The Queer Gardener’s Almanac: What You Need to Do as Spring Turns Into Summer

A masthead showing various gardening accoutrements in front of a giant moon

Illustrations by Gillian Lake-Thompson

Spring: a season of many clichés. In a regular year, the changing of the clocks heralds a glut of daylight hours to remind us the outside world exists and tempt us into verdant meadows of decadent new growth, basking in a chirruping chorus of baby chicks.

But even when all is normal, things are never as straightforward as a time-lapse video of a perfect bloom unfurling. Each cubic inch of nature writhes with the mundane struggle of life; the reality is the perfect bloom fares worse than a Tudor monarch’s wife when it comes to beheading or survival.

In this liminal season, the tail of winter tussles with the promise of a summer that may never arrive. Basically, you don’t know whether it will chuck it down or blow a balmy breeze; whether there will be a heatwave or an ice storm. Or both, on the same day.

It’s in this uncertain climate that the plucky gardener must make one of their most vital decisions: when to start planting your lovingly hand-reared seedlings in the perilous ground outdoors. This choice is largely at the mercy of the last frost, a fickle date predicated on cosmic schadenfreude

Unpredictable by super-computers and generations of horticulturalists alike, frost has caught us out many times. A couple of years back, Gillian dragged me from the flat in the middle of the night (at least 8pm), gripped by anxiety that her freshly-planted tender shoots would be nipped by frost. We hurried to the allotment and by moonlight tucked them into fleecy covering. They died.

This year, we thought we had it sorted. After a heatwave for much of April, devilishly timed to inflict maximum dismay on a house-bound population, a week of rain was forecast. The assertive kind of rain that dampens the ground with purpose, but falls short of full-on laceration, and guarantees the temperature won’t dip into frosty territory. Ideal for fragile young plants starting their first term in the soil. So, into the ground went the many seedlings that had overtaken the flat with even less regard for boundaries than your worst ex-girlfriend: corn, peas, beets, dwarf beans, broad beans, and for the poly tunnel: aubergines, chillis and many, many tomatoes.

After two days of this pleasant soaking, Gillian and I stood in the flat as the sky blackened, then pelted the ground with hunks of ice. The sleet heaped in the planters on the balcony, like cheap crystals in a gift-shop. Fully exposed at the allotment, the plants took a beating, but remarkably everything survived but the beans, until a mid-May frost took another side-swipe at the lot.

The moral of the tale: just keep fucking planting until something survives.

some plants being planted

Spring Jobs

It’s a very busy time of year in the garden, and I have been tirelessly prompting Gillian to get on with a wide array of tasks so I can chronicle it all from the comfort of the sofa.

Planting

While it may be quicker to list the things that you can’t plant by the end of spring, there’s still a few things you may want to hold off on until you’re confident the warm weather is here for good. I particularly like that these plants are often called “tender crops” which are kind of like “tender butches” in that you may need to bundle them in rugged yet cozy fleece in colder spells, or they will surely wither and die.

For us, it’s safe to get into the ground: potatoes, rhubarb, asparagus, peas, chard and beetroot, spinach, parsnips, carrots, corn, brassicas and broad beans. We’ll leave it just a little later for cucurbits (cucumbers, courgettes, squashes, pumpkins), and less hardy herbs (basil) and salad leaves (callaloo & amaranth).

While I remain firmly veg-centric, one must also remember the importance of flowers for bees, decoration, and secret codes.

Let us know what you’re planting!

Compost

One of the true joys of the lockdown has been the thrice-daily “Compost Update” emails of our local allotment committee as they wrestled with the inability to get hold of their annual delivery of horse manure. I don’t believe horses have stopped defecating, so presumably it’s some kind of supply-chain issue between shit and shovel.

From the shops, anything that’s organic and peat-free is fine by us. However, if you want to give your plants the silver service treatment, consider feeding them comfrey tea!

Despite inheriting numerous compost bins on our plot, for years we have just kept adding detritus to the top, and magically more space appears, but no compost ever comes out the bottom. It all feels very allegorical but, like most allegories, lacks practical application.

Please do shout out in comments if you are a compost whisperer with any weird and wonderful ways with fertilisers!

