One Hot Minute – A Soul to Squeeze

“Hey”. It’s Mrs B. We are in the kitchen. She says to me “This is the place I was hoping to prepare dinner”. She has that Desecration Smile (whatever that is) as she looks at what is easily my best ever crop of Red Hot Chilis. She looks to me and then the otherside of the room where a potted plant with small yellow chillies sits on the windowsill. “And by the Way, if you think that plant is staying in here, think again”

The debate is no more than a storm in a teacup. I agree to move the plant, a minor thing, and promise to process the chillies, although I fear it will take till midnight. As usual, I have grown several different varieties of chilli from around the world. To view the plants in the greenhouse was to go road trippin’ through south America and beyond from the brown Machu Pichu to the jewel-like Naga Yellow Blaze. I wonder if I should wear some PPE when chopping and cooking the chillies. I look around – “perhaps this velvet glove” I muse to myself but worry the combination of the brown and red chillies will only leave a purple stain. I decide to risk working without it.

First, chilli jam. We have finished last year’s batch. I gave a lot of it as gifts to my friends and relatives. In a matter of moments the aroma in the kitchen changes from coffee shop to sour smelling distillery, as the vinegar and sugar simmer. I have dosed the sugar with pectin but fail to stir it in properly, so it creates a nasty sludge. I pay for this later when, despite being right on time with the boiling of the jam mixture it refuses to set. I turn it again but finally give in and elect to market the new produce as ‘extra thick chilli sauce’.

I still have plenty of chillies left over and decide to try out my new oven – a readymade chilli dryer. The results are spectacular, transcending even my highest hopes. Some of the chillies had seemed a little low on heat, warm tape in comparison with the fearsome fire I had expected. But when I try the dried versions they have a deep kick that could leave scar tissue on gums and tongues. I chop the Machu Pichu to make chilli flakes. The rest I decide to make into chilli powder and process the dried chillies in an old coffee grinder. Removing the lid releases a fine dust cloud that is a real tearjerker. I go walkabout on the patio till the air clears a little.

But, ultimately, I am pleased with the final products. Mrs B sets up the produce on a tray for the Insta post. We believe the results justify the efforts .


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They will not concede

October used to be my favourite month, but less so, now. This time around the allure for me of birthday treats and the half term break was overshadowed by the tragedy of last year, and twelve months one, we got through the month with a shudder, like a child swallowing a spoonful of malt tonic. The clocks went back and the nights drew in but despite the worsening weather, it has remained, for the most part, steadfastly mild. The high temperatures fooled many of the plants in the garden into thinking that they might simply go on forever. Even at the end of November annuals like the Rudbeckia Marmalade were still in flower, raging against the fake news of winter like Trump denying election results. But winter is coming – just as surely as removals lorries at the White House.

In the Green House, meanwhile, there was initially a glut of green chillis, but then, almost over night red and yellow ones have appeared, like Democrat votes in Pennsylvania and Georgia. It has been a good year for chillis and a new batch of Hot Jam is in the offing. Outside, the squash story is less positive with plenty of early growth, but not too many fruit to be had at the end of it. But, still, we will have enough for roasting when we want some hearty squash soup.

And talking of soup, Mrs B’s favourite recipe – leek and potato – is firmly on the menu, with the potatoes storing well (so far), while the leeks are the best the Midlife garden has produced in years.

By the end of November the garden can look pretty bare and cold so it is heartening to know that, despite appearances, there is still stuff there to be harvested. There is also plenty to look forward to, with garlic and shallots planted in the past month, and in the last fortnight we also got around to planting up bulbs in pots for the spring colour on the new patio. I thought I was a little late with the bulbs, but a quick check of my MLG online diary shows that it was the exact same week that I planted the bulbs last year – and they were very successful. It’s almost like I know what I am doing.

But I know better than to think that.

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The Long Days are Here

Yesterday was officially The Long Dog Friday at school. I took our new family member in to meet some of the kind benefactors who helped make his appearance possible.

Yes: Mr Long has arrived.

