Garden notes: Ripening

I’m not quite sure what came over me last week – it must have been the shock of everything starting up again. Outside, the sun was shining. The wash was drying on the line. There were baskets of windfalls to be peeled and stewed each afternoon, the beans were coming thick and fast and the last few caterpillars were wreaking havoc with my brassicas. Inside, our woollens lay limp and abandoned in the heat. Lunch was a different salad every day. Yet despite all this evidence to the contrary, I looked at all my green tomatoes and decided that they were never going to ripen without a little bit of help.

There’s nothing like a spot of experimentation to get the children interested. We settled on three methods: hanging a whole plant upside down, layering them in a shoebox with newspaper and popping them in the airing cupboard, and putting a few in a brown paper bag with a banana to help them along.

Five days in they remain, without exception, resolutely green. In the meantime, I suspected the tomatoes in the greenhouse needed a drink, given this glorious September heat. And what did I find, on opening the door, but loads of wonderfully ripe tomatoes just begging to be picked. Well. I’m not complaining. Surely the others will catch up at some point, once they’ve got over my silliness. In the meantime, there are tomatoes to be fried with eggs for breakfast, and chopped into salads for lunch. What’s that you say? Tomatoes for supper? Oh, go on then. Twist my arm.

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.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

Garden notes: Into the kitchen

It is in August that things begin to fall. An overripe plum from a tree. Excess apples, shaken off in the wind. The tops of onions, still green, collapse into the spaces between their bulbs which are still swelling in the sun. And it is at this point, every year, that things begin to come into the kitchen in earnest. New potatoes, boiled to floury perfection with a sprig of mint, before being crushed with chopped scallions and butter. A couple of leaves from each of the summer cabbages. The first french beans, tender and slim. The umpteenth courgette. Tomatoes, by the cornucopian handful. Beetroot tops, swede tops, radish tops. The first of the salads from the second sowing. Things to be eaten as soon as possible, keeping the time between picking and plating as short as we possibly can. I haven’t visited the greengrocer’s for ages, and have no intention of doing so for a good while yet.

At just the same time, the preserving has begun. Traditionally, this is the time when the children pile the windfalls so high in the larder that I throw my hands up in despair at ever getting through them before the brown spreads from their bruises. Traditionally I have a mountain of overgrown courgettes to fight my way to the bottom of, having ignored them for a day too long. Traditionally I look at all the luscious green herbs and leaves and wonder how on earth I am going to capture them. In all likelihood, this will happen again in a week or so. You’ll find me behind a wall of freshly washed jars, presiding over three or four bubbling pots of chutney and jam, hot and bothered and wishing I was outside.

But not yet. So far, I am winning. My approach this year is to go on the offensive against the rising tide of the home gardener’s glut. Each day, while watering and weeding, I identify a little something or other to put up for the winter. I pick it after tea: a few stems of rhubarb, or perhaps a trugful of nasturtium leaves. Then into the kitchen I go, for a post supper potter with some vinegar, or a little oil. Sometimes there is sugar involved. Often there are spices. And less than an hour later I emerge with my prize: a couple of jars of pickled beetroot. A few pots of jam. Greens and herbs, pounded into a chlorophyll paste to brighten the darkest winter meal. One little victory each evening, set on the larder shelves.

Of course, we don’t grow anything like enough food to keep ourselves going the whole year long. I have tremendous admiration for those who do, and perhaps one day I might achieve that. My aim is different, although very much in the same spirit: to waste as little as possible, and make as much of what we have as I can. There is so much pleasure in opening a jar of bottled fruit in February and knowing that you grew it. I pace our progress through the larder, making the preserves last the whole year long until the next harvest is coming in. Just as the marrows are ready, we are opening the very last jar of chutney. So far, this season, I am feeling remarkably on top of it all.

