Press on Regardless!

I’m afraid it has been a very dark winter, but now there are glimmers of light to be seen. Joe Biden has taken over from Trump, but it was so sad to see Washington under martial law, following the events of January 6th. Let’s hope nobody decides to assassinate the incoming President – as, sadly, such things are not unknown in America. Of perhaps secondary importance to the world at large, but my own news is that I received notification from our NHS doctors’ practice, that I was to receive my first inoculation against Covid-19 on January 21st, in their Wisbech surgery. Hooray! That’s a huge relief – and can I please use this opportunity to urge anyone who has doubts about vaccines and inoculation that they are completely safe. I have absolute trust in the rigorous system the UK possesses for checking all new medicines. All elderly people must get inoculated to help ease future pressure on hospitals, many of which are under the most severe strain.

            I’ve also made a vow that I will try to steer clear of Brexit, because the way it has been handled, or not, still makes me so angry. The government seems to have decided that certain parts of the community simply don’t matter: Scottish fishers and farmers; all musicians; the financial sector and academia in general. I should also add that many working farmers – such as breeders of chickens and exporters of meat – are hitting massive restrictions that threaten their future. What a dreadful mess – and all entirely avoidable. But that’s enough Brexit ranting: I mustn’t develop high blood pressure, or I might blind the nurse with a strong jet of blood when she jabs me tomorrow.

            The weather this winter has been colder than last year, but not quite as wet – which is great. The cold has meant many frosty nights and I’m pleased to report that the segment of the vegetable garden I dug just before Christmas has been well frosted and the hard lumps of clay-silt have broken-down quite well and have started to mix with the manure. By the time I plant the potatoes (in late March) the ground should be in excellent condition. Some of the frosts have already been cold enough to have killed many of the aphids and fungal spores that built-up so hugely following the mild winters of 2018-19 and 2019-20. Last summer the levels of pests and diseases in the garden were terrible and I would have been forced to start having to use sprays in 2021, if those recent frosts hadn’t happened. It still annoys me when I hear everyone on TV and radio endlessly complaining about the cold weather; they can’t be gardeners, any of them.

A view of the garden on the cold morning of December 4th, 2020.

            We were given intimations of what was to come in early December when we were hit by a sharp cold snap, which brought with it something we hadn’t seen for years: three inches of snow – which lay, unmelted on the ground for two days! On Christmas Eve I went out in the garden and found three or four low-hanging branches of something evergreen (I think it’s from a twenty year-old juniper), which I jammed into the socket of a garden umbrella-stand to make an instant ‘tree’. Once you’ve abandoned the idea that Christmas trees must always be conical you can be far more creative. I’ve been making weirdly-shaped Christmas trees from bits of evergreen for at least ten years. Once the ‘tree’ is in place Maisie decorates it – and that’s the bit that takes skill. Whatever I have given her to work on, the result is always stunning. And here’s the one for Christmas 2020.


Our Christmas tree for 2020.

            The late great gardener and garden-writer Christopher Lloyd famously noted words to the effect that ‘a garden disaster is a gardening opportunity’. The unbelievably wet winter of 2019-20 was certainly something of a disaster in our garden: box hedges died and many long-established trees and shrubs suffered badly. Many of these problems were completely unexpected. The path along the edge of the vegetable garden is lined by a double row of espaliered apples and pears. When we laid the garden out in the mid-1990s we were careful to site the veg garden on good, light land that was well-drained. Brassicas and potatoes won’t thrive on heavy or wet ground, which was why we selected a slightly raised patch of silty soil, part of an extinct stream or tidal creek, known in the Fens as a ‘roddon’. So imagine my surprise when in April last year, one of the apple trees in the espalier row started looking very sick. I applied liquid fertiliser to the roots and leaves and briefly we thought it was going to pull through. Then there was another very wet period, followed by several weeks of hot, dry weather, which proved altogether too much for the poor tree.

            The dead espalier was still standing, and actually looking strangely dignified – almost like a symbolic crucifixion – when we opened the garden for the National Gardens Scheme, last September. Strangely, nobody commented on it – which doesn’t surprise me as most of our visitors are gardeners themselves and they must have realised I was reluctant to cut it down. But eventually I had to. So as soon as I’d finished digging the vegetable garden I started up my chainsaw and did the deed. We’ve kept the trunk and some of the knobbly espaliered side-branches to use as decoration for a possible tree- or root-house out in the wood (a project we’ve been planning for some time, but which is probably one of those picturesque schemes that will never get done).

            While I was removing the dead tree and tidying up afterwards, I couldn’t help noticing that the living espaliers were in urgent need of reduction and rejuvenation. They’d grown far too large and bushy which certainly didn’t help their productivity and also meant that they shaded-out a very large area of the vegetable garden behind them.

The vegetable garden espaliers, after the removal of the dead tree, but before their pruning.

            So in the days following Christmas and into the early new year I cut back the espaliers. I have to say that giving a hard cut-back to espaliers isn’t a job I particularly enjoy, because it involves cutting off so many fruiting spurs and promising-looking buds and I kept having to remind myself that I was being cruel to be kind … After about a week of steady work I’d finished. I suspect next season’s yield will be well down, but it should pick up in 2022, fingers crossed. Anyhow, the next two pictures show the completed ‘revived’ espaliers and I think you’ll agree they look quite tight and neat. With luck, the routine autumn pruning should be much simpler in future.

Two views of the vegetable garden espaliered apples and pears, after a restorative pruning, in early January, 2021.

            And finally, let’s look forward to the spring and the delightful blossoming of the may bushes, sloe and wild plum that line both sides of Chicken Lane, the short, straight path that joins the barn, yard and vegetable garden to the woods that enclose the garden on its north and eastern sides. The lane gets its name from the chickens that wonder up and down it in normal years. This year, however, because of avian influenza (bird flu), all five hens and one cockerel are housed within the old implement shed. I think they’d be far, far happier on the muck-heap or in Chicken Lane. But sadly I must keep them confined. There are several large turkey farms in the area and I’d hate to see them infected because we were careless with our few birds.

     As a general rule I try to cut back the side-growth along Chicken Lane every four or five years, but as with the espaliered apples and pears, this year the growth had got out of hand. So I persuaded our neighbour’s son Jessie, who has been helping in the garden once a week for at least five years, to wield the mechanical hedge-trimmer. I explained I wanted to achieve a magnificent arched look – rather like a church. And didn’t he do a great job? I took this picture as he drove the garden tractor back to the barn, triumphant!

Chicken Lane, immediately after Jessie (on the garden tractor) had finished cutting it back.

The photo was taken on January 22nd, the day after I had received my first dose of the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine. So I think there’s hope for the future. Roll on Spring – I can’t wait for April/May, to see the hedges along Chicken Lane in glorious blossom. And then it’s summer. Followed by autumn – and sloe gin!! And who knows, maybe we’ll be able to share it with a few old friends? We can always hope…

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