Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

9th October 2015

This month, the Cornish garden is overflowing with rainwater and sour plums

Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker

I stand in the garden dismayed. Usually on the return from our summer holiday I’m excited to get back up here to see what’s happened. This year it’s different. The garden has exploded with growth. The water buckets strewn around the garden let me know quite how much rain has fallen – they are more than full, they’re overflowing. The mild, wet weather has encouraged massive and imposing growth . It’s not that I don’t expect this annual outburst of life after three weeks’ neglect at the most abundant time of year. It’s just that I have succumbed to a virus that has left me feeling totally flat. No energy, nothing in the tank whatsoever. I’m exhausted and now I’m standing in the garden totally overwhelmed.

The grass is six inches tall and growing into some of the beds. The tomato plants in the greenhouse are twisted and knotted, collapsing onto the ground with the weight of green fruit and spreading branches. I can hardly get in there. My usual elation and curiosity at getting back into the garden after a break are non-existent. I leave the chaos, trudge indoors and collapse onto the sofa.

Every day I go outside to see what I should be doing. I try to dig out one of the huge weeds or straighten a wind-damaged plant, but every day instead I trail slowly back into the house, disconsolate. I feel quite unwell. The garden while appearing to be full of life is, I know, also suffering. It demands attention but isn’t getting it. I’m fed up.

This continues for another fortnight. Slowly I cut back tangled plants and save some of the caterpillar-ravaged purple sprouting broccoli and Brussels sprout plants. At one point I’m crouching under the runner bean plants supporting my knackered frame on one hand while trying to cut back some weeds. I feel a tickle and look down. My hand is covered with red ants, some of which have started to bite me. I don’t even care any more; do your worst you little bastards. But as the energy returns, I work through the most pressing jobs, clearing the massive weeds, mowing the bloody lawn (I hate this job more than any other), starting to prepare for autumn.

While rooting around in the freezer I come across some of last year’s tomatoes. This year’s have suffered from lack of sun and are pretty poor. Some even taste worse than supermarket tomatoes! After so much work, that is galling indeed. If you non-gardeners believe that us vegetable growers sit around smugly chewing our tasty produce, then think again. Some of the beetroot I grew this year are vile, bitter things, and if you leave runner beans to grow above medium size (which is what happens if you go to Spain for three weeks in August), you might as well be gnawing on old rope.

But last year’s tomato crop was magnificent. I take some out and marvel at the billiard-ball hardness of the fruit. You could kill someone with these. I remember the Roald Dahl story ‘Lamb To The Slaughter’ in which a woman murders her husband by battering him with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks and serves up the murder weapon to the investigating detectives. Goodness, time to snap out of that morose daydream. I decide that making a nice tomato soup would be a much more enjoyable thing to do and leave them to defrost.

My favourite sons, the pumpkins, have not had a very good year either. Not enough sun. They like heat, not the damp, mildew-inducing Cornish summer they have had to suffer. I can only find three or four that have actually grown beneath the generous canopy of leaves they produce. The plants can grow up to 20 feet away from the main stem, which crawls upwards, sideways and back on itself like a giant, restless snake. I’m trying to trace one of the convoluted arms of a plant when, four feet up in a Cornish hedge, I catch a glimpse of a pumpkin that got away.

My heart skips – there’s a large creamy, pale green form sunk into the hedge, barely visible. The smoothness and beauty of the hidden vegetable surprises me and I’m suddenly transported back to my ten year-old self in Bushy Park peering into a blackbird’s nest or, if lucky, finding a mistle thrush or, thrill of thrills, a great tit’s nest with a dozen tiny eggs in its tightly woven home.

I stand there drifting from knackered middle-aged man longing for the sofa to care-free boy in shorts wobbling on his bike saddle peering into a bird’s nest, friends below eager to get off on another attempt to catch the local perch, wondering who’s got the best sandwiches. It’s a bitter-sweet moment, but I’m glad to remember the boy who’s gone; he had a great time cycling for hours with his mates, fishing by Teddington Lock for days on end or mucking around with fireworks as the autumn evenings closed in. I move a leaf, take a picture, and get back to thinking about Sun Ra, daughter’s plans for university, and what’s for dinner.

Plums have been very bountiful this year. Not the pappy, swollen supermarket type, but small, purple sour-sweet little things. They are my favourite crop of the year. But the wasps are getting interested too, so I pull out the ‘Oh, I’m still not feeling very well’ look and send my wife up the ladder. She can do all the hard work and I’ll just stand here holding the ladder in the cooling evening air and doing as little as possible thank you very much.

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