Taking care

This time of year is always a bit of a slog. It should be wonderful – the weather is warm, the school year nearly over, sometimes the sun even shines. But we’re not quite there yet. Ben’s exams run for the next three weeks. Fliss has a ballet exam soon, and the extra lessons that that entails. John is busy at work, getting everything in place for the Christmas chocolate frenzy. In the garden there’s lots and lots of salad, but not a great deal else. All those things that we’ve worked so hard for have not quite reached fruition, and we’re getting tired.

So I have declared the next month to be the month of Taking Care. Early nights. Good food. Jaunts out at every opportunity, for a little change of scene. Adjustments to the routine, and little treats for everyone when they least expect it.

Outside in the garden, which is so tantalisingly close to the start of the harvesting season, the weeding and watering must go on. There are plants to be staked, and successional sowings to be made. This morning I planted out ten baby fennel bulbs and two rows of fledging lettuces, before sowing more seeds indoors. And although I still pick a bowlful of lettuce each and every day, there are now rocket leaves and baby chard to add to the mix. Seb slipped out before breakfast to pick the first of the raspberries. And there are so many roses on the bush behind the hen house that I’ve filled a vase to overflowing, and more are still in bud.

By contrast, the cutting garden looks quite bare, with pale spears gladioli just breaking through the surface. Beside them, the marigolds are settling in, as are the dahlias, sweet peas, alstroemeria and starflowers. The sunflower seeds have sprouted fat dicotyledons. They are all working very hard, and would benefit from a bit more sun, and I know that there will be flowers sooner or later. To settle our impatience the bedding plants are doing splendidly in their new bed, and putting on a show in purples and pinks and blues. Better still, you can see them from the sofa in the kitchen, and from the sink, and the table, and even the back bedrooms upstairs. It’s brought the garden closer to the house, that bed of Ben’s, so that even those of us who don’t have the time to get out there every day can enjoy the pleasures of June.

Further back, the elderflowers are already beginning to brown and drop their petals. I could be rushing around, making one more batch of cordial to carry this month into the winter. But we’ve plenty of that in store, and of jam. In fact, we’re eating things up at the moment, to make room for this year’s bounty. Sunday evening saw the last jar of 1931 blackcurrants stirred into a marbled, creamy fool. The remaining spring cabbages came straight in from the patch to the pan. Jars of Emergency Pudding (a phrase the children love) mean that there are always mulled pears to satisfy that need for just a little something sweet. There will be time enough to restock those larder shelves. During the summer, when we will have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the things we choose. When a whole day’s agenda might be: Make Chutney. For now, though, we’re taking things as easy as we can, and making life comfortable. Dropping anything which isn’t strictly necessary. Slowing down. Taking care.

Patience

The beans came up this morning. I called the children out to see them, still blinkered in their little purple shells, and choose one each to watch. You don’t need much patience to watch beans grow. By the end of the day they’ll have spread their arms out in the light. By next week they’ll be twining round their poles.

Everything is taking off out there, and as fast as I tick tasks off my list I have to put more on. The potatoes, which should have been earthed up last week, were a good 18 inches by the time I got to them. The rocket is, predictably, rocketing. Tender broad beans need strings to guide them upwards; lettuces need picking every day. The hens are feasting on the last brassicas to be cleared from their winter quarters. The first tomato is in lemon yellow bloom.

Elsewhere, I am having to be more patient. The cutting bed, which will ultimately be mostly full of perennials, is housing a block of dwarf sunflowers this year. There are gaps between the three aquilegia while more grow on from seed. We brought only two alstroemeria home, and I’ll divide them when they’re ready. Lilies will have to wait until next year, when they can emerge from August-planted bulbs. Tempting though it is to fill the motor with full-grown specimens, it isn’t very economic, so we’re making do a little, this summer. I’ll have it the way I want it by next year. This year it’ll be full of dahlias and sweet peas, borage and echium, sunflowers and the few larger plants we did splash out on. Cheerful annuals, to bring in the bees and brighten bare parts of the bed.

What I hadn’t expected was to be planting up the new bed by the house just yet. It transpires that a bit of manual labour is just the ticket between bouts of revision, and Ben has started and finished the job in a couple of days. Gravel shifted, paving slabs relaid, bucket after bucket of compost carried from the far end of the garden and there it is: a new bed to fill with colour. Really, I’d only just filled those pots. I think I know what I want to put in there. A screen of climbing nasturtiums, scavenged from the cutting bed where they self-seeded last year. A swathe of pot marigolds, to bring the sunny orange down to earth. A couple of left over dahlias. Perhaps a cool blue hydrangea or two. There are so many possibilities that really, a plan is called for.

