Mistletoe and no wine

I’ve given up wine for Lent but to compmensate one of my Christmas presents arrived in the post yesterday. It’s an exercise in patience. I’ve wanted to try growing mistletoe for years – what with it being sacred to the Celts – and now I have the chance. I have plenty of mature host apple trees (including one called Celt)nbut it will take a few years, some patience and a fair amount of luck before I’m harvesting for Christmas.

There’s a lot of hocus-pocus surrounding the growing of mistletoe. In essence the reason why most attempts fail from Christmas boughs is that the berries dry out or are stored in the dark or are sown at the wrong time in December or January. For best results well-stored juicy berries need to be squidged onto the branches of a mature apple tree in February or March. Some will be eaten by birds or slugs at any time before they are established and you’ll need at least one male and one female plant to ensure a supply of berried mistletoe in the future.

The seed needs to be squeezed out of the berry – you’ll find they stick onto you rather well. Then remove as much of the jelly-like substance as possible, as the seeds seem to germinate better when fairly ‘clean’. They’ll stick on perfectly well with only a little of the ‘glue’ remaining. Young branches, from 2 to 6 cm diameter well away from the centre of the tree are best. Stick 6 or so seeds onto the branch. Label them with a plant label tied to the branch (I know I’ll forget which branch I used and initial growth is tiny. Try to plant as many as possible, at least 20 berries at once, divided between 4 or so branches.

Germination is easy apparently. Whether or not they survive is in the lap of the gods.

A bit of self-care on Valentine’s Day

We’ve never subscribed to an uber-commercialised Valentine’s Day and this year is no different. Lockdown Valentine’s is business as usual – a bunch of daffs in the kitchen, a couple of non-specific “not Valentine’s Day” cards, the offer to make a coffee or rub tired feet.

After six weeks of busy online and in-school teaching I decided to treat myself to a bit of self-care today. Solitude, a takeaway coffee and a quiet stroll in the rain round one of my favourite local places and the promise of an hour in the garden when the weather improves, tidying up in time for spring sowing. I have some more hellebores to pop in the ground along with some grasses and three Patty’s Plum poppies – one for each child.

Later today a catch up with said children, a log fire, a good book, a slice of home-baked blood orange drizzle cake and a rugby match on the TV is also on the cards.

Bliss.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Imbolc, St Brigit and new beginnings

pic from Naturescape, who supplied my snowdrops

“Born from winter dreaming, life stirs and the first tender shoots emerge from the earth. As the wheel turns, we feel the promise of spring and the dawning of a new beginning”

There’s a smattering of snow on the garden, the snowdrops have been out for weeks and we have come to the end of what feels like the longest January ever. I had an emotional wobble on Thursday, having spent all day at an online moderation meeting for sixth form EPQ projects when the rest of the school were off timetable, encouraged to take time away from online study. It couldn’t be helped but nearly broke me. But everything happens for a reason and it has forced me to realise how little time I have spent since Christmas socialising, reading, walking, gardening, cooking and doing all those activities that make me feel like me. I need to recalibrate and fill the pot from which I pour to others during the week.

Today is the feast of St Brigit and the ancient festival of Imbolc, a fire festival. Traditionally it was a time when stores would be running low. No change there as we have just exhausted our supply of fire wood and have another booked to arrive tomorrow. Fire rituals at Imbolc ensured a good growing season and celebrated having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter. Ritual fire was kindled to ensure a good growing season and to increase the power of the returning sun. Families would celebrate having successfully survived the darkest days of another winter.

That seems especially poignant this year as we begin to emerge from the effects of the pandemic. We’re not there yet but there are signs that, if managed carefully, we should not slip back into the dark days of winter. To celebrate quietly we had a catch up with the boys who are in lockdown at university, lit the fire last night and watched ‘The Dig’ on Netflix, a beautiful bittersweet film with some lovely understated performances. Life affirming but not shying away from the fact that living has its fair share of personal difficulties.

Imbolc blessings to you all. May the sunshine return to your homes and gardens over the coming months.

