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.

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.

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.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Veg

Perhaps it’s a symptom of age, but I love veg. I love crisp green leaves and sticky roasted parsnips, beans that squeak and savoys with their little pockets full of gravy. Best of all, I love veg from my own patch, dug out of the mud on a damp January morning, crisp and vital against all the odds.

Yesterday I dug two swedes for the pot, and four leeks. I pulled a couple of our own red onions from the basket – not many left now – and added a few carrots and a bit of celery from the greengrocer’s. By the time I’d put all that veg in the pot there was no room left for the beef, so I popped it in the oven to cook down in a bit of stock, with a few dried herbs for flavour, and added the meat an hour or so later. I could smell it all afternoon – the beef, yes, but also the earthy sweetness of the winter veg and the mild tang of the onion and leek. We had it for supper, with mustard seed dumplings for those with hollow legs, and I felt better and better with each bite.

It’s all I really want to eat, just now, which is a good thing as there is quite a lot still standing in the beds, and the earliest new harvest is just beginning to emerge. I spied the first purple bud of brocolli today. Those winter salad leaves I planted under cover are cropping well now that the light is back, and the beetroot and Florence fennel I planted late and neglected to thin out are having a little winter growth spurt in their unusual cold frame home. An unorthodox method, perhaps, but it seems to be working and if it does I’ll be bottling fennel in March.

Just now, though, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much the winter fields and garden have to offer. I made a celeriac soup for our club this week, with celery and celery seeds to triple its sombre savouriness. There are leftover sprouts to add the the pan with butter and eggs in the morning (it’s delicious, I assure you), and overwintering salad onions to add a zing to anything you like. There are creamily delicate cauliflowers to smother with cheese, and mounds of mashed swede and carrots. Simple foods, homemade and more often than not homegrown, but never boring. There’s almost always something new, something that’s not been tasted since it was last in season. While I was out with my fork yesterday I glanced across at the stumps of the Jerusalem artichokes, cut down on our day in the garden at Christmas. We’ve not had so much as a bite of them yet. Time for them to take their place in the winter menu. Lovely.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

Something nice

We had a little tidy up in the larder on Sunday, Ilse and I. I love tidying with Ilse; she makes me laugh the way she gets into role. Hands on hips, she puts a thoughtful finger to her lips and, in her most grown up voice, says things like: Now then, and Let me see. She stopped to do this numerous times while we emptied the shelves, wiped them and put the contents back in a much less higgledy-piggledy way than they were thrust on at half term. I left her to it while I popped into the sitting room for a minute, and when I came back she and Seb were rhapsodising over a jar of bilberry jam.

All it took was a mention of that summer’s day and we all remembered how hot it was – too hot to sit in the sunshine – and that it had been John’s birthday, and that there were bilberries everywhere. How long ago that feels now that we’re in dark December. We could all do with a picnic in the sunshine, and next summer is a very long way away. I quietly  put the jar to one side, and we finished the job.

I was sorely tempted to save it for a dank February morning – the sort when Christmas seems a long time ago and spring impossible. When it keeps raining and nobody wants to go out in the weather to get to school or work. No doubt it would cheer everybody up. But in the meantime, this impossibly busy term keeps throwing obstacles our way, and the two weeks until the holidays feel interminable. It’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed each morning – not just for me but for everyone in the house – and really, a change is as good as a rest. Well, almost. A jar of jam isn’t going to change the world, but it helps.

As does a drop of apple and pear liqueur, or a small glass of sloe gin. The children’s chocolate-filled advent calendars are hanging in the hall, and John and I have decided that now is the time to decant some of the tipple we tucked away over a year ago, as a sort of adult equivalent. It’s up on the kitchen dresser, along with the new-strung fairy lights and the tea and the pepper and salt. Oh, and that jar of jam. Little things that make a big difference. Something nice to keep us all going.

A Winter of Walks

Almost everyone who stepped into the tea shop said the same thing: Well, that certainly blows away the cobwebs. Through the windows, the surf rolled onto the sands. Children and dogs laid claim to sticks, one little boy proudly brandishing a branch much longer than he was tall. Wet animals ran in and out of the chilly water. And when it was time to leave, we pulled on hats and buttoned our coats tightly against the sea breeze.

What fun it is, to have a motor of our own, and be able to enjoy somewhere other than our own little city. We’ve made a promise, John and I, to head out every single Sunday of the winter for a walk. To have a change of scene, and make the day feel longer, and generally, well, blow away those pesky cobwebs which come of too much time indoors.

This week we sought the clear blue-grey light of the coast in winter. It only took an hour to reach Sandsend and, having stopped for a cup of tea, we walked along the beach to Whitby for a bag of chips for lunch, vinegary and hot. The tide lapped at our heels as we approached the safety of the slipway, and by the time we were walking back along the seafront the spray was sending the children shrieking and laughing in and out of its reach. What with the promise of chips in one direction, and the fun of not quite dodging the spray in the other, nobody complained about the five or six mile jaunt, and it was lovely to stretch my legs and plough up the steep path to the cliff tops.

Not all our walks will be as long, or as far afield. A fortnight ago we only ran out to Beningbrough to wander round the ordered calm of their walled garden. Sometime soon we’ll go over to the Dales, and set off early to make the most of the short sunlight. It’s the getting out that matters, and fresh air and green spaces.

Every other day of the week I wish it would stay light for longer, that the day didn’t end at four o’clock. But on Sundays the early sunset means that we all get to enjoy it, whether towards the end of our walk or afterwards, in the motor car. This week it was gentle and glowing, a soft apricot suffusion breaking through the clouds and rendering the moors more glorious than ever. After the sunset, once it’s dark, we may as well go home and pop a chicken in the oven. There was just enough time for a rice pudding, as long as the little ones bathed before tea and went to bed straight after, and for a glass of wine in front of the fire. Thank goodness there’s no rushing in at seven o’clock in the winter, racing to put tea on the table, because that would undo all of the good of the day.

Everyone seems to like it, so we’re sticking with this plan. The Sunday roasts we’ve always had, and a hot pudding for afters, now with a walk beforehand. A whole winter of walks, in fact.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.