So I think I’ll take myself off to that chair and sit a while in the dappled sunshine, now that its moved around. It’s hardly a chore, sitting by the herbs and geraniums in their pots while dreaming up the rest of that space. And while it might be a few days before I can collect all the plants, and even longer before they come into bloom, it’ll be worth the wait. Or so I tell myself. Patience, Cecily. Patience.

A change of heart

When we first dug out the veg plot, I thought it was huge. It was, compared to what I’d had at our old semi: measuring 20 by 30 feet it took me a little while to get used to caring for it all. The newly planted fruit bed beyond, of about the same size, felt almost empty with great swathes of bare earth between the blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb. We squeezed a few strawberries into the gaps, to make the most of the space while everything grew. It was marvellous.

After about three years, though, I began wishing for more. Just think, if I dug up the lawn we could probably be self-sufficient! The children made it very plain that they thought that was a terrible idea, so instead I dug up an aimless old flowerbed and started planting vegetables in there, too. They did well, and the following year we extended it.

The thing is though, that no matter how many vegetable beds I add, it’s never enough. I love them. I’d rather sit and gaze on a row of lettuces than anything, really. A well-tended veg plot is the most beautiful way to garden. Except that, all of a sudden, I’ve had a change of heart.

It started with Ilse’s little bulb garden, under the lilac. A second patch of colour in the early spring was a splash of joy, just across the lawn. So we decided to work on the patio area, and plant lots of flowers in pots. Father did so a year or two ago, and his looks glorious all summer long. Ilse and I spent Sunday afternoon arranging things and making a shopping list of plants, before collapsing into a pair of chairs we’d hauled out in the process. We made Ben admire it when he came down from the study, but although he liked it the second thing from his mouth was: you need to dig up that gravel and make a flower bed there. He was right. I’ve spent seven years walking over the patio and away from the house to get to my favourite patch at the end of the garden, and never saw how easy it would be to scrape up a bit of gravel and surround the patio with a sea of colour. He’s promised to help, as soon as his exams are over, and I can’t wait.

They say that one thing leads to another, and that everything happens in threes, which perhaps explains why I had a change of heart about that extra vegetable bed in front of the greenhouse. It’s not quite the right place for a flowerbed – not of the come-and-admire-me border-ish sort. But nor do we want it full of cabbages this year. Thus I find myself embracing an idea I never thought I’d surrender the space for: a cutting garden, providing flowers for the house. We’ve lots of young plants left over from the sowings for our pots, and what with the addition of some bulbs at the right time of year and some judicious purchases, we’ll fill it in no time.

Wandering the garden this morning, secateurs in hand, I came across a solitary aquilegia in a patch of nettles and weeds. I snipped some flowers for the house, and stopped and thought a while. It’s one of those wildlife corners, left a little rough, in between the chicken run and the hedge. I’ve tried to grow things there before, with little success, and had left it to the bees and insects. Yet all it would take is a shearing, a thick layer of newspaper and a packet of seed to turn it into a whole patch of the graceful blooms.

All of a sudden, everywhere I look, there are places for flowers in our garden. How unlike me. I suspect I’m getting old. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for the veg plot, and I’m sure it’ll remain where I spend the bulk of my gardening time. But I rather like it as it is, 600 square feet at the foot of the garden, with its lopsided pergola and battered old bench within. And much as I like sitting on our new-and-improved patio, it was to that old bench that I took my drink last night. Sitting there, under the wisteria, there were literally dozens of bees feeding on the blooms and the nettles and the fruit blossom. More birds than I could name were making their presence known. And before my very eyes the bare earth was filling up, set for a season of growth. So perhaps I’ve not had a complete change of heart. Just a shuffling around, to make room for something new.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

A bit of (a) pickle

Sometimes, when I’m not quite sure what to do with a day, it can leave me a bit fed up. Listless. Fretting about things that are beyond my control. In a bit of a pickle, really. Yesterday morning was a bit like that: I’ve a few stitches in my back as the result of a (very) minor procedure and can’t stretch and bend as usual. Housework is fairly uncomfortable. Hanging out the washing is a bit sore. Stretching my arms forward around a quilting hoop is just silly. So once the hoeing was done and the essentials under control, I found myself in the drizzly garden wondering what to do next.

We’ve been having a bit of a dry spell here recently, and are getting all of April’s rain this week, along with May’s. The earth is dark and moist and just begging to be planted. Indoors, the tomatoes are ready to go out, except that the greenhouse is still full of fennel. We’ve had it braised, roasted under a joint of pork, sliced thinly into an orangey salad and still there’s more of it. I ducked in beside it to avoid the swelling raindrops and then, without further ado, pulled the lot, carried it indoors and dug out my favourite preserves book.

