After a night of heavy rain, the temperature seems noticeably warmer. Before going outside to work in the garden, I decide to make soda bread, which we will eat with the butternut squash and leek soup for lunch. I haven’t made soda bread for years, but I have built up a store of recipes for this very useful bread. I first became aware of soda bread when I visited Ireland with Patrick when we first met, Patrick’s mother would make it all of the time. When I returned to England, I tried making it myself but I didn’t continue the habit. Recently, I came across a recipe, torn from a magazine, that used milk mixed with lemon juice to produce butter milk, therefore making the necessary ingredients easier to obtain, actual buttermilk isn’t that easy to come by.
The recipe also uses honey. I am always very pleased to find a new use for honey as we have quite a large supply. Luckily honey is very versatile. In recent weeks, it has been used in a honey/garlic salad dressing, the honey/mustard glaze on the Christmas gammon, it is used frequently in hot drinks (honey, lemon and blackcurrant) and now, in the soda bread. Apart from having to leave the loaf in the oven for slightly more time than the recipe requested, the soda bread turned out really well. When we eat it at lunch time, Patrick assumed the bread was ‘shop bought’ and was most impressed when he realised it was homemade, so I certainly take that as a compliment from such a connoisseur of soda bread!
During my morning stint in the kitchen there was a dramatic episode. Patrick rushed in calling for assistance because there was a dog in the orchard…in fact there were two dogs, and neither of them were Bella! Fortunately, Bella was in the house which was lucky, as Bella doesn’t like other dogs. She thinks she is human. We have several professional dog walkers who walk their charges in the fields surrounding Church Gardens. I am afraid to say that losing track of one of their dogs is a fairly regular occurrence and it is not the first time that we’ve retrieved a straying canine for it’s shouting dog walker. This is very concerning, as I feel much greater care should be taken of these treasured pets.
When the bread came out of the oven I went outside, intending to plant my peas. First I hunted around the garden for spare canes before remembering that I didn’t need canes, I needed pea sticks! This was a little frustrating as it requires cutting numerous light, twiggy branches off the nut trees. Peas much prefer twig sticks because it gives them more to cling on to. Although time consuming, collecting pea sticks is a very pleasant job and it is satisfying to know that this is another product that the garden provides. The nut trees are far more use for pea sticks and poles than they are for nuts…thanks to the squirrels!
Finally, I collect two root trainers of peas from the polytunnel (more than 60 plants) to plant out. The pea plants are quite long and desperate to be in the ground and clinging to their sticks.
The weather is still quite damp, so I decide to try out one of Aunty Jean’s hats that was left behind when she went into the care home. My Aunt was a great lover of hats and I’m sure she would be pleased to know it was being used. It looked a bit like a cowboy hat, so I think I must have looked quite amusing, which is confirmed when Aideen sees me in it later…well at least it keeps off the rain.
Tonight, it is back to ‘online teaching’, a sad state of affairs as most of my pupils, unsurprisingly, prefer working face to face. Hopefully we will return to some form of normality by the end of this term.
Piecing Together Our History
Today is a miserable, drizzly day and I am greeted by a damp Tiggy on my bed as I’m waking up. It does not look like a good day for outside work, so the first thing I do is phone through my seed orders to the Organic Garden Catalogue and Marshalls. The very large order to Mr Fothergills was made yesterday evening. Sending off seed orders is always exciting but I am slightly concerned about having enough modular trays and enough space to accommodate all of the seedlings. I remember it being a challenge last year and this year is likely to be worse. In particular trying to grow several thousand primulas, will stretch my plant accommodation to the limit! Most of my modular trays are very old, one of the few useful things saved from the stuff left by the previous tenant of Church Gardens. The most useful trays have 40 modules and are ideal for starting vegetables. These modules are big enough to transfer the seedling straight from the tray to the garden. Then I have lots of 84 module trays, these modules are for plug plants and I made good use of them last year for my flower seeds, however, these would often need transplanting and growing on before finally being planted out in the garden. Finally, I have some tiny module trays that have 576 modules per tray and it is these that I am considering using for my primulas. This will at least get them started and then I can prick them out into bigger trays or pots.
