Truth is Beauty.

A few weeks ago, my attention was drawn (thanks, Sam) to this post on the really lovely Countryside Tales blog. It’s a very practical post, with reams of useful information for those who would like to share their garden with bees and butterflies.

However, it was these lines that lodged in my head:

‘A lot of attention has rightly been given in recent years to encouraging people to provide nectar sources in their gardens but we also need to provide food plants and to be prepared for these food plants to be eaten and to look nibbled. This may go against the grain for many gardeners, but if we want to support the continued survival of our wildlife (and through them our own), we need to look after them properly and shift our aesthetics a little bit as a result.’ (CT from Countryside Tales)

My mother and grandmother, both wonderful gardeners, set great store by traditional and natural methods BUT they also resorted to the failsafe of chemical pesticides and herbicides when necessary because their ultimate goal was a good display of perfect flowers. That’s the mindset I began with but recently it has shifted.

My Anenome coronaria had massive chunks taken from the petals this year. It was as if someone had taken a scissors and trimmed the petals right off. Touring the garden with me, my Mum (box, closed) suggested a garlic spray. That seemed like a good plan but then, I had to wonder why. Hardly anyone sees the garden but me and I get as much pleasure from the bugs as I do from the flowers so, even from a purely selfish standpoint, it wasn’t worth the effort of mashing garlic (the bugs in my garden benefit greatly from my sheer laziness).

Strangely, that was something of a turning point. CT’s post came soon after and somehow validated my new viewpoint. This might not sound like a big thing and I’m not managing to express it very well. Wiser women than me have written about why gardening is good for body and soul but one reason is surely that it brings us in touch with nature and another is that it envelopes us in beauty.

The thing is, what exactly does beautiful mean? In lots of ways, it means something different to me now than when I was younger. All sorts of imperfections, freckles, laughter lines, scars, scuffed floors and ear-marked pages, move me to that indrawn breath that spells beauty.

My constant is this; let it be real. That line from Keats was one of the few lines of school poetry I took to heart:

 ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

 

Are the perfectly circular holes in my rose petals beautiful?IMG_6617

I think they are. Letting go of perfection, or taking a different view of perfection, has come as a huge relief.

Whatever bug felt the desire to dine on roses, or maybe line their bed with fragrant pink petals (lucky bug), they have moved on. This week’s challenge is simply rain.

I’ve whined long and hard about rain in these pages but, not today. I’ve found breathtaking beauty in raindrops.

IMG_6887IMG_6907IMG_6878IMG_6886IMG_6916IMG_6881IMG_6900 (2)IMG_6875

You will still, however, find me guilty of killing slugs. Anyone yet discover the beauty in slugs?

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Earth Day Challenge.

The WordPress Earth Day photo challenge asks that I choose one photo, just one, that means ‘earth’ to me.

The one that immediately materialized in my mind’s eye was Mike Collins’ mind-blowing photograph. It’s here. Who could beat that? It makes my head spin with wonder.

This is mine:

IMG_6094 (2)

Just hanging on and sucking up the good stuff.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Smelling like dirt.

‘In Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.’
Margaret Atwood.

Well, I’ve got that one covered.

IMG_5291 (2)

April is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite month and the first week of April might be the best week; it’s just so loaded with anticipation. I love, love, LOVE it!

Every spare minute has been spent in the garden, weeding, planting sweetpeas, weeding, planting oca, weeding, staking sweetpeas, weeding, planting broad beans, weeding, racing inside for my camera to catch a bumblebee… you get the picture.

I think I mentioned that I covered two of my rhubarb plants with big buckets in an attempt to force them. It didn’t work. The resulting rhubarb was was white, bland and had the texture of asparagus. Trust me, asparagus with custard is not a good thing. I’ve no idea what went wrong. This is what remains:

IMG_5385 (2)

For comparison, if I take two steps to the right where the neighbouring plant was left to its own devices and hold my camera at the same height:

IMG_5386 (2)

Not to worry, we’re not likely to go short of the good, green and properly sharp stuff. I can live without the pink.

Aquilegias are surging upward from every nook and cranny. I am a fan of any flower that just gets on with  living without demanding my attention. Aquilegias look so dainty with their delicate shade of green and pretty bonnets but they are resilient little madams and indecent self-seeders.

