I’ve been quiet here for a long time. I have still been gardening – more furiously than ever in fact – just mainly in my dad’s vegetable garden now.

Dad’s garden is much bigger than the city patio slabs I’ve been tending. It’s silly-big really and it’s all his dream. One of his many beautiful, ridiculously ambitious, built-entirely-from-scratch projects.

Sketched out, literally, on the back of an envelope, then created with his own hands over a decade of weekends and evenings. A new greenhouse; 32 raised beds dug out of clay then made sweet and productive, edged with wooden frames and lined with concrete paths; a set of rabbit-proof frames; hoops for netting; greenhouse screens; bird-scarers – each devised and refined over the kitchen table then hand-crafted. Every bit is a little story.

garden

If it was a little overgrown and out of control, this is because the dreams have always been far bigger than the spare hours carved out from long working weeks – precious hours which were nevertheless willingly given up if any of the family needed help.

Retirement was the time when these hours would no longer be squeezed out from between other commitments: we talked about him occasionally having time just to sit on a bench and watch things grow  – although there was always the suspicion his ambition would only expand with the hours…

But Dad got ill a few weeks before he retired. The diagnosis came quickly and the operating theatre and the chemo ward followed in a matter of weeks – but pancreatic cancer is rarely diagnosed quickly enough.

 “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

Sowing seeds that first year after diagnosis was a resolution – a resolution that we would have the time that the statistics sought to deny us.

So we cleared the beds and we sowed some seeds – and we had that year.

We harvested the fruit of those seeds and we bought a couple of rare-breed piglets as Dad had always planned, and we fed them acorns and scratched their backs and filled the freezer with joints and sausages – and then got some more. And a pair of turkeys on a whim. My brother bought sheep, a ram visited and lambs were born. We hatched a selection of pretty chickens: far too many different types of course, and most more ornamental than productive – and then we hatched a few more.

There were a lot of bad days, as is the way with tumours and chemotherapy, but there were a lot of bloody magnificent days too and we ate some very fine roast dinners.

lambs

Last year, there were more bad days and fewer seeds were sown. But we prepared for the next season instead. I cleared the beds and in the winter covered them in black plastic so they would be ready in the spring without the need for back-breaking labour so Dad would still be able to take it on.

Now his garden is tidy and flourishing, but he never lifted the black plastic with me this Spring.

Six months after he died, all I want to do is make his garden grow.

All my anger about the years he looked forward to and never got is there. The years we should still have in front of us and the empty space there will always be on the bench. The fact he left notes on how many potatoes and peas he believed should be planted in a bed but didn’t get round to the instructions for cabbages.

So many of my happy memories are there too: a lot of the things we weren’t very good at saying so showed instead, in hours spent in companionable labour and the plants grown for each other. So many good times with all my family are there: from planning, sowing and growing together to warm summer evenings podding peas on the lawn.

I have no religious beliefs and find no comfort in the idea of an afterlife. In fact I know for sure there isn’t one: if there were, Dad would be haunting me for planting hippy chickpeas, and I think he’d also be pretty pissed off that my carrots germinated first time. But I do find comfort of sorts in the garden.

Digging my Dad’s garden was about hope: hope in the winter that it was worth ordering seeds for an autumn harvest. But I think it was also about how even if we won’t enjoy all the fruit of our harvest, it is still worth sowing the seed. And, despite how much time I now spend sobbing in it, I feel more peaceful and connected there. The world makes more sense when my hands are in the mud.  I’m still thrilled every weekend I go back and marvel at how much a squash plant can grow in a week or how far up a pole a bean has climbed. I desperately wish we were sharing it still, but at least he seems closer there. He is there, in a way. It’s just that now, I win the argument about mixing the planting up a bit, but he’s won too: I’m finally planting in the straight rows he would have approved of.

These are the two poems we chose for his funeral, both by Edward Thomas:

Digging

Today I think
Only with scents- scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;

Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;

The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.

It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.

bonfire2

Sowing

It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl’s chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;
Nothing undone
Remained; the early seeds
All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying good-night.

bonfire

WARNING: The following post contains NO scenes of parasitic murder, feline or insect defecation defecation and no eight-legged beasties or mucus of any kind. May contain mild swearing.

Normal service will resume soon.

