Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Escape to France

This summer we haven't had an away holiday. There is too much to do here and the complications of getting someone in for the chickens, peacock, cats, house, holiday cottage and garden are a bit daunting. When I was working and living at ninety miles an hour I needed holidays like I needed air. I couldn't go back to work without the sense of when the next one would be. They were like rocks in a fast running river, stepping stones that allowed me to keep going. Now that I have stopped whizzing up and down to London and leaping on and off trains and planes I don't feel the same need. It is beautiful here and, when people come and stay in the holiday cottage for its peace and beauty, it seems perverse for us to insist on going somewhere else, possibly somewhere less beautiful, and requiring the crush and hassle and sheer mind-numbing boredom of modern low cost air travel. And it is not green either!

But every now and then it is good to heed the urge to get out more. So all the complicated logistics of wheeling somebody in so that we can wheel ourselves out are in place. We are going to stay for a few days with some friends in Provence who are fabulous hosts: inventive, solicitous to just the right degree, generous with wonderful food and marvellous wine, great conversationalists and just all round lovely people. Gritting our teeth, we are going to fly Ryanair who have seduced us out of our normal disinclination to have anything to do with them by flying to Nimes, possibly the best small airport in the world, where the smell of lavender hits you as you walk across the hot tarmac of the runway to the tiny terminal.

I love the soft greens and golds of home, today with soft grey clouds but I am suddenly overcome with excitement at the idea of a bright blue sky and blue sea and our friend's shady stone terrace with the long table laid for lunch and the cats sunning themselves on the wall.

So I have a bag to pack, greenhouse to water, lists to write and notes to leave. I have beans to pick, presents to wrap, Welsh to do for tonight's class, toenails to paint cherry red. See you soon!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Is it autumn yet?

I have always loved September. It might help that it is my birthday month. It might also be because I was a child who liked school and, even though I had loved the summer holiday, I also loved the buying of the new pencil case, the new pencils and rubbers, the folding back of the stiff cover of an exercise book to reveal a pristine sheet of clean paper, smelling of promise.

October is OK. There is still a chance of a day filled with the golden light and long shadows of an Indian summer. The only problem with October is that it is followed by November when the clocks have gone back and the days are grey with wind and rain and the light has all gone by mid afternoon and I have to work hard at shedding the sense of gloom and focussing on the light and warmth of Christmas to distract me from the grievous loss of my outside life.

So I have mixed feeling about autumn. Is it beautiful, with flowers still glowing and crops thronging the kitchen?

Or is it full of sadness, full of the loss of summer? Or perhaps, it is both and the trick is to enjoy the beauty and let the coming of winter wait. Or even to remind myself that I love winter too in its way, love fires and frosts and snow and snowdrops and the coming of spring. It is such a cliche that we should live in the moment but I at least find it extraordinarily hard to do with plans and lists and diaries stretching out into the future so that one eye is always on tomorrow. Gardening helps I think because you need to look at what you are growing and see it properly and you can't do that with your head full of what is to come. It clears your mind. Living in the country helps too, especially somewhere as beautiful as this part of Wales. There is so much to see which stills the relentless demanding clamour of the day after tomorrow. It is a crime not to be in the moment out here with the heather on the hills and the leaves still on the trees.

Today I learnt of a project called heather and hillforts. I know the Clwydians are covered in heather because I can see it every day from my windows and when I am gardening. I know the range has a number of bronze and iron age hillforts because I have walked them all and climbed the ramparts. Yet somehow it had passed me by altogether that there is a project going on right now to protect the wildlife and archaeology of this area. We have Wales's largest population of black grouse and the largest number of hillforts in one area in Britain. I am fascinated by the wildlife outside my door and by the hillforts which crown the ridge which is my skyline. Time to stop thinking my life away and to get up there on the hills again.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Town and country

On Tuesday I went to Manchester for an appointment. Now I go to the city every week to look after my young grandson but that day tends to be spent playing with cars or at the park looking at animals or practising my football. He is three and a half and already becoming better at football than I am but I think I might have another year or so before he realises. My son tells me that he was about seven when it dawned on him that he was considerably more skilful than I was. I never get into the centre of town, rarely shop and don't have time to think.

So on Tuesday I went shopping. I am not a shopper really. I have never understood how some people find it recreational. One of the great things about internet shopping is that you don't have to trail around getting stuck behind people who are barely moving or stand waiting for lifts only to be walloped in the ankles by pushchairs. You don't have to take piles of clothes into a changing room only to find that nothing fits and that you look considerably better in your own clothes than the ones you fondly thought would transform you. You might discover that everything you like is vastly expensive but at least you can sit at your laptop with a cup of coffee while you do and you don't have to drive round for hours looking for a parking space. But shopping at John Lewis in Cheadle is a fairly civilised affair on a quiet Tuesday afternoon and I browsed about for an hour or so, quite surprising myself by enjoying being out in town wearing something other than jeans and a t shirt and with the dirt on my fingernails fiercely scrubbed away.

But I did find myself struck by how new and expensive the cars in the carpark seemed to be and by how easy it would have been to spend a fortune on things I had not even realised I wanted until I stood in the shop looking at them: fabulous shiny kitchen gadgets, transformational cosmetics, a beautiful red jacket for £150. Perhaps not. I bought a new yoga mat (how can I have possibly lost a bright purple yoga mat which was last seen in my car? Surely anyone who wants a yoga mat is an unlikely thief?). I had a cup of tea in the cafe and watched people go by: the retired in their thousands, young mothers with pushchairs, a whole world of people I never saw when I was at work. And then I drove the hour and a half home.

And I was struck as I haven't been since I stopped going to London every week at how different life is here. I never tire of the beauty of this area and I don't, I think, take it for granted. But somehow on Tuesday afternoon I saw it again with fresh eyes. I turned off the A55 and almost immediately got stuck behind a tractor. Once I would have been twanging with frustration at crawling along the road. Now I hardly care. It is time to notice the great harvest of rowan berries this year, huge clusters of the clearest, shiniest red against the pinnate leaves. The Clwydian hills pile gently up on the sky line against a pale blue and white sky. A blackbird whizzes across the road in front of the car and dives into the hedge. Outside one of the farms the verge has been planted with dahlias, great purple, yellow and orange spiky flowers that make me smile. The tractor pulls in to a gateway to let me pass and I wave my thanks.

When I get home I go down to let the hens out for a couple of hours. They charge off up through the kitchen garden, along the path by the greenhouse, clucking and scolding, to their favourite scratching place under the trees. Everything feels slow and soft and quiet after the city. A buzzard mews, high above the valley. I see that there are two of them, turning and rising on the thermals. Lower down a crow flaps off into the oak tree. I thought the swallows might have gone but there is one here still, wheeling above the hawthorn hedge. They will be gone any day now.

I find a huge growth of mushrooms on the chippings pile. They are beautiful, alien but glorious, erupting up out of the mountain of shredded branches left when the trees behind the house were cut back.

The peacock, who arrived by himself one day when I was walking the Offa's Dyke path and seems to want to stay, is scratching about in the bottom of the new native hedge. Sometimes he tries to attach himself to the chickens but they always manage to leave him behind somewhere. He seems quite happy, although how you would know whether a peacock was happy I am not sure. Hens now, I have had them long enough to know.

The valley settles around me, green and brown and gold and quiet under the late afternoon sun.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

What a day!

Today has been a day of total perfection: the light was pure and clear, with a pale golden glow like a glass of wine. I have spent all day in the garden, with three wheelbarrow loads for the burn pile to show for my efforts but remarkably little difference showing in the garden.

I love echinacea and I am stupidly proud of the fact that I grew these from seed. I love the way the petals curve back from the cone and way they hold their heads to the sun. I am going to have a go at taking root cuttings from this one.

The cosmos has been flowering its heart out for weeks and weeks. I spent a happy half hour deadheading a dozen plants in the hope of keeping them going until the frosts. This year lots of cosmos had self seeded in the cutting garden (posh name for a big bed in the field). I suppose I had better not be too thorough with the deadheading if I want it to the same again, which I do. It is so exciting to find little seedlings busy pushing up in spring without any assistance from the supposed gardener.I love this combination of sedum and persicaria. The sedum is so happy here I can just break bits off, plant them shallowly and in no time at all they are bulking up into a lovely solid presence. The persicaria was a gift from fellow blogger and now local friend bodran. Thanks so much, I love it! For about three weeks the brilliant red of a crocosmia Lucifer behind it fights the pink of the persicaria before the crocosmia goes over and offers its blackish seedheads instead. Sometime I might move one or the other of the plants but just now I am so pleased to have a full and flowering bed from something which was a building site only six months ago that I am persuading myself that a bit of surprise clashing here and there just wakes it up.

Out in the field the mixed native hedge planted last autumn is looking settled in, in a small, new kind of way. The hips on the rosa rugosa are a lovely sight with their bright red against the clear green of the foliage. The greens of the foliage in the garden and the surrounding countryside have slowly deepened over the summer so that by the end of August they have dulled and darkened, but the leaves on the rosa rugosas in the hedge are still as bright and clear as if it were May.

In the new vegetable bed in the field the squash are still flowering away. Everything is late because of how cold it was here earlier in the summer so the race is on for the squash to ripen before it gets too cold. I have two hardening on the kitchen windowsill.

And the walnut tree is full of nuts, as good a crop as the plums this year.

Zoe did come and she is lovely, hugely knowledgeable and very kind about the garden on the ground as opposed to the one in my head. Gardeners are such nice people. It must be all that nurturing!

Friday, 4 September 2009

A garden blog

Tomorrow I am to be visited by Zoe from Garden Hopping which is both a great pleasure and a cause of mild anxiety. Zoe is a serious gardener, someone who knows a lot about plants and gardens. I am a passionate gardener but so haphazard and self taught. My bookshelves groan with books about plants. I think about my garden, muse, sow, propagate but I am a rank amateur. I garden on a high bare hill, with a northwest wind and a stony soil. Much of what I tried to grow in my first year here failed. Now I propagate madly from what is here and what will thrive. There is no point in planning a thrillingly designed sort of space with rooms and great herbaceous borders and topiary, all of which I love. We are an ancient farmhouse on the side of a steep valley. The garden is a mixture of the veg patch, which has been gardened productively for generations, and a field. I plant trees for an orchard and daffodils round their feet. The trees are not twigs now, although they were a couple of years ago, but they are not a generous orchard of quince and cherry and damson, with two gorgeous gnarled mulberries near the house. That is in my head.

I have extended a yew hedge in the kitchen garden and we have planted mixed native edible hedging in the field. This is not a great green wall, like the old hedge in front of the sunny bank. It is a narrow line of green twiggy stuff, with some rosehips which bow the plants heavily down, some hawthorn, some blackthorn and some hazel. All in my head, all in my head.

There are weeds in abundance every where: nettles, dandelions, cow parsley, docks. There is mown grass too, and beds of chard and beans and marigolds and apples weighing down the trees, but it is not tidy. It is not under control. It is all a dream or a mess - I hardly know which.

I have been out deadheading and will pick sweetpeas. Perhaps the sun will shine. I hope so.