Vegetable goodness and the simple pleasure of buying seeds
It was around this time last year that Debbie and I started giving serious thought to converting our back garden into a vegetable plot. Over the course of three gloriously muddy weeks we stripped off most of the lawn, excavated what was once a faux rockery constructed from poured concrete, and cut back the borders to let more light into the garden. It was hard work, but my goodness did we ever look forward to getting out there to work on our plot.
When we purchased our bungalow it came with a ramshackle car port, which has since been converted into a sheltered area for propagating plants, to which we added some planters knocked together from whatever bits of scrap we had lying around. As the first shoots began to appear we silently competed to be the one who got to water them each morning, happy to be feeding those little shoots that would someday return the favour. By this time Lockdown One was in full swing, but in those moments of quiet contemplation you could allow yourself to believe otherwise. It’s a very pleasant sort of active forgetting.
We weren’t alone of course. Many of our friends had been doing much the same thing in an attempt to stave off lockdown blues by injecting some green fingered joy into their days. Episodes of The Good Life began to feel like instructional videos, and in search of inspiration I would spend an hour most evenings watching gardening videos on YouTube. I even started recording Gardeners’ World, which seemed more of a mid-life milestone than I was perhaps prepared for.
Keen to entice more wildlife into our burgeoning garden we also dug a pond, into which an unsuspecting hedgehog slipped and sadly drowned, reminding us of the need to design with the welfare of our smallest visitors in mind. An elaborate pontoon was introduced, and since then there have been no further reports of drownings.
This morning I placed a seed order for the new growing season, having only this past weekend purchased a brand new 6’x4’ greenhouse that should be delivered in time for early summer, when we hope to grow some chilli peppers and cucumbers. Sitting in my home office this morning with the sun burning through the window I felt a sense of optimism that has been lacking for some time now. Events of the past few weeks and months, both within our family and across the country have left us all feeling rather bereft and broken, so it was good feel the warmth of spring teasing us with a preview.
The thought of getting out there in the coming weeks to turn over the soil and start planning new experiments in backyard horticulture is genuinely exciting. Without really knowing what kind of seeds are best, I’ve opted for a variety of precocious early risers with tantalising and suggestive names like “Butler’s Bulge” and “Offler’s Gargantuan.” It’s all rather J. R. R. Tolkien, and a welcome reminder that however sophisticated we like to think we are as a civilisation, it seems we are never more than five syllables or half a pint away from a knob gag, and I do think that’s rather wonderful. I imagine it’s much the same everywhere and indeed has been ever since a neanderthal held an oversized gourd up to their groin and paraded around the cave to much acclaim. In nearly forty years I haven’t been able to walk past an unsupervised chalk board without the urge to add a feisty cock-and-balls graffiti. I even got put on report for it. Twice. Debbie thinks it should be my personal sigil.
All of this simply adds to the primal yet oddly refined condition known as gardening. Scrolling through an article at the weekend I learned that Wales, England, Northern Ireland and Scotland spend an average of around £3 per household per week on garden supplies, a number which has increased dramatically during lockdown as our focus became intensely localised. According to one survey, your typical Briton invests £30,000 on their gardens during their lifetime, and that impulse garden purchases amounts to around £10,000 on plants alone. It’s for this reason that the NewStateman calls the garden centre a ‘particularly British institution’ and while I don’t think this rings true at all, it was telling how Boris Johnson put the reopening of garden centres atop his lockdown easing list back in the summer of 2020. If nothing else it’s certainly a very Middle England sort of institution, and I’m sure the ideological nod was not lost on Conservative constituents.
Peering closer still, you can see how social class does expresses itself through gardening habits, but perhaps not as much as the editors of the NewStateman would have us believe. The allotment is a grand example of convivial grubby knee social levelling, although even in the proudly eccentric world of allotment keeping there is still plenty of scope for conspicuous consumption. I’m told that Hunter wellington boots are considered quite the status symbol.
Reusing and recycling are also bywords of gardening practice that we should all embrace in cool disregard of any political affiliation. What serious gardener would be without their sacks of bisected cola bottles for instance, or tinkling washing lines of bird scarers? And just like summer holidays spent at the beach, nobody seems to care if you gad about in the same faded shorts for weeks at a time. It’s honestly quite liberating, or at least it would be if I didn’t already spend most of the year rotating through the same three sets of increasingly translucent “clothing.”
