Sunday, August 22, 2021

Gathered In

Its that time of year again. The worktop by the sink is cluttered with empty jars and bottles that all need a long soak in hot soapy water before they're clean and label-free enough for me to use for all things I'm planning to make. 

The wineberries are safely gathered in and I'll be making a cordial out of those, rather than the gin I'd had planned. My mother in law has MS, so booze is off the cards for her (it worsens some of the symptoms). Rather than have her miss out, as she has on the damson gin, I'll make a cordial from this and another from elderberries. The latter has the added benefit of being exceptionally good for sore throats and coughs.

And I'll still make some damson gin for those who can have it. And the damson jelly that is so good with cold or hot meats, cheeses and basically anything savoury that needs something tart to cut through.

There was a general consensus recently that the last thing any of us needed was more courgette or runner bean chutney, so I'll make a very small batch pickled shredded beetroot and dispense some of it in very small jars, so it feels more like a gift and less like an obligation. I still have a chutney my Mum made 3 years ago in my cupboard, so the whole gift/obligation thing is very real. 

Raspberries I am greedily, gleefully keeping to myself. This is the first year I've had more than 1 solitary, sad raspberry cane fruiting, and I intend to freeze all those I can't eat, to get me through the dark days of late winter with a burst of sunshine. Ditto the blackberries which I'm either eating by the handful at the plot, or on yogurt with a thin but decadent drizzle of proper honey. 

This will be the first year I get to have a go at bottling tomatoes. On the plot are huge fat Marmandes, smaller Big Daddy's and an even smaller yellow cherry tomato, the name of which I've forgotten. I'll make a couple of tomato tarts, eat some raw with goats cheese, bottle the rest to open in late winter and use to smother pasta, eat my way back to summer.  

The courgettes are being roasted and frozen for the same purpose. Come February, when we are tired of sprouts and the dark, I'll throw a couple in with the tomatoes, snip some basil that's overwintered on the windowsill and take us away from the damp and the gloom.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Seed Behaviour

“ In my defence, I hadn't planned to go to the allotment.”
“That might be a defence, it’s not an explanation.”
“Well, I went to deliver L’s card and present for the baby - 4 weeks late but hey, I brought it big enough - and when I got to what I thought was her address, a bedraggled teenager answered the door and told me she'd moved to number 16. 
"Right, and that has to do with..."
"Wait. So I knocked on number 16 and a clearly stoned woman answered and looked confused for some time before saying 'I'm not Louise?' I told her I didn't think she was and she looked disappointed, so I backed slowly away."
"Keep going,"
"So then I considered standing in the middle of the street and shouting 'Louise!' but thought that might get me arrested and that would ruin your weekend with admin, so I started to walk back."
"Thank you for considering the admin,"
"You're welcome. Anyway, on my way back, I bumped into R's father in law and we got talking about the plot inspections and then we were at the gate of the site but hadn't finished talking, so I followed him in and down to the plot. And J was on his, so I said hello and then figured I'd check for beans and courgettes but there weren't any."
"This is fascinating,"
"I know! Anyway, I noticed that some of the cosmos and calendula had gone over and were scattering seed, so I decided to gather as much as I could except I didn't have any paper bags, only the pockets of my jeans. So that's where I put them."
"Exactly. Only I forgot they were in there until I got my foot stuck in my jeans later and turned them inside out, which is when the seeds fell out and why there are now seeds all over the bedroom floor."
"Gotcha. Going to pick them up?"
"Yeah, in a bit. Don't stand on them."
"You're too kind."

This is the kind of conversation that occurs when N goes away for a few days and then comes back to find seeds on the bedroom floor. I won't repeat the conversation we had when he moved a towel in the airing cupboard and sweet pea seeds fell on him. 
Honestly, he acts as though this is strange behaviour. 

Friday, August 13, 2021

Be More Mabel

This morning, the Retreat (aka the spare room from which I read, write, work and occasionally yoga) is filled with the dulcet tones of large vehicles reversing and the fragrant smell of hot tarmac that not even the last of the allotment sweet peas can overcome. 

Of course, the noise and fumes would be greatly reduced if I closed the window but then I'd miss out on the breeze that is making this quite humid day bearable. So I'll deal with it for now. Oh no, an angle grinder has started up. Okay, I give in, the window is getting closed. 