I grew lots of nice things last year and didn’t write about most of them. But as they were nice I will be growing them again this year and so will start to tell you about them now. First in line, the rat-tailed radish.

radish

the old peppery pink earth-dweller

Now there’s not much wrong with the ordinary radish. I like its peppery kick and I love the fact that seed can turn to lunch in as little as three weeks. I love the seeds for being happy to do their thing in the gaps in which few other plants would cooperate, and I like forgetting where I’ve put them then finding them again when a flash of fluorescent pink has broken the surface. And despite the slugs’ enthusiasm for almost everything I prepare for them (so rewarding to feed grateful mouths…) radish escape relatively unscathed.

But there is a problem with the old peppery-pink earth dweller. Each radish I munch requires  at least one seed to have been put into the ground a few weeks before.  A reliable supply requires regular sowing, and I am not to be trusted.

That got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if radish grew on trees?

Or even on a small plant, say 1m high? Then one little seed would gives lots and lots of radish mouthfuls, and I wouldn’t mind at all if it took a little longer to grow.

Also, if we are to redesign the radish, please could they could look like the clawing fingers of an extra-terrestrial?

Rat-tailed radish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yep that’s pretty good.

So how does it do on taste?

Good.  Not the same, but good. The flavour is primarily the hot-kick element one gets with the ground-radish (as we shall now call it), washed down with some green-tasting fresh air.

And don’t forget: because the poor blighter is so desperate to get some of its little seeds out into the world, the more you eat, the more it will try to grow some more.  Ha ha!

Also there’s the unexpected bonus of eternal youth. You just need to eat it right.

Aged seven, I spent hours and hours alone in the garden in various make-believe worlds. When one is engaged in an epic struggle battling witches (or pirates, or cave monsters, or bone-creatures or crazed goats) it often happens that one can only survive by living off the fat of the land. Nibbling dandelion leaves was not enjoyable, but good for reinforcing feelings of surviving against the odds. Sucking the nectar out of Deadnettle flowers was altogether sweeter (the pixies taught me that trick). Many adventures involved raiding Dad’s vegetable beds then retreating up a tree with muddy radish and spring onions on a lettuce plate; tomato harvests were sometimes lower than expected after small vermin invaded the greenhouse. Once, a thieving rat and her friend carried out a daring raid on a neighbouring garden after days of longing for raspberries which did not belong to them. This thieving rat still hangs her head in shame at the memory, but it can’t be denied that there is a special pleasure in eating something straight from the ground or the branch.

And what fun I could have had with rat-tailed radish! The gnarled and knobbly fingers are ideal for serving as a delicacy at a witches’ feast. They are also perfect for biting straight off the branch – “look! no hands!” –  which is very handy if one is spending the afternoon pretending to be a horse or other grazing animal. I was reflecting on this last August, when I realised I was sat on the ground in front of the plant,  snapping at it like a crocodile. Seven did not seem so far away.

Gnarled tree

The pixies live somewhere round here

'Forest' canaopy

Forest scape

Hello. It’s been a while. Sometimes life throws a lot of bastard-things at you all at once and gardening has to stop for a while whilst you stamp on the bastards and try to throw them back. It’s been a bit like whack-a-mole.

Luckily, not much happens in the garden anyway when it’s covered in snow and not much happens in MY garden when grey skies prevail over my square of patio day after day. And, luckily, nature will carry on doing her thing regardless of whether I go out and prod at her or not.

Three months have passed in which I did nothing except make the occasional outing to put food-waste in the compost bin … and only then when the kitchen started to smell. Now, it’s getting warmer and green shoots are literally emerging so we should all be better equipped for continued bastard-thing-stamping and I have ventured out to take stock.

The inventory:

  • Leeks planted at an inappropriate time in inappropriate places continue as they were – unperturbed by bad weather, threats to the nation’s forests and public services, or the fact I heard a really great new band last week.
  • The Alpine strawberries still push out the odd speculative fruit in the hope the sun will bring ripening rays before they shrivel. Not long now, my lovelies, not long now [please insert scurrilously piratical accent].
  • Mizuna and land-cress are very handy winter salads, and Swiss Chard seems quite happy to sit in a bucket for months, if unmolested by nothing but a fat pigeon or two.
  • Artichokes (and oca)As before, Jerusalem artichokes absolutely insist on providing delicious meals in exchange for absolutely no effort.
  • Oca was fun but not terribly productive. Get out your magnifying glass and look at that Jerusalem artichoke pic again. On the left. In the glass box. Now squint. Yep, that’s my harvest from 4 oca plants. Somehow this has delighted me even more than a middling to good harvest would have and I’m very much looking forward to trying again this year.
  • The greenhouse contains a lot of dead aubergine and chilli plants and accompanying fungal growth and spores.
  • Dried beansI still have more dried beans than I planted (despite having eaten several kilos along the way). Right now, they make me smile and marvel every time I see them. In a few weeks they will start the process of making me more beans and bring succour to my soul and stomach. A damn good deal if you ask me.
  • All my chilli plants that were brought in to overwinter died through neglect. Including the  hot, fleshy and delicious,* fascinating, beautiful, furry-leaved, purple-flowered, black-seeded, and getting to be properly tree-like in its second year, perennial Alberto’s Locoto**. But I have seeds so they SHALL come again! Where I have left them, some are already shooting in the pots where they fell. Plus something entirely unchilli-like has emerged and is growing at a triffid like rate. I am so excited. What will it be? I have no idea. I wonder if I will find out before it finds me out?

* I only put these phrases into get more visitors to the blog … and then disappoint them
**Happy to share some. No exchanges necessary, though wouldn’t say no to some Oca that grows tubers as well as leaves…

Lately, I’ve been spending insufficient time harvesting and preserving, a little bit of time sowing something for winter, and a great deal of time watching small beasts.

Even a little pot garden is a city in itself, and the compost bin is a tower block. If bustling life is a good indicator for rapid decomposition, it’s absolutely thriving.

Bustling equals a very audible rustling when the lid is opened and thousands of woodlice react to the intrusion. These busy little detritivores seem to do most of the work and as much as I chuck in the level drops by another few inches each week.

They really have the most peculiar charm.  I understand the reasons why us humans might have (relatively) illogical urges to care for big-eyed fluffy kittens but have not been able to pin down why woodlice can elicit similar feelings. I don’t think it’s just me: I learned recently that some people know them as ‘chuggypigs’ – a name that seems imbued with a certain amount of affection.

I could watch them for a long time and – when I have pressing tasks to do – have watched for a very very long time…

Occasionally I am distracted by juicy great worms which, though mostly content to munch away below, sometimes sashay to the surface. Or by the sight of a truly fearsome slug or a spider very keen to get more closely acquainted with the friendly little woodlice. All good signs of a thriving ecosystem.

I have pictures of these bugs too but it has recently been suggested to me that not everyone likes to look at such things and that perhaps one can overdo the slime, defecation and violent death. So I shall resist and hope there is no objection to the quirky little fellows above.

Flowers or something else pretty/ fragrant/otherwise inoffensive next; more death and poo next week.

A very hungry caterpillar

Happily the basil seems well able to support a couple of hairy tenants

If you’re here, you’ve obviously got a spare 30 seconds.

I suggest you spend your 30 seconds supporting this campaign, if you haven’t already: Pavlovsk Experimental Station is a  scientific collection of berries and fruit in Russia, under imminent threat from real-estate development. The Russian President could intervene to save it –  but more pressure is needed.

Pavlovsk is a unique resource – a collection of over 5,000 varieties of berries and fruit – 90% of which are not found in any other repository.

Established in 1926, it was conceived of as a legacy for future generations – a vision that should provide some hope in our world of climate change, massive biodiversity loss and industrial agriculture.

As those campaigning to protect it point out: “humanity needs crops to survive. As the climate changes and new threats to existing crop varieties appear, the ones we have now need to adapt, and the diversity found at the Pavlovsk Station provides this adaptation potential for a broad range of fruits and berries. We need to grow new breeds of all kinds of crops — grains, fruits, vegetables — to feed ourselves and our children. To do that, we need the rich diversity of characteristics like those found at Pavlovsk.”

Its plants can’t just be rehoused: it hosts thousands of rare species that can’t just be uprooted and moved and which are hard to breed from seed and so cannot just be stored in ordinary seed banks.

I’ve mentioned that berries actually unhinge me – and the thought of a place which hosts 1000 varieties of strawberries from 40 countries – or 893 varieties of blackcurrant –  just completely blows my awe-and-joy gasket. To think of that lost forever? To real-estate?

There are only a few days left to try to save the collection –  and at this stage that requires a presidential intervention. Internet campaigning-  by petitions and Twitter – has already got President Medvedev’s attention – but more pressure is needed.

During the siege of Leningrad, scientists protecting the station’s resources apparently  starved to death while surrounded by the edible collection – in that context I definitely felt I could spare 30 seconds to do my bit.