Growing veg is a quaintly revolutionary act, with its adherents defiantly stepping away from the grocery aisle at the local Tesco in favour of some wonky home grown beauties. When all the labour and incidental costs have been accounted for, I doubt a small plot really makes much difference to the household budget, but it’s all the additional benefits where we see the greatest reward, such as the inevitable health kick (mental and physical), and the satisfaction of growing something yourself in a yoghurt pot rescued from the kitchen bin. If he had had access to some topsoil I’m sure Mad Max would have been a gardener.
On the subject of allotments, I remember my grandfather taking me along one Saturday morning to a meeting of the Coventry Allotment Growers Association (or something like it – I don’t remember the exact name). Up until that point my previous experience of allotments had been watching them sluice by during the last few minutes of the Coventry-Rugby rail connection, when fields would suddenly give way to a patchwork of jumbled allotments, each with its own tumbledown shed fashioned from old window frames and corrugated tin. All of this stood in stark contrast to the bank of large wooden outbuildings that constituted the CAGA headquarters, at the heart of which stood a barn like edifice that looked very much like the hardware store in a classic western, its rafters dripping with watering cans and coils of barbed wire. Continuing with the cowboy theme, the outside walls offered a sort of hitching post service, home to a line of wheelbarrows that their owners had stood to attention until called upon to trundle their wares back to their patch leafy dominion. My grandfather wanted to purchase some seed potatoes and a large bag of bonemeal, which he assured me was much cheaper when purchased from what looked like the OAP version of a Columbian cartel. I don’t think the entire bill came to more than a pound fifty.
Everywhere I looked older gentlemen were sat around on an arrangement of deckchairs, upturned buckets, and recycled dining chairs, each enjoying a cup of tea and a slice of cake. As my grandad paid for his potatoes one of the men cut me a thin slice of something that tasted powerfully of strawberries. “The best in Coventry!” he assured me with a wink, although several of the other men seemed to ripple in silent disagreement. The whole enterprise had the feel of a clubhouse, and I remember thinking that if this is what old people get up, then it seems like a pretty good deal.
Although I’m sure I’ve given the experience something of polish, it’s lovely image nevertheless, and I’d like to think that those traditions continue, with each generation of allotment keepers handing it off to the next like piece of homemade strawberry sponge cake. The last I heard was that the bulk of those allotments had been sold to developers by the Anglican church, who must have held the lease in perpetuity, or until someone realised that there was money to be made. It’s a tragedy that such a precious resource, or at least some part of it is now buried beneath overspill housing, and that fewer and fewer people will be able to benefit from a small patch of fertile ground that they otherwise would not be able to afford.
Closer to home, I like to think of ours as a working garden, since as lovely as it is in its resting state, its principal role is now to produce food for the table. Ordering my seeds this morning I felt as though I was participating in an ancient ritual, the webpage having now taken the place of the grand shack in the allotment growers’ kingdom of sheds. A packet of seeds is a promise, although not all of them will be kept. That’s part of the bargain that we make with the stretch of semi-domesticated natural world that we call the garden. Slugs will take their share, as will the birds and mice, but if we put in the hours then we can expect to enjoy the literal fruits and vegetables of our labour sometime later in the year. It’s also so wonderfully analogue, by which I mean off-line and hands-on. Lockdown has adhered me to the computer screen with an intensity I have not experienced since Sonic the Hedgehog was released on the SEGA Master System, and with the bottomless reserves of fidgety energy that I had as a nipper, it all gets rather too much. Some days I swear that I can taste the back of my eyeballs beginning to cauterize. After more than three or four hours of meetings I develop something like swimming pool ear, where everything sounds weirdly muffled. It can’t possibly be doing us any good at any rate. The garden is gleefully off-line, and for that I am grateful.
There’s also a collection of scents and smells that come alive in cultivated spaces. You’ll probably never hear me trying to wax lyrical about the poetic beauty of trench, but the sound of a spade cutting into the ground followed a moment later by the rhythmic slapping of the overturned sod has a nostalgic quality that I find most appealing. Spend half an hour out there and the air achieves a kind of loamy consistency that you’d swear could cure rickets. Regardless, it certainly makes me feel a lot better.