A change of heart

When we first dug out the veg plot, I thought it was huge. It was, compared to what I’d had at our old semi: measuring 20 by 30 feet it took me a little while to get used to caring for it all. The newly planted fruit bed beyond, of about the same size, felt almost empty with great swathes of bare earth between the blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and rhubarb. We squeezed a few strawberries into the gaps, to make the most of the space while everything grew. It was marvellous.

After about three years, though, I began wishing for more. Just think, if I dug up the lawn we could probably be self-sufficient! The children made it very plain that they thought that was a terrible idea, so instead I dug up an aimless old flowerbed and started planting vegetables in there, too. They did well, and the following year we extended it.

The thing is though, that no matter how many vegetable beds I add, it’s never enough. I love them. I’d rather sit and gaze on a row of lettuces than anything, really. A well-tended veg plot is the most beautiful way to garden. Except that, all of a sudden, I’ve had a change of heart.

It started with Ilse’s little bulb garden, under the lilac. A second patch of colour in the early spring was a splash of joy, just across the lawn. So we decided to work on the patio area, and plant lots of flowers in pots. Father did so a year or two ago, and his looks glorious all summer long. Ilse and I spent Sunday afternoon arranging things and making a shopping list of plants, before collapsing into a pair of chairs we’d hauled out in the process. We made Ben admire it when he came down from the study, but although he liked it the second thing from his mouth was: you need to dig up that gravel and make a flower bed there. He was right. I’ve spent seven years walking over the patio and away from the house to get to my favourite patch at the end of the garden, and never saw how easy it would be to scrape up a bit of gravel and surround the patio with a sea of colour. He’s promised to help, as soon as his exams are over, and I can’t wait.

They say that one thing leads to another, and that everything happens in threes, which perhaps explains why I had a change of heart about that extra vegetable bed in front of the greenhouse. It’s not quite the right place for a flowerbed – not of the come-and-admire-me border-ish sort. But nor do we want it full of cabbages this year. Thus I find myself embracing an idea I never thought I’d surrender the space for: a cutting garden, providing flowers for the house. We’ve lots of young plants left over from the sowings for our pots, and what with the addition of some bulbs at the right time of year and some judicious purchases, we’ll fill it in no time.

Wandering the garden this morning, secateurs in hand, I came across a solitary aquilegia in a patch of nettles and weeds. I snipped some flowers for the house, and stopped and thought a while. It’s one of those wildlife corners, left a little rough, in between the chicken run and the hedge. I’ve tried to grow things there before, with little success, and had left it to the bees and insects. Yet all it would take is a shearing, a thick layer of newspaper and a packet of seed to turn it into a whole patch of the graceful blooms.

All of a sudden, everywhere I look, there are places for flowers in our garden. How unlike me. I suspect I’m getting old. There’ll always be a special place in my heart for the veg plot, and I’m sure it’ll remain where I spend the bulk of my gardening time. But I rather like it as it is, 600 square feet at the foot of the garden, with its lopsided pergola and battered old bench within. And much as I like sitting on our new-and-improved patio, it was to that old bench that I took my drink last night. Sitting there, under the wisteria, there were literally dozens of bees feeding on the blooms and the nettles and the fruit blossom. More birds than I could name were making their presence known. And before my very eyes the bare earth was filling up, set for a season of growth. So perhaps I’ve not had a complete change of heart. Just a shuffling around, to make room for something new.

Garden notes: First fruits

Six years ago, we planted a Cox’s Orange Pippin half way down the garden, on the right hand side. We had an apple from it once, bright and crisp and archly sweet. Just one, cut into six wedge smiles with my gardener’s knife and nibbled there and then on the dewy autumn lawn.

This year we might have an apple each. Or even several, if things go on the way they have begun. The drop, it seems, is over: the discarded prototypes picked up before the lawn’s latest cut. Not a barrel of apples, not a stockpile for the colder months. But enough to fill the fruit bowl for a good few weeks.

First fruit: the thrill of the new harvest. It’s infectious. Each night, after school, the children take turns to pick the berries and fill a jug with cream. Last night it was raspberries, mixed into a simple salad with this season’s sweet and juicy nectarines. On Sunday Ilse chopped the tops off strawberries and fed them, stalks and all, to overexcited hens. The blackcurrants are ready, and a day or two of jam-making awaits. I’ll tuck it away in the pantry, ready for October and its call for bread and jam for tea. For now, tea is a glass of milk and a visit to the garden to nibble whatever takes your fancy. Mange tout, spicy rocket leaves, as many raspberries as you can find from under their shady leaves. Even the gooseberries are sweet enough to eat just as they are.

There is hidden treasure in the hedges surrounding Father’s allotment, too. Fat raspberries abound, and the wild roses are dropping their leaves in time for the hips to swell. Blackberries are in evidence, small and hard and greenish white. His apple tree is laden, his rhubarb gathering strength for the following year. We went together, yesterday, to bring in his very first harvest: fistfuls of broad beans inside fuzzy protective pods; firm new potatoes, smelling of the earth; a sprig of mint to scent their water.

It was an ordinary, special day. It marked a shift in the life of that allotment: from a place of labour to a place of harvest. Before that, it was laid bare. Before that: chest high in weeds.

So much work goes into these brief harvests. So much time, so much thought, so much money spent on seeds and tools and strong young plants. Those broad beans might be the most expensive Father ever eats. Those apples, the most eagerly anticipated since the fall of Eve. One bite, though, and all is forgiven. Those first fruits are worth every backache, every penny, every tick of the kitchen clock. Worth all that and much, much more.

Many hands

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.