As with the seasons, the garden is not required to be in harmony with the gardener’s expectations of it. Gardening and allotmenteering is a process of learning to work with what you have, and this year -more than any other in recent years – both the garden and the seasons have challenged even the most experienced gardener and Plantsman; but what a year it has been to date. An old adage says that if you always expect the worst, then everything else will be a bonus, and whether or not you agree with the couched principle of this succinct aphorism, the experiential irony is not lost. Skeptical commentary aside however, the year to date has presented us with both the best and worst of gardening times, and there is still one full quarter portion to run.
As usual, the arrival of the New Year heralded a new chapter in the gardener’s almanac and diary, but it was not too long before the great gardening expectation was consigned to a much longer than expected stay in winter’s stasis chamber, whence it seemed winter showed no shadow of parting at all. Yet depart it did, and in what seems little more than the blink of an eye the sheaves and sisters are being brought in…
Nothing betrays the fickle, fleeting nature of cumulative days, weeks and months which constitute the year as clearly and evidently as the garden. 365 days, batched into weeks, bound into months and bundled into seasons with fleeting days and endless nights, one-day summers and eternal winters, constant wind and rainfall and occasionally those once in a lifetime hurricane, blizzard and heat-wave events the likes of which we’ve experienced these last 8 months, and we call it the year. Here at monsterinthecorner we contend that there is no beginning to, and neither is there an end to the gardening year. There are those who say that the gardening year begins on Brigid’s Day (February 1st) or St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th). There are those who contest that the gardening year only begins once the last frost is passed, and another train of thought has the gardening year only truly begin once the spring equinox arrives. But, as stated earlier, we here would say there is neither definitive beginning nor end to the gardening year, and if it be necessary to constrain gardening reality within manageable metric parameters then perhaps we could at least contend that the gardening year begins with first light on January 1st and ends with the onset of darkness on December 31st.
There is no surety in the garden, but that is not to say that there is no reasonable expectancy within the garden. Gardeners and allotmenteers fastidiously prepare their beds and borders, sowing and potting schedules can be adhered to meticulously, and husbandry practices can be accomplished and precise, but there is still no certainty with time and the gardener’s use of time in the garden. In the garden there will always be wet and miserable days to contend with, just as there will be days of bright pleasant sunshine. There will be days of drifted snow with soil frozen to a depth of inches, just as there will be days or even weeks on end of drought with clay baked to the consistency of concrete. There will be hail, rain, sleet and snow; there will be sunshine and showers in equal measure just as there can be gentle breezes and gale force winds and – as the monster’s previous experience has shown -all of this occasionally in one and the same day. We bundle days together; and days become weeks and months and morph into seasons, but the margins are always fluid. The year’s coldest days often fall beyond the start of spring (whenever that may be) just as the prolonged driest periods of any given year can occur during the darker days December and January, with the heaviest prolonged periods of rainfall sometimes occurring during the lazy, hazy, crazy days when unbroken sunshine is the expectation. There is no surety in the garden, but, there is potential, and this is what the gardener works with. Spring can be cool, cold even, with winter’s tale dragged all the way to late April. Summers can be interrupted with incessant springtime rains right through to autumnal Indian bonus days giving way to mild winters with first frost not arriving till early February, which in some circles as said earlier can be early spring. There is no surety in the garden and the garden needs no surety. Gardeners however are a different matter; they progress in hopeful certainty: the hope that spring will be kind and arrive on time; the hope that summer will be long and the autumn harvest plentiful and the hope that winter will be short-lived and not cause too much damaged to the naked bushes and bare beds. The gardening year progresses one day at a time: that is, twenty four hours a day at a rate of sixty minutes an hour. Gardeners always have a plan for the garden, whereas the garden (?), the garden just is. Where the gardener plans for tomorrow or next month or for the summer, the garden itself just is; the garden is always now. There is no yesterday or next week in the garden, and if truth be told there is no summer or winter either; there is always just now. There is constant growth just as there is constant decay. There is always life with death in the garden; there is as much death to be observed in a late spring garden as there is on a November allotment; for all of their timely narcissistic golden beauty every swath and clump of daffodils lays down and dies en masse in springtime, just as that from the vernal wasteland that is every winter’s perennial border green snouts push through the leaf-mould carpet unnoticed. In death each lifetime is expended, and no matter how long the bloom lasts or how brief the butterfly’s flight it all happens in a lifetime. Days pass, seasons are spent, years come and go. And the garden is.
We’ve had a good year on our allotment, a year like no other to date, but good for all that. We’ve jarred our jams and made our chutneys, and Mrs Dirtdigger has made some wonderful sauces and relishes from the glut of tomatoes we’ve had so far this year. We had six months of winter followed by 3 weeks of spring, then the longest driest sunniest summer in over seventy years which ended quite suddenly and unexpectedly with the instant transition to autumn in one twenty four hour period 10 days ago. The courgettes are finished early and we’ve had to take the pumpkins in as the vines were spent. The parsnips have recovered somewhat following a Webworm infestation and the winter turnips are beginning to bulge at last. The Florence fennel sown during early July has bulbed-up nicely and at the moment the king of greens on the plot is the moss curled parsley. Summer concludes with a faultless flawless flow into autumn and winter approaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour.
The garden always betrays how it deals with things and when time is up, well then, time is up. It takes a lifetime to live and thus die, and it is only in the dying that the extent of any lifetime can be truly measured; and as a garden never really dies the gardener never gets the true measure of it. It takes a lifetime to die, but it can happen in an instant. The garden lives and dies at the same time and it does this at a rate of sixty minutes an hour, day in, day out, month after month, every season of the year, and even the most accomplished gardeners forget this from time to time. So although there will always be a gardening to-do-list for any given week of the year, and though there will always be some sowing and pruning and spraying and watering to do, perhaps the most pressing task for the gardener at any given time of the gardening year is to learn to garden at the garden’s pace…!
History abounds with famous and infamous couples alike: Anthony and Cleopatra, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall; Bonnie and Clyde even. The worlds of literature and legend are equally jam-packed with storied accounts of fate bound duos: Adam and Eve, Tristan und Isolde, Robin & Maid Marion and Romeo & Juliet to mention but a few. Of course one man’s Romeo and Juliet will often be another’s Tarzan & Jane, just as Romulus and Remus beget someone else’s Jacob and Esau, begets another’s Ronnie and Reggie Kray. Truth is, there is no accounting for taste. There will be a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado for every Renee & Renato buff, just as every Holmes & Watson sleuth begets a Batman and Robin junkie, and every Abbot & Costello or Laurel & Hardy fanatic has to contend with the Tom & Jerry, the Bert & Ernie, the Shaggy & Scooby and that’s not forgetting to mention the Mary-Kate & Ashley brigades. No: there is no accounting for taste, and here we are all about taste, literally.
With that said we will consider some of the other great duos and doublets, especially those taken-for-granted everyday combinations that make one of the basic activities of our inane daily routines a little more worth-the-while. What would life be without the exquisite gastronomic reference points of Strawberries and Cream say?, or, Bacon and eggs for that matter? Or, how about Maple syrup and Pecan nuts, and Pork Chops in Cider? The mind boggles, and the mouth waters. Classic combinations acquire classic status because they work. The same can be said of these classic food combos: Cheese & Tomato, Fish & Chips, Bread & Jam, Spaghetti & Meatballs, Chocolate & Orange, and sometimes, when the bread is crusty fresh and the Irish butter is properly chilled, the perfect partnership can be something as simple as plain ol’ Bread & Butter. Some things just work better, together. In a slight imaginative stretch (and for purposes solely contained herein) let us take for instance that couple, being Irish & Potatoes. I (like every Irish man, woman and child since the mid sixteenth century) have developed a specific genome marker predisposing me to a love of the humble spud. The potato has been a staple of the Irish diet since Sir Walter returned from southern climes and cast his cloak neath those royal pinkies. It has nurtured and sustained countless generations of Hibernians, and sadly, on occasion, was responsible for the demise of millions of them. The humble spud: boiled, broiled, chipped, fried and roasted. Buttery mash in scooped lumps, golden yellowy paps determining the boundary twix the two veg. and meat of generation gone before us. Then there’s the gratin, and the gnocchi, and the scalloped and hassle-backed. But, throw a few fried pork sausages into the equation and you get one of the all time great taste combos from every Irish child’s childhood, Bangers & Mash. Oh yes, talk about perfect pairings…love and marriage, horse and carriage, and though not necessarily nor fundamentally bound to each other, some things, though good enough in their own right just work better in partnership with something that will accentuate its unique character. On a summer allotment things are just as tasteful. The advent of summer, especially early summer, sees the first of the gardening year’s gluts and with that comes the need to preserve the excess crop. Jams, chutneys and conserves are made in abundance as every gardener and allotmenteer’s kitchen slips seamlessly into cottage industry mode with the excess early strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries to be jammed. Commercial jam making is and always will be big business constrained by nothing other than market forces. Product is made to meet the need of supermarket shelves with the overarching and underlying principles being one and the same thing; the bottom line. Orders for the raw fruit material are placed (often years in advance) with commercial growers who have been encouraged to produce one selectively modified cultivar of fruit that can be pulped and macerated on a massive scale, mixed with the cheapest sourced syrup and sugar on the market, only then have all the goodness totally boiled out of it before being jarred, shelved and sold on to the highest bidder in hope of attaining a bigger margin once presented to the eventual retail customer. That’s the bread and butter of the jam business. That’s the business jam. That every business’s jam.
With the allotmenteer and home-grower however things can be different. Free from commercial constraints, and limited only by imagination and volume of the treasured harvest from a seasons long effort on their own allotment or small-holding, the final produce of the home Jam and chutney maker is among the finest artisan produce available. Small select batches of organically grown fruits, carefully handpicked, winnowed and cleaned, are then methodically prepared in recipes often handed down from one generation to the next. And if there is a bottom line to this home and cottage industry it is this: to preserve nature’s hard won prizes for personal use; to help fill the larder for the leaner days of winter and in so doing aid in the remembrance of bright summer days during the coldest and darkest days of the year. Or perhaps it is little more than a personal process to show of nature’s wonderful bounty stored and displayed like jarred trophies along the pantry shelf. Who knows ? Experience has shown us that on many an occasion the bottom line for most genuine home jammers is the simple joy of sharing with a few privileged friends and relatives who truly appreciate all the months of sowing and growing and pruning and feeding that will have gone into the superior jarred product they often find themselves gifted with. Of course home jammers and cottage conservers are more than just industrious. At the heart of every jam-making and preserving process (even in the big commercial enterprises) there is a recipe, most likely developed by trial, error and imagination over decades. The ingredients for jam making are simple and the jam-making process is very straight forward; fresh fruit, good sugar and water in varying amounts over a moderately intense heat, et viola! Of course with developments in modern food production science we now have pectin laden sugar which helps the whole process along nicely, but the basics remain the same: for strawberry jam use strawberries, sugar, small amount of water; for raspberry jam use raspberries, sugar and a little less water; and for blackcurrant jam use blackcurrants, plain sugar and slightly more water. However, home jam makers can take this process to a whole new level, and very often do so with mouth-watering combinations of seasonal fruits: Peach & Blackberry jam, Raspberry & Lime jam, Pear & Lavender jam, Plum and Lemon Verbena jam, Strawberry & roasted Pomegranate jam; and not forgetting a nod to two combinations with which we here on monsterinthecorner are well acquainted, Gooseberry & Elderflower, and Rhubarb& Ginger jam. Yes, rhubarb and ginger. Though in essence jam is a product of boiled fruit with occasional additives, one of our personal favourites (and a renowned fruity and zingy taste of summer both here and across the pond in Great Britain) can be derived from boiled vegetable stalks (Rhubarb) and grated tubers (Ginger). From mid-summer through to autumn every garden festival and village fete will undoubtedly have a stand at which you will be able to purchase locally grown and prepared homemade jams, and at every farmer’s market and country fair you’ll likely happen on a stall selling locally sourced honey, artisan jams and conserves. These are true seasonal gems. Take some time to see what’s on offer. Pass slowly; ask the questions, and indulge…treat yourself to some of nature’s finest fare, carefully cultivated and personally prepared.
We started jamming many years ago, and long, long before we began growing our own fruit we’d make day0-trips to the city outskirts, children in tow, and spend sunny days picking large punnets of strawberries and raspberries on which all could gorge themselves before heading home to make jam with the remainder: Our tag has never changed…
J&J Jams Nurtured by Hand Nourished by Nature The taste of summer all year long…
Some things just go hand in hand: buckets & spades, and hats & gloves, and sunny summer days in Ireland & 99’s. Some things perhaps just belong together like John &Yoko; or become synonymous with each other like Ireland & The Eurovision Song Contest; or through birth become inextricably twinned with each other for life and forever like Jimmy & Tommy Swarbrigg; or simply through fond memory will be forever associated with the wide-eyed days of youthful wonder that was the great summer of 1977 & Bob Marley & The Wailers & Jammin’…
Yes we’re Jammin’, Jammin’, Jammin’, Jammin’ Jammin’ till the jam is through….
and suddenly people, Jam is taken to a whole different level.