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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Garlic loves the cold…

IMAG0372And we love garlic. (A lot. Especially the juicy and flavorful bulbs you get if you grow it yourself. Home-grown garlic is infinitely more delicious than the dessicated and dull cloves you so often buy in the supermarket.)

The secret to a good garlic harvest is to make sure it is exposed to chilly weather. Unlike tender summer crops, garlic requires a period of cold to prompt the individual cloves you plant to grow into chunky heads of multiple segments.

Last October I pushed cloves into newly raked soil in a raised bed. Most of these have grown slowly, steadily through the winter and now are pleasingly established plants, awaiting the warmer months to bulk up for harvest in July.

Garlic sown last October

Autumn-sown garlic enjoys the winter sun.

A few cloves didn’t germinate, however, for some unknown reason. They remain in the soil, looking just as they did when I planted them. Are they in suspended animation or are they dead? I didn’t wait to find out – I bought some more garlic!

“Cristo” is a French variety that can be planted in the autumn or spring. A week ago, during a fleeting bit of sun, I ripped the papery husks off the heads, broke them in pieces, and submerged the cloves in new rows near the ones I had sown months ago.

Not only am I hedging my bets, hoping for a good harvest, but I now have an experiment in progress. What will be the difference between autumn-sown and spring-sown garlic? Will one be more prolific, more fat and juicy? Will they mature at the same time? I’m looking forward to finding out. I just hope the results are more spectacular than last year, when the heads were disappointing, made up of miniscule cloves, more trouble to peel than they were worth!

One of my allotment goals for this year is to master the art of successional sowing – the discipline of sowing seeds little and often, ensuring that you have a steady supply of vegetables ready to pick rather than lurching from famine to glut and back to famine. This methods works well with many crops, especially quick growing ones such as salad greens, herbs, and radish. Let see if it works with garlic.