Strawberry jam –
summer’s bottled memory
sweet on my tongue.
These last few weeks at St. Peter’s community garden have shown us a little reward for the work we’ve done this year. From a summer meadow shot through with colour to successful crops of peas, beans, and fruit.
Our strawberries seem to swell, blush, ripen to red, and go over in one day with weather as warm as we’ve experienced recently. With crops so fleeting, it feels as though summer moves more quickly than we can in this heat.
Though we can’t slow the seasons we have some tricks. A pan of bubbling jam can mine for memories that have been long forgotten. Why do softening gooseberries smell so familiar and comforting? And when the jars are opened as far away as Autumn or Winter – one taste and the sun will come out and make us feel a little happier.
As for now, it seems there is enough for a small taste…
Last week half the bees in the community garden hive decided to move house. Without a house to move to they took to the skies, flicked about on tiny wings, their wide orbit of the queen shortening as they made their final decision to group in a small tree a few meters from the hive they’d left – now a quiet village of bees doggedly rearing a new queen.
When half a hive swarms, the swarm can be caught. It’s hard to imagine catching a swarm unless you’ve witnessed it before. It was new to us but once the bees had settled – hung in a cone-shape – they didn’t fly but clung to one another and moved and dripped like honey. Now all that was needed was a box – only cardboard but with a structure that could hold some of the combs from the original hive. It was as simple as holding the box underneath the swarm and giving the branch one good hard shake. The bees fell into the box and splashed over the beekeepers. With the main bulk of the bees in the box with the queen, the stragglers turned and marched towards the hole in the front that served as an entrance.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as putting them in a new hive next to the original. If we did that the bees would become confused and return to the swarming-tree. Instead we have had to move them carefully one meter each day towards their final destination. A patient approach made difficult by the rain that now hoofs down on our bees with minimal shelter.
But fingers crossed, by the end of this week we’ll have two happy hive and hopefully more honey… though not quite for nothing!
Last week seems like last year whilst writing today under blue skies with days of Summer weather forecast. Much of last week’s working days were spent inside, sorting the new tool shed and some light weeding when the rain eased. Rain has a bad reputation; the soaker of clothes, spoiler of bank-holidays, ruiner of picnics. With rain life can feel greyer, dreary, and melancholic.
With last week’s rain, St Peter’s Community Garden became Nirvana for all its slug and snail occupants. Their skin glistened with damp slime as they munched and munched their way through beans and brassicas, growing fat on the bounty that the good weather had brought.
The weeds took advantage of the water too, exploding through the flower beds. A crowd now covering our precious plants and boldly threatening to take over the world. This blatant aggression appeared to rub off of the lawns – they became unruly and uncooperative.
But despite rain causing play to halt, enemies to invade, and a mutiny to break out, we welcomed it with parched arms following a April that defied all logic. Next week we will control the lawns, pull the weeds, and repair the damage to vegetables that were thankfully relatively strong. Once the jobs have been done we will see that the rain has brought strength and vigour to the desirable things in the garden as well as the not so desirable!
‘”Well”, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.’
A.A Milne – Winnie-the-Pooh
Last week the hive was full, full of bees, full of honey, and overflowing with brood (bee larvae). This was quite a shock to first time beekeepers like us as when the hive was last opened – at the beginning of April before a cold snap – it was still relatively quiet. Each comb was lifted from the hive for inspection. As we systematically moved towards the centre they became heavier and heavier – honey glistening inside. The bees seemed grumpier than usual – maybe they react like people to an overcrowded house. When a hive is full, an extra ‘super’ can be stacked on the top. The super acts as another storey to the hive so the bees have more room to store honey. We moved through the inspection quickly and when everything was back in place we added a ‘queen excluder’. The queen excluder has holes big enough for workers but not for the queen. This means she will only lay eggs on the first floor of their home leaving the top floor just for honey. We then added the new super. With the super in place, the girls can start collecting honey for the community gardens to sell in summer!
When the hive is back together the bees calm down – focussed on the continuous task of foraging – too busy to bother anyone nearby. Around the clearing where the bees live, the new undergrowth of spring has shot-up – lush, green, and shaded by the bramble hedges. In here it feels like a child’s den. The bees are hypnotic in their movement – their single-mindedness. The birds sing and when the sun peeps out nothing needs to change.
Though honey is a great draw to keeping bees – could it ever be as sweet as this perfect juxtaposition of activity and tranquillity our bees bring to the garden?
A tree too big to embrace
Is born from a slender shoot
A nine-storey tower
Rises from a pile of earth
A thousand-mile journey
Begins with a single step
We took our first steps towards our new community hall this week. As the bees rally around the hive – busy with the big spring clean and foraging – so too do volunteers, church goers, and garden goers rally around the hall. They unpack everything from storage and take it into the new building that stands in the footprint of the old.
This time of year is filled with first steps and fresh starts. It’s young, reborn, and new. Spirits are renewed by the warming weather and lengthening days. Most of our vegetable beds are filled – even the Jerusalem Artichoke we’d all but given-up on are showing their feathery tips. New flowers open everyday – their foliage foaming into large tufts of rich greens – and blossom drifts from the fruit trees leaving carpets of confetti on the paths.
Now the construction fences have gone and the paths have been renewed around the hall we can welcome the community back into their garden – to wander the paths, or simply sit and enjoy the spring with a cup of tea and some sunshine.
