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?

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.

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.

 

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.

For romping

Ever since Ilse got her mermaid romper last year, Fliss has been angling for one. I don’t blame her: were I not absolutely sure that 38 is too old for such a garment, I’d be wearing one already. It’s sweet and comfy, cool in the summer and made snug in the autumn and spring with the addition of woollen stockings and a hand knit cardigan. Who wouldn’t want one? So I let her choose a yard of floral tana lawn a few weeks ago and, Saga dress complete, I made this for her the very next day.

Oh, to be fifteen with the summer stretching before you! Old enough to stretch those legs of hers unaccompanied, young enough to dress them in something simple and naive. I wasn’t sure about her choice of fabric when it came off the bolt but as soon as I cut into it I knew that she was right. It just sings summer and sunshine and fun. It’s perfect for bike rides and picnics and trips to the sea, or camping, or berrying, or forays to the shops. It’s a million miles from her summer school uniform, all gingham and knee socks and straw hats, and just perfect for lazy days at home.

Spring is hopping and skipping its way towards us (and sometimes tripping over too, resulting in some wet and windy days), so Ben obliged me by giving the lawn its first rough cut on Saturday afternoon. Those funny hens followed him around, dancing about in their excitement as they searched out things to eat in the new-shorn grass. It’s bumpy and muddy and full of clover and worms, our lawn. It has holes dug by hens and chipped out by hockey sticks, and makes for some funny bounces come French cricket season. It’s not the easiest job, getting over that terrain with our old push mower, and I’m grateful that he does it without complaint. I thought a slice of cake might be in order, by way of a thank you, and when we finished at about the same time, he and I, Fliss slipped out in her romper to take it to him.

From beneath my many woollen layers I shuddered to see her out there in nothing but cotton lawn, but something caught my eye. Seeing her outfit against the grass, I couldn’t help but notice that they had a unifying purpose. Despite their many varied other uses, both were made for romping. Which, in my humble opinion at least, is a vital part of any childhood summer.

Focus on the rhubarb

I’ve not been feeling terribly well of late. I get tired out at the end of winter: tired of fighting off the cold and the germs and the gloom. The fact is that my reserves must be running low because I’ve succumbed to all three this last week.

Now, everywhere I look, there are things which need to be done. Cobwebs sparkle in the clean bright light of spring. Fliss is deep in hockey season, with endless early morning training sessions, which we parents know mean early morning get ups for the rest of us. Ben finishes school in a matter of weeks, and preparations for what comes next are gathering pace. I’ve done nothing in the garden, bar the weeding of three out of five veg beds, and the sowing of a handful of seeds which probably need thinning out already.

I can hardly bear to look. And then, when I was brushing my teeth this morning, I noticed that the spring cabbages had grown so much that I could see their progress from the upstairs bathroom window. That the purple sprouting brocolli had grown another meal’s worth of shoots. That the overwintering salads had put on so much leaf that they were pressing up against the glass. And that the rhubarb was just about ready for its first tentative pull.

So I wandered outside, still in my night-things, to take a closer look. And yes, there were lots of weeds, but I can deal with those. They are just a minor detail. The important things, the things which must be sown and planted seasons in advance, were getting along just fine without me. Rhubarb, and brocolli, and resilient children with the right values tucked deep inside their hearths. A loving home, despite those pesky cobwebs. I took a mental picture to remember all this by, and yes, there were weeds in the corner of it. But they’re a minor irritation, a detail, a blip. Today, I’m focusing on the rhubarb, and everything it stands for.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

Tesselations

There have been page after page of tesselations floating around the house of late. Fliss learned to draw these interlocking patterns from her mathematics mistress and Ilse, spotting the bright sheets of gridded paper, demanded to know how they were done. Ever patient, Fliss taught her sister to draw interconnected crosses three squares wide, and pick each element out in a different colour. Then they moved on to dogs, each one standing on the back of the next so that they rose in diagonal towers across the page. Then came the moment of glory, when Ilse made up her own simple pattern and it worked. When I’m grown up, she announced, and I build a house of my own, this will be the hall floor.

The lives of the six of us, in and out of this house, are a tesselation of their own. They are more than the sum of their parts, and, when all is well, they fit together into a lovely seamless pattern. I see it more at this time of year than any other: when it’s chilly in the bedrooms and so we gather around the fire. When there’s still novelty in indoor pursuits and no-one is fed up with the same games, the same stories, the same selection of crafts. Last night, Ben lit the fire while I got the tea things ready. I sat down with a final cup once the scones had all been eaten, and found the boys engrossed in a game of chess. The girls were drawing more tesselating patterns together. Tea drunk, it was time to give Seb and Fliss their flute lesson, and for Ben to make a start on his prep. Ilse was happy with the shoebox of colouring pencils until Seb was free to join her, while Fliss went off to write an essay on Tennyson. By the time John came home, supper was ready, prep was done, and the children had a fresh stack of patterns for him to admire. It was one of those lovely evenings when everything fitted tidily together.

Of course, not all evenings are quite as neat. Often the things we do jar and clash against each other. Show me a family that doesn’t know that feeling. But once in a while everything fits, just so. The tasks which need to be done fall into place alongside the all important play. Everyone wants to join in the same games, to make the same music, to draw the same pretty patterns. Those rare evenings are worth taking the time to enjoy. And of course, the cherry on the cake was that the patterns the children were drawing summed it up just perfectly.

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.