Year of Grace, Day 206. Possessions

Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are, the noted gastronome Brillat-Savarin once said. Well, after having packed our stuff, I can now revise this to say, tell me what you have, and I’ll tell you what you are. In our case, with over 60% of our belongings being books, then can we be other than bookworms? Most certainly not fashionistas, to judge from the amount of clothing we’ve got left after sorting. After three huge packing boxes of clothes destined for charity, we are now left with 1 suitcase, medium size <20 kilos, each. How’s that for downsizing?

I’ve been going around photographing what’s still blooming and looking good this closing week of September. Surprisingly quite a lot.

First to leaf out in spring and first to don autumn garb — Amelanchier, also known as Saskatoonberry in Canada or Juneberry. Its small blue fruits taste like blueberries.  But since the tree branches are so high up, we’ve decided that the birds can have all of them.

Here’s a closer look.

Amelanchier autumn lvs vvg_1467

The delicately scented floribunda roses below have lovely apricot buds that open to white petals with a yellow-suffused centre. They sulk during the hot summer, but are now back to blooming with the autumn rains.

The pink floribunda roses are also providing a repeat performance. Neither these nor the white ones above — modern hybrid roses — are a match for the old-fashioned rose with its heavenly scent that I featured back in midsummer. But whereas the old-fashioned one blooms only once, these modern ones get a second wind after summer and go on until winter. Even on Christmas, there have been a couple of trusses on the pink floribundas.

Another plant providing a second round of bloom is the creeping campanula.

Another blue-flowered plant, blooming rather late this year, is the borage, self-sown from plants sown in our first spring here. The lack of vigour on these seems to warrant sowing anew again after two years.

Borage is one of my favourite herbs, and I love using its flowers to decorate salads and to eat too — they have a mild cucumber-like taste, in other words, taste rather watery. But nice — I love being able to eat blue flowers!!! The black centres have to be taken out before eating though.

Just a few days away from leaving my three-year-old garden, my heart is heavy. Nevertheless I am thankful that I had these wonderful three years developing this cottage garden from its weed- and bramble-covered, unpromising beginning. It has been a time of learning, not least how to deal with moles and voles: plant valuable plants only in large tubs; humane vole traps don’t work — the voles just eat the cucumber or apple bait and then roll the trap over and escape (we hoped they would stay in the traps to be released at least a km away); and alliums do not drive moles and voles away. Alliums, especially spring onions, do wonders, however, planted around roses. The roses were spectacular and free of mildew this year. They have never looked so good.

More on the last week of the garden in my next post.

Year of Grace, Day 140. Spring’s all bubbly and frothy

When the blackthorn and the fruiting cherry and the blueberry tree (which is what M calls the Amelanchier) bloom, the garden looks all awash with bubbles and froth. And it is such a joy to look up as I go about the garden, weeding and transplanting and often just observing and admiring what’s happening. In the dark, the sprays of frothy blackthorn look like the daintiest of handcrafted lace. Occasionally I do show my appreciation by going really close and expressing my awe, but only in my head, though I’m quite sure the plants do sense I have been rather complimentary.

Blackthorn in blossom appear like handmade lace.

Blackthorn blossom appears like handmade lace.

The trees seem to be dancing with delight too – the cherry branches seem poised to soar off into the perfect and cloudless azure sky that we had yesterday. What a brilliant day to be in the garden! The heat of the spring sun surprised me as I transplanted the Argentinian verbenas (Verbena bonariensis). It had been 5ºC in the early morning, and by afternoon the sun had worked itself up into a sizzle at 24ºC, and its warmth on my back as I weeded was welcoming and soothing.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Fruiting cherry blossom will turn into gorgeous reddish purple fruit in summer.

Although it will be months before these verbenas show off their scented, tiny purple flowers on towering stems, I cannot help but imagine how lovely a picture they will make, as their stately stems make a screen through which other flowers and the garden can be glimpsed. That is my vision anyway, and the eventual reality may not measure up. Pests and diseases, a late frost, in other words, nature takes its own course, and the result may be nothing at all as imagined. But sometimes a gardener’s design succeeds and the result is exactly what was envisioned. Or oftener still, nature in its unpredictable way cooperates and creates an even more marvelous outcome. And that is what is so miraculous about gardening and creating with plants.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

Kerria japonica, a multi-petalled form.

The Kerria is also in its full glory, arching over into golden cascades, and the mass of frothy bubbles behind makes an excellent foil for them.  The Kerria’s natural growth habit is this graceful, arching cascade, and so is the Forsythia’s.



It is such a pity when both of these are clipped to conform to an unnatural neatness, which is what I commonly see in the gardens in my neighbourhood, and one realises how much of the joyful grace of  these plants at their glory is stifled under gardeners’ tight control. When this lovely Forsythia dares to cascade over the fence, my neighbour loses no time in shearing it to rigid obedience.

This is known as Ranunkelstrauch, Ranunculus bush, in German. I find that there are many plant names created thus: take the Philadelphus for instance. It is called Jasminstrauch, jasmine bush or shrub, not because of its resemblance to a jasmine, but because of its sweet scent. British gardeners, on the other hand, refer to non-native plants by their genus name, instead of coining local equivalents. (There is a certain amount of one-upmanship involved in this among British gardeners, I have been told.)

The blackthorn is the favourite nesting place of nightingales apparently, but sadly there are no more nightingales around these parts. I am still hoping to entice any stragglers that may happen to fly over by leaving untouched some self-seeded shrublets in the back corner of the garden. Nightingales like thick underbrush, especially the bristly, spiny kind afforded by thickets of blackthorn. Perhaps they also like the fruits – sloes, fermenting naturally as they fall to the ground – one of the ancestors of our supermarket plums.

Sloes (Schlehe in German) make a lovely liqueur, btw, and although they are best harvested after frost, I have to pick them earlier to get a share, otherwise my avian neighbours will have scoffed the whole lot (though I make sure to leave them some as well, even though they are not as considerate of me). The traditional English way is to prick the sloes all over with a pin and drop them into a bottle half-filled with gin, with a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to taste. Top up with some more gin to cover. Left in a dark, cool place for six months or better yet, a year, sloe gin makes a lovely after dinner drink. Or any time at all really. After a year, most of its alcohol will have evaporated, and all that’s left is pure essence of fruit. Its rosey-red colour is quite cheering too.

Mireille Johnston, in her book on the food of Provence, gave a recipe for ratafia — oranges and coriander in alcohol — which she noted made a nice relaxing drink to have in the afternoon. Hmm… excellent idea. I can imagine sitting down on a mellow afternoon, surrounded by the sharp Mediterranean scents of lavender and sage and rosemary, as in a Provençal or even a southern Catalan maquis. I rarely touch alcohol before dark, but perhaps a small glass of chilled sloe liqueur (after a year’s rest, quite non-alcoholic ), when I’ve finished with my garden chores and had a shower, and before I prepare supper, would be lovely. I make my fruit liqueurs with vodka, which has no other taste (gin is flavoured with juniper, as of course you know) to interfere with the natural flavour of the fruit. I don’t bother pricking them with a pin. Life is too short and there are more fun things to do.

Besides my gratitude for the glories of spring blossom and the other miraculous wonders of nature, I thank the muse. Show up, other writers have advised, and the muse will too. She has, and I am truly grateful.