Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker
It’s a gentle March morning and I’m sitting on the grass mildly hungover, pushing onion sets into the warming soil. 60 of the things. The lines are not as straight as I’d planned – after about ten minutes my mind wanders off, mulling over what a state the greenhouse has become. The lettuces and other salad crops planted last September have exploded into growth with the lengthening days, pressing themselves against the glass. We’re having to consume salad in unnatural quantities with every meal just to get rid of the stuff. Back in December mizuna, lamb’s lettuce, land cress and lettuce varieties like Jack Ice and Red Iceberg were a fresh and very welcome addition to the table; now we are both heartily sick of the stuff – I say both since all three daughters will go to any lengths to avoid green leaves. If I could grow Pringles, maybe they would visit me in the greenhouse. But there’s at least another four weeks before I have an excuse, with the planting of tomato plants, to tear the lot out and hopefully not eat another bloody leaf till next winter.
This hangover’s not too bad, though. I’ve done the same job under far worse conditions. A few years back, celebrating my wife’s birthday, I found myself at 3am emptying all the leftover party drinks into a jug: red wine, a very large dash of white, some beer dregs, a hefty measure of cider, a soupçon of vodka and god knows what else. I tried a swig – nectar – and marvelling, offered it to Susy with a slur as we washed up. She dodged the mixture, so I knocked it all back straight from the jug like a daft 15-year old.
Just a few hours later, I stumbled out to the garden to plant onions. It was cold and raining. I knelt on the wet grass bewildered by a hangover of the highest grade: mean and spiteful with a deep undertow. The job could quite easily have been delayed, but a perverse voice in my head told me this was fit punishment for such juvenile behaviour, and insisted I see the job through. Shivering and muttering, I planted every single onion set, then retreated inside with a hangover off the Richter scale. Something positive had been rescued from an otherwise lost day. Medicine of sorts.
It’s now mid-March. In the two weeks since planting the broad beans in the greenhouse to germinate, the soil has warmed up nicely. I free them from the chaos of the overgrown salad jungle and lay them out on the soft soil. I love this yearly ritual, and stare at them for several minutes in quiet reverie, the early spring sun on my back. I take a picture of them with the same concentration I use when taking a portrait. These plants mean a lot to me.
The earth parts easily with bare hands and I tuck each bean in. There. I stand up and give them another couple of minutes of blank staring. No idea why. I’ve read of other gardeners doing the same thing: staring, sometimes at nothing at all, simply staring.
This year, inspired by a book I read many years ago, I plan to carry out a musical gardening experiment. Research into the effect of playing music to plants is inconclusive, but there’s an intriguing theory that plants exposed to music may respond by growing with more vigour. Classical music was used in previous experiments, but what would happen if I played something more basic to my beloved broad beans? Would they grow faster? Bigger? Taller? I have to try it.
Randomised Controlled Trials are the gold standard in science, with tight control groups ensuring rigour in these kinds of cause and effect experiments, but I’m not sure I have the patience to adhere to such strict guidelines. Nor that the Royal Horticultural Society would appreciate this experiment.
Because I was tremendously affected by punk rock in the 1970s, I’ve decided that loud, fast and heavy is the music for my young plants. It has to be The Ramones. Hearing ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ on Roger Scott’s Capital Radio show in 1976 had an electrifying effect on me. It’s probably my favourite 45 of all time. But their next single ‘I Remember You’ had two live tracks on the B side, one of which, a cover of the Joe Jones song ‘California Sun’, captivated me in all its rattly cacophonous glory. This is the song to play to my beans.
After I’d heard The Ramones, life was never the same, and the simplicity of their attitude and attack has informed my outlook ever since. Everything slimmed down, no fuss. Straight trousers always, and a mistrust of wide lapels and fancy sandwiches. I even try to take as much out of a scene as possible when taking photographs. It might not be too fanciful to reason that my urge to grow vegetables rather than flowers with all their frippery and finery might be traced back to hearing ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ for the first time. Simple, straightforward, basic. Gardening Ramones style.
If you care to hear the exact version, it is here. With it, a picture of Joey Ramone taken when I was in the company of Mr Jeff Barrett at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, 1987. I have pictures of Jeff from this time which, one day, may see the light of day. Sealed bids accepted.
Johnny and Joey didn’t speak for years, so the plants named for them go into one pot; let’s hope they get on. They are my control group. The rhythm section, Dee Dee and Tommy, go in the other pot. I’ll bring them inside whenever I can be bothered and play them ‘California Sun’, loudly. Johnny and Joey can just get it together by the greenhouse. Will they get on as plants? Will there be any difference in growth? What if I’ve discovered a new method of farming? Does anybody give a toss ? As Da Brudders would say, ‘Hey-Ho Let’s Go!’