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  • Glynis Roache

The Magic of Spring

Updated: Mar 24

March is always confounding in its unpredictability. This year it came to us on the tail of a winter gale, hurling heavy rain and continuing in a similar vein with a variety of gusts and roars interspersed with sunshine and showers. Together with the ever present threat of snow, it had me endlessly holding up wet fingers to the wind, trying to divine what was coming next.

       ‘Private view on April 28,’ says Andrew.

      What sacrifice should I make and to which god? What can actually make this garden happen on time?

      And yet, even as I was holding up panicky fingers to the wind things had been happening. The days had been lengthening and, despite the rain and the ricocheting temperatures, the silent, sequential procession of the daffodil flowering had been moving along. From ancient King Alfreds in the field through Jack Snipes and Tête-à-Têtes to the progressing readiness of Thalia and Narcissus poeticus, known as pheasant’s eye. Camassia, bluebell and hemerocallis foliage seemed to be not there one minute and at full height the next. The irrepressible, almost magical, life force that is spring had been bringing forth leaves in spectacular fashion while I was busy focusing on ever bigger and more emphatic raindrops sliding down the double glazing.

       Of course, spontaneous and rapid as it seems, there is no real magic to this spurt of spring growth. It’s all a scientifically understood process. Bulbs, for example, have biological clocks that tell them when to sprout roots, when to stem, when to sprout leaves, when to flower and, finally, when to die down and go into dormancy. This ‘clock’ is actually an internal molecular process made up of various genes and proteins that interact with each other in response to environmental cues - primarily temperature, light, and moisture. 

     The nose of the bulb gets to ground level on energy that has been stored in the bulb by dint of photosynthesis that took place in the previous year’s foliage (which is why you have to leave it on there till it withers) and then, once the nose is out into the light, photosynthesis can begin in the new foliage for this year.

     From there on, the growth can be more or less represented by equations. Take carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, elucidate the light-dependent reactions taking place in the plant’s chloroplasts, call these processes things like non-cyclic photophosphorylation et voila - leaves. All is clear.

      Unless you are, or were, an Austrian occultist and philosopher called Rudolf Steiner. Steiner believed that the cosmos was permeated and continually transformed by the creative activity of what he sometimes referred to as elementals. He wrote : ‘We must not speak merely of the solid elements, sodium, calcium and so on, but of that which is connected with all solid, earthly things as spiritual. Wherever we look at the solid, we also find, if we look at it in the right way, spiritual things, and indeed many and manifold spiritual beings.’ 

      He counted, among these spiritual beings, gnomes. Now gnomes are an ancient feature of folklore, and they’ve inserted themselves into prominent stories and movies and resided as plastic effigies in half the gardens of suburbia. But in truth, according to Steiner, they are in every garden, everywhere. And always have been. Not as red jacketed, blue trousered bits of kitsch but as themselves. Just as higher beings apparently live in the upper astral layers, the gnome has its astral home in the interior of the earth. A living earth from whose ‘spiritual-soul layers’ gnomes rise to live as root spirits and carry the life ether to the plant. And, yes, the word was ether - (sometimes spelt aether)not either. If I am interpreting Steiner correctly, he is referring to a force necessary to explain the phenomenon of life itself - a force that cannot be reduced to purely physical or chemical processes. Something like the idea of ‘vitalism’ which was another attempt to address the origin and nature of life. But vitalism is now officially damned and ‘abiogenesis’, otherwise referred to as the OOL or origin of life theory, seeks to explain how life could actually arise from purely non-living matter through natural processes such as chemical evolution. The research is aimed at bridging the gap between the inanimate and the animate through mechanisms like self-replicating molecules and the development of primitive cellular structures, without the need for a separate vital/guiding force that may or may not be transmitted by gnomes. Or their ‘above ground’ equivalents. Offhand, I can’t quite remember the name of the elemental that then promotes the formation of leaves but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t photophosphorylation. Could have been an ‘undine’.

       It is remarkable that Steiner’s ideas gained any significant amount of ground at a time (start of the twentieth century) when the Scientific Enlightenment had already anointed itself as chief purveyor of empirical truths. Even more remarkable is the fact that these ideas have continued to maintain a level of currency and are still propagated through the agency of the Anthroposophical Society (HQ in Switzerland), Waldorf Schools and biodynamic agriculture. 

       Perhaps, old ideas deeply rooted in some ancestral folk memory have always  given us an unconscious affinity with concepts that can’t be written down as equations or subjected to double blind trials. Steiner was barely out of nappies when Thomas Hardy wrote ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ in which he mentions what he called ‘dryads’ waking up for the vernal quarter and setting off, ‘ bustlings, strainings, united thrusts and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pygmy efforts’. 

