The Middle of May 2022
By Jessica Edwards
Some old notes on weeding, a well-deserved lunch and my new gardening friend.
Today as I edit this for the website it is the end of June. It feels like the kindest month before Cornwall fills up and the warmth is new and gentle. All the planting out and my horticulture exams took over and left no time for writing.
Nevermind, old news is good news…
Goodbye Daffodils, Tulips and Bluebells, if only we had longer
But, Hello, Foxgloves, Campion, Buttercups and more
Spring was a mixture of surprising sunshine, bursts of colour,
Cool days in shades of blue and nodding daffs
But now the warmer days of May bring height, towering Digitalis upright
Today I watched a big fat bee disappear into a deep purple tunnel
And I counted 1 - 2- 3, all the way to 17 before it reemerged
heavy with nectar, bumbling off, haphazard
pollen drunk, zig zagging
Today the clouds were sleeping, lying flat, wispy and lazy across the sky like a soft blanket. Branches of the apple trees were reaching out lovingly as if to welcome summer. When the world is still like this -- the beauty and the business of growing, (without the push and shove of Atlantic air) seems louder and yet more secretive. Here in Cornwall we take these rare still days and sit firmly in them, relishing some calm, because we know a strong breeze is waiting on the ocean’s next breath.
I do not yet think of myself as an actual Gardener, but simply as someone who loves gardening, who plays in the garden. I am nothing more than a keen amateur fuelled by equal measures of passion and nervous energy - willing myself and the plants to survive. And like with so much in life it is the same with horticulture - you step out of your own territory, your own zones of comfort, and realise there is so much you don’t know - and that’s ok. A relentless thirst for knowledge cannot ever be fully quenched. I am happy to remain thirsty.
I have a new friend and gardening partner. I am not an organised or methodical person and I think we make a good team. I wish I had India’s beautiful concentration. For a scatter brain it’s incredibly relaxing to be with someone who can so calmly focus on one job at a time. She is 20 years younger than me and yet I am learning from her. Between the three of us we will be able to keep on top of it all. Fee will be busy with weddings so I am glad to have company.
India and I are studying together on the Level 2 Practical Horticulture course at Cornwall’s Duchy College in Camborne. We are more than half way through now and both desperate to do more gardening and less driving to Camborne. Although it is a practical course there is a lot of ticking of boxes in folders, popping out for a quick practical and then back to the classroom. Sadly because of the way it is structured you don’t get to see the results of your work and plants you started you don’t get to maintain because you’ve moved on to another topic. So we are ready to put down our notebooks and get stuck in.
Next month it will be a year since I first came to work here. I remember one of the first things Fee said to me that morning as she took me around the beds.
‘Don’t worry too much about things that have seeded themselves here and there, they know what they are doing far more than I do.’
I was so relieved as I’m no good at pulling things up when they look so pleased with themselves and now when I arrive in the mornings it’s that spirit of a natural approach to gardening that pulls me in and around. With a magical absence of self-consciousness the garden takes me on a tour. I love to wander and see the changes. I arrive with a few things in my head that need doing - cutting rocket and lettuce to take to the shop, delicious bags of mixed leaves jewelled with golden nasturtiums and magnolia petals, the smell of dill and chive flowers. We’re sowing more, planting out courgettes, pinching out tops of leggy things… but first the tour is necessary, checking roses for aphids, spotting the devil that is horsetail and bindweed coming to life amongst the dahlia bed where green shoots are now visible. Bindweed snakes up and around its neighbours, (always in a counter-clockwise direction) choking stems and is easily missed. Self seeders are allowed to stay unless they are blocking light or encroaching on a crop - Rosa rugosa is vigorously popping up and I’m learning to be ruthless when necessary although I grimace as I cut a life short!
Forced of course to pause by the scarlet tulips… the calm weather of late has been kind to them, the stillness allowing them extra time to sit quietly giving the last of their pollen to the bees, before the wind and wet returns when they will be beaten (and by the time you read this, gone for another year) for now, still poised but losing their grip, petals softening; it’s time to put energy into making seed… on I go between the beds… and then, a glistening green pod bursts into view, dangling broad beans! How did I not see them before?
The spring light is bouncing off the pods. As I hold one I think of the beans tucked into soft green sleeping blankets. It’s all happening so fast. New life is in a hurry, hungry for light, hungry to complete one cycle of life, annuals with one short chance to shine, perennials waking up. How is it that we don’t see the movement of all the growing before our eyes? It’s as if the plants do it secretly to surprise us, to give us joy. The whole garden says, ‘Look, look at what I did when you weren’t looking!’
The chard seems determined to bolt. We hesitate to give up on it but at the end of its second year we have no choice. I have been used the height of its bright colours for many months, its absence will confuse me. If it wasn’t for the need for space we would love to let it do its thing, to rise up and up with it’s luminous veins, rich buttery gold and beet juice red, the pure white of the Swiss, the deep cherry - all these colours running through glossy proud leaves - Rainbow Chard makes a real rainbow pale with it’s blurry pastels. We will miss it but the seedlings are in their rows in a different bed and we must be patient. In just a few weeks we’ll be picking again.