I remember looking at this recipe when I was first given the book and thinking that a glut of fennel sounded like a wonderful, if highly unlikely, thing. Well, I was right about part of that. All told I had three pounds of it to pickle once trimmed and chopped. The rain pattered more persistently against the kitchen window as I washed and sliced and blanched in a pot of salted water. The house filled with the scent of liquorice and, knowing how the children love to nibble it, I left a bowl of slices on the table for them to eat, like sweeties, later.

What a difference a little footling about can make to a day. That fug of barely sweetened, spicy vinegar was just what I wanted to steam up the windows. I left one ajar and the smell drifted into the garden, following me and my bucket of feathery fronds all the way to the compost. By tea time there was a row of bright jars cooling on the counter, a crop was saved from bolting and there was room in the greenhouse again. Outside it might have been bucketing but inside was cosy and spicy and acid-sweet. Really, it felt more like autumn than spring.

This morning the labelled jars are lined up in the larder, ready to be eaten with smoked mackerel and other oily fish next winter. I almost can’t wait. But then there’s the rest of spring and summer and autumn to come before that, with all the gardening and bottling that they entail. I’m in no danger of wishing that away. It’s the kind of simple pleasure that I appreciate more and more. A garden to grow things in. Good things to eat and do. A bit of pickle, to get me out of a pickle. That sort of thing. You know.

Beautiful

From a distance, the veg patches are still bare, apart from the end of this winter crop or that. But if you look closely, things are beginning to come up. You can see the broad beans without squatting now, and trace their zigzag rows down each side of the bed. The rocket is still wearing only its seed leaves but they are bigger and ready to part and allow the true leaves through. There are no signs of the leeks yet, and I might try a second sowing, but indoors the other winter veg is starting fairly well. I tried a new variety of tomato, Legend, and it is twice the height and breadth of its contemporaries and threatening to topple the little pots. The chilli peppers might decide to survive after all, if this good weather stays. We’ll see. And the annuals – more colour than I’ve ever grown before – are turning into sturdy little plants and will soon bear to be planted out. Sweet peas, nasturtiums and marigolds are old and familiar favourites, but we’ve added more to the mix and I don’t really know what to expect. Flowers, hopefully, to plant among the vegetables and make the patches even more lovely than in summers past.

Each year I like to try something new, out there. For a long time it was vegetables: different varieties or more beds or a different way of sowing. This, we have decided, is the year of making the garden beautiful as well as practical and productive. Only in places, mind: it’s a big space and a thousand shades of green is a lovely sight in itself. So far we’ve had the usual show of bulbs under the apple tree by the kitchen, as snowdrops gave way to tulips and daffs and the crocuses which were eventually mowed away with the lawn. Just now the bluebells are bowing their pretty heads over the fading hellebores. Ilse’s garden has added to the scene, her bulbs flowering in their turn under the lilac which is so bountiful just now. Many of the new flowers were chosen for her space, on the basis of the picture on the packet alone, which is an aspirational and admirable way to garden, in my opinion. I’ll help her plant them soon, just beyond the almost invisible fence which keeps the chickens off. For my part, I’ve a patio garden planned, and have been collecting pots from round about the place to add to the scene. Nothing fancy or expensive – just a motley collection of old pots with sweet peas and geraniums and other simple blooms in. Another little fence, to keep the chickens off, and a spot to drag a couple of wicker chairs out of the kitchen and into the dappled sunshine. I’m hoping it’ll be my spinning spot, all the glorious summer long. Even if not much blooms, it’ll be lovely if the sun shines. And if not, I’ll keep the chairs indoors and watch the rain bounce on the patio slabs instead while I carry on indoors. Just a few flowers, that’s all it really needs to transform it from something hard and plain to something beautiful. Well, that and a little more of this  sun. That would be very nice indeed.

Outside: Potting on

It’s official: I have run out of space on the kitchen windowsills. All the way around are pots full of seedlings: marigolds, lettuces, cauliflowers, sweet peas… I ran out of trays weeks ago and so they stand on a motley assortment of old plates and the like. Each burst of germination sends me hunting round the house and shed for something – anything! – to put the next lot in, and that something is always found. Tin cans, toilet roll inners, things the children have fashioned out of newspaper – it all works well enough. But more space is not something we can magic up that easily. And I’ll be needing more next week.

I don’t remember ever having such an abundance of seedlings all at once before. Partly it’s because I’ve taken a leaf out of my friend Mr. White’s book and started my brassicas inside this year. Partly it’s because spring seemed late and cold and nothing went in until April. And partly it’s because by the time you’ve found a new source of ‘pots’ and ‘trays’ you may as well pot on every last seedling, as someone will surely want it.

Thankfully while it all seems to be coming up thick and fast, things are about to start moving on quite quickly too. I suppose that’s the beauty of sowing in April: May is only just around the corner and I think the tomatoes will be happy in the greenhouse soon. I’ve earmarked some plants to go out into the soil under large-jars-as-cloches, and another lot to pass on to other gardeners.