‘Badger’ to his friends, our silver dapple dachshund was introduced as a birthday present to Mrs B. It was on that date last year that the “Mr Long” epithet was first used in connection with Josh, when he collected his suit from his Vietnamese tailor. This year, giving Mrs B the good news on her birthday that Badger was on his way, seemed apt.

The new arrival has settled in well. It is easiest to describe the young pup by means of governmental slogans. Instead of “Hands, Face, Space” it is more “Pads, Paws, Claws”, although his major activities involve “Pee, Poo and Chew”. He has needle sharp teeth, claws like fish-hooks and an outlook on life that is best described in three more words: “Small Dog Syndrome”.

It is obvious to us that he is exceptionally intelligent. He has worked out how to get food out of his Kong toy and how to move tennis balls from baking trays to find treats. He retrieves thrown toys and is already helping in the garden, dead heading any flower that is within reach. And he is precocious: on the day he arrived he quickly learnt that water lilys do not hold the weight of even the smallest dachshund (the pond lifeguard was on hand to retrieve the sodden puppy as he rapidly sank).

Obviously his intelligence is boosted by the excellent home schooling he has been receiving, and while for much of the time he retains an adorable nature (i.e. when he is asleep) there are other times (when he is awake) when we would not mind being able to send him to boarding school, pay someone else to educate him and take the blame if it turns out he is not as bright as we first thought.

In the absence of such alternatives, he has instead been introduced to the family business, spending several fraught mornings in the bookshop testing Mrs B’s multi-tasking abilities. So far there have been no major disasters and we can already see that his reading age is definitely above average.

Badger is undoubtedly here for the long run.

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I’m a-peeling

I had a dream last night about the “Open Gardens” day in the village. This biennial event was cancelled this year due to lockdown, depriving villagers of the opportunity to take a look at each others’ gardens – outwardly congratulating the horicultural hosts while inwardly smirking at the relative paucity of their sweet peas or broad beans.

But, being a dream, it all went a little bizarre and surreal. Not only were we opening up The Midlife Garden for the first time, we were also being judged on it as well, with grades being awarded. It was all very pressurised and stressful as I worked to get the garden perfect for the day. In my dream I was reported as being “distraught”, “upset” and “devastated” when the day was cancelled but still hopeful that I might get a good grade for all the effort I had put in this far.

I was told that the Powers-that-Be in the village were still going to award grades, based on a “robust” world-beating system of assessment. So I was hopeful of getting recognition for my runner beans and french beans which were heavier and more abundant than at any time since the we moved to the single storey dwelling. The potatoes were also better than last year, with Belle de Fontenay providing excellent new spuds. Sadly the Duke of Yorks looked rather red and overly large (like their namesake) and needed too much massaging and peeling, but they formed only a small per centage of the crop.

In educational terms I had viewed peas and sugar snaps as the teachers’ pets in early summer. After them, the courgettes started to over-run the raised bed like year 8s in the lunch queue, before some of the plants were permanently excluded. The reduced class size led to better, more focused results. The Independent sector in the greenhouse (a hothouse atmosphere for high yielding plants that might not cope so well in the outside world) the tomatoes were lined up on trusses like snooker balls; the cucumbers tumesced and the chilli peppers promised to produce more hotspots than a Covid map of the USA.

The flowers in the borders were the products of excellent progressive course work – with cosmos, ammi, rudbeckia and echinacea taking over from the early season showings of the lupins, foxgloves and delphiniums. And for the first time ever the Midlife Garden had hollyhocks.

As each of these horticultural subjects showed big improvements on last year, in combination with the spectacular Spursy Bed, which formed the basis of an A* Extended Project Qualification, I was expecting good grades. Sadly, the robust system that the Village Elders decided to use had, by now, proved to be flimsy and ineffectual in the village up the road. But they decided to carry on with the marking system, nonetheless. This involved not seeing any plants, asking the gardeners for their own predictions on how they would have looked, then promptly ignoring this information and giving grades based on which part of the village the garden was in and the size of last year’s sunflowers.

