Plotting away with woods and distance.

Tequila Zephyr & Honey

On February 1st we crossed our fingers just as St. Brigid had once crossed the reeds and rushes in the hope that the coming growing seasons would be kind to us. We had been prevented from stepping out the monster’s measure since mid November due to one of the wettest winters on record and our desire was that Lá Fhéile Bríd would at last herald the beginning of winters end.

And for a few short days the meteorological elements seemed to have heeded our wish for by mid February the early spring bulbs had bloomed. Small patches of vibrant yellow trumpets dotted previously drab garden borders, and the muscari’s blind inflorescence began sallying forth from their spindly leaf crowns. In mid February there was still a lot of standing water on the monster’s measure. It still rained almost every day, but, we had hoped that the slowly rising temperatures and early spring crawl towards equinox would dry things out and that we would, at last, begin the annual cycle of sowing and growing on plot 31.

In mid February we had general elections in Ireland, and as a result a new Dáil; we had Irish whiskey on sale at 35,000 euro a bottle; bee populations were at last globally acknowledged as being in drastic decline and  50% of all fish in the oceans we were being  told now contained micro-plastics.  Mrs Dirtdigger purchased Cosmos and sunflower seeds on one of her garden centre shopping ventures and Dirtdigger himself was getting his hands dirty and looking forward to ‘not looking forward to’ the screening later in the year of Mr. Speilberg’s first foray into the Musicals genre with his particular take on the classic Westside Story.  There were Primary contests on one side of the globe, just as there was a daily ding-dong in Hong Kong on the other side.

There was also now, notably more interest being reported in a new bug which was making its way from mainland China and was causing eyebrow-arch in Italy and France.  While in China this bug/virus  was still considered ‘distant’, or at least somewhat distant as it was still  ‘over there’ so to speak, on the other side of the world. But only a few short days later cases were being reported in Europe’s heartland. The number of cases soon became catastrophe, and catastrophe and causality very quickly showed just how small a village modern day planet earth is become.

And before you could shake a stick at it, it was here.

Everything is changed; changed utterly. Old certainties are challenged, and established protocols and covenants rudely awakened.  I don’t know what the German words for ‘social-distancing’ are, but until quite recently I dare say most Germans didn’t know either, or at least had little need to consider such a jargon concept. And just as I don’t know the French for ‘flattening the curve’ or the Italian and Portuguese equivalent of ‘r-value’ or ‘lockdown‘, regardless of  cultural mother-tongues we all have had to learn a whole new language rapidly. I’ve heard children as young as five speaking of cough-etiquette and hand hygiene, just as I’ve heard other ten year olds explicate the conspiracy theory that this is and was a man-made disaster visited on western democracies by, well, well by someone else. And just yesterday Mr and Mrs. Dirtdigger’s seven and eight year old nephews spoke with almost unnerving erudite insight on the pro’s and con’s of social cocooning.

Everything changed, and is changed: schools and colleges have been closed for 5 months, and every non-essential retail, manufacturing and construction business was closed and many remain closed; anyone who could work from home has had to do just that, and in the first few week of this new aberrant reality every Thomas, Richard and Harold had to adapt to the imposition of a 2km travel restriction limit.  Hundreds of thousands of people here in Ireland were suddenly out of work while globally tens of millions were confined to home with little to do with their new found time-on-hands but to listen to the grim reportage-stream and watch live images from Italian and Chinese cities at the epicentre of this global pandemic. Seven months later and little is changed. The only thing that has changed is the focal location. Everything changes, yet everything remains the same.

Our last full day on our plot prior to lockdown was March 15th .

We had only just begun with the season’s undertakings when on Sunday 15th we were informed that the allotment site was being locked down to comply with emergency statutory regulations. The St Patrick’s Day festivities were cancelled, the pubs were closing, and quite unthinkably even the churches were closing, so it came as no surprise that our allotment site would also be closed.  The stark fact of a natural social distance with this pastime and hobby did little to persuade otherwise. On Sunday 22nd we were allowed access for 2 hours to put things in order, and that, as they say was that until the end of May. We could not access the monster’s measure for 10 weeks, that same 10 week period which turned out to be the brightest and driest spring and early summer period since 1837; the brightest driest period in 187 years. 

The country may have been in enforced lockdown, but there was a silver lining in that while everyone was confined to their own backyards at least the sun shone brightly.  By April 6theveryone bore unseasonably early summer tans, and had learned to settle for socially distanced garden bingo and karaoke sessions, while every slowly stretching April and May evening invited cold Peroni and pizza sessions al fresco.