It’s a constant shuffle, this potting on business, a funny sort of dance involving pots and trays and rather a lot of compost, but an elegant one all the same. Somehow, at the end of each day spent making such moves, everything ends up in the right place, and there is just enough room for it all.

Bringing it in

Now that the garden is back under control, we can settle into our usual rhythms: a little weeding every day, some planting or staking or some other important task – just a couple of hours out there, four or five times a week. For the last couple of years I’ve made weeding the first thing I do when I step outside. I wander round all the fruit and veg beds and pull up every last little weed I can find. It’s become a habit, partly because I practised it but mainly because it works. My beds have been cleaner than they ever were before. (Just don’t peer into the corners of our garden. We call them wildlife havens, and the air above them hums with life, but most people would call them neglected, instead.)

This year, though, I’ve decided that bringing it in will be the first thing I do each day. I started on Sunday, and found four fennel bulbs to sit our joint of pork on, and a basket of the last of the sprouting broccoli, each stem slender and tender and a deep forest green. On Monday there was cherry blossom, cut from the side which overhangs a veg bed slightly, and between getting it through the back door and into a vase in the sitting room the house was strewn with petals. It was so nearly over that I almost left it out there, and only came back to it after pulling a handful of beetroot from its overwintering in the greenhouse. Half an hour later the blue sky turned black and the rain pelted down, and through the kitchen window I could see the dark sky fill with pale confetti, ripped from the dancing branches. On Tuesday there were bluebells, cut from the patch Fliss discovered self-seeding behind the compost bay (another wildlife haven), and enough little gem leaves, yet again from the greenhouse, to put one or two into everyone’s sandwiches.

There’s not a lot out there just yet, but there’s so much more than I can see standing at the kitchen sink. If I didn’t go looking I’d have missed those bluebells, and that rain would have whipped the end of the cherry blossom from under my very nose. There may not be bowlfuls of salad, but oh! what a difference a little fresh crunch makes in an April sandwich. And even if it’s only a basket of young nettles or beetroot tops to treat as chard, it’s something. I shudder to think how much I’ve missed over the years, waiting for the harvest. So that’s my springtime resolution: keep up with the weeding, and do a different, extra, task each day, but first of all, bring something – anything – in. A little harvest, each and every day. It’s absurd how much pleasure that brings me.

What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

Out there

I’ve been waiting and waiting for the excitement to hit, but it just hasn’t so far this year. Normally by now I’m out there every day, planting things ever so slightly too early, impatient for the weather to warm up, but not this spring. I took a stroll around the garden with Father on Sunday afternoon and was dismayed by how weedy and forlorn it looked – my own fault for neglecting it this long – but instead of rising to the challenge I wasn’t quite sure I was up to it. I’m tired, and there are so many things pulling at the corners of my mind that I don’t seem to have a moment to daydream about the warmer months ahead.

But then the sun comes out, and I promise myself that all I have to do is go out and cut some purple sprouting broccoli for supper before I can come back in. Two hours later I’m still out there. There’s a basket of broccoli and another of celeriac, before it runs to seed. I found some tiny red onions, missed in last year’s harvest, sprouting zingy greens to go with tomorrow morning’s eggs. And of course rhubarb, which I so often forget to pick: enough to stew for an easy weeknight pudding, topped with a dollop of cream. I’ve weeded the fourth of the veg beds and made a plan of attack for the upcoming holidays – a sort of jump-start into the season ahead. Best of all, I sat on our bench in the sunshine and watched the birds come and go. A wren, gathering moss for her nest. Our hens, their feather armour slip-sliding smoothly over their sun-warmed necks. A pair of doves, balancing in the uppermost branches of a nearby tree. And the tits, flitting in and out of the hollow in the trunk of that old apple.

In years gone by I’ve been the one leading the way outdoors at this time of year, coaxing the children out with slightly unseasonal ices or drinks. This time they’ve beaten me to it. They’ve had whole afternoons in the hammock, played cricket on the lawn and are shutting up the hens each evening. Ilse’s little bed is beautifully well weeded. And this morning, before school, they each put in a request for what they’d like to sow this afternoon. I’ve got more flower seeds than I’ve ever had before, and promised to buy some bedding plants in after the last frosts. This isn’t very me at all.

But I don’t particularly mind. How nice it is to have someone else to lead the way when you’re feeling tired out by it all. What a pleasure it is to sow something different, and watch new plants emerge. Their enthusiasm’s catching, as is the sun, and I was glad that my quarter of an hour grew into so much more. When I came in I mapped out all the beds and what’s going where, and began to get a little bit excited. I think an evening with a gardening book is in order. In fact, from where I sit I can see blue skies through the window. Perhaps I’ll make a pot of tea and head outside right now. After all, it’s looking quite appealing, out there.