Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

9th August 2015

This month’s action in the life of a Cornish garden features pumpkin surgery, monster chard and squeaky peas

Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker

Why did I do that? I stand up, filled with consternation. In trying to move the trailing vine of one of the pumpkin plants, I’ve damaged it pretty badly. It hasn’t snapped off, but it does have a nasty fracture. The traditional Sunday hangover has become even graver. Staring at the damage, I wonder if it’s fatal. It’s hard to believe I’ve damaged one of my favourite plants. For a moment the idea of bandaging the wound makes sense, but I realise that would be futile, ludicrous even.

Unable to think straight, I decide to check again in the morning. I’m a bit bewildered after spending a night around a campfire with a Venezuelan anaesthetist continually topping up my huge tumbler with cheap red wine. So first thing the following day and with a clearer head, I revisit the patient. I realise it’s hopeless. ‘Take it off’ says the inner garden surgeon. I snap the broken limb off quickly and turn away feeling awful.

The pumpkin should revive, but light levels have been low here in Cornwall this year and the plants should be bigger than they are right now. We need a few weeks of summer sun, not the sun/mizzle/sun/miizzle/miizzle pattern that has held fast all month. For the umpteenth time I look towards the skies as if somehow that will speed things on. It’s a futile gesture, but I feel better looking up, a positive action after the amputation.

Elsewhere in the Penryn garden things are thriving. All the hard digging has paid off and the potatoes are plentiful. I gently push a fork into the soil to turn up a few spuds and the way they come bubbling up to the surface makes me smile; it’s still quite a thrill to see dinner appear out of the ground in front of your eyes. The broad beans and peas are gathered and laid out on the table. In fact sometimes there can be far too much of one crop. One year I attempted to make lettuce soup. Just writing that now it seems absurd. A ghastly dish.

Last year the chard got neglected and I left one plant alone to see if it would produce seed. Instead it grew and grew, turning into a bright red twisted tree now well over six feet tall. Such deformity is both beautiful and ugly. I wrench the monster from the ground. Best smashed with the back of an axe and thrown onto the compost heap.

Twisted Chard

I want to get some compost to spread around the plants as a mulch. Reaching into the compost bin to dig out a handful, the good stuff suddenly bursts into life with ants and their eggs and hatched flying ants. These horrible things make my skin crawl. Some years they all hatch on the same evening, filling the air with their papery wings. It may be a marvel of nature, all hatching within a few hours, but one year it was impossible to venture outdoors without swallowing the vile things. I drop the compost onto the lid of the bin while I decide what to do. Within minutes the ants have hidden their eggs and themselves beneath the compost again.

I shake them up to reveal the eggs and take a photograph. Ten minutes later they’re hidden again. I pause for thought; they’re a menace, especially the red ants which ruin so many plants, but given such zeal I realise there’s no option but to live with them. There must be literally millions this year, worse than ever. The slugs meanwhile have not had the wet warm nights that allow them to rampage over the garden. Win some, lose some.

Ants 2

Another pressing task: before we head off on holiday I have to decide what to do about next year’s Purple Sprouting and Rubine Brussels Sprouts. They’re still in their seed trays, quite stunted. This time last year I’d planted them out and they were a foot high. I’ve since realised that’s the worst time to plant out cruciferous vegetables – while you’re away the cabbage white butterfly will surely play, laying its eggs on the underside of leaves. Left alone and unguarded, the plants become a heaving mass of caterpillars and get decimated. Even if I cover the plants with netting the bloody butterflies stupidly bang against it until they get in.

Every year I get someone to pop in and pick off as many caterpillars as possible from the leaves while we’re away – but maybe they don’t have my hawk-eyed devotion as there are still hundreds of the blighters. Last year the plants grew so big they pushed the netting aside, letting the cabbage white through. So my bright idea this year is to plant out the plants while they’re still small under several layers of netting and hope they catch up in the autumn. I hate butterflies even more than I hate slugs. OK, superficially they might look pretty, but they are every gardener’s enemy and very hard to kill. This morning I heard David Attenborough discussing the need to protect our dwindling numbers of butterflies. Well the bloody cabbage white is a nuisance and I detest it. I used to try and catch them, but gave up when I realised I was at least 45 years too old to be chasing butterflies round the garden with a fishing net. I never caught one. I was out of breath within moments and must have looked pretty ridiculous viewed from the kitchen window by my family. The only gardening threat I happily tolerate is bird attack (not Mr Fat Pigeon though). Thrushes seem to like raspberries in particular and I love watching them pull the fruit from the bushes, while blackbirds, as you can see with this lovely fellow, have a predilection for gooseberries. Hard luck, handsome, there aren’t many this year so there’s some wire mesh to stop you getting at your pudding.


We have just returned from another wonderful Port Eliot festival and are knackered. Five days drinking and carousing with the Caught By The River crew have left me very happy but also suffering the usual post Port Eliot blues. My wife Susy asks me to collect some peas for tea. They are known in our house as ’squeaky peas’ – truly fresh peas in their pods squeak when rubbed together. I stuff them in my trousers while picking. The sun has finally come out and it’s a lovely soft Cornish evening. As I walk around, picking up tools strewn on the grass, it sounds like a dozen tiny mice are clamouring for attention in my pocket. I pull some out, pop open a pod and take a picture knowing there’s a bottle of beer in the fridge, the wife’s cooking dinner, and all is right in the Penryn garden.

Squeeky Peas

Parker’s Penryn Garden archive