Hartley Magazine

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Cold comfort

A sanctuary under glass, your greenhouse offers an escape from the winter weather – and the world.

The rising clatter is intense, drowning out every other sound, a roaring mix of what a raging waterfall and what – I imagine – an avalanche sound like. The latter’s a decent guess; the greenhouse roof is being pelted with hailstones, some nudging half an inch. Dead straight down they come, white bullets fired from sullen midwinter clouds. A stray with bounce somehow makes it in through a top vent – and straight down my collar.

Dead straight down they come, white bullets fired from sullen midwinter clouds.

The garden too is being blitzed, hanger-on hollyhock leaves shredded by nature’s white shelling. The wrens have scarpered. The sky is blotted out as the stones pile up on the roof glass, a translucent inch deep. It lasts only minutes, but it is utter bliss; the worries and niggles of the world momentarily drowned out by the crash of ice on glass. Apart from my damp neck, I stand dry, looking, listening, immersed; I am somewhere else. Like you, I once thought a greenhouse was for growing plants. Mine has become so much more.

We’re in odd times, in all sorts of intertwined ways. It’s not just our communal climate that’s bucking and jiggering, or our living world that’s marred and polluted by ‘progress’. Our lives, our politics, our relationships, our work, our hopes, even, are being buffeted by ripples of uncertainty, of apprehension and, at times, despair (if you can’t tick any of these, where have you been?). When dark clouds gather in our thoughts, we need somewhere to go: a haven, a retreat, a ‘safe zone’ where the winds of optimism blow strong. For me that’s a walk up a nearby hill, or along the brown, peat-tinted river after rain, or, much more likely, a spell out in my garden. But the one sanctuary I can rely on, whatever the weather, is my greenhouse.

Snow lasts – for days, weeks, months – and it changes everything.

Even when nature is at full throttle, throwing everything it’s got at the glass, I’m safe, dry (bar drips), and – as long as I’m wrapped up in winter – warm (I don’t heat my greenhouse; renewable modern sunshine does that for free). In spring and summer I can sit and bask, like the lizards out on the slate walls, my bit of sunlight amplified by glass. It’s here that new life begins, where seeds are sown, and young plants and bulbs are potted up. It’s here that nurture and kindness flourish as I coddle my plants, anticipating the displays, harvests and flavours ahead. Our world’s ills, gripes and tensions are set aside. It’s here that, for minutes or for a whole day, without ever leaving home, I can travel somewhere else.

Hail might be the great drowner-out of the world’s static just now, but it’s snow – thick, deep, real snow, that falls in great fluffy dollops – that is winter’s unrivalled muffler. Hail is brash, capricious, often gone in minutes, its blotting out of worldly woes only fleeting. But snow is different. It comes quietly, free of fanfare, falling with only a gentle patter, unless whipped into a frenzy by the wind. Snow lasts – for days, weeks, months – and it changes everything. It silences the garden and the nearby fields and woods, forcing frantic traffic to respect the sedate pace of lying slush. It insulates us, temporarily, from bewildering times. It gently bleaches out the world we usually see, paring it back to lines and patterns, marking out in monochrome the edges of beds, the winding of paths – the skeletal outline of our growing endeavours. Its weight bends boughs, and it makes my greenhouse roof bow, meaning that enough is enough; it’s then time to clear away its deepening burden (have you noticed how good snow is at cleaning glass?).

Snow puts our garden or allotment off limits, restricting us to our greenhouse refuge (or to the shed, but the view’s not so grand). It slows us down. Nothing happens quickly in snow (bar sledging). Snowed-in time is thinking time, time for reflecting, at winter’s lessened pace, as I squint out on bright, sun-reflecting days. I’m somewhere else.

On perishing nights, the inside of the glass is nature’s canvas.

If hail is the great drowner-out, snow the arch muffler, then what of frost? Frost comes silently, stealthily, arriving by dark watched over by the stars. Frost makes the garden crisp and solid, holding it in a frozen, unrelenting grip; one night and the grass is crisp and white, weeks well below zero and soil soon mimics rock. Sap freezes, plants sag, barely-hardy chancers perish, and even eager snowdrops become freeze-framed. Yes – that’s it; frost holds the frame awhile, coating our gardens in its sparkling, magic dust. It dries and crisps the air, brings stillness and clarity. In the greenhouse it’s a time to draw breath, to pause and, as dusk falls, to be awed. On perishing nights, the inside of the glass is nature’s canvas. As condensation freezes, I watch it, spellbound, as it morphs into a mosaic of expanding, curling ice. For a while, I’m elsewhere. Ephemeral art, for one night only, courtesy of nature. I’m up early the next morning, for one last look before the arrival of melting rays.

I feel good here in my greenhouse, comforted in my bolt-hole from a maddening, frustrating world. It’s bare right now, but spring, then summer, aren’t far off. I’ll be well away when they arrive, spending balmy hours somewhere else.

Uh-oh, not so fast. Here come more white bullets, clattering down. Bliss.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener