Winter 21/22: In the garden

Those of us old enough to have watched Open All Hours will remember Ronnie Barker’s catchphrase, “it’s been a funny old day”.

And every time I sit down to write my blog, I can hear him speaking those words, a picture of him outside his shop in his sandy overalls popping into my head.

Somehow, when I review the day, or the month, or the season – whatever it is – I’m struck by all the little things that made it unique. A month or season that felt different to any other I’ve experienced as yet.

We’re coming up to five years in our little garden, so you’d have thought there’d be a lot of sameness about each January or February by now. And, indeed, the regularity and certainty that, regardless of pandemic or war, the snowdrops will appear like clockwork, year after year, is one of the things that surely makes that connection to nature so comforting.

As I write, and think, I guess it’s perhaps life outside of nature that changes so much. And with that our perspective adjusts.

Maybe the trees and the snowdrops are the rock, the stability, our grounding in life. It’s all the chaos we make around them that makes each month feel like a ‘funny old month’.

Whatever goes on outside of nature makes us view those snowdrops in a slightly different light. When we feel happy, they bring us joy and delight. When we feel sad, they bring solace. When we are optimistic, we notice they have spread further this past year; when we feel less upbeat, we notice the patch dug up by Badgey the badger.

Likewise, my gardening toils take on a different role, provide a different purpose, at different times.

During December, I seemed to be fighting some low level, non-Covid bug for most of the month. I had little energy for serious gardening, yet an hour or so outside, wrapped up in multiple layers, did enormous good for my well-being. Kicking a few leaves off the grass, or collecting fallen twigs for the fire, that beautiful fresh air and a bit of gentle exercise did me the world of good.

Perhaps it felt reassuring that whilst I might not have been 100%, good old resilient nature was showing me how it was done. That not much stopped it in its stride; that I could rely on it to keep, stoically, carrying on.

After all these years, I still don’t find English winters the easiest. They can be very bleak and everything seems muted, the life almost sucked out of things around us.

Yet on a bright winter’s morning, there’s almost nothing quite as beautiful. The stillness, the quiet, the sparkly reflective white making everything as one. The scarcity of these mornings making them all the richer for it.

And the contrast, looking out, from the cosy warmth of indoors.

As we came in to January, the first flowers of the year opened and with them my energy returned. 

I had a busy couple of weeks pruning dozens of roses and our ancient Wisteria in the walled garden.

Before this….

Bliss. That contrast again. If you are familiar with January in the UK and know me even a little, you’ll realise this wasn’t my feet in the stream. 

My feet, yes, with (rare!) pretty toes, but in Sydney harbour. My eyes are filling as I write that. I can’t quite believe we were there.

Go back a year and we thought it could be 2025 before we could visit. But we really, really did it. Despite much stress with Omicron and lateral flow tests and PCRs and watching infection levels keep rising and rising in London, in Sydney, in Melbourne; we made it.

It was a hugely emotional trip for us both. Spending time with Paul’s family after so long, seeing special friends who we’d only been able to email or FaceTime, seeing our little Tasmanian cottage for the very first time. Just connecting with a country we both hold so dearly and so deeply in our hearts. 

It still feels like a bit of a blur. When I look at the photos: those saturated colours, the blue, blue sky, the warmth radiating from the screen, it feels a bit of a dream that we were there. 

So much we didn’t get to do, so many people we couldn’t see, so many walks we didn’t have time to take, but gosh it gave us so, so much.

Revived us in a way we could never have envisaged.

We arrived back on the day of storm Eunice. Not the smoothest landing ever.

After 24 hours of travel, on arriving home we literally left our suitcases on the front step and intuitively walked on into the garden. It was the garden that we both had missed. We yearned to be there, standing under the big cedar, just breathing it in.

And, of course, the cedar stood strong, despite the winds, just as it had for the past 200 years.

As the day progressed, many branches came down across the garden. Abandoned nests fell from the trees. The beautiful Ceanothus next to the garage was ripped out of the ground. 

We wondered what on earth we were doing back here. 

Yet the garden soldiers on. My wonderful husband has been out with his chainsaw making it beautiful again. And oh, there is so much of spring already.

That bleak air of whiteness has gone. There is some warmth – physical and visual – all around. You can see it, even on the page.

Daryl appeared to have brought lots of his friends round to help with the garden-sitting whilst we were away.

Storm Eunice, far from making them retreat into safety, brought out six roe deer, three muntjac, a hare, a pheasant and a couple of rabbits into view from the kitchen at dusk that first night. Almost all of them at one time. Our garden seems to get more David Attenborough by the day.

