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A la recherche du temps perdu

I love summer. Absolutely, completely love it. I love to feel the air and the sun on my skin, I love the feel of damp morning grass under my bare feet. I love how sounds carry on the warm air; children playing in the paddling pool in the park next door, hints of radio drifting from someone’s shed, the clinking of cutlery as lunch is prepared, al fresco, in one of the neighbouring houses, the pop of a cork and the giggles that go with it.

I love that summer days seem endless; even after a siesta the day has plenty SAM_0575enough left to stretch into a beautiful, long, languid evening. Summer is when I feel most me. Summer is when I feel optimistic and happy  from the moment I wake up to the moment I reluctantly close my eyes on another perfect day. Summer is about tranquility and life and love and being carefree once again…..

Summers are for going to the south of France for a week and accidentally staying for 2 months because of a boy with dusky, olive skin and a mop of hair bleached blonde by the sun and sea. Summers are for holding hands and waiting patiently for that first kiss……a kiss tinged with the taste of the sea….. In the summer sun there is no need to hurry anything, no need to wear shoes or be encumbered by layers of clothes…..no need to brush the sea salt out of one’s hair, no need to look at the clock. In the heat and the sun time stops.

A peace descends on the kitchen garden; all the hard work was done in the spring…all the hurrying and dashing…all the sowing and pricking, the transplanting and the tying and staking…it has all been done. And now……now the summer is here and the air is thick with sticky stillness; all around me is stillness. I am alone….but for the insects and even they seem to be going more slowly…..the honey bees linger, drunk on nectar, the butterflies, like giddy girls on the pier, occasionally flash their brightly coloured knickers. I, too, become more still. This is the time for sitting……for daydreaming……..for moments of ennui. For remembering. A la recherche du temps perdu. It is a time for simply being. I spend hours and hours and hours in the garden doing absolutely nothing….and I long to do it all again tomorrow.

Only when there is no light left to see by do I think about going home. And later, when I lay on my bed, drifting off, I can smell the sun on my skin and the breeze in my hair…… and my mind becomes as peaceful as my garden and all my memories flood back….

Oh summer! I am already nostalgic for you.

 

 

 

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One is never alone with a book….

After 7 months I have finally gone back to work. This is not an insignificant event. The significance, however, lies not in the fact of the work itself…..but rather an old habit that has been resuscitated. I am reading again. This may not seem a news-worthy event to those who do not know me…..but for those who do there is much rejoicing. I have been adrift without my books. When I first had the accident I couldn’t hold a book open….this status continued for a couple of months and through a combination of despondency and my library having to be packed away because of a leaking roof my addiction, my habit was lost. But…..one simply cannot commute without a book…..and so this week, as I returned to work, it was obvious I would have to shove a book into my bag……as important, if not more so, as including a packed lunch.

As I opened that brand new book (oh, the smell of a new book…..almost as good as the smell of an old book) and read the first few lines I was immediately loSAM_0578st to another world. The pushing and shoving of all the other sweaty commuters disappeared, the hiss and thump, thump from inefficient headphones disappeared, the anticipatory worry for the day ahead disappeared…… Slightly over an hour later, as I walked through the squares of Bloomsbury, thinking about Virginia Woolf and not thinking about work at all, it struck me how alike my books and my garden are in importance to me and the effect they have on me.

When I am in the garden I am transported to another world…..a world that is free of worry, that is calm and peaceful, that is present. When I read I am transported….to wherever the author (and my own imagination) want to take me. In the garden I can choose to be whoever I want to be….there is no-one to judge me. When I read I can choose to be one of the characters…..I can be nostalgic for a memory that isn’t my own. The garden and the books have the power to evoke memories long since put away….

A few days ago, tending to the herbs, I ran my fingers through the rosemary bush. There wasn’t a soul about and I closed my eyes for a few seconds…….the smell hurled me back in time…..I was in my little apartment in Paris. I lived on the second floor of a grand but rather decaying Haussmann on the Left Bank…….my bathroom window opened onto the inner courtyard which was planted with rosemary and lavender…. I would lie in that bath tub for (almost) hours with the smells of the plants drifting up….and the sounds of my neighbours; the de Ganay children being shoo’ed by Mdm Gautier’s broom (a harridan of a concierge!), the arguing of the young couple upstairs who I never saw but with whom I felt intimately acquainted……and the cellist on the other side of the courtyard whose playing could reduce me to tears in seconds… All of this came back in a flash from tickling my plant……..and so it is with books. Transported. My addictions. My escapes.

