Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

Past reason hunted ….

My mobile frequently sets up reminders of photos taken last year or further back. So after enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather of the past few days this picture from March 2nd 2018 is a stern reminder that despite all signs to the contrary, spring – real spring – pays no attention to meteorologists and their neat labelling.

I get the same feeling listening to the news. The broadcast media seem to have decided, contrary to all common sense, that Covid Winter is now over and we can all sing the national anthem and get back to the good old days. Neither proposition is true., but we’re suckers for good news and we buy it in much the same way that we buy lottery tickets. “Hush”, we say to our cautious inner voices and hand over our fivers; so summoning my best schadenfreude, I will comfort the allotmenteers who lose their tender plants to a late frost because we’ve all done it. Shakespeare is such a good judge of character and I remind myself that falling for my own delusions is – ‘th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’; or, as a kindly funeral director said to a friend who almost slipped into an open grave and had to be grabbed by the arm while he was saying the commendation – “wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!” Both spring and normal life will come in their own time, and meanwhile we are best advised to take reasonable precautions in both. For us today that meant feeling deeply uncomfortable in a long queue at the garden centre and then putting protective screens and fleece over all those plants that need shelter from the next three days of cold East winds.

Windscreens can be a bit complicated. We’re lucky on our plot that we’re protected from the prevailing wind by a line of tall leylandii trees. For east and northeast winds there’s no protection at all and so we’ve got a collection of nets, screens and meshes that can be pressed into service. Counterintuitively, solid screens can be less helpful than those that just slow the wind down. In extreme gusts, solid screens can crash down and crush the plants they’re supposed to be protecting. They can also create damaging eddies – think of a wave curling over a breakwater and crashing downwards on the sand, so mesh is often more effective. Screens offer protection to about four times their height, and in some situations where prevailing winds frequently cause damage, it might be better to think about a hedge. We’ll see whether today’s efforts help us. Last year’s late frost decimated potato haulms all over the allotments but we covered ours with fleece cloches and although some leaves touching the fleece were damaged, the crop was saved. At this time of the year the weather forecasts are the most important part of our daily plans.

The good news was that I managed to get two more 250 litre (50 gallon) water butts to bring our total storage up to 1750 litres. People may think we’re mad, but the time to prepare for a drought is when it’s raining. We’ll harvest water from the row of compost bins and possibly from the polytunnel roof as well. I have a cunning plan to use a bilge pump to fill our watering cans from the stored water. The barrels are going to be half buried in the ground to line up with the gutters. The only certainty during this oncoming and accelerating climate crisis is that weather is going to become more extreme and so we need to equip ourselves for extreme cold, long periods of drought, and ever more damaging storms.

Of course, if we do nothing to end our abuse of the earth, then there will be no effective precautions against collapse, so we don’t just need to store water and build fences, we need to minimise the lifestyles and excessive consumption that are causing it.

I do know – before anyone (Rose) points it out – that Shakespeare’s sonnet, (129) which I’m abusing just a bit is not about gardening, but lust. However at my age, gardening does very nicely most of the time, thank you.