When we returned to our plot on May 18th we were, not surprisingly, greeted with a scorched earth scenario: our kale was non-existent; our peas and beans had disappeared, and our onion sets were still, relatively sets. The beetroot and turnip seedlings were miniscule but at least we had seedlings, just as with the parsnip seedlings; sometimes there can be a benefit to notoriously slow germination rates. Our rhubarb stand was decimated. There is a reason why gooseberries and rhubarb are synonymous with Irish summers of yore, the reason being that they both thrive in generally cool and damp conditions, and this by and large is the general Irish summer experience.  But this year they never stood a chance, and at May’s end they were practically invisible. Having spent an hour assessing and bemoaning the sad scene we rolled the sleeves.

Six weeks later and the monster’s measure is greened once more.  Mrs Dirtdigger’s wildflower patch is way behind, but it is starting to colour up. The onions have bulbed-up, but given the early stresses during the lockdown-drought well over half of them are already bolted. We’ve had some strawberries, some raspberries and we’ve certainly had a very good blackcurrant crop from the Ben Lomands with our Ben Tirrians also bearing a reasonable crop for early August. 

We have courgettes aplenty and cabbages of a latterly re-designated cultivar, Lazarus- the hint being in their name. There is also a potentially good crop of cucumbers and tomatoes, but still green and immature at present due to the fact that since 12th June we’ve had little or no sunshine.  By mid June Irish summer weather had returned to normal. The daily temperatures have held at or above average but it has been quite dull and wet most of the last 5 weeks, and just this week we’ve sown next year’s lupin, foxglove and chive seed. Today being August 6th we are into the first days of autumn, and restrictions are being re-imposed. And that was that…the locked-down plotted and spiked allotment experience…

If ever we needed reminding that there really and truly are things more important than golf, or rugby or parades or foreign holidays or the local boozer or allotmenteering for that matter, well this year has helped put many things into a much needed perspective, and whilst stomping the monster’s measure is a much cherished pastime, we have another string to our bow which pays the annual con-acre ground rent, and that has afforded a frontline experience which the monster’s space helps balance.  We are not out of the woods yet; not by a long, long way; and rather sadly a lot of people have already begun to ignore the trees. 

We’ve made our jams and we’re planning our pickles.

As any crow or raven could tell you reality roosts easy when the trees are taken for granted. Our hope is that the only second wave we’ll experience is a late second flush in the monster’s autumn blush.

Rosa Pachelli by #janpaulkelly

Making Something Of Nothing!

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Winter scenes from the monster’s measure compliments @janpaulkelly