Recently the pond at St. Peter’s community garden has had regular visits from a pair of ducks – a male and a female. To begin with they were quite shy – taking to the sky even if we inched too close to the fence. Over time it seems they’ve got used to the business and bustle of Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in the garden. Last week as we chipped a pile of branches and garden waste next to the pond, the ducks paddled about without a care.
Maybe this boldness is due to the time of year as it seems St. Peter’s Community garden is not the only place where the local ducks are becoming brave. Whilst passing through Fairwater park today I spotted a mallard stood on top of a large 5ft stump from a tree that was felled last week. The scene was surreal – a duck on a perch that would befit a majestic bird of pray. At first it raised a giggle but that somehow seemed unkind – why shouldn’t this natural pedestal suit a duck? However the world perceives ducks – they still have the right to stand with the proud majesty and confidence of an eagle.
Perhaps we can learn a great deal from this duck!
Brushed by April breeze –
only Wednesday morning hangs
from your beanless stem
The days are longer, the weather warmer. Now it’s easier to enjoy tasks in the garden without thoughts of the next tea break.
This week we planted out the host of broad beans started off in the greenhouse. It’s easy to feel reluctant to plant them out. Are they strong enough, hardened-off enough, will they withstand a tsunami of slugs that pour forth on wet-weekends? However dangerous the outside world might be to a broad bean plant – they have to make their way in life. In the past we’ve had whole crops decimated by slugs, snails, aphids, carrot-fly, wind, weather, big feet. In gardening, disappointment and regret can rule but only if they are allowed to!
When we planted out broad beans this week – the passion of the volunteers went into the action of planting. We planted in good company and sunshine. We learned lessons about the garden, about one another, and ourselves. We planted and enjoyed that moment without a thought for future-beans. Now even if we gain no return from our work at all, we at least enjoyed the process. Maybe that is the most important bit of all!
This week we leaned on the wrong stump. This is a very large stump from a tree felled in the original clear-up of the St. Peter’s Community Garden site – in 2008 before St. Peter’s Community Garden was a garden at all – long before this team leader had even thought about being a gardener. As we leaned the stump began to disintegrate and as we pulled, it became apparent its heart had rotted out and we pulled and we pulled until heaps of soft fibrous wood lay on our rockery.
In the stump of the old tree, where the heart has rotted out, there is a hole the length of a man’s arm, and a dank pool at the bottom of it where the rain gathers, and the old leaves turn into lacy skeletons. But do not put your hand down to see, because
From In the Stump of the Old tree by Hugh Sykes Davies (read the poem in its entirety here: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/poem-in-the-stump-of-the-old-tree/)
Our stump isn’t quite as sinister as Hugh Sykes Davies’s. Hands did go in and came back out again unscathed! Instead our stump seems to be telling us something. Over the last few months we’ve watched our community hall dismantled and a new one built in its place. Our new hall will have more storage for our equipment and a good sized room for us to have breaks, work when the weather is bad, and use as a teaching centre. Like our disintegrating stump the removal of the old hall has been the end of an era but the new era comes with so much promise.
All is not lost – we’ve been left with a partial stump with new architecture and with that has come new plans. There’s now space to plant things inside, and the wildlife doesn’t mind despite our stump’s new shape.
‘If you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes’ and whilst writing today it’s difficult to remember the joys of spring that were burgeoning forth last week. The sky is grey and a consistent downpour taps at the windows. But it’s an inside day today and the rain is a friend who helps to make the inside seem just that little bit more cosy and relaxing.
This week at St. Peter’s community garden we were surprised to see tadpoles already hatching from their jelly-homes – maybe the sunshine and spring-promise had tricked them too! When stood on the bank of the pond looking down, the now vacated eggs are a pearl white set in the green tinge of the water, and around them a black swirling mass of tiny tadpoles. The effect is like a deep space nebula and a sudden feeling of being privy to a universal secret!
Now all we can do is wish them luck as they explore their universe more and attempt to avoid predators that already lurk in the weeds and by the pond edge.
On a day like today it seems impossible to write about anything other than Spring. When writing about Spring it seems impossible to write anything unique. It’s easy to place blame on artists and poets like Wordsworth and his host of golden daffodils – but maybe Spring itself is a cliché! The days are happy and bright, life is once again burgeoning forth, the birds are singing, the lambs bleating, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in it – however cynical a person might be.
The very nature of the season brings a childlike naivety back into life after the apathy of late winter. When walking to work this morning, a high number of people caught my eye and said good morning. One man even asked how I was as he perched on a low wall – his face reflecting the sunshine. It’s unlikely that would have happened a few weeks ago. Despite our sheltered lives differing from ancestors’ – the seasons still play a part in them, even if it is just an extra good feeling from time-to-time as the sun shines through a window before an alarm goes off, or a crocus opens at the roadside.
Trying not to sound too smug – I count myself lucky. Having spent ten years in indoor jobs each day I get to spend working in the garden is a good day. Even when the winter cold bites or the summer sun makes me want to pack up and go to the seaside I remind myself of where I was and where I am now.
I explained the enchantment of the garden last week, and here’s the proof. The Broad beans we planted have started to push their way through the compost. It may not seem much to look at but it can make a person feel like a conjurer!
But as I finish writing the lonely clouds have made a lot of new friends. This morning’s spring teaser appears to be over for now. So I will end on another cliché…
This too will pass.