Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker
I’m sitting in my shed looking through a jumble of seed packets. The packets that contain my favourite seeds. Pumpkin seeds. I’m bewitched by these beautiful monsters. These are not the airy-fairy sort of squashes grown for Halloween, these are dense, dark green, ribbed behemoths. Actually my love of pumpkins might have something to do with Halloween – that’s my birthday. I was obviously born to do this.
If the broad bean is the prince of my garden, then the pumpkin is the emperor, the Henry VIII (I know, I know) dominating the garden with its massive bulk and generous trails of leaves. I’m literally transfixed by my pumpkins. I even take their portraits, setting up an improvised studio indoors if I like them enough.
To throw another metaphor at this vegetable, the pumpkin is also the cuckoo of the garden. From when I sow the first pumpkin seeds – Anna Swartz and Burgess Buttercup this year – in April, I’m committed to them for the next seven months, and I spend more time and effort on them than on anything else in the garden. For the first ten weeks after planting in starter trays they need little attention other than a little watering. At the four-leaf stage in early June, they are ready to be transplanted out. And then the fretting starts because once they’re outside, in a bed lovingly prepared with compost and manure, the young pumpkins always have a nice sulk. They hang around looking wan and lifeless for a couple of weeks – and, hey, I’ve got teenage daughters whose job that is!
This is the dangerous time. Slugs, now rampant, like nothing better than to nibble off the main trailing stem or eat a hole in the base of the plant. Ten plus weeks’ work can be undone in a night. I can step out on a sunny morning for the daily amble only to be confronted by disaster. For it is a disaster to lose one of these carefully nurtured plants. I have back-ups, but if they suffer a similar fate there is no time to sow again this year. A summer without my pumpkins bossing around the place? Unthinkable. And on our family summer holiday in August I spend far too much time imagining what’s happening back home under the huge canopy of their leaves.
But pumpkins are worth it. What other vegetable can grow to the size of a bison’s head? What other vegetable can sit around lording it on the kitchen windowsill until well after Christmas? Sometimes there are 10 or 12 of them lying around the house like so many beheaded relatives.
If the pumpkins put on growth, then’s the time to start talking to them. When I started gardening, fresh from London, there may have been a bit of occasional muttering, but it very quickly became much more than that with my pumpkins. Now, crouching down low, I have whispered conversations with many of them. It may be all a bit one-sided but, like a referee at half-time, I’m full of positive advice for my mute companions. Willing them on, feeling perhaps overly protective. They are only bloody vegetables after all. My wife says the girls watch me from the breakfast table on my early garden round, and say, ‘He’s talking to the cabbages again’. I almost certainly am.
Good News! The heavy armoury I deployed to protect the purple sprouting has worked. Instead, my favourite enemy Mr Fat Pigeon stripped the last of the despised sprouts and devastated the land cress. By the time the PSB season ends, it’s time to sow next year’s seed. One long PSB merry go round. Or 11 months to grow your dinner.
It’s a little early still; they could easily go in next month, but I’ve sown some borlotti beans. Beautiful creamy, mottled things, they were a cast-off from someone else’s garden last year. Too much fuss to spend so much time for so few beans in each pod, she said. I saved a few and once I’d held them in my hand to count, simply couldn’t resist sowing them. A sudden frost would kill them, but being so far south-west and with only two days of sub-zero mornings this winter, it’s unlikely we’ll get a frost now.
It’s also time to plant the peas. Another lovely job and something I save for a sunny day – sowing peas under anything but a blue sky feels wrong. I feel optimistic this year, but I did last season too and that was a disastrous year, at least for me. The weather was good, just the right amount of rain, but barely a pea. Every year brings triumphs and tragedies; last year’s other notable failure was the red gooseberries. A long-awaited treat lost and mourned for.
Kneeling on the warm grass, I sow the peas 1 inch deep. To me the peas look like notes on a stave: underground music. Then, to protect them from birds or mice, I lay down as many prickly branches I can find, a sort of organic barbed wire.
For a while our tabby Ziggy would chase away the mice and rabbits, often bringing them into the house or, with rabbits, eating them from the nose down, teeth and all. After three days we’d come across the occasional paw or gall bladder; even the fur got eaten. She was an extremely efficient killer. Then I ran her over.
One dark December night, hurrying out, I reversed the car. This is not the place to discuss the noise a cat can make when you break its pelvis beneath the wheel of a Renault Clio, but the result is a cat who walks like a cross between one of Dick Emery’s more effeminate characters and Long John Silver. In short, she’s not the animal she was. Now the rabbits and mice gambol unmolested while Ziggy takes it easy in the sunshine having lost her deadly feline instinct and agility, so this year I’m confident the young mistle thrushes will survive. It’s good to know something positive can come from crushing your cat under your car.
Past Parker’s Penryn Garden.
Stephen will be our resident DJ at Port Eliot Festival this Summer.