The snow has finally disappeared, leaving behind a battered-looking garden and weariness on our faces.
Ironically the one plant that is completely unscathed, flowering magnificently and unaccountably early, is the imaginatively-named Giant Orchid (Baria robertiana). I found it poking proudly from the very middle of the terrace that’s shortly to become the new vegetable garden.
Seeing it brought back a rush of memories from the time I worked at a nature reserve in the Chilterns called Homefield Wood. It was one of only two places in Britain where the Giant Orchid’s distant cousin, the Military Orchid grew. It's a hidden world, an ancient meadow tucked into a fold in the hills, surrounded by woodland; silent and full of butterflies. The orchids swarmed across it and provided the ultimate escape from the boredom of being cooped up revising for exams. I’m sure that madness for orchids (not to mention the ten mile bike ride to get there) cost me a few A grades, but I still love the plant more than any certificate.
Seeing it affirmed the choice of site but also dealt us a warning: the aspect must be reasonably sunny (it’s east-facing which gave us doubts, since few vegetables relish shade) - but it also shows that the soil must be pretty infertile, as terrestrial orchids [in Europe at least] grow only where they are not out-competed by grasses and other heavy feeders.
So there is plenty to do. I marked out the design with string and canes, and raked fallen leaves into the ‘beds’ to give a picture. The design is simple, two long linear sets of beds running the entire length of the terrace, divided into a series of squares and rectangles. Experience has taught me that a complicated design with lots of sharp angles is a nightmare - you spend longer tending the paths than the vegetables!
Having small beds (1m x 1m squares, 1 x 1.5m rectangles) is a good idea for two reasons. Firstly they’re small enough to reach from the outside, so you can avoid compacting the soil by treading on it. Secondly they’re a good size for growing just one thing in each, so make for a much bolder design statement than would otherwise be possible. Veg can be hugely attractive as well as tasty so it seems logical to take advantage of this.
M agreed the design so we’re busy preparing the site. But by now my biological clock has begun not just ticking but positively thundering as we hurl headlong towards the spring... [although as a single man more into plants than women this means seeds, not babies...]
We’re still a long way off being able to sow anything in the new garden, so yesterday I made new lids for the old cold frames on the high terrace below the cliff. Oh the relief of sowing, planting strawberries in warm soft soil, the clean peaty smell of compost! Cold comforts indeed.