I’m not sure why, but every year January takes an eternity to get through rather than just a month. It feels like it will never end. Maybe it’s a delayed reaction to all the excess of Christmas. Maybe it just takes a while for our hibernating brains to react to the slow return of the light. This year was a special kind of limbo as we struggled to get over the various illnesses that turned Christmas and New Year into more of a hospital stay than a holiday. Whatever the reason, January slogged along, slow as treacle until the 31st. Then suddenly it was February, and everything sped up as the days got visibly longer. Granted, February is the shortest month but that doesn’t really explain why the first three weeks of February go so much faster than the last two weeks of January. Go figure. In February everything just speeds up. Blink and suddenly it’s Ash Wednesday. I must admit that I barely noticed the start of Lent this year. Ash Wednesday was a bit of a no show. I did not see one person with the characteristic smudge on the forehead. I remember back in the day almost everyone you met was marked, which invariably led to a conversation about what they were giving up for Lent. I wonder if anyone still does in the new, more secular West Cork? It certainly doesn’t make much sense to give up meat if you are already a vegan…
And so, to March. March is when spring has fully sprung, no matter the weather. Outside my window the daffs and snowdrops line the drive, the camellia has paved the entrance in frilly pink petals, and small white flowers have already appeared on some of our trees. The woods are full of sorrel and even the three-cornered leeks are up and smelling lovely and garlicky. I was also delighted to see that the wild garlic we transplanted last year has taken root and is coming up nicely.
The start of spring is generally accompanied by a rise in anxiety. As the land wakes up, the need to get out in the garden and get ready for the growing season increases. It starts with a slow steady beep – like my car reversing – rising to a shrill, insistent siren telling me “It’s time to get busy!” Many a year has caught me off guard. If I’m slow to get my garden groove on, the brambles start to grow again and the veg patch turns back into grassland.
Not this year. This year we’re on it. It’s only the beginning of March and almost all of the brambles have been cut back or uprooted. The apple trees have been pruned. Early seeds have been sown. The veg patch has been turned and mulched and the potatoes are happily chitting, waiting for Paddy’s Day to give us the nod to put them in the ground. We have some early radishes, spinach and salads in the tunnel, and we’ve even put some spuds into the tunnel in the hope of getting a super early crop in May/June.
This burst of efficiency is partly due to some strategic forward planning, but also due to having helping hands around to do a lot of the work. For around the last twenty years our lives have been enriched and our garden has been tended and improved by a long succession of helpers. These are volunteers who come and live with us and help in the garden and the house in exchange for food and accommodation. Most are young people who want to travel and experience new cultures and countries – though not always. Many are taking a career break in their early or mid-thirties, and we once had helpers who were in their seventies! This year our first volunteers have been a delightful young couple from France, who have been extremely hard-working and have given the garden a real head start.
We connect with these volunteers through websites like wwoof.ie or workaway.info that put hosts like us in contact with volunteers looking to come to Ireland. These websites offer placements all over the world and similarly have helpers from around the globe. Many people feel that having ‘strangers’ living in your home would be weird, but for us it has been not only a tremendous help, it has also given us the chance to meet some wonderful people, many who have become lifelong friends. Granted we are a very sociable family and have a big house. That means that there are often ‘strangers’ popping in. It also means that we all have lots of space to move around in, so no one needs to feel cramped or put-upon.
Over the last twenty years or so, we have probably hosted over one hundred volunteers. Some have faded from our memories. Some have become dear friends who come back to visit. Some came for only a few weeks. Some planned to stay for a month and ended up staying for a year. Some left and came back. And some have never left, opting instead to make West Cork their permanent home and have become a much-loved part of our extended family. All have helped us make our little patch that much better and brighter.