It’s been a while since I’ve written I guess I can blame putting all my energies into More than Willow but that is another story and a happy one too.
We have been waiting for spring to appear and it seems to have been just around the corner for ages. All of a sudden the bees, the call of the chiffchaff and fresh green shoots are all evidence that winter is almost over.
But despite eagerly yearning for spring and watching for signs once again I have almost been caught sleeping. The horseradish which should have been dug up and processed months ago was harvested just before the first leaves appeared and the horseradish butter is safely in the freezer. The last of the parsnips have been harvested too so last night’s parsnip mash with horesradish butter was a winter treat – to celebrate spring?
The very last stands of willow were cut last week and though there was no sign of leaf on them stools that had been cut in January have teeny tiny shoots appearing – isn’t nature wonderful?
So skipping with spring in my step I am off outside to enjoy the sunshine and with stout gloves on gather nettles to make nettle cordial – a first for me and one that I will report on when complete.
Maybe it shows my age but when I reflect on the growing seasons this year I feel like Arkwright from Open All Hours as he closes up the shop for the night with ‘It’s been a funny old day Granville…
I think it has been a funny old year this year with seasons merging into each other which has prolonged the growing period for many fruit and vegetables – it’s great that there is in the middle of October there is still a lots to chose from. Tonight we had a marrow stuffed with a savoury lentil sauce made with freshly picked tomatoes, green pepper and aubergine topped off with cheese – pretty tasty!
This afternoon when I was out gathering autumn berries and leaves I was surprised to see shiny red unripe blackberries rather than wizened and mouldy over ripe blackberries that you would expect at this time of year. And yet when I was checking the sloes (thinking it’s almost time to make sloe gin) I was amazed to find that the laden bushes of last week are almost stripped bare of fruit.
So what else makes me think it’s been a funny old year in the garden? Well we have been cropping climbing beans from the polytunnel since May and there are still a few stragglers left but on the other hand the runner beans just didn’t grow until the end of August so we have been eating young and tender runners as an autumn vegetable. Sadly that means there won’t be any getting to the seed stage before frost appear so no home grown dried beans to add to chillies this winter.
Courgettes have been virtually nonexistent both in and out doors and yet the cucumbers have been like triffids they have just kept on growing p and are still growing. I have developed a taste for cucumber water and along with my new found delight in making flavoured gins I can thoroughly recommend cucumber gin – just pop about 4 slices into a tot of gin and leave for about 5 minutes before adding the tonic.
So a funny old year – but maybe every year is a funny year so that gardeners have something to talk about!
Well it’s exactly one year and two weeks since my last blog and, even though I haven’t been sharing it, there has been a lot of freeranging thinking going on in that time. The exciting thing is that the thinking has at long last morphed into action and it feels good!
I’ve made some life changes – jumping from the security of a well paid and demanding job to a very part time job on an exciting project linking young people and the environment AND taking the first steps to start my own small business.
It’s early days with lots of planning, market research and making contacts so there is not much to share apart from my deep sense of satisfaction and the joy of taking the first steps towards a new future and way of life.
Key to this change is stepping up the food growing and self sufficiency and so the greenhouse and polytunnel are full to bursting with plants – it has not been an easy growing season with a dirth of runner beans balanced with lots of climbing french beans and the anticipation of sweet corn – the first for many years!
There have been many clear, bright, days in December and January. The clarity of winter light causing the leafless trees to stand out in stark beauty against the skyline always makes me pause, gaze and marvel at nature. Throughout the day as the light and the colour of the sky changes, lightening then darkening again, the trees stand still and their shape and beauty is accentuated by the different tones and contrast.
It’s also the time of year to carry out traditional woodland management tasks like coppicing and hedge laying. It’s a perfect pastime providing exercise after the winter indulgences and in activity but there is also a sense of grounding and being at one with nature – setting the scene for spring and the start of a new growing year.
Over recent weeks there has been much wielding of billhooks by certain members of our household as some very old and straggly hedges have been laid in the traditional manner. It is very satisfying to see a hedgerow all neatly laid with neat cuts (pleachers) open to the sunshine ready for new growth as soon as the sap starts to rises in spring. The finishing touch to the perfect hedge is the bindings – the sue of long lengths of material woven along the top of the hedge t hold if firmly in place helping to make it stock proof until the hedge regenerates. I read recently that this was traditionally done with long lengths of bramble (with thorns removed) which shows just how our predecessors made use of every bit of material.
I must confess de-thorning brambles does not really appeal and hence my pain as I look at the beautiful straight stems of willow against the blue sky and know it’s time to start coppicing so that I can bind the hedge and make use of this season’s crop. The first cut is the hardest but as you make progress through the stand of willows there is an immense satisfaction sorting the willow and once the last stem is cut there is the beauty of the coppiced trees and the anticipation of next season’s growth.
The hedge has its binding, there are neatly tied bundles of willow sorted into different colours and lengths and there is the traditional willow ‘flower’ arrangement of coloured stems and even a few pussy willow in the living room.
Next job? Making some hurdles using coppiced hazel and green willow to act as rabbit fences around the herb bed.
Willow against winter sky
Line of a laid hedge before bindings
Close up of willow binding
Willow bindings on a laid hedge
Pleachers on a laid hedge
I’ve decided that the first winter as a greenhouse owner is a bit like having your first baby – you are really keen to do things right but a little scared that things might go wrong. I realise that plants are nowhere near as precious as children but over the last few days when we have had our first really hard frosts I’ve felt the concern of ‘new parenthood’.
Until November we had very few frosts and (as you will have read) I was picking tomatoes until late in the season. I did an early winter tidy of the greenhouse and wrapped the most precious plants in lovely warm horticultural fleece. Being concerned about freezing roots especially for the orange tree, three little home grown lemon seedlings and the jasmine, I lined boxes with sheets of polystyrene to stand the pots in.
No real frost arrived until the 27th when the skies cleared,the stars shone and the temperature plummeted. At that point I unearthed the large candle purchased in October. Following Dad’s advice I went outside to light the candle and place it in the greenhouse – he relies on the heat generated by the candle to keep the temperature above zero.
I woke early, about 4am, on the 28th and could see quite a glow on the hedgerow – was the greenhouse on fire? I shot out of bed and popped a coat and some wellies on and went out to inspect. It was bitterly cold outside but inside the greenhouse it felt relatively warm and the glow that I thought was fire was just the candle flame reflecting on the glass. So back to bed happy and relaxed and the candle has been lit and done its duty every night despite frosts hard enough to cause one of the water butts to split!
Today the bright crisp weather had disappeared,it was above zero by dawn and felt really quite warm outside. This afternoon I took a deep breath and unwrapped all the plants to see if jack frost had done any damage. Amazingly under the fleece wraps the geraniums and the orange tree were still in flower and so far there is no sign of frosting on any leaves. I picked chillies and sweet peppers and then carefully tucked the plants back in their fleece wraps. As the temperature is not due to drop there will be no glow of candle light from the greenhouse tonight.