Caught by the River

Parker's Penryn Garden

13th December 2017

An annual update from Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker and his Cornish garden – featuring beans, beetroot, and blackbird trouble

One crystal-clear Cornish March morning, I return from Swanpool beach, dragging sacks of seaweed from the car boot up the hill to the garden, and tip them all over the beds in the greenhouse. Seaweed is rich in minerals – particularly iodine and calcium – and makes an excellent organic manure when gathered fresh from the sea. It’s early spring and the tomato plants and lettuces will be ready to transplant soon; they’ll appreciate all the goodness the seaweed has to offer.

Even on a cool sunny day, the greenhouse, with door and windows closed, reaches mid-30s Celsius. On a fine day the temperature easily soars over 40. The effect on the seaweed of the mild March weather is rapid; in the concentrated space of my small greenhouse, the smell of the sea is eye-wateringly powerful. I stand mesmerised, drawing it into my lungs. I only recently discovered that the fumes are Hydrogen Sulphide, a toxic gas believed to cause headaches, nausea and vomiting. I feel fine – but later am startled to read that a Breton man employed to cart seaweed off a beach died, believed poisoned by the gas. Then there’s the bizarre story of 15 wild boars in Brittany who also met their end due to the gas. My imagination, always rampant, has prepared me for all sorts of ends, but this is a new one. I skirt the death-trap greenhouse for a few days.

It’s been another terrible year for potatoes – the blight got them again. Blight is a fungus borne on the air. Days of rain and mild weather will bring it down, and Cornwall gets that every year, destroying fields of potatoes overnight. Hours of digging and planting wasted yet again. A few little fellows survived; I scoop out some soil on a disused bit of ground and lay them carefully in the hollow, where they lie looking like dinosaur eggs. For sure there will be a winter night when dinner is looking potato-less and I’ll remember my store. Not unlike a squirrel, I’ll be out there scraping back the soil with my paws, looking for carbs. They’ll be good there ’til spring. Next year I will only plant earlies; they will grow and be dug before the annual sweep of the dreaded blight.

But then sometimes I think I almost prefer to watch things rot than grow. I find myself staring at the compost heap, thinking of the internal chemistry and how the bacteria and worms get to work as I go to sleep. I have to admit, once or twice, to a compost-related dream. The heap rewards in other ways too, returning prized objects like favourite knives or forks that somehow get thrown into the waste bucket under the sink. (Though we never found the wife’s special white Le Creuset pan…). Occasionally, poignantly, an old children’s plaything will appear – something shiny, once loved emerging from amongst the rotting matter. Or a rat, lured in by the warmth, then probably frozen after a cold spell.

I still find dead rats an intriguing sight – the 10-year-old boy who loved nothing better than to fill an old shoe box with dead birds, fish, mice, whatever he could gather hidden behind his Dad’s garage is still deep within, awakened by a soggy rat carcass.

This year my enthusiasm for the garden is low again – two years in a row now – but as each job looms it impels me outside. This is gardening done more out of routine and necessity than enjoyment. In one way I like that. Not for me the finery and fripperies of a stylised gardening book; there’s more kinship with those who grew food for their families with little thought of entertainment or enlightenment.

Often I don’t even bother picking the vegetables. The few measly sweetcorn this rotten summer produced were mostly ignored. The borlotti beans that take such nurturing are still sitting outside the back door attached to their canes in mid-November. I ripped them out of the ground and left them there. When my wife finally podded them, she had to throw at least half away.

This autumn I spent an hour picking a huge quantity of runner and French beans. They’d got fat and swollen – useless to eat like that, too tough – but they can still be podded, dried and stored, ready to soak and add to stews and soups. But I left them in one of my old photography developing trays for a month on the grass and they rotted. I feel foolish after all that work.

Thankfully I had the presence of mind to bring in some beans to sow next season. I pile runner, borlotti, French and broad beans into my favourite breakfast bowl – the ‘dog bowl’ as it’s known – and leave them to dry. I rumble them around every day for a few weeks until they rattle pleasingly against the green tin bowl, dried and ready for the new year.

Beans are magic – they’re easy to take for granted, but the rewards from one bean are a thousand-fold. And I left a leek to go to seed this year too, producing a head that swayed two-foot high all summer before being cut and brought into the kitchen to dry. Beans, seeds, pumpkins – they’re left all around the house and I marvel at their promise and beauty.

And it was another big year for my mates the pumpkins. My wife still claims to be allergic to them, but I grow them anyway. This year one pumpkin, the largest fellow grown last year, became so familiar in the house – for a while even having a seat at the table – that he’s still here a year later. He’s changed from dark green to a pale orange. I will give him a seat at the Christmas table again like a burly uncle. My other triumphs were leeks and tomatoes, and the biggest beetroot I’ve ever grown.

But the garden’s biggest winners this year are our blackbirds. As I work at the kitchen table, I can see them pinching raspberries and strawberries before they’re barely big enough to spot. The strawberries are always a disappointment, either slugs or Mr Blackbird get them, so I’m happy to see him and his young (it seems to be the father who gathers most food) raid the soft fruit patch. The big chicks, seemingly yet to learn of danger, fly very close. I stand stock-still to watch them at work; what beautiful creatures, commonplace but somehow dazzling in their jet-black civvies. But finally they piss me off. Yes, have the strawberries – they never grow well anyway – have raspberries too, there are plenty of them to go around. But now for the first time, they get at the red gooseberries. They’ve never done that before. I thought the vicious spines on the bush kept them away. How did they get past the netting and the spines? Not one left. Betrayal. Grrrr.

One morning I realise the devils are starting on the apples. About to rap on the window in another futile attempt to scare them off, I see a slash of iridescent green on the lawn. I freeze, but grope for the camera, always to hand, as I watch a green woodpecker spend several minutes dipping into the deep grass, feeding on the plentiful ants around the edges of the raised bed. I wait for a clear chance, catching him in a brief moment when he becomes fully visible through tangled autumn growth. I wish I’d see more of him than the wood pigeons who lie in wait for the cabbages to be just right before swooping in for their winter feast.

So the garden goes to sleep now. Leeks, parsnips, beetroot, purple-sprouting broccoli and the struggling Brussels sprouts will grow slowly on, but it’s time to stack the compost heap, cover the soil from the winter to come, and dream about next summer which will be the best ever. I will stand amidst the bountiful harvest because everything grew, nothing failed, and the bloody blackbirds left me some gooseberries.


View the Parker’s Penryn Garden archive here.