There. Better. 

Mabel (left) leaping to catch and bring down her mortal enemy - the fearsome Piece of Long Grass

Over the roofs of the houses opposite, the skies are quite low and grey, threatening a rain that might or might not deign to fall on us. The vegetables at the allotment will be grateful if it does. I'm switching to a system of one long watering a week in order to encourage roots and healthier crops, and to reduce water consumption. We have 2 water butts: 1 at home and the other at the plot, but we want to get a second for each. It's likely I'll need 3 or 4 for the plot eventually. 

I like big (water) butts and I cannot lie. 

This week I had the immense pleasure and relief of being pain free in my left shoulder for an afternoon. Such bliss! It seems I managed to tear the muscle somehow and, after my 3rd session of sports massage (during which I'm torn between crying at the pain and whimpering with pleasure because she's unknotting knots that I've carried around for YEARS), I was filled with a flush of happy daydreamy endorphins. Readers, I chatted away merrily, laughed, did silly voices, made jokes, sang made up songs to the tunes of other legitimate songs. 

 And that was all in the car coming home.

It was marvellous and I cannot wait for the next session. It was the most blissed out I've felt for a long time. In fact, it reminded me that I haven't properly laughed for a long time. This year has felt too heavy to allow it, and I don't think I'm the only person to feel that. Emails are full of people saying how worn to the nub they are. 

Sod all this "back to normal" nonsense spouted by politicians. I say we all need a 2 week long holiday from reality. If we did it in shifts, it could be managed for everyone, even those couples with kids. Nothing fancy, just 2 weeks in a cabin in the woods or by the sea, no mobile reception, no work but lots of nourishing food, splendid reads (or things to watch if reading is not your thing), drawing materials and views to feast your tired eyes on. 

 Chonky Thor has a go - he has less leaping energy but does make
better noises

And it has to be on your own because other people, even the ones we love, have needs that must be accommodated and that means compromising on your own needs. 

Think how restored we'd all be as a nation if that were allowed. Start lobbying your politicians now!

Until the happy day that becomes enshrined in law, I am encouraging myself to Be More Mabel. Her intense Mabelness means that her life is largely stress free - barring the occasional run in with the Evil Tabby. Whether it is lounging on a comfortable surface, eating, going about the serious business of chasing things, or keeping tabs on the garden, she devotes her attention entirely to it for a brief period and then wanders off when it all becomes too much or something more interesting comes along.

Such as a particularly enticing butterfly. 

 Certainly this ability to be endlessly curious whilst at the same time attuned to her own needs (bees in the lavender may be irrestible to chase but nothing must get in the way of lunch) is an enviable one to cultivate. She cares not about things that are beyond her sphere of influence but focuses entirely on those that are, such as making sure I know it's time for her lunch. She has actually taken to patting my leg with her paw if I'm not quick enough off the mark. 

Mabel meets the garden wizard (aka the gnome my sister got me. 
It is the only gnome here before you start to get worried).  

And at a time when global news has our attentions and worries scattered like so many marbles dropped en masse from a great height, that is probably the only sane way to keep going. 

Last night we finally gathered ourselves enough to go and see Black Widow at the local cinema before it closed. Gosh, that was a great film. Funny, clever, brilliantly choreographed fight scenes, enough action and bangs to make me jump, a thoughtful arc about family and memory and the connections we build through circumstance. Loved it. Florence Pugh is fast becoming my favourite actress, and I'd watch Rachel Weiss read the newspaper. 

It's a shame that will be the last Black Widow outing. I really feel the character was only allowed the freedom to develop in the last couple of Avengers films, prior to that she'd been supporting the Big Strong Idiot Men. Think how much more we could have explored her character with more films. Opportunity missed again.

Ah, here comes the rain. Good. 

Right then, my hour's blogging time is nearly at an end (I time it by the length of a Backlisted podcast) and my empty coffee mug suggests it's time for a refill. This week I've been mostly reading The Morville Year, The Garden Jungle and working slowly through All the Devil's Are Here, which I'm not entirely sure I like, even though I'm quite partial to a rundown seaside town. Maybe psycho-geography is not my thing?


Ubiquitous allotment pic. Because if you haven't seen one, have I even blogged?

