This year, despite living on a six acre smallholding, I have essentially had no garden in which to grow stuff. Earlier this year, I fell upon a solution to this most frustrating of conundrums and invented a new style of horticultural pursuit known simply as ungardening. Alarmingly or encouragingly depending on just how feckless and indolent you are, this approach seems to have resulted in my most successful growing year yet.
Even early on in the year, things were looking up even as the diggers were moving in. I salvaged the garlic days before the old veg patch was smashed up good and proper, the plumpest, juiciest garlic I have yet managed to grow despite being dug up about a month early. It lasted about two months, which isn’t bad considering the only thing I don’t add garlic to is coffee.
I grew some seedlings on a windowsill. Most of them, admittedly ended their days parched, stunted and yellow on a bench outside the front door, sacrificed to the god of not having anywhere to plant out your seedlings. But the few lucky ones, a trayful of tomatillos, and some Black Russian and Sungold tomatoes, were rehoused in the balmy Elysian idyll that is the school greenhouse. I was rewarded for my lack of planning with bagfuls of fruit. Most of it was green but I readily converted my spoils into tomatillo salsa, green tomato chutney, pickles and ketchup, happily more than enough to ensure that all my family members will be receiving a variety of green tomato based Christmas presents this year, and maybe next year as well (the ones I haven’t already earmarked for the bounty of home rendered lard that is), firmly cementing my position as ‘relative most likely to be disinherited’.
I had enough red / purple tomatoes to make a couple of jars of super tasty tomato sauce and I also had one of the massive ugly Black Russian bruisers sliced up on sourdough bruschetta with grilled ewe’s milk cheese which as well as being the most middle class elevenses I’ve ever had was also delicious (in the interests of balance I followed it up with a few factory spoiled pink wafers washed down with a blue Panda Pop).
I planted courgettes and pumpkins seedlings out in two locations, out on the manure / nettle heap and on some rubble to one side of the old veg garden. I have never had much luck with either of these vegetables, managing always to grow foliage that would not look out of place swathing Sleeping Beauty’s castle but hardly any fruit. Again I was blessed with so much plant that if I had actually been trying to grow anything else it would have been a problem. It was still a problem in that most of the energy was going into the plant so relatively speaking I garnered fewer fruits than I should have. But as I had about thirty plants strewn around the place I have been kept in courgettes all summer, and the seven or so pumpkins will keep me going (pumpkin wise anyhow – I still require my weekly rations of rough red, crunchy cheddar and Tangfastics, obviously) until well into next year. Granted, I no longer have any nutrients left in any soil anywhere but at least I’ll have a freezer clogged up with pumpkin soup for the foreseeable future. And lovely pumpkin it is too. Or is it squash? I actually have no idea as I threw the packet away as soon as I had sowed the seeds and with it any memory of the variety.
My greenhouses are all dead now, their bleached worm’d bones / shards of lethal splintery glass scattered as far as the eye can see, so there were no cucumbers this year, but as well as cuckooing the school greenhouse for the toms I also managed to actually nurture a chilli plant to maturity. That I bought the infant plant from a shop is neither here nor there. That it was plagued with aphids that caused the entire corner of the dining room to become coated in sticky filthy goo is neither here nor there either. Forty chillies, people. Forty chillies. The most I’ve managed previously is two chillies from six plants. I have now ‘pruned’ it ie removed every last piece of fricking aphid mucassed leaf and BURNT them in an actual bonfire, fully confident that the black damp twig that now remains will spring back to life at some point next year and go forth and chillify once more, preferably far less inhabited by goo bugs. No really. It will.
It’s not all unqualified partial half assed success though. The failures are all quite wishy washy too. The bathful of salads and beans didn’t last very long but beanwise at least the results were no worse than any of my previous growing attempts, and I actually got a few meals out of them. And the geese LOVED the salads. Meanwhile, the lone globe artichoke I ‘favoured’ by repotting it outside the front door languished and died, only to burst back into life in late September. Naturally, it has started to die again now, deprived as it is of nourishment and space, proof if proof were needed (NB it isn’t) that I am the kind of gardener that not only kills things but kills them twice. My amazing spontaneous veg hedge full of potatoes, tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, borage and nasturtium looked fantastic earlier in the year. It now resembles a giant caterpillar after a fight with an equally outsized sea cucumber. My smug potato based grin at discovering it was full of spuds was slapped right off my face when the plants died back and I couldn’t locate any of the tubers, and as it’s a hedgebank you can’t really do that much digging around in it in the same way you could in a bed. There are still plenty of Jerusalem artichokes if you like that sort of thing (personally I can take them or leave them. So I have left them. Ensuring that next year I will have nine times as many of them to shrug at.)
Apparently Tom, my brother in law and sometime garden type for a living, is coming round tomorrow to make a start on the raised beds, and thus will come to an end my year of living without a vegetable garden (aside from, you know, the other thirty seven years I managed it). I can’t say I’m not glad, which after several moments of brain-hurting deliberation I THINK means I’m pleased about it. I can’t wait to have a proper vegetable plot again. As interesting a non-experiment the old ungardening has been I have felt weirdly disconnected, cut adrift, just that bit more useless than I usually do. I find myself drifting about on the veg garden site, crunching through glass and tripping over the footings for the raised beds, standing where the polytunnel will one day stand (c. 2047) missing the ordered chaos of my old garden, longing for the day when the potting shed bench, currently a sound stage for my son’s Lego stop motion animation efforts, will once again be covered in broken seed trays, strewn compost and open seed packets instead of tiny plastic flames and evil crocodile-headed overlords.
The spades and forks will again be trip hazards, laying across the paths hidden by docks and nettles instead of lined up on the shed walls like trophies of some long forgotten battle in the cobwebbed hall of an aged embittered warrior king who fought mainly with gardening tools. The brassica netting, currently bundled into a corner behind the orthopedic mattress (nope, no idea) will once again come loose and trap all the butterflies in with the cauliflowers and snag without fail on the tines of every passing fork. And the plants themselves will surge from the soil rank after rank, striving past thistles and the slugs sheltering under discarded pots, fighting the good fight once again: the fight for the right to grow to at least three quarters of their specified height and be put into a soup or dressed with a nice anchovy based sauce.