Mar 27 2009

A Late Spring

“Weed, weed, weed”. The words of the NGS Chairman still ring in my ears. Daily as I struggle to prepare the valley for public gaze I wonder why I allowed myself to be persuaded to open the garden in June for the National Garden Scheme. Then as I dig, weed, weed and dig, a quiet inward smile spreads through me until, laughing out loud, a picture rises up before my inner eye of the barren landscape I took on all those years ago.

I kick off my boots and go to the book shelf to seek out an old photograph album. Surely my memory must be playing tricks but, no; there it all is, just as I remember, my recall accurate; no garden, no garden at all. I find pictures of the huge tumbledown derelict greenhouses which had housed my predecessor’s chickens and threatened me with serious injury from falling glass, pictures of “garden fences” made from old gas cooker parts and corrugated tin, towering brassicas, as high as me, marching up the hill behind the house, a dark, dank tractor shed full of junk and buried treasure which crowded out the sun where the pond now twinkles.
There’s our teenage son, Tom, knocking down the breeze block walls, our Aussie friend, Alan, building the pond, laying paths, building steps, a young Paul driving a digger to move earth from the back of the house to fight the damp, me chopping my way through the undergrowth, laying cobbles, digging flowerbeds. There we all are taming the wilderness.
Then there are pictures of the felling of the great Wellingtonia in the front garden after the huge storm in 1989 and the eucalyptus swaying hazardously near the house, threatening the roof in another gale. We think we make progress but nature has her way and will take back the valley in no time when I step back and no one follows me.

I can hardly believe the photographs of flood water crashing through the valley devastating all in its path; pictures of the ravaged landscape when the water had subsided. I can still smell the rank mud as I look at the pages. I remember my old goose floating in his water filled house, banging his poor old head on the roof. Chickens quickly learning to swim, our huge old tractor sliding and aquaplaning in the yard. Sheep fleeing safely up the hill and donkey paddling in their stables, puzzled ‘eeyores’ filling the air.

But worst of all I remember the horror of rescuing my very elderly parents from their flooded cottage in the middle of the night. It took us nearly two hours to reach them, struggling through the water, just thirty yards from our own house which stands on ground just high enough to have escaped the onslaught. How cold and wet and frightened they were when we finally managed to get through the raging torrent to them, lift them into the Land Rover and negotiate our return up our collapsing drive.

In the morning I woke thinking maybe I had had a terrible nightmare, then, despair overwhelmed me as I looked out of the window and saw the devastated valley and took in the extent of the damage; tarmac stripped from the road filling the mill pond at our gate, my parents home invaded by stinking mud and water, their possessions filthy and scattered, farmyard under water, sheds flooded and smashed by the rocks and debris hurled down the hillsides by the terrible force of the flood water. It took months to clear up the mess and repair the damage and years before I could grow anything in the vegetable garden without it turning sad and yellow. We never new what chemical horrors had been washed down the valley in the flood water.

So to have a garden is wonder enough, to have one deemed good enough to open by the NGS is truly extraordinary and a huge incentive to make it look as good as I can in order to raise as much as possible for such a wonderful charity, hence my smile!

The unusually cold winter held me in limbo for weeks until suddenly snow and sleet gave way to blue skies and sun. A swingeing north wind still whistled round us as we moved ewes and lambs to fresh grass up on the top fields but, sheltered by hedges on south facing slopes, they shook off winter blues and blossomed in the improving weather. Even Dinky, still as confused as ever about her identity, is exploring new territory and extending her diet.
Exploring all possibilities
Soon she will join the other lambs and, I hope, realise she is indeed a sheep.
Held back by the cold, all flowers exploded into bloom at once. The early double daffs of February hid underground, only emerging weeks late with their tender cousins.
I keep promising myself that one day I will try to count the different varieties of narcissi cascading through orchard and garden but I never manage it. Just as I think I’m there another few appear. I have no idea where they come from, who planted them or what they are called but as fast as we clear the undergrowth, more and more appear; a nodding blaze of yellow and cream, orange and white singing through the whole garden, standing above a glistening carpet of celandine and soft yellow primroses, nodding amongst leucojum aestivum, grape hyacinths and the last hellebores, clashing wonderfully and wildly with blousy pink camellias.
Buds are swelling on all the trees. The first cherry blossom sparkles against blue sky and scudding clouds. Damson trees, covered in fine white snow, scatter their petals in the strong wind and caltha glistens golden by the pond.
Big old chickens have returned to their refurbished summer quarters, bantams are re-housed too and cockerel numbers thankfully reduced. Donkeys climb happily to the top of the hill glad to stretch their legs and feel the wind on their backs. The kittens sleek now, fat and fully grown, sneak out at night on hunting expeditions. Fred, old and grouchy, growls as they pass reminding him of the feline haunts of his youth. Elderly sheep dogs gamble like puppies in the sun. And I do so miss little Min.

Warmer weather at last means work in the garden is beginning in earnest. Stephen has nearly finished the new wall which will hold back the hill should it rain like last year. Ali and I are digging borders, splitting plants, reshaping, redesigning. I go through a bed only to turn and find her working over the same place; I must improve my weeding technique! Paul is fixing pond pumps, painting chicken houses, mending, making, moving, mentoring!

Sweet peas sown last October are planted out. Broad beans are ready to follow. Courgette, gourds and melons wait their turn to be liberated from their pots and tomatoes and tomatillos are germinating rather slowly. Peas are starting in the polytunnel too, together with mixed salad leaves, lettuce and early carrots. The herb garden has suffered very badly from the cold and some plants will have to be replaced. My treasured new tiny box hedge which I planted with such trepidation last year does seem to have survived the cold. Oh my, there is so much to do I can hardly sit still to write this.

But it’s time to stop anyway and cook meatballs in tomato sauce with garlic and shallots and red wine for supper. We’ll have it with spaghetti before we rush out to a meeting this evening. Cooking is a pleasure once more with my terrific new cooker. After years cooking on my erratic old range it is a joy to know that the temperature is not only what it says it is but stays there too! Last week I cooked pheasant with celeriac, cider and cream slowly in the bottom oven for two hours while I went out. The result was delicious and so easy; meat was cooked and tender but not dry and the sauce slightly thickened. We had boiled potatoes, garlicky flageolet beans with mixed herbs, and some of last summer’s frozen runner beans followed by local cheese then black currants, strawberries and ice cream.

I even managed a quickly cooked rare roast beef in the very hot new oven recently, the first time for years. My old fellow never reached a high enough temperature to seal the meat and leave the inside pink. I sliced it thick and served it with a dressing of fresh herbs crushed in the pestle and mortar with garlic and olive oil. , stir fried vegetables and, I’m ashamed to say, out of season new potatoes. It was nice though! I poached pears in white wine, reducing the syrup until it coated pears and ice cream with a sticky golden shine.

Tomorrow I think we’ll have sausages with Puy lentils. I’ll cook the lentils with shallots, garlic and finely sliced carrot and I’ll stir in fresh wild garlic leaves from the garden at the last moment…..when I’m gardening I daydream a lot about cooking….
Daydreaming a lot

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