It’s been a while since I’ve written I guess I can blame putting all my energies into More than Willow but that is another story and a happy one too.
We have been waiting for spring to appear and it seems to have been just around the corner for ages. All of a sudden the bees, the call of the chiffchaff and fresh green shoots are all evidence that winter is almost over.
But despite eagerly yearning for spring and watching for signs once again I have almost been caught sleeping. The horseradish which should have been dug up and processed months ago was harvested just before the first leaves appeared and the horseradish butter is safely in the freezer. The last of the parsnips have been harvested too so last night’s parsnip mash with horesradish butter was a winter treat – to celebrate spring?
The very last stands of willow were cut last week and though there was no sign of leaf on them stools that had been cut in January have teeny tiny shoots appearing – isn’t nature wonderful?
So skipping with spring in my step I am off outside to enjoy the sunshine and with stout gloves on gather nettles to make nettle cordial – a first for me and one that I will report on when complete.
Maybe it shows my age but when I reflect on the growing seasons this year I feel like Arkwright from Open All Hours as he closes up the shop for the night with ‘It’s been a funny old day Granville…
I think it has been a funny old year this year with seasons merging into each other which has prolonged the growing period for many fruit and vegetables – it’s great that there is in the middle of October there is still a lots to chose from. Tonight we had a marrow stuffed with a savoury lentil sauce made with freshly picked tomatoes, green pepper and aubergine topped off with cheese – pretty tasty!
This afternoon when I was out gathering autumn berries and leaves I was surprised to see shiny red unripe blackberries rather than wizened and mouldy over ripe blackberries that you would expect at this time of year. And yet when I was checking the sloes (thinking it’s almost time to make sloe gin) I was amazed to find that the laden bushes of last week are almost stripped bare of fruit.
So what else makes me think it’s been a funny old year in the garden? Well we have been cropping climbing beans from the polytunnel since May and there are still a few stragglers left but on the other hand the runner beans just didn’t grow until the end of August so we have been eating young and tender runners as an autumn vegetable. Sadly that means there won’t be any getting to the seed stage before frost appear so no home grown dried beans to add to chillies this winter.
Courgettes have been virtually nonexistent both in and out doors and yet the cucumbers have been like triffids they have just kept on growing p and are still growing. I have developed a taste for cucumber water and along with my new found delight in making flavoured gins I can thoroughly recommend cucumber gin – just pop about 4 slices into a tot of gin and leave for about 5 minutes before adding the tonic.
So a funny old year – but maybe every year is a funny year so that gardeners have something to talk about!
Easter is one of my favourite times of year and this year has been no exception. It is a time of hope – hope of winter really being over, hope for new beginnings, hope for a good growing season with more progress towards self sufficiency, a garden flowering with plants which are a pleasure not only for us but for the wildlife that they attract and support and the ever eternal optimism of longer days giving more time for exercise and physical fitness.
I had high hopes for this Easter break – I had intentionally started sowing seeds in March to get ahead making the most of the greenhouse which is about to celebrate its first birthday. The broad beans under cloches in the polytunnel are now a good 10cm tall and I hope we will get an early crop before the tomatoes go in. So the plan was to get to grips with the herbaceous beds which have not been tended all winter cutting back all the dead stems which have been protecting new growth from late frosts and weeding and mulching and planting out overwintered potted plants.
Well I had not bargained for a completely debilitating bout of flu followed by a chest infection which has left me as limp as a frosted lettuce leaf and all hopes dashed. I have sat in the sunshine in the greenhouse and dozed, I have sat outside when it got warmer and dozed and I managed to pot on the tomatoes and make a simnel cake but that is it.
I was feeling really sorry for myself this afternoon, feeling like my Easter holiday had been totally wasted and annoyed that I cannot shake this bug off and get going. As I sat in the sunshine I caught a glimpse of a brimstone butterfly, my first of the year, and then watched as it returned to hover around the holly hedge. About half an hour later a peacock butterfly skipped up and down the border which the man of the house had tended this morning it looked like it was inspecting the compost that he had used to mulch around the rosa mundi and lavender plants. I sat and watched the butterflies, I listened to the chiffchaff calling and then I sat for about an hour watching Mr Wren preening and strutting and singing to Mrs Wren as they flitted in and out of the Irish Juniper which is a favourite nesting site for them. So I may not have ticked off the gardening to do list this Easter but I took time to listen, watch and enjoy the beauty of the natural world and to be grateful for living in such a special spot.
