One day, I will own a gooseberry bush. Partly because I like gooseberries – I love their tartness and their texture – but also because a gooseberry bush represents home to me more than any other plant except perhaps rhubarb. Rhubarb holds powerful childhood associations for both D and myself. For D, it was something grown by his father and his plant still lives on in the back garden of the family home. For me, it takes me back to playing in the garden at my great aunt’s house. As a child, I didn’t like rhubarb much but I still remember being fascinated by the enormous leaves and the delicate pink of the stems. My aunt would poach the fruit, making pies and crumbles galore. She also used to give lots away, to my parents and grandparents and to neighbours, who repaid her with bunches of lily of the valley, one of her favourite flowers. So, when it came to deciding our first crops last year, we were in total agreement that we wanted rhubarb growing in our plot.
Gooseberries, though, were less of a given. D isn’t keen on the taste and has no family history of growing the plant. My aunt’s gooseberry bush sat next to her rhubarb although it was much less hospitable. I remember helping to harvest the fruit, doing my best to avoid the sharp spikes which did an excellent job of protecting the precious berries by stabbing anyone foolhardy enough to try to pick them. Then came what felt like hours of endless topping and tailing before finally, she would cook them. More pies, more crumbles and, my particular favourite to this day, rich and creamy gooseberry fool.
I have mentioned my aunt’s garden before, but it seems a fitting time to revisit it now, during what would have been her birthday week, although we have been without her now for over 10 years. She lived in a modest 1930s semi, not unlike the one we now call home, in the house that she moved into as a teenager with her family. She, my grandmother and their brother lived there for the rest of their lives, and my father was, like me, brought up playing in the garden.
When I was growing up, and only my beloved great aunt remained, the garden had the feel of a traditional cottage garden. A lawn at the back was surrounded by borders, where the rhubarb and gooseberry sat comfortably next to a climbing rose and a range of decorative flowers. Raspberry canes and blackcurrant bushes jostled for space with wallflowers and snapdragons and her front garden was a riot of early colour, with bursts of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all bringing joy and promise of a glorious summer. She loved colour and scent, loved her roses, her peonies and gladioli, and the mass of white Marguerite daisies that grew along the side passage leading you on to the back of the house.
She did have a veg border right at the back and I have vivid memories of picking and shelling peas and of the wonder of pulling new potatoes and carrots from the ground to have for tea. In later years, this area was totally given over to her favourite fruit – she had rows and rows of strawberries just waiting to be picked and eaten. We had to move fast to beat the birds, who loved them nearly as much as she did, and the disappointment of finding a large, ripe strawberry, only to find the underside already eaten stays with me today. What we did manage to harvest, we usually ate raw, sometimes dipped in sugar but often on their own, or with fresh cream. Some made it into cooked puddings and she turned what was left into ice cream. She would mix cream and sugar, then fold in the fruit before putting in a container in the tiny freezer compartment of her under-counter fridge. She took it out every hour to break up the ice crystals and churn the mix, until it was frozen and ready to eat – a real treat, all the more so for being made by hand and with love.
It is no surprise, then, that I have wanted to recreate a touch of that magic in my own garden. We have created a soft fruit patch outside the greenhouse and filled it with strawberries and a blueberry bush. To have a gooseberry bush to go with it would wrap all those memories into one spiky parcel and bring me pleasure for many years to come. It would, however, not be my first attempt at gooseberry growing. I had a bush some years ago, which sat in a container on my patio quite happily and gave me fruit in the first year but, when I left it to move to Scotland, it went into an almighty sulk. A friend offered to look after it and planted it in her large and well-tended garden but it threw all its leaves one day, as she said, “in a fit of pique”. Eventually, it was rehomed by another friend, an experienced and talented gardener, but the move was too much for it to take and, despite her care, it died. I am told gooseberries don’t like change, so we will need to make sure that we find just the right spot for our new bush when I finally convince D to buy one. Somewhere in the orchard, I am thinking – much as I loved the higgledy-piggledy mix of fruit and flowers in my aunt’s garden, ours has clearly defined areas, with the orchard and veg plot – rapidly becoming “the kitchen garden” in my head – being divided from the flowers and lawn by steps and a gate.
Sadly, unlike D’s childhood home, my aunt’s house and garden are no longer in the family. The memories are all the more precious for that, and the home we are building here is a tribute to happy memories created by both families, as well as a way of creating our own to share.