It was called PPE: Previous Performance and Expectation. So, my A grade beans and potatoes were downgraded to C. The A* peas were given a B, and the hollyocks were, mistfyingly, Ungraded. When asked to explain why my tall slim hollyhocks got a U, I was told that, as I had never grown them before, the algorithm showed that I was unlikely to be able to grow any this year either.

In my dream, I found this all rather perplexing and I was angry. But then, miraculously, the village idiots realised their mistake and decided that the people who knew the most about the gardens were the gardeners themselves. So, we all just gave ourselves A*’s and gold medals. And everyone was happy, albeit a little concerned that they would never be able to convince others that their cabbages were really that good in 2020.

Fortunately, at that point, I woke up and realised that it was all just a crazy dream. Nothing like that would ever happen in the real world.

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Grow, Grow, Grow

I was as excited as any other birdwatcher when I read about the Bearded Vulture that has been spotted in the Peak District and Yorkshire. Also known as a Lammergeier, this is only the second time such a bird has been spotted in Britain this century. Which makes it almost as rare as a Cabinet Minister telling the truth. Or a Special Advisor admitting an error. It is thought that this is a juvenile Lammergeier that has simply got a bit blown off course – admittedly by a few thousand miles. The bird obviously thinks that we still live in a Europe of open borders and no distrust of foreign immigrants. Oh, the naivety of youth.

When I was a naive youth, the Lammergeier was top of my must-see list of birds on the occasions when our family French camping holidays took us to the Pyrenees. We saw lots of other eagles and vultures, but never a Lammergeier. It would be amazing to spot one, but I will not be making the trip to Yorkshire to try and see it. Even without the lockdown restrictions having been lifted (for those of us who abided by them in the first place) I will not be leaving the garden for any of length of time at the moment. Because this is the time of the year when the hard graft finally pays off. It is the time of the year when my parents would say that there was no way they could go on holiday, because the peas will need picking, then the beans, the courgettes and all the other veg that they grew on an industrial scale.

And I now understand their sentiments. The scale of my veg and flower patch is nothing to compare with theirs. Mrs B and I are not interested in the long hours of blanching and bagging veg which my parents engaged in, to enable them to freeze enough greens to see them through the winter. But we currently have more peas, sugar snaps, courgettes, kale, carrots and runner beans and french beans than we could shake a big Tory Lie at. Not to mention salad leaves, cucumbers and, this week, the first tomatoes in the greenhouse.

The sighting of a rare vulture in Britain is a relief from the other depressing news (although it also brought into focus the illegal persecution of birds of prey such as the hen harrier on nearby grouse moors). Being in the garden has also provided solace for me and Mrs B. The flowers are looking particularly fine at the moment and Josh’s Spursy Border is performing far better than I had any right to expect in its first season.

All this has happened not because we made any spurious promises or deadlines, or pretended we had seeds in stock when, in fact we had not. We did not double count plants or make up random straplines like “We will get digging done” or “pick, pick, pick”. No: we just got on with it.

And now, like the Lammergeier in Yorkshire, who must have been a bit tired after its long journey over half of Europe, we will take stock and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

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We Will Grow Them in the Raised Beds…

We have moved beyond the longest day of the year, although for anyone in quarantine, or shielding, there have been a lot of “longest days” in the past few months. Not that everyone is exacly paying any heed to what is required of us any more as the new conscience-free, apology-avoiding “Dominic’s Law” seems to have been adopted by large swathes of the population as they congregate in anti-social distancing on the streets and beaches.

Despite this, here in the devolved region of the Midlife Garden we remain cautious in easing restrictions and feel that the ends are justifying the means. The PPE on the brassicas is remaining in place for the foreseeable future as we continue to register zero cases of Cabbage White caterpillar. But we have decided to comply with the Government’s pubs and restaurants policy with regard to opening up the nasturtiums. There will, no doubt, be a large spike in butterfly larvae numbers over the coming months in this sector of the garden economy, but that is our cunning plan: a sacrificial crop they call it, just don’t mention herd immunity, please. That is NOT the plan, or ever was, OK?

