May 20 2008

Gardening Time

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Bluebells march through Devon in May with such reassuring relentlessness energy they make my heart sing. Like the pink waves of Sakura unfurling across Japan in spring, Devon turns blue.
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As the clouds of cherry blossom petals drift northwards from Okinawa to the northern tip on Hakkaido, the Japanese meteorological Agency issues regular news bulletins tracking its progress. Hanami festivals bring crowds to parks across the country to celebrate the brief pink, beauty representing the fragility of life itself. No parties in the park here, though, to celebrate the blueness of May, no sake or beer festivals, no news bulletins or public holidays for the bluebell; just the overwhelming private joy of an intoxicatingly blue world pursuing me through lanes and woodlands where ever I go.
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I wonder what it is that I find so irresistible about blue flowers. Forget-me-nots smother great swathes of the garden, ceonothus drips heady scented blueness across the lawn. One small, stalwart, mecanopsis stares out at me from the boarder, iridescent and fragile, it’s petals falling all too soon. Lobelia springs darkly from beneath geraniums and sage and rosemary are bursting into flower in the herb garden. I cannot bring myself to pull up wild alkenet vying for position amongst marching pink campion. Creeping speedwell peeps out along the hedgerows, beneath every tree, round every corner. Centaurea Montana threatens to smother everything in the border with its fluffy thistle-like flowers. And I wait in anticipation for the great clumps of geranium Johnson’s’ Blue to erupt on the banks, for salvia Patens and glowing, majestic agapanthus. And, of course, for now there is the bluebell. I do love blue flowers!
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We may not have a Hanami festival here, but all is a frenzy of activity in this garden, in this corner of Devon, this week. We had a call from the vicar’s wife asking if we would open to the public for McMillan Nurses on June 1st. “Don’t worry” she said “I will organise everything: publicity, tea ladies, urns, tables, chairs, cakes, parking signs….” Maybe, I mused looking out at the nourishing summer rain, maybe, she’d even ask her husband to have a word with God about the weather.
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She tells me I need do nothing but garden. What luxury is that! All my energy and attention is funnelled into the soil! The sun burns down on my back between showers, as, hat crammed on head, mud smudged across face, hands stained brown with compost, I dig, manure, weed, sow, plant out, plot and plan. What happier life could there be?
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Geraniums, wintered inside, are finally allowed out. Re-potted and titivated, they line the steps by the back door. The olive tree, now so large in its huge pot, is dragged from winter protection. Others must stay inside but have space and air around to spread themselves at last. The lemon tree and abutilon are both already in flower. The avocado is nearly six feet tall and stands majestically like some beautiful elegant goddess arms outstretched. Oleanders are in bud, and the plumbago, another blue beauty, is bursting into leaf once more. All my treasures have made it through the winter. Too tender for this frosty valley, they must be protected till all signs of frost are past. Now at last I dare to open their door.
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Tomatoes are starting a new life in the greenhouse, beans and peas are taking a chance with the bantams in the vegetable garden. Broad beans already stand in robust rows held to attention by bailer twine. Courgette vie for space amongst last years missed potatoes. Sweet peas are taking off at last after a terrible chilling by a late freak frost. And joy of joy, my new box hedge is sprouting greenly round the herbs beds.

Strawberries sprout out of black plastic in the poly tunnel, my attempt to beat the nasturtium infestation. Salad leaves are ready to cut, aubergine and basil must be planted out this week. Brassicas are coming along nicely, beetroot seedlings, leeks and parsnips germinate at last. French beans stare at me imploringly, bursting out of their seed trays. I wonder how I can possibly sit here writing with so many plants shouting for attention.

Ali weeds the herbaceous boarders, Paul mends the pump in the pond, all the while gazing lovingly at his newly constructed pergola. Roger cuts the grass and Stephen fixes broken gates, clears the farmyard and dags the sheep.

Donkeys must be groomed, coats brushed, hooves oiled. Chickens will put on parade, bantams, no doubt, allowed to wreak havoc as usual. Chicks will be on display with mother in the yard, ewes and lambs will decorate the hillside and old rams will doubtless gaze grumpily from the orchard. Oh please may the sun shine!
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Meanwhile there is another pocket of frenzied gardening activity taking place in a corner of Swansea Bay! Tucked away behind tall trees on the edge of the park, under the battlements of Oystermouth Castle, Julia, Bill and Ken beaver away restoring their allotment to championship standards.