     Hardy’s literary excursion into dryads was almost two hundred years after Isaac Newton and not that long before Einstein. It did not, of course, relay anything more than a tickled fancy and yet, it is in very much the same vein as the ideas of Steiner. 

    For all that Steiner must have known that it was never possible for his theories to meet the parameters established by the Scientific Enlightenment, he tried his best to rationalise his ideas into a concept that he called ‘Spiritual Science’. To bear witness to this world of gnomic spirituality and the various inhabitants thereof, one had, he said, to ‘creatively interact and reenact within their creative activity’. He gave instructions. I haven’t consulted said instructions because, being a very basic model, I doubt I stand much chance of acquiring any sort of ‘sight’.

      And it certainly hasn’t arrived spontaneously. Though, according to some, it could. Sartre wrote that we impose magic upon the world as a result of our emotional state. But he also wrote that the reverse could happen - an irruption of magic could come from the world because there is an existential structure to the world that is magic. For all the hours I’ve spent in greenhouse and garden, propagating plants and endeavouring to match them to the genius loci of this place, no other layers of existence have been generous enough to irrupt for me. I can claim nothing more dramatic than the fact that my consciousness is apparently less aware of certain ‘goings on’ in this world than that of the average daffodil or camassia bulb. 

       On the other hand, I gave birth to very weird sons … So outright scepticism is tempered by maternal predisposition coupled  with the fact that many years ago, in vet practice, we had an interesting experience sparked by an X-ray machine. It had an intermittent fault which meant that it didn’t reliably go ‘off’. But it also happened that we had a secretary who had no idea that she wasn’t supposed to be able to see X-rays. One day, when a staff shortage meant she was dragooned into helping with the radiography, she started telling us whether or not the machine had functioned. And she was always right. Because she could see the beam. Naturally, this was startling but, in truth, with all the cows in the locality (and in those days on South Devon’s endless dairy farms there were thousands and thousands  of them) bent on coordinating their health catastrophes in order to ensure that our best attention was always focussed on them, nobody gave it much more thought than, ‘this is a help’. 

     Of course, X-ray beams are proven to exist. Gnomes, not so much.

    But, in spite of poor powers of perception, I have an inclination to whimsy and I admit to finding Steiner’s ideas more than a little entertaining. I wouldn’t like to close off any possible appreciation of such things because I think my inner landscape could become a bit grim then. I’ve a strange inner child that was raised on old fashioned fairy stories and a lot of wandering in the local woods, and sometimes this child pops right through the superimposed layers of materialist science and demands sustenance. So even now, if I stand quietly amongst the trees, surrounded by the burgeoning green shoots of spring, I sometimes get a feeling that all around me lies everything there is to be known, everything there is to be understood, just waiting for the right moment to explain itself. It was Woody Allen who said : ‘The only hope any of us has is magic. If it’s only physics, then it’s very sad’. I tend to agree with him. 

      And if one celebrates the Spring or Vernal Equinox, either in the form of pagan Ostara, called after the ancient Germanic goddess of spring and fertility, Estre or Eostre, or as the Christian Easter which symbolises spiritual rebirth and the victory of life over death, or even some ‘new age’ compounding of the two as one gives a grateful nod to the ‘rebirthing’ of the earth in spring, there is an implicit recognition of something that could be called magic. Magic as the modus operandi of something greater than ourselves. 


       I’ve always counted the 21st of March as the first day of spring but the actual equinox, the moment the sun crosses the equator heading northwards, varies from year to year, lying  between the 19th and 21st of March. This year it happened on the 20th of March.  But the way the year is divided meteorologically, according to temperatures, means that the whole of March falls into the spring quarter. Nevertheless, the spring equinox feels like a significant time to give a grateful nod to the cycles of life and remember that, even in the darkest of times, there is always the hope of renewal and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

       And what greater promise of tomorrow is there than an egg? Eggs are a powerful symbol of new life and have long been associated with both Easter and Ostara. These days, the Easter bunny brings eggs but originally it was the hare. Maybe, because the hare gives birth in a nest-like shallow scrape or ‘form’ above ground, it was once thought to actually lay eggs.

     The hare has always had a certain mystique. A mystique that Caesar remarked upon in 51 AD when he noticed that the Britons didn’t eat hares but buried them alongside their dead. And it was so sacred to the Celts that, as an emissary of the goddess Andraste, it was involved in Bodicea’s battle plans:     

   ‘Budicua employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee[…]”’

      The rabbit, on the other hand, lost the opportunity to appear even vaguely enigmatic by ceasing to pop out of magicians' hats and turning to the theft of carrots and the consumption other peoples’ lettuces - habits that are not remotely endearing even if you wear a blue jacket while you indulge them. Added to which, if you become the modern face of Easter by featuring in advertisements for Cadburys, you might be cute and you might be hugely commercial but you are not magical. 

    You are not going to be the muse for sculptors and visual artists who want to capture a little ‘otherness’. The hare gives them that. Whichever way the artist’s fancy wanders, the hare is there waiting. With the mutability of Hermes it can change from the abstracted or inscrutable to the mercurial or frolicsome, from a star struck moon gazer to an athletic boxer, from a routine agricultural sighting to Eostre herself, shape-shifting at each full moon. 

 Moon-gazing hare by Paul Burton, galvanised steel and glass, an entry for this year’s exhibition.

       There is no convenient segue that gets me from hares to spring cleaning so in a single, hare-like bound, I’m just going to jump right in. Spring cleaning, like Ostara and Easter, is essentially about purification and renewal. Even in ancient Rome there was a tradition of cleaning homes in preparation for the new year or the spring equinox. It also had an association with specific religions - the Jewish Passover and even Christian Lent, leading up to Easter, could involve cleaning and purging one's home as a form of spiritual preparation. When I was young, I never interpreted the annual disruption of the house as remotely spiritual. Perhaps it was the way my mother did it, devout Methodist though she was.

    There is a lot of spring cleaning to be done in a garden. There is in fact, a lot of housework to be done in a garden. You can call it gardening but raking leaves and weeding driveways and cleaning algae from terraces and patios and seats isn’t a lot different from shampooing carpets and washing curtains - with the added drawback of having to do it outside in the cold and damp. 

      But here’s the good bit - if it gets too cold and too damp, there’s the potting shed to be sorted out. This can be a much more satisfying activity than spring cleaning a house because those dedicated spreaders of disgruntlement and disorder that are children, husbands and dogs tend not to be looking around/rummaging for their breakfasts in the potting shed. Unless the dog thinks there’s a chance of a rat, in which case its incursions will be noisy, disruptive and deaf to all entreaty.        

      However, in the absence of rats, one stands a good chance of being left in peace to exhume and reevaluate a lot of hoarded treasure: endless half empty seed packets to nod sagely over, wonderful balls of extra hairy string, those heat mats you knew you got but had somehow lost track of, a mug stuffed with marker pens that promised indelibility but just couldn’t deliver (and yet still you kept them), the lovely slate plant labels somebody bought you for Christmas that were too beautiful to use, that Perlite stuff that makes you sneeze so it’s stuffed in a corner, that lost pot brush … a boot brush … an old, balding yard broom … sweep, sweep … it’s like being the sorcerer’s apprentice …

    But even better, there’s the greenhouse and the ritual cleaning of propagators for the exciting business of sowing seeds. What more appropriate way to fulfil the promise of spring? What more economical and pleasurable way to guarantee the materialisation of a fantasy garden? Or a fantasy lunch table. Food may not materialise in the potting shed unless you’re a dog (or a cat and feeling in a mood to lower yourself to the level of a mere predator) but a greenhouse is different.

      Parsley. You need to sow it seven times because, the old wives tale goes, the devil takes the first six. But not if you do it in a heated propagator. Sow it, prick seedlings out into modules, grow on, plant outside. Simples. Each year, a week or two into March, in an unheated polytunnel, we sow lettuces, pak choi, sorrel, mustard greens, rocket, purslane etc separately into sections of guttering sealed at the ends with Duck Tape - except for leaving a little drainage gap at either end. When the seedlings ( thinned if necessary) are effectively small plants and holding the compost together, we take the tape off one end and slide the line into a prepared furrow in an outside bed. A small amount of disruption/falling apart doesn’t matter - just firm it all in. This is a Sarah Raven idea that has served us well, giving the salad greens a jump start and helping to beat the slugs. 

Salads freshly sown in gutter pipes.

These last few years, I’ve had no choice but leave the satisfying  spring cleaning of greenhouse/potting shed and the seed sowing to Kim who helps us out for two or three days a week. I can’t go much farther in these blogs without introducing Kim because she is invaluable. She is also a qualified garden designer which means she’s very good at interpreting my hand waving and the scribbled notes I make about border rejigs. 

      But I am still managing to do a bit of plant ‘mammying’ close to the house. We use the open verandahs as extra space for hardening off and so, for a period, they become subsidiary growing areas. Even as the the low level of radiant heat from the sun warmed brick of the house walls keeps any late frost at a minimum, the air whistles around the plants so what develops grey mould/botrytis in a polytunnel, even with the sides up and the door open, will, after the removal of affected leaves, grow on much more strongly on the verandahs. 

     This year it was the calendulas that succumbed badly. Precisely on account of these fugal diseases, we keep watering to a minimum for overwintered plants, especially young ones. But in spite of this, the dwarf calendula, Oopsy Daisy, has been a disaster. Over ten years of growing various strains of dwarf calendulas and then this. Hard to say why because we’ve grown Oopsy Daisy before … But that’s why there’s always a plan B. 

