Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Feels like spring

Now, I do know that it is only February, and that Spring Proper is quite a way off yet. But there’s no harm in pretending. After all, the bulbs are flowering around the garden bench, and it was warm enough to work in the garden in only a jumper yesterday. The washing has been flapping on the line. It feels like spring to me.

Never mind that those bulbs are actually the winter flowering snowdrops and crocuses, and that I solicited the help of a child to drag the bench into their midst. Let’s forget that we had to pull the washing in before the heavens opened yesterday afternoon. We’ll pretend that I wasn’t wearing thermals and a snood while I worked in ‘just a jumper’, and that much of the warmth came from the bonfire of winter clippings we had finally got round to burning. At the tail end of winter, it pays to see things selectively. It feels like spring, to me.

It felt like spring to the children, too. They spent the whole of the day in the garden for the first time since I don’t know when. Ilse discovered that her irises had flowered in her little patch of earth under the lilac, and came racing up the lawn, shouting in her excitement. She spent the next hour diligently weeding them, much to my delight, and spying the emerging crocuses which are not quite out. Seb spent ages digging up strawberry plants from their unproductive shady site and replanting them in a strawberry pot I’d bought for that very purpose a mere five months ago. Fliss laid plans for a hen-proof fence across the middle of the garden to protect the vegetables from the chickens’ beaks and claws once they are all out and about again – an upgrade from last year’s hodgepodge of brassica cages and hastily constructed barriers. I wandered round the garden and made a list of all the tasks which ought to be done over the next month, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it might actually be doable. Weeding, mainly, and a final spread of compost, before the seeds go in. We’d got more done over the winter than I’d remembered.

Mostly, it just felt good to be outside again. What with all the sewing that’s been going on around these parts, most of my free time has been spent inside. Productively, but by the fire. Just to step outside made it feel like spring again, and has set the ball rolling for a couple more days in the garden this weekend. By the time I’d burnt all the winter prunings, though, I’d had enough for one day and went indoors to bathe and wash the smoke from my eyes and hair. It was tempting to reach for a new-sewn cotton blouse, given the day I’d had, but even I couldn’t stretch the imagination quite that far, and settled for a clean pullover instead. Yes, my mind tells me that it feels like spring, but my body says that it is most certainly still winter.

Primroses and other winter flowers

The snowdrops are out, and the hellebores, and yellow daffodils nod from the market stalls. Winter flowers, here to make the most of the new light, before the trees come into leaf and steal the sun.

I was given a gift of yellow primroses in a miniature watering can, as a thank you for a little sewing task, and it sits on the kitchen windowsill. Now, every time I cook or go to do the washing up I can look at it and the flowers just beyond the window, beneath the apple tree, and beyond them too to the daffodils and crocuses, tulips and irises emerging from beneath their earthy blanket. It is still very much winter, but the sight of all those flowers is drawing me outside. There’s not a huge amount to be done just yet, but there’s enough to keep us busy over a half term week at home. There’s a bonfire to be had, with a picnic lunch and hot cordial for its minders. There’s a bed I want to dig with Ben. There’s an empty strawberry pot, needing to be filled while the little plants are still dormant. And into the earth can go the very first seeds: parsnips and garlic and shallots. More than anything, I just want to be outside, enjoying those flowers while they last, and planning some more for the summer. Of all the flowers of the year, perhaps it is the primroses and other winter flowers that I notice and savour the very most.

Onwards and upwards

Even on the coldest days I spend an hour or so outside: hanging washing in the winter breeze, cleaning out the hens, digging veg or surveying the garden with an eye to spring. I never plan to be that long – just fifteen minutes, is what I tell myself, but then I’m always pleased when I come back in and the kitchen clock tells me just how much fresh air I’ve had.

All this week the sun has been shining, and it has been a pleasure to do those little outdoor tasks. On my return from the compost I noticed that the bulbs are pushing up in Ilse’s little ‘garden’. We bought crocuses and dwarf irises to add to the daffs I’d pushed in the previous autumn: easy flowers that the hens will leave alone. Woodland flowers, perfect for filling the bare earth in the shadow of the lilac. They’ll distract from its spring twigginess and be over before the shrub is in full leaf.

