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?

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.

For the bees

Every so often you see your family through somebody else’s eyes, and a part of who you are comes sharply into focus. John and I were invited out to dinner with my lovely friend and music teacher, Mrs England, and I found myself chatting away about log piles and toad ponds to a zoologist and nature enthusiast.

Now, I spend a lot of time in our garden. I spent a good four hours out there yesterday, tending to the veg patch. I love keeping hens and would like to have a hive and some sheep and pigs one day. Gradually, year by passing year, I find my approach becoming less utilitarian and more inclusive of scent and colour and the other joys that flowers bring. Our garden is a bit part of what makes me me. So much so that I hadn’t realised quite how engaged Seb is with nature at the moment. It took a room swap and a rearrangement of pictures for me to notice that his wall hanging of native garden birds, together with his collection of found feathers, took pride of place on his new walls. That the binoculars are spending a lot of time paired with his bird book whenever we go away. And that, when chatting to the very funny and charming zoologist, Seb was the child I named as being transfixed by nature.

It was as he was making some suggestions about how we could make our garden more nature-friendly that I realised quite how much we had done, and how much lives out there. Not just the family of bluetits in the hollow of the apple tree, or the thrushes who prise snails from their shells by the patio doors. There are the toads who take up residence in the greenhouse every summer, kept watered with the thirsty tomato plants. The hedgehog – one in a long and much-loved line – who follows the same route every evening at dusk. The wobbly-legged spiders, and the little brown ones who spin their webs between the strung up cucumbers and catch yellow and brown striped hoverflies. There are more insects than I can name, as well as several species of bee who come to visit the lavender and anemones, centipedes and other underground wrigglers, crawlers and slitherers. Who knows what lives in the decaying woodpile, or what our soon-to-be-sunk pond will attract? It seems we’re rather fond of bugs and birds and various creepy crawlies after all. Apart from slugs, that is.

Ben came out to help me lift the brassica cages to get at the weeds beneath them, and paused by the silvery-blue sea of borage. Look, Mum, he said, it’s simply crawling with bees. And so it was. That and the marigolds, the lavender, the just-beginning sweet peas and the abundantly self-seeded nasturtiums – all crawling and buzzing with all manner of pollen-loving insects. Those flowers have brought the bees in in a way the garden never has before. I thought that I was growing a cutting garden for the house, and filling some first-summer gaps with easy annuals but no, it appears I was wrong. Most of that bed is no use for filling vases with after all. It seems I planted much of it for the bees.

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.

 

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.

Through the wardrobe

Mid May seems terribly late to be going through the children’s wardrobes, but this spring has felt too cold to do so any sooner. At least, that’s what I think. Ilse has been bouncing around in her romper since she spied it in the cupboard when I dug out a couple of her gingham dresses for school. Whatever the weather, spring classrooms are invariably stuffy.

Sunday dawned wet and grey, to be honest, but by the time we got home from Mass the sun was streaming from the heavens and the hens lay basking in it, wings akimbo. I dragged Seb upstairs to go through his things with him, and after the first couple of reluctant changes he was quite pleased to be reunited with some of his more summery things. Of course he’s grown, but with a move to a new school in just a few months’ time I think we’ll embrace the almost cropped look and let him choose some new things next spring instead. At twelve he won’t want to be wearing clothes he chose at the naive and tender age of eleven. This I know from experience. And after all that rationalisation I softened and promised him one new top, just to ring the changes. Needless to say he chose another animal one.

Ilse’s turn began with a look through Seb’s old things, picking out what would be useful for summer camping and the like. Although we agree that you can do absolutely anything in a dress that you could do in trousers, she quite likes wearing her big brother’s clothes when she’s adventuring, and I like to see her a little warmer when she doesn’t realise that it’s turned cold and grey. That said, Seb’s old things couldn’t match the thrill of being reacquainted with a trio of pretty cotton frocks, and she happily tried each one in turn. Two, a little big last year, fit perfectly now. One of those was mine when I was little, and although Mother wasn’t one to save clothes once they were outgrown by the smallest of us, this frock turned up in a box of books a few years ago and has since been worn by Ilse’s cousin, and Fliss, and now her. Add Meg and I, and that’s five of us, which is quite nice, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s just a dress. Most importantly, she thinks it’s beautiful.

