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  • Clare Tindal

The Vegetable Garden

We are living at Lough Mardal again after a long winter. It's lovely to be back - and be back for good. Spring is in the air, green shoots and buds are starting to appear, colour is being restored. The toddlers are enjoying outdoor life having come out of a kind of hibernation, there was rarely a day over winter they wouldn't get blown away. They were only just crawling when we left last autumn - a whole world of exploration has opened up to them now. I'm not sure I would have predicted 'worm' being amongst their first words. Our project is progressing slowly. We are still wading through building regulation red tape for our strawbale Lodge. Had we gone for a more conventional, less eco type of building it would no doubt have been quicker (cheaper, easier..!). Just pending now is our Fire Cert and then our Notice of Commencement can finally be submitted and we will be one step closer to being able to start building.

In my previous life Spring was synonymous with festival launches. A hectic time trying to get artists confirmed, artwork signed-off, website overhauled, advertising deals wrangled, media schmoozed and, critically, tickets on sale. It always felt like a juggernaut coming down the tracks after the quiet Winter downtime and always a bit frazzling. And although great exhilaration came from the countdown to a successful launch the prospect of a more 'zen-like' Spring has been hugely appealing.

Getting a vegetable patch ready for our new self-sufficient life sounded like it could be zen-like-ish. That was naively assuming Mother Nature did all the hard work. But I realise now you never hear of her having a sore back from all the digging. Or getting muddled trying to decide the best course of action for somewhat acidic soil. Or drainage issues. If she has to squabble with her husband on a continual basis for a go of the wheelbarrow one never knew. It now occurs to me that Mother Nature may have it relatively easy. But you do hear of her running late due to bad weather. We too are running late.

Being clueless in this whole department I signed up for a Beginners Gardening Course at The Organic Centre in nearby Leitrim. We covered 'rotation' and 'companion gardening', 'chitting', 'cloches' and 'mulch'. And we sowed seeds in 'modular trays' which were taken home to germinate. Amazingly the following week there were tiny seedlings sprouting up through the compost. The false sense of achievement (I mean I did nothing... bar the occasional sprinkle of water) was very encouraging. It could only go downhill from here. Nevertheless I impulsively went mad on a reputable online shop buying a virtual A-Z of vegetable seeds; broccoli, carrots, courgette, kale, leeks, onion, parsnip, spinach, two types of potato (am very fond of potato)...and a plethora more. And an 'oscillating hoe'. I'm still not sure what this does but every self-respecting gardener appears to have one.

Lovely Aunt Rosemary gave us a book by the ex-Head Gardener at the The Organic Centre – Klaus Laitenberger ‘Vegetables for the Irish Garden’. We had invested in much heavier and more expensive books by Monty Don and John Seymour but, unlike the other two, Klaus has first-hand experience growing in the challenging conditions of the North West of Ireland. Enough said. Klaus is ‘The Man’. He is our go-to reference point – as was Gina Ford when we decided to grow humans. Similarly as with her ‘Contented Little Babies’ book I break out in a cold sweat when Klaus’ book goes missing for 24hrs.

We are now following Klaus’ advice to the letter. We nourished our soil last Autumn. Marcus slogged long hours, days and weeks back and forth with his trailer collecting horse manure and separately seaweed, both sourced locally for free and equally stinky. The garden was wind-proofed, vital on our exposed hill. Quite some time was spent marking out the beds, first on paper (what veg to sow - grouped per family, how many beds, what shape & sizes, the direction to face them, etc.) then physically laying out each bed with string looped around sticks. Then re-doing it as first attempt was shambolic. Old oyster shells have been used to create paths around each bed, good for drainage and a slug deterrant. Also nice to look at but not so nice to fall on as the girls will testify.

Start small everyone said. Which we promptly ignored - for some reason we have laid out 16 beds and are now faced with the back-breaking task of getting each of them ready for sowing. They all need to be dug up, de-stoned (or de-bouldered!), undecomposed remains of the now putrid horse manure and seaweed need to be sifted out and wheelbarrowed away, compost added, raked...all amounting to serious manual labour and way more time than I ever could have imagined it would take. Free time comes in short spurts making gardening a very stoppy-starty affair. Invariably at least one toddler is about to catapult herself off a ditch at any given time. Sometimes despite having so much space to play one will (and they take it in turns) remain glued to my side as I dig, whinging throughout. Or one will decide to 'help' by putting stones in the seaweed bucket and seaweed in the stone bucket. Cute for 30 seconds but that wears off. Or both will just clamour all over the bed you're trying to dig getting covered in mud from head to toe - you look up to find yourself being attacked by toddler Zombies. Then other times I'll look up and see them on a nearby bed very quietly and contentedly examining and sifting through the soil, their Dad behind them working on another bed....all four of us in our own way engrossed in the earth. It makes me laugh when I find myself dreaming of just one uninterrupted hour...and I think of all those childless years and all that time and not one vegetable did I feel the impulse to grow. Not even a herb on a windowsill. I'll say one thing though - the exercise is great. Not since my Ashtanga Yoga-going days have my buttocks ached this much.

Anyway, thankfully we’ve had amazing volunteers come to help us and some of them have been invaluable prepping the beds and paths - thank you particularly Luis (from Spain) and Geoffrey (from France).

Sowing traditionally starts beginning of April but... after the last frost. I struggle to fathom how even the most experienced gardener is meant to predict which frost is the last frost? Maybe this wisdom comes when fingers start turning green. Running as late as we are we are hoping for more frost, a first. All our beds require a lot more work and we have an increasing number of indoor seedlings all getting leggy and straggly, glaring at me daily, desperate to be moved outside to spread their roots. It's another consecutive day of rain, unsuitable for digging. I'm trying not to get stressed...

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