The Washed Land

April may well be ‘the cruellest month’, but make no mistake March 2023 was definitely one of the wettest. It rained most days, and on days it didn’t rain it certainly showered, substantially.  On two days we had rainfall of over 2” each day, and by month’s end everything was saturated, sodden and soaked.  It was the many weathered month, but this year March certainly brought more rain than any other of the meteorological seasonal variants.  Every plot on the allotment site suddenly has a freeform pond, roadside verges have disappeared neath treacherous drive thru’ splash pools, potholes are puddled, gardens and parklands are soft to boggy and thousands of hectares of arable farmland now lye under unchartered springtime lakes.  Everything has been thoroughly washed, cleansed even, and provisional statistics from Met Éireann having been verified, it seems March 2023 was the wettest since 1947, and that particular year was the wettest on record, records going back to 1781.  Did we mention it was a bit rainy…

Springtime gardeners, as always have been chomping at the bit, waiting for days to lengthen and temperatures to rise so as to get out and grubby the hands, and thus work the dead land once again.  But that has not been so easy to do this year; and we must be mindful that as much as any gardener may bemoan the volume of rain so far this year, the gardens have loved it. Everything is green and verdant, which, by and large is one and the same thing, but there is no simpler way to underscore just how much all that March rain has done for the garden; sodden gardeners, yet satisfied gardens…

The extreme wet conditions have forced us to change-tack a little on the monster’s measure. Eight days into April and we have yet to put our seed potatoes to bed. We did however manage to plant up some bags of Maris Pipers and Desiree maincrop, whilst we are more than happy that the beetroot, turnip, parsnip and scallion seed has all germinated. We’ve sown sunflower and titonia which are up and at it, and in the last few days we also sowed pumpkin, golden squash seed and plenty of basil and coriander. Today we sowed Redbor kale and wild rocket before once more having to take some serious shelter. 

April has taken-up where March left off.  This year we have April showers aplenty; on April 1st a scattered shower passed or’ and finally cleared on the 3rd. We may be working under cover a good deal but we are making progress. We finally have the monster’s new polythene measure good-to-go. All the creeping thistle root was painstakingly dug out by Mrs Dirtdigger during the dark days of January and February, and we put the first of the Moneymaker seedlings into their new tunnelled home in this last week; a little early perhaps, but although wet this year, the temperature is holding about average.

Our little patch of dead land may not have lilacs breeding from it, but it does have a fabulous crop of Timperley Early and Victoria rhubarb, some already baked into pies, already stewed into compote, and all compliments of the aqueous exigencies of many weathered March.

April is doing its April thing as we type. Silver grey skies are showering the stretching foxgloves, aquilegia and bearded-irises; the late muscari and early camassia spikes shine against the last of the daffodils Narcissus Thalia, one of the monster’s favourites.  We have lettuce and cabbage seeds to sow, peas, borlotti beans and melons still to get going, clumps of lovage to split and tarragon to relocate while still early enough to do so, and so, we’ll get going and get sowing…

All things being equal…

Snowy Dublin Hills @janpaulkelly

March, being March, has thrown everything plus the kitchen sink into the spring weather mix so far this year.  The month began on a cooler than normal note with north westerlies chilling the early green shoots; cool gave way to cold and cold became five days of sleet, snow and icy nights.  We’ve had blustery sunshine, driving rain, slate grey skies and localized flooding. March many weathers has delivered in style, but spring is here and nature’s urge to get up and growing is now insuppressible. As conditions allowed, we stomped the monster’s measure and have managed to get the Javelin parsnip seed to bed, and also move the Stuttgarter sets from their starter pots into terra firma, along with the Ailsa Craig seedlings and a new variety we are trying for the first time this year, Pink Panther, a small reddish-pink French variety.

The Moneymaker have been potted on as have the aubergine and pepper seedlings.  We will go again with the petunia seed mix; we took our eye off them and they dampened-off, not surprising given the chill weeks at the start of the month.

The national holiday has come and gone and we, as a nation celebrated in style with many towns and villages organizing St Patrick’s Day parades for the first time since before the pandemic.  The usual global greening of many of the world’s well know structural landmarks has been curtailed as a show of acknowledgement of having to be environmentally responsible, but there was the usual national greening with all-and-sundry decked-out in a fabulous array of jumpers and cardies, badges and rosettes, hats and scarves, shamrocks and harps and then to ice the cake it seemed the whole country watched as our rugby team delivered on years and years of promise.

Timperley Early Rhubarb @janpaulkelly

We have, at last, tripped the other side of the equinox.  There is now more day than night; not so much dark, and slowly increasing light.

Feverfew and tarragon, camomile and chives, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme all the early fayre of the herb bed, waving green in a celebration of what spring brings.