Wellbeing, it’s elemental. Part 4 : Fire

We Celts are never shy in celebrating – more often than not it involves music, dancing, alcohol and fire. Even in this strangest of years we’ll be welcoming in the New Year with a celebration around the fire. Of course it will be a quiet affair beside our  own hearth rather than on top of a hill where a community gathers beside a hastily constructed beacon blazing ostentatiously. How I long for those atavistic days! Having to scale down Bonfire Night affected me more than almost every other festival this year. Truly!

Fire stirs something deep within me and never fails to soothe. Not that I’m a pyromaniac you understand but I’ve spent hours tending bonfires after dusk on the allotment, love the daily routine of laying a fire in the hearth and am fanatical about the log pile. I adore a firework display but my passion is for the accompanying bonfire. One day I’m determined to do a spot of firewalking. 

To celebrate the end of 2020 I’ve splurged on a cornus for our cottage garden. Cornus ‘midwinter fire’. It’s a beauty and will go some way to assuage the lack of fire celebrations this year. Whenever I look out of the kitchen window it will remind me of 2020 – the craziness, the changes, the interruptions and the sheer joy of living in the moment. 

Wrapping up Christmas

Christmas is cancelled, according to the doom-laden press. It’s true enough that Christmas is very different this year for many. It’s true that we haven’t felt very Christmassy because the usual rituals have been curtailed or changed. It’s not true that the spirit of Christmas has been cancelled. Resilience, adaptability and community spirit – always positive character traits – have been forced upon us.

Here we are lucky enough still to be able to wrap up homemade gifts with love and care and deliver them to the friends we love who live nearby. We don’t go in for sparkle and glitter in our wrapping, but there was plenty of sparkle when we stood for 15 minutes on doorsteps chatting and planning to meet when were all allowed out next year. It was lovely to find a bit of normal in our topsy-turvy world.

Christmas bunting

Whatever your circumstances this year, life is better with Christmas bunting. This is some made by a former teaching colleague to fundraise for a local charity. It reminds me of Christmases past, people whom I no longer see on a daily basis and taking pleasure in the simple things.

I think that’s important, more than ever this year.

In a pumpkin pickle

The whole world is carving pumpkins – or so it seems. Nothing wrong with that , except the staggering amount of pumpkin pulp that ends up in landfill every year. That makes me sad when there is absolutely NO NEED for it. So how do we deal with this little pickle?

Teach your children to be responsible. At the very least pop your pulp on the compost heap. If you don’t have one, start one. You’ll find plenty if advice here.

Just one postscript to the ideas above – if you’re leaving it as a snack for squirrels or birds, pop it off the ground. Hedgehogs will suffer if they munch on it. And if you’re lucky enough to have a hedgehog visit your garden, you’ll want to look after him or her.

We usually make pumpkin soup with plenty of ginger and chilli to cut through the gloopiness of the pumpkin. A warming treat on a dreary day and uber-freezable too. Recipe below.

You’ll need
1 tablespoon olive oil, 50g butter a small pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and diced, 2 onions, diced, 3 cloves garlic, crushed, 1 red chilli, finely chopped, a thumb-sized piece root ginger, grated, 900ml vegetable stock, 50g coconut cream, pinch coriander leaves to garnish.

  1. Heat the oil and butter in a pan, then over a medium heat sweat the pumpkin, onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chilli and ginger, then cook for a further 5 minutes.
  3. Add the hot stock, bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the butternut squash is soft.
  4. Blend in batches until smooth.
  5. Reheat gently before adding the coconut cream. Season to taste and serve garnished with a few coriander leaves.

Delicious.

Time for reflection

winter mooring from Ben Ranyard

The clocks have gone back, the sun sets earlier, as we head towards Samhain it’s time for reflection. Here at Country Gate we’ve lit the first log fires of the season, candles accompany our supper time chats and soups and stews have already begun to replace the salads of the summer.

Every season has its pleasures. Winter is a time for looking back and planning forward, for hunkering down with those you love – if you can this year, for going on nature rambles, clearing the clutter from your life and hitting pause.

Samhain itself is a time for all of the above and for thinking fondly of those who have died, whose presence has gone from our lives even though I’m sure our lives are still touched by them.

