We rush headlong from one meteorological extreme to another. Glorious days to biblical floods to snow (on December 2? very strange) to hail clattering down on and off all morning yesterday to thickly crumbling sugar-frosting this morning followed by a mist so thick that we could barely see the olive tree right outside the kitchen door. There don’t seem to be any half-measures.
One of the great things about this time of year is that there’s nothing much that you have to do in the garden. There are quite a lot of things that you could do; and even some that you should. But none that are life-and-death must-does. Gardening mags and RHS newsletters continue to arrive telling me all the things I should be out achieving, and when . But I just smirk and curl up in front of the stove and ignore them. They’re part of that ‘garden as penance’ conspiracy that so many people peddle. If there’s a moment of the year when you can switch off and not feel bad about it, this is it.
So what are the things that are worth girding my loins for? Yesterday afternoon, for example, with early snow and plummetting temperatures in mind – and almost as if some sixth sense was warning me about last night’s frost – I wound old bits of horticultural fleece around all the outside taps: not pretty, certainly, but so far (touch wood) we have been spared burst pipes through our cold spells. Whether or not this is because of my bits of rag, or simply because our pipes aren’t the bursting type, I don’t know. But it’s one of the very few, very simple things I deem necessary about now.
Come to think of it, fleece plays a fairly major role in the things I get around to doing at this time of year. Such as the onion sets that I planted out a few weeks ago, which also needed their winter jackets on. I think, perhaps, that I was a little hasty. I put the very first sets (they’re Radar – good for early crops) in the ground when the cold seemed to be upon us. Then it got warm. Now those first plantings have already produced little leaves, which is not quite what I had planned. I’m not sure whether they’ll last the winter out in that state, especially if we get weather anything like this year’s. So I’ve built another of my ungainly frames, out of bits of cane which until not long ago had tomatoes climbing up them. And I’ve tied fleece all over them in the hope that the poor little babes will be sufficiently protected from the elements to survive. Otherwise… too bad: I’ll plant spring-growing varieties when it warms up again.
The garlic, luckily, I left until later: it should lie quite happily in the cold earth until it’s ready to sprout next spring. I couldn’t be bothered to wait until the shortest day which is, tradition says, when garlic should go into the earth. But I’d like to feel that by bringing the planting forward I might get to harvest before the longest day, which is what tradition also says should happen. I need those beds for other things well before June 21.
(I feel quite bereft this year without great bundles of our own garlic to see us through the winter. This year’s crop was really so terrible: it didn’t last out the summer. Ditto tomatoes, which we ate all summer – indeed we ate until just a few days ago – but there were never enough to bottle. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t just buy some in and make my passata. I don’t know how we’ll get through the winter. I can’t remember the last time I bought tomatoes!)
And that’s about it. I guess the leaf-raking urge will kick in soon, if the ground ever gets less than utterly squelchy, but I’ve been spared that chore so far by the this strange autumn/winter has left most of the confused leaves still hanging on their trees. And at some point there’ll be fruit trees to spray and manure to apply. In the mean time, I’m relaxing.
A friend quizzed me the other day about sowing tomato seeds. It’s force of habit, I think: I tend to get them going before the end of the year. But as often as not – and certainly this year when my greenhouse succumbed to piles of snow and everything in it was deep frozen – I end up replanting at least part of my tomato haul in the spring, in a hurry, and putting the spindly plants into the ground far too late.
So this year, I think, I’ll be more scientific. Tomatoes take about 8-10 weeks to germinate and reach plantable size. So I’d like to have them ready to plant a fortnight after our last frost. Ah. But that’s the problem. Our last frost could be in early March. Or it could be in late April. You just never know. So I’ll take a bet on the very last day of March. Which means I should sow my seeds on February 3. Will we be beneath a metre of snow as we were in February this year? Will I be able to restrain myself until then?