Back to the Future

The Hawkwood midwinter feast took place in the new conservatory – a space in the glasshouse set aside and being developed for species Homo sapiens. One revelation of the event was that Ed, one of the longest-standing of the team here, keeps a diary, which he abridged to recite an eloquent an account of the gardening year as any grafted. Arriving at September he mused, “I think all my life I’ve regretted the passing of summer”, giving voice to a wistfulness I well know. And though I realise it will disqualify me from that illustrious league of people who have few regrets in life, I mourn the passing of winter’s festive period with equal fervour.

As a child, not wishing to return to school was reason enough; this has been compounded by my subsequent outdoor life. The garden in January is bleak and austere, in dark contrast to Yule’s light, rest, warmth and indulgence. With the right choice of ornamental perennials, it is possible to grow a good looking winter garden, but vegetable beds are bound to look ragged and hungry at best, and sometimes downright apocalyptic. The best we can hope for is a perfect snowstorm to wrap the land in a white flag of truce. That hasn’t happened yet this year. But, as Gary, now our Food Production Worker, commented: “you never know, it might do next week – this time of year, anything can happen”.

Gary, Vi, Sarah and I inspected the site on our return last week, our feet tapping out a squelchy soundtrack. The odd rots are setting in to some of the salad crops, which in any case we’ve picked virtually bare, as we have the mighty kale plants. Relatively mild the days may be, but cold enough and short enough that nothing wants to get up and grow.

Yet even in these darkest of times there remain, as any Blockhead would maintain, Reasons to to be Cheerful. The Jerusalem Artichoke stems may be hollow shells of their summer selves, but underneath them lies a rich seam of ruby gems which we’ve been mining for weeks, the best they’ve ever done here by a long chalk. Just pushing up from the underworld are the garlic shoots. They are the snowdrops of the vegetable plot: pale drawn candles barely illuminating our way to the new dawn. In the old Kitchen Garden, the champagne rhubarb starts to flow as the New Years Eve fizz runs flat: the pink buds are beginning to shoot, more foolhardy than frosty hardy, but spirit-lifting all the same.

Things are emerging. It could be a great year. More than any other time of the year, in all the desolation January says, anything can happen.

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