Hope in my Small Urban Winter Garden

5 mn read

The days are lengthening, the angle of the sun’s rays is becoming more acute and, all around us, nature is revving up, getting busy and starting to surge with springtime aliveness.

It’s easy to think that all this activity has only just begun, and to a certain extent this is true. However, a glance through my garden journal for the darker weeks of January and early February tell another story, one of quiet stirrings and gradual awakenings along with the promises of reward later for effort spent now.

On January 16th I wrote: ’planting garlic – this is going in late this year, which feels appropriate given my current hiatus and sense of being in a kind of limbo – learning to slow right down and just wait’.

Trina bought me a mixed box of spring planting seed garlic from the Isle of Wight garlic farm, containing several varieties. There is, of course, far too much. I always treat our tiny garden as if it were measured in acres rather than in feet. Never mind though, I will crowbar in as much as I can and give any remaining away to friends who also coax their urban plots into small islands of green.

I collect my hand trowel and put on my coat and boots, it’s a bit damp underfoot and although the afternoon sun is making a weak but welcome appearance, I know that I will chill right down once I get stuck into my task – and I’m still not ready to be very cold.

I do, however, decide against wearing gloves. I want to be able to feel the soil, to feel the garlic cloves as I break them up and enjoy the papery crunch of their skin between my fingers. I want to get my hands muddy. I make a start in the area I rather grandly call The Physic Garden – this is my herb bed where I grow anything vaguely medicinal and witchy.

It is currently sporting the winter remnants of a very robust Melissa (lemon balm), some purple sage, the most beautiful rosemary bush which is covered in flower buds that the early bees are just going to love as they emerge to forage in few weeks time, some dormant mint growing bounded in a low wall and perennial fennel which I look forward to becoming a giant, feathery beast in the summer.

There is also thyme and borage wandering aimlessly along the ground, some tiny tender chives tucked beneath the shelter of the Melissa and some miniscule seedlings that I’m hoping are chamomile but I suspect are not. There are also the barely visible tips of flowering bulbs emerging where I randomly planted some spent indoor potted plants last year rather than throw them away.

I plant the garlic rather haphazardly amongst the existing herbs, carefully making a decent, narrow, deep hole for each clove and marvelling at how much the soil has improved over the autumn and winter – it was heavy and clay laden last summer, impacted in the heat. It is now black and crumbly, moving with ease under my trowel and yielding to my fingers as they poke down into it.

It is alive with earthworms that are clearly doing a marvellous job and has benefitted from assimilating the fallen leaves from the old pear tree, along with other rotted plant material from last year’s annuals. I really haven’t done anything much other than dig out a few large tap rooted dandelions. Just leaving nature to do its thing – it always works, it is bound to. It may not be exactly what I want but it will be what is needed and right for that space. A bit of a life lesson there perhaps.

I quickly fill up the available spaces with the garlic cloves, taking care not to encroach on the two small stepping-stones that my husband has placed to support his weight while he fills up the bird feeders. I hugely appreciate his efforts here – he’s a big guy with big feet that can easily crush small plants when he tries to tiptoe amongst my dense cultivations. The birds appreciate it too. The feeders provide much-needed sustenance and encourage all kinds of wildlife to come and join us.

I love to watch the fat pigeons waddling around, collecting whatever has fallen to the ground, the sparrows, goldfinches, wrens, bluetits, starlings, robins, blackbirds and little mice joining in. The birds wait in the bushes on the other side of the path before they dart over in small groups to feast on the seeds. The mouse (I’m sure there is more than one mouse but I only ever see one at a time) scurries along the side of the raised bed, then along the low wall until he (she) comes to the scattered husks and spilled seed on the ground.

I’m always amazed at how fast mice can move. This morning a small fox was sitting on the shed roof just enjoying the early morning air, looking at me looking at him (her) before strolling away along the garden wall.

I love these urban foxes, even though they sometimes dig things up and mess with my carefully installed butterfly netting. Seeing wildlife in this city garden is a constant joy.

I decide to plant some more garlic in the bed at the far end of the garden, where the red and black currant bushes are sitting patiently waiting for winter to pass. I notice that the jasmine that clambers over a couple of hazel sticks erected behind the fruit bushes has clusters of flower buds and it is starting to climb its way into the nearby tree camellia that is itself ready to bloom. A welcome splash of very loud pink will erupt in the February drabness.

My eye is drawn to the cyclamen that I planted just before my birthday in November. I linger over their colour and form and their steadfastness. They have been out here in all weathers and they have endured. It gives me such hope. The hellebores are also emerging, pale lemony lime blooms on star-palm leaves that will open and nod and glow in the low winter light.

Once I’ve used up all my available garlic planting space, I take the handful of weeds and bits of stray grass that I’ve pulled up out to the wheelie bin at the front of the house.

I see my neighbour from a few doors down. A young woman, athletic (I think she is a gym teacher or fitness coach), she has two children and two gorgeous Dalmatian dogs. I know her as ‘Dalmatian lady’ – I must find out her actual name. I say hello and she smiles and asks me how I am.

I find myself asking her if she’d like some garlic to grow. She’s enthusiastic but tells me she’s not sure what to do and I babble away about how easy it is to grow, giving her quick fire instructions on planting and when to harvest. She takes a bulb from me. I feel I have done something useful, promising to bring on some climbing beans or a tomato plant or two for her. She seems to be genuinely delighted and takes her seed garlic, along with her dogs and children and loads them all into the car. I still don’t know her name.

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