What happened to spring? The extended winter has been hard on our gardens...
There have been colder winters. There have been snowier ones. But has there ever been a longer, drearier one? In my mind, winter started on 7 July last summer, in the hideous night of storm and landslide from which we here, in the West Country, have still scarcely recovered.
And though I don't think of gardening as therapy, I've never felt as ill-tempered as I have over the past few months. Perhaps it's true. Perhaps gardening really does have an effect on the way you feel.
That quiet tinkering among plants, weeding, tying in, pruning – it's a grounding process and I've missed it. Subliminally, perhaps, rather than consciously. But hanging on to the trunk of a hawthorn yesterday, screaming insults into an easterly gale, it got beyond the subliminal. I was going bonkers.
The ground has been sour, cold and saturated. It's been impossible to work it, to sow or to plant. Aconites and snowdrops have come and gone, with scarcely an opportunity to stagger through the rain to look at them. Certainly, there has been no chance to split and spread the snowdrops, one of the jobs (like splitting the best kinds of primulas in the garden) that I do religiously every year.
Towards the end of March I sowed two pots of tomato seed, rather more for my sake, than theirs. I was clutching at some semblance of the proper sequence of things. March is when you start to sow seed, isn't it? And however often I say, "In gardening, you go with the flow, not with a calendar", still, I was itching to sow seed. So the sacrificial victims were 'Sungold' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.99 for 10 seeds), the best yellow cherry tomato I've ever grown, and 'Malinowy Henryka' (Johnsons, £2.55), a raspberry-coloured Eastern European variety I've not tried before.
They're not up yet, and I don't blame them. Nor is seed of the white-flowered cleome 'Helen Campbell' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.19 for 50 seeds) I sowed on 17 March. 'Needs fluctuating temperatures to germinate well' says the seed packet. 'Ensure that the temperature drops at night by sowing as early as possible in the season'. Good joke T&M. The problem is not getting temperatures to drop at night, but to rise in the day.
Without the greenhouse, though, even these tentative sallies would not have been possible. It's a small space (4m x 2.65m) but it's been like an oxygen tent for me. I'm out of the wind and I can breathe air brightened by plants that are actively in growth. The blossom of the nectarine was unreal in its stillness and perfection, trained out flat against the greenhouse's west-facing wall.
Unfortunately, it was too hideous outside to expect any pollinating insect to be on the wing, so I did the job myself with a paintbrush. How crass that must seem to the flowers. It's too early to see how successful I've been. But quite early on, you can tell where fruitlets have set. There's a slight swelling behind the place where the flower was.
But even the greenhouse has become a place of frustration. In September, I sowed cornflower, larkspur and the tall, lacy white umbellifer Ammi majus. Autumn sowing is a useful way of getting early flowers either for cutting (all three are terrific, in this respect) or for filling in gaps in a border. All were pricked out singly into pots and by this time of the year, I've usually planted out most of them, freeing up space in the greenhouse for the next round of sowing.
I did, in desperation, put out some of the ammi, which by late March were almost 60cm tall. They are, after all, supposed to be hardy annuals. I even staked them. But the wind and the cold were too much and they began to shrivel. Then a rabbit came along and finished off the juicy stems.
Larkspur (Consolida ajacis) is the closest I'll ever get to growing a delphinium. It's not as tall – usually about 90cm/3ft – but the flowers of the type I've sown are a wonderful intense delphinium blue and like ammi, it's very good for cutting. There's still time to sow (Sarah Raven, £1.95 for 400 seeds) but rather than sowing direct into the ground outside, I'd still prefer to sow in a container and prick out the seedlings into individual pots. That way, you are sure of your plants. And if you get seed in now, they should be in bloom by early August. Cut, the spikes will last a couple of weeks.
The whole of gardening is posited on this notion of looking forward – setting in train events that will pay dividends at some time in the future. But I'm running out of optimism. It's OK to spend December and January anticipating treats to come. That's normal. And I had 'Paperwhite' narcissi in the house to help me on. Usually by late January you can keep your spirits up by swoops on snowdrop gardens.
But though I was lucky in my visit to Chippenham Park (cold, but just bearable), I wasn't tempted in the grey, cold gloom of February, to go on many other expeditions. March was a total disaster. A squirrel ate all the buds on the Magnolia stellata. A gale snapped the trunk of the magnolia-like michelia which was laden with promise. Every sub-zero night, every overcast day, curtailed the season which for gardeners, perhaps, is the most re-affirming of them all. Spring, where are you? SOS. We need you.
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