“Winter’s cauldest blasts are aye ahint her wellies”– W.J. Boak.
Battleby’s gardener, Jim Carruthers, struggles between the excitement of the grounds bursting to life with colour and song and the mourning of cosy winter pastimes.
Like frosts, the harbingers of spring come in waves to the gardens here at Battleby. They start in mid-February at the start of the snell winds from Russia that protractedly dog the balm of spring right up until Easter. Most folk would choose the iconic snowdrop as their favourite if not sole harbinger. Accompanying these bulletproof flowers here are Mahonia and Pieris, both fine lures for early bumblebees. At the same time woodpeckers start to drum out their territory. First light sounds like a Japanese percussion concert. By the time staff arrive, they have settled to an odd roll with a tardy response. Most striking of all though are the hunners of scarlet elf cups that radiate from deadwood lying between oaks. Oystercatchers used to pierce my dreams at this time but they haven’t appeared for a few years now.
Next come the early species rhododendron vying with plum blossom for the right to succumb to frost. Unlike humans, both can thole the biting winds. The rooks, having negotiated throughout the winter parliament, start to build their ungainly nests and daffodils will start to bloom on the sunny banking at the bottom of Big Wood.
I’ve spent the morning there attacking the understorey of rhododendron, at least the ones I dislike. Qualification is by their disease or aggression or my vindictiveness. Some of it is the scourge ponticum, originating here from rootstocks used during the wacky Victorian excesses of breeding known as “The Hardy Hybrids”. Early on I caught a beauty – a 2m long layer with an ashet-sized clod of root. I bashed it against a substantial rhodie trunk with gleeful vigour. The dry woodland soil splattered like shot across my face. One moment later, a shower of barely molten frost drenched me.
Later I went home for lunch and left the back door open such was the warmth of the sun. Last night’s leftovers, a mug of Darjeeling and a novel set in the swamps of Louisiana. Hardly had I pushed away the plate when in comes a bumblebee and starts feeding on the £1 bunch of British daffodils. I hear the fridge motoring and I know now we’re in the time when fridges are necessary and not an indulgent way to boost your energy consumption. A wave of regret passes over me. It’s just that winter is ending. No more thick soups, dark stews or rich crumbles. The steamy southern state is losing its attraction. In fact the reading season is away to end, whisky corks will go untouched for the close season, nae mair skeins of geese, the roasting of roosters (no no not the birds, the tatties) is over, the hungry gap approaches, oranges have turned to string and, worst of all, pomegranates are peelie-wally and juiceless, as insipid as spring is invigorating and as dull as this weather is contrary.
The bumblebee visits, it seems, every individual in the host, it moves on to the vibrant blue flowers of the indoor campanula (clip after flowering for a second flush) and then flies away to the kitchen window rather than the door. It buzzes with frustration at the unyielding glass and I manage, at some length, to flap it out the window.
Relieved and annoyed in equal measure, I go back to work. After an hour or so of visiting martial arts on some shrubs under the pretext of rejuvenation, I look to see the way the weather is going and try to decide on headgear for the morns. Will it be the full Mongolian with furry flaps or the Australian bush to keep off the U.V. rays that are ridiculously strong the now? I also do need to decide whether it is time to fit the mower onto the tractor or refit the snowplough. Either is possible, neither just as likely. I probably will decide not to decide. After all this now is the time for fudging. There used to be a time my wee John Deere relished; the gap between winter and spring when he was unfettered by the trappings of any part of those attachments. He could go through gaps, cross stumps, not get stuck by rocks or holes. I recognise his missing exhilaration and we mourn together the good old days when seasons were seasons. Winters were proper and springs just aboot predictable.
As Kurtz might have said, the joys the joys.