The central fact of February, in this garden at least, is excitement. Moments of almost warm light bring forth the smell of damp springy earth. There are even hints of green sappy scents and, as the month progresses, there will be a moment towards the end when I will pass the lavender and catch the faintest whiff of its sweet oils. It stops me in my tracks every year, like an old friend waving from across the field.
Though February can be the coldest of the three winter months it is importantly the lightest. Compared with the shortest day we have almost an hour and half more light as we enter the month and a whopping three hours more light each day as we leave it. This is not small beer if, like me, you find the dark first few weeks of January a real struggle.
My wife suffers more as the year turns in on itself in November but I don’t; I seem to stall in that moment that immediately follows the shortest day. The year is turning back to light, and in some dim recess of my mind this is well-noted, but what I long for takes too long to arrive. It is easy not to think of home when there is no chance of returning to it. But the last day of term, when an assembly and a long car journey still separate you from home is often the hardest part, and so it is with January. It can be a troublesome spot for me. I am twitchy and haggard and everything is harder. As mentioned in my last column, I have compensated by allowing myself to do lots of gardening during the month, but February will always have the inestimable benefit of not being January.
As mentioned, being busy can be terribly useful at this time of year and some non-gardening work can be done outside in the garden too, especially telephone calls. The sadness is when real desk work (especially emails) pull one back from the garden on the brink of a bright crisp day. This has happened to me quite a lot this winter because I have been arranging an art fair to be held at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge at the end of February. It is just the sort of task that leads to endless (quite long) emails. Later in the year I will set my desk up in the garden, and even typing can be done outside, but for now it is simply too cold and one’s fingers get too stiff. I have tried but every second letter is wrong and the end result unintelligible!
There is some modern superstition that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up after the 6 January. On the other hand, look at the appallingly muddled modern interpretation of All Hallows’ Eve. I read recently that medieval Catholic England would leave its Christmas decorations up until Candlemas – 2 February. I suspect the modern world brought Christmas to an end early because it wanted people to get back to factories without a moment’s delay but the ancient calendar makes far more sense: Candlemas is a moment of true turning.
The divorce rate is higher in January than any other month. As the garden teaches us, everyone feels differently by March. Come March the song birds all start to get married and the hares are madly boxing and leaping all over the place, with the same thing in mind. Young couples should have a session on the perils of the annual calendar before they tie the knot.
This year, the largest of my winter gardening jobs that I managed to complete – despite all the emails – was to tidy the pond, which I undertake once every three years. I have two great stands of incredibly fast-growing willow and if I don’t coppice them they suck water from the pond inexhaustibly. Besides I have a large and splendid population of dragon flies and damsel flies (Odonata, in the trade) and they don’t like too much shade at the water’s edge, so keeping the banks in some sort of dappled but not shaded arrangement is best. They are such beautiful creatures, I cannot wait for my first encounter. When I see them my heart sings with the psalm “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised”.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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