I wanted to write a post about spring in the Midlands but first I decided to find out more about what causes the changes in the seasons and how the start of spring is determined. (It never ceases to amaze me how little I know about such matters.) We all know that seasons divide the year into four distinct periods of time – each one bringing different weather, hours of light, and plant/animal behaviours. But how does one define the start of a new season?
In meteorological terms each season is defined as a three-month period, with September 1 as the start of spring in the southern hemisphere. However, astronomers base the date of the seasons on celestial events – the spring and autumnal equinox and the summer and winter solstice. The astronomical start of spring is therefore normally around September 22, about three weeks after the meteorological one.
A third definition of the start of spring comes from phenology – the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events. The start of spring in this field is dictated not by a set date or a single event, but changes in the natural world.
Dr Kate Lewthwaite, project manager for Nature’s Calendar for the Woodland Trust, which is calling on the public to help with observations, said that for different people the change of the season was signified for different events, meaning in phenology the definition was more personal.
For some the first blackberry, which can ripen in July, heralds autumn, while for others it has arrived when the trees are bare, which can occur in December. “We have a much more fluid definition of when the seasons start. The seasons are definitely there, but exactly when they start varies between years and the long term trend of the seasons seems to be shifting as a result of climate change,” she said.”
Certainly, in the years that I’ve lived here, spring has never arrived spot on September 1, which is the meteorological definition. So I’m inclined to go with a combination of the astronomical and phenological definitions. This year we only started to see signs of spring arriving towards the end of September and by mid-October we could quite confidently say it had settled in. That’s when we started cracking on with our veg propagation and planting in the hope that all threat of a late frost had past. Of course, one never knows – last year I planted sweet potatoes in the first week of November; that night there was snow on the ‘berg and the very next day we had a frost that wiped out most of the plants. Although warm days have been few and far between, plants have been springing into life left, right and centre amidst much drizzle and mist. One can almost feel the stirring happening beneath the soil and the asparagus patch of course makes this awakening quite visible as the spears tenaciously thrust their way upwards. Asparagus and artichokes are quintessential spring veggies and we seem to have them in abundance this year.
Thandi, bless her cotton socks, enjoys preparing artichokes – a break from the tedium of housework I guess. So when she’s trimmed a batch, halved them and removed the chokes, I braise them in light olive oil and wine with home-grown thyme and garlic. The cooked and slightly caramelised artichokes then get smothered in my favourite extra virgin olive oil, Tokara, which Judy gets for me from Checkers in Durban – I love the taste and the memories it evokes of my frequent visits to Tokara with Alex when he lived in Stellenbosch. Keeping the artichokes sott’olio (“under the oil”) preserves them until pizza night when we combine them with fresh asparagus to make the most delectable pizza topping. Who needs Debonairs when you’ve got frozen pizza bases from Woolies and spring veggies? Although I must confess one of the things I do miss since moving to the country is not being able to order in pizza (or Chinese for that matter) when we’re too shagged out to cook.
Another sign of spring is the birds – I saw my first swallows here a couple of weeks ago and his nibs, the pintailed whydah bird, is back at the bird feeder and a-courtin’ with a vengeance. Some of the other LBJs have become splotches of red and black as they moult into their breeding plumage. The front garden is home to a variety of birdfeeders – mixed fowl food for the francolins, wild and garden bird seed for the seed eaters, fruit for the bulbuls and sugar water for the sunbirds. It sometimes gets a bit bloody raucous, what with all the chattering, squawking and swizzling going on. Ah yes, spring has definitely arrived, but unfortunately we are still waiting for our spring rains. We’ve had dribs and drabs but nothing to write home about just yet.
Recently Kho and I made 2 raised beds in the allotment using wood slabs that Peter bought for R50 from the local sawmill. After we screwed the slabs onto poles which had been sunk into the ground, we lined the insides with thick plastic and filled each bed with compost from our own heaps. It was fun getting stuck in to something again and I was right proper chuffed with the results. I’m going to use one bed for salad stuff and the other as a seed bed. What a pleasure it is to garden without getting down on one’s knees – I wish all our veggie beds were raised.
Our potatoes in the orchard are looking very healthy on top; I’m hoping that they’re as impressive underneath the soil.
Mielies, squash and strawberries are also coming along quite nicely in the orchard. And in the allotment we are harvesting lettuce, spinach, kale, artichokes, asparagus, leeks and garlic. Peter has been busy propagating veggie seedlings from heirloom seed – tomatoes, cucumber, chillies and peppers and I’m hoping we are going to have enough of a surplus of these in summer to pickle or freeze.
Other than as a pizza topping, I mostly prepare asparagus with eggs. However, the other evening I was in need of comfort food, after a day of not feeling so great, and I made Asparagus Cream Pasta. So simple but wonderfully tasty and therapeutic – I’ve put the recipe on my Recipes Page.