St. Brigid’s Day- The First of Spring.

Thank you for the enthusiastic comments on my post about the life-changing power of probiotics. I’m delighted that so many of you share my fascination with the microbiome. Prepare to hear MUCH more on this subject as I am obsessed and determined to learn everything I can. I hope that you might join me .

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. Today is my day for new beginnings.

The Spring equinox falls this year on March 20th, at 16.15 if you want to be precise, but in Sultanabunland, of which I am Queen, today is the first of Spring.

I grew up a stone’s throw from St. Brigid’s Well in Co. Kildare. Her feast day, February 1st, was not only a holy day of obligation, and a day off school, but also the accepted first day of Spring. I wrote a brief history of St. Brigid, along with a tutorial on making a St. Brigid’s cross in this post.

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The girls, I hope, will make a cross in school today. I, in the mean time, have unintentionally made an edible version. This, weirdly, made me smile inside.

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It smells of Spring today, even though it’s much colder than last week. There’s a sense of awakening. I’m convinced that if I put a stethoscope to the earth I might hear a surge of movement, a trembling, like an oncoming wave.

Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees. ‘Ah, it’s riveting.’There is a wonderful article here about Judi Dench and her love of trees. It’s well worth a read.

There can be no doubt about it, the garden, with or without permission from the astronomers, thinks it’s Spring.

 

We have the sweetest, rosiest buds on our young lime tree (Tillia cordata, not actually the trees that make limes at all). We planted this especially for our visiting bumblebees as it is said to be one of their favourites.IMG_1438

Our little Magnolia stellata is just getting her gladrags on. It’s as though she is wrapped in her fluffy dressing gown waiting for the moment when she will cast it aside to reveal the glamour beneath.IMG_1439 (2)

The Japanese quince (Chaenomeles) is producing the daintiest blossoms you ever saw. They almost look fake. IMG_1436

Pulmonaria is off the starting blocks. You’ll hear me squeal when the first bee turns up.IMG_1426

Oh, and I have, at last, what could almost be classed a crowd, a host of golden daffodils. While I watch them toss their heads in sprightly dance, I send my love and thanks again to my distant friend who once left a sack of bulbs on my porch. IMG_1431 (2)

Last but not least, a single Anenome coronaria, St. Brigid’s flower, who never fails to show up on the day. Ah yes, the greenfly are definitely awake. Do they ever sleep?IMG_1422

One last thing: I read and enjoyed an unusual book last year by first time author Rachel Hargreaves called Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves. Rachel got in touch to ask if I might re-post my review to coincide with the paperback release. It’s always a thrill for me to hear from authors whose books I have recommended so this is absolutely my pleasure. You may read my review here.

Lá fhéile Bride shona daoibh,

Lynda.

The Annual Leap of Faith and…

Do you ever think that all that believing in Christmas is somehow a clever bit of short circuitry to believing that Spring will come again?

Every year, without fail, I have a lapse of faith. While Husband turns his attention to seed catalogues, I burrow under a pile of yarn, hooking stitches as though my life depended on them and muttering despondently, bah, that garden is too much work.

And every year, without fail, we make that sharp turn in our circumnavigation of the sun and, lo, here I am with my nose pressed against the kitchen window wondering when the rain might ease off so that I can go survey my plot of earth.IMG_1059

It was a funny old Christmas. Two people died. They weren’t people I was close to, or even knew well, no need for condolences, but the circumstances of both, young people leaving tiny children behind, were shocking, really shocking, and desperately, awfully sad. A woman said to me that it put all the Christmas ‘stress’ into perspective and I nodded but really I thought, no, it doesn’t. It makes no sense at all. None.

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I’m a bore, a steady eddy. I put what must get done ahead of what could be fun. Teenage Son accuses me of constantly procrastinating with the ‘just one more job I have to do.’

I like to believe I am reliable. I work towards security. I don’t buy lottery cards. I’m not interested in gambling.IMG_1022

And yet, here I am stuck, with you and everyone else too, in this great big game of chance.IMG_1018

It was Ophelia who broke those poppy stems, all tipped over at what must have been a weak spot in their stems. I left them there because I admire their tenacity and because, even in decay, they are undeniably beautiful.IMG_1021

There’s very little left now of last year’s fruit. Only a few grim hangers-on, like these rose-hips, have withstood the persistent wet of an Irish winter.IMG_1034

Still and all, it has been another remarkably mild winter and there is probably more life in the garden than, by rights, there should be.

The perennial wallflowers are living up to their name, and then some.IMG_1000 (2)

And surely, there can be nothing in the world more reliable than daffodils.IMG_1007

And rhubarb too, seems like a safe bet.IMG_1027

And there are tiny buds on the Acers…IMG_0998

and bigger buds on the lilac…IMG_1004

and sticky, rosy buds on the Ribes.IMG_1012

And even where there is no sign of Spring, there are signs of life.IMG_1028

And there is reassurance in knowing, knowing because I can see it and knowing because I can rub my thumb against the strength of it, that there will be a rose here…IMG_1043

and a fig here…IMG_1038

and a bunch of blueberries here.IMG_1032

And I think I might say yes next time Teenage Son offers to teach me how to play the guitar. And I think I might venture out of my safety zone. And I might fail. And I think I might risk it.

And, and, and…IMG_1042

and it goes on.IMG_1040

Happy New Year.

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But now in September the garden has cooled…

But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.   Robert Finch.

To be honest with you, the garden has broken loose of my feeble attempts to keep it under control. Our Irish summer lived up to its damp reputation and my mind has been occupied with indoor projects (the room!). I can never manage to keep both inside and outside of the house the way I’d like to. They seem to require two different, mutually exclusive, states of mind. Or, maybe I’m just lazy.

Small Girl’s outdoor café has been invaded by nasturtiums. I’ve suggested she call on The Doctor for a solution but she has, rather inventively I thought, taken to selling nasturtium sushi rolls. The kick you get from eating nasturtium seeds is very similar to wasabi; she could be on to something.IMG_9078 (2)

Despite the weather, we’ve had huge satisfaction from the edible end of our garden. Husband’s elephant garlic, aside from giving me a near-concussion, has provided endless amusement. Incredibly, the advice for using this is to add exactly the same number of cloves as you would of regular garlic. The flavour is sweeter and less pungent and the garlic breath, we think, less noxious. It’s hard to tell , since we are all eating it. At the other end, unfortunately, there seems to be a payback in pungent gaseous emissions. IMG_8816 (2)

The fruit trees are coming on. We had four dozen, or so, delicious apples. There were, I swear, seven perfect cherries but the birds picked us clean. Gah.

Our pear tree has us flummoxed. It’s growing at a great rate and rapidly approaching some overhead lines that we, stupidly, failed to notice when we planted it. However, it produced only a handful of pears, half of which were blown off in a storm.

This was the only one to reach the kitchen, hard as a bullet and free from juice. I don’t mind, I don’t really like pears anyway.

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Figs. I thought I didn’t like figs. That’s clearly because I’d never had a fresh fig, straight from the tree. I was flabbergasted. There must be some fragile flavour components that deteriorate quite quickly in figs because these, honestly, were fragrant and delicious. We had about thirty from our five-year-old tree. It’s a Brown Turkey. We followed advice to plant it in a big pot with a hole made in the bottom and sunk into the ground because figs like their roots to be restrained. IMG_8702

AND, we have olives, can you believe it? IMG_9108

There are still a few crops to harvest. The girls forage for raspberries, blackberries and fairy strawberries when they come in from school. We’ve planted some winter salad and beetroot. I’m sharing the kale with the butterflies. What harm?IMG_9155

There will be turnips.IMG_9207

Also, there will be oca, and plenty of it. I think it will be ready to eat around November and my fingers are crossed that we will like it because it is a pretty plant and spectacularly easy to grow. I’ve heard it described as something that looks like a potato and tastes like a lemon. Regardless, the combination of oca and rampant nasturtiums is making a neglected corner look rather lush.IMG_9211

