Gardens, home and away

While I planned the London leg of our trip south, John was in charge of the week we spent in Devon and Cornwall. The Devon part was easy – every other year my brother and his family throw a huge weekend-long party in their woodland, and that, coupled with a visit to their home in Totnes, is a well-practised part of our summer holidays. The Cornish visit, however, wasn’t planned until one hot evening in London, when John checked the weather forecast, pulled together a plan, and booked a couple of campsites.

There were so many things we could have done in Cornwall. We could have visited more National Trust sites. We could have gone to the Tate in St Ives. We could have pottered along the north coast, taking in the pretty towns with their Enid Blyton coves. But knowing how much I like my plants, and how hard we’d all tried to be plastic-free and reduce our footprint recently, John arranged for us to visit a couple of world-famous gardens.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Eden Project since it opened in 2001, and the space-age view of the honeycomb biospheres in a lush green valley did not disappoint. Parts of the Mediterranean biosphere reminded us strongly of holidays in Greece, Italy and southern France, with the grapes and the olive oil and the kitchen gardens overflowing with good produce and impossibly fat lemons. Some of the plants in the South African section were familiar to me too, from my trip there many years ago but also from Tanzania. The Californian section was the newest to us, as we’ve never visited the west coast of the USA. Wandering around, marvelling at the dry-weather plants, put me in mind of the early settlers, deciding whether to go further north or south as they approached the Pacific Ocean in their covered wagons. I’d always assumed I’d go south, but perhaps life would have been easier a little further north, where the weather patterns were more familiar. Whichever they chose, the climate must have been a shock to settlers from Britain and Ireland, with our temperate island seasons. We have neither blizzards nor deserts, and – usually – water in abundance.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the wave of familiarity that swept over me as we entered the Tropical biosphere. There is no other way to describe it except that I felt as though I’d suddenly come home. Even now, after all these years away, I could name so many of the plants, and tell the children about their dangers, uses and temptations. How we never climbed snake-trees (ficus) as they were a favourite haunt of mambas. How the swiss cheese plant reminded me of one we had in our living room when I was growing up. The cinnamon, pomagranate and papaya trees from which we would nibble as we went about our play. Hibiscus – the vibrant red kind, with its prominent yellow-dusted spear. Ginger, which grew as an ornamental in our back garden, alongside the traveller’s palm, and the enticing frangipane under which we dug tunnels and built dens and made mud pies. I hadn’t realised how many plants I could name, nor how firmly they were etched into my mind. There was something new and familiar around every corner and it almost felt like showing the children around a place where I had grown up.

I do think that it matters, being able to name the plants around you. I think that it changes your perspective of the world if you can name the living things which inhabit it. We care more for the things that we can name. Around the outdoor gardens, which we loved the scope and variety of, we learned the names of many plants that we hadn’t known before. I do love a garden with labels. We could have spent all day there, learning about plants, their habitats and their uses, so we did. Fliss was so inspired that she is writing a herbal: a botanical volume of plants, their identification and medicinal uses. There has been much careful research and sketching since we got home. I came home to two weeks of vibrant green growth, which is both delightful and alarming all at once. I picked four kilograms of cucumbers on Sunday, and have bottled my first jars of tomato sauce. There are more courgettes than we can shake a stick at and flowers in every room of the house.

The children are probably relieved by the abundance because I was sorely tempted by the vegetable and flower gardens at the Lost Gardens of Heligan. John reckoned that our back garden is about half the size of their vegetable beds, and this observation quickly disintegrated into my enthusiastic suggestion that if we dug up the lawn, we could be self-sufficient in vegetables. How Good Life of me. Seb was particularly horrified, and his reaction, coupled with the fact that the chickens would have nowhere to roam and I do actually have a limited number of hours in the day, won out. Oh, but it really is the sort of garden to inspire those One Day dreams. John and I were making plans the whole way around – one day we’ll have an orchard with a pond for the poultry to live in, and a small woodland for fuel, a huge vegetable patch and a couple of pigs. And then, walled off and civilised, something akin to the Italian Garden, which is so far from what I normally aspire to yet took my breath away.