It is true that I am ‘never alone with a book’…..and I am never alone in the garden with my thoughts and dreams and memories. Smell your plants, close your eyes……see where it takes you. We may not all be novelists…..but we create our gardens….and open ourselves up to a nostalgia we can’t quite put our finger on……..let’s see where it takes us…….

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The swifts have returned……

…..and so have I. Oh, my friends, it has been too long. Two months have come and gone in a fog of ‘stuff’. Far too much ‘stuff’, ‘stuff’ cluttering both my time and my spirit. Work, health, family….all these things vie for attention…one becomes thoroughly bogged down in the mundane and the minutiae and, like in a bog, the more one thrashes the more one sinks.

….and then all my technology broke…I could manage without the phone but when the computer went to hospital and didn’t come back I became uttSWIFTerly discombobulated and exasperated and did the only thing I know how to do…….I retreated to my shed to hide from all the nonsense.

Hiding works quite well for a while. I shut out the world and set to work on my soil. Everything was taking longer than usual because of the annoying injuries…but it didn’t seem to matter….no-one could find me on the soil and the longer it took to do the most simple of tasks the longer I could avoid dealing with the things that really mattered.

It has taken some time to get things…the ‘stuff’…back on track. The technology was fairly simple to sort out, the family things will always be there, the health will return. Like a sleepwalker I kept my soil going somehow, kept sowing seeds, kept watering, kept fighting the pests…and kept wondering how such a small dot of a seed could turn into a plant. I also kept wondering when my soul and my words would come back.

I was sitting outside the shed catching my breath after another long session in the kitchen garden. It was late. Everyone else had gone home. The kettle had long since stopped whistling. All the sheds were tucked up for the night. All the building works around the site had stopped. The sirens on the High Street had stopped. The wind had stopped. The lists and the monologue in my head had stopped.

…..and then I saw them…..just for a second. I looked again. Two tiny black specks far, far away on the horizon. I watched. My eyes focused and as they came closer I saw their tails….and gasped with joy. They started their aerobatic display (just for me?)….darting, diving, wheeling above my head….and soon their number swelled and I could not count them all. Swifts.

I lay down on my back in the grass for a better view and as I mouthed the words ‘they’re back, they’ve come back’ I felt a couple of tears roll down my cheeks and I realised that I, too, had come back.

Sometimes we have to wait….and trust. But we will always come back.

 

 

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Dream a little dream with me

Can you feel it? That tingly feeling…….it starts in my toes and in my fingers…… sometimes in the tops of my ears…..and it spreads rapidly until there are butterflies flitting abodaffodil_flowers_189916ut in my belly and bees buzzing around in my heart. It starts about this time of year…..just when the days are getting a little longer and the air is getting a little warmer. Once my internal butterflies and honey bees start doing their thing something else happens…I get springs in my feet and find that instead of walking I start bouncing and skipping……and I begin to realise that I am grinning for absolutely no reason…. Yes, my dear friends, it’s clear that I have an acute case of spring fever. The sap, both literal and metaphorical, is rising.

I’m not much of one for New Year’s resolutions…..but about this time each year I suddenly have the urge to make grand declarations about all the amazing things I want to achieve! It is about this time each year when I decide I really ought to run a marathon, write a novel, paint a masterpiece, learn the ancient art of origami and generally become a more brilliant and interesting version of myself….the version of myself who shoots into the stratosphere  and reaches for the stars.

Nature is playing the naughty on us all and tricking us to do her will; of course, after a few days of euphoric super womanship, I crash back to earth…..but I crash back with a bit of stardust in my hand; I have a renewed vigour and determination……and I put it all into my soil and my seeds. As I till the land I talk to it and to myself and remind us both that the possibilities are limitless…..we just have to do the work.

This is the time of year when anything seems possible…..we have no idea how our  seeds will turn out…if our soil will give us yet one more good crop…..but it hardly seems to matter……all that matters is that, once again, we plant in hope, we plant in excitement for the future, we plant our dreams and believe they actually could come true.

Spring is finally here. I am sowing not just my seeds but another year of hopes and dreams. I hope all your dreams sprout with mine.

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It’s been a while – old friends

We all have them….the friends we adore and who are so important to us but who somehow get lost amongst all our other commitments. You know how it goes; a couple of weeks without seeing each other becomes a couple of months…..and then more time passes….and then more time….so that getting in touch begins to feel uncomfortable. Then, one day, you realise just how much you miss them and you arrange to meet up.

It’s a little awkward at first; realising how much you’ve missed out on, feeling guilty for leaving it so long, feeling, perhaps, a little resentful of the missed months….but the awkwardness passes in minutes, you pick up where you left off as if no time had passed at all. You remember how much you love your friend and how good they make you feel simply by being in their company.