I’m not brilliant at getting plant combinations right. I think it takes tremendous knowledge, forethought and skill to put the right plants together and keep beds looking good through the seasons. Nevertheless, I’ve had some happy accidents that, truly, make my heart skip a beat. It is these gifts of loveliness that make you believe in an all-knowing Mother Nature. The Verbena bonariensis seems to look good wherever it grows but particularly vibrant against the weeping cotoneaster.IMG_9203

When we had narry a plant, a friend gave me a plastic bag filled with Japanese anenome seedlings which she had weeded out of her own garden and promised would soon fill up mine. I have to admit that I don’t really like the plant part, the leaves are too grey and thuggish. Every year since, I have decided to dig them out and then, when the flowers have finally come, changed my mind. I think they look especially lovely coming through this crab apple tree.IMG_9170

If I could only have one tree, it would be a crab apple tree.

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I went out early this morning, to gather photos and my thoughts. I have made an effort not to look at the garden as another list of jobs to be done. It will never be perfect. It will never be finished.

It is simply the space outside my back door where I go to breathe deeply, to look for small wonders, to indulge my inner farmer,IMG_9157

to see beauty in the everyday, every day.IMG_9160

Dew-drops…IMG_9171

Pollen…IMG_9191

Sweet-peas, still…IMG_9100

Giant, ugly, brutish, prickly teasels, back-lit by the sun’s rays reflecting off apples…IMG_9179

Fallen petals caught by rhubarb leaves…IMG_8620

Tired, ragged butterfly taking one more leap onwards…IMG_8624

Wishing you a lovely weekend.
Lynda.

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Words to Live By.

freshly podded peas.

I’ve no idea how it can possibly have come about but I find I have read another Hemingway. It was entirely unintentional, I assure you. I had sworn to avoid the man as being far too depressing but his books, somehow, keep popping up just as I mutter the words, ‘what will I read next?’

A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his early days in Paris, turns out to be barely an amuse bouche of a book at just 125 easily read pages. That’s the thing; he writes with such simple eloquence, you can knock it back with barely a thought until the bitter note at the end leaves you reeling with sadness.

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He’s a bit of an arse too, isn’t he? I mean, I just can’t bring myself to like him. Or perhaps it’s that I feel I wouldn’t trust him. There’s something else though: his writing is sexy. Listen, it’s a much misused word. I’m the first to roll my eyes in despair when I hear a chef describing a cheese toastie as sexy, and you are all aware of the intensity of my relationship with cheese toasties, but I do think Hemingway, well, just has it. Charisma. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, turned to Hemingway for advice on how to satisfy Zelda. Poor Scott, I don’t suppose he expected his buddy to publish the conversation in a book. While we are on the subject, can anyone tell me whether that scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls is the origin of the phrase the earth moved ?

‘…suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.’

Moving swiftly along…he writes a lot about visiting Gertrude Stein at her salon and recounts some of her advice to him. Stein advised Hemingway to stop writing stories which were inaccrochable. I had to look that one up. I think its safe to say he ignored her.

She refused to discuss Joyce and implemented a three strike rule where those who mentioned his books a third time were never invited back. I might do the same, if only to avoid embarrassing omissions from personal reading list (note to self: try Ulysses again).

‘You should only read what is good or what is frankly bad.’

Sound advice. I wallowed merrily in Hello magazine this morning and it did me a power of good (those royal toddlers are too cute). Of course, as Hemingway points out, choosing books is just another form of gambling; no book, whatever the reviews say, is a sure thing.

