When rain stops play

Typical English summer weather: sunshine up until the last few days of term and then rain, rain and more rain. Or that’s what it feels like, anyway.

Between downpours the children and I have been outside: playing, building obstacle courses, constructing dens and tending to the garden. Under a sky of clouds, outside looks less than appealing but once I begin I don’t want to stop. There’s always one more thing to weed, tie in or feed. And then the heavens open once again and we all rush in.

It was at the start of the holidays that Seb announced his summer projects: building his new den and completing a number of airfix models. For when it’s sunny and when it rains, he explained. Oh dear. More of us rubs off on them than we imagine. Because that’s precisely how I organise my summer projects too: gardening and quilting, for when it’s sunny and when it rains.

More than that, though, is the fact that we both save one outdoor task til last, just in case the rain does come. Under an umbrella of leaves – me under the apple and he sheltered by the pine at the far end of the garden – we can carry on outdoors if it’s only a gentle shower. And then if rain really does stop play, we each have another project waiting for us indoors.

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.

Moving out

I wasn’t expecting Ilse to be the one moving out this summer, but that’s what she cheerily announced on Sunday afternoon, blanket under one arm, cushion in the other. We’ve all been working on transforming the little tower for her in spare pockets of time. John made a swing with her, which hangs beneath the house part and is hidden by the raspberry canes. I took her to a jumble sale to buy the basket which hangs on a pulley, ready for lifting up treats. Lovely Mrs East gave her the squishiest hand-knit pillow, all wool and cables. We found a rug to spread over the wooden floor, and an old beanbag, and a biscuit tin. She’s taken out a notebook to keep a log in. And on Saturday she and Fliss made the bunting and strung it up themselves, right over the F which has been there since we tidied it up for Fliss several years ago. We ought to look out for an I, but are keeping the F for posterity. And because she keeps disappearing up there, too, and pulling that stick-door shut behind her.

And what about Seb, I hear you asking? Don’t worry: he’s building a base out of an old tarpaulin, a ball of string and roughly 6,000,000 sticks. He works for a bit, then stops to raid the fruit patch before getting back to it. He’s very happy.

Between them, I am getting almost hourly requests for a date on which they’ll be able to sleep out there this summer. I keep thinking about the fox who comes to visit the chickens, and the fact that neither space can be seen or heard from the house, and a thousand unsavoury possibilities. Then I remember that they camp out in the garden every summer. It’ll be fine. It’s inevitable, really. Time ploughs on, children get bigger, and one by one they all move out, if only for one night.

 

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.

Taking care

This time of year is always a bit of a slog. It should be wonderful – the weather is warm, the school year nearly over, sometimes the sun even shines. But we’re not quite there yet. Ben’s exams run for the next three weeks. Fliss has a ballet exam soon, and the extra lessons that that entails. John is busy at work, getting everything in place for the Christmas chocolate frenzy. In the garden there’s lots and lots of salad, but not a great deal else. All those things that we’ve worked so hard for have not quite reached fruition, and we’re getting tired.

So I have declared the next month to be the month of Taking Care. Early nights. Good food. Jaunts out at every opportunity, for a little change of scene. Adjustments to the routine, and little treats for everyone when they least expect it.

Outside in the garden, which is so tantalisingly close to the start of the harvesting season, the weeding and watering must go on. There are plants to be staked, and successional sowings to be made. This morning I planted out ten baby fennel bulbs and two rows of fledging lettuces, before sowing more seeds indoors. And although I still pick a bowlful of lettuce each and every day, there are now rocket leaves and baby chard to add to the mix. Seb slipped out before breakfast to pick the first of the raspberries. And there are so many roses on the bush behind the hen house that I’ve filled a vase to overflowing, and more are still in bud.

By contrast, the cutting garden looks quite bare, with pale spears gladioli just breaking through the surface. Beside them, the marigolds are settling in, as are the dahlias, sweet peas, alstroemeria and starflowers. The sunflower seeds have sprouted fat dicotyledons. They are all working very hard, and would benefit from a bit more sun, and I know that there will be flowers sooner or later. To settle our impatience the bedding plants are doing splendidly in their new bed, and putting on a show in purples and pinks and blues. Better still, you can see them from the sofa in the kitchen, and from the sink, and the table, and even the back bedrooms upstairs. It’s brought the garden closer to the house, that bed of Ben’s, so that even those of us who don’t have the time to get out there every day can enjoy the pleasures of June.

Further back, the elderflowers are already beginning to brown and drop their petals. I could be rushing around, making one more batch of cordial to carry this month into the winter. But we’ve plenty of that in store, and of jam. In fact, we’re eating things up at the moment, to make room for this year’s bounty. Sunday evening saw the last jar of 1931 blackcurrants stirred into a marbled, creamy fool. The remaining spring cabbages came straight in from the patch to the pan. Jars of Emergency Pudding (a phrase the children love) mean that there are always mulled pears to satisfy that need for just a little something sweet. There will be time enough to restock those larder shelves. During the summer, when we will have nowhere to be and nothing to do but the things we choose. When a whole day’s agenda might be: Make Chutney. For now, though, we’re taking things as easy as we can, and making life comfortable. Dropping anything which isn’t strictly necessary. Slowing down. Taking care.

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.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

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.