What is my thing is the definite tint of Autumn that's appeared in the early mornings. Just enough to brush your fingers gently as you walk alongside the canal, and to mean the duvet is required again. Splendid. 

As a treat, I'll leave you with this clip of Jeremy Hardy singing Hallelujah  in the style of George Formby, a clip to provoke laughter in anyone. I still miss Jeremy Hardy - he was an absolute genius and all round decent chap. We were lucky to have had him on the planet.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Back to School

This week, in yet another step to a new normality, I went to an actual library, rather than ordered another bunch of books. The day before, I'd been merrily dropping titles into my basket and failed to notice that the total was nearly 3 figures until I came to check out. At which point I needed a brief lie down and a talking to from myself. 

Yes, the gardening books are important, but not that important. Not when there is another, free, option...


We have an excellent library in the city, run as a partnership with the university. Their hours are long, the collection wide and there's a cafe that does a decent cheap Americano and a gluten-free pecan brownie you'd step over your own child for. Both of which came to £4.50. As I'd paid £4 for a coffee alone not too long ago, I am now considering making this my temporary office base for those days when I just can't face staring at my own 4 walls again. 

The library also wins because borrowing books will always have a lower carbon footprint than buying them, so I get to be all smug about it. Even smug-er after a visit to the plastic free shop for hand soap, deodorant and cashews. 

 Of course, all this green work is then undone by the arrival of my lovely new office chair. A thoroughly impractical pale pink, the chair looks like it might develop a personality above my station but I don't care. As long as it holds me up and stops the left side of my body from feeling like it's slowly grinding to a painful halt, that's all I need. 

I would never have been able to have a pink chair in any of my previous offices, I know that. I also know that it looks good against the dark blue of the one wall, and will clash splendidly with the peach that will cover the other walls. It cheers me up every time I open the door, which I think is more than enough reason to have it. 

This week, I actually left the house for something other than an appointment, and went on a splendidly eccentric tour of the Bishop's Palace with a couple of friends. This was led by an elderly man who spoke as though denouncing SINNERS from a pulpit, even when he was merely telling us that the CUPBOARD hides a good EXAMPLE of Medieval WALL ART. 

As his voice ENNUNCIATED seemingly random words, he fell up STEPS while telling us to watch OUT for them and forgot his PLACE in his notes, I took the photos you can see here. It's a wonderful building - I especially liked that they'd based one of the interior grotesques on Wallace & Gromit* - and it reminded me why I'd fallen in love with heritage in the first place...the buildings just can't be beat. 

 Then we went for lunch. Which was also splendid and not in the least bit eccentric. Although our turning down of the speakers (right next to where we were sitting) probably was. But we don't care. We are ladies d'une age certain and we have earned the right to talk to each other without shouting over jazz-funk fusion beat combos.

Up at the allotment, I have been harvesting wineberries and blackberries, both of which have gone into the freezer until I have enough and a moment to turn them into a flavoured gin for everyone to get at Christmas. Yes, I am thinking about Christmas already, as much as I hate to be the one to mention it first. And as much as I can't really even begin to consider the shape of this year's Christmas, not with such a key person gone from the family. 

 Dad has been much on my mind this last week or so as I completed registering for the RHS Level 2 study course at our local horticultural college. What would he have made of my mid-40s environmental crisis? He'd have shaken his head at my refusal to use weed killer, even on the knotweed and would probably have reminded me of how much of a fair-weather gardener I've been until recently. 

But I am committed now. And excited to be so. 

 On 16th September, I will be doning my steel toe cap boots, clicking the lid of my new pens and bracing myself to be the oldest person in the room. Perhaps if I become the young people's college-mum, they'll deal with the big greenhouse spiders for me?

I hope all the readers who pass by here have a lovely weekend. Eat the good things - you deserve it. 

*NB: this is by way of a joke based on the fact that the grotesque on the left of the painting has that Wide Mouth thing you see in Aardman Animations films. As good as AA are, I really don't think they were around when these were made...

Friday, July 30, 2021

A Life in a Day

N is digging out the bricks that form the border to the garden flower beds, I am swinging in my hammock chair and watching him (I had spent the afternoon at the allotment that day). We are chatting idily - by which I mean, I am chatting, he is wondering why I've chosen now to do so when I can clearly see he's busy - when it happens. 

