Garden notes: Autumn rhythm

Porridge weather has arrived. There was porridge for breakfast this morning, served with a spiced compote of windfall apples and pears. Delicious. The sky, on the other hand, was the grey of that peculiarly nasty porridge: the kind that goes all gluey in the pan. And, truth be told, I felt a little that way out myself. Lethargic and sluggish and low. Because try as I might to hope otherwise, I know that summer is over and the whole of autumn and winter lie ahead.

I’d like to be one of those people who embrace autumn. The kind who long for the weather to turn. But I’m not. Instead, I seek out the compensations. A good excuse for knitting. Long cosy days when the whole family gathers to be near the fire. Pies, and mackerel, and hot sticky puddings. There are many things to love about the colder half of the year. The thing is, I have to get there first. When I wake on a day like today, all I want to do wave the children off to school and collapse in an armchair with my knitting or a good book and a blanket to shut out the season. Yet there are sheets to be washed, and meals to be cooked. Floors need scrubbing and nobody but me is going to see about the garden. And those chores, those pesky chores which keep me from a day of wallowing in the gloom, are really my saving grace. So today I sat down with my notebook and did what I’ve done for the last seventeen years: I decided on my autumn rhythm.

Mrs P laughed when I showed it to her. I don’t blame her: it is scarcely any different to last year’s. First some time at the piano: soothing and effective all at once. Then the garden. Then the house, then this, then that. Slowly and purposefully, it pulls me out of the morning quiet and into the day. There are no deadlines, no time slots other than the obvious. There’s no rush; there’s plenty of time for a cup of tea or half an hour working on my latest project. And after supper is eaten, the evening is mine to do with as I wish. This is the time to sit under that blanket and read, or knit, or do a little sewing by hand, and chat to John or listen to the wireless. The day is done, but more importantly, it is done well, and that matters, in the autumn.

Each part of the rhythm counts. It matters that there is a stew in the oven and crock of fresh soup on the cold shelf for the week. I care about getting the sheets washed and ironed and back on the children’s beds. Making music makes me happy, as does getting better at it. But the turning part of the day, the part that lifts me from the gloom, is the time I spend in the garden. I never, ever want to go out there when it’s cold and damp and grey. Today I promised myself I only had to do ten minutes. Dig the potatoes, I said, and that’ll do. But then Penelope made me laugh by standing right over the fork so as to get at all the worms, so I spent a little longer pulling some bolted lettuce for them all. In doing so, I noticed that the second, smaller flush of lavender was ready for the taking. And while crouching there, I smelled the sweet peas and cut another vaseful for the kitchen. Then there were the windfalls to pick up: the good ones to come indoors, the sluggy ones for the chickens in their run. The tomatoes needed watering. The veg patch wanted a walk and an inspection, and all told, I was out for an hour and a half.

It’s not as exciting as spring. It’s not as brilliant as summer. And yet somehow it’s in the autumn that I’m most glad I have a garden. It keeps me going, gentle and funny and kind, pulling me outdoors each and every day. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and working in it, and writing about it, these past few months. There’s not much left to say now, except this: know that I’ll be out there in the wind and the drizzle and snow. Ostensibly, I’ll be taking care of it, fitting it into my daily rhythm. In truth though, it’ll be taking care of me.

Wool in the house

Oh, how lovely it is to have wool in the house again. After the fair my basket is full, and another season’s knitting can begin. There’s not a moment’s hesitation over patterns or sizes or gauge: all that was worked out a while ago, and all that remains is to decide which project to begin with.

Last year’s fair was all about fairisle. I thought it was just me, but I’m sure there was less of it this time around. There were still pockets of it, including a stall with the sweetest little bunny jumper that I might just have to make for Ilse, even though she’s getting a cardigan too. There were lots of tiny baby knits, so small that I couldn’t quite remember my own children being that size, and adult ones in undyed shades of greys and browns and duns. In fact, it was the undyed yarns that Mother and I liked best, and we walked from stall to stall just looking and admiring. One sold nothing but natural white wool, and standing there there seemed no need for any other colour, until I turned around and saw the rainbow displays behind me.

However, it is Ben and Ilse’s turn to have new knits this year, and so I shopped with their choices in mind. Ilse, who had come with us, chose a royal blue-purple aran for her cardigan, and some painted wooden buttons to match, whereas I picked out a sea-green blue for my boy who suits pastels so well. John has no need for a new knit, and I’ve decided to rip out a cream aran sweater of mine and reknit it in a brand new pattern. Three jumpers is about right for a winter’s knitting, and I am eager to get started.

