PHIL CALVERT: The sap is rising and spring is nearly here

Phil Calvert

Phil Calvert

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It was nice to come home on Tuesday to find all my girls jostling for position at the stove to make dinner. On the menu, of course, were pancakes, one of the simplest and quickest concoctions known to man. The mix is simply milk, plain flour and eggs – in other words, the same as Yorkshire pudding mix – and it produces a delicious meal in under two minutes.

In our case, there was a bit of an argument over whether you need any fat in a non-stick pan and the answer is not necessarily, but they taste much better with a dash of sunflower oil, olive oil or even butter in the pan first. With two pans on the go we took turns to keep churning out pancakes, all smothered in lemon juice and sprinkled with sugar, until we had had our fill. An easy quick tea and one loved by all present.

But, of course, pancakes soon begin to weigh heavily on your stomach (...at least they do if you eat as many as we did) and conversation moved to Ash Wednesday and what we might give up for Lent. Carbohydrates were suggested by my youngest as she hauled herself from the dinner table, followed immediately by a whoop of delight as she spied the boxes of honey nut cornflakes, bought at her request in the week’s shopping. Cynic that I am, I concluded that in truth no one was going to abstain from much this Lent.

For Wifey and I, however, Ash Wednesday marks something of a landmark. Unlike creatures that hibernate, we do not have a groggy awakening as temperatures start to rise and days get longer. Nevertheless, all around us there are signs in nature and in our gardens, of the approach of spring. We start to spot the first bumble bees, the first yellow celandines coming into flower, the spawning frogs in our garden ponds, and the arrival of new season trees, shrubs and perennial plants.

Timing has not been easy. We have spent much of the winter, between the all too frequent hard frosts, trying to lay concrete to renew the garden centre and generally smarten the place up and at times I have wondered if I have bitten off more than I can chew. But an awareness of the passing weeks and ever nearing start of spring has kept me fired up and the momentum going.

As things have turned out, with us teetering on the very brink of spring, I think I have managed to achieve all I hoped to in time for the start of this my favourite season. As a plant lover, I love to see the return of life in our gardens and countryside of plants which have lain dormant. More of a late-winter flower, the crocus are already in bloom, but hot on their tails are the daffodils, now coming into heavy bud.

The young bark on trees seems to become increasingly luminous in spring sunlight, pussy willows emerge, and the odd flower emerges on the early cherries. Buds on everything start to swell as sap starts to rise and the first leaf shoots make a tentative appearance.

Before long the yellow forsythias have burst into flower with the pink flowers of the flowering currants hot on their heels. Roses start to be smothered in little leaf shoots. Among the perennials there is an increasingly urgent burst into life. Peonies start to push shoots out of the ground, the hellebores are in flower, and the odd flower starts to appear on the winter-battered aubreitias.

All this means things start to get busy for me at work as gardeners emerge to buy packets of seeds, replace the odd plant, buy compost and generally get ready for a new growing season. We will share tales of harsh weather, winter casualties, surprise successes, but most of all, an eager anticipation of what the new growing season will bring. It is a wonderful time of year.

It is strange, however, that it is hard to say just exactly when spring begins...soon, very soon I know! The calendar says the spring equinox occurs on March 20th or 21st (this year it is the 20th) and this marks a clear shift when we get more daytime than night, and traditionally this marks the beginning of spring.

But in the garden things are far more subtle. You can be out there, listening to bird song while you snip away at the roses, sow a packet of seeds or perhaps give the lawnmower an early outing and as you hang your jacket on the gatepost and feel the warm sun on your face.

You will look around and see the early spiraea are in flower, the seed trays are suddenly packed full of seedlings and the pansies are smothered in flowers and you will realise spring has indeed arrived at last.

So what have I given up for Lent? From now on my free time is pretty much nil, so you might say that as work takes increasing precedence, I give up leisure. But while working with plants during the spring is very hard work and involves long hours of toil, seven days a week, it most certainly is not giving up pleasure.

How could handling and being among beautiful things be anything else? Happy days!