"Alright mate?"

Chatty P, 2 doors down, has just performed his customary evening greeting to our immediate neighbours. He has returned home from work, got himself a drink, wandered out into the garden and looked over the fence to make sure they're there. And commenced conversation as above.

At that moment, Tiny Wee Mabel who, in truth, is no longer tiny but long and sleek and spiky, comes sauntering in from her explorations to enquire, loudly, where her dinner is. I remember that I haven't taken courgettes over to our other neighbours. 

Yes, its that time of year and, once again, neighbours flee from the sight of me bearing down on them, for I have planted too many courgette plants and come bearing gifts of which they are heartily sick. Although A does make a good job of looking pleased and we chat for a short while about their children (2 and 4) and how everyone's been. That usual neighbour conversation: we know how we all are because we can hear each other, but we pretend otherwise. 

And none of us mention the new neighbour who's moved in with 2 teenagers who use Alexa to communicate ("Alexa, tell Mum I want my tea!"), a lot of visitors in big cars and a good line in raucous football songs ("you can stick you twirly pasta up your...").  

Back at home, I make spicy courgette fritters for us to eat with turmeric-roasted new potatoes and a grated beetroot & onion salad. Apart from the egg, oil, turmeric and flour, this is an entirely plot-based meal.

Up at the allotments we are nervously awaiting annual inspections of the plots. Already the news from other sites around the city are that the inspectors are taking no prisoners and a record 23 non-cultivation notices have been served on one site alone. I suspect that, because waiting lists are so long, they're under pressure to shorten them. 

Had to isolate for 18 months due to a tiny thing called Covid? They aren't taking that as an excuse. We can also look forward to rent increases as councils across the country are trying to recoup losses. Sometimes with hikes as high as 50%(1), which are then broken down by invidious professionals to show that it's ony a couple of pounds a week, what's your problem?

The problem is that councils ask for the rents in one lump sum and if you're on a low income (those very people that allotments were designed for in the first place) which precludes saving, suddenly having to find over £100 is damn near impossible. 

But I try to put those thoughts to one side as I spend 3 hours planting pumpkins and chard, weeding and laying brick edging to the long bed. Breaking every 30 minutes or so to watch the crickets jump and the bees bumble. One bee got himself so drunk on pollen that he fell off a mallow plant and had to take 5 to recover his senses, like a Roman gorging at a banquet. I know because I spent 6 minutes watching him. 

"This is the time to be slow..." 

Walking back I chat to the woman whose Border Collie puppy jumps up at me. We exchange the usual about weather, the bounciness of pups, the fact there are only 4 ducklings now and not the 5 there were a couple of weeks back. A cyclist whizzes past with an imperious ding of his bell delivered too late for either of us to move. The collie barks and he pumps his legs a little faster.

Today, Friday, is a day I set aside for my own bits of writing, which is nice and explains why my posts come in time for your weekend at the moment. You lucky things. I also take some time preparing my desk for the next week: clearing out the scraps of paper, writing a priority list, writing up notes into a proper notebook (I have one for each client), filing. As I work from the room where I read in the early mornings and attempt yoga in the early evenings, this feels like a cleansing. Setting it up for the weekend. Setting myself up for the weekend. 

The sky is a welcome mizzerly and grey, rains are forecast for much of it and the poor parched ground will be grateful - we've missed most of the rain that's battered everywhere else. They break over the rocky shores of the Black Mountains, Malverns or Cotswolds. I'm working on some copy for an artist friend, some resources for my website and my occasionally tinkered with manuscript. From my window, I can see fronds of the honeysuckle waving at me. 

I need to order gifts for friends with babies that sit plumply in phone notifications, all milky contentment and relief. I'll write a postcard to the Kid, one purchased during a birthday visit to Compton Verney to see this exhibition. Instead of heading up to the plot this afternoon, I'll get the sewing machine out. I have a pile of dinosaur patterned fat squares that I want to play with. 

Or maybe I'll just sit and think. Today would have been the birthday of a friend who died earlier this year. Reflection keeps butting into my concentration. 2021 is the gift that keeps returning itself. 

