Where are the songs of spring?

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cell.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir, the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Ode to Autumn – John Keats
2009-09 Pirbright Common (6) - Copy 
The wind and rain are blowing Summer out of the door with some determination, so I’ve been putting the garden to bed and preparing for next Spring’s planting season … it’s entailed some reflection about what has gone well in the garden and where I need to adjust my thinking: I think the main conclusion on the veg front is that I’m going to grow more quantity of less variety … concentrating on the things we use a lot of and not bothering with the things that we tried and didn’t get on with – runner beans, radishes and broad beans, to name but a few!!
Beans did very nicely this year, but next year I’ll grow more of the Cobra beans we all liked – and none at all of the runner beans or broad beans, which we didn’t – with a view to being able to stock the freezer for after the growing season ends. Likewise with peas – lots and lots more of them, the three sowings I did of them pretty much got devoured from pod to table in one fell swoop. The squashes and courgettes didn’t do well this season – I think a combination of slug/snail attacks and the dry summer did for them as the yield has been disappointing, despite annihilation of male flowers and nice soil preparation for them. I’m going to start the sweetcorn indoors a little earlier next year … I followed the packet instructions, but they are very late and the little cobs I’ve got now are in a desperate race against time with the weather to produce anything worth having – I need them to be better developed earlier, so they get out in the sun earlier in the year.
Root Crops
These, of course, are only just getting going due to the failure of my early carrots. I’m trying again with early carrots this year, and will use horti-fleece to protect them rather than cloches this time, to see if that produces any better results. It looks like we’ve got a good crop of autumn carrots, though, and they don’t seem to have suffered the same fate as my potatoes, which got badly mauled by either soil-living slugs or wireworm – either is possible in our heavy clay. I’ve decided that next year I’ll use my now-redundant bin and my defunct incinerator (as I need a new one anyway) and try growing them in a ‘barrel’ in a different position, to both improve the yield and, hopefully, avoid the pest attacks that spoiled this year’s crop. The parsnips are looking good, but I’m waiting for the first frost to sweeten them up before I see what I’ve got going on there – the plants certainly look healthy and well developed! Radishes were very successful, which is a shame because the children detest them … ah well, maybe they’ll come to them later in life. My beetroot suffered, too – again, I think the dry weather told on them … but at least they’ve not bolted, so they may yet come good. I live in hope eternal …. Florence Fennel was my only total failure (which is a pain because the herb fennel is absolutely rampant!) – next year, I’m going to try starting them indoors first, and see if that makes a difference.
The autumn-sown onions did spectacularly well – we’ve only just finished eating those, so it’s disappointing that the onion sets I planted this year have not done very well at all … I’m wondering if the fertility of the soil in the bed I used – one of the new ones – was lower than it needed to be for them? I’m not sure, however, whether this is the case, since the spring onions have done wonderfully, and the leeks are starting to come good as well just now – they’ve suddenly gone from looking rather spindly and pathetic to being as thick as my thumb and looking very sturdy and happy – earthing up to blanch them has been hopeful & happy!
My poor cabbages had a torrid time of it over the summer, whilst we were on holiday, but thanks to a great tip from Oracle of the Pearl, the application of neem oil and an army of caterillar-pickers (aka the children), they are now making a comeback and heading up nicely. For some of them, it’s a race against time as to whether we’ll get any use out of them, but others like the savoy and purple sprouting brocoli will overwinter quite happily. What’s disappointing is that my optimistic companion planting of marigolds, calendula and herb fennel had absolutely no effect on the quantity and appetite of the wretched cabbage white butterflies whatsoever, so that idea needs to go back for a rethink. I had hoped to be completely chemical free in the garden, but I might have to retract on that ambition until I can find more reliable natural methods of keeping my crops intact.
Still, the overall verdict is that I’ve saved more on my vegetable shopping than I spent on seeds, so overall, this season scores a WIN!
The lettuce and tomatoes were absolutely rampant this year – they did so well, I can’t wait for next year … I might even give indoor salad-gardening a shot, though I’m not sure I can fool the poor things into believing it’s summer. Cucumbers and peppers were a total wipeout – the seed I had was just too old, and I wasn’t organised enough to save seeds from last year’s crops to re-use this time round. Next year, with a fresh batch of seed, I’m hoping for a lot more success …
We had a superbundance of soft fruit in the garden this year … strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants & blackcurrants all did splendidly well, though the children’s view of them as on-tap snack options meant that precious few ever made it into the kitchen … not that I have a major objection to that, but I was hoping to store at least *some* fruit for winter use! The blackberry season came so early this year, that by the time we were home from holiday in mid-August, it was pretty much all over. We managed a couple of great blackberry rambles, and had a good run of blackberry & apple crumbles & tarts, but again I’ve got nothing stored for the winter. The apple tree didn’t fruit well this year, which surprised me because it gave us a massive crop last year that we were still using well into May this year … something that made the seemingly endless hours of peeling, chopping and blanching last autumn worthwhile … but this year’s crop was poor in both quantity and quality. I’m not sure why, since the tree looks healthy and we’ve consistently had a lot of bees in the garden this year. I shall have to investigate.
