A confusion of seasons

There’s a confusion of seasons. We had snow in November, and a bitter wind, only for it to have melted into this warm, dank December. It’s 13c today. In the garden I have roses still in bloom, whilst in the cold frame, disorientated narcissi are pushing up their shoots. Our magpie couple have started building a nest in the tall sycamore tree, their efforts made visible by the bare branches; there is no leaf cover in December. The robin is singing.

I always think there is a conflict of feeling at this time of year. On one hand Christmas is upon us, with its bachalian exuberance, and all is hurry rush hurry (got to get all my work done before everyone disappears for the holidays, as well as the billion other jobs that are the woman’s lot at Christmas time). But the natural world is telling us to slow down, to respond to the low light, to pay attention to the turn of the bottom of the year. Next week is the shortest day and gradually the swing upwards begins. To recognise the beauty of deep winter, one needs to pay close attention: the tiny red rosehips gleaming like children’s sweets, the sweet scent of viburnum, the eruption of snowdrop leaves. It’s all there, if only we take time to look.

The idea of seasons confused is not new. Claire Leighton wrote this in 1935: “But this year the merging of the seasons is exceptional, and frightens gardeners. For all around are the first spears of spring bulbs. Scylla show above the earth, and tulips and daffodils point upwards…. Villagers shake their heads at the ‘unseasonable weather… It is hard to believe that Christmas is upon us.” Four Hedges by Claire Leighton, Little Toller Books.

My kitchen has been confused for much of the year. I made my first easter cakes in January (anything to get through lockdown with a three year old), and a batch of mince pies emerged in November. Stir-Up Sunday became Stir-up Saturday and took place on Zoom, as does so much of life now. This year my pudding pals Helen and Charlie joined me in trying out a new recipe, one of Nigel Slater’s, which seems lighter than my normal one due to the omission of black treacle. The puddings sit maturing in the cupboard. I’ll let you know how they turn out.

First (and only) batch of mince pies made 13th November
I am trying a lighter Christmas pudding this year, recipe courtesy Nigel Slater
Stir Up Sunday had to happen on Zoom, because this is how we live now

On the allotment, work has ceased completely. Usually all is manured and cleared by now, but this year we’ve been unable to get the pallet of muck here, so the ground sits still uncovered, a mess of buttercups and couch grass. The November storms did for the chrysanthemums which was a shame, as I think they could have kept going to Christmas – the last picking came 16th November. There are still parsnips to pull and the cavolo nero to crop, but the truth is that I am a fair weather allotmenter and with no flowers demanding instant attention, my trips to the plot lessen.

The last floral picking of the year, 16th November

Instead there are more pleasing tasks at hand. This year I ordered my paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs early, though problems with supply mean they didn’t arrive until the very end of November. I have pots and vases of them planted and maturing in the chill of the sun room, ready to give splashes of colour and scent in January.

Potted up indoor paperwhites and amaryllis for blooms in January

Then there’s the wreath. The wonderful Rachel at The Hedge in Stirchley sorted me out with a kit of evergreens, bracken, eucalyptus and lavender twigs, which I turned into what I can only describe as a 6 out of 10 wreath. My issue was time. I am very, very busy with work and have to get a more-than-full-time job done on three and a bit days a week, plus Matt’s been away and consequently there’s alot single parenting at present. What should have been a lovely relaxing job of creative wreath-making got condensed into a rushed hour before nursery pick-up time. So the wreath is fine, but I could do better. www.the-hedge.com

My rather mis-shapen wreath

The robin is quiet now but I can see blue tits hopping around the forsythia, and I notice that the cotoneaster has turned a delicious vibrant orange-red. Next week I’ll head to Great Witley to pick up the turkey, and in the deepest countryside I know the hedgerows will be full of old man’s beard, ivy and hawthorn. It’s all a reminder to stop and pay attention.

Also this month:
Eating and cooking: I have hardly cooked at all and when Matt is away dinner often consists of two easy-peel satsumas plus a mince pie at 9.30pm. However, panettone and tunis cake are back on the menu, and pomegranate seeds have made their way into several slaws of shredded red cabbage, fennel and apple. Harry and I shared Thanksgiving with Rob and Anu, and tucked into Ginger Pig turkey, mash, stuffing, roast sprouts and a lovely salad of fennel, watercress and pomegranate. Banoffee pie to finish.

On the allotment: Chrysanthemums taken up and presented to Mum in the hope of some cuttings in the new year. Dahlias cut back and mulched. Everything else has been ignored in the hope that the weeds will just magically disappear.

In the garden: Pruned the roses and cut back the summer perennials – I wasn’t going to do this until February but some horrid urge at tidiness took over. Several sessions of leaf clearing. Planted bulbs in November – tulips, narcissi, anemone.

Also: Thanksgiving in London and took Harry on a tour of Tower Bridge, Tower of London, a boat ride, Big Ben and London Eye – all the major locations from Go Jetters on CBeebies. Lots of Christmas activities including panto, CBSO, meeting Santa, all that. At the same time am working on various different things for the Birmingham 2022 Festival, which is wonderful, but intense.

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