The Hidden Gifts of Drought

England is usually a damp country. I can expect it to rain at least once a week, very rarely do I even need to consider watering the plants outside. However, after a wet spring and snow in April, we had a dryish May and a totally dry June. July has so far managed one short shower, which showed little evidence in the empty water butts.

I usually feel very connected to our weather, and help to balance it in my area. However, this summer has been something I haven’t experienced before. A completely stuck weather system, that has no interest in moving anywhere. The only messages I have received are that it would rather we took note of what we are doing to the Earth and how we use the resources available to us, and doesn’t want to change until we notice.

This has raised many issues for me, both in terms of my connection to the weather and rainfall, and in how I use water myself.

First the weather, I always remind myself that I only ask, and while most of the time my requests are answered, sometimes they are not for various reasons. The main reason I have noticed my requests having no effect is when the weather pattern is much greater than my little area. A lack of wind can be tricky as well, although this can be built into any request. But I also noticed early on how hard it is to be single minded in wanting to change the weather when everyone around me is just enjoying the long sunny summer days and clear blue skies, and when there are all sorts of practical reasons such as house building work that the sun is aiding. It is also hard to want wind when it would only fan the flames of the various moorland fires that are raging further north in Derbyshire and nearby. Meanwhile on the other side of the world there are floods, as you might expect to bring balance to the Earth. As time goes on however, I just pray for rain with no reservations – and try to enjoy whatever weather arrives here.

The second aspect is my garden. I am aware that over the past few years, with having a pre-school child with me most of the time, I have had to simply let a lot go. This year I wanted to be much more proactive, sowing and re-sowing vegetable seeds, and watering the growing plants during dry periods.

First I appreciated ‘indicator’ plants like those pansies mentioned earlier being fast to wilt and letting me know that water was required. I duly watered the vegetables and the strawberries, plus the few flowers in pots – one with pansies and one with pelargoniums. After a while I grew bored of watering every day and considered getting a sprinkler that would cover just the area of my vegetables, four small raised beds. Then there was talk of water shortages. Instead I stopped watering the fruit, leaving it to finish, and just water the vegetables three times a week. They are not exactly thriving, but they are still growing and producing courgettes and lettuces and peas with tomatoes, beans, brassicas and sweetcorn well on their way. But as each area comes to a finish, I shall cease watering and not plant anything else until the weather changes.

What amazes me however, is how much I have learned about my garden by doing this, and some of the other small changes I have made recently. To thoroughly inspect crops every day or every other day has been a valuable experience to see how they are growing, what is ready for picking, and what pests arrive and need dealing with. As is doing my hip physio while I stand with the hosepipe! Fruit has been very early and small, yet the strawberries scarcely got eaten and the raspberries had a massive crop given there was no rain damage to the smaller fruit. Alpine strawberries are very small, yet are still going much longer than usual – so many tiny fruits I made a pot of jam from them. Flowers have few leaves and haven’t filled their usual spaces, but many are managing a great display, and there are a lot more seeds than usual. Even if they don’t all survive, I’m hoping I will be able to replace them from fresh stock – after all, plants die in hard winters, this is just a hard summer. There are far fewer weeds, although there is no way I can do weeding in our solid clay soil. The pond still has water in it and is going down slower than I might have anticipated – it may need some kind of a top-up soon although I am resisting for as long as possible and just watching to see how it does. All the sunshine is of course helping the waterlilies to their best display ever. Meanwhile our grass is about the greenest of any around which has really puzzled me. I can only put this down to more shade than in other gardens nearby, and a more suitable variety of grass since I deliberately went for ‘hardwearing’ rather than the more beautiful lawn options. And the clover is still green!

Finally, an interesting ‘message’ I got this Spring about my front garden was that the gravel we had inherited in the area wasn’t doing it any good – too sterile, and too reflective of light and heat combined with the bare brick house. It faces due south, and gets very warm – or else I wouldn’t be able to grow sweetcorn there! So after much thought, I decided to leave any low growing ‘weeds’ in the gravel, and see how it developed from there. The main one is self-heal, with yarrow, pink geraniums, lavender, centranthus, sisyrinchiums and lots of early chionodoxa all having seeded themselves. Just the grass, dandelions, American willowherb and spurge I still try and weed out, when it isn’t baked too solid. Not only am I happier with it now, but so are the other plants.

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Colours for Summer

I have been rather uncreative for a few weeks, since wearing myself out sewing Morris dancing clothes… and then suddenly realised that the lack of a project was why I was feeling unfocused and lost this month. Clearly I don’t know myself, and what makes me happy, that well yet! Luckily finding a new project is not something I have trouble with – just keeping them within bounds given time and space constraints. (Building work continues in the house, making dust and chaos as well as preventing wood or glass work.)

So a week ago I had an idea to make my temporary seasonal display area (half a mantleshelf) a proper cloth cover, by buying a strip of fabric, edging it, and putting it in place in time for the summer solstice on Wednesday. If I found enough suitable fabrics, I could even change the colour for each sabbat. However, not only did I fail to get near any shops, it being too hot, I also should never really have imagined I could stop at something so simple.

Having visitors all weekend required an empty sewing table in order to eat off it, and a lot of thinking time. By Monday morning I had a plan – to use up my scrap pile and make a simple quilt-style top. One for each sabbat of course, starting with midsummer. That gave me Monday to make it.

Suddenly a difficult question loomed. What colours to use for midsummer? All the other seven sabbats have colours I associate with them, but not midsummer! How could this be? So I wrote a list, to see what was left over. (It is slightly different to other people’s lists, but then in trying to write this after finishing, I discovered a lot of variations!)

Imbolc – Greens and white – holly, snowdrops
Ostara – Pastel shades – eggs, new shoots, pussy willows, daffodils
Beltane – Greens and light colours – forgetmenots, tulips, honesty and ribbons
Litha – ???
Lughnasa – bright yellows – hot sun, ripe corn, poppies
Mabon – Reds and purples – apples, plums, late harvests
Samhain – Orange, red, brown, black – pumpkins, autumn leaves, and descent into dark
Yule – Greens, Red, Gold – holly and yew

And what I decided on was blue skies, sunshine, and a garden absolutely full of flowers. Mine is full of roses, campanulas, hardy geraniums, foxgloves and peonies right now, so they have inspired the colour choices.

My method of construction was very simple – strip piecing with only a few triangles and rectangles to break up the squares. The colours were arranged fairly randomly, and for once I didn’t worry too much if I sewed the wrong pieces together from my initial plan. Some of it will be covered anyway. There is no wadding, so it was just sewn onto some plain cotton for backing. Quilting is also very simple, just sewing around the edges of a few pieces through both layers – this also sewed up the hole. Total time to be useable was about 4 hours including cutting and laying out time for which I had help, with an extra ¾ hour on Tuesday morning to quilt it.

Here’s how it came out. A bit crazy, but fun. You might notice by the length that I have now managed to purloin the whole of the mantleshelf for my display!

Quilted Summer Solstice display cloth (8″ x 52″)

Sunflowers

Yellow Sunflower

Yellow Sunflower

There is a patch of garden, next to the pond we created in Spring, that is going to be subject to quite a bit of earth moving. I didn’t want to fill it with perennial plants and shrubs that would establish themselves just at the point I needed to move them, nor did I want to leave it bare. So I decided to plant annuals there.

Not all that I planted has thrived, and not all the seeds have turned into plants. It is too shady, too dry, and too many plant predators were made homeless just before I created the bed – but there is one plant that has grown better than any previous attempts of mine: Sunflowers. Standing taller than almost anything around them, they haven’t needed staking or care and have produced several flowers each.

As we approach the festival of Lughnasadh (or Lammas if you prefer), it is always this colour that is in my mind. The hot sun, the ripening barley in the fields, summer holidays. They bring smiles to my face, reaching for the sky, as they flower for weeks. They are strong, bending in the wind, yet flexible enough to follow the sun in its path every day. Several religious or spiritual groups around the world have used sunflowers as a symbol for both reaching for the light and being or bringing light.

I will be leaving the flowerheads to ripen for the birds and look forward to seeing how long they last. Along with the teasels and the various tree berries (hawthorn, rowan) they should create a natural storecupboard for a few months to come.

Sunflowers on one stem

Sunflowers on one stem

Summer Solstice

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Sketch for stained glass Green Man

Last weekend was the Summer Solstice, when the Earth reaches its maximum tilt of the North pole towards the sun and we get our longest day. Some people have said to me ‘I didn’t really do anything for Litha…’ as if they should be doing something special. The well-known ceremonies at Stonehenge and other places may foster the feeling that we should all be partying every time a Sabbat comes along, but it is only one way.

Midsummer is not a time of the year that has many traditions around it, like Mayday does stretching back centuries, or even Yule, although there are some good creation myths that have been written and a few old stories adapted. But from a nature perspective it is a very important time of the year – because day length is as important as temperature to the plants around us. In the garden the solstice marks the transition between planting vegetables to crop in summer, which should be in the ground and growing strongly by now, and those to sow or transplant late to avoid them bolting before the autumn. Jobs are marked as being either before or after the solstice. Trees, too, will open all their leaves on the old shoots by now and get all their blossom pollinated to set fruit. After the longest day they will reject what fruit they cannot sustain, and set about growing. New shoots, new leaves, and swelling the fruits that remain. We, too, can use this energy for positive action in our lives.

Two years ago at the Summer Solstice I had the shock of seeing a 50 year old oak tree on my road cut down and turned into woodchips, for no apparent reason except that someone didn’t want it there any more. The nature of my walk changed that day. I gathered up as many naturally fallen oak leaves as I could find along my route (a challenge at this time of year) and took them back home to make a ‘green man’ image, glueing them to a wooden Camembert lid. I then created a ritual and meditation based around the Oak, completely rewriting the planned ritual I had. It felt exactly right.

This year, by contrast, I did not do a ritual, but had a premonition that I would be awake for the sunrise. Sure enough, M woke me and I enjoyed the pinks and oranges reflected into the room in the small hours of the morning – probably the first Summer solstice sunrise I have seen, certainly the first I have seen consciously, welcoming the sun as it reaches its zenith. Later we had a walk in the sunshine and then ate lots of summer fruits from the garden. It was enough.

The Green Man is at his peak, and I am reminded of an experimental stained glass design I did at this time a few years ago, pictured above. I might even make it one day. Meanwhile, enjoy his energy.

Tree Quilt Triptych – Part 2

Summer quilt

My ‘Summer’ tree quilt (left) finally got finished last weekend and has been hanging in our hallway for a week now. It is intended to represent the dappled shade under deciduous woodland, both in colour and design.

From my experience doing ‘Winter’ (March 21st) I decided to use fabrics that were either fairly plain, or else had bold patterns since some of the subtleties got lost once cut small and quilted over. I also wanted to keep more contrast between fabrics in the way I pieced them together, but without loosing a sense of being lighter at the top of the quilt so that there was some kind of flow. I was pleased with the end results in this respect.

As I mentioned on an earlier post (Going Barefoot, May 2nd), I had a few problems along the way! Annoyingly one fabric looked more like a brown once put with the other greens; I might have changed this if I had realised in time, but I decided it was fairly tree-coloured and by quilting enough green thread over the top of it, I hoped that unlike in ‘Winter’ where I lost detail, this time it would work in my favour to help harmonise the colours and give an overall green tint. I think it has done that. However, a much bigger problem was that the quilt grew slightly, my sewing lacking the accuracy needed when it comes to seam allowances, so the border sections were all too short – even with the extra I had allowed when cutting. (Lesson there!) To solve this I added extra triangles in the border; the original design had five, I made this up to eleven.

I thought quite hard about what pattern to quilt this, and drew out several experimental designs in pencil. If I can’t draw it, there’s no way I can sew it! Ideally I would have liked to do more of a ‘leaf’ pattern, such as a large scale version of my tarot bag design (May 17th). However I found this quite hard to do and realised that with M clutching at my leg, fabric, machine, attention, it was simply not possible at this time. Instead I did another random wiggle shape, but more oak-leaf inspired than the roots and spirals of ‘Winter’ so it gives a different impression close up. I have a way to go before my stitching is properly neat and even, but there are sections now where it is as it should be…

One nice surprise I have had now the quilt is hanging is the effect of approaching it on the diagonal as you come down the stairs. It is almost like having two quilts, the one you see when in the hallway, and the one at 45 degrees. Not something I had anticipated, or ever seen in any other work of art displayed on a stairwell, but something I shall enjoy using deliberately in future for example if I ever find myself doing a stained glass window for a similar position.

One last thought – I have discovered M is much happier once my sewing machine reaches a certain pitch, around humming level… It keeps me on my toes at that speed!