It’s hard to believe that it’s nearly a year since we moved here. We’re usually fairly cool customers but this time last year, the stress levels were running pretty high as we headed into the final days of negotiating the obstacle course of lockdowns and travel restrictions in the scramble for that magical pre-Brexit deadline date. I still feel nothing but complete gratitude that we made it, even if it was by the skin of our teeth! Things are certainly calmer this year and that extends to the weather; gone are the winds that stripped the last of the leaves from trees and hedges, gone are the rainstorms and the spiteful flurries of sleet that drove us indoors, gone are the frosty mornings that turned everything to a rimey crisp. This is what I think of as ‘nothing’ weather: quiet, still, dry . . . and very, very grey.
In an effort to persuade my pupils to use imaginative language in their writing, I made a series of ‘colour clouds’ for my classroom wall to help them choose more descriptive words than just plain old red or blue. I don’t remember the list I had for alternatives to grey but I swear we have seen the lot in the sky and landscape over the last couple of weeks: gunmetal, slate, pewter, dove, smoke, mushroom, ash, silver, pearl . . . how is it possible to have so many nuances of something that barely qualifies as a colour? Some days, the cloud has been down to the ground, creating an eerie, drippy stillness in the garden and an almost claustrophobic sense of oppression and gloom; on others, the sky has been blanketed in higher, billowy mounds, soft as a pigeon’s breast and shot through with ripples and blushes of palest blues and pinks as the sun sinks towards the unseen horizon. It might not be as uplifting as sunshine in a blue sky, but there is a certain seasonal beauty to it, nonetheless, and it is definitely no excuse to be stuck indoors. Hedging, logging and gardening continue undaunted!
What a surprise, then, to wake in the middle of this pervasive grey to a clear sky and day of brilliant sunshine. It was like one of those children’s magic painting books where a sweep of water transforms a white page into soft rainbows; suddenly, the blues and greens are back and pops of colour seem to shine from every corner. The birds are no longer black silhouettes against a grey canvas but bright in their winter plumage: yellows and blues of tits, red of robins and bramblings, rose of chaffinches and linnets. Squadrons of starlings fly fast and low through the garden then alight, chattering and whistling, in the top of an oak tree, their sleek metallic plumage dappled like oil on water. Jays, raucous and ever more daring it seems, move in flashes of pink and blue mischief whilst green woodpeckers shimmy up trunks and branches in coiffered caps of startling scarlet. There are still colourful beads of berries strung through the hedges and even here and there, a little burst of floral sunshine, too.
Despite all this, the garden suddenly seems so bare, stripped back to its skeletal framework in complete contrast to the fecund fullness and colour of summer. It’s not totally devoid of interest and beauty, though, and above all, this is the perfect time to assess what we have done so far and make plans to add to the structure during these dormant months. Roger has finished laying the long run of hazel hedge and now we are planning to plant new ones to break up the spaces and create shelter for the potager. Several weeks ago, we spent a morning lifting young tree seedlings which had self-set around the patch and potted them up in the polytunnel to use as part of a native hedge: oak, hazel, holly, hawthorn, ash, honeysuckle and spindleberry made for a very good start. I’ve also taken hardwood cuttings of red dogwood and flowering currant which will be worthy additions to a hedge or stand alone as shrubs depending on how we feel. I love creating gardens in this way, using what is to hand and spreading it around; one of the smaller lasagne beds I made has been planted up with blackcurrant seedlings lifted from beneath the parent bush and a clump of chives split into several decent roots. That said, at this early stage of the garden’s construction we need to buy in plants to help things along, too, so we are waiting for a delivery of bare-rooted plants in early January as well as the replacement rugosa roses which hopefully this time will be red.