IMG_5387 (2)

And I have bluebells. My first college bedsit had a garden that was completely over run by bluebells. Bluebells, for me, signal exam time. They recall memories of studying with a big jug of flowers on my desk, the window thrown open and a Solero to keep me going. Soleros were new then, mangos too, and very exotic.

IMG_5390 (2)

Small Girl is a born gardener. She keeps her wellies outside the back door, like a pro, and follows me every time I sneak outside. She makes mud cakes and searches for ladybirds and tends her little fairy garden.

IMG_5377 (2)

The bees are becoming something of an obsession. They are endlessly entertaining. I could, I do, watch them for hours. I’ve followed a few bee people on Instagram and I am slowly picking up a little more knowledge. I learned this week that the flowers of Pulmonaria (Lungwort/Soldiers and sailors) change colour from blue to pink once they’ve been pollinated. I’ve noticed them turning pink but never thought too deeply about it.

Just look at this guy hanging on to his cup. Could anything me more amazing?

IMG_5240 (2)

Most of our food-growing efforts are just for fun, to experiment a little, to expose the kids to some unusual produce and for the sheer satisfaction of it. The fruit bushes, on the other hand, are really productive. I used the last of my freezer stocks last month. That was a whole winter of gooseberry cakes, gooseberry jam, red, and white currant jellies and I am halfway through my last jar of crab apple jelly.

And now we get to start all over again. April is my birthday month. In every way, April really is the beginning of a new year. Can you see the little baby gooseberry forming behind the flower?

IMG_5384 (2)

April. The smell of dirt, the hum of bees, the relief of new beginnings, and this:IMG_5251 (2)

Wishing you a sunny, humming, dirt-filled weekend.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Crystallised Flowers.

crystallized flowers.

And breathe.

Last week was a bit nuts. I interviewed Darina Allen (Genie Mac, I can still hardly believe that really happened), published what is without doubt my favourite of my Cooking The Books projects so far ( I truly adore that book) and, AND saw my name in print, for the first time, in a magazine.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017.

 

Actually, I have been published before. My last publication was in 1997, in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiolgy, and looked like this:

A Mutant of Listeria monocytogenes LO28 Unable To Induce an Acid Tolerance Response Displays Diminished Virulence in a Murine Model
LYNDA MARRON,1 NATHAN EMERSON,1 CORMAC G. M. GAHAN,1,2 AND COLIN HILL1,2* Microbiology Department1 and The National Food Biotechnology Centre,2 University College Cork, Cork, Ireland
Received 27 June 1997/Accepted 25 August 1997
Exposing Listeria monocytogenes LO28 to sublethal pH induces protection against normally lethal pH conditions, a phenomenon known as the acid tolerance response. We identified a mutant, L. monocytogenes ATR1, which is incapable of inducing such tolerance, either against low pH or against any other stress tested. The virulence of this mutant was considerably decreased, suggesting that the acid tolerance response contributes to in vivo survival of L. monocytogenes.

Feel free to indulge in the full article here. Are we still awake?

I’ll put it on the record here that L. monocytogenes LO28 nearly killed me. I so desperately wanted to be scientist and I really thought I could be. I was really good at learning stuff but it turned out that I wasn’t very good at the nitty gritty of discovering stuff and that flipping bug refused, stubbornly, for three stinking years, to do what it was supposed to do. Anyway, I think we can agree that my more recent publications are a good deal prettier and probably more useful too.

Great British Food Magazine. April 2017. Sultanabun.

That’s Mark Diacono, by the way, of River Cottage and Otter Farm fame, who’s sharing my page! My only grip is that they never used that bio pic that Middle Daughter and I went to such great lengths to produce.

Sticking with a theme of prettiness, I want to share the method I used to make those crystallised flowers on top of my ultimate chocolate cake (for recipe see Cooking The Books, here).

The ultimate chocolate cake.

Fittingly, the method is from Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course book but she shares it in this Easter Baking post from the Irish Examiner. (Honest to God, the good people at Ballymaloe are not paying me to advertise for them!)

crystallized flowers

Crystallising  flowers is not difficult, only a little fiddly. You simply paint the flowers gently with egg white and then sprinkle them with very dry caster sugar (dried in a low oven to make sure). The flowers should then be allowed to dry in a warm place.

