Wednesday 22 February 2017

The Land in February

Sunset in winter. You can see the row of stumps in the foreground.

We’re seeing an unseasonably warm winter here in Ireland, with the temperature in the double-digits in February (Centigrade, of course – 10 degrees Centigrade is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), and the days have been unusually dry until last week, when we got what locals call “soft days” of drizzle and mud.

I stopped by to visit my neighbour Seamus, now 86 years old and still tending a half-acre or so of vegetables. He grew up here in the bog, in the shadow of the Hill of Allen, worked for years cutting turf – the millennia-old compacted peat moss that the Irish use for fuel – and retired to a home a kilometre or so from where he was born. He can tell me which plants do well next to each other, what time of day the cows graze in different fields and why, and what kind of seasonal weather brings out the best flavours in his fruits – the kind of intimate land-knowledge that all humans once had, and only a few do anymore. He used to know the weather better, he says, but it feels different than it used to.

He gave me several cuttings from his gooseberry bushes, and this weekend I’ll be building new beds for them down at the back of our property. It was there that we had rows of lilandia trees that blocked the low winter sun, and a few years ago we cut them all down – it means we get more of the fierce winds that whip across the bog-lands here, but I’m happy with the exchange.

The cows gather to watch hungrily when I or The Girl mow the lawn.
On the other hand, our neighbour’s cows now have only a barbed-wire fence blocking their passage to our garden, so I’ve been planting something more substantial that will keep growing after the fence has rusted. We cut unwanted sapIings from our garden and wrapped them between the trunks to make a wattle-fence, and I’ve been building garden beds along the lilandia stumps and planting Seamus’ gooseberry bushes, whose thorns should discourage the cows.

We also planted the apple trees we grafted, and I’ll be uprooting our logan-berry vines and wrapping them around the stumps. The apple trees should block the upper deck and the thorn-bushes the understory, leaving a wall of vegetation that will reduce the wind yet not block the sun. The only gap in this wall will be taken up by the bee-hive, and if the cows want to try to get through that, the bees will have something to say about it.

The days are getting longer again, and our garden remains only half-built; we tore it all down last year, as the planks had rotted through, and we arranged to rebuild the entire thing in brick. It’s a slow process, though, and while we completed one of the beds and have been using its bounty through the winter, the other beds lie fallow; I’ve been removing the weeds and covering them in cardboard to see that we don’t spend all our time weeding in summers to come.

I spent the weekend pulling blackberry brambles from the crannies of the land; they grow profusely here, their fruits consumed voraciously by birds in the autumn and their seeds spread across the fields. They are also quite aggressive plants, worming through bushes and hedgerows, wrapping their vines around trees, climbing to the light or descending back to earth, where they turn into root systems for new plants. Worst of all, they hide among the lush greenery of Irish summers, unseen until their hooks have ripped your clothes or flesh.

Thus, in the winter, when the knee-deep tangle of other plants have died away or shrivelled to brown threads, I scour our acreage and pick out every new bramble-vine I find. This is also a good time to yank weeds around the property, gather up unused and rotting lumber, and burn wood, weeds and thorns alike on a bonfire.

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.

The best gardens grow in three dimensions, not just fields and beds but hedgerows and woods. We have a small copse of trees in the back of our property, and while it is no bigger than an average back garden, it has room for hazel trees that produce nuts this time of year. Some people plant blueberries and other shade-loving plants under the hazels, so they too can produce food, and under that sorrel, radishes and other ground crops– multiple levels of crops going upwards.

In preparation for planting I’ve been turning over our compost, laying newspaper and cardboard over our beds to keep the weeds out and securing it with planks of wood. Some people put newspaper or cardboard over their garden during the growing season, poking holes for the seedlings while keeping the weeds down.

Here, the Bog is only the Bog on a rainy day. The rest of the time it's forest.
We’re about to get the first buds, and that includes many edibles – hawthorn shoots are great as a salad, bramble shoots make a good tangy tea (use plenty of them), and cowslips and primroses are tasty raw and make a good wine. The first rhubarb is coming in, offering an infusion of flavours and vitamins after the long darkness of the Mother Night. Now the mornings and evenings are seeing a bit of twilight again, and it’s like exhaling after the winter – but it also means there’s no time to lose.

1 comment:

philsharris said...

Yes, things are on the move over here next to the North sea and Scottish Border. Some of the willows on the river bank have been in silver for more than two weeks and one shows breaking catkins today. I have some major work to do with the old orchard. There is only a 'short' window now. I made a start last year and the results in apples were a sight to see. But there are a good many other trees to rescue before they fall over. I always think of the people who laid it out. The trees do not blossom at the same time, and the different varieties are picked from late summer to late autumn and some cookers store through the winter.

On a totally different tack, if you have time I am intrigued by your comment over on ADR. I never thought of the mediaeval Catholic 'mind/bosdy' split - if I ever thought about it - as being before Descartes (thus a precursor?) and before science made everything subjective or objective. Your point also about pop-psychology retaining Freud and the bubbling stew below rationality is well made. But I had not thought to contrast the two. If you expanded your insight further it would be much appreciated.

Brian wrote "...Those two philosophies never seemed to co-exist comfortably, yet I never put my finger on why until now."