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.

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.

Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Feels like spring

Now, I do know that it is only February, and that Spring Proper is quite a way off yet. But there’s no harm in pretending. After all, the bulbs are flowering around the garden bench, and it was warm enough to work in the garden in only a jumper yesterday. The washing has been flapping on the line. It feels like spring to me.

Never mind that those bulbs are actually the winter flowering snowdrops and crocuses, and that I solicited the help of a child to drag the bench into their midst. Let’s forget that we had to pull the washing in before the heavens opened yesterday afternoon. We’ll pretend that I wasn’t wearing thermals and a snood while I worked in ‘just a jumper’, and that much of the warmth came from the bonfire of winter clippings we had finally got round to burning. At the tail end of winter, it pays to see things selectively. It feels like spring, to me.

It felt like spring to the children, too. They spent the whole of the day in the garden for the first time since I don’t know when. Ilse discovered that her irises had flowered in her little patch of earth under the lilac, and came racing up the lawn, shouting in her excitement. She spent the next hour diligently weeding them, much to my delight, and spying the emerging crocuses which are not quite out. Seb spent ages digging up strawberry plants from their unproductive shady site and replanting them in a strawberry pot I’d bought for that very purpose a mere five months ago. Fliss laid plans for a hen-proof fence across the middle of the garden to protect the vegetables from the chickens’ beaks and claws once they are all out and about again – an upgrade from last year’s hodgepodge of brassica cages and hastily constructed barriers. I wandered round the garden and made a list of all the tasks which ought to be done over the next month, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it might actually be doable. Weeding, mainly, and a final spread of compost, before the seeds go in. We’d got more done over the winter than I’d remembered.

Mostly, it just felt good to be outside again. What with all the sewing that’s been going on around these parts, most of my free time has been spent inside. Productively, but by the fire. Just to step outside made it feel like spring again, and has set the ball rolling for a couple more days in the garden this weekend. By the time I’d burnt all the winter prunings, though, I’d had enough for one day and went indoors to bathe and wash the smoke from my eyes and hair. It was tempting to reach for a new-sewn cotton blouse, given the day I’d had, but even I couldn’t stretch the imagination quite that far, and settled for a clean pullover instead. Yes, my mind tells me that it feels like spring, but my body says that it is most certainly still winter.

Primroses and other winter flowers

The snowdrops are out, and the hellebores, and yellow daffodils nod from the market stalls. Winter flowers, here to make the most of the new light, before the trees come into leaf and steal the sun.

I was given a gift of yellow primroses in a miniature watering can, as a thank you for a little sewing task, and it sits on the kitchen windowsill. Now, every time I cook or go to do the washing up I can look at it and the flowers just beyond the window, beneath the apple tree, and beyond them too to the daffodils and crocuses, tulips and irises emerging from beneath their earthy blanket. It is still very much winter, but the sight of all those flowers is drawing me outside. There’s not a huge amount to be done just yet, but there’s enough to keep us busy over a half term week at home. There’s a bonfire to be had, with a picnic lunch and hot cordial for its minders. There’s a bed I want to dig with Ben. There’s an empty strawberry pot, needing to be filled while the little plants are still dormant. And into the earth can go the very first seeds: parsnips and garlic and shallots. More than anything, I just want to be outside, enjoying those flowers while they last, and planning some more for the summer. Of all the flowers of the year, perhaps it is the primroses and other winter flowers that I notice and savour the very most.

Onwards and upwards

Even on the coldest days I spend an hour or so outside: hanging washing in the winter breeze, cleaning out the hens, digging veg or surveying the garden with an eye to spring. I never plan to be that long – just fifteen minutes, is what I tell myself, but then I’m always pleased when I come back in and the kitchen clock tells me just how much fresh air I’ve had.

All this week the sun has been shining, and it has been a pleasure to do those little outdoor tasks. On my return from the compost I noticed that the bulbs are pushing up in Ilse’s little ‘garden’. We bought crocuses and dwarf irises to add to the daffs I’d pushed in the previous autumn: easy flowers that the hens will leave alone. Woodland flowers, perfect for filling the bare earth in the shadow of the lilac. They’ll distract from its spring twigginess and be over before the shrub is in full leaf.

