Thanks to the copious sunshine and rain this summer, our annual glut of tree fruit arrives early in our garden. Soon we’re in a race against time to pick up the windfalls before they start to rot.
One afternoon in August, I’m so intent on my task beneath a plum tree that I don’t notice a wasp lurking in the grass until I have knelt on it and it has stung me. Pesky wasps, I think, retreating indoors to treat my throbbing knee.
Remembering my grandmother’s mantra, “Bicarbonate for bees and winegar for wasps”, I head for the larder.
Only after applying a splash of Sarson’s does it occur to me that medical knowledge has moved on since my grandmother’s day, so I grab my phone to search for more modern remedies. Before I can raid the bathroom cabinet for the recommended antihistamine tablets and cream, I fall down a Google rabbit-hole, looking up the difference between wasps and bees.
I’m wondering why we feel so contemptuous for wasps, when spotting bees in the garden feels like a celebration. Both can sting us. Is it only because wasps don’t make honey or beeswax that we can divert for human use?
What’s the Use of Wasps?
If so, that’s a short-sighted attitude, because it turns out wasps have a very important role in nature. The BBC website tells me:
wasps kill pests that prey on crops
wasps are the farmer’s friend and the gardener’s ally, protecting our produce and helping us to maintain yields
they also eat insects that spread human disease
How very helpful of them.
I knew ladybirds eat greenfly, because my late friend Lyn, an early proponent of organic gardening, used to collect ladybirds in matchboxes and release them into her greenhouse in place of chemical insecticides.
Apparently, wasps are sometimes used the same way in agriculture, presumably without the matchboxes.
For a moment I picture swarms of wasps stinging predatory pests to death like a miniature militarised attack force, leaving a battlefield full of tiny dead bodies in their wake. Then I discover wasps eat their victims or take them home for their young. Unlike bees, they are carnivorous. Wasps are also the evolutionary forerunner to bees.
“Bees are wasps who have forgotten how to hunt,” says Professor Seirian Sumner of University Collect London. Bees have had other things on their minds, such as developing wax-making glands that wasps lack. (See this Guardian article for more details.)
The Jobsworth Wasp
Thus the wasp that stung my knee was only doing its job of protecting the plum crop. To the wasp, I was a giant crop-destroying predator, and its duty was to repel me. Like David’s slingshot and stone that felled Goliath, the wasp’s sting was highly effective: I instantly fled the scene and left the plums alone.
In future I’ll be more respectful of this tiny breed of busybodies and let them get on with their pest patrol.
If you enjoy reading my columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, you might like to know that I’ve published two collections of them, now available in ebook and paperback. The cover images are details from my father’s watercolour painting of a Cotswold field.
In my latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I was drawing on memories of a visit to Highgrove Gardens on a glorious summer’s day and sharing how it inspired me to start a new feature in my own garden.
My recent visit to Highgrove to admire HRH’s numerous quirky gardens-within-a-garden inspired me to start a new feature in my own plot. I christened it my Circle of Life Garden, as it’s designed to provide perspective and reassurance in a time when we are all a little more conscious than usual of our mortality. In lighter moments, I call it my Pull Yourself Together Patch or the Get a Grip Garden, but the principle remains the same.
My Circle of Life Garden
At the centre of the feature is a small buddha statue that a neighbour wanted shot of. Recycling or reincarnation? Either way, it seemed an appropriate starting point.
On each side of the buddha are ferns, chosen to represent prehistory. According to the Eden Project, ferns have been around for 350 million years. Predating dinosaurs, they were among the first land-dwelling plants to create the oxygen essential for the origins of man. What’s not to love about ferns?
Representing more recent history, between the buddha and the ferns I’ve laid out all the fragments of china and glass that my husband has unearthed while digging the garden. No, they’re not Roman relics, but refuse buried by the previous occupants of my Victorian cottage before the invention of the council dustcart.
Symbolising the present are wallflowers given to me by my father a couple of weeks ago and a cyclamen my sister brought me when she came to lunch last week.
Looking to the future, snowdrops and crocus bulbs planted beneath a bare patch of earth in front of the buddha are scheduled to emerge next spring.
All of these features are set against a backdrop of rotting logs, the remains of a plum tree that died of old age last year. As the logs decay, they are giving new life to bugs and beetles, which in turn feed small wild mammals and birds, and so the food chain goes on.
Thus in a compact space just a few feet wide, my Circle of Life Garden celebrates the past and the present and promises hope for the future. It’s certainly cheered me up.
