Garden notes: A patch of earth

When Ilse came to me, book in hand, to beg a patch of earth to call her own, I knew what she’d been reading. She’d picked out a plot already, a weedy spot under the lilac which is just coming into bloom. By the time she showed it to me it was cleared and had a twig fence all around it, to mark it out in case the hens and neighbourhood cats misunderstood. A shady spot, on the very edge of the lawn, where I could see the roots of the nettles and dandelions cut off at the surface of the soil. A spot where the chickens like to scratch and which, now cleared, would invite all passing moggies. A perfect spot in Ilse’s eyes, if not in mine.

We suspect the pigeons ate the poppy seeds she sowed. They stepped right over her picket fence and got straight to their hungry work. Fortunately there is no shortage of seedlings in this house, and for round two she chose to plant some marigolds, those little orange ruffs, to stand up to the dandelions. I’ve chased the hens away from them so many times already but there are still some left, thank goodness. Just one, that’s all she needs. One marigold, one bloom, one spark of magic to make her garden a success.

While she wants flowers, Seb wants veg. Not any old vegetables: not lettuce or spinach or peas. Not runner beans, and definitely not courgettes. Why grow easy things when you could grow what you really want? What Seb wants are globe artichokes, spikily ornamental, softening to a savoury delicacy to dip in melted butter. A crop with a tiny yield. A crop which you don’t pick until the second year.

In truth, I hadn’t given the artichokes a huge amount of thought. He’s planted things before, watched them germinate with devoted fascination, then forgotten all about them. He’d find them a few weeks later, shrivelled and crisp on a sunny windowsill. A shrug, a sigh, and he’d be off again to hammer nails into another bit of wood. I didn’t think these seedlings would get far.

Instead, I’ve found myself hunting for a space for them. An unobtrusive space, where I’d be happy to leave them for some years, but where they’d have a high chance of success. It’s such a fine balance, squeezing everything in, planting as close as I dare. Willing it all to grow; knowing some crops will fail. Trusting that I’ll try again next year.

As it was, the carrots were true to form. They took so long to germinate that I sowed another few rows. Then one day they were up, and the next they were gone. I suspect the slugs. A shrug and a sigh and it was back to the garden plans for a little reshuffle. A well-timed failure, and in their old spot, at the end of one bed, is a space for Seb’s plants to thrive. I think they’ll like it there.

That’s the thing about gardens. Things change all the time. The swedes might be a mollusc’s midnight feast, the apples might get scab. The cherry blossom drops so that the earth and not the skies are swathed in pink. And yet the world keeps spinning. The rain falls, the sun shines, and in its turn the lilac opens up. I spent a happy half hour last evening, sniffing at the blooms and filling vases for the house. There is always something new: as one thing fades another takes its place. Nature presses on, and fills the spaces left by our failed plans with something better.

It’s easy enough to teach children to grow a courgette. Soil, water, sun, a bit of general care and there you go. But that’s not what those patches of earth are all about. They’re about all the downfalls which might afflict those artichokes before next summer. They’re about those little shrugs and sighs and sowing something else. We’ll dig Ilse’s bed properly this autumn, she and I, together. There’s a pile of bricks behind the shed to mark it out. Behind them we’ll plant her favourite bulbs: snowdrops and daffodils, bluebells and tulips. There they’ll flourish, of that I’m sure. And afterwards, while the hens eat her seeds and peck leaves off her plants, she can look up and see the lovely lilac blooming in her very own patch of earth.

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