Bulbs are so wonderfully tenacious. Frost or snow, they push their blunt little noses onwards and upwards whatever the weather. Today they were getting plenty of sun, although the wind was bitingly cold. I chopped a birch log into kindling to warm myself up again and went indoors to light the fire. As I set the match to the paper, the sun streamed in through the window, heating the chill air. When it catches the grate I can barely see the dancing flames within. Even the dull days are growing longer, and there is more birdsong in the air. I’ve a list of jobs as long as my arm, but the sun makes it all feel so manageable. Onwards and upwards, I say. I think it’s time I got started.

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.

July planning

There is nothing nicer than an English summer’s day. Warm enough to saunter round the garden in your dressing gown before the breakfast rush, cool enough to wrap your hands around a cup of tea. Even in the height of summer the countryside is gloriously green, and the blue skies wrap the world in a subtle, Madonna-esque sense of peace. The verges are crowded with the sorts of flowers other, more exotic nations might just overlook: poppies and forget me knots. Cow parsley. Clover. There is time to stop and stare, in an elongated summer’s day.

And stop and stare you must. The English summer is fleeting and ephemeral. It always leaves you wanting more: one more doze upon the lawn, one more tea spread on the picnic rug. An extra week of Wimbledon, the treat of an Indian summer. Some years it acquiesces; others it barely stops to hang its hat up in the hall before passing on to milder, southern climes. Yet we are nothing if not hopeful. We plan for the summer as though it were a certainty, and pack our macs in case of likely rain. Soon the children will be at home for the six week holiday, and so camping trips and other adventures are the order of the day. We’ve spent a little while putting them on the calendar, and keeping our fingers crossed. The summer is taking shape, and I can’t wait. Today, though, the sky is most definitely blue. There’s a spot in a hammock with my name on, and a little extra wool has come my way. Time for a spot of lazy crochet, and another cup of tea. Enjoy it while it lasts, I say. Plan for tomorrow, but live for today.

Garden notes: A patch of earth

When Ilse came to me, book in hand, to beg a patch of earth to call her own, I knew what she’d been reading. She’d picked out a plot already, a weedy spot under the lilac which is just coming into bloom. By the time she showed it to me it was cleared and had a twig fence all around it, to mark it out in case the hens and neighbourhood cats misunderstood. A shady spot, on the very edge of the lawn, where I could see the roots of the nettles and dandelions cut off at the surface of the soil. A spot where the chickens like to scratch and which, now cleared, would invite all passing moggies. A perfect spot in Ilse’s eyes, if not in mine.

We suspect the pigeons ate the poppy seeds she sowed. They stepped right over her picket fence and got straight to their hungry work. Fortunately there is no shortage of seedlings in this house, and for round two she chose to plant some marigolds, those little orange ruffs, to stand up to the dandelions. I’ve chased the hens away from them so many times already but there are still some left, thank goodness. Just one, that’s all she needs. One marigold, one bloom, one spark of magic to make her garden a success.

While she wants flowers, Seb wants veg. Not any old vegetables: not lettuce or spinach or peas. Not runner beans, and definitely not courgettes. Why grow easy things when you could grow what you really want? What Seb wants are globe artichokes, spikily ornamental, softening to a savoury delicacy to dip in melted butter. A crop with a tiny yield. A crop which you don’t pick until the second year.

In truth, I hadn’t given the artichokes a huge amount of thought. He’s planted things before, watched them germinate with devoted fascination, then forgotten all about them. He’d find them a few weeks later, shrivelled and crisp on a sunny windowsill. A shrug, a sigh, and he’d be off again to hammer nails into another bit of wood. I didn’t think these seedlings would get far.

Instead, I’ve found myself hunting for a space for them. An unobtrusive space, where I’d be happy to leave them for some years, but where they’d have a high chance of success. It’s such a fine balance, squeezing everything in, planting as close as I dare. Willing it all to grow; knowing some crops will fail. Trusting that I’ll try again next year.

