Rain stops play

It’s been a week of gales, rain, intermittent sunshine…and a rat attack. On last week’s only sunny day I took Harry to Bourton House in the Cotswolds to take a look at their famous summer garden. The planting was amazing of course – though it’s hard to take anything in when running after a sprinting two year old – but actually it was the use of wood that caught my eye. Just look at the incredible shadows created in this shade house, and the magic quality of the kinetic sculpture in the meadow.

The shade house at Bourton House, Bourton on the Hill
Kinetic sculpture in the woodland walk

A quick trip to my parents’ yesterday wielded another bootful of goodies. Corns, fennel, carrots, beans, spinach, and 14 castaway snails that I rescued from the sink, one by one. Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” (direct quote) but I am not sure that my Dad truly understands what crap is. My folks have been spoilt by years of living with tons of space and a protected walled garden – this isn’t as posh as it sounds, believe me, but the result is that even a massive harvest of corns is considered substandard. It occurred to me later that these children of the 1940s were possibly the first generation to grow things purely for pleasure rather than necessity, but the cultural memory of growing for need lives on. These days the winter store cupboard can always be replenished by a trip to the shops, but the age-old instinct of the country people to squirrel away the harvest for winter remains. I share this instinct, of course, and so the freezer is now full of sweetcorn, raspberries, blackberries, sliced apples…the list goes on.

Apparently it’s been “a crap year for growing” says my Dad, whilst hauling two buckets of corn and giant fennel bulbs
Corn being prepped for freezing, a still life

It’s a good job that my parents’ “terrible” corn harvest has still yielded extras, for on the allotment mine has been obliterated by rats. Or maybe mice. Whoever the culprit, they took their fill then scarpered, leaving only the evidence of a feast.

Corn left desolate after attack of the rats/mice

In fact, it’s a pretty sorry state of affairs down there after the terrible winds and heavy rain of the weekend. Two sunflowers completely capsized, and the rest are growing horizontally, their bronze faces battered with wind burn. The new dahlias also took a beating, and I make a mental note to stake them properly next year. I think there is still a few weeks of cutting left but the real high point of summer has surely passed and it’s sad to lose the best of the crop so early. Like vegetables, I have started to think of my flowers as seasonal friends, here for a few short weeks and then gone again for another year. When they leave, I feel genuine sadness.

At least two sunflower plants have been lost in the weekend winds, and the rest are leaning on the wonk
Dahlias flattened in the wind – the lesson, next year we stake

I’ve been distracted this week with the nature of things, post-lockdown. Apparently there is a term for people like me, who have seen their income drop by a mile due to Covid-19: we are the nouveau-skint. Actually I don’t have a problem with it per se – as long as there is food on the table and a roof over the head, that is what counts – but as I’ve emerged from the lockdown bubble, what has also re-emerged is that nagging feeling that I should still be achieving everything at the same time. Earning a living whilst keeping work interesting, renovating the house, sorting the garden, coming up with amazing things to do with Harry, getting fitter/stronger/healthier, working out what I think about 21st century feminism/decolonialisation/race relations, writing my book, the list goes on.

The problem is that all the other domestic stuff gets in the way, things like getting the boiler fixed, doing the Aldi shop (nouveau-skint, no Waitrose anymore), mopping the floor, sorting the allotment aftermath of the weekend winds. Last week I had an 8am Zoom with colleagues in Pakistan and then promptly turned round and scrubbed the bathroom. This is the reality of the educated working mother. We are the central rock around which everything else revolves.

And then yesterday I was given this picture of my Granddad, taken some time in the 1940s when he would have been around my age. Ivor Yapp works the fields of Herefordshire, ploughing the dense clay earth with his horses – apparently to use three horses with your plough was unusual and meant the land is particularly solid. It’s a picture that asks many questions. Who took this photo? For what purpose? What’s this lone farm-hand thinking of as he walks miles a day, earning a few bob to keep his wife and children in coal and bread? You can almost hear the silence on this image, punctuated only by the snorts of horses, squeak of plough, sqwark of crows.

My grandfather Kenneth Yapp ploughs Herefordshire fields, 1940s

Would this man be able to imagine how the working world could change so quickly in two generations? Our society has transformed in less than 80 years to a place of hyper-speed, hyper-connectedness and so much NOISE. No wonder the adults are knackered and no wonder the kids and teenagers are confused. I think this is why I put so much time and effort into growing things and cooking things, even if they don’t turn out quite as planned. It’s a connection to a shared history, a previous life. Amidst all the nonsense of the 21st century, it is a return to the elemental.

Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Plums, eating and stewing for the freezer; also freezing blackberries, raspberries, apples, blueberries, spinach.
Harvesting: Sunflowers, dahlias, cosmos, ammi, calendula, amaranth, delphinium, courgettes (marrows really), spinach, chard, french beans.
Also: Reading Still Life by Elizabeth Luard, her account of travelling Eastern and Northern Europe in the 1990s to learn of peasant cooking.

Gardening with the enemy

I picked the first tomatoes yesterday. It should be a cause of celebration…but I had to resignedly chuck half of the ripe ones out. The reason? Caterpillars and rot. This summer has been terrible for the toms: it’s been too cold to get them really, flavourfully ripe; the temperature fluctuations have led to blossom-end rot on all the passatta varieties, and even more irritatingly, creepy-crawlies have been getting fat on my produce. They’re not just eating the leaves mind, but are setting up home in the actual tomatoes themselves. Who wants to pop a cherry tom in their mouth and get a surprise crunch of caterpillar? Not me!

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Tell-tale caterpillar poo. I’ve picked off about 10 caterpillars in the last week but the damage is done – who knew that caterpillars liked to eat tomatoes?!

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On the top, all is well…

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…but the bottom tells a different story

I’ve also got an issue with splitting, particularly on the Black Krim and Plum Cherry types. I think this is down to over-watering, or inconsistent heat. On the plus-side, there are still loads of green fruits so if we get a few weeks of heat then the later-ripening tomatoes might come good.

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If they’ve not been eaten, or rotted, then they’ve split

The courgettes, on the other hand, are unstoppable. This week we’ve had courgette risotto, courgettes on toast, courgettes in pasta – I’ve yet to make courgette cake, but it’s a possibility. The climbing courgette Tromboncino (actually a variety of butternut squash) are not climbing particularly brilliantly, but the fruits are setting well. They look like creeping sea-monsters! I’m going to let them get big and then store them over-winter for cold-weather cooking.

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But we do have sea-monster squash! (Real name: Tromboncino)

The early blueberries got nibbled by a bird but we do finally have a crop, and the autumn raspberries are beginning to think about doing their thing. I’ve turned them into my blueberry crumble cake, lovely served warm with a dollop of thick cream.

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First blueberries, first tomatoes, first autumn raspberries – and yet more courgette!

Harvesting: Tomatoes, courgette, first blueberries, first autumn raspberries, chard, beet spinach, sweetpeas, sunflowers, cosmos
Planted out: Chicory, lettuce reine du glace, chard lucilus, Russian red kale
Sowed: Turnips