Saturday 9 December 2017

Light the Advent Candle

Christmas is doing that usual thing of being too far away for ages, and then arriving all too quickly - sneaking up at the last minute.

It is a time of year when, of course, I think about my Da a lot. He and Ma spent his last Christmas with Graham and I - a memory I treasure. The following year, still grieving his loss, we cradled our newborn son in our arms. Bertie is two now, and our second baby is due in March. Time seems to hurtle by: birth and bereavement affecting all our loved ones and the world never slowing down to stop. Except, it seems to me, in precious moments of Advent and Christmastide

One weekend not so long ago now, Bertie and I went to Sainsbury's. Not an unusual event in itself, but we were making a special trip to buy the makings of Christmas Puddings. I had explained this to B and he was very excited about the thought of cooking. I handed him each ingredient and he threw it lovingly with reckless abandon into the trolley. I made the Christmas puddings with Da every year for as long as I can remember, including 2014 - his last Christmas. In 2015, with Bertie as a newborn, I had the emotional experience of digging out the well-thumbed, annotated, 'Christmas with Josceline Dimbleby' and making the puddings solo. This year, with Ma looking on to ensure fidelity to Tradition, Bertie and I threw everything into the giant festive pot. Bertie is old enough to play an active role in mixing and the feeling of passing on a family secret is palpable.

Meanwhile, the role of crochet in birth and bereavement has been sneaking back to me also. I was making a blanket for Ma and Da the year he spent Christmas in hospital; I was crocheting a blanket for a new nephew when Da passed away quietly at 3am in April 2015; the making of Bertie's blanket helped me through some hard times after he was gone, the therapeutic concentration numbing, soothing. Since then I have made blankets for various purposes, and enjoyed each of them: one for a new niece, one for my own new unborn. Now, in January 2018 I am going to be embarking on a new project. A woodland blanket for our #lodgehousechallenge home. I am so excited it is silly, and it feels much like the day I bought the wool to make our newly wed honeymoon blanket. A new era almost, time passing, changing; new life, new adventures.

It is only Advent that gives rise to these reflections. It is a quiet time. As Justin Welby says: a time for listening to that which can barely be heard -  the heartbeat of an unborn child. This year, although the future is as yet unseen, Advent is whispering all change, prepare for change. I do not yet see clearly why this is, but I am sure something will transpire. In the meantime, faithful and joyful hope fills the season. We will have Ma and my sister and her family with us at #lodgehousechallenge Christmas. The house will be full, and the fire lit. We have taught Bertie the nativity story and he delights on crib scenes with that child-like delight I aspire to. So, bring it on. Like I said once before, when the newborn Christ-child reaches out for your finger, hold on.

Friday 29 September 2017

Harvest and Archangels

Michaelmas. I can never explain how much this feast means to me. It is the name of the home of my parents, the feast of the school in which I rekindled a teaching career, a moment at the crux of summer and autumn. Michaelmas. The Feast of St. Michael and the Archangels, closely followed by the Feast of Guardian Angels: a time to remember those we care for and those who care for us.

Having rocked my boy to sleep, quietly singing, as everyday. the Angel of God prayer, I headed out to fetch wood from the barn. I stopped just outside the lean-to door. The Michaelmas Daisies were in flower. They were not there yesterday, they had flowered today - on time. I ran inside to fetch my phone and take a picture. I would later send it my mother from whom I had taken the plant earlier in the year. I smiled from ear to ear and felt an excited fluttering of butterflies in my tummy.

We have been just a shade more than a year at #lodgehousechallenge. We have accomplished so much and been so blessed: the garden whilst still untamed in large areas, gave us a fabulous harvest of potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, sweetcorn, cabbage, peas, beans. carrots, parsnips, beetroots. Where fir trees once grew we have planted a herb garden with rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, loveage, sorrel, mint, lemon balm, woodruff, parsley, Greek basil, and basil. Inside all our main rooms have been cleaned, painted, decorated and transformed by the hard work of Mr. Cloister and his Dad. Mopmop, our mouser and pet has arrived. In short, #lodgehousechallenge has become a home.

Last year I wrote of the work still to be done, now I know the list is endless, but I do not mind. The pheasants have returned, and the geese still fly overhead each evening; the owls hoot in the woods each night. We will order wood for the winter soon, and put many of our 'allotment' beds to rest. I am beginning to learn the rhythm of this house: it is hectic and peaceful all at once

Next year new life will come again to us: in spring as we plant seeds for the season we will welcome our second child. Baby Cloister will be 2 and a half when he becomes a big brother and begins a journey of love and caring for his sibling - becoming something of a guardian himself. I thought of that today - and the care I receive from my own siblings. I hope #lodgehousechallenge will be a place the Archangels and Guardian Angels are not only welcomed, but copied.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

A Proper Job

I recently remarked to Mrs Cloister that Spring seems to be hurtling by at a very unforgiving rate. We’re just about keeping pace but the garden seems to be mocking us for our ‘days off’ during Winter or time spent on other tasks. ‘Ha-ha!’ it says, ‘Still clearing ground, are we? Should have done that months ago when you had time!’ But when is time ever abundant? There is, however, no escaping what needs to be done and no quick way to do it. That’s the rub with gardening; there are few shortcuts and fewer still that won’t come back to bite you. There’s no computer that’s going to dig and manure the beds or help us drill line after line of vegetables. There is no labour-saving device that will help to pot-on seedlings or turn a compost heap. Preparation and hard work is all, and I believe in getting things right.

This is where an element of frustration comes in. The inevitable tension between the time available and the need to do ‘a proper job’. Of course, time must also be spent acquiring the knowledge and skills applicable to each task, and for novices like us, this takes us all the longer.

The concept of ‘doing a proper job’ is not new to horticulture. It’s always one that I associate with our Victorian forebears and the pre-war, ordered walled gardens of the English country house. It’s also one I associate with the amateur (not amateurish) gardener, on their allotment patch or private garden, whether ‘digging for victory’ or growing for pleasure. When visiting my parents, I still like to thumb my Dad’s worn copy of the late and great ‘Percy Thrower’s Every Day Gardening – In Colour.’ Yes, in colour! It draws one into a methodical world of horticultural wisdom, laced with practical common sense. The pictures also allow one to muse on such thoughts as; how long could I double-dig for in a jacket, collar and tie without expiring?

Pig Row recently posted on the thirtieth anniversary of the airing of the Victorian Kitchen Garden, a gardening classic full of charm and insight. The late Harry Dodson with his engaging Hampshire burr takes the viewer effortlessly through the seasons and back into a seemingly forgotten world. The encyclopaedic knowledge, the correct techniques, the right tools for the job – and the time to do the job properly. It’s hard not to feel some sense of nostalgia for this world and a desire to stamp upon one’s own garden a good dose of Victorian order. In fact, I bore Mrs C with just these concepts most weekends. But there is a serious point to be made; there is reason behind neat rows of beans and correctly spaced drills of carrots. The aesthetically pleasing spectacle of a well-ordered vegetable garden is often only a by-product of the hard-headed science and geometry that ensures a garden meets its productive capacity and is accessible to tend and maintain. I don’t enjoy numbers per se but a garden is all numbers, a rich tapestry of practical mathematics. If you can count, the chances are you can begin to grow vegetables successfully.

Few of us have the time (or perhaps inclination) to replicate the exactitude of the Victorian Kitchen Garden even on a small scale, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to do a proper job. Our rows may be a little wonky, our soil not quite as conditioned as we may wish for; we may yearn for a tenth of the knowledge of a Victorian journeyman gardener, but the desire exists to bring some order from the chaos and use our land as productively as we can. We still want to learn new skills and develop existing ones, and we want the satisfaction of downing tools at the end of a day and being able to say that, come what may, we’ve done a proper job.

Sunday 30 April 2017

Growing Season

If there is one thing that makes Mr Cloister happy, it's growing things. And, now that 'growing season' is upon us life at the Lodge House is chaotically delightful. 

We are not in danger of waking up with frostbitten toes, for starters. 

In the lean-to there are a multitude of plants. There are three types of squash: Turk's Turban, Potimorron, and a squash I call Avis, after the wonderful lady who gave me the seed. Every single seed has sprouted, and I spent the afternoon potting on and re-homing them to a hand crafted cold frame, viz. old IKEA bookcase with Velux window found in garage.

There are three types of tomato, chilli peppers, brussel sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and sweetcorn. For me, there is hollyhock and lavender. And, for immediate use we have thyme, basil, parsley, chives and mint. Next to be sown are the carrots and beetroots, the peas and beans, as well as some salad crops.

It is delightful to come home to a house full of growing things. We are all growing too, especially little B. For each new seedling, or for plants we have not grown before, we have to research, learn and put into practice our findings. Added to that, you can build some muscles digging a half acre! It is good to see barren land being brought back into cultivation.

We have now planted three long rows of Wilja potatoes, my favourite variety of spud. They make the most delicious roast potatoes in the world. I cannot wait to dig them up!

Leeks and savoy cabbage are starting off in the nursery bed, and broad beans are sprouting under our cloches too. In the end we dug our vegetable patches out of part of the back lawn. The clearing of the original kitchen garden proved too large a task for now, and we wanted to have a harvest this year.
Where the Wiljas are sown will become, in time, my medicinal herb garden. It was covered with St. John's Wort. Never before have I seen such tangled root systems. It was a nightmare to clear the area and get the potatoes in. After breaking our garden fork, Mr Cloister bought a mattock - a heavy duty tool like a pick-axe for breaking up tough soil and woody roots. Once we had the right kit for the task we made better progress, and finally, finally, we have cleared this patch to home the spuds, rhubarb, asparagus (maybe, not yet in) and sweetcorn. 

Where the old conifer trees have been cleared I have followed the advice of my Ma. I dug holes from between the old stumps large enough to hold herb plants. These plants have now been bedded with good compost to create a lovely border: lavender, thyme, lemon balm, marjoram, loveage, rosemary, bay, forget-me-not, sweet woodruff, sweet cicely and chives. It looks as though we have a cared for garden as you drive in. I am very proud.

Bertie has started to enjoy gardening. He crawls around after us and gets in a pickle: with mud on his face, his hands and his chest! He seems idyllically happy. When there are tasks he can help with, like planting potatoes or helping to collect stones from a cleared patch of earth, he approaches the task (game) with enthusiasm. Under instructions from Mr. Cloister, he crawled around the lawns picking every Dandelion. I made him a daisy chain crown.

Visitors come and we love to have people over! Bertie seems to think the best days are when we have 'visits'. There is always a good meal to be had, we buy car loads of vegetables at the market and love to find good cuts of meat and fish when we go into town. It is great to share a good feast with friends and family. Soon we hope to substitute the home grown for the bought.

The next creatures to call our place home will be the chickens. We have the coop, but need to find the time to build a run that will keep Mr Fox at bay. Of course, Bertie will be in charge of collecting the eggs.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Of things which do not matter and things which do

#lodgehousechallenge can be a hard station, as my Irish tongue would have it. The reference to a 'station',  particularly apt in this season of Lent, not that we are quite at Calvary yet. I merely mean our present circumstances force from within realisations which, altough true, we wish we didn't know. Like the fact that we cannot make ends meet, for example. We have tried, failed and tried again. And we will keep trying, but we have now come to know that it cannot be done without taking up additional work.

When we feel a little overwhelmed and that we cannot manage we ought to think about the things which do not matter and the things which do. I make mental lists. Things which do not matter comprise: bills, cars, money, possessions, fashion, holidays aboard (that's hard). Things which do are: family, caring for Bertie, friends, planning future fun together (like parties and such like), making the dream work and sticking together like glue.

This month when we ran out of money weeks before payday we went out and bought seed potatoes (wiljas, since you ask).

Then we sat down and worked out a way to ensure that next month the same doesn't happen. 

Meanwhile, we are making progress in the garden! And spring is springing. Today we sowed pumpkin, sweetcorn, tomatoes, broccoli, brussel sprouts and chilli peppers. We have fresh herbs already growing. Outside the vegetable patches are marked out and being dug through stage by stage. 

We have cleared fourteen years worth of bramble from the 'herb garden', and will plant potatoes there soon - enriching the soil for the medicinal patch which is to come. You can see from the 'before' and 'after' pictures the work we have been doing: the fir trees have been removed, the lean-to rebuilt, a new gate fitted, brambles cut down, dug out and burnt into oblivion. By harvest time this little corner will have transformed to a life sustaining heap of spuds.

The garden gives us hope that our new life, the dream for which we came, is still growing, unfurling, coming to life as slowly as the tree top leaves in the cold, fresh sun of a new gardeners' year.

And Moppet, the cat, catches mice.