One Tomato, Two Tomato

Last year’s chillis under this year’s tomatoes

The clocks have gone back, so maybe summer is finally over. The harvest should have been safely gathered in, although the recent warm air currents seem to suggest there is still more growing to do. I cleared two of the vegetable beds at the weekend, getting rid of the dead sweet peas and the tired courgettes. The courgettes, like the beans did not do well this summer, perhaps unable to cope with the long dry spell. The sweet peas, similarly, went to seed very rapidly, and the sound of their pods “popping” in the sun were one of the sounds of the summer, for me.

The most prolific vegetable producing area was the greenhouse, where tomatoes went balistic and we are still harvesting green (and red) peppers, with chillis still to come. The sheer volume of tomatoes had me scratching my head for ways of perserving them and I came up with three methods.

First of all, we made ratatouille, using up our own dodgy onions and oversized courgettes with the excellent MLG garlic. When the courgettes and onions were finished (or rotted) we went on to making the first MLG passata, which seemed pretty decent too.

But our most satisfying preserving method was our own sun-dried tomatoes. Well, strictly speaking they were oven-dried, but the results were very pleasing, all be it a little on the small side. I guess it should not be too big a suprise that dried tomatoes take up considerably less volume than the originals, but four baking trays of halved cherry tomatoes only made three jars of the sun-dried version. We swamped them in a little olive oil and loaded them with quartered garlic cloves and the results were spectacular.

Now I include my sun dried tomatoes with everything: ham sandwiches, cheese and biscuits, corn flakes (ok, maybe not corn flakes, although, but then again, why not?)

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PTS Dachshund

Long Dog, Short Sunspot

It feels as if the weather is about to break.  It is trying to.  And not before time.  Mr Long is about to snap, or else break us, after a week of strange encounters with other residents of the Midlife Garden, climaxing in a torrid day for our little German sentry dog.

The hot weather has brought crazy critters out in force.  It started with Mr Long finding an interloper amidst the tubs on the patio.  Like any dachshund he approaches any creature smaller than him with curiosity and a simple checklist:

A: is it dangerous? (If the answer to this is ‘No’, go to question B.  If the answer is ‘Yes’, bark at it)

B: Can I eat it? (If ‘Yes’, then do so, if ‘No’, bark at it)

Badger had clearly found something that was either dangerous, or inedible, or both.  It turned out to be a toad hiding under the trailing lobelia and Badger initially tried to bite it, only to discover that toads secrete an irritant to put off predators.  Mr toad just sat and smiled as Badger tried to bark with a mouthful of toad venom.

We moved the toad to the front garden, and all tried to move on, although Badger remained on the alert. 

Dachshund v Caterpillar

Next up, the Dachs discovered caterpillars.  Hawkmoth caterpillars.  The first was a green version, which freaked him enough.  A few days later it was two cigar-sized brown versions.  These feed on Fuchsia, which was where our intrepid whiffler found them, just going about their business.  The sheer size of them was enough to wind our clockwork dog up to eleven.  The ‘eyes’ on a hawkmoth caterpillar are supposed to deter predators and they certainly put the willies up Mr Long.    Not that this stopped our guard hound from obsessing about caterpillars all evening.  He tends to over think these things.

Yesterday, Mrs B was sitting quietly in the sunken area when she was alarmed to hear rustling under the pallet seating opposite her.  We know there are vermin around here – none more so than Mr Long, who barks whenever he thinks he sees a rat around the recycling area or shed.  He never actually attacks them – suggesting he regards them as dangerous, which is fair.  So, on hearing the clear movement of rodents in the cavity below the pallets, Mrs B called for assistance – which Badger was keen to provide, if an anxious, barking dachshund can be described as help.

It was not, however, a rat, but a mole, which I quickly despatched – to the ditch two hundred yards up the road.  The mole was not happy, but I do not want moles in my garden.  The plan seemed to work, until a couple of hours later I discovered a mole once again in the same spot, in the leaves underneath the seating.  Either we were dealing with a “Homing Mole” with Speedy Gonzales-like qualities or just another dumb rodent.  Badger tried to attack this one.  He obviously did not see it as dangerous but was not convinced of its nutritional qualities.  I caught this mole and, in case it was the same one, I despatched it more permanently.

