The garden cycle

Last weekend, with the trees not quite fully leafed out, the sun’s unabashed rays filled my back garden with Spring’s bright light. The place glowed with a certain timbre, like the soft glare off old early risers, the little plants that will mature and set seed before the canopy forms.

Until the garden grows and mulches the soil with its own shady cover, there’s an inordinate amount of weeding to do. The soil is moist and crumbly and the weeds came out easily. I grasp stem and leaves at ground level, rock the plant slightly to one side with a slight pull just barely beyond the point that the plant resists, and the root pops free. I shake it to free the soil still clinging to its roots. It’s good to have dirt under my fingernails again!

Weeds enjoy a success that’s astounding. Our efforts to eradicate them are a little comical — there is no way we’ll ever win. The weeding’s not unpleasant, though. It’s a chance to get a feel for things again, to check the soil’s tilth, and to get new green matter into the compost I’ve just started. I’m surprised at how much I think about that compost pile. The balance of nature’s uncontrived give and take creates a balance that our plots don’t usually enjoy.

What we ask of the garden is often more than we compensate it for, and then fertility declines. You can feel it: a thinness, even in heavy soil. The colour is wan. Composting is essential.

From what I remember from my 4H Club days, one-part to two-parts proportion between green materials and brown is a good rule: grass clippings, garden trimmings and weeds; brown leaves and hay. The addition of healthy garden soil and farm manure helps the composting process along. The vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and other miscellaneous kitchen waste I put in seem to amount to nearly nothing.

Adding them to the pile seems hardly worth the effort. Every couple of days, though, I add the odd kitchen scraps. It’s valuable for its minor nutrients and the microbial diversity it encourages. I push my garden fork into the pile once a week or so; When it seems to give, I turn it, move the dark, crumbly stuff into the garden and return the rest to the pile. Good compost can be slow in coming, and there’s little we can do but attend to it.

The work nurtures me, though, maybe as much as it nurtures the plants — this giving back to the good earth. Shepherding the utterly common along its way to fostering new life offers a glimpse of the wondrous side of living.

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Glorious Spring

Spring, I once read somewhere, is not guaranteed to be in the best of taste. That is especially true of that period of the season we’re in now — what might be called “High Spring” — Spring just before it overflows into Summer. Spring at the point of its most unstinting haste and gush. Its colours clash. Its chaos of greenness is in overload. It has no skill whatsoever in the art of understatement.

This year the season has progressed with restraint, lingering with some dignity through careful, almost contemplative stages. But now, tossing all care to the winds (and the rains), it “comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” I am not quite as disenchanted with Spring as was Edna St. Vincent Millay. In fact, I still find its “rush with richness” a stirring, if startling, business, and I happily re-engage with Gerard Manley Hopkins on the subject. “What,” he asks, “is all this juice and all this joy?”

This returning season remains an insistent reminder of an underlying and profoundly constructive inevitability. All the same, if we forget what it is like from year to year, and expect Spring to be kempt and polite, we are liable to find ourselves rudely taken by storm. I have been, this year.

Earlier today, I looked around and thought “It’s here!” It has been for a while, actually, although one might be forgiven for forgetting, what with the recent drop in temperatures we’ve had. But as I went for a walk in the woods, I suddenly felt ambushed by a banditry of greenness — all manner of greenness, from moss to lime, from butter-yellow to emerald, from copper verdigris to tarnished gold. And not only greens, but also russet and peach, rust and ochre, and even the glorious soft red of new copper-beech hedge leaves fresh against the dark purple-black of last year’s growth. How could I have overlooked this arrival?

I don’t know if it was merely a pressing absorption in work and other important matters this last week that meant I was not really focussing enough on things outside. Forgetting, mistiming or miscalculating is an exigent dread for a project manager. It concentrates the mind like imminent hanging. In no time, you can stop noticing that outside the sun happens to be brilliant and that trees, shrubs and grass are scintillating in a swiftly developing natural drama. It makes our indoor efforts slightly pathetic. What on earth are we all doing inside on a day like this?

But my walk in the woods today fixed that. There, in all its utter, upstaging, overacting, candy-floss glory I beheld a double-flowered pink prunus in full bloom. It is a tree with a trunk that has developed into an impressively big bole, wrinkled and seemingly age-old like an elephant’s leg. Yet out of this unpromising column of wood — as if it were a gigantic plain brown cardboard canister for an immense public-display firework — spattered and exploded with astounding extravagance billow upon billow of strawberry ice-cream blossom, an overblown accumulation of excessive flowering.

I should have realised what it portended. It represented High Spring, this outrageous canopy, this impossible dowager-duchess hat. A crass shout of oversweetness. Implausible, preposterous… and (although I was reluctant to admit it) somehow glorious.