I volunteered for a meme over at Ally’s place – Seven things about me and gardening.
1 I grew up in a household passionate about exhibiting. We had a full-time gardener when I was a child, and he and my parents discussed, endlessly, what was to be grown each year. They were all keen showmen and competed in local exhibitions, including the Royal Norfolk Show and the Suffolk Show. They won many prizes. In the run-up to a show, the best vegetables were kept back and we were only allowed to eat misshapen, overblown or imperfect food. After the show, much of the unchosen produce was past its best. Mr Weavers, the gardener, would think nothing of digging up a whole row of potatoes to find six exactly matching ones. In flower classes, they specialised in begonias and delpiniums. My parents went to the Chelsea Flower Show every year and went straight to the Blackmore and Langdon exhibit to see the new varieties. One year, my father held a dinner plate to a begonia bloom – the flower was larger and petals showed all round the plate. Mr Weavers would sit up half the night with a bucket of hot water and a bucket of cold, dipping the delphinium stalks in each alternately. This would encourage the buds high up the stalk to open, without making the lower ones drop. The prizes were money, which was always given to our gardener and his name as well as my parents’ was on the entry card, although it was my father’s name on the trophies won. I never enter shows as I am totally uncompetitive, but I love going to them and know exactly how to choose the best items. For example, it’s better to have six matching specimens, even if they are not the biggest, than four magnificent ones and two slightly smaller. Size is not the most important issue, shape and quality is. Presentation is very important, but it’s care that matters, not showiness. A dozen perfect shallots, properly dried off, their tops turned over, tied with raffia and neatly trimmed, in a shallow wooden box, nestling in sand, are a joy to see. They do not need prettying up, just showing at their best and being allowed to speak for themselves.
2 My father loved growing plants, but the garden and the greenhouses were Mr Weaver’s territory, jealously guarded. So he bought another greenhouse and cleared a piece of land, just for himself. One year he grew loofahs and had his picture in the paper. We used the loofahs in the bath for several years, with the big black seeds gradually working their way out. I’ve grown loofahs a few times. They are just like cucumbers to grow, but you have to be extremely careful when drying out the fruits, as they rot if they get the least damage.
3 Once, my father took me to the Municipal Nursery. The head gardener, who was a short tubby Scot called Mr Campbell, was extremely kind to me and showed me round the greenhouses, which were fabulous. There was a fully-grown lemon tree against the wall in one greenhouse, full of flowers and fruit. He gave me a lemon to bring home. He also gave me several exotic pot plants. Mr Campbell was in charge of all the parks and public gardens in Lowestoft and Oulton Broad and they always looked beautiful.
4 After my father died and when we could no longer afford a gardener, my mother and I still grew all our vegetables. I have always been a completely organic gardener and never used any artificial fertilisers or pesticides. Proper gardening is a passion, not a fashion. I have always encouraged wildlife, which are a natural pest control. I live in an agricultural area, and get in lots of cow manure, which I let rot down for at least a season before digging it in. In fact, I usually spread it on top of the beds in the autumn and fork it in in spring. I also make compost. I do buy seed compost because I can’t avoid it and because peat-based compost is best for seed-sowing, but good companies, now, make compost with recycled peat and claim to be environmentally ethical, so I hope that’s true.
5 I used to love growing flowers too, but I have been completely discouraged by the ground elder that riddles a large bed that cannot be cleared. There are three round beds in front of the house and these used to have elderly, straggly rose bushes and bedding plants in my in-laws’ day. I got the Bressingham Gardens catalogue (this was when it was still privately owned by Adrian Bloom) and went through it, looking for plants that would thrive in sandy soil, a sunbaked aspect and would grow no more than 4 feet high. I spent £100 on plants, 20 years ago. Most of them are still there and thriving, although a few died off young. I water plants when young or in extremely dry weather, but mostly I believe in having the right plant for the place and letting them fend for themselves. I chose plants that would look good most of the year, with variation in form and leaf colour, that would cover the ground and need little weeding.
6 I love growing things, but hate weeding. I’m best at the nurturing stage and then want to plant out and forget about it. For this reason, I always let weeds grow far too long before removing them, as I can’t be bothered to hoe. However, one does find self-seeded gems this way. I have forget-me-nots and heartsease in the kitchen garden and haven’t the heart to eradicate them. I let some vetch grow in a flower bed as it was pretty – this was a mistake as it’s very tenacious. The worst mistake I ever made was to grow some tansy, which came in a collection of herb seeds. It is beastly stuff. It stinks, it roots deeply and is hard to kill and it seeds like a Victorian paterfamilias.
7 When my children were young and life was very busy, my greenhouse was my refuge of calm. I used to grow loads of seedlings, not only for our own garden, but to sell at fêtes and fairs for local charities. I spent hours in the greenhouse, pricking out seedlings and caring for the plants. The family was always welcome to join me, but my strict rule was that it was a calm and happy place. They were not allowed to come and quarrel or complain. I grow a good many tender vegetables, but have the cheapest propagator possible, it being a soil warming cable in trays of earth, on which I put the seed trays and over which I have a framework draped with polythene to keep in warmth and humidity. It works fabulously well. The cable is 150 watts, so it’s like having 2 lightbulbs on at night for about 2 months, by which time I have enough plants to fill a 40×14 foot greenhouse, a 30×12 foot greenhouse, a 30×10 foot greenhouse and all the kitchen garden. Of course, as the plants get bigger I have to move them about to keep the most tender ones in the warmest place and allow room for everything to grow.
8 (Sorry, 7 was not enough) In the past few years, gardening has started to become a chore rather than a pleasure, and I am dealing with this by finding new and interesting varieties to grow and, paradoxically, by enlarging the vegetable garden. The best thing I ever did was to have proper paths put around the beds. We borrowed a cement mixer and mixed concrete for the paths, which are 2 feet wide around 4 foot wide beds. They are always clean and absorb warmth from the sun, which warms up the soil. Rainwater runs off and onto the beds, helpful in this dry place and on our sandy soil. If I can’t keep on top of the weeding, at least I don’t have a huge area of growth to deal with. I’m following the same principle in the new garden, but varying the sizes of the beds this time. Once my wall is built, I’m going to plant roses, jasmine and other scented plants on the drive side of it, and tender fruit trees such as peaches, plus cottage garden flowers like hollyhocks on the kitchen garden side. I am going to put down mulches early, so as to keep moisture in and smother weeds. I know my limitations and the limit of my time and enthusiasm, so I’ll really try not to get carried away and be overambitious, and then disappointed later. I am determined to get the wall done by the winter and the paths finished by next spring, so that next year I will be able to start to realise my dream. I won’t plant everything in one go, so as to extend the enjoyment. It’s something I’m looking forward to enormously, so expect some enthusiastic posts in the future. With pictures.