The Long Dog was now on a mission and as we sat in the shade on the patio, he flushed out a frog from behind the flowerpots.  I often see frogs around the tubs – I guess they are keeping the slug population at bey, so I am happy to see them.  Badger does not share my delight and decided to chase the frog across the patio.  Each time it stopped, he stopped, nudging it with his chisel-like nose.  The frog would then leap away, at one point landing on the back of the recumbent Labrador, who casually got up, wondering what was on her back.  The frog leapt off and into the pond, pursued by the Dachshund who tiptoed around the edge.

By now our Dachshund was beyond wired.  The world is a big scary place when you are not much bigger than a Pringles tube on corks and he was struggling to cope.  Taking the dogs for their afternoon walk seemed like a good way to re-set the highly strung snack tin, but this backfired when the empty field we were walking around was invaded by a dozen heifers charging around the circumference towards us.  Badger gamely ran after Ella and me to the gate, blissfully unaware of the bovine blitzkrieg that was heading his way.

The evening saw us trying to relax on the sofa, but still Badger wanted to check the garden, so we gave him “supervised” exercise, like some convict.  I spotted a frog sitting by the pond, just as Whiffle Boy saw it too.  The frog exited stage left, pursued by a dog, who, straining to see where the frog had gone, toppled into the water.  Dachshunds are not water dogs and the inadvertent dip put a literal dampener on proceedings.  He spent a sorry few minutes licking himself dry.

It seemed the fun and games were over when we wearily pulled the bifold doors shut on the kitchen and put our tired dogs to bed.  Half an hour later we were woken by Mr Long whining, and then barking once again.  I wandered into the kitchen to remonstrate.  As I switched the light on, I caught sight of something flying towards me at knee height, with a Sausage Dog in hot pursuit.   Whatever it was, missed me and landed in the corner.  It was like a scene from Family Guy.  I looked and laughed.  It was another (the same?) frog.  Badger was determined to have it this time, and once more I had to come between him and his foe like the sober friend in a pub fight.

“Leave it Badger, he’s not worth it” or words to that effect.  Words which actually had no effect.  For the next several hours, even with the frog now safely airlifted to the pond, or Rwanda, or wherever, Badger continued to pace the kitchen floor looking for more caterpillars / frogs / moles / heifers.  Assuming it was the scent of the frog that was disturbing him, we moved both dogs to the living room for the night.  The choice of sofas and beds seemed to settle them, and we eventually slept.

I had placed their bowl of water on the hearth with a piece of newspaper underneath in case it spilt.  When Mrs B saw it the next morning, she gave an ironic laugh.  The article in the paper, describing life for many people of our age, was titled “We are having the best sex of our lives!”

“They clearly don’t own a dachshund” she said.

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Freezing in the Heatwave

When my parents were looking for a house in the second half of the 1970s, their choice was influenced, in large part, by thoughts of self-sufficiency.  They bought the new house because it had been a smallholding, and they proceeded to grow vegetables on an industrial scale.  My teenage experience of ‘helping’ in the veg patch informs much of what I did when I started the Midlife Garden.   Initially, I was rebelling, trying to do things differently from what my father did, but increasingly I have come to grudgingly accept that much of what he did in the garden was actually sensible and effective. 

My father’s quest for self-sufficiency stemmed from the bad old days of the early seventies with the threat of nuclear war and the challenge of oil supplies from OPEC.  But these days not everyone looks back at the seventies with horror.  Our two erstwhile candidates for the post of Leader of the Conservative Party hark back to the election of 1979 and are in a race to the bottom to prove that they are the real Spirit of Thatcher, competing to see who can promise the lowest taxes, the most Grammar Schools and fewest immigrants. 

In 2022 my own desire to grow more veg has been sharpened by concerns similar to TOM’s, over oil prices, inflation and even the thought of nuclear obliteration.  So, in another nod to my parents’ efforts I have begun blanching and freezing our excess crops, starting with the peas.  In the past we have not always been as diligent as we could have been in preserving our full crop of veg.  Rumour has it we have had to import two thirds of our own vegetables. Only five words to describe that situation: That. Is. A. Dis. Grace.

Of course, at the Old Place we also raised pigs which meant a plentiful supply of meat for the family.  Our opening up of the Midlife Pork Market went some way to filling the freezer, but now that we eat less meat at MLG, we are more reliant on veg, so blanching and freezing is back the hot topic around here.