Pests

If you aren’t in a perennial state of anxiety about slugs, start worrying about them now. If it seemed like they went dormant in the colder months, that was only so they could take advantage of your complacency and inflict maximum emotional damage when they return to their gluttonous ways. We’ve tried DIY repellants like copper wire and crushed up eggshells, as well as organic slug pellets and attritional guerilla warfare, with mixed results – more on this next time!

An illustration of a cooking pot with a wooden spoon and marrow

What’s Cooking

This season we have been gifted with abundant and repeated growth of a couple of robust crops: rhubarb and chard. The latter has been a welcome and reliable source of greenery while supermarket shopping remains a hazardous activity, liberally used in everything from warming saags to tourte pascale. Also, it really should not have been a surprise when Gillian came home with vast quantities of spring onions (scallions) the other day, which sounds like a perfect excuse to give scallion pancakes a go.

A photo of freshly picked rhubarb, spring onions and a lesbian picking chard

As for the rhubarb, owing to our lifestyle choices, we found ourselves with a greater need for mixers than desserts. Cue this very forgiving rhubarb juice recipe!

Rhubarb Juice

rhubarb!

Ingredients

  • rhubarb (at least 500g / 1lb to make it worth the faff)
  • water
  • sugar/honey/agave etc. to taste

Method

  1. Chop rhubarb into rough 1/2 inch pieces
  2. In a large pan, cover the rhubarb generously in water, and bring to a boil
  3. Turn the heat down, and let it simmer for at least half an hour, until the rhubarb becomes easy to break down with a fork
  4. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool completely
  5. Using a fork (or even an immersion blender), mash the rhubarb to get as much juice out as you can
  6. In batches, strain the rhubarb in a sieve over a bowl, again mashing the solids to release the juices
  7. Add sugar to taste – be careful to only add a spoon at a time, as the more you add, the less rhubarby it will taste! You can omit sweet stuff entirely for a super tart flavour
  8. Pour the rhubarb juice into bottles, pre-sterilised with boiling water, then refrigerate and consume with 2-3 weeks. It’s also possible to freeze it as long as you leave room for expansion in the bottles.
  9. Optional: if you want a super-clear colour, wait a couple of hours for the sediment to settle, then re-strain the juice
  10. Serve it as it is, or with your fave gin and whatever random citrus fruit and herbs you have lying around to make it look fancy! UPDATE: also surprisingly good with pear vodka! And probably literally anything else you find at the back of the alcohol cupboard.

Inspiration

While women’s labours outdoors have traditionally been overlooked, here are a few queer women whose dedication to cultivation took lady-gardening to a whole new level. Perhaps their exploits dabbling in petals and perfecting bush topiary will inspire you; please shout out in the comments with any horticultural heroes of your own!

 (Warning: this list will skew towards rich, white women. It’s almost like you have to bribe people to get in the history books)

four dead queer women who really loved gardening

Vita Sackville-West

Famous for her affair with Virginia Woolf (among other women), Vita was an accomplished novelist in her own right, but it’s perhaps her work as a landscape gardener that left the biggest legacy. She created the world-renowned gardens at her home at Sissinghurst Castle, wrote weekly gardening columns for the Observer and co-founded the garden committee of the National Trust.

Mary Lobb

A farmer by career, Mary Lobb was fired for falling asleep at the wheel of a tractor, drawing the sympathy of the owner of nearby Kelmscott Manor, artist May Morris (William Morris’s daughter). Hired as a gardener, Mary quickly jumped into bed with the lady of the manor and stayed as her companion for the rest of her life.

Emily Dickinson

Floral inspiration runs through Dickinson’s poems, who throughout her life was dedicated to her conservatory and gardens at the Dickinson family’s Homestead in Amherst. Dickinson would frequently send flowers with her correspondence, so it’s safe to assume she bundled several in with her lesbian love letters to Susan Gilbert. (You can even see some here)

Alvilde Lees-Milne

A fringe member of the Bloomsbury Set, courtesy of her marriage blanc to James Lees-Milne, Alvilde had several notable relationships with women including sewing heiress Winaretta Singer and Vita Sackville-West. With the latter she shared a love of landscaping, and was inspired by Vita’s work at Sissinghurst to create her own version at her home at Alderley Grange in Gloucestershire, and later the Badminton estate. Encouraged by many visitors, she turned pro, designing gardens for the Queen of Jordan and Mick Jagger, and authoring numerous gardening books.


