As January draws to a close we’re still wrapped in a cocoon of grey spun from wet silvery threads of salty cloud whipped up from a plumbean sea by the breath of Zephyrus. The rain slowly dissolves the coating of salt from the windows to reveal a monochrome landscape highlighted only by a pale yellow wash of grass sloping down to the grey rocks. A bad case of sequential North Atlantic depressions.
On the western horizon there is an ellipse of clear blue sky, edged with brilliant white cloud. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero! Will there be time to pull on the wellies and the waterproofs and rush down to the vegetable garden to check on the bulbs? No time to finish the coffee, listen to the end of the symphony, there is another band of rain approaching from the south!
As a pale winter sun appears the winter colours begin to glow. The tide wrack is a glistening amber line snaking along the rocks like a discarded boa from a midnight tryst and the siren sush of the waves beckons me to the beach to search for natural curios. However, my inner gardener urges me on across the field, there should be just enough time to see if the snowdrops survived the last gale and discover whether there are enough primroses for a tussie-mussie (a nosegay –tuse meaning knot of flowers and mose referring to the damp moss that was wrapped around the stems to prevent the flowers from drying out).
Alas the primroses are a little wet and weather worn, but given a dry, calm day or so they will fill the sheltered corners of the garden with a promise of spring. As the days begin to lengthen the garden is starting to come to life – the first frilly roundels of aquilegia leaves, the soft bronze fronds of the fennel, spiky tufts of chives and soft green arrows of the buckler-leaf sorrel signal that the winter darkness is coming to an end.
January, a time for new beginnings and transition, derives its name Ianuarius from the Latin word for door (ianua) and not necessarily from the Roman god Janus. I also like the alternative Saxon name of Wulf-monath, which conjures a much more northern vision of the cold, hard, first month of the year.
Here on the island January exhibited both these characteristics, as two-faced as Janus himself. It has been cold, dark and stormy, but being housebound provides time for planning and looking forward. This year the planning has involved rather more than a perusal of the seed catalogues. We are coming to the end of our “ten-year plan” and after eight years on the croft the outcome has been very different from our first naive visions. However, we are more than content with our achievements, but complacency isn’t our style and it is time to look forward.
Last year we didn’t grow any main-crop potatoes, primarily because we have a fungal disease in the soil which makes it a waste of time and we don’t eat enough potatoes to justify the effort of growing them in another part of the croft. So I left a couple of my vegetable beds fallow. We usually have a good crop of onions and shallots, but because our season is so short it is almost impossible to ripen and dry the bulbs; consequently after a couple of months in storage they begin to rot. So it was not a difficult decision to stop growing onions, particularly as I had been looking for a suitable space to grow more herbs and bulbs.
This was start of the realisation that it was time to think about beginning to change my gardening habits as the heavy labour involved in vegetable gardening gets heavier and heavier as the years progress. This is not an easy fact to come to terms with, but on balance it seems to be easier to adapt slowly rather than to have a major change imposed and to be unable to implement an alternative strategy. Fortunately my inner Polyanna came to the rescue and provided visions of exciting new projects and a little retail therapy with the bulb catalogues did the rest.
All was rosy in the garden in November; the winter tasks complete and the mild weather had given the winter crops in the polytunnel a good start. I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the jet stream wouldn’t meander south and subject us to the usual mid-winter storms. Predictably, just before Christmas, the weather changed and storms Barbara and Conor arrived. The rest is history, by Boxing Day the polytunnel was missing two roof panels and those in the western gable end were starting to tear.Over the next few days, tools, pots and assorted gardening odds and ends were re-housed, the over-wintering plants were evacuated and placed in intensive care, and the casualties put on the compost or in the recycling bin. The onions, garlic, carrots, coriander and parsley were covered with a double layer of enviromesh, a desperate effort to rescue something, particularly as the spinach, beetroot and winter salads had perished.