Unfortunately, it does not look as if we will have much surplus in many crops.  The beans are a case in question.  Very much the Rishi Sunaks of the veg patch, they were looking good at the start of July, but they have since bolted, appear increasingly desperate and are unlikely to be as successful as we first thought. 

Instead, we have a great crop of tomatoes (yes, it’s a good season for trusses, you will be pleased to hear).  And also peppers are doing well in the greenhouse.  But, if the tomatoes are on Trusses, they might struggle to find their way out of the greenhouse

While the indoors is thriving, the hot dry spell has left the raised beds looking arid and many crops are wilting.  But fear not, as many online trolls have pointed out, it is no worse than the “Long Hot Summer of 76”, so why worry?  Don’t be distracted by so-called experts at the Met Office (what do they know?).  Let’s get back to the 70s, when we elected our first female Prime Minister.  Maybe that is what the Midlife Garden needs: Iron Lady II – the War on Garden Waste.  Blanche and Freeze to our heart’s desire, and let’s party like it’s 1979.

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First Tomatoes

The other day Mrs B came home with a new cook book. This not an entirely unusual occurrence: we both enjoy discovering new recipes, and Mrs B owns a Bookshop. You do the Math. Home Food, is written by Olia Hercules. She is Ukrainian, co-founder of #cookforukraine and in this, her latest book, she details many simple, delicious recipes. There was one that we were both drawn to describing a novel way of cooking aubergine, which was as simple as it was surprising. It involved steaming the aubergine whole for 40 minutes. That was it.

The (not particularly) tricky part of the recipe was making a dressing with which to smother the halved vegetable and provide some flavour to the mushy flesh inside. It was easy and yet so filled with flavour, and most of the ingredients were simple store cupboard items, like soy sauce, wine vinegar, lime juice, sesame oil and sesame seeds. And to add extra staisfaction to our implementation of the recipe, it also listed items which we could readily harvest from the garden, such as chillis and garlic, which has cropped early and heavy this year. I have over forty good bulbs, all produced from the bulbs I grew last year, so it has not only been plentiful, but virtually free, too.

But the pièce de résistance came at the end of the recipe, when the author instructed me to add some chopped mint. Thisis a bit of a no-brainer, as mint grows like a weed in any kitchen garden, and at this time of year it is young and zingy in its flavour. But, in a twist that was straight out of an M&S food advert, the author had decided to take it to another level and admitted that for the picture in the book, she had “got all fancy”, gone a bit rogue, and added some Peruvian mint. Now, I have have grown this for some years, but it is the first time I have ever seen Peruvian, or Black Mint as an ingredient in a mainstream cook book. So, after picking my spring onions, I stopped off in the greenhouse to pick a few leaves. It provided a subtly different flavour and look to the meal, but it also provided a massive geographical shift and validation for my persistence in growing apparently niche herbs from around the world.

The recipe also needed a spring onion, and lo and behold, I have a row of sping onions in the veg patch, so I just pottered out and pulled a couple.

This year, the Black Mint, Korean Mint and Pipiche (‘Bolivian Corander’) all germinated extremely well and we looked as if we would be getting a fine crop with plenty of seedlings to give to friends. It seemed that, unlike many of our seedlings, our Herbal Foreign Legion seemed immune to the local slugs, so I potted them on with little fear for the consequences. But the local slime balls had either rapidly developed their taste for overseas food, or had simply been playing a waiting game, as one morning I came out to see the pots decimated by the sluggy thugs. I gave my herbs made a tactical retreat to the relative safety of the greenhouse, potted on some of the previous rejects and have managed to nurture some replacements which are ‘doing well’.

I planted them out in a raised bed, interplanting amongst the sweetcorn, as tidy as an Inca’s allotment. To keep the slugs at bey, I have been organised enough to put in beer traps. I was not, however, organised enough to get some cheap beer in for the job (I reckon a malty porter does the trick), so had to use whatever came to hand. In this case it was a choice of some fancy “craft” IPA or a bottle of reliable Doom Bar. Despite evidence that the slugs have acquired a taste for foreign herbs, I did not think they would have refined their palates to go for an NEIPA made with Citra Hops, with a complex fruitiness and layers of tropical flavour. So Doom Bar it was, sacriligeous as that may be to some. But the results spoke for themselves, with half a dozen sozzled slugs floating in the jars of ale the next morning, like little Dukes of Clarence in Malmesey wine.