There are other jaunts to write about – involving castles and coves, sausages and swims – but I wanted to set the gardens down first, as they are in my mind’s eye. Both were vast, ambitious spaces, managed far more skilfully than I will ever manage mine. I’ve come home with a head full of plans to implement over the coming autumn, winter and spring. Really, though, those two days of gardens have deepened my love of plants and the natural world. I won’t be starting an Eden Project any time soon, or bringing an abandoned landscape back to its former glory. But I will be outside every day, watering and cutting, pruning and weeding, caring for my little piece of the planet.

Notes from the garden (and beyond): June

Last year (and the year before, I think) I ran a weekly Garden Notes series, documenting the changes in our garden over the coming year. Reading about other people’s gardens is one of my favourite things: garden posts are the ones I simply can’t resist and I go back to them in the depths of winter when I am missing the green and can’t quite believe that it’ll ever be warm enough for anything to grow out there. With that in mind, and the simply beautiful weekend we’ve just enjoyed, I thought some garden notes would be in order for today. Only this year I’ve amended the titleto include some of the natural world around us. We are holidaying in the British Isles this summer – England and Eire, to be precise, and probably Scotland – and I want to track the course of this summer as it melts into autumn.

Saturday evening saw us make a foray into the countryside just outside York, at the home of some dear friends of ours. It was so balmy that we sat outside long after the barbecue and deserts had been enjoyed, catching up with each others’ news and watching our children play on the hay bales in the field just over the fence. Later still, when the moon hung in the still-light sky, we took a stroll down the track which leads away from the road and towards the farmer’s house, between fields of luminous, shifting wheat and broad beans in full bloom. In the quiet of the night the animals were out, hunting and hiding as they must. A pair of buzzards started from a bale and flew away to the camouflage of a tree grown tall in the hedge. Time and again the barn owls flew, soft and silent, over the stubbled fields. And Ilse told me that she and my friends’ daughter had been the last in from the bales and looked round one last time to spy a doe on the edge of the woods, watching and waiting for them to leave.

At home, even my suburban garden is bursting with life. There are insects everywhere, and the little garden birds swoop low across the lawn to catch them. We have been careful to keep the bird bath full, and it has become a regular watering and bathing spot in the rounds of the neighbourhood flocks. Our makeshift pond, which I am still hoping will entice some frogs or toads, has long been wriggling with various larvae and in the heat of Sunday I noticed various long-bodied insects hovering above it. I have yet to identify them: that will be a project for Seb and I to enjoy together. For the first year in many we haven’t seen a hedgehog or a vole cross the patio in the evenings, which is a little worrying, but the piles of rotting wood and undisturbed weeds are a standing invitation to all and sundry. We’ve gardened organically since before we moved here, and year on year the volume of life in the garden swells as we create new habitats.

It was with all this life that I shared our space, pottering around on Sunday, watering and weeding and feeding this and that. I had to wait for a bee, drunk on nectar and overheating in his wooly coat, to bumble his way off the brick path so that I could see to my burgeoning tomatoes. The fruit patch was genuinely loud with little beasts enjoying the autumn raspberry blossoms as I checked the progress of the summer canes. Ben and I had an exploratory nibble here and there on our rounds: fat blackcurrants and the first of the sweet mange tout. Further along the same bed, the broad beans have set sail with more blooms than I can ever remember, and I am looking forward to that first crop with such anticipation. Even the new potatoes are in bloom, and the time is fast approaching when they’ll be placed on the table, their burst skins fat with butter, speckled with pepper and mint.

When I think of my garden at the moment, the word that occurs to me is cusp. We are on the cusp of so much goodness that it is easy for me, impatient as I am, to spend too much time dreaming about what is coming next and fail to focus on what we are enjoying just now. Each morning begins with fresh baskets of lettuce, rocket and spinach. There are flowers at my bedside – sweet peas and English marigolds – to wake me as they flow with scent each morning. And on Saturday I took my favourite of all gifts to our hostess: a bunch of home grown stems wrapped in newspaper, which is only possible in these warmer months. There is so much happening now to be connected to, to savour and relish and store up against the coming cold.

