Garden Diaries, part 4
January and February have felt particularly challenging this year: with continued lockdown and cold, dark, windy, wet days, it has felt like there have been few sources of brightness in our days. But the hope of gardening has been one of these lights, and as the days have slowly started to stretch out, and with both mornings and evenings sunny enough to do something in the garden before or after work, the garden is already beginning to return some of the energy we have been putting into it.
This time last year, the garden was an empty expanse of mud, with a few patches of anaemic-looking grass, yet in just one year we have been able to create the template for a small, functional kitchen-garden. So – while the work ahead certainly isn’t insignificant – we are starting from a much better place than we were twelve months ago.
Our focus for the winter has been on reinforcing and improving the ‘architectural’ elements of the garden – in particular, the raised beds – and preparing the soil for this year’s seeds, as well as giving the whole garden a general tidy-up from months of neglect over the darkest days of the year.
Everything we accomplished in the garden in January was done in just one day, the very last day, Sunday 31st. We rather shamefully spent most of January in hibernation, avoiding the cold snow and severe frosts, and not even looking out of the windows as the rain came, flooding much of the garden and washing away our leeks.
It was only on the last day of the month that the sun finally came out long enough for us to venture outdoors. It was freezing cold, and so the churned-up mud that had covered the garden had frozen over: it was the first time we’d been able to stand on a (reasonably) solid surface out there for some time.
Despite spending only one day this month in the garden, we were left rather pleased with ourselves. The first task was a bit of overdue “tidying up”, which included removing last year’s fruit from the fig tree to stimulate new growth – a task we should really have done at the end of 2020 – and a little bit of path weeding.
Our main focus, however, was to get to work creating new, permanent raised beds to replace the makeshift ones from last year. You may remember that our plans for these beds had been scuppered last year by the announcement of the first UK lockdown, which meant shops were closed and we could only use what bits of wood we already had in the garden. By the end of January, we had been able to order all the wood we need to make more permanent and aesthetically pleasing sturdy beds, and we managed to get the first one constructed and ready for Spring planting.
Lastly, we started some of our seeds indoors. There are a few pots of broad beans, a tray of cauliflower seeds, and tiny pots of coriander. All these will be started-off on the window sill, before being moved to the cold-frame outdoors when the weather improves a little. At the same time we sowed basil seeds for keeping in the kitchen, and some mustard seeds to give wintery salads a spicy kick. Michelle is also indulging in some childhood nostalgia by growing sweet-smelling cress on kitchen towel.
Heavy winter snow in early February halted our gardening plans. The garden lay under a thick white blanket, it was like it all the plants had disappeared. The chard, purple sprouting broccoli and kale recovered well as it thawed, but the sage looks done-for. Our sage has always been so vibrant and healthy, but now it is shrivelled and brown. Do we give up on it? Will it bounce back? Can we save it? We took a walk to a nearby park where we had seen sage growing previously to compare: whilst it looked like it had also been hit hard, it does not look anywhere near as traumatised as ours. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
As the weather improved, we made a visit to the garden centre, which is thankfully allowed to remain open during the lockdown as it is considered an essential shop. In addition to a rake and another William Morris-patterned plant pot, we also had all the remaining seeds we needed to get our garden through the year: courgettes, cucumbers (we are always being told that these are easy to grow, so we are willing to give them a try), and chilli pepper seeds for the kitchen windowsill.
We bought more potato bags, as the three we had last year were not really enough, as well as some potatoes which are now sitting in egg-boxes on the window sill chitting. This year we will be trying purple salad blues for the novelty, and Epicures as a general all-rounder.
Lastly, we constructed the second of our new raised beds, and both are now in place, filled with compost and waiting for their first crop. We were hoping that the March rains would flatten the compost and manure ready for us to top up again just before we start planting.
We may have been too eager with our broad bean sowing. They grew far too tall, much too quickly on the comfortable windowsill and were hastily put outside in the cold frame with the hope of slowing their growth and strengthening them a little. Howling storms have tested their strength, but a few of them have endured, though we will need to plant a second batch. They are almost too large now for the cold frame, but we will plant them out soon. Perhaps we are being a little too cautious!
The final raised bed is made, but we can’t yet put it in place as we still have one kale, a couple of drowned leeks and a couple of determined purple sprouting broccolis in the old bed. We are glad to report that the kale and broccoli have fed us this month, however small the bounty was in the end.
The end of March has seen a real change in the weather. Bluer skies, warmer days, longer evenings: Spring is slowly arriving. There is nothing like good Spring weather for tempting you out into the garden, and as March came to a close, we had a burst of productivity: we built a netted frame for one of the beds, and planted the first few rows of onions (Red Baron), carrots and parsnip. The purpose of the frame is not to keep the birds away, but to keep the neighbours’ cats out (our garden looks like a giant cat-litter tray to the neighbourhood felines, and many an early crop has been lost to their digging).
As March draws to a close, we’ll leave you with one last image from our garden: the sweet white buds of the plum are starting to develop, peppering the once bare branches like floral pearls. Fingers-crossed for a better harvest this year!