The herbs continue to flourish.

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A Long Dog’s Journey into Night

“This is my Sniffy Dog”
(Billy’s Beetle, by Mick Inkpen, 1992)

So much of our lives revolve around routines. We are creatures of habit, as they say, and no creature is more habitual than Mr Long – Young Badger Boy. He gets us up at 6 a.m. every morning and was not even put out by the clocks changing: he just re-set his internal horological mechanism and started whining an hour earlier the next day. He demands dinner at 4, playing at 5 and, more often than not, a lap or a warm log fire by 6. And a biscuit at bed time normally settles him. It’s a simple life and it works, at home. It is when we are away from home that ‘issues’ occur.

They first became apparent in a dog-friendly hotel room in Monmouth last July. It was hot (Damn’ Hot). Three of us were sharing the room with Mr Long. No amount of biscuits would encourage the dog to go to sleep that night and Mrs B, VB and I took turns trying to get the boy asleep. After a fraught night, which ended with us frazzled and irritable (and him sound asleep on the floor) we agreed there had been moments we had worried we might impulsively hurl the poor animal out of the third floor window. Not because we wanted rid of him – far from it – but we were so punch drunk with fatigue we could not have been held accountable for our actions.

But that was one night in a busy pub / hotel (with other dogs). He were sure he would be fine at my brother’s house, when we visited earlier this year. And I am sure he would have been, if it was not for the gourmet feast of mozzarella, chorizo and cherry tomatoes that The Long Dog took advantage of when it was generously left for him on a low coffee table. By the time he was discovered, he was metaphorically wiping the plate with the remains of a large home-baked sour dough loaf. His subsequent whining and restlessness throughout the night we put down to indigestion.

Next up, perhaps staying over with friends nearer to home, without the consumption of vast quantities of carbs would be a better proposition? Sadly not. The first thing Badger did on arrival, was to escape from the kitchen and run upstairs – where he managed to corner one of the resident cats. When Mr Long sees a cat, he, not to put it too mildly, LOSES HIS SHIT. And on this occasion he was unable to regain it for the rest of the night. We left our good friends, like a guilty one night stand, by the back door, at dawn.

So, is there a trick in this tale of getting a Long Dog to lie low while away from home? If there is, we might have discovered it on our trip to Cambridge last weekend. The trick is to not be there. While we stayed in Cambridge, Badger was dropped in Bedford for a sleepover with long-time friends Jane and Stuart, and their lively Golden Lab Silas. It did not start well, as Badger launched an unprovoked attack on Silas. In Badger’s defence (no, really, he’s very bright and the teachers do not understand his needs), he did get roughed up Silas, who wanted to get rather too intimate with the Badger Boy. Silas is still ‘intact’. Badger (after his operation) is not. Silas seemed obsessed with this and constantly tried to lick the area that was lacking the very two things that Silas was boldly displaying between his hind legs. It was perhaps taking the…whatever.

After an initial reaction that was tantamount to a threat to rip Silas’s throat out, we were able to calm Badger to mute acceptance although Silas remained unabashed. We left for Cambridge with a sense of doom on how the night would pan out.

But apparently it all turned out fine. Badger just made the decision to go upstairs at bedtime, ending up in bed with his human hosts, in a clear insistence that this was what his normal night time routine entailed. Jane accepted the Long Dog, who snuggled at her feet. And so it all ended happily ever after. Which is more than can be said about our evening in Cambridge celebrating my big brother’s Rub Wedding. I left the party at 10, with a headache, sore throat and temperature.

We were hoping to stay with Jane and Stuart the next evening but instead we sat in the drive, took a Lateral FLow Test, which was positive, and went home with bags and dog. But it was not an entirely wasted journey. We had found out how to go away with Badger: don’t stay with him, keep him away from cats, amorous male dogs, and any food after 6pm, and ensure he has the almost exclusive use of a king size duvet.

