You may not notice the gradual increase in light, but your birds will. Listen for them. At some point in February, when the atmospherics are just right, I will pass the lavender and smell it for the first time. Later the sun will cross the avenue just high enough to throw its light through the rainbow glass outside my study and a pattern will form on the herringbone brick in the kitchen.
One morning, somewhere towards the end of the month, my labrador will go and take up his position on the cobbles outside my study and he will sniff the air in a totally new, different way. If you own dogs you notice these things. If you live in the country the seasons tick like a giant grandfather clock visible from every window.
The Gregorian calendar contains a mid-winter sleight of hand. I remain childishly excited for Christmas, already three days beyond the shortest day. With everyone else my focus then shifts to the fraudulently named New Year’s Day, by which point the darkest three weeks of the year are already well behind us. That our calendar moves in front of the true solar nadir means that by the beginning of February the two darkest months of the year have already passed.
An astronaut needs a suit to survive space and I need our calendar to survive winter; a generous inheritance from our agrarian ancestors. Of course the trick works in reverse at the other end of the year, but it doesn’t matter so much then. It is easy to think of July and August as “summer” despite the fact that they are in fact the first two months of solar recession.
Gardeners must work with time. Our canvasses jump around through the seasons
Time is parsed by a garden and time is why gardening is different from writing or painting. Unlike painters, gardeners must work with time. Our canvasses shift and jump around through the seasons. Some people can visualise change in their mind’s eye easily, whereas, I have found, others simply cannot. For example, I can see a bed of flowers grow and change through the seasons even as it stands before me empty.
My uncle has an entire border devoted to annuals. It is a bold idea and works well but it would be hard to pull off if you couldn’t imagine your way into high summer. Now is precisely the moment to imagine yourself well into high summer.
By the end of February it will be Lent. What is the cross if not a giant sledgehammer cracking the small nut of time before our eyes? All events, both those before and after, are in some sense organised, made real even, via their relationship to it. From a Catholic point of view, the cross is the organising event for the fabric of reality itself. I have long thought that the best gardens also have a centre; a beating heart, a place that somehow acts as an organising thought for the rest of the garden.
You may not feel like spending time in the garden now, but light is ebbing back and these are among the busiest days in this garden. My garden feels like a ship that must be set for sail, prepared once again for the whirly gig of the summer to come. Cutting, clearing, weeding, tying, tidying, mulching. Sometimes I feel intimidated by what must be done. I have to resist that feeling, otherwise every walk around the garden would be no more than a walk along a giant list of jobs that needed doing.
I sow all my sweet peas in January but wait until Valentine’s Day to start my tomatoes. Now is the last sensible moment to plant a tree, the greatest time-defying act that any gardener is likely to make. Though if you plant trees now, rather than in the autumn, be sure to water them assiduously when summer comes. Look for primroses (the first rose of the season) and bring great bundles of daffodils into your house, they are the joy of spring smelt.