Things that grow


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

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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

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…

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.

I’ve been rubbish at blogging. I wanted a detailed record of which poor plants I’d decided to torture with my attentions, which ones thrived despite my tender ministrations and a reminder of the monumental cock-ups never-to-be-repeated. But it’s been a bit patchy … I’m lucky enough to have  a job that I find just as engaging as growing vegetables and last year I signed up to study another degree on one of those whims that will take up another three years of my life and more money than I have.

So I think I’ll accept that I’m never going to have detailed logs of germination time and percentage success rates, to-the-ounce measurements of what was harvested and equivalent retail costings (which i can then compare to be records of time and financial inputs) and just get on with it.

Runner beans then.

When I was growing up I always thought of runner beans as tyrannical vegetables, with shrill triumphant voices.

“Pick me every day or I’ll go old and stringy and stop producing! And that would be a WASTE.”

“Ha! I’ve gone old and stringy anyway! But don’t WASTE me”

“Ha ha! But there’s still more of me that you can possibly eat. Don’t you feel guilty? Go on, give a generous armful to your neighbours who are too polite to tell you they are trying to escape the very same repressive runner regime. They’ll say thank you but nurture a secret hatred for you from this day forth.”

“Ha ha ha! And now you’ve topped me and tailed me and sliced my tough stringy flesh on the diagonal into neat 3″ pieces, what you going to do? Yeah! Boil me up until I go from vibrant- to swampy-green and see me seeping swamp-green juice on the side of your plate every day for the next three months.”

“Ha ha ha ha! Hah! Mwah ha ha!”

Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but I’ve been living in the shadow of the bean for a fortnight now and I’m getting to like it. The beans have told me they’re great, and here’s why:

1) I’ve said it before and now I’ve said it again: these are surely Jack’s magic beans. Look to the right, and tell me you don’t want to sell me your cow?

2) The first plant to grow a foot a day in the slow days before summer kicks in brings immense satisfaction. Muddy ground and bare sticks suddenly covered with relentlessly encroaching green – then covered with flowers to equal any of your purely floral jobs.

3) Forget about building bug-houses. Host your own bug-Butlins by cultivating whole stalks worth of rampant oozing blackfly. Then watch the lovely ladybirds come in with their lizardy larvae and clear up.

This picture is small because it's a bit rubbish. But you get the idea. It's an arch effort.

4) There’s a meal anytime you want it, however many you grow. Limit the number of plants (I’ve gone for just enough to cover my effort at an ‘arch’, and a few up the fence where next door’s cat likes to scrabble, just to piss it off ) to get a nice side-serving every day  and you know what:  if you don’t want them, don’t eat them.  Compost a whole plant’s worth and say you were just growing it to fix some extra nitrogen in the soil for the delicious squash growing alongside. Or give the surplus to the neighbours with the objectionable cat.

5) Fry some onion, garlic, chilli, cumin and coriander for five minutes or until you’ve finished watering/necking the first glass of wine; throw in some more cumin and garlic; maybe some chopped peppers, then however many beans you want to get rid of and a can of tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes, soon!) – and simmer until swamp green. Who cares about swamp green. It’s tasty, and I can cook this daily for at least two weeks before I decide I need a break and go pickle some.

6) You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Tubing it across the city this evening, a fierce panic seized me. Blight was in my potatoes, and it was about to send its spores tomatowards! Cue apocalyptic visions of spore clouds dispersing disease and fruit rotting on the vine.

Much as I love new potatoes, I don’t think I can grow them next year.

They break all my (rough, loosely-applied) rules of what I should grow and what I shouldn’t. The tubs take up a relatively large bit of space, which is the thing I can spare the least. I can only grow a taste, and when they’re so cheap and easy to buy and easy to store, there’s not much point.

I’ve grown them anyway –  for the fun of earthing up, the delight of digging them and those few amazing meals with the ‘I grew this’ garnish. But No More!

There were definitely a few spots on the leaves. Were they a blighty sort of spot? Probably not, but still I sat out in the twilight and the first rain for three weeks (Warm, moist air! Doom and destruction!) shoving the foliage into a bin-bag and casting anxious looks at the tomatoes.

Totally illogical. I’ve never had blight, the tomatoes were bonny and wonderful last year and, if force of will counts for anything, they’ll be even better this time round. But the fear is infectious and so there was no fun in this potato harvest.

*This year I grew Swift, Charlotte and Duke of York, as that’s what I was given. All were nice and clean-looking; Swift yielded almost twice as much as the others; tasting to follow.

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