Forces of nature and 10 remedies for gloom

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Weather: it is what it is. I love the shadows created by the sun and the feel of it on my face; I love the wind whipping up the sea and watching birds ride the updrafts along the cliff edge; the thrill of spotting a rainbow; the mesmerising cloud formations; the rain sweeping in and watering the garden. And I love that I can see more weather living here and get out into it on long dog walks. In this crazy, high-tech, man-made mess of a world what I love most about it is that we can’t control it.

A recent Office of National Statistics study has revealed that people in middle age are the least satisfied with their lives. Christina has written about it here and there was extensive coverage on Radio 4 recently. I fall into this age group but I’d say that right now I am the most content I’ve ever been. I am extremely fortunate in many respects and I know that many people have big, serious issues to deal with in their lives but, for what it’s worth (and I’m probably teaching my grandmother to suck eggs), here are my 10 Remedies for Gloom:

1. Get a dog.
2. Walk the dog as often as you can. If you can’t get a dog, walk anyway.
3. Do some other form of exercise too (yoga, running, kick-boxing, whatever).
4. Grow plants. Properly look at these plants. Notice their beauty.
5. Read books. Lots of them.
6. If you fancy a piece of cake or a chocolate biscuit, have one (just one).
7. The same goes for a gin and tonic. Or a glass of champagne (perhaps two of those).
8. Spend time with the people you love and who make you happy.
9. Make something (a cake, jam, a jumper, a quilt, a massive sculpture in cheese, anything).
10. Do something nice for someone else.


Before Imogen whipped herself up into a fury on Sunday (if we’re naming storms we may as well have fun anthropomorphising them), David and I spent a few hours tidying up in the garden. We cut back the raspberry canes, weeded the beds by the greenhouse and mulched them with compost. There are two empty-ish beds (one recently vacated by gooseberry bushes) and we’re mulling over what to plant. I’d like one for flowers to cut and bring indoors and I think we’ll plant more herbs, salads and beans but it’s still in the planning. Whatever we manage to do in the garden at this time of year is a bonus and it lulls me into thinking we’re on top of things before the rush to keep up when all the plants are growing like mad.

In other news… You may recall that I had some rather lofty intentions at the start of the year. Um… Well… I’ve not done much (apart from in the garden). I’ve managed a basic chain link crochet thingy, I’ve thought about decorating schemes for the front room and moved the furniture that’s waiting to be painted, but I’ve decided to scrap the idea of getting a new job for now. I periodically decide to get a ‘proper job’, rejoin the ranks of the permanently employed and enjoy a little security but these bouts tend to be short-lived. I applied for a couple of local jobs in January, nothing to do with anything I’ve ever done before, but didn’t get anywhere. Oh well. Never mind. I do love my independence, long walks and being able to wander out into the garden during the day, so I’ll hang in there with the freelancing. Phew.

Right. I’ve got a poorly teenager at home, so I’m off to check he’s ok. We’ve had a few fallings-out recently but his teenage force is temporarily crushed by a stinking cold. He’s a poppet when he’s not well.

Hope you’re having a good week.

Winter light

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I have been completely distracted by the light all week. It has had me rushing to find my phone to capture it before the sun shifts and the perfect moment is gone. The skies at the beginning and end of each day have been particularly magnificent and the early morning sun has bathed the house in a glorious pinky-golden light.

This morning, after I dropped the children at the station, I stood at the top gate, took deep breaths of chilled air, listened to the birdsong all around and wallowed in the wonder of it all. This winter light fills me with optimism and gladdens my heart.

Sunshine and sparks of joy

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There has been too much time spent indoors over the past couple of months (duff toe, Christmas, family demands, daily life, the weather) and no gardening to speak of. Dog walks aside, I don’t think I realised how cabin-feverish and lackadaisical I’d been feeling until I spent a brilliant day in the garden on Wednesday.  It was fan-tas-tic to be outdoors and have the motivation to get stuff done.

I cut back perennials, cleared a big bed of weeds and fallen leaves, pruned roses, moved pots. Back indoors for a quick lunch then back outside. I removed the dead leaves from the rhubarb plant, which is finally looking like it should do at this time of year, cleared off the crown and mulched around it, and then I took an executive decision to dig out five old gooseberry bushes. These haven’t fruited well for the last two years and were badly affected by sawfly last year. They were also in an awkward position, right next to a path, where their thorny branches scratched anyone who got too close. It’s all very well holding on to inherited plants but sometimes you have to be ruthless.

I’ve decided to apply the ‘KonMarie‘ method to the garden – if it’s not working and making us happy, it’s got to go. I’m up against strong resistance to decluttering indoors but I think I may have better luck outside. Gardeners already do this to some extent: we mostly grow plants that we love to look at or eat. What can get in the way, though, is when you inherit a garden full of plants you wouldn’t have chosen yourself and in positions you wouldn’t have put them. Granted, it takes time and money to make changes so it is a gradual process. We’ve been here for a few years now and seen this garden through several seasons, and we have plenty of ideas. The back garden is beginning to come together; this year we’ll make a start on the front.

