Home & Shop Companion #0030
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
There has been a change in the air this week; it still feels like summer, but it definitely has the feel of late summer. The leaves on the plum tree outside the kitchen window are yellowing, and in the field the onion tops have fallen over, so yesterday I pulled them up and laid them out to dry. A sure sign of the changing season this time of year are the flocks of wild geese which start to fly over our house just before dusk, honking as they go, on their way to roost in the big area of peat bog which lies half a mile to the west. Last year they started early, around the tenth of August, but we have only had one flight so far this year, because the weather is still warm, I suppose. But it has been wet too; on Thursday we had a day out, to visit a friend and go for a walk in the hills to the south of the county, but we were lucky not to get rained on because it has rained every day, and on our journey the fields of wheat in particular were starting to look grey and weathered.
For the first time in months, neither horse has been in harness this week. I had hoped to cultivate the fallow beds in the field again, but it is still too damp and thousands of weed seedlings are popping up, even growing out of the clumps of soil which had been drying out nicely to desiccate the perennial weeds. As soon as it dries a little, I will go through with the cultivator, hopefully while the seedlings are still less than an inch tall, but in two small patches there are some shoots of couch appearing, so this morning while I had the fork to dig a few potatoes, I spent a few minutes following the sharp-ended rhizomes which were easy to pull out of the damp but loose soil. Digging weeds by hand might seem like a lot of work, but on an area such as this, if only 1 or 2 % is affected, it is time well spent, precision extraction and precision timing to stop it inveigling its way through next winter’s cover crop of rye and hiding amongst next year’s potatoes.
Another job I had hoped to do yesterday was cutting the garden hedges, which provide a much needed windbreak against the westerly winds which whistle over the moss where the geese feel safe, gaining speed as the ground gains height to blast the end of our house and garden. Using an electric hedge trimmer, which over here is 240 volts, was not something I wanted to do when it was wet, so instead I went into the vegetable garden and removed the fine net covering the brassica bed. The net is there to prevent butterflies laying their eggs on the cabbages, which, before I had the net, were regularly eaten down to the stalks by the very hungry caterpillars. This year they instead turned to the nasturtiums which I allow to self-seed in the vegetable garden and which are now completely defoliated. The butterfly net is 2 metres wide, [6’ 6”] supported by hoops pushed into the ground and weighed down at the edges by bricks. The hoops are either half inch steel rod or lengths of plastic water pipe which had wooden rods inserted in each end, secured with a nail which also provides a place to tie a length of twine which passes over the netting or clear plastic to keep it in place. This worked fine until the wood rotted through, so now I just push the pipe ends into the ground, but I prefer the steel ones, and when I am done with them, they can at least be melted down to make something else.
The net tunnel works fine for low growing cabbages, but the Brussel sprouts and broccoli have been pushing up so much the tops of the leaves have been pushed inwards and then they lifted the net clean off the ground. This has only happened over the last week or two after the majority of the butterflies had gone, but some must have got underneath because there were still enough caterpillars munching their way through the leaves to make a gentle half hour of caterpillar-squishing worthwhile. I have mixed feelings about butterflies; I don’t like the cabbage whites on the cabbages, but this year there have been many more butterflies of different species than in recent years, a joy to watch as they flutter over the hay field and around the wood. Whether the increase was due to less air pollution during lockdown or the warm dry spring, I don’t know, but the numbers did remind me of when I first learnt to drive a car, forty years ago, and in the summer you would often have to use the wipers because of the number of insects squashed on the windscreen, but it doesn’t happen now.
The garden is probably at its most fruitful now. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are prolific and red, and even the outside ones are starting to ripen, and we have zucchini, kale, beetroot, potatoes, French beans, lettuce, brassicas and chard outside, with parsnips, carrots and squashes for later, and cucumber in the greenhouse. The apples are also just starting to fall off one tree, though the Victoria plum tree, my favourite, despite a mass of blossom in the spring, hasn’t a single fruit this year. In stark contrast, the damson trees are laden, though the fruit is not yet ripe. The damson was a very common tree around here, the Shropshire Damson being a named variety, and in the days before the invention of aniline dyes produced from coal tar, railway truckloads of damsons left north Shropshire to go to make dyes for cloth, and it is said that tenant farmers paid their rent just from the damsons grown in the hedges between the fields. The problem with damsons are the stones, there seems to be more stone than damson, so in recent years we have been cooking them and putting them through a sieve before freezing the juice which we heat up and eat with ice cream, a splash of colour and tart summer-time goodness to cheer up a winter’s evening.
But winter is a little way off, there’s still plenty of fruit to gather, vegetables to store, and time to plant quick growing protected crops, but it definitely feels like we need to seize the moment, making the most of the dry weather and the warmth while it is here.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.