spring


I think I can handle a little light drizzle or a bit of rain while I’m working in the garden. Yet today was a too much at times. At one stage, one of many, I retired to the cottage to watch the hail stones coat the grass. It cleared quite suddenly and I stepped back out into the cold air to hear the lovely Sharon shout behind me, “A rainbow! A rainbow!” It was a remarkable rainbow. It was remarkably colourful and remarkably close to the ground. Then the moment of realisation came; the rainbow ended right in the middle of the turnip field which was just a donkey field away from where I was standing.  There I was with a spade already in my hand and thinking that moments like this present themselves less than once in a lifetime, then real treasure presented itself. The little people picked up on the excitement and wowed at the rainbow.  The little man spotted the double rainbow and I pointed out how the colours are reversed (I excluded the mathematical reasons). The little lady recited all the colours she could see, and the littlest man yelped something indecipherable but encouraging; this was the true treasure at the end of the rainbow.

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I woke in the middle of the night, dragged sleepily to semi-consciousness by thousands of bees.  The dream was one of worry; will they survive? A few days later I peeked into the hive and found them dead.  They had no stores left.  They had plenty of fondant, but it simply was not enough for them.  They starved in the local county Antrim definition of the word; they got too cold due to lack of food.

Did I dream their death through some spiritual connection as a beekeeper? To be fair, I dream this dream every spring and this is my first year of winter loss. Of course I am sad and I will miss having bees about the home. That said, looking after them last summer was problematic.  I had less time for them, and I promised myself that if they did not make it through the winter; I would take a year off beekeeping. In a fight between the bees or the little people; the little people win. I told the little man about the bees and he knew I was upset. He gave me a hug and told me it was going to be ok, we could buy honey from ASDA.

I’m shrugging beelessness off and refocusing my efforts into the garden and growing things to eat. The old buckets and bricks are already on top of the early rhubarb shoots, the potatoes are chitting on the window ledge and the seed packets are all purchased. I have plans. In the autumn I bought eighteen more raspberry canes to fill a vegetable plot that we normally grow lettuces in.  For the last two years all we have seem to have done with this is feed the slugs. These raspberries were supposed to be planted in November. The sodden cold earth and the winter darkness put a stop to that.  They are in little pots and have been added to the list of things to do.

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Last night I sat down with netflix intending to start House of Cards.  Then I remembered that Gardener’s World had come back to TV and iPlayer. Monty Don won and Francis Underwood lost my vote.

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This morning I stole away some time as the little people sat eating breakfast and feasting on saturday morning cartoons. I made a dent in some of the items on the gardening list: mulched the redcurrants and blackcurrants, split and spread the snowdrop bulbs, cleaned out the chicken coop, and had a fight with an unruly cottoneaster. Ever since we lost the pear trees to canker I have been keeping a close eye on the apple trees and clipping and burning any little signs of disease.  The little man’s tree seemed to be infected on the main trunk at about shoulder height.  I was a bit hesitant about doing anything harsh as it is called the little man’s tree as it was a gift for his birth from some friends.  All the little people have a tree of their own now. I pondered trying to spray it and then thought WWMD (What Would Monty Do?)  I cut out the disease and this resulted in a dramatic pruning of it’s height.  It had to be done and it does still look alright.  It seems to have opened it up quite a bit. I just hope I won’t have to hug the little man and reassure him by telling him we can buy his apples in ASDA.

No time for this, no time for that. Time spent, time valued. Time flies, then it is time for change; time for spring.  It’s fair to say that the three little ones are my time now. Time playing lego, time feeding, time talking and answering questions. Time holding hands and learning to walk.

 

I took a little time out to order up some raspberry plants with the intention of investing some time in summer and autumn raspberries.  Ideally they should be planted, according to the literature, in November.  There was a day that I set aside for just such a task.  Then I was sick on that day and the window passed. The raspberry canes have been stored in damp soil in the greenhouse and I intend to plant them out soon.  Yet things happen. Fences get blown down in storms, chicken coop roofs get blown off and scattered around the garden.  These things need mended and fixed.

 

The first signs of spring are here and this is inspiring me to make time for growth. The snowdrops are out and the daffodils are beginning to flower.  One hive of bees is all that has survived from last year.  Their stores are desperately low.  They seem to be breaking their winter huddle every so often to feed on the fondant I left them.  If they hang on then the willow and dandelion will be out soon.  Hang on.

 
It’s at times like these that I turn to Monty.  I’m re-watching Monty Don’s Fork to Fork and getting inspired. No; I’m getting reminded that summer does actually happen if we choose to believe that it will. So, I will plant out those raspberries.  I will turn over the soil, and I will get those potatoes ready for chitting. I will make time for these things. Why?…  The littlest man may be only learning to walk now, but in time, I hope he will be walking through the garden eating all the raspberries with his brother and sister, and me only half-heartedly complaining that they are spending more time eating than picking.

Tonight I walked around a corner and my eye caught the moon.  It pinned me to the spot, and for a moment I was startled and shocked.  The phase of it caught me off guard and shamed me.  Usually I keep a close eye on the moon and what it’s up to.  Yet it was nearly full and I didn’t remember how it got there.  Time had caught me and dragged me along for a week or two.  I had slipped out of the habit of moon watching and it feels like maybe spring has not been dragged along too.  The local beekeepers have noticed this; the paused spring.  They say, “ ...the spring plants are only starting to appear now hawthorn and sycamore as well as the horse chestnut are just starting so the spring flow will begin in earnest.”  Beekeepers talk in ‘flows’; nectar flow. The dandelion flow has stopped a couple of weeks ago and the bees do get noticeably sad, and a little grumpy.

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Today we took the little people for a walk in the woods.  While hunting for ogres I kept an eye out for the summer, and spotted the beginnings of foxgloves and willow herb.  They were only starting, but at least they knew the summer is around the corner

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A sense of the moon and plant watching are good habits if I can maintain them.  Another good habit I am trying to perfect is bread making.  Lately my experiments have settled on a recipe for the best bread I can make.  The key ingredient seems to be time.  If we need a loaf of bread we need to start at least twelve hours before we need it.  Before breakfast I add the yeast, water, butter, and half the flour.  Then much later in the day (usually ten hours later), I add the rest of the flour and the salt.  It is kneaded, allowed to rise for an hour, knocked back, then allowed to rise for another hour and a half.

 

A good habit that I am trying to begin is slug picking.  It takes a bit of self will, and I haven’t perfected it yet.  The idea is to put a head torch on and venture out into the garden in the late evening before bedtime.  When I have dragged myself towards doing this I collect about half a cup of slugs (assuming this is the accepted unit of volume of slugs).  I don’t want to put them in the bin as that would be too kind a fate, and I suspect they would escape and carry on eating.  Instead, I place them in an empty curry sauce container with a clip on lid.  Their fate is cruel.  I place the container in front of the coffee machine so that I do not forget their doom.  After breakfast I make the first espresso of the day and remember to take the curry pot out to the hungry chickens before heading off to work.  When I began this habit the lovely Sharon was shocked, “Leaving slugs in the kitchen is hardly hygienic?” I pointed out that if they were able to escape the curry sauce container then hygiene would be the least of our worries.  Logic and the unlikely prospect of supermollusc strength slugs moved her to acceptance.

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some more slug food to be planted

While out slug hunting my eye caught a dancing hair in the soil.  It looked other worldly and out of place.  I was mesmerised by its dance and wondered if that was the intention; to captivate and enchant some poor bird or small mammal.  I suspected it was a parasite.  I think I might have been wrong about the dancing, but my parasitic instincts were correct.

It is a horseshair worm; a parasite that people used to believe might be a horse’s hair coming to life.  Of course I kept this new found parasitic worm knowledge to myself and did not tell the lovely Sharon for fear that she might lay down the law on my new habit of keeping my slugs in the kitchen.

The details were sketchy.  In spite of  reading  and re-reading emails and attachments, I could not find the details; the time and the place.  It seemed that they were assumed to be known to everyone but me; the new member of this secretive group.  I gave up and sent an email explaining that I was at a loss, then I waited.

On the morning of the meeting I received a reply that included directions. This named road, then that named road, before turning down another country lane before finding a track beside a neatly cut hedge.  When I read these I was skeptical that such a hedge could be distinguishable after half an hour’s driving along country lanes. Then I turned a corner and spotted an unusually neat hedge with a lane that took me to the meeting hut beside an old stone castle.  I half expected to find someone wearing a red carnation who would hand me a briefcase with the clue to the next part of my adventure.

