As spring unfurls we hear a common remark on our job. ‘It must be nice to be a gardener’ is a refrain repeated through the fizzing months of May and June, the sun-drenched days of high summer and warm, languorous afternoons of September. Then wind. Then rain. Then cold. And with it the comments turn to questions. ‘What do you do over winter? How do you cope in the cold? Are you tough or just mad to want to work in this weather?’
Usually we brush the comments off, saying ‘Oh, it’s not as bad as all that’. But the truth is that winter working has been one of the greatest revelations of our transition from the office desk to the great outdoors. For us, the winter (at least as imagined by others) doesn’t really exist and here we’ll explain why.
Let us imagine a winters day as lived by millions in the UK. From November to February we wake up in the dark, force our groggy bodies into cars and drive, without a glimpse of sun to the office and then spend all day (except for lunch if we are lucky) inside. We look out on mottled grey skies and rain lashed windowpanes. When the day’s labours are complete, we leave work, in the dark, and drive home. We spend the evening indoors and wake up the next morning to a stage set for a reprise. It is not a great leap to imagine a day, a week, even a month when we haven’t had as much as an hour’s sunlight to warm our faces.
To us, it is no surprise that thousands if not millions of people in the UK suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder; an annually recurring malaise that can, at its worst, lead to a severe depression. The NHS has even started to recommend vitamin D supplements to all, to counteract deficiency of a nutrient we can only produce when the sun hits our skin. It is true then that for many people the winter is cold and dark. Compound this with the fact that weather always seems worse from a window and the winter can become a bleak time to be passed over as quickly as possible.
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There is no point in denying that the winter can be dank and miserable. But some of the time, perhaps half of the time or more, the winter is crisp, frost kissed mornings. It’s low dazzling suns. It’s crunching of leaves, crackling of frozen lawns and honeyed songs of toiling birds. Swollen buds beg to burst and bulbs fracture earth hard with ice. Naked trees with glowing bark shimmer in the half-light, and all the while the gardener contemplates these delicate seasonal marvels. Certainly, we must dress for the weather, but a stout pair of boots and waterproofs can keep you snug on all but the worst days.
And with these delights comes the work. Autumn brings bulb planting, splitting, leafmould and the secret pleasure of spreading worm-warm compost from the heap. Hungry friends demand to be fed at the bird table, scattering loneliness with their ceaseless chatter. Winter is pruning and planting, months for intimate moments with apples and vines and roses. Soon the cold frame fills with seeds sown in anticipation of spring. We meet old companions; snowdrops, crocus, daffodils. Before long jumpers replace coats, shorts supplant trousers and then finally, as flowers pour out from shrub and tree we are told ‘It must be nice to be a gardener’.
We deem the rewards of winter working worth the occasional discomforts. Indeed, we consider ourselves extremely lucky to be able to work in such a situation having both spent enough years employed indoors. Ellie now understands that she suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder herself during her desk-based career, which has largely been mitigated since becoming a gardener. In short, it is no stretch to say that the winter we experience is now so different to that we used to endure as to be entirely unrecognisable.
Naturally, for many, the allure of central heating and a comfy seat will always prevail over the idea of a sodden days digging. But perhaps, for some, forcing oneself into the garden over the winter, or even just for a weekend stroll in the park, might be enough to make the period pass a little quicker. This year, instead of ‘putting the garden to bed’, get out there and enjoy whatever sun can slip through the clouds. If you don’t have a garden, look for a community space that’s open and if you are fortunate enough to live near the country, revel in the charms of this much maligned season. Then, perhaps, as the spring rolls around we will look back and say ‘Winter? What winter?’