All things being equal March has so far done what we expect March to do every year. We’ve managed to have the year’s first produce from the measure with some absolutely fabulous early rhubarb from the Timperley Early stools.  We have so many packets of seed to empty and sow in the next 4 weeks, but we will balance hope and expectation with effort and creation and perhaps achieve a certain equanimity for the monster’s measure as we stride into spring this year.

Tines, tangs, eggplants and elephants.

Suddenly it is here, and just as suddenly it is now

Christmas and New Year are come and gone; January’s blues are finally usurped by February’s lengthening days, and by way of added bonus this year we get to celebrate a brand spanking new public holiday right here at the beginning of February: Lá Fhéile Bride; St. Brigid’s Day.

Although this 1st day of February has always held a special cultural significance, and on many trains of thought is considered the first day of the Celtic spring not only here in Ireland but across many parts of north-western Europe, it is only here, this year, that the day itself has been officiated as a national public holiday and placed on a par with St. Patrick’s Day.

So it is that the milk once again flows in the bellies of the ewes; snowdrops, though tiny are gleaming white, catkins dangle as blue tits check out nesting suitability of every nook and cranny and the first of the daffodilly golden trumpets have unfurled, heralding, if not the arrival of spring, then perhaps at least that winter’s end is not too distant now.                    

But February being February, often hides a wintry sting in its tail.

The monster’s measure was kept ticking-over during the darker days. Drills and raised beds were cleared and covered before midwinters with running repairs to gate-posts and fence-lattes carried out as needed. Empty pots were rubbed and scrubbed, and tools were put under cover.

The measure increased somewhat at winter’s end with the acquisition of an overgrown and sadly neglected polytunnel that sat unused at the end of the allotment site these last number of years. This twenty-foot-long eyesore has kept us more than busy with the clearance of its crop of six-foot-high creeping thistle from every square inch. It was a challenge, and it has been a minor achievement to make notable progress, and so hopefully come April-May it should have a totally new aspect.

Winter can be a challenge to any gardener, from the backyard potager to the large estate manager there is much to do in preparation for that which the winter season brings to the garden.  Many tasks need doing to make sure the garden pulls through in some semblance of order once winter passes.  But with that said, an acknowledgement also that the dark season must be allowed to do what it does best: vernalize.

Though winter can be daunting to the gardener, there are few things more disheartening and demoralizing to the allotment gardener as the totally dilapidated aspect of a large allotment site during the winter months where many plots are purposely allowed go to absolute wrack and ruin: acres of rotted timbers, mangled netting, falling down knock-me-up-sheds and rusted homemade cloche frames; wheelless barrows, tineless forks and tangless hoes.   This seems to be a specific peculiarity of the Irish and British Isles allotment sites for we’ve not experienced this level of expected and accepted horticultural neglect elsewhere, and we have visited allotment sites in many other countries and continents.  It is as if site management will accept anything so long as the income stream is maintained. And so as long as annual rent and con-acreage stipend is paid well then you can grow and sow as you please, or simply create a plotted blot for the allotment landscape, with impunity, so long as you renew your lease. Although everyone else can see it staring them in the face (and although some allotment sites do not allow livestock), no-one must mention this particular elephant haunting the allotment sites. Everyone pays their money and you learn to work with what you get, and should such elephants be always named Abandonment well so be it,

However, back to allotment future with focus firmly on the monster’s own measure this year’s sowing diary is started:  Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champion onion seed are sown under cover since the end of January.  We also sowed some salvia seeds ‘Victoria Blue’ along with some foraged Salvia Atropatana seed compliments of the National Botanic Gardens last October, and today we got to put Moneymaker tomato seeds into modular trays; once again under cover.

 Last week a neighbouring plot-holder kindly gifted us some Aubergine seed. Returning from Portugal before Christmas she purchased a packet of Aubergine seeds for £1.09. the pack containing upwards of 2000 seeds. A pack of 12 Aubergine Seeds averages £3.99 in most high-street garden centres in our fair city. Wow! And as most are selectively blind to Colonel Hathi’s troop on the dilapidation of allotment sites perhaps it would prove redundant to attempt to draw attention to Gajjini or Hathi Jnr on the shop shelves. But a bargain is a bargain, with thanks to our neighbour. We’ll leave that particular jungle to another day.

Spring beckons: green fingers and grubby nails await. Mrs Dirtdigger has been removing thistle root inch by inch and by week’s end we should be re-assembling the polytunnel grow beds in good time for the off come first week of March. Winter has been long but we remember that February is the shortest month. We have packets of seed and packages of bulbs to set out and sow; sets to start and tubers to chit. The seed chest is full to overflowing, and they won’t grow in the packets; time to move the diary on we thinks, but mindful still of the lingering chill in the early February air.

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