After nearly six months of neglect, a slightly brighter day and a glimmer of sun on the wall tempt me outside where I start to clear the detritus of winter. Gently sifting through collapsed stems and half rotted leaves, I uncover new life.
Since reconciling myself with the frustrations of gardening on a diminished scale, I have taken things a little more seriously. The construction of the wall certainly limited my vision, but in doing so it also focused it. The planting of the hornbeams actually rejeuvenated my relationship with this little patch of earth, so when I venture out here in early March, on a morning unseasonably warmed by winter sun, I delight in the gentle bursts of life that greet me. This is a garden reviving itself, and in so doing, it revives me.
For nearly six months this garden is uninhabitable. Not just because I barely see it in daylight, but because when I do, it is little more than a sea of mud. I am constantly amazed at what can survive dormant under the surface of this swamp, and equally amazed at the speed with which it reveals itself as the earth dries and colours change from browns to greens. This is a time to be excited, but with only six months before the process reverses itself, I am confounded by its limitations. This is half a garden in every sense, and the race against time has started.
The bare earth deceives me. It tells me I need to buy more plants. Despite endless photographic evidence to the contrary, I cannot believe in the promise of summer. Photographs from last June and July should reassure me, but I am skeptical. Where Astrantias once flourished, I scrutinise bare earth and assume they have not survived. I cut back the bare woody twigs of the Hydrangea paniculata, and convince myself that they have perished. But these are the late performers, and they are reluctant to start too soon. Mirabel Osler tells me, ‘the dead black sticks of winter: those dismal affairs that inhabit the garden as witnesses of last year. Pick one. And know with absolute certainty at that moment you are holding summer.’ I still Don’t trust my instincts. I think I know the difference between the brittle snap of dead wood and the pliancy of something pulsating with life, but I am not certain. If I’d bothered to plant spring bulbs last Autumn I might have had something to divert me, but I didn’t. So for now I seek comfort in the unfurling fronds of ferns, the sprouting growth of the hornbeams and the purple ruffles of the thalictra which enliven this nearly barren landscape.