Sunday, 8 March 2015

Preparing for spring

The unusual weather we’ve been having in Ireland – unexpectedly late snowfalls, accompanied by hail and sleet– cannot conceal the brightening of the days and the growth of spring, giving gardeners a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. Last weekend our family sat down together and made plans for the year, for now that we’ve had our garden on this land for five years, we’ve been able to take stock of what works and what doesn’t.

One thing that hasn’t worked for us are berry bushes; no matter how many nets we draped over our gooseberry, logan-berry and raspberry bushes, the birds get most of them, and the few remaining berries are not worth reaching among the thorns. All the hedgerows around here, down every bog-path and country lane, is lined with blackberry brambles anyway, and our bushes merely take up thorny space. A more discouraging development in our garden is that our wooden beds are disintegrating, eaten by mycelium. We hoped these beds would last 20 years; next time, we’ll line them with plastic on the inside to keep the moisture down.

We’ve also been evaluating what to plant; we will leave a bit of space for potatoes and carrots, but I advocated spending most of our time and space on crops that would be expensive or difficult to find elsewhere, like scorzonera.

On the other hand, my mother-in-law suggested, we should also have common crops to experiment with, in case we need to grow all of them ourselves someday. None of us knows what will happen in the coming years, personally or globally, but we want to be prepared as much as we can. Some crops I particularly want to grow, but are difficult to find; scorzonera, for example, was a favourite of Victorian gardeners, but fell out of favour in the last century, and now even the seeds are hard to come by.

Others take a lot of space, but are particularly good to have here in winter, when not much else is available, like chicory. Chicory is unusual in that you let it grow outside all summer, letting it build up a root underground, and then lop off the top and bring it inside in a pot. You then keep it in darkness – say, under an upside-down pot – and it will grow a head of nutritious and tasty white leaves, giving you fresh winter salad.

The blackthorn trees will soon be blossoming again this year, and The Girl and I will do what we did last year – we will mark all the trees around the bog-lands that bloom with blackthorn flowers. We need to do this because once the flowers disappear, the trees are inconspicuous and hard to find – but in the autumn they burst with sloes that we much desire for gin.

Spring means a lot of weeding, of course, but I don’t destroy everything people consider weeds. Indeed, many of them I look forward to, and want to collect while we can. Dandelion leaves are great in salad, their flower-heads make wine or – dipped in batter and fried – make fritters. Nettles taste great as a vegetable, can be made into wine or dried for tea. The blue-green leaves of Fat Hen make a great addition to a salad, as do the dark green leaves of the Jack-by-the-Hedge. Finally, cowslips and oxlips make the best wine I’ve ever tasted, and will be emerging soon.

I’ve been so busy with my day job – and the three-hour commute to Dublin and back – that I have had precious little time left, and most of that has been spent with The Girl. In the last month we’ve been to an archery event, to the cinema – the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup – and to an Irish music concert. She already seems a teenager, and I don’t want to let her childhood slip away.

Mostly, though, we’ve been getting work done around the land; weeding our garden and preparing for spring. Over the winter our hedgerows shoot out arcs of thorny brambles that tear at clothing, and every weekend I’ve been ripping a few more out. Under the trees in our patch of forest, crowds of elder saplings and thistles shoot up and choke out many plants we like. Thus, I’ve spent a few hours each weekend yanking them out one by one and burning them; all my clothes smell like campfire now.

Today The Girl raked leaves for a leaf mould pile, while I dug up the ground from the chicken run and deposited it in our garden beds. The soil was getting a bit low there, and this gives us a chance to mulch the chickens’ area and cut down on the mud and puddles. Her childhood concentration wanes, however, and eventually we stopped to play football while the weather allowed. Again, childhood doesn’t last forever.


Ronald Langereis said...

Hi Brian,
If you're having trouble to come by scorzonera seeds, no problem here in Holland, where they are called 'schorseneren'.
We're seeing a scorzonera revival here, lately. You can even buy them in supermarkets or order the seeds online.
Here are some links to Dutch web sites:
1. - 100 seeds (bio) at € 3.95.
2. - 5 grams at € 2.25, or 20 grams at € 6.75.
Shipping costs to Ireland are expensive, though. They charge € 16.75 for shipping.
I suppose, ordering seeds online from England will be a lot cheaper.

Brian Kaller said...


Thanks! I will check those out immediately. I think the different terms for it slowed me down.

Also, great to hear from you again -- I always enjoy your comments.

Anonymous said...

I think scorzonera is sometimes called black salsify here too. We have true salsify growing like weeds through our "lawn", another tasty "weed". I've sown it in my garden beds using the "mad fairy dance" where I take seeds and caper around the front garden flinging wildly. It's a lot of fun, makes the kids laugh, neighbours wonder and feeds the family a few months later. :D