It has been a strange spring – sunny, very dry and remarkably chilly. We had our first frosts of the year in mid-April. I sowed compulsively at the end of March and first half of April, the worst and scariest of the quarantine. Very little of that came up. I had to go over the same vegetable beds again, emptying seed packets of beetroot, carrots, peas. In some cases, several times. Things refused to come out. The only hopeful and orderly place has been the greenhouse, where we just had our first harvest of cucumbers and strawberries. Where there was a jungle of tomatoes last year, a pumpkin, two courgettes and lots of peppers are now growing – jalapeno, chili and something that came from a shop on the allotment, called simply “a pepper plant”. I have no idea what it is, but it is doing well. The greenhouse is also full of strawberries, in hanging bags. Gariguette, an old, early ripening French variety, a sentimental buy for my husband, recalling his childhood holidays in Provence. Distinctly elongated and relatively small, they are supposed to be vermilion-red when fully ripe, but my kids, used to the pale Dutch produce, picked them at the barely-there stage, so they never really got a chance.
Last year I got some wild strawberry seeds from a friend. They grow truly wild where I come from. Incredibly fragrant and sweet, they stain fingers with their potent colourful juice, and you don’t feel like washing hands for hours. It is almost impossible to buy them where I live now. When I first saw what looked like a wild strawberry in my garden, in my naivety I was wild with joy, only to be disappointed by the dry, round, tasteless berries of the ubiquitous “decorative strawberry”, a weed really, that even birds and snails refuse to eat.
Fragaria fresca, alpine strawberry, forest strawberry, Carpathian strawberry. Growing along roadsides, hillsides, woodland edges and clearings. July used to smell of them. We called them zemlianika, a word entirely unrelated to that for “strawberry”. Their linguistic root is that of zemlia – of earth, ground, and land. A berry in its own right, tied to the soil it comes from. We made delicious jams that carried us through winter sneezes and coughs. We brewed the leaves, made a deliciously fragrant wild strawberry tea.
Now I know that there are many different varieties in nature, tied to specific geographies, ecosystems and climates. Wild strawberries growing in woodland, meadows, on rocky terrains. Some forms have runners, some don’t. Some are cultivated but none are seen in commercial production. I have no idea what my variety is and whether it will like the local clay and the drying coastal winds.
I sowed the seeds in mid-April anyway. While quite undemanding later, cultivated wild strawberries have a reputation of being slow to germinate and requiring particular care, which involves odd steps like chilling. Wild strawberry seeds are tiny, weighing a couple of thousands to a gram. I sprinkled them on seeding trays, compost mixed with vermiculite, and held my breath. They germinated quickly, within ten days. When they were about a centimeter high, we had a thick mini forest and it was clear we needed to thin. It is supposed to be a no-brainer, a routine job of any growing season, right? Every gardening programme, every magazine article and every blog would usually include these words: “…and then thin out when ready to be handled”. Yes, it is fiddly, and delicate, you don’t want to bruise the stems of the ones meant to stay, but it is not difficult and the inevitable part of grow-from-seed-gardening. But I felt like waiting a bit.
The quarantine days stretched on, blurring into each other. Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays, Sundays, with the first part of the word crossed out, so that only “day” remained. Then it was early May, and my family was watching Victory Day programmes on TV, the 75-th anniversary. My mum went through the war as a child, in the forests of Belarus. For several years, they survived on frozen potatoes, birch tree juice, pine resin and wild berries. I approached my seeding trays with a pair of manicure scissors, cut down several smaller, weaker seedlings and felt sick to the stomach. I decided it was not a good day to thin and sat down with my girls to watch V-day commemorations in the Dam Square. I came back to the task a few days later and I felt nauseous again. I could not wait any longer, the seedlings were getting leggy and pale. Equipped with a pair of tweezers, lots of small pots and bags of potting mix, my husband and I spent several hours, late into the night, bent over the sowing trays, teasing out seedling after seedling, trying to hold the tiny plants by leaves, disentangling the roots, planting on. Remarkably, most survived. I am giving them out to friends. To share the joy of wild strawberry, the incredible fragrance, a memory.
A wise friend of mine says my apparent discomfort with death, my inability to cause it is unacceptable in a gardener. Our job includes a pact with the plants we choose to grow and with the piece of land in our care. I must be able to find a balance between dereliction of duty and feeling like a murderer. It is a good lesson she gives me. And yet, when I sow my next batch of carrots, I place them in the soil with pointed tweezers, one by one, five centimeters apart, marking where I put each with a white grain of vermiculite. I water extremely carefully so as not to dislodge the seeds from the careful positioning. To make sure that when they grow, each will have enough space, enough nutrition, light and air. This spring, I have time for this. Maybe next year will be different. Maybe I will come out of grief and will be able to face, and cause, death. Maybe there will be no more pandemic. Maybe things will be more rushed. Maybe I will be a better gardener.