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New Year, New Potatoes

Potato Day in January carries calendrical significance like a gardening equivalent of the Chinese New Year. For the Chinese, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, but how will this gardening year be named? Will it be the year of evasion and lying, when we pretend we have bought lots of seeds to help the garden grow and bloom, but discover that all we have are some very expensive spent husks? Will it be the year of invasion and ruin when all those pests that have been amassing in their hundreds of thousands on the garden border, decide to invade and destroy? Or maybe it will be the year of garden parties which we subsequently deny all knowledge of, and blame on others, so that we can continue to enjoy the privileges of living in a lovely space, without having to do anything too tiring.

At least the year started strongly with a proper, in-person Potato Day. Last year’s was a lockdown casualty, so it was pleasing to once again gather at Caryford Hall to get our hands on a wide selection of little chitters. Sadly Belle de Fontenay – normally my first choice second early – was not available, an absence for which we can apparently thank Brexit. I was disappointed, but just shrugged it off as yet another “unintended” consequence of our departure from the EU. But there is some consolation in the thought that our little glove puppet of a Foreign Secretary will be cheered by the news that we are importing fewer potatoes from the continent. To paraphrase Ms Truss, British gardeners having to use French seed potatoes is…a…dis…grace. So, no more French spuds coming over here taking the place of our King Edwards or Duke of Yorks, but since I saw a headline the other day suggesting Duke of Yorks may have to be renamed soon, I bought some British-bred Gemson as a replacement. We will see how that goes.

Anyway, when not being flattened by Storm Eunice, the garden is showing the first signs that spring is near. Bulbs are emerging like warheads in the pots, and around the garden we have Snow Drops and Crocuses in abundance. At Potato Day I bought some early seeds: tomato, chilli and cosmos. They have now been sown, and will soon be taking over the spare bedroom in a bid to allay Mrs B’s fear of Tomato Envy – that condition caused by neighbours offering tree-sized tomato plants, at a point when ours have barely germinated.

They will ultimately go into the greenhouse, which has now been in the garden for four years. I was reminded of the fact in a flash back on Google pictures. Four years ago is, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, a foreign country. I look through the “4 Years Ago This Week” photobook my phone has prodded me with and see that not only was I trying to rearrange lengths of aluminium and glass into a safe growing space, I was constructing raised beds and (The Horror! The Horror!) I was even lighting a bonfire in my front garden. How I avoided being drummed out of the village, I cannot say. I was probably saved by the fact that advanced communications like Facebook Groups were not widely known about in our rural community so I avoided the kind of neighbourhood trolling that would follow any misplaced bonfire now.

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Clearing Up

January. The party season is over so we have been clearing the decks in a manner that some say the Government should. It is difficult not to sympathise with the PM. I often head into the garden with the idea of work in my head, but get so distracted that 25 minutes just fly by in the company of a bunch of tits amongst the vegetables.

My willing accomplice in the MLG is often the Long Dog, who happily whiffles around the back garden looking for whatever he can hoover up. His primary objective is normally to tidy the border underneath the bird feeder, ensuring no peanuts or bits of bread are left behind. I suspect he would fit in well in the Corridors (or gardens?) of Power as, for him, this is clearly not a party: Mr Long views the consumption of large amounts of crisps and nuts as an essential part of a hard day’s work.

On Sunday I spent two hours clearing the remains of what passes for a cold frame, before tidying the potting shed. After a summer of poorly planned and executed failed seedlings and excess potting, the cold frame had more empties than the aftermath of a Downing Street works do. We are starting the first phase of the building back better operation in the MLG, which included clearing the remains of last year’s flowers from the Spursy bed. There are already green shoots poking up like the hands of disgruntled Tory backbenchers, which augur well for the spring (in both senses). And the onions and garlic are looking good, which is particularly pleasing as these are the onions that were re-planted after failing to grow last summer, and the garlic is from our own more successful crop.

Next up, we will take a look at the seed catalogues which are starting to crash onto the front door mat at this time of year. We will look through them and make some measured decisions on what to buy. When it comes to purchasing seeds, there is no VIP lane for seedy contracts: we try to do things the right way in the Midlife Garden.

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Potted history

Japanese Maple

In October, when I discovered that my big brother had already planted his spring bulbs and even sown his sweet peas, I decided to use my blog posts to see when I had previously planted bulbs and so I read my post from 2019 to check what I did right then.  Sadly, delving into events of the past two years is a potentially upsetting exercise – like raking over the embers of a massive fire, they appear harmless, but underneath the grey ash, the coals are deep and hot.  And they continue to burn – I fear they always will.  The pictures on that post show bulbs neatly placed in pots, on a bed of compost ready to be made snug.  There is a photo of the grey wagtail that appeared as if by magic and has returned this year, flying at the patio doors like an anxious spirit. 

