spring

Tree following: April edition

There are a few problems with my tree following project. First of all, I am not sure what the neighbours think about me leaning out of the bedroom window and taking photographs. I am worried the people in the house opposite might think I am trying to spy on them.

across the road

The thing is, my chosen specimen is so enormous that this is the only way I can get a decent view of the individual branches.

From this angle you can see how splendid the tree is looking in the April sunshine. All those partially-opened leaves make me think of a gauzy veil.

healthy branch

Unfortunately I can’t see the leaves in any detail because the branches are so high up. I probably should have thought of that before! It’s quite reassuring that Lucy, the founder of this lovely tree-following project, has also chosen a tree that is difficult to observe from ground level.

Like Lucy, I find more than adequate compensation in the bark. Of course, the bark is what gives the silver birch its name and it’s one of the reasons I love this species so much.

silver bark

This classic silvery bark is fairly high up. About the first metre and a half of trunk is black and craggy. According to the Woodland Trust, this is a sign of age, since the pale bark ‘sheds layers like tissue paper’.

lichenmoss

I’ve been wondering how old my humungous tree is. It’s one of two in our short cul de sac, which is actually called Silver Birch Avenue and presumably takes its name from the fact that there were silver birches growing here when it was constructed. Our house was built in 1906, when Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal party was in power and England beat France in the first international rugby match (I love Wikipedia). The Royal Forestry Society says silver birches rarely live more than 100 years, but this one is so big that I do wonder whether it was part of the original planting.

There’s quite a lot growing at the base of my tree, including dandelions, goosegrass and chickweed, all of which are edible.

undergrowth

There’s not enough here to make it worth picking them, but perhaps I will take a walk in the woods later and gather enough to make weed pakora. I use this recipe – absolutely delicious

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Rhubarb rhythms

After eleven years of living in this beautiful corner of Sheffield, I have learnt the rhythm of spring in our woods. It goes like this: celandine, wild garlic, wood anemone, bluebell.

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Celandine

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Wood anemone

We’re into wood anemone time at the moment, and the wild garlic is also thick on the ground. Soon it will be time for a bit of foraging but first I need to pay homage to that other great harbinger of spring in Yorkshire: forced rhubarb.

rhubarb

I’ve written enthusiastically about this delicacy before, and a couple of years ago I posted this recipe for sharlotka, which I still rate highly. However, when we were in Edinburgh recently, some lovely friends produced a brilliantly simple rhubarb dessert that I just have to share here. Delicious results from very little time in the kitchen, and also including a hidden ginger nut – what could be better?

I’ve tweaked it a bit, drawing on a recipe for rhubarb syllabub from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, which is one of my go-to books when I’m trying to decide what to do with a vegbox, or a glut of vegetables from the garden. Highly recommended.

Sam and Claire’s rhubarb and ginger layer

To serve 6

  • grated zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 6 stems young pink rhubarb, about 500g
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 gingernut biscuits
  • Greek yoghurt

You will also need six ramekin dishes

ingredients

stewing

Warm the orange juice and sugar in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Cut the rhubarb into thumb-length segments and cook in the orange juice with the zest, cardamom and star anise for 8-10 minutes, then cool. Reduce the liquid by lifting out the rhubarb pieces and boiling the juice until it becomes syrupy.

Put a ginger biscuit in the bottom of each ramekin and spoon the rhubarb over the top. Finish with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and refrigerate before serving.

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Tastes as though it took ages.

Allotment secrets

The days are getting longer and I am itching to start our first full growing season on the new allotment. But there’s nothing I can do there yet. Sheffield has escaped flooding this year, thank goodness, but still the ground is waterlogged.

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

Our allotment: very much a work in progress

This week we had some pale sunshine and I wandered down to the site to see what I would find. There’s a strange tension on a warm day in February: I welcome the break in wintry grey and the sudden loudness of birdsong in the woods but I also fear that plants will start to push through too soon. The weather is fickle at this time year and a week of mild temperatures can be followed by iron frosts: last year we had thick snow at the end of March.

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On the allotments there is an air of expectancy. Most of the plots that I first saw bursting with produce back in August are empty now. Here and there I spot a few leeks, some overblown brassicas, but on the whole the beds are a uniform brown, naked beneath the watery sky.

A few are covered in thick layers of manure: it looks as though nothing is happening but I am obsessed with soil these days and I know billions of organisms are active below the surface, pulling down goodness, working fertility, preparing the way for sowing and harvest.

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Every so often the earth offers a glimpse of spring. Crimson rhubarb tips, startling in their brightness; a clump of snowdrops.

DSC_0032Nobody needs a snowdrop on an allotment and it makes me smile to think of someone defiantly planting them on this very practical prospect of rickety sheds, raised beds and upturned wheelbarrows.

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I think there has been some secret revelry while most of us gardeners were curled up in our warm houses. The scarecrows that won a prize in last year’s allotment competition are looking decidedly the worse for wear.

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After

I’m about to move on when I see something strange is also happening on the scarecrow-plot’s shed. They’ve put a green roof on it, these enterprising allotment neighbours of ours.

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Back in the summer it was thick with grass and wild flowers but now the vegetation has died back a bit to reveal a whole new world, a jumbled-up jungle, a scrambled safari park.

DSC_0023DSC_0024DSC_0025DSC_0026It’s compelling, the liminality of this place, this time of year. The allotments are in the city but barely of it, full of bustle and busyness but keeping their activity silent and hidden. The season is mostly winter but also teetering on the threshold of spring. No wonder there is magic on the shed roof.

What else am I missing, I wonder as I turn for home.

Lent pictures 1

I resolved to take a picture every day in Lent as a way of making myself slow down and notice some of the important things that are so easily missed when our days are full. I’ll be posting some of my favourites in this space throughout the season.

Snowdrops in the front garden.

Early spring sunshine in the Porter Valley

First pulmonarias in the back garden

 

nineteen

After one of the warmest and driest Novembers on record, December in Sheffield has been the kind of month that makes you wonder how come we haven’t evolved into a species that hibernates. But on Sunday the sun broke through and as I walked up my beloved Porter Valley I realised that the weeks of sleet and freezing rain had been worth it.

This waterfall, one of my favourite stopping places, has been a trickle since the spring

Similarly, higher up the valley the stream that feeds it has been almost dry. No more!

The sun shone, there was a sprinkling of snow and for a few glorious hours the gloom of winter seemed to have passed. As the shortest day approaches, it was a good reminder that though winter comes, spring is not far behind.