We both gasped a little when she put on the frock I made for her last summerWell Mummy, aren’t you glad you put such a big hem in it? she beamed. It was down here last year! And so it was, right down below her knees, and now it is almost halfway up her thigh. So yes, I am glad I put such a big hem in that and all her dresses. I’ve learned that trick through experience too. It wasn’t such a surprise to me as it was to her, to see how much she’s grown – I’ve been watching her grow out of her winter dresses for months – but she was absolutely thrilled. I remember that feeling of going through my wardrobe as a child: suddenly things which had always fitted were too small, and I’d grown while playing and learning and doing other things. How wonderful. How odd. Best of all, though, was the little stack of new-to-you things to wear, and Ilse is no less pleased with her pile. Cotton, flowers, and more cotton please – jumpers were most severely sent off to the big cupboard to sit the summer out.

Later, though, once she’d skipped off downstairs in nothing warmer than her romper, I pulled a couple of hand-knits from the cupboard and added them to her pile. Emergency cardigans: the sort of thinking that makes me realise that I’ve gone and grown up while I was playing and learning and doing other things.

Mud and rushes

The willow is most definitely out: the twisted little tree in our garden; the grand weeping sort, trailing its tears in the silty river water; and the shoots which sprout unbidden everywhere they think they can get away with it. We saw more willow than anything, on our Sunday walk along the Ouse. We also saw wild cherry trees in such full bloom that from time to time there was nothing for it but to stop, and stand in their arms, and breathe in all that nectar.

Maples were unfurling their sticky buds, their little hands still held tight in the cool spring air. And everywhere stood hummocks of last autumn’s grass, its seeds long since pillaged by the birds and the field mice and the tiny, furry voles.

These are the things I look for on a walk: what is growing, what was growing, what will be growing soon. Signs of animals which surely must abound there. Birdsong, and flashes of the rainbow as a crow hops into the marsh, a treasure in his beak. Just life, really, the sort of life that goes on, wild and independent, galaxies apart from mine, and right there on my doorstep.

What the children look for is something entirely different. The city boathouse where the wooden rowing shells wait in racks for their turn upon the river. Wide concrete steps down to the water, and an algae-waving wellington abandoned at their foot. Barges along the towpath, and their little gardens set out with living fences woven out of willow. The smell of woodsmoke, and somebody’s lunch, and the fantasy of living there and being allowed to roam the water and its edge. Eroded pathways tumbling to the shore, with muddy beaches and slippery expeditions to the next. Grass, growing unkempt and unexpected in the crook of a tree, and working out how it came to be there. And mud. Always mud. Squelchy and wet in the marshes, a treacherous terrain which boasts the fluffy tops of rushes at its centre. Mud, slippery on the beaches. Sucking mud, in patches, where if you wiggle your feet you can get them to sink in and pretend that you are trapped there, held prisoner by your own rubber boots.

It’s gratifying, how much pleasure can be gleaned from a simple tramp along the water at the edge of the city. I can see why there are big houses built here, overlooking the marshland and the waterway beyond. Huge houses, in fact, with lawns which sweep down to the rough public land below, a polite distance keeping them from tramping folk like us. I saw one house that I would very much like to live in, should I also be allowed to have the staff. And a garden that I loved, with ancient hawthorns pruned into wonderfully round clumps at the end of each gnarled branch. We ought to go back, in May, to see them blossom into candy floss. That was the image I carried home with me.

Seb, who is on occasion very wise as well as being very silly, brought home a handful of fluff from the top of a tall reed or two, and put it in the empty syrup tin he’d begged last week. We were all a little bemused, not knowing what this was meant to be. It’s my tin of happiness, he told us later, when Mother and Father had arrived to share our roast. He prised off the lid and offered it around, urging each of us to plunge our hands inside, and as we did so every single one of us broke into smiles. He’s right. That silky, fluffy goodness is happiness in a tin. Who would have thought it? So much pleasure from just some mud and rushes.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.

