Winter took a long time to arrive this year. A mild wet Autumn extended all the way through December and even in the first weeks of January a few lonely leaves still clung obstinately to the tips of the oak trees branches.
Then one night in mid January it finally came. Jack Frost’s icy grip took hold and the plants finally began to slip into their winter slumber. The garden reached the low-tide point of the year.
The sky is grey like lead, and it seems as though all the colour has been sucked out of the scene. Even the bright green laurel hedges appear pallid in the cold.
The summer frock of leaves has been lost and plants stand bare and skeletal. The hardiest take on a new dimension as their outlines are highlighted by a hoar frost. Even sound seems to have left the garden, as the chatter of birds dampens to an eerie silence, with only a few robins brave enough to venture out from the nest in their hi-vis jackets.
There is little to do with the borders when it is this cold. The herbaceous plants are dormant, and are best left now until growth starts again in the spring. The sodden lawn could easily be damaged if you stray from the solid footing of the path. So the best thing we can do is take stock. It’s a great time to make a note of any gaps and consider what could make the most of that space next season. It’s time to retire to the (relative) warmth of the shed to sharpen tools and make a wish list of plants for the spring.
It’s a great time to work with the trees. They give a natural shelter and their protection seems to add a couple of degrees in the winter. It’s the perfect time for apple pruning; reducing the sappy growth of last year back to the short, fat flowering buds, full of the promise of blossom. I also love thinning the stands of hazel coppice, creating natural stakes that will support the vigorous Spring growth.
Any work in the garden needs to be vigorous to generate heat and keep the cold at bay. Once the extremities get cold it is almost impossible to warm them up again, so the only sensible policy is to keep the toes and fingers well wrapped with thick socks and gloves until they can be warmed by a fire.
With so many plants reluctant to make a display, centre stage is occupied by only the hardiest of plants, a such as hellebores and snowdrops who will brave even the coldest weather to show their best. On the few bright, crisp days we are blessed with shrubs such as Witch Hazel, Viburnum, honeysuckles and Sarcococca are conspicuous by the heady aromas that fill the air around the as the thin sunlight begins to warm their branches. Anything that is prepared to flower in these short dark and cold days must do its best to attract what few insects are around to do the vital work of pollination.
One of the aspects that distinguishes humans from other animals is our widespread use of tools. Our lives are filled with them, and they facilitate our activities, enabling us to do our jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. I have a job which uses its own particular set of tools, most of which relate to cutting something specific, but would be near useless for another task. The tool itself prescribes the exact method of how a task can be done by how it will be used.
For the past few weeks, I have been working in our small hazel coppice. The straight stems of hazel are ideal for plant stakes, so once all of the stems were cut I set about preparing them. The ideal tool for this task was my ‘bill hook’. As I worked through the pile of branches I’d created I marvelled at how beautifully efficient and well-designed this tool was, the curved blade skimming down the stem, deftly removing all the small side branches.
I remembered how it was given to me by a friend several years ago. We had worked together before he moved to Australia with his girlfriend. We hadn’t been in contact since then, but using the tool he’d given me invoked many memories of him. The way it made short work of the branches reminded me of his impressive work ethic and dedication and I felt that I should embody that same attitude as I worked with the gift he had given me.
I was struck by the idea that some small residue of ourselves can be left in these objects. I wondered if the way I worked was influenced not only by my memories of my friend, but also possibly by the tool itself and the memory it held of everyone who had ever worked with it; how the leather handle had taken the form of the hands of all its previous users and how every nick and scrape along the blade told a tale of its past.
I like to think that as I get older I will be able to bequeath some of my tools to my friends, colleagues and children. I hope as they use them they remember me, and think about how I might have set about the task, and through them, and my tools, I may achieve some peculiar form of immortality.
As long as I can remember I have been a gardener.
Life as a gardener is governed primarily by the ‘rhythms’ of nature. The waxing and waning of daylight dictates the length of the working day, the prevailing weather dictates both the tasks and the clothing necessary, and the changing of the seasons provides variation in both work and scenery, so one day is never the same as the last.
It is a job like no other. It requires a wide range of skills, from that of the botanist; identifying plants, the ecologist; deciding where they may grow, the designer; deciding what would look good with them, the builder; constructing the garden, the cleaner; maintaining the overall appearance, or the mechanic; repairing and maintaining tools, amongst many others. Every day throws up new challenges that require a good dose of adaptability, resourcefulness and patience to solve, and every day provides satisfaction in the completion of some minor task, but never the completion of the whole.
As a child I always loved to help my parents in the garden. Some of my earliest memories are planting bulbs in our garden. When we moved to a new house, while the garden was being constructed, I used leftover hedging and turf to construct a miniature garden, just for my toys. As I grew up I was able to help more; spreading manure in the veg garden and cutting the hedges and grass for pocket money. In the summer I would even cycle to the local strawberry farm to help pick berries to save money for my holidays.
It seemed a natural choice then, that when it came to choosing my career, I should be a gardener.
I started this blog as a way that I could record my thoughts about gardening, my garden, and being a gardener, as they occur to me. Hopefully you will be able to relate to them, maybe you will find some useful, but mostly I hope that you will find them interesting.