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.

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In the garden

I’m an unreliable narrator. Ask in the depths of winter why we bought this house and I’ll tell you that it was for the tall sash windows and the number of rooms. The fact that we can all peel off to do our own things, indoors, but also congregate before the fire. We can spend the whole of the cold season here and not get cabin fever.

Ask me at any other time, though, and I’ll tell you that it was for the garden. The long, wide, village garden which dwarfed that of our little modern semi, squeezed onto the outskirts of York. The garden which we stepped into on a fine April day, the very first time we visited, and saw nothing but a large lawn, and flowers, and a little veg patch halfway down. A garden big enough for hens and all my other plans. Entranced, I failed to notice that the bottom half of the garden had been left to brambles – but that’s another story.

In truth, I’m not a particularly good gardener. I will never have the sort of garden that people exclaim over, and clasp their hands with joy at. I’m not very good with flowers, much as I love them. Creating a bed with different heights and textures and colour all year round is something which eludes me. Which isn’t great, when the fashionable thing, just now, is to have a garden in three parts: a patio, just outside the house, then a lawn surrounded by flower beds, and a little kitchen garden at the end. This is the goal, in 1930s gardening, as people move away from functional back yards to dream homes in the suburbs.

Our garden isn’t like that. If it has zones, they are these: a chicken shed, a veg patch, a fruit patch, another veg patch, a lawn, a fire pit and a wild bit at the end, for the children to get lost in. You won’t find me staking the peonies, because there aren’t any. Instead there are daffs, pushed into spare bits of soil and the herb pots. There’s a row of giant daisies along one fence. There are sweet peas and marigolds, raised each year from seed, in among the vegetables. There is damson blossom in the spring, followed by the apples and the pears. Nasturtiums self seed and grow willy nilly through the hawthorns. The new hellebores are flowering under the apple tree, where nothing else would grow.

This week I’ve been rushing out there each time it’s stopped raining, to sow a little of this or that. I’ve been weeding, and know it’s been a good day when I close my eyes to sleep and dandelions swim behind my lids. I plug away, putting inordinate amounts of time into little crops which may or may not succeed. Just as I know we’ll be drowning in parsnips every year, I know that many things will disappoint. The pigeons will get the cabbages, or the caterpillars the swedes. I might forget to earth something up, or to feed it once it flowers. I have no expectations of this space, but many, many hopes. And for some strange reason there seems no link between the hours I spend with a trowel in my hand and that let down feeling when I find the slugs have eaten my seedlings. These two things, the gardening and the harvest, are held apart by something else. It’s nature who has the final say. Nature who makes the sun shine and the showers fall, or the days so humid that blight hits and all is lost. Nature who gifts us with the pleasure of a day spent grubbing around in the soil while the birds watch where we are planting those tasty little seeds. Nature who takes the blame, and also all the glory.

There are master growers out there who put my little patch to shame. Who know just what to do to coax life and growth out of the direst of conditions. I’m not one of those. I just try to look after the soil, and am as pleased at the moment by the smell of dirt on my hands as I am by the pigeon-hassled broccoli which keeps producing, meal after succulent meal. My children can name every plant in the garden, and I’m prouder of that than of any prize-winning carrots. Which is a crop which always fails for me, by the way. I’ve sown some this year, anyway.

No, my garden isn’t what I’ve grown, but what I do. It pulls me out of the house and into the soft spring sunshine. Within minutes, the children have come after me, to play another game of tig. They run around and shout while my mind marvels at the sheer number of worms wriggling away from my touch. Let the late frosts come. Let the summer sun blaze and spoil the fennel. Today the sun is shining, in between showers, and we’re all out in the garden.

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Prunings

The end of March can be one of those wonderfully useful times of year, for gardeners. The first, tentative steps towards the autumn’s harvest are about to be surpassed by a veritable stampede as life in the garden leaps back into motion. Everything is starting to grow: the early seedlings, the spears of broccoli, the tops of the parsnips still waiting in their bed. The beginning and the end of the cycle of life in the veg patch, all mixed up.

I found myself, on Good Friday, with two rows of new potatoes to plant and a bed still full of brassicas. Not to be deterred, I decided that it was time to use them up. We pulled them all and picked off the smallest, most tender leaves, which yielded enough for several meals. The rest we hung from the top of the chicken run for the hens to peck at. They laid an egg each, over the following days, including the odd double-yoker. A brilliant exchange, in my opinion.

Spuds in and brassicas munched, it didn’t take me too long to spy another garden job. It isn’t only my veg which are growing again; the weeds are making their presence felt, too. I attacked them with strategy this time, seeking a return for my labour. As a result, we have had what some are politely calling an experimental week in the kitchen. It turns out that Hairy Bittercress is aptly named. And that Ground Elder doesn’t really taste like spinach – a truth which I feel the need to test every year, for some reason.

I blame optimism, and the fact that I really don’t like waste. We eat everything up, around here, emptying the larder into a pot of soup almost every week, and seeing what colour it turns. We save empty treacle tins to plant seedlings in, and toilet rolls to start off our tomatoes. Pamphlets are cut up for collages and decoupage. Bottles go back to the shop for half a penny, and the remains of each Sunday roast is minced into shepherd’s pie, before the bones are boiled to make a nutritious stock.

Edible weeds, then, just beg to be eaten. Some are disappointing: we’ll stick to proper cress from now on. But others are just waiting to come into their own. There’s a little patch of nettles behind the tree house which I insist aren’t weeds at all, given that they are growing in the right place. They bring in the butterflies, yes, but before then they have other uses. I’ll be pulling my gloves on before long, and taking my gathering basket down to that end of the garden. The time for nettle soup is nearly upon us, and with a dash of nutmeg and a swirl of cream it’s as good as any other.

In the rush of this time of year, between the sowing and the weeding, I usually forget the little bit of pruning that’s required. That of the odd thing which is meant to be left to flower on last year’s growth: the forsythia, for instance. I was in no danger of forgetting this year, though – it is a beast of a shrub, eight feet tall and almost as wide. Luckily we all approve of the use I put those prunings to. They’re on the kitchen table, in the living room, and in front of the little window at the end of our hall. Anywhere I can tuck a vase, really. Daffodil-yellow, twiggy and fresh, ready to welcome April into our home.

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