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.

Mornings, in summer

There is everything to love about waking up on a summer’s morning. The sun already seeping through the curtains. Sheets and blankets half kicked off. The yellowness of the light, telling you that it’s going to be another sunny day. A tea tray, with a pot that stays hot while you potter out of bed, through the laundry basket, into the bathroom and down the stairs. Wandering down the garden in your dressing gown and wellies to pick something for the pan: spring onions, perhaps, or chard. Hens already up, the day’s eggs waiting smooth and warm in the clean dry straw. Sending children off on bikes in the good weather, with no moans about wind or cold or misplaced gloves. A quiet breakfast on your own, once the house has emptied. The sun, lingering in the high sky, so that the day yawns on before you. Time, then, for another cup of tea on the patio.

How I love these blessed summer mornings. And noons, and sultry afternoons. It’s hard to feel stressed with the hot sun on your back, easing your muscles into buttery relaxation. Why bother dragging yourself in when there are so many things which can be done outside, instead? Yesterday I popped out to water the tomatoes and came in, four hours later, the beds weeded and watered and generally tidied up. It’s hard to mind about a bit of dust in the house, or the roses which are dropping their petals all over the kitchen table. Leave it for a rainy day – and there’ll be some of those soon enough.

Instead, wander around outside and look at how everything’s grown. The marigolds are ready to bloom. The broad beans are in full flower. The first nasturtiums have popped open, and we’ve hung a basket of their cheery blooms on either side of the front door. Just flowers, just in my back garden. What’s bloomed and what’s not doesn’t really matter to anybody else. But to me, each unfurling petal is a little wonder. A win. A tiny celebration of the summer, new and soft as it still is. I love each climbing bean, each burgeoning lettuce, each visiting bee. Each meal on the lawn, each supper with the french doors flung wide open. And the mornings, of course. I even love mornings, in summer.

A good year for roses

I can’t remember my garden ever being quite so full of flowers. The  roses by the hen house keep coming in flush after flush, filling my arms with vasefulls for the house. By the side gate they are pink and open and heady with old-lady scent. The creamy rambler I planted in the hedge two years ago is beginning to do just that: stretch its arms up into the hawthorn branches and twine between and betwixt them. The patio pots are in bloom: pinks, violets and blues, and in the new bed the little plugs have settled in and are commencing their own summer show.

Perhaps it’s the long spell of proper summer weather. Perhaps it’s the sense of things winding down towards the summer break. Perhaps it’s the coming to fruition of so many things at once in this particular corner of York, but this moment feels important. I have a strong sense that it is, in part, to do with the children and who they are just now: each at a different age but all with that peculiar combination of independence, willingness and trust which is so precious. While Ben is on the cusp of the wide world beyond school and home and all that’s familiar, Ilse is running her own little cafe  selling everything from sweet peppermint tea to rose water from an upturned box on the lawn – yet both of them invite us to be part of their endeavours. Add that to Seb and Fliss growing more like themselves with each passing month, and all of them wanting me rather than needing me as much, and this is a lovely time.

Today the sun is shining bright as ever, with temperatures set to soar once more and there are many, many jobs which should be done. But. I think I’ll pause to smell the roses, sit on the patio and spin for a spell, before taking the children for ices after school. First, though, I’m off to gather another bunch of roses to set in water around the house. They don’t bloom like this every day. No, this is most certainly a good year for roses, and I’m going to enjoy every single moment of it.

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.

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.