The pictures are gloomy, in my mind if not in reality.  But I remember the spring show that followed my efforts that day as being the best I have ever achieved with bulbs, so this year I hope to surpass them.  Which might explain the trigger-happy internet shopping spree that led to a large box of bulbs being delivered to my door in November.  So this year I am going large on bulbs and sweet peas, in an effort to ensure a vibrant colourful spring in the Midlife Garden.

I made up some potting compost to my own random recipe.  To a base of New Horizon peat-free compost I added a little left over builders’ sand and a scoop of slow-release fertilizer that has been hanging around since being retrieved from the Old Place.  (How slow release does slow-release fertilizer have to be before it passes its use by date?)  The key ingredient, though, is horse manure.  I have been up and down the lane collecting wheelbarrow loads of the well-rotted organic gold dust from one of our neighbours – the same one who advised on action before motivation two years ago.  The consistency is fine-grained and friable and I am hoping that it will provide plenty of sustenance to any bulb or seed. 

So, in the New and Year and spring I hope to see narcissi, muscari and tulips filling the tubs, while crocuses push through the lawn, snowdrops glint in the borders and snakes head fritillaries dip their heads bashfully in the wild flower garden.  At least, by my actions these past couple of weeks, I can at least of given myself some hope for the New Year. 

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One Man and His Dog

Badger Boi and Ella (GOAT)

I continue to use gardening to help me cope with the stresses and strife of life and if the definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”, then I would add owning a dog to the list of things that contribute to my mental well-being.

We have two dogs. Firstly, there is our own Therapy Dog, in the shape of Ella: the chilled, empathetic labrador who is always there for you and who patiently listens to any of your woes. She is the GOAT when it comes to dogs that we have owned. She is quiet, calm, obedient and long-suffering and actually comes to back us when we call her.

And then there is Badger.

‘Mindfulness’ has a different connotation for him. It is something that involves his mind being full. Full of the fuzz of excitement as he follows trails around the fields of Somerset. So full of such stuff, so busy is he interpreting the scents around him, there is no room in his little Dachshund head for a simple idea like “I should go back to those humans who are calling my name and whistling incessantly”. As the vet said, by way of explaination: “He’s a hound”.

The latest example of this hound’s mind-full-ness occurred on our morning walk at the weekend. All was going fine until he suddenly picked up the scent of who-knows-what. No amount of calling and bribing with treats was going to distract him from quartering and re-quartering the dewy grass which must have been criss-crossed with the aroma of herds of deer, and whole communities of rabbits, badgers and mice. His mood was evidenced by his tail, which was wagging up, down and sideways like a demented conductor’s baton.

Calling was pointless. So physical removal was the only option. Impersonating a keen Collie, I made a long, looping outrun to get behind my own dog, hoping to shepherd him away from the woods and pond, towards the lane. Once in position, I elected to run at the dog, waving my arms and screaming like a berserker, hoping to wake him from his trance to then follow me to the gate. Instead, he started running to outflank me.

At this point in events I had an out-of-body experience, viewing myself in Ultra HD running, in wellies, through the damp grass. Just a few feet away, moving parallel to me, was the silver dapple Sausage. Although he was not wearing wellies, he was still struggling to get ahead of me as the grass was longer than his stubby legs. But he was not deterred. We eyed each other as we ran, and in retrospect I can hear the football pundits’ commentary describing the action:

“It’s poor defending there. It is clear that the dog wants to cut inside on his left foot, so the defender needs to show him the outside channel. It looks as if he has him going that way, but he over-commits and – I have to say – that’s a magnificent change of direction from the wee man as he dips his shoulder and leaves the old timer for dead. He’s beaten the offside trap and is through the fence and into the woods. Brilliant play. But you have to ask yourself: what is the Midlife Gardener doing there?”

It was something I was asking myself as I watched the north end of a south facing Dachshund disappearing into the undergrowth. As he passed me, I barely had enough breath to tell him he was a runt, or something similar.