There was another colour that came home with me, despite all my expectations. Ada brought my spinning wheel over last week, all serviced and ready to work, and I needed to dive in. There are two Jacob’s fleeces waiting to be washed and carded and spun: enough to keep me spinning for a long while, I expect. But I wanted something simpler to get going with: something clean and combed and ready. I walked past stall after stall of roving in white and black and every shade that sheep are in between, meaning to come back and make my choice. And then, chatting to a spinner, I fell for her roving in the most glorious peacock blues. She gave me much encouragement and so as soon as we were home and the chicken was in the oven, I sat down at my wheel for the very first time and tried to spin. It’s very wonky, of course, this yarn that I’m producing, but such a gorgeous colour that I know I’ll overlook the thick bits and the bits with too much twist. I got a little better as I went on, and had another go today, trying to remember what I was taught in my lesson a month ago. Pull forward with the left hand, not back with the right. Move the yarn along the hooks to spread it along the bobbin. And, most importantly of all, stick to a pedal an inch.

I have no idea what I’m going to make from the yarn that this becomes. It might even lie in my basket until the spring, when the little knits begin again. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m spinning, and having fun, and have even put the first bit of raw fleece to soak. Soon it’ll be ready for carding, and by the time I finish with the peacock roving I’ll have little rolags of Jacob’s fleece to make into a yarn of sorts. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have spun an even enough wool to knit my own fairisle jumper in the whites and caramels and chocolate browns of these lovely sheep. Right now, I’m just enjoying having a house full of wool again.

Garden notes: Reluctant

Parts of the garden, at least, seem as reluctant to accept the autumn as I am. The tomatoes keep on coming, as do the valiant courgettes which I’d expected to succumb to their layer of powdery mildew weeks ago. Nasturtiums flower cheerfully in oranges, reds and yellows, and the herbs keep growing fragrant and bright green. If I only look in certain places, I can convince myself that it’s still summer.

It’s harder in the kitchen, though. True, last night’s supper was a simple combination of cheese omelettes, soda bread and greenhouse-fresh tomatoes, but I slipped the fruits into the frying pan to warm through in melted butter. Beside them cooked this evening’s supper –  a simmering pot of sunny carrot soup. It seems the salad days are coming to an end.

True, there are trays of baby little gems and other winter leaves waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It almost looks like springtime. But these will be planted in the greenhouse, and will grow too slowly to feed us all each day. These winter salads won’t be filling any bowls. What they will do, though, is brighten up a ham and chutney sandwich. They’ll bring a dash of greenery to a plate of smoked mackerel and toast. They’ll persevere, when all is wet and windy.

Mrs P is bothering about the house these days, washing the last of the curtains, turning out the rooms. It was she who urged me to book the sweep and order a delivery of coal. Yesterday, she rapsodised for a full half hour about the joys of wearing woollens, and cold, fresh morning air. Oh, I know what she means, but I’m just not ready yet. Don’t tell her I haven’t ordered anyone’s new woollen combinations, or even thought about putting the summer frocks away. No-one’s told me that they’re cold – yet.

Reluctant as I am, though, some progress has been made. The first of Ilse’s dresses is very nearly done, and went together smoothly. A bolt of woollen suiting came today. This Sunday finds us at the yarn fair again. And in the kitchen drawer lie all those wintry flavours needed to bottle this year’s pears: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I’ve had a sniff or two, to get me in the mood, and am feeling almost ready. I’ll do it on a rainy day, and be glad of the warm and spicy fug. That, and some new wool to knit with, and a bit of successful sewing, and I might feel a little less reluctant about the tilting of the world.

On the way

You wouldn’t have thought, yesterday, that we were halfway through September. The children were playing barefoot on the lawn, I’d taken my cardigan off by midday, and the windows were open to let the heat of our roasting dinner out. Summer came late this year but it’s making up for it now, hanging around until the very last minute, and nobody’s complaining. In the mornings, though, there’s sparkling dew on the grass. It’s just about dark by Ilse’s bedtime. It’s happening, much as I’d like to ignore it: autumn is on the way.

