I’m learning to play jazz piano at the moment. I’m enthusiastic, but in many ways, hopeless. I don’t practice enough, my fingers often hit the wrong notes and I can lose the plot half way through a piece. What sustains me in my lessons is that the (very tolerant) teacher talks a lot about going with the rhythm. In classical music the right notes in the right order are paramount. In jazz the exact notes don’t count so much. Dissonance is okay; it’s the rhythm that must be kept in order.
This week, as the harsh percussion of winter is overtaken by the softer beat of spring, I can’t help thinking that my garden is more like a jazz riff than a Mozart sonatina. Few of us have failed to be moved by the lengthening days and brightening skies. Though as all gardeners know, a frost could happen still. Lorraine Pullen (@lorraines_veg) and Jono Stevens (@RealMenSow) were scandalised that I’d already had my tomatoes in for six weeks. They thought that they might just sow a few chilies now. My peppers were planted on 19th January!
But to be fair to all gardeners outside the metropolis, the micro-climate on the rooftopvegplot is something special. Winds are lighter here than elsewhere, rainfall is lower and temperatures are consistently higher. All winter I have been noting the difference between the temperatures I record compared to those reported in the suburbs of London or elsewhere in the country. My, rather unscientific conclusion is that the rooftopvegplot can be four or five degrees higher than rural areas and two or three degrees higher than London suburbs. Even Regent’s Park half a mile away, suffered ground frost in January when we had none.
Scientists are only now getting to grips with the urban heat island effect, which is the cause of my frost free garden. It occurs in large cities, in areas of dense population and intensive human activity. Round here there are loads of air conditioned buildings. I don’t approve. Who needs air conditioning in temperate London? But the waste heat that they spew out obviously has a significant effect on my garden. There is also absorption of sunlight onto the hard surfaces that surrounds us, generating an urban scale storage radiator that emits heat at night. My guess is that it is this effect more than anything else that keeps frosts at bay. Despite its exposure, (the plot is on the fifth floor) the garden is surrounded on two sides by brick walls, which must also trap heat during the day. Some warmth also escapes from my studio below, helping to provide a little gentle bottom heat for the raised beds on the coldest of days.
This winter we haven’t had a frost up here at all. So I’ve been moved to get some crops into the seedling stage as early as possible. But if I hadn't sown a bean yet, I would not be too worried, there is still plenty of time for most seeds. Forty, sixty, even eighty day crops like runner beans can wait a while. There’s a limit to what I can protect if a late frost should come my way. These short season crops will have to wait until I can be sure of sowing outside in unprotected beds. But the long season crops like tomatoes, chillies and aubergines must be started off soon, otherwise they won’t mature before autumn. My book says these take up to 120 days to harvest. So a tomato planted today won’t start to crop until mid-July at the earliest.
Alongside the long season crops, I have started another round of quick growing salads. Radishes, lettuces, cress, mizuna and mustard leaves are all sprouting. Broad beans are coming up, peas are waiting to be transplanted and garlic has been showing its green shoots since December. I’m always limited by space in the springtime, but this year, it is even worse because I had to take the biggest growhouse down last weekend to make room for its replacement greenhouse.
For far too long I’ve been embarrassed by the collection of plastic mini greenhouses that my neighbours have had to view. So now they are all being disassembled and a new and tiny greenhouse is being delivered today. This will be more efficient, more beautiful and despite its tiny scale, I’m hoping it will increase my growing space. Doubtless there will be drama as the van tries to park in our congested street. But up on the rooftop the space is ready and I’m already dreaming of summer under glass.
The rhythms of the greenhouse will chime with the rhythms of the garden. In the early spring I’ll be growing seedlings for transplanting outside. In summer tomatoes, chillies and aubergines will fill the space and in the autumn I’ll bring the citrus inside and hang garlands of garlic and lavender. In winter I’ll be tending rocket, lambs' lettuce and Chinese greens.
Perhaps there will be room for summer climbers like Ipmoea (morning glory) that was so beautiful outside in last year’s heat. I might grow pot marigolds in the summer under the tomatoes. In winter I plan to pack wicker baskets tight with bulbs and force them into flower for Christmastime.
Here is a photo trip through the garden beds right now. You will see that there is no symmetry to the planting. Lettuces nestle below the broad beans and garlics. Edible pansies cut through a bed of chicory like a wave. Here there is jasmine, grown to flavour summer tea, there a crop of wild chicory. Flowers sit side by side with vegetables; mundane radishes are grown alongside vegetable aristocrats like the bronze fennel. Some of these might strike a jarring note to you. But for me the correctness of my approach is unimportant. For me this cacophony is dictated by the rhythm of the seasons. For it is sun, wind and rain, that is the true composer of any garden.