Andrew from Dolton
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In My Garden, April.
We are five brothers at the same time borne.
Two of us have beards, by two no beards are worn.
While one, lest he should give his brothers pain,
Has one side bearded and the other plain.
I have to write this down. So many of the people and places no longer exist and no one else remembers or cares enough to pass on the stories to another generation. If I do not record these memories nobody will and a record of their lives will be lost forever. I owe this much to my ancestors as well as to their descendants.
Back in November on a visit to Edinburgh I stopped-by a small town called Portobello. Here I found the tenement building where my grandmother was born 110 years ago. Across the street had once been the location of Wood's Bottle Works where my great-great Grandfather and his three sons had all worked, glass blowing being the family trade. At the turn of the century they'd answered a call for skilled labour and as immigrants they moved there from the Czech Republic. Nearby the site was Fishwives' Causeway where they, his wife and three daughters had all once lived, at number five. There were rows of single story "but and ben" style terraced cottages and I imagine the family had once lodged in one like these, though their actual dwelling was long since demolished. Some of the area is still light industry and nature was steadily reclaiming back any unused land for herself. There were scrubby willows, brambles, banks of nettles, willow herb and wild roses bearing masses of scarlet hips. A closer look at these roses revealed that they were Rosa rubiginosa, the sweet briar, a darker flowered cousin of the more familiar light pink dog rose. They are very easy to distinguish apart when in fruit because the sweet briar has a very distinctive fringe at the end of each hip that had once been the calyx; a leafy structure that protected the petals when the flower had been a bud. Five in total, each one is slightly different and in fact there are rhymes about them, one of which is quoted above. Indeed, two are feathered on both sides, whilst two are smooth and one is half-and-half. And of course I picked a small handful of hips and bought them home. Maybe Grandma as a young girl had looked on ancestors of these roses and admired them too.
The sweet briar rose makes an untidy bush 2 metres high and 3 metres wide. The flowers are a richer pink than the dog rose and the hips slightly larger, paler orange and they persist longer into the winter. Its claim to fame however is that when the weather is damp and mild, so quite often here in Dolton, the foliage emits a lovely fresh apple scent. Exquisite at four thirty on a June morning, it is Shakespeare's eglantine. When I returned back home I immediately sowed the seeds. Lots of seeds require a period of winter cold, called stratification, before they will germinate, some, like these roses, need two seasons. This would mean two years in the wild, however I am impatient and able to trick mother nature. I sowed the seeds in a pot as normal but then kept them in the fridge for 30 days (one winter), then 30 days on a window sill in the warm (summer), followed by a further 30 days refrigeration (another winter), then out in the warm again. I finished the process at the beginning of the month and up they've come like mustard and cress.
Fritillaria meleagris or the Snake's Head Fritillaries that I have steadily planted over ten years are starting to establish themselves. I love the light purple hanging lantern flowers with checker board patterns in darker purple, almost black. There are pretty white varieties too and mixed coloured packs are well worth buying. They are fickle. Loving sunshine, damp loamy soil and hate being dried out as bulbs almost as much as snowdrops, only buy them right at the start of the bulb season, when the bulbs are plump and firm. Every year I plant fifty or so in front of the house and by the kitchen window. They can be fussy about establishing themselves, many of the bulbs I plant will die out despite any amount of care, however where they actually do decide to grow they will thrive and form little clumps each with five or six flowers.
At least this month we should enjoy the first really warm days. March this year was definitely a winter month despite Easter, changing clocks and the Equinox; we expect too much, often it is such a disappointing month not living-up to expectations. April's unpredictability can also be unpredictable, two out of the last twelve have been totally dry Aprils with cold east winds, misty mornings and sunny days.
© AndrewtheGardener 1/4/18
Scribblings on a wintery day.
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before....
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
After a week of sub-zero temperatures and biting icy dry easterlies it has now begun to snow. So far our little corner of North Devon had escaped the worst disruption and in line with the current trend for giving weather events silly names it was first called "The beast from the east" and now Storm Emma. Unprecedented red weather warnings in Scotland have now just been up-graded to even more unlikely warnings for the south-west too, up to 50cm of snow predicted. Older villagers mutter about the great blizzard of '78. Every flake is settling unmolested on the frozen ground and a ghostly pallid light reflected from outside invades every room, I have concerns about my roses. The Chinas in pots up against the house are protected behind big sheets of glass. But impatient tender shoots 10cm long must be suffering. Other worries for some miniatures; 'Baby Faurax', chinensis 'Minima', multiflora nana, 'Baby Gold Star' and 'Sweet Fairy' all had little tufts of growths. There is now snow covering most of them but as it was -10 on two consecutive nights and tonight on top of snow could drop further I took the precaution of covering them over with buckets against the desiccating wind, I think they will be robust enough to take the cold. Other flowers so bright and gay now are prostrate and flaccid; Hellebores, crocus, snowdrops and any St David's day narcissus entombed in snow. My cat, Apple, had never seen snow before. Slightly feral and skittish, on venturing outside for her morning constitutional, looks around indignantly as flakes as big as feathers touched all sorts of private places forbidden to anyone else.
Yesterday I mailed off In My Garden for March, writing about sitting in golden sunshine! I am always a month behind each issue of the Dolton Diary and the deadline is at the beginning of the month. An amount of prediction and poetic license is called for; yes last March I potted roses and sat in the sun, yes I will do the same soon after the thaw.
Hunkered down. The car is now unusable but with more than enough food in cupboards and freezer, stacks of wood and logs blazing away on the fire, the enjoyment of a sense of inverted claustrophobia, the cottage is cosy and warm. All the usual nonsense for a country unprepared; no work, no post, no dustmen, no recycling, no bus service, no milk, papers or bread in the village shop...
In My Garden, March.
24/3/43. "A curious seaside feeling in the air today. It reminds me of lodgings on a parade at Easter. Everyone is leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed.
This windy corner. And Nessa is at Brighton, & I am imagining how it wd be if we could infuse souls".
Sitting in a haze of golden sunshine I've just finished potting up roses for charity, I feel virtuous. Every year at Berry Cottages in Dowland the open gardens, plant sale AND THE FOOD are always very popular. I try and grow as many roses from cuttings, layers and suckers as I can and types that are not often seen in garden centres. One sure-seller is 'Rosa Mundi'. Correctly called Rosa gallica 'Versicolor', it is an ancient rose with highly scented pink flowers flecked and striped all over with cerise, they look like confectionary. A survivor of derelict gardens it's tough as old boots still flowering no matter how much abuse and neglect received. People often call it "Rose of the World", however it was more likely named after Rosamund Clifford, mistress to Henry II. According to legend, whilst the king crusaded poor Ms Clifford was secreted at the centre of an intricate labyrinth romantically installed within a flowery bower. Discovered by Henry's ambitiously shrewish wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was given the choice of death by a dagger or poison chalice, she chose the latter. Improbable folklore. But 'Rosa Mundi' is worth growing if only for this very reason alone.
Once a year when I was growing-up my father made nettle soup for us. A spring time staple during the war, for a child evacuee in this era of scarcity it was not only tasty but highly nourishing too. In my childhood, decades before foraging became fashionable, it was a reminder to bourgeois middle-class lifestyles that at my age dad relied for sustenance off the land.
You wait until there have been a few warm days in March and the nettles suddenly put on a growth spurt. Pick just the newest growth and first pair of leaves, any further down and they become too fibrous, in former times the stems were used to make course cloth. Gloves are for wimps. When you have picked a bag full, it looks a lot but it isn't, push them right down and gather at least the same amount again. They have the most enjoyable spring-like fragrance. Dad would have them cooked with vegetables all roughly chopped, perhaps a young rabbit or old hen jointed, and ubiquitous slices of national loaf. Free from the restrictions of rationing austerity I like to make the recipe with a little more finesse. Sweat an onion down in plenty of butter and a generous amount of garlic too. Add a bay leaf, black pepper, salt, a couple of blades of mace, a large potato, two celery sticks and carrots all cut up small, and the nettle tops. The meat isn't necessary but about half a litre of good quality chicken stock (preferably homemade) greatly enhances the taste, add half now and keep back half to finish. Cover and simmer gently until everything is nice and soft. Remove the bay leaf and blitz with a blender until smooth. Extra stock can then be added, just enough to give a good soupy consistency.