I’ve been out cutting back the perennials as fast as my hands and secateurs can move, attempting to beat the new rush of growth now coming through. I can’t really describe the feeling this has brought me. Joy? Elation? Nothing seems quite big enough to sum it up.

It’s that feeling of something coming from nothing. That beneath the ground is a whole new summer. The beds I’ve finished are almost entirely bare, but for a few specs, upon close examination, of tiny new green buds coming through. 

I know this happens every year, but it still feels completely miraculous. That whole, brand new growth will appear, all by itself. And with the new editions I planted in the autumn, plus the things I split and moved, the stall is set and time will soon reveal what is to be. If I did nothing from now on, it would all still happen.

Very quickly, I’m reminded exactly why we did come back. There is nothing, just nothing, like gardening in the UK. Things just want to grow here. You can’t stop them. You feel like you are working so gently with nature. That it’s a joint thing. You’re allowed to decide some things, nature is allowed on others. But it wants to work with you. There is no fight. The soil is open and workable and receptive to new roots. If there’s a gap, it will fill it for you; perhaps with forget-me-not, or foxglove, or feverfew. Something that just fits and works and adds to the whole.

I can’t not be a part of this for the time. It would break my heart to leave my garden now. And so I feel happy that we are here, that we can now visit Australia reasonably regularly again, but that we’re in the right place for now.

But I also feel the call of Australia. Of our little house in Tasmania, of making my Australian native garden one day. It’s a totally different type of gardening, but one that I need to do before my days are up. An Australian native garden is already inside me, patient for the moment, but needing to come out at some point in time.

I’m left, at the end of winter, feeling as content as content can be. I’ve reconnected with Australia, I’ve re-appreciated England and I’m looking towards spring and summer as they unveil themselves in front of me.

So, you see, it’s been a funny old winter. One of three ‘halves’. The challenge, the thrill and then the deep appreciation and contentment of the good old ‘normal’. How lucky am I?

23 thoughts on “Winter 21/22: In the garden

  1. Christine Gascoyne says:

    I am also so glad you got to travel back to Australia, as it meant I got to meet you. Your English garden photos are so enticing- just beautiful. Thank you Janna

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, the lunch at Katherine’s was such an enormous highlight of the trip. Just adored every second and every aspect of it! Felt so spoilt to be able to see everyone like that, in such gorgeous surroundings with super yummy food. Very special. Really glad you were able to be there.

  2. Libby Cameron says:

    Lovely Blog, Janna! How different your three ‘halves’ were! Glad you have a cottage in Tassie- but whereabouts in Tassie?? I love that part of Australia!!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you Louise. It’s funny how I’m quite a private person…right up until the moment I have pen and paper (/screen and keyboard) in hand!! I learn quite a lot about myself when that happens – quite eye-opening!

  3. Trevor James Nottle says:

    THE ONLY PLACE TO GARDEN???? As much as I admire your enthusiasm for gardening in England you, and everyone else, can only garden in the places where they live. Dreamland, where-ever it may be – Morocco, Provence, Tasmania, Thailand or Brazil is only Dreamland. Even if you live and make a garden in Oodnadatta, Broome or Mt Isa that is the garden that you can make your best place to garden. The creativity, knowledge and skills of gardeners are what makes satisfying gardening everywhere – well maybe not Siberia, Alaska or the Kalahari, but you know what I mean I am certain.

    • jannaschreier says:

      You make an extremely good point! And of course a writer has a little poetic licence. In my defence, I have lived and gardened in many places – the tropics, sub-tropics, arid places, temperate places; places with clay soil, sandy soil and the ‘perfect’ loam; places with extremely high rainfall, extremely low rainfall and in between rainfall; places with heavy frosts, places with no frosts… So there is some substance behind my thinking, although, as I always say, it is wonderful that we are all individuals, all different, all with different ideas and differences preferences – I only speak for myself! Happy gardening, wherever you are, Trevor!

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’ve just googled you! South Australia?? Where my husband was born. I reckon the Adelaide Hills would be a pretty nice place to garden, although being a soft Pom I wouldn’t be able to get the summer hours in that I can in cold old England!