Later tonight, we are Scrabbling with friends during which much talk will be had and fewer tiles will be put down on the board until, eventually, we call it a night and a draw. Honours even. Home to bed. 

(1) Lincoln Council's excutive report of 18th January 2021. Subject: Allotment Fees & Charges
     Chiswick Herald article of 27th December 2020 
     These are just 2 of the reports that came up during a quick Google. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

Foot off the Accelerator

 Disengage warp speed and slooooow. 

This week, I untangled myself from a final couple of things where the stress-to-pay, or, stress-to-benefit ratio was definitely not working in my favour and gave myself some time to, well, just sit. 

Unfortunately, it coincided with a heat wave that I dealt with in the same way I do all heatwaves. With the repeated application of cold, wet flannels around the neck, sleeping in the afternoon, working earlier in the day and the repeated wailing of "oh god, this is horrible, why is this happening, I hate this, why are my feet 3 times their usual size, do we have any ice cream, no don't put that there, it's too hot for that" and so on. 

I am a JOY in a heatwave. 

My northern soul longs for cool breezes, overcast skies and a temperature that does not register higher than 25 degrees. 

The allotment is thriving without any more intervention from me than a watering every couple of days. Abundance is still the watchword and what comes from the plot makes up most of our meals. The giant beetroot and onions become a salad, the courgettes spicy fritters and the potatoes need nothing more than a quick rinse, a quick boil and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. 

It is perfect.

So I am looking forward to more time on the plot this summer. I'm working enough to pay my half of the bills and to still have time to be up there. The next step is to widen one of the beds, currently occupied by peas that are straggly and seem not to recognise the pea sticks they are right next to, preferring to spread themselves over the ground, despite my best efforts with twine. I've recently been reading up on the no-dig method, so I'l be trying that for a change. 

I have things to read and things to write. I have good food to prepare and a sewing machine to get to grips with. 

I have, most importantly of all, a course to prepare for! Oh yes. I have bitten a bullet and enrolled myself on the RHS Level 2 in Practical Horticulture that starts in September. At the moment this is exciting and I'm pushing all worries to the back of my mind. 

Mainly because I have 2 whole months before it starts. 8 weeks in which to get well. Get the un-working bits of me fixed. Get rested and well. Get rooted. I feel slightly like a plant that's only ever been watered from above. My roots are shallow and easily dislodged. Time to let them go deeper. 

N, because he is capable of occasional flashes of genius, brought me a chair hammock (you sit up in it, not lie down, which I prefer) that fixes onto the Degoba System and swings gently to and fro. I now understand why people spend hours in porch swings in the southern American states. There is something very hypnotic about that gentle to and fro. Whole hours can pass with nothing more done than watching the bees upend themselves in the lilies. 

 view from my hammock

The same lilies that I sniffed a little too vigorously the other day. "Why," I wondered to myself after I'd answered the door. "Did the postman give me such a funny look?"

Answer: lily pollen. All over my nose like I'd thrown a jar of turmeric on it. 


Thursday, July 15, 2021


I finally broke free of my own 4 walls today and took a trip up to the allotment for the first time in 2 weeks. 14 days of fretting and fussing over what was going on without me. I walked along the meandering path past other people's plots, ducked under the branch of a damson weighted down by its own fruit, and navigated the squelchy bit by one of the site taps.

I was momentarily distracted by the sight of those perfectly formed pale pink sweet peas you can see above, that (calloo calay) I could actually smell. And then I looked up to see this...

All this...abundance.

It was a veritable dazzling of green, of ripening. Of colour and sunshine. Of, yes, weeds and over-long grass but also spinach, courgettes, wineberries, flowers. 

Of tiny tomatoes nestling under big green leaves. Of long french beans drooping under their own weight. Of leeks that have tripled in size and beetroot that are pushing their way out of the soil. 

Over on the wild oregano, there was a dance of bees, butterflies and other pollinators. It was joyful, spontaneously choreographed, a hum and bustle of activity. 

I don’t mind telling you that I nearly cried at the sight, sound and smell of it all. 

Yes there is much work to be done to catch up with myself but there is so much more to sit and marvel at. If you need me this summer, this is where I’ll be.  

Gathered In

Its that time of year again. The worktop by the sink is cluttered with empty jars and bottles that all need a long soak in hot soapy water b...