Each season presents the gardener with a set of tasks – some more urgent than others – to perform. Spring’s to-do list can be exhilarating, as it often highlights work that allows you to contemplate future horticultural pleasures; jobs done now will, with luck and some diligence, result in beauty, bounty, harvest. How exciting!
But on Spring’s list (if you’re the organized type to actually keep a list in the first place) are also tasks that you don’t relish but that have to be done. For me, the need to clean old plastic pots in advance of sowing seeds is one of those less-rewarding Spring jobs that I tend to put off until the need to sow cucumbers, courgettes, corn – all those vegetables that require a long growing season but can’t take any touch of frost – becomes too great to ignore.
So I force myself to tick it off the list, good for another year. My little plastic greenhouse at home is now filled with tomato and bean and squash seedlings growing in those cleaned out plastic pots. But already the plants are demanding to move on to larger quarters and another task looms – the dreaded “potting on” – and I find myself once again falling short. Surely they’ll manage until they can be transplanted into the ground, I suggest to myself. (Don’t kid yourself, lazy gardener!)
Now, the activity on my Spring to-do list that I look forward to with anticipation each year, and that probably brings the most delight, doesn’t actually involve my own garden. It is a particularly English pleasure that we have come to cherish: walking in a “bluebell woods”. A stroll through a bit of woodland in May feels magical, like you’ve entered a fairy story. Flowering wild hyacinths, vividly blue, carpet the ground in profusion. It makes a nice diversion from all that potting on I should be doing…
Six feet of it, according to Tolstoy in the story of that title (i.e., enough to bury you). We’re lucky to have several times that on our allotment, but cultivable land is always at a premium. So un(der)used bits become interesting – along hedges, tucked behind sheds. In this case, a space formerly filled with nettles, bindweed, hoarded panes of glass and rotting timber is made over as a carrot bed, benefiting from the southern exposure:
More land is effectively insurance for When Things Go Wrong – seeds failing to germinate, young plants failing to thrive, routine attacks from pests and weather. Carrots have a shaky record with us, or we with them, so we’ll see how this pans out.
Meanwhile, a shout-out to friends in Boston (Massachusetts), whose community garden shows how confined spaces can grow both vegetables and community:
Projects like the Chelsea Community Garden are, as ever, a salutary reminder that working the land in common is a form of wealth in itself. ‘Die Stadt ist unser garten,’ as the Germans say.
The sight of asparagus spears poking up from the earth is a wonderful moment in the gardening year. The tips emerge looking like something prehistoric; reptilian heads covered in overlapping scales tinged purple, sniffing the air.
After finding the light, they tend to grow quickly, each day rising higher. Sometimes, its path impeded, a stalk will curve and curl like a fiddlehead fern, but most reach straight for the sky.
To harvest asparagus you should use a sharp knife and cut the stalk slightly below the surface. With mature plants over three years old you can keep cutting the spears as they appear for a month or so. By June, however, it’s time to stop, allowing the plants to succeed in completing their mission of developing tall airy fronds. By doing so, you allow asparagus to store the energy supply they require to come back with vigor next year.
We’ve had two miserly servings from our little asparagus bed so far. We are hungry for more and eagerly watch for new eruptions. I keep saying we will “do it properly” and buy new crowns and plant them in a large, perfectly prepared bed – soft and deep, dark with manure and free from weeds. But since I haven’t arranged this yet, we are left with our few, hand-me-down plants. Perhaps the spears taste so exquisite because we know there will be no glut to work through, just a brief, delectable spell of ultra-fresh, verdant deliciousness.
Spring accelerated sharply last week when the weather produced an unseasonably hot and blue-skied summer’s weekend. In response, many flowering trees and shrubs erupted in floral jubilation.
At the allotment, my little pear tree’s buds were the first to burst into white blossom. The Morello cherries followed its lead and today are also smothered in beautiful white blooms.
Our old apple, fighting disease and recently festooned with amazingly symmetrical woodpecker holes, is taking its considered time, as is its relative, the young Bramley. Both are just now beginning to reveal vividly pink buds.
I can’t help lingering on the gorgeous flowering trees that seem to be everywhere now – from blackthorn in the hedgerows to magnolias in the front gardens. It is their moment in the limelight; in the blink of an eye the show will be over as the season advances and less showy foliage follows.
Perhaps the tree that has most captivated me this April is a cherry growing on the edge of nearby Abbey Fields. How old must it be to have such a thick trunk and branches with such impressive reach? Despite its obvious age, it still greets the season with stunning abandon.
The earth warms, the grass grows, and seeds begin to stir. It seems right that our blog should too.
Early April 2017 at the allotment, with tulips all aglow. Let’s go!
As the season turns, a tale of two allotments – one grand, one homely. The first is the kitchen garden at Packwood House, near Lapworth, where they do things on a lavish scale – with the help of, well, the Help.
A medlar – only ripe when it’s rotten, as Shax says.
Where are the playhouses of yesteryear?
As any gardener knows, the main ingredient in successful growing is the work put in – in Marx’s words, mixing your labour with the earth. This makes labour sound like compost – which it is, in a sense: composted time. A lot of compost goes into Packwood.
After touring the gardens, we began a walk from Packwood toward its sister estate, Baddesley Clinton, passing other labourers on the way.
Into the woods
Snowberries, a memory from Volutina’s childhood in New England
The other allotment of the week past is of course our own. The 2016 season has been alternately slow and accelerated in the Midlands, with a long cold spring followed by brief heatwaves and cool cloudy weeks punctuated by tropical downpours. Comme d’habitude pour l’Angleterre, at least in the age of global warming.
With August comes a change of light. Sweetpeas fading, sunflowers bigging up, verbena bonariensis glowing at the edges. Labour stays in the picture.
It’s been a while. We’ve missed documenting an eventful 2015, and are now deep into a turbulent 2016. But blog is not dead. So here’s a brief overview of our growing year, from earliest January to mid-July.
New year’s amaryllis
From Emily Jacir’s show at the Whitechapel Gallery this winter
Adorno’s urban allotment, Frankfurt, mid-January
Camellia on display at Frankfurt Botanical Garden
That’s its name, yes
Our new home (a fixer-upper)
The allotment on 17 April
Bluebell walk, 8 May
The allotment at Chastleton House (Wolf Hall in the BBC series)
Zoe communing with the watchful Rollright Stones on her birthday in May
Allotment border on 9 June
Hollywood lighting, looming storm system – 24 June
West Sands St Andrews – a kelp allotment
The English Garden in Berlin’s Tiergarten – how English is it?
Encounter on Milburngate Bridge, Durham, mid-July