I was interested to read a little about how Samhain is celebrated traditionally. Here are the seven ideas that were mentioned a lot.

  1. Go on a nature walk. We’ve booked Stourhead on Saturday.
  2. Build an altar using seasonal fruits. Our kitchen windowsill is home to an impromptu collection of windfall quince, squash, conkers and hazelnuts. That will do.
  3. Light candles. An everyday occurrence
  4. Hold a ceremony. Build a goddess figure from garden prunings. Bring it inside and lay a place at the table. That’s a bit too wicker man for me but I will do some garden pruning.
  5. Have a bonfire. Walk around it and make plans for the coming season. The bonfire at least will happen.
  6. Hit pause – meditate, keep a reflective diary. Yes. Yes. Yes. Such a good thing to do.
  7. Connect with your community. Spent a lovely hour with some old friends last night talking about the support the village has mobilised for individuals over the last few months, what more can be done, drinking wine, and tasting quince ice cream made from some of our tree’s bounty this year. Highly recommended.

Lammas Eve

Pic from Lammas Sabbat Index

Teachers do their spring cleaning in the summer hols – especially when the Easter hols disappeared in a haze of preparing to switch to online teaching. I’ve given myself a deadline of the end of the month – Lammas Eve (or Juliet’s birthday, if you are an English teacher, who can shoe-horn a Shakespeare reference into most sentences). There are kitchen cupboards to clear out, clutter to clear and windows to wash. A neighbour has started up a Saturday Share-it Day where anyone in the town can put out unwanted goods to be re-homed. It’s helped us enormously whilst the charity shops have been closed. This week there will be another box of goodies available in our front garden..

I’ve written about celebrating Lammas before. The beginning of August feels like more of ending than high-Summer to me. Some of our garden crops are over, I’ve already started thinking about the Autumn bulb planting and placed an order to be delivered in September and – dare I say it – the nights are drawing in. I’m not sad. I love the Autumn. It appeals to my agricultural and teaching heritage. I can harvest crops and start making chutney for the store cupboard and give full vent to my passion for stationery. (Surely every teacher has one?)

This Lammas I will bake bread and prune some of the herbs which are going over. The mint needs a severe pruning and parts of a lavender hedge which has fed the bees for weeks are looking grey and droopy. I read somewhere that one of the traditions of Lammas is to fashion a besom from twigs, decorate it with green and gold ribbons and a few sprigs of mint. I like to find time to create something every day and this will allow me to use up some old pea sticks and the mint prunings to make something which will be useful for  sweeping up the remaining lavender petals from the terrace.

Happy Lammaside. May your harvests be bountiful, your store cupboard full and everything in your house spick and span.

May Day

I can hardly believe it’s the beginning of May but the winter squash on the kitchen windowsill and the lush growth in the garden is proof that it is. For the first time in years my seed sowing is more organised than sporadic. I have peas, beans of various varieties, beetroot, rocket, chard, carrots, lettuce and spinach growing in amongst the flowers and shrubs.

I’ve written about May Day before but this one is different. No trips out to National Trust properties, no May Fairs, no picnics, except in our own garden and no fire – although when I get that fire basket for the terrace we will be able to sit outside and chat in the chill of the evening.

I love a bit of tradition, as you know. Staying out all night, watching the sunrise and bathing your face in morning dew appealed to my younger self; dressing a tree and making a floral crowns and baskets was the stuff of parenting toddlers.

Now I’m drawn to making Hawthorn Brandy, much more sedate for a woman of mature years. You will need a bottle of brandy and at least one cup of hawthorn flowers, plus a little sugar to taste. Mix the ingredients together and leave away from direct light, for at least two weeks. Shake occasionally. Strain, bottle and enjoy. Hawthorn is renowned as a tonic for the heart.

May is a good time to start a new project. It will be good to fuel my energies into a new enterprise after weeks of lockdown but I have welcomed the time to reflect and plan rather than rushing into anything whilst continuing the business of teaching my students remotely and spending time with my family. I’ll share progress soon.

 

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