Bulbs are so wonderfully tenacious. Frost or snow, they push their blunt little noses onwards and upwards whatever the weather. Today they were getting plenty of sun, although the wind was bitingly cold. I chopped a birch log into kindling to warm myself up again and went indoors to light the fire. As I set the match to the paper, the sun streamed in through the window, heating the chill air. When it catches the grate I can barely see the dancing flames within. Even the dull days are growing longer, and there is more birdsong in the air. I’ve a list of jobs as long as my arm, but the sun makes it all feel so manageable. Onwards and upwards, I say. I think it’s time I got started.

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.

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: A patch of earth

When Ilse came to me, book in hand, to beg a patch of earth to call her own, I knew what she’d been reading. She’d picked out a plot already, a weedy spot under the lilac which is just coming into bloom. By the time she showed it to me it was cleared and had a twig fence all around it, to mark it out in case the hens and neighbourhood cats misunderstood. A shady spot, on the very edge of the lawn, where I could see the roots of the nettles and dandelions cut off at the surface of the soil. A spot where the chickens like to scratch and which, now cleared, would invite all passing moggies. A perfect spot in Ilse’s eyes, if not in mine.

We suspect the pigeons ate the poppy seeds she sowed. They stepped right over her picket fence and got straight to their hungry work. Fortunately there is no shortage of seedlings in this house, and for round two she chose to plant some marigolds, those little orange ruffs, to stand up to the dandelions. I’ve chased the hens away from them so many times already but there are still some left, thank goodness. Just one, that’s all she needs. One marigold, one bloom, one spark of magic to make her garden a success.

While she wants flowers, Seb wants veg. Not any old vegetables: not lettuce or spinach or peas. Not runner beans, and definitely not courgettes. Why grow easy things when you could grow what you really want? What Seb wants are globe artichokes, spikily ornamental, softening to a savoury delicacy to dip in melted butter. A crop with a tiny yield. A crop which you don’t pick until the second year.

In truth, I hadn’t given the artichokes a huge amount of thought. He’s planted things before, watched them germinate with devoted fascination, then forgotten all about them. He’d find them a few weeks later, shrivelled and crisp on a sunny windowsill. A shrug, a sigh, and he’d be off again to hammer nails into another bit of wood. I didn’t think these seedlings would get far.

Instead, I’ve found myself hunting for a space for them. An unobtrusive space, where I’d be happy to leave them for some years, but where they’d have a high chance of success. It’s such a fine balance, squeezing everything in, planting as close as I dare. Willing it all to grow; knowing some crops will fail. Trusting that I’ll try again next year.

As it was, the carrots were true to form. They took so long to germinate that I sowed another few rows. Then one day they were up, and the next they were gone. I suspect the slugs. A shrug and a sigh and it was back to the garden plans for a little reshuffle. A well-timed failure, and in their old spot, at the end of one bed, is a space for Seb’s plants to thrive. I think they’ll like it there.

That’s the thing about gardens. Things change all the time. The swedes might be a mollusc’s midnight feast, the apples might get scab. The cherry blossom drops so that the earth and not the skies are swathed in pink. And yet the world keeps spinning. The rain falls, the sun shines, and in its turn the lilac opens up. I spent a happy half hour last evening, sniffing at the blooms and filling vases for the house. There is always something new: as one thing fades another takes its place. Nature presses on, and fills the spaces left by our failed plans with something better.

It’s easy enough to teach children to grow a courgette. Soil, water, sun, a bit of general care and there you go. But that’s not what those patches of earth are all about. They’re about all the downfalls which might afflict those artichokes before next summer. They’re about those little shrugs and sighs and sowing something else. We’ll dig Ilse’s bed properly this autumn, she and I, together. There’s a pile of bricks behind the shed to mark it out. Behind them we’ll plant her favourite bulbs: snowdrops and daffodils, bluebells and tulips. There they’ll flourish, of that I’m sure. And afterwards, while the hens eat her seeds and peck leaves off her plants, she can look up and see the lovely lilac blooming in her very own patch of earth.

