January has rolled itself across the landscape like a thick grey blanket, leaching colour from the countryside and paring everything back to bare bones. It is eerily quiet outside, as if the glowering sky muffles all sound and yet, there is a strange amplification to the noises coming from places unseen: the persistent percussion of a woodpecker, the rigid flap of a rook’s black wing, the spine-tingling call of a lonely vixen. The weather ricochets from bitterly cold when the glacial north wind makes eyes run and toes tingle to mild and damp, the precipitation so fine it leaves a silver haze on my woollen gardening hat. Always grey skies, though; how I crave sunshine and blue skies in this weirdly wrapped world. It’s all part of the natural wheel of the year, of course, this chilly washed-out nothingness, and I can’t be downhearted since there is always colour to be found if I search for it, along with those little treasures that whisper of spring. There are snowdrops in abundance and the first buttery primroses scattered in sheltered places, soft green buds fattening and hazel catkins powdering the air with pollen, while the robin’s sweet song wakes me ever earlier each morning. There is still so much of winter yet to come and I won’t wish the time away but I love the gentle subtle shift that is underway.
I also love the fact that I have been granted official permission to get back outside and busy in the garden once again after seven long months of pain and frustration. The orthopaedic surgeon has confirmed this week that my body is making a grand (if slow) job of healing itself without any need for intervention which is good news and a huge relief all round. Next came those magic words, that it’s time to recommence le jardinage. No need for physiotherapy or a formal exercise regimen because everything I do in my gardening day will help to restore strength and flexibility in my spine. Thank you, you lovely man! Needless to say, I didn’t need telling twice; I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since hearing those words and if I could turn a cartwheel I would, although it’s perhaps still a little early for that sort of behaviour. 😉
To the garden, then, and at last the chance to start putting right what has felt like months of sad neglect. That said, I have been very encouraged at how well everything has held up without me (should I feel insulted? 😆) and is in fact the living proof that our no-dig, organic, permaculture approach is paying dividends. Last year was a tough one in terms of severe weather conditions so I’m relieved that this winter has seen a return to more normal levels of rainfall, the ground welcoming the soaking it so badly needs, the water butts overflowing and ~ after nine long months of waiting ~ the new pond finally full to the brim. Regular rainfall percolating down through the layers of the lasagne beds is a much-needed final ingredient in our soil-building efforts; where last year the brown layers stayed too crisp and dry, now everything is bedding down nicely and I can almost smell the alchemy of compost formation. The areas of mown grass are an ocean of muddy wormcasts, so worryingly absent when we moved here, and as I rummage about in the beds with my hand fork lifting the occasional perennial weed, I am astounded by the thriving worm population in the soil. The garden is still full of fungi, too, with fruiting blooms of all shapes, sizes and colours revealing the secrets of their hidden mycelium trails. Mmm, good things are happening.
Creating a garden like this is a long, slow process and two years in there seems to be as much to do as ever. I’m happy, though, that we are making real progress where soft fruit is concerned. The raspberry bed we inherited has always bothered me, it’s in a daft place so little wonder the plants fail to thrive. We’ve decided to do away with it completely, moving a handful of healthy summer-fruiting canes into a designated area of the large perennial bed where they can keep the rhubarb company, and scattering the rest to fill holes along the hedges. Last autumn, we extended the lasagne bed in front of the polytunnel and what for me were the two greatest treasures in the raspberry patch ~ a single autumn fruiter and the yellow ‘Fall Gold’ we planted last year ~ have now been relocated to their new home. We’ve added a couple of small bare-rooted newbies, too, a tayberry and a Japanese wineberry, the latter being something we’ve never grown before. Along with blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry, jostaberry, goji berry and honeyberry, we now have a fine eclectic mix in this patch which should keep us well-supplied with berry fruits.
The blackcurrant bushes I raised from seedlings have made incredibly strong plants and we should enjoy our first harvest from them this summer. When I was mulching around them, I noticed a large branch had broken off one but since it was covered in promising buds, I chopped it into pieces and potted them up as cuttings in the shelter of the tunnel. I’m not sure we need any more bushes but at the very least, they can be used to fill some holes like the spare raspberries; I’ve said before that we haven’t set out to plant a food forest as such but I love the idea of grazing along edible hedges and I’m pretty sure the blackbirds will agree.
Sticking with the fruit theme, one of my priorities this week has been to tidy the Strawberry Circle up a bit. Planting a ring of annual flowers around the edge last year turned it into a pretty patch and certainly ensured plentiful pollinator attention but things did get a bit out of hand at ground level. The strawberry plants didn’t enjoy the hot, dry summer very much and certainly our harvest was down on the previous year; I’d planned to peg down a few runners to generate new plants and then keep on top of any more the plants sent out but my back problem put paid to all that and the strawbs ended up doing their own thing. I’ve lifted a few perennial weeds and spare runners, planted up a few gaps, sprinkled in some donkey dung and given the lot a light mulching of chopped dead leaves and grass. Fingers crossed this summer I can keep a closer eye on things and we’ll enjoy a bumper harvest again.
The mandala bed was one of last year’s big successes; despite looking burnt-up and sad in the worst of the heat and drought it found a second wind in September and much of the foliage has only recently died back. It produced an incredible amount of food and became a much-used vegetable patch in the middle of the flower garden which was exactly what I’d hoped for. Like the Strawberry Circle, it was in desperate need of some attention so I started by chopping and dropping the remaining foliage, leaving it on the surface as a new layer of organic material. I then set about replacing the paths that had completely disappeared under the jungle of growth. In itself that’s not a problem as the whole idea of using shredded woody material for the paths is that it eventually becomes another brown layer to feed the soil and as Roger has been busy shredding the brush from his hedging and tree-pruning activities this week, it seemed as good a time as any to get cracking. Another benefit of this approach is that I can experiment with designs and change the configuration of the paths every year if I want although I’ve decided to stick with the ‘compass points’ wheel this year simply for ease. Perhaps next spring I will be brave enough to be a bit more artistic. With the paths back in place, I’m now concentrating on one planting section at a time ~ lifting the occasional weed (mostly small clumps of grass), spreading some more donkey dung about, sprinkling over molehill soil and wormcasts from the orchard floor and topping with a leaf mulch. Hidden beneath the chaotic tomatoes, a couple of small strawberry plants went berserk and have practically colonised an entire section and red sorrel has popped up in several places along with salad burnet which has come from who-knows-where but is a welcome addition to our edible leaf collection. I love it when the garden starts to evolve on its own in this way, plants turning up to grow where they are happy.
When the weather is spiteful, the polytunnel is the place to be and there is plenty to keep me busy in there. First job was to pull up the spent pepper and chilli plants which had fruited right into December before finally calling it a day when the temperature plummeted. The plants had stayed very healthy and disease-free so I chopped the foliage and spread it as a green layer on the newest Hügel bed outside; as we’d kept the ground under the plants mulched there were no weeds to deal with so it was just a case of spreading some manure and chopped comfrey leaves across the surface. Roger has been carrying in buckets of rainwater to soak the ground on a regular basis; not for the first time, I wish there was a way of peeling back the roof and letting nature do all the hard work but that’s a price we pay for having a warm, sheltered growing space. Extending the seasons and enjoying early (and late) crops is one of the main reasons we have a tunnel and it’s good to see a few rows of peas and broad beans bombing up to give us a first harvest well in advance of the one outside.
The warmer temperatures inside the tunnel can bring their own problems occasionally and it’s frustrating to see many of our winter salad crops being hammered by fat green caterpillars; it’s not a normal state of affairs but I suspect the unusually mild autumn had something to do with it. Luckily, we’re not short of salad leaves, both in the tunnel and outside, and there will be plenty to make up for the losses once the temperature and light levels pick up if the number of self-set lettuce and red sorrel plants are anything to go by.
One salad leaf that stays blissfully problem-free is radicchio and I never fail to be amazed at how something that beautiful can be so tough. Throw any kind of winter weather at the plants but, whether deep glossy red or speckled with green, they just keep on growing and add a vibrant splash of colour to the food garden and plate at this time of year. I love them both cooked and raw, their fresh bitterness bringing a balance to the heavy, starchy foods so typical of winter.
Another reliable leaf for us this month is kale and both the bold leafy ‘Cottager’s’ and daintier frilly ‘Russian Red’ varieties are keeping us well-supplied in the kitchen. It’s not to everyone’s taste but there are plenty of imaginative and interesting ways to cook it and I always think it’s one of those vegetables that oozes health and well-being; it’s also a ‘clean’ vegetable to gather even on the grimmest of winter days when wrestling parsnips and leeks out of frozen ground or a muddy quagmire isn’t so attractive. I’ve just been given some kale cuttings and this is the kind of gift that makes my heart jump for joy because it represents (hopefully) years of good, nutritious food to come . . . plus there’s always something reassuring about growing a plant that has been tried, tested and recommended by someone who knows their onions (thank you, my friend ~ you know who you are! 😊). The reason I’m so excited about these three different varieties ~ Purple Tree collard, Taunton Deane and Daubenton’s ~ is that they are perennial which makes them a great addition to the garden in terms of building resilience which regular readers will know is a big thing for me. There’s also a Vietnamese coriander in the mix, something I’ve never grown before but I’m already intrigued by its unusual scent so can’t wait to introduce that into the kitchen. The cuttings are currently sitting in water on the kitchen windowsill, growing a mass of rootlets and unfurling new foliage; in a few days’ time I shall pot them up and continue to nurture them until they have formed decent rootballs at which point they will take their place in the perennial bed.
Another new gift this week is a ‘pre-loved’ bird feeding station which has allowed me to organise things so much better . . . gone are the days of a mishmash of random feeders dangling from trees! It didn’t take the feathered squadrons long to discover their new breakfast table and I’m delighted by the fact that the big triple feeder means I don’t have to be running around topping up feed so often: even they can’t clear that much food in a day. What has been interesting ~ and of course, it may simply be coincidence ~ is how many more finches are now coming to feed, mainly goldfinches but also the occasional greenfinch (how sad they have become such a rarity). I haven’t changed the foods on offer so perhaps there’s just something about the feeder set-up that suits them better.
Garden aside, the fact that I can stand and sit more comfortably now has meant an indulgence in pastimes I have missed so desperately since last June. I’ve been busy with language study, daily French in many forms of course, but also having a lot of fun with learning some basic Norwegian. I’m wondering if the fact that I can now order two coffees and two ice creams means I’m ready to visit Sam and Adrienne once again? 😉
I’ve also dug out my recorder and started to rediscover my love of making music. In a moment of uncharacteristic indulgence, along with some new music books I bought myself a treble recorder; I had one as a youngster but was too idle at the time to learn to play it properly, so I’ve set myself the challenge to put that right after all these years. The fingering is totally different to that of a descant recorder so I am having to literally retrain my brain in how to read music: let’s say there’s a lot of laughter and restarts going on as I fluff note after note . . . but I can’t help feeling it’s a great workout for my grey cells, not to mention I’m having a lot of fun. It’s been wonderful to get back to my favourite woolly crafts, too. Christmas presents of money for our grandchildren might not seem too imaginative but it was a case of needs must this time (and in truth, they were all pretty chuffed!). I like to personalise gifts whenever I can so I set out to make some colourful origami envelopes for them all . . . and ended up completely underwhelmed with the results. There was nothing for it but to resort to my comfort zone, dig out some scraps of yarn and explore the possibilities of crocheting some little purses. Yep, that beats folding paper every time.
I’ve also managed to finish the ‘Fireside’ blanket I’ve been working on for a couple of months and I have to say it’s most definitely one of my favourite blanket projects ever ~ the pattern and yarn are both delightful and the finished article is just perfect for snuggling under in these chilly times.
What next? Well, needless to say I have another project waiting in the wings, a gift blanket this time so every stitch will be worked with much mindfulness and love. My wool basket is fully charged and I’m ready to dive in although I’m also happy to simply enjoy those yummy colours, guaranteed to brighten my day no matter how grey the skies might be. 😊