There’s only one missing piece of the jigsaw: I’m still searching for a truly immortal plant. Japanese knotweed need not apply.
In Other News
In all of my novels, gardens feature prominently, whether in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, where Sophie Sayers nurtures the garden she’s inherited from her late great aunt, or at St Bride’s School nearby, where Gemma Lamb finds peace and solitude in the extensive school landscape.
I’ve just published a new story, The Clutch of Eggs, that starts off with an episode in Sophie’s garden, when her cat Blossom brings her in a wild bird’s egg, unleashing a comical chain of events that ends up putting Wendlebury Barrow on the map for all the wrong reasons.
A quick read (a third the length of one of my novels) in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, features all the regular characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, as well as some engaging new ones, including a handsome tourist, a trio of birdwatching brothers, and an affectionate dachshund named Bunty.
The Clutch of Eggs is now available as a a postcard-sized paperback (6″ x 4″) and in all the popular ebook formats. You’ll find the buying links for both below.
In the meantime, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite.
CHAPTER 1 – The Foundling Egg
“Look at this, Hector!”
I held out my hand to reveal what I’d carried so carefully all the way from my cottage to Hector’s House, the village bookshop.
Instead of giving me my usual morning hug before flipping the door sign to “open”, Hector (my boyfriend as well as my boss) stood back in awe of the object’s fragility.
“What’s that, your breakfast? It’s a bit on the small side. You’re not on a diet, are you?”
I stroked the pristine white shell with my fingertip.
“No, silly, it’s a bird’s egg. What sort of monster do you take me for? I don’t eat birds’ eggs for breakfast. Apart from hens’ eggs, I mean.”
I was glad I’d had toast that morning instead.
“That’s no hen’s egg. It’s far too small. Did you get it from the village shop? I’d heard Carol had started stocking quails’ eggs, but I thought they were speckled.”
“Yes, she has, and they are. She’s thrilled to have something to put on her Q shelf at last.” Carol organises her stock alphabetically to make things easier to find. “But I’ve no idea what sort of bird laid this egg.”
Hector slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key to his flat above the bookshop.
“I’ll fetch the vintage Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs from my curiosities collection upstairs. That’ll help us identify it.”
He turned the door sign to “open” before dashing outside and disappearing round the corner of the shop.
“What if it’s not a vintage bird?” I called after him, but his footsteps were already pounding up the stairs to his flat.
I like to tease Hector about the funny old books that fill his spare bedroom. He’s never read most of them, he just likes the look and feel of them. I can’t understand why he doesn’t add a second-hand department to the shop. He’d have more than enough stock, and it would provide a useful source of extra income for the business. We’re always looking for new income streams. It’s not easy keeping a rural bookshop in profit.
The sun was shining brightly now, so, still cradling the egg with my spare hand, I propped the door open with our cast-iron doorstop, which is shaped like a pile of old books. The fresh spring air was full of the scent of new leaves, the shrubs and trees along the high street acid green with new growth. I lingered on the threshold for a deep breath before going back inside, where I gently set my egg on the trade counter to await Hector’s verdict. To make sure it wouldn’t roll away and fall on the floor, I surrounded it with a little wall of stationery.
As Hector’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs, I headed for the tearoom, which is my domain, and fired up the coffee machine. We always start our working day with a caffeine fix. The smell of fresh coffee helps lure our first customers in off the street, too – mums returning from the school run.
Hector strode back into the shop brandishing a small hardback with a plain tan cover. Taking his usual seat at the trade counter, he started to flick through its yellowing pages. He didn’t look up when I set down in front of him a tiny espresso cup branded with The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. My wit was wasted on him. To be fair, the book he was reading was engrossing. On almost every page there was a precise and beautiful watercolour illustration of a bird’s egg, each one different.
“Surprisingly few eggs seem to be plain white like yours. Or the same shape.”
I gazed at the egg nestling in its pen of pens.
“Surely it’s just egg-shaped? Hence the expression.”
He held the book up to show me.
“This one’s the right colour, but it’s longer and thinner than your egg, while this one is more rounded.” He paused at the swift’s page. “The swift’s is plain white, but it’s too long.”
“Isn’t it too early for a swift, anyway?”
“Yes, you’re right. They won’t arrive for another week or two yet.” He flicked through a few more pages. The lesser-spotted woodpecker lays small white eggs the right shape, but I doubt you’ve got a woodpecker in your garden. They’re a bit shy and more of a forest dweller. Besides, it says here they don’t start laying till May.” He looked up from the book. “You did find this egg in your garden, didn’t you?”
I beamed with pride.
“I didn’t. Blossom did. She brought it in to me this morning. Isn’t she clever?” Blossom is my kitten. Hector’s not keen on cats, but I thought this show of skill might raise her in his estimation. “Do you realise how gentle Blossom must have been to pick up something as fragile as an egg in her mouth without breaking it? To carry it all the way from wherever she found it to my kitchen? I think she meant it as a present for me.”
Hector moved the book closer to his eyes. The print was tiny. Encouraged by his silence, I continued.
“At first, I thought she’d squashed her ping-pong ball, but no. It’s as perfect an egg as you’ll find anywhere in nature.”
Hector harrumphed. “I just hope Blossom didn’t despatch the mother bird while she was at her nest.” He shot me a mournful look. “Although that would cut short the mother’s distress at losing her egg.”
A wave of vicarious guilt swept over me.
“There aren’t any nests in my garden,” I began, despite realising I hadn’t actually checked. Might nests be hidden among the fresh spring foliage? My dense evergreens would also provide perfect camouflage.
Our conversation was cut short by a hum of chatter approaching from the direction of the school, so Hector set down the book to continue his investigations later.
A chilly breeze struck up as the school run-mums arrived. Although reluctant to shut out the spring, I closed the door behind them.
It was only when I was starting to serve their coffee that I realised Hector hadn’t given me my morning hug.
Like to know what happens next? Here are the buying links again:
As ever, if you read and enjoy this book, I would really appreciate it if you take a moment to leave a sentence or two on the website where you bought it saying why you liked it. Good reviews encourage other readers to buy my books!
In this month’s issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m talking about late summer gluts in the garden. The copy deadline is half way through the previous month to the cover date, and a month after writing this article, we’ve only just finished dealing with our surplus fruit, but still the lanes round here are dotted with baskets of free apples, squash, and other produce for sale or for free at the garden gate.
Before I moved to Hawkesbury Upton, I couldn’t understand how people could leave windfall fruit to rot. My previous house, in Tring, Hertfordshire, was a tiny two-up, two-down Victorian terrace with a back yard rather than a garden, so growing fruit and vegetables was out of the question. So when a neighbour encouraged us to strip her crab apple tree of all its fruit for our new hobby of winemaking, we were overwhelmed by her generosity. Only now that my kitchen is full of baskets of windfall apples – plus a bucket containing 27 pints of fresh apple juice – can I empathise with her relief at offloading her surplus to a grateful home.
When we moved here from Tring, the garden was one of the biggest attractions of our new house. Its substantial lawn was edged with mature plum trees, and an apple tree divided the lawn from the kitchen garden, where soft fruit bushes flourished. Over the years, we’ve added crab-apple, pear and more apple varieties, and damson and cherry trees have planted themselves. (Thank you, wild birds!)
Our plum trees have also multiplied, due to our habit of picking a ripe plum to eat on the move before chucking the stone on the ground wherever we happen to be. One summer, I anticipated a fairy ring of plum trees springing up where my aunt had sat in the garden, working her way through a dish of plums and leaving a circle of their stones around her chair.
This year we’ve had our largest yield of plums yet.
In the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s good to have a reminder that nature can also be benevolent – so much so that it’s been hard work even to give away our surplus.
There’s only so much jam one can use. When I put my latest jars of plum jam in the larder, I discovered we still had four jars from last year.
At least our plums are delicious, unlike the marrows that Nick Cragg throws in with every lot at the Show Day auction. His cry of “And a marrow!” always raises a laugh.
But in the absence of this year’s Village Show, what are we going to do with all our marrows? At the 2021 Show, I predict record entry levels in the spirits category.
Anyone for marrow rum?
If you like the idea of the Village Show, you might enjoy my novel Best Murder in Show, the first in my lighthearted Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook, it’s a cheery read to help you eke out the summer for a little longer.
Nominative determinism – the theory that we grow into our names – has always fascinated me, perhaps because I feel I’ve been touched by it myself.
Deborah is Hebrew for bee. I’m definitely a busy bee and have adopted bees as my mascot. Two large brass bees live on my desk, keeping me company as I write.
I realised long ago that I could no more marry someone with a repellent surname than I could live in a village with an ugly address. The charming name “Hawkesbury Upton” first drew me to the village where I’ve now lived for nearly 30 years. (Read about that episode here.)
I decided I could do a lot worse than be forever Young.
