Caught by the River

Parker’s Suburban Garden

4th January 2023

Things get fragrant on his frosty patch of suburbia as Stephen ‘Spoonful’ Parker embraces fish guts, heads and bones.

“What would you like for your birthday?” my wife enquired.
“A 20 litre plastic bucket with a sealable lid, please.” I replied.
Susy’s eyes narrowed just a little. “Why?”
“So I can rot fish guts, heads and bones.” I answered as nonchalantly as I could, trying to contain my excitement.

This was the start of a discussion which ran over the next few days between a man already obsessed with his compost heaps, leaf-mold mountain and the problems of human urine storage, and a woman who really doesn’t welcome the concept of rotting fish into her suburban garden.

Eventually she realises that it will have to happen, so this birthday my best present was a large white plastic bucket with the crucial air-tight sealable lid. Only upon reading this will she discover my next plan — to upscale in the spring to a 100 litre container of fermented fish detritus.

I should explain that this is an old method of creating fish oil, seen as one of the ultimate feeds to give a garden. The idea is to half-fill my bucket with fish remains from the local fishmonger, fill to the top with water, then inoculate with leaf mould that will break down the fish and create a very heady brew ready for next year’s growing season.

I could barely contain my excitement when I discovered this method and set to work the day after my birthday — which is on Halloween, making the whole thing very seasonable I thought.

It’s been a frustrating year in the garden. The heat did a lot of damage, drying the soil to iron-like hardness and reducing some of my harvest to pitiful amounts. Potatoes destined as a winter crop went completely bonkers and had grown and wilted by late spring, resulting in barely any at all. French beans just stopped still, then gave up. And the tomato plants I love growing seemed to succumb to a soil-born malaise and only struggled into the summer, resulting in a very late harvest of not many fruit. At least my favourites, the Borlotti beans did well. Scattered on the ground to dry in the sun they are quite beautiful.

How come the hottest summer could result in a tomato disaster? It made me sad to see them struggling after I’d spent so long preparing the beds and soil. I suspect dodgy potting compost as the seedlings struggled with many of them withering away.

But there was one big success this year — the rhubarb, which prefers damp and doesn’t like heat. What’s going on? Maybe proximity to the rat hole is the secret, but as they say, ‘A fistful of rhubarb is worth a rat in a drain hole’, or something like that.

Another positive was my first attempts at growing carrots in a pot of sand. The thrill of pulling the first ‘proper’ carrots after years of stunted, twisted Cornish mutants was a highlight for me — a real joy.

My first sunflowers was also a success.They seem a big thing in our suburban streets and give a nice burst of lurid colour as you pass the bland front gardens. They grew so tall — such extravagance for not much effort, which kind of offsets the long hours wasted on broad and French beans, which did bugger-all.

One lovely summer evening while I sat drinking a Verdant double IPA (recommended for gardeners after a hard day to enable blank staring at the garden, which feels therapeutic to me), Susy spotted a frog in the middle of the lawn. It looked so vulnerable, not knowing that mowing the lawn too often is one of my wife’s hobbies, so I took a quick picture and placed him in an old bird bath tucked in a shady corner and filled it with water. The ungrateful animal decided after a couple of minutes to saunter off, never to appear again. Good luck this dry summer, small frog.

It’s winter now, and the garden is a damp, cold uninviting place. There’s only a bit of kale growing and some spouts to fuss over. The only proper lure is that magical place at the bottom of the garden with the compost bins, where old leaves rot down for spring and dead fish marinate in a stinking bucket. They only need an occasional stir while I hold my nose and gasp for air. The smell is beyond belief — appalling even — but most satisfying.

The garden is now encased in frost, all work has stopped and I can do nothing for a while. That just leaves one last trip to our local Costa Coffee to scrounge used coffee grounds for nitrogen to warm up the heap. They offer me more than I’ve ever taken before — a sack so large I say it’s too much, I simply couldn’t carry that home.

Then a greedy green light goes on in my head. It’s only 10 minutes to home and some of it’s downhill. But the bag was thin, the bag was heavy — much too heavy — and the greedy man was tired. I tottered, slid, and lurched down the dark, icy pavements like a deranged caffeine-crazed Father Christmas, knowing I’d taken on too much.

The trip home took twice as long as I thought. I left small heaps of used coffee outside houses on my many stops, gasping for breath and laughing as I wondered how people would explain the mysterious gifts left on their walls on a cold dark December night.

Finally, clutching the disintegrating sack, I staggered to our front garden, dropped the sack — which burst open outside our neat suburban porch — and fell through the door. That’s it. No more gardening for me this year; I’m knackered.  Fuck that for a game of soldiers.