MARCH excuses & distractions
February’s chilly gardening blues have been replaced with March gardening joy. The sun has been shining on the roof all week, bathing it in warmth and painting it purple and yellow. Pots of crocuses and daffodils have brought the space back to life. I had a snatched picnic lunch out there for the first time in months the other day. To be lounging briefly in my golden hanging garden again – minus hat, scarf, gloves and the ‘it’s not really that cold’ mantra of denial – was both glorious and a relief. Phew that spring has arrived at long last, that green growths are bursting up all over the place and heavy winter coats can finally be replaced with spring jackets.
London and her Londoners have been much more cheerful since the weather improved. Evenings are lighter again and sunny mornings are beginning to ring with birdsong. It’s hard not to feel heartened. I’ve been finding all manner of elaborate excuses to spend as much time as possible in the park. Regent’s Park and Kensington Gardens, both just minutes from the hell that is Oxford Street, have had an extraordinary magnetism for me of late. Both are speckled with bright spring flowers but both are also hosting some impressive wildlife at the moment, of the feathered variety.
An island in the boating lake at Regent’s Park is home to London’s most central heronry, with a selection of tall, still leafless trees holding huge nests where the pterodactyl-like birds are sitting on eggs. Everyday an old lady visits the lake bearing sprats for the herons’ lunch. They know her well and flock to her side to savour her fishy treats.
Further west in bijou Kensington Gardens, which borders huge Hyde Park, a tawny owl couple have just had four owlets. The birds are easy to spot in the old oak and plane trees, sleeping out during the day and hunting by night. The baby birds are chubby balls of grey fluff, with dark eyes, tiny beaks and long talons. Although still very young and vulnerable, they’re already good climbers and can fly from tree to tree.
Who would have thought central London could boast flocks of herons feeding together in a chaotic squabble (they’re normally solitary feeders), or a pair of tawny owls nurturing a new family, with all handsome members clearly visible during the day?
Last Sunday, the day the weather changed and everything improved in fact, I went tree planting in Hackney. Cycling has become a pleasure again and I zipped east with the wind in my hair and the sun in my eyes. I met three inspiring people who are on various growing missions, one of which is on a low rise housing estate. Last year residents grew vegetables in raised beds, and so far this year local people have got together and planted over thirty fruit trees, turning their communal space into something of an orchard. In a few years time it will literally be dripping with fruit. I went to help plant the final trees – a few varieties of apple, plus pear, mulberry and plum. Digging huge holes, I especially enjoyed the many fat worms we came across on our journey down into the clayey soil.
The estate sits in what feels like a special corner of the city, at the top of a road where everyone seems to know each other, where fruitful front gardens are nurtured for all to enjoy and there’s a rich supply of free compost from a communal heap. The energy and enthusiasm of the people running the tree planting session was infectious and the experience had a sort of magic about it, which has got into my veins and made me silly excited. There’s nothing quite like bonding with interesting new people over a confusion of soil and food growing ambitions.
So back in my corner of London, I’ve planted seeds and they’ve grown. The sproutlings are now about three weeks old and some, the runner beans, are already rather large. As well as towering baby runners, I have tomato, carrot, courgette, yellow squash, sugar and sweet pea plants. Oh so exciting. My bedroom is returning to its jungle-like state of last year and I’m really enjoying it. Every morning and evening there’s an inspection to see how much they’ve grown. Sometimes inspections are mere minutes apart, when I’m feeling particularly keen or perhaps slightly overwrought. There’s nothing like the progress from seed to sprout to keep a person thoroughly distracted.