On the way home, far, far past her bedtime, Ilse was wide awake and talking about all she’d seen and done. Playing on the hay bales was so much fun, she told us. Do you remember, Mummy, how Laura’s Pa told them not to play on the haystack but they did anyway? Now I know why they did – it’s the best fun there is. It makes me happy, that my twenty-first century daughter finds as much fun in a hay field as her heroine did in pioneer America. It makes me happy that Ben wants to walk the garden with me, and taste and wonder over all that grows there. Or that Seb will sit and sketch and look up bugs and birds, or Fliss give up her Sunday morning to carry cans of water to thirsty plants. I want my children to feel connected to the natural world around them, to know its beauty and its unstoppable power. And to cherish and care for it, as a matter of course. As for myself, I felt unspeakably connected as we drove home through the darkening night on Saturday: to the earth, to the creatures that we share it with, and to our friends, with whom those connections had just grown deeper.

Madeleine

PS – What’s June like in your part of the world? And, if you have a garden, what stage is everything at? Has your harvest well and truly begun?

But first, the hens

Now that summer is in full swing, my days at home have taken on a new routine. I find that, if I get up early enough, I can have breakfast with everyone and still be ready to settle down to work on this blog and the pattern book by nine o’clock. Come three, it’s time to hop on my bike and cycle the six miles to Ilse’s school and back, along the edge of the Knavesmire and across Hob Moor, with its current herd of young cattle grazing on the daffodils.

It is a beautiful ride, and we often stop for a quick picnic on the way home – just a couple of biscuits and a flask of tea, under the hawthorn trees, watching the other cyclists and dog walkers and pram-pushing parents go past. It clears my head after a day of writing and measuring and drawing all those lines, and brings me back down to earth in the most delightful way.

Before any of that, though, before the bike ride or the writing, there are things to be done in the garden. Flowers to be picked, the day’s greens to be brought in and washed, pots to be watered and eggs to be gathered. All it takes is for one of us to open the kitchen door and there they are, pacing indignantly at the wire of their run, waiting for me to open the door to their house and let them loose on the garden.

They have the run of the place, with established dustbaths and scratching spots and the whole lawn to chase insects across. Instead of fencing them into one area, we have fenced them out: out of the veg patch, out of the cutting garden, out of the patio with its table and pots of flowers. Apart from when we are all out, or at night, they are free to enjoy it as they wish, and the rest of the time they have a large and shady run attached to the side of their house.

So large, in fact, is their house that it’s been a bit underpopulated of late. We bought another six rescue hens home last summer and, while they were still in a separate tractor, a fox got in and killed the lot. I found four in the coop, and a trail of feathers all the way up to the gate by the side of our house. One by one the others have been getting older and, quite literally, dropping off the perch. So Father, Ilse and I went on an expedition at half term to bring a couple of new pullets home. Hedwig and Fawkes have settled in quite nicely now, and are keeping Eggletina Harpsichord company in a little flock of three.

Come next winter, though, they could do with a few more bodies to keep their house warm through the night, and to that end we ordered a dozen hatching eggs by post. They arrived on Friday and, once rested, have been sitting, warm and cosy, in a little incubator in the kitchen. We are expecting chicks two weeks on Saturday, and I’m not sure whether Ben or I is the most excited person in the house. The eggs are numbered according to which breed they are – we ordered a mixed batch – and Seb has been poring over the guide, coming up with names for each type of bird. So far he’s come up with Cotton for the Silkie, which I so hope will hatch, and Champion for the Gold Top. In the meantime, I am turning the eggs several times a day, and making sure that the water reservoir is topped up, and dreaming of electric hens. Fliss and Ben have promised to fix up the tractor, which will be perfect to house them once they are big enough to go outside, and we have chick sitters arranged for when we go on holiday.

It seems such a long time – eight years! – since we bought this house and hens became a very real possibility. I can’t imagine not having them now. They make the garden feel alive, somehow, with all their pecking and scratching and lounging, spread-eagled, in the sun. They give us the richest, most orange-yolked eggs with whites that sit up firmly in the pan. Best of all, though, is the way they demand my presence in the garden each morning, by pacing at that wire. I might be able to ignore the lettuce, out of sight in the veg patch. I might pretend not to see the spinach bolting. I could even choose to leave the sweet peas for another day. But I can’t ignore our girls and then, once out there, I may as well do the watering and the picking and the trip right down to the compost. Whatever else a day at home might hold, the hens always seem to come first, and for that I am very grateful.

Madeleine

PS – What gets you outside every day? Or are you one of those people who doesn’t need any prompting? I find that, on holiday in Italy or Greece, I can’t wait to greet the sun, but in England I often need a little more persuasion. Of course, once out, it’s hard to drag myself back in again…

Rhubarb and roses

19 June 1933

It was only after the last cap was tightened last night that I realised that there’s been a bit of a theme to our recent preserving: fruit and flowers. Gooseberry and elderflower, lemon and elderflower and, last of all, rhubarb and roses.