As soon as I arrived I was welcomed warmly.  Slowly, more and more people arrived and mugs of tea and biscuits were distributed.  When they stood in small groups the conversation always started with the bees; “How are your bees?”  From there the conversations went off along different paths, but one thing was constant; the bees. At one point I veered away from the details of apiculture and opened up a little. In a conversation with one gentleman I revealed that in the winter I forgot all about the bees until, in Spring, I felt the bee fever and they began to occupy my dreams.  The man’s face seemed confused and a little shocked.  I suspected I had shared too much emotion and he must think me a dreamer and a dolt.  Then he stopped me and declared fervently, “No, No, I never forget them in Winter.  I can’t stop thinking  and dreaming about them all year.” The conversational paths would often come back to one serious point; winter losses.  When someone shared news of a lost colony the others would hang their heads in experienced sympathy. A story circulated about someone who knew someone who lost seven colonies. Faces winced along with a sharp intake of breath through teeth, as if they had been revealed the gruesome details of an industrial accident.

When we were all certain that anybody that needed a cup of tea or a biscuit was provided for, we all settled into our seats for a presentation about the rare flora and fauna of the Causeway Coast.  It was about then that I realised that these people weren’t obsessed with bees.  These people were obsessed with life and the world around them and I felt welcome in such company.

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It’s the beginning of Summer on the old Irish calendar.  It’s said that we should be lighting bonfires, driving our cattle between the fires and jumping over the flames.  The most I could possibly manage would be jumping over a Bunsen Burner. I seemed too busy today to manage this, and it would have probably failed the risk assessment anyway.  It is also said that the fire in the house should be put out and then relit with the embers from the Beltane bonfires.  I assume this echos back to when we believed that the fire was a kind of life of it’s own and it never went out all year.  There is something in that, something deep and ancient.  Are we not separated by animals by fire, Prometheus, and a digestive system adapted for cooked food.  Our brains are power hungry and demand food sacrificed to the chemical alteration by heat.  I will admit that it is so much more relaxing to have the fire lit in the living room; to hear it crackle slowly and to smell the woodsmoke as the wood stove door is opened to feed it.  Yet, it has lost it’s mystical life.  When I see the yellow I see incandescent soot and I ponder the heat of the fumes before I decide if it needs another log.

This spring feels all new and fresh.  It is strange to think that it is not actually new, but a renewal.  Looking back I can see now what I had forgotten; that for the last few years I have felt this way every spring.  Yet I can still remind myself that this is not every spring.  It is now.

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Over the last few days I threw myself into the jobs of spring; waking up the worms, turning over the earth. Two jobs loomed under a dark cloud in my mind.  Job number one was the planting of the new apple tree (usually a nice job).  Job number two sapped any joy out of job number one; the culling of the flock.  Two of our oldest hens needed to go. They don’t seem to lay many eggs now they are no spring chicks.  In addition to this, they seem to go broody in the early summer and yet, are unable to actually persist with their sitting long enough to produce chicks. It is a strange state of mind to be in when the welfare of the chickens, their quality of life, is so important. Yet pragmatism seeps into the picture. So, the new apple tree, and the two old hens were jobs that were tied to each other.  I dug a big hole then grabbed my fishing net. I haven’t gone fishing since I was a teenager, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that a fishing net is essential when keeping chickens. I detached myself as much as I could from the job.  Soon the earth was filled in and the apple tree was planted.

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As a distraction I unearthed our battery powered radio and turned it up while breaking earth for the last of the potatoes that need to be planted as soon as possible.  The task at hand soon distracted me from the horrible jobs.

The new apple tree was planted in the place of a quince tree I tried to move a year ago.  Two trees, the quince and an apple tree, were suffering badly in their original position.  No light and no water, as a thick fir hedge parched the earth around the trees.  They were out of place and struggling to hold, with no hope of flourishing. The quince tree was quite mature and flowered early in the spring, yet never produced any fruit before dropping its leaves around mid summer. It was a gamble to move them but I didn’t see an option.  The apple tree pulled through (sort of).  The quince tree had a brief flush of foliage before giving up.  The apple tree that seems to have pulled through was already stressed from its original home.  It seems to have been attacked by a canker.  After doing the research and now knowing what to look for, it seems one of the other apples and one of the pear trees are also infected.  So, I made up a dilute bleach solution to sterilize the cutting tools between trees.  Then a bit of disused flue lining was re-purposed as an incinerator to burn the prunings. I had to cut away a lot from the worst tree, but needed to be done.

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After all the destruction I needed to try to counter some of it, even just a little. I planted some seeds.  Basil and rocket are now slowly unfolding in the soil beside the beans and peas.

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I noticed the first of the peas are starting to creep up through the soil, and the first tomato plant is feeling the tide of the sun.

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