Caught by the River

Parker’s Suburban Garden

27th July 2022

Fans of Parker’s Penryn Garden, rejoice! After a 5-year hiatus, Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker is back, spreading muck on a new corner of the South West. This month, the suburban garden offers up garlic scrapes, a crispy sparrow, and a butterfly with bass in his face.

Tarmac as far as the eye can see. I’m back in a city, at last. We left Cornwall — and our Penryn garden — the summer before lockdown and headed upcountry, like so many others, to Bristol.

Cornwall was a great place to raise our three daughters but they’re off now, and we were being left behind with great views (loads of them), a lot of sea (far too much) and way too much space. Now I can look out at our 1930s street on an evening when the recycling is out and be happy to smell hot dustbins, and catch the setting sun bouncing off mountains of plastic and glass waiting for collection. This is what I missed out on for 14 years and it’s very nice to be back.

I pine for my Penryn garden, my greenhouse and shed, and not too much else other than the great friends I had. But will a much smaller kingdom be enough? Can a little surburban garden satisfy my digging and growing needs? 

The Penryn garden column started many years ago after a conversation with Jeff B, and began at the beginning of a new year. The idea for a new bout of garden columns took hold a couple of days before summer solstice, which seemed an apt reversal of dates. I asked Jeff about an update, he said yes.

These days I wake up so early — what happens to a brain born two years after ‘Rock Around The Clock’ was in the charts — that I’m if not rocking, then at least mooching around the garden at 5.30am, staring at the soil. Always a nice thing to do.

Stepping out of the kitchen door just after 6.00 am on the longest day, I see the ever-present full washing line and, rather sadly, a dead sparrow chick. 

The sparrows of Bristol are a thriving community. We’re near knee-deep in them so one less won’t matter. They have two or three broods a year, and that’s an awful lot of young hooligan birds to defend my lettuces and beetroot against. At least this one can’t do any damage. I pick it up and tuck it into the soil, thinking that instead of eating my young plants, this one can feed the beetroot seedlings. Justice.

The main task today is to find a way of deterring the latest rat to turn up at our door. This one seems quite charming, but that’s not what my wife thinks. Back in our Hackney days we watched a big fat city-boy rat saunter into the kitchen on a Saturday morning and walk over our baby daughter lying on a rug on the floor. Now Susy sees all of them in the same bad light. To me this one looks more like a country rat, not the hardcore, drum & bass-raised monsters that tried to take over our Hackney house, scuttling and sliding down the stairs and strolling into the living room while I watched Vic and Bob.

Later in the day I get a text from my wife saying ‘A rat just went past my door and into the shed. We must kill it x’. I like the ‘we’ but ignore this imperious command and decide to let the rat enjoy the summer unmolested. Good luck, Ratty.

It’s time to dig up the garlic. After cutting off the scrapes (the green stalk that grows from the bulb and is rather delicious) I pull them from the tight soil. They are not the biggest crop — this clay soil is still way too heavy to grow in, but they’re OK and I’m pleased with the task of cleaning them up and setting the first of them out to dry for a few days.

A few days later I’m amazed to see a fully formed wasp nest at the bottom of the garden. How could I have missed that? As the evening sun bounces off the double glazing I take a few wary pictures but my experience with wasps is not good.

Back in Penryn I was stung by a wasp I disturbed in the wood pile. I was on my own on a Sunday morning — everyone was off with the Brownies for Remembrance Day — and I spent the next half hour unable to breathe properly, very confused as to what to do. It occurred to me that my family would return to find me dead on the lawn, which motivated me to find some antihistamines, but I felt awful for the rest of the day. Now the early blackberries grow worryingly close to the nest so I dance with danger every evening to grab a handful.

A much more benign visitor was a butterfly, the most friendly butterfly I’ve ever met. It hung out for a few days, sat on our shoulders, strolled around on the garden table, and perched itself on a young parsley plant. I was marvelling at this while drinking a beer and listening to music when the butterfly sat down right next to my speaker and I swear, listened to the classic 1977 Reggae Regular tune, ‘Where Is Jah’ thumping out.  The full 12″ mix too. Bass in his face, he was there almost to the end. Impressive.

At this time of year in the garden most of the jobs are done: leeks sown, tomatoes growing happily, beans clambering up to the city sky. I’ll write more about them next time. For the moment I can just gaze at the garden in the lovely warm summer light, only slightly distracted by my Covid-struck wife who lies quietly reading after a very long sleep on our tiny green patch of lawn. It sits surrounded by miles and miles of lovely hot tarmac and concrete, and I couldn’t be more content.