You know that it won’t last, though, don’t you? Because the beans are about to start coming out of our ears, and the apples will fall by the panful. Already I’m closing my eyes just a fraction as I walk past the still full bed of summer cabbages, and thinking about all the sauerkraut jars I’m going to need. The rosehips are well on their way and that orangey floral syrup is too much of an autumn treat to be missed. And then there’s the sheer quantity of berries that six people can pick in an afternoon, even given free reign to eat as many as they like. The tide is coming, I tell you. Soon I’ll be on the defensive again, wooden spoon at the ready. It’s on its way, the results of a year in the garden, flowing straight into the kitchen.

Garden notes: Deep sleep

No spinning wheels just yet, but plenty of gooseberry thorns to leave their tales upon my arms and legs. You have to fight your way past them to reach the hidden treasure. The beanstalks have raced to the top of their poles; the jerusalem artichokes tower above the height of the pergola and Ilse lost herself out there, like a little Thomasina Thumb, yesterday afternoon.

It is no wonder that so many fairy tales are about the garden and the wild woods beyond. After the long dreary winter of pottage and salt meat, who wouldn’t trade their child for a basket of sweet salad? We clear the woods to make a space for our tender plants to grow and then grow they do, becoming a jungle of their own. There could well be giants lurking in the nettles, tall and fierce as they are. Crack open one of my hens’ eggs and pure gold resides inside. Gardens are the very stuff of life itself: magical, exciting, hard work and yet ultimately out of our control. I love this time of year, when the plants are bigger than the weeds and it is all a glorious, fruitful mess. A cornucopia of marrows and cabbage, juicy spring onions and rocket which runs to seed faster than we can eat it. Even those tiny lettuces now tower over the beets, their thick stalks running white with bitter sap. The hens devour them, and I plant more out in their place.

Ben’s talents in the garden come to the fore just now: vanquishing the biting brambles with a blade and a younger sibling to be his knave. This is the kind of weeding he likes: thorny and fast with blatantly wicked prey. Seb is the best at turning over the plate-like leaves of the nasturtiums and squashing the yellow clusters of caterpillar eggs beneath. Fliss likes to harvest with me, filling baskets with blackcurrants and raspberries before the greedy birds take more than their share, and Ilse will do anything to speed me along so that we can play a game together, or read a story on the lawn.

We’ve been reading lots of fairy tales lately – Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom Thumb. Then we look around the garden and see why there is a myth of a bean which grows in a single night, or a girl whose mother craved greens. As we do so, I sneak in another little task: tying up the sweet peas, or weeding between the onions. She helped me cut the lavender on Saturday, and lent me her finger to hold the knots which tied it into bunches. They’re hanging from the airier on the landing, and as you walk upstairs the air fills with its sweet, clean, heavy scent. Once it’s dry we’ll shake it into little cotton sachets and make Christmas presents from them, to scent drawers and linen presses.

Just now, though, it is fulfilling an entirely different purpose. The end of term comes with its own particular tiredness: fretful and sleep-inducing all at once. Yet the lavender is working its magic: I’m not alone in dropping off the moment my head hits the pillow. We are sleeping deeply and well, thanks to those bunches of herbs hanging in the space between the bedrooms. I can’t account for the dreams of the others, but mine are punctuated by images of the garden: of brambles to be slain, tall meadows to be shorn, and bounty to be brought in and devoured.

The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Garden notes: Soak

The house seems to double in size at this time every year. Time for a cup of tea? Let’s have it in the garden. A bit of homework to finish off? Do it under the apple tree. Where’s Ilse’s teddy? She probably left it on the lawn. I can’t actually remember the last time we sat in the living room, given that we choose the green carpeted one for preference every time. Even chilly evenings and rainy days find us in the kitchen, looking out over the garden. Our lives have shifted towards the back of the house, where the sun shines longest.

Now that the trees are all in leaf, the little plants in my veg plot wait eagerly for the sun to swing round and touch their outstretched arms. They don’t have long to wait: there is only a short window of time in which I can give them a good soaking with the hose. A tiny northern tribe of bluetits finds me at it and swoops beneath the arc of droplets, gathering the worms which have been tricked into thinking it is raining. They flutter and hop about with surprising daring, daubed as they are with charcoal and woad, and I have to take care not to swipe them with the water. Once the swampy celery is sated, its roots damp once again, I can head off to do other things in the sun. This is the time of year when the house is sadly neglected, and I look for jobs outside at every opportunity. A spot of weeding? Yes please. Mowing the lawn again? If you insist. Picking the salad for supper, collecting the eggs, finding a patch of nettles to cut down… I’ll take any outdoor job that’s going.

