I’m a fair weather gardener. As someone who works in horticulture I am supposed to claim that each season has its own wonder and that I embrace all the changes nature offers, but that wouldn’t be honest. As temperatures and light levels plummet, the growth of the vast majority of plants grinds to a halt. This means that if you get a mood boost from living green, winter can be tough. However, there is one much-overlooked group of plants that does the exact opposite, bursting into life just as most garden residents are slipping into dormancy. Moss provides you with a horticulture happy pill just when you need it most.
Mosses are an ancient group of plants that don’t follow the rules of other garden species. Their growth rate isn’t so much determined by light and heat, but by the availability of moisture – and that is something we don’t lack at this time of year. Given the right conditions, their rugged constitution makes them incredibly easy to propagate and establish. And they can be sourced for little to no money.
An easy project for beginners is a moss tray – a beautiful centrepiece for a garden table, a structural accent for resting on low walls or, depending on the size of the dish, even a patio feature. All you need is a shallow dish. Mosses don’t have roots in the same way other plants do, so they don’t need a generous depth of growing media. I use a 5cm layer of soil-based potting mix, which I shape into a mini landscape of undulating hills. I compress down with the palm of my hand as firmly as possible to eliminate any air pockets, before saturating it with water. Finally, I spread over a top layer of keto soil, a Japanese growing media sold by bonsai stores that has the consistency of modelling clay. Mixing it with a little water makes this easier. It provides a sticky, wallpaper paste to affix your moss to. If you have access to clay subsoil from the garden, this will work just as well.
Now, all you need is your moss. I have experimented with dozens of options and fortunately the most beautiful are also the easiest to get hold of. Silver moss Bryum argenteum is a deep green velvet with a slight silvery sheen when it catches the light. It typically grows in pavement cracks. An equally ubiquitous species, common cord-moss Funaria hygrometrica, creates hummocks of tiny star-shaped rosettes in a fresh apple green. It crops up on the tops of city walls, on the sites of old bonfires and on wasteland.
Clumps can be lifted with a paint scraper and simply arranged on to the clay layer of your tray. Press the newly planted sheets down to ensure a good contact with the substrate and soak the surface with a spray of water. Sit your tray in an area of full sun to establish. Once bedded in over winter, the moss garden will be a drought tolerant, low maintenance feature that will last for years.
You know something is wrong when they pause and say: “I am just going to get a colleague.” It was a 20-week scan. The baby was dead. They thought it had possibly died a couple of weeks earlier, and sent me home to “let nature take its course”. The idea of a dead thing inside me, black stuff leaking out of me, was horrible. My GP was sympathetic, the risk of infection was high and she got me back into hospital. I had a new job so I made up some story about an ovarian cyst, as I found the whole experience very hard to explain. After all, I had two healthy children, so I shouldn’t be sad. Some women have repeated miscarriages. One medic told me I should think myself lucky.
The next time was way more dramatic. In a normal pregnancy, the level of certain hormones climbs slowly. The blood tests showed mine were zigzagging. This meant the pregnancy was ectopic – the embryo was stuck and growing in the fallopian tube. The baby would never be born. Again I was “lucky” as, during one checkup, everything happened very quickly. A floaty feeling came over me. The danger of ectopic pregnancy is that, if the fallopian tube ruptures, there is severe internal haemorrhaging. Weirdly, you feel the pain in your shoulder.
I was banged on to a trolley and rushed along underground tunnels that stretched beneath the hospital, with people shouting: “Get plasma in her”, “She is tachycardic”, “Tell theatre we are getting her in now”. It really is like ER, I remember thinking; they do get very excited.
Haemorrhage is a strange experience, in that you don’t much care. (Once I went round to see a friend who was miscarrying and found her sitting in a huge pool of blood, apparently feeling no real urgency to get to A&E.) When I woke up, my throat hurt, I had bruises everywhere: emergency surgery is necessarily violent. There were catheters and tubes and, opposite, an old guy was staring at me. I was on a mixed ward. “Heart attacks, mainly,” the nurse explained. At least I had a diamorphine syringe driver, but it was making me throw up constantly. A close friend visited and burst into tears at the sight of me. Someone came and asked if I wanted counselling. “Yes I do,” I replied. He wrote down a number, but the phone was at the end of the ward and at that point I couldn’t walk.
In having that conversation, it’s important to be clear about our terminology. On Twitter this weekend, there was consternation when a month-old ad from Tampax resurfaced that read: “Fact: not all women have periods. Also a fact: not all people with periods are women. Let’s celebrate the diversity of all people who bleed.”
In our world of alternative facts, it sometimes seems women cannot be named. Women and trans men have periods. Why not just say that? It then emerged that, two weeks ago, Sands, a stillbirth and neonatal-death charity, had tweeted: “Often the focus of support and comfort is on the birthing parent, which can leave partners or non-birthing parents feeling isolated and alone. Sands is here for you.” It later apologised, as bereaved mothers were rightly appalled.