The PPE on the strawberries has been equally succesful with the first bowlful arriving this week. The blueberries are looking good too, happy in their world behind the curtain of netting, but will need a little longer to ripen. And elsewhere we have had the first potatoes, sugar snaps, and kale. There was some concern at the lack of social distancing between the sugar snaps and some errant self-seeded sweet peas, but we have decided to turn a Barnard Castle eye to this and wait until 4th July when, if our reading of the regulations is correct, the sweet peas will be able to be next to the sugar snaps, so long as they are wearing a bandana over their faces, have the same middle name and remember to remain unrepentant at all times.

The heart-warming success story of the garden, so far, has been the courgettes. After several weeks in ITU they have been applauded on their recuperation from frost damage and have produced their first (albeit pencil-thin) mini marrow. Those courgettes are clearly fighters, as we have said before. Let’s hope they do not follow the lead of some of our courgette-headed brethren and carry that fight onto the beaches.

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Lockdown: Plant Me Out

Socially distanced raised bed

As we move into phase three of Lockdown in the Midlife Garden, restrictions are being gradually lifted as seedlings and young plants are allowed into raised beds and borders. We remain confident that the garden economy will make a recovery and start to get back to normal. Whatever that is.

Of course, we have no statistics or evidence to support this policy and, although we profess to be guided by the signs (more sunshine, longer days, that kind of thing), we are, for the most part, acting on gut instinct. Put another way: we’re winging it. We were winging it when we forgot to water the strawberries and they nearly died in the heat. We were winging it when we found random sweet peas and nicotiana in amongst the sugar snaps and we were definitely acting with little or no planning, fore-thought or intelligence when we left the beans out and let them get hit by the frost.

So now we are trying to look organised and have gone back to the core policies of social distancing and quarantine. We have applied these policies to the brassicas: the Purple Sprouting, Kholrabi, Sprouts and Cabbages. When they entered the garden from the greenhouse they were initially quarantined (hardened off) for fourteen days before they could take their place alongside the onions in the raised bed. There they were carefully placed a socially distanced 18 inches from the other plants, as we made the natural assumption that they probably all have underlying health issues. Initially, the policy seemed to be working, with all plants looking healthy with no symptoms of dry leaves or wilting stems. But that was when they were young. It seems almost as if, the older they get, the more susceptible they become to whatever it is that kills ’em. We started getting random casualties, just keeling over and dying, like sheep in a field. We Googled possible causes – club root being one, but discounted that. (We also discounted ‘Club Foot’, which, being a Kasabian song, has nothing to do with cabbages but does evoke memories of a very different time).

But the good news is that the social distancing measures are working, as there appears to be no spread of whatever it is that is killing the plants. When one plant dies, its neighbours are still able to survive – so now we are employing a policy of local lockdowns, even though no one knew we had such a policy till now. Including us.

In the absence of any conclusive evidence to explain these isolated deaths, we have come to the conclusion that these plants – unlike our Prime Minister – simply were not ‘fighters’. It is generally assumed by many that if you get ill, your chances of survival are greatly enhanced if you possess a pugilistic outlook on life. So we replaced the flattened plants with others who had been sitting warming the proverbial subsitutes’ bench in the seed trays. We put them in with a managerial motivational speech along the lines of “here’s your chance lads, go out and prove yourselves”. Results were mixed (even they weren’t all fighters, apparently) and we are down to our last super-sub for the Sprouts. But then, as 52% of the population would say, what have Brussels ever done for us?

In other news, we have had a delivery of PPE for the brassicas and the fruit. We have actually had two deliveries as we accidentally double ordered because the first order took so long to arrive – despite sending planes to Turkey to collect it. So we now have plenty of netting to prevent birds and cabbage white caterpillars from decimating our crops, although the holes in the butterfly netting look suspiciously large. But it’s not as if we would order PPE that is not of the correct standard, on a whim, or in panic, is it?

