The sun has finally put in an appearance, the bitterly easterly winds have scampered off and this gardener has sprung into action. After weeks of sowing seeds in modules and moving them from one windowsill to another for maximum light, I am moving a phalanx of seedlings outside for hardening off and am finally feeling alive again.
Gardening has always felt like a tonic but after a poor harvest last year, a wet autumn and cold grey winter I appreciate just how much a garden can contribute to my psychological wellbeing. And whilst digging organic matter into the allotment plot and planting large, slow crops provides proper exercise and a real sense of satisfaction, coaxing our little ramshackle garden back to life reminds me just how useful gardening is for a healthy mind and happy heart.
My design style: eclectic, stubborn and joy-inducing
Finding ways to squeeze an abundance of edible food and colourful flowers into a tiny space, improve the soil without three compost bins and source enough containers in a low-impact way stretches my imagination, keeping my eyes keen and brain cells alert. Harvesting a few tomatoes, a lettuce and half a dozen potatoes for a meal feels like a victory – over the elements as well as our ludicrous food supply system – and boosts my morale in the process. And picking a handful of flowers for a vase brings out the carefree child in me.
With such challenges and objectives it is no surprise that our tiny garden looks unkempt. There is no unifying style, rather a hodgepodge of scavenged containers and climbing frames and a miscellany of practical grow bags and shelf-like ladders. The planting scheme follows no formal rules but is instead inspired by the garden’s limitations (i.e. shade and lack of space), our taste buds and a deep longing for colour and fragrance to carry me through the darker days.
Desperate for the taste of fresh homegrown produce after one of the longest winters in years, I am experimenting with pea shoots after reading about them on Vertical Veg. They are a small addition to a meal but offer a concentrated flavour of spring and best of all, they grow quickly and abundantly in shallow pots. Thanks to waste polystyrene crates from the fishmongers and a few handfuls of soil, I have the promise of intense pea shoots for the wok or salad bowl in a few weeks.
Another fishmongers crates, some mixed leaves and sorrel seeds and an ad hoc mini greenhouse made from a scavenged window and a brick will deliver spicy salads and fragrant sorrel soup in about a month. And although the tomatoes, carrots and first earlies will take longer to reach the plate, half a dozen seedlings in the minute front garden will produce an early crop of broad beans.
Balancing the senses
The greyest and wettest 12 months I can remember have left me hankering after mood-boosting colour, which is why flowers deserve a place in our garden. They may take up important space and nutrients but for my mental state I need to include a succession of flowers to take me from early spring to late autumn. Crocuses along the front path grow when little else does but the tulips in the old sink are running about a month late. In a few weeks though they should burst into glorious reds, oranges and purples and look splendid before making way for rainbow chard seedlings.
And then there are the roses (a very belated wedding gift) in the back bed and some pots. These are the height of indulgence in a small garden but they will trigger memories of a happy childhood and provide flowers for the table. To counter the sense of indulgence I am growing garlic near the roses – for aphid control – and have underplanted some with thyme I propagated from cuttings last year, others with winter flowering violets.
My other luxury is the lavender in the back bed, to the right of the roses and in front of the space designated for tomatoes and kale. Technically lavender can be used in baking but mine is destined for the linen cupboard. Old school it may be but the fragrance of dried lavender when changing the bed is a powerful medicine during the endless grey of London winters!
Although I am experiencing an urgent desire to stock the pantry with homegrown produce and make up for the lost weeks, as spring slowly sets out it stall, I am celebrating more than ever our funny little garden’s potential as a proactive, hands-on apothecary-cum-therapist.