I go outside briefly to finish removing the last tomato plants from the polytunnel and then I go inside to do some admin. Whilst in the middle of paperwork, I receive a phone call. This is from a descendant of one of the final families to own Harefield Place in the C18th. We had an extremely interesting chat and he offered to send me a book he has written that alludes to Harefield Place and two images of some original watercolours he has of the house and garden. This is incredibly exciting as I do not think that these pictures are the same as the prints we already possess. There is a dirth of archive material and images of Harefield Place, perhaps because the house has burnt down in the past. This makes research to assist the restoration quite difficult, therefore receiving this generous offer today was brilliant. Amazingly we also had an email from someone who remembered Church Gardens and Connie from the 1950’s, which was lovely to read. It is amazing to be able to piece together these bits of history to build up a picture of Church Gardens in the past and we hugely appreciate people sharing their memories and family histories.
Snowdrop are for Hopefulness
This morning, I listened to a lovely programme on Radio 4 about snowdrops. One of the contributors explained that historically, certainly until Victorian times, snowdrops were planted in Church yards, particularly on the graves of loved ones, as a symbol of ‘hope for the future’. These beautiful flowers were lovingly tended and then became colonies of hundreds of snowdrops. We have beautiful large carpets of snowdrops in St Mary’s Church yard (our next-door neighbour) and I had no idea that was how they had come to be there. We are very lucky that some of the snowdrops have migrated through to us and grow along our driveway. They are not flowering yet, but their leaves and buds are very much in evidence and we certainly need all the hope for the future that they can bring.
Today the weather is very depressing, it drizzles all day long, making the back garden increasingly muddy and slippery. I spend the day inside attempting to sort out our clothes to put in the new wardrobe. This is a mammoth undertaking, particularly with Patrick’s clothes. Surprisingly, he has a vast collection, probably because he always has clothes bought for him for Christmas and Birthday presents and because he never gets rid of anything! Neither of us have had proper storage for our clothes since we moved into Church Gardens, so much of them have been stuffed into inaccessible corners of our old wardrobes for years. As a result, today was a real voyage of discovery, at times rewarding, but equally frustrating and exhausting. Towards the end of the day, a very reluctant Patrick was persuaded to try on numerous shirts, trousers and shorts so Diane and I could decide what should stay and what should go!
By the end of the day considerable progress was made and for the first time in years we could see our clothes properly…will this mean I dress any better, probably not! For tonight’s dinner, I tried a new recipe from my book on garlic…roasted chicken with garlic. This involved making garlic butter with rosemary, thyme and lemon zest, and pushing it gently under the skin of the chicken – I’ve never done that before! You then surround the chicken with tomatoes, onions and bulbs of garlic cut in half, it sounds delicious, we will see!
Eating our first orange!
I will certainly use last night’s recipe again, the chicken was delicious, full of flavour and meltingly tender. The other massive bonus of cooking a whole chicken is using the bones for stock and then chicken soup. There is nothing quite like chicken soup for making everyone feel good, so that is lunch sorted. I have been eyeing our orange in the fruit bowl for some time. It fell off the tree before Christmas and at that point, although a very good size and colour, it felt quite hard and I suspected it was not ripe. I’ve inspected it regularly over recent weeks and gradually, it’s perfumed scent has increased and the skin felt less like a stone. Finally, I decided that today was the day, and I peeled it…this felt like a real event, probably like when oranges first became available in this country and when receiving an orange in your Christmas stocking was a big deal!
It was not easy to peel and the pith was very thick. A few years ago, I went on a day long course on Chinese medicinal plants at Bristol University’s botanic gardens and there was a whole section on the multiple health benefits of dried orange peel and I learnt that the pith was the healthiest part of the peel. Our orange was very juicy and I cut it up into pieces to share with Patrick and the girls. It was delicious, everyone was impressed. My only concern is replicating this harvest. The trees came from Nik’s nursery and he had only recently brought them back from Italy, already bearing fruit. Therefore, the magnificent fruit were formed in a very different climate than Harefield. Will I be able to get the fruit to that stage in an English climate, even with the assistance of my trusty polytunnel?
Having consumed the orange, I headed outside, firstly to the basement. This was mainly to retrieve, with Diane’s assistance, the four ‘cloche like’ covers for my long heated mat/propagator. I also took the time to have a bit of a tidy and sweep up and then set up the propagators in the tunnel. I needed to do a bit of repair work on my original ‘Jumbo’ propagator which is like a mini polytunnel, with hoops and a plastic cover.
