I experienced a small revelation this week. Please don’t get too excited, but it seems significant to me.
Tidying the garden at the end of the season can be likened to clearing up after a good party. Everyone has left, having had a good time, and you the hosts are glowing in the knowledge that your friends have enjoyed their evening. But then there’s the realisation that there is a lot of mess to be tidied up. Do you do it there and then? or leave it until the morning?
If you do it straight away, on the positive side, it is done and dusted. But as you clear up you risk spoiling your own enjoyment of the evening. Resentment starts to bubble up, fed by the thought that all your lovely friends are tucked up in bed, while you are still extracting half-empty glasses from behind the sofa. And there is always the temptation to skimp – after all, you need sleep too. The job gets half-done, leaving work still to be done in the morning.
If you leave it completely, and simply trot off to bed as soon as the last guest has left, then you can at least awake refreshed and invigorated to get on with the tidy-up. Of course, it’s still a pig of a job, but it needs doing, and you can crack on in the light, with the radio on, and clear the decks for a new day.
On balance, I certainly favour the second option.
And so it is, I now realise, with the garden. In short, clearing away after the summer’s excitement and pleasure, ‘putting the garden to bed’ as we call it, is nowehere near as pleasurable as ‘waking it up’.
The big autumn tidy is always a chore. Everything you touch reminds you of the season just gone. Not that this is a bad thing, memories of the summer can fuel us into the dark months. But it does rather underline the point that the dark months are imminent. And the weather is often far from conducive to productive tidying. For every clear, dry, November day with the smoke from a bonfire making its wistful way across the blue sky, there are any number of dull, damp, drizzly, miserable days when everything is soaked and limp.
And that, of course, is when the shortcuts creep in – either because time necessitates them, or because the will is lacking. However much we tidy in late autumn, there will be stuff that gets left undone.
And, for the wildlife-minded gardener, that is how it should be anyway. We need to leave a good amount of old stalks and stems, windfalls and dead leaves, to harbour the wee beasties and their predators through the winter.
To say nothing of the sheer beauty of a frost-whitened fennel head.
Whereas, and this is what I really felt profoundly this week, going out in the first of the new year’s sunshine, and not ‘putting to bed’ but ‘awakening’ the garden, is a joyful experience. A job to relish rather than endure. Clearing the way for new growth, seeing the first signs of that growth – a few snowdrops here, the tiny but perfect early leaves of Alchemilla, bulbs reminding me where I put them by poking their shoots through the mulch – this is what gardening is really about.