Rites of Spring

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…




Spring up

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.



Elegant Celebrations

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.




Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

What a difference a year makes. I’m not much better a gardener today than I was last year at this time, but if you measured my success by “vegetal output” you might think I was. For instance, in 2012 my tomatoes, so lovingly mulched with grass clippings and fed on homemade comfrey tea (vile-smelling but richly nutritious), lay withered on the vines, besieged and vanquished by fungal blight. We managed to harvest about five in total, which turned out to be wan and watery.

Consequently this year I transplanted my overgrown tomato seedlings into a patch of earth with few expectations. I didn’t mulch them, nor did I feed them with any kind of specially prepared sludge. Beyond tying them to a few stakes, I left them alone to fend for themselves. Who wants to get too attached to something that’s going to fail? Besides, I swore last year (see prior posts) that I would stop bothering to grow tomatoes outdoors because it always ends in disappointment here in England. I was going to content myself with peas and potatoes and kale. So what was I even doing chucking a few into the ground now?

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

Well. We came back from our summer holiday to find the tomato plants had grown into a jungle. With no one to nip out the side shoots and re-stake them, they had become massive sprawling plants, dripping with clusters of ripening fruits and festooned with  yellow blossoms. Even more amazingly, several plants had seeded themselves in other beds and were just as vibrant. I cut off the growing tips and tried to strip a few leaves from the lower branches, but basically I’ve left the plants as is (as you’d see them in the New World, their native environment).

Ripening tomatoes - a joyful sight.

Ripening tomatoes – a joyful sight.

Now, blight might still be around the corner. Surely not all those green clusters will get to ripen in September sunshine before frost and falling light levels put an end to them. But hey, this year we can say we harvested tomatoes: piles of yellow (Ildi) and red (Gardener’s Delight) cherry tomatoes, and several luscious Marmandes. And they’re delicious.



How susceptible we gardeners are to the vagaries of weather. Despite our efforts to protect and cosset plants, it really comes down to light levels and temperature and hydration. I experimented with miniature polytunnels this year for the first time – and will do so as we head into autumn and winter – but I know that this kind of environmental manipulation only gets you so far. What you really need is good weather – and good luck!