My Tif-inspired expression of glee has gone a little awry today after hanging out a couple of loads of washing, only to find that ten minutes later the clear blue skies had turned a leaden shade of grey, and raindrops started to slap at my windows, even though the Met Office, bless their little cotton socks, had promised me sun until three. So I helter-skeltered out of doors and gathered up my dripping laundry, and carefully festooned my kitchen with socks and sheets, only to find that the rain had beat a hasty retreat and here came the sun again. I couldn't face the agony of a repeat performance so I sat and worked amongst the sheets and towels, and pondered the purpose of weather forecasts.
But maybe Met Office I might forgive you, for just after three we are now in the midst of wild wet wind and rain, battering at our battened-down hatches, and now, in an attempt to don the mask of jocosity once more, I am trying to reimagine all those damp tea towels as a festive gleeful whatnot garland, and thinking of Ginny and her November gratitude, I will take you for a virtual stroll around our November garden. (In the interests of veracity and authenticity, I must tell you that I took the pretty pictures at the weekend when the sun was shining and the light was good, but yes, I still have marigolds and a single lonely rose in flower, along with a copious crop of weeds.)
I have posted before here about the complications of self-sufficiency, and would reiterate that for us true self-sufficiency will remain a mirage, because I am not about to grow flax, and I know not how to spin or weave, and the sheep are but a dream of the future, and a cow ... well, perhaps not, no not ever. But we are aiming to be as self-sufficient as possible in food, given the limitations of climate and time.
Carbohydrate staples are greedy of land and labour, and growing wheat on a small scale really is the stuff of dreams: we would have to give up a lot of our tinyholding to keep ourselves in flour, and really, the investment that would be required in tools and equipment for all of that harvesting, thrashing, winnowing and grinding - not to mention storage - makes wheat-growing an unrealistic proposition. We consume potatoes by the sack, but luckily my dear papa grows them commercially so we can eat local on that front. And do we want to give up rice and lentils - well, perhaps not yet.
But we have been able to produce all of our vegetables and nearly all of our fruit since the early spring, and, contrary to my expectations, we still have a good variety growing in the garden in late November. This is where we reap the benefits of our location in the former garden of England. Kent was named the garden of England not for its decorative qualities, which is what we so often associate with gardening nowadays, but because of its market gardens which supplied London and its environs with fruit and vegetables. Gardens were originally garths and yards - little enclosed spaces for growing herbs and vegetables. Subsistence didn't allow for the luxury of growing purely for the purposes of ornament, although that is not to say that beauty and vegetable growing are mutually exclusive, and gardens for leisure and ornament were the preserve of the wealthy until surprisingly late in history.
So we are in a good location for self-sufficiency in vegetables and fruit, for these have been part of the indigenous agriculture for very many years: our rich clay soil, mild climate and southern latitude make for a long and productive growing season. If ever you are looking to take on a smallholding, the agricultural history of your surroundings is a very useful guide as to what will be the easiest and most feasible way to manage your land, and the traditional local diet will be the one that is most self-sufficient.
For example, my friend Ellie from Fleece with Altitude has a smallholding in the north of England on land high up where the soil is thin; the weather is colder, wetter, and windier than down here: traditionally this would have been land purely used for grazing sheep at low densities. Ellie has a magnificent herb garden, but this has involved her in much work building shelter and creating drainage for the soil. Whereas I can plant lavender and other Mediterranean herbs all about my garden, with no soil preparation at all, and they love the summer drought and sunny south-facing area at the front of the house: wet feet will kill lavender very quickly.
And our lack of time over the last few months has worked to our advantage - many weeks ago I remember feeling guilty that I wasn't up to date with clearing the tomatoes out of the greenhouse or the runner beans from their frames. Yet this lackadaisicalness has (luckily) worked to our advantage because of the unseasonably mild autumn we have had: at the weekend we harvested the last tomatoes, and still have a few aubergines and peppers coming on. I have found before that aubergines are really worth keeping on into the autumn if they are sheltered in some way: as we have no heat in the greenhouse we cannot sow them very early, and they seem to need a long growing season. October is the time when we harvest the bulk of the crop.
After a sticky start in the spring when it seemed unwilling to germinate, we did a second sowing of celery: the first caught up with the second, and we have in consequence been overwhelmed with celery. But it really sharpens up the flavour of squash or pumpkin soup, and although the frosts will finish it off, there is no sign of that yet. It might have been wet and windy, the temperature is creepily high as yet, having been in the mid teens in the past few weeks. And the heavy rain has had a reviving effect on our summer-parched soils.
We still have beetroot in the ground, and lettuce which we sowed outside at the end of the summer is coming into full production, with rocket and radicchio in the polytunnel.
My Italian cabbage plants, which were a donation from a friend's surplus, have survived the determined assault of caterpillars, which gave them the air of green lace sculpture at one point. So we are glad that we didn't have enough time to abandon hope and dig up the crop: they look ravishingly dark green and healthy now with their curled leaves festooned with pearls of rain and dew.
All our hard work in transforming the clay into a fine soil has reaped dividends in carrots and parsnips - some of which are such monsters they make exciting treats for the pigs. For root crops such as these, we have proved to ourselves that raised beds are definitely the solution to counteract the problems of a clay soil. The parsley has been the best ever: the garden is filled with luxuriant green frills around all the beds.
And there is more to come: once again our tardiness has in the long run been an advantage, in that the leeks and celeriac went in very late, because of lack of time (and space, because the garden was full of celery). So I can look ahead and feel comforted that we have vegetables to last us on into January, at least. We also have runner beans, peas and broccoli in the freezer, as well as fruit of all sorts, although I think the real key to true self-sufficiency and thrift is to manage to grow a succession of seasonal plants, which sitting in the ground don't take up freezer space and consume electricity.
Fruit is another question entirely: in this climate, fresh as opposed to preserved fruit is nigh on impossible during winter and spring.
Apples cover many of the gaps, but I do crave citrus fruits around this time of year because they are so delicious, and their bright orangeness brings light into the grey days.
And the pigs, alas, their days are numbered, and whilst my hearty family dream of bacon and sausages for Christmas day, I secretly mourn and avert my gaze.
The Head Chef's excitement at the sight of pheasants in the orchard may well have a different source from mine, but I am full of gratitude for a garden full of good and growing things, a larder where the jars of jam and jelly gleam expectantly, and we are all blessed with the assurance of plenty and more food to come: good things to be grateful for in November.