I have several patches of nettles in my garden that are deliberately left. Not just for this purpose, they are also an ideal food plant for the caterpillars of many attractive butterflies; Commas, Red Admirals, Tortoise Shells and Peacocks. To serve the soup just a few vital embellishments: ramsons leaves finely chopped, a good dollop of sour cream and a grating of nutmeg, liberal amounts of warmed artisan bread smothered with chicken liver pate and a long walk in the countryside on a sunny day admiring the spring.
© AndrewtheGardener 1/3/18
In My Garden, February.
22/2/65. "The tall handsome rooms were full of lovely things including a table covered with pots of flowers -- large pitcher orchids, jasmine, aconites and snowdrops -- and looked out on the beautiful frozen garden. Roaring fires, voluptuous cats;..."
Driving home from the pub two toads are in the road by Addisford. I stop the car, they are females swollen with eggs and I help them across. It suddenly feels mild and spring-like, the temperature in the car tonight says 12° Celsius. Winter moths flutter in the head lights. There is a marshy area to my left in the direction the toads were heading and I can hear the sound of males calling; a woman's prerogative, males always arrive at a spawning site first. The toads in my garden love the log pile. Raised on pallets the dampness underneath is a perfect dark hidey-hole of safety and hunting ground. Palmate newts abide in an old boiling pan sunk into the ground. Once the youngsters leave the water after their tadpole stage they live exclusively on land for a couple of years until sexually mature and they return to being aquatic again. The juveniles live amongst protection of the cracks and crevices in the raised beds and terraces I constructed over ten years ago. These also offer refuge and places to bask for lizards which flit about in sun and shady leaves as they hunt out insects. Under sheets of corrugated iron live colonies of slow worms they thrive in the warm dark dryness of this environment. Neither worm nor snake they are lizards too and as summer progresses they are joined by their young; they don't lay eggs as many reptiles do but give birth directly to live thread-like miniature versions of themselves. Occasionally there are grass snakes; sinisterly coiled, poisonous looking, they're harmless, I once saw a buzzard fly over with one hanging from its beak.
When I lived in Sussex the weather was so much more predictable than here. We rarely had the sort of day when there is heavy rain from dawn to evening, also no more near so much of that drizzly misty rain that makes everything so soaking wet. What I don't miss here in Devon are the searing easterly winds blowing icy air straight off the continent, "A wind from the east blows no good for man nor beast". Frozen dry air is blasted into even the most cosily sheltered corner, they would bring with them a black frost. In Devon the weather is far more chaotic and local, from the coast to a moor, in a valley or rolling hills a few kilometres difference is just a tiny step in distance but meteorologically it can be a massive stride. A device that I find most useful is called a Zambretti Forecaster. Made-up of a series of discs and pointers it is a weather computer. You first set the appropriate arrow to wind direction. Then next check your barometer. Then move the inner dial to point at the corresponding millibars on the middle dial. See whether the pressure is rising or falling or staying the same and you will see in a window a letter that relates to the pressure reading. Turn the Forcaster over and on the back tells you what each letter represents: A = SETTLED FINE; H = FAIRLY FINE SHOWERY LATER; P = CHANGABLE, SOME RAIN; finishing all the way through the alphabet at Z = STORMY MUCH RAIN. It is surprisingly accurate for the short term 8 hours or so; more reliable than the Met. Office.
Mild nights in February are nearly always deceptive and the toads take a gamble; if they delay spawning then the ditches and puddles they often use may dry-up before the tadpoles have time to mature, too early and they might become frozen solid. The first fling of winter's over but it's certainly not spring yet.
© AndrewtheGardener 8/2/18.