‘March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.’ Yesterday started with a little fine drizzle. Then the sun came out.
Then it rained a bit more. Then it hailed. Then the thunder came. Then it rained. And then it brightened up. And there was plenty of wind too and, when night fell, the temperature dropped to little above bloody freezing.
Never mind that bit of doggerel – it was as though someone was trying to cram as an entire year’s worth of seasonal weather into a single day.
And not just any old day – but the day on which I began a new part of my gardening project.
It was to be my Schleswig-Holstein moment.
After planting nearly 40 pots in the last two months, I had reached a natural halt. The patio has taken on a really good look: part sheer flowering colour, part food.
As the radishes grow bigger, the spring onions pop their leaves above the compost, baby salad leaves push up to the light and the tomato plants finally need tying, we’re within reach of being able to eat entirely home-grown salad.
And that’s without mentioning the herbs. With such a selection to choose from, I’m now beginning to realise the impact it has on the kitchen.
If I suddenly decide I want a herb butter with dinner, I don’t have to either shrug, because I haven’t got the ingredients, or go out and see if I can buy a big bag of something for a quid or more.
Equally, I now don’t have to think that I won’t do that butter because I’d waste half the rest of the bag.
Thus last week saw my first chive butter – glorious with new potatoes and smoked salmon.
At the weekend, it was a mixed herb sauce – the greens all chunky and blended with some crème fraiche, a little German mustard, a drop of white wine vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper, to accompany oven roasted fillet of turbot – a dish that, while not perfect, was far better than the turbot I’d eaten on our last night in Brugge.
A few days earlier, doing Sarah Raven’s garlicky crushed and roasted new potatoes, I opted for sage instead of rosemary – because such options were there and because the sage is growing so much.
The nasturtiums that I planted as small plants, alongside the vine, are now reaching for the sky; the strawberries are tantalisingly visible in green, and even the vine is on the verge of producing actual fruit.
It’s an extraordinary sense of fecundity in such a short time.
Yet, as we always agreed, there is plenty of space for us and the cats to enjoy being outside (if only the weather improves). There’s space for the rotary dryer, for our deckchairs and for the little table and chairs.
So there are limits on what else would fit comfortably into the rest of our little plot.
And thus began the germ of an idea.
All this promise for summer – and nothing for winter. And just as I’ve been enjoying spending time potting and doing other things, little more left to really do at present. I started to wonder whether it would be possible to fit some carrots into the slender strip of earth on the other side of the fencing that borders one side of the garden.
And then I thought again. And I became a tad more ambitious.
Our block has 12 flats. Four of us have very small gardens. Beyond those is a gated, locked car park and communal bin area.
This is broken up, in effect, by two flower beds the shape of fat fingers, and a much larger, rectangular one.
When we moved in, 17 years ago, the housing association had done basic planting everywhere, and employed a gardening team that cam around regularly to do work.
They were good. Then the association put the tender out to contract and gave it to another company for less money. They were considerably less good.
One of our neighbours – now moved on – planted a few herbs in the finger-shaped bed nearest our part of the carpark. Another planted a rose bush. So much care has been paid by the contracted gardeners (who are doubtless on low pay and given no time to do anything more) that a completely dead rosemary bush still sits in the bed (probably eaten to death by the same beetles that killed off my last lot).
The other finger-shaped bed is simply full of box that they shape a bit – when they remember to trim it; neighbours with cars have had them scratched because the stuff hasn’t been trimmed back fully.
The larger, rectangular bed has a small tree in it that produces a profusion of pink blossom in spring, and a hedge around one and a half sides that produces beautiful, cornflower blue flowers.
Two bikes are chained to the fence against the low wall at the furthest extent of the patch, where they’ve been for some considerable time, gathering rust, while half the rest is simply ivy and weeds, extending down from the towering old wall that borders the park. What remained was weeds and stones.
It was, therefore, largely abandoned and unloved. Which seemed rather a shame – and was also very tempting.
I spoke to our closest neighbours – the ones who sit out in the carpark in the summer – and all agreed I should bash on and do what I wanted. I did reject the suggestion from one that I should plant some dope – although a later suggestion of rhubarb may have fallen on more fertile ground.
All this has rather surprised me: finding enough discipline to actually go out and do what needed doing when the weather was inclement, for instance.
I’m surprised at the pleasure I’ve gained and the sense of achievement.
And yesterday, I took our rather battered spade and dug out the first part of that patch.
Reading the recommendations of Alan Titchmarsh on prepping unused soil, I first pulled out any weeds that were flowering, then removed the most obvious stones and other detritus.
Then a trench was dug, carefully placing the removed soil to one side – and getting ride of ever more stones. But it was a delight to see just how many worms were in that soil, so care was needed too.
Once the trench was dug, it was nearly refilled with organic ‘manure’ – not so much what we’d think of by that word, but decayed plant matter.
Then, a second trench was started right next to it, with the best topsoil going on top of that ‘manure’.
Well, in the first and most obvious part of the available space, I dug and prepared three trenches.
Then I looked at my seeds.
I took the bean and pea seeds, sprinkled them with a tiny bit of mineral water (no chlorine) and popped them in a little organic pea and bean food.
That's four lots of beans – plus some peas.
Basil – one of the local cats who inhabit our carpark, and drive our girls crazy – even overcame his concerns about me to think: 'that's a bowl – it must have food in it'.
I had to do a minimal 'shoooing' routine to see him off.
A bamboo cane was drawn along one of the trenches of prepped soil to create a drill, and the seeds were placed at approximately the correct distances, before being lightly covered.
In a second trench, parsnips and red onions went in. The latter were a freebie from Forthergills on my first order – and it amused my Prussophile soul to see that the variety was ‘Red Baron’.
And that was it.
I did other chores around the garden ‘proper’ – removing snails, trimming where required, tidying and the tying I mentioned above – and then I was done.
Which was a good thing, given the weather.
It was an enormously satisfying morning – although that of itself doesn’t mean I know how it will turn out.
There’s more to come – probably this weekend. But in the interim, I am feeling positive. Not smug – but really rather proud of what I’ve achieved already, and looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.
And from what my neighbours have said in the intervening hours, a spot of community gardening may be about to blossom.