Normally, I make rhubarb jam earlier in the season, adding crystallised ginger to the pot to give it the sort of sweet heat I crave in the dark days of March. The first, forced rhubarb is slender and pale and, when bottled, shines pinkly from the larder shelves. But this year the rhubarb has been so abundant and lush that we took it for granted, almost forgetting that it would soon come to an end. Which is how I ended up making a batch when the roses were in bloom.

At first I thought I’d use the roses from the bush which towers, two or three meters high, above the hen house, but although they have a lovely scent, it’s not sweet enough to eat. So I turned to my little rambler, still in its early years but laden with its open, cut and come again heads of loose and sweet-smelling petals.

Taking a handful indoors made me think of the little bottles of rosewater perfume that we’d make with our grannie in Ireland, when we visited each summer. She’d save a variety of small containers for just this purpose, and send us out to pick the blooms, pluck the petals from each one and leave the mixture to brew overnight. Then she’d tell us to use it up, but I never did. It was too pretty: the dark pink curls suspended in what was no longer simply water. So I’d keep it, jealously, until the pink turned to brown and the high summer fragrance became something sour and earthy.

I did wonder whether the scent would survive the rigours of the jam-making process. At first, the panful looked akin to an Arabian delicacy: a mound of rose and pistachio Turkish Delight, strewn with petals to serve. Before long, though, the sugar drew the juices from the fruit and the whole lot came to a raging boil, setting quickly in the jars with whole chunks of the softened stems suspended in the jelly. I have to admit, I licked the spoon myself. And the pan. Goodness knows what the children were doing to resist that scent, but whatever it was, I was quite happy not to have any offers of help with the washing up. The rhubarb was softened, somehow, its flavour mellowed but still true, and above it sang the rose, confident and clear.

We are so enjoying bottling this lovely June that it didn’t take Ilse long to persuade me to get on with the elderflower cordial, before the last blooms turned brown and brittle on the trees. We were just in time, bringing in a basketful on Saturday afternoon a mere half hour before the heavens opened. All we had to do, cosy in the kitchen, was boil the kettle for a cup of tea and pour a share of the hot water over the blooms, as well as the zested rind of some citrus fruit. The following day we strained the brew, added sugar and the juice from the same bright fruit and brought it to a simmer. Then it was bottled and put away on the larder shelves. Apart, that is, from the one vessel which made its way to the soda syphon, for tasting purposes.

So much older now than when I made that rosewater – and hopefully a little wiser – I’ve been resisting the urge to save all our preserves against a rainy day. I don’t want to find chutney from two years ago at the back of a shelf, and wonder if it is still good to eat. Of course, it almost always is, but that’s not the point. We don’t make these things to sit in jars for posterity, as evidence that summer was here and that we made the most of it. I’d rather have that proof in the form of good tastes on my tongue. Invariably, I wonder whether I have put aside enough – enough jam, enough chutney, enough bottled fruit – to last the cold months through, and invariably we are still eating it up when the following summer’s bounty flows into the kitchen once more. In this spirit, Fliss made a crumble for our Sunday roast, with the last of the blackcurrants and pears, and it was a delicious precursor of the harvests still to come. This year, for the first time, I have almost got it right. The shelves are nearly empty, bar the bottles and and jars I’ve added over the last couple of weeks. There’s one lot of plums still on hand, which I’ll use to crown a pavlova, and some bottled raspberries which will disappear the moment they grace the table. The only stumbling block is the gooseberries: we are drowning in gooseberries. Not only are we nowhere near polishing off last year’s crop; the two pounds for last week’s jam barely made a dent and the rest are swelling to enormous proportions with all this sunshine and rain. Now that the rhubarb is just about done, I’ll have to turn my culinary attentions to those lovely, prickly-sour little fruits. Perhaps John can find a recipe for gooseberry wine or spirits. After all, that’s what he did with the last lingering sticks of rhubarb. And, somehow, I don’t think that his rhubarb gin will still be hanging around in a year.

Cecily

PS – How about you – are you busy making preserves yet? What do you have an abundance of, in your part of the world? Are you still eating up any stock from previous years?