Sometimes, when there’s nothing to do, it’s best to do nothing.
Despite mantras of celebrity B list lifestyle gurus, wannabe life coaches and media influencers who advocate filling every wakeful minute with developmental (?) activity, there are times when you just have to chill, if for no other reason than for the sake of chilling.
This is especially true if you are an allotmenteer or gardener despite the misconception amongst gardeners themselves that there must always be something to be pottering on with around the garden. Sometimes you just need to let the garden be. Come March and April there won’t be enough hours in any given day to finish the sowing and propagation “to do list”; the summer months will be filled with constant watering and weeding duties and the autumn months will be heavy with harvest concerns as you try to beat the fast deteriorating weather in the rush to gather in the year’s bounty. Winter, however, is different.
Winter is when the allotment and garden rests, and most of what needs to be done on the winter allotment is best left to winter itself. Little if anything grows, and there is little to do besides the basic tool repair and equipment maintenance. The days are short, the nights are cold and the beds and pastures are sodden as winter wipes the slate clean, washes everything down and puts everything into deep freeze and hibernation. Millions of years of systemic cosmic activity have determined this role in the planet’s annual cycle, and as learned as any gardener believes themselves to be sometimes it is best not to interfere with cosmic processes. It is not always necessary to be gadding about and doing something in the garden, especially in the winter garden, where you run the risk of doing more harm than good by your very presence. Tramping across wet and sodden growing beds will only compact them; working in cold, wet and slippery conditions increases the risk of injury to the gardener and most activities carried out in the depths of winter will probably have to be revisited once the weather improves. January has more than its fair measure of short cold days where conditions are not conducive to gardening, so, when things are bleak, too bleak to consider doing anything, it’s ok to do nothing. You must respect the winter season as it works its own peculiar magic, and sometimes gardeners have to content themselves with just letting winter get on with what it does best. On those cold, dark, miserable January days when it seems there’s nothing to do, perhaps it’s best to do nothing.
Those who visit here are no doubt acquainted with the variety of fruit and vegetables we here at Monster in the Corner endeavour to sow and grow each year. The monster is partial to red Hinnonmaki gooseberries, and also to Victoria rhubarb and Ben Lomond blackcurrants. There is a fondness too for Italian Black and Scotch Curly kale just as there is an appreciation for green Butterhead and Lollo Lollo Rossa lettuces. We set red and white onions annually, and most years we’ll also pop some banana shallots into a drill, and whilst we like garlic, we’d not consider it one of the Monster’s staples and perhaps this is why we only sow cloves every second or third year. Mrs Dirtdigger is quite fond of a new spud or two, and so before this year’s chitting and sowing gets underway we’ve already determined which variety we will be sowing and when we need to sow them. We treasure our home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes, just as we delight in peas fresh from the pod, and beans, be they broad or french at either end of the growing season. There is- in our experience- little to compare with the taste of the first fresh beets and radishes pulled from the warm earth in late spring, and nothing can hold a candle to the earthy sweetness of late winter parsnips lifted from frozen terra firma and roasted with butter and parmesan or added to soups and broths with a spoonful of crushed cumin or curry paste. We jam our fruits and we jar our beets. We make our own store of pasta sauces from the late season tomato gluts, just as we’ll pickle the extra cucumbers; we make Harissa rub and onion jam, and at harvest time we freeze the late season french beans saying that they should see us through the winter, but, they never quite last that long.
We are headed into late January and though last autumn was one of the wettest on record, this winter has (for the most part) been relatively benign, with last week’s Atlantic storm Brendan being only the second named storm of the season thus far. We are still using some of the onions, shallots and garlic harvested last July and August and we still have jars of jam and jarred pickles. There are a few parsnips in the ground still but these in all probability will not be fit for much having been sitting in totally saturated and waterlogged soil as a result of the prolonged very wet weather. We are heading into late January and the weather has turned wintry cold, at last. The constant rain has also relented. In the last 7-10 days we’ve had no rain, and given the short term forecast says no appreciable rainfall this week, it means we are looking at the driest extended period since early last September and that has to be a bonus. And given that we’ve just had a week of fairly severe night frosts, well then, things are certainly looking up for at least we will have had a certain period of vernalization before the slowly extending daylight creeps back into the early evenings, and conscious of just how long a winter can last if Mother Nature puts her mind to it, we must be mindful of what we wish for, eh!
We still enjoy the monster’s bounty this mid January, and it is intriguing that just as we roll up our sleeves to complete the process of clearing-out, cleaning-off and disinfecting in preparation for the coming season we are still benefiting from last year’s efforts, and as good as we believe our chutney and pickles to be, the fact that this late in the winter we are still enjoying last year’s harvest is what we truly relish.
We produce more than enough for our own needs, and the gluts and excesses are always shared. The Monster’s measure is not so big as to make it unmanageable; it is its own self-determining self-governing non-aligned republic of muck and dirty effort; it sows with the weather and grows whatever suits the weather, and while not yet 100% self-supporting, in the realms of hopes and dreams for a greener, tastier and sustainable future monsterinthecorner is wholly self-sufficient.
We’ve been badly hampered since Halloween with pop-up ponds and saturated soil. Each dirt-digging and muck-raking plotter on the allotment site has bemoaned not being able to tread their own plotted con-acreage for fear of causing more problems in the long run, but, things are looking up, and thankfully drying up.
The tools are cleaned and oiled and the poly-tunnel and potting tables have been disinfected. The apple trees and roses bushes have been winter pruned, and some necessary attention has been paid to the rhubarb stools which we’ll further mulch this weekend.
It is still too soft under foot to contemplate turning any of the beds, but they’re not too bad at all with little greening since last September’s sod up. We’ll purchase all this year’s seed requirement at the end of the month and we’ll be good to go for Lá Fheile Bríd.
The month of January is often filled with post Christmas blues and New Year’s frenetic activity, new found resolve and unrealistic resolutions. The year kicks-off with quick-fix crash diets and a surge in annual gym memberships, but just as there is no quick fix to personal fitness, neither are there any shortcuts to the gardening and allotment year. Oh there are tips and tricks aplenty and more helpful hints than there are seeds in a poppy seed head, but there are no shortcuts.
January is as quiet as the gardening year gets; plans are hatched and plots designed; seeds and bulbs are bought; new varieties are considered and trusted performers ordered once more. There are no shortcuts to the gardening year, it happens one day at a time and the more time the gardener spends in the garden the more it happens. The best you can to do is to work with nature and to do so in nature’s own time. The best you can hope for is a reasonably colourful show or some home-grown goodness by way of compensation for time and effort expended.
The recent frosts prettified the dark damp leaf litter adding some seasonal sparkle to the withered Strawflower stems and decayed fennel seed heads and in doing so briefly rejuvenated an otherwise desolate winter scene, but on being hit with each new days sun rays the crystal magic dissipates and the familiar winter dank returns. Winter alas, is winter, and the end of January is as Winter as it gets. January is as quiet as the gardening year gets, and on those days when it is too wintry to do anything in the garden, well then, put the feet up, and plan what you will do once you’re back in the garden. Sometimes when there’s nothing to do, it’s ok to do nothing…

Winter Survivor: Strawflower bloom in December