Now, whether we are talking about menstruation or miscarriage, mother as well as woman is considered by some to be exclusionary language. Women have been told our fear of being erased is something we just have to suck up. But I’m genuinely sure that most trans people have sympathy for grieving women. Men are never required to make space or to change their language. Meanwhile, women die in menstrual huts in Nepal; in the US, the infant mortality rate for black women is shockingly high; and all over the world we still have period poverty.
When I went back for my checkup after my ectopic pregnancy, I fell in love with the doctor because a) he was gorgeous, b) he saved my life and c) he was the most pro-women doctor I have ever met. As I wept that, at 41, I was too old to have another child, he said he could help. Most of his female colleagues didn’t want children until they were consultants, he said, which was usually in their late 30s, so he considered it his job to aid the process if necessary through IVF or other medical means. “Impregnate me now!” I had to stop myself screaming. The pregnancy hormones were still running around my brain. “I am so glad to see you,” he said as we parted. “The last woman I opened up in your condition, I lost on the table.”
Language matters. As Andrea Dworkin – a trans ally – once said: “Men have defined the parameters of every subject.” They still do. It is not transphobic for women to name our experiences as females and mothers. To insist our bodies matter and that our losses are real. It is a matter of life and death.
A soup kitchen isn’t the obvious setting for romance. But when John Warren decided to volunteer for the homeless charity Caritas of Austin in January 2006, it wasn’t long before he spotted Laura Thomas. “I was working in the kitchen when I watched her walk across the room, so I tried to make eye contact. She immediately told me to put gloves on,” he says, laughing. As soon as she left, he put on the latex gloves required for hygiene reasons and, the next time she passed, waved to show that he was wearing them.
Laura, who was responsible for arranging music events at the shelter, thought John was “cute”. “A month later, we met again and started chatting at the kitchen,” she says. Although there was a spark, the volunteer coordinator told Laura that John had a girlfriend. “I thought he was a jerk. I didn’t understand why he was flirting with me if he was with someone.” In reality, he had separated from his partner. Due to the misunderstanding, John and Laura started dating other people. “He brought a date to the benefit fundraiser event I was organising,” says Laura. “I thought that was his long-term girlfriend.”
When his profile popped up on a dating website that Laura was using, it prompted her to ask about his relationship status. “We finally realised we were both single and liked each other,” she says. In April 2006, they went on their first proper date, to a wine bar in South Austin, followed by dinner at a restaurant. “I was really interested in everything she had to say,” says John. “There was something special there.” She felt he was different because he asked so many questions: “On previous dates, most men had just talked about themselves.”
Laura had never married, but discovered that John was divorced and had two daughters, aged 17 and 20. “I had been prejudiced about dating divorced men but John made me realise that was silly,” she says. The couple bonded over their shared love of travelling, their passion for nature and their strong family values.
“We both love camping and hiking. I think I knew Laura was the one when I went to her house and realised she had more camping gear than me,” John says, laughing. The relationship became serious quickly and the pair discussed marriage. In October, they went to a music festival in San Francisco, where John popped the question. “I knew he was going to ask because he was acting weird,” she remembers. The couple had a barefoot wedding the following May in a Catholic church. “I’d previously done volunteer work in India and it was a mark of respect to remove your shoes in religious places,” says Laura. “We offered our guests the opportunity to do it too if they wanted.” It was followed by a DIY party at John’s home, where they turned the garage into a dancefloor. Instead of wedding gifts, they requested donations to the soup kitchen where they had met.
Laura moved into her husband’s house shortly after the wedding, which she admits was a “learning curve”. “It was a bit of a shock to the system as I had to move to a different part of the city, and we had not lived together before we married. But it worked and now I have a great relationship with his children, too. We spend a lot of time with our families.”
Since the pandemic started, John has worked at home as the director of a technology company, but Laura’s career as a music booking agent is temporarily on hold. She became unwell with thyroid cancer earlier this year, but has since made a full recovery after having surgery. Despite the challenges of the past few months, they enjoy spending more time together. “We bought a small ranch a three-hour drive from our home, and we hope to spend weekends there,” says Laura. And they continue to raise funds for the soup kitchen.
John is grateful that his wife keeps him grounded. “Laura has an immense sense of social justice, which I love. It was wonderful to meet someone who puts family first.” She describes her husband as incredibly intelligent. “He is Mr Fix-It and makes anything work. John is always able to laugh and gets along with everyone.” Want to share your story? Tell us a little about you, your partner and how you got together by filling in the form here.
The pandemic has given people more time to perfect their cooking skills although some have found themselves becoming stuck in a meal rut, falling back on the same dishes every week.
To provide some much-needed inspiration, we asked Guardian readers to share their favourite quick and easy 10-minute lunches.
Zesty chickpea salad
Helena Meagher, teacher, London
Chop up some tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and coriander, and mix with a grated clove of garlic and a drained can of chickpeas. Season and add the zest of one lemon. Mix and serve.