You can learn from my mistakes: I grew impatient (a perennial flaw of mine) and stuck my flowers into my oven at the very lowest setting. It worked well enough but the colour was dulled and they lost their vibrancy.

Teenage Daughter made a much better job of hers. The Small Girl made some too but ate them before she could be asked to pose for a photograph.

crystallized flowers.

Teenage Daughter has the practical part of her Junior Cert Home Economics exam today. Her task (it’s a lottery) is to make a main course and a dessert from fresh fruit or vegetables. Her dessert will be her own variation of Lilli Higgins carrot cake , this time making one layer carrot and one of courgette cake – it really works! We’ve been eating it on a regular basis for the last few weeks while she practised. My expanding waistline is evidence of my daughter’s diligence. It’s a delicious cake and she will decorate it with this icing and her gorgeous flowers.

I’ll collect her later on with all her bowls and paraphernalia and, fingers crossed, a successful cake with just one neat sliver eaten by the examiner!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

In Conversation with Darina Allen.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.

How nervous do you think I was about speaking with Darina Allen?

Double that. Husband spent last weekend re-assuring me that we know Darina is a lovely woman. I mostly ignored him and studied every scrap of information I could find, cramming like I haven’t done since, oh let’s see, 1994 or thereabouts. I don’t know why I imagined Darina Allen would be inclined to quiz me but I was determined that I should not be found wanting.

I may apply for Mastermind now, specialist subject, ‘Ballymaloe 1964-present.’

Interviewing Darina Allen.

Well, yes, he was right. He usually is.

Darina Allen couldn’t have been nicer. She was generous with her time, informative and, to be honest, downright inspiring. She reminds me of all the best teachers I ever had. The ones who truly scared the living daylights out of me, not because of any threats of punishment but because their expectations were so high.

Darina Allen’s gift is that, like all great teachers, she will make you believe you can do better.

Read the full interview by clicking here.

Darina Allen with kale. Credit. Kristin Perers.
Darina Allen at home in her 100 acre organic farm. Credit for photo: Kristin Perers.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Blossoming.

Let’s, President Bartlet style, walk and talk.

I began this blog around the same time I really got stuck in to the garden. Small Girl had finished breastfeeding and I suppose I was feeling at something of a loose end. You go from being a little human’s lifeline to, well, not a lifeline, and I found that hard.

Look at this. Aren’t forget-me-nots the most darling little flowers in the world. I pulled a handful from the edge of a footpath while walking the dog and stuck it in the garden. Lo and behold, to my absolute delight, it has not only grown but has self-seeded quite happily. I suspect that I weeded out lots before I realised what they were. I adore the simple five-petal shape, clustered into perfect bouquets and that oh-so-finely balanced delicate blue and yellow combination. IMG_5129

Anyway, I guess I was planting a random selection of ideas here on the blog in much the same way I scattered seeds around the garden. I didn’t know for certain which would germinate and which would  produce nothing more than food for slugs. I didn’t know which bits were pretty fillers and which would bring genuine satisfaction. It was all trial and much, much error.

This is a perennial wallflower, (Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’), incredibly good value, evergreen and long-flowering and the petals have a nice way of varying shades depending on how they catch the light. I have yellow and orange versions also which aren’t quite as pretty but earn their place with their sweet, warm scent.IMG_5126

So, the nice thing is, it’s all starting to come together. Blog and plot both are still a little rough around the edges. You can tell that it’s all a DIY effort; no professional landscapers or web designers have been employed. But I am stubbornly independent. I prefer having a slightly wonky home that I made myself than something pristine and perfect to someone else’s design.

Our front garden, which you rarely see, is planted with cherry blossoms, fruiting cherries and cherry plums. Some are little more than twigs but a couple have really matured into proper trees and they are enough to make my heart pound with joy and, I guess, pride. The big pink one is just beginning to unfurl. There is a promise there of something magnificent but also the threat, of course, that bad weather will spoil the show. I am on tenterhooks.IMG_5192

Our biggest cherry blossom has gone for glory this year. Beyond glorious! It makes me feel tiny, cowed. It’s like stars shining or small children singing. It’s bigger than me. This is me, looking up.IMG_5185

The crab apple. Bittersweet. The crab apple was planted, right outside the kitchen window, in memory of a lost baby and blooms every year just in time for her would-have-been birthday. Not just yet, but soon, which is the tough time. It feels good to have a something, though, to watch something grow and flower, rather than an empty space.IMG_5121

