Digging the Vegetable Garden: One of My Favourite Jobs of the Year

I know there’s a big danger about droning on and on about a wet season, but whenever I meet other gardeners that’s all we ever want to do. And it seems to make us all feel just a little less frustrated. I suppose it’s a bit sad. But anyhow. Recently, however, the weather has got a tiny bit drier – I think we’ve just enjoyed a full week without heavy rain – which is bliss! But I know it won’t last. Right now I’m sitting at my desk because I daren’t spend long outside. There’s a 70 to 75 m.p.h. storm force wind blowing and heavy rain is forecast in a couple of hours. It’s all part of an Atlantic storm – bequeathed to us by our American and Canadian friends, which has gathered force while crossing the ocean. Everything hereabouts is blowing and flapping in the gale – puts me in mind of a Trump tantrum. So I thought I’d do some writing while the storm (given the name Ciara by the UK Met Office) does her worst.

The vegetable garden stood up quite well to the wet, and most of the water drained into the path around it, where it remained stubbornly, looking more and more like a canal. I lifted the gravel with a heavy-duty fork and it worked for a bit, but while I was pruning the espaliered apples I trod it down again – and now we’re back to a canal. I took this photo exactly a week ago, on February 2nd, the day I started digging.

Flooded veg garden

Right now the ground’s so wet you can’t get on the borders without compacting the soil, which means we can’t cut-back last season’s perennials and annuals, which we normally like to start about now. Some people prefer to do this in the autumn, but we’d rather leave the seeds in place for our huge bird population to feed on during the coldest weeks of winter. In fact it’s too wet to do almost anything, except prune a few trees and shrubs and dig the vegetable garden. So here’s my very first bit of digging, done late in the afternoon of Sunday February 2nd. I know it’s only a small patch of ground, but I felt as stiff as a board when I headed in for tea. But I knew digging would get me fit. And it did.

Digging veg patch

Just a week of digging is enough to get my limbs working again after Christmas. It’s a restorative process – and cheaper than a gym. While I dug I was visited regularly by a very friendly cock robin and a small brown hen (who has stopped laying for the winter). She was stuffing herself full of live earthworms – something I still find hard to watch even after almost five decades of digging. I know it’s fashionable to have no-dig gardens and raised beds, but I find my potatoes taste better and better as time passes and I put it down to the well-rotted manure I dig-in every winter. Oh dear, just had a thought: does this mean that visiting Vegans can’t eat my vegetables? Anyhow, this is what the veg garden looked like this morning (Feb 9th). I finished digging late yesterday afternoon and found I’d left my camera indoors, so didn’t take a picture – and besides, the light was fading. Still don’t know how I managed to hold it steady enough for a picture in the gale, when I popped out an hour ago. But it was looking good – and today my back feels fine. Digging seems to reach every bit of you: makes you feel supple. Shame about the chicken eating wiggly live worms, though.1

Veg garden dug

There was another short dry spell at the end of January and it was then I decided that I would have to do something about the state of the lawns. The previous day I had done my usual trip to Long Sutton market to collect brown shrimps and mussels and on the way home I noticed that a lot of people were out in their gardens mowing their lawns. The Saxon founders of the town had a good eye for landscape and they placed their new settlement on the low ridge of tidal silts that bound The Wash along its southern shores. That’s why the town of Long Sutton sits maybe a metre or two higher than the fen immediately to the south and west, where we are. This means that our land takes a bit longer to drain – but those chaps with their mowers didn’t seem to be having any problems. So I thought I’d give it a go when I returned home. And this was the result.

Wet grass

I wouldn’t say for one moment that it was stripy perfection – and certainly not Wimbledon Centre Court standards. But if you compare the single mown stripe up the left-hand side of the Long Border, you can see just how very long the grass has grown. I’m aware the mowing did make a mess – and I even got the mower stuck at one point – but I simply had to do something. And now a full week later it is starting to recover: had I left it much longer it would have made the early spring cuts very much more difficult. Once our grass gets away it grows like a greyhound on amphetamines.

Towards the end of January Maisie and I decided we’d visit Cambridge University Botanic Garden, who have one of the finest winter gardens anywhere. I love going there and not just because it’s a fabulous garden, but because it also means I can have lunch in Yim Wah Chinese Restaurant. We used to visit Yim Wah when it was at Caxton on the old North Road a few miles west of Cambridge. I love that road with its trees set back and many 18th Century roadside inns. It’s also the world’s first turnpike (1663: see my The Making of the British Landscape, pp. 452-3). The Chinese restaurant was located at a cross-roads, alongside the Caxton Gibbet. Then the building burnt down and has been replaced by the ubiquitous clutch of look-alike fast food and burger eateries. I later discovered the Chinese family had moved to Cambridge – where their food is as fresh and delicious as it has ever been. Having said that, I do rather miss the gibbet: glimpsing death while you pig-out on noodles. But I digress…

To get to Cambridge we boarded a train at March station. I can’t remember what happened next: I think I might even have nodded off. Then Maisie woke me with a poke in the ribs.

We’re approaching the Welney Washes.’

That was all I needed to know. I whipped out my camera and grabbed several pictures. Sorry, I know there are spots of rain on the train’s window – but where else would you ever get such a fantastic view?

This huge expanse of winter flood forms between the two artificial and parallel channels of the River Great Ouse as they make their way in a dead straight line across the flat expanse of the Fens. Cornelius Vermuyden, who master-minded this drainage scheme in the 17th Century, realised that you must channel floodwater from the southern midlands across the Fen basin in the quickest manner possible, if you are to avoid further flooding. And this was the result: two wide artificial channels whose digging was interrupted by the English Civil war (1642-1651). The flood land between the two embanked channels is known as the Ouse Washes and from our train window I could see that they were deeply flooded. Note how the dryland beyond the bank to the right of the picture is far lower-lying than the water in the Ouse Washes. That drop was caused by drainage and the peat erosion that has happened since the land was initially drained three and a half centuries ago. You don’t need to be a hydrological engineer to known that it will pose major problems in the future, especially if sea levels continue to rise – as every respected climate scientist expects.

Welney Washes

And now I want to move away from the big picture to a couple of plants that have helped raise my spirits in these rather ghastly times. The first is the evergreen tree Garrya elliptica, sometimes known as the silk-tassel. It’s a native of northern California, but seems to do very well in England. We planted ours against the south-facing gable end of our house, about 15 years ago, and it has grown far more vigorously than we expected. One day I think I’ll get it under control, but every February the tassels descend and then it has a magic all of its own. You can’t beat it.

Garrya elliptica

My final picture is of the winter-flowering Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’. I love this plant: simple, elegant flowers, unfussy foliage and it blooms throughout most of the winter. Ours grows immediately outside the back door and it brings a smile to my face every time I walk past it. Winter flowers are often like that: they seem to speak to you directly.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

1 I posted pictures of the robin and the hen on my Twitter feed @PryorFrancis

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