Photographer of note and Caught by the River’s resident festival DJ, Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker’s first instalment of a new column charting the joy and despair of tending a vegetable patch whilst fending off Mr Fat Pigeon and other adversaries.
I ease open the bathroom window and quietly take aim. A dull thud, and the pellet from my trusty Webley MK 1 pistol sails gently across the garden and clatters softly against the fence. Its target, a big, fat hungry wood pigeon, flies off unscathed in a hurly-burly of feathers. The ‘gun’ is worn out, over 40 years old with the trajectory of a banana and the power of a peashooter. I have no real desire to injure my foe – I just want to scare him off and feel like I’m protecting my patch, however futile that often seems.
This is my year-long diary of gardening triumphs and tragedies on the side of a hill in Cornwall. It’s January and I have big plans to grow as many vegetables as possible: cabbages, tomatoes, beetroot, spinach, garlic, potatoes, sweetcorn, leeks, all kinds of fruit, and my personal favourite, pumpkins, something I have come to be bewitched by. They’re the ones that really captivate me, that I’ll guard night and day, peer at and cosset. But I’ve learned that weeks and even months of preparation can be undone by something completely out of my control – like Mr Fat Pigeon. From the bathroom window I can see patches of barren earth from last year’s lost fights with foes, bare brown wounds that are a constant reminder of that lack of control.
The appearance of Mr Fat Pigeon and his pals in January signals the start of my year-long struggle with all the other foes waiting patiently in line for their own favourite feast-time. Moles who have started the burrowing earlier than usual but have yet to really get going, the baby rabbits in April, our tabby cat Ziggy, the daft, destructive pheasants, caterpillars, and by far the worst, slugs by the million. Gardening enemy no 1, slugs are the ones that reduce me to a cursing wreck bent double stumbling around in the dark with a torch as I hunt them down before bed.
From the garden I can see the sea. Living in Penryn, just outside Falmouth in Cornwall, we are at the mercy of dramatic westerly winds, huge quantities of rain driven in off the Atlantic and the dreaded mizzle, a spirit sapper in vapourous form. Over a year the garden absorbs all that is hurled at it, besides the predators, and my work never stops. Everyday something requires attention and I willingly give it.
I moved away from London with my young family 9 years ago after 30 years of gigs, pubs and interesting work as a photographer. Back then in my Hackney garden my gardening experience amounted to being laughed at for lovingly nurturing what turned out to be a very pretty but very deadly nightshade plant growing within easy reach of my 18-month old daughter. Within days of getting a garden, I stuffed some garlic cloves into the earth. They failed and I was off.
I miss London, friends and gigs. The garden is an absorbing distraction when my mind wanders to free experimental music at The Conway Hall. When the urge strikes to see a woman playing an amplified bicycle wheel or a Tuvan throat singer improvising with Evan Parker, I step outside and shovel bags of horse muck over the garden, and stare at and will on a broad bean seedling or a young cabbage plant. That’s cathartic sometimes. But it doesn’t always stem the yearning for more urban pursuits. There must be thousands who’d swap my Cornish garden for their cramped urban surroundings, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to live in two places at once.
Mr Fat Pigeon times his visit carefully. There’s little to be had in the surrounding fields at this time of year and my garden supplies one of his favourite meals: Purple Sprouting Broccoli. It won’t be ready for another month, but he and his mates bide their time, in my imagination smacking their beaks in anticipation of the feast to come. They make do with the cabbages and sprouts for now, ignoring the stalwart of the garden and a friend in the winter, the leek. But the pigeons know and I know that at first light on the first day the first Purple Sprouting sprouts, I will be asleep and they will strike. Like Mr McGregor, I will fire ineffectual pellets and bang uselessly on windows when finally I arise. That’s the deal and I have to live with it.
In January I’ve finished the early preparation for the new growing year – manuring, burning the non-compostable, and sometimes simply staring at the soil. The garden is just about dormant now apart from the salad in the greenhouse, the cruciferous (cabbage) tribe and my stalwart leeks.
For now I close the window and put the gun away. It’s time to think about checking last year’s seed packets and sort out the beans saved from last years crop to plant this season. I’ll find the last piece of rock-hard Christmas cake and settle down by the fire to re-read my trusty gardening books, all the while imagining the triumphs to come. For I have found that my natural leaning towards pessimism cannot remove the earth-bound excitement of pushing beans into the warming soil or laying a careful if wandering line of seeds before gently tucking them in for the season. Optimism buried in soil.
Last year’s weather was simply perfect, the sun had put his hat on, just the right amount of rain fell and the winds all but disappeared. It was the best summer we’d had since moving down. The vegetables loved it. So did the slugs….