And just next to that, the pear is exploding skyward and about halfway to full snowy white blossoming. Look, look at this! Can you see the wing movement? I swear I squealed with glee when I saw this photo this morning.IMG_5138 (3)

Below the pear, I have a few cowslips, again foraged from a roadside somewhere. I fret occasionally about kidnapping these wild plants but I prefer to think of them as stray orphans in need of good home. They seem happy enough although I suppose they may just be putting on a brave front. I prefer wild flowers to all others and I suppose what I most want to capture in the garden is the joy of discovery that you experience when you clamber over a ditch or bend close to a hedgerow and find unexpected beauty. It would be easy enough to fill the garden with bedding plants but I like it most when the garden surprises me. I like it to have a life of its own.IMG_5117

What I didn’t really understand until recently was that writing, like gardening, seems also to have a life of its own. It’s a trickier business, letting loose the writing, not least because the risk of humiliation is greater. It’s easy enough to keep a close camera angle on the bees and deflect your attention from the rotting deckchairs and the ailing mulberry tree. The writing involves a good deal more exposure. Still, somehow, ideas are popping up and growing that I’m fairly certain I never deliberately planted. It’s taking shape and I am beside myself with excitement, fidgeting like a racehorse confined to the starting stalls and desperately, desperately trying to find the time I need to dig and hoe and tend and stake.

The new ribes (flowering currant) is a stunner already and I’m heartily wishing I had planted one (or three) of these sooner. I had read that the leaves smell of blackcurrant but it was still a shock to discover how much they do…much more than the fruiting blackcurrant leaves. I had a serious ‘duh!’ moment last week when, after 44¾ years, it dawned on me why Ribena is called Ribena. How Husband laughed. IMG_5164

We’ve had stunning weather for a few days but we’re back to the regular gloom today. Honest to God, we’re like Pavlov’s dogs in this country, only the stimulus is a ray of sunshine, or any break at all in the clouds. We have seen fine weather. We know it happens. And it will, surely, happen again. But, there are no guarantees so we gaze skyward in ever diminishing, but never quite extinguished hope.

This, to me, is the cutest thing in the garden at the moment. It’s an alpine strawberry in the making, planted next to Small Girl’s fairy garden because these are fairy strawberries, no bigger than your thumbnail but exquisitely sweet. IMG_5132

Potential. That’s what the garden and the blog share and what they are all about. It hardly seems to matter what the endpoint is. Just feeling alive and connected to potential.

The Small Girl sat in bed this week and, for the first time, read her own bedtime story, aloud and to herself. She still needs help with what she likes to call ‘tricky words’ but still, we have truly crossed a line. I am no longer her lifeline, neither for food nor stories. What remains are morning cuddles, and plaiting her hair, buttoning her shirt and reminding her what number comes after 12.

She brought me tulips for Mother’s Day. I can’t seem to grow them. The slugs eat them or the wind strips them so I rely on the kindness of those who know me best to buy them for me.IMG_5148

What I am bursting to tell you is that I interviewed Darina Allen yesterday! Can you believe it? How often does anybody get to meet, let alone have a proper conversation with, their heroes? She is brilliant, honestly. Sparkling with intelligence and genuinely inspirational.

Give me a day or two and I’ll let you know all about it. For now, I have peas to plant.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Bee Friendly: Let’s Save Our Bees!

It’s snowing! The kids are ecstatic, the dog is in shock and I can’t help feeling just a little thrill of excitement myself. Sound is muffled today and light is subdued. It feels as though we are wrapped in a huge, thick duvet that’s spilling feathers.

Last week, I was outside in balmy sunshine taking photos of bumblebees. I can’t help but wonder where the poor bees are hiding out this morning.

I’ve been working on an article about bees for Bookwitty.com. We are all aware of the worrying fall in bee populations worldwide but many people don’t seem to realise how critical it is to arrest the decline NOW and how vital a contribution we can all make to saving some bees. We don’t need to volunteer time or donate money; we just need to make a few changes in the way we think about weeds and wildflowers and gardening in general.

I did a lot of research for this article and put a lot of time into it because I really, REALLY would like to do my bit. Please, do read this and please, please, spread the message. Read the full article here.