I’ve got a case of the winter blues watching spring battling it out with Ole Man Winter, as there seems no end to the onslaught of bitter cold. The icy winds roll through unimpeded and every venture outside puts us in the teeth of an arctic blast, yet we carry on with our gardening efforts.
That’s gardening, not farming. Sure, the place we live is called Crockern Farm, but that dates back to by-gone days when there was more land attached to these buildings and the people living in them knew something about farming by grazing livestock and growing their produce somewhere else. The land here is exposed, soggy, and rock-filled with poor soil. Even with our raised beds, our high elevation results in more rainfall, wind and cold weather than other parts of the country, making for a growing season of less than 175 days. In short, we’re up against it.
I like farmers and romantically think if I had been born some twenty years later, I might have become one. Though, likely not. I grew up in Ohio, surrounded by farming communities and in my early adult years, couldn’t wait to leave for the lights of the big city. In the 1980s, you got your degree and went to work on Wall Street, or in my case, some underpaid-but-feel-good option of public service. Living in an urban setting, I planted window boxes, longing for a bigger patch of land.
Thirty years later, and I’m glad to consider myself a gardener. Farmers have to be serious and work very hard for food growing success, employing tried-and-tested-grow-it-in-proven-ways. I don’t. Roger and I can experiment with all sorts of unusual things like trying to grow corn on the cob in Dartmoor! To earn a living, farmers must grow enough to feed hundreds of people. Unlike us, they can’t be seat-of-the-pants about their crops. We can spend hours browsing the catalogues looking at heritage seed options and when the time comes, scatter said seeds on our well-tended soil and hope for the best. Since we are just growing enough for ourselves, we can be casual in our approach and smile with joy when it works, briefly frown when it doesn’t, and record our progress in our little black gardening book.
When we moved to Crockern less than a year ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing four raised beds. We built our compost bins and armed with determination to grow something in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment, we planted a winter vegetable bed in September. We had successes — mostly the lettuces — and a few failures: Tatsoi and Turnips were sacrificed to the slugs, and the Kales, Cabbages and Spring Onions made a slow and somewhat shy appearance, nearly ready for harvest, when in a single afternoon they were destroyed by the chickens. Disaster!
It’s these sorts of notations that separate our efforts from those of farmers. Losing crops to chickens having dust baths? Really? That’s the stuff of amateurs. In other words, us.
I do not wish to imply that gardeners are not skilled, knowledgeable, and very capable. It’s just currently we are on a steep learning curve. As a devotee of Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4, and those delightfully named Brit celeb gardeners, Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, I listen in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables in the middle of Dartmoor. That leaves us with a bowlful of trial and error, seasoned with a healthy sense of humour as our strategy. Roger and I may be a bit haphazard, casual, and mildly frustrated by mistakes and oversights, but now know a farmer would never have let those chickens anywhere near vegetable beds.
Before you say Potato, and I say Potato, we are busy getting ready for our spring plantings. We stand strong in the face of weather, chickens and slugs. We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April. Our tomato seedlings are underway. And, we’ve put fresh compost on the garden beds. This is a busy time, even if the garden looks somewhat destroyed. Layered up in multiple fleeces, hat, and gloves, Roger and I set about to repair and create the infrastructure: Little and often we work to maintain the stonewalls; we regularly turn the compost and collect manure; we’ve recently built a new raised bed for the asparagus crowns we will soon plant; the discovered stone path is complete; fencing, gates and drains are all repaired; and, when the ground isn’t frozen, we’re pulling up the nettles to prevent them taking over.
Looming large on our to-do list is the building of our greenhouse. When we had it delivered as a flat pack kit in October, we understood we could put it up in a weekend. Nearly six months later, we’re ready for growing and finally have the foundation and the frame complete. We need to install the toughened glass, but the weather once again turned cold and wet, delaying our progress. It is invigorating to be outside in a light drizzle at about 10 C, but rain, snow, sleet, hail and stiff winds just drive us indoors to sit by the fire, read, write, and sip a gin and tonic. In other words, the stuff of gardeners, not farmers. As soon as the temperatures rise preventing our fingers falling off as we hold glass in place, we’ll complete this project. In the meantime, being indoors means we can fuss with seeds and hope the ground will warm up sometime soon.
Despite the trouncing this extended-winter is giving us, we know warmer days are around the corner. If we do more now, our early spring will be free of a mad scramble and we can enjoy the reverie of birdcall and with it the return of summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins. If farming is for those who make their living growing food, Roger and I are content to be gardeners whose efforts yield enough to feed us.
We are delighted — and relieved — that while we are working through the challenges of growing in this climate, we can still support the local farmers at markets in town. Laissez les bons temps rouler!