With less than a month to go to the winter solstice, the days are very short and the list of wintering gardening chores grows ever longer. October and November have been predictably wet and windy, but we have had some glorious sunny days perfect for some of the heavier winter jobs in the vegetable garden.
The roots crops: carrots, celeriac, parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes; the brassicas: Savoy and red cabbages, cavolo nero, broccoli and winter cauliflowers; and the leeks remain in the ground and are harvested as required. As each bed is cleared it is weeded and given a top-dressing of manure and seaweed which will have rotted down by the time we are ready to start growing again in April and May. After the recent heavy deluges the muck/seaweed heap has the consistency of wet porridge and manuring the vegetable beds is heavy work.
After the October gales the beaches are strewn with great rotting piles of seaweed which team with turnstones, purple sandpipers, gulls and starlings gorging on the invertebrate life. However, when we get a calm sunny spell, there a strong marine miasma and the warmth often triggers a mass hatching of seaweed flies. This induces a frenzy of fly-catching amongst our local starling flock and grumpy gardeners. These little black flies are harmless but irritating en mass!
In the polytunnel and around the compost bins we are waging an unusually prolonged rodent war. This year seems to be particularly bad for rats and our traps are working over-time. It is not a pleasant task, but gnawing rodents do enormous damage and have to be kept out of the polytunnel. The mild winters must have caused a population explosion as I would have expected that the local gang of feral cats, a couple of buzzards, a hen harrier, a kestrel, a peregrine falcon, a pair of merlins and a white-tailed sea-eagle to be as effective as any pied piper!
All is quiet inside the polytunnel, the over wintering plants slumber on waiting for the light levels to rise before they come back into active growth. The rocket and the beetroot produce enough leaves for the occasional winter salad and if I’m desperate I can also raid the baby spinach. I have just planted the garlic and in fit of optimism decided to sow a row of carrots and chervil. The soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate, at first the growth will be slow but I can be patient. The polytunnel is a sedate haven in the winter, a place to potter about on a grey winter afternoon, deadheading the scented geraniums, checking on the pots of herbs and cuttings until it begins to go dark and it is time for tea.
To the casual onlooker the cottage garden appears neglected and desolate. I have removed the dead foliage from the annuals but left the old flower stems on the perennials. These provide winter homes for a host of invertebrates, seeds for the birds and also help protect the dormant crowns from damage by the winter gales. Unfortunately these tangled stems rarely get transformed by a glitter of frost but for the wrens and winter thrushes they form safe refuges, places to forage away from the beady eyes and sharp talons of the avian predators which patrol the coast.
The cottage garden is another of my winter sanctuaries where sunny afternoons can be frittered away weeding, planning changes and deciding which plants will be split, moved or end their days on the compost heap. There are still one or two sedums in flower and the odd clump of marigolds provide a discordant flash of bedraggled orange, a token of defiance and resistance against the darkening winter days. The garden feigns sleep but close inspection reveals the first green shoots of the jonquils, some fresh green leaves on the eryngiums and heucheras, and pots of snowdrops full of tiny green spears. Sitting on the bench absorbing a little winter sunlight, soothed by the shush of the waves, is a therapeutic treat and a welcome relief from shovelling muck.