He led me a merry dance for another ten mintues before accepting a treat in return for the attachment of a lead and a walk home in stoney silence. I should have been angry, frustrated, annoyed, but I was not. Mr Long continues to make us laugh every day. Even when I was chasing him around the field, I have to admit there were benefits, as it was the most intense cardiovascular workout I have had in months.

Rafa Benitez has been urging his players at Everton to turn off the Xbox* (*other gaming consoles are available) and spend more time in the great outdoors. It seems Rafa himself is a keen gardener and, according to The Daily Star “The green-fingered Spaniard has told his Premier League squad to take a leaf out of his own book and get outdoors.” I would wholeheartedly support those sentiments, but would also suggest they get a dachshund like Mr Long. Not only will the players increase their mindfulness by getting out in the fresh air to walk said dog, they might also work on their own sprinting, fitness and tactical positioning too. A win-win.

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“I’m a Pallet Man…”

There is more to having a garden than simply sowing seeds, potting on, weeding, planting out, dead-heading and harvesting. It is not all about the cultivars and compost, the maintenance and the mowing, the pest control and the picking out. Sometimes, you just have to sit down and take it all in. Simply enjoy it.

It was something that I felt The Old Man often failed to do. He would work tirelessly on the garden (when not tirelessly watching Countdown) and would often overlook the fact that the garden should be there for your delight and delectation.

Having said that, I have to admit that, in gardening terms, I too, am often prey to the beasts of constant work and no play. I find it difficult to sit in the garden without being distracted by the weeds, the gaps in the planting or the withered flower heads that require removal. It takes a conscious effort for me to overlook the imperfections in my garden (of which there are legion). But in this respect I am like many another gardener. No one I know has been able to do the whole Book of Genesis thing by taking a finite time to create their horticultural world and then, like, well, God – take a rest. We simply cannot help plucking a weed from a border or thinking how NEXT year we should get the annuals in earlier.

But this summer I am feeling pretty chuffed with my efforts to take the remains of a snooker table, some fencing and a few pallets to create a sunken seating area from which I can view the garden while resting and relaxing with family and friends. The idea came from the snooker table that my mother had inherited from her father. I say snooker table: when it came to clearing The Old Place after my father’s death, my brothers and I knew none of us could accommodate a 2/3 snooker table in any of our 21st century homes so we had consigned the table to house clearance. There had been a brief discussion with the valuer about the fact that, as my maternal grandfather had been a next door neighbour and billiards-playing chum of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this table had undoubtedly been played on by the creator of Sherlock Holmes and might have some value.

To which the auctioneer replied “provenance?” And the table was doomed to kindling.

But I could not bear to see the two pieces of slate that formed the flat, true surface of the table go to waste. Measuring 6ft by 4ft I felt there had to be some use for them. For two years they rested against the garage wall before I finally alighted upon the idea of a small patio. And this became, with the inclusion of the pallets left behind by builders and delivery drivers, a sunken seating area. The plan was vague at best, and even then only in my head, so few thought it viable. My good friend (and highly talented interior designer) Sarah, when I explained it to her simply looked with disdain at the wet muddy hole in the ground and said “Oh yes?” While my former tennis partner suggested I change the plan to create the largest shove ha’penny board around.

I harboured doubts of my own, but like Kevin Costner, I knew that if I built it they would come. So I did, and they did. Some salvaged fence rails, some gravel, a purchase of cheap foam, loosely wrapped in cheap IKEA fabric and my seats of dreams were complete.

Not content with this, we have since bought a pizza oven, which required the construction of a base for it (from pallets, natch), which in turn needed a wood store to keep the kiln-dried logs dry (constructed from more pallets and a little timber salvaged from the old potting shed).

So, for the price of a few nails, some gravel, cushions and material, the Midlife Garden has a new rest and relaxation and outdoor cooking area. This is not to say that working in the garden does not have its own rewards above and beyond the extrinsic “isn’t it lovely” type of happiness. The simple act of working with your hands, nurturing, caring and literally seeing the fruits of your labours is something that is indefinable, but very real. But sitting on my new pallet seats, feet firmly planted on the slates that might have helped in the creation of Holmes and Watson, eating a pizza cooked in an oven positioned on a stand I made myself, fired with wood that is being kept dry in a log store I inexpertly put together too, I feel sated and happy.

Now, where has the sun gone?

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