How have you been faring with your gardens and allotments in these curious times? Please share your successes and failures in the comments!

Next time: We’ll get deep into summer?

A fork in soil with a wheelbarrow and sprinkler in background


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Sally does something with computers for a living. Beyond this, she enjoys making gifs, dreaming up stories, and overthinking. She lives over a river in the South of England, but her heart belongs forever to the North.

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16 Comments

  1. I love this! I usually travel a lot during the summers, but since that’s not happening this year, I’m diving into vegetable gardening for the first time. I’m sharing a plot in a community garden with some friends and have started a robust container garden on my west-facing front porch. I’m prepared for many failures along the way, but will take the moral of the tale to heart: just keep fucking planting until something survives.

  2. Rhubarb juice sounds tasty. We have grape leaves growing in my backyard that my grandfather planted for us that we use to regularly to make the family recipe(which imho is better than the Greek style) of stuffed grape leaves, dolmeh. It’s very fresh & tasty.

  3. After losing two trays worth of leggy seedling to a sudden burst of sun, I really love what you said about just having to keep fucking planting until something survives. I spend most of the day in the garden, it’s my most precious link to sanity right now (mostly kidding… yeah).
    So, compost. Like all living things it needs to breath and the best way to get it to do that is layer, layer, layer. Too much kitchen waste and it becomes a soggy, smelly, rotting mess, but add a layer of shredded newspaper or dry leaves in between, and turn the whole lot every few weeks and it’ll do a lot better. I’ve found that a compost turner (or aerator, if you’re feeling fancy) can be a great help. https://www.leevalley.com/en-ca/shop/garden/composting/composting-tools/10028-compost-aerating-tool

      • LOL, yes I’ve got that same addiction to the Lee Valley catalogues. It’s only surpassed by my new infatuation with the massive seed guides put out by West Coast Seeds. Oh – and if you’re still having trouble with the slugs, try leaving out some beer in a straight-sided container dug into the garden so that the top edge is level with the ground. They’ll crawl in for a drink and never leave. I’ve also found it works for wood bugs, pill bugs, slaters… (damn lettuce-loving crustaceans).

  4. It’s our first time planting a garden, and we’re doing it on our patio in our Brooklyn apartment! I was terrified that I wouldn’t be up to the task, but instead I have become totally obsessed with our seedlings. We upcycled some old plastic storage tubs using landscaping fabric as a liner, filled them with soil, and planted a good variety of greens and root vegetables (as well as flowers for the bees!). Our beets are particularly happy in their cute little rows. Our carrots and spinach went in first, mid-April, and they just didn’t take, so I replanted two weeks ago and the spinach seem much happier. I didn’t know the difference between weeds and crops at first but now it’s becoming more obvious what our local New York City weeds look like. We bought a compost tumbler and we’re happy with the results–we make sure to add dried leaves and shredded newspaper to maintain the proper level of carbon. It feels subversive to be creating our own compost in the city and putting it right back into our urban garden. I hope all my other queer city-dwellers out there know that anything is possible with a little bit of potting soil and some food-safe upcycled containers. You don’t have to live in the countryside to grow things!

  5. I love this post! We live in a smallish town. Under my bird feeder several volunteer peach trees have grown. We have two now that are producing and a third that just started producing and seems to have nectarines. I very much believe in mild neglect for my yard. If it’s meant to grow it will, and as long as a few things grown then I’m happy.

    We have two raspberry patches that I worked hard on weeding this year after neglecting them last year. Our grape vines haven’t been too happy. We also have a plot at the community garden where we’ve picked a large tub full!

    We got our spinach in a bit late and it bolted, and I fear our peas may have gotten in a bit late. The cherry tomato plants are looking good and have a few small tomatoes. Last time I tried zucchini plants the bugs got them, but I’m trying again and plan on using some soap to wash off the pests. We’ll see. I love watching my kids help pick and eat the homegrown fruits and veggies!

    We added chickens to our back yard this year as well, so we’ll see. Maybe bees next year?

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