Congenial it was; and complaisant, almost to a fault, winter 2018-’19 cut itself plenty of slack and although we’ll not venture so far as to say it was derelict in its duty, in its coming and going this past winter bequeathed us one of the mildest, driest winter seasons in many decades.
Temperatures were 2 degrees above average from mid January and all the way through February, with seasonal rainfall amounts along the east coast 50% down on long term comparisons. Temperature and rainfall only returning to normal expectancy with the arrival of many weathered March. Snowdrops and daffodils, hyacinths and squills have all put out fabulous displays; cherry blossoms are in full flower, and plum and apple blossom are on show well before equinox. The Kerria Japonica Plentiflora has certainly lived up to its name with masses of bright yellow bachelor buttons since mid February and the hydrangeas were in full open leaf a fortnight before St. Patrick’s Day. There has however, been a lot of rain the last two-three weeks, but with soil moisture levels quite tolerable for early March whatever spot flooding occurs dissipates rapidly and the open beds are trafficable a few short days later.
Our first full visit of the year to the monster’s measure saw us plant out the red and white onion sets and sow some trays of cosmos, zinnia and pheasant eye seed. We planted out some kale and Dutchman cabbage seedlings and we potted on the cayenne pepper and the Moneymaker tomatoes. We tidied border edging, scattered potash and phosphate granules around the fruit trees and bushes, and broadcast a good many handfuls of chicken manure pellets where we will be planting and sowing in the coming weeks. We have plum blossom and apple blossom, and the gooseberry bushes are leafing up. The blackcurrant buds are tight yet, but the redcurrant has burst bud, and there is bright new red growth on all the rose bushes. Close inspection of our raised beds has betrayed some remedial work we need to undertake in the short term; we will re-seal the shed exterior as soon as we get a dry and mild run of weather and there is still have a run of fencing that needs to be righted. As with every other allotmenteer and gardener we are about to move up and into top gear, and it is rewarding to be able to say that here, right at the beginning of the growing season we have already benefitted from the monster’s measure having enjoyed a couple of weekend pickings of Timperley Early rhubarb before March is out.
This afternoon’s temperature hit 16 degrees with moderate westerly wind which is more than pleasant for this time of year. There shall be cooler and colder days a while yet, and we’ll certainly have frost after dark for a good month still, but winter has set its sights northward. The new lambs are coming and the Brent geese are going, and the monster – just as with the Celtic spirit we celebrate this week– is greening up in style…
The snowdrops are showing; reticulated irises have brightened in glorious patches the last week or so, but the daffodils? The daffodils, being totally narcissistic, seem to be taking their own sweet time, though with that said, yesterday one or two of the Tete-a-Tetes finally put their radiant trumpets on public display. It has been a thoroughly Irish winter, and one that lived up to the Irish gardener’s seasonal expectation. With the exception of two slightly milder days this past weekend, it has been a long, wet and chilly period of hibernated-vernilization since the last week of last November. Things however seem to be turning. There is a little more light to the end of each day, but with the constant cloud cover the benefit as yet is not fully appreciated. The temperatures are still a little below normal for this time of year, which means that taken together with the low light levels we have the classic combination that very often conspires to undo the early undertakings of eager seed sowers. Many a gardener’s desire to get ahead of the posse by sowing seeds as early as they can often proves a redundant exercise with the experience of dampening-off. This is what occurs when seeds that are sown too early in the season either refuse to germinate, or else having germinated – often sporadically so- decide conditions are not yet tolerable enough to make the effort for. Seeds that are left standing in cold damp compost too long end up with root rot, eventually laying themselves down en masse, adding their inchoate transparent leggy stems and cotyledons to the dank dark medium which gave rise to their brief green existence. But, there are signs that things are a turning. The rhubarb stools are putting out new petioles; the pruned rose bushes are displaying delicate bright orangey-red flags; the garlic which seemed to have stood still since mid December is stretching ever so slightly at last; the parsley pots are greening up more than yellowing down and allium snouts are poking through the heavy damp clay. Perhaps it is just wistful thinking but there also seems to be a noticeable increase in birdsong from the hedgerows. Despite the ancient Celtic Imbolc quarter day observance it is not quite spring. The milk may be flowing in the belly of the ewe, but there is a sting or two to the winter’s tale and tail yet. Mindful of all we have just said, we did nonetheless make some tentative progress this last weekend. Being a little more tolerant of cooler sowing conditions and not being quite as finicky as their allium cousins we put some red shallots into one of the raised beds. We also strew two small trays of zinnias and marigolds, while at home we popped some Rosa Blanca aubergine seed into a pot for a south facing windowsill. We filled some starter pots with compost and popped red baron onion sets into the polytunnel, and finished off by covering a few Nero di Toscana kale seeds, as they’re also cool weather tolerant. The trees have been pruned and where and when required they were washed. The monster’s bolt hole has been tidied; all pots and trays are clean and good to go; seeds and sets have been sourced and sorted and whatever could be done during the darker wetter days was done. Things are drying up, slowly. The badgers are on the move; with little or no ground cover left for camouflage at winter’s end the hares are more skittish than usual, and today crows could be seen making the most of seasonal casualties, gathering and relocating winter fallen twigs to the still naked canopies of the oaks and beeches.
We’re not there yet, but we are getting there.
Softly, softly still though, not too far ahead of the posse should you go. And in deciding whether to sow or not to sow, remember that the surest course to no carrots and beetroots for harvest is to sow them now.
Crisp, clean and crystal clear, and conjured from unobstructed air the first frost of this winter season greeted all worm catchers yesterday morning. Cool and bright and star-shiny sheer the winter’s first offering of season’s secret ministry glossed most low lying grassy areas and hardened exposed shallow pools. Though our met service had forecast frost, this was no sharp event and certainly no f# affair with much of the crystalline magic dissipating with the first rays of early sun. The cool air exposed all al fresco breaths in bamboozled bewilderment, and as though having seen it all before car windscreens glared with vague subfusc opalescence, awaiting intervention with kettle or pot to clear their view to the chill.
Last winter’s first frost did not occur till quite late in the season; with November and December both recording above LTA (Long Term Average) temperatures the first frost of last winter did not settle till 5th January this year. So, we’ve had the first frost of last winter and the first frost of this winter ten months apart and in the same calendar year. This year it seems winter is settling in early: we’ve covered and cleared what we needed to, and we’ve started to harvest and use the autumn and winter stocks of swedes, parsnips and kale. We’ve greased the bolts and oiled the latches, and we’ve stacked and stored the planters and pots. And while still trafficable and feasible to do so we turned sod on that area where we had scattered wildflower seed last spring and summer in the hope that exposure to the harsher elements of the coming season may just tame its unwieldy clumped lumpiness. The constancy of Mrs Dirtdigger’s deadheading drill together with the relatively mild October weather meant we still had some blooms to brighten the monster’s visage on our recent visits, but, we thinks the creeping crystal carpet may have put an end to this. Still, it’s good to feel this early seasonal chill, and ideally our wish would be that this first frost is but a precursor to a winter of some sustained wintry weather; maybe not too much though (mindful to be careful of what one wishes for), but, as most gardeners should have learned, the earthen canvas in which we cultivate our dream performs best after a period of vernalization: rhubarb stools and gooseberry bushes; blackcurrant, apples and pears all benefit from a measured stretch in Mother Nature’s chilling cabinet, and much the same can be said of the early spring bulbs and flowering perennials.
So, just as we here at monsterinthecorner prepare to cover and muffle and wrap our bodies up against the elements of the coming season, our hope would be that the monster itself stays quite cold. And safe in the knowledge that most gardens invariably survive the wintriest of storms, our wish is that our little plot keeps cold, and does not get too warm, for once tender shoots have been top-dressed and strawed, spring’s cheery show creeps best from chilled sod… So, stay chilled, keep cold.
Airily and imperceptibly it has happened upon us again. Tipping day unfolds ‘ neath heavy humid skies. A steady drizzle grounds the flying ants, and a deep slate grey of midsummer’s duvet hints at Thor’s mighty hammer smash in the coming hours. The gulls and starlings that yesterday spent hours on the wing gorging on summer’s aerial feast, are this morning taking it a little easier along with the rooks, crows and blackbirds who now find the jaded and wet ant-feast crawling at their feet. For the first time is over 5 weeks, lighting-up time last night was back at 10.00pm, and the majority of Dublin’s street lamps, including the one directly outside our garden wall flickered cool pink at 21.59 precisely. July 19th; Tipping Day; the 200th day of the year; the first point beyond high summer in Ireland, and though, if we’re lucky we shall still have some days and weeks of pleasant weather ahead, by this day each year there is that unmistakable sense that changes are afoot, and none more so than in the garden. We arrived at the monster’s gate yesterday evening to find the Bunyards Exhibitors had given up the ghost completely. Although showing signs of stress the last week or so, yesterday they finally surrendered and we arrived to find them prostrate. We stripped the last of the pods and we will cut them to ground over the coming days, leaving the nitrogen rich roots in place a while longer. The Sutton Dwarfs are also showing signs of struggle, but we’ll keep these well watered in hope that they will hold for a fortnight yet. The Jumbo peas are cropping and holding up well; we have lifted our onions and set them to cure, and we have also sown our spring cabbages together with successional lettuces, radishes and chard leaves. The reasonably good summer –which for the most part it has been, to date -has left casualties in its wake right across every garden and allotment site; a lot of the allium and leaf crops have bolted, and we too have had our fair share of losses with the shallots and chard, rocket and lettuce going over very early; but we have made further sowings. Indicative of the fairly good summer temperatures so far this year, we arrived Monday afternoon to find the Monster and her neighbouring plot under a buzzing cloud of black Irish Honey Bees. Having originally swarmed the day before, they had set to hive in a compost bin on the corner of our neighbours plot, but, being made of black plastic their new home immediately overheated once the temperature rose to the high twenties. This no doubt proved intolerable in the black plastic compost bin and once the new combs began to collapse they swarmed again, setting up temporary stop on a sweet pea frame directly beside our plot. Three years in succession at our former allotment site we had been lucky enough to witness this great summer spectacle, and perhaps the only true regret we had in leaving that old site was that we would miss the beehives that were in situ there; and as beehives are not facilitated at this particular site we more than pleased with Monday’s swarm. Getting over their initial fear (- most of the plot holders at this site had not experienced such a sight before) the event proved a great photo opportunity for all the Monster’s plotted neighbours, and thanks to Keith from the Dublin Beekeepers Association who came boxed and smocked with smoker once the rescue call was logged, a lot of the plot holders now know a good deal more about honey bees and the swarming process, and hopefully will have gained a little more appreciation for these wonders of the natural world. We have made our Blackcurrant and Gooseberry Jams, and once this evening’s final offering of Hinnonmaki Gooseberries are jarred we will have jammed 48-50 jars in total, and given that we uprooted and re-set the stands in the move to our new location we are reasonably happy with this result. We jarred some rhubarb and ginger also, but our Victoria certainly rebelled at the severity of being split and dumped and after an initial helping in late May we’ve since left it to recover the rest of the year… The rocket was/is peppery and fabulous; the lettuces crisp and fresh. The Solo beetroot has, once again, proven itself a worthy performer, while the Kale Negro and Bright Lights have been used continually as cut-&-come standards for the last 7-8 weeks. The Jack O Lanterns vines have all set fruit and we’ve pinched the tips; the Big Max however is struggling big time. We have tomatoes aplenty on all our plants and they’ve begun to blush ever so slightly, so here’s hoping for an early harvest of Shirleys, and Marmandes. We are using the Gold Rush courgettes and will most likely have to start passing these on as they look set to glut. The Greenshaft are a few weeks behind but have set at last, as have the first of the Akito cucumbers. The Tender & True parsnips have caught up with the late sowing, and all of Mrs. Dirtdigger’s roses, and gladioli have put out some wonderful seasonal colour and scent, and one of the running commentaries for the last 2 months amongst our new neighbours is the wonderful wildflower area scattered by the self same dirt-digging Missus on that area we intend to erect our polytunnel on early next year. How quickly things turn; the hand spins a circuit of the face, days come, weeks go, and months and seasons slip past unnoticed. As much as it galled and upset us at having to vacate our well tended and much toiled former allotment, that sorry saga is, thankfully, a distant memory, and the level of enjoyment and success we’ve experienced in such a short time span on this our new adventure has led us to speculate as to why we had not moved sooner…but, c’est la vie! We have hares and pheasants and buzzards. Yes, wonderful crying and screeching buzzards. There are tits and finches and thrushes. We have butterflies and bees and we can see the sea in the distance. We have made new acquaintances, and run into some old faces. We were faced with a challenge last December are we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the rising to it. We have been busy; so busy getting re-established we have neglected to write as often as we should, determining at times to Garden instead of writing about Gardening, but perhaps we’ll have a little more time now. It has been a major success all round. We reached tipping day in better array than in any of the previous 6 years. I would like to be able to say that we’ve had a 100% success rate in every aspect of our new allotment endeavour (which by the way we have) but I can’t. The most we dare say is that we almost had 100% success, because there’s always that one thing that throws the damned lie into sharp relief, or unwittingly undermines the veracity of the unverified statistic. So, we’ve had a 99% success rate, because there’s always one, isn’t there? Always a fly for the ointment, or a pea for the pillow. Always something which fails to do exactly what it says on the tin. A prima-donna, a wannabe, something with ideas way,way above its station.
There’s always some commoner gardener vegetable that decides it’s having none of this and just opts out…none of this hard outdoorsy living; none of this bush tucker existence; no association with celebrity B list vegetables and C list fruits; stuck with your feet in the muck for months on end and a social profile lower than a didgeridoo’s bell end…chicken manure for tea and strained nettle and seaweed soup for brekki…no way Jose…Who mentioned ants?….hit the deck quick and get me out of here!
So, I’m a celeriac they thought…doo dah!!!
Yes, we’ve only had 99% success on our new plot… Only 99%. One little thing let us down, and after 4 failed successive sowing we decided to leave it for this year, but we’ll not go into that here…