My inner Pollyanna was remarkably quiet for a few days – probably skipped off with my muse to the Bahamas, a likely pair of flibbertigibbets! Fortunately the Head Gardener was around to encourage me to be pragmatic, switch into strategic planning mode, do the risk assessments, analyse the options and see if there was any money left in the piggybank. So after shaking the piggy bank, searching down the back of the sofas and going through all the coat pockets, I’ve scraped together just enough to repair the polytunnel and finance its eventual replacement. So there is a new plan on the drawing board and I’m looking at the future of the vegetable and cottage gardens from a slightly different perspective. Although everything in the garden is not quite as rosy as it was, Pollyanna and the muse are back, I’m perusing the seed catalogues and as soon as it stops blowing, raining and or snowing I’ll be back in the garden.
The skylarks have returned and at every glimmer of sunshine ascend in a paroxysm of delight. There are noisy gatherings of Oystercatchers speed dating in the field, and the lapwings are practising sky dancing aerobatics to advertise their prowess as a sign of their parental fitness. To earthbound mortals the song of the lark is a clarion call, time to finish the winter maintenance and start planting seeds rather than perusing seed catalogues.
March is a capricious and seductive month, a flirty chameleon capable of switching its wintry hues to reveal tantalising glimpses of spring green. Traditionally it begins with strong winds, torrential rain and squalls of hail and as the equinox approaches it can deceive with calm days full of soft spring sunshine before departing with a tail lashing of stormy days. Infected with the mania of “mad March hares” we rush around trying to squeeze in a little gardening between the routine chores of clearing the gutters, collecting the accumulation of winter storm debris and the endless task of spreading muck, seaweed and garden compost to replace the precious top soil swept away in the tumult of the westerly gales.
Tackling the rebuilding the fruit cages after two stormy winters has now become a priority. The side netting needs new and even bigger batons to hold it firmly in place and the roof netting, torn to shreds and hanging like Spanish moss from the rafters, has to be completely replaced. This will be the third redesign and repair of the roof, and as I’ve just ordered another 1000 stainless steel screws I hope it will last longer than the previous version. Garden projects designed and built by the Head Gardener have always been constructed to last until the next millennium, but here, however much we over-engineer and try to compensate for the weather, it is never quite enough. I begin to empathise with Sisyphus endlessly rolling the boulder up the hill and wonder how I had managed to offend the gods to such an extent as to be condemned to eternal repairing of storm damage.
Bronze fennel shoots
The garden sleeps on, oblivious to all the activity as I clump around the garden trying not to damage any tender new shoots which may be lurking beneath the piles of wind-blown stems and old leaves. Carefully the winter debris is collected and the new growth exposed. The young, tender leaves are bejewelled with crystals of rain and are vulnerable to the cold northerly winds and the nip of a frosty morning. The power of the sun on a calm afternoon is just enough to stir a hibernating bumblebee, but they soon retreat as the garden has nothing to offer other than a few bedraggled primroses.
There are times when I am envious of the glorious displays of bulbs and blossoms in more temperate gardens, but for all it’s capriciousness March like the larks is a welcome harbinger of spring. There is the anticipation of discovering what has survived the winter, the gift of finding some self-sown plants and the joy of watching the new growth emerge. Best of all I still have the spring flowers to come and I’m anxiously waiting to see if one of the apple trees will produce a sprig of blossom.
This morning a perfect line of 21 swans flew low across the water, stark white against a dark indigo sky. Resolutely heading north-west, each wing beat perfectly synchronised, beauty in perpetual motion. The children of Lir are departing once more and now I know that the season has changed and spring has arrived.
Alliums and aquilegias
After all the rain we’ve had recently, I took this morning’s rainbow to be a symbol of hope. Perhaps the deluge is coming to an end – or do I have to wait for the dove with the olive branch to appear? Preferring to place my faith I science, I consulted the oracle, and indeed the jet stream has moved south and there is a high probability of a relatively calm, dry week with some sunshine. I’d settle for the dry as I’m not sure how much more we can take. One of our fields is flooded and the drive has been so badly eroded that the potholes are now the size of tank traps.
The days are lengthening and there is a definite feeling that the plants are ready to emerge from their winter hibernation. So it’s time to clear away the winter debris from the polytunnel and start sowing the first of the early spring crops. The garlic and winter peas (a gift from a friend to try) are shooting and the early potatoes are ready for planting. I’ve also put in my first row of carrots, a couple of rows of spinach, some rocket and purple mizuna. In the polytunnel temperature is not the limiting factor, it is the amount of daylight that counts. Towards the end of the month I’ll start the Florence fennel, lettuce (probably little gem) and possibly some beetroot. I usually start my tomatoes and peppers at about the same time, any earlier and the low light levels produce ‘leggy’ plants.
