skins and all. I took the time to arrange all the fruit in order of colour and size, and paused to admire that little segment of rainbow. Once the meditative chopping was done, I stopped again, to wonder at the all shades which fall between white and green. I even admired the sheen on those taut tomato skins.

All told, it is quite a mountain of vegetables, and takes a while to collapse beneath the rim of the pan. I let it get on with this while I prepared the spice bag: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and fragrant ginger. I put in a couple of extra cloves, and, once I had smashed the ginger root with my rolling pin, held back a slice for myself. It only wanted boiling water and a spoonful of honey. Cup in hand, I spent an important fifteen minutes watching clouds scud across the brightening sky.

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Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

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Apples, everywhere

In our garden, behind the kitchen, stands an apple tree. We think it must have been planted there over eighty years ago, long before this house was built. It isn’t a perfect shape. Some of its lower branches are truncated, and, on top, dozens of water shoots reach feebly to the sky. Its bark is deeply ridged and scarred from old washing lines.

Its imperfections are especially apparent in the winter. Laid bare, its branches reveal all the awkwardness, inconsistency and lack of balance that only decades of poor pruning can achieve. Each January I eye it up from the kitchen sink, collect my saw and stepladder and climb, trembling, into its crown. I remove a few of the lower offenders before retreating, afraid of its full twenty feet.

By spring my dissatisfaction has melted away with the last of the frosts. There is no arguing with apple blossom. From Ilse’s bedroom window the whole world is awash with miniature ballerinas, twirling pink tutus in the warming breeze.

Come the summer it shades us generously, lingering over lunch on the patio. A family of bluetits takes up residence in its hollow trunk, and last year, when we grew the lawn into a meadow, they swooped through the evening air, gathering insects in perfect parabolas. Bluetits, gin and tonic and an hour on my favourite bench. Heaven.

The windfalls start in August. Apple butter, apple cake, stewed apple, apple crumble – no matter how fast I cook them I never get to the bottom of my basket before their bruises ripen. They are banished to the compost. By September I sigh at every thump: I am tired of peeling apples.

So this Sunday I rallied the family into our annual picking. The usual questions were resolved: who would wrap the apples (me), who would ferry them from the pickers to my hands (Seb, Ilse and Fliss), and who would get to go up the ladder to pick just a few (everyone, naturally).

There was some precarious balancing on the very top of the steps, and some delicate manoeuvring of Fliss’s hockey stick, but they are in. This morning there were only five windfalls, dropped from the higher branches. I can cope with five. Apple pie for supper, I think.

 

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