I think the big objective for next year will be to try to grow more for storing on into winter – we’ve eaten well out of the garden as and when things come into season, but we’ve not grown enough to allow us to store things for later on in the year and into spring next year, which is disappointing. I’m hoping that by growing more of less, and making sure I’ve got better holiday cover for the garden, that we will not be in this same boat next year.
Other than an artemisia and some borage, I didn’t really add to our herbs this year … I did split thyme and sage and rosemary around the garden, and those have all done well in their new homes, though they didn’t have their hoped-for effect in terms of companion planting benefits, as far as I could tell. Still, it *is* good to have them in and amongst other plantings and a more integral part of the garden overall – it fits better with my long term plans and has helped me with my overall thinking about the garden’s structure.
Although we’ve been here 5 years now, very little time has been spent on the garden in between babies and refurbishing what was an old wreck of a house, so this was the first ‘proper’ year of the garden. It’s taken this year for me to adjust my thinking to the scale of this garden: my two previous gardens were small. The first was a mere 6 x 10 foot rectangle outside the front of our tiny terrace, and the second, although it was 60 x 20 feet, had only about 20 x 20 feet of garden due to shed/hardstanding at the bottom and a deck & pond at the top, and of that there was a 10-foot diameter circular lawn taking up most of the space. So those gardens were pretty small scale, and needed very little to make an impact. In this garden, sticking to the plants I’ve used before has made very little impression on the overall garden, and I’ve come to realise that I do need to be looking at the ‘architectural’ section to be able to make the same sorts of statements here – I need to think on a much bigger scale (the garden is 100 x 40 feet), and consider bringing into play some plants with a slightly more invasive habit that I’d previously ever have considered.
What I’ve also had to accept is that I currently don’t have the time for a full planting programme of both vegetables and more ornamental elements, so I need to move away from trying to do both and concentrate on the vegetables, and bring the ornamental plants in more slowly than I’d hoped. It means working one bed at a time, rather than taking a scatter-gun approach and trying to do a bit of everything, and buying in the plants at a smaller stage of development and allowing them to grow into their space … I’m also thinking that I need to go adventuring to the non-trade wholesale nurseries, and pay more attention to local village fairs etc, where plant stalls might be found – those, at least, will be a good bet for plants that do well locally. I’ve got tags, too, on plants in friends’ gardens, so that ‘when you split these’ or ‘can I have a cutting of’ is becoming a more common request. It will take a long time, but I had both the previous gardens for 8 or more years, so it’s good to remind myself that these things take time.
I’m still holding to my intention to make this a healing garden – not only in terms of a predomination of edible and medicinal plants, but also in spiritual terms, so that it’s a welcoming, peaceful place that enchants and intrigues, drawing people into it. At the moment, the children need the open space of the lawn (football pitch), but as their needs change, I’m hoping to change the garden with them, creating more complexity and privacy, little surprises and quiet corners where they can go and chat with friends or just be out of sight for a bit. Of course, to realise that, I *will* need the bigger, architectural pieces – plants & structures – to create the frame which places the rest of the garden in context, complementing & contrasting the different areas and making them into a coherent whole.
It’s a very long-haul piece of work, and sometimes it feels a bit daunting, to be standing at the bottom of the mountain and looking up, until I remember that the journey is already begun and I am in the foothills. Yes, there is a long way to go, but I have started and I will get there, eventually, if I just keep at it. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I’ll never finish – after all, they do say that a gardener’s work is never done – but in this case I am prepared to accept that the journey is as important as the destination, and I’m looking forward to spring, and to picking up where I’ve left off.

2 Responses to “Where are the songs of spring?”

  1. Interesting to compare your gardening year with mine! I did OK (not brilliant) with squash, but courgettes were v poor – and like you I’ll be scaling back next year on things I don’t like so much (like runner beans – French beans are vastly superior, if less prolific).

    Re the brassicas, I find the only reliable organic solution is to net them between late spring and late summer – we had some lovely calabrese (Belstar) this year, whereas last year the caterpillars devastated everything!

  2. I’ve been trying to avoid netting … if we had an allotment, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it, but because my veg grow in the back garden we’d have to look at it day after day and it is *so* unsightly, it’s my option of last resort. I might do it next year if/when we go on holiday, because the damage was done whilst we weren’t there patrolling regularly!

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