GARDEN NOTES: A Crappy Spring and the Myth of Seasons

Well, after such a warm-ish winter I guess one had to get payback. Spring so far in the UK has not been so much of a BOING as a PLOP; it’s still quite cold and the recent rain has been beyond excessive, reaching the level of being just boring. Even on the occasional sunny day the air has still been cold and the nights positively chilly. This is more than just an annoyance. For weeks now I’ve been waiting to transplant our tomato plants into the beds, and while the broad bean plants are growing fast, the lack of bees mean they are not being pollinated, leaving the beanless flowers to fade in the wet. The peas we planted last month have been growing ridiculously slowly, and I’m also concerned about the garlic and onions getting too much water, hoping they don’t start rotting in the soil. On the plus side we have planted the spinach and beetroot (albeit they too are not growing much), and we’ve planted some chili and tomato plants under small plastic greenhouses. The radishes are growing fairly impervious to the weather (good old radish, the short angry hard man of the garden world), as well as the potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes we are growing in sacks and tyres, and the rhubarb is still giving good. We’ve also received our new water barrel to connect to the shed roof to collect more rainwater – admittedly this has not been particularly necessary lately, but London is still officially in a drought. The rain unfortunately is probably only going to encourage Mr-A-Hole-who-washes-his-car-with-a-hosepipe-during-a-ban to only do so all the more, even if the recent downpour has not come even close to refilling the region’s water supplies.

I am of course unfairly comparing this spring to the spring of last year, which felt like summer while this year’s is one of the coldest on record. As I mentioned in the very first post I did for this blog, we should avoid falling into the trap of thinking there is any such thing as a normal season. In any case, where do these ‘normal’ seasons come from? Can anyone remember a season in any recent year that was consistently normal?

To some extent the notion of normal seasons comes through selective memory. I used to think that my childhood winters were always snow-covered, but the truth is I probably only remember those few days in winter when it did snow, as I associate them with happy memories of throwing snowballs and making snowmen, while the non-snowy days have naturally faded from memory. Similarly, when I think back to particularly good summers, I tend to remember just the two or three weeks of decent weather that year, perhaps backed-up with the memory of a sunny barbecue. All in all, I wonder how much of our perception of normal seasons is based on nostalgia, including scenes from classic movies or chapters from Enid Blyton books (I mean the Famous Five, not Noddy, that would be weird).

Ah, you might say, but what about seasonal averages? Once again, it is not unreasonable to suggest that normal seasons only exist on paper, based on averages. If in a ten year period you have five unusually cold winters and five unusually warm winters, these may average out as a ten year period of normal winters (though I would hope the clever weather boffins at the top take these things into account), that’s the nature of averages. The last four winters in the UK, for example, have all been way off the seasonal averages (either too hot or too cold), at what point should we stop thinking of these as abnormal occurrences?

Then again, we shouldn’t blame the experts, the weather people themselves just work with the stats, it’s their job to work out averages – it’s our fault for then interpreting these averages as equating some mythical ‘normal’ season. This is all very fine for trivial conversation which we Brits are so good at, the problem comes when parts of the economy starts relying on the seasonal weather remaining ‘normal’. The real crime of perpetrating the myth of seasons is when we create unreasonable expectations, such as expecting good harvests each year based on this ‘normal’ seasonal weather. The UK weather is like the modern-day economy, in that both are volatile and changeable but also full of people who think they can predict them. And of course a bad harvest these days is no big problem, but for the unfortunate farmers who go bankrupt. While in the past a bad harvest meant a winter of hunger or possibly famine, now it simply means having to import more food from elsewhere. How lucky we are! But the downside is that this safety measure has made us increasingly careless about the food we grow in this country and our understanding of the seasons.

I don’t know anything about farming, so I can’t comment on that, but as far as growing food in gardens goes we ought to just accept that the UK weather is volatile and always has been. Normal seasons are a myth! At the risk of sounding naive, let’s just be grateful for what we get each year, rather than complain about what we should get based on seasonal averages.

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GROWING FOOD: A No-nonsense Beginner’s Guide (part two)

In the last sections we went through the basic preparations, mainly involving not getting ripped-off and looking after herb plants. Now we will look at growing food in pots, as a practice run for bigger projects.

 Step one: GROW CRESS AND MUSTARD

This may seem like a bit of a childish activity, but if you’ve never grown food before this is a good way to start, as it is both instructive and rewarding. Cress is one of the easiest and cheapest things to grow, and you’ll be enjoying what you grow within ten days. Buy a small packet of cress seeds, sprinkle some of them onto a wet paper towel in a small tray or shallow container. Cover loosely with paper or card, or place in a dark place for the first day or two. After just 24 hours you’ll see the seeds already begin to germinate, after two days, once you can tell apart root and stem uncover or move them to a well-lit spot, making sure to keep the paper towel moist. After a week or two they will be fully grown and ready to pick to add to salads, soups or sandwiches. You can then keep growing more of it. Have several small trays growing cress in a rotation so you can harvest some every two or three days. Try the same with mustard seeds. Maintaining several trays growing in rotation is like managing a tiny garden, so it’s good preparation for the real thing.

 Step two: POT PLANTING

Right, enough of the warm-up, let’s get planting. You’ll need a small bag of soil, suitable for growing food; a few pots for planting, either genuine or using recycled rubbish; and some seeds. What seeds to get? We want something cheap and cheerful, and all the better if you can get them straight from a vegetable.

Edible things you can grow in pots include radishes, nasturtium, basil (and other herbs from seed), tomatoes, carrots, garlic, lettuce, chard and spinach, amongst others. Unless the seed packet says otherwise, just poke a shallow hole in the soil, pop a seed in and cover lightly. Remember to water it gently at first so as not to wash off the top layer of soil and the seed! Radish seeds are cheap to buy, they grow reliably and fairly quickly and don’t require a large pot (a trusty Pot Noodle will do). The garlic and leafy plants can start off in something small and later be repotted into a bigger pot (or an old ice cream tub?) to give the roots more space; use old garlic cloves from your cupboard that have started sprouting. Tomatoes will probably require the most time and effort to grow, and are best repotted into a genuine pot to give it maximum space and support to develop. Furthermore, unless kept outdoors, you will probably need to pollinate the tomato flowers by hand, or have a few bees around for dinner (most modern tomato varieties can be pollinated using their own pollen, but they still need help with the actual pollination).

As mentioned in the last post, START SMALL. If you get too enthusiastic from the very start and have ten pots growing at once you may find you don’t have the time, energy or space to look after them all. So just try one or two to start with and take it from there, letting it gradually become part of your routine. Over time lookup information on the plants and try growing other small vegetables in pots. You’re not trying to live off the land yet, so be bold and experimental. Make mistakes, watch them die, get over it, and start again. Learn from this, take your time and enjoy yourself.

Admittedly, these babies are not going to see you through the winter, end world hunger or even win any prizes at your local flower and produce show. Does it matter? No. Why? Because at least you are doing, which is a lot more than some people can claim. Even if in one year of your busy life you only manage to grow one radish and a basil plant, it’s still better than just talking about it. The added advantage is that you can grow food in pots just about anywhere that receives adequate daylight, so you don’t even need a garden. If you have kids, you get to teach them something very valuable about food – a small lesson, but one that will hopefully stay with them. Unlike tending to a whole garden, it costs virtually nothing both in terms of time and money. So give it a try, grow a radish, it will take pride of place on your dinner plate.

In the next part we’ll finally start looking at the garden!