Today has been another gloriously sunny day, albeit a bitterly cold one, and David and I spent a few hours outside. We haven’t properly looked at the garden together since last autumn, so we walked round to see what was what, discussed jobs to get on with and made plans for the coming months: perhaps gabions here; a couple of fruit trees there; maybe currant bushes; hoik out those plants that we’ve never liked but are big and established; ooh and this is the spot for a sheltered seating area; and what about the pond? Just discussing it all felt good. More than good, it felt fabulous and I thank my lucky stars that we live in this place and have a patch of land to create a garden that gives us joy.

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This is our little black cat, Molly. Absolutely nothing to do with gardening but she makes me smile. She likes to hide in the shadows, where she can’t be seen, and she especially loves boxes.



Happiness in a jar


How do you like your marmalade? Finely cut, sweet and golden? Or thick-cut, bitter-sweet and treacly? My preference is definitely for the latter and the darker the better. I’m not sure when my love of marmalade started or where it came from. I can’t ever recall my mum or grandmothers making it, but mum does love eating it. I remember giving her all my chunks of peel when I was younger for her to pile onto her toast. Perhaps that’s where it started.

This time of year is when you can find Seville oranges in the shops in the UK. It’s a short season (January to February), so if you fancy having a go at making marmalade buy them now while you can. These bitter oranges are definitely not for eating – they are far too sour and full of pips – but they do make THE best marmalade. I’ve just finished potting up my favourite kind. Standing in my kitchen, scraping the bottom of the preserving pan with a toasted bagel to get at every last drop of gorgeousness, I had a moment – you know, when everything in your world feels alright – and I felt a burst of ridiculous happiness.

There are many different marmalade recipes and methods but here’s how I make it.

A dark and treacly marmalade (makes about 10 x 340g jars)
1.5kg Seville oranges
2 unwaxed lemons
1kg dark soft brown sugar
1kg unrefined caster sugar

You will need:
a very large saucepan or preserving pan with lid
long-handled wooden spoon
slotted spoon
large colander
a couple of bowls (the right size to sit sieve and colander over)
1-litre measuring jug (if you have 2 jugs use both)
large chopping board and sharp knife
jam funnel
10 jars, sterilised (see how to do it here)

Wash the oranges and lemons. Halve the lemons, squeeze the juice from them and set it aside for later. Put all the fruit in a large saucepan or preserving pan.
Add about 3.5 litres of water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to simmering point, cover the pan and simmer for about 2 hours. At this point, you can go and catch up on blog reading or gardening or something more interesting than watching the pot. It’s a good idea to check the oranges are cooking evenly and turn them over in the simmering water occasionally. You want the oranges to be very soft – once the sugar is added the rind won’t soften further, so you need to make sure it’s softened sufficiently at this stage. Try squishing one with a wooden spoon. If it gives way easily, they’re done. Leave to cool. You can leave them until the next day if that’s easier.
This is the messy bit. Clear a big space and make sure you have a colander, sieve, a couple of bowls and measuring jugs to hand. Lift the fruit out of the pan with a slotted spoon and into a large colander set over a bowl. Take each orange and pull apart, carefully scooping the pips and pith with your hands into a sieve set over a bowl (liquid from this will be rich in pectin, which you want). Cut the orange skins into the size of shreds you want. I like mine chunky (and it’s less fiddly than cutting very finely). You can also shred the lemons, if you like. Add any liquid from the colander to the pan. Squish the pith and pips into the sieve and add that liquid too. Measure the overall amount of liquid you have – you’re after about 2.2 litres. Add water to top up if necessary.
Add the reserved lemon juice to the liquid in the pan, tip in all the shredded peel and the sugar.
Stir the ingredients together with a wooden spoon over a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then turn up the heat to bring the marmalade to a rolling boil. Boil rapidly for about 35 minutes and then test for a set: spoon a little onto a chilled saucer, pop it in the freezer for a minute then push the marmalade with your finger. If it wrinkles, you have reached setting point. If it doesn’t, keep boiling and test again every few minutes.
Once your marmalade is ready to pot, remove the sterilised jars from the oven and put alongside the pan. Place the jam funnel in the top of each jar and use the ladle to fill to about 1cm from the top. Fill each jar in turn then place a lid or waxed disc on top of each one. If you have a little left over (more than for a toasted bagel), scrape it into a bowl and cover with clingfilm. Use this up before you start on the jars.
Leave the jars to cool, then tighten the lids (or cover with cellophane tops) before labelling and storing. Unopened jars will apparently keep for about 2 years but mine don’t last long enough to check that claim.