Snippets

I can scarcely believe that more than half of January has slipped by already. What with Mrs P’s convalescence (she is getting a little stronger every day – thank you for asking) on top of the usual hurly burly of family life, the days are flying by in a blur of laundry and cooking, ironing and cleaning, music practice, gardening and errands. And somehow, in the brief moments between all that there is time to help finish a jigsaw, and read a bedtime story, and admire Ilse’s drawings.

I suspect you know by now that I don’t like waste or other unloved leftovers. When the remains of last year’s stitching is waiting in the upstairs cupboard I simply cannot bring myself to buy new fabric for next season’s clothes, and so, in January, I use up every last little snippet. After all the gifts have been made for the coming birthday season, and a quilt pattern decided upon to use up the rest, there are still odd scraps left over when all those two and three inch strips have been cut out.

Last year I cut my quilt fabric in the summer, and in September used those crumbs to make a runner for the kitchen table. This year I settled upon cards, and bought several sheets in various pastel shades to stitch my snippets to. There wasn’t much of a plan, beyond using every last little bit, beginning with the largest. Thus apples and pears gave way to tulips and fir trees, which in their turn moved over to leave the final sheets of card to those scraps tiny, skinny or insubstantial enough to only be good for bunting or crazy quilting. Forty six cards later it was done, and every friend and family member has one ready and waiting with their name pencilled lightly on the back. The boys did raise an eyebrow (and question my sanity) when they found me making Christmas cards in January – and this January in particular – but I have to admit that I found the whole process immensely satisfying and incredibly soothing. Having a shelf full of cards and presents for the year ahead does not make the world a better place – of course not. But it is much more pleasing than a tangled mess of unravelling fabric stuffed into a paper bag.

This done, I embarked on some new yardage this afternoon: white satin ballet outfits for Seb and the other boy in his class to wear for their upcoming show. Not my favourite kind of sewing, to be truthful, but good to have underway. And then? Well, suffice to say that some new fabrics made their way into the weekly wash today.

Hopefully it’ll only take a moment to pull out each card before sending it off to each person on their special day. And, hopefully, there are enough cards without names on the back for all those other people I’m bound to want to send one to as the year goes on – a thank you for a Sunday lunch, an invitation to a party, or a welcome-to-the-world for a brand new baby. Oddly, there’s never enough time to make a single card when you want it. But when it comes to making them in bulk, they fit themselves neatly into little snippets of time here and there.

A party in the dark

Eleven is a wonderful age. Young enough to knock around together as a ragtag gaggle of boys and girls, old enough for a party outside on a pitch black December evening in the week before Christmas.

Somehow, on the short journey between school and home, the children morphed from the responsible pupils who had led the carol concert into a band of experienced backwoods people. In no time at all they were gathering sticks with which to prepare their supper, building a fire and polishing off great slabs of sticky chocolate cake. And while they’re young enough to be happy spending time with Seb’s parents, grandparents and siblings, they’re old enough to follow instructions with a knife and sit safely around a campfire. After the cake they wound twists of dough around clean peeled sticks to bake over hot coals, then speared sausages on sharpened sticks to roast and nibble while hot and dripping fat. And all the time, between each bite it seemed, the game that they were playing developed just a little more into something uniquely theirs and of the moment.

Perhaps December isn’t the very nicest time to have a birthday: everyone is rushing around in the cold and the dark, getting ready for the bigger birthday to come. And yet, played to its strengths, it worked out beautifully this year. Dark by four, the evening seems endless to children who measure time in terms of sausages consumed. By six o’clock there had evolved a game involving hidden monsters at the end of the long garden, and a safe place by the shed, and more rules than I could follow. And, judging by the shining eyes and the number of times they ran up and down the garden, I think the party in the dark was a success. Nobody wanted to go home, even though the leaving was tempered by gooey marshmallows and other final treats. Bathed and pink and clad in his pyjamas, Seb declared it the best birthday that he’d ever had. Well, that’ll do, then. Happy birthday, my love.