As it was, the carrots were true to form. They took so long to germinate that I sowed another few rows. Then one day they were up, and the next they were gone. I suspect the slugs. A shrug and a sigh and it was back to the garden plans for a little reshuffle. A well-timed failure, and in their old spot, at the end of one bed, is a space for Seb’s plants to thrive. I think they’ll like it there.

That’s the thing about gardens. Things change all the time. The swedes might be a mollusc’s midnight feast, the apples might get scab. The cherry blossom drops so that the earth and not the skies are swathed in pink. And yet the world keeps spinning. The rain falls, the sun shines, and in its turn the lilac opens up. I spent a happy half hour last evening, sniffing at the blooms and filling vases for the house. There is always something new: as one thing fades another takes its place. Nature presses on, and fills the spaces left by our failed plans with something better.

It’s easy enough to teach children to grow a courgette. Soil, water, sun, a bit of general care and there you go. But that’s not what those patches of earth are all about. They’re about all the downfalls which might afflict those artichokes before next summer. They’re about those little shrugs and sighs and sowing something else. We’ll dig Ilse’s bed properly this autumn, she and I, together. There’s a pile of bricks behind the shed to mark it out. Behind them we’ll plant her favourite bulbs: snowdrops and daffodils, bluebells and tulips. There they’ll flourish, of that I’m sure. And afterwards, while the hens eat her seeds and peck leaves off her plants, she can look up and see the lovely lilac blooming in her very own patch of earth.

Garden notes: blossom

A few days in the sun and we all strip off, plants and people alike. There is a trail of cardigans around the place: on the garden bench, the picnic table, the rocking chair on the patio. The little ones leave puddles of empty clothing by the back door as they run off to paddle and splash. And the trees and shrubs release their flowers from their protective buds, and blossom.

Everything is flourishing, out there. We’re picking lettuce daily, and cutting the chard which so obligingly comes again. All the onions are up and beyond being pulled by the curious birds. The leeks are beginning to thicken from trembling spikes to something with substance, so that I can imagine transplanting them one day, a few weeks from now. Other plants have been settled into their final positions: the summer cabbages, the courgettes, the celeriac and celery. I’ve never grown these last before, and couldn’t quite believe that the flimsy seedlings would ever translate into something I could handle, let alone leave out there on the veg patch. Then one day, there they were, a set of sturdy and recognisable little plants,  just desperate to get out into the big wide world. Lots of water, a mild forecast, and they’ve done it.

In fact, they’ve done so well that I couldn’t bear to waste any of them, and put in more than I’d intended. Thus they are encroaching on the space marked out for fennel. That’s the problem with fennel, and other latecomers to the patch. There’s never enough space left for them. No matter how hard I try: something else always gets there first. Every spring I tell myself I need a bigger patch, and every winter I dig another bed, but it’s never enough. There’s something new to try, each year, as my love for the garden blossoms. I’ll squeeze the fennel in somewhere, but it won’t be ideal. I’ll be using that spade again next winter.

If I had my way, I’d turn the whole garden over to vegetables, double digging the lawn and putting it to good use. But then I glimpse the children running barefoot on the grass, dodging arcs of water. The hens peck and scratch, and turn grass and insects into the most orange yolks I’ve ever seen. I watch Ben stroll out in the evening, revision done for the day, and challenge the others to a game of french cricket. So I dig my beds in the parts that are played on the least, adding just a little more space each year. Children need to blossom, as well as vegetables.

Watering in the celery, I remembered the promise I had made to myself of weaving flowers in amongst the edibles. The sweet peas are yet to go in, the marigolds outgrowing their nursery. The beans must be planted and the weeds are getting rowdy. Yet all I seem to manage, day by precious day, is to plant and to water. It’s all about priorities, just now.

With that in mind, I’ve blocked out an entire day to sow those seeds and get the weeds in check. I’ve warned Mrs P, and bought some cold cuts for our supper. The baking can wait. So can the wash. Let the postman knock; let the boy with the telegrams come. I won’t hear them. I’ll be in the garden, helping it blossom.