January-March, 2022: garden diary

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” – Cicero.

Well, what can I tell you? We moved into our new garden (house attached, always useful!) towards the end of January. This is one of the smallest gardens we’ve had, but in some ways no less exciting than the biggest. Completely lawned over, except for the greenhouse, patio and sheds, on day 1 it was a blank canvas …

It’s strangely reassuring to have some continuity with the garden we’ve left behind: a pair of large trees, one either side of the end of the garden – a sycamore and an oak – and a farmer’s field to look out on, complete with tractor from time to time, just as before.

There’s work to be done to establish some borders. So I’ve been slicing away with my spade, making narrow cuts through the grass, across the width of the intended border; then chopping across every foot or so and finally lifting the turves, shaking and bashing out all the soil to produce what turned out to be a quite decent quality border, teeming with earthworms – always a good sign.

In the interests of speed, I ordered some small plug plants by mail order, just as I did last year, as my readers may recall. They were quite successful in terms of delivering a varied and colourful display in rapid order, at a time when our concentration was mostly diverted to preparing the property for sale. Now that we’ve moved, our focus is again distracted, this time by everything involved in settling in.

We may lose a few, but hopefully, warmed by the early Spring sun magnified by the greenhouse, they’ll quickly grow on and we can have some good colour from early summer through to mid-autumn. There’s a mix of annuals and perennials. More news later about these, as well as any successes we have from seeds Lynn harvested from our previous garden (yet to be sown).

Being particularly fond of stews, we did have the foresight to take cuttings from that large bay tree. They seem to be doing well …

I’m not sure whether we should have risked cutting sections of our rhubarb plants. They were magnificent specimens, but we’ve bought two new ones by mail order. The variety is Victoria. We’ve placed them in what is currently a quite shady spot. I’m banking on the summer sun being high in the sky and providing enough direct sunlight to ensure an ongoing supply for Lynn’s excellent rhubarb crumble …

Old seed collections are always a source of curiosity. I discovered that we have five different varieties of tomato. So I’ve sown some of all of them. Some are a few years past their ‘use by’ date, but I can already report that some of all five varieties have germinated.

I’m looking forward to an interesting summer ahead!

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Yorkshire turf wars and rock cakes

I remember my Dad making a turf fire in the garden …

He’d start by just constructing a small mound of dry paper, twigs and other combustibles; then set it alight and gradually add turves around it, grass side downwards, until it was transformed into what looked like a pyramid of earth. It was a very useful means of disposing of a large quantity of grass which had grown where it was, for instance, covering soil needed for cultivation. The turves kept the heat in and (presumably) just enough oxygen seeped in to maintain combustion. The most memorable thing about it for me was that it just kept burning for days on end, usually with a thin wisp of sweet-scented smoke curling around the top of the ever-growing pile, with occasional flare-ups. At the end there was a large pile of useful, weed-free ash, which could be spread around the garden and acted as a cleanser (or so I was told), whilst adding valuable nutrients such as potash.

Now that was back in Wales, but I was reminded of those fires when I came across this postcard in our family archives. It shows an indoor turf fire – with a remarkable caption: “Turf fire at Huckaback, Castleton, Yorks, which has not been out for 70 years (1910)”.

If ever proof were needed that turf fires can burn for a very long time, this is surely it; except that there used to be one in The Saltergate Inn in Teesside which is reputed to have burned continuously, until fairly recently, since the 1730s!

By chance another postcard caught my eye with a related subject. This one is captioned “THE TURF BAKE KITCHEN SLEIGHTS”, Sleights being a village in North Yorkshire, located in the Esk Valley in the postal region of Whitby.

Despite my best efforts, I haven’t managed to find out how common turf cake kitchens were – whether they were “a thing”, in current parlance – but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a large number of them back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Yorkshire. The Foods of England Project website, whilst helpfully describing how turf cakes were made, also points us in the direction of a wonderful quote from the utterly charming Yorkshire Painted And Described by Gordon Home: “I stepped into the little parlour, with its sanded floor, and demanded fat rascals’ and tea. The girl was not surprised at my request, for the hot turf cakes supplied at the inn are known to all the neighbourhood by this unusual name.” So it seems that turf cakes are directly related to what are nowadays known as “fat rascals”, similar to both rock cakes and scones.

(By the way, for anyone interested in the history, cities, towns, villages, ports and beautiful countryside of Yorkshire, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Project Gutenburg Yorkshire Painted And Described ebook, which is freely available online and contains some twenty-five chapters and thirty-one paintings).

There’s a little more information about Sleights Turf Cake Bakehouse on the Facebook page of Rustic Baking Co Ltd, a small artisan bakery based on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors near Whitby. who also point to the link to fat rascals. But here the plot thickens …

In 2017, in what you might call a turf war, a small cafe in Whitby, Sandgate Coffee & Delights, was taken to court by Bettys Tea Rooms, who claimed to own the trademark in Fat Rascals. Bettys Tea Rooms won the case, despite Miss Matos, of the Whitby cafe, being able to show that fat rascals were baked on peat fires in Whitby as long ago as 1855.

Fat Rascals at Betty’s of York, UK

Rustic Baking continues to make turf cakes, but they call them Bossy Bettys.

I wonder why?

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Credit:

Fat Rascals at Betty’s of York, UK – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) – author Wendy Slattery

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