Always on the look-out for other examples of nominative determinism, I’ve found the world of gardening fruitful. My favourites include Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, both regulars on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. When the late Clay Jones was chairman, I was doing battle with a garden with a clay-based soil.
And today I came across a new addition to my list. Just appointed President of the Royal Horticultural Society is one Keith Weed. As a bonus, his mother’s maiden name was Hedges.
After a lifetime of being teased about his name by anyone old enough to remember Little Weed in The Flowerpot Men, Keith Weed’s appointment to a role in which his name will be positively celebrated must feel like a homecoming.
If you’re thinking a weed is bad news in horticulture, let me tell you my favourite gardening saying: “a weed is just a flower growing where you don’t want it”.
I can’t help wondering what has become of Keith Weed’s predecessor, Sir Nicholas Bacon. I’m rather hoping he’s gone to work for the Pork Marketing Board.
I have great fun choosing the names for the characters in my novels. If you’d like to know how the central characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series got their names, you may enjoy the following posts from my archive.
My column for the April 2020 issue of our community magazine, Hawkesbury Parish News, was written about a week after lockdown started and so included my initial impressions of the positive changes it might bring to our lives.
As ever, I tried to keep my column lighthearted and upbeat. Now in the fourth week of lockdown, all that I wrote still rings true for me – although I’m not sending anything out in the post, as our precautionary self-isolation due to various health vulnerabilities in our household are precluding the short walk up to the post box at the centre of the village.
Our heroic village post office remains open, however, thanks to Dick, our selfless postmaster, as is the Hawkesbury Stores, our community village shop, aided by dozens of volunteers.
The other difference is that I gave my stash of fancy soaps and hand lotions to an appeal for toiletries for nurses in our local hospital – but the jewel-like blue of my cheap-and-cheerful Pears soap lifts my spirits every time I use it.
Whatever is changing for you during lockdown, I send you my very best wishes.
The current restrictions, courtesy of Covid-19, are radically changing our lives. Much of these changes may linger post-virus, but, ever the optimist, I can see some good may come of it.
We will have learned to cherish luxury soap. Fancy bars that once ranked as unwanted Christmas gifts are coming into their own as we wash our hands many times a day. So much nicer than the usual squirt of washing-up liquid before I cook tea.
We will have nothing but praise for delivery men, from old faithfuls like the milkman and the postman to the anonymous man in a white van. Forget the odd package or pinta left at the wrong house in the past. All will be forgiven. We’ll be happy to see a delivery man at all.
Our houses will be immaculate. With so much time at home, we’re sorting dusty shoeboxes of old photos and alphabetising our CD collections. We’re rearranging our books by author, by size, by topic or by colour – or all four, in turn. When charity shops reopen post-virus, they’ll be swamped with our discarded clutter.
We’ll all have turned into vegetable gardeners. Our natural instinct to Dig for Victory is kicking in. This summer, we’ll no longer complain about a surplus of marrows. We won’t want to waste a speck of food after seeing so many empty supermarket shelves. The Hawkesbury Show 2020 will receive a record number of entries. We might even start our craft entries early, rather than finishing in a frenzy the night before Show Day.
The old-fashioned habit of sending letters and postcards will enjoy a lasting revival, despite the cost of postage. While the internet helps us connect with our loved ones, it’s much more special to receive a tangible show of affection from afar – well worth the price of a stamp. Bonus point: while we’re writing traditional letters and cards, we’re not frightening ourselves with misinformation online.
With regard to correspondence, the soulless modern sign-offs “Kind regards” and “Best wishes”, or “Best” or even “BW” in abbreviation, will disappear. The evidence in my inbox this week suggests that in future emails and letters will end “Take care and stay well” – a sentiment sent from the sender’s heart.
And that is how I’d like to end this month’s column. Confined to my house as a vulnerable person for health reasons, I’m frustrated not to be out helping fellow villagers, as so many kind parishioners are doing now. I pledge to make up for it once I’m allowed out. You have been warned!
So for now, take care and stay well. This too will pass.
Special Offers on Escapist Reads to Lift Your Spirits
If you fancy a bit of escapist reading from life under lockdown, you might like to take advantage of two special offers currently running on the ebook editions of the first books in my two series of novels throughout the month of April.
The first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Best Murder in Show, is currently free to download on all ebook platforms worldwide. Click here to nab your free copy.
My first St Bride’s School story, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently reduced to 99p in most stores, including Amazon UK, Kobo, Apple Books and Barnes and Noble. (With apologies to Amazon readers outside of the UK – this promotion is being run by Amazon and is only on my home turf!) Click here to buy your bargain copy.