New gardeners need advice, certainly. We can seek it in books or in the umpteen pamphlets available for a penny each. We can speak to those who have been growing things for longer than us. I like to ask Mr White what he is up to, at the moment, and often follow suit. He attends talks held by the local horticultural society, to hear advice straight from the experts. It trickles down, from them to him to me and, finally, to Father.
It always feels as though Father should know how to grow vegetables. His own father, whose garden is now largely put to lawn and flowerbeds, had a large vegetable garden. As a child I remember being sent into the humid greenhouse to pick the reddest tomatoes, or the longest cucumber, to slice thinly into sandwiches for luncheon. It was a job I loved. The greenhouse was forbidden to us children, otherwise. I would slide the door closed behind me, marvelling at the close air and the tangle of vines. It was another country, behind glass. Another world, to a child whose vegetables were delivered by the greengrocer’s boy.
I know he spent a lot of time in there, and in the extensive kitchen garden down one side of the house. Latterly he had a new patch made, closer to the back door, and carried on coaxing life out of the soil well into his nineties. Now he cannot garden any more, but we talk about it instead: what’s done well, what I’ve planted, varieties I might try. He likes to remember the times we went fruit picking together in North Wales, and he taught me to make jam afterwards, dangerous and sticky in the August kitchen.
So you see, I expect Father to just know how to do all this. The fact is, though, that one way and another he’s never had the chance to grow his own. So now we talk about it, and the things that Grandad taught me get passed back up a generation.
If new gardeners need advice, new gardens need small armies. Especially allotments, which are by their very nature normally abandoned a full season before they are given up. Father’s allotment, when he took it on last summer, was textbook. It took Father and Ben and I several weekly sessions to raze the chest high weeds to the ground and begin to fork their roots out. I gave him baby leeks, and little brassicas, and a few lettuces to fill the gaps. The rest could wait until winter.
This Christmas we promised him a day of the six of us, to clear the site ready for spring. I don’t know what he was hoping to achieve, but I was confident that we could get the job done. En masse, the Grahams make light work of such tasks. The hedge was cut back into shape. Endless brambles were dealt with. The fruit patch was shorn of long grass, and the bushes pruned. Ilse and Seb, armed with secateurs, cleared a ginnel for easy access. The beds were forked over once again.
At noon there were many none-too-clean fingers fishing vinegary chips from newspaper, and many thirsty mouths swigging dandelion and burdock. We paused to survey our work, and saw the end in sight. When we were finally done, and John had cycled home with the children, I lingered while Father put away his tools and shut the gate. A fellow allotmenteer poked her head over the hedge and commented on our progress. That always was a lovely plot, she said.
And now it is so again. It has a fruitful apple tree, and fledgling plums and damsons. It has red and blackcurrant bushes. It has four raised beds, just the right width for easy weeding. It has a wooden shed, and a sunny spot for sitting in.
We couldn’t see much of this, when Father took it on last summer, but now its charms are obvious. He’s there today, adding muck to three of the beds. I hope he goes there often, and that we have a good season ahead. I want him to like growing things as much as Grandad and I. Which is why I will happily answer his many questions, and ensure that there are many hands to help him, whenever he asks.