Garden notes: blossom

A few days in the sun and we all strip off, plants and people alike. There is a trail of cardigans around the place: on the garden bench, the picnic table, the rocking chair on the patio. The little ones leave puddles of empty clothing by the back door as they run off to paddle and splash. And the trees and shrubs release their flowers from their protective buds, and blossom.

Everything is flourishing, out there. We’re picking lettuce daily, and cutting the chard which so obligingly comes again. All the onions are up and beyond being pulled by the curious birds. The leeks are beginning to thicken from trembling spikes to something with substance, so that I can imagine transplanting them one day, a few weeks from now. Other plants have been settled into their final positions: the summer cabbages, the courgettes, the celeriac and celery. I’ve never grown these last before, and couldn’t quite believe that the flimsy seedlings would ever translate into something I could handle, let alone leave out there on the veg patch. Then one day, there they were, a set of sturdy and recognisable little plants,  just desperate to get out into the big wide world. Lots of water, a mild forecast, and they’ve done it.

In fact, they’ve done so well that I couldn’t bear to waste any of them, and put in more than I’d intended. Thus they are encroaching on the space marked out for fennel. That’s the problem with fennel, and other latecomers to the patch. There’s never enough space left for them. No matter how hard I try: something else always gets there first. Every spring I tell myself I need a bigger patch, and every winter I dig another bed, but it’s never enough. There’s something new to try, each year, as my love for the garden blossoms. I’ll squeeze the fennel in somewhere, but it won’t be ideal. I’ll be using that spade again next winter.

If I had my way, I’d turn the whole garden over to vegetables, double digging the lawn and putting it to good use. But then I glimpse the children running barefoot on the grass, dodging arcs of water. The hens peck and scratch, and turn grass and insects into the most orange yolks I’ve ever seen. I watch Ben stroll out in the evening, revision done for the day, and challenge the others to a game of french cricket. So I dig my beds in the parts that are played on the least, adding just a little more space each year. Children need to blossom, as well as vegetables.

Watering in the celery, I remembered the promise I had made to myself of weaving flowers in amongst the edibles. The sweet peas are yet to go in, the marigolds outgrowing their nursery. The beans must be planted and the weeds are getting rowdy. Yet all I seem to manage, day by precious day, is to plant and to water. It’s all about priorities, just now.

With that in mind, I’ve blocked out an entire day to sow those seeds and get the weeds in check. I’ve warned Mrs P, and bought some cold cuts for our supper. The baking can wait. So can the wash. Let the postman knock; let the boy with the telegrams come. I won’t hear them. I’ll be in the garden, helping it blossom.

Garden notes: maying

May is such a polite month. Out goes moody April, with her cold shoulders and stormy temper and in steps gentle May, all maypoles and morris men. It is the month of maying, too, as the old song goes: of love and courtship, steady and hopeful. Time marches on and yet some things never change. The old songs are sung, the old dances stepped lightly out on the grass, and now my girls join in while Meg and I look on and tap our feet. Even the little ones know their places, know to wait their turn to weave in and out amongst the others, and to hold their own strand high above their heads so the bigger girls can pass beneath.

It’s the month of maying in the garden, too – of asking permission and getting it. May we play out after supper, Mother? May we have our lunch in the tree house? May we wear our bathers and splash in a bucket of water? Yes, yes and oh, if you must. It’s hard to deny anyone anything in May, as long as they ask nicely. I’m asking nicely, too. May I harden off the brassicas? May I put in the french beans, and trust to a warm spell to bring them on?

Even the plants are behaving themselves: sitting where they’re put, respecting one another’s space. They’ll sprawl around later, full grown and uncouth, when they think I’m too busy to notice. September can be like that. But in May they are oh so polite. Even the weeds are tentative and easy to deal with. I hoe them down, knowing what tricks they’d get up to later if I didn’t.

Some things are bolder, barely waiting for a reply before pushing themselves up, up into the warm air. The peas are making steady progress, in synch with one another, neat and tidy in their little rows. They’ll start grabbing at the poles soon, but for now they are being good. The shy bluebells are putting on their little show, cool and modest in the shadow of the apple, taking their turn before the branches above burst into bloom. The ash isn’t at all sure, but then it never is, and always waits until the very end of the month to put on leaf. Perhaps it is just being kind, and letting the gooseberries swell before it ushers them into semi-shade. Nor is the may itself in blossom, although the hedges are bright with new leaves. We’ll know the warm weather is here to stay once its pink and white froth celebrates the season.

