Monday, 18 March 2013

Standing By for Spring: Plant Bulbs in Your Brain and Your Garden Should Follow

So how does your garden grow this spring? Whether it’s a small herb bed outside your back door or a sprawling allotment, chances are it’s had about as much love as a freezer full of suspected horse-meat lasagne. 

Like traffic tailbacks and supermarket shelves barren of bread and milk, this year’s delayed start to the growing season is down to one culprit: the snow. Even if frigid temperatures aren’t an impediment to getting those seed trays on windowsills, the sight of flurries flying isn’t exactly conducive to the growing process.

This time last year, green shoots were already well established and the seed potatoes were all eyes. Soil had been turned, compost dug in, chickens set free to scrabble around and clear out any weeds brash enough to get a head start. Today? Nada. Even the chickens look disaffected and winter-weary.

My wake-up call came when the last bag of runner beans was unearthed from a freezer drawer. For months, I’ve been planning meals according to what was stashed away after last year’s harvest: roast dinners replete with root veg, bubbling crumbles packed with rhubarb the shade of my red range cooker, soups, stews, quiches and cakes. The beans, languishing and unloved as they were, signalled it was time to face the snow head-on if I want to have a well-stocked larder come next winter.

We would all like to hope we’ve seen the last of 2013’s snow but even if it hasn’t upped stakes to Siberia yet, the garden doesn’t have to wait. The ground will loosen up eventually but in the meantime, you can start thinking about what may or may not have worked in last year’s veg patch, anything you’re curious to try and where to plant once the soil and temperatures cooperate. If you have young children, get them involved in picking out seed packets and planting things such as cucumbers, courgettes, pumpkins and squash (their little fingers are the perfect size for drilling holes into soil-filled seed trays - any excuse to get dirty should get them interested.)

As tempting as it may be to hole up with your kettle, even a few minutes of digging, weeding or just mentally marking out where to plant will get you limbered up and ready for those sunny days when it’s a joy to be in the garden. At the risk of sounding too New Age-y, getting out in the garden is good for mind, body and soul, even if you’re just standing around with a flask of tea discussing the merits of purple sprouting broccoli vs calabrese.

If flowers are your thing, it can be difficult to see past grey, stubbly wasteland and imagine a perky cottage garden or well-mannered border. But the key is to beat the onset of nettles and bindweed for these will obscure any vision of floral loveliness. Even if it does make you look like a cheap Grim Reaper, the sickle is your friend for jobs like these. 

If all else fails, see what ideas you can harvest from the bounty online. I’m a devotee of Sarah Raven’s easy-to-follow gardening advice and especially her straightforward but impressive recipes for seasonal cooking, but equally River Cottage, the Royal Horticultural Society and even organic box-scheme pioneers Riverford Organic Farms have shedloads of free, useful, inspiring tips and advice.

And if anyone knows a good way to mask the taste of freezer-burned runner beans, I’m all ears. 

A one-time journalist for metropolitan daily newspapers in the USA, Laura Potts moved to England in 2005  where she is a writer and editor.

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