Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

7th July 2015

Nettle stew, slow worms and country mice: this month’s action in the life of a Cornish garden.

Words by Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker
Pictures by Parker and Iris Mathieson

A large buzzing thing crashes into my ear, snapping me out of my early-morning reverie. The morning patrol reveals a garden well prepared for summer, but many of the plants seem wan. Last month, during a lovely calm sunny period, I transplanted all the sweetcorn, French beans and runner beans from the greenhouse into their awaiting beds. Sod’s law dictates that every year, a few days after I finish this job, the wind will pick up, the rain will pour down and the sun will bugger off for a week or so. Of course it happened again this year. The poor plants, cosseted in the greenhouse for a month, got a proper duffing up. For the past fortnight they’ve been sitting there looking shocked, drained of most of their colour and having a major sulk. Now they’re slowly starting to regain some vigour, but are still at the mercy of slugs. I hover around protectively, looking to the sky for hope.

The other day I was talking to a friend about the evilness of slugs, and their naked desire to ruin my life. I explained that I show them no mercy, killing them with shovels, sticks, a sharp pointed dibber, anything that satisfies my murderous desires really. She looked bemused. She collects her slugs in a box, then takes them to the woods to ‘let them go’. She looks at me like I’m Julius Caesar, a murdering maniac; I look at her like she’s stark-raving crackers. Every time I recall the conversation I shake my head. Unbelievable.

While I’m outside, like a gruesome parody of the Bisto advert, I catch a whiff of the stench wafting from the water butt. Two months ago I stuffed it full of nettles and left it to stew. The smell is now simply appalling. Soaking nettles makes a nitrogen-rich feed for plants but creates a hell of a stink. It attracts horseflies, wasps and mosquitos, lurking there in a corner, fermenting darkly. Fascinated by the revolting potion, I hold my breath, hover over the surface, and take a picture to share with you.

Nettle 'Stew'

In last month’s Penryn Garden I mentioned the magpie stuck in the greenhouse. Other birds occasionally get trapped in there, but never anything as canny as a magpie. It was only later I realised that I’d just fed the tomato plants with some of this rancid brew. Even I was surprised by the stench generated in the warm environment; it smelt like an old latrine. Maybe Mr Magpie simply caught a whiff of death and came in to investigate. For a brief moment, I consider setting up a nettle-based corvid-catching experiment, but my last brush with the bruiser has left me rattled. Forget it. I’ve got something more constructive to do, like playing The Ramones to my broad beans. This experiment seems to be having the opposite effect to the one intended. The Ramones-blasted plants appear to be stunted and lacking in vigour compared to the control group happily growing unmolested a few feet away in open soil. Another week playing California Sun and I’ll probably pack it in.

The composting and manuring required to keep a garden in good health rapidly became an obsession for me when I started growing things. I built my first ever compost heap using old pallets, and soon worked out the ideal proportions of carbon to nitrogen to create a healthy heap. I sometimes pick up the kids from school with 10 bags of horse manure stuffed in the car boot or, much worse, my seaweed collections – little fleas escape, jumping onto the girls and their unsuspecting friends. At the height of my composting absorption, I drift off to sleep thinking of the ingredients slowly breaking down in the dark outside. I can’t remember what I used to think about at this hour before I started gardening, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t rotting vegetation.

Most organic material can be chucked on the heap, but not cooked food or meat – if you do that rats soon make it their home. When the girls were young and I was a less experienced heap-maker, we spotted a huge rat sitting on the beaten up bird table, scaly tail hanging down. ‘Oh look,’ we said. ‘A country mouse.’ Our old house in Hackney was also home to a rat family, and to see the Dad casually walk over your six-week old baby (past your two year-old daughter) cool as a cucumber on a Saturday morning is a horrible thing. So my loathing of them is deep. Plus Ziggy the cat hasn’t caught a rat in years, since her slight accident under our car….

One of the most readily available ingredients near the coast is seaweed. After a strong easterly it’s deposited high up the beach, so I head off then with a dozen plastic sacks to Swanpool beach, invariably competing with fellow gardeners to stuff the fresh, crunchy mineral-rich stuff into bags. I’ll happily spend an hour picking up tips and learning tricks. ‘Spread it everywhere but around the rhubarb!’ a weather-beaten Cornish sage instructed firmly. I nod, absorbing this arcane but newly vital advice.

The heap contains slow worms; those Duracell coloured, copper-bright magical creatures that really like the warmth. They are in fact legless lizards. A couple of years ago while mixing some lawn clippings with old leaves (an ideal combination that allows the mixture to become very warm) I discovered a pair of slow worms in what looked like some sort of battle. It turns out it was just the opposite; I’d chanced upon an amorous encounter. I ran to get my camera. They remained clinched together like this for a further 10 minutes. I invaded their privacy for as little time as necessary, before covering them again so they could continue their courtship. Occasionally turning the heap, I come across their descendants, and move them delicately to a safer corner.

Slow Worms

When I first stated growing I felt reluctant to give things away. Maybe all the hard work made me miserly, but now I sow extra plants where I can so as to pass on something from the garden to friends. A few leeks stuffed in a carrier bag, maybe with a lettuce or two. But things that are in short supply or feel magical in some way only get given to very close friends. I pick some fresh pink garlic and a few chives in flower and ask Susy for a suitable box. She passes over the ideal container, just in from a posh perfume delivery. Placed inside they look lovely, but even I’m surprised by the lovely picture that arrives in the in-box next day, taken by 18-year old Iris, daughter of best friend Mary. Here it is, a little box of Cornwall sitting on a table in Peckham. Thank you, Iris.

Chives & Garlic

——————————————————————————————————————————It’s not long now until Parker flips from Penryn gardener to DJ legend and plays the first record of the weekend on the Caught by the River stage at Port Eliot Festival. Join us there at 3pm on Thursday 30 July when glasses will be raised.