And as for questions concerning the spread of whatever is destroying the brassicas, we are not worrying. Why? Because (apparently) lockdown plants don’ give to you…

Don’t believe me? Just watch.

(repeat to fade)

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Dug for Victory

As lockdown starts to ease up, the Midlife Garden is is offering a new habitat for the residents and, perhaps, those who might have travelled from farther afield (albeit under exceptional circumstances and with strictly legal and reasonable grounds, of course). Responding to the growing pressure for living space, emergency planning permission has been pushed through to combat the expected second peak of young frogs and newts who will be finding it increasingly difficult to socially distance in their current accommodation.

In the old pond, life is – to quote 10cc – a minestrone, choked as it is with weed and lilies. So with the proposed re-development of the area for the expanded kitchen, the siting of a larger, clearer, pond on a greenfield site was quickly approved with the first turf being cut on a Saturday morning at the start of the month. This was followed moments later by the first contact between spade and concrete – six inches of it. Despite this, the main ground work was completed in a weekend and the intervening weeks have been spent planting and landscaping to ensure the pond meets the requirements of its ‘stakeholders’.

So who is this new facility designed for and who has actually been using it? Of course, we are expecting the frogs and newts to transfer soon, but totally understand their reticence in moving from their current swamp. After all, in newt terms, the distance from the old pond to the new is the equivalent of 260 miles and they, like the rest of us, are unsure of how rules regarding travel relate to mere pondlife…

Early tenants include the Water Boatmen who hitched a ride on the water lilies’ roots. But the main users of the pond are the birds, who spend their time on the beach like a stag weekend in Brighton, drinking and bathing. While blackbirds, tits, pigeons, robins and even the occasional woodpecker have availed themselves of the facilities, it is the sparrows that are the most rowdy and vociferous. Like a bunch of year 8s their diminutive size is inversely proportional to their potential for trouble. They argue and squabble in the branches of the pyrocanthus or hang out on the higher rungs of the wooden fence like the cool kids in the bleachers. And when they come down to the pond water sprays like fountains in Trafalgar Square as they bathe with the energy of over-wound clockwork toys. It is hardly surprising that the water level has dropped. But these are the same sparrows that vandalise the lettuce and chard in the veg garden and have, on several occasions, been caught out of bounds in the greenhouse. Will they never learn?!

So the pond awaits the hardcore denizens who will take advantage of its cool depths (OK, its only a couple of feet deep, but you try digging that much top soil and breaking up the gardening equivalent of the Maginot Line). The irises, rushes and water forget-me-nots are looking great for which we have to thank Ben from Water Artisans who provided materials and plants as well as his advice and encouragement, and without whom all of this would not have been possible.

From the newts, frogs and – especially – the sparrows: thank you, Ben.

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“We are Doing a Terrific Job”

When reports of something called “frost” started filtering through, the Midlifegardener took the threat seriously.  As this “frost” was being brought from the Arctic, the MLG, suspecting frost would not be welcome in the Midlife Garden, took steps to secure his borders and ensure his beds were safe.  He banned any contact with the Arctic:  there were no flights from the Arctic, no Arctic Roll for dessert and no room for the Arctic Monkeys on any Spotify playlist.

Despite these measures (which the Midlife Garden was the first garden IN THE WORLD to take) frost still seemed likely.  When questioned about this the MLG seemed unperturbed.

“Frost?  That’s just like a bit of cold.  It won’t bother us – we have it all under control”.

So the Midlifegardener prepared, by not preparing.  He went ahead and planted out his “hardened” courgettes and allowed his runner beans to exercise in the great outdoors.  After all, runner beans have rights too – it’s unconsitutional to make them remain at home.  And what of the effects on the Midlife Garden economy if those beans are unable to go out?  Next thing we’ll be saying they don’t have the right to bear arms.

But then Stupid Tuesday came and “The Frost” – or Frigid-19 as they have started to call it.  The MLG looked at the stats and was angry.  Why had no one told him about this?

