Happy Samhain!

I spent the day yesterday pumpkin carving, preparing for the festival of Samhain and having a really joyful celebration of the year gone and the year coming.

This was the first truly joint pumpkin I have carved with my daughter, as her design input was equal to mine. After explaining that we weren’t going to carve a scary face, because Samhain isn’t intended to be a scary time of year (more connecting and thanking the dead, our ancestors, those who have gone before rather than being scared by ghosts) we thought about what things we were thankful for. Fairies. Flowers. Trees. Frogs. We can use cookie cutters, she said.

I have spent quite a bit of time over the past year going through the elements, so I decided to make my own thanks and celebration by organising them into four elemental groups, with three things for each one. We also had a five-pointed star for our lid, so that made a perfect 13 holes to be carved in the pumpkin.

My daughter’s washable pens were perfect for drawing the design on, especially as any traces can be easily removed afterwards, and where we had a suitable cutter she drew round them for me. Where we didn’t she found me a picture in one of her books to copy … luckily the pen can be rubbed out and corrections made!

I used a knife to cut the lid, then a melon baller has proved the most useful tool to cut through seed strings. This year I also used it to remove half the flesh from the inside so that the walls weren’t too thick to cut through, then cooked what I removed for pies later. Experience has taught me that a cookie cutter doesn’t cope with curved pumpkin skin very well, so after having drawn around them, I used a hacksaw blade taped to a piece of wood, which has been my trusty pumpkin carver for over a decade now. It turns corners better than a knife, although can leave edges ragged if not careful.

All four sides have holes in, making it hard to photograph, but right for us. Earth on the side that was on the ground, fire upwards to the sun, water and air in between. Some are animals, some, such as a musical note or the heart, are symbolic.

May you have bright blessings and a peaceful new year.

Elemental Pumpkin, showing Earth and Air, with Fire on the wall behind.

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Autumn Flowers

Late October Cranesbill Geraniums

It is hard to believe that Samhain is next week when my garden is full of flowers that normally bloom in May or June.

Potentilla Miss Willmott still going

Several died back to ground level during the drought, put on growth in the rains of August, and the Campanulas started flowering again in September. They were joined by a Leucanthemum, giant scabious, candytuft, sweet cicely, sweet rocket, and now even the geraniums which I thought I had lost are having a good go. Along with the usual autumn flowers of course!

Sweet Cicely enjoying a second flush of flowers

Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’ still flowering in late October

Hazelnuts were so early that I missed most of them. Yet the Eucryphia tree in our garden which usually flowers in August did so at the normal time, and has carried on, and on…

Unfortunately the recent warm spell also brought a new generation of pests, including many flies which get in my face while cycling and whiteflies which have invaded my kale. I am sending the lacewings out from sheltering in my bedroom windows (not a very sensible place for the winter, I open them too often) on the next warm day to have a feast.

And one that flowered at the normal time, a Paeonia mlokoseiwitschii I grew from seed and now producing the first of the next generation. The flies seem to like this too.

Celebrating the Harvest

It was the Autumn Equinox last Sunday, a time of harvest celebrations. But what a strange year this has been! A late winter with snow in April, then drought in May, June and July, before a wet and chilly August.

The apples loved it. The extra cold helped them create more flower buds, they survived the drought, losing excess fruit without me having to thin them out, and then the rain came just in time to help the fruit swell. The first fruits were ready at the start of August, two weeks early even for our early trees, and carried on into September with larger fruit. I spent the days before we went on holiday (late August) madly making apple sauce to freeze, as this early fruit doesn’t keep and we were overflowing with apples on every counter.

Plums came at their normal time, but suffered from being eaten more than normal. The apples also had lots of wasps early on which I’ve never seen before, I assume there just wasn’t much else for them in the drought.

Blackberries came a month early – but with the cold weather finished early as well. Yet my strawberries have had a second crop and been a really delicious treat – they are still going. The raspberries cropped well in the drought but didn’t make new canes, so the autumn crop and also next summer’s are greatly reduced, even though there is plenty of rain now.

In the vegetable garden, the sweetcorn drank all the water offered so underplantings (mainly nasturtiums) all died. I had a crazy plant with a cob growing around a male flower, but it proved edible and we managed a small crop of good cobs as well. The climbing French beans were so prolific that eventually the wind blew them over. The edging and supports will all need replacing over the winter. Similarly the tomatoes grew so well in the heat I actually had to stop them at the top of their six foot stakes!

Finally, one crop I harvested but didn’t grow was barley. I promised myself last year that I would as so many Lughnasadh rituals are based around wheat – which I am allergic to, but barley is fine for me. Unfortunately I never found any small quantities of seed for sale. However, I did keep an eye on the fields around here, and spotted barley growing along a lane I sometimes cycle, with a footpath going conveniently along the edge of the field. With the drought it was harvested in mid-July, earlier than I have seen previously. So I parked up my bike, climbed the style which luckily wasn’t completely overgrown with nettles and brambles thanks to the drought, and walked along the field edge to see what had been left behind. Enough barley, and also some wheat for the rest of the family, to make a display and grind some into bread. A token amount – it takes a lot of grain for a loaf and barley I discovered is much harder to separate from the chaff than wheat, but somehow the inclusion of even a few grains of my own picked and winnowed barley seems worth it and makes the bread special. I have managed to be part of the wheel of the year and the turning of the seasons, not just an observer.

Black Bryony

Black Bryony berries garlanding its way through the ivy.

All autumn I have been enjoying the sight of black bryony berries garlanding the hedgerows. They are of course a fairly common plant in most of England, but one I only tend to see once the bright red berries have ripened. The flowers are fairly small and insignificant.

Black Bryony in Hawthorn hedge.

I have wanted to take a picture of the berries before, but mostly I see them while cycling, along roadside hedges that are not always good places to walk with a camera. They also drape themselves so sparsely that they don’t frame well. Then this year a new cycle route was opened up to me (see earlier post, Cycle Roads) and it grew in these traffic free hedges in such profusion that I wanted to have a go. A month ago the leaves were still yellowing and showing their bindweedy shape, but now they hang brown or have dispersed into the hedge bottom to be recycled into next year’s crop. Getting camera, weather, time and leg that can be walked on all together has taken some time… (These were taken with our old compact camera – the DSLR camera I got this year would have done a better job at putting the background out of focus and letting the berries shine, but would have added an extra weight / balancing challenge I wasn’t ready for. Work in progress!)

There are two bryonies, named white and black after the colour of their roots, both looking very similar for most of the year since they each have mid-green ivy-like leaves, small insignificant greenish white male and female flowers followed by red berries, and they climb up hawthorn with abandon. However they are completely unrelated to each other. White bryony, Bryonia dioica, is a member of the curcurbitae family (ie courgettes and melons) so climbs with tendrils, and is dioecious, while Black Bryony, Tamus communis, belongs to the Dioscoreaceae family (ie yams), climbs by twining, and is monoecious. Both are poisonous in all parts.

Black Bryony berries and ivy.

Black bryony berries and juice or pulp from the root have been applied directly to the skin for bruises, strains, gout, rheumatism and hair loss because the calcium oxalate it contains as crystals irritate (or stimulate?) the skin. It has also been used to cause vomiting in careful doses, and when mixed with wine or honey, black bryony has been used for gravel or asthma. An overdose is likely to cause a painful death however. All parts also contain saponins, another poison, although one which is normally deactivated by cooking – but the young shoots are cooked and eaten like asparagus in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia and Greece.

I managed to meet Black Bryony in meditation, and found a very interesting energy which was willing to communicate with me, appearing briefly in a dark female form and very beautiful. Its element is fire, and its focus is transformation – hence is medical uses. But transformation can be destructive to some if they are not willing to change, to let some parts die down. It was used in alchemy for this purpose. [I cannot find any evidence for this as yet, although I’m not an alchemist so it may turn up…] It has been particularly active along the lane to create the transformation that I have seen this year. It has developed strong roots in the course of this work so will continue to grow well there, but doesn’t need to spread further. It also brings harmony, creating links between species. It does not help the fiery aspects of will, or of strong focus and intention.

Black Bryony makes a garland under a hawthorn branch.

Mabon Quilt

Quilt for the Autumn Equinox / Mabon.

Here is my quilt for Mabon, or the Autumn Equinox. This quilt is about harvest, not just in its ripe fruit colours but in the fabrics themselves, for which I think I counted 19 in total. Some are from previous quilting projects, such as the three tree series I made, giving a nice link to the harvest of tree fruits (apples and plums in particular). Several squares were cut from scraps leftover from dressmaking, some of them clothes I made for M which are now too small for her but also one of mine which I still wear. And finally the music fabric, leftover from a ‘baby quilt’ and saved for quite a long time because these small pieces were all that was left. It represents another joy in my life right now, to play with the morris dancing group. Again, nothing has been bought new. So to look at this quilt brings happy memories. (To me, it is all the more remarkable because the difficulties I had actually sewing it were beyond anything I have done recently, as since August I have been suffering from a very sore hip and leg and at times can barely sit or stand. Sewing was done in very short bursts, left-footed. But that is a story for another time.)

Since both equinoxes are all about balance, I have also been testing an urban myth that has been puzzling me since I discovered it last Spring. There is a much repeated story on the internet that it is possible to balance an egg on its end at the equinox. I tried this, and failed. Then I read it was at the moment of equinox. I have no idea if the Earth is acutely aware of the moment of equinox or not, as with the moment of solstices. There is however a moment when the tides turn, which are of course affected by sun and moon so I didn’t just dismiss it out of hand. So since I missed the right time last time, and it was quite a convenient time this time, I thought I would have a go in the spirit of scientific enquiry. This time I also invited company.

What we proved is: some people can balance eggs. Duck eggs, chicken eggs, they will apparently all stand on their ends for as long as is required of them. The equinox makes no difference to those capable of balancing an egg, as the trick was quite happily repeated the next day. I, however, am still incapable of balancing an egg on a smooth, hard surface, no matter what time of day. Although I can have fairly good results if I use a non-flat surface…

Finding Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are one of my favourite foods to forage. At first I see nothing. Then little nuggets of gold seem to appear on the ground. Not many, and frequently hidden by long grass and brambles, but walk back and forth over an area by a nut tree and more seem to emerge from the undergrowth until before I know it, I have managed to fill a pocket. A few days later I will do it again.

The timing seems to be critical with hazels, and some years I have missed them altogether. Early falls are hollow, rejects by the tree. Later ones get eaten or lost within a day or two of falling. Reaching them for picking directly from the tree is rarely possible; the trees near me grow tall and nuts form at the extremities, so the only way is to watch and wait, and keep visiting the same trees every few days. In small ways I am lucky however, as the three trees I mostly pick from are in a line along a field boundary between a cow field and a playground and I can walk along both sides of two of the trees. Also they ripen in succession so if I miss the first tree I may get the second or third. And thanks to their open location few squirrels seem to have found them – the other trees around my village rarely produce any nuts without holes and trying to find uneaten ones amongst the debris of empty shells is a frustrating task.

Freshly picked hazelnuts

Freshly picked hazelnuts

The photo shows one day’s picking. So far, a six out of six success rate for finding nuts inside … but given the pale colour of some released still with their calyxes attached it is unlikely that I will get 100% fill rate. I never do. But I enjoy eating the nuts fresh, or shelling a batch and toasting them so they may be stored, for sprinkling over my breakfast or just nibbling for a snack. The difficulties in getting hazelnuts at least doubles the appreciation, and reminds me why they cost so much more than almonds.

It also amazes me every autumn how the catkins are already forming on the trees, ready for winter and then next year’s flowers and fruit. As we approach the Autumnal Equinox, ready to start the cycle again, the hazel tree is already there ahead of me.

Growing Uncommercial Fruit

At this time of year I frequently feel very lucky to have a garden for it is filled with ripe fruit, there for the picking. But what I really love is the fact that most of what I can pick is not available in shops.

Victoria plums are for some reason dismissed by many gardeners as being not worth the effort or the space. I really don’t understand this; our plum fan takes little of either, apart from being sure to pick them every day when in season for they do not hang around. Their keeping time is short, only two or three days to be at their best, but the flavour and texture is so much better than any other plum I have tasted with the possible exception of a good greengage.

Apples start in my garden in August as well, with the smallest Sunset eating apples usually coming first along with Bountiful cookers. Arthur Turner follows on promptly, but goes on for longer. However there is another, unnamed, tree growing in our hedge from a core discarded many years ago that produces the most amazing cooking apples. If only they kept for more than a week it would be a great commercial proposition, but they don’t. I like to make chunky apple sauce that can be frozen and then turned into crumble or Eve’s pudding or applesauce and chocolate cakes. I wouldn’t bother with an apple that keeps for weeks and that I could buy in the shops whenever I wanted it, yet because the season is so short I find myself going to extra efforts.

As for various berries in their reds, blacks, or blues, a few at a time, they are delicious for breakfast and so different from watered down commercial equivalents. Luckily they won’t keep either, unless frozen or turned into jam. We just have to eat them.

Moon Cycles

There was a beautiful full moon here on Wednesday evening, round and fat, rising orange before turning yellow and then silvery white as it ascended into the clouds. We took turns going up the stairs to view it while also trying to cook dinner. A time of intense energy, I was feeling so alive the next morning that I found it hard to settle – tricky when our regular activities saw me at a group where most people sit and chat!

I keep being assailed by incorrect illustrations or descriptions of the moon at the moment. Children’s books love to picture the moon, but will frequently have a quarter moon rising at sunset, and then in the same place several hours later, or even in the same place facing the other way in the morning! Even books written for older people, such as teenagers or adults, will have moons rising at the wrong time of day for their shape, or in the wrong direction relative to the sun. An impossible moonrise spoils, for me, whatever illusion has been built up.

For those confused about what to expect from the moon, in rises roughly in the East and sets in the West much as the sun does. However, the Full moon is seen at night while the New moon is occasionally seen during the day as a shadow eclipsing the sun. To move between the two extremes, as the month progresses the moon rises about an hour later each day – so a waxing moon is often seen in the afternoon and a waning moon seen in the morning.

There is another aspect however, which is that sometimes referred to as ‘wobble’. This means that although the moon rises roughly in the East, like the sun it moves back and forth along the horizon a little. It does this over a period of around 27 days, rather than approx 29.5 of the full moons or 365.25 of the sun’s seasons, so doesn’t coincide with anything very well – although it does make for exciting eclipses, as well as Metonic calendars of nineteen years (or only slightly less accurately, eight and eleven years. I have recently discovered that biodynamic gardening calendars take this wobble movement very much into account, even more so than which constellation the moon is moving through. The ascending, Spring-like path is far more dynamic for growing things, for example, than the descending, Autumn path when pruning or weedkilling might be done. When I have enough gardening time to guarantee being free on the right days for the right type of plants to be cultivated, I will try and work with this… I look forward to it!

A Light Dusting of Snow

Snow on the Grass

Snow on the Grass

Winter has arrived this weekend. I was woken in the night by the change of weather, feeling unsettled, with the wind howling around the house and through the trees. Then in the morning, bright sunshine, and a dusting of snow on the ground.

This year nature seems to have worked as if there is a plan. The autumn has been wet at times, but around here there have been no floods, or even significant mud. Just a good balance between wet days and dry days. There have also been no frosts signalling a premature end to the crops in the garden. Then just as all the trees have finished removing their waste substances into the leaves and discarding them, the winds pick up. A week earlier, and there would have been trees down, but now with their bare branches free to flex, they are okay.

Finally, as if everything is ready and the timing is perfect, we have snow and frost. Winter is here, it is time to gather stores, hibernate, and curl up by the fireside. Make plans for Yule. With luck, there will be enough cold days this winter to ensure next year’s fruit crops.

But for me, there was an extra dimension to the snow. I have commented before how I like the extra light it brings in the middle of the dark time; well this snow fall coincided not with dark climate but dark energies, brought by some visitors that were stuck in a downward spiral. I was struggling to protect myself from it and was feeling brought down, until I tuned into the energy of the snow. Dazzling white in the sunshine. It was amazing how effective it was at transmuting and transforming energies and bringing light back into me, and into my home.

So this is just my simple thank you to the weather!

Trees and Rocks

Trees growing out of the rock near Cromford, Derbyshire

Trees growing out of the rock near Cromford, Derbyshire

It always amazes me how a tree can grow out of a rock, somehow getting a root in through a crack far enough to reach moisture and nutrients. I sometimes feel there is a lesson for me in the determination and will to survive! These pictures were taken yesterday near Cromford in Derbyshire, a mixture of silver birches and beech trees. Some may at first glance appear to be growing on a shelf in some soil, but on closer inspection are actually coming straight out of the rock. The moss seems to be a later addition.
Beech tree roots finding a hold.

Beech tree roots finding a hold.