Fried aubergines, courgettes and padron peppers
Farah Hasanli, lawyer, London
I put a plate of fried aubergine slices, lightly fried baby courgettes and padron peppers together and add some feta cheese and chopped basil with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. These were the vegetables I could find in the fridge during lockdown. It made a delicious quick lunch for two.
Lesley, professor of medicine, Cardiff
Take some good quality, sweet tomatoes – I like a mix of different varieties – slice and spread out on a plate. Tear over a good quality mozzarella ball. Add salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and finish off with a sprinkling of fresh basil. Eat with crusty bread.
Malaysian-style nyonya prawn curry
Sonia, stay-at-home parent, Australia
Stir fry prawns with sambal chilli paste, coconut milk and tamarind water. Cook and simmer for five minutes, add some chopped canned pineapple and season with salt and sugar. Garnish with a kaffir lime leaf and fresh bird’s eye chilli. Eat with rice or naan bread.
Salmon with gnocchi
Sarah, publicist, London
Heat the oven, and put a fillet of salmon on a piece of tinfoil with salt, pepper and a slice of lemon. While the fish is cooking, boil water and cook some gnocchi. Mix in some pesto and spinach, and flake the cooked salmon on top for a healthy, speedy lunch.
Alan Ashbee, retired, Yorkshire
I first had this when I was working in Gibraltar. Drain and wash a tin of butter beans. Add chopped celery, diced onion and a tin of tuna in oil. Mix together with lots of black pepper. Very tasty and filling.
Tofu with broccoli and edamame beans
Isa, product designer, London
This is my go-to quick lunch when I need a change from sandwiches. It takes about five minutes, is 100% plant-based and you can change the toppings every day. Steam some broccoli and add tofu and edamame beans. Then, pick your dressing. I like olive oil or a vinaigrette with cherry tomatoes and olive tapenade, or tahini, lemon juice, sesame seeds and harissa. Mirin, soy sauce, green onions and black sesame seeds are also delicious.
Quick and easy tacos
Karmen Nagy-Stephenson, engineer, Yorkshire
Take some corn tortillas and fill with chopped sweetheart cabbage, red cabbage, onion, tomatoes and peppers. The rest of the filling is up to you! I like Korean chilli mayo and either leftover meat from last night’s dinner or vegan meat substitute. Then I add some grated cheese, coriander, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lime. Yummy!
Three ingredient macaroni cheese
Jason Brockwell, orthopaedic surgeon, Hong Kong
Recently I came across a wonderful recipe from J Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats that uses equal parts pasta, cheese and a secret ingredient: evaporated milk. Place the pasta in a saucepan, only just cover it with salted water, and simmer. Grate some cheese. The water in the pan will reduce and become cloudy as it absorbs starch from the pasta. One minute before the recommended cooking time is up, stir the milk and cheese into the pan until it goes smooth and glossy. Season and serve with fried onions, ham, croutons or whatever takes your fancy.
The Kenilworth omelette
Ewart Shaw, retired statistician, Coventry
Chop and fry some onion and bacon. Add sliced chilli and mushrooms, and continue frying. Then add the eggs, stir and leave still until they are cooked. Finish by adding some grated cheese on top (a combination of wensleydale and red leicester works well). Add fresh basil if you’re feeling posh.
Chilli vegetables with rice
Meghana, architect, Mumbai
Heat some oil, add a few cumin seeds and diced onion and cook until translucent. Add a bell pepper and any other vegetables you have to hand: carrots, mushroom, broccoli, corn and courgette work well. While the veg is cooking, mix a little soy, barbecue and chilli sauce with a teaspoon or so of cornflour and water. Pour the mix into the vegetable pan and cook until the vegetables are done. Serve with rice and yoghurt.
Pilchards on pitta
Jennifer Berry, photographer, Swindon
Take a pitta bread and toast lightly. Meanwhile, finely chop some red onion, crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, coriander and cucumber and mix. Layer the veg and herbs on the toasted pitta then open a can of pilchards in tomato sauce. Strain the fish and place on the vegetables, reserving the tomato sauce. Season, add lemon juice, then just as you are about to serve, add the tomato sauce.
Ruth Brecher, former operations manager, London
I’ve been making sourdough for years and created this dish to use up some of the copious amounts of starter I have discarded. Mix some of the unwanted starter with cubed feta, chopped tomato and sliced black olives. Heat some ghee in a frying pan and then add the mixture and fry on both sides until puffy and golden and the cheese is melted. Top with chives or basil. It takes minutes to make and is delicious. For a sweet version, fry the leftover starter as it is and top with yoghurt and jam.
Speedy vegetable noodles
Angela, musician, Leipzig
This noodle dish is inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop. Put some noodles in a pan of boiling water and cook according to the instructions. Meanwhile, mix an equal amount of soy sauce, chinkiang vinegar (or cheap balsamic vinegar), chilli oil, tahini and a pinch of salt and sugar. Drain and rinse the noodles under cold water, add the sauce and mix. Top with spring onion, coriander, cucumber or any other vegetables you fancy, or a fried egg. Bon appetit!