      • Trevor James Nottle says:

        In Adelaide, and the Adelaide Hills we manage just fine. In hot weather we get up with the sun and work until around 11 before coming inside during the heat of the day. By 5.oopm we can go out again for 3 hrs or longer. It is more or less a Mediterranean climate with cool, wet Winters and long, hot dry Summers with almost no rain from December to the end of April. We grow many of the Trad English flowers but really water dependent ones are difficult – delphiniums. astilbe, meconopsis, rheums, trollius, kirengeshoma. Our soils are mostly alkaline which can be a limiting factor for rhodo’s, azaleas and camellias but ROSES are brilliant and heaps of bulbs. Plants from California, Mexico, South Africa and Chile do pretty well. So we are not discoutaged about gardening but for the very wealthy air-head ladies who come back from Sissinghurst and tell their 1 day a fortnight gardener “I want it like this.” We have feral deer too – NOT.

        • jannaschreier says:

          It sounds quite like gardening in Canberra, although Canberra’s winter rain is less reliable. Funnily enough I don’t plant highly water dependent things here in Oxfordshire – we actually have about the same annual rainfall as Canberra, which people find hard to believe. I think so much of what we tolerate is what we are used to (and what we grew up with). So when Paul complains (about now) about winter having gone on too long, I tell him to stop making a fuss, put another layer on and get on with whatever he wants to do. Whereas Paul telling me, an outdoorsy person, on a glorious summer’s day, to go inside, close the blinds and sit in semi darkness for six hours to wait it out, is just beyond the limits of my marriage! We are very malleable growing up, but less so as we get older, methinks. But it’s wonderful, as a species, we do mostly love (and are very protective of!) wherever we live. What on earth would I do without my gorgeous deer enlivening my garden though?!! They are the best bit!

        • Trevor James Nottle says:

          There are two kinds of feral deer here – cute with white spots and bigger plain red-brown. All were released from some of the grandees garden estates around here when the nearby freeway was put through their private deer parks. So now we have over 100,000 running feral eating every rose in sight, debarking commercial apple a cherry orchards, causing many motor accidents etc. But our gardens go on despite them. Our wild roses are showing thousands of heps – always a great beginning to autumn, and now colchicums are showing through plus Belladonnas, soon nerines, Haemanthus and Scadoxus. Even Brugmansia Josephineae is a few gardens.

        • jannaschreier says:

          Your autumn sounds divine! And yes, I’m much keener on wildlife that is ‘meant’ to be there – natural and in balance with everything else. Much harder trying to manage non-native wildlife. I think I’d be quite excited about kangaroos, echidnas and wombats if I one day have a non-urban Australian garden. Learning how to garden with wildlife is all part of the fun!

  4. James says:

    Janna, what a surprise to find you chatting with Trevor Nottle. I remember Trevor from the time I knew William Martin of Wigandia. Did I ever ask you if you’d visited Wigandia before it was closed? Happy to learn you got back to Australia for a visit at long last. I love seeing your garden.

    • Trevor James Nottle says:

      Hi James, I am still in touch with William Martin. He’s been living in Thailand for many years since closing WIGANDIA. He is teaching in (very poor) local schools for local wages and living in local housing which has him sharing with the water buffalo under the house above. He eats with the householders. He has a strong sense of social justice and lives it too. He is still interested in plants and gardening, and has used gardening as a means of teaching his students to speak English – a means for them to escape rural poverty to city poverty! He stayed there during the entire Covid pandemic though he was unemployed and broke all that time. Just recently he won a job to teach English at a Montessori school in a regional city. Not sure how he will shape up to Montessori methodology but he will be good with day to day engagement and using the language. He migrated with his family as a child and has no formal authorisation to be in Australia, and having been out of the country for more than 10 years it is very difficult for him to return here. His only real option is to return to his land of birth – Ireland but first he has to convince the Australian govt they owe him a retirement pension which they are very reluctant to do. So he stays in Thailand where the cost of living is very low and he can get by – until old age catches up with his health. Then what????

    • jannaschreier says:

      Yes, you did ask, James, but sadly I didn’t get to visit his garden. He sounds like an amazing man and the photos I’ve seen of the garden look incredible. On another note, I do hope you think my garden is slowing moving on from when you saw it! Trevor got me thinking about the act of gardening which led me to think of your lack of enthusiasm for it. And I wondered if you think you might possibly enjoy it, if you weren’t on heavy clay? For me, standing back after a couple of hours and seeing how much better it looks is a huge part of it. But when I gardened on clay, the effort:reward ratio was very very different and my feelings towards it were different. What do you think? (Other than feeling justified for considering me insane all those years ago – that I STILL love my deer five years on must confirm you were right all along!)

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