The only thing which isn’t polite is the list of tasks I want to tackle each day. Planting, sowing, weeding, watering, knitting, writing, making music… Those are just the things I long to do; add to that the jobs which must be done – the cleaning and cooking and washing and ironing. They jostle in my head, these jobs, each wanting to be at the fore, until I order them all on a piece of paper and there they stay until I can cross them off, one by one. A May day is never long enough. I could spend twice the time on each of these labours of love, spurred on by sunshine and soft breezes.

Sometimes it feels as though the only thing to do is to make things simpler. In this spirit, I’ve combined tea and supper into a single meal: high tea, served picnic-style on the patio. A jug of creamy milk from the cows who are so happy to be in the fields again. A pot of tea. Bread and butter, cake, sardines and radishes, and each plate lined with the tenderest, earliest lettuce leaves. I asked very nicely, and took them very gently, and left plenty to grow on. The little plants said I may. For who could say no, on a day like this?


Garden notes: Up and out

The last vase of forsythia was thrown on the compost this week, and in came the first of the cherry branches. Their flowers hang in little pairs, compact, pale pink intensified into fuchsia buds. A day or two in the warm and they’ll be out: silly, frilly, and gorgeous. We are on a roll, now: forsythia, cherry, lilac and may – the spring blossom which spreads itself over the full three months of the season. It doesn’t matter that I can’t bring myself to cut the apple or the pear; plenty else is coming out.

Things are coming up, too, as I had hoped they would. It’s an act of faith, putting tiny seeds into the vast brown earth and trusting that they’ll emerge, days later, to dodge the weeds and the slugs and the violent rain and hail. Yesterday: bare earth. Doubt creeping into my mind, and a vague plan to sow more peas indoors, where I can control the process in a length of guttering. Today: a neat row of shoots, with not a single one missing, quarter of an inch high. Yesterday: weeds where the swedes went in, and worried consultation on how long they should take to come through. Today: gentle weeding and then a moment of recognition as, crouching and looking hard, the first tiny heart shaped leaves were spied. Yesterday: a lonely red onion, uprooted by the birds, pushed gently back into its hole. Today: fleshy shoots sketching out the rows in the vaguest of dot to dots.

After the warmth and light of last week, the past few days have been sullen and prone to angry outbursts. I wear my sunglasses and my waterproofs, pulling the hood down and glasses on as the quarter hour demands. Then the sun is hurried out of sight, and my hood comes up again. This is the sort of weather I find hard: when I’ve had a taste of what it could be and then: this. When I’m glad and disappointed all at once that I left the woollens out. The sort of weather when the garden simply doesn’t appeal, yet I know I must get out there as the weeds are growing and the only sunny things on the horizon are a multitude of dratted dandelions. So I rug up in my macintosh and head on out, and within ten minutes I am having a lovely time scrabbling around in the dirt. I welcome the new growth and shoo away the ever curious hens, before starting on those pesky yellow heads.

It’s a sign of how spoilt our hens are, that when they are put on the lawn they ignore the dandelions and nibble instead at the clover. They crop the grass like geese, and peck excitedly at insects. Yet when those selfsame weeds are pulled and put into my basket they become a delicacy, so that my progress around the garden is marked by a trail of nibbled remains, like a green-fingered Hansel or Gretel.

At last, after an hour or two, I know I ought to do those other things which are waiting for me: the wash with Mrs P, or the lunch which must be started, or the pile of rolled and ready ironing. By now I am so enjoying being out that I don’t want to go back in. So I pause for a moment, to see the bigger picture, and notice how the maple has come on overnight. The leaves are unfurling fast, still in their youthful shade of pink, offering shade to the hens below. It is the most colourful of all the trees in the garden, this little maple which stands before the chicken shed and softens that side of the garden. Over the next few months it’ll change from peach to mint to green to yellow to red, and then stand bare again the whole long winter. I’m so pleased to see it back in leaf once more: out, just as we all should be, at this time of year.