Extending the range of fruit here is a top priority and we’ve made good progress with that over the last few weeks. We’ve planted two cherry trees, both bigarreau varieties and highly recommended for their flavour: ‘Tardif de Vignola’ is an Italian variety, late flowering so hopefully frost-resistant and ‘Coeur de Pigeon’ is a French heirloom variety dating back to1540 with heart-shaped fruits that give it its name. We’d like to add a couple more to the collection and after that, our priority will be plums. The neglected soft fruit bushes and raspberry canes have recovered well with lots of loving care through this year and I’m hopeful of a good crop next season. I’ve planted a jostaberry (a cross between a blackcurrant and gooseberry) for a bit of fun and also a ‘Fall Gold’ raspberry which I’m very excited about as it is apparently capable of producing two crops of yellow fruits in a year. Roger has started to make a plant support structure by the mandala bed using stout hazel poles from the hedge laying; we’ve planted a rescued grapevine at one end and a thornless blackberry ‘Black Satin’ at the other in the hope that between them they will make an attractive and edible hedge. I also have several honeyberries, a goji berry and a self-fertile sea buckthorn to go in, all new plants for us and interesting additions to our food plants, as is a Sichuan pepper already planted.
We have quite a reputation now of being the crazy couple who arrive at the déchetterie with an empty trailer and take away other people’s rubbish – namely piles of cardboard, which the attendants are only too pleased to help us load from the grand carton skip. This week we have been using it to extend several beds in the vegetable patch by sheet mulching and I have to admit, I’ve found the change in the box contents a fascinating study in human behaviour: where previously, the cardboard had wrapped barbecues, patio sets and metal-framed paddling pools, now it’s all heat pumps, woodburners and oversized televisions. Cardboard boxes have clearly-defined seasons, it seems (or perhaps I just need to get out more)!
Having plenty of piles of organic matter to hand, we soon managed to build several lasagne layers on top of the cardboard, but changed our plans in a couple of places after having chewed over our ideas a bit. I’d marked out a fairly huge bed in one place but given we plan to plant a curve of hedge near one end of it, Roger suggested we left an area to keep as grass as it will make the perfect sheltered, sun-drenched spot for a seat. I love the way our garden designs evolve like this, it’s partly why I never feel inclined to draw a proper design . . . which is a terrible confession for someone studying permaculture, I know. 😆 We often come up with our best ideas spontaneously and I like the fluid nature of this, the fact that nothing is set in stone and we can change our plans if that’s what feels right. I read a timely reminder this week that gardeners are an integral part of their ecosystem and whilst it’s all too easy to focus on the practicalities of producing food or supporting wildlife, we need to bear in mind that a little ornamental planting simply for the sake of beauty or some scattered seats and hammocks for rest and relaxation are not sinful indulgences. Ah well, a seat in the sun it is, then!
Although this can feel such a dead and empty time of year, we are still enjoying a decent fresh harvest from the garden, namely cabbage, kale, chard, leeks, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes along with rocket from the tunnel. Digging a few bits and pieces for a tray of mixed roast veg this week, we lifted what must be the biggest crop we’ve ever had from a single Jerusalem artichoke tuber, incredible when I remember how we literally just shoved them in the ground last winter and forgot all about them. Talk about thriving on neglect! The white garlic I planted a few weeks ago has sent up rows of glossy green shoots; there is something wonderful about that brave new growth and the promise of food to come next summer.
The wind might be as light as thistledown but it’s a north-easterly, sharp as honed steel, the kind that makes our nose and eyes stream and nips at fingers and toes even when they’re snuggly wrapped in many layers. It has a brittle, metallic tang that makes me think of pine forests and snowfields so many miles to the north, places where the land is deeply frozen and daylight scant and scarce. I think, too, of Sam and Adrienne in Norway and our shared sadness and disappointment that their long hoped-for visit has been cancelled as a result of the Covid situation. How many more times must we go through this? 😪 I can take or leave Christmas at the best times but now I have no stomach for it at all; my healing will come – as it always does – from immersing myself in the garden and local landscape, no matter how grey and drear it might look. I will bring in some greenery and light a few candles to celebrate the passing of the solstice; we will cook a lovely meal together and raise a toast to our loved ones, wherever they may be, in the hope that 2022 will bring us the time together we crave. On a kitchen shelf sits a Kilner jar of sloe gin I made specially for Sam and Adrienne and I shall keep it as a gift until we are finally able to see them. For me, the rich jewelled magenta of the macerating fruits, a celebration of nature’s autumnal bounty, is now a symbol of hope and optimism, something to bring smiles and banish sadness. The days might be dark and the landscape bleached but there is still joy and comfort to be found in colour, light and love. To everyone kind enough to read my ramblings, whether you are celebrating this festive season or not, I wish you a healthy, happy and peaceful time. Until next year, my friends . . ! 😊