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

 

Keeping Cold: a view to a chill…

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.

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Tweed swede and Tender & True all on a bed of fast fading rocket

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.

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All 2lb 2ozs of winter parsnip root

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Another pair of swell parsnips