Most of us have enough to wear this year, should the first frosts suddenly strike. Fliss seems to have stopped growing, or slowed down at any rate, and Ben’s things are new enough to last a little longer. Seb’s trousers are a decent enough length to buy me a little time. But Ilse has shot up this past year and needs new everything. And while I can fill a few gaps with old things of Fliss’, she does need new school dresses and something to wear at the weekends. Not just any old something, mind you. Ilse knows exactly what she would like, please. My plans for some little dropped waist dresses were not well met: how does she know they belong to the 20s? They still look wonderful on little girls: easy and swishy and without an ounce of fuss. Happily, her own plans are equally practical and sweet. What she would like, please, are dresses with high yokes and full skirts to just above the knee, with three quarter length sleeves (so they’re warm, but they don’t get in the way) and possibly a peter pan collar. Three buttons at the back, like the pinafore  she loves so much, and definitely some pockets to keep her precious finds in. It took a bit of sketching and and explaining and pointing to parts of other dresses around the house, but we got there in the end, and are both pleased with the design.

Making the pattern turned out to be a breeze, and not at all the afternoon of careful calculations I’d built it up to be. The block I made for her this summer was still in the drawer and, thanks to the fact I made it a size up, still big enough. So it took less than an hour to adapt it, and not much longer to cut out the fabrics she’s chosen. We’re starting with a Saturday dress in blue corduroy, the yoke lined with an old gingham shirt of John’s she’s always liked. It’s a bit of a relief, really, to have got to this stage. What with the cutting done, the rest is easy: I’ve made enough dresses now to sew a quick seam here, seam there in odd pockets of time. Dress number one is on the way.

As is the grey wool I’ve ordered for her school frocks, and my new spinning wheel, and the knitting fair next weekend. Autumn crafting is upon us. As is the season itself, though you wouldn’t know it by looking out the window. Stick with us, summer, for as long as you like. But when autumn comes my little girl will be ready with something warm to wear, just like the rest of us. And just as importantly, I’ll have a basket of wool to knit up, as well as two fleeces to learn to spin with. I have to admit, autumn does have its compensations.

Garden notes: Ripening

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

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

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

Oh crumbs

It only took one day of the new school year to send me to my sewing machine for a little distraction and comfort. There’s something about September, lovely as it is, that gives me a sinking feeling and for some reason it’s worse than ever this time around. I suppose that’s the other side of having such a lovely summer: it had to come to an end sometime. And end it has, and that now what shall I do today? feeling has been replaced with long lists of chores and uniform requirements and pesky timekeeping. It’s the busyness that gets to me – so many things which must be done that I never seem to get to the part of the day when I sit down with a book or a spot of sewing and just switch off.

But when the days spit me out, frazzled and ever so slightly cross, the evenings are there to pick me up again. Every night last week found me sewing: sorting through the scraps too small for Ilse’s quilt, wanting to make some order out of chaos. And thus a little crumb quilt was born. I’ve been meaning to make something like this for a while, to run down the centre of our kitchen table for the butter and pepper and water jug to sit upon. But I wasn’t meaning to make it just now, when so much else is new and demanding our attention. Not when Ben is going into his last year of school and making choices about what comes next. Not when Ilse is just moving up to the juniors. Not when there is a new schedule of music and dance classes, swimming galas and tennis lessons. Not when I have a garden to bring in and bottle, and windowsills of overwinterers to put out. Despite all my protestations, though, it appears that an hour or so just playing with fabric was exactly what I needed each and every night last week.

This promises to be quite a year for us, one way and another. There will be lots of things to balance. Everything is jostling for position, and some are already in danger of being squeezed right out. I’m keeping a close eye on the important things, like family meals and story time and long walks to think things over. After last week, half an hour in the afternoon with nothing more important on my plate than a scone and a cup of tea has become the most critical part of my day. I can’t lurch from one peaceful Sunday to the next, missing the weeks in between. I know much better than that.

Last week? Well, thanks to that little quilt, balance was restored, and it was bound and on the table in time for our Sunday roast. John says it looks like a story in a comic strip, just waiting to be written. Seb likes the little octopus in its wonky log cabin. And I? I only put in the things I thought should be there. It’s a bit chaotic, a bit colourful and mad, but it’s all quite carefully chosen. I’ve spread the fabrics out with a little bit here, a little there. And if you look closely you can see that there are seven blocks, in a pattern, connected with strips of this and that, and held together with something bold enough to set the requisite boundaries. A bit like last week, really, and the weeks to come. Oh crumbs.

Garden notes: Picking

We’ve been away an awful lot this summer, one way and another. Between outings and overnights, camping trips and tramps around the country, home has been a place to get the washing done and have a bath before heading off again. Things have been different in the garden, too – periods of neglect (in which the tomatoes were saved only by the kindness of a neighbour with a key) followed by a two or three day stint of hours and hours out there. Once back from our final jaunt earlier this week, I was ready for a change of pace. To get back to taking my time, pottering about and making the most of the autumn sun. To seeing all the jobs that must be done and choosing one – just one – to make a start on. And, in this precious time before the clocks go back, using the time between tea and supper to wander around with a basket on my arm, seeing what is ready to be picked.

I love this part of the day. The part when the children flop about on the sofa or the rug, full of bread and jam, ready for a bit of quiet after school and before some game begins. More often than not I am alone in the garden. I check the tomatoes first, then the cucumbers and courgettes. Lettuce next, then it all gets taken in and the leaves plunged into cold water. Then outside once more to the inevitable beans. The low-hung sun shines in my eyes, and looking down I see a spider wobbling about on elongated limbs. The round leaves of nasturtiums steal a march across the paving slabs, heralded by their own radiant blooms, so I pick a basketful of those, too, to make a spicy paste. There are squat green insects here and there, scuttling about on crooked legs, and new webs appear daily between one green creeper and another. The cabbages are safe, now that the caterpillars have moved on to pastures new, but the aphids have arrived in their camouflaged hundreds and tomorrow, really, I should deal with them. For now, though, I have time to sit on my bench and watch the bees make their way from bloom to bloom, drunk and heavy with nectar.

Inside, I watch the hens in happy frenzy on the fresh-dug soil as I rinse the dirt from another panful of potatoes. Boiled, I think, with beans and fish and parsley sauce. Tomorrow there will be cabbage. I must send a child out to pick a Cox for each of them for school. There will be scallions in the morning, and green swiss chard, and flowers for my salad. I could eat like this forever, grazing on the bounty of the earth. Recipe books lie abandoned at this time of year. I keep an ear out for complaints: about green beans again, or more courgettes, or not another cabbage. They haven’t started yet. Perhaps it’s because with green beans come windfalls from the sky, stewed with cinnamon for breakfast. With courgettes come berries in the hedgerows to slow your journey home from school. Or perhaps they simply appreciate this fresh green food as I do, knowing that it cannot last forever. Whatever the reason, they’re eating. And if they keep eating I’ll keep picking, and those plants will keep producing, and everyone will be happy.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.


Garden notes: August

There are so many things to love about August. School holidays, for one. Sunny days which are actually hot, as well as bright. Bare feet indoors and out. Swimming in the sea. Ices. Those blonde wispy bits at the front of Ilse’s hair – and then finding the same in the mirror. Reading in the garden. Reading in the park. Reading on campsites and beaches and trains. Little knits, and planning the big ones. Child-sized adventures here, there and everywhere. Catching up with family and friends. Baskets of garden goodies which make for easy, tasty gifts.

Putting up the rest of the produce. Every day there are more windfalls to be dealt with. I made fifteen jars of apple jam last week, then began on the apple sauce. The beans are living up to their reputation and providing enough for a couple of meals a day, were we that way inclined. Instead, we share some and preserve others. There are tomatoes and cucumbers and crisp green lettuce leaves for lunch and the potatoes, no longer early, are big and floury enough to roast on Sundays. The courgettes need picking every day or two, and those which hide beneath a floppy leaf get missed and swell to awkward proportions in no time. There’s a bed of summer cabbage to bring in and salt. Beetroot and small red onions have begun to fill a row of ruby jars, while bigger onions dry off in the sun.

On top of this, new seedlings have gone in. There are spring cabbages on the kitchen windowsill, and the empty pea bed is sprouting once again with beetroot, radishes and fennel. Winter salads have been sown to grow on under cover, as well as swiss chard and spring onions. The brassicas are standing in the beds, ready to brave the winter when it comes, and beneath the soil the parsnips are waiting to be sweetened by the frosts.

But not just yet. They’ll have to wait a little longer. This August, which kept on giving, has me convinced it’s going to be an Indian summer. Even if it isn’t, it’ll be a while before the pears come in off the tree, and the apples need to be picked and wrapped in paper. There’s a good month of harvest ahead, surely. There are still days left before school starts, still weeks till the clocks go back. I can’t quite believe that this summer, which has given us so much, is ever going to end. We’ll keep it going till the very last minute: till the frost strikes and the fire is lit and the blankets go back on the beds. And even after that, we’ll be remembering it and talking it over. Looking at postcards and photographs, making plans to go back again next year. And eating its bounty, tucked away in the jars and bottles that line the pantry shelves.

Not today, though. I’ll turn the page of the calendar tomorrow. Today, let’s pretend it’s still August. After all, the sun is high in the sky and school uniforms lie crumpled at the backs of drawers. Today, in this house at least, we’re calling it August.