“Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”
Alexander Pope – An essay on man
The wind is once again battering the garden, shaking the skeletal branches of winter and biting hard. It rolls unimpeded over the hill and across the open fields down to the house, its force only softened by the hedges surrounding the plot. The silver birch that stands in the centre of the garden bends with each gust, its pendulous outline visible form every window in the house, measuring the force like an anemometer. I have stood and watched as it bends impossibly through storms and imagined that it will break, but every time like a battered boxer it returns to its feet.
The silver birch dominates the garden, it’s shadow cast long over the beds and vegetable patch even on a summers morning. We have, at times, considered cutting the tree down to allow the early sun to stream into the garden, but how could we? The tree was planted as a seedling by my Grandad around 45 years ago and without competition thrived. In my mind, having only experienced the garden with its towering presence, the tree is the garden, returning home after time away its presence out of the window reminds me I am home. When I see its branches bend in the wind I am also reminded of all the storms both it and the garden survived. One such memory as a child is of a lightning bolt illuminating its outline against a rumbling humid summer night sky. The tree is the garden, it is part of me, it is hope.
“To live without hope is to cease to live”
At this time of year it can seem like the garden is empty, as if the plants, as we do, are hiding from the weather, retreating to their sheltered homes under the soil. However, now is the time when I am reminded that despite whatever winter throws at the garden that it will inevitably return. The gardener always has hope, even in the depths of winter signs of life are found amongst the undergrowth, new growth waiting to be unleashed by the warmth of the spring sun. Peony buds hide amongst their crowns, fruit buds slowly swell and new leaves cluster ready, hope of a life to come.
The beauty of gardening is it’s ability to renew. Last years mistakes can be erased, gaps can be filled and new areas created. Once again the thought of spring has brought me round to imagining new spaces in the garden. A spring runs along the old boundary hedge to the field and follows the line of what once was probably a ditch dug to channel the water from the fields but now silted up. The corner near this boundary is often damp if we have had lots of rain; when digging a hole a couple of weeks ago it immediately filled with water. During drier periods all trace of the water dissapears. My plan is to dig a new ditch running across the slope of the field to intercept some of the worst of the water and also create a damp place in which to plant wildflowers such as lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis), which dots the damp meadow next door.
As last year, the winter has been unusually mild, confused roses have continued flowering and some leaves have remained. This will not only have the negative result of denying the plants an important rest period but if late snow should fall and temperatures plummet, the shock will be greater. To negate these effects, I will be feeding and top dressing the roses in the coming weeks. Now is also a good time to prune roses as the buds will begin to swell and cuts can be made to good strong growth. Remove all dead and diseased stems before shortening the rest of the growth.
There is still time to prune apple and pear trees which I will be doing in the orchard over the next few weeks.
As I type, the forecast has popped up with a weather warning of an incoming storm that is set to batter the UK. This looks set to disrupt our annual Wassail celebration due to be held this weekend. Today was a perfect late winters day, crisp sunshine and barely a breath of wind, the calm before the storm. As with so much in the garden there is little we can do except let nature take its course and wait out the storm, hoping that both the garden and I come out unscathed. Perhaps one day the silver birch will take its last bow, breaking in a gale, and the decision on its future will have been made for me. Maybe one of the trees i have nurtured will take its place for a future generation and I am reminded that nature is the ultimate gardener and we are just custodians.