Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

10th March 2015

The pain of growing sprouts v. the pains of childbirth. The gardener declares it a draw in this month’s visit to Parker’s Penryn Garden:

Valentines Gift

Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker

Handing 89 pence to the man behind the till in Trago Mills, our local discount department store, I leave clutching my Valentine’s gift to my wife. It’s a packet of Rubine Brussel Sprouts seeds. Sprouts that come up red. I first thought of this as a present three years ago and was rather pleased with the shape (almost heart-like) and colour – and the fact that she gets a present for under a £1. Result.

That is until you consider the work involved. The packet may be half-price (like most things in Trago’s), but the sowing, nurturing and guarding till December when they’re ready for Christmas dinner, requires nine months of hard work. Not unlike having a baby. Three daughters vs three years of growing sprouts now means we are equal. In my reckoning, with all the digging, sowing, staring and the late-night slightly pissed slug patrol I may even be ahead.

There are still some sprouts in the garden now, hanging on looking slightly battered. I might spend months looking after them, but I loathe the things. The smell takes me back to my own childhood, when I’d stuff them into my shorts pockets during Sunday lunch then chuck them over the garden wall. I found out a few years ago that my dad would watch me dispatch the greasy beasts into next door’s garden laughing with glee.

The first vegetable that gets my real attention in the new year is the potato. I love the different varieties: earlys, second earlys, mids, main crop, second crop, their names indicating when they’re ready to lift. I daydream about finding new, even more precise varieties, maybe a mid-main or an early late. Perhaps I need to do something more useful than daydreaming about tubers….

You can’t plant any old shop-bought spud – local gardeners raise their eyebrows at my suggestion and warn darkly of ruined crops with such a virus-prone fellow as the potato. For planting you have to buy disease-free ‘seed’ potatoes – in the basement of Trago’s, of course. On rainy days in London I’d spend hours in other kinds of basements, the basements of record shops, like the one in the old Rays Jazz Shop. Upstairs was watched over by a curmudgeonly hungover Ray, one ear pressed to the cricket commentary on his transistor radio I’d be downstairs, foraging for new sounds and chatting with Mike Gavin who managed Rays Blues & Roots. I was never happier. Now I find myself spending my mornings in Trago’s basement absorbed in long conversations with short Cornishmen, who I press for information on planting times and the advantages of manure over compost. Maybe I should start the world’s first jazz and gardening basement emporium.

Traditionally seed potatoes are laid out in eggs boxes to ‘chit’ – to produce sturdy shoots. Mine are nestled now in a couple of my old darkroom developing trays. In my previous life, these got used nearly every day, with John Lee Hooker, Sonic Youth, Maya Angelou, Primal Scream, Terry Callier, Barry White and The Ramones all passing through the trays. These days they just get to hold a few spuds once a year.

Chitting Poatoes

Now’s the time to sow the first seeds. Tomato seeds first. Last year I was far too keen and planted them in January. This leaves them prone to legginess through lack of light or, as happened last year, a cold snap will halt them; I had to rush-plant another dozen. But this year, at the right time on a warm windowsill there they are, the first seedlings to germinate. And like when I spot early buds on the apple trees outside the kitchen, my heart skips a beat as the first perfect green seedlings push aside the soil.

This time of year is tricky. I’m desperate to start planting other seeds, though I know they’ll grow just as well given a few more weeks. If the soil is warm enough I will plant broad beans. Some plants require very little attention; they just get on with the business of growing. Broad beans are the princes of the garden. Plant them and they will grow (if you keep an eye out for black fly). It never ceases to amaze me that one single bean can produce so many hundreds more. These are my heroes.

I’ve tucked a sheet of plastic over the soil where I plan to plant the broad beans. Warm soil will give them a good start. We’ve had a week of sun, so I lift the plastic sheet and press my palm on the soil. Too cold. That’s disappointing. I could take a chance, but instinct tells me to shove the packet back in my pocket, so now I’m stuck mooching around the garden with nothing to do. I really wanted to plant something. This is a boring time of year in the garden. Little to do but wait.

Suddenly I decide I could stuff a broad bean between each of the lettuces growing in the greenhouse. They’ll germinate there, then I can plant them out next month. My yearning is satisfied. It starts to rain so once the beans are safely pushed in, I sit in the warm greenhouse and listen to the water hammering down. It is a wonderful thing to be stuck in a greenhouse unable to leave, just gazing out at the bloody sprouts and pigeon-pecked cabbages doing bugger all on a Sunday morning.

Previously in Parker’s Penryn Garden