And hope – yes I hope by next weekend I will be back to my usual self and the borders will be sorted and more vegetables planted and the hope of a lovely spring and summer remains strong in my heart.
As I pottered in the garden this evening checking on the progress of flowers, fruit and vegetables I stopped to watch a bumble bee explore the delicate flowers of one of my favourite plants – Solomon’s seal. Watching the bee seek its supper I looked up and realised that the garden and surrounding fields are clothed in fresh green and creamy white – May is really here.
I had often read about Gertrude Jekyll and the famous white garden at Sissinghurst but it wasn’t until I moved to Shropshire and watched spring arrive with snowdrops then the blackthorn, fruit tree blossom followed by swathes of dandelion clocks and ox-eye daisies which are iridescent in the early evening light that I understood the full beauty of the white garden.
So I took a few minutes to enjoy the dappled evening sunshine and all the wonderful green and white around me – the Hawthorn in full bloom; the delicate lacy flowers of Guelder rose, Rowan, Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s lace; the pink tinged apple blossom of the late flowering King Edward and in the borders the Astrantia is just starting to open while the chrysanthemum hosmariense or Moroccan Daisy is in full bloom.
So here’s to Gertrude Jekyll and her wonderful sense of colour and design but more importantly here’s to spring with its hope, vigour and promise of new life.
How wonderful to see the delicate damson blossom coming to life – fingers crossed that the bees will do their work and the blossom set to form fruit without a nip of frost. I always long for a good damson crop and yet there is that little guilty secret that there are still damsons waiting to be processed in the freezer from last year. In honesty there are only so many damsons that can be used. My favourite recipes are damson gin, ice cream and jam. But more about those come autumn let’s focus on the spring…
Just as wonderful as the sight of the damson blossom are the first fresh light green leaves of lovage( levisticum officinale) as they emerge out of the soil. It’s a real sign of spring and one of the first perennial herbs to appear. It’s hard to believe that the cluster of fresh leaves will quickly turn into the more than 2m high giant that dominates the back of the herb bed.I have two lovage plants growing within 3m of each other- one that starts with bronze tinged leaves and the other a darker green. After a month or two it is almost as if they are competing to see who can dominateand by mid August they are towering above everything else even the neighbouring elecampane.
Lovage has a very distinctive celery like smell and flavour and is one of those ingredients that must be used with caution or it completely takes over. It is rarely grown and I wonder is that due to its size or to the power of its flavour as a little goes a long way. But as with most things in life it is wonderful in moderation and can be used in stocks, stews and soups instead of celery.
In my enthusiasm for using green produce as they appear at this time of year I always make lovage soup. My version is simply adding a few finely chopped leaves to a basic carrot, onion and potato soup made with a good (preferably chicken) stock whizzing it and adding a little swirl of cream on top as I serve it. I think it is the essence of spring capturing all that fresh green goodness that is bursting forth in the garden into your bowl. Unfortunately the rest of the house just roll their eyes and say ‘here she goes again – it will be nettle soup next.’ But I draw the line at making nettle soup – I do like it but find the smell of cooking nettles puts me off so my family are safe for another year!
Once again this year I vow to try and use more lovage as I make stocks, soups and stews. I should investigate its deodorizing and antiseptic properties by infusing a few leaves in my bath – it may well help with achy post gardening bones . Or maybe I will put the leaves in my shoes to revive my weary feet just like the travellers in the Middle Ages.
The weather has been so fickle recently – one day sunny and warm the next the hail is bouncing off your face. But today as I went for a walk at lunch time I was filled with optimism as I saw a carpet of wood anemone in the wood so, despite the chilly wind, I was optimistic.
Imagine my delight when I got home in daylight and wandered down the vegetable patch and there in front of me was purple sprouting broccoli… suddenly the evening menu was looking brighter!
Within 20 minutes of spying the broccoli it was picked, popped in the steamer for about 5 minutes and then enjoyed by everyone. The first harvest of the year – yes spring is finally on its way!