       Cornflowers seem more susceptible to mould than one might imagine whereas I’ve never seen it on orlaya, for instance.

     Orlaya grandiflora is an invaluable annual. For us, the best plants come from a greenhouse sowing in September. Germination can be slower than some and a bit irregular over a couple of weeks or more. When big enough, the seedlings are pricked out into cell trays, then on into 9cm pots and overwintered in an unheated polytunnel. In spite of its feathery, delicate looking leaves, it is remarkably cold resilient - as one would expect from a hardy annual. Polytunnel protection is mostly useful against endless rain, water logging and subsequent rotting off. Young plants or those whose roots are not on their way to filling the pots are especially susceptible.

      For those of you not familiar with Orlaya, it makes an elegant but reasonably compact substitute for cow parsley - loosening up planting and imparting a naturalistic feel to the borders in addition to flowering for longer. When it’s over, towards the end of June, we simply pull it out and replace with it with something like nicotiana or cosmos that we have sown in the spring or raised from bought in plugs to provide successional planting. Plugs are becoming more and more available and economically viable now that my labour contribution is virtually non existent.

    The orlaya are now on the verandah just so I can enjoy feeding them with liquid seaweed every week till they go out. They have filled their 9cm pots but there’s no point in potting on at this point. The cornflowers are up here too - plus some young Osteospermum jucundum var compactum. O. jucundum itself is a hardy osteospermum that we’ve found more reliable at overwintering in the ground than some newer developments which claim to be hardy. In this relatively mild area it’s survived all but the worst winters. There are also some young erysimums (perennial wallflowers) that I just like looking at because they are already flowering. These came to us as plugs last autumn and were raised in the cold polytunnels. Bowles Mauve, of course, but also Red Jep, Summer Orchid and Cheers ‘Sun-kissed Amethyst’ ….. which is a new one to us but which has gained approval from bees. Of these, good old Bowles Mauve and Red Jep last for three or four years in the ground before they get too battered looking. They are the longest flowering of any plants we have. The Red Jeps that we have in the ground  were flowering by the end of February and they will go on for months.

      It was whilst feeding that I began thinking about biodynamics. Biodynamic agriculture is another Steiner spin off from the 1920s - which means that it actually preceded the current organic movement.          

       In health food stores you will find a variety of Demeter foods - from breakfast cereal to wine - that are grown on certified biodynamic farms. So is it different from organic? Yes. How? Ah well, there’s the rub as the man said. If you look it up you will read information that more or less parallels organic growing - stuff about leaving soils more fertile and stable, the environment more diverse and resilient, and human beings better nourished. However, there’s an additional factor and it’s almost more astonishing than the gnomes.

       Biodynamic farming involves the use of certain preparations which are added to the soil. And these preparations are numbered - which is the only straightforward thing about them. Preparation 500 for instance, is made by stuffing cow horns with manure compost and then burying them in the ground through winter. Preparation 503 is a concoction of chamomile flowers encased in a cow’s intestine which is also buried through the winter before being exhumed for use. There’s another one that is ‘cooked’ in a stag’s bladder and another that has to sit in a swamp. This is just from memory so I wouldn’t swear to perfect accuracy but you get the idea. Furthermore, these preparations are not added in quantity. They are not, in any reasonable measure, about physical properties or chemical consituents or even anything microbial or fungal - at least not in the quantities one would find in ‘Rootgrow’ for example. They would be in there in each pinch of the preparation but the preparations are not used in appreciable quantities. Their ritualistic production, however, supposedly enables the creation of something that has an irrational power. They are believed to act as forces or energies that have the ability ‘to redeem and heal and transform’. And according to Steiner they provide energies that a dying earth can no longer produce for herself and which have now to be provided ‘by the free deed of man’.

      With all the rain and in spite of my earlier misgivings, things are now looking encouragingly green and forward in the garden. Gnomes&Co have been working pretty hard so, in a whimsical moment I decided that it was time for a free deed or two. Our compost heaps are a slow business because there’s never time to turn. We’d need a long row of commercial hot bins to accommodate the amount of compost we generate and so I thought I’d see if biodynamics could increase temperature/speed things up/ improve quality, as is claimed.

     Accordingly, I am now in possession of 5 little plastic sachets containing about a tablespoonful of, respectively, yarrow, chamomile,stinging nettle, oak bark and dandelion - all produced by one of the arcane methods I mentioned previously. There is also a 5ml bottle of valerian extract. This one set of preparations will treat a compost heap 2m x 1m x 1m volume. So far so good - or so completely mad depending upon your viewpoint. But now comes the bit where it all has to be added to the heap. Suffice to say that that is yet another ritual which will occupy Andrew and Kim for the rest of the morning.

       Magic doesn’t come easy. But I’m expecting miracles. It’s the time of year for them.

                          Happy Easter!


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