Julia had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of space in her exquisite little gem of a town garden. Every corner had been used to maximum effect but space was at a premium. She decided to put their names on a waiting list for a plot in the Mumbles. One day they reached the top of the list and were “allotted” their quarter acre sight. Two years ago it was a scene of dereliction, the weeds were simply winning. Digging began. Now, hours and hours, months and months of work later, perfect raised beds are host to a myriad of vegetables and flowers, standing to attention in perfect rows. Julia likes order!
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Tea must be taken regularly to restore strength so umbrella and chairs are stored along with tools in the recycled shed. Recycling is the allotment mantra. Community spirit binds the gardeners together. They share tools, salvaged treasures, plants, skills and laughter, and, hmm, sometimes grumpiness and competition. All human life is here!

I wonder if Jules ponders the coincidence of history as she bicycles along the sea front to her little paradise. Oystermouth castle in the Mumbles is considered by historians as the finest castle in the Gower Peninsular. It was founded by William de Londres in the C12th but burnt down twice by the Welsh themselves in 1116 and 1215. Who were these Norman incomers? In the C13th it subsequently fell into the hands of the de Braoses, Lords of Gower, who made the castle their permanent residence. Edward 1,himself, is said to have been a guest in 1284!

As I read on about the emergence and decline of this majestic castle, my mind flicks back to those allotments beneath the battlements. Were they there too in Norman times? Certainly there is evidence in parts of Briton of Saxon “field” clearings in woods to be held for “common” use. The invading Normans began to claim land, both for themselves and for the church. Did Julia’s allotment, beneath the castle walls, escape such a fate? Was the land confiscated yet again, this time from the church, during the reformation, I wonder?
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In the late C16th, during Elizabeth’s reign, common land began to be “enclosed” and “allotted” by the nobles to tenanted cottages on their estates. The C17th and C18th centuries saw the beginning of the huge migration of people to the city; common land continued to disappear. As life became more and more urbanised the 1845 Enclosures Act tried to enforce “field gardens of ten rods” for the poor. That is to say 302 square yards or 253 square metres or, ¼ of an acre per family. This was in line with the Victorian belief that “allotments provided a productive use of time, keeping the poor from the evils of drink and providing wholesome food for a workforce housed in tenements and high density terracing without gardens….”

In 1887 another act, largely ignored, obliged local authorities to provide allotments. It was not until 1908 that parishes and urban and borough councils had this responsibility forced upon them. Then the 1914-18 war brought food shortages and the threat of starvation to thousands of working people. It was the railway companies who came to the rescue this time giving their workers plots of land beside the tracks on which to grow much needed food. Have you ever noticed the allotted rows of serried veg laid out beneath you, as you gaze idly from the train window?
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The Second World War gave birth to the “Dig for Victory” campaign and once again allotments flourished. After that war and when rationing finally ended, land prices began to climb. Allotments disappeared under urban redevelopment.

The 1970’s saw a brief resurgence with the TV programme “The Good Life” but, as supermarkets took hold and land prices continued their upward spiral, vegetable gardening dwindled and gardening in an urban landscape lost its thrill. Why bother when you can buy fruit and vegetables from all over the world, all the year round, perfect and clean and wrapped in plastic?

Now suddenly there seems to be a ripple, a tiny rumble. Will it spread, this new awareness? Will we begin, at last, to question the true legacy of our food; air miles, insecticides, fair trade? Will worry about our diet, concern about wholesomeness of our children diet really amount to a sea of change in the way we shop and eat? Food prices are rising, fuel bills soaring, mortgages wobbling.

Look around, something small is changing. Allotments, once abandoned and neglected are suddenly sought after and desirable. How strange. Waiting lists are springing up all over the place, young and old alike, are turning up. Families, children in tow, armed with spades and cultivators, packets of seeds and a huge amount of enthusiasm are digging their way back to growing their own food. A gardening army is on the march again, a quiet army, a quiet revolution maybe!

Oh and then of course there is that other underground movement: the urban guerrilla gardeners causing havoc in the cites by clandestinely clearing litter, planting trees, flowers, vegetables and shrubs, turning barren urban wasteland into beauty, bringing fun and companionship back into communities. How bad is that! How great
are they!

So hurrah to Julia, Bill and Ken: hurrah to all of us, all of us who struggle to grow our food on our own patch, all helping to revalue and preserve those old skills that were, until so recently, in such serious danger of extinction.

Let us dig for the victory again, but this time let it be for the preservation of our health, our future and our environment.
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