These pieces of equipment are not particularly sturdy, one of the legs of a hoop on the Jumbo propagator had rusted through and I had to mend it with tape. It has also has had two replacement plastic covers, both of which have torn and I now manage with sheets of bubble wrap. I also noticed today that the large plastic trays that sit under the capillary matting are split. This is frustrating as this equipment is expensive and I look after it carefully.
Having set up the propagators and swept everything in sight, I decide to start clearing the pumpkin bed. This is quite a messy and lengthy job but it is a beautiful sunny day today, if a little cold, so I have no problem being outside. I need to remove the dead pumpkin plants and any weeds from the polythene cover that covers the entire area. I do this literally on my hands and knees with a dust pan and brush! I want to do a good job so we can put down gravel and then put out the ‘faux lead’ containers and plant them with the box…which I am hoping to train into topiary. When I come in, I continue with the tidying up operation in our bedroom. The room is far from completion but words cannot describe how much it has improved already. Tonight, Aideen, who has been working in her boat, is cooking. She intends to make a pie out of what is left in the fridge! I’m sure it will be lovely.
An Outdoor Girl
Today, we woke up to frost and what looked like a sprinkle of snow, it did not look like the ideal day for continuing to sweep up the pumpkin patch with a dust pan and brush!
DIY continues inside, but I am soon reminded that inside work can be very frustrating. We now have four rooms undergoing some sort of makeover, three bedrooms and the living room, and this is creating a reasonable level of stress.
Aideen is finding it quite difficult to make up her mind about colours and potential wall panelling and then we made it even harder for her…In our room, some old furniture is coming out which will then be reused when Meave buys her first house. Today, Patrick and Diane start by dismantling my wardrobe so it can be moved and they hit upon the idea of offering the wooden sections to Aideen as panelling for her room. This is an idea we have considered in the past because of the beautiful appearance of the old oak wardrobe with its decorative trim. Although this is a good idea and has obvious recycling benefits, it unfortunately upturns all of Aideen’s previous plans.
James is persuaded to fix lights in our bedroom ceiling, Patrick starts boxing in a window and Diane embarks on some painting. I decide this might be the moment to try and alter my preciously saved vintage curtains. I am very nervous about cutting them and this isn’t helped by Patrick changing his mind about how long they should be. This is being determined by the size of the window board which he decides to expand to make a more comfortable sleeping spot for the cats!
I spend all day trying to pin up a straight hem on the four curtains, rather tricky because of the nature of the fabric which seems to settle at different lengths every time I measure it! I have to confess to having limited patience with such things and my mind keeps drifting longingly towards the garden. It is interesting how I have unlimited enthusiasm for planting thousands of bulbs, or even breaking up hard-core, but I soon get fed up with needle work. I am definitely an outdoors girl! However, I will overcome this reluctance because it would be nice to have curtains in the bedroom for the first time in over 20 years, especially when daylight hours are longer, it might even encourage us to sleep more!
Today we wake up to sunshine, thank goodness I can get back to my pumpkin patch. Poor Patrick is looking longingly out of the window, like me, he would prefer to be outside. However, he is on a mission to get as much indoor DIY done as possible before the days get longer and the weather warms up and he returns to outside work. To make himself feel better about being stuck inside, he sends Aideen and Meave out to do some of the jobs he would have done if he hadn’t promised Diane to stay inside. The main job was to tidy up on the terrace by the arcaded wall, which sounded suspiciously straight forward. When we originally cleared the bank prior to planting the crocuses, quite a lot of weedy material was dumped at the bottom of the slope and was still waiting to go to the compost heap. There were numerous piles along the top and bottom of the terrace of random bits of rubbish such as broken brick, glass and asbestos that we dug out of the terrace that required clearing. But, worst of all was the site of the actual hard-core heap, this still needs a lot of sifting through. The girls spent quite a few hours on this and made reasonable progress.
I went out to the pumpkin patch and carried on with my clear up operation until Meave called me to request garlic chives for lunch, which to my surprise are still surviving in the herb garden. Later in the day, I visit the vegetable garden to select vegetables for tonight’s dinner which is going to be some sort of creation involving cod. I brought in a Brussel sprout plant, a loose leafed green cabbage and a very colourful selection of kale leaves and some of my own garlic. Kale is an incredibly beautiful plant there are so many colourful varieties plus it is incredibly good for you, I have now even found a small cookery book devoted to Kale. I end up making a dish of kale, cabbage, Brussel sprout plant tops (leaves), garlic and mushrooms to accompany the cod which is also served with Lyonnaise potatoes and Brussel sprouts.