PPS – If anyone has any suggestions for what to do with all those gooseberries, please let me know. I’m particularly keen on the idea of a gooseberry chutney or relish – something to add a bit of zing to a plain cheese sandwich, or to have with cold meats or fish. Or ways of eating them fresh as part of a savoury dish. We’ll have enough sweet fools and crumbles over the next few weeks as it is!

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

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

When rain stops play

Typical English summer weather: sunshine up until the last few days of term and then rain, rain and more rain. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Between downpours the children and I have been outside: playing, building obstacle courses, constructing dens and tending to the garden. Under a sky of clouds, outside looks less than appealing but once I begin I don’t want to stop. There’s always one more thing to weed, tie in or feed. And then the heavens open once again and we all rush in.

It was at the start of the holidays that Seb announced his summer projects: building his new den and completing a number of airfix models. For when it’s sunny and when it rains, he explained. Oh dear. More of us rubs off on them than we imagine. Because that’s precisely how I organise my summer projects too: gardening and quilting, for when it’s sunny and when it rains.

More than that, though, is the fact that we both save one outdoor task til last, just in case the rain does come. Under an umbrella of leaves – me under the apple and he sheltered by the pine at the far end of the garden – we can carry on outdoors if it’s only a gentle shower. And then if rain really does stop play, we each have another project waiting for us indoors.

On my knees

With two weeks to go until the children break up for the summer, dates for the diary are flowing in thick and fast. There’s the performance at Ilse’s school, the play that Seb has been working on all term and Fliss will be singing in the choir at her end of term fete. Add to that the class parties, birthday teas and general invitations from people to get out and do blissfully summery things, and there’s barely an evening to spare. Even the scouts have abandoned the clubhouse in favour of wild evenings chasing around their nearby plantation.

I know that although these things pick up pace over the last few days there will come a day when it all just stops. Two weeks tomorrow, to be precise. On which day I’ll dig the children’s knapsacks out and ask them to start thinking about what they’d like to take on each of our planned adventures. We have a very exciting holiday planned, judging by the reading and drawing and letter-writing going on around these parts. There is a huge amount of dreaming going on, in the heads of the younger members of the household.

John and I are frankly too busy to stop and think at the moment, let alone daydream about impending adventures. His work doesn’t stop for the summer. On top of that, the little bit of shuffling we had planned has turned into a full scale reassessment of each and every room in the house. New furniture has arrived for Ben’s/ the guest room, and he and Seb are sharing his old room while John repaints the inside of the sash windows. There’s a chair which won’t fit in either bedroom anymore, so it’s moved down to the sitting room where another, in turn, has been bumped into the kitchen. Looking for a jumble-sale desk, I finally found the coffee table I’ve been wanting for a year, and the sweetest little dressing table for Ilse. So we thought we’d finish off the sitting room properly, for once, and bought a new rug and a new-to-us chair, which makes two that I need to upholster. The old rug has migrated to the dining room. Seb wanted to take his nice dark curtains with him, and Ben is having ours, so I thought I may as well give them their summer wash while they’re off the rails. You know the story. A little change here has a knock on effect there – and before you know it there’s plenty to keep both Ben and I busy for a good few days at home.

It’ll be worth it in the end, and it’s fun to have a fresh-feeling house for the cost of a new double bed. I quite like moving things around, and trying things in different places. Of course, most things need a little bit of adjustment to make them work: new pictures in old frames, things from Ben’s room recovered in some pretty fabric for Ilse. We are determined to have it done before the end of term, and I’m fairly sure we will, even with the ever-growing list of social events. We have spent enough summers working on this house: sanding floors or stripping and repainting the landing, hall and stairs. This is going to be a summer of unadulterated fun, as far as such a thing is possible. The only task I might save is upholstering those two old chairs; I want to get them right. And of course it’s not just indoors that’s keeping us busy – we spent a fair bit of the weekend making a dent in the fruit and berry ‘harvest’, weeding the veg beds and deadheading all those annuals which are now in bloom. Sitting on the patio, enjoying their display, reminds me that all this busyness indoors will be well worth it as the months slip by towards the autumn. I’ll be thankful for past labours then. In the meantime, though, you’ll find me on my knees, both figuratively and literally as I tend the garden and make inroads in the house. Two weeks to go and counting. Wish me luck.

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.