…and that’s how it has been for me and my beloved kitchen gardeSAM_0497n. At first I had an excuse not to visit because of the accident that damaged both hands but for the last five weeks one of my hands has been better…..and yet I still didn’t return to my oasis. I guess a part of me was worried about what I would find, worried that my unvisited patch would take revenge on me for neglecting it for so long by throwing up huge weeds and rotting winter veg…..

I shouldn’t have worried. Yes, we had an awkward first few minutes….did my broad beans actually turn their leafy backs on me when I arrived? Were those pesky little weeds laughing at me? No matter. I sat amongst my broad beans, gently weeding between them and gradually I began to feel forgiven. The garden hasn’t fared too badly without me over the last three months but I think that’s because I put so much work and love into it last autumn. Yes, there is much to do as we race towards spring…..but my little patch of soil is still feeding me…….and, as if to say ‘thank you for coming back’, that soil yielded me the gift of parsnips and carrots as I was leaving.

Gardens, like good friends, will forgive and always take you back….so if you have neglected yours this winter go and make a visit…..you may be surprised by the gifts your old friend gives you.

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A room of one’s own

It is fairly well known that I love my shed. Sheds, one could argue, are the epitome of British allotment life…….as we travel through the ‘burbs on our commuter trains we see the allotments……and then we see the sheds; neat and tidy or ramshackle, Heath-Robinsonesque structures that even Robinson Crusoe would be proud to call home.

These little structures give shelter to our most prized tools: our spades and forks, our riddles and assorted pots and trays…..they house our battered old biscuit tins full of seeds and our other biscuit tins full of, well, biscuits. Sometimes our sheds are big enough for a chair…..and we dash to them for shelter from the unpredictable British weather. Some of them are so tiny it takes a planning committee to get a trowel into them. So mshed 2015uch is our obsession with our sheds we even have a national, televised competition devoted to them.

But our sheds are so much more than store-houses for our tools and teabags. They are sanctuaries, a ‘room of one’s own’, far away from the madding crowds. The beauty of the shed (or mine at least) is that there are no phone cables, no computers, no emails…….my shed is silent. Silent….but for the creaking floor and the hiss of the gas as it boils the kettle. Some people spend a small fortune on a foreign holiday to ‘get away from it all’…..I go to my shed…..for free. I sit in my shed alone…and dream. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I fill my shed with friends and drink tea and dunk biscuits until the sun goes down…..but mostly I just sit….and listen to the quiet.

I’m planning on  building a new shed this year and I can’t wait. In my mind it will be something between a mountain cabin and a beach hut….in truth it will probably look more like Mr Crusoe’s hide-out.

No matter. It will be a room of my own. But you’re all invited of course.

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This too shall pass….

So, here we are at the end of another year and taking stock… both of our kitchen gardens and of ourselves. I have been quiet for a few weeks not because there was nothing to do on the soil but because an accident put both my wrists/arms out of action (I’m ok by the way…..and slowly healing). When the accident first happened at the end of November I was hopping mad (I could still hop!)…..there was so much I wanted to do in the garden. I love the winter months to work my little bit of soil…..there are fewer people around…..a peace descends…..time seems to expand…and the bare bones of the garden become visible….it is my time for planning and fantasizing about the perfect garden I will create.

But.

This year I was stopped in my tracks. For a couple of weeks I felt thoroughly miserable and frustrated and a tad sorry for myself. I couldn’t face visiting the garden knowing I wouldn’t be able to do any ‘work’…I cooped myself up at home, prepared myself for months of boredom and sank into a daily mantra of ‘it’s not fair, why me?’…..’I can’t grow anything’…. I became despondent. The hours felt likeWintershed 004 days…..

I don’t quite know how or why it happened…..but there was a day when I woke up and decided to stop feeling sorry for myself…..I started to think about all the people far worse off than me…..I thought about people I know who have come through some truly awful times, people who have somehow muddled their way through their dark ‘winters’ and have come out the other side to find their ‘spring’….and with these thoughts I found myself taking the walk down the hill to visit my kitchen garden…

It was, of course, looking a little sad…..but it didn’t matter…….there was hope in that soil. And that is it in a nutshell. As I sat outside my shed, wrapped up tight against the cold wind, I pondered all that my little kitchen garden grows……on this tiny scrap of land I have grown a ton of veggies…..but I’ve also grown friendships, grown patience, grown gratitude, grown optimism, grown peace…….I have grown humility and love. I have grown empathy and compassion.

As I walked away, through the magic gate, the words of a Persian poet rang in my head……’this too shall pass’…. we will all have ‘spring’ again one day…..I hope, for you all, that your spring is just around the corner…

 

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Throw away the books and the packets!

