Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker
Great creamy drifts of pink blossom swirl around me while I sit on the grass. Normally I’d rejoice, but it’s Sunday morning which usually means I have a hangover – and as usual I have. A noisy night in the shed at the bottom of the garden blasting out my favourite reggae, rock & roll and jazz 45s has left me a wounded man. This is only an 8/10 hangover though; not incapacitating just wince-inducing. For me, hangovers always trigger a sort of puritan urge for punishment, so I’ve decided to tackle the hardest job, the one I’ve put off for a fortnight. Planting spuds.
The actual act of laying the small fellows on the soil is lovely, one of my favourite rites of spring. It’s the digging that will cause most grief today. For the next hour and a half I dig, curse, curse some more, then keep digging. Finally the potatoes are nestled down with the blossom and the soil folded in on top. These are the second earlies: Charlottes. I turn back towards the kitchen with a sore back and an even sorer head now, looking for praise and sympathy but happy to settle for a cup of rocket-fuel coffee.
Mid-May is the busiest time in the greenhouse. Although some vegetable seeds can be sown later, my almost desperate urge to plant means that I’ve sown too many too early again this year, and now all the young plants are ready to be transplanted all at the same time. I could have sown the runner and French beans later, but there they are, getting too tall and needing to be outside. The rubine Sprouts, pumpkins and sweetcorn are also jostling for space among the young tomato plants; something has to be done.
I decide to plant out my favourite sons, the pumpkins, first. But every year I face the same conundrum. What to do about slug damage? I was determined to be an organic gardener when I started gardening, creating all my own compost and sourcing as much organic material as possible. This has led to a slight obsession with seaweed, manure and the stinky nettle-filled water butt at the top of the garden (more tales of rotting next month). I’ve even swept up leaves from a country lane to create leaf-mould despite having loads of them in my own garden.
The slugs always destroy something precious each year, so back to the Sunday morning conundrum. Should I use slug pellets? In a large enough quantity they can kill pets and birds, and for years I refused to even consider them. My father-in law, a practical but lugubrious man, would stand by Eeyore-like, saying, ‘You’ll give in one day. You’ll be broken.’ I resisted, thinking him the old duffer, and me the one who’d found the true way. Then one disastrous year all the young pumpkins were slaughtered overnight, each stem garrotted by slugs. He was right.
There I stood, early that morning, staring at the carnage, suffering my first dose of gardening heartbreak. Yes, a few plants had been munched in the past, but these were the pumpkins, my gorgeous, pampered pumpkins. I felt truly miserable.
After some time searching online, I decided that if I used them sparingly and covered everything with fine netting, it should be fine to put down a few slug pellets. So now each year, feeling like a coward, I sheepishly sprinkle a few around the pumpkins to protect them. The pellets always get eaten overnight, but I never have the heart to put down any more and certainly not around any other plants. Instead I’ve learned to sow at least twice the amount of plants I need so I can replace those murdered in the night.
Another pest I hadn’t reckoned with is the red ant. They love the warmth of the greenhouse and the edges of raised beds. I sowed 24 runner-bean seeds in a tray last month. After a few weeks only a couple had struggled up, so I poked into the soil and finding no growth, tipped the whole seed tray out. Nothing but thousands of red ants. Not even ungerminated beans; nothing. Had they eaten the seeds? Another unexpected enemy to add to the growing list.
I also put Ziggy the cat back on that list after deciding to sow turnips for the first time this year. The thought of growing such basic, unglamorous vegetables was very appealing; I’m always up for supporting the underdog, even if it’s only a vegetable. I raked some ground level, made a fine drill and carefully sowed the seeds. Two hours later Ziggy decided this was her new toilet and dug up most of the soil. Off she wandered with her crooked gait while I shook a fist ineffectually. Grrrr.
Ramones Broad Bean experiment update! Despite dragging Dee Dee & Tommy’s pot up to the house to play them ‘California Sun’ on a regular basis in the hope of finding the secret of better growth, there is no real difference compared with Johnny & Joey. If anything, Joey is slightly ahead.
Mid-May is time to pull up the garlic. Fresh garlic is a fiery wonder, a perspiration-raising treat that makes your forehead prickle. My obsession with garlic became such that I used to crush it direct onto a teaspoon, relishing the hit. Then I took a friend’s brother’s advice and attempted to swallow a clove whole. The pointy edge stuck in my throat and I felt like an idiot, about to choke to death on garlic. Anyway, this week the leaves on the garlic that has been slowly growing all winter wilted, a sign that the bulbs are ready to pull up. I gather them together and wash them gently. Their earthy perfume hangs in the cool evening air as I leave them to dry on the freshly dug soil.
I’ve had to delay many jobs due to poor weather this year. It’s been a cool spring, and if you planted out young bean plants in the strong winds and rain we’ve had, they’d be knocked about and take weeks to recover. Just when the amount of catch-up work starts to look daunting, the weather appears to have settled for a few days. Spurred into action, I head toward the greenhouse. I can hear a distant clattering and banging. Getting closer it’s apparent what’s happening. Bollocks! There’s a magpie in the greenhouse.
It’s usually a robin or sparrow stuck in there. All that entails is stepping inside to guide the bird out as gently as possible. This is completely different. Magpies are big strong brutes. Put one in a 12’ x 6’ glasshouse and you have chaos in a box.
It’s crashing against the plants, knocking over fragile shelves and tools and causing all sorts of damage to the plants, but not, it appears, to itself. I gingerly hold my camera sideways in front of the doorway to take a picture. I don’t really like magpies. The pair who hang out around here nick treats left out for Ziggy. If I put something like chicken bones out the birds appear within a minute or so, waiting to swoop as soon as Ziggy totters off. They also take chicks from the nests. They are the local bullies.
There’s no chance I’ll stand behind the camera in the doorway. A vision of me found dead with a magpie buried in my forehead flits in front of me. I have a wife and three daughters who don’t need to deal with a dead dad in the garden scenario.
So after taking some pics at arms length, I assess the situation. The magpie’s stuck, and I’m certainly not going in, it’s avian pandemonium in there. I walk around the outside to the back of the greenhouse and put my face up close to the black, white and blue brute now perched on a narrow shelf. I’m inches away from its beady gaze. When it sees me, my mug obviously so frightens the magpie that it flies clean through the open door to perch on the shed, apparently unfussed. Retreating to the kitchen, I tell my daughter Olive, who’s at home studying. She laughs and says I make a good scarecrow. Now when I look in the mirror in the morning I know I have a good reason to look the way I do.
I’ve just returned from a trip to London catching up with friends, including an evening quaffing convivial pints in The Pineapple with Andrews of Arcadia and an afternoon at the Caught by the River launch for Brian Case’s book (On the Snap) at Ronnie Scott’s. It was a delight, seeing old pals and hopefully making new ones. Standing outside the French House in the Soho sun was just magical; it felt like I was back in my old London life and it still fitted me very well.
So when I wake early on my return and find myself in the garden at 6:30am tidying the greenhouse with thoughts of London crowding in, I feel the familiar doubts creep up over me. Where should I be? Town or country? I can’t deal with that now though; there’s every day life to get on with. I’ll postpone those thoughts for another time.
I plonk all the young sweetcorn plants on the greenhouse roof, stand in the early morning Cornish sunshine, look up at the sky and realise it’s going to be a stunning day. I’m a lucky man to be where I am, with the family I have, and for that I’m bloody grateful.