He ranted.  “Do you know where this came from?  You bet you do – they said the Arctic, but you know what’s just on the other side of the Arctic?  Russia, that’s what.  And it’s the Russians who did this.  They knew about this “frost” thing before anyone.  But they didn’t tell us”.

So now the MLG (who is apparently doing a ‘FANTASTIC JOB’, by the way) is having to get the garden through this.  We listened in to his press briefing on the subject.

“The beans are in lockdown…

(‘Mr MLG, they are sick and the greenhouse can barely cope with any more‘)

…but they should be free to go out soon…

(‘Just as well, Mr MLG, as social distancing is impossible between them and the tomatoes’)

…we have to get back into growth.   I accept, some courgettes might have been seriously affected…

(‘They’re dead, Mr MLG‘)

…but we know that this Russian Frost is what has caused it. If you want to know why it happened – go ask the Russians.  Or the Chinese – it probably came from one of their laboratories”.

(‘Do you have any plan to make things better, Mr MLG?’)

“I’ve heard that antifreeze stops frost, so, perhaps, there is a way that we could spray the plants with this, or find a way to get it into the plants, like, internally by injection or some other way.  Would that guard against this Foreign Cold Thing?”

“I also hear that when it gets warmer, this Russian Frost will just go away, as if by magic.  It will be like a miracle. So it will all be fine.  And then we can make the Midlifegarden Great Again”.

Let’s hope so – it’s just a shame about the courgettes and beans, Mr MLG.

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Spring is Sprung the Grass is Riz…

I wonder where dem boidies iz…

Mrs B’s Cut Flower patch starts to take shape

While the debate continues about how long lockdown needs to be in place and we continue our social distancing, one positive thing that is clear around here is that the seasonal timing of this could not have been more convenient.  When one is legally obliged to remain on one’s property for hours – and days – on end, domestic tasks are the unavoidable priority. 

The Midlife Garden has never looked so trim and tidy.  The grass is trim and the edges are sharp.  Borders have been weeded and the seedlings are all in the greenhouse or potted on and hardening off.  Green shoots are everywhere which give some feeling of hope in otherwise desperate times.

Also noticeable in the air is the sound of birdsong.  Someone said that birds are singing more loudly, but that is not it.  Ambient noise from planes, trains and automobiles, has reduced dramatically while birds continue to sing at the same levels.  We can all just hear them more clearly now.  I am not sure how much of a difference this makes in a small village, but we have been sleeping with a window open and have woken to the sound of birdsong every morning these past few weeks.  Sometimes it is the cawing of a crow that has disturbed our slumber, but thankfully it has more often been a blackbird, blue tit or chiffchaff, or, for the last two weeks it has been the lilting song of the blackcap.  The blackcap’s is my favourite birdsong at the moment, which makes me sound a bit geeky.  But hey, I’ve said it now.

The sound of the blackcap is not only enjoyable, it is also a sure sign that spring is in full swing.  I finally saw a couple of swallows, too, near the Old Place on Monday, and in the back garden we have a pair of blackbirds sitting on eggs.  It has meant plans to trim the honeysuckle have been put on hold.  Likewise, any thoughts of stripping the dead leaves off the Cabbage Palm were cancelled as we watched a pair of wrens building their nest there instead.  The decibell levels have risen dramatically in the garden with the wrens, by turns, singing to each other and chitting their alarm at our presence.

It was an alarm call that stopped Mrs B and me the other morning while on the regulation dog walk.  We attempted to locate the orgin of the noise and saw a pair of wrens.  Suddenly, there was the flapping of larger wings and out of the hedge tumbled a sparrowhawk which sat on the grass, looking a little dazed, with its wings outstretched, peering over its shoulder at us.  The bird fixed us with its beady yellow eye before realising social distancing measures were being contravened and flew off.  The wrens survived the assault.

It was enjoyable to witness, but we don’t need to leave our home to be able to appreciate the vigour of the spring birds whether they are on their little wings or not.

Greenhouse starting to fill with seedlings



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