We have entered the planning zone. The time when we find excuses not to tend our kitchen gardens because of the rather nasty weather and because – hey! – another 1000 catalogues have come through the post. Wintershed 001We drool over our catalogues and dream of the year to come……oh! if only our veg would look like those in the pictures, if only our plots looked like those at the show grounds of Chelsea etc. We go to the library and browse the ‘natural history’ section and the ‘hobby’ section in the hope that we will find the Holy Grail of answers…..

Our seed packets arrive, our books arrive…….and then the confusion begins……what type of soil to grow in, what type of weather, what type of compost to use, what type of fertiliser…….aghhhh……..the list is endless. If you follow the books and the seed packets you’ll be stuffed! The only way to grow veggies is to stick some seeds in the ground and see what happens…..year after year…. We have to be optimists but we also have to be realists… Your seed packet may say ‘sow from Feb until June’…….what the heck (!) that’s a big time scale………only by experimenting in your kitchen garden will you know if February is better than June…….. and you have to be prepared for failure. Failure on a scale that will break your little heart. You will have a veggie that you try to grow but, no matter what you do, it fails. Miserably. Year after year. But. One day it will work.

We learn a lot from each other, from the ‘old hands’ on our sites, but we learn most when we are optimistic. We learn that though it may not have worked this year it just might next year. We learn to throw away the books and watch our own little patch and what it will give us…….we learn that the seed packets and their sowing times are aimed at people like us but also people far away from us….they are just a clue…..a little, maybe, insight into the mysterious world of growing your own food……

Read your books, watch your videos……they will all help…..but, above all, tune into your instincts, into your soil, into nature…………and go with the flow that your patch offers you.

I cannot wait for next year and more disasters……and more amazing moments! Happy planning.

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If full of care….

“What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare…..”Veggies 003

…..the words have been going around in my mind and nagging me for weeks. I know that I should ‘stop and stare’ but somehow the to-do lists win more times than not. The autumn is always such a busy time in the kitchen garden….gathering harvests, digging, sowing, dismantling structures, cleaning, storing……and copious hours spent in the kitchen ‘processing’ all the bounty….all this combined with work, family etc ad infinitum and it can feel like I am forever chasing my own worn out tail.

…..but then a moment comes, unplanned, when I find myself sitting still for a second outside my shed…..doing nothing, staring, without a thought, out over my veggies. It is a wonderful feeling and as I become conscious of it I allow it to grow. I allow my senses to breathe and come back to life.

My eyes are the first to engage; with the colours all around me, with the changing light, in noticing the birds chancing their luck for worms in the freshly turned soil. As I watch and look my ears, too, tune in; there are squirrels chattering in the elderberry tree behind the shed, the gas is gently hissing on the stove…..somewhere, a little further away, someone is playing piano. I close my eyes and let my ears do the seeing….I can feel the weak autumn sun on my cheeks, the faintest of breezes catches a few whisps of hair that have escaped their grips….

….and then the smells come. Damp leaves, damp soil…rich, dark brown smells. A whiff of wood smoke  and with it myriad memories of my grandparent’s place. I am transported and my to-do lists are a million miles away.

These moments on the plot are as precious to me as any of the veg I grow. I should make more time for them…..

Let us all put away our lists…..just for a moment……and stare.

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The gate

The gate. It’s a big old thing; heavy, creaking, clunky……it swings open reluctantly and bangs shut with a dull thud. Fortified with a chain heavier than anything Jacob Marley could ever manage to shake and clank. The paint is peeling, the hinges are rusting…..it blends perfectly into its sprawling, decaying urban surroundings and hardly warr004ants a second glance.

But it is a magic gate. This gate has the power to transform those who pass through it and reward them with moments of pure bliss and joy. Every time I step through this gate I feel the scrunch in my shoulders loosen, my head is carried a little higher, my stride softens and slows, the frown on my brow disappears as surely as if it had been botoxed, I breathe……deeply. It is a Wizard of Oz moment…..stepping from black and white into blazing technicolour.

Life outside the gate is so often played in black and white – we all have it; the pressures of work and money, family life, juggling time, health issues, all the nitty-gritty, grind down stuff…….but on the other side of the gate the black and white, if only for a brief moment, disappears and we have roses in our cheeks again.

Sometimes, as I try to fall asleep after a particularly hard day, I picture myself opening the gate and walking through…. Your kitchen garden may not have a gate….a big, old, clunky gate like mine……but I’m sure whatever threshold you cross you, too, step into colour.

In my kitchen garden I am still the same old me……but a better me. In the kitchen garden I am me in glorious technicolour.