Word of mouth is the way to go and there are some lovely people hereabouts who have never put me wrong when it comes to book recommendations. Several of you urged me to take a look at Persephone Books and, oh, my goodness, what a well spring of pure joy I have discovered! Thank you, so much, for pointing me in the right direction. I have, in turn, pointed Husband in the same direction with a whisper of ‘all I want for Christmas…’

So far, I have read E.M. Delafield’s  Diary of a Provincial Lady. I can’t recall laughing aloud so heartily or so often since I read Adrian Mole. Proper, nearly choked on my coffee, laughter. There aren’t enough funny books anymore. I’ll write more about this another day. I’m moving on, gleefully, to Agnes Jekyll’s (sister-in-law to Gertrude of the rose) Kitchen Essays.

Persephone Books.

Where was I? Oh yes, Gertrude Stein’s advice to Hemingway: ‘You can either buy clothes or buy pictures,’ she told him,’it’s that simple. No-one who is not very rich can do both.’

I opted for a picture, just the one, and it’s very small, but I love it. Husband, Teenage Daughter and I met up with a dear old friend, with excellent taste it must be said, and we all went along to the Crawford School of Art Graduation Exhibition. The clientele was almost like a separate side exhibition of the Cork populace. The place was jammers with blue-haired artistic types who had clearly constructed their own clothes from crisp packets, their proud relations, canny financial types with a keen eye for a bargain and a few random punters like ourselves doing our best not to accidentally drink an installation.

From the Crawford Graduation Exhibition, 2017

Belonging, firmly, in the ‘not very rich’ category, I spent the next evening darning the elbows of school jumpers and re-enforcing the toes of my beloved espadrilles.

Dinner, following this week’s splurges on fine books and fancy pictures, must be foraged from the garden. Spuds, peas, beans, courgettes and herbage a plenty; what more could you want?

Grow your own food.

Now, that’s what I call a moveable feast.

freshly podded peas.Did you ever see anything lovelier?

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Elderflower Profusion.

It’s a bank holiday here, it’s raining in a fairly gentle manner, the teenagers are (they say) swotting for their exams which begin on Wednesday, and the small girls are sitting behind me watching Horrible Histories on a loop (it’s very funny).

I have nicked somebody’s headphones, for the sake of insulation from Terry Deary’s distracting puns, and am listening to Coldplay. Did you watch the Manchester concert last night? I was fiercely impressed by the spirit of it. It was respectful and uplifting, I thought, and appropriate. Not to even mention that thing Chris Martin does to a piano stool…

Ireland peaks in June. There’s enough sun, enough rain and enough hope of a glorious summer still to come. It’s a feeling so good you (or at least, I) want to bottle it. Which perhaps explains the frantic rush to preserve the scent of elderflowers.

But first, sad news. We had a death in the family. Kombucha with pink elder flowers. Second fermentation.

Alas, poor Scoby died. Or turned mouldy anyway and I, with a massive sigh of relief, held up a DNR notice. So, this bottle which was only marginally enhanced by the addition of pink elderflowers, was officially the last bottle of Kombucha to be fermented in this house.

Ever.

Phew.

Now, on to the good stuff.

First, a quick note on Elderflowers (Sambuca nigra). I have a young plant in the garden of a pink variety called Black Lace which has a lovely cut leaf and pink flower. I have been advised, however, that another variety called Black Beauty has a darker pink flower and makes and even darker cordial so that’s one to look out for at the garden centre. I was willing to sacrifice only a half dozen or so heads from our little plant so most of these recipes were made with bog standard wild Elderflower foraged from the river bank where we walk the dog. The rule of thumb is to take only what you can reach from the ground and leave the remainder for the bees and birds. The scent of Elderflower is potent; you don’t need much. And, it’s nice to go back for elderberries to make Autumn Pudding.

Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking is the book of the moment. It is a goldmine of recipes for anything you might forage, find or foster in your garden. If you want to sample some of the recipes, many have been included in Darina’s column in The Examiner (known locally as de paper) over the years. I’ve linked to those posts where I could find the relevant recipes.

I was pleased to discover that Elderflower Fizz (or Elderflower Champagne, same thing) counts as a fermented drink. Wahoo!

Drink up, it’s positively good for you.

It’s also dead easy to make although I have been warned that it is notoriously prone to spontaneous nocturnal explosion.

Elderflower fizz, or champagne.

The recipe says to wait two weeks but I suspect we will be popping a bottle before then. Can you see the fizz already ?! The recipe is here.Elderflower fizz.

The Fizz needs fairly rapid consumption so, for longer keeping, we made Elderflower Cordial. This was made with wild elderflowers and just one pink head added for a hint of colour.

Elderflower cordial.

With an abundance of elderflowers to hand we also made some Elderflower Medicinal Vinegar according to the recipe in Rebecca Sullivan’s Natural Home Book (reviewed, here). It’s really just apple cider vinegar with flowers in it. I have no idea what this might be good for, other the just admiring the prettiness of it. On that account I insisted on adding a few rose petals.Elderflower medicinal vinegar.

It does make me feel better, just to look at it.

Aaah, just came to Fix You. I loved that last night. Great choice.

So. Gooseberries.

I wasn’t really keeping an eye on them, it’s been wet and I wasn’t in the garden for a few days and then, wham, all of a sudden, the bushes were hanging to the ground with the weight of the berries. A proper bumper crop. I donned a protective long-sleeved denim shirt (don’t approach a gooseberry bush without one, says the voice of experience), brought a chair over, and a cup of coffee and picked and topped and tailed for ages and ages.

Picking gooseberries.

Those bushes sure don’t part easily with their fruit. I was impaled by several award-worthy thorns for my efforts.IMG_7436

Worth it though. Someone asked me recently how I know when the gooseberries are ready. According to the oracle that is Darina Allen, they are ready to cook with when you see the elderflowers blooming. I think they are ready when you can see the seeds though the skin or, in this case, when the bush can’t hold them up any longer. Or, they are probably ready when they are big enough to block out the sun.

Gooseberry big enough to block out the sun.

I only picked from the first to crop of our three bushes but had something in the region of 8 lbs of fruit and more to come. Eeek.

Darina Allen. Forgotten Skills of Cooking.

My first 4lb of gooseberries went to make Elderflower Gooseberry Compote. I love faffing about with a bit of muslin. Makes me feel like I’ve wandered into the kitchen at Longbourn. The recipe is here.

Gooseberry compote.

A word of caution here: I doubled the recipe but later realised that I need not have doubled the quantity of water. The result was a compote that was definitely too watery. I strained off some of the excess syrup and put it to good use. Here’s my very complex recipe:

Just add gin.

Elderflower and gooseberry gin cocktail.

SO good.

Onwards and jamwards. The recipe for Elderflower and Gooseberry Jam is here. I think it is my favourite jam ever but I tend to have exactly that thought every time I make jam. I actually don’t eat much jam. When I treat myself to toast, I like to savour the salty butter, but this jam is incredible in place of raspberry jam in this coconut pudding.

Elderflower and gooseberry jam.

With a boost of confidence (doubtless from the cocktail), I embarked on Elderflower Fritters. Something that Darina Allen does consistently in her books is tell you that you CAN do things and make things and, since the woman simply brooks no argument, you do.

These look wildly impressive. Well, I think they do. Elderflower Fritters.

Other than having to heat a pan of oil which always makes me nervous (I don’t have, or want, a deep fat fryer), they are easy peasy to make.

The recipe is here.

One flower head per person would be an appropriate serving.

Elderflower Fritters with Gooseberry Compote and whipped cream.

I’m not going to tell you how many I ate.

We’re not far from London or Manchester. As it happens, my in-laws flew into London on Friday night. What happens there could happen here. Geographical and cultural proximity makes it all the more horrifying. The layers of immunity are, one by one, being stripped away. It gets scarier. And then you think, to be scared is to let them win. To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it.

Whatever happens, life goes on. Gooseberries ripen. Elderflowers wilt. All we can do, I think, is keep our chins up and keep living.

If you want your spine tingled, try this:

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I’m delighted to join in the celebration of all things glorious in the garden Old House in the Shires.

Oldhouseintheshires

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.

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

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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.

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