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…!
The days are dull, dark and damp. It is most definitely mid January and unmistakably deep winter. The Christmas decorations are once again consigned to attic or shed for the next 11 months, and the New Year’s celebration bubbly bottles have been emptied and recycled through the local bottle banks. Something which only a few short days before still held a certain charm and relevance can suddenly find itself out of place and out of time once its sell by date is reached, and once Christmas’ celebrate by date is passed, it is definitely passed. That which was full of bright promise in the latter days of December can seem abruptly garish and jarring just these few short January days later.
I suppose when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
The same of course must be said of things here on monster in the corner. No longer can we say that we are working our way through the first year on a new plot. Everything we said we had planned to relocate in the moving to our new plot was relocated, and everything we said we had hoped to sow and grow on that new plot was actually sown, and thankfully most of it grew as expected. This time last year we set ourselves some new year’s tasks and we experienced quite some pleasant success when late last August monsterinthecorner was awarded the prize of Best Overall Allotment 2018 at the annual awards. So no longer can we say that we are only in our first year for we are not, and in all truthfulness the monster is now well and truly established at its current location. When it’s time to go it’s time to go, and last year was last year; and that was then and this is… well, now.
The monster’s new year begins midst squally, sleety, stormy weather (in stark contrast to its beginning at this time last year) and where the last three years saw us experience relatively mild and generally uneventful winters, this year the winter season is providing us with plenty of weather.
In a posting from a frosty November morning just as this season was setting in we wrote that perhaps, if we were lucky, we would get just such a winter; noting that a little sharp vernilization in general, is a good thing for the kitchen garden.
So, reminder to self…be mindful of what you wish for!
It has been a very wet and notably cold winter to date, and once more this week we are subject to influences of large polar maritime air masses which seem set to dominate things again for the next seven to ten days. Regardless of how mild -or otherwise- any given winter can be, according to Long Term Average analysis the coldest period of Ireland’s winter season is from mid January to mid February, and it would seem all is right on cue.
With winter truly bearing its teeth this year, there is little that can be done on the allotment. Any attempt to turn or cultivate growing areas will backfire spectacularly, and any pruning which needs to be done and hasn’t yet been done is best long-fingered till things at least dry up a little. There is still ample time to shape and coax next year’s fruiting spurs and blooms from the present dormancy, and where cold weather pruning is par for the course, it’s best done during a dry period to minimize damage to newly exposed wound wood by extended exposure to wet conditions.
Other jobs for the allotment at this time of year are the standard housekeeping requirements for all gardens and plots and are, and have been, well documented over the decades. There are however one or two activities that can be undertaken now which are not so weather dependant and these are some of the gardening year’s gentler activities. While waiting for the weather to clear you can busy yourself perusing the gardening supplements and seed catalogues which suddenly seem to be arriving two-a-penny with every weekend newspaper, offering hints and tips together with design and advice to amateur and professional alike on everything from soil nutrition and pond depth, the latest must have celebrity endorsed tools, to current developments in Hydroponics and what it is that you simply must do now to ensure bigger, better blooms and harvests later in the year. All standard commercial fair mind you, aimed at planting that persuasive seed of need into your plans in the hope it will germinate in your pocket or purse. Or you may, if you wish, undertake something that we here do annually before the gardening season gets under way in earnest. About this time every year we at monsterinthecorner take out our seed storage box to examine and inspect the contents. It is a curious exercise sifting through the packets and envelopes and recalling what it was we had originally plotted to do the previous year. There are always a number of wallets and pouches that will have remained unopened and as such unused, and it is often puzzling trying to remember why we never followed through with the plan that made us buy them to begin with. But, we suspect most gardeners have such a box of curious perplexities. Of course, having opened the box it then becomes necessary to assess the viability of its contents, and this is where you need to be ruthless. Fresh seed looses its viability over time and the process of degradation is speeded-on once the original storage packet has been opened. How long seeds are likely to retain their viability largely depends on two things: the seeds own inherent shelf life, and secondly how they are stored once packaged. Moisture and unnecessary heat are two of the main conditioners contributing to seed deterioration, and seeds last longer if stored in a cool, dry environment. Nonetheless, regardless of how you store them some seeds naturally last longer than others: parsnips, celeriac and parsley will not last much longer than one year; whereas peas, tomato seed and some beans can remain viable for over a decade. Most leafy vegetable seed should last for at least 5-6 years; beetroot and radish for 3-4 years while carrot, turnip and swede seed will last for 2 years if you’re lucky. By and large this is in line with our own experiences over the years of sowing and growing, and though we’ve only outlined vegetable seed here, much the same storage guidelines apply to bloom and meadow seed as well, although with that said, it is generally accepted that a lot of flower seed has a much longer shelf life than most kitchen garden seed.
And so once again we’ll pop the lid on our seed treasury chest and we’ll scrutinize. We will examine the remaining basil seed purchased in Malcesine 4 years ago, the beans and sunflower seed sourced by the Dirt-Digging missus herself in Toulouse 3 years ago together with the beans and pumpkin seed brought home from Toronto in August 2016. It’s something we do while on our travels, a potential living memento of our foreign excursions should we be lucky enough to get them to germinate and grow in our home clime: some warm sun-filled reminiscences to help buffer January’s dreary days. We’ll also need to check the condition of the foraged poppy, sunflower, pumpkin and cosmos seed collected from the monster’s own beds and borders last autumn.
And then we’ll wait; wait for the weather to clear; wait till there is not so much weather about; wait till we can get out and about once more and the monster’s ways are trafficable enough to allow us empty some of those packet contents into pots and trays and beds and get the whole process under way once again; but, only when the weather clears.
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.