Monday, 4 August 2008

An Author's Garden in August

An Author’s Garden in August

I wish I could bottle the fragrance of my garden in Hertfordshire, South East England. When I open the windows, front or back doors the perfume of lavender and roses wafts through the air. I have introduced biodiversity into the garden which bees, butterflies and hoverflies visit.

Unfortunately slugs and snails also inhabit my garden. I garden veganically and combat their attacks on the vegetable patches by encouraging wildlife – flat stones on which thrushes can smash the shells of snails and a garden pond – an old bathtub sunk into the ground – where frogs breed and a bird table to attract blue tits and other birds that relish pests.

My garden is generous. I have three compost bins, the contents of which enrich the soil that produces and abundance of fruit, herbs and vegetables.

Yesterday, while I harvested blackberries I thought about kitchen gardens in times past and tossed ideas about a historical novel in which a garden is central. My heroine would be responsible for the kitchen garden with its seeds, fruit, vegetables, roots, pot herbs and medicinal herbs.

According to A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow my heroine would keep a Receipt Book in which, amongst other things, she would note the best times for sowing and transplanting herbs and vegetables. According to Elinor Fettiplace of Oxfordshire in the sixteenth century “in midsummer at the waning of the moon, one should sow ‘all manner of potherbs, and they willbee greene for winter; also Lettice seeds sown at this time and removed when they bee of a prettie bignes at the full willbee good and hard Lettice at Michaelmas’.” So far, I have not sown according to the waxing and waning of the moon but I have read modern advocates of doing so. One day I might not be able to resist trying this although I’d hate the neighbours to think I am some sort of modern day witch.

According to Jenny Uglow in Chapter Nine titled Wife into thy Garden, “Grandmothers and mothers handed on country skills…many women kept their own household books, filling the creamy pages over the years with recipes, details of cures and tip’s for the garden. An elegant version, purporting to be Henrietta Maria’s own (hardly likely) household book of secrets, was published as The Queen’s Closet Opened in 1655. Recently, I have been considering keeping a modern day Receipt Book. I would record the successes and failures in my garden and note recipes and the use to which I put herbs. For example, yesterday evening I was hungry and tired. I needed a quick meal before I popped round the corner to baby sit my daughter’s young sons. So I put some organic brown spaghetti into a saucepan of boiling water. While it cooked I liquidized fresh basil, parsley, marjoram and time with pine nuts, parmesan cheese, pepper and olive oil. When the pasta was ready I drained it and stirred in the sauce. A delicious meal that took me ten minutes from start to finish.

The herbs from my garden add taste and subtlety to most dishes and it gives me great pleasure to view them in their terracotta pots from my office window.

From the window I can see the path that divides the garden enclosed by a mixture of native English hedging and conifers which filter the wind. At the end of the path is bird bath which, as well as the bird table, attracts a large variety of my feathered friends, including fat wood pigeons that peck at the leaves of my cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli.

Despite the woodpigeons that are so fat that their chests wobble as the strut down the path or flutter onto the roof of the garden shed my cauliflowers are nearly ready to crop. As well as the cauliflowers I have enjoyed an abundance of different varieties of crisp lettuce, spinach and courgettes. My greenhouse is full of green tomatoes and the outdoor ones are doing well and so are the carrots, beetroot, brussel sprouts, carrots, greenhouse cumbers, French beans, leeks, mizuna and radishes.

The other day I wrote a shopping list and added fruit and vegetables to it. I shook my head and wondered why on earth I needed to buy any vegetables other than green peppers, which did not thrive this year, and tomatoes. As for fruit, there’s plenty of soft fruit in the garden and neighbouring hedgerows. There are two large bags of homegrown gooseberries in the freezer waiting to be made into gooseberry chutney, fruit fool, jam, and a pie. There are five pounds of succulent blackberries in the fridge with which, over the next two days, I shall make pickled blackberries – delicious with cheese and crusty bread – blackberry and apple jam and blackberry and apple chutney. Later in the month I will pick more blackberries and make blackberry cordial, blackberry and apple pies and fruit crumbles.

As a vegetarian my garden is very important. For the first time I am growing Chinese greens such as mizuna for stir fries and intend to increase the quantity of produce through the use of raised beds.

Why, you may ask, in this day and age do I grow my own? Well, if you’re not a vegetable gardener or if you don’t have a garden try growing a pot or two of cherry tomatoes in pots – you’ll be delighted by the superior taste. And you could also grown herbs from seed which is uncontaminated by chemicals. Today as it did in times past their fragrance delights the senses, they enhance our food – try crusty bread drizzled with olive oil with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and fresh basil – and contribute to health. Black peppermint tea tastes delicious and soothes the stomach.

By this time next year I hope to add a peach tree in a sheltered corner to my mini orchard, a cooking apple tree, three eating apple trees, two plum trees, two pear trees and a cherry tree. And I hope to add black currants, blue berries and more strawberry plants to my soft fruits – redcurrants from which I make redcurrant jelly – delicious on creamy rice pudding, on ice cream or plain yoghurt as well as in a sandwich – strawberries and gooseberries.

Today, with so many modern tools and aids gardening is much easier than it was for the heroine I think about while tending my garden. However, I am certain that both of us say Grace in thanksgiving for the bounty we receive, rejoice in our successes and mourn our failures and take equal pleasure in our gardens. To reinforce this I only have to walk along the path to the front door which is edged with fuchsias and geraniums in terracotta pots and look at the cottage garden behind them full of lavender, lupins, foxgloves, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, dainty cranesbill geranims and many other delights according to season,

Rosemary Morris.
Tangled Hearts set in Queen Anne’s England – 1702 -1714 available now.