. . . This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer . . . (T. S. Eliot)
One of the advantages of getting older is that the changing seasons seem even more vivid and beautiful. Perhaps this has to do with the perception of time’s acceleration – a year is always a year long, but it’s an ever-decreasing fraction of one’s own life, and liminality becomes as much a constant as those long summer days of dense heat and green shade. I remember first being struck with a sense of this sixteen years ago, during a time that I look back on as being miraculous, if only because by some strange chance I survived it. The cherry blossoms suddenly exploded into a sort of proto-autumn, a gust of wind tearing the petals from their branches and transforming a benign spring scene into a sublime and grotesque parody of two seasons at once, a gloriously hideous interchange unprotected by the broad buffer of summer. Autumn was simpler that year, its paradoxes of little interest to me: yes, there’s a joyful strangeness to that potent burst of colour prior to the long sleep, but at that time it was only the smoke in the air and the chill damp rot of the soil that moved me with the richness of a year in decline.
Time spent in a garden gives an extraordinary precision to that ever-intensifying perception of seasonal change. Last year, before I’d begun any work in the garden, the apple trees were bare – then covered in blossom – then thick with leaves. This year, I knew the unique trajectory of the May Queen compared with the Meadfoot Wonder and the Hormead Pearmain, measuring the month by their flowers’ comings and goings. Last year was all brute force against the ancient brambles – this year, gently lifting out the young Rubus shoots from amidst the asters and cosmos, I tentatively mourned the wild glut of fruit we’ll miss. When I lifted and divided the daffodil bulbs yesterday and found the persistent ivy roots I’d missed last year, I felt a sudden rush of remorse for the old guard of the garden, those creepers and climbers desperately trying to heal the wound I cut in their territory and have since filled with pampered, domesticated flowers and vegetables.
May this year was wet and cold, an exercise in patience and humility: I planted out tomatoes, green beans, cabbages, courgettes, and potatoes far too early, on a single hot day late in April, and watched all but the potatoes decline through the following month. The courgettes and beans didn’t survive; the tomatoes stayed dormant and are now recovering and growing in the increasing warmth; the cabbages would have thrived but the slugs devoured them. Not to be deterred, I have pressed every sunny windowsill in my flat into service, and have learned to wait until seedlings are well-established before even thinking about moving them out in this unpredictable weather. Lupins, chard, cucumbers, nasturtiums, corn, and onions are doing well, getting taller and leaning into the sun. I’m planning to add cavolo nero, cauliflower, and San Marzanos to my makeshift greenhouse as the others progress out to the garden. All the while, the future beyond this summer’s harvest is on my mind – pumpkins and sprouts, bulbs for next spring, garden waste rotting away for next year’s compost, and the distant prospect of flowering lupins in amongst the annuals. Holding a multitude of seasons together in the mind is no longer a melancholy poetic conceit – it’s the reality of managing land, a prosaic necessity with a side effect of extraordinary beauty.
As we move into the summer, I’m hoping for some calm and simplicity along with the warmth – incremental progress, instead of all the starting and stopping. Both the establishment of the season and my increased experience and knowledge should help with that. I do, however, anticipate looking back on the month with some amusement about how little I knew and how much happened – good and bad – that I didn’t expect. There will be plenty of frustration, I’m sure, but I hope I’ll continue to appreciate the novelties of my first vegetable garden. Being an experienced gardener in a few years from now is going to be wonderful, but I imagine I’ll look at my chard seedlings and recall fondly that time back in May 2021 when I was surprised and delighted to see that their stems are brightly-coloured from the very beginning. It’s wise and rewarding to reflect upon and appreciate our hard-won skills, but it’s also pleasant to recall the delights of ignorance and surprise from a position of knowledge.