Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

13th January 2016

Seaweed and ‘black gold’ – this month it’s all about compost

Words and pictures: Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker

I’m squelching around in the garden, seeing jobs that need doing but averting my eyes to avoid anything that involves hanging around up here longer than necessary. We’ve had an awful lot of rain this winter (what’s new?) so the garden is a sodden mess. How I wish for a proper frost. Frost is most welcome for gardeners – not only does it alter the dynamics of the garden, slowing growth, sweetening parsnips, killing unwanted pests and encouraging the dreaded Brussels sprouts to reach fruition, it also makes the garden a lot easier to work on.

As I head back indoors, I pick up more of the windfall apples that have dropped in the last few blowy days, being careful to leave a few for the robins and my favourite blackbird. I stopped him eating the gooseberries earlier in the year but love watching him, jet black against the sludgy winter colours, digging his orange beak into an apple and eating neatly from the top down. I plonk the apples into the windowsill. Goodness, we’ve had hundreds this year and are rather blasé about them now.

What little frost we get in the far south-west usually arrives around mid-Feb. Before then it’s time to think about the soil and to spread compost and manure over the garden to be taken down by worms and improve its fertility for the coming year.

For some reason, within a few months of starting to grow vegetables I became obsessed with composting and manuring and nailed together a few pallets to build my first compost heap. I still occasionally look at a picture of that first one. The first of anything is always special. Then one day in the local paper I spotted an advert from a horse owner offering unlimited amounts of horse manure for the taking. Bingo!

When I finally found the field, after driving around for ages in the middle of nowhere, my eyes lit up like a Californian gold prospector. There was a mountain of shit. Tons and tons of the stuff – and it was often referred to as ‘black gold’ in the old gardening books I was finding at boot fairs. The problem was I’d picked another very wet week to visit. Struggling to the top of the hill, I started forking it into bags. Very soon I was sinking. After only a minute or so the wet slimy stuff had approached to within an inch of the top of my wellies. Over the next hour I wrestled the stuff into plastic builders sacks, constantly pulling my sinking body out of the mire, barely able to keep the boots from being sucked off my feet. It occurred to me that one awkward slip would see me wading through the mountain in bare feet – or worse. What if somehow I slipped, banged my head on the fork, and was knocked unconscious? I could quite literally drown in shit, left gasping my last with only an old horse to see me expire. My imagination just revels in such ghastly scenes. I ploughed on with the back-breaking task, finally dragging 20 heavy bags back to the camper van.

It’s a much easier job gathering seaweed from the beach. After rough weather there’s always someone else down on Swanpool Beach doing the same. So I get to meet more experienced gardeners who don’t mind passing on some hard-won knowledge about how to use this wonderful free organic resource. Spread over the garden 4–6 inches deep, it turns from a bouncy pillow of salty freshness into an unpleasant slimy – and very smelly – glutinous mass before finally disappearing into the soil by the spring. The picture here shows one of the local characters who chatted to me as we scooped it up and stuffed it into bags, him giving strict instructions not to put it around the rhubarb. We stand in a bitter wind, him in shorts like it’s a summer’s day, me shivering in my coat and firing questions. He patiently answers, probably wishing I’d bugger off and leave him in peace.

I need to look at my gardening books less frequently now, having memorised most of the basic rules of growing – but occasionally as a treat and in bed last thing at night I’ll re-read the composting/manuring sections with all their arcane information on carbon to nitrogen ratios and the ideal temperatures to generate for rapid decomposition. I’m not interested in modern books with their glossy photographs and suspiciously neat rows of vegetables in perfect dark, almost fluffy soil. Those narrow depth of field shots of carrots basking in the sun are not for me. I want to see old men with pipes wearing their favourite jackets, gazing back at me from black and white photographs as they proffer up sage advice from another age.

I love their tales of emptying ‘night soil’ from the local manor house as boys, and the perils of pulling woody matter from the pits filled with posh people’s poo. My heroes are not the Monty Dons or Dan Pearsons of this world. I want to know what people like Lawrence D Hills have to say. Even if their advice comes from a less informed world, where dangerous chemicals were sometimes dispersed. Hills himself was an early advocate of organic gardening, publishing such no-nonsense titles such as Fertility Without Fertilisers, Down To Earth Gardening and the rather exciting sounding Comfrey Report. His book Grow Your Own Vegetables, found at the boot fair, is my go-to reference for stolid, sensible advice. Here he stands proudly with a prize specimen of Tagetes minute, also known rather charmingly as muster John Henry, a compost material known to kill weeds.

Taken from ‘Grow Your Own Vegetables’, Faber & Faber, 1971

I re-read my heroes’ tales over and over and wonder where I can find the same type of jacket or ponder whether I could be bothered to put on an old suit on to dig the garden. Maybe clamping a pipe between your teeth helps you get stuck into the boring back-breaking tasks with added determination? These men come from a time when leeks had to be pulled before the winter turned the soil to granite. Given another few weeks of this rain, mine will be washed free and float down to the kitchen door.

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