5.30am. Unable to get back to sleep (it’s light, birds howling/something howling, not sure if it’s a bird/lots of waking up noises in the undergrowth outside) so I get dressed and cycle to the allotment. I know because of the lowering sky I’ll be alone. So I am not surprised by the emptiness, no cars, just the slowly falling mass of rubbish, like an installation that the council are reducing, like a toppling cake. The first and last time, we’ve been warned. My mood matches the air, sky, temperature. Stormy, flat, tearful. I hack away at the rosemary bush which is so overgrown the weight of it is flattening the flowers and hanks of it cover the path, so that every time I pass it grips me in its resiny hands. I’ve decided it needs to be tamed, as do I. It’s something to do at 5.30am.
S from a few plots over waves in a sheepish manner, and disappears inside his poly tunnel. I lop off more wizened rosemary hands and arms. A young robin, its breast still tufty and slightly marbled hops near me, then hops on to one of the hacked off rosemary branches and watches me. I love the smell but even more it’s the silvery needles, deep green and surprisingly soft. I feel bad cutting it all off and it looks like an awful haircut, like the ones I used to give myself as a child, serrated fringes and lopsided ends, the hairdresser startled and silent, trying to figure it all out.
Monty Don says you should replace old rosemary bushes after a while as they grow so rangy and chaotic but I love the fact this rosemary has grown into a gnarled tree, like a mulberry or a wisteria, its knitted branches hiding couch grass, convolvulus, marjoram, a little posy of forgotten geraniums. I rip up the grass by the roots and start to clear the area feeling both decisive and desolate because it is neater but less interesting, less organic. The sides of the rosemary still hang over the path, long silver fingers, arms outstretched. It takes me two hours by which time K arrives on his bike.
While I am working I imagine that one day I will have to give this plot up. We will move. We are already planning it, we can’t afford to buy in this area, don’t want to; no sea, no massive skies etc. It is not just the rosemary bush, which I bought from a nursery as a small plant, and which has grown into itself, it is the DNA of the place, which is now mine. It feels unthinkable to let it go. I wonder if it will be like the moment when you move from a house, the paintings lifted, the sofa and all the stuff gone and revealed is the dead space, no longer yours. Will it be like that at plot 10? I wonder. The quince tree, the mulberry, the dwarf apple tree. The rows of dusty gooseberries, the sorrel I grow pretty much for the compost heap. I am there in little filaments, bits of me everywhere. Even, or especially, the ground, which for six years I have fed, over fed, burdened with compost, manure, comfrey. It’s probably exhausted by me.
K approaches with a small pot filled with strawberries and upends them into a bag for me. I’ve already had a couple of my own, dipped in the watering can for a quick clean. But these are bigger and better than mine. We have a laugh about the fact that I can’t give him anything in return except piles of rosemary which he wouldn’t know what to do with. Actually, if we could cook outside, if we could make a fire (we can’t), we could dip a branch of rosemary into olive oil and brush some fish with it.
It’s easy to overdo it. The oil from the leaves can overpower. Elizabeth David called it a treacherous herb. And she doesn’t like eating the spikes. And she thinks too much of it can kill the taste of meat. Oh well. They take as cuttings very easily, and I have a line of them growing in pots in the greenhouse. I think I needed it, the oil on my hands, the strength of the smell in the air, the scale of the branches, and it was good to find space and the robin enjoyed it too. It walked up and down the new-made path, and found the different levels interesting. On my way out of the allotment I passed C in his plot who was admiring a ladybird and I had one accidentally in the side pocket of my bag which I handed over because he said he was collecting them for their beneficial effects on his broad beans. It crawled from my hand to his. He walked off with my ladybird. My allotted time over, I leave. Generally better than before.
Alys Fowler on how to take softwood cuttings of rosemary and other perennials here. I have written about lamb and rosemary and apple and rosemary cake and there is also elsewhere on the blog a recipe for labneh with lemon zest and rosemary. There is a very good rosemary and chocolate brownie recipe by Ben Tish here.
Travel Gourmet said:
Thank you for a great read. There’s little as therapeutic as gardening – especially pruning. I’ve a large rosemary bush at the end of my garden, started from a cutting given by my neighbour when I moved in 16 years’ ago. A smaller one – cut from same bush – sits in a pot by the back door so I don’t have to run through bad weather in the winter if I need some. Many offspring from the original have passed to family and friends. I love that it has this life that flows through generations and time.
Sophie James said:
Thank you and I love how Rosemary does that, a very good ‘parent plant’. X
Jonathan Pearman said:
We know her father !
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Sophie James said:
Hello Jonathan, hope you’re well x
Joy oh joy a post from Sophie! A quietly enjoyable read, perfumed by the scent of cut rosemary. I am now very curious to discover where you intend to move to.
Sophie James said:
Thank you, Anna…well, somewhere near the seaside so I can stop complaining that we are so far away. Lovely to hear from you xx
Beautiful – made me want to go in my garden immediately and sniff my rosemary 😁Why does that sound so rude? You must have an allotment or garden when you move. You can do it all again and it’ll be great.
Sophie James said:
Thank you, Sandy. It doesn’t matter if it is rude! Rude is good in my book:) xxx
That made me want to go into my garden immediately and sniff my rosemary. You must have a new allotment or a garden when you move – you can start all over again with your cuttings. Not leaving but expanding! Lovely post Sophie xxx
Pam James said:
Hi Sophie A really brilliant article , one of your best , when you went to the allotment in the early hours , love you mum
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What a lovely post. I adore rosemary and use it in so many recipes, sweet and savory. I also love how it looks, structured yet wild and shaggy at the same time.
Sophie James said:
Thanks so much. Yes, you’re right x
It all sounds so lovely, the plant life and the neighbours in your garden allottmenf! You do write so well….And that lovely photo of that avenue of trees and shrubs.
I was wondering as I was reading it…. Are you actually planning to leave your place in the near future, as you mentioned? I mean are you continuing your house hunting at the moment… I know it’s all very discouraging, with house prices the way they are. Very hard to keep motivated. It will be difficult too, when the time comes, to have to leave your lovely allotment, even though I’m sure something similar will present itself. It does seem a hugely appealing place.
How does Pam seem lately? I talked with her recently.. will give her a ring this week. I’ve been on a walk today around some bushy headlands in Sydney.. was very refreshing to get out, but feel a bit buggered, so I will hit the sack.
We have an election next week…hoping to goodness we get rid of this awful man Morrison.
Hope all’s well,
Love to you both,
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