My very own harbinger of spring is here. Sitting perched on a high branch of the Japanese cherry tree, deep black after the storms, stark against brightening sky. A black bird on a black branch, a perfect kacho-ga in monochrome, singing in the rain.
The bird is marking the territory. It must be a young one, because it’s still so early in the season. The older blackbirds don’t sing until late March. The young are impatient like spring itself. I hope it is the very same one that hatched in our ivy and had to be rescued from the neighbour’s cat last year. They never move too far away from where they hatched. I hope it is firmly back now, singing the end of winter to me.
In my childhood, spring was announced, usually not earlier than April, by the sound of kapel’ – a word an equivalent of which I am yet to find in English. It’s the music of the snow melting on the trees, on the roofs, running over and dripping from branches, eaves and gutters. I woke up to it and as soon as I could I ran outside, calling my friends to “come help the thaw and free up snowdrops”. There is no kapel’ and no need to free up fragile flowers from the heaps of snow where I live now. Late autumn and early spring melt into each other in this mind coastal climate of the Fair City Behind the Dunes.
It is still early, mid-February but the spring is undoubtedly here. The blackbird must have flown over the tentative daffodils hugging the flagpoles in the International Quarter, it must have rummaged among delicate snowdrops on the Clingendael estate, seen the yellow croci on Lange Voorhout, the old aristocratic promenade, and across the pond from the Parliament buildings. Not yet the flower carpet it will become in a week or so once their purple and white brethren appear – these yellow pioneers expect to be greeted and admired by kneeling down, for the beauty of an individual flower, not the collective magnificence that thousands of them will soon bring to these parts of The Hague.
The blackbird song, which now accompanies my every morning, is not melancholic and heart-wrenching like that of a nightingale. I hear high-pitched intensity, an urgent call to action. Some trills sound distinctly as “come on, come on” to me. It’s time to wake up from winter dreams and passive contemplation. And I spring into action, just as mid-February blesses us with several days of glorious sunshine.
I order vegetable seeds from a catalogue, to be started indoors as soon as possible and then planted out in late April, past all frosts. I clear the remnants of hostas and ferns and other old growth in the garden. I tidy the bamboo hedging. I chop off dry hydrangea heads left over for “winter interest”. I cut down my patch of “ornamental grasses” (well, a tuft of hakonechloa macra but I am trying!) to allow for new growth. I trim the viburnum tree which has just finished flowering, as well as wisteria which is a tangled mess. I prune the butterfly bush, my least favourite task – it needs pruning back hard and I feel like a butcher every time. I cannot contain my enthusiasm and plant dwarf peach and apricot trees, inspired by Monty Don’s potted orchard and prompted by a gardener friend. Probably quite unwise, the zeal of the converted.
Then the vegetable seeds arrive and I spend an evening lodging them with precision tweezers into starter plugs of the nursery box. My growing set is from Ikea’s Växer cultivation range. There are probably more sophisticated options, but then there are always egg cartons on the other side of the spectrum, so mine is the middle way and I hope it will do the job.
On the allotment, I finally get to preparing the soil of the vegetable beds. We want to try no-dig gardening. As I carefully work organic mulch into the rigid soil, I am painfully aware of our allotment neighbour over the fence. An Italian chef, he has been successfully growing his own vegetables here for over twenty years. He is probably quietly laughing at me but I plough on.
I am tidying flower beds underneath the mulberry tree when I hear familiar warbling. Ah! There is a local blackbird perched up on a high branch. Perhaps it’s the same one we saved on one of our first visits to the allotment when we found it tangled in a loose netting. Another rescue bird of ours. Perhaps it’s his territory, already marked. I am glad if it is. I will look forward to his singing to us in the evenings as we come to work on the allotment in the coming weeks – my spring gardening days contained within quotation marks of the blackbird song.