The garden is at its very best, with a full complement of little plants in ordered rows. They aren’t at the stage of sprawling yet, or hiding trouble under luxuriant leaves, but they are safely out of the seedling stage. The slugs, though still a nuisance, hold less horror for me now. The pigeons can’t wipe out the peas in a single feeding. Everything is coming along nicely, and some are even feeding us with delightful regularity. I would be tired of lettuce, if it wasn’t so deliciously thick and juicy. The rocket disappears by the handful each time I bring a basket of it to the kitchen table. Little radishes are rinsed off under the garden tap and eaten then and there. And spinach and eggs are a match made in heaven: a point proven almost daily in this house.

The tomatoes are in flower, the peas not far behind. The potatoes are so tall I won’t have earth enough to bury them, but I’ll do the best I can. New spring cabbages, to cut and come again all summer, are very nearly ready. And then there are the slow growers: the savoys and brussels, the swedes and parsnips. The carrots, appearing once more from nowhere (there’s magic afoot in that patch, I tell you) have quite a way to go. But there’s plenty to keep us going, and the flavours keep on changing the whole season long. We’ve been pulling rhubarb for a while, and now the little gooseberries are almost at their peak. Seb is keeping a beady eye on the strawberries, and on the thieves that steal them. And to keep it all changing, to keep it even fresher than it already is, are the herbs. I pick them by the handful: thyme and oregano on roast chicken, chives in our spinach omelettes. Rosemary with tender spring lamb. Mint-boiled new potatoes.

What it is about the sun which makes it so compelling? It pulls us out of doors, as if by sitting and soaking it up we could grow big and strong just like our plants. As if, by being in its presence, we’ll be made well again. As if we could bottle up the warmth and take it winterward with us. We can’t, of course. Only the plants can do that for us: in the trees which become logs, the fruits and stems and leaves which become our food.  I know all this, but it won’t stop me trying. A bit of mending? I’ll do that on the garden bench.

When evening comes and the sun departs it is as if it was never really there. In fact, I need a jumper of some sort to keep me warm. Where did I leave my cardigan? Oh look – it’s on the garden bench, soft and brown and wonderfully warm from soaking up the sun.

Garden notes: Eggs

The new hens seem to have settled in remarkably well. I keep expecting to find the nest boxes empty, but no – every day I’m greeted with a full complement of eggs. After the first flush already in their systems, they were meant to pause for a while, but I shan’t complain. We love eggs.

There’s been a fair bit of gloom around these past couple of days: low clouds and glowering skies. I’ve been weeding surreptitiously, hoping the weather gods won’t spot me in amongst the onions before I finish the task. Keeping my fingers crossed for warmth, and a couple of dry hours, I’ve been rewarded by some pretty solid stretches of rain. But. But – the beans have popped up along their rows of canes, and there’ll be no stopping them now. The sweet peas have poked their little noses out above the soil. I keep finding Fliss nibbling radishes as she wanders around the garden, nose in a book. And there’s been enough dry weather to get out and bring in the early harvest: great bowlfuls of sweet new lettuce leaves, cut-and-come again chard tops, peppery-hot rocket. And eggs. Lots and lots of eggs.

They are suggestible things, those unassuming little ovoids. They sit there, meek and fragile in their dun shells, but it only takes a sharp crack to reveal their vibrant yolks. I know I should be setting some aside, saving some of this late spring flush by slipping them into the barrel of isinglass. But they whisper to me from across the kitchen. There is all sorts of eggy goodness happening here, now. Breakfasts are eggs: poached, boiled and fried. My solitary lunch: a greedy bowl of new salad dipped in a rich and wobbly mayonnaise. And supper? Well, I’ll blame it on the steady rain which began at twelve and carried on past bedtime. The mercury dropped, a chill wind blew in from the east, and the menu changed. I felt it was one of the last good custard days of the season.

Which led to a pudding, simply to carry the custard. In the end we went for an Exmoor In and Out: last autumn’s softly wrinkled bramleys under a layer of dense almond sponge. It was quite happy cooking in the Aga with the fish pie while I made the custard. This is the kind of cooking I do best: abandoning something to the gentle heat of the oven while I stir the silken pan of custard and think of other things. Simple and extravagant, elegant and childish, it is one of my favourite things to eat. Comfort, in a bowl.

There was another soul in need of a little comfort, yesterday. Seb had just returned, tired and filthy, from an outward bound adventure with his pals. And although he didn’t show it, although he was talking nineteen to the dozen, I suspected there was a little pang of sorrow lurking somewhere near his tummy. So what’s a mum to do, but make a favourite tea and draw a hot and bubbly bath? To find ways of reminding him that, all in all, there are some good things about being home again. Seeing his spot filled at the dinner table by a pink-cheeked, pyjama-clad boy made me realise how I’d missed him. So between one thing and another, it was a very happy suppertime indeed.

And faced with eight more eggs this morning? I’ve lots of ideas up my sleeve. The cooler custard nights might be dwindling, but quiche season is just beginning, and the time for cold boiled eggs in picnic baskets is surely just around the corner. Lay on, ladies. I’m not complaining.

Lovely ladies

There was a changing of the guard this week, with the arrival of six new hens from a local farm. We set their boxes in the vacated hen house, having moved the older girls into the tractor for a few weeks, and they were out and exploring their ladders and perches in no time. I think they like their new home: in the morning we found an egg apiece in the nest boxes. Then in the tractor we found Ilse’s hen, dead, having quite literally dropped off the perch in the night. There were a few tears, as befits the passing of an old pet: the last of our original trio of hens. But we’d known it was coming: she stayed close to home and ruffled her feathers into a cosy eiderdown even in the sun. Ben had built her a step to help her in and out of the house, and she had special permission to sleep in the nest box at night. Seeing this, I’d added an extra to my original order of five new birds, anticipating the need to replace her. Of course she didn’t know that, and of course she was just a hen, but she was a lovely, gentle, inquisitive old lady, and her timing felt quite dignified, somehow.

We motored over to the Dales later that day, to have lunch with John’s mother, Ida, and walk up onto the moorland. I like it best in the autumn, when the tops are purple with swathes of flowering heather, but this time the fresh green growth only hinted at such beauty. The ewes were up there with their lambs, already grown sturdy and strong. The sheep were beginning to shed their fleeces, leaving handfuls of rough wool lying here and there, and as she picked some up my mother in law told me about a woman in the village, blind with age, wanting to pass her spinning wheel and knowhow on to someone new. What a lovely gift to give. It made me think about the all those millions of acts, big and small, that people do for one another. And as we talked we dropped down into a little valley full of wild garlic and forget me nots, where the bees were out gathering pollen with their sisters.

Even though there was no purple on the moor, we’d bought a little with us in celebration of Ida’s birthday. A bunch of lilacs from our massive shrub in York, further along than those in the chilly Dales. Mauve cards from the children, made by shaving coloured pencil leads over paper and gently brushing the pigments across the page. A violet peg bag, made long ago with floral sprigs and polka dots and satin ribbon – and Ida in mind. Little gifts, gathered together with care.

In turn she sent us home full of roast dinner and sticky toffee pudding, with a jar of her excellent marmalade, a stack of Good Housekeepings and a few balls of wool to transfer to the growing pile of little knits. And on the way I got started on a granny square, crocheting the way Mrs Roberts had taught me just a couple of weeks earlier. Home again, I found a postcard on the doormat from Mrs Eve, and then there were the hens, new and old, to check on. We made a quick supper of the pork pies Ida had wrapped up for us, with lettuce from the garden and a bit of bread and butter, feeling glad for a day without any cooking, before shooing the little ones off to bed. An easy evening, at the end of a delightful day. Really, it’s no wonder I couldn’t help but think that there are a lot of lovely ladies in my life.

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?