What happens next, depends on the weather – if there is a promise of some decent spring weather I’ll start sowing seeds for outdoors. It is always difficult to restrain the enthusiasm, but gambling on the arrival of spring is a high risk strategy.
There is nothing nicer than pottering around in the polytunnel on a warm February afternoon – planting a few seeds, titivating the over-wintering plants and planning the growing schedule for the summer. However, there is work to be done outside, all the routine maintenance and preparatory work that never quite gets done in the winter has to be started now. The first major task is to get muck and seaweed onto the vegetable beds. This should be an early winter job, but it didn’t happen, so it has to be now or not at all. The organic matter is well-rotted and in theory it should be fairly easy to fork it into the barrow, wheel across the garden and fork on to the vegetable beds. Unfortunately after a wet winter, it is the consistency of squelchy pudding with the gloopy consistency of porridge and twice as heavy. It sticks to my boots and the wheels of the barrow and after a couple of hours I am six inches taller and the barrow wheel is clogged up with a mixture of muck, grass and gravel. I am not amused.
For the afternoon, plans to top dress the beds in the orchard with garden compost are postponed as the compost looks as sticky as the muck heap. Fortunately, it is also too wet to even consider starting work on the herb garden. Last year the mint and marigolds fought for territory all summer and I think the mint won. So this year I really must have a serious attempt at exerting some control. Next on the list is weeding the herbaceous borders. Usually I’m quite happy to spend a few hours weeding on a sunny afternoon, but at this time of year the ground is wet and cold and I am rapidly covered in damp, gritty earth. However, if the creeping bent, buttercups, nettles and docks are not removed now I will be fighting a loosing battle all summer.
The ‘things to do’ list seems to grow exponentially and to create any semblance of order I will need more than a few sunny afternoons. The jobs are perhaps not the most pleasant, but there is a sense of achievement as progress is made, the garden regains its composure and begins to look less like a natural disaster. After a winter confined indoors, it is such a delight to be in the garden in the sunshine. Although the routine works takes priority, I can’t help taking the ‘planning walk’ looking at areas which could be improved, redesigned and, of course, enlarged. It might be slow progress, but I’m determined to get rid of another chunk of the scrubby area of grass and weeds which masquerades as a lawn. So perhaps I should order a few more seeds, as enlarged flower beds need more plants!
Last Saturday I knew that our idyllic autumn weather was coming to an end. The weather forecasters were predicting the retreat of the high pressure allowing the intrusion of Atlantic weather systems. Rain and strong winds were on the way. So it was time to remove the tender perennials, the scented-leaf pelargoniums, salvias, hyssop and convolvulus, into the polytunnel for the winter.
It is always a dilemma whether to cut down the herbaceous borders or leave the foliage and tidy up later. Usually the decision is taken out of my hands as the autumn gales always arrive more rapidly than anticipated. This is feeble reasoning, I know that in most years if the autumn gales haven’t started by early September they will be on the way very soon. I’m always reluctant to cut down plants which are still in flower and are providing food for the insects. With such a short growing season, I, like the bees, want to enjoy every the flowers for as long as possible.
With the garden continuing to delight until mid-October, there was a rare opportunity to photograph the flowers at the end of the season. The blooms may be a little faded and ragged but there is beauty in the imperfection of ageing. As the days shorten and the warmth of the sun fades the contrast between light and shade is heightened. As the petals fall there are the sculptures of seed heads to enjoy, from the delicate airy heads of fennel to the smooth contours of capsules and pods and the contorted heads of the calendulas. As the season draws to a close the garden becomes less harmonious as shape and texture begin to dominate and with the strong colours of the horned poppies (Glaucium flavum) and calendulas adding discordant elements.
Sedum Herbstfreude Group
Horned poppy Glaucium flavum
Allium ampeloprasum Perennial Leek
Garlic chives Allium tuberosum
Pink Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis roseus
Viola Bowles Black seedling
Horned poppy Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum