Today, the weather feels quite mild and Aideen is keen to go outside, but I’m wary of the job she has in mind…for the last few years I have engaged in a vanguard action against an invading foe.
Alongside the lower kitchen garden wall, that divides us from Park Lodge Farm fields, is an extensive clump of brambles, probably about 20/30m long. This bramble patch has been expanding in size year on year and it sends exploratory branches over the wall. I have a grudging admiration for brambles, it must be one of the most successful plants on the planet. Firstly, its growth rate is phenomenal, secondly, its defensive thorns are very off putting and lastly, it has such an ingenious way of colonising an area. The prickly branches that head over our wall grow rapidly and when they reach the ground, they quickly root into the soil and anchor themselves firmly. If you do not get to them quickly, you will soon have a whole new bramble bush! Over the last few years I’ve been uprooting these scouting branches, sometimes throwing them back over the wall where they’ve come from! But today, encouraged by Aideen, it was time to deal with the root of the problem. We headed off into the field armed with two pairs of shears, some long handled loppers and some secateurs (not my beautiful new ones!), both wearing two pairs of gloves! On arrival at the wall, it was clear that we had two problems, brambles and ivy. Aideen is very conscious of the dangers of ivy to an ancient historic wall. Ivy was responsible for taking off the top of this entire wall shortly after we acquired Church Gardens. This was because the ivy had grown to such bushy extents along the top of the wall, when there was a strong wind, it blew the ivy off the wall, taking the bricks with it! We have now restored this wall and Aideen was determined to keep any opportunistic ivy under control so she started snipping away with the secateurs. I looked at the impenetrable thicket of brambles with some trepidation and then lunged in with my shears. I then spent a horrible, difficult, unpleasant and exhausting couple of hours hacking away at this monstrous jungle of brambles. I was soon boiling hot, but I didn’t want to take my jacket off and lose its protection against the thorns. My plan was to cut back anything heading for the wall, push back the bulk of the bush away from the wall and then go back along the wall chopping the stems closest to the wall down to the ground. It really was a battle and on several occasions, the thorny branches latched onto me so firmly that I became stuck and had to call Aideen to rescue me! Some bits of bramble had even rooted in the lime mortar of the wall! I was immensely relieved to reach the end and then sat on my jacket on the grass to recover. I then realised that I was sitting on some young stinging nettles that still managed to sting me, despite the jacket! The stinging nettle is probably my next most grudgingly admired plant!
We then headed back for lunch – homemade chicken soup and couscous salad, with mixed beans, olives, tomato (garden), onions, garlic, peppers and feta cheese. After lunch, I went out to our side of the wall to pull out the bramble tendrils that had rooted in our border. This then reminded me that the entire border could do with a jolly good tidy up! That can be a job for tomorrow and the next day…and the next day…!
When I woke up this morning, it was difficult to distinguish anything through the window because it was so misty.
Gradually, it began to clear and I decided that today was the day to reinstate my exercise programme. My toe is still a bit sore, but much improved and I thought it would withstand a bit of running. I enjoyed my circuits of the kitchen garden, but the longer runs nearly killed me, which I will take as an indication that this aerobic activity is necessary! It was very nice to run past the newly smartened up pumpkin bed and there are lots of crocus’s open in the miniature orchard. We are still waiting for the crocuses in the arcade terrace which I anticipate will be a few weeks behind the mini orchard. I walked around the front field the other day and it was good to see the shoots of the 2500 daffodil bulbs poking through the grass, it’s all very exciting.
Aideen and I headed outside, my plan being to start tidying up the field border, cutting back dead, untidy foliage, weeding and adding compost. I asked Aideen to clear out the sweetcorn beds (the old plants are still standing) and gather up the canes. Very soon it started to drizzle and gradually the rain got more and more heavy. We were accompanied outside by Bella, Minxy & Pip and it is really touching to see how Pip, in particular, will sit alongside us even when it is wet, keeping us company. After about an hour, we were quite wet and decided to go inside. Aideen continued decorating her room and I finished my second patchwork panel.
Tonight’s dinner is Normandy Pork, which is Pork cooked in cider with onions, garlic, apples, mushrooms, cream and the main herb for this dish is thyme. We will have this with brown rice, sprouts, kale and cabbage from the garden.
We are all conscious that bad weather is looming. Temperatures are due to come down to at least -1 and snow is forecasted. However, today is actually quite mild, with some sunshine, so Aideen and I get outside as quickly as possible. I decide to water the polytunnel before it gets too cold, the side bed looks healthy although, I have lost a couple of lettuces. We then empty the barrows and continue work in the far corner of the kitchen garden. I will carry on with the border, hopefully adding a layer of compost (to the top section), which will improve fertility and help to suppress weed growth. Aideen is working in the corner of the vegetable garden closest to me, removing dead, tall, vegetable growth from the beds prior to weeding and adding compost. Today she is taking away the dead stalks of the Jerusalem artichokes. This bed is literally choked with artichokes…excuse the pun, I really must dig some up. Jerusalem artichokes are one of the only vegetables I have not come properly to grips with. I think this is because at an early stage of my horticultural education, I learnt that they caused flatulence and that rather put me off. As we are a family of bassoonists and contra-bassoonists, sometimes referred to as ‘farting bed posts’, I felt we didn’t need any extra wind in the McHugh household! I will have to get over this aversion and I’m sure there must be numerous recipes for Jerusalem artichokes amongst my burgeoning cookery book collection.
There are a surprising amount of things to see blooming at this time of year. There are several viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ planted around the Tudor play house, whose very pretty, waxy pale, pink blossom have the most gloriously sweet scent. A lovely discovery was a quite large, white/pale-green ‘Christmas rose’ (hellebore) blooming prolifically under the bird bath. There are also three witch hazel (yellow and orange flowered) growing at this end of the border. However, they are close to the wall and not very big and therefore it is easy to miss their curious, delicate, stringy, spidery blooms. Further down the border we have three specimens of Edgeworthia, with their unusual upside-down looking flowers in cream and yellow – this is another deliciously scented plant, as is the Sweet Box Sarcococca, whose rather insignificant flowers give off a heady aroma – I’ve planted one on either side of the backdoor. We get quite a lot done and I add a barrowful of old garden compost and three buckets of mushroom compost to the area, it looks much better.
We then come in for lunch – halloumi wraps with an ‘everything’ salad – tomato, cucumber, celery, carrot, spring onions, grapes, yellow pepper, kidney beans, gherkins with garlic/honey dressing.
Tonight, we have a talk for the Harrow and Hillingdon Embroiderers Guild group, so I will need to tidy myself up. After lunch we cannot go back outside because it starts to rain heavily again…so much water! I plan out and pin together my next patchwork panel, perhaps I should seek some advice from our group this evening! I’m really enjoying this project and the family keep asking “whose this panel about” and “I remember that!”.
Releasing The Flood Gates
Another disturbed night…dad repeatedly buzzed at 3:30am to suggest that should I put him to bed…I had obviously already put him to bed at 10pm, but he had become confused!
I was collecting an egg from Pecky when Diane ran past me, still in her reindeer onesie, but wearing wellington boots, clutching a rake. Apparently, Patrick, James and Aideen had gone up to the flooded pond behind the church to see if they could unblock the overflow drain that links to the channel that runs through our orchard.
Aideen had just urgently rang Diane to warn her of an impending surge of water heading our way.
I ran after her reaching the stream just in time to see a miniature tidal wave exploding down the channel. Diane frantically swiped at any bits of branch that could shoot down and block the exit pipe. It was quite a sight and the exit pipe was completely swamped but luckily, still managed to swallow the water.
The ‘flood relief’ team soon returned and we heard the heroic tale of how Patrick balanced on a floating log in the pond in order to push the drainage rods into the pipe, which was firmly blocked with leaves and silt, to release the obstruction. Now back at the orchard, he then opened the drainage cover, which closes off the viewing chamber down to where the exit pipe flows in the brick culvert and the water was gushing at an incredible rate.
All very exciting, but also quite alarming – if the exit pipe was blocked it would not take long for the orchard to fill up with water! We then all traipsed damply back to the house and went off to our differing tasks for the day. Diane and Patrick are continuing with their panelled creation in the living room, James and Aideen are continuing to decorate their room and poor Meave was still sleeping off the effects of a week of incredibly long hours to meet a deadline at work. I had a breakfast of Pecky’s eggs and headed off to my border which I am attempting to revitalise. I started by digging out a barrow of compost which was very wet and squelchy. I then spent about 5 hours weeding, cutting back and adding compost, I also collected mushroom compost from the mushroom house to use as well as the garden compost. Considering the weather that is threatened, today was really pleasant and I didn’t get rained on, which was a bonus. After a very late lunch, I continue with my latest patchwork panel and I feel quite tired and achy. I’ve had quite a lot of exercise today because apart from the gardening and compost barrowing, I also managed a run this morning before the flood episode. I should sleep well tonight…hopefully…buzzing permitting!
Cat In The Propagator!
Cat in the propagator!
Today, there is a distinct atmosphere of battening down the hatches. It is noticeably colder and there are periodic showers of fine snow. As the weather warnings are quite severe, I decide to go out into the vegetable garden and harvest a wide variety of different things to use over coming days, as it is not easy to bring in crops when it has snowed or the soil is frozen. We are very fortunate with our local climate which is quite mild, so normally I harvest straight from the garden into the kitchen. I then put the trug of vegetables and bowl of leaves into the polyunnel where it will be protected, but should keep fresh, I will leave the earthy roots on things to keep them fresh. I collect all the remaining leeks, two swedes, two brussel sprouts plants, a red and a green cabbage, a large bowl of mixed kale leaves and some chard.
Before getting grandad up, I visit the Mayflower with Aideen to check for leaks. There is some water getting in around the windows so she trots off the get some sealant to make a temporary repair. Sometime later, I go outside to collect any butternut squash from the basement that need using to make soup and luckily, on my way back to the kitchen, I pop back into the polytunnel, which was closed. Something makes me check the long propagator and to my surprise, I discover Minxy inside! This propagator consists of four cloches which push together and the ends are closed with plastic sheets…how did she get inside? Thank God I checked because she could have been stuck out there in the cold for hours!
I then came back inside with a very skittish Minxy to make the soup.
Today Patrick and Diane are making a major push to progress their work in the living room. Patrick is cleverly utilising the carved oak panelling, originally used in the organ loft of the church, to front a long stretch of cupboards that runs the full length of the wall that divides the living room from the narrow room that houses the actual organ. The tops of the cupboards will provide a ledge for the TV and an area for a record deck and CD player, behind which will be further panelling. The main section of cupboards, which are like a giant side board, are about 4.5m long and constructed in one piece! At the end of the days work, it takes all six of us to lift it into position. I think this is one of the best things Patrick has ever done and it is amazing to see the old panels repurposed so ingeniously. The whole creation then continues for a further 1.5m turning the corner onto the next wall to incorporate an antique glass fronted book case and shelves for our record collection. I have my grandfathers’ and mothers’ records and Patrick has his own collection. Today, I suggested incorporating some drawers, salvaged from another old cupboard, to use for CD’s. The panelled cupboards are intended for my bound copies of ‘The Garden’, the magazine of the RHS, which I have collected since I joined at the beginning of the 1980’s! I also have bound copies of ‘The Kitchen Garden’, ‘The Plantsman’ and ‘Permaculture’ and ‘The English Garden’, and it will be marvellous for them to finally have a proper home. At the end of the day, which is actually 9pm, Patrick and Diane call me down to look at the upper panels positioned temporarily on top of the new cupboards. I am lost for words, it looks beautiful, I cannot believe that the house, having been neglected for so long, is finally coming together. For tonight’s dinner, I cook a big lamb and potato curry, garnished by our own little tomatoes. Patrick and Diane have earned their dinner ten times over.
It has been snowing lightly most of today and I have accepted that the next few days will be spent inside.
A large part of this morning was spent supporting Aideen with her first venture into bread making. This is ironic because my own knowledge in this area is scanty, I cannot remember the last time I had anything to do with yeast.
She is trying a recipe from her book, Mary Berry’s ‘Fast Cakes’, for granary rolls. I recently read the information that you shouldn’t be concerned about sticky dough and shouldn’t add too much flour when making bread. Aideen’s dough was very sticky so I climbed up on the work surface to reach the top shelf of cookery books to reach my copy of ‘Bread Matters’ by Andrew Whitle, which must be good because it won the ‘Best Food Book’ award in 2006!
I started reading to her as she attempted to get her dough to a kneading consistency… ‘Don’t worry about sticky hands’, ‘Don’t add more flour until you’re sure it is needed’, ‘Wetter is better’, ‘Try air kneading’, ‘Sticky may be inconvenient but soft is good’. Miraculously, a silky dough appeared and we ended up with 24 delicious granary rolls, some of which accompanied the homemade butternut squash for lunch.
Tonight, I retrieve some of the ‘pre-harvested’ crops from the polytunnel. Leeks for chicken, mushroom and leek pie, red cabbage to braise with apples, and red onion in balsamic vinegar, honey, mixed spice and swedes to mash with carrots. Food is very important in this house, everyone is permanently hungry I think it’s the combination of working hard and cold weather. Also, entertainment is limited in these strange times, so what is being eaten at the next meal does take an increased significance. It is good to see all members of the family taking a real interest in food preparation. Meave spent ages studying her new cookery book, ‘Dishoom - From Bombay With Love’, before making the ‘Click and collect’ food order. Even Patrick is talking of cooking on Valentine’s day, which is most encouraging. Let’s hope that a positive thing that might come out of lockdown is more people cooking from scratch.
The Reluctant Salad Consumer
The weather continues to get colder, with some of the lowest temperatures recorded for a decade in Scotland, -14/-15! I am watching these forecasted temperatures with some trepidation, where we live is considerably milder than Scotland, but I do have plants that will not be OK below -6/7.
Today is a sewing day, or at least I attempt to have a sewing day, but this is severely hampered by Minxy sitting on the sofa besides me. She kidnaps three skeins of silk and attempts to eat a ribbon! When I try to extricate my things from her, she goes into full attack mode. I have to wait until she is sound asleep to try to slide the silks from under her tummy – the joys of cat ownership!
At lunchtime, I make a salad Nicoise ‘à la McHugh’, which basically consisted of a salad of convenience (what is available) – red cabbage, red onion, spring onion, yellow pepper, olives, tuna and boiled egg. Patrick is horrified, he was expecting something hot or better still, some chocolate, he is not a salad fan. However, this has not stopped me from giving him all manner of salads, veg and fruit for over 30 years and he always eats what he is given…good man! Tonight is teaching night and I anxiously check on the welfare of my pupils as all I seem to hear on the news is how the lockdown is negatively affecting children’s mental health. They all seem to be fine, although they are universally tired and bored with being ‘online’ and are desperate for half term. I actually manage to navigate Skype on my own this evening…wonders will never cease…maybe another positive to come out of being shut in your house is even a luddite like me might start to use a computer!