You learn so much when you have another pair of eyes, a different brain, alongside your own. And when you like solitude it’s easy for communication to feel rusty and easy to opt for more solitude. After two years of social restrictions I can feel my confidence weakened and I know being with India is doing me so much good. Working alone as I have for the majority of the last year I have sometimes felt overwhelmed and overly responsible for all the life around me. Indy has helped me step back and see the garden as a whole. Zooming out can bring clarity. It feels like I am firmly here, in the garden, rather than floating on streams of fragrance and colour lost in my head, never hearing my voice. Interaction is vital.
Also it is easier to structure the day with company. As early summer begins to pile jobs on to us my way of starting five different tasks can be unproductive and confusing. If I am to become a professional gardener I will have to fight off my lifetime habit of mind wandering.
Today we have been using the nettle tea we made a month ago to feed the new courgette beds. The smell is unpleasant, like stagnant pond water. We’ve cut the nettles down and now we are giving them back to the soil. Walking back and forth with the watering cans makes us hungry. Thoughts of lunch begin while eating breakfast, and in a hurry to leave the house I grabbed a slice of bread, some cheese, an apple… And then, as the morning meanders past rocket, mustard frills, dill, chives, radish, (and soon a tomato from the greenhouse) I am anticipating the fresh, crisp crunch of a few things just picked. But lunch is another two hours away.
We spend the rest of the morning digging the scruffy wild end creating a new large bed for the pumpkin to sprawl out (and suppress weeds) and for three rows of Cavelo Nero. Too breathless to chat, pulling out endless networks of nettles we have now forgotten our hunger, burying it under the desire to finish and see the end result of freshly raked ground ready for planting.
I love these garden lunches. Satisfied and famished we collapse in our chairs, both smiling. I enjoy eating a meal that is simply some food on a plate. Sometimes it’s nice to forget glossy images of lunch dishes, forget recipes and cuisines. These are the words that put people off cooking. Often the meals with least expectation are the best - those accidental organic collections of food that have come together because it is what you have in the house, and what needs to be used - on my plate I have some bread and cheese and some olive oil and salt from Fee’s kitchen, I pick some rocket, dill, parsley, a baby chard leaf or two and slice my apple. I taste everything individually. It’s not a dish. It’s just food not trying to be anything else and after many years of working in restaurants I find this very relaxing.
After a morning working on my feet, bent over, lifting and pulling it's always a relief to spend a while, rescuing plants from weeds, on hands and knees - the body’s favourite position for gardening. In Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden, he writes this about weeding:
‘The Pleasures of Hand-weeding … you and I become animals, even reptiles…
weeding on your hands and knees means that your eyes are close to the ground - the scene of operations. They should always travel just ahead of the trowel point so that the unusual can be observed before it is destroyed. I never like to weed out anything that I can’t identify. Not all seedlings are weeds. You may feel that life is too short to leave a seedling in till it’s large enough to identify. My own feeling is that life’s too interesting not to leave it until you can identify it.”
We have taken care not to weed out the return of hardy annuals like Borage and Nicotiana, last year’s architectural fodder for the eyes, and the beholder of much pollen for bees. Which reminds me - we have welcomed the arrival of two hives and Fee has created a large wild flower area that seems to dance - so alive with the swaying of tall grass and rape and of course the sound of content happy humming; busy bees making honey in the knowledge that there is more pollen than they know what to do with.
I am starting to feel more relaxed, with a bit of experience and knowledge from the Duchy. I was fretting about nibbled leaves, holes and snail trails, cheeky pigeons that came to tea - but now a year later I have accepted that we must share our gardens. Last year, feeling helpless in the face of caterpillars devouring two rows of Cavelo, Fee said, ‘Oh, well good for them...’ and although bewildered at first I have now softened my gaze. I am learning it is not about getting and having but creating a living space for us all to coexist.
We can however make gentle attempts to prevent entire crops being lost. I think the trick, where caterpillars are concerned, is to remove them manually as soon as you spot them before there are too many to keep on top of. We are also finding a use for old unused CDs - strung up around the brassicas on canes. The reflecting light startles the birds and it is working well, at the moment. There is a massive change in the air amongst gardeners. The days of killing creatures (because you think they shouldn’t be there) are on their way out. (The RHS have now taken slugs off their pest list.) Who’s to say that the garden is more ours than theirs? We are hopeful they will eat the sacrificial nasturtiums instead but in the end we must accept some losses.
I’ve been enjoying a lovely book from the college library called Dream Plants For The Natural Garden (by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf) In a wonderful short section called Food for All they write:
‘Perfection is an unattainable illusion. If what you want is total control, you should tarmac your garden now and stick plastic trees in it…. the fauna in your garden serve a useful purpose… Snails are just plain useful: they clean up anything that is weak or sick… they eat algae, dying leaves and ailing plants which have